Sunday, July 31, 2011

Super Hero Movie Reviews – Green Lantern – Captain America

  When I was a youngster, there were 2 major comic book companies DC (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) and Marvel (Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Hulk). I was a DC fan for the simple reason that each DC comic was its own story while the Marvel comics would be continued over multiple issues. Since I didn’t have the means or opportunity to get comics every month, I would get a DC comic when I had a dime to spend so I would be able to read a whole story, even though the Marvel characters were quirkier and seemed like more fun. As I got to my late teens and had more money to spend on comics, I was able to buy the Marvel comics on a regular basis and appreciate them as much as DC's characters.

  DC was first to get their characters to the big screen with Christopher Reeve’s Superman in the 70’s and Batman in the 80’s. Superman has struggled in the 21st century with the lackluster ‘Superman Returns’, but the Batman saga has been retold as the ‘Dark Knight’ and is a big seller yet again.

  After Superman and Batman, DC Comics has struggled to have a third franchise superhero to their movie roster. Watchmen was a great movie, but didn’t lend itself to any sequels since most of the main characters die and the story does not take place in the same universe as Batman and Superman. I liked Jonah Hex a lot more than most, but it did poorly at the box office. Wonder Woman is going to be back as a TV show. I think the Flash would be a pretty cool character for the big screen since he has a great cast of villains (Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, Gorilla Grodd, Captain Boomerang...), but for their latest effort, DC decided to go with another of their main characters, the Green Lantern.

  I went to see Green Lantern a couple of weeks ago. While my main pet peeve with superhero movies is that half the movie is spent retelling the origin, the Green Lantern’s origin comes with plenty of action with the Green Lantern of Earth’s corner of the galaxy Abin Sur, fighting super villain evil incarnate, Parallax, crashing to earth and while dying, sends his ring to find a man without fear to take his place. The ring finds Hal Jordan who is not the 60’s crew-cut test pilot I remember that has never smoked a cigarette, had a drink, and is saving himself for marriage, but is the 21st century Hal Jordan, a test pilot who breaks the rules, has daddy issues, gets drunk, and sleeps with the bosses daughter (among others). Jordan receives the ring, travels to the edges of the galaxy to meet all the other Green Lanterns (and their creators, the Guardians), learns the meaning of courage as he battles and defeats Parallax and saves the earth, the galaxy, the universe, and quite possibly the omniverse.

  In my opinion, the Green Lantern movie was excellently made. I didn’t think there was enough of GL using the ring, but there was enough action to satisfy me since the obligatory origin story was intermixed with Green Lantern action. The other Green Lanterns looked as freaky as remembered from the comics. There are thousands of Green Lanterns and not all of them are biped humanoids. I missed seeing the Green Lantern that was nothing but a giant eyeball, but the movie focused mostly on the bird/fish like GL, brutish rock like GL, and Sinestro the red human looking GL that eventually becomes a worthy super-villain in his own right. The guardians were transformed from balding little blue midgets with red costumes and big heads looking up at everyone to wizened brains each sitting on a miles-high column with red robes that stretched down for miles as they plotted their strategies for defeating Parallax (who was a Guardian gone bad). Hector Hammond was great as the weasel scientist who is infected with the energy from Parallax and becomes a telepathic super brain even as he becomes physically deformed. I hope the movie has done well enough ($114 million after 4 weeks) to warrant a sequel since the stage has been well set for more Green Lantern adventures to come without spending half a movie on an origin.

  On Friday, I went to see Captain America: The First Avenger,
the newest Marvel super hero movie. Captain America was the original 1940’s Marvel comic book super hero and was revived in the 1960’s as having lost 20 years frozen in an iceberg and being revived as a man out of time who struggles to find his place in the modern world.

  The movie spends a lot of time giving showing how weak and wimpy Steve Rogers from Brooklyn is and outlines his multiple attempts to get in the army. In between Roger’s demonstration of wimpiness we are treated to some scenes of Mr. Smith from the Matrix movies as a Nazi commander capturing an ancient energy source (the Cosmic Cube) and the attempts of his bug eyed Nazi scientist to harness the power it provides. Finally Rogers is accepted into the army into a special unit headed by escaped Nazi scientist Dr. Erskine, whose task is to create a new generation of super soldiers. Rogers continues his wimpy ways but demonstrates his courage and innate goodness and is chosen to be the first to receive the super-soldier treatment. As soon as Rogers is transformed into the perfect physical specimen, Dr. Erskine is killed and Rogers is further transformed from budding superhero to a war-bond salesman. Eventually Rogers decides to rescue his childhood friend (and a few hundred others) from the clutches of a Nazi prison camp and uncovers that Mr. Smith is in reality the Red Skull who is assembling a worldwide organization of evil called Hydra. The remaining third of the movie shows Captain America leading his handpicked crew to take apart Hydra and foiling a Hydra plot to blow up the major cities of the US but at the cost of being frozen in the Artic for 60+ years.

  For me the highlight of the movie was the inclusion of the Howling Commandos from the 60’s comic (set in World War II) Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos. Dum-Dum Dugan and rest of the crew look like they came straight out of the comics complete with the ‘WA-HOO’ battle cry. Left unmentioned in the movie was that the leader of the Howling Commandos was none other than Nick Fury. I also liked how Iron Man’s father, Tony Stark was integrated into the story as the US’s chief World War II scientist. Chris Evans plays Captain America and Steve Rogers like a superficial block of wood, but that is true to the comic book portrayal of the characters. The physical transformation is pretty amazing.

