Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Poker Conundrum

So the other night I fired up the DVR to watch something other than the Olympics. Yes it's true. Olympics junkie though I may be, there are times when I just have to watch something other than the Olympics. It usually happens when the "Olympics Broadcasting Consortium" (meaning CTV and its cable networks TSN and TSN2 aswell as Rogers Sportsnet) are showing tape of events I've already seen – or some figure skating – but that's beside the point. On this particular night I decided to catch up on an episode of The Big Bang Theory whichis one of the few sitcoms that I can not only sit through but actually enjoy. I was rewarded with the episode in which Sheldon – the character who elevates the show to another level – encounters his mortal enemy Wil Wheaton.

The reason why Wil Wheaton is Sheldon's mortal enemy is complicated but when is anything with Sheldon not complicated. Essentially Sheldon's favourite character on Star Trek: The Next Generation was Wesley Crusher – well you knew there had to be one – and when the opportunity to see Wil Wheaton at a Star Trek convention and to have him autograph a collectible action figure came up, Sheldon travelled nine hours by bus (twice violating his personal rule going to the bathroom on a moving vehicle – I have the same rule for busses and so do most people who have travelled by bus; gross!) to attend a Star Trek Con in Jackson Mississippi only to discover that Wil Wheaton wasn't going to be there. Finally Sheldon's chance for vengeance comes when he discovers that Wil Wheaton will be competing in a collectible card game that sounds like Magic: the Gathering...but isn't for copyright reasons. It is also a tournament that Raj has been begging Sheldon to enter – Raj wants the money – but that Sheldon has been dismissive of...until he learns that Wil Wheaton is playing in it. Inevitably Sheldon and Raj triumph over all opponents on the back of Sheldon's eidetic memory which allows not only to remember what cards have already been played but to deduce with incredible clarity what cards each of his opponents has. It's something that, in his smugly arrogant manner, he delights in telling them. Eventually he comes face to face with Wil Wheaton. And it is Sheldon's delight in explaining things to his opponents that proves to be his eventual downfall. He explains to Wil Wheaton why he is so hostile, and Wheaton explains that he missed the con because his grandmother died. Suddenly Sheldon, who is devoted to his Meemaw, melts and much to Raj's consternation throws the match to Wil Wheaton, who after winning informs Sheldon that his Grandmother will probably be very pleased that he won the money in the tournament – she's still alive.

The episode contains some elements of truth. Wil Wheaton is well known as a gamer, particularly a Dungeons & Dragons player. What's also fairly well known is that Wheaton is a competitive Poker player. How good is he? Well I've outlasted him in a couple of tournaments but that occurred in large part because I never played a hand against him. He's a solid recreational player who would have cleaned out the game on the USS Enterprise (those of you who remember Star Trek: The Next Generation will recall that a number of episodes centered around a Poker game featuring Riker, Worf, Data, Geordi, Dr. Crusher, and Counsellor Troi; like all TV poker players they played Draw Poker, a version of the game that is largely extinct in the casinos). This connection got me to thinking about how Sheldon would do as a Poker player. It's not really idle speculation on my part, rather it stems from a couple of things that's I've observed about Poker and what non-Poker players think about the game. One is that the most successful Poker players tend to be highly intelligent. Several of the top players either have PhDs or (in the case of Annie Duke) were close to getting the post-graduate degrees. Several were involved in high tech companies. We are also confronted by people who insist that poker isn't a game of skill but rather all about the luck of the draw.

If you believe that Poker is about the luck of the draw, which a recent "gamble responsibly" ad around here stated (not even suggested) then Sheldon would be an excellent Poker player. He's capable of calculating odds almost instantaneously, and obviously he'd know the relative values of various hands. His Eidetic Memory would be a tremendous asset in any of the games based around Seven Card Stud because he'd remember every card that had been played including the ones that had gone into the muck and been able to tell what each of his opponents had. It would be like the scene in Rounders where Matt Damon's character tells each of the players in the "Judges Game" what they had. That of course is what the situation would be if poker were entirely about the "luck of the draw."

In fact Sheldon would be a lousy Poker player just as Wesley Crusher, admitted into his mother's game, would be a terrible poker player (but not as bad as Sheldon; in this Sheldon would be more like Data). Sheldon would be easy to bluff because he wouldn't understand why someone would lie in that sort of situation or would always expect an opponent to bluff once a bluff is exposed. He'd only play good to great hands rather than the marginal hands that turn into something. As a result, when he does collect pots they wouldn't be as big as they might be. Big pots are usually pulled in when a player has a hand that develops into something greater than the losers expect them to be. With Sheldon playing only strong hands opponents would know that when he bets he has a very strong hand. In being a winner in the luck of the draw he would lose in the game of taking ships from opponents. Sheldon would be a disaster playing a Seven Card Stud style game because of his tendency to gloat when he wins, or more accurately when he knows he's going to win and sets out to explain why his opponents will lose while the hand is playing out. This is a breach of poker etiquette which in tournament play would probably result in penalties from the organizers and in standard "ring" games would probably result in a player being thrown out of the card room.

