Category Archives: Life

Poker and the Pareto Principle

A while ago, I wrote about the Pareto Principle, which is an observation that, more or less regardless of economic structure, most of the wealth in most nations ends up in the hands of a few.  Even more specifically, about 80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the people.  Further, there are some simple computer simulations that can reproduce this distribution of wealth with some very simple rules — if you can only exchange wealth by either buying things from one another or investing in a random “stock market”, where all people have the same chance of returns, this 80/20 distribution comes out naturally.

So, what does this have to do with poker?  I spent way too much time playing poker on my Blackberry against the computer agents and discovered a strategy that leads to wins relatively quickly.  If you take some chances at the beginning, going all in, most of the time you will lose (probably about 4/5 times if there are a total of 5 players).  But, if you win, you quickly build up a chip-count that is higher than the new players.  You now have the ability to take risks that involve more money, but are overall smaller risks for you.  If you have $10K, you can bet $1K without much worry, but for a player that only has $1K-$2K, that is a huge portion of their funds, and they will be much more risk adverse as if they end up on the wrong side of the cards, they will lose almost everything.  So, by betting big, you can keep essentially force them to fold most of the time.  Of course, once in a while they will have a hand that is worth betting on, but so will you and you can outlast them.

The point is, by starting with a bigger pot than the other players, you can take bigger absolute, but smaller relative, risks that are large relative risks for them, forcing them to fold.  This concentrates more and more chips — wealth — in your hands relatively quickly.  It doesn’t take any skill, just some extra cash.

In real poker, of course, the dynamics of real players changes things.  But, this simple computer-controlled poker world seems to mimic the Pareto Principle and the computer simulations remarkably well, showing that with some initial luck that gets you ahead of the curve, you can quickly gain wealth without any more skills or “work” than the others.  The rich get richer, through no special effort of their own.  Something to think about.

Opportunity in America

During the health care debate, one thing that has been a talking point is that the people who are on the lower end of the economic ladder are there at least primarily due to faults and errors of their own.  This is an inherent assumption of the American Dream:  “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Everyone has the ability to pursue their own happiness and, the implication is, if they do not obtain it, it is a result of their own failings, primarily a lack of effort.

At the same time, however, it seems to me that some amount of failure has to be built in to the system.  That is, the system cannot sustain itself if everyone is successful in realizing their dreams, of obtaining their happiness.  There has to be some, even a majority of us, that fail in becoming doctors, lawyers, or whatever they dreamed of in their youth.  We can’t all be at the top of the economic ladder, or better said pyramid.  For the economy, for society function, we need people who end up in those jobs that none of us want, that we don’t aspire to, but are sometimes forced into by circumstances.  We need the sanitation workers, the slaughter house workers, the assembly line workers.  They are absolutely crucial to our system functioning.  But, I dare say, these are typically not jobs we aspire to, jobs that were part of our dream when we were “pursuing our happiness.”

Any individual can pursue their happiness, to varying degrees of ability, opportunity, and circumstance.  But, most of us have to fail.  Most of us have to give up on those dreams in order to survive.  The economic pyramid has to be bottom heavy to function, and none of us aspires to be at the bottom.

I understand that our system in no way guarantees that we obtain happiness, just that we are able to pursue it.  However, that most of us must fail, suggests to me that we who do succeed are not entirely free from any responsibility for those who do fail.  We depend on them, we require them, for a functioning economy.  Therefore, it seems that we should realize that failure to obtain our happiness is not entirely on our own shoulders, but is also a part of the system.  It will happen to most of us, the system ensures that.  As a society, we have some responsibility to make sure those people have some basic standards of living, including health care.

The Embodiment of Fall

I just flew into Pittsburgh for a conference and was just struck by the beauty of the landscape stretched before me from the airplane window.  I didn’t have a camera, so unable to take a picture, I jotted down my impressions (edited now for flow and readability).

The sky is gray, the air crisp and still.  Rolling green hills peak through forests of golden trees, in shades of orange, brown, and yellow.  Scattered with those golden trees are barren trunks, already in hibernation for the winter.  In stark contrast, small groves of evergreens keep their color, defying the overwhelming autumn hues.  Valleys cut around the hills, but gently, with no drastic or abrupt gorges.  Clusters of houses huddle amongst those trees, in clearings big and small.  Small villages and towns snake along the valleys, conforming with the contours of the land, not defying or challenging them. Occasionally, an old abandoned and ruined house lies forgotten, isolated in a clearing of its own.  Down the river float barges, laden with tons of pitch black coal.  Nearby there are open pits and piles of the stuff, in stark contrast to the greens and golds.  A random smoke stack, remaining from the glorious steel days, punctures the horizon, billowing thick white smoke that then slowly drifts and spreads across the sky.

