The Great Gonzo

On this day back in 2005 the great Hunter S. Thompson signed off for the last time, with a gunshot to the head. He had his reasons for such a dramatic exit, but it seemed like a tremendous loss at the time, a feeling that has deepened in the intervening years as the authoritarian shift in US politics has cried out for the sort of biting social commentary that was Thompson’s speciality.

Thompson is best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his 1971 account of a drug-fuelled trip to Nevada, but I think his finest work is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, a collection of his reports on the 1972 US Presidential elections. …Vegas is a great book, but ultimately rather downbeat, charting as it does the defeat of 60’s counterculture at the hands of the Man. …Campaign Trail is much more optimistic, as Thompson gets caught in the tide of the McGovern campaign and starts to believe that progressive politics might just have a chance. It ends in disappointment of course, when Nixon wins with a landslide, but at least Thompson didn’t have to wait too long to see Tricky Dicky’s downfall. (Years later Thompson would write the definitive Nixon obituary, He Was a Crook.) …Campaign Trail‘s depiction of the youthful energy of McGovern’s supporters is still inspirational today, and should be required reading for community organisers and political activists everywhere.

To mark the anniversary of Thompson’s death The Quietus has a previously unpublished interview, along with a brief but useful biography. The BBC produced a fine documentary on Thompson’s life and work a couple of years ago, and Terry Gilliams’ film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with Johnny Depp as Thompson, is worth seeing too.

The style of journalism that Thompson pioneered has become so commonplace now that it’s almost a cliche, but out of his many imitators none have come close to the man himself. I’m going to settle down tonight with my dog-eared copy of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and have a few drinks in his memory.

The wrong move at the right time

Regular readers will know that I have an interest in internet addiction, but I came to that via impulse control disorders in general, and pathological gambling in particular.

The BBC reported this week on the release of the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010, produced by the National Centre for Social Research for the Gambling Commission. It’s a fairly hefty document, and I’ve only managed to read the executive summary, but even that contains plenty of food for thought.

The headline figures are that 73% of the adult population gambled in the last year, up from 63% the last time the survey was done in 2007. Problem gambling, as measured by the DSM-IV criteria, was up from 0.6% to 0.9% in the same period, though it hadn’t risen significantly on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (0.5% in 2007 and 0.7% in 2010). These numbers are similar to the rest of Europe, but lower than the US and Australia.

One thing that surprised me was that the prevalence of online betting hadn’t increased much in the last three years. Excluding online purchase of lottery tickets, which they didn’t measure last time, the rate was 7%, up from 6% in 2007; 81% of gamblers place their wagers exclusively offline. Within this certain types of online betting are more popular though; 39% of casino gamers play on the internet.

The betting landscape has certainly changed a lot since I was a child. My grandfather liked to play the horses, which back then involved visiting the local bookie, a sinister establishment next to the pub, with blacked-out windows and a permanently smoky atmosphere, frequented by the shadiest-looking characters in the neighbourhood. He used to take home the little pens to give to me, which my mother would immediately confiscate, lest I take them to school and shame our family with the association of vice. I take after my grandfather in a lot of ways, but I must have internalised some of his daughter’s disapproval, because to this day I have never set foot inside a betting shop. I’m rather ashamed of this, as it feels like I’m betraying my working-class roots in favour of a notion of bourgeois respectability, but my mother’s scruples have probably saved me a lot of money over the years.

My grandfather’s other flutter of choice was the football pools; a sacred ritual in our family was gathering around the television at about ten to five on a Saturday to listen to the classified results. As eldest grandchild I had the responsibility of recording the scores as they were announced; the mention of lower-league English teams like Huddersfield or Gillingham still takes me back to cosy teatimes all those years ago. I was sad to see that the explosion of alternative gambling opportunities in recent times has all but killed off the pools; only 4% of the population put on a coupon now.

The change in social attitudes to gambling can be traced back to the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994; overnight gambling became a government-approved leisure activity rather than a disreputable habit looked down upon by polite society. The whole industry was deregulated, with bookies allowed to put signs in their windows advertising what went on inside, and to install seats to encourage their customers to linger; a far cry from the dens of ill-repute my grandfather used to frequent.

Card gaming, poker in particular, has had quite a makeover too. It used to be a game associated with cowboys and gangsters, or at best the idle super-rich in places like Monte Carlo. I do remember, in my youth, being quite taken by Steve McQueen’s character in The Cincinnati Kid, but “professional poker player” was never going to be among my career choices. The advent of internet and televised poker tournaments has changed all that, and now the game is played by a whole host of perfectly respectable, and decidedly unglamorous, doctors, lawyers, accountants and the like.

