Sunday, June 15, 2008

Last Chance Saloon

For a waiting room of sort, it was a large one. From where I sat, I could only see endless rows of nameless, faceless souls lined up quietly, backs to wall, with their eyes closed. They seemed deep in thought, as if they were keeping a long uneasy vigil, or they could just as well be dozing off to the stultifying boredom. The air was stale with cigarette smokes and broken dreams. The walls, yellowed with age, had seen better times. Grafitti was sprawled all over. Perhaps there was nothing else to do. Perhaps the inmates merely wanted to mark the passage of time.

I looked around me. Sometimes I could make out a familiar face or two. It was all very hazy. There were murderers and drink-drivers who shattered lives--other people's lives--in moments of insanity, doctors and lawyers whose lives did not turn out the way they wanted, engineers and scientists disenchanted with the lousy capitalist world, writers and poets cursed with a chronic discontent they could not identify, and above all, the common people. Yes, common people who yearn for something greater. Common people whose lives had somehow slid out of view. Common people anonymous to all but God.

For all the souls packed in here, the room was eerily quiet. When people spoke, they did so in hushed tones. We all shared a common destiny, but there was nothing we wanted to do with one another. Sometimes we stared, with our glazed eyes, right through one another. It was rumoured that Edward Hopper drew his artistic inspirations from this very spot, but we all know it isn't true. We are better than them--those alienated figures who hung about in the vast emptiness of his canvases. For one, there is still hope. Someone has forgotten to tell us that hope and despair are two sides of the same coin.

A young migrant, as if reading my thoughts, turned to me and said, "If the door is closed on me, I'll just open another one. And if it doesn't open, if I just knock long and hard enough, somebody might just wake up." his dirty face creased with hope as he spoke. There was an unmistakable fire in his belly, an all-too-rare commodity in a place chokeful with cynicism and spite. I was grateful for the warmth, for otherwise we would have succumbed to the cold long ago.

I pressed my nose against the window pane. It was dusk, and the heavy rain in the afternoon had gradually given way to a light drizzle. It was my kind of day. I wished I was out there, out on the rain-scented sidewalks. It always smells like springtime again after a rain. The roads shimmered under the neon lights, and the rough edges were blurred and smudged in fragrant swirls. People and cars zipped about in a kind of absurd hurry, probably with lovers to meet, places to go and parties to dance to till dawn. Looking through the window, darkly, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sad realisation that life was happening elsewhere, and passing me by. Then I remembered the rules, communicated to us with a thinly veiled threat. "One. Check your regrets at the door. Two. Self-pity will not be tolerated. Three. Get lost if you must. "And despite our anti-authoritarian slurs, we all complied. Otherwise we wouldn't have come here. This is no time for wallowing.

One particular graffiti, scrawled in angry red ink, caught my eye. "Fuck you Godot, waited all my life for you!", it spits with no little contempt. I never really understood what it meant. Someone explained to me that it was a reference to "Waiting for Godot", an absurdist play in which the characters waited in vain for a Godot who never arrived. Must be a disheartened religious zealot. Ahh...It's just as well this Godot never arrives. We are all broken souls who have, at one time or another, followed the wrong gods home.

There was Harry Silver, a handsome articulate man in his mid-thirties who had everything going for him till his one-night stands crawled into daylight and wrecked his marriage. Wait a minute. Wasn't he a fictional character from the literary world of Tony Parsons? Kid in tow, I swore he was as real as can be. Pleading under his breath, to no one in particular, he was asking for a second chance. All too easy, Harry, all too easy.

We all know the story of Richard Buckminster Fuller, who was once on the verge of suicide but decided to check himself here. The rest is history, so they always say. He made good his time, invented the geodesic dome, and carved his name into eternity. There is even a soccer ball, the Buckminster ball, named in his honour. He is regarded as a folk hero here but not all are as lucky or as determined.

Jack Kerouac checked in and out oftentimes. A familiar figure, he left after the stunning success of "On the Road" brought him instant fame. He never returned. He was last heard to have drunk himself to death on the edge of town. Could this be the metaphorical Hotel California, where you could check out anytime you like, but you could never leave? Probably not. As perverse as it sounds, Kerouac simply gave up on life.

The world is especially cruel to men of science. The guy who invented the zipper died penniless. I can't even recall his name, but I offer a prayer for the man every time I zip up safely. Georg Riemann, Georg Cantor all had it tough. Born to the wrong centuries and derided despite their immense contributions to mathematics, they eventually lost their sanity. I could name more. Antoine Lavoisier, Alan Turing, they didn't even have chance.

That reminds me. I must return to my task at hand. When I came here with my books, all of them shrouded in an arcane language that speaks of Martingales and Markovs, Measure Theory and the Black-Scholes, I was told they could very well be my ticket out of the godforsaken. My life had never been simpler. All I had to do was to unravel the secrets contained within the tomes. Everything else was noise. Staring at the symbols for the longest time, I was beginning to develop a sense of weary affection for them.

