Raging bishop

Friday, 16 September 2011 — 12:26am | Adventures, Board games

On Saturday I attended the London Chessboxing Championship, which was more or less what it said on the tin. For those unfamiliar with the emergent hybrid sport, there is chess, and there is boxing. Every bout alternates between successive rounds of speed chess and boxing until one of the contenders secures a checkmate on the board or a knockout in the ring (along with the usual victory conditions for resignation or time).

It should be no surprise that chessboxing’s promoters sell it as a perfect biathlon of mind and body. Chess has an ancient mystique of intellect about it even among those who barely know the game, and boxing is far and away the most story-rich of sports. Both activities stand as cultural paragons of some indefinite struggle of individual mastery. And the combination is hardly arbitrary: the boxing forces the chess to be played under conditions of high adrenaline and extreme physical fatigue, imposing a test of mental stamina quite unlike any other.

Not so clear is whether the chess takes a toll on the boxing. Andrea Kuszewski has argued that the most cognitively taxing part of the game is the rapid task-switching, which demands superb emotional control; indeed, chessboxing may prove to be exceptionally well suited to training one’s aggression management. In theory, a good chessboxer has to box with the ability to play chess very shortly in mind. (In practice, as we will see, this is not necessarily the case.)

The London event at the Scala was reportedly the world’s biggest night of chessboxing to date, with five bouts on the card drawing a capacity crowd of 1000. Before the first match, my own estimate was 400-500 spectators on the floor with many more in the balcony and VIP lounge, but the audience swelled as the night wore on and the official count became more plausible. One of the organizers called it the largest live audience on record for a game of chess, though I believe Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky drew similar numbers in the Piatigorsky Cup (Santa Monica, 1966), and that’s only the record in the United States.

Nevertheless, the sport shows signs of rapid expansion, filling a former cinema palace kitty-corner to King’s Cross that doubled the capacity of its previous venue in Tufnell Park. There are rumblings that talks have begun to bring chessboxing to Royal Albert Hall next year, presumably to catch some of the Olympic spillover, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Lipsett’s diarist

Friday, 2 September 2011 — 8:36am | Animation, Canadiana, Film

Over the past week I’ve been attending a number of sessions at the London International Animation Festival. The LIAF has been around since 2003, but this is its first year in the Barbican Centre, where it comes at the tail end of a summer celebrating the art of animation.

July at the Barbican saw a retrospective of Studio Ghibli’s films, which I was shocked to discover never made it to British shores until 2001. Being a kid who remembers precisely two films from his toddlerhood, one being the Cantonese dub of My Neighbour Totoro (the other was The Land Before Time), it continues to astonish me that the childhoods of my peers were Miyazaki-free until Spirited Away. Also running at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 September is Watch Me Move: The Animation Show, a gallery exhibition spanning 150 years of global animation history that I’ll have to write about another time. My readers in Canada will be happy to note that the exhibition’s next destination is the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, where Watch Me Move will run from 8 October through Christmas Eve.

All digressions aside, I really must commend the LIAF’s outstanding curation. In the out-of-competition programmes alone I’ve found some classics I had hitherto missed like the Russian masterwork Hedgehog in the Fog, which grounded a session dedicated to cut-out animation past and present, and discovered some new and instant favourites. Two that stood out for me, both selections from last year’s SIGGRAPH conference: Mobile by Verena Fels, a crowd-pleasing shuffle of animals on wires reminiscent of Pixar’s For the Birds; and The Wonder Hospital by Shimbe (Beomsik Shim), a surreal descent into what I’d best describe as a funhouse of cosmetic surgery.

The piece that I want to draw attention to here, however, is Les journaux de Lipsett (Lipsett Diaries). It was presented as the fulcrum of a session dedicated to the oeuvres of its director, Theodore Ushev, and its subject, the 1960s Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Ushev himself was in attendance as one of the LIAF’s featured guests this year and told the audience of the many coincidences behind his latest project. Here’s one: when Ushev moved from Bulgaria to Montreal, where he has been based since 1999, he stayed in the same building that housed Lipsett for most of his life—until the latter committed suicide in 1986, aged 49.

