Puttering Around

I can’t say I’ve been getting a lot done on my week off. I’ve hit some used bookstores, bought and read this week’s comic books, eaten a bunch of good food (including trying the new burger restaurant, The Counter, which recently opened in Palo Alto; pretty good!), talked to friends and family on the phone, and done some reading.

Precious little writing, however – here or elsewhere.

Other than playing poker on Monday, my main accomplishment has been going for a bike ride every morning so far this week. Yesterday I went for a lengthy ride (meaning, about 15 miles – not lengthy for some, but lengthy for me) around some territory I’ve only biked once before, and along the way I discovered some new places to go walking. So tomorrow – now that Debbi’s off for the rest of the week – we might go for a walk in the morning rather than a ride.

It’s been cool and sometimes foggy for my morning rides, but by the end of the outing I’m pretty hot and sweaty, so I guess it’s not cold enough! Actually by 10 am it gets up well over 60, which is plenty warm for biking.

So, not the most productive week. But it’s not over yet! And if I regret anything, it’s that it’s flying by so quickly!

Change My Luck

I’m fortunate to have this whole week off from work, so today I went up to have lunch with Debbi at Specialties (mmm, yummy cookies). Afterwards, since I was in the area, I went to Lucky Chances to play poker, since it’s rarely convenient for me to get up there.

Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving was surprisingly busy, although most of the people there were older than I am – certainly at my table. Fortunately, it was not so busy that I had to wait long for a table.

I’d been reading up some more on low-limit Hold ‘Em, and was especially interested in this Mike Caro article on how many novice players fold too often, so I wanted to try to fold less often once I was in a pot, since I suspect I get pushed off pots too easily.

The table was medium-loose (maybe 4-6 people typically seeing the flop), and passive (people didn’t usually bet after the flop unless they had a pretty big hand). As you will often hear me complain, I didn’t get dealt many pocket pairs, and after 2-1/2 hours I’d only been dealt one, a pair of Kings which held up. I mentioned this to the guy on my left, and promptly got dealt a pair of 2’s (which were good when a 2 came on the turn), and another pair of kings shortly thereafter (which made a winning straight).

I had a lot of luck with straights, limping into pots with things like J-Ts (that’s “Jack-Ten suited”, for any of my non-poker-playing readers who have gotten this far) and making a straight. One thing about straights – unlike flushes – is that they’re much harder to see just looking at the board, so they can be a sneaky way to get more money into a pot you’re likely to win.

I probably lost a little money in some small mis-plays. For instance, not betting my straight at one point when I was fearful of a full house when the board paired on the turn. I need to stop playing from fear, I really do. Also, when I had my pair of 2’s, everyone checked on the flop, the turn was a 2, as I said, the guy on my right bet, and I raised, and everyone folded. Probably if I’d just called I could have gotten at least one more bet – maybe more – out of the pot. My thinking was that I was at risk playing against a higher set, but really, the odds of that are not likely.

My biggest mistake was one pot where I thought I had a good chance to push people off the pot with middle pair (a pair of 9s, with a King on the board), but I wasn’t able to push off the guy with a King (despite his poor kicker), and although I had a straight draw too, it didn’t hit. Probably I was too optimistic there.

Overall, I finished ahead by a few bucks. I felt like I played much better than I have in recent months, not a big “aha!” session, but just some progressive improvement. If I can think through what I’m doing better while I’m at the table, I ought to be able to do even better. But, you know, it’s a start.

Elizabeth Moon: The Speed of Dark

Review of the novel The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

  • The Speed of Dark

    • by Elizabeth Moon
    • PB, © 2002, 369 pp, Del Rey Books, ISBN 0-345-48139-9

There’s probably a great science fiction novel out there about people with autism, but I don’t think this is it. The Speed of Dark takes place in the near future, where autistic people received treatment to help them to function better in society, and eventually autism can be fully treated in infants. The book’s protagonist is Lou Arrendale, a middle-aged autistic man who received the former treatment. He is part of a group of autistics who work at a large company, and he has non-autistic friends, especially the people in the fencing group he’s part of.

