Kirk, You Ignorant…

Today I had coffee with Subrata, Cliff and Whump and as we usually do we were geeking out about various things. The conversation turned to the Mirror Universe two-parter toward the end of Enterprise, “In A Mirror, Darkly”, which Cliff hadn’t seen. So I described the premise, and eventually got to mentioning my favorite part:

“And we get to see Scott Bakula in Kirk’s slut uniform!”

A great thing about my friends is that they all know exactly which outfit I mean when I say that.

Creepy Celebrities

Some celebrities creep me out. I reflect on some of them here.

The San Jose Mercury News has an interesting article on the celebrity status of the late Anna Nicole Smith. Even I was surprised by it, and I’m not really a celebrity-watcher. But some celebrities are hard to escape from, unless you never follow pop culture at all, and Smith was one of those, especially once her “reality” show become popular.

I’ve seen bits of her show while channel-surfing, and I immediately classified Smith as a “creepy” celebrity: Her shrill voice, her odd sense of decor and color, it was all just really weird. And of course her public exploits tended to seem equally weird. And, of course, she was one of those people who’s mostly famous for being famous, not because she was particularly talented or accomplished. This sort of fame is also very creepy to me.

I know it’s gauche to speak ill of the recently deceased, but Smith’s whole cachet seemed to be wrapped up in being peculiar, if not outright creepy. That ship sailed before I got anywhere near the pier.

My list of the five creepiest celebrities:

  1. Paris Hilton
  2. Mary-Kate Olsen (who jumped onto this list after I saw this photo)
  3. Britney Spears
  4. Anna Nicole Smith
  5. Pamela Anderson (especially after reading about her flirtation with on-line poker)

I can’t honestly think of any male celebrities I find creepy enough to put on this list.

One celebrity whom some might find creepy is Jessica Simpson, but honestly I find her to be your basic pop singer trying to forge an acting career. While anyone willing to do a “reality” show has to be considered at least somewhat peculiar, I just don’t find her strange enough to be creepy.

Which celebrities creep you out?

Well Today’s GOT to be Better

Yesterday was a pretty crappy day. The day after frisbee always starts out slightly crappy, since I’m stiff and slow-moving after running around for 2-3 hours.

But work was just a bear. It was just one thing after another, and never being able to make much progress on what I’m actually supposed to be working on. To be fair, I recently took on a project which turns out to have both a bunch of code that doesn’t work as I’d expected, and which uses technology which is new to me, so it’s been a bunch of thrashing around trying to both get oriented, and figure out how to get the code to do what I want. But then it’s everything getting in the way of that which was just hugely frustrating.

And on top of it, I had my least-favorite-weekly-meeting in the middle of the day.

So I was stressed out and very grumpy when it came time to go.

At night I went to Subrata‘s for gaming. It was not a good session. I made a boneheaded error and ended up way behind in the game we were playing, had a couple more setbacks, and ended up leaving at 10:30 because I clearly wasn’t going to win (or even come close), and the game was going to go on for a while yet. Not at all what I was hoping for out of gaming.

On the bright side, I did buy comic books. On the dark side, I only got to read two of them before going to bed. But one of them was the new Astro City, which made me happy.

Today’s gotta be a better day. I mean, it could be worse, but geez, I hope not.

Vegas Trip Poker Roundup

A roundup of my poker exploits on our recent trip to Las Vegas.

Okay, a roundup of my poker exploits on our recent trip to Las Vegas.

My First Tournament

After a fashion, the highlight of poker on the trip was playing playing the 11 am $65 no-limit hold ’em tournament at the MGM Grand. This was actually my first experience playing no-limit hold ’em; all of the cash games I play are low limit, which means the amount you can bet in each round is strictly structured. In no-limit, of course, you can bet any amount at any time up to your total chip stack.

This tournament provides everyone with $2000 in chips for their buy-in. Blinds start at $25/$50, and go up every 20 minutes. This is a very fast tournament; by the fifth level, someone was going all-in on every hand because of the escalating blinds and antes. Moreover, only about 10 hands (i.e., one full orbit around the table) were played per level, so everyone would post only one set of blinds before they went up. The tournament started with 6 tables of 10 players each, and an alternates list who would sit when someone got knocked out. I was alternate #2, and was seated about halfway through the first round. Ultimately there were about 95 buy-ins, including people who got knocked out and rebought as an alternate. One guy next to be rebought twice. The top 8 finishers won money.

