Monday, June 03, 2013

The Month That Was - May 2013

The Month That Was - May 2013: Like I said last month, my travel this year, at least until Vegas, is likely to be confined to weekenders. I got two in this month. One was an overnight in the sweet little town of Nashville, IN, which reminds me of my home of Dexter, MI, as it was maybe 15 years ago. I was there for a truly self-destructive trail race that involved slogging through ankle deep mud, climb up black diamond ski slopes, and fording hip deep icy rivers. We knew were in trouble when the race organizer announced, "It's really stupid out there," as we were about to start. I hope to go back for a full weekend next year, not just overnight.

The other trip was a happy surprise when Misses Kate and Anna arranged a free day during a family reunion and I was able to meet them up for another overnighter on Mackinac Island, one of the nicest places in the world. We got there just before the Memorial Day crowds. It was a bit chilly compared to our previous High Summer visits when Anna was in summer camp, but the lack of people and cooler temps were a nice change. Only regret is that it couldn't have been longer.

Meanwhile, back home, I had a deck built an a patio out in and I've re-engaged in full scale battle with my lawn after winter's armistice.

[Books] Book Look: The Odds
[Movies] Going Attractions
[Rant] It's (almost) a Twister! It's (almost) a Twister!

[Books] Book Look: The Odds, by Chad Millman

Book Look: The Odds, by Chad Millman: Right up my alley. We follow three threads through a season of sports gambling in Vegas: bookmakers at the old Stardust Casino, a flashy high end pro gambler, and a low end newbie trying get started as a pro gambler.

It's an older book; from around Y2K, so there is a fair amount of history that is of interest. The Stardust Casino at the time had the most renown sports book in Vegas. They always set the line first, which means they would also take a huge hit because if they got something wrong the high-enders were there waiting to play it. (Big gamblers have a line in their head for every game and if the book's line is very far from there they will snap up a lot of action. There are a lot of high rollers and they are very smart, so if you're way off from them you're probably wrong and possibly in trouble if you don't move the line quickly enough. On the other hand, if the book can nail the line they will get all the big action.) At the time, the Vegas casinos were under relentless pressure from the newly founded, zero-overhead Caribbean online casinos which allowed gamblers to bet with a couple of mouse clicks rather than make an appearance in the sports book. And they were in the process of being double whammied by congressional legislation to outlaw gambling on college sports -- a huge blow to their ability to make a profit.

Looking back, it's interesting to see how all this played out. The legislation failed and, in fact, regulators would turn their gaze on the Caribs over the next few years. Sports gambling is no longer a huge profit center for Vegas casinos -- most have farmed out their sportsbook operations to one of three or four big agencies so scouring the books for a better line is often fruitless. Odds and lines get set and they sync up across books very quickly. It's more corporate. More geared towards collecting the vig than outsmarting the gamblers, who have more information and analytical power in their phones than the entire industry had 15 years ago. The Stardust Hotel and Casino itself was blown up long ago.

Yet, folks still come to the sportsbooks. It might be that, apart from a limited and recent legalization in Delaware, Vegas remains only place in the U.S. you can legally bet on sports and you can't legally do it over the phone, so most law abiding citizens have to go to the sportsbook. You have the option of breaking the law and hooking up with a local bookie who may or may not be accessible when you need your money. Or you could click through to one of the Caribs, which is more gray market than black, which may or may not be accessible when you want your money. Or you can contain your risk to the amount of your wager and go visit the sportsbook.

Alan Boston is the profiled high-roller, or "wiseguy", is the sort of professional everyone imagines. A heart-attack waiting to happen, he is the key guy in a high-end sports betting syndicate. He wants to kill himself when things don't go his way and condemns anyone -- a player who hits a three in garbage time, a ref who made a bad call, a bookmaker who won't take his bet, etc. -- who he blames for losses (in abstract) as worthy of death. He's flashy and brash, but also sentimental and generous. Quite a character all-in-all.

The newbie profiled is another telling image. A former Indiana high school jock who cares about virtually nothing except sports gambling decides he's going to take a shot at being a pro gambler. Fair enough, but then he experiences the worst possible fate. He plays his gut and wins. And he manages to do it for a while. He sits around all day reading the sports pages, getting fat, and smoking weed. Naturally, he's flattened by a gravity storm. Unrepentant, he gets a job at a sportsbook so he can keep going.

