Monday, July 21, 2008

Keith Olbermann

I read in a blog recently that Keith Olbermann, who hosts the show Countdown on MSNBC, had turned his show into the left-wing equivalent of Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly. That Olbermann had become so blatantly partisan that he had lost all credibility and had sunk to Limbaugh's and O'Reilly's level. I hadn't watched Olbermann in a while, so I decided to watch a little and see what I thought.

Naturally, when I started this experiment, Olbermann was on vacation and the show was being guest-hosted by Rachael Maddows (I believe is her name), whose regular job is hosting a radio show on the clearly left-wing Air America radio network. That Olbermann chose her as his guest host did seem to be prima facie evidence of a strong left-leaning bias in the program.

When Olbermann got back, I watched, and here's what I found.

Countdown is clearly a show coming from the left. Olbermann pillories Republicans and conservatives and defends Democrats and progressives fairly unrepetently. I don't see much of an attempt to present a balanced picture.

Despite this, I think it is wrong to call Olbermann the left's answer to Rush or Hannity or O'Reilly. Because, though Olbermann's show shares with those hosts' shows a slanted political view, there is one big difference that I was able to discern: While Olbermann does choose stories that present the left in the best light and the right in the worst, Olbermann doesn't blatantly lie and make shit up to make his point.

I didn't find that anything Olbermann said was false or untrue. From what I saw, he doesn't intentionally decieve the audience in order to get them to believe what he is saying. He certainly does choose his stories with an eye to supporting the positions of the left, but he chooses real, true stories to present. He chooses the best of the true stories out there that support his view of things.

It's not unbiased journalism, to be sure. There's definite glee in how Olbermann points out the mistakes Republicans (particularly McCain) make and a definite protective edge in how he refutes the bullshit that is said about Obama. But, by and large, he doesn't seem willing to lie on a nightly basis to make his point,* in contrast to the right-wingers I've mentioned above.

Now, I don't know if that's because Olbermann is a better person, or simply because, as a quote I have used before says, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." It may be that Olbermann doesn't have to lie to make his point. I'm not sure. But I think it is inaccurate to call Olbermann the "O'Reilly [or Limbaugh] of the left," because the fact that Olbermann isn't a lying sack of shit like those guys are is a significant difference. (To me, at least).

So, to say that Olbermann, due to his obvious bias, has no more credibility than an O'Reilly or Limbaugh is to say that it makes no difference if one tells the truth or not. Whether one has a political bias or not isn't the most important thing in terms of credibility, to me. I'd give more credence to someone biased but who tells the truth than someone who has no discernible bias but spews bullshit all the time.

* I'm not saying that Olbermann has never been wrong, or even that he's never said anything that turned out to be untrue. I'm saying that, from what I could see, Olbermann isn't habitually lying his ass off, making bunches of untrue assertions night after night, as O'Reilly, Rush, and Hannity do. You only have to watch, say, O'Reilly for about a minute before he says something that is blatantly false, something that has been completely and utterly refuted, something he can't possibly say over and over again without knowing it is complete and utter bullshit.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Poker is a Harsh Mistress...

I've been playing a lot of online poker for the past six or eight months. Mostly no-limit Hold 'Em tournaments. I mostly lost at first, then I studied, read a lot of books, spent time looking back at my hand history and figuring out what I was doing wrong. Then I went through a long period where I pretty much broke even, giving back what I won in one tournament through the buy-ins to all the others I didn't win.

Now, I've moved up to being a (marginally) winning player. I am up around $4000 in the past two months. I cashed in seven tournaments in three days at one point. I have won a number of tournaments, including on where I picked up $2700 and one where I won $1295. Just last friday I came in fifth in a small $3 buy-in tourney where I picked up $350.

What's frustrating, though, about improving as a player is that the better you play, the more bad beats you take and the fewer you give out. After all, a bad beat is when you have the best hand compared to your opponent but then your opponent catches whatever miracle card he or she needs to beat you. In order to give your opponent a bad beat, you have to have made a bad play and gone in with the worst hand. So, the better you play, the less often you are playing with the worst hand, and the less often you can give out a bad beat, while you have more opportunities to take one.

But the worst is the beats you just really couldn't see coming, the hands that, even looking back, you can't figure out how you could have gotten away from. Case in point: This weekend, I bought into a relatively small $30 tourney, thinking that the high buy-in (relative to what I usually play) was worth the risk because I had a better chance against fewer players. Well, I lasted exactly one hand.

I had AK off-suit in early position and made a raise of 2 1/2 times the big blind. I had one caller, the big and small blinds folded, and we went to the flop. The flop comes 3 - 10 -A. I flopped top pair and top kicker. I bet about 2/3 of the pot. My opponent called. At this point I'm putting him on middle pair or maybe an Ace with a worse kicker. The turn comes another A! I check, hoping to induce a bet with my trip As, and my opponent obliges. I raise him. There are enough chips in the pot at this point that I'm willing to take it down right there.

He re-raises. I re-raise, and he goes all-in.

All-in? What? So I'm trying to figure out what he could have. He just called me before the flop. So, he probably doesn't have some big pair that I could beat like KK or QQ, since he didn't raise me. He didn't raise me on the flop, either, like I would expect he would if he had something like AT or A3, since those hands would be vulnerable and unwise to slow-play when I bet pre-flop and on the flop. Could he have called a pre-flop raise with something like T3? It's the first hand, so I don't have a read. Maybe. He's in it deep if he did.

But most likely, I'm thinking, he probably has something like AQ or AJ. He's got three As now and thinks he has the best hand, but I have him out-kicked.

Besides, how can you get away from three As? I call.

And, of course, he turns over pocket Ts for a full house, Tens full of Aces. For the uninitiated, the chances of flopping trips with a pocket pair are about 22.5 to 1 against, so the odds weren't high that he had TT or 33. And not very many people have the nerve to just smooth-call when they flop three of a kind and there's an overcard (the A) on the board. Most players (in my experience) would re-raise on the flop, wanting to see right then if I had an A or not.

So, anyway, the river is a blank and I'm out. Maybe a better player than me could have gotten away from that hand, but it's awfully hard to fold trip Aces. Especially online, where players are so aggressive and people often are willing to go all-in on the first hand on a stone-cold bluff.

So, I didn't feel that bad about it. But, it was a little exasperating when it happened again on Sunday.

I'm in early position on the second hand with AK off-suit again. I raise, the small blind folds and the big blind calls. At least I had position. The flop comes 4 - A - 8. My opponent checks. I bet the pot. My opponent calls.

The turn comes with another A. My opponent checks. I bet about half the pot. My opponent comes over the top all-in.

And I'm sitting there, like, what the hell? Come on, he couldn't have pocket 4s or pocket 8s, could he? There's just no way. Two people hitting a 22.5 - 1 card on me in two days? Is that more likely, or is it more like that he's bluffing or has AQ, or AJ? Can I get away from trip Aces?

Well, I already told you I couldn't. He had 44, giving him a full house, fours and aces. River is a blank and I'm out again.

Those are the hands where you look back and try to figure out how you could have gotten away from them. I mean, I can lay down pocket As or KK when I know I'm beat. I can lay down a full house when I've put my opponent on a better full house. But heck, if you aren't willing to go to war with trip Aces and top kicker, when will you go to war?

Ah, the poker, she is a harsh mistress. She punishes bad play and good play when it suits her.

Communism and Atheism

If you are an atheist, you hear the old canard about how "atheists" were responsible for all the atrocities of the twentieth century. Neglecting the fact that Hitler was Catholic and never renounced his faith and that the Japanese who participated in the rape of Nanking weren't atheists either. But even if we're talking about explicitly atheistic regimes like those of the Soviet Union and communist China, the fact that those regimes were (are) atheistic doesn't prove that atheism inevitably leads to atrocities nor that atheism is inherently destructive.

Because atheism is nothing more than lack of belief in a god or god(s). Just because Stalin and his minions lacked belief in a god or god(s) isn't proof that that is the reason they committed the atrocities they committed. Just because someone is an atheist doesn't mean that you can attribute everything they think or do to the fact that he or she is an atheist. In order to do that, you'd have to show a causal link of some kind between the person's atheism and those acts. Just saying, "Person A is an atheist and did bad things, therefore Person A did bad things because he or she is an atheist" does not make it so.

To demonstrate why this must be true, let us consider that Stalin was also (to my knowledge) not a collector of stamps. He did not participate in philately, the hobby of stamp-collecting, and as such, could be dubbed an a-philatelist (non-stamp collector). Can we then say that a-philately is the cause of the atrocities Stalin committed, and that only an a-philatelist regime could those atrocities happen? Could we say that a-philatelists are responsible for the atrocities of the 20th century? After all, (as far as a I know), none of the great dictators of the 20th century was a philatelist. Not Hitler, not Pol Pot, not Stalin, not Idi Amin...