I sat down and my very first hand I was dealt a pair of 7s. So I raised to $300, everyone folded to the big blind, and the big blind went all-in. He had about $900 left, so I could either surrender my $300 raise, or potentially lose half my stack. I dithered for a moment, and decided to fold.

Over the next 40 minutes my stack steadily dwindled, as I never managed to hit anything on the flop. Finally I got down to about $1100, with blinds of $100/$200, and played J-To. I flopped two pair and pushed all-in, getting two callers. One guy made a straight on the turn, but then another ten came on the river giving me the winning full house. I had tripled up and was still in it! I went all-in again not longer after that with A-K, and everyone folded so I won the blinds and antes. I managed to win a couple more pots, and when the first break came after the fourth round I had about $5500, which I judged to be above-average.

Shortly after the break I went all-in against a short stack, and a larger stack went all-in as well, forcing me to go all-in, along with a fourth player. The short stack won the hand, but I came in second, and since I had him covered I picked up the rest of the chips, and came out slightly ahead.

Shortly before 1:00 we were down to 3 tables, and a woman in early position went all-in. I judged her to be in a position with the escalating blinds where she felt she had to push, and I looked down at… a pair of 7s. Again. I figured while she might have a bigger pair, more likely she had two big cards (which would make us a coin flip as to who won), or maybe even an Ace-rag (low card). So I called her. She had A-T. The flop and turn didn’t help her, so I was about 7-to-1 to win the hand, but a Ten hit on the river, she doubled up, and I was crippled. I went out the next hand when I pushed with T-7 and lost easily. (I probably should have waited the 3 hands I had left before the blinds hit me to see if I could get something better, but that wasn’t the hand that killed me.)

Overall I was very happy with my play, finishing 24th out of 95. I had some luck, but I think I played fairly well, too. This tournament is so fast-paced that luck probably oughtweighed skill overall. (Games that emphasize skill tend to have higher buy-ins, $150 or more.) But I think I got a feel for how the game is played, and I had fun. And that’s what counts.

Cash Games

I played about 9 hours of cash games, almost all of them at $2/4 limits, and one at $3/6 limits. The ritzy poker rooms tend to start at $4/8, and I don’t think I’m quite good enough to go to those limits. I’m still not a winning player, after all.

We made a tour of poker rooms on the Strip, and there’s a lot of variety. I think the MGM has the nicest room of those I’ve played in: It’s a space between the sports book and a bar, with walls on both sides, nice tables, and good dealers. (Debbi noticed that all poker rooms in the casinos seem to be right near the sports book. I wonder why that is? Do sports gamblers like to play poker between making bets? Do poker players like to bet on sports during their breaks? Is it just convenient for the casino somehow?)

By contrast, the Excalibur‘s poker room is right in the middle of one of the main access ways. Even though all poker rooms prohibit smoking, the Excalibur’s therefore gets a lot of ambient smoke, which is not so great. Bally’s is similar. The Luxor and Flamingo put their rooms in corners at the edge of the casino, which is sort of a compromise. Mandalay Bay and the Rio put them in separate rooms which are open on one or two sides; the Bellagio and Venetian do something similar, but dress up the room to make it stand out more. And Caesar’s Palace and Harrah’s have completely separate rooms for poker.

Some poker rooms have snazzy video waiting lists, which makes it very easy to figure out what games are going on and whether there’s any wait. I was more willing to try new rooms when they had these screens; some rooms don’t have visible waiting lists, which deterred me somewhat from trying them.

Overall, I think Excalibur and Luxor have the easiest tables to play at of those I’ve tried, while Caesar’s is the toughest. The MGM is somewhere in the middle. Of course, I probably don’t have a large enough sample to draw any firm conclusions.

My worst round was at the $3/6 game at Caesar’s. I didn’t play real well, didn’t have a lot of luck either, and lost $73 in an hour. Ouch. I had a session at the Excalibur that was about half as bad, but in that case I just never got any cards. On the other hand, I had another session at the Excalibur which cancelled out the bad one. And I was up-and-down at the MGM, and had a bit of bad luck at the end of a session at the Flamingo which left me down a little after being up a bunch. Bummer.

The more I played, the more I had to think about: I realized why some people say that slowplaying two pair is a bad idea, since it’s much easier for someone to beat you. Two pair is a good hand, but you do want to knock out people on draws. I need to be more careful playing two overcards to the flop, as I think I’m too quick to call bets in that situation, or bet out myself. Finally, I need to pay better attention to the odds, as I think I fold in some situations where I could continue.

