01/13/13

Musings on Game Design


An odd bit of synchronicity. I picked up a few unusual board games* at the discount/remainder store downtown (in the former Shoppers’ Drug Mart building) a couple of weeks back, and was mulling over their instructions, wondering why they seemed such odd and awkward games. In fact, they seemed rather unplayable, more like intellectual exercises in game design. Yet they were beautifully made, and very attractive.

Was it the topic? The manual? The components? What makes for a good game, what makes a bad one? Why have some games lingered on and are still being played – Monopoly, Scrabble, chess, go, Risk, Trivial Pursuit for example – while others seem to come and go? Was it simply that I was no longer conversant with the nature of the board gaming world?

Then I read an article on Science Digest that week called, “The Reason We Lose at Games: Some Games Simply Too Complex for the Human Mind to Understand“. In it, the authors wrote,

“…a University of Manchester physicist has discovered that some games are simply impossible to fully learn, or too complex for the human mind to understand.”

That led me to thoughts about games and game design. I’m a game player, always have been. Ever since my father taught me to play chess, around age 7 or 8. Admittedly I don’t play as much today, and mostly on the computer, but I can still spend a few hours now and then, immersed in a game like Civ V, Tropico 4 or others.

Monster wargameBackground: In the mid-1970s, I owned a small bookstore in Toronto. Among my lines was a rather good selection of chess books. Unfortunately, I was a better chess player than business owner, and I eventually closed my store and sold my stock. The chess books went to Mr. Gameways, a game store on Bloor Street. I got along with its manager so well, that he offered me a job, and for the next couple of years I managed the board game floor. During that time, I got heavily immersed in board games, particularly war games; easily the most challenging, complicated and demanding type of game ever. Eventually I ended up writing for wargaming magazines, reviewing wargames and even playtesting a few (along with several attempts at designing).

Imagine learning a rule book with 12, 24, even 60 pages of densely-packed rules! A board with hundreds, even thousands of pieces, multiple charts and tables, and complex interactions between them. And we learned and played new games at least once a month. Sometimes every week. As the Science Digest article says,

However, when games became more complex and when there are a lot of moves, such as in chess, the board game Go or complex card games, the academics argue that players’ actions become less rational and that it is hard to find optimal strategies.

Wargaming was a small but avid culture that had its heyday in the 1980s. Much like chess, there were clubs where people came to engage in games regularly, often playing a single game against an opponent for four or more hours. Some games took months to complete – I had a small circle of like-minded friends who met weekly to play some of the larger games, usually four to six of us at a time, with maps that spread out to cover an entire dining room table. War in the East (the entire Soviet-German war from 1941-45) and Highway to the Reich (Operation Market Garden) were two of the larger, table-size games I recall. Each session lasted three-six hours; the entire game took months to play through.

Complex? Challenging? Difficult? Yes to all. But captivating, too. They demanded strategic thinking often well beyond the horizon that chess offers. Yet there was still a random element – the roll of the die to determine combat results – that made the games exciting, and always different. Plus there was the virtual-general aspect: commanding anywhere from dozens to hundreds of units, managing logistics, strategy, setting operation goals…

Often the battles were very unequal, which added a different level of challenge. Can you win a battle that was historically lost by your side’s army? Sometimes… that all depended on how the game was designed, and what the victory conditions were. Winning might be, in game terms, losing less horribly than was historical. It might mean holding out longer before inevitable defeat. There’s a good description of a wargame here. The author of that blog notes:

“Wargames have to manifest some degree of historical specificity to be differentiated from popular but generic conflict games like Stratego or Risk. The popular Axis and Allies franchise (Hasbro) or more recently Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder) represent about the minimum history acceptable in this regard. Unlike many Euro games, where the nominal historical subject is nothing but a thematic skin for the underlying game engine, board wargames try to capture some salient aspect of the events they depict, be it a particular strategic dilemma, operational opportunity or challenge, or battlefield dynamic.”

Look at Dunkirk, for a real-life example. As a straightforward wargame based on armies and tanks, the Germans win every time. They had overwhelming superiority in terms of men and weapons, greater mobility and higher morale, better supply lines. But the British “won” by being rescued from an isolated beach and saving a large portion of its army. How can a game designer incorporate the political elements, the indecision, the German High Command’s failure to follow through? That’s one of those thorny game-design problems. How to create a playable game out of an unequal situation. The Science Digest article notes,

Much of traditional game theory, the basis for strategic decision-making, is based on the equilibrium point — players or workers having a deep and perfect knowledge of what they are doing and of what their opponents are doing.

Dr Galla, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “Equilibrium is not always the right thing you should look for in a game.”

“In many situations, people do not play equilibrium strategies, instead what they do can look like random or chaotic for a variety of reasons, so it is not always appropriate to base predictions on the equilibrium model.”

In fact, a game doesn’t have to be balanced to be fun, interesting or challenging. Many traditional, strategic board games like chess or go are balanced. Some, from snakes & ladders to backgammon and bridge, introduce randomness to change the balance. But real life is never like that. Many wargames introduced tension and dynamics through historical situations where unequal sides clashed

Napoleon's Last BattlesAnother historical example: Waterloo. While the allies (England and the German states) had, collectively, a larger army, they were initially scattered (especially the English), had longer and more vulnerable supply lines, and were not working together as a cohesive force. The French started with a central position, internal lines, the element of surprise, the morale benefit provided by Napoleon, and more experienced leaders. Which situation offered an advantage? The French need to strike fast and hard; break each Allied army separately before they can join forces. The Allies need to delay the French long enough for the British army to collect itself, then for both to gather at a point where they can defeat the French.

Could Napoleon have won? Potentially, if had been able to defeat the Allies separately, without suffering too many casualties – and had been able to manage his rather independent and unruly generals while maintaining his lines of supply. A good designer can craft a Waterloo game to present all the challenges that were historically present, and craft it so that Napoleon has some chance of winning, without stepping too far from historicity. And make the game fun to play. In fact, replaying Waterloo has long been a popular activity for wargame and miniatures gamers because of the different challenges both sides face, and the see-saw nature of the battle.

Playability versus realism – always the teeter-totter when designing wargames. Some games were classics of good design – the Napoleon’s Last Battles quad (and many of the other quad series games), Barbarossa, and PanzerBlitz come to mind as good examples of balance in both areas. The author of this article raises some interesting points about wargames that I hadn’t considered when I was playing them:

Board wargames function as paper computers. The abstraction of combat, movement, supply, and other basic military considerations into a numerically expressed spectrum of outcomes, randomized by die rolls within the parameters of a situation, makes the genre a rich source for anyone interested in the formal and procedural representation of dynamic, often ambiguous, literally contested experience. Because wargames are embodied in cardboard and charts rather than algorithms and code, they are by their nature “open source.” That is, the quantitative model underpinning the game system is materially exposed for inspection and analysis.

Finally, while most often understood in terms related to either gaming or simulation, board wargames can also function as powerful narrative agents. Players routinely discuss a game’s capacity for “narrative,” meaning whether the discrete die rolls and events allow them to suspend disbelief and create a believable storyworld that accords with their sense of historical plausibility. “Game fiction,” as the term has been defined by Jason Rhody, is therefore a salient feature of board wargames (a “genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment”).

I really understand his comment on the narrative nature of wargames.

A lot of independent game designers popped up during my wargaming days, creating sometimes remarkable games, sometimes unplayable ones. Occasionally I saw a tendency towards too much data, too many complex rules to try and capture the historical events through in-game strictures – putting realism over playability. That led to complex, difficult games where players read rule books while trying to figure out moves, and often argued over interpretations of even minor rules that could create big effects when used in play.

We also argued continually over interpretation of unit values. Was this tank model really worth two combat points more than that one? Did the designer appropriately take into account the bigger calibre gun or the wider tread? Was this cavalry regiment really better than that one, given the poor showing of its leader on the actual battlefield? Can a company of foot soldiers really travel that far in the time a turn represents? Does this general deserve that high a modifier compared to that one? We all became historians, usually with specialties in certain periods and equipment.

Of course, the way you learn about a game is by buying and playing it. At one point I had a huge collection – hundreds – of wargames. Now I have a mere handful, mostly kept for their nostalgic value. Wargaming led to buying a lot of books on military history and strategy, too, and my house was full of such books for many years. Like the games, only a dozen or so remain on the shelves.

Today, computer games rule the industry. The trend is often the other way: towards higher playability rather than realism. Popular games are too often mere entertainment. Oh, there’s a lot of “realism” in the environment – 3D landscapes, destructible objects, real-world physics with ballistics and gravity – but these define the setting, not the nature of the play. Computer games are often mechanically simple despite their visual impressiveness, especially the first-person shooters. In FPS, it’s all about fast fingers, rather than strategic planning or (just play in any multi-player FPS game online and you’ll find out how little real military tactics are used).

Even many computer simulations try to mask the inherent complexity – the realism – in a simplified interface, insulating the player from having to deal with too much data. You need both, in a reasonable balance to create an immersive experience. SimCity and Civ IV came very close to that balance. I have started to investigate computer wargames again, too – I was disappointed by them in the past, but there are new generations out worth looking at.

Gaming and game design still interests me, and every now and then invokes some almost-forgotten emotions and memories, but not with the same passion that pushed me in my wargaming days. I still believe some types of gaming are good intellectual exercises, are are good for strengthening the brain and teaching strategic thinking. However, I can’t help but look at any game – board or computer with a combination gamer’s and editor’s eyes, even today, and mentally weigh its merits and its design in terms of my own years of experience and play.

Update: the author of those blog posts responded to my email with a link to this post (and others) about what we can learn from wargames:

