Category Archives: zero-sum-gaming

All Bets Are Off


Greek mythology has it, that when Zeus’ brother Poseiden was wooing Demeter, she set him the challenge, “to create the most beautiful animal that the world has ever seen”; and he came up with the horse. As a Navy kid (already familiar with Poseiden as Ruler of the Waves), I knew about his thing with horses by the time my sister & I invested in 2 Cheap Day Return rail tickets, for a Day at the Races at Sandown Park in Surrey, England. At 12 & 13, we were only making friendly wagers with each other; but every time I expressed an interest in a horse, it either threw a shoe, or its rider, or otherwise came a cropper. So I made a promise to Poseiden, which I have kept, never to “have a horse in the race.”

That hasn’t kept me away from racetracks, mind you. When my girls were 6 & 9, I took them by subway to Aqueduct [we were already visiting NYC at the time], where, it being early on a weekday, the only other punters were the Damon Runyonesque characters so endearingly portrayed in the HBO series Luck [filmed at a favorite SoCal track of ours, Santa Anita]. Overhearing my girls’ uncanny handicapping skills [especially the 6-year-old’s], one railbird approached her as we were leaving and offered, “Girlie, I would buy you sodas and snacks all day, if you would stick around and pick horses for me.” We had other fish to fry that day; but similar offers are made to them, every time we go to the races. True to my promise to Poseiden, I keep my money in my pocket & my havoc-wreaking opinions to myself.

Last Saturday, on the 3rd of March, on Big ‘Cap [Handicapping] Day, our family had just arrived at Santa Anita in time for Race 3, when “Muny,” the horse in Post position 3, broke through the gate early, and chaos ensued. As reported by Tracy Gantz in Bloodhorse.com/Horse Racing News, only 3 of the 7 horses “came out of the gate properly.” 3 assistant starters were able to hold their horses, as it were; but “Mr. Bossy Pants,” “Oak Kye Why,” & “Sky Cape,” were off to the races, even though, “before the horses had traversed even half the distance of the race, the stewards posted the enquiry sign.” Meanwhile, back near the starting gate, “Lord’s Minister” had thrown his jockey, Martin Garcia, and “proceeded [riderless] down the hill after the other 3” before being skillfully wrangled by an outrider in the stretch. Both horse & jockey were unharmed [thank Poseiden]; and Garcia went on to win an impressive victory in the very next race.

As “Mr. Bossy Pants” romped home for the ostensible “win,” the huge crowd went silent, as the track announcer intoned, “Hold all tickets, please.” We were standing at the rail, just behind the fancy box seats, not 10 feet from the Luck actor, John Ortiz [later joined by the jockey-commentator-actor, Gary Stevens]; but everyone seemed baffled. As we wandered back into the betting hall, the tote board flashed the message, in huge red letters: “NO CONTEST”; and seasoned punters explained to rookies, “All bets are off. Everybody gets their money back.” One railbird quipped, “Does this mean I get back all the money I’ve lost all day?” Well, no, but “all 7 horses were considered winners for the purposes of multi-race wagers, except for daily doubles.” The only possible loser was “Mr. Bossy Pants” and his connections, who must have felt “they was robbed.”

Now for an analysis of Magical Thinking [which is inherent in the Sport of Kings]. Seriously, do I believe that I have such powerful internal locus of control, that my mere presence at a race meeting was enough to cause all this mayhem? Never mind me, how ’bout all those 3’s? Don’t you just bet a lot of punters played “the 3” in all subsequent races? Both my girls stuck to their usual [intuitive but effective] wagering strategies, with the younger one winning more than her sister, while Chris lost a few bucks. In the last race we stayed for, the 10th, our elder girl pulled herself “out of the whole” by betting the 9-to-1 Irish-bred longshot, “Willyconker,” who won by a neck in a thrilling finish.

As the old Irish joke goes, when asked if she believed in fairies, the country woman replied, “I do not; but they’re there.” Do I believe that a deal I made with a Greek god, more than 50 years ago, helps to bring all horses and their riders “safe home”? Well, now, I wouldn’t be bettin’ against it.

