10 more browser tabs

Still trying to clear out browser tabs, though it's going about as well as my brief flirtation with inbox zero. At some point, I just decided inbox zero was a waste of time, solving a problem that didn't exist, but browser tab proliferation is a problem I'm much more complicit in.

1. Why the coming-of-age narrative is a conformist lie

From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journalling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.
 
‘Growing up’ as it is defined today – that is, as entering society, once and for all – might work against what is morally justifiable. If you are a part of a flawed, immoral and unjust society (as one could argue we all are) then to truly mature is to see this as a problem and to act on it – not to reaffirm it by becoming a part of it. Classically, most coming-of-age tales follow white, male protagonists because their integration into society is expected and largely unproblematic. Social integration for racial, sexual and gender minorities is a more difficult process, not least because minorities define themselves against the norm: they don’t ‘find themselves’ and integrate into the social context in which they live. A traditional coming-of-age story featuring a queer, black girl will fail on its own terms; for how would her discovering her identity allow her to enter a society that insists on marginalising identities like hers? This might seem obvious, but it very starkly underscores the folly of insisting on seeing social integration as the young person’s top priority. Life is a wave of events. As such, you don’t come of age; you just age. Adulthood, if one must define it, is only a function of time, in which case, to come of age is merely to live long enough to do so.
 

I've written about this before, but almost always, the worst type of film festival movie is about a young white male protagonist coming of age. Often he's quiet, introverted, but he has a sensitive soul. As my first year film school professor said, these protagonists are inert, but they just "feel things." Think Wes Bentley in American Beauty filming a plastic bag dancing in the wind for fifteen minutes with a camcorder, then showing it to a girl as if it's Citizen Kane.

If they have any scars or wounds, they are compensated for with extreme gifts. Think Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver; cursed with tinnitus since childhood, he listens to music on a retro iPod (let's squeeze some nostalgic product placement in here, what the hell, we're also going to give him a deaf black foster father to stack the moral cards in his favor, might as well go all the way) and is, that's right, the best getaway driver in the business.

Despite having about as much personality as a damp elephant turd, their beautiful souls are both recognized and extracted by a trope which this genre of film invented just for this purpose, the manic pixie dream girl.

[Nathan Rabin, who invented the term manic pixie dream girl, has since disavowed the term as sometimes misogynist, and it can be applied too broadly like a hammer seeking nails, but it doesn't undo the reality that largely white male writing blocs, from guilds to writer's rooms, aren't great at writing women or people of color with deep inner lives.]

This is tangential to the broader point, that the coming-of-age story as a genre is, in and of itself, a lie. It reminds me of the distinction between Finite and Infinite Games, the classic book from James Carse. The Hollywood film has always promised a finite game, and thus it's a story that must have an ending. Coming-of-age is an infinite game, or at least until death, and so we should all be skeptical of its close-ended narrative.

(h/t Michael Dempsey)

2. Finite and Infinite Games and The Confederate

This isn't a browser tab, really, but while I'm on the topic of Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, a book which provides a framework with which so much of the world can be bifurcated, and while I'm thinking about the white male dominated Hollywood profession, I can't help but think of the TV project The Confederate, by the showrunners of Game of Thrones.

"White people” is seen by many whites as a pejorative because it lowers them to a racial class whereas before they were simply the default. They are not accustomed to having spent their entire lives being named in almost every piece of culture as a race, the way women, people of color, and the union of the two are, every single day, by society and culture.

All Lives Matter retort to Black Lives Matter is to pretend that we're all playing the same finite game when almost everyone who are losers in that game know it is not true. Blacks do not feel like they “won” the Civil War; every day today they live with the consequences and the shadow of America's founding racism, every day they continue to play a game that is rigged against them. That is why Ta Nehisi Coates writes that the question of The Confederate is a lie, and that only the victors of this finite game of America would want to relitigate the Civil War in some Alt History television show for HBO. It's as if a New England Patriot fan asked an Atlanta Falcons fan to watch last year's Super Bowl again, with Armie Hammer playing Tom Brady.

“Give us your poor, your huddled” is a promise that the United States is an infinite game, an experiment that struggles constantly towards bettering itself, evening the playing field, such that even someone starting poor and huddled might one day make a better life and escape their beginning state. That is why Stephen Miller and other white nationalists spitting on that inscription on the Statue of Liberty is so offensive, so dangerous.

On society, Carse writes:

The prizes won by its citizens can be protected only if the society as a whole remains powerful in relation to other societies. Those who desire the permanence of their prizes will work to sustain the permanence of the whole. Patriotism in one or several of its many forms (chauvinism, racism, sexism, nationalism, regionalism) is an ingredient in all societal play. 
 
Because power is inherently patriotic, is is characteristic of finite players to seek a growth of power in a society as a way of increasing the power of a society.
 

Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem is seen as unpatriotic by many in America, including the wealthy white owners of such teams, which is not surprising, as racism is a form of patriotism, per Carse, and part and parcel of American society when defined as a finite game.

