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02 Dec 22:19

One Last Dispatch From The Land Of Chess Kings And Billionaires

by Oliver Roeder
Left: Magnus Carlsen, 26, at the World Chess Championship’s opening gala at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Right: Sergey Karjakin, 26, tests the overhead lights in the playing hall.

Left: Magnus Carlsen, 26, at the World Chess Championship’s opening gala at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
Right: Sergey Karjakin, 26, tests the overhead lights in the playing hall.

All photographs by Misha Friedman

Watching an elite chess match in person is at once enjoyable and discomfiting. You follow the players’ actions — their moves, their mannerisms — for long stretches of time. You hang on each one and imbue it with meaning. You become so familiar with their moves that you can rattle them off later from memory: “queen to h6,” say, or “rook to e2.” You try to understand why the players did what they did. The moves can be beautiful or inscrutable or frustrating or disappointing. You try to imagine what you would do if you were in one of their chairs. You try to predict what they will do next. You try and make sense of their postgame explanations. But you aren’t them, and you can never really understand.

On Wednesday, the final day of the World Chess Championship, hundreds crowded into the Fulton Market Building in lower Manhattan to watch, trying to understand. Magnus Carlsen, the defending champion, No. 1-rated player in the world and the closest thing the sport has to a rock star, was facing his challenger, Sergey Karjakin of Russia, in a series of speedy tiebreaker games. The 12 lengthy games that had stretched over the previous 19 days — I attended 11 in person — ended tied and the two grandmasters were back in their chairs in a soundproof glass box to break the deadlock. It was the biggest day in chess in many years. Carlsen, the former wunderkind, was clinging to his title and his legacy, while Karjakin and the Russians were hoping for a return to the days of Soviet chess hegemony. On the fourth game of the tiebreaker, and the 16th of the match, Carlsen attacked the Russian’s king, Karjakin resigned and the two shook hands. It was over.

 

Tickets were expensive, but there were a lot of young fans at every game, especially on weekends.

Tickets were expensive, but there were a lot of young fans at every game, especially on weekends.

 

You had to elbow your way through knots of onlookers to get anywhere in the venue’s sprawling VIP wing. Men in suits and expensive shoes crowded around TVs, watching the games and sipping martinis. The room was at a low murmur — equal parts English and Russian with an occasional dash of Norwegian. The clinking of glasses and the ratatat of ice in cocktail shakers punctuated the chess talk.

Like a Russian nesting doll, a VVIP section had been set up for Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, and company within the VIP section. It was newly roped off and closely monitored by scary-looking bodyguards. Thiel, a Donald Trump supporter and a strong chess player himself, and Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire venture capitalist, sat at a board inside. With apologies to Beyoncé, it was $6 billion at a chess table. Accompanying them: Bennett Miller, who directed “Foxcatcher,” about the wrestling-obsessed murderer and multimillionaire heir to the du Pont fortune, and the Icelandic grandmaster Hedinn Steingrimsson, who was giving them a private analysis of the ongoing championship game taking place just a few yards away.

A buffet and wine bar had been installed for the guests from Silicon Valley who’d arrived that day, and bored-looking members of their entourages lolled on large couches, poking at iPhones. Word around the venue was that the billionaires had paid $50,000 for these privileges. (The match’s organizer wouldn’t comment on the figure.) Much later in the evening, some other journalists and I raided their buffet, eating what must have been thousands of dollars worth of cold mini tacos.

“Are you security?” the writer Brin-Jonathan Butler asked one of the well-dressed, well-built men keeping close watch over the well-heeled chess lesson.

“Something like that,” he responded ominously. “I wouldn’t bother them, if you don’t mind.”

This World Chess Championship scene was somewhere at the intersection of Bond film, Trump fundraiser and museum gala.

 

Spectators in the VIP lounge. A production team from Russia created an atmosphere for VIPs more often seen in Moscow than Manhattan.

Spectators in the VIP lounge. A production team from Russia created an atmosphere for VIPs more often seen in Moscow than Manhattan.

 

Despite the high-powered, moneyed interest, and its prime New York City location, the match was sparsely covered by the American press — as chess is generally — and given little attention outside the core chess world. It’s unlikely to increase the game’s reach or exposure as the organizers may have hoped. That did happen once in the States — in 1972 — but that was because of Bobby Fischer.

The troublesome shadow of Fischer stretches over every conversation of chess’s success and future in the U.S. He was the best American player of all time, and its only modern world champion. His legacy is stained by his vocal anti-Semitism, and comments that he was pleased with the terrorism on Sept. 11, among other things. But in his chess prime, he carried the U.S. on his back while sitting at the board, having taught himself the game, largely alone, in a shabby Brooklyn apartment. And he won.

While this year’s championship lacked the colorful characters and Cold War narrative of Fischer’s title run — although some journalists tried to revive them — it did have some of the controversy.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the president of the game’s international governing body, FIDE, was absent from the match, having been sanctioned by the U.S. for business connections with the Assad regime in Syria. Ilyumzhinov is no stranger to controversy. He insists he was abducted by aliens. They were wearing yellow spacesuits and nabbed him from his Moscow apartment in 1997, taking him away to a distant star. He considers chess “a gift from extraterrestrial civilizations.”

 

Left: A branded vodka bar assured VIPs were sufficiently entertained throughout the tournament. Right: Ekaterina, a Karjakin family friend, flew in from Moscow just for the tiebreaker round.

Left: A branded vodka bar assured VIPs were sufficiently entertained throughout the tournament.
Right: Ekaterina, a Karjakin family friend, flew in from Moscow just for the tiebreaker round.

 

There are other internal chess-world squabbles. Agon Limited, the match’s organizer, filed an application for a restraining order and injunction against a number of popular third-party chess websites, just before the match began. The websites’ alleged transgression? Relaying chess moves live, which Agon saw as a violation. The application was denied by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, who wrote that “robust reporting of factual data concerning the contestants’ moves” best served the public interest. Agon’s CEO, Ilya Merenzon, told me that the company would continue to pursue the matter in court, and was also proposing legislation to cement their rights to the games they organize.

I discussed the case with Macauley Peterson, the content director for chess24, one of the defendants, on the floor of the venue during one of the early games. He kept glancing away from me at people walking by. He said he was worried about who might be eavesdropping.

The tournament’s organizers have declared their own victory, though, bragging that the 20-day biennial championship had drawn some 10,000 spectators to its location in the South Street Seaport. But that’s less than, say, half the average attendance of the worst team in baseball for any one of its 81 home games this year. And the event’s only two main sponsors were PhosAgro, a Russian producer of phosphate-based fertilizer, and EG Capital Advisors, a Russian investment management company. Not exactly Nike and Coca-Cola.

 

Left: Neil deGrasse Tyson, a celebrated astrophysicist, and Fabiano Caruana, the No. 2 ranked chess player in the world, chatted about baseball. Right: Peter Thiel showed up for the decisive tiebreaker round and had a grandmaster at his side to explain the games live.

Left: Neil deGrasse Tyson, a celebrated astrophysicist, and Fabiano Caruana, the No. 2 ranked chess player in the world, chatted about baseball.
Right: Peter Thiel showed up for the decisive tiebreaker round and had a grandmaster at his side to explain the games live.

 

But despite the controversy and the finances, what’s really missing from chess is a character.

The U.S. has three players in the world Top 10, any one of whom could have a shot at challenging Carlsen for the title in two years. They’re undeniably fantastic players. But they seem less like compelling national characters — and less like artists — than Fischer did. They’re technicians, raised in a computer-chess age. Carlsen ended the match and extended his world championship reign with a beautiful move on Wednesday evening — whether he’d admit its beauty or not — sacrificing his queen to entrap Karjakin’s king. But in one of the postgame press conferences, Carlsen said chess was a sport and a science. For art, he said, you’d “have to look elsewhere.”

 

Left: While waiting for the title ceremony, Magnus Carlsen is finally able to relax with his father by his side. Right: Following his defeat, Karjakin was clearly disappointed while speaking to the Russian media. He confirmed rumors about travelling to New York with a Virgin Mary icon.

Left: While waiting for the title ceremony, Magnus Carlsen is finally able to relax with his father by his side.
Right: Following his defeat, Karjakin was clearly disappointed while speaking to the Russian media. He confirmed rumors about travelling to New York with a Virgin Mary icon.

