Friday, June 28, 2013

Philosophy 101

Socrates was always gadflying,
Going round probing and prying.
The folks in the agora
Got sorer and sorer
And soon had old Socrates dying.


Socrates' method was ironic.
While his follower's was Platonic.
Go on, be brave!
Get out of the cave.
Or else you'll remain moronic.” 


Seneca said take it day by day;
Over events we really have no say.
He was tutor to that zero--
The emperor known as Nero.
And with his life he had to pay.


"It is not very rough
To shave away the extra stuff,"
Said William of Occam.
(Don't ever mock'm;
He'll surely call your bluff.)


There is really no fakin’
Respect for Roger Bacon.
For in the 13th Cen.
Unlike other men,
He tried to get science shakin’.


My mail filter thinks him a sham
And sends his messages straight into SPAM.
But Rene Descartes
Is really quite smart,
Insisting, “I think, thus I am.”

Your hat you must doff
To each French philosophe.
For they never were frightened
To make people enlightened
And smart as a university prof.


Existentialists, needing a bard,
Latched onto the Dane Kierkegaard,
Who, never dissembling,
Showed in Fear and Trembling
How living is really quite hard.


Among the big American names
There is a certain William James.
In thought, never static,
He was rather pragmatic
And investigated mystical claims.


About Sisyphus, said Albert Camus,
He had only one thing to do--
To push up that rock
Each day round the clock.
For that was the punishment due. 


“Simone,” said her lover, Jean-Paul,
“Let’s you and I tonight have a ball.
“There’s no-one to phone;
“We’ll do it alone.
“Hell is other people, after all.”


Kant was too cagey;
Nietzsche too ragey.
Hit the bottle.
And Aquinas was much too beige-y.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Horse Sense

The first time I went to the racetrack I knew only one thing about horses: that they had four legs. My betting scheme was founded on the hope that wit shown in creating a horse’s name from that of its sire and dam might be a precursor of wit employed in its training. Despite my yelling and screaming and jumping up and down, my witty horses displayed no aptitude for winning—until the last race when I was able to cash a five-dollar win ticket. At the end of the day I determined two things: that I had lost a total of nineteen dollars and that I hadn’t had so much fun for ages.

I was hooked.

But before I next visited the track, the realization that I could not once again be flying blind forced me to turn loose the scholar in me to learn all I could about the so-called “Sport of Kings.” After hitting the books and the track with mixed success, I eventually came upon the works of Andy Beyer, and I became, following his teachings, a speed-figure number cruncher. This entailed a good deal of research and record-keeping, collected on ruled index cards, with colored ones for the first of every month to facilitate easy referencing. Since it was necessary to be prepared for battle, I would make a detour before work or get up at the crack of dawn on non-teaching days to hunt down a copy of an advance copy of Daily Racing Form, which would have the next day’s entries. With different colored highlighters and ballpoint pens at hand, I would mark-up the pages with numbers, colors, and strange symbols.

I believe I had success, although I never kept a long-time tally. One parking-lot guard at Monmouth Park would stop me before each Meadowlands simulcast to ask me who I liked. It got to be such a routine that would write down a few selections to hand over to him. After I strongly promoted a horse at a good price in the fifth race the night before, I was eager to learn how much he won. He told me that he didn’t bet on the horse because meeting the trainer coming into the track and asking his usual “Who do you like?” he received an answer from the trainer that omitted the horse of his I had picked. I was not pleased. “Who are you going to listen to—the trainer or me?”

Although I was rapturously absorbed in the world of horseracing, I couldn’t, unfortunately, proselytize others to share the delight. One girlfriend, when invited to accompany me a second time to the track, declared, “I’d rather give birth!”
My own eventual disillusionment with horseracing came in stages. The first was probably the decision by the Racing Form to print Beyer speed figures for the horses. Now anybody without any effort could just open the paper and get quality information that I was sweating to turn out for myself--the loving numbers which had given me an edge over other bettors. As a result, the odds on my good horses began to fall as others caught on, and there was less of a profit to be made on them. 

