Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Games People Play

Bill and Vince matching wits over the counter at the Jiffy.
A chessboard between them wouldn't be out of place.

  Last Saturday, Kathy and I took Baxter and Daisy to the Jiffy at 5am as we normally do but after getting my coffee and heading to the counter to pull the beef sticks out of the display and pay Vince I got to sit around for ten minutes while customer Bill paid Vince the Jiffy night shift clerk $8.19 for his pack of cigarettes and Mountain Dew in quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies after he exhausted his supply of wrinkled dollar bills. It may not have taken ten minutes, but since there were numerous restarts of counting on the parts of both Bill and Vince it may have taken a lot longer.

  While the counting was going on, there wasn’t much I could do to speed things up except leave without the beef sticks and risk the wrath of the beagles and there was still the matter of the unpaid coffee in my travel cup. I had my camera so I took a picture in an attempt to speed things along but it went unnoticed in the debate over whether 80 or 85 came after 75 when counting by fives, which took a detour when Bill or Vince (it was five in the morning and I wasn’t fully awake) claimed that one of the nickels was counted twice and that's why in this one case 85 did come after 75 when counting by fives.

  Instead of just starting the count over, Bill and Vince were equally determined to win this argument and I got to thinking about how important winning is to most people. At the chess camp that I had last week, we finished up with a ‘bughouse’ tournament. Bughouse is a chess variant where teams of two players square off against each other and when one player captures a piece, they pass it along to their partner who can place it on their board instead of making a move. I don’t get bughouse, I don’t care for bughouse, but I don’t deny the appeal it has for most young players and many older players as well and it makes for a fun way to let the kids finish the camp. Most of the campers were angling around for partners to help them be successful. The Spence brothers paired up and communicated in Spanish, which led to accusations of an unfair advantage. I disallowed those claims in order to spare me from having to monitor every conversation in the tournament for secret code words.

Bughouse chess
  Once all the players had made their teams, only Shirlin was left without a partner so I paired her with Frank, the 7th grade state champion who helped me with the camp by giving a lesson and helping out with the kids. I thought I was all set and then the youngest camper, 5 year old Jacob came up and asked who his partner was. I could have paired him with Shirlin but she already had a partner, there was something not right to me about pairing the two players who didn’t have partners, and I had 15 teams and 16 is the perfect number for a tournament so I pressed Bethany Carson into service as Jacob’s partner. Bethany was a camp instructor and loves to play bughouse but even so I was concerned how she would react to playing with a partner who was the least skilled player in the camp.

  I needn’t have worried. Bethany showed Jacob exactly what he needed to do to be a successful bughouse partner and they finished in third place among the 16 teams, while Frank and Shirlin finished first. I’ve played bughouse a few times at club and while I like to win, if my team loses I don’t get upset about it (except the time I got very upset when I told my partner not to move because I had a forced checkmate and my opponent had 30 seconds only to have my partner get checkmated ten seconds later, telling me afterwards ‘I just felt like moving’) and I've never concerned myself with the teamwork aspects of the game. But not Bethany and Frank! They found a way to be successful even though they were paired with the players no one else wanted as a partner. You don’t have to be a psychologist or even have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express to know that these two want to excel at whatever they do and that is very likely what makes them champion chess players.

  Eventually Vince and Bill forgot about their argument and managed to agree that the fourth dollar in change did add up to a dollar. They started on dollar number 5 but got sidetracked when Vince spied a wheat leaf penny (printed from 1909 to 1959) in the pile of change and tried to count the pennies before the dimes and nickels. Bill thought Vince was trying to pull a fast one and they proceeded to argue about the correctness of counting pennies before dimes and nickels and another argument ensued.

