I was tagged, and in a game of tag, when you’re tagged, you’re “it”.  So, I’m “it”.

In this version of the game, once you’re “it” you’re supposed to answer a few questions.  So, here goes:

1. If you could have any superpower, what would you have? Why?

Well, of course, the default answer to a question like this is “why, I would fly of course”.  (The second fallback always seems to be “invisