Wednesday, October 31, 2012

See Food

What's more offensive? The frog legs themselves or the fact that they are a product of China yet the freezer holding them proclaims it contains 'Delectable seafood from Southern Louisiana'! Is there deception afoot or has China purchased Louisiana?

  Almost every Saturday I don’t have a chess tournament, I go on an expedition with Kathy to the Salvation Army Thrift Store, the Goodwill Store, and occasionally the Jonathan House thrift store that benefits an orphanage in Sierra Leone. Kathy looks for Christmas candles to add to her collection (700+ and counting) and I just poke around looking at the old books, movies, and music.

  The merchandise from the Goodwill comes to them in a big truck, but the Jonathon House and Salvation Army take donated merchandise from town and sell it in their stores. Every once in a while one of the stores will have a box of music or books that haven’t been put on their shelves yet. Last week I saw a big box of records at the Jonathon House. They were all country music records from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The first record was a Roy Clark album recorded live from the old Austin City Limits TV show (You may remember Roy Clark as one of the guitar playing jokesters on Hee-Haw) and right behind it were country music records from many of the stars of the time. Once at the Salvation Army I saw an entire box of records of easy listening music. Robert Goulet, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, etc…

  Vinyl records are part of a long-ago past (although they are making a comeback of sorts). These records were likely dropped off by the family of someone who had died or had been committed to a nursing home. I often wonder what the owner of a box of 8-track tapes or records would think of them sitting on sale in a thrift store for pennies on the dollars. I have over a thousand records from my younger days and I can’t imagine giving them away even though I haven’t listened to any of them in at least ten years. Some of my records have collectible value (picture discs, 45 picture sleeves, etc.) and I even have the Rolling Stones album ‘Some Girls’ with the original cover that had to be replaced when they were sued by many of the celebrities who graced the original cover without permission. But the fact is anyone who wants my records probably just has to outlive me and then head to the nearest thrift store a few weeks later.

  In between going to the thrift stores we went to the Hy-Vee grocery store to pick up a birthday cake for Ben, who turned 17 on Saturday. After picking up the cake, we walked through the store and there was a freezer labeled as a ‘Cajun Fest’, containing all sorts of goodies from the Bayou. My curiosity was piqued and I wandered over to the freezer.

  The freezer had all sorts of odd meats. I saw breaded catfish, crawfish, catfish nuggets, alligator, and frog legs. I’m not much of a fish eater. The thought of eating catfish and crawfish doesn’t whet my appetite. The idea of reducing the alligator population appealed to me somewhat, but I didn’t enjoy the alligator dinner I had in July so passed on that. Besides, the alligator patty packages mentioned that the alligators were farm raised and having seen Planet of The Apes, I didn’t want to support the idea of some farm raising all these alligators who may escape and take over the world someday.

  That left the frog legs. Kathy had never seen frog legs in a supermarket meat case before and was completely disgusted by the sight of them. I had a plate of fried frog legs in Syracuse at a chess tournament almost 30 years ago and as I recall, they were fairly tasty. I’m no frog expert, but these looked to be very muscular frogs and the thought crossed my mind that they may have been genetically modified. I felt kind of sorry for the poor frogs. They had obviously grown to a healthy size only to be unceremoniously (Maybe there was a ceremony – I wasn’t there) chopped in half, skinned, and wrapped in plastic as part of a Cajun food display. Despite that, I was still thinking about getting the frog legs but then I saw the three magic words – PRODUCT OF CHINA. That did it for me. I decided to make a stand for truth, justice, and the American Way and passed on the frog legs. Shame on Hy-Vee for pitching Chinese frog legs in a freezer meant to celebrate Cajun foods from Southern Louisiana.

Frostbitten Strawberries!
  After we left the Hy-Vee, we made our way south to the Goodwill store and then headed back home, making our final stop at the Hy-Vee Drug Store. The store used to be called Drug Town, but I think they had to change the name when the new to town drug dealers would head there to restock.

  Not only is the Hy-Vee Drug Store a full service pharmacy, it also has a post office, sells lottery tickets, and sells regular food as well as close out food from the Hy-Vee supermarkets. Last year I wrote about how I got apple juice for $1.16 a gallon and 15 stick packs of Wrigley gum for 44 cents there. Every week when we get to the Hy-Vee Drug store, we walk around the store and I always make sure to see how much frost has accumulated on the ancient containers of frozen strawberries.


  As we walked through the store, there was a big display of Chicken of the Sea Coastal Cuisine at the end of one aisle. It is a box with a sealed pouch of rice and a sealed pouch of Tuna mixed with one of four flavors (Tuna in a Teriyaki Sauce, Tuna in Tomato Herb Sauce, Tuna in a Ginger Sauce, and Tuna in a Light Pineapple Sauce). I’d purchased the Pineapple Sauce variety the week before and not only did it taste good, it only took two minutes to make, and best of all only cost a dollar!

  I love a bargain and at a dollar for each meal of 400 to 500 calories, this certainly qualified. I bought eight boxes of Coastal Cuisine, making sure to get some of every coastal flavor. Even though they are a ‘Product of Thailand’, they’re labeled as ‘Coastal Cuisine’ which at least sounds international and not pretending to be from the Bayou.

You don't have to take my word for how easy Chicken of the Sea Coastal Cuisine tastes or how easy it is to prepare. You can see for yourself!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Weekday Commercials

  My wife Kathy went to visit her father in South Carolina on Thursday for a couple of days. I arranged to work from home on Thursday so Daisy and Baxter wouldn’t be alone all day. I would have tried to work at home Friday as well, but on Friday mornings I coach the chess club at St. Francis in Des Moines. If I had missed even one meeting in the two plus years I’ve been helping with the club, I may have been tempted to skip the club. Ben was going to be home from school at 11 and that, along with my perfect attendance, made working at work on Friday a no-brainer.

  I’ve never liked working from home. I’d rather be at work when I’m working and be at home when I’m at home. Having said that, I save four gallons of gas and two hours of driving time every time I do work from home which are weighty advantages.

  I started work at seven in the morning. Daisy and Baxter were sleeping but I woke them up at nine when I took a break to take them for a short walk in the cold rain. I toweled them off and was back at work at 9:15. At noon it had stopped raining so I took Daisy and Baxter on a longer walk. When we got home, I cooked one of the pork chops Kathy had left for us and shared it with Daisy and Baxter while I watched the news on WGN-TV.

  Filled with pork chop tidbits, the dogs went back to sleep and I went back to work. I left the TV to listen to the news. After the news was over, WGN played reruns of ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’. I’ve seen the show before. If you are one of the people that believe Chuck Norris is some sort of superhuman semi-deity (like the people who patronize this web site) then Walker, Texas Ranger’ may be the best TV show ever made, but to me it’s a typical good guy – bad guy show, with the good guys riding horses and pickup trucks and using karate kicks to beat up the bad guys at the end. I wasn’t watching the show, but had it on as background noise.

  I didn’t pay too much attention to the three episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger. I was sure that the bad guys were all caught in the end and got a taste of Chuck Norris’s boot smacking into their faces and then falling down in slow motion. What did get my attention were the same 4 commercials that aired during the shows. The commercials were so different from the ones I see when I’m at home at night and on the weekends. They weren’t for beer, cars, insurance, food, or shampoo. These commercials were addressed to the products and services that people who don’t work during the day need.

  It would make sense to me that older Americans would be watching TV during the day and that accounted for the large number of ads for AARP supplemental health insurance. I didn’t realize that Medicare doesn’t pay for everything and that older Americans need to have protection for costly deductibles and out of pocket costs. I looked up the rates for some of these plans and they seem affordable enough. I’m old enough to join AARP but not old enough for Medicare, but it’s something to keep in mind.

  The next commercial that caught my attention was also aimed at older Americans, but for those with limited mobility. These ads are for The Scooter Store. I rarely see scooters in Marshalltown, but the portion of the Des Moines Skywalk where I work is right next to a senior center and there are old people zipping around in their scooters all the time. The commercials talks about how I could get a power chair or scooter at little or no cost to me. The people on the commercial are so happy with their newfound mobility I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. I checked out the website most of the power chairs are priced between three and six thousand dollars with some used models going for less than two grand. I’m not old enough to get Medicare for my power chair, but I believe in being prepared. When the time comes I intend on getting a ‘Pride Mobility Jazzy Select Elite’, which at a low price of $3,699 provides a 15 mile range and a ‘reliable blend of power, performance and style’.

Left: A commercial from the Scooter Store. Right: I tried to find out who paid for these scooters, but the one man was going too fast and the other fellow wasn't talking...

  The next commercial was from a company named Binder and Binder. This company specializes in helping disabled people get disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. I always knew that it took years to get disability, but I didn’t realize that 80% of the initial applications are denied and review hearings take almost two years to complete (See it here). The website has all the Binder & Binder commercials and an enormous amount of information, but I couldn’t find out who pays Binder & Binder. I’m not planning on being disabled anytime soon, but I’m bookmarking the site just in case I become disabled and my television stops working.

  The fourth commercial didn't apply to me at all. It was a commercial from the Goldwater Law Firm that was on almost as much as the other three combined. The commercial is looking for women who are suffering complications from a transvaginal mesh implant to be represented in a defective medical device liability lawsuit. “The product liability lawyers at the Goldwater Law Firm can help you get the money you deserve.” Normally I would have tuned out this commercial, but I remember when I was on vacation last year, I saw a lot of commercials from the same law firm looking for people who were suffering from a rare form of lung cancer called Mesothelioma. I’m not suffering from any conditions at the moment, but I’ll make sure to keep their link handy just in case.

  With unemployment so high, I would have expected to see more commercials for technical institutes and colleges to cater to unemployed people, but the only commercials I saw catered to the old, disabled, or injured. I checked back with WGN on Saturday and didn’t see any commercials offering to handle my lawsuits, get my scooter, or supplement my Medicaid. Instead I saw commercials for fast food, car insurance, and yogurt with active cultures.

  I was glad to have had the chance to get such useful information on my rare weekday at home, but I wonder what happened to all the commercials aimed at the old, disabled, and injured people? Do they stop watching WGN on the weekends? This is a case of blatant discrimination and when I'm a member of one of these groups, I’ll be searching the Goldwater Law Firm’s web site to see if there’s a lawsuit for me as soon as I got done calling Binder and Binder to add emotional distress to my disability claim.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

King Football

  I knew football has been the most popular sport in America for quite some time, but I hadn’t realized how far it has outstripped baseball until we went to the Applebee’s for dinner on Sunday night.

  There is no seat in the Marshalltown, Iowa Applebee’s in from which you can’t see at least one of the 2 dozen or so high definition televisions. We were seated in the table closest to the front door and there was a television 10 feet away from me that was tuned to NBC’s Sunday Night Football pregame show.

  I knew Game Six of the National League playoffs between the Cardinals and Giants was being played but when I looked around to find a TV that had the game on every set had the football pre-game show on. I know that the Applebee’s can have different stations on different TV’s but apparently no one at the Applebee’s wanted to see a playoff baseball game more than a football pregame show. I’d understand this if the baseball teams were from either coast but the game featured the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the 4 teams most popular among Iowans (along with the Cubs, Twins, and Royals).

  I didn’t ask anyone to change the station since I was just curious what the score was, but it got me thinking about how popular football is. I don’t watch nearly as much football as I used to, but I did see most of the Iowa State-Oklahoma State college game on Saturday afternoon, half of the Penn State-Iowa game on Saturday night, and on Sunday I watched a large part of the Jets-Patriots game.

  Football used to be the province of the weekend, with college games on Saturday and professional games on Sunday with a Monday Night game thrown in to allow the gamblers one last chance to break even for the weekend. Now there is hardly a day that doesn’t have some football on television. The NFL Network has a package of Thursday night pro games, while ESPN or FOX televise college games on almost all Thursdays and Friday nights and many Tuesday and Wednesdays.

