Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In Search of Consistency

2 x 52 = 104
...after today!
  This will be my last blog of 2011. I’ve written 2 posts a week every week this year except on Okoboji weekend in April when I wrote my Sunday post on Friday in order to be able to enjoy a great weekend directing the Okoboji Open and hanging out with my friends Jodene Kruse, John Flores, Sam Smith, Riaz Khan, and the rest of the crowd. Just like holding a youth tournament every month in Des Moines is something I am proud of, having kept to a blogging schedule of two posts a week for an entire year is also something I’m looking back on with pride since consistency is a virtue I prize very highly. If you click the little ‘next blog’ button on top of this page a dozen times, you will probably see 8 blogs without a post this month and 4 or those without a post in the last 6 months. If you’ve given your best effort and decided the results aren’t worth the work I see nothing wrong with walking away, but shouldn’t these people at least write a good bye post?

  One of my rewards for regularly writing my blog for an entire year is being able to go back and read an entire years’ worth of writing in a couple of hours like I did this past weekend. I think I got better at writing as the year progressed, but I'm not a good judge. I got a lot of blogging material from my monthly Des Moines family chess tournaments, but my visits to Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventures and my quest to win an award from the Chess Journalists of America also provided many blogging miles. I found time to write a little about sports and politics, but Daisy, Baxter, and Cheetos dominated my non-chess postings.

  Another reward a long running blog provides is to use the Google Analytics tool to see which of my 103 posts this year have proven the most popular. Even though my blog is primarily about chess, the most looked at posts this year were my March review of the Joe Namath biography, the January posting about Daisy and Baxter titled ‘Beagle Puppy Update’, my first visit to Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure titled ‘Coffeehouse Chess’, and my May story about my in-laws dentures (‘A Tooth for A Tooth’). These rankings are skewed towards older posts since they have been available for ‘googling’ for many months, but it is undeniable that Joe Namath is still a football rock star and Beagles are one of the most popular pets in the world. I’m not surprised that my Cheetos posts aren’t looked at more, after all why would anyone read about Cheetos when they could be eating them instead!?!

  On the inconsistent side, for the third straight year I’m ending the year at a different job than I started the year in. I think I’ve finally found a place to settle in for a long stretch, but I thought the same about the last 3 jobs. After having my job sold out from under me 5 years ago, I’m happy to have gotten my skills upgraded to the point that I don’t get calls from recruiters looking for fossils to work on legacy systems. Now I get calls from recruiters that are looking for people with modern skills. Taking a new job was a huge gamble on my being able to hold my own in a super-fast paced environment and so far it’s paid off. The job market looks good for programmers in the coming year, but all it takes is one clown crossing out names with a red pen and no job is safe so I'm still looking to keep my skills as current as I can.

  My new skills have come in handy in developing my chess website Because I have a better understanding how to build these things from the ground up, I was able to put it together in around a week and now I’ve started to add the types of features that dovetail with my series of blitz and family tournaments. Players in my Thursday Night Blitz and Youth Chess tournaments can see seasonal and all-time won-loss records and view their playing history. The USCF website does the same thing (only better), but my site also shows statistics for unrated and parents tournaments. I have a good amount of work remaining for a first class web site, but since I’m committed for the long haul I can afford to be patient and let the content build up as I continue writing about my chess tournaments. In a year or two my reward will be a website that is a central part of my work and chess resume and a selling point for independent website development.

  When the year started, we had just gotten Daisy and Baxter, and seeing them grow up has been a year-long treat. I took a few pictures and posted them on Facebook when they were little pups, but then when I missed a week, Kathy’s family wanted to see more pictures of Daisy and Baxter, so each week I assemble our pictures and post them on Facebook. It takes about 20 minutes a week (not counting the time spent taking the pictures) but to look at an entire year of pictures on Facebook makes it seem like time well spent indeed (Here is a bonus link to the Christmas album). I can look at the cover picture on all the beagle albums on one screen and it’s almost like watching them grow up in the blink of an eye. I’m very jealous of young parents who can take pictures of their children every day, post them on Facebook or some other social media site, and then be able to look back in a year or 2 and watch the growth of their kids. Matt graduated from high school and Ben went through confirmation this year, but we just have a few pictures a year of them. I don’t know if I’ll still be taking pictures of the beagles as they start to turn gray and age and decline, but I tend to think I will. I still look at pictures of Queenie and Tuffy. Kathy and others will look at the pictures and say how old they look, but I never see them as old, I just see all the enjoyment I got out of my friendship with them.

  I don't take myself too seriously, but I take being consistent very seriously. I’ll leave the why to psychologists. I’ve always tried to be consistent and always valued consistency in others. I enjoy working with honest people and people who I can depend on to work hard and do the right thing, but that isn’t always an option. And when that option isn’t available and I can’t go it alone, I’ll take the people who are always looking out for themselves at the expense of everyone else and the people who you can tell are lying because their lips are moving every time over the people who make you guess whether they’re telling the truth or if today will bring a pat on the back or a kick in the rear. At least with the former I always know what to expect and will never be disappointed.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Playing My Drum

  I spent the week before Christmas transfixed by the song ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. My Rhapsody subscription ($15 a month for access to their entire catalog) combined with my amazing iPod allowed me to create a playlist of 30+ artist’s renditions which I found myself listening to over and over. I found the song inspirational all week long and especially liked the duet by Bing Crosby & David Bowie, with the versions by Ringo Starr, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder close behind. Like the drummer boy (and the wise men for that matter), none of our gifts are fit for the King but what little we have to offer is met with a smile as long as we offer our best. It is a tremendous thought for any time of the year and it’s important to recognize all the gifts that come our way, both big and small.

Top Left:New new guy Tony and I with our Christmas Cheetos. The rest of the pictures are of the Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Co. including the Salmon Sandwich lunch special.

  I got my first present on Tuesday at work when new guy Tony brought me a big bag of Cheetos Puffs. Just having Tony around is a present to me in and of itself. Before he came on board, I was not only the new guy – I was the old guy, too. I remember when I was always the youngest person at work and now I’m older than my boss, my bosses’ boss and twice the age of some of my co-workers. There are some older network and marketing guys, but I’m the oldest programmer and I think it’s by a big margin. I pull my weight and no one calls me ‘pops’ or anything, but since Tony is older than me, he has relieved me of being the new guy and the old guy. Now I’m just the bald guy, but as the prophet Meat Loaf said “Don’t be sad, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad”.

  My day got even better when I was taken out to lunch by the project manager of the company I work for. Last week the government agency we interact with had a systems changeover and the customer was very pleased that we were able to match their changes with a minimal amount of problems. Because the customer contracts my time through my company, they aren’t allowed to give me a bonus or presents, but a ‘working lunch’ was arranged. We walked to the ‘Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Company’ via the Skywalk. The restaurant is a business lunch spot and night time hangout in a bar, band, and restaurant district just off downtown Des Moines. I had the lunch special which was a grilled salmon sandwich with potato salad and the project manager had a giant burrito. The sandwich was good, the potato salad was awesome, and the price was excellent (for me, that is)! It was nice to be taken out to lunch and after the tense weeks leading up to the government changeover, and I enjoyed celebrating the success of a mostly problem free upgrade.

Jaleb Jay vs. Jon McCord

Roger & Cypher
in Cyclone gear.
  On Thursday at chess club, I got more presents with the return of Jaleb Jay and a visit from Roger Gotschall, the legendary Ames chess coach and tournament director and his traveling companion, Cypher the Boston Terrier. Jaleb hadn’t been to the club since August due to school and other scheduling issues, but will be around for a couple of weeks with school off for winter break and Roger’s Cyclone Chess Club (which also meets on Thursday) is also off for a few weeks since they are a college chess club stationed on the Iowa State University campus. Except for Jaleb, I had no other school-age kids at club. Maybe they thought there’d be no club, but since Christmas wasn’t on a Thursday, it was business as usual at the Marshalltown Chess Club!

