Monday, November 29, 2010
The big surprise in pro basketball this year is the star-studded Miami Heat’s pedestrian record of 9 wins and 8 losses. When superstars LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, their fans celebrated as if the championship was already theirs and many of the basketball pundits were all but conceding multiple championships. I thought that if the Heat had gotten off to a fast start, they would have the confidence needed to win the championship (See my prediction here), but they have been set back by injuries and the weight of high expectations.
I’ve gotten to see the Heat a few times on TV and it seems to me that the other championship contenders playing against the Heat with an effort level that is normally given to a hated rival or a defending champion. The Heat don’t have a top-notch center (Bosh is more of a power forward) or a point guard. Championship contending teams generally have at least one of those components and most championship teams have both. The Heat team seems designed to have Bosh do the rebounding while James and Wade do the scoring, but I think the team does better when Bosh is the top scorer, pulling the opposing teams big men away from the basket so Wade and James can penetrate and score. This is how the great Knick teams of the early 70's played with undersized 'big men' Willis Reed and Dave Debusschere, who would shoot from the outside while guards Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe scored close to the basket.
There have been rumors about the Heat complaining about their young coach Erik Spoelstra. Even an accidental bump by LeBron James is interpreted as disapproval of their coach. Spoelstra is a good coach, but if the slow start is not his fault, then it would be the fault of the players and that probably won’t be allowed. I think Spoelstra keeps his job for the year since I don’t see 67 year old GM Pat Rielly taking over the coaching duties like he did 5 years ago when the Heat won a championship with Shaquile O’Neill, Wade, and a bunch of cast offs. If the Heat don’t win the championship this year, Rielly will steal a championship coach from another franchise and try again next year. The Heat's season is still a candidate for redemption. Basketball, like most sports is a game of confidence and as soon as the Heat string a few wins together, November's turmoil will be a distant memory.
President Obama is also feeling the heat, but I think he is bringing more on himself. With the Democrats having lost control of congress to the (at the moment) budget-minded Republicans, Obama is trying to get ahead of the deficit debate by proposing a 2-year freeze on government employees salaries. In a country where 60 million people collect Social Security and 40 million more are getting food stamps, Obama would be better off letting the Republicans make the enemies by deciding what spending to cut, rather than ticking off a group of people who would otherwise be in his corner. He could still look fiscally responsible by proposing to freeze the salaries of just the employees making over $125,000, which would dovetail nicely with his wanting to let the 2001 tax cuts for families making over $250,000 expire. I don’t know how many 10 or 20 dollar an hour jobs the governments really has, but it looks bad to be trying to cut off the raises of those people just to make a point. And even worse, since President Obama can only propose the pay freeze and not enforce it, he is allowing the Republicans to pose as the 'friend of the working people' by not letting the 'mean' president have his way.
Friday, November 26, 2010
Most of my plane trips were to visit relatives and involved travel to and from Florida, Iowa, and New Jersey. They mostly went smoothly, but I’d rather spend an extra day and drive to where I want to go. When the company I worked for in Des Moines was purchased by a company from Indianapolis, I had to fly there around every 2 months. There was no direct flight so I’d end up having to connect through St. Louis or Minneapolis or Detroit. A flight to St. Louis was delayed when it was discovered that there wasn’t enough fuel loaded on the plane to get us there. I still made the connecting flight when it was also delayed because they were waiting on a part. They didn’t say what part, but I’m glad it wasn’t the part that told you there wasn’t enough fuel on the plane to arrive at the destination.
After 9-11, the security was a lot more stringent. I had to take off my shoes a few times, my son’s backpack got searched in the back room once, but nothing more than that. My good friend and mentor Dale Steiger once complained to me how he was patted down at the airport. Dale was wondering what the point was of patting down an 80 year old man. I told Dale that if word go out that old men weren’t being patted down, there would be a lot of terrorists buying canes and white wigs.
