Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Don't Look Back

Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you. - Satchel Paige (who never owned a car with a rearview camera)

  In 2002, New York doctor (Greg Gulbransen) backed over his 2 year old son in his SUV and killed him. Dr. Gulbransen then became an advocate for forcing rearview cameras to be added to all cars to help drivers see blind spots behind large vehicles. The law that was passed in Congress and signed into law by President G.W. Bush in 2008 was named after Culbransen’s son Cameron, ‘The Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act’.

  Two weeks ago the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration) announced that all new cars and trucks sold in the United States will be required to have rearview cameras by 2018.The cameras will give the drivers a 10 by 20 foot field of view directly behind the vehicle. The NHTSA estimates that it will cost between $132 and $142 to equip each vehicle with a rearview camera.

  There were 15 million vehicles sold in 2013 in the US. Assuming that number holds steady, a $132 estimated cost to add the rear view camera will cost almost 2 BILLION DOLLARS. NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman said in a statement "Rear visibility requirements will save lives, and will save many families from the heartache suffered after these tragic incidents occur".

  I’m all for keeping people safe but for 2 BILLION DOLLARS a year I was wondering how many lives would be saved. Each year there are 210 deaths and 15,000 injuries caused by backover accidents with children under 5 and adults over 70 accounting for over half of the fatalities. The NHTSA estimated that 58 to 69 lives will be saved once all light cars and trucks on the road have the rearview camera technology (which will only happen in 2054). So using the NHTSA’s own numbers, American car buyers will be paying $28.7 MILLION DOLLARS for each life saved by making rearview cameras mandatory on cars.

  I understand the crowd that says ‘If even one life can be saved no cost is too great…’ and I suppose if I was an angst ridden New York doctor who backed over his child I may want to soothe my guilt by thinking that if I had a rear view camera in my car I would have been looking at it while I was backing out of my driveway instead of texting, drinking my coffee, thinking about my day, making a phone call, turning on the radio, lighting a cigarette, or just absentmindedly backing out of my driveway the way I’d done a thousand times before. In 2006 I backed into a stanchion outside a convenience store in Grinnell so I'm not totally unaware of how not paying attention can lead to accidents but I also know that having a rearview camera wouldn't have kept me from putting a big rip in my plastic bumper.

  Now you might tell me that there are already a lot of cars with standard or optional rear view mirrors so the cost is less than 2 BILLION DOLLARS a year and I would counter that by saying that since the 58 to 69 lives that would be saved would not be ALL saved until 2054 when all cars and trucks have rear view cameras installed that the initial cost would be far more than $28.7 MILLION DOLLARS for each life saved.

  I’m surprised there wasn’t more outrage over this rear view camera mandate and got to thinking that perhaps 2 BILLION DOLLARS doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things anymore. The US government only spent 36 BILLION dollars more than it took in in March of 2014 which was the lowest deficit in more than a decade so 2 BILLION DOLLARS would cover about 40 hours of the US deficit in the lowest deficit month in more than a decade and maybe about 8 hours when the deficit is running at all-time highs.

  I did find somewhere that a BILLION or so dollars could make a difference. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has taken the lead in virtually eliminating polio from the planet. According to the foundation, 350,000 people were paralyzed by polio annually in 1988 but in 2012 less than 250 cases were reported. The Gates Foundation claims the cost of continued worldwide vaccinations is 1 BILLION dollars a year but is not sustainable in the long-term. I’m not sure why spending 1 BILLION dollars a year to prevent 350,000 cases of paralysis ($2600 per case) isn’t sustainable while spending 2 BILLION dollars a year to prevent 58 to 69 deaths by backover accidents is sustainable but I think the money spent preventing polio is money much better spent than what will be spent to prevent backover accidents.

  If the government wants to save some lives I would suggest outlawing cigarettes. Smoking is banned in some way, shape, or form in most countries (see it here). According to the Center for Disease Control, cigarette smoking causes more than 480 thousand deaths annually. If a tenth of those deaths could be prevented (and there are 42,000 deaths a year from secondhand smoke exposure) this would be saving 600 times the lives saved by mandating rear view cameras to prevent backover accidents. And I don’t even want to get into the cost of the medical care for all these smoking related deaths that the government is paying for or the health care subsidies being paid out for the extra premiums smokers have to pay to get their health insurance.

  If I was told that having the rear-view cameras would eliminate 90% or 85% or maybe some number some number more than 75% of the backover fatalities I might be inclined to think it was a good idea. A sonar device to detect objects in the driver’s blind spots would be more to the point and could be rigged to not allow a car to drive in reverse when an object is detected in much the same way that a garage door with an electric eye stops closing when the beam is broken. I don’t see how that wouldn’t prevent most if not all the backover accidents.

