Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Advertising Matters

  The Super Bowl is this Sunday (weather permitting) and in addition to the game on the field there will be many advertisements making their debut during the game. The advertisements are heavily produced and will be intensely scrutinized since every 30 second ad will have cost 4 MILLION DOLLARS to show during the game and that doesn't count the design and production costs. I appreciate a good commercial and even though I have no idea why so much money is spent on commercials I have to give the companies that pay for them enough credit to understand that if the commercials didn’t turn into profits somewhere along the way they would not be made and I also got to thinking about advertising in general and my favorite commercials in particular.

  This is one of the best commercials I’ve seen in the past year. I can’t see the weather-beaten face of Jean-Claude Van Damme staring at me with one eye larger than the other saying ‘I’ve had my ups and downs. My fair share of bumpy roads and heavy winds. That’s what made me what I am today.” and not get chills up my spine and involuntarily nod my head in agreement. The music sets off his words perfectly and if that wasn’t enough the reveal then shows Van Damme balanced with each foot on the rear-view mirror of two Volvo Trucks speeding backwards at the perfect distance for a high-speed split.

  I’ve never even seen this commercial on television – just on Facebook, but it was enough for me to find the video on YouTube and download the song ‘Only Time’ by Enya onto my music player even though I never heard of the song or the artist. It’s a great commercial but I’m not sure if it’s a good advertisement for the Volvo Company. After all, I didn’t feel the need to rush out and buy a Volvo truck and even if I was in the market for a truck I doubt this commercial would make me think I needed a truck with such precise steering that an aging martial arts/ action hero could do a split on two of them should the need arise. I do now know that Volvo makes trucks so that may be the whole point of the commercial and if it was it succeeded.

  Like I said at the top of this post, I have no idea why so much money is spent on commercials but then again I may be one of the worst businessmen around. When the company I worked for 13 years was sold for to a group from Indianapolis, I was told I was going to get a retention bonus. I believed it and waited patiently for around 6 months and finally asked about it and was told that the company decided they weren’t going to give me a retention bonus. When I left that company I worked for them on a freelance basis for a bit above my hourly fee even though they were paying three times that for consultants and my skills were more specific. Eventually I wised up and started charging by the job instead of the hour but when I do side jobs for middlemen who deal with the end payer instead of me I am amazed how much cash they can get for even the most mundane programming jobs.

  My chess tournaments rarely turn a profit but I rarely lose money on them either. While the other youth chess tournaments in the state give out plenty of trophies and charge plenty of money to play, I charge $5 for a medal and chance at a small trophy or $3 for a medal and no trophy. I can do this by making my own medals and having a free tournament site at St. Francis in return for coaching their chess club without a fee. Even with those low prices I run into my fair share of kids that can’t afford to play so I let them play for free. At my tournament on Saturday a kid offered to pay me but I know the family is going through some hard times so I told him to forget about it. When the tournament was over he thanks me for buying him the lunch he was going to have with that money I didn’t charge him and that was worth a lot more to me than the $3 I could have pocketed. I could decrease my prices AND give away free entries if I solicited patrons but if you have patrons you have to patronize them and mastery of the art of ‘patronization’ has eluded me so far in life. So I keep things running on a shoestring and I’ve done a pretty good job at it so far. Some people tell me I could turn my monthly youth tournaments into a profit machine and there are times when it is very, very tempting but I’m not enough of a business person to not make them available to as many kids as possible.

  This Asics ‘Nothing But Next’ ad is another of my favorite commercials. It came out a couple of weeks after last year’s Super Bowl. This guy is on foot chasing a pigeon through New Orleans and we just don’t know why. Did it take a dump on him? Steal the engagement ring he got for his fiancée? Or is the guy just hungry? After chasing the bird to its rooftop home we find out that this is nothing more than the famous ‘Pigeon Workout’ as our protagonist proceeds to put the pigeon in its coop only to release a different pigeon and begin his chase all over again.

  During the commercial I never figured out that the shoes were being advertised but after watching it I did have an urge to put on a pair of sneakers, let my one of my cockatiels out of its cage, and start chasing. Luckily I came to my senses and merely downloaded the song ‘Don’t You Just Know it’ by Huey Piano Smith onto my iPod. Whenever I win a particularly satisfying game of one minute chess I like to play it just like I did after this one:

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  I find advertising to be a tricky business because it is very easy to misrepresent yourself or your product. I see a lot of programmers get good jobs by pretending they know skills they don’t and talking a good game. Some get away with ‘faking it until they make it’ and others struggle to catch up, get all stressed out, and get fired or laid off very much worse for wear. I've interviewed for my share of jobs and when the interviewer invariably rattles off their checklist of alphabet soup skills (ASP, PHP, SQL, VB, C#, MVC, E-I-E-I-O,...), I'm quick to say when I've never used one of these mnemonically appropriate skills. This makes many interviewers think I’m not interested in their job because I don't 'play the game' the way the other candidates do, never suspecting honesty is my first option instead of a last resort. Last week, I had someone email to let me know they were visiting chess clubs in the Des Moines schools and was going to give out flyers for my tournaments. The sender was very confused when I mentioned that I preferred not to have my flyers given out. I advertise my tournaments on the internet and email. I used to give out flyers at my camp and chess club until I saw a player begging his mom to let him go to the tournament on a flyer I’d given him for the upcoming weekend and she kept saying no. I told the player that I have a tournament every month so it was no big deal if he missed one and the mom got me to the side and explained that since she was a stay at home mom with kids going to Catholic School there just wasn’t enough money for 2 cars and there wasn’t any way to get the player to the tournament. As someone who has owned as many as five cars at a time this never occurred to me and I haven’t given a flyer to a kid since – I just email the parents and if they can’t or don’t want to let their child know about the tournament it’s up to them. It probably isn’t the right way to sell sugary cereals or little ponies or racing car sets or video games but I rarely have any parents at my tournaments that don’t want to be there and I think I get a lot of parents that are willing to tell other parents about my tournaments because they know I won’t be pitching them to their children.

  I was asked to place a tournament announcement on my chess website for a $15 dollar Iowa State Chess Association (IASCA) youth tournament in Des Moines next week. I prefer to only have my tournaments on my website but I put my friend Jodene Kruse’s tournament announcements up and have put announcements for South Dakota and Minnesota tournaments in the expectation that they will reciprocate when I ask them to post an announcement for the Okoboji Open or other large tournaments I help with. I didn’t want to advertise a $15 tournament to the same people that pay $3 or $5 to attend my events (especially when I know that some of these families are reaching deep to pay that much and still come up empty) so I offered to place the announcement on my site and send an email promoting it IF I could offer a $7.50 entry fee to anyone who mentioned the offer. It made sense to me but probably didn’t make business sense to the IASCA because the offer was rebuffed. I imagine few people advertise products so they can charge less money for them.

  My next favorite commercial is the one for Beats by Dr. Dre where San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick rides the team bus to the hostile environs of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. The Seattle fans are telling him he ‘sucks’, throw fruit and eggs at the bus, and are having a near-riot when Kaepernick puts on his Dr. Dre headphones, the cacophony of noise is replaced by some blissful silence and then Kaepernick is led through the throng of maniacal fans to Aloe Blacc’s ‘I’m the Man’ by the Seattle security forces with a serene look on his face that turns into a smile as he enters the stadium. This is the only commercial of my three favorites where I actually could tell what was being advertised.

  I played the song quite a bit and it did give me a serene feeling as I dreamed about owning these magical headphones that would block out all distractions and let me focus with Colin Kaepernick’s serenity until the NFC championship game when Kaepernick turned the ball over three times in the fourth quarter of the 49er’s 6 point loss at the very same CenturyLink Field that was in the commercial after which my dream changed to sticking with my $5 headphones from Walgreens and keeping the $170+ that I would have used on the magical headphones in my pocket. The song is still great and I downloaded it to my iPod and sometimes I even play it when I pull off a one minute chess escape like this one:

These games aren't high quality by many standards, but the only thing more fun than playing one-minute chess is petting a beagle or two!

Super Bowl 48 - Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ
If I had gone 2-0 instead of 0-2 in my NFL playoff picks two weeks ago I would have been able to advertise a 8-2 mark and sold my Super Bowl pick on a 1-900 number instead of giving it away for free on my blog. It's just as well because I have no clue who is going to win this game and much of my indecision depends on the weather. If it is not windy or rainy I like the Broncos giving 2 points and the over of 46.5 but if there is wind or rain I would take the Seahawks and the under. At this moment the weather report calls for a clear day with little wind so I'll bet a mythical $110 of my mythical $160 playoff winnings and take the Broncos minus the two points (as shown in the from the Yahoo odds page). I think that the Broncos have an ace in their pocket in that the NFL heirarchy may instruct their officials to call the game tightly to give Bronco QB Peyton Manning every opportunity to end a storybook year with a championship which is likely the storyline that will give the NFL the most positive publicity. The other reason I like the Broncos in the absence of weather issues is that I believe their defense will prove to be much better than the Seahawks offense and negate the edge I would give the Seahawks defense over the Broncos offense.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Explaining the Unexplainable

  Two of America's most newsworthy politicians were in the headlines this week to attempt to explain away revelations about their administration's conduct along with a regular American that had to explain why he used his credit card for a $1,600 breakfast.

  On Friday, President Obama made a speech in which he called for reforms to the country’s spy agencies practice of collecting the phone data and internet usage of all Americans and the surveillance of friendly international leaders. This is a direct result of the revelation of widespread spying and data collection of all American citizens by the NSA and other American intelligence agencies in the name of homeland security.

  The President called for the NSA (National Security Agency) to be stripped of its ability to store their phone and internet usage records but the records and data will still be kept. A panel of outside attorneys will be assigned to consult with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (the court assigned to oversee requests for surveillance warrants and has denied 11 requests in 23 years) to advocate for privacy and civil rights. Nowhere is it explained why the people of the United States NEEDS to have an advocate for their privacy and civil rights from THEIR OWN GOVERNMENT. The president also issued new guidelines to reduce foreign leader monitoring except when there is a compelling national security interest but won’t there always be a compelling national security interest in knowing whether your allies are in agreement or not and if so or not by how much?