 

After the match — after the trophy presentation and the cake and the champagne — our photographer and I tracked down the Norwegian contingent at an after-after-party at a steakhouse a couple miles uptown. It was a festive scene. Holiday garland and lights festooned the bannisters and the restaurant was a cozy respite from the cold and rainy November day outside. Carlsen was sitting at a far table in the crowded dining room with about 50 others. He was eating. With a fork. Like a person. It was odd to see him with something other than a chess piece in his hand.

I wanted to talk to him. I’d been watching him for hours most days for the past three weeks. But honestly I had no idea what I’d say. Carlsen famously hates interviews. But I was saved. “No questions. Definitely no,” his manager, Espen Agdestein, told us. “He’s very tired. We’re just relaxing.”

I’m not Carlsen. But I understood.

30 Nov 19:37

China’s Lucky Knot bridge

by Jason Kottke

Lucky Knot

Lucky Knot

Lucky Knot

Built by NEXT architects in the Chinese city of Changsha,1 the Lucky Knot bridge is a wonderfully inventive piece of architecture and engineering. It does not, however, appear very accessible to cyclists or the handicapped in the way that their Melkwegbridge project is. (via @robinsloan)

  1. I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Changsha — I hadn’t. It’s the 36th most populous city in the world, with a greater population than any city in the US except NYC. The scale of China’s population is incredible…16 of the most populous 50 cities in the world are in China and many Americans would struggle to name more than 3 or 4 of them.

Tags: architecture   China
07 Nov 14:10

The people’s tyrant: what Plato can teach us about Donald Trump

by Sean Illing

Trump put fascism on the ballot this year, and millions of people said “yes.”

Plato thought political regimes followed a predictable evolutionary course, from oligarchy to democracy to tyranny. Oligarchies give way to democracies when the elites fail, when they become spoiled, lazy, profligate, and when they develop interests apart from those they rule.

Democracies give way to tyrannies when mob passion overwhelms political wisdom and a populist autocrat seizes the masses. But the tyrant is not quite a tyrant at first. On the contrary, in a democracy the would-be tyrant offers himself as the people’s champion. He’s the ultimate simplifier, the one man who can make everything whole again.

Sound familiar?

With Trump, we have a glimpse of what this sort of evolution looks like: A vulgar right-wing populism emerges out of a whirlwind of anti-establishment hysteria; a strongman fascist promises to stick it to the elites and says only he can make the country great again; he gives the people a familiar boogeyman, some alien other, on whom they can dump their resentment.

For a fractured and embittered citizenry, this is a rhetorical balm, and, according to Plato, just the sort of thing that sends the city over a cliff.

The American founders were skeptical of democratic rule for all the reasons Plato spelled out. They created a firewall against the tyranny of the majority, which is why we have a republic instead of a direct democracy.

Trump is the firebrand they feared.

You might see his political existence as our democracy's response to its own decay. People no longer believe in the authority of public institutions, which amounts to a loss of faith in constitutional democracy. That Trump made it this far proves that the country can be whipped into a frenzy and that fascism is only an election away.

If Trump fails, it won’t be because he was too illiberal or too anti-democratic but because he self-sabotaged, because he was too incompetent to execute his half-baked vision. But it’s easy to imagine a future Trump, a candidate who shares his tyrannical nature but is skilled enough to capture a plurality.

Perhaps we’ll survive this time, but we walked right up to the edge of the abyss. Next time we may tumble into it.

 Getty Images / antonis kioupliotis photography

What Plato said

“Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” — Plato

Whether Donald Trump wins or loses, he did the country at least one service: He revealed the rot at the core of our politics. His success shows just how vulnerable we are to demagogic shocks.

Earlier this year, Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay for New York magazine in which he argued that America is ripe for tyranny. With Plato as his lodestar, Sullivan lamented the excesses of democracies and warned how easily they devolve into dictatorships.

Trump, he argued, is an “extinction-level” threat.

There’s much to disagree with in Sullivan’s piece, but his diagnosis was largely right: The very possibility of a Trump presidency constitutes a crisis for our democracy.

What’s happening in this election cycle isn’t new or incomprehensible. The character of Trump and the reasons for his rise are explained in remarkably prescient terms by Plato over two centuries ago in his most famous book, The Republic.

