Monday, May 06, 2013

The Prisoner's Dilemma

“I had an idea. It was here in my head and now it's gone. We've got to find it.” Xavier looked around the room as if he thought the idea had vanished under the sofa.
Xavier's foster mother looked affectionately at Xavier and just smiled in response.
“But mum it was important!”
“And the more you try to remember it the more the idea will hide in the corridors of your brain, Zee. It is hiding there now. You just cannot find it. So what can you do?”
“You're not helping.”
“I am helping. What can you do if you cannot search for it?”
“Well stop searching for it I assume.”
“Stop thinking about how important it is?”
It was Xavier's turn to smile. They said almost in unison “Sleep on it!”
There was nothing. Xavier's eyes were open. He felt his face and opened his eyes with his fingers but the whole world was grey. It was uniformly grey. Xavier was blind. There were no shapes or shadows. Nothing for his mind to get a grip on. He could only hear. And what could he hear? The voice! And he was only just aware that a voice had been talking and had now stopped. He had not listened to a word but the words “carrot powder” came into his mind and for some reason they were terrifying words. Something about the way they were said told him the words were not for his ears and the man – it was a man's voice all right – was out to deceive him.
There was no transition. Suddenly he was lying in the back of a lorry and he could see the sun through the leaves as the lorry bumped along the road. There was a man sitting on the edge of the lorry looking down on him It would be fair to say Xavier did not like the look of the man or the way he was... Well what was he doing? Leering? Staring? Something like that anyhow.
He smiled at Xavier. It was not a pretty sight.
“Oh you don't mind me getting excited Xavier. It is just that I am thinking about what is going to happen to you later.” Without much surprise, Xavier realised it was the same voice he had overheard before. Then the man laughed and it was as if the laughter were already hurting him as he lay there helpless in the bottom of the lorry.
The man had a shotgun and in any case Xavier was bound cruelly with tight ropes. Whatever was going to happen to him was going to happen and he had no choice about that. He decided the look was neither a stare nor a leer but a gloat.
The name tag on the man's uniform was Mike Grove. The man saw him looking. He put his boot on Xavier's leg and pressed down hard. “Yes. I am Mike Grove,” he increased the pressure on the leg, “and I am your worst nightmare.”
The word “nightmare” set off a train of thought. Xavier often realised when he was dreaming and could try to manipulate his dreams. He could certainly zone out the pain in his leg. He remembered where he had come across the grey vision before. It was many years ago after the car crash that had left him an orphan. He had been unconscious and had come round to the grey blindness and voices which indicated something dreadful had happened and wondered out loud what to do with “the brat”.
They arrived at the castle. Xavier was dragged from the truck and witnessed a scene straight out of Solzhenitsyn.
A truck was being unloaded. Prisoners in grey uniform came out one by one.
“What is your number?”
“24601, Sir.”
“How long is your sentence?”
“Ten years.”
“What for?”
The guard hit the prisoner almost casually, but hard enough. “Liar! The sentence for nothing is five years!” Then he gave a laugh that sounded of cigarettes, whisky and cruelty.
The next prisoner disembarked and the scene was repeated word for word except the number. Xavier witnessed this three times as two guards took him over to the castle and locked him in his cell. The cell had neither light nor heat. He heard an altercation in which he recognised the voice of Mike Grove. The guards unlocked the door and took Xavier out. Then they threw him into the cell to Mike Grove's grudging approval and Xavier heard them walk down the corridor.
In the cell he must have fallen asleep because the next thing he knew was he was being tucked up in bed by his foster-mother. She was cuddling and – as is the way of dreams – suddenly their clothes disappeared. Xavier was precocious enough to know what this was about.
“Oedipus schmoedipus” she muttered and Xavier joined in,
“Who cares if he is a good boy and loves his mother!”
She dissolved in laughter. Literally dissolved and Xavier found himself holding on to nothing as he found himself back in his cell.
He can remember vaguely a number of dreams within dreams. In one a woman was about to be deported but just needed a form from the post office. Every time Xavier tried to write it down she gave the form a different name and he had the impression she was deported anyway. In another a CIA instructor was telling him that although people can recover from physical torture, they never recover from psychological torture so it is important to tell them this often during the torture. In another his brother – he didn't have a brother – was about to be executed while Xavier was trying to fix an old thermal printer.
Every time he was brought back to the pitch black cell and carted off to the bright lights of the interrogation.
“Xavier? Xavier Hollands?” The interrogator looked as if he smoked a pipe and enjoyed the bonhomie of the local pub. In the background was the sinister figure of Mike Grove, cracking his knuckles from time to time to remind Xavier that he was still there.
The interrogator offered Xavier a cigarette. Xavier didn't smoke. “Oh that's a pity. You will have to get addicted to something in here so we can manipulate you.”
The interrogator gave a comfortable laugh to indicate that Xavier was to think of this as a joke. Not that it was one. It made Xavier bold enough to ask “Are you the good cop?” and to look across at the glowering Mike Grove.
“No no no. Grove here is a good cop. He gets much better results than I do. I am a bad cop but you might want to have a nice chat with me before we hand you over to Mike.” He looked genuinely frightened at what Grove might do. Grove grinned wolfishly.
There followed a lot of questions and answers. Xavier remembered that a number of them involved long division and this built up his confidence.
“Right young Xavier, back to your cold dark cell for now matey but we will chat again soon.”
Groves had a job summoning two guards to throw Xavier into the cell so he just slammed the door on him and snarled “carrot powder.”
The questioning went on and on and didn't seem to be getting anywhere. They wanted to know Xavier's opinion on everything from shampoo to Zanzibar and the old fashioned tapes whirred quietly as Grove picked his teeth and occasionally shot Xavier an unpleasant grin.
Then there came the time that Xavier was dragged very efficiently by two guards to a different interrogation room where he sat in very bright lights opposite both Grove and the interrogator.