  We had an odd number of players so I sat out of the tournament. Jaleb shook off 4 months of rust to win the tournament, but I managed to beat him 3 out of 3 in 5 minute games. I won one convincingly, and was even and lost in the other 2 when Jaleb ran out of time. When coming back after a long layoff, most players tend not to trust their calculation of tactics and use precious seconds double checking themselves. It used to be an upset when Jaleb beat me, but now I feel lucky when I win so I was thrilled to get 3 out of 3 any way I can.

Roger and Me,
Cypher & Italian Sausage!
  I didn’t get to play Roger, but we got to talk about chess, dogs, and life for around an hour. Roger and I have had our share of differences about youth chess and the direction of Iowa Chess over the years, but we get each other and have a lot in common. We're both stong-willed and indefatigable! We both have weekly chess clubs on Thursdays and while I get myself out of the house early every Friday to go to Des Moines and teach chess at St. Francis, Roger has taught chess at a minimum of 3 schools in the Ames area for years. He has had some health problems this year and is in his 70s, yet he still gets to these schools every week to teach chess. His is an enduring legacy that will last generations, but Roger isn't interested in collecting accolades. When I asked him to see if he could find a way in his capacity as Iowa's representative to the USCF to get a discounted one day youth membership established so high schools could compete in the state team championships without having to buy expensive annual memberships for only one tournament, Roger got it passed. The USCF higher-ups took the credit for getting this innovative idea, but Roger was more interested in being of service to Iowa chess players than who got credit. We are also big baseball fans, with Roger getting the leg up on me this year with his favorite Cardinals thrill-a-minute World Series victory. Now that Roger has Cypher, we also share a love of dogs. Cypher had a Cyclone colored coat with his name embroidered in it. Daisy and Baxter are so yappy I could never have them at a chess tournament, but Cypher's quieter than most chess players. It was a pleasure to have Roger and Cypher come to visit and I was surprised and pleased when they gave me a beagle calendar for Christmas. We all received another present at chess club. The Salvation Army had just had their holiday food box distribution (300+ families fed) and had boxes and boxes of close dated frozen Italian sausages left over so we each received a frozen pack of sausage.

  Saturday was my turn for some giving. The past 2 years, Matt had conducted a simultaneous chess exhibition where he would play 10 to 15 players at once. The idea was that all the participants would make a donation to the Salvation Army in order to play and that anyone who beat him would win a tournament chess set. No one ever beat Matt and except for the set I gave to Daniel Carson in 2009 for lasting the longest against Matt, I still have all the ones I bought 2 years ago. This year, when Major John asked about the chess exhibition, I didn’t have time to coordinate a simul with Matt (he’s is college and has his own plans for the holidays), so I volunteered to play speed chess against all comers on Christmas Eve. The last 2 years, we had very little participation in Matt’s simuls outside the chess club and I wanted to try to get new people in town to play some chess, so I decided to play all comers with 1 minute on my clock and 10 minutes for the challengers and give away chess sets to anyone who I couldn’t beat before I ran out of time. I cleared it with the mall, got a press release printed in the newspaper, and was off.

Johnny summed
it up in 2 words!
  I’m OK at speed chess, but almost any tournament player could beat me at these time odds. I didn’t care since I had all the chess sets I bought for Matt’s simuls sitting in a box for over 2 years and they weren't doing anyone any good in a closet. I told the mall management that I wanted to do the exhibition by the entrance to the JC Penney store where the bell ringers always are with a 4x8 table or 2 off to the side where Matt held his simul. The mall manager said it was OK with him, but he didn’t want a big table by the entrance and didn’t have anything smaller than a 4x8 table. I told him I’d bring a card table and I arrived with it at 10:30 yesterday along with my box of chess sets, a couple of chess clocks, and a Salvation Army kettle and bell.

The JC Penney manager before
banishing us to the corner.
  I was all set up by 10:50 and had the exhibition planned from 11 to 3. The first player was a kid named Rico. He didn’t want to play speed chess, so we played a couple of games until his dad told him he had to leave. Then a high schooler named Johnny came to play. He also didn’t want to try the speed chess challenge so we played some offhand games. I beat Johnny twice and he paid me my first compliment of the day when he said “You Suck”. Since he was smiling when he said it, I assume he meant it in a good way. We started a new game, but then Chandler and Dalton from the chess club came with their parents and 3 foster kids their folks are taking care of. Dalton paid his entry fee and we started playing time odds chess. Dalton is the newest tournament player at club and while he has won a few games, he was no match for me in the 3 speed games we played and never even made me use more than 20 seconds. During the second game, 2 managers from JC Penney (a man and a woman) came out and told me that I was 'impeding' their customer’s access to the store and could I move to one side or the other of the entrance. The entrance is 40 feet wide and I was 5 feet from one side so I moved the 5 feet over. Then after our third game, the lady manager came over and demanded I move to the other side of the entrance. While she was demanding, she pointed out the JC Penney was being quite gracious in allowing bell ringers to even be anywhere near their store entrance since no one else in the mall wanted the bell ringers anywhere near them. I moved the chess table and the red kettle to the other side of the entrance and proceeded to play Chandler.

Chandler's foster brothers
were donation magnets!
   Chandler played a smart game, keeping his king protected and trading pieces. I only had 8 seconds left when I hung a rook in an even position and had given away my first chess set of the day, when Keith from the Salvation Army came over and told me the woman manager had called him to let him know that the bell ringers were ‘playing chess’. I imagine no one told her about the exhibition. We moved the chess table and the kettle far away from the entrance on a landing behind a ‘hurricane machine’. Since its Christmas I’m not going to say anything bad about the manager, but if I ever have a business where I need to drive away customers, I know where I'm going first. Chandler didn’t want to play after winning the first game, so I played Dalton for another hour until I finally ran out of time and gave away my second chess set. Except for one guy that watched for a bit, no one was interested in playing speed chess, so I did some bell ringing along with Dalton and 2 of his foster brothers until about 2:15. While bell-ringing, I learned the valuable lesson that little kids ringing the bell really bring in the money as an incredible number of people would see the cute 3 or 4 year old foster brothers ringing the bell and give the kids money to drop in the kettle, including one lady who emptied handfuls of change out of her purse to give the kids to put in the kettle.

  While the youngsters were ringing the bell, the fellow who was watching me play Dalton came over and decided to play a game. His name was Gary and he really enjoyed playing even after I checkmated him using only 20 seconds. I gave him a flyer to the chess club and hope I’ll see him again. When Dalton and his family left, Major John showed up and we talked for a bit. I told him about the problems with the JC Penney manager and he said not to worry about it so I didn’t. Then a lady named Marsha and her husband Denny came over and said Marsha wanted to play a game. We started our game when Kathy came over to see how the exhibition was going. Marsha was a pretty good player and I just managed to win with 10 seconds left (Marsha used about 8 minutes). Marsha and Denny live 20 miles away in Gilman and I hope to see them again at the club someday since I think she could play even with Scott, Jon and the other regulars. I was about ready to pack up when 4 college kids came by, looked at the sign detailing the exhibition, talked amongst themselves, and started walking away when I pointed out they only had to last a minute with me over a chess board and it wasn’t like Spiderman trying to last a round with the professional wrestler. That convinced one of the kids to try his luck.

