Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Month That Was - February 2012

The Month That Was - February 2012: Short shrift this week, in honor of the short month. I was looking back at the month trying to figure out how come I had so little to write about and I found no good answers. I only read one book, that's part of it. No travel to speak of, that's another part of it. A couple of big house projects, but I have been trying to hold off on peppering you with house maintenance posts.

Maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe I should start expanding my topics. Things I spend time on that I don't write about are my fitness obsession, house projects in detail (I make casual mention), and football (in season). There are probably others, but those come to mind immediately. For unknown reasons, I have convinced myself that nobody is really interested in that stuff. But in reality, I have no reason to think anybody would be particularly interested in anything I write here, so why would those topics be different? This place is exactly what it says in the title. A monthly diary. It documents some events or opinions that I found interesting. I fully expect its eventual best use will be jogging my memory about times passed when I am pushing 90. Or maybe, a thousand years from now, some brain-in-a-jar will read it to see what life was like for someone in the previous millennium.

If this were a commercial site, it would be a disaster. Commercial sites need laser focus to have any hope of succeeding. Since this is just a personal hobby that I happen to make public, why not get even broader and more eclectic? So be it. Starting next month the list of potential topics grows.

[Tech, Rant] One Bad Apple
[Books] Book Look: Beyer on Speed
[Movies] Maybe I'm Spoiled
[Music] Rest in Peace, Davy

[Tech, Rant] One Bad Apple

One Bad Apple: I have worked diligently to keep myself free of Apple products and the entire ecosystem. This has not been an arbitrary or capricious act of defiance. I am not a big fan of Apple interface designs. They are visually and stylistically striking, but below the surface they strike me as very rigid and limited. For example, iTunes Music Store is a complete disaster. It is so busy putting flashy, resource hogging graphics in my face that I can't efficiently find the music I want. I buy MP3s almost exclusively from Amazon.

(As a side note, this problem is not exclusive to Apple, but the entire internet. You land on a page and it takes forever to load because it's trying to pick up 500k of graphic ads from 10 different sites while running God-only-knows what javascripts in the background, when the only thing valuable to you is the 5k of text information that you have to search to find because it is swamped by the bling. Infuriating. Notice that apart from my books there are no graphics on this site. There's a reason for that.)

I also had a bad experience with the one Apple laptop I ever owned. The CMOS went south after about a year. I was able to diagnose this myself just from investigating things on the web. When I brought it in for repair, I informed the asshat techs of this but they didn't listen to me and claimed to fix it by re-installing the OS (or however they described it) and charged me $50. Naturally it went dead again a couple of days later because IT WAS A CMOS ISSUE. I'm still bitter about this.

Perhaps most importantly I never got used to Apple's way of doing things. Perfect example: Most of what I do is work with text in one way or another. In Windows you have both a backspace key and a delete key. The backspace key does what you would expect: removes the character to the left of the cursor. The delete key removes the character to the right of the cursor. There is simply no way I am going to be able to survive in the world without these functions. Well, on Macs, the delete key operates like the Windows backspace key, which is a minor issue, but there is no key that operates like the Windows delete key. There is a keystroke combination that does, but keystroke combos are a pain and should only be used for oddball tasks, not basic in-line editing. Now I know there are machinations that allow you to get around this somehow (maybe keyboard remapping of some sort) but why make me go to the trouble? Or more properly worded, why would I pay a premium for a Mac to go to the trouble. This, like the one-button mouse, is just the Apple Way, and if you are one of the faithful, it is axiomatically correct. Except it's not, is it?

Tangentially, I'm not one of those dirty hippies who goes around seeing corrupt corporate evil everywhere, but Apple is pretty cutthroat in some of the legal battles they engage in, even with small time violations of perceived property rights. There is clearly the underlying, unspoken belief in that company that you, the customer, must yield to them for your own good.

But there is simply no denying the success they have had. Back in 1999 I got into a debate on some internet board (back when I was idiot enough to do that sort of thing) and argued that Apple would be out of business in five years. That was before the iPod was even a gleam in Steve's eye, so I feel justified in my prediction. I mean, who knew? Now they are looking at something like trillion dollar market cap. It's making them harder to ignore.

At the moment, I can easily ignore iTunes. Like I said, I get my music and other media from Amazon. But what if iTunes e-books catch on. Right now my books are available as e-books on Kindle only. Will I be forced to accept iTunes at some point?

For now my Zune players are serving me well. I have a 1st gen 30 gig that holds pretty much my entire music collection, and a 2nd gen 8 gig that I use solely for running. Both have been solid, but they won't last forever, and I do lose out on beneficial recent developments in battery life. Zune players have been discontinued. If one or both fail, will I have recourse besides the iPod? I suppose I could load stuff on my Windows Phone, but it couldn't hold my entire music collection, which is a luxury I appreciate when travelling. I would also be hesitant to use my phone as a workout aid. It's one thing to sweat into a hundred dollar MP3 player. It's another to sweat into a $400 phone.

