Saturday, August 31, 2002

I, Me, Mine: Ah yes, my favorite topic: ME.

First, a review of Apple Pie in the Daily Bruin (the UCLA newspaper) that came out last November. I have no idea how I missed it these last ten months, but it's a pretty good one.
Overall, the novel reads like an Asian version of "The Wonder Years." Mostly, it is full of some of the best prose about the current state of college life in America. More than that, the novel narrates the struggle to become an American, despite ethnicity, race and social class.
Empahsis mine (tee-hee).

Second, is my somewhat longish essay about my recent Florida vacation: The Gold-Plated Swamp. Sadly, my tan has faded.

It's a long weekend so I should have more soon.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Transcendent Poetry: I find great art works provide all sorts of philosphical insights into human nature and gloriously noble examinations of mankind. This quote rivals the best of Shakespeare for its beauty and wisdom:
So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas. A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I'm a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald ... striking. So, I'm on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one -- big hitter, the Lama -- long, into a 10,000-foot crevasse, right at the base of this glacier. Do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga ... gunga, gunga-galunga. So we finish the 18th and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, "Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know." And he says, "Oh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness." So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.
Vegas, Baby. Vegas. A fabulous article at Wired about a group of super-genius card sharps from MIT that actually beat the house at Vegas.
For six years in the 1990s, Lewis was a principal member of the MIT Blackjack Team, an infamous cabal of hyper-geniuses and anarchistic whiz kids who devised a method of card counting that took the gaming world completely by surprise. Funded, in part, by shadowy investors and trained in mock casinos set up in classrooms, dingy apartments, and underground warehouses across Boston, Lewis and his gang used their smarts to give themselves an incredible advantage at the only truly beatable game in the pit. A baby-faced card-counting team possessed with impressive mathematical skills - here was a novelty that turned blackjack into an arbitrage opportunity. Their system was so successful, it took nearly two years before the casinos began to catch on - engaging in a cat-and-mouse war with the well-trained MIT conspirators.
They played the age old game of card-counting - if you remeber the Vegas scene from Rain Man, you saw a ham-fisted dramatisation. It sounds like there were two keys to the scam. One was working as a team to trade signals and track cards so as to make it look like the winner wasn't counting cards (counting cards gets you thrown out in Vegas) and worked against the typical Vegas security profile of card counters
The real genius of the MIT scheme was how it turned the casinos' own profiling techniques against them, using stereotypes to camouflage the big money bets.

The MIT team thrived by choosing [big players] who fit the casino mold of the young, foolish, and wealthy. Primarily nonwhite, either Asian or Middle Eastern, these were the kids the casinos were accustomed to seeing bet a thousand bucks a hand. Like many on the team, Kevin Lewis was part Asian, and could pass as the child of a rich Chinese or Japanese executive. "When you're recruiting, you don't recruit white kids. They look conspicuous. Asian kids, Greek kids, dark skin fits in better with lots of money in the casinos. White 20-year-olds with $2 million bankrolls stand out," explains Andrew Tay, one of Lewis' teammates. "A geeky Asian kid with $100,000 in his wallet didn't raise any eyebrows."
Plus, they used sophistcated statistical techniques.
Two of the tricks that became a staple of the MIT system, shuffle tracking and ace tracking, exploit a concept called the nonrandom shuffle. Because of time constraints, blackjack dealers cannot achieve completely random redistributions during the shuffle. This means that certain packets of cards remain close enough together to be "tracked" through the deck. By watching a group of low cards, for example, it's possible to cut the deck (players assist the dealer by placing the cut card into the shuffled stack) in such a way that some low cards never have to be played. Likewise, a good shuffle tracker can "predict" a string of high cards and raise his bet even before the count goes positive.
But perhaps most importantly the did an enormous amount of simulation ahead of time.
After passing the Spotter test, Lewis moved on to the [big player (BP)] exam. Called to a table midplay, a BP has to take the running count and convert it into the more accurate "true count," by estimating how many cards are still left in the shoe. That's because a count of plus 10 - a ratio of 10 extra high cards to low left to be played - has a much higher value when there is only one deck left in the shoe, as opposed to six. Once the true count is established, a BP has to determine the proper bet. On the test, Lewis was asked to make highly complex decisions - such as when to split pairs against certain counts - while Martinez and Rosa graded his play from across the room.
In time - but only after years and millions in winnings - the casinos caught on.

The article is an excerpt from an upcoming book on the subject. I'm betting it will be quite a good read.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Caution! Flying Links: Hold still while I hit you with all the links I just cleaned out of my attic.
  • Trapped in a loft prison - P, U, S, H, spells _____? I get the impression righty-tighty-lefty-loosey would be beyond the comprehension of these guys.