After a slow start, the speed chess exhibition picked up with 5 players in the last hour.

  It turned out the kid who was playing was Corey McMillan, a high school classmate of Matt’s. I told him I remembered how they were on the same soccer team as youngsters and that I remember he was a real good soccer player. Corey said he was playing soccer at Alleghany College in Pennsylvania and was home for the holidays. I beat Corey with 26 seconds to spare and told his friends that I’d give any of them a chess set if they could last longer and if they couldn’t Corey would get the set. 2 of Corey’s friends, Ian and Jason played, but neither lasted more than 34 seconds so one of my chess sets will be heading to Alleghany College with Corey!

  It was a slow start to the exhibition but a fantastic end with 4 games in the last half hour. I hadn’t given any money to any bell ringers once I knew I would be doing the exhibition, and put it in my kettle before I packed up and went home with Kathy to walk the dogs for another beef stick. I always like to do what I can for the Salvation Army. They host our chess club (and dozens of other groups), they get food for the hungry, and anyone who is in need of clothes or furniture can get a voucher from them to get what they need at their thrift store. In addition to all that, they have had a singularly transformative impact on my life. If I hadn’t been challenged to start a chess club by Major Joan in 2002 when I asked if the Salvation Army had one, I’d never have run a chess tournament, met many of the people that have enriched me so much, taught chess at St. Francis, or started my blog. And that’s just off the top of my head. When I get the chance to do something for the Salvation Army, I feel like the drummer boy whose gifts aren’t worthy of the recipient, but are accepted with a smile anyway because I’m giving my best effort.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Here's to Perfection

  The Green Bay Packers lost their chance for an undefeated season when they lost 29-14 in Kansas City by the Chiefs on Sunday. The Chiefs chances of pulling off this upset were boosted considerably when Head Coach Todd Haley was fired less than a year after taking the team to the playoffs. With their coach fired, the only way for the players to prove that the reason for the teams’ disappointing 5-8 record was the coach and not the players was to give their very best effort. That, the calming stewardship of interim coach Romeo Crennel, and the return of recently acquired quarterback Kyle Orton from his broken finger proved to be just enough to stifle the Packers great QB Aaron Rodgers and take the victory.

   The Chief fans are elated by the victory and rightly so, but I wonder why a coach in only his third year is fired when he won the division in his second year? The Chiefs lost Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles, quarterback Matt Cassell, and budding superstar tight end Tony Moeaki to injury earlier this season. General Manager Scott Pioli managed to pick up a serviceable quarterback (Orton), who promptly broke his thumb in his first game, leaving the quarterback chores in the shaky hands of one Tyler Palko. I’m assuming Haley had some sort of problems getting along with the players or Pioli, but since Pioli was the one who hired Haley less than 3 years ago, how long will it be till the former New England boy wonder’s judgment comes under question?

   I was one of the many who thought the Packers would win all their regular season games, especially after their last second victory in the Meadowlands against the Giants. I was watching the Kansas City game and it appeared to me the defending Super Bowl champs were upended by injuries on the offensive line which played into the hands of a hungry team intent on pressuring quarterback Aaron Rodgers and an offense that found a couple of trick screen plays to tight end Leonard Pope that went for 35+ yards each.

   The pundits are now talking about how Green Bay’s weaknesses have been exposed and how vulnerable they will be in the playoffs, but I’m not buying it. I like how the Packers didn’t shirk from their quest to go undefeated, unlike the Colts of the last few years who went 13-0 AND 14-0, twice took it easy and played to lose in the final weeks, and twice failed to win the Super Bowl (I wrote about it here). The Patriots kept pushing for their undefeated season and were only stopped by a talented, desperate, and very lucky Giants team in the last 2 minutes of the Super Bowl.

  This year’s Packers remind me a lot of the 1998 Denver Broncos, who were also defending Super Bowl champions (both winning from the wild card spot), and also started 13-0 in defense of their super bowl. The Broncos lost their 14th game of the year to the Giants in the last 2 minutes and only after their undefeated season was over did they rest their starters for the last 2 games to get ready for the playoffs. The Broncos cruised to the Super Bowl and I expect the Packers to do the same, barring an injury to Rodgers. They have the talent and have shown they have the will to compete in every game and expect to win every game and that leads me to expect a Green Bay Super Bowl again this year.

  Lost in the Packers first loss is another year of the 1972 Miami Dolphin’s record as the only undefeated team in NFL history. The surviving members of that squad annually have a champagne toast when there are no undefeated teams left in the NFL and they tend to be derided for celebrating other team’s losses. Ever since the Patriots managed to go through the regular season unbeaten, I think there has been far less attention paid to the Dolphins and their perfect season of 40 years ago. But each season that goes by without an undefeated team underscores just how difficult it is for a team to go undefeated and how awesome the Dolphin’s accomplishment was.

   I saw (or heard on the radio) at least half the Dolphins games that year and they were a powerhouse, smashmouth team, belying their white uniforms with the fish on the helmet. The Dolphin’s would run inside with brusier Larry Czonka and Jim Kiick behind an all-pro offensive line. When the defense would eventually try to plug the middle, then the Dolphins would run a sweep with speedster Mercury Morris or a play-action pass to Hall of Famer Paul Warfield. The defense was led by a ball-hawking secondary and bend but don’t break defense that put a premium on making the opponents offense drive down the field in small chunks, knowing they would eventually be able to force a mistake. The Dolphins even lost their Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese to a broken leg for over half the season and still won all their games. Compare that with last year’s playoff teams like the Chiefs, Bears, and Colts who went into the tank this year as soon as they had to turn to their backup quarterback.

  The only game I thought the Dolphins were in danger of losing all year long was the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh against the then inexperienced Steeler squad who would win 4 Super Bowls later in the decade. The Dolphins were trailing in the second half, but Griese came off the bench and rallied his team to victory. Like all great teams, the Dolphins could win in any number of ways. They chose to keep the game under control and grind out wins by running and relying on their great defense, but they could out score their opponents if needed. Being behind by a touchdown to the Dolphins that year was like being behind 2 or 3 touchdowns to another team. The Jets played them twice and the Giants once. Once they fell behind, the game seemed over because it was next to impossible to get the ball back and once they did they could barely move the ball against the great Dolphin defense.

  The Dolphins perfect season is maligned by some, who say they had one of the weakest schedules of any Super Bowl winner and during the regular season only had to play 2 teams with winning records. They were so lightly thought of during their undefeated run that they were underdogs to the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl. But they played every team on their schedule and won, which no team in the last 40 years have been able to do. If the 1972 Dolphins come off as arrogant in celebrating their perfection, it’s OK with me. Here’s to the Dolphins who are still the only undefeated team in NFL history and the Packers for not taking the easy way out in their (unsuccessful) pursuit of perfection.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

With a little luck and a lot of help

Left: I'm never too tired to pose for a picture with my fellow St. Francis chess coach Chris Hermes. Up front are Chris' nephew Ryan(l) and son Matt(r). Right: Many of professional chess teacher Jose Gatica's students were playing in the tournament, but he was willing to go over the games with anyone.

  The company I work for has a critical interface with a government agency’s computer system. This agency was going to update their systems in December and change the way we interact with them. I knew about this for a couple of months and had been making preparations. 2 weeks ago, the government agency set the changeover date this past Thursday night. I wrote to President Obama letting him know I had chess club that night, was teaching chess class the next morning at St. Francis, had a chess tournament to run on Saturday and could he please impose on the agency to postpone the changeover? I didn’t receive a reply. I would have written to Ron Paul, but he may have tried to abolish the agency and render my job moot. What people don’t realize about burdensome government regulations is that they employ a lot of people like me that help other companies navigate them. It’s the Democratic version of trickle-down economics.

