Backgammon: The Game of Wall Street

I don’t really have anything to add to Raffi Khatchadourian’s profile of Falafel, one of the top-ranked backgammon players in the world (“The Chaos of the Dice,” The New Yorker, 5/13/13), but as someone who once spent a lot of time gambling and is well on his way toward those 10,000 hours of turning intuitive skill into professional ability in a different game, here are some highlights:

  • Whenever a game gets glamorized, as Backgammon did in the ’60s, with black-tie world-championships and celebrity players like Lucille Ball and Paul Newman, you run the risk of turning genuine gamblers–sharks–on to the feeding frenzy of fish–mediocre competitors–if not outright whale hunters, who seek out the deep-pocketed and poor players. The players interviewed in this article are all incredibly cagey when it comes to naming the locations of private games or the rich billionaire players, lest they lose their client-opponents to other savvy and opportunistic gamers.
  • It’s hard to walk away when you’re losing. One player is so rigid about playing in marathon sessions (over fifteen hours at a time, and some sessions have gone for days on end) that a gambler actually brings a stand-in with him to play while he goes to the bathroom. Another terrible player is described as losing a hundred and fifty dollars in half an hour . . . and coming back two hours later with fifty pounds of gold. In the most extreme example, one used as a parable for the sport (“the cruelest game”), one Russian prepared to kill another after wagering that the loser would die. Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” features backgammon. Continue reading

Don’t Do Drugs, Unless You’re A Military Test Subject

According to Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker article (“Operation Delirium,” 12/17/12), in 1969, Colonel James S. Ketchum, the head of a military drug program, believed that “the Army could study marijuana for its possible therapeutic value.” Of course, that’s not really what the article’s about, unless it’s talking about the need for therapeutic value after all of the crazy, pretty much deranged and mind-breaking testing that Ketchum performed in the years preceding that. In fairness, regardless of his own self-medicating, Ketchum at least appears sincere, hoping to develop an incapacitating psychochemical weapon that would avoid the “macabre agony which projectiles, flames and bayonets can produce,” but then again, I guess most mad scientists start out with the best of intentions, in this case the “selective malfunctioning of the human machine.” As secrecy is stripped away by no-longer-classified subjects, a lawsuit is in the works, alleging that “whether out of military urgency or scientific dabbling, the Army recklessly endangered the lives of its soldiers–naive men, mostly, who were deceived or pressured into submitting to the risky experiments,” and I’ll be damned if there isn’t a Hollywood movie in the works here about, say, two subjects under the influence of a potent new drug who escape the Edgewood facility, and two other soldiers who must apprehend them before they either cause harm to others, themselves, or the military (by inadvertently leaking information).

Calling Ketchum a mad scientist is a bit of an stretch, at least according to this balanced article: this is more a warning of the overreaches of the military-industrial complex, and the fact that the army gets away with an attempts much that is only later, if ever, revealed to be legally and morally unethical. When you allow–nay, encourage–tests with limited supervision, seemingly unlimited budgets, and soldiers who have been indoctrinated as literal yes-men, we time and time again get dangerous and/or questionable results, whether it’s in the so-called experimental uses of torture-that-is-not-legally-called-torture-for-the-purposes-of-this-torture or in the weapons of mass destruction that we create in order to save lives and are still attempting to walk backward from some seventy years down the line. Yes, being able to kill our enemies with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is an improvement over killing our enemies and a lot of innocents and polluting the land for years with nuclear weaponry, which is itself perhaps objectively “better” than having to send soldiers in, but should we really consider lives to be so button-pressingly cheap? Likewise, while Ketchum’s idealistic vision of disarming gasses is an objectively better one than those of murderous poison gasses, one wonders if he’d ever heard the term “better off dead,” as this is the sort of feedback we get decades down the line:

The lasting health effects of the research were difficult to judge. Records were either messy or incomplete, and no experiment had collected data to determine how a drug might affect lives in the long term. In 1980, the Army published a study that found that sixteen per cent of the volunteers given LSD later suffered psychological symptoms–flashbacks, depression, and suicidal ideation–associated with the drug; the authors concluded that most of these were benign, but they also acknowledged that the study had an “insuperable” design problem, in that obtaining adequate control subjects was impossible. A later study found that a significant number of subjects had been hospitalized for nervous-system or “sense organ” disorders.

