Wednesday, October 30, 2013

How can I be a WINNER if YOU have a PRIZE?

These participation medals are EARNED by participation in my youth chess tournaments. They are not meant as 'non stop recognition' or to make sure that players are ‘constantly assured that they are winners’ and they are not meant to demean the achievements of the players that win the tournaments or earn a trophy or ribbon. They are participation medals - nothing more and nothing less. I apologize in advance to anyone that feels their child is being softened up, 'wussified', or being taught the 'wrong life lessons' from getting a participation medal at one of my youth tournaments. Now on to this week's topic:

  Last week Yahoo News headlined this ABC News video article about the Keller Youth Association Football League in north Texas decision to stop giving out participation trophies to their 7,000 players. The organizations Facebook website says ‘Going forward participation medals or trophies will be going away. KYA Football board feels that giving participation medals or trophies isn't sending our children the right message. Trophies are something you should strive for and earn. Life does not give you a participation job or medal, life makes you earn everything you get. We know not everyone will agree but we feel this is the right direction for KYA Football to go in.... ‘. The video was especially smarmy with reporter Matthew Forster's first line being ‘Sorry Kids…you’re going to have do a little more than just show up’. When interviewed for the piece, the KYA program director said ‘You have to go above and beyond in order to get those rewards. In order to succeed at life you have to give 110% all the time…not just sometimes…all the time”. Forster's statement saying ‘most of the parents are just fine with the decision’ is followed with a sound bite of a parent saying his son ‘has 10 or 12 trophies that don’t mean anything to him right now. The championship trophy from last year means something.’

What we all want...
  While I think 7,000 participation trophies may be a little much, I don’t get why the idea of an award for participation is the ‘wrong message’. I coached four little league teams and at the end of each season I pulled money out of my pocket to get the team trophies or medals engraved with their names. They were not only awards but also a token to remember a shared baseball season. Coaches that didn’t give their players even a slice of pizza weren’t happy with me but none of the parents ever seemed upset. Except one. There was a parent whose son stopped coming to the games halfway through the season but called me a month after the season ended looking for her son’s trophy after she found out from another mom about the trophies. I told her that since her son stopped coming to the games, I didn’t order a trophy for him. I got called a couple of names but I haven’t seen the young man’s name on the police reports in the paper over the past ten years so I don’t think he was permanently scarred and turned into a serial whatever unless they moved and changed their name due to the trauma. If that is the case and this grown-up child is stalking me I want to publicly state that I really did have the trophy made and sent by UPS to your house but your next door neighbors stole it so you should be stalking them and not me.

  I get the dad whose kid’s 10 or 12 participation trophies don’t mean anything but whose championship trophy does mean something. A common complaint I hear from some chess parents is how many chess trophies their kids have and these are all parents of kids that have a lot of chess trophies. I’ve never heard this particular complaint from a parent whose child has won one trophy or maybe never won a trophy. My kids have over a hundred trophies and medals (mostly chess) in the house. Their favorites were a) the latest one, b) the most unique one, and c) the one their brother didn’t have. I see the kids at my youth chess tournaments give up when they can’t win a trophy but I’ve never seen one quit because they’ve won too many. I wonder if football dad’s kid would feel different about the participation trophies if he wasn’t on the championship team last year.

  I’ve never seen a player or parent confuse receiving a participation medal or trophy with winning a chess tournament or baseball league and I’m sure the KYA football players weren’t throwing Gatorade on their coaches after receiving their participation trophies. I checked out the Keller Youth Association Facebook page looking for the parents' reaction to the decision and from the comments I saw it appeared that there is more to the issue than participation awards. There were a lot of complaints about the teams being separated into playoff divisions after the season and then the winning team players’ of each playoff bracket getting the same size trophy. This means the second best team in the top bracket doesn’t get a playoff trophies while the team that wins the lowest playoff bracket does and tells me that the participation trophies are part of a larger trophy issue with KYA-Football.

But when we get it...?
  Three months ago I shared my observations on winning when I wrote about my experiences at a Time Odds Blitz chess tournament, Vince and Bill’s arguments over counting change on an early Sunday morning at the Jiffy, and the bughouse tournament at my chess camp. In that piece I noted that while winning the bughouse tournament and Jiffy argument was very important to the combatants, I didn’t have the same need to win my Time Odds Blitz games and readily offered and accepted draws. At the time I said my actions didn’t mean I was a good sport but that winning the Time Odds Blitz games weren’t that important to me. A few weeks later I wrote that playing on in a hopelessly drawn position at the State Fair speed chess tournament didn’t make me a bad sport – it just meant that winning that game was very important to me. When I do give out trophy prizes at my youth chess tournaments the top 5 places get the same size trophy. Two years ago I had a parent of one of the top players complaining and questioning why the first place trophy was the same size as the fifth place trophy. He had a hard time accepting my explanation that I ordered 20 of the same trophy to get a discount and that in my experience there was plenty of competition to finish first even if they were over the exact same trophies except that one says first and one says second, etc… Eventually, I offered to place a piece of Scotch tape under the first place trophy if his son won it so HIS SON's trophy would be taller than the others and everyone would know that HIS SON was a better player than the rest and I also mentioned that everyone would know that HE WAS a better parent than the rest of the parents because HIS SON's trophy was taller than the everyone else's trophy because of the piece of Scotch tape I was going to place underneath it (YES I really said it and I really said it in front of other parents). The parent declined the offer and I haven’t seen him at my tournaments since and while I miss his child I don’t miss him. It wasn’t enough for his son to win the tournament – he had to have a bigger trophy so everyone else would know at a glance. Maybe it isn’t enough for the KYA ‘championship parents’ to have their children be champions – they have to make sure everyone else knows it also and having all these trophies around blurs the lines too much.