  My pet peeve with superhero movies is when half the movie is spent retelling the character’s origin and Captain America was worse than the usual. It seemed like it took forever for the action to get started and I didn’t care too much for a gun-toting Captain America, but the fight scenes on the train crossing the Alps and the Red Skull doomsday plane were great. I think one look at the pre super-soldier Steve Rogers would have been enough to let the audience know that he was a wimp and would have provided more action time.

  The surprise success of Iron Man has emboldened both DC and Marvel to cast a wide net for the next big super hero hit. Judging by the success of Captain America (100 million in a weekend and a half), Marvel has a big head start on next year’s Avengers movie. DC had the all time superhero hit in last year’s Dark Knight, but stumbled badly with Superman since 2006’s Superman Returns has been the only Superman movie in the last 25 years, while Marvel managed to restart the X-Man series this year and is restarting Spiderman next year. Restarting the series allows Marvel to kill off great villains like the Red Skull and the Green Goblin secure in the knowledge that they can be brought back in 10 years, but for someone my age, it is a little depressing to see characters I’ve known since my youth discarded and ‘rebooted’ at will.

  If DC wants a big super hero movie hit, I’d suggest thinking small instead of thinking big. There is a minor super hero called The Atom
, who is a scientist that can alter his size and mass, shrinking to this size of an atom and launching himself at a foe and increasing his mass at the moment of impact to simulate the effect of being hit by a pencil eraser that weighs 200 pounds. The special effects could range from the otherworldly (microscopic bacteria worlds) to technical (trying to defuse a bomb from the inside), to the sublime (giving a villain a heart attack or a stroke by entering his bloodstream and growing a bit). The only thing the Atom doesn’t have is a signature villain, but maybe one can just be made up or borrowed from another super hero.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Drop (Debt) Ceiling

  The media has had a field day with the ongoing debate over raising the US debt ceiling from its current level of 14.3 TRILLION dollars. President Obama and House Speaker Boehner had dueling speeches on TV last night outlining their positions. As is his custom, Obama wants to get a deal done even at the expense of alienating his most ardent supporters with spending cuts but is pushing for any increase in the spending limit to be large enough to keep him from having to raise taxes or cut programs while he is seeking reelection in 2012, while Boehner wants to look tough on cutting spending while keeping the Republicans from being blamed when millions of Social Security checks aren’t delivered and hundreds of thousands civilian military employees receive their pink slips.

  I don’t understand the talk about how if the debt limit isn’t raised, the government will default and won’t be able to pay its bills. Since the government will presumably still be collecting payroll and other taxes, they should be able to pay the essential bills out of that. Could it be that the government can’t even pay essential bills out of its income?

  I also don’t understand the Republican and Democrat plans to increase the debt ceiling by x TRILLION DOLLARS in return for a cut in spending of x TRILLION DOLLARS times 1.1 (give or take a few HUNDRED BILLION). IF I needed to borrow a hundred dollars, but I could reduce my spending on groceries by a hundred dollars, why would I need to borrow a hundred dollars? Only if a) I was only talking about cutting my grocery spending by a hundred dollars and had no intention of really following through, b) I was living in such a hand to mouth fashion and was so far behind in my debts that I would be bankrupt without my money fix, or c) They are going to cut a TRILLION DOLLARS in spending by cutting one dollar in spending over the next TRILLION YEARS.

  While every other time the debt ceiling needed to be raised some sort of face saving solution was found, this time I think the 2 parties have painted themselves into separate corners. The Republicans owe their current reign in the Congress to the financial and volunteer support of the Tea Party movement and their central tenet is to cut spending and not increase taxes, while the Democrats get their support from unions, government workers, and other groups who are part of the over 50% of the population that receive aid directly or indirectly who are loath to have their aid cut and would rather raise taxes on wealthy people to pay for the deficit.

  The banking crowd has weighed in with the advice that the US should remove the debt ceiling permanently in order to preserve its AAA credit rating. This sounds like a crock to me. Why would you give an entity that has been on a runaway borrowing spree for the last 40 years (except for a few years in the late 90s) an AAA credit rating anyway? The debt ceiling is a rare device that actually holds the government somewhat accountable. Removing it would just give the politicians of all parties’ carte blanche to spend and spend and spend. By the way, the same banks that want the US to be able to borrow at will without even a perfunctory nod to raising the debt ceiling were giving mortgages to anyone who had a pulse (and sometimes not even that) just a few years ago. These guys would give alcoholics credit cards that only worked in liquor stores.

  If the crises continues and the government can’t pay its bills, no one knows what will happen but I tend to think that not much will change except even more wall to wall news coverage. When the Republican Congress shut down the government in 1995, President Clinton was very inventive in finding ways to keep services going and I’m sure President Obama has that script in his desk drawer at the Oval Office.

  When I was working in a fast food restaurant as a teenager in New Jersey, a store manager named Jim Kennedy would go nuts if he saw the servers putting more than one ketchup packet in the to-go bags unless they were asked for and he would go even more nuts if even one ketchup packet was placed on a tray. I asked him why once and he said that the ketchup packet cost 3 cents (in 1978 cents) and a handful of them cost about the same as all the ketchup that was in the squeeze bottle on every table that was filled each night with industrial size cans of ketchup. I didn’t care too much for this managers’ screaming and yelling style (he was an oversized volunteer high school football coach – you know the type, I’m sure), but I had to admit that he made a lot of sense about the ketchup packets. Another one of his ‘go nuts’ triggers fired if we got our free employee sodas using the disposable wax cups that the customers got instead of the small reusable employee cups. I asked about that too and was told that the cup cost almost as much as the soda that went into it. I’m not sure I believe that, but he was a good watchman over his companies’ money (except when he would have us make up a mess of chicken and roast beef sandwiches for him to take home from work).

