(These ideas are explicated in this sloppy manifesto)

Saturday, May 03, 2003
A gambler with a system must be insane...

John Kennedy at No Treason remarks on the Bill Bennett gambling non-scandal. John links back to me, and, no surprise, I have some thoughts on the subject.

To wit: To Bennett's credit, he at least loses his money in competitive casinos. In Las Vegas casinos, slot machines will pay from 93% to 99% of coin-in. At Indian casinos or at supermarkets and gas stations in Nevada, very few machines will pay as well as 93%. Of course, you have no way of knowing how a slot machine pays, and empirical estimation would require sampling thousands of spins.

That said, there are things that can be done to swing the odds in your favor. Progressive machines like Megabucks can be profitable if played assiduously in those magic times when the progressive payoff is high enough. Certain 'bonus' machines can net a profit if the majority of the bonus triggers are already met before you sit down. Needless to say, you have to know these machines--the particular units--fairly well to do yourself any good at all. And there are experiments with partially-skill-based slot machines, which increase bonus payoffs based on your intellectual capital. I would short-sell this trend, frankly, since slot-players cannot possibly be very bright. The machines are apt to be profitable when played, but they're not apt to be played by people who lack knowledge even before the liquor kicks in.

And that said, if you must play slot machines, always play "max coins"--which is (ahem!) $2.25 per spin on a nine-line nickel video slot. And build some sense into your procedure. Bill Bennett playing $500 a spin slots is simply an object lesson for UNLV Gaming students in how to cram a whale of a sucker into 36 square inches of prime real estate. To get that kind of juice out of Chinese sucker-whales, you have to set aside a roomy baccarat salon.

An intelligent strategy is to play nickel or quarter machines and play by stop-loss and stop-win rules. If you stop your loss at 50% of your coin-in, you can lose your money ever so slowly, since students of math--necessarily not slot players--know that an infinite series converges. If you stop your win at 200%, when fortune briefly smiles, you can have a little something to brag about, when you tell all your friends all your gambling lies.

Why? Here is what Bennett is telling you when he says this:
You can roll up and down a lot in one day[.]
When you play a video slot, you only touch your money when you put it in and when you take it out--if you have anything left. A payoff of, say, 97%, includes all of your bankroll swings--your sudden, delightful wins, and your steady, slow-leak losses. If you have sense enough to stop your win at 200% of your coin-in, you have the chance, every once in a while, of walking away a winner. Most of the time you'll lose, but those are the gambling stories you conceal from your friends, aren't they.

If you must mesmerize yourself before a machine, learn to play full-pay video poker. If you play perfectly--and don't imbibe those comped pseudo-alcoholic confections--you can average a net win of up to $20 an hour, plus all the bad comped buffets your heart can stand.

But: If you can't do the math that tells every sane person that a 99% "win" is a loss, do not ever wander over to the table games. As stupid as Bill Bennett might seem, pissing away millions at slot machines, he could have done much worse.

But, yet again: If you insist that you must know better than the math-gods of probability, do please come on back to the poker room. Really good poker players love to be instructed in mathematical mysteries by gamblers who know better. I particularly crave instruction at the Mirage and and the Bellagio poker rooms, both smoke-free.

But, still further: Consider this: Kirk Kerkorian's company, MGM/Mirage, owns 15 casino/hotel/resort properties, plus half of the Monte Carlo. If you're lucky, you own your house. If you're very lucky, you will still own your house after bucking the odds on the slot machines. Whatever you leave behind, when you leave Las Vegas--or any casino--will become more bait to lure more money out of your pocket when you return. The only place Kirk Kerkorian plays slot machines is in your dreams.

And having said all of that, consider this insight from English writer and journalist George Augustus Sala:
A gambler with a system must be, to a greater or lesser extent, insane.
My own peculiar insanity is the belief that, when I get old, you will come to the Mirage poker room every day to fund my retirement. Wanna bet I'm wrong...?

Friday, May 02, 2003
Pretty close to even...

Jonathan Alter, in a sleazy Newsweek exposé, attempts to portray morality maven William Bennett as an hypocrite because he gambles. No shot is too cheap for either Alterman or the people who pay him, but Bennett's true vice is revealed here:
Reached by NEWSWEEK, Bennett acknowledged he gambles but not that he has ended up behind. "Over ten years, I'd say I've come out pretty close to even," Bennett says, though he wouldn't discuss any specific figures. "You can roll up and down a lot in one day, as we have on many occasions," Bennett explains. "You may cycle several hundred thousand dollars in an evening and net out only a few thousand."

