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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Pat Tillman in Perspective

I haven't paid much attention to the Pat Tillman situation. The pious invocations of heroism in the media have been met with sarcastic derision from some, while the casual dismissal of his sacrifice by the likes of Ted Rall have provoked cries of moral outrage from those who like their heroes unsullied by humanity. As is usual in such circumstances, both extremes amount to emotional, visceral responses that leave me bored. Neither side puts much thought into it, and neither hagiography nor demonization appeals to me because people are a mixture of saint and sinner and painting with that wide a brush almost always leaves one with a skewed image of reality. In America, hagiography (the making of saints) is an art form. We romanticize and mythologize everyone from George Washington to Michael Jackson (though that last has had his pedestal yanked out from under him recently) to our own parents. We've done it most obviously with the founding fathers, all of whom have been transformed into plaster saints by the visionless hacks of academic history, whose pallette contains only black and white and they aren't even clever enough to mix the two when they set brush to canvas. The reality of those men is, to a person of intelligence, far more interesting than the "I cannot tell a lie" variety. As it turns out - as it always turns out - Pat Tillman is much the same way.

Gwen Knapp has a report on the memorial service held for Tillman yesterday that shows a much more interesting, multidimensional person than the media has presented on either side. To begin with, how about this shocking statement from a funeral:
Tillman's youngest brother, Rich, wore a rumpled white T-shirt, no jacket, no tie, no collar, and immediately swore into the microphone. He hadn't written anything, he said, and with the starkest honesty, he asked mourners to hold their spiritual bromides.

"Pat isn't with God,'' he said. "He's f -- ing dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's f -- ing dead.''

What? This didn't happen for God, as well as country? A professional athlete turned soldier, and we're supposed to believe that he'd have no use for piety? Robbed of a cliche, where does that leave us?
We are so accustomed to the pairing of God and country that it just seems like one long word to us now, but Tillman apparently bucked that trend, as he bucked many others. Can you imagine the reaction of those who are so eager to make Tillman into the poster boy for godandcountry patriotism hearing that line? Or how about this tidbit:
His brother-in-law and close friend, Alex Garwood, described how Tillman handled his duties when he became godfather to Garwood's son. He came to the ceremony dressed as a woman. Not as a religious commentary. He was doing a balancing act.

"We had two godfathers, no godmother,'' Garwood explained. And what NFL player turned Army Ranger wouldn't don drag to make that math work?
A pro football player, the essence of male machismo in this nation, in a dress? You gotta love that.

Ms. Knapp asks, "Who the hell was this guy?"

From the sound of what his friends and family said, he seems like a guy I really would have enjoyed knowing. A fascinating blend of the intellectual and the physical. A guy who could stay up all night talking about the world's religions with you one night, then get up the next morning and play a game of barely controlled physical violence. Call it a contradiction if you want, that's okay. He was human. And for the first time, I find myself actually paying attention to him and caring that he died. Because being human, in the end, is a lot more interesting than being a plastic, one dimensional hero.

Ed Brayton | 9:08 AM | | | Permalink

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Carnival of the Vanities

If you're here looking for the Carnival of the Vanities, please go to the new Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Well, it's not new, but for some reason the mailing list had this old blog address on it and the real thing is at the real Dispatches from the Culture Wars page. Thanks.

Ed Brayton | 11:18 AM | | | Permalink

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The World Series of Poker

The World Series of Poker is going on right now at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas. Most people are familiar with it from the replays on ESPN, watching Chris Moneymaker win last year. But if you're not a poker player, you probably don't realize that the event that is televised is only the last of 33 separate tournaments played over about 5 weeks. The events run the gamut of different games played, buy-in amounts, and limits, leading up to the Big One, the championship event, which is a $10,000 entry No Limit Holdem tournament. This year they are expecting something on the order of 1400-1600 players in this event, which means a prize pool well into 8 figures and a likely first place prize of at least $3 million, the richest poker tournament in history.

