Thursday, December 8, 2016

Qh6+!!: An Advent Reflection on the World Chess Championship

Apparently a dramatic world chess championship blows up my twitter feed.  That might tell you something about me or twitter or both, but probably nothing you didn’t already know.  

In the recent championship a pair of 27 year olds played to a 6-6 tie, pushing the contest to (I kid you not) a speed round.  Defending champion Magnus[1] Carlsen appeared to be on the ropes against the crafty Russian in a final, 25 minute match.

Then the internet lit up.  Every post included six cryptic characters: Qh6+!![2]

Magnus Carlsen not only won, but had won in startlingly sublime fashion.  Everyone agreed.

Here’s the problem.

I couldn’t see it. 

I stared at the final board, sure he’d given the game away.

He slid an unprotected Queen into a space where his opponent could easily take her…two different, and apparently costless, ways.

Now, I was once a competent recreational chess player.  I was never in the tournament “scene” but I was undefeated in my high school chess club senior year, including a “celebrated” win against a teacher.[3]  I once got a parking ticket in front of the Watertown public library because I lost track of time reading a book on chess openings.[4]  My nerd cred is pretty tight.

But as I starred at winning move, I only saw a colossal blunder.  I knew it wasn’t.  The Russian[5] conceded before Magnus took his hand off the move.  The masters saw something I didn’t.  To me, the decisive blow that ensured victory - the creative stroke that blew up (a particularly nerdy corner of) the internet - looked like an error my 5 year old committed in his first game.[6]

Duh, the pawn can take the queen.

Or the king for that matter.

Not only did I see a senseless queen sacrifice, I saw impending defeat.  The Russian was just one move away from his own victory.  He simply needs to slide that rook-backed Queen one space[7] to clinch the match. 

One commentator summarized the position like this:
Karjakin threatened no less than four checkmates, and there’s no way Carlsen could have sidestepped them all. The only problem for the Russian: It was Carlsen’s move.[8]

The move: Qh6+!!

I had to set up the board and work scenarios for maybe 8 minutes to figure out how Qh6+!! won the game.  To my amateur eye, the master stroke that ensured victory looked like a colossal blunder.

A couple weeks later[9] it occurred to me: the first Christmas was like Qh6.

God’s decisive victory presents as weakness. 

Like the queen sacrifice, the incarnation is such a heedless invasion of enemy territory, such a reckless act of regal self-donation, that at first glance it looks foolish.

The sheer scale of the apparent error might mystify casual onlookers, God going all in[10] on an infant incarnation.  But those who understood, the angels and the shepherds, messengers cosmic and very very terrestrial, wizards walking west and eccentric temple hermits, those who saw it for what it was, nodded knowingly.  They gasped, not with horror, but with delight.[11]

They saw the victory secured. 

God’s plan for human redemption, wrapped in poo soiled swaddles, under the shadow of Roman oppression, into the mess of our ingenuity for injury, looks like a colossal blunder…like Qh6.  It is a bold royal invasion, but it leaves the Prince of Peace vulnerable and exposed and unprotected.  And we know how the story goes.  The move requires royal sacrifice.  It ends with self-donation.

Except that’s not how it actually ends.

Christmas is a master stroke, so startling and sublime that it looked like defeat…until it didn’t.

The angels and shepherds gasp at its beauty and brilliance.

And in the fleeting moments, amidst the falling leaves and downtown lights, when the story behind the story behind the story of Christmas really dawns on do I.

Luke 1:18+!!

This post was written while listening to Through The Deep, Dark Valley by The Oh Hellos.[12]

[1] The best chess name ever.

[2] Seriously, the whole internet, maybe you were doing something else at that exact moment.

[3] I played soccer in the fall and ran track in the spring and used to tell people chess is my winter sport.

[4] Can you believe the founder and president of the chess club had a social calendar that afforded him time to read chess books?

[5] He only had 10 second, he was down to the incremental move time which was 10 seconds a move.  He needed none of them.

[6] The UC Davis chess club sometimes sets up boards during the farmer’s market, which is just one of the many delightful things about my town.  They taught me my favorite strategy for playing chess with children (without throwing the game, which I just can’t do…not just morally – it models bad chess and undermines the pedagogy).  They played for a little while, until the expert had a clear advantage, and then, switched sides and played some more until the other side gained an advantage, and then switched again.  The final switch came when the expert was within a few moves of check mate, and could coach the beginner through it.