The iPad has no viable competitors at the moment. For now, I have no need but I can see the attraction of them and they are starting to crop up at meetings at work. Hmmm.

I feel fairly safe on the phone and laptop front. I'm really liking my Windows Phone. And Windows 8 is coming for laptops, if I ever feel the need to replace my beat up old HP. (Microsoft's plan to keep Windows and Windows Phone tightly locked is looking like it might pay off.)

But Apple still looms large, casting a giant shadow over my technological needs. It's getting harder, not easier, to stay clean.

(At the WSJ, a recent op-ed on Apple as an investment has some simlar sentiments.)

[Books] Book Look: Beyer on Speed, by Andrew Beyer

Book Look: Beyer on Speed, by Andrew Beyer: In my somewhat quixotic quest to better understand thoroughbred handicapping, this book popped to the top of everyone's suggested reading list. I can see why.

I'm going to get sidetracked right off the bat here, because Beyer is dedicated to objective analysis of gambling, something that only a minority of gamblers pursue, and certainly no casual gamblers. But it is something dear to my heart, partly because I spent a small amount of time trying to do just that for betting football games (with marginal continued success) and partly because my personal self-delusion is that I value the rational, objective understanding of reality to such and extent that it differentiates me from the vast majority of my fellow human beings who only dimly perceive the underlying probabilistic tendencies of life. In that vein, reading Beyer was like reading a kindred spirit, albeit one vastly more accomplished than myself.

Beyer is the man behind what are known as Speed Numbers. Speed Numbers came along a few decades ago as a result of what I presume to be one of the first efforts to objectify the outcome of thoroughbred races. What Speed numbers did was give handicappers a way to compare horses from race to race while controlling -- somewhat -- for track and race conditions. Previously, racing "knowledge" consisted of half understood nuggets of wisdom, vague impression, and overgeneralized anecdotes. In time, Speed Numbers were widely published and any easy value they provided the handicapper was lost. Remember, the gambler is always looking for circumstances where public opinion is at odds with reality. If just a handful of people use Speed Numbers they provide a tremendous advantage over those that don't. If everybody is using them, they provide little or no advantage over your fellow gamblers.

Beyer on Speed was written as a direct result of this. Beyer faced the question of whether there was any real value in his creation anymore. This in itself is admirable. Here is someone with a enormous amount of sweat and emotion invested in his creation. I suspect the majority of people in such circumstances would dig in and argue tooth and nail for the continuing validity of their ideas even to the point of turning rhetorical back flips and scaling peaks of self-delusion to do so. Not Beyer. He is nothing if not objective and that requires a willingness to accept reality however painful.

But Beyer doesn't come to the conclusion that Speed Numbers give him no edge. He comes to see the edge is in how they are used. Beyer calls this the "conceptual approach" which can be summed up as follows: First, run your numbers and do you quantitative homework. Next, with a good understanding of the shortcomings of your numbers (what they will and won't represent), evaluate each situation and adjust your wagering accordingly. The primary function of this book is to demonstrate what Speed Numbers do and don't represent and to survey to other sorts of info that come into play. Beyer surveys key concepts of pace and track bias in some detail, illustrating the sorts of adjustments he makes for them.

Rich with anecdote and experience, Beyer deserves yet more high scores for talking about his losses and failures as readily as his successes, including a particularly devastating loss in a pick-six. This is important and it's part of what makes the book seem so genuine. Losses will always be more frequent than wins and handling them psychologically (and financially) is the key to survival.

As I said, I drew comparisons to my gambling efforts with football, although it's clear horse racing is a very different animal. In football, instead of having access the entire race and interactions of ten or so horses, you have to worry about interactions of two sets of eleven men all with specific assignments that only indirectly relate to the goal. Not to mention you will never see everything because full field game films are only available to NFL insiders and TV coverage necessarily gives you only a portion of any action. But the quest is the same -- try to quantify the process as much as possible and use your objective results as an advantage over the rest of the public, who are mislead by their own (very human) observational weakness and bias.

It's a strange topic of interest, I know, and I might do well to navel-gaze long enough to understand why I am so attracted to it. But should you read Beyer on Speed? Well, if you have an interest in thoroughbred handicapping then absolutely, but you probably already have (it's something of a classic in the field). If you are strangely attracted to objective methods of gambling like I am, then absolutely. Otherwise, although exceedingly clearly written and pretty much devoid of jargon, I gotta guess it wouldn't be of little interest to the uninvolved reader.

As for me, I loved the hell out of it.