  The internet is full of pundits proclaiming the virtues of the KYA not giving out their participation trophies. I did a search on Google of the term ‘kya football participation trophies’ and found articles titled ‘Everyone No Longer a Winner in Texas Youth Football League’ and ‘Youth Football League Will Stop Giving Trophies to Losing Kids’. I’d like to think that the kids and their parents are smart enough to understand that getting a participation trophy is not the same as a championship trophy or winning a championship or winning a game and only in the Wizard of Oz would anyone think conferring a trophy makes one a winner. If every player were to get a team picture or a football for participating would the pundits still be as upset or is it the trophy that gets them so nuts because a trophy or a medal is associated with winners? I think that it takes a certain amount of courage to compete in a chess tournament or be on a sports team and all the participants should be recognized for being willing to compete. I don’t think it makes them soft or unwilling to work later in life or gives them a head start towards an entitlement mentality or being a minion of the nanny government if being willing to compete gets some recognition.

  The video and article don’t show the size of the participation trophies but since the KYA Facebook page had no complaints about the size of them I’ll estimate that the participation trophies are of a modest variety and cost $2 apiece when purchased in a quantity of 7,000. The minimum registration fee is $140 to participate in the KYA football program. Could this be nothing more than a large company with a budget of over a million dollars ($140 * 7,000 + fundraisers) finding at least a $14,000 savings under the guise of life lessons learned?

  I’ve been running monthly youth chess tournaments in the Des Moines area for the last 3 years and for the last 3 years I’ve given each participant a participation medal or button. I had custom made buttons for the first 10 tournaments and for the last 24 tournaments custom-made medals. I’ve always rewarded the top finishers at these tournaments with medals (when I was giving out participation buttons), ribbons, or trophies. The participation buttons and medals are my way of a) thanking them for coming to the tournament and b) making sure no player leaves my tournament empty handed. Except for a very few gifted players, the first few chess tournaments playing against experienced competition with unfamiliar rules can be so frustrating that it is easy for a player and their parents to give up on tournaments but if I can keep that player going to three or four tournaments they start to show the improvement that most young players do and find themselves able to compete. My participation medals are not to make everyone feel like a winner – it is to reward their participation. I imagine similar reasoning led the KYA to give out participation trophies in the first place.

  I’m not used to having a lot handed to me and I’m no social psychologist like the author of this New York Times piece that equates participation awards with ‘non-stop recognition’ and ‘children constantly assured that they are winners’. If these awards were to show the children they were winners, wouldn’t they say ‘WINNER’ on them? These awards are handouts or keepsakes not much different than a program from a play or goodie bags from a birthday party or business conference. The only people I’ve ever seen get their nose bent out of shape over participation awards are the parents of achievement award winners who can’t be happy with their child’s achievement unless it is accompanied by the adulation or jealously of all the non-winners.

  If the KYA doesn’t want to give out participation awards that’s their business and their customers will show them whether it is a sound business decision or not but their comments justifying the decision just seem silly to me. On the video the director said “In order to succeed at life you have to give 110% all the time…not just sometimes…all the time.” How can you ‘give 110% all the time’? Or any of the time? Or even once? Is 100% some sort of halfway mark or ¾ post that is readily surpassed? Is the person giving 110% all the time doomed to failure if everyone else gave 111% all the time or 220 percent 51% of the time? Sure makes that guy giving 100% look like a real slacker.

Earned income???
  As for the Facebook page saying “Life does not give you a participation job or medal, life makes you earn everything you get”, there is at least a kernel of truth to that saying although it wasn’t readily apparent when I was at the Wal-Mart Saturday waiting behind the family with 2 pot roasts, 8 chickens, 2 cabbages, assorted seasonings and paying with an EBT card and then getting 2 gallons of milk free with a WIC coupon. I’m not knocking the family – I’m just saying they probably didn’t earn the EBT card or WIC coupons. And speaking of participation jobs, check out the road crew personnel from my 2011 blog post. How else would one earn a participation award except by PARTICIPATING? And at the risk of offending my atheist readers as long as I’m on the topic of what is and is not earned I’ll close with this quote concerning at least one thing that life does not make you earn… salvation!
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.Ephesians 2:8-9

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Service with a...

  I’ve had my 2013 Chevy Spark for almost 5 months and it has performed as well as advertised. The gas mileage is acceptable at 37.5 miles per gallon (if you think that is good please keep in mind that my 1995 Geo Metro got 40 MPG!), I haven’t been stranded on the road and the car can comfortably get to 80 miles an hour when I need to pass someone or just want to get home by driving more quickly than I should.

  I needed to get new windshield wipers for my car and while the little windshield wiper guide books at the K-Mart and Wal-Mart pointed me to the correct size wiper blades the wiper assembly on my Spark is at least twice as wide as the blades for sale at the stores. This led me to head to Advance Auto Parts (a real auto parts store) in search of wiper blades. The store had the wide blades and I bought a pair but when I got outside to put them on the wiper blades did not contain the correct adapter so I had to head back in and talk to a clerk.

On the left is Mike, the advance Auto parts clerk getting authorization for the return of the Trico NeoForm wiper blades I bought five minutes before. Auto parts stores have entirely different impulse buy items than a Wal-Mart. Luckily I live in Iowa and not California or else I could have gotten cancer or suffered other reproductive harm from touching this single blade scraper! Another reason not to live in California...

