Sunday, December 30, 2012

Off the Cliff

Meet 'Rollo'
  The United States is scheduled to go over the fiscal cliff at the end of the year. The ‘fiscal cliff’ isn’t really a cliff at all. It is just a catch phrase. What is really going to happen is that the 2011 Budget Control Act that President Obama and the Republican Congress cobbled together to allow for an increase to the US debt ceiling will expire. The act also allowed for the continuation of the tax cuts enacted in 2001 by President Bush and the Republican Congress, a 2% decrease in the amount of Social Security payroll taxes. In addition, the bill specified that if the Congress could not reduce the deficit by a specified amount, automatic across-the-board spending cuts would be triggered on January 1st, 2013.

  The Democrat response to trying to reduce the deficit is to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for people making over $250,000 a year with minimal cuts in spending and President Obama agreed to allow the cuts to remain for people making over $400,000 a year. The Republican response is to not allow the cuts to expire for anyone and while House Speaker John Boehner tried to allow the tax cuts to expire for anyone making over $1,000,000 a year he was shot down by his party and had to get back to the party line of no tax cuts expiring for anyone.

  The economic pundits have declared that the automatic spending cuts combined with the expiration of the tax cuts will send the country into a recession. I’m no economist, but I can’t understand how the economy in expansion when the deficit is 1.2 TRILLION DOLLARS a year but will be in recession when we are only running a deficit of $600 BILLION DOLLARS a year can be healthy in any regard.

  The government has had out of control spending for the last 10 years (here is the chart). It doesn’t matter whether there was a Republican President and a Republican Congress (2001-2006), a Republican President and a Democrat Congress (2007-2008), a Democrat President and a Democrat Congress (2009-2010), or a Democrat President and a Republican Congress (2010-2014), the deficits just get bigger and bigger and bigger. The deficit is so large as to be almost beyond comprehension. The 2012 deficit was 1.1 TRILLION DOLLARS, the smallest in four years. Warren Buffett is one of the wealthiest men in the world but his net worth of 44 BILLION DOLLARS wouldn’t pay the deficit for three weeks. The Powerball lottery reached 550 MILLION DOLLARS earlier last month. That jackpot would pay off for four and a half hours of the deficit.

  It would be easy to blame the Republicans or the Democrats or the terrorists or the bankers or anyone for the exploding deficits but the real culprit is the American people who keep electing the same people to office (regardless of party) to spend money and cut taxes and when the bill comes due expect others to pay for it. The Bush tax cuts were designed to expire in 2010 but any mention of letting them expire is talked about as a tax increase and not the end of the tax break. It’s the same way with President Obama’s 2% Social Security tax break. It was meant as a temporary spur to the economy but no one wants to give up their little extra money as long as the deficit can be borrowed from somebody else.

  Politicians of all parties are attempting to make a last minute deal to avoid the expiration of the tax cuts and allow the spending to continue and positioning themselves to be able to blame the opposing party in case there is no deal. I hope there is no deal and the tax rates revert back to what they were. Once the politicians get done blaming each other for the ‘tax increase’, the politicians can start working on a new round of tax cuts that they can all take credit for. I can’t imagine the millionaires being able to get a tax cut so the one thing that everyone who is not a millionaire agree on will come to pass (millionaires paying more in taxes), but after all the talk of the 1 percent and the 47 percent I’m very interested in seeing where the line that divides the income levels whose tax rates approach the ‘pre-cliff’ levels from those that don’t.

  It’s admirable as a society to help people who are struggling by providing welfare and food stamps and paying for their health care. It’s admirable as a society to give students assistance to pay for their college tuition. It’s also admirable to want to have a defense system that can protect our interests around the globe and provide assistance to other countries. But to be borrowing over a TRILLION DOLLARS a year to promote these admirable ideals just seems stupid to me. If someone you knew asked for a hundred dollar loan so they could give it to their favorite charity, maybe you would one time. But would you make the same loan week after week and year after year? If you never got paid back? Wouldn’t you suggest that if your acquaintance wanted to contribute to less fortunate people they should pay for it themselves?

  It’s easy to say that the rich people paying more taxes will solve the deficit problem. If there are five million millionaires in the US, they would have to each pay $200,000 to cover this year’s TRILLION DOLLAR deficit. This isn’t people who make a million dollars a year, just people who have a million dollars. I don’t think there are enough millionaires to pay off the deficit and even if there were, they would be the most likely to find ways to avoid paying the new taxes anyway.

  If there end up being no tax cuts, I don’t think there will be too adverse an effect on the economy. Whatever money that comes out of the people’s pockets will go to the government and be spent on other programs. The spending cuts total around 300 BILLION DOLLARS of a 3.7 TRILLION DOLLAR BUDGET. Eight percent of the government spending is a lot, but keep in mind that this is all borrowed money anyway and the money lost on the expiration of the tax cuts will be that much less money spent at the Wal-Mart on Chinese made goods.

Left: Rollo was made in China but I got him from this vending machine. Rollo hopes he doesn't fall off the cliff.

  Will having to pay 6 or 7 percent more in taxes hurt me if all the tax cuts expire? Yes, of course. But I’ll find a way to get through it by cutting back or finding ways to save or finding ways to make more money. Yesterday was Kathy and my 22nd wedding anniversary and to celebrate we went out to Zeno’s, a local pizza restaurant to celebrate. In an alcove of the restaurant were some videogames and a couple of vending machines that dispensed toys. I fished three quarters out of my pocket, borrowed a fourth from Kathy and bought a ‘Hood Hounds’ toy. It was a little dog that I named Rollo. For my dollar, I got a little piece of plastic made in China.

  If the economy falls off the fiscal cliff, the ’Rollos’ of the world will be one of the first casualties in my household. I don’t think the economy would collapse if Rollo and all his little ‘Hood Hound’ friends have to stay in their vending machine case. I might have to take a second job if things got so bad that I had to stop getting Daisy and Baxter beef stick treats. These would just be some tough choices I’d have to make. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the government to make some tough choices themselves.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Movie Review - Les Misérables

  When the kids were small, Christmas was all about the morning of. On Christmas Eve, we’d empty the stockings the night before, get the kids to bed, and wrap the presents. The kids would wake up early and head downstairs while Kathy and I would enjoy them sorting and opening the presents. Now that Ben is 17 and Matt is 20, there’s not any ‘little kid’ buzz about Christmas. Kathy spent the morning cooking and our neighbor Don, Kathy’s mom, and her husband came over for Christmas lunch. We didn’t open the presents under the tree until late on Christmas night.

