Movie Mind Games: Does manipulating our expectations make movies better? (3 of 3)

Illustration by Sean Nyffeler of Popcorn Noises fame

PREVIOUSLY, in Part 2: How we all use UHD to decide what to buy, and how we sometimes ignore UHD altogether. [Click here to view the entire piece as a single page.]

But this one goes to 11.

What we’re doing when we go see movies with deflated expectations is trying to trick ourselves into accepting the lower utility of the movie and ignoring the greater cost. Let’s say we go see the same bad movie we’ve talked about already, but we have “no expectations”, meaning we essentially expect the movie to be about 1 util of entertainment. That way, when we go to the movie and it’s 4 utils, we exceeded expectations! We practically created three utils out of thin air! Um, ok. But the problem is that the movie itself is still only 4 utils. It has to be because we have to put every other movie we’ve ever seen on the same scale. We can’t artificially inflate the number of utils to, say, 5 because what happens to those other movies that really were a 5? 1 This also reduces the perceived value of a 10 because we’re watering all of our other movie experiences down. So if we inflate the utility from a 4 to a 5, what we’re really doing is inflating the whole scale. Now it goes to 11. We have created UHD inflation.

A Delightful Food-Poisoning Analogy

It’s as though we have a friend who likes to cook. He says, “Hey everyone! Come over to my place and bring $5. I’ll cook something for all of us to eat. It’ll be delicious!” So we all go over there and bring five bucks. We eat the meal and it’s really freaking terrible. Half of us are disappointed and the other half are left with Oregon Trail flashbacks. A few weeks later, the same friend makes the same offer. We all decide to give it one more shot–maybe he just had a bad night, right?–and we head back over there with our five bucks. Same thing happens. Half of us are disappointed and the other half end up battling the dysentery. A couple weeks later, the same friend makes the same offer again. Would I go? Of course not. But what if I said, “You know what? I’m going back! I’ve learned that I just have to lower my expectations so I can really enjoy the food poisoning! I’m going to just assume it will kill me this time, or at least that it’ll ruin my digestive system for the next few days. It’s going to be terrible! I can’t wait!” I’m tricking myself into paying $5 for the privilege of being food-poisoned by my friend.

Ridiculous, right? How’s that any different than saying, “The trick to movies is that I just lower my expectations as much as possible. If I go in without expectations, I can’t be disappointed!” Well, kind of. But you’ll trick yourself out of $10 and you’ll waste time that you could’ve spent doing something cheaper and better.

What’s going on here?

So why do we trick ourselves into going to see bad movies in the theatre at 10 times the cost of the Redbox DVD? What’s really strange is we don’t do this with other stuff. If anything we tend to inflate our expectations, especially when it comes to music. I’ve heard friends totally pan a new album just because it didn’t live up to their expectations, which were far higher than they should’ve been. This happened with She & Him’s “Volume 2”. Many of my friends said they didn’t like it, and it was just more of the same from She & Him. Well, duh. They’re still She & Him and their first album was awesome. I’d say “Volume 1” was like 8 utils to me. I expected “Volume 2” to be about 8 utils. I think some of my friends expected it to somehow magically be 10 utils. Why? I have no idea. Turns out it was right about 8 utils (maybe slightly less, but it was really close). I ended up enjoying it a lot (and still listen to it regularly), whereas they ended up all disappointed and annoyed. Of course, they just did that to themselves.

So, with music, a lot of my friends do the opposite of this movie theatre trick–they inflate their expectations so they’re artificially disappointed when they hear a new album. 2 This is silly, but at least it makes some kind of sense: If we’re going to mess with expectations, we should manipulate the numbers so we tend to be less satisfied. That way, we’re basically tricking our future selves into spending less money. But this leaves us in an awkward place: we trick our future selves into spending more money on expensive stuff (movies at the theatre), and less money on cheap stuff (music). If we’re going to trick ourselves, we should be tricking ourselves so that we’re less satisfied with expensive stuff and more satisfied with cheaper stuff. At least that way we end up tricking our future selves avoiding the more expensive purchases on stuff we don’t like anyway. The UHD for music is almost always higher than it is for movies so, if anything, we should tend to “trick” ourselves into consuming more music and fewer movies in order to use our time and money more efficiently by consuming better stuff.

Why do we have it backwards? There could be a few explanations for this. Rather than trying to make sure we spend our money as efficiently as possible, we’re more focused on justifying expensive movies because they’re a cultural staple:

“Did you see the new X-Men movie?”
“No, I’m waiting for it on DVD.”
“Lame-o! Hey everybody! This guy’s super lame!”

It’s not cool to wait to watch movies on DVD. If I show up at the water cooler on Monday morning after a big release 3, nobody wants to hear anything I say if it starts with, “Well, I’m waiting for that one to be available on Netflix streaming.”

Sometimes there are benefits to seeing a movie in the theatre, especially action flicks. But we can account for that by bumping the utils for the movie just a little bit. Maybe X-Men on DVD is 6 utils, but X-Men in the theatre is 8. Ok, but does that justify the 10-times-higher price tag? The UHD sure doesn’t think so.

Conspiracy Theory!

There’s also some clever marketing going on by the movie studios. Most of the movies made are crap. We tend to remember good things more than bad, but most movies are really, really bad. This is easily confirmed by just browsing Netflix for movies 4. Some friends and I recently spent about two hours scrolling and scanning through Netflix to find a movie to watch. We ended up just re-watching Arrested Development Season 1. The issue wasn’t a lack of options, it was a lack of good options. There just weren’t any. We looked at hundreds of movies and all of them were terrible. If we used movie studios’ previous product as an indicator of future quality, we’d almost always opt not to go see movies in the theatre because there’s just too much risk that the movie will be crap and we’ll waste $10. Waiting for the DVD gives us more time to get recommendations from other people who have seen it so we can decide whether it’s even worth seeing on DVD.

But movie studios have cleverly convinced us that we should set our expectations aside so we can enjoy the movie-going experience itself. 5 Of course, as discussed earlier, the movie theatre experience isn’t really much different than just watching the movie at home (there are a few exceptions). If we all had the appropriate level of expectations for movies, we would rarely go to the theatre because we would mostly be disappointed. But instead of just saving that cash and doing something with higher UHD, we buy into this idea that we should essentially forget all the crap they’ve fed us previously so that we can enjoy this current experience more.

Positive Reinforcement of Terrible Moviemaking

But it’s actually worse than that. By tricking ourselves into “liking” (and paying for) bad movies, we’re encouraging movie studios to make more bad movies. If I trick myself into paying $10 to see Zookeeper, then I just gave the movie studios $10 and a green light to start production on Zookeeper 2: Flying Poo. Now I have to trick myself into going to see that dud, too?

Not only am I tricking myself into spending a lot of money on a bad movie, but I’m feeding the movie making machine so that it continues to churn out garbage that I have to trick myself into overpaying for in the theatre next time. I’m essentially a recommendation engine whose recommendations are made in dollars. I’m saying, “Movie studios. I recommend that you make Zookeeper 2: Flying Poo! Here’s ten bucks to get you started!” When does it end?

