Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Humbug!

The Marshalltown Mall will receive a major boost in February with the arrival of the Hobby Lobby.

  On Saturday I had my fourth annual handicap speed chess exhibition fundraiser for the Salvation Army at the Marshalltown Mall. In other years I prepared by playing plenty of practice games at the fundraiser time limit of one minute for me against 10 for my opponents. This year I was preoccupied with work and fighting a cold and only played a handful of handicap practice games at Zanzibar’s against Mike Jeter and a few at club. While I was able to play many games of one minute chess on the Internet Chess Club and chess.com, handicap chess has a completely different rhythm. In a one minute game both players are moving at the same breakneck pace but in handicap games the challengers can take more than a minute on a single move while I have to be ready to instantaneously bash out my move.

  I wasn’t very stressed by my lack of handicap practice since the main purpose of the day is to raise money for the Salvation Army and not for me to beat people at handicap chess time limits. Almost any tournament chess player can beat me at 10-1 odds if they just take their time but that doesn’t mean I want to be a pushover and when I do happen to beat a strong player at these odds I have bragging rights for life.

First stop - the Jiffy convenience store for my focus and energy needs.

  I got a good night’s sleep and woke up on Saturday ready to take on the world (or at least Marshalltown) at handicap speed chess. Kathy and I took Daisy and Baxter on two beef stick walks and at 11:30 I packed up my car with my chess stuff and the brand new tournament quality chess sets I was going to give away as prizes to whoever could defeat me and headed to the Mall. Expecting a full day of chess ahead I decided to make a stop at the Jiffy to pick up a supply of AMP Focus Energy (my preferred focus and energy beverage) in case I started to get tired. I was only delayed slightly by the lady paying for $40 worth of gas and three cans of Skoal by check and was soon on my way to the mall. The Jiffy was robbed at gunpoint early Tuesday morning by a slightly built man but I can't say I spotted anyone casing the place on Saturday afternoon.

  The mall's retail space is more than half empty just like last year but better days are ahead. In February the Hobby Lobby will be moving into the two year old empty space left by the Menards hardware behemoth, the mall has installed wireless internet, and there is a brand new sign in front of the mall with an animated display screen. I set up my chessboards on the alcove by the J C Penney store and start chatting up any passing shoppers to see if I could get anyone to play. There were a group of girls from the local middle school bell ringing for the Salvation Army at the Penney entrance 40 feet away. They were having some sort of contest to see who could make the most noise with their bells. The customers didn’t seem too pleased but I was happy to see them since I figured that I would be able to cope with the noise better than my opponents.

First up - Chandler (l) and Braymont

  Shortly after I had gotten set up, Chandler from our local club stopped over. Chandler’s mom was taking his baby sister to get her picture taken with Santa so he decided to get a few games in and try to win one of the chess sets I was giving out to anyone who could beat me. Chandler is 3 rating classes below me but has beaten me plenty of times in practice games with the time handicap.

  Our first game couldn’t have gone better for me. Chandler lost a piece early and I won with 40 seconds of my one minute left. Our game attracted someone I’d never seen before named Braymont to watch and when our game was done Braymont decided to play so he made a donation to the Salvation Army and we started a game.

  Braymont took his time but he lost a pawn and then a piece and I checkmated him with 10 seconds left on my clock. Braymont was pleased that he lasted longer than Chandler and I suggested that they play a game on one of the extra boards I had set up but Braymont's wife told him she was going to the Younker’s department store and was he coming or not? As it turned out Braymont was coming and Chandler decided to try again to beat me at the handicap time limit.

  I won the second game against Chandler almost as easily as the first and I thought it was going to be smooth sailing all day and was convinced of it when I won a piece in the third game but in my rush to checkmate Chandler I gave away a rook and lost on time. I gave Chandler his chess set and since his sister was still in line to get a picture with Santa we kept on playing and Chandler just destroyed me in the fourth game, checkmating me using less than a minute on his clock! I quickly downed an AMP Focus Energy drink and we played three more games with me winning two of them until the Santa pictures were taken and Chandler left.

Taking a break to check out Kathy's Christmas candle collection.

   At that point it was around one and I spend the next hour trying to get the passing mall goers to play but had no luck and finally bought a $5 chicken salad slider with a coffee and a pile of Wal-Mart potato chips from the food stand. At that point Kathy came over and we hung out and went to look at her Christmas candles that are on display in one of the many empty storefronts. While we were looking two groups of people stopped to admire the display of 1100+ candles and talk about which ones they liked the best.

  Once we were done looking at the candles, Scott from the club showed up to play. Scott is about one class lower than Chandler but is a therapist and came psychologically armed for our battle. Scott played crazy in the opening, throwing his wing pawns forward quickly but then slowing down and defending carefully afterwards. I kept on using precious seconds to find the weak spots in his setups and would win a piece or some pawns but then I had to scramble to find a checkmate or make a queen to finish him off. I played pretty smoothly but out of the seven games we played I lost once when I ran out of time, lost another game when I walked into a checkmate, and had to take a draw in a third by grabbing all his pieces before I ran out of time. We had some interesting games and Scott’s strategy of trying to run me out of time proved pretty successful.

