Sunday, September 30, 2007

MasterJ Wins

TheMasterJ33 won the Ultimate Bet Sunday event for 45k tonight. I have spent more time discussing poker tournament strategy with MasterJ than anyone else, though our styles are pretty different. I was really fired up to see him take this one down after Pi and I both busted from the gargantuan WCOOP main event shortly before the money.

I have been playing excellent poker lately, particularly in shorthanded cash games. EPT Baden is on October 7th.

September Top 15

15. Gillian Welch - I Had a Real Good Mother and Father
14. Doves - Some Cities
13. Nada Surf - Blankest Year
12. Gillian Welch - Wayside / Back in Time
11. The Walkmen - We've Been Had

10. Travis - Under the Moonlight
9. Franz Ferdinand - Jacqueline
8. Mama Cass Elliot - Make Your Own Kind of Music
7. Queen - I Want To Break Free
6. Oasis - (It's Good) To Be Free

5. Cornershop - It's Good To Be On the Road Back Home
4. Mika - Love Today
3. Oasis - Half the World Away
2. Audioslave - Doesn't Remind Me

Song of the Month: Ray LaMontagne - Empty

Friday, September 28, 2007


Reid and Nate arrived in Barcelona in early September, and Stefan flew in on the 7th. Oktoberfest, which started on Sept 22, was the only thing we knew we wanted to do. Nate had a flight to Mumbai early on the 20th, so we had about twelve days to spend. At first we had sort of planned on doing stuff in Spain, probably finding a house on the beach or something. But we got to talking and decided to go to Morocco. It made sense for everyone's priorities.

The crew consisted of
Nate, longtime friend of Reid and mine, investment banker. Nate spent the last two years working 80 hour weeks at JP Morgan in New York, and was now decompressing. He and Reid biked across Europe starting in Sweden and ending in Spain. Nate is fairly adventurous, outgoing, and always looking for stories to tell. Nate is a resilient traveler and can handle just about any situation, unlikeme. I am a real finicky, whiny traveler. I need everything to be just right when I sleep. I don't really like roughing it too much. Throughout the trip there was a constant struggle between those who wanted to spend money on things like food and accommodation and those who did not. Stefan was pretty similar to me although a little more frugal. Nate liked to spend money on things but had no problem with sparse accommodations.
Reid was always trying to keep it minimalist, organic, authentic, and dirt-cheap. Reid and I are old friends, we get along fantastically, but we both got frustrated with the other on this trip. That's one of the things about traveling, is differences really come out and there's no way to avoid them. After biking through Europe and the Moroccan adventure, Reid has moved to a Spanish farm to work for a month or so. He is trying to figure out what he wants to do with himself when he returns home...if he returns.
Stefan is a lot like me, I like to think. He is always working on some small-business scheme, currently environmental business related journalism/blogging. Like me, Stefan enjoys a little adventuring, but not without basic comforts, leisure, and fun activity.

We took a flight from Barcelona to Casablanca on the 17th, then hopped on a train to the main station, then got on "The Marrakech Express" evening train. This train was packed. There were no available seats, so we stood up or sat on our bags. The train was about four hours to Marrakech. Stefan, who had been up for something like thirty hours straight having flown from Maine to Barcelona, wasn't too thrilled about this situation. "Definitely not like the song," he said and shook his head.

On the train we met a magical man named Adil, who seemingly popped right out of Aladdin's Lamp onto that train.
When not doing Osama impressions, Adil actually looks like this:
Adil is one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met, a cultured and thoughtful fellow who has traveled all around the world. A native Moroccan, Adil speaks Arabic, French, and English fluently. In Morocco, everyone speaks Arabic and French and very few people speak English. In tourist areas they usually know enough English to make things manageable. When we were with Adil, life was a lot easier. Almost every purchase in Morocco is bartered. It gets exasperating haggling over every single cab ride, meal, etc, and you always feel like you're getting ripped off. When we were with Adil, he did all the talking and arrangements and everything turned out well.