Both gambler profiles are interesting, although they seem a bit shallow. But then, obsessed gamblers are shallow. The only thing they worry about, the only real passion they have, is the bet. Alan Boston's existential fear is not simply that he will lose money, but that he will lose so much money he can't gamble again next season. The only thing that shakes the newbie out of his pot-stupor is the possibility that he will have to abandon Vegas and get job back in Indiana. They are not obsessed with winning. The are not as concerned about winning as they are continuing.

I have never read a satisfactory description of the attraction of gambling. I have read good descriptions of the experience and of the acts of gamblers (this book for example), but I have never read a good explanation for the irresistible internal desire. I have read discussions of gambling as an addiction in general but I have trouble lumping gambling "addiction" in the same category with substance abuse. In the case of traditional addictions you are putting some chemicals of some sort in your body and altering your physiology to "need" them. Nothing is ingested in a sportsbook except stale nachos and flat beer. Nor is gambling the same as a true obsession. There are, for example, people addicted to washing their hands. Often they will wash them until they are raw and bleeding, but they cannot stop. That sort of thing is like a twitch -- an involuntary little habit that gets set on repeat in your brain. Gambling is an extraordinarily complex behavior. Nobody who is addicted to cocaine or has tourettes syndrome will tell you they are acting rationally. They know what they are doing is nonsensical or self-destructive, but they just can't stop. Any full on gambler can tell you exactly why it makes sense for him to make a bet, and in the case of sports betting, they will often do hours of analysis before betting. This is not a generic addiction or obsession.

My personal experience, and I think this jibes with other descriptions I have read, is that gambling is about the losing. On the surface it seems like everyone is chasing that big win -- the easy money. But wins, while exhilarating, are momentary. In fact, for me, the real thrill of winning is the feeling that you have outsmarted the world. That your analysis and reasoning are beyond the norm. That you see things others don't. Whatever the joys of winning, they are fleeting and not what you remember. I have made some good calls and won a bit of cash, but the things that stick in my mind are the losses. The weekend where I ended down based on a last minute missed field goal. The time I altered a bet at the last minute based on a news story when I should have known better. The weekend where I couldn't win anything. The lying in bed at night, pounding my head over what I should have done. Why would I want to engage in an activity where that is the norm (losing is the norm in gambling) and which brings me only momentary pleasure otherwise? Now I have never bet and lost so much money that it caused me the slightest problem, but I have to imagine other gamblers have similar experiences.

I don't have any answers, and neither does Chad Millman. So to answer the standard question, Should you read The Odds?, I'm going to give it a qualified no. Qualified, because I don't see a lot a attraction here, for someone who isn't interested in gambling on sports. The connection to broader human experience is tenuous. The personal stories are not compelling enough to really draw the interest of someone who has no gambling frame of reference and would just view them dramatically. As dramatic characters they are a problem because there is really no arc to them. They don't go on any journeys. You also will be frustrated if you are looking for insights into the strategies of big time gamblers, none are presented -- although they consider every angle none of them do anything remotely systematic or at least there are no detailed descriptions of any analytics. They live and die on their sense for the effects of the variables being sharper than the general public. (The availability of untold statistics and measurables via the internet was still in it's infancy.) If you're like me, you can appreciate The Odds as a simple document of the rhythms and melodies, the push and pull of sports gambling. You can read an excerpt and think, "Been there," hopefully with a smile. But chances are, you're not like me.

[Movies] Going Attractions

Going Attractions: I count seven potential summer blockbusters that were released in May. These blockbusters are the seminal purpose of the movie industry. Pretty much all other movies have to count on long term plans such as rentals or hitting it off in Europe to make money. These show big profit on the the first weekend or they are considered failures. Stock price movers, they are. I, of course, saw none of them. I don't go to the movies. It's an odd concept to me -- like streaming from Amazon, but in a huge darkened room with a bunch of annoying strangers while eating nasty food and paying for the privilege. I don't see the attraction. But it's fun to me to try to figure out ahead of time which ones I'll watch when they start streaming or appear on cable.

Iron Man 3 -- I'll watch it just for Downey if nothing else, but reviews are strong. BTW, I just caught a snippet if the first Iron Man and decided I would have gone to see it in the theatre if during the face off between Downey and Jeff Daniels, Downey would have said, "Where is the money, Lebowski?" In fact, I might go to the theatre to see just about any Jeff Daniels film that contained an ironic Lebowski quote. But that's just me.

The Great Gatsby -- I find I actually like DiCaprio. I thought he was terrific in The Aviator, which is a movie that is recent in my mind but is now almost ten years old. It seems like everything reminds me of the passage of time, doesn't it? I have to stop doing that. Try to stay focused on the future. It's not like I'm some sort of old man in a nursing home. I mean I won't retire for another 15 years at least and if I look back 15 years ago, the most profound experiences of my life had yet to happen. There's no reason to expect the next 15 years will bring any less. And 15 years after that -- well, I hope to be a cyborg.

