Bob Schwartz

Category: Games

Finite and Infinite Games: Thoughts to End and Begin a Year

Finite and Infinite Games
James P. Carse, now Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at NYU, published Finite and Infinite Games in 1986. The book’s spare 160 pages belie its significance. It is a masterpiece of clear, poetic and transformative thought, as Carse takes on the big question that faces us now and always: What are we doing and saying when we act and talk about things religious—or for that matter about life?

His answer—and this is impossibly oversimplified—is that we are playing games. To say even that little is misleading. The only way to appreciate the book and its power is to follow its 101 very brief sections end to end.

This was written at a time when the idea of religion as myth was enjoying renewed currency. It was not a new idea, but by the 1980s a generation of thinkers was trying to make intellectually honest sense of a conundrum: If religious narrative is merely myth, how can religious history have any value or substantial meaning, and how then can we be religious? It turned out in their view that it was not “merely” myth, but a matter that necessarily coexisted with, complemented  and completed religion.

This continues to be something both hard for many to accept or wrap their heads around and equally hard to articulate. Carse articulates this better than anybody else has, and elevates the entire area to a platform for considering the whole of existence and life. If that sounds like hyperbole, please read the book and decide.

In the meantime, a wholly inadequate sample, given that many definitions and premises are missing:

1

THERE ARE at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

. . .

99

If it is true that myth provokes explanation, then it is also true that explanation’s ultimate design is to eliminate myth. It is not just that the availability of bells in churches and town halls of Europe makes it possible to forge new cannon; it is that the cannon are forged in order to silence the bells. This is the contradiction of finite play in its highest form: to play in such a way that all need for play is erased.

The loudspeaker, successfully muting all other voices and therefore all possibility of conversation, is not listened to at all, and for that reason loses its own voice and becomes mere noise. Whenever we succeed in being the only speaker, there is no speaker at all. Julius Caesar originally sought power in Rome because he loved to play the very dangerous style of politics common to the Republic; but he played the game so well that he destroyed all his opponents, making it impossible for him to find genuinely dangerous combat. He was unable to do the very thing for which he sought power. His word was now irresistible, and for that reason he could speak with no one, and his isolation was complete. “We might almost say this man was looking for an assassination” (Syme).

If we are to say that all explanation is meant to silence myth itself, then it will follow that whenever we find people deeply committed to explanation and ideology, whenever play takes on the seriousness of warfare, we will find persons troubled by myths they cannot forget they have forgotten. The myths that cannot be forgotten are those so resonant with the paradox of silence they become the source of our thinking, even our culture, and our civilization.

These are the myths we can easily discover and name, but whose meanings continually elude us, myths whose conversion to truth never quite fills the bells of their resonance with the sand of metaphysical interpretation. These are often exceedingly simple stories. Abraham is an example. Although only two children were born to Abraham in his long life, and one of those was illegitimate, he was promised that his descendants would be as numberless as the stars of the heavens. All three of the West’s major religions consider themselves children of Abraham, though each has often understood to be itself the only and final family of the patriarch, an understanding always threatened by the resounding phrase: numbered as the stars of the heavens. This is the myth of a future that always has a future; there is no closure in it. It is a myth of horizon.

The myth of the Buddha’s enlightenment has the same paradox in it, the same provocation to explanation but with as little possibility of settling the matter. It is the story of a mere mortal, completely without divine aid, undertaking successfully a spiritual quest for release from all forms of bondage, including the need to report this release to others. The perfect unspeakability of this event has given rise to an immense flow of literature in scores of languages that shows no signs of abating.

Perhaps the Christian myth has been the narrative most disturbing to the ideological mind. It is, like those of Abraham and the Buddha, a very simple tale: that of a god who listens by becoming one of us. It is a god “emptied” of divinity, who gave up all privilege of commanding speech and “dwelt among us,” coming “not to be served, but to serve,” “being all things to all persons.” But the worlds to which he came received him not. They no doubt preferred a god of magisterial utterance, a commanding idol, a theatrical likeness of their own finite designs. They did not expect an infinite listener who joyously took their unlikeness on himself, giving them their own voice through the silence of wonder, a healing and holy metaphor that leaves everything still to be said.

Those Christians who deafened themselves to the resonance of their own myth have driven their killing machines through the garden of history, but they did not kill the myth. The emptied divinity whom they have made into an Instrument of Vengeance continues to return as the Man of Sorrows bringing with him his unfinished story, and restoring the voices of the silenced.

100

The myth of Jesus is exemplary, but not necessary. No myth is necessary. There is no story that must be told. Stories do not have a truth that someone needs to reveal, or someone needs to hear. It is part of the myth of Jesus that it makes itself unnecessary; it is a narrative of the word becoming flesh, of language entering history; a narrative of the word becoming flesh and dying, of history entering language. Who listens to his myth cannot rise above history to utter timeless truths about it.

It is not necessary for infinite players to be Christians; indeed it is not possible for them to be Christians—seriously. Neither is it possible for them to be Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists, or New Yorkers—seriously. All such titles can only be playful abstractions, mere performances for the sake of laughter.

Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.

101

There is but one infinite game.

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Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America
Hanukkah is getting lots more attention this year than it usually does, because it starts on Thanksgiving, rather than on or about Christmas.

This is nearly unprecedented. Of course there’s lots of controversy about just how rare it is, partly because Thanksgiving has officially moved from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, partly because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, partly because of some esoterica of interest to extreme calendar freaks. Some say it won’t happen again for 70,000 years, others say it will never, ever happen again. If you happen to be around when it does, if it does, please e-mail, post, tweet, or whatever sort of advanced messaging will be used then to communicate with the curious but departed.

Thanksgivingukkah, or whatever other ridiculous and ear-hurting names people are coming up with, is second only to Black Friday as a cultural meme this week. We will be seeing lots of turkeys with Hanukkah candles stuck in them—actual ones, not just Photoshopped ones, at actual Thanksgiving tables, with plenty of videos to prove it. Might even see some turkey selfies. On the food front, we will have combined cuisines, where things not usually seen on the Thanksgiving table make an appearance, such as latkes and sour cream. (Note: I am promoting latke stuffing as the best of all possible hybrids.)

There’s a lot to talk about when Hanukkah and Christmas collide and coincide, theologically, historically and socially. Both involve charismatic Jewish religious leaders taking on tyranny—though one battles on the military and political front, while the other wields an entirely different set of weapons. As a central theme, both at some point take on the profaning of the Temple, in one case made unholy by soldiers, in the other made unholy by turning sacred space into a commercial enterprise. Both involve miracles and miraculous lights challenging the darkness. Not to mention that at the time of Jesus, Jews knew and marked the events of the Maccabee revolution, which had taken place less than two hundred years earlier.

Whether you are Jewish, or just newly fascinated by Hanukkah because it is for once not getting lost in the Christmas mishegas (“craziness” in Yiddish), have I got a book for you. Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton is more than just a review of how American Jews regarded and celebrated this once-minor holiday. It is the definitive and delightful book about how Hanukkah evolved to become a laboratory for what it means to be a Jew in America, and for that matter what it means to be Americans of any kind.

Here’s something Ashton writes about Thanksgiving and the “deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner”:

Many Jews combined food products available in America with recipes they deemed appropriate for Hanukkah meals. Even with a simple meal at home, immigrants could imagine a different Hanukkah past than the one in Eastern Europe. They could envision a personal bond with Judah Maccabee by selecting Carmel wine, which claimed to be “what the Maccabees drank.” Local food shops such as Goldman’s Tea and Coffee Store held special sales in honor of Sabbath Hanukkah. Jewish restaurateurs sometimes targeted immigrants’ desires for American foods at special occasions. Perhaps no food is so identified with America as the turkey, an animal native to North America and the featured dish of the Thanksgiving dinners that take place across the country only a few weeks before Hanukkah. When Gorfein’s, a kosher restaurant, advertised a deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner in the Forverts, it apologized in print the next day to “hundreds [who had to be] turned away” because the restaurant “had no space or food left for them.” Gorfein’s offered the same dinner a second night.

My usual Hanukkah post, sometime around Christmas, ends with a mention of a wonderful Comedy Central special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All. Our comic saviors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert perform the song Can I Interest You In Hanukkah? with Stewart making the case for the Jewish holiday:

Jon: Can I interest you in Hanukkah? Maybe something in a Festival of Lights. It’s a sensible alternative to Christmas. And it lasts for seven – for you – eight nights.
Stephen: Hanukkah huh? I’ve never really thought about it.
Jon: Well, you could do worse.
Stephen: Is it merry?
Jon: It’s kind of merry.
Stephen: Is it cheery?
Jon: It’s got some cheer.
Stephen: Is it jolly?
Jon: Look, I wouldn’t know from jolly. But it’s not my least unfavorite time of year.
Stephen: When’s it start?
Jon: The 25th.
Stephen: Of December?
Jon: Kislev.
Stephen: Which is when exactly?
Jon: I will check
Stephen: Are there presents?
Jon: Yes, indeed eight days of presents. Which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.
Stephen: Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?
Jon: No, oil that burned quite slowly.
Stephen: Well, it sounds fantastic!
Jon: There’s more. We have latkes.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Potato pancakes. We have dreidels.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Wooden tops. We have candles.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: THEY ARE CANDLES! And when we light them, oh the fun it never stops. What do you say, Stephen, do you want to give Hanukkah a try?
Stephen: I’m trying see me as a Jew. I’m trying even harder. But I believe in Jesus Christ
So it’s a real non-starter.
Jon: I can’t interest you in Hanukkah? Just a little bit?
Stephen: No thanks I’ll pass. I’ll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes. But I hope that you enjoy ‘em on behalf of all of the goyim.
Jon: Be sure to tell the Pontiff, my people say “good yontif”.
Stephen: That’s exactly what I’ll do.
Both: Happy holidays, you
Jon: too!
Stephen: Jew!
Jon: Too?