But Adil was so much more than a guide. We actually got into a pretty deep conversation on the train about all sorts of things relating to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At the end, after he helped us find a hotel, we exchanged contact info and I hoped we would see more of him.
We ate a late dinner, which was our first taste of Moroccan food (delicious), culture (very friendly), hospitality (always willing to sacrifice for the money-spender), and prices (very cheap). It was funny, everything was really cheap compared to the US or Europe, and you always feel like you're getting ripped off. I pay five times as much here in Austria, and I always feel like I'm getting a fair deal.

Somehow, Reid and I decided to go to a trendy club that night. Not the two dudes you would expect to see roll into that place but the bouncers were rather undiscerning. The scene was pretty comical - a mix of European tourists and rich Arabs. Everything was hilariously overpriced, especially for Morocco, but the DJ was superb and we danced a pretty decent amount. I hadn't enjoyed dancing like that since I won the dance-off championship in college. It's funny, I really don't care to dance 90% of the time but sometimes I randomly get the bug and really enjoy it.

We spent the next day eating breakfast (again tasty and cheap) and finding a place to stay the next few days. Marrakech is a busy, fairly modern city in central Morocco.
It is the largest inland city in the country. There is a city to the northeast called Fes which is somewhat legendary for its culture and medieval architecture. Along with Fes and a coastal city Essaouira, Marrakech probably has the best reputation of the Moroccan cities.

Reid and Nate wound up finding a great, roomy apartment for a low price. Stefan and I followed Reid and Nate to it in the hot sun that afternoon (90 degrees fahrenheit was a standard high for Marrakech at that time) when Nate suddenly asked Reid if he had the keys to the place, which Nate and Reid couldn't seem to find. Reid said no. The transaction had been paid in cash, all up front. It appeared we had been duped.

These things kept happening throughout the trip, where we'd find something that just seemed too good to be true. I was always asking myself, what's the catch? This was a great hoax by Reid and Nate, because you're always asking that question, what's the catch? Nate pulled the keys out of his pocket and we went in to the really nice apartment. I slowly learned, there really is no catch. You generally can take these sort of deals at face value, and typically, there is no trick, no mirage, no one trying to screw you.

It's not paradise or anything. Some of the major issues:
  • Women are second-class citizens, simple as that. In public, you basically do not see Muslim women. The cafes and restaurants are filled with men only. Women are not treated poorly, or openly insulted, or anything like that. A woman can go out and do anything a man would do, and probably not get any flack for it. It's just standard for Muslim women to stay in the home all day. I meant to talk to Adil more about this but we never did. I don't think a woman would ever have a problem traveling in Morocco, but she might feel uncomfortable because society is completely dominated by men.
  • As I would later find out, you can get sick. Really sick.
  • It's not really a logical place to travel unless you speak French or Arabic.
  • Everyone wants your money. They might try to pretend to be your friend, but in the end, everyone (except for the wondrous Adil) wants your money
We settled into the apartment and enjoyed the Marrakech sunset.

That night we called Adil and he came and met us. I was a bit surprised Adil wanted to hang out with us - we were just four tourists and he was a complete baller.

First we took a look at a Mosque built in the 13th century.

Then we went to the souk in Marrakech, which was teeming with activity. The sellers were really aggressive and the bargaining was fierce. Eventually we decided on a place to eat and ate a big, good meal. Standard Moroccan cuisine is lamb, chicken, beef, couscous, and tagine. The other guys got pretty obsessed with tagine (which they called tan-jeen) and ate it most nights. Stefan started referring to every meal as "tan-jeen." There is also a lot of bread, olives, tea, and readily available, cheap, fresh-squeezed orange juice.

