July 14, 2005
Bastille Day Reflections
Today is Bastille Day, the French equivalent to our 4th of July, and the crew at In the Agora decided to dedicate the entire day to bashing France. I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing, since there are many things I love about France. But like all nations, France has its absurdities and inconsistencies, not the least of which is the fact that they actually find Jerry Lewis funny. I only find him funny when he's trying to be serious; when he's trying to make me laugh, it is rather like having a root canal. So I reluctantly contributed an essay bashing France for their ridiculous and oppressive law against the wearing of religious clothing in school, and more generally for their distortion of the meaning of secularism.
I believe that criticism is accurate and well deserved, as I do many of the other criticisms aimed at France by the other contributors. But I also don't like to see the side of France that I and other love left out of the equation and I'm happy to see that Jason Kuznicki has written a response that, while agreeing with many of the critiques we offered, highlights the best of France. Jason is a historian with a specialty in French history, so he is ideally suited to the task. And despite the accurate criticisms of the modern French culture, few nations can claim to have contributed so many giants to Western culture: Montaigne, Pascal, Diderot, Voltaire, Proust, Montesquieu, Moliere, Balzac, Camus, Pasteur, and so many more.
I pointed out in a comment that I always feel a bit of a pull toward older, more continuous cultures than we have here in America. Not enough to move away to any of them, but enough to be grateful that they exist and that we can explore them and learn from them. America is an incredibly transient culture. The constant influx of immigrants brings us many wonderful things, but continuity is not one of them. We live in a nation that is already engaging in mass nostalgia over the 1990s, and that was a mere 5 years ago (don't believe me? Turn on VH1). We recycle history and turn it into modern pop culture art at an alarming rate. So it makes me feel good that in Paris is a restaurant that has been in business in the same place since before Europeans settled the New World. I am happy that the temporary nature of our culture is balanced by the fact that there are families in France and Italy who treasure bottles of wine and balsamic vinegar that predate both World Wars. I wouldn't want to have the entire world be so homogenous or so traditional; I am still a dynamist at heart. But I think the world needs islands of permanence amid the waters of change, whether it be the cathedrals, both literal and figurative, of France or the Roman ruins, the pyramids of Egypt or the monks of Tibet.
So I'm with Jason on this one. There is much to criticize about France today, just as there is much to criticize about America and any other great nation; but it is Bastille Day, a day that struck a blow, however temporary it turned out, against oppression. As Nickos my brother in law who's into a myriad of subjects like kayak reviews, history, investing and bird watching said, "Let us raise a glass of wine and celebrate France, flawed though it is."
Let us hope that we are judged by our best attributes and not merely our worst.
World Series of Poker, Day 6
Well, the World Series of Poker is down to 27 players and things seem to be falling right into place for ESPN to have a compelling storyline for their broadcast of it. The three biggest names left in the field are all in the top 5 in chip stack. Mike Matusow is in first place with $5.1 million; Phil Ivey is in second place with $4.6 million; and Greg Raymer is in 5th place with $3.8 million. Today the action moves from the Rio to Binion's downtown, the birthplace of the event, and they will play down to the final table of 9 players. And in the initial seating assignments for today, Ivey and Raymer are at the same table. That could provide some fireworks between two very aggressive players. Interesting that there are no fewer than 4 Swedish players among the final 27 as well as two Irishmen and a couple of Londoners. At this point, I'm rooting for Ivey. I think he's the best player in the world right now and at his incredibly young age, has a chance to break all the records for poker. My good friend Mike who's in the business of selling kayaks for beginners had this to say about Day 6 of the World Series of Poker "It's all about playing Smart and keeping your ego in check." I definitely agree with him. Do you guys do?
July 13, 2005
Dershowitz Encourages Prior Restraint?
Wendy McElroy has an interesting post on the History News Network blog about famed civil libertarian attorney Alan Dershowitz and his attempt to prevent the publication of a book that is critical of him. The book, written by Norman Finkelstein, accuses Dershowitz, among other things, of plagiarism in lifting quotes second hand from other scholars, complete with mistakes made in the original. According to McElroy, Dershowitz even went so far as to send a letter to the governor of California asking him to intervene and prevent the University of California Press from publishing the book, in addition to having his attorneys send threatening letters to virtually everyone involved in the book. The whole thing strikes me as absurd. As a civil libertarian, Dershowitz has always reminded us, and rightfully so, that the proper response to speech one does not like is to use our own speech to counter it and show the flaws in it; apparently, that doesn't apply when he himself is criticized.