It is ending

In many ways, this phenomenon is ending, if only subtly. There are myriad modern sources of recommendations that are almost forcibly removing our self-imposed myopia. For example, Rotten Tomatoes is a crowd-sourced recommendation engine that is almost impossible to ignore once you know it’s out there.

“Want to go see the new Zookeeper movie?”
“What’d it get on Rotten Tomatoes?”
“Eleven percent.”
“And how did the first one do on Rotten Tomatoes?”
Fourteen percent.”
“This one is worse than the first one? That’s pretty bad. I’ll pass.”

That’s what saving $10 and two hours sounds like. I have conversations like this one a couple times a month. On the flip-side, I often decide to go see a new movie specifically because Rotten Tomatoes rates it highly. For example, when I was in Vancouver last year, my friends and I went to see Drive because I saw it got something like 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. They had never heard of the movie, and I had only heard a little about it, but the Rotten Tomatoes score pushed me to recommend it to them. We also went to see The Help and Moneyball because of high scores on Rotten Tomatoes. All three movies ended up getting Oscar nominations 6 There were a few other movies that we skipped because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low.

Recommendations Engines are enabling us to make better decisions and making it more difficult to declare that we’re lowering our expectations to justify a trip to the theatre. It’s a lot easier to lower expectations when there’s some chance that the movie will be good despite the trailer or word-of-mouth buzz it’s been getting. But when thousands of people have already said it’s a bad movie and we know that, then it’s much harder to pretend it might be good.

The trick is that we, as consumers, have to listen to what so many other people are telling us through all the recommendations vehicles that are out there. When we start listening to others’ recommendations, we can set our expectations appropriately to maximize two of our scarcest resources: time and money.


I put a lot of work into this piece, but I also got a lot of help from other people. Jason Killingsworth offered his editorial insight and sage advice to help make it better and more readable. Jason was also one of the first bloggers I read, so there’s a nice historical symmetry here. Danny Anderson did the final review before I published, and helped me figure out how to wrap it all up. Sean Nyffeler illustrated the piece (twice, actually: he did a draft, took some notes and re-did the illustration for the published version). Several other people were sounding boards who helped me refine the basic ideas over the past several months. Thanks to everyone who helped make this a better piece.

Movie Mind Games: Does manipulating our expectations make movies better? (2 of 3)

Illustration by Sean Nyffeler of Popcorn Noises fame

PREVIOUSLY, in Part 1: Some background on recommendations and expectations, and UHD defined. [Click here to view the entire piece as a single page.]

UHD isn’t as esoteric as it seems

I realize that, at first, UHD just seems like a wonky way to describe something that’s already obvious and intuitive. But it actually has real-world applications, especially when it comes to understanding our intuitive-but-not-easily-explained preferences for stuff.

For example, UHD helps me understand why it took me a little while to move from CDs to downloading MP3s 1. Initially, the cost of an MP3 album (on iTunes, for example) was pretty close to the CD and Apple was using DRM 2. My concern was that I wouldn’t “own” the music if I paid for the MP3s. The result was that the utility of the MP3s was less than that of the CD, even though it was the same music at the same cost. Since the cost was similar, and the hours of entertainment would be the same, the difference in utility made the UHD for CDs higher than MP3s. Eventually, Amazon started offering DRM-free downloads and cheaper prices, shifting the UHD for MP3 downloads ahead of CDs. That’s when I made the switch to MP3 downloads 3. Of course, I didn’t actually do a conscious UHD calculation one day and say, “Ah ha! The UHD for MP3s is finally greater than it is for CDs! Time to make the switch!” But that’s basically what happened. The same process is happening for me with eBooks right now. 4

A brief, anecdotal history of cinema

The shift from CDs to MP3s, or from physical books to eBooks is interesting to me. But what’s really interesting to me is the persistence of movie theaters despite cheaper, very similar movie-watching options. Fifty years ago, the only real option for seeing a movie was to go to the movie theatre. This was great for movie companies because they could charge high prices since they were basically the only game in town. The UHD calculation wasn’t really useful for deciding how to watch a movie because it wasn’t so much a matter of comparing different movie-viewing options as just deciding whether it was worth it to spend the money on a movie or not. If it wasn’t, you just had to find something else to do.

Then technology started changing, opening the door for the home theatre experience. First, VHS started enabling people to watch movies at home en masse. Hi-fi began morphing into fancier surround sound setups whose cost was dropping so that more and more people could buy them. LaserDisc 5 came and went. Then DVD took hold and made the home-viewing experience even better.

A sidebar into UHD for movies at the turn of the century

Ten years ago, we really had two options for watching a movie (without owning it). We could either go to the theatre or rent it at Blockbuster. Let’s run through the UHD calculations real quick, just to get an idea of the difference in UHD for these two options at that time:

  • A good movie as a “New Release” rental was about $4 (-ish), lasted 2 hours and provided a utility of 6:
  • 6 utils * 2 hours = 12 util-hours
  • 12 util-hours / $4 = 3 UHD

  • The same good movie in the theatre would have been about $5, lasted 2 hours and provided a utility of about 7 (slightly higher since it was in the theatre):
  • 7 utils * 2 hours = 14 util-hours
  • 14 util-hours / $5 = 2.8 UHD

So the UHD for renting versus going to the theatre was really close even as recently as 2000. They were close enough that there was a real decision to be made: Spend $5 and go to the theatre or spend $4 and stay home? We would often decide what to do based on the number of people in a group (if there were four of us, we could just split the rental for a buck a piece; if there were two of us, then why not just pay for the movie in the theatre?) and our willingness to sneak snacks into the theatre. 6

Our trusty UHD chart from Part 1

Snap back to reality

A lot has happened over the past 10 years or so. Netflix popped up, HD-DVD lost the war to Blu-Ray, streaming video became better and better, Blockbuster got crushed, and DVD rentals have gotten cheaper and cheaper. There are options now, options that just weren’t available when movie theaters first became a big deal. Not only are there options, but there are cheap options that rival the actual movie-going experience. And yet, movie ticket prices have been steadily increasing over time. 7

Let’s look at one more sample UHD calculation:

  • A really bad movie that I waited to watch on Redbox DVD would be $1, last 2 hours and provide a utility of 2 8:
  • 2 utils * 2 hours = 4 util-hours
  • 4 util-hours / $1 = 4 UHD

As we saw earlier (in Part 1), watching the bad movie in the theatre gives .4 (that’s point-four) UHD. Watching the same bad movie on DVD gives 4 UHD. Watching the bad movie on DVD is 10 times “better” than watching it in the theatre, and all of this difference is accounted for by the difference in cost. “But wait!”, you say, “What if I enjoy watching movies more in the theatre?! I really like going to the theatre!” Ok, fine. How much better would the movie have to be in the theatre to make up for the difference in UHD?