But during the 18-month period, the documents show, there were only a few occasions when Bennett turned in chips--worth about $30,000 or $40,000--at the end of an evening. Most of the time, he drew down his line of credit, often substantially. A casino source, hearing of Bennett's claim to breaking even on slots over ten years, just laughed.
Gambling is not a vice. It's a predilection, like fishing or watching soap operas. But telling lies about winning games that cannot be won--that's how you garner a comped suite in hell.

Here's a question: Taking account that poker is the only game laid in casinos that can be won, long-term (yes, there's video poker on certain machines, but you'd do better working in a factory), how many poker players do we have on President Bush's national security team?

Thursday, May 01, 2003
Cain's world: Terrorist acts at 30-year low

From the Voice of America:
The State Department, in its annual report on global terrorism, says the number of terror attacks declined sharply last year due to increased international cooperation and resolve. Seven countries - Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan - were again listed as state sponsors of terrorism, though Iraq may soon come off the list.

The State Department says there were 199 terrorist attacks last year, a 44 percent drop from 2001 and the lowest figure in more than 30 years.

SplendorQuest: Art and human nature

Referring back to this discussion of the fraud of modern art, a very dear friend writes:
There's just remarkable insight about this in Steven Pinker's extraordinary new book The Blank Slate (chapter 20 -- especially pp 409-411). I have enjoyed Pinker's previous writings, but this new one is something well apart.
I had never heard of Pinker, so I've been correcting my mental deficit. The Blank Slate is the intersection of psychology and neuroscience with sociobiology. Pinker's contention is that, contra tabula rasa, human beings have a definite and consistent biological nature that transcends superficial cultural and linguistic differences. In the chapter my friend cites, he notes the consistent similarities of art works and art forms across cultures and across the millennia. This is the matter cited from pp 409-411:
So what happened in 1910 that supposedly changed human nature? The event that stood out in Virginia Woolf's recollection was a London exhibition of the paintings of the post-Impressionists, including Cezanne, Gauguin, Picasso, and van Gogh. It was an unveiling of the movement called modernism, and when Woolf wrote her declaration in the 1920s, the movement was taking over the arts.

Modernism certainly proceeded as if human nature had changed. All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside. In painting, realistic depiction gave way to freakish distortions of shape and color and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes, and, in the $200,000 painting featured in the recent comedy Art, a blank white canvas. In literature, omniscient narration, structured plots, the orderly introduction of characters, and general readability were replaced by a stream of consciousness, events presented out of order, baffling characters and causal sequences, subjective and disjointed narration, and difficult prose. In poetry, the use of rhyme, meter, verse structure, and clarity were frequently abandoned. In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favor of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions. In architecture, ornamentation, human scale, garden space, and traditional craftsmanship went out the window (or would have if the windows could have been opened), and buildings were "machines for living" made of industrial materials in boxy shapes. Modernist architecture culminated both in the glass-and-steel towers of multinational corporations and in the dreary high-rises of American housing projects, postwar British council flats, and Soviet apartment blocks.

Why did the artistic elite spearhead a movement that called for such masochism? In part it was touted as a reaction to the complacency of the Victorian era and to the naive bourgeois belief in certain knowledge, inevitable progress, and the justice of the social order. Weird and disturbing art was supposed to remind people that the world was a weird and disturbing place. And science, supposedly, was offering the same message. According to the version that trickled into the humanities, Freud showed that behavior springs from unconscious and irrational impulses, Einstein showed that time and space can be defined only relative to an observer, and Heisenberg showed that the position and momentum of an object were inherently uncertain because they were affected by the act of observation. Much later, this embroidery of physics inspired the famous hoax in which the physicist Alan Sokal successfully published a paper filled with gibberish in the journal Social Text.

But modernism wanted to do more than just afflict the comfortable. Its glorification of pure form and its disdain for easy beauty and bourgeois pleasure had an explicit rationale and a political and spiritual agenda. In a review of a book defending the mission of modernism, the critic Frederick Turner explains them:
The great project of modern art was to diagnose, and cure, the sickness unto death of modern humankind.... [Its artistic mission] is to identify and strip away the false sense of routine experience and interpretive framing provided by conformist mass commercial society, and to make us experience nakedly and anew the immediacy of reality through our peeled and rejuvenated senses. This therapeutic work is also a spiritual mission, in that a community of such transformed human beings would, in theory, be able to construct a better kind of society. The enemies of the process are cooptation, commercial exploitation and reproduction, and kitsch.... Fresh, raw experience--to which artists have an unmediated and childlike access--is routinized, compartmentalized, and dulled into insensibility by society.
Beginning in the 1970s, the mission of modernism was extended by the set of styles and philosophies called postmodernism. Postmodernism was even more aggressively relativistic, insisting that there are many perspectives on the world, none of them privileged. It denied even more vehemently the possibility of meaning, knowledge, progress, and shared cultural values. It was more Marxist and far more paranoid, asserting that claims to truth and progress were tactics of political domination which privileged the interests of straight white males. According to the doctrine, mass-produced commodities and media-disseminated images and stories were designed to make authentic experience impossible.

