Sunday, March 12, 2006

(194) Critical reviews

In early 2001 Justin Horton gave my book Coincidences a less than warm review in Kingpin magazine -

By an amazing coincidence, I wrote in praise of Jim Plaskett a couple of issues ago, and I have now been asked to review his book Coincidences.
I'm not sure I can..., if only because it would take more space... than the book,... is intrinsically worth. ...
Plaskett relates a number of apparently bizarre coincidences in his life, while taking us through his unsuccessful attempts to have an anti-Darwinian TV programme... broadcast, and his conviction that coincidences are evidence of deeper... hidden patterns...
All the usual suspects - Koestler, van der Post, pyramid patterns are invoked. ...
I could take several thousand words to explain... why this is a load of tripe, but... it is not my experience that rational explanations... satisfy those who take refuge in mysticism to compensate for an inadequate understanding of evolution, of science and of mathematical odds....
whenever we attempt to find meaning in some... coincidence - e.g. ... we go on holiday and our next-door neighbour is in the adjoining chalet - we neglect the many times... when we... experience things in which no such pattern can be detected.
If you do millions of things, eventually some coincidences turn up.
Every Saturday, although the odds are 13,983,815-1, somebody actually wins the Lottery.
No pattern, just inevitability.
Jim Plaskett is an interesting man and an engaging writer, but I wish he would not write tosh like this.
I do not recommend that you read this book. I do... recommend that Plaskett reads writers like Stephen Jay Gould and John Sladek, who may be able to put straight some of his misconceptions.

An issue of Kingpin towards the end of 2001 would contain some more enthusiastic comments from readers of my book.

In October 2001 I received an e mail enclosing a chess questionnaire from J. Horton to some GMs.
Now that I had his address, I pointed out that I had read all of Gould’s books. Over a week later I had received no reply so I e mailed again.
It produced an acknowledgement and a promise that a fuller response would be forthcoming.

On 14th December I sent this -

Should you ever feel like telling me with which aspects of Gould's thought I need to be better acquainted, do so... A merry Darwinian Xmas to you and a happy new year.
James Plaskett

There quickly followed the response -

Dear Mr Plaskett,
I am baffled by your e-mail. I sent you a long reply some weeks ago. Did you not receive it?
Justin Horton

I replied

I did not... ! Please re-submit, if you can.
Thanks, James

In December 2001 the Fortean Times contained an article arguing for Intelligent Design versus Darwinism and pointing out the activities of self-appointed Darwinian Thought Police against those who dare to question their creed.
It prompted me to send in the following letter -

Sir, ... criticisms of neo-Darwinism do not have to promote Intelligent Design as the only alternative... (I then outlined some of the main points against neo-Darwinism before concluding with) -
... Neo-Darwinists... like all others who embrace a creation myth... are just whistling in the dark.
But if you want to posit a Designer, then we want to know what designed that Designer.
And if your response is that it is something... beyond time and space, then we should concede that we have probably reached the limits of human intelligence.

James Plaskett

To my surprise I then got this e mail on January 8th 2002 -

Dear James, I enjoyed your... letter... on Intelligent Design. It's going in the next edition. A book has... come in which I hoped you might be interested in reviewing... : Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer, with an intro by Stephen Jay Gould...
Best wishes,

Val Stevenson Reviews Editor, Fortean Times

This was the first time that I had ever been asked to review a non-chess book.
I responded that I would love to, and the next day received acknowledgement and thanks.

Also on January 9th I got another e mail from Horton -

Dear Mr Plaskett,
... it wasn't anything *specific* that Gould said..., so much as his insistence on scientific *method*... in... evolution, he is... keen to remind us that variations... don't possess any purpose or meaning. This seemed... the opposite of your approach... you... observe... events that were not necessarily connected, and insist that they... were...
When one says... "there *has* to be a reason" for something,... while it can... be a way of escaping the fetters of previously accepted thinking, it is more often a route into... loss of intellectual rigour.
I... felt that you were insisting on connections... not shown to exist... hence my lack of patience with the book... other readers disagree with me... perhaps time will show who was right.
... in writing (my) dissertation... I found your book Playing To Win particularly useful...thinking "outside the box" enabled you to be constructive and original. Conversely, I felt the same process in Coincidences merely led to a mess.

