Wednesday, March 23, 2016
The middle four episodes of AMC’s The Walking Dead current half season took on a far more serious tone than the comic-book like first two episodes. After the miracle escapes of episode one and dealing with the hijinks of escape artist Jesus from the nearby Hilltop Colony in the second episode, Rick Grimes and his band of zombie apocalypse survivors took a road trip to the Hilltop Colony, a mostly peaceful self-sustaining village located on the site of a former Living History Farm.
Our intrepid band is running so low on food stocks in their walled off Alexandria community that den mother/warrior Carol has taken to making sugar cookies using acorn flour and beet sugar. Our group hopes to strike a trade deal with the Colony and Hilltop leader Gregory offers the option to trade food for labor which is rejected. It looks like a deal cannot be made until it is revealed that life on the Hilltop Colony is not as idyllic as it first appears. The Hilltop gives 50% of all their food, livestock, and scavenging finds to a group called the Saviors and their leader Negan. What does the Hilltop get for half of their possessions? They get protection from the Saviors with protection meaning the Saviors won't attack and kill them. A frantic Hilltop resident named Ethan comes to Gregory telling him the Saviors said the last load was light and his brother was being held captive until he brings them Gregory’s head. Ethan then stabs Gregory and tries to kill Rick, who shoves a knife in Ethan’s neck which provides a sample of Rick’s fighting qualities as well as drenching Rick in Ethan’s blood.
We met some of the Saviors in the first episode of this half season when they were killed by Daryl and his rocket launcher in a cartoonish scene. Rick and company strike a deal with Gregory to kill Negan and the Saviors in return for the same 50% cut that the Hilltop was paying the Saviors.
In the fourth episode Rick talks the town into taking on the challenge by telling them that they would be running up against the Saviors eventually and by striking first they would have the element of surprise. A raid is performed on a Saviors compound. Rick’s group infiltrates the compound and murders every sleeping Savior they can find while the rest are killed in firefights after they are discovered.
Rick’s lookouts are captured at the end of the episode by another group of Saviors and held in an abandoned slaughterhouse. The fifth episode entails their improbable escape replete with the symbolism of Carol sharpening the edge of her rosary cross to cut free of her duct tape bonds. More Saviors arrive and are tricked into a ‘kill room’ where Carol burns them alive by throwing a lit cigarette butt into the gas soaked floors proving once and for all that cigarettes are killers.
This story arc marked a sea change, turning our zombie apocalypse survivors from a group trying to survive and preserve their humanity into premeditated killers. Rick has killed strangers going back to Season 2’s ‘Nebraska’ when he gunned down two men in a bar that were trying to gain access to his farm but normally Rick and his group require provocation before resorting to killing. The ‘Terminus’ group was savagely killed in season 5 but that was after they tried to eat Rick and his group (even going as far as to snack on Bob’s leg). What struck me was how the entire town (except peace-loving Morgan) went along with the plan to kill the Saviors in return for food. There was some hesitation on the part of a few when it came time to actually kill but when the firefight ensued it was every person for themselves and the killing was done without hesitation.
The main question in my mind is whether Rick and company would have gone in for the trade if their first encounter with the Saviors hadn’t happened. Their first encounter with a member of the Hilltop Colony was with the escape artist and master of deception ‘Jesus’ who has only proved that he is shifty and not totally honest. Hilltop leader Gregory seems to be a sleazebag and I wouldn’t doubt that he deliberately sent a light load to try to cheat on the agreement he brokered. I’m sure the heroes of our tale have a moral superiority to the Saviors but after agreeing to a murder for food trade that superiority is razor thin at best.
The sixth episode of this half season started showing the monotony of daily life for Grimes & Co. in Alexandria with the same guard tours, supply checks, etc.. For reasons that can only be described as plot development Denise the town doctor insists on going on a run to a pharmacy at a nearby strip mall. Daryl and Rosita accompany her and even let her take on a zombie trapped in a car in order to liberate a cooler that ends up containing a prized six pack of soda that Denise can give to her girlfriend when she gets back from a supply run. Denise makes a speech about how she faced her fears during the supply run when the calm is interrupted by an arrow going through her eye by way of the back of her head, killing her instantly although she was able to almost complete her last thought. The arrow is revealed to be shot by Savior Dwight who encountered Daryl in the first half of the season. Dwight and an entire crew surround Daryl and Rosita. Things are looking grim for out heroes but Daryl regularly faces tough scrapes and is rescued by a pair of his group that was on an unrelated mission as befitting his status as a fan favorite.