[7] Or down…

[8] My favorite line from this slate article describe the “somewhat unusual mating patterns” of the two rooks…which is the sort of thing I’d expect to hear about in an ecology seminar, not a chess blog.*

*Speaking of mating chess pieces (a clause that has never been written and never should have been), my buddy and I tried a variant of chess in high school where both knights (horses) from one color could occupy the same space, which we called a “breeding” move.  A certain number of moves later, that space sprouted a new knight. 

[9] During a @steveluxa advent sermon.  He laid out a couple evocative illustrations of the incarnation, and it got me thinking of this one.

[10] Theological pun…I’m hilarious.  Turns out puns about the incarnation flirt a little with heresy…but then again, words about the incarnation flirt a little with heresy, that’s the nature of mind bending mystery.

[11] The Slate article describes the move as a “gift” Magnus gave us.  I love that.  This is actually one of the reasons I follow sport.  It is genre art.  Each event is a collaborative making.  Some are tedious or lop sided.  But each holds the potential for transcendence.

[12] OK, I’m a little obsessed.  But if you haven’t heard them, check out their NPR tiny desk concert:

Sunday, October 16, 2016

My Obligatory (Unoriginal) Donald Trump Post

I don’t write about politics.  I don’t feel qualified.  I doubt almost all of my positions.
I hear all the time: “No one changes their mind on the internet.” 
I don’t know what they’re talking about. 
I change my mind three times almost every time I scan a twitter feed. [1][2] 
Economics is REALLY hard.  Race and ethnicity and systemic inequality in our country is complex and most attempts to fix it, explain it, or explain it away strike me as thin and naive.  Global inequality and radicalized ideologies have us engaged economically and militarily all over the world in a complex network of intervention that I can’t believe any human can hold in her or his head at one time.  I know I can’t.
The confidence most of America takes into the voting booth makes me feel like I’m missing something fundamental…like there is a part of my brain that doesn’t work.
I have never, in my life, cast a vote that didn’t leave me feeling dirty, sad, compromised, and confused.[3]
This November will be the same…with one exception. 
I will walk out of that both feeling dirty, sad, and compromised. 
But I will not be confused. 
This is the easiest vote I’ve ever cast.

I will be voting for Secretary Clinton.  I will not be voting for Donald Trump. 
I tried to reassess this choice at several points throughout the election, which is my custom.   When you are as confused about politics as I am, you can’t trust your initial impressions.  You have to reassess.  But I have never been able to seriously consider casting a Trump vote.[4] 
Now, you should not care about how I’m voting. 
I am not good at this. 
I offer no particular expertise or insight that makes my political opinion valid.  But as recently as a few weeks ago, Nate Silver was giving Mr. Trump a 20-25% chance of victory.  I come from a spiritual lineage that has a prophetic tradition.[5]  I felt the need to go on the record.
Here are the four top reasons I’m not voting for Donald Trump:
  1. I respect the OFFICE of the president and recognize its cultural power.
I believe in the presidency.  This may be hopelessly naive.  But I believe the office George Washington created by relinquishing does include qualifications of decency.  I have never disqualified a major political candidate on these grounds before, and don’t expect to again.  I didn’t like Cruz.  I thought his policy was naive and his rhetoric was dishonest[6], but I would not disqualify him for the office.  Clinton has skeletons in her closet.  I find her policy naive[7] and her rhetoric dishonest, but I do not disqualified her on decency grounds. 
But Donald Trump[8] lacks trace levels of certain virtues I require for the office.  Primarily, trump lacks temperance. [9]  That is an old timy word, that doesn’t mean much to most any more…but it means something to me.  Temperance is the ability to self-restrain, a basic power over impulse that allows humans to avoid rash choices.[10]

  2. I will not hand Donald Trump drones.
The last two administrations (Republican and Democrat) have both expanded executive privilege.  That sucks.  My epistemology makes me a fan of balanced powers.  But my understanding of the current state of executive privilege (which, we have established, is flawed) allows the Commander and Chief makes calls on drone strikes with little oversight.
Temperance is important in an engineer, or a nurse, or a professor, or a barista.  But it is essential…essential, for a job that comes with keys to a fleet of drones.[11][12]  

  3. I find Mr. Trump’s positions on immigrants and refugees unacceptable.
No.  We will not close our country to Muslims.[13]  We will not build a wall.[14]  The rule of law is important and immigration policy needs attention.  But it is our Judaeo-Christian heritage that knits hospitality into our national fabric.[15]  