Justin Horton

I replied -
Ok... in the introduction... I accept that coincidence does not necessarily mean anything... Gould is not best known as a philosopher of science per se, but rather as a... populariser of neo-Darwinism... scientific methodology and how something... not amenable to... replication may... meet with acceptance... is one of the main themes of the book.
All the best,

This was my review for the Fortean Times -

The triumph of an idea
By Carl Zimmer
This is the accompanying volume to the recent PBS seven part American TV series, Evolution, and could almost serve as a standard text of how Darwinists get it wrong.
They claim that the evidence to support neo-Darwinism is as solid as that which upholds the idea of the earth orbiting the sun. In reality the only reasons why anyone today could think neo-Darwinism triumphant are the specious evidence presented in its favour and censorship of the scientific arguments against.
I am incredulous that, in his introduction, Stephen Jay Gould is still promoting the case of the Peppered Moth as supportive of natural selection, when it has, on so many occasions, been shown to be bogus.
The mutating of bacteria and viruses are Zimmer’s examples of benign, spontaneous mutation. But unless you can show that the strains that come through to resist antibiotics were not already present to begin with then you may not claim that evolution has been demonstrated, for nothing new came about.
The non inter-breeding of the finches of the Galapagos and the Herring gull and Lesser black-backed gulls are cited as evidence of speciation. In fact those finches and those gulls can interbreed, so why regard them as separate species?
Instances of fossil sequences demonstrating change above the species level may be very much disputed as may claims of genetic similarity which prove common ancestry.
Most scientists privately concede that there are serious objections to Darwinism, and in response to the PBS series 100 signed a statement of scepticism about the ability of natural selection of random mutations to account for the complexity of organisms.
In March 1995 the Times Higher Education Supplement announced that it had commissioned a critique of Darwinism by journalist, Richard Milton. Richard Dawkins contacted the editor and lobbied against the publication of the article, which he had not seen. She caved in to this unscientific bullying and suppressed the piece. Dawkins interprets his role as professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford University as meaning he must prevent the public and academic community from gaining access to evidence that contradicts Darwinian doctrines. (If you want to read Milton's article go to
A Times leader of August 1992 commented that a critique of the limitations of neo-Darwinism "... will make fascinating television."
Ten years has been too long a wait for such a, genuinely scientific, broadcast on this taboo subject.

At the beginning of June 2003 I was informed by Dr Antonio Palma (an appreciative reader of Coincidences) that a guy in a shop in his town of Bari, Italy was trying to sell him what he claimed to be a 1941 letter from Capablanca to his wife.

I e mailed chess columnist Tim Krabbé about it on June 2nd 2003, and he responded -

I saw the Bashir documentary about Major Charles Ingram, and had to think of you. Of course the guy should have been jailed for not knowing what a googol is, and for never having been to Paris. I also thought of you when I saw a reader’s letter in the London Review of Books by Fiona, side by side with one about chess.
I’m mentioning (but not reviewing) your Coincidences book in a future column about a great chess coincidence I experienced.

He added that Capa called his wife "Kikiriki" and that they spoke French to each other.
This authenticated the letter, and I informed Dr Palma, who went on to buy it.

I sought out the chess letter in the London Review of Books, and it turned out to be from... Justin Horton.
Right after this one from my wife -

No a la guerra From Fiona Pitt-Kethley
I enjoyed John Sturrock’s ‘Short Cuts’ about bullshit and other matters (LRB, 17 April).
Several months ago I moved to Spain. In current times I am glad to be out of England and living in a country where ‘No a la guerra’ stickers appear everywhere on cars. I can switch between English and Spanish TV channels.
News coverage of the war on the latter seemed infinitely more fair, largely because it did not seem to depend on embedded reporters.
A week into the war my, my husband became reacquainted with an old Iraqi friend who had previously run a chess café in London and had moved to Spain to open a restaurant. (Entry 188.)
Over drinks at his home we had the unusual and interesting experience of viewing channels beamed in by satellite from every Arab country you can think of, from Libya to the UAE.
The pictures were entirely different from what we were seeing on Western television; reality probably lies somewhere in between.
Our friend was desperately seeking information on the welfare of his sisters and their families in Baghdad and could not understand why the Americans had felt it necessary to take out the phones and electric power. To this day he has been unable to get through to his family to find out if they are alive or dead...
If you are as disturbed at all the bullshit as I am, may I suggest that you search on Google for Prescott Bush (the grandfather) to get an idea of the deals the family has been involved in.