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Home rows, tone rows, and the lost Dvorak études

Saturday, 23 July 2011 — 10:12am | Classical, Computing, Music, Pianism

I’ve been aware of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard for a long time, but only in the past few days have I decided to try the layout for myself. Like any cognitive realignment pushing against the momentum of a lifelong habit, the initial adjustment process has been slow and occasionally punishing. When you are acccustomed to the fluidity of the keyboard as an invisible extension of the mind, it’s terrifying to find it amputated and clumsily reattached. I expect this overwhelming self-consciousness to be the norm someday when future generations willingly trade in their limbs for more dynamic cyborg substitutes.

Up to now, the closest I’ve come to this awkward stumbling was when I attempted to train my left-hand dexterity on Charlie Parker melodies I would normally play with my right. A kind of impotence, really: I was willing myself to do things that I was used to executing at dizzying velocities with ease, but my body just wouldn’t respond. The trick, I discovered, is to force yourself to slow down, clean up the suddenly naked particulars, and not rely so much on your established ‘chunks’ of muscle memory. My left hand is still a shambles, mind you, but as the lesser automaton it invents the more colourful passages.

That’s why I’m still plugging away in Dvorak. It may be slow-going at first—this post you are reading now is taking an eternity to punch in—but within minutes of playing with it, you begin to perceive all sorts of qualitative pleasures that simply don’t exist in QWERTY-land. It’s like switching to an Apple Macintosh, complete with the moment of epiphany where the cultishness of the already indoctrinated looks reasonable all of a sudden. (Or so I’ve heard. Having been a Mac user on and off since the age of five, I can’t really say.)

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Oprah, Oona: the miseries of Franzenfreude

Wednesday, 1 June 2011 — 5:29pm | Comics, Literature, Television

There’s a passage in Generosity: An Enchancement, Richard Powers’ novel about genetics and creative writing, that transports us to a prominent talk show from Chicago:

It’s less a show than a sovereign multinational charter. And its host is, by any measure, the most influential woman in the world. Her own story is a remarkable mix of motifs from American creative fiction, from Alger to Zelazny. Say only that she has grown from an impoverished, abused child into an adult who gives away more money than most industrialized nations. She has the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language. All this by being tough, warm, vulnerable, and empathetic enough to get almost any other human being to disclose the most personal secrets on international television. If she didn’t exist, allegory would have to invent her.

Powers calls his daytime doyenne Oona, but we all know he’s talking about Oprah. Here we find our scientific-literary novelist in the fine, familiar predicament of engaging with an outside world where corporate global brands are king. Allegories of real folks are tacky things, but when you pen a Chicago novel about finding the genetic basis of happiness in the anaesthetized age of mass media, there’s no detour around the Oprah problem: you’re writing her into your damned book.

(I’m not sure how well it goes. Generosity is eminently likable, and its Clarke Award nomination earlier this year is one of many reasons why you should pay attention to the Clarke Awards, but there’s an overall sense of Richard Powers for Beginners about it next to the depth of his earlier work.)

Here in the telly-impervious literary fortress of Nick’s Café Canadien, we don’t pay much attention to Ms Winfrey. My impression of Oprah has never been terribly positive: as a consumerist behemoth that uncritically promotes junk science and bad medicine while throwing its financial weight behind the overweening cult of self-help, it has often come off to me as a malignant alien presence from another world. I’m reliably informed, however, that as of last week the twenty-five-year gravity well of The Oprah Winfrey Show has finally pocketed itself into its own precious singularity.