  • Hooters Air, Inc. - So where does a guy sign up for frequent flier miles?

  • The 125 Best Foods - Eat all you want. It's good for you.

  • Best games on the web - Thanks to TAD Chrissy for pointing out this forum thread at Ars Technica about the best games on the web. She had wasted so much time on some of these that she just had to pass them along. Thanks a lot.

  • - I visited this site and came away about two minutes older.

  • A Plague of Locusts - Grasshoppers, more precisely. Luckily they didn't interfere with my Florida vacation. Although the 2-by-4 remedy might have been creepily gratifying.

  • Unusual Museums - Unusual doesn't begin to describe some of them. Unusually Obsessive Compulsive Museums might be closer.

  • Virtual Page Turning - Here's a fun technology. The British Library has developed a way to mimic turning pages on line (you'll need the Shockwave plug-in, which you may already have and not know it). Very cool, if limited, in it's current form. Combine with an actual book-sized screen and e-books become more interesting.

  • Virtual Edo - A virtual tour old Edo, (the old name for Tokyo) done with some interesting artwork. The design is mediocre (pics need to be bigger and better rendered), but it's a nice idea.

  • My Perfect Celebrity Match - In order: 1) Joan Cusack, 2-tie) Madeline Stowe, 2-tie) Angela Basset, 2-tie) Madonna, 5) Kelly Preston. All I can say is: Huh? Joan Cusack???

  • One Hit Wonders - Ah, so many memories. (How do I forget them?)

Friday, August 23, 2002

Law Enforcement: I hereby establish DAM's Law:

---> Life works much better when other people do all the work. <---

In that spirit, for tonight's posts, other people have done the heavy lifting. Lucky for me, 'cause I've been devoting my time to my Florida article. I hope to be back this weekend with a short digest of links. In the mean time...
A Friend Indeed: Guidelines for friendship, courtesy of The Legendary KK:

  • When you are sad,... I will get you drunk and help you plot revenge against the sorry bastard who made you sad.

  • When you are blue,... I'll try to dislodge whatever is choking you.

  • When you smile,... I'll know you finally got laid.

  • When you are scared,... I will rag you about it every chance I get.

  • When you are worried,... I will tell you horrible stories about how much worse it could be and to quit whining.

  • When you are confused,... I will use little words to explain it to your dumb ass.

  • When you are sick, ... stay away from me until you're well again. I don't want whatever you have.

  • When you fall,... I will point and laugh at your clumsy ass.
This is my oath, I pledge 'till the end. Why you may ask? Because you're my friend!

P.S. A friend will help you move. A really good friend will help you move a body.
Green Eggs and Ram: Courtesy of the fresh and sassy Sheri of the fresh and sassy weblog SheriSHOT we have this Seussian rhyme to explain the problems with that machine that's in your face.
Dr. Seuss Explains Why Computers Sometimes Crash

(Read this aloud, if you can!)

If a packet hits a pocket on a socket on a port,
and the bus is interrupted at a very last resort,
and the access of the memory makes your floppy disk abort,
then the socket packet pocket has an error to report.

If your cursor finds a menu item followed by a dash,
and the double-clicking icon puts your window in the trash,
and your data is corrupted cause the index doesn't hash,
then your situation's hopeless and your system's gonna crash!!

If the label on the cable on the table at your house
says the network is connected to the button on your mouse,
but your packets want to tunnel to another protocol,
that's repeatedly rejected by the printer down the hall,
and your screen is all distorted by the side effects of gauss,
so your icons in the window are as wavy as a souse;
then you may as well reboot and go out with a bang,
'cuz sure as I'm a poet, the sucker's gonna hang!

When the copy of your floppy's getting sloppy in the disk,
and the macro code instructions cause unnecessary risk,
then you'll have to flash the memory and you'll want to RAM your ROM.
Quickly turn off the computer and be sure to tell your Mom!
Lions Win: No sooner do I claim the Lions will never get another first place finish (8/20, an inch or two down), than sure enough, they win again. And it's yet another journalist ignored victory that has to be pointed out by the fans. We start with ESPN's list of the Worst Football Teams Ever wherein the Lions get only a lame "also receiving votes" down at the bottom and then for some obscure edition of the team from 1942. But, God love the fans, when it was their turn they raised last year's Lions to first place.

I love it when I'm proven right.

Or is it wrong?

