Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Shape of the World

Kyrie Irving, the star guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers who hit the winning shot in Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals, believes the earth is flat. No, really.

When I first heard the story a few days ago, I thought perhaps it was a prank of some sort being pulled by Irving, meant to illustrate how outrageously easy it is to manipulate social media, which in turn makes it trivially simple to make any sort of absurdity go “viral.” After all, if you had thought about it a week ago, the idea that Kyrie Irving believes the earth is flat probably would have seemed almost as unlikely as the earth actually being flat.

But, no. He wasn’t joking. Given that Irving spent part of a year at Duke University before going pro provides this UNC fan a ready opening, of course. But I’m more interested in a larger issue connected to this story.

Irving made his position known on an episode of a podcast hosted by two of his Cleveland teammates, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye. Amid talk of conspiracy theories, Irving mentioned his view about the planet’s shape, defending it as not a conspiracy but a fact (in his estimation). “If you really think about it from a landscape of the way we travel,” Irving explained, “the way we move... can you really think of us rotating around the sun, and all planets align, rotating in specific dates...?”

There’s more, but it’s hardly worth transcribing. The gist of his position is to insist that “there’s a falseness in stories and things that people want you to believe and ultimately what they throw in front of us.” Or, to put it another way, “I think people should do their own research, man.”

Some, like NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, shared my initial, skeptical response to the story of Irving’s skepticism and tried to contextualize Irving’s comment in a way that made it seem less patently ignorant. “He was trying to be provocative and it was effective,” Silver said, reflecting on Irving’s own later comments about the furor he’d created.

“I think it was a larger comment on the sort of fake news debate that’s going on right now... and it led to a larger discussion,” added Silver, who didn’t omit appending the sanity-affirming disclaimer “I personally believe the world is round.”

The denial of objective truth is difficult to combat. It’s quite challenging to convince a superstitious poker player who refuses to accept that the cards dealt on one hand are wholly independent of the cards next on the next one that the “pattern” he perceives is in truth wholly subjective and not at all meaningful. You have to find some sort of common ground even to communicate with someone refusing to accept something as fundamentally obvious as the planet’s shape, rotation, and orbital path.

Existentialism encourages us to make our meaning, emphasizing subjective experience over the blind acceptance of received ideas about “reality” -- that is, not to receive “what they throw in front of us” without applying a little of our own rational analysis as a test. That doesn’t preclude, however, accepting certain (nominally) objective truths, even tentatively. Like, say, the laws of physics.

If Irving really understood the science, he’d understand how gravity works, which explains why when he launches a basketball skyward it comes back down toward the spherical planet’s center and doesn’t careen toward the center of his imagined “flat” earth, wherever that might be (one of dozens of easy-to-observe phenomena proving the earth’s roundness). Irving apparently hasn’t considered this or if he has he doesn’t find convincing the evidence he necessarily witnesses every waking moment of his life.

Silver -- who probably doesn’t care too much about one of the league’s stars espousing what might be called “fake science” -- grabs that “fake news” thread, trying to suggest that Irving was himself making some sort of point about the need to be skeptical amid what can certainly be a confusing climate of reporting and news-sharing.

But that kind of twists what Irving was saying. Rather, he was only referring to his incredulity that people would care so damn much about his position that the earth is flat.

“There are so many real things going on, actual, like, things that are going on that’s changing the shape, the way of our lives,” Irving told ESPN a couple of days after the initial blast. In other words, he doesn’t view the news of his belief as being “real” or “actual” (as in “significant”) compared to other, more important issues.

Irving even unwittingly puns on the word “shape,” saying (to paraphrase) that we should concern ourselves much more with the things certain people are currently doing to shape our world in a figurative sense than with the literal shape he imagines the world to be.

I agree with Irving on that point. In other words, I’m glad to know that our perspectives regarding the world in which we both live overlap at least in this way. I’m also more worried about the “things going on that’s changing the shape” of our world -- particularly about the people who are doing those “things” -- than about Irving’s flat-earth folly.

I’m additionally concerned, though, when the people shaping our world seem influenced by ideas about it that are easily discovered to be false.

Need examples? People can do their own research, man.

Image: “Fragile Planet,” Dave Ginsberg. CC BY 2.0.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Past Catches Up Fast

This morning another entry in my “Poker & Pop Culture” series went up over on PokerNews, this one discussing a few connections between poker and the Cold War.

This new one will be the last politics-themed entry in the series (for a while, anyway), as the next several deal with much lighter fare. Here are the recent ones:

  • That Time Harry Truman Let Winston Churchill Win
  • Tricky Dick Talks Poker in the White House
  • Joseph McCarthy Overplays the Red Scare Card
  • Bluffing With Bombs During the Cold War
  • I’ve been loosely following a chronological structure with these, although at this point with the story having reached the 20th century there is going to be a lot of jumping back and forth as the columns are organized around various subcategories of culture. It just so happened that the last month has been taken up with stories about politicians and (in these last couple) Cold War confrontations involving the United States and former Soviet Union.

    In these columns I haven’t explicitly referenced anything going on currently involving the new administration and the fast-moving crisis suddenly consuming it (and us). I did mention the new president entering the White House at the start of one of the columns, but otherwise I have kept my focus squarely on the past while avoiding the present. I’ve had a couple of reasons for doing so.

    One is simply to avoid unnecessarily opening doors onto ongoing (and highly-charged) political debates raging on all sides at the moment. That’s not a goal of the columns, really, even if it could be enlightening now and then to draw connections between events that happened before and what is going on now.

    The other is that it’s just too darn difficult to make such connections succinctly, given how different the present is from the past I’m discussing in those articles listed above (which mostly range from the 1920s through the 1970s).

    As I mentioned here a little over two weeks ago in a post titled “The Maniac at the Table,” the instinct to compare the current crisis at the top with the protracted scandal that ultimately forced Richard Nixon from office has been irresistible to many. Lots of commentators are now evoking certain moments on the path that led toward the impeachment hearings in the summer of 1974, recognizing similarities that have already emerged less than a month into the current president’s tenure.

    But while there are certainly parallels, there’s a lot that is different, too, not the least of which being the strange, singular relationship with Russia the current administration has adopted and consequently tried to force upon the U.S.

    As you no doubt have heard, the president’s national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned late Monday night just a little over weeks after taking on the role. Ostensibly he did so because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he’d had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in late December regarding sanctions imposed on Russia by Barack Obama’s administration.

    Those sanctions had been imposed following multiple intelligence reports revealing Russia had attempted to affect the 2016 election via various “hacking” methods. “Russia’s cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government,” was the White House’s statement at the time as the Obama administration sanctioned Russian individuals and entities while jettisoning 35 Russian diplomats from the country.

    Russia quickly retorted they’d be taking similar action in response, with Russian President Vladimir Putin quoted having told reporters there was “no alternative to reciprocal measures.” That same day (it has been revealed), Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador about the sanctions. The very next day Russia announced it would not reciprocate in any fashion, but rather wait for the new administration to take office.

    The president-elect then brazenly tweeted “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always new he was very smart!”

    As we all know, the current president’s natural mode is to attack and bully, something he has demonstrated almost without exception over the last two years -- during the campaign, after the election, and during these three-and-a-half weeks in office.

    He has been almost entirely indiscriminate with his criticisms, including targeting the nation’s traditional allies, high-ranking Republicans, U.S. intelligence agencies, and others whom even those who voted for him probably wish he’d refrain from vilifying. He’s also mixed in lots of knee-jerky attacks on television shows, media figures, particular businesses, and anyone else he believes has offended him.

    His attacks are also often delivered without regard to political implications, something his supporters appreciate. Indeed, he seems almost entirely unconcerned about appearances or what others are going to say about his outbursts.

    I keep repeating that qualifier “almost” because there has been a consistent, blatant exception to this pattern. The president not only resists criticizing Russia or Putin, he unwaveringly adopts an entirely uncharacteristic stance of passivity and non-resistance. Instead he commends, he celebrates. He acquiesces, always.

    It has been impossible not to notice this exception. It’s also impossible not to entertain what seems an obvious explanation for it. The U.S. president is seriously compromised, and so is much of the team surrounding him.

    The president himself might be hamstrung to speak or act against Russia because of his business interests (hidden in those undisclosed tax returns) or even past personal conduct (alluded to in that infamous dossier) or both. More definitively, he and many of those around him are unmistakably compromised by their communications with Russia during the campaign and the interregnum period between election and inauguration.

    The president cannot speak out against Russia, at least not directly. Nor can he act in the nation’s interests when Russia chooses to violate a decades-old arms control treaty by deploying a new ground-launched cruise missile as was reported yesterday. (The administration has not responded to this violation yet, stating that it “is in the beginning stages of reviewing nuclear policy.”)

    I’m recalling attending a presentation in September 2015 given by Carl Bernstein and P.J. O’Rourke, both of whom reported extensively on Nixon and Watergate as it unfolded more than four decades ago. The discussion was more about the then-upcoming campaign and election, and not so much about Watergate. There was one question, though, regarding how the earlier scandal would be covered today, what with the change in technology, the rise of social media, and so on.

    Bernstein declared that “the web is a fabulous reportorial platform,” adding that we live in what he believes to be a “golden age of investigative reporting.” O’Rourke was a little more measured, recognizing how hard it can be sometimes to sort out the wheat from the chaff amid all of the reporting being done. He also said that if Watergate happened today, it would have taken a lot less than two-plus years to unfold since “the conspirators would have been more leaky.”

    The current administration is especially leaky, that’s for certain. And when combined with the web’s rapid-fire “reportorial platform” things are escalating at a dizzying pace.

    I tend to believe that the exhausting blitz of executive orders, memoranda, statements, and actions of the new president upon taking office occurred not just because of his naturally agitated state, his insatiable hunger for the spotlight, and/or his neglect (or ignorance) of “normal” politics and procedures of government.

    I think the president and his team hit the ground running because they knew these things might well catch up to them, and quickly. That the power he enjoyed on January 20 was temporary, vulnerable to become eroded before such measures could be implemented.

    That the past was going to catch up to them, and perhaps sooner than later.

    Image: “Trump,” IoSonoUnaFotoCamera. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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    Thursday, February 09, 2017

    The Recap Writer’s Lament

    Many times when explaining to someone unfamiliar with poker tournaments what exactly I do when I go report on them, I’ll bring up sports writing as an illustrative analogy. It’s a handy reference point, and while it doesn’t provide a perfect parallel there are a lot of connections between the two.

    There’s the “play-by-play”-type reporting of hands and other aspects of a tournament’s progress that resembles sports reporters’ straightforward accounts of games and their results. There are also the profiles and features and player interviews and so on that go along with tournament reporting that similarly can correspond to how a baseball or football or basketball game gets covered.

    A short New York Times article appearing a couple of days ago reminded me of the connection once again, one by Ben Shpigel titled “‘Or So It Seemed’: Notes on Rewriting the Super Bowl.”

    The article relives the craziness of Super Bowl LI from the sports writer’s perspective. Shpigel notes how he’d written and filed a draft version of his report on the game early in the third quarter, when it appeared all but certain the Atlanta Falcons would coast to an easy victory. Then came the mad scramble to rewrite and amend once New England mounted what turned out to be a historic comeback to win.