  Kathy wanted to see ‘Lincoln’ this past weekend, but we didn’t make it to the Sunday show and now it is out of the theatre in Marshalltown. I would have gone to see it but I don’t know how it could have topped ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ movie I saw in June since I’m not one of those people who prefer historical accuracy to seeing countless vampires having their heads lopped off by a President of the United States!

  With the Christmas Holiday not devoted to the delight of little kids playing with their toys (not counting the dog toys Daisy and Baxter destroyed), Kathy, Matt, and I went to see the movie 'Les Misérables' in the afternoon. Christmas is a big movie day and there were three highly publicized movies opening on Christmas; Les Misérables, the action movie Django Unchained, and the comedy Parental Guidance.

  The theatre was completely packed for Les Misérables, mostly with older people. The movie is an adaption of a Victor Hugo book and has been done in plays, musicals, and movies many times before. It’s a soap opera type of tale that focuses on Frenchman Jean Valjean journeys after his release from the prison after he served a 19 year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. He is rescued from a return to prison by a bishop, he owns a factory, he adopts a girl whose mother’s death he unwittingly caused, and he gets mixed up in a failed French revolution.

  This version was a full blown musical with an all-cast, but even a super hero movie junkie like me recognized many of the actors. The main character is played by Hugh Jackman, otherwise known as Wolverine from the X-Men. Anne Hathaway who played the Catwoman in the ‘Dark Knight Rises’ plays the woman who get fired from Valjean’s factory and eventually dies after turning into a prostitute to provide for her daughter. Gladiator’s Russell Crowe plays Valjean’s arch nemesis, Army Officer Javert, who tracks him down across the decades.

  When I see all these actors and actresses in movies or television roles, it’s not readily apparent if they are well rounded performers or just regular people who ended up in the right place at the right time, but seeing them sing and act at the same time gives a greater appreciation for their skills. Crowe didn’t seem to be much of a singer but the rest of the cast was able to handle telling the story through the song well enough and it was a good thing too, since there is no dialog at all.

  I’m not a big fan of all the heavy drama so the tragedy and suffering of the French underclass of the 1800’s was lost on me. The part of the movie I liked best was Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the The Thénardiers, the innkeepers who pickpocket and scam their way throughout the movie. I thought Cohen’s ‘Borat’ was one of the funniest movies ever and he and Carter cracked me up in all three of their comic relief scenes, but especially in their first appearance where they strip their unsuspecting customers down to their shorts.

  The production values of the movie are for the most part outstanding. It looks like the production started to cut corners when it came to the aborted French Revolution stage of the movie which didn’t have the extravagant scenery of the rest of the film, but the rest of the movie had fantastic scenery and costumes. I especially liked how the poor people of France were made to be dirty, ugly, pockmarked, and with grotesque teeth. In most movies and television shows the down and out people have perfect teeth and hair with maybe a smudge of grease on their face or a hole in their shirt to show the overall grittiness of their lives, but the poor people of Les Misérables could fit right in with the Okies of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ or the Friday Night all you can eat buffet at the Chinese restaurant in downtown Marshalltown.

  When the movie was over most of the audience stood up and clapped. I thought the movie was good and I’m sure that it will be up for a bunch of awards as most movies of this type are. It was a welcome change of pace from the action movies I normally go to see (if I was going by myself I’d probably have seen Jack Reacher). The movie is quite long at two and a half hours but the story was good enough that I didn’t notice. When we got home we watched one of the movies I got for Christmas ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. As good a movie as Les Misérables was I doubt I’ll ever come home from an action movie and want to watch it.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Decision

  In the spring of 2010, basketball superstar LeBron James made a decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and ‘take his talents’ to the Miami Heat. He not only made the decision, he announced it in an hour long ESPN special entitled ‘The Decision’. I don’t think anyone outside Cleveland blamed James for getting out of a poorly managed franchise in a cold weather town to play in the warmth of Florida and a franchise run by Hall of Fame coach and GM Pat Riley. The idea of creating a prime time show to announce the decision was perceived as arrogant by sports fans. At the giant ceremony unveiling the Heats ‘Big 3’ of James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, James’ prediction of eight championships for the Heat made LeBron James and the Heat easy to root against in a Yankee sort of way.

  In 2011, the Heat made it to the NBA finals, but were defeated by an inspired Dallas Mavericks team for the championship. James came under withering criticism as a poor leader who choked in the fourth quarter and couldn’t lead his team to a single championship, much less eight as he promised the previous summer.

  2012 proved to be a different story. James won the Most Valuable Player award and led the Heat to a crucial win against the Boston Celtics on the road in an elimination game to get the Heat to the finals and followed that by averaging 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists per game in the Heat’s five game finals victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. James won the Finals MVP, an Olympic gold medal over the summer, and was recently named the 2012 Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. With the this year’s NBA season nearly a third over, sports discussions about LeBron James are centered about his chances of leading the Miami Heat to a repeat championship and ‘The Decision’ Is a thing of the past.

  I’ve been wrestling with my own decision over the last couple of months concerning my monthly youth chess tournaments. As I wrote last month, ever since I added trophy prizes to the beginner (unrated) sections, the top beginners have chosen to continue playing with the beginners rather than move on to the more advanced (rated) section.

  I received a lot of feedback and suggestions about this issue. President Obama wrote to say I should award a trophy to every player. Then everyone would move up to the advanced section and I could pay for my expenses by raising the entry fee for anyone whose parents make more than $250,000 a year and if I was a little short on funds I could borrow the money to pay for the trophies. House Speaker Boehner wrote to me the next week and said increasing the entry fees on the wealthy was wrong and the president’s plan would lead to out of control spending. He suggested I only give out a trophy to the top 1 percent of the participants, but make them really, really nice trophies that cost as much or more as I could expect to take in in entry fees and if I was a little short on funds I could borrow the money to pay for the really nice trophies.

