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July 21st, 2016

04:55 pm - A thing I had forgotten I was reading
I just finished reading Lucretia Borgia According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day, by Ferdinand Gregorovius.

I was reading this book, more or less, for a very, very long time.

I started reading it on Kindle back during one of the summers I was working at Pearson, picking it up after finishing Rafael Sabatini's The Life of Cesare Borgia because Ellen and I were in a Big The Borgias phase at the time. At some point I opened it on the Kindle app on my phone and it became The Book I Was Reading On My Phone, you know, the one I read when a) I don't have another book or e-reader on me and b) I'm not doing other stuff on my phone like checking Twitter or playing Sudoku. In other words... basically never. Hence the multi-year delay in finishing it.

This biography was first published in 1904 and presumably written several years before that, since 1904 appears to be after the author's death. It's very 19th century in style in that it has not learned to ape the trappings of objectivity, and the author regularly opines at great length about who is virtuous and who is dastardly, and rages against other historians whom he believes have come to the wrong conclusions about the various 15th/16th century Italian personages. On the upside, the book gives a pretty comprehensive look at what he could find out about Lucrezia's life and the lives of the rest of her family, and is very well sourced, quoting extensively from primary sources and illustrating exactly where there are gaps or questions of veracity in the historical record. So while it is definitely dated, it's not a bad piece of scholarly work for the time. It is, however, a little dry and hard to follow sometimes, largely due to the author's ever so proper habit of referring to people by their titles rather than their given names much of the time, and many nobles of the era went through a lot of different titles over the course of their lives.

The author is enormously pro-Lucrezia and unfortunately I think that's sort of boring? Like, evil scheming incest murderess Lucrezia is much more INTERESTING than gracious pious family lady Lucrezia who has been the innocent victim of slander because of her power-hungry relatives. There's fortunately some solid information on the machinations of said power-hungry relatives to keep things interesting, though.

Overall this was an interesting enough curiosity but if you want to actually learn about the Borgias there are many much more recent and probably more easily readable books available. I should check some of them out one of these days. And if you just want to be entertained, the ridiculous Showtime show is very fun (and has a very attractive cast).

(Scribble in the margins)

July 17th, 2016

07:36 pm - Zelda Fair and Frankie Key play poker with the devil
Catherynne M. Valente was the Guest of Honor at this year's Readercon, so, although I was trying to be frugal, I just had to get one of her books -- signed, preferably. I've only read two of her other novels and a few short stories, but that's enough to know that she's an absolutely genius storyteller. Her work varies pretty widely in tone and theme, but it's always dense with allusions and myth and the prose is so gorgeous and vivid it makes you want to read it out loud to somebody.

Speak Easy jumped out at me because of its gorgeous cover, which I know you shouldn't judge a book by, but sometimes I do a bit anyway, because that's how book marketing is supposed to work. The Roaring Twenties party vibe is pretty evident right from the get-go, with the font and the art style depicting a short-haired lady smoking a cigarette in front of a pelican what looks like a busy scene of other partying folk, all framed inside a fancy keyhole like the reader is spying on them. It's a pretty perfect representation of the story inside, which is a lushly written novella about the folks living in the magical Hotel Artemesia, loosely adapted from the fairy tale about the twelve dancing princesses (and also referencing it several times), providing a fictional backstory to the tragic marriage of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Our main character is the mysterious Zelda Fair, who came to New York to find out what she is good at, and while everyone else thinks she's perfectly excellent at being Zelda, she's not contented with that. Nearly everyone else at the Hotel Artemesia has a role, sometimes many of them, and Zelda's so far seems to be to turn heads and show up at parties and try a different job every week until she finds the right one. She lives in an apartment in the hotel with three other girls: a dancer, a theater critic, and a costume seamstress. Several of the men in the hotel fancy they're going to marry her, and they're all wrong, at least right up until the end.

Much of this book is an ode to partying -- to dancing and drinking and dressing up and doing outrageous things and meeting outrageous people, and generally to the power of letting loose and having a good time. But it's not shallow at all, and it's not so much that beneath all the dancing on tables and wearing shiny dresses there runs a desire to be seen and to be loved and to create and to be good at things, but that it's all intimately bound up with it. Zelda has some pretty important things to say about the joys of talking when she's sitting around in a silver dress in a bathtub full of gin, eavesdropping on the other partygoers. And Frankie Key ruins the last party in "Canada" (spoiler: it's not Canada) the same way he ruins Zelda's life: by being grasping and entitled and ruining what he loves by holding onto it so hard it breaks, because he's controlling like that even though he seemed so nice at the beginning, just wanting to be good at something just like everyone else did, but he couldn't leave well enough alone when he finally descended into the wintery underground forever-party that belonged to the master of the Hotel Artemesia, a cheerfully awful godlike type of being called, among other things, Al.

The plot seems to get off to a slow and vague start, with a fairly large cast of characters for such a tiny book, but by the time the whole web of drives and desires and attempts at escapism all come together at the end of the story in a deadly, supernatural poker game, it turns out it was all being set up right at the beginning.

I did not know when I picked up this book that the climactic event of the story was going to be a poker game, since I actually read this to take a break from just reading poker books all year, but I was pretty delighted. The game is called Cretaceous Hold'em, which is pretty hilarious to me, and from what I can tell of the gameplay it does seem to be probably a version of five-card draw rather than a hold'em-style game, but that's Al for you. They don't play with chips, instead betting trinkets and personal items that represent bits of their lives. Frankie essentially wins Zelda in the poker game when he wins all her stuff, including her creativity, because in real life F. Scott Fitzgerald basically stole a bunch of Zelda's writing to use in his own novels and then locked her up in a sanatorium.

I do think the absolute best thing about this book is the language, by turns sumptuous and hilarious, and often both. My favorite line in the whole thing is when Frankie is described as not having "the smooth God gave a porcupine," which is something that I will probably find myself using to insult actual people sooner or later. Basically the whole book is like that. If you don't like paying a lot of attention to the actual words on the page you'll probably despise the book, but if you like to roll around in ridiculous '20s slang and steal new ways to insult people from writers smarter and more creative than yourself, like I do, then it's just about the best thing you could read.

The book cost me $40 because it's a signed special edition, number 890 of a run of 1250, with a special flyleaf framing Valente's signature in a purple keyhole so that it doesn't have to go on the title page like when a regular book is signed. It was well worth the $40, as short as it is, because the physical book is a work of art just as much as the words inside.

My only criticism is that it feels vaguely wrong to read it without an adult beverage in hand, and I really just couldn't stand to do that for several days after Readercon, because in real life partying all night leads to hangovers that make you cranky and tired and not want to touch booze again for days, or at least they're starting to with how old I'm getting. But one of these days I'll probably read it again and I'll make sure I have champagne this time, and maybe somebody to read it aloud to.

(Scribble in the margins)

10:40 am - moar poker bookses
I picked up Ed Miller's Getting Started in Hold'em at a gorgeous secondhand bookstore in Harrisburg. Pros: It was dirt cheap. Cons: It was published in 2005, very shortly after the poker boom really kicked off, when everyone was throwing money around and few people had figured out what they were doing yet, so it's possibly kind of dated, and if I knew enough about poker strategy to really be able to evaluate what's still applicable and what's not, I wouldn't be reading books with "getting started" in the title.

But I bought it anyway, for a few reasons. One is that I seem to be doing an entire literature review of poker writing this year, so I figured it'd be interesting to compare/contrast to Phil Gordon's books and to the articles that cross my feeds and to whatever else I'm reading. Also I know Miller has written many more recent books, so I figured if I liked the approach/style in this books that should give me a better idea of if it would be worth my time to seek out and read the more recent ones.

The book starts off with an assurance that "Don't worry! Most of the people you play against will be bad!" which is basically the opposite of what you hear now, which is lamentations that even people who have never sat down in a cardroom before will have read all the books already (can confirm: Have never sat down in a cardroom; plan on reading all the books first. Why wouldn't I?). It also assures the reader that anyone who is "reasonably intelligent" can become a breakeven player pretty quickly, a statement I believe is designed to be soothing but which his basically going to just make me judge myself when I don't pick up stuff as fast as I'd like to, a thing that is already happening (probably at least partly because I am reading 10-year-old books instead of noodling around with Flopzilla like you're apparently supposed to in 2016). I'm also not an enormous fan of the setup (apparently pretty common in more general, beginner-level poker books) of teaching limit strategy and then teaching how to adjust it for no-limit; I've only ever played no-limit so information on limit is probably just going to confuse me and take up precious brainspace that I need for learning to play the games I'm actually in.