  If I knew where Jim Kennedy was, I might try convincing him to run for public office. But in the meantime, I’d like to offer my own version of his wisdom. Every day this week while driving to and from Des Moines, there has been road work on the road I use to get into and out of Marshalltown. Every time, I’ve had to wait at least 10 minutes for the pilot car to slowly make its 2 mile round trip and lead me to or away from the promised land. There are at least 2 and sometimes 3 people hanging around at the intersection holding a stop sign or waving their hands for the cars to stop and telling them that it would be quicker to turn around. Every car except me has waited a few minutes and then turned around or took the long way around. I’d like to advise the government that since no one is waiting for the pilot car they should just please close the road and save us the $400 a day that the sign holders, pilot car driver, and pilot car cost. Since the road work will take a week, we will have saved $2,000. Only 14,299,999,998,000 more dollars to go! While we’re at it, maybe the congressional cafeterias can make sure they aren’t dishing out ketchup packets. After all, you have to start somewhere!

Our tax dollars at work.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Second best

Nothing second best about these kids. They are top shelf all the way.

  I held an outdoor chess tournament in Des Moines yesterday at the same covered shelter I had rented in Pioneer Park for last months tournament. Unlike last month, all the picnic tables were in place and rendered unavailable to any roving bands of trailer park refugees. It rained till eleven o’clock even though the taped weather forecast on WHO kept saying the rain would be ending early in the morning. The weather reporter also said the temperature would hit 96 degrees with something called the heat index making it feel like 110.

  I had prepared by bringing plenty of fruit to eat along with Powerade and juice. I even bought some ice and duct tape at the convenience store. I wasn’t going to eat the duct tape, but I had brought some tarps to protect the shelter from sideways rain and the duct tape was for taping the tarps to the shelter posts.

A battle for first place that would have the Roman gladiators jealous.

  I didn’t think it was all that hot, but it’s good to be prepared. I wasn’t ready for the mosquitoes that were hanging around the chess players, but enough of the parents had bug spray and were willing to share so it was a non-issue. As soon as first round started, the power went out to the one outlet that was attached to the shelter. My computer only had a 2 hour battery, so I turned it off and started to fill out the manual pairing cards that were used in the pre-computer days. I haven’t had to use the cards since 2003, but I still had them at the ready. I had all the cards filled out and was ready to pair the second round by hand when I heard the happy sound of my printer coming to life. I turned my computer back on and was back to the modern age for the rest of the day. I would have been able to struggle along with the pairing cards, but it takes a lot of time and would have been the second best way for me to run a tournament. Next month, I'll have a one of those devices that give you an electric outlet from your car's lighter.

  The 21 kids and parents that played had a good time and then it was time for the afternoon cash tournament. I had 7 players including myself. I managed to win the first 2 games and was paired against 2004 state champion Dan Vasto in the third round. Unlike our previous 3 meetings where I had Black and was quickly a pawn down (managing to win one of these games), in this game I was Black and was a pawn up in the middle game. My king was trapped in the center for the pawn and I ended up giving the pawn back. I got down to 10 seconds left in and butchered a difficult ending to lose to Dan yet again. I wasn’t displeased with the game since I felt like I’d given Dan my best shot, but having come out second best in our encounter I decided to take the last round off and pack up while the other 6 players finished. If I had been playing in the last round, I could have used the duct tape for my ears when a band replete with a tuba player started practicing in the next shelter over. Amplified music is prohibited in the park, but there is no regulation against an old-school tuba and drum set.

A tuba player at a chess tournament doesn't seem like the second best option to silence...
until his drummer buddy decided to join in.

  In other second best news, I received an email from the Chess Journalists of America with a link to the list of entries for the 2011 awards. While my entries for the best feature article must contend with 10 other entries, it appears there are only 2 entries for the best chess blog, and this blog. I reviewed the competition and see that there have been only 13 posts on their site all year (and most of those posts are merely links to other chess sites - no original content) and just 3 of those since May 1st (It was much more active last year). It’s inconceivable to me that I could finish second to this particular blog, but I’ve seen stranger things happen. Once I tried out for a play in a community theatre and there was no one else auditioning for the lead role. I would always audition for the lead role and be offered the comic relief part (if I was offered any part at all), but it looked like I’d have a chance to have a leading part this time. Another audition was hastily arranged and there was no lead for me. I also remember an Abbott and Costello routine where the boys go to the racetrack. Lou bets on the races and loses every race until there is a 2-horse race between Lollipop and Jellybean. Lou bets on both horses and still manages to lose his money but the next race has only one horse (Peanut Butter). Lou bets all his money on Peanut Butter, but Lollipop finishes from the last race and Lou’s horse loses yet again (You can listen to it here at the 24 minute mark).

If I'm not at least second best in this contest,
I'll be the Lou Costello of chess journalism.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stinging losses

  Twice on Sunday, I got to see Americans lose chances at what passes for sports immortality.

  On Sunday morning’s British Open, Phil Mickelson went 6 strokes under par over the first 10 holes to get to one shot behind the leader Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland with 8 holes left to play. But as soon as Mickelson got close to the leader, he started missing short putts and putting the ball in the rough to lose 4 stokes over the final 8 holes and finish in second place with fellow American Dustin Johnson 3 strokes behind Clarke. Johnson was only 2 strokes behind Clarke with 6 holes to play, but lost 3 strokes over the final 6 holes. Both golfers were able to come from behind, but wilted at the moment they could have put maximum pressure on the leader. Clarke’s 3 stroke margin of victory included losing 2 shots to par over the last 2 holes, when he was taking care not to have a disaster with a 4 stroke lead.

