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Arthur S. ReberI’ve spent over fifty years living two parallel lives. In one I am a semi-degenerate gambler, a poker junkie, horse player, and blackjack maven; in the other, a scientist specializing in cognitive psychology and related topics in the neurosciences, the origins of consciousness and the philosophy of mind. For the most part, I’ve kept these tracks separate mainly because my colleagues in each have little appreciation for the wonder, the complexities and the just full-bore fun in the other.

But over time these two avenues of my life have meshed. There’s a lot that we know about human psychology that can give us insight into gambling, especially poker and, of course, there’s a lot that poker can teach us about human psychology. It is quite astonishing how richly these topics interlock. I’ll also introduce you to some engaging characters I’ve known – bookies, con artists, hustlers, professional poker players and perhaps an occasional famous scientist.

This site will wander about in both worlds with new columns and articles along with links to scores of previously published ones. Now that I’ve retired I’ve become something of a political junkies and will go on rants on politics and economics,  When the mood strikes I’ll share views on food, restaurants and cooking. Any and all feedback is welcome.

Wednesday
Dec212016

Do We Have a Policing Crisis? By Larry E. Nevonen, JD, Guest Blogger: 

The following is based on an article in the Wall Street Journal by an economics professor from Trinity College. The article supplied facts, sources, and some history of police-community relations that need broader exposure and exploration. Where do you stand on what we need to do?

The author raised a very difficult question: Factually, who has the better case? Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter? In 2015, 41 officers were killed in the line of duty. There are about 900,000 officers. That means that officers bear a victimization rate of 4.6/100,000 officers. The average American faces a homicide rate of 4.5/100,000. The average American male faces a homicide rate of 6.6/100,000. 

On the other hand, police killed 1,207 Americans. This is a rate of 134/100,000 officers and is 30 times the overall base homicide rate. Justifiable homicides? Probably in almost all cases, but there are no statistics. The article asks the next tough question of are these killings necessary? Are there alternatives? In England and Germany police commit less than ½ of 1% of all homicides. How did we get here?

We know about the “War” on Drugs and the “War” on Crime. The big change in how those wars were fought and funded came from a 1994 crime bill signed by then President Bill Clinton. That bill gave out $20 billion to hire more police, build more prisons, and allow police departments to purchase surplus military equipment. A curious result? SWAT teams have existed for a long time. But the frequency of their use has grown to 50,000 SWAT raids per year nationally.

What happened to the relationship between the police and the community it served during this time period? The article quotes from the book “To Protect and Serve” by Norm Stamper, a man who started as a beat cop in San Diego and rose to become the Police Chief of Seattle for 6 years. When this ex-police chief states that he was trained to believe that his community was irrelevant, there is a problem. Rewards and promotions for officers were based on numbers of arrests, etc,. At the same time, Mr. Stamper quotes a fellow police chief as saying: “As someone who has spent 35 years wearing a police uniform, I’ve come to believe that hundreds of thousands of police officers commit perjury every year testifying.” In this environment is it any wonder that the police end up viewing citizens as numbers, or worse, revenue sources. At the same time, citizens often feel that the police cannot be trusted, when people know that when police get on the witness stand, they take an oath to tell the truth and proceed to lie. Other officers know and support this illegal and immoral conduct by keeping silent behind the blue line.      

The Justice Dept. report on Ferguson, Missouri painted a chilling picture. In 2013, in a town of 21,000 people, their courts issued 9,000 arrest warrants. Many of these warrants were based on failing to pay fines for parking tickets and even housing code violations including overgrown lawns. The city’s finance director had written to both the police chief and the city manager of the city’s financial needs that could be filled by increasing ticket writing.  Police promotions were based on “citation productivity” and the local judges and prosecutors assisted in this fund raising effort to fill the city’s coffers.  It was therefore predictable that any galvanizing event, such as the shooting of Michael Brown, would both trigger mass protest and get a fully militarized police response.  To quote the article:  “One important lesson from economics is that unaccountable government officials will not always act in the public’s behalf.”