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Quit Lion Around: I'm not a huge sports fan. To begin with, I'm not huge (and my last name isn't Ackman - LOL, I crack me up), and while I stay aware of what's going on in sports I only pay close attention when things get interesting. I guess you could call me a fair weather fan, but I still manage to identify with the local Detroit professional teams for the most part. The sole exception being the Detroit Lions.

For reasons I'm not exactly sure of, I never bonded with the Lions as a lad. Then, by an odd twist of fate, my family was vacationing in Florida (near Ft. Lauderdale) the year that the Miami Dolphins had their undefeated season. That event etched the Fins in my 12-year-old brain as "my" football team and it remains that way to this day, even though I have never lived in or near Miami.

All this is probably for the better since being a Lions fan is akin to sticking pointed metal objects in the soles of your feet and then running a marathon. Without shoes. In the snow. Uphill. While spectators throw rotten vegetables. Towing a Chevy Suburban. With a skunk roadkill tied to your neck. I could go on...

The other Detroit teams all have at least something to offer. The Red Wings have been on a real tear the past few years and were probably the best team in hockey history last year. The Pistons were champs in 89 and 90, made the playoffs last year and have possibly improved for next season. The Tigers, well, they are abysmal now but one of my earliest sports memories is the Tigers winning the '68 series (yes, that's one, nine, six, eight) with lots of drama, and they completely dominated 1984 series - good memories.

But the Lions - they got nothing. Fifty plus years without a Super Bowl (that's five, zero). The Lions have two standard outcomes to a season: 8-8, either barely missing the playoffs or getting slaughtered in the first round, or 2-14 with oaths of change and improvement emanating from various management orifices.

A losing record, even a congenital one, isn't necessarily a barrier to fandom. Look at the Chicago Cubs, whose fans span the nation and see the Cubs as the moppish little kid who can't quite measure up, but you love him just the same.

Winning the big one can't be all that important either. The Red Sox leverage the Curse and Buckner's error to appeal to the passive aggressive, who wear all the failures like badges of defiance.

Not the Lions. When the Lions lose, they just plain lose and everyone shrugs and goes home to rake the leaves. The Lions lose without personality. The Lions lose invisibly.

Perfect example: ESPN editors regularly run sports based lists. They then ask for fans to create their own. A while back they did a list of toughest teams to be a fan of. Notice all the great names, but no Lions. Not even an "also mentioned." The fans however, gave the Lions the only first place finish they are likely to ever see. The Lions lose with such nondescript regularity that journalists don't even realize it. The Lions can't even lose with infamy.

Soon, another football season will begin. Go Fins.
The Anti-Diva: I've got a new CD from Norah Jones. She has an amazing voice, soft and jazzy. This is a quiet CD of slow tempo, but not depressing, acoustic pop songs. She has a great voice for jazz and it works well with about half the songs. Oddly, she also covers some fairly straightforward country ballads that seem a bit out of place. But for the most part these are nice, well-written pop songs, sung with a bit of a warm, jazzy feel. All in all, a good chill-out CD.

This is not the kind of music I usually listen to but it's nice to listen to a female singer who has some setting other than Loud, Really Loud, and Deafening. It's nice to hear a singer who can express emotions without shrieking and wavering every other syllable like a braying donkey. It's nice to hear music that's memorable because of the quality of the songs and production, instead of because Clear Channel bludgeons it into your head by doubling it's rotation on every radio station in the world.

Anyway, Norah has been living the CD player in my car and singing to me while I drive. Ain't that sweet of her?

Saturday, August 17, 2002

The 'Burbs: Genreally if you read about life in the suburbs, it's by some editorialist writing with an elitist sneer and going on about fakery and commercialism. That is, of course, fashionable pseudo-intellectualism. A few people write about the 'burbs with humor and satire of a more loving kind in an effort to appreciate that life for the desirable things it provides. David Brooks is one of them. His most recent article on the new suburban exodus is titled Patio Man and the Sprawl People. It is a gem.
Pretty soon a large salesman in an orange vest who looks like a human SUV comes up to him and says, "Howyadoin'," which is, "May I help you?" in Home Depot talk. Patio Man, who has so much lust in his heart it is all he can do to keep from climbing up on one of these machines and whooping rodeo-style with joy, manages to respond appropriately. He grunts inarticulately and nods toward the machines. Careful not to make eye contact at any point, the two manly suburban men have a brief exchange of pseudo-scientific grill argot that neither of them understands, and pretty soon Patio Man has come to the reasoned conclusion that it really does make sense to pay a little extra for a grill with V-shaped metal baffles, ceramic rods, and a side-mounted smoker box. Plus the grill he selects has four insulated drink holders. All major choices of consumer durables these days ultimately come down to which model has the most impressive cup holders.