  4. Secretary Clinton’s will be better on sentencing reform.
In my opinion, sentencing is the biggest justice issue in American politics.[16]  Yes, Secretary Clinton was part of the problem.  But here’s the thing.  She knows that.  I think she’s deeply embarrassed by it.  I think she would love to fix that part of her legacy, which makes her personally incentivized to fix it.  And whatever you say about the Democratic Nominee, I wouldn’t bet against her commitment to her legacy.  Mr. Trump doesn’t even seem to think we have a sentencing problem.  In fact, while policy recommendations are scarce from his camp, I’d expect him to double down and go “tough on crime,” exacerbating the situation.
This list could go on.  But you get the idea. 
I have not said anything new.  Usually that means I don’t say anything.  I only use this space if I feel I have something unusual or insightful or helpful, or at least quirky to add to the discussion.  This is none of those things.  It has all been said many times in better ways.
But, for once, I just want to add my voice to the others, to add a polemical vote to my constitutional one, to say that, though I hate politics, and am deeply dissatisfied with both parties, to dismiss the current candidates as equally flawed is a false equivalency. 
Mr Trump will be far worse for our country than Secretary Clinton.[17]
One of the benefits to internal political conflict is that, while I’m never happy on the second Wednesday of November, I’m also never despondent.  Whoever we elected has deep and debilitating ideological and economic flaws.  But they also have strengths.  I try to see it as a season of those strengths.
Mr Trump lacks that upside.  I see no ideological or economic strengths and the cultural and moral downside is unprecedented.  For the first time there is an outcome that could leave me despondent on Wednesday.  So I had to say something.
This post was written while listening to The Oh Hello’s[18] Pandora Channel

[1] I feel like twitter was built for polemics…but polemical posts on facebook always confuse me.  I know that’s an arbitrary distinction, but I try to keep a hard wall between friendship and ideology. The link to this post is my first political post (and hopefully will be the last).  Whenever I see an aggressive polemical post or meme I hear ”We can be friends as long as you pay an anxiety tax for my ideology.” or “ You are important to me, but not as important as this issue/candidate.” Or “I know you care too deeply about me to defriend me or get off facebook, so here’s a meme mocking half the people you care about.”  And since I find both liberal and conservative politics economically and morally flawed (though not equally so), it doesn’t matter if the post comes from my friends on the left or right.

[2] A cleverly deceptive meme or tweet can cause me to change my mind eight times in a minute as I try to parse truth from philosophical sleight of hand and rhetorical fallacy…and I can’t remember a polemical meme that didn’t somehow employ one or the other (usually both).  They are the raw materials of the trade.

[3] Frankly, it was only Bonhoeffer’s “Ethics” that made voting a long term psychological possibility for me.  Bonhoeffer argues that the difficult ethical situations are not choices between good and bad, those are easy, and rare.  The difficult ethical choices are between bad and worse or good and better.  Purity religion (which we saw recently in the largely secular Bernie vote this year) will not participate in bad-worse decisions.  But abstaining is an implicit choice for worse.  On the other hand, those of us who follow the incarnate God, who invaded the broken earth and soiled himself with our sin, can absorb the personal guilt that comes with choosing the bad over the worse.

[4] I drafted this post before the recent “incident on a bus.”  That was by no means a “final straw” for me.  I hit my final straw with Trump during the first debate.  The most telling thing about that incident was that it did not surprise me.  That is where I was with this candidate.

[5] The prophetic tradition is invoked far too often to excuse ad hominem argument and aggressive polemical diatribes, so I invoke it cautiously.  Most claims to the prophetic tradition enjoy its proclamation component but dodge of its evidential requirements and preoccupation with responsible content.*  But it is not something I could escape in this case. 

*False prophecy carried severe penalties in the communities that featured it, because they recognized its power.

[6] What does it say that I no longer require honesty as a basic virtue requirement of the office?  I don’t know.  Nothing good.
[7] I only listened to a short exchange from the second debate, where they were talking about their proposed changes to the tax code.  I’m not sure if the republican or democratic policies are more economically na├»ve.  Monotonic economic solutions are fallacies.  If your answer to every economic question is “put more of Americans money back in their pockets” or “tax the rich,” you are not thinking carefully about economic policy.  Economic one-trick-ponies are not what our country needs but it’s all we are offered…we only get to choose the trick.  The democrats will never be able to fund their vision without broad, middle class, tax hikes.  They lack the courage to say so, so they keep running multi-generational deficits.  When they say “Tax the rich” they mean “Tax the rich…and our children.”   Their attempt to blame those who make over $1/5  million is rule-by-jealousy, a covetous based populism tapping into the same dark impulses that gave us Trump on the other side. 