  All talk about polio and smoking and sonar aside, the fact that equipping every vehicle in the country with a rear-view camera would only prevent a third of backover fatalities tells me that it isn’t a viable solution to the problem – it is only a feel-good solution. The real problem is that people don’t pay attention. The people who don’t look around their car when they are getting into it or don't swivel their heads when they back out of their driveway or parking spot aren’t going to be looking in their rear view camera either as soon as the novelty of having it wears off. At least until they hit something or someone – then they’ll look every time.

  On Monday, I decided see for myself where people are looking when they back out of a parking spot. On my lunch break I headed across the street to the shopping center parking lot and camped out across from the Dollar Tree, taking video of as many people backing out of their parking spots as I could. I found out two very important things. The first thing I found out was that if you hang around in a Dollar Tree parking lot taking videos of people backing their cars out of their parking spaces you will get a LOT of strange looks.

  The other thing I found out is that hardly anyone I videoed gave more than a cursory glance behind them as they backed out. And that's why spending 2 BILLION dollars a year equipping cars with rear view cameras won't prevent more than third of the backover fatalities - people won't give more than a cursory glance at their rear view cameras and if they could be conscripted to pay more attention when backing up there wouldn't be even a perceived need for rear view cameras. This is the same reason that the Gates Foundation can't eliminate polio worldwide - elements in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria equate the vaccinations to a Western assault on their way of life and will kill anyone who tries to vaccinate the people in the areas under their control. And how could cigarettes be banned in a country where smoking marijuana is becoming legal in more and more states? Despite all the rules, mandates, and assistance it remains extremely difficult if not impossible to change human behavior.


  I wonder when I read this post in ten years or so if I’ll look like the people who thought the sun revolved around the earth but I don’t think so. Requiring the rear-view cameras isn’t a real solution to the problem of people not paying attention when they are backing out of their parking spots or driveways and as soon as another person with way too much time on their hands backs over their child even with the mandated rearview camera in their car there will be another costly and ineffective set of requirements that will still fail to solve the problem.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Pawns Up and Pawns Down

  With the one year anniversary of film critic Roger Ebert’s death coming up I was planning on a tribute by writing a post featuring Ebert’s (and long time partner Gene Siskel) trademark phrases ‘Two Thumbs Up’ and ‘Two Thumbs Down’ like I did last year (you can read it here). At least I was until I discovered that the phrase ‘Two Thumbs Up’ is a trademark of the Ebert and Siskel estates. So in keeping with the desire to pay homage to Ebert by reducing hundreds of words to a simple catch phrase while not wanting to violate any copyright laws in the process I will break down recent current events in the ‘Ebertian’ fashion by substituting pawns for thumbs.

“The Return of Anand” – Two Pawns Up
  Former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand won last month’s Candidates Tournament in impressive fashion. Anand clinched first place with a round to spare and was the only player to not suffer a loss in the 14 round 8 player double round robin tournament. In fact, every player except Anand lost at least two games. At the halfway point Anand was tied with the top seed Levon Aronian and I thought the 32 year old Armenian would overtake the 44 year old Anand in the second half but Anand took a one point lead in the 9th round and was able to coast to victory with five draws to close out the tournament.

  With the victory Anand reminded the chess playing world that he is still the best chess player on Earth not named Magnus Carlsen and has earned a rematch with World Champion Carlsen later this year. Carlsen soundly defeated Anand in their championship match last year by the score of 3-0 with 9 draws. Can Anand defeat Carlsen in the rematch? I picked Anand to beat Carlsen last year but now that Carlsen has world championship match experience I don’t think anyone can beat Carlsen except Carlsen. If the World Champion takes Anand lightly or becomes preoccupied with his business ventures (his YouTube channel and Play Magnus app, for example) there is a possibility he could be upset. It’s a very slim chance but if Carlsen does lose his title this year, the only player who will take it from him will be Anand.

“Enter the Bladder” – Two Pawns Down
  I enjoy pharmaceutical commercials. One of the things I like is the detailed listing of the potential side effects. Who wouldn’t get a kick out of hearing “If you can’t breathe, see your doctor immediately” or “side effects include suicidal tendencies and bouts of insane rage”? But this commercial for Myrbetriq (the overactive bladder medicine) costarring ‘Bladdy’ the overactive bladder is way over the top. ‘Bladdy’ hangs out with his owner and constantly harrasses her to be emptied and even sits in on the consultation with her doctor about taking Myrbetriq. The end of the commercial shows the lady and ‘Bladdy’ spending some time with her friend in the park. Even though ‘Bladdy’ is presumably no longer overactive, it still is hanging around outside the lady instead of hanging out with the rest of her internal organs like all the other (unseen) bladders in the commercial.

The overactive bladder stars in this Myrbetriq commercial but even when the lady is cured 'Bladdy' is still hanging around...

  I appreciate the creativity involved in having the first body part to have a starring role in a pharmaceutical commercial but I can’t help wondering – If this commercial becomes popular what body part will costar in the next Viagra commercial?

