Thursday, April 29, 2004

The six-wheeled sports car

... is here.

Bonus: Here's a new extreme sport: wok boarding!

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Things I learned by playing Galax

  1. Keep moving.

  2. Make a decision and stick with it.

  3. Prioritize.

  4. Plan ahead.

  5. Do the easy things first.

  6. When bombs are falling, get out of the way.

  7. Don't shoot unless you know what you're aiming to hit.

  8. You only get one chance at any particular opportunity.

  9. But if you stay alive, there will be other opportunities.

  10. Everybody dies eventually.

Super Hamster!

If you liked the skateboarding dog, you'll probably like this.

Annoying quiz of the week

Take the senses challenge!

I scored 13/20; how about you?
(thanks to raymanfu at codeadm)

The first year of a new job

Here's Chris Pratley describing what it feels like to be a new program manager at microsoft for the first year or so:

  1. Start off with excitement and enthusiasm for the new job. Your manager tells you something about taking initiative, being "proactive" and "owning" projects. You say "yeah, of course, gotcha!".

  2. About 4 weeks into the job, you start to feel strange. People keep asking you to decide things you don’t know anything about, as if you’re some kind of expert. You find yourself going to your peers for help more often than you feel comfortable with. You start to wonder if you can actually do this. You start to tank. Depending on your personality, you withdraw into your office to try to figure everything out by yourself without bothering anyone, or you start asking a broader range of people how to do things as soon as you hit an obstacle, to try to "spread the pain" and get results quickly.

  3. By month two, you're convinced you are the dumbest person on the team by far. Everyone seems so capable, and they can do anything. Your manager says something like "remember, you’re 10% of the team that designs an N Billion dollar product - isn't that exciting? That means you have to step up and really "own things"". But you know that in fact you are an imposter - Microsoft has misjudged badly in hiring you and you are going to fail.

  4. By month four, you have lived through a torture of feeling incompetent and a dead weight on your team. It’s especially bad because you were #1 in your graduating class, and everyone always looked to you as the smart one.

  5. By month six, you have a great moment. Once, in a meeting, you actually knew something that no one else on your team knew. This is the first glimmer. You cling to this, and hope there are more.

  6. By month 12, you have developed your network of contacts that pass information to you, you are a subject matter expert on your area, and people on the team are relying on you because you know lots of things they don't know. You have made it.

I've been coaching new employees for many years now, and I try to help them through this process. I even tell them they will experience these stages. That actually works for some people to help them avoid it, but a large fraction still go through the stages, and then when I say in month four "Remember I told you that you would feel like this?" they say, "Oh, that's what you meant!"

I have a friend who works as a PM and is going through "month four" right now.

The moral of the story? Keep at it; things will get better.

Monday, April 26, 2004

This just in: Curry saves brain cells!

Story here. I love spicy masala flavored ramen, but I didn't know it was protecting me from Alzheimer's. What a nice bonus!

Taking a cue from jack-in-the-box?

Circus Circus has fired their clown.

Just Say No to 6:5 blackjack

Here's a new article on 6:5 blackjack:
The casinos have so far been successful in marketing this game, because many occasional players have been told over the years that single deck blackjack is a better game than the more common 6 or 8-deck games on the casino floor. Using that single marketing angle, the casinos have drawn lots of players to the new 6:5 version, despite the fact that these single-deck games are worse for the player than the worst 8-deck game on the casino floor. Much worse.
Ultimately this sort of problem is self-correcting - people will figure out that bad games are bad and stop playing them, and casinos that go for the short-term win of misleading their customers will lose business. But that can take quite a while. For now it's player beware.

Remember, if something looks too good to be true, there's probably a catch. Make sure the game you're playing is what you think it is. Real blackjack pays 3 to 2. If your table instead sports a little placard that says "blackjack pays 6:5", that is a bad game. Avoid it.

What goes up...

The record for riding the world's tallest unicycle has been broken. The new height to beat? 115 feet tall. At this scale the bike costs $20,000 and a construction crate is used to lift the rider into place atop it.