So what can we learn from wargames? Where Costikyan sees realism and historical fidelity and validity in simulation, I see a contemporary player and design community (both hobbyist and professional) that values attention to process in the procedural or quantitative representation of complex, often literally contested phenomena. Where Costikyan sees a focus on outcomes, I see a focus on the in-game experience, and the after the fact analysis and discussion of what happened and why.

~~~~~

Principato* Principato: a city-building/trading and farming game set in the Renaissance; De Vulgari Eloquentia, a game set in the late Middle Ages about religion, commerce and language; The Golden City, a trading-maze-merchant game, and Skyline 3000, a city-building futuristic game. All were produced by Z-man games. They attracted me because of their subject matter, but, so far, I have not warmed up to any enough to play them. Despite their high build quality, their instructions make them seem opaque and difficult. That might just be the editor within me wanting to rewrite them, however, and I will look more closely at them in the future and maybe even try one or two. Some of them are well reviewed at boardgamegeek,com.

I also got a maze game based on the Dilbert cartoon characters which is much simpler, but is at least playable without much reading or preparation. And, of course, it has Dilbert in it, one of my favourite cartoon characters.

01/10/13

The Art of Worldly Wisdom


Balthasar GracianPublished in 1647, The Art of Worldly Wisdom is a collection of 300 aphorisms about life, behaviour, politics, morality, faith, philosophy and society. One comment, on Amazon.ca called it, somewhat unfairly to Machiavelli, “Machiavelli with a soul.” I have been reading it of late as part of my ongoing study of Machiavelli.

It was written by Balthasar Gracian (1601-1658), a Spanish-born Jesuit priest, and titled in its original Spanish, “Oraculo manual y arte de prudencia” which translates to “The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion.” Today it is known as The Art of Worldly Wisdom. A popular English translation was made in 1892 by Joseph Jacobs, and is available in several formats online as a public domain book. This is available on several sites as a PDF.* A newer translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

Gracian also wrote A Pocket Mirror for Heroes (El héroe) around the same time. This was a guide for the behaviour of Christian princes, written as a counterpoint to Machiavelli’s advice. A translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom combines general observations on the human condition with practical tips and prudent advice. Many of the aphorisms still have relevance today: they are common sense, and often witty. It is not, like Heroes, a counter-argument against Machiavelli written for rulers, but rather a general guide, written for people of society; professionals, politicians, socialites. It reads a bit like Chuang Tzu or Mencius, at times. Other times it is sternly moralizing in a very European-Christian manner. Others it seems like Emily Post on manners and civility.

Typical of Gracian’s advice is aphorism 43: Think with the Few and speak with the Many. This can stand alone, but is embellished by his commentary:

“By swimming against the stream it is impossible to remove error, easy to fall into danger; only a Socrates can undertake it. To dissent from others’ views is regarded as an insult, because it is their condemnation. Disgust is doubled on account of the thing blamed and of the person who praised it. Truth is for the few, error is both common and vulgar. The wise man is not known by what he says on the house-tops, for there he speaks not with his own voice but with that of common folly, however much his inmost thoughts may gainsay it. The prudent avoid being contradicted as much as contradicting: though they have their censure ready they are not ready to publish it. Thought is free, force cannot and should not be used to it. The wise man therefore retires into silence, and if he allows himself to come out of it, he does so in the shade and before few and fit persons.”

With 300 such aphorisms in the book, there’s always one you can find that relates to your own situation or a local issue. Some, like the one above, can be quoted by its title, but many require Gracian’s explanation to be made clear. For example, xviii: Application and Ability. This is meaningless without the subsequent paragraph of explanation:

“There is no attaining eminence without both, and where they unite there is the greatest eminence. Mediocrity obtains more with application than superiority without it. Work is the price which is paid for reputation. What costs little is little worth. Even for the highest posts it is only in some cases application that is wanting, rarely the talent. To prefer moderate success in great things than eminence in a humble post has the excuse of a generous mind, but not so to be content with humble mediocrity when you could shine among the highest. Thus nature and art are both needed, and application sets on them the seal.”

Here are a few of his aphorisms that struck me as relevant, while I read the book. I have edited some of the commentary, to reduce the size of this post. I recommend, however, you get a copy of the original and read everything in it:

  • xxiv Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize, and is not content with looking on, but influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

    lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. … To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.

  • xxv Know how to take a Hint. He cannot make himself understood who does not himself easily understand.
  • xxviii Common in Nothing. …to be ill at ease when your deeds please the mob! The excesses of popular applause never satisfy the sensible. Take no pleasure in the wonder of the mob, for ignorance never gets beyond wonder. While vulgar folly wonders, wisdom watches for the trick.
  • xxx Have naught to do with Occupations of Ill-repute, still less with fads that bring more notoriety than repute.
  • xxxiii Know how to Withdraw. If it is a great lesson in life to know how to deny, it is a still greater to know how to deny oneself as regards both affairs and persons… To be occupied in what does not concern you is worse than doing nothing.
  • xxv Think over Things, most over the most Important. All fools come to grief from want of thought. They never see even the half of things, and as they do not observe their own loss or gain, still less do they apply any diligence to them. Some make much of what imports little and little of much, always weighing in the wrong scale. Many never lose their common sense, because they have none to lose.
  • xli Never Exaggerate. … Exaggeration is a branch of lying, and you lose by it the credit of good taste, which is much, and of good sense, which is more.
  • lxix Do not give way to every common Impulse. He is a great man who never allows himself to be influenced by the impressions of others. Self-reflection is the school of wisdom.
  • lxxvi Do not always be Jesting. Wisdom is shown in serious matters, and is more appreciated than mere wit. He that is always ready for jests is never ready for serious things… Jest has its little hour, seriousness should have all the rest.
  • lxxviii The Art of undertaking Things. Fools rush in through the door; for folly is always bold… prudence enters with more deliberation… Step cautiously where you suspect depth. Sagacity goes cautiously forward while precaution covers the ground. 

    xxiv: Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize,… influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

  • lxxx Take care to get Information. We live by information, not by sight…Let reflection assay falsity and exaggeration.
  • lxxxvii Culture and Elegance. Man is born a barbarian, and only raises himself above the beast by culture. Culture therefore makes the man; the more a man, the higher… even knowledge is coarse If without elegance.
  • lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. He ought never to pry too minutely into things, least of all in unpleasant matters… To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.
  • xci Never set to work at anything if you have any doubts of its Prudence. A suspicion of failure in the mind of the doer is proof positive of it in that of the onlooker… Action is dangerous where prudence is in doubt… Wisdom does not trust to probabilities; it always marches in the mid-day light of reason.
  • xcii Transcendent Wisdom. …an ounce of wisdom is worth more than tons of cleverness.
  • cvi Do not parade your Position. …The more you seek esteem the less you obtain it, for it depends on the opinion of others. You cannot take it, but must earn and receive it from others…Do not enforce respect, but try and create it.
  • cvii Show no Self-satisfaction. Self-satisfaction arises mostly from ignorance… Because a man cannot achieve the superlative perfections of others, he contents himself with any mediocre talent of his own.
  • cviii The Path to Greatness is along with Others. Intercourse works well: manners and taste are shared: good sense and even talent grow insensibly… It is a great art to agree with others… by joining extremes the more effective middle way is found.
  • cix Be not Censorious. There are men of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty, not from any evil motive but because it is their nature to. They condemn all: these for what they have done, those for what they will do… They accuse with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes. They are always taskmasters who could turn a paradise into a prison…
  • cxii Gain Good-will. …By gaining their good-will you gain men’s good opinion.
  • cxiv Never Compete. …The heat of conflict gives life, or even new life, to dead scandals, and digs up long-buried skeletons. Competition begins with belittling… when the weapons of abuse do not effect their purpose, as often or mostly happens, our opponents use them for revenge, and use them at least for beating away the dust of oblivion from anything to our discredit.
  • cxvi Only act with Honourable Men. Their honour is the best surety of their behaviour even in misunderstandings… ’tis better to have a dispute with honourable people than to have a victory over dishonorable ones.
  • cxvii Never talk of Yourself. You must either praise yourself, which is vain, or blame yourself, which is little-minded… above all, in public speaking, where every appearance of unwisdom really is unwise.
  • cxviii Acquire the Reputation of Courtesy; …Politeness is the main ingredient of culture,–a kind of witchery that wins the regard of all as surely as discourtesy gains their disfavor and opposition…
  • cxix Avoid becoming Disliked. …There are many who hate of their own accord without knowing the why or the how. Their ill-will outruns our readiness to please. Their ill-nature is more prone to do others harm…Some manage to be on bad terms with all, because they always either produce or experience vexation of spirit. Once hate has taken root it is, like bad repute, difficult to eradicate.
  • cxxi Do not make a Business of what is no Business. …Troublesome things must not be taken too seriously if they can be avoided. It is preposterous to take to heart that which you should throw over your shoulders. Much that would be something has become nothing by being left alone, and what was nothing has become of consequence by being made much of.
  • cxxv Do not be a Black List. It is a sign of having a tarnished name to concern oneself with the ill-fame of others. Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.
  • cxxvi Folly consists not in committing Folly, but in not hiding it when committed. …Reputation depends more on what is hidden than on what is done…
  • cxxix Never complain. To complain always brings discredit… By complaining of past offences we give occasion for future ones…
  • cxxxv Do not nourish the Spirit of Contradiction. It only proves you foolish or peevish… To find difficulties in everything may prove you clever, but such wrangling writes you down a fool.
  • cxxxviii The Art of letting Things alone. …There are hurricanes in human affairs, tempests of passion, when it is wise to retire to a harbour and ride at anchor…
  • cxl Find the Good in a Thing at once. …some seek the good, others the ill. There is nothing that has no good in it… But many have such a scent that amid a thousand excellences they fix upon a single defect, and single it out for blame as if they were scavengers of men’s minds and hearts.

    cix Be not Censorious. There are men of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty…They condemn all… with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes.

  • cxli Do not listen to Yourself. It is no use pleasing yourself if you do not please others, and as a rule general contempt is the punishment for self-satisfaction.
  • cxlii Never from Obstinacy take the Wrong Side because your Opponent has anticipated you in taking the Right One. You begin the fight already beaten and must soon take to flight in disgrace. With bad weapons one can never win.
  • cxlv Do not show your wounded Finger, for everything will knock up against it; nor complain about it, for malice always aims where weakness can be injured… Ill-will searches for wounds to irritate, aims darts to try the temper, and tries a thousand ways to sting to the quick. The wise never own to being hit…
  • cxlvi Look into the Interior of Things. Things are generally other than they seem, and ignorance that never looks beneath the rind becomes disabused when you show the kernel. Lies always come first, dragging fools along by their irreparable vulgarity.
  • cli Think beforehand. …The greatest foresight consists in determining beforehand the time of trouble… The pillow is a silent Sibyl, and it is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterwards… Rumination and foresight enable one to determine the line of life.
  • civil Do not make Mistakes about Character. In dealing with men, more than with other things, it is necessary to look within…Men must be studied as deeply as books.
  • clxv Wage War Honorably. You may be obliged to wage war, but not to use poisoned arrows. Everyone must needs act as he is, not as others would make him to be… In men of honour the smallest trace of meanness repels…
  • clxvi Distinguish the Man of Words from the Man of Deeds. …Trees that bear leaves but not fruit have usually no pith. Know them for what they are, of no use except for shade.
  • clxviii Do not indulge in the Eccentricities of Folly. …Where self-control is wanting, there is no room for others’ guidance.
  • clxix Be more careful not to Miss once than to Hit a hundred times. The common talk does not reckon what goes right but what goes wrong. Evil report carries farther than any applause… ill-will notices every error and no success.
  • clxxxviii Be the Bearer of Praise. …since it shows that we have learnt elsewhere to know what is excellent, and hence how to prize it in the present company.
  • cxcix To find a proper Place by Merit, not by Presumption. The true road to respect is through merit… push and insistence is degrading…
  • cci They are all Fools who seem so besides half the rest. …the greatest fool is he who thinks he is not one and all others are….
  • ccix Keep Yourself free from common Follies. …being discontented with his own lot, envies that of others…
  • ccxiv Do not turn one Blunder into two. It is quite usual to commit four others in order to remedy one, or to excuse one piece of impertinence by still another.
  • ccxviii Never act from Obstinacy but from Knowledge. All obstinacy is an excrescence of the mind, a grandchild of passion which never did anything right…
  • ccxxi Do not seize Occasions to embarrass Yourself or Others. There are some men …always on the point of some stupidity…Their humour always strokes the wrong way since they contradict all and every.
  • ccxxviii Do not be a Scandal-monger. …Do not be witty at the cost of others: it is easy but hateful… The backbiter is always hated…
  • cclii Neither belong entirely to Yourself nor entirely to Others. Both are mean forms of tyranny… A shrewd man knows that others when they seek him do not seek him, but their advantage in him and by him.

    cxxv Do not be a Black List.  Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.

  • cclvii Never let Matters come to a Rupture, …Few can do us good, almost any can do us harm… Hidden foes use the paw of the declared enemy to stir up the fire, and meanwhile they lie in ambush for such an occasion. …They cover their own failings with the faults of others.
  • cclxi Do not follow up a Folly. …some continue in their folly and prefer to be constant fools.
  • cclxx Do not condemn alone that which pleases all. There must be something good in a thing that pleases so many; even if it cannot be explained it is certainly enjoyed…You simply destroy respect for your taste rather than do harm to the object of your blame…
  • cclxxii Sell Things by the Tariff of Courtesy. Courtesy does not really make presents, but really lays men under obligation, and generosity is the great obligation.
  • cclxxxiv Do not be Importunate, …Be sooner sparing than lavish with your presence…The importunate is always the butt of blame; and because he thrusts himself in without shame he is thrust out with it.
  • ccxcv Do not affect what you have not effected. Many claim exploits without the slightest claim…content yourself with doing, leave the talking to others.

Some of these just begged to be copied and pasted into Facebook or other sites as comments in ongoing discussions, but I restrained myself and will be content to weave a few of them into my book on Machiavelli. I recommend you read the book to appreciate fully what Gracian wrote in these sayings, and determine yourself their applicability.

