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How to pretend to almost take down a casino by Derren Brown

I hoped I’d have something to say today about Derren Brown’s latest TV stunt: How to Take Down a Casino. 

The idea was that he would predict live on TV the next number to be spun on a roulette wheel in an actual casino somewhere in Europe by placing a bet of £5,000 using money that he’d previously stolen from a viewer without them realising.

Sadly, I just didn’t get it.

If you didn’t see the show, the only copy on YouTube currently that Channel 4 haven’t zapped yet has embedding disabled, so click here while you can for the anti-climactic final moments. (Or find it on 4OD for the next week if you want to watch the whole show).

And then the credits rolled.  The end.

What we apparently saw was Derren with a hidden camera up his sleeve and one other undercover cameraman filming him using his super-charged brain to assess the velocity of the wheel, calculate the speed and rate of deceleration of the ball and then compute where it was going to land.  Except he didn’t – he was off by one.

There are indeed computer systems designed for cheating a casino that can do this, and they only aim to predict a segment of the wheel where the ball is going to land.

Even Jessica Alba’s super cat-person mind can’t be any more accurate than that:

I couldn’t find a version of this clip with the sound (a song in the background got it removed by YouTube), but you can read the script here.  Spin to about 2:00 for the start of the action.  At 2:20, she says "I can tell you where it’s gonna land, but I can’t call the bounce".

On a side note, I noticed that the TV gambling channel SuperCasino.com has a "live wheel" roulette game with an automated wheel, where the ball gets to orbit the wheel at least a dozen times before it’s too late to place a bet.  If this game is fair, it should be beatable by anyone with a home computer and the right software.  And yet they’re still in business…

Although there’s no reason not to believe that parts of Derren Brown’s show were live (the parts with the viewer who had been mugged were a decent convincer) my main problem is that I just don’t believe it took place in a real casino.

I thought it was just plain odd that a European casino would have the layout written in English.  Certainly, in France this wouldn’t be the case.  There would be bets for "Pair", "Impair", "Manque" and "Passe", and it’s traditionally a wider style of layout.

Clearly I can’t say for sure how it works in every European country, but I thought that in the same way that American casinos offer European or American roulette, in Europe the choice is generally between American or French roulette.  While American Roulette may indeed have a layout printed in English, and I guess you may even find those dealers speak in English, the game would have a double-zero wheel.

Not to mention that before Derren is even playing at that table, you hear the dealer announce "sixteen, red".  In English, and English only.

But, most importantly, isn’t it lucky that the table he’d singled out, that he’d been watching for weeks had a spot open at the right moment he needed to place the bet live on TV?  Not only that, it was a spot that gave his hidden camera an excellent view of both the part of table he was moving his chips into, and the wheel itself.

Assuming that this bet was not taken by a real casino, it actually makes sense that he would plan for the result to be not quite correct.  Otherwise, with a perfect prediction, it would be Channel 4 who would had to find £175,000 to pay out to the mug who apparently bankrolled the stunt.

Coming close by one is the next best thing to getting it spot on, but if that’s the end of the show and the result of an hour of hype is "close but no cigar" (rather than revealing the actual number that was spun had already been written on a nearby chicken, or something) it’s rather lacking in both flair and impact.

Which, frankly, fits in with the other shows in this latest series.

I’m a big fan of Derren Brown.  I’ve seen three of his stage shows, two of which were amazing and the other was pretty good but spoilt, I thought, by an obvious switcheroo as part of the final big reveal. 

Until now I’ve loved the TV shows and they’re still among the very few programmes I make a point of watching.  I know the tricks he does are almost never anything at all to do with what he says they are.  But if he’s still producing an illusion that makes you think "how the hell?", or just creating compelling TV, I don’t really care.  He is a fantastic entertainer.