  The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi has had a couple of quotes attributed to winning 1) ‘Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!’ and 2) ‘Winning isn’t everything – but wanting to win is’. I don’t know if he really believed this but they are the sort of manly quotes that get attributed to winning football coaches. I very rarely get into the mood where wanting to win is everything over the chessboard – I work off the assumption that being in the proper mindset to play well will lead to victories more than any deep seated desire to win. I wonder what Lombardi thought of the game of chess when the combatants can agree to a tie game at any point in the contest. Even with attempts by tournament organizers to get the players to not offer draws via the so called ‘Sofia Rules’ does not prevent players from taking the occasional quick draw via one of the many known openings where best play is a repetition of position.

vs. Robert Vance
  At June’s Time Odds Blitz, I had one of the worst days I’ve had in years. After playing a couple of good games, I gave away my queen in one game and my bishop in another. I wondered how I could have made two big blunders within a half hour of each other and the only reason I could come up with was that since the apples I brought along to eat turned out to be rotten, I didn’t eat anything all day and just wore out. I brought some PowerAde along with some non-rotten apples to the July tournament but I forgot that I scheduled the tournament to start at 12:45 and started it at 12:30 instead. I only realized when I sat down to play the first round and the mother of a ‘late’ arriving player reminded me to look at the flyer. I gave up my place to the ‘late’ arriving player and ended up missing the first round. I won my second round game and in the third round was paired against Robert Vance, the truck driver/chess teacher I played against in last May’s CyChess tournament. I was White but only had four minutes against Robert’s eight. I won a pawn and reached a king and pawn ending with two minutes on the clock vs. Robert’s four. My extra pawn was crippled and we shuffled our kings back and forth on the same squares four or five times when I offered Robert a draw.

  Robert didn’t say a word and kept shuffling his king back and forth along with me. He either didn’t hear my draw offer or was content to use his time advantage to win if I insisted on shuffling my king back and forth. I pushed a pawn on the far side of the board to attack one of Robert’s. Robert had a choice of trading pawns, advancing his attacked pawn and locking the structure, or moving his king over to recapture the pawn I was attacking. Robert advanced his pawn instantaneously which gave my king an entrance and an easy win. I don’t know if the two alternatives were any better but I know they would have made me spend more time on getting my king into his side of the board. Three moves later, Robert said ‘It’s my turn to offer a draw’ but I was winning so I just said ‘No thanks’ and he resigned a few moves later. I offered a draw because I was too lazy to work out the win, but Robert forced me to figure it out and offered me the draw only when he was lost. I wondered if he thought I thought was lost when I offered the draw.

and Tim Crouse

and Seth from Marshalltown
  Sometimes a draw is the proper outcome of a well-played game. The round after I played Robert, I took on Tim Crouse in our first over the board meeting since he beat me ten years ago in the most stinging loss I ever suffered over a chessboard. It was a great back and forth struggle where Tim was attacking my king while I was barely holding on and counterattacking on the queenside. I managed to trade queens and then the game transformed into a wildly imbalanced Rook and Pawn ending. When the dust settled, I had a Rook and Pawn vs. Rook in a drawn endgame but while I had two of my original eight minutes left, Tim had only 13 seconds of his seven minutes remaining. I looked at the clocks and offered Tim a draw, which he took. Would Tim have offered me a draw had the situation been reversed? I don’t think so but that’s not because I’m a better sport than he is – it’s because winning is more important to him than me. I was happy to have played a smart tough game and once I feel I’ve played well the result doesn’t matter as much.

and Edin (not Eddie)
  At this point I was brought back to the present when Vince managed to win the argument about whether he could count the pennies before the nickels and dimes by telling Bill that he was the clerk on duty so he could count the change any way he wanted. I don’t think Bill was in the mood to head a half mile north to Casey’s to get his Dew and cigarettes so he acquiesced and the counting proceeded apace and I was free to resume my daydreams. In the next to last round of the time odds blitz, I managed to checkmate Seth with seven seconds of my two minutes left (Seth started 3-0 but faded towards the end) and I got to play Edin from Croatia in the last round. I used to call him Eddie but I’ve recently been informed that he prefers to be called Edin. I never thought to ask my brother if he prefers to be called Edward (or Ed or even Edin) instead of Eddie but I may have to now. Edin had won his first six games and already clinched first place while I found myself in sole second place with 4.5 out of six points (including the first game that I didn’t play). I had white and played a delayed Boris against Edin, waiting a few moves to throw my f pawn up the board against his King’s Indian. I got the pawn all the way to f5 and traded it for the g6 pawn when Edin offered me a draw. I thought about it for a minute and decided that since I couldn’t finish first I’d like to ensure a tie for second so I accepted his offer. It wasn’t unlike my draw offer to John Herr last May to clinch a first place tie at a tournament. Would Edin have made the offer if he needed to win to finish first? Absolutely not! I don’t think there is anything Edin likes better than winning at chess, but having first place clinched probably dulled his competitive spirit. Frank (my camp helper) won his last game to tie me for second place and we each collected $7.50 so I guess you could say I either cost myself $7.50 by agreeing to the draw (in case I had won) or made myself $7.50 (in case I would have lost). I used the $7.50 to get myself a value meal at a fast food restaurant and victory (even a second place victory) never tasted better!

(Left to Right): Me, Edin, and Frank. Here's to the winners! If only Vince could have joined us...

  I woke up from my reverie when I heard Vince say “Beef sticks and coffee, Hank?” The counting was over and Bill was gone to drink his Mountain Dew, smoke his cigarettes, and do whatever the Bills of the world do at five in the morning after a Sunday trip to the Jiffy. I gave Vince my $2.06 in exact change and Vince took it while chortling about how he got a 1920's wheat leaf penny out of all that change counting. I was going to ask him if winning the coin or the argument was more important, but I had Kathy and two hungry beagles waiting outside and in the end it really didn’t make a difference because after all 'Winning isn't everything...'

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ninja Chess vs. Stalker Chess

The next big thing?
  There are a lot of metaphors for chess and I have occasion to use many of them when I have occasion to teach the game and I’ve made up quite a few myself. Many beginners fall in love with moving the same piece over and over until it gets captured and then they start moving another piece over and over and then the next piece, etc., etc., etc.. I can try to get them to stop by playing a game with them and beating them by having more pieces out than they do, but the student will inevitably decide that they lost because I’m older or a better player and not because they didn’t bring out all their pieces.

  My way of telling the student that they need to use all their pieces is to use a sports metaphor. First I find out what sport they play and if it’s basketball (for example) I ask them who would a game between a team with five players and a team with two players. Most of the kids say the team with five (every so often a wise guy says that the team with two will win if they have LeBron James) and make more of an effort to use more of the players on their ‘chess team’.

  Sometimes a really young player has no idea what I’m talking about when I ask which sports team would win with how many players so when our game is over, I point to each piece that moved (for both sides) and say that they are happy. Then I point to all the pieces that didn’t move and say that they’re sad. When I ask why the pieces that didn’t move are sad I almost always get the answer I’m looking for: they’re sad because they didn’t get to play. That usually makes my point and the players will try to move all their pieces in the beginning of the game so they can be happy. Of course this leads them to move some pawns that they shouldn’t be moving, but in my experience it is easier to get someone to stop moving their pawns than start moving all their pieces. One of my favorite metaphors is the ‘ninja move’, which is where one piece moves to expose an attack by the piece behind (that piece being called the ‘ninja piece’). This is commonly called a discovered attack. Beginning players miss this attack a lot because sensing it requires the ability to visualize the board with a piece in a different location and that skill takes time to develop. Advanced players have also been known to miss discovered attacks on occasion, possibly because of tiredness or a lack of concentration. Most of the kids I work with get the ninja analogy because the discovered attack appears out of nowhere just like ninjas in ninja movies. When I show the kids at St. Francis a puzzle with a ninja move or they pull off a ninja move in their own game, I tell them they are playing ‘ninja chess’.

  At my 2012 chess camp, I devoted an hour-long lesson to ninja moves. Here are a couple of ‘ninja chess’ examples from it:
pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  And here is a ‘super-ninja’ example from the same lesson:
  I didn’t think that anyone would remember my musings about ninja chess and I was wrong. We had our 2013 chess camp last week and while I was giving a lesson about attacking there happened to be a spot where one player gave up a knight to get out of the way of the queen so she could unleash an attack on the enemy king. Three of the campers (one who came to last year’s camp and two from St. Francis) immediately shouted out ‘NINJA MOVE’. Not only did I think it was pretty cool, it gave me a chance to explain ‘ninja moves’ to the uninitiated and also told me that a ninja move might just be more memorable to a younger chess player than the clinical term ‘discovered attack’.

