Monday, May 06, 2013

The Month That Was - April 2013

The Month That Was - April 2013: It was a cold April. My flowers came up and then were immediately at risk from overnight freezes. The mower was serviced and, oxymoronically, I contracted to have the lawn fertilized and fed that it be especially healthy. In two months I'll wish it was dead. Three new trees were planted. Stone was installed around the fireplace -- a messy and inconvenient job, but it looks very good. I also contracted for have a patio put in and my deck repair/refurbished -- scheduled for May. And then there were the toilets -- two of them started running frequently -- tank leaking into bowl -- one severely, one slowly. I blame the bleach tablets that I was putting in my tank. I was quite proud of my do-it-yourself replacement of the damaged parts -- took a bit of work. Isn't that something? Of all the things that I thought I would be proud of in my life, toilet repair was not on the list. Still, in my struggle with home ownership, a victory is a victory.

But running season is upon us. I hope to do at least one organized run per month this year. I need a run for May. June is the Dexter-AA half marathon. I also need a run for July (but will have the Helluva Ride bike ride). August I'm thinking about the Chicago 10K, that might be a nice weekend trip. September is always the Mackinac 8-mile. October is the Marine Corps 10K in DC (already registered for that). November is whatever race I do out West during my Vegas Thanksgiving -- possibly the Death Valley half marathon. December is always the Holiday Hustle in my hometown (Dexter), but possibly something else too. The schedule needs a bit of fleshing out but it looks like this is going to be the shape of my travel over the next couple of years -- quick trips here and there for a run and some sightseeing. Nothing epic until I get the house the way I want it, despite the temptation to fly afar. Discipline.

[Books] Book Look: Kim
[Tech] Figuring 8
[Vegas] Got Your Baccarat

[Books] Book Look: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

Bool Look: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling: Kim is not an easy read. It is loaded with "thy"s and "thee"s and the poetic sentence formation and the vernacular of the British Raj. It's tough to do it in small bites, which is really the only way I read nowadays. It's probably best in a more extended session with ample time to acclimate to the rhythm and style. Still, it's a ripping good yarn by any measure.

Kim O'Hara is a street orphan in colonial India (late 1800's). The son of an Irishman, he has completely gone native. He is as street smart as they come -- but sympathetic and good-hearted enough to be nicknamed "Friend to all the World." As the story unfolds, Kim meets a wandering Buddhist priest who becomes his mentor and something of a substitute father figure. His innate wiliness brings him into the circle of a Muslim horse-trader who is also a British spy and becomes another father figure, although representing something much more practical. He eventually encounters the army regiment of his late father, who assume the responsibility of taking him in and transforming him into a Sahib (a European). Here he is watched carefully and it is determined that he should be trained to join the Great Game -- the British Intelligence Service's name for the cold war being waged between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. In time, he re-unites with the priest and the collision of hsi mentor's spiritual quest and his duties in the Great Game bring about a crisis and reconciliation for both the priest and Kim.

The surface story is a tale of adventure, with Kim as a figure of the sort we would now call "the chosen one" -- someone fated to face a challenge to fulfill his destiny. In fact, Kim is often lumped in the Young Adult section of your library (in a colloquialized, somewhat dumbed-down form, most likely). All the tropes we know from action movies are there, although they are used less blatantly in context. And it is the context that provides the most interest.

A book from more than a century ago can be quite a shock to the uninitiated. All the good progressive signally we are used to seeing every day is not present. There are few more ethnically and religiously diverse times or places than colonial India, and Kipling relishes in colorful descriptions of a various stripes of people. However, there are no paens to equality. There is a clear pecking order with the Sahibs on top. That is not to say they are oppressors or the non-Sahibs are denigrated. Orientals (Kipling's word) are regularly admired for the wits and the skillful way they get by -- and for the depth of their spirituality. Kim even notes that most Sahib's can appear dull-witted and out of place. However, there is no question that the resources and clear-minded understanding of the world give them the upper hand, and that is not thought unjust. Readers nursed on the later twentieth century view of colonialism will be off-put. But like I said, there is sense of a certain order, but there is no blanket denigration. In fact, the Sahibs who are truly culturally insensitive are in for beatdowns -- either figuratively or literally.

(Aside: I am not even slightly off-put by such things. I wouldn't judge the values of earlier times by the current ones, lest I be judged by young'ns. In fact, I'm getting to the point where I see the times of my youth regularly judged to be morally wanting and my reaction is almost always "As if your world is superior. You have no idea what you're talking about. Now get off my lawn!" So I'll stay off the lawn of the British Empire.)