  The football pre-game shows have become huge productions. NBC and ESPN have at least 6 talking heads apiece for their pro telecasts. It’s not enough to have all these broadcasters and ex-players sit behind desks and discuss the latest news or break down the upcoming game. They have to move around to a fake football field or a living room set while they continue to talk football in between the car and beer commercials. Then they move back behind their desks and continue talking. I can’t wait for some hotshot producer to decide that costume changes are needed for even more pre-game variety.

  I used to attribute the success of the NFL to the amount of money spend by people betting on the games. There is an estimated $50 million dollars bet in Nevada each week and millions and possibly billions more bet illegally. I’m not even counting the many football pick ‘em pools that are allow pools of co-workers that pool their money in-house and pick all the games without having to pay a cut to a gambling consortium. The NFL has strict rules forcing teams to provide standardized injury reports. It not only helps make sure that the opposing teams know who is going to play or not, but it provides a measure of assurance to the legions of gamblers that there is no inside information to be had and that their dollar aren’t at undue risk.

  If gambling was the initial impetus for pro football’s rise to the top of the sports heap, fantasy football has helped the game attain Tower of Babel status. In fantasy football, fans form leagues in which they pick virtual football teams. The players score points for their owner’s teams through statistical accomplishments. Fantasy football can give interest to even the most lopsided, dull game if a player in the game is on the roster of the fantasy team of a potential viewer (or their opponents). Fantasy football is generally played for money but the stakes can be as high or low as the participants wish. The real money in the billion dollar industry is made by the companies that dispense fantasy advice and provide league tracking in return for advertising eyeballs.

  Fantasy baseball came before fantasy football but has been overtaken in fantasy for many of the same reasons it has been overtaken in reality. Baseball teams play 6 days a week and each game takes between 3 and 6 hours to complete. To keep track of all the players and statistics for a fantasy baseball team is nearly a full time job. For a fan to watch all their favorite team’s games is at least a 20 hour commitment per week. It just doesn’t fit in with today’s busy life style and short attention spans. A fan can watch all 16 of their favorite football team’s games in around 60 hours over 4 months’ time. While managing fantasy football rosters can become a full time addiction, the statistics are easily understood and only get updated once a week. This allows amateur fans to feel like they can compete in their leagues against more experienced players.

  Football has never been as popular as the present time, but I see signs that the success of the sport may be sowing the seeds of its own downfall. The NFL is running out of product. It now has games on 5 networks (including its own NFL Network) 3 days a week. It puts on a regular season games once a year in London and has had exhibition games in Mexico, Japan, and Australia. Each team now gets a week off during the season which has expanded a 16 game schedule to 17 weeks of games. The league unsuccessfully tried to add 2 games to the schedule in the latest round of negotiations with the players union.

  Can the NFL continue its seemingly unstoppable growth? If the NFL has an untapped revenue stream, I don’t see it short of making the Super Bowl pay for view. There are new caps and sweatshirts to buy every year, each team has a day when they wear uniforms from seasons past that are available for purchase, most of the teams have brand new stadiums and games are on every TV network except ABC (which owns ESPN anyway).

  I think the NFL will soon make serious efforts to increase their inventory of games to sell to the public. I don’t know whether they will add more bye weeks to expand the schedule, add more teams, or just increase the schedule. There is money to be made and I doubt the NFL will be able to resist the temptation to dilute their product to get it. Will the NFL owners move too fast and dilute their product beyond recognition? I doubt it but there has been a large influx of new ownership in the NFL over the past 5 years. If a group of owners that have just paid a billion dollars or more for their teams decide to recoup their investment via expansion fees and increased television revenues for their games, the NFL could find itself a bloated shell of its current mighty self in short order.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Great Debate

  In order to prepare for the third and final Presidential debate, both parties agreed to a secret rehearsal debate a few days ago in Marshalltown, Iowa. A crack team of impartial moderators were chosen and allowed to pick the questions to ask the debate participants:

  What does the New York Yankees collapse in the playoffs against Detroit mean to you?

  Governor Romney: The Yankees spend more money on their players than any other team and should win more than one World Series every ten years, but because of all their long-term guaranteed contracts they’ve become another casualty of the Democratic Party entitlement mentality. Let’s take Alex Rodriguez for example: He’s been hurt for each of the last 2 years, his production has plummeted, but since he is guaranteed 117 million dollars over the next 5 years he can spend his time during the baseball games flirting with girls (FACT CHECK) and there’s nothing his employer can do but grin and bear it. The more people are guaranteed, the less they seem to want to work for it and that’s the culture I intend to change when I’m in office.

  President Obama: That is my opponent’s world view in a nutshell: Just because the Yankees have more money than anyone else they should win every year. I say, why should the rich get all the rewards? What about the rest of us? If I’m reelected and my plan to have people like Alex Rodriguez, Warren Buffet, and yes Governor Romney pay their fair share goes through everyone will benefit, even the Yankees. A-Rod will have to start taking better care of himself and play better to make sure he gets some World Series checks to cash in order to keep his current standard of living.

  What do you think of schools in California, New Mexico, and Illinois banning Flaming Hot Cheetos? (BACKGROUND)

  President Obama: While I’m generally in favor of individual freedom when it comes to snack foods, there has to be some limitations. Let’s face it, now that the government has mandated that everyone have health insurance and will be paying the insurance for those who can’t, we as a people just can’t afford to have a bunch of school kids eating all these Cheetos and getting obese and having heart attacks. It’s just not in the national interest for this to happen.

  Governor Romney: This is just another case of government cracking down on American exceptionalism. Here is an American owned company that has created an American made product so successful that people just can’t get enough of them and the government wants to stop their success. What’s next? Banning iPods? It’s the right of any school district to not sell a product, but to confiscate Cheetos in schools is Un-American! What about all the good American jobs the people at Frito-Lay create by the sale of Cheetos? In Iowa, I met a man named Manny who delivers Cheetos to stores all across the Midwest and his wife works at a Cheetos plant making sure that the hoppers are full of red dye #5. They’re scared to death of losing their jobs from this intervention into the snack food freedom of the families of America and if I’m elected I’ll do everything in my power to help successful American companies succeed instead to handicapping them.