But demons lurk within. Paulo Coelho once wrote, " When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." I'm sure he wrote it just to sell his books, to appease some sort of commercial deity. The parallel universe which I had known all my life is at best merely indifferent, and at worst, it conspires to disrupt you. I come here to concentrate, but I keep losing focus. A slight distraction at the door will have me scurrying to find out what happens, but people come in and out all the time here.

As I am speaking, there is a real commotion now at the door. A group of people, dressed in blue, are awaiting outside. The air is thick with goofy euphoria, the kind which happens only when celebrities are spotted among us commoners. In sauntered a familiar figure, lanky and languid. Thierry Henry! Then I recalled, France was recently humiliated 4-1 by Holland in the Euro2008. It was the kind of things which you thought could only happen to other teams, to other people, sort of like getting AIDS or being struck by lightning. It must have been particularly painful for the French, whose years of strutting about in their cloak of invincibility had come and gone. Now that the cloak is gone, all that is left is ridicule, mockery and disillusionment. But this is no time for recriminations nor self-pity. The French team has decided to check into the last chance saloon.

I wish France all the best.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

France vs Romania JokeFest

Football journalists were busy whipping out their poison pens after France and Romania threatened to bring the beautiful game into disrepute, an accusation more often levied at "enemies of football" such as Jose Mourinho and er..Marco Materazzi. Even England, like an unfortunate kid picked on for no apparent reasons, was not spared the collateral damage. From perennial underachievers to plucky minnows? Ha!

From Guardian:
To be fair, Romania have only ever won one game in the Euros and that was against plucky minnows England.

From International Herald Tribune:
On a mild and sunny evening, the best that could be said of the tired spectacle was that the grass was a particularly restful shade of green and, to the naked eye, appeared to be growing well.

Unfortunately, there was nothing of wit from Soccernet this time. When it comes to wit, no other publication does it better than Guardian. Here are some Guardian gems to savour(drawn from other occasions and in no particular order):

After all the debate over the shape England ought to adopt, Croatia decreed that it would be a severely dented one.

[France-Italy WC 2006]
Zidane looked relaxed, sharing a joke with Fabien Barthez who, coincidentally, has often been described as a joke.

[France-Romania Euro 2008]
For the first time in a year or so, Malouda broke dangerously down the left. He jinked into the box but his shot sailed somewhere over the Alps.

[France-Brazil WC 2006]
Now that the over-hyped Ronaldinho has been absolutely rubbish in the entire World Cup as well as the Champions League final, thus shrinking continuously in the big stage, could he be dubbed the New Old Thierry Henry?

[Man U-?]
Wayne Rooney struggled to contain his fiery temper and screamed 'You Kant' at a linesman when called for offside, and then 'Foucault' at the referee. Rare for a player to react to an unwelcome decision by critiquing the philosophical underpinnings of the rules.

Monday, June 09, 2008


One of the many financial terms which have been creeping into our daily lexicon
is hedging. While it sounds impossibly arcane, no thanks to the dark reputations that hedge funds have acquired of late, hedging is actually a simple strategy of reducing risk by taking protective, and sometimes painful, measures against our life utility. In finance-speak, hedging must involve taking opposite positions in various products which are correlated. So if we have to talk about hedging, we must have a common platform--utility, which is not a problem since our singular objective on earth is to maximize our utility, according to economists.

For example, paying life insurance premiums is a type of hedge for human capital in the event of death. Wearing seat belts is a matter of hedging comfort for safety. Socialise with a wider network of people. Do not over-commit in a relationship. Never burn your career bridges. All these social rules have their roots in hedging. If you look hard enough, hedging is something ordinary folks--those of the more conservative types anyway--have been practicing all their life.

And it is not unwise to do so. To take an opposite stance from hedging is to go all-in with guns a-blazing, with the all too familiar result of burning out way before your prime.

"This too will pass" is a philosophical hedge against the extremities of the human condition. Whether you be mired in the throes of despair or be lost in the joys of happiness, be awaiting death as a hangman or be sitting on a pile of capitalist gold, be in the company of or be grieving for your loved ones, the simple realisation that the human condition is essentially transitory tempers all sadness and happiness. Congratulations. You are now a Stoic.

I too have been hedging all my life. France vs Romania is those types of matches which I will bet draw, for fear of suffering the double whammy of France dropping points and losing money at the same time. I would much prefer to lose a small amount of cash and see my favourite teams triumph. Obviously the more important the match features in my heart, the larger the hedge needs to be against potential disappointment. I hedged a considerable sum against Manchester United winning the 2007-2008 Champions League, but actually forgot to cover penalty shootouts. Such is life.

And for all the broken-hearted in the world, it's time to learn how to hedge your pain away. Channel your negative energies into activities of the more productive types--the more utility they earn for you, the better. It's easier said than done, but get that first dose of utility in, and savour the soothing effects of utility on your broken heart. So stop spinning songs of nostalgia and start unravelling the secrets of the universe. Or start a veritable porn collection, if you so wish.

The idea of hedging is not new. The average German would pay 80 euros to win Euro2008, while the French, averse to such displays of patriotism as usual, would only offer 13 euro.

OK! Placed my bet (draw for France vs Romania). Hope I lose.