But, obviously, the fact that none of these men collected stamps cannot be assumed to be the cause of their disregard for human life without further evidence. The fact is, people do things because of what they do believe, not as much because of what they don't believe. All that being an a-philatelist means is that you don't collect stamps. It says very little about what you do do. In the same way, being an atheist means you lack belief in a god or god(s). It says something about what you don't do (worship a god or god(s) or subscribe to a theist religion) but it says very little about what you do do.

Stalin killed because he wanted power and believed he had a right to it. Hitler killed because he believed the Jews and other undesirables were enemies of the German people and were undermining the rightful ascendance of the Aryan people to world domination. Japanese killed Chinese during the rape of Nanking because they believed themselves superior. They did those things because of what they believed, not because of what they didn't believe.

To posit that atheism was the cause of the tragedies perpetrated by atheistic regimes in the 20th century, we would have to see a marked departure from what we have seen from theistic regimes throughout history. That is to say, if theistic regimes never perpetrated mass killings and atrocities, and atheistic regimes did, then we'd have some evidence that atheism was the cause of those atrocities. However, since atheistic regimes seem to differ little from theistic regimes in terms of bloodthirstiness, especially when we consider the fact that the Nazis were not atheists even though the Soviets were, it's difficult to make the argument that atheism was the cause.

As a poster on a blog I read wrote recently, "Vikings breathed air and raided villages and killed the inhabitants. Therefore governments headed by people who breathe air must all be raiders of villages and murderers."

Only Half?

My mother, arguing against a progressive tax regime wherein the wealthiest pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than do the poor, often says something like, "Well, if you just take away rich people's money through taxes, there's no incentive for people to become entrepeneurs or take risks to get rich, so nobody will do anything and the economy will collapse."

And that's just stupid. Go up to thirty people and ask them what they'd do for a ho-jillion dollars (a million, a hundred million, whatever bunch of money you want to use). Then ask them what they'd do for half a ho-jillion dollars. See how many of them say, "I'd give my left arm for a ho-jillion dollars, but fuck, I wouldn't get out of bed for half a ho-jillion dollars. If I'm only getting half a ho-jillion dollars, I might as well keep working at Burger King for $6.00 an hour." Or even try a third of a ho-jillion dollars.

Guess what? I don't think there are very many people who would take a risk or try to make it big with a new idea for a ho-jillion dollars who wouldn't do it for a third of a ho-jillion dollars. Sure, they might not be happy about the idea of the government taking two-thirds of the money they earned -- who would? -- but it doesn't alter the basic fact that few would be dissuaded from trying to get rich because they'd only get to keep $1 billion dollars if they managed to earn $3 billion dollars.

Of course, my mother's argument also neglects the fact that the wealthier one is, the more one disproportionately benefits from government compared to those who are poorer. Poor people pay taxes to support police forces who often oppress and abuse them, to pay for services that they can only use if they pay additional fees they can't afford*, and to keep in place a legal system that creates immense barriers when they try to compete with the already established wealthy. Whereas government protects the assets of the rich, provides services from the police and other agencies that poor people can't dream of**, provides corporate welfare for their businesses so they can rake in bigger profits, and gives access to the decision-makers resulting in the system continuing to be gamed in their favor.

No one likes taxes. And I'm not sure that it isn't wrong for the government ever to get to keep more of the money someone earns than they do. But the idea that the rich should shoulder less of a burden for supporting government than poor people who can less afford it and also benefit from it less is just ridiculous. For the reasons outlined above as well as many others.

* Like when they charge entrance fees at National Parks. We all pay for the parks with our taxes, but if you can't afford the fee to get into the park, then you don't get to use what your taxes paid for at all. Or roads, really. Your taxes pay for the roads, but if you can't afford the fees for a driver's license, car registration, and insurance, then you aren't allowed to use roads you paid for.
**For instance, when JFK, Jr.'s plane went down off the coast of Massachusetts, the state and Feds mobilized a massive emergency search-and-rescue operation, a huge cost in terms of both money and manpower. No effort on that scale would have been launched if you or I had been flying that plane, let me tell you. The Coast Guard would search for a few days and then the search would be "called off" and that'd be it. There'd be no way that state emergency management, for instance, would be involved if you or I were in that plane, but state emergency managent went into full operations when JFK, Jr.'s plane went down. (I know this from talking to people I worked with who worked that operation).