There was genuine pity in the interrogator's eyes, or a clever facsimile.
“Today is the day I hand you over to Grove here.”
“I will take good care of you, little boy.” Grove interjected and received a look of distaste from the interrogator.
The interrogator placed two photos in front of Xavier. One showed him wearing clothes he could not remember wearing against a background he couldn't remember either. The other showed what seemed to be two Xaviers.
“Your brother.” the interrogator explained. “Your identical twin brother. And yes, he is called Xavier too. The last thing I want is for you to stay in prison for a long time but you have this one chance to walk free today.”
The look on Grove's face said it was not the last thing he wanted.
“The situation is this. We have Xavier in custody. If you sign a statement, we have it already typed for you and you can read it.” He put his hand over some typed sheets on the desk.
“If, as I say, you sign it then Xavier will go down for a long time. If he signs a similar statement then you will. I may as well say that if neither of you signs you will both get a lesser sentence but are you willing to take the risk?”
“I don't have...” Xavier began
“...a twin brother? Hm but what if he is a get-out-of-jail free card for you? He's probably not your brother but just somebody who looks like you. You've even less reason to care what happens to you, I mean him.”
Grove leant across the table, “It's a dilemma that's what it is. And you have sixty seconds to decide.” Xavier took the pen as if to sign the paper. As he did so he watched Grove closely. Grove tried to look disappointed but underneath he was as pleased as a boy about to get a train set. Xavier dropped the pen and shook his head.
The interrogator just sat at the table while Grove called in the guards. In short order they had Xavier stripped naked and Grove was toying with some electrodes while observing Xavier's personal equipment. To his consternation Xavier started giggling.
“There's nothing fun...”
And Xavier was back in his own room giggling as the cat licked his foot. The sunlight was streaming through the window and Xavier had a vivid recollection of his dream.
His foster mother appeared in the doorway attracted by the noise.
“So Zee, you found your idea, non?”
Xavier looked nonplussed and was surprised to hear himself say, “I am my own twin brother” then his giggles turned to laughter.
She smiled and frowned at the same time “Les rêves sont drôles. Now come down to breakfast I have a new cereal for you. Carrot Powder.”


We were enjoying a glass of mineral water in Ye Olde Boar. Xavier had decided that he needed to have an alcohol-free day. It was the first of May that year.
“People” he said, “often wonder what the devil I am going on about. So I will explain my lost idea to you. It has nothing at all to do with that Oedipus schmoedipus rubbish. In any case, Freud used the Oedipus myth to cover up the child abuse of the Viennese middle class, didn't he Tilly?”
The barmaid who was just passing leaned over and kissed his neck which was answer enough. She bore a passing resemblance to his mother. I noticed Xavier's frown and decided not to pursue that.
“There are various versions of this problem but the basic idea is this. You are a prisoner with the opportunity to betray another prisoner. Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene devotes a chapter to it.
“If Prisoner A betrays Prisoner B then Prisoner A goes free or gets a lesser sentence and Prisoner B goes down for a long time.
“If they both betray each other they both go down.
“If neither betrays the other then they both go free or get a lesser sentence.
“Dawkins has taken a lot of time to look at possible “strategies” by which you can “win” this game, but is that the right way to look at it?”
Xavier took my silence as assent and continued. I noticed Tilly was hovering around our table. Perhaps it was the novelty of Xavier drinking water that attracted her.
“The people in power are playing this game with you. If you aim to “win” you are accepting their rules. What Dawkins does not explain is why 'love your neighbour as yourself' is not a complete answer to this dilemma. The idea that you should treat other people as you would have them treat you flies in the face of what we call “Thatcherism” in the UK. It is old fashioned 'selfishness' in the rest of the world.
“So my response to the game was predictable. I was not 'playing the game' at all. Those who want to manipulate the prisoner have suddenly lost all power.
“I do not know in advance whether I have the courage to go through with this strategy in real life. I don't rule it out in advance either. We know that Oscar Romero...”
I looked a query.
“The saint who was thought of as bookish and safe but ended up a martyr in El Salvador. He is so hated by Republicans they removed him from the history books in Texax...That Oscar Romero. He did not have the courage to be a martyr. 'Somewhere' - and Catholics have no problem telling you where! - he found that courage.

“My solution to the dilemma was in any case of course not a “red martyrdom” like his. I would not have paid for it with my life. It is just a demonstration of how life ought to be lived.”
“And the carrot powder.”
“Ah that was made up entirely of hareng rouge.”
“Red herring?”

The Xavier Books - try before you buy!

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