Sin and Synestrol

A primary subject of Solzhenitsyn’s body of work is, to my understanding, power and its abuses. This is certainly true of Cancer Ward, but, to my delight, the book turned out to be as much a medical novel as it was a political one. Cancer Ward follows the stories of a dozen or so patients in the cancer wing of a rural Russian hospital. The book portrays medicine faithfully, although not always generously. Rather, it forced me, a soon-to-be medical practitioner, to ask difficult questions about the field and its use of authority.  

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By the Book

Last week, I celebrated a major milestone: I reached 1500 elo in blitz chess. In honor of this achievement, I thought it would be good time to take a look back at the games I’ve played thus far.

First, my most recent game. This was the game that put me over 1500. Here’s a position from that game; it’s white to move.


Josh to move with the white pieces

I thought this position was interesting, because, at least to me, a decent-but-not-great player, this looks like a normal late-opening position. However, the eval is actually +3 here. See if you can find out why.

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The Bamboo Annals


The original Chinese text of the Bamboo Annals

The ancient Chinese text The Bamboo Annals, published around 300 BC, details the events in Chinese history–or mythology–that transpired between around 2700 BC to the time of the text’s publication. Included in the Annals is the story of the legendary Emperor Yao. Yao was a patient and wise emperor, beloved by his constituents. Unfortunately, his talents were not bestowed upon his son. Danzhu, in contrast with his father, was petty and capricious. He was prone to profligacy. As legend has it, Yao invented the game of Go to instill good values into his son. He insisted that the lessons of Go might carry over to real life.

Danzhu took to the game; he even became a good player. But his attitudes never changed. He rejected the notion that a mere game could teach him how to live. Eventually, a weary and crestfallen Yao abdicated the throne, and gave it to Shun, his trusty advisor, instead of his son. Danzhu was furious. He began concocting a plan to kill his father.

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Shared Secrets

Within moments of having laid eyes on Schemselnihar, the Prince of Persia begins “swallow[ing] large draughts of the delicious poison of love.”

The blossoming romance perturbs Aboulhassan Ebn Thaher, a widely respected local druggist in whose shop the lovers’ initial encounter takes place. The Prince of Persia—or more precisely, Aboulhassan Ali Ebn Becar—is “of the blood royal of Persia”, to be sure, and a worthy match for Schemselnihar. It’s the latter’s relationship to the ruling Caliph Haroun Alraschid—she’s widely known as “the first favorite of our sovereign master”—that gives Ebn Thaher pause.

Ebn Thaher warns the prince against his “direful and fatal passion”, which “will plunge you in an abyss from which you can never again extricate yourself.” His warnings assume heightened exigency when a second rendezvous, in Schemselnihar’s personal palace, is cut short by the unexpected arrival of the caliph himself. The pair of visitors narrowly escape in a rowboat on the river Tigris.

The forlorn lovers begin sending each other letters, upon the violation of whose secrecy “the caliph’s anger will first fall on Schemselnihar; the prince will assuredly lose his life,” Ebn Thaher insists. Things become worse when the druggist, acutely perceiving the “dreadful consequences of their proceedings”, abandons Baghdad for Balsora, leaving the lovers without a trusted communication channel.


A scene from Arabian Nights, illustrated by Anton Pieck.

From these events unfolds an intricate network of uncertainty, deception, and trust, bearing, moreover, vital import. Continue reading

Proust’s Envelopes

Monsieur Charles Swann is artistically inclined (but primarily as a collector), musically gifted (though sharpest as a critic), and “a particular friend of the Comte de Paris”. The appearance of a painting from his collection (on loan at the Corot) in the pamphlet for the Figaro serves—en fin de compte—as nothing more than an occasion for his abasement at the hands of the narrator’s jealous great-aunt. His artistic talents are squandered on the decoration of old society ladies’ drawing rooms. In his occasional spare moments, he tinkers with an ever-unfinished essay on Vermeer of Delft.

Odette de Crécy, on the other hand, arouses in him—at least at first—nothing more than feelings of indifference.

It’s no wonder, then, that what finally moves Swann’s heart—what sets in motion a helpless, protracted infatuation—is Swann’s sudden recognition, in Odette, of a likeness to a figure with ancient significance: Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, as she appears in Botticelli’s The Youth of Moses.


Detail of Moses and Zipporah’s daughters, from Botticelli’s The Youth of Moses.

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The New Hire

This essay was submitted as part of my application to an internship program with Farrar Strauss & Giroux.

Hongxi arrived at the beginning of my second year, as the checked luggage of a sparkling new hire, Professor Davitt of Arizona. “I passed the algebra qual back at UA, so I don’t have to take it here,” Hongxi informed us, a circle of current students, leaning against the office bookshelf or perched atop desks.

Hongxi emitted a smirk, revealing an array of problematic teeth. The whole apparatus appeared to cave in, a bit to the right of center, centering upon one barely-visible brownish-grey stub. This attempt at a smile appeared inappropriately often, as if the result of a compulsion. Having been all-but traumatized by the difficulty of Hopkins’ written qualifying exams, which I’d just passed that spring, I wasn’t inclined to participate in his mirth. An ornate skin tag protruded from one side of the new arrival’s neck.

I now think of Felix Krull’s irreverent words: “Isn’t it instead culpable to be ugly? I have always ascribed it to a kind of carelessness.” Hongxi was fairly big, taller than me, and horribly mannered. His head seemed to jut forward uncontrollably as he spoke, extending further with every syllable, and he gesticulated excessively.

At the time, I was interested in working with Professor Davitt. The competition between two students of the same year under one professor has been well characterized: upon graduating, they must compete for the professor’s recommendation to academic jobs. Hongxi must have taken this threat to heart. Another new student, Shengpei—admitted traditionally (as a first-year), unlike Hongxi—soon told me that Hongxi was spreading rumors among his gang (Zhaoning and Linzhong) that Davitt wasn’t impressed with my abilities.

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Losing Count

Edmond Dantès is a promising young sailor growing up in the French fishing village of Marseilles. Just as he is preparing to accept the captainship of his vessel and to marry the love of his life, Dantès is framed as a Bonapartist, a heinous crime in the eyes of the Royalist regime of early 19th century France. The Count of Monte Cristo tells the epic tale of Dantès’s imprisonment within the grim Chateau D’If, his eventual escape, and his protracted revenge against the three men who plotted his downfall. We hear the stories of bandits, smugglers, and aristocrats; we’re taken from the southern coast of France to the mountain villages of the Orient to the raucous Roman Carnival. In the process, we’re faced with a challenge to our previously-held notions of good and evil, which are twisted and bent by the story of the Count.


A depiction of Monte Cristo’s coat of arms (credit M. Gulin)

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Child’s Play

I hadn’t seen an exercise in silliness of this magnitude in a while. The Wall Street Journal blared, 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.


On first glance, Max’s 12. Qf3 appears merely useless. But further study reveals that it’s problematic.12….Qh4 threatens a bad attack, which is addressed with 13. h3. But the queen on h4 also looks at d4, a threat which is discovered after 13…Nxe3. 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.


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 a 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