Friday, March 21, 2008

Matt Damon? A liar?

I enjoy watching the World Series of Poker main event (no limit hold 'em) on TV. Now, I'd never sit down and actually WATCH an 8 hour poker game, however, the Telecast of the event is normally fairly entertaining. They have two announcers who seem to be low budget comedians picked up at a tiny club off some Vegas side street and about 400 camera men who are able to identify enough interesting pots to keep me entertained for as long as ESPN is broadcasting the event.

I would never consider myself a poker 'pro.' I'm alright I suppose. In tournaments among friends I sometimes win, sometimes lose, but normally place in some way (money back!). I'm good enough to play with good players, but bad enough that I generally learn something important every time I play. For the most part my skill comes from being hard to read.

As an aside, it seems to me that the 'poker' face is entirely bullshit. Many people have complimented me on my difficulty to be read, and it comes not from staring straight faced when I'm bluffing and straight faced when I'm winning. Be RANDOM! Unpredictability makes you so unreadable. Regardless of what you have, bounce your eyebrows, blow kisses at the kid your playing, make funny faces, and tell jokes. Then the next hand, regardless of what you have sit stone faced and staring, refusing to speak except in sepulchral tones. Being random not only throws people off, but it prevents the same tells/ticks/minor habits from occurring. Its difficult to put your hand across your mouth then your hands are balled into white fists of rage on the table in front of you for no apparent reason. Check your cards obsessively. If i check my cards 15 times when I'm ahead and 13 times when I'm bluffing who is going to be able to tell a difference. ANd if they ARE bothering to do that, then they are most likely forming wrong ideas in their head. Then again, maybe I just don't know what I'm talking about.

Back to the point, if there is one at all. Ever since Matt Damon's famous pronouncement "Why does it still seem like gambling to you... Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker *every single year*?... Its a skill game." the general consensus amongst anyone who plays is that IT IS a skill game, and for the most part I would agree, however, how MUCH skill is actually involved?

I watch these WSoP games, and the more people that play, the more the skill is evening out, and the luck is showing through. It seems that there may be a sort of skill plateau. Once you become as unreadable as you can be, figure out the odds, and know the strategies behind the game, there isn't that far to go. This has become rapidly obvious as the WSoP, requiring only ten thousand dollars to buy in, has grown exponentially in the last few years.

IMDB even has a qualification on Matt Damon's statement: "In the ten years immediately prior to the filming of the movie, only 12 players made it to the final table two or more times. Of those, only two made it three times and no one made it more than that. Only one of those players ever made it to the final table two years in a row."

When Doyle Brunson won his WSoP Main even bracelet, only 53 people played in the event and hold 'em was not nearly as popular or widely played. He has not won the main event since 1977.

Just over 100 people played in the WSoP Main Events that Johnny Chan won. He is considered to be one of the best players in the world. However, if the announcers are to be believed he has not even been IN THE MONEY (gotten his money back, happens when the field is narrows down to somewhere around 20% of the initial amount) in over five years. He last won the main event in 1989.

The "professionals" say that they hate the small buy in. The ten-thousand dollar buy in draws rich kids and celebrities by the bucketful hoping to have a good time, get a few stories and win some money. They claim this large amount of 'ameteurs' makes it difficult for the "professional" players to win. Does this statement seem ridiculous to anyone else? To be a professional, you must be better than the amateurs, thats how you become a professional. Moreover, most of these 'professionals' are simply poker players who using former private successes were able to bankroll wins against crappy players (as demonstrated in the movie Rounders. Skilled players taking money off just friendly players like it was candy). The 'professionals' have EVEN asked the WSOP to make a more EXPENSIVE tournament to keep 'amateurs' out! Never mind the fact some of the most famous professionals are only well known because they were able to buy in to the main event. Yet

Six thousand people played in this last main event. However, the 'professionals' never have to play 6000 people. They play at tables of ten people at a time. All you have to do is beat ten 'amateurs.' Yet I see so many of the former world champions going down early and easily to these guys on the FIRST table. These guys would not have won if the tournament was ten people in size because these are the only people you are up against. In order to get the final table you must only defeat about thirty people.