Scott, Issac, and Isabel and that's all she wrote...

  After Scott left I tried in vain to get some more of the curious mall goers to try their luck but the only interest was shown by an errant three year old who tried to shove some pawns in his mouth before his mother stopped him. I had brought my computer along and was doing some writing when two kids came over and asked if they could play each other. I recognized one of kids as Isabel who I taught to play at last year’s exhibition. Isabel was with her brother Isaac and they were waiting in the mall with their grandmother while their mother was shopping. I reminded them how the pieces moved and they played from 3:30 to 5:30 while I unsuccessfully attempted to get some mall goers to play chess. At 5:30 the mall was pretty emptied out so I gave Isabel and Isaac the chess set Scott had earned and didn’t want, packed up my stuff, and was on my way home with two completely unused AMP Energy Focus drinks and 13 brand new chess sets.

  I'm disappointed this year’s speed chess exhibition attracted only one player from outside club and only two players from the club. This is less than half the players I’ve had every other year. Any time I spend raising money for the Salvation Army is time well spent but this year I could have helped them more by spending six hours trolling the streets for spare change and empties than by playing chess at the mall. I’m tempted to chalk up this years’ poor turnout to chance but the possibility having the exhibition isn’t a good use of my talents would also be a reasonable conclusion. I don’t have to make any decisions about the speed chess exhibition for a year but at some point a decision will have to be made.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Post-Apocalypse Sundays - The Walking Dead

  Sunday night was my favorite TV watching night of the summer with the TNT post-apocalyptic duo of ‘Falling Skies’ and ‘The Last Ship’. The Last Ship was a great show whose plots reminded me a lot of the original Star Trek with some episodes occurring on the ship and some episodes focusing on ‘away teams’ that explored the new societal orders springing up on a world that has seen its population decimated by a runaway virus. The end of the season has the crew docked in Baltimore where it is discovered that the local government is euthanizing infected people and burning them for electricity while the ship has been commandeered by the Baltimore police and Captain Chandler finding his family in order to inject them with the cure only to find out his wife has succumbed to the virus. It is almost criminal to have to wait 10 months for the next season and I wonder what the original Star Trek would have been like if they were allowed to have multi part story lines and cliffhangers 50 years ago.

  Season three of Falling Skies ended with our hardy band of survivors from the 2nd Mass regiment victorious over the invading Espheni aliens with the help of the friendly alien Volm race and on their way back to their home base of Charleston. But as season four started (a mere three weeks after the end of the previous season), the Volm had evacuated Earth (except for a small scout force) to deal with a interstellar Espheni threat, leaving the Espheni free to regroup and capture all the humans into electrically fenced in ghettos or reeducation camps to genetically modify them into mindless slaves with extraterrestrial appendages and powers. The only humans left to their own devices were the group gathered around Lexi, who is the daughter of the main character Tom Mason and was genetically modified by the Espheni so now she looks 20 years old even though she is less than a year old and is exhibits psychic and telekinetic super powers. After the trials and tribulations that seem to go hand in hand with an alien invasion, Tom and Lexi take a spaceship to the Espheni power base on the moon, Lexi destroys the base in an apparent suicide mission, and Tom is lost in space as season four concludes. If I’m making the season sound disjointed that’s because it was disjointed and I’m kind of glad that next year’s season of Falling Skies will be the last because it looks like the writers have run out of steam and are having a hard time putting a coherent storyline together.

  After both shows ended their summer seasons my Sunday night TV watching was reduced to reruns of ‘Bar Rescue’ on the ‘Spike’ network and the ‘Breaking Bad’ binge on AMC but in October ‘The Walking Dead’ came back for the first half of its fifth season with eight weeks of zombie apocalypse action with another eight weeks coming up in February. I never watched TWD until the Fourth of July Weekend when I was home alone with the beagles and AMC was running a marathon of the 16 episodes of Season four. I caught a few episodes and I was so hooked I watched the entire 16 hours over the holiday weekend.

  The Walking Dead follows the travels and adventures of Rick Grimes in post zombie apocalypse Georgia. In the second half of season four Grimes’ group got split up and were all making their way to a place called Terminus which advertised itself by signs and short wave radio as a sanctuary where ‘All who arrive survive.’ In the last episode of the season almost all the disparate parties had arrived in Terminus which turned out to be a large railroad yard but all who arrived are taken prisoner and put into a railroad car to await the beginning of season five in October.

This snippet of the season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead was released an hour before air time.
Is it any wonder it has more viewers than Sunday Night Football?