  As soon as the Open finished, TV coverage on ESPN shifted to the Women’s Soccer World Cup final from Germany, where the United States was taking on Japan for the championship. The US had the best of the early action but weren’t able to score a goal and went to the half tied at zero. The US finally scored a goal with 20 minutes left to go ahead 1-0, but then stopped being aggressive and their passivity, combined with Japan’s newfound desperation quickly led to a 1-1 tie. The game went to overtime and I went to JC Penney with Kathy to replace my worn out shoes and belt. When I got back, Ben was watching the game and said the US scored in the 30 minute overtime period but the Japan team also scored to re-tie the game at 2-2. With the overtime period over, the tie was broken by a penalty kick shootout. The first 2 US players had their shots blocked by the Japanese goalie, while one of Japan's shot found the back of the goal for a 1-0 lead. Then the third US shooter kicked the ball over the goal and into the stands, which is rarely seen in a shootout situation. The next 2 Japanese players scored on their penalty kicks to win the shootout, the game, and the World Cup.

  These losses had to sting Mickelson, Johnson, and the soccer team. Mickelson is over 40 and probably doesn’t have many chances to win another major championship and a lot of the soccer team will be replaced by the time the next World Cup rolls around in another 4 years. Johnson is still in his 20’s but has squandered chances to win major championships twice already this year and is at risk of being labeled a choke artist. One group of Americans that had a successful weekend in international play was the Yankees, who beat the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday and Sunday (but only after getting crushed by the Jays on Thursday and Friday).

  At last week’s chess camp, I told the kids that losing hurts but as long as you can learn from the defeat and become a better player it’s OK to lose since they all have at least 50 years of chess playing ahead of them. But even in youth chess a loss can be traumatic if it costs a state or national title where youth championships are age or grade based.
I got to think about stinging defeats on Monday when I lost this game of 3 minute chess on the internet that I had no business losing:
  When I saw I was lost, I resigned and just stared at the computer screen in disbelief. I had plenty of time to see the pawn move and win the game in fine style. I know it’s just a game, but it gave me a flashback to the worst chess loss I ever suffered.

  The game happened at a team tournament in 2003. Our 4 man team was myself, Shawn Pavlik from nearby Green Mountain-Garwin, and my sons Matt (10) and Ben (7). In a team tournament, each member of your team plays their counterpart on another team and whichever team wins the most games wins the match. We were heavily outrated by the Ames team in the first round and Ben and Shawn lost their games, but Matt managed to beat one of the top high school players in the state and my opponent Tim Crouse, gave away his queen for a rook and a bishop and I already had 2 extra pawns. But I wasn’t up to the task. Warning!! After move 19, this game is not suitable for young children:
  I’ve never felt lower than walking out of that room and having to tell my kids and Shawn that I screwed that game up and lost. We won our next 2 matches to tie for second in the team tournament, but I couldn’t bear to even look at that game for over 3 years. Eventually, I faced up to it, but that loss still stings. Tim deserves a lot of credit for hanging around and giving me lots of chances to self-destruct.

  Another stinging loss was against Gerald Hawkins in the last round of a CyChess in 2009. I was pushed around throughout, managed to win a piece....and was busted 5 moves later:
  I could not believe I lost that game. I was on tilt so bad that afterwards I was angrily asking the tournament director why I had gotten the black pieces for the round when I was higher rated and due the white pieces (The answer was that Hawkins had 2 points while I had 1.5 so he got the white pieces he was due).

  The reason these 2 losses stick with me is that I have a self-image of myself as a chess player who makes very few mistakes, is really hard to beat, and can grind out wins (and draws against higher-rated players) just by being a pest. But in these 2 losses, all my opponents had to do to win was give me a winning game and let me choke it away.

  But just to show that this can happen to anyone, here is a game I won that I had no business winning. My opponent was Rodney Olson (since deceased) and was played at the 2007 Iowa Class Championships in Ankeny.
  A couple of the other players who were watching the game while they were taking a break from their own game couldn’t believe I didn’t lose. When Rodney resigned, he said ruefully, “I can’t believe I lost this game.” I could only say, “Brother, I been there.”

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Camping out

  Jose Gatica, my son Matt, and I held a chess camp in West Des Moines last Thursday and Friday. I’ve never held a chess camp before but so many parents had asked me if I knew of one in the area during my tournaments this year I thought it would be worth the effort to set it up. Chess camps tend to be a series of chess lessons held over multiple days to give players a sort of ‘chess immersion’. Most chess camps have a headline instructor and I was lucky to have Matt agree to participate. As the 4 time state high school champion, he was someone the campers could look up to as a product of Iowa chess. With Matt on board, I asked Jose if he was interested. Jose teaches at a number of the area catholic schools and has also taught at chess camps. I’ve met Jose a few times and Tim McEntee is our mutual friend. Jose agreed to work on the camp, I rented some space to at the West Des Moines Learning Center, and we were off.

  Organizing the camp played to all of my weaknesses. When I organize and direct a chess tournament, it’s something I’ve done many times before and the only help I need is to set up the tables and boards at the start and cleaning up at the end. I know what I need to do, when I need to do it, and after having at least one tournament a month for the last 8 months, getting the tournament to come together is almost an effortless affair.

Matt Anzis is an Iowa scholastic legend to most of these kids. He went over some his best games and captivated the advanced players.

