Child’s Play

I haven’t seen an exercise in silliness of this magnitude in a while. The Wall Street Journal blares, on its front page, that “A CHESS NOVICE CHALLENGED MAGNUS CARLSEN. HE HAD ONE MONTH TO TRAIN.” My eyes were already rolling. “You fucking serious?” was the first question I asked. The second one was, “How badly did he lose?”

Badly, it turns out. Self-styled speed-learner Max Deutsch blundered a piece on move 12. It’s not quite a move someone who’s never played chess before would make—but it’s close. In fact, it’s just about the type of move someone who’s played for 30 days would make. By move 14, the game was essentially lost.

Board

On first glance, Max’s 12. Qf3 appears merely useless. But further study reveals that it’s problematic.12….Qh4 threatens a bad attack; 13. h3 is mandatory. But the queen on h4 also looks at d4, a threat which is discovered after 13…Nxe4. To make matters worse, Max recaptures with 14. Qxe3 instead of fxe3, putting him down a whole piece, instead of just a pawn, after 14…Bxd4.

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Alien Languages

The recent movie Arrival treats an imagined arrival on earth by alien beings. The United States government, at a loss to understand the visitors’ intentions, conscripts the film’s hero—unusually for Hollywood, a linguist—to help understand the aliens’ language, and in turn, their purpose.

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The aliens’ language’s “freedom from time” evokes the functional programming language Haskell.

The linguist, Louise Banks, soon makes headway. She discovers that the aliens’ language “has no forward or backward direction” and “is free of time”. Moreover, in a nod to the (unfortunately, all-but discredited) Sapir–Whorf hypothesis—according to which, as Banks suggests, “the language you speak determines how you think and… affects how you see everything”—Banks soon finds her own cognition shifting:

If you learn it, when you really learn it, you begin to perceive time the way that they do, so you can see what’s to come. But time, it isn’t the same for them. It’s non-linear.

Far from inducing an reaction of incredulity and awe, these descriptions of the visitors’ language provoked in me just one persistent response: “This is just like the programming language Haskell.” Continue reading

Poison and Medicine

Anton Chekhov’s short stories tend to feature ordinary characters in commonplace situations. In spite of this, these stories proffer a palpable, though often intangible, profundity. On close inspection, this profundity seems to reflect the fact that Chekhov’s stories, though on their face commonplace, address issues which are deeply philosophical, and which strike upon fundamental questions of human nature. My Wife is no exception.

Middle-ranking official and former engineer Mr. Ansorin is married to Ms. Natalie Ansorin; their marriage has descended into cold indifference marked by only sporadic hostility. They, along with Bragin, a fat, oafish man who was once handsome, and Sable, a friendly country doctor with a taste for good food, and drink, organize a committee aimed at bringing relief to a local village struck by famine. Ansorin, however, encounters a pervasive malaise, which only gets worse as he, a man of means, funds the relief effort.

Ansorin eventually finds that his discomfort stems not from his actions, which are, no doubt, admirable, but from his motives. Continue reading

Rabbinic Mathematics

יַּ֥עַשׂ אֶת־הַיָּ֖ם מוּצָ֑ק עֶ֣שֶׂר בָּ֠אַמָּה מִשְּׂפָת֨וֹ עַד־שְׂפָת֜וֹ עָגֹ֣ל׀ סָבִ֗יב וְחָמֵ֤שׁ בָּֽאַמָּה֙ קוֹמָת֔וֹ ׳וּקְוֵה׳ ״וְקָו֙״ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים בָּֽאַמָּ֔ה יָסֹ֥ב אֹת֖וֹ סָבִֽיב׃
מלכים א 7:23

And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.
I Kings 7:23

This Hebrew Bible passage from I Kings—along with a similar one from II Chronicles—forms the biblical basis for Talmudic scholar Matityahu Hacohen Munk’s suggestion that “some of the geometrical rules did not hold in King Solomon’s temple,” a heavenly ‘‘world of truth’’ beyond our own, mathematical historians Tsaban and Garber write [1].

What’s so heavenly about the Molten Sea, a putative basin created by King Solomon in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem for ritual ablution? And why do the Rabbis Johanan and Papa discuss it extensively in the Babylonian Talmud, bickering in particular about its brim—“[as thin as] the flower of a lily… a handbreadth thick… wrought like the brim of a cup” [2, Eruvin 14a:29-31]?