  The beginning of season five showed all but three of Grimes’ group trapped in the cattle car and tear gassed with eight of them (including Rick) bound, gagged, and brought to a slaughterhouse trough where one by one the prisoners are clubbed with a baseball bat and slit across the neck to bleed out into the trough. It becomes apparent that the people of Terminus lure survivors looking for sanctuary and kill, butcher, and eat them. Rick is working at his bonds with a knife he had hidden when explosions are heard and zombies overrun the Terminus railroad yard (a distraction by the members of Rick’s group that had not yet arrived at Terminus but figured out that it wasn’t a sanctuary after all). Rick frees himself, kills the two slaughterhouse butchers, and the entire group escape the cannibalistic tribe of Terminus and the marauding horde of zombies. Rick wants to go back into the zombie infested yard and kill all the Terminus people saying ‘They don’t get to live’ but is dissuaded by the rest of the group who don’t see the point of risking their lives to wreak vengeance on any Terminus survivors. Welcome to the world of The Walking Dead. In a zombie apocalypse I would think the living would band together to fight the zombies but every group Grimes and Co. encounters is bent on establishing their own supremacy over every other group. And (aside from the zombies) that is what makes TWD even more popular than Sunday Night Football – Rick’s group of survivors have banded together as a family but they have remained decent human beings who will help outsiders when they can while forming themselves into an elite zombie fighting survival unit.

  Rick has learned to go to any lengths to protect his family. In season four he bit open the jugular of the leader of a gang that was going to kill him and his friends. That’s why he wanted to exterminate the people of Terminus. His judgment proved correct when Terminus leader Gareth and a small group escaped alive from the rail yard, tracked down Rick’s group, captured one of them, cut off his leg, cooked it, and ate it right in front of him. It was a particularly grisly piece of theatre to have Bob from Rick’s group laying by Gareth’s campfire while Gareth is telling him that it’s not personal and that ‘we would have done this to anyone’ as he bites off a piece of Bob’s cooked leg saying ‘At the end of the day...a man’s got to eat.’.

The living are worse than the dead as this classic scene shows.

  The writers of TWD have a great sense of pace. I expected the Gareth storyline to have lasted throughout the entire half season as they devoured Bob one limb at a time, but in a great plot twist it turned out that Bob had been bitten by a zombie and was ‘tainted meat’! This led Gareth and crew to try to lure Rick’s group out in the open for their next meal only to find themselves caught in an ambush. Gareth pleads for his groups life but this time not only does the rest of the group not talk Rick out of killing Gareth and Co., they help in beating them to death with rifle butts (so as to not waste bullets) and stabbing them while Rick hacks Gareth to pieces with a sword. The Terminus saga could have taken all season but it suddenly and unexpectedly ended in three episodes, leaving a whole half a season for different stories to be told.

Rick Grimes - A man who will do anything FOR his friends and do anything TO his enemies!

  The rest of season five revolved around the a missing cast member (Beth) who ended up being taken away in season four by a car with a white cross on the back of it. The car belonged to a group of survivors from Atlanta’s Grundy Memorial Hospital. The group is run by a squad of police officers that force anyone they rescue to work for them until they are all are saved by a military evacuation they believe is coming. Beth is assigned to be a nurse to Dr. Edwards (the only doctor in the hospital). When another doctor is rescued Edwards feels his position is at risk and has the unwitting Beth administer a medication that causes a siezure and eliminates his competition. The male officers rape the female inmates and abuse all the other inmates under the knowing but ignoring eye of head officer Dawn because she is concerned with maintaining her power and needs the support of the other officers in order to do so.

  Eventually Rick’s group finds out about Beth’s captivity from Noah (a wandering run away Beth helped escape from the hospital) as well as the recent hospital ‘rescue’ of another member of their group and sets off to rescue her. Rick’s idea is to sneak into the hospital and kill everyone there but the rest of the group want a peaceful resolution so Rick devises a plan to kidnap two of officer Dawn’s officers.

  The plan works and as a bonus they capture a third officer who escapes and is running for his life at the beginning of the mid-season finale. Rick grabs a police car and orders the escapee to stop. When he doesn’t Rick just rams his car into him. The officer is laying on the ground unable to move with zombies slowly lurching in his direction and is pleading with Rick for his life. Rick tells the officer he should have stopped and shoots him in the head. It was a violent scene worthy of the end of an episode but in this case it is in the beginning with over 50 minutes left in the show. After a very tense hostage exchange where a gun battle threatens to erupt at any point the hostages are exchanged. The tension ebbs but Officer Dawn insists on having Noah back because ‘she needs a ward’. Rick says no and the tension gets white hot in a heartbeat but ebbs again when Noah agrees to stay in the hospital. Beth and Noah hug goodbye, Officer Dawn makes a comment about ‘they always come back’ and the tension escalates again but this time it erupts into two deaths before Rick and the group leave the hospital for good. This razor’s edge tension keeps me on the edge of my seat - even the quietest and most introspective moment bears the promise of turning into intense violence in a split second.