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Filed under locus of control, magical thinking, zero-sum-gaming

Why the long face?

Chances are, if you are a horse or a human at an equestrian barn, that hang-dog look means you have just suffered a humiliation.

The other day my San Francisco daughter (who has been riding horses since she was 7, including, in better times, our magnificent 18hh Hanoverian, Owen) called to say, “Well, good. I finally met the Barn Bitch.” She had decided to reallocate her discretionary income, from hanging with 20-somethings at Frisco watering holes, to hanging with a 20-something horse in Oakland, name of Zachary. (Which is also her boss’ name, innit?) Until that day, everyone she had met at the barn had been helpful and welcoming.

I, too, began riding at the age of 7; and have never, in more than a dozen different barns, in the US and Europe, failed to encounter at least one trainer stuck in a permanent state of rage. There is also always at least one horse in a permanent Bad Mood. In the UK, where horses are not exotic, and mingle freely with motorists and pedestrians, such a “known kicker and/or biter” is likely to have a red ribbon tied to its tail. If only the Barn Bitch came with such a warning label!

Let’s do a bit of ethology, to try to figure out why “There’s (at least) one in every crowd.” Horses, it must be understood, are both pack animals and prey animals. In the wild, survival depends on being “well in” with the herd, whose members can better fend off predators. Yet, when forage is scarce, survival depends on being of high enough status to get first dibs on the food. Battles for supremacy involve biting and kicking; and size does not always matter. (Even a fierce little dog can growl a horse away from food which is of no nutritional value to the terrier, itself. Hence, the English expression, “to act like a dog in the manger.”) Indeed, at riding barns, it is most often a small mare or even a pony who wears the red ribbon.

And so, to the psychology of the Barn Bitch. It is rarely the owner of the establishment who snarls (at potential customers). It may not even be the head trainer, whose alpha status allows first pick of horses, tack, and students, making it more likely that they will win the on-going zero-sum-game, into which all human/horse endeavors [not just show events, or races, but even lessons] morph. It is the “Not Quites,” the Wannabe trainers, who are left with the nags, the old tack and the less promising students, who suffer humiliation, which they pass along, like the Old Maid card, usually to unsuspecting newcomers.

Once you know who should be wearing a red ribbon, it’s easier to put out your own subtext message, loud & clear: “I’m not your enemy, but I’m not your victim.” Now, jump out of the manger, and let my horse eat. An old hand at such scenarios, my daughter held her ground; and the erstwhile Barn Bitch morphed into a lap dog.

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Filed under aggression happens, ethology, power subtext, zero-sum-gaming

"I have a bone to pick with you."


Like most idioms in your first language, the meaning of this one seems obvious: “You and I have a score to settle.” But why does it mean that? Why a zero-sum-game power-struggle vibe, rather than, “Oh, look! I’ve brought a bone that we can share, cuz I’m an altruistic mammal.” [See this week’s NYTimes Science section, for a heart-warming University of Chicago study of (relatively) “free” rats liberating caged rats, even if they did not then get to enjoy the newly-freed rats’ company. They even saved and shared their chocolates with their less fortunate brethren, like something out of a Festive Seasonal Disney flick.]

My extensive collection of Word & Phrase Origin books shed no light on the (bone) subject, so I ventured into [onto?] the web, where I found a site (Usingenglish.com) intended for the wising up of those for whom English is a second language. Mint, nar’mean? They don’t bother with derivations, just plug & chug [“This means that. Just memorize it, already.”] definitions. Other sites attempting to explain whence cometh the bone-to-pick-with-you idiom get all vague and say “Dating from the 15th or 16th century. Referring to two dogs fighting over a bone. See bone of contention.”

So, what? Before the 1400s, English dogs behaved with ratlike altruism and shared their bones? I should cocoa! [Try finding the derivation of that idiom, I dare ya. I’ve been looking ever since I first heard it used in Ealing Studios comedies, in the (19)60s.] Then came the reign of the Tudors, and the Great Bone Panic. [I just made that up. Use of the Poetic speech function.]