Part of the reason for this huge increase in popularity is the World Poker Tour on television, which has garnered huge ratings. But probably the biggest factor is the growth of online poker and the satellite tournaments they've run to put players into the WSOP final event, and the fact that last year's winner got into the tournament that way, spending $40 to win a seat, then turning it into $2.5 million by winning the whole thing. That has drawn people far and wide who think, "Hey, if he can do it, so can I". And they may well be right. I have not played in the WSOP yet, but I have a bit of history with it over the last few years.

The history of Binion's Horseshoe is an interesting one. It was started decades ago by Benny Binion, an old time gambler and Texas gangster. He turned it into one of the classic Vegas casinos, one of the original downtown gambling saloons, famous for their poker games and for taking any bet regardless of how high the amount. The WSOP began, unofficially, in 1949, when Nick (the Greek) Dandolos challenged Johnny Moss to a heads up poker match for $1 million each, winner take all. Benny Binion provided a venue for it at the Horseshoe, setting up a big tent outside for them to play in public view. The two men played for 5 straight months, stopping only to sleep and eat, until Johnny Moss finally had all the money. In 1970, Benny Binion decided to recreate the event and invited some of the best poker players in the world to take part. Johnny Moss won again, but at the time the title of World Champion was decided by a vote, not by actually winning the tournament. In 1971, it was changed to a "freezeout" format, meaning it was decided with a real elimination tournament, but Moss won yet again. It was thereafter an annual event, and it grew in popularity year by year.

Benny died in 1989 and his son Jack took over the casino. Jack was very popular with the players and employees and the WSOP continued to grow under his watch. Then a battle began for control over the operation between Jack and his sister Becky, which Becky ultimately won a few years ago. Over the last few years, as the WSOP continued to grow exponentially because of the TV exposure and all of the satellite events feeding people into the tournament, Becky proceeded to run the Horseshoe into the ground. Becky Binion Behnen is married Nick Behnen, your garden variety scumbag who is barred from operating a casino, or even working for one, in the state of Nevada. Nonetheless, he played a huge role in destroying what the Horseshoe once was. Reports of his abuse of employees and players were common, including tearing a picture of former WSOP champion Russ Hamilton off the wall with a crowbar in a fit of rage a couple years ago.

In 2001, the shit hit the fan, so to speak. The WSOP announced that they were going to withhold 3% from the prize pool to use as a "toke pool" - a fund that would be divided among the dealers and tournament staff as tips. This was a good idea, but some background is probably required for non-poker players to understand why. Big tournaments like this require a lot of people to run, obviously, and no casino has enough dealers or floor people on hand to handle such an event. So there is a pool of poker dealers and tournament staff that basically floats around the country running big poker tournaments. They have to pay their own way, though, so they have to be assured of making a certain amount of money to make it worthwhile and profitable for them. It's in everyone's best interests to have high quality dealers and staff to run things, so having a pool that would guarantee them a minimum income helps the players as well as the dealers and staff. Relying on the players who finish in the money to leave tips, which most did, was too inconsistent, and those tips are not tax deductible, so it really hurt the winners to do it.

All in all, a toke pool was a great idea for all involved and most of the major tournaments use one now for all these reasons. The problem here was that rumors were flying that Becky was planning to use some of the money to reimburse her everyday hotel staff rather than distribute it all to the dealers and staff, and they were refusing to spell out how much would go to whom (the traditional breakdown was something like 2% to the dealers, 1% to the floor staff and tournament personnel). Word got around and a lot of players were talking about it. Jeff Simpson, a casino beat writer for the Las Vegas Review Journal, did a story on it and cornered a few players at the Horseshoe to get their thoughts on it. Among those quoted was Paul Phillips, a professional poker player from Las Vegas, who told Simpson that the players had been misled on the issue and felt antagonized, which was entirely true. Paul was also at the time a regular participant in the rec.gambling.poker (RGP) usenet newsgroup, which I have long participated in as well.

