Saturday, October 13, 2007

Backgammon Comes Back...Or Was It Ever Away?

This article appeared on pages 30-31 of the July/August 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World. Written by John O'Neill Backgammon, the ancient Eastern game which once captured the fancy of European aristocracy with its mix of skill and chance, is currently enjoying a stylish comeback in the West. In the Middle East its popularity has never faded. There, in fashionable hotels and elegant homes—but also in smoke-filled cafés and narrow alleyways—the sounds of rolling dice, followed by the crisp trie trac noise of moving disks on a polished table which gives the game its most popular Arabic name, fill the night. Throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region it is unquestionably the single most popular game and in Lebanon, trie trac, or towleh (table), as it is also called, is practically the national sport. Men and women, young and old, play it whenever and wherever they have a few minutes free—and sometimes when they haven't. Barbers have been known to keep customers waiting for a haircut and concierges their tenants waiting for a telephone line during a tense game. Middle Easterners often play with great exuberance, slapping the disks on the table, trie trac, with the flamboyance of an orchestra conductor. Wherever the game is played it is accompanied by numerous cups of coffee, and often—especially among older aficionados—by the narguileh or water pipe, whose charcoal is kept glowing cherry-red as players puff and ponder. Nobody knows exactly where backgammon originated. Some theorists believe it was in India, at least the version known as Parcheesi, which allows four to play. The Arabs, with magnanimity, credit Iran with its invention and, in rare agreement, so do the Iranians. The legend goes that an Iranian king named Nardashir once called in his wise men and ordered them to invent a game which, like life itself, depended on an uncertain balance of skill and chance. It should also, he said, sum up human existence in the world of finite time. The result was backgammon, sometimes referred to as nard, supposedly after the legendary king. In backgammon, the 30 disks, 15 to a side, stand for the days of the month. They are black and white, for day and night. The board is divided into four sections or "tables," the four seasons. There are 24 positions or "points" to be followed by the stones on their route, standing for the 24 hours of the day; 12 are on each side of the board, the 12 months of the year. Thus each player has his year. And even the conventional dice used in backgammon are supposed to have something to say about time, for whichever way you add up the opposite faces, six and one, five and two, four and three, you get seven, the seven days of the week. It's a pretty story, but in fact the game is almost certainly much older. In the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq, for example, archeologists have discovered a table on which a game very like backgammon was played some 5,000 years ago. That's as far as historians have been able to trace it—so far. In the West the game became very popular in Rome, where it was known as ludus duodecim scriptorum, or "twelve-lined game." As in Arabic, one popular variant was called tabula, and it was not much different from the game also known as "tables," played in medieval England and mentioned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. The story is told that the Roman emperor, Claudius, was so fond of tabula that he had a gaming board installed in his imperial chariot, firmly fixed so as to take the bumps, to offset the boredom of long trips. For his fanatic devotion to the game Claudius was later wittily lampooned by the playwright Seneca in a work entitled The Pumpkinification of Claudius—written for the amusement of Nero's court after Claudius was safely dead. Roman emperors were traditionally supposed to become gods after death. But not so Claudius—at least according to Seneca. The philosopher-writer condemned Nero's predecessor to a mean fate in afterlife, portraying him as forced to spend eternity trying to play dice with a cup with no bottom; the cubes always rolled out. In spite of spoilsports like Seneca, emperors, kings and caliphs continued to play the game through history. In 18th-century England backgammon was considered "always a particularly respectable kind of amusement, quite fitting for country rectors, and not derogatory to the dignity of even higher functionaries of the church." For a time European aristocrats considered it their exclusive preserve: "The game of kings, the king of games." With its lengthy and exotic pedigree, it is not surprising that this is the slightly snobbish sales pitch of the jet-set promoters of today's growing fad for backgammon among high society's Beautiful People and in U.S. gambling circles. Over the past 10 years Prince Alexis Obolensky has probably done more to popularize backgammon in the West than any man since Claudius. With an assiduous promotion campaign, now backed by a major American distilling company, he has taken it from the gaming rooms of a few exclusive European spas all the way to Las Vegas, and the end is not yet in sight. Hugh Hefner, another big booster, has recently had his Playboy bunnies go around to veterans' hospitals distributing backgammon sets, with instructions, free. Others, such as Sir Oswald Jacoby, the bridge expert, are also turning to the game. The first backgammon tournament in the United States was held in 1964, with a modest total of $40 in prize money. At a tournament attended by international luminaries of café society, sports and films in Las Vegas last January, prize money was a hefty $98,000. In the Middle East the game is almost always played for the sheer pleasure of matching wits. Tournaments are still held for glory, with silver cups going to the winners. In recent years Elie Zarifé, who is associated with the French-language Beirut daily, L'Orient-Le Jour, has been instrumental in organizing the biggest international events. Players representing 10 nations participated in the tournaments held at Istanbul's Divan Hotel in 1971 and Beirut's Carlton in 1972. Lebanon won both times. Competition came from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and as far away as France and Belgium. How exactly does the game go? Three common variations are played in the Middle East, but in all of them each of the two players, starting with his 15 disks arranged on one side of the specially marked table, attempts to move all of his pieces around the board and out of the game before his opponent can do likewise. The chance fall of the dice determines the number of allowable steps or "points" to be moved per turn, but the skill of the player determines which pieces he will choose to move, and where. Say the dice come up three and four. A player can move one disk seven times, or two disks three and four times, respectively, but never coming to rest on a point where his opponent already has two or more of his disks. If the opponent has been able to block a series of consecutive "points" in this way, the player might find himself with no place to move, and thus forfeit his turn. The disks of the opponents pass each other in opposite directions, of course, like two troops of cavalry, and if one of a player's disks comes to rest on an opponent's single disk, that is one unhorsed cavalryman. That disk has to begin all over again, falling far to the rear of his advancing comrades. C'est la guerre. In another version, a player's disk can actually capture an opponent's disk and "escort" the enemy all the way until this piece reaches its goal safely. Then the "prisoner" is returned to the point where he was captured and freed to continue. Strategies must be decided after each throw. Advance recklessly, exposing single disks and risking setbacks? Or move cautiously, constantly closing the ranks by lining men up on a single point for safety and the chance of blocking an opponent's move? Where will the advantage lie, where the risk? Obviously a mathematician has an advantage; he knows the odds. "Not necessarily," says Aziz Sayegh, a mathematics teacher at Beirut's Haigazian College. "When I concentrate on the laws of probability, I usually lose." Which may be one more reason why backgammon is not only making a comeback, but has never really gone away.

Traders of the Plain

From the archives of Saudi Aramco World online, a fine article about the Harappan civilization, the roots of which date back to at least 7000 BCE. At it height, it covered more territory than either the Egyptian or Mesopotamian civilizations, and yet it is not remembered today because of the absence of great preserved ruins and spectacular treasures recovered from burials.

Here is an excerpt regarding the mysterious Harappan script, which has yet to be deciphered:

The Indus Enigma

It's the greatest single mystery of the Indus Valley civilization," says Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, field director of the Harappa Archeological Research Project. He's talking about the Harappans' still-undeciphered script, an example of which may be what's inscribed on two pottery shards found at Kenoyer's dig, at a level that dates to 3200 BC. The three groups of symbols on the shards look like matchsticks and tiny forks attached at the handles.

The marks may simply have indicated ownership, and perhaps had no meaning in themselves, but they bear a close resemblance to, and may be precursors of, elements of the writing system that came into regular use in the Indus Valley around 2700 BC, and disappeared completely, along with the rest of Harappan civilization, between 1900 and 1700 BC.

Depending on whether one interprets similar-looking signs as variants or separate symbols, the Indus Valley script apparently consisted of about 400 characters that depict human and animal figures, and additional geometric shapes and symbols. By analyzing overlapping strokes and observing crowding toward the left ends of lines, archeologists have gathered that the symbols were almost always written from right to left.

More than 4200 objects bearing the script have been found, including seals, bangles, pottery, tools, utensils and small tablets of copper, steatite or clay—but these are only objects that have survived the millennia: The Harappans may have written prolifically on less durable materials like papyrus or cloth that are unlikely to be excavated. About 80 percent of the inscriptions are on seals or seal impressions, suggesting that the symbols may have been used primarily for commercial purposes, such as stamping bales of goods with an identifying mark.

Despite nearly 50 independent attempts to decipher the Harappan script in the past 80 years, including some recent ones using computers, it remains stubbornly enigmatic. It is distinctively different from the scripts of Mesopotamia or Egypt, and it bears no resemblance to writing systems, such as those used in Sanskrit or other Indo-Aryan languages, that later appeared in the region. Some scholars believe that the script's closest link is with writing of the Dravidian languages of southern India, such as Tamil and Malayalam, but there are no traces of other aspects of the Indus Valley civilization in that part of the subcontinent, and it seems unlikely that, if the Harappan script migrated there, no other aspect of the culture should have accompanied it.

Part of the decoding problem is that no bi- or multilingual inscription, like the famous Rosetta Stone, has ever been found. And the Harappan texts are short: None is longer than 26 signs, and the average length is only five, which does not give much opportunity for the development of recurring patterns of signs that might be discerned. Furthermore, the script may have served to express more than one language, as Roman, Arabic and many other forms of writing still do.

The undecoded script continues to lock up most of the secrets of the Indus civilization and of the Harappans' social and religious lives—the second great mystery, says Kenoyer. If the inscriptions could be read, scholars surmise, we'd be much closer to knowing how and what the Harappans worshiped, who their leaders were, what role religion played in their lives, and what the source was of their far-reaching organization and cultural uniformity.

Related post - the Artifacts of Lothal
For more on the Harappan script, check Wikipedia's entry

Manifestations of the Goddess

I do not know much about the Hindu religion. It is very old, and has very rich traditions. The period between mid-September and mid-October on our calendar appears to be devoted on the Hindu calendar to worshipping and remembering the various manifestations of the Goddess Durga. Here is an article about the second manifestation of this Goddess. I duly note the resemblance between this manifestation of the Goddess (as Brahmacharini, who makes continual sacrifice through self-denial in devotion to love) to the Virgin Mary of Roman Catholic tradition: the white robes, the halo, the beads (Catholic rosary), the bare feet.

By NI Wire
New Delhi

Oct 13 : Second form of the goddess is Brahmacharini which means she who makes ‘Tapa’ her conduct. Brahma means ‘Tapasya’. This second form or manifestation of Devi Durga blesses her worshippers eternally. She her self is the practiser and symbol of sacrifice, detachment, good conduct and restraint. This form of goddess represents spiritual strength and blesses her worshippers with the same qualities. The person who observes such conduct never deviates from the path of duty. He is proved victorious in every field by the grace of this goddess.

The appearance of this form of goddess is grand and full of light. She carries in her right hand a chain of beads for chanting and ‘Kamandalu’ in her left hand.

This name of the goddess came as its own story behind it. In her previous birth, she was born to Himalaya and prayed hard to get Shiva as her husband. So due to hard ‘Tapa’ she was named Brahmacharini.

This is said that she passed one thousand years without taking any thing else than fruits. She sustained rain and heat of the sun while observing hard fast. She worshipped Shiva for three thousand years by taking just leaves shed by the tree. For thousands of years she kept on doing ‘Tapa’ without having food and water. As she left even taking leaves, she was also called ‘Aparna’.

Everybody gods, saints, munis appreciated her act of ‘Tapa’ an unprecedented. It is said that then Brahma himself announced from the sky, “hey Devi! Nobody has done such hard Tapa till yet. Only you could have done it. Your wish will definitely be fulfilled. You will get ‘Shiva’ in the form of husband. Now you should return to your father. He is waiting for you.”

Today the second day of the Navratra this goddess named “Brahmacharini’ is worshipped.
More information here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Friday Night Miscellany

It’s been one of those weeks and I’m glad the weekend is finally here, but hate the fact that – a scant 6 days ago, it was 85 degrees outside and the dew point was 69 and now it’s 47 with a frost warning for tonight – and the same for the weekend. Geez! No more sitting outside on the deck with a glass of wine close to hand and a book on my lap. Darlings, I sat down here at the computer tonight with no idea what on earth I was going to write about – but it seems the Chess Goddess has spoken and I cannot ignore her (or, just to clarify, will not!) I swore up, down and all around that I wasn’t going to devote any more words or blog space to the hoo-ha about Sam Sloan filing a law suit against the USCF, Texas Tech University, God and the Entire Universe, et al. for alleged harm against Mr. Sloan. Mr. Sloan has published his Complaint at google/rec.chess/misc and google rec.chess/politics if you wish to read it. I was absolutely amazed at some of the things I’ve read over the past few days at various blogs/message boards. It seems a lot of folks have the impression that this case (if it continues to be a case) will just whiz along and be resolved in a couple of months, if not weeks! Granted, it’s been a long time since I was involved in either prosecuting or defending a litigation case, but even THEN it was nearly impossible to meet court-imposed date deadlines for concluding discovery, filing motions in limine, drafting jury instructions, etc. etc. within 24-36 months in the county court here, which isn’t nearly as busy as the Federal District Courts in New York and Texas. Assuming Mr. Sloan’s case eventually moves forward, I believe it will take 5 years, minimum, and quite possibly many more years if – as is usually the case in this type of action with multiple claims for relief – appeals are taken of interim Orders. The thing I really wanted to write about tonight was this: within a few hours of the "scandal" breaking, I was absolutely amazed by how quickly so many people concluded that some of the defendants named in Mr. Sloan’s suit were "guilty as charged." You have only to read the entries at Mig’s "Daily Dirt" blog to see what I mean. I couldn’t figure it out. Why would people whose prior posts I had often admired for being so balanced were now sounding so, well, rabid – I found it shocking, actually. I was at a loss to explain this behavior and was about to write off most of those people as a-holes after all. But, tonight, I came across a blog entry that has nothing to do with chess, yet it made a lot of sense to me in describing the exact behavior I had seen exhibited in some of my hereforefore favorite posters at Mig’s Daily Dirt. It describes something called "informational cascade": We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong. If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an "informational cascade" as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong. Because of this effect, groups are surprisingly prone to reach mistaken conclusions even when most of the people started out knowing better, according to the economists Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch. If, say, 60 percent of a group’s members have been given information pointing them to the right answer (while the rest have information pointing to the wrong answer), there is still about a one-in-three chance that the group will cascade to a mistaken consensus. Here is the blog entry from which this quote is taken, if you want to read more. Personally, I find this a compelling explanation. Will people who at present give all appearances of having been captured by the seeming tabloid sensationalism of Mr. Sloan’s approach to life come back to their rational minds eventually? I sure hope so.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Nazi chess sets on sale

Is this a case of cultural insensitivity? Sheer ignorance and/or stupidity? A deliberate "political" comment meant as an insult to the victims of the Holocaust (which, despite the Iranian President's polemics, is well documented historically)? Frankly, I have no idea - so I'm publishing the article without further comment.

By Marc Shoffman
October 11, 2007

Holocaust Education Trust Chairman Lord Greville Janner has vowed to put pressure on Turkish officials after a TJ reader discovered Nazi chess pieces in an Istanbul market.

The figures of Third Reich soldiers, including Adolf Hitler as the king, were found in the Grand Bizarre of Istanbul, the Turkish capital, by the holidaymaker last week.

He told TJ: “I was shocked, angry and outraged.

“The Turkish people that we met were all very nice, we learnt how some of them managed to save a few Jews from the Nazis and they have good relations with Israel.

“One day Turkey may be welcomed into the Common Market but, before that happens, much more sensitivity to the realities of the Holocaust and the evil symbolism of the swastika should be appreciated. In my opinion, such material should not be put on public display.”

Lord Janner said: “These chess sets are revolting. They trivialise the Nazi murderers and show a total lack of sensitivity to the memories of their victims. I am contacting colleagues in Turkey and hope that pressure can be brought so that these so-called games will be taken off sale as soon as possible."

It comes as an Indian furnishing company agreed to withdraw a line of bedspreads called the Nazi collection after complaints from the Jewish community.

Although the owner Jagdish Todi insisted the name stood for New Arrival Zone for India and had nothing to do with the Third Reich, the logo for the line was a swastika. He has since issued an apology and scrapped the name.Meanwhile a Dubai property company has been criticised for using an image of Adolf Hitler to promote Real Estate.

The advert, which appeared in a daily newspaper in the United Arab Emirates contained a picture of the Nazi leader alongside the phrase “Conqueror, the world is yours.”

Is There Nothing Sacred Anymore?

One of a lady's most important accessories is her purse (handbag) and no, I'm not talking about one of those ugly things that young people sling about their backs on strings that must wear out after 4 weeks! I'm talking about a true handbag, the kind Coach sells for $400 and more. In her handbag a lady holds not only such essentials as make-up, keys, checkbook, credit cards, address book (or blackberry) and cell phone, she also holds the keys to untold mysteries and anticipated emergencies. In my handbag, I hold safety pins, sanitary hand wipes, a blunt scissors, note paper and pens, tissue, antihistamine pills, hair clips, matches and a miniature plastic bottle of sanitizing liquid, some warped pennies, an afro pik (no, I'm not black and no, I don't have an afro), and various identity and membership cards. There are also some wrapped candies, expired coupons, worn out pieces of paper and receipts that I can no longer make out, and there is always reading material of some kind or other. Geez, no wonder the damn thing weighs a ton. What is in a lady's handbag is private. Its contents are between the lady and the Goddess of Handbags. Can you imagine the embarrassment a man might feel upon digging around in a lady's bag and pulling out a Tampax (hopefully still in wrapper)? And there's nothing worse than used tissues stuffed at the bottom of the bag... So, imagine my shock and horror upon reading tonight that a NEW BOOK will disclose what the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, carries around in her handbag. Oh my! Quel horreurs! Secrets of the Queen's handbag revealed in new book 10 OCTOBER 2007 She's rarely seen without an elegant handbag on her arm, but the question of what the Queen keeps inside it has long remained a mystery. Now a new book claims to shed light on the contents of the royal matriarch's main accessory. It also gives a fascinating insight into the routines and habits of her everyday life, including what she has for breakfast and the care arrangements for her beloved corgis. What's In The Queen's Handbag: And Other Royal Secrets reveals that though the 81-year-old monarch doesn't carry cash, keys or a passport - since she doesn't own one - her bag is far from empty. Inside are a collection of good luck charms given to her by her children, including miniature dogs, horses and saddles, plus family snaps. The most treasured of which is a photo of Prince Andrew on his safe return from the Falklands in 1982. Also inside the tote is a make-up case, given to her by Prince Philip as a wedding gift 60 years ago. It also houses an s-shaped metal meat hook which she places on the edge of the dinner table, from which to suspends her handbag, keeping it off the floor. Other secrets shared in the book include the canny sign language she uses to communicate with her staff. If she places her handbag on the table at a dinner it signifies she wishes the event to finish in the next five minutes, whereas its presence on the floor indicates she feels the conversation leaves a little to be desired and she wants to be rescued by a lady-in-waiting.