I think I'll stick with my safe-and-sane standard-height version.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Polar Bears versus Nuclear Submarine

This seems to be "cute animal" day here at blogjack!

Taken from the USS HONOLULU near the arctic circle. Click picture for more.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Tyson, the skateboarding bulldog

Click on the picture to see an unbelievable video.
More here. Thanks to Catallarchy for the pointer.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Don't try this at home, kids!

Here is a beautiful piece of art I'd forgotten about: Penn Jillette's fire eating speech.
"Every time you do this act, no matter how carefully or how well, you swallow about a teaspoon of the lighter fluid, and that stuff is poisonous--that's why they write "Harmful or Fatal if Swallowed" right there on the can-- and the effect is, to a certain degree, cumulative.

"I think it's more fascinating to think of someone poisoning themselves to death slowly on stage than merely burning themselves.

"When you leave here tonight and you're thinking about our show...I don't want you to be thinking about how we did it.

"I want you to be thinking about why."
Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Government is us?

I just happened upon a long essay on the difficulty hard-core libertarians have conversing with non-libertarians. The essential claim?
"We cannot speak to them in their language because what we have to say cannot be said in their language."
I agree. Non-libertarians are fundamentally not speaking the same language. When they use words like "society" and "government", these have entirely different meanings. An example from my own collection:
"The government is us."
I can't count how many times I've heard variants of this. How can anybody hate the government when the government is us?

Answer: to people who disapprove of it, the government is not an "us". Government is a "they". Somebody who thinks "us" when they hear the word government is so different from somebody who thinks "they" that it's hard to imagine the two could have a productive discussion on any political issue, much less on the topic of government itself.

Message for a friend

I engaged in a little grafitti over the weekend...
Happy birthday, Lisa!
(mad props to Letter James)

Monday, April 19, 2004

You bet your life!

Betting your entire life savings on one roll of roulette is a suboptimal strategy, but it worked. $135,000 on red, red seven came up. He tipped the dealer $600 and walked away.

That was a bet with a huge negative EV. Lose, and you lose 100%. Win, and you double your bet, but pay income tax on it with no offsetting losses. Then again, it's hard to buy that kind of publicity, or put a price on it. Maybe he'd make it all back on the book deal if he lost.

memorizing sequences of cards?

Here's a good article that surveys casino security at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

I was unimpressed with the sidebar, though. Titled "common casino scams", it lists card counting and defines it as "A patron memorizes the sequence of cards and uses it to guess the hand." First off, card counting isn't a scam, it's merely playing with an unusual degree of skill. Second, card counting does not involve memorizing sequences of cards. There are techniques that do involve that skill, but they don't really constitute counting. The right name for that class of behavior would be sequence tracking (or, to a lesser degree, shuffle tracking).

Perhaps they should have just listed "playing intelligently" as one of the "scams" security watches for.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Lurking undercurrent of gloom

I just finished reading a fantastic book on computer analysis of gambling (and other) markets. The name of the book is Calculated Bets: Computers, Gambling, and Mathematical Modeling to Win by Steven Skiena (amazon link here). This book doesn't merely cover the range of techniques and capture the feel of applying them to a real-world betting situation -- it does so in a way that is fun to read. Parts ring true in a way that is funny and at times even poignant. I particularly liked this partial description of the ambiance at a fronton, a place where people bet on Jai Alai:
The spectators projected the same aura of modest seediness that you will find in any race track or casino. There was just enough light, glitter, and spectacle about the room to ward off the undercurrent of gloom that lurks wherever people are losing money.
So that's why LV's Monte Carlo Casino is so depressing...

Friday, April 16, 2004

Big yellow taxi...or was it black?

A bank robber puts the loot in a suitcase, runs out of the bank, gets into a taxi, and is driven off. A witness sees him. The witness says, "It was a black taxi, not a yellow taxi." Further tests reveal that this witness get's the color of the taxi--whether it is black or yellow--right 80% of the time. So the police dispatcher radios all cars, saying "He's in a taxi. There's an 80% chance it's a black taxi."