And where has all this loss and expense gotten us?  Are we in the middle of a new crime wave?  For insight, the author turned to another book, “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America”, by Barry Latzer.  In 1900 the American homicide rate was 6/100,000.  During Prohibition, it rose to 9/100,000 then falling to 4.5/100,000 in the 50’s.  A spike up to 11/100,000 occurred in the 70’s.  But the long term trend has been down from there to the current 4.5/100,000 which is among the lowest in the nation’s history.  Is this the result of the zero-tolerance and mass incarceration policies?  It turns out that the curve of homicide rates over time from our neighbor to the north, Canada, bears a remarkable resemblance to our results.  And Canada has not used either militarization of its police or mass incarceration to achieve these results.  Mr. Latzer concludes: “that the major determinants of a crime rate are likely cultural factors and economic opportunity.  The employed family man is going to be less interested in crime than the unemployed and unattached.” 

In this environment of violence and distrust what should a good citizen do?  All I can think of now is my disappointment with this state of affairs in this great nation that is mostly filled with well meaning hard working people including hard working peace officers.  I suggest that we start by opening discussions, using our blessed Freedom of Speech, to open dialogs at a variety of levels. 

 How do we get more openness and transparency in our Police Departments?  We desperately need better police relations with all our community.  We have been making some progress in police interactions with people with mental health problems by recharacterizing the contact as working with someone who needs help instead of working with someone who needs to be controlled.  There has also been progress in seeing child prostitutes as victims, not criminals.  Note how these are simple changes in an officer’s attitude about interacting with members of their community.  But it isn’t that simple.  Implementing these changes takes police management decisions and officer training.  We need to take any and all steps that lower tensions in police-community interactions and are focused on lowering the homicide rates in both blue and black groups.  That will take genuine dialog between both groups in a calm, dispassionate setting.  If we don’t conduct calm open “autopsies” of prior events, good and bad, there will be more such autopsies carried out in many venues in the future over bad events.  Without genuine dialog, not speeches, there are no winners, only losers, here. 

We need the police to lower their blue wall.  Admit it.  It exists.  The recent convictions of Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff Tanaka underscore an “above the law” mentality that must be rooted out at every level of police ethics.  When I hear an ex-police chief state on public television that the only way to get to the truth today in dealing with the police is to sue them, that kind of adversarial environment creates gridlock, not change or trust.  At the same time, front line police officers need a safe, both physically and career wise, avenue to report any violation of law by other officers.  It must be clear to all that their house is clean.  We need systems in place that keep the police accountable to the people.      

1. Our front line peace officers need more support than ever.  By militarizing them, the likelihood of good officers becoming victims of PTSD is very real.  And we need good, honest and healthy officers in the field.  Police career reward systems need to find the difficult way away from quotas, particularly any quota that drives the officer to treat his/her community as a revenue source.  Police management needs to do far better job in helping our front line cop do his/her job right and in a manner that ALWAYS EARNS the respect and admiration of the community being served.  Police management needs to do a much better job.

2. How do we reduce the number of police contacts where weapons are in play?  Do we really need 50,000 SWAT interventions a year in this country?  Can something be done to cut the supply of the weapons and ammunition that the cops fear to face the most as a way to increase their safety in the field?  What gun and ammunition control measures do the police suggest that would increase their safety in the field?  How can we genuinely make their dangerous job safer so that they can come home to their families?  How do we de-escalate on both sides?

3. Is it better to spend public funds on treatment instead of punishment?  In many areas, particularly drug use, it is clear that the punishment model has not worked.  How many police departments financially depend on drug bust forfeitures for a portion of their budget?  And for the many people who carry conviction records, their punishment never ends when barriers exist to those persons re-entering the job force at any level.  A job goes a long way to preventing recidivism.     

Think about these issues. Think about how you can help. Then think about who you vote for at any level. Who will push these problems in the right direction? Who might put gasoline on the fire? Your vote counts and matters. Use it. 

Each of us needs to be able to demand transparency from anyone in public service. And when the trust of the public is earned, only then should full support be given.

We can do better. We must do better. Too many lives have been lost and too much is at stake. Thank you for taking the time to consider this material. 