The next day the boys went back to the souk while I rested in the apartment. I had picked up a cold in Barcelona and it was at its peak. With a trip to the mountains looming the next day, I decided my afternoon would be best spent resting rather than navigating the chaos of Marrakech in the sun. Everyone reported it was really wild, much crazier than the night before. I really wished I had seen it - apparently it was a sight to behold.
Early the next morning we met Adil at a bus station, ate a quick breakfast (hard-boiled eggs were eaten, which Nate thought may have started it all)and took a cab to Imlil.
Along the way we passed several small towns and villages. Most appeared pretty poor but not desperate or dangerous.We arrived in Imlil around 10:30 AM.
Imlil is a spectacular village in the Atlas mountains and the base for many treks. It is a tourist town but also a mountain town. Adil soon found us, Ibrahim, a guide, hotel owner, and outfitter. Ibrahim equipped us with some gear, a mule, and a guide named Mohammed. Mohammed is on the left with Reid and Ibrahim is in the middle.
These fellows were mountain men. Both had lived in Imlil most or all of their lives. Mohammed takes people up Jbel Toubkal three times a week or something during the season. I like climbing peaks and all but it was a little startling for me to think about having the mountains be your job. I try to imagine that job and it's difficult - what would it be like to hike five days a week? To climb the same mountain more than a hundred times?

The mountain, the reason most people come to Imlil, is Jbel Toubkal. Toubkal is the highest mountain in Morocco, the Atlas mountains, and North Africa. It rises 4,167 meters above sea level (13,671 feet). It is about 7,500 vertical feet above Imlil, which made it the biggest climb I had ever attempted in terms of vertical gain. I was really fired up to climb it, and just got more and more excited after we got to Imlil. The peaks rose dramatically above, giants soaring into and above the clouds. I had never seen mountains this big in person.
Starting the climb in Imlil was really cool. For one, it's exciting and epic to start climbing a mountain from a town rather than a trailhead/parking lot. For another, Imlil is such a stunning place.
Mohammed loaded the mule up and we were off. We talked a lot about what it would be like to be that mule, but didn't come to any conclusions. Mules aren't exactly the most expressive of beasts. Apparently there is a lot of mistreatment of these animals. I don't really know if this one was mistreated or not. Mohammed wasn't whipping it excessively or anything, but no one asked the mule if it was having fun, either. It sure carried a lot of weight.
The trail was excellent, one of the best I've ever hiked. With the mule carrying all the packs, the hiking was easy and very enjoyable. I was blowing a lot of snot out of my head but felt pretty invigorated. The weather started out sunny, but soon we were in the clouds. We didn't have long views of the monstrous mountains, but the clouds gave the hike an enchanting, epic feel.
About three miles up we reached an outpost (read: tourist trap) and sat down for a quick meal.
At this outpost, Reid filled a water bottle. Later, I drank most of it. There is a good chance this is where my troubles began.

A couple more miles up the trail there was a spectacular moment when the sun suddenly burst through the clouds and illuminated some high peaks, still far above us.
We reached the Neltner Refuge not long before dark.

The refuge was like something out of a movie - and in fact, it was used in the Martin Scorsese movie Kundun.
Upon closer inspection, it was a French Alpine club hut with running water, toilets, and tons of beds. Its outside appearance was the stuff of legends, Hollywood, fantasy novels; its inside appearance was frustratingly comforting.

Mohammed cooked us a tagine dinner and we went to bed early. I was in high spirits when we went to bed. Stefan was thrashing about, then the snoring started, then Stefan left the room to try to sleep in the dining area, and I was holding back laughter. But two hours later, I was still nowhere near sleep, I was having a hard time breathing in the high altitude and with my nose clogged, the snoring reached deafening levels, and I too made a break for the dining room. There I struggled with a leaky faucet in the nearby bathroom which was haunting me, then eventually found some sleep.

I woke up in the middle of the night and my only thought was, why did I wake up? I realized I had to poop. Not really a big concern - I hadn't taken a regular crap since we'd gotten to Morocco, and the bowels were always in flux. But when I woke up again later that night, again needing to poop, I knew I might have a problem.

We got up really early in the morning. I felt terrible and nauseous. The other guys ate breakfast while I watched and then we got going. You could see Toubkal from the refuge, 3000 feet above.

It was a rough ascent. I pooped seven times that morning. I often thought I was going to vomit, but I never did. I was moving very slowly and I knew it frustrated the others. It was a day where if I was home I would just alternate between the toilet and the couch all day. I had no business climbing that damn mountain but I hadn't come all that way for nothing. Toubkal was such an epic mountain and we had come so far, I had to have it.

