Friday, June 23, 2017

Movie Review - Wonder Woman

After the obligatory slow-moving yet brief origin, Wonder Woman was a well-made faced-paced, action-packed movie.

  I went with Kathy to see the latest DC super hero movie ‘Wonder Woman’ at the local movie theater last weekend. Wonder Woman is the one of the three DC characters (along with Superman and Batman) to make it from the Golden Age of Comics in the 1940’s to the present day relatively unchanged. The character lost her superpowers and costume briefly in DC’s ‘flower child’ period of the early 70’s but was quickly restored back to her skimpy American flag based costume and was vaulted to iconic status with Lynda Carter bringing the character to life in the television show in the late 1970’s before heading back to obscurity for the next 40 or so years before being chosen as a pillar of the new DC movie universe.

  The character was revived with Carter look-alike Gal Gadot playing the character in last year’s Batman vs. Superman movie. Gadot’s part was more action oriented but there was some byplay with Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne that showed her posing as a socialite while trying to obtain information from Lex Luthor’s super computers. This was a welcome change from her previous alter-ego’s persona as the meek subservient librarian type that was very Clark Kent like without the authority that Kent garnered from being a journalist. Wonder Woman’s action skills were shown battling the super-monster Doomsday alongside Batman and Superman but the true nature of her powers weren’t evident since her part in the fight was to occupy screen time before the movie’s climactic ‘Death of Superman’ moment. The Wonder Woman involvement was a necessary introduction to this year’s solo movie and the Justice League film scheduled for later this year.

  The theater had about 50 people to see the film which was pretty impressive for a movie in its third weekend in Marshalltown. The movie won its first two weekends and is well on its way to an impressive box office number which will fall slightly short of last month’s Guardians of the Galaxy #2 but more than enough to ensure another movie in the DC rotation.

  Since the character had already been established last year I was disappointed that this film insisted on starting with an origin showing Wonder Woman as a young girl and then a teenager who wants to be a warrior but is forbidden by her mother the Queen. We spend 20 minutes learning all about how Wonder Woman was created from a piece of clay blessed by Zeus and her name is Diana and she lives in an Amazon civilization and their island is mystically hidden and all kinds of stuff that probably could have been explained in a few minutes showing Princess Diana learning to become the most fearsome Amazon Warrior of all which we end up seeing anyway.

  Finally the action gets underway when Steve Trevor (played by none other than Chris Pine aka Captain Kirk of the new Star Trek movie series) crashes a World War I German fighter plane into the hidden Amazon kingdom and is followed by a fleet of German ships. The Amazons get to show off their fighting skills which aside from hand to hand combat with swords include horseback riding with swords and spears and the ability to fire three or more arrows at once with deadly precision while doing double and triple somersaults off horses and cliffs. None of these skills prove especially effective against the few Germans that are able to get off rifle shots to wound and kill some of the Amazons.

  After finding out from Trevor using the iconic ‘lasso of truth’, the Amazons find out that the world is at war (as if there hadn’t been wars from the beginning of time) and Diana decides to accompany Trevor off the Amazon island in order to bring peace to the planet by killing Aries the God of War who she has been told is the Amazon’s sworn enemy.

  From this point on this is an excellent movie. There is the comedy of trying to dress the baddest warrior on the planet to fit into early 20th century Britain, a bit of social consciousness with Diana’s frustration at the politicians and generals who don’t take her seriously because they don’t take any women seriously, and mostly great action. After the politicians and generals decide the upcoming peace armistice is more important than Trevor’s discovery that the German super evil scientist Dr. Maru (aka Miss Poison) and General Ludendorff have concocted a lethal gas that can eat through gas masks and kill thousands instantaneously, he rounds up some flawed but adventure loving friends to go on road trip to stop General Ludendorff and Dr. Maru themselves. Along with Wonder Woman, of course.

  Our brave group of heroes makes their way to the Maginot line at the front where Wonder Woman frees a small village from German oppression by breaking through the enemy line of fortified tunnels, tanks, and machine guns with a small amount of help from her non super-powered friends. The actions scenes are great with Wonder Woman using her shield to stop mortar fire as well as destroy tanks and machine guns. Her hand-to-hand combat scenes are also excellently shot with my only quibble is the continual freezing of the action to show some dramatic action pose before resuming the action at an accelerated speed. This is fine to do once or twice but when done too often as here it makes the action hard to follow. The villagers take a picture of their liberators which is a nice tie in to Wonder Woman’s introduction to Bruce Wayne in Batman vs. Superman when she attempts to get the picture form Lex Luthor’s computer system at the same time Bruce Wayne is trying to also pilfer the computer system.

  After liberating the village, the group head to the castle where General Ludendorff and Dr. Maru are having a party to celebrate the mass production and test of their new batch of poison by destroying the very town that Wonder Woman and co. just liberated and prepares to wipe out all of London with a futuristic super plane. I don’t want to give away too much of the climactic battle but I will say that for the most part the good guys win and Aries makes a guest appearance for an epic and explosive ending.

  This was the best made superhero movie I have ever seen, The origin was dispensed with quickly and the film had a well-defined plot with none of the meandering soul-searching angst most of the other superhero movies are full of. Even though Wonder Woman leaves her Amazon community to fight we are not subjected to doubts ad recriminations – there is just a well scripted mission and action galore mixed in with a little of the ‘buddy movie’ type of character development. Gadot was a great Wonder Woman, tough without being overbearing and compassionate without being mushy. Pine as also a fine Steve Trevor. The scene where he tries to seduce the hideously disfigured Miss Poison was a classic. Elena Anaya as Miss Poison and Danny Huston as General Ludendorff were sufficiently psychopathic to make belivably menacing villains. I hope Wonder Woman remains the warrior character of the new Justice League and doesn’t settle into a background role or be some sort of den mother. Having this movie set in a period piece gives no evidence how well Wonder Woman will fit into a modern setting. The Justice League will likely showcase Batman at the expense of all the other heroes which means it might be at least three years before Wonder Woman gets into the modern age in her own movie although she may be trapped in the past like Indiana Jones for her solo adventures. This movie was a tremendous step forward for a classic character. Hopefully Warner Bros. and DC can build on it.