A year or so ago I was seeing a client who had a bit of an issue with internet poker, and, out of curiosity, I registered with one of the online casinos and tried playing for a while. I’d like to say that this plunged me into a House of Games-style maelstrom of underworld intrigue, but since a) I limited myself to a $10 roll and nickel-and-dime tables and b) I am a dreadful poker player and lost all my money in short order, nothing nearly so interesting happened.

Every so often, usually when I am bored at work and daydreaming about alternative income streams, I return to the virtual tables, generally with the same result. This last month was different though; despite playing my usual ham-fisted game I went on a pretty good run, boosting my $10 stake up to over $60, before enduring an equally persistent losing streak, which had, by yesterday, reduced my stack to $15.30.

This experience has given me a bit of insight into some of the psychological phenomena associated with gambling that I had previously only read about. Simple arithmetic tells me that my latest session has been much more successful than previous forays, since I have ended up 53% ahead rather than 100% behind, but that’s not how it feels, and the temptation to chase my “losses” by playing more, or moving to a higher-stakes table has been pretty strong. It’s also been interesting to note how my feeling for the game mechanics, particularly the balance between luck and skill, has changed as my fortunes have varied; when I was hot I was convinced that I was playing masterfully, but as the money ebbed away I found myself cursing the bad cards I had been dealt.

I guess I should be happy that I’ve received some valuable professional education, and been paid $5.30 into the bargain, but I can’t help thinking about the $45 that got away, and how, if I just kept playing a little longer, the law of averages would throw a few good hands my way again…

Victory to the Egyptian people

So it turned out that my Egyptian friends’ predictions were right on the money, and Mubarak is gone.

This was my reaction to hearing the news:

Having had a bit more time to think about it, I’m going to temper my celebration to a “Half-Hooray!!”, since the fact that the army is taking over must put the prospect of a swift transition to democracy in some doubt. It was interesting that CIA director Leon Panetta told a Congressional Committee that Mubarak was going to stand down yesterday, suggesting that the agency has inside information from the new regime, though clearly it is not entirely accurate. Vice-President Omar Suleiman is widely identified as the CIA’s main man in Cairo, and the US may be looking to him to deliver the sort of “orderly transition” that will protect Western interests in the region.

But whatever we in the West think, the final word will lie with the Egyptian people. Al Jazeera is reporting that the crowds in Tahrir Square are “hugely disappointed” with the army seizing control, and are vowing to take their protests to “a last and final stage”. Their courage and solidarity has carried them this far; it can surely lead them to victory.

Egypt in revolt

I’ve not had much time for blogging so far this month, as I’ve been caught up with various more pressing concerns, not least following the momentous events in Tunisia and Egypt.

I know a couple of guys from Egypt, and, unsurprisingly, they have been glued to Al Jazeera, as well as getting updates from friends and family in the country. At the start of this week I was feeling a bit discouraged, as it looked like the momentum of the revolution was slowing, but my friends, on the strength of what they were hearing, were still confident that change was on the way. They tell me that the demonstrations tomorrow are set to be the biggest yet, and, now that strikes are spreading and the army is wavering, time seems to be running out for Mubarak’s regime (though he must have missed that memo). A full-scale democratic revolution may still take some time, but even modest progressive change will be a first step.

The events in Egypt have again brought up the question of the degree to which social media have changed the dynamic of such movements – there’s a useful round-up of opinion here. I’m still unconvinced – while the internet may have helped spread word of what was happening around the world, I think the organising within Egypt must have been based mainly on more personal contacts. People may hear about demonstrations via Twitter or whatever, but the decision on whether to join in or not will depend on what family, friends, neighbours and workmates are doing, and any large-scale mobilisation needs the sort of guidance that comes from an organisational structure if it is going to be persistent and effective. That structure may come from a pre-existing political party, or it may arise more spontaneously, but I think it has to be based on something more concrete than the weak ties of social media.

What social media does have to offer, I think, is more in the way of creating a record of what has been happening from the level of the streets, an immediate and intimate history that will serve as a template for future movements.

The situation as I write tonight is still uncertain. My thoughts, for what they’re worth, are with the people of Egypt; I hope I’ll be able to celebrate their victory in the not too distant future.