  Since I’ve never organized anything like the chess camp I was flying blind and wasn’t even sure about when to order supplies, snacks, t-shirts, etc.. Since I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to have the maximum 35 campers, I decided to wait as long as possible to get all the things I needed so I wouldn’t be stuck with a lot of extra t-shirts and awards that would just be money down the drain.

  Also, tournaments I organize tend to be a solo act. I’ve had some great helpers with the 100+ participant scholastic tournaments I’ve run, but normally I like to have my fingerprints all over the events I’m associated with so I’m aware of even the smallest problem or issue and if a parent or player has a question they know that I’m the person to come to. With the camp, I needed a lot of input from Jose from everything from the course content to the schedule to the positions we were going to use to explain concepts to the kids. Not only didn’t I have my usual ‘iron fist’ control of the event, Jose was in the process of moving and I’ve been super busy at work so our opportunities for communications to finalize our decisions were minimal.

  My comfort level wasn’t helped any with the massive storm that swept through Marshalltown on Monday, leaving most of the town without power. I was able to check my emails from work but wasn't nearly as responsive as I normally am. The company that was making the camp t-shirts was local and also had no power, so I had no t-shirts for the campers. And Matt was planning on printing his lesson plans during the week, so he had to make do with writing out his notes longhand.

Jose Gatica not only can get youth interested in chess, he also has a good sense for their mood.

  None of that mattered at the camp on Thursday. We all arrived around 9, got everything set up for the 10 o’clock start and the campers started arriving. There were a few fits and starts with late arrivals, but by 10:30 we were well underway.

  We had 17 campers that we divided into 5 advanced players and 12 intermediate players (Matt moved 2 players into the advanced section for day 2). Jose worked with the intermediate players and Matt worked with the advanced players in the morning, while I helped Jose out and served up snacks and drinks to the kids. During the planning, Jose was insistent that we set up time for the kids to get outside and play. I figured when the kids needed a break, I’d just dish out some snacks, but the kids were having snacks during the class sessions and when they got bored, they needed to get outside and run around at the nearby playground. Jose’s experience really paid off since not only did he insist on having some recess time, he also had me bring some footballs and soccer balls, and had me ask around for a nurse to be on call in return for a reduced entry fee to the camp.

  Matt was going over positions and games with the advanced players and they were getting along great, while Jose was getting along good with the intermediate players. After lunch, it was my turn to go over endings with the intermediate players. The lesson started off well, but after an hour, the kids started zoning me out and I couldn’t finish the lesson without getting outside for a touch football and playground session. I was kind of bummed but Jose reminded me that the kids don’t have the attention span to sit still for all that long. After playtime, I gave a short lesson on writing down the moves that went much better and day one finished up on a high note.

When the advanced players got a little bored, I split them into 2 teams of 3 players and made them play, but alternating moves between players and no talking. Everyone enjoyed the different kind of chess until a teammate would make a mistake.

  Day 2 went even better than day one. I got to work with the advanced kids in the morning and the beginners in the afternoon. A lot of these kids only know me from running tournaments, so it was nice for me to interact with them talking about chess in a give and take atmosphere instead of just giving them a prize or telling them who they are playing next. In the afternoon, I was much more cognizant of Jose’s advice and as soon as I saw the kids zoning out, we got them outside for more playtime. We finished the camp with a short tournament, gave everyone some chess related merchandise, and took some pictures. While we were cleaning up after the camp, the building director came in and told us he was so impressed with the camp that he would let us have it there next year at a reduced rate.

  I think the kids all had a great time and I hope they learned some valuable chess lessons. I got a lesson in relaxing and letting events unfold, and I learned that Jose is someone I can count on to be prepared and also someone I can learn a lot from about how kids relate to chess. I also learned that when buying snacks, kids prefer Sunny D to apple juice by a 2 to 1 margin and that cheddar cheese crackers and mixed fruit cups win hands down over pepper jack crackers and tropical fruit cups. The camp turned out to be a chess and financial success and gave me a big dose of enthusiasm as I gear up for another school year of scholastic chess tournaments after the inevitable dwindling attendance of the summer tournaments. And having gone through the planning process, I will be much better prepared for next year’s camp.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

It could be worse

  I’m entering this blog from the Marshalltown Library parking lot. The free Wi-Fi is the first use I’ve gotten from the new library in 3 years. Thanks to a huge storm in Marshalltown this week, our house has had no electricity since Monday morning at 4 AM. Power has been restored to a few blocks but not mine. I think that the closer you live to a bar or liquor store, the better your chances of having your power restored since I noticed all the bars and liquor stores had their power on around 5pm Monday. This same kind of storm hit 10 years ago and my block was one of the last to have power restored. Both times I’ve been able to watch people in the house across the street watch TV while I have been deprived of watching one of my favorite Law and Order – Special Victims Unit or NCIS episodes for the two hundred and eighteenth time.

  Alliant Energy has a web site that you can enter your phone number and they will tell you when your power is going to be restored. 48 hours after the storm, the web site said they are surveying the impact and can’t make an estimate at this time. What a joke. The one time you could use this information, no one updates the site. You could say that Alliant Energy should be busy working on restoring electricity and not updating some web site and you'd have an excellent point, but then my question is “what’s the point of having a web site to tell me when my power will be restored if they won’t update it until the power is restored?” I looked this afternoon and saw my power was scheduled to be restored yesterday. Thanks!!

Good News! My electricity will be fixed yesterday!