The day after Simpson's article was published, Paul Phillips was pulled from a game at the Horseshoe by some of Becky's goons security personnel, taken to a back room, photographed and barred from the casino for daring to say what everyone knew was true. Amusingly, her head of security told the newspaper that they barred him because they wanted to "avoid controversy" at the WSOP. And this all happened on the day the tournament started! Brilliant folks, eh? Needless to say, rather than avoiding controversy, it caused more. And adding to this, it was announced that Becky would consider letting him come back if he apologized to her for what he said in the paper. All of this caused quite a furor in the poker world, particularly in the RGP newsgroup. I was one of many, many people who came to Paul's defense and strongly criticized Binion's for their actions.

Ironically, Paul was proven 100% correct by what happened in the following few weeks. Linda Johnson, the founder of Card Player magazine, met with Becky and tried to get Paul unbarred (which was successful, but when he went back they intimidated him some more and he decided it was safer to stay away) and to settle once and for all the question of where the money would be going. Becky allowed Linda to release a statement in RGP that she had approved word for word, which said that every penny of the toke pool would go to the dealers and tournament personnel. She lied. Over the course of that years World Series, Becky shorted the dealers and tournament personnel to the tune of nearly $200,000, which resulted in some of them walking out on her when the tournament ended. She fired the tournament directors and her poker room manager, who was the daughter of the tournament director, as well as a couple of others and it blew up into an even bigger controversy.

In the process of all of this, I received a nasty and incoherent e-mail from Benny Binion Behnen, Becky's son, who was the head of the poker operation at the Horseshoe. He actually challenged me to a poker match, as though that would somehow absolve them of their lies. I'm not sure what his reasoning was, but he was quite irrational. And of course, I was barred from playing at the Horseshoe as well, which was hardly a big deal. I didn't play there anyway. It had long since become a broken down wreck of a casino, filled with the stench of a billion cigarettes and who knows what else. The only reason to go there would be to play in the WSOP, which I wasn't planning to do anyway as long as these scumbags ran the place. 2002 met with more controversy yet, with Becky firing some of the dealers for staging a walkout when they were lied to yet again, and getting sued. She finally ran the place into the ground completely in 2003 and a few months ago, the IRS seized the property for back taxes. Harrah's ended up buying the name and reopening to stage this year's tournament, which has attracted record numbers so far.

Paul Phillips, by the way, has done brilliantly. In the first week of tournaments, he made it to two final tables, finishing 2nd and 4th. He is also one of the leading winners on the World Poker Tour so far, having won $1.1 million with a first place finish at the Bellagio Five Diamond classic in December and another $400,000 or so with a second place finish at the WPT event at the Bicycle casino in L.A. last year. I'm very happy that someone finally ran Becky and her thug family out of the business so that Paul could go back to the World Series, where he is surely among the favorites to win in this year's championship event. Someday soon, I hope to join him at a final table there.

Ed Brayton | 7:11 PM | | | Permalink

Monday, May 03, 2004

This is a test

Testing the w.bloggar software to see how it works with Blogspot.

Ed Brayton | 1:23 PM | | | Permalink

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Dumbing Down Education Again

Is there any limit at all on how far do-gooders are willing to dumb down our educational system in the name of helping students feel good about themselves? I rarely agree with anyone from Fox News on anything, but this opinion piece by Joanne Jacobs is pretty much on the mark. First, it reports on a plan by some California schools to do away with the D grade, with anything below a C- garnering a failing grade. Good idea, I'd say, but some parents aren't too happy:
"I'd rather go to a junior college,'' said Alex Johnson, a junior at Mountain View High who is eyeing Foothill or De Anza community colleges. He says it's unfair that some teachers at his school are widening the range for an F. His dad isn't thrilled either.

"D's are the only thing keeping him from getting F's,'' Alex's dad, Doug Johnson, said. "He's an incredibly bright kid, but he couldn't care less about school.''
Well, Alex's dad, Alex is going to have to work a little harder to make sure he doesn't fail. If he's "incredibly bright", he should only have to turn off his Playstation for another hour or so a day to squeak by. I'm guessing he'll survive. But frankly, it would be amusing to see him using a similar rationalization in the real world while working a job. He's incredibly capable of doing the work, you see, but he doesn't feel like it. And how terribly unfair it is of his boss to not just let him coast along without putting any effort into his job. Another slacker is born, apparently with the full support of his father. Warms the heart, doesn't it?