Patio Man pays for the grill with his credit card, and is told that some minion will forklift his machine over to the loading dock around back. It is yet another triumph in a lifetime of conquest shopping, and as Patio Man heads toward the parking lot he is glad once again that he's driving that Yukon XL so that he can approach the loading dock guys as a co-equal in the manly fraternity of Those Who Haul Things.
Heh, heh. It's not just clever satire, there's sharp observation.
Of course, from the moment they move in, they begin soiling their own nest. They move in order to get away from crowding, but as they and the tens of thousands like them move in, they bring crowding with them. They move to get away from stratification, snobbery, and inequality, but as the new towns grow they get more stratified. In Henderson, the $200,000 ranch homes are now being supplemented by gated $500,000-a-home golf communities. People move for stability and old fashioned values, but they are unwilling to accept limits to opportunity. They are achievement oriented. They are inherently dynamic.
Great stuff. This is a topic that interests me because Misspent Youth is set in just such a neighborhood. (I live in just such a neighborhood, on a smaller scale.) It's good to read a thoughtful story of these places while everyone else writes about oppression, violence and preversion.
Fat Follow-up: I pooh-poohed the BMI-based "obesity crisis" back on 7/30/02. I would have thought Michael Fumento, professional junk science debunker, would agree with me. Nope; he's on board with the obesity crisis. He is generally very good about research - he has access to something called Medline for medical research info - so maybe he knows something I don't. I remain skeptical to the point of disbelief. But in the interest of a second opinion, here's a page of links to Fumento's articles on obesity.

He offers an explanation for one of the things I smart-asred about - the sudden increase in obesity in the 80s.
"I only ate a muffin – and it was low-fat." Probably nothing has done more to make America the Land of the Fat than the low-fat/no-fat fad and the incredible growth of portion sizes. Study after study has shown that hips, thighs and bellies couldn't care less whether calories are from fat, carbohydrates or protein. Only calories count. Part of the confusion is because foods naturally low in fat, like vegetables, fruits and grains, are also usually low in calories and very satiating. But that low-fat banana muffin eaten this morning was packed with so much sugar it had more calories than eight bananas. And far better to eat one satisfying cookie teeming with fat than half a box of no-fat, high-sugar ones that taste like chocolate-flavored Styrofoam.

Portion sizes have exploded; muffins now are many times larger than just a few years ago. The original Coca-Cola bottles meant for individual consumption contained 6.5 ounces. In Europe, they're still around 8. In the USA, machines now dispense 20-ounce soda bottles, while convenience stores routinely dispense 64-ounce buckets of drink - 10 times the original serving size.
OK, I'll accept those trends as a possible cause, but I still think BMI is not an appropriate or accurate measure and I question the description of a crisis. I just don't think increases in weight can be all lumped together under the heading of "fatter". For instance, back in the 70s it was common to see a Major League Baseball shortstop at around 5'3" 120 lbs. Not any more. But I would hardly claim that Major League shortstops are obese. I have not seen anything that indicates that BMI based measurements are sorting out the difference between truly obese people and big or muscular people. It needs to be a lot more accurate before I believe it. One thing we do agree on is this.
[S]cience has always said that maintaining a healthful body weight is no more complex or magical than simply balancing calories burned versus calories consumed, regardless of the source.

A slew of studies have looked precisely at this issue, providing subjects limited-calorie diets with varying amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Most have found that persons eating a high-fat diet lost as much body fat as, or more than, those on a low-fat one.

One such, at New York's Rockefeller University, reported back in 1992, fed all subjects liquid formulas with the percentage of fat ranging from zero all the way up to 70 percent of total calories. The result? "A calorie is a calorie," said the primary researcher.

Dietary data from countries around the world also show no correlation between fat consumption and obesity levels — except that Americans get far fewer of their calories from fat than do countries where people look like stick figures compared to us...

Finally, historical U.S. consumption data show that we now get a considerably smaller percentage of our calories from fat than we did not so long ago...

Since 1977-78, fat as a percentage of our diets has dropped by over 17 percent, even as obesity has increased by over 25 percent. The fewer calories we've taken in from fat, the fatter we've become.
A calorie is a calorie and that's what really matters if you are dieting, not the composition of the food. The only reason low-fat or low-carb diets seem to work is that they eliminate certain foods from your diet and there by naturally decrease your intake when those forbidden foods are the ones in front of your face.
Everybody's Bloggin' At Me: Evan Williams, the head cheese at, points out that in the month of July 1.5 new blogs were created every minute, and that's just via Everybody's doing it, but few are doing it well. It's important to remember that, once you get past all the cool technical stuff, blogging is writing, and good writing takes effort. recently published a great set of ten guidelines to good blogging and it's well worth reading for everyone who started one of those 45,000-ish blogs created last month.
Bad personal sites bore us by telling us about trivial events and casual encounters about which we have no reason to care. Don’t tell us what happened: tell us why it matters. Don’t tell us your opinion: tell us why the question is important.
If followed, that advice would eliminate about 75% of the blogs in the world.