I mention those things because we live in a world so obsessed with jockeying for socially correct poses. Kim soars by way of a colorful, sympathetic, and deeply endearing characters (of all cultural types) that Kipling laces throughout the book. The eye cast on these folks is clear sees no illusions, but it is generally celebratory, and we, along with Kim can revel in the wonder and mystery of the world. It is a genuine impulse, not a pose.

Should you read Kim? It's good for a curious and thoughtful mind. Although there is a fair amount of action, it is a bit dialogue heavy, but it's still a cut above what you would probably read in a modern book of similar themes. Kipling's prose is quite lovely and clever, although it takes a bit of attention to get into the groove. I would say yes, you should read it, if you're ready to put in the time and effort. Money is not a question as it is long out of copyright and is freely available in various formats at What's better than a great book for free?

[Tech] Figuring 8

Figuring 8: My new laptop has Windows 8. The Windows 8 user interface is based on the Windows tablet interface. Tablets are for consumption and computer (laptops) are for production. My laptop is for writing and picture editing -- production. There is no easy way to do that without an attached mouse and keyboard and a big ol' external monitor. Reading emails and browsing the web and consuming music/books/videos are better done on a tablet. Microsoft's plan with Windows 8 was to closer sync up the user interface for computers with its excellent tile-based mobile interface. This is the interface I have on my phone and it really is nice -- much slicker and more usable than the rather haphazard conglomerations of icons on an iPhone or Android. But it is something of a shock to suddenly find it replacing your desktop. I'm not sure it works so well for production.

Now, before I turn into Bitchy McWhiner, I have to point out that you can still get your old desktop back -- it's just not the default and it's not immediately discoverable how to manage switching between the standard desktop and the tile interface. It's enough of a problem that in an upcoming patch, Microsoft is making some tweaks to clear things up and let you have the old desktop back by default.

It has not turned out to be a popular update. Why on earth did they make this change? Was it a just bonehead mistake? Do they fundamentally misunderstand their market? Well, let me confess, I have done this myself; in my day job I manage a software team, including design and implementation. On a couple of occasions I have been involved in throwing a new interface paradigm at the unsuspecting populace. So maybe I can explain.

Unsuspecting people will reasonably believe that there is no reason for software to ever change other than incrementally. If there is some functionality to add to product, just add it to the existing product, why do you need to re-make anything. The problem with that is that it pre-supposes your design specs to the programmers were something like "Here's what we want to do but please allow us to do anything else we may think of in the future." The business of allowing anything else in the future is a) impossible to do comprehensively (anything is, effectively, everything), b) prohibitively expensive to define and approach. Often the idea of "allowing" something and actually implementing it on speculation is pretty close to the same thing. So "allowing" such things means more code, more testing, more maintenance, more testing, more documentation, more testing, more time, more testing -- the project will spin out of control before you even have a prototype. It might be possible to build such software but no one could afford it.

So a piece of software, not surprisingly, becomes an exercise in compromise, targeting and prioritizing. You get a controlled architecture that provides enough value to sell and allows as much flexibility to add on as possible. If you do it right, it can go for quite a few years, but eventually changes in the market or technology will require you to provide something you can't feasibly support. The wise trade-offs you made in design become roadblocks. That's when you build the next gen product. The next-gen product is another exercise in compromise and often that means compromising old users' habits in the service of viability in the brave new world that caused you to re-write the damn thing to begin with.

In the case of Windows 8 -- and this is pure speculation -- Microsoft saw a receding and graying desktop market. Tablets, phones, and touch technology in general were taking over. At some point our user interface is going to have to be driven by the mobile market, not the keyboard and mouse users. So they bit the bullet and designed a tile-centric version of Windows. People freaked. They didn't know how to manage the tiles with mouse and keyboard. The famous "Start" button is gone so when they finally find their old desktop they can't figure out how to access an application that isn't on the desktop without it. There is a way, of course, I figured it out via stumbling about but I'm used to this sort of thing -- Mom and Pop aren't.

In fact, I bet that thanks to all the usability testing Microsoft does, once you know how to do everything and get the settings to match your desires, it's probably as easy, if not easier, to do what you want in Windows 8. But getting there is a big problem. So Microsoft responds (correctly) by adding a few tweaks to an update to ease the transition. It's the right move. This will mitigate criticism and still keep Windows on its course of mobile-first design.

