Friday, May 23, 2008

Unluck

I dunno. Are you better or worse off for being rational?

I'm not superstitious and I don't believe people have luck, although I recognise that outcomes that can go several ways can be positive or negative in a run for a person, and that can make a person "lucky". There's nothing mystical about that though, no reason one person should be favoured and another not.

So why am I so unlucky?

Obv. in most things I think about poker. Yesterday I played four games. In the first, I came third. I am a patient, tight player, so with three of us left, I was playing cautiously, waiting for decent cards. The guy who had been raising nearly every hand raised. I pushed over with AQ. He had AK. Given that he could have a wide range of hands, it was a bit unlucky to be dominated. Next up I had 66 and I'll talk about that in a moment. Then in an MTT, I flatcalled a huge raise with AA to trap a guy. The flop was all low cards and he bet, I pushed. He called with JJ and rivered a J. He was 9/1 against doing that. Finally, playing a small tourney, I pushed with 88 on the bubble, got called by 55, and he hit a 5. Again, I'm 9/1 favourite.

But here's the thing. I can recall these hands because they are salient. Losses are. Bad luck is. What I find harder to recall are all the times I had AA, pushed and was called by a worse hand and duly won. (As it happens though you can analyse your "luck" in STTs, and mine has been bad recently, but I suppose I have had runs of good luck too.)

The other tourney something quite astonishing happened. I don't think I'll see another hand like it in a hurry. I had 66 and called the blind. The flop came QQ6. This gave me a very strong hand. I got it in with two other guys. One had KQ. In the moment after that was turned over, it was true that for me to be beaten, the other guy had to have the one remaining queen in the deck and the one remaining six, and even more astonishingly, the three of us would have all the Qs and 6s between us and the board. That's a very large longshot.

The reason for my original question is that I think that the world can be very hard to deal with if you are coldly rational. That an unaware universe conspires to give the guy Q6 is a lot harder to work with than believing you are unlucky. Because you can believe that luck can be fixed. When people read The Secret (which I believe boils down to "think positive and you'll attract positive things"), they are trying to learn how to stop being unlucky. (I guess there's something in it because you do seem to get worse outcomes from not approaching things positively, although there's nothing mystical in that either: you simply do better when you put a full, decent effort in and expect results than you ever will by doing it halfheartedly and expecting to fail.)

And when it comes to poker, it's a lot easier to say "I'm unlucky and that's why I don't do as well as I hope" than "I am not very good", even though not being good is fixable, and not being lucky is not. The reason the former is appealing though is that then it's not your fault, and that improving can seem impossible. It's hard to measure how good you are in poker, precisely because it does involve luck. (It's about making the most of good luck and losing the least when luck doesn't favour you much more than it is about defeating others with skill.)

But this is not a post about poker. It's a post about the mystical. In the same way it's tough to accept that your failings bring you misfortune just as much as your being unlucky, and that the world really is a cruel machine that doesn't take you into account in its unfolding, it's tough to accept that there is nothing more than being an ape on a small planet in a corner of a vast, unfeeling universe. Comfort should not be underrated (although it often is). The belief that you can personify the universe and have it give a shit about you may be irrational, but it's not incomprehensible. (I sometimes feel the likes of Richard Dawkins are protesting way too much, as they exclaim their delight at a godless universe, their excitement about just being alive--for my money, Dawkins' work is a vast collection of vanity.)

Vanity, I believe, is the primary outcome of self-awareness. Somehow, the collections of atoms that make us became aware that they were something distinct from the rest of the world, and immediately confused distinction with importance. (Well, of course we feel important to ourselves.) Shortly after becoming aware that we are, we must realise that we will not be. What a tremendous blow to our vanity it is. When I think about dying, I can't help thinking what a shame it is that this beautiful, incredible thing, my consciousness, must cease to be.

But of course it isn't. It's just what is. But even Dawkins cannot think like that! He cannot accept that what he does is not so important, that it doesn't matter to him that other people's children are indoctrinated or whatever. He suffers from one of the greater vanities that humans can fall prey to. He believes that what is right for him personally is universally right. He isn't alone, of course. That belief is almost universal, and a cause of such enormous suffering that I sometimes think we would gain more from abandoning it than from any single other thing we could do. It has its upside: surely a motivating force in our quest to vanquish disease is our personal desire not to suffer it, and our fellow feeling leads to good ends--recognising that others are like us allows us to want to help them in their suffering; autists do not do charity. (And we would not like to be without that fellow feeling: look what can happen when we start to believe strongly that others are not like us.)