Now a supervisor hands the dispatcher a slip of paper that tells the dispatcher that 90% of the taxis in the city are yellow, and only 10% are black. "It's unlikely that the taxi is black," the supervisor says. The dispatcher begins, "Correction..." What should the dispatcher say?

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Gutting the schools

Tyler Cowen writes:
That all being said, Proposition 13 did not work out very well for the state of California. For all their vices, property taxes are a relatively decentralized source of government support. If you don't like how the money is spent, you can move. Replacing local property taxes by state taxes ended up gutting California schools, without saving taxpayers much money in the longer run. Stay tuned...
The trouble with that is that California schools never got gutted. Yes, per-student funding declined slightly from 1978-1983, but "gutted" isn't the word for a 10% cut spread over 5 years, long since reversed. The long-term trend on California's per-student funding is up. You can say it "declined" a bit relative to what other US states were spending, but that doesn't count as "gutted" either.

See page 90 of this report for a chart of CA real spending per pupil over time compared with the US average.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

How to bribe your way into restaurants described here.

Classical Music's Ten Dirtiest Secrets

Yes, some classical music is boring, some is repetitive, some is just plain bad. One writer takes a stab at honesty:
What on earth are we all afraid of? That the public may decide that Vivaldi really did write the same concerto 600 times?

...I propose a radical new idea: Tell the truth! Stop insisting that the classics consist of an unbroken chain of perfect masterpieces of equal worth, and let people compare, judge, and even (gasp!) dislike some of them.

Read the whole thing.

Monday, April 12, 2004


Are people who work for hedge funds societal leeches?. The whole argument probably works even better for blackjack players. I wonder what my friend Jordan thinks about all this.

patri has a good anecdote a few posts down to demonstrate that prompting greater efficiency isn't necessarily productive behavior:
Or suppose that one apple grows a day. When only I live at the bottom of the nearby hill, I can stroll up and pick it at my leisure. Now you shack up on some nearby grass. We both want the apple, and so every day we race for it. Our gain is still just a total of one apple a day, but now we are out the energy of running. Maybe we start sleeping on less comfortable ground closer to the tree so we have a head start. We could agree to just take turns, and that may work with two people, but as you get more and more people all competing to be the one to get the rent from this apple tree, it is more likely that there will be disputes, coalitions, and resources expended to get the apple. So the total income for society is less than with just one person.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

How much should government spend?

Steven Weinberg's reply to my correction of his article contained an interesting comment: "I'm not in favor of very possible tax. But I deplore the automatic assumption that lower taxes are always better than higher taxes."

I had to think about that. I realized that I'm guilty of that automatic assumption. I do, in fact, tend to assume that lower taxes are always better than higher taxes. There's a necessary caveat, which is that it's the spending that really matters. Taxes are the symptom; spending is the disease. And every time an issue comes up that might allow us to cut spending and lower taxes, I'm for it.

Why? Because I think we spend too much. If we are spending too much, the right thing to do is spend less. "When you're in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging."

If you disagree, consider this: Based on your own values, would you be willing to grant the possibility that there is some optimal level of government spending as a percentage of GDP?

For instance, if I grant that 0% government spending is too low, will you grant that 100% is too high? How about 99%? 98%? What level of spending do you think is too high, too low, or just right? How could you know?

I believe there is some optimum amount of government spending, above which spending more does more harm than good. That is to say: there are "diminishing returns" on investment in government just like investment in anything else. You might get a lot of benefit from the first dollar spent, but as more and more dollars are spent, the amount of benefit declines until eventually spending more on government is less valuable than spending on something else. At which point, increasing government spending decreases human welfare. It makes us worse off.

If you answered that, yes, 0% is too low and 100% is too high, then presumably there's a peak somewhere in the middle, an Optimum Maximum Spending Level. If you were to graph the benefit we get from various levels of government spending, let's call the position of the highest point on the graph (or the rightmost highest point, if it's non-unique) "OM", for Optimum Maximum, and call our current spending level (again, as a percentage of GDP) "CS" for Current Spending.