  There were a lot of suggestions from chess players and parents also. Most of the parents of the better beginner players want their children to move up and were OK with losing the trophies for the beginning players. Some of the parents recommended phasing out the trophies while others wanted to put a limit on how many times a player could win the beginner section. Other parents didn’t see any problem at all and wondered why I saw a problem in the first place.

  In a perfect world, the best idea is to force a consistent winner in the beginner section to move up. Unfortunately, the world isn’t perfect and not only would it be a lot to keep track of, I can imagine the players and parents being confused about which section they were eligible to play in. No one comes to a chess tournament looking for a surprise and I wouldn’t make any friends if I had to start telling players they had to play in a stronger section when they weren’t expecting to because they had won the beginner section too many times.

  I think it’s important to keep things as simple as possible and I strive for simplicity in most things I do. I’ve never had a car with power windows or power locks because to me it’s just one more thing to go wrong in a car. At work, the business applications I write tend not to be thought of very highly by the people who make a living designing the colors and fonts and spacing and fancy pictures because I don’t use a lot of colors and fonts and ‘sizzle’, but the people who have to use the applications daily almost always love how simple they are to use.

  Viewing my beginner section trophy ‘problem’ through the prism of simplicity, the approach I wanted to take became clear and I was able to make my decision with a clear conscience. I’ve decided to not have trophies at all. Everyone will still get a medal and I’ll recognize the top finishers in each section with a nice looking but fairly generic ribbon.

  There are many positives to not having trophies. The players can still play in whatever section they want. The entry fee will be lowered to my summertime levels ($3 for half a day and $5 for a whole day). I can give out the ribbons to 10th place including ties as opposed to trophoes to the top 5 period (no tiebreaks). A minor (but important) consideration is that I‘m always assured of breaking even moneywise for this tournament format and it takes me a step further down the desired path of having tournaments with no entry fee and only a freewill donation.

  Of course, this decision is not a slam dunk to be successful. Without the lure of a trophy, some players may not come to the tournaments at all. I don’t think this is going to happen on a mass scale but it could set my tournament series back a lot if I’m wrong. I thought about this risk a lot. I had good attendance at my summer tournaments (which have never had trophy prizes) this year and that leads me to think I’ll keep my core players. If push comes to shove I can always go back to having trophies but if the lure of a trophy is the only thing keeping chess players coming to the tournaments maybe the whole concept of monthly tournaments is misguided and I should try for a different monthly chess activity.

  However my decision works out, I’m sure of at least a few things. I won’t be hoisting an NBA championship trophy in June and I won’t be getting named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated next December. I hope I have to settle for getting the ‘beginning’ chess players that come to my monthly tournaments trying to test themselves against better competition.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

News or News Cycle?

  I didn’t think it would take long for the Javon Belcher murder/suicide of two weeks ago to be old news and I was right. The day after the shooting was dominated by the feel good story of the Chiefs historic comeback victory over the Carolina Panthers the day after their teammate committed suicide. Well, it really wasn’t a historic victory by any standards except by the abysmally low bar the Chiefs have set (their second win out of 14 tries this year) and given the fact that they’ve scored exactly seven points in the past two games it is quite likely to be their last win until the fall of 2013. Two weeks after the Belcher incident, the big question posed to coach Romeo Crennel after Sunday's 15-0 loss to the Raiders was how he would rank his team’s inept offensive performance among the games he’s coached.

  Last week, defensive lineman Josh Brent of the Dallas Cowboys was arrested for intoxication manslaughter for the car accident that killed his teammate and friend Jerry Brown. The day after the death and arrest, the Cowboys beat the Cincinnati Bengals on the last play of the game in an emotional victory and followed that with an equally dramatic overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brent would have been an afterthought except he was on the Cowboys sideline during the game.This caused some controversy (even though Brown’s mother asked the Cowboys to support him in any way possible), but the current news about the Cowboys is focused on whether they can win their last two games to make the playoffs.

  On the heels of the two NFL player-related murder incidents came the murder of 26 children and teachers in the school in Newtown, CT on Friday that has taken over the news media attention. This is the second highly publicized mass shooting in the United states this year, the first being the shooting in the Aurora movie theatre for at the midnight premiere of ‘Dark Knight Rises’. Because the victims in the Newtown shootings were children, there is much more outrage among the public than the Aurora theatre shootings and the calls for a ban on the type of assault rifles used in the shooting (and firearms in general) have been overwhelming this week. The crime was so horrific that even the staunchest gun ownership advocates have gone into hiding until the next big story takes some of the spotlight away from the issue.

  I didn’t know that there were 270 million guns legally owned by US citizens. Given that number, I would have expected these sort of massacres would be a daily occurrence and I was surprised to see that the Newtown shootings was listed by the Associated Press as one of the worst mass shootings in history. This makes me think that gun owners are very responsible for the most part and the gun owners I’ve known into are not only fanatical about their second amendment rights, but are alsot fanatical about having locks on their guns and having their locked guns in a locked gun cabinet and having their locked guns and in their locked gun cabinets in a locked room that only they can get into. The nut job that killed these kids in Newtown stole his weapons from his mother and she was his first victim.

  It’s conceivable that the Newtown shootings will lead to a ban on firearms like there have been in Britain, Australia, and Scotland but I doubt it. The gun lobby is powerful and well-funded and very experienced at blunting gun control legislation. President Obama is trying to sound as if he will be pushing some legislation, but I heard the same sort of speech from him after the Giffords and Aurora shootings to believe that he is doing much more that attempting to strike the correct tone.

  While a ban on weapons would reduce the massacres of the kind we saw last week, it wouldn’t put an end to this nut job sort of violence (see the ‘Harry the Human Bomb’ crowd in the Middle East).I don’t think that banning guns would even remove them from American society. The last I looked, meth was illegal yet I see plenty of meth business going in Marshalltown despite the occasional high-profile bust. There are millions of illegal immigrants – I mean undocumented aliens – in the country but any law that even hints of verifying residential status for enforcement purposes is decried as racist and stricken down by the higher courts. I don’t think Americans as a whole are very good at following laws (including me when it comes to speed limits) and banning firearms would just make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

  I’m interested in how much news time the massacre will be getting on December 29th (two weeks after the shootings). Will people still be up in arms about preventing this from happening again or will we have moved on to the next hot current event topic? ESPN went overboard in trying to find the right tone in the shooting aftermath, placing a ban on their commentators using social media, references to violence, and even prohibited the use of the term ‘Pistol’ when describing the Nevada offensive formation during this past weekend’s New Mexico Bowl. The ban was over by the Monday Night Football game as the commentators noted that the Jets were in the ‘Shotgun’ formation numerous times.

