Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Month That Was - January 2015

This month has been rather depressing for me. I suppose I see little to look forward to in 2015. What I have for this year are house renovations and repairs, and a trip to Florida for my Mom's 90th birthday, and the usual round of other trips in conjunctions with races, and, um, well that's about it. At times it seems like nothing more that way for me to spend my savings with as little variation from habit and custom as possible. It's a good life, but like most people, a good and settled life doesn't translate into excitement and enthusiasm (although it should).

But that is under my control, right? If I want something to look forward to, I need to make something to look forward to. I would like to get a new DSLR and resume my travel photography hobby. That would require a) spending money on a new DSLR and b) spending money on travel. And whenever I think about spending money on a new venture the house puts on puppy dog eyes and cries, "What about me?"

The book continues to progress. I am making some decent headway in plotting, and working from an outline for the first time ever. It's still a long, long way off, but I think I can say that if I ever do finish it, it will be the first book I have ever written that has a shot at anything resembling commercial success.

And I have done one new thing this year. I have started working with a personal trainer. In all the years I have diligent about fitness this is the first time I have done this. It has nothing to do with the running or biking that I usually do. It's all weight lifting, which I have come to understand is exceedingly important as you age, just to combat the natural muscle loss that comes from being an old man. It's also expensive and exhausting, but come summertime I should know if it has been worthwhile.

Summertime. Will summer ever come?

[Rant] To Do List: 2015
[Tech] TechnoBedlam
[Rant] I've Solved Poker, Says the Fish
[Books] Book Look: The Martian

[Rant] To Do List: 2015

No resolutions for me, just hopes and dreams. For the house it would be a remodeled master bath and new flooring in the living room. Both are doable and casual inquiries have been made. That would leave the kitchen, the basement, and the upstairs, in that order, for the future.

Honestly, if I get those two things done on the house, and keep up on my fitness goals, I would declare the year a success.

Fitness-wise, like a I mentioned above, there's the personal training adventure and I'm sure I'll do my usual mishmash of races. I would like to finally do a triathlon, after vowing to the last three years. I'd like to get in another Tough Mudder which should not be a problem since the team all wants to get together again. I'd like to get a half-marathon done, just so I don't backslide on distance. I think all that is doable.

As to travel, well, here's where I've scaled back from the days when I could go somewhere or do something every month. I made a conscious decision a few years ago to ease up on travel and devote my resources to the house, and I don't see a way around that. I'm thinking a spring trip down to FL to for my Mom's 90th, so that means doubling up a couple of nights in Sarasota with something else. Not sure what. Thanksgiving is Vegas again, this time with the emphasis on the week before, possibly a Monday-to-Monday situation. Details TBD. I'm sure there will be at least on Chicago weekend in there, during a time when it is warm enough to bike the lakeshore.

So I think I can do another reasonably sized and priced vacation in there somewhere. But where? Lately I've had a hankering for going back to Miraval, but that's an arm and a leg at the cheapest. Alaska is another possibility I've been considering for years, but it too is on the expensive side. Back to Hawaii? The Big Island needs to be seen, as does the North shore of Kauai, but: expensive A convenient possibility would be Bermuda, which was my first serious adult solo trip 18 years ago (!). This will require the pleasant sort of thinking with which I can while away a weekend afternoon.

But one key thing is for me to try to learn something new. To challenge my brain to remain plasticky enough to adapt. Again, I don't know what that would be, but I need to find something to which to devote an hour every other day or so that will just keep me slightly out of my comfort zone. I have taken to griping more than I should and dwelling on my age and shortcomings. The best thing I can think of to break the trend is to step outside it.

More thinking is required. Or perhaps less thinking and more doing.

[Tech] TechnoBedlam

Wherein I let up on my car this month -- whatever its ergonomic failings, it drives like a dream -- and take up arms against a different type of machine.

I have an enormous and stunningly beautiful 65" Panasonic flat screen in the basement. One of the last of the plasma TVs, it will likely be a collector's item one day. It weighs something on the order of 3 tons and gives off close to 50,000 BTUs of heat (all numbers approximate). But it has a failing that virtually every modern TV has today and that is there is no audio out, other than a somewhat weird optical audio out which requires a special sort of cable.