Some people will want to go to the most extreme case first, so let’s just go straight there. Let’s say that the bad movie moves from 4 utils to 10 utils just because I enjoy going to the theatre so much. It only jumps to 2 UHD (still half of the 4 UHD if I wait to watch the bad movie on Redbox DVD). “That doesn’t make any sense!” My counter would be, “So you’re saying there’s no way any movie can be better than the bad movie in the theatre? What if you go see a good movie in the theater?” Since the 1-10 scale is a subjective scale, I have to leave room above the bad movie for less-bad movies. Either that or I have to slide my Redbox DVD experience down to a 1 or something. If I move the theatre experience up to a 10 and move the Redbox DVD experience down to a 1, then I get the same result for both options: 2 UHD.

The present, seemingly uncrossable gulf between UHD for going to the movies and watching them at home is due to super high, sticky movie prices and much, much cheaper alternatives for watching movies at home. This has created such a big gap in cost that watching movies in the theatre is just that much more expensive, ruining their UHD relative to the very-similar experience of watching movies at home now.

Going to see movies in the theatre is expensive. I realize some people will say, “But your formula is just wrong. It weights the cost too much.” Using the UHD calculation as-is, it’s hard to see many situations where it would be better to go to the theatre than to watch the flick at home. It’s possible that I’m weighting cost too heavily, but I think the real problem is that movie theaters are just way too expensive now because we have more, better options. There really is that much of a difference in cost between movie theaters and rentals.

Movie Expectations – A bizarre special case?

And yet, new releases continue to set box office records as people go to the theatre in droves. At the same time, the movie theaters are much more expensive than the alternatives, and the quality of the movies released has been consistent (or at least not improving enough to justify the growing gap between theatre prices and the alternatives). What gives? If I’m right that waiting for the movie on DVD is almost always better than going to the theatre, then why do so many people continue going to see movies in the theatre? Why did I go see three movies in the theatre this summer?

I’ve overheard this sentiment several times recently: “That movie wasn’t that bad. I just went into it with no expectations and it turned out ok. I’ve decided I just won’t have expectations for movies because I end up over-hyping them and when they don’t meet my expectations I feel ripped off.” So the idea is that movies are often bad because we expect them to be good, or at least because we expect them to be better than they actually are. To solve this problem, we play mind games with ourselves, intentionally under-hyping a movie so that when we go see it and it’s just an ok movie, it exceeds our deflated expectations.

At first, I saw the wisdom in this tactic. If we get really good at lowering our expectations, almost any movie will be a success, at least inasmuch as it will exceed our expectations. That way, we can pretty much guarantee that when we pony up $10 for a ticket and another $10 for concessions, we won’t be let down.

The more I think about this, the more ridiculous the idea seems. We don’t lower our expectations for music, books or TV shows, do we? So why do we do that with movies? Of all our options, movies are one of the most expensive. Why would we trick ourselves into doing something super expensive that we don’t really enjoy that much?

UP NEXT, in Part 3: Why we game the UHD system, what it costs us, and how much all this matters. [Click here to view the entire piece as a single page.]

Movie Mind Games: Does manipulating our expectations make movies better? (1 of 3)

Illustration by Sean Nyffeler of Popcorn Noises fame

We spend a lot of time gobbling up media. We want to do fun stuff, and we want to do stuff on the cheap. Such is life in a stagnant economy. One of my go-to, quick and dirty ways to choose one option over the others is to figure out the cost per hour for each of my options, and then choose the one with the lowest cost per hour. 1

Here’s a quick summary of the cost to consume different types of media, shown in ascending worst-case dollars per hour 2 3:

  • Podcast – free – As long as I have iTunes and an internet connection, I can get just about any podcast free of charge.
  • News online – free – Yeah, the NYT has a pay wall now, but they don’t have any news I can’t get for free somewhere else.
  • Video games – $.03 to $1.25 – Angry Birds, Madden, NCAA: they all take so long they end up being really cheap by the time we’re through with them.
  • Books – $.25 to $2 – This one obviously depends how fast you read, but a good old paperback can go a long way on short change.
  • MP3 albums – $.3 to $4 – The trick with MP3s is to find them on sale. The Amazon MP3 store runs sales all the time.
  • Movies – $.50 to $5 – Movies tend to run the gamut because there are so many ways to get them. Prices vary pretty widely from Redbox to IMAX.

Almost any way I slice it, movies are one of the most expensive pieces of the entertainment pie. Looking back at my personal habits over time 4, it’s pretty obvious that I’ve been moving to cheaper and cheaper options over time. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but I have been purposely reducing my spending over the past few years, and I’ve obviously accomplished that by buying cheaper media.

Consuming media isn’t just about being entertained as cheaply as possible 5; I want quality entertainment. It’s not as simple as just consuming some type of media–I also have to figure out which examples of a given type of media to choose. If I’m listening to podcasts, how do I decide which ones? How do I find good books to read? How do I decide which movies to see in the theatre and which ones to rent? How do I know which ones to avoid altogether? The easy answer is recommendations. The trickier answer is expectations.


Over the past decade, recommendations 6 have gone from an informal give and take to a very sophisticated marketing tool, employed by giant companies to boost sales. Amazon, Netflix, Apple’s App Store and many other companies rely on recommendations to keep customers coming back for more. “Recommendation Engines” have become a closely guarded secret and a competitive advantage designed keep customers from switching to a competitor. I’ve bought hundreds of items on Amazon, and I like the recommendations it provides based on my previous purchases. If I start shopping at another online vendor, I’ll have to start over from scratch to get new recommendations. That would be a lot of work, so I’m likely to stay with Amazon for quite a while unless a competitor offers something significantly better or Amazon totally drops the ball.

Many of my social interactions revolve around either sharing recommendations or comparing opinions on different media. For as long as I can remember, I’ve frequently asked friends what they’re into: “Seen any good movies lately?” or “Have you heard the new Girl Talk? How is it?” For almost any kind of media, I have at least one friend who’s practically on speed dial in case I need new recommendations.

I also make a lot of recommendations. I love it when a friend tweets, “Looking for some good books to read this summer. Any suggestions?” It takes me a few questions to figure out what kind of stuff they like, but once I zero in on their preferences I can usually recommend several titles that I can almost guarantee they’ll like. The same goes for music, movies, podcasts and TV shows. Part of being a maven 7 is that I’ve always got a solid cache of information ready to share if someone’s careless enough to open the door for me.


The flip-side to recommendations is the expectations they create. If a friend of mine, let’s call him Morris, has successfully recommended 10 documentaries to me without any stinkers, then I expect his next doc recommendation to be a good one. If another friend, let’s call him Les, has recommended five documentaries for me, and all of them have been terrible, then I expect his next recommendation to be terrible and I’ll eventually just stop listening to his recommendations altogether. If Morris and Les both make recommendations to me at the same time, I can safely choose Morris’ recommendations because I expect them to be better. With each recommendation Morris and Les make, I can reevaluate their recommendations as a whole to determine how much weight I’ll give to either recommender in the future.

