Banksy, Street Art, and Superheroes

“There’s nothing more dangerous than someone who wants to make the world a better place.”

Superhero stories were always my favorite.  When I was young (before the Internet!), the larger-than-life characters of Greek and Norse mythology captured my imagination, and I re-read them until the book fell apart.  As a teenager, I collected comic books, replacing Hercules and Thor with X-men and Avengers.  Recently, Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies reminded me that I am still in love with superheroes.
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Breaking Bad: Signing the Social Contract

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity
–Bob Dylan

Every day, there is a moment in which our dignity is called into question – a boss asking us to work overtime without pay so he can go home early; a doctor forcing us to wait more than 30 minutes before we’re allowed to enter her office; a phone call to a customer service line that results in a waterfall of answering machines. I like to operate under the basic assumption that “we’re all in it together,” and in these moments when I feel more like a cow than a person, this assumption is put to the test. We want our boss to pay us, the doctor to cure us, and the customer service rep to refund us, and we understand that to get these things, we need to “play by the rules” and accept whatever cattle-like treatment that those in power decide to dish out. In today’s world, our dignity is constantly challenged by the things surrounding us. How we respond to these challenges goes a long way towards defining who we are, and our response is largely based on how we perceive the rules and obligations of the the world around us.

Our lives are governed by a complex system of rules and regulations, a system created by the evolution of rituals, traditions, and social customs. The unwritten agreement to adhere to this complex system of rules, both written and unwritten, is called the “social contract”.

Rousseau’s 1762 Treatise “The Social Contract” clarifies:

“In order to accomplish more and remove himself from the state of nature, man must enter into a Social Contract with others. In this social contract, everyone will be free because all forfeit the same amount of freedom and impose the same duties on all. Rousseau also argues that it is illogical for a man to surrender his freedom for slavery; and so, the participants must be free. Furthermore, although the contract imposes new laws, especially those safeguarding and regulating property, a person can exit it at any time (except in a time of need, for this is desertion), and is again as free as when he was born.”

Thus, we agree to forfeit some amount of freedom in order to escape the “state of nature.” By waiting patiently at a red traffic light, we are less likely to end up in a collision while crossing the intersection. Those who sign the social contract get the security of police protection, a steady paycheck, and food on the table. Those who refuse to sign are on their own — murder, robbery, and all of the things that make life “brutish, nasty, and short” are all fair game.

“Breaking Bad” is an exploration of dignity and the social contract. What is the freedom we sacrifice when we agree to play by the rules? And what do these rules actually say? In the pilot episode of the series, the hero “breaks bad” and rejects the social contract in modern America, setting off on a journey which explores the consequences of breaking the rules. Is it possible that those who break the social contract live a more dignified, more respectable existence than those who try their best to be “good citizens”?


When I was 25, I had just graduated with a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and taken a job, abandoning the Ph.D. I was pursuing when my advisor left for another university. I took my first “real” job, writing computer programs at a major hospital in Los Angeles, unaware of the bureacracy and inefficiency I would face. I became a cog in the huge wheel of a non-profit corporation through in which billions of dollars flowed, forced to take my place amongst an army of employees patiently awaiting their mortgage payments and coffee breaks. Ambition was not welcome. It seemed no matter how hard I worked or whatever brilliant idea I came up with, the machinery’s inertia gobbled up my ambition and kept on churning, unaffected by my insignificant personal contributions.

Not coincidentally, my evenings were spent searching for something where ambition and talent were rewarded. The world of gambling, where the dollar was more important than your age or your job title, promised a better reward for my efforts than my workplace. In the world of gambling, there is no bureaucracy, there are no politics. In the world of gambling, the cold, hard world of mathematics, risk, and reward are the only rules to be followed. A gambler with the courage to use knowledge and skill, as well as the heart to take calculated risks, will find this courage rewarded. Unlike the corporate world, there is no limit for the financial reward that talent and bravery can bring, and these qualities are rewarded in a way that seems just and dignified. You bet as much as you want, and if you win, you’re paid out according to the agreed-upon odds of the bet.

In a typical 9 to 5 job, no matter how much skill and courage Johnny Employee exhibits, the reward for extraordinary talent and courage is at best a pat on the back, and more frequently a collection of frowns and sighs from those trying to quiet the rocking of the boat. In the world of gambling, the house pays out the winners, and there isn’t even a boat to rock.

From 9 to 5, I would do my best impression of a cog in the machine, occasionally rising up on my hind legs to rock the boat when I felt my humanity fading away. At night, I would use my cultivated knowledge (finally a use for my 20 years of studying math and computers) in the dignified world of gambling, where bravery and talent are rewarded fairly. It took some time to get adjusted to the swings generated by the “luck factor,” but in time I was able to understand how much luck contributed to a win or loss. Eventually, when the adrenaline from the risk settled down and I was able to combine practical experience with theoretical knowledge, I earned far more per hour gambling than I did working.