If you put 6000 random guys with a high school level of basketball knowledge(what I'm classifying as amateurs) one at a time into a 1v1 basketball game against Kevin garnet or Lebron James, all 6000 people would get beaten. It has nothing to do with how many people they play against, they are simply more skilled. Likewise with nearly any other professional athlete. Tom Brady will ALWAYS throw more TD passes than you. Tiger Woods will beat you in 18 holes, Wayne Gretzky will out skate the shit out of you, and David Ortiz will hit more home runs.

So what am I getting at? Poker is a game of skill, no doubt. However, as we see the field diluted every year with new faces, the peak skill seems to be low and the true luck of the game shines through. The scales seem to be tipping, so much that within the upper echelon of Poker players, the skill is actually less important than the luck. I wouldn't stand a chance in that room of players at the main event (unless of course I landed boats every time), however, I am not at the skill level yet. Were I to play with intensity for a year, I could show up in Vegas and play with those guys. Would I win? Doubtful, but I could play with them.

Well great Jared. You've made a blog post about how you think you could play with the big boys of poker. Grats.

There must be something else to this post. Because that it not what I intended. Poker is one of the great equalizers. In a heads up pot its your cards against your opponents. Your life, background, your race, your age all means nothing. That is what so many of these great poker players have touted over the years. Many of these guys have become superstars because of this game and almost immediatly, it has gone to their heads. Suddenly, stubborn stars are demanding a higher buyin because they don't like being beaten by 'amateurs.'

What separates a poker professional from an amateur? Well, one who makes his living playing poker is a professional. However, these guys make their living for most of the year nabbing money of 'fishes,' i.e. shitty players who thing they can play with good players. The sport is unique in that, if 'professionals' went heads up against each other every night, as all other sports professionals do, they would all be flat broke. So, because professionals make their living by beating these 'amateurs' what exactly separates them? Because if these same amateurs knock the professionals out of the WSoP what is going on? Who decides what a professional player is? How can the best be separated from the worst if the professionals already want to separate themselves.

This elitism saddens me. The great equalizer is rapidly becoming the home of the great sore losers.

What a lame closing statement. However, between watching the WS and writing this, it has rapidly become 3 AM, and I am sick. I'm gonna post this and hopefully fix the grammar and crappy wording tomorrow. I don't fully trust this "save now" button.

Why post about poker when most of you are probably bored of it? Well because it was on my mind. And Hold 'Em to me seems to be a micro chasm of society.

Monday, March 17, 2008

More computer-related astronomy!

So I wrote a few days (or so) back about a new Microsoft software suite designed to give users an interactive view of the universe, an aggregation of a lot of the fantastic imagery gathered by our various orbital and ground-based radio, infrared and optical telescopes.

This is really exciting for me, the fusion of hard science and easy consumption: it seems like a phenomenal way to get people excited about the amazing work NASA and related research institutions are doing with their meager budgets while we blow money on various other (occasionally hostile) endeavors.

Well, it looks like Google has beaten Mr. Gates to the punch: They recently released Google Sky, a relative of their popular and well-engineered Google Earth and Google Maps functions. The interface is a little clunky, and since it is 2-dimensional it doesn't really convey the sense of an all-encompassing universe, but nonetheless there is some spectacular imagery that's worth exploring. Being able to pan around and zoom (in some areas to INCREDIBLE resolution) is a lot of fun.

If it's your first look:
The round objects are (believe it or not) stars. Anything that seems very bright and large and round is a "field star" - one of our close neighbors that takes up a lot of space in a telescope image.
The flat discs and oblongs and pinwheel shapes are galaxies. WHOLE OTHER GALAXIES. Every tiny pinprick of light you can see is a star in our little galaxy. These disc-shaped, sometimes blurry objects are other galaxies with just as many individual stars in them, if not more.
The clouds and blurs are largely nebulae: the cloud of gas and dust that are slowly aggregating by gravity into stars: "stellar nurseries," if you will.