We can at least take solace in the fact that his principal is a reasonably responsible adult, since his father clearly is not:
Principal Murchison said young people need to learn that sub-standard work is not OK in the real world.

"I'm fixing my kitchen right now,'' Murchison said. "I'm not going to pay a guy $5,000 for 'D work'.''
I must say, I'm a bit shocked at Mr. Murchison's response. Most public school administrators seem to be far more interested in making sure everyone passes because that's typically a major factor in the amount of state funding they receive. This is one of the major causes for the pervasive dumbing down of public school education all over the country, and at all levels. Another is the self-esteem fetish that has developed. Witness the reaction to this idea:
Instead of requiring high school students to pass a graduation exam, Delaware decided to award three levels of diplomas: basic, standard and distinguished. The levels are based on students' performance on state reading, math and writing tests given in 10th grade. Some 52 percent of students are in line for only a basic diploma, 40 percent for standard and only 8 percent for distinguished.
Now while I disagree with the basis they are using for this distinction (basing it upon a single test at a single point in their education is foolish), the reaction to it has instead focused on the mere fact that they are daring to make such distinctions between students:
"Eventually, with a good study, they will find it furthers the aura of separation of these kids when, ultimately, you want them to feel that they are just as good as their counterparts," said Hector Figueroa, education director for the Urban League...

Robert Andrzejewski, head of the Red Clay school district, said the system will not motivate students as legislators insisted it would.

"One of the worst things you can do to kids with low self-esteem, who are often of low-income anyway, is show them failure," he said. "So many of those students have experienced failure in their lives and there comes a point when they decide they have to save face for themselves, and, unfortunately, that may mean they drop out."
This, dear readers, is a recipe for inculcating mediocrity and failure among our youth. If they can't meet the standards, we'll just lower the standards so they'll feel good about themselves. Has it ever occured to these people that in the real world, there is no such desire to make sure everyone feels good about themselves despite their lack of ability or effort? Any business owner who evaluated their employees with more concern for their self-esteem than for their ability or willingness to do the job would quickly find himself out of business. So rather than preparing students for later success, the self-esteem fetishists are intent on insulating them from reality.

Allowing these people anywhere near educational policy is a huge mistake. They are clearly incapable of distinguishing what they wish to be true from what is true. Truth is that which does not change just because you want it to. And no matter how much they may desire to live in Lake Wobegon (where all the students are above average), that's still a fictional place. If you're really worried about self-esteem, then challenge the students. When they work hard to meet that challenge and succeed, their self-esteem will soar. You get self-esteem from accomplishment, not from adults lying to you and telling you you're just as good as those who work harder than you, or are more talented in that area than you are.

In my experience, the quality of education is bad enough for those who are getting good grades. I went to what was allegedly one of the best public schools in the state of Michigan. The one thing that I left with was a sense of the pervasive mediocrity that infused virtually every aspect of that school system. In 4 years of college prep work, I had a total of two really good teachers. Two teachers who actually had passion for the subject they taught and who both inspired and challenged their students. The rest appeared to be just putting in their time waiting for summer vacation. Unfortunately, even for those few really good teachers, the bulk of students generally cared only about making sure they had memorized the right things for the test, with little thought to whether they actually understood the subject. Technical proficency, not real education, was the goal in which the bulk of teachers and students were co-consipirators.

In my high school, there were only two required courses for seniors, government and economics. Government was taught by the basketball coach, economics by the baseball coach. In the government class, we watched a lot of filmstrips and movies. I recall the government teacher/jock in charge not knowing that James Madison had originally opposed a bill of rights and telling me I was wrong when I mentioned it in a class discussion. I also recall having to explain to the econ teacher what an econometric formula was. And this school had, as I recall, the third highest state test scores in the state at the time for public schools. And for crying out loud, this was 19 years ago. It's even worse today. There has to be an end somewhere. At some point, we have to stop this snowball of mediocrity and demand that the schools do their job.

Ed Brayton | 12:41 PM | | | Permalink

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