On the upside, the book is quite short, clocking in just shy of 200 pages; is written in a clear, concise, and very easy-to-follow manner; suggests concrete, actionable strategies complete with refreshingly simple charts and text callout boxes; and does contain a lot of less stressfully optimistic expectation-setting advice about dealing with variance, developing hand-reading ability (short version: you'll be bad at this for quite a while), and common psychological traps players fall into. There are some places where it diverged pretty sharply from the advice I've been reading elsewhere -- mainly in its suggestion that beginner no-limit players deliberately play short-stacked -- but overall I think it makes sense considering the focus of the book, which is not to teach about what the pros are doing to win the World Series, but instead to get a beginner onto a more-or-less functional TAG strategy as soon as possible so that they don't go broke while learning the game in more complexity.

The big question in any instructional reading is: Did it work? Was it helpful? Poker being poker, by the time I review something I feel like it's always too soon to tell. Getting multiple perspectives and strategy advice from different authors I feel can only help me, since it forces me to think about the material in different ways, and sometimes having concepts explained differently can make them easier for me to grasp. I did reread the no-limit cash game section in the park on Friday shortly before my women's game, and I did make money that night, but this is probably more due to my running decently well and not starting the evening off massively on tilt like I have for some of the past few weeks than it is to remembering anything much of what I'd read that afternoon. But I liked the style, and I'll probably try to scrounge up copies of the more recent and/or advanced books by this author sometime this year.

(Scribble in the margins)

July 12th, 2016

08:03 pm - A mysterious gift of the occult
Some lovely person bought me a copy of Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven's Prophecy tarot deck off my Amazon wishlist. While most decks come with a little pamphlet that fits inside the card box, with a bare-bones explanation of each card -- usually one sentence or less -- this deck comes with a proper instruction book, although the result is that the box does not really fit the deck of cards. I'll need to find something to wrap them in.

The instruction book is called Illuminating the Prophecy and it's shorter than my main Tarot instructional book, but it's still more than enough to get a beginner started, and it's an excellent supplement to other materials. Stiefvater explains the artistic choices she's made for this deck in particular, which makes it easier to remember the card meanings when using it to do readings, It's also a very good explanation of tarot in general, so it should be useful to use for other decks, if you have other decks that come with useless tiny pamphlets like most of them. Each card is given a couple of keywords, then a page or two of explanation on how it fits into the greater patterns in the deck, what it can mean in different parts of a reading, how Stiefvater feels about the card personally, and anything else that she deems highly relevant. The personal stuff is quite useful--tarot readings are very personal and how one person reads something might not quite fit in the same way with how someone else reads it, based on a reader or querent's life/personality/relationship to the concepts represented by the card. The booklet also has much of Stiefvater's characteristic voice, if not quite as nutty as the one she uses on Tumblr, so it is quite entertaining as well as informative.

I've started entering some of the notes from this book into my own tarot notebook, which is a jumble of things I've learned from different sources but overall draws heavily on Tarot Plain and Simple, which has been my main instructional for years (I lost most of the notes I had from when I first started reading tarot, so now I only use the things I remembered from back then, which was more than a dozen years ago, so that's not a huge amount and it's not nearly enough to do readings from memory with). I think I'm going to end up incorporating a lot of what Stiefvater says into the way I read; I think it's a bit more on my wavelength than some of the tone of the other book.

Overall, A+ deck, A+ instructional booklet, would occult with again. Also, the Queen of Pentacles card is so preeetty.

Current Mood: tiredtired

(Scribble in the margins)

July 11th, 2016

04:16 pm - A beach read for the poker crowd
Book: Life's a Gamble by Mike Sexton

Review is here.

(Scribble in the margins)

July 6th, 2016

12:24 pm - Eat the rich vs. eating our young
I kind of didn't want to read Disrupted.

I heard a lot about it because it takes place right around here, so it was getting a lot of press in the regional news; some of the reviews were also getting sent around a certain part of my social circle; namely, the part I developed when I worked at a hip and dysfunctional marketing tech startup in Boston. It was not HubSpot, but many of the things I was seeing in the reviews being sent to me sounded quite familiar.

I was partly curious to read it, but also sort of figured that since I'd already lived through a brief and disastrous tenure at a chic marketing startup, I figured that actually reading the book would mostly just give me unpleasant flashbacks and impede my attempts to let go of the whole thing. I am already pretty bad at letting go of grudges, so I figured I shouldn't actively sabotage myself.

Enter my mom, who, having had two children lose jobs at super trendy Boston-area startups in the space of about a year, ordered the book and read it, apparently to see if these places really are that unnavigably volatile or if her children are just stupid. Then she told me I had to read it. At this point, curiosity got the better of me and I started reading it, although I refused to actually borrow it and have it in my possession; it stayed at her place and I read it there.

My feelings on this book are mixed. Basically every shitty thing Lyons writes about HubSpot rings true to me, either from my own reading about the way the economy has gotten disastrously fucked, especially for young people; from my own lived experience working at a similar company; from stories I've heard from other people who work at similar companies (including other reports of people having a shitty time working at HubSpot; apparently they're TERRIBLE to their female web devs); and, in the latter half of the book, from dealing with and witnessing the behavior of gaslighting assholes whose main tactic is to stun you into compliance with WTF-ery so off-script from normal human behavior that you just can't figure out how to react to them.

So when it comes to strictly factual, reporter-y things, Lyons is stellar. He does a fabulous job of laying out how these "new economy" companies spin themselves as being Great Places to Work with tactics that sound good but actually screw people over — like "unlimited vacation time," which is code for "you don't bank PTO so when we let you go we don't have to pay you any banked PTO" (thank God the place I worked didn't do that one, at least), or giving people lower wages in exchange for stock options that vest in five years, when the tenure for most workers — especially lower-level ones, who are most likely to think that "stock options" sounds impressive and grown-up, and who probably don't realize that their salaries are being lowered to supposedly account for this because most industries have depressed entry-level wages ridiculously already — is half that or less, meaning that most workers will simply not receive this part of their supposed compensation. Shit's enough to make you vote for Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately, Lyons seems to have a severe cognitive disconnect between the stuff he reports on and his ability to understand exactly the same things when they are going on in his immediate vicinity — or, heaven forbid, to him — and there are times when it really hurts his reporting. Much review ink has been spilled pointing out that Lyons is clearly kind of an asshole, and it is true that he is playing the Cranky Old Man Journalist role to the hilt — an archetype I personally find to be in a weird halfway territory between relatable and insufferable — but my issue with his general cranky asshattery is not really that it is unlikeable, but that it prevents him from being able to get more than surface-level observations about the general weirdness and shenanigans going on around him. In short, he styles himself as an anthropologist, but he's definitely the sort of anthropologist that is why anthropology as a discipline has so many issues and so much incomplete information. What he doesn't manage to do is go undercover, which I think would have provided a lot more insight and depth into how anyone but Dan Lyons actually feels about any of the shit that goes on in these companies.

More specifically:
—Lyons points out the lack of diversity and the labor exploitation at these companies, but mostly just seems to use these stats as a club against companies to reinforce that they suck. He doesn't demonstrate any sympathy for the people hurt by practices like insta-firing or sexual harassment, or even interview them. This is a sharp contrast to the beginning of the book where he loses his own job and spends about two chapters illustrating at great length how destabilizing and scary it is, even though he gets notice and severance and all that stuff, and tries to negotiate for things like "just" staying through the end of the year (several months away at the time). While he's happy to point out that it's mean for HubSpot to fire people on a "go to lunch and don't come back" basis, he doesn't acknowledge — even in passing — that, judging from his reaction to being given notice and severance, if this had happened to him he would probably have had an actual heart attack.
—He notices that turnover is high and people get disappeared fast and mysteriously, also notices that everyone around him is RELENTLESSLY CHEERFUL and ALL-IN all of the time, and concludes that all millennials are dumb and easily hoodwinked. Dude: Everyone whose facade of less than 100% committed Kool-Aid drinking cracked even for a moment got let go before you were able to see it. DUH.
—He doesn't really establish relationships with his colleagues, so if any of them are secretly stressed to death and miserable under their cheerful marketer faces, there's no reason to believe they'd confide in him about it. In fact, as an older celebrity hire for whom a new position was specifically created and who seemed to be wandering around a lot of the time not actually doing much, I think if I, a twentysomething young lady who hates self-important business buffoonery with a passion that makes her teeth hurt, were working there during that time, Dan Lyons would be the absolute LAST person I'd let my Obedient Capitalist Robot face slide in front of, especially considering he doesn't seem to have the social intelligence to keep his opinions to himself in a dangerous situation and put on an Obedient Capitalist Robot face of his own, meaning if he didn't rat me out deliberately I'd worry he'd do it just without thinking anything of it. And I say this as someone whose Obedient Capitalist Robot face isn't even very good to start with.
—Specifically, at one point he asks his younger colleagues if they wouldn't rather make more money than be paid in candy, and is baffled when they're all like "I like candy!" Like having some Baby Boomer with a nebulously defined job trying to goad you into complaining about your pay IN THE WORKPLACE doesn't have IT'S A TRAP written all over it in aggressively orange letters with a gif of Admiral Ackbar on it. Millennials know what Baby Boomers think of us when we indicate in any way that we would like to be compensated for our labor. If Lyons is unaware, he should go read some of the stuff put out by the legacy media companies that can't afford to employ him anymore because millennials aren't subscribing to them, and see if he can't figure out why we're not.
—He believes that everyone besides him who worked at HubSpot liked it because they have great Glassdoor reviews. I know at least one hip martech company in Boston that has specifically asked employees to leave positive ratings/reviews on Glassdoor to cancel out negative ones. If Lyons had been at all plugged into the Secretly Miserable Stressed-Out Debt-Ridden Underpaid Millennial Underground Gossip Network at HubSpot, he may have heard something similar. Learning to tap into and navigate the gossip network at my old place of employment was the single most valuable skill I learned there, although I learned it too late. Lyons, it seemed, never learned to use gossip at all. He seems unaware that he could be missing anything. Not a good investigative journalist trait, dude. Be more suspicious!
—HE'S SURPRISED HE GOT IN TROUBLE FOR A COMMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA THE GODDAMN SECOND TIME HE GOT IN TROUBLE FOR A COMMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA. And after he'd seen other people also get into giant unprofessional fights over comments on social media. Learn from your experiences! And yet he continues to be incredulous, instead of appreciating that he's the only nonexecutive in the company who would be allowed to hang around long enough to do that twice.
—Basically he complains about how ageist HubSpot is, which is entirely true, but completely fails to acknowledge the other ways in which he still really does have old white guy privilege, because he keeps getting breaks other people don't get. Like being able to negotiate a leave of absence (lol) and actually being able to get anything out of his stock options. I know this stuff is probably invisible to him because it's supposed to be a standard part of how jobs work, but it's not anymore.
—OK, so basically all my complaints boil down to one thing: I think he blows off the younger generation of workers as stupid and hoodwinked too easily and glosses over the ways the 99.9999% of us who aren't startup founders are getting screwed, because his desire to tell an entertaining fish out of water story about how full of wacky people HubSpot is is stronger than his empathy for a generation that's been comprehensively fucked over economically, and certainly a hell of a lot stronger than his curiosity. Most of the people I know who have been struggling through workplaces like this are not dumb. I know people who have been made "executives" at content farms who are 100% aware the moment they get the job that a) they are not ready for this, b) the company is using the prevalence of internships and contract work in the "gig economy" to make themselves look good for giving people salaries at all even when they're abysmally low, c) calling someone an "executive" or "manager" is a shitty way to make them work an additional 20 hours a week with no overtime pay like they're a fuckin' lawyer or something, and d) we'll be called lazy and entitled and told to work harder and make better decisions if we point out that we can't live in the rapidly gentrifying cities where the jobs are and pay the student loan bills racked up from getting the degrees the jobs require on the wages the jobs are paying. WE DON'T LIKE WORKING FOR SHIT WAGES AND WE'RE NOT DOING IT DELIBERATELY TO UNDERCUT BABY BOOMERS. WE DON'T HAVE A FUCKING CHOICE. There's too many of us, too many of us are college-educated, we have mortgage-size debts to pay off even if we don't have houses and families, and so much former entry-level work has been downgraded to usually-unpaid "internships" that we can't afford to not take any job we can find that pays us in actual money at all — even if we're only being paid partly in money and the rest is in stocks we'll never cash out, or salt and beer like we're in the fucking first-century Roman Army. Oh, and if we ever turned down a job just because it was laughably underpaid, five million pseudoCalvinist Baby Boomers with pensions 'n' shit would immediately materialize to lecture us on how awfully full of ourselves and lazy we are and that we should be grateful we could get a job at all and not think we're too good for it. Hey, wait, no — we don't even have to turn down the laughably underpaid jobs for that to happen! But basically, if Baby Boomers are worried that their jobs are being threatened because companies can hire 22-year-olds for a third of the salary they'd have to pay real adults, they may also wish to STFU about how enormously entitled 22-year-olds are that they think they deserve a whole third of a salary. Please see how these two things are related and stop calling us dumb.

Obviously, there are only so many things you can cover in one book, and Lyons' focus here was on how colorfully strange HubSpot is and on the shortsighted, jargon-riddled fuckery of the startup bubble, rather than the younger generation's lack of economic opportunity. But if someone's getting overpaid, someone else is getting underpaid — and I think the underpaid deserve a little more real compassion than just being used as a rhetorical device against the overpaid. Also, full confession: Baby Boomers whining about millennials like we fucked ourselves over is something that got on my last goddamn nerve several years ago; I am well out of nerves and even the slightest hint of it will turn me into a giant angry class warfare rage monster.

For a calmer and more rational takedown than mine of the irresponsible, victim-blaming ways the media covers the idiosyncrasies of millennial lifestyles and economic habits, please see Sarah Kendzior's excellent piece on Quartz this week: http://qz.com/720456/the-myth-of-millennial-entitlement-was-created-to-hide-their-parents-mistakes/

I got less angry near the end when the story refocused away from "observing" the rest of the company and making assumptions about them and onto the process of Lyons getting what in the business world I guess is called "managed out," in this case, the process by which it happened is, in the mental health, sociology and social justice worlds, called "gaslighting." Trotsky's calculatedly incomprehensible behavior is probably unfamiliar to anyone who has so far escaped being in the line of fire of similar emotional abuse, but from my weird addiction to reading advice columns, I don't think it's as uncommon as we'd all hope it would be. Some people just regularly operate in extreme bad faith. This part of the book also reawakened my sympathy for Lyons because nobody, nobody deserves to be deliberately blocked from getting shit done at work, especially not by the people whose job it is to enable you to get shit done. This is the opposite of the point of work and it is truly, truly baffling to deal with, especially in places that talk a big talk about rewarding people who TAKE INITIATIVE and DO THEIR OWN THING but if they personally don't like you they will permanently back-burner any idea you try to run past your superiors and dress you the fuck DOWN for subordination if you try to do anything without running it past your superiors. People and places that operate solely on vague buzzwords do it because they don't want you to have anything to fight for yourself with. It's all too common, but its still inexcusable, and Lyons documents it all clearly, thoroughly, and with the same sense of disbelief/naivete that irritated me so much during the rest of the book, except here it comes off more as a type of innocence that it's sad to see destroyed.

Honestly, the scariest, most effective, and most dramatic part of the whole book is the afterword, which covers the scandal surrounding the firing of two HubSpot executives for what, as far as anyone's been able to figure out, appear to be attempts to procure a copy of the manuscript for Disrupted via hacking and possibly extortion. This is the kind of stuff that really illustrates why the self-important cowboy culture of startups — the deliberately ill-defined rules, the cults of personality, the might-makes-right (or more often, money-makes-right) sense of entitlement, the unshakable belief that if you can get away with something, it must be a moral good for you to get away with it — aren't just irritating quirks of individual douchebros with too much money, they are problems. They allow morally bankrupt people with delusions of technosainthood to seriously fuck with the rest of us honest dumbasses who got suckered into trying to work for a living.

In short: Eat the rich.

Anyway, things end fairly well for Lyons, as he goes on to be a writer for Silicon Valley, which is better than being jerked around in a culty martech startup in New England, and if the people at HubSpot legitimately don't understand that then maybe they are even weirder than the people in other culty martech startups. Things ended OK for me, too, in case you were wondering; I got a job at a newsroom in an industry that might have the least social utility of any sector of journalism ever, but I am OK with that, since I am also allowed to make jokes and they are even letting me occasionally do journalism-ing instead of just editing (I'm still probably getting paid like a third of what Lyons was making as a journalist, though, so we can't put that one entirely on startups). Lyons is right that journalism is much much better for people with cranky senses of humor, even though I know he would probably think I am dumb because I am an overly excitable young lady with a cranky sense of humor instead of an important middle-aged guy with A Family To Support.