This is the embodiment of fall.

Airplane woes

After the news of the crashes of the planes going from Brazil to France and from France to Comoros, it seems one should be greatful whenever their flight arrives at its destination and that “minor” inconveniences that result in “just” delays are not so important in the big scheme of things.  And that is probably true.  But, when we returned from Idaho to Santa Fe via Las Vegas, our delay in Vegas was so bizzare that I feel it is worth sharing.

We were on a direct flight between Boise and Albuquerque, stopping in Vegas but we didn’t have to get off.  We got there a little early because of favorable winds, I think, but when we landed, our gate was “broken” (that was the word they used) which caused a delay as they found us another gate.  That took maybe 15 minutes or so.  At the new gate, they unloaded the Vegas passengers and loaded up a full plane of people flying to Albuquerque and beyond.

And now the, to me, really bizarre part.  We just stayed there, for nearly two hours, at the gate, just waiting.  For what?  No one said for maybe one hour, when they finally explained it to us.  It seems that they are doing construction at the airport in Vegas, so the number of runways is reduced.  It also seems that, depending on the wind direction, either one or the other of the two runways in service are used.  Originally, we were to use one runway, which was fine, but then the wind shifted and we were then supposed to use the other runway.  But, that runway has less clearance — it heads into some mountains — so the plane needs to be more powerful than on the other runway.  Our plane, fully loaded, didn’t have the power to safely clear the mountains — it was overweight.  So, they unloaded passengers who were only going through Albuquerque and about 2000 pounds of fuel.  This took about 2 hours total.  All of this was complicated, somehow, by the temperature, which was 110 F.

Through all of this, the flight crew was great.  One of the pilots explained this to us, for which I was very greatful (I much rather be informed about what is going on than be kept in the dark) and one of the flight attendants even ran back to the concourse to get us some fresh milk for our daughter (who, incidentally, did very well considering she was cramped in the plane for an extra 2 hours).  So, I really commend the crew.

What I don’t understand is the company and the airport.  It seems to me that in a place like Vegas, this can’t be a rare occurance, that it gets hot, that the wind shifts, and that a flight is oversold and is at full capacity.  And yet it took 2 hours to diagnose and fix the situation?  It just doesn’t make sense to me.  I wonder how often this does happen and if it always takes this long for them to fix the problem.


A couple of comments on toys…

My wife’s dad has a nice woodworking shop, which he uses to make great bowls and boxes.  He let me play with the lathe a little bit.  I thought tops would be a relatively easy thing to make so I took a stab.  I had a basic idea in mind when I started, but as I turned the wood, something else developed.  The one on the left was my first attempt.  It was sort of what I had in mind as a more traditional top, but then I put different grooves and such as I went along.  I wasn’t really thinking well, though, and separated it from the lathe before sanding it.  It turns out it is a lot easier to sand something like this if you keep it on the lathe and let it spin as you sand it.  Same with finishing.  My father-in-law had a finish that you apply as the lathe is spinning.  It heats up a wax that is part of the finish that makes the finish deeper and more even.  With those things in mind, I made the second top, which is somewhat simpler in overall design, except for the depression at the top.  It is also wider, with more mass distributed further from the top axis, which I think is why it likely spins a lot longer than the first one.

I made these for my daughter, who I think is a little bit too young to really care.  Her cousin, though, who is 3 and a half, really enjoyed watching them, even if she couldn’t get them to spin.  It makes me want to get a lathe.  It seems there are lots of cool things you can do with just that one tool.
At left are are a couple of finger puppets I got from my godmother when I was a kid.  I don’t remember playing with them, but I remember them being around when I was older.  Some of them, especially the alligator, are a little worse for wear, but overall they’ve held up very well, considering they are maybe 35 years old or so and have not been treated in the most kind manner (after all, I was a kid!).  I just find them great.  The expressions are awesome (a buck-tooth lion?!?) and while the coloring is simple — all solid for each one — the shapes are very nicely designed.

I don’t know much about these.  All they say on the bottom are “Made in Japan,” something you don’t see on toys very often any more.  I don’t know if Japan used to be a bit like China is now, the maker of all things like this.  I’m really curious to know more about them.  Were they part of some bigger set?  Were they some sort of promotional item?  Anyone know?

They just seem so great in their simplicity, the kind of thing that we just don’t see much of any more.  Sure, they are plastic, but they don’t make any noises, they don’t take any batteries (my daughter was trying to squeeze them, either trying to get them to squirt like her bath toys or make noises like some of her stuff animals).  I just really like what they represent to me of a somewhat simpler time when toys left something to the imagination.  I hope that my daughter enjoys them when she is a little bit older (those are her feet in the background, next to my wife’s).