  I’m always on the lookout for different ways to describe chess and I’m not the only one. Among my chess books are titles like ‘Samurai Chess’ and ‘Chess for Tigers’. And I’m not even talking about all the chess sets with different themes like the Civil War, Robin Hood, Cats and Dogs, and even Yankee vs. Red Sox chess! I'd never play on a Yankee vs. Red Sox set unless it was against someone I knew I couldn't lose to and even then I wouldn't because what if I did lose?

  When my oldest son Matt was an infant, I used to do the laundry on Friday nights at the local laundromat and naturally brought along a small chess set and book to pass the time. Sometimes I would meet a young chess player named Jeff who came with his mother and we would play a game or two. Jeff would always take my pawn with his bishop as soon as he could and it didn’t matter if it was a fair trade or not. After Jeff took my pawn with his bishop for the twelfth or so game in a row despite my advice not to, I asked him why he kept doing it and he told me that it was because when he played a computer game called Battle Chess after each capture the computer would show a battle between the two pieces and the bishop taking the pawn had one of the coolest effects. Once I had broken the ice when either of us would capture a piece, Jeff would describe in great detail what the capture would look like on his computer screen. If only the Battle Chess creators had saved the coolest effects for captures that led to an advantage, Jeff may have become a fine chess player.

  If the ‘Falling Skies’ TV series was a little more popular I might be able to use the show as a metaphor for chess. The ‘ear worms’ that the aliens use to control human minds could be pawns (small but potentially deadly) and knights could be favorably compared to the horses for the humans and the eight-legged creatures affectionately known as ‘skitters’ since both can hop over their fellow combatants.

  I was playing chess against a visitor from Indiana at club a few weeks ago when I got a new idea of how to describe a ‘ninja move’ or discovered attack. An’ya (pronounced ‘an-eye-uh’) wasn’t castling and I kept on winning by putting my rooks opposite her king and uncovering its attack with a ninja move. I stated to explain my ‘ninja move’ concept when An’ya said ‘That’s no ninja! That piece is a stalker!’

  Out of the mouths of babes! There was my rook hanging out like a stalker, keeping an eye out for the king and just waiting to catch it alone. I didn’t have time to make a lesson for the chess camp about ‘stalker chess’ but this concept could be better suited for a book. There are already books on chess called ‘Play Chess Like a Champion’, ‘How to Play Chess Like an Animal’, and ‘Play Like a Girl’, so why not ‘Play Chess Like a Stalker’?

  Expanding the stalker theme seemed pretty easy for other tactical devices once I got to thinking about it. Instead of a fork that attacks two or more pieces at once, I’ll just call it a stabbing. Any attack that can be met can be referred to as ‘targeting the victim’ and when the attack can’t be met it is time to pounce! Forcing the enemy pieces to interfere with each other could be a strangling and any double attack with a check could be a mugging in broad daylight. The possibilities are endless. Here's an sample of what a ‘stalker’ chess lesson would look like:
  How good will this be once I polish it up? The stalker metaphor may be a little too weird to bring up when I'm teaching chess for now, but I’ll keep it tucked away in the back of my mind and have it ready for the time when stalkers take their place next to vampires, zombies, and cannibals as pop culture icons.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Best Day Ever (for a certain pair of beagles)

  Hi Everyone! It’s Daisy and Baxter filling in with another guest blog for Hank. Hank’s lucky we’re doing any blogs for him since he made us miss our half birthday writing about Okoboji (We wrote about it here). I know, Daisy…no one sent us any beef sticks or any other presents for our half birthday. I was so sad…but then we had such a great Fourth of July that we needed to tell all our readers about it! Fourth of July started at 4:30 in the morning like always when we woke up but instead of Hank walking us a few blocks and Kathy going out for an hour… They both took us to Jiffy for some beef sticks!! YUM!!! I knew we would be getting some when Hank only put on his weekend clothes instead of what he wears when he leaves for the whole day. But what neither of us could know at the time was that July 4th was going to be the day we got four beef sticks each AND we would be doing our 2013 beef stick review of all the stores we go to for beef sticks.