The arrow through the eye is an iconic moment in the comic book although it happened to 3 season veteran Abraham instead of Denise who is just the latest of a long line of Alexandrians to meet their demise this season. The suddenness of the death made me jump out of my chair during the show and while I think that the long time regulars are safe there is the feeling of foreboding that the imminent debut of Negan will make the showrunners want to have a more impactful death.
Season 5 had the deaths of 2 long time characters (Tyreese and Beth) with newcomer Noah meeting his demise with two episodes left in the season. There haven’t been any old-timers dying this season (Denise was introduced this year) but there are two episodes left before months of waiting for season 7. After a pair of hokey and contrived episodes to start the current half season the last four installments have been riveting, tense, and suspenseful. There is universal anticipation of who if anyone will die next and what a cliffhanger would look like. I can’t begin to hazard a guess although with the departure of Carol from Alexandria because she doesn’t want to kill any more I could easily see her being captured and part of either the cliffhanger or the signature moment of season six. Either way I will be glued to AMC on the next two Sundays for what has turned into a phenomenal half-season.
Friday, March 18, 2016
Two weeks ago longtime chess player and organizer Roger from Ames passed away. I wrote about Roger last week and don’t want to repeat myself except to say I liked and respected Roger and he was 77 when he passed. I hadn’t seen Roger or Penni in a number of years and while their passing was a shock it was not something that impacted me very much. Yes that does sound cruel but it is just the way it is and I can’t recall if I’ve seen anything different in anyone I’ve ever known (although not many will admit to it).
I’ve written in the past about my neighbors Bill and Marilyn from down the block, their daughter Becky, and their Cairn Terrier Abby. When Kathy and I take Daisy and Baxter on their nightly walks if the weather is warm enough we would see them on their front porch and visit for a half hour or more. Bill and Marilyn are in their 90’s so we don’t see them outside unless the weather is very warm. I dislike winter but I figure that if I could get to March I had it made because any snowstorms or freezing weather would be fleeting and it would only be a few weeks before the weather would be warm enough to hang out with Bill and Marilyn which is how I knew winter was over.
Now when people are in their 90’s making it through the winter is not a sure thing. Over the past 20 years I’ve seen Bill go from walking his Cairn terrier and driving Marilyn and Becky around town to walking his dog with the help of a cane to not being able to drive and having to use a walker to even get to the front porch. And I’ve seen Marilyn rip the skin from her arm from scraping it against a door and then watch it take all summer to heal. But every winter they made it through and every summer we would visit on their front porch.
This last winter was a rough one for Marilyn. She was in and out of the hospital and we saw the sign outside their house saying there was no smoking because oxygen was in use. Needing oxygen is rarely a good sign but in the last few weeks Kathy and I saw her sitting in her living room waving to us as we walked the dogs past and the oxygen sign went away. Last month Becky let Daisy and Baxter in so Marilyn could pet them. It’s always fun seeing Marilyn’s delight at seeing Daisy and Baxter in the winter. We would hold them up and she would beam as she petted each of them and say ‘You remember me, don’t you?’ Daisy will let anyone pet her and Baxter is standoffish to strangers but Baxter would always let Bill and Marilyn pet him. I had a standoffish relationship with both my grandmothers (especially my dad’s mom who didn’t speak English) but Marilyn reminded me of the idealized sort of grandmothers I would read and hear about – mostly cheerful, mostly wise, and always kind.
Two weeks ago the oxygen sign returned to Bill and Marilyn’s house and then the Saturday before last when we were taking Daisy and Baxter on their noon walk we saw a funeral home car parked on Bill and Marilyn’s block. We didn’t know what was going bit we had our suspicions and tried to make up a scenario that the funeral home car was just making a cold call or was there for the sick guy that we knew lived across the street. We went about our afternoon but at 4 we got a call from Becky telling us that Marilyn has passed away that morning at home. We went over and hung out with Becky and Bill who told us that Marilyn hadn’t been doing very well for the past week and just couldn’t breathe anymore.