  I’m well aware that all these surveillance programs have been in place with every possible combination of Democrat and Republican Presidents and Congresses and I feel sorry for President Obama that this widespread surveillance was made public on his watch. The President made a very nice sounding speech about limiting the seemingly unlimited powers of the nation’s intelligence agencies to spy on its own citizenry but for an administration that has been using its executive order authority to prevent prosecution of illegal immigrants, recognize federal benefits for same-sex couples, and grant countless exemptions from its own health care laws there is very little I see changing. I’m not naïve enough to think that the President could actually get permission to curtail this mass invasion of privacy that has been going on for decades but I would settle for replacing the words ‘Security’, ‘Intelligence’, and ‘Investigation’ with the word ‘SPYING’ until my phone and internet usage is not stored by the government. National Spying Agency, Central Spying Agency, and Federal Bureau of Spying have a nice ring to them, don’t you think? The reason for the speech was to make the casual news listener think something was being done when it will be business as usual for all concerned.

  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced the hiring of a legal team last week to help his administration deal with the investigation of his administration's role in causing massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey at the beginning of the school year by closing two of the three entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge. E-mails were uncovered between Christie’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and Christie appointed director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority David Wildstein that suggested the traffic closures were planned as retribution to Fort Lee Democrat Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie in the gubernatorial election last year. Sokolich (who is of Croatian descent) was referred to in these emails as ‘Serbia’. When the news broke, Christie claimed he had nothing to do with the lane closures, fired Kelly and campaign manager Bill Stepien and apologized to the people of New Jersey saying “I am responsible for what happened…I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover.”

  The reason for Christie’s apology and firings are clear: before this scandal he had built a reputation as the front-runner for the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 2016 based in large part of his being willing to step across party lines in order to get aid for state in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and his landslide re-election as governor of a Democratic leaning state as proof of his ‘electability’. There has been rumors of scandal in his administration relating to Sandy aid being dispensed according to the willingness of local authorities in order support certain property developments but they had been kept under wraps. Now that the dam of scandal has broken the mean spirited and silly traffic closure is threatening to be revealed as the tip of the iceberg that will crush Cristie’s ‘Titanic-sized’ political aspirations.

  Now the reason why this happened in the first place can be summed up in two words : ‘New Jersey’. As someone who spent the first two thirds of his life in the ‘Garden State’ I can state it may be the most corrupt place in the universe. I remember getting a parking ticket while stopping at the corner diner for a cup of coffee on my way to work. The officer was writing the ticket while I was leaving the diner and told me I was parked more than 6 inches from the curb (which I was not) and that if I didn’t want any more tickets I should find a new diner until the owner ‘wised up’. As it turns out the diner owner would not provide free breakfasts to Hillside’s finest and every customer got a ticket when they stopped there (This was before the iPod, phone cameras, and even Rodney King). The previous Governor of New Jersey was Jon Corzine, who had to resign as the head of the MF Global investment firm after over a billion dollars went missing amid some shaky gambles with customers money and hid large amounts of debt from federal regulators. And the governor before that, Jim McGreevey, had to resign in scandal not because he was having an extra marital affair with Golan Cipel but because he appointed him as the state’s homeland security adviser and was facing a sexual harassment lawsuit from Cipel for firing him. New Jersey is a political cesspool and to think that any politician from the state would not have plenty of ammunition lying around in case of national aspirations is ludicrous.

  Christie's problems are of his own making and will likely quash any hopes he has for national office but I don't think a politician can rise up to the top in New Jersey unless they have built a political machine that can punish enemies as well as reward friends. President Obama has far less to answer for since the surveillance agencies he is attempting to rein in have been in place for decades before he took office. But Christie and Obama have commonality in that they have to explain the pervasive corruption and surveillance as if they aren't baked into the DNA of the political systems they preside over.

Worth $1,666.61? Very possible!!
  Having to explain away embarrassing situations isn't just the province of the political elite. Jim Andrews in South Carolina had some explaining to do when he was mistakenly charged $1,666.61 for his breakfast at a Waffle House two weeks ago and paid the bill with his credit card. When Andrews couldn’t get the charge reversed at the restaurant he brought his case to WHNS Fox Carolina after which he got his charge refunded by the Waffle House main office. Andrews claims he almost got a heart attack when he saw the receipt and he was lucky that he had enough credit on his card to cover the charge. Andrews also was upset that he still had to pay for his meal and offered the sage advice to ‘Look at those receipts before you sign it’.

  The news report said that Andrews was “careful with his money” at the 59 second mark (You can see it here). I don’t know what passes for being careful with money in South Carolina but I don’t think signing a $1600 breakfast bill qualifies. An example of being careful with your money would be when the clerk at Casey’s General Store tried to charge me $1.18 for two Old Wisconsin beef sticks last week and I was quick to point out that they were 59 cents each BUT 2 for a dollar. Andrews probably qualifies as a cheapskate since if he had taken the time to write down a tip for his server he would have noticed the mistake and Andrews is also wrong about being lucky he had $1600 in credit to charge the bill since if he didn’t have the credit, the charge would have been declined and that would have been the end of the story.

  The Waffle House cashier should have noticed the mistake but once the charge is entered I wouldn’t have tried to reverse it either and would have told the customer to dispute the charge when he got home. Many of the shoe retailers I’ve worked with don’t let anyone but the owner reverse credit card charges to prevent their employees’ friends from charging merchandise only to reverse the charges a few days later.

  I think the reason for Andrews’ outrage is twofold: he is embarrassed for having paid $1600 for his breakfast and he is likely laying the basis for a future lawsuit by claiming he almost had a heart attack and got ill from the stress the $1600 bill caused him. As someone who virtually lived at the Waffle House when I lived in Florida and a patron of the Gaffney, South Carolina Waffle House I wish Andrews would count his blessings, one of which is his close proximity to a Waffle House as opposed to the poor souls in many other parts of the United States (like IOWA) that don’t have access to a Waffle House to visit and enjoy a T-Bone with eggs, coffee, and hash browns that can be scattered, smothered, covered, topped, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, and country!

  I could have used some extra surveillance or at least a healthy breakfast when making last weeks football picks or maybe I could have tried to buy off the officials. I went 0-2 and saw my mythical playoff winnings shrink from $380 to $160. Looking back, picking both road teams was unexplainable. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s defense played well enough to hold the Broncos to 26 points although the Broncos could have gotten 40 or more points if they weren't content to milk the clock with a large lead. The Patriots real problem was an offense that couldn’t move the ball on the ground or protect Tom Brady. The 49ers could have gotten me to even and had the ball inside the 20 yard line with a minute left to win the game when quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s third turnover of the fourth quarter sealed my fate. I was mostly unimpressed by the Seahawk offense except that they made enough big plays to get points and Russell Wilson played a mostly mistake free game at quarterback which I found very impressive. If only the 49ers were playing the point spread they could have covered with a last minute field goal but that is the problem with picking the points – it is a different game than the teams are playing. I don’t have to make my Super Bowl pick this week so I’ll spend the next week figuring out my play and checking the weather reports for Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey where the Super Bowl will be played.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New Things In Chess

  We had a new guy named Steve start coming to the chess club in Marshalltown last month. Steve has never played tournament chess but is an experienced on-line player who is the equal of most of the players in the club. Steve told me about a series of chess videos on YouTube called the Chess Network and during my vacation over the Christmas holidays I decided to check it out.

Here is the last chess tournament video from Jerry at Chess Network. While he is still active on his YouTube channel he hasn't done a tournament video in a couple of months. Maybe someday...

  The Chess Network is the videos of a master chess player named Jerry who makes chess videos of games played by grandmasters, on line games played on, or his stream of consciousness ramblings while he plays in 1 minute tournaments. Jerry is an attacking player and his game analysis mostly points out attacking possibilities for both sides but the commentaries of his one-minute chess have given me a whole new way of looking at chess in general and one-minute chess in particular. Jerry searches for piece activity from the first move of the game and is always pointing out what pieces and squares are under attack. It's fascinating to see a master point out a weak square in his opponent's position and have the immediate feedback of seeing his attack launched over the next five or ten seconds. It's encouraged me to try some of the same ideas in my one minute chess and even when I launch an unsound attack and lose a piece or two I tend to find myself with a time advantage and can come back and win over the board or on time. The other thing I’ve picked up from Jerry is always pre-moving recaptures (Pre-moving is making a move before your internet opponent has moved. If your pre-move is legal the chess server makes it with no more than a tenth of a second going off your clock. Since the recapture is only a legal move if your opponent makes the intended capture there is no downside and the fractions of seconds often come in handy when both players are short of time. The Chess Network channel is a lot of fun to watch and even though each video begins with a commercial, the longer ones allow me to bypass them after 5 seconds.

  I know a lot of people who use ad blockers on their web browsers but I like to see what ads Google and their like send my way. When I entered a Google search for a new car last year many of the web sites I frequent started showing me ads for cars. When I purchased some trophies from Trophy Depot, I got a lot of ads from – you guessed it – Trophy Depot and Crown Trophies. Since they were chess trophies ads were also displayed for the United States Chess Federation and the House of Staunton. I’ve wondered how effective these ads are since I already knew about all these companies but one day on Facebook I saw an ad for free chess training software called Chessimo. I don’t have a lot of chess stuff on Facebook so I wasn’t sure how they decided to target me with that ad instead of the normal fare of testosterone boosters, luxury automobiles, hair loss remedies, and life insurance ads but I was intrigued by the ad and decided to download the free app on my iPod and check it out.

  The Chessimo program displays groups of puzzles in the categories of Tactics, Strategies, Endings, Commented Endgames, and Openings but the free version of the software only offers up a small selection of tactic, strategy, and ending puzzles so I ponied up $7.99 for the full version of the software which includes all the puzzles. The software is fairly configurable: the time per puzzle can be set from one to 30 minutes, the correct move can be shown after a certain number of mistakes or not at all, and most intriguing is an end date which allows the software to give you a graph of how far you are along in the training and where you should be based on when you set your goal to finish the training at.

  I presume the iPod app was converted from a web or desktop application. There is an ‘Openings’ section that does little more than walk the user through one variation of each of the major openings while offering links to games in the Chessimo database for further study. The links work and the games in the database can be accessed through the menu but whenever I scroll through the games too quickly or back up a move or two the app crashes.

