If It Weren’t For Bad Luck I’d Have No Luck At All…

Hee Haw! It’s official! I have the worst luck!

Darrel's rating from Poker Luck Meter

According to their analysis of 1,600+ Texas Hold-‘Em hands I played in both tournament and ring games at Full Tilt Poker over a period of three months, Poker Luck Meter says that my luck was at “0% – The bottom 1% of worst possible luck.” The kind of luck where, despite the fact that I got back-to-back four-of-a-kind hands the other night, I still lost the tournament. So I guess it’s fortunate that I haven’t had the kind of bankroll that might lead one to become a professional poker player — I’d only last about ten minutes, according to this.

I have not yet found a tool to analyze the rest of my life.

Trivial Omen

Vijay Balse, the leader of the first of two games in the final round of Jeopardy!‘s 2010 Tournament of Champions last night said in his mini-interview with Alex Trebeck last night that it took him six tryouts over a period of sixteen years to finally get picked to compete. So far I’ve only tried out four times including my first attempt about this time of the year in 1996 while I was in Los Angeles visiting my brother and proofing the first (and only) edition of my book on Shockwave, so perhaps there’s still time.

Last week I got an email from Ken Jennings — the winningist person in Jeopardy! history — in response to something I’d sent him. That’s gotta be a good omen, right? I mean, if you’re inclined to believe in omens.

The Last Eliot Scholar

Holding my diploma, 20 May 1990

My graduation from college twenty years ago today was a journey fraught with tragedy and comedy, which apparently was my preparation for the past two decades, as a college education should be.

Despite a propensity to slough off my homework, I’d started college early. Mom worked as a quality control chemist and one of her colleagues was teaching in the summer program at Lane Community College. I don’t remember the particulars of how I ended up the first two sections of a basic chemistry course the summer after my freshman year of high school (I can only assume that Mom suggested it because I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise) but I do know that I felt pretty cool spending several hours a day at LCC as a kid among people making up credits or taking requirements for the programs they were entering in the fall. By the beginning of my senior year of high school, I had a full year of college chemistry (with a B average) under my transcript.

But as with so many other things, follow-through wasn’t my strong suit. My senior year in high school was an emotional roller-coaster, and despite inquiries from places like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and MIT, I never followed-up, presuming that a) there was no way I could afford to go there and b) there was no way they were going to offer me a scholarship (see above regarding homework).

I’d wanted to be a sci-fi writer for years, and I’d had a short article professionally published already, but figured I needed some sort of job to actually make money. I was interested in computers. I’d been messing around with them since the summer of my first chemistry class, when I’d stop in downtown Eugene after school and hang out at a new shop called The Real Oregon Computer Company. My aptitude tests pointed me to engineering and sciences (except for an outlier that said I should be a music instructor). So I applied to and was accepted at Oregon State University — where my parents met — in the Electrical & Computer Engineering department. I’d started a part-time job at Gandalf’s Den bookstore in the spring of my senior year of high school; they’d opened up a branch in Corvallis at the Old World Center in downtown, and I was able to earn some money there while I was living in the Beaver Lodge co-op, the least-expensive of the school-approved housing facilities that all freshmen not married or living at home had to stay in. (Is a big house with thirty guys in bunks in a third-floor sleeping porch what came to mind when you read co-op?) Unfortunately, the Corvallis store was probably a bad idea from the start and it was sold to a new owner by Christmas break. I was still moping and upset from the previous year but a girl I knew from high school and I had gotten involved and I wanted to be back in Eugene where she and my few other friends were. I made plans to move back home and switch to the Computer & Information Science department at the University of Oregon for the Spring term. I told my buddy Jon Pitchford that I was moving back to town and he told me he’d just signed up for six years in the Navy. My girlfriend broke up with me on Valentine’s Day.

That early period back in Eugene for me is sort of a blur. I know I went to classes — at least most of them — but I kept falling asleep in even the classes where I usually did well. One name that stuck with me was my discrete math teacher, Sergey Yuzvinsky, who had a most enjoyable accent that I have imitated for thirty years (according to his web page, I must have had him just after he arrived at the university and he’s still at the UofO). Gandalf’s hired me back at the Eugene shop. I met someone — who I’d be with for most of the next four years — in the fall.

The C&IS program of 1980 was a very different world than programming today. At both OSU and the UofO when I first started we were writing lines in FORTRAN or COBOL onto punch cards, turning stacks of cards over to people at windows in the computing center for batch processing, then going off for hours or overnight to bite our nails and hope that we hadn’t made any typos or logical errors. The UofO installed interactive teletype machines in the computing center the first year I was there, which made a world of difference just in the speed at which you could refine and expand a program. Then, a few of us underclassmen discovered the Terak in the basement of Prince Lucien Campbell Hall that was supposed to be for grad students. Instead of a noisy, clattering teletype that shared processing power with everyone else and printed graphics that took minutes to update, just a whirring of disk drives and fans with video.