After a terrorist managed to board a plane last Christmas with explosives in his underwear, government authorities have frantically working on a way to prevent terrorists from smuggling concealed explosives into planes. The latest effort is the ‘full-body scanner’, which seems to work a lot like the x-ray specs that were advertised inside comic books when I was a kid (samples here). Some people are complaining about being seen by airport personnel in a ‘naked’ state or are worried about the levels of radiation from the scanners and may ‘opt-out’ of the scan. If they do, they are subjected to a full body search which will require security agents to do a pat-down of the traveler including the ‘crotch and chest’. This takes 4 minutes or longer as opposed to the 10 seconds for a randomly chosen body scan.
I could never afford the X-ray Specs, but now I could just get a job as an airport screener. The only down side is I'd have to look at EVERYONE.
Of course this protest failed to cause any meaningful delays since no one wants to be delayed any more that they have to when they are traveling. The only way a protest like this would have a chance of succeeding is if someone would bankroll large numbers of airplane tickets for the protesters who could insist on their pat-down, leave the terminal, and reenter for another pat down.
Perhaps the protesters should put the free market system to work and start their own airlines with no pat downs or scans. It would be very popular with supporters of ‘personal freedom’. I hope they have a lot of replacement airplanes because they will be very popular with the ‘Harry the Human Bomb’ crowd also.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
One of my second grade charges, Nate, had a rough patch yesterday. He finished second in the last tournament, but yesterday he only got one draw out of 3 games. In his first game, he played the player who finished first last time and had 2 rooks, a bishop, and a queen against his opponent’s queen, but he wouldn’t trade queens even though it should have been an easy win. He then proceeded to get frustrated and lost his queen, the rest of his pieces, and the game. In Nate’s next game, he was a queen ahead, but forgot to castle, got his pieces all jammed up around his king, and got checkmated by his opponent’s knight move. In his last game, Nate had a king, queen, and bishop against his opponents lone king, but left his opponent without any legal moves and the game by rule is a stalemate and a draw.
I had previously worked with Nate on checkmating with a lone queen, but after Thanksgiving we’ll go over the how’s and why’s of winning a game a queen or more ahead. I told him after the tournament, that he could have won all 3 games and he played very well, but he was discouraged and frustrated and I hope I haven’t lost him as a tournament chess player. As a teacher, I spend so much time showing how to play correctly so they will get a winning advantage that I neglected to work on converting the advantage.
If more kids spent an afternoon or 2 playing chess instead of mindlessly watching TV, the nation's education system would be a lot better off.
Yesterday’s game was no exception. The Hawkeyes led 17-13 and the Buckeyes were facing a 4th down and 10 yards to go and less than 3 minutes to go in the game. Ohio State quarterback Terelle Pryor dropped back to pass, couldn’t find an open receiver, but managed to scramble for a first down. Predictably, the Hawkeye defense gave up the go-ahead touchdown and the game was lost when the Iowa offense failed to score with a minute left.
I see a failure to finish strong a lot of times. Many times on the job, a programming assignment will be complete enough to be put into production, but small errors are left in like a misspelled error message or misaligned labels and are never corrected. At some point, a customer gets upset with the company and will point out that you couldn’t even spell an error message correctly. I’ve seen chess tournaments run without an accompanying article to let people know that the tournament was held. No one will make a mental note not to miss the next tournament if they don’t see that a good time was had or the tournament was even held. Then the same organizers will complain about declining attendance. When I did my church’s newsletter, I was continually flabbergasted by groups that would send a notice to publicize an event, but wouldn’t send along a small article (I called it a picture and a paragraph) to let the people who didn’t attend what they missed and also to recognize the people who did attend and thank the people who helped with the event.
My 2 most disappointing chess losses were due to not finishing strong and expecting the game to win itself. In 2003 at a team tournament, I cost our team a hard earned draw when I not only failed to beat Tim Crouse with a Queen and 2 pawns for Rook and Bishop, I even managed to lose the game. And last year, as soon as I won a piece against Gerald Hawkins, I made 4 awful moves in a row to lose a game I had no business losing. Since my formative years in programming was as a ‘lone wolf’, any mistake big or small would end up coming back to my desk and I learned to write my programs as complete as I could. I don’t know how many annoying phone calls I saved myself with this practice but I wish I had a dime for each one. Sometimes it seems to be the easiest thing in the world to say a project is 'good enough', but I try to remind myself how much time and future effort I'll save by finishing strong. Besides, i don't need any extra proof that I'm not perfect!