  I started in on the Tactic exercises and have completed the first of the five 51 unit segments. The first unit was almost exclusively one and two move checkmate puzzles and instead of concentrating on well-known tactical themes the puzzles are excessively weighted towards queen sacrifices. The units build on themselves by giving a few new puzzles at the beginning followed by puzzles that have been previously solved but with less and less time to solve them and finally finishing the unit with the new puzzles that were shown at the start of the unit (Some of the units are nothing but previously solved puzzles). While I didn’t care for the puzzle content I really liked the idea of solving previously solved puzzles in less and less time to build pattern recognition. Unit two starts off with more checkmate puzzles but there are some double attack puzzles and ‘trap the piece’ puzzles and when I peeked ahead to the last unit all I saw were some reasonable complicated tactical puzzles so I will assume the creators of the software have a method to their training sequence to have the simple mates and queen sacrifices leading the parade of tactics.

The two positions on the left are fairly standard queen sacrifices that Chessimo's tactics training begins with. After a few thousand puzzles simple forks start to make their appearances and by the second stage you get to trap some pieces (leave a message in the comment if you want the solutions).

  The strategy puzzles shows a typical middle game position and asks the user for the best move. The puzzles started by concentrating on maintaining one’s own pawn structure or wrecking that of the opponents, moving on to opening files for attacks and now the positions are showing the proper methods for pawn attacks to create weaknesses in the opponent’s positions. The format is the same as the tactics: Each unit shows a few new puzzles, some previously solved puzzles with less time for solving, and then a refresher of the new puzzles. When the puzzle is solved there is some text explanation (sometimes two or more paragraphs and generally in poor English) but I’ve found if I make a wrong answer the program hangs and I have to quit and reenter the training to start the puzzle from scratch. I can’t say I understand a lot of the puzzles or solutions but as I move along with the training I may get it more.

A sampling of Chessimo's strategy puzzles and the explanatory text...

  The Endgame puzzles follow the same format at the tactics and strategy puzzles except the puzzles have a distinct progression, going from King and Pawn vs. King to King and Pawns vs. King and Pawn to Bishops and Rooks against Pawns and ending the units with Rook and Pawn vs. Rook Endgames. Unlike the simple tactics or cryptic strategy puzzles, I found the endgame puzzles are very challenging and I had to stop numerous times to understand what was going on. There is even a ‘Commented Endgame’ section that covers some of the really complex endings like Queen vs. Rook. I was ambivalent about Chessimo until I saw the Endings module but after seeing it I think that Chessimo would be a great training tool for any number of chess players as long as they are willing to take the time to understand the puzzles. I’ve started using some of the endgame and tactics puzzles at the St. Francis chess club I teach on Fridays before work and I consider the $7.99 well spent since I now have a new way to study chess.

Chessimo's endgame course is superb. From the most basic endgames the user is quickly asked to solve quite complex puzzles requiring more than a little thought.

  One thing I don’t need is a new way of making NFL playoff picks this year as I managed to go 3-1 for the second week in a row. Someone mentioned to me that since I was willing to wager $300+ to win $100 on the money line in the Seattle and New England games and both covered the point spread I could have tripled my winnings by giving the seven points in each game with even money odds. This point of view makes some sense but EVERYTHING about making sports predictions looks better the next day and besides New Orleans was one missed field goal away from covering against Seattle and the Colts were only seven points behind in the fourth quarter. While Cam Newton and the Panthers were a huge disappointment when they only got three points from two possessions inside the five yard line in their 13 point loss to the 49ers, I caught a major break with the Chargers late comeback to cover the 10 point spread and pad my bankroll to $380 heading into the next to last week of the football season. As usual I’ll be using the odds at from the Yahoo odds page and NOT betting any real money on any of the games.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
This Patriots team reminds me a lot of their first Super Bowl team in 2001 – a competent offense featuring a running attack and a bunch of guys I never heard of on defense that just get the job done. While the defense is not nearly as good as the 2001 team, the running attack is much more potent than a decade ago. The Broncos were easily handling the Chargers with a 14-0 lead late in the first half that would have been 21-0 except for a pass that turned from a Broncos touchdown to a Charger interception with just one bobble. The Broncos fell asleep with eight minutes left and a 24-7 lead and allowed the Chargers to close to 24-17 but held the ball for the last 4 minutes to make every Denver fan that didn’t give the 10 points happy. When these two teams squared off in New England 8 weeks ago, the Broncos punched the Patriots in the mouth and took a 21-0 halftime lead only to give up the lead and lose 34-31 in overtime. I think the Patriots will win this game but will hedge my bet and play the point spread risking $110 to win $100 taking the 4 and a half points instead of taking the money line and betting $100 to win $195.