It seemed to take forever but eventually we got out of this gully to a saddle where we could see the top again.

The Atlas mountains look like a bigger version of the basin and range stuff between the Rockies and the Sierras. Craggy, rocky, desert mountains.

After another hour or so, several false summits, a few near-upchucks, and a lot of deep breaths, we made it to the summit.

We could see all the way down to Imlil.

I started feeling a little better on top. I ate a little food, drank a little water, and took a nap. When I woke up, it was time to go down.
The descent was pretty spectacular, especially since I was feeling better. Mohammed took us down a different, steeper route. He glided down the mountain like a skiing mountain goat.
I'll blow this one up as big as I can and frame it in my house:
We actually caught sight of snow, in Africa, in September. I wondered if there was any other snow on the continent at that time.

It wasn't too long before we got back to the refuge.

We ate some more tagine at the refuge, then headed back down. I was expecting it to be pretty tedious and exhausting, but the trail was so good that we just cruised right down. The mule can't be underestimated either.

We got to Imlil at dusk and snaked through the town to Ibrahim's hotel. He served a gigantic plate of couscous and tagine. We ate, Nate beat me in chess (he beat me 8 of 12 on the trip) and went to sleep.

We rose very early the next morning and followed Ibrahim in the moonlight through the winding, dirt streets of Imlil to the edge of town. There we caught a cab back to Marrakech. Adil went to work at the airport where he was doing an engineering job.

We took a cab to Agadir, a large city on the Atlantic coast. Taxis are the primary form of transportation in Morocco, even for four-hour trips like this one. After some confusion, bickering, and a pointless bus ride through Agadir, we stumbled upon an English-speaking rental car agent who was more than happy to drive us to the nearby fishing/surf village Taghazoute and find us a hotel, for a small fee plus whatever he skimmed off the top during the hotel deal.

We didn't do a whole lot in Taghazoute. Nate and I tried to go surfing a couple times, but the winds weren't right. I spent a lot of time on the beach, listening to music while watching the sun go down.
Taghazoute was pretty quiet because it was the surf off-season. Our time there passed quickly, with few memorable experiences bad or good.Ramadan started while we were in Taghazoute. It wasn't as big a deal as I was expecting. For the most part, it seemed to be business as usual for the Muslims. On the last day, we decided to fast and then cook fish tagine at night. The fasting was surprisingly easy. I didn't really think about it much and then it was night. Reid and the landlord he had befriended cooked fish tagine and we ate it for dinner that night. I haven't eaten fish since.

The next day we took a bus to the big station in Agadir.
While getting off the bus, my wallet was snatched from my pocket. The amazing thing about the whole operation is I knew exactly what was going on as it happened, and they still pulled it off. We came into the stop and a few guys got on the back where we were. They just sort of stood around waiting on the back of the bus, which seemed a little odd because there were plenty of open seats. I didn't think much of it at the time though. We stood up, put our packs on and started to move off the bus, passing by and through the guys. I felt a tugging at my pocket. When I reached down and felt my pocket, the bulge where my wallet should be was gone. I had about one second at this point to decide what to do. In retrospect, my best move at this point would have been to make a giant commotion, alert the bus driver, and yell at the boys to not let anyone off the bus. Instead, I grabbed the guy from the pack who was closest to me. I patted him down briefly and asked if he had my wallet. Nothing that had any chance of saving the day, unless he had my wallet in an obvious place. I think what probably happened is this guy or one of his cronies snatched the wallet and then they passed it down the line on the bus. It was definitely a team operation, it was well-orchestrated, and I'm sure it's been done many times by that crew. The guy I was accosting shuffled off the bus and I followed him down the street. I had no idea what to do. I frisked him again kind of halfheartedly. I felt like such an asshole, some American douche frisking and yelling at this Moroccan guy on the street not really knowing if he had my wallet or not. Based on his reaction, getting off the bus, he must have been involved but what could I really do about it? It was a helpless situation.