First stop : Jiffy at 5:00 am!!

  Since it was a Thursday, Dot was at the Jiffy and not Vince or Cody. The Jiffy serves the Jack Links brand of beef sticks. When we go to the Jiffy during the day and it’s really hot, Hank gets us a cup of ice with water to help keep us cool. The Jiffy has ice cubes which are hard to eat. I prefer crushed ice myself. Most of the time Hank gets a cup of coffee but since it has been so hot, he got a soda for himself along with our beef sticks. Just like always, the Jack Links from the Jiffy are very solid and sometimes they are a little dried out. But on the day of our taste test, they tasted great!! YUM!! I agree that the Jack Links beef sticks have been excellent lately, but I’ve been very disappointed with the Jiffy Parking lot because there’s hardly any vomit or garbage to scrounge lately. Between that and the ice cubes I’m giving the Jiffy 3 paws. I always thought getting garbage or vomit was a bonus but now that I think about it we really should get a little something extra out of our longest walk and this past Saturday morning the Jiffy didn’t have ANY beef sticks so I’m giving the Jiffy 3 paws also.

Jiffy – 3 paws 

Beef sticks and ice cold water go together perfectly at Kum & Go.

When we got back home, Kathy took a nap and Hank played with his computer while we slept. At 9am, we took our normal walk with Kathy over to the cemetery and back but since Hank came with us, instead he heading back when we got to the cemetery, we kept walking along the cemetery until we got to the Kum & Go. The Kum & Go also has Jack Links beef sticks and they never run out of them. When we got there, Hank got us 2 beef sticks, a 79 cent twenty ounce soda for himself and a big cup of ice water for us! When it’s hot out there’s nothing as good as a big cup of ice and water to go along with our beef sticks! YUM!! I love beef sticks and ice water. Kum & Go beef sticks are the Jacks Links brand just like the Jiffy but since they are busier their beef sticks are always fresh and best of all Kum & Go gives us crushed ice!! Crushed ice is easier for me to chew than the ice cubes we get at the Jiffy and that and the ice water really cools me down on a hot day. I’m giving the Kum & Go 4 paws. I like the crushed ice too and since the beef sticks are always so fresh I’m giving the Kum & Go 4 paws too. I’d give them 5 paws if I could!

Kum & Go – 4 paws 

Casey's General Store has a wide selection of cold drinks and Old Wisconsin beef sticks!!

Big dog Spike
We took another nap until around noon while Hank and Kathy watched TV and at noon we took our normal walk that is two square blocks southeast past Spike the big dog, but this time Hank and Matt came with us! When Hank comes with us on our noon time walk that means we’re probably going to slip another block east to…Casey’s General Store! We don’t go to the Casey’s very often. We tried to go to it last year and they didn’t have any beef sticks. I was so sad that day. We didn’t even try to go to the Casey’s for a long time but earlier this year we gave them another chance and they haven’t been out of beef sticks since. Casey’s has a big parking lot so we can stay out of the way of the traffic and they have Old Wisconsin beef sticks. Old Wisconsin beef sticks have more water than Jack Links. That makes them less chewy and greasier tasting than the Jack Links beef sticks, but they are still really good. And when it’s hot, Casey’s has cups of crushed ice just like the Kum & Go. I’m going to give the Casey’s four paws. I like Jack Links beef sticks better than Old Wisconsin so I’m going to give Casey’s three paws, but I do appreciate the crushed ice.

Casey's – 3½ paws 

The Depot's beef sticks are tiny, but as taste testers we were obligated to carry out our duties!!