  Mike the clerk tried to check out what kind of wipers I needed on his computer but could only get the passenger side part on the screen. I went back to the book and it turned out that while I bought the right brand of wipers (Trico) I got the Trico NeoForm brand instead of the Trico Onyx brand. I picked out the right wiper blades, Mike the clerk made a phone call to get authorization to make the exchange on his computer and I was driving away with new wiper blades on my Spark within five minutes. The world of auto part stores is a manly place when real men with real grease underneath their real fingers pick out brake pads, alternators, and buy motor oil by the gallon and while I felt a little less than manly not even being able to get the correct wiper blades on the first try (There we a lot of choices as you can see here) at least I was able to take the old wipers out and put the new ones in without help from Mike or the rest of the Advance Auto Parts crew.

  I have no choice but to use the power windows that came with my Chevy Spark but I haven’t had an occasion to use my free six month OnStar trial (I wrote here about how long it took to get the service activated when I got the car). I haven’t thought about the OnStar service except for a monthly piece of mail from OnStar that contains some sort of special offer of a lifetime judging from the exciting text on the outside of the envelope but I’ve just been ripping the offer if half en route to the trash can. I suppose I should shred or burn the letter but if someone tries to steal my identity from the OnStar letter all I can say is good luck getting it activated.

  Last week I got two calls from OnStar representatives. On Tuesday at 8 pm, Sandy the OnStar representative called. Sandy asked if she could speak to Henry. I always know that I’m going to get a sales pitch when they call me Henry. I identified myself and Sandy asked me how I was. She was delighted to hear that I was fine and thanked my profusely when I asked how she was. Sandy talked quickly and told me that she knew my OnStar six month trial was nearing its end and that she would be happy to set up my new plan for $19.95 a month or if I wanted to get the deluxe $29.90 a month package I would receive extra OnStar minutes to use in my car. I told Sandy that I wasn’t interested in the OnStar package and she proceeded to tell me how useful the OnStar package would be for me and started to go over all the features when I told her that I wasn’t interested and also mentioned that I had to get off the phone now, which got me a hurried thank you from Sandy and an ear free of getting a sales pitch from OnStar.

  The very next night I got another call from OnStar, this time from Marge the OnStar representative. Kathy answered the phone so I don’t know if Marge asked for Henry or Hank but I suspect she asked for Henry. Marge asked me how I was and she was delighted to find out I was fine but didn’t seem to happy when I asked how she was and got right down to business. Marge explained that my OnStar six month trial was nearing the end and started talking about the $19.95 a month plan and the deluxe $29.95 a month plan but I told her I wasn’t interested before she could offer the free OnStar minutes. Then Marge said that the OnStar package was such a wonderful help in case I got stranded on the road and as an example she said that if I ever locked my keys in my car, OnStar would be able to open my car door for me with just a touch of the OnStar button.

  That got my attention so I asked Marge if OnStar could really unlock my car remotely and she said ‘of course’. Then I told Marge I didn’t have power locks and she said ‘Oh… that could be a problem’. I didn’t want to get into whether OnStar could open the windows remotely to get me into my car (since I do have power windows) or how I would even be able to push the little OnStar button in my car since I was locked out so I thanked Marge for giving me a talking point for the OnStar calls I would surely be getting in the weeks to come and wished her a good night.

  I’m sure the OnStar is a good deal for some people but for $20 a month or $200 a year it doesn’t seem worth it. I pay less than that for my AAA membership and it does much of what OnStar does but it also covers all five of my cars. I had a big problem with AAA not changing my tire when I lost my tire iron last year but I still renewed the service the last two years and unfortunately I had occasion to try them out again last weekend.

  I had my monthly chess tournament at St. Francis on Saturday and since the Chevy Spark cannot hold my tournament supplies AND Seth and Chandler (the players I bring from Marshalltown to help set up) I take my 2009 Kia Rio to tournaments. On the 60 mile trip to St. Francis, I noticed that when I tried to go faster the engine would rev for a few seconds and then the car would speed up. I assumed there was a problem with the manual transmission and told Seth and Chandler that I’d have to bring it to the service station before the next tournament. We got to St. Francis OK and had a fun tournament, but at 5:15 the Kia wouldn’t accelerate at all when I gave it gas and we were stuck on the side of the road 20 miles from Marshalltown. I don’t have OnStar on the Kia but I did have my cell phone and called AAA to get me towed back to town. I had to punch in the 16 digit AAA membership number on the phone before I got to talk to the representative from AAA but once she found out I needed a tow, she put me on hold and called the tow truck driver. I had no problems and the lady from AAA told me that the tow truck would arrive at 6:15 and that he thought he would be able to take all three of us home along with the car.

  My cell phone costs me $2 a day to use but only on the days I use it. I considered the $2 well spent and didn’t mind when the tow truck driver called me back a few minutes later to verify the location and type of car I had and also to tell me it would be a good idea if I got someone to pick us up and left the key under the mat and the car unlocked since he wouldn’t be there at 6:15 and that he wouldn’t be able to take all three of us in the tow truck anyway. So I used my phone again to call Kathy. She came and got us right around 6:15 and we were all back home at 6:35. At 8 that night the tow truck driver called to tell me that he dropped off the Kia at Ben’s Tire as we agreed on and that I should call the dealer because Kia advertises a 10 year 100,000 mile drive train warranty and that my car had only 95,000 miles on it.