  When my owner take us out for our beef stick treats in the morning, his coffee costs a dollar for a 20 ounce cup. He says this works out to 6 dollars a gallon and at a dollar and a half per 20 ounce bottle Mountain Dew is 9 dollars a gallon. My question is why is everyone so concerned about gas costing 4 dollars a gallon when coffee and soda are so much more expensive?

  Governor Romney: First of all, Mountain Dew is only 2 or 3 dollars a gallon if you were to buy it 2 liters at a time. The reason that gasoline is so much cheaper than coffee is that with the emergence of the energy drink industry, there hasn’t been the impetus to discover new sources of coffee and so we just rely on the coffee supply from South America, while the entire world has been hard at work discovering new oil fields. Oil has been discovered off shore in Brazil, the tar sands of Canada, and in shale deposits in North Dakota, just to name a few. But our President is risking our economy by his giveaway of money for companies to make batteries for electric cars and other ‘green’ initiatives instead of letting the free market meet the demand for products people want (FACT CHECK).

  President Obama: Unlike the Governor, who doesn’t even drink coffee (FACT CHECK), I understand the dilemma of coffee drinkers everywhere and I have offered numerous initiatives to find new sources of coffee for the regular people of this country who like to drink coffee. But they have been constantly stonewalled by the Republican Congress. I am happy to report that thanks to my administration’s efforts to strengthen the economy, a Dunkin Donuts will be opening in Marshalltown very soon (FACT CHECK) so some progress is being made on that front.

  Governor Romney: I must inerrupt to mention that Dunkin' Donuts does NOT serve beef stick treats!

  If you suddenly found yourself and your family had no money, how would you survive?

  President Obama: If we found ourselves down on our luck, I hope the social programs the Democrats have been the champions of would still be intact so I could get unemployment and my children could get Pell grants for college and our health care would be provided for until I could get another government job.

  Governor Romney: I think we would do just fine. As a matter of fact, my wife was just telling me about an article she had read (FACT CHECK) about someone who didn’t buy clothes for a year. Of course, the fact that we don’t drink alcohol or smoke helps to keep our expenses down. And even if I lost 99.75 percent of my money I’d still be a millionaire!

  It’s time for final statements – Governor?

  Governor Romney: Thank you for moderating the debate. I just want to tell the American people that I’ve been a successful businessman and I know how to get things done and I am the right candidate to lead this country forward.

  President Obama: I also want to thank you for moderating the debate and also for the insightful questions.
  My opponent talks about how he is a successful businessman. Here is a man who was the son of the president of an automobile company, is 65 years old, and he’s worth 250 million dollars . I’m 15 years younger, have never held a job outside academia and government and I’m already worth 10 million. (FACT CHECK) I ask you – who is more successful and able to better lead the country forward?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

National Chess Day

The chess players crowd around the computer to see who they'll play next.

  Last Saturday was National Chess Day and for the third year in a row I had a free chess tournament. In 2010 I had an adult and beginner tournament at the Salvation Army in Marshalltown and the last two years I’ve had a free family tournament at St. Francis. Unlike the last two years, I didn’t have any donations from side programming clients to offset the costs, but I was able to use some of the profit from this year’s chess camp to cover the costs of having the tournament.

  The two kids from Marshalltown I normally bring to the tournaments didn’t get to club on Thursday. I didn’t have a chance to ask them if they wanted to play so on Saturday I packed up my car with my tournament supplies and headed down to Des Moines by myself.

  I was looking at a small crowd like last month’s tournament, but I caught a break when central Iowa had one of its rare (for this year, anyway) downpours, raining out soccer games, birthday parties, boy scouts activities, and covered bridge celebrations. This caused some parents to bring their kids over to play chess and other players to have a full day of chess instead of a half a day. I still have the same format of morning and afternoon tournaments since it seems to fit in with the more causal chess players of the Des Moines area.

Look closely..Halloween trophies!!
  This year’s tournament had 51 players, down from 68 last year. The difference was in the lack of players from the club I help coach at St. Francis. Last year, I had 19 players from the home school, but this year there were only four. I could have boosted the participation by sending flyers home with the chess players and I would have except for a lesson I learned at my chess camp over the summer. I mentioned to the kids that I was having a tournament the day after the camp. One of the St. Francis players immediately started asking his mother if he could go. She wasn’t especially receptive to the idea so I went over and told the young man that I have a tournament every month so if he missed one it wasn’t a big deal. The mom thanked me and told me that the family just has one car and activities requiring driving have to be scheduled very carefully and in advance. This never occurred to me. Kathy and I have always had 2 cars. I decided that day that I would just send the tournament announcements to the parents and let them decide whether to take their children to the tournaments. I missed out on a few players this month, but having these kids come to the tournament when they’re ready to will be better for everyone in the long run.

  I got to the St. Francis cafeteria a little before 8 and was setting everything up when the first player arrived and as it so happened, it was Augustus from Kansas City. Augustus’s mom brought him and his brother to play last year and I was happy to see that they liked the tournament enough to make the long trip again. Augustus and his mom Christine helped me finish setting up the boards and then the players started arriving. Among the players were my student Alex and 2 St. Francis players, Will and Steffen.

  Augustus outrated the rest of the field by 2 rating classes and won the tournament. But not without a few ups and downs. In the last round he called me over because his opponent was staring at him and he was being distracted while Ana (the opponent) said she was staring at him because he wasn’t moving! I explained to Augustus that I can’t stop people from staring but it was up to him to not be distracted. I even mentioned how the World Champion Mikhail Tal would stare at his opponents and distract them so much that they couldn’t function or wore sunglasses. I also told Ana that her opponent was allowed to use his time in any way he wanted and if he used up his 30 minutes, he’d lose the game. Everything got settled down and they got back to their game.

Some happy prize winners!!
  In the unrated tournament Will was winning his first four games. He knew he could have lost 2 of his games and was delighted to be having his best tournament ever. When Will lost his last round game, a four way tie was created for first place and one of the co-champions was Steffen, the other St. Francis player. Since I give out trophies to the top 5 players in each tournament, all the first place players got one. This was the happiest group of kids I’d seen in a long time and I got a great picture of them that I sent in to the USCF office as part of my National Chess Day report.