At work, we have a simple 'pick the winner' football pool. Thanks to Peyton Manning's interception, I won all the afternoon games and find myself in a 4 way tie for the lead. I originally picked the Giants for this game, but the Yahoo pool allows you to change your mind until 5 minutes before game time. I figure the other people I'm tied with will pick the Eagles, so I've changed my mind. Hopefully, my change of mind will allow me to finish the pool strong and pocket some $$$.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Ben Bernake has been on Capitol Hill defending his newest plan to revive the economy and create jobs by buying 600 BILLION dollars of US Treasury Bonds over the next 8 months. Last year the government spent 700 BILLION dollars in a stimulus program that was supposed to keep the unemployment rate from rising under 8 percent (it is currently at 9.6 percent) and create or save between 3 and 4 million jobs.
Bernake has claimed that buying 600 BILLION dollars worth of US Treasury Bonds could create 700,000 jobs over the next 2 years. He presumes that buying the bonds will lower interest rates, which will allow individuals and businesses to get loans, which will promote spending, which will create jobs, which will reduce unemployment.
I’m no economist so maybe that’s why I can’t see how buying a bunch of bonds will create a lot of jobs. Maybe a few jobs will be created for the brokers that sell the bonds, the printers that will print the money to buy the bonds, and then a few more jobs for people who will be washing the cars, mowing the lawns, and cleaning the homes of the lucky brokers and printers.
I’m not sure how lowering interest rates will help the economy this time. Interest rates are already at an all time low. If people borrow a bunch of money to buy TV’s and computers that aren’t made here, the only money that will stay here is the commission that the salespeople get. I’d like to see the government give money to US manufacturers to produce goods here that can be sold competitively overseas. That is the only way to create jobs in this country that aren’t consumer driven.
I took out my special calculator with room for big numbers and saw that Bernake’s job creation plan will spend $857,000 for every job he hopes to create. I don’t see why Bernake wants to go through this roundabout process to create all the jobs. Why not find 700,000 working families and give them $43,000 a year for 20 years to not work? Then there would be 700,000 jobs open for the unemployed. We could do this even cheaper by selling raffle tickets to see who would be part of the ‘newly retired’. Not only would the government make money by selling the tickets, there would be extra job creation in convenience stores all over the country selling raffle tickets.
In any event, the I-JOBS $61,000 per job for the 10 jobs renovating City Hall seems like a real bargain now.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
The government is always torn between trying to get people not to smoke and spending the tax revenue that smokers contribute. In Iowa, smoking was banned at all public restaurants, but smoking was still allowed at the casinos since the government gets a big cut out of their profits. You can see a carpet of cigarette butts outside any bar in town from where the people hang out to smoke. If only they were gamblers AND alcoholics, they could satisfy all their addictions form the comfort of their gaming table.
The latest government initiative to keep people from smoking is to replace the little warning about the dangers of smoking with large graphic pictures of corpses, cancer-ravaged mouths, and other disgusting smoking related pictures (See pictures here). While this initiative will make a lot of bureaucrats feel good, I doubt it will stop anyone from smoking. The dangers of smoking are very well known. If anything, cigarette sales may increase since the new graphic pictures may become collectors items like baseball cards. Some nuns from Baltimore recently sold an old Honus Wagner baseball card for a quarter of a million dollars (story here). Guess where the card came from? Yes, a pack of 1909 cigarettes. If the model for one of the corpses on your next pack of cigarettes turns out to be the next Johnny Depp, you could be a millionaire someday.