You see, the proper way to hook up your entertainment system in 2015 is to a) get a smart TV and, b) get a set of modern powered speakers; something like a 5.1 setup, which means 2 front, 2 rear, 1 center, and subwoofer (the subwoofer the .1, don't ask me why). Typically that weird audio output thing will hook up directly to the subwoofer which is then wired to all the individual speakers or, if you are sufficiently advanced, bluetooth instead of wires. This is a good set up. Your TV remote controls the volume, the TV source (streaming or cable), and you use your cable remote for changing channels and setting the DVR. You can theoretically drop to a single remote of the remote is programmable (more on that in a minute).

I am, of course, congenitally incapable of doing anything the easy way, and even when I try, circumstances conspire against me.

I have the non-smart, big-ass TV, a low-end Pioneer receiver, a Sony smart DVD that I use to stream (I don't actually have any discs), a Polk subwoofer, and a pair of Mission speakers that I have a had since forever and am quite attached to, a lastly my Charter cable box/DVR. Thus I am a living example of how technology is making life into swamp of soul-sucking bedlam.

Try to follow this: The cable box plugs into the TV's HDMI 1 port. The DVD plugs into the TV's HDMI 2 port. The TV's weird optical audio output goes to the receiver. The receiver powers the speakers. This setup affords me the genuine pleasure of using the maximum number of remote controls possible. They are arrayed in front of my sectional like a selection a hors d'oeuvres: 1) TV remote to switch between HDMI sources, 2) cable remote to change channels, 3) DVD remote to run streaming services, 4) receiver remote to control volume. I have to really think it thorough anytime I attempt an action. I can't conceivably suggest a guest enjoy some TV on my big screen without some form of fairly intensive preparatory lessons, after which they deem me to be some sort of sociopath and settle for watching Netflix on their phone.

Now, a lot of this could probably be solved with a good programmable remote, and the Charter cable box remote is programmable, but it doesn't work right. For instance, I can get it to power down the receiver, but not power it up. And I can't get it to control the volume on the receiver. And honestly the streaming menu on the DVD is pretty complex; I haven't a clue how that would work.

Why does this have to be such bedlam? The answer: because, by default, the fabric of the universe is woven into the pattern that will cause me the greatest annoyance. That's just plain science. A related, and more constructive, question: Is it conceivable to ever get down to a single remote without investing in a programmable? Theoretically, if you have a smart TV and a smart speaker system and the cable remote functioned exceptionally well and there was no legacy equipment around anywhere, then yes. In the real world, no. In the future, when all TV is streaming TV, you may be able to control your smart TV/bluetooth speaker setup that way but not now.

Related Update: Get this. I had been struggling with a cable box problem for years now. I wasn't sure what I was doing wrong, but I half blamed myself. I shouldn't have.

Some functions, especially the navigation functions when using the DVR, required the buttons on the remote be pressed multiple times, even dozens of time before the box reacted. Didn't matter if I put the remote right up close to the box, didn't matter if the batteries were new. It got so bad that I went and got a new box and remote from Charter (who were very nice about it). Guess what? Made no difference. I was completely confused. What are the chances of getting a defective box and/or remote twice in a row. I tried the remote from the unit in the living room: same problem - so it wasn't the remote's fault.. The cable boxes were entirely different models so unlikely they shared the same flaw. What in the actual hell was going on?

Then I discovered this. Unbelievable. My Panasonic plasma, the best and one the most expensive TVs available a few of years ago, emits enough infrared radiation to confuse the signal to the cable box. I have to figure out a way to shield the box from the TV or at least somehow to move it far, far away. Unbelievable.

Why does this have to be such bedlam?

[Rant] I've Solved Poker, Says the Fish

Anyone who has ever gambled knows a guy who claims to have a system. Everyone has a buddy who "always wins at blackjack". If we're friends, then you have a buddy with irrational confidence in his football betting system. But nobody really has a system, or at least nobody has one for long. This is what came to mind when there was a big todo about someone having a sure bet computer program for winning poker.

There is no such thing and I'll tell you why. First, when they say poker, they mean a very specific variation of poker which nobody plays. They mean Texas Hold'em, which is fine because it is the most common game; with a limit on amounts bet per hand -- OK, most Hold'em games are played with no limit, but limit games are legitimate and not uncommon; and the game has to be heads-up -- meaning just two players at the table, which never happens except at the end of tournaments or in dedicated heads-up tournaments, and then it is almost always no limit. I know of no such thing as a Texas Hold'em limit heads-up tournament, nor do I know any casino that runs a limit heads-up money game. So to start with they have solved poker by reducing it to a pretty much non-existent mutation of the game.

