Monday, February 27, 2017

Don’t Leave Early -- You Might Miss Something

So today we’re all remembering Steve Harvey’s Miss Universe faux pas from a little over a year ago. I suppose that’s where all of this stuff started.

We must have reached a point in our shared cultural history where we were all getting a little too comfortable with the idea that “it’s all been done” or we’ve “seen it all before.” Like lifetime poker players who’ve been one-outed on the river enough times to be numb to it, we were all lulled into thinking we could safely shut the teevee off before the end and not miss anything.

Just off the top of my head here, I’m thinking back to that absurd second-round game in last year’s NCAA playoffs between Texas A&M and Northern Iowa, the one in which the Aggies were down 12 with just 44 seconds left in regulation and somehow managed to tie the sucker -- without even calling a timeout (!) -- and win in double-OT.

You have to think a few folks shut the set off before the conclusion of that one.

Sports provided a couple more similarly preposterous finishes last year, highlighted by the Cleveland Cavaliers overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals to defeat the seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors. Then came the Chicago Cubs similarly coming back from 3-1 down (and from a 108-year title drought) to beat the Cleveland Indians, although not until after the Indians stunningly scored three runs late to tie things up (with an apocalyptic-seeming rain delay prior to extra innings adding further to the delirium).

Then came election night, another stunner for many that seemed to take a crazy turn mid-evening when all of the projections suddenly swung the other way. And of course that completely loopy 25-point comeback engineered by the New England Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons to win Super Bowl 51 is still fresh in everyone’s minds, a game that absolutely no one other than perhaps the Pats thought could possibly play out the way it did.

Vera and I watched the beginning of the Oscars last night, but didn’t bother to stick it out until the end. We hadn’t seen most of the movies. Indeed, we probably only go to the theater about once every other month or so, if that.

Whenever Vera and I do go to the movies, we have a routine where we always stay through the end credits, which invariably makes us the last two people to exit the place. Not sure why we do that, to be honest, although by doing so we necessarily catch any of those funny little post-credits like Ferris Bueller telling the audience to leave or the rider still waiting in Ted Striker’s cab in Airplane!

We were curious to see how the Oscars started, then, but not engaged enough to stick with it. Vera did, however, ask me to DVR the rest before we gave up. I didn’t ask to add the extension when recording, and while I haven’t checked it yet I’m sure I didn’t get the ending as I understand it ran quite late.

I’ve heard about it though, of course, and watched a clip this morning of the remarkable gaffe that saw the wrong film named as best picture, and multiple acceptance speeches being given before the correction came. Seemed fitting, I guess, after more than a year’s worth of such improbable twist-endings.

Hang around poker tournaments enough and you see examples of players all in and at risk leaving the table before the last card is dealt, sometimes when they are still drawing live. Every once in a while -- I’ve seen it happen maybe three or four times -- the departing player’s unlikely runner-runner actually comes, leading to the player having to be recalled to the table by staff or a friendly opponent.

After all of these head-spinning conclusions, gotta think people are going to stop being in such a hurry to get to the exits. Now everyone is going to start sticking around past the end.

For an explanation of all this that is fun -- or frightening, depending on your point of view -- check out Adam Gopnik’s piece for The New Yorker today, “Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer Simulation?

Image: “ P1080262,” Jon Seidman. CC BY 2.0.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Shape of the World

Kyrie Irving, the star guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers who hit the winning shot in Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals, believes the earth is flat. No, really.

When I first heard the story a few days ago, I thought perhaps it was a prank of some sort being pulled by Irving, meant to illustrate how outrageously easy it is to manipulate social media, which in turn makes it trivially simple to make any sort of absurdity go “viral.” After all, if you had thought about it a week ago, the idea that Kyrie Irving believes the earth is flat probably would have seemed almost as unlikely as the earth actually being flat.

But, no. He wasn’t joking. Given that Irving spent part of a year at Duke University before going pro provides this UNC fan a ready opening, of course. But I’m more interested in a larger issue connected to this story.

