Friday, August 30, 2002

HOW DARE the Patriots run up the score like that on the Redskins! What's wrong with 15-14? No, they had to win 28-14. Other teams have feelings too, you know.

I COOK occasionally.

So, of course, I must smash the smoke detectors wherever I live. I realize this is not the best policy, but what am I to do? I don't like hearing that deafening racket every time I so much as make toast. Why can't there be a remote control, a temporary "I'm cooking" shutoff?

I tried. I really did. I bought a newish model from First Alert or whoever that seemed to claim to have such a feature. But it beeped every minute or so no matter what, so that was hardly a solution.

In safer news, you'll find more U.S. Open musings at The Spin.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

THE U.S. OPEN (tennis, not golf) started Monday in New York, and so I'll be a tad preoccupied over the next two weeks.

I was all set to write a blog entry in defense of Anna Kournikova when Anna went and lost in 40-something minutes in the first round to an unknown 17-year-old from Indonesia. Disgraceful. A horrible performance. Still:

It's dumb-jock-sportswriter horseshit to call Anna a bad player who doesn't belong on the tour. She's an underachiever, yes. A disappointment, yes. Squandering her talent? No doubt. But to say she doesn't belong on the tour with all those non-fashion-model players is nonsense. Even in her understandably distracted state, she's among the top 50 female tennis players in the world by any measure. In terms of talent, she's in the top 10, maybe the top five (hence the "underachiever" business). She has the shots, but she lacks a certain psychological ability to understand how to parlay those shots into victories. (I can relate.)

At the very, very least, Anna is a doubles superstar who has had lesser success in singles. That's still pretty select company.

John McEnroe makes a huge production out of the fact that x player is ranked y despite a mediocre, perhaps losing, record. I love John McEnroe, but if he looked at the records of all the players (and perhaps took a statistics class) he'd find out that not only do a lot of world-class players have losing records, but also that it's mathematically impossible for everybody in the top 128 of what is not much more than a 200-player universe to have a winning record. Half the players who play on any given day are losers. Batting .400-something in pro tennis is pretty darn good.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

I'M SENSING A PATTERN of pleasant musical surprises in my new-economy sandwich shops. The Cosi at 15th and K has thrilled me several times with nice, quirky selections, but the one example I particularly remember was "Duncan," from Paul Simon's eponymous solo debut (if you'll excuse the annoying rock-critic lingo). That was a few months ago. So then this week, at the Potbelly Sandwich Works at 11th and G, what do I hear but "Fakin' It," from Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" album. "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and "Mrs. Robinson," from those same albums, wouldn't raise anyone's eyebrows, but "Duncan"? (Couple in the next room / Bound to win a prize / They've been goin' at it all night long / I'm tryin' to get some sleep / But these motel walls are cheap / Lincoln Duncan is my name and here's my song / Here's my song.) And "Fakin' It," with its obscure Donovan allusion (Good morning, Mr. Leitch, have you had a busy day?). Very nice.

I'm on a Potbelly kick, by the way, having overexposed my taste buds to Cosi's delights. Both Cosi and Quizno's are coming to my neighborhood, so I foresee some increased frequency at those spots. I know I promised a compare-and-contrast review of sandwich shops, and that will come (hint: Subway sucks. Surprise!), but for now you'll have to settle for a 40-year-old's singer-songwriter nostalgia.

Friday, August 16, 2002

MSNBC'S ASHLEIGH BANFIELD was in Las Vegas, reporting on the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks, in a special that TiVo recorded for me (I have TiVo set to record anything with "Vegas" in its title or description).

She and a local TV "news" guy puzzled at length over Why on Earth some of the hijackers would have been in Las Vegas. Some sort of planning mission, probably, they seemed to think. Not once did the seemingly obvious idea of these Devout Muslims seeking some casino-and-nudie-bar-style earthly pleasures come up. They were bad guys and all, right, but who could be that hypocritical?

In discussing some facial-recognition technology used both to keep undesirables out of casinos and to identify terrorists, Ashleigh kept referring to "corrupt" and "cheating" card counters. Over and over again. Now, there are plenty of corrupt people and cheaters in casinos, but paying attention to the cards dealt during a game of blackjack doesn't make you either, and in fact the techies explaining the recognition system used the word "skilled" rather than "cheating" to describe card counters. Casinos in Nevada can ban patrons for counting cards, but only because they are private establishments that can serve whom they please, not because there's any law against card counting. (There's a law against using machines to count cards, but the Thought Police remain fictional.) In Atlantic City, thanks to a counter's lawsuit, people can't be banned for counting, but the casinos compensate by adding decks and shuffling earlier to make counting more difficult and less profitable.