The one hand I keep coming back to is this: In one session I kept being dealt Ace-rag. It was a loose and very passive game, so I started playing some of these hands. One hand I had A-7 offsuit. The slop was Q-8-2 with two clubs, and I had the Ace of clubs. One player bet, and I thought for a moment and folded. But in retrospect I think I should have continued. The reason is that any bettor probably had either top pair or a flush draw. If I hit an Ace, then I will have a better top pair, and since I have the Ace of clubs, anyone on a flush draw would not be helped in that case. However, if a club hits, someone on a flush draw would make it, but I’d have a redraw to the nut flush, if a fourth club came. With 7 bets already in the pot, I think I had the odds to call, and it was likely that there would be enough callers that I could continue to the river, as well. So I should have called. And indeed, the next two cards were clubs, and the winner had a flush that I would have beaten had I stayed in.

Ironically, the very next hand I had A-6 offsuit, the flop was like A-K-3 with the K-3 being of my Ace’s suit. This time I did go to the river, and my top pair beat my opponent’s pair of Kings.

Anyway, I had fun, even though I didn’t win. I look forward to the day that not every poker session leaves me with more things to think about and work on than to be happy about and proud of. Maybe someday…

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 31 January 2007.

  • 52 #39 of 52 (DC)
  • Jack of Fables #7 (DC/Vertigo)

    For some reason the 2-part story begun in #6 is suspended and a 4-part story involving Las Vegas is being dropped into the middle. Weird. Doesn’t work very well as a storytelling structure, either.

  • Ex Machina #26 (DC/Wildstorm)

    It looks like this book is about to get moving: One of the mysteries has been how Mitchell Hundred, the mayor of New York, acquired his power to talk to machines. I suspect writer Brian K. Vaughan has been dropping little hints here and there, but the pacing has often been too slow to keep me watching for them. It looks like things may be coming to a head, as a mysterious character – probably from a parallel world – appears in this issue.

    While the series’ general approach of putting a unique individual in a unique position and using him as a spokesperson for a certain point of view (political and otherwise), it’s always felt to me like that’s just the way of getting us to the real story: Mayor Hundred and his powers, as the only superhuman in his world. If this is the main arc finally taking off, then I’m really looking forward to it.

  • Ms. Marvel One-Shot (Marvel)

    A basically unnecessary story a kid who can alter reality, and how a bit of our heroine’s past is pulled out to confront her. There’s nothing here to care about: Move along.

  • Archaic: Rule of the Deviant TPB (Fenickx)

    Well, this was… odd. It’s billed as a “dark fantasy”, which is about right: A cruel tyrant is rising to power in a fantasy land, and he kills one of his nephews and imprisons the other, while his grand-nephew escapes as an infant to become a potential threat. It’s sort of like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice crossed with gothic fantasy.

    While stylishly done, it’s got a lot of rough edges: Writer James S. Abrams can write some pretty good scenes, but it’s difficult to assemble them together into a coherent ongoing story: It seems like there’s a lot left unsaid, and the characters’ motivations often seem inscrutable or mercurial. Artist Brett C. Marting has a style similar to Jae Lee with maybe a little bit more Image Comics influence, but some of the panels are so dark it’s difficult to tell what’s happening.

    The creators’ commitment to the series (which is up to six issues so far, of which the first three are collected here) is laudable, but I think it would be much improved with a focus on character rather than spectacle, and some clearer layouts on the art side.

Good Karma in Sin City

A summary of our trip to Las Vegas last weekend, with pictures!

So as I said, Debbi and I went to Las Vegas for a long weekend. We left Saturday afternoon and got to Las Vegas without a hitch.

No, the hitches only started after we landed.

First, the shuttle bus we took (Showtime) had a very grumpy driver, who took forever to load all the passengers, and took forever to get us to our hotel. It took us an hour after getting our bags to get to our hotel. Not cool. We stayed at the Excalibur, which is not the flashiest hotel, but its rates are cheap. Unfortunately, for the third consecutive time they didn’t have a king-sized bed that Debbi had requested, so we ended up with two queens instead. This isn’t a horrible thing, but it does make you feel like they’re pulling a fast one on you.

And on top of that, I realized after we were nicely ensconced in our hotel room that I’d left one of my poker books on the plane. Argh.

Fortunately, things mostly got better from here on out. Starting with dinner. I did some research on restaurants on the Strip (for instance, at and found some places we hadn’t been, at least not there. So Friday night we went to Il Fornaio at New York New York, which was quite tasty.


