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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Setting Records

In the aforementioned chess simultaneous in Tel Aviv, the master had to stay on his feet playing for 19 hours.  "Gruesome" is far too gentle a word to describe that, and in fact such an ordeal is anti-chessic in the extreme.   Chess is an enjoyment for the mind, not a submission to self-inflicted and extended torture.

Aside from breathing and thinking, I can think of almost nothing that I would think would be worth doing for 19 hours straight, though that means that I  am doomed never to break any records whatsoever.  Beautiful!

Those people who in mere minutes stuff their digestive systems (and nearby toilet bowls, too) with dozens of hotdogs and other eatables that are otherwise best consumed at leisure are other great examples of the folly of setting records.

And the other day I read of yet another example of this, that happened the year after the Civil War ended.

One of those gorgeous examples of sailing ships at their height, the Yankee clippers, a boat called the "Hornet," was set on fire by an act of total carelessness on the part of the first mate.   It happened on the Pacific, about a thousand miles west of the Galapagos Islands.   Having gone below deck to get a bucket of varnish, he thought he'd save his men some trouble by drawing off the bucket there instead of lugging the barrel up on deck as they had been ordered to do.  Meanwhile they had brought below an open lamp, and the ship or something lurched, and the lamp fell on some of the varnish that had spilled.   The resulting flames quickly spread to some of the nearby cargo, which happened to be thousands of gallons of kerosene and a huge number of boxes filled with candles.

Before they could do anything the flames leaped out of the hold, and set fire to the sails, and before long the Captain had to order the unthinkable.   "Abandon ship!"

During what must have been a truly awesome if terrifying sight to see, it took a day and a half for that tall, beautiful ship to finish burning before its remnants sank into the sea, leaving 43 men cast away in three small boats with only a 10-day supply of food and water.

Two months later, in only one boat, the survivors, less than half the number that had started out, arrived in Hawaii, the only direction that the wind allowed them to go, though the fire happened much closer to Peru.   They had drifted, sailed, and sometimes paddled 4,000 miles across the open sea, and having been reduced to eating clothes and the wood containers that had once held food, and after having stopped just short of cannibalism, they were all at death's door and when they were brought ashore, they must have resembled the survivors of places like Dachau and Auschwitz.

Yet, after all they had gone through, one of the first things they were told when it was learned how far they had come, was that they had beaten the record set by Captain Bligh and his 18 crew members during the famed "Mutiny on the Bounty" saga.   Years before, in 1792, Bligh and his men had just barely managed a similar voyage in a similar small, open boat, but had navigated a few hundred miles less than American Captain Josiah Mitchell and his crew with two passengers in 1866.
That incredible voyage is admirably described in "The Furnace Afloat," by Joe Jackson, one of the books that I recently bought at Amazon.   The author does not mention any sort of thrill that Mitchell and his crew felt upon hearing of their "record" -- at least in the first days after their salvation.   Maybe later, however, they did take more enjoyment from that,  when they had more time and the ease to indulge themselves in far less urgent matters, which by comparison would have been just about everything.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Chess Simuls of Iran and Israel

Apparently, as they often did during the "Cold War" between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., especially whenever Bobby Fischer was involved, the fierce hostilities between arch-enemies Iran and Israel have  even spread to the normally sedate world of the chessboard -- sedate when it comes to the decorum of the players, not on the board itself, unless two grandmasters are deliberately playing for the notorious "grandmaster draw."

I was surprised to see that, because though modern chess supposedly originated in Persia, until recently, I'm supposing, when I was no longer looking closely at such matters, prominent players from Iran have been close to non-existent, while not necessarily Israeli but definitely Jewish players have been big in chess for quite a long time.

An Iranian grandmaster named Mahjoob had recently set a world record for conducting a simultaneous exhibition in which he played upwards of 500 people at one time, with each having his or her own board, and he won the great majority of the games.  But just a few days ago an Israel grandmaster named Gershon exceeded that by playing 524 games, and winning 86  percent.

As achievements of chess skill, however, both events were on the bogus side, if you ask me, because too much depends on the strength of the master's opponents, and meanwhile what you are really doing is just playing a great number of really quickie games, where, if there are so many players, and that means that the level of chess is not very high.   True, the master has only seconds to think on each move, but that is not a great feat if you have quick sight of the board, and a player with some years experience easily acquires that.