~~~~~

* Most of these seem derived from a rough OCR of a scanned book on archive.org. The OCR was poorly edited and contains several typos and contextual mistakes. For example,  aphorism in these version read, “clxxiv Be Attractive.magnet of your pleasant qualities more to obtain goodwill than good deeds…” That is nonsensical. The proper word is not magnet, but “manage” which can be determined by reading the original scan. Other reconstructions suffer from bad grammar and editing. In one, for example, aphorism cclvii reads, “Never let matters come to a braking point.” The correct word is “breaking” (other versions say, “Never let matters come to a rupture.”)
Also, aphorism xci mentions “…if resolutions passed nem. con. by inner court.” Nem. con. is an abbreviation of “nemine contradicente,” a Latin phrase for “without dissent,” “unanimously,”or “of one mind.” It helps to be able to read Roman numerals when identifying aphorisms.

01/9/13

More Machiavellian Misquotes


Face palmMachiavelli today is known to many by sayings that aren’t actually his; pseudo-quotations or mis-attributed sayings that appear on slovenly, un-moderated, un-verified websites that do an enormous disservice to everyone by their very existence.

These sites seem to feed one another, because find one misquote on one of them and you’re sure to find it parroted without even the slightest effort to verify it, on all the rest. Since these sites are predominantly about ad revenue, it’;s little wonder they are so poor.

Most people are unable to discern the wheat from the chaff ion these sites in great part because few can actually lay claim to actually having read him (The Prince, let alone The Discourses or his other works). And from that stems several misconceptions about what he said and didn’t say (and the same goes to every other author and philosopher so frequently misquoted on these sites).

Machiavelli did not write, for example, ‘the end justifies the means.’ It is a modern condensation – and a considerable simplification – of an idea expressed in The Prince. However memorable it is, he had a lot more to say about politics and the behaviour of rulers than that one line.

Machiavelli was just being a realist. He certainly was not a hedonist like Aleister Crowley who wrote,

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

These so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors.

Machiavelli wrote that the effect of a ruler’s actions mattered more than the deeds themselves, as long as the end was good for the state. That has been boiled down, in modern times, into “the end justifies the means.” But this shorthand removes it from the all-important context that makes sense of his words (taking things out of context and using them for your own, bizarre ends is quite common on the internet).

Nor did Machiavelli write, ‘Never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception,’ in The Prince. That may be paraphrased from The Discourses, Book III: 40, or Book II: 13. It is more likely to derive from an entirely different source: The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. This misquote is popular on those faux-quote sites, but it isn’t one of his maxims. I wrote about that mis-quote last year. It still irks me to see it online today.

In the comment following that previous post, I wrote about another popular – and very wrong – internet meme attributed to Machiavelli: “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.”

That line was actually said by US Republican Newt Gringrich, and is taken from a 1991 interview printed in the LA Times:

Such jabs don’t faze Gingrich. “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it,” he says. “Of course people are going to resent that.”

Other things Machiavelli did NOT say include the following pseudo-quotes taken from various, inaccurate, un-moderated and never verified, quotation sites online. I spent a couple of hours yesterday poring over my texts to search for them, just to be sure. It’s tricky because there are so many translations available, but anyone who has actually read any of them will recognize fairly easily what is and is not his style:

  • “Politics have no relation to morals.”
  • “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”
  • “Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”
  • “It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.”
  • “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.”
  • “Before all else, be armed.”
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.”
  • “History is written by the victors.”
  • “One should never fall in the belief that you can find someone to pick you up.”
  • “God creates men, but they choose each other.”
  • “Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.”
  • “A prince is also esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy.”
  • “He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss.”
  • “War is just when it is necessary; arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.”
  • “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Got that? Machiavelli NEVER SAID any of those things, yet all appear on many online quotation database pages. They cause me a face-palm moment to even read them (more on my Machiavelli book site and learn what he really said: ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/addenda/appendix-b-machiavellian-misquotes/)

Unfortunately, there are many who will get fooled into thinking these are real quotations from Machiavelli and other authors. But these so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors; enough that even a casual read should give anyone pause to doubt the veracity. These sites are as reliable to literature as creationism is to science, without being as funny.

These egregious errors exacerbate the bad education people get from the internet; they also speak volumes to the increasing gullibility of web users who will accept clearly mis-attributed lines with the same ease they will believe magnets cure arthritis, crystals are magi, flu vaccinations cause autism and other quackery.

01/8/13

Rereading the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam


Wikipedia: Sullivan image for V. 51There are many books weighing down my bookshelves into soft, drooping curves, but not many of them have the privilege of tenure. Only a handful have travelled with me for more than a couple of decades; a small selection of tomes that are read, perhaps infrequently, but more than once, and still manage to speak to me every time.

Most of my books have, over the years, been donated to libraries or sold to bookstores, to make room for the new ones always crowding in and demanding attention. Those that have escaped the culling so long are ones that mean the most to me. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one of them. You may know it for this memorable verse:

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
1st Translation: 51

Khayyam was a Persian mathematician, philosopher and astronomer. He wrote between 1,200 and 2,000 quatrains (depending on which researcher is counting.). He lived from around 1048 CE to 1122 CE.

I first encountered the Rubaiyat when I was in my pre-teens. I can’t recall today whether it was one of those gems buried on a public library shelf that I found (I waited in the library after school for my father to come home from work and collect me), or if it was among my father’s books I found tucked away on a bookshelf at home. Either way, it stuck with me. Since then, I’ve owned several editions of it. Two sit cheek-to-jowl on my shelves today.

“‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.”
1st translation: 49 

Edward FitzGerald, a reclusive and somewhat odd scholar, first translated the collection of stanzas from the ancient Persian in the mid-1850s. Seventy-five of the quatrains were published anonymously in 1859. It took almost ten years for it to become well-known.Today it stands as one of the greatest works of English poetry.

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.”
1st Translation: 51

Robert Sherriffs illustrationI wasn’t aware, at the time when I first found it, that there were several translations of the book, and that the number of verses and their order would change in each (starting from 75 in the first to 110 then reduced to 101 in the last three, but because he replaced some, the total unique verses in all editions is 114).

FitzGerald continued to work at his translation, adding and subtracting verses, from his original, re-ordering and tweaking the wording right until his death. Four versions were published in his lifetime, and a fifth was published after his death, based on notes he left behind.

My copies include a 1951 reprint of the first translation, with the stunning B&W illustrations by Edmund Sullivan reproduced. The other is a 1963 reprint of a 1947 edition, with the first, second and fifth translations, colourfully illustrated by cartoonist Robert Sherriffs. Samples of both are in this post.

While later translations may represent an improvement in the translator’s art, for me the first is still the best. It was the one I first discovered, the one I carried with me while hitchhiking around the country in the 1960s, and the one that still moves me most today. However, I find some of the later versions are sometimes slightly better, slightly more powerful or smoother. That’s why it’s good to have several editions.

For example, verse 7, above is rendered thus in the subsequent editions:

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter – garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.”
2nd-5th translations, verse 7

Which doesn’t strike as quite as lovely, or poetic as the first. I don’t like the change from “the” to “your” in the second line because it personalizes what I see as a more universal sentiment.. And I really don’t think the bird of time should “flutter,” which seems less potent and more random than “fly.” “Fly” scans better, too.

Fitzgerald’s work is overall, however, magnificent, beautiful, and problematic (it even spawned many parodies). It reflects the best of Victorian literary aspirations; flowery and rich without being saccharine, deep without being stodgy or moralizing, readable in whole or in part. It is rich in imagery and symbolism. His chosen rhyming scheme makes it easy to read and memorize  - the AABA scheme has even been called the “Rubaiyat” method.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, on reading the Rubaiyat:

‘Like a sudden conversion – the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours’

However, it is not really very accurate, at least by today’s standards of translation. It’s certainly not literal. In fact, it may be considered more an interpretation than a translation. Wikipedia notes:

“…as a translation of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains, it is not noted for its fidelity. Many of the verses are paraphrased, and some of them cannot be confidently traced to any one of Khayyam’s quatrains at all. Some critics informally refer to the FitzGerald’s English versions as “The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar”, a nickname that both recognizes the liberties FitzGerald inflicted on his purported source and also credits FitzGerald for the considerable portion of the “translation” that is his own creation.”