This is also true for recommendation engines like those at Amazon and Netflix. If Amazon starts recommending stuff that I hate, I’ll take that into account in the future and begin lowering my expectations for the stuff they recommend. Eventually I’ll just stop buying stuff they recommend, and that may remove the exit barrier I described earlier so that I’m comfortable going to another company and starting over from scratch.

There’s a feedback loop of recommendations and expectations. With each new good recommendation I get from a friend, the higher my future expectations will be that the stuff he recommends is worth my time and money. With each bad recommendation I get from a friend, the lower my future expectations will be that the stuff he recommends is worth my time and money. Eventually, I will learn to anticipate exactly how accurate my friends’ recommendations will be.

Recommendations and expectations are part of an adaptive framework wherein each future recommendation carries the weight of all previous recommendations. This feedback loop is only useful if I compare my actual experience to my actual expectations. 8

Utility-Hours Per Dollar

Before I can compare outcomes to expectations, I need a way to objectively measure my general satisfaction with any particular piece of media. Dollars per hour is a good metric to figure out the cost of consuming media, especially if my biggest concern is keeping a budget. It helps me measure efficiency. I might say, “Well, I’ve got three bucks left in my entertainment budget this month. I might as well stretch it as far as I can. What’re my options that are three bucks or cheaper and provide the most entertainment time?” But I’m not just looking for any old media–I want the good stuff. I need a way to account for both efficiency and the relative enjoyment offered by something. Enter this new thing I’m creating called “Utility-Hours per Dollar” (UHD) 9. The UHD allows me to normalize things so that I can compare apples to apples. Yes, going to see a movie in the theatre is really expensive ($5 per hour), but what if it’s the most fun thing I could possibly do with five bucks? That has to count for something, right? Sure it does.

I calculate UHD like this:

  1. Find the absolute cost (in dollars) of the media I’m looking to buy.
  2. Estimate how long (in hours) it will take to consume. 10
  3. Subjectively determine its utility 11on a 10-point scale (1 is for awful stuff, 10 is for incredible stuff).
  4. Multiply the utility number by the number of hours.
  5. Divide that number by the cost, rounded to the next highest dollar. For free stuff, use $1 (not $0). 12 13

For those who like a tidy formula, here it is:

  • UHD = (Utility * Hours) / Dollars

That’s it. Here are a couple examples 14:

  • A really bad movie at the theatre would be $10, last 2 hours and provide a utility of 2:
  • 2 utils * 2 hours = 4 util-hours
  • 4 util-hours / $10 = .4 UHD

  • A pretty good album that I buy on Amazon for $8 might give me 20 solid hours of listening at 6 utils:
  • 6 utils * 20 hours = 120 util-hours
  • 120 util-hours / $8 = 15 UHD

A UHD near zero sucks. A UHD that ends up in the double digits is pretty good. Stuff with a UHD in the mid-to-high double digits is pretty great. Using this metric, I can figure out my most cost effective, enjoyable option for entertainment.

Our trusty UHD chart–we’ll see this again later

UP NEXT, in Part 2: How we all use UHD to decide what to buy, and how we sometimes ignore UHD altogether. [Click here to view the entire piece as a single page.]

2011 Vancouver Trip Recap

I just got back from a two-week trip to Vancouver, so I might as well recap it for posterity. I didn’t do a “diary” because there just wasn’t enough going on to justify that format. It would’ve all been like, “Day N: Woke up and went to Starbucks to do some work. Talked poker and watched my friends play online. Watched Netflix.” I realize that most of what I write is boring, but even I wouldn’t sink so low as to write that particular diary.

So anyway, I stayed with some friends who recently relocated to Vancouver. I went to Starbucks a lot. I talked about, wrote about, learned about and watched a lot of poker. I specifically worked quite a bit on my heads-up game since I’m writing a book about heads-up strategy and both of my Vancouver friends have had very good results in heads-up play.

Otherwise, I went to see three movies: “The Help“, “Drive“, and “Moneyball“. They all appropriately received good scores on Rotten Tomatoes, so I was looking forward to all of them. “The Help” was a good movie with pretty solid acting. The story was the most compelling part, and it was a good story. “Drive” was excellent. It was violent and dark, but very, very good. Some of the acting was excellent, some was just good. “Moneyball” was really good. It’s a great story (as most of Michael Lewis‘ stories are – I’m reading “The Big Short” right now, and it’s excellent). The acting is pretty good. It’s not terribly wonky or sportsy.

As I mentioned above, I also did a lot of reading. I also watched a lot of Netflix (mostly “Parking Wars” and caught up on TV shows online. “Breaking Bad” is awesome this season.)

I also started watching “Top Chef: Just Desserts“, which is another good show from Bravo. I love desserts, I like reality TV, so this show is pretty much made for me. I decided I want to learn how to make good cakes. I mean, I eat more cake than most people, so why not figure out how to make really good cakes? On the bus trip down from Vancouver to Seattle yesterday, I brainstormed some good cake flavor combinations. The one I’m most interested to try is a ginger cake with green tea icing. Hopefully I’ll get to take a crack at that soon.

That about sums up my two weeks in Vancouver. It was nice to visit, especially since I’ve never previously been to Canada. As you can see from the pic, it was mostly dreary and rainy, but at least it wasn’t 90+ degrees and humid. Now I’ve got a day in Seattle, then I head back home to Gainesville.

2011 WSOP Diary: Week 3

Day 12 (July 4): I did end up playing the Wynn re-buy yesterday, and min-cashed again. Here are my results for the trip so far:

  • (+$231) Rio – $235 – 964 entrants – finished 79 – $466
  • (-$625) Wynn – $625 ($225 plus two $200 rebuys) – 111 entrants, finished around 45 (15 paid)
  • (-$1k) WSOP 43
  • (+$560) Wynn – $425 ($225 plus one $200 rebuy) – 156 entrants, finished 20 – Ran T8o into QQ in the blinds
  • (+$394) Wynn – $425 ($225 plus one $200 rebuy) – 128 entrants, finished 15 – Ran 82o into AKo in the blinds
  • (+$752) Wynn – $425 ($225 plus one $200 rebuy) – 131 entrants, finished 11 – Lost flip w/ 99 < AKo
  • (-$425) Wynn – $425 ($225 plus one $200 rebuy) – 125 entrants, finished 21 (15 paid) – Lost flip with 66 < AQs
  • (+$666) Wynn – $425 ($225 plus one $200 rebuy) – 139 entrants, finished 15 (16 paid) – Ran 84s into KJo

A few thoughts on these results:

  • Overall, I’ve cashed 5/8 tournaments for the trip. Over the long run, 2/8 would be considered “good”, and 5/8 is pretty sick. I’m obviously sort of on a heater.
  • But what these numbers don’t show is that I’ve actually be running bad and not catching cards. The last non-cash at the Wynn (finished 21 when 15 paid), I lost a very big pot with about 40 people left: I had QQ and lost a three-way all-in to TT and 66 (66 won the main pot and I chopped the side pot with TT). Had I won that pot, I would’ve had good chips approaching the money and could have gone to work building my stack. Instead, I was crippled and ended up bubbling in 21st when I lost a coinflip.
  • For my last five tournaments, I’ve listed my bust out hands. I’m running bad in those spots. I got all-in totally dominated once, but otherwise got in on the better side of a coinflip twice, and lost two 60/40s. A big component of my style is that I am rarely all-in and called (at risk to bust from the tournament), so it’s not like I’ve been all-in 10 times before these hands come up. In some cases, this is the first time I’ve actually been at risk in the tournament. I will only lose all four of those hands about 7% of the time, and if I win any of those hands, I’ve doubled up and have a very good chance at making the final table.
  • I’m playing the short stack very well right now. Most of the time I’m on a short stack (such is the nature of this tournament structure), and sometimes very short (like eight big blinds or fewer). Normally, I wouldn’t let my stack get this short, but I’m able to find so many spots to steal blinds and get all-in with the best hand that I’m being more patient than normal. In my last cash, I had under seven big blinds with 21 players left and managed to finish 15th without catching any real hands. Playing the short stack is like that scene in “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” where Indie has to walk across the stones that will fall out from under him. (I spent way too long trying to find a good screencapture of Indie stepping across the stones, but just couldn’t find it.) I have to step very carefully and pick each move very wisely or I’m out of the tournament. I’m doing this well right now.

Enough about poker. Today is the 4th of July, and that means… well, I’m not exactly sure what it means. Hopefully the annual party at Mandalay Bay is happening, but I really haven’t heard one way or the other on that. If it’s not happening, I might take my first shot at a $550 mega satellite at the Rio – I need to start trying to win a Main Event seat. It’s kind of a long shot, but the good news is the Wynn has been prepping me to play a super short stack, and that’s what winning megas is all about.

I’m heading over to do some book work with my co-author this afternoon. It’s great to be making real progress while I’m out here. We’re about to wrap up a major section that is the foundation for the entire book, so I’m looking forward to getting that done.

Day 13: Turns out the Mandalay Bay party didn’t happen this year. That was pretty disappointing because I always look forward to seeing old friends and having a nice view of the fireworks on The Strip. Of course, since Vegas sneakily moved fireworks to July 3rd this year, we wouldn’t have had anything to watch anyway.

Since there wasn’t a Mandalay Bay party, a bunch of us went to Mesa Grill at Caesar’s Palace instead. That’s one of my favorite restaurants in Vegas, so I was happy to finally have a meal there. I forgot to get a picture of the spread, but it was ridiculous and delicious.

This morning, I met with my co-author (@VanessaRousso) and her friend Annie (@AnnieDuke) for a few hours to talk about writing and poker. They even discussed a couple interesting hands that Vanessa has encountered at this year’s WSOP. It was really fun to sit and listen to two great poker minds work through hands. (I’m not intentionally name-dropping here, but since I already mentioned this meeting and its attendees by name on Twitter, I figure it would be awkward if I started talking anonymously all of a sudden.) Anyway, it was a very good meeting that clarified some of the unkown parts of the writing process for us.

After that meeting I tried to hoof it over to the Rio for the $1,500 WSOP event to late-register, but by the time I got there the tournament was already an hour in, and the line was too long to justify registering. So I went to the Wynn and started 30 minutes late there. I actually played pretty well, but didn’t cash (finished 32 and 13 paid). I busted making a pretty risky move, but I saw it as a good chance to pick up dead money, and it just didn’t work out. Sometimes there’s a good spot to make a move, but you run into pocket Kings.

I busted out, then went to dinner with Luckbox Larry and wife at a pretty nice Indian place called Mint. We hadn’t been there before, but we all liked it a lot and will probably go back. We’ll be more inclined to return if we can find more coupons, of course.

I ended up turning in early because I was feeling under the weather again. I think I actually got a cold or something this time, so I figured the best thing was to take it easy. I ended up sleeping for like nine hours, which is a long time for me.

Day 14: Today I was going to do my normal routine of waking up, going to Starbucks to read the news and catch up on writing. But after about 20 minutes Luckbox Larry texted me to let me know there was a 10:00 AM $550 Mega Satellite to the Main Event. I decided to go ahead and play that so I could get some poker in without making me miss the Rally to End Cancer kickoff party hosted by my friends Vanessa and Chad at MGM. Turns out I made it exactly one hour into the stupid thing when I ran QQ into AK and lost the coinflip.

I spent the middle of the day sleeping off my cold. Then went over to MGM for the kickoff party. It was a good time. Vanessa’s husband Chad was recently diagnosed with and underwent treatment for a very rare form of cancer, so they have a real stake in cancer research and they’re aggressively pursuing ways to further cancer research. It was cool to see people coming together to talk about raising money for cancer research, and I think the event they’re planning is going to be pretty neat.

(Note that pic was just before the party started – the place eventually filled up, but I forgot to snap a pic.)

Day 15: Today was pretty unfun. I decided to play the Wynn re-buy and busted out of that pretty early when I ran AJo into AA against a very aggressive player who 3-bet me from the button at a 6-handed table. With our stack sizes and respective images, this is the equivalent of a cold deck – he has Aces almost none of the time in that spot, and I’m often raising hands I can just fold there. But AJ was probably ahead of his range, and I could get him to fold some hands that had me slightly beat (77/88). Even the way he turned over his Aces basically said, “Yeah, I know. But I actually have them this time.”

Later on, I went to dinner with some friends. Luckbox Larry won a bet so that Dan had to buy him a $60 burger at a place at Mandalay Bay. So we went over there and had good burgers and shakes while Luckbox Larry ate his foie gras burger with shaved truffle. I understand that’s supposed to be an awesome burger, but the smell of truffles kind of grosses me out.

It looks like I’ll be playing the Main Event this year (the details are still not nailed down, but it seems likely), so I’m started to try to get mentally ready to play that event. The WSOP Main Event is totally unique in that it’s a very deep structure (you start with 30,000 chips at 50/100 levels, and the levels are two hours each) and there are thousands of entrants, most of whom really don’t know how to play poker. It’s basically the optimal structure for me as I’m very comfortable in slow, deep stacked tournaments. But I also need to get my head right because I’ve been running pretty bad, and I’ve been playing really, really fast tournaments since I got here.

Day 16: I took it easy today to try to get my head right for the Main Event. I think I’ll probably play, but I’m not entirely sure. There are still some things that need to fall into place for it to work out. I’d really like to play, but I won’t be devastated if I don’t get to play.

Anyway, I got a good workout in today, and spent the rest of the day reading and watching TV and stuff. Netflix on iPhone/iPad/MacBook is keeping me sane out here. I’ve watched most of “Dead Like Me” Season 1, and I’m almost finished with Cheers Season 2. Both are pretty good shows for very different reasons.