Queen Jezebel's Seal

From Haaretz online Thurs. October 11, 2007 Dutch researcher claims to confirm Queen Jezebel's seal By Cnaan Liphshiz For some 40 years, one of the flashiest opal signets on display at the Israel Museum had remained without accurate historical context. Two weeks ago, Dutch researcher Marjo Korpel identified article IDAM 65-321 as the official seal of Queen Jezebel, one of the bible's most powerful and reviled women. Israeli archaeologists had suspected Jezebel was the owner ever since the seal was first documented in 1964. "Did it belong to Ahab's Phoenician wife?" wrote the late pioneering archaeologist Nahman Avigad of the seal, which he obtained through the antiquities market. "Though fit for a queen, coming from the right period and bearing a rare name documented nowhere other than in the Hebrew Bible, we can never know for sure." Avigad's cautious approach stemmed from the fact that the seal did not come from an officially-approved excavation. It was thought to come from Samaria in the ninth century B.C.E., but there was no way of knowing for certain where it had been found. And that has been the scientific hurdle that Korpel - a theologian and Ugaritologist from Utrecht University and a Protestant minister - set out to conquer. In her paper, scheduled to appear in the highly-respected Biblical Archaeology Review, Korpel lists observations pertaining to the seal's symbolism, unusual size, shape and time period. By way of elimination, she shows Jezebel as the only plausible owner. She also explains how two missing letters from the seal point to the Phoenician shrew. (See box.) "As a minister, I never speak of coincidence, but my research happened by chance," Korpel told Haaretz last week. "I was asked to deliver a paper on female embodiment. I'm not much of a feminist, but I'd written on the imagery of the seal." Korpel says she had probably seen the seal years before on a visit to the Israel Museum, but only much later did it spark her interest. "The missing letters on the top intrigued me. I was used to reconstructing broken texts from earlier research." Upon hearing of Korpel's research, Dr. Hagai Misgav of Hebrew University said he believed the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum have in their possession many more articles carrying unnoticed historical clues. "Not all the artifacts have been thoroughly examined," he said. "There are many discoveries waiting to be made." Misgav added he would have to study Korpel's work more thoroughly to further comment on it. The seal is expected to be put on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem when it reopens after renovation work currently under way is finished. Following her discovery, Korpel, 48, had to contend with a media onslaught. The seal's story has so far been featured in national and local newspapers and magazines. "The phone is ringing off the hook!" Korpel says. "The local paper here even ran a cover picture of me. I felt a bit awkward going to the corner shop for a while." As a researcher, Korpel will only say she thinks her research serves to prove the seal belonged to Jezebel. "True, there is no way of knowing for sure where the seal comes from. Theoretically, it could come from anywhere. But speaking as a private person, I am in my mind 99 percent sure that it belonged to Jezebel," she says after some coaxing. However, Korpel is not an archaeologist, and her research of archaeological findings is essentially textual. "I have thought about this. But many research fields see important discoveries by researchers from related fields," she says. "I admit my solution for the seal of Jezebel is quite simple. But then, so was the invention of the paper clip." Miriam Feinberg Vamosh contributed to this article.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Praise of the Porcelain Goddess

One last post for tonight, darlings. Here's a twist, hope it tickles you. From the (online) Sparkling low-flush toilet saves water, saves power and – the saving grace – gets the job done Oct 09, 2007 04:30 AM Catherine Porter Environment Reporter Yesterday, my green conscience was in the toilet. Mine was aged, leaky and often plugged up. After three years of plunging, wobbling and lifting the tank lid to slap down a rebellious flap, I finally chucked the sucker. I became a low-flusher. My new toilet is not only clean, firmly attached to the floor and leak free, it gulps just six litres of water per flush. With every push of the handle, I'll save 14 litres – more water than I drink in a day. And I could drink it, as it's treated just like water from the kitchen tap. Flushing five times a day – the statistical average for GTA residents – equals 70 needless litres down the drain the old way. Factor in my husband and we'll save 51,000 litres of water a year. That's around 638 showers or 268 brimming baths. Not bad for a $300 trip to Home Depot and an hour watching my plumber saw off the rusty bolts, heave the 20-year-old carcass to the curb and install its gleaming replacement. Thus the city's rebate program, which offers homeowners like me up to $75 to buy a new, water-efficient toilet. Toilets guzzle a third of a home's indoor water use. And that's not factoring in the electricity. The city has to suck all that water from the lake to a filtration plant, clean it, pump it to my house, then pump the flushed water to Ashbridge's Bay for treatment before returning it to the lake. In the summer, a lot of that energy is supplied by coal plants. According to one city report, every million litres of water pumped to our homes and businesses causes around 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide to be belched into the sky. So, in a year, my spanking new toilet will save the atmosphere from 15.3 kilograms of greenhouse gases — enough to drive all the way to Barrie in my Toyota. It's not only beautiful, it's an eco-warrior! But does it work? Even an eco-convert doesn't relish having to unclog a stewing toilet. And double- or triple-flushing defeats the whole purpose ... To be sure, I consulted the "Maximum Performance (MaP) Testing of Popular Models" report before my trip to Home Depot. It's the toilet bible, put out by Mississauga engineering firm Veritec. Since 2003, engineers have been dropping stool-like specimens made from soybean paste into low-flush toilets to test how they fare. The benchmark is 250 grams – the "average maximum fecal size" produced by a male, report the British doctors who study these things. In 2003, about half the models failed. Now, all but 14 of the 460 tested passed handily. More than 75 could suck down 1,000 grams of matter in one gulp. That's equivalent to 20 hot dogs. "Nobody would ever put that much waste in a toilet," says Bill Gauley, Veritec's lead engineer on the test program. [Jan Note: This guy has obviously never been to a Lambeau Field lady's room after a tailgate party]. That's my toilet: a kilogram-sucking American Standard Cadet 3. I could invite a football team over for hamburgers and beer and not have cause to worry. The newer models are designed to make even less water do a lot more work, Gauley says. Bigger flappers give bigger gulps. Smoother funnels provide quicker flows. And the siphons have an extra cup, pushing more water down the shoot. In fact, they work so well, he's pushing regulators to raise the bar for water efficiency to 4.8 litres. "It's ridiculous to have a toilet that can flush 1,000 grams," Gauley says, adding that the toilets in his house use just half that. All this means not only is my toilet green, but my conscience is clean. Details on GTA toilet rebates are at: ********************************************************************************** Perhaps we can flush Mr. Sam Sloan and his frivilous law suit down one of these - cuts down on pollution but gets rid of the waste all the same.

Chess master finds a pattern to his wins

Here's a great chess story from my home state. I remember city leagues - not that I ever played on one - but I remember reading about them. (Published Monday, October 8, 2007 11:37:50 AM CST) By Catherine W. Idzerda Peter Webster plays chess with the ease of a mathematician doing simple arithmetic. On Sunday, Webster took on as many as 16 players at once in a simultaneous chess exhibition at Hedberg Public Library. And while he often looked thoughtful, he never looked worried. Leaning over the board, he'd ponder his move-then make it quickly. The piece would land on the board with a confident thump, as if to say, "So there!" At the end of three hours, the math was simple: Webster had won 25 games, lost none and had one draw. Jordan Peyer, 12, and his brother, Dylan Peyer, 16, were two of the 25 that Webster beat. Dylan has been playing "practically since birth" and is a member of the Parker High School Chess Club. He rated Webster and Bob Getka of Parker High School the best he's every played. "He has a great knowledge of the game, of the moves that were coming," Dylan said of Webster. "It was like he could read our minds." Jordan described Webster as "the best living person I've ever played." No, Jordan doesn't play chess with dead people-he plays on the computer. "I really didn't think I had a chance," Jordan said. How does Webster do it? "Basically, it's pattern recognition," Webster said. "I've been doing this for 52 years. I'm usually able to stop at a board and flick out a move in a few seconds because I'm looking at the pattern. Sometimes they're very difficult and I have to stop and think, but mostly it's reaction to the pattern." As a 13-year-old, Webster found a chessboard in his grandfather's home. Neither of his parents played. "I grabbed the Encyclopedia Britannica and fell into learning it," he said. Webster, 65, is a United States Chess Federation Life Master. In 1984, he was the Wisconsin state chess champion. Now, Webster stages demonstrations twice a year during chess courses at UW-Whitewater. He loves the all-absorbing aspect of the game. "You're completely intent on the game, and it takes away everything else," he said. "I played a tournament at UW-Whitewater the day the 'Old Main' burned down. We heard the fire engines and sirens and all the noise. Nobody in our group knew what building was on fire, but nobody left." Old Main is now Hyer Hall. A fire in 1970 destroyed the central, north and west wings of the building. In the 1970s and 80s, Webster played with the now defunct Janesville Chess Association. Although some of the local schools have chess clubs, Webster would like to re-start the city club. "There hasn't been one for 20-some years," he said. "I thought I'd try this out and maybe get a club started, and maybe even have a city championship again."

The Great Gloriana

This is Queen's Night. Presented here are two contrasting stories about two Queens - a real Queen, Elizabeth I - and those who have protrayed her over time in films - and a pretend queen who chose a life of luxury, indulgence, and crime. Here is Queen Elizabeth I in her "Coronation Portrait," aged 25.

What is there about Queen Elizabeth (the first one) that fascinates Hollywood so much?
By Cathleen McGuigan
Updated: 8:36 a.m. CT Oct 5, 2007

Oct. 5, 2007 - Queen Elizabeth II is so last year. This season’s royal obsession takes us back to a perennial favorite, her 16th-century namesake, Elizabeth I. Since the dawn of movies, great actresses have crowned their careers playing the enigmatic Virgin Queen. Sarah Bernhardt portrayed her in a 1911 film, Bette Davis starred in "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" in 1939 and again in 1955’s "The Virgin Queen." Glenda Jackson was, in the 1971 BBC series, the best Queen Bess, say some ardent fans. Dame Judi Dench won an Oscar as the theatergoing ruler in "Shakespeare in Love," and Helen Mirren played her on HBO (though not as brilliantly as her Oscar-winning turn as QE2). Even the flamboyant gay writer Quentin Crisp once had a go at old Queen Liz—which could’ve ignited those long-dead rumors that she was really a he.

But the greatest Elizabeth I may well be Cate Blanchett, who became an international star with her 1998 portrayal in Shekhar Kapur’s "Elizabeth." Now she’s back on the throne in the second installment of Kapur’s potential trilogy, "Elizabeth: the Golden Age," playing the monarch at middle age, in full command of her intellect, wit and subtle ability to manipulate her courtiers—if not in full control of her heart.

That the story of a queen dead for 400 years still captivates our imagination might be surprising—until you realize that here in the Colonies, we’re just coming to grips with the possibility of the first woman president. "Elizabeth really is the first woman to rule a country without a king in the modern world," says Susan Ronald, author of "The Pirate Queen." Highly educated and clever, she ruled over the expansion of England from a fragile, insolvent kingdom to an international power on the brink of empire.

Thanks to recent feminist history, "There has been a lot of study of the problems she faced and how she ruled surrounded by men," says Oxford scholar Susan Doran, whose books on Elizabeth include "Monarchy and Matrimony." The courtships of the maiden Queen by European princes were deftly turned into diplomatic tools—though the popularity of her story isn’t due just to romance and politics. There’s plenty of violence and intrigue—Elizabeth survived more than 20 assassination attempts—and the ongoing fascination with one of the most dysfunctional families in history.

Her father beheaded her mum, Anne Boleyn, when Elizabeth was 3; at the age of 9, she witnessed her stepmother, Katherine Howard, dragged screaming by the hair down a palace corridor to her own death on the chopping block. And for fashionistas, there’s the enduring appeal of the costumes in the drama: all those ruffs, opulent detachable sleeves, the pads (called, hilariously, bumrolles). And all that bling—encrustations of gold, filigrees of silver, pearls the size of gumballs.

In "Elizabeth: the Golden Age," the focus is definitely on the spectacle, though much of it is based on fact. On the eve of the Spanish Armada, the queen, on horseback and in armor, rallies her troops with the stirring words: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too." And Elizabeth did indeed agonize over the fate of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, refusing her advisers’ counsel to execute her rival until Mary’s treachery in a plot to seize the throne made her beheading inevitable.

But history doesn’t bear out a romance with Sir Walter Raleigh—played in the film by Clive Owen with a little too much swash to his buckle—though he was a favorite at court and Elizabeth was a notorious flirt. Nor do historians believe he tossed his cloak over a puddle at her feet, let alone defeated the Spanish Armada almost single-handedly, as he does here. And when Blanchett surveys her navy’s victory from a windswept clifttop, wearing a rippling white gown and bare feet, she looks as if she just wandered in from a scene in "Lord of the Rings."

But the really juicy question about Elizabeth is always about sex. Was the Virgin Queen really a virgin? In Kapur’s first "Elizabeth," she and nobleman Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) made love behind gauzy bed curtains. During Elizabeth’s reign, rumors of a real affair with Dudley abounded but not from sources in a position to know the truth. "I think she was a sexual creature," says Doran, "but if we’re talking intercourse, the likelihood is extremely remote. She couldn’t afford the scandal." But historians do agree that Dudley was the love of her life. When she died in 1603, courtiers found his last letter to her in the jewel box next to her bed.

Scholars continue to mine new details about Elizabeth’s life. Antonia Fraser, whose landmark book on Marie Antoinette inspired Sofia Coppola’s film, is working on a biography of Elizabeth I, to be published in 2010. "I regard Queen Elizabeth I as The Great Subject and I’ve wanted to do it for 40 years, since I wrote ‘Mary Queen of Scots'," she said in an e-mail. "Now I’ve actually got around to it, it’s even better than I thought. Politics, murder, sex—and an incomparable woman!" Elizabeth was a drama queen: the facts of her life are so tantalizing, you wonder why a moviemaker would bother to make anything up.
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

A definitive biography of Elizabeth: Gloriana, The Years of Elizabeth I, by Mary M. Luke, (c) 1973.

The Queen of the Pacific

Underworld Queenpin
Sexy, stylish and female. Meet Mexico’s unlikely druglord suspect.

By Joseph Contreras
Updated: 2 hours, 9 minutes ago

Oct. 10, 2007 - Suspected drug traffickers usually don’t look quite like this. But Sandra Avila Beltrán is no run-of-the-mill narco-thug: the 46-year-old brunette was indicted in Florida three years ago on charges of conspiring to import cocaine in connection with a 9.6-ton seizure of the drug in 2001, and her arrest outside a coffee shop in a posh Mexico City neighborhood late last month made headlines because she is one of only two women listed among Mexico’s leading drug traffickers. Known as the Queen of the Pacific, Avila Beltrán earned her nickname in part by allegedly helping to develop smuggling routes along Mexico’s Pacific Coast for Colombia’s Valle del Norte cartel as far back as the 1990s. "It’s unheard of in the sense that we haven’t seen a woman inside the organized crime cartels reach such an exalted position in decades," Mexico’s assistant secretary for public security Patricio Patiño told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive interview. "Sandra’s rise basically has to do with two circumstances: her ties to a family that has been involved in drug trafficking over three generations, and a physical beauty that made her stand out as a woman."

Family connections have certainly played a major role in the saga of Mexico’s reigning drug queenpin. Officials in that country say Avila Beltrán is the niece of Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, the onetime godfather of the Mexican drug trade who is serving a 40-year sentence for the murder of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent in 1984. Her great uncle Juan José Quintero Payán was extradited to the States on drug trafficking charges in January. On her mother’s side, the Beltráns got involved in heroin smuggling in the 1970s and later diversified into cocaine as the U.S. market for that drug exploded, according to Michael Vigil, a former chief of international operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Vigil, who spent 17 years investigating Mexican narcos, says Avila Beltrán never shrank from employing the violence that comes with the turf. "Sandra was very ruthless," says Vigil, who is now retired. "She used the typical intimidation tactics of Mexican organizations."

But it would be wrong to view Avila Beltrán as an isolated case. Growing numbers of women are getting involved in the male-dominated illicit narcotics industry. In Brazil, where more cocaine is consumed than anywhere else in the Americas besides the U.S., an estimated 10,000 women are doing time for drug smuggling. And not all are low-level "mules" like the title character of the award-winning 2004 movie "María Full of Grace," played by Catalina Sandino Moreno. Some of the women who have moved up the food chain are frequently given responsibility for money and accounting matters, says one expert. "Before, we [judges] assumed that the only role women play in crime was as victims," says Denise Frossard, a prominent criminal judge in Brazil and author of the recently published book "Women in the Mafia." "Now they are increasingly heading criminal operations, and drug trafficking is becoming more and more female all the time."

In a number of instances, women have been promoted to positions of greater responsibility because their husbands, brothers or boyfriends have been put out of commission by death or detention. That is true of Mexico’s other prominent drug mafiosa, Enedina Arellano Félix, a distant relative of Avila Beltrán’s who has allegedly taken over the reins of her family’s cartel after Enedina’s brother Ramón was killed in a police shootout in the Mexican port of Mazatlán five years ago and two other brothers were captured in separate incidents.

Avila Beltrán’s love life was also a key factor in her allegedly meteoric ascent. In the late 1990s she became involved with Colombian trafficker Juan Diego Espinoza Ramírez and through him met Diego Montoya, the head of Colombia’s Valle del Norte cartel who was arrested by the authorities in that country last month. Avila Beltrán became a kind of "transmission belt" between Montoya’s syndicate and Mexican cartels based in the state of Sinaloa, on the Pacific Coast, and Ciudad Juárez, along the U.S. border, says Patiño. Avila Beltrán moved money between the two countries and organized logistics for the safe delivery of cocaine shipments from Colombia. Her underworld godfather, according to Patiño, was the formidable Sinaloa-based trafficker Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García, who was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington four years ago on charges of conspiring to import and distribute 2,796 kilos of cocaine with an estimated value of $47.4 million. Avila Beltrán had a brief affair with Zambada after she took up with Espinoza Ramírez, says former DEA official Vigil, and she also worked with other Sinaloa-based syndicates loosely grouped under the so-called Federación alliance. "She was very well tutored by her Colombian boyfriend, and he gave her a lot of latitude on the coordination and smuggling of drugs across the U.S. border," notes Vigil. "Sandra is attractive and charming and was able to develop a lot of political contacts [inside Mexico], and as an individual she provided tremendous assistance to Espinoza Ramírez’s Colombian colleagues."

The fetching native of the border city of Tijuana has also played both sides of the aisle. Avila Beltrán’s first husband was a crooked commander of the Mexican federal judicial police named José Luis Fuentes, and she bore him at least one son. It was Fuentes who coined the sobriquet "My Queen," Avila Beltrán told authorities after her arrest; the Mexican cop used his proceeds from the drug trade to send his wife on clothing and jewelry shopping sprees in Paris and the United States and to buy her seafront condominiums in Puerto Vallarta and other Pacific Coast resort towns. Fuentes was later killed by some of his ex-colleagues from the federal judicial police in the Sinaloa town of Navolato, and Avila Beltrán’s next husband, Rodolfo López Amavizca, was another corrupt official of the country’s law enforcement agencies. Then head of Mexico’s National Institute for Combating Drugs, López Amavizca was with Avila Beltrán for only a brief time in the mid-1990s; he was later murdered in a hotel room in the northern city of Hermosillo by suspected narcos in 2000.

By the time of the López Amavizca murder Avila Beltrán had long since moved on to Espinoza Ramírez, nicknamed El Tigre (the tiger), but her alleged involvement in the drug trade did not immediately become known to U.S. and Mexican officials. Vigil says that Avila Beltrán first appeared on the DEA’s radar in the late 1990s via informants who implicated her directly in smuggling activity. The December 2001 seizure of the multiton consignment of cocaine aboard the vessel Macel in the Mexican Pacific port of Manzanillo bolstered the evidence against her, because cell phone records found on the boat subsequently tied the cargo to Avila Beltrán and Espinoza Ramírez, who was also arrested in Mexico City on the night of her capture two weeks ago. In 2002 Avila Beltrán’s teenage son by Fuentes was kidnapped in the city of Guadalajara, and the $5 million ransom demanded by the boy’s captors raised the eyebrows of police officials assigned to the case when she reported the abduction. In the event, Avila Beltrán personally took charge of the negotiations with her son’s kidnappers and procured his release in exchange for a payment of $3 million, says Patiño.