But the topic is Gatsby. You would think this is the sort of movie I would relish -- a fresh take on classic literature -- even if it turns out to be an awkward reimagining, but honestly, it seems like the kind of thing that I would plan to watch but probably think better of it when the time comes and turn on something else. Maybe The Aviator. Or Lebowski.

Star Trek: Into the Darkness -- Reviews are mixed but I'm sure I'll watch it. Even at his worst, JJ Abrams can hold your attention. I thought the rebooted Trek acting team was awfully good. We know Benedict Cumberbatch is amazing. I fear for JJ in trying to extend the Star Wars franchise though, especially after the holy abominations of the prequels. He may be mistaken if he thinks there is a trove of good will out there. But it appears he really wants Eternal Emperor of all Nerdom on his resume so he has to go for it.

There were three great fantasy-action trilogies in the '80s (roughly): 1) Star Wars, 2) Indiana Jones, and 3) Back to the Future. Lucas plus Spielberg torpedoed Indy pretty thoroughly. Lucas demolished Star Wars all on his own. It's evident that the personality of the director plays a starring role in such films. By the time Lucas and Spielberg got around to revisiting these works they were different people -- the sort of people who did not thrill to, and dream about, pulp action fantasy anymore. They were grown ups, with all the suckiness of mind that entails. Please don't let either of them touch Back to the Future. Marty McFly with Parkinson's would be the Worst of all Possible Ideas. Best to leave it to guys like Abrams and Joss Whedon. At least until they grow up. Come to think of it, I bet Whedon could do something sparkling with a Back to the Future reboot.

Fast and Furious 6 -- Yeah, I'll watch it. Mind switched to 'off'. Maybe while playing Fruit Ninja and cursing myself for wasting what little time I have on Earth.

The Hangover 3 -- I have not watched 1 or 2 so it's highly unlikely i'll watch this one. I have seen slob humor from its Animal Housian beginnings and feel quite confident that I could live a rich, fulfilling life without seeing anymore. Like most things, slob movies have degraded over the years. They sometimes descend into pure raunch or the contort themselves to have a poignant endings. But the true death of slob humor came when they started producing sequels. MISSING THE WHOLE POINT, PEOPLE. They're just supposed to be a couple hours of gags.

Now You See Me -- I had to look up the plot of this one: "Story follows a crack FBI squad in a game of cat-and-mouse against a super-team of the world's greatest illusionists, who pull off a series of daring bank heists during their performances, showering the profits on their audiences while staying one step ahead of the law." I'll wait until I hear more about it before deciding. Could be good but only if it turns out to be a crisply plotted and cleanly directed caper film, but you only get one of those every decade or so. None of the names involved with it give me any confidence whatsoever. I'd lay odds that like the main characters, the thing the movie does well is manipulate the audience.

After Earth -- Abort. I can't get past the premise: After evacuating Earth a thousand years ago, a father and son duo crash land back on Earth where everything all life has evolved to kill humans. At least that is what I gather from the trailers. First, in evolutionary terms, 1000 years isn't very long at all. There probably would be observable effects but not that great. Roving packs of feral Labrador Retrievers? Sure. Mutant Giant Killer Reptiles -- um, no. Second, even if life did evolve very fast (for some contrived reason revealed in expository dialogue) it would not evolve to kill humans because there were no humans around to evolve to kill. See how that works? My ability to suspend disbelief only goes so far. There has to be at least some semblance of rationality behind things. I don't know why they think it's OK just to make up whatever random crap you want and turn it into a movie. Oh wait, I see the reason: M. Night Shyamalan. Because it's worked so well in the past.

[Rant] It's (almost) a Twister! It's (almost) a Twister!

It's (almost) a Twister! It's (almost) a Twister!: This bothers me. We had a tornado warning. For those of you from non-tornado areas, a tornado watch is issued when conditions are ripe for a twister, a tornado warning is issued when a funnel cloud or a near funnel cloud has actually been spotted.

So, we had a tornado warning. That's not what bothers me. What bothers me is the reaction. I was in the local library and the first thing they did was try to shepherd us all into the basement. Instead, I left, but not before I got a very forceful and indignant suggestion from the librarian to comply with her instructions. (I wasn't worried. I'm pretty sure I could have taken her if we threw hands.) So I went to the grocery store where they stopped all activity and tried to usher all the customers into the warehouse storage in the back. At least the pimply grocery clerk told me I had the option to leave.