Anyway, I know this is (a) a long political rant and (b) about the farthest thing away from an objective book review as you can get, but I did only read the book because someone wanted to hear about it specifically through the filter of my personal experiences with a similar type of company, so that's what you're all getting (congratulations if anyone who's not my mom actually read it this far; I owe you a drink or something) (Mom, I probably owe you a drink too).

Should you read this book? This is going to depend a lot on your personal experiences. If you've worked at one of these places and have any political opinions in the directions that work should produce something useful, or companies should treat employees like humans, then maybe not; it's bad for your blood pressure. If you think that genius is directly correlated to net worth, don't bother — this book is going to challenge your assumptions, but let's face it; you're not going to want to hear it and you're going to write Lyons off as a douchebag who's just sour that he's not quite a big enough douchebag to pull off bilking other people out of millions. (Also, get back in the sea.) If you're a person who has been sheltered within traditional office environments and you are curious about how all this hip open-office-plans-and-ping-pong-tables stuff you've been hearing about works in practice (spoiler: it doesn't), then you should DEFINITELY read it. If you're a manager dealing with low employee morale and are considering trying to fix it by adding branded taps and a foosball table instead of taking another look at your training or performance evaluation processes and making sure they're not made out of holes, also read this book.

Current Mood: angryangry
Current Music: "Do You Hear the People Sing?" Les Mis

(Scribble in the margins)

June 27th, 2016

10:06 pm - More teaching the fish
After reading and enjoying Phil Gordon's Poker: The Real Deal and Little Green Book, I debated whether to pick up the Little Blue Book or wait until I felt I'd mastered the concepts in the Little Green Book better (read: at all). Eventually, I remember that it's never good when I decide to deliberately derail my own momentum at something, so I ordered the Little Blue Book while I felt like it, and picked it up and started reading it as soon as I felt like it.

I think this was a good move on my part, because the Little Blue Book doesn't really introduce many new concepts, but instead applies the ones from the last book to a bunch of hand histories roughly grouped by game type. There's probably some people for whom "entire book full of hand histories" sounds like the most boring stuff on earth, but I found that format especially engaging and useful. One thing I like about poker is that it plays like a mystery story, so each hand history and its little box of "Key Analysis" points at the end felt like reading a bunch of little poker parables with clearly identified Morals of the Story at the end. This is how we teach tiny children the basic concepts for living in a society, and it's about the level of simplicity I seem to require for learning about poker. Also, Gordon is an entertaining writer, and his hand history-short stories contain plenty of amusingly drawn characters and absurd jokes, which also makes them more memorable. I'm still going to have to reread sections multiple times if I have any hope of remembering enough specifics to be able to recall them at a table, because due to my line of work, in which the stuff-I-read to stuff-I-need-to-know ratio is wildly skewed, I seem to have trained my brain to retain astonishingly little detail of what I read.

Anyway, the book is split into sections for cash games, early in tournaments, in the middle of tournaments, late in tournaments, final tables (for the optimistic), online play, and even a section on tips for playing satellites. Obviously, it's mostly the cash game section that I'm going to be rereading until I finally absorb something, but the late-in-tournaments and final-table sections are the most thrilling reading, featuring more big-name pros and with the most tricky psychological stuff. My favorite story is the one where Phil bases his decision-making on an episode of Seinfeld for a hand against Phil Hellmuth, and does the opposite of everything he's initially inclined to do. Phil manages to both outplay and out-jackass other Phil, and it's enormously satisfying to read. (It is also never, ever going to have any utility for me as a player.)

This book does not have charts at the end -- those are in the Little Green Book and it is assumed you've got that one already -- but it does have a very nice glossary.

My only concern about this book is the same as the one I've got about the Little Green Book, which is that the game has evolved a lot since it was published. This book was released in 2006, making it a full decade old. I can tell a lot of the terms you hear these days are missing -- it doesn't discuss game theory optimization, which is currently super hip, and it talks about putting opponents on hands rather than on ranges of hands -- but I've got no way of knowing how that translates into concrete differences in the expectations you should have for opponents' behavior and how you should interpret or play back against said behavior. But I think overall the book is heavy enough on "how to think things through" over "in X situation, always make play Y" that it should still be a valuable resource.

I'm still going to run right out and buy the Little Gold Book, even though that one has "Advanced" in the subtitle and I am clearly actually not ready for advanced anything, just because at this point I really like Gordon as an author. While I'm waiting for it to get here, I'm going to go back and review some things.

(Scribble in the margins)

June 23rd, 2016

09:00 pm - Tarot cards and dreamed-up cars
Aight, so I finished The Raven Boys and then picked up The Dream Thieves immediately that same day, so I might be a tiny bit confused about what goes in which book, because they're all one ongoing story anyway.

This book picks up pretty much right after the last one leaves off. The boys and Blue are still looking for Owen Glendower, although they have made what seems to be progress in the form of the thing that happened as the climax of the previous book. But there is also something weird happening with the corpse road/ley line/whatever you want to call the band of magical energy that Glendower is supposedly buried along: it's starting to flicker in and out like an overloaded circuit.

In other news, Ronan, the fighty Irish boy with emotional issues and a pet baby raven named Chainsaw, is working on his own magical powers: He can take things out of dreams. Chainsaw he took out of a dream, although that was before he started getting the hang of doing it on purpose. Also, somebody beat up Ronan's terrible older brother. Also also, a bunch of people are searching for what they believe is an object that allows people to take stuff out of dreams. Also also also, some dbag at Aglionby named Kavinsky keeps taunting Ronan into street racing and making extremely unclever gay jokes at him. Kavinsky is possibly the most unmitigatedly terrible person out of all the terrible people in this series. His terribleness doesn't even have a point, he's just an overpowered twit.

Meanwhile, Gansey and Adam go to an awkward party at Gansey's house, because his mom is running for Congress. Adam's inability to accept charity and simultaneous desire to break into non-poor society causes problems, as usual, because Adam doesn't understand that rich and powerful people stay rich and powerful because they help each other out a lot. Favors are what people trade in when they either don't have enough money to pay for stuff in money, or when they have too much money for the money to be meaningful. TAKE THE FAVORS. YOU'LL PAY THEM BACK LATER.

Also meanwhile, Blue's mom is dating the hit man that beat up Ronan's terrible brother, and she knows he's a hit man, and it's weirdly adorable? And then the hit man has a weird sort of tragic background/redemption arc about his own terrible older brother. Dysfunctional family secrets abound.

If the first book took a nice floral meandering path to getting the story rolling, by this point, it is rolling pretty fast. The Dream Thieves has its quiet moments and its descriptive passages and its teasing bits of backstory, yes, but for the most part, things have gone and turned into HIGH-OCTANE NIGHTMARE FUEL with someone getting beaten up or murdered or chased around by scary dream monsters with beaks and claws nearly every chapter. Cars blow up. Ronan's non-terrible younger brother gets kidnapped and stuck in the trunk of a Mitsubishi (which later blows up). Probably some other stuff gets blown up too, I don't even remember. Some people die and some other people weren't even alive to start with. Gansey gets covered in bees. This isn't funny because Gansey is very allergic to bees and has already died of bees once already.

This series is quickly moving up my "Did this author write this series just for me?" list, although it is not likely to dislodge the Lynburn Legacy from the top spot. But that is OK. It might get to #2 if it keeps escalating like this. Especially if tarot cards continue to feature in it as heavily as they do.

Current Mood: geekygeeky
Current Music: neighbor's terrible barbecuing playlist

(Scribble in the margins)

June 22nd, 2016

08:43 pm - Welsh mythology and Southern Gothic
I've been waiting to read The Raven Boys for a long time.

In December of 2013 I read Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, a standalone YA fantasy about water horses on a small island in Ireland. I am pretty sure that at the end of this book there was the first-chapter preview for The Raven Boys. I think. I remember the preview itself pretty vividly, because it sounded very intriguing. There were ghosts and prophecies and creepy aunts and stuff. Then I started following Maggie Stiefvater on Twitter and Tumblr and stuff, because she's hilarious, and since the Raven Cycle is her most popular series of books, I started hearing more about it. Something about Welsh mythology. A lot of stuff about death and cars. I don't know much about cars but it sounded like the sort of demented Gothic stuff I like. I decided I needed to read it, but for a while I didn't get around to it. Then, sometimes after it was announced that the fourth and last book was coming out this year and it was also announced that there would be a Raven Cycle tarot deck designed, I decided I would wait until the last book came out, find a good chunk of time when I could really relax and do the thing properly, and try to read the whole series in one go.

Last weekend I went up to my father's cabin in the woods in Maine by the lake and for two days I sat on the porch and looked at the lake and read the Raven Cycle books. I finished the first two and got a little bit into Book 3 before I had to come back to real life. I'm hoping to get back up there sometime this summer to finish the series.

The Raven Boys is the story of a young lady named Blue, who is the only non-psychic in an all-female family of psychics. Blue can, however, amplify other people's psychic powers, so she is a pretty integral part of the family psychic business. Blue doesn't really have friends at her public school, but she actively avoids the shit out of the boys at Aglionby Academy, a private prep school for rich powerful sons of rich powerful families, where basically the entire student body is as insufferable as Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl except even more insufferable because they have cars since they are in the suburbs and not NYC, and cars amplify rich boys' the-worst-ness by a factor of at least 4.

Anyway, Blue is burdened with a prophecy that if she kisses her true love he will die, so Blue very sensibly does what any independent-minded young lady not gruelingly trained in putting up with teenage boys' bullshit would probably do anyway: She decides to forgo this whole romance thing entirely, which is a decision I approve of, but which honestly can be quite hard to do without cracking at all during one's teen years and young adulthood, if only because that is the time of one's life when one is meeting lots of new people and trying new things and going new places and generally having one's world get bigger, and it takes practice to make one's world bigger without having any boys get into it at least once or twice.

In this case, Blue ends up reluctantly making friends with a quartet of Aglionby boys who are on a quest to find and resuscitate the sleeping Welsh king Owen Glendower, and also Blue knows from a vigil she held on St. Mark's Eve that one of the boys, Gansey, is destined to die within the year. Since Blue actually saw his shade herself, it's also likely that either he's Blue's true love or that it's Blue who kills him, or, considering the prophecy, both. Since Gansey is a rich smartass who wears terrible loud polo shirts, Blue is skeptical that he could be her true love, but apparently decides to stick around helping him look for Glendower anyway, even though anyone who's ever watched a movie can see where this is going. PSA: DON'T GO ON MAGICAL QUESTS WITH PEOPLE YOU'RE TRYING TO NOT FALL IN LOVE WITH, FOR CHRISSAKE.

The other boys in this friend group are Ronan Lynch, a fighty Irish boy with massive emotional problems stemming from his father's murder and his older brother's total assholery; Adam Parrish, a non-rich scholarship kid from an abusive family who works three jobs to pay the non-scholarship-covered part of his Aglionby tuition; and Noah, who tells Gansey right at the beginning of the book that he's been dead for seven years and everyone kind of treats it like a random lame joke right up until they find Noah's body that's been rotting in the woods for seven years. Seriously, Stiefvater's ability to straight-up dump spoilers into her own books like three hundred pages in advance and have the reader totally blow them off is amazing. No wussy foreshadowing here! The line of dialogue is literally "I've been dead for seven years" and then when they find the body in the woods you're like NO WAY, WHAT A SHOCK, GANSEY MUST BE SO SURPRISED.

Also, Gansey's name is Gansey, which sounds suspiciously like geansaí, the Irish word for "sweater." Blue often measures the likelihood of Gansey dying on any given outing by whether or not he is wearing his Aglionby sweater, since his shade was wearing that when she saw it, which means he's going to die in the sweater. I am 99% sure that Maggie Stiefvater did this on purpose but now I've got to go ask her just to check. *runs to Tumblr*

While the book has many jokes and general scenes of humorous mayhem, it also doesn't fuck around with the stakes: lives are at risk; the sleepy little town of Henrietta and the prestigious stuffy halls of Aglionby Academy are sites of omnipresent violence, secrets and danger; magic is not to be casually fucked around with, even by the psychics. Every character is memorable, if only because all of them could kill you (except for Noah) but all in very different ways. The story starts off slower than is quite usual for YA, and the writing tends toward the poetic and descriptive in a way that will probably annoy a lot of people who don't like to notice the words when they're reading, but since I'm a shameless fan of a well-turned bit of description I think it builds the atmosphere well--beautiful and slow and muggy like the Virginia summer the book takes place in. In short: Excellent lakeside mood reading.

I read it in less than 24 hours. Then I immediately picked up the sequel.

(Scribble in the margins)

June 7th, 2016

10:15 pm - A book about a book, for bookish kids
For BSpec's book club this season I read Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard, a classic of YA fantasy that I think I read once when I was wee but didn't end up taking to. I think it was because it was a little too '80s and I didn't know things about the '80s, so I found the Manhattan setting more difficult to understand than I should have considering I grew up like an hour outside of New York City. But now I am an ADULT and I know what the Pan Am building is (mainly, that it isn't the Pan Am building anymore), so I was ready to take another stab at it.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that, like many YA/children's books from the pre-Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire era, it's decently short and quite fast-paced, which is not necessarily the case with a lot of the books I read these days. Nita, a 13-year-old girl who is consistently beat up by a bunch of her classmates, finds the titular grimoire while hiding out in a library in the very first chapter. From then things move along quite rapidly as she studies the wizardry book, makes friends with a fellow novice wizard named Kit, accidentally summons an adorable tiny white dwarf start that they name Fred who is so unendingly adorably and charming that you know immediately he's going to die (er, "blow his quanta") at the end from almost the moment he appears on the page, and sets off on a simple-seeming Quest to retrieve her space pen from where Fred accidentally ate it, which, predictably, goes all wrong.

I swear to God it's like I'd forgotten what normal adventure story pacing is like. I should take notes and apply them to my own endlessly long meandering manuscript o' doom.

Anyway, Fred is super cute, and the creepy shadow version of New York that he and Nita and Kit wind up in is deeply creepy. Things like taxis and fire hydrants and helicopters are semi-alive, and terrifying--predatory creatures that eat dogs and pigeons and other hapless actual-lifeforms. This version of the universe has no sun and is ruled by a Morgoth-like being who has stolen the MacGuffin of the story, the Book of Night with Moon, the object within which all reality is written. The two teens, being totally unprepared novice wizards and therefore more powerful than the older ones (this isn't snark; that's actually how magic works in this world--younger people have it more powerfully) have to find and retrieve the Book and bring it back to their own universe through a small tear in space-time in Grand Central Station. This involves getting chased a lot, making friends with an angry Lexus, and bartering with a senile dragon. It's all simultaneously very thrilling and very adorable.

I can definitely see why this really spoke to a lot of kids in the age range it's targeted toward, and why it seems to have had the same effects on its fandom as the Alanna books or the Wrinkle in Time series or Ella Enchanted. I'm not going to get that same level of sucked into it, probably, since my formative years have passed, but I'd definitely be interested in reading the sequels.

(Scribble in the margins)

June 1st, 2016

04:28 pm - What happens in Vegas makes the NYT bestseller list
On my managing editor's advice, I decided that the next step in my poker education would be losing a chunk of money to Ricky and Alexis on Friday reading James McManus' Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker, a journalist's account of playing—and final tabling—the World Series of Poker in 2000, just a few years before the Chris Moneymaker thing happened.

The story in brief: James McManus was assigned by Harper's to cover women players in the 2000 World Series of Poker, and simultaneously to cover the trial for the murder of Ted Binion that was going on at the same time. McManus instead spends a big chunk of his $4,000 advance on satellites for the Main Event, wins one, then plays the Main Event, where he somehow lasts all the way to the final table, ultimately coming in fifth. Then he has to scramble around squeezing all his journalism-ing into a very short period of time when the verdict comes down, before taking his almost $250,000 and going home to the Midwest, where his wife is justifiable pissed off at him for getting a lap dance while he was in Vegas.

Obviously, that is the wildly oversimplified version.

The book is a rich, sprawling 450-page saga, colorful to the point of being lurid, that pulls together a wide variety of topics—the histories of the Binions and the game of poker and McManus's own family; the endless development and redevelopment and reinvention of Las Vegas; the ludicrously colorful people who populate the gambling world, both at the table and in business; advice on poker strategy and the effects of easily available strategy advice on the evolution of the game. He ties poker into just about every aspect of life, the universe and everything that one could plausibly tie poker into, which is quite a lot of them. (Regrettably, this leads him down the tiresome evo psych path more than once, but as far as evo psych explanations for stuff go it could be a lot worse.) The book starts off with a reconstructed account of Ted Binion's murder, which despite being as factual as the author could make it, reads like a scene from a Tarantino movie. I was a little surprised at first because all I knew about the book going into it was that it was about poker and then it was apparently about HEROIN STRIPPER MURDER instead, but it all comes back around by Chapter 2.