Then the question is: is OM < CS ?

How would you answer that?

Because if, in fact, OM < CS, then it is simply true that lower taxes (accompanied by lower spending) are "always" better than higher taxes (with higher spending).

But only if the word "always" is suitably qualified. Like so:

AS LONG AS (OM < CS), every time the issue comes up whether we should raise or lower taxes and spending, the true answer will be that we should lower them. But if we actually follow that advice and reduce taxes and spending, eventually it will no longer be the case that (OM < CS), and the advice will no longer hold.

So, if OM < CS it is "always" right to cut taxes/spending, until current spending drops to OM. Then (assuming OM is a unique point), once current spending is BELOW OM, then it is "always" right to RAISE taxes/spending until it returns to that point.

Does OM exist? Do you believe OM > CS? If so, how much greater? When would you say "enough!"

(My personal suspicion is that OM is in the ballpark of 10% of GDP.)

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Doubling on a 6:5 Blackjack

Blackjack games aren't all the same from one casino to the next. In addition to the obvious differences of how many decks are in play, what range of bets is allowed and how deeply the deck is dealt, there are many subtle rule variations. Blackjack players look for such favorable variations as:
  • S17 - dealer Stands on a soft 17
  • DAS - player is allowed to Double down After Splitting
  • DOA - player can Double On Any two initial cards, not just 10 or 11.
  • Surrender - player may give up half his bet in lieu of playing out the hand.
All of those options help the player, if present.

But a new rule variation that really hurts the player has become fairly common in the last year. The latest thing is to have blackjack tables where being dealt a natural blackjack (an ace and a ten-valued card) pays 6:5 instead of the usual 3:2. That has a huge negative impact on the player, so much so that most advantage players and many non-advantage players won't play this game.

In thinking about whether this game might be used for cover purposes or was worth playing at all, I got to wondering whether the reduction in blackjack payoff justified any changes in strategy. In particular, it seemed to me lowering the payoff on blackjack from 150% to a mere 120% might be big enough that it would produce situations in which the right thing to do would be to double down on your blackjack. I couldn't find numbers on this, so I wrote a simulation. And now that I've got numbers, it turns out it's almost always still better to take the blackjack than to double down.

But "almost always" isn't the same as "always". So when IS the break-even point?

Here's the answer: if you're playing a single deck S17 game and you get a blackjack, the correct play is to double down if the true count is more than ten. You need a count in excess of ten to get an expected rate of return of over 120%. Against a dealer's 5 showing, the return on doubling starts at 67% and goes up by about 5 percentage points for each increment of the count until it finally catches up with and surpasses the option of taking the blackjack bonus.

Here are the actual numbers for the decision of blackjack specifically versus a dealer 5 -- here's how much money you make by doubling down on it:
count -1 wins 669002 units, 66.9002 pct.
count +0 wins 710436 units, 71.04 pct.
count +1 wins 750798 units, 75.08 pct.
count +2 wins 790728 units, 79.07 pct.
count +3 wins 836690 units, 83.67 pct.
count +4 wins 882222 units, 88.22 pct.
count +5 wins 926308 units, 92.63 pct.
count +6 wins 981836 units, 98.18 pct.
count +7 wins 1029052 units, 102.91 pct.
count +8 wins 1080914 units, 108.09 pct.
count +9 wins 1137868 units, 113.79 pct.
count +10 wins 1195290 units, 119.53 pct.
count +11 wins 1257614 units, 125.76 pct. (==there it is!
count +12 wins 1316834 units, 131.68 pct.
That's all based on one million trials per line. The numbers aren't all that different at the high end if the dealer has other upcards showing; they all show profit around +11 or so.

