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Brainiac

Dress for chess success

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

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ISTOCKPHOTO; Matthew Callahan Globe Photo Illustration

The hyper-examined life

Stephen Wolfram is the polymath genius behind the computer program Mathematica, the online “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram Alpha, and the sweeping nonfiction opus “A New Kind of Science.” Now, on his blog, Wolfram has turned his analytical skills upon himself, posting a comprehensive review of data he’s collected about his life going back to the 1980s, complete with scatterplots.

Wolfram can tell you the number of e-mails he’s sent and received, the number of hours he’s spent on the phone, the number of keystrokes he’s typed--even the percentage of keystrokes he’s entered since 1990 which were “backspace” (7 percent). He uses the data to reveal his life’s daily patterns and large-scale shifts. An analysis of his e-mail traffic reveals, for example, that Wolfram became increasingly nocturnal through the 1990s as he wrote the 1,280-page “A New Kind of Science,” snapping back to a normal schedule once it was published. What strikes Wolfram most is how “shockingly regular” his schedule is--routine, he explains, lets him “be energetic--and spontaneous--about intellectual and other things.” What strikes me is how hard he works: The probability that he will be on the phone talking to a colleague at 11 p.m. on a weekend is 50 percent.

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It won’t be long, Wolfram predicts, “before it’s clear how incredibly useful [personal analytics] is.” Everyone will be crunching the numbers, and “wishing they had started sooner, and hadn’t ‘lost’ their earlier years.” And this is just the beginning: Wolfram has scanned 230,000 pages of paper documents from his past, and plans to analyze medical test data, his genome, “GPS location tracks, room-by-room motion sensor data, endless corporate records--and much much more.”

How Tolstoy changed medicine

Writing in The American Interest, Jordan Smith provides an overview of the role Leo Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilych” has played in the history of medicine. It turns out that the story--which is about the physical and psychological suffering of a dying man, and its eventual relief--has been widely influential, especially in psychiatry.

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During the 20th century, Smith explains, Tolstoy’s story was used by psychiatrists as evidence for our unconscious, existential anxiety about death. It played a crucial role in Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer-winning 1974 book, “The Denial of Death”; it provided important examples for the social psychologists who developed Terror Management Theory in the 1980s; and it was a touchstone for Irvin Yalom as he developed existential psychotherapy. Today, its portrayal of the doctor-patient relationship is often cited in medical journals. Ivan Ilych receives little consolation from his physician, who’s preoccupied with getting his diagnosis right; by contrast, his butler, Gerasim, understands the dying man’s desperation and fear, and nurses him “easily, willingly, simply, and with a kindness that moved Ivan Ilych.”

It might seem strange that so many physicians and psychiatrists have relied upon a work of fiction, rather than a real-life case study. Tolstoy’s story, however, is just that good.

“Novelists,” Smith concludes, “suffer so that we might know better. Perhaps no other novelists suffer as well as Russian ones, but, thankfully you don’t have to be a Russian to learn from them.”

Dress for chess

Chess may be the ultimate in purely mental competition, but that doesn’t mean you can dress any way you like. As Anastasiya Karlovich explains in Chessbase News, the European Chess Union has adopted new, and very specific, dress-code rules. “There is dress code in many different sports,” says the union’s secretary general, Sava Stoisavljevic, “and we decided to establish our rules as well.”

Some rules cut down on female sex appeal: no short skirts, and no shirts unbuttoned past the second button. But, according to Stoisavljevic, “In fact these rules will be more useful during men events. In general, women take care about their looks and what they wear. There is not a lot of trouble with women....With men the situation is a little bit different.”

The rules aren’t that stringent: Players can still wear sunglasses at the board, for example. But hats are prohibited, except for religious reasons (“As an arbiter,” Stoisavljevic explains, “I had many situations when I had to check if players had something under their hats”), as are all forms of “beach-wear.”

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.
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