    Anyone who has ever reported on the final table of a poker tournament can identify with Shpigel’s story. I’m referring in particular to being the one charged with the assignment of writing an end-of-tournament recap of the result highlighting big hands and/or other themes from the final table.

    Those who have done it have all been there. Trying to get a head start in order to publish your piece in a timely fashion after the tournament concludes, you’ll sometimes pick a potential winner to foreground, perhaps even writing an entire mini-profile of the player and how the victory fits into the larger picture of his or her career.

    The player holding a big chip lead to start heads-up play will often be the one so targeted. Sometimes even with four or five players left there might be one with both a large chip advantage and significant experience edge who the recap writer will be encouraged to make the star of the early-draft version of the story.

    Then comes the series of improbable double-ups and suddenly you’re hitting that backspace key. Speaking of, I wrote something for PokerNews this week presenting the Patriots’ crazy comeback as a series of all-in hold’em situations -- “Patriots Use Their One Time in Super Bowl Comeback.”

    Depending on how long the final table goes, sometimes multiple recaps get written, all of which get trashed but one. I remember at some point a group of us agreeing that it was bad luck to get too enthusiastic about prematurely selecting one player to win, since doing so necessarily dooms your pick.

    And never actually save a draft version naming a winner in the headline, a sure-fire set-up for future pain.

    Anyone who has been there will enjoy Shpigel grieving over the many unpublished, alternate realities he’s composed. That group will also nod in ackowledgment when Shpigel explains he is “not in the business of rooting for teams,” but that he does “root for good stories and for blowouts.”

    Tournament reporters will probably also like finding out the meaning of the phrase in the headline -- “or so it seems.” Check it out.

    Image: “IMAG0021 Backspace” (adapted), Tom Anderson. CC BY 2.0.

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    Monday, February 06, 2017

    The Patriots Are the Pick

    I’m no fan of the New England Patriots. Now that I think about it, I have probably rooted against them in every Super Bowl they’ve ever played.

    I suppose I was neutral on them up until 2004 when the Pats defeated my Carolina Panthers in that wild Super Bowl 38. Carolina lost 32-29 after a crazy fourth quarter that saw the Panthers score three touchdowns, New England two, and the Pats hit a game-winning FG at the end.

    That was New England’s second title in three years, so it was easy to root against them thereafter as they dominated season after season. It has never come close to rising to Duke-level dislike (deep and unchangeable in this Tar Heel), but it’s been a pretty consistent feeling of antagonism toward the team for me nonetheless.

    That said, I have one rule in Pigskin Pick’em I’ve (almost) unerringly followed for years. I always pick New England. No matter what.

    Last night Vera and I attended a fun Super Bowl viewing party, and just about everyone there was on the Atlanta Falcons side, too. Here in North Carolina most were either Washington Redskins fans or Atlanta fans growing up, as they were the teams always featured on regional coverage here up until the Panthers franchise debuted in 1995. Not too hard, then, for many around these parts to be leaning Atlanta’s way last night.

    It was pretty festive up through the middle of the third quarter as Atlanta surprisingly built that 28-3 lead. The largest comeback ever in 50 previous Super Bowl had been just 10 points, so a 25-point lead seemed more than insurmountable.

    Actually the party remained fun during the Patriots comeback. Everyone wanted Atlanta to win, but it wasn’t like we were Falcons diehards. The fact that the game got closer as the night wore on ensured the game remained the focus of everyone’s attention the entire way.

    If you watched, you saw how it all went wrong for Atlanta. You may not understand it, but you saw it.

    Bill Barnwell breaks it down step-by-step this morning in an article titled “Anatomy of a Miracle” over on ESPN. It was way more nutty than that Panthers-Pats finish 13 years ago. It was also much more improbable than the New York Giants’ unlikely win over New England in SB 42, or the Seattle Seahawks’ surprise gift to the Pats two years ago at the end of SB 49.

    It was a bit like watching a player with a 10-to-1 chip lead heads-up lose flip after flip to let victory slip away. There were several bad-luck plays for Atlanta, the incredible catch (and release and catch) an inch above the turf by the Patriots’ Julian Edelman on that tipped ball during the game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter the most memorable example. There were so many if-they-just-get-this-one-it’s-over plays in there, it was kind of like watching queen-six beating ace-ten over and over.

    But you’d have to mix in some self-inflicted wounds from Atlanta, too -- a costly turnover, very bad clock management (multiple fourth-quarter snaps with 15-20 seconds on the play clock), and blowing through what turned out to be needed timeouts spring to mind.

    Some questionable play calls in key spots do as well, most glaringly when up 28-20 with just under four minutes left and looking at a second-and-11 on the Pat’s 23-yard line. Atlanta went high-risk with a pass play, got sacked, then after another pass play ended with a holding penalty they were out of FG range, having to punt to New England (who still had their two timeouts) with three-and-a-half minutes to go.

    There’s no denying New England couldn’t have climbed back out of such a historically deep hole without some help from Atlanta. Nor could they do it without the “cards” falling their way, too. Before overtime began, someone at the party correctly predicted New England would win the coin toss and march down the field for a winning TD, and indeed, things bounced the Pats way again and he was proven correct.

    That said, the Pats were relentless from the midpoint of the third quarter onward -- like an almost flawless, “optimal” poker player who never seems to choose incorrectly. And when he does perhaps do something uncharacteristically risky (e.g., the pass into double coverage resulting in Edelman’s spectacular grab), it still works out for him.