  Any gun control legislation as a result of the massacre will take a lot of time, but there are many things that towns can do to protect their schools in the meantime. Schools should be a regular part of the police officers’ rounds. Instead of stationing state troopers and policemen at speed traps to write parking tickets, why not station them near schools? Politicians are constantly talking about hiring veterans - why not hire veterans to patrol the outside of schools? Then we would have trained professionals protecting our children. In almost 30 years of programming, I’ve regularly had customers ask me to make a program change to meet some unforeseen problem or new business requirement. Many times the change will take some time and I will suggest an alternative process the customer can use in the meantime to accomplish the same goal. When the customer implements the alternative process I know they see the program change they requested as the solution to a real problem because they are willing to take steps immediately without waiting for a program change, but when the customer says they can wait I know they have more of an inconvenience than a problem. Time will quickly tell whether the Newtown massacre is seen as a real problem worthy of immediate action or just a temporary feel-bad moment for anyone not personally involved.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Speed Chess

  Yesterday I had my speed chess exhibition at the Marshall Town Center Mall. I’m not the best chess player in the country or Iowa or Marshalltown or even my chess club, so why am I doing a chess exhibition? I asked myself the same question.

  I’ve finished second or third in the last three Iowa State Fair speed chess tournaments, I’m currently the 43rd ranked player in Iowa out of 474 active nationally ranked players, and I did win a couple of national G/30 class championships in the previous decade. This makes me much stronger than almost any casual player that would decide to take part in the exhibition. But that’s not what qualifies me to hold a chess exhibition.

  So what does qualify me to have a chess exhibition? I’m willing to get involved and don’t mind risking the potential ‘embarrassment’ of losing a bunch of games or not having anyone show up to play me. I’m willing to spend the time to make the arrangements with the mall and the Salvation Army, write up a press release, and meet with radio and newspaper people. And I’m willing to show up on time, have the exhibition, and chat people up to try to get them to play.

  I used the word ‘willing’ three times in the last paragraph and that’s no accident. In my experience, simply being willing to get things done is the primary factor of the success or failure of any endeavor. While it helps to have a good idea and good planning, I’ve found that even the best ideas and plans won’t overcome a lack of effort and having a person or a group of people willing to take care of the things that need to be taken care can make a bad idea look good and a garbage plan look like genius. And that is what qualifies me to have an exhibition. The fact that I’m willing to.

A busy week at the Marshalltown Salvation Army, even for the Majors' dog Henry!

  The best thing about doing something like the exhibition for the Marshalltown Salvation Army is being able to help a bunch of great people who also are willing to get things done. When the tornado destroyed the towns of Applington and Parkersburg in 2008, the at-youth director Keith, my friend Ed, and Majors John and Judith McCarty worked day and night for over two weeks to collect and deliver supplies to the disaster stricken town 90 miles north of Marshalltown. Every November, I’ve seen Major John go through the labor-intensive process of scheduling the red-kettle bell ringing sites and lining up volunteers. Then in December I watch the Major and Keith collect the kettles late at night while Major Judith makes a snack for the bell ringers.

  On Thursday, I got to the Salvation Army for our weekly chess club at 5pm on Thursday as normal and instead of the big meeting room we normally use being empty, one wall was packed from floor to ceiling with empty boxes and all the tables except a couple were full of canned goods and household items. I took a walk into the gym and it was full of toys and blankets. The food was going to be put into the boxes to give to needy families for Christmas and the toys were all gathered by the Marines as part of their annual ‘Toys for Tots’ program.

  The blankets were another story and shows how being willing to do something can make a difference. One of the Salvation Army workers said that he was talking to someone he knew who worked with the Red Cross that told him they had a bunch of stuff in the basement of a nearby building that had been laying around since the Marshalltown office was closed last year. The worker went to take a look and there were dozens of army cots, army blankets, and boxes and boxes of homemade quilts. He took the whole lot, found a group that could use the cots and will get the army blankets and homemade quilts to families that can use them. I wonder what all the people who donated or made the quilts would think if they knew they had been sitting in some basement for at least a year and a half instead of being put to good use. It seems the Red Cross was willing to let these supplies sit unused, while the Salvation Army was willing to pick them up and get them to people that can use them.

  In the exhibition, I was going to take on all comers in time odds chess where I’d have one minute to opponents ten. I practiced by playing plenty of one-minute chess on the internet and giving the same time odds at club the past two weeks. I lost quite a few games at club but except for one beatdown by Scott, every other game I lost was when I ran out of time a move or two away from checkmate.

  Despite my rocky time at club, it was good to have some practice under real conditions. There is a huge difference between playing on the internet against an unseen adversary in the comfort of your home moving the pieces with a mouse as opposed to moving the pieces by hand with your move ending by pressing the clock sitting on a plastic or metal chair with people watching and talking against an opponent so close to you that you can tell what they ate for their last meal.

Floyd the bell ringer is hard at work. That's really the 'Sports Page' not the 'Spots Page', but if they lost the 'S's it might be the 'Pot Page'.

  I got to the mall a half hour before the noon starting time and started setting up shop on the two tables that the management provided for me by an elevated area near the JC Penney entrance. There was a Salvation Army bell ringer named Floyd at the entrance. He was playing Christmas music from his boom box and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. Since there was already a bell ringer present and another kettle by the ‘Pictures with Santa’ concession there would be no need for me to be ringing the bell where I was stationed.

  The mall has fallen on hard times lately. When we first moved to Marshalltown, it was full of stores and had a comic book/sports card shop, a dollar store, a video arcade, Walden Books, 3 or four places to eat, a Sam Goody music store, and a Hallmark shop. None of those stores are there now. The Menards home improvement center opened up a superstore less than a mile away, depriving the mall of one of its three anchors (along with Younkers and Penney). The Mall has rebounded in the last few months with the opening of an art gallery, knick knack store, and a miniature golf course, but I was struck by how little foot traffic there was.