Irving made his position known on an episode of a podcast hosted by two of his Cleveland teammates, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye. Amid talk of conspiracy theories, Irving mentioned his view about the planet’s shape, defending it as not a conspiracy but a fact (in his estimation). “If you really think about it from a landscape of the way we travel,” Irving explained, “the way we move... can you really think of us rotating around the sun, and all planets align, rotating in specific dates...?”

There’s more, but it’s hardly worth transcribing. The gist of his position is to insist that “there’s a falseness in stories and things that people want you to believe and ultimately what they throw in front of us.” Or, to put it another way, “I think people should do their own research, man.”

Some, like NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, shared my initial, skeptical response to the story of Irving’s skepticism and tried to contextualize Irving’s comment in a way that made it seem less patently ignorant. “He was trying to be provocative and it was effective,” Silver said, reflecting on Irving’s own later comments about the furor he’d created.

“I think it was a larger comment on the sort of fake news debate that’s going on right now... and it led to a larger discussion,” added Silver, who didn’t omit appending the sanity-affirming disclaimer “I personally believe the world is round.”

The denial of objective truth is difficult to combat. It’s quite challenging to convince a superstitious poker player who refuses to accept that the cards dealt on one hand are wholly independent of the cards next on the next one that the “pattern” he perceives is in truth wholly subjective and not at all meaningful. You have to find some sort of common ground even to communicate with someone refusing to accept something as fundamentally obvious as the planet’s shape, rotation, and orbital path.

Existentialism encourages us to make our meaning, emphasizing subjective experience over the blind acceptance of received ideas about “reality” -- that is, not to receive “what they throw in front of us” without applying a little of our own rational analysis as a test. That doesn’t preclude, however, accepting certain (nominally) objective truths, even tentatively. Like, say, the laws of physics.

If Irving really understood the science, he’d understand how gravity works, which explains why when he launches a basketball skyward it comes back down toward the spherical planet’s center and doesn’t careen toward the center of his imagined “flat” earth, wherever that might be (one of dozens of easy-to-observe phenomena proving the earth’s roundness). Irving apparently hasn’t considered this or if he has he doesn’t find convincing the evidence he necessarily witnesses every waking moment of his life.

Silver -- who probably doesn’t care too much about one of the league’s stars espousing what might be called “fake science” -- grabs that “fake news” thread, trying to suggest that Irving was himself making some sort of point about the need to be skeptical amid what can certainly be a confusing climate of reporting and news-sharing.

But that kind of twists what Irving was saying. Rather, he was only referring to his incredulity that people would care so damn much about his position that the earth is flat.

“There are so many real things going on, actual, like, things that are going on that’s changing the shape, the way of our lives,” Irving told ESPN a couple of days after the initial blast. In other words, he doesn’t view the news of his belief as being “real” or “actual” (as in “significant”) compared to other, more important issues.

Irving even unwittingly puns on the word “shape,” saying (to paraphrase) that we should concern ourselves much more with the things certain people are currently doing to shape our world in a figurative sense than with the literal shape he imagines the world to be.

I agree with Irving on that point. In other words, I’m glad to know that our perspectives regarding the world in which we both live overlap at least in this way. I’m also more worried about the “things going on that’s changing the shape” of our world -- particularly about the people who are doing those “things” -- than about Irving’s flat-earth folly.

I’m additionally concerned, though, when the people shaping our world seem influenced by ideas about it that are easily discovered to be false.

Need examples? People can do their own research, man.

Image: “Fragile Planet,” Dave Ginsberg. CC BY 2.0.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Past Catches Up Fast

This morning another entry in my “Poker & Pop Culture” series went up over on PokerNews, this one discussing a few connections between poker and the Cold War.

This new one will be the last politics-themed entry in the series (for a while, anyway), as the next several deal with much lighter fare. Here are the recent ones:

  • That Time Harry Truman Let Winston Churchill Win
  • Tricky Dick Talks Poker in the White House
  • Joseph McCarthy Overplays the Red Scare Card
  • Bluffing With Bombs During the Cold War
  • I’ve been loosely following a chronological structure with these, although at this point with the story having reached the 20th century there is going to be a lot of jumping back and forth as the columns are organized around various subcategories of culture. It just so happened that the last month has been taken up with stories about politicians and (in these last couple) Cold War confrontations involving the United States and former Soviet Union.