  After stressing over the changeover all week Thursday finally came. I shut down our systems and went home where I would implement our changes when and if I got the signal from the government. The restart was scheduled to take place at 6am Friday and I was hoping it would be late so I could implement our changes after I got back from chess class. I went to chess club where there were an odd number of players for the tournament so I sat out and played 2 games against Joe Meyer after the tournament. I was sloppy and lost 2 games to Joe. Thinking about the changeover would be a convenient excuse, but facts are facts and the fact is Joe is better than me at the moment.

  I got home from the club, got the tournament rated, and saw that the government had finished their changeover in record time so I could get started. I put in my changes, testing each component. It was 12:30 by the time everything was done and I crawled into bed at 1, only to wake up at 4:30 and start all over again. I logged into my work computer, saw I had one process that was crashing, fixed it, walked Daisy and Baxter, and was on the road at 5:45 to teach chess at St. Francis 60 miles away. I haven’t missed a club meeting in the year and a half I’ve been teaching there, but I would have begged off this week except that my co-coach Chris had an appointment and couldn’t make it.

  Getting 3 hours sleep was no problem when I was 20 or 30, and not such a big deal when I was 40, but at 51 it is hard not to get sloppy and irritable on such little sleep. I got my exercise setting up the 30 boards and the crowd of 50 kids talking and playing chess kept me wide awake for the 45 minute club meeting, matching kids for games and teaching the younger kids how to win simple endings. After class, Kurt the maintenance guy helped me put away all the boards and tables and I got to work at 9. There were a couple of problems caused by the government not implementing a process correctly, but they had already fixed it by the time I alerted them. Everything went so well that I went home at 12 to get some sleep before a long tournament day on Saturday. I got home at 1 as planned but nothing else went the way I wanted. Every time I started to nod off, I got a phone call. There were 4 from work, 1 from St. Francis letting me know my next 2 tournament dates, and even a friend of Kathy’s calling to tell me to go outside. I was already awake so I went outside and her friend told me he could see me. He was flying a plane overhead! Pretty cool, but not what I was thinking at the moment. I finally gave up on getting a nap and went to sleep at the normal time.

  I got a reasonable night’s sleep and after a walk with Kathy, Daisy, and Baxter for some beef stick treats, was off to West Des Moines at 6:45 for this month's youth chess tournament with Matt and Chandler the high school kid who helps me set up in return for free entry and a ride. Matt had decided to head down to watch the tournament and meet with Tim McEntee (life master) , Jose Gatica (the candidate master we did the chess camp with last year), and many of the kids who attended the chess camp in July. This month’s tournament was held in a large meeting room instead of the cafeteria so we had to move all the round tables in the room to one side and drag out the long square tables and chairs before we could even get the boards set up. We were running a little behind when Dan Troxell stopped by. Dan had a student playing and was going to play in the parents and friends section. With Dan’s help, we got all caught up and had everything in place when the tournament players started arriving.

  The morning tournament went very smoothly with a nice crowd of 43 players. A lot of players arrived late because they went to the cafeteria on the other side of the facility. Everyone thought the Santa trophies and medals were very cool, if a little odd. I had a lot of time to talk to the players and parents. This is the 3rd month I’ve had the morning-afternoon tournament concept and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. There must have been something special about this tournament because I had a large number of players stick around for the afternoon session after they had only committed to the morning tournament.

  I had another 37 players for the afternoon session, but then things started to go a little squirrelly. During the lunch break a parent who runs a school chess club told me he had big plans for a week-long summer chess camp and a big tournament in March and wanted me to tell ‘my people’. He wasn’t real happy when I told him that I don’t have any ‘people’ and I wasn’t going to be promoting any other tournaments but the ones I was personally involved with. Then when the afternoon tournament started I had the following 4 incidents happen within 5 minutes: 1) One player made a mistake to lose the game and started crying and SLAPPED HIS FACE!! HARD!! 2) Another player made a mistake to lose his queen and shouted ‘D**N’ very loudly…100 feet from a church 3) A player resigned and fired his pen 20 feet into a wall 4) A player got a nosebleed after horsing around. It looked like a disastrous afternoon, but we got the nosebleed stopped, I got the upset players to calm down, and the tournament returned to a fun time for the kids. I think that the Santa trophies were SO cool, the kids went mental when they lost their first game (making it all but impossible to finish in the top 5 and get the trophy).

  The tournament finished without incident. While Matt was going over games with the players, Tim and Jose were giving impromptu chess lessons to the parents, and I was keeping an eye on the games and answering questions the parents had about tie-breaks, pairings, and a host of other questions about organizing and running tournaments.

  Once the tournament was over, it was time to put away the sets and boards, 8 tables, and 64 chairs and then rearrange the round tables the way they were in the beginning. It would have taken forever, but with Matt, Tim, Jose, and Michael (the parent of one of Matt’s students) helping, everything was put away in 15 minutes and we were done by 4.

  I’d need some time to think about it, but it seemed like one of the most successful tournaments I’d ever held. Except for the bout of 'afternoon madness', everyone had a great time and I even made enough money on this tournament ($82) that I’ll be able to offer trophies to the unrated players for next month’s tournament. Jose had to go, but Tim, Matt, Chandler, and I went to the Perkins for a celebratory dinner. I tried to order the ‘Perkins Famous Chicken Noodle Soup’ but they didn’t have any so I had to settle for a grilled cheese sandwich and ‘Tomato Vegetable Soup’. I couldn’t find any vegetables and while the bowl was very wide, it turned out to only be a spoon full deep. I’m not complaining though. I hadn’t gotten to hang out with Tim in a long time and I was the ONLY person in our group to have any silverware.

  I started getting tired on the drive home, but I was smart enough to get a coffee for the trip. By the time I got home, I’d caught my second wind and had the tournament rated, pictures posted, my report written, and my website updated all by midnight, even though there was one last mini crisis with the government changeover that I had to deal with.

  I did last month’s tournament all by myself and had 63 players between the 2 sections (80 this month), but I had so many balls in the air this time I was happy for all the help I could get. I was lucky to have made it through the changeover at work unscathed but I only call that a little lucky because I was as prepared for it as I possibly could be. But to have had as much help setting up and tearing down the playing site was incredible. It's nice to think you can do everything by yourself, but only a fool wouldn't be grateful for all the help I got yesterday.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Give the kid a prize!

Eleven months evolution of participation buttons and medals. What will December bring?

  I’m spending this week preparing for my first youth chess tournament in 6 weeks. I’d rather not have such a long gap between tournaments but the cafeteria at St. Francis is booked solid with other events and I was lucky to be able to get the large meeting room for this week’s tournament. I only have room for 24 boards on the supplied tables, but there are a few smaller long tables and I’ve adjusted to the new surroundings by using the profits from the last tournament that I was going to use for chess clocks to get some smaller tournaments boards and pieces instead in case I have over 50 players.

  Having a tournament so close to Christmas is a double edged sword. On the plus side, many of the competing sports activities will be shut down for the month, but the reason for that is because so many parents are traveling, attending Christmas functions, and holiday shopping. This will keep many kids from playing team sports, but I’m hopeful that there will be plenty of players and parents who want to spend a morning or afternoon playing chess.

  This will be the 12th month in a row that I’ve held an open youth tournament in the Des Moines area (14 if you count 2 parochial school only tournaments in 2010). I am a big believer in consistency and I consider this an accomplishment to be quite proud of. As the IASCA scholastic director, I wrote a website column for the chess parents each month for the 30 months I served except the first August (2006). It’s always bothered me that because I didn’t take the time to type out a few paragraphs I lost the ability to say I did something every month for 30 months.

  I’ve had over 250 different players at my chess tournaments over the first 11 months, with a high of 67 at the free tournament in October and a low of 14 at the August outdoor tournament. A lot of players come almost every month and I’ve struggled to come up with different looking trophies and medals. There are only a few trophy companies that have chess items and they have 4 or 5 different tops and a dozen or so different columns. I came up with the idea of giving out buttons with a different world chess champion as participation awards, but most of the kids have no idea who these champions of the past are and a few asked me if I put the old guy on the button because it was his birthday.

The graveyard of tournaments past,
a cousin of the 'Island of Misfit Toys'.

  I could make a different chess trophy every month for 5 years by combining the different tops and columns, but the medals posed a different challenge because there are only 7 or 8 different kinds of chess medals. When it came time to rehash the same medal design, I tried using different color ribbons (there are at least 40 different color combinations of ribbons), but the kids caught on immediately that they already had the same medal as before. And aside from all that, I kept on having left over medals and trophies after each tournament. I have trophies and medals that are 3 or 4 years old sitting in my basement. I tried to reuse the medals by putting some handmade labels on the backs so I wouldn’t have to pay an extra $1 a pop for new labels, but they looked unprofessional. I tried to order custom inserts on the medals, but the price and minimum print runs made it even more expensive and would guarantee that I’d have even more unusable medals left over.

  My medal problem was heightened when I decided to drastically reduce the number of trophies in order to halve the entry fee and give everyone a medal for participating. The new prize structure made it even more important than ever to not give out the same medals. I did a lot of research over the summer and came up with the idea of buying medals without any inserts and printing and applying the inserts myself. It worked great the first month, but by the second month I had a mostly black insert and the kids discovered they could easily scrape the ink off of them. This led me to find plastic medal covers I could stick over the inserts. It works great. I give out unique medals for every tournament I run, and the cost is less than I would pay for medals from a trophy store. I could lower the cost of the medals even more by buying thousands at a time from the Chinese wholesaler, but I’ll pass on laying out that kind of money for now.

  It is a lot of work to design a new medal insert every month, print the inserts, and assemble the medals, but it is worth it to me to be able to offer a low cost chess tournament where no one walks away empty handed and everyone has a unique memento of their chess tournament. I saw firsthand from watching the kids at my son’s chess tournaments that nothing will make a child quit playing in chess tournaments faster than watching other kids get prizes while they get nothing. I tried to forestall this day of reckoning in the larger tournaments I ran by giving out medals for first time players, prizes for lower rated players, and even custom participation ribbons. I hit on the ribbon idea when I noticed that Matt would put every ribbon he got from his Junior High cross-country meets on our refrigerator. I thought the chess participation ribbons were the best received of all the ideas, but I can’t print the ribbons myself and would lose a lot of the customization I get with the medals.

  I can’t say for sure, but I think giving out the participation medals helps to keep players coming to my tournaments. I thought by cutting down from 22 trophies to 5 trophies I’d be losing lower rated players who were missing out but instead it is the higher rated players that seem to stay away after winning a trophy or 2. Maybe it’s the risk of getting upset to hungry lower rated players or the younger players make it too noisy to play their best or maybe the trophies just aren’t big enough to justify spending a morning or afternoon playing chess. I know from my experiences and the talks I’ve had with many chess parents that after a while their children’s chess trophies all start looking alike, but I’m not about to start playing ‘Can You Top This?’ with myself and have bigger and bigger trophies.

  The absence of the higher rated players is probably due to a little of all the reasons I mentioned with a bigger dose of just being too busy. In the January and February tournaments this year, I had a pair of brothers playing in the unrated tournament that were quite talented. The younger 7 year old brother won half his games and the 11 year old won 75% of his games. And then I didn’t see them again until I got an email this week from their mom saying they were busy all year but finally had the morning of a chess tournament free to play. I am constantly tempted to write to the parents of players that seem to disappear to see if it was something about the tournaments that are driving them away, but so far I’ve resisted. Fretting about the people who don’t come to my tournaments will keep me from doing the best job I can for the people who do attend.

  While I was ordering the trophies for the December tournament and getting ready to put Boris Spassky on this month’s medal, I came across a unique trophy top. I’ve been staying away from the chess piece trophy tops and using victory figures as much as I can, but the top I saw filled me with a sense of whimsy and I decided to theme my trophies and medals with a decidedly un-chess theme. I don’t know how many more years I’ll be running monthly youth tournaments but I’ve got December trophy and medals set for every one of them.

If Santa Claus was a chess piece, would he be the king with his reindeer as the 8 pawns or perhaps a long range knight able to hop all across the chessboard?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Political Exercise

  Last week I received an invitation on Facebook from my friend Lee Gordon Seebach to come to a Ron Paul town meeting in Marshalltown yesterday at the Fisher Community Center. I’m not an especially political sort, but I hadn’t seen Lee in a couple of years and decided to head over to meet up with him and catch up on some old times.

  I first met Lee in 2008 at a chess tournament in Cedar Rapids. He had just retired from his career as a professional artist and had relocated to his hometown of Dysart, Iowa where he had started a chess club at the brand new Dysart library. Lee and some of his club members would come to Marshalltown on occasion for our tournaments and I would get some of our members to head up to Dysart to play in Lee’s tournaments. Lee started working as a truck driver in 2009 in Dysart and his club went dormant when none of his club members parents could help with it on the weekends Lee was away. As a chess player, I found Lee a very solid player who could be counted on for a tough struggle. Lee has now resumed his career as an artist in nearby Traer (You can see his works here) and is a precinct captain for the Ron Paul campaign.

Left : An interview with a Ron Paul supporter held before the town hall meeting.
Right : An exerpt of Ron Paul's speech with his ever-present bodyguard in the background. I wanted to ask him his name, but I was afraid to.

  I’ve been following the Republican nomination process this year and it appears the voters are not willing to anoint the semi-liberal Mitt Romney and are dissatisfied with all their alternative choices, leading to a ‘flavor-of-the-month’ of frontrunners. I registered as a Republican last year to vote for fellow chess player George Eichhorn’s attempt to be the nominee for the Secretary of State so I’ve been getting phone calls and mail from all the nominees. I hadn’t been planning on attending the caucuses but if I was, I’d probably support Bachmann since she seems to be the least phony of all the people running. I didn’t know much about Ron Paul except that he is the most libertarian of all the candidates and is just as anti-taxes as Bachmann.

Left: here I am with friend/artist/chess player/truck driver/Ron Paul precint captain Lee Gordon Seebach. Right: No iPod for the bodyguard!

  There were about 30 cars in the Community Center parking lot when I pulled up at 9:45 for the 10:00 meeting. As I was walking in, I saw a news reporter videotaping an interview with a Ron Paul supporter and I decide to tape the interview myself. The interviewee was spitting out so many sound bites I think he should try to run for president. I went into the Community Center and there was a lady selling political buttons and a Ron Paul supporter at a table giving away bumper stickers and literature. I went inside the art gallery and started looking for Lee when I ran into Jack McCord and his mom Kathy. Jack Is going to Marshalltown Community College and used to play chess at the Salvation Army on Thursday nights with his dad Jon (who still plays every week). Then I ran into Mike Donahey. Mike is a reporter for the Marshalltown newspaper and was covering the event. Mike started interviewing me, but I explained that I was looking for Lee when I heard my name being called from the front row and sure enough, it was Lee. I introduced Lee to Mike since a story about a professional artist/truck driver/ chess player/ political activist would be right up Mike’s alley. Mike interviewed Lee for a few minutes (here is Mike's article with a quote from Lee) and then a fellow came to the podium and introduced Ron Paul so we all sat down to listen. Paul had a small entourage with him including a massive fellow who never smiled, but just looked into the crowd. I looked back into the crowd and the gallery was packed with about a hundred people.