Up next for Wonder Woman is a role in Justice League. Here's hoping for another solo adventure soon.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Not The Greatest Yet

  

  The NBA season wound down to its conclusion this week with the Golden State Warriors winning their second championship in three years. My basketball pick program performed admirably with a 54% success rate when my calculated line deviated from the actual betting line on Bovada.lv’s website. This should have yielded me a 2.5% profit on the 322 games my program picked except for two factors.

  One factor was my Bovada account being senselessly suspended for 18 days (as outlined here) just before the program had a hot streak. The other factor was my refusal to get out of my own way and let my basketball program do its thing. I continually tinkered with the betting amounts and sometimes added my own bets instead of trusting the program that has delivered picks over the magic break-even point of 52.4% over my four season retrograde testing. I didn’t use my program during the playoffs and managed to erase my $27 regular season deficit and was $12 ahead heading into the Finals where I decided to take the points in every game since I was expecting close games throughout. I went 1-2 in the three blowouts and lost the two close games against the spread by a total of 1 and a half points to leave me $4.06 down for the season. This was a downer but I received $130.39 in the form of a welcome bonus from Bovada and $70 from two contributors in exchange for my picks in advance of the games so I netted $196.33 for the season and if my two contributors picked the games I selected they would also have shown a profit since they received my picks during my Bovada suspension. I haven’t tried to withdraw my money yet but will report on it if and when I do. In any event, I consider my basketball program a success and will give it another go next year with a little more discipline. I can’t say it was the greatest betting season ever but for me the sting of losing $4.06 was well worth the valuable experience I received moving from the realm of fake to real betting.

  The storyline of this NBA season was were the top performers and teams rated in a historical perspective. Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder averaged a triple-double (10+ points, rebounds, and assists) for the entire season which last done by Oscar Robertson in 1962. There was a large debate as to whether Westbrook’s triple double season was deserving of the MVP award or whether the award belonged to James Harden. The argument for Harden is that while he had a few more assists and a few less points and rebounds his Houston Rockets were 8 games better than the Thunder which implies that Harden made his teammates and team better than Westbrook made his.

  In my view the league’s MVP is LeBron James. I’m not a big fan of King James but I recognize his greatness. James also nearly averaged a triple double (26 points and 8.5 assists and rebounds), led the league in minutes played per game, and finished in the top 10 in minutes played despite missing 8 games NONE OF WHICH THE CAVALIERS WON. I know the Cavaliers had a mediocre regular season record (for them) of 51-31 and didn’t even win their conference. Still I think this isn’t a playoff team without LeBron and a championship contender with him.

  The entire triple double thing tends to impress me as a fan based statistic. Out of the players I saw it seems clear to me that Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and possibly Larry Bird could have had a triple double in almost game they played. Blocked shots weren’t kept as a statistic until 1973 which was well after Bill Russell retired and Wilt Chamberlain was at the very end of his career. The players of that time claim the both Russell and Chamberlain blocked at least 10 shots a game so I’d have to think that both averaged triple-doubles during some years in their careers. Both Russell and Chamberlain averaged over 20 rebounds a game for their careers. 10 blocks a game is not out of the question or a misremembrance on the part of old-time players.

  Before their loss to the Cavaliers on Friday, the Warriors won their first 15 games of the playoffs before finishing with a record 16-1 for the playoffs. The closest any team came to playoff perfection was the 1982-83 76ers who went 12-1 in that years’ three round best of seven playoff format and the 2000-2001 Laker team that went 15-1 when the first round of the four round playoffs was best of five games. The Warriors 16-1 playoff record is the best percentage-wise of all time. There have been plenty of comparisons between the Warriors and great teams of the past to determine who the greatest team is. I’ve never seen a team like the 1991-1993 Chicago Bulls and they get my nod over the Showtime Laker teams of the mid 80’s. I’ve never saw the great Celtic teams of the 50’s and 60’s. Ultimately the latest super team has to be favored in a comparison with great teams of the past. Today’s players are bigger, faster, and more skilled than ever before. The superstars of the past like Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan would be great in any era but the role players of the past wouldn’t be competitive against the players of the present. Having said that an imaginary matchup between teams of the past and future would come down to which rules were used. If today’s Warriors were able to get foul calls on minimal contact they would easily win but if the physical play of 20 years ago were allowed with players able to hand check on defense and toss elbows like beanbags the old timers may be able to bully their way to victory. I would have a hard time anointing the Warriors as the greatest team of all time as long as the Celtics of the 50’s and 60’s won 8 championships in a row and the Bulls and 2000-2002 Lakers have three-peat championships. It is easy to say that the Warriors would have won three championships in a row of they hadn’t blown a 3-1 lead in last year’s Finals but they did blow that lead and the other three franchises didn’t. It is not easy to have the best record in the league three years in a row like the Warriors have but it is even harder to win three championships in a row. The Warriors stumbled while the Lakers, Bulls, and Celtics did not and to my mind teams that come close do not get the benefit of a doubt. If the Warriors win another title or two they may well be the best basketball team ever but with the injuries Stephen Curry and Keven Durant seem to suffer every year or two I don’t see their rolling over the league as a given.

  The other talking point during the Finals was whether LeBron James could establish himself as the greatest player of all time if the Cavaliers upset the Warriors. The Cavaliers lost the series but James once again proved he is the best player on the planet, averaging a triple-double in the five games while expending energy on defense guarding Finals MVP Kevin Durant. James has played 14 years and has played at least 74 games every season but two (playing 62 of the Heat’s 66 games in the strike shortened 2011-2012 seasons and taking two weeks off in the 2014-2015 season and finishing with 69 games). This durability is almost unprecedented. James is showing few signs of slowing down at the age of 32 and has been to seven consecutive NBA finals with three championships. Michael Jordan is considered the greatest player of all time with his six championships and six Finals MVPs with Bill Russell and is 11 championships also coming into consideration. If James can break the NBA career points record (he is 5 years away) and get to the NBA Finals a few more times I think he will be thought of as the best player ever due to recency bias and the wish of many to believe they are seeing the greatest ever. I can’t see James as the greatest player of all time and the recently concluded finals were a perfect example of why I think that way. James was the best player in the series and started each game with a flurry of points, rebounds, and assists. The Cavaliers were in every game at halftime. But in the fourth quarter of the first three games, James had no energy left and the Cavaliers lost. To me the hallmark of a great player is the ability to take over the game in the fourth quarter and not the first. James did come up big in the fourth quarter of the final game but fell short of leading his team to victory. Until and unless James takes over big games in the fourth quarter I fail to see how he can overtake Jordan as the greatest player ever.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Micro-Agressed

  I was listening to a podcast where the subject was “micro-aggressions” which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)”. . The podcast gave examples of micro-aggressions. Asking someone where they are from was considered a micro-aggression because it is highlighting that they come from somewhere else are different from everyone else. I don’t ask people where they are from because I don’t care but I have been asked plenty of times where I am from and never realized that I was a victim of micro-aggression. It could be that as a white male I am incapable of being a ‘micro-aggressee’ but in my opinion being an east coast native living in the Midwest qualifies me as a member of a marginalized group and therefore affords me the luxury of being the victim of micro-aggressions.

