A Brief History of Chess: An Animated Introduction to the 1,500-Year-Old Game

I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.

 –Marcel Duchamp

"Over the roughly one and half millennia of its existence, chess has been known as a tool of military strategy, a metaphor for human affairs, and a benchmark of genius,” points out the TED-Ed animated history of the game by Alex Gendler, above. The first records of chess date to the 7th century, but it may have originated even a century earlier, in India, where we find mention of the first game to have different moves for different pieces, and “a single king piece, whose fate determined the outcome.”

It was originally called “chaturanga,” a word that Yoga practitioners will recognize as the “four-limbed staff pose,” but which simply meant “four divisions” in this context. Once it spread to Persia, it became “chess,” meaning “Shah,” or king. It took root in the Arab world, and traveled the Silk Road to East and Southeast Asia, where it acquired different characteristics but used similar rules and strategies. The European form we play today became the standard, but it might have been a very different game had the Japanese version—which allowed players to put captured pieces into play—dominated.

Chess found ready acceptance everywhere it went because its underlying principles seemed to tap into common models of contest and conquest among political and military elites. Though written over a thousand years before “chaturanga” arrived in China—where the game was called xiangqi, or “elephant game"—Sun Tzu’s Art of War may as well have been discussing the critical importance of pawns in declaring, “When the officers are valiant and the troops ineffective the army is in distress.”

Chess also speaks to the hierarchies ancient civilizations sought to naturalize, and by 1000 AD, it had become a tool for teaching European noblemen the necessity of social classes performing their proper roles. This allegorical function gave to the pieces the roles we know today, with the piece called “the advisor” being replaced by the queen in the 15th century, “perhaps inspired by the recent surge of strong female leaders.”

Early Modern chess, freed from the confines of the court and played in coffeehouses, also became a favorite pastime for philosophers, writers, and artists. Treatises were written by the hundreds. Chess became a tool for summoning inspiration, and performing theatrical, often Punic games for audiences—a trend that ebbed during the Cold War, when chessboards became proxy battlegrounds between world superpowers, and intense calculation ruled the day.

The arrival of IBM’s Deep Blue computer, which defeated reigning champion Garry Kasparov in 1996, signaled a new evolution for the game, a chess singularity, as it were, after which computers routinely defeated the best players. Does this mean, according to Marcel Duchamp’s observation, that chess-playing computers should be considered artists? Chess’s earliest adopters could never have conceived of such a question. But the game they passed down through the centuries may have anticipated all of the possible outcomes of human versus machine.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Internet Archive Is Digitizing & Preserving Over 100,000 Vinyl Records: Hear 750 Full Albums Now

There seems to be widespread agreement—something special was lost in the rushed-to-market move from physical media to digital streaming. We have come to admit that some older musical technologies cannot be improved upon. Musicians, producers, engineers spend thousands to replicate the sound of older analog recording technology, with all its quirky, inconsistent operation. And fans buy record players and vinyl records in surprisingly increasing numbers to hear the warm and fuzzy character of their sound.

Neil Young, who has relentlessly criticized every aspect of digital recording, has dismissed the resurgence of the LP as a “fashion statement” given that most new albums released on vinyl are digital masters. But buyers come to vinyl with a range of expectations, writes Ari Herstand at Digital Music News: “Vinyl is an entire experience. Wonderfully tactile…. When we stare at our screens for the majority of our days, it’s nice to look at art that doesn’t glow and isn’t the size of my hand.” Vinyl can feel and look as good as it sounds (when properly engineered).

While shiny, digitally mastered vinyl releases pop up in big box stores everywhere, the real musical wealth lies in the past—in thousands upon thousands of LPs, 45s, 78s—relics of “the only consumer playback format we have that’s fully analog and fully lossless,” says vinyl mastering engineer Adam Gonsalves. Few institutions can afford to store thousands of physical albums, and many rarities and oddities exist in vanishingly fewer copies. Their crackle and hiss may be forever lost without the intervention of digital preservationists like the Internet Archive.

