Thursday, 28 September 2006

Dissertation Arcana #9,871: In Coincidences, My Head Swims [This is the second installment in a series on the unaccountable appearance of chess-related arcana in my dissertation researches. The first installment can be found here. Unlike that one, however, this one happens to be true.] In 1857, two unsigned articles appeared in Chess Monthly explaining how the infamous chess automaton known as the Turk worked: The chest was divided into two apartments above, and a drawer beneath. In the smaller apartment, occupying about a third of the longitudinal dimensions of the box, was placed a number of pieces of brass, made very thin, and designed only for the purpose of deception .... Behind this movable back of the drawer, there was therefore left an unoccupied space of the whole length of the chest, and rather more than a foot in breadth. In this through was fixed an iron railroad ... upon which was placed a low seat. So shiny knobs, bells and whistles above; below, a cramped seat into which tiny grandmasters could squeeze their emaciated selves. That's the "mystery" of the Turk, according to these anonymous articles. However, given that they were published in 1857 and the Turk had been destroyed in a fire in 1854, I'm not sure what would incline a person to trust those anonymous articles. After the death of Maelzel, its inventor and operator, on route to Cuba in 1838, the Turk had been auctioned off to "a noted professor of medicine." Sometime thereafter, it had been sold or gifted to the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, where it would burn with the rest of the building. Curious, I started digging around. The obvious place to start would be Edgar Allen Poe's "Maelzel's Chess Player" (1836). As one of The Obvious' biggest fans, I went for it. Learned quite a bit about how Poe supposed it worked, but not much in the way of proof. So I started digging through his letters. Found this one, dated 29 February 1840: Dr Sir, It will give me great pleasure to accept your invitation for Feb: 29th—this evening. Edgar A. Poe To whom was this letter addressed? Dr. J. K. Mitchell. I could barely contain my excitement. Four years after Poe writes about automaton and two years after it had been purchased by a "noted professor of medicine," Poe accepts the invitation of a Dr. J.K. Mitchell. You see, I'm very familiar with a particular Dr. J.K. Mitchell, one who, though born in Virginia, spent his adult life practicing medicine in Philadelphia—where, you'll remember, the Turk ultimately meets its fiery end. What could Poe and this Dr. Mitchell have been discussing on that cold February evening? More to the point, what mechanical contraption could they have been jamming their too-tall frames into? I can't be certain, but I feel like I can hazard a guess. I know, I know, guess-work doesn't befit an historicist. Thing is, I went back and looked at those articles. Sure enough, they're unsigned ... but flip to the index and you'll find your...
Torture, Inc.: The Future Is Then In his 1892 American Anthropologist article, James Welling observes "that the employment of torture as an engine of justice belongs to an advanced stage of mental evolution" (194). "Advanced," that is, when compared to judicial ordeal, such as a wager of battle between the litigant parties; trial as to which of two or more parties can longest hold the arms extended in the form of a cross; which can thrust the arm with impunity in water boiling hot; which shall sink and which shall float when cast into pool or stream with the hands and feet appropriately tied—the right hand to the left foot, the right foot to the left hand; which shall walk over burning ploughshares, laid at irregular intervals on the ground, and escape with the soles of the feet unscathed; which shall pass through fire and flame with limbs unscorched, &c. (193) Compared to that, torture represents an advance. One from which we, as Americans, backslid. Over the past six years, we have come back to the fold. First, we re-familiarized ourselves with and re-desensitized ourselves to the trials competitive humiliation. The stakes may have been lower, but our hearts were pure and the ratings were fantastic. Slowly, however, it lost its appeal. Didn't matter how irregularly they laid the burning ploughshares on the ground. They could've tied one litigant's right foot to the other's left hand, set them on fire, threw them in a pool or stream, fished them out and saw whose rigor more closely resembles a crucified Christ and we still would've flipped to something else . However loosely defined, judicial trial didn't cut it anymore. We knew we wanted something else. Something more advanced. So, in full compliance with the law of social evolution, we had no choice but to re-advance our backwards, backslid backsides. Initially, and to the annoyance of many, we niggled like our more advanced forebears, drawing "fine-spun distinctions" left, right and Right: while the intervals between no proof at all and a proof half complete, or between a proof half complete and a proof complete, [distinctions] were graduated into still more spectral segments of proof, such as proof less than complete, but nearer complete than half complete; proof less than complete, but further from complete than half complete; probatio which might be rated with its evanescent values from bona to optima, from evidens to evidentissima, from aperta to apertissima, from dubia to indubitata, from idonea, legitimata, and sufficiens through all the ascending scales of the evidential gamut to liquida, dilucida, perspicua, luce meridiana, clarior, &c., &c. (196) Our ancestors probably didn't know how easy it would be for terrorists to stuff a dirty bomb in an et cætera. Had they, there wouldn't have been any trifling with "proofs less than half complete, but to closer to half incomplete than half complete depending on the curve." They would have known that expediency demanded, and would settle for no less than, "proof now." Who has time to fiddle with veracity when...

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