But we mistake a family resemblance for a belief that others are exactly like us. We become unable to understand why they would choose differently, when what is right for us is so plainly right. Sometimes we can justify to ourselves punishing them for it.

I think Dawkins is not clear enough that sparing people from what is not good for them can become a lot like forcing people to do what is good for them. His anger over children exposed to Catholicism, say, is akin to Catholics' anger that others do not believe in God, when it so plainly benefits them, which led them to murder so many heathens in their time, and was a factor in many of the great crimes of history, not least the Holocaust.

The unwillingness to say "you won't accept what's good for you but so what, that's your funeral" is a terrible thing. It's in large part what motivates the Qutbistas in Al Qaida. They have made a crusade out of forcing other people to accept what's good for them, and because they truly believe what they are offering is of enormous value to people, they cannot conceive that they are doing anything wrong. Humans have often been able to convince themselves that good motives justify bad ends. (And this particular affliction of ours works on all sorts of scales: I'm doubtless not alone in thinking that everyone should love the music I love because it's so good, when in truth I should more reasonably not care a less what you like, even if it implies you have terrible taste. There are grounds of self-interest for thinking like this--that one needs others to like what one likes for its existence to continue and that one needs others who like what one likes if one wants to be able to enjoy it more broadly by talking about it--but they are rather thin.)

***

Anyway, having recognised this, I realise that I will be happier if I stop doing the thing I criticise in others. It will probably lessen the terrible culture shock I've been suffering too. It's not easy though. Affirming that what is good for you is good for others is a way of reinforcing that it is good for you in the first place. This is something we do when we have made choices, and particularly when we've made sacrifices, that we're unsure about. If I despise ignorance in others, I am mostly valuing my own attempt to dispel it in myself. But of course I do not know whether ignorance is bliss or poison.

And as for luck, I know why I'm so unlucky. I find it easier to lose than to win, so winning is not so salient for me, and I find it easier to diminish myself than to believe that I am good at something, and much easier to fail than to succeed somewhat--and have the concomitant pressure of needing then to succeed more--so it's easy to fail and blame it on luck than to say, well, actually, it's a game of chance and I know that, and I have the capability to cope with it. And when you've made that realisation, of course it's easy to see that life is the same.

***

I realise too that I am too focused on outcomes and not enough on the quality of my decision making in the first place. I worry more about how others will feel about what I do, and how they will react, and not enough about reining in impulsiveness. The latter is something I've fetishised, when it's not at all a plus. It's quite a stunning realisation that spontaneity has generally been bad for you, because it feels so good. The former is simply an outcome of control-freakery, I suppose. I care about how what I do will affect others too much because a/ I want them to have the best of it and b/ I want them to feel that I brought the goodness. But how they feel about the outcomes of what I decide is pretty much their problem a lot of the time.

I don't know whether I'm making sense. The two concepts seem intertwined to me. Like all humans, I suffer from wanting the good for me to be good for others, and I also suffer from anxiety that others should feel and appreciate the good I do or can do for them. That doesn't seem even to get past the surface of what I feel about it.

If I think of a small example, take my statistics on Sharkscope. (Which is a website poker players use to see how their opponents have run in the past: it gives number of games and results and so on.) My SS stats would be fairly decent but I block them. One of the reasons is that I don't want players who respect me to know that I haven't played many tourneys. (Only about 1.5K, and nearly all of those when I wasn't paying much attention!) I feel fraudulent anyway. But see what I'm doing? First, I am prejudging the outcome. Maybe they would be more impressed by how good my stats are, and less concerned about the volume. It's what I think that I worry about! Not what they think at all. Second, I am refusing to do something that might have a good outcome--expressing my fears and perhaps getting help and reassurance--because I can perceive a bad outcome in potentia. I don't want to be diminished, so I do something that actually diminishes me. That cannot be healthy.