Next, they make liberal use of the term "long run." Since even this program cannot win every hand, it is easy for a player to gain an advantage in the short term and then just quit. Computer loses. "That's not fair you, didn't play long enough" does not fly. There is no whining in poker, unless you are Phil Hellmuth. Even if it can be proven that given enough time the computer's winnings will be greater than zero, I'd still prefer to be the guy who had a hot run, won big, then walked away. That is to say, you don't "win" poker by being up a $100 over three years of steady play, you win by being up $100,000 after one crazy night and then spending it on hookers and blow.

Lastly, it appears this program constantly hones its play via a feedback mechanism by which it determines what actions have proven right and wrong in previous hands and then adjusts its behavior accordingly -- how often and in what circumstances a bluff should work, for instance. But I cannot see how this optimization can't depend on expectations of what the opponent will do based on the opponent's past behavior, and any human being, and particularly a skilled poker player, can alter his behavior at will. If they've gotten around this issue I'd very much like to know how.

I strongly suspect this will be debunked in the upcoming weeks. I also suspect a skilled player could have this computer smoking at the ears and crying "Norman, coordinate!" without much effort.

[Books] Book Look: The Martian, by Andy Wier

I have spent most of the years of my life with at least one foot in fairly nerdish cultural circles. And since nerds tend to read sci-fi, I have often been recommended science fiction books to read, almost all of which have left me cold. Most I do not finish. I have been told that is because I have almost exclusively been recommended what is called Hard Sci-Fi. Hard sci-fi books focus on ideas and technology. Commonly these stories are formulated along the lines of "What would happen if...?" and the consequences of the ideas and/or technology is the topic of the book. Short shrift is given to character arcs and dialogue and stylistic concerns and such.
There is often action but little character development besides the drawing of a quick cliche and a boatload of expository dialog.

So imagine my surprise when I found The Martian, by Andy Weir, to be a real page turner. A mission to Mars runs into trouble and has to be aborted early, leaving astronaut Mark Watney presumed dead, but actually stranded on the planet with nothing but the leftover mission equipment to use for his survival. He must find a way to send a message to Earth so they know he's alive. An even if he does, it will be years before he can be rescued so he will have to survive by his skills (he is both an engineer and a botanist) and his wits on a planet without food, water, or breathable air.

The reason this is compelling is not simply the idea that it's possible to do this. (Of course it's possible in the circumstances constructed in the book. It wouldn't be much of a story if the guy died after the air in his spacesuit ran out.) It is the sketching of the sort of character it would take to get through this, even when it is theoretically possible. First the guy is a full-on engineer, by which I mean he is totally dedicated to problem solving given the constraints. He does not spend a second bemoaning his situation or fretting over his fate. He simply prioritizes his needs: 1. Air, 2. Water; 3. Heat and Shelter, 4. Food, 5. Communication. One problem at a time. Just put the blinders on and keep going. I cannot overemphasize how refreshing it is to see such a character celebrated in a world that seems to exist only for the expression and glorification of personal feelings.

Second, and almost as important, is the portray of Watney's ironic sense of humor and appreciation of the absurd. I can't imagine how anyone can get through normal life without those things, never mind survive on Mars. I suspect that once you have managed to build yourself a settled relatively safe routine for survival, as Watney does during the first portion of the book, only to have a freak accident blow up your habitat and kill all your food, a certain wry appreciation of the the dark soul of comedy is about the only thing that keeps your from losing your mind, never mind getting back to the work of survival.

Should you read The Martian? Sure. It's a great adventure story. Robinson Crusoe in space. It's well paced, and quite funny in parts. There are a couple of red flags, though. One is that the shifting narrative devices can be jarring. We have first person in Watney's log, third person point-of-view commentary back on Earth, aboard the spaceship you might either first or third, and even a bit of third person omniscient toward the end. Also the technical details of the repairs can get a little long in the tooth. But even though you know from the tone of the book that you can count on a happy ending, the suspense builds very well. Perhaps most importantly, this is very positive book: positive about human will, postive about people in general. That too, is a refreshing take in our increasingly negative popular culture.

Tangent: Originally, Weir simply posted this book chapter by chapter on his website in 2011. His fans pressured him to put it on Kindle, which he did for 99 cents. It sold so well that Crown publishing bought the rights for six-figures (and upped the price to $5.99, still a bargain), and 20th Century Fox has a movie lined up to be directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. That's a real life happy ending right there.