“You Can’t Fight City Hall, but You CAN Fight Old Wisconsin!” – Two Pawns Up
  Last month Daisy and Baxter (my beagles) blogged about Casey’s General Store raising the price of their Old Wisconsin beef sticks from 2 for $1.00 to 2 for $1.08 (they remained 59 cents each) with a sign on the dispenser proclaiming a savings of 10 cents on the purchase of two beef sticks. No one likes bad publicity and the convenience stores of Marshalltown, Iowa are no exception. In the three short weeks since my beagles' expose, the Jiffy convenience store has removed their Old Wisconsin beef stick dispenser and replaced it with a Tillamook ‘Hunter‘s Sausage’ beef stick dispenser. While the Tillamook beef sticks are thinner and drier than the Jack Links and Old Wisconsin beef sticks, they are very meaty and cost 59 cents each and 2 for $1. When artist Lee Gordon Seebach came to Marshalltown last Sunday to visit, he joined us in taking Daisy and Baxter for a walk to the Jiffy to taste test the Tilamook beef sticks and they passed with flying colors.

Tillamook beef sticks are thinner than the Jack Links brand but there were no complaints from Daisy and Baxter. Meanwhile, at the Casey's trickery is still afoot.

  Unfortunately, Casey’s General Store is still relying on trickery instead of superior beef stick customer service. They have removed the ‘save 10 cents’ sign from their Old Wisconsin beef stick dispenser but the price of the beef sticks remains 2 for $1.08. But don’t fear – while our intrepid beagle bloggers Daisy and Baxter are happy with their gains they know their work is not complete and have vowed to keep the pressure on Casey’s until they roll back their beef stick prices.

“Ask and Ye Shall Receive” – One Pawn Up - One Pawn Down
  Last Thanksgiving I wrote about how I allowed the FiltroPur company to demonstrate their air filtration products to me with the understanding that I was to receive a $100 gas card for my time BUT what I really received was a card offering 10 mail-in $10 gas vouchers with 19 rules and regulations. I received the first two vouchers via email and dutifully filled out the forms, attached the receipts, affixed the postage, dropped the envelopes in the mailbox, and waited the 8 to 10 weeks for my $10 check. In late February I hadn’t received my monthly voucher email and called International Rebates. The clerk told me one would be on its way shortly so I decided to press my luck and ask when I could expect my first rebate check and was told it was being mailed next week.

At long last!

  I received the voucher email the next day but after a month I still hadn’t received a check so two weeks ago when I received my March voucher email I decided to call International Rebates again to see why I hadn’t received my check. I talked to a different clerk and asked why I hadn’t received my rebate check. The clerk looked me up in the computer and told me that my first check was a month overdue and my second check was a week overdue. She then told me she would send an email to the company in charge of the rebates and if there was nothing else I needed then I could hang up. My training as a telephone prankster (I wrote about it here) let me know that when I was invited to hang up that likely meant that the clerk wasn’t allowed to hang up on me so I kept asking when I was going to get my next rebate check (she didn’t know), why I hadn’t received a rebate check (she didn’t know), and when she expected to receive a response to her email to the company (she didn’t know). I repeated these three questions for the next half hour and the clerk repeated her answers for the next half hour interspersed with pleading invitations for me to hang up since she had no additional information for me. Eventually I had to hang up (I called during my lunch hour), but three days later I was greeted by a $20 check from International Rebates when I got home from work. I suppose it’s possible that I would have received my $20 even if I hadn’t made a pain of myself on the phone but if that were the case I probably would have received two $10 checks when I was supposed to and then I could have given International Rebates two pawns up.

“Don't we all want to be Rich?” – Two Pawns Up
  Almost every Saturday, Kathy and I get lunch at the local Taco John's. Kathy gets a Taco Salad and I get the Saturday Special of Soft Shell Tacos for 99 cents each along with a soda. Sometimes we head there on a Sunday but almost every time we go there for lunch there is this guy sitting in a 4 seat table in the middle of the restaurant eating a burrito and drinking his soda.

  Normally a steady customer eating a burrito and drinking a soda wouldn’t be any big deal but this guy is no customer – he’s wearing a Taco John’s shirt. When I first saw this guy I figured he must be a manager since I don’t know any fast food restaurant (and I’ve worked at a few) that let the employees eat anywhere except in the back or in a table off to the side if there is no area for the employees to eat in the back. But then one day I saw him carrying buckets of ice to the soda machine before resuming his seat in the middle of the restaurant so I knew he was a worker.

  I found out the worker’s name is Rich because one time somebody called him Rich and this information was confirmed when I saw the name ‘Rich’ written on his soda cup. Sometimes Rich has a newspaper. I assume it is the newspaper that is put in the reading rack along with some other magazines for the customers to look at because when Rich has the newspaper there is never one in the rack.

People come and go like the wind, but Rich is a force of nature in his permanency of seatedness!

  I’ve never talked to Rich but I look forward to seeing him doing his ‘Rich’ thing at the Taco John’s and I’m disappointed when I miss him. I managed to grab a table next to him last month and surreptitiously take a ten minute ‘Rich’ video so you can see him ‘in action’ (or inaction). One of these days I’m going to find a Taco John's shirt at the Goodwill or Salvation Army Thrift store and when I do I’m going to buy it, put it on, head over to the Taco John's, sit down at Rich’s table, and say “Hi, I’m the new guy.”

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

For the Love of the Game (or a Merit Badge)

  If I had to pick my busiest chess month of the year I’d have to pick either April or August. I always have a monthly youth tournament, but the last 5 Aprils (and this April also) I've directed the Okoboji Open and the last two Augusts I've headed up to Jackson, MN to play in Sam’s Jackson Open in addition to 4 consecutive years of attempting to win the elusive blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair (which I finally earned last year, thank you very much!) in August. I don't know what the rest of this year will bring but I think March of 2014 in general and the past week in particular will be hard to top for busy chess weeks and months.


I played Qc4 here instead of Qb3.Oh the horror...
This is covered in Chapter 2 'Why You Lose Material'
...under 'Negligence'
  On Saturday March 22nd, I headed off to Des Moines for my 39th consecutive monthly youth tournament. After 3+ years I think I finally have the right mix of prizes and entry fees to attract the type of players I want to have at my tournaments – players that want to have a good time more than they need to win. The more I run these tournaments the more I’m of the opinion that players (and parents) that only have a good time when they win are like a disease that infect the rest of the players (and parents) and drive away less skilled players before they start to understand the game and show the improvement that most young players eventually do. Maybe that is due to my splitting the tournaments into morning and afternoon sessions that cater to the casual player instead of the hardcore ones. In any event, I have a group of players that enjoy the tournaments, parents that appreciate the tournaments, and almost everyone appreciates my running them.

  The group of parents that I played against in the Parents section of the tournament was especially appreciative of me since my play was in a word, awful. In my first game I managed to win a pawn but allowed my opponent to trade down to a bishop of opposite colors ending for a draw and then when I was a pawn up in the second game I just hung my queen. There was no time for a third game which was a good thing for me because I probably have found a way to swallow a chess piece and literally choke on it since I had already choked twice figuratively.

  On Thursday March 27th, I left work a little early like I always do and headed to the Marshalltown Salvation Army building for our weekly chess club at 5pm as I have for all but two dozen or so Thursdays over the past 13 years. We have a group of 6 to 12 players that get together each week to play. Over the past few months I've had a few new adult players come to the club lured by the publicity generated by the speed chess exhibition I put on in December and the expert tournament in February. Like all but a handful of the adults that have come to club over the last decade plus, they don’t mind losing to adults but when they find that they can’t beat the younger players every single time they don’t come to club anymore.

A typical evening at the Marshalltown Chess Club... chess players having a good time playing chess.

  When I run into these adults in town and ask then why they stopped coming to club, they tell me that they are busy with work and they’ll get to club when they get a chance even though we both know they won't. I wish they understood how good some of these kids that come to my club are, especially Zach and Seth. While they have never gotten hardcode enough about the game to write down the moves or practice on the internet, they both love to play at club and each notched their fair share of scalps against the adult out of town players that would compete in the speed chess tournaments I used to hold. When I have the white pieces against these two I play the King's Gambit to get a wild game and hopefully to get them to play the King’s Gambit themselves (an unfulfilled hope so far). Here a couple of games I’ve played against them over the past two weeks.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net

  Ten hours after getting home from club I was leaving the house on Friday morning to head to St. Francis of Assisi to help with their weekly chess club, which I do for free in return for the ability to run a monthly chess tournament in their cafeteria. This is my fourth year at St. Francis and third year as the head coach. Normally heading to St. Francis wouldn't be something I’d write about but since there was no school the past two Fridays for spring break it felt weird to be leaving the house at 5:30.


Puzzle time at St. Francis!
  Working with the kids at St. Francis is the best part of my week. Only a dozen or so of the 60 different players that have shown up early have played in my monthly tournaments this year and that’s fine with me. These kids get up early on Friday to play chess and my goal is for them to have fun, not to play in my tournaments. Every year I send a letter to the parents saying if they are interested in my gearing the club to compete in the state scholastic tournaments to let me know because the club will have a lot more teaching and a lot less playing. I rarely receive a response to the letter but when I do it always says not to worry about scholastic competitions and keep the kids having fun, which fits right in with what I like to do.