I’ve been reading Annie Duke’s book “Decide to Play Great Poker” (Amazon link below), and it’s pretty good so far. It’s a high-level book focusing on concepts and ways to think about the game rather than a step-by-step guide to playing poker. I’ve already seen a few ways to think about stuff differently, so that’s been helpful. I think one thing it does well is focus on high-level concepts – it stays out of the weeds of math and really technical discussions. So far, so good. (Jump to the bottom of the post for a link to the book on Amazon.)

I had In-N-Out again tonight. We went at like 9:00 PM, expecting the place to be mostly empty. It most definitely was not empty. I couldn’t believe how many people were getting burgers late at night. That place must be printing money.

Zooming out a little bit, I realized I haven’t really described like my overall schedule out here. It’s actually pretty simple and repetitive. I think that’s actually kind of obvious in my recent posts, which are shorter and less detailed. I’m basically doing the same thing over and over again each day. Occasionally something will jump up and change the routine, but I’m more or less living a strange version of Groundhog Day.

I generally wake up between 8:00 and 9:00 AM, get ready for the day and head to Starbucks to catch up on reading and update the diary. I hang at Starbucks for a couple hours and then start trying to find some lunch around noon. Sometimes I just go back to the hotel room and make a PB&J, but I’ll also go meet friends for lunch or whatever. Then I try to figure out if I’m playing poker, writing or relaxing for the rest of the day. Most of the time, I’ve played poker, and I’ve probably had an even split of relaxing and writing for the rest of the time. If we’re writing, we usually break around dinner and then take it easy the rest of the evening. If I’m playing poker, I’m hoping to make the dinner break and then head to the final table (which hasn’t happened for me yet). Then it’s back to the hotel to read and watch Netflix. Then time to sleep and start over again.

It’s pretty unexciting except when I go to a new restaurant or have a meeting or something to break up the routine. Sometimes a friend will be making a deep run in a tournament, or a friend of a friend will be at a WSOP final table and I’ll head over to watch them play and provide support for a while. “Support” can just be hanging out, watching them play (it’s always encouraging to know some friends are keeping an eye on you when you’ve been playing for 10 hours and you’re starting to get tired). “Support” can also be doing reconnaissance around the bubble, and as they approach a final table.

On the money bubble, it’s helpful to know where the short stacks are and to get a sense of how long the bubble will last. When we’re playing online, we can just go look at the leader-board for that stuff. But it’s tougher to get that information when we’re playing live. So the person doing the recon might wander off, then stop by and say, “Two micro-stacks on that table over there. And on that other table, a stack shorter than yours will take the big blind in the next hand.” This information can help shape the correct strategy at that moment, so it’s very helpful. Occasionally, we’ll have a history with some of our friend’s opponents, or we’ll spot tells on people, and we can share that info.

Day 17: It’s 10:15 PM and I still don’t know if I’m playing the Main Event tomorrow. Some of the pieces have fallen into place, but some haven’t. So, I’ll find out for sure tomorrow morning. I’m ready to play if all of the pieces fall into place, but I’m content to pass on it if things aren’t just right. The Main Event has happened every year for a few decades now, and I’m sure it’ll go on happening every year for several more decades, so there’s no rush.

Today was a relaxing day. I didn’t do much but sleep, eat and read. I met some friends for dinner, but otherwise stayed pretty close to my hotel room for most of the day.

As of this writing, Luckbox Larry has put together a pretty big stack in the Main event. He has 77,000 chips and average is probably somewhere around 40,000. It’s too early to know how significant this is, but he’s a good player and having a big chip stack can only help him.

I’m going to watch some TV and then get some sleep. I could have a pretty big day tomorrow.

Day 18: It’s almost 10:00 AM on the final Day 1 (Day 1D) of the WSOP Main Event and I just confirmed that I’m playing it. A quick overview of what this really means:

  • There will probably be about 6,000 players. Maybe 1,000 are good players. Another couple thousand are decent. The rest are just people looking to have a good time and take a shot.
  • I’m well above average in this field. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but this structure is basically made for my style. I think it’s reasonable to expect I’ll cash about 25% of the time (which is well above a “normal” cash rate in normal tournaments, even for a good player). Of course, that means 75% of the time I probably won’t cash. This isn’t pessimism, it’s just how tournaments work.
  • I probably won’t be on TV. It’s possible, but there will be about 2,000 people in the field today and there is one feature table. There MIGHT be a second feature table, so maybe 20 people will be on TV. The deeper I go in the event, the more possible it is I could be on TV, but it continues to be unlikely.
  • There will be eight days of play before the final table. Those days won’t happen consecutively because there are so man players. My first day is today (July 10), and Day 8 will be July 19 (they’ll play down to the final table that day). So this could be the beginning of a very long poker tournament. Here’s the structure sheet.

Ok, time to go register. Hopefully I’ll update this post with good news in about 15 hours (when Day 1D is over). Until then, here’s what it looks like to turn cash into a seat at the Main Event:

UPDATE: Sure enough, I made it through Day 1D with about average chips. We started the day with 30,000 chips and I finished the day with 50,025. I’m VERY satisfied with this result for a lot of reasons. I made a bad call during the first level and finished that hand with 23k (my low point so far). But I also had a VERY difficult table today, and managed to chip up despite my bad table. There were three well-known pros at my table for most of the day, and there were a couple other guys who I suspect were pros (probably online pros). All three of the initial known pros (Brandon Cantu, Adam Schoenfeld, John O’shea) ended up busting before the end of the day, and I managed to grow my stack to 60k at one point. Considering how soft the WSOP Main Event field is, this was a pretty unlucky table for Day 1.

I should say I also caught some hands today. I had Aces three times in one level (but only won three small pots, all pre-flop). I also had Kings a couple times and Queens a couple times. So, I did catch some cards, but they didn’t do me much good at my tough table. (Of course, I’ll take cards whenever I can get them.)

So, we start back Tuesday morning and I’ll have an average chip stack. My next goal is to make Day 3.

Freaks and Geeks – A quantum message in a bottle

Geeks win while the Jocks crash and burn

I am the Oobleck of emotional catharsis: the harder you try to get through, the more I resist; but if you’re gentle and patient, I will listen. Many shows, books, movies, songs, whatever,  just bounce right off me because they’re trying too hard to get through. But occasionally a show will quietly, persistently talk to me until I hear what it’s saying. This is one of those shows.

Freaks and Geeks is a message in a bottle that landed ashore after drifting about in its creators’ minds for 20 years. The cleverest thing about the message inside is that it’s unwritten until the bottle finds a reader – it’s the Schrodinger’s Cat of TV shows. Once the bottle is found and opened, then a message appears on the scroll, tailored to the bottle’s discoverer.

To twenty- and thirty-somethings, the message is a love letter, a nostalgic au revoir to adolescence. “Remember high school? It wasn’t so bad, right? There were things you liked about it. Go ahead and admit it – you’ll feel better. Remember when you discovered music? Your first kiss? Remember lockers, gym class, goofing off during study hour? There were some good things about those times, right? Comfortable things; peaceful things. No, it wasn’t awesome, but it wasn’t all that bad either.” Not only does it provide a glimpse into the transition from the 70s to the 80s – the death of disco, console TVs, steel cars – but it manages to provide a complete look at the high school experience, start to finish, through the eyes of its characters.

