Friday, January 29, 2010

One Week In

  I started my new job on Monday and so far it is going well. At a new job you spend a lot of time meeting people whose names you don’t remember the next time you see them and it is all very awkward. The work is challenging and complex, but well within my capabilities.

  Since everything is new, I have noticed the things that make the greatest difference between old and new jobs are the most commonplace. One great new thing is that there is free coffee. The last place had a coffee vending machine. After losing 55 cents 3 straight days, I started bringing in the Folger’s coffee packets. That makes a good cup of coffee but it takes 2 or 3 minutes to heat the water and then another couple of minutes to let the coffee bag steep. When you want coffee, you want it NOW!! Another nicety is that there aren’t multiple urinals all crowded next to each other with no dividers. It’s never much fun to have some overweight guy belly up next to you and start crowding for some leg room. And then there is the guy who wants to start a conversation. My standard answer to these fellows was “I’ve never been in a submarine, but I think I now know the feeling.” Before I make it sound like the old place was all bad, I need to point out that the restroom in Washington Square Park in New York City (where I used to go play chess against the hustlers for money) has no dividers of any kind and as a bonus, there are homeless people using the sinks to wash their only set of clothes.

  A down side is that I only have one computer monitor to work on. If I had been told that 2 years ago I’d have been playing the violin for the whiner, but now that I have had the pleasure of having 2 monitors at my last job I know it made me much more productive. Getting used to a new keyboard is also a challenge. My new keyboard has the page up, page down, and delete keys in a vertical row next to the number keys and the home, end, and insert keys on the row with the ‘F’ keys. Every time I try to insert something I end up turning off the number lock and when I go to delete something, I go down a page.

  Most memorable quote of the week at the new job: “The old CEO would let you watch porn on your computer as long as the work got done!” I never met the old CEO, but I’m guessing it was not a woman.

    Progress on resolutions as of 1/28/2010

Pushups : 780 (out of 8000)
Stationary Bike 52.1 (out of 525)
Blogs : 9 (out of 104)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hail to the King

2010 Iowa High School Chess Champion Matt Anzis

  This past weekend I directed the Iowa High School chess championship in Marshalltown at the Salvation Army. There were 13 players representing 5 towns. My son Matt won the event outright for the second year in a row after tying for first as a freshman 2 years ago. The championship allows Matt to represent Iowa in the national tournament of high school champions this August in California. He finished 14th last year. Since the top ranked Iowa high school player, freshmen Aquino Inigo of Waterloo did not participate, Matt was far and away the favorite since he was 4 rating classes above the next highest rated player. This was a departure from the last 2 years when Matt was seeded second behind Iowa City’s Dan Brashaw and could look forward to being the hunter instead of the hunted. I’m always proud of Matt and was happy to see him win. The other Marshalltown players also played very well. I think our weekly 10 minute tournaments has helped to toughen them up for out of town competition.

  It bothers me to direct a scholastic tournament when one of my children is participating. I am concerned that the other parents and coaches will feel as if I am playing favorites. I remember at one scholastic team tournament, a team mom was constantly standing in between me and my computer. The stated reason was to learn how to use the computer software, but we both knew she wanted to see if I was going to mess around with the pairings to give the team I coach an advantage. Happily, there were no such problems in this tournament.

  In a way, there was a certain amount of favoritism for my son. Last year’s tournament was held in conjunction with a K-12 tournament and there were a bunch of little kids running around Matt’s games. When it started to look like this year’s tournament was going to have a similar setup, I volunteered to host the tournament in order to assure a quiet place to play. My thinking was, the better the playing conditions, the more comfortable Matt would be and the better he would play. I don't think I'd try to make it more noisy if he had a rival that was noise sensitive, though.

  Link to the Iowa Chess web site article
  Pictures of the participants

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Corus Chess in Wijk Aan Zee, Denmark

  The Corus Chess tournament in Holland annually invites the top chess players in the world to play in a 14 player all-play-all tournament. Since the tournament is in Denmark, some of the top Danish players are also invited to get valuable experience against top-notch competition. This year’s field includes current World Champion Viswasnathan Anand, former World Champion Vladimir Krammnik, the world’s number one ranked player Magnus Carlsen, former world champion finalists Nigel Short, Alexei Shirov, and Peter Leko, as well as the national champions of the USA (Hikaru Nakamura), Ukraine(Sergey Karjakin), Cuba (Leinier Dominguez), and Italy (Fabiano Caruana).

  After 6 rounds of the tournament, 6th seed Shirov has played 5 of the bottom 6 seeded players and has a record of 5 wins and 1 draw. Only Ivanchuk has played so many of the bottom feeders and he has 2 wins and 4 draws. None of the other players has more than 2 wins. I expect there to be a lot of catch-up from the top seeds as they also get to play the lower rated players and also try to gain a full point against Shirov when they meet. Shirov could try to make draws with the top seeds, but in an invitational tournament, he would run the risk of not being invited back if he doesn’t exhibit fighting chess. You can see live games here.