  The changing of the pace is one big part of what makes The Walking Dead one of my favorite shows. Another is the cast. I really like the Rick Grimes character – he can kill at the drop of a hat but accepts strangers the group almost as easily. I don’t care for every character but since it is a large ensemble cast I don’t get bored for too long with any one character. A new group joined the show late last season consisting Eugene Porter, a scientist who claims to have the cure to the zombie virus that reanimates the humans after death and two military type personnel that have taken it upon themselves to get him to Washington D.C. I found this crew pretty boring but since there are a dozen or so other characters they weren’t on enough to get on my nerves except for the fifth episode which featured the group but as much comic relief that can be found in a zombie apocalypse when we find out that Porter is just a fraud that pretended he had the cure to gain protection from others.

This scene is indicative of the amazing stop and start pacing of The Walking Dead that
makes even the quietest moment full of tension.

  No discussion of The Walking Dead would be complete without mentioning the zombies and the fact that I haven’t mentioned them very much up to now shows how many levels this show is excellent at. Having said that, the zombies look realistic and the special effects people use a lot of creativity in their use. Season five had some zombies trapped in a flooded basement and they were disgustingly bloated. Another episode showed some zombies melted into the pavement as the result of a military napalm attack in the beginning of the apocalypse but the melted zombies are still reaching out with any free limbs for any taste of human flesh they can get.

  By this point in the show’s evolution almost anyone who hasn’t learned to be a full-fledged zombie killer has long since disappeared (except for Porter and Father Gabriel, a newcomer to the show who has been locked in his church until his food finally ran out). To have any shock value a zombie attack must have either the element of surprise or an overwhelming numerical superiority and even then the survivors just club the zombies to death or stick a knife in a zombie’s head and eradicate the threat. The main use the zombies seem to have at this point in the show is weaponry. When Beth is confronted by her would-be rapist in an office in the hospital she spots a former rape victim who committed suicide and goes along with her abuser feeling her up until the suicidee reanimates into a zombie. Then Beth and then she clocks the officer with a bowl which doesn’t knock him out but does knock him down and he is soon devoured by his former victim. There were plenty of episodes in the past when a rival group would drive a truck full of zombies into Rick’s camp, forcing the group to deal with the zombies and a human attack at the same time. But the all-time best use of zombie weaponry was in Episode 7 of the current season when Rick’s friend Daryl is fighting one of the police officers and getting the worst of it. Daryl is on his back and being choked and forced ever so closer to a napalmed zombie’s hungry teeth. Daryl desperately reaches for the zombie’s face and sticks his fingers into the zombie’s eye sockets, which he uses to gain the leverage to yank the zombie skull off its body and beat the police officer senseless with it.

   I had always thought the show was about the zombies and I was always wrong. After having watched most of the episodes the show to me is about what lengths people will go to survive and the struggle is not people versus zombies but the survivors struggle to retain both their humanity and their lives. The zombies are great to have because they are so versatile but it is the story an cast that has me counting the Sundays until The Walking Dead returns in February.

Only 61 days till February 8th....

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Morning at Zanzibar's

Welcome to Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure!!
Home to fine coffee, chess players, and the occasional celebrity sighting!

  For the third year in a row I combined three vacation days with the Thanksgiving holiday to have a week off from work. Or at least that was the plan. My main responsibility at work is a program that closely interfaces with a government agency program. On Sunday, the government’s program stopped working which caused my interface to stop working. I shut down our side of the interface and restarted it at 11 that night after the government agency performs a weekly reboot. All was well or so I thought until 8am on Monday when I got a call from a client to let me know that all the transactions we were sending to the government’s program were failing. It seems that the government agencies program lost all the permissions for their registered parties and no one had permission to do anything.

  After spending the morning sorting through that mess, I was able to resume my vacation and had a relaxing afternoon. On Tuesday there were no government agency problems and I had a relaxing start to the morning but just as Kathy and I got Daisy and Baxter ready for their 9am walk, the phone rang. It was Fred (not his real name), a customer of the retail store software company I worked for from 1994 to 2008 when it was sold to a company from Indianapolis that had their own programmers. The new company switched the software from a desktop version to the ‘cloud’ and discontinued support for the desktop version in 2011. Since then I’ve been helping the old desktop users with their problems for an hourly fee.

  Normally I can help these people via email. Fred had switched to the cloud version and wanted to go back to the desktop version. He didn’t want to work via email and had a setup where I could remote into his computer. Last month I spent 90 minutes one Sunday remoting into his computer and talking on the phone configuring his software (printers, screen preferences, etc…). Once we were done, Fred realized that he had been logged into the software as the wrong user. And we had to do all the work all over again. The next day Fred restored a backup of his data and overwrote all the changes I had made and we spent another hour configuring his software. Then three days later, Fred accidentally restored his data and we spent another 45 minutes configuring his software. The good news was that we were getting faster at configuring the software; the bad news was that we had to keep on doing it.

  On Tuesday Fred called because he wanted to go over the procedures for getting the data from the registers to his desktop computer and vice versa. We spent some time going over that and while we were talking I got some emails from another retail store customer who had a problem with getting the data from one of her registers. All in all I spent two hours on Tuesday helping retail store customers and while I like helping these people and I like getting the extra money and most of all I like the satisfaction I get from knowing a software program I hadn’t changed in more than seven years is still working like a Swiss watch I wasn’t feeling like I was on vacation.