To parents, it’s a comforting letter from the future: “Your kids will be ok because you care enough to wonder if they’ll be ok. Yeah, they’re probably off doing what you’re afraid they’re doing, just like you did when you were their age. Can you blame them? Take it easy and tell them you care.” There are several types of parents on Freaks and Geeks – good, bad, involved, detached, loyal, cheating – yet all of the kids seem to turn out ok, or at least offer up a glimmer of hope.

To freaks, the predecessors of modern-day hipsters, it’s a cautionary tale suggesting focus and practice. The Freaks seem the most lost, and the most at risk of being lost and never finding their place in the world. Daniel, Nick, Lindsay and Kim are all sort of meandering off into the sunset. Lindsay, the poster-child for typical academic success, is forsaking all that for the aimless life of a freak. We don’t know if she’s just trying it on, or if she’s buying the outfit, but she’s obviously thinking hard about her next purchase. “Freaks, you are not hopeless, nor is life. You can do this, but you have to focus and try. Yes, you’ve been conditioned to believe that trying is for the Geeks, but you’re only hurting yourselves.” The Freaks aren’t hopeless, but it’ll take some work to keep them moving.

To jocks, it’s a tale of woe, for they will eventually serve the Geeks, the tortoise to their hare. With the rare exception, the Jocks are the dolts.  Their one moment of decency is when Todd sticks up for Sam in “The Little Things”. Otherwise, the jocks mostly terrorize the geeks and hang out in a clique. “Enjoy it while it lasts because it’s all downhill from here. Remember these times. Never part with your Letterman jacket, or you’ll regret it.”

But at its core, it’s a letter to the Geeks, a note of optimism, exhorting patience, patience, patience until the world is theirs. It’s really all about the Geeks and Lindsay, who is a Geek trapped in a Freak’s body. Much like the guys in Stand By Me, the Geeks grow and learn big life lessons throughout the series. And they take those lessons to heart. Their message is spoken explicitly by Mr. Fleck in his speech after they were just cleaned out by the Jocks in “Discos and Dragons”, the series finale:

Geeks win while the Jocks crash and burn

The wonderful thing about the show is that it says all these things without being heavy-handed or obvious. It constantly avoids cliches and cheap tricks, almost as if to say that you don’t have to be like everyone else; that not every situation culminates in a big, dramatic moment; that yes, life is sort of a slog, but if you keep at it you’ll be ok; that it’s our relationships that will get us through.

If there’s one message it wants to share with all its viewers it’s that, in the end, “The Geeks shall inherit the earth.”

[If you’re wondering where you can watch Freaks and Geeks, it’s tricky. It only ran for one season on NBC, and they didn’t even air the entire season before it was cancelled. But don’t let that scare you – I think it was cancelled because people just didn’t get it, not because it was a bad show. It’s nothing like Arrested Development, but it was probably cancelled for similar reasons. The cast is stacked: Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, Linda Cardellini and several other people you’ve seen around. You can buy the DVDs on Amazon, and Netflix also has the DVDs. Otherwise it’s pretty tough to find, but it’s worth it. Have you already seen it? What did you think?]

(500) Days, and then what?

I finally saw (500) Days of Summer, and I liked it. A lot. But I also found it to be exceptionally depressing, although I couldn’t initially figure out why. The narrator is up front about what we’re getting into – “You should know up front, this is not a love story.” – and we quickly see that it’s meant to be a story about love, and it’s probably not going to have a typical romantic comedy ending.

And yet we’re conditioned to watch movies a certain way, with certain expectations, and it’s difficult to shake that conditioning even when we’re warned ahead of time that that ain’t where this thing is headed.  But I digress. On balance, the movie ended with me feeling sad. And I’m not sure whether that was what was intended. After all, the point seems to be that, sure Tom has his heart obliterated, but there’s always another season waiting around the corner!

But what’s the point, Tom? Ok, you met someone new. But how many (days) do you get this time, and to what end? In a way, I feel that the central theme of the movie is dark: fatalism. No matter what we do, no matter what we think is going on, we’re steadily plodding along toward the end, even from the beginning. The best we can hope for is to make our journey as satisfying as possible. Some journeys will end happily, like Summer’s, and some may never end or will end badly, like Tom’s probably will.  Tom decided that architecture would be more satisfying than writing greeting cards, and he seems really into it. But he was also really into Summer, and we know how that turns out.

But there’s also something even a little darker, if only because it seems to be true. The crux of the movie is wrapped up in a Tom-crushing line from Summer. Tom says to Summer, “I need to know you won’t wake up tomorrow and feel a different way.” Summer’s honest reply: “I can’t promise you that. Nobody can.  Anyone who does is a liar.” And she clarifies this idea the next morning in response to Tom’s inquiry as to why Summer’s past relationships didn’t work out: “Nothing happened really. It’s what always happens. Life.”  And we’re suddenly dropped down the existentialist rabbit hole.

Well. Ok. So. Why did I like this movie so much? First of all, while I don’t necessarily agree about life being fatalistic, I probably agree so far as romantic relationships go. We’re programmed to look for love, to find a soulmate. Shoot, even the creation story describes the first woman as a helpmate for the man. She was created to help him live life, to be a companion. And so we pursue relationships like our lives depend on it. And we continue to do this despite the overwhelming evidence that the ultimate romantic relationship – marriage – ends in disaster more often than not.  So why do we pursue relationships when we know all the good times will most often be trumped by the bad? I think Tom would like to know as well.

But there were some artistic touches that stood out beyond all the sadness. The copy-room kiss was one of the better-written and acted scenes I’ve seen in a while. Tension is built, resolved and replaced in a matter of seconds, and I think we know how Summer and Tom feel in that moment. The “Reality” and “Expectations” split-screen was fantastic. I think most people have experienced that and just about everyone knows that the two screens will rarely match (if ever). In fact, the entire movie could be said to describe the differences between Tom’s expectations and reality.

There was a nice bit of Sixth Sense-like directing. There are a few scenes where I wondered “Are they really there together, or is Tom imagining this?” At the end of their trip to Ikea, Tom and Summer hold hands, but there’s a distance between them that seems large. The hand-holding seems almost imaginary. On the train to the wedding, I wondered if Tom really saw Summer, or if he was just hoping he saw her, using her to cope with this uncomfortable situation so he wouldn’t have to go solo. On the bench at the end of the movie, if Tom were sitting there alone, and another person saw him there, the observer would have no idea he was interacting with Summer. Was this just Tom’s way of finally saying goodbye? Ultimately, all of these scenes efficiently accomplish their objective: to emphasize the ambiguity inherent in relationships. Tom was constantly wondering, “Will she ultimately reciprocate? Am I alone here?” And we, as viewers, were asking the same questions.