Monday
Dec192016

Political Rant: How We Got Here

FB political rant for the morning — as we contemplate the EC voting taking place as I write. It’s an effort to answer a question oft-asked these days: How the fuck did we get here?

The Republicans began taking power some thirty to forty years ago. The initial strategy was hatched by Lee Atwater and colleagues. Atwater was a brilliant if unscrupulous political operative. He started politically agnostic. He became a Republican simply because he grew up in the south and realized he couldn’t gain power as a Democrat. He was Karl Rove’s mentor. Look him up.

The strategy focused on systematically working at the lowest levels of government: school boards, fire commissioners, planning commissions, land-use and development committees. Very few folks run for these seats and with a bit of push from the party they got their people in. Those who showed a nose for government got tapped and groomed for the next levels: city councils, county councils. The more effective (or more popular) then ran for state legislatures.

They boosted their appeal to the electorate by reaching out to racists in the south, to evangelicals by staking out socially conservative positions on gender, marriage and abortion, to business-oriented voters by emphasizing lower taxes and campaigning vigorously against unions to the point where they succeeded in getting non-union workers voting to diminish the impact of the very organizations that could better their lot. Toss in a dollop of hatred for “elitists” and intellectual (especially scientists) and you have a heady brew.

It worked. Once they had control of a state they pushed their agenda, with ALEC writing prospective bills. And critically, they were in charge of redistricting after each census. With a little practice they became masters at gerrymandering.

During all this the Democratic party did essentially nothing to counter it, acting as though people would vote in their best interest. They knew that the country’s best interests were to be found in liberal policy and assumed they would win with sound economic and social positions — and counting on solid backing from minorities. But people do not vote in their best interest — obviously.

So now we are where we are. It’s a strange place — in a country whose citizenry, as virtually every poll taken in the past half-century shows, supports progressive positions on minimum wage, the environment, equal pay, parental leave, education, Social Security, health care, tax codes, business regulations, voting and gender rights, etc., etc. And what is this electorate doing? Watching helplessly as these policies get whittled away by a party dominated by bigots and oligarchs.

As Thom Hartmann put it: There are only three kinds of Republicans left. The wealthy, those with sufficient power and influence to have been bought by the wealthy and the duped. This last group is large and diverse and was created by policies put in place decades ago.

The election this year was special in several interesting ways. Most significantly “the duped” turned out to be a larger slice of the electorate than most politically savvy observers thought. Too large. They elected someone truly pathological. The center may not hold.

We are in very deep shit, deeper than most people realize. I don’t know how to turn it around. The primary hope I see on the horizon is a shift in demographics. Old white (duped) dudes are dying off. The millennial generation has more liberal and open values but they need to get active and they need to vote.

Or maybe the Trump administration will implode. Fasten seats belts.

When he knew he was dying, Atwater apologized for what he’d done and what he began . Too little, too late. As an old friend put it, just live an ethical life and you won’t have to apologize for anything.

Sunday
Dec182016

Betting the NFL: The Teaser Wheel

In sports betting, specifically betting on the NFL, there’s a wager known as the “teaser wheel.” My old friend Nolan Dalla claims to have invented it. I’m willing to give him credit since I don’t know of anyone else who’s claimed it.

To understand a teaser wheel you first need to know a bit about wagering on football and, of course, what a teaser is. I’d recommend Gambling for Dummies for no other reason than I co-authored it and wrote the chapter on sports betting. You can find it here if you wish.

A teaser is a bet on two separate games where the book “gives” you an extra 6 points on each game. It looks enticing since getting 6 extra points is pretty generous. The downside is that you have to win both games. If either of your teams fails to cover or ties you lose.

There are lots of different kinds of teasers where you can get more points but give up in the odds. For example, a 6-point teaser is played at -110. That is, you’re putting $110 at risk to win $100. A 6.5-point teaser (which gets you an extra half-point on each game which eliminates the tie) will be played at -120 meaning you’re risking $120 to win $100. There are also 3-game teasers, 4-game teasers etc. up to 10-game teasers. Odds and payout adjust for each.