Mexican lawmen then took a much closer look at her finances and business activities. In October 2002 the federal attorney general’s office issued a bulletin accusing Avila Beltrán of having laundered money of Colombian origin through the purchase of 225 real-estate lots, two houses and a tanning salon in the city of Hermosillo. The break in the case came three months earlier with the arrest of two Colombian women at Mexico City’s international airport in July of that year who were found to be carrying over $2 million in cash. That led authorities to Avila Beltrán’s beau Espinoza Ramírez, because one of the detained couriers was married at the time to a half-brother of El Tigre. Evidence and information obtained from the two women helped uncover Avila Beltrán’s extensive money-laundering operation in Hermosillo.

The "Queen of the Pacific" was transferred to a federal prison on the northern outskirts of Mexico City last week, where she will await the outcome of proceedings to extradite her to the U.S. But even if Sandra Avila Beltrán disappears from view for a while, she isn’t going to vanish from the imaginations of her countrymen. She has her very own narcocorrido folk song by a band called Los Tucanes de Tijuana (The Toucans of Tijuana) whose lyrics pay tribute to "a very powerful lady" who "is a big player in the business." A video of the song features the Mexican model Fabiola Campomanes in the Queen of the Pacific role.

Avila Beltrán’s vanity and gastronomic habits helped Mexican officials track her down in the Mexican capital. She often dined at the Cantonese restaurant Chez Wok in the tony district of Polanco and had her hair styled at two upscale beauty salons on a street seven blocks from the eatery. If her recent appearances in public are anything to go by, imprisonment won’t strip her of her highly developed sense of style. In televised footage of her arraignment for transfer to the maximum-security penitentiary last week, she is shown wearing spike heels and skintight jeans, tossing her hair occasionally as she smiles at the camera. At one point during the proceedings she reportedly told the judge, "I like to be called ‘the Queen of the Pacific’." And as she was taken away at the conclusion of the hearing, Avila Beltrán turned to the clerk of the court and cooed, "Have a lovely afternoon."

With Mac Margolis in Rio de Janeiro
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Secret History of the World

Another new book - this one sounds intriguing. The Secret History of the World By Jonathan Black Jonathan Black's new book, The Secret History of the World, reveals extraordinary and thought-provoking insights into the esoteric teachings of secret societies down the ages and offers a radical new (or perhaps very ancient) perspective on human history. Jonathan will join us online on our Author-of-the-month message board during November for open discussion and debate about the many controversial issues he raises in the book. The Secret History of the World, by Jonathan Black, is published by Quercus Books, London, 2007, and is available from all good bookshops and from The Secret History of the World looks at history upside down, inside out and the other way around. Rather that trying to piece together bits of hard evidence - archaeological discoveries and so on - in order to find new patterns, it is trying hard to listen to secret belief about what really happened in history - traditions preserved in different esoteric societies around the world- and to weave them together into one narrative. Of course it would be impossible to prove that this alternative account of history is true in all its details in one relatively short volume. But what I have tried to do is show that secret societies from around the globe have preserved a consistent, coherent, cogent account of world history - and of life. This account also explains some aspects of life and history that scientific materialism cannot explain. A senior publisher I know - a rather down to earth and worldly fellow, I don't think he'd mind me saying - started to read it, saying he was not sure if he could take it seriously - was not even sure if he was meant to take it seriously. But by the end he had begun to see life from a slightly different angle, to notice connections. A senior publicist of a rather more spiritual inclination, who began to read it at the same time, started to experience some mild supernatural phenomena. The last I heard they were planning a trip together to visit the British Museum to stand in front of the Lohan - a statue alluded to in my book which seems to have mysterious properties. I can't claim that my book offers initiation. As I explain, I am not an initiate myself. But feedback like the above reminds me how much help I have had writing this book and that much of the imagery that flows through the narrative was devised by minds far more intelligent than mine to work at a below the conscious level. Graham Hancock's Supernatural has also been a key text for me. An enthralling account of one man's exploration of another dimension, it shows great physical courage, putting health and sanity at risk, and also takes huge intellectual risks. The commentary tying in the latest scientific research on the double helix and the information encoded in it is - I can't think of another phrase - mind-blowing. I'm still trying to work out the ramifications. When people ask me if I believe that The Secret History is true, I say It's all true - in another dimension. This other dimension weaves in and out of our everyday, commonsensical, material dimension, helps form it and nudges it in this direction or that. According to esoteric doctrine this other dimension is the more real. I think that most of today's secret societies would not recommend using drugs to enter this dimension, as Graham Hancock used drugs on his journey of exploration in Supernatural. Drugs are undoubtedly a part of the esoteric tradition, from the Mystery schools attached to the temples of the ancient world to the notorious Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, which had such a big influence on the early Theosophists. But different methods used to reach the same place are a part of my story. The Dawkins tendency has had it pretty much its own way recently. I believe that nothing will turn this tide of materialism except real, lived spiritual experience. When you've had that, you don't believe, you know - and that, as I show in my book, is what the esoteric teaching of the secret societies has always offered. The Secret History of the World, by Jonathan Black, is published by Quercus Books, London, 2007, and is available from all good bookshops and from Jonathan's blog is online here: ************************************************************************************** I don't think one needs drugs in order to explore inner reality or outer "other" dimensions (we know those dimensions exist thanks to modern physics), but I recomend a good guide the first few times around in addition to a heart-felt belief in the reality of these alternative "venues" - without drugs to break down the barriers between our "rational" minds and the other, without being able to let go of that "belief system," the leap probably can't be made. Knowing how to thoroughly relax and focus would be helpful. And having a lot of guts is a prerequisite, because you'll "see" things that will scare the you-know-what out of you but if you chicken out along the way you'll never make the break-through. Now, all we need is someone to cue the spooky music from "One Step Beyond" and we'll be all set, darlings!

Creating New Board Games

For love of the game Boards, cards in hand, designers meet monthly to test their creations By Brianna Lange The Salt Lake Tribune Article Last Updated: 10/04/2007 11:17:16 AM MDT Those who doubt that adults have active imaginations haven't been to a meeting of the Board Game Designers of Utah Club. Pirates, trolls and shepherd are welcome, and games rule the discussions. Every month, board game designers meet at Game Night Games at 2030 S. 900 East in Salt Lake City to discuss different aspects of board game designing, such as copyright issues and game manufacturers. Most important, they test the games created by club members. A lot of the games created by club members are Euro-style games, characterized as taking less than an hour, with no player elimination and being strategy-based rather than luck-based. That said, the club welcomes game designers of all kinds. It has about 20 members and has been meeting once a month since January. Founder Greg Jones emphasized the importance of feedback from the other members. "It's hard to see all the flaws in the game without playing it." Jones is known as the "Prime Minister of Gaming" at Game Nights, or the manager in non-gamer terms. When Jones started the club, he was surprised to find that it might be one of kind. "I assumed people were doing it all over the country. As it turns out, nobody does it. There are a couple national organizations, but nothing on a local level. We were kind of the first." "Cry Wolf," Jones' own game, has evolved many times. "It started out as a game about terrorism, but it evolved into a game about shepherds." Feedback motivated Jones to change his game, and thinks it's important to play the games hundreds of times. His game has yet to be picked up by a publisher, but Jones is optimistic. "I'm patient; I'm just enjoying the process." But game designing is not just a hobby; it requires much time, dedication and money. Designers have been known to spend upward of $20,000 to finance their creations, said designer Steve Poelzing. "Some people have taken out second mortgages [to fund games]." Poelzing made a presentation to the club about "self-publishing" games instead of relying on a publisher. And he should know something about the topic because he has created five different games, one with multiple editions. Perhaps the best part of a club meeting was when the dozen or so designers split off into groups to test prototypes. Alf Seegert was showing his game, "Bridge Troll," an advanced card game based on the legend of trolls under bridges who either eat passersby or charge them money to cross the bridge. Seegert is modest about the success of his games, but others in the club boasted about "Tembo," Seegert's game featuring elephants. Other Seegert creations have placed in the Top 10 in the design competition Hippodice, a large event in Germany with draws 150-200 entries annually. Among those playing the games at Game Night Games was Ryan Laukat, who said he has been creating games for years. He has been working on his pirate-themed game "Keys" for nearly six months, three of which were spent hand-painting the game board. Poelzing's advice to those who want to design board games is to "be creative and flexible. And talk to other people" who have designed games.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Save the Gnostics of Iraq