    Am seeing this morning a best-to-worst ranking of the 51 Super Bowls already putting last night’s at the top of the list. I’d charge recency bias, but sheesh... a 25-point comeback? A team down 19 to start the fourth somehow pulling it out? That stands out.

    I’m still no fan of the Patriots. And I’ll still root against them. But I’m not picking against them any time soon.

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    Tuesday, January 31, 2017

    The Maniac at the Table

    It’s easy to overreact.

    A new player sits down at the table and immediately starts opening every pot, consistently raising two or three times the “norm.” He’s betting and raising after the flop, too, instantly disrupting the game’s previous rhythm and causing a kind of temporary paralysis to take over many players at the table.

    He’s kind of a jerk as well, it turns out, making rude comments to the dealer and wait staff, and even directing a few unfriendly, terse judgments toward others at the table.

    You gradually start to adjust to this newcomer -- or to tell yourself you’re adjusting, even if you’re still folding every hand to his raises while keeping mum. “I’ll find a spot,” you think to yourself, convinced this new, reckless-appearing style can’t possibly be effective over the long term.

    Since the inauguration a week-and-a-half ago, the president of the United States and his team of advisors have heightened fears among many that his tenure in office will create lasting damage to the nation’s welfare and standing in the global community. Whether they will succeed in transforming the country’s core values -- equality, liberty, individualism, justice, the common good, diversity and unity -- is less certain, although those, too, are obviously under siege.

    Indeed, through a hastily delivered series of executive orders and presidential memoranda, numerous erratic and hair-raising statements (including threats) by himself and his team to various groups including the press, and the continued advancement of an overall impression of instability and startling unpredictability, it appears damage has already been done that will take many years and likely multiple subsequent administrations to repair.

    Unlike at any other time I can remember -- save, perhaps, the days following the attacks of 9/11 -- the country and its organizing principles feel genuinely threatened. Every single day since January 20 has presented new evidence to suggest that life as we know it both here in the U.S. and elsewhere is swiftly transforming into something less certain and more potentially destructive. Those among us who are not overtly supportive of the president and his team will suffer the most and the most directly, although even many of the most ardent red hat-wearers are going to find themselves significantly hurt as well.

    Many commentators have suggested a few analogies between the present administration’s wrecking ball approach to governance and the damage inflicted during the five-and-a-half years of Richard Nixon’s presidency. It’s a logical step to make, given that there are some parallels. It’s also kind of an assuring one, in a way, suggesting as it does (at least indirectly) that what is happening right now isn’t necessarily as bad as it seems since, well, the world didn’t end with Nixon.

    That’s what a friend of mine was telling me just last Friday after I commented to him how “exhausting” it was following the coverage of yet another crisis or three having been introduced by this administration. I brought up to him Nixon’s famous “Saturday Night Massacre,” that remarkable, turning-point moment in the Watergate scandal when the president’s willingness to abuse his power became much clearer to many and the idea of impeachment became a lot more concrete.

    In May 1973, Nixon had his Attorney General Elliot Richardson appoint a Watergate Special Prosecutor to investigate improprieties related to the ’72 election, and Richardson appointed Archibald Cox. In fact Richardson had only been made A.G. immediately before making the appointment, and during his confirmation hearings had assured the Senate he wouldn’t use his authority to dismiss Cox without there being sufficient cause to do so.

    In July came the public revelation of the White House taping system, and Cox soon was asking for copies of tapes of some of the recorded conversations about the break-in and its subsequent handling. The White House refused to hand them over, and Cox responded by serving a subpoena for the tapes. The resistance continued with Nixon continuing to refuse to hand over tapes, claiming “executive privilege.” By October Nixon and his staff came up with a compromise plan to have a senator listen to and summarize the tapes, but Cox refused to agree with such a compromise.

    The next day -- Saturday, October 20, 1973 -- Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused to do so, referring back to his promise to the Senate, and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered the Deputy A.G. William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, and he also refused the order and resigned. Finally the next in line, Soliticor General Robert Bork, did fire Cox.

    News coverage of that night is interesting to follow, and gives a sense of just how strange and scary it all seemed at the time. There is two hours’ worth of audio that compiles TV networks’ reporting from that evening and just afterward available over on archive.org. You hear anchors breathlessly describing the developments as “stunning” and “dramatic” and “unprecedented,” with talk of a constitutional crisis like nothing they had ever witnessed before.

    To my friend I remarked that every single day last week felt like what those anchors were describing when reporting on the Saturday Night Massacre. It began with the president’s dark, divisive inauguration speech and absurdist one-man show before the CIA where his primary message concerned his “running war with the media.” Then came the feverish first performance by his press secretary in which he threatened to “hold the press accountable” while (1) strangely insisting upon statements about the inauguration crowd sizes that were verifiably false, and (2) not taking any questions himself. (It was more out there than anything Ron Ziegler ever did as Nixon’s sometimes combative and accusatory press secretary.)

    The next day the Counselor to the President infamously defended “alternative facts,” helping encourage Orwellian-inspired commentaries. The various executive orders and memoranda then came raining down over the next several days (I won’t summarize all of them), fueling the fire of discontent in very deliberate-seeming ways. Finally on late Friday afternoon came the E.O. titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which suspends the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program for 120 days while also prohibiting entry into the country of anyone from seven countries, all of which have overwhelmingly Muslim populations.

    Chaos and confusion followed that last one, including protests and ugly scenes at airports all over the U.S. In the days since details have surfaced regarding the non-standard procedures followed by the president and his team to produce the order, including failing to consult with administration officials and his own party’s legislators before the order was signed.