The Archive is “now expanding its digitization project to include LPs,” reports Faye Lessler on the organization’s blog. This will come as welcome news to cultural historians, analog conservationists, and vinyl enthusiasts of all kinds, who will mostly agree that digitization is far better than extinction, though the tactile and visual pleasures may be irreplaceable. The Archive has focused its efforts on the over 100,000 audio recordings from the Boston Public Library’s collection, “in order to prevent them from disappearing forever when the vinyl is broken, warped, or lost."

“These recordings exist in a variety of historical formats, including wax cylinders, 78 rpms, and LPs," though the project is currently focused on the latter. "They span musical genres including  classical, pop, rock, and jazz, and contain obscure recordings like this album of music for baton twirlers, and this record of radio’s all-time greatest bloopers.” The method of rapidly converting the artifacts at the rate of ten LPs per hour (which you can read more about at the Archive blog) serves as a testament to what digital technology does best—using machine learning and metadata to automate the archival process and create extensive, searchable databases of catalogue information.

Currently, the project has uploaded 1,180 recordings to its site, “but some of the albums are only available in 30 second snippets due to rights issues,” Lessler points out. Browse the "Unlocked Recordings" category to hear 750 digitized LPs available in full: these include a recording of Gian Carlo Menotti's ballet The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore, further up; The Begetting of the President, above, a satire of Nixon's rise to power as Biblical epic, read by Orson Welles in his King of Kings' voice; and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, played by Van Cliburn, below.

The range and variety captured in this collection—from fireworks sound effects to Elton John’s second, self-titled album to classic Pearl Baily to 80s new wave band The Communards to Andres Segovia playing Bach to the Smokey and the Bandit 2 soundtrack—will outlast copyright restrictions. And they will leave behind an extensive record, no pun intended, of the LP: “our primary musical medium for over a generation," says the Archive's special projects director CR Saikley, "witness to the birth of both Rock & Roll and Punk Rock... integral to our culture from the 1950s to the 1980s." Vinyl remains the most revered of musical formats for good reason—reasons future generations will discover, at least virtually, for themselves someday.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Map of How the Word “Tea” Spread Across the World

When I order a cup of tea in Korea, where I live, I ask for cha (차); when traveling in Japan, I ask for the honorific-affixed ocha (お茶). In Spanish-speaking places I order , which I try to pronounce as distinctly as possible from the thé I order in French-speaking ones. And on my trips back to United States, where I'm from, I just ask for tea. Not that tea, despite its awe-inspiring venerability, has ever quite matched the popularity of coffee in America, but you can still find it most everywhere you go. And for decades now, no less an American corporate coffee juggernaut than Starbucks has labeled certain of its teas chai, which has popularized that alternative term but also created a degree of public confusion: what's the difference, if any, between chai and tea?

Both words refer, ultimately, to the same beverage invented in China more than three millennia ago. Tea may now be drunk all over the world, but people in different places prefer different kinds: flavors vary from region to region within China, and Chinese teas taste different from, say, Indian teas. Starbucks presumably brands its Indian-style tea with the word chai because it sounds like the words used to refer to tea in India.

It also sounds like the words used to refer to tea in Farsi, Turkish, and even Russian, all of them similar to chay. But other countries' words for tea sound different: the Maylay teh, the Finnish tee, the Dutch thee. "The words that sound like 'cha' spread across land, along the Silk Road," writes Quartz's Nikhil Sonnad. "The 'tea'-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe."

"The term cha (茶) is 'Sinitic,' meaning it is common to many varieties of Chinese," writes Sonnad. "It began in China and made its way through central Asia, eventually becoming 'chay' (چای) in Persian. That is no doubt due to the trade routes of the Silk Road, along which, according to a recent discovery, tea was traded over 2,000 years ago." The te form "used in coastal-Chinese languages spread to Europe via the Dutch, who became the primary traders of tea between Europe and Asia in the 17th century, as explained in the World Atlas of Language Structures. The main Dutch ports in east Asia were in Fujian and Taiwan, both places where people used the te pronunciation. The Dutch East India Company’s expansive tea importation into Europe gave us the French thé, the German Tee, and the English tea."