The Hoover Dam

The main reason we made this trip a 4-night stay was to visit the Hoover Dam. We took this tour, which was actually quite good: A chatty bus driver who provided perspective on the trip and some funny commentary (often using the word “dam”, of course), a 2-hour stay at the Dam, lunch at the buffet of a nearby Casino, and a trip to the Ethel M chocolate factory and cactus garden. All things considered, the lunch and Ethel M stops are probably not essential, so if you decide to go you might want to skip the Deluxe tour, but it wasn’t bad.

The Dam, however, was cool. The thing is really huge, and the tour takes you down into the Dam to see the turbines, and further down to see one of the huge metal spillways built into the canyon walls. There’s also a lot of fascinating historical info on the Dam, which was built during the Great Depression and was a cutting-edge engineering feat then, and would probably still be a pretty impressive effort even today.

The Hoover Dam
(click on an image to view it full size)

The views from the Dam are stunning: Lake Mead on one side, the continuation of the Colorado River on the other, the walls of the Black Canyon, and the highway running right over the top of the Dam. Meanwhile, a new superhighway is being built to run over the Canyon a few hundred feet downriver from the Dam, to help with traffic and to provide some redundancy in case the Dam ever comes to harm (natural or otherwise) and has to have its roadway closed.

The Dam Turbines

Plus, each side of the Dam are in different time zones, which means you can walk across into another time zone. And beyond that, I added a new state – Arizona – to the list of those I’ve visited.

The Hoover Dam: A very cool visit. I recommend it.

In the evening we made our usual trip to the Bally’s steak house. It’s really quite good, as I’m sure I’ve said before, and well worth the price. Casual dress is fine, and the wait staff treats everyone promptly and well. Someday we may try another steak house in Vegas, but we’re in no rush; we like this one.

Penn & Teller

Monday I played in my first-ever poker tournament (about which more later), and then had lunch at the Rainforest Cafe in the MGM Grand (mainly because I wanted the chicken-fried steak). Then in mid-afternoon we headed over to the Rio in order to see Penn & Teller.

Now, I should mention this up front: The Rio is not on the strip, and is in fact about a half-hour walk from the nearest point on the strip, through an area which – while not dangerous – is in fact extremely boring (you walk over a freeway, for instance). I highly recommend not doing this walk, and instead catching the Rio shuttle from one of several strip hotels (such as Bally’s, which is also on the Las Vegas Monorail). Unless you really need the exercise, which – after eating a chicken-fried steak – I arguably did.

The Rio as Seen From Our Walk Over

The Rio is also the home of the World Series of Poker, so I was curious to play in their poker room. However, it turned out to be rather small, and the whole time they were there they only had 2-3 games going, so I never did. Oh, well!

Penn & Teller themselves were quite cool. Although the show was on the short side (about 75 minutes), the hour before the show features Penn on bass and Mike Jones on piano. I liked Jones’ style a lot, and may need to pick up some of his work on CD.

Now, I’ve seen Penn & Teller on TV a couple of times, including their turn on Babylon 5, but that’s only a few appearances, so their act was basically new to me. I think what I enjoyed most were Penn’s feats of dexterity, by which I mean juggling, as well as his witty banter throughout the show (it wouldn’t be the same show without it). I found the magic tricks to be uneven: I enjoyed the tricks where they revealed how they did it, although it mostly seems to rely on sleight-of-hand, much the way that Richard Feynman described lockpicking as mainly using some heuristics that work in many common cases, but not all. I was also intrigued by Penn’s demonstration of psychic scams such as cold reading, hot reading, and a third whose name I can’t remember. I was disappointed that he didn’t discuss how these tricks worked (which made me wonder whether they actually did employ a very sophisticated mechanism for using plants in the audience, despite the pains they took to show that they weren’t), but at least I can read up on them on-line.

(If anyone knows their act and can remember the third method Penn used, please let me know so I can read up on it!)

Honestly, even knowing how they do it, it’s still pretty impressive.

My biggest disappointment was their closing trick, the “magic bullet” trick, which despite the large build-up just isn’t a real impressive trick, I thought, mainly because bullets are so small that there’s not a real big “wow!” moment.

Despite that, it was a cool show, and I’d go see them again, since I guess they change up their act on a regular basis.


Most of the rest of our trip was spent gambling.

Now, I get ribbed a bit by some of my cow-orkers about this: In general, you have a negative expectation when gambling. But the whole point of gambling is to win money, yet overall you can expect to lose money. So am I just paying a math tax, or what?