I'm not a card counter, except in the one-can't-help-but-count sense I'll describe later. I visit casinos for fun, and I play very low stakes. Counting is too risky and too much like work for the size of an edge it would provide a player like me. But as an otherwise knowledgeable blackjack player, I feel compelled to come to counters' defense.

"Card counting" is a misnomer. Only Rain Man remembers every card dealt from a deck or two decks or a four-, six- or eight-deck "shoe." There are many systems, but what the people known as card counters do in most cases is keep a running score of the condition of the cards left to be played. A count typically starts at zero, indicating a "neutral" deck or shoe. If counters see an ace or a 10-value card (a 10, jack, queen or king), they subtract 1. If they see a low card (two through six or maybe seven), they add 1. Skilled card counters use a cancel-out technique, pairing, say, a six and an ace rather than mentally going over the "+1 -1 =0" equation.

The more likely it is that high-value cards will be dealt, the more advantageous the game is to the player. So a "positive" deck or shoe behooves a player to bet more than with a negative or neutral count. Fluctuations in bet size are what make money for a card counter, although slight changes in the basic strategy of whether to "hit," "stand" or "double down" also come into play. And that's how casino personnel spot counters: If you're playing $5 on some hands and $500 on others, that's a suspicious "spread." Dealers or pit bosses often know how to count cards themselves, and even if they don't, they'll assume that counting is behind those bet fluctuations.

Now then: It's easy enough to refrain from actively counting and to say you're not a counter, but if you know the basics that I've related here and you see a hand where all the cards dealt are fours, fives and sixes, there you go. You counted cards! Does it make you a cheater if you bet $6 or $7 or $500 instead of $5 on the next hand? Of course not. If you're a gambler and you can afford to lose that kind of money, you'd be a fool not to increase your bet.

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

I'LL BLOG the way you're supposed to blog for a moment here and point you to "Patio Man and the Sprawl People," a Weekly Standard article by David Brooks that I found through Slate's "In Other Magazines" feature.

In an engaging piece of writing that references modern mundaniana more richly than anything else I've read, Brooks chronicles the American middle-class flight, from the old suburbs to the new suburbs and the exurbs. Although the piece is a joy to read, I came away unsure of what exactly Brooks's point was. I got the feeling that he was indicting just the kind of thing that any sensible person would describe as "nice." Sure, the big-box stores and chain restaurants are disturbingly ubiquitous. Drive through the suburbs of Phoenix and the effect is like the background of a cheaply made cartoon, with the same storefronts and landscape features repeating themselves ad loopeam.

But this is, after all, suburbia that we're talking about. The bland and crummy dime stores were replaced by the bland but better discount stores, which were replaced by the not-so-bland and better still (but, yes, disturbingly ubiquitous) big-box retailers. The independently owned but, let's face it, unreliable "Pancakes Always Open" joint evolves into Sambo's and Denny's and then the Red Lobster and then the Olive Garden and then maybe Romano's Macaroni Grill or P.F. Chang's China Bistro. The uniformity remains, but the quality improves. Is that all bad? I don't think so. I'm a city snob in many ways, but I'm not afraid to admit that I've enjoyed Outback steaks more than Morton's steaks. I haven't been to an Olive Garden in a decade or two, but I have no doubt that the chain's spaghetti marinara is the equal of any number of "authentic" neighborhood Italian joints. The new uniformity is cause for concern mainly because it's more uniform than the old uniformity, not because of anything flawed about the pieces of the suburban mosaic. As my blogging idol, James Lileks, often points out, modern convenience is underrated.

Brooks's most apt truism leaves him with a friendly-fire wound:

There is no group in America more conformist than the people who rail against suburbanites for being conformist--they always make the same critiques, decade after decade.

Brooks's most fascinating fact, to me, was this:

The biggest of these boom suburbs are huge. With almost 400,000 people, Mesa, Arizona, has a larger population than Minneapolis, Cincinnati, or St. Louis.

Mesa was where my family moved when we fled the cold and gray of the Detroit suburbs in 1979. I lived there or in a more distant Phoenix suburb, Chandler, for 10 years. And I saw Minneapolis and St. Louis on the two-week road trip my wife and I just took -- D.C. to Wyoming and back. You'll hear more about that soon enough.

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