  Another example of a micro-aggression was holding the door open for someone because as the theory goes it implied that the beneficiary of the door-holding is in some manner weak or helpless and just not capable of holding the door open for themselves. I’ve held the door open for both women and men. Sometimes men insist I go first and I go first because I would rather get where I’m going rather than argue. A couple of times a woman got upset with me holding the door but most don’t so I think I’ll continue to hold the door open because I would rather be considered micro-aggressive than rude.

  I saw examples of micro-aggressions from the University of Minnesota website. I think I would put telling someone “they are a credit to their race” or “You speak good English” to be more of a macro-aggressions than micro-aggressions. I did find it interesting that having an excess of liquor stores in a minority neighborhood is considered a micro-aggression since my neighborhood in Marshalltown is having two more liquor stores opening in the next two months along with the Liquor Depot and the 7 Rayos liquor store that opened on main street a couple of years ago. Throw in the fact that all the convenience stores now offer liquor in addition to beer and wine and even the Hy-Vee supermarket and Wal-Mart have separate liquor sections and I think that it is not a micro or macro aggression but an economic reality that there is a lot of liquor being purchased in Marshalltown, Iowa. I could probably make the case that since every place to buy liquor is in close proximity to an ATM the excess of liquor stores in a neighborhood is a sign of great wealth.

  I saw another set of micro-aggression examples on Buzzfeed and these also seemed pretty macro-aggressive to me. Asking someone why their “daughter is so white” seems pretty aggressive to me, how about you? Another site said by using pronouns such as ‘he’ and ‘she’ was ‘micro-aggressive’ because I was making assumptions of the gender identity of the pronoun’s subject.

  I really like the idea of micro-aggressions since armed with this concept I can be insulted by anything and everything from anyone and everyone. I was in a bad mood last week and someone said ‘Good morning’ to me. Back in my naïve days I wouldn’t have given that comment a second thought but now I saw that comment as a micro-aggressive taunt since the speaker presumed I didn’t have DPSD (Delayed sleep phase disorder) which could cause me to never have a good morning. I moped through the day hardly getting anything done but it was OK because after all I was a victim of micro-aggression and could hardly be expected to function at full capacity.

  I even took my newfound knowledge of micro-aggression to a well-known chess website. I was immediately victimized by micro-aggressive behavior , complained to the powers-that-be, and was declared the winner.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net

  Unfortunately, the rematch did not work out nearly as well.

  After observing so much about micro-aggressions I decided become an expert in the niche category of micro-micro-aggression and have discovered many examples in myself and others. I’ve been teaching a six-session chess class in Grimes this summer. I was just about to compliment one of the class members on an astute observation when I realized that the compliment would have been a micro-micro-aggressive gesture towards the other students since the unsaid comment would be that they were somehow inferior so I held my tongue and didn’t compliment anyone for anything in order not to victimize anyone for anything.

  When the class was over I headed home but first stopped in McDonalds to get a breakfast sandwich for the ride home. There was no one in line and the customer service person at one of the registers said “Welcome to McDonalds! How can I help you?” I immediately felt uncomfortable and marginalized. How dare this customer service person imply that I was needy or otherwise in need of assistance? Luckily there was another customer service person staffing the next register so I headed away from the micro-micro-aggression towards a new beginning.

  “Welcome to McDonalds! How can I serve you?” said this second clerk. Another amazing micro-micro-aggressive comment implying that I was a member of some privileged class that needed service. I suppressed my burning rage and headed to the third and last register.

  “Welcome to McDonalds! Can I take your order?” said this third customer service representative. Finally! A verbal exchange free of the rampant micro-micro-aggression that was pervasive in this Grimes, Iowa McDonalds. I quickly ordered an Egg McMuffin and a $1 soda and paid when the service representative said “We’ll have your order right away. Please wait.” Of all the micro-micro-aggressive statements! I never felt so marginalized at the presumption that just because I was an older white man with an east coast accent I must be in an impatient hurry. I wasn’t expecting this Egg McMuffin to magically appear out of nowhere at 4 in the afternoon and I had planned on using their wireless internet to check my email which I did while waiting the few minutes for my Egg McMuffin.

  Once I got my Egg McMuffin I went to my car, felling so victimized and marginalized I barely noticed the person that held the door open for me and the four cars that let me get in front of them on my way from the parking lot to the interstate. On the long drive home I listened to a talk radio station that talked about the London terror attacks, Kathy Griffin holding a decapitated head of President Trump, President Trump using the London terror attacks as a pretext to support his travel ban, and the latest series of North Korea missile tests. The radio host was talking about how dumbfounded he was that no matter how much attention the media paid to these issues the American people didn’t seem to care. If only the radio host had spent the day being the victim of micro-aggressions and micro-micro-aggressions like I was I’m sure he wouldn’t have any attention span left to pay attention either!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Harry's Tweetbag (2017)

Not only am I still exhausted from my trip to Idaho, I caught a terrible cold so I have asked Iowa's favorite bird,
Harry the cockatiel, to fill in for me on short notice with another episode of Harry's Tweetbag.

  Hello and welcome to my second blog post. I’m Harry the cockatiel which you would know if you read my first blog post which was published last year. I was hoping for a nomination for the Cockatiel Journalists of America’s best blog award but as I since found out there is no such organization so I’ll have to look elsewhere if I want to win an award for my posts.