[UPDATE]: The numbers above aren't valid, especially for heads-up play, because I failed to account for card-removal effects. When you're the only player at the table and you take the blackjack, the dealer doesn't play out his hand. But if you double down, you take an extra card and the dealer takes as many extra cards as he needs to play out his hand. Those extra cards are all being used up at a time when the deck is hugely positive and you might rather leave them IN the deck so as to get an extra round of play.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Heigh ho, heigh ho...

Can you think of some positive songs about work? Songs about a satisfying job? Going to work excited, coming home fulfilled?
The thing is, all these songs (and the others appearing when you google "songs about work") are kind of bluesy. Or angry. Work is hard, working for the man sucks, work is killing me, I'm not making ends meet, etc. This is still undoubtedly true for many Americans, but surely there should be some kind of "opposing view" -- just like there are love songs and breakup songs. I could compromise: maybe there's a tune about the ups and downs of owning a small business, somewhere.
The first counterexample I thought of was the disco song "Carwash". And I'm pretty sure there are some positive sea chanties. But current songs, there aren't many examples. Maybe I should write some.

Failed get-rich-quick scheme - automated video poker

In the early days of web casinos, "Intercasino" was offering play-over-the-web-with-real-money games, including some full pay video poker games that, as far as I could determine, were positive expectation with perfect play. (Casinos sometimes offer VP games with a small positive return because ideal strategy is unintuitive and most people make more than enough mistakes to give up their edge.)

I liked the idea of being able to sit at home clicking buttons with the mouse and earn Big Money other than the fact that it was really really boring. I liked even better the idea of having my computer sit at home clicking buttons to earn Big Money while I sleep, work, travel... If it worked, I ramp up to bigger bets, then roll the profits into buying more computers to do the same thing until the casino finally caught on and changed the games.

So I wrote a program to play video poker over the web. My program looked at the screen, recognized the card values, decided which cards to discard, and clicked on the screen to play the game. At first I put it in an "apprentice" mode where it made the decisions and clicked the hold buttons but I had to hit OK before letting it draw. Occasionally it made boneheaded plays based on poor recognition (for instance, confusing the Queen of Clubs with the Queen of Spades) but I kept fixing bugs and watched it long enough that eventually every time I stopped it and said "wait a minute - is that the right play?" it turned out that I was wrong and the program's play was correct. So, I let it run on its own.

The casino had an offline practice mode where you weren't using real money. When my program played in practice mode, it won at roughly the rate I expected. But when it played in real mode, it lost. It's possible I was just being unlucky, but I think the casino was cheating; they rigged it so the big, rare bets don't pay off as often as they are supposed to. After losing a few hundred dollars (a speculative investment from my personal blackjack bankroll) I decided I didn't have enough confidence that it was an honest game and pulled the plug on the experiment.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

I Hate Airport Security

Timothy Noah asks:
Let's suppose—just suppose—that the No-Fly List has caused only one terrorist not to board an airplane with a sharp tool or explosive shoes. Wouldn't that still be worth these mild inconveniences? Of course it would. I don't mind being the haystack, because Sept. 11 taught me that there are needles out there.
My reply: no, that would not still be worth these inconveniences. Especially if it was a "sharp tool" we were saved from, since anybody with half a brain could get a sharp tool on an airplane. For instance, they let you bring wine bottles and cans of soda on; turning either of those into a sharp tool is left as an exercise for the reader. The "benefit" side of the current security regime is essentially nonexistent; I suspect, if anything, it makes us slightly less safe from terrorists would having no search at all or leaving it up to the airlines to set their own policies. (How does it make us less safe? By instilling a false sense of security in the passengers and by disarming those - including militrary-trained pilots - who might otherwise be better equipped to defend the plane in an emergency)

But let's look at the cost side of it. Millions of airline passengers having to waste an extra half-hour at the airport is a huge cost. It may seem insignificant to some individual passengers, but it adds up. And the cost isn't just in time and money, it's also in lives.

Our current level of airport security causes enough additional delay, cost, and uncertainty that many people on the margin will choose to drive instead of fly on long trips. Some of those people will die in car accidents they wouldn't have had if they had taken a plane.