The hell? Why young fella, back in my day we used to go outside to watch the twisters -- the closer the better. As it turns out, the suspected almost tornado was about ten miles north and never actually turned into a real tornado anyway.

Yes, I had another get-off-my-lawn moment. But look, the chance of tornado coming down on your head is pretty close to zero. And despite what breathless news storm-chasing news journalists tell you for dramatic effect, you will get a fair amount of warning. Things get dark. There is hail. Wind picks up. I know -- I was within spitting distance of a nasty one last year. You do not have to put the brakes on life as we know it just because there may be a possible tornado somewhere in the county.

I understand that nature is a scary thing. It's supposed to scare us. That how we survived to evolve civilization. But we really need some sense of proportion when assessing risk. I don't know who to blame for this. The recent OKC tornado; media sensationalism and the idiots who buy into it; the clowns who have planted the inane idea that this is all due to global warming and the apocalypse is coming and we are actually living in a bad sci-fi movie -- your guess is as good as mine. Businesses get freaked because they are sure that if a tornado does hit everyone in the store is going to sue them.

What's frustrating about this is not that it's another example of what's gone wrong with the world (let's face it -- the world was never right to begin with). The thing that frustrates me is the reaction of the overreactors to non-overreactors. They overreact. Take the angry librarian. What would the reaction have been if I had turned and explained (as I wanted to) that the chance of a tornado blindsiding me is zero and they were acting like scared kittens for no good reason? The response would have been indignation at my irresponsible attitude. I may have even been lectured about endangering the children or something.

I realize we live in a much safer world than we used to. And it may be because of a shift in attitudes (and laws and regulations) towards greater risk aversion. And it also may, on balance, be a good thing. But you can't deny much was lost in the process. How much institutional behavior is driven by fear of lawsuits rather than reason and analysis? How many simple pleasures, large and small, will we people younger than myself never experience?

Riding in the back of a pickup truck. Jumping of the roof of the garage. I did those things as a child; I did not ask permission, and adults knew I did them with little concern. Could I have been killed or hurt? Sure. Would it have been worth it if I had been? The wise answer is no, it wouldn't, therefore I shouldn't have done them -- I shouldn't have taken the risk. Well, perhaps my wisdom is lacking, but I'm not so sure. Those little adventures had meaning for me. They still do. They are symptomatic of a sense of invulnerability that only a child can have. I no longer have that, of course, but don't know how I could live without the imprint of the sensation in my memory. I could not approach any unfamiliar or risky situation with confidence that I would overcome it were I not able to draw on that sensation of invulnerability from my childhood: that it's scary to jump of the roof, but awesome when you do it. In the absence of that, the only way I would be comfortable acting in uncertainty is if I had faith that the world -- the system/community/institutions -- had my back, that the environment had been structured so that I would not be harmed. Is that what younger adults have now instead of invulnerability?

Maybe it's better this way. Maybe that's progress and I'm just a grouch. Or maybe it's not. Maybe it really was better back in the day. Or maybe it's neither. Maybe it's no better or worse, just different. But in no way is it the answer so clear that you should get on your high horse about safety to someone who isn't scared of tornadoes. If you want to dive into the basement at the first sign of bad weather you have my blessing. How about you give me your blessing when I don't? If you don't want to dive in the pool head first, don't. But let me.

Huron River Drive in Ann Arbor is a beautiful scenic road that winds along the river. The river is crossed by railroad bridges in three or four spots. They are maybe twenty feet above the water and when the river is high, and you have taken the time to locate any hidden rocks, they are a blast to jump off. One for my fondest, most vivid, memories from my early twenties (maybe thirty years ago, yikes) was coming out to one these with a bunch of friends and spending a hot afternoon leaping off one of the bridges into the cool water.

As I drove past one hot day last summer I noticed a group of four kids -- ok, not kids, they looked about 20 -- lined up on top of one of the bridges to leap in together. I gave an involuntary grin. I could see them count off 3-2-1 and get airborne and shout with joy. As they swam to shore they were met by a security guard or park ranger or some form of uniformed authority who was clearly beside himself with indignation and was just brimming with excitement at the opportunity to teach these kids a lesson about safety. The kids were clearly intimidated by this authority figure. I was tempted to stop my car, charge over, get in the uniform's face, and claim to be the kids' lawyer just to take the guy down a notch. What exactly did they learn? What is their memory? Is that wisdom?

It may indeed be better and safer this way. But it's also sadder.