  Ron Paul started by talking about his main campaign themes: following the constitution, getting rid of the Federal Reserve, balancing the budget, drastically reducing income taxes, an isolationist foreign policy, not borrowing money, and having a small government protect the citizen’s liberties instead of taking them away, which he claims the Patriot Act does. One of his more interesting economic tenets was that rather than have the government and Federal Reserve continue to attempt to print money to get the country out of the recession, stop printing and borrowing money, let the banks and insolvent companies default, and the economy will rebound quicker than it would with government intervention.

  All these themes met with a lot of applause, which is to be expected since Paul was mostly preaching to the choir. I’m not too sure about the idea of letting the economy crash and relying on free market forces to revive the economy. After all, don’t free market forces drive companies to produce their goods where they can be made the cheapest? Of course, I don’t see the current system of borrowing $5,000 for every person in the country as a means to economic salvation either.

  When Paul started talking about how he was going to go about balancing the budget, he started making more sense to me. He said he wanted to cut a trillion dollars off the budget in his first year and he was going to start by slashing military spending because he thought he could build a left-center coalition to support the idea. I liked that he had practical plans to achieve his impractical-sounding objectives. I also liked that he was upfront that he was going to transition to some of his other big objectives like eliminating entitlement programs and not just eliminate them all at once.. I doubt if Paul could actually get enough congressional support to achieve his objectives if he were to become President, but it would be interesting to see him have the chance.

  I think that most economic plans would work in the absence of corruption and the support for politicians to undertake unpopular tasks. Paul talks about the failure of Keynesian economics and he is correct that in the USA it leads to unchecked spending, but that is because while the public and their elected politicians embrace the notion of stimulating economic demand during recessions by tax cuts and government spending, no one will go along with the flip side of Keynesian economics which advocates limiting demand during economic expansion by increasing taxes and reducing government spending in order to recoup the deficits incurred during recessions. The USA started running budget surpluses in the late 90’s, but instead of paying down decades of debt, the American public elected a government that promised to cut taxes. After 9-11, the public wanted to fight the terrorists but not at the expense of their tax cuts and was OK with the government borrowing trillions of dollars to allow for the financing of a war and the tax cuts. Everyone wants to balance the budget as long as other people are paying for it, but except for a few select billionaires, I don’t see anyone wanting higher taxes or fewer benefits.

  I partially agree with Paul that the government makes everything it touches worse. Paul talks about the health care reform being written by health care lobbyists, but when the free market runs the health care system, the insurance companies act in their own best interests by collecting as much in premiums as possible and attempting to deny coverage by rescission when a policyholder gets sick and it is time to for the insurance companies to pay out. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of crazy things the government does. I’m not sure why we pay Pakistan billions of dollars in foreign aid each year, but when it’s time to go after the terrorists, we have to send drone planes to do the dirty work, while our ‘well-paid allies’ burn our flag in protest and the government cuts off our supply routes. Government waste hit a little closer to home when I went to the Walgreen’s this week and saw every snack food item accompanied by a little sticker reminding me how easy it is to pay for them with my Food Stamp Card. No wonder Cheetos are so expensive!

One side of the button lady's display board looked like a Ron Paul/Tea party shrine, but after the meeting, she turned the board over and showed she was ready for every eventuality!
A worthy choice for Secretary of Commerce, in my opinion.

  I shot a few minutes of video of Paul’s speech, but I tried to catch the bodyguard and the other members of his entourage as much as possible. The bodyguard looked like he stepped right out of GoodFella’s or the Soprano’s. When the speech was over, Paul took 3 questions and was off to his next speech. His Iowa coordinator wanted to talk to the organizers privately so I had to leave the room while Lee and the other organizers talked over some top-secret organizer stuff. While I was waiting for Lee, I struck up a conversation with the lady selling the buttons. I used to sell buttons of rock bands in my youth and have been having buttons made up for my chess tournaments and chess class. I told her how in 1980 I tried to sell ‘Carter Sucks’ and ‘Reagan Sucks’ buttons, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to print them for me. She agreed that I wouldn’t have that problem today, but nowadays I can print the buttons myself. We were talking about printing issues and what the top sellers were. I was expecting that a Ron Paul button would be her top seller since her button board was full of Ron Paul and Tea Party buttons, but then she turned over the button board and there was a whole new batch of buttons for all the other candidates. She told me that her top seller was a button of a pizza and the slogan ‘Herman Cain Delivers’ and since he dropped out she was now stuck with a bunch of obsolete product. It turned out the button lady was an independent business person and not a Ron Paul groupie. In fact, 4 years ago she was selling Democrat buttons. I have political buttons going back to Nixon-McGovern and bought some of her buttons to add to my collection. One of the buttons was a Revolutionary War style ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ logo that I put on my coat. It’ll be interesting who will see it and spark up conversations when I walk around.

After the meeting, the organizers gathered by themselves to discuss top secret organizer stuff. I took this picture on my way out.

  The button lady had to leave to get to the next campaign stop and the debate, but then Lee’s meeting was over. We went to Hardee’s for a cup of coffee and to catch up. Lee tried to convince me to come to the caucuses and support Ron Paul and I said that I would. I didn’t know a lot about him before listening to him, but I liked listening to him a lot, am convinced he’s not a phony, and as long as I’m a registered republican, why not?

  When people ask me about politics, I normally say ‘I play chess’ and I mean it, so while Lee was trying to convince me to support Ron Paul, I was trying to convince him to come play chess in Marshalltown on Thursday nights. I even suggested he carpool with Joe from Waterloo. Lee played tournament chess in 2008 from February to September and has a rating of 1373 down a bit from his high of 1383. When I looked this up, I noticed that his rating would have hit 1400, but he lost his last competitive game in the final round of a CyChess on 9-28-2008 against…guess who?

  A tough game, but I'm sure this isn't how Lee wants his chess career to be remembered, so I'm looking forward to his return to the board!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


  On Sunday the powers that be of college football confirmed that the Louisiana State University Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide will play for the college football championship on January 9th. It seems like a reasonable decision since LSU was the only undefeated team in College Football this season and Alabama was the only team to give the Tigers a close game, losing at home in overtime by a 9-6 score. The teams were determined by the arcane Bowl Championship Series Formula that combines a coaches poll, a poll of media and former coaches and players, and an aggregate of 6 computer polls to assign numerical value to a team’s season with the top 2 teams battling in the championship game. Alabama was given a score of .942, ranking it barely ahead of the Oklahoma State Cowboys at .933.

  The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) also determines the teams that will play in the Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls in addition to the championship game that rotates between the 4 bowl sites. The 5 bowl games bring in $125 annually in television rights alone from ESPN before any tickets are bought,cars parked, or hot dogs are eaten, not to mention corporate sponsorships. There are 6 college conferences that run the BCS (Big 10, Big 12, Southeastern Conference, Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Pacific 12) and each conference is assured of a spot in one of the 5 BCS bowl games and the lucrative $22 million payout. If a conference gets a second team in a BCS game, they pocket an extra 6 million (You can follow the money here.)