When you’re earning more in a few hours by gambling than you are paid by your employer for a day’s work, you begin to change your perspective on “work”. You begin to realize that the rules and regulations created by your employer, especially the ones that make you feel less dignified, become much easier to ignore.


“Breaking Bad” is about a man who becomes a “double agent” — a loyal family man who “pretends” to be a criminal — in an attempt to live a dignified life in which his knowledge, courage, and spirit are rewarded “justly” according to his conception of the way the world “should” work. The title of the show comes from a phrase in a dialogue in which the main character, Walter White, a 50 year old high school chemistry teacher and hard-luck-everyman whose dignity has recently been crushed, is asked to explain his newfound hobby (cooking meth) by a young methamphetamines dealer and new partner:

Jesse Pinkman: “Nah come on… man, some straight like you giant stick up his ass… all of a sudden at age what, 60, he’s just going to break bad?

Jesse, someone who has no real interest in the social contract, suspects Walter as a “spy”. Why would a champion of the social contract, an honest and hard working family man, rip up the contract and ignore everything he has believed for his entire life?

The viewer’s exploration of the answer to this question guides the show. We welcome Walter’s courage to break bad and throw off the shackles that come with life under the social contract, because all of us feel the urge to do the same every time our dignity is challenged in our everyday life. Usually, paying the rent is more important to us than telling our boss that he can clean the toilet himself, but it is easy for us to live vicariously through a character who decides to “break bad” and rip up the social contract. This character archetype has always been one of my favorites: from Robin Hood to Michael Douglas in Falling Down, you can’t help cheer for the guy taking a bat to the thieves of dignity. But that’s the easy part of the story… what about the consequences? Is breaking the rules really worth it?

The most interesting aspect of the show is watching the changes in our meek everyman, Walter White, as he navigates the world outside the social contract. Once our hero “breaks bad,” he is free to stand up for himself, to defend the dignity that has been taken from him on a daily basis. After Walter discovers that he has terminal lung cancer and has only two years to live, he is “awakened,” (he will later exclaim “I am awake” when trying to explain his transformation to his partner Jesse). The awareness of that “life is short” has woken from his slumber.

The benefits of adhering to the social contract now gone, Walter chooses to become a criminal in order to provide a future for his family, accepting the “brutish, nasty, and short” life in spectacular fashion:

  • He flips out on his annoying boss at his car wash job, knocking things off the shelf as he quits the job in a blaze of dignified glory
  • He pins a young bully’s leg to the ground and challenges him to a fight after the bully openly mocks his handicapped son, garnering the gratitude of his son
  • He gives his annoying wife “the business” after an earlier scene suggesting that Walter is sexually submissive, prompting her to spout happily “Is that really you?”

While these “heroic” defenses of dignity are clichéd, they are nonetheless entertaining to watch. The pilot ends with Walter’s manly act in the bedroom, and we are led to believe that his transformation to a dignified “real man” is complete. The social contract has been ripped up, and for now, dignity has been restored. We are left with many questions, which we assume will be addressed in the upcoming episodes. What consequences for his actions will Walter face? Is it possible to live a dignified life outside the social contract? Do we need heroes that live outside the law? Morally should we applaud him or condemn him for breaking bad? What would happen to the world if all of us broke bad?


I liked playing poker a lot. I thought about becoming a “pro,” but in the end, I couldn’t justify spending time and effort sitting at a table and hoping some rich drunk guy would give me his money. There is a reason that they call these guys “producers” — these guys (some of them anyway) are out in the real world earning money by creating something of value to people. Accountants, Stockbrokers, Poker Players… I didn’t see anything wrong with getting paid for being smarter than the guys across the table from you, but it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to use my knowledge and talent to be a part of creating something original that would “make the world a better place” somehow.

So what does this have to do with “Breaking Bad” and Walter White?

Both Walter and I are similar in that we value the social contract. We believe that we really are “all in it together,” and that agreeing to the social contract is necessary in order for us to feel good about ourselves. But sometimes, you wonder what it would be like to break the rules and get that “surrendered freedom” back. I guess I’ll always wonder what my life would have been like if I had chosen to be a professional poker player, but I don’t think I would have lasted very long. The problems and suffering that would have come with this lifestyle– earning money doing something I didn’t believe in– wouldn’t have been worth the freedom I gained. Watching Walter White made me feel like he’s in the same boat.

Chasing the Dream

“”If you will it, it is no dream.”
—Theodore Herzl

Dear America,

I know we haven’t had much contact since I left you five years ago, but I’ve had a lot of time to think. I have a lot of things I want to say to you.  It’s taken me a long time to realize this, but I feel like there is something I have to tell you:

I love you.

Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate how great something is until you’ve spent some time living without it. Since I left in 2006, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what it means to know you.  For five years now, I’ve been surrounded by people who speak differently than you do, who dress and act differently than you do… It’s hard to explain… but as a stranger in a strange land, I often think about the things that make me feel different from everybody else.  I think about what it is about you that makes you different from everybody else.

Sometimes I wonder how I would feel if I dyed my hair blue, or if I got that great face tattoo I’ve always wanted, like our friend Mike. Would this change how I am perceived by other people? Would the change in the way these people perceive me change the way I perceive myself?

My hair isn’t blue and I don’t have any tattoos yet, but I have spent a lot of time surrounded by people who speak with different accents and different backgrounds than you.  Lately I’ve caught myself thinking “I am different” more and more often.  Would I feel different if I was back in your arms?  Would I feel “less different” if I was with you again? The few times I’ve seen you since I left, I’ve felt uncomfortable.  Like my time away from you made me somehow not welcome.  But at least when I am with you we speak the same language.  I don’t need to call my favorite sport “American football” when I’m talking to you.  But sometimes, when something confuses me, I think, “do I think that way because I grew up with her?” It’s like a there is a layer of you that grew over my skin while we were together, a cultural shell that developed from all the movies we saw, all the books we read, everything we did together.  Sometimes I feel like this shell separates me from the people elsewhere.

I have met a lot of great people since I left. It seems like a lot of people here have either met you or know a lot about you.  I know you have always had a lot of visitors, and every time I turn on the TV over here, there’s always something of yours on.  I guess you’ve been doing a lot of work in Hollywood — good or bad, it’s popular over here.  It seems like people know a lot about you (or think they know a lot) because you’re on TV so much.

I’ve met some people that had relationships with you in the past, but for one reason or another they ended up back here. Talking with these people often gives me a new way of looking at you.  It seems like a lot of people like to point out how loud you are, how much you like fast food, or how fat you are.  I hope you’re not mad that I usually tell them that they are right.  Don’t worry, I tell them I am loud and I love fast food too, but luckily I haven’t gotten fat yet.

Some people have told me of beautiful memories with you.  Cheese and football in Green Bay, the leaves in New England in November, and the neon lights and perfect C chord tones of the slot machines in Vegas.  At first I was a little jealous hearing other people talk about these things, but in the end it just made me miss you and realize how beautiful you are.

As each year passed, I found myself thinking more and more about what makes you different, what makes you special.  I found myself comparing you to others, trying to define what it was about our time together that felt different.   Was it different over here because I had changed and I was different, or was it different because I wasn’t with you anymore?

Over time, I started to see patterns in the things people said about you.  Eventually, I started thinking about these patterns and started to see things that I missed about you.  Things that we had that disappeared when I left you. The collection of these missing things helps me understand what makes you different, what makes me love you.

There are way too many memories to list here, but I’ll give you a few so you know what I’m talking about:

Pop Warner Football and Little League Baseball.   Bluegrass.  Fantasy Sports.  The Super Bowl.  $100 million dollar movies and $10 million dollar commercials. Michael Jordan.  The Wheel of Fortune slot machine.  Craps.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed trying to understand who “you” really are.  There are so many parts to you and you’re always changing, so I’m not sure if my image of you is even close to reality.  The time we spent in Los Angeles was completely different than the time we spent in Connecticut.  Is there is something that bonds these two places together or were you and I different people on the East Coast than we were on the West Coast?

Eventually I gave up on trying to explain the things that made you unique.  But I found that I was able to identify things that seemed to “belong” to you and things that didn’t.  I was able to pick out people who were wearing your clothes and who walked like you, even if I only saw them for a second and they never opened their mouth.  Somehow they looked different than everybody else here, and to my eyes, they stood out.  My friends and I sometimes bet if a stranger has ever met you or not — it’s pretty funny how good we’ve gotten at that game.  The skinny jeans were a dead giveaway that the guy wearing them hadn’t met you, but that seems to be changing these days.

But the thing that I miss most about you, the thing that it took me a long time to realize what made me love you so much is this: you are a dreamer.  You are a gambler, willing to risk everything in order to achieve your goals and the freedom that you can’t live without.  You were never afraid of hard work, or the suffering that comes with it.  You always had faith that if you put in the effort, you would succeed, and that success would bring you happiness.  And if you were wrong… if your dream didn’t come true but you tried your best to achieve that dream… at least you could look in the mirror and live with dignity knowing that you tried.

