Museums made affordable

October 10, 2019

The northeast is awash with interesting and educational museums of all kinds. Unfortunately, many, especially in major cities, have become unaffordable.

Realizing this, many museums offer free admissions at certain times, which may or may not be convenient for prospective visitors.  But I’ve used two other ways to get free museum admissions:

Bank of America’s Museums on US program offers its credit or debit card holders free admission to museums throughout the country on the first full weekend of each month. I have used this program at the Cloisters and the Intrepid Air/Space Museum in New York, the Hartford Atheneum, the Albany Institute and Mass MoCa.  Participating museums change regularly, so consult the web page before you plan your trip.

More recently, I used free passes borrowed from local Upper Hudson Libraries to visit the Clark Art Museum. The passes, available for many museums, may be borrowed for up to to a week. The down side is that, at least for the Clark passes, each branch has only one – if you and a companion want to go together, you each will have to borrow a pass from a different branch, but that’s a minor inconvenience for a savings of $20 each.  To find out what branches have passes available, search for the museum in which you are interested in the UHLS catalog search page.

As a taxpayer who uses few other government services, I can’t say enough about the superb value UHLS libraries provide.  Engines of social mobility, these institutions provide services to those who can’t afford private alternatives, and to those who can.  All who benefit from them – in other words, all of us – should support our local libraries.  In addition to the books, other media and programs and services available at local branches, UHLS libraries offer an extensive collection of on-line resources for borrowing and downloading.  Even if you can’t travel to a branch, you can benefit form library services.

The cost of playing “short pay” video poker

April 8, 2019

Traditional “full pay”  or “9/6” (based on their payouts for the full house and flush on a single-coin bet) video poker pays back 45 coins for a full house and 30 coins for a flush  including the return of an original five-coin wager (as explained in earlier posts, a wager of five coins is necessary to be eligible for the enhanced royal flush payout).  Combined with the returns for other winning combinations (which usually but not always remain the same on all machines), the overall average return for full pay jacks or better is 99.5% of all moneys wagered when played using optimum strategy at full coin.  This overall return takes a long time to achieve, since part of it is based on hitting a royal flush, which on average occurs only once in some 40,000 hands, but it’s a useful measure nonetheless.

While full pay jacks or better machines do still exist, they are becoming rare, especially outside competitive gaming markets such as Las Vegas.  Particularly at lower denominations, most jacks or better machines in our area pay 8 coins for a full house and 5 for a flush.  The overall return (again, based on optimum play at full coin, over a long period of time) is 97.3%, or some 2.2% less than full pay.

While 2.2% doesn’t sound like much, it can add up fast.  Let’s assume play on a dollar machine (a level at which full pay machines are available at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods; the best dollar machines at Turning Stone are somewhere in the middle, some returning 9 for a full house and 5 for a flush and others 8 for a full house and 6 for a flush).  At max coin, that’s $5.00 a spin.  While experienced video poker players can achieve speeds of up to 1,000 hands per hour, and average 600-800 hands per hour, let’s assume a leisurely pace (which I recommend) of 400 hands per hour. That means the player is pushing $2,000 an hour through the machine, which amount is exposed to a house edge of 2.7%.  On average, the house therefore will retain $44 of that amount.  On a full pay machine, with a 0.5% house edge, the house will retain, on average, only $10 — more than three times less.  The average hourly cost of playing a $1.00 short pay jacks or better video poker machine is $34 more than a full pay machine.  As we used to say in Brooklyn, “that ain’t nuttin'”.  And if you’re playing a $5.00 machine ($25.00 per spin), the extra cost per hour is quintupled, to $240 per hour.

Whether to accept the extra cost is, of course, up to you.  If you have a very limited budget, and must play at the $.25 level, you really have no choice —  8/5 machines likely are the best available to you in the northeast (and beware of those paying even less).  At the dollar level, if you live in Albany, the nearest full pay machines are two hours farther away than the nearest 8/5 machines.  At the $5.00 level and above, Turning Stone offers full pay jacks or better, as do the casinos in Connecticut.  Be aware that, regardless of short term results, the more you play, the more your results will skew toward the average return.

Ironically, one of the major responses of the gaming industry to increased competition has been to lower the return to players on its games.  The reasons for this are many, including increased taxation and other items of overhead (New York’s taxes on its non-native American casinos is, not surprisingly, among the nation’s highest, and that money has to come from somewhere).  However, a major reason for for the payout reduction is that it works.  Consumers who normally would boycott a store charging four times more than its competition for a given item accept the gouging, usually out of ignorance.  If you know the cost, you — and only you — can decide whether the convenience, amenities and other factors justify playing the short pay machine.



Before you go to Rivers

February 2, 2017


Its February 8 opening imminent, the Rivers Casino’s public relations operation is flooding the area with advertising and press releases.  The photos I’ve seen of the casino portray a modern, tastefully appointed property that reminds me of some of the nicer off-Strip properties in Las Vegas, such as the M Resort and Red Rock Station.  The restaurants look inviting.  But is it a place where you will want to spend your hard-earned money?

Casinos operate on the principle that they pay out less than the true odds on their games.  An illustration will explain this:  A fair coin, over a large number of tosses, will result in an equal number of heads and tails.  In a game in which you bet on the outcome, the true odds would be even.  Thus, if you bet a dollar on each toss, and lose your bet on heads, but win a dollar on tails, you are paid true odds, and the casino (and the player), in the long run, would break even on the game, which is not a sustainable business model.  Instead, for your dollar bet you may be paid 85 or 90 cents when you win (the casino keeping your dollar if you lose), the difference between the payoff amount and the dollar that would represent fair odds going to overhead and profit.  The difference between true odds and actual payouts can be roughly expressed as the “house edge.”

So, if virtually assured a long term loss, why would anyone gamble?  There are many answers to that question.  However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s choose the most common one – one gambles because of the possibility of “getting lucky.”  While the coin toss will result in equal numbers of heads and tails over a long run, the results are “streaky” — they may come in bunches of heads and bunches of tails, some fairly long.  This volatility can make players winners in the short run.  A well run casino recognizes the necessity of volatility and the winners it produces, and often advertises those who hit large slot jackpots, hoping to persuade others to try their luck.    Because the casino is dealing with a large number of players over a long time, volatility is not nearly as much a factor for it, and it will profit despite the short term winners if its business model is sound.

The more often one gambles, and the more one bets, the more one moves from the short term to the long term.  Volatility recedes in influence, and the house edge asserts itself more consistently.  This is why the educational materials addressed to problem gamblers and potential problem gamblers emphasize that “chasing losses” by continuing to bet seldom works and most often leads to more losses.


A great truth almost never addressed by casinos, their regulators or the general news media is that not all casinos are alike.  In addition to offering different games and amenities, casinos have a wide latitude in adjusting their house edge on many games.  On some games, the player can calculate the house edge.  As I have written, video poker is one of those games. Similarly, the house edge in blackjack can be computed.  Other games, notably slot machines other than video poker, do not readily yield their payoff percentages or volatility.  As I previously wrote, the video poker offered by other casinos run by the company that manages the Rivers has relatively high house edges, and I expect the same here, given the high taxes and fees the Rivers must pay the State.  A recent check of the Rivers web site reveals that its single and double-deck blackjack games will pay 6:5 on a blackjack, which sends the house edge for those games into the unplayable stratosphere (the casino also will offer “shoe games” using more decks that will pay the traditional 3:2 for blackjacks; depending on the other factors, those games may or may not have a reasonable house edge).

If you have guests arriving for dinner in a few minutes, and suddenly find yourself out of something you need to finish the meal, you will go to the nearest store and pay whatever the cost, so that you can return in time to have the meal ready when your guests arrive.  That’s the principle behind convenience stores.  However, for your weekly shopping, particularly if you have a large family, you are likely to be more price conscious, even if it means a longer drive to a larger store.

From the presently available evidence, I predict the Rivers will be on the convenience store end of the spectrum.  If you are a casual, low stakes gambler, and the location is convenient, the comps and offers generous (which remains to be seen) and the atmosphere enjoyable, you can enjoy a day or night out at a reasonable cost if you limit the amount you bring, prepare to lose it, and leave the ATM card at home.  However, if you are a more regular gambler, you may wish to take it easy until you have an idea of how you may be expected to do compared to at the venues you presently frequent.





Lessons from our neighbors to the North

September 1, 2014

I just returned from a glorious cycling mini-vacation in Montreal, one of North America’s premiere cities for bicycling. I got to see a lot, compared to what pedestrians get to see; I got to see details that those who drive around miss; I got fresh air, sunshine, exercise and contact with locals. What Montreal got from me was tourist dollars, good will, great word of mouth and someone likely to return for more.

By accommodating cyclists, in addition to other tourists, Montreal has spawned a whole industry of businesses that support them – hotels and inns near bike paths, bicycle shops, and the like. It has provided its  residents an outlet for safe, outdoor, healthy recreation. And it has created a mini-boom in real estate along the major bike routes, such as the Lachine Canal trail.

By contrast, let’s look at what our area is doing to promote tourism and economic development: a convention center and a casino resort, neither world class, and therefore neither likely to attract visitors from outside the region. Both are late-comers in declining industries that already have excess capacity. While both will create one-shot jobs while they are being built, neither is likely to spur much ongoing development in their immediate surroundings, and neither will provide ongoing entertainment or recreational opportunities for locals, except perhaps for the casino, which may not be a good thing.

Some of the major benefits of encouraging bicycle tourism are:

1.  Low cost.  The bedrock principle for encouraging people to bike is to provide an area physically separate from automobiles in which they can feel safe and comfortable.  “Sharrows,” and bike route signs, the principal things our government wastes money on to promote cycling, do not achieve this goal.  However, there are relatively easy and inexpensive ways to separate cars and bikes.  Here’s a bike path in Montreal that uses no more than a painted line to demarcate a bike lane next to the curb, with cars parked on its outside to shield the cyclists from moving traffic.