Sheldon's greatest weakness as a poker player is that he doesn't relate to people. In Poker playing the person is often a bigger thing than playing the cards, which is why Poker is a game of skill. An experienced poker player will be able to read his opponents, even online, and know when one of those opponents has a good hand and when they don't. They know when to bluff with a weak – or at least a not very strong – hand and when to fold their cards and wait for a better hand. It's about knowing when the other player is bluffing and when that player really is strong. It's about knowing the right time to apply pressure. It's about adopting different personas and styles of play during a tournament based on the skills and actions of opponents. Poker is about being one person at one table and a different person at another. It's knowing the right time to be loose and aggressive and when to be tight and conservative. They say that great comedy is all about timing. So is great Poker playing..Great comedy is about understanding people, at least in so far as it involves knowing what they'll laugh at. The key to great Poker is also understanding people and how they think. Sheldon would never get any of that – you can see that from the way he interacts (if you can call it that) with other people not to mention what he allegedly describes as his sense of humour – and more to the point he would care that he didn't get it. Sheldon's Eidetic memory would make him a great Blackjack player (at least until the casinos banned him and put him in "The Black Book") and his skills as a physicist would turn him into a wonder at the Roulette table, calculating orbital mechanics in his head, but when it comes to Poker, he'd be a disaster.

Now his roommate Leonard might have potential....

Friday, February 12, 2010

A New Beginning

I've finally switched over to the new, more customizable layout for Blogger, after a considerable amount of resistance. The reason for the change is that the blog commenting service that I was using - Haloscan has been shut down because the hardware and software were failing. They were prepared to switch me over to their new product Echo, but Echo costs $12 a year. Sorry no sale.

Unfortunately it was nearly impossible for me to remove the old Haloscan commenting system and regain the Blogger commenting system, so I bit the bullet and switched. Rigth now I'm mostly happy. I've migrated most of the stuff I had on the old blog and dropped a number of links that I didn't need. I am not pleased with the new location of the top Adsense ad but as far as I can tell I can't put it where I want it, which is above the title.

I'll probably make a few changes in the foreseeable future but for now this is what I've been able to come up with.

Man Undercover

There's one word that sums up the new CBS series Undercover Boss – "Meh!" In fact to paraphrase Lucy Van Pelt of all the "Meh" shows out there, Undercover Boss may be the "Meh-iest." I'm not saying that it's a bad show, but it's not a good show. It is probably a better fit for Friday nights on most networks and for the summer on all networks.

Undercover Boss, based on a British series of the same name, debuted after Sunday night's Super Bowl game and as a result had good ratings. But the problem is that while the premise seems sound the execution left me with a ton of questions, and the whole thing seemed flat.

The first episode of Undercover Boss followed Lawrence O'Donnell III, President and COO of Waste Management, which is one of the two largest waste disposal companies in North America. And here is where the problems start for me. The introduction to the show – before we met O'Donnell – made a big thing about out of touch CEOs that didn't care about the little guy and how it hurt in this time of economic troubles. The problem is that Waste Management is generally describes as one of the best companies in terms of corporate ethics. In 2008 and 2009 the company was named by business magazine Ethisphere as one of the most ethical companies in the world. And for his part O'Donnell comes across as pretty level-headed and likable sort of guy. He has an attractive but age-appropriate wife, a son and a daughter. O'Donnell's daughter suffered a Brain Injury as a child as a result of a doctor who failed to follow proper procedures; as a result he is a stickler for doing things the proper way in his business. In terms of safety it is not a particularly bad attitude to take.

When O'Donnell first notified the members of his executive team that he was going undercover to work for the company at what amounted to entry level positions there was a certain amount of surprise not to mention an attitude that amounted to "Is he serious?" Indeed he was. Going undercover as "Randy Lawrence" an unemployed construction worker who is being followed by a documentary film crew as he starts a new career in the waste management industry, O'Donnell gets a first-hand look at what's going on at his company at various locations. His first working day is at a recycling plant in Syracuse, New York where he's put onto a line to separate cardboard and trash from paper on a conveyor belt. Almost immediately he has difficulties getting all of the unwanted material off of the belt which to him seems to be moving impossibly quickly. Sandy, the woman who is training him informs him that this is the slowest line in the plant. But the real revelation comes when a piece of cardboard that "Randy" apparently missed jams a machine and they are forced to take their half hour lunch break early. "Randy" is shocked when Sandy suddenly bolts for the door in the middle of a conversation. The machine breakdown is lasting longer than the 30 minutes of their break and she has to clock in so as not to clock in late. The local plant manager has instituted a policy that docks an employee two minutes pay for every minute they are late clocking in.

The next working Day, "Randy" is relocated to Pompano Beach Florida where he works picking up trash that's blowing around at a landfill. His boss there is Walter, a man has little patience for able bodied workers who can't measure up to his standards – in this case filling a bag with scrap paper every ten minutes. At lunch "Randy" learns that Walter is on dialysis but is still able to do his job. Randy hadn't been able to measure up before lunch and isn't able to after lunch. Walter Fires him, which according to O'Donnell is the first time anyone has ever fired him from a job.

