The Newtonian Casino


Alternative Title: The Eudaemonic PieThe Newtonian Casino by Thomas A. Bass
Author: Thomas A. Bass
Publisher: Penguin (1985)
Number of Pages: 329
How long it took me to read: 3 weeks
How it was given to me: A present from a friend for xmas 2010.
ISBN: 014014593 1

Like a Moth to a Flame

The blurb promised the book would deliver a ‘scientific adventure’ the tale of a project dedicated to defeating the controversial challenge of predicting outcomes in a game of roulette. I’m not a gambling man. I just don’t feel the whipcrack of materialism that drives others to abandon their time and sense to the pursuit of wealth, but I am a great supporter of the underdog. I love to wallow in thoughts of ‘getting one over on the big boys’ and defying their deviously stacked odds. Such daydreams quickly dissipate when exposed to the real world – kingpins will usually rise again, or be usurped by successful underdogs, who often prove just as ruthlessly self-serving – but this book promised a satisfying sniff at justice, at least. The cover even flaunted a quote from Richard Dawkins, who hailed it as ‘An astonishing tale of scientific heroism.’ For me, this was an irresistible recommendation.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “The air is charged. People are juiced on the sheer consumption of it, as if the turbines out at Hoover Dam can be heard throbbing thirty-five miles across the desert.” (p.8)

4. “Chips of the gambling variety have a magnetism of their own. They draw energy like a short circuit. Stack enough of them in front of a player and crowds gather to stare.” (p.83)

3. “People would be completely serious and upset about something not working, but they’d be standing there in their underwear clicking the computer with their toes. It was ridiculous.” (p.144)

2. ” ‘I had never been in a communal household that worked like this, where people really enjoyed each other. Everything in the house was supposed to be run by popular vote, and we had a real sense of responsibility towards the place. We shared everything – food, toothpaste, tools.’ ” (p.142)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “This leads to the following conclusion: ‘If you want to double your bank on an American wheel,’ says Wilson, ‘there is one and only one best bet. You must take all the money that you intend to risk at roulette during your whole life and shove it all down on one spin of the wheel on one of the even-money propositions.’ ” (p.158)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: ratiocination (noun)

Definition (Source: Dictionary.com): the process of logical reasoning
Synonyms: deduction, rationality
Origins: from Latin ‘ratiōcinārī’ to calculate, from ‘ratiō’ reason
As in: “There is not a mechanical, electrical, computational, or cosmological problem toward which he has not directed his powers of ratiocination.” (p.23)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Chapter One bolts from its gate at a sprint, a titillating glimpse at the accomplished end game of this real-life hustle enacted by scientists. The rush of flashing blurs and whirs of a Las Vegas night. Computers in shoes, electronic impulses flicking surreptitiously between co-conspirators, and a hoard of chips amassing on the table before them. This is Ocean’s Eleven for geeks; the Rat Pack with logic and tireless endeavour in place of ice-cold nerves and overblown swagger. It whirls the reader into this set-up without apology, boldly risking the alienation of those who can’t cope with more advanced electronics and computer terminology. This is my kind of book. Intrigue. Science. The small guys with restless initiative versus the state-endorsed bully-boys. Stealing wealth from the rich to feed the minds of the curious.”

“Chapter Two rips me from the seedy, gluttonous belly of Las Vegas, and drops me into the measured sobriety of some backwater mining town in New Mexico. I feel like a child presented with a river of ice cream and chocolate flakes, but told that he can’t have any until the mountain of sprouts in front of it has been eaten.  It’s not the sudden change of scenery that unseats my galloping expectations, but a fumbled switch of voice and pace. From the bustling, neon-lit excess and rapidfire flurry of gambling chips, the narrative slams on its emergency brakes and clatters to a standstill, the author resorting to a list of Silver City‘s obtuse historical events and geographical features, name-dropping the likes of Billy the Kid and Herbert Hoover for exposition.