The Republic is a series of dialogues about many things: justice, human nature, education, virtue. Among the most important is a conversation between Socrates and friends about the nature of regimes and why one is superior to another.

Socrates says: “Let us place the most just regime side by side the most unjust, and when we see them we shall be able to compare…” Though it’s not the aim, what we get at the end of the dialogue is a theory of regime decline, with Socrates explaining why governments sink from higher to lower forms.

Oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny, in that order, are said to be the worst forms of government, and they are defined more or less in modern terms.

An oligarchy is a regime in which the rich have power and the poor are deprived of it. A democracy is a system of maximal freedom in which the people hold sway. And tyranny is rule by one man, who is both unjust and unqualified.

Oligarchies become democracies for predictable reasons: “As the rich grow richer and richer, the more they think of making a fortune and the less they think of virtue.” The inequality and corruption spread like a disease. “Democracy comes into power,” Socrates says, “when the poor are the victors, killing some and exiling some, and giving equal shares in the government to all the rest.”

Democracy, for all its charms, is said to be a poor substitute for oligarchy. It’s an “agreeable form of anarchy,” Socrates tells us. Like every other regime, a democracy collapses of its own contradictions. It’s full of freedom and spangled with every kind of liberty imaginable.

Over time, though, this boundless freedom degenerates into herd hysteria. Belief in authority atrophies. A spirit of excess takes hold and, eventually, “the state falls sick, and is at war with herself.”

Tyranny springs from democracy in the same manner democracy springs from oligarchy. Just as the blind pursuit of wealth occasions a thirst for equality, so “the insatiable desire for freedom occasions a demand for tyranny.”

There’s a logic to this dynamic, a kind of political physics. Each regime succeeds the previous one as its opposite and as a reaction to it.

So the shift from democracy to tyranny is simple enough: A surplus of freedom produces an excess of factions and a multiplicity of perspectives, most of which are blinkered by narrow interests. To get elected, those factions have to be flattered, their passions indulged. This is fertile soil for the demagogue, who manipulates the masses to “overmaster democracy,” as Plato put it.

In this way, it’s the very freedom of democracy that opens the way to tyranny. The love of tolerance devolves into a kind of unraveling licentiousness. Communal bonds wither. When things get bad, as they always do, the people grow restless and yield to a swindling demagogue who cultivates their fears and positions himself as the protector.

This is how democracy passes into despotism.

Rally At 39th Anniversary Of The Death Of Former Dictator General Franco Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
A man speaks to a small crowd of Franco supporters during the 39th anniversary of the death of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco at Plaza Oriente square on November 23, 2014, in Madrid, Spain.

Trump as the people’s tyrant

“States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters.” — Plato

Plato insists that it takes a particular kind of person to win over a democratic mob.

The Republic is based on an assumption of a parallelism between the city and the soul. It’s difficult to summarize, but Plato held that for every kind of government there existed a corresponding kind of man. This is what he means when he writes that states “grow out of human characters,” and this is what Socrates means when he says that “the city is the soul writ large.”

In The Republic, systems of government are defined by the end they most pursue. Oligarchies, for instance, esteem wealth. In democracies, freedom is the highest good. In tyrannies, it’s the will of the tyrant.

There are five regime types for Plato and thus five kinds of human characters, each following the other in corresponding order. Describing them all is beyond the scope of this article, so instead let’s focus on the most relevant: the tyrant.

A tyrant, for Plato, wasn’t just someone who ruled over others; a tyrant is someone who can’t rule over himself. He’s Eros incarnate — pure impulse. He’s always in the thrall of his own lusts and passions.

Plato likens the tyrant to a drunken man, in whom there is a constant “succession of passions, and the new gets the better of the old and takes away their rights.” Because he can’t get along without domineering or being served, moreover, he “never tastes of true freedom or friendship.”

Trump is the tyrannical soul par excellence. His instinct is always to stifle dissent. The examples here are endless. He has threatened to “open up” federal libel laws and partially repeal the First Amendment in order to sue newspapers for the crime of challenging him.