The goal of postmodernist art is to help us break out of this prison. The artists try to preempt cultural motifs and representational techniques by taking capitalist icons (such as ads, package designs, and pinup photos) and defacing them, exaggerating them, or presenting them in odd contexts. The earliest examples were Andy Warhol's paintings of soup can labels and his repetitive false-color images of Marilyn Monroe. More recent ones include the Whitney Museums "Black Male" exhibit described in Chapter 12 and Cindy Sherman's photographs of grotesquely assembled bi-gendered mannequins. (I saw them as part of an MIT exhibit that explored "the female body as a site of conflicting desires, and femininity as a taut web of social expectations, historical assumptions, and ideological constructions.") In postmodernist literature, authors comment on what they are writing while they are writing it. In postmodernist architecture, materials and details from different kinds of buildings and historical periods are thrown together in incongruous ways, such as an awning made of chain-link fencing in a fancy shopping mall or Corinthian columns holding up nothing on the top of a sleek skyscraper. Postmodernist films contain sly references to the filmmaking process or to earlier films. In all these forms, irony, self- referential allusions, and the pretense of not taking the work seriously are meant to draw attention to the representations themselves, which (according to the doctrine) we are ordinarily in danger of mistaking for reality.
My friend continues:
It's interesting too now to look back at a Frank Lloyd Wright's work and life as opposition and egoism in the face of the Bauhaus and modernism, whether conscious or unconscious.
Indeed. This text also put me in mind of Ayn Rand's remarks on modern art in The Fountainhead, especially Ellsworth Toohy's collection of 'individualist' artists ("Do you really think so?") and the house Peter Keating designed for Lois Cook.

As an Enlightenment philosophy, libertarianism is diagonally if not squarely in the blank slate camp. Sociobiology has turned that eighteenth century confidence upside down, with interesting results. I wrote about sociobiology and sex in chapter 7 of The Unfallen, and The Blank Slate carries the case to a wide array of human experience. Steven Pinker's work is definitely worth pursuing.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003
Cain's world: Suddenly the Saudis are interested in reform

From World
Britain plans to organize a conference on reform in Saudi Arabia in apparent response to a new interest in the topic following the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he had detected a heightened interest in reform as he traveled to Saudia Arabia and Egypt.

"When I go round the region I talk particularly to the leaders of Egypt and of Saudi Arabia," Straw said. "They are interested in reform, they know they have quite a long way to go, these two countries are different in any case Egypt and Saudi Arabia but in their separate ways both recognize the need to make progress, to be more representative and over time more democratic systems."

Monday, April 28, 2003
Cain's world: Anti-war arguments are by now as shredded as an Iraqi dissident...

I had email from the past! No joke. It came today, but it must have been forwarded across a wrinkle in time from two months ago. In response to my essay A Just and Libertarian war, my correspondent, stuck somewhere in a land that time forgot, wrote:
"That is to say: This is a Just and Libertarian war."

All wars have been... just ask all the millions that have died for just such idiotic reasons.
Now this would be remarkably ignorant to say now, which is why I conclude the email must have come from the past. I was getting a great many similarly ignorant missives back then. As it turns out, my reasons were not idiotic; my predictions have been borne out pretty consistently. And, of course, not only did no millions die, those who did die were probably fewer in number than the quantity who would have died in the same span of time had we done nothing. This is not to minimize anyone's death, but it remains that today in Iraq no one is being murdered for committing the crime of having a mind and using it. Finally, my correspondent seems to imply that there cannot be any just war ever, and surely The Cain Doctrine has utterly put the lie to that claim.

The fact is, in retrospect, the arguments against the war seem pretty stupid. I went back to look at the Libertarian Party's 10 reasons why the USA should not attack Iraq, which for some reason is no longer being promoted on the Party's web site. From this side of the war, it seems to me to be about as shredded as an Iraqi dissident. Take a look:

1) Even if he does have nuclear weapons (or other weapons of mass destruction) Saddam Hussein would not risk using them on the United States.

This seems dubious to me, even discounting possible Iraqi involvement in 9/11 and Oklahoma City.

2) There is no evidence that Saddam Hussein helped the September 11 terrorists.