Our friends Marilyn and Bill.
When we got home from Casey’s we took another nap and at 3pm we got ready for another walk. When Hank isn’t home we just go around the block and when he is home we take the same walk that we go on when Hank works all day. On this day we went to visit our friends down the block: Bill, Marilyn, Becky; their dog Abby; and their neighbor Mary. I sit next to Bill and Marilyn so they can pet me and then I fall asleep. After we got done with our visit, we continued down Center Street but this day we stopped at the Liquor Depot for more beef sticks! We get beef sticks at the Depot occasionally. They only have small greasy Slim Jims and now instead of two small beef sticks for a dollar, they are selling even smaller beef sticks at three for a dollar. The new Slim Jims are even smaller and greasier than before and the Depot doesn’t have any cups of ice for us either. If they weren’t the closest place with beef sticks we would never go there. I don’t want to give them a whole paw but since even a small greasy beef stick is still a beef stick I’ll give them half a paw. I can’t give them a whole paw either. I’ll give them half a paw also. All three Slim Jims combined are smaller than even one of the beef sticks we get from the Jiffy, Casey’s, or Kum & Go.

Liquor Depot – ½ paw 

So even though the last beef stick of July 4th was the worst, it was still the best day ever because we got to go on four beef stick walks for the Fourth of July. We were hoping that we would make five beef stick trips for the fifth of July but Hank had to go to work and we didn’t get any beef sticks at all. It was a great Fourth of July and we should congratulate Kum & Go for being our 2013 Daisy and Baxter convenience store winner. Yes, Baxter I agree. The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday. Kum & Go has done a great job all year long and Jiffy will have to step it up in order to reclaim their crown after a disappointing third place finish.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Movie Review - The Lone Ranger

  Kathy, Ben, and I went to see the new Lone Ranger movie last Thursday. Since it was the evening of July 4th and most of the town was either at the town’s fireworks demonstration or setting off their own fireworks or burglarizing the houses of the people who went to see the town's fireworks demonstration I wasn’t too surprised that the parking lot for the 12 screen theater was nearly empty, but I was shocked that only SEVEN people came to see the heavily advertised big budget blockbuster on the day after its opening. Maybe it was that the movie had gotten mostly negative reviews, but there was no lack of advertising and the producers certainly weren’t banking on the nostalgia value of the title character since they had signed Johnny Depp to play the role of Tonto the Lone Ranger’s Indian sidekick, no doubt hoping to lure Depp fans hoping to see an epic performance in the ‘Jack Sparrow’ mold form the popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

  Along with the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello, the Lone Ranger was one of the staples of my youthful TV watching when the reruns of the 1950’s half hour television show would take its place in the after school rotation. The Lone Ranger was sort of an 1800’s Batman: he was an expert marksman, fighter, and horseman as well as a master of disguise. Where the Batman has the state of the art Batmobile and Robin the Boy Wonder as a sidekick, the Lone Ranger’s transportation is Silver (the smartest, fastest horse in the West) and has his own sidekick in Tonto the strong silent Native American. Episodes of the Lone Ranger and Tonto would invariably have the heroes encounter a rancher, farm family, or town being harassed by some bad guys and after a narrow escape or two save the day with their guns, fists, and brains and head off to their next adventure without even sticking around for a thank you.

  Armie Hammer plays the Lone Ranger and while he has the requisite rugged good looks instead of being a real Texas Ranger that is the only survivor of a Ranger ambush of the Butch Cavendish gang (hence the Lone Ranger tag) Hammer’s Ranger spends the movie not being able to shoot straight and bumbling through his encounters with the Cavendish gang, getting by more on luck than any heroic qualities. The movie gives a fresh take on Tonto as a disgraced Comanche Indian looking for vengeance against Cavendish for his own purposes instead of the stoic Tonto of the TV series. Depp wore war paint and a dead crow on his headdress throughout the movie but played the character straight for the most part with his comedic moments mostly coming with his exasperation with the Lone Ranger’s naiveté and the blind loyalty to him by Silver (who is portrayed as a spirit walking horse that protects it’s rider from harm).