“This has nothing to do with casinos, science or Las Vegas. I’ve been shown the glorious future, then pulled backwards through time and space to listen to the idle muttering of random entries from a local tourist directory. I follow, blindly and disinterestedly, the lecture’s ambling wake for two more pages, until the name of someone mentioned in Chapter One finally provides me with an anchor point.”

Note to self: If a story requires a measured pace to reveal its depth, then begin it with a measured pace. Don’t give false expectations. Don’t lay out a comfortable rug for the reader’s feet and then pull it out from under them, particularly if that rug is spun from the cloth of forthcoming narrative. After this, I’m not so interested in where the story is going as much as I am in getting there faster.

“Once this aimless history lesson comes to an end, a recognisable narrative takes shape and my clouds of confusion and irritation disperse. The book, far from being a pure dramatisation of real events as the first chapter suggests, is actually a documentary. There is narration about characters and events, followed by a soundbite from one of the people mentioned, more description, another soundbite, and the occasional break-out into technical history or background. For example, there’s a whole chapter devoted to the history of computing, and another to chaos theory. This may give the impression that the book is ploddingly formulaic, but it isn’t.  After that crunching change of tone, I just needed the reassurance of a definite structure to recalibrate my expectations and appreciate the book in the manner intended by the author. Having recognised this pattern of verisimilitude, as used in so many television documentaries, I’m content to let the story absorb me again.  One dilemma continues to distract me, though. What will happen when the writer (currently taking a back seat as third-person narrator) finally turns up in the tale? Will this herald another switch to first person or is he going to have to interview himself?”

“The more details that are revealed of the work of Eudaemonic Enterprises, the more time and energy that they expend on the impossible challenge of beating roulette and the more complicated their theories and solutions become, the harder it becomes for me to shake the thought that this project represents a colossal waste of effort.  But, as the author points out, most major advances in science have come about because of war. At least this method of scientific progress avoids excessive bloodshed. I’m also gratified to find this sense of ethical indignity backed up by the fiancé of the Project leader, (who herself invests a considerable amount of time, effort and brainpower in assisting the Project):

‘When you aren’t lacking for them, the purpose of life is not to acquire things. Then what is the purpose of life? You fool yourself into thinking that it must be to help everyone else along. I was bothered from the beginning that the purpose of the Project was to make money. Maybe it’s just my do-good ethic, but I always wanted a greater goal. Not that I ever thought the Project was immoral. It’s just that it didn’t promote some greater sense of morality, my own morality at least.’ (p.177)

Her words soothe me into the realisation that this book isn’t necessarily trying to justify the goal in itself. The author’s aim is simply to report it and, in doing so, the elements that contribute to the Project gradually become the main focus: the project members, the logical reasoning they are so devoted to, and the tools and onerous investment that they bring with them. The rainbow of a shared experience, of being part of a community working towards a mutual goal, becomes a greater motivation for most members than the lure of a pot of gold at the end. When the author describes them all as ‘dope smoking hippies,’ I feel a fizz of contrarian pleasure. How did dope-smoking hippies find the time to achieve all this, while carrying out their day jobs? If there’s one thing I enjoy more than a win for the underdog, it’s the obliteration of a stereotype.”

“The main reason I’m continuing to read this book has nothing to do with the plot – it’s because I’m learning so much from its asides and digressions. This is a generous book, with grand diversions into scientific theory and history, even if it doesn’t always provide a tidy narrative or a sympathetic foundation for its ethics. Better still, it doesn’t dictate and it doesn’t judge, and that is the best environment in which to inspire and cultivate learning.”

“With the almighty power of hindsight, I realise this book is more about slow progress and steady determination over an extended period of time, polar to the world of flashing lights and speed into which it first plunged me. Perhaps the juxtaposition of styles between the first two chapters was intended to highlight this difference between the Las Vegas lifestyle and that of the scientists attempting to defeat it, but its actual effect was to stunt the narrative, making me question whether I wanted to continue reading.  I’m glad that I did.  This book has guided me deeper into the jungle of scientific information, making the impenetrable convolutions of the field of physics appear so inviting that I feel compelled, one day, to hack my way through to a greater knowledge of the subject.”

Gareth Long

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