Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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All the Cs: cats, crosswords, chicken and card game books

Meg's kittens Xander and Toby (by now almost six months old, and regular cannonballs of cat at a combined 13½ pounds) got an early Christmas present: two hollow foam cubes. Imagine, if you will, an 18" (0.45 metre) cube where the edges are made of thin layers of some sort of rubberised foam such that the cube will tend to spring back and reassume its natural shape. Three adjacent walls, in a C-shape, have circular holes in of diameter about 12", such that the cats can enter and leave the body of the cube. Of the remaining three walls, one is just a wall, the other two acting as floor and ceiling, with ribbons dangling down from the ceiling.

The genius of the toy is that the cubes can be attached together with supplied velcro straps. The cubes come in a variety of colours and patterns; currently we have two zebra-striped ones, but it would be very easy and extremely tempting to get dozens of these and construct, effectively, an adventure playground for the kittens. You could take it way too far - you could introduce feeding zones, catnip zones, fill some of the cubes with plastic balls and other different textures, run tubes of flashing lights through other cubes, create mazes, the whole works. At $10 for two cubes, though, the cost mounts up fairly rapidly. They're also pretty strictly two-dimensional in that they won't support the weight of a cat, which is probably for the safest, not least as the kittens do like to clamber on top of them, knock them over and so forth. If anyone wants to give Meg's cats presents...

Meg's local newspaper, the Athens Banner-Herald, features a highly unusual puzzle, Cashword. It's possible that this is syndicated across US local sheets and you know all about it already, which makes this a bit of a wasted paragraph, but it's also possible that this is rare and noteworthy - if not something necessarily to emulate.

Imagine a British cryptic crossword, not terrribly highly populated or particularly highly interlinked, with about 20 words. Fill in about 75% of the letters, leaving one or two letters missing in each word, normally letters which appear in only one word. Below the puzzle appears a list of words which might be used to complete the puzzle. Around a quarter of the words are short and have a straightforward dictionary definition, with only one alternative - they're gimmes. The rest of the time, the clues, the missing letters and the alternatives seem to be deliberately chosen to be as unhelpful as possible. Actual examples, possibly paraphrased, are "It is usually considered impolite to {SCRAWL or SPRAWL}" and "Dirty {CAPS or CUPS} usually leave a bad impression".

There are about 15 of these decisions to make to complete the crossword; some of the time, one word looks superior to the other if you squint and look at the phrase in a certain way, but the rest of the time it's an utter lottery. Happily the answer to the previous cashword puzzle is printed with explanations as to why one word is preferred to the other, but the explanations are very frequently somewhere between spurious and specious and it would be very easy to construct a convincing counter-argument to explain why the alternative selection would have been more appropriate. Naturally the judges' decision is final, no correspondence will be entered into and so forth.

So far, so fishy; however, the newspaper adds the same amount to the prize fund each week whether there has been a winner or not, so there's no particular incentive to them for there to be no winners. The issue I saw claimed there were 578 entries, all incorrect. Meg reckons they have one winner every few months, picking up a sum in the low four figures. There's not even any charge for entry. In short, it seems to be an elaborately, but not terribly well, disguised crapshoot, and I am not aware that there are any lottery laws that it's evading this way. So the only other conclusion is that it's a traditional game from decades ago, which quite possibly started off being much more reasonable. How strange.

The best fast food restaurant chicken restaurant I have yet discovered is Chick-Fil-A; you can see their reasonably funny 2006 calendar commercial on their web site. Their waffle fries are a thing of great beauty; the waffle cut ensures there is maximum surface area for the fat to be absorbed into the potato on all sides, for it's the fats that make the potato taste good. (I do like baked potatoes too, but when you want fries, you want fries.) Their menu calculator makes fairly scary reading; it's very easy to crash through the 1,000 calorie barrier by a margin, especially when I finish up Meg's coleslaw. Mmmmayonnaise. (I now weigh 188 pounds, up six since last time I weighed myself before I left. Bad boy. Bad userinfo weight claim.) If I want to eat something ludicrous then take me to Moeoeoeoe's and be done with it.