  It was a fun morning tournament and even though my camera broke when I dropped it (the battery latch was already being held in place by duct tape), I was energized for another tournament in the afternoon. Des Moines chess coach and 2012 state champion Jose Gatica came by to see some of his students play, I played a game of chess with Augustus, hung out with some of the other parents and players, ate the two BK Stackers Jose brought for me and before I knew it, the afternoon players started arriving.

  I guarantee a three round tournament and normally the players get to play four or five games as long as I can start a round by 11:15 or 3:15. In the afternoon’s third round, there were 3 undefeated players after 2 rounds. The third round started around 2:30. Two of the undefeated players were playing and after the numerous twists and turns of any youth tournament, the game had settled into a position where one player had a bishop and rook pawn, but the defending player had set up a blockade with his king to prevent the pawn from being queened. All the other games had finished. The other players wanted to know if they were going to get to play another game. It was 3:15 and I said we could have another game if this last game was over by 3:25. The defending player was just shuffling his king back and forth and he offered his opponent a draw. The attacking player said “I know it’s a draw, but maybe you’ll make a mistake” and kept moving his bishop to different squares. At that point it got to be 3:30 and I told everyone that there wouldn’t be another game. As soon as I said that there wasn’t going to be another round, the player who wouldn’t agree to a draw before suddenly agreed to a draw and asked me if we could please play another game, but by then it was too late.

  It’s the right of every player to play on in a drawn or losing game, but I couldn’t avoid the feeling that my tournament was being taken hostage. Since I had an odd number of players, the real losers in this scenario was the player in each round who only got to play 2 games instead of 3. It was a small setback to an otherwise great day. In the afternoon unrated section, there was another 3 way tie for first place. Two of the three champions were brothers whose father passed away last month in a car accident. I can’t imagine what these kids are going through, but they seemed pretty happy to be playing chess for an afternoon and I was happy to have been able to give them the diversion.

  There were a lot of positives to pull from the day even (or especially) though there were some events that could have been taken as negative. When Will lost his last round game, he gave three other players the excitement of finishing first in a tournament and still got to experience that excitement himself. My camera died, but when Madhan Prasath stepped up to take pictures in my stead, not only did I get some different ideas on how to take chess pictures, I got some cool action pictures of myself as well. When there wasn’t a fourth round game in the afternoon because one of the players stubbornly played on and on in a drawn position, another player got to win one of my tournaments for the first time and everyone got home a little earlier than they normally would have. I could go on and on but I'm sure you get my drift.

  I had a super group of chess playing kids and adults and there's no better way to thank the people that support my chess endeavors all year by putting on a free National Chess Day tournament for them. My tournament write up even got published on the USCF website (You can see it here.) which will give some publicity to the players and St. Francis. It was a tremendous National Chess Day and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A High Level

  Major League Baseball has so far gotten everything they could have asked for in the 2012 playoffs. First there were the 2 one-and-done wild card games. Then every first round playoff series went to the maximum 5 games. This feat required 6 games to be won by the team facing elimination. Not only do the longer series lead to more revenue for the MLB broadcast partners, it allows the casual viewers the chance to get a good look at the playoff teams that will be competing for the chance to go to the World Series. This should lead to better ratings for the remainder of the postseason.

  The Yankees barely held off the surprising Baltimore Orioles for the division title and they barely managed to barely hold off the pesky Birds in the divisional playoff series. I didn’t expect runs to be as hard to come by as they were in this series. The Yankees averaged 5 runs a game and the Orioles 4.5 runs this year. But after the Yankees seven run outburst in the first game, no team scored 4 runs in any of the next 4 games (which included games of 12 and 13 innings).

  Aside from the stellar pitching on both sides, the biggest story of the Yankees-Orioles series was manager Joe Girardi pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez in game 3 of the series and benching him altogether in the decisive game 5. The game 3 decision made Girardi look like a genius when pinch hitter Raul Ibanez hit the game tying ninth inning home run and a game winning home run in the twelfth inning. In Game 4, Rodriguez was hitting in the eighth inning with one out and runners on second and third in a tie game against the Orioles underhand pitcher Darren O’Day. Rodriguez not only failed to drive the winning run home, he failed hit a fair ball, he failed to even hit a foul ball. He took 3 swings and failed to even come close to even hitting a ball and then he went back to the bench.

  If Rodriguez had driven in the run in the eighth inning, the Yankees would likely have won the series in four games and had a day off with a rested CC Sabathia to take on the Tigers last night. Instead, Andy Pettite had to take the hill for the Yankees. Pettite pitched well enough but the Yankees were still losing 4-0 going into the ninth. Rodriguez left 6 men on base before being taken out of the game for Eric Chavez, the same player who replaced him against the Orioles. Chavez hasn’t been an improvement, going 0-8 with 4 strikeouts in this year’s playoffs.

  The Yankees came back against Tiger closer Valverde to tie the score at 4, but that turned out to be a silver cloud with a very dark lining when Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter fractured his ankle in the 12th inning and the Yankees lot to the Tigers anyway.

  I think the Yankees can beat the Tigers even without Jeter. Jayson Nix is an adequate shortstop and hit the ball hard against the Orioles. If the Yankees can get any production from third base to make up for the loss of Jeter they can still take the series. Jeter’s replacement Eduardo Nunez is a poor fielder but is probably the best offensive option at this point.

  Rodriguez’s fall from grace has been stunning. His slugging percentage has decreased every year since 2007. 2 years ago he had 613 career home runs and at the age of 34 seemed like a lock to pass Barry Bonds 762 steroid-aided home run record (Rodriguez is an admitted steroid user). But he has only hit 34 homers in the last 2 years to sit at 647 and unless he gets back on the ‘roids again doesn’t seem to have a chance.

  Speaking of performance enhancing drugs, I wonder if it is only a coincidence that 2 of the high profile steroid suspensions in baseball this year had Yankee connections? Melky Cabrera was a Yankee from 2005 to 2009 and never hit more than .280. This year he was leading the National League with a .346 average when he was suspended for 50 games by testing positive for excessive testosterone.