A good start against Eric and Scott.

  My first two customers were chess club members, Eric and Scott. Eric hasn’t been to club the past month but decided to spend some time playing this day. Scott beat me twice at the exhibition time odds at club and wanted to see if he could do it under ‘game’ conditions. I started off pretty dialed in and was able to beat both Eric and Scott two or three times each. I never had more than ten seconds on my clock in any of my wins. As absurd as it sounds with only a minute to make all my moves, I was exceptionally patient and was able to just make good moves and take advantage of my opponent’s mistakes, snag a pawn or a piece, trade down, make a queen and get a checkmate. Scot had to leave, but Eric kept on going and after another half hour of playing, I had a checkmate in one move against Eric, but only a single second on my clock. Eric made his move and as I swooped my rook down to checkmate his king, my second ran out before I could stop the timer and Eric won one of the tournament chess sets I was giving away to anyone who defeated me.

  After Eric beat me, I had no other takers for a while. A lot of people would walk back and forth looking, but no one wanted to play because they didn’t think they could win. I could see if the exhibition was lasting a minute against an MMA fighter, but this is just a game of chess. Maybe I would do better by having a Sudoku or Tic-Tac-Toe exhibition. One of the onlookers was Ken, the guy who put in my kitchen floor and sink a few years ago. He thought he would embarrass himself by playing but did make a donation to the kettle and watched me play Eric once to get the feel for the speed chess. Try as I might, I couldn’t talk Ken into playing.

Casual player Rosa
  After Ken and Eric left, I passed the time by studying some games from the best tournament book ever written (in my opinion), Zurich 1953 by David Bronstien. Around two thirty, a girl named Rosa came up and wanted to play. She didn’t want to use the clock so we played a casual game and then I was back to studying for another half hour when Steve and Mike Anderson showed up. Mike is a senior at Coe College who came to the club for one year in the mid 2000’s and Steve is his dad. Mike’s older brother Aaron is an accomplished chess player who came to the club for many years and was on the high school chess team with my sons Matt and Ben. Mike had a lot of promise as a chess player, but he was very talented in a lot of different areas. He wrote a column for the local paper and was the drum major of the marching band and won the Fisher Controls scholarship and just didn’t have the time to put into chess.

Mike and Steve Anderson. Mike used nine minutes and 53 seconds to beat me on his third try.

  I beat Mike fairly easily the first two games and then played Steve. Steve is a genius programmer at Fisher Controls who has designed much of the software that controls the valves they produce and is in charge of his own division there. He was pretty nervous playing me and even took his own piece one time. I think this was the first time he ever played with a clock and was moving about as fast as I was.

  After beating Steve, Seth from our club showed up. Seth is a young kid that has a lot of promise as a chess player but has a bright future ahead of him in any field he wants to apply himself to. At club, he beat me in every one of our handicap practice matches where he took his time and lost whenever he tried to match my speed. Seth wanted to watch me play once so Mike decided to play me again. Mike lost a piece quickly but then got the position all locked up with our two armies’ pawns forming an impenetrable barrier. I finally broke through the wall of pawns, but then made my first bad move of the day and lost my extra piece with 10 seconds left. The position was even and I kept trying to trick Mike into making an illegal move (in which case I’d get an extra ten seconds), but Mike was extra careful and I ran out of time with Mike having only seven seconds left on his clock to win the second chess set of the day.

Jim was so dazzled by my speed chess brilliance that he wanted my autograph!

  Mike and Steve then left and Seth and I started to battle. Seth was moving way too fast in the beginning and only taking his time after I won a piece or a couple of pawns and I won each game with a second or two on my clock. As we were playing an old fellow came over to play. His name was Jim and he didn’t remember me but ten years ago he called me and asked me to set his computer up so he could play internet chess. Jim was told about the exhibition by Mark Smith (the local state representative) and he wanted to play but without the clock because he was 75 years old. After a little give and take, we decided on Jim getting 15 minutes and me getting one minute to play. Jim was another guy who wanted to move as fast as I did. I beat him with 20 seconds left, meaning I used 40 seconds. But Jim only used 100 seconds himself! I decided to give Jim one of my chess sets for coming out to play and he was so happy he had me autograph the flyer of the event for him! He promised to come to our club if we didn’t make him use a clock and then he left to get his wife’s medicine.

  After having my moment as a ‘big shot’ by giving out an autograph, I was back to playing Seth again. I beat him a couple of more times until he finally started to slow down in the beginning of the game. Seth was much harder to beat once he slowed down and after a couple of close calls he finally ran me out of time and collected his chess set.

Wrapping up with Seth (left) and Jaleb.

  After winning his chess set, Seth went back to his old ways of moving as fast as humanly possible and I won a couple of more games and then Jaleb Jay showed up. Jaleb was a club regular for five years until heading to Iowa State University this year and I hadn’t seen him since we went to play in the Jackson Open in August (where he won second place and $200). After catching up, Jaleb decided to try to win a chess set. Jaleb is a better player than me, but I was eager to play because beating him at time odds would be worth lifetime bragging rights. Unfortunately I went down in flames and he won the fourth chess set of the day. We then played three three-minute games and split them (one win each and a draw). Then Jaleb played Seth at the same time odds as I did and just crushed him two times. Jaleb is much more of an attacking player than I am and beat Seth with middlegame attacks that took the clock almost out of the equation.

  At that point it was six o’clock and the exhibition was over. Floyd was still in the mall entrance ringing his bell when I carried my chess stuff to my car. I wish more people had come out to play, but I would have wished that even if I played a hundred people. I was happy that enough people were willing to come out to keep me busy for most of the afternoon and a special treat to run into Mike, Steve, and Jim. It was a great day and any time I use to help the Salvation Army (who has hosted our chess club for a dozen years) is time very well spent. Having only one minute for a chess game really gets my adrenaline flowing. There is no time for worries, thought, reflections, or recriminations. There is only time for chess and it is a pretty addicting experience. It was quite a rush to play a whole afternoon of one minute chess and has my brain thinking about how I can try to have the same type of thing in Des Moines someday.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Beating the Bushes

  While I’ve been working hard to build up my youth tournament series in Des Moines, my chess club in Marshalltown at the Salvation Army has been going through a malaise. We usually have a group of six to ten players who drift in or out with a couple of new players each year that end up replacing the players that graduate from high school or otherwise leave town.