  Having a fun club doesn't mean that there isn’t any competition. I have a ladder structure set up to encourage higher ranked players to accept challenges from lower ranked players because a loss will only drop them one spot instead of switching places on the ladder (a lower ranked winner moves half way up to the higher rated player). While most players aren't interested in their ranking most of the top 20 players check out their ranking as soon as they arrive. Now that the NCAA tournament is in full swing I divided the players into groups of 16 with each group having their own version of ‘March Madness’. Each week I setup two puzzles on my demo boards for the kids to solve. I know a player is serious when they try to solve the puzzles every week. At the end of the year I’ll have a club only tournament where everyone gets a trophy. The trophies are all the same size but some will say first, second, and third for different grade groups. The two dozen or so competitive kids will happily fight for the slightly different trophies and all the rest of the kids will be happy to play and get a trophy. It is the perfect end of the year tournament since almost everyone leaves happy.

  After chess clubs on Thursday night and Friday morning and no tournament to run on Saturday I would normally have had a day off from chess except that I had volunteered to be the chess merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts Tamaha district (TAma, MArshall, and HArdin counties – get it?). I was the merit badge counselor two years ago (and wrote about it here) so I had a good idea what was expected of me. According to the Boy Scout handbook, “Merit badges exist to encourage Scouts to explore areas that interest them and to teach them valuable skills in Scoutcraft”. I think that a big incentive for the scouts to get merit badges is that 21 of them are a requirement for becoming an Eagle Scout. The requirements for a chess merit badge can be fairly rigid. The scouts must know each piece by name and how they move, understand the history of the game, be able to demonstrate different types of tactical maneuvers, write down the moves of a game, perform a checkmate with two rooks against a king, and solve 5 direct mate puzzles.

NO, that isn't the biker merit badge class on the left - just the Corner Tap crowd in beautiful downtown Marshalltown, Iowa! 4 blocks away at the Racom building is where the Boy Scouts merit badge day was being held. Here are the scouts eating lunch before the chess class.

  My co-coach at St. Francis, Chris, is a Scout leader and I mentioned to him that I thought that to get the merit badge a scout should just have to play in tournaments and get a rating of 1200 (the beginner threshold). Chris said a merit badge should only take between 40 and 60 hours or work and study and that wasn’t nearly enough time for a Scout to get to a 1200 rating. That gave me a different perspective of what I should expect from the 29 scouts that would be trying to get the merit badge on this Saturday afternoon.

  Just like two years ago, the chess merit badge examination was part of the troops Merit Badge day at the Racom building which is one block away from the Salvation Army where we have our chess club. I got to the building a half hour early to set up but the room I was going to be using was full of scouts eating lunch so I had to wait until the 1 o’clock start time to set up the room. I had 2 helpers : Allen, a scout who already had a chess merit badge, and Aaron who was my helper two years ago and had another child getting a merit badge this year. We set up the tables in three rows and laid out the boards and laid a bag of pieces on each board.

  Once the scouts were seated, I introduced myself and asked them to each set up their board. The scouts all set up the board more or less correctly with some of the players mixing up the king and queen. I then went to the demo board and pointed out what the king and queen were on the demo board since that often confuses players that haven’t seen a demonstration board.

  I explained what we were going to do for the next three and a half hours and asked if there were any questions. Three scouts asked when they were going to play chess. I explained that playing was not a large part of the agenda since they were there to demonstrate specific skills and that if they wanted to play they could come to the chess club next door any Thursday which was not much help to the scouts who traveled from Des Moines, Fort Dodge, and Eldora to get their merit badge. Some of the scouts seemed disappointed they wouldn't just play chess for three hours to get their merit badge but they were well behaved and paid attention as we talked about the history of chess.

  Most of the scouts knew that the game originated in India but not one knew Magnus Carlsen was the World Champion. I was stunned that no one knew but it is understandable since it wasn't one of the requirements and not in the guide book like where the game originated. I moved on to have the scouts set up some positions on their boards and demonstrate that they knew how to make legal moves with the pieces. Some of the scouts had trouble with the knight and en passant captures but otherwise they demonstrated they knew how the pieces moved to my satisfaction.

  I then talked a little more about how to develop pieces in the opening and discussed the Scholar’s Mate and the Fool’s Mate (part of the requirements were to know those two) and how not to get checkmated like that. At this point it was a little past 2 and it was time to get the scouts to demonstrate they knew how to checkmate a king with 2 rooks and a king.


This bright young scout set up the puzzles on a board
and was the first to complete the requirement!
  The scouts all set up their boards and Aaron, Allen, and I each took a row and let the scouts try to checkmate us in ‘simul’ fashion going from board to board making a move. I had the back row and it was quickly apparent that not one of the scouts knew how to do the checkmate. I went to the demo board and put up the final mating position to show them what they were aiming for and that helped half the row get the checkmate. I didn't give anyone any moves but I explained the concept of getting the rooks as far away from the king as possible and that was enough to help the rest of the scouts finish the task.