       So, during a simultaneous, the person giving it, usually though not always a master, makes a move, then quickly has to go on to the next board, making one move there or occasionally a short series if the moves are forced beyond all question, and then to the next, and so on and so on, conducting games that will last an average of 40 moves each.  But we need not think that his opponents have a big advantage because they have so much more time to think before the master rolls around again.   Instead, what with all the gabbing between the players and so forth while they wait, that can be just enough time to get badly befuddled.  And also that advantage in time lessens considerably as the simul slowly wears on and the number of those opponents keeps dropping because of the numerous checkmates and resignations. .

Therefore any experienced player who is not even a master could play such numbers of people, if his feet and his sense of humor are in good shape.   I like to think that even I, at this advanced age, could do it, because I still have enough quick sight of the board.   Not nearly as much as 50 or 60  years ago but still some.    I'm not saying, however,  that I could do it with any large percentage of wins, but I could play several hundred in a simul if my physical being held up, and even win a respectable number if there was a high enough percentage of "turkeys" among the players.

It turned out that in the Israeli case, none other than a big Israeli newspaper suggested that just that happened during Gershon's exhibition, and that many of the players were from a local high school, and too large a number of them admitted that they knew little to nothing about chess.  But over against that, we can't forget that high schoolers can be an unusually tough bunch, because that is the very best age for getting into chess.   

I have not read if the same kind of thing happened in Iran.   I tend to believe that it did.   But still it's good that the two countries picked this arena to have their latest contest.  Maybe, as a consequence, they will end up bombing each other as little as the Americans and the Russians did in their time.   That is, if the Iranian versions of our Repubs and the Israeli rightwing war gamers don't get their way.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Speaking of Reading, the Kindle

 Amazon has come out with its often discussed new upgrade of the reader called Kindle, and I would be tempted to start lusting after one.  But though I take drops every day to keep glaucoma under control, and though I have a set of prescription glasses, and though I have mild cataracts in both eyes, especially in the right, I am still trying to make it through with naked eye or my el cheapo reading glasses.  So the 6-inch KIndle screen doesn't say much to me, when I am seldom far from my little battery of desktop computers with a 23-inch monitor for a couple and a 19-inch on the others (via the wonders of KVM switches).   So that looks like yet another great argument for staying home as much as I do, and I don't see why I would need a Kindle, though admittedly it's probably no worse than reading my now very aged paperbacks.

My wife swears by using the local public library almost exclusively, but I get most of the books I read from our own shelves.  Admittedly, quite often lately I've ended up with a pile of loose, crumbling pages with fading print and for which a binding is very much a thing of the past.   But this is why I bought those books and then held on to them for such a long time, just for later times like these.   And at this point it's like I'm reading them all for the first time, though actually I did read most of them a while ago, and some more than once.   I figure that for me, the passage of about 10 years is enough to make any book a brand new read again, and all I retain is a general impression of whether or not it was a good book.

I wish I knew somebody around here who has a Kindle, so that I could get a first-hand look.   My wife belongs to a very active book club, and I think she does know somebody who has one.   I'll have to ask, when she gets back from another of her long visits to Florida.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Amazon's Used Books Bargains

Lately I've been buying used books via the Amazon site.   The main thing I've done with it is to fill out my collection of the series of art books that Time-Life put out on subscription, back in the 1960's, maybe at 10, 15, or 20 bucks per copy.   I already had about 12 in the series, but a short while ago I found out that there were actually 28, and I resolved to try to get them all.

I have long been fascinated by  these books.   Each is centered around a particular Old Master and his times and his contemporaries, from Giotto right up through Matisse and Duchamp, and each book has a great wealth of illustrations and information, so that if you had all these under your belt, you would have a pretty good grasp of the whole range of art history.

And so I managed to fill out that collection pretty easily and inexpensively.   And the kicker was that though each book was published in a cover box of its own, every copy I got was like new.  And I have gotten other used books through Amazon, and they were all in the same flawless condition.

Amazon sells very few of these books itself.  Instead it presides over an army of little booksellers who are the ones who have the books and package them out..  But therein lies a huge question, whose answer I would very much like to know.

You will notice that quite often these books are offered at some ridiculously low prices, like 4 cents a copy!  

My wife and I have a LOT of books, and we've been able to stuff them in this little homemade "green oak" house of mine without being crowded out as yet.   But even in the 1940's and '50's, when I started buying my part of the collection, the paperbacks or, as they were called then, "pocket books," a hot, new thing in those days, down in the used book stores that used to line downtown 9th Street in D.C. when I was young, I thought that getting three for a quarter, as they were generally sold, was a great bargain.   But now 4 cents, even for hardbacks in good condition?

