Sunday, February 28, 2010

Kicked to the curb and swept under the rug

  The saga of Marshalltown’s underperforming Miller Middle School has been concluded with the announced early retirement of Principal Brad Clement. Based on my experiences with my 2 sons at the school, I think Mr. Clement is everything I would want for the principal at the school my children go to. There is one elementary school in town that I wouldn't send my dog to. Clement was classy to the end, not placing any blame and praising the quality of the school staff in a local newpaper interview. “Clement said the option of letting go of half of the staff would be devastating to the school. ‘I personally think that would be something that would be hurtful to students and families because we have a quality staff,’ Clement said.” I would have to think the teachers need to bear a large brunt of the blame for a school underperforming. While the principal is the leader of the school, they don’t have the hiring and firing power of the heads of similarly sized businesses.

  By retiring, Clement takes the heat off the the School Board by allowing them to choose the least disruptive option of replacing the principal and changing the curriculum. I think that the school board was going to make that decision anyway based on the the comments by Supertindent Wade in a
T-R article on the 16th. “Wade said that Miller Principal Brad Clement should not be the fall guy in this situation. He said the district is not saying the testing results are Clement's fault. ‘To hang this on the head of a principal is a tough pill to swallow,’ Wade said." When you are told not to worry, start worrying.

  I must not have been very attentive to this issue because except for Superintendent Wade’s veiled racial references, I’ve missed the discussion and conclusions of the Superintendent, school board, principal, and teachers as to why the school has been placed on the list on underperforming schools to begin with. As the 12-step programs say, you can’t solve the problem until you admit you have one. The school board’s approach has been to pick the mandated ‘correction’ that causes the least disruption, not to determine causes and solutions. Clement is the fall guy who is kicked to the curb and the actual problem is swept under the rug and not solved, but on the positive side we can all feel good that action has been taken.

  I took a college calculus class where the school was being graded on a test the calc students would take at the end of the semester. The instructor was very forthright in letting us know that the class was going to be geared to having us do well on this test, and if we happened to learn a little calculus, so much the better. I expect a similar approach at Miller Middle School.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

May I have my reward, please?

  I have a Staples reward card. I get a few pennies back for every purchase I make at Staples. It is a free promotion and seemed like a good deal at the time. Most of merchandise that Staples sells is more expensive that Wal-Mart or Amazon, but their print shop gives excellent service and sometimes they have some very good specials and close-outs. I almost bought a computer for our church’s raffle prize last year, but as soon as I told the clerk what computer I wanted, he explained to me that the computer was really just a piece of junk that HP wouldn’t stand behind and I would be well advised to purchase the extended 3 year warranty directly from Staples. I thanked the clerk and got the same computer on-line for less money and only a 1 year warranty.

  Last Friday after I drove home 60 miles in the snowstorm, I stopped in the Staples on the way home. My mouse and flash drive were both going bad and I wanted new ones. It is extremely frustrating to be winning a game of chess on the Internet only to lose on time because your mouse quit working. I found a Microsoft wireless mouse and a SanDisk Flash drive for $15 each. Both were the same models I had and I was delighted at the good price. When I got to the checkout, I remembered that I had received a statement saying that I had $13 in Staples rewards a few weeks ago. I asked the clerk if I could use it and she said that I’d have to being in the statement. I went to the manager and was told the same story. I asked what would happen if I couldn’t find the statement (they expire after awhile) and was told I could print a new one off the Internet. I asked if I could print it at the store as long as I was there and was told the store did not have Internet access. Right.....I told the manager that I wish Staples would make it as easy for me to use my rewards as it did for me to spend my money. I did not feel like driving across town and back to find the statement and paid for the merchandise with a credit card and will accumulate more rewards I’ll probably never use.

  A new type of reward is President Obama’s rebates for buying new energy efficient appliances. It reminds me of the cash for clunkers. I didn’t think too much of that program. I owned a Chevy Aveo (30mpg) and it wasn’t inefficient enough to be a clunker. Previously, I had owned 2 Geo Metros (45mpg) and a Chevy Cavalier(30mpg). Instead of being rewarded for consistently helping the environment with my automobile choices, I’ve gotten to watch the SUV crowd reap the rewards for temporarily setting aside their gas-guzzling ways. Do you really think when they get a little money or credit that they won’t trade in their efficient car for the current incarnation of the Hummer? Rewarding poor behavior only teaches people that poor behavior gets a reward. The more Iran is offered to stop their enrichment of uranium, the more they know they will be offered if they continue the enrichment.