Donald Trump and his large adult sons are proof of just how powerful the inheritance of title and money are in America, and the irony that they are elected by those who feel that successive rounds of finite games have started to be rigged against them is not lost on anyone, not even, I suspect, them. One could argue they need to take a lesson from those oppressed for far longer as to how a turn to nihilism works out in such situations.

Those attacking Affirmative Action want to close off the American experiment and turn it into a series of supposedly level finite games because they have accumulated a healthy lead in this game and wish to preserve it in every form.

White nationalists like Trump all treat America as not just a finite game, but a zero sum finite game. The idea of immigrants being additive to America, to its potential, its output, is to treat America as an infinite game, open-ended. The truth lies, as usual, between the poles, but closer to the latter.

Beware the prophet who comes with stories of zero-sum games, or as Jim Collins once wrote, beware the "tyranny of the or." One of my definitions of leadership is the ability to turn zero-sum into positive sum games.

3. Curb Your Enthusiasm is Running Out of People to Offend

Speaking of fatigue with white male protagonists:

But if Larry David’s casual cruelty mirrors the times more than ever, the show might still fit awkwardly in the current moment. Watching the première of Season 9 on Sunday night, I kept thinking of a popular line from George Costanza, David’s avatar on “Seinfeld”: “You know, we’re living in a society!” Larry, in this first episode of the season, seems to have abandoned society altogether. In the opening shot, the camera sails over a tony swath of L.A., with no people and only a few cars visible amid the manicured lawns and terra-cotta roofs. It descends on Larry’s palatial, ivy-walled house, where he showers alone, singing Mary Poppins’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” and bludgeoning a bottle of soap. (Its dispenser pump is broken—grounds for execution under the David regime.) He’s the master of his domain, yes, but only by default: no one else is around.
 
“Curb” has always felt insulated, and a lot of its best jokes are borne of the fact that Larry’s immense wealth has warped his world view over the years. (On the most recent season he had no compunction about spending a princely sum on Girl Scout Cookies, only to rescind the order out of spite.) But the beginning of Season 9 offers new degrees of isolation. Like a tech bro ensconced in a hoodie and headphones, Larry seems to have removed himself almost entirely from public life. Both “Curb” and “Seinfeld” like to press the limits of etiquette and social mores, but the latter often tested these on subway cars and buses, in parks or on the street. Much of “Curb,” by contrast, unfolds in a faceless Los Angeles of air-conditioned mansions, organic restaurants, and schmoozy fund-raisers, a long chain of private spaces. The only time Larry encounters a true stranger, it’s in the liminal zone between his car and the lobby of Jeff’s office. She’s a barber on her way to see Jeff at work—even haircuts happen behind closed doors now.
 

Groundhog Day, one of the great movies, perhaps my favorite Christmas movie of all time, has long been regarded a great Buddhist parable

Groundhog Day is a movie about a bad-enough man—selfish, vain, and insecure—who becomes wise and good through timeless recurrence.
 

If that is so, then Curb Your Enthusiasm is its dark doppelganger, a parable about the dark secret at the heart of American society, that no person, no matter how selfish, vain, and petty, can suffer the downfall necessary to achieve enlightenment, if he is white and a man. 

In this case, he is a successful white man in Hollywood, Larry David, and each episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is his own personal Groundhog Day. Whereas Bill Murray wakes up each morning to Sonny and Cher, trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, around small town people he dislikes, in a job he feels superior to, Larry David wakes up each morning in his Los Angeles mansion, with rewards seemingly only proportionate to the depths of his pettiness and ill humor. Every episode, he treats all the friends and family around him with little disguised disdain, and yet the next episode, he wakes up in the mansion again.

Whereas Bill Murray eventually realizes the way to break out of his loop is to use it for self-improvement, Larry David seems to be striving to fall from grace by acting increasingly terrible and yet finds himself back in the gentle embrace of his high thread count sheets every morning.

Curb Your Enthusiasm has its moments of brilliance in its minute dissection of the sometimes illogical and perhaps fragile bonds of societal goodwill, and its episode structure is often exceedingly clever, but I can't help watching it now as nothing more than an acerbic piece of performance art, with all the self absorption that implies.

Larry David recently complained about the concept of first world problems, which is humorous, as it's difficult to think of any single person who has done as precise a job educating the world on what they are.

[What about Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., you might ask? Aren't they Hollywood royalty toppled from lofty, seemingly untouchable perches? The story of how those happened will be the subject of another post, because the mechanics are so illuminating.]

4. Nathan for You

I am through season 2 of Nathan for You, a Comedy Central show that just wrapped its fourth and final season. We have devalued the term LOL with overuse, but no show has made me literally laugh out loud by myself, on the sofa, as this, though I've grinned in pleasure at certain precise bits of stylistic parody of American Vandal.

Nathan Fielder plays a comedic version of himself. In the opening credits, he proclaims:

My name is Nathan Fielder, and I graduated from one of Canada's top business schools with really good grades [NOTE: as he says this, we see a pan over his transcript, showing largely B's and C's]. Now I'm using my knowledge to help struggling small business owners make it in this competitive world.
 