  When I called Ben’s Tire on Monday, they told me my manual transmission was shot and just like the tow truck driver told me to call the dealer because the 10 year 100,000 mile drive train warranty should cover the gear box. Since I couldn’t get the dealer (Des Moines Imports) to honor an $8 oil change coupon 3 years ago when the car was new (I wrote about it here) I figured it would take a miracle for them to honor a 3 year old warranty for a busted clutch and that’s just as well since Ben’s Tires does good work and I trust them with my cars. But since I do believe in miracles I decided to call Des Moines Imports just in case. I got a ‘service advisor’ named Scott who told me that a manual transmission was not covered under the warranty since it was a ‘wearable part’. I asked Scott if an automatic transmission was covered and he told me that is was if the driver could show that ‘all the proper maintenance and inspections were performed on the vehicle’. Luckily I had a ‘Service Advisor – English’ dictionary with me and looked up the phrase ‘Yes, if all the proper maintenance and inspections were performed on the vehicle’.’ I found two definitions:

1. It’s not covered if we can wriggle out of it
2. It may be covered if we’ve soaked you for countless thousands of dollars on multi point inspections along with your oil changes but not if we can wriggle out of it.

In this scene from the as-yet unreleased movie 'Taken 6', Liam Neeson tracks down the Des Moines Imports service advisor call center in Albania that refused to honor the warranty on his broken clutch and passes them a note in Albanian ('The clutch on my Kia Rio is busted. Is it covered under the 10 year/100,000 mile warranty?') to translate...

  I feel bad that my 2009 Kia left me stranded after 95,000 miles but it is still a great car (I may have felt differently if I had gotten stranded on the way TO the tournament instead of on the way BACK). When my Aveo’s manual transmission went out after 60,000 miles GM wouldn’t honor the extended warranty that I paid for so I can’t give Des Moines Imports too hard of a time for not honoring a ‘sales pitch’ warranty. The clutch that Ben’s Tire put in the Aveo is still going strong 5 years later and I expect to get many more years use from the Kia Rio.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


"But oh Lord we pay the price
With the spin of the wheel with the roll of the dice
Ah yeah you pay your fare
And if you don't know where you're going
Any road will take you there"

Any Road - George Harrison

The shutdown has left this street corner 'improvement' in Marshalltown, Iowa unfinished for the past 3 weeks. The bright yellow non-slip plates look nice but after a couple of years after the last 'improvement' were revealed to be a thin yellow coating over cardboard.

  The government ‘shutdown’ is in its third week and there seems to be no end in sight. The Republican controlled House won’t pass a new budget that includes funding for Obamacare unless the President will agree to delay the mandate for the individual participation for one year in his administration’s signature health care legislation.

  It was reasonable for the Congress to think the President would agree to concessions. Two years ago he made concessions to avoid the fiscal cliff by allowing the Bush Tax Cuts for high earners and last month decided to let the Congress have a vote on his Syrian ‘red line threats’. Since businesses with more than 50 employees had already been exempted from complying with Obamacare regulations for a year there was no reason to think further modifications couldn’t be made.

  President Obama has consistently been underestimated and refused to compromise on his legacy acheivment. He allowed the government to be shut down, calculating that the media and public will blame the Republican Congress for their loss of government and so far he has been right. Senate leader Harry Reid got to call the Republicans ‘anarchists’ and President Obama got to compare them to kidnappers and blackmailers, saying ‘You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job’ and ‘We can’t make extortion routine as part of our democracy’.

  The main furor over the shutdown the first week were feel bad stories about veterans not being able to visit their monument at the national mall and vacationers not being able to visit national parks. Stung by the criticism, the Republicans blinked first and passed funding for national parks, the National Mall and Washington D.C. But the Democrats are gunning for an unconditional surrender and the Democrat- controlled Senate has refused to consider the separate bills, insisting on a ‘no strings attached budget’.

  You can likely tell who is getting what from the government by their reaction to the shutdown. I talked to a government contractor that was very upset about being furloughed and when I gave my 80 year old neighbor a ride to the hardware store I asked him about the shutdown and he cursed the Republicans up and down because he was worried about not getting his Social Security check next month. I haven’t noticed anything about the shutdown at work, possibly because we don’t get many checks from the government. I work on a program that interfaces with a government agency. The agency is not considered essential and their support email address is sending out a reply noting that there will be no support as long as the government is shut down but since every email I’ve sent them in the last six months hasn’t been answered within a week, I haven’t noticed any difference from the normal level of support.

  I’ve noticed a shutdown effect on the street corners of Marshalltown. In September, crews were replacing the old sidewalks on the street corners with new sidewalks on the street corners only the new sidewalks have some sort of metallic looking non-slip plate at the downslope where the sidewalk meets the street. When I took Daisy and Baxter for walks after getting home from work there would be no workers except for this guy that would be sitting in his car keeping an eye on the newly poured cement. On October 1st the work stopped, the guy in the car no longer kept watch on the street corner, the dirt that was dug up hasn’t been replaced, and the safety cones are still on the corners or wherever they have been dragged to by the neighborhood rabble.

  As if the government shutdown wasn’t dramatic enough, the government’s authority to borrow more than the currently allowed 16.7 TRILLION DOLLARS is running out this week and while the Republican controlled House wants to use their authority to increase the borrowing limit as leverage to get budget concessions while the President Obama and the Democrat controlled Senate want the borrowing limit increased along with a budget that funds Obamacare before any budget negotiations take place. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has been pushing their case for an increase in the debt limit by warning of the ‘chaotic’ consequences of not raising the debt limit. Lew said he the government’s automated payment systems will not allow the prioritization of paying some bills and not others saying "Anyone who thinks that it can be done just doesn't know the architecture of our multiple payment systems," …They were designed properly to pay our bills; they were not designed to not pay our bills."