One dreary June Monday when there was no live racing and no simulcasting of any interest, I had the idea to finally do a long-time tally (at least for the preceding almost-half year) and to see exactly how the new state of affairs had affected me. What I discovered was that for the previous five-and-a-half months of betting I was within ten dollars of breaking even (I don’t recall whether I was ten to the good or ten to the bad). All that time and work and no profit; indeed, a net loss when expenses (gas, tolls, parking, admission, Racing Form, program) were considered. Bad enough—but I was feeling even worse when I realized that on the basis on my selections alone, I should have been a big winner. It was the tracks’ take-out that defeated me. On the basis of handicapping alone, I would have had a profit of between 20 and 25 percent (math freaks, see below*). That would have made all the effort worthwhile. But the realization that I was fighting a headwind, cooled my ardor and I began to disengage from the sport. It was, I determined, a mug’s game.
For the first time in years, this spring I watched all three races of the Triple Crown. On the telecasts I saw recognizable figures from the past: Shug McGaughey, winning trainer of the Kentucky Derby, looking rather short and bent, and sun-glassed D. Wayne Lukas, winning trainer of the Preakness, looking as pin-collared tidy as before but seemingly with new choppers. During none of the races did I yell and scream or jump up and down; neither did I make a bet on any of the horses, whatever the wit behind their names.

It was, after all, a mug’s game.

*For the math freaks:

Out of each betting pool the track deducts a set percentage (as I recall, between 17 and 33 percent, depending upon the type of bet—strangely, the more difficult the bet, the higher the take-out).
Let us assume that, like me for those five or so months, you broke even at the track—you bet a total, just to choose a nice round number, of $1,000 and received back $1,000. Assuming an average track take-out of 20 percent, the equation looks like this:
Your return = .8 of your share of the total pool; that is, $1,000 = .8x (x =your share of the total pool). Your share of the total pool is $1,000 divided by .8.
Your share of the pool = $1,250.
In other words, on pure handicapping alone, you should have earned $250 for your $1,000 in bets—or a return of 25 percent.
A nice profit—that you can’t get.
A mug’s game.   


Saturday, June 1, 2013


The other night during a Stanley Cup playoff hockey game at Staples Center in Los Angeles the telecaster decided to enthrall us viewers with the sight of Tom Cruise and Victoria and David Beckham in the stands. I merely shrugged and noted that it still left them seventy percent short of a Mensa minyan.

Today I just read an article on the New York Times website (to be published tomorrow in the Magazine) about a teenager named “Sarah M., better known as ‘Stalker Sarah,’” whose purpose on Earth seems to be to have her picture taken with alleged celebrities (convicted ex-governors apparently count) and uploading the results to the internet. According to the Times, her activities have propelled Sarah M. to the sort of fame that causes other teenaged girls to want to have their pictures taken with her.

The walls of many New York City delicatessens attest to an earlier age of photo-taking-with-celebrities. There one can still see fading black-and-white glossies of countermen posing with minor Borscht Belt comedians. But at least the former did something to earn their Kodak moment; they sliced the latter’s pastrami and placed it between pieces of rye bread (with or without seeds).

Four-and-a-half decades ago at Expo67 in Montreal I took a photograph of famed photographer Yousuf Karsh. I am willing—out of the goodness of my heart—to allow you to take a picture of me, so that you can brag that you have photographed the person who photographed the person who photographed (according to Wikipedia) Winston Churchill, Mohammed Ali, Mother Teresa, Humphrey Bogart, Sophia Loren, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ernest Hemingway, Nikita Khrushchev, Martin Luther King, Pope John XXIII, Pablo Picasso, Dizzy Gillespie, and Queen Elizabeth II.

And the glow of greatness can encompass us all.