  In the 21st century, no electricity also means no internet and no phone since they both come from the cable company. This is good and bad. On the plus side, no internet means I can’t check on work from home. So far, no crises have erupted that would require me to drive to Des Moines in the middle of the night (turning a big plus to a big minus). On the bad side, I’ve organized a chess camp for Thursday and Friday and no email means no contact with the parents and no electricity means the people in town that were making the camp t-shirts and prize buttons for me won’t get them done in time. My amusement the last 3 days have consisted of walking and playing with my dogs Daisy and Baxter, reading books, and hanging out with Kathy, which are things I enjoy doing even when the power is on. The things I’ve missed most are emails, facebook, the phone, TV, radio, and internet chess. These aren’t trivial things, but nothing I can’t live without. I didn’t miss not seeing the all-star game and I’ve spent so many years opening a can and sticking a spoon or fork in it (even soup!) that I still think of a cooked meal as a luxury. Kathy is becoming an expert at grilling, but I think she is missing ice cream most of all.

  When I told someone how I haven’t had power this week, their response was a bright and cheery “It could be worse.” I felt like asking how and then if they said something like “at least you still your health”, I’d reply that I also found out I just have a debilitating illness just to see how it could get even worse. Then I felt like saying “Duh” in a derisive tone of voice. Instead I just nodded in agreement and mumbled my assent because I suppose the comment was well intentioned and I have enough on my plate without starting anything, but it got me thinking how I just don’t get the ‘It could be worse” crowd. Don’t take that rant to mean that I don’t appreciate all that I have. It is just that I reject the notion that I shouldn’t want better for myself and my family just because ‘it could be worse’. And when something bad happens, it isn't better because something worse didn't happen.

  When someone tells me their troubles, I offer my sympathies, offer to help if I can, and offer a solution if I think of one (but not if the person I’m talking to wants to shoot down my suggestions so they can continue to wallow). The one thing I never do is tell them how things could be worse. I don’t see how that is going to make anyone feel better by knowing things could even get worse. If I was going to point out how things could get worse when someone is sharing bad news, when they share good news, wouldn’t I have to be consistent by pointing out how things could even be better? Or should I keep on talking about how things could be worse? After all, if things are good it could get even ‘worser’ than before it got less worse.

  When I have problems like no power or feeling sick or my car’s not working or a sick dog or getting stuck in traffic or losing a chess game, I try to just acknowledge that I’m not happy about it and move on. On those few occasions where I catch myself thinking about how it could get worse, I quickly descend into paranoia. When a project I was working on was having all kinds of problems a couple of weeks ago (mostly due to stretching a system beyond its breaking point), I was waking up in the middle of the night and checking my emails to see if anything had gotten worse. Maybe that ‘It gets better’ slogan has some merit after all. I wasn’t a big fan of it before, but I guess I’d rather say that to a suicidal harassed teenager than ‘It could be worse!’

  In my opinion, telling anyone a situation could be worse than it already is isn’t a comfort but an invitation to overactive imaginations to create nightmarish scenarios. But in the interests of fairness, I thought I try it the next chance I got. When I rolled into work today at 6:30 (I came in early because I couldn’t check some overnight processes on my computer at home – no power, remember?), I had a conversation with the older gentleman who was the overnight security guard. It was early and I was tired so I don’t remember the exact wording, but as I recall, it went something like this:

“How’s it going?”
“Not so good. Yesterday, the doctor told me I only had 2 days to live.”
“It could be worse!”
“You know, you’re right. Wow! What a relief, I feel better now. Boy, I’m sure glad I ran into you today!”

I’m not sure I really believed him…

It could be worse. If they had bigger silos, there would have had twice as much damage.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A modern-day legend

  The Yankees’ Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays today with a third inning homer off the Rays best pitcher, David Price. Because Jeter is a Yankee his chase for 3,000 has been more closely followed than the recent quests of Craig Biggio and the steroid user Rafael Palmeiro to reach the 3,000 hit milestone. I knew when he got to 2,000 hits at the age of 32 and was still averaging 200 hits a year that unless he got injured, he’d get to 3,000 and there was an outside possibility of his reaching 4,000. The decline in Jeter’s abilities over the last 2 years makes 4,000 hits out of the question. The next big Yankee milestone will be in 2 or 3 years when Alex Rodriguez will be due for his 3,000 hit (He’s 250 away). Rodriguez will get a big media treatment when his time comes, but the Yankee fans will give him the same lukewarm response that Roger Clemens 300th win got in 2003. This is understandable, since Jeter is a homegrown Yankee product, while Rodriguez and Clemens were products of other teams who came to the Yankees for money and the chance to win the championship they could never lead their teams to.

  Because he is a Yankee, Jeter has come in for a large share of criticism from the national sports media outlets like ESPN for signing a big money contract this past winter ($51 million over 3 years) and hitting leadoff even though he turned from a .320 hitter with some pop to a .270 hitter with almost no power. They’ve even been bringing up how Jeter refused to move to third base when Rodriguez (an All-Star shortstop) was signed.

  Normally I have nothing nice to say about the Yankees spending top dollar for players that are past their prime. In the 70s, Steinbrenner won a couple of championships while paying top dollar for players in their prime like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Goose Gossage, but in the 80’s and early 90’s the other rich owners beat the Yankees to the prime free agents while Steinbrenner overpaid for over-the-hill players like Ken Griffey Sr., Davey Collins, and Ken Phelps and mediocre players coming off their best year like Pascual Perez, Ed Whitson, and Steve Kemp. Meanwhile the Yankees slid into mediocrity and finally became a last place team managed by a Stump Merrill. With Steinbrenner suspended, the Yankees slowly rebuilt the farm system with players like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettite, and Mariano Rivera and picked up inexpensive free agents that other teams thought were over the hill like Paul O’Neill and Wade Boggs instead of trading the jewels of the farm system for star players looking for a buck. Once the team had established itself as a contender, star pitchers like David Cone and Jimmy Key, and John Wetteland were purchased and the team finally made the playoffs in 1995 after a 14 year drought.