  The Democrats won the media battle because the Republicans had no talking points ready after their budget wasn’t accepted by the President or the Senate since they assumed there would be quick concessions. Now that the Republicans are have been painted as the ones solely responsible for the government shutdown, it is the Democrats turn to play hardball and they are not willing to accept a temporary increase in the debt limit unless a budget with funding for Obamacare is passed. In my opinion, the Republicans haven’t held the government hostage at all: they passed a budget that didn’t include funding for Obamacare and the Democrats refusal to pass a budget that doesn’t include the funding means to me that they share an equal responsibility for the shutdown. I saw this letter on a government website. In the letter, the administrator says the ‘President is intent on getting the government back up and running, and all of you back to work’. But the Congress did pass a budget for the Senate to approve and the President to sign – it just didn’t include funding for Obamacare and that was enough for both sides to dig in their heels.

  However the shutdown and debt crisis is resolved, I think the real battle here was between the Tea Party and the Democratic AND Republican parties combined. Despite all the ultimatums by both Republicans and Democrats about their all-or-nothing approach to the budget a bill was passed hours before the shutdown to keep the military well-staffed and it looks like a compromise will be reached to keep the government spending for the next few months with both parties painting the Tea Party republicans as unprincipled extremists.

  If the American political system tolerated more than two parties, the Tea Party would have been firmly established on the sidelines as a small fiscally extreme faction, but since there is no way to influence American policy except through the two governing parties the Tea Party was able to successfully infiltrate the severely weakened Republican Party after their disastrous 2008 election results and have become a force in their own right thanks to the rigidity of the two party system. Now the same Republican party that welcomed the Tea Party support two years ago are planning primary challenges to the upstarts because they want the extra funding and power that goes along with it just as much as the Democrats but their stated principles don’t allow them to admit it. When the Republicans controlled all three branches of the government in the early 2000’s, there was tax cuts, record deficits, and a large Medicare prescription giveaway even while funding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When it comes to fiscal responsibility, the Tea Party is the only group with any principles.

These rocks I discovered at the Bonudrant Git 'n' Go were part of a government-funded rock study, but had to make a return trip due to the shutdown.

  The Tea Party view of Obamacare as another large entitlement program is well founded and while I disagree with them about the need for universal health care I do agree that it can only be stopped before it begins because once it takes root and a third or more of the country receive health care subsidies from the government, it will never be able to be repealed. That is the way of ‘entitlements’. And these entitlements are also business entitlements. When the 2014 Social Security increase was announced at 1.5% it isn’t referred as an increase or an adjustment, but as a ‘raise’. Almost FIFTY MILLION people receive tax money from the government to buy food, but instead of the government cutting deals with food providers (as Medicare does and Obamacare proposes to do with medical providers), the government gives out SIX BILLION DOLLARS a month for food to be bought at retail and attempts to cut costs in that fashion are met by accusations of ‘stigmatizing’ the recipients and you won’t see any food producers or supermarkets or any of the other middlemen profiting from food assistance programs complaining either.

  The media has already started to paint of the Tea Party as the cause of the government shutdown and that may help the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives next year. Since the Republican Party was dead in the water until Obamacare was passed in 2010 and the natural tendency of the American voting public is to rail against Congress while reelecting their own representatives it seems far from a sure bet to me, but with so many people receiving payouts from the government and so many companies profiting from these payouts promoting fiscal responsibility is becoming akin to attacking the American way of life. A bank that borrows money from the Federal Reserve at .25% interest and uses it to loan money to the government at 2% interest (here are the details) has a vested interest in the government having to borrow money. Wal-Mart will not be working for a government food assistance reform when they have has so many customers getting assistance that they had a 'mini-riot' in a store that couldn't process the EBT payments. And whoever it is that is improving new street corners in Marshalltown, Iowa certainly doesn't care who borrows the money as long as they get paid.

  There were a lot of stories lost in all the media portrayals of people not being able to visit national parks and monuments and workers dependent on the federal government for their jobs and entitlements and the quick assignment of blame. I’ve missed the discussion in the debate over raising the debt limit is what will be done about the 16,700,000,000,000 DOLLARS of current debt? In a recent speech the president said “Our deficits are going down faster than anytime since before I was born”. I doubt this is really the case but I suppose it could be looked at that way if you choose to interpret the late 1990’s when the government was running a surplus as not really a deficit, but even so is reducing last year’s 1,3000,000,000,000 dollar deficit to a mere 650,000,000,000 dollar deficit something to be applauding like the audience of this speech did? If a contestant on ‘The Biggest Loser’ ate 750 Ho-Ho’s a day in the weeks leading up to the competition and then cut down to only 75 daily Ho-Ho’s during the first week would they win the contest because of their 90% reduction in Ho-Ho consumption?