  The main villain is Butch Cavendish, who is ably played by William Fitchner in the true Wild West tradition. He is long and lanky and scarred and beaten and feared by friend and foe alike. Cavendish not only shoots people, he gets some cannibal action in when he cuts out the heart of the Lone Ranger’s brother and eats it. He would have made a fine addition to my cannibal post of a few weeks ago. Cavendish drives the plot along by murdering the entire Texas Ranger posse, massacring Tonto’s village, wiping out settler outposts, and running a silver mine in partnership with a representative of the railroad.

  This is one of the weirder movies I can remember. The acting is great, the plot was good, the scenery is tremendous, and the final twenty minutes of action is out of this world. I should have walked out of the theatre thinking this was one of the best movies ever but instead I left thinking the film was just OK and way too long.

  What was the problem? I think the Disney movie makers couldn’t decide whether to make a straight action story featuring the Lone Ranger and Butch Cavendish or a comedic take starring Johnny Depp’s Tonto character so they decided to mix elements of both and that made the two and a half hour movie dull in too many spots. The movie was framed as a story being told by an ancient Tonto in a 1930’s carnival Wild West to a boy dressed as the Lone Ranger, with the beginning and end of the movie set in the carnival exhibition along with a few breaks during the film. I didn’t think it added anything to the movie except fifteen minutes of running time along with some distractions. The comedic aspects showed the main characters more as bumblers than true action heroes and I thought they were more distracting than funny.

  I liked the new mystical spin of The Lone Ranger as an immortal warrior chosen by the horse spirit and the idea of Tonto as shaman-like was an exceptional take on the character, but with a budget of $250 million and an opening weekend of $50 million there is only the slim possibility of a sequel which is a shame because The Lone Ranger is one of the all-time great characters. As silly as it sounds, the Lone Ranger producers would have been well-served to have watched a few episodes of 'Walker, Texas Ranger' for a guide on how to have Native American spirituality with a tough as nails western hero. I think a Chuck Norris type mixed with a small part of Sherlock Holmes would make a much better Lone Ranger than the effete city lawyer getting on the job training that the movie portrayed.

  This movie could have been a popular comedy-adventure or a great action film but it couldn’t be both and Disney couldn’t figure out which type of movie it wanted. Iron Man was one of the few series that has been able to be funny AND action oriented at the same time because the humor flows from Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark as a wise guy not because of a few sight gags and accidental marksmanship. Thanks to Depp's performance as Jack Sparrow the Pirates of the Caribbean films have much the same qualities. I suppose that Disney was thinking Depp would provide the same effect but instead they will likely be planning ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 5’ instead of ‘Lone Ranger 2’.

  On Friday, we watched the 2012 blockbuster ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. At two hours and 45 minutes, this movie was even longer than the Lone Ranger but it kept my attention throughout and while it still wasn’t up to the standard set by the Joker driven ‘Dark Knight’, I never felt it was too long and thought it was even better than when I reviewed it last year. I think the secret was that ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ knew it was a dark movie, never tried to be anything but, while the Lone Ranger couldn’t decide what kind of movie it was going to be and suffered because of it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Through a PRISM darkly

Meet Vince, who will be collecting my $2.06 coffee and beef stick tab for the foreseeable future.

  After almost three months since I reported that Cody was leaving his position as the Jiffy night shift weekend clerk, a replacement has been found. The new weekend clerk is Vincent, who is the son of weekday overnight clerk Dot. Vincent trained for two weeks and had his first solo shifts this past weekend. So far the reviews are stellar: the coffee was hot and the beef stick hopper was well stocked. No one knows what the future will bring, but it looks as if Vincent is settling in a for a long run as Daisy and Baxter’s new beef stick contact at the Jiffy.

  After Edward Snowden quit his $120,000 job as a technical contractor for the National Security Agency, he may have given Vincent some competition for the position at the Jiffy but instead Snowden leaked the details of the United States secret surveillance program code named PRISM and is holed up in Moscow trying to escape being extradited to the United States and tried as a traitor under the 1917 Espionage Act. The PRISM program is run by the National Security Administration and intercepts internet and phone traffic that is routed through the Unites States, which is scoured by NSA analysts to gather emails and phone calls to help locate foreign terrorists and foil their terrorist plots.