  The Yankees lost in the 1995 playoffs to the Mariners, but retooled for 1996 by getting the Mariner first baseman Tino Martinez to replace the retiring Don Mattingly, Joe Girardi at catcher, and giving the shortstop job to Derek Jeter. The Yankees won the World Series in 1996 and 3 more from 1998 to 2000. There were a lot of factors leading to the championships, but from a Yankee fan’s perspective, after 18 years of no championships, the winning started when Jeter showed up and in Jeter, Pettite, Rivera, Williams, Posada, O’Neill, Brosious, Martinez, etc., this generation of Yankee fans had a group of legends to match Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig from the 20’s, Joe DiMaggio and Gehrig in the 30s, Dimaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle in the 50’s, Mantle, Ford, and Roger Maris in the 60’s, and Thurman Munson (my favorite player as a kid), Ron Guidry, and Graig Nettles in the 70’s.

  Not only is Jeter a modern day legend on the field, he has never disgraced himself off the field the way Tiger Woods and Roger Clemens have with their infidelities or Clemens, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, etc. have with their steroid use. A guy like that should be able to play for the Yankees for top dollar as long as he wants based on his past service and hopefully he will recognize when it’s time to retire and I won’t have to see him hanging on hitting .191 with the Pirates, Royals, or some other loser team.

  The reason that Jeter didn’t move away from shortstop in 2004 to make room for Rodriguez was that Jeter didn’t have the arm to play third base and the Yankees had no room in the outfield. It was best for the team that he played shortstop. The reason that Jeter is batting leadoff this year is that the Yankees don’t have a leadoff hitter. Gardner steals bases like a leadoff man but doesn’t get on base enough and can’t hit lefties. Granderson is fast like a leadoff man, but he is in the top 10 in home runs and is needed hitting later in the order. Jeter is the best fit at leadoff. If the Yankees still had Johnny Damon, Jeter would be hitting second or seventh. He has always bounced around the lineup and hit whenever he was needed and never complained about it either. I’m sure his pride will be hurt when he is moved down in the order, but at the moment, the Yankees don’t have a lot of options at leadoff.

  Getting 3,000 hits makes Jeter a sure-fire Hall of Famer. You may think that he was already a lock, but there is an anti-Yankee bias for the HOF and I could see the same argument used against Jeter that kept Phil Rizzuto (Yankee shortstop from 1941 to 1955 and 1950 AL MVP) out for 30 years. The argument against Yankees seems to be that if you take them off the championship teams, you remove a lot of their Hall of Fame argument. To me, that is a lot of nonsense. The Yankees have always been able to have any player they wanted on their roster, and yet they chose Rizzuto be their shortstop when they won 5 World Series in a row from 1949 to 1953. Being a shortstop on a dynastic team should be proof of a Hall of Fame resume instead of an argument against it.

  It bothers me a lot to see the media nip at the heels of a champion like Derek Jeter, who has always done what’s best for his team, but that’s what the media does best. It’s a shame he is at a reduced level of ability at the same time he is getting all this attention for his 3,000 hits. It makes people forget what a great hitter he was in his prime, hitting over .300 with 200 plus hits almost every year, and that doesn’t even count all the clutch plays he’s made in the playoffs and World Series. I was happy to see him go 5 for 5 in today’s milestone game to help people all over the country see the Jeter that Yankee fans have been treated to for the last 17 years. Jeter will be as big a legend to Yankee fans 50 years from now as Mickey Mantle is to the 70 year olds today and DiMaggio, Gehrig, and Ruth were to their fathers and grandfathers.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Fool me once…

  In May, I wrote about how I spent $31 to nominate my blog for the Chess Journalists of America Awards despite having my submission last year voted the worst entry ever. The deadline on the entry form I received was June 15th so I sent in my nomination form the first week in June. I never heard from the chairman of the awards committee, who was supposed to acknowledge my entry, so I emailed a reminder and a week later I received an acknowledgement email. On the 16th, I looked on the CJA website to see which entries had been received since the nomination form said that they'd be posted when entries were closed. No entries were posted. Then on the 20th, I received an email from Mark Capron. Mark is the editor of the Iowa State Chess Association magazine ‘En Passant’. Matt had written the story of his 5th place finish at the National High School championships for that magazine last year and Capron wanted to know if I had submitted it for a CJA award, because if I hadn’t he would submit it on behalf of the magazine. I hadn’t submitted it but I was confused since I thought the entries were closed for a week. I took another look on the website and lo and behold, the deadline had been extended to July 6th.

  There was no mention of the extension on the web page, just a link to Alexandra Kosteniuk’s June 16th chess blog posting announcing the CJA awards and the July 6th deadline as if there was no previous deadline. Kosteniuk mentions in her blog that ‘it's FOR YOU that the CJA is running its annual Awards program, and I want YOU to participate and to WIN AWARDS!’ (Her capitalizations)

  I don’t mean to seem rude to the CJA president and former Woman’s World Chess Champion, but c’mon Alexandra!! If you really wanted ME to ‘WIN AWARDS’, you could have left the deadline as it was and I’d have a better chance to ‘WIN AWARDS’. The least the CJA could have done was to mention a reason for extending the instead of just breezily pretending that there was no extension at all.