  I wouldn’t say I’m a ‘Tea Partier’ but I like how they talk about the deficit and national debt as if they are obligations to be paid instead of some sound bite item to be glossed over or completely ignored. Some of the massive decrease in the deficit was due to a slightly improved economy but more was due to the automatic budget cuts that were part of the last deficit limit deal in 2011 (aka sequestration). When I do the math I see every citizen's share of the national debt as $50,000 and I know most of the people getting food assistance and living on social security aren’t going to pay their share. The media has focused on the drama over the shutdown and default scenarios but there are a number of questions that never get addressed that to me are far more important. Is the only thing keeping the national and global economy afloat the ability of the United States to borrow over 600,000,000,000 DOLLARS a year? How much can the United States possibly borrow before no one will lend us any more money? Is there any plan to repay the 16,700,000,000,000 DOLLARS the country currently owes? And why do new sidewalk corners in Marshalltown, Iowa depend on the federal government?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Movie Review - Gravity / TV Review - Ironside

  I went with Kathy to see Gravity on Saturday night in a half-filled theatre occupied mostly by senior citizens. I didn’t know anything about the movie except what I saw on TV: it was a sci-fi movie with at least a portion in outer space and it starred George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Based on that little information I assumed the movie would either be a sort of light hearted romantic comedy with the aging Bullock and the aging roguish Clooney falling in love in outer space during a dangerous space mission or an outer space version of Open Water (the hopeless tale of 2 divers stranded in a shark infested parcel of ocean). The movie was nothing like what I thought it would be.

  Clooney is his typical role as a roguish space shuttle pilot and Bullock is a scientist sent to space to modify the Hubbell telescope. The first 20 minutes of the movie show Bullock on the outside of the telescope trying to install a new part, Clooney spinning around in an experimental jet pack and an astronaut named Shariff (whose voice is heard but face never seen) doing acrobatics while the rest of the crew is in the space shuttle. The opening scene has breathtaking scenery with the telescope in minute detail and the earth in the background. The scenery is set off by the camera moving around in circles around the astronauts and zooming in on the occasional nut, bolt, or wrench floating away from its owner towards an eternity in space unless retrieved by its owner.

  During the opening scene, the only conversation is between the astronauts and mission control in Houston with a lot of silence. All seems normal except for the harbinger announcement from Houston that a Russian spy satellite had blown up and spitting some space debris that posed no danger until Houston informs the astronauts to abort the mission and get back to the shuttle because the satellite has caused a chain reaction of debris that was going to hit within minutes and disable all communications. When the debris storm hits the shuttle is destroyed and faces other than Bullock and Clooney’s are seen for the only time in the movie but only as frozen corpses.

  Clooney and Bullock then attempt to make their way to the international space station 100 kilometers away to find an emergency space capsule to use to get to earth using Clooney’s jet pack. The rest of the movie is a battle to get back to Earth while racing against a diminishing air supply, the cloud of space debris circling the globe to make a return attack, and the human struggle against fear and hopelessness.

  I’m not going to give away the ending, but except for one implausible escape from disaster the movie was a thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. The special effects are awesome with the vacuum of space terrifying, the point of view scenes from inside the spacesuits suffocating, and the space capsules cramped and grimy with stuff floating all around. There was a minimal amount of dialog which served to highlight the loneliness of outer space and at only 90 minutes of running time the lack of character interaction had no time to get boring. It is a great movie with epic special effects and pair of A-list (if a bit over the hill) stars but without the epic movie trappings of a cast of thousands, insanely long running time, and a convoluted multifaceted plot. Clooney and Bullock gave great performances in difficult roles and the movie was rightly the top box office draw of the weekend and almost universally lauded by the critics. The only people who won’t like this movie are ones who need their movies to have a lot of dialog, gunfire, zombie, vampires or some combination of the four.

  As I was watching the double episode season premiere of Law & Order: SVU, there was a lot of advertisements for the season premiere of a remake of the 1960’s and 1970's detective show ‘Ironside’ following the next week’s SVU. At the end of last season’s SVU, Detective Olivia Benson was taken prisoner by sadistic serial rapist William Lewis (expertly played by veteran Law & Order character actor Pablo Schreiber. After some typically heinous acts by Lewis, Benson managed to break an iron bar off the bed she was chained to and beat Lewis half to death with it 45 minutes into the premiere. The reminder of the double episode and all of the next has been standard SVU stories with the subplot of Benson visiting her therapist in between solving cases. I tried to stay up to watch Ironsides but seeing Benson emoting with her therapist got me too tired to stay awake and even made me wish for the days when the main subplot was watching Benson’s biological clock tick or retired detective Elliot Stabler going into one of his fits of rage.

  Missing an episode of a TV series as little as ten years ago meant a long wait for the rerun or possibly never seeing the show in case of a cancelled series, but in the modern world a missed episode is generally available on a computer with just a few mouse clicks. The original Ironside lasted eight seasons due to the popularity of star Raymond Burr who had just left the lead role on the Perry Mason show after eight years as the title character. I never thought too much of the Ironsides show. While Burr as Perry Mason was a slick lawyer with a sharp sense of humor with what seemed to be an unspoken romance with assistant Della Street, Ironsides had Burr portraying a San Francisco detective crippled by a snipers bullet and confined to a wheelchair. He seemed all business to me and the action was left to his chief detective Ed Brown, ex-con bodyguard Mark Sanger, and a pair of policewomen whose main jobs were to not dress like policewomen, seduce potential suspects, and find themselves in some sort of danger just before a commercial break. It was a stereotyped show (of the four main characters guess which was the only actor of color – yes – the ex-con assistant) which was devoid of humor until the bad guy was put away at the end.