    In these columns I haven’t explicitly referenced anything going on currently involving the new administration and the fast-moving crisis suddenly consuming it (and us). I did mention the new president entering the White House at the start of one of the columns, but otherwise I have kept my focus squarely on the past while avoiding the present. I’ve had a couple of reasons for doing so.

    One is simply to avoid unnecessarily opening doors onto ongoing (and highly-charged) political debates raging on all sides at the moment. That’s not a goal of the columns, really, even if it could be enlightening now and then to draw connections between events that happened before and what is going on now.

    The other is that it’s just too darn difficult to make such connections succinctly, given how different the present is from the past I’m discussing in those articles listed above (which mostly range from the 1920s through the 1970s).

    As I mentioned here a little over two weeks ago in a post titled “The Maniac at the Table,” the instinct to compare the current crisis at the top with the protracted scandal that ultimately forced Richard Nixon from office has been irresistible to many. Lots of commentators are now evoking certain moments on the path that led toward the impeachment hearings in the summer of 1974, recognizing similarities that have already emerged less than a month into the current president’s tenure.

    But while there are certainly parallels, there’s a lot that is different, too, not the least of which being the strange, singular relationship with Russia the current administration has adopted and consequently tried to force upon the U.S.

    As you no doubt have heard, the president’s national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned late Monday night just a little over weeks after taking on the role. Ostensibly he did so because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he’d had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in late December regarding sanctions imposed on Russia by Barack Obama’s administration.

    Those sanctions had been imposed following multiple intelligence reports revealing Russia had attempted to affect the 2016 election via various “hacking” methods. “Russia’s cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government,” was the White House’s statement at the time as the Obama administration sanctioned Russian individuals and entities while jettisoning 35 Russian diplomats from the country.

    Russia quickly retorted they’d be taking similar action in response, with Russian President Vladimir Putin quoted having told reporters there was “no alternative to reciprocal measures.” That same day (it has been revealed), Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador about the sanctions. The very next day Russia announced it would not reciprocate in any fashion, but rather wait for the new administration to take office.

    The president-elect then brazenly tweeted “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always new he was very smart!”

    As we all know, the current president’s natural mode is to attack and bully, something he has demonstrated almost without exception over the last two years -- during the campaign, after the election, and during these three-and-a-half weeks in office.

    He has been almost entirely indiscriminate with his criticisms, including targeting the nation’s traditional allies, high-ranking Republicans, U.S. intelligence agencies, and others whom even those who voted for him probably wish he’d refrain from vilifying. He’s also mixed in lots of knee-jerky attacks on television shows, media figures, particular businesses, and anyone else he believes has offended him.

    His attacks are also often delivered without regard to political implications, something his supporters appreciate. Indeed, he seems almost entirely unconcerned about appearances or what others are going to say about his outbursts.

    I keep repeating that qualifier “almost” because there has been a consistent, blatant exception to this pattern. The president not only resists criticizing Russia or Putin, he unwaveringly adopts an entirely uncharacteristic stance of passivity and non-resistance. Instead he commends, he celebrates. He acquiesces, always.

    It has been impossible not to notice this exception. It’s also impossible not to entertain what seems an obvious explanation for it. The U.S. president is seriously compromised, and so is much of the team surrounding him.

    The president himself might be hamstrung to speak or act against Russia because of his business interests (hidden in those undisclosed tax returns) or even past personal conduct (alluded to in that infamous dossier) or both. More definitively, he and many of those around him are unmistakably compromised by their communications with Russia during the campaign and the interregnum period between election and inauguration.

    The president cannot speak out against Russia, at least not directly. Nor can he act in the nation’s interests when Russia chooses to violate a decades-old arms control treaty by deploying a new ground-launched cruise missile as was reported yesterday. (The administration has not responded to this violation yet, stating that it “is in the beginning stages of reviewing nuclear policy.”)