In Agadir, we slowly and painfully procured a bus that was headed to Casablanca, where we had a flight the next morning. It was a six-hour ride. Around hour two, I started feeling crummy. At three and a half hours, the bus stopped in a town for dinner. I ate a piece of bread and drank a coke. At hour five, I was getting desperate. I had to poop very, very badly. I won't go into them but I was working out potential strategies for excreting on the bus. I was very close to having to execute one of the strategies but the wave passed and we got to Casablanca.

I stumbled off the bus, took about ten steps, and then vomited wildly on the street. I threw up two more times, then walked into a bathroom. The toilets in Morocco are often just holes in the ground. I found an unoccupied hole, turned, and discharged liquid for twenty seconds.

I thought I was going to be okay after that, but I wasn't. It took about four days back in Barcelona before I was reasonably healthy again.

It's a shame the trip had to end with that day and those repercussions, because I believe Morocco is a wonderful place. Geographically it has it all - pristine warm-water beaches on the Atlantic and Mediterranean, vast deserts, grand mountains. It has spectacular modern and ancient cities. Culturally, it is a diverse yet harmonious place. Four peoples have come together in Morocco - natives (Berbers), sub-Saharan Africans, Arabs, and Europeans. Most people are communicative and friendly. Many people are well-educated.

There was a running debate amongst us on whether or not Morocco should be considered a third-world country. Certainly, it is no Congo. It is no Austria either, of course. There are people like Adil, educated and prosperous folk. There are also kids selling tissues and bottled water in the streets and on buses at 1 AM. There are many beggars.

I have two salient memories of Morocco. The first is watching the sun burst through the clouds and illuminate the tops of the High Atlas peaks, then walking up to the valley and catching sight of the mystical Neltner Refuge.

The second is staggering off that bus in Casablanca and the subsequent excretions.

Morocco is a land of dichotomy, I suppose. A land still ruled by a King, shepherded by genies. I wonder if I will ever return. I imagine I will in my dreams.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Found and Lost

I recently finished watching the third season of The Office on iTunes. I have said before that I believe The Office is the greatest program in the history of television (that I have seen, at least). Its third season did not pack the power of the landmark second season, which will likely be remembered someday in the same ways we remember Nevermind, the early years of Rolling Stone, and James Dean.

It had to be that way, though. The second season ended with a climax of the show’s primary plot line, Pam and Jim’s unrequieted romance. The first two seasons of the show were propelled by this storyline, which always simmered but never boiled over. Bringing it to a head meant the show could never be the same. The drama, which was completely unparalleled in television comedy, would have to come from new sources.

So although I believed The Office to be the greatest program in television history, my hopes for the third season were not all that high. I knew it was going to be impossible to recreate the show’s trademark drama, and I questioned whether the show might have been pasteurized thoroughly enough to send it out to an early pasture.

I’m pleased to say that’s not the case. The people behind The Office found effective ways to make up for the inevitable dramatic deficit born from the Season II finale, and Season III was an entertaining, hilarious romp through the paper distribution business. Rather than react to the looming drama chasm, the people behind the show anticipated the potential problems and immediately moved in a fresh direction. They transplanted Jim to Stamford – a cop out, of course, but this was easy to overlook. Stamford allowed for the smart additions of Karen Filippelli (Rashida Jones) and Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), two thoroughbred foils for the already brilliant cast.

The producers and writers understood it would be an inopportune time to sell the drama, and instead focused on the comedy. They pushed the Pam-Jim relationship back to somewhere between foreground and background. They threw the supporting actors a little more food and watched them flourish.

Rather than beat us over the head with a Pam-Jim soap opera, The Office provided some new, intriguing storylines to entertain us. Individual episodes contained a little more plot than in the past, with several small crises throughout the season: Oscar’s outing, Dwight’s attempted coup, the merger/Stamford branch closing, Roy’s attack). The larger, season-long romance story arcs (Jim and Karen, Roy and Pam, Michael and Jan) didn’t pack the same punch as Jim/Pam but they weren’t meant to. Each was tender and intriguing, though Jan’s character clearly jumped over a fifteen-foot inflatable shark in the season finale.

