The American

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

Chess’s greatest player can tell us a lot about the game, the mind, and man in general.

The Soviets dominated world chess through the 20th century.  Why? Because the state subsidized the game.  Soon after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Lenin regime officially introduced chess to the USSR as a means to gain international dominance on the mental battlefield.  (2) The government organized state-run tournaments and chess clubs.  It established official chess columns and publications. Most effective of all: a chess requirement was established for all Soviet schools.  Students began in elementary school; the students who showed the most promise were chosen for more advanced lessons; those students who showed the most promise were again moved to even more advanced teaching, and so on.  The plan worked; the USSR became a veritable grandmaster factory, churning out greats such as Alekhine, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrossian, and many more.  Suddenly, though, an unknown American player exploded onto the international scene, effectively turning the chess world upside down.

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Language Machines

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A Russian grammatical table.

Each language supports an array of grammatical machinery that functions alongside its words and phrases. The purpose of this machinery is elusive: while it does indeed convey information about the speaker, the subject, the tense, etc., this information is often redundant; English, to name an example, gets along largely without it. Alternatively, though, perhaps this machinery tells us about the language’s speakers: their priorities, their culture, and their attention to detail. Languages, after all, are organic, and these structures came from somewhere.

The machinery’s purpose and origin, alas, are not my areas of expertise. I discuss grammatical organization of a series of languages.

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Flesh and Bronze

This article is part of a series on Dostoevsky’s Great Works. See also:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov: The Other Brothers
  2. Crime and Punishment: Flesh and Bronze
  3. The Idiot: Give and Take

“For one life, a thousand lives saved from decay and disintegration.  One death, and a hundred lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic!” (69)

Icarus and Daedalus

In the Greek myth, Icarus ignores his father’s advice and soars too close to the sun.

As Raskolnikov’s life grows hopeless, murder seems like his only option. He’d pull himself out of poverty and go back to law school. He’d save his sister from a scandalous marriage to a wealthy official, an arrangement Raskolnikov likens to prostitution. Above all, he’d gain his independence. All it would cost is one life! One life; one shrewd, old moneylender; one parasite to society; gone. And a lifetime of freedom in return. Raskolnikov would be wrong not to kill!

So goes Raskolnikov’s logic. Some men kill with impunity. Why shouldn’t he? Continue reading

Who Was Martin Guerre?

Martin Guerre was a peasant in 16th century France.  He left for the war, and was gone for many years—so long, in fact, that his family was certain he’d passed away.  Then, one summer evening, an exhausted man in tattered clothes stumbled into his dusty southern France village.  Guerre had returned!  His four sisters rejoiced, as did his wife Bertrande, who had remained faithful all these years.  The whole village welcomed the advent of its long-lost traveler.  The whole village, that is—except for one man.

Path Towards Town

Come home, Martin Guerre!

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The Walden Universe

ImageWhat do we live for? We construct identities, and temporary sets of plans. We each conceal a drawer full of projects and premises which comprise our sense of purpose within the world. These plans, over time, solidify and harden; our personal drawers grow steadily (and unwittingly) smaller; we more and more rarely look beyond them. To abandon these plans would be to sacrifice personal meaning. Right?

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden effortlessly shatters the “personal playbook”, revealing, beyond it, a sublime universe of twinkling stars and shallow, clear streams. Purpose, to be sure, is no longer clear. Instead, however, we recognize that the peaceful, mysterious beauty of the universe makes such a purpose – as we had once imagined it – an utterly incomprehensible aim. Walden teaches us that the vast universe, and communion therein, can form a purpose in itself.

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Voting Cartels are Anticompetitive

In 2010, a surge in Tea Party activism helped elect Sen. Marco Rubio (and many other conservatives) to congress.  In June, though, Rubio dealt a huge blow to the very electorate that had supported him, by voting for a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.  The bill passed (1).  Tea Party members were furious, calling Rubio a backstabber, a traitor, and the like.  In short, he bit the hand that feeds.  And the Tea Party is promising that, in the event of a 2016 presidential run, Rubio will feel the blowback.  As one prominent Tea Party leader put it: “The most powerful thing we have as a movement is our feet and our vote.” (2)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla)

As an aside, I think it’s strange that the Tea Party so vehemently opposes immigration.  Don’t libertarians support the free market?  Our labor market has certainly expressed a desire for cheap immigrant labor.  Why hasn’t the Tea Party? Stranger still is that they take a position in the first place.  As I recall, the original partiers dumped their tea into Boston Harbor because it was too heavily taxed, not because it was picked by immigrants (weren’t we the immigrants back then?).  That’s beside the point, though.  I came here to talk about another interesting aspect of this story: the Tea Party’s decision to collectively turn its back on Senator Rubio.

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The Pillars of Russian Mathematics

This fall, I’ll spend the semester studying math in Russia. (I can hardly contain my excitement.) I’ll be in Moscow, to be precise, studying with the “Math in Moscow” program; this program invites North American undergraduates for a semester of study at the small, elite “Independent University of Moscow”. The Independent University offers advanced, research-oriented coursework in the Russian pedagogical tradition. Interesting in their own right, however, are the mathematicians behind the University – Russian mathematical greats with fascinating histories and overflowing personalities.

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Ya. Sinai (L) and V. Arnold (R), 1963

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