  On Wednesday I had a relaxing day with no work related issues and after a nice Thanksgiving and uneventful Friday I did have a fairly relaxing vacation after all. On Saturday my vacation could be said to be technically over since I wouldn’t be working on the weekend anyway but on Saturday I made the time to visit one of my favorite places and headed to Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure for some coffee and coffeehouse chess with my friends Dan and Mike.

Dan Troxell and Mike Jeter, the Zanzibar's regulars!

  The last time I visited Zanzibar’s was the Saturday after Thanksgiving last year and I played poorly. Mike trapped by queen with a tricky tactic and I gave away a piece against Dan (luckily only after I had already won a piece). Between work and beagle walking I didn’t have much time for chess on my vacation but I did take breaks for bursts of one minute chess games on chess.com and the Internet Chess Club so I could be in good form for my visit to Zanzibar’s. I wanted to play well against Dan and Mike but there was also the chance that I could impress one of the many celebrities that frequent Zanzibar’s and get some extra Christmas money giving chess lessons or playing time odds blitz. Some people doubt I've really seen all the celebrities I claim to have seen at Zanzibar's but I have plenty of photographic evidence to back up my claims (you can see my past celebrity sightings here) so they can doubt all they want while I keep adding to my celebrity photo collection from Zanzibar's.


The $9.99 ‘Breakfast Eggstravaganza’ was
...well...Eggcellent!
  After taking Daisy and Baxter for their 4:30 am Saturday beef stick walk to the Jiffy, I hung around the house with the beagles and Harry the cockatiel until 7 when I started on the hour long drive to Zanzibar’s. I wanted to hit the ground running so I took along a can of AMP Focus Energy (my preferred energy beverage) and drank it on the way down.

  I arrived at Zanzibar’s at 8 but Mike and Dan weren’t there yet so I decided to have some breakfast. I ordered the top of the line ‘Breakfast Eggstravaganza’ which consists of two steamed eggs with cheese, two slices of toast, a small glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee. My favorite Ethiopian coffee wasn’t available so I ‘settled’ for Kenyan Dark Roast which was strong but not nearly as strong as the Ethiopian brew.

  Between the time I ordered and the time my food was ready, Mike came in. He ordered the ‘Breakfast Eggpress’ and we sat down to chat while waiting for our food to arrive. Just as our breakfast arrived, so did Dan. Dan set up the board and Mike and I ate our breakfast. My breakfast was pricey but very good. The eggs and cheese were melted together expertly and the toast and juice were perfect. My only quibble is that for $9.99 I would have liked a bottomless cup of coffee. Mike and I decided to play first and I drew the black pieces for what was my first time playing a long game since the Jackson Open in August.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net
  Except for losing his queen to a trap, Mike played pretty well and the game lasted almost an hour. I was happy with my play and the way I kept the game under control once I had the edge. During the game I recognized one of the diners that kept on walking back and forth checking out our game as Pat Boone. With the Iowa primaries less than 14 months away he was no doubt scouting the territory to determine which conservative candidate he was going to stump for. I told Pat that I got a number of his phone messages to urge me to vote for Joni Ernst for the Senate and asked him if he’d like to play a game of chess for a small wager. Like most of the celebrities that frequent Zanzibar’s, Pat values his anonymity and acted like I had him mistaken for someone else. He did say that that while he’d like to play chess, gambling was a sin and I should find someone else to gamble with. While we were talking I noticed that Pat had his gaze fixed at a table on the other side of the building and he muttered ‘What’s she doing here?’ I looked across the room and there was Hillary Clinton reading the paper! I was tempted to ask for an autograph but Dan wanted to play me so I settled for a picture, drew the Black pieces and started my second game of the day.

Pat Boone and Hillary Clinton were as far apart in Zanzibar's as their political views as they each try to scout out Iowa in advance of the upcoming primaries...

This game took around 45 minutes and except for Dan losing a rook at the end it could have gone on for another hour. Dan had to bring his daughter to work so Mike and I loaded up on another cup of Kenyan Dark Roast and had a rematch with me having the White pieces this time.


  This was another hour long game and I think I made it a lot harder on myself by using my queen too much. Pat and Hillary were long since gone and it seemed that the Hollywood crowd had taken over Zanzibar’s. I spotted Ben Affleck at a nearby table. I would like to have played the future Batman in a game of chess but Affleck is more of a poker player (as you can see from this article). Mike asked me if I had ever seen the ‘Hunger Games’ movies. I told him I hadn’t and he told me the star of the movies was Jennifer Lawrence and she was standing at the counter. I took a quick picture and wondered how many celebrities were at Zanzibar’s that I failed to recognize because I’m so out of touch with modern ‘culture’. Hoping to spark some chess interest among the breakfasting ‘Who’s Who’ I played Mike 4 games at the time odds of 1 minute to 10 minutes. We split the four games and the banging of the pieces and slamming of the clocks drew quite a bit of attention and some people even took pictures but we couldn’t entice anyone to join us. I can only assume they were too busy reading scripts for upcoming film and television projects.

Mike spotted Jennifer Lawrence while I was able to snap a close up picture of Ben Affleck (who looks much younger in person).
Meanwhile, Mike and I attracted a crowd of picture takers playing time odds blitz. Maybe they mistook us for celebrities...

  Once Mike and I were done playing speed chess it was time for me to get back home so I said good bye to Mike and Zanzibar’s until my next visit. Looking at all three long games I thought I could have been more aggressive but I never left myself open to any shots and never in danger of losing any of the games so I think I played pretty well in the chess department but before my next visit I’ll have to study the Weekly World News and Midnight Globe to brush up on my celebrity spotting.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

For the Birds


Mr. Feathers 2007-2014
  As you may have read in Daisy and Baxter’s last post our cockatiel Mr. Feathers met an untimely end three weeks ago. Every morning after my walk with the beagles, I would let Mr. Feathers and his cockatiel companion Harry out of their cage at 5am after closing off the living and dining room and clearing the room of Sneezy the cat. I would work on my computer while Daisy and Baxter slept and the birds enjoy a bit of freedom. When it’s time for me to go to work Kathy would take over pet sitting duties until 9am when the birds go back in their cage and Daisy and Baxter go for their morning walk.

  Harry and Mr. Feathers would get startled by a random noise and at times go for a fly around the two rooms, landing on the tops of door and window trim and picking at the wallpaper before being ushered back to the perch on top of their cage. A few times one of the cockatiels would miss their mark and land on the floor or some furniture. This would go unnoticed for the most part by the sleeping beagles. There were rare times when Daisy or Baxter took notice and lunged at the feathered intruders but the beagles invariably proved to be too slow and were met with a swift spank and scolding.

  That all changed two weeks ago when Daisy caught Mr. Feathers with a glancing bite. Mr. Feathers had a small wound on his back and it’s impossible to say if the bite or the shock killed him but he was gone in a few minutes. I was at work and Kathy called me to let me know. Daisy knew she had done something unspeakably wrong and was shivering uncontrollably after the events. Mr. Feathers hadn't been looking too well for a long time. His feathers in the back of his head had fallen out and he was looking pretty raggedy. Whatever was bothering him couldn't have been environmental since Harry looked great. It's entirely possible that Mr. Feathers was already sick and that kept him from eluding Daisy when she snapped at him.

  When you have pets you are going to outlive most of them but this was our first sudden death since Tippy the cat grabbed Matt’s pet mouse Brownie out of his hand and shook it around like a cat toy almost a decade ago. It is a gruesome reminder of the fierce nature of normally docile and pampered creatures.


Harry
  Harry and Mr. Feathers were given to us seven years ago when a co-worker’s child had a child and the noisy nature of the cockatiels kept waking the baby up. I like watching birds from a distance and enjoy watching sparrows flocking around a bird feeder or seeing the ducks and geese at the pond in the nearby cemetery but Kathy and I are no strangers to house birds. A few years ago during a dog walk Kathy and I came upon an little green parrot laying on the ground. He had an injured wing and couldn't fly. We took him home and named him Lucky because he was lucky a cat didn't find him before we did. We got Lucky to a vet who set his broken wing and we put him in a spare cage in the basement to rest up. Lucky was almost all healed when his owners (who he had flown away from) called us. They had been canvassing the local vets and the one we brought Lucky to gave them our phone number. The people seemed nice enough and paid the vet bill and took Lucky home with them where he resumed his previous life and name (which I forget)

  Kathy and I had parakeets for a number of years ever since Kathy bought a pair in New Jersey to celebrate her first paycheck at a new job. We named those two Peep and Scratch. They were pleasant enough birds and Peep was my favorite non-beagle pet more for her attitude than any other qualities. Kathy was visiting her relatives and I came home from work to find that our cat Biscuit had knocked over the bird cage even though the cage was secured to a bookshelf. There was birdseed and birdcage pieces all over the floor but no birds. I was ready to pull the parakeets out of Biscuit via her throat when I saw the birds huddled on a door sill well out of reach of the cat.

  I got the birds situated back in their cage and noticed that Peep was standing on one leg like a stork. I looked further and saw that her leg looked like it was broken. I locked the cat in the bathroom and took Peep to an all-night animal clinic where they pulled all the feathers off her leg and set her leg with a tiny splint. I took Peep home and she never let the fact that she had a broken leg stop her. She used her one good leg and her beak to pull herself wherever she needed to go. Years later we had another parakeet that broke its leg but instead of clawing its way around like Peep this parakeet laid on the bottom of the cage and died within two days. Peep went on to live many more years and out lived Scratch and two of the other three companions we got for her. She even started laying eggs but none of them ever hatched. Peep the parakeet showed me that if you want something you have to work for it – she wanted to live and a broken leg wasn’t going to stop her from doing whatever she needed to do to survive.

Do birds mate for life? Do people?