In fact, the part of last night’s show where he made a girl throw a squash ball into a court and accurately predicted where it would finally come to rest after several bounces on a numbered grid was an impressive piece.  Of course it had nothing to do with his explanation of extreme mental physics calculations.  That’s just Derren’s "Abracadabra".  But it was an illusion that made me think "that’s so cool" while scratching my head over how it was really done.

However, I was left thoroughly disappointed that his lottery prediction stunt gave me no reason to believe that it was anything other than a camera trick.

His attempt to control the nation using a subliminal film (which "won’t work if you watch it on the Internet" – despite YouTube now being able to carry a better quality picture than terrestrial TV) left me feeling like I’d wasted an hour because it didn’t do a thing for me.

Then his attempt to project an image into the minds of viewers was so blatantly obvious that I wondered how on earth only about a third of people actually got it.

This week I’ve gone full circle.  There’s absolutely no reason to think this wasn’t another camera trick.  Either the casino scene was pre-recorded all along, after as many takes as it took to get a spin where the bet placed was one away from the actual number, or the film was switched out (like they do to Dennis Hopper in Speed) to show an earlier spin once Derren had placed the bet on a neighbouring number.

The interference on his hidden camera feed (which I don’t believe is genuine anyway, they had weeks to plan this and work out how to get a good signal) would have made it easy to splice that in, and there’s no communication with the guy in the truck once the casino cams go live. 

While the lottery prediction at least had an initial "wow" factor because it was done live at the same time as the actual draw (before he completely spoiled it in the reveal show with a preposterous explanation), going to so much effort to make it look like he missed a spin of a roulette wheel by one number is just, well, meh.

OK, I guess I did have something to say about it after all. 

I don’t sweat much for a fat guy drumming

OK, I lie.  I sweat plenty.  But it’s been quite a warm day and the so-called air conditioner I’ve put in this room is basically just a little fan in a box.  What can you do?

The reason for this video is two-fold.

1. I wanted to try a few different video recording modes on my new digital SLR (Canon EOS 500D) and specifically to see how the 1080p mode (at a reduced 20 frames per second) compared to 720p (at 30fps).

2. I wanted to find out whether it was going to be possible to edit HD video in Vegas on my now-aging laptop, or if it would be a job for my (almost as portable) Mac Mini.

So, in the absense of anything resembling live action going on around me, I thought I’d record a few songs with different settings.  But I only went and aced Reptillia, so I thought that I really should share this achievement with the world and modestly declare just how much I totally rock.

I’d been thinking about making a Rock Band video when Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” becomes available for it.  But although it’s on the list of upcoming songs, there’s no release date set yet - and of course no guarantee I’ll be able to play all four parts well enough, which is what I wanted.  Let’s hope this still happens, eh?

Anyway I only picked up the Mac so I could try to learn how to write software for the iPhone (which is going horribly; the language may as well be Martian compared to what I’m used to) but now it’s looking likely it will be coming on holiday with me (I’ll need to pick up a cheap monitor over there for it), and after that I fear it may only be a matter of time before it becomes the main machine on my desk.

What’s that I hear?  A gazillion Mac owners saying “I told you so”?

I never doubted you.  I just liked having two mouse buttons.  And now I realise that I actually still can.  And that I don’t actually need a keyboard with that funny squiggle key on it.

Here’s the thing.  My PC, which is a dual-core thing with 2Gb RAM and is a little over a year old, struggled even with the lower quality format.  The sound wasn’t quite in sync at times and it certainly wasn’t playing at the full frame rate.  My laptop (3 years old, mobile Celeron something) didn’t stand a chance – what I saw could barely be called video.

Whereas the Mac – on paper a less powerful machine than my PC – lapped up the full HD format without even blinking.  I was even dragging it around the screen manically (even between two monitors) while it was playing – not a hiccup.

So I loaded the clip into iMovie (which I’d never used before), trimmed off the ends (which took literally 20 seconds), hit a button and it went straight up to YouTube.

Well, not quite straight away.  It took nearly an hour to render and upload in top quality, but that didn’t matter so much.  I could actually do other things at the same time.