Well, some of both. I don’t find slot machines very compelling, since there’s no skill at all involved. While the bright lights can be entertaining, I don’t want to spend a lot of money on them. So these days I only play the penny slots, where my losses can be minimized. I’ll also play some video poker, where you can win money. And then I play “real” poker, because I figure with some practice I will eventually actually be better than most of the poker players in Vegas (who tend to be tourists), and I can actually win money. Plus, in poker there is skill involved, so it’s a real game, and therefore interesting to me, because I like games.

But I also enjoy gambling because I get to spend time with Debbi while we’re in Vegas. In fact, I tend to repeatedly confirm with her that it’s okay that I play poker, because since she doesn’t play, that means we’ll be doing separate things while I play. But she doesn’t mind. So we do some things together, and other times I play poker. So it works out.

Sometimes we just go watch the Bellagio Fountains

Anyway, our first night there I played some poker for a couple of hours and went up to cash in my chips. The woman behind the desk said, “So that’s… six hundred and ten dollars.”

“Uh,” I said, “those are ones.”

She smacked her head and gave me my one hundred and two dollars, and thanked me for being honest. “So many people around here just try to get anything they can, even if they have to lie about it,” she said. Well, while an extra $500 isn’t nothing, it’s not going to change my life, either, so I figured why not be honest about it? (As people have pointed out to me since, the $500 probably means a lot more to her than it does to me.)

Debbi points to this bit of honesty as the moment of good karma which explains my good luck for the rest of the trip, to wit:

I won $220 playing penny slots!

I mean, geez, have you ever heard of anyone winning this much at penny slots?

When playing a slot machine, I usually look for one with several “controls” to make the game slightly more interesting, even though I know it doesn’t make a lick of difference in whether you actually win. At the Rio, I noticed a new (to me), Mardi Gras-themed slot called Carnival of Mystery, so I played that. After figuring out how it worked, I started making some $1.25 bets on it, and soon found myself regularly winning $10 or $20 every few spins, and was soon up over $60 from my original $20. This seemed deeply peculiar, and though I would usually cash out with that amount of profit, I kept playing. And eventually got up over $150. Then the machine finally went cold (another concept which makes no mathematical sense since the machine presumably uses a true pseudorandom computer algorithm to perform the spins) and I cashed out at $100.

This was the silliest thing I saw at the Rio
Part of the Masquerade Show in the Sky

Then, the next day at Bally’s, I found another of the same machines, put in my $20 and played for a bit. I got down to $5 and figured the end was nigh.

And then on one spin I won $144.00.

Since the machine pays out in credits, I had to do the math multiple times just to convince myself that I’d really won $144.00 and not $14.40. But no, I really did. After a few more small wins, I cashed out at $150.

I had some more wins on an old standby, Hexbreaker, and ended up about +$220.00 on the penny slots for the trip. Which is really just amazing. It paid for (basically) my losses at the poker tables and our Penn & Teller tickets. I’ll say it again: Geez!

Like I said, it’s not life-changing money, but it doesn’t hurt, and I came by it honestly, so I have no regrets about it at all.

My poker exploits were less impressive. I stuck to low-limit games an lost about $80 during the weekend. Plus the entry fee for the tournament, since I did well, but not well enough to cash. I’m going to write a separate entry for all the geeky poker goodness of the trip. I had a good time and learned some stuff, but I’m still not a winning poker player.

Lion Cubs at the MGM Grand

Going Home

We ate a lot of good food on the trip. Besides what I mentioned above, we also had lunch at the Cafe Bellagio (which turns out to border the hotel’s conservatory, not its famous outside pool as I’d thought) and at Kahunaville at Treasure Island. While Kahunaville had good food, it was its mixed drinks that really stood out: I got a White Chocotini, which consisted of white chocolate liqueur, Bailey’s Irish Creme, and vodka, in a martini glass lined with a veneer of chocolate syrup. Wow. Debbi got a Rum Runner, an extremely tasty fruity drink. They were really, really good.

View from our table at Cafe Bellagio

But finally on Wednesday it was time to go home. Actually, I was feeling like the trip was a day longer than it needed to be, and coming home was not such a bad thing. We certainly had a good time, but next time we’ll probably stick to just 3 nights in Vegas.

Getting through security at the Vegas airport took forever, but we finally made it back home, and were greeted by happy kitties on our arrival. Coming home was marred a bit by dropping my stone turtle which I use as card protector when playing poker, and breaking two extremities. I might be able to glue it back together, but I was really angry, since it’s a really nice little carving that I picked up at WisCon last year. Grrr. Thinking about it still makes me upset, but I have no one but myself to blame.

But, we’re home now, and we’re one big happy (mostly furry) family again. It was a good trip, but it’s good to be home.