Category Archives: Uncategorized

Tag

When it comes to music, I’ll try anything once, so when a friend invited me to a “tag party” on Saturday night I said “sure!”. A “tag”, I learned, is what barbershop singers call those amazing, blazing finales that seem to end every barbershop arrangement.

The party was at the Mercer Island home of an avowed tag enthusiast, complete with framed sheet music in lieu of photographs on the walls, along with various other homages to barbershop singing. The house had enough separated rooms and outdoor spaces for people to sing without drowning each other out, and so the attendees (mostly middle-aged) broke up into groups of 4 to 12, each led by a particularly knowledgeable singer who taught the bass, baritone, tenor, and lead by ear to suitable volunteers, who would then perform the “tag” once or twice, declare victory, and mingle before forming another small group.

Over the course of two hours I probably learned 8-10 tags. I managed to make two surreptitious recordings, but the one indoors was horribly clipped by the sheer volume. The one remaining recording isn’t my favorite, but I hope it conveys the notion well enough.

Sold

Shipping an apartment full of furniture across the country makes no sense. I’m not going to attempt to pick out an apartment, and sign a lease, sight unseen somewhere in New York City, so whatever I ship would have to go to a relative’s place for storage, and then get moved again once I have a place of my own. Also, my parents’ downsize resulted in more than enough excess furniture, currently jamming their basement, to furnish an entire apartment.

So I’m selling it all.

In the past two days I’ve managed to sell my TV, bar stools, filing cabinet, and desk. If you’re in Seattle and you need a kneeling chair that rolls and spins but then brakes in place when you sit down, or a calibrated tension-constrained television mounting system based on the Ikea Stolmen pole architecture, today is your lucky day.

Afire

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Starting a bonfire with excess sheet music has a certain poetry to it, but I think the highlight of my choir’s beach excursion was the moment when there was a Chinese Lantern floating between a glorious glowing sunset, a double rainbow, and lightning storm in the mountains across the Sound.

Fall of Giants

Fall of Giants is a very long novel about some people around 1914 who have a lot of sex. Also there’s a war and a little bit of politics.

I appreciate the challenge Ken Follett was facing, to write a history of World War I that has appeal beyond history buffs and military nerds. His solution is ingenious, in a way: it humanizes characters who might otherwise seem more than a little alien to modern sensibilities. It’s easier to relate to someone if you have something in common, and what could be more relatable across the centuries than sex?

Apart from all the sex (did I mention sex?) it’s an impressive book, but to my eye pretty shallow literature. Every major character is nearly pure, distilled good or evil. Ambiguity and personal complexity is in very short supply.

In pursuit of a broader audience, the coverage of the war itself is limited. Ten million men were killed in five years. A one-sentence biography of each would fill a thousand times this novel’s thousand pages. Perhaps Follett calculated that if he could never do enough to describe the war, he should do as little as possible. Still, I would have preferred if every chapter opened with a table summarizing the current totals of lives lost and territories gained.

Maybe I’m the only one who believes that a great novel deserves to be told in numbers.

Birthday ride

I spent my birthday on a long, long bike ride with five friends. For me, the loop started at my house, with stops for brunch at the Portage Bay Cafe, Woodinville Whiskey distillery (for a brief factory tour), and The Roanoke Inn on Mercer Island (the only bar on the island, now celebrating its 100th anniversary), and then back across the I-90 bridge, through the bike tunnel and North through downtown.

I ran my GPS tracker for most of the trip. All told, our route came to just over 50 miles, by far the furthest I’ve ever ridden in one day.

Like most of my athletic adventures, the rest of the group were all in way better shape. I could keep up fine on the flat, but I fell far behind on the hills.

I didn’t feel too bad about making them wait.

Seattle Pride

Two years ago I watched my first Pride parade. On Sunday I marched in one — mostly danced, actually.

I was with the office group set up for such things. I admit that I haven’t been active with them before, but I felt like as a little office in a town with some big local employers, we needed to make an effort if we were going to have a good showing.

The parade started at 11 AM. A few dozen of us showed up at 11:30, ready to march. I was already a bit confused why we were meeting after the start of the parade. When we were still waiting in the same lot under the highway two hours later, I finally understood: this is a huge parade. It’s so huge that marchers are penned up in lots all over the city and slipstreamed into the parade over a period of hours.

We marched between the GLBT Bar Association, Veterans for Peace, and Expedia. Our group blared music and handed out bat-mitzvah-grade feather boas and sunglasses in rainbow colors from the back of a decorated pickup truck.

At the start I felt a twinge of guilt at contributing to the corporatization and dilution of Pride, but it was quickly dispelled by the the enthusiasm and diversity of the crowd that lined the way for our 45 minute stroll. At a time when same-sex marriage is the law of the land for a growing number of Americans, the parade felt less like Pride and more like Joy.