And we mustn't leave out the Portuguese, who in the 1500s "travelled to the Far East hoping to gain a monopoly on the spice trade," as Culture Trip's Rachel Deason writes, but "decided to focus on exporting tea instead. The Portuguese called the drink cha, just like the people of southern China did," and under that name shipped its leaves "down through Indonesia, under the southern tip of Africa, and back up to western Europe." You can see the global spread of tea, tee, thé, chai, chay, cha, or whatever you call it in the map above, recently tweeted out by East Asia historian Nick Kapur. (You may remember the fantastical Japanese history of America he sent into circulation last year.) Study it carefully, and you'll be able to order tea in the lands of both te and cha. But should you find yourself in Burma, it won't help you: just remember that the word there is lakphak.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When White Supremacists Overthrew a Government (1898): The Hidden History of an American Coup

White supremacist ideology has found a home in both major political parties at different times in the country’s history. But it has not always been openly acknowledged, receding into coded language and whispers when out of political favor. In the decades after Reconstruction and after World War I, however, politicians shouted racist, xenophobic speeches through bullhorns, inciting thousands of lynchings across the country.

One incredibly bloody mass killing, the so-called Tulsa “Race Riot” of 1921—actually a massacre and decimation of a thriving business district—has come back into public consciousness after a fictionalized depiction on HBO’s Watchmen series. Twelve years earlier, another definitive event took place in Wilmington, North Carolina. If mentioned at all, it’s been glossed over quickly in textbooks and the town’s historical memory, but the Wilmington Massacre is part of a history of racial terrorism many celebrated openly, then sought to suppress, deny, and ignore when it became embarrassing.

Yale professor of history Glenda Gilmore calls the period a “50-year black hole of information." Growing up in North Carolina herself, she says, “I had never heard the word ‘lynching’ until I was 21.” In fact, as the Vox video above notes, librarians in Wilmington refused even to release materials related to the massacre. This is odd considering its significance to American history as the only successful violent overthrow of an elected U.S. government on U.S. soil.

It was a coup (despite the way that word has been deliberately misused) involving no due process or constitutional checks and balances. The violence began on the morning of November 10, 1898, when the offices of The Daily Record were set on fire. By the day’s end, “as many as 60 people had been murdered, and the local government that was elected two days prior had been overthrown and replaced by white supremacists,” writes The Atlantic.

This was no spontaneous riot. The events had been planned and promoted by the most prominent leaders in the city and state, who gathered at the Thalian Hall opera house in Wilmington the previous month to hear a speech in which Democratic Congressman Alfred Waddell declared “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”

This kind of rhetoric was commonplace. White supremacist clubs around the State, goaded on by South Carolina senator Ben Tillman, resounded with talk of “shotgun politics” to oust elected Black Republicans. After Waddell’s Thalian Hall speech, he traveled to Goldsboro for a “White Supremacy Convention” attended by 8,000 people. There, Major William Guthrie promised, “Resist our march of progress and civilization and we will wipe you off the face of the earth.”

The convention was hailed in The Fayetteville Observer as “A White Man’s Day." and Tillman’s exhortation “in behalf of the restoration of white rule” by violence was called “a great speech for democracy.” The massacre and overthrow of Wilmington's government followed soon after. Historians were able to reconstruct the events after their suppression in part because they were so widely celebrated for decades afterward. “In the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, they bragged about it,” says historian David S. Cecelski.

Along with a disturbing resurgence, we've also recently seen a public reckoning with the racial terror and tyranny of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, as the memory of lynching is enshrined in memorials and museums, and stories buried since the 50s are unearthed. This history has been also been used by some modern-day Republicans to grind political axes against modern-day Democrats, as though the major 1960s Civil Rights realignment never happened.

Shallow partisanship aside, the fact remains: what the Wilmington insurrectionists and their allies and inciters campaigned, burned, and killed for was a return to the oppressive rule of an elite white minority, against a multiracial democratic coalition that had united former slaves and poor white farmers in a fusion government representing working people in North Carolina and the thriving, majority Black population in Wilmington, its largest city at the time.