What gives?   Amazon's shipping is always $3.99, but that still doesn't seem to account for the chances of a good profit.

So far I have strictly avoided buying one of their books for a mere 4 cents.  No.  Not even out of curiosity.   That strikes me as being indecently cheap, and instead I go to the midrange, five and sometimes even ten dollars, as my wife informs me is my habit anyway.

I like to see people, especially in an occupation as highly honorable as dealing with books, get something out of it, besides the joy of outfitting people with objects as endlessly worthwhile as books.

But I suppose that, as with so much else, I am not supposed to worry about this.  I expect that the more hard-headed types, who predominate in this world, would tell me that it is after all, in more than one way, not my business.

Friday, November 05, 2010

That Stuff Called "Coffee"

Why is it so hard for me to finish a whole cup of coffee, even a very small cup, in one sitting?  And of course, even so little as to sip a cup that doesn't also have the absolutely essential ingredients of plenty of sugar and cream is completely impossible.

I have always wondered about the hordes who so smugly swear by pure or "black coffee."   What do they think they're doing?   Taking an otherwise unpalatable substance that isn't far from the appearance and somewhat the taste of tar and using it as a drug?

Obviously I didn't inherit any of my mother's mystique about coffee.   I think she told me that throughout her long adult life she had drunk at least two cups every day (with cream and sugar I believe, though I never took special note of that), and she could not function without it.  It was a staple of her life.

No food or beverage, not even fried chicken or apple dumplings (the latter of which I have not had to eat for several decades now, at least not fixed the way my mother did them) has ever been a staple of my life.

So why do I drink coffee at all (in the instant form by the way)?   It's because I've gotten in the quaint but admittedly inexplicable habit of using it to wash down the several pills that I have to take every morning to keep down my blood pressure, ward off feet stuff like gout, and absorb Vitamin D when the sunlight doesn't furnish enough.

...Maybe in memory of my mother.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Vivid Vision in the Darktime

I have to say that I am an especially accomplished dreamer, both in my waking hours and when I am asleep.   But every once in a while one of my dreams will outdo itself and remains imprinted on my memory permanently.   Last night I had one of those.

I was in some country in Central Eastern Europe, maybe in Germany, and after spending a lot of time observing some kind of a strange ceremony, I was getting ready to go back home.   But all of a sudden, up in the clear blue sky appeared a most amazing sight.  Across the sky at an altitude of a few thousand feet was arrayed a long and perfectly lined up row of closely spaced guided missiles, the kind that are made to be fired from nuclear submarines and underground silos and that are loaded topful with nuclear warheads.

It wasn't clear what direction they were headed in, though I thought it was most likely to the east.   In any case there  must have been 50 or 60 of them.

Everyone around me knew exactly what the sight meant, but the enormity of the purpose of all those missiles was so great, and the impossibility of anything being done about it was so complete that there was no panic, and so instead nearly everyone just kept calmly going on with whatever they had been doing.

--Except that a formerly close friend who has been deceased for some time was there, and he was supposed to give me a lift home in his car, but he instantly hopped into his machine and left me there with that incredible sight of all those flying missiles, all aligned in the neatest of rows.

I can't really say what would have caused my subconscious to come up with this vision.

It could have been a reflection of my reaction toward the recently concluded midterm Congressional elections, which I call the country's latest March into Stupidity, as shown by the many Republican victories in them.   But I have seen such a thing happen many times before.   It is true that every such event moves the country one step closer to the Black Pit of Fascism that is so easy to see, waiting just  ahead.   Still the Fall here, with the turning of the colors of the leaves, is as beautiful as ever, and anyway, anything that happens with the House of Representatives collectively always turns out to be of little to no consequence, whether the members are decent or not.

What was more disturbing about those elections is that they showed how mean-spirited the American electorate is in especially this year.

A past Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, is famous for saying, "All politics is local." But I disagree.  I think there is a strong case for saying instead that a great deal of politics is racial, or "bigotry on sight."   I think that principle applies to most places in the world, but especially to here,  and that is what was seen in this election, despite the determined effort by most of the majority of Americans to keep that guiding circumstance carefully under wraps but in strong practice, as they have through most of the nation's history.