But the republican solutions are not better (and may be worse), and Trump’s particular version of them are in a fantasy world of their very own.  Dropping the marginal tax rate to 15%???  What?  Really?  Donald Trump’s economic policy may be crazier than Cruz’s.  The republican offer to immediately gut revenue shows absolutely no respect for the conservative “incremental, adaptive changes out of respect for unintended consequences.”  The current republican nominee’s economic proposals makes the democrat fiscal policy seem measured and reasonable, which is an accomplishment.

[8] Every post swirling around the internet where evangelicals (yup, that’s me, the only person I know who still claims the term…but that’s another post) or conservatives* or, whatever I am, make their case for Trump, starts with “I don’t like Hillary…” Well, I am certainly not a fan, but I’ve had to ask myself why.  I have carefully and repeatedly audited my gender biases, and while, like racial biases, they are certainly always suspect, I don’t think they are the culprit.  Secretary Clinton is a 60’s liberal.  I’m dubious of liberal solutions (I’m just more dubious of republican solutions).  I’m not angry about President Obama’s administration.  I just think that after 8 years of center-left power, a center-right administration would be healthy.  But if I’m going to keep voting democrat decade after decade, I’d like to vote for someone more imaginative policy proposals, proposals that don’t seem crafted for the Vietnam era milieu.

*Note: Yes, despite not voting for a republican for president in decades, I consider myself a conservative for two reasons.** I am committed to intergenerational equity (sustainability) and have deep, motivating respect for unintended consequences, committing me to incremental adaptive management solutions.  (If those don’t seem like conservative principles to you, you’ve confounded contemporary tea party politics with conservative thought).  But I have not managed to convince myself to vote republican since my first election.  I’m not proud of that.  Even though a pure blue voting record is how a white man of privilege signals status in a liberal college town, it still feels like moral failure to me.  I fear I’ve become an ideologue, an entrenched liberal voter with a monotonic policy perspective, who cannot recognize when his country needs a conservative correction because of cognitive hardening (and the status that comes with liberal voting).  Every election, I look wistfully at the Republican slate, begging one of them to win my vote.  The first republican primary debate (both of them) was one of the most depressing events in this political cycle for me, and that is saying something.

My hope for America is not that the Liberal vision would get stronger and stronger and eventually prevail without reasonable dissent.  My hope for our country is that the two parties would hold our policies in tension with sound, logical, evidential arguments, and provide such compelling visions of the future that we would have trouble choosing.

**Again, I have a draft post on this.  I can’t apologize for not blogging.  And, frankly, no one is asking me to.  My writing time is going into talks, journal papers, and fiction (8 shorts and 3 novels in the last three years).  Also, somewhere around the time the fourth decade odometer rolled on my life, I realized I don’t want to be an internet personality.  I like analog life.  I believe in the congregational scale of human community.  But this is still a helpful venue to try out ideas, or go on the record.

[9] I wrote much of this before the “hot mike on a bus” incident.  Obviously, those comments displayed more than a lack of temperance, they showed a criminal level of entitlement and a potential history of assault.  But they did not shock me, which just underlines why I have to disqualify the Republican nominee on virtue criteria (which I have set to a pretty low bar). 

[10] This is one of the reasons I like politicians with a track record of marital fidelity.  Marital fidelity demonstrates 1) choosing against impulses to build a long term, life giving institution, 2) delayed gratification including capacity for second stage thinking, 3) self-skepticism and cognitive plasticity* required to parse complex ideas.  Someone who can weather a rocky stretch in their marriage without chasing a hard, young, body because they want to build something lasting for their family seems more likely to make the hard political choice that I need them to make, when their self-interest competes with what is best for my family and tens of millions like it.  That may seem like an unrealistic expectation, but I expect my president to be in the upper 3% of impulse control (and wisdom and a lot of other things for that matter).  Mr Trump has demonstrated that his impulse control is at least two standard deviations below the mean.

* I really believe that the ability to re-evaluate a position, entertaining the possibility that there is a better way to think about it, and to change the position when a better one is presented is the #1 marital skill.  This is an important quality in those who wield power.  Conviction is essential, but humans all too often mistake cognitive entrenchment for conviction. 