The novel is very low on what I call “ideas content”, meaning there’s little that’s different in the book’s world from the real world, and thus it seems barely to qualify as science fiction (or even fantasy). The treatment that Lou received is really only a plot device to make him functional enough to relate his story, but then, there are high-functioning autistics in the real world, so it’s not much of a leap.

The book spends most of the first half portraying the basic nature of Lou’s life, which gets repetitive rather quickly. It’s revealed that there is an experimental treatment for adult autistics that could make them normal, and the book walks a balancing act regarding whether Lou will be forced to have the treatment, and whether he would even wish to do so. (The book plays the usual semantic games with whether or not autistics are “normal”; I use the term “normal” here simply as a shorthand for “not autistic”.)

Moon is a very good writer in her smithing of words and her ability to evoke emotions, and Lou is a likeable character. But ultimately I just wasn’t interested in the portrayal of the life of an autistic man in-and-of-itself (it wasn’t nearly as interesting as, say, reading Al Schroeder’s journal – now defunct – and his accounts of his two autistic sons, for instance), and beyond that there wasn’t much to the story. I think it would have been a much better novel had the treatment itself been the central element of the story, and focused exploring that transition in greater depth, but it barely merits an afterthought. The Speed of Dark could have been a much more expansive and challenging piece of work, but I thought it ended up being a fairly mundane novel with an unusual protagonist.

(The Speed of Dark was the November 2006 selection for Kepler’s Books’ speculative fiction book club.)

Rent

When I go to a cardroom to play poker, I will usually pick up the poker magazines which are available for free there. I think my favorite read in all of them is Mike Caro’s column for Poker Player, which is always focused and insightful. A recent column, “Rent”, happened to discuss a topic that had been on my mind recently.

The core of the article is how poker rooms make money:

So, how does the cardroom or casino make money? Two ways. One is rake. The dealer, acting on the house’s behalf, takes money from the pots. Usually, this is a percentage – often five or 10 percent up to a ceiling, such as $4. Beyond that, in most public cardrooms, no more rake is taken from large pots. The other is rent. With rent, you’re buying your seat, typically by the hour or half-hour, and nothing is extracted from the pots you win.

He goes on to discuss the ramifications of rake and rent.

I was pleased to see that I had correctly figured out that you want the rake to be low relative to the limits at which you are playing. The rooms around here tend to charge a $4 rake at both the 2/4 and the 3/6 limit tables (less if the table is shorthanded, which is rarely the case). Consequently, I decided to stop playing the 2/4 games because (1) My observation is that the skill level is essentially the same at both levels, and (2) The rake is relatively lower at the 3/6 tables. Of course, it might be that my first observation is wrong, but I don’t think so. And of course I could win or lose more money at the 3/6 table than the 2/4 table, but the difference is not enough to matter to me. (I think if I moved to a 6/12 table – the next highest common limit around here – then I’d both face tougher competition, and risk losing more than I want to.)

So I was happy to see the well-respected “Mad Genius of Poker” agree with me on that point.

(By the way, poker rooms in Las Vegas tend to have a slightly different – and better for the player – rake structure. They tend to charge 10% of the pot up to a maximum, usually the same $4 at the limits I play. So in Vegas for pots under $40 the rake is lower. I only mention this in case any readers are surprised at the flat $4 rake I described above. Yes, it really is different.)

But I’m still puzzling out another point he also makes in the article. First of all, he notes that there is a third class of payment to the casino:

By the way, there is another kind of rent game that most players confuse with a rake game. That’s where the dealer position puts up a certain amount of money each hand, say $4, and that goes to the house in advance of the deal. That may seem like a rake, but it isn’t. It’s just rent by the hand, instead of by the hour or half hour.

The time I played at the Lucky Chances casino, they were using this form of rent: In a 3/6 game there was a $3 big blind, a $1 small blind, and a $3 dealer button payment. The $4 from the button and the small blind went to the house, and the big blind went into the pot. At other casinos, such as Bay 101, there’s only a $3 big blind and a $1 small blind, all of which goes to the house.

My thinking is this: If you never put in any money, and lose every time you check in the big blind, then you are paying $7 per orbit (passing of the dealer button around the table) to sit at the rent-per-hand table, but only $4 per orbit at the rake table. So in that case, the rake table clearly seems preferable. Of course, if you’re playing so badly that you never win a pot, then probably you shouldn’t be playing poker.