  I’d like to see taxes on tobacco products settlements from the tobacco company lawsuits go directly to people who don’t smoke. If you are a smoker and want some extra cash, just quit smoking you will start getting checks. We could fund all the non-smokers retirement accounts with the cash. Every deposit would be held for 5 years to make sure we haven’t just stopped smoking for a few months to get some cash. There could even be a bonus for people who have never smoked. This is the right way to legislate behavior if one insists on doing so.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The biggest loser revisited

  Since I last blogged about the Nets quest for the all time NBA futility mark (held by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers at 9-73), they have picked up the pace and have gone 2-13 in their last 15 games to build their current record to 5-49. If they can win tonight's game at home against the Memphis Grizzlies, they will be percentage points ahead of the pace. Given that a lot of teams in the last month of a long season will be less motivated than the Net's quest to avoid history, I think the Nets will get to 10 wins and only be a very bad team and not the worst team ever.

  What I find interesting is not that the Nets are this bad (there are always some bad teams), but that this year's NBA has so few awful teams. The hallmark of bad NBA teams is 60 losses and many years there are at least 3 teams at that level. This year only the Nets and possibly the Minnesota Timberwolves are on the pace. Most bad teams play better at the end of the year as the players and coaches are trying to get next year's contract out of an otherwise dismal year.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Thin Black Line

  Today marked 4 weeks on the new job and also the first day I had to drive in the snow. I covered the 57 miles at around 45 miles an hour. Even though it was snowing, the cars in front of me left 2 black lines in the road to follow. As long as I stayed in the lines left for me, I was able to drive fairly fast without sliding around.

  In many of the chess games I play I get in a bad position and I have to make a series of moves that don’t lose from many attractive alternatives. Meanwhile, my opponent also has to find a series of moves that keep the pressure on me. It is the chess version of the thin black line. I played 2 games yesterday that followed that path. In the first against Matt Kriegel form Tama, after some passive play on my part, Matt built up a promising king side attack and I had to find many moves to keep him from attacking. Eventually, Matt lost the thread of his attack and then lost the game. Next I played my personal gadfly, Jaleb Jay. I played aggressively and built up a promising position, but missed the only move to win the game and was fortunate to hold the draw. Matt Kriegel lost his way on the black line and slid into the ditch. I lost my way against Jaleb but was able to correct my course before I followed Matt into the ditch.

  I saw Tiger Wood’s speech today. He went way off the thin black line and his line was a lot clearer than Matt’s or mine in our chess tournament. He seemed very wooden to me, but it may have been because he was so uncomfortable talking about this even in the cocoon like environment he surrounded himself with. I’m going to give him credit for wanting to save his marriage and get help for his sex addiction, although I’m not sure how you cure a sex addiction. If you have a drug addiction, you have to give up drugs. If you have a drinking or gambling addiction, you give up drinking or gambling. But Tiger is still married. Will he be celibate? Maybe it’s like a shoplifting addiction where you can still go shopping.

2010 Resolution Progress
Push ups - 1410 (out of 8000)
Stationary Bike (94.6 miles) out of 525
Blogs - 15 (out of 104)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

An unvalued customer (Once bit, Twice shy)

  I’ve used Turbo Tax by Intuit to do my taxes for 4 years now. I’m very happy with the product. I’ve found it to be dependable and so far I haven’t been audited. The feature I like the best is that it will use the previous year’s return as the basis of the current year’s return. If you haven’t had any major life changes, you just need to change the numbers and you are on your way. The only thing I don’t like is that you have to buy the software every year but as we say in New Jersey “everybody gotta eat”. The software normally goes on sale closer to tax time so it doesn’t cost as much if you wait.

  3 years ago I signed up to get the next year’s Turbo Tax shipped to me directly from Intuit. I got it the next January for 39.95 (less than the store price). But last year Intuit billed me for the full price of $59.95. I called them to ask and I was told that it was the retail price and that I should be happy to be getting so early. I didn’t feel I would get anywhere with the service rep and so after pointing out that I would really be happy if the extra $20 was in my pocket instead of Intuit’s and that Intuit didn’t have to work for my business, I removed myself from the auto renewal program. Sure enough, I received an ad today from Amazon that Turbo Tax is on sale for very close to $40. Good for them and good for me, but some of the cash that was going into Intuit’s pocket will now go to Amazon.