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks defense was very impressive against the Saints but the 49ers defense was even more impressive in pressuring Panther quarterback Cam Newton all game and stopping the Panthers with their two goal line stands. 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a shaky start but found his rhythm and confidence with some great throws on the team’s two touchdown drives to get the lead. He then switched to game manager mode and let his defense secure the game but I think he could have lit up the vaunted Panther defense had it been required. I was not impressed with Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s performance last week and with his top wide receiver Percy Harvin doubtful for the game with concussion symptoms, I believe the 49ers will be able to shut down Marshawn Lynch and squeak out a victory over the Seahawks. I’ll pick the 49ers and will again hedge my bet and take the 3 and a half points on a $110 bet instead using the money line which would net me $163 for a $100 bet.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Movie Review - Grudge Match

  I saw commercials for Grudge Match starring Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone during the Christmas shopping season promoting its Christmas Day opening and wanted to make sure to see it over the Christmas weekend but not because of the commercials. The reason was that I wasn’t sure there was going to be a second weekend for it in Marshalltown, Iowa. That was the mistake I made when I wanted to see the Stallone – Arnold Schwarzenegger movie ‘Escape Plan’ in October but the movie was gone after only one week and I didn’t want to make that mistake a second time in three months.

  The rest of the family had no desire to see what the commercials portrayed as a comic parody of ‘Old Rocky meets Old Raging Bull’ so I went the Friday after Christmas with my 80+ year old neighbor Don. Judging from the five other people in the movie theater for the 1pm matinee, the rest of America agreed with my family and had no desire to see this movie either. The movie was heavily promoted yet only made it to #11 on the opening Christmas weekend with a modest seven million dollar take but I won’t be crying for any of the investors since the movie has made it to a second week in Marshalltown and nudged it’s way to the #10 spot with almost 25 million dollars in box office sales. With a 40 million dollar production budget the film should be able to show a profit after foreign box office and DVD sales are factored in.

  Critic reviews of Grudge Match were worse than the box office numbers with a quick glance at the Rotten Tomatoes reviews finding descriptions like ‘wretched’, ‘an affront to the cinema gods’, and ‘stale and lifeless’. I still wanted to see the movie because I like Sylvester Stallone and to see him play a Rocky character (as if he can play any other character but Rocky) looked to be a fun couple of hours and I don’t know if I really want to take any advice (movie or otherwise) from someone who uses the phrase ‘affront to the cinema gods’ which sounds like something thought up while eating their morning quiche. While Stallone doesn’t have a lot of range as an actor and suffers in comparison to the Academy Award winner De Niro he does play his quiet, tough, monosyllabic characters to perfection and doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves for creating two of the iconic characters of the 20th century in Rocky and Rambo.

  Grudge Match stars Stallone as a quiet, tough, monosyllabic Rocky type boxer ‘Razor’ Sharp and De Niro as the wild-living, fast-talking, borderline crazy Jake LaMotta type boxer Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen, two boxing legends from Pittsburgh who split a pair of championship matches 30 years ago and were primed to settle the score once and for all when Sharp retired from boxing and went to work in a Pittsburgh shipyard. Sharp is finally driven by financial need to agree to the fight after 30 years but when a video of the aging fighters getting into a scrap while filming video game action shots goes viral the fight evolves from a small money club fight to a pay-per-view spectacle in a 20,000 seat arena. The Grudge in the Match comes from Stallone’s revelation that he quit on the third fight when he found out that his girlfriend/fiancée had an affair and a child with McDonnen.

  The movie had a lot of funny spots with most of the gags being jock-type humor with jock types getting punched in the groin and name gags at the expense of McDonnen’s illegitimate son who happens to be named BJ. Alan Arkin gets most of the funny lines as Stallone’s crotchety trainer ‘Lightning’ Conlon with Stallone and De Niro getting their share of laughs mostly by being put in situations that 50+ year old former boxers shouldn’t be in. Stallone does parody some of his famous Rocky scenes by downing a large glass of raw eggs and trying to punch a side of beef while De Niro's comedy comes from making one liners at the expense of his trainer and the fight promoter. The seven movie goers in the theatre laughed out loud several times during the movie and the part I found funniest was when Stallone and De Niro go to an Mixed Martial Arts event to promote the fight and start insulting the sport (‘We had a name for guys who kicked when the fought - Girls’) during their interview and get into a fistfight with an MMA fighter.

  Aside from the jokes, the movie has a serious side as Stallone has to deal with forgiving his grudge against his fiancée (played by a fairly well preserved Kim Basinger who conveniently shows up as a newly minted widow for the fight) for her betrayal of 30 years prior and De Niro tries to reconcile his hard living ways with his attempts to forge a relationship with his son and the grandson he never knew he had, but the storyline tended to be a plot device for the jokes and fight. This made the story telling disjointed with the rushed introductions of Arkin (who has to live with Stallone when he suddenly became unable to pay for his nursing home on his ship yard worker’s salary), Kevin Hart as the son of the promoter of the original two fights, and Kim Basinger as the love interest. It looked like Hart was meant to have a bigger role but disappeared from the move two thirds in as it likely became apparent to the film makers that Arkin provided more than enough comic relief.

  There is more than a little profanity and some suggestive sexual scenes - nothing that couldn’t be found on most prime time television shows but it is there. Aside from the obvious plot devices to get the characters together the movie is fast paced and the characters are well played enough to make for an engrossing and interesting movie with plenty of low brow humor and while I may not recommend spending $10 to see ‘Grudge Match’, the $6 matinee price (or a $1.50 Redbox pickup) was money well spend for a couple of hours of light hearted escape.