  Hank is still too exhausted from his trip to Idaho to write his blog so he called on me to take care of this week’s edition after having those two beagles I live with write last week’s post. I didn’t mind having Daisy and Baxter boarded for the weekend but I missed sitting on Hank’s shoulders in the morning when he plays chess. In fact, I didn’t get any outside time while Hank and Kathy were away. I was a little worried about running out of food but one of Hank and Kathy’s friends came over every day to give me some fresh food and water. Anyway I had a lot of spare time and Hank left me his old iPod so I was able to work on my next blog post which worked out great since Hank caught a big cold and has been pretty wiped out ever since he got back from Idaho. Just like last time my post is made up from Twitter questions sent to @brokenpawn #AskHarry.

  My first question is from @WhatNext who says “Harry, don’t you think the election of President Trump signals a new level of divisiveness in America?” I don’t think so at all @WhatNext. I think Americans are getting along better than ever. Everytime I go on Facebook I see the liberals and conservatives being very generous in lending their posts to each other. Last year I saw my conservative friends posting complaints about how President Obama has golfed and vacationed more than any other president and how his wife spends too much money on clothes and how the President bowed to the King of Saudi Arabia. Back then my liberal friends would accuse the conservatives of sour grapes. But now that Trump is president the conservatives and liberals have happily switched posts and the conservatives are defending presidential golf outings and the liberal are posting the same complaints about the President playing too much golf and expensive First Lady-wear and how President Trump bowed to the Saudi King. If these groups that supposedly hate each other can share their Facebook posts so easily I don’t think there is real divisiveness to worry about.

  My next question is from @NBANerd who asks “Harry I imagine you have been following the NBA playoffs from Hank’s shoulder. Who will win the championship?” That is an interesting question @NBANerd and thanks for asking. I’ve been watching Hank bet and blog on NBA games for the last seven months. After he walks the beagles and lets me out of my cage for some outside time he enters the NBA scores in his basketball prediction program and I’ve been watching intently. I’ve seen a lot of both the Cavaliers and Warriors from my spot near the television. They are both good teams but I think the Cavaliers will be able to guard Steph Curry and Kevin Durant better than the Warriors will be able to guard LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. That makes me think the Cavaliers will win the championship. Hank says he is going to pick the underdog every game so he can get the points which makes sense to me even if it looks like the easy way out. I can’t argue with Hank too much – his prediction program seems to work and he is way ahead on the playoffs this year.

  Here's a chess tweet from @ChessHawk2008 who says “Have you played any chess lately? How about changing your handle to @ChessCockatiel?” That is one great handle @ChessHawk2008! I’ll see if I can get a handle for @ChessCockatiel. It sounds really cool. Hank stopped playing one minute chess after getting his new high rating on the Internet Chess Club last December and switched to three minute chess so that is what I’ve been playing also when he leaves his computer on. I like three minute chess a lot better because it gives me more time to hop around on the touchpad and make my moves. I also like getting more time to think since after all my brain only weighs a few grams. Here is a beauty of a game I played last Monday:

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net

  I missed my mouse click on this game and played a one minute game last month. I got in big trouble but moved at lightning speed and my exceptional vision helped me see the board and the clock all at once so I knew White was running out of time. Luckily I won or else Hank would have thrown a fit about losing his silly all time high rating but I don’t hear him complaining now that his one minute rating is even higher than before at 1639!

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net

  Here is a tweet by @ SNAP_Outrage who says “Harry, What do you think about the cuts to the SNAP [that means food stamps] program?” Well, @SNAP_Outrage I’ll never be eligible for SNAP so I don’t think too much about it but I did do some research on this so I could give you an opinion. I don’t see anything wrong with giving people who are hungry some food but here is what I don’t understand. I see that food manufacturers and Wal-Mart are the most outraged over the proposed cuts because they make the most money from the SNAP program. Why would a government program dish out over 70 BILLION DOLLARS every year just let to people put a large chunk of it into the pockets of Wal-Mart and food manufacturers? There should be a way to make sure SNAP card holders buys food at a discount. Then the people who need food can get it and the government cost-cutters can get what they want too. It’s a win-win as long as you are not a food manufacturer or Wal-Mart!

  I have time for one more tweet and hopefully a less controversial one. This one is from @MovieGirl who asks “I know Daisy loves Steven Seagal, Harry. I want to know who is your favorite movie action hero?” Thanks for the tweet @MovieGirl. I’m not much of a movie fan but since my cage is close to the television I do get to see the movies everyone else watches. I’m not much of a Steven Seagal fan. I'm not nearly as enamored of his steely glare as Daisy is because I have quite a glare myself with my pupil-less black eyes. The best movie I saw this year was the 1981 “Road Warrior” with Mel Gibson. Gibson isn’t quite the fighter like Seagal or Jason Statham but his Mad Max character is plenty tough. Besides, most of the action comes from the wild and weird characters that Max has to fight like Wez and the Humungus. It was a movie full of action and the only thing that could have made it better was to have a cockatiel or two in it. I’m sure cockatiels would survive the apocalypse since we could fly away from all the bad biker gangs that took over the roads.

The Road Warrior (or Max Max 2) is a great movie that has everything but a cockatiel...

  Well, that’s about it for my second blog. Thanks for reading. Hopefully Hank will feel better by next week and take his blog back from us animals but if you want to hear more from me send a tweet to @BrokenPawn with the hashtag #MoreHarry!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Boarded Beagles

I’m still exhausted from writing about my trip to Idaho so it is time once again to turn the pages of the Broken Pawn over to those most literate of beagles – Daisy and Baxter – who were none too happy about being left behind for the weekend.

Hi Everybody! This is Baxter… and Daisy and we are two very upset beagles. That’s right! Uh…what are we upset about Daisy? About being left in the Happy Tails Kennel while Hank and Kathy went to Idaho to see Ben graduate from college. Oh. I forgot. But it's no wonder I’m so upset, Daisy. We went to the Happy Tails a few times over the last few weeks but I thought it was so we wouldn’t be stuck in the house when Kathy played tennis and Hank was working. I thought maybe Kathy was having Tupperware or Pampered Chef parties at our house and didn’t want you around practicing your annoying new habit trying to hump on our guests’ legs. I think she didn’t want you annoying everyone by howling and barking every time someone walks part our house. Well, anyway Baxter, we didn’t go to Happy Tails because of tennis or parties or Hank working. We went to Happy Tails so we could get used to them and they could get used to us. Yes, we went there to make sure Kathy and Hank could leave us there for a whole weekend.

We thought we were taking a nice car ride... but we ended up at Happy Tails for a loong weekend!

I remember two Thursdays ago like it was yesterday. We got up early like we always do. But instead of Kathy going to exercise and Hank walking us, both Hank and Kathy walked us, Daisy! And we got a beef stick treat. I was a little confused because I knew it wasn’t a weekend but I thought that they just wanted to something special for us. That’s a reasonable thing to think. After all we are super cute and lovable. And lots of fun, Baxter. Don’t forget how much fun we are. And literate, too! Just look at this blog. There’s lots of reasons why someone would do something nice for us!

After our walk Hank and Kathy put some bags of clothes in the car and we went along with them! I thought we were going away for a long day trip to the duck pond! I thought we were going to a restaurant for a breakfast sandwich. But instead we stopped at the Happy Tails. And Hank and Kathy left us there! I was so sad. They said they’d be back in a few days but I felt very lonely. I missed them too. But the Happy Tails wasn’t bad. There were lots of neat smells. And plenty of dogs to bark and howl at. And we got to sleep together at night and hang out with the other dogs in the big play area during the day.

I missed my couch. Even when I'm relaxing I keep guard.

What did you miss the most about not being home, Baxter? I missed my couch! There were no couches at Happy Tails. There’s nothing like having a nice soft couch to take a nap on. And taking naps is what you do best! I am very good at it, aren’t I? And we have three couches to choose from! My favorite couch is the one where I can see the street from the window. That’s so you can bark at everything that passes by the house. Well, someone has to protect the house. You’re always sleeping. Sure I am. It’s what I do best! You said so yourself.

Don't you just love Steven Seagal's steely glare? He's so dreamy...

What did you miss the most, Daisy? I missed the television, Baxter. Not only does my favorite seat give me a view of the window, it is also right by the television. Television makes me sleepy. Most things make me sleepy. I love television. Why just last week Hank brought home a movie by our favorite actor Steven Seagal. I love Steven Seagal. Not only is he tough – he is a great cook in the ‘Under Siege’ movies! Steven is so dreamy! The movie Hank brought home was the 2014 classic ‘Absolution’. Steven looks at everyone with his steely glare. And he shoots and beats up dozens of bad guys, I bet. He sure does! Steven rescues a beautiful girl that is 45 years younger than him from an evil ambassador in the Ukraine and shoots and beats up everyone to do it. But does he eat anything? He was just about to go to a restaurant to get a great meal but he got sidetracked by some bad guys he had to beat up. They deserved it for interrupting a restaurant scene. How does the movie end? Steven and the beautiful girl that is 45 years younger than him settle down in an apartment in Central Park and he stares at her with a steely glare. Sigh… The only thing missing was a beagle. Yes. A pair of beagles would make their lives complete. Steven is probably a great dog owner except he’d probably put us in a kennel every time he had to shoot or beat up bad guys. That would be a lot of kennel time.


The baby geese keep getting bigger and bigger! They're so much fun to watch!

Do you know what I thought about the most while we were at Happy Tails, Baxter? No, But I’ll bet you’ll tell me. I was wondering when I would get to see the baby geese at the duck pond again. I was thinking about other things but I missed seeing all the ducks and geese. The baby geese were born less than a month ago. At first they were very tiny but now they are almost the size of their parents! One of the parents is the goose with the very crooked neck. Do you know what I like best about the duck pond? The bread? THE BREAD! Kathy brings bread to feed the ducks and geese and she give us some bread too! YUM! I love bread. Bread is OK, Baxter, but I’m looking forward to the beef stick treat we get after feeding the geese a lot more than some bread. I know but when bread is all there is it’s my favorite food! I think whatever is in front of your nose is your favorite food.

We got a car drive AND hamburgers from Burger King! YUM!!

Speaking of favorite foods, when we were at Happy Tails all I could think about was Hank and Kathy coming back and taking us to Burger King! Oh yes! Last month Hank took Kathy to get the $1 Onion Rings and they took us with them to get $1 hamburgers. It was an awesome trip! We went through the drive-thru! We ate them in the parking lot while they were fresh. They were so good! I’ll say. It was the best hamburger ever! I was dreaming about it on Sunday afternoon and before I knew it the Happy Tails person was taking us out to the front of the building. I thought she could read my mind and was going to take us to the Burger King. I was hoping we were getting some outside time but instead it was Hank and Kathy picking us up! I sure was happy to see them again! It was a long three days. We wagged our tails and took them outside and licked their faces over and over because we were so happy. I was hoping they were going to take us to Burger King for another hamburger but instead we went straight home. And then we took a walk to the duck pond to see the baby geese! I wanted to go to Burger King and get a hamburger. I’m sorry Baxter. Maybe Hank and Kathy will take another trip soon and when they pick us up from Happy Tails we can get a hamburger next time. OH BOY!! I can’t wait. I love Burger King Hamburgers! YUM!!!

After a long weekend we finally got picked up and went back home!

Friday, May 19, 2017

An American In Moscow


After dropping a pair of confused beagles off at the Happy Tails, 4 hours of flying, and over an hour of driving we arrived in
Moscow, Idaho - home of the University of Idaho Vandals!

  I went with Kathy last week to Idaho to see our son Ben graduate from the University of Idaho. It was not a trip I was looking forward to for a number of reasons. First and foremost even though I’ve probably driven over a million miles in my life most of that has been to and from work so I wouldn’t consider myself much of a traveler and flying gets me sick to my stomach most of the time. Another reason for not wanting to go is that now that I am an independent contractor without benefits like paid holidays and vacation the time I’d take off from work is time I don’t get paid for. Kathy has been to Idaho twice a year to move Ben. During these trips I stayed home with Daisy and Baxter but this time we would have to board them at a kennel which is not something anyone wants to do (including Baxter and Daisy). And did I mention I hate flying!

