Monday, September 25, 2017

The Limits of Learning

Was talking with someone not too long ago about the various writing, editing, reporting, and teaching I’m currently doing, just about all of which continues to involve poker in some fashion.

On the side (when not on farm duty) I try to write a little fiction, hoping to gather a bit of early momentum toward a third novel. Took a long time for me finally to finish the first one, Same Difference, then another seven or eight years before reaching the finish line with Obsessica. But at the moment that sort of writing is only happening now-and-then. For the most part I am still writing and editing poker articles, still reporting on tournaments, and still teaching one college course per semester that concerns the history of poker and its relevance to American culture.

You must really be good at poker, then, right?

That was the question put to me by my friend, one I’d fielded many times before, though it had been a while. I imagine most who spend a lot of time covering tournaments or working in poker in some fashion or another get asked the same thing, perhaps often.

I’ve learned a lot while standing just a couple feet away watching others play poker, I replied, and it’s true. Observing others -- both incredibly skilled players and rank amateurs -- certainly provides a kind of ongoing poker education for those who are paying attention (a requirement when reporting).

Watching live poker is much different from watching the game as it is shown on television or even on live streams online, and not simply because of the lack of hole cards. It’s a little like the difference between watching a football game in person versus on television. You can see the whole “field” -- i.e., not just the part where the action is occurring -- and thus potentially can notice certain contextual elements that prove meaningful.

Over time and through repetition, the tableside observer also necessarily becomes familiar with certain patterns of play, much as someone might when playing. I’m referring to things like bet sizing patterns (both preflop and postflop), how certain board textures produce common postflop sequences, and how the preflop-flop-turn drama can relate to a river denoument (a final value bet, a big bluff, an anti-climactic check down, and so on).

That said, I have to admit my viewing of poker when reporting is often of the passive variety, albeit with a lot more attention to surface-level details than one experiences, say, when a person “watches” a television show or movie while scrolling through his or her feeds. The effort to chronicle the essential elements of a given hand or situation sometimes (often?) makes it challenging to appreciate all of those other meaningful though ultimately non-essential bits happening all around.

In fact, a lot of times it is better to shut out all that contextual noise, as it can get in the way of recording central “text” or narrative of the hand.

To continue the analogy, consider all that you’re able to see from the stands at a football game -- the backfield, both lines, the entire secondary, and then, once the play begins, the blocking scheme on a running play, how routes are run on a passing play, the type of zone or man coverage downfield, everything else happening away from the ball, and so on.

Then (let’s say) you’re going to be required to report only what the left tackle does on each play. Imagine you work for Football Outsiders or some other stat-crunching outfit that deals in “advanced analytics,” and that’s the narrow task you’ve been assigned. Easy enough to do (with a little training), but while you’re watching the left tackle you obviously can’t appreciate how well the receiver on the other side of the field is running his route. Or much else, really.

The same would likely be true if you were strictly required to report only the results of each play (say, for more traditional statistical purposes). You’d miss a lot else that might be relevant. So, too, does the reporter noting only stack sizes, positions, bets, board cards, and showdowns fail to take in everything else available to him or her.

There are limits to what those sitting at the table and actually playing the hands can learn, too, of course. The limits faced by those watching and reporting are more significant, though -- much greater than might be suggested by the short distance between observer and the game being observed.

Photo: “Brain 19,”

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Friday, September 01, 2017

New Album: Ex Machina

It was one year ago today I released my seven albums over on Bandcamp all at once. Or “rereleased” one could say, as they all had been floating around in highly obscure fashion as cassettes and/or compact discs since way back in the day.

The music contained on all seven was recorded from the late 1980s through the early 2000s. In other words, it’s safe to say even the newest tracks on the seventh one, Circular Logic, were all well over a decade old, with some of the earliest material dating back more than a quarter-century (sheesh).

Here they are (all available for free download, if you’re curious):

  • Daisy Hawkins (1987-1990)
  • Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose (1989-1991)
  • Perpetuum Mobile (1990-1991)
  • The Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator (1991-1995)
  • Imbroglio (1991-1993)
  • Welcome to Muscle Beach (1993-1999)
  • Circular Logic (2000-2003)
  • I describe each of the albums in a post here from last year. Clicking through to my Bandcamp page also gets you to more information about each album (and each track). Six of the seven albums are all instrumental, with my pop-rock opus Welcome to Muscle Beach the only one featuring songs with lyrics & my vocals. (It’s my Revolver, I joke.)

    The music was played on various instruments (guitars, bass, keyboards, pianos, percussion, keyboards and synths, and a midi sequencer) and produced using an old Tascam 4-track cassette recorder which I still own although is hardly in working condition anymore.

    These days with Garage Band and similar programs the work of producing such self-made music has become so much simpler to do. Indeed, the process of digitizing these old tracks and releasing it all on my own has become trivially easy today compared to what had to be done way back when in order to get your recorded music heard by even a small audience.

    Among the dozens of unrealized ideas I have laying about currently, one of them has been to create some videos to go along with various songs. In fact, I’d like to put all of it up on YouTube at some point -- I even have a dedicated YouTube channel for it -- but just haven’t gotten around to it.

    I’d also like to find a way to create new music, although again it’s a matter of reestablishing some sort of “home studio” in which to do some recording. Meanwhile, I have been experimenting with some of the older tracks (including some unreleased stuff), and from one of those experiments I came up with something interesting enough I’ve decided to release it as a new album today.

    The album is called Ex Machina and can safely be described as my first wholly “ambient” LP -- a single, almost 37-minute track called “Ex Machina (Redux).”

    For this one, I took the opening track of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose -- a short loop of electric guitar and effects -- and slowed it down a lot (like 800 percent) which resulted in a much longer, still uncannily melodic piece. I then reversed that track and spliced the two segments together, added a few more treatments to it all, and the long piece is the result.

    Unlike practically everything else from the earlier albums, this one works pretty well as “writing music” (I’d suggest), for those who like to have something to accompany their scribbling. Or if you’re still playing online poker, it might work as a soundtrack for that, too.

    I’ve even made a video for this one, a very slow pan across a panorama photo of the farm capturing a fairly stunning sunset from a few months ago. Here it is:

    It’s probably hard to believe, but every sound you hear was made with an electric guitar. No shinola.

    Feedback plays a big role, of course. In fact that’s where the name of the track came from, as the primary melody was spontaneously generated from the feedback being manipuated by the effects rack I was using. In other words, while a human played the notes, a machine (or multiple machines, really) served as co-composers, to be sure.

    Speaking of feedback, let me know what you think! And if you like it, go ahead and download the audio over on Bandcamp.

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