World Series of Poker, Day 5
Raymer took a couple big hits late last night, losing to a rivered inside straight and taking KQ up against AQ, but he's still in the hunt with a little over $750,000 chips. With 58 players remaining, that puts him just below the average chip stack. Phil Ivey is still in the top 5 with just over $2 million, but Mike Matusow has made a charge and now stands in 2nd place with a little over $2.5 million. The chip leader is Tim Phan with $3.2 million. Also still very much alive are Lee Watkinson ($1.2 million) and John Juanda ($841,000), both very dangerous players.
ESPN is surely drooling over the possibility of having Mike Matusow and Phil Ivey make the final table. That would set up a perfect storyline for their TV coverage, with the loudmouthed and obnoxious Mike the Mouth taking on the soft-spoken and amiable Ivey. The producers are probably treating this like a Jerry Springer show, urging Matusow to keep up his obnoxious behavior and maybe even feeding him drinks and lines of coke. You may remember that last year Matusow won a pot from Raymer fairly late in the tournament and started talking trash, comparing the size of his testicles to the size of Raymer's testicles. After making a total ass out of himself, he then tried to shake Raymer's hand and apologize, which the champion coolly rejected. When Matusow busted out later, the cameras should him crying and virtually having a breakdown. There was a reason for that, which ESPN never told. What Matusow knew, and most of the poker world knew, was that he was facing jail time for a drug conviction shortly after the World Series ended. Since last year's tournament, he has spent 6 months in the Clark County Jail and reemerged to have a semi-meltdown in a World Poker Tour event.
So this is a guy who really is on the edge to some extent and I'm sure the good folks at ESPN are urging him on to greater heights of stupidity because it makes compelling television. It allows them to position him as the Bad Guy when they air this event in a few weeks, and Phil Ivey, the telegenic young boy wonder of poker, would make the ideal white hat to oppose him. So would John Juanda, the affable and brilliant young Asian player, though his thick accent might be a negative in that respect. But believe me, ESPN has a camera crew following Matusow everywhere he goes, hoping to catch him saying something outrageous. And he is too happy to oblige, last night telling some railbirds, "I just can't help it. I play so well the chips just come to me." But the truth is that Matusow really is a very good poker player, even if he does often go on tilt and steam off his chips. If he can hold it together, he has a real chance to win this thing.
There's also a woman in the top 10, a brit named Tiffany Williamson with about 2 million in chips. If I remember correctly, only one woman has ever made the final table at the World Series of Poker, which I'm sure is a function purely of numbers rather than ability. Far fewer women play the game, but there's no reason why a woman can't be just as good as men at poker. A few years ago (before he was arrested for allegedly molesting his granddaughter), Amarillo Slim famously told a reporter that he would slit his throat if a woman ever won the World Series of Poker. While the lower numbers may put the odds on his side, I doubt there's any man in the poker world who really thinks he'd be even money at a table made up of Jennifer Harman, Annie Duke, Kathy Liebert, Barbara Enright or any of a half dozen other great female players.
July 12, 2005
World Series of Poker, Day 4
This has the makings of a truly incredible story in the poker world. As play began today, the chip leader was none other than last year's winner, Greg (Fossilman) Raymer with just over a million chips. Should Raymer win again this year, that would almost certainly rank as the greatest achievement in poker history. Three players in history have won back to back WSOP main event championships: Johnny Moss in 1970 and 1971, Doyle Brunson in 1976 and 1977, and Johnny Chan in 1987 and 1988 (and finished second in 1989). But when Johnny Moss won it the first time, the title was voted on by the players, not won in a freezeout. And when Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan won it, there were far fewer players. In 1988, when Chan won the second of his two titles, only 167 players entered the event. Last year, Raymer beat out over 2600 players for the title and this year there were 5619 entries. If Raymer wins again, or even makes the final table with those two huge fields, that probably goes down as the greatest achievement in poker history.