  It was now 2:45 and time for the next task which was for the scouts to demonstrate that they could write down the moves of a game. I asked who already knew how to write down the moves and only two campers said they did (the rest must not have gotten very far in their guide books) so I taught them my two minute method for writing down the moves and had them pair up and play, telling them that when they completed 15 moves to come to me and I’d review their scoresheets. I was pleasantly surprised to see that almost all the scouts were able to record the games using my method and I only had to make a few play another game because they didn't understand that they had to write down the moves for BOTH sides.

  As soon as each scout demonstrated they could write down the moves, I gave them eight checkmate puzzles and told them they had to solve five of them to complete their merit badge requirements. I told them that five of the puzzles were one move checkmates but I didn't tell them which ones. Barely any of the scouts had a clue on how to solve the puzzles. After 15 minutes I told them which five puzzles were the ones with the one move checkmates. A few could solve the puzzles after that but most were still struggling so I gave them one final hint and told them that in a one move checkmate puzzle the answer MUST be a check so they would be well served to examine all their checks. At that point I played games against the players that completed the puzzles, giving some instruction and checking puzzle sheets as they were brought up to me. By the time 4:30 rolled more than half the campers had solved five puzzles and received their merit badges. If the other scouts return the sheets to me or any scout leader they can still get their merit badges. Here are the eight puzzles with White to move and mate in 1, 2, or 3 moves in all of them. You can let me know in the comments if you think I made the puzzles too hard or not.


I gave two of these puzzles to my St. Francis players and almost all the players solved a mate in one puzzle instantaneously while the top dozen players easily solved a mate in three move puzzle.

  I had a great time working with the scouts, they seemed to have a good time, and maybe one or two will come to my chess club but I was struck by how unprepared they were. The players at my tournaments play because they like to compete and the players at the Marshalltown Chess Club and the St. Francis Chess Club play because they like to play, but it seemed to me the scouts were only at the chess board Saturday to get a merit badge with the least amount of work. The scouts were well behaved, enthusiastic, and very quick learners but the fact is that only one or two of them walked in knowing how to write down moves, most didn’t understand how to checkmate with two rooks against a king, and almost half weren't able to solve relatively simple checkmate puzzles. And these were known requirements! Maybe I've been spoiled by the players at my chess clubs and tournaments but if the effort these scouts put into getting this chess merit badge is indicative of all the merit badges I’m thinking there should be a merit badge for getting merit badges.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cri Me A River

  “When all is said and done, more is said than done.” – Lou Holtz

  It’s been a rough couple of months for the Ukraine although to be more accurate it could be said it’s been a rough couple of millennia for the country located in a no-man’s between Europe and Russia whose fertile soil and lack of natural protective borders have long made it an attractive target and way station for invaders. Ukraine has been overrun time after time in its history. Mongols, Cossacks, Poland, Lithuania and Russia have all had turns conquering the Ukraine in prior centuries and Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have had their turns in the 1900’s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent nation in 1990.

  Over the last 25 years, Ukraine has been forging closer ties with the European Union and flirting with the idea of joining NATO. The last few times the flirting threatened to blossom into a romance, Russia asserted its influence by emphasizing Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for its energy needs in general and natural gas in particular. Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs. It imports almost all its oil and natural gas as well as most of the nuclear fuel for its 16 nuclear power plants (not counting the disastrous Chernobyl facility that suffered a meltdown in 1986). In 2006 and 2009, Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine over price and repayment disputes. This affected the rest of Europe since 20 percent of all their natural gas is supplied by Russia through pipelines that pass through Ukrainian territory.

  In 2013 Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ready to sign a trade pact with the European Union that would have brought $870 Million in duty fee reductions and even release his political rival Yulia Tymoshenko from the type of prison that all political opposition leaders tend to reside in that part of the world while they are in the opposition. Russia came up with an offer to buy $15 Billion of Ukrainian debt and offer a 33% discount on natural gas if Ukraine signed an agreement with Russia as opposed to the EU and the threat of significant natural gas increases if the offer wasn’t accepted.

  Yanukovych signed the Russian agreement which sparked protests throughout Ukraine and the government reacted by passing an anti-protest law. This led to bloody protests and riots which caused Yanukovych to flee Ukraine for Russia. A new government has been formed in the Ukraine and Russia reacted by annexing and invading the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea using as a rationale the need to protect the Russian population and a hastily held vote which was overwhelmingly in favor of secession from Ukraine and joining Moscow. Crimea was ceded from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 and Russia has had a military presence there for over 200 years. The base on the Black Sea is Russia’s route to the Mediterranean Sea.

  The United States and the European Union are trying to show they have a handle on the situation, but have been reduced to symbolic gestures like not holding a group meeting in Russia later this year and imposing travel restrictions and asset freezes on selected Russian and Crimea officials. Even these symbolic sanctions are more than what followed Russia’s 2008 invasion of their former client state of Georgia which was met by the President George W. Bush’s administration warning of deterioration in the two countries relationship and hinting at more severe consequences.