If you cringed while watching a show like Borat or Ali G, if you wince a bit when one of the correspondents on The Daily Show went to interview some stooge, you might believe Nathan For You isn't, well, for you. However, the show continues to surprise me.

For one thing, it's a deeply useful reminder of how difficult it is for physical retailers, especially mom and pop entrepreneurs, to generate foot traffic. That they go along with Fielder's schemes is almost tragic, but more instructive.

For another, while almost every entrepreneur is the straight person to Fielder's clown, I find myself heartened by how rarely one of them just turns him away outright. You can see the struggle on each of their faces, as he presents his idea and then stares at them for an uncomfortably long silence, waiting for them to respond. He never breaks character. Should they just laugh at him, or throw him out in disgust? It almost never happens, though one private investigator does chastise Fielder for being a complete loser.

On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's friends openly call him out for his misanthropy, yet they never abandon him. On Nathan For You, small business owners almost never adopt Fielder's ideas at the end of the trial. However, they almost never call him out as ridiculous. Instead, they try the idea with a healthy dose of good nature at least once, or at least enough to capture an episode's worth of material.

In this age of people screaming at each other over social media, I found this reminder of the inherent decency of people in face to face situations comforting and almost reassuring. Sure, some people are unpleasant both online and in person, and some people are pleasant in person and white supremacists in private.

But some people try to see the best in each other, give others the benefit of the doubt, and on such bonds a civil society are maintained. That this piece of high concept art could not fence in the humanity and real emotion of all the people participating, not even that of Fielder, is a bit of pleasure in this age of eye-rolling cynicism.

[Of course, these small business owners are aware a camera is on them, so the Heisenberg Principle of reality television applies. That a show like this, which depend on the subjects not knowing about the show, lasted four full seasons is a good reminder of how little-watched most cultural products are in this age of infinite content.]

BONUS CONTENT NO ONE ASKED FOR: Here is my Nathan for You idea: you know how headline stand-up comedians don't come on stage to perform until several lesser known and usually much lousier comics are trotted out to warm up the crowd? How, if you attend the live studio taping of a late night talk show like The Daily Show or The Tonight Show, some cheesy comic comes out beforehand to get your laugh muscles loose, your vocal chords primed? And when the headliner finally arrives, it comes as sweet relief?

What if there were an online dating service that provided such a warm-up buffoon for you? That is, when you go on a date, before meeting your date, first the service sends in a stand-in who is dull, awkward, a turn off in every way possible? But a few minutes into what seems to be a disastrous date, you suddenly show up and rescue the proceedings?

It sounds ridiculous, but this is just the sort of idea that Nathan for You would seem to go for. I haven't watched seasons 3 and 4 yet, so if he does end up trying this idea in one of those later episodes, please don't spoil it for me. I won't even be mad that my idea was not an original one, I'll be so happy to see actual footage of it in the field.

5. The aspect ratio of 2:00 to 1 is everywhere

I first read the case for 2:00 to 1 as an aspect ratio when legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro advocated for it several years ago. He anticipated a world where most movies would have a longer life viewed on screens at home than in movie theaters, and 2:00 to 1, or Univisium, is halfway between the typical 16:9 HDTV aspect ratio and Panavision, or 2:35 to 1.

So many movies and shows use 2:00 to 1 now, and I really prefer it to 16:9 for most work.

6. Tuning AIs through captchas

Most everyone has probably encountered the new popular captcha which displays a grid of photos and asks you to identify which contain a photo of a store front. I just experienced it recently signing up for HQTrivia. This breed of captcha succeeds the wave of captchas that showed photos of short strings of text or numbers and asked you to type in what you saw, helping to train AIs trying to learn to read them. There are variants of the store front captcha: some ask you to identify vehicles, others to identify street signs, but the speculation is that Google uses these to train the "vision" of its self-driving cars.

AI feels like magic when it works, but underrated is the slow slog to take many AI's from stupid to competent. It's no different than training a human. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to being presented with the captcha that shows two photos, one of a really obese man, the other of five school children, with this question above them: "If you had to run over and kill the people in one of these photos, which would you choose?"

7. It's Mikaela Shiffrin profile season, with this one in Outside and this in the New Yorker

I read Elizabeth Weil's profile of Shiffrin in Outside first:

But the naps: Mikaela not only loves them, she’s fiercely committed to them. Recovery is the most important part of training! And sleep is the most important part of recovery! And to be a champion, you need a steadfast loyalty to even the tiniest and most mundane points. Mikaela will nap on the side of the hill. She will nap at the start of the race. She will wake up in the morning, she tells me after the gym, at her house, while eating some pre-nap pasta, “and the first thought I’ll have is: I cannot wait for my nap today. I don’t care what else happens. I can’t wait to get back in bed.”
 
Mikaela also will not stay up late, and sometimes she won’t do things in the after­noon, and occasionally this leads to more people flipping out. Most of the time, she trains apart from the rest of the U.S. Ski Team and lives at home with her parents in Vail (during the nine weeks a year she’s not traveling). In the summers, she spends a few weeks in Park City, Utah, training with her teammates at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Center of Excellence. The dynamic there is, uh, complicated. “Some sports,” Mikaela says, “you see some athletes just walking around the gym, not really doing anything, eating food. They’re first to the lunchroom, never lifting weights.”
 