    I’m recalling attending a presentation in September 2015 given by Carl Bernstein and P.J. O’Rourke, both of whom reported extensively on Nixon and Watergate as it unfolded more than four decades ago. The discussion was more about the then-upcoming campaign and election, and not so much about Watergate. There was one question, though, regarding how the earlier scandal would be covered today, what with the change in technology, the rise of social media, and so on.

    Bernstein declared that “the web is a fabulous reportorial platform,” adding that we live in what he believes to be a “golden age of investigative reporting.” O’Rourke was a little more measured, recognizing how hard it can be sometimes to sort out the wheat from the chaff amid all of the reporting being done. He also said that if Watergate happened today, it would have taken a lot less than two-plus years to unfold since “the conspirators would have been more leaky.”

    The current administration is especially leaky, that’s for certain. And when combined with the web’s rapid-fire “reportorial platform” things are escalating at a dizzying pace.

    I tend to believe that the exhausting blitz of executive orders, memoranda, statements, and actions of the new president upon taking office occurred not just because of his naturally agitated state, his insatiable hunger for the spotlight, and/or his neglect (or ignorance) of “normal” politics and procedures of government.

    I think the president and his team hit the ground running because they knew these things might well catch up to them, and quickly. That the power he enjoyed on January 20 was temporary, vulnerable to become eroded before such measures could be implemented.

    That the past was going to catch up to them, and perhaps sooner than later.

    Image: “Trump,” IoSonoUnaFotoCamera. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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    Thursday, February 09, 2017

    The Recap Writer’s Lament

    Many times when explaining to someone unfamiliar with poker tournaments what exactly I do when I go report on them, I’ll bring up sports writing as an illustrative analogy. It’s a handy reference point, and while it doesn’t provide a perfect parallel there are a lot of connections between the two.

    There’s the “play-by-play”-type reporting of hands and other aspects of a tournament’s progress that resembles sports reporters’ straightforward accounts of games and their results. There are also the profiles and features and player interviews and so on that go along with tournament reporting that similarly can correspond to how a baseball or football or basketball game gets covered.

    A short New York Times article appearing a couple of days ago reminded me of the connection once again, one by Ben Shpigel titled “‘Or So It Seemed’: Notes on Rewriting the Super Bowl.”

    The article relives the craziness of Super Bowl LI from the sports writer’s perspective. Shpigel notes how he’d written and filed a draft version of his report on the game early in the third quarter, when it appeared all but certain the Atlanta Falcons would coast to an easy victory. Then came the mad scramble to rewrite and amend once New England mounted what turned out to be a historic comeback to win.

    Anyone who has ever reported on the final table of a poker tournament can identify with Shpigel’s story. I’m referring in particular to being the one charged with the assignment of writing an end-of-tournament recap of the result highlighting big hands and/or other themes from the final table.

    Those who have done it have all been there. Trying to get a head start in order to publish your piece in a timely fashion after the tournament concludes, you’ll sometimes pick a potential winner to foreground, perhaps even writing an entire mini-profile of the player and how the victory fits into the larger picture of his or her career.

    The player holding a big chip lead to start heads-up play will often be the one so targeted. Sometimes even with four or five players left there might be one with both a large chip advantage and significant experience edge who the recap writer will be encouraged to make the star of the early-draft version of the story.

    Then comes the series of improbable double-ups and suddenly you’re hitting that backspace key. Speaking of, I wrote something for PokerNews this week presenting the Patriots’ crazy comeback as a series of all-in hold’em situations -- “Patriots Use Their One Time in Super Bowl Comeback.”

    Depending on how long the final table goes, sometimes multiple recaps get written, all of which get trashed but one. I remember at some point a group of us agreeing that it was bad luck to get too enthusiastic about prematurely selecting one player to win, since doing so necessarily dooms your pick.

    And never actually save a draft version naming a winner in the headline, a sure-fire set-up for future pain.

    Anyone who has been there will enjoy Shpigel grieving over the many unpublished, alternate realities he’s composed. That group will also nod in ackowledgment when Shpigel explains he is “not in the business of rooting for teams,” but that he does “root for good stories and for blowouts.”

    Tournament reporters will probably also like finding out the meaning of the phrase in the headline -- “or so it seems.” Check it out.