I do pretty well with respect to these guidelines. I could do better on the "post often" front. And number 8, "be sexy," seems more like promotional advice than a writing tip; ignore that one, it falls into the too-much-information category. But still: Bloggers, read these and think about what you write. You'll be better off for it.

Lucky for me:
Most readers will overlook, and nearly all will forgive, errors in punctuation and spelling.
Dodged that bullet.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Home On The Deranged: Now the truth: I have been in Florida for the past week and a half. I covered most of the Southwest coast (that's Sarasota to Naples, for the geographically challenged), and I'll have a nice long essay to publish - once I write it. And I haven't forgotten about the aforementioned book review. Gimme a day or so to catch my breath and gather some material. Should be back to normal by the weekend.

Monday, August 12, 2002

Keep Yer Shirt On: I know, you're all saying, "He said sporadic updates and we got nothing for over a week. Let's get him! Tear him apart!! Burn the witch!!!"

Patience. I've been getting some writing done - a lot of progress on a pivotal chapter in Misspent Youth that I have been struggling with for quite a while. I've also been working on a couple of other projects that you will hear about Real Soon Now, including a review of a savagely funny book called Little Green Men by Chistopher Buckley. (Note the remaindered price of $4.99 for hardcover; such is the fate of all great satire).

Anyway, another week and I'll be back to my irregularly scheduled posting.

And I'm not a witch.

Saturday, August 03, 2002

Like a Boomerang: I'm afraid I have a good deal of non-weblog aspects of my life that need attention, so sporadic updates at best for the next couple of weeks. As always, I will return quality material you can't get anywhere else - all at blowout prices! I have a new essay coming, another book review, a bit of site re-work (I want to do something about the heading layout), and among the other ideas I'm kicking around is doing weekly NFL picks (yes, it's football season again); not that I know all that much about football, but I think I could have some fun with it. For now, here's some stuff that turned up in my web wanderings.And if that's not enough, here are some sites for good reading while I'm scurrying about aimlessly.I'll be back before ya know it, so don't go changing your bookmarks.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Being Huge: Hahaha! Get this. There's a relatively famous actor named - are you ready? - Huge Ackman. LOL. Huge. Can you imagine naming your kid Huge? Must have been a painful childbirth.

Mom: Oh am I glad that's over. He's huge.
Nurse: Um, OK - Huge it is.

Think of what it must've been like for the kid in school. There's just no way that's gonna work out well.

The point of all this is that I've managed to catch a couple of recently released movies on HBO. Note: For me recently released means they have been out long enough to show up on HBO, but not so long that they are on AMC. Both of them had Huge Ackman. (Huge. That kills me.) Here's the skinny.

X-Men: Based on the comic book from my childhood. A fairly good action flick; doesn't bog down too bad anywhere. Decent acting in general, and fine acting from Patrick Stewart, who could make reading the back of a bottle of detergent seem like a tour de force. There are bad mutants who hate that they are treated poorly by regular folk and so want to take over the world, and there are good mutants who hate that they are treated poorly by regular folk but are noble and hope to work for a positive change within the system. The egalitarian moral of the story seems to be that you can be a mutant with super powers and save the world, yet still be a victim. Hurrah.

Swordfish: A very, very bad movie, but a good insight into what's needed to get a film produced in Hollywood. It has a sharp opening sequence and about half way through you get to see Halle Berry's jugglies (which, by the way, are nothing to write home about). So the first few pages of the script are top notch, catches everyone's attention. It doesn't matter that the rest sucks because no one in Hollywood reads that far anyway. Plus, you let it be known far and wide that Halle Berry is going to be flashing her magumbos and you've got all the buzz you need. It doesn't matter that the plot is nonsensical and the special effects are hackneyed, the thing will sell itself. You got yerself a winnah!

Anyway. Top five reasons it's cool to be named Huge.
  1. It's easier to spell than Enormous or Elephantine.

  2. You've got a leg up on replacing the Big character on Sex in the City.

  3. You never tire of the comic look people give you when you say, "Hi, I'm Huge."

  4. Lots of free PR from Letterman 'cause it's just too easy.

  5. No need for a name change if you have to stoop to doing porn.
Tee-hee. Huge. Cracks me up.