By chance, I happened to be reading The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle, and had just read tips that sounded very familiar to what was mentioned here.

More echoes of Coyle's book in The New Yorker profile:

My presumption was that her excellence was innate. One sometimes thinks of prodigies as embodiments of peculiar genius, uncorrupted by convention, impossible to replicate or reëngineer. But this is not the case with Shiffrin. She’s as stark an example of nurture over nature, of work over talent, as anyone in the world of sports. Her parents committed early on to an incremental process, and clung stubbornly to it. And so Shiffrin became something besides a World Cup hot shot and a quadrennial idol. She became a case study. Most parents, unwittingly or not, present their way of raising kids as the best way, even when the results are mixed, as such results usually are. The Shiffrins are not shy about projecting their example onto the world, but it’s hard to argue with their findings. “The kids with raw athletic talent rarely make it,” Jeff Shiffrin, Mikaela’s father, told me. “What was it Churchill said? Kites fly higher against a headwind.”
 

So it wasn't a real surprise to finally read this:

The Shiffrins were disciples of the ten-thousand-hours concept; the 2009 Daniel Coyle book “The Talent Code” was scripture. They studied the training methods of the Austrians, Alpine skiing’s priesthood. The Shiffrins wanted to wring as much training as possible out of every minute of the day and every vertical foot of the course. They favored deliberate practice over competition. They considered race days an onerous waste: all the travel, the waiting around, and the emotional stress for two quick runs. They insisted that Shiffrin practice honing her turns even when just skiing from the bottom of the racecourse to the chairlift. Most racers bomb straight down, their nonchalance a badge of honor.
 

Coyle's book, which I love for its succinct style (it could almost be a tweetstorm if Twitter had slightly longer character limits, each tip is averages one or two paragraphs long), is the books I recommend to all parents who want their kids to be really great at something, and not just sports.

Much of the book is about the importance of practice, and what types of practice are particularly efficient and effective.

Jeff Shiffrin said, “One of the things I learned from the Austrians is: every turn you make, do it right. Don’t get lazy, don’t goof off. Don’t waste any time. If you do, you’ll be retired from racing by the time you get to ten thousand hours.”
 
“Here’s the thing,” Mikaela told me one day. “You can’t get ten thousand hours of skiing. You spend so much time on the chairlift. My coach did a calculation of how many hours I’ve been on snow. We’d been overestimating. I think we came up with something like eleven total hours of skiing on snow a year. It’s like seven minutes a day. Still, at the age of twenty-two, I’ve probably had more time on snow than most. I always practice, even on the cat tracks or in those interstitial periods. My dad says, ‘Even when you’re just stopping, be sure to do it right, maintaining a good position, with counter-rotational force.’ These are the kinds of things my dad says, and I’m, like, ‘Shut up.’ But if you say it’s seven minutes a day, then consider that thirty seconds that all the others spend just straight-lining from the bottom of the racecourse to the bottom of the lift: I use that part to work on my turns. I’m getting extra minutes. If I don’t, my mom or my coaches will stop me and say something.”
 

Bill Simmons recently hosted Steve Kerr for a mailbag podcast, and part I is fun to hear Kerr tell stories about Michael Jordan. Like so many greats, Jordan understood that the contest is won in the sweat leading up to the contest, and his legendary competitiveness elevated every practice and scrimmage into gladiatorial combat. As Kerr noted, Jordan single-handedly was a cure for complacency for the Bulls. 

He famously broke down some teammates with such intensity in practice that they were driven from the league entirely (remember Rodney McCray?). Everyone knows he once punched Steve Kerr and left him with a shiner during a heated practice. The Dream Team scrimmage during the lead in to the 1992 Olympics, in which the coaches made Michael Jordan one captain, Magic Johnson the other, is perhaps the single sporting event I most wish had taken place in the age of smartphones and social media.

What struck me about the Shiffrin profiles, something Coyle notes about the greats, is how many of the lives of the great ones are unusually solitary, spent in deliberate practice on their own, apart from teammates. It's obviously amplified for individual sports like tennis and skiing and golf, but even for team sports, the great ones have their own routines. Not only is it lonely at the top, it's often lonely on the way there.

8. The secret tricks hidden inside restaurant menus

Perhaps because I live in the Bay Area, it feels as if the current obsession is with the dark design patterns and effects of social apps. But in the scheme of things, many other fields whose work we interact with daily have many more years of experience designing to human nature. In many ways, people designing social media have a very naive and incomplete view of human nature, but the power of the distribution of ubiquitous smartphone and network effects have elevated them to the forefront of the conversation.

Take a place like Las Vegas. Its entire existence is testament to the fact that the house always wins, yet it could not exist if it could not convince the next sucker to sit down at the table and see the next hand. The decades of research into how best to part a sucker from his wallet makes the volume of research among social media companies look like a joke, even if the latter isn't trivial.