Learn more about the history of the Wilmington Massacre in the Vox video above and in the excellent collection Democracy Betrayed.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Difference Between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England: A (Pre-Brexit) Video Explains

I once played in a New York pub band with an Englishman, a Northern Irishman, and a Scotsman. This is not the setup for a joke. (We weren't that bad!) But I had questions. Were they all from different countries or different parts of one country called Britain, or Great Britain, or the grander-sounding United Kingdom?

British history could be a contentious subject in such company, and no wonder given that the violence of the Empire began at home, or with the neighboring people who were absorbed—sometimes, partly, but not always—against their will into a larger entity. So, what to call that territory of the crown which once claimed one fourth of the world as its own property?

CGP Grey, maker of the YouTube explainer above, aims to clear things up in five minutes, offering his own spin on British imperial history along the way. The United Kingdom is a “country of countries that contains inside it four coequal and sovereign nations,” England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. “You can call them all British,” says Grey, but “it’s generally not recommended as the four countries generally don’t like each other.”

Like it or not, however, they are all British citizens of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Still confused? Well, Britain and the United Kingdom name the same country. But “Great Britain” is a geographical term that includes Scotland, England, and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. As a “geographical rather than a political term,” Great Britain sounds silly when used to describe nationality.

But it gets a bit more complicated. All of the countries located within Great Britain have neighboring islands that are not part of Great Britain, such as the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney Islands, and Isles of Anglesey and Wight. Ireland is a geographical term for the land mass encompassing two nations: Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, or the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which—as you know—is decidedly not.

All of these countries and “countries of countries” are part of the European Union, says Grey, at which point it becomes clear that the video, posted in 2011, did not anticipate any such thing as Brexit. Nonetheless, this information holds true for the moment, though that ugly saga is sure to reach some resolution eventually, at which point, who knows what new maps, independence referenda, and border wars will arise, or resurrect, on the British Isles.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Behold Félix Nadar’s Pioneering Photographs of the Paris Catacombs (1861)

As a tourist in England, one may be persuaded to pick a piece of merchandise with the now-ubiquitous slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On,” from a little-displayed World War II motivational poster rediscovered in 2000 and turned into the 21st-century's most cheeky emblem of stiff-upper-lip-ness. Travel across the Channel, however, and you’ll find another version of the sentiment, drawn not from war memorabilia but the ancient warning of memento mori.

“Keep Calm and Remember You Will Die” say magnets, key chains, and other souvenirs emblazoned with the logo of the Paris Catacombs, a major tourist attraction that sells timed tickets “to manage the large queue that forms daily outside the nondescript entrance on the Place Denfert-Rochereau (formerly called the Place d’Enfer, or Hell Square),” writes Allison Meier at Public Domain Review. Still profoundly creepy, the Catacombs were once as forbidding to descend into as their walls of skulls and bones are to gaze upon, requiring visitors to carry flaming torches into their depths.

When pioneering photographer Félix Nadar “descended into this ‘empire of death’ in the 1860s artificial lighting was still in its infancy.” Using Bunsen batteries “and a good deal of patience,” Nadar captured the Catacombs as they had never been seen. He also documented the completion of “artistic facades” of skulls and long bones, built “to hide piles of other bones,” notes Strange Remains, from an estimated six million corpses exhumed from overcrowded Parisian cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Nadar (the pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, born 1820), helped turn the Catacombs into the globally famous destination they became. His “subterranean photographs,” writes Matthew Gandy in The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination, “played a key role in fostering the growing popularity of sewers and catacombs among middle-class Parisians, and from the 1867 Exposition onward the city authorities began offering public tours of underground Paris.” The Catacombs became, in Nadar's own words, "one of those places that everyone wants to see and no one wants to see again."

Visitors came seeking the grim fascinations they had seen in Nadar’s photos, taken during a “single three-month campaign,” Meier notes, sometime in 1861, after the photographer “pioneered new approaches to artificial light.” The project was an irresistible photographic essay on the leveling force of mortality. In an essay titled “Paris Above and Below,” published in the 1867 Exposition guide, Nadar described the “egalitarian confusion of death,” in which “a Merovingian king remains in eternal silence next to those massacred in September ’92.”