It reminds me of young Hal’s terrifying cry of “I am in here” in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (which dealt with drugs and addictions of another order), or the fact that a depression-causing nerve gas could be considered disarming as opposed to murderous, even though both might lead to the same end result. It’s revealing to read that “early efforts to make weapons from mescaline and LSD were dropped, because the drugs were too unsafe or too unpredictable,” but that later efforts with PCP, sarin gas, or VX, which sometimes caused lasting paranoia or other potentially permanent mind-altering conditions, were not only continued but poorly documented (and even then, only in the short term). What if we invented some sort of microwave-transmitter that could somehow perform lobotomies on our enemies from afar, theoretically targeting their neural pathways in the same way that surgeons do so? That would be considered less lethal than other methods of violence — perhaps even more effective, in that it would be harder to trace if its effects were gradual, or impossible to separate from naturally occurring dementia (as on a recent episode of Elementary, in which uncurable and genetically engineered illnesses were used as poisons), and yet would these high-tech methods really be any less murderous? If you change the people we are, have you not, in some sense, killed us? “There are moral imponderables, such as whether insanity, temporary or permanent, is a more ‘humane’ military threat than the usual afflictions of war,” reads a quote from E. James Lieberman, a psychiatric resident at Harvard. Another great quote from Khatchadourian’s research, from Sidney Cohen, a well-regarded LSD research from 1965: “Such degradation of a person’s mind is worse than his physical death and can hardly be considered humane warfare.”

In any case, these studies began before Ketchum, and have probably continued long past his retirement; he didn’t invent EA 2277 (3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, or BZ), and one of his first encounters with a superior of his named Sim is comically described when Sim walks in “wearing only underwear” from the waist down, explaining that he was attempting to see “if LSD has any effect through the skin,” and being totally oblivious to the fact that it was. If there’s anything to take away from this article, it’s in the general obliviousness with which this people in positions of military authority would subject others to chemical testing: mixing LSD into cocktails at a party, getting reckless with lethal doses of VX, etc. This isn’t black and white — some scientists are described as more moral and aware than others — and Ketchum defends himself from the idea that he himself may have violated the Nuremberg Code by skirting “the voluntary consent of the human subject.” But here’s where the Army runs into trouble: when you have classified information — some subjects still don’t know what they were given — and when you have a chain-of-command that leaves lowest-rung soldiers feeling as if they cannot refuse an order, or who accept simply to avoid the knowable hell of Vietnam, well . . . how voluntary or informed is this consent?

Withdrawing from a test required backing down from a commitment to one’s superior, which was anathema in the Army. “In the military, if you don’t do something you will be ostracized,” a solider given LSD in 1958 told me. “I believe they did give us the option to leave, at first, but you didn’t really have a choice once you were in.”

Consider this legal obfuscation to get them in, too (which continues to this day within a military that is ever reluctant to describe its operations or expenditures): “The forms were designed to offer few details; as one version was drafted, the words ‘mental disturbance or unconsciousness’ were replaced with ‘discomfiture.'” No doubt Khatchadourian has cherry-picked the most revealing of the anecdotal experiences from his research, but the fact that he finds so many crazy examples of the loose testing hints at just how reckless it all was. (Here’s a terrible experience: You’ve just been strapped in, the needle is in your arm, and the doctor mentions to his colleague that it’s a lethal substance; “We just gave you a little too much,” he says, apologizing to you: “Walk it off.”)

Of course, it’s easy for me to criticize: I have no affiliations with the military, and I–like many of my fellow Americans–give little thought to our overseas operations and what it takes to maintain them. Even less, in all likelihood, since the only real exposure I get is when something arts-and-entertainment related actually covers such subjects, often with its own agenda in doing so. But reading about our murky dalliance with psychochemicals chills me, especially since these mistakes from our history don’t appear to have been learned from, unless you consider getting even more secretive to have been the object lesson. I guess I’m glad that I no longer do drugs of any kind, since I have such strong fears of residual, personality-altering effects; for those who are currently addictive, perhaps this is the Scared Straight material you need. Or an opportunity for employment. Like I said, it’s not so black-and-white.