  I have no idea who is right and who is wrong in the Russian-Ukrainian-Crimean situation. I don’t think much of the ‘instant’ vote of Crimea to secede from the union and the invasion on the pretext of ‘protecting Russian citizens and Russian speakers’, which sounds eerily similar to Nazi Germany’s rationale for taking over Czechoslovakia and Austria before World War II. On the other hand, the protests or riots that led to a new Ukrainian government seem a lot like a coup and makes a respectable rationale for Russia to invade in order to secure its naval base.

  The US and Europe are saying all the right things but what will happen if Russia decides to similarly invade Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia? Like the Ukraine, all three countries have a sizable Russian population but unlike the Ukraine, all three countries are members of NATO which theoretically obliges all the member countries to defend any member that is attacked. Vice President Biden was in Lithuania last week and said “The president wanted me to come personally to make it clear what you already know that under Article 5 under the NATO treaty, we will respond. We will respond to any aggression against a NATO ally." Biden didn’t say the United States would respond militarily - just that they would respond.

  Could this be the start of World War III? I don’t think so. I think it more likely a carving up of territories and a state of perpetual military tension along the lines of the George Orwell classic Nineteen Eighty-Four where Oceania, EastAsia, and EurAsia are in constant war with one, the other, or both. The United States and Europe effected regime change in Libya and helped with one in Egypt (and stood idly by as a second regime change in Egypt brought a more palatable result) with no Russian interference and were well on the way to doing the same in Syria until the Russians pushed back. Now it seems to be the Russians turn to grab bits and pieces for their empire. Will this show of Russian military might provide a reason for the Western nations to further beef up their defense budgets and continue the spying or data collection of internet and email and cell phone communications for the ‘greater good’ now that the threat of militant Islamic terrorism has faded enough into the background to create a demand for a scaled back military and less tolerance for spying? Sometimes I think Orwell was the 20th century Nostradamus.

  Russian President Vladimir Putin was mocked by the Western press and his country painted as ‘backwards’ and ‘unenlightened’ during the recent Sochi Olympics for he and his country’s anti-homosexual views but in this case Russian President Putin tried things the ‘Western’ way by offering a valued trading partner a large financial incentive to keep them in the fold. I don’t see his 15 billion dollar offer to Ukraine much different than the 2 billion dollar public works project Republican Senator McConnell received for his home state of Kentucky in return for using his influence to deliver enough votes to break the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling last year. The big difference is that while the people of Kentucky seem to have no issue with their Senator trading his influence in return for some pork for their state, the Ukrainian people rioted against their leader taking the biggest offer on the table.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Beaglenomics

Please join me in welcoming back to the pages of the Broken Pawn the planet's most prolific beagle bloggers - Baxter and Daisy (Beagle) Anzis with their beagle-eye view of the world we live in.

  After a long cold winter it looks like spring is finally here, Baxter.  I’ll be happy to have some warmer weather Daisy although I’ll miss walking around town in my cool jacket with the skull and crossbones on the back. I think it makes me look tough, don’t you think?  I’d say that your jacket makes you look fat but I can’t blame a jacket for that. After all, you burst your last jacket at the seams.  You’ve been busting out of your sweater too, Daisy!  Mine shrank in the wash! I do need a new sweater but I’ve been trying to make do until spring to help Hank and Kathy save money. 

  And they need to save money with the unexpected expense we found out about last week.  That’s right Baxter. The Casey’s General Store that we visit on our noon time beef stick walk raised the price of their Old Wisconsin beef sticks.  And they were sneaky about it too! The container used to say 59 cents each and 2 for a dollar but now it says 59 cents each and save 10 cents on two.  Hank said that now it costs 8 percent more for beef sticks at Casey’s and he’s sure all the other convenience stores are sure to follow them and raise their prices too. 

Casey's raised their beef stick prices but they want us to think they're on sale!

  I looked in the paper to see if there were any protests about the higher beef stick prices but all I saw were stories about tax increases, Daisy. That’s right, Baxter. The town is raising taxes (click here to read about it) because they aren’t getting enough money from the state.   And the school board is raising taxes (click here to read about it) because the property values in town have gone down. Even the county is raising taxes (click here to read about it) because the values of the properties are down!   If everyone’s property is worth less than before how come everyone is raising taxes, Daisy? Probably because no one knows how to spend less money except Hank and Kathy. They’re talking about taking more beef sticks from Aldi on our walks instead of going to Casey’s. That wouldn’t be so bad, Daisy. I love beef sticks from Aldi! YUM!! They are good Baxter, but not as good as the Jack Links and Old Wisconsin beef sticks we get on our walks and they're smaller. I WANT MY CONVENIENCE STORE BEEF STICKS!! I have an idea Daisy. As long as everyone else is raising taxes maybe we can raise taxes too! I wish we could, Baxter, but it doesn’t work that way. Only the government and the school board get to raise taxes – everyone else just gets to pay them. I don’t like taxes. And then I looked on the Internet to see if other cities are raising taxes and found out some more bad news. What kind of bad news? President Obama said that he wants to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour and he also want to give more overtime pay to salaried employees. What’s so bad about that, Daisy? Vince at the Jiffy can use more money and so can Jillisa at the Kum & Go. She is a supervisor and that means she has to work more than 40 hours a week all the time for no extra money. I like Vince and Jillisa. I like Vince and Jillisa too, but if they get more money it has to come from somewhere and it will probably come from higher beef stick prices out of Hank and Kathy's beef stick budget. If we could find a way to make some money, then we can help Hank and Kathy afford to pay more for our beef sticks.