And thus, to the bone I have to pick with the NYTimes science reporter, Sindya N. Bhanoo. As with most attributions of species-wide behavioral traits [including the sweetie-sharing rats of Chicago], there is the danger of extrapolating beyond the data. I suspect, for instance, that the “altruism” of the lab rats [which was found more consistently in the females, incidentally] is another manifestation of the Oxytocin effect, in which In-group members are tended & defended, whereas Out-group members [street rats, for instance], would receive short shrift.

Likewise, the Tudor dogs who were observed [proverbially] contending over bones may have been those indolent little hand-fed ones who hung around Hampton Court Palace [not the noble Big Dogs who went out with the hunting parties, and could forage bones galore out in the woods].

Alas, the thoroughly modern Lili is only allowed stage prop Nylabones, which she nevertheless seems to value highly, since she usually tries to pick [gnaw] two of them at once.

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Filed under attribution theory, ethology, murky research, zero-sum-gaming

Throwing Shade


Talk about humiliating! What kind of music have I been listening to for the last 15 years, that I missed out on the idiom, “to throw shade”? Well, obviously, not to Li’l Kim (nee Kimberly Denise Jones), the Bed/Stuy (Brooklyn) rapper, whose 1996 hit “Crush On You” contains the lyric, “I’ma throw shade if I don’t get paid.” Back in the day, the only American rapper I cared about was Eminem [for the arbitrary reason that his hometown, Sterling Heights (Michigan), is where we stabled our horses, Dusk & Owen].

These days I am obsessed with UK rappers, but mostly guys, as heard on BBC Radio 1.

Anyway, the phrase was being bandied about in the middle of the night this weekend, by “tired & emotional” [a euphemism used in the UK press, to avoid libel actions] young people, who couldn’t clarify its meaning just then. “Is it a good thing, or a bad thing, to ‘throw shade’?” I kept asking, to no avail. For the rest of you tragically un-hip, I can now inform you [according to the Urban Dictionary], it’s a bad thing, similar to dissing someone. As to its derivation, their guess is that it comes from that old expression, “to put someone in the shade.” [To outshine them, with one’s wonderfulness.] As used on the Night in Question, I would speculate that it could be a corruption of the German word, Schadenfreude [joy in another’s shame], which (though actually pronounced “shodden froy-deh”) might be transliterated “fro da shade.” [Nar-mean? “Throw the shade,” innit?]

So, who is likely to “throw (da) shade,” and why? Well, duh! Individuals who feel dissed, themselves, are gonna want to diss the disser back, in retaliation. Or…should the disser be unavailable [or too dangerous to diss directly], a proxy target of our aggression [cuz, let’s face it, a diss is an act of aggression] may be substituted. A small example from last week comes to mind. Ruth, the Maine Coon, has made bold [in her 21st year] to usurp the couch pillow [next to me, as I type this] from the erstwhile Top Cat, Zanzibar. She was ruling this roost when Zanzibar came up to roust her [or at least share the spot with her]. The couch is big. They’re small. All 3 cats plus Lili could fit on it easily, with room to spare for a blogger. But Ruth was having none of it. She blasted young Zanzibar with a sustained, foul-smelling hiss [a clear diss], until he backed off, pivoted, and smacked sleeping Lili upside the head with his paw [an act of displaced aggression]. Since Lili is besotted with Zanzibar, she did not appear to feel dissed [perhaps, mistook his bop for a love pat], and, in the event, she did not retaliate.

As noted in previous posts, a diss is often in the eye of the beholder. Think of the last time you felt humiliated by the basking of another in the [often arbitrary] limelight of fame, fortune or admiration, while you have been toiling, thanklessly, in the shadows. Gets right up your nose, nar’mean? A former patient of mine described being on the losing end of Fate’s Wheel of Fortune as, “An existential smack on the snout.” It makes you [or me, at least] want to howl, “Das ist nicht FAIR!” like the Clever Dogs of Austria.