  I don’t think very many people were surprised the government is monitoring phone and internet traffic, but the scope of the PRISM program surprised everyone. On a daily basis, Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T turn over data concerning all its customers’ phone calls and Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Skype, and Apple are among the many participants in the PRISM program providing data to the NSA about who is going to what internet site and the emails that are received and sent. Credit card information is also collected. The NSA has every bit of everyone’s electronic footprint at its beck and call.

  The government from top to bottom has gone into a frantic spin control mode to make everyone knows that a) collecting the data in the national interest (Deputy press secretary John Earnest – “a critical tool in preventing the nation from terror threats”); b) that is subject to rigorous oversight (Senator Diane Feinstein - “As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years…This renewal is carried out by the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] under the business records section of the PATRIOT Act. Therefore, it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress; c) No one really cares (Senator Saxby Chambliss - “To my knowledge, there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint”) and that it only involves foreigners (President Barack Obama - “do not involve listening to people’s phone calls, do not involve reading the e-mails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents, absent further action by a federal court, that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation.” And that is all true. The program keeps getting renewed and permissions for all this surveillance must be obtained from something called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which has denied exactly 11 warrant requests in almost 35 years!

  While the news that the government is spying on the electronic movements of its own citizens was met with outrage from the predictable sources, the outcry from the government over Snowden’s extradition to the United States from Moscow and Hong Kong was what made the revelations front page news. Without that outrage, there would have been some embarrassment over our government not only doing the same sort of civilian spying that we accuse Russia and China of doing to their civilian population but also the citizens of our allies. Once the politicians stopped talking about Snowden, he all but disappeared from the news.

  Sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984 have spiked since the NSA revelations and the PRISM program does contain elements of a government scrutinizing its own citizens in the name of protecting them against the unseen enemy. Even if the government analysts or their hired subcontractors aren’t supposed to read or listen to private email and phone calls unless they are 51% sure that it involves a foreigner, any communication that involves a criminal inquiry is fair game, domestic or foreign, and no one can have any confidence that anything they think is private is private.

  Two months ago IRS has recently admitted to targeting groups with the name ‘Patriot’ and ‘Tea Party’ for extra scrutiny. At first it was blamed on a couple of rogue agents but the admitted abuses kept on growing and more and more higher level IRS officials resigned and finally the latest IRS commissioner said the abuses were more widespread than previously disclosed. In decades past liberal groups like ACORN were singled out for special attention from the IRS. Criticism from politicians of all stripes (except the specific groups affected) have always been muted because both ‘parties’ want to be able to abuse the system when they are in power. If everyone’s emails, phone conversations, and Internet usage are kept on file, how could any political entity be trusted not to abuse this information if it’s available? The secretly taped remarks made by Mitt Romney about the 47% of the people who would never vote for him was very damaging to his presidential campaign last year. Imagine a politician running for office and two days before the election having to explain why they had the Al Jazeera cable network on TV every night or received 6 emails of support from Paula Deen?

  While the 1984 comparisons to the PRISM program have much merit, it reminds me more of the ‘Matrix’ movies where the computers run the world or the ‘Skynet’ program from the Terminator films. Even all this top secret information at PRISM’s disposal couldn’t stop the bombing at the Boston Marathon and it is a sure thing that amongst the ELEVEN MILLION undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens or insert your own buzzword there are at least a few terrorists. So it is only a small leap of logic to have a computer put in charge of the PRISM program not only to keep the information from prying eyes but also to efficiently target our enemies. AND since we are our own worst enemy, we will all soon be the targets as the computers run everything for our benefit.

  It’s not a given that a computer takeover will necessarily be an apocalyptic event; it may be a boon to society. Last week at work I needed to find an email from a customer but couldn’t find the folder it was in. It would have been so nice to be able to just dial 1-800-MYY-PRISM and have a copy of the email sent directly to me. And when I lost my thumb drive and was looking frantically for it yesterday, PRISM could have come to the rescue and let me know where I left it (it was in the bottom of my chess box but THEY already knew that). And maybe someday, before we take Daisy and Baxter out for beef stick treats, PRISM can tell us whether Vince has the beef stick hopper stocked.