Machiavelli redux – I look back on me looking back on The Prince


I recently bought a new laptop and, as I transferred my old stuff to my new laptop, I found this unfinished blog post.  I’m pretty sure I initially wrote this some time in early 2006 (possibly late 2005).  I wish I had found this before the 2008 election as it would’ve been fun to revisit in light of the major issues that drove the election.  Anyway, I want to get this posted while I’m thinking about it.  I’ve copied it here unedited, but I’ve added an afterward at the end (it was unfinished and I wanted to wrap it up instead of leaving it so open-ended).

Me on Machiavelli on welfare and government redistribution of wealth

I’m just about to finish up Machiavelli’s The Prince. Last night, I went to dinner at my favorite local cafe and my server asked if I was reading it “for fun”, to which I replied, “I wouldn’t say it’s ‘fun’, but I’m between books right now and I had this laying around, so I figured I’d give it a shot.” Even in his introduction, the translator says that he’s not sure we can really “learn” much from Machiavelli, but that his writing is insightful, at least as far as the mysterious Machiavelli is concerned.

As I began reading, I couldn’t help but agree with the translator–I didn’t see myself learning a whole lot from this experience. That was true until about half way through the book when I stumbled upon his chapter on “Generosity and Parsimony”. There, I found what I thought was some interesting insight into today’s politics in America.

A brief summary of a tiny part of The Prince

Before I go any further, I should probably give a brief summary of The Prince. I almost wrote something like, “For those who haven’t read and have no desire to read The Prince…”, but that’s just fluff. Really, I’m summarizing for myself so I don’t have to ever read it again. Anyway, a “prince” is basically a “ruler” and Machiavelli talks about how princes come to power, how they maintain their power and some general rules to live by for princes as they try to maintain their principalities. So, his chapter on “Generosity and Parsimony” is another section designed to point out traits of an effective ruler.

Machiavelli essentially says that, although it may be immediately beneficial, giving lots of stuff to people to win their favor is ultimately a trap that will bury a leader. I think he’s talking about bribery, but he’s also talking generally about giving gifts and freebies to the populous at large. He contends that there are several problems with giving things to people to gain their favor. The first is that all the things given have to be taken from somewhere else: he’ll either have to give of his own possessions, which will eventually run out, or he’ll have to take from others and give of their possessions which will eventually make those “others” his enemies and will also eventually run out.

Once the giving stops, the populous, having been spoiled by his generosity thus far, would be discontented and he would lose favor with them. A couple clichés come to mind: “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” and “Ignorance is bliss”. If you give stuff to people, especially if they haven’t earned it, and you stop giving them that stuff, they’ll become very restless; if you never give them more than they need, they’ll never know what it’s like to have excess.

Back to my point

But I said this has to do with today’s politics, didn’t I? Here’s how: Socialism, welfare, unemployment and entitlement are all hot-button issues today. Right now, the two opposing schools of thought are: 1) We recognize that people have needs and we believe the best way to satisfy those needs is to give them opportunities to work, earn a paycheck and fend for themselves and 2) We recognize that people have needs and we think that those whose needs are fulfilled should help out those whose needs are not fulfilled. In a nutshell, it’s “bolster the economy and create jobs” versus “tax the ‘haves’ and give to the ‘have-nots'”.

Although he wasn’t talking directly about welfare, I think Machiavelli’s point is valid: giving generously to the “have-nots” by taxing the “haves” seems wonderful until the “haves” get sick of it and demand that the “have-nots” work for their wages. Of course, I don’t believe that people should starve because they can’t find a job, and I believe America is a country that shouldn’t let that happen. People will fall on hard times and our country is wealthy enough to help those people out until they can get back on their feet. But they’ll never get back on their feet if they don’t have any incentive to stand up.

A sidebar on Giuliani’s Leadership

A few months ago, I read Rudy Giuliani’s Leadership and I was very impressed with some of his political philosophies and tactics. Most impressive, though, were his results. He only briefly discusses his take on welfare, but I think it was a great philosophy: When people are without jobs, other citizens should be helping them survive. But, part of helping them “survive” is helping them learn a trade, find a job and get off of welfare. Giuliani’s system provided seminars, vocation training, job hunting and other resources to those on welfare and, as a result, he dramatically reduced unemployment. I think the most substantial tenant of his welfare philosophy was this: If you’re on welfare, we’re going to provide you with all the resources we can to help you find a job, but you only have a certain amount of time to draw benefits and then we’re cutting you off. His philosophy was to “teach a man to fish”.

Back to my point again (and some butchery of my own interpretation of Giuliani’s philosophy)

I suppose my real problem with an open-ended welfare system (and the same goes for strict socialism) is that the system is not designed to actually help anyone get off of welfare. Instead, the system is designed to endear those who are on welfare to the providers, and ultimately to provide votes for the providers. I think it’s easiest to explain this by going back to the adage I mentioned earlier. The adage goes something like this: “Cook a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” To take this a step further, say there were two businesses, each related to the fishing industry, but in different ways. The first business sells fishing gear–poles, lures, line, etc.–while the second is a fish restaurant. The first business would be most interested in increasing the number of fishermen in its area. This business understands that more people fishing means better sales for poles, line, lures and such. The other business would be interested in keeping people hungry for fish and would prefer that people spend their time at the restaurant buying and eating fish because the more people that eat fish, the more revenue they’ll get. More importantly, the latter would realize that it’s bad for people to learn to fish. If people are catching their own fish, they don’t need a restaurant to cook and sell them fish for a significant mark-up.

In both examples, the analogy would extend into the political world as “revenue” equals “votes”. Giuliani’s philosophy was to teach people to fish, but also to give them a couple vouchers to the fish restaurant so they can eat in the mean time. The opposing philosophy would be to have the general population provide unlimited vouchers to those in need so the needy can eat and aren’t motivated to learn to fish on their own (I wouldn’t learn to fish if I knew I’d get three square meals a day at no charge to me).

Afterward (and a bait-n-switch from welfare to populism)

As I read back over this post, I feel that maybe I was talking more about populism than social programs.  I was a little off on some of my terminology (I guess I know what I meant by “open-ended welfare”, though it seems like I could’ve worded that more eloquently), but I think was mostly on point.  The 2008 election was largely driven by populism: Obama ran on a fundamentally populist platform, focusing on “change”, “hope” and other feel-good words for the masses while remaining fairly opaque about himself, his own ambitions and his specific plans; he also focused on taxing the rich and redistributing wealth, creating tons of social programs and spending many billions of dollars while offering little by way of explanation as to whom would fund these programs. It could be many years before we know how many of his promises he’s able to keep, or the cost of trying to keep those promises.

But politics and elections are based on promises (empty and otherwise), so what differentiates normal politics from populism?  To me, the differentiator is not so much the target demographic, class or audience, but the advisability and feasibility of the ideology being preached.  Are we making these promises because they’re best for the country, and ultimately for “the people”? Or are we making promises because they’re the key to maximizing votes for this particular election?  Are we bailing out the Big Three because that’s what’s best for the industry and the country? Or are we bailing them out because we need to save some jobs in the short-term, and a lot of those jobs are union leaders and lobbyists in DC?