  I had one new player this year and after a few months he stopped coming. I had gotten him a USCF membership so he could play in our weekly tournaments. He had been playing but not having a lot of success and started to not even play in the tournaments if the one player he could always beat didn’t come to club. It surely didn’t help that in his last tournament his game was the last to finish. As so often happens, the last game of a round garners the attention of everyone whose games are over and this time one of the spectators had a ‘gas’ attack. The offender was asked by the new player to go somewhere else but he refused and kept on ‘gassing’. The new player lost the game and I haven’t seen him since.

  Where was the tournament director when all this was going on? I was outside talking to my friend and fellow player Jon McCord (who has been coming to the club almost from day one). I only heard about the incident later and verified it independently. The tournaments are supposed to be fun and informal and I never thought I needed to be a ‘tournament director’ at them and watch over everyone like an authority figure.

  It would be easy to point to the incident as the reason I stopped having the weekly tournaments but it was just the ‘icing’ on the cake. I had been planning on stopping them after Thanksgiving for at least a month. In the last few years, having out of town players coming to visit gave the talented young high school players a chance for some stronger competition. This year I have no strong high school players, leaving me as the only competition for the out of town players. My other club players haven’t seemed enthused by the tournaments as much this year as in years past and so to me it seemed like a good time to stop the weekly tournaments and concentrate on trying to get more players from town to come to the club.

  The first two weeks without a weekly tournament have been encouraging. Some of the players play and the rest join Jon and I in going over games from my ancient ‘Morphy’s Games of Chess’ book. We play over the games using the ‘Purdy’ method of trying to guess Morphy’s moves and then attempting to figure out why Morphy made the move he did.

  To try to drum up some new club members, I sent a letter to the local schools to remind them about the club. This is something I haven’t done in a few years. Occasionally I’ll get some players this way but the schools in Marshalltown all have their own after school activities that get funding based on numbers, which makes them less than eager to promote out of school activities like the chess club. But all it takes is one new member to have a good time and bring a friend or two and the club is repopulated. A few years ago when the Marshalltown Schools couldn’t get two thirds of their students to pass the basic skills test, my letter may have mentioned one of the benefits of chess being a lower rate of recidivism among prison inmates, but since the test scores have started to go up I just stuck to my message about how much fun chess is.

  The other way I’m trying to drum up some new members for the club is our fourth straight Christmas chess fund raiser at the Marshall Town Center ‘mall’. The first two years, Matt had a simultaneous exhibition where he took on all comers. It was a lot of fun but for the most part no one except the club members took part. With Matt at college, last year I had a speed chess exhibition where I would play all comers at the time odds of one minute vs. ten. I played about 15 separate people over the course of the 4 hours and only a few of those were club members. It was a lot of fun but I only had one new visitor to the club from the exhibition.

  We set up this year’s exhibition at the mall and I sent the local paper a press release last week. Normally the paper just prints my press releases verbatim, but this year they sent a reporter to the club to take pictures and interview me.

  The article came out on Sunday and was pretty cool. It played up the fact that I finished second at the State Fair speed chess tournament. While this isn’t seen as much of an accomplishment in Iowa chess circles, the number of my coworkers and acquaintances who told me they saw my name on their TV among the prize winners tells me that this is something that gets recognized. This is likely because it is one of the few times that most people see anything about local chess on television.

  Will I get more players coming to the chess club because of the letters and exhibition? History says no, but I am eternally optimistic. One of the few things I know about anything is that I don’t really know anything about anything. In any case, since I received a $50 donation to the Salvation Army in the mail yesterday, the fund-raising part of the exhibition is already off to a big time start.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Return To Normal?

  One of the more surreal episodes in the history of professional football occurred last Saturday when Kansas City Chief linebacker Jovan Belcher had an argument with his live-in girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, killed her with one of the nine bullets he shot her with, drove to Arrowhead Stadium, met with the Chiefs GM and coach, and then fired one last bullet into his head.

  Belcher seemed to all appearances as a self-made athlete and the complete antithesis of the often used stereotype of the pro athlete as talented and pampered street thug. He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, ended up at a small college, the University of Maine. (Here is his background) He graduated in less than four years and was the Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the year. Even though he was undrafted by the NFL, Belcher was signed as a free agent by the Kansas City Chiefs. He worked his way into playing time, signed a two million dollar contract for this season and started the first ten games of the season for the Chiefs.

  Belcher was living the life. He drove a Bentley. He had a house where his mother, 3-month old child, and girlfriend (the child’s mother) lived. He did charity work and seemed to be well thought of by his teammates. What has come out after the suicide-murder is that Belcher had been having arguments with his girlfriend for months and was being provided counseling by the team. A police video from hours before the murder-suicide showed Belcher asleep in his Bentley outside another woman’s apartment and heading up to the apartment after talking with the police. The argument that preceded the shooting was about Perkins’ late night out with friends attending a concert.

  There have been numerous reports of Belcher having violent episodes in his past, yet in college he was a member of ‘Male Athletes Against Violence’ and everyone who knew him was very shocked by the news.

  The story was covered in some way, shape, or form during every network football telecast. There was some talk of possibly cancelling the Chiefs game against the Carolina Panthers, but the organization and league decided to play the game as scheduled. On Bob Costas’s weekly commentary on the half time of the Sunday Night Football game, he offered his agreement with a quote by sportswriter Jason Whitlock , "If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today."

  As shocking as the Belcher episode was, I think most of the reactions to it were that we as football fans were supposed to be moved by it to either want a game to be cancelled or make a stand to against gun violence. Maybe because it was an NFL player who committed the murder makes it different, but there were 31,400 deaths by firearms in the US last year (20,000 suicides). I’m sure some of these deaths were more tragic than Belcher’s murder-suicide, but not one of them was considered cause to cancel a professional sporting event.