Okay? Got it? On to the “teaser wheel.”

Here you pick a key game with your key team. Say the Giants are playing Dallas and the regular, straight-up line is Giants -3. This means they are a three point favorite. A straight wager on the Giants will win if they win by more than 3 points. But you really like the Giants in this game so you decide to take a 6-point teaser meaning that instead of making the bet at -3 you’re now betting it at +3. The Giants can actually lose the game by 1 or 2 points and you’ll still win — provided that your other game also wins (remember, in a teaser you have to win both games).

Nolan’s gambit here is to wheel the teased Giants against Dallas with every other game on the card, a total of 16 wagers and in each of these games you’re getting your teased 6-points. For example, suppose you like the Bears as a 4-point dog against Denver. You bet this game as the other half of the teaser and get the Bears +10. Etc. etc. etc. for all the games that week.

Why do this? Well, Dalla’s argument is that if your key game goes your way you’re getting every game on the schedule at a 6-point edge which should win an awful lot of wagers.

Does it pay off? Hard to say. There’s a lot of controversy in the sports betting world about teasers, even the ordinary ones. Some experts love them. Some hate them. Sports books continue to offer them which means either they’re not good bets or not many punters have figured out how to play them. Has Dalla?

Let’s take a look at the bet with the understanding that in all sports betting the expected value (EV) of the wager depends on the win rate. In order to beat wagering on the NFL you need to be able to pick the winner in straight bets about 55% of the time. This is because the book charges you a fee, known as “juice” or “vig” (short for vigorish, an old Yiddish word for a fee) on each bet. The standard vig is 10% charged on losing bets. If you were to place a straight bet on the Giants in that game you’d put up $110. If you lose, you’re out the whole $110. If you win you get back $210. So if you’re just “flipping coins” you’ll win 1 out of 2 or win $210 while losing $220 or $5 per $100 wager. If you win more than 55% of the time you’re a winning player. If not, not.

So the first question to ask is how often do you need to win a teaser? Let’s look at it from the point of view of Nolan’s teaser wheel and start by assuming, as a decent handicapper, that these 6 extra points get you a win rate of 75% and you’re taking each bet at -110. The teaser wheel means that you’re putting up $110 to win $100 on each of 16 games or $1,760.

The expectation is that 25% of the time your key team loses. You lose all 16 bets costing you $1,760. But 75% of the time your key team wins and you also expect to win all the other games 75% of the time.

Of the 16 games you expect to win, on average, 12 and lose the other 4. The 12 wins net you $1,200 and the 4 losses cost you $440 for a net win of $760. So 75% of the time you will win $760 which averages out to $570 (a win of $760 occurring 75% of the time) and 25% of the time you expect to lose $1,760 for an average loss of minus $440 (1,760 x .25). This yields a tidy average win of +$130 or a EV of +7.4%. Not bad. Looks like Nolan’s on to something — provided that the bettor can pick a teaser win three-quarters of the time.

The next question, of course, is where’s the break point? What percent of wagers must you win to create a profit? If, for example, you’re only picking the teased winner 70% of the time you’re in deep shit. When your key team wins you expect to win an average of 11.2 bets for $1,120 while losing 4.8 bets for a loss of 528 yielding a win of $592. Thirty percent of the time you lose the whole $1,760. So on the 70% of the days where your key team wins your win is $414 (.7 x 592) but 30% of the time your loss is $1,760 for an average of minus $528. Now you’re looking at a long-term EV of minus $114 per wheel bet. For a 70% winning handicapper, the teaser wheel EV is a painful -6.5%.

In short, the teaser wheel is only a smart play for a handicapper capable of picking the key game correctly at least 73% to 74% of the time. Is Nolan that good? I dunno. He probably doesn’t either because his life is, no matter how much time he spends at this game, only a small sample.

The wager also has huge variance because when your key team goes down every bet is a losing bet. Variance like this can do terrible things to your bankroll … and to your heart.

Thursday
Dec082016

Trump's Cabinet or Pandora's Box?