  These are all great reasons and Ben was certainly going to graduate whether I was there or not but it is important to keep in mind the wise words of the United States Constitution and ‘insure domestic tranquility’ which in my case means Kathy wanted me to go and so last Thursday morning instead of heading to work I went to the airport with Kathy to take my first vacation of the year. Before heading to the airport we took Daisy and Baxter for a long walk with a beef stick treat reward and took them with us when we headed to the airport to drop them off at the Happy Tails kennel. This was the same kennel we were going to leave them at on last years aborted vacation to Chicago, Kathy had been bringing the beagles to Happy Tails for the last two weeks to get them used to being there but the look Daisy gave me as she realized we were leaving her and Baxter was almost enough to make me cancel the trip. Almost.

  We got to the airport and through the very tight security in no time and were on our way to Denver via United Airlines over the Rocky Mountains. I used free internet at the Des Moines and Denver airports. I didn’t want to pay for United’s wireless internet but I broke down on the longer trip from Denver to Spokane and paid $7.99 to use the internet on the plane to play some chess and maybe blog about playing chess on a plane. The internet worked great on my iPod until we took off but after that I couldn’t get email, check stock prices, go on Facebook, and certainly couldn’t play chess. About the only thing I could do was use the united website to make sure the plane was still on the air and possibly headed to the right place.

A side trip to Colfax, Washington - home of Gravy the dog and the Main Street Bookstore.

  We got to Spokane around noon Pacific Time, rented a car, and headed 80 miles south to Pullman, Washington. Pullman is the home of the Cougars of Washington State College and about 10 miles west of the University of Idaho’s campus in Moscow, Idaho which was completely sold out of hotel rooms for the graduation weekend. The highways we took wound through lots of hills and rocky walls of carved out mountains and led us through the small town of Colfax, Washington which had some second hand stores and a used book store. We stopped for Kathy to see if there were any Christmas candles (there weren’t) and for me to see if there were any books I wanted to get at the used bookstore (I did buy “Even Dead Men Play Chess” by Michael Wietz - a murder mystery featuring a chess coach). Even though the side trip was pretty fruitless we did get to meet Gravy the dog who was the bookstore guardian along with three large cats.

  We arrived at the Pullman Holiday Inn Express around three. Ben was still taking exams and we were going to meet him at a hotel in Moscow for a ‘Math Department Reception’ at 7. I didn’t pack a toothbrush so we went to the Pullman, Washington Dollar Tree conveniently located a few blocks from the Holiday Inn Express. The Pullman, Washington Dollar Tree looked very much like the Marshalltown, Iowa Dollar Tree and all the other Dollar Tree’s I’ve frequented with the glaring exception of a lack of a frozen food section. There were a few new items I’ve yet to see in other Dollar Trees and of course there was a travel toothbrush with name brand Crest toothpaste for, you guessed it, a dollar. Kathy got a few items and we were quickly out of the Dollar Tree and after a quick visit to the pet store next door and a longer trip for an awesome Kung Pao chicken dinner at the Mandarin House Restaurant we headed back to our room for a quick nap and then were on to the ‘Math Department Reception’.

While Ben was getting award after award, I was angling towards the mathematically sliced watermelon which was also award-worthy!

  We got to the Reception around 7 and saw Ben for the first time that day. Kathy had met most of his favorite professors before and this was my first time meeting them. They all just raved about Ben’s math ability and work ethic which is always nice to hear. There’s no credit to me in this – Kathy had him reading at 3 years old, Ben has always loved numbers, and has always had a great work ethic. The professors weren’t just kidding me either. Ben had his name engraved on a plaque for being the outstanding math student of the year. I finished the first plate of the exceptional watermelon but every time I got up to get a new plate they gave Ben another award and I had to sit down. Finally, all the awards stopped and I resumed snacking on the watermelon (which seemed very mathematically sliced) until it was time to take Ben, his fiancé, and her mom to Baskin Robbins for ice cream and then we headed back to Pullman for a good night’s sleep.

  We woke up early on Friday and there wasn’t much for us to do since Ben still had finals to take. We headed to the University Bookstore for Kathy to get an Idaho shirt. I wanted to get a souvenir but the cheapest thing I could find was a $2 postcard so I passed. Then we headed to the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores where Kathy found a Christmas candle for her collection and I found a couple of button down shirts which looked great but on closer inspection at home one shirt didn’t come with a pocket which is a must for any button down shirt I wear to work.

  After hitting the second hand stores Kathy took me to a WinCo supermarket. I'd never been to a WinCo which was unlike any supermarket I’ve ever been to. The store had shelving in long rows from floor to ceiling all through the store and the selections of items was truly amazing. Rows of self-serve bins of every kind of candy, nuts, grains, and granolas covered three entire rows. What caught my eye was the giant 25 pound bags of carrots, baby bologna, and Crab Boil Liquid. I didn’t ask whether the liquid was meant to boil crabs in or actually came from crab boils.



Some of the incredible selection of items at the WinCo! Baby Bologna or Turkey Tails, anyone?

  After a great time at the WinCo, it was time for lunch so we went to the nearby mall and settled on lunch at Smoky Mountain Pizzeria Grill. The menu item that caught my eye was the Calzone. “Start with your choice of toppings. We add ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, white cheddar cheese, and tomato sauce, then bake until golden brown”. I ordered an Italian sausage calzone and Kathy had a calzone with peppers, tomatoes, and a little onion.

  And then we waited and waited and a half hour later we finally had our calzones. I cut into my calzone expecting to see gobs of cheese and some sausage only to find there was a doughy mess full of sausage with a trace of cheese and tomato sauce hidden in a corner. Kathy’s calzone was no better and even worse since her calzone had more onion than anything else. When the server asked if everything was OK I said the calzones had no cheese and he said “What do you want me to do about it?” I ate my calzone which was more like a disgusting $10 inside-out maid-rite and Kathy picked through her onion calzone and we left to head back to Pullman Washington for a nap. After our nap we met Ben, his fiancé, and her mom at Gambino’s Restaurant in Moscow for some great Italian food although I was so full of Smokey Mountain’s disgusting calzone that I only felt like eating a chef salad (which was excellent).

  We went back to the hotel but were up early on Saturday to make sure we got to the University of Idaho’s 16,000 seat Kibbe Dome early enough for get a prime seat for Ben’s graduation. We arrived at 7:30 for the 9:30 graduation and did get seats in the front row on the side Ben would be sitting. The Kibbe Dome is the school’s football and basketball stadium and I got to see the banner denoting the school’s 61-50 victory over Colorado State in the 2016 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise.