[Movies] Maybe I'm Spoiled

Maybe I'm Spoiled: I did something I so rarely do. I actually watched a couple of movies. They were both state of the art Hollywood productions but they also exemplify everything that is wrong with the industry.

Drive -- I didn't believe Ryan Gosling as a sullen tough; he looks like a paperboy. And that jacket that was clearly formulated to be iconic was just poofy. I really didn't believe in his instant devotion to the hyper-sympathetic single mom and daughter. Have movies given up on developing relationships? Rather than actually show their feelings develop, it was as if you were just handed the two characters and then told they had fallen for each other through longing looks and symbolic acts. Maybe I'm spoiled by TV where you can take a whole season or more to get a couple together, but I was left with the impression that the only reason they fell in love was because it said to in the script. I didn't believe the cliched stunt man mentor who turned out to be a bad guy, or the cliched ex-con trying to do right in an unforgiving world. The action scenes were cool and sharp, but they were way too few and far between. So much of this film was just people silently staring at each other. It could have been called Mood.

Secretariat -- At least I liked this movie. It wasn't terribly good, but I still liked it. It followed a strict formula designed to push emotional buttons, and it succeeded to some extent. Maybe I'm spoiled by the magnificently nuanced dialogue that you can hear in TV shows such as Luck and Spartacus or Justified, but the words handed to these actors were abysmal -- pure cheese. The acting was dutiful, with the exception of The Malkovich, who can deliver pretty much any lines with style. The plot: a steadfast woman in man's world; no one believes in her but she shows everyone, from her husband who doesn't want to risk their future of their children to the loudmouth macho types in the horse-racing game. Honestly, it's a strange lesson: It's OK to risk everything, including your family, because your personal emotional satisfaction is the most important thing. Alrighty. Still, reliving the Secretariat's Belmont race was cool, even in dramatically exaggerated form. (Note: Andrew Beyer -- see the book review above -- measures that to be the greatest performance ever by a thoroughbred by quite a large margin.)

These movies, though passably entertaining and unfailingly professional productions, exemplify everything that is wrong with the movies. No chances were taken, the actors seem small, the scripts are filled with simple language and narrow, crudely drawn characters. Again, maybe I'm just spoiled by how great TV is, but these were two very well-received and critically acclaimed movies and they simply fell flat. You could throw themes and plot points and cardboard characters in a machine and it would manufacture films like this. I think it'll be a while before I give movies another chance.

[Music] Rest in Peace, Davy

Rest in Peace, Davy: Up until about third grade I was the shortest kid in class. Even shorter than all the girls. (I have since turned out to be average height, exactly.) Anyone who was in a similar situation knows the trauma involved in that. But Davy Jones was the shortest Monkee, and we had the same first name, and frankly, we even looked a bit alike. That helped.

I loved the Monkees. I can still name their first five albums from memory: (1) The Monkees, (2) More of the Monkees, (3) Headquarters, (4) Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, (5) The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees. All of these were rife with brilliant pop songs of the sort that come along only once every few years. Very few bands have ever put together such a brilliant oeuvre. I have, ever since, been a sucker for perfectly crafted 3 minute pop songs.

Anyone one of those five albums is would be a pop masterpiece today. Yes, I know that the songs were all written by the top songwriters money could buy. And the musicians were the best session players money could buy. And the producers were under marching orders to make something marketable. But think about that. Can you imagine any corporate interest trying something like that today and generating anything like the quality of music?

Their sound was hugely influential on the best popsters of the '90s -- the Shibuya-kei style from Japan. And given modern production values, their music would match up easily with the best pop of the last 10 years -- say, Barenaked Ladies and Fountains of Wayne, for example. The songs are as exuberant and energetic as they were 45 years ago. If anything, doing that while under corporate control only makes the achievement greater.

Davy was the face; the cute boy all the girls could crush on. He could sing (but not as well as Dolenz); he could act and even dance a bit; he lacked the musical talent of Tork and especially Nesmith, but he had a friendly charisma and seemed to brighten the atmosphere.

He always wanted to be a jockey (interesting that horse racing has come up in three of my posts this month), but his natural charm led him into acting and that was that. Never was a bad word said about him. His good and unassuming nature were roundly praised upon his death.

Of course, people like me don't actually mourn Davy Jones proper. We express gratitude for the positive affect he had on us. What we really mourn is the loss of our ability to experience the feelings he facilitated in our childhood (even the trauma of being the shortest one in class) and, by extension, our own mortality. I would never wish my youth on anyone, but there are things I miss: the revelry of playing catch all afternoon, conquering a video game, or a hearing a familiar Monkees song. Those activities are still possible but they will never be enjoyed so thoroughly. That innocent vitality, like Davy, is gone forever.