From the International Tribune, "Opinion" column: THREATENED IN IRAQ By Nathaniel Deutsch Published: October 7, 2007 The United States didn't set out to eradicate the Mandeans, one of the oldest, smallest and least understood of the many minorities in Iraq. This extinction in the making has simply been another unfortunate and entirely unintended consequence of the invasion of Iraq - though that will be of little comfort to the Mandeans, whose 2,000-year-old culture is in grave danger of disappearing from the face of the earth. The Mandeans are the only surviving Gnostics from antiquity, cousins of the people who produced the Nag Hammadi writings like the Gospel of Thomas, a work that sheds invaluable light on the many ways in which Jesus was perceived in the early Christian period. The Mandeans have their own language (Mandaic, a form of Aramaic close to the dialect of the Babylonian Talmud), an impressive body of literature, and a treasury of cultural and religious traditions amassed over two millennia of living in the southern marshes of present-day Iraq and Iran. Practitioners of a religion at least as old as Christianity, the Mandeans have witnessed the rise of Islam; the Mongol invasion; the arrival of Europeans, who mistakenly identified them as "Christians of St. John," because of their veneration of John the Baptist; and, most recently, the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein, who drained the marshes after the first gulf war, an ecological catastrophe equivalent to destroying the Everglades. They have withstood everything - until now. Like their ancestors, contemporary Mandeans were able to survive as a community because of the delicate balance achieved among Iraq's many peoples over centuries of cohabitation. But our reckless prosecution of the war destroyed this balance, and the Mandeans, whose pacifist religion prohibits them from carrying weapons even for self-defense, found themselves victims of kidnappings, extortion, rapes, beatings, murders and forced conversions carried out by radical Islamic groups and common criminals. When American forces invaded in 2003, there were probably 60,000 Mandeans in Iraq; today, fewer than 5,000 remain. Like millions of other Iraqis, those who managed to escape have become refugees, primarily in Syria and Jordan, with smaller numbers in Australia, Indonesia, Sweden and Yemen. Unlike Christian and Muslim refugees, the Mandeans do not belong to a larger religious community that can provide them with protection and aid. Fundamentally alone in the world, the Mandeans are even more vulnerable and fewer than the Yazidis, another Iraqi minority that has suffered tremendously, since the latter have their own villages in the generally safer north, while the Mandeans are scattered in pockets around the south. They are the only minority group in Iraq without a safe enclave. When Mandeans do seek refuge in the Kurdish-dominated north, they report that they are typically viewed as southern, Arabic-speaking interlopers, or, if their Mandean identity is discovered, persecuted as religious infidels. In Syria and Jordan, Mandeans feel unable to practice their religion openly and, after years of severe deprivation, some have begun to convert simply in order to receive aid from Muslim and Christian relief agencies. Mandean activists have told me that the best hope for their ancient culture to survive is if a critical mass of Mandeans is allowed to settle in the United States, where they could rebuild their community and practice their traditions without fear of persecution. If this does not happen, individual Mandeans may survive for another generation, isolated in countries around the world, but the community and its culture may disappear forever. Of the mere 500 Iraqi refugees who were allowed into the United States from April 2003 to April 2007, only a few were Mandeans. And despite the Bush administration's commitment to let in 7,000 refugees in the fiscal year that ended last month, fewer than 2,000, including just three Iraqi Mandean families, entered the country. In September, the Senate took a step in the right direction when it unanimously passed an amendment to a defense bill that grants privileged refugee status to members of a religious or minority community who are identified by the State Department as a persecuted group and have close relatives in the United States. But because so few Mandeans live here, this will do little for those seeking asylum. The legislation, however, also authorizes the State and Homeland Security Departments to grant privileged status to "other persecuted groups," as they see fit. If all Iraqi Mandeans are granted privileged status and allowed to enter the United States in significant numbers, it may just be enough to save them and their ancient culture from destruction. If not, after 2,000 years of history, of persecution and tenacious survival, the last Gnostics will finally disappear, victims of an extinction inadvertently set into motion by our nation's negligence in Iraq. Nathaniel Deutsch is a professor of religion at Swarthmore College.

Polgar, Truong and Others Sued by Sloan

I wasn't going to publish anything about this law suit, which I read about at Google's groups rec.chess, but it's already cropped up in a posting at Susan Polgar's blog ahd the story was published by The New York Times. Chess Group Officials Accused of Using Internet to Hurt Rivals By DYLAN LOEB McCLAIN Published: October 8, 2007 A lawsuit filed in federal court last week accuses two officers of the nation’s leading chess organization of posting inflammatory remarks on the Internet under false names in order to win election to the group’s board. The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, says that Susan Polgar and Paul Truong, who are married and who were elected to the board of the United States Chess Federation in July, posted thousands of remarks, many obscene or defamatory, over the last two years on two public Internet bulletin boards. The suit was filed by Samuel H. Sloan of the Bronx, who ran unsuccessfully for re-election to the board. He said more than 2,000 of the fake remarks were posted under his name. According to the lawsuit, Ms. Polgar and Mr. Truong broke a federal law that prohibits using electronic means to harass or annoy another person. Mr. Sloan is asking for new board elections and punitive damages, among other requests. The suit was filed a week after Brian Mottershead, an administrator of the chess federation’s Web site, posted a report on the group’s discussion forum in which he said he had discovered that the impersonator was almost certainly Mr. Truong. Mr. Truong denied the accusations. “The charges are absolutely outrageous, and it is based on information that was obtained 100 percent illegally from the U.S.C.F.,” he said in an interview Friday from his home in Lubbock, Tex. Mr. Truong said that Mr. Mottershead and Hal Bogner, whose company, ChessMagnetSchool, had been working on the redesign of the federation’s Web site, leveled the accusations after he and Ms. Polgar became dissatisfied with the administration and redesign of the Web site and asked that Mr. Mottershead and ChessMagnetSchool be fired. (The New York Times uses an interactive chess board on its Gambit chess blog that was developed by ChessMagnetSchool.) Ms. Polgar said that she had no idea who the Web site impersonator was, and that she did not have the time to post the messages, given her hectic schedule. Ms. Polgar is a former women’s world champion and the chairwoman of the federation, which is based in Crossville, Tenn. She also is director of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and runs the Susan Polgar Foundation, which sponsors scholastic chess tournaments and operates a chess center in Queens. She said Mr. Mottershead and Mr. Bogner were waging a vendetta. “These people started all these accusations the day after I criticized them about their job performance,” she said. Since Mr. Mottershead posted his report, the chess federation’s executive board, including Mr. Truong and Ms. Polgar, have met several times to discuss what to do. Bill Hall, the federation’s executive director, has been asked to hire an independent expert to go over Mr. Mottershead’s findings and report to the board. The existence of fake postings on the two public bulletin boards, and, in the name of Mr. Sloan and others had been suspected for some time. But the identity of the impersonator or impersonators has not been revealed. Both bulletin boards are sponsored by Google. The tone of the messages, and the controversy they have created, stand in stark contrast to the usual studied decorum of world-class chess play. Mr. Mottershead’s report said there were more than 2,400 fake postings, and it listed them all, many too obscene to print. Some of the tamer examples included one purportedly from Mr. Sloan saying, “X-rated DVD featuring my wife is on sale now for only $27.95 plus shipping, handling and tips” and one under another name saying that a federation member was gay and “seems to be in love with Sam Sloan.” Mr. Mottershead said that he began looking into the identity of the impersonator before Mr. Truong and Ms. Polgar complained about his work on the Web site. “I don’t like Paul Truong, but there are still the facts that I put out, and those have not been fabricated,” Mr. Mottershead said. Mr. Bogner, asked if he tried to frame Mr. Truong or Ms. Polgar, burst into laughter. “It’s absurd,” he said. “It’s not my job to judge those people.” Mr. Mottershead said that he identified the impersonator by matching up Internet protocol addresses on the bulletin boards with those on the federation’s discussion forum. Mr. Mottershead said that because the I.P. addresses are unique, it was difficult to believe that anyone but Mr. Truong could have been responsible. Mr. Truong said someone could have found his I.P. address and made it look as if the postings were coming from him. David Ulevitch, founder and chief executive of OpenDNS, which provides Internet domain name services, said that impersonating someone on the Internet “happens a lot.” Asked about Mr. Truong’s contention that he could have been framed, Mr. Ulevitch said, “It has been known to happen that someone has impersonated someone else impersonating someone else.” In addition to Ms. Polgar and Mr. Truong, Mr. Sloan’s suit names as defendants the five other members of the federation board, several of the group’s officials, Texas Tech and the federation itself, which is the governing body of organized chess in the United States. “If I ever want to apply for a job, nobody’s going to hire me because there are thousands of obscene messages supposedly from me on the Internet,” Mr. Sloan said. Mr. Sloan is no stranger to the legal system. In 1978, the United States Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Sloan that the Securities and Exchange Commission had improperly suspended trading in stocks that he handled. Then, as now, he represented himself. In 1992, he was convicted of attempted kidnapping in a case involving his daughter, Shamema, who was living with guardians. Mr. Sloan spent 18 months in a Virginia prison. Brian P. Lafferty, a federation member who is a lawyer and a former administrative judge in New York City, said that he believed Mr. Truong and Ms. Polgar were responsible for the false posts, some of which mentioned him, and that he planned to take a complaint to the United States attorney’s office tomorrow. Mr. Truong and Ms. Polgar said they are contemplating filing lawsuits against Mr. Mottershead, Mr. Bogner and possibly the federation. “I have an impeccable reputation, and they are trying to damage my reputation,” Ms. Polgar said. ********************************************************************************** Although I did not see it mentioned in McClain's article, I understand that the ISP address to which the allegedly "fake" postings were traced is in Texas. Susan Polgar and Paul Truong did not move to Lubbock, Texas until, I believe, April or May of this year (it may have been later). Yet the article states that the "fake" messages go back two years. Mr. Sloan stating that the "fake" postings would hurt his chances at obtaining employment is an oxymoron - unless Mr. Sloan has finally decided to clean-up his website(s) and delete all of the offensive material therefrom??? Perhaps he has done this - I don't know, as I have not visited a Sloan website since the year 2000, after having seen enough back then to convince me to stay away. However, someone in the know would probably be able to dig up some of the scurrilous material that Mr. Sloan had posted at his website(s) in the past, even if Mr. Sloan has since deleted it. Mr. Sloan publicized at Google rec.chess an email that Ms. Polgar had sent to one or more members of the Executive Board of the USCF in which she stated that she was not satisifed with the design of the USCF website. He attributed this to hubris on her part. It is an interesting coincidence that Mr. Mottershead and Mr. Bogner leveled their accusations of Polgar and Truong being responsible for the "fake" postings only AFTER this. How did Mr. Sloan get this email? It seems highly doubtful that Ms. Polgar would have sent it to Mr. Sloan as one of the addressees. The "fake" messages go back two years. Did Mr. Sloan make any prior attempts to track down the "imposter"? Did he ever file a complaint with the ISP and Google in an attempt to either block the "fake" messages and/or identify whom the "imposter" was and stop the harrassment? Did he take these steps before filing his law suit? Why did he wait to file his law suit until after he lost his Executive Board seat in the June, 2007 USCF elections? Mr. Sloan evidently links the loss of his USCF Executive Board seat to the "fake" messages that go back two years. Ms. Polgar did not announce that she had decided to run for an Executive Board seat until November, 2006. In my opinion, readers can draw their own conclusions about the merits of Mr. Sloan's law suit. *************************************************************************************** Since writing the above (it's now 10:32 p.m. my time) I discovered that Mig has a blog entry about this subject at his website, The Daily Dirt. I don't understand any of the technical stuff - I'm still "gee mom, it works" around computers in general. But the moral and ethical stuff I understand - and I remember what I read at rec.chess too. I have to ask, along with a poster at Mig's - how did Mig know about this story on October 7th, when it wasn't published at The New York Times until October 8th? Was that just a dating gaff? Seems rather strange to me. But then, all of this seems rather strange to me, darlings! At this point I'm fed up to the hilt and I think we should throw all of the USCF people out of office and start over - or someone PLEASE start a new organization to represent chess in this country. Geez!