Response: Rachel Aviv’s “Netherland”

In 2009, an almost-eighteen-year-old lesbian from central Florida, having just graduated high school, decides to run away to Manhattan. Her plan — which is a terrible one, if you know anything about how expensive the city can be, and how unnecessary it is to live there if you’re looking to attend an affordable school — is “to live on the streets for several weeks, until her eighteenth birthday. Then she would begin the rest of her life: getting a job, finding an apartment, and saving for college.” Samantha is not depicted as a stupid girl, in fact she’s described as keeping meticulous notes in her purple spiral-bound notebooks: “the locations of soup kitchens, public libraries, bottle-return vending machines, thrift stores, and public sports clubs.” In fact, I’ll bet she was more street smart than I, a native New York City resident, ever was or will be. And yet the pursuit of such a Romantic and wrongheaded notion such at this makes it hard for me to empathize with what will eventually happen to her. Yes, unemployment for people ages 15-24 was hovering around 20% at the time of this article (I’d just been laid off myself; in fact, my entire department had), so why pursue a job in an unfamiliar city, especially when you’re banking on homelessness? Coming up with a unique college essay (“My Summer on the Streets”) wasn’t her issue; paying for college was.

Am I supposed to applaud the scrappy resourcefulness she shows in forging a street family with other homeless youths from the various shelters? (By that logic, shouldn’t I look down on her for not fully embracing the culture and resources of gay families and their ballroom events, ala Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!?) Should I celebrate her growing proficiency in shoplifting — her transgendered friend Ryan calls this “pulling a Duane Reade” — or the way in which she games the waiting-lists at popular shelters (and plants drug paraphernalia on her roommates) in order to live rent-free, a sentence which as I type makes me feel more and more conservative but yes, this is a person who, of their own intelligent actions, has chosen to be a burden on the system. (Intent, incidentally, is one of the deciding factors when it comes to prosecuting someone for a crime.)

I realize that perhaps I hate Samantha, or perhaps it’s just that I empathize a lot more with Ryan, who ends up cruising the pier down in the West Village looking for his sexual identity while also strolling (i.e., providing oral services) in order to come up with enough money to get off the streets for a few days. He dopes up on Triple C (i.e., Coricidin Cough & Cold) so that he can do this from a “comfortable distance.” On the other hand, Samantha drinks a combination of Delsym–a cough medicine–and Nyquil, so that she is “bold enough to look people in the eyes” while panhandling. Is it awful for me to say that at least Ryan–who will wind up HIV for his efforts–is at least providing a service, whereas Samantha is described as hanging out at the Apple Store, updating her Facebook profile? (Actually, this last bit is apparently something that many runaways and homeless children do, and in retrospect that makes a lot of sense, as it allows your network–whoever they may be–to know that you’re still alive.)

Of course, I don’t really hate Samantha, or at least it’s a lot harder to once you learn that she’d also contracted HIV, either after being knifed in one of the first shelters she stayed in or back in Florida, where she’d been raped by a family friend. But I can’t help but feel that personal responsibility and agency are ignored in Aviv’s piece, that the reasons for Samantha’s circumstances are not nearly as interesting to the author so much as the entree this provides into the world of those who are even more unfortunate than the supposed subject of the article. Moreover, not only are solutions not suggested by Aviv (or the still job-less Samantha, whose only glimmer of hope is that HIV can be managed, to a degree . . . though where the money to pay for that comes from when she already cannot afford her subsidized $216/month apartment, who knows), but problems aren’t even mentioned, except for the fact that the shelters are overburdened and that they do little to actually keep people out of the gutter, so much as bouncing between shelter and street. A lot of subjects are conflated, made unnecessarily sordid by situational context, and the whole article feels as if it’s appealing to some sort of White Jewish Guilt, which, admittedly, may describe the average New Yorker reader, but falls short of my expectations.

(To read Aviv’s article, which I’ve responded to here, check out The New Yorker, December 10, 2012.)

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