Contrary to the way ESPN portrayed him last year (as the online qualifying amateur from nowhere), Raymer has been playing serious tournament poker for a long time and his name was not unknown in the poker world. And with his aggressive style, there are few players more dangerous with a big stack of chips in front of them. He plays an aggressive, pressing, high variance game, similar to Gus Hansen. With that style, you'll bust out early in many tournaments. But if the cards fall in their favor early in a tournament, they build up a huge stack and can use it to dominate a table the way few players can. They've taken Doyle Brunson's blueprint for no limit hold em - attack, attack, attack - and taken it to another level. They put enormous pressure on their opponents with a big stack and keep them off balance constantly. So with 185 players left and about 1/50th of the chips in play, there's no doubt that Raymer is a force to be reckoned with in this tournament.
There are dangerous players lurking about, however. Phil Ivey began the day in 7th place with over $700,000 in chips. Ivey is widely considered the best player in the game today. In the last couple years, he has torn through the biggest cash games in the world like a freight train through a cardboard box, racking up wins in the 8 figure range, in addition to being a 5 time World Poker Tour finalist and 3 time bracelet winner at the WSOP. And he's not the only one. Lurking with close to half a million chips are both Howard Lederer and Mike Matusow, and both Russ Hamilton and John Juanda are in the top 1/3 in chip count.
Connecticut Legislature Responds to Kelo
In my appearance on the Harry Browne show, we focused a lot on how to respond to the Kelo decision and what could be done to protect property rights. I urged the listeners to organize at the state and local level by putting propositions on state ballots to require that eminent domain be invoked only for direct public use and making sure that local politicians knew that there are political consequences for violating property rights. It looks like the Connecticut legislature if jumping on that bandwagon, declaring a moratorium on such development projects while they rewrite the state law regarding eminent domain. Bravo to that state and their legislature, which has recently become the first state to pass civil union legislation and is doing the right thing on this issue too.
July 11, 2005
World Series of Poker, Day 3
Today, the 5th day of the World Series of Poker, begins the 3rd day of the World Series of Poker. How is that? Well there were so many entries that they had to divide them up into three groups for the first day's play. 1/3 played their first day last Thursday, down to about 600 players, then the second 1/3 on Friday and the last 1/3 on Saturday. Sunday they all merged for day two for everyone and played down to 569 players. Day 3 should begin any moment. The average chip count is about $98,000 going into day 3, with the highest chip count being $464,000. Interesting to note that last year's winner, Greg Raymer, is currently in the top 10 in chip counts with $319,000. With his aggressiveness, a big stack of chips is a huge advantage. If he just catches average cards, he could well end up finishing high again this year.
They'll be starting out today playing hand-for-hand because they're almost to the magic number of 560. That's how many players will finish in the money, so the first 9 players to go out today will win nothing for their efforts. After that, everyone's in the money and things should loosen up a bit as players try to build their stack up enough to survive the winnowing process. I had a similar experience yesterday in a small tournament that paid 4 places. When it got down to 5 people, play got very tight as no one wanted to be the last guy to miss out on the cash. At the point where we got to 5 players, I was in 4th place but took advantage of the tight play to pick up several small pots and move up to 2nd place by the time the short stack picked up pocket kings against the big stack's pocket aces and was busted out. The first hand after we got to 4 players, another player immediately went all in with a marginal hand and I knocked him out when I flopped a set. I ended up winning the tournament.
Other big names left with money who could be a big threat include Lee Watkinson ($337K), Michael (the Grinder) Mizrachi ($295K), Jim Meehan ($212K), Layne Flack (who I understand dominated the feature table yesterday - $188K), JC Tran ($179K), Swingin Sammy Farha ($174K), former WSOP champion Russ Hamilton ($145K), Paul Darden ($144K), John Juanda ($141K), Howard Lederer ($128K), Mike Matusow ($120K - and he's already had one of his patented blowups, getting a 40 minute penalty for dropping several F-bombs on day 1), Phil Ivey ($89K), Clonie Gowen ($64K), and Kiril Gerasimov ($63K). Anyone below that point will have to get extraordinarily lucky to continue on, but I'm sure a few will. A total of 5619 players began the main event, more than double last year's entries. First prize will be a record $7.5 million and everyone at the final table will get at least $1 million.
