Wednesday, May 23, 2007


The wife is in Lima.
This poem has been in my head, of late.

Meditation at Lagunitas
by Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"Playing is for pleasure"

If, like me, you feel the need to hear Master Shake say, "you'll find the back of my hand very displeasing" at least once a week, go here. My friend Will has gone to the trouble to collect many of the greatest sound clips from the greatest show in the history of human existence (well, except The Love Boat) in one place. It takes about a minute to load, but it's well worth it.

Poker Recap I

The goals of this blog are few, and simple:

1) Enlighten the world to the heretofore neglected-genius of Gustavus Adolphus
2) Provide a much-needed forum for those brave men trying to clone the Brazilian tree frog from orchid pollen
3) Offer insights into the world of semi-professional poker. (Poker, as you might guess, is one of the ‘new careers’ referred to in the blog’s title. The other two being, as you probably already know, lumberjacking, and World Music critic for the Washington Post.)

So without further ado, here’s the first installment of what will be a recurring feature: The ANCIANT (A New Career In A New Town) Poker Recap.

Game: PLO Hi/Lo
Date: May 16
Blinds: 1/2

Last night went well: I played decently, caught cards, and walked out with my biggest single-session win to date. Two or three donkeys there were raising every hand pre-flop; it often cost 45$ to come in. With this kind of massive action, I had to wait for hands, and I tried to only play in late position.

The biggest donkey of all is a regular who I’ll call Thad. Thad is a familiar type in the poker world. From what he says about Omaha, it’s clear he has a good understanding of how it should be played. However, for reasons beyond my ken, his actual play is completely at odds with his analysis. He plays nearly every hand; he raises constantly, and he loses--big--every time he plays. I can only assume he’s independently wealthy, because the last four times he’s played he’s lost at least two grand a session.

For all his aggression, though, Thad is not a calling station; he will fold if other people bet into him, especially if (as is usually the case) his cards are sub-par.

Most of my hands last night were unremarkable. One, however, stands out. It was a hand I think I could have won, had I played it better.

The situation: I’m on the button. Thad, as usual, has raised pre-flop (to 15.00$). Three people call. I look down and see: (Ad, 5d, Ac, 9c). This is a clear calling hand: I have two ways to make the nut flush, pocket Aces (probably only good if an Ace hits), and a possible, if poor, low draw (A5). I call.

The flop comes: Kd, Qd, 6h

In first position, Thad leads out for 45.00. The other two players fold. Since I have a draw to the nut flush, I call.

The turn: 4s.

I have now picked up a bad low draw. Thad thinks for a second and bets 150.00 (the size of the pot).

I think. There is now 300.00 in the pot. It will cost me 150.00 to call and try to hit my flush; the pot is laying me 2 to 1. However, I am about 4 to 1 against; pot odds, therefore, would dictate that I fold. (For a discussion of pot odds, go here). My implied odds are also poor: I doubt very much if I’m going to make anything if a diamond does come on the river. Though donkey-like in many respects, Thad will almost certainly not pay off a bet on the river with something like two pair, or a set, if a flush has come, especially since, given this flop, a flush is the only conceivable hand I could be drawing to. A low card might give me half the pot, but it could very likely made Thad a better low.

On the other hand, Thad might easily have no low draw at all; he’s shown a willingness to bet with anything. It’s even possible that at this point he has nothing better than top pair, in which case an Ace alone would win me the high, (though that’s assuming I’m willing to call with only aces on the river, which is unlikely). He might even have a diamond draw of his own, in which case a diamond on the river WILL make me some money.

At this point I’m way way up for the night, which is another factor which probably influenced me.

I think for a while and decide to fold.

At the time, this was not a big deal. However, thinking it over since the game ended I’ve decided I misplayed the hand. My mistake, I think was on the flop. Instead of just calling Ted’s 45.00 bet, I should have raised, and made it, say, 125.00. My reputation at that table is of a super-solid, nuts-only player. The only times I’ve rereaised, prior to that hand, I’ve either had the stone cold nuts, or massive draws. If I reraise, Thad has to give me credit for a big hand. In which case, several good things could happen:

1) Thad can fold. If he has only top pair, he might do this. Not likely, given his play, but possible.