  Bartolo Colon was out of baseball in 2010, but resurrected his career with the Yankees in 2011 at the age of 38, going 8-10 with a respectable 4.00 ERA with a 10 year high in strikeouts per 9 innings (7.4). Colon signed as a free agent with the Oakland A’s in 2012 and had a 10-9 record with a 3.43. Colon’s comeback was attributed to an unusual stem cell injection into his elbow and shoulder, but that theory was thrown into question when Colon was suspended for 50 games by major league baseball when a drug test revealed excessive testosterone in his system.

  I see a lot of ads on TV for how testosterone will make feel like I did when I was younger (Here is a sample), but none of them ever said they would help me lead the National League in hitting or land a contract as a pitcher with a major league baseball team. I haven’t tried any of these products and don’t know anyone who has, but I think that Yankee manager Joe Girardi may be a user. No matter how badly Alex Rodriguez has been playing, pinch hitting for a 30 million dollar player and then benching him in an elimination game is surely the sign of excessive testosterone!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Movie Reviews – Looper and Taken 2

  I went to see the movie Looper the weekend before last. I’ve always liked time travel movies and seeing one starring Bruce Willis was an extra treat. Willis has been in a number of excellent science fiction movies (Fifth Element, Armageddon, 12 Monkeys, Unbreakable, Sixth Sense) and is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s main rival as his generation's top science fiction star.

  The premise of Looper is that in the future murder is impossible to get away with because of tracking devices that are implanted in all humans, so in order to eliminate their victims, the mob of the 2070’s uses time travel to send their victims to the economically distressed and mutated world of 2044, where they have set up a network of executioners called ‘Loopers’. The victims of the future are bound, hooded, and sent to 2044 where the Loopers execute them and dispose of the bodies well out of the reach of the future’s tracking devices. The Loopers don’t even have to wait to be paid, since their victims are loaded down with bars of silver as payment for services rendered.

  This is all explained naturally in the beginning of the course of the movie by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays Joe the Looper as a fairly unlikeable drug addict thug who is very happy heading to a cornfield every so often to execute someone and make his nightly jaunt to the nightclub to purchase a lap dance or more from an occasionally topless Piper Perabo of Covert Affairs fame. Eventually the Loopers are assigned to execute themselves to ‘close their loop’. When they kill their future selves they receive a payment of gold and are allowed to leave the ‘Looper’ profession and enjoy the rest of their lives (until their execution).

  All is well with Joe until his loop is closed and he meets his future self (Bruce Willis), who was only pretending to be bound. Willis escapes his past self and sets out to kill the past self of the mob kingpin who arranged for the murder of his wife in order to prevent her from being killed in the first place, while Gordon-Levitt needs to kill his future self in order to prevent the mob from eliminating his future self by killing his current self (Gordon-Levitt).

  It sounds convoluted when I explain it, but the movie makes it very understandable and a natural part of the plot. Willis and Gordon-Levitt play off each other incredibly well as past, current, and future selves with their own selfish agendas. Gordon-Levitt just wants to kill his future self while not getting killed himself while Willis tracks down the future mob boss and keep not only himself alive, but also keep his past self in one piece so he can keep his future intact.

  Looper did a great job of explaining the paradox of time-travel without getting too deep into it and the action and plot was tense throughout. While the latter part of the movie is centered in a Kansas farmhouse, Willis provides plenty of action as he tries to wipe out the mob. The ending was as sudden as it was shocking and given the development of the characters throughout the movie, made a lot of sense. If you can get past the abundant cursing and one Perabo topless scene, this is a unique film and a must see when it hits the Redbox if not sooner.

  Last weekend I went to see the long awaited Taken 2. I had written 2 weeks ago how much I liked the first Taken movie, more because of the timeless dialog rather than the great action scenes. The new Taken has Liam Neeson (ex black ops agent Bryan Mills) in Istanbul for a short term security assignment when he is joined by his ex-wife Lenore (who is separated from her husband from the first movie) and his daughter Kim (who was taken in the first movie).

  It seems like the perfect vacation to help Mills reunite with his ex-wife and help his daughter deal with her ordeal from the first movie. But unbeknownst to Mills, he and his family are being stalked by a group of Albanians from the little town of Tropojë, home to the kidnapping and sex trafficking ring that Mills single handedly wiped out in the first movie. The new group is led by the father of the kidnapper Mills left tied to a chair wired to the electrical system. This new villain is played by Rade Šerbedžija, a dead ringer for the ‘Most Interesting Man in the World’ from the Don Equus commercials.

  The sequel has Mills and his wife being taken instead of his daughter, but since the Albanians want him to see his daughters fate, he manages to stay alive until he can communicate detailed instructions to his daughter on how to locate him and get him a gun, which he uses to escape from his captors and rescue his daughter while his wife is taken again. Eventually everyone is rescued,the Albanians are killed, and the family returns to the relative normalcy of Los Angeles living.

  While the film could stand on its own as a reasonably good action movie, it is just a poor cousin to the first Taken movie. Where the first movie has memorable dialog the second movie settles for Mills yelling at his daughter to ‘keep going’, ‘go faster’ or ‘get down’ at least 2 dozen times during the signature car chase through the narrow Istanbul streets while avoiding the police and the Albanians. The first movie had Mills pretending to be a john, a waiter, and a crooked cop on the take in order to get the information he needed to find his daughter, while in the sequel Mills depends primarily on his fists and weapons, and only outwits his enemies in the clever way he helps his daughter find him by bombarding the rooftops of Istanbul with hand grenades so he can help her locate him and by the way he finds his wife by using his memories of what he heard when they were taken hostage earlier.

  I knew when I went to Taken 2 that it was probably not going to meet the high standards of the iconic first film so I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t come close. It was a fun movie to watch because I enjoyed seeing Liam Neeson reprise the Bryan Mills character, very much like I always watched the ‘Death Wish’ films since I knew I’d be seeing Charles Bronson in his classic role no matter how predictable the movie would be (being Charles Bronson’s girl in a Death Wish movie was always a part time job at best). Taken 2 is a good enough movie, but if you are just hopping on the ‘Taken’ bandwagon, you may as well wait for it to show up at the Redbox or the Wal-Mart $5 bin.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Write On

  In August, I started my fourth year of blogging in the Broken Pawn. I had thought of adding a blurb noting I was entering my ‘fourth year of blogging irreverence’ to the broken pawn picture at the top of the blog, but I never got around to it. I quickly read through my 3 years of blog posts in the past month and while there are more errors than I’d like to admit to, I think many of the posts are top notch and as a whole the quality is improving year by year.