But what if you do play hands and win pots? In that case, your cost at the rent-per-hand table is $4 per orbit plus whatever pots you win minus whatever you invest in pots you lose. And at rake tables it’s… $4 per orbit plus whatever pots you win minus whatever you invest in pots you lose. So are they exactly the same, really?

Not quite. At a rent-per-hand table, there is $3 already in the pot before any bidding begins, whereas at a rake table you know that the $4 on the table as the blinds will disappear once the flop is dealt, so it’s not really “in the pot”. The other difference is that at a rent-per-hand table there are three players who get a discount to see the flop (two who already have one full bet in, and one who has $1 in), while at a rake table there are only two such players. This probably encourages a slightly looser table, which in theory should be better for the good poker player. On the other hand, the player with the extra bet in has the most advantageous position (in Hold ‘Em), which doesn’t seem like a good thing for the rest of the table.

So which is the better table for the player? I don’t know.

I suspect that Caro’s rent-per-hand scenario is actually different from what Lucky Chances does. Perhaps he means that the dealer’s payment does not count toward the bet, i.e. it’s not truly a blind bet, but a straight payment to the house. I’m still not sure whether this sort of table is better or worse than a raked table, though.

I do know that I feel like I prefer rake games over rent-per-hand games (I’ve never played a rent-by-time game). However, I do not consider myself a good poker player, so my opinion may not hold for people who are good poker players.

(p.s.: I have heard that Lucky Chances was going to change to a rake system over the summer. But I haven’t been back to see if that happened. I actually liked the place; the only reason I haven’t gone back is that Bay 101 is just flat-out much easier for me to drive to.)

This Week’s Haul

Comic books purchased week of November 15.

  • Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #45 (DC)
  • 52 #28 of 52 (DC)
  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book Two #1 of 4 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Ms. Marvel #9 (Marvel)
  • New Avengers #25 (Marvel)
  • Girls Volume 3: “Survival” (Image)
  • Jack Staff #12 (Image)

Every few years, DC launches another title featuring Aquaman. I think this has been going on since I was in high school (1986), when the pretty nifty Neal Pozner/Craig Hamilton mini-series came out. People gripe about how Aquaman is a lame or contrived character, but DC keeps marketing him, and several of his series have lasted for anywhere from 4 to 7 years, which is a fair sight better than a lot of series last. So there’s some attraction there. The current series is written by Kurt Busiek – a contender for the title of best active comics writer – and illustrated by Butch Guice. The original Aquaman has disappeared, and a young man with the same name and powers has appeared in his place, reluctant to take up the mantle. The story is rather slow, but there’s some interesting intrigue there, and this issue reveals (more or less) that identity of one of the supporting characters, which I had figured out a few issues ago. I understand the series isn’t selling so well, but I’m hoping it will last long enough to wrap up Busiek’s story arc.

And then they can launch the series again, with another creative team. Hey, it’s worked before, right?

Astro City is, in my humble opinion, the best comic book being published today. It’s the best comic of the last ten years, for that matter. Written by Busiek (him again?) and illustrated by Brent Anderson with designs and covers by Alex Ross, it takes place in a superhero-laden universe of Busiek’s concoction, but the stories focus on the characters and their thoughts about and reactions to living in such a world.

The current series is a 12-issue story being told in 3 4-issue “books”, and it takes place during the 1970s, the “dark age” for Astro City’s world. The protagonists are a pair of brothers, Charles and Royals Williams, whose parents were killed in the crossfire of a superhero battle when they were kids. Charles grew up to become a cop, while Royal became a small-time criminal. In the first volume they’ve lived through the conviction for murder of one of the city’s greatest heroes, becomes estranged along the way. Now they’re apparently going to get caught up in an escalating war among the underworld. It’s great stuff, don’t miss it.

Girls is a series by the Luna brothers, who seem to have emerged fully-grown on the comics scene a few years ago. This is the third collection of their current series (volumes one and two are also available), which will reportedly run 4 volumes (24 issues).

Girls does feature a bunch of naked women, but it’s really a straight-up horror story: The small town of Pennystown consists of a small population of people living fairly sleepy lives. One bad evening, a young man named Ethan meets a mystery woman on the road and takes her home. It turns out she has a whole bunch of clone sisters, all of whom seem intent on killing the women of the town, and who are under the control of a mystery entity elsewhere in the town, an entity which has also closed the town off from the outside world.

The series is brutal and graphic, uncompromising in its tension, and it also puts its ideosyncratic characters through the wringer as they try to figure out whether they can trust each other, and get on each other’s skin when put under pressure. The art consists of simple line drawings with very little rendering and plain backgrounds, but on the other hand the characters (other than the Girls) are all distinct and hardly idealized, with a good range of facial expressions. It’s pretty good, but definitely not for everyone. It’s certainly enough of a page-turner to keep me interested in reading volume four.

All-TIME 100 Albums

TIME magazine’s list of the 100 greatest and most influential albums. At least they have the right attitude in compiling the list:

So here’s how we chose the albums for the All-TIME 100. We researched and listened and agonized until we had a list of the greatest and most influential records ever – and then everyone complained because there was no Pink Floyd on it. And that’s exactly how it should be. We hope you’ll treat the All-TIME 100 as a great musical parlor game. Read and listen to the arguments for the selections, then tell us what we missed or got wrong. Or even possibly what we got right.

One obvious objection is that there are no albums from before the 1950s, which means that the oldest (for instance) jazz album on the list is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. No Ellington or Armstrong? (It’s not a list from the last 50 years, since there are two Frank Sinatra albums on the list from before 1956.)

Rather than critique the selections, here are the albums on the list that I own:

  • Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)
  • Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
  • Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
  • Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
  • Carole King, Tapestry (1971)
  • The Who, Who’s Next (1971)
  • Simon and Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
  • The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)
  • The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
  • The Beatles, Revolver (1966)
  • The Beatles, Rubber Soul (1965)
  • John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (1964)
  • Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (1959)

No, I don’t own a copy of The Beatles (The White Album) – other than “Back in the USSR”, I don’t really like it.

As you might guess the list above is not exactly representative of my musical tastes. You can see that my tastes diverge considerably from the popular and artistic mainstream around the beginning of punk.

For other lists, there’s Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums list, or the 1987 top 100 rock ‘n’ roll albums list (the book of which I own and which turned me on to several good groups, such as Roxy Music).

Marillion: This Strange Engine

Review of the album This Strange Engine by Marillion.

This is the album that set me on my current vector of progressive rock fandom.

I’d been a fan of Marillion in the 80s, having enjoyed the albums with Fish as the vocalist, but I felt they’d kind of lost their way with Brave. Meanwhile, I’d become less interested in popular music during the 1990s, and by the late 90s most of my music purchases were jazz. But all that changed when I found This Strange Engine in the used bin.

This album is widely disliked by Marillion fans, which I don’t understand at all since it seems more like the much-revered Fish-era albums than any other album produced during Steve Hogarth’s tenure as vocalist. Its arrangements and performances are tight and strong, with clear melodies and a great sound texture. The main complaint I hear is that it’s somehow more pop and less prog than earlier albums, yet it certainly seems no more pop to me than Misplaced Childhood or Clutching at Straws (both great albums). Neo-progressive groups like Marillion are all about fusing pop and prog anyway, and This Strange Engine is neo-prog at its best.

The album is bookended by two longer songs, which are also the standout tracks of the album: “Man of the Thousand Faces” is a really cool song whose first half is primarily acoustic – driven by guitar, piano and Hogarth’s vocals – and then segues into a loud, electric section, which chugs along to the sound of Pete Trewevas’ bass guitar. I’m not the biggest fan of Hogarth’s vocal style, but he has a strength and clarity on this track that really carries the song.

The title track closes the album. It’s reminiscent of Marillion’s earliest albums when keyboardist Mark Kelly would from time to time just be turned loose on his synthesizer, and he has a great solo here, as well as some of his more distinctive work mixed into the arrangement. I don’t think he’s ever sounded as good on the albums after this one. It opens with Hogarth speaking quietly over the opening notes before opening up into the initial melody, but it’s one of those prog tracks which cascades from one movement to the next across brief transitional moments, a common structure for a prog track but one which I know many people used to standard pop music structures find jarring or even pointless. Me, I love it, as it gives the band space for more ideas and more freedom to express those ideas. It ends with a repetitive melody which starts quietly and builds to the song’s climax, in much the same manner as the first track.