  Speaking of escapes, I managed to win three out of my four NFL predictions on wild card weekend and start the divisional playoff round at a healthy 190 mythical dollars to the plus side. After my prediction of the Colts beating the Chiefs went astray with the Chiefs ahead 31-10 at halftime, the Colts roared back to win the game 45-44 which didn’t help me since I bet the points line with the Colts giving 2 points instead of the money line. The Saints and Eagles combined for 50 points which was under the 56 as I predicted but it got way too close for comfort after a 7-6 halftime score. I thought the Bengals would win Sunday’s game but didn’t like the 3-1 money odds or giving 6.5 points so I took the Chargers getting the points and was rewarded when Bengals running back Giovanni Bernard coughed up the football in a tie game late in the first half and quarterback Andy Dalton gave the ball away three more times in the second half which led to the Chargers’ 27-10 win and the 49ers had just enough in the tank to beat the Packers with a last second field goal to not only win my money line bet but also cover the 2.5 point spread. My 3-1 mark in predictions could have been anywhere from 4-0 to 0-4 and I came away from the weekend with a renewed appreciation for the Las Vegas odds makers whose lines would make the winners think they were really on the ball, the losers thinking they were just one play away from being winners, and both winners and losers thinking that they will make a killing this week. With that said, here are my picks for this week’s playoff games using the odds at from the Yahoo odds page and NOT betting any real money on any of the games.

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
The Saints won a road playoff game for the first time in franchise history last week with their last second victory in Philadelphia while Seattle earned a week off for being the NFC top seed. When these two teams met last month on a Monday Night game in Seattle, the Seahawks won a lopsided 34-7 contest. While I think the game will be closer this time around, I don’t believe any amount of extra preparation by Saints coach Sean Payton will be able to get around the simple fact that the Seattle defense is perfectly built to shut down the Saints high powered passing game. I don’t want to give 7 and a half points so I will play the money line and bet $350 on the Seahawks to simply win the game to win $100.

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
I dislike all things Boston and that goes for the Patriots also but I have a soft spot and a healthy respect for New England coach Bill Belichick who was the defensive mastermind of the New York Giant's Super Bowl champions in 1986 and 1990. One of Belichick’s hall marks as a defensive coach is to be able to stymie offenses that are built around the passing game. If the officiating follows last week’s trend of not calling pass interference on marginal contact the Patriots will be able to keep the Colt’s offense under control. I’m concerned about the Patriots offense being able to cover the 7 and a half point spread so I’ll bet the money line and risk $325 on a Patriots victory to win $100.

San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
It was only four weeks ago that the Chargers came into Denver and beat the Broncos 27-20 but I’m not putting too much stock in that game since it was on a Thursday night. When both teams only have three days to rest and prepare the results are more random then when the teams have an entire week between contests. I fully expect the Broncos to win this game but taking into consideration that two of the Broncos three lowest point totals came against the Chargers I will bet $110 on the Chargers to cover the 10 point spread and pocket $100 if I’m correct.

San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
Timing is everything and since the 49ers’ dramatic win over the Packers was the last game of an exciting playoff weekend have catapulted them to the status of the ‘hot’ team on the New York and Chicago sports stations I listen to and they have been installed as the lone road team to be a favorite this weekend over the home Carolina Panthers. I saw a team that barely defeated a flawed Green Bay Packer team and was almost undone by a number of errant throws by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. If I was picking a player to be the NFL MVP I would apologize to Peyton Manning and select Cam Newton of the Panthers who engineered multiple fourth quarter wins including last minute touchdown passes in victories over the Patriots, Dolphins, and Saints. Newton’s numbers aren’t the equal of Manning’ record setting statistics because the Panthers are a defense first team but he is clearly the leader of a team that went 12-4 this year. Newton doesn't have Manning's statistics, Tom Brady's Super Bowl resume, Aaron Roger's State Farm commercials, or Karpernick's style and tattoos, but he has put together a stellar season and I believe is poised to have a breakout playoff season. The Panthers had the same 12-4 record as the 49ers and beat the 49ers in San Francisco in November, yet the 49ers are a one point favorite. Since the one point can only get me a push if I play the points line, I’ll play the money line and play $100 to pick up $105 if the Panthers win.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Predictions for 2014

  If New Year’s Eve had fallen on a Wednesday you likely would have been reading a Year in Review column but since it is New Year’s Day I will take the opportunity to predict events in the upcoming year. As Jeane Dixon proved by vaguely predicting in 1956 that a president would die in office after the 1960 presidential election all it takes is one bold prediction to be correct to gain fame and fortune so here is my shot at the brass ring.

Political Predictions
  Thanks to Obamacare hundreds of thousands of people who previously could not afford to buy health insurance will purchase insurance at no cost thanks to government subsidies. These people will be the highlight of dozens of national news broadcasts as they find they can’t afford their deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance fees. The Democrats will push to have the federal government pay for those who cannot meet the their co-pay and deductibles and President Obama will take to the airwaves to press for the new funding saying something like “Keeping hard-working families from paying their health care deductibles and co-insurance payments is not who we are as a people.” The Democrat controlled Senate will quickly pass a new funding measure and after intensive lobbying by the insurance and health care industries non Tea-Party House Republicans will join with House Democrats on passing a compromise funding measure with the guarantee that future cuts in spending will be looked into in order to pay for the billions of dollars in new spending.