  Bob Costas is a respected enough journalist that he should be afforded the right to offer his opinions on any topic he chooses. Gun control always becomes a hot topic whenever a gun related crime makes the headlines. I think everyone would be safer if there were no guns around and I have no confidence in our corruption laden systems to believe that criminals would not be able to get their hands on guns whenever they wanted. If somebody thinks that having a gun makes them safer because they’re protected from criminals or even their own government I have no problem with them owning a gun. 12,000 firearms related deaths not related to suicide in a year is 1/40th the amount the amount of cancer deaths in 2011, but the calls to outlaw guns dwarfs the appeals to outlaw tobacco.

  Costas’ comments came under such a firestorm that he and NBC felt compelled to undertake a spin/damage control campaign to clarify his position on gun control, the second Amendment, and gun reform. I agree with Costas comments on the Dan Patrick show when he said that trying to explain his thoughts on a complex subject in less than two minutes left the comments open to be misinterpreted. I wonder what the media reaction would have been if Costas said that Belcher and Perkins would still be alive if they stayed home with their three month old child instead of going out at all hours of the night.

  As much commotion the murder-suicide caused on Saturday and Sunday in the world of sports reporting, by Monday the incident had largely disappeared from the sports headlines, leaving the field of handguns to the news stations in order to turn their attention to the ‘pistol’ formation that Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins employed to beat the Giants on Monday Night Football. By Friday, sports attention had been turned to the Knicks destruction of the NBA champion Miami Heat, the upcoming week of football games including the Redskins matchup with the Ravens and Monday Night’s Texan-Patriot matchup, and Johnny Football winning the Heisman Trophy.

  It seemed as if the sports world was returning to normal. Yesterday, Dallas Cowboy defensive lineman Brent Jones was arrested for intoxication manslaughter when he flipped his car in a pre-dawn accident, killing his teammate Jerry Brown. Maybe Saturday NFL murders are the ‘new normal’.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Watershed Tournament

  Last Saturday, I held my latest monthly youth tournament in the Des Moines area. In September I talked to Sheila, the St. Francis parish secretary about reserving dates for November and December. We decided on November 3rd but the only dates open in December were the 1st and the 29th.

  Having the tournament on the 29th would not only mean having it during the winter break when many of the chess families would be visiting or entertaining family, it would also mean that I’d have 7 weeks between tournaments. This made having the tournament on the first a no-brainer EXCEPT that the state association was scheduled to have a scholastic tournament in Ames that same day.

  The last time one of my tournaments conflicted with the state association was in May when my youth tournament was on the same date as their beginner tournament 100 miles away. The state clearinghouse director sent an email full of capital letters and red text talking about how he saw the tournament announcements on the website and he didn’t approve of the events and that the state association had a financial risk related to their tournament. This led to a series of 21 emails in one day (YES, 21 emails) between the clearinghouse director, the board, and me. I only contributed 2 emails to this morass, one to tell the state that I’d remove my tournament announcement from their website and another to let them know that I be sure to ask the clearinghouse director if I wanted to use the state association website in the future for my announcements. I did try to use the clearinghouse to have a tournament in Marshalltown in October of 2011, but instead of reserving a date making my intentions known merely served as a red flag for a competing tournament in Cedar Rapids to pop up.

  Most of these 21 emails (YES, 21 emails) were from board members wanting me to change my mind and put my tournament announcements on the state website and the clearinghouse director’s job IS to let organizers know which dates have been scheduled for tournaments, but the tone of the initial email and my already strained relationship with the state association made it an easy decision to not advertise my tournaments on their website. I have my own website for tournament announcements and the last thing I want is to get people used to looking for my tournaments on the state website and then having them removed because of a conflict. The president of the state association told me that he would put a link to my website on the state website but that was in April and it’s a good thing I didn’t hold my breath waiting.

  While my other conflicting dates with the state association were with tournaments over 100 miles away from Des Moines, having a tournament the same day as a state tournament in nearby Ames (a little over 40 miles away) was a completely different matter. I have 4 or 5 semi-regular attendees and another half dozen players I’ll see once or twice a year from the Ames area that can make up half of the rated tournament players in any given month.

  I knew when I accepted the tournament date that there would be no one from Ames heading my way for it. I’ve always maintained that chess tournaments that are heavily supported by travelling chess players will only survive until someone provides the travelling population a tournament closer to home. I’ve been having a monthly tournament in Des Moines for the last two years and it was as good a time as any to see if the area would support my chess series without the aid of out of town travelers.

  I had the tournament announced on my website in September and sent out invitations to my mailing list just like I always do. Normally when I send out a mass emailing, I get a few requests to be taken off my mailing list, a few email addresses that are no longer valid, people emailing me to sign up for the tournament, and once or twice a year an email from a parent to tell me their child can’t come to the tournament but to please keep me on the mailing list.

  This month I happened to get four emails from parents in Ames to let me know that they would not be attending my tournament specifically because they would be going to the tournament in Ames that day. Three of the emails were from people who go to one or two of my tournaments a year and have never sent me an email before to let me know they weren’t going to one of my tournaments. I imagine this was a way of letting me know that there was a tournament in Ames that day in case I didn’t already know.

  I had around 10 signups the Monday before the tournament and 20 just 2 days before the tournament. At the St. Francis Chess club on Friday, I was telling Tim how it was going to be a smallish crowd when all of a sudden my amazing iPod started dinging and by the time chess club was over I had another 10 signups. The signups continued all day and night and I even got 2 signups at 2 the next morning and by Saturday morning I was ready for a busy tournament day.

  While my November tournament was one of my more inept efforts (I wrote about it here), the tournament I ran on Saturday was as close to a perfect tournament as I've ever run. I remembered almost all the players and parent’s names (never underestimate the goodwill you get by greeting people by name when they arrive at a tournament), got the pairings done quickly and accurately, got to talk to most of the parents and players, went over games with the players, and even got to play 3 games in the morning parents tournament! Looking back a few days later, I attribute this to the hand of God reaching out to the tournament. I always had an even number of players so no one had to sit out. Whenever one game started running too long and threatened to get the players restless, it would suddenly end in a checkmate or a stalemate. When I had an odd number of players in the afternoon section, I got an email from a parent whose child hadn’t been to a tournament since February to let me know they suddenly had the afternoon free and could their son head over and play? I can't say for sure it was God placing his favor in my direction, but no one can say for sure it wasn't so I'll just stick to my theory.

