The Wisdom & Advice of Maurice Ashley, the First African-American Chess Grandmaster

I don't know about you, but when I've thought of chess grandmasters, I've often thought of Russians, northern Europeans, the occasional American, the guy on the Chessmaster box — purely by stereotype, in other words. I've never thought of anyone from, say, Jamaica, the country of birth of Maurice Ashley, not just a chess grandmaster but a chess commentator, writer, app and puzzle designer, speaker and Fellow at the Media Lab at MIT. Since we've only just entered February, known in the United States as Black History Month, why not highlight the Brooklyn-raised (and Brooklyn-park trained) Ashley's status as, in the words of his official web site, "the first African-American International Grandmaster in the annals of the game"?

Given the impressiveness of his achievements, we might also ask what we can learn from him, whether or not we play chess ourselves. You can learn a bit more about Ashley, the work he does, and the work his students have gone on to do, in The World Is a Chess Board, the five-minute Mashable documentary at the top of the post. Even in that short runtime, he has much to say about how the game (which, he clarifies, "we consider an art form") not only reflects life, and reflects the personalities of its players, but teaches those players — especially the young ones who may come from less-than-ideal beginnings — all about focus, determination, choice, and consequence. Perhaps the most important lesson? "You've got to be ready to lose."

Ashley expounds upon the value of chess as a tool to hone the mind in "Working Backward to Solve Problems," a clip from his TED Ed lesson just above. He begins by waving off the misperception, common among non-chess-players, that grandmasters "see ahead" ten, twenty, or thirty moves into the game, then goes on to explain that the sharpest players do it not by looking forward, but by looking backward. He provides a few examples of how using this sort of "retrograde analysis," combined with pattern recognition, applies to problems in a range of situations from proofreading to biology to law enforcement to card tricks. If you ever have a chance to enter into a bet with this man, don't.

That's my advice, anyway. As far as Ashley's advice goes, if we endorse any particular takeaway from what he says here, we endorse the first step of his chess-learning strategy for absolute beginners, which works equally well as the first step of a learning strategy for absolute beginners in anything: "The best advice I could give a young person today is, go online and watch some videos." Stick with us, and we'll keep you in all the videos you need.

Related Content:

Marcel Duchamp, Chess Enthusiast, Created an Art Deco Chess Set That’s Now Available via 3D Printer

Kasparov Talks Chess, Technology and a Little Life at Google

Free App Lets You Play Chess With 23-Year-Old Norwegian World Champion Magnus Carlsen

Watch Bill Gates Lose a Chess Match in 79 Seconds to the New World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen

A Famous Chess Match from 1910 Reenacted with Claymation

Chess Rivals Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky Meet in the ‘Match of the Century’

Vladimir Nabokov’s Hand-Drawn Sketches of Mind-Bending Chess Problems

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Professional Pickpocket Apollo Robbins Explains the Art of Misdirection

You've got to pick-a-pocket or two, boys 

You've got to pick-a-pocket or two. 

Unlike the Artful Dodger and other light-fingered urchins brought to life by Charles Dickens and, more recently, composer Lionel Bartprofessional pickpocket Apollo Robbins confines his practice to the stage.

Past exploits include relieving actress Jennifer Garner of her engagement ring and basketball Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley of a thick bankroll. In 2001, he virtually picked former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail clean, netting badges, a watch, Carter’s itinerary, and the keys to his motorcade. (Robbins wisely steered clear of their guns.)

How does he does he do it? Practice, practice, practice... and remaining hyper vigilant as to the things commanding each individual victims's attention, in order to momentarily redirect it at the most convenient moment.

Clearly, he’s a put lot of thought into the emotional and cognitive components. In a TED talk on the art of misdirection, above, he cites psychologist Michael Posner’s “Trinity Model” of attentional networks. He has deepened his understanding through the study of aikido, criminal history, and the psychology of persuasion. He understands that getting his victims to tap into their memories is the best way to temporarily disarm their external alarm bells. His easygoing, seemingly spontaneous banter is but one of the ways he gains marks' trust, even as he penetrates their spheres with a predatory grace.