Days earlier, Jonathan Franzen delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College that has since appeared in The New York Times (best read alongside Edward Champion’s notes on the abridgment), the latest variation on Literary Man’s perpetual anxiety over technology’s commodification of human passions. Franzen’s argument—that the casual comforts of the Facebook “like” and the easy requital of our device relationships have inoculated us from experiencing true and hurtful love—came bundled with the delicious irony that we’ve come to expect from everything involving the reluctant superstar of American letters. Scarcely a month ago, The New Yorker ran a magisterial essay of his about scattering the ashes of David Foster Wallace on the island of Robinson Crusoe only to hold it hostage behind the paywall. “Like” The New Yorker on Facebook, said the ransom note—or else.

The timing may be coincidental, but the parallel—rather, the perpendicularity—isn’t lost on those of us who absorbed everything about the Winfrey-Franzen feud of 2001 with unhealthy fascination. Here’s the story: ten years ago, Oprah Winfrey selected Franzen’s outstanding novel The Corrections for the Book Club segment of her programme, something that even her most bitter critics have to admit has been a marvel for moving volumes of contemporary fiction. Shortly after, Franzen voiced his discomfort with being marketed under the Oprah sticker, leading Winfrey to rescind the book selection along with Franzen’s invitation to the show.

You can imagine the media frenzy. High-profile literary scuffles are like classical music riots: we don’t see enough of them these days, and when we do, it’s comical yet reassuring to discover that other people care about this stuff. And here we had, in one corner, an inspirational figure of tremendous accomplishment and national renown; in the other corner—well, Oprah Winfrey.

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Here Be Cartographers: Reading the Fantasy Map

Monday, 18 April 2011 — 11:14pm | J.R.R. Tolkien, Literary theory, Literature

It is hard to imagine a world without maps.

Now stop—and diagram that sentence. Break its syntax apart. You can parse it in at least two valid and meaningful ways:

  • It is hard | to imagine | a world without maps. The use of maps is so embedded in our daily lives, so essential to our normal functioning, that the idea of a pre-cartographic society is as alien as the thought of a pre-literate one. On top of this, our idea of what it means to be a mapped society is itself confined to our familiarized expectations of what maps are like. How did people get by without maps—or rather, without the sorts of maps we know and understand?

  • It is hard | to imagine a world | without maps. Maps govern the way we think about space, and that extends to imaginary or hypothetical spaces. Without a graphic representation on paper or in our heads, our plans for things not yet built—homes, roads, electric circuits—may be cloudy and ambiguous. They may lack precision in the same way we have trouble with describing things that are outside our linguistic abilities. This is a negative definition of maps as a form of language: to be without a map is to be without language, and it impedes us from communicating ideas in the mind—to others, yes, but also to ourselves.

In both of these senses, maps of fictional places are remarkably challenging texts.

One of my chief interests in fiction, along with art in general, is how it presents itself as evidence of the way people receive the existing cultural data around them before they process it and spit it back out. (In literary criticism you will encounter words like allusion and intertextuality, but I think of them as subtypes of a broader cognitive activity.) When an author plans out a story’s setting in place, or when a reader attempts to reconstruct it from the words alone, the maps they produce tell us not only how they imagine the depicted geography, but also how they imagine the idea of maps. Furthermore, the author/audience distinction isn’t always sharp: some privileged readers, such as the illustrators at a publishing house or manuscript historians like Christopher Tolkien, participate in the interpretive stage as well as the official construction of the space for everyone else.

So when we open up a novel to find a map, we can think of the map as an act of narration. But what kind of narration? Is it reliable narration or a deliberate misdirection? Is it omniscient knowledge, a complete (or strategically obscured) presentation of the world as the author knows it? Or is the map available to the characters in the text? If it is, then who drew up the map, and how did they have access to the information used to compose it? If it isn’t, then through what resources do the characters orient themselves in their own world? And finally, does anyone even bother to think about these questions before they sit down to place their woodlands and forts?

In the post that follows, I am going to informally sketch out a theory of fictional maps, which is to say that I will put up a lot of pretty pictures from novels and talk about why they are neat. There is likely some academic work on this somewhere—I would be astonished if there weren’t—but I’m not aware of any, and certainly nothing that has accounted for modern critical approaches to the history of cartography. Map history and the comparative study of commercial genre literature are niches within niches as it stands, and my aim is to entwine them together.