Finally the graduation at the University Of Idaho's Kibbe Dome!

  Take it from me – no matter how close your seats are to a graduation sitting in football stadium bleachers for 5 hours is a long grind. After a couple of hours the students came in with Ben being recognized as the leading student for the College of Science. After the obligatory speeches and talks the 700+ graduates received their diplomas and the ceremony was over around 12. Ben was headed to another math ceremony to receive more awards and we were all going to join him but his fiancée’s mom lost her car keys right after moving her daughter out of her dorm. Everything had been moved to their house 40 miles away except for some cleaning supplies. Ben went to his ceremony and Kathy and I went back to the Kibbe Dome to get our car to pick up Ben’s fiancée and her mom. We snaked slowly though the cars leaving the ceremony and picked up everything and everyone and then joined Ben’s ceremony which was almost over except for a few leftover ham and cheese wraps.

  Everyone but Ben was hungry so while he took a nap we all headed to the Subway for some American food and then headed to the two used bookstores in town where I got a large book of comics by Robert Crumb and the Indian tribal classic ‘Hanta Yo’ both of which I may even read some day.


Some of the amazing Idaho scenery.

  Ben joined us at the second bookstore and we hung out for a couple more hours looking at books and eating ice cream at a local shop. I was half expecting someone to walk up to Ben and give him more awards but it looked like the awards were over for at least that week. Ben is staying in Idaho for a few more weeks and Kathy and I were staying at a hotel by the airport in Spokane since our flight was leaving the next day at 5:30 am so it was time to say our goodbyes to Moscow, Idaho. We dropped Ben’s fiancée and her mom at their house 40 miles north and continued up the Idaho panhandle on a 2 lane highway until we made our left turn to Spokane. The countryside in Idaho and Washington is amazing with logging camps, mountains full of pine trees, lakes, and deer running all around. We got to the hotel and were out to the airport the next day and back in Marshalltown by 1 in the afternoon and picked up Daisy and Baxter when the Happy Tails kennel opened at 4.

  It was a whirlwind trip to the great northwest and a nice mini-vacation for me. I’m not much for the outdoors so I was happy to have familiar places like the Dollar Tree and the Subway to visit and hang out in. All in all I was happy to have made the trip and the time off work was welcome but my idea of a vacation is staying at home and hanging out with Kathy and the beagles. I guess there is no place like home.

Friday, May 12, 2017

All Good Things...

  I had my last chess club at the Marshalltown Salvation Army last week. I started the Club in 2001 when I asked the Salvation Army if they had a chess club as part of their weekly game night and Major Joan Stoker told me "No. Why don’t you start one?" My kids needed people to play so I started the club on Thursday nights as part of the Army’s Open Gym. Kids would head into the gym to play ball and get a free meal and eventually wander into the chess club, some for a few minutes and others for an hour or two. None of these kids stuck with chess but most had a good time just playing.

  In 2003 AmericInn asked me to run a chess tournament at their Marshalltown hotel where the top three finishers would compete in their national tournament in Minneapolis. I held out for a dozen free USCF memberships which I gave to some of the Salvation Army kids and other local players. I was hoping that the local players would come to the Salvation Army to play which didn’t happen with one notable exception in Jon McCord who took his son Jack to the club and kept coming to the club for the next 14 years.

  The club hit its high note from 2005 to 2007 when Scott Johnson (the teacher advisor for the high school chess club) started routing players to the club and I went to the high school for some exhibitions. The chess club teamed with my sons Matt and Ben and shared three state high school championships. Unfortunately, Scott left Marshalltown and the new advisors of the school club did not have the same interest. And a year later the Salvation Army was undergoing some turnover in leadership and the new majors discontinued the open gym for kids.

  Now the club had more adults than kids and I was having trouble getting the adults to play so in 2009 I decided to have a weekly speed chess tournament with a time limit of game in 10 minutes plus a 2 second delay. It was a pretty successful idea which got the local players back to playing and attracting players from all over the area and even out of state players traveling through Iowa would stop in to play a few games of nationally rated speed chess. The Salvation Army doesn’t have guest internet so I always rated the tournaments when I got home. I was investigating someone who wanted to partner with me in holding some youth tournaments in Des Moines when I found out one of the blitz regulars from out of town was on the sex offender list. I still had some young players and even though this particular sex offender wasn’t barred from being in contact with minors I decided to stop the blitz tournaments in late 2012 since without internet access anyone could show up to play chess and I wouldn’t know whether or not they were on the sex offender list until later on.

  As it turns out this particular player that was on the sex offender list showed up at one of my Time Odds blitz tournaments in the summer of 2013 and got upset when I told him he couldn’t play. He thought he should be allowed because he had no restrictions about being around children. To me it was a no-brainer. Let’s say a parent looks this guy up and sees him on the sex offender list and asks me about it. At that point I have two choices – a) I can pretend I didn’t know or b) I have say I knew and now I’m vouching for someone on the sex offender list. Neither of those choices seemed too good to me so I just said he was not invited and that was that. It’s not a personal thing but I didn’t put this guy on the sex offender list – he did that. I asked a lawyer if I would be liable if there was ever an incident or misunderstanding. The lawyer said that I probably wasn’t liable but it wouldn’t stop me from getting sued and making a lawyer like him a lot of money so I think I made the right choice to not have this guy at my tournaments and stop my Thursday Night speed chess tournaments where I couldn’t check on the participants.

  The club had a brief uptick in 2014 when we hosted Tim McEntee’s Expert Open with world youth champion Awonder Liang in attendance. There were some returning players and some new players but within a few months they all drifted away and for the last few months more often as not the only three players at the club were Jon, Jaleb (who had been coming for 10 years with a college break), and myself.

