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.

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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. Continue reading

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.

MonteCristo

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.

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, 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.

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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