  Since the 6 BCS conferences have a considerable monetary interest in making sure as many of their teams play in the BCS bowls as possible, lawmakers representing states with colleges outside the BCS conferences threaten from time to time to regulate the college football industry unless the process is opened up to non-BCS schools. This has led to the BCS allowing for non-BCS schools to crash the party by jumping through a rat’s nest of hoops to get in a BCS bowl. If Notre Dame is in the top 8 of the BCS rankings, they are guaranteed a BCS bowl bid. A team from a non BCS-conference is guaranteed a BCS bowl if they are in the top 12 of the BCS rankings or are in the top 16 and have a higher ranking than a BCS conference champion.

  This is the first year since 2005 that a team from a non BCS conference hasn’t received a BCS bowl bid. The non BCS schools have had reasonable success in their bowl contests against the ‘elite’ schools. Boise State beat mighty Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, TCU defeated Big Ten champ Wisconsin in January’s Rose Bowl, and Utah defeated then #4 Alabama 31-17 in the 2009 Sugar Bowl to go along with Hawaii’s 41-10 loss to Georgia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl. 2 years ago, both TCU and Boise State received BCS bowl invitations, but had to play each other and were denied to chance to prove their worth against BCS conference winners.

  This year’s most ‘controversial’ BCS bowl selections were the Sugar Bowl choosing #13 Michigan and #11 Virgina Tech over higher ranked teams like Boise St (7) and Kansas State (8). Last week Michigan wasn’t eligible to be selected for a BCS bowl since they didn’t win their conference championship and weren’t ranked in the top 14, but they conveniently jumped 3 spots despite not even playing last week. TCU beat a poor UNLV team 56-9 but remained 2 spots short of BCS bowl at # 18. Virginia Tech lost 38-10 to # 20 Clemson, but only slid 6 spots from #5 to 11 and even managed to stay ahead of Clemson who moved to #17.

  Accusations of rigged voting by the pollsters are rampant, but who could blame a university or a loyal reporter for moving a few selected teams up or down a few spots with millions of dollars riding on the decision? Alabama coach Nick Saban has come under some criticism for placing the Oklahoma State team 4th on his ballot, but I’m really surprised he even included his closest rival for the championship game on his ballot. I would have expected all the BCS conference schools to do everything possible to keep TCU out of the top 16 and a $20+ million dollar payday going out of BCS conference pockets.

  I can understand the Sugar Bowl wanting Michigan, who has the largest living alumni group and haven’t been in a BCS bowl since 2007 or any bowl since 2008. There will no doubt be many Michigan fans watching the game on TV and many alumni celebrating their teams return to relevance by spending their cash in New Orleans to watch their Maize and Blue. The Virginia Tech fans are also expected to travel well. While the fans of Boise State and Kansas State are also rabid in their devotion, there just weren’t enough of them to entice the Sugar Bowl to choose their teams.

  I don’t mind the BCS protecting their revenue sources or the bowls picking teams based on how much money their fans will spend in the host cities. I just wish they’d admit it. Almost every team that manages to win half their games (70 in all) gets to go to a bowl anyway so it’s all just a matter of prestige of who goes to what bowl. College football may be the biggest money-making scam ever. The colleges rake in the dough from TV revenues, ticket sales, concessions, parking, wearing Nike or Reebok apparrel, and donations from their alumni among many other sources; they don't even pay the players, just provide room, board, books, and an empty seat in the classroom. If a player gets hurt or doesn't live up to their potential, the scholarship can be revoked (it's only year to year) and the college has no obligation to make sure the players graduate, only that their grades are good enough to be eligible to play.

  Many of the college football purists are offended at the prospect of a rematch, but it doesn’t bother me. The championship game is nothing more than a 2 team playoff and I think the chances are pretty good that these 2 teams would still be playing if there was an 8 or 16 game playoff. It is undeniable that of all the 12 1-loss teams in the country, Alabama’s loss was to the best team. If Oklahoma State wanted to be in the championship game, all they had to do was beat Iowa State just like the Oklahoma team they soundly defeated last weekend managed to do the week before last. I’ll reserve my sympathy for the years where there are 3 or more undefeated teams and teams are shut out of a chance at the championship despite winning all their games.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Continental Lunch

The Continental on Des Moines' east side.
You can sit in the sunny front or the dark alleyway for privacy.

  I got to work an hour late on Friday like I do every Friday when I teach chess at St. Francis. This was cleared with my company when I took the job and I make up the hour by taking a half hour lunch and staying late or using any extra time I spent taking care of production related matters at night during the week to account for the lost hour. I had worked till 12:30 when my cell phone rang and my friend Dan Troxell was calling me. Dan normally works on the other side of Des Moines but had the day off and wanted to see if we could have lunch together since he was in a nearby neighborhood. Since the company moved to the new building 3 weeks ago, I’ve only gone out twice at lunch. Once I took a walk to get an ice cream bar at the marketplace and on Tuesday, my boss invited me to go to lunch with him and Tony the new guy. It’s a tradition to buy lunch for new guy when he joins our group and I was the only guy around (and the previous new guy), so I was invited along.

  I decided to join Dan for lunch, so I got in my car and drove about 10 blocks east to a section of Des Moines called the East Village, which is full of artisan shops, government buildings, and restaurants. I met up with Dan, put some coins in the parking meter, and on his recommendation, we walked 2 blocks to The Continental, a bar/jazz club/restaurant. I figured the place must be OK if Dan wanted to go there since Dan is quite the artisan himself and would probably know all about these places. In addition to his chess playing at Zanzibar’s, his Innocent Bystanders blog (rendered inactive lately due to writer’s block), and his comic book collecting, Dan is a poet who is invited to read his works at poetry readings all over Des Moines.

  We sat down at the bar and caught up on things while some 1930’s movie from Turner Classic Movies was playing on the 2 TV sets. The sound wasn’t on the TV’s, which led me to believe that normally sports are on these TV’s at the bar (You need sound for TV shows and moves, but not for sports). The bartender took our drink orders (coke for me and water for Dan) and gave us menus. Jazz music was playing in the background and while Dan and I were catching up, I showed him my 3-minute video of my wait on line at Staples on Black Friday. All I needed was a beret and I probably could have passed myself off as an independent film producer.

  When the waiter asked for our orders, I decided to have the ‘Fried Goat Cheese’. I made that choice because not only have I never had Fried Goat Cheese before, I’d never even heard of it so I thought it may be the only chance I’d ever have to eat some ‘Fried Goat Cheese’. This same logic has led me to eat the Quik Trip’s JalapeƱo Bologna sandwich and coconut water (with pulp).

  I didn’t catch the bartender’s name, but he proved his worth by telling me when I ordered the Fried Goat Cheese that they were a ‘small plate’ item. I saw that on the menu, but I didn’t know that ‘Small Plate’ meant appetizer since the prices looked all the same to me. I changed my order from the Fried Goat Cheese to the ‘Italian Sandwich’, while Dan had the Blackened Chicken.

After being informed by my bartender/waiter that my preferred 'Fried Goat Cheese' was a 'small plate item', I switched to the 'Large Plate Italian Sandwich' complete with a tiny side of pasta salad.

  We spent the few minutes until our food came talking and checking out the people in the place and then our sandwiches came. The Italian sandwich was capicola and mozzarella on a toasted roll. The plate was big but aside from the sandwich there was only this little tiny bowl of pasta salad. I wondered if that would have been the size of my plate if I had ordered the Fried Goat Cheese. I didn’t really mind because the pasta salad wasn’t that good. It seemed limp and bland, but I’m spoiled because Kathy makes me the best pasta salad in the world and it is always crisp and crunchy with lots of fresh vegetables. The sandwich was first class, which more than made up for the pasta salad.

Waiters for Dummies: When the customer gives you a $20 to pay a $9.90 bill, make sure to give the change in small enough bills to get a tip. I must not look like a big tipper because he didn't give me 2 Lincolns.