Problem was, I tested well but I was still a crappy student. I was getting better — or at least I was failing fewer of my courses — but an interest in Japanese culture, a failure to study hard, and a spotty record my first couple of years of real college added up to a perfect storm of academic disqualification when I got an “Incomplete” in the first semester of a Japanese language course I wanted to take. Six credits of failure in one semester and I was out.

By that point in 1982 I was flailing. I didn’t have any money, my folks had been paying for all my school expenses, my bookstore job wasn’t exactly lucrative, I was living with my girlfriend. The economy was going south and my boss was trying to sell the bookstore to us for sweat equity (while keeping the then-profitable game distribution portion of the business for himself). A transcript that had started off as a teen chemistry geek had turned into a formless, useless, 20-year-old. I needed to put some shine on the turd.

Reading aloud had always been fun for me and even as a young man I’d gotten lots of comments on my voice. I don’t know why, because it’s not what you’d think of as a classic phone or radio voice; I sang first tenor in choir, I’d far prefer to have something deep and resonant. So when I looked over the catalog for Lane Community College again, I picked the Mass Communication department. It was fun and interesting. I took a few courses in audio production (I know how to splice tape!), some advertising theory, and a class in electronic music that let me get my hands on an ARP 2600 synthesizer. It wasn’t a four-year degree program, but it was the road to recovery. At least that’s what I thought.

By 1983, the economy had really sunk into the tank. Dad had been hired a couple years earlier as a business agent by the machinists union after serving for most of the ’70s as a local president but so many people lost their jobs that the union laid him off. My brother — who wasn’t just smart but was also popular and a hard worker — had graduated high school as a valedictorian and headed off to college with some savings from summer jobs, scholarships, and financial aid, but he was at Reed College and while it wasn’t charging then what it’s charging now it still wasn’t cheap. I don’t think I ever asked if my folks were helping him out the way they were with me, but I assumed they were. I’d lost my job when my boss finally found someone to buy the Eugene store, which led to a two-year period of unemployment. There just wasn’t a lot of demand for the surplus of moderately-educated young men in Eugene. At that point, I couldn’t see how I could justify staying in school; I was leaching off my folks for living expenses already (not to mention the fallout from the Eucon debacle). I’d come full-circle to LCC. That was the end of it.

Several years passed. The relationship broke up. I worked briefly for a national electronics chain, a Commodore business computer shop that never sold anything, and six months in a convenience store. Then I got back into the book business through the back door at F.C. Himber & Son, who had expanded their grocery store book and magazine distributorship into paperbacks, trade paper and hardcover books for bookstores. My job was low on the totem pole, opening boxes of books, counting and checking them against the packing lists, handling returns, pulling orders when there wasn’t anyone else to do it. Only part-time at first, but it was back working with books. Meanwhile, I started to pick up some after-hours volunteer slots at KRVM-FM, the radio station owned by the 4J school district, and was getting tickets to a variety of music events around town.

In early 1986, my folks passed me the AMC Pacer my father had used for a work car before he was hired back by the Machinists. I started travelling up to Portland for some shows. About the only person I knew there — who wasn’t my grandmother or an aunt or uncle — was Barbara, who I only really knew through the monthly parties at John Varley‘s house. I’d always thought she was pretty entertaining and funny, and when she expressed an interest in accompanying me to punk rock shows at places like Satyricon I was more than happy to have the company.

Looking back on it it’s almost incredible to me how quickly things progressed. Barbara and I hadn’t so much as kissed before June; sometime in the next couple of months I was busily engaged in re-applying to college. And not just any college, but one with a reputation for academic rigor that was at odds with my previous scholastic record. The girl who’d dumped me on Valentine’s Day six years earlier graduated from Reed (although I didn’t know it at the time). My brother had done three years at Reed and moved on to vet school (and wrote me a very nice recommendation letter for my application, making me a legacy of my younger sibling). Reed didn’t have a computer program, but it was an Apple University Consortium school with one of the earliest campus computer networks (in part because of its association with Steve Jobs) and I had seen some of the graphics possibilities of the early Macintosh computers. I’d also decided to go into English, and I figured at least an English degree from Reed ought to command slightly more respect.