I have a sense that social media companies are similar to where restaurants are with menu design. Every time I sit down at a new restaurant, I love examining the menus and puzzling over all the choices with fellow diners, as if having to sit with me over a meal isn't punishment enough. When the waiter comes and I ask for an overview of the menu, and recommendations, I'm wondering what dishes the entire experience is meant to nudge me to order.

I'm awaiting the advent of digital and eventually holographic or A/R menus to see what experiments we'll see. When will we have menus that are personalized? Based on what you've enjoyed here and other restaurants, we think you'll love this dish. When will we see menus that use algorithmic sorting—these are the most ordered dishes all-time, this week, today? People who ordered this also ordered this? When will see editorial endorsements? "Pete Wells said of this dish in his NYTimes review..."

Not all movies are worth deep study because not all movies are directed with intent. The same applies to menus, but today, enough menus are put through a deliberate design process that it's usually a worthwhile exercise to put them under the magnifying glass. I would love to read some blog that just analyzes various restaurant menus, so if someone starts one, please let me know.

9. Threat of bots and cheating looms as HQ Trivia reaches new popularity heights

When I first checked out HQ Trivia, an iOS live video streaming trivia competition for cash prizes, the number of concurrent viewers playing, displayed on the upper left of the screen, numbered in the hundreds. Now the most popular of games, which occur twice a day, attract over 250K players. In this age where we've seen empires built on exploiting the efficiencies to be gained from shifting so much of social intimacy to asynchronous channels, it's fun to be reminded of the unique fun of synchronous entertainment.

What intrigues me is not how HQ Trivia will make money. The free-to-play game industry is one of the most savvy when it comes to extracting revenue, and even something like podcasts points the way to monetizing popular media with sponsorships, product placement, etc.

What's far more interesting is where the shoulder on the S-curve is. Trivia is a game of skill, and with that comes two longstanding issues. I've answered, at most, 9 questions in a row, and it takes 12 consecutive right answers to win a share of the cash pot. I'm like most people in probably never being able to win any cash.

This is an issue faced by Daily Fantasy Sports, where the word "fantasy" is the most important word. Very soon after they became popular, DFS were overrun by sharks submitting hundreds or thousands of lineups with the aid of computer programs, and some of those sharks worked for the companies themselves. The "fantasy" being sold is that the average person has a chance of winning.

As noted above in my comment about Las Vegas, it's not impossible to sell people on that dream. The most beautiful of cons is one the mark willingly participates in. People participate in negative expected value activities all the time, like the lottery, and carnival games, and often they're aware they'll lose. Some people just participate for the fun of it, and a free-to-play trivia game costs a player nothing other than some time, even if the expected value is close to zero.

A few people have asked me whether that live player count is real, and I'm actually more intrigued by the idea it isn't. Fake it til you make it is one of the most popular refrains of not just Silicon Valley but entrepreneurs everywhere. What if HQ Trivia just posted a phony live player count of 1 million tomorrow? Would their growth accelerate even more than it has recently? What about 10 million? When does the marginal return to every additional player in that count go negative because people feel that there is so much competition it's not worth it? Or is the promise of possibly winning money besides the point? What if the pot scaled commensurate to the number of players; would it become like the lottery? Massive pots but long odds?

The other problem, linked to the element of skill, is cheating. As noted in the article linked above, and in this piece about the spike in Google searches for answers during each of the twice-a-day games, cheating is always a concern in games, especially as the monetary rewards increase. I played the first game when HQ Trivia had a $7,500 cash pot, and the winners each pocketed something like $575 and change. Not a bad payout for something like 10 minutes of fun.

Online poker, daily fantasy sports, all are in constant battle with bots and computer-generated entries. Even sports books at casinos have to wage battle with sharks who try to get around betting caps by sending in all sorts of confederates to put down wagers on their behalf.

I suspect both of these issues will be dampeners on the game's prospects, but more so the issue of skill. I already find myself passing on games when I'm not with others who also play or who I can rope into playing with me. That may be the game's real value, inspiring communal bonding twice a day among people in the same room.

People like to quip that pornography is the tip of the spear when it comes to driving adoption of new technologies, but I'm partial to trivia. It is so elemental and pure a game, with such comically self-explanatory rules, that it is one of the elemental forms or genres of gaming, just like HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky is some paragon of a game-show host, mixing just the right balance of cheesiness and snarkiness and effusiveness needed to convince all the players that any additional irony would be unseemly.

10. Raising a teenage daughter

Speaking of Elizabeth Weil, who wrote the Shiffrin profile for Outside, here's another of her pieces, a profile of her daughter Hannah. The twist is that the piece includes annotations by Hannah after the fact.

It is a delight. The form is perfect for revealing the dimensions of their relationship, and that of mothers and teenage daughters everywhere. In the interplay of their words, we sense truer contours of their love, shaped, as they are, by two sets of hands.