The anchor point of all these disparate threads is McManus himself, which works both because he is attempting to do at least four things at once for most of the book, and because he's really not afraid to put his own personality front and center, eschewing the practice of being just a cipher/viewpoint into the action for the reader. McManus uses the slightly goofy conceit of there being two of him, Good Jim and Bad Jim, but overall he is STRONGLY of the Cranky Old Man Journalist character archetype. I generally enjoy this character type (and I do aspire to be Cranky when I am Old—and possibly even a Journalist—but I am not there yet), although since I am at the moment also reading Dan Lyons's Disrupted (the one about working at Hubspot) and Dan Lyons is also a Cranky Old Man Journalist (this is one of the central conceits of Disrupted), I could do with a bit less of it from both of them. Overall, though, I think McManus makes a strong, root-for-able protagonist—driven, flawed but self-aware, and definitely the scrappy underdog, considering he was facing down players like T.J. Cloutier, Daniel Negreanu and Chris Ferguson.

All the stuff surrounding the poker action is pretty good reading, but I think the strongest aspects of the book are the character profiles and the accounts of the actual poker play itself. Bad poker prose can be almost as boring as bad televised poker (and boring televised poker is stultifyingly boring), but good poker writing that properly balances all the important bits of information we do and don't have can be as exciting as a well-choreographed fight scene. In some ways, a hand of poker essentially is a fight scene, so I suppose it's not all that surprising that the practices for doing them well are similar. (I'm pretty sure I still have my notes from that Readercon panel about fight scenes and sex scenes somewhere; I should dig them out and see how well they apply.) The action is used to illuminate character and the characterization is then used to drive the action, which is how poker works anyway when the players are actually good. McManus is apparently pretty good, although the poker scenes often pick up a level of internal conflict to add to the competition at the table when his brain tells him what the correct play is and then he goes and makes the stupid one anyway. (I was glad to read this because I've played all of nine games of poker in my entire life and I've already found that happening to me, so it made me feel a bit better to know it's not just me being uniquely dumb.) (This is also about the only thing I found myself to have in common with the author, since he is different from me in pretty much every material aspect of life, being a middle-aged man with a wife and kids and house and an established career as a teacher and a journalist, whereas I am a single young lady and perpetual renter who decided to become a journalist all of last week.)

One thing that surprised me was that even with my extremely weak understanding of poker strategy, there were times when I couldn't help but feel that some of the plays and strategy advice were kind of dated? I'm watching a lot of current pro poker on Twitch these days and I can tell that it tends to be a looser game than what I'm reading about when I'm reading what are now considered the most "classic" poker books that are still recommended as helpful—meaning Phil Gordon's, mostly—which were still written after 2003. The books McManus is studying from were written, um, before that, obviously. I kind of want to read Super/System now, though, because it sounds pretty interesting from a copy editing perspective, or more precisely from a lack of copy editing perspective. (What is with poker books and under-editing, anyway?)

My biggest issue with the book was that the topic McManus was ostensibly sent out to cover—women in poker—got relatively short shift due to McManus's decision to instead occupy himself with playing the tournament. The women we do meet are pretty interesting, but I'm sorry, it is SUCH AN OLD WHITE DUDE thing to be like "Poker is great because ~all sorts~ of people play it these days!" just because you've gone from like, 100% dudes to 95% dudes. It is possible that this was extra visible to me right now because apparently poker is having a Moment about women and sexism and the like, and it is an infuriatingly low caliber of discussion compared to what's going on in every other geeky space I keep tabs on. Apparently, I'm gonna have to scrounge a trip to Las Vegas out of my employer and go interview all the women in poker myself.

Anyway, if you're at all curious about poker and/or poker history but don't want to sit around reading jargon-laden strategy manuals, Positively Fifth Street is an entertaining, vivid look into poker's awkward transition period into semi-respectability.

(Scribble in the margins)

May 22nd, 2016

04:27 pm - A $4 investment in my poker education
Sometimes I get days where I have nothing to do but read, and I get to sit around and devour and entire 500+-page book in a matter of hours, make myself a cup of tea to clear my book hangover, and pick up the next one.

I hope I get another one of those days at some point this summer because my last one was in January.

Sometimes I get entire weeks and months of running around with ten million things to do, working my way through whatever poor book I've been lugging around in fits and starts, stealing a page here and a chapter there, ten minutes of reading in the car before going into work, five minutes before bed because it's actually past when I'm supposed to go to bed and I'm exhausted. The biggest chunks of time come when showing up to dinners 45 minutes early because I don't really have enough time to go anywhere or do anything else between where I was before and when I'm meeting people, so I get a drink alone at the bar and try to make a dent in my reading.

May has been like that, which is how it took me more than two weeks to finish reading Phil Gordon's Little Green Book, a volume considered a classic of poker strategy books precisely because it is short and easy to read.

In retrospect, I think it's a pretty good book to have been forced to read in fits and starts, since by design it is broken down into lots of little short sections, and it's nice to be able to read a handful and let 'em sit in the back of your brain digesting for a bit before biting off the next few.

The Little Green Book is not a "What even is poker" book, of which I have already read two this year, both by guys named Phil. The better one was Phil Gordon's Poker: The Real Deal, which is part of why I bought the Little Green Book when I decided it was time to learn more. The Little Green Book is a proper strategy book, complete with charts and math and things. There are separate chapters on each round of betting. There is advice on how playing tournaments differs from playing cash games. There is a section on math and a section on psychology. There are some good digs at Phil Hellmuth, including the sentence "Phil wins a lot of chips because of his obnoxious personality at the table."

I'm glad I actually went out and proper bought a copy of this book instead of borrowing it off somebody, because I'm sure I'll be going back and rereading sections multiple times as I try to remember things while actually playing. Although one or two friends have expressed interest in borrowing it, which is acceptable as long as they give it back in a timely manner. I will be keeping records. Or perhaps I will stick a "for reference only" sticker on it and then people can only read it if they come to my house.

I'm absolutely not ready for the Little Blue Book yet, but I might buy it anyway just so I don't waste patio drinking season, and I can truly make 2016 my Year of Reading Poker Books at Bars.

(Scribble in the margins)

02:26 pm - Elves are terrific; they inspire terror
I'm officially six months behind on Mark Reads stuff.

I just finished, er, "reading along" (??) Sir Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies, which I remembered as "the one with the elves," although I think elves eventually show up again in one of the Tiffany Aching books as well.

In this one, Magrat is unhappily engaged to the new King Verence and is bored as hell with what being queen is apparently going to consist of; a bunch of young Goths are playing with things that are too powerful for them; Granny Weatherwax's old boyfriend returns; and a group of local Morris dancers are trying to put on a play for the royal wedding and are definitely, definitely not going to do the stick-and-bucket dance. On top of all that, crop circles keep appearing.

I'm sort of having trouble coming up with much to say about this book because it's pretty typical Discworld. Fortunately for the reader, "pretty typical Discworld" means it's engaging, hilarious, and equally full of groanworthy puns and deeply insightful humor. This one's deeply grounded in old British Isles traditions of the Fair Folk (as well as a lot of other really old country British stuff), so it's rich with references if you're sufficiently well grounded in those traditions yourself, and probably a bit baffling if you're not. It has wonderful footnotes. Granny Weatherwax continues to kick all kinds of ass, being totally awesome while simultaneously being kind of a terrible person.

Also, I just got the pun in Casanunda's name this time around and I've been reading these books for like fourteen years. Half my life. Clearly my command of the Englishes has improved since I was a high school freshman, which I suppose is a good thing, since in the intervening years I've only gotten a degree in the stupid language and started a career in it.

(Scribble in the margins)

May 10th, 2016

09:56 pm - But I still haven't finished my manuscript
This book may be my personal record for how long it has taken me to read a book where I never considered myself to have actually put it on hiatus or given up.

My grossly never-finished novel o' doom concerns a lot of blacksmiths, and therefore I decided a few years ago that I should maybe learn a thing or two about blacksmithing, so I didn't totally fuck up any more than I needed to. If novel ever gets to Draft 2 I may see about taking a blacksmithing course, but that will be far in the future.

Anyway, The Art of Blacksmithing by Alex Bealer seemed to be one of the better respected publications about general blacksmithing that I could find on the Internet; apparently Tamora Pierce has also used it as a source for novel research, so that seemed like a good sign. I have, over the past slightly more than two years, slowly worked my way through it in small doses, usually reading a few pages here and a few pages there, on the subway to and from writing sessions, or sometimes between finishing one book and starting the next.

The book is not necessarily a rollicking good read, being pretty dry and technical, and it was written in the '70s and sometimes it just sounds dated (not in terrible ways, just ways that now sound stilted and not very vivid). Some of the information is inherently quite interesting, but much of it is interesting in exact proportion to how curious you already are about blacksmithing. It is extremely informative, though, covering a wide range of topics and going into pretty good detail, accompanied by a lot of diagrams and illustrations to clear up the things that are difficult to explain in just words. The most readable sections concern history, both the history of blacksmithing generally and the historical developments of certain categories of blackwork (swords, guns, etc.). While I do think these bits are especially interesting, I still wouldn't recommend the book overall for entertainment purposes. However, if you're genuinely curious about the subject and/or doing any writing where you want to be able to have some idea of what you're talking about, then I would recommend it pretty highly.

(Scribble in the margins)

May 9th, 2016

07:04 pm - Editorial melodrama
While I've been doing a fair bit of reading on the gambling end of my current field, I've been pretty neglectful about keeping up on any sort of writing or editing-related reading. But it's been a full year since my last binge of editing books, so I did try to find the time to make sure I hadn't forgotten how punctuation works by zipping through Karen Elizabeth Gordon's The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. Gordon is also the author of my old favorite grammar book The Transitive Vampire, of which I own a copy that my mother once rescued from a library weeding. I'm fairly certain I also have a copy of the old version of The Well-Tempered Sentence around somewhere, but I'm not sure if I've ever read it.

I did not really learn anything new from The New Well-Tempered Sentence, which is good, as it means I have not been radically wrong about anything too basic regarding punctuation and that I have not lost my mind about any of it either. (It is important to stop and check periodically, though, when you're in my line of work. JUST IN CASE.) The level of the material is not substantially more complex than what you would expect to be learning at a high school level. That is, of course, not really the point of any of Gordon's works. The point is that it is full of delightfully wacky example sentences—many of which are not really appropriate to what you would expect to be seeing in a pre-collegiate level class—and many old illustrations (from Egyptian hieroglyphs to Victorian line drawings) with humorous captions. My favorite bit comes in the list of uses for italics, where the different types of emphasis you can use italics to add are enumerated, and include "for unrequited platonic love" and "for special effect in social repartee."

Whether the melodramatic example sentences make it easier to remember the punctuation rules or not is something I cannot entirely weigh in on; I would have to ask someone who did not already remember the punctuation rules before reading the book and see if their retention had improved.

(Scribble in the margins)

06:58 pm - Family secrets
So it turns out that just because I don't work at a Big Six publishing company, it doesn't mean I can't steal any good books from work.

When my old editor-in-chief left, he found an ARC while cleaning out his desk that someone had given us as a review copy back when it was first published. The book was Hit Me!: Fighting the Las Vegas Mob by the Numbers by Danielle Gomes and Jay Benincasa. The ARC is dated May 2013, making this review three years late, so I don't know if I'm supposed to still send the publisher two copies like they asked for. What's the usual practice for this sort of thing? Anyway, publishers, if you wanna send review copies of gambling-related books to Casino City, we'll be more timely in the future, because I'm here now.

Hit Me! follows the story of Dennis Gomes, a young accountant with an unshakable sense of justice who is tasked with heading up and reforming the Nevada Gaming Control Board's Audit Division in 1970's Las Vegas. Most of the casinos in Vegas at this time were owned by Mafia groups--usually multiple outfits, as joint ventures--who massively underreported revenues and used the skimmed funds to finance all sorts of other mob operations back in their home territories. A pretty huge proportion of Nevada's political and law enforcement apparatus was also involved, either actively in the mobs' pockets or just unwilling to cross them. This lack of institutional support--plus the occasional active betrayal from inside the house--makes Gomes's job very, very difficult at times.

While the word "audit" may conjure up for some readers a rather unsexy image of some desk workers poring over spreadsheets, rest assured that this is a full-on gangster story, with all the clandestine meetings, undercover surveillance and raiding rooms full of money at gunpoint that that implies. The cast of characters is also pretty loud, on the cop side as well as the mobster side. Fans of the movie Casino will be able to spot some familiar material in the second half of the book as Gomes starts going after the Stardust's Frank Rosenthal and Tony "the Ant" Spilotro. (The first half of the book I'm not sure about 'cause I didn't see Casino until this Friday, because I am the worst gangster movie fan ever.)

The biggest strength of this book is that it is very, very detailed--not in a lengthy way, but entire conversations are reconstructed verbatim, accompanied by vivid sights and sounds and smells until you feel you might as well be reading a trashy noir novel. Some of this is because the Audit Division kept extraordinarily detailed notes, and some is apparently because Gomes had an excellent memory, but I'm sure a bunch of it is just because some of this shit is so crazy you could never forget it. Gomes makes a relatable enough viewpoint character most of the time; mostly he comes off as very committed to driving the mob out of Vegas and very frustrated when he can't, which is pretty hard to take issue with. You get a glimpse of a little more of a weird dude right at the beginning and right at the end, but for the bulk of the book he's all Secret Agent Man all the time.

I don't know if this is something they may have included in the final printing, but my biggest complaint about this ARC was its lack of photographs. I want some pictures! Mugshots, crime scenes, awful '70s fashion, pics of the tacky old casinos that were there before the tacky current ones. I mean, this should be obvious. The ARC doesn't even identify whose photos are being used on the cover.

Overall, though, this is a high-adrenaline true crime tale, and I especially recommend reading it while drinking wine in the bathtub.

(Scribble in the margins)

April 28th, 2016

09:04 am - In which I am unable to turn off the editor-brain
Lately I have been trying to learn more about poker, and while I'm practically swamped with Twitch coverage, I'm reading books on a "whatever's most easily available" basis—and not that much is easily available; the BPL has been letting me down on this front. I'll have to start asking real people if they've got books.

One book that was immediately to hand for me was Phil Hellmuth's Play Poker Like the Pros, which my cousin lent me. Phil Hellmuth is the all-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner and has won nearly $20 million in live tournament cashes, plus God knows how much money in cash games. In theory, he should be a pretty solid person to learn poker strategy from, which is probably a large part of why he gets book deals.

There are, however, a number of problems with this theory, which become apparent when you read the book as an actual thing that exists now. They fit into roughly three categories: 1 is datedness, 2 is questionable editing, and 3 is Phil Hellmuth. Many of the criticisms I have of this book could be considered type 2 or type 3, in that I think I a tighter editorial hand could have done more to rein in the Phil Hellmuth-ness of the book.

The dated stuff couldn't possibly have been avoided, considering that the book was written in 2002, and back in 2002 that was about as modern as you could get. That said, 2002 is a really hilariously bad year to be dated from, since 2003 was the year Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker Main Event and the "poker boom" went into overdrive. A lot of the numbers Hellmuth throws around look adorably small, and a lot of the people he mentions, while still highly respected, are undoubtedly the "old guard" of poker now. There are also a couple of people he mentions who are, uh, less highly respected now than they were back then (you can probably guess who they are if you know about the Full Tilt scandal). Most cringe-inducingly, Hellmuth spends a fair amount of time plugging Ultimate Bet, one of the online card rooms at the center of the "superuser"/"God mode" cheating scandal. And it's sort of sad how confident the book is that easily accessible online poker will only ever grow more popular and widespread, because what a wonderful thing is the Internet.

(Man, I still can't believe I missed the entire poker boom. It sounds like a fun time.)

The second class of errors I cannot blame on 2002. Editing existed in 2002; it was probably in better shape as a field than it is now. AND YET. There are about eleventy billion exclamation points in this 350-page book. There are way too many parenthetical asides. There is a GLARING mathematical error on page 63, in which a percentage is calculated but the "convert to percentage" step is skipped. (It is a copy editor's job to double-check arithmetic, alas, even though most of us are English majors.) On the upside, I did not catch any hand histories/examples in which the card notations were wrong, which is not necessarily true for all poker publications, I have found. There is a misnegation on page 200, which, considering it is right in the middle of explaining starting hand strength in Omaha Eight or Better (High-Low Split) to an audience who has presumably never played Omaha Eight or Better (High-Low Split) before, is extremely confusing. (After rereading the paragraph I am sure he meant to say that A-2 as a starting hand can't be overstated and shouldn't be underestimated; i.e., that is is an extremely strong hand; not actually that it cannot be underestimated, i.e. that it is a garbage hand and the proper estimation of its utility is zero.)