Although I did struggle along with everyone else, I can't fault Microsoft for the re-make. It has to be done in this business. The problem I have with it is two-fold. 1) I don't see any obvious advantage to Windows 8 over Windows 7. I'm sure it's faster and more stable, but an interface upheaval was not needed for that. This may come in time though, if Microsoft is right in their interpretation of the future. 2) Relatedly, I am not sold on the One Paradigm to Rule Them All plan. This is really a philosophical point, but it seems to me that we tend to obsess a bit about making everything similar. As if we should have this one interface that can handle all sorts of different tasks and if we do it properly, we can write it once and reuse it in different circumstances and the big benefit is everyone will immediately have an easier time jumping from phone to laptop to kiosk to tablet to the dashboard display in your car. I think that's not going to work. The actions and workflows required for disparate tasks are in themselves disparate. Trying to wedge them all into a single interface paradigm is going to mean they will likely all be compromised in some way -- in many cases they will be compromised with complexity and bloat.

So where does that leave us? If you are thrust into Windows 8, don't panic -- it'll just take some time, you'll get there, and it will be easier after the upcoming tweak. On the other hand don't expect great improvements in your life either. The net result may just be a mild, but temporary annoyance.

Software aside, the hardware has been sweet. It is a Dell XPS13. Dell had been on my avoid list for years because my first Dell laptop had been such a disaster. In fact, my first laptop provided by work was also a Dell and it was not very good either. Both had serious problems with their power management. My second work laptop has been much better. Enough that I was willing to give Dell another try. My personal HP was on its last legs -- freaky power management, unreliable boot ups, constantly running hard disk and fan. Death was close.

So I bought the Dell from the Microsoft Signature Store where they take the time to remove all of the crapware you find taking up space and doing strange things on so many brands. It's got a 256 gig solid state drive which is totally sweet. Nearly instant on and off. Dead silent. No unexpected freak outs hooking up peripherals. Light as a feather. So far it's been well-nigh perfect. Highly recommended.

[Vegas] Got Your Baccarat

Got Your Baccarat: Apparently Baccarat is the table game of the future in Vegas. On track to displace blackjack as the most popular table game.

Blackjack is pretty much a settled proposition. The house advantage is cut to the minimum by playing a specific strategy. Once you know that strategy you have no decisions to make. Playing hunches that go against that strategy will simply increase the house edge. Trying to "feel" the cards or react to trends is voodoo. The worst thing that can happen to an inexperienced gambler is to have a good blackjack session based on gut feel. He'll end up deluded, although from my point of view I'm glad he's there so the casinos can keep making money. You may at some point meet someone who claims to consistently win at blackjack; they are either mistaken, lying, or just haven't played enough yet. (Note I am discounting card counters who in some Rain Man-esque way can actually shift the odds against the house.)

But with blackjack, at least here is the strategy to learn. When to hit, fold, split, double down -- it takes a little effort to learn and it can be difficult to apply when they keep bringing you free drinks.

Now along comes baccarat. Baccarat has been noticeably popular among Asians in Vegas (a big demographic) as long as I have been going, but it's getting more widespread. I'm not sure of the attraction of Baccarat. It is an absolutely mindless game. There isn't really even a strategy. There is a "banker" and a "player". Cards are dealt without any decision or intervention. Either the player wins or the bankers wins or it's a tie. You bet on either the player or the banker (although you can bet on a tie, but that would be truly dumb) and it's 50-50 as to who will win. And each hand the casino takes a little cut. So it is essentially a coin flip with vig. There is no strategy involved, although the superstitious will follow some imagined one. House edge is similar to blackjack -- which is to say it's one of the better deals in table games.

Perhaps that's what makes it perfect. Anyone can walk up and play as well as anyone else. You sit with some friends or make new ones around the table. Sip some comp drinks. Have a good time. It's not like you'd be more likely to win if you were playing some other table game. Why not baccarat?

Note that the type of baccarat we are discussing is not what you see James Bond playing in Dr. No and Thunderball. That variant is called Chemin-de-fer and it is a more ritualistic game where you play against others players at the table (not the house). I know of nowhere in the U.S. where Chemin-de-fer is offered. It's a European thing.

None of this affects me. I gave up table games. I stick to sports betting and occasionally poker. At least in those cases you are not mathematically pre-destined to lose over time. In poker if you don't screw up, make good reads, and get some cards you can win. In sports betting if you outsmart the general public, you can win. As a rule, you don't win, but it's not out of the realm of possibility to outperform based on your own wit. I've got a way to go on poker. But I generally feel good about at least breaking even on my football bets. By comparison, you cannot outperform your statistical disadvantage in table games for longer than a brief period.

The psychology of gambling is fascinating. I'm currently reading The Odds, by Chad Millman, about sports gamblers in Vegas back in 1999. It's gripping both in its examination of the gamblers and for some historical perspective. But that's a review for next month.