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise
Florida State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the prosecutor that Gov. Jeb Bush urged to do an investigation of possible criminal wrongdoing by Michael Schiavo the night Terri collapsed, has concluded that there is no evidence of anything criminal. Even Jeb Bush says that's the end of the matter now, by which he probably means "please, please, make this go away so I don't have to make myself look even worse by pandering to the delusional."
Robert Bork and the Martyr Myth
Jonathan Chait has an essay in Friday's LA Times about Robert Bork and the myth of his unfair demonization and martyrdom. Among the partisan and pedestrian right (though in many cases not the intellectual right), Bork is still viewed as The One Who Started It All, the Supreme Court nominee whose case turned the nomination hearings into a televised bloodbath of opposition research and false claims. Chait sets the stage:
The legend of Robert Bork's martyrdom casts a shadow over the upcoming Supreme Court nomination, as it has over every nomination for the last 18 years. Bork, for those who somehow haven't heard his tale of woe, was nominated in 1987 for the court, only to be defeated at the hands of a savage liberal attack painting him as an ultraconservative menace.
To this day, conservatives invoke the Bork nomination as a catalyzing event, one that made clear to them the full perfidy of the liberal establishment. They wave the bloody robe of Bork as justification for every hardball tactic, from impeachment to the "nuclear option" on filibusters, and vow never to let it happen again (at least not to them). Even some liberals are sheepish and apologetic about the Bork affair. Bork himself appeared on television recently to note, with evident satisfaction, that many dictionaries now define "Bork" as a verb, meaning "to attack with unfair means."
The problem with this martyrdom myth, as Chait points out, is that it ignores one very important thing - the fact (and yes, I'll argue it is a fact) that Bork was a very bad choice for the Supreme Court and the Senate was indeed right to reject his nomination. I certainly won't defend every statement made by those in the Senate who advocated against him, but the truth still remains that Bork truly does have views far outside the mainstream and if his views were to become precedent, America would be far less free than it is today. And as Chait points out, the intervening years have only shown the case against Bork to be stronger, not weaker. Freed from the constraints of seeking higher office, Bork's written and spoken views have gotten more and more shrill and, quite frankly, nutty. Walter Olson, a libertarian conservative legal scholar with the Manhattan Institute, hit the nail on the head in reviewing Slouching Towards Gomorrah:
Slouching became a national best-seller, and it's a book likely to have unhappy consequences for some time to come. One is to finish off any reputation that Judge Bork, who once studied economics at the University of Chicago, might have retained as even vaguely sympathetic to libertarian ideas and concerns. America's real problem, he now proposes, is that Americans enjoy too much freedom, not too little. One chapter title inveighs against "The Rage for Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness"; throughout the book "liberty" and "pursuit of happiness" turn up as pejoratives. Bork traces "our modern, virtually unqualified enthusiasm for liberty" in part to the Declaration of Independence, a document whose influence he generally deplores. He assails as "both impossible and empty" John Stuart Mill's principle that law should interfere with the individual's liberty only for the sake of protecting other persons. Instead he calls for "law based on morality": "society may properly set limits on what may be shown, said and sung." His pivotal chapter is titled "The Case for Censorship."...
For a "serious attempt to root out the worst in our popular culture," he wishes to argue, "directly coercive responses may be required." When he proceeds to his call for censorship, he has little patience for the drawing of conventional lines between private adult perusal (OK) and public display or availability to children (not necessarily OK). Government should be regulating adults' morals every bit as much as children's, in his view. Remarkably, he manages to view bawdiness behind closed doors as worse, not better, than in public places: "The more private viewing becomes, the more likely is it that salacious and perverted tastes will be indulged." He brushes aside as irrelevant efforts to get the taxpayers out of funding such things: Mapplethorpe's and Serrano's pictures "should not be shown in public, whoever pays for them." His premise, in fact, is the government's right to guide and shape the characters of adults, which means that in his view censorship should cover violence as well as sex, and plain old prose as well as videos, record lyrics, and the like.