We also have an official least favourite chicken restaurant now, the snappily titled Chicken Express. Their least favoured restaurant status comes 75% as a result of having bratty staff and 25% as a result of charging more for their medium (20 ounce) drinks than their large (32 ounce) drinks, which confuses any normal cheap punter who might accordingly wish to change their order and so gives the brat a chance to be particularly bratty about it. I have nothing at all against fast food employees in general; almost inevitably, Chick-Fil-A's staff are as courteous and chilled-out as their food, but we had a bad 'un at Chicken Express.

The Man Behind The Shades by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson: a biography of Stu Ungar, poker prodigy who won the World Series of Poker $10,000 main event in 1980, 1981 and 1997. At his finest, a brainiac with a photographic memory and abnormal learning skills; at his worst, a perpetual cocaine addict of the highest order. Fine account of Ungar's life with hefty input from the man himself and people crucial in his life. Very good collection of photos, too. Has an excellent, authentic feel of ramblin' gamblin' tales, outlandish games and outlandish bets. The ending (look, it's a bio, so you can look up the spoilers yourself) came abruptly and made me tear up, but in a fashion that is only appropriate and a good representation of the tragedy. If you like the premise, the book does not disappoint.

Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich: the prequel to Busting Vega$, which I read and enjoyed last time. A posse of MIT students improve on tried and tested blackjack card-counting methods and get up to high-stakes high-jinks in a constant arms (well, techniques) race to stay ahead of the casinos. The book concentrates on the organisation of the team behind the scenes and the human dramas within the organisation. Lots of entertaining sketches of far-out rocket scientist geniuses of the type I might have come to know had things turned out differently. (Not that I regret knowing you rocket scientist geniuses, of course!) The methodology is fundamentally sound, and seems to differ from the methods discussed in the sequel less than I thought it would, but human frailties put a poke in the works and limit the plans.

I am an absolute sucker for tales of people getting one over on the casinos and this was a fine tale of more of the same - everything I hoped it would be. The action leaps forwards and backwards as the author gets involved using the scheme's methods; this is clearly written and delineated, though, and it's easy to follow what's going on all the time. Like the sequel, the ending is surprising and a little anticlimatic, but satisfying because this is truly reflective of the way that these things only go well for so long. The book compares well with its sequel; neither is clearly better, the action in the sequel being slightly more dramatic and slightly more exciting, but the former involving a cast of characters that I found more engaging. Again, if you like the premise, the book does not disappoint - though I couldn't recommend either of these as a breakout book likely to convert people without a prior interest in the subject. "Good enough", then.

Incidentally, I once met a guy who claimed to make a living playing blackjack. I've been out of touch with him for a few years, but a quick Google for his name shows he does come up (with pictures!) on a list of known blackjack card counters, so it looks like he was telling the truth after all. Apparently he went to MIT in the '80s, so perhaps he has an interesting take on this all, though it would feel a bit like treating him as a freak show if I were to ask. His story to tell if he wants to; perhaps he's a pseudonym I've read already.

I am inclined to believe that card counters can beat the casinos at blackjack in the short term; if they can exploit a new advantage skillfully, it will take the casinos in the high six figures or low seven figures to catch on - not a bad profit, but the enterprise probably has comparable risks to starting up a regular company, for possibly comparable rewards (if you're in the right industry). I do think the casinos and private eyes of the world are pretty good at catching on moderately quickly, though, plus the high-rolling casino atmosphere with ready availability of booze, broads and bad drugs mean that it's only too easy for people to deviate from the winning plan with either career-ending or more disastrous still consequences. Additionally, there are plenty of failed card counters who either aren't good enough at the counting to make it turn a profit or aren't good enough at the image management to avoid being caught quickly. Definitely plausibly +EV in theory, but then again, under certain conditions, so is video poker...

Growth industry for the 21st century: more aggressive, proactive detective work on behalf of the casinos to see whether people who come in and place big bets really are who they say they are, to work out if someone is a player as described above and stop their six-figure profits from being "high six-figure" as suggested above. Run anyone with a British accent who's betting like they're worth £5,000,000 or more against the Sunday Times Rich List book and you're off to a good start. I can't imagine it'll ever pay very well - I don't think the casino industry is known for high wages if you aren't getting tips from players - but private investigators, librarians and other information professionals might want to think about it.

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