  In the 2014 mid-term congressional elections, the Democrats will defy conventional wisdom and gain seats in the House of Representatives while retaining control of the Senate, although the Republicans will maintain a razor thin majority in the House.

Basketball Predictions
  No team will come within 5 games of the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls all-time best record of 72 wins against 10 losses or the 2011-2012 Charlotte Bobcats single season worst record of 7 wins and 59 losses (8.6 wins in an 82 game schedule). The Miami Heat will win their third straight NBA championship by defeating the top seeded Indiana Pacers in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the finals. LeBron James will re-sign with the Miami Heat at the end of the season. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets will fire head coaches Mike Woodson and Jason Kidd after the season and enter a bidding war for Kentucky coach John Calipari with the Nets ‘winning’ the competition and making Calipari the highest paid head coach of all time.

Media Predictions
  Two new reality television shows featuring long-haired, camouflage wearing, beer drinking, hunting and fishing southern accented men and their families will debut in 2014. At least one of these shows will feature an openly gay or lesbian character but while the shows will be praised for its openness and diversity, the ratings will not compare to other reality shows of the same type and will lead to accusations of homophobia by reality television show viewers. One of the characters on one of these shows will make controversial comments that will be seen as racist or homophobic and their show will be immediately cancelled due to a combination of vocal public outrage and poor ratings.

  In the ever escalating attempts by young female singers to gain notoriety by raising the bar of outrageous on-stage behavior, a relatively lesser known singer will simulate an act of bestiality at a concert. While the act will be widely denounced within two weeks the singer will appear on Good Morning America, the Tonight Show, set an all-time record for You Tube views, and gain a large contract as the subject of a reality television show.

Football Predictions
  The New England Patriots will win the 2014 Super Bowl. The Patriots will defeat Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game and the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl with at least one of those games held during a heavy snowstorm (the Super Bowl is being held in Met Life Stadium at the New Jersey Meadowlands). Less than one year after settling the class action lawsuit brought by former players accusing the NFL of withholding information about the long term effects of concussions, the NFL will find itself bombarded by more lawsuits from players that were left out of the original settlement and a class action suit will be filed on behalf of non-NFL players who suffered concussions, claiming that they were driven to reckless disregard for their safety by the NFL’s glorification of concussion-causing hits. By the end of the year, colleges and high schools will find themselves under similar suits from their former players.

Economic Predictions
  The minimum wage will be raised from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour weeks before the mid-term elections and scheduled to be implemented on January 1, 2015. Despite protestations by many economists that businesses will cut back hiring due to the drastic increase in labor costs, there is no immediate change in hiring patterns. In December Wal-Mart will announce plans to expand self-serve checkouts to their 4,000 Wal-Mart and Sam’s club stores in the United States and McDonald’s will make their European self-service kiosks available to their United States franchisees. Both companies claim there will be no layoffs as a result of utilizing the new technologies. In 2015, McDonald's and their fast food competitors will begin to debut robotic short-order cooks.

  Now that I have made my predictions for 2014, with the NFL playoffs starting it is time to once again make my playoff predictions using the odds at from the Yahoo odds page. Please keep in mind that this is all in fun and not using any real money although I happily point out that I did manage to win 95 mythical dollars with my catch up Super Bowl bet on the over last year.

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts
After a 9-0 start, the Chiefs lost four of their next six games in addition to their final week loss to the Chargers which they treated as a bye week by not playing many of their best players. Two weeks ago the Colts went to Kansas City and pounded a Chiefs team that was still in contention for the division title and I see no reason why this game should be any different. I’ll bet $110 on the Colts to win by more than 2 points to win $100.

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have been one of the hotter teams in the league with seven wins in their last eight games while the Saints have lost three of their last five games with the three losses on the road. I’m tempted to take the Eagles to win outright but I’m concerned quarterback Nick Foles will be have a case of nerves in his first playoff game. Despite the high flying reputations of both offenses I expect a low scoring game and will bet $110 to win $100 that less than 56 points will be scored.

San Diego Chargers vs. Cincinnati Bengals
The Chargers barely squeaked into the playoffs with their overtime win against the Chiefs on Sunday while the Bengals have been unbeaten at home. I got a good look at the Bengals on Sunday and was pretty unimpressed with quarterback Andy Dalton and his four interceptions. Even though I like the Bengals to win the game I don’t like the odds of -300 so I’ll take the Chargers with 6.5 points and lay $110 to pick up $100 if they manage to stay within a touchdown.

San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
As heroic as the Packer’s Aaron Rogers was in leading the comeback win against the Bears on Sunday to win the division I believe that had more to do with the Bears inept defense than the Packers offense. I predict the 49ers will continue their string of victories and win in Green Bay. The 49ers have won 11 out of their last 13 games with the two losses by a total of 4 points against the Panthers and Saints. I don’t feel comfortable laying the 2.5 points so I’ll play the money line and bet $145 to win $100 on the favored 49ers.