A lot of people like to call you an “entrepreneur”.   You’re certainly not the only entrepreneur in the world. But the willingness to gamble, to risk, to suffer for success… this drive to be anything other than mediocre… the audacity to imagine yourself achieving something that no one has ever achieved before… these are the things that make you unique.  Some people see ambition as a negative, as something dangerous, but I guess I always liked when you said, “Shoot for the moon, and if you miss, you will still be among the stars.”.

When we were young, we used to talk about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  You always said that everybody had an opportunity to achieve their dreams, to be successful.  Our parents always told us we could be whatever we wanted to be, even the President.  And we believed them — we had faith that hard work would pave the road to our dreams.

That wasn’t the only thing we were taught… we always talked about other ways of achieving success than hard work.  We went through our fair share of “get rich quick” schemes when we were kids, but after a while we figured out that these games didn’t really end well for anybody.  I remember when one of our friends said, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I was about to get mad, but you convinced me that both knowledge and “knowing the right people” were both paths to success.  Another one that made me mad was, “It’s better to be lucky than good.” You helped me see that it was best to be both lucky and good. There was always plenty of discussion of the importance of genetics, “Nature vs. Nurture,” but I won’t get into it here because this is supposed to be a love letter.   My point is that you always kept your faith in the simple idea that “hard work pays off,” and I have come to agree with you.  “No pain, no gain,” right?

You aren’t the only one who believes in the value of hard work.  The difference is that your idea of hard work is different than most.  “Hard work” to you means working 16 hours a day for years and years.  2 or 3 jobs sometimes. Hard work is dedication to achieving a goal, no matter how tired you feel or what obstacles are in your way.  Maybe hard work is not the right word, because there are people working hard all over the world… maybe “dedication” is more accurate.  The desire to succeed against all odds and all obstacles.

We both have dreams that we failed to achieve, and gambles we lost.  For every dream that we have achieved, there are so many that fail.  Is dreaming really worth it?  It is worth the risk?  Where is the happiness and liberty for those who don’t achieve their dreams?   Wouldn’t we be better off punching the clock in the morning and at night and forgetting about these dreams that cause so much suffering?

And what about those who succeed by lying, cheating, and stealing? There is a heavy price to pay for those of us who don’t achieve their dreams, and for those who get crushed underneath those who will do anything to give themselves a greater chance at success.

These are things that I’ve been thinking about since I left you.  I don’t know if you are a better person for all of your dreaming. But from my experience, the faith in hard work that you taught me has helped to make my life happier and more interesting.  I will always appreciate the courage you’ve given me to make my own path by working hard.

Then again, we were together for so long I have a hard time figuring out where you end and I begin.  Either way, I really miss you.

See you soon.


5 years later

What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit.
–John Updike

I feel like I just woke up from a 5 year nap.

It’s been almost 5 years since I wrote my last blog post, and it feels strange to sit here and try to figure out what I want to say.

I’m a much different person than I was when I wrote that last post in May of 2006.  Hopefully, I’m a better person.  Certainly older, almost certainly wiser.  I have spent the last 5 years living and working in Dublin, helping build the best poker site in the world.

That part of my life is finished now.  When you are down there in the ocean, holding your breath, you don’t realize how deep you are until you get back to the top and start breathing again.  I gave up a lot of things in my life for my work, and now that I’m back above water, I’m getting back to doing the things that I did before I submerged.

Back when I was writing a lot, I always wondered if I should write about things other than poker.  I’m not sure why, but at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do.  The first thing I ever wrote for this blog reminds me that the main reason for starting this blog was to help me find my voice, my unique writing style.

And you may ask yourself: Well…How did I get here?
The real reason for starting this thing was to see if I had the discipline to write every day.  I’ve read a lot of books that have changed my life, and I’ve always wanted to write something that would change someone else’s life.  So I started this thing out as a sort of practice… a place to develop my unique voice and style.  I figured if I got a few people reading me, then that would motivate me to keep writing.

Why Poker?
I don’t think writing about poker is going to lead people to any epiphanies, but it’s something I’m passionate about and I spend a lot of time thinking about.  Maybe some day I’ll get tired of the game, and move on to writing about something “deeper,” but for now I really enjoy reading, writing, and playing poker.  Joseph Campbell said that if you “follow your bliss,” you’ll end up in a good place.  For now, poker is bliss for me.

So here I am, 7 years after I wrote the above lines, ready to start again.  I have changed.  My voice has changed, my style has changed.   I still think about poker a lot, although I am not as immersed in it as I once was.  I will be writing about life here.  Hopefully you’ll join me for the ride.

In the past, I believed that writing was a solitary activity,  that a pure artist had to be careful not to be too influenced by the opinions of his readers. But I have learned that writers benefit from feedback, from being reminded that they are servants, that their words are their to be consumed and interpreted by the readers.  So if you want to be a part of this blog, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts.  Send me email or leave a comment below.

Come back soon for a “real” post.