Simple bike path - parked cars separate bikes and moving cars

Simple bike path – parked cars separate bikes and moving cars

For a little more money, actual temporary barriers can be installed that can be removed in winter (in Montreal, the bike paths are open from April through November):

Bike trail with stantions

Bike trail with stanchions

For a little more, you can add fancy, permanent curbing, and even a separate signaling system, but these are bells and whistles, not essentials:

Bike path with curbing

Bike path with curbing






Bike traffic light

Bike traffic light

2.  Benefits to residents.  While attracting tourists, a usable network of bike trails will at the same time encourage locals to use their bikes more, which will improve their health, reduce automobile traffic and its negative side effects (pollution, accidents, use of large swaths of downtown land for parking lots, etc.).

3.  Economic development.  Bikeable cities attract millenials and others who prefer urban, car-less environments.  In Montreal, I saw a lot of new residential development next to the major bike trails, as well as renovations of older warehouses, factories and the like into apartments and condos.

Montreal has as long and severe a winter season as Albany, yet it proves that bike paths make economic sense even when used only part of the year.  One advantage Montreal does have over Albany is more level terrain, but there are plenty of potential routes here that would not require major hill climbs.  The Corning Preserve and Mohawk bike trails already here are a good start that demonstrate the local demand for off-road cycling facilities, so there is little risk that if we build it, no one will come.

Expanding our network of off-road bike routes would be a win-win for residents, tourists and local businesses, at minimal cost to government.  There are few greater opportunities for government to do so much good for so many at so little cost.  What’s stopping it?

Radio variety

June 5, 2012

When I moved to Albany from the New York City area, I found the variety of radio programming here wanting.  WAMC is great for news and interviews, and shows like Car Talk and Wait, Wait, though the signal quality is very poor where I live, and WMHT is great for classical music.  I’m not a great fan of extremist political pundits, popular music, incessant, loud commercials or yelling DJs, which seem to be what most of the commercial stations offer.

The answer for me has been streaming.  I recently discovered Tune In Radio, an Android app that lets you stream just about any radio station in the world, as well as specialized Internet-only programming, including infinite varieties of jazz and other non-commercially viable forms of music.  For specific programs, podcasts are an option as well.  I use them to make sure I don’t miss some favorite programs.

In order to easily listen to streaming programs away from my computer, I recently bought some Bluetooth enabled speakers.  When I want to listen, I fire up the tablet or phone (making sure it’s set to use wi-fi, not cellular data), activate the connection to the speaker, and I’m listening to what I want, when I want.  The phone or tablet is like a bed side or chair side remote control.

I imagine it’s only a matter of time before our phones will control many other household devices.  The big downside I see to that is rapid battery drain, which will require users to be more attentive to keeping their phones charged.  Another down side is that conventional stereo systems are being rendered obsolete; I know I haven’t used mine in months.

Bicycle path controversy

June 1, 2012

This recent story in USA Today and a recent ride on the Ashuwilticook trail in the Berkshires caused a few thoughts about bicycling to pop into my head.  As one who has ridden a bicycle regularly in urban and suburban areas for over 50 years, and as one who was hit by a car while cycling in the Albany area a few years ago (fortunately, the injuries inflicted by the hit and run driver were minimal), it is clear to me that places allowing for safe on-road cycling near where many people live are rapidly disappearing.  The future of this activity is on paths and roads that are physically separated from motorized traffic.  Many great cities outside the USA have extensive networks of such bicycle paths, which benefit society by providing means of economical, non-polluting transportation, diverting automobiles from crowded roads, and providing healthful opportunities for exercise and recreation.

What’s not to like?  Apparently, in New York City, plenty.  Drivers of autos resent any infringement on their turf, which has expanded over the years (when I lived there, I was shocked to find that autos generally were allowed on park roadways in Central and Prospect Park (OK, I get the need for crosstown access through Central Park, but not for traveling on the other park roadways).  Olmstead would spin in his grave if he could see how his park lanes are jammed with taxis and other traffic. Mayors from Koch to Bloomberg have had the uncanny knack of locating bike routes and lanes where they will tick off the most motorists.  And cyclists who ignore traffic laws to the point of terrorizing pedestrians and who engage in inappropriate demonstrations have exacerbated tension between cyclists and motorists.

Motorists need to be a little more “live and let live,” particularly in urban areas where the automotive-centered lifestyle has exacted large costs in terms of traffic jams, air pollution, depletion of resources devoted to public transit, and use of land for roads and parking lots.  An extensive network of bike lanes can improve the quality of life for residents, ease the strain on roads and transit facilities, and even attract tourists.  Montreal has done it, as have many other cities around the world.  New York should be world class in this area, too, and our region, with lots of abandoned rail lines crying out for productive re-use, should be a regional leader in developing off-road bicycle routes.  Everyone would benefit, and the monetary investment required would be relatively small but would produce large rewards.