there followed this

- Checkmates from Justin Horton
(A letter in which he noted several historical factual innacuracies in a piece on chess by Daniel Soar which had appeared in their edition of April 3rd.)
It concluded -
Finally, the story of Frank Marshall saving up his innovation in the Ruy Lopez opening for ten years in order to use it on Capablanca, though a good one, is now, I believe, generally agreed to be false.

It was to this letter that Krabbé had referred.

Two below it was another commenting on a review of a chess-related book in the April 3rd edition.

It should have From Joseph Diamante Ruth Franklin (LRB, 3 April)
reviews a translation of Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle that "now appears as The Royal Game".

I have a copy of a paperback Compass Books edition, published by Viking Press in 1961, which includes a reprint of The Royal Game in the same B.W. Huebsch translation. Shouldn’t the review have said that it was a translation?

I e mailed Krabbé back, pointing out the parallels:-

a) My wife, without consulting me, includes in her letter the coincidence of Entry 188.

b) Krabbe’s e mail to me began with a reference to the Major and his possible incarceration.
So did my, already written up, account in Entry 189.

c) Krabbé drew attention to Justin Horton’s letter, adjacent to my wife’s.
Horton had been one of eight or so people who had written reviews of Coincidences, and his was quite unfavourable. Krabbe’s e mail mentions that, at long last (he had received it well over a year before) he would be getting around to referring to, although not reviewing, my book.

d) I contacted Krabbé concerning the authenticity of a letter from a GM to his wife. He had already thought about me, another GM, following seeing a published letter from my wife.

e) Entry 188, which I sent to Krabbé, involves Dr Bari, the guy who was thinking about buying the Capablanca letter and who said he found Entry 189 "astonishing".
Also, Horton, who had written a sceptical review of Coincidences - in contrast to Dr Palma, who very much liked it, and Krabbé who gave it a neutral reference - queries in his letter the authenticity of a Capablanca anecdote.

f) The last letter in the LRB was also on a chess theme.

g) Until mid-June 2003 a copy of Zweig’s The Royal Game lay on our landing. Fiona had received it as an unsolicited publisher’s gift the year before. I then sold it to a bookstall in our local market, one to which I had previously made sales of Coincidences.

Then, intrigued by this nexus, I bought the Zweig book back.
Some months later we received a letter from Dr Winnifred Heller (see Entry 166) which contained a gift copy of the same Zweig book, for myself, in German: Schachnovelle.
I had never mentioned it nor even Zweig to her.

After my essay in defence of the Millionaire Three went up at the site, I received on January 11th 2004 an e mail from Krabbé indicating a change of mind -

Dear James,
Yesterday night, I saw a man race through the first 14 questions of the Dutch Millionaire (top prize € 500.000) with answers I also knew, and stop at the last one which I also didn't know. But I wouldn't have been on - I bungled the Fast Fingers round which he'd done in 5 secs. As to Ingram's £1.000.000 question my son instantly knew the answer to, see:
The mathematician's name was Kasner, and the Googol guy was not his son, but a (sometimes named) nephew, whose age is variously given as 8 or 9.
Very interesting piece - yours, I mean. When I saw 3/4 of Bashir's program (I remembered too late to put in on), I was convinced that the Ingrams were guilty. But if it is possible to make a reasonable and realistic person like me doubt that, as your piece does, then they should not have been convicted. There should at least have been a reconstruction in the studio, to determine what could be heard and seen from where.
My 95 % belief in their guilt went down to 50.... ... ...
Tim Krabbé

He was to, on October 22nd 2005, give Coincidences a more favourable mention in a Dutch newspaper article.

He also there conveyed his liking for my new book Starting Out: Attacking Play.

No comments: