Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Special Effects with a Poverty of Content

  The Millionaire Chess Open was held in Las Vegas last weekend. When it was announced last year I wrote how I thought organizers Grandmaster Maurice Ashley and financier Amy Lee were approaching the tournament in a business-like manner by reserving the right to cancel the tournament unless they received 1,500 entries (at $1,000 per entry) for the 1 million dollar guaranteed prize fund by March 31st. At the deadline less than 100 entries were received but Ashley and Lee decided to go ahead with their vision of a high-entry, high prize fund chess tournament. At the time Ashley said he hoped to capitalize on “the incredible explosion of scholastic chess as well as the massive increase in the number of online players” to generate the enthusiasm and entries for the tournament.

  I predicted last year that the tournament was going to be successful but when the tournament started last Thursday there were less than 600 entries which to me was a very low number. I see so many young players whose parents will take them halfway across the country for national youth tournaments and so many adults that will travel to national tournaments like the World Open, US Open, Chicago Open, and National Open that I could not imagine a couple of thousand class players not putting up the $1,000 for a chance to win a $40,000 top class prize. While the high entry fees possibly scared lower rated players off and higher rated players aren’t used to paying any entry fees much less a $1,000, I believe a contributing factor to the low turnout may have been that having the tournament on National Chess Day (October 11th) meant the people who would normally travel to Las Vegas and take part in this first of a kind event were otherwise occupied by organizing and supporting their local National Chess Day events. If the scholastic players and parents that Ashley wanted to attract stayed away because of Las Vegas’ reputation (the tournament felt compelled to bill itself as 'Child Friendly') or local National Chess Day activities, online players mainly play chess online and rarely if ever play chess away from their computer screens – after all that’s why they’re online players.

  As it became clear that the attendance wasn’t going to meet projections, the tenor of Ashley and Lee’s comments changed to talking about Millionaire Chess being a business that is on a three to five year plan. I believe they didn’t talk about that before because it makes no sense to pitch a once in a lifetime tournament and future tournaments at the same time. The pair is talking about having similar tournaments in other cities and if there is one in driving distance I wouldn’t mind taking a shot at some big money (the top prize for my section at the Millionaire Open was $40,000). $1,000 is a lot to pay for a chess tournament but maybe the price could be lowered if some of the amenities (gift bags, floor shows, meals, passes to the lounge, etc…) were dispensed with.

  The Millionaire Open promised a unique Internet experience and the visual element was world class. The web page that displayed the games was very impressive. It included pictures of the players, a live computer evaluation, how much time each player had left, and how much time was being spent on the current move. In addition there is a feed of the live broadcast and a live chat board. At the bottom of the screen I could view 8 games at once or look at a graph of the computer evaluation of each move in the position. Visually it was very impressive but in my opinion there were many things missing. Only the top 13 boards of the open section were available for viewing. I’ve been watching International Master (and Okoboji Open champion) John Bartholomew’s instructional videos on YouTube and was hoping to follow his play at Millionaire Chess the same way I did at the Reykjavik Open last year but out of the first seven rounds I could only follow his games the three times he was on the top boards. The boards never seemed to have the clocks set right so it was impossible to tell which player was in time trouble and sometimes the entire page just seemed to get stuck and needed to be refreshed.

  The live game web page says ‘powered by chess24’ which means I may be off base in assigning praise or criticism to the Millionaire Open team and should instead be looking at the contractors, chess24.com. Whoever was responsible, the live game feed had a lot of bells and whistles that were attractive but was short on accuracy in regards to the clock times and content with so few games available for viewing. During the semi-finals and finals on Monday the live game page was disabled and there was no way to look in on any of the games in the final two rounds of the Open section where players were battling for IM and GM norms or even the semifinal and final round games.

  In addition to the live game feed, the tournament had a commentated broadcast for every round. The broadcast was slickly produced with a professional studio set featuring hosts Women’s international Master Arianne Caoili and Grandmaster Robert Hess. They were joined by International Master Laurence Trent who was armed with a video screen complete with computer evaluations of the game. The broadcasts were around three hours long and didn’t start until two hours into the round.

  I watched the Saturday and Sunday shows. There were plenty of breaks in the action but there were ‘competitor profiles’ to look at and puzzles to solve which was a welcome break from the commercials and Muzak filled blank screens that other tournaments show during breaks. The commentators seemed exclusively focused on the top boards even though there were nearly 3 dozen grandmasters competing. I was wondering why until a crowd gathered during a time scramble on board 10. A cameraman was there but the commentators could only guess what was happening because they couldn’t get a good view of the board.

  I was very impressed with Robert Hess as a commentator. He didn’t rely on computer analysis but gave his impressions of the player’s mindsets and how they would approach the next phase of the game. Trent’s role seemed to be to consult the computer to show when a player had or missed a tactical opportunity while Caoili seemed to be asking Trent and Hess questions that a beginner might (“Maybe he’s upset because he didn’t win with the White pieces?”) even though she is a very strong player who occasionally would throw out variations that Trent and Hess didn’t grasp but were proved correct by Trent’s computer.

A sample of the Millionaire Chess live broadcast...

  Hess was very professional in his non-chess comments but Trent and Caoili seemed very bent on ‘entertaining’ and there were parts of the broadcast where I thought I was listening to some shock jock. I heard that tripled pawns was an ‘Irish pawn center’ and that Wesley So was not a typical Filipino player because he didn’t play tactically even though Filipino players do nothing but play blitz all the time and that the Chinese players were also blitz addicts which made them particularly dangerous in time trouble. There was one game described as having blunders than a George W. Bush speech and a position that was messier than a Sarah Palin press conference. I wasn’t offended but I was vaguely uncomfortable listening to these sort of generalizations and put downs. I mentioned this to one of my co-workers and he immediately asked if the commentators were from America. When I said no (Trent is British and Caoili from Australia) he said he wasn’t surprised because this kind of talk is normal for the sports shows he watches from other countries and that Americans were pretty thin-skinned. I wish more time was spent going over the chess games on the lower boards than the commentators trying to amuse me. The tournament climaxed with the ‘Millionaire Monday’ where the top four players from each section were on the big stage battling for $100,000 in the open section and $40,000 in the lower sections (no one was actually going to become a millionaire) and the broadcast was fast paced because the games had a quicker time limit and there wasn’t time for the silly banter of the previous days.

  Everyone that participated in the tournament has written about it in glowing terms and most of the people that were watching the games or broadcast online had many of the same comments that I did about the lack of coverage of the GM games on lower boards and the uneven commentary. The online experience was far less than the groundbreaking experience advertised. An old boss of mine had a phrase that described it perfectly: “Lots of sizzle - not a lot of steak”. Great looking graphics and web pages were combined with a minimum of content. Aside from the lack of live games to view, the game files of the tournament are incomplete (only including the top boards of the first six rounds) and two days after the end of the tournament there is no comprehensive prize list on the website or even final standings. I began this post looking for reasons why this tournament didn’t attract as many players as expected and I did come up with some reasons but then I started writing about the gaps in the online coverage and lack of post-event content. I’ve never seen an organization where the habit of not taking care of details and following up after the end of a project was limited to one section or department and I wonder now if Millionaire Chess' participation goal was undone by the same inattention to detail.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Going Up

If it was up to Vince, I'd still be paying $2.06 for my beef sticks and coffee instead of $2.17...I hope

  Kathy and I took Daisy and Baxter to the Jiffy the convenience store two Saturdays ago for our normal 5am walk for beef sticks and coffee. As soon as I walked in the store Vince the clerk said “I’ve got some bad news for you Hank – the price went up.” I assumed Vince meant the price of beef sticks but the price of my twenty ounce coffee refill had gone up from 99 cents to $1.09, a 10 percent increase. I wasn’t especially happy at having to pay an extra dime for the same cup of coffee but it has been over four years since the last price increase (I wrote about it here) and the price of beef sticks is still 2 for $1 so I put away my six cents and fished an extra dollar out of my pocket to pay Vince and was on my way without any complaints.

  If you are the observant type you may have noticed that I had to pay an extra 11 cents when the price of the coffee only increased by a dime. That’s because the state and county took an extra penny out of my pocket in addition to the price increase. I don’t know who first thought of the sales tax but whoever it was deserves the gratitude of every politician who doesn’t have to vote to raise income taxes or tolls or property taxes because every price increase lines the government coffers automatically without politicians having to vote for a tax increase. As Milton Freidman said “Inflation is the one form of taxation that can be imposed without legislation.” and the sales tax is how the politicians piggyback on the price increases to increase their take.

  After spending the morning readjusting my budget to account for the extra 22 cents my weekend trips to the Jiffy were going to cost Kathy and I took Daisy and Baxter for their 9am weekend walk. We took the beagles west two blocks, headed north until we got to the cemetery, and then south and instead of heading home we made a left and walked the three blocks east to the Kum & Go convenience store for another coffee and beef stick stop.

A horror story worthy of The Walking Dead!
(And what horror story would be complete without a pair of unaware bystanders...)

  When I went into the Kum & Go Joel the manager was on duty for the second Saturday in a row. Normally Joel only works during the week but when I asked him about it the Saturday before he told me that this convenience store had been sold and was going to become the ‘Mishi Food Market’. One of Joel’s part-timers had quit but he wasn’t allowed to hire anyone so he had to work on the weekends until the store closed. Last Sunday Jillissa (The 2014 Daisy and Baxter beef stick award winner along with Vince from the Jiffy) told me she was going to go back to school to get her CNA so she could have a steady job.

  I got my coffee from station at the back of the store but before I could get to the counter Joel said “There’s some bad news on the beef stick front” I expected to the same type of flim-flam that the Casey’s used last year when they raised the price of their beef sticks by 8% saying the beef sticks were 59 cents each and save 10 cents of two instead of 2 for a dollar (which Daisy and Baxter wrote about here) but instead there was a new sticker on the Jack Link’s beef stick dispenser saying ‘3/$2 or 89 cents each’. This was a 50% increase in the price of single beef stick and a 33% increase in the price of beef sticks sold in bulk. Given my particular beef stick situation I consider it a 100% increase since there is no way Daisy and Baxter would let me get home with that extra beef stick in my pocket and not in their stomachs.

  Joel told me that Kum & Go was moving out of a lot of small towns in Iowa and adding stores to the big city markets like Des Moines instead. The strategy doesn’t makes a lot of sense to me. My research this spring showed that the Kum & Go in Marshalltown sells 400 hot dogs a month while the Quik Trip in West Des Moines sells 400 hot dogs in a shift. It seems obvious that Kum & Go will make a lot more money having a store in West Des Moines than Marshalltown but that's only half the story. It doesn't have to be an either/or situation - if the Marshalltown store is making money why can't Kum & Go have stores in both locations?

  Economics aside, store location issues are no excuse for price gouging on beef sticks and I told Joel so. Joel said that the new dispenser came last week and he was just as surprised at the price increase. I asked Joel if I could just get two beef sticks from the old dispenser. Joel chuckled and said no. I must have been in a state of shock at this massive price increase since I bought two beef sticks for $1.78 and didn’t get the third one for 22 cents more. Kathy and I decided we would bring beef sticks from the Aldi grocery store on our 9am walks and give them to Daisy and Baxter instead of going to the Kum & Go and I haven’t been to the Kum & Go since – not even to get a cup of coffee. Their coffee is good but not SO good that I want to spend another dollar on beef sticks.


Trophy Depot has low prices for Halloween trophies....

  Hoping to get a respite from higher coffee and beef stick prices, I took to the Internet to order the trophies for my fall chess tournaments. I gave out Santa trophies in my December tournament in 2011 and they were such a big hit I followed them up in 2012 and 2013 with Halloween (pumpkin or a witch) trophies in my October tournaments, Thanksgiving turkey trophies in November, and Santa trophies in December. I went to the web site of Trophy Depot (my preferred trophy provider) to order this year’s batch.

  I was happy to see the trophy prices hadn’t changed much since last year and proceeded to the Halloween trophy section. I picked out the trophy column and base and then went to select the top for my Halloween trophy. Normally Trophy Depot offers some standard trophy tops and some premium tops that cost extra. This year every Halloween trophy tops is classified as a premium top that cost extra! It was just a matter of whether I wanted to pay $1 or $1.50 for my Halloween trophy top.

...but having a top on the trophy will cost you!

  I’ve always enjoyed using Trophy Depot in the past but this really rankled me. I go to the Trophy Depot website. I select Halloween trophies. They show me a selection all priced with their ‘as low as’ price (which assumes I’m going to buy 250 or more trophies). I pick a trophy style and they show me the prices AND NONE OF THE PRICES APPLY TO ME BECAUSE EVERY HALLOWEEN TROPHY COSTS AT LEAST A DOLLAR MORE THAN THE TROPHY DEPOT ADVERTISED PRICE!!! Undaunted, I completed my order and then started to work on my Thanksgiving trophies only to find that both of Trophy Depot’s Thanksgiving turkey tops are classified as a premium top that costs $1.00 extra! I don’t remember what happened after that but I woke up a couple of hours later screaming and thought I might have suffered a psychotic break. I checked the news and there were no reports of any attacks on convenience store beef stick displays or trophy stores. After some research on the Internet I believe I suffered a a temporary blackout caused by PTMSSD (Post Traumatic Multiple Sticker Shock Disorder) and if it turns out I did something worthy of being on 'Criminal Minds' while I blacked out that's the story I'm going to have my defense lawyer use.

At least there's one happy ending!

  As upset as I am by all these price increases I get that the Jiffy and Kum & Go convenience stores and Trophy Depot aren’t in business for me – they’re in business to make money. If they think they can get more profit by selling less beef sticks or coffee or turkey trophy tops at a higher price that’s their decision to make and as a consumer it’s my choice whether or not to pay the higher price. I can live with paying an extra 11 cents for my morning coffee twice a week. There isn’t a large source of suppliers for turkey or pumpkin trophy tops so I’m kind of stuck there. I’m comfortable with not paying 33% or 50% or 100% more for beef stick treats for my beagles and that decision got a lot easier when a local grocery store had a sale and I bought a 32 pack of Old Wisconsin beef sticks for $12 which works out to 75 cents for two and is THE best price in town.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Chess DVDs - ‘Play Like Tal’ and ‘Grandmaster Secrets : Topalov’

Daisy kept guard over the DVD's I bought in April until I was ready to review them.

  In June, I reviewed some of the chess DVD’s I bought from www.onlinechesslessons.net on an impulse. Along with the review I wrote about how I joined their affiliate program, ran their ads on my websites, and never received the commissions I was due to receive as per their affiliate agreement. I stopped running www.onlinechesslessons.net ads in July and signed up to be an affiliate for Amazon.com. Since Amazon has already paid me a commission I'd have to say they have proven to be a reliable partner so if you are an Amazon.com customer and enjoy my blog you can help me out by clicking one of their ads on this site before you make your purchase.

  Since my two favorite summer TV shows, 'Falling Skies' and 'The Last Ship' recently ended their seasons and 'The Walking Dead' isn't starting their new season until October 12th, I had some spare viewing time on my hands took a look at two more of the chess DVDs I purchased earlier this year – ‘Play Like Tal’ by Grandmaster Simon Williams and ‘Grandmaster Secrets : Veselin Topalov’ by Grandmaster Damian Lemos.

A sample of 'Play Like Tal' courtesy of YouTube.

A great book!

  Mikhail Tal was the World Champion from 1960 to 1961 and a revolutionary figure in chess history. In the 1930’s the United States was considered the preeminent chess power in the world having won the chess Olympiads in 1931, 1933, 1935, and 1937. When international chess play resumed after World War II, it became apparent that the Soviet Union had surpassed the United States in chess and it wasn't even a close contest. The USSR trounced the United States in a 1945 ten player radio match by the score of 15.5 to 4.5 with the Americans losing 7 of the individual two game matches with one win and two ties. Mikhail Botvinnik became the first Soviet to be World Chess Champion in 1948 and the title remained in Soviet hands for the next 55 years (except for 1972-1975 when the American Bobby Fischer held the crown). Botvinnik was a national hero and considered the herald of ‘Soviet School of Chess’ which relied on physical conditioning, intense opening preparation, training matches, published analysis and annotations of games – basically a highly professional approach to chess. Because the personalities of the Soviet players were hidden by the ‘Iron Curtain’, they were thought of as robotic automatons by the western world.

  That changed when 20 year old Mikhail Tal from Riga (in Latvia) won the USSR championship in 1957. Tal’s style set him apart from the Soviet machine. He would sacrifice material for the attack and win games when his opponents would falter in their defense. Tal’s attacks would frequently prove to be unsound when picked apart in published analysis months later but that didn’t matter to him as long as he won over the board. Because of his ‘incorrect’ play, Tal was labeled as lucky and accused of hypnotizing his opponents but no one was able to stop him as he was again USSR champion in 1958, won the Interzonal tournament the same year, the Candidates tournament in 1959, and then wrested the World Championship from Botvinnik in 1960. Botvinnik won the rematch in 1961 but by holding the championship for just that one year Tal’s legacy was cemented for generations of chess players to the point that 50 years later DVDs are made about his games instead of other legendary attackers that never won the world championship.

  In the DVD, Williams takes 15 minutes to talk about Tal and another 30 minutes going over one of Tal’s 1960 games against Botvinnik. Williams then proceeds to the meat of the DVD – seven of Tal’s games produced in an interactive style. In the interactive games Williams goes over the games much like the Botvinnik game except at five to seven points the viewer is presented a choice of three moves to pick from a menu. If move Tal played is selected the DVD continues with congratulatory words from Williams and if a different move is selected Williams explains why Tal didn’t play the selected move (sometimes the chosen move was the best but just not played by Tal) and lets the viewer choose again. As a bonus there are five positions at the end of the DVD that challenge the view via the same interactive style as the critical positions in the games.

  The DVD is produced by Williams’ GingerGM company and has excellent production values. Williams takes up the right half of the screen with a chessboard in front of him while the left side of the screen has the digital chessboard with the typical arrows and highlighted squares. The entire screen is crisp and clear. Williams constantly refers to a laptop that is mostly hidden behind the digital board but does manage to make eye contact with the viewer and has a breezy conversational style. While going over the games, Williams makes the moves on the physical chessboard in front of him. The chessboard is at an angle where the viewers can see very little of it. I think the board is present for Williams' comfort level even though he has a laptop less than a yard away. The selected games are all attacking games but the interactive positions don't have obvious continuations and the viewer is forced to stop and think. I found the positions challenging and when I didn’t come up with the Tal move, Williams’ explanation were useful in helping me understand where I was going wrong.

  At seven hours of running time (not counting the time spent to calculate the moves), the 2 DVD set is a good value for $18 dollars retail price and an excellent one for the $9 I paid during a 50% off promotion. I would recommend getting the physical disk. I couldn’t figure out a way to get the player to switch to the next segment of the DVD after a game section ended when using the download, but when I put the DVD in my computer or in the player hooked up to my TV it was smooth sailing.

  The only thing I didn’t enjoy about the DVD was Williams harping on Tal’s drinking (saying he would have played with a bottle of whiskey at the table if he could have) and smoking and claiming it led to his early death. Williams mentions how Tal was addicted to morphine but failed to mention his addiction came about after an operation. Tal always seemed to be photographed with a cigarette hanging from his lips but he had a series of kidney ailments in his 20s and I can’t imagine his drinking led to that and maybe the expectation of a lifetime of health problems and/or living under the thumb of the Soviet system led to his drinking. Tal lived to be 55 which was as long or longer as World Champions Tigran Petrosian (55), Alexander Alekhine (53), and Jose Capablanca (53). While Alekhine was a heavy drinker there were no indications that the other two led the kind of lifestyle that would have led to an early death like Tal’s. I’m not saying Tal should be treated and feted as if he was Derek Jeter but I wish Williams had characterized him more as a generational chess player and less as some idiot savant (at various times Williams refers to Tal as a lunatic, nutter, bonkers, crazy...) that become world champion despite his drinking and smoking.

A sample of GM Damian Lemos going over a game from his Topalov DVD courtesy of YouTube.

  The second DVD I watched was ‘Grandmaster Secrets – Play like Veselin Topalov’. In this 2.5 hour DVD, GM Damian Lemos serves as a guide through five games by Topalov. Topalov has been a top 10 player since 1995 and won the FIDE world championship in 2005 by winning an 8 player unification tournament. In 2006 he lost his FIDE title to Vladimir Kramnik in his first title defense and failed to retake his crown in a match with Anand in 2010. I have a hard time putting Topalov on the list of World chess champions since he never won a match for the championship but many people have him on their champions list and there is no question he was universally regarded as the best player in the world in the mid 2000’s.

  All five games have Topalov building up an attack on the enemy king and eventually crashing through to victory against top level competition. Lemos isn’t as engaging as Williams but he is just as thorough in going over the games. Lemos spends a lot of time going over the opening in detail and gives extra emphasis in which side will get the ‘bishop pair’. Lemos also does a good job going over the variations in Tolalov’s attacks. He goes a little overboard on the circles, arrows, and highlighted squares but in general he does a very good job explaining the games. I only have two complaints on his presentation. Lemos doesn’t seem to know how to use the Chessbase interface in his videos. Whenever he goes into a side variation a window pops up on a piece of the demonstration board and he has to click a button to get rid of it. I found this distracting but not nearly as distracting as Lemos’ penchant for saying ‘You Know’ at every opportunity in two of the five games. Check out the free sample from the DVD that I link to above and count how many times Lemos says ‘You Know’. I lost count after 75 which averaged out to once every 20 seconds…

  This DVD is an in-house production of Online Chess Lessons and like most chess videos has the digital chessboard on the left side of the screen and the presenter on the right. Most of the Online Chess Lessons videos have the presenter in the middle of the right hand side of the screen framed by the company’s logo above and beneath and this DVD is no exception. In the ‘Play Like Tal’ video, Williams is in perfect focus, is speaking to the viewer and not a microphone, and has the same outfit and same background in the entire seven hour presentation. Lemos is out of focus, speaks into a headset, is wearing different clothes and is in front of a different background for each game (once using a makeshift backdrop consisting of a sheet). In four of the games the digital board was the kind used in Chessbase and in one of the games a Internet Chess Club board is used. Normally the presentation wouldn’t make a lot of difference to me but it gave the entire video an unprofessional feel as if it was something hurriedly put together in a series of hotel rooms. When combined with the distracting presentation $20 dollars for the download of $25 for the physical DVD is not good value for the cash.

  While I enjoyed both DVDs (even if I'll never play like Tal or Topalov), GingerGM’s ‘Play Like Tal’ far outstripped Online Chess Lessons ‘Grandmaster Secrets : Topalov’ both in content and presentation. If you get on the Online Chess Lessons mailing list they will give you free downloads and large discounts pretty frequently. I like free stuff but the problem with paying cash for chess DVDs is there is so much quality free content on the internet it hardly seems worth it. On YouTube Daniel Kings's Power Play and kingscrusher channels review the top grandmaster games, while International Masters Christof Sielecki (Chessexplained) and John Bartholomew primarily go over their own games. Those four You Tube channels are just a small sampling of chess videos available for free to the viewing public. I bought this batch of Chess DVD's in April on pure impulse but I can't see myself paying for Chess DVD's again unless it were for a targeted need like learning about an opening.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Movie Review - A Walk Among The Tombstones

A promising commercial for a Liam Neeson action movie!

  Ever since I saw the iconic movie ‘Taken’ I’ve made it a point to get to the theatres to see Liam Neeson action movies whenever I can. Taken had Neeson playing retired CIA operative Bryan Mills in an action-packed adventure to get his daughter back after she had been kidnapped by Albanian human traffickers. The role was reprised in 2012’s ‘Taken 2’ when Mills and his wife are kidnapped by the families of all the Albanian human traffickers Mills killed in the first move. I enjoyed the sequel but not nearly as much as the original.

  Earlier this year I went to see ‘Non-Stop’ in which Neeson plays Bill Marks, a former cop and alcoholic turned Federal Air Marshal who uncovers a plot to detonate a bomb that has been planted on his flight. As part of the plot, Marks is framed as the bomber but manages to save almost everyone on the plane despite the bomb going off in mid-air. It was an entertaining enough movie but no ‘Taken’, focusing too much on detective work and Marks’ shady past and not nearly enough action.

  This has been Neeson’s typical role in his action movies since Taken – a retired tough-guy who can still bring it. His movies have been missing the action element of Taken, where he kills almost a dozen bad guys in 45 seconds, shoots his best friend’s wife in the arm in order to get information, has a car chase through a construction site resulting in explosions and car crashes and construction site damage along with many other scenes of gratuitous violence broken up by a small amount of detective work and witty dialogue. This weekend’s new movie releases included another Liam Neeson action movie ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’. The commercials looked promising – Neeson listens to a man telling him his wife got kidnapped and then listens to a tape of the man’s wife screaming. Thinking there could be nothing more Taken-like, Kathy and I made plans to see it when it opened this past weekend.

  A couple of work emergencies had me putting in enough time during the week that I was able to take Friday afternoon off and go with Kathy to the afternoon matinee at the local movie theatre. $25.50 later we were armed with popcorn, soda, and two tickets which allowed us to take our place among the other 11 movie-goers.

  The film starts in 1991 with a healthy dose of action. Neeson is a long-haired, bearded New York City detective who leaves his partner in their car to head into a bar for a couple of drinks. Two men walk in to the bar to rob it and shoot the bartender dead. Neeson chases the men into the street, shoots and kills one robber and then shoots the fleeing getaway driver dead while the second robber runs away. Neeson shoots the remaining crook in the leg and follows him as he limps to a secluded alley where he proceeds to shoots him dead. It was a fine start to an action movie.

  The movie then flashes ahead to 1999 although the only way I would have known if I hadn’t been told was the billboards, bumper stickers, and signage urging people to be prepared for Y2K and the oversized computer monitors. We see a woman being fondled by two men and then shown the duct tape covering her mouth and we can safely assume she is the kidnap victim.

  Meanwhile Neeson is in an AA meeting and introduced to us as retired detective Matt Scudder, who now has short hair and no beard and works as an unlicensed private investigator. Scudder recounts the tale of the shooting which seems to have been so traumatic that he not only quit the police force – he quit drinking. Once the AA meeting ends, Scudder goes to a local diner for a steak when he is joined by one of his AA cohorts who wants Scudder to meet with his brother Kenny Kristo because Kenny has a problem. Scudder meets with him and finds out Kristo’s wife had been kidnapped and killed after the ransom had been paid and that Kenny is a drug trafficker. Scudder turns down the $20,000 in cash to find the kidnapper/murderers but changes his mind after learning of the exceptionally grisly nature of the crime.

  Even though there was no kidnap victim to rescue, I was hoping for a fast paced adventure of finding the kidnappers and exacting revenge much like the movie Taken. Instead I felt like I was watching a misfit version of another film starring Neeson – ‘The A-Team’. Scudder does most of the slow-moving detective work in between AA meetings to locate the kidnappers and find out the full scope of their heinous crimes. While he is researching microfilm in the New York Library he joins forces with a homeless teenager named T.J. Scudder gets T.J. to do his research on the Internet and visits him in the hospital after T.J. gets busted up for stealing a gang members gun. Rounding out the team is Kenny Kristo and his brother Peter, who is shooting heroin when not attending AA meetings.

  Scudder learns the names of one of the villains, discovers that they are serial killers, and even how they pick their victims but has no luck tracking them down until they kidnap the daughter of one of Kenny’s drug trafficking rivals. Scudder inserts himself into the negotiations as the point man and sets up the payoff in a cemetery for the first of two climactic scenes. After a shootout at the cemetery, Scudder and remaining members of his ‘team’ (I don’t want to give away too much) track the murderers to their hideout and the final climactic and grisly end (which is performed to the recitation of the AA 12 step creed).

If you look up the definition of 'action' in a dictionary you'll probably find these clips from the movie 'Taken'

  The murders are all done off screen with a few flashback glimpses of torture but are nothing that I would consider eye-raising. Compared to the ‘Criminal Minds’ reruns on ION television that I’ve been watching the crimes in this movie are downright pedestrian. There are two serial killers who we only know by their first names and while they seem equally creepy I did enjoy the performance of David Harbour as Ray who was the chattier of the pair and the one who makes the phone calls to extract the ransom and talk to the kidnap victims.

  Aside from Neeson’s workman like effort and Harbour’s professional performance I thought rest of the cast was nondescript at best although the stereotypical characters probably give them much to work with. The film was adapted from the 1992 novel by Lawrence Block which is one of many featuring the recovering alcoholic Scudder. I think the filmmakers tried too hard to integrate the AA meetings and 12 steps into the movie. While those characteristics are central to who Matt Scudder is as a fictional character in novels these traits have the luxury of being developed over thousands of pages in years of novels. The task of trying to make them the central theme of a two hour movie led to a disjointed and slow moving storyline in which any small amount of action was met by yet another AA meeting , lecture by Scudder to the youthful T.R., or some slow-moving detective work.

  I can't fault 'A Walk Among the Tombstones' for not being as good as Taken when so few movies are but I can and will fault it for being slow moving with so little action. Even if I were to consider it a mystery movie the main characters are all pretty unlikeable - drug addicts or drug dealers or alcoholics or serial killers. The only characters I felt any sympathy for are T.J. (the homeless petty thief) and the kidnap victims (who aren't on screen very much). As much as I enjoyed the movie Taken and Neeson’s take no prisoner performance in it, I felt I got taken by ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’. This movie was advertised as an action movie but it was really a mystery movie and a slow moving one at that. I would have been better off keeping my $25 in my pocket and laying out 6 quarters at the Redbox in a few months. The movie grossed $13 million on it's opening weekend which is more than enough to keep Liam Neeson in starring roles considering its $48 million dollar budget but I won’t be watching any Liam Neeson ‘action’ movies in the theatres until I get one from Redbox and it so action-packed that I wish I had seen it in the theater.

These geese in Marshalltown, Iowa channeled their inner Liam Neeson...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Who Wants my Vote?

Election signs, mailings, commercials, and videos are nice but what's in it for me?

  Iowa is holding its first Senate election without an incumbent in 30 years and the hotly contested election between Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst is less than two months away. Given Iowa’s track record of electing incumbents the winner of the election will be conferred with a Mafia-esque ‘made’ status and a lifetime job. Ernst is 44 years old and could serve 6 or more terms in office while the 57 year old Braley could serve 3 terms and they would be about as old as Tom Harkin, the retiring Senator whose seat the campaigning duo hope to be elected to. The candidates have combined to spend $6 million dollars on the election while the desperation of both parties to win a majority in the Senate has spurned outside interests to spend almost twice that much on mostly negative campaign ads (Here is the spending breakdown).

While one of our Senate candidates is in the pockets of big corporations, the other one is missing committee meetings...Does anyone really care?

  I’ve gotten mailers and phone calls from both parties. The phone calls are tricky. I got a phone call last week with a recorded voice asking me who I was going to support in the upcoming election. Since it was an odd numbered day, I pressed 1 which on this day was the Braley button. Then the recorded voice asked what the most important issue to me was about the election and I pressed 2 which was immigration. Then the recorded voice asked me to press one if I thought we needed to reform immigration to let the ‘immigrants out of the shadows’ and to press two if I thought we needed to ‘secure our borders and enforce the current immigration laws’. I know that Braley endorses immigration reform but I pressed two just to see what the recorded voice had to say about that. I must have crashed the program because the recorded voice hung up.

Here's some 'guilt by association' pieces....

  Judging from the campaign commercials and literature I’ve received so far the hot issues in this election is Braley missing most of the votes of the Veteran Affairs Committee Meetings he’s a member of, Ernst being in the pockets of big oil companies who want to get big tax breaks for themselves and end the subsidies for renewable fuels, Braley complaining to a bunch of Texas lawyers that if the Republicans win the Senate an Iowa farmer who never went to law school would be the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, how Joni Ernst wants to repeal Obamacare and cut Medicare and other entitlements, and how Bruce Braley repeatedly voted for runaway spending.

  None of these issues resonate with me. I don’t care if Bruce Braley misses a bunch of votes or tells a bunch of Texas lawyers what they want to hear in order to raise money and if he did vote for runaway spending he had plenty of company from both parties. As long as the price of gasoline is hanging around $3 a gallon I’m just fine with big oil companies getting a few tax breaks and if Joni Ernst thinks she’s going to cut spending after politicians of all parties have rung up a 17 TRILLION DOLLAR Deficit all I can say is ‘Good Luck’. I don’t belong to a union and I’m not a farmer so right to work and agriculture issues don’t excite me. I’m already married so I don’t have any opinion on who should or shouldn’t get married. I’ve never been in the military and I'm already a citizen so veteran affairs and immigration issues don’t sway me. The recent spate of beheadings aren’t concerning me with since I'm not heading to the Middle East anytime soon. No, my concerns are more immediate and since I’m sure I’m not alone in common sense low-level thinking I’m using this post as a public service to let this year’s Senate candidates know what would get my as yet undecided vote.

  1.5 million Iowans voted in the 2012 presidential election. 20 percent of the voters in the current Senate election are undecided – that amounts to approximately 300,000 voters. So far 18 MILLION dollars have been spent on this Senate election and there are still two months left. Let’s say there will be another 18 MILLION dollars spent on the campaign (I think this is a low number). That makes 36 MILLION dollars being spent on 300,000 votes. That amounts to $120 for each undecided voter and since there is normally a lesser turnout in non-presidential election years the $120 figure is likely closer to $200.