This is hardly a surprise coming from the man who believes that the first amendment protects only explicitly political speech, and who also argued that there is a surreal equivalence between an individual's desire to do something and someone else's desire to stop them. But as Olson and Chait both point out, since Bork's rejection by the Senate, he has become little more than a nag and a scold, even suggesting that the fall of the Berlin wall may have been unhealthy for the East Germans because it exposed them to decadent Western culture. Couple that with his insistence that anything not named explicitly in the Constitution as a right is fair game for government coercion - an especially ironic opinion from someone claiming to be an originalist - and it is clear that Bork's views are a recipe for authoritarianism and more government control.
Ironically, Chait points out that there is a very useful historical parallel for Bork's martyrdom myth in the Alger Hiss case. After Hiss was accused by conservatives of being a Soviet spy, the left turned him into a martyr as well, a "perfect morality tale, in which the left played the role of the persecuted innocent, and Hiss' accusers revealed their bottomless villainy." But time has shown that while not every charge aimed at him may have been accurate, Hiss was in fact a Soviet spy. The same is true of Robert Bork. Far from being a martyr, the truth is that we should each be thankful every day that Bork was rejected for the nation's highest court. It was a bullet we just barely dodged.
July 09, 2005
Mp3 of Harry Browne Show Appearance
I have uploaded the mp3s of my appearance on the Harry Browne Show from July 2nd. It's a two hour show and I was on part of each hour, so there are two mp3s, one for each hour. I came in around the 15 minute mark of the first hour and leave after the first segment of the second hour. Herb Titus is also on the show with me, but it's not much of a debate. We generally agree on the issue. To download, rick click on the links and save the files - part 1 and part 2.
More Music Reviews
Okay, I finally got to see the Pink Floyd reunion from the Live8 show. That was just great to see those guys together again. Floyd is the only band I would pay to see in a big stadium show, if they're all together again. I hope they put out something new and tour with this lineup again. Dave Gilmour is the most underrated guitarist in rock history. He is that rare guitarist who actually knows how to make a solo that makes sense within the structure of the song. Unfortunately, that was followed up with....Paul McCartney.
Paul....please....for the love of all things decent in this world....just stop. Since the Beatles broke up, you've written one song that isn't brutally painful to listen to (Live and Let Die) and that song was done far better by other people. In the meantime, you have foisted such crap as Band on the Run, Silly Love Songs, Pieces of Eight, The Girl is Mine, Ebony and Ivory and Say Say Say on the world. I know the Beatles changed rock and roll, I know that earns you a lot of benefit of the doubt, but it's been 30 years and your music has continually sucked since the moment you left. Time's up. Go home and get off my TV screen.
Ouch. I've been watching the Live8 concert on MTV (yeah, I think the event is mostly puff, but there are some great bands performing). And I'm right now listening to Audioslave with Chris Cornell ruining Killing In the Name Of completely. I loved Rage Against the Machine, I liked Soundgarden and I've liked Audioslave's original stuff (for those who don't know, Audioslave is the band from Rage Against the Machine with Soundgarden's lead singer). But Chris Cornell is not Zach de la Rocha and he never will be, guys. Do not try and do old Rage material without Zach, it's gonna sound as bad as you just did. That was just pathetic.
Postscript: Yes, I know I haven't written much of substance lately. It may be that way for a few days. I've had some of the most bizarre things happen in my personal life over the last week, things I could never have foreseen in a million years. I'm suffering from major brain fry. Once I recover, I'll be back to my normal self. In the meantime, expect light and non-serious blogging.