If “This Strange Engine” – the track – has a flaw, it’s that the last 15 minutes is dead air followed by a brief, pointless bit of laughter. I edited that part out when I loaded it into my MP3 library.

(I am, in general, not very attentive to lyrics when I listen to music. To me, the vocals are simply another instrument, and a lyric needs to have some je-ne-sais-quoi to grab my attention. Although the lyrics – generally by Hogarth or by lyricist John Helmer – are interesting at times, usually I just register that they seem evocative, which underscores the imaginative and often epic quality which I appreciate in progressive rock. So don’t look for insightful comments on the lyrics here – it’s the music that I enjoy.)

I tend to think of the other tracks as being shorter pieces sandwiched between these two monsters, but some of them are nearly as long as the 7-1/2 minute running time of “Man of a Thousand Faces”.

The up-tempo songs are a lot of fun: “80 Days” is a pretty straightforward song which maybe explains the pop leanings that some fans don’t like about this album. On the other hand, “An Accidental Man” is a nifty, up-tempo track with droning vocals over a neat guitar riff. The lyrics have a sharp feel which give the track an additional edge. “Hope For the Future” has a vaguely caribbean sound and some punchy horn backing, and is just fun to hear.

“One Fine Day” is a slower, melancholy track with some nice melodies – including a solid guitar solo – which I enjoy when the mood strikes me. “Memory of Water” is the other slow track, almost a cappella, which doesn’t have much in the way of melody and isn’t really my cup of tea. “Estonia” seems to be the best-loved track on the album by many other fans. I think it’s pretty good, very atmospheric, with moody synth work by Kelly and some nifty (what sounds like) Mandolin backing as well.

I never get tired of listening to this album. It may not be perfect, but its high are very high, and most of it is quite strong. If you know me and ever wonder what I enjoy about progressive rock, a lot of it is right here: Long tracks that develop one or more musical ideas at length and in depth, and complex, engaging arrangements.

Related Links:

Real. Zune. Now.

Assorted links and observations about Microsoft’s Zune music player.

There are early reports that Microsoft’s Zune music player is now available in the wild.

Wow, they really did ship the shit-brown players. Until now, I didn’t quite believe that they’d actually do it.

Does the Zune’s slogan “Welcome To The Social” make anyone else’s head hurt?

The best thing about that link is not just the fact that he got an error trying to install the Zune software, but the picture that accompanies the error! And he’s not the only one. (Is that photo Not Safe For Work? Close call. Exercise caution if in doubt.)

While watching football yesterday, I saw an honest-to-gosh Zune advertisement. It baffled me. A friend of mine has joked that all television ads should come with a Gilbert Gottfried voice-over explaining what the product is. (“It’s a car!” “It’s a feminine hygiene product!” “It’s a digital music player!”) This campaign could use some of that.

It could use less of this sort of thing. What in the world were they thinking when they prepared that photo? Then there are some of the bizarre “ads” done by third parties for the on-line campaign, such as the eyeball one or the flaming birds one. Again, what the–?!?

For that matter, what does the name “Zune” mean? Even the Wikipedia entry doesn’t shed any light on the meaning of the name. Is it a portmanteau of “tune” and some other word (“zoom”, maybe?), or what?

Anyway. In addition to all that, if you’ve previously bought music from the MSN Music or some other Plays For Sure-based store, then you may be SOL trying to transfer it to your Zune:

In a statement a Microsoft spokesperson said: “Since Zune is a separate offering that is not part of the Plays For Sure ecosystem, Zune content is not supported on Plays For Sure devices.”

I’m not a serious industry watcher, but the Zune sure smells to me like a product which was designed and built by several disparate departments. The product and marketing campaign have that feel of “several ideas – both good and bad – forced together through a series of unfortunate compromises”.

In related news, it’s nice to know the music industry loves its customers:

“These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it,” UMG chairman/CEO Doug Morris says. “So it’s time to get paid for it.”

(Via b.bum, whose response is also worth reading.)