Becky went out to get dinner and Kathy and I stayed with Bill who told us both he and Marilyn wanted to go first so they wouldn’t have to live without each other. We talked a bit and Becky came back with their dinner so we left. On Tuesday we went to the funeral/memorial service. I don’t go to a lot of funerals but I did go to this one which was about as depressing as I expected. Marilyn was all dressed up, made up, and fixed up for the viewing. One of the relatives marveled at how good she looked and asked my opinion. I felt like saying she looked better a couple of weeks ago but I knew that wouldn’t be a good thing to say which is a big part of why I hardly ever go to funerals. There was a slide show with pictures of Bill and Marilyn all through their lives and some people talked about Marilyn and Bill and this life and the next life. There were a couple of songs (one of which was ‘Happy Trails’) and the ceremony was over.
Marilyn’s passing bothered me more than the death of any person for at least 30 years and that includes both my parents. I wondered about why that is and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is because her life and death had an impact on me every day. We’ve walked Daisy and Baxter a couple of dozen times past Bill and Marilyn’s house in the past weeks and it just isn’t the same knowing that Marilyn won’t be on the couch waving to the beagles or having us bring them into the house for her to pet them. And I’m not even especially looking forward to winter being over as much. I’m sure we’ll still hang out with Bill and Becky and Abbey but it won’t be the same. Left unspoken is how Bill will handle being without his wife of 73 years. The whole thing is a bummer and while I thought I’d feel better after writing this I don’t feel any different than I did when I started writing this a week ago - I’m getting kind of sick of people dying.
Marilyn chose Happy Trails to be played at her funeral. I haven't thought much about my funeral's playlist but this Johnny Cash song would be a front runner...
...while this Bob Dylan tune would be near the end of the list
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Roger Gotschall (1938-2016) on the left awarding Tim McEntee his 2008 Iowa Chess Championship trophy and on the right receiving some Italian sausage with me at the Marshalltown Salvation Army in 2011. Even into his 70's Roger had a full head of hair that made me wonder why he ever wore a hat.
Since Ames was the closest town to Marshalltown that had any chess tournaments and all the chess tournaments in Ames were run by Roger we ran into each other frequently in next few years. I never got yelled at by him again but I also pre-registered for his tournaments if at all possible. One thing that was unique about Roger was that he was and is to the present time the only tournament director in Iowa to regularly hold tournaments on Sunday afternoons which is an outstanding chess tournament time for me personally and any parents or children involved in youth sports or school activities.
In 2006 I took on the task of reviving the Iowa State’s Chess Association’s disintegrating scholastic program and got to deal with Roger on a more or less equal footing. As the coach of five scholastic chess clubs in Ames Roger rightfully wanted a lot of input into the scholastic process. We didn’t agree on everything and quite often didn’t agree on anything. Roger could be incredibly helpful like when he double checked 20 new membership forms for missing birthdates or addresses (saving me days in getting the tournament rated) and also incredibly infuriating like the time I thought he was going to schedule the high school championship tournament but he wouldn’t answer my emails even though I could see him playing on the Internet Chess Club every night.
While most of the successful scholastic teams I've observed in Iowa rode the strength of a few top talents, Roger's teams tended to rely on a deep roster of competent players that found themselves in the winners circle more often than not.
Roger was an engineer by trade. I later learned when working with dozens of engineers at Fischer Controls that engineers perform their job by following the physical laws. For example, a valve made of a certain metal that has to transport a specific liquid at a particular pressure must have thickness and couplings and screws within certain tolerances or else it won’t function properly without exception. In the engineering world there is little to no room for negotiation of physical law. And Roger was like that in running his chess clubs and tournaments – there was a proper way to do things and little to no room for negotiation. As a self-taught software programmer I have been trained to live in a world of chaos. I can write a great program that does exactly what the user wants it to do but it may stop working because some anti-virus program refuses to let my program write to the hard drive or an operating system change hides the printer information or serial port or the computer just goes haywire and makes my program go haywire also. And I’m like that in running tournaments – I expect chaotic things to happen that I have no control over and just try to be flexible so I can stay afloat if a tidal wave hits.