Bridging the gap from error class 2 to error class 3, it appears that Hellmuth either convinced or stetted his editor into accepting his own personal, idiosyncratic definition of the word "megalomaniac." In the book it is defined as "poker slang" for an extremely "maniac" type of player ("maniac" actually does seem to be a term for people who raise all over the place). Fourteen years later, Phil Hellmuth is still the only person in the poker community I have heard use the word "megalomaniac" in that way, and poker editors far more veteran than myself have grumbled that that is not what that word means, dammit. My guess is still that somebody called Hellmuth that way back in the day and he decided something self-serving about table image instead of looking it up in the damn dictionary, and has just stuck with it ever since.

Error class 3 consists of things that are not really errors so much as reasons Phil Hellmuth is annoying. His nickname is "the Poker Brat" for a reason, and the reason is that he is egotistical to the point of comedy—if you have not already had your lifetime fill of male egotism being passed off as cute and funny, a point that I and every other woman I know has passed by the end of our first year of college at the latest. Anyway: Phil Hellmuth likes to drop names about all the cool people he hangs out with and brag about how much money he has won and lost. He likes relate his internal monologues to himself a lot—and while he usually refers to himself as "Phil," there is at least one occasion where he addresses himself as "baby." He's made up his own system of "animal personalities" to refer to different types of players instead of using existing community terminology, which might not necessarily be a terrible writing crime in and of itself, it's just that the result sounds really freaking goofy.

As far as being an introduction to the games goes, the book is just fine. It introduces a number of different games on a basic level, first the rules, then a little bit of advice on approaching play. This is good if you're totally unfamiliar with the games. The most attention is given to various forms of Hold'em, both limit and no-limit, which also makes sense. The more basic Hold'em strategy given is pretty easily actionable—like, "Here are the 10 best hands"—and it's pretty light on the math, which is probably OK.

The more advanced strategy given seems like it'd be more useful for following the action when watching poker on TV than actually playing, since a lot of it basically comes down to "this works great when you do it right," and in order to get to a point where you can do it "right" you'll probably need to either do a lot more reading or play a lot more poker, or most likely both. Frankly, the "advanced" section is largely just an excuse for Hellmuth to tell stories about tricky plays he's pulled off or witnessed. It is even lighter on the math than the basics section.

I would be unsurprised if some of the strategy advice isn't actually somewhat dated by now too, since the game has evolved so much since 2002, but I'm supremely unqualified to comment as to how. For me, the most useful portion of the book was probably the bits on Hold'em strategy that overlapped with the material covered in Phil Gordon's Poker: The Real Deal, so I could get a sense of what's the same and what was approached differently. For example, the Phils group what they consider to be "playable hands" differently, but overall there's not much disagreement over how strong various starting hands are. It would have been interesting to look at the advice side by side, but I gave the Gordon book back to the library.

To be frank, for me, the most enjoyable aspect of the book was reading the section about playing in fancy high-roller tournaments while simultaneously watching Hellmuth lose his shirt to Cate Hall on Poker Night in America's Twitch channel. I would read the hell out of a poker book by Cate Hall, by the way.

I think this book may be interesting to people for whom poker is an entirely foreign country that they're curious about (and who have a high tolerance for gregariously smug tour guides). But I think my next poker book is going to have to be something a bit more in-depth—and, alas, probably much heavier on math. Recommendations and/or things I could borrow would be most welcome.

(Scribble in the margins)

April 17th, 2016

01:02 pm - A great man and a second-rate poet
For the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising, a lot of new books on the subject are being published. One major set of new releases I saw pretty much all over Ireland when I was there was a series of biographies called 16 Lives, the lives in question being the sixteen leaders of the Easter Rising who were executed in its aftermath. I was tempted to buy all sixteen, but a) that would have been expensive and b) trying to get them all home on the plane would have been awful, especially considering how much other stuff I bought. So I settled for just getting the one on Padraic Pearse -- simply titled 16 Lives: Patrick Pearse, because for some reason they thought the English name was better -- by Ruan O'Donnell.
The book is both well sourced and written in a straightforward, accessible style, but I still bounced off it a bit more than I was expecting to, which was disappointing. I pretty much only have one gripe with the book, but it's a pretty significant one, in that it's "the structure of the entire book." I wanted more material on the development of Pearse's life and career before all the Rising stuff that has been so amply covered elsewhere. My favorite sections of the book were the first two chapters, one on "The Young Pearse" and one on "Republican Politics" that covered the establishment of his career, but after that it slowed down for me a lot -- there are three chapters on the planning and the events leading up to Easter Monday, then a chapter on Easter Week and a chapter on its aftermath, then it ends. The aftermath chapter is gruesomely interesting, but I definitely felt like the story that was being told had far too much middle and not enough setup.
That said, the picture of Pearse that develops in the book is fascinating and human -- committedly idealistic but with a strong pragmatic streak; progressive but devoutly Catholic; a future-oriented man with a strong (if hilariously romanticized) sense of Ireland's history. Buried under the shmaltzy Edwardian dramatics of his writing, there even lurks an occasional sense of humor. He also managed the trick of being highly accomplished in a number of different fields, all of which manage to come together into seeming like one big project. He must have been a very, very interesting person to actually meet.

(Scribble in the margins)

April 4th, 2016

07:57 pm - Thirty-one pictures are worth 31,000 words
Soooo the most recent book I read is probably more properly a pamphlet, but it has an ISBN so it's a book for my book-counting purposes, especially since I am running behind. This is not cheating.
The book is called Dublin After the Six Days' Insurrection and it was originally published in 1916. It is a collection of photos taken in and around central Dublin by a chap called T.W. Murphy, who was apparently a fairly in-demand newspaper photographer back in the day (and whose nickname/pen name/something was apparently "The O'Tatur"? I don't know, but it's on the front cover). The photos are in black and white, but are pretty crisp for photos of that era.
The photo selection seems to be organized by least bombed-out buildings to most bombed-out buildings, and then a chunk of photos of people at the back. While I am sure this was not the point when the book was first put together, it has the effect of aiding any modern reader who has been to Dublin, by situating them among the still-existing buildings before introducing the areas that have since been rebuilt.
The booklet also contains a mostly-illegible handwritten note in the inside front cover, which serves as a useful reminder that people in history were, in fact, at least as bad at doing most things as people are now.
While the booklet's price has been the victim of severe inflation over the past century, costing five euro ninety-five instead of its initial price of sevenpence, it was still a good, cheap souvenir for being in Dublin during the centenary commemorations and is a very worthwhile set of pictures to have on hand for anyone interested in the Rising.

(Scribble in the margins)

April 2nd, 2016

12:04 pm - Nil Gaeilge agam, but I'm trying
Last summer I began studying Irish, and when I went looking for study materials in addition to what was given to us in class, I bought a tiny little pocket dictionary and phrasebook titled simply Irish Dictionary and Phrasebook. The book is about the size of a large index card, and the dictionary portion and the phrasebook portion are each about 70 pages. (The dictionary includes both an Irish-English and English-Irish section, so it is functionally more like two 35-page dictionaries.) I would read this a few pages at a time when I arrived to class early, just to learn and reinforce my basic vocabulary and practice pronouncing things. Because of its brevity, it is not entirely useful for looking up words when reading very often, but it still provides a decent chunk of solid 101-level information in a familiar and easy-to-understand format.
I could quibble a bit with the pronunciation guides provided, but quite frankly, since sounds in Irish are often different sounds entirely from the sounds in English, I can't really be mad that they didn't use the same written approximations that I tend to. I'm also finding that as I try to be more accurate in my pronunciation notes for myself, I am finding it increasingly difficult to figure out how to write down what sounds I should be making. And if I want to write the broad "dh" sound as "rh" because it sounds like a French "r" to me, that doesn't mean the dictionary is wrong for not catering specifically to people who know French sounds.
I think it's a bit cute that the phrasebook adheres so closely to the usual travel phrasebook standards, with phrases for how to book a hotel room and go through customs and all that, when everywhere you go in Ireland you can do basic travel stuff in English. But that's not really the point, is it?

(Scribble in the margins)

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