Vince and Jillissa deserve a raise, but not if we have to pay more for beef sticks.
Maybe they can add more taxes on cigarettes and beer.

  Maybe we don’t have to make money, Baxter. The newspaper says that everyone borrows money by using their credit cards when they make purchases. If we can get Hank to use his credit card to buy our beef sticks then it won’t matter how much they cost. That’s a great idea but I don’t think Hank will go for it. He hates using his credit card and even when he does he pays the bill in full each month. I was thinking that since governments can raise taxes and print their own money maybe we can start our own country and print our own money for beef sticks! I like that idea! What should we call our country?.. I know! The People’s Republic of Daisy! I was thinking more of Baxterica! There’s plenty of towns named Baxter you know. Even one in Iowa! Well, we can call it Baxterica as long as my face is on the money we print. But what if the convenience stores won’t accept our currency? I didn’t think of that. Maybe once we get our country established we can get a loan from the International Monetary Fund. If we can get a meeting with the Russian leader the United States and European Union will just give us money not to sign an agreement with him. But if we took money from the United States and European Union the Russians may invade us and then the United States would retaliate by not sending a presidential delegation when we host the Paralympics. All this world affairs talk is giving me a headache. There must be an easier way to raise money for beef sticks.

If I had my own country or town, I could raise taxes and set up traffic cameras to get beef stick money!

  If we were our own town we could set up a speed trap and have the motorists pay for our beef sticks. That’s a good idea. Some towns collect millions of dollars in tickets from cameras. We could setup a camera right outside our house and the money will start rolling in. The traffic camera people would be glad to help us since they get up to half of the speeding ticket money. I wish we had our own town. It’s so easy to get beef stick money when you have a town or a government. We need another idea, Baxter.

  I’m so good looking I could have a TV show. I saw Hank watching this show where this guy helps bars that are going out of business. I’ve seen him watching that show too! It’s called ‘Bar Rescue’ and the guy’s name is John Taffer. Every week John spies on a bar using hidden cameras and then he busts in and starts yelling and cursing at the owner and the employees. I could do that! Then somebody has a meltdown and starts yelling back and then somebody gets fired. After everyone calms down, John changes the bar menu and the food menu and takes all the workers away somewhere to show them how to make the new food and drinks. While everyone is away, John has his friends completely remodel the bar and has hundreds of people come to the bar for a grand reopening. The grand reopening is always a success and then everyone hugs because John has turned the bar into a money making operation! John leaves and next week he goes to a new bar. We could start a show called ‘Beef Stick Convenience Store Rescue!’ Each week we could go to a convenience store and get some beef sticks. If the beef sticks are out of stock or take too long to get or don't taste good, then we can bark and howl at the owner and the employees. After everyone calms down then we can change the layout of the convenience store by putting the beef sticks in the window so everyone can see them. Or we could tell the owner to put the beef sticks in the back so the customers buy more items on the way to or from getting their beef sticks. We could recommend an outdoor beef stick kiosk with a wide variety of beef sticks! Then we can have the entire convenience store remodeled and everyone will hug us…wait a second…where are we going to get the money to remodel the store? I don’t have any money for remodeling or a grand reopening…I know - Maybe we can start our own country and raise taxes, Baxter!

We need to set up a beef stick sampling station right outside this door!
This store on the right has no customers but when we're done they'll be THE beef stick destination in town!

  We’re back where we started Daisy! We probably have to get a real job. What kind of job? The only things we do well are sleep, eat, walk, bark, howl, scrounge for garbage, and eat beef sticks. Aside from being so cute and lovable, that is. We could charge people to pet us and until we get some customers we can find cans and bottles and other stuff on our walk that we can sell. That’s the best idea yet! We’re always finding cans and bottles on our walks and Shirley says they’re worth a nickel each. Won’t Shirley be upset if we start picking up the cans and bottles? She likes to pick them up and bring them to the store to get nickels. Well…I feel sorry for Shirley…but this is beef stick money we’re taking about! That’s right. Nothing should come between a beagle and his beef sticks! Or her beef sticks either!

When all else fails, there's always cans and bottles (if we can get to them ahead of Shirley)