Christopher Columbus - Man of Mystery

A fascinating article today at The New York Times. What will the DNA tests eventually reveal? And - I thought there was some controversy about this - are they sure those bones from which they extracted a smidgeon of DNA are Columbus' bones? Seeking Columbus’s Origins, With a Swab By AMY HARMON Published: October 8, 2007 BARCELONA, Spain — When schoolchildren turn to the chapter on Christopher Columbus’s humble origins as the son of a weaver in Genoa, they are not generally told that he might instead have been born out of wedlock to a Portuguese prince. Or that he might have been a Jew whose parents converted to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Or a rebel in the medieval kingdom of Catalonia. Yet with little evidence to support them, multiple theories of Columbus’s early years have long found devoted proponents among those who would claim alternative bragging rights to the explorer. And now, five centuries after he opened the door to the New World, Columbus’s revisionist biographers have found a new hope for vindication. The Age of Discovery has discovered DNA. In 2004, a Spanish geneticist, Dr. Jose A. Lorente, extracted genetic material from a cache of Columbus’s bones in Seville to settle a dispute about where he was buried. Ever since, he has been beset by amateur historians, government officials and self-styled Columbus relatives of multiple nationalities clamoring for a genetic retelling of the standard textbook tale. Even adherents of the Italian orthodoxy concede that little is known about the provenance of the Great Navigator, who seems to have purposely obscured his past. But contenders for his legacy have no compunction about prospecting for his secrets in the cells he took to his grave. And the arrival on Oct. 8 of another anniversary of Columbus’s first landfall in the Bahamas has only sharpened their appetite for a genetic verdict, preferably in their own favor. A Genoese Cristoforo Colombo almost certainly did exist. Archives record his birth and early life. But there is little to tie that man to the one who crossed the Atlantic in 1492. Snippets from Columbus’s life point all around the southern European coast. He kept books in Catalan and his handwriting has, according to some, a Catalonian flair. He married a Portuguese noblewoman. He wrote in Castilian. He decorated his letters with a Hebrew cartouche. Rest of article here.

How NOT to Be a Domestic Goddess

From the Independent online Deborah Ross: How (not) to be a Domestic Goddess Cooking dinner, cleaning up, keeping the kids out of mischief. Sometimes it can be hard to be a woman. Or maybe, says Deborah Ross, you're just setting your standards too high. Here's her indispensable guide to domestic bliss Published: 08 October 2007 Welcome to the Non-Domestic Goddess Club (GB). This is the largest organisation in the UK for those who have very old lollies embedded in the iced-up walls of their freezer. The Club, founded at some time but no one can say when exactly as the members forgot to write it on the calendar, operates under the slogan: "Nature abhors a vacuum and so do we." The Club also, by the way, abhors the Dyson. This was decided at the last AGM because the fact that it is funky, and won't lose suction, doesn't make it any better and you can't fool us. Minutes from the last AGM are available on request, but only after they have been lost, found, lost, found, lost and then found again at the bottom of the fruit bowl under the small brown furry thing that may once have been a plum but then again could equally be one of those baby koalas for the tops of pencils. Who's to tell? The Non-Domestic Goddess Club of Great Britain expects its members to uphold extremely low standards at all times. Anyone nearly up-to-date with the ironing will have to explain themselves in full, while anyone totally up-to-date will be automatically expelled. Anyone who hasn't touched an iron in years and just tries to pass everything off as 100 per cent linen (including their face) will be awarded free life membership. Ditto anyone who makes Nescafé by placing the mug under the hot tap, both when pressed for time and when not, and who prepares bedding between guests by turning the pillow over to its "fresh" side. The Non-Domestic Goddess Club has this to say about blackened cookware: soak, soak, soak, then throw away when nobody is looking. The Club also suggests never questioning the fact that there is an A to Z in your underwear drawer, as well as a toy knight, some small change (amounting to 87p), a book on houseplants and three Fox's Glacier Fruits. To question can only lead to madness. The Non- Domestic Goddess Club of Great Britain has this to say about socks with holes in: put aside for darning, then throw away when nobody is looking. The Non-Domestic Goddess Club suggests never, ever going right to the bottom of the laundry basket, as anything could be living down there. The Club fully endorses opening the top of the laundry basket, sighing dispiritedly and promptly closing it again. The Club expects all members to have all of the following items at the back of at least one kitchen cupboard: a tin of golden syrup with the lid half-cocked (treacle is also acceptable); an ancient pot of hundreds and thousands; a spilling bag of decade-old lentils; several bottles of food colouring (all green); a variety of exotic pickles and chutneys which seemed like a good idea at the time; any number of herbal teas with tempting names like Mango Carnival and Tropical Fiesta, which no one drinks because they all taste of pond; sticky jars of stuff that can no longer be identified and have bits of old moth wing, spilled lentils and fairy-cake cases stuck to their sides. The Club has this to say about leftovers: decant carefully into Tupperware, place in fridge, leave for a week, then throw out when nobody is looking. Alternatively, place in freezer, leave for a decade, then throw out when nobody is looking. Never throw anything away today that you can keep and throw away at a later date. The Club has sympathy for anyone who has tried to defrost a chicken in the bath or dry a child's swimming costume, just unpacked from last week's lesson, by swinging it round her head. The Club has this to say to anyone who is about 19 years behind with the ironing: gather it all up and throw it away while nobody is looking. Alternatively, bury it at the bottom of the garden, along with the pet goldfish whose bowl was used as an ashtray but died of natural causes all at the same. We hope you have enjoyed this short introduction to the Non-Domestic Goddess Club of Great Britain and that you will always defend the useless housewife whatever. Some people say that the trouble with useless housewives is that they are lazy and just sit around all day reading Hello!, whereas, in truth, they work really, really hard. It's just that so much of what they do happens when nobody is looking. There's more... This is an edited extract from Always go to Bed on an Argument, And Other Useful Advice From the Non-Domestic Goddess, by Deborah Ross (£9.99), published by Profile Books Ltd on Thursday. To order a copy, (with free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897, or visit;

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Cooking, Mowing, Laundry and Ordering Books!

Hola darlings! It's Sunday night and it's been a busy day. Another record-breaking hot and humid day, too! Got up to 87 today - I don't know what the dew point was; yesterday it was 87 with a dew point of 69 and it felt like I was living in the jungle at the equator! One more day of heat, although tomorrow only a high of 82 with thunderstorms in the afternoon, and then the weather will drop drop drop down to "seasonal" and it will feel like the deep freeze in the low 60's during the day and 40's at night! Soooo, after I relaxed with my Sunday morning routine, feeding the critters, reading the paper on the deck, and having two - yes two! - cups of coffee (I restrict caffeine intake because of high blood pressure and normally only have 1 cup of coffee a day), I spent some hours reading the latest news from Explorator and The New York Times and making some posts here (I hope you enjoy them), I did some laundry, and I cut the front lawn. I swear I lost 5 pounds sweating, it was so steamy outside. I'd put a chuck roast with a pound of carrots into the slow cooker about 8 this morning and when it was ready about 2 p.m. I made a wine-reinforced gravy and had a feast. I stuffed myself - I love the sweetness of slow-cooked carrots covered in bordeaux gravy. The roast melted in my mouth - and I have leftovers for a few days - if I don't raid the refrigerator later on and stuff myself all over again! I love to cook but generally I don't do much serious cooking for myself. When Isis, Michelle and delion were here in July I did some cooking and loved every minute of it. There is something fundamentally satisfying about cooking a meal that everyone says is delicious and watching the food disappear at a rapid pace, just like there is something fundamentally satisfying about sweating and battling man-eating insects to create a beautiful garden. Now the Packers are on - we scored a touchdown VIA THE RUN - THE RUN! - a few minutes ago, against da Bears. Altogether now "da Bears still suck, da Bears still suck..." I just completed an order at - I was a good girl, I only ordered three books: Michael Weinreb's "The Kings of New York," "Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History" and "When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythym." There are several other books I would love to order - but I will wait until I get my Christmas bonus from the firm :) This day has been bliss! Speaking of books, David Shenk's "The Immortal Game" has come out in paperback. It is such an excellent read, I highly recommend it. The way in which he weaves the history-making game between Adolph Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky from June 21, 1851 into his narrative is superb. I suppose I shouldn't admit this, but up until I read Shenk's book, I had NEVER sat down and really gone through a game and analysis, move by move. Shenk made that game miraculously accessible to me. I look forward to his next book - he's doing research on it right now.