    As I say, I had already been reminded of the Saturday Night Massacre a few days before. But then last night everyone was reminded of it when the current Attorney General Sally Yates chose to defy the president in a manner that somewhat echoed Richardson’s action, even if the circumstances are quite different, when issuing a directive to the Justice Department not to defend the executive order. The president swiftly fired Yates (adding -- as he cannot avoid doing whenever he does anything -- a bitter, personal social media message about her).

    I wake up this morning to more headlines sounding the alarm, and I brace myself like many others are for the next threat to emerge.

    The argument over “who’s worse” between Nixon and Trump is an interesting one, though perhaps of limited practical value at such an early stage.

    Nixon is the past. His presidency caused significant trauma to this country, weakening both the office and the American government in serious ways. After Nixon became president and especially starting near the end of his first term in office, he explored methods to remake government entirely, in particular to increase the overall power of the executive branch either by reducing constraints upon it or by exploiting weaknesses in the system of checks and balances. He and his reelection committee additionally engaged in outright criminal activity.

    The Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up (and, as importantly, the attempted cover-up of the cover-up) would not only overwhelm Nixon’s ability to continue as president, it would obscure deeper, more significant corruption and illegality both in his campaign and his administration, not to mention the usurping of power that enabled him to order intervention in Cambodia without Congressional approval and similarly to continue the Vietnam War by evoking his title as Commander-in-Chief of the military.

    However the “system” did manage to remove him from office (thanks both to some good fortune and strategic missteps by Nixon himself). And, as my friend reminded me, the country and its government did survive him.

    Now this new jerk has come to the table. Some of us actually invited him. And within just a few hands it’s obvious that he is clearly doing everything he can to ruin the game. I’m reminded how I pursued this same analogy nearly a year-and-a-half ago, right after the first G.O.P. debate, in a post titled “America Is In Serious Trouble.”

    Whatever his intentions might truly be, it’s clear he wants both to provoke us all and to keep us all fixated on him and him only. Eventually everything we do or say (he hopes) will necessarily be influenced by him. He’s not just playing to win, but to make it impossible for anyone else ever to win again.

    Sure, it’s easy to overreact. Then again, against certain opponents whose actions are themselves wildly, crazily disproportionate, what feels like overreacting is simply responding in kind.

    Images: “Trump signing order January 27” (top), Staff of the President of the United States, Public Domain; front page of the New York Times (October 21, 1973), Fair Use.

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    Thursday, January 26, 2017

    My New Novel, Obsessica

    Finally... finally! I have a new novel, only seven years or so after the first one.

    Back in 2009 I published Same Difference, a hard-boiled detective novel that served as both a kind of fiction-writing apprenticeship for me and a chance to explore that fun, page-turning, puzzle-creating-and-solving formula represented by that type of novel. The book is set in New York City in the mid-1970s, and while it necessarily incorporates a lot of my own experiences, it is mostly an invention, pieced together from my memory of the era and lots of other second-hand research.

    I wrote the first draft of Same Difference several years before, rewriting it a couple of times including changing what had been a third-person narration into first-person. It then took me a while to do the extra work to get it ready for publication. I did spend some time shopping it around to publishers, by the way, a couple of whom were very positive with their feedback. But no one I was talking to seemed to eager to do anything in the detective subgenre and so I ended up proceeding with it on my own.

    Really it was Vera who lit the fire under me, causing me to move forward and eventually get it out into the world, and I was so very grateful to her for doing so. It was satisfying to get to the end of such a project and see it through to publication, and to get nice feedback from those who’ve read it has been even more gratifying.

    You can find Same Difference over on Amazon both in paperback and for the Kindle.

    It wasn’t that long after Same Difference appeared that I began searching for new subjects. I didn’t really want to do a sequel or even another “hard-boiled” story. Nor was I interested in writing anything about poker, given how much I write about poker otherwise.

    I began work on a new story, one based a little more closely on some of my own experiences as a kid growing up in North Carolina. It became another murder mystery of sorts, with the young hero of the book working with others trying to sort out “whodunit.” I liked the initial draft and a few of the characters, and kept reworking it until finally I began to have some friends read and offer feedback.

    Then I did something similar to what happened with the first novel -- I waited. Like a couple of years. I’d bring it out from time to time, rereading and tinkering, but was mostly in a holding pattern with it until last summer when I finally tried again to see whether or not I could get the thing into a form I felt comfortable sharing with the world.

    It kind of dovetailed on the curator-like stuff I performed with all of that music I’d made many years ago, an effort that culminated in my releasing seven albums all at once at the start of September. As was the case with that project, I found myself in a position where I finally decided I’d rather not just keep what I’d spent all that effort and time creating to myself any longer.

    I revised some more, had others read and give feedback again, then came the formatting work and still more editing. Finally -- today -- I’ve approved the final final final final version of the thing (as my young nephew might say).

    The book is called Obsessica, the title a reference to a character in the book but also in a way describing my own obsessive relationship with every tiny little detail. You can get a print copy right now over at Lulu, and in a few weeks it will start to turn up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other places where you get get books online. Soon I plan also to have an ebook version available -- will let you know.

    Here is a blurb, to entice further:

    Eric Younger tells the story of his boyhood infatuation with a friend’s older sister, Jessica. An unexpected sequence of events finds Eric being suddenly enlisted by Jessica to help to solve a mystery, providing Eric a distraction from his parents’ impending divorce and a chance to get to know Jessica and her strangely obsessive ways.

    Click on these cover images to see bigger versions of them. Like I say this one is certainly more autobiographical (also still a fiction), set as it is in 1980 and featuring a narrator-protagonist who was about my age then. But once again, don’t expect to find any card playing whatsoever -- just one fleeting reference to a “poker face,” included almost as a in-joke. Kind of like a lot of other thematic references and details in the book, all of which I would be delighted to discuss with anyone who reads the sucker.