During one of the presidential debates, he vowed to jail his political opponent for imagined non-offenses. “I’ll tell you what,” Trump said, “I didn’t think I’d say this … and I hate to say it: If I win, I’m going to instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” He then warned Clinton that, if he were president, “You’d be in jail.”

Almost everything we know about Trump testifies to this need to punish and humiliate. Consider this revealing Politico report about Richard Branson’s memorable encounter with Trump several years ago. Here’s how Branson recalls it:

“Some years ago, Mr. Trump invited me to lunch for a one-to-one meeting at his apartment in Manhattan. We had not met before and I accepted … Even before the starters arrived he began telling me about how he had asked a number of people for help after his latest bankruptcy and how five of them were unwilling to help. He told me he was going to spend the rest of his life destroying these five people.”

Branson later said that Trump’s “vindictive streak” would “be so dangerous if he got into the White House.”

This emotional incontinence is what sets Trump apart as a uniquely tyrannical figure. To watch him on stage is to witness a frenzied parade of inner consciousness. He’s simply incapable of restraining himself, and all of his “handlers” have learned this the hard way.

He has very few actual friends because other people are ornaments for him. He treats women as playthings. He mocks the disabled. He encourages supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters. He even withdrew medical benefits for his nephew’s infant child as retaliation for a dispute over his father’s estate.

Pathology is the only term for this kind of behavior.

As Plato predicted, Trump’s tyrannical psyche manifests in his political views. He has proposed killing the family members of terrorists; waterboarding suspects because “they deserve it anyway”; refused to accept the results of a free and fair election; toyed with deploying nuclear weapons in regional conflicts; suggested banning all Muslims from the country; and said a federal judge’s Mexican heritage disqualifies him from office. This list hardly captures all of Trump fascistic musings, but the point is obvious enough.

This is a man with no respect for democratic norms, no understanding of compromise, no sense of inclusiveness, and, worst of all, no self-awareness. His burning ignorance is matched only by his baseless confidence. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” he said during his convention speech, “which is why I alone can fix it.” [Emphasis mine.]

The tyrannical drive cannot be distilled any better than that.

Indeed, with Trump we see the transition from democracy to tyranny in real time. And his message resonates for reasons familiar to Plato: Trump is a reflection of the people to whom he appeals. What distinguishes him from his followers is wealth and celebrity, but it’s his ingratiating crudity that does the real work.

A democratic tyrant slips into power by dint of deception: He is usually rich, but he carries himself as a commoner. “In the early days of his power,” Plato writes, “he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets … making promises in public and also in private, liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to everyone.”

But the honeymoon is brief. The populist begins as the people’s champion; later, having tasted power, he becomes their tyrant.

Donald Trump

What next?

Plato wasn’t a prophet. His critique of democracy is wildly exaggerated, and there’s a streak of illiberalism in his thought that ought to offend the modern reader. But his analysis is valuable nevertheless.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Elbridge Gerry, who later served as the fifth vice president under James Madison, declared the chaos in state governments a result of an “excess of democracy.” “The people do not want virtue; but are dupes of pretended patriots,” Gerry said, “and are misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men.”

Trump is a designing man, and his political existence is a warning. He let loose something dark in this country, and whatever happens on Tuesday, the fact remains: Trump put fascism on the ballot this year, and millions of people said “yes.”

04 Oct 18:00

The Science Behind Why Ketchup Is So Hard to Pour

by Claire Lower on Skillet, shared by Andy Orin to Lifehacker

If you are a lover of ketchup, you have no doubt had to deal with the very real struggle of trying to get it out of the bottle, particularly if that bottle is glass. If you’ve ever wondered why you must suffer at the hands of this stubborn condiment, there is an answer: ketchup is a non-Newtonian fluid.

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The tractor of the future is here … and it’s pretty awesome

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LEGO Figures Make Perfect Cable Holders

by Melanie Pinola

LEGO Figures Make Perfect Cable Holders

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13 May 00:00

Why a cheap counterfeit iPad charger isn't worth the price

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With no shortage of counterfeit iOS accessories on the market, Ken Shirriff recently decided to take a look at a counterfeit iPad charger and compare it to the real deal. While a counterfeit version of anything will undoubtedly save you a few bucks,...
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John McCain played poker during Syria debate. Bad phone etiquette? | Open thread

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