While the government is discouraging smoking by making smokers look at pictures, the city of San Francisco is attempting to discourage kids from eating junk food by preventing fast food restaurants from including toys in meals that are do not meet nutritional guidelines (Story here) . Presumably, McDonalds and the like will switch to healthy meals in order to continue to lure the kids into the stores with the toys. I think this misses the point that greasy, fat-filled burgers and fries and sugar-filled soda taste better than celery sticks and salt-free crackers, toys or not. There are no toys at the supermarket in the soda aisle, but the kids still want Coke and Pepsi instead of milk or juice. The toys used to serve as an inducement for the parents to get their children a meal, now they are expected and just used by the fast food chains to compete against each other for fast food loyalty. I can’t imagine the ban on toys getting past a court challenge. Even if the US courts uphold the ban, the World Trade Organization may rule that the ban on cheap plastic toys isn’t allowed due to the negative impact on the Far East countries that produce them. Maybe San Francisco can take a page out of the government’s book and put pictures of obese kids on the meal bags and toy wrappers.
I'd like to see the government ban smoking and fast food. There are benefits beyond the improved health of the nation. Which would you rather see smuggled illegally into the country, cocaine and methamphetamines or Marlboros and Big Macs?
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Last Saturday, the Iowa State Cyclones football team was battling the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Ames. It was a close contest and when the score was tied at the end of the final quarter, the 2 teams played an overtime session where each side takes turns trying to score from the 25 yard line. After each side has a chance to score, if the score is still tied another overtime session is played. The Cornhuskers got the ball first in overtime and scored in a touchdown in 2 plays. They kicked the extra point and were ahead by 7 points. If the Cyclones didn’t score a touchdown on their turn, they would lose, but the Cyclones got a touchdown in 3 plays and lined up for the extra point to tie the game.
Instead of taking the almost sure extra point by kicking, Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads called a trick play. Instead of holding the ball on the ground for the kicker, Cyclone holder Daniel Kuehl stood up and threw a pass into a 25 mile an hour wind towards an open receiver in the end zone. If the pass was complete, the Cyclones would get 2 points and win the game. Sadly, the wind kept the football from reaching its target and it was caught by a Nebraska player and the Cyclone lost by a point instead of winning by a point or even being tied and playing another overtime session.
Rhoads has been almost universally acclaimed for having the guts to make the decision to stake winning or losing the game on one play. This surprised me since I’ve always noticed that the admiration or ridicule the coach receives for a trick play is almost always proportional to the success of the play. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema’s manhood was nationally celebrated after he called for a successful fake punt late in a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes that gave his team a chance to win the game (the team capitalized on the chance and won the game in the last 2 minutes). This came a week after Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio pulled off the same trick play in a come from behind win against Northwestern. Last month Dantonio pulled off a successful fake field goal in overtime against Notre Dame.
I think there were a lot of differences between Rhoads trick play and the ones pulled off by Dantonio and Bielema. For starter, the successful fake punts were called in fairly desparate situations where a failed play would have just hastened an almost sure defeat. Dantonio’s overtime fake field goal call was on a problematic 45 yard attempt, not a fairly sure extra point. I’m sure Rhoads wouldn’t have made the call unless he thought it was going to work, but if I was going to stake the entire game on one play, I’d just as soon have my offense on the field to try to win it instead of relying on trickery.
Another factor to be considered when going for broke on a trick play is that it is quickly forgotten if it doesn’t work. In a month, no one outside of Ames, Iowa will be talking about the Cyclones failed attempt to beat the Cornhuskers, but if it had worked, it would be celebrated for years to come.
Two years ago, the NFL’s favorite trick play was to call a timeout just before the opposing team would snap the ball for a game winning field goal. If the time out was called at the right moment, the officials would signal the timeout after the kick was attempted. The kick wouldn’t count and if the kicker made the first kick but missed the second one, the coach was celebrated for his gamesmanship (if not his sportsmanship). If the kicker made both kicks, he would be feted for his fortitude. Eventually, a coach called the time out, but the kicker missed the kick, and then made the second kick. The coach was lambasted as a poor sport that finally got his comeuppance and this trick has been rarely used since.
Occasionally I would try my 'trick play' on a player who was ready for it. Once I caught the ball with my face. My opponents laughed and snickered while my teammates told me I should have known better. My face was even redder than the blood gushing out of my busted lip. I wasn't so smart that day, but I still remember the look on some of the players faces after they swung and missed at the slowest pitch they'd ever seen and then caught the smirky smile on my face that informed them they'd been had.