    Click here to order a copy from Lulu, and like I say I’ll be letting you know when it turns up elsewhere to purchase as well as when an ebook version becomes available.

    (EDIT [added 2/7/16]: Obsessica is now available on Amazon!)

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    Friday, January 20, 2017

    Finishing First

    Everyone was ganging up on 2016 as the year concluded, what with all of the bad news punctuating seemingly every week of the calendar year.

    For your humble scribbler, the year seemed to involve an inordinate number of second-place finishes. My Carolina Panthers came up short in the Super Bowl in February, then my UNC Tar Heels also took runner-up in the NCAA finals in April. Then in May I finished second in a poker tournament in Monte Carlo, and came here to whimper a little at having come so close to winning only to have it snatched away.

    The presidential election in November was hardly considered a victory here on the farm either, I’ll confess. It was right after that I remember messaging a friend and after listing all of the second-place finishes making a stubborn proclamation: “I am winning the gotdamn Pigskin Pick’em and that’s all there is to it.”

    I was referring to the Pauly’s Pub football pool, of course, which I wrote about a bit during the course of the NFL season here although not as much as I have in past years. This was the eighth year running I’ve participated. I won it once before (in 2011), and this year managed to get off to a fast start to tie for the lead in Week 2, then take the lead all by myself in Week 3. By November I had built up a long streak as the frontrunner, and would remain in the top spot into the final weeks.

    My largest lead over the chase pack was five games -- six, in fact, for a brief period halfway through one Sunday’s games -- but it had been reduced to just one game heading into Week 16. I was a bit of a basket case, I’ll admit, worrying that I was sadly, slowly careening toward yet another second-place showing.

    Week 16 saw games happening all over the place as the NFL scheduled things around (and on) Christmas (which was a Sunday). I believe games took place on four different days that week. I enjoyed some great fortune in three games that mattered a lot, as in each I’d gone one way and my trailing opponent(s) went the other.

    The first was the Atlanta-Carolina game where I took the Falcons, others took the Panthers, and Atlanta won easily. Then came the Cincinnati-Houston game the night of Christmas Eve. I had the Texans, my nearest foe had the Bengals, and while Houston led 12-10 in the final minute Cincy was driving for what seemed a certain winning field goal. With seconds left, Bengals kicker Randy Bullock tried a 43-yard field goal that somehow went wide right, and Houston won.

    Then on Christmas Day I’d taken Pittsburgh over Baltimore (whom my closest challenger took), and after a crazy back-and-forth game the Steelers got a go-ahead TD with just over a minute left to win 31-27. I was up four games heading into the final week, a relatively comfortable place to be.

    For Week 17 all 16 games were played on Sunday, and after making my picks I realized I could very well have it all locked up by mid-afternoon. But it didn’t go so easily.

    Up four versus three opponents tied for second, two of them gained two games on me in the early afternoon games, cutting my lead to two. In the late afternoon games one of those two and I made identical picks for all six of them, which meant I’d automatically clinched beating that player as there was only the single night game left.

    With the other opponent we’d picked five games the same, only differing in one -- the New York Giants (whom he picked) at Washington (whom I’d picked). The Redskins were playing to earn a playoff spot while the Giants had nothing to play for at all, having already clinched a seed that wouldn’t change with a win. But NY played their starters throughout, Washington struggled mightily, and the Giants won the game.

    Now with only the Green Bay at Detroit night game left to go -- the 256th of 256 regular season games -- I had a one-game lead. And I had a strong suspicion my opponent was going to go with the underdog Lions in an effort to close the gap.

    I was facing an interesting “game theory”-type situation, I realized. And I had about an hour before the kickoff to ponder it.

    I had already chosen Green Bay, but could change my pick if I wished. That said, I had imposed on myself a strict “no-change” policy according to which I never changed a pick once I had entered it. I estimated the likelihood my opponent was taking the Lions to be at least 75%, perhaps even higher. If he did and I switched to Detroit, I’d clinch the title as soon as the game kicked off. But if I stuck with Green Bay and he took Detroit, I’d have to sweat one last game.

    I decided not to change my pick, and when the game began I saw indeed he’d taken Detroit. Then the Lions led for the first half, and I was filled with misgivings for having let a superstition of sorts overrule my rational analysis of the situation. Green Bay stormed back in the second half, though, with Aaron Rodgers leading the Packers to three TDs in four drives to build a two-touchdown lead. I don’t think I finally exhaled, though, until after Green Bay covered up the onside kick at the very end after Detroit had made it 31-24.

    I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking how I’d spent 10-plus hours during the first day of 2017 fretting about the pool, thinking all along how if things had gone just slightly differently I might’ve clinched things during the early afternoon and avoided all the stress.

    Today the trophy arrived, which turned out to be a shiny bit of fun amid a dreary day in which a newly-inaugurated president is going on about “America First,” seemingly unable to understand the difference between national pride and jingoism. (Not to mention unaware -- or perhaps not -- of the term’s history and less than appealing connotations.)

    In any case, I’ll say it was fun to be first nearly all year, and even more so to end up on top -- a nice finish to start a new year.

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    Wednesday, January 18, 2017

    Back from Paradise

    A quick one today to report I’m back home safely from a week-and-half in the Bahamas on Paradise Island, a trip which as I mentioned before was timed in such a way that I missed entirely the Great Snowstorm of 2017 here on the farm.