2) Thad can call. However, putting me on a big hand—a set of kings, maybe—he will check the turn (this is especially likely if he has a low set or bottom two pair). I will then check behind him, and get two free cards, the turn and river, for only 70.00 more. If I do hit my flush, it's possible, given the betting here, that Thad might pay me off. Prior to this hand, Thad has never seen me raise on a semi-bluff. He might put me on a set; when a diamond comes, therefore, he will assume it’s hurt me. He might even lead into me, trying to bluff; or, he might have a worse diamond hand himself, in which case he will definitely call a bet.

The possible negative outcome of a reraise on the flop, of course, is that Thad himself could have come back over the top and blown me out of the pot with a big re-reraise. I couldn’t call this kind of bet, of course, and I would have effectively prevented myself from trying to draw to my flush. However, given my playing style to date, Thad can probably only re-raise my bet with one hand; three kings. It’s possible he has this, but extremely unlikely. It’s a chance I should be willing to take.

My mistake here was not huge. I lost a small pot; reraising on the flop would have built a bigger pot, which, at that point in the night, was not what I was trying to do. However, I think it was a mistake, and I think that the reason I made it was because I was so far up for the night. I was playing cautious, trying to protect my winnings. As a result, I played badly.

Oh well. Try to do better next time.

(By the way, the dealer showed us the river: 8 of diamonds. I would have made the nut high, and possibly the winning low. Sigh.)

Friday, May 18, 2007

To what do your emotions...adhere?

Over at ASWOBA, John has an excellent post about artificial intelligence. I highly recommend it--both for his post, and for the article in Discovery to which he links. (It features two computer AIs trying to have what I'd guess you'd call a conversation.)

For some reason, it all reminded me of a Donald Barthelme short story called "The Explanation." (It's in Forty Stories, for those who wish to check it out). It's not an easy story to excerpt, but I hope some of its cool, uneasy brilliance comes through in the selections below. (By the way, the story features a recurring 'picture' of a machine, which the questioner alludes to throughout. The picture is of a square, about three inches by three inches, which is totally and completely black.)

Q: Do you believe that this machine could be helpful in changing the government?
A: Changing the government...
Q: Making it more responsive to the needs of the people?
A: I don't know what it is. What does it do?
Q: Well, look at it.
A: It offers no clues.
Q: It has a certain...reticence.
A: I don't know what it does.
Q: A lack of confidence in the machine.

* * *

Q: You don't trust the machine?
A: Why should I trust it?
Q: (States his own lack of interest in machines)

* * *

Q: Do you want to have your picture taken with me?
A: I don't like to have my picture taken.
Q: Do you believe that, at some point in the future, one will be able to achieve sexual satisfaction, "complete" sexual satisfaction, for instance by taking a pill?
A: I doubt that it's impossible.
Q: You don't like the idea.
A: No. I think that under these conditions, we would know less than we do now.
Q: Know less about each other.
A: Of course.

* * *

Q: I have a number of error messages I'd like to introduce here and I'd like you to study them carefully...they're numbered. I'll go over them with you: undefined variable...improper sequence of operators...improper use of hierarchy...missing operator...mix mode, that one's particularly grave...argument of a function is fixed-point...improper character in constant...improper floating-point constant...invalid character transmitted in sub-program statement, that's a END statement.
A: I like them very much.
Q: There are hundreds of others, hundreds and hundreds.
A: You seem emotionless.
Q: That's not true.
A: To what do your emotions...adhere, if I can put it that way?

* * *

Q: There's no point in arguing that the machine is wholly successful, but it has its qualities. I don't like to use anthropomorphic language in talking about these machines, but there is one quality...
A: What is it?
Q: It's brave.
A: Machines are braver than art.
Q: Since the death of the bicycle.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Joe The Lion

The first track on David Bowie's 1977 Heroes (the second in his so-called Berlin triptych) is named "Joe the Lion." Its opening verse--hell, all of its lyrics--are a bit obscure:
Joe the Lion
went to the bar
A couple of drinks on the house and he said
'tell you who you are
if you nail me to my car.'

"Joe the Lion" refers to (among other things, I suspect) an actual person, a performance artist named Chris Burden. Peter Schjeldahl (or, as Dave Hickey calls him, "the redoubtable Schjeldahl") has a great piece on Burden in the new New Yorker. It includes a picture of the artwork described in the lyrics above, a piece in which Burden had himself nailed by the hands to a VW bug.

In other of his art works, Burden was shot in the arm (at close range); lay under a tilted frame of glass without food or water for 45 hours; crawled, nearly naked, across fifty feet of broken glass, and was kicked down a flight of stairs. Whether or not you believe these acts constitute art, it's hard not to admire Burden's commitment (or to wonder, as I'm sure he wants us to, at what point commitment shades into derangement. A favorite subject of Werner Herzog.)