  When Scratch died it seemed natural to get Peep a friend to hang out with but as I mentioned her companions were short-lived. When Peep passed away we had a green parakeet named Chip and we naturally got him a friend to hang out with. This all worked out well and good except Chip’s new friend was the aggressive sort and I think he killed Chip and certainly maimed his next friend (the aforementioned parakeet with the broken leg). The last parakeet lived out his days in his cage in solitary confinement fashion and was not replaced until we were given these two cockatiels and now one of them is gone and we face the same dilemma over whether to get him a friend to hang around with.

  The cockatiels were never quiet and Harry was exceptionally noisy in the weeks since Mr. Feathers passing. I don’t know if he’s waiting for his friend to respond of if he’s calling for company or maybe he is just as noisy as he always been and I’m projecting some sort of grief stricken response that I’d expect an animal to have. The cockatiels have never had eggs and I don’t even know if they were the same sex or not. Most people assume birds mate for life and I wonder if birds think humans mate for life.

  When my beagle Queenie passed away in 2010 at the age of 16 her 14 year old son Tuffy died three weeks later and I’ll always think it was because he missed his mom. If I thought Harry was going to die of loneliness I’d get him another cockatiel right away but that would be the only reason. I told Kathy that is we got a young cockatiel to be a friend for Harry we were probably committing ourselves to having cockatiels for the rest of our lives since once Harry passed away we would have to get his companion a companion, etc., etc. etc….

  In the internet age there is plenty of information to be found about what happens to a cockatiel when his friend dies. While there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on whether cockatiels mate for life, they are very social birds who can become very fond of their cage-mates. It also seems that introducing a new cockatiel is an arduous process involving a 30 to 90 day quarantine, and then separate playtime, then common playtime, and even then the two birds may decide they don’t like each other and you have two cages and no friend for the cockatiel.

Harry's taken an interest in current events and chess...

   Luckily there was another alternative – the cockatiel might bond close to a person instead of having to bond to another bird. This seems like the best of all worlds and since it would take months to even see if Harry would get along with another cockatiel that’s the route we decided to take. And it seems to have worked a little bit. Harry has taken an interest in current events and is perching on Kathy’s shoulder when she reads the paper and I think he’s taken an interest in chess since he has been looking at the ‘Chess Explained’ YouTube videos I’ve taken a liking to. Harry has quieted down considerably since the Mr. Feathers died but having said all that Kathy is starting to feel sorry for our sole cockatiel and I have the feeling a new cockatiel is in our and Harry’s future.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What is a Dynasty?

  Two weeks ago the San Francisco Giants won the World Series for the third time in the last five years when they beat the Kansas City Royals in seven games. This has led to a lot of talk about whether or not the Giants are a dynasty. Cliff Cocoran from Sports Illustrated wrote an article that makes a compelling case for calling them a dynasty and goes as far as to call their current run as being in the top ten runs of baseball success. New York sportscaster Mike Francesca thinks that a team can’t be called a dynasty unless they win back to back championships. I think ‘dynasty’ as applied to sports is something far too easily attached to a team by commentators to give themselves a ‘talking point’ and by sports fans so they can feel they are watching something special like the oxymoronic ‘Instant Classic’. I don’t believe the San Francisco Giants are a dynasty and in doing my research for this post I uncovered very few sports dynasties and one current team that is on the cusp of one.

  A dynasty is defined by many dictionaries including FreeDictionary.com as ‘A family or group that maintains power for several generations’. In sports I would see the team is the family or group and the generations are the different groups of players that win the championships. A core group of players winning a series of championships cannot be a dynasty because the championships don’t span generations – it is a great group of players surrounded by a capable supporting cast. My definition of a dynasty is a team that wins a string of championships with no single player involved in ALL the championships but with enough overlapping players that there isn’t a complete turnover of personnel from one championship to the next one.

  By my definition there have been few dynasties in professional sports. The Yankees won 20 championships between the 40 year span from 1923 to 1962, never going more than three years without a championship. The Yankees turned their core players over multiple times during that span but there was plenty of overlap. The Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig era transitioned to the Gehrig/Joe DiMaggio era which in turn transitioned to the Dimaggio/Bill Dickey/Tommy Henrich years and when Dimaggio neared the end of his playing career Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford were established stars with Mickey Mantle on the horizon. As a generation of stars faded out another generation had been groomed and ready to take their place. The Boston Red Sox have come close to a dynasty with their three championships during the period of 2004-2013 but there was one player (David Ortiz) who was on all three teams so I am happy to deny the filthy Red Sox a place on my dynasty list. The 1955-1965 Los Angeles Dodgers won four championships and are a team that I would consider a dynasty. The only player on all four World Series was the Hall of Fame left hander Sandy Koufax but Koufax was only on the 1955 team because the rules of the time dictated that players that received large signing bonuses had to stay on the major league team for two years ('the bonus baby rule'). Koufax played in 12 games for the 1955 Dodgers and did not appear in the World Series. In case you’re interested the San Francisco Giants have had eight players on their three championship teams so I can hardly see how they can be a dynasty.