    Eight inches dumped down on us the day after I left, and by the time I returned on Monday it was all melted, very likely the only snow we’ll see all winter here in NC.

    “Well played, Shamus,” said Vera on my return.

    The trip was fun, and as has been the case these last three years the series in Nassau tends to operate as a kind of annual reunion for many players, media, and staff, so it was good again to see friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since last January. Good to get home, though, where I’m expecting to stay put for at least the next couple of months.

    That pic up above was one taken by the great Carlos Monti of a group of Selene Vomer fish, better known as “Lookdown” fish, just one of more than 250 species of marine life one can see in the aquariums and around Atlantis. I love looking at the Lookdown, which have such expressive faces and uncannily appear two-dimensional.

    Poker-wise, the trip was a bit more entertaining than average, I’m going to conclude. My time was split between three big events, the $100K Super High Roller, the $5K Main Event, and the $25K High Roller. Jason Koon, Christian Harder, and Luc Greenwood won those (respectively).

    In the latter, Luc actually knocked out his brother Sam just shy of the final table, and indeed the win represented a breakthrough for Luc, the biggest cash of his career by tenfold (nearly $800K).

    Incidentally, prior to this first ever PokerStars Championship, I had a chance to interview a number of people for a piece that appeared on the PokerStars blog just as things were getting going in the Bahamas, something called “Anatomy of a PokerStars Championship.”

    These things are such huge, complicated undertakings, and it was kind of fascinating to talk to some of those involved with putting them together. Because of space limitations I had to cut out a lot, but hopefully it at least comes across how much goes into the planning and staging of these things.

    Relatively speaking, farm life is a lot more simple. That said, as I’ve noted before, every time you look up there’s always something else to do around here.

    Photo: courtesy Carlos Monti / PokerStars blog.

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    Friday, January 13, 2017

    Slides, Celebs, and Likes

    Been in the Bahamas for more than a week now, having left the farm just a day before the Great Snowstorm of 2017 hit to cover the place with eight inches of the white stuff. Vera and our four-legged friends all managed okay, though I felt more than a little guilty not being around to help deal with it all.

    Quite a contrast down here, weather-wise, as you might imagine, with temps in the mid-to-upper 70s, the cloudless skies baby blue, and the water an even darker, more brilliant shade of blue. It’s been busy, but I did manage to goof around on the water slides on two separate occasions already, including daring to plunge down “The Abyss.” It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s still long enough for all manner of existential doubt to overwhelm a dude before splash landing at the bottom.

    The PokerStars Championship Bahamas festival is now heading into its home stretch, with the High Roller and Main Event both ending tomorrow. The poker’s been fun to follow, as I was on the $100K Super High Roller to start, then the Main Event, and now the $25K HR.

    That first event saw the actor-comedian Kevin Hart take part, livening things up quite a lot for the first day-and-a-half before he finally busted a second time. Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame then played in the Main, so there was a lot of star-gazing going on between those two.

    Speaking of poker-playing actors, Jennifer Tilly is here, too, and in fact took runner-up in a $5K turbo event this week, one where the final table included David Peters, Benjamin Pollak, and Mustapha Kanit.

    I’d met her before but finally had a chance to talk with her a bit more this week. She’s a great follow on Twitter by the way -- @Jtillathekilla2 -- and one of the things we talked about were the folks we follow on there.

    I also confessed to her that I never have gotten in the habit of favoriting tweets. I’ll retweet ones I like occasionally, but I just never got around to start “liking” them. For example, I liked one she sent a few days ago sagely observing: “Poker tournaments are like life: We're all gonna die, just some of us last longer than others.” But I just had to tell her I liked it as I didn’t “like” it on Twitter. (She assured me that was fine.)

    (That reminded me of something similar I’ve been known to utter around poker tournaments.)

    Vera kids me about not “liking” tweets. I’ll tweet something and get a bunch of likes, then mention it to her. “And how does that make you feel?” she asks with a grin.

    “I like it,” I reply.

    One more day of poker tomorrow and then back home to the horses where the snow has already melted. There’s a pic to the left from the day after that I tweeted before. It’s totally okay if you didn’t favorite it.

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    Thursday, January 05, 2017

    “I’m Reading Their Hand”: LBJ, Nixon, and the Week Before the 1968 Election

    Several friends recently passed along to me an article from The New York Times that appeared on New Year’s Eve, one sharing a bit of news regarding Richard Nixon’s actions during the final days prior to the 1968 presidential election when he won a narrow victory versus Hubert Humphrey. They did so both because they know about my ongoing “Nixon studies” and because there’s a small poker reference in the article, too.

    The article is titled “Nixon’s Vietnam Treachery” and was written by John A. Farrell who is currently at work on a Nixon bio coming out later this year. The story being told in the article is not new at all, although Farrell does pass along some relatively unknown evidence regarding Nixon’s role in possibly preventing a peace settlement from occurring in Vietnam just prior to the election. (The evidence isn’t new, although it hadn’t gotten a lot of attention before.)

    To give a little context, by mid-October 1968 outgoing president Lyndon B. Johnson was hopeful to find some way to end the war before leaving office. After months of negotiations, Johnson had a breakthrough of sorts when the North Vietnamese finally agreed to enter into talks with the South Vietnamese in Paris if the U.S. called a bombing halt. Such talks hardly meant peace would be imminent, but they represented an significant first step toward such an eventuality.

    What’s been known for quite some time now (thanks primarily to some FBI-supplied evidence) is that high-level members of Nixon’s campaign team were communicating with South Vietnamese leader Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu at the time, urging Thieu not to enter any peace talks just yet while promising a better negotiating position once Nixon took office. Such a move is rightly regarded with suspicion, obviously motivated primarily by the fact that an announcement of peace in Vietnam on the eve of the election would serve as a last-minute boost to Humphrey in what had become a tight race to the finish.