The article contains two pretty nifty definitions of art. The first is Burden's: "[art is] a free spot in society, where you can do anything." The second is from Schjeldahl: "art is a privileged zone of gratuitous activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities."


The following quote, from Little Dorrit, describes Daniel Doyce, one of the book's major heroes. He is an inventor. I marked the quote, though, because I find it a fairly acute defintion of an artist (at least, as I understand it):

...though a plain man, [he] had been too much accustomed to combine what was original and daring in conception with what was patient and minute in execution, to be by any means an ordinary man.

Great Moments In Music, I

In a desperate attempt to separate myself from all the great blogs that recommend songs, I am going to focus on moments--instants, really--within songs. Or, as they shall forever be known henceforth: Great Moments In Music. (GMM) A GMM can be anything: the instant when a drum kicks in, a plaintive harmony, the beginning of a guitar solo--even a single note.

Here are a few GMM that have been in my head of late.

1. The Hold Steady: "First Night"

If you do not currently own the newest Hold Steady album (Boys and Girls in America) go now and buy it. I will wait. Really. It is the best rock album I have heard in three years. Thin Lizzy meets Bruce Springsteen meets Jack Kerouac. Only better than all three. It heals scrofula. It will repaint your apartment. It will insulate you from the cruelty of traffic policemen. It can dance the forbidden dances.

There's a moment, at the end of the the song "First Night": the song seems to be over. They've been repeating the same chorus over and over. Then, from nowhere, begins the lyric: "Boys and girls in America. Boys and girls in America...." The music swells. Salvation draws near. The song ends again, this time with this line describing the "sequencer boys": "When they kiss, they spit white noise." (Backup singers repeat: "White noise.") IT ROCKS.

2. Jupiter One: "Countdown"

I learned of this band through the most random of channels. When I started this blog I was given links to other blogs that were recently begun. (To gather ideas, I guess?). This band has a new website; I went there; I listened to their songs. And I loved them. (To check them out, go here.)

Anyway, the GMM occurs at about the 50 second mark; the chorus begins. "Hey now, wake's a beautiful day." Sounds a little trite, lyrically, but it works.

3. Van Morrison: "Sweet Thing."

Astral Weeks remains one of those albums that can always do something to me. It is, in the truest sense of the word, magical. Mystical, in the best, insane, Irish way. I could pick ten different moments from this album, but I'm going to pick the moment about five seconds into "Sweet Thing" when the string bass enters. It dances and cavorts. The song is all joy, all joy and love. ("It's me, I'm dynamite and I don't know why" is one of the many great lyrics from this song. Also: "And I will not remember that I ever felt the pain." To say THE pain--as if all pain was only one pain, which we all sometimes shared.)

I remember reading a book about songwriters; in it, a singer described the essential quality of a great singer. "They have to have the YARRGH" in their voice," he said. (I think it was Bono?) The person quoted then went on to point to Van Morrison; he, HE, has the Yarrgh in his voice. It's true. (That's "yarrgh" by the way. NOT "yarggh." Yarggh is something Scottish people do with sheep.)

Monday, May 7, 2007

The First Inklings

Last night the brother asked if it felt different, being married. And the answer is, so far, it mostly hasn’t. Probably this is because my wife and I are living now exactly as we did before we married. We still have our own furniture, our own apartments, our own armies of mechanized henchmen. (Mine are solar-powered but have a tendency to nap; hers use environment-despoiling coal, but devour whole cities in an afternoon. We still don't know which we're keeping.) Little has changed.

This morning, though, for the first time, it DID feel different. As has happened often in the last few years, the wife and I slept last night in separate beds. Previously this would have been unremarkable. We slept apart at least one night every week before we got married—when I was playing poker, when she was on call, or when one of us had assigned a top-secret drop mission into the heart of occupied Malta. I preferred not to sleep alone, of course, but I was used to it; and never had it bothered me.

This morning, though, for the first time, it felt somehow...wrong. Incorrect, I mean. It was like driving on the wrong side of the road, or wearing tennis shoes with a suit. Or being arrested for DUI when you’ve single-handedly redefined the conventions of pop songcraft. I’m married, and married people sleep together. It’s a rule (isn’t it?). And I’m in violation. Not a big thing, but the first glimmering of the changes that are afoot.

My belly is also covered in yellow scales, and I’m suddenly able to see on the infra-red spectrum. But that's normal--right?