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Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 — 4:06am | Animation, Film, Insights, Literature, Michael Chabon

When I was very young, I heard a legend about a Chinese muralist who painted the most vivid and lifelike dragons but refused to fill in their eyes, lest the dragons come alive and fly away. I tried to track it down four or five years ago for a fragment I was writing at the time, but on that occasion I never found it. Today it occurred to me to make another attempt, and for reasons of n-grammatic potentia that shall remain mysterious, Google was far more helpful this time around.

As with any old story, mutations abound, but the preponderance of them involve the painter Zhang Seng-You (張僧繇) from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Depending on who’s telling the story, Zhang Seng-You is asked to fill in the eyes by a bystander, the abbot who commissioned the monastery mural, or the Emperor himself (who, in this case, must have been Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty). The ending is always the same: the painter finishes the eyes and the dragons bolt away from the mural in a flash of lightning and thunder.

The wonderful thing about fables is the discordance of what they say—typically a blunt moral lesson, delivered as the payload of a cruise-missile punch line like a Feghoot minus the funny—versus what they do, which is leave innumerable gaps for diverse interpretations to take root and flourish. Stories are not reducible to definite lessons. Fiction is a space for debate, and a fable is an open meadow for all and sundry to frolic. (“I don’t believe in stories with morals,” says the man with the childish fantasy of teaching Lolita in schools.)

So what can we make of the tale of the painted dragons?

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IBM’s double jeopardy

Tuesday, 8 February 2011 — 4:09am | Computing, Journalism, Science, Television

A few weeks ago, Colby Cosh—a friend of a friend of sorts who ordinarily writes reasonable things for a chap who still thinks the Edmonton Oilers are a real sports team—penned an article in his Maclean’s blog about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing machine (“I’ll take ‘Cheap Publicity Stunts’ for $1000, Alex”, 16 January 2011), that I found to be dreadfully uninformed. The thrust of his argument is that Watson is a corporate “gimmick”—a fancy plea for media coverage by the faceless villains at IBM, with nothing of scientific interest going on underneath. Keep in mind that by the standards of this article, nothing in the “perpetually disappointing history of AI” will ever be interesting until we’ve graduated from tightly delimited objectives to Big Problems like the Turing Test:

Every article about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing device, should really lead off with the sentence “It’s the year 2011, for God’s sake.” In the wondrous science-fiction future we occupy, even human brains have instant broadband access to a staggeringly comprehensive library of general knowledge. But the horrible natural-language skills of a computer, even one with an essentially unlimited store of facts, still compromise its function to the point of near-parity in a trivia competition against unassisted humans.

This isn’t far off from saying that particle physics will be perpetually disappointing until we’ve observed the Higgs boson, or that manned spaceflight is merely an expensive publicity stunt that will never be scientifically interesting until we’ve colonized the Moon: it leans heavily on popular culture as the ultimate barometer of scientific achievement, and it requires both ignorance of methodology and apathy towards specifics.

Colby and I had a five-minute skirmish about the article on Twitter, which as a format for debate is unwieldy as piss. I promised a proper response as soon as I cleared some other priorities off my plate. Those other priorities are still, to my annoyance, on my plate; but having finally paid good money to register my copy of MarsEdit, I’m thirsting for a scrap.

This topic will do as well as any. Reluctant as I am to swing the pretentious hammer of “I know what I’m talking about,” this really is (as the idiom goes) a chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality. Computational linguistics happens to be my onetime research area, popular misunderstanding of science happens to be one of my favourite bugbears, and Kasparov’s anticomputer strategies against Deep Blue happened to make a cameo appearance in the meandering slop of my master’s dissertation. None of this matters a great deal, mind you. One should never be dismissive of journalists from a position of relative expertise; they’re the ones people actually read, and it’s vital to engage with what they say.

(It is a little game we play: they put it on the bill, I tear up the bill.)

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