  I write my blog mainly for myself, but after I won a Best Chess Blog award from the Chess Journalists of America, I was asked to write a column about blogging for the quarterly magazine of the CJA, The Chess Journalist. I quickly agreed and am currently working on my sixth column. It would seem that writing about chess blogging four times a year for the hundred or so subscribers of the magazine wouldn’t be that different than blogging itself, but there are a lot of differences. I have a fairly hard limit of a thousand words and as the title of the magazine suggests, the subject matter is limited to chess in general and chess blogging in particular.

  There are 2 decidedly different aspects to blogging that I’ve tried to write about in my column: the writing side of blogging and the technical side of arranging content, promotion, etc... My first column was used to introduce myself to the readership (you can see it here) and my second article discussed attempting to engage your blogging adversaries in respectful discourse instead of resorting to name calling or other insults. I then switched to discussing some technical aspects of blogging with a column reviewing 3 free products to display chess games online and a column discussing the ins and outs of placing pictures in blogs. I returned to a writing topic for my fifth column with a discussion of using boxing as a metaphor for chess. My next column will be of a technical bent with a discussion of how to use Google Analytics to determine where readers are coming from and how to measure a blogs overall effectiveness.

  It is extremely cool to be a columnist in a national publication (albeit one with just over a hundred readers) and there are other benefits as well. When the political survey people call and ask me if I am a member of the media I can truthfully say with an exaggeratedly journalistic sniffle ‘Why yes, I happen to be a nationally published columnist.’ and sometimes the surveyor hangs up. The other big benefit is being able to get many of my chess friends and acquaintances into the pages of ‘The Chess Journalist’. I managed to mention John Flores in a contrast of honest and dishonest people, my sample screen shots of on line chess games included games by Lee Gordon Seebach and Alex Golubow, and my article on pictures will hopefully include the crowd from Zanzibar Coffee Adventures. If everything works out perfectly, my article on chess and boxing metaphors will include the shot of David Skaar and me trading punches at the Iowa State Fair from my August post. The editor told me that the picture may not be sharp enough to include, but I would consider getting that picture in the pages of The Chess Journalist to be a personal triumph equal to the time I was a DJ at a party and got a group of college students dancing to 10 minutes of Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ without even realizing it.

Could getting this picture of David Skaar and myself published in 'The Chess Journalist' be a greater accomplishment than getting college students dancing to 'Music For Airports'?

  In July, I started to notice a lot of fan articles on the main Yahoo! Sports page. The writers were all signed up to the ‘Yahoo! Contributor Network’. I like to write about sports and signed up to the contributor network, thinking my sports writings could reach a larger audience and if I caught lightning in a bottle I could get a big enough audience to make some money. (you make around $1.10 per thousand page views). I submitted my first article on September 9th. It was a short write-up on the Yankees losing streak and my opinion that their starting pitching wasn’t good enough to win the World Series. I submitted the article and waited and waited and waited three days. The slowness bothered me since I would see fan articles on football games published moments after the game ended. On Wednesday the 12th I received the notice from Yahoo that my paragraph was too long, my title (‘What Happened to the Yankees Season?’) shouldn’t be a question, all numbers less than 10 should be spelled out, and I didn’t cite my sources. By this time I got my feedback, the Yankees had started playing better and I didn’t have the inclination to rewrite a now-dated article. I decided that the Yahoo! Network was probably not for me and didn’t pay any more attention to it until September 28th when I got an email from the Yahoo! Contributor Network offering me five dollars to write a 200 to 400 word swing-state election story.

  I like writing about politics and it seemed like an easy enough story to write so I accepted the assignment and planned to write about it on the weekend. I knew from my first Yahoo! experience that I would need to spell out my small numbers and keep my paragraphs short. I also decided to try not to use any facts that would require me to cite sources. After a little thought I decided to make the theme of my story my opinion that Marshalltown was being ignored in the presidential election based on the very low number of Romney or Obama yard signs compared to large number of signs for local candidates that there were in my neighborhood. l mentioned how even though Marshalltown is not a big town, it is 40 miles from any town over a thousand people as a way to show that it is not a suburb by any means. I also mentioned my age and profession because it was a requirement of the article.

I had a lot of pictures of yard signs to choose from but in the end I chose the one in the middle since it covered 2 yards and was the nicest house.

  I wrote the article on Sunday, September 30th and submitted it the same day (here it is) along with one of the yard sign pictures I took. I was well ahead of the October 4th deadline and prepared for a rewrite, but was happily surprised to see that the article was published less than 24 hours later. I looked at my article and of course I found 2 typographical errors, but otherwise it looked good and read well for a general audience. I got a few of the normal Yahoo! ranting comments along with the ever-present commenter who pointed out four towns within 40 miles with a population of more than a thousand people (Tama and Toledo have 2,000 each and are 20 miles away; Grinnell with 9,000 and Newton with 15,000 are 30 miles away) while calling me a nut job and another commenter pointing out my typos. I’ll have to be more careful about the typos in the future and the next time I describe Marshalltown’s size I’ll just mention that the town has the only Wal-Mart within 30 miles and everyone in the Midwest will know exactly what I’m saying.

  It was quite an ego boost to be published on Yahoo! and my ego felt even better when I got my five dollar payment via PayPal within 48 hours. Aside from the regular Yahoo! readers, I believe my article has been noticed by the major candidates. There has been a huge influx of Romney and Obama yard signs in my neighborhood this past week. During the debate, I felt like Governor Romney was talking directly to me when he said he would cut my taxes, since now that I am a PAID journalist, I could use the tax savings to hire a proofreader to help the economy with some job creation. I might have declared him the winner of the debate if he had mentioned some reliable off-shore banks that I could deposit my five dollars in. Then the next day at work, I decided to spend some of my journalistic earnings to help the local economy by buying a bag of Crunchy Cheetos from the vending machine at work. As I opened the bag and placed it on a break room table, someone came up to me, took one of my Cheetos and said ‘You didn’t build that article. Somebody else made that happen.’ and walked off!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


  US chess champion Hikaru Nakamura had a stellar chess Olympiad in Instanbul last month. He started with 3 wins and 3 draws and then defeated former world champion Vladimir Kramnik in leading the US team an upset over the top ranked Russian team. Even after a final round loss to Polish GM Radoslaw, Nakamura set an American record of sorts when his international rating passed Bobby Fisher’s 2785 to become the highest FIDE-rated American player ever.