Have a look at some of the images, explore a little, play with the Hubble gallery especially.
I still think that Microsoft's World Wide Telescope will be a superior product, but this one is quick, download-free, and fun to browse. Plus, it's out already, which is a big advantage.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Hey all -
We fixed the comments so that anyone can post them.
Please feel free to join in on the conversation!
-Rob and Jared

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Science of Millions

The ability to communicate is what makes us human. We are separate from other animals in many ways, but at the most fundamental level, the ability to communicate in a complex way is the defining difference. The inability to toss ideas, tell stories, and scheme with others is what prevents squirrels from laying elaborate traps to catch and reap horrible vengeance on automobiles across the country. Our ability to do this has evolved over centuries. At first, it was rudimentary: Me, You, Food, Stick etc. But through centuries grammar and vocabulary increased in complexity until it peaked at around the Roman Empire's Latin and its contemporary languages (Greek, the Asian root of Chinese and Japanese, and probably some ancient Mayan language that I am not well educated on).

It has been my observation, that since then, language has done nothing but move sideways. The different languages have simply branched out on the same plain as these ancient languages, not increasing in complexity so much as increasing in specificity: minute points became amplified and eventually took on a form of their own. This is all similar to the evolution of organisms which is why saying certain things are "more evolved" or humans are the "most evolved" is insane but another topic entirely.

This is a very roundabout way to get to my point. It seems that today(present times), English has been amplified in one specific area: Amplification itself. Hyperbole. Everyone I know hyperbolizes everything (yes, this statement is intentionally hyperbolic, thank you). If I was in an auditorium with ten thousand people or at a party in a small room with fifty people: each place contained exactly one million people when I tell stories about them. The couch my friends and I carried from the car to the house and the person who jumps unexpectedly on my back both weigh approximately ten tons. The commercial I just saw was the WORST commercial in history; as was your idea about where we should eat today. If my Dad, and generally any person over the age of forty, has retain any of the dialect from their generation then this is a recent phenomenon because these people rarely hyperbolize.


Why do we hyperbolize now? One might say it is because everything is getting bigger. Bigger cars, bigger explosions, bigger houses, bigger problems, bigger sports stars (thank you B12). The internet has brought the power of infinity to our fingertips and with it our language must follow: To infinity and beyond says Buzz Lightyear. Infinity is not good enough for children of our generation, we must go beyond. This has nothing to do with the number of people at the party or the actual weight of the couch, it is a subconscious effect of the ever expanding knowledge of our generation.

Logical. No?

I think there might be a different reason. Our dreams have exceeded our ability. Our reach has exceeded our grasp (to illicit an old cliche). Since youth we were told we can be anything; do anything; go anywhere. The internet, movies, TV, our parents, school, they all tell us of the possibilities open too us as long as we try. But as we progress in life we realize that this isn't true. We quickly lose our dreams of becoming a baseball start when we can't throw the ball over homeplate from ten feet away. We slowly let go of the dream of becoming an astronaut when we see that we have a dizzying fear of heights. People who are unable to let go of these dreams are the people we see on shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance: They are forever told they can be whatever they want and so they fruitlessly and pathetically pursue the dream of becoming a singer or a dancer when they have no talent at all. We laugh when we see them, but sometimes I am sad, another dream will become unfulfilled and this person's hidden talent will undoubtedly be wasted.

When we realize our dreams of impossibility are gone, we must make up for them somewhere. And we do this in our storytelling. A million people participated in the party I was at the other day. I was able to carry a ten ton couch for half a football field. I was there when the worst statement ever made was uttered. Any task we will undergo will be the worst, the vacation we go on will be the best, and you went on a date with the hottest girl I have ever seen.

This could be a seen as something terribly sad. We make up for our own inability to become what we want and to do the impossible by pretending. We fool ourselves into thinking the hyperbole is real ( in my imagination the party with 50 people is packed wall to wall), and since memory is all we have, it will become that when anyone who was there to refute your statement is gone.

I like to think of it in a better light though. It makes our stories more potent, their morals more poignant, and it keeps our minds fresh with the idea of the impossible.

And yes: This WAS the longest blog post ever, if thats what you are thinking.