  All told, I had 59 players at the chessboard for all or part of the day with the only people traveling more than 10 miles being me and high school kid I took with me to help set up. I even had 15 players from St. Francis come to play. You may think that’s not a big deal since the tournament was in the St. Francis school cafeteria and I teach there every Friday. To me it’s a very big deal because I don’t sell tournaments (or sugary cereals or candy) to the kids during the club – I just send the parents an email before the tournament to let them know about it. To have so many of them bring their kids to the tournament shows me that the kids are enjoying chess club and not just killing 45 minutes on Friday mornings and many of the parents told me as much. As a bonus, Tim McEntee, the three-time state champion and life master chess player who helps coach at the club made it down for the afternoon tournament. It was a good chance to introduce him to many of the St. Francis parents and he got to hang out with the players he helps coach. The St. Francis players did quite well for themselves as well. Three players finished in the top five in rated tournaments, one player shared the morning unrated championship, another finished in the top five in the afternoon unrated tournament, and two other players were playing for a share of the afternoon unrated championship in the final round. It was good to see so many kids have success since it may be the only tournament they get to this school year, and it doesn’t make the coaches look too bad either!

  To the untrained eye, it was just another youth chess tournament no different than any of the other 24 tournaments I’ve held over the past two years, but to me it was different from any of the others and very inspiring. This tournament was entirely Des Moines supported and the fact that it was successful showed me that the Des Moines area will support my youth chess tournaments. Up to this month, I didn’t know for sure if needed to have out of town players to make this tournament series work. Now the local community has shown that they’ll support the tournaments and I can work on tailoring them specifically to the Des Moines area.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Movie Review – Red Dawn (2012 version)

  Red Dawn is the remake of the iconic 1984 film starring Patrick Swayze about a group of high school students who fight against a Russian occupation of the United States using guerilla warfare tactics. At the time, Red Dawn was considered an incredibly violent movie and was the first U.S. movie to receive the PG-13 rating. The two violent scenes that stick out in my mind are the gunning down of the adults in the makeshift prison camp while singing ‘America the Beautiful’ and the rebel girl who is shot and dying but holds a grenade to take some of the Russians out when they move her corpse. There is also the execution of one of the rebels who swallows a tracking device to help the Russians prepare an ambush.

  The original movie tries to show the point of view of the occupying Cuban colonel, who is discomfited by the prospect of fighting on the opposite side of a guerilla war than he is used to. The rebels are slowly whittled away one by one, but the end of the movie hints at a triumphant outcome for the resistance as a whole.

  The newer version of Red Dawn changes the original script in a number of ways. Instead of Russian occupiers, our new oppressors are North Korean. The script originally called for a Chinese invasion, but was changed in order to keep the movie from being disallowed in Chinese theatres and possibly to keep a steady supply of ‘Red Dawn’ action figures and toys for the Christmas season.

  The 2012 version of the rebel group Wolverines are still mostly high school kids, but group leader Jed Eckhert is a Marine home on leave from Afghanistan and not a high school senior. Eckhert is played by Chris Hemsworth, best known for his role as the Marvel super hero, Thor. In the Red Dawn commercials, I though Hemsworth sounded like Thor and I was afraid his dialogue was going to have an Asgardian tilt in the movie, but his lines are delivered in an understated tone and sounded fine once I got used to it.

  In the 1984 version, the rebels learn how to be guerillas on the job, but in 2012 the Wolverines have Marine training and are honed into a cohesive fighting unit after a few training scenes. Eckhert contrasts his new mission to his tour in Afghanistan telling his troupe that in Afghanistan he was part of the good guys and needed to create order but now he was one of the bad guys and needed to create chaos.

  The movie has a lot of action but the main characters are little more than stereotypes with the exception of Eckert’s brother Matt (played by Josh Peck). We first meet Matt at the beginning of the movie where he is the high school quarterback who costs his team a chance at the state championship with his selfish play, but isn’t held accountable because he’s the best athlete in town and the police chief’s son. He takes the same attitude to his guerilla missions, eventually getting one of the team killed when he deviates from the plan to rescue his girlfriend from her prison camp. Matt learns responsibility during the movie and by the end is a leader of the resistance and preaching responsibility to new recruits.

  I didn’t think the movie was worth $7 and it isn’t even worth a $1 at a Redbox kiosk. It is the type of film that is OK to see on FX or Spike. The high school kids were mostly interchangeable, the North Koreans had no character, and head bad guy Captain Cho only has a line or two of dialog where he gets yelled at by a superior officer to catch the rebels. There was a lot of action but it was long on gunfights and bombs and short on car chases and hand to hand action.

  One part of the movie that had interest to me and wasn’t in the first movie was the organized resistance to the occupation. There were safe houses and other assistance provided by the townspeople to the guerillas. The assistance wasn’t risk free as shown when a clothing store manager is executed when suspected of helping the guerillas.

  I think a television series with a ‘Red Dawn’ type of foreign invasion theme would do well. There would be time to flesh out the characters and take them to locations all over the country. The alien invasion show ‘Falling Skies’ is a favorite of mine and the post-apocalyptic ‘Revolution’ in which America dissolves into five nation-states shows some promise as well.

  If I was going to make an invasion television show, I wouldn’t try to make the Communists the villains since that might turn off all the people whose jobs depend on selling the goods that are made in communist countries like China. I’d frame my story in a United States that’s been taken over by a consortium of Arab nations who have disabled our national defenses and have established an Islamic nation in large parts of the United States.

  There would be a built-in audience from the millions of people would be happy to set aside an hour a week to see ‘them people get theirs’, but I think that the show could be politically correct as well. Aside from the normal 'blow up the weapons depot’ and ‘rescue the team member who has been captured with a risky plan’ plots, there could be cultural exploration mixed in. A female rebel could dress in a burqa to pass through an enemy city undetected in a women’s rights episode or the rebels could receive some unexpected aid from a ‘fifth column’ from members of the closeted Islamic LGBT community or a pacifist leaning commandant. The possibilities are endless.