The ancient and the modern dead, peasants, aristocrats, victims of the Revolutionary terror all piled together, “every trace implacably lost in the unaccountable clutter of the most humble, the anonymous.” The huge necropolis initially had no shape or order. Its 19th century redesign reflected that of the Parisian streets above. In 1810, Napoleon authorized quarries inspector Héricart de Thury to undertake a renovation that accounted for what Thury called “the intimate rapport that will surely exist between the Catacombs and the events of the French Revolution.”

This “rapport” not only included the “mass burial of the victims of the 1792 September Massacres” Nadar references in his essay, but also, Meier points out, the arrangement of bones in “patterns, rows, and crosses; altars and columns were installed below the earth. Plaques with evocative quotations were added to encourage visitors to reflect on mortality.” Because of the long exposure times the photographs required, Nadar used mannequins to stand in for the living workers who completed this work. The only living body he captured was his own, in the self-portrait above.

Learn more about the history of the Catacombs and Nadar’s now-legendary photographic project at Public Domain Review and see many more memento mori images here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Very First Picture of the Far Side of the Moon, Taken 60 Years Ago

Sixty years ago, mankind got its very first glimpse of the far side of the Moon, so called because it faces away from the Earth. (And as astronomers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson have long taken pains to point out to Pink Floyd fans, it isn't "dark.") Taken by the Soviet Union, that first photo may not look like much today, especially compared to the high-resolution color images sent back from the surface itself by China's Chang’e-4 probe earlier this year. But with the technology of the late 1950s, even the technology commanded by the Soviets' then-world-beating space program, the fact that it was taken at all seems not far short of miraculous. How did they do it?

"This photograph was taken by the Soviet spacecraft Luna 3, which was launched a month after the Luna 2 spacecraft became the first man-made object to impact on the surface of the Moon," explains astronomer Kevin Hainline in a recent Twitter thread. "Luna 2 followed Luna 1, the first spacecraft to escape a geosynchronous Earth orbit." Luna 3 was designed to take photographs of the Moon, hardly an uncomplicated prospect: "To take pictures you have to be stable on three-axes. You have to take the photographs remotely. AND you have to somehow transfer those pictures back to Earth." The first three-axis stabilized spacecraft ever sent on a mission, Luna 3 "had to use a little photocell to orient towards the Moon so that now, while stabilized, it could take the pictures. Which it did. On PHOTOGRAPHIC FILM."

Even those of us who took pictures on film for decades have started to take for granted the convenience of digital photography. But think back to all the hassle of traditional photography, then imagine making a robot carry them out in space. Once taken Luna 3's photos "were then moved to a little CHEMICAL PLANT to DEVELOP AND DRY THEM." (In other words, "Luna 3 had a little 1 Hour Photo inside.") Then they continued into "a device that shone a cathode ray tube, like in an older TV, through them, towards a device that recorded the brightness and converted this to an electrical signal." You can read about what happened then in more detail at Damn Interesting, where Alan Bellows describes how the spacecraft sent "the lightness and darkness information line-by-line via frequency-modulated analog signal — in essence, a fax sent over radio."

Soviet Scientists could thus "retrieve one photographic frame every 30 minutes or so. Due to the distance and weak signal, the first images received contained nothing but static. In subsequent attempts in the following few days, an indistinct, blotchy white disc began to resolve on the thermal paper printouts at Soviet listening stations." As Luna 3's photos became clearer, they revealed, as Hainline puts it, that "the backside of the moon was SO WEIRD AND DIFFERENT" — covered in the craters, for example, which have become its visual signature. For a modern-day equivalent to this achievement, we might look not just to Chang’e-4 but to the image of a black hole captured by the Event Horizon Telescope this past April — the one that led to an abundance of articles like "In Defense of the Blurry Black Hole Photo" and "We Need to Admit That the Black Hole Photo Isn’t Very Good." Astrophotography has come a long way, but at least back in 1959 it didn't produce quite so many takes.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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