Monday, March 3, 2008


DISCLAIMERS: First, this is not going to be a light and fluffy post. Second, I was sitting on the metro on the way home today trying to form a cogent argument to put up here, and couldn't get one to come together for me. Instead, this is a collection of my own biased observations. Take it at face value.

Now that that's done with, here's the deal. One of my professors told me a story about witnessing racial profiling at a retail store, and it got me thinking. Now for those of you who don't know, I work at a store that sells a lot of "big ticket" items: relatively compact and easily stolen pieces of merchandise that are worth several hundred dollars. As a result, theft is a pretty significant problem for us. The majority of this theft is attributed to kids from the high school right around the block from us. The majority of these kids are black.

That was put pretty bluntly. Am I in trouble yet? Well, I'll work on it.

Now as an employee, one of my responsibilities is to do everything I can to reduce theft in the store. This ranges from the innocuous (clearing out fitting rooms regularly and monitoring what garments go in and out of them) to the more suspect (keeping a weather eye on whoever my managers or I deem a "significant threat").

There's the landmine. A significant threat? What's that? How can you tell?

Now here's where I'm supposed to say that it's random, or race-blind, or what have you. But the simple fact is that when an elderly couple walks in and politely asks where the hats are, I'm not going to dog their footsteps. When a group of 13-15 year old kids bursts through the doors whooping and hollering, and goes straight to the expensive stuff, yeah, I'm going to follow them.

So I'm discriminating at this point. What criteria am I using, and are they fair? First there's age. Kids and young adults are our biggest problem for petty theft. Then there's the issue of perceived buying power. Do I really think a 14 year old is going to drop $300 on a ski jacket without a parent present?

Even without broaching the sensitive issue of race, it's clear that I, like any retailer, am making unfair snap decisions that impact how I treat you as a customer. Just like that airport security agent who pulls the gentleman in the turban out of the line for closer inspection.

This brings me to my second point. We judge people. Quickly. Brutally. It's what we do as a society, if not as a species. Getting to know someone well enough that you can make an informed decision is time consuming and hard, and sometimes we just can't or won't do it. Deal with it. You do it, I do it. We all do.

This is not a blank check for racial, age, class or gender discrimination. What I'm trying to say is put yourself in my shoes. This is my job, not my Race & Gender Equality class at school. My prime directive in this case is to prevent theft, so I try to do it. Is it fair? No. Is it discrimination? Probably. I like to think that I pay more attention to other factors and ignore race, but even if that's true, I am making generalizations, putting people into boxes.

There's another point here, one that I can't quite grasp. We also put the career people in our lives into boxes of their own. By career people I mean the folks we encounter when WE are in "private" mode and THEY are "on the job". Retailers. Plumbers. Waiters. Police officers. And so forth. Before we do, we should try to remember that they are at work, trying their best to do their job. We have to imagine what if WE were at work at the time, and how that would impact our decisions. For example, we slam the police officer for writing a bunch of possibly erroneous tickets, for pursuing a "quota". That's not justice! But imagine you are that cop, in your quarterly review, and your supervisor says "Well, your ticketing is 1/2 the district average. What the heck are you doing while you're on the clock?" How well is the answer "well, no one did anything REALLY serious so I let 'em slide" going to fly?

Like I said in the beginning, this is wandering towards some underlying point that I can't quite grasp yet. I'm curious to hear any of your comments on it.

Edit - My professor's comments on this are worth looking at.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Our gaze fills the universe

Proof that this blog, like life, is "not just about one thing", will follow.

I love the night sky. I have for a long time. Perhaps my first great experience with the heavens, ironically enough, occurred alongside my best friend and blogging partner Jared, many years ago. We went with Jared's dad out into the street near his house and examined some celestial objects, including a comet that was in the neighborhood.

That said, I saw something neat during the course of my daily rummaging through the internet. Microsoft has developed a free software suite called World Wide Telescope that will offer an interactive horizon-to-horizon view of the universe, patched together from imagery from the planet's greatest telescopes. This software looks similar to Google's fantastic Google Earth suite in that it is a free and easily navigable way to look around at accumulated data.

Keep an eye on the WWT's website (linked below), the software launches sometime this Spring. And keep looking up!