Here's a thing about luck. I'm going to wrap up with this. It's something I understand but cannot do, and it's going to be my focus for the next couple of months in poker, and in life (until I change my views on that in about a day or two). A good aim in poker is to do this: make the right decision and then entirely disengage from the hand. If you win, you win. What matters is only the decision. You can control the decision; you cannot control the outcome. It's a bit like this: imagine you have to cross a road blindfolded. Get to the other side and you are rewarded in some way you will really appreciate: a million dollars, a threesome with the Olsen twins, whatever works for you. You cannot control the traffic but you can decide to cross when it's quiet. If you are then run over by a car that you did not hear, you do not have to blame yourself, beat yourself up for choosing to enter the road at that point, or anything else. You weren't driving. You chose your moment to the best of your ability, and that's that.

You know what's coming. This is the part where I say, and of course the worst thing you can do to yourself is to stand by the side of the road, fretting yourself into a puddle of pee worrying about cars that you cannot see and at that moment cannot even hear.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Leverage this, mofo

So A asks:

What do you think of the words "leveraged" and "impactful" in this sentence? (not mine, btw)

If and when leveraged correctly, administrative technology can be very important to the educational process by allowing administrators to perform their duties in a much more concise and impactful manner.


and I know before I even read the sentence that I will not like the words in question. As it was, I didn't like hardly any of the words!

If I were teaching someone how to write, almost the first "rule" I would insist they internalised would be: write simply. That means, use words you understand; say what you mean; write as few words as express your meaning correctly and no more.

So. "If and when..." nearly always means the same as "When..." would. "When I go there" implies "if I go there", because if I don't, there is no "when".

"Leveraged" is a horrible word. Here's a tip for you. If you do not write about finance or physics, you do not have any reason to use "leverage", and you never have reason, even in those fields, to use it as a verb. Here it simply means "use". At best, it could mean "use the resources you already have to acquire further resources". It is not comfortable as a synonym for "expand" though, because even jargonistas would struggle with "they leveraged their business into Mexico".

For this latter reason, we have one more reason to consider the American Heritage dictionary pernicious and to think that its being the top definition you see when you look the word up on Google is a bad thing.

It says:


To improve or enhance: “It makes more sense to be able to leverage what we [public radio stations] do in a more effective way to our listeners” (Delano Lewis).

But this is not how even bad writers use the word, and the example is awful. It doesn't say what the definition claims. Lewis is clearly saying that it makes more sense to be able to expand what they do (well, not clearly, obv., but it seems to me that that's what he's saying). He wants to build on what he's already doing. The other definitions are fine.

"administrative technology can be very important to the educational process by allowing administrators to perform their duties"

Here, "by allowing" should be rendered "because it allows". The writer is saying that allowing administrators to perform their duties (in the manner they go on to describe) is the reason for "administrative technology"'s importance.

This illustrates a general principle of English, one that particularly applies in longer sentences: use verbs. Nouns are wonderful things, but they don't half clutter up a sentence, and more importantly in this context, they are less salient than nouns. It's harder to figure out meaning when it is expressed in nouns simply because we understand meaning in the relation of symbols, not simply by examining symbols. Writing that is dynamic reads much more easily because verbs act as meaning "signposts".


"in a much more concise and impactful manner"

So often, "manner" acts as a general adverbialiser. "He did it in an angry manner" simply means "He did it angrily". Generally, simply using the adverb will improve the sentence immediately. But here "much more concisely and impactfully" just won't work.

First, "concise" means "to the point; brief" when talking about speech or writing. It doesn't mean "without frills", which is my best guess at the author's meaning here. I'd have to confirm that with them. I'd probably render this "without frills and with much more impact" or possibly just "much more effectively".

So the writer could have gone for:
When used correctly, administrative technology can be very important to the educational process because it allows administrators to perform their duties much more effectively.


It's still bullshit, but at least it's plain bullshit.

Monday, May 19, 2008

There I reside

Sometimes I believe we are just atoms spinning into nothing.
Sometimes I believe that deep within there I reside, a pure, elemental being trapped in a coat of shit.
Sometimes I believe I am a coat of shit spinning into nothing.
Sometimes I have a moment that is like waking up and I realise I am nothing, that I will die sooner or later and it will not matter, that the light will go out and I will be nothing at all, not even a thing that once was.

