23 January 2008

Things Run Together

Chess and Politics

In the morning’s chess classes, I found myself telling some youth about certain reprehensible gestures that arose in chess competition. The word reprehensible states mildly my view of the behavior of Veselin Topalov’s manager Silvio Danailov during the World Championship Reunification match in Elista in 2006, and consequently towards Topalov himself. Since Toiletgate, as someone dubbed it, my preference has been to ignore Topalov, which seemed to create only minor inconveniences due to his less than optimal play.

Yesterday, he forced me to take notice. Topalov played a terrific game against Vladimir Kramnik, and every loss by the world’s top player merits attention. Finding the last move of the game served as an appropriately challenging problem for my beginning and intermediate students, while the middlegame complexities following the knight sacrifice offers plenty of material to challenge advanced students.

As I mentioned in my piece on Fischer last week, disregard of a player’s games because I abhor some aspect of his behavior can stand in the way of my own chess progress. I made the error of avoiding 1.e4 for a few years because Fischer favored it—I opt not to play it for better reasons today. Likewise, avoiding Topalov’s games because he needs some behavior modification—or at least the sense to fire his manager—cuts me away from some beautiful chess. Topalov is an exciting player.

Units of Knowledge

Politics creeping into chess is one thing, but the serendipity of today’s lunchtime reading is quite another. A brief statement on a history blog—Historiann: History and sexual politics—where I also had posted some comments caught my attention at breakfast. Monocle Man took issue with the term meme.

meme Richard Dawkins’s 1976 coinage, on the analogy to gene (with a little aid from mime and mimic), for a cultural copying unit, such as the word or melody that is mimicked by others.
William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton, Lingua ex Machina, end matter

Meme: an idea, project, statement or even a question that is posted by one blog and responded to by other blogs. Although the term encompasses much of the natural flow of communication in the Blogosphere, there are active bloggers and blog sites that are dedicated to the creation of memes on a regular basis.
Blogjargon,” frEdSCAPEs 0.1

Memes, self reproducing mental information structures analogous to genes in biology, can be seen as the basis for an explanatory model of cultural and psychological behaviour. Their properties and effects are evolutionary conditioned and ultimately seeks to promote their replication.
Henrik Bjarneskans, Bjarne Gr√łnnevik and Anders Sandberg, “The Lifecycle of Memes

At lunch I was reading Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Non-Fictions, in particular the 1927 essay “An Investigation of the Word.” This essay does not employ the term meme, which was invented a half-century later. Yet, the sentence Borges interrogates from Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote seems to have taken on a life of its own in several languages.

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero recordar
In a place in La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to recall
As quoted in Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, 32.

Borges’s essay anticipates and intervenes into subsequent conversations regarding post-structuralism, but serendipity connects it to this chess blog (and brushes together again two works I usually keep separate—my history notebook and my chess ramblings):

How many units of thought does language include? It is not possible to answer this question. For the chess player, the locutions “queen’s gambit,” pawn to king’s four,” knight to king’s three check,” are unities; for the beginner, they are phrases he gradually comprehends.
Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, 36.

One wonders if the notion that a player is required to say “check” when attacking the opponent’s king might be considered a meme. Although I do not teach this myth, I hear it repeated by those I’ve taught, as if the fiction replicates itself. I heard it again today in a classroom and let it pass without comment.

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