  When it was time to pay the bill, I happened to owe $9.90. The bartender didn’t see me hold a five dollar bill in my hand, just the 20 that I pulled out of my wallet to pay the bill with. The bartender smoothly gave me one 5 and 5 ones and I left him the 5 and a penny as a tip. Dan thought the penny was insulting but I maintain it is a sign of good service.

  After we left the Continental, we went to the nearby ‘Plain Talk’ book store, which Dan had never been to before. I get to this store every few months. It is a used book store with coffee and sandwiches. In the store was a big guy named Joelly sitting on a chair. He said Hi, but he had a speech defect so he couldn’t talk so good. Joelly was holding an empty bottle of pills so to be friendly-like, I asked what the pills were for. Joelly told me that it was his dad’s pill bottle and he kept his change in it. Joelly then showed me 75 cents in his hand and asked me if I had a dime, because it cost 85 cents for a cup of coffee. I gave Joelly the dime and he was my new friend. Then a scraggly guy came in and asked to use the bathroom. He complained that he tried to use the bathroom at the drug store next door but they said it was for employees only. I said that if I went into that drugstore, pulled down 5 of the most expensive items off the shelves, put them on the counter, reached for my wallet, paused, and then asked to use the bathroom, they would tell me to go right ahead. The owner of Plain Talk books said it wouldn’t work but I was adamant that it would. The owner told me to go right ahead and I said I would do it if he would video it. He declined and it was only then that I realized that I hadn’t taken pictures or video at the book store.

  I was crestfallen for about 5 minutes to have missed a chance at some great video that could have come straight out of ‘American Splendor’, but it was such fun to hang out with Dan for an ‘My Dinner With Andre’-esque lunch and play hooky from work for an extra hour that I didn’t mind making up the extra time over the weekend. I spent the entire drive home Friday thinking of ways I could trick the drug store into letting me use their restroom and have it recorded without tipping them off. It will be tough since I’ve never seen more than one person at a time in the store, but I think the video could go viral and would be well worth the effort.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Economic Indicators

  On my vacation last week, I hadn’t driven at all until Black Friday when I drove 2 miles to Staples so my son Ben could get a 23” monitor for his computer. If you happened to go to the Marshalltown,Iowa Staples on Black Friday, you'd have to think the economy was awful since the place was mostly empty and the only way they could even simulate a crowd was to make everyone wait in line forever to get out of there.

Not much of a crowd at 6:15 am on Black Friday at the Marshalltown, Iowa Staples.
I got up early, but managed to catch up on my sleep waiting in the line.

  On Saturday I drove 55 miles to play chess at Zanzibar’s in Des Moines. On my way back from Des Moines last Saturday, I saw that gas at the Git ‘n Go in Bondurant was 2.98 a gallon. I was not prepared to see a price under $3 a gallon and sped past the station, but recovered my senses to make a left turn at the next light to fill up at Casey’s for the same $2.98 a gallon. Both gas stations in Bondurant always charge a penny less than gas in Des Moines and gas was $3.15 in Marshalltown so it seemed like a bargain.

  I think the economy must be pretty bad for gas to be less than $3 a gallon and even though the low gas prices will spur the economy, increased economic activity will cause more oil consumption, which will raise the price of gas, which will choke off economic recovery. A big part of the low gas prices is the economic problems in Europe where the governments of Greece, Italy, and Spain are having a hard time borrowing the money they need to pay for their deficit spending. This has made the dollar more valuable than the Euro and keeps the price of commodities that are controlled by third parties like gold and oil high low in dollars and high in euros.

Gasoline is $2.98 a gallon and milk $3.79.
Why doesn't anyone care how much a barrel of milk costs?
Are we running out of cows?

  Despite the low price of gas, the price of food continues to go up and up. After I filled up my car with $3 a gallon gas, I went into the Casey’s coffee refill. I paid 75 cents for 20 ounces of coffee which works out to 6 dollars a gallon. I also checked out the price of milk and it was $3.79 a gallon. Maybe instead of ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’, the republicans could chant ‘Moo, Baby, Moo’ or maybe even ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ if they can get the rights. It shouldn’t be too surprising to see the price of milk, hamburger, and meat so high when we are using the corn the cows would be eating as fuel.

  The stock market seems to be right in the middle of where it has been over the last year, making me think the economy is balanced like a see-saw that can’t decide which way to tip. Intel gained 30% between September and November to hit a multi-year high and just as quickly shed 10% in the last 2 weeks. The unemployment rate should be a good economic indicator, but it has become politicized so much as to be useless. When the unemployment rate goes down it is either good news because more people have jobs or it is bad news because people have given up on even trying to get a job and are not counted as unemployed. Likewise, when unemployment goes up it could be a bad sign because companies are laying off or really good news because the people who brought the rate down by stopping their job search are back looking for jobs. It reminds me of the George Orwell novel ‘1984’ where the chocolate ration is decreased from 30 to 20 grams a month and the ‘News Ministry’ busily changes all references to the 30 gram ration in order to praise Big Brother for increasing the ration to 20 grams.

  I’m trying to decide which way the economy is heading and since the standard indicators aren’t being very helpful, I’ve fallen back on the 3 best economic indicators I know of, all of which can be discerned with my eyes and ears. Here are my findings:

  My number one economic indicator is the LCI (Loose Change Index). This is the indicator my father taught me, which is how much loose change can be found lying around. 6 months ago, I found pennies laying on the ground during our walks with Daisy and Baxter on a regular basis, but over the last month finding loose change has been the exception rather than the rule. To me, this is a downward economic indicator since when times are good no one bothers to pick up any change that falls out of their pockets but when times are bad, not only do people have less change to spill, whatever coins do manage to hit the ground are quickly scooped up by the rest of us.

  My next indicator is the CI (Can Index), which has 2 separate measures. First is how many cans and bottles I see laying around on the street when we walk Daisy and Baxter and the second measure is how many people we see trolling for cans by surveying the streets and garbage cans on these walks. This indicator is giving me mixed signals. We’ve seen a normal amount of cans and bottles on the street waiting for their deposit to be claimed, but other than Shirley there hasn’t been anyone looking for the cans or bottles. I see Shirley picking through the garbage cans on Main Street almost every Sunday and haven’t seen her pull out a can in a month.

Loose change, cans, and bottles seem to be in short supply, but my crack researchers report that the supply of thrown away trash on the streets of Marshalltown is never ending. The rising Garbage Index indicates increasing disposable income to go along with the disposable merchandise.

  My third and last indicator is the GI (Garbage Index). This is how much garbage I see on the street when I’m walking the dogs. Since Daisy and Baxter find plenty of fast food wrappers, Chinese takeout trays, and chicken and rib bones on the street, this indicator leads me to believe the economy is picking up. This week they even found a Walgreen’s cup on the corner and a tube of toothpaste by the house a block away that has a garage sale every weekend. When the pigs of the world not only able to afford fast food wrappers to litter the landscape, but they can also throw away household supplies, that is a sure sign of plenty.

  My predictors are as mixed as the mainstream economic indicators with 1.5 up and 1.5 down, but I’m predicting an economic down turn based on a new store that has opened on Main Street called Valuables 4 Cash. It is ostensibly a coin shop, but will also be buying and selling gold and silver jewelry. The owner stated that he was drawn to the location by its close proximity to the ‘Purple Cherry’ yogurt shop. I can see all the little kids stealing grandma’s earrings, selling them at ‘Valuables 4 Cash’, and then getting a yogurt with M & M’s or Reese’s Pieces across the street.