From the beginning Iraqi exiles and others have speculated that the 9/11 terrorists trained at an air base in Iraq.

3) Hussein is extremely unlikely to give WMD to al Qaeda for future attacks on the United States.

We now know that Iraq and al Qaeda had agreements in place, so this claim, too, seems dubious. What is surely true now that was not true before the war is that no state will ever again sponsor terrorism.

4) The one thing that might convince Hussein to use WMD against United States is a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Didn't. It convinced him to try to destroy the evidence.

5) Invading Iraq will make Muslims hate us more -- increasing the risk of future terrorist attacks on the United States.

Again, the opposite has happened.

6) Iraq is a greatly diminished military power, and poses little threat even to its neighbors.

I'm sure Kuwait didn't see it this way, but the Israelis bought all those gas masks for nothing, so we'll call it a wash.

7) A war against Iraq is unconstitutional.

That horse has been out of the barn for half a century, alas.

8) A war against Iraq will be enormously expensive.

I rate it a good deal cheaper, in money and in lives, than a war with China.

9) A pre-emptive strike is un-American.

This is the Monarch's Complaint, as I discussed with Steve Dasbach:
In the same way, the claim that states must not attack each other 'pre-emptively' is a monarch's argument: Me and mine, thee and thine. This has nothing at all to do with a society of individuals each one of whom is sovereign.

If I have the right to intercede in a mugging, then I have the right to intercede in mass torture overseas. If I have that right--and what libertarian will say I don't?--then my agent can execute that right by delegation.
10) A war against Iraq is utterly arbitrary.

Utterly false. Making war on Iraq was the fast and cheap way to get China to get North Korea to relent, to get Pakistan to practically volunteer to give up its nuclear weapons, to get Syria to behave itself, to give Iran the jitters, et cetera, all around the globe. The United States will have air bases in Iraq, to help Syria and Iran discover virtue, and to rob Saudi Arabia of its one hole-card with America. A Mesopotamian capitalist state, if such can be achieved, will be the lever that will lift the Islamic World into the 21st century. And if we are very, very lucky, China will have learned the lesson of the Cold War without putting us through another one. Far from being arbitrary, staging this war in Iraq was a stroke of pure genius.

It would be a sweet thing, I think, if the people who opposed this war were to reflect upon their arguments and predictions, and to address and retract their errors. But I won't wait up for that to happen.

Fortunately for them, for us, for the Iraqis, for the world, the right people chose to do the right thing despite the ceaseless, baseless complaints of the war's suddenly silent opponents.

Mike Hawash charged as a member of the Portland Six

From KATU TV News in Portland, OR:
A Hillsboro man is the latest from our area to be charged with terrorism related crimes.

Mike Hawash, 39, an independent contractor who had been working for Intel was charged this morning with "conspiracy to levy war against the United States, conspiracy to provide material support and resources to al Qaeda, and conspiracy to contribute services to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Federal authorities allege Hawash, who has been detained for more than a month, joined members of the 'Portland Six' in an attempt to enter Afghanistan and take part in a jihad against US troops.
Alas, Hawash's defenders turn out to have been wrong, along with all their claims of moral equivalence. That's luck for Mr. Hawash: When he is convicted he will not be fed feet-first into a plastic shredder.

Sunday, April 27, 2003
Cain's world: No nukes is good news...

From the South Asia Tribune:
Indian military experts are worried that the US will not allow India to continue with its nuclear program if Washington decided that Pakistani nukes should be taken out or neutralized. This view is gaining ground among Indian strategists with profound seriousness.

According to Indian media reports although India is quietly self-satisfied that Pakistani nukes have come under the US scanner, the shadows are definitely going to fall on the Indians as well.

SplendorQuest: American Dreams

It's an NBC TV show on Sunday nights, very much family hour, and it's sentimental enough that I can imagine people sneering at it. It's occurred to me, too, that you have to be Catholic to really get it; it's a very Catholic show. It resonates with me because it features good and thoughtful people who resolve in the end to do the right thing.

And then there's the music... American Dreams is built around American Bandstand. The show uses archival Bandstand footage to thread together the multiple converging story lines. Contemporary performers are costumed to mimic sixties acts, which enables them to produce music better than anything they've done on their own.

And now American Dreams come with its own soundtrack. Fifteen of the dozens of tunes featured in the first season are collected, some pop classics, some covers by modern acts. This music is so simple and clean and pure and perfect, and the writers of the drama use it to maximum effect.

To see how all this hangs together, it must be seen. Almost it's a soap opera, except that the themes the show tackles--the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, feminism--are so vast and so deftly handled that the result is truly superior television.