That’s no bad thing.

The House Always Wins

In gambling, the casino, lottery operator, or bookie always takes a cut, and I don’t begrudge them that. They need income to run their operation. Fine.

Bookies make this reasonably clear, by declaring the spread. You can simply multiply the odds on both sides of a bet to see how much the average bettor will keep, and how much they will lose.

Lotteries are generally far less transparent. I have yet to encounter a lottery that listed its take on the ticket.

Casinos are the worst. With the exception of very simple “games” like roulette, their take is either obfuscated by a complex (but carefully tuned) set of rules, or simply unknowable, as with slot machines. (In Las Vegas, most slots take 5-10% on each round.) Moreover, their instant-win mechanics are designed to let their take grow to 100%, as they take their cut again every time you play another game with your remaining chips. This is what makes casino gambling so especially dangerous: it is constructed so that individual games appear nearly fair, but in the end they usually take all your money.

Regulations on the odds of individual games don’t really help, especially in the casino case. No matter how slim the take, the house will eventually soak up the gambler’s entire budget.

What would a fair gambling operation look like? I have a notion. I call it “Fair Games”.

For games of pure chance, a Fair Games casino would be required to have even odds. For example, a Fair Games roulette table would eliminate the “0″ and “00″ cells. (Mathematically, there is a possible bias due to exponential random walk effects, but in practice this should not be significant.)

For games that contain an element of skill, or games of chance whose odds cannot easily be adjusted, a Fair Games casino would be required to have even effective odds over long periods, i.e. the payouts must equal the bets. The exact manner of achieving this would be up to the establishment, verified by checking the books. One way to accomplish this would be by having a floating “winner bonus” of a few percent that the casino adjusts according to the observed payout rates.

To fund its operations, a Fair Games casino would charge an explicit participation fee. This could take the form of a percentage upon converting cash into chips, a day-pass charge, a per-game fee, or any other form, so long as it is decoupled from the odds within the games. This ensures that customers are clearly informed about how much money they can expect to lose. An academic would call it “informed consent”. A lawyer would call it a “meeting of minds”. I call it honesty.

A Fair Games casino would benefit from significantly improved customer appeal, especially from people who rightly distrust casinos in their current form. Unfortunately, that good will might well be insufficient to overcome the marketing power generated by incumbent casinos’ enormous margins. Regulation by the government would probably be required, and the political sway (or legally exempt status) of the current casinos may be too strong for this to happen.

However, there is one game that the government can control without regulation: the state lottery. In fact, applying a Fair Games approach to the lottery is very natural. As my foreign friends are fond of reminding me, Americans are uniquely accustomed to paying an explicit sales tax on top of the stated price of consumer goods.

As a first step toward Fair Games, we should require all our lottery systems to operate at pay-in/out break-even, and provide margin (to fund their own operations and their beneficiaries) in the form of an explicit lottery ticket sales tax. According to the State of Washington’s annual lottery report (page 42), the average lottery in the United States had a payout rate of 61%, equivalent to a 63% sales tax.

Put that number next to the price tag and if people want to play … at least they’ll know what they’re getting into.

The Fremont Solstice Parade

The naked bike riders may have stolen the show, but ostensibly they’re just a warm-up act* for the Solstice Parade proper. To the uninitiated like myself, the parade is at first an exercise in befuddlement. People were walking by, doing interesting, joyous things, with absolutely no explanation or apparent rationale. For example, one of the first few groups held a banner covered in hearts. As seemed to be their raison d’etre, one of them stepped onto the sidewalk and gave me a great big hug before rejoining the group and looking for her next target.

Another entry, early in the parade was a clown(?) with a large tank of water on a wagon, and a small bucket. Children would stand next to the clown, and the clown would pour water on them. There was, so far as I could see, no subterfuge or pretext, but a great deal of laughter.

The parade was full of these sorts of mysteries: dozens of dancers dressed as flowers, bees, and honeycombs, a team of giant vegetables towing a wagon full of more giant vegetables, a highly articulated life-size latticework giraffe puppet operated by a team of seven via bamboo rods, the entire cast of Alice in Wonderland rendered in perfect Mexican dia de los muertos style, two weaving columns of women in bellydance outfits with hand-cymbals — all joyous, all presented without explanation.

A friend eventually informed me that one of the parade’s few regulations requires that marching groups not identify themselves by name or logo. In a way, it’s a wonderful idea. Modern civilian parades are only a few steps removed from military dress marches, barefaced threats of violent force. Even modern civilian parades sometimes feel like an opportunity for local employers, sects, and clubs to remind onlookers of their power in the community. Removing all the names and badges turns the parade from politics into pure performance.

* Teaser? Sideshow? I can’t think of any name for this that isn’t some kind of double entendre.