The cabinet that Trump is putting together is looking more like the escapees of Pandora’s Box than a government cabinet. Every new name that is announced or floated brings it closer to mirroring the hoard of evil spectres that poor, naive Pandora let loose upon the world. If you recall, only “Hope” was left behind when, stricken by the realization of what she done, Pandora closed the lid.

Most folks, especially the poor benighted bastards who voted for this miscreant, aren’t paying attention. Perhaps they’re caught up in the vortex that was the Trump campaign; perhaps they do not understand how powerful a Secretary of _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite agency) actually is.

Each oversees a large government bureaucracy with far reaching roles in the lives of every American. They are nominated by the President and approved by the Senate. It’s standard procedure to approve the nominee on the grounds that the president has the right to choose the individuals who will oversee the various agencies of government and advise him on policy. The last person to be rejected was John Tower as Secretary of Defense back in 1989 — and that had more to do with sexual peccadilloes than competence.

What we are seeing in the slowly emerging list of individuals tapped to be in Trump’s cabinet is breathtaking. He said he was going to “drain the swamp.” Hah! He (well, it’s not really “he” — more below on just who’s behind this infestation) has left all the swamp gas and brought in a gang of crocs and scorpions. Briefly:

Education: Elizabeth DeVos, a billionaire with no relevant academic experience, no background in formal education but a champion of private and charter schools and a resolute opponent of public education.

Justice: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man whose racist past was the basis for a Republican senate to reject him for a federal judgeship when nominated by Reagan in 1989. His voting record in Congress is rated as the fifth most right-wing.

Homeland Security: General John F. Kelly (Ret.) who holds strong anti-immigrant positions, particularly with regard to the border with Mexico. Kelly’s record seems to be one of moderation and he may be okay. 

Health and Human Services: Thomas Price, a Congressman from Georgia who has led the GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a privatized, free-market system. In short, he’ll be in charge of the department he wants to gut.

Housing and Urban Development: Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who acknowledged that his only experience with urban housing was living in Detroit. He also had previously said he didn’t think he was qualified to run a major government agency.

Labor: Andrew Puzder, CEO of a corporation that owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, two fast-food chains. An opponent of the minimum wage and a frequent target of labor complaints. A full 60% of the filings against his company resulted in violations against Federal guidelines, mostly for failing to pay even the minimum wage. He has been nominated to run the department that fined his company dozens of times.

Evironmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt, a climate change denialist who, as AG of Oklahoma, filed numerous suits against the very agency he is now expected to run.

Treasury: Steven Mnuchin, currently a Hollywood producer whose earlier days as a banker involved in him in a series of home foreclosures of “questionable” legality resulting in fines of several millions of dollars. His bank was also accused by HUD of illegal “red lining” against racial minorities. 

Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon, co-owner of World Wrestling Entertainment known for PR gimmicks and for being involved in accusations of steroid abuse among wrestlers. WWE is not, in any way, a “small” business. She also failed in two senate runs in Connecticut.

Commerce: Wilbur Ross, a billionaire known as the “bankruptcy king” for buying up distressed companies on the cheap. He is also one of the bankers who bailed Trump out of his looming personal bankruptcy when his Atlantic City casinos failed. A little bit of crony capitalism here, eh?

Defense: General James Mattis, nicknamed “Mad Dog.” Mattis may be a reasonable pick though he will have to be granted a waiver of the prohibition of having the agency run by anyone who was in the military within the past seven years. Mattis probably has the cojones to tell Trump “no” if he orders him to do something truly crazy.

United Nations Ambassador: Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina. This one might work out. She has virtually no experience in international affairs but is more moderate than the others. It could have been worse — we might have gotten the bombastic neo-con Bolton back.

There are several still-unfilled posts. The people whose names are being floated don’t inspire any more confidence than this collection which would be, as the New York Times pointed out, the wealthiest cabinet ever assembled (Ross, DeVos are billionaires and a handful of others are milionaires) and, when bringing Trump’s advisors into the picture [e.g., General Michael Flynn (Ret.) as National Security Advisor], the most military-oriented in memory (Flynn, Kelly, Mattis).