I say, first do the Wolfwork of admitting how angry the [implied or in-your-face] diss makes you feel. Then, try to resist passing on the pain by dissing an innocent proxy [a sleeping dog], rather than the actual source of your humiliation [Ruth]. If possible, throw shade so subtly that you don’t get into trouble for it.

The tree that is throwing shade on Lili in the picture is, alas, in big trouble, leaning as it does perilously close to our house in a time of howling winds & earthquakes. The axeman cometh.

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Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, zero-sum-gaming

Who’s Got Your Back?


While watching Wimbledon tennis on telly with the sound muted, I’m listening to Radio Wimbledon, which provides commentary on all the matches [from Center Court to Court 14], as well as traffic, transport & weather advisories for those in the stands. If you’re in SW19, Radio Wimbledon’s got your back. As young girls in the 60s, clutching General Admissions tickets to the grounds and CheapDayReturn train tickets back to our town, my sister & I had each other’s backs, too, minding the time to make sure we had enough of it to hoof it back to Wimbledon Station and get our tickets punched by the Station Master before rush hour [when our CheapDayReturns expired]. All this, without the aid of Radio Wimbledon, cellphones, debit cards, or even wristwatches! What a team we made.

We still do. The British relationship therapist, Dr. Sue Johnson, quotes “a traditional Irish saying” [although I can’t find it in any of my aphorism reference sources] thus: “We stand in the shelter of one another.” Or, if we are gazelles @ the LA zoo, we lie down in the shelter of one another. If Chris had used a wider-angle lens, you could have seen a spindly-legged baby gazelle, toddling around under the vigilant gaze of these 3 “lifeguards,” all of whom had its back.

Ah! It’s soothing, just to see them. No, really. Watching a cohort of furry creatures tend & defend their vulnerable members has been shown [in those studies I’m not wild about, for ethical reasons] to lower cortisol, not just in the creatures themselves, but in the observer. [Except maybe not in would-be predators, like those leopards from the previous post, who chunter to themselves, “Curses! Foiled again!”]

The Radio Wimbledon commentators make frequent reference to each contestant’s looking up to the Player’s Box where their entourage of “lifeguards” [coaches, family, friends] are sitting, “seeking their sympathy, or approval, or their righteous indignation at a bad line call.” The exchanges are all done non-verbally, but sometimes with operatic intensity. Unfortunately, when members of a player’s cohort see themselves on a telly camera [via the Jumbotron], they tend to stiffen up, cast their eyes down, and leave their vulnerable Young One momentarily undefended. That’s why it’s heartening to hear the radio accounts [or to be there in person, to see the authentic exchange of give-a-damn looks]. As my favorite Radio 1 Scottish DJ, Edith Bowman, says, wherever in the world Andy Murray is playing, she is listening, “Willin’ him on, just willin’ him on!”

Such fan support helps the player [if he or she is aware of it, and our Andy is a keen Twitterer]; but it also helps the sports fan. Remember the truth about oxytocin? It makes you want to tend & defend those in your reference group, but not the opponent. Nar’mean?

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Filed under reference group, stress and cortisol, zero-sum-gaming

On a Wild-Goose Chase


It’s probably not what you think it is. In the 16th Century, as if horses didn’t have enough to do already [what with pulling plows & carriages, carrying warriors into battle, or on hunts for wild boar, deer, or foxes], they were ridden [for sport & for wagers] over the fields and stone “fences” of England, in a variety of contests of speed, agility & endurance. The Steeple Chase [also called the Point-to-Point] involved racing from one church steeple to the next. In the Paper Chase, directions to the next “point” on the route were written on pieces of paper [like a treasure hunt]. More arcane than these was the Wild-Goose Chase [used as a metaphor in 1592 in Romeo & Juliet], in which the lead horse is the “alpha wild-goose” who chooses the route, which all the others must follow in the chevron formation of geese in flight. Since the interval between lead “goose” and the others must be maintained [in an apparent race of attrition], the enterprise became a metaphor for “a fool’s errand” [a futile waste of Therbligs], since the only way to beat the “goose” in pole position would be for it to fall at one of the fences. As in modern steeplechases [such as the Grand National], however, many fewer horses finish the race than start it, so it’s a Schadenfreudelich, Survival-of-the-Fittest wager the punters are making.