[Note, Esquire has long published annotated profiles, you can Google for them, but they are now all locked behind a paywall]

This format makes me question how many more profiles would benefit from allowing the subject of a piece to annotate after the fact. It reveals so much about the limitations of understanding between two people, the unwitting and witting lies at the heart of journalism, and what Janet Malcolm meant, when she wrote, in the classic opening paragraph of her book The Journalist and the Murderer, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

Trump vs. a Japanese whale

The story of Akio Kashiwagi, drawn from Trump’s memoirs and news accounts from the day, offers a revealing window into Trump’s instincts. It shows that Trump isn’t just a one-time casino owner—he’s also a gambler, prone to impulsive, even reckless action. In The Art of the Comeback, published in 1997, Trump explains that until he met Kashiwagi, he saw himself as an investor who dealt only in facts and reason. But his duel with the great whale in action made him realize “that I had become a gambler, something I never thought I was.”
 
Perhaps just as important, when gambling failed him, Trump didn't quit: He doubled down. But he did it shrewdly, summoning a RAND Corporation mathematician to devise a plan that would maximize his chance of fleecing his Japanese guest.
 
And it worked. Kind of. In Trump’s recollection, which he shared for this story, his showdown with Kashiwagi was another one of his many great wins. Just don’t look too hard at the ledger.
 

A bizarre and nutty tale of the time Donald Trump hired a RAND Corp mathematician to try to win back money a Japanese gambler took from one of his hotels in a hot night of Baccarat.

Before reading the piece, I thought perhaps they had changed the rules of the game somehow to raise the house edge. But no, they just changed the terms under which Kahiwagi to play, counting on the house edge to manifest over the long run.

Behind the trademark bluster, however, Trump grew more calculated. Having looked in the mirror and seen a gambler, he reverted to careful strategy. Trump consulted Jess Marcum, a mathematical probabilities expert who co-founded the Rand Corporation—a government-affiliated think tank then better known for modeling nuclear war with the Soviet Union—on how to maximize his odds in a second showdown with Kashiwagi. Marcum knew the only way to compensate for the house’s very slight baccarat advantage, of just over one percent, was to keep the game going for as long as possible. Time was on Trump’s side.
 
So Marcum and an Atlantic City casino insider named Al Glasgow prepared a report for Trump proposing a “freeze out” agreement. Under the deal, Kashiwagi would bring $12 million to the table and play until he had either doubled it—or lost everything. Even with huge bets, that would take a long time. Marcum simulated the match in detailed hand written notes. Kashiwagi might surge ahead early, he estimated, but after 75 hours at the table – far longer than he had stayed the first time - his chances of winning would fall to 15 percent. The key was to prevent a repeat of Kashiwagi’s first visit, when he had walked out while ahead.
 
Kashiwagi, presumably fuzzier on the probabilities, agreed to the terms. There was no legal way to hold him to such a deal but Trump felt the men were honor-bound. “Gamblers are honorable, in their own way—at least about gambling,” he later wrote.
 

The peculiar thing about Trump is that, as offended as I am but so many of the things he says, I'm not convinced he actually believes half the things he spews with such gusto. Yes, he's a politician, and they're always churning out rhetoric for reasons of positioning, but Trump exceeds even other politicians in his commitment to artifice.

Because of that, when he says something I disagree with, I'm more offended by the casual way he tosses around such damaging ideas than the ideas themselves, and when he says something I agree with—which is, admittedly, rare—I don't give him much credit.

He needs no exaggeration to be rendered a caricature, because he has done it himself, both figuratively and literally, like one of those figures in Pinocchio who becomes the physical embodiment of its own hubris. If you were a cartoonist on assignment to lampoon him, you could just snap a photo and collect a full day's pay.

Moby Dick

The Uncomfortable Truth at the Heart of Mobile Gaming:

Most people outside the game industry don’t realize that free-to-play games, by far the most successful mobile game category, are often supported financially by a very small number of users who pay extravagantly for power-ups, extra lives, and in-game currency. The whole point of many successful free-to-play games is to identify these “whales” and extract as much money as possible from them. 

The discussion of this process at mobile conferences is sometimes uncomfortable. Non-paying players (the great majority of a game’s users) are often dismissed as meat to be fed to the whales. An intense amount of thought goes into not just identifying the whales, but determining their individual psychology and the best techniques to pull more money from that particular type of person. Players are tracked in as much detail as possible, including exactly which promotion they responded to, what their purchasing pattern is, and any other details the developer can glean from them. Every aspect of the game is crafted to maximize revenue extraction, including minute changes in graphics, button designs, and subtle changes in game play. Anything that creates even a small fraction of one percent change in a conversion rate can mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful game, so the pressure to constantly refine everything is immense.
 

Among the many ways free to play mobile games are like gambling, this most uncomfortable may be how scientifically one can engineer a game to part a whale from his money.