  Weekend Update: After losing to Nakamura on Saturday, Shirov drew Carlsen and now stands at 5 wins and 1 loss (+4). Carlsen and Krammnik are 1 win behind at 3 wins and no losses so it looks as if Krammnik's games between Carlsen and Shirov should decide the tournament.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Into the mist

  I finished my 2 year stint working in town today. It was a semi nerve-wracking 3 weeks as I was trying to wrap up 2 projects but in the end had to turn them over to my fellow programmers in a finished but untested state. The projects were complete but not tested. According to Murphy’s dictates, some changes were needed during the last week. I got an unspoken vibe that I should have anticipated that the changes would have been needed sooner or later. Since I had some practice 2 years ago leaving my job, it was much easier this time to let the projects and their inevitable problems go on to the next person. Just like when Jesus said “The poor will always be with you”, software will always have bugs, miscalculations and unforeseeable changes in needs. If you have software that never needs changes, no one is using it.

  I’m looking forward to my new job. I got my last job because a programmer I supervised (and who left on strained terms) went to the same chess tournament that my wife took my son to in December of 2007. It was the last tournament he went to and got me in contact with the recruiting company that got me the job. Then the events of this year (pay cuts, layoffs) led me to look for a job and lo and behold, this one appeared for me. Serendipity or the hand of God, it is almost as if I have been led to this point.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A diverse problem

  Miller Middle School in Marshalltown, IA was marked by the US Department of Education as a persistently low achieving school. Here is a link to the article. More than a third of the students are not proficient in math and reading as judged by the Iowa Test of Basic Schools. Miller is one of 35 schools in the state listed as a low performing school.

  Marshalltown’s school superintendent Marvin Wade made the following 2 comments about the listing:
    “They didn't take into consideration poverty level and diversity, just student achievement”.
    “We will work for student achievement to improve but at the same time we are committed to develop the total child”.

  Disturbing comments, in my opinion. What role does diversity have in children not being proficient in reading and math? Would the scores be better if the school was less diverse? Or would the superintendant not have a ready excuse? I can relate to the ‘develop the total child’ talk. Maybe the sign welcoming visitors to Marshalltown can say, “Welcome to Marshalltown, home of well developed children who can’t read, write, or add”.

Friday, January 15, 2010

An Unchallenged Mark

  On Wednesday the Los Angeles Lakers lost their 9th game of the year to the Spurs. They have won 30 games. The Lakers are the last team in the NBA with less than 10 losses. When the Lakers were 18-3 in December, there was talk about them challenging the NBA’s best ever record set by the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls at 72-10. I thought at the time that the Bulls record was going to be an enduring achievement and so far I’ve been right. It is rare for a team to have less than 10 losses by the halfway point in any season. That doesn’t stop the pundits from declaring the team off to the quickest start as a contender to break the record. The Bulls had 7 wins for every loss. As fast as the Lakers started, they needed to win 3 more games to match the Bulls pace. When they lost their next game to go 18-4, they were 10 games behind the pace. It is a brutal pace to maintain much less overtake.

  The Bulls were a driven team in the 1995-96 season. Michael Jordan came out of a 2 year retirement the previous season and looked slow and out of shape in losing to the Orlando Magic in the playoffs and was driven to take his failure out on the rest of the league. The Bulls had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in supporting roles, so they had the best player and the best talent in the league, but many other talented teams were not been able to come to play every game like that Bulls team. The next best NBA record is 69-13 (twice). That is less than 5 and a half wins per loss. Most NBA teams see 1 to 3 teams with 60+ wins. These teams invariably lose games to less talented teams at the end of long road trips or on the second day of back to back games. But that Bulls team put those considerations out of mind and achieved excellence for the ages.

  While the best NBA regular season record is safe for another year, the mark for the worst record ever is very much in play. The New Jersey Nets are 3-36 and have 12 losses for every win. The record (9-73 by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers) is only 8+ loses per win. This means the Nets could suffer an accidental loss and still stay behind the pace. Only an accidental winning streak can keep them from destiny.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Truth was not an option for Mark McGwire

  Today, Mark McGwire admitted he used steroids during his remarkable comeback from injuries in the early 1990’s to become the first player to hit over 70 homers. In 2005, McGwire refused to discuss his steroid use before Congress, saying “I’m not here to discuss the past”. Today he says that he couldn’t tell the truth then because he was not granted immunity. Facing the consequences of his actions was not an option, I guess.

  McGwire says that he only took steroids to make his body feel better and that it didn’t help his performance. Right!!! Being able to play and workout without aches and pains or back and foot injuries wouldn’t help any player’s performance. Never mind the added muscle and improved eyesight that come with steroid use.

  In his written statement, McGwire said “Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.” Nonsense. McGwire couldn’t stand the end of his career and used illegal means to prolong it. He denied using steroids during his career even when writers found a bottle of andro in his locker (andro was legal at the time). There is no doubt in my mind that if McGwire had played baseball in a different era, he would have found another way to cheat. If he was a cab driver, he would have been driving tourists all around town to steal an extra few dollars. If he was a politician, he’d have been taking kickbacks. If he was a mailman, he’d be stealing valuable packages instead of delivering then. Mark McGwire has proven he will take the easy way out and taking steroids was the easiest way to prolong his career. I imagine he never expected to become a home run king and that his own fame would bring more scrutiny that he could bear.