  American hopes were high for Nakamura as he went directly from Instanbul to London for the London Chess Classic, an annual tournament featuring many of the top chess players on the planet. In the 2011 version, Nakamura finished in second place with world number 1 Magnus Carlsen, just behind Kramnik (who beat Nakamura in their individual encounter). With Carlsen and world champion Anand competing in the super tournament in São Paulo Brazil (continuing in Bilbao, Spain next week), this year’s London tournament does not have the star power of last years, but without the customary invitations to the lower rated local British players, the tournament is stronger and more balanced than ever.

  Nakamura‘s London tournament got off to a rocky start with a loss as White to World Championship challenger Boris Gelfand in the first round, but he rebounded with a nice win against Rustam Kasimdzhanov (the lowest rated player in the field) with the Black pieces and seemingly stabilized himself with draws in the next 3 rounds, but was outplayed in the sixth round by Chinese GM Wang Hao, and lost an explosive game against tournament leader Mamedyarov in round 7.

  The 2 losses left Nakamura and Kasimdzhanov at the bottom of the leaderboard but then Nakamura butchered an even ending against Vassily Ivanchuk and then blundered against Michael Adams for his fourth straight loss and a free fall into last place, a full point behind Cuban Leinier Dominguez with 2 rounds to go.

  There could be many reasons for Nakamura’s sudden slump. He could have come down with an illness. He could be too exhausted to compete at his highest level after the strain of the Olympiad. He may even have a girlfriend. Don’t laugh at that last suggestion: It is alleged that Bobby Fischer’s worst tournament result (13th place in a 1960 Buenos Aires tournament) was the result of his being introduced to and becoming smitten with a local woman.

  The most likely reason for the slump is that Nakamura started pressing to get a win, ended up losing a game instead, started pressing even more to get a win, made a mistake and lost, pressed even more to get a win, etc…, etc… It is a common occurrence that happens in competitions of all sorts.

  Even whole teams can go into slumps. Last month I wrote about the Pittsburgh Pirates quest to break their string of 19 consecutive losing seasons. They followed a 63-47 start with a 9-19 stretch to lower their record to 72-66. After that they went 6-16 to bring their record to 78-82 and clinch their 20th straight losing season. There were no injuries of note to cause a team playing at a .570 clip to suddenly not be able to win even a third of their games. I think the team suffered a collective collapse of confidence after being swept by the lowly Padres in early August and instead of expecting good things to happen, started expecting to find ways to lose. The Pirates have plenty of young talent on their roster, but it is now up to management to not panic and clean house, but identify a veteran player or two that have been on winning teams to show these youngsters how to expect to win in the face of adversity.

  In his book, ‘The Hustler’s Handbook’, former baseball team owner Bill Veeck devoted an entire chapter to the psychology of slumps. Veeck was not only a master promoter (he once sent midget Eddie Gaedel to hit in a major league game and gave us Disco Demolition Night), he was an early pioneer in using psychologists to the identify what qualities were needed in successful major league players.

  Veeck attributed the beginnings of a batting slump to a hard hit ball or 2 are turn into outs either because they were hit directly to a fielder or the result of a great fielding play. The batter then starts trying to hit the ball even harder than he was before (even though he has been hitting the ball as hard as ever) and gets his swing messed up. At that point, the batter has lost his confidence and is taking advice from anyone and everyone which messes him up even further. Veeck notes that while most of the slumps he saw come from hard hit balls turning into outs, slumps end in the opposite way: a slow moving ground ball or lazy pop up finds its way between 2 fielders, the batter ends up with a undeserved base hit, and confidence is restored. Veeck also believed a good way to help a batter break out of a slump was to get him drunk the night before a game and make him play in a hungover state to help him relax. If this seems simplistic please remember that Veeck era predates even the infancy of sports psychology (1940’s and 1950’s) when observation was the primary scientific method.

Like chess, Haley's Broaster Chicken has the power to make men happy. But can it help end a slump?

  I’ve been interested in slumps lately because after reviewing my chess results I’ve discovered that I’ve been in a chess slump all year. In 2012, I’ve won exactly one game against a higher rated player and that game was in January. There’s been a few draws against higher rated players but to go nine months without an upset is well, upsetting. After re-reading the chapter on slumps in the Veeck book, I think the best way to break my slump is to just keep on trying to get better by doing tactic puzzles and studying and my slump will be over without even noticing it.

  I had an encouraging sign that my luck may be changing for the better when I decided to get some Broaster Chicken at Haley’s Deli this past Sunday. Haley’s has a Sunday special of 10 pieces of chicken for $10.99, but the last 2 times I took them up on the special I got what must have been the most mutated chickens ever. Chickens normally have 2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs, and 2 wings. When I worked at the Roy Rogers fast food place years ago, every chicken assortment would contain as many 8 piece chickens as possible and then filling in the remainder with a quarter (a wing and breast or a leg and thigh) or half a chicken. The last 2 10 packs from Haley’s had only one breast, one thigh, five wings, and 3 legs. I’d hate to see what these chickens looked like with their feathers on! I hadn’t gotten any Haley’s chicken in over a month but I was happy to see that this week I got a full figured chicken with 3 breasts, 3 thighs, 2 wings, and 2 legs.

The Haley's Broasted Chicken box contained a standard chicken and 2 big pieces besides!!
A happy ending at last...

  Nakamura won a nice game on Tuesday over Anish Giri from the Netherlands yesterday game to edge closer to escaping the basement with one round to go. There is no word on if he had fried chicken from Haley’s flown in.