Roger and I were such polar opposites that it naturally took us awhile to get each other but I believe we respected each other a lot. I can offer proof of my respect by noting that since 2010 I have played in one Iowa tournament that wasn’t run by me or Roger. I infer Roger’s respect by noting that 7 of the 9 Iowa tournaments since 2010 that Roger played in that he didn’t run were my Thursday Night blitz tournaments. When I came to one of Roger’s CyChess tournaments or Roger came to Marshalltown to play in a blitz tournament I would say ‘Hi Roger’ and Roger would say ‘Hello, Mr. Anzis’ (he did always call me Hank after the initial 'Mr' greeting). Roger had a deep bass voice and he spoke slowly with grave intonations and Pinteresque pauses that made you think we were discussing matters of world importance instead of the Cyclone's shooting guard or whether a pawn belonged on a6 or a5 in a particular position. Roger's voice and cadence was so distinctive I was able to imitate it well enough to be able do a one-man stage performance although I would have needed to manufacture a full head of hair and get some inserts for my shoes to properly play the part.
There were a couple of ways where Roger and I were alike, but even in our similarities we were dissimilar. I am a die hard Yankee fan (the most successful American League team) while Roger was devoted to the St. Louis Cardinals which is the most successful of all the National League teams and all baseball teams except for the Yankees. Our chess styles were opposites but similar in that they are opposites of our personalities. I accept chaos and unpredictable change as a given but over the chess board I like the simplest positions possible and will go to great lengths to avoid complications. Roger was a traditionalist in every sense of the word but over the board loved to sacrifice material and play for the attack and wild positions where the normal guidelines of chess are almost useless. We played four times in tournament chess: two Marshalltown blitz games, a 45 minute game in Urbandale in 2008, and last July in a chess.com online blitz tournament. By the luck of the draw I had White in all four games. All our games followed a familiar pattern of Roger getting a better position before making a big mistake to allow me a technical win. Roger had a lot of chess knowledge, won his section at the 2004 U.S. Open, and has had a number of very instructive winning middle game attacks and endings. I don’t know if the mistakes were him trying to make something happen against my simplistic play or part of old age since I didn’t play him as a younger man but he was a dangerous opponent who scored a lot of upsets and could beat anyone if he was on.
In his later years Roger's constant companion was Cypher the Boston Terrier. Someday they will be walking together again...
Roger and I were more chess friends than friends although more than casual acquaintances. I enjoyed our occasional encounters once I got past our rough beginning. I haven’t seen him since 2012 when he stopped his CyChess Sunday tournaments and I stopped my Thursday night blitz tournaments. I’m glad I got to know Roger and I’m better off for knowing him. Hopefully we’ll have another chance to play chess someday and when we do I imagine it will be his turn to have the White pieces.
Friday, March 4, 2016
Once I had paid off my car I was determined not to let my found money slip though my fingers. I had a large portion of last year’s tax refund and some extra money from helping support the shoe store software I wrote a decade ago so I decided to open an account with Fidelity and buy stocks with my found money. I decided to call it my Found Money Fund and sometimes refer to it as my FMF which I think could be the title to one or many rap songs with the initials standing for some explicit language.
Why Fidelity? Years ago I used TD Ameritrade (then called Datek) for some day trading adventures and when I needed to transfer a 401k retirement accounts from my old employer I called them first. TD Ameritrade sent me the forms I that I needed to sign and mail back to them to transfer my retirement account funds. I filled out everything and mailed them back. And I waited. And I waited some more. After hearing nothing from TD Ameritrade for three weeks I called them and was told I mailed back the wrong forms and said they would send me the correct forms to fill out. Silly me – filling out the wrong forms which were the ones THEY sent to ME. I was pretty hot about not having anyone call me so I told TD Ameritrade to save the postage not in exactly those words.
My employer at the time put our 401k money into a Fidelity managed account so after TD Ameritrade became a non-option I called Fidelity about transferring my old retirement funds. They made it easy and simple and I haven’t regretted using them once (I wrote about how great they are in this post). When I decided to start dabbling in covered call options I got on a Fidelity live chat and the customer support person spent 30 minutes explaining everything I needed to know about the subject and when I had other questions competent help was just a mouse click away.
Next I needed to research what stocks I wanted to own. While most people research stocks online and study financial reports I did my research with my eyes and ears while taking Daisy and Baxter on walks. On our walks I noticed a lot of people buying cigarettes at the nearby Liquor Depot. Some people buy the bargain brand cigarettes but most have some brand of Marlboro cigarettes even though they cost much more than the bargain brands. I knew then that one of my stocks would be Phillip Morris (PM), the manufacturer of Marlboro. Phillip Morris was spun off of the Altria group in 2008 and has traded anywhere from the mid 30’s to the high 90’s over the last 6 years. Phillip Morris also pays a dividend to stockholders which has increased every year and has gone from .46 in 2008 to 1.02 currently.
When Kathy and I take Daisy and Baxter to Casey’s General Store on weekend mornings I buy a cup of coffee and we give Daisy and Baxter beef stick treats that we bring with us. We’ve gone to plenty of other convenience stores over the years and I noticed that at all hours of the day or night there is no shortage of people getting cups, cans, or bottles of soda to take with them. Whenever I go to the grocery store I see entire aisles devoted to soda which people stack in and under their shopping carts. Many of the shopping carts have these plastic ringed six packs balanced along the edge of the cart, surrounding boxes of snack cakes and bags of potato chips. I knew I had to own some of a big soda manufacturer so I took a close look at the soft drink stocks Coca-Cola (KO) and Pepsico (PEP). Both are great stocks that have increased their dividend payouts for over 40 years and currently pay around a 3% dividend. I decided to buy Coke because their stock price is around half the price of Pepsi, I like Coke much better than Pepsi, and my informal survey of the bottles and cans strewn around the neighborhood tells me Coke and Sprite are still more popular than Pepsi and Mountain Dew at least among the Marshalltown riff-raff.
One thing we see whenever we walk is everyone talking or playing with their cell phones. I know these plans cost upwards of $30 a month yet everyone from old people to kids have their cell phones that they are playing with. Even Ernie next door (who I haven’t seen in a while since his latest appearance on Marshall County’s most wanted list) always had a cell phone whenever he returned from one of his incarcerations. This tells me that cell phones are more specifically cell phone networks are big business. Based on research conducted by watching advertisements on television the two biggest telecommunications companies are Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T). Both seem to be rock solid companies that pay healthy dividends. I chose AT&T because their dividend is a little larger (5% vs. 4%), they have increased their dividend for the last 30 years, and their price is 25% lower than Verizon.
The 4th stock I picked was mortgage company American Capital Agency Corp (AGNC). AGNC is a mREIT – a mortgage real estate investment trust that buys packages of mortgages and makes money on the difference between the interest rate it pays to borrow the money to buy the mortgages and the money it takes in from the interest on the mortgages. If you think it sounds risky you are right but for that risk AGNC pays a dividend between 12 and 14 percent. AGNC’s mortgages are mostly backed by the U.S. government which owns the printing presses which makes the likelihood of the company going bankrupt less of a factor and let’s face it –all these people buying soda, cigarettes, and cell phone usage probably have a mortgage since they probably can’t afford to pay off their homes. AGNC returns 90% of its income as dividends in order to qualify as a Real Estate Investment Trust which lowers its taxes in ways only accountants and lobbyists can understand.
So there are my four stocks. What do they all have in common? All four pay healthy dividends and except for AGNC are huge established companies that have almost no chance of going bankrupt and even AGNC is backed by the printing presses of the U.S. Government.
On March 23rd I bought as many shares as I could with $500 of each stock. I settled on $500 buys as a balancing point between Fidelity’s fixed $7.95 commission and having money sitting in the found money fund doing nothing. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was 18,116. I was immediately down the $31.80 fidelity commission. Then all four stocks went down in price and a week later I was down 75 dollars or 3.75% On April 1st I had another windfall and another buy of PM and AT&T . On April 10th my losses were trimmed to $30 and I received my first dividends of $6 for PM and $4.84 for AGNC. I didn’t really get any cash since I found out from Fidelity that I could have my dividend reinvested into the company with no commission fee so I really received .077 of a share of PM and .224 of a share of AGNC. All year I took the money I received from teaching chess and my shoe store support fees along with any other found money that came my way and have made 12 buys - 3 for each stock. As of last Friday I had paid $95.40 to Fidelity in commissions for 19 shares of PM, 35 of KO, 73 of AGNC, and 43 of T.