Recommended reading: Addiction by Design

Miscellany

  1. High frequency trading, betting on tennis edition. Given that in tennis the gap in the number of points won between the winner and the loser is often quite low, the difference of knowing who one a particular game can often swing the result expectations from one side to the other, opening up quick and short-lived arbitrage windows.
  2. Lance Stephenson, basketball buffoon. “Back when he was in high school, Stephenson appeared in a documentary directed by Adam Yauch, of the Beastie Boys, which centered on a pickup game between eight young basketball phenoms at Rucker Park, in Harlem. Joshua Hersh wrote about Stephenson’s role in the film for The New Yorker: “Stephenson appears to be having a lot of fun, throwing down slam dunks, and even, at one point, dancing a little jig. In the fourth quarter, muscling his way to a rebound, he smacks Love”—Kevin Love, then a player for U.C.L.A.—“in the face with his forearm, busting open his lip.”” This was prescient given Stephenson's slap of Norris Cole in the Heat's series-clinching victory the other day. I like the term “basketball buffoon.”
  3. The ideological Turing Test. “The Ideological Turing Test is a concept invented by American economist Bryan Caplan to test whether a political or ideological partisan correctly understands the arguments of his or her intellectual adversaries: the partisan is invited to answer questions or write an essay posing as his opposite number. If neutral judges cannot tell the difference between the partisan’s answers and the answers of the opposite number, the candidate is judged to correctly understand the opposing side.”
  4. Is it time to abolish the 7-day week? It is somewhat arbitrary, but I think the author minimizes the value of coordination in the knowledge economy. The tech world has already hacked the 7-day work week quite a bit. Many developers are nocturnal and work on a different cycle than other job functions.
  5. Selfish Play Increases during High-Stakes NBA Games and Is Rewarded with More Lucrative Contracts. This isn't meant to be another veiled reference to Lance Stephenson, though I wouldn't blame you for thinking it was. There's no “I” in “team,” but there is in “raise.” One of the reasons basketball is one of the hardest sports to quantitatively assess player value in is that an individual's statistical performance doesn't always correlate to the team's performance. That's much less true in a sport like baseball which is much more of a series of discrete individual confrontations.
  6. Virgin Atlantic reaches deal with US FAA on launching flights into space from New Mexico; first flight expected by end of 2014. Let's hope the Virgin Atlantic website is better than the Virgin America website. I'm not sure I can deal with the first world privilege that will be tweets from gazillionaires complaining they couldn't log on to purchase a space flight.

David Walsh

A key feature of the markets Walsh and his partners invest in is that they are characterised by randomly “independent events”. Specifically, the occurrence of one event does not influence the chance of the other and they therefore have “finite variance”, or limited downside risk.

“Gambling has the huge benefit of having independent events – I cannot get blown up by the black swans that plague financial markets.”

He says deploying mathematics in “equities markets that may have infinite variance outcomes makes working out probabilities much harder”.

“You don’t know whether you are summing a sequence of fractions that add to one or if they add to infinity, because financial markets have non-independent [or potentially related] events,” he says.

The bankable independence of results in gambling markets is the “component of our strategy that gives me the most security”, Walsh says.

“It is even better in games like black jack, where the events are not only independent but also negatively correlated – your chance of winning goes up if you lost the previous hand because there are an excess of cards remaining that are advantageous to you.”

He is critical of the billionaires printed in financial markets who “often make money in the low-probability, high-opportunity outcomes that are essentially exhibiting ‘correlated parlays’ [where one event significantly influences the probability of another].

“Correlated parlays make people look smart and can create a whole bunch of rich folks, but there was probably nothing but pathologies in the financial data.”

From a profile of David Walsh, a guy who made a fortune using quantitative models to gamble professionally. Walsh seems to have a healthy appreciation for the role luck has played in his success and is redeploying much of his fortune to build an eccentric art museum in Tasmania.

It's his explanation of his success that is worth studying.

Asked about exactly what his team’s “edge” has been over the years, Walsh distils [sic] it down to embracing the wisdom of crowds.

“You can work out some complex algorithm to predict horse racing odds using multinominal logistic regression,” Walsh says. “But the result would significantly underperform the public odds.

“The key is that the public odds must be included in your model. The best models are not predictive models per se, but ‘perturbation’ models that start with the assumption that the public is right and then work out what small errors they might make.

“The public odds are not just an important signal – they are a remarkably efficient signal.”

He cites the example of the former Russian chess grandmaster Boris Spassky, who played and lost to the Russian public in a game of chess.

He describes the public’s ability to make accurate collective decisions as an “emergent strategy”, like birds flocking or democracies (which form not in the mind of one individual, but through the interactions of many).

“I am saying there is wisdom in crowds beyond the point you can model without explicitly incorporating it.”

How does this system work in practice? “Let’s talk about Sydney race night on Saturday,” Walsh explains.

“We might have a model of what we think the probabilities should be that includes the public odds.

“We essentially wager on those events that have better chances than the public thinks, which gives us a positive return expectation.”

The World's Top NBA Gambler

A fascinating profile in ESPN Magazine of Bob Voulgaris: Meet the world's top NBA gambler. Together with a math, statistics, and programming prodigy Voulgaris simply calls the Whiz (he won't reveal the Whiz's real identity for fear of having him poached), Voulgaris built an NBA simulator named Ewing, after Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory.