Watch his hands, and you won’t see much, even after he explains several tricks of his trade, such as securing an already depocketed wallet with his index finger to reassure a jacket-patting victim that it’s right where it belongs. (Half a second later, it’s dropping below the hem of that jacket into Robbins’ waiting hand.) Those paws are fast!

I do wonder how he would fare on the street. His act depends on a fair amount of chummy touching, a physical intimacy that could quickly cause your average straphanger to cry foul. I guess in such an instance, he’d limit the take to one precious item, a cell phone, say, and leave the wallet and watch to a non-theoretical “whiz mob” or street pickpocket team.

Though he himself has always been scrupulous about returning the items he liberates, Robbins does not withhold professional respect for his criminal brothers' moves. One real-life whiz mobber so impressed him during a television interview that he drove over four hours to pick the perp’s brains in a minimum security prison, a confab New Yorker reporter Adam Green described in colorful detail as part of a lengthy profile on Robbins and his craft.

One small detail does seem to have escaped Robbins’ attention in the second demonstration video below, in which reporter Green willingly steps into the role of vic’. Perhaps Robbins doesn’t care, though his mark certainly should. The situation is less QED than XYZPDQ.

While you’re taking notice, don’t forget to remain alert to what a potential pickpocket is wearing. Such attention to detail may serve you down at the station, if not onstage.

Related Content:

Watch Björk’s 6 Favorite TED Talks, From the Mushroom Death Suit to the Virtual Choir

The Science of Willpower: 15 Tips for Making Your New Year’s Resolutions Last from Dr. Kelly McGonigal

The Kitty Genovese Myth and the Popular Imagination

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. The sleeping bag-like insulating properties of her ankle-length faux leopard coat make her very popular with the pickpockets of New York. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Adam Savage’s Animated Lesson on the Simple Ideas That Lead to Great Scientific Discoveries

Educator, industrial design fabricator and Myth Busters cohost Adam Savage is driven by curiosity.

Science gets his wheels turning faster than the notched disc Hippolyte Fizeau used to measure the speed of light in 1849.

In his TED-Ed talk on how simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries, above, Savage zips across the centuries to share the work of three game changers - Fizeau, Eratosthenes, and Richard Feynman (one of the de facto patron saints of science-related TED talks).

I found it difficult to wrap my head around the sheer quantities of information Savage shoehorns into the seven minute video, giving similarly voluble and omnivorous mathmusician Vi Hart a run for her money. Clearly, he understands exactly what he’s talking about, whereas I had to take the review quiz in an attempt to retain just a bit of this new-to-me material.

I’m glad he glossed over Feynman’s childhood fascination with inertia in order to spend more time on the lesser known of his three subjects. Little Feynman’s observation of his toy wagon is charming, but the Nobel Prize winner’s life became an open book to me with Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s excellent graphic biography. What's left to discover?

How about Eratosthenes? I'd never before heard of the Alexandrian librarian who calculated the Earth's circumference with astonishing accuracy around 200 BC. (It helped that he was good at math and geography, the latter of which he invented.) Inspiration fuels the arts, much as it does science, and I'd like to learn more about him.

Ditto Fizeau, whom Savage describes as a less sexy scientific swashbuckler than methodical fact checker, which is what he was doing when he wound up cracking the speed of light in 1849. Two centuries earlier Galileo used lanterns to determine that light travels at least ten times faster than sound. Fizeau put Galileo's number to the test, experimenting with his notched wheel, a candle, and mirrors and ultimately setting the speed of light at a much more accurate 313,300 Km/s. Today’s measurement of 299792.458 km/s was arrived at using technology unthinkable even a few decades ago.

Personally, I would never think to measure the speed of light with something that sounds like a zoetrope, but I might write a play about someone who did.

Related Content:

Neil deGrasse Tyson Delivers the Greatest Science Sermon Ever

The Feynman Lectures on Physics, The Most Popular Physics Book Ever Written, Now Completely Online

Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her play, Fawnbook, opens in New York City later this fall. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Walt Whitman’s Poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” Brought to Life in Three Animations

How can a modern educator go about getting a student to connect to poetry?

Forget the emo kid pouring his heart out into a spiral journal.

Ditto the youthful slam poetess, wielding pronunciation like a cudgel.

Think of someone truly hard to reach, a reluctant reader perhaps, or maybe just someone (doesn’t have to be a kid) who’s convinced all poetry sucks.

You could stage a rap battle.

Take the drudgery out of memorization by finding a pop melody well suited to singing Emily Dickinson stanzas.

Or appeal to the YouTube generation via short animations, as educator Justin Moore does in the TED-Ed lesson, above.

Animation, like poetry, is often a matter of taste, and Moore’s lesson hedges its bets by enlisting not one, but three animator-narrator teams to interpret Walt Whitman’s "A Noiseless Patient Spider.”

Originally published as part of the poem "Whispers of Heavenly Death," and included in the 1891 "deathbed edition" of Leaves of Grass, the poem equates the soul’s desperate struggle to connect with something or someone with that of a spider, seeking to build a web in a less than ideal location.

Two of the animators, Jeremiah Dickey and Lisa LaBracio launch themselves straight toward the “filament, filament, filament.” Seems like a solid plan. An industrious spider industriously squirting threads out of its nether region creates a cool visual that echoes both Charlotte’s Web and the repetition within the poem.

Mahogany Browne’s narration of Dickey’s painting on glass mines the stridency of slam. Narrator Rives gives a more low key performance with LaBracio’s scratchboard interpretation.

In-between is Joanna Hoffman’s spiderless experimental video, voiced with a wee bit of vocal fry by Joanna Hoffman. Were I to pick the one least likely to capture a student’s imagination…

Once the student has watched all three animations, it’s worth asking what the poem means. If no answer is forthcoming, Moore supplies some questions that might help stuck wheels start turning. Question number five strikes me as particularly germane, knowing the ruinous effect the teenage tendency to gloss over unfamiliar vocabulary has on comprehension.

Ultimately, I prefer the below interpretation of Kristin Sirek, who uses her YouTube channel to read poetry, including her own, out loud, without any bells or whistles whatsoever.

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

 Related Content:

Hysterical Literature: Art & Sexuality Collide in Readings of Whitman, Emerson & Other Greats (NSFW)

Orson Welles Reads From America’s Greatest Poem, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1953)

Marilyn Monroe Reads Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1952)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Pico Iyer on “the Art of Stillness”: How to Enrich Your Busy, Distracted Life by Unplugging and Staying Put

Having known Pico Iyer for quite some time, on paper and in person, as a perpetual example and occasional mentor in the writing of place, it delights me to watch him attract more listeners than ever with the talks he's given in recent years, the most popular of which advocate something called "stillness." But at first I wondered: did this shift in subject mean that Iyer---a California-grown Brit from an Indian family who mostly lives in Japan ("a global village on two legs," as he once called himself), known for books like Video Night in KathmanduFalling off the Map, and The Global Soul---had put his signature hard-traveling ways behind him?

Hardly. But he did start telling the world more about his long-standing habit of routinely seeking out the most quiet, least "connected" places he can---the seaside no-speech-allowed Catholic hermitage, the rural village outside Kyoto---in order to reflect upon the time he has spent circling the globe, transposing himself from culture to alien culture. "24 years ago, I took the most mind-bending trip across North Korea," he tells us, "but the trip lasted a few days. What I've done with it sitting still---going back to it in my head, trying to understand it, finding a place for it in my thinking---that's lasted 24 years already, and will probably last a lifetime."

If we want to follow Pico's example, we must strike a balance: we must process the time we spend doing something intensely---traveling, writing, programming, lifting weights, what have you---with time spent not doing that something, a pursuit in its own way as intense. He connects all this with the 21st-century technology culture in which we find ourselves, citing the example of folks like Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly and even certain enlightenment-minded Googlers who regularly and rigorously detach themselves from certain kinds of modern devices, going "completely offline in order to gather the sense of direction and proportion they'll need when they go online again."

Achieving such a proper intellectual, psychological, social, and technological compartmentalization in life may seem like a rare trick to pull off. But if you ever doubt its possibility, just revisit the last talk from Pico we featured, in which he describes his encounter with Leonard Cohen, the only man alive who has successfully combined the lifestyles of rock star and Zen monk.