At the time, the college had a program called the Eliot Scholarship, which paid two-thirds the cost of two units of classes for a student over the age of 25 with no undergraduate degree. It was a trial — either two classes in one semester or one class in two semesters — after which the college and the student could decide whether or not to continue the relationship under normal circumstances. I didn’t turn 25 until December of that year, but I got my application and transcripts in order for entry in January. For some reason they (specifically, the scholarship administrator, Toinette Menashe) let me in.

Almost nothing from my transcripts transferred. Most of it didn’t have any equivalent at Reed. My PE credits, a couple of math courses, and the year of chemistry I’d taken while I was still in high school and that was about it. I’d been in college full-time for almost three years by 1983, but at the beginning of 1987 I was somewhere in the middle of my freshman year.

I started off with what was ostensibly a math class but which was actually a foray into compiler language theory taught by an instructor in from Oregon Graduate Institute. It was a far cry from the basic programming classes I’d taken seven years before and I doubt I did very well even if I hadn’t been in a class with brilliant kids like Tyler Morrison and Scott Quinn, who were working on Rascal (Real time Pascal), a language developed in Prof. Richard Crandall‘s Software Development Lab (Crandall was also Chief Scientist at Jobs’s NeXT Computer and is an Apple Distinguished Scientist). Within a couple of months I’d started working at Powell’s Books (Himber’s was one of their suppliers at the time, and the company was a lot smaller, so some of the people there were familiar with me). I worked as a “terminal watcher” at Reed, helping people with questions about the computers in the labs. In the fall I took my first semester of the freshman humanities course. I started as a full-time student at the beginning of 1998.

Barbara’s mother died that fall. She quit the law and went to work as a used book buyer at Powell’s, then returned to college herself. I spent the next two summers at Portland State University fulfilling language requirements. My proposal for a creative thesis (essentially the plot for the Robin Williams movie Man of the Year) was shot down, so I wrote my senior thesis on Shakespeare. We searched for and bought a house that year. I defended my thesis and I was through.

My father’s step-father died in early May 1990 and we buried him the week before my graduation, which was held outside on the Reed lawn as tradition demands, in a downpour. Every so often, some portion of the tent over the seats would spill over and dump cold water on the folks listening to Oregon Symphony conductor James DePriest‘s commencement speech.

After the ceremony, everyone was supposed to meet Barbara and me by the flagpole, but apparently this info didn’t get communicated to the peeps. Nor was anyone in much of a rush to congratulate me for finally graduating, because we were waiting by the pole for quite a while while everyone else was scarfing down food in the reception tent. We did finally catch up with people, which is when the photo above was taken. Then we headed home to finish cleaning out our rental house, because graduation day was the last day we had to move out before the new owner took possession.

And that’s the story of The Last Eliot Scholar. At least, the last one to graduate. A few others came after me — one, another Powell’s employee, to whom even I gave a recommendation — but Toinette told me some time later that the program had lost its funding, and that I was the final student to enter through the program and graduate.

It’s been an odd twenty years since. There’s a reunion coming up in two weeks. I’m both interested and apprehensive about going. What’s that say about me?

The Big Bucks

Ever wondered how much you’d make if you ran ads on your blog or web page? I set up Google AdSense on the right there back in March of 2007. As of the end of April 2010, the total earnings were $80.88. The best month I had in May 2007 brought in $9.28. September 2008 got me $0.08. Meanwhile, I’ve had ads for things like Ann Coulter books running next to my deathless prose.

Is it worth it?


At least momentarily, I can comment again at Bogdanski’s site [apparently, I spoke too soon, I was able to post a comment but he yanked it within a half hour], and a post about the evil anti-business practices of Portland made me give it a shot caught my attention.

At the heart was a segment from an NPR call-in show suggesting that someone interested in moving to Oregon from Utah should avoid the Portland area and head to Salem because of the bad economy here.

No dispute about that from me (I’m coming up on three years of looking for a job) but the commenters went off like a pack of baying hounds about how “Portland is out of control and very unfriendly to business” based on the interviewee’s statement that “Portland is also highly regulated,” which has led to its poor economy.

The idea that Salem or anywhere else in the state that lets you “avoid the Portland-Vancouver, Washington area” is better economically isn’t backed up by many facts.

Oregon’s official overall unemployment rate in March 2010 was 10.6% (compared to 9.7% across the country). Portland metro was 10.7%, but Salem metro is only marginally better, at 10.2%. The advantage Salem has over Portland is equal to the advantage a randomly-chosen place somewhere in the country is likely to have over Salem. Eugene-Springfield is tied with Portland. Medford’s more than a point higher (11.7%) and Bend’s at 13.3%. The only metro area in the state that looks decent is Corvallis, at 7.6%.