Monday, November 8, 2010
There were 25 players representing 5 schools at the tournament. My fellow St. Francis instructor Bill Broich helped me with the tournament, and he was a big help because while most of the kids in grades K-2 could play the beginning and middle of the game well enough, but when one kid would win all his opponents pieces, they wouldn’t know how to make a checkmate and the other kid would just keep moving into check, so Bill or I would have to babysit until the player with all the pieces eventually left his opponent with no legal moves and the game would be a stalemate or tie game. It was OK because as soon as the game was over, I could go over how to make the checkmate with the kids and parents, so everyone learned something.
I had a good time hanging out with the kids and since the St. Francis chess club provided the trophies, I am going to be able to use the entry fees to rent a facility for the times that the St. Francis facility isn’t available for my open youth tournaments. I was surprised to see that many of the kids are members of the national chess federation, so they will be able to play in the open tournaments. Most of the kids aren’t ready for real tournament chess, but that won’t be an issue since I’ll be having companion beginner tournaments to help them get up to speed. There is nothing more discouraging to a beginning chess player than to meet kids their age that they can’t compete against, but the beginner tournaments tend to level the playing field.
The best part of the tournament for me was when everything was put away and I was hanging out with some of the kids whose parents hadn’t come to pick them up yet. We had a great impromptu chess lesson where I played one of the kids while another wrote down the moves and then we would replay the game. We played 3 games which I won by getting more pieces out than my opponent, getting my king to safety, and then attacking the opposing king with the pieces I had developed while their defense was hampered by the fact that their pieces hadn’t moved and were unable to defend the king. In each game, the kids understood more and more about developing their pieces and I felt we connected with some one-on-one time. I wish I could give that kind of attention during the Friday classes, but with 35 kids, there is a bit more babysitting even with 3 instructors.
My first open youth tournament is over 2 months away and I’m already wondering what kind of numbers I’ll get. Most of the Catholic School kids in Des Moines are kept busy on Saturdays with whatever sport is in season and their attendance can’t be taken for granted. My free tournament in Marshalltown drew 30 players. By comparison, a 2-day tournament in Ames drew 26 players who paid $30 to $50 each in entry fees. Of course there was a $1000 prize fund with $750 guaranteed. Last weekend’s Iowa State Chess Association (IASCA) Grades tournament in Williamsburg drew 84 players. The 2 Grades tournament I ran in Des Moines drew 111 and 131 and the 3 tournaments in Williamsburg have drawn 141,102, and now 84. Hopefully these numbers are more due to a decline in the enthusiasm for IASCA scholastics than a decline in the enthusiasm of scholastic chess players for chess. I’m just starting the publicity this week for the tournament. I’m budgeting for 25 players but I may just roll lucky 7's and get up to 50.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The Democrats took it on the chin in the election this week, losing control of the House of Representatives and many state Legislatures. In 2008, the Democrats were able to use the rampant dissatisfaction with President W. Bush to gain the Presidency and huge majorities in Congress, but 2 years later, they found themselves blamed for many of the same problems.
I think the big winner of these elections is President Obama. Without a Democratic majority in Congress, he won’t be pressured by his base to follow a too-liberal agenda and now he can throw some of the blame for the nation’s problems on the same Republican shoulders that have just claimed power. Instead of being skewered for not doing enough to advance the cause of gay rights or illegal immigrants or abortion or ... no matter what he actually accomplishes, he will now get credit for any small thing that does manage to get done. Just as voters forgot how much they wanted Democrats to be in charge in 2006 and 2008, they forgot how hated the Republicans were in those years, but they will soon remember. Also, now that Obama has been seemingly weakened, there will be Republicans crawling out of the woodwork to try to gain the nomination to run against him for President in 2012. They will be bashing each other so much that whoever does get the nomination will either be severely weakened by partisan attacks or a fringe candidate with a small energetic base that won’t be able to gain the votes of the middle-of-the road majority. The currents odds on Obama’s reelection is 4/5 (bet 5 to win 9). If I can ever get to Las Vegas, I’ll make the bet in a heartbeat. It is an even surer thing than it was a week ago.