Oh. My. God.  It could be only a matter of weeks before I’m fully converted.

Can you tell what it is yet?

Thanks to NFL Gamepass and the triple-bill of football action today, I’m getting to see a lot of Thanksgiving commercials.

I’ve already been subliminally programmed to wake up at 5am tomorrow to go shopping at Sears.  Seriously, 5am?

Anyway, this one made me double-take and because I’m incredibly immature I rewound it to take some snapshots.

So what’s the UPS man drawing on the whiteboard today?

It’s a turkey obviously.  What were you thinking?

I guess that’s why they call it the boobs

I just got back from seeing a Las Vegas show.  In Birmingham.

Elton John is taking his Red Piano show on tour and tonight was the first night.  In fact, the only other time it’s been played outside of Caesars Palace was a one-off at the dome last year for Elton’s 60th birthday.

I’ve seen this show twice in Las Vegas and loved it.  Fortunately, it travelled pretty well.

I wasn’t so sure at first, as it looked like a bit of a half-hearted effort to cram in some of the props.  The NIA has about triple the capacity of the Colosseum (13,000 vs 4,100) and felt ten times the size, but the stage wasn’t custom-built for Celine Dion and her 20,000 acrobats so it’s not quite as accomodating.

Before the show started it was pretty easy to spot where some of the gimmicks were only half concealed.

I’ll admit the balloons weren’t exactly meant to be concealed.  They drop from the ceiling during Pinball Wizard for a sort of interactive multi-ball kind of effect.  However, what you can see here is exactly half of the total number of balloons that were rigged to go off.  It’s like eight on each side of the arena.

It seemed like such a crappy token effort that I wondered whether the touring production of the show would really have the same impact.

Yes it did.

The video screen covered the entire back of the stage and there’s no doubt that it’s the visuals that make this show something special.  They still looked enormous, even from about three times as far away from the stage as the cheapest seat in the Colosseum.

Elton actually said that the stage was the same size as at Caesars, but it was definitely a bit smaller.  There was visible congestion between the inflatables in the finale, but they did just about manage to squeeze everything in there.

Those amazing blow-up breasts always hung on the stage itself in Las Vegas.  Here they were dangling from the arena ceiling.  You’d totally miss them if you were sitting in the front few rows, and that’s a damn shame.

Yes, it needs two spotlights.  One for each nipple.

There were two songs I definitely don’t remember seeing before, although there could have been more because the whole thing lasted almost two hours, rather than having the 90 minute curfew in Vegas to make sure nobody spends too long away from the casino.

I presume he included all the songs that have been part of the show in the past, even if they’re not part of the latest incarnation.

I’m sure I would have remembered Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and the bizarre – apparently autobiographical – suicide-leads-to-dancing-bear-incident visuals for Someone Saved My Life Tonight.

The previous link is for the full film that was projected in the background during that song, but you’ll have to confirm your age with YouTube to watch it.

Which brings me on to … kids.

Don’t take them to Vegas.  And don’t take them to a Vegas-themed show.

To be fair, the blurb on Harrah’s web site does say this about the Red Piano show:

Please note that The Red Piano is designed with a Las Vegas theme and mature audiences in mind. The video imagery that accompanies the music may at times be considered risqué, and includes montage style scenes that include brief frontal nudity.

However all I could find on the NIA’s site is:

The theme throughout The Red Piano is love, symbolised by the colour red and articulated through the songs and state-of-the art effects and high-end imagery.

So that could explain why parents might think it’s a great idea to take the family to see this show.  It isn’t.

Firstly, "brief frontal nudity" is something of an understatement.  There are a lot of naked boobs in the show.  It’s all very tastefully done, of course, but the tit count is high.  Almost every song has at least one pair.

Then there is plenty more blatent sex, drugs and other such rock and roll shenanigans.  Pamela Anderson does a pole dance.  Among the neon signs that litter the stage is one that simply reads "sluts".  And I already mentioned the suicide bit.