Mostly I feel that we are looking out from deep and unyielding cages, that we want to touch and be touched, but we are hollow and if we were able to reach out, we would pass between one another, completely unable to intersect. Mostly I feel that we are a myriad echoes of the world, nothing substantial, and all our words and deeds are nothing but the splashings of a universe playing with itself, endlessly spinning inside itself.

I do not believe the universe is boundless. That is too stupid to believe.
I do not believe it did not have a beginning. That is impossible to conceive.
I do not believe it had a maker and I do not believe it is unmade.
I do not believe the universe is real if it must really be how you say it is.
I do not believe in gods because man is enough for a universe that does not have bounds or a beginning.

Which do you prefer? That you are a coat of shit laid around shit? That you are nothing and all your strivings won't add an iota to you? That you are some billions of atoms that have the illusion of being whole?

Or that you are precious?

***

It is already five minutes to midnight. Or five past. Depending whom you ask. Caring will break your heart, and not caring is impossible because you were brought up to have good manners.

Why can't you cast that aside? Others do. Others have no manners at all.

***

A virus has a coat of protein. What if it had a coat of sugar?

A nut has a hard shell. Apart from a peanut. Which is not a nut at all. But they are all seeds, right?

I was thinking, how did fruit evolve to be fruit? How did it transition from whatever it was to being something edible? Creationists talk about eyes and how impossible they are, but being a bit of an eye is useful: a patch of skin sensitive to light is an organ in itself.

But putting on a coat. You can imagine that a strand of DNA or whatever would attract protein, quite by chance, and then survive more readily than one that does not. But a fruit is something less obvious.

So anyway, you do know that a virus would not kill you if it could choose? If viruses were better designed, they would allow you to live just slightly below par. But they are not; they multiply mindlessly and the host suffers and dies.

Suffers and dies.

That's your life story. Regardless what you are.

***

I don't write a journal because today I took the kids to school and kindy, went to the office and sat dully doing what I do, drove back to Mt Gravatt and picked up the twins and then sat here for hours. I didn't see anything worth mentioning, haven't done anything worth talking about. Just a few idle minutes thinking --now you're getting the picture, this is why I don't have a journal. And I've been trying to find Be with me by the Red Guitars but I could only find the album version, and it's a really bad rerecording, and now I'm listening to songs on shuffle, hoping for inspiration for the tape I plan to make. So that I have music to play as I burn along the back roads of Brisbane's far eastern southeast. But I am tired of my whole collection, even the parts of it I haven't listened to yet. And I tried out Ladytron's new album, but it's disappointing, and a bunch of On-U stuff, but I don't think it's aged well, and I'm almost too afraid to play poker, because I have not been doing well for a while, just breaking even, and I wonder whether I will ever get it, and I don't think I will. And so little matters to me, not cyclones, not wars, not floods or famine or viruses in their coats of shit and

did you ever wish you were good at just one thing?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

D.I. Go Pop

So I'm making sambar and it's not going well. I have a dozen recipes, and I'm following all of them and none. So it doesn't taste like sambar. Mrs Zen likes it, but I'm disappointed. I wanted that taste that all Indian cooks successfully achieve. I don't know what they're doing, and I can't do it.

I even went to the trouble of buying curry leaves, fenugreek and mustard seeds, although I couldn't find sambar powder and used a garam masala that looked close enough instead. Maybe that was the problem. I don't know. Maybe next time I'll follow just one recipe.

Yeah maybe. But usually I can go by feel. It's my greatest skill in cooking. I can follow a flavour trail, and I generally know what's missing, what there's not enough of, what there's too much of. But here I'm all at sea.

But if you never try the unknown...

Well, what? I don't know why I've always despised the familiar. It's just something in me, restless and unsatisfiable. I'm not claiming it's a good thing, although I hold out hope that it makes me more interesting than I'd otherwise be.

I have been listening to Disco Inferno a fair bit the past couple of days, and expect to continue to listen to them for some time. Their music is fascinating. They did one album of fairly dour, Joy Divisionesque, bass-driven stuff, which showed some acquaintance with a decent melody, then they set sail for wubble wu tee eff with a wet sail. This was in the mid 1980s, when samplers were the new thing, and like many other bands, they embraced them. But unlike the Pop Will Eat Themselves of this world, they did not clumsily tack on sampled sounds and basically make rawk. They hooked all their instruments up to samplers and made a kind of music that was a million lightyears away from PWEI or anything else of the time.