  Having said all that I was still interested in seeing what the new Ironside would look like after almost 40 years so on Saturday morning I checked it out on A lot has changed in 40 years and about the only thing that was kept from the original was the wheelchair. While the original show was in San Francisco the new show is in New York City (I hope to facilitate crossover action with SVU). Raymond Burr as the original Ironside was an overweight white detective with little interest in women – I thought this was because of his disability but perhaps his at the time undisclosed homosexuality also played a part in the script writing. The new Ironside (Blair Underwood) is a fit trim black man with a sense of humor who works out with weights and knocks around suspects. To dispel any doubts about his sexual orientation or ability, Ironside has a make out session with a lithe personal trainer within 24 hours of interviewing her as part of his investigation into a suicide/murder.

  Ironside still has a team, but instead of taking care of most of the action like they did in the 1970’s, this team does the mundane police work and leaves the action to Ironside himself. One of the members of his team was none other than Pablo Schreiber who the week before was raping women, murdering men, and tormenting Detective Benson on Law & Order as the infamous William Lewis. Schreiber plays Virgil, a detective who has as little use for the law as he did as a serial rapist the week before. In the opening scene of the series, Virgil beats up a kidnapper and throws him in a car for Ironside to interrogate and when searching the suicidee’s apartment just throws everything on the floor. While Virgil and the other two nondescript detectives on the team were chasing a suspect it is left to Ironside to complete the chase by opening his van door at just the right moment. The show’s website hints that the characters will be fleshed out but for now except for Virgil they are just minions for Ironside to give orders to.

  The initial episode was well written and had a lot of detective work. The only thing I didn’t like were the obligatory flashback scenes of Ironside getting shot and ending up in his wheelchair which seemed to be included to show the angst of his old partner for not having his back when he was shot. I imagine the ex-partner will be a recurring character but I wish I could watch more detective work and less angst-ridden characters. Blair Underwood is a great Ironside and an incredibly street-smart detective. He likes to bend the rules and plays the part almost in a Columbo way except instead of making people think he is an incompetent he plays it like he knows everything before asking. As much as I liked the initial Ironside episode I can’t see myself staying up late to watch it on a weekly or even an occasional basis. Now that the USA network has ditched much of their Law & Order reruns in favor of Modern Family (a show I don’t find especially funny) reruns, I’ll have some time to view Ironside on the internet. I can’t rate the show ‘Must See TV’ but I hope the series has a long run and stays available for me to watch.

  My main question about Ironside is why NBC is recreating the show and then changing the characters so much. Whatever Ironside fans are still capable of handling a remote control 40 years later won’t be tuning in more than once for old times’ sake. Blair Underwood is more than capable of being the star of a detective show but if the only thing his disability keeps him from doing is walking, I’m not sure why NBC didn’t just put him in charge of a detective team and make him the main character instead of having to share billing with a wheelchair.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

(Breaking) Bad Actors

  I’d never seen the AMC TV show ‘Breaking Bad’ but after two months of listening to the Rich Eisen NFL Network Podcast discuss each episode in detail and predict how the series would end I felt like I knew the plot and characters well enough to watch last Sunday’s final episode. The episode was very tense and well done if a little on the Mission Impossible side where too many events have to work out just so for the desired outcome but it made me wish I had spent more time following the saga of Walter White’s journey from chemistry teacher to meth cooker to drug kingpin and the characters he meets along the way. As a tribute to the end of the series, I thought I’d devote this edition of the Broken Pawn to some of the bad actors I’ve met in my journey. Naturally, my bad actors don’t measure up to Walter White’s but to my mind they deserve some measure of remembrance.

  When I worked at the Roy Rogers fast food chain in the late 70’s, we had a customer who we nicknamed Mr. S**t, but when he was in the restaurant we called him Mr. S. Every Sunday, Mr. S would amble into the store at 10:00 when we opened wearing his omnipresent dirty T-shirt and matching dirty blue sweater along with a newspaper and a dozen donuts. He would buy a small cup of coffee for 25 cents and proceed to sit in a booth for the entire day eating his donuts, reading his paper, getting free refills of coffee, and occasionally selling some of his extra donuts.

  But that’s not how Mr. S got his nickname from us – he got his nickname from his mid-week meal trick. Mr. S would come in during the dinner hour at least 3 times a week and order a 89 cent hamburger (which in those days was a quarter-pound burger). Ten minutes later he would ask to speak to the manager. Mr. S would then show him the remaining 2 bites of his burger and say in a voice just loud enough for the customers to hear that his burger ‘smelled funny’ and that he wanted another one. Since one of the last things a restaurant needs is to have a loud customer saying the food smells funny, a new burger was always quickly ordered for Mr. S, who would eat the new burger except for the last two bites and again ask to see the manager. On the second trip, Mr. S would raise the stakes by asking for a roast beef sandwich and no matter what manager was on duty a roast beef sandwich would be made for Mr. S. I asked one of the managers why he always gave Mr. S his extra sandwiches and he told me that the managers all figured that Mr. S knew everyone in town and they didn’t want him shooting his mouth off about how the food at the restaurant smelled funny.

  By that standard I could have never been a fast food restaurant manager since I would have told Mr. S to get lost when he tried to scam his second burger and wouldn’t have even let him bring his donuts in on Sunday morning. I don’t think it would have cost us any business either since if Mr. S knew everyone in town that means they also knew all about him. Maybe Mr. S had a lot of trouble making ends meet and saying the burgers smelled bad was the only way he could get a decent meal but if he had put a fraction of the effort into making a living that he did into getting free burgers and roast beef sandwiches he would have been a successful car or insurance salesman or had a career in politics or maybe even became a meth cooker and drug overlord like Walter White. Mr. S had a heart attack and died a year after I started working at the Roy Rogers. I assume his arteries were clogged from all the extra hamburgers he scammed over the years. All the other workers talked about how much they were going to miss him but since no one inquired about Mr. S’s funeral arrangements it was only the kind of kind sounding things people say after someone dies while I said it would be nice not to have to make extra sandwiches and we wouldn’t need to make as much coffee on Sundays.