And so it goes. One day "Randy" is in Rochester, New York meeting Jaclyn, a woman who has one official job and several other posts that she's unofficially filling and is still in danger of losing her house. The next day he's cleaning portable toilets at a fair in Houston (where Waste Management's corporate headquarters is located) with Fred, a man who is extremely cheerful in his work despite the nature of the job.

Maybe the most eye-opening event for "Randy" comes on the final day when he works on a garbage collection truck with Janice, again in Syracuse. She has a bit of a grudge with "corporate" because of productivity targets that O'Donnell himself had put in place. The implementation of these policies includes supervisors who check up on how fast the collection trucks accomplish the requirement of collecting from 300 homes per day. Feeling under pressure to complete the requirements which she feels doesn't take her gender into account she resorts to peeing in a tin can rather than taking normal restroom breaks. Still, she manages to develop relationships with various customers along the route. Most touching for O'Donnell is when he meets a mentally challenged woman who has written a poem for Janice.

At the end of the week, O'Donnell retires the "Randy Lawrence" identity and reveals himself to the people that he worked with, who have no idea why they have been brought to Houston. There are no really big changes that O'Donnell makes from his time in the field although the show tries to make it seem like there are. He personally takes the manager of the plant in Syracuse to task for the docking policy that had Sandy so worried, and he arranges for Walter to have extra time off so that he can work with other dialysis patients. Indeed it is later revealed that Walter has become a health mentor within the company. He compliments Fred on his attitude and arranges for him to address senior managers He makes Jacklyn a supervisor – her first task is to hire two people to fill the jobs that she previously held, and arranged for her to be given salary status and eligibility for bonuses. Finally he explains to Janice that he empathises with her concerns over the productivity quotas and promises to work with her to help improve conditions for female workers within the company. Most of this is still ongoing, although Fred has left Waste Management to work in a hospital.

I have a lot of problems with this show. For example I don't know why the various plants in different parts of the country were chosen for this show. Was it because the producers pre-screened the various facilities within the company – which is not only across the United States but is very important within Canada – for various conflicts, or did they follow the idea that you can find a story anywhere. What would have happened if everywhere that O'Donnell had gone was full of happy employees who loved their jobs just the way they were without any complaints at all? Obviously that wasn't going to happen simply because the concepts put forward by corporate headquarters are put into real terms by the local managers like the guy in Syracuse who decided that clocking in a minute late would mean being docked two minutes pay. (Indeed the Syracuse operation seems to have huge problems with management since that was the same operation where Janice was concerned about supervisors following her truck to make sure she accomplished the productivity goals.)

Setting aside that however are two concerns. First of all Lawrence O'Donnell seems like an essentially good guy who is concerned with his company and his employees. There are things that are wrong with the company but it's not so much that O'Donnell is deliberately creating a hostile work environment so much as the fact that the policies are sound ideas that are being applied locally in a way that isn't sensitive to either the employees or what corporate headquarters is trying to implement. O'Donnell isn't the sort of guy that the voice-over that introduces the show is talking about. It might be interested in seeing a boss who really isn't so concerned with what's going on down the line within his company seeing how their policies were affecting employees, but of course such a CEO would never appear on a show like this. The other major thing I was hoping to see was O'Donnell making sweeping changes within his company; that seeing up close the sort of things that were going on would lead to big changes within Waste Management's corporate culture. That didn't happen. With respect to the people who were "Randy's" bosses, the changes that O'Donnell implemented were to a large degree very personal to them. It was great that Jacklyn was put on salary and given a better position in Syracuse but it doesn't do a lot for some man or woman in a different plant who is filling a number of jobs "unofficially" and is only being paid for their "official" job. The only areas where there are opportunities for real change come in Sandy and Janice's stories, both of which seem to reflect some of the worst attributes of efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth's time and motion studies. In the case of Sandy's story it is apparent that there is a need to clarify policy regarding docking pay for clocking in late since the one manager took it in a different direction than O'Donnell intended for them to go. In the case of Janice, her story is more far reaching if it does change the way that the productivity goals are implemented and perhaps makes things better for lower level female workers.

In the end Undercover Boss lacks many of the qualities that I would like to see in this sort of reality show. There is little in the way of conflict; far less than on shows like Supernanny, Wife Swap or even Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (okay, I only watch the last of these). At the same time, in O'Donnell at least you have a boss who wants to change what is wrong, but the changes that this experience allows him to make are at best minor and "local" rather than "global." For the most part change for specific individuals that he met while he was "Randy" rather changes to the way that the company works overall. Add onto that some questions about the way that locations and people that he would be working with were selected and the show becomes less than a success for me. It certainly didn't deserve the post-Super Bowl slot (I'd have put the first episode of the new season of The Amazing Race but by now you know that The Race is my favourite reality show and high on the list of my TV shows overall, so I'm a bit prejudiced). The show was competently done for what it was, but between the lack of real conflict and the absence of real, significant change this show really doesn't do it for me. Instead of running it on Sundays after The Amazing Race CBS should have saved it for the summer. It earns too much of a "Meh" from me to be on at such an important time on Sunday nights.