With few exceptions, the cabinet nominees are either individuals who are ideologically opposed to the core principles of the institution they are being asked to run or persons with no background or experience in the area they are going to oversee.

This, my friends, is Steve Bannon at work. For those who aren’t paying attention —- drum roollll here please:

DONALD TRUMP IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THESE NOMINATIONS (except perhaps for McMahon and Ross).

Trump is, as Hillary and the Democrats were trying (and trying) to point out, is totally, fundamentally, profoundly unprepared to be president. He has zero knowledge of government and zero understanding of how it operates. He apparently thinks you govern by Twitter.

These appointments are being pushing by Bannon, a crazy, erratic but shrewd, right-wing nutball whose prime mission is to undermine the existing political system. As editor of Breitbart news he took on the mantle of promulgator of the alt-right, the nativist, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-woman radical segment of the Republican party. He is now arguably the most powerful person in the country because he has the ear of a president who doesn’t have a fucking clue what he’s doing.

The Democrats have to, absolutely must, challenge and, when they can, block the worst of these nominees. The focus should be on the ideologues whose obvious goal is to strip bare the agency they’ve been nominated to run. Specifically, DeVos, Mnuchin, Price, Pruitt, Puzder and Ross.

Carson should be rejected on grounds of manifest incompetence.

More later when the nominees for the other positions are known.

Wednesday
Dec072016

Trump's Brain: A Refillable Vessel

In his interview with Time magazine as “Person of the Year” (and before anyone squawks, it’s not given for accomplishments but impact — Hitler was selected back in 1938 and Stalin in 1939) he said,

“I’m going to bring down drug prices. I don’t like what has happened with drug prices.”

He did not say, of course, what programs he had in mind for reasons that will be obvious in a bit and the interviewer didn’t press the issue. However, Adam Fein, president of Pembroke Consulting, a firm that looks at pharmaceutical economics, heard the comment and offered a suggestion. Trump, he thinks, is likely sending a signal to the industry. They should, he counseled, be prepared for him to take action sometime in the future to try to bring drug prices down.

This gesture on Fein’s part, in my view, was a display of hopeless naiveté and it reveals what is wrong with the way almost everybody deals with Trump. Honest folks like Fein and the many others who try to get Trump under their own particular microscope or strive to unpack what he thinks, believes and/or intends to do are making a fundamental error. When trying to make sense of what Trump says they assume that there is sense behind it.

That is the fatal flaw. That is why all the commentators, editorial writers, psychobiographers and casual bloggers who struggle to unravel the can of worms that is Trump’s mind end up scratching their heads and looking confused.

These efforts at interpreting the words of politicians and diplomats — standard operating procedure in a normal world — are wasted on Trump. It is the new insanity because Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. There’s little doubt in my mind that he doesn’t really think that drug prices are too high — certainly not in the sense that Clinton would if she said it or Sanders would (and did).

I predict that in a surprisingly short period of time, perhaps as short as a week or two, Trump will have a different stance, not remember saying what he did in the interview and, if pressed, deny that he did.

What I am virtually certain happened is that the last person who spoke with him about drug prices said that the pharmaceutical firms were soaking the people or he saw a cable news show trashing drug price increases. So he incorporated the idea and now thinks it’s his.

But since there was no deliberative process, no serious thinking, no reading up on the issue, no discussions with advisors or industry experts, it will just rattle around in his head until he talks to someone else and some other seedling of a thought takes its place. Trump’s brain is like a cheap tin tub with many small holes. Some notion, some meme gets poured in, sits there for a time but then slowly leaks out and is gone, to be replaced by the next input message which could very well contradict the one that just oozed away.

If this seems too harsh it’s worth keeping in mind that, as Gail Collins revealed in an insightful column in the NY Times, he had forgotten completely about his campaign “promise” to save the jobs Carrier wanted to ship to Mexico. He had to be reminded so that he could take credit.

Get used to this sports fans because this is what things are going to be like. Trump’s “refillable mind” is right out of the opening scene to every episode of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different” — and no one has a clue how to deal with it.
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