Fitzgerald himself recognized this, and wrote in a letter to a friend and fellow scholar:

“My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is.”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58) 

Later he would write to the same friend,

“But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 4/27/59).

Scholars have reacted differently to FitzGerald’s work; some with scorn, others with understanding praise:

“…FitzGerald was faithful to the quintessence of the poetic message communicated by Khayyam: that while taking well-deserved liberties with the original text, he recreated the original poet’s message in forms and metaphors more familiar to his Victorian audience -hence his incredible popularity in literary circles of his time. The ‘Wine of Nishapur’ in this sense represents the intoxicating essence of the Quatrains of ‘Umar Khayyam, the fiery way of beauty and wisdom imbibed in Persian by Edward FitzGerald, then outpoured again in Victorian cups of charm and grace.”

from 1921 editionFitzGerald’s Rubaiyat can be read in many different ways: as a long poem with an overarching theme; a series of short poems with loose thematic connections; aphorisms about life and meditations on morality and mortality (like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius); a religious commentary (in particular a Sufi or Islamic manifesto); a non-religious spiritual guide (like a Persian Bardo Thodol but through life, not the afterlife), an intellectual exercise in translation, or in interpretation (like Witter Bynner’s or Ursula Leguin’s editions of the Tao Teh Ching), or as randomly chosen thoughts for today (like I Ching verses).

No matter how you approach it, it is both beautiful and potent, even more than 150 years later. The Telegraph noted that, by its 150th anniversary in 2009, Fitzgerald’s version had been printed in “650 different editions, with illustrations by 150 artists. It has been translated into 70 languages and set to music by 100 composers.”

Since FitzGerald (yes, he capitalized the G), many other writers have attempted to translate the verses into English and other languages. Whether they have equalled or surpassed FitzGerald’s efforts, is a personal choice. As Wikipedia notes, the tone of the translation depends on one’s own personal philosophy:

The nature of a translation very much depends on what interpretation one places on Khayyam’s philosophy. The fact that the rubaiyat are a collection of quatrains – and may be selected and rearranged subjectively to support one interpretation or another – has led to widely differing versions. Nicolas took the view that Khayyam himself clearly was a Sufi. Others have seen signs of mysticism, even atheism, or conversely devout and orthodox Islam. FitzGerald gave the Rubaiyat a distinct fatalistic spin, although it has been claimed that he softened the impact of Khayyam’s nihilism and his preoccupation with the mortality and transience of all things. Even such a question as to whether Khayyam was pro- or anti-alcohol gives rise to more discussion than might at first glance have seemed plausible.

FitzGerald himself seems to have been somewhat of a fatalist, or nihilist, albeit gently so. He grew increasingly disenchanted with Christianity, and eventually gave up attending church. His own outlook on  mortality and the fleeting nature of life is evident throughout all of his versions, but it’s far from a pessimistic work.

The Rubaiyat.com compares versions by five translators (Fitzgerald – four editions – Brodie, Talbot, Sadie and Whinfield; Brodie is an ‘anagrammatic paraphrase’ of FitzGerald).You can also compare the first, second, fourth and fifth FitzGerald translations, as well as the Whinfield at Arabiannights.org.

It’s fascinating to compare how others have turned the original into their own words.It’s even fascinating to see how Fitzgerald himself struggled to refine the verses. For example, in his first translation, Fitzgerald wrote this:

“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
1st translation: 11

In the second edition, this became:

“Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
2nd translation: 12

For the third to fifth editions, this became:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
3rd-5th translations: 12

As the Rubaiyat.com shows, this is sometimes represented by more than one verse, depending on the translator:

“Some wine, a Houri (Houris if there be),
A green bank by a stream, with minstrelsy;—
Toil not to find a better Paradise
If other Paradise indeed there be!
~~~

In the sweet spring a grassy bank I sought,
And thither wine, and a fair Houri brought;
And, though the people called me graceless dog,
Gave not to Paradise another thought!
~~~

Give me a skin of wine, a crust of bread,
A pittance bare, a book of verse to read;
With thee, O love, to share my lowly roof,
I would not take the Sultan’s realm instead!
~~~

So long as I possess two maunds of wine,
Bread of the flower of wheat, and mutton chine,
And you, O Tulip cheek, to share my hut,
Not every Sultan’s lot can vie with mine.
Whinfield, verses 79, 84, 452, 479

and:

If in the Spring, she whom I love so well
Meet me by some green bank – the truth I tell -
Bringing my thirsty soul a cup of wine,
I want no better Heaven, nor fear a Hell.
~~~

Whether my destin’d fate shall be to dwell
Midst Heaven’s joys or in the fires of Hell
I know not; here with Spring, and bread, and wine,
And thee, my love, my heart says “All is well.”
~~~

Give me a scroll of verse, a little wine,
With half a loaf to fill thy needs and mine,
And with the desert sand our resting place,
For ne’er a Sultan’s kingdom would we pine.
~~~

Let Fortune but provide me bread of wheat,
A gourd of wine a bone of mutton sweet,
Then in the desert if we twain might sit,
Joys such as ours no Sultan could defeat
Talbot, verses 25, 40, 149, 155

Others translate it into a single verse:

A Poem, and Trees a-blowing in a Wind.
A Brew I’ll drink — base Needs of other Stuff
Ignore. Ah see here how we do behave;
Indeed for us a Song is just enough.
Brodie, verse 12

and:

Ah, would there were a loaf of bread as fare,
A joint of lamb, a jug of vintage rare,
And you and I in wilderness encamped -
No Sultan’s pleasure could with ours compare.
Sadie, verse 16

There ar a lot of versions of the Rubaiyat online, as well as a lot of scholarship. Several post-2000 editions are listed at omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com, although they all appear based on FitzGerald.

You can read all of FitzGerald’s various editions, as well as at least half-a-dozen others online. But I recommend instead that you get a print version. It’s the sort of book you will want to read on a Sunday afternoon, over a glass of wine, or just before bedtime, when you can ponder each verse in the quiet of the night. Besides, every home library should have a copy. It’s one of those books, like Shakespeare’s collected works, you should not be without.

I try to read it, if not always in one sitting, at least in its entirety, every few years. It’s always worth the time to do so.

“Whether at Naishápúr or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.”
2nd translation, verse 8

01/5/13

Is Tar Baby the new N-Word?


Wikipedia imageAs far back as I can recall, the term “tar baby” was a metaphor in common political parlance for a “sticky situation.” It has no racial meaning in that context, any more than saying “honey trap” or “sticky wicket.” Both have similar, but not synonymous meanings. But in the last decade, “tar-baby” has become the new N-word on the political stage.*

The tar-baby theme is common in mythology from many cultures (referenced, for example, in Joseph’s Campbell’s groundbreaking work, Hero With a Thousand Faces). It represents an apparently attractive situation that traps the beholder and, once you embrace it, the harder you struggle to break free, the more you become stuck in it. I’ve used the term in such a context in several blog posts. But recently, when I was accused on Facebook of using “racist” terms by mentioning a tar-baby situation, I was taken aback, and felt I had to disagree. And do some research.

In 2009, the use of this term in the House of Commons created a mini-cyclone of comment about allegedly racist terminology used in the House. As the blog Unambiguously Ambidextrous, notes:

A controversy erupted in the House of Commons today after Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, used the term “tar baby” in response to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s decision to back away from Stephane Dion’s unpopular carbon tax policy. I have to plead ignorance on the etymology of the noun, as I have always been more familiar with the pejorative.

“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” said Poilievre.

This was followed by MP Ralph Goodale’s objections to the term and asked Mr. Poilievre to apologize for the usage:

“In addition to being a pejorative term, which might well prove to be unparliamentary, the parliamentary secretary might consider that there are many authorities both in this country and many others that consider the term racist,” said Goodale.

Stephen Taylor provided a list of references to similar non-parliamentary uses of the term in his blog, none of which seem to have have generated the same storm of controversy. Clara Rising, writing in 2002 about collective religious consciousness, called original sin, “a cultural Tar Baby implacable and immutable, as infinite and as unavoidable as eternity.”