[11] I’m not comfortable with how Presidents Bush or Obama used drones.  But I also know that their briefings must be terrifying and that they are getting the very best advice, which I think they take.  So I give them some benefit of the doubt.  I believe they are both be measured, descent men without penchants for vengeance or petty violence.  Nothing in Mr Trump’s personal style or rhetoric leads me to believe that about him.

[12] I do not see a pro-life case for Trump.  My pro-life position* includes Pakistani villagers and school children in Yemen.  Those lives will be affected by this election.

*Yes, I am pro-life.  I know I’m supposed to be ashamed of this.  I am not.  I do not consider it one of my conservative positions.  I consider it one of my liberal positions, in keeping with my Hebraic-Christian commitment to the rights and voices of the powerless.  But it is an incredible difficult position as well, with many implications about gender power and class and race and economic inequality.  It requires a nuanced, complicated conversation that I do not feel particularly qualified to weigh in on, and at the very least requires a separate post.

[13] When I think about the future of conservative politics in America, when I think about what kind of coalition a conservative vision could build given our country’s shifting demographics, it seems to me that that coalition should focus on recruiting Muslim and Latin American immigrants.  Pluralism should work both ways.  Our country should benefit from conservatism native to other cultures, a corrective to our modernist blinders.  I cannot understand why the political right isn’t openly courting Muslim immigrants.* 

*Because of my interstitial political position (and, lets be honest, my contrarian streak), I find I defend democrats in Mississippi and republicans in California.  That means I spend more time defending republicans even though I lean democrat.  For years I’ve argued that the racist component in the party is very small and that holding them against conservative politics is a genetic fallacy.  The 50% “basket of deplorable” thing was reprehensible.  But my estimate was also naive…I underestimated the racially motivated republican voting block by like an order of magnitude.

[14] I’m not going to call him a “racist” or a “bigot,” even though I think, for once, those words fit. I think one of the things this election showed is that we have expanded the semantic range of these words so far that they’ve lost their power.  If everyone is a “bigot” then maybe it’s not that bad.  If Bush’s response to Katrina was “racist,” well then we’ve already had a racist president, the precedent is set, what’s wrong with another one?  I have another post drafted on this, which, like most of my posts never saw the light of day.  But the ad hominem chickens have come home to roost.  The internet warriors who deputized themselves the conscience of everyone who sees the world more complexly than they do, who have tried to shame us out of our cognitive dissonance by calling us racist or bigots, have gutted some of our culture’s most powerful words.  Now we need those words to name the thing before us.  But they’ve been used up.
[15] There is a lot of talk about how the Christian Scriptures weigh in on either side of every political debate.  Most of this talk is hermeneutically thin.  (For example, the scriptures vehemently calls Yahwehists to be outrageously generous to the poor.  This in no way justifies raising the marginal tax rate.* Arguing that it does conflates taxes with generosity.)  But I think there are two visions of “State” that are translatable from the Hebrew theocracy to our secular democracy: 1) insistence on just courts that do not have class or ethnic bias and 2) hospitality to refugees.

*Note: I support raising the marginal tax rates (also capital gains, but that is much more problematic given the propensity for that money to leave the US) and not just for the rich.  My family is single income in one of the most expensive housing markets in the US but we are still upper middle class.  We do not pay enough tax in my opinion.  Neither President Obama nor Secretary Clinton have the courage to hold the middle class accountable for our share of the liberal vision.  So I believe that the marginal tax rates should return to something like Reagan levels (which are much higher than Obama era levels).  But, arguing that position based on Isaiah or Ezekiel’s or especially Jesus’ call to care for the poor claims spiritual authority for a pragmatic economic calculation, that may be false based on reams of confounding data and drivers.  It is illicit.

[16] I don’t mean to minimize police reform and am not suggesting both conversations aren’t worth having…it just seems to me that sentencing has broader effects and is easier to fix.***  But I am white, and have never feared a police officer in this country or been pulled over unless I’d actually committed a traffic infraction, so my confidence in that opinion is low.
***Here’s a shocking revelation.  I have a draft post on this, centered largely around my experience with an extended jury service.
[17] Which is why I won’t be voting for a third party candidate.  I understand the impulse and respect it.  But back to my Bonhoffer-ian ethic, if I oppose Trump this strongly, I need to make the move most likely to defeat him, even if it makes me feel dirty.  If I vote third party and he wins, I’m complicit.  I cannot escape the math into a safe cocoon of ideological purity.  Voting third party and then complaining about the outcome strikes me the same way as European countries that rely on US military intervention and then criticize us for it.

[18] Who are delightful, and should be, in no way, associated with the content of this post.