  In the hockey world the Montreal Canadiens had a dynasty from 1953 to 1979, winning 14 Stanley Cups in that 27 year span. Much like the Yankees, the Canadiens had a rotation of superstars with each generation slowly giving way to the next group. Jean Béliveau and Maurice Richard led the way in the 1950’s, Béliveau and Yvan Cournoyer in the 60’s, and Cournoyer and Guy Lafluer in the 1970s. There have been other great hockey teams like the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders of the 1980s and the Detroit Red Wings of the 1990’s and 2000’s but they weren’t able to continue the championship tradition after their core players retired or left the team. There have been a number of NFL teams that won multiple Super Bowl Championships in a short time. The 1960’s Green Bay Packers won five championships in seven years, the 1970’s Steelers four Super Bowl championships in six years, the 1990’s Dallas Cowboys and 2000’s New England Patriots three in four years. These are all great teams and all had the same core group of players and maybe most importantly the same quarterback. The Washington Redskins won three Super Bowls from 1982-1991 with three different quarterbacks but they did have three players (Hall of Famers Russ Grimm and Art Monk and perennial All-Pro Joe Jacoby) on their championship teams and three Super Bowls in 10 years hardly seems dynastic. To my mind the only NFL dynasty was the San Francisco 49er’s run of five Super Bowls from 1981 to 1995. The entire team turned over with Joe Montana quarterbacking the first four title teams and Steve Young the last one after serving as backup on the previous two. Jerry Rice(The greatest receiver of all time) was present for the last three Super Bowls but the 49ers managed to win Super Bowls without him and even without the great Montana. This to me is the very definition of a dynasty when no one player or core group of players can be pointed to as the key to a team’s run of championships.

  The NBA has had one dynasty – the 1956-1976 Boston Celtics which won 13 championships in the 20 year span. The team’s legendary run of 11 championships in 13 years were all anchored by center Bill Russell who coached the last two championship teams as well as starred. When Russell retired in 1970 the team missed the playoffs the next two seasons but obtained Dave Cowens in the draft and were back winning the division by 1972 and were the 1974 and 1976 champions. The players that bridged the 1969 and 1974 teams were Hall of Famer John Havlicek and regulars Don Chaney and Don Nelson. I don't count the Celtics three championships from 1981 to 1986 as part of the dynasty because there are no players that bridge the 1976 and 1981 teams. Without the two post-Russell championships, I wouldn’t consider the Celtic run a dynasty – they would be like the Chicago Bulls run of six titles in eight years during the 1990s which was anchored Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Bulls were a great team but when Jordan and Pippen left the winning left also.

  I’ve talked to a few people about my idea of what a sports dynasty is and the consensus is that I’m old fashioned and that makes sense since I didn’t talk to anyone older than me. Someone told me that my idea of a dynasty is old-fashioned because by my definition there hasn’t been a dynasty in 20 years. That’s true but to my mind a dynasty should be a rare occurrence. If the Yankees had been able to properly rebuild to championship contender status during the end of the Jeter/Rivera era they could have created a new dynasty go along with the one they had over 50 years ago but that chance has been squandered and that team will be remembered like the current Giants – a great team that had a great run.

  Sports leagues have consistently changed the rules to prevent teams from stockpiling talent or even keep the talent they develop. Revenue sharing and salary caps either prevent teams from signing multiple superstars or make it cost-prohibitive to do so. Baseball teams can’t trade for other teams draft picks to stockpile young players and the NBA prohibits teams from trading their top draft pick in consecutive years. This doesn’t just hurt big market teams – last year’s NFL champion Seattle Seahawks built a deep roster of talented young but had to let many of them go in the off season because they couldn’t afford to give them all raises and stay under the salary cap. Even if the current American League champion Kansas City Royals had the money to pay their talented group of players once they become eligible for free agency they wouldn't be able to afford the accompanying luxury tax. A modern day dynasty can’t be built by outspending the competition or being able to identify and develop talented players. Only by being consistently better than the competition in the areas of drafting and player development and convincing players to take less money than they could get elsewhere can a dynasty be created in the current sports climate. The San Francisco Giants have shown they are an intelligent organization and they may well be able to replenish their core and keep winning championships and if so I’ll be the first to agree that they have become a dynasty but for now I’m keeping my eye on another potential dynasty in San Antonio where the NBA’s Spurs have won five championships in the 15 year span from 1999 to last year. Tim Duncan is the only player to have been on all the Spurs championship teams and is nearing the end of his career. The Spurs have proven they are well ahead of the curve. They were one of the first teams to successfully draft and develop European players. Last year none of their players averaged more than 30 minutes a game and were fresh for the playoffs and now other teams are following suit by managing minutes and giving key players games off to not only rest their players but to give their backup players a chance to develop and be ready to contribute if called upon. When Duncan is gone, the Spurs will still have top players like all-star point guard Tony Parker and last year’s finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and with the NBA salary cap poised to increase significantly due to the massive TV contract the league just signed the Spurs may be able to attract one or two top flight free agents and become the next sports dynasty.