Related Content:

The Best Writing Advice Pico Iyer Ever Received

Pico Iyer on “The Joy of Less”

How Leonard Cohen’s Stint As a Buddhist Monk Can Help You Live an Enlightened Life

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Björk’s 6 Favorite TED Talks, From the Mushroom Death Suit to the Virtual Choir


Image by Zach Klein

Singer-songwriter Björk, currently enjoying a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, celebrated TED’s billionth video view with a playlist of six treasured TED Talks. What do her choices say about her?

In this talk, artist Jae Rhim Lee models her Mushroom Death Suit, a kicky little snuggy designed to decompose and remediate toxins from corpses before they leech back into the soil or sky. Despite Björk’s fondness for outré fashion, I’m pretty sure this choice goes beyond the merely sartorial.

For more information, or to get in line for a mushroom suit of your own, see the Infinity Burial Project.

Continuing with the mushroom / fashion theme, Björk next turns to designer Suzanne Lee, who demonstrates how she grows sustainable textiles from kombucha mushrooms. The resulting material may variously resemble paper or flexible vegetable leather. It is extremely receptive to natural dyes, but not water repellent, so bring a non-kombucha-based change of clothes in case you get caught in the rain.

For more information on Lee’s homegrown, super green fabric, visit BioCouture.

Björk’s clearly got a soft spot for things that grow: mushrooms, mushroom-based fabric, and now...building materials? Professor of Experimental Architecture Rachel Armstrong’s plan for self-regenerating buildings involves protocols, or “little fatty bags” that behave like living things despite an absence of DNA. I'm still not sure how it works, but as long as the little fatty bags are not added to my own ever-growing edifice, I'm down.

For more information on what Dr. Armstrong refers to as bottom up construction (including a scheme to keep Venice from sinking) see Black Sky Thinking.

Björk’s next choice takes a turn for the serious… with games. Game Designer Brenda Romero began exploring the heavy duty emotional possibilities of the medium when her 9-year-old daughter returned from school with a less than nuanced understanding of the Middle Passage. The success of that experiment inspired her to create games that spur players to engage on a deeper level with thorny historical subjects. (The Trail of Tears required 50,000 individual reddish-brown pieces).

Learn more about Romero’s analog games at The Mechanic is the Message.

Remember those 50,000 individual pieces? As photographer Aaron Huey documented life on Pine Ridge Reservation, he was humbled by hearing himself referred to as "wasichu," a Lakota word that can be translated as “non-Indian.” Huey decided not to shy away from its more pointed translation: "the one who takes the best meat for himself." His TED Talk is an impassioned history lesson that begins in 1824 with the creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and ends in an activist challenge.

Proof that Björk is not entirely about the quirk.

See Huey’s photos from the National Geographic cover story, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.”

Björk opts to close things on a musical note with excerpts from composer Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque” and “Sleep” performed by a crowdsourced virtual choir. Its members---they swell to 1999 for “Sleep”---record their parts alone at home, then upload them to be mixed into something sonically and spiritually greater than the sum of its parts.

Listen to “Sleep” in its entirety here.

Related Content:

Hear the Album Björk Recorded as an 11-Year-Old: Features Cover Art Provided By Her Mom (1977)

A Young Björk Deconstructs (Physically & Theoretically) a Television in a Delightful Retro Video

Björk and Sir David Attenborough Team Up in a New Documentary About Music and Technology

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Artist Takes Old Books and Gives Them New Life as Intricate Sculptures

New York-based artist Brian Dettmer cuts into old books with X-ACTO knives and turns them into remixed works of art. Speaking at TED Youth last November, he told the audience, "I think of my work as sort of a remix .... because I'm working with somebody else's material in the same way that a D.J. might be working with somebody else's music." "I carve into the surface of the book, and I'm not moving or adding anything. I'm just carving around whatever I find interesting. So everything you see within the finished piece is exactly where it was in the book before I began."


Dettmer puts on display his pretty fantastic creations, all while explaining how he sees the book -- as a body, a technology, a tool, a machine, a landscape, a case study in archaeology. The talk runs six minutes and delivers more than the average TED Talk does in 17.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox.

« Go BackMore in this category... »