Kumari, "The Living Goddess," to Visit Film Festival

Controversial Nepal goddess to now launch film fest Posted : Sun, 07 Oct 2007 09:14:09 GMT Author : Sudeshna Sarkar Kathmandu, Oct 7 - Three months ago, one of Nepal's 'living goddesses' created a stir by leaving her temple to visit the US and was sacked for the untraditional act. Now 10-year-old Sajani Shakya, better known as the 'Kumari' of Bhaktapur, will depart from tradition once again. The Kumari will be the special guest - not at any religious ceremony but a film festival. And the superstitious can regard it as an omen. On Thursday, when the fate of King Gyanendra is going to be decided in parliament, the royal dynasty's protective deity, the Kumari, will be trooping to a cinema in the capital - coincidentally named after her - to promote a British filmmaker's documentary on her and two more goddesses. The schoolgirl will be the special guest at the sixth Film South Asia, a documentary film festival where 45 entries will be vying for the Ram Bahadur Trophy, which carries a purse of $2,000, as well as a $1,000 best debut award for newcomers. Ishbel Whitaker's 'Living Goddess', the film that landed Sajani in trouble with her temple authorities, will be the first entry at the fest organised by Nepali NGO Himal Association. In July, Whitaker invited Sajani to the US to promote the documentary and the visit, unchaperoned by any members of her family, roused the wrath of the schoolgirl's temple management committee. The committee said the visit had violated Nepal's religious norms and polluted the young girl. It also said she had been sacked and a search was on to look for her successor. However, following an intense media glare, the authorities later changed their minds and the young girl was reinstated as the 'living goddess' when she returned home. When the festival organisers decided to invite the controversial Kumari, they hadn't foreseen the swift developments that would overtake Nepal since then. On Friday, arm-twisted by the Maoists, Nepal's government decided to postpone a critical election scheduled for Nov 22 and called a special session of parliament to vote on King Gyanendra's fate. The special session starts Thursday, when Kumari is to attend the screening of 'Living Goddess' at the Kumari cinema. The recent days have been full of the Kumari and the king in Nepal. (c) Indo-Asian News Service Prior posts about The Living Goddess here and here.

Kasparov Beware

You know chess is going mainstream when it's written about in Newsweek magazine: Dreaming of Checkmate Chess is catching on across Africa and beginning to produce some formidable players. Kasparov, beware. By Scott Johnson Newsweek International Oct. 15, 2007 issue - Amon Simutowe learned chess by reading magazines. He was the Zambian national champ by the time he was 14. But a series of dazzling victories at a recent tournament in the Netherlands earned Simutowe, now 25, a permanent place in chess history: he became the first sub-Saharan African to achieve the notoriously difficult ranking of international grandmaster. At home in his native Lusaka, the local papers exalted in his victory on the front pages. Chess in America has typically been the reserve of the geeky eccentric, or the rich and effete. But in many parts of Africa, where the game is seen as a powerful tool for intellectual strength and self-improvement, it has developed a broad following. And because chess is so cheap, it is luring players who are just as likely to come from a rural village in Botswana or a South African township as from a European boarding school. Now two homegrown stars—Simutowe and Zimbabwean Robert Gwaze, who won the African Individual Championships last month and is heading toward becoming a grandmaster—are leading the way for other African players to break into the ranks of the world's best. "This is the beginning of a real renaissance," says Lewis Ncube, the Zambian vice president of the World Chess Federation. "In time they'll be able to challenge for the top positions in the world." Christian missionaries first spread chess throughout Africa in the 19th century. But the continent has generally lagged behind in turning out masters—until now. Since Simutowe first beat British grandmaster Peter Wells in 2000, he has become something of a national hero. He receives hundreds of e-mails from adoring Zambian fans and provides them with daily updates from his tournaments via BlackBerry. Chess now regularly makes the front page of the sports section in The Post of Zambia. And Zambian officials are reportedly considering awarding Simutowe—who earned degrees in finance and economics while on a chess scholarship at the University of Texas at Dallas—a diplomatic passport to encourage him to become a global ambassador for African chess. "This is proof that you can come from southern Africa and achieve grandmaster ranking," says Dabilani Buthani, president of the African Chess Union. "It's going to be a boom." Perhaps. There are lots of hurdles. African players face a dearth of good tournaments at home and are unable to afford traveling abroad to play. Malawian Alfred Chimathere bounced for 72 hours in a bus to participate in the African championship—only to be detained at the border for two days because officials wouldn't accept his visa. Chimathere began playing only two years ago, but is already working his way toward an international title. "Chess is a game of thinkers," he says. "That motivated me to show the world that I can think." And while many aspiring players improve their games over the Internet, some of the best African players don't yet have access to the Web. Chimathere's policeman's salary, for instance, is not enough for him to buy a laptop. In Zimbabwe, political instability and a severe economic crisis have stripped the game of financial backing, forcing leading lights like Gwaze to move abroad. "I've gotten no support whatsoever from them," he says. But support is starting to come in other forms. African chess officials have embraced the strategy that Russia, a world-class chess center, adopted long ago: teaching chess in schools. The World Chess Federation plans to implement a global Schools Program focused on promoting chess among children in developing countries. In South Africa, there are already an estimated 100,000 students participating in official and nonofficial games. Earlier this year South Africa promoted chess as one of six "priority sports codes," allotting it the same kind of federal funding as football, rugby and swimming. Botswana and Namibia both now categorize chess as a sport, which means it is federally funded and promoted. Namibia is working with Iceland—where the government pays chess champions large salaries and where the reclusive American chess master Bobby Fischer lives—to promote chess in schools and prisons. Corporate sponsors are also pitching in. For years the mining company De Beers has sponsored chess championships in Botswana. Now a South African company called ChessCube plans to launch an interactive, free Web site featuring chess lectures and videos aimed at Africans who don't have access to teachers or local chess clubs. "This system we're building helps make Africa smaller," says ChessCube's Mark Levitt. And as Africa gets smaller, the number of African chess champions is bound to grow. © 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

Review: 'King's Gambit,' by Paul Hoffman

Paul Hoffman's book is getting tons of publicity. Here is yet one more review. I'm just not sure, though, that this will ultimately be a "good thing" for chess, darlings! From BY EMILY GORDON Special to Newsday October 7, 2007 KING'S GAMBIT: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game, by Paul Hoffman. Hyperion, 400 pp., $24.95. Chess brings out grandeur and brutality in its human players. Paul Hoffman, who's been deeply involved in the game since he was a child, is an intimate observer of - as David Remnick put it in a recent interview with grandmaster Garry Kasparov - "the absolute, singular concentration of a life bent over 64 squares." Hoffman's memoir, "King's Gambit," a chronicle of his and others' lives spent at that level of concentration, is as jagged, passionate and methodical as the game itself. Hoffman (who ranks as a Class A chess player) is the former editor in chief of Discover magazine and president of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, as well as the author of two well-received nonfiction books about an eccentric mathematician and an early pioneer of flight. Hoffman clearly likes to gets his facts right - this is a sturdy volume of carefully explained (and footnoted) details and digressions - but it's chess that really grips his psyche. Its rules, characters and histories occupy his head, a labyrinth of positions and personalities. Is that a form of madness? Throughout the book, Hoffman asks it directly. "Chess was an insane game," he writes. "When I lost, I was unhappy. And yet it was necessary to play and risk defeat if I was ever going to win and relish victory." In essay-like chapters, Hoffman ranges over this and the other great subjects of chess: chess as war strategy, the challenge of computers, the domination of Russians, the emergence of women players, chess-world politics, and so on. Hoffman illuminates his account with many well-chosen quotes from the literature of chess, fiction and nonfiction, although, curiously, he skims over Walter Tevis' peerless novel "The Queen's Gambit." Chess is truly a great subject: There's nothing sedentary about the players of this seated game. Hoffman - who once played Kasparov himself - seems to have met most of them, and he has a terrific ear for dialogue. He shows us that chess rivals can be close as lovers: "After he downed another vodka, Karpov looked a bit wistful. 'I know Kasparov as well as I know anyone,' he told me. 'I know his smell. I can read him by that.' Indeed, the two men had sat face-to-face for a total of perhaps 750 hours, their foreheads sometimes only millimeters apart as they leaned in over the chessboard. 'I recognize the smell when he is excited and I know it when he is scared. We may be enemies, but we are intimate enemies.'" This is not just a book about chess, however, and the danger referred to in the title is not just in the chance of losing a game or a tournament. Hoffman is preoccupied with plenty of chessmen, but the central character here turns out to be his father. James Hoffman was a B-grade journalist who wrote salacious, punning stories for gossip magazines and forged layers of deception in his own life that Hoffman is still trying to figure out. After he and Paul's mother (who is not much discussed here) divorced, he moved to a downtown Manhattan bachelor pad. When Hoffman started coming in from Westport, Conn., to see him, he began to play in an American chess mecca: Washington Square Park and the chess clubs and stores that surrounded it at the time. This childhood and adolescent relationship wounds and provokes Hoffman the writer and adult, and he seems to return to it almost fresh each time, as though he's only just sitting down at the board against a baffling opponent. Hoffman struggles to believe in and promote a valiant image of his father, but must constantly question him; his father undermines his son in turn. Still, some of his father's parental crimes ("dragging" him to Quaker meeting as a child so that someday he can stay out of a draft on religious pacifist grounds, for example, or "imposing" "experimental New Age braces") can surely be seen as loving, if not always especially considerate. Since Hoffman's father died in 1982, he can't speak to these stories. One of the qualities Hoffman admires in his father - his giddy, carefree way with language - eludes him during these psychological meditations, which can have an austerely formal quality. At times, he seems to be attempting an impossible project. It might be possible to write a thorough oral history of chess, or of Hoffman's father's career, of Hoffman's own games, or of his chess-world friends; the latter was what made "Word Freak" so engaging on the equally obsessive subject of Scrabble. But when you add further categories, like Hoffman's marriage, a nearly debilitating and mysterious illness, and his ambivalence about his father, complete documentation becomes futile. "Chess players live in an alternative world of what might have been," he writes early in this book, and like Mary Gordon's "The Shadow Man," this is a search for an inadequate, elusive parent that can never be completed. On the other hand, whenever Hoffman gets carried away with a story that gets him, and us, outside his history and head - as when he gets into situations filled with international intrigue and peril, like being interrogated by the police while trying to play in Libya - his prose is vigorous and very funny. His unselfconscious portraits of neurotic or outrageous characters are as effective as good fiction, and his chapter about women chess players - especially the section about top player Jennifer Shahade - is one of the book's liveliest and best. Obsession is often unquenchable, parents frustrating, love and the mind prone to failure, the sweetest dreams unrealizable. Hoffman is a noble character here, all the more noble because he's so self-effacing, and he's careful in his writing not to show off too much. He has some things to show off about, and he deserves a victorious break from replaying so many real and metaphorical games, whose results are unalterable.
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