Back in 2006, then-governor Mitt Romney was taken to task for using the term “tar-baby” in a reference to a piece of problematic infrastructure. As a Time Magazine writer commented about the subsequent uproar:

So, is use of the term today a case of insensitivity? Or is the controversy caused by political correctness gone amok?

The latter, I suggest. True, I might not be as sensitive to it as Americans. I don’t live in the same political-racial-social milieu as most Americans; while racism exists in Canada, it is not nearly as overt in our multicultural nation.

In the USA, “tar-baby” has been used as a pejorative (and sometimes as a term of affection). Racial politics are so highly charged among our southern neighbours that it is a treacherous undercurrent in American political dialogue. As the Colorado Springs Gazette noted in this editorial:

Racism in the political sphere today has become so insulting that it makes “tar-baby” seem benign.

Even if mild, a white person calling someone of African-American heritage a “tar-baby” is considered a racist slur, and I can appreciate the sensitivity of the use. But surely there’s a difference between labelling a person, race or group with a term and labelling an issue or situation.

Just as an example, calling a woman a “honey trap” is very different from labelling a common tactic in espionage a honey trap. If I call a woman a bitch, it is very different from calling a tricky shot in golf one. Clearly context matters.

Would there be an issue if we used the metaphor of the “tar-wolf” (from James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee)? Would anyone be accused of slinging racist slurs against aboriginal First Nations people by talking about a “tar-wolf” situation? The two stories are almost identical, aside from the difference between the character molded from the tar. Both the Cherokee and African-Americans shared at least one disreputable part of US history:

If these two stories sound remarkably similar, it is no coincidence.  Before the Cherokee were relocated to Oklahoma in 1838, many were plantation owners and owned slaves.

In the heated cauldron of American politics, or in the adversarial arena of the House of Commons, people are constantly looking for ways to attack opponents for any reason, regardless of the validity or strength of the attack. Unfortunately, this also creates a situation of apparent wrongdoing by making it a focus of media attention. The perception of  racism can create the reality in the public mind that it is there, regardless any logical argument that it is imaginary. Words themselves, no matter how innocently used, become their own tar-babies.

The Denver Post commented on this flap in the US:

The notion that referencing African folklore reveals inherent racism against those of African descent is bizarre.

True, the tar baby has been fundamentally misunderstood by various illiterate racists. In their ignorance of the folklore, such bigots think the term applies specifically to a black person. For example, the late comedic genius Bernie Mac wrote of being called a “tar baby” as a child. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists push us to obliterate cultural knowledge of important African folklore.

This raises the question: where does the reference come from? The Denver Post points out a bit of the history:

“Tar baby” comes from African folklore. Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term to refer to the debt-ceiling negotiations, not the president. And the nationwide smear campaign against Lamborn follows the left’s typical path of character assassination and guilt by association.
In his book, “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell writes of the “celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Campbell refers to scholar Aurelio Espinosa, who in the 1930s and ’40s gathered hundreds of examples of “the tar-baby story” from around the world, varying in detail but all about getting stuck in something.
In America, we know the story best from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories of the 1800s. But Harris did not create these stories. Instead, he took (some say stole) them from slaves, who brought the stories with them from Africa and adapted them orally.

What’s ironic is that Chandler’s stories were not seen as racist until more than a century later. They were originally treated as they were meant: records of African-American folklore.** As Wikipedia notes:

The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the “old Uncle” stereotype of the narrator, was considered politically incorrect and demeaning by many African-American people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the story’s context in the Antebellum south on a slave owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner. Nevertheless, Harris’ work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. … Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it is thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.

Wikipedia has a lengthier list of antecedents, including Cherokee and African folk tales, and mentions one researcher who identified 267 variants on the tale in world mythology.

The New Republic took up the debate, noting in 2011 when the term again raised its politically-charged head:

…the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?

Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?

In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.

As little as I respect the Republicans or Harper’s Conservatives, I doubt they would be deliberately and provocatively racist, and, like my use, meant the word as a powerful metaphor that still resounds in popular culture. John McWhorter, at the New Republic, added:

I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.

Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).

Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.

There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.

Sounds like a racist slur? Should we not judge a thing by more depth than a bad first impression? There’s a conversation in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer (played by Allen) is complaining about what he (mis)hears as an anti-Semitic remark by a TV executive:

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ And Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’ Not ‘Did you?’…JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?”

Which the audience recognizes as both comically over-sensitive on Alvy’s part, but also as a wry comment on how things get misconstrued so easily. Such is the situation with “tar-baby” today. Except not all of the audience seems to get the joke.

The Denver Post editorial concluded:

The irony is that “tar baby” has become its own tar baby, and we’re all getting stuck in it. Several media outlets reviewed my detailed blog posts on the matter, and all involved stole time away from addressing the nation’s pressing problems.

Yet there’s a reason the tar baby folktale has spread through so many cultures. It teaches us something important and universal about human nature. And that’s precisely why we ought not sacrifice the African tar baby story on the altar of political correctness.

I agree with that last line. Metaphors are powerful and memorable because they speak to something larger than just the words. Most come from storytelling and in a few words they encapsulate the entire tale – the characters, the events, the moral. The Colorado Springs Gazette suggests what I don’t believe is a reasonable solution:

Let us all stop saying “tar-baby,” for sure. For using this phrase, Lamborn will pay. He is mired in a controversy that will get worse as he fights against it. But let’s keep perspective. Relative to the racial hatred and insensitivity that permeates political rhetoric of the past and present, this should be far from a major-league scandal.

What next? Will we stop saying “slow but steady wins the race” because it comes from one of Aesop’s fables, and it might be seen as a slur against Greeks? Stop using “the boy who cried wolf” because it might be derogatory towards shepherds? Stop using the “good Samaritan” parable because it might be seen as a pejorative against Palestinians (today’s Samaritan ancestors)? Where will this nonsense end? Will we abandon all of our powerful language and chuck metaphors out the window out of fear someone won’t understand what we’re saying?