  I was also signed up for the auto-renewal of Norton Anti-Virus for the computers in the house. I started buying this product when it came free with a computer I bought and I got a good deal on my initial purchase. I got an e-mail reminder and called them to ask what the price would be. Eerily, the price was $59.95, up from $39.95 last year. I asked for a discount and when rebuffed, I removed myself from the auto-renewal offer and switched to Kapersky Anti-Virus for $39.95. (on the advice of my son Ben, a real computer aficionado). I’m not nearly as fond of Norton as I am of Turbo Tax. I agree that “everybody gotta eat”, but twenty bucks looks better in my pocket than these software companies. It would be nice if these companies would be as agressive about keeping my business as they were getting it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Movie Review – From Paris With Love

  I went to see this movie last week. It was billed as an action movie with John Travolta as a nut job CIA agent. It has been mostly panned by the movie critics. The movie details US Embassy assistant James Reese’s (played by Rhys Myers) first field mission as a CIA wannabee. He is originally slated to be the driver for top agent Charlie Wax (Travolta). Charlie Wax’s methods appear to be crazy, but at most every turn the method to his madness is shown to be sound. The few breaks in the action deal with Reese initial incredulity with Wax’s methods not meeting his expectations of how a spy should act and the eventual plot turns that lead to the realization that Reese himself was set up to be the unwitting accomplice of a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy. The movie has a snappy ending and everything is wrapped up neatly.

  Other that the gratuitous use of the F-word, I liked this movie a lot. It was non-stop action as advertised and managed to be cerebral in parts without resorting to the meaning of life platitudes of Edge of Darkness. When I watch a movie at the theater instead of going the Redbox route, I want to see more sound and fury on the big screen than I can see on the home TV. This movie delivered more than I could expect on that count.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Defending Jeremy

  My friend Jeremy Madison is an recent graduate of the U of Iowa in mathematics and anthropology and a fine chess player. He has a chess blog and in September challenged the viewers of the site to play a vote chess game against him. Jeremy allowed the viewers 3 days to vote and then he would make the move the next day. In my opinion, this was a big handicap for Jeremy. He should have allowed himself more than 1 day to consider his move. I've played Jeremy twice under tournament conditions. The first time in 2005, we played a very complicated game which was spoiled when I allowed a mate in one. In 2006 Jeremy was beating me badly until I managed to scrape a draw in the endgame. Here is the 2006 game:


  Dogged defense save a half a point. The same happened in the vote chess game:

  Chess against Jeremy is always tough, but it is fun knowing you can feel good just by getting a draw.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Movie Review - Edge of Darkness

  I went to see this movie last Friday. Mel Gibson plays a Boston detective whose daughter comes home for a rare visit and gets killed. The plot of the movie revolves around his quest to find who killed his daughter and why. Gibson finds out so much about his daughter he didn't know, I wonder if his constant flashback memories of the two of the were made up. My son liked the intrigue, but I thought there was way too much intrigue and not enough action. I know that Gibson is too old to be an action hero, but he still had a gun and a car for the entire movie. There are a lot of shady characters in the movie, but it seems every time Gibson meets one, they have a discussion rather than a fight. There is one vaguely English spy type who only talks in riddles and has one of his cerebral confrontations with Gibson over a glass of Scotch. Gibson doesn’t drink his Scotch, though (that will show the Limey spy).

  The ultimate bad guy is well played by Danny Huston and the story moves along at a good pace. The violent episodes seem extra jarring since they tend to follow grand pontifications of the protagonists. One thing I didn’t like was the overuse of the ‘F’ word. Since there is no sex or nudity and very little violence, having all the characters dropping the ‘F’ bomb is strangely out of place. Despite the trailer making the movie look a lot like 'Taken', be warned that this is not an action movie.

  The best line of the movie : "You had better decide whether you're hangin' on the cross... or bangin' in the nails."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Marshalltown, meet Big Brother

  Today's newspaper had a disturbing article. The Marshalltown City Council is thinking about installing automated traffic enforcement systems in town. You can read the article here. Reflex Traffic Systems will install the systems at 3 or 4 places around town and also possibly have a movable system to be placed anywhere in town.

  I'm not pro-speeding, but there were a couple of disturbing points in the article. A traffic ticket 12 mph over the speed limit costs $65 dollars. Reflex will take $48 of that. Don Nelson of Reflex said, "The less fines there are, the more we take, and I believe it's a $48 dollar fee structure. It goes down as the number of citations go up, so we'd be on the sliding scale of 48, 38, 28 as the number of citations increase." The town will have to write 4 times as many tickets as before just to make the same money. This money will be coming out of the townspeople pockets, and will be spent in some town in Arizona instead of here. I can see somebody thinking about moving their business to Marshalltown, touring the town, and getting a ticket in the mail days before the final decision.

  The other disturbing quote is "Upon law enforcement's discretion, a citation would then be issued to the registered owner of the vehicle." Why won't all the law breakers get a ticket? Law enforcement is a hard job, but these are the people who got a reduction in the crime rate by raising the amount of property damage needed to file a police report from $500 to $1000. And whenever I call the cops about a loose dog in the neighborhood threatening little kids, they try to connect me to the Animal Rescue League.

  I'd be in favor of this if a) Locations of the speed traps were posted in advance, b) Names , statistics, and videos are posted online so the public can see who gets a ticket and who doesn't, and c) One of the speed traps gets put on my block and I get a cut of the ticket profits.