Their story is somewhat similar to that of Talk Talk. They were a generic band who somehow threw off the shackles of their genre, and became something profoundly different. D.I. Go Pop is a wildly inventive, wild album, with layers of dripping water, birdsong, chanting, animal sounds, cars, and a million other things you can't easily pin down.

It makes a sambar: a mysterious gravy of sound that is tasty and exotic.

Sigh. I suppose you have to keep on reaching for it, and I'll try again.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

40 days

Some songs are just so good, you cannot stop listening to them. Then you don't listen to them, maybe for years, and then they are brilliant all over again.

I was reminded of Slowdive's 40 days when listening to Lali Puna, who cover it. Lali Puna are German electropop, a million miles from shoegazer music, but their cover is pretty good.

The original is better; one of the best shoegazer tracks made. The music is quintessentially English; no other place could have given birth to the Scene that Celebrates Itself, even though Slowdive were clearly influenced by West Coast pop and even the laidback cowboy music exemplified by Hazelwood and Sinatra (Nancy obv.).

Strangely, I'm a bigger fan of music that is influenced by both those genres than of the genres themselves, although I do have time for the Byrds and some cowboy music, particularly Neil Young's more cow-laden stuff. (More careful readers will have noted that Neil Young is something of a bridge between these traditions; it's not surprising that someone should be, because these are simply offshoots of a common American songwriting tradition.

***

So after 40 days, I'm listening to Ulrich Schnauss's Letter from home. Schnauss's drifting nu shoegaze comes at it from a different angle: he's clearly aware of techno, whereas shoegazers were totally rock, and Schnauss is far from American influenced. There is something distinctively central European about him.

So I'm putting it on shuffle and I'll take what comes. Which is a motif for me. I've stopped trying to analyse and interpret the world and just to let it happen for a while. So I'm not stressing out about my progress in poker, just working at it; not thinking about my working life, just doing the work (too much of it; although too much of course means more money than not enough); not fretting over living here, just enjoying the blue skies; and not getting worked up about my marriage, which has improved to the point of not being completely unpromising because I decided that there was a route to getting what I wanted, and pursued it (whether I actually get what I want is another matter).

So 505 by the Arctic Monkeys has segued into a jazzy bit of Squarepusher, which I'm not enthusiastic about right now. Let's flick it.

So it's Djed by Tortoise. Whether a 20-minute piece of postrock is what the doctor ordered remains to be seen (or heard, I suppose). On the whole, Tortoise are about half as good as they are made out to be. But they are made out to be greats, so half of that is not at all bad. Sometimes though they seem like a joke that you don't quite understand, but you're sure is really hilarious if you could.

So I went for dinner the other night at Southern Spice. The clientele was almost entirely Indian, and that's rare for around here, even though there's quite a large Indian population on the southside. It was soon obvious why. The cuisine is authentic southern Indian, with a few scattered northern dishes and some Goan stuff too.

One of my favourite things to eat is sambar. I loved it in south India, where it is a standard side dish, but you don't get it elsewhere. Not in the UK, because cooks there are mostly from the north, particularly Gujarat, and tend to cook richer, meat-based food; and not here, because most Indian places are run by chancers who have no more idea of Indian cuisine than I do, and in some cases less. But Southern Spice had authentic sambar. I don't know what the taste is that I love in that--maybe tamarind. I've bought some tamarind paste and some garam masala that looked close enough to sambar powder, and I'll give that a go in something lentil based. It would be great to get something reasonably close. I'd literally eat it all the time.

I'm tired of Tortoise's noodling. You have to be in the mood, I guess. So it's Pink + green by Venetian Snares instead. Which is pretty good if you like that kind of thing, and you probably don't, but I do. It's a frantic mashup of deep bass, weird sampled voices, all over the place drums and off-kilter noises. You wouldn't describe it as having a tune, but it works. Kind of.