  After high school and before college, I spent some time as a midnight shift security guard at the Shop-Rite supermarket’s food distributorship in Elizabeth New Jersey. Because I could stay awake all night, I was considered a top performer and was given the assignment of working Post #1 which was the main gate. My duties consisted of calling Shop-Rite internal security every hour and saying ‘Post #1 – all secure’, keeping an eye on the parking lot across the street from the post and the cars parked in front of the gate facing the building, and making sure I saw everyone’s ID badge when they came in the gate. The warehouse workers would take smoke breaks at 1 and 5 and a lunch at 3. A few of the workers would go to the parking lot to drink some beer or get high and would show me their badges when they came back in and if they forgot I would ask because I knew if internal security (mostly ex-cops) didn’t like you they would have someone try to sneak in so they could get you fired (It was a very big brotherish type of operation and it wasn’t even 1984 yet!). At seven there was a shift change and I would go outside the little guard shack and watch the third shift leave and check the badges of the first shift and the office workers as they arrived.

  One time the president of the Corporation, David Silverberg, waked through without showing his badge and I asked him to show it to me. He showed me the badge and the next day I got a visit from internal security. They told me that Mr. Silverberg had mentioned to them that I asked him for his badge and he wanted them to make sure I knew who he was and that I didn’t ask to see his badge in the future. I didn’t really consider my job as checking badges more than keeping an eye on the parking lot overnight for the third shift workers.

  Willie Dobbs was a first shift warehouse worker who had a huge Lincoln Continental. He would sit his car blocking half the street until one of the few street side parking spaces would open up and then traffic would be blocked in both directions while he carefully backed his car into the spot. A few times the internal security made him get out of the street and park in the parking lot. One day Willie forgot to show me his card so I asked him to show it to me. He gave a big sigh, pulled his wallet out of his pocket, opened his wallet with the ID card in one of those see though pockets, and shoved the card about an inch away from my face, and sneered as only a New Jerseyan can sneer ‘Happy?’ While Willie wasn’t a small guy, he wasn’t especially big either and since after a whole night hanging around a guard booth for minimum wage I wasn't too interested in the Willie Dobbs’ of the world shoving their wallets in my face I said in my best menacingly matter of fact voice ‘I wouldn’t do that again if I was you’ Willie gave the time-honored reply ‘You ain’t me’ and as he walked away with a snide chuckle the game was on.

  The next day when Willie came through the gate he looked at me and I looked at him and he looked at me and I looked at him and as he kept on walking I asked him to show me his badge. Willie gave a big sigh, pulled his wallet out of his pocket and was in the process of bringing it up to within an inch of my face when the back of my hand intercepted it about six inches short of its mark and sent the wallet flying across the pavement, knocking loose a stack of 20 dollar bills that flew every which way.

  After Willie gave his best impression of an ant that got caught under a kid’s magnifying glass scooping up his twenty dollar bills accompanied by the snickers of his co-workers (none of whom helped pick up anything) he went inside and must have ratted me out like a little school boy. I got yelled at by Willie’s union boss and the head of internal security (a former New York detective named Kirk who could really yell), and then by both of them at the same time. I figured I was going to have find myself a new minimum wage job but after the yelling was done, the union boss got me on the side and told me Willie was a ‘prick’ and he wished I had clocked him and after that Kirk got me on the side and said while I should never touch anyone on company property he would have ‘put the SOB in the hospital’ if Willie had tried that on him. A few minutes later, Willie came out to his car and called me a wise guy and said ‘Yer gonna get yours…’ I mentioned that I was right there if he wanted to give me anything and tried to compliment him by telling him what a nice car he had and what a shame it would be if something were to happen to it while it was parked in the lot. I only worked as a guard for a few more months after that but for every day I was there Willie Dobbs pulled his wallet out before I had to ask and opened it up on his hip so the other guys wouldn’t see it and we never talked again. I looked up Willie Dobbs for this post to see if I could find his obituary but I couldn't which to me was a shame because that would have been some easy reading.

  I was going to stop my character profiles at Willie but the weekend may have brought a worthy addition to my ‘rogues gallery’. The retail software company I was employed by from 1994 to 2008 stopped supporting the desktop product earlier this year and since then I’ve been helping users who haven't switched to the new 'cloud' version with their problems for an hourly fee. On Friday, I got an email from an old acquaintance asking if I could call a user to help them with a problem with the software. I called the user on Friday night, helped with a couple of problems, and emailed my acquaintance to inform of my progress and I quickly received an email back asking if there was anything they could do. I called the user back and asked for an email address so I could send a bill for my time. The user had a heavy foreign accent and I couldn’t understand the email address so I gave her my email address and told her to send me an email and I would reply. I didn’t get an email and 2 emails to my acquaintance asking for the user’s email address have gone unacknowledged. It looks like I’ll have to write off this fee but when I get another email asking for assistance it will be my turn to go to ‘radio silence’. Hopefully the software was really being used for a retail store and not a real life version of Walter White using my old retail software for some drug lord business or the next time their software breaks it may be unhealthy for me to refuse to help.