And if anyone had done any checking, they would have figured out that Vancouver is what’s dragging the Portland metro figures up. The Portland-Vancouver Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is made up of Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington, Yamhill, and Columbia counties in Oregon and Clark and Skamania counties in Washington. You’d think that anyone informed about the local economy would know that the situation on the north side of the river has been dicier than in Portland proper for several years, but let’s take a look at the unemployment rates and the size of the workforce those rates are calculated on.

Multnomah County: 10.1% (392K civilian labor force). Clackamas County: 10.4% (203K). Washington County: 9.0% (291K). Yamhill County is right at 10.6% (49K). To get an average of 10.6% from those counties would be rather difficult, Yamhill would have to have a hell of a lot of people, but in reality just the opposite is true. The most populous counties have rates of unemployment lower than the average for the MSA.

Columbia County’s unemployment rate is 12.1% (25K), but its workforce is 1/10th that of Clackamas County alone. It doesn’t have enough people to bring up the average.

However, Skamania (5K) and Clark (222K) counties are running unemployment rates well over any of the Oregon counties in the MSA, both are at 14.6% in March, and Clark is big enough that it can affect the average unemployment rate for the MSA.

I don’t expect this argument to have any effect on the knee-jerk idealogues, but the truth of the matter is that as bad as Portland’s economy is, the problem across the river — in another state, that’s not “highly-regulated” — is a lot more severe. If people were honest about it, they’d have to find some other explanation.

A Guy, a Gal, And a Lizard

Frank Frazetta's art for 'Princess of Mars'

My high school years in the late ’70s were in a number of ways dominated by two Franks, one of whom died just the other day.

The Frank who had the greater impact on my life passed on nearly two decades back. I listened constantly to Frank Zappa in my teen years, saw him in concert on his infrequent trips to Oregon in the ’80s (I think he’s the only act I’ve seen in two different cities on consecutive nights), and have a pretty complete collection of his original pre-mortem vinyl LPs. A lot of material has been released since his death that I don’t have, and I haven’t converted (or bought CDs of) what I already own, so I really haven’t listened to any of it for a a long while, but even with my leaky memory I can recall big sections of lyrics. Zappa lives on in some ways in the Zappa Plays Zappa neverending tour, with Frank’s son Dweezil taking on the mantle (coming to Roseland here in Portland on 13 June).

The Frank who died this week was more of a backdrop in my youth. Hanging out in and then working at a sci-fi/fantasy bookshop from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s, I was there for the rise of Frank Frazetta, whose work seemed to be on the cover of every other book (all the other books had artwork by The Brothers Hildebrandt) and whose collection The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta was on whatever passed for a coffee table in the home of every geeky guy in town.

Later trends in cover art would evolve toward a photo-realism where you could see the slime and sheen on the bodies of the creatures slain by/ridden by/copulating with the heroes on the cover, but Frazetta’s work had a rough, textured feel to it that most of the time perfectly evoked the prose within. He was hugely popular, making the leap from covers of DAW Book reprints of Robert E. Howard’s Princess of Mars (above) to the sleeves of top-selling albums for bands like Molly Hatchet (although he had done the poster art for the movie What’s New, Pussycat? in the mid-60s). Sure, it could be formulaic (a guy with some sort of big weapon; a barely-clad woman, chained or clinging at his feet; some sort of creature, the lizardier the better) but then again it matches the material within.

Here’s a shout-out to all you big-thewed warriors!

On Miranda

On Miranda

What I don’t get about this whole argument about whether terrorists or other criminals should be “Miranda-ized” is that the act of “reading someone their rights” isn’t what confers those rights upon them. The Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and for counsel exist whether the suspect is told of them or not.

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

There’s nothing in there about “unless we don’t tell you about this part of the Constitution.” These are rights that are supposed to be conferred on anyone involved in the American legal system, apart from the exceptions described in the amendment. Despite the eagerness for a regime oftorture and beatings of suspects, the act of informing them of their rights makes no actual change in their legal status; it’s the suspect’s knowing assent to incriminate themself or to act without counsel that affects that status.

The huffing and puffing about whether law enforcement should have to let them know they have those rights is only going to taint an enormous amount of prosecution evidence going forward. Assuming, of course, that we keep the Fifth Amendment around.


“I will come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”

Mother’s Day

Mom from the early '60s

Memory is a freakish thing. Barbara’s memories of her life are crystalline and she can bring up images from her childhood with crazy detail. My own are — much to my dismay, particularly as I get older — amorphous as a mist, leaving just a dew of feeling at times, with occasional hints of shadows hidden just beyond true sight. I wish I had the clarity of recall that she has; I know there are a lot of things for which I owe my mother that I will never remember, but even the things I do remember are a pretty long list.