Better instead to get our head out of the politically correct sand learn to recognize the context of a metaphor. Stop treating it like a convenient one-size-fits-all racist slur that fits your preconceived political notions, and start thinking critically instead.

~~~~~

* Yes, I know “tar baby” is really two words, but calling it the new N-phrase has no cachet. N-word has a life of its own, larger than mere counting or vocabulary.

** Uncle Remus stories were still popular when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I saw Disney’s 1946 cartoon version (Song of the South) on TV that decade. Even as a child I was able to see the racial stereotypes and exaggerations. Uncle Remus tales were still available in school libraries, too, sometimes alone, other times in compilations of folktales.

Read the tale here. I wonder why the briar patch metaphor from the second half of the tale does not evoke similar revulsion among the politically correct guardians.

01/1/13

The Hidden Costs of Gambling


Casino gamblingLet’s start 2013 with a sober consideration of the social and economic costs of gambling. Back n 2006, the Canadian Medical Association noted that,

“Provincial governments may be glossing over the societal and health costs of problem gambling, including depression and suicide, because of the significant income they gain from gambling, claim several public advocacy and mental health organizations.”

Glossing over is a polite way of saying “deceiving.” They’re hiding the facts from the public. The CMA called for a thorough and scientific study of the “relevance of depression and suicide among problem gamblers.”

“The normal system that provides checks and balances around this area is compromised because government in every province is responsible for alcohol and gaming regulation of the industry — and the welfare of those with gambling problems,” says Neasa Martin, a researcher at the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. “Their revenues are closely tied to the gambling industry, putting a pall on normal advocacy around the issue.”

This article has a parallel piece in the CMAJ that lists the three “elephants in the room” that have to be part of any discussion about gambling. These, the author states, are:

  1. …the inequitable distribution of the risks and benefits of gambling in our society;
  2. …treatment of problem gambling cannot undo the damage caused by lost wealth;
  3. …health promotion. It is time for governments and public health advocates to stop being seduced by the promise of anti-gambling campaigns and education that place the onus of self-control on the shoulders of the very individuals who have a serious disorder of impulse control.

New Zealand Mental Health
Gambling is, of course, voluntary taxation.* I have no moral issue over gambling; however, if people wish to gift the government their wages, they could just as easily mail the Minister of Finance a cheque every few weeks, and save us the contentious debate over gambling in our municipality. I do, however, believe that government dependence on gambling revenue is a fool’s economy. Any government – municipal and higher.

Back to the numbers

Let’s take a moment and consider some numbers before we continue. The Ontario Lottery Gaming Corporation (OLG)** has accepted the studies that show roughly 3.4% of the population as “moderate to serious” gambling problems. The Problem Gambling Association (PGIC) suggests a range between 1.2% and 3.4%, depending on which study you read and how you define “problem.” There are other studies that show the percentage in Ontario is as high as 4.8%.

The population of Ontario in 2011 was 12,851,821. At the low end of that range, there are 154,222 Ontarians with severe gambling problems. At the upper end, there are 436,962. A London Free Press article on gambling ups this to “almost 500,000″ without a source reference.

In other studies, the national average of problem gamblers (moderate is not mentioned) was estimated to be 2%. At 2%, there are still more than 257,000 problem gamblers in Ontario; but that media figure is lower than most experts estimate. In young gamblers aged 15 to 24 years, the percentage is much higher as this study found:

 “…the national prevalence of moderate-risk or problem gambling was 2.22% (3.30% in male respondents and 1.10% in female respondents). …Regional prevalence estimates of youth moderate-risk or problem gambling were… 2.75% in Ontario….”

This article repeats another warning from CAMH that, “Young people are twice as likely as their adult counterparts to develop serious gambling problems.”

 Younger Ontarians are also more likely to gamble online, as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reported in 2005: “…aged 18-34 were most likely to gamble money over the Internet compared to the older age groups.” And to capture more of that market, the OLG is launching a whole new internet gambling initiative in 2013.
Until recently, it was illegal for Ontarians to gamble online, but because the OLG now wants a slice of that pie, the laws got changed to accommodate them. Seems the MOH’s recommendations in 2005 were overlooked: “Prior to the adoption of any new technological innovations proposed by the gaming industry, consideration should be given to their potential impact on problem gambling…”.

This 2007 study suggests online gambling will create even more problem gamblers:

“…the inherent nature of Internet gambling would seem to make it conducive to increasing the rates of problem gambling. …The increasing patronage of online gambling sites will also increase the actual numbers of problem gamblers in the general population.”

The OLG contributes about $40 million a year to problem gambling treatment and services throughout the province, but it’s a small figure compared to its revenue:

“The OLG’s current contribution to education, prevention and treatment is less than 1% of its total revenues of $6.5 billion. There’s no indication this tokenism will be replaced with a serious investment in curbing the social and economic impacts of gambling.”

Based on the accepted number of problem gamblers in Ontario, that divides out to between a high of $259 each person per year, to a low of $91.54 each. There are 52 agencies treating gambling in the province right now. Dividing $40 million by 52 and you get less than $750,000 a year per centre.

If people wish to gift the government their wages, they could just as easily mail the Minister of Finance a cheque every few weeks.

So how much does problem gambling cost, and is $40 million sufficient to counter the social and economic costs?  Does the profit from gambling offset its cost? This is hugely complex and difficult to adequately measure, because are so many factors to take into account – medical, economic, social, legal, many of which are difficult to quantify, or may be intrinsically linked with other issues like substance abuse.

This PDF is a 24-page chapter of a larger US report on gambling, and it reviews numerous state studies. One such study that estimates that, in Wisconsin, there is a net benefit from gambling: “social costs represent about 42 percent of the economic gain…

The OLG net benefit to the Province of Ontario is approximately $2 billion. In its strategic plan (pgs 3-4), the OLG has stated it wants to increase that contribution by $1.3 billion, to more than $3 billion a year by “modernizing” gambling (making it more “accessible” by increasing the opportunities and locations so more Ontarians gamble). For all their high and mighty words about social responsibility, to me, it looks like simply an outline of a plan to grab more money from our pockets.

If our social costs are roughly the same as Wisconsin’s, then 42% of $2 billion is $840 million. Subtracting the $40 million currently paid to problem gambling issues, problem gambling costs the province $800 million every year. At $3.1 billion, it will cost us $1.26 billion, assuming the OLG does not increase its contribution to problem gambling programs. Gambling is, if the situations are similar, profitable for the province in this comparison, but not nearly as much as we are led to believe: there are high social and economic costs not being disclosed.

In response to this plan to expand gambling, in its Winter 202 newsletter, the PGIC wrote,

Without question, this will increase the incidence of gambling problems and associated negative impacts, including harm to families and the community.
The OLG plan means that, more than ever, Ontario needs an accessible, skilled, comprehensive and well-resourced problem gambling (PG) treatment system.

However, nothing in the OLG strategic plan indicates to me a significant increase either in funding or treatment system. At the very least that a 50% increase in revenue should be matched by a 50% increase in funding. Or is the net income the only measure of success? The Toronto Star  noted,

“…there is no indication that funding for education, addiction counselling and Trillium Foundation grants will be increased proportionately to the gambling universe that’s being created. It’s already inadequate.”

Back in 2005, a report to the Ministry of Health on gambling in Ontario noted (emphasis added):

“…if a culture of responsibility is fostered in the decision making process, then decisions will be made taking into account the impact of any proposal on the treatment of problem gamblers, the provision of information to gamblers and the public on problem gambling and responsible gaming,the research that should precede the decision and whether an element of consumer protection is involved. Those involved in each component of the Strategy should have a role to play in contributing to initiatives that are designed to advance the minimization of potential harm from gambling activities. A culture of responsibility reaches out to other Ministries as well whose programs impact on problem-gambling issues.”

The OLG and the rest of the Ontario government seems to have overlooked that in the new strategic plan. They just want the money. Responsibility? No our job.

A study in Florida, described in that US report, used costs-per-problem-gambler “…calculated by Volberg (1994) of $13,600 on average per pathological or problem gambler.” That study looked into collateral costs such as prisons and increased pressure on the justice system to arrive at that figure. If Ontario is similar per-capita, the cost of problem gambling ranges between $2.1 and $5.9 billion a year. In this model, there is no net benefit from gambling revenues, just losses.

This 2007 study showed that the number of people with moderate to severe gambling problems is much higher than previously estimated. This is based on a sample size of 6,654 Ontarians. It found,

“…3.74% were moderate problem gamblers (CPGI = 3-7); and .99% were severe problem gamblers (CPGI = 8+), with an overall of prevalence of 4.73% for moderate and severe problem gamblers combined… this adjusted Ontario prevalence rate of 4.76% is significantly higher than two

previous Ontario prevalence studies: 3.8% obtained by Wiebe, Single, & Falkowski-Ham in 2001 and 2.0% obtained by the Canadian Community Household Survey (CCHS 1.2) for Ontario in 2002 (Statistics Canada, 2002).”

Sources of Revenue

The study also concluded that the OLG gets more than a third of its revenue from problem gamblers, but also that gambling machines (slots) take a higher proportion of that:

“Both the winsorized and losses-only data suggest that this proportion is approximately 36%… This evidence indicates that gambling machines and horse racing derive a much larger portion of their revenue from problem gamblers, in comparison to other forms of gambling. In rank order, the rough proportions are: 61% gambling machines; 45% horse racing; 32% casino table games; 22% bingo and raffles; and 18% lotteries, instant win, and Sports Select.”

Similar studies in the USA have reported this as well. Salon noted in a recent article:

“A significant portion of gambling revenues — one-third to one-half — is derived from problem gamblers, says Grinols, who, in a 2006 Review of Economics and Statistics article concluded that 8 percent of crime in casino counties can be attributed to the presence of legal gambling.”

The Canadian study recognizes that estimates of income are problematic because in their survey, only a small number of people who identified themselves as “severe” gamblers responded to the questions about gambling expenditures:

“Expenditures from the prospective diaries of 364 individuals tentatively indicates that about 36% of Ontario gambling revenue is derived from moderate and severe problem gamblers.”***

What I found most compelling about this figure is in the policy implications section near the end of the report (emphasis added):

“Thirty-six percent would be a problematic figure for private industry, but is especially problematic for a government-run operation, when the purpose of government is to serve the people, not to exploit the people.

Ontario spends 13 times more money advertising and promoting gambling as they do on prevention and treatment (Williams, 2006). Furthermore, the $36 million put into gambling prevention, treatment and research in 2003/2004 only represents 2.6% of the $1.41 billion dollars estimated to have derived from problem gamblers in that time period. It is also far from clear whether gambling revenues represent true economic gain. Gambling revenues largely come from a transfer of wealth,rather than creation of wealth (e.g., Grinols, 2004). Furthermore, this is not an innocuous transfer, as it harms a significant minority of people (problem gamblers) in the process, and it tends to generate its revenue through the cannibalization or crowding-out of other (privately owned) 15 entertainment industries (e.g., Grinols, 2004).

There is another factor to consider when trying to estimate the economic impact of gambling: productivity loss. An Australian study found gambling was, overall, economically positive (for the government) but it recognized that it cost the Australian economy. Based on the loss of one hour per week per problem gambler:

“The study was able to “cost out” a number of factors associated with problem gambling. The effects of gambling on employment, consisting of job change costs, unemployment, and productivity loss, were estimated at A$27.8 million annually. The largest component of this estimate was productivity loss, accounting for almost A$20 million, followed by A$5.2 million for job change and A$2.7 million for unemployment.”

I’m not sure how they measure the economic value of lost productivity in this study. One simplistic way is to simply multiply the average hourly wage times the number of problem gamblers for the losses per week, then times 50 (allowing a two-week holiday per person) for the annual impact. If one hour per week is lost in Ontario, then based on 257,000 problem gamblers working at minimum wage ($10.25/hour), the resulting loss in productivity is about $132 million per year. If we use the upper end estimate (437,000 problem gamblers), and an average $15 an hour wage, the resulting loss is almost $328 million.

And what about suicide? The CMAJ article notes that, “problem gambling as a contributor to suicide is difficult to measure,” however, it does report an Alberta study that indicated gambling is a key factor in roughly 10% of suicides:

“In Alberta, gambling was listed “in the files” of suicides about 10% of the time; 46 out of a total of 482 suicides in 2001, and 54 out of 430 suicides in 2000.”

Can we quantify the impact of suicide? Not really. The emotional impact, however, is devastating to family and friends. Ontario has been been tracking gambling-related suicides since 1998 – there are on average five a year. The number may be higher because the method of identifying them is solely through a note left behind. The Globe & Mail reported 13 in 2007 and noted the number was rising, in part encouraged by casino tactics:

“A Globe and Mail investigation last fall revealed government-owned casinos are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on freebies – trips, dinners, theatre tickets – that keep gamblers coming back. Gambling debts have led to bankruptcies and even suicides.

Although there are no countrywide statistics, Canada Safety Council estimates 200 problem gamblers kill themselves every year. The Globe and Mail contacted each province to track the numbers of gambling-related suicides, finding only 50 such deaths were recorded in 2007 among the seven provinces reporting.”

Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario has a short FAQ on the potential impact of expanded gambling with many links to studies on gambling. In one called the Social and Economic Impact of Gambling, which tallies an objective view of both positive and negative effects, the authors write,

“One of the main negative impacts of gambling introduction is an increase in problem gambling and its related indices (e.g., bankruptcy, divorce, suicide, treatment numbers). The bulk of the impacts tend to be social/nonmonetary in nature because only the minority of problem gamblers seek or receive treatment, and only a minority typically have police/child welfare/employment involvement. Most of the increase in problem gambling occurs after the initial introduction of gambling, with progressively less impacts on problem gambling occurring with extended exposure… Research confirms that lower income people consistently contribute proportionally more of their income to gambling than do middle and high income groups (‘socioeconomic inequality’)…”

The report concludes that, gambling’s impact is a mix of good and bad, but that overall the good is limited, and not enough to fully offset the bad:

“…in most jurisdictions, in most time periods, the impacts of gambling tend to be mixed, with a range of mild positive economic impacts offset by a range of mild to moderate negative social impacts.”

My point here in this rambling (and incomplete) survey of the literature, is twofold:

  1. The true costs of gambling are not being disclosed by the government or the OLG, while the benefits are being exaggerated;
  2. Problem gamblers are contributing a significantly large portion to the OLG revenue, but also to the economic and social expenses caused by their gambling.

I’ll have more to post in the future, as we approach the debate at the council table (again). In a future post, I want to tackle the question of pork-barrel politics: what turns politicians into shills advocates for gambling? (It’s a story well, but partially, documented in the book, Betting the House, by Brian Hutchinson; it needs to be brought up to date). Does all the support for gambling and OLG’s planned expansion pass the smell test?


* The Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank, framed the debate in 2002, ideologically: as one of “Individual freedom versus government paternalism.” It concludes as one might expect of conservatives, that social and economic impacts on individuals, families, or even communities, are not the concern of government:

“…the small number of people who are unable to control their gambling does not merit heavy-handed government intervention. Although there are socially harmful activities that require government intervention, gambling should not be considered one of those activities. Furthermore, those who become addicted to gambling rarely threaten the overall harmony of the community …”

The report concludes with a bit of Old Testament thunder:

“…intruding on gamblers’ liberties, prohibition makes a mockery of individual responsibility, which is hardly the best way to sustain the nation’s moral health.”

Ayn Rand must be smiling in her grave at that line.

** Gambling advocates like the OLG often use carefully chosen words to present gambling as entertainment. They call slot warehouses “gaming facilities” as if they were on a par with sports facilities. They don’t call them “gambling facilities.” Terms like “slot barns” annoy them. The Toronto Star calls them “…those windowless structures on the outskirts of cities, surrounded by huge parking lots.

*** The full disclaimer and explanation of the tentative results reads (emphasis added):
Limitations of these Findings
Regular gamblers occasionally have very large wins and losses. These statistical outliers have a major influence on the averages, making it very difficult with small sample sizes to establish what the “true” average expenditures are, so as to compare them with actual revenues.
Gambling is glamourousRealistically, there would have to be thousands of people completing prospective diaries from each of the four categories of gamblers to offset the impact of these outliers. The present study compensated for this by using winsorized data and data sets that eliminated winners. This is a reasonable but not perfect solution to this problem.
The proportion of revenue from severe problem gamblers is very tentative because of the small number of severe problem gamblers completing prospective diaries (n = 32). There is more certainty in the proportion derived from moderate and severe problem gamblers combined (n = 92). Similarly, the proportion of revenue derived from problem gamblers for particular forms of gambling is also tentative; not all problem gamblers participate in all forms of gambling and so some of these estimates are based on small sample sizes. It seems certain that gambling machines derive more revenue from problem gamblers then other forms of gambling. However, the actual portion for each form of gambling is less certain.
There is not a perfect match between reported expenditure and actual revenue for the prospective diaries. The total winsorized expenditures are 36% below actual revenues, and the losses-only total is 37% higher than actual revenues. This makes some sense considering that the largest expenditures have been winsorized in the former and all wins have been eliminated in the latter. On the other hand, it is also important to realize that the present study found gambling expenditure exaggeration and minimization to be equally common for all four types of gamblers, as evidenced by the uniformly low correlations between retrospective estimates and subsequent prospective diary amounts.
The implication here is that if there is an over or underestimate of expenditures relative to revenues, it probably does not affect the proportion derived from problem gamblers because of equivalent exaggeration/minimization in each group.

A separate, Canada-wide, 2004 study on the percentage of revenue from problem gamblers is here. It notes:

“… the most meaningful figure is the proportion of revenue derived from problem gamblers averaged across all jurisdictions: 23.1%. …problem gamblers report a proportion of expenditure that is more than five times their proportion among the Canadian population.”

Another study on Ontario demographics for gambling found:

“…converging lines of evidence indicating that a substantial portion of gaming revenue derives from people who are negatively impacted by their involvement in this activity.”