July 08, 2005
Paul Phillips at the World Series of Poker
The World Series of Poker main event started yesterday at the Rio in Las Vegas with the first flight of over 1000 players. Last year's field of over 2500 has been more than doubled to 5600. Paul Phillips, poker player and raconteur extraordinaire, is keeping a daily diary for Slate magazine. The first installment is here. It includes a brief synopsis of his banning from Binion's, home of the World Series until this year, in 2001, a situation which led to me being barred from that property as well. I didn't mind that, since I thought it was a cesspool anyway and wasn't planning to play in the World Series until it left there. It was all quite amusing. He also includes a couple of notes on problems with the way the tournament is run:
Harrah's acquired the World Series of Poker two years ago, and the abrupt change in management has led to numerous missteps. One example I noticed today: Despite documented cases of players sneaking fake chips into the tournament, the Rio is still selling souvenir chips that look almost exactly like the real thing. Even more embarrassing is a tale I heard from entrants in the WSOP's first preliminary event five weeks ago. When they showed up, the players discovered they had been seated alphabetically, placing fathers and sons next to each other and forming a table full of the many pros named Nguyen. (The organizers eventually redrew the starting positions.) This is a nerve-racking atmosphere; I'm getting more nervous knowing that I cannot trust the basic competence of the tournament staff.
The table full of Nguyens is amusing, but that's a brutal table with Men, Min and Scotty Nguyen at the same table. Good luck to Paul this year, and to Kellen, one of the regular players in my home game, who is playing today.
Crazy Poker Game
We had the craziest poker game last night. We play a $1/$2 pot limit hold em game. Not really a big money game, and usually the pots get bigger toward the end of the night as people loosen up, try to push people around with a big stack, or try to recoup their losses. Well last night was insane from the first hand and got more insane as the night went on. 3 of our regular players are in Vegas for the World Series of Poker, but we had two of our occasional players show up and one new guy who was just about the worst poker player I've ever seen. Anyway, just listen to how things got started...
First hand of the night, I'm in the small blind and I've got pocket queens. Jeff is under the gun and he raises to $5. Jan is in middle position and he raises it to $10. Both Jeff and Jan are very loose players who could be raising with almost anything here, so I reraise to $20 figuring I've probably got the best hand here. They both call me. Flop comes Q J 4. I bet enough to put them both all in. Jeff immediately calls, Jan folds and he turns up pocket kings. Beautiful, first pot to me and Jeff has to rebuy after one hand.
Second hand of the night. I'm dealing, Jeff is already bitching, and we see the flop with 5 callers and no raise. The flop comes K 10 3. Jeff bets $10, Jan goes all in, Dave goes all in behind him and Shane calls too. Back around to Jeff, he then goes all in with what he has left and Shane is all in too. So we've got 4 players all in after the flop. They flip up the cards. Jeff has K3, Jan has AK, Dave has pocket 9s (I told you he was the worst player I've ever seen) and Shane has K10. No one improves, Shane takes down the pot and now we've got three people rebuying after the second hand, with Jeff rebuying for the second time in two hands. And he's REALLY bitching now.
Fast forward to about the 7th or 8th hand of the night. Jeff is still bitching up a storm. I'm in the big blind with 5 2 and no one raises. Flop comes 5 4 4. I check, not liking my kicker at all, Jeff bets $5, Dave calls and Shane calls. It's not a big bet, there are 3 other players, so the pot odds demand that I call as well. Turn is another 5. Huzzah! I check, Jeff bets $20, Dave calls, Shane calls, I raise to $50 (I know someone else has the 5, probably Jeff, so I know it's a split pot, but with the other two calling big bets I figure I might be able to get them to call another one). Dave finally folds but Shane calls. And the river....is a third 4. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Jeff bets $20, but I'm sure he has the 5. Shane is all in for about $9 at that point, so I call the $20. Shane turns over the 4 for quads, which I knew was more than likely, but for a lousy $9 into an over $200 pot, you can't lay it down.
And by this time, Jeff reaches for this 3rd rebuy in less than 15 minutes at the table. And of course we'll be hearing about this for the next 3 months. It really never got any calmer than that either. Dave, the world's worst player, lost about $200 in an hour or so just by making stupid bets. He went on about a 5 hand streak where he caught cards and won everything. He had a big stack in front of him, but at one point when he went to the bathroom I told Jan, "That stack will be gone, and all the money he brought, within 2 hours. After that, he just raised the pot on every single hand and one by one, we picked him off until he had emptied his wallet. If it weren't for idiots like him, poker wouldn't be nearly as profitable. I ended up losing $70, mostly on the one hand where my full house got beat by quads on the river. But it was a night of "oh my god" hands and it was fun to watch.