  McGwire made a fortune by cheating. He stood up and took the accolades for breaking Roger Maris’s home run record. He cheated all the players in the history of baseball who didn’t take steroids. He cheated all the fans that paid to watch him hit home runs by cheating. He cheated the Barry Bonds of the world who cheated so they could compete against cheaters like Mark McGwire. He cheated all the young players who took steroids so they could be successful like Mark McGwire.

  My big question is why is McGwire coming clean now? He is going to be the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals this year and probably doesn’t want to be pestered with questions all year. Also, it has become apparent that he is not currently going to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

  Would I vote for Mark McGwire for the Hall of Fame? Sure! After every player in the history of the game who didn’t cheat is in the Hall of Fame, I’d be happy to consider his application.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Becoming a ghost

On Tuesday, I told the recruiting company and the company I work that I had a new job and would be leaving. There was some talk to determine my motives but no serious counter-offer. It was interesting watching the social network of the workplace in motion. I told my supervisor in person at 6:30 and my recruiter by e-mail at 7:00. I told no one else in case I was going to be made ‘an offer I couldn’t refuse’ and also to let my employers frame my leaving as they thought appropriate. Some companies like to play ‘truck’ with employee departures, as in ‘Get out now. We’ll treat you as if you got hit by a truck’. Talking to or making eye contact with some of my co-workers later that afternoon and Wednesday, I could tell that they knew, but no one wanted to mention it to me. On Thursday, I asked a couple of co-workers if they’d heard and they had. On Friday was a formal announcement was made. A few people wished me well, but you could feel the subtle shift of not talking about future projects because there are no future projects for me. It is as if I’ve become a ghost, with presence but not really there.

2010 Resolutions Progress as of 1/8/2010
Stationary bicycle 14 miles (511 miles to go)
Pushups - 240 (7760 to go)
Blogs - 2 (98 to go)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Redefining Permanency

  I started my current job 2 years ago. I had held my previous job for 13 years until my owner decided to sell his company to a millionaire from Indianapolis. The millionaire had a lot of other companies and programmers that supported all of them. My role had shifted from writing the software that my company sold to documenting the features of the software I was no longer writing so the new programmers could rewrite the software in Indianapolis. I felt that my job would be finished with the documentation, so I started looking for a new job. The workforce had changed a lot in 13 years. There were very few full time programming jobs available. I also found out I'm no longer a programmer, but a software developer...sniff. The job market is almost exclusively temporary, or contract work. Contract work is problematic because you do not deal with the hiring companies directly; you have to go through a layer of recruiting companies. These companies submit you for consideration to the hiring companies. To my experience, the recruiters are not especially technically savvy and are only looking for skills and years of experience. You are basically a piece of meat.

  I was lucky enough to be hired on a 2 year contract by a company in town. Since I drove 110 miles round trip to my last job, it was a pleasant change. There is a lot of pressure being on a contract. Some permanent employees you work with assume you are being paid top dollar (or at least more than them) and there can be some resentment (‘that’s why you get paid the big bucks!!!’ or ‘you’re getting paid to figure this out, not to ask me to do it’, etc...), although at my current job everyone has been very helpful. The top-dollar part is only half right. The hiring company pays top dollar for my services, but the recruiting company keeps a large part of that for their role as middleman. It is even worse for some of my co-workers that are in the US on work visas. They have to get their job through an agent who also takes a cut of their pay after the recruiting company gets theirs. My contract was through one of the best recruiting companies, Robert Half. They pay for 6 holidays a year as long as you work 3 days that week and even give a weeks’ pay after you work 1800 hours. But there are down sides. The company I work for has a lot of days they are closed that I don’t get work or get paid for (Good Friday, Day after Thanksgiving, and a 7 day winter shutdown). A day off for sickness or leisure is a day off from getting paid. The recruiting company had a health insurance plan, but even the recruiters told me not to use it and buy my own (no pre-tax savings). Most of the other recruiting companies offer even less benefits. The hiring company pays top dollar for their employees, but there are also no benefits to pay, less HR staff to keep, and if economic conditions change, the contract employees are disposable. In July, the company I work for cut their payment to the recruiting company and the recruiting company cut their payment to me. It bothered me that while I never thought of asking to renegotiate my contract in the middle of it, it was renegotiated for me unilaterally. We were told that it was a win-win situation because we all kept our jobs, but in September, 3 of the 6 in my group got laid off (no, we did not get our pay cuts back). I still had my job, but since I’d rather play chess than 'survivor', it was back to the job hunt again...

  This time, my job hunt was very fruitful and after a month I was offered a full time position with benefits which I accepted. I’ll be back to making a 120 mile commute, but I’ve already found a ride share to help ease the expenses. I expect this will be my last job ever, but I also expected that about my last 2 jobs...