If Ewing has a secret sauce, it’s just this sort of thing: Finding scraps of information, sliced and diced ever more finely, that reveal something about how a system -- in this case, a game of pro basketball -- will operate in the future. The key is to find those scraps that are more predictive than others. Case in point: One of Ewing’s most important functions is to assign values to players. Each player has two values -- on offense and as a defender -- and those values are constantly changing. Ewing will also automatically adjust the value depending on who’s guarding whom. Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins “is more valuable guarding Dwight Howard than he is guarding Shane Battier,” Voulgaris says. Why? “Because Howard is a unique player, and you need a big to defend him.” Likewise, according to Voulgaris, Celtics seven-footer Jason Collins is “useless every game, except when he’s guarding Howard, which he does really, really well.” Player values also change across a season and a career. So Voulgaris and the Whiz created, for Ewing, an aging component. Further number-crunching revealed that different types of players, based on position and size, will reach their zeniths at different ages and on trajectories that are possible to predict. Ewing now grasps the curve of the lifespan of the point guard, the shooting guard, the forwards, the center -- and predicts the downslope and expiration date of every NBA career. 

When Ewing went live with actual betting for the first time toward the end of the 2008 season, Voulgaris was not yet sold on its powers. For one thing, his subjective-gambler side wasn’t ready to surrender control to a machine. For another, the model was performing unremarkably with their money on the line -- right above the break-even line. But Voulgaris had something in mind, “a long project, like a six-month-long project, to model a certain part of the game of basketball.” He and the Whiz spent the offseason pursuing this mysterious project, the precise nature of which Voulgaris will not discuss. “I don’t even want to allude to what it might be,” he says when I press him, “because I don’t think anyone else is doing anything like it.” 

By 2009, once they’d added this mysterious additional model to Ewing’s inner workings -- version 2.0 -- they started making bets based on the scores it produced after the All-Star break. “We just, like, crushed the second half of the season,” Voulgaris says. Since then, as each subsequent season has passed, Voulgaris’ confidence in Ewing has increased. So too has the frequency of his wagering. In a season, he now regularly puts down well over 1,000 individual bets. “I mean, I don’t want to sit here and brag,” he says. “But this is literally, like, the greatest thing ever when it comes to sports betting.” 

More money is gambled on the NFL than any of the major US sports, but given how strong a role luck plays in NFL outcomes, it's surprising more people don't gamble on the NBA instead since skill plays a greater role in the NBA than in MLB, the NBA, or the NHL.

Misc

The United States walks the least of any industrialized nation. Studies employing pedometers have found that where the average Australian takes 9,695 steps per day (just a few shy of the supposedly ideal “10,000 steps” plateau, itself the product, ironically, of a Japanese pedometer company’s campaign in the 1960s), the average Japanese 7,168, and the average Swiss 9,650, the average American manages only 5,117 steps. Where a child in Britain, according to one study, takes 12,000 to 16,000 steps per day, a similar U.S. study found a range between 11,000 and 13,000.

America's walking crisis. The problem, of course, is that much of the United States was laid out with the expectation that we'd all be driving. It would be interesting to see some of the companies selling pedometers, like Fitbit, Jawbone, or Nike, to release some data on average steps walked by region. Among the reasons I miss New York City, one of the main ones is how much that city rewarded pedestrians in every way.

*****

A good overview of the debate over whether the economic growth from technological innovation is plateauing or just in a temporary adjustment lull.

*****

Also related to The Great Stagnation, here's a post speculating what would happen if we all just popped Modafinil all the time so we only needed to sleep about a quarter as much each day without losing mental acuity.

That might be good for economic output, but it also might just accrue to increased time on the sofa. If Netflix starts mailing you Modafinil pills, consider it creative marketing for House of Cards 5.

*****

Is soccer irreparably corrupted by match fixing? Even if it is, does it matter if people are still paying and watching in high numbers?

It's a crisis less felt in the United States because we don't really follow the sport the same way we do other sports, but if this were one of the three majors (football, basketball, baseball), the outrage would be much higher. We enjoy the concept of sports as games with somewhat probabilistic outcomes.

Perhaps the illusion that outcomes are not predetermined is sufficient? The most profitable enterprises are those which are, on the whole, deterministic, even as they offer probabilistic outcomes in any single trial. The monument to that is Las Vegas.

*****

Isn't it strange that some of our best reviews of TV shows come in book review journals? As evidence: Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, and Homeland. Yes, for those keeping score, two of those are by the talented Lorrie Moore, so that explains a lot of it.

*****

ESPN the Magazine is consistently disappointing in its content, but a recent issue on perfection included a great article on Tiger Woods constant quest to reinvent his golf swing, with this gorgeous graphic (PDF) illustrating the differences among the four major incarnations of his swing .

For someone, the tensest official review ever

Most everyone is happy the replacement referees in football are gone. But this guy may wish to send the replacement refs a bouquet of roses, or something. He won $725,274 on $5 bet on a 15 game parlay bet (that means you have to pick 15 games correctly against the spread, without missing a single one). It is nearly impossible to win a 15 game parlay, as the payout ratio reflects.

Still, if football gambling were easy to do online here in California I'd probably put $1 on a 15 game parlay every week, like buying a scratch-off lottery ticket.