    Image: “IMAG0021 Backspace” (adapted), Tom Anderson. CC BY 2.0.

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    Monday, February 06, 2017

    The Patriots Are the Pick

    I’m no fan of the New England Patriots. Now that I think about it, I have probably rooted against them in every Super Bowl they’ve ever played.

    I suppose I was neutral on them up until 2004 when the Pats defeated my Carolina Panthers in that wild Super Bowl 38. Carolina lost 32-29 after a crazy fourth quarter that saw the Panthers score three touchdowns, New England two, and the Pats hit a game-winning FG at the end.

    That was New England’s second title in three years, so it was easy to root against them thereafter as they dominated season after season. It has never come close to rising to Duke-level dislike (deep and unchangeable in this Tar Heel), but it’s been a pretty consistent feeling of antagonism toward the team for me nonetheless.

    That said, I have one rule in Pigskin Pick’em I’ve (almost) unerringly followed for years. I always pick New England. No matter what.

    Last night Vera and I attended a fun Super Bowl viewing party, and just about everyone there was on the Atlanta Falcons side, too. Here in North Carolina most were either Washington Redskins fans or Atlanta fans growing up, as they were the teams always featured on regional coverage here up until the Panthers franchise debuted in 1995. Not too hard, then, for many around these parts to be leaning Atlanta’s way last night.

    It was pretty festive up through the middle of the third quarter as Atlanta surprisingly built that 28-3 lead. The largest comeback ever in 50 previous Super Bowl had been just 10 points, so a 25-point lead seemed more than insurmountable.

    Actually the party remained fun during the Patriots comeback. Everyone wanted Atlanta to win, but it wasn’t like we were Falcons diehards. The fact that the game got closer as the night wore on ensured the game remained the focus of everyone’s attention the entire way.

    If you watched, you saw how it all went wrong for Atlanta. You may not understand it, but you saw it.

    Bill Barnwell breaks it down step-by-step this morning in an article titled “Anatomy of a Miracle” over on ESPN. It was way more nutty than that Panthers-Pats finish 13 years ago. It was also much more improbable than the New York Giants’ unlikely win over New England in SB 42, or the Seattle Seahawks’ surprise gift to the Pats two years ago at the end of SB 49.

    It was a bit like watching a player with a 10-to-1 chip lead heads-up lose flip after flip to let victory slip away. There were several bad-luck plays for Atlanta, the incredible catch (and release and catch) an inch above the turf by the Patriots’ Julian Edelman on that tipped ball during the game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter the most memorable example. There were so many if-they-just-get-this-one-it’s-over plays in there, it was kind of like watching queen-six beating ace-ten over and over.

    But you’d have to mix in some self-inflicted wounds from Atlanta, too -- a costly turnover, very bad clock management (multiple fourth-quarter snaps with 15-20 seconds on the play clock), and blowing through what turned out to be needed timeouts spring to mind.

    Some questionable play calls in key spots do as well, most glaringly when up 28-20 with just under four minutes left and looking at a second-and-11 on the Pat’s 23-yard line. Atlanta went high-risk with a pass play, got sacked, then after another pass play ended with a holding penalty they were out of FG range, having to punt to New England (who still had their two timeouts) with three-and-a-half minutes to go.

    There’s no denying New England couldn’t have climbed back out of such a historically deep hole without some help from Atlanta. Nor could they do it without the “cards” falling their way, too. Before overtime began, someone at the party correctly predicted New England would win the coin toss and march down the field for a winning TD, and indeed, things bounced the Pats way again and he was proven correct.

    That said, the Pats were relentless from the midpoint of the third quarter onward -- like an almost flawless, “optimal” poker player who never seems to choose incorrectly. And when he does perhaps do something uncharacteristically risky (e.g., the pass into double coverage resulting in Edelman’s spectacular grab), it still works out for him.

    Am seeing this morning a best-to-worst ranking of the 51 Super Bowls already putting last night’s at the top of the list. I’d charge recency bias, but sheesh... a 25-point comeback? A team down 19 to start the fourth somehow pulling it out? That stands out.

    I’m still no fan of the Patriots. And I’ll still root against them. But I’m not picking against them any time soon.

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