The actors stepped it up as well. Everyone but John Krasinski (Jim), had more to work with, and they responded. Rainn Wilson, who I previously felt was somewhat of a weak link, stepped his game up to a major league level this season to make Dwight both funnier and more believable. Jenna Fischer (Pam) sunk her teeth into a little heavier meat and chewed it admirably.

As my friend Kevin once pointed out, Steve Carell may have the most unique and challenging role on television. He must somehow make Michael Scott, a completely ridiculous, selfish, and ignorant character, into someone the audience believes and cares for, without displaying any solemnity or sacrificing any comedy. Whatever they pay Carell, they should double it. Krasinski and Jenna Fischer and the rest of the cast perform flawlessly, but Carell’s work could never be duplicated. He’s in one of those rare situations, like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean or Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura, where the role would be an absolute disaster in anyone else’s hands. I can’t imagine Michael Scott being anyone but Steve Carell, and nor do I want to. (And yes, I do know a British version existed first and inspired all this, and I will watch it some day).

The third season of The Office was not as epic or satisfying as the second, but it was damn hilarious. It was funnier than the first two seasons. It was immensely watchable. It could not have been written or acted better. It reached its potential.


Shortly after finishing the third season of The Office, I ripped through the first season of Lost on DVD. When Lost exploded three years ago, I immediately knew that someday I would watch every episode in its entirety. Lost is the show I dreamed of existing when I was younger. It’s the show I always wanted to watch, always wanted to write, always wanted to produce. A well produced science-fiction television show with legitimate production values and actors, Lost may be the first of its kind. I read this sort of material all the time when I was younger, Michael Crichton sort of stuff. There was never a reasonable tv show created along these lines, until Lost finally came along.

The premise of Lost is simple. A plane flying from Sydney to Los Angeles spins off course and crashes on an island in the Pacific Ocean. There are about fifty survivors. The survivors expect to be rescued soon, but they aren’t. It becomes clear the island they are on is very strange, perhaps magical; for one, it appears polar bears live in the jungle. The intrigue steadily mounts – a radio distress call that has been playing for years is discovered, “Others” are suspected on the island, the island appears so big that it seems impossible they haven’t yet been rescued, etc, etc. The list goes on and on, mounting constantly, but I won’t give any more away for the few who are interested in the show but have never watched it.

The beauty of Lost’s premise is that it provides an infinite, empty canvas for creating/writing/producing team J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, and Damon Lindelof. Essentially, they can do whatever they want. They can take the show in any direction. Since the Island is a magical, dynamic character in itself, they can create any reality they want for their characters. They constantly introduce new discoveries, new shocking twists that make the hairs on your neck stand tall.

Lost is arguably the most suspenseful show in the history of television, wildly entertaining at times, and endlessly thrilling. Each episode adds a new twist, more mythology, a new unsolved mystery, a new layer of intrigue. The premise allows for unlimited, spiraling staircase plot development. Abrams and co. are continually building upward, to the point where Lost is no longer about plane crash survivors – it’s more about what they find, and what they find in themselves.

Here’s the thing about Lost. It’s just not great. It’s pretty good, pretty well done. There are competent people behind the show. But it’s not truly inspired by creative geniuses like The Office is. The characters are decent, but they’re not as authentic as those who work in The Office. Some of the actors, such as Naveen Andrews, Dominic Monaghan, and recent Emmy winner Terry O’Quinn, are quite good. Some are only decent.

Music, direction, cinematography, dialogue – none of these are particularly well done in Lost. Nothing is botched, mind you – it’s all proficiently produced. It just doesn’t have that extra something, that manifestation of an artist’s need for expression. Lost is only a tv show, a good story, not a piece of art.

It’s a damn good story though. The story alone has me hooked, and it will keep me coming back the whole way. The show is slated to end with its sixth season in 2010. I will eventually catch all the way up, and then ride the final wave into The Island. It figures to be a frustrating, exciting ride.