The simple answer is that this particular snippet of the Word of God contains an oddity, asserting that this circular basin’s circumference is thrice its diameter—or that the geometrical constant π, rather than an irrational number, with an infinite and unpredictable decimal expansion, is in fact rational, and indeed an integer—the number 3, to be exact. Continue reading

Art Songs

\begin{array}{l l} \text{Parlo d'amor vegliando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I am doing,} \\ \text{Parlo d'amor sognando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I'm pursuing,} \\ \text{All' acqua, all' ombra, ai monti,} & \text{In sunshine or in showers,} \\ \text{Ai fiori, all' erbe, ai fonti, ...} & \text{At home or midst the flowers, ...} \\ \text{All' ecco---all' aria---a venti,} & \text{I sigh---I pant---I languish,} \\ \text{Che il suon de vani accenti, ...} & \text{In bliss that throbs like anguish, ...} \\ \end{array}

Sung by the pubescent, flirtatious Cherubino (he’s played by a soprano), these words are notable for their arresting meter and rhyme, the heavenly beauty of their melody, and, well, their humor. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro—recently performed fantastically by the Peabody Opera Theater—presents such an explosive combination of theatricality, musicality, and hilarity as to make Mozart come across as a supernatural genius.

Only later did I learn that Mozart did not work alone [1]. The Felix Krull-esque French man-of-the-world Pierre Beaumarchais originally wrote the French play Le Mariage de Figaro in 1784; only then did Lorenzo Da Ponte, an equally fascinating Italian librettist, translate the play into Italian, excise a tirade against inherited nobility (thus making the play acceptable to the censors), and set certain of its passages to meter and rhyme. These developments, finally, prepared the way for Mozart to set music to the entire work, which premiered in 1786. The libretto’s rhymed passages became the opera’s arias.

This realization, in fact, placed Mozart into a long tradition within classical music. Continue reading

Blurred Lines

The mere word Lolita immediately conjures unsavory images of pedophilia, incest and murder. I was surprised, then, upon reading Nabokov’s classic, to find that it was one of the best books I had ever read, but often for banal reasons.

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Renoir’s Girl with Pink Bonnet, displayed at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which I just had the pleasure of visiting last week.

It’s often the sunlit scenes, not the sordid ones, which stick out most in my memory. Describing her tennis game:

My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip.

He describes chess the way only a chess player could.

In my chess sessions with Gaston I saw the board as a square pool of limpid water with rare shells and stratagems rosily visible upon the smooth tessellated bottom, which to my confused adversary was all ooze and squid-cloud.

“I suppose,” he adds, “I am especially susceptible to the magic of games.”

It all sounds so natural, so reasonable. Only when the reader recalls the appalling content of some of the book’s other pages does the cruel flippancy of the author’s testament come into focus. Games? How, at a time like this, could he be talking about games? Continue reading

Swiss French, Swiss German

Ferdinand de Saussure was a profound linguistic thinker of the early 1900s. During a legendary series of lectures given at University of Geneva, de Saussure, a French-speaking Swiss, introduced to the world many ideas which have since become fundamental — even “self-evident” — within the discipline of linguistics. De Saussure suggested, for example, that the historical and etymological emphases of his day failed to recognize as the central object of linguistics the instantaneous internal structure of a language, to which prior evolutionary contingencies are irrelevant. A language’s internal structure, in fact, exists moreover independently of the writing system it uses, of the concrete sounds of its phonetic system, and even of its words. It consists entirely, de Saussure argued, of an abstract system of so-called signs — each linking an idea to a sound — which subsist only through the network of relationships among them and persist only through the coordinated ativity of a linguistic community. “It is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition,” de Saussure famously wrote, “and because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary.” [1, p. 74]

De Saussure’s facility with historical linguistics was, to his credit, uncanny. Discussing the unfortunate common tendency to confuse historical (diachronic) with instantaneous (synchronic) linguistics, for example, he writes:

In order to explain Greek phuktós, it might be supposed that it suffices to point out that in Greek g and kh become k before a voiceless consonant, and to state this fact in terms of synchronic correspondences such as phugeînphuktóslékhosléktron, etc. But then we come up against cases like tríkhesthriksí, where a complication occurs in the form of a ‘change’ from t to th… [1, p. 96]

De Saussure proceeds like this effortlessly, citing detailed examples variously from Sanskrit [1, p. 2], Latin [1, p. 95], Old High German [1, p. 83], Anglo-Saxon [1, p. 83], early Slavonic [1, p. 86], and, of course, French [1, pp. 31, 69, 85, 95, 104, 106, …].

De Saussure’s true genius, however, was evident perhaps most of all in his novel theory of signs, which emphasized the social, conventional, and ultimately arbitrary nature of linguistic systems — and which eventually produced the field of semiotics.

This theory was validated during my recent trip to Switzerland. Continue reading