So let us suppose—just suppose—the no-fly list has caused only one family to die in an unnecessary car crash. Wouldn't that be worth getting rid of it?

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Do they have the right to bar you? That seems unfair!

Nevada casinos have the legal right to "refuse service to anyone", meaning they can decide not to deal blackjack to people they have identified as advantage players. Surprisingly, this fact turns out to benefit blackjack players. Casinos can afford to offer great games - beatable games - to most customers because they reserve the right to bar the most blatant advantage players.

If the casinos couldn't bar anyone, they would be afraid to offer a good game of blackjack. Instead, they'd either stop offering blackjack entirely, or they would offer a lousy game such as the one found in Atlantic City.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Can you come back after being barred?

A gentle barring like I described earlier is a warning, nothing more.

You're best advised to wait a few months before playing at that casino again, and at least 6 months (a year would be better) before playing on that shift. When you do, be anonymous. Short sessions, no comp card (or a different card), and a small change in appearance.

What do they do if you come back?

Usually they just give you another warning. But if you are especially rude or persistent or playing in such a way that they regard you as a major threat, you may get "trespassed". Which means they read you a warning to the effect that you are not welcome on the casino premises and if you return they will have you arrested for trespassing.

CAN they have you arrested if you come back after that?

It's not entirely clear, but I'd rather not find out firsthand.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Getting Barred

A Casino Executive politely taps you on the shoulder. There is a security guard standing next to him.

Executive: "Excuse me, Mr. Smith? I'm Joe Schmoe, the casino manager for this shift. Could I talk to you for a minute?"

You: "Sure."

Executive: "Mr. Smith, we've been watching your play recently and I'm afraid I can't let you play any more blackjack here. You're too good for us. You're welcome to play any other game at the casino, though."

You: "I'm sorry to hear that. I'll miss this place. Mind if I go cash out?"

Executive: "Not at all."

You: "Thanks. Pleasure to meet you."

Executive leaves. Guard watches carefully as you go to the cage, cash out all your chips and leave the casino floor.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

The Two Things About Blackjack

The Two Things About Blackjack are:
  1. Learn to count cards.

  2. If you never get barred, you're not playing aggressively enough.

What's a multi-level count?

The simple count I described earlier, the plus-minus count, is a level-one count. What that means is that every card in the deck that has a nonzero value is worth either +1 or -1. Higher level counts use a larger range of values. For instance, I used to use Arnold Snyder's Zen Count, in which the card values are as follows:

A: -1
X: -2
8,9: 0
4,5,6: +2
2,7: +1

This is a Level 2 count, because the running count rises and falls by as many as 2 points at a time as cards come out. There are other counts that are more complicated than this, even to the point of including multiple side counts. (A side count is when you do get to act like Rain Man and keep track not just of an overall count but also, say, how many aces and eights and threes have been played so far.)

The trend over time seems to be towards ever-simpler counts. Ken Uston's teams did well using a count (Uston APC) that was excruciatingly complex, but computer simulations over time have shown that you don't really need all that complexity. Keeping track of fewer numbers in a simpler way doesn't cost very much, and often it increases profitability. Here's why:

  • If you can play faster using a simpler count, you'll get more hands per hour in; this can easily make up for a small reduction in expected value per hand.

  • You'll make fewer mistakes with a simpler count. For instance, forgetting the count or miscalculating it.

  • It is easier to carry on conversations and not look so much like you're concentrating on the count, which helps your longevity; you won't get barred as quickly from the game.

"Rain Man" counting systems do exist, but almost nobody uses them these days. Teams tend to use plus/minus. Shoe players often use an unbalanced count that avoids true-count conversions such as KO or Unbalanced Zen. Star individual players who get bored with plus/minus might move up to Wong Halves or Zen.

In terms of the mechanical and thinking skills required, the game keeps getting easier to play. (The tough part isn't playing the game well enough to make money; the tough part is not getting barred while doing so.)