Here is the table of my buys showing the Dow Jones Industrial Average, my profit or loss at the time of the stock I was purchasing, and the total profit or loss at the time of my FMF:
|Date||Transaction||DJIA||Stock +/-||FMF +/-|
|March 23, 2015||Buy 6 PM @80.0772||18,116.04||n/a||n/a|
|March 23, 2015||Buy 12 KO @40.7642||18,116.04||n/a||n/a|
|March 23, 2015||Buy 22 AGNC @21.9||18,116.04||n/a||n/a|
|March 23, 2015||Buy 14 T @ 33.36||18,116.04||n/a||n/a|
|April 2, 2015||Buy 15 T @ 32.935||17,763.24||-14.53||-62.27|
|April 2, 2015||Buy 7 PM @ 76.44||17,763.24||-25.99||-62.27|
|May 21, 2015||Buy 12 KO @41.2047||18,285.74||-.92||100.8|
|June 11, 2015||Buy 24 AGNC @19.778||18,039.37||-47.72||8.89|
|June 22, 2015||Buy 6 PM @83.26||18,119.78||49.50||31.81|
|August 19, 2015||Buy 14 T @ 34.2264||17,348.73||46.35||103.14|
|November 3, 2015||Buy 27 AGNC @18.14||17,918.15||-80.34||175.94|
|January 19, 2016||Buy 11 KO @41.8475||16,016.02||30.17||87.56|
I’m not trying to time the market – when I have enough found money I make a buy of a stock. It doesn’t matter whether the fund is performing well or poorly at any given time since I have confidence in the companies I have picked and faith on the part of humanity to continue to smoke cigarettes, drink soda, use their cell phones, and take out mortgages. My ‘found money fund’ hit its all-time low on August 25th with losses of $259 or almost 5% of my investment. It rebounded to show a $270 profit on October 22nd but was back in the red by mid-November. Even though the Dow Jones average has bounced beteen 15,800 and 17,100 this year my fund caught its second wind in February and set 7 new highs with the peak being a $583 profit on February 25th. Fidelity only shows that I have a profit of $324 because while I’ve collected an extra ¾ share of PM, ½ of KO, 2 shares of T, and 3.8 shares of AGNC by reinvesting dividends Fidelity counts these dividend reinvestments as separate investments with their own profit and loss. I count them as more found money (even though I do have to pay taxes on them). When I have 100 shares of these stocks I will start selling covered call options where I get paid for agreeing to allow a buyer the option to purchase my stock at an agreed upon price in the future and a way to add more capital to the FMF.
I’ve noticed that these stocks always seem to go up when stock writers caution against owning them and go down when stock writers encourage people to buy them. It makes me think that there are some inside deals going on but it doesn’t really concern me since it is all found money for me anyway and the only reason I’m going to sell is if I have some financial calamity or one of the companies cuts their dividend. These stocks currently average $33 a month in dividends which get reinvested and then the next month or quarter I get dividends off the reinvested dividends which adds a small amount to my monthly return. Maybe $33 doesn’t sound like a lot to you and if it doesn’t please go ahead and send me $33 a month using the 'Donate' link to the right of this post and then I'll believe you when you say $33 a month isn't a lot of money.
Picking these stocks, buying them, and watching them go up and down has been a lot of fun this past year. I can’t say it has contributed much to my financial security but it has helped my peace of mind. I used to get upset when I saw people fling their cigarettes out the window on the highway or leave soda cans on my yard or have to wait in line behind somebody talking non-stop on their cellphone. Now I just smile if the cans are Coke products, imagine the cigarette butts are from Phillip Morris products, hope the chatterbox in front of me is using an AT&T plan and thank all these people for helping my investments grow.