Apparently, Venetian Snares uses a tracker to make his music, the same as I do. Mine isn't quite as pro though, lol. It suddenly drops off into something from Mark Hollis's solo album

Man, is that record good! I only found out it existed a month or two ago. Hollis was the main man in Talk Talk. You might or might not remember their early 80s stuff, which you could file alongside Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, although I find it stronger material on the whole. They came very close to being huge with the album The colour of spring (same title as the song I'm listening to, interestingly enough), which featured hits like Life's what you make it and Living in another world, but with one foot in the stadium, Hollis took a turn for a much moodier, deeper sort of music. At the time, Spirit of Eden was quite astonishing. Way to destroy his career. But what an expression of his talent. Having destroyed his career (which although Eden sold well enough, he pretty much had done), he topped Eden with Laughing stock, a brilliant, experimental, deeply moving album. If you love reflective music, ambient, soft jazz even, you may find you like Laughing stock. I don't often listen to it, because I find it so engrossing, so touching. If you're familiar with David Sylvian after Japan, you know the kind of thing we are talking about, although I find Hollis much better to listen to.

I thought that was that for him, but he did make the solo album, and it's gorgeous. It barely moves; just shimmers and shuffles. It's not as substantial as Laughing stock (by which I mean it's less meaty, not that it is not well realised). It's a little closer to Eden in terms of song structure. It's a real pity he didn't have any more left in him after this, but I don't know how he'd top it.

Well, probably I couldn't stand it, because this kind of sensitive music of delicate gestures is so English that it makes me nostalgic for the rolling hills of home. Still, I'm going to be seeing them in November. It feels as though I am going to see a lover that I have glamourised, making her more attractive and ignoring her flaws, but the truth is, I love my home however she looks and however flawed she is. Expect plenty of boring travelogues.

So I have to go. I have to take Zenella to her tennis lesson. The rain did not stop play this week, which is just as well, because I can't focus on work today, even though I have a lot on. Before I take her, I will need to rub some cream on the dragon on my chest. You don't get to say that every day.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Cardinal virtues

What was interesting for me in this piece about Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's insistence that Richard Dawkins is wrong because he is anti a particular kind of theism:

The interesting question about atheism is what is the theism being denied? Have you ever met anyone who believes what Richard Dawkins does not believe in? The God that is being rejected by such people is a God I don't believe in either.

whereas Dawkins would suggest that the cardinal's views on whether there's a god are his own business, and have absolutely no place in public life.

I think the cardinal is unclear that Dawkins would simply suggest that any god he believed in would be about as bad as any other. Still, you'd like to think that Dawkins has more problem with the outcomes of religious belief than the belief itself, but I've always thought that what offended him most was that people were stupid enough to believe in gods in the first place. (Or, to be more charitable, that they were a/ not willing to examine beliefs spoonfed them by their folks and b/ too willing to spoonfeed those beliefs to others.)

I was interested too by Tony Blair's suggestion that religion needs to be saved from irrelevance and extremism. It's curious that he sees them as a spectrum, with being too into religion at one end, and not thinking it's all that important at the other, and presumably being just religious enough in the middle. Personally, I think that other people's religion should be irrelevant, but I am a secularist, who believes that we have a better society if religion is kept strictly to the private sphere, and not allowed to intrude on the public. I don't believe religion has ever added anything to the public discourse, and has far too often detracted from it. Neither is it irrelevant that the Nazis marched with "Gott mit uns" as their motto.

Religion is often a tool of the powerful. I'm sure that Blair would prefer a Britain in which Catholicism could be wielded as a means of controlling the masses, with priests as agents of governance.

The article mentions some of the ways the cardinal feels that religion can contribute to public life. Murphy O'Connor suggests that it had a valuable role in the debate over hybrid embryos. But what was that role? It was to oppose them for religious reasons. He also has criticised the government for not giving in to Catholic pressure over adoption laws and faith schools. In none of these issues is the cardinal constructive. If his church was permitted a greater role in public life, it would simply obstruct more, seek to impose more conservative, anti-progressive agendas on the government and sidetrack debates into narrow frames that don't illuminate the issues but simply turn them into discussions of Catholic religious views.

Note what Cardinal O'Brien of Scotland said about hybrid embryos, that they would allow "grotesque procedures" of "Frankenstein procedures". We should encourage this? Why? So much of religion can be boiled down to "ick". Why should we further empower these weird, ultraconservative men--only men because their religion does not permit the egalitarian principles that our society believes in to have sway, and unmarried men because their god is stuffed-up enough not to think half of the human race is fit to lead worship of it--whose contribution to public debate is rarely elevated above "ewwwwww"?