High Stakes

Glen Newey backs North Korea

Are you washing your hands as much as you should? Sure? We’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, as the viewing public is discovering, sufficient unto the day is the World Cup coverage thereof. Wads of cash are already being blown on wagering the outcome – north of £1 billion by British punters alone. The England team’s script is written already, and all that awaits is its pitiful enactment. 'We' grind out a series of low-score stalemates, as in last Saturday’s deadlock with the US, and scrape through to the quarter-finals or more rarely the semis, only to crap out on penalties after another bore draw, this time against a former fascist dictatorship. Vide Italy 1990, France 1998, Germany 2006 etc.

I’m backing North Korea this time, as the lone standard-bearers for utopian socialism left in the tournament. If it’s a big dark red horse you’re after, look no further. In the qualifiers, we humbled the might of Mongolia, 9-2 on aggregate. Sure, it’s looking tough for us, as we’re variously quoted at 1000-1, 1500-1 and 2000-1 to lift the trophy, even after Tuesday’s heroics against favourites Brazil – doubtless a result of the hyper-capitalistic odds-calculation game. Are any of these prices good? Who knows? Certainly a win for Pyongyang looks about as likely as the North and South Korean teams merging to form a gay cabaret troupe touring redneck bars in the Bible Belt. But that’s not the point.

The obvious thing about odds is that they aren’t probabilities. They reflect the behaviour of those who back up their smart or fat-headed hunches with hard corn. So those who sentimentally back England shorten the odds for future mug punters bent on the same acker-nuking bet. It was in keeping that my father, one of the most risk-averse people I’ve met, spent his working life as a bookie. The Yiddish term vigorish (cf. Russian выигрыш, 'profit') names the bookie’s percentage margin over and above a fair book. Your duff punt is my dad’s vigorish is the downpayment on his BMW. That’s why it’s better to bet, or better still, do arbitrage, on Betfair or similar brokerage sites.

You don’t need to be a gambler to play for high stakes. The Secret Garden kindergarten in Fife is the country’s first and only fully nomadic outdoor nursery, set in a hilltop wood. The kids get to romp about in paludal mud and freezing fog, roving with bracken spears through the bosky haunts of their distant forebears. In his character-building time there, Attila Newey has dissected pheasants, chanted round campfires, and urinated on a ladybird.

Now the Scottish Executive’s killjoy Care Commission is set to follow Attila’s lead, with the nursery playing the ladybird. In a move straight out of the hack’s health & safety madness meta-narrative, it has ruled that the children have to wash with soap and water rather than anti-bacterial wipes. This means that the nursery staff will have to lug bowsers of water up the hill every day so that their charges can ablute before tucking into lunch or snacks. The Executive argues that the wipes’ anti-bacterial effect can be destroyed if they come into contact with organic matter.

Public heuristics for assessing risk, like gamblers’ systems, are notoriously ramshackle. Microbiologists advising the UK government argue that soap-and-water prophylaxis only works if hands are fully immersed. This is some way from the catlick provided by the Commission in its recent hands-on demo to the nursery of 'best practice'. As with playing the futures markets and damnation in the afterlife, the real level of risk is unknown. It is well known that you’re less likely to be killed by bovine TB than, say, to be sexually assaulted by your fridge – beware that Smeg. But the commissioners have set their face against the wipes, despite the advice of such eminences as Hugh Pennington.

Still, soapy water it is, at the bureaucracy’s instance – never mind the lack of hard evidence that lustration will do right by the kids, any more than it did by their celebrated compatriots Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate (of the tartan toga). Pointless washing. There’s a triple-barrelled name for this, that starts with an O, a C and a D. Now wash your hands…


  • 19 June 2010 at 6:44am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    You lost me after the drowned ladybird.

    • 19 June 2010 at 7:02am
      Glen Newey says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Attila reports that happily the ladybird, though drenched, survived.

  • 19 June 2010 at 10:19am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    So North Korean players ablute with wraps? Will they therefore reach the quarters? I suggest that their wonderful leader should announce that he will personally attend the quarter game if his team makes it. Or he might just wash his hands if the whole affair.

  • 20 June 2010 at 7:18am
    outofdate says:
    I knew a man who swore by this self-drying or -evaporating gel you can get and was forever giving you the benefit of his unsolicited squirts. He widdled a lot, if that's got anything to do with it, and once took me to the desert where, once he'd widdled behind a rock, he shouted 'Listen to the silence!' at the top of his lungs.