That’s it for this holiday mashup. Read the book; it’s great. Celebrate religious freedom by eating too much food. Spin the turkey. Light the candles. But whatever you do, don’t smoke the turkey, because it is impossible to keep that thing lit.

Happy holidays. Be safe.

Online Gambling and Real Life Guns: It’s About The Children

sheldon-adelson-615cs013012
A team of highly-paid ex-politico lobbyists are out there arguing against proposed bills in Congress to allow Internet gambling. Under one of these bills, a 12% tax would be shared between the federal and state governments, 4% and 8% respectively. That would be a lot of revenue in these hard times.

Gambling is an American and ancient tradition. Lotteries helped fund the American Revolution, which makes them practically sacred. In this case, the main opponents of digital gaming for money are the wealthy owners of real-world casinos and establishments, most visibly billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who helped bankroll Mitt Romney’s quest for the Presidency. No surprise there. The practice of online gaming, which already goes on with offshore sites, would expand dramatically, leaving bricks, mortar and showgirl spots with a severely reduced market.

Some of the arguments against the bills are, on their own terms, not entirely unpersuasive. Gambling does support hospitality and tourism, and if the already declining dollars drop further, there are going to be folks who lose their jobs in this challenged economy. It’s not clear that the entrepreneurs getting rich off this have the will and creativity to come up with substitute businesses that would replace those jobs. Gambling is also already a social problem, damaging lives and families, and what is bad gets worse with increased volume. The final big argument is, naturally, about “the children.” No matter what we try to do, the online environment is notoriously freewheeling, and there is no question that underage players would find a way to play, just as they get cigarettes and alcohol.

On the tourism question, cultural and social trends have always left some forms of entertainment and diversion behind while other new or more appealing ones prospered. Either you believe overall in the free market or not. People who say that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers shouldn’t be telling the government to pick winners and losers.

Out of control gambling can be pernicious, no doubt about it. But the argument, one actually made, that the poorest in society would be unfairly burdened by the attraction of online gambling is under current realities absurd. First, because it is not clear that all the opponents of online gambling care so very much for the lower tiers of American society. Second, because government already endorses, promotes and profits from easy-access gambling that does weigh on the most vulnerable—the lotteries. With all the strains on government budgets, it is unimaginable what state some states would be in without those gaming dollars.

Then there is the ultimate trump card: the children. That score is easy to answer. On the scale of things kids shouldn’t be allowed to do, alcohol is number 2, tobacco is a close number 3, and then comes gambling. Number 1 is easy. Children should not have guns, should not live in an environment where guns are widely available and acceptable, and where guns are regularly used to shoot, injure and kill innocent people—including children.

So if you happen to see or hear any of those lobbyists shilling for Sheldon Adelson and his ilk, talking about how it is about “the children” and how we must protect them from the evils of playing online poker or placing a digital bet on an NFL game, ask them if guns aren’t a tad more dangerous, and ask them what they’ve done to seriously reduce the ubiquity of those guns and to eliminate the personal and social costs that those guns have inflicted on all of us.

There likely won’t be a good answer, at least not one that isn’t laced with equivocation, hypocrisy and protests of irrelevancy. It is relevant. Ask them to put the two side by side, the harm to children from online gambling and from guns, and tell them that the billionaires are free to make billions more on their casinos—just as soon as the guns get put away.

Patents: Just One More Shutdown Victim

Election Game

You have heard stories, but you may not be directly affected by the shutdown at the moment, or know anyone who is. The shutdown may end tomorrow, but it may go on for weeks, as the last one did in 1996.

You understand the human misery that begins today. But maybe you don’t realize the legitimate, non-controversial things that the federal government does—things that are actually required by the U.S. Constitution, which even the most radical and extreme government haters say they respect.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office is one of those functions. It is an engine of innovation, which is one of those buzzwords that everyone across the political specturms like to throw around. How busy and important is the USPTO? Right now, there is a backlog of 1,000,000 patent applications in the pipeline

The USPTO site features this:

USPTO Operation Status

During the general government shutdown that began October 1, 2013, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will remain open, using prior year reserve fee collections to operate as usual for approximately four weeks. We continue to assess our fee collections compared to our operating requirements to determine how long we will be able to operate in this capacity during a general government shutdown. We will provide an update as more definitive information becomes available.

Should we exhaust these reserve funds before the general government shutdown comes to an end, USPTO would shut down at that time, although a very small staff would continue to work to accept new applications and maintain IT infrastructure, among other functions. (Should it become necessary for USPTO to shut down, details of the agency’s plan for an orderly shutdown are available on page 78 of the United States Department of Commerce’s shutdown plan, available here.)

Any new or updated public information related to USPTO operations during the government shutdown will be placed on this page.

The mentioned shutdown plan includes 87 pages and obviously took many hours to create and will take many more to execute.

While there, a search of the patent database found numerous political games (above). Unfortunately, there did not seem to be any patents for helping political extremists understand that government is not a game, and that the extraordinary founders of the nation who they claim to love never meant it to be one. Those founders believed in government, and could never imagine any representatives irresponsible enough to believe otherwise.