  The 36 million dollars that is being spent to attract undecided voters will be going to the post office, printers, newspapers, internet advertisers like Google, television and radio stations, commercial producers and writers, consultants, etc… None of this money will be going directly to the voters. I think that’s wrong – why should everyone profit from my undecidedness but me? That money being spent to get my vote would look a lot better in my pocket than some advertising agency or Google. I’ve written before (Click here to read it) how Americans should have the freedom to sell their votes directly to the politicians instead of letting everyone else profit from our right to vote. I’d love to put my vote up for auction on eBay but while spending MILLIONS and MILLIONS of dollars to get out the vote and sign up voters and advertise for votes is legal selling the same votes is illegal. I’ll be very inclined to vote for the Senate candidate that will legalize vote selling and allow campaigns to bargain directly with the voters. With a presidential election and a likely Iowa Senate Seat up for grabs in 2016 this is an issue that all Iowans can rally around and profit from.

My 10 minute trip on I-235 took 40 minutes today. Even with one lane closed, there was plenty of room for Des Moines traffic if everyone could have looked at the accident without having to rubberneck...

  Another issue I’d like to see our elected officials address is our outdated highway system. The roads I use in my hour long commute are just fine as long as there aren’t any accidents – thousands of cars travel daily on Interstates 80, 35, and 235 at anywhere from 60 to 75 miles an hour sliding across the lanes with barely any regard for anyone or anything other than their need to get where they’re going as quickly as possible. The interstates have three lanes and even two lanes are plenty for Des Moines, Iowa but when there’s an accident everything stops as every car slows down to catch a glimpse wrecked cars and possible injuries.

  The government has already funded some traffic guidance signs on the interstates in Des Moines to let me know how many people have died in auto accidents this year and how many minutes it will take me to get to the next few exits. I’d like my next Senator to take this concept to the next level and replace the current signage that is a descendent of the old monochromatic computer terminals with the full color displays found in football stadiums. Whenever there is an accident, the new displays can not only let the drivers know about the accident, they can display pictures of the accident. Once the driving public has seen the accident on the big screen they wouldn’t need to slow down to see the wreckage and could resume their normal driving habits so I could get to work and get home faster. The accident displays will probably pay for themselves by selling ads to insurance companies or sending the accident pictures directly to the driver’s smart phones for a small fee. Reducing rubbernecking will not only make the roads safer – it will reduce road rage and get me my way quicker and could be a reality with some government seed money to incentivize the process. Up to now Joni and Bruce have been silent about getting me where I need to go faster but their ideas on this issue will play a big part in getting my vote.

2014 Daisy and Baxter beef stick award winner Jillissa (left) could devote more time to superior beef stick service if she could put Little Debbie snack cakes, 2 liter bottles of soda, chips, cigarettes, and beer all on one convenient EBT transaction. On the right was the mob scene at the Hawkeye Pantry last month. I could have been in and out with my AMP Focus Energy if the clerk didn't have to argue with every customer when they insisted on paying for their six-pack or smokes with their EBT card.

  While allowing voters to sell their votes would benefit voters and reducing rubbernecking would benefit commuters, my third and final election criteria would benefit all of Iowans. I go to a lot of convenience stores and often find myself waiting in line behind people who are buying beer, liquor, cigarettes, and maybe a few groceries. Many of these people use their EBT card to buy their groceries under the state's Food Assistance program and also try to pay for their beer, liquor, and cigarettes with their EBT cards. When the clerk tells them that they can’t pay for their beer, liquor, or cigarettes with their EBT card the customers are told that the ‘other’ clerk lets them do it all the time. A lengthy argument ensues; the customer ends up paying cash for his beer, liquor, or cigarettes; and if the rest of us in line are having a bad day or are in a hurry the process repeats itself with the next customer.

  I’d like to think my next Senator could help me get my beef sticks, coffee, or soda pop without having to play EBT roulette and I have a simple solution to the problem – make EBT cards eligible for beer, liquor, and cigarettes. The Iowa EBT program is funded by the federal government so the federal government can authorize these categories to be eligible for benefits. I discussed this subject at work and at chess club and many people said “Food Stamps are for food not for beer and cigarettes” but I beg to differ. EBT stands for ‘Electronic BENEFITS Transfer”, not Electronic FOOD Transfer. It may be a stretch to label cigarettes and alcohol as ‘food’ but beer certainly has some nutritional content. After all, can cigarettes, liquor, and beer be that much worse for a person than a $4 10 ounce bag of potato chips or $1 Little Debbie Lemon pies? This is a win-win situation – People that want to get beer, liquor, and cigarettes with their EBT cards can do so; convenience stores have fewer regulations to keep track of; and we all get out of the convenience stores faster. The gains in leisure time and productivity will more than make up for the extra medical expenses incurred by all the beer, liquor, and cigarettes consumed (and all these people seem to have the money to buy this stuff anyway). This is another issue the candidates have skirted around but if I had a gun to my head I’d say getting me out of convenience stores faster is my number one election year concern.

   And that’s my wish list for our two Senate hopefuls this year. These issues may seem trivial to some but they would improve the quality of my life in particular and all Iowans in general. In any event, I’d like to have the candidates talking about what they are going to do FOR me instead of talking about what their opponent is going to do TO me. If you have any issues to add leave them in the comments or better yet tell the candidates at http://www.brucebraley.com/contact/ and info@joniforiowa.com and let them know what will get your vote. It never hurts to ask.