What a great concept for a reality TV show, no?

Most mornings, Lili gets to engage in a more literal wild-goose chase, charging the flock of insouciant, poo-dropping Canada geese who congregate on the school playing fields, and sending them off in a honking, airborne chevron [possibly just to the nearby golf course]. The school groundskeepers love this, as do the kids out for PhysEd [who whoop and applaud, and shout “It’s a wolf! It’s a bear! It’s the Goose-anator!”]. Haven’t heard the last moniker much, since the Fall of Arnie, though.

Unlike the English sporting event, no animals are harmed in the making of Lili’s morning show. The geese do not seem to experience her intrusion as awful [after all, they come back again the next day]; just highly inconvenient. Her efforts could be viewed as futile, in that they offer no permanent “goose-anation.” This is not a trivial matter for the keepers & users of airport runways, as Sully the Hero of the Hudson could tell you. Indeed, many airports have hired wild-goose-chasing dogs, since that high-profile [but not uncommon] bird-strike incident.

The mission [as they say in government-speak] is “on-going.” Win some, lose some. [Supply your own triumphs and disasters from this month’s headlines.] Disasters cause pain & suffering to their immediate victims, fear to the rest of us [that we could be next], intrusion [of additional security measures] and humiliation [that we can’t seem to find a “fool-proof” fix for the given threat]. No wonder the wolf is howling!

But, if we can focus on some of the triumphs, we might believe that our efforts are not futile. Our personal wild-goose chase may not be a “fool’s errand,” even if it must be “repeated, as necessary.” Our Therbligs will have not been expended in vain.

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Filed under therbligs, zero-sum-gaming

That "Frenemies" Thing


Well, stone the crows, all these years I have been attributing this zero-sum-gaming motto to Gore Vidal; but now I find it, in a 1966 TIME magazine article, falling out of the gob of the hugely successful Broadway producer, David Merrick: “It is not enough for me to succeed; all others must also fail.” How humiliating, to have gotten it wrong! (Although I’m not alone. Others have credited Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan. Do I hear a nomination for Machiavelli?) The article, incidentally, in that halcyon, less in-your-face-snarky era of journalism, was called “The Be(a)st of Broadway,” geddit? Cuz, Mr. Merrick was (ahem) ambivalently regarded by the theatrical community.

Now, a short diatribe on the clinical meaning of “ambivalence” (as opposed to the “street” meaning, of “I hate his guts!”): “simultaneous conflicting feelings toward a person or thing, as love and hate” [Webster’s, 1988 ed.] Not, “as fear and loathing,” nar’mean? To illustrate this point in therapy sessions, I hold out my hands in the “supplicant palms” position, and intone, “On the one hand, ya-dah-ya-dah. On the other hand, la-di-dah.” I then say, “There are very few things or individuals in our lives, about which we humans are not ambivalent.”

Oh, but how we hate to admit it! Even to ourselves. So, hurrah for the new portmanteau word, “frenemy,” which captures the both-hands [simultaneously positive & negative] feelings which we can sense in others [but only bald-faced truth-tellers, like Merrick & Vidal, will acknowledge in themselves]. We’ll know that this brave willingness to admit to ambivalent feelings, about even our Nearest & Dearest, has made it into mainstream consciousness, when “to frenemy” someone becomes a transitive verb in Facebook parlance.

The next post will deal with the ways people avoid Owning their Inner Wolf [as in, acknowledging that another’s success can stir feelings of humiliation that they got the “prize” we wanted, and even fear that there won’t be enough “prizes” to go around].

Meanwhile, here are Seamus & Finn, locked in some sort of close contact. Is it a hug or combat? That’s easy. It’s both.

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Filed under ambivalence, zero-sum-gaming