    In The Making of the President 1968, Theodore H. White recounts the day-by-day developments leading up to Election Day, telling how with just one week to go (on October 29) “the promised end of the war in Vietnam was beginning to leak from every news source around the world.” Two days later, on Thursday, October 31, Johnson announced the cessation of bombing “in the belief that this action can lead to progress toward peaceful settlement of the Vietnamese war” (as LBJ said).

    The promising news remained atop the headlines for about a day before doubts began to creep back in to cloud the picture regarding peace in southeast Asia, and by Saturday The New York Times was reporting that the word from Saigon was that the South Vietnamese couldn’t participate in any talks. The way White reports it (sharing what was known at the time), it appeared President Thieu had agreed to the talks without having secured the support of his cabinet or the national assembly, and that once they objected the deal had been dashed.

    White then introduces the mysterious Anna Chennault into the story, the Chinese-born widow of a WWII hero who became involved in politics and chaired a number of Nixon’s citizen committees during the ’68 campaign. Chennault had numerous connections throughout Asia, and (says White) had learned about the secret negotiations in October. Using her contacts (including some within the South Vietnamese government), “she had begun early, by cable and telephone, to mobilize their resistance to the agreement -- apparently implying, as she went, that she spoke for the Nixon campaign.”

    LBJ found out about Chennault’s chicanery, and that weekend accused the Republicans of sabotaging the peace effort, including having a somewhat tense phone conversation with Nixon on Sunday regarding the matter. (You can hear that phone call, with a transcription, over on YouTube.)

    All of this tumult during the final week before the election certainly had some effect on the outcome, but it’s hard to say how much.

    The situation recalls the one surrounding the final days before the 2016 election. I’m referring of course to FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress saying the bureau would be investigating more of Hillary Clinton emails, a letter Comey delivered just 11 days before the election, then his announcement two days before Election Day that Clinton would face no charges regarding the messages -- a dubious two-step that also likely had some, hard-to-measure effect on a certain number of voters near the end.

    As noted above, it has been known for a good while that members of Nixon’s team -- among them campaign director John Mitchell and vice-presidential candidate Spiro Agnew -- were talking with Chennault, which would explain how she could represent herself to the South Vietnamese as speaking for Nixon.

    A few books have delved more deeply into the Nixon-Chennault connection, with William Bundy’s A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (1998), Jeffrey Kimball’s Nixon’s Vietnam War (1998), and Anthony Summers’s The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon (2000) among the more earnest efforts. More recently Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (2015) looks even more closely at the story.

    As with Watergate, the extent of Nixon’s particular involvement here has long invited much speculation and debate. Was Nixon directly involved with Chennault’s suggestions to the South Vietnamese that they not enter peace talks and wait for a Nixon administration to move forward? Or was this (as with the Watergate break-in and some elements of the cover-up) an example of some of his subordinates freelancing with a kind of vague endorsement from the top man? The new NYT piece sheds some additional light on the situation.

    As Farrell shares, notes taken by Nixon advisor H.R. “Bob” Haldeman (later RN’s White House Chief of Staff and key Watergate figure) recount an October 22 telephone conversation in which Nixon advised him to tell others to do what they could to thwart LBJ’s efforts to negotiate the beginning of peace talks. “Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN,” Haldeman scribbled, a fairly direct-sounding directive from Tricky Dick. “Any other way to monkey wrench it?” added Haldeman, referring to Nixon’s ostensible desire to come up with futher means to scuttle the talks.

    Such notes strongly suggest that despite Nixon’s later claims to the contrary, he was not only aware of what was going on behind the scenes with regard to those representing him while pressuring Thieu not to enter talks just yet, he was encouraging that effort. The NY Times piece concludes with a reference to another phone call between LBJ and Everett Dirksen, the Republican senator from Illinois who had served as Senate Minority Leader for nearly a decade -- one that can also be heard over on YouTube, if you’re curious.

    That call came on Saturday, November 2 (a day before the call to Nixon), and finds LBJ speaking directly about the apparent sabotage. LBJ declares “this is treason,” complaining outwardly that “they’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war.”

    Indeed, for Nixon -- then technically a private citizen -- to have anything at all to do with the country’s talks with a foreign power like this was obviously out of bounds, a violation of the Logan Act, a federal law forbidding unauthorized citizens from negotiating with other governments. (A few weeks ago I was alluding to another, much less outrageous example of this same sort of violation prior to my recent trip to Prague, one involving Frank Zappa’s dialogue with Václav Havel.)

    Johnson encourages Dirksen to talk to his party colleagues, telling them how they “oughta keep the Mrs. Chennaults and all the rest of them from running around here” while threatening to go public with the information that the Nixon team was obstructing negotiations that would hopefully lead to an end for the war.

    “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important,” says Johnson. (The mind wanders toward a certain president-elect’s strange communications regarding a certain foreign power.)

    Also tucked into that conversation is a poker metaphor, used by Johnson to refer to the fact that he is privy to what all sides have been up to, including what Chennault has been doing on behalf of Nixon.

    “Now I’m reading their hand, Everett,” says Johnson, adding “I don’t want to get this into the campaign.” (The NYT piece shares that quote, too, near the end.)

    Those conversations are fascinating to listen to, especially the one between Nixon and Johnson, both of whom were accomplished poker players. Understanding the larger context, it is clear both knew full well what the other “player” had in his hand, with both also obviously walking a fine line trying not to give too much away to each other.

    Photo: Richard Nixon Foundation.

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