  I knew for a couple of months I was going to miss this week’s club due to travel and as I got closer to this week the more it seemed like the best time to stop having the club. Having the club for 15+ years is something I was pretty happy with even if the ending left a bit to be desired. It would be easy to blather on about how clubs are passé and most people play online and while there is some truth to that I’d have to say the main reason the club dwindled was because the club hours of Thursdays from 5 to 7 isn’t the best time for workers or school kids like it was 10 years ago. There was some talk about trying to have the club at the library on Sunday afternoons which may be a great idea since there will be more visibility. If it happens that would be great and I’ll probably show up on occasion to play. As the saying goes ‘All Good Things Must Come to an End’. The Marshalltown Chess Club was a good thing and it has come to an end but maybe there will soon be a new beginning.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Denials and Admissions

  People who suddenly change their minds or admit to actions that they repeatedly and vehemently denied in the past have always held a special fascination for me. I say held because eventually I realized that the ‘about-face’ is almost always part of a plan to attain a goal that was not successfully obtained by the previous position. Lance Armstrong consistently denied using steroids during his record setting bicycling career and would sue journalists and authors that dared to accuse him in print. After Armstrong’s career ended the steroid rumors and denials persisted until evidence from the U.S. Ant-Doping Agency led to his being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and his having to leave his Lance Armstrong Foundation (which rebranded itself as LiveStrong). At that point Armstrong admitted on an Oprah Winfrey special that he was using performance enhancing drugs during his amazing climb to the heights of the cycling world after beating cancer. Why did Armstrong finally come clean? I don’t know but I have to think it was an attempt to try to get sympathy from the American public since he had become such a pariah that his own foundation had to run away from his name.

  Pete Rose made an about face on his repeated denials that he never bet on sports during baseball season, never bet on baseball, and never bet for or against the Cincinnati Reds baseball team he managed but not as sudden a turnaround as Lance Armstrong. After accepting a lifetime ban from baseball without an acknowledgement of his gambling on baseball, Rose admitted to betting on football and horse racing in season. In 2004 Rose admitted to betting on baseball and even betting on the Reds ‘to win every night’. Why did Rose finally admit to gambling on sports, baseball, and the Reds? Because he was promoting his new book and finally realized that there was no way he was ever going to live to see himself inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rose is in his mid-70’s and is enjoying a renaissance of sorts as a talking head on Fox Sports. I have no doubt that if Rose finds himself in need of cash in the future there will be yet another book and round of media interviews detailing the ins and outs of how Rose bet against the team he was managing and how he rigged the odds in his favor.

  A recent about face happened in the chess world regarding Grandmaster Tal Baron of Israel. A couple of years ago Baron started a YouTube channel and Twitch stream and has about 6,500 subscribers. Just as playing well-to-do patrons in coffeehouses was the way many chess professionals made a living 150 years ago, live streaming chess channels are rapidly becoming a way for today’s chess professionals to make extra money via donations from patrons and well-wishers.

  Having a chess stream isn’t Baron’s only claim to fame. Baron won $1200 in chess.com’s monthly ‘Titled Tuesday’ tournament in August of 2015, starting with seven straight wins before finishing with two draws. Baron’s amazing result came with many accusations that he was cheating and his account was indeed suspended by chess.com shortly after the tournament. You can see a video of his last five games here and judge for yourself.

The games...

  I’d been watching some of Baron’s videos and never heard of these accusations until I saw an interview with Baron on the Astaneh chess channel where Baron vehemently denied all accusations that he cheated on the chess.com tournament and accused his accusers of “spreading hate” and being “not the most moral people ever created”. This got me to research the accusations. I didn’t find too much except for the KchessK video and the comments in the chess.com article.

...the denial...

  Did I think Tal Baron was cheating? I had no idea and I didn’t really care either. I just wanted to see the accusations. Judging from the number of outright blunders in his over the board blitz games and online blitz matches that he has posted on his channel I wouldn’t find it hard to believe that he had computer assistance in the Titled Tuesday tournament but I also wouldn’t find it hard to believe that he had his best day ever because we all have to have a best day ever, don’t we?

...and the admission

  I didn’t give the matter another thought until Baron posted this video on his YouTube channel in April 9th where he admitted to cheating in the last game of the tournament against a player who he considered to be a computer cheater also. The last player Baron played in the tournament was top 10 player and multiple time US champ Hikaru Nakamura who is widely considered to be the best 1 minute player in the world. Baron said he admitted to chess.com that he cheated and agreed to a lifetime ban from all chess.com money tournament and special events. Baron said “other than this game I did not use any chess engine assistance and for the haters and non-believers of you – you can cite statistics all you want but this is the truth”.

  Is Baron telling the truth about only cheating during the one game? I don’t know but it sure sounds a lot like a Pete Rose piecemeal confessions and his confession on his YouTube channel seemed as honest as his denials in the interview with Astaneh. To me the entire incident is a curiosity rather than a source of moral outrage. The biggest question on my mind is what baron expects to get out of his admission? Maybe he hopes to be reinstated on chess.com or be invited to play in future big money online tournaments. I don’t know but time should give me the answer to that question.

  I’m not a hater or a non-believer (although I wonder what Baron’s ‘believers’ from before his confession think now) but I think Baron should have taken his cue from the greatest cheater of all time and admitted nothing. Barry Bonds is baseball’s home run king and was widely accused of using performance enhancing drugs during the latter half of his career and even admitted to a grand jury in 2003 to using ‘cream and clear’ steroids once and only then by accident. In his first three tries at the Hall of Fame, Bonds received less than 40% of the votes cast (75% is needed to get in the hall). But Bonds has never admitted to any steroid use beyond his grand jury testimony. Bonds received over 40% of the vote last year and over 50% this year. At this pace Bonds will end up being inducted in the Hall of Fame and his detractors can never point to any admission on his part that he used steroids except for his one admission to the federal grand jury. If Pete Rose had foregone his book deal money and never admitted to betting on baseball he may have eventually received a similar turnaround in sentiment. I think Baron would have been better served by following Bonds’ example of admitting nothing instead of embarking down the road of what I think will be continuing piecemeal confessions.

  I could have been accused of cheating or using performance enhancing drugs after this three minute game I played on the Internet Chess Club last week. The way I smoothly headed to a superior endgame and kept a grip of the center may get me in the Hall Of Fame before Barry Bonds!


pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net

  I considered this one of the best games I ever played and denied all contrary points of view as those of 'haters and non-believers'. Well, OK. I have to admit it. I did use computer assistance but only AFTER I played the game and unfortunately after subjecting the game to the cold eye of Mr. Fritz it turns out I missed just as many ideas as I do in most of my games. Let's take another look...