  How can groups that pull this kind of stunt have any integrity? How can anyone ever take their deadlines seriously? What kind of message does this send to people like me that sent in their entries on time? I suppose if there were enough people like me that respected deadlines, there wouldn’t have been a deadline extension. After the fiasco of my asking the judge (personally but anonymously) in 2006 what he thought of my submission and being told he never heard of it, I feel like I’ve gotten fooled twice. Well, shame on me but the CJA has seen its last penny from my pocket.

  I did manage not to get fooled twice on another more important front. I worked for Fisher Controls in Marshalltown from 2008 to 2010 as a contractor for Robert Half. As a contractor, I agreed to work for the company for 2 years for a set wage. I enjoyed working so close to home, but in the middle of 2009, Fisher decided to cut all the contractors pay. They weren’t losing money, just not making enough. It was described to us as a ‘win-win’ since by agreeing to a lower wage we all got to keep our jobs. I saw how it was a ‘win’, but missed the part about how it was a ‘win-win’ (I had the wrong perspective). Then Fischer ended up letting many of the contractors who took a pay cut go anyway (No, they did not give them back the pay they’d given up in order to keep their jobs a few months prior). I’m sure they saw that as a ‘win-win-win’. Once the company showed they felt no obligation to be truthful or live up to their own obligations, I started looking for a job and a few months later got one.

  Since then, Fisher Controls has been making more money and has hired a recruiting company out of their parent corporation Emerson’s hometown to do their IT recruiting and look for programmers. I got an email from the recruiter letting me know of an opportunity in Marshalltown. I wrote back asking if the opportunity was full time or a contract position and how much it paid. I was told it was a long term contract and the salary was open and they would ‘pay the right amount for the right person’. Sounds like the old phrase ‘Salary based on experience’, which means the company’s experience in paying the least amount of salary. I wrote back and asked if the job came with any benefits and if the right amount went up to an absurdly high number I picked out of the sky and was told I could get full benefits ‘which can include 3 weeks paid time off, Medical, and Dental’ and also asking me if I was looking for the absurdly high number in addition to the benefits. I thought the word ‘can’ was odd since if it CAN include those benefits it also CANNOT include these benefits. At this point I called off the game and told the recruiter I wasn’t interested since I’d heard of an employer in Marshalltown who gave all their contractor pay cuts so they could keep their jobs and then laid them off a couple of months later anyway. I’m surprised this guy didn’t even bother to read my resume to see if I’d worked at Fisher or maybe he did, but his job was just to get me in the door, get his commission, and then who cares about me.

  It is always gratifying to be pursued by those that have wronged you in the past, but in my experience it’s foolish to expect different results from the same people. If I did go back to work at Fisher, as soon as the economy hit a bump or they decided they just weren’t making enough money, I’d be in the same situation I was 2 years ago. I wish this recruiter had called 2 months ago for a refresher course before I let myself get fooled for the second time by the Chess Journalists of America.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Guy who got it

Ed (19??-2011)

  Last Wednesday, I received the unwelcome news that my friend Ed from the Salvation Army had passed away this week at his home. In February, I wrote about how I attended Ed’s sermon at the Salvation Army and how inspired I was from it. When I saw Ed in March, he told me he was working on a sermon in May and would let me know when he was ready. We talked about his February sermon and I’m happy now that I got to tell him how inspired I was.

  On Thursday at chess club, Majors John and Judith were preparing for Ed’s funeral which was going to be on Friday morning. I wanted to go, but at work I had a time critical project that was coinciding with a maintenance shutdown of some government servers and had to be in Des Moines (A telling sign that my priorities are out of whack). Major John was Ed’s best friend and Ed had followed him around to his different posts in the Salvation Army. He told me that Ed had died sometimes between Tuesday (when he was last heard from) and Wednesday (when he was found) while working on his computer.

  The next to last time I saw Ed was on the courthouse square in late April. My wife and I were out doing our Saturday rounds of the thrift stores and on our way back saw that Ed was out on the square with his hot dog stand during the annual Garden show. I stopped over and had a fantastic Chicago-style Polish Sausage with hot sauerkraut, relish, and mustard while we chatted a bit. Ed was having a great time selling the hot dogs and talking with the food vendor next to him.

  The last time I saw Ed was in May on a Thursday night. We were having our chess club and Ed was cooking a dinner for a service organization that was having a meeting at the Salvation Army. I remember asking Ed when he was going to have the sermon he was telling me he was working on and he said he didn’t know. He then told me that he was the luckiest guy around because he was able to get his hot dog stand even though he never had a way to afford one because everything just came together to get him one.

  Ed had a little table in the Salvation Army kitchen that was piled high with his books and notes for future sermons. He was very religious and believed we are living in the end times, but unlike some of the very religious people I know, he never acted like he was going to heaven and you were going to hell unless you agreed with him. I always judge people by how they are with me and Ed was always supportive of my efforts to reach people through chess.

  I never even knew Ed’s last name, but that’s probably the way he wanted it. He was more about results and actions than names and titles. I saw all the old photos of Ed that were being set out for the funeral. Since I only knew him for the last few years, there was obviously a lot I’ll never know about him. I remember his joy at making a batch of chicken wings or chili for us to feast on during chess club and I also remember him working to the point of exhaustion picking up supplies in Des Moines and driving them to Applington-Parkersburg when the town was nearly destroyed by a tornado.

  My friend Alex Golubow wrote me once that “really make a positive difference in other people's life and that is when life is worth living...”. That describes Ed to a T. Rest in Peace, Ed. I’ll be doubling my efforts to see you someday and get another one of the best Chicago style dogs around.