Saturday, 02 September 2006

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Dissertation Arcana #1,871: Believe It or Not, This Post Ends Bloody and Toothless My researches have led me to a particular chess game, played by two upper-class gentlemen for the highest of stakes: the rights to a particular rail line. One of the gentlemen, let us call him Mr. X., has his savings invested in in that line; the other, Mr. Robber Baron, has diverted all commercial traffic from that line in order to depress its value, so that he might sweep in, purchase all its stock, then reroute all commercial traffic back to it. Mr. R.B. is not what your mother calls "a nice man." Mr. X. pays him a visit and vicious battles of wits transpire until, eventually, both men stare at each other from opposite sides of a chessboard. According to Mr. X., Mr. R.B. opens with "The Catapult Gambit." I'm a fairly accomplished chess player—accomplished enough to be familiar with most (if not all) of the common openings—but I had never heard of this "Catapult Gambit." I consulted my chess library. Nothing. I consulted other people's chess libraries. Nothing. I finally found one obscure reference to it in a chess history. It mentioned it by name, but said that it belonged to a variation of chess called "Stanley Chess." The hunt, it was on. A few hours of archival work later, I possessed the oddest of dissertation detritus; odd not because it won't be useful, but because it will. (Such tangents typically lead to lands tangential, the exploration of which is fatal to Normative Time.) Here is what I found: Once upon a time there was an English family of "Ferrers." A war happened, and either because of or in spite of it, these "Ferrers" were awarded the Earldom of Derby and the courtesy title of "Stanley." Now wealthy and bored, these Stanleys started playing chess. Sadly, conventional chess failed to excite them, so they accessorized. Catapults being very fashionable in Fall 1254—everyone who was anyone had at least one Plague-Ridden Cow Corpse and Flaming Wicker Ball that year—the Stanleys decided chess needed one too. "The Catapult Gambit" was born. But the Ferrers Stanleys could not allow the common folk to acquire a device powerful enough to launch small objects entire feet, so they hid it. "Stanley Chess," as it was called, became the hobby of the gentlemen who played their chess in secret gentlemen's clubs. They held secret tournaments in England for hundreds of years. Eventually, one of them ventured to the New World, founded his own secret societies, and taught its members how to play Stanley Chess. They too held tournaments, local and national, the winner of which took home an ornate trophy which had been in the Stanley family for hundreds of years. In 1892, one member of the Stanley clan, Frederick Stanley—possibly upset by the prominence of his cousin, Charles Henry Stanley, author of the first weekly chess column in America—decided that his family heirloom would no longer be awarded to the premier secret chess player in North America. So in 1892, he decided to...
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Literature as Equipment for Prosecution [X-posted to The Valve] When Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize, I complained about conservatives' sudden, easily explicable interest in contemporary theater. ("So now you care about literature," I whined.) Turns out politicos aren't the only ones who develop an intense but fleeting interest in literary criticism. Police do too. Seems the British author John Fowles has run afoul piqued the interest of Austrian police investigating the eight year ordeal of Natascha Kampusch, the young woman kidnapped when she was ten-years-old and held captive until she escaped last week. According to The Scotsman: Police said they were investigating whether [Wolfgang] Priklopil knew about John Fowles' novel The Collector, which tells the story of a man who kidnapped a girl and hid her in a secret basement cell in the hope one day she might fall in love and marry him. "We have received several tips about the book," said Gerhard Lang, a senior police officer. He said no copy of the novel had been found at the house. The "tips" notwithstanding, one wonders what the police want with The Collector. Do they think it the pedophile-kidnapper's equivalent of The Turner Diaries? (The "novel" which inspired Timothy McVeigh's "patriotism.") Or do they—and I mean this seriously—do they believe it offers insight into Priklopil's psyche? If so, is that not the ultimate backhanded compliment? "You depict the sick mind better than any of your peers. We commend you on your substantial artistic accomplishment and hope it will be admissible in a court of law." If that is what they think The Collector to be, literature suddenly means as much as its most strident supporters claim. It is the work of an incisive mind peering into the depths of the human soul (however inhuman its content may be). Mostly I think the Austrian police are looking for a blueprint, a formula, something which will dispel the idea that an actual human committed this crime of his own accord. Systems console weak and weary minds, providing elaborate explanations for the simple but unfortunate fact of human depravity. This desire for pigeonholable explanations isn't limited to those immediately involved, however. Sometimes, banishing the banality of evil from the realm of possibility happens at great remove: Austrians, perhaps as a legacy from Sigmund Freud, place a great deal of importance on psychiatric help after trauma, so much has been made in the reporting of the case on the need for special psychiatric treatment. Who needs Freud more now, I wonder. The captive or her saviors?

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