I saw several families with young children in the audience.  I didn’t see anyone walk out, but there might be one or two awkward questions before bedtime tonight.

As for what those 16 balloons actually looked like during Pinball Wizard, I just don’t remember.

The backdrop for this song is the most amazing Las Vegas montage of aerial shots, neon close ups and gambling scenes, cut at super high speed around shots of pinball machines going crazy.

I was transfixed: partly feeling homesick and partly trying to work out what’s still there and what’s been blown up or ripped down since they filmed it!

Big Brother does Las Vegas

I’m a bit behind with this one as I think it actually went out on TV on Wednesday evening, but that’s what happens when you no longer have a TV service.

Indeed, I cancelled Virgin Media before we went to Vegas thinking we’d re-activate Sky when we got home.  The Virgin V+ box had given me a year of nothing but untimely crashes and unscheduled reboots.  It also missed the start of nearly every episode of Doctor Who, which is unforgiveable.

The real heartbreaker though was missing the very end of the NFC championship game last season, with the scores tied and Green Bay having a chance to make it to the Superbowl.

It wasn’t because the timer cut out too early, but because Virgin stop broadcasting that particular Sky Sports channel for a few hours overnight, regardless of whether the game they are showing has finished.

I hoped at least Sky would be committed to showing the full schedule for their own channels.

However, when it came to the crunch of paying £21/month for 200 channels I don’t really want (but the ability to record the couple I do want to hard disk to probably not watch later is nice) or £38/month for Sky Sports, which I’d watch once a week, it no longer seemed like such a good proposition.

So the Sky box now gives us terrestrial channels and probably QVC, but that’s it.

To be honest, there’s very little I’ll miss about satellite or cable TV, or even the PVR functionality, which is nobbled unless you have an active TV subscription.  I can’t really see me going back to watching stuff on TV when it’s actually on, but for anything I can’t be without there’s always the internet.

After all, I went four weeks in the USA without missing a single episode of Big Brother.

Anyway, this week Big Brother has "brought the glitz and glamour of a Las Vegas-style casino to the house" by adding a couple of neon signs and a few antique slot machines.

Here are some of the highlights.

Part 1: Rehearsals for the variety show task.  Escapology, illusion, celebrity impersonations and… performing dealers.  I’m just grateful they didn’t have to imitate Cirque du Soleil.

Part 2:   Showtime.  Proof (should it be needed) that you can put a blind man in a wig but he won’t care if it covers his eyes.  Or even if it’s on the right way round.

Part 3: Losing on slots.  "It looks complicated?  You pull the handle".

Part 4: All you can eat buffet.  Never mind the food, this is all about what shape Mohamed’s afro goes when it’s stuck inside a plastic party hat for over an hour.

Next stop: Blue Man Group

A month ago, I started playing the drums.

OK, that’s a bit of a romanticisation.  What I actually mean is I started playing the drum part on the video game Rock Band.

Still, they reckon that if you can master the songs on "expert" level, you could sit down at a real drum kit, make the same movements and you’d be actually playing that song.

I’m sure that if real drum kits only had four things to hit, all of them being the same shape and each one always making the right sound at the correct volume no matter where or how hard you hit it, and with a couple of them doubling up as tom-toms and cymbals, then this would be true.

However, for someone of my limited co-ordination – and having never picked up a pair of drumsticks in my life before - I consider it something of an achievement that I got my first 100% score on hard level today.

The photo is horrible, sorry – I only had my phone to hand.  It just about shows Claire getting 99% on guitar (apparently just one silly mistake away from perfection, she’s done it 100% before) and my massive 100% with a 1016 note streak, both playing hard level on The Clash’s "Should I Stay or Should I Go".  I will almost certainly make the effort to fetch a proper camera the first time we both nail it at the same time.

That has happened before, but only on medium difficulty (Pixies "Wave of Mutilation" is pretty straightforward for both parts) and we’ve already gained as many virtual fans in the "world tour" mode as we can without moving up to hard level.

I’m not unhappy at acing The Clash, but I actually wanted my first 100% song to be Weezer’s "Buddy Holly" so I had an excuse to embed that video rather than just link to it.  Or Nine Inch Nails, because that sounds like it should be a lot harder than it actually is.  I’ve been very close on both.

Or for bonus cheese points, it could have been The B-52s "Roam".  I don’t care what you think, it’s great fun to play and I already had a 1600+ note streak and came within one brain fart of doing it perfectly!

So, for the next step in my drumming career, I need to decide which route to take.  Should I aspire to be as great as this guy, who owns every song on expert level, and has made many top quality videos to prove it?

Yes, he has socks strapped to the drum pads.  This is strangely appealing.  The only modification I have is a set of Hard Rock logo drumsticks painted with a flame pattern.

Or, should I paint my face blue and start hitting other things?  How would that be for a career change?

There’s already an official "stage kit" with lights and a smoke machine due out this summer, but I haven’t heard anything about a paint drumming kit yet.  It’s inevitable though, I’m sure.

Joseph and the amazing technicolour check-raise

The Rt Hon Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, spotted this evening on BBC television wearing a Party Poker shirt.

OK, it’s actually a Leyton Orient football strip so it probably doesn’t count.  But I did get a bit excited for a moment and think that maybe he’d bought it using his PartyPoints.

“21″ the movie

Here’s a rarity – I saw a movie based on a book I’d actually read.

I think the only other time this has ever happened before was with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

There’s no point trying to do an objective critique of the film because – let’s be honest – it was going to have to be a real turkey for me not to love it.  Just look at the ingredients: Vegas, gambling and maths geeks.  It’s already a winner on paper as far as I’m concerned.  Who needs exploding helicopters? 

Of course the little things bug me a bit.  Like how they walk into the Hard Rock and then they’re seen playing at Red Rock (it says so on the tables and chips, but you can’t really see it in YouTube-def) - even though those casinos are about 10 miles apart.  I guess having one word the same in the names is enough that we’re not meant to notice.

Then suddenly they’re inside Planet Hollywood in the same sequence (the interior is quite distinctive, even without the fake plastic jewels from the former Aladdin) and finally walk out of the Hard Rock into the morning sun (guitar-shaped door handles @ 1m59 in the trailer, if you’re bothered).

In one scene, the team have a discussion about whether you should split pairs of 8s and 10s, with some saying "yes, always" and others saying it’s a "sucker play" against a dealer’s ace.

This is a team apparently comprised of very clever individuals who have figured out how to make money by working the mathematics of the game to their advantage.  There’s just no room for debate on topics like this – the numbers do the talking.

Blackjack is a game played to a fixed set of rules with a finite number of possibilities (you can’t keep hitting for ever) so there can only be one right answer.  These guys would know the correct play for every situation or they wouldn’t be betting thousands of dollars of Kevin Spacey’s money on a hand.

In fact, you should always split 8s - even against an ace as long as the dealer checks for Blackjack first, otherwise you surrender if possible and hit if not.  You never split a pair of tens or face cards.  Unless you’re card counting, when a very high count can flip the strategy on its head.  Or unless you "have a feeling", of course.

Of course, we see the big player splitting tens in the movie – and winning big because the deck is rich in tens.  You see whenever the count is high, players invariably get 20 and the dealer invariably busts.  That’s just the way it works.

Perhaps including this uncertainty and – to some extent – misinformation about the game was payment in kind to the casinos where filming took place.  Or perhaps I’m a little too cynical.

Anyhow, I still enjoyed the movie and it’s always good to know I’m not as picky as some.  Several reviews have plenty to say about just how bad this movie must be because it’s not 100% true to life as every Hollywood movie obviously should be.  They’re taking it much too seriously, and they’re all wrong.

John Chang, the real Micky Rosa
http://mickeyrosa.com/?p=13

MIT team member and poker pro, Andy Bloch:
http://www.pokerroad.com/_/pokerazzi/4-1-08

Blackjack author, Don Schlesinger:
http://www.advantageplayer.com/blackjack/forums/bj-main/webbbs.cgi?read=25030

Internet legend, the Wizard of Odds:
http://wizardofodds.com/blackjack/21movie.html

Some dude called "Bootlegger" on Stanford Wong’s BJ21.com forum:
http://www.bj21.com/boards/free/free_board/index.cgi?noframes;read=156592

Name that price

I now have my download link for Radiohead’s new "pay what you think it’s worth" album, In Rainbows.

I paid 50p.

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Spicing up my life

I got Spice Girls tickets! And corkers they are too. Block 106, row D – actualy facing the stage. That almost never happens.

Stopped laughing at me yet? OK. Now for the obligatory rant about Ticketbastard fees.

There are so many great advantages to trading online. Having a global presence without needing premises; staying open around the clock without needing extra staff; never needing to actually speak to customers. Reduced overheads produce savings that can be passed on to make you more competitive. At least that’s how it should be.

Absolutely everything you can buy is cheaper on the internet, except for concert tickets. But when the only way you can buy tickets is online and one site has a monopoly, they don’t need to be competitive.

My two £75 tickets cost £169.75. You’re laughing again, aren’t you?

The £2.25 charge for "standard post" I can almost live with. Who doesn’t inflate their shipping costs to build in a little extra profit when they’re selling junk on eBay? I know I do, so it’s a bit hypocritical to take issue with an overpriced stamp.

But the "service charge" on this was the fattest I’ve ever seen. £8.75 on each ticket! Where the hell does that come from?  There must be a human involved in the process somewhere along the way so we can’t deny them a little something towards their expenses. And sure, it’s a business so they’re going to want to make money by adding a booking fee. Come on though? A surcharge that’s the same price as a CD (delivered) for every person who goes to a concert?

Here’s the official explanation:

This Service Charge (otherwise known as a Convenience Charge or Booking Fee) is a fee that covers costs that allow Ticketmaster to provide the widest range of available tickets while giving you multiple ways to purchase. Tickets are available in many towns and cities via local ticket outlet locations, our Call Centre and ticketmaster.co.uk.

What a crock of shit.  These tickets were only available online – you needed to be selected to get sent a password to stand a chance of booking – and the first batch sold out in 38 seconds this morning.  Where’s the convenience in having to be online at 10am on the dot to have to fight through the booking process in record time and take whatever tickets you’re lucky enough to have thrown your way?  If you decide you don’t like the look of the seats it’s picked for you and want to try again, you’re probably going to miss out.

Similarly, if you come up against an impossible Turing test, like these, you’re pretty much buggered.

     

Apparently if you relax your eyes, you can see a helicopter in the one on the right.

Tickets from the first show raked in £175,000 in booking fees in under a minute. Then three more dates were announced, and then four more. Overall the juice on just those eight shows heading into the pockets of Ticketmaster shareholders is £1.4 million – I think somebody just got a new yacht.  It’s not exactly skilled work stuffing tickets into envelopes. The fees I paid on just two tickets could fund three hours of minimum-wage labour. Plenty of time, even if their equal opportunities policy demands the use of partially-sighted amputees with Parkinson’s disease.  It’s somewhat generous.

What’s most annoying is why is the service charge for this is so much higher than for other tickets? Am I somehow getting a much better service than I would, for instance, with my £12 face value ticket to see The Donnas next month (and I’m really not ashamed about that either), which carried a £1.20 fee? The postage on those was cheaper too, at £1.75. Are the Spice Girls tickets really heavy?

Seriously, if people have been successfully taking their banks to court to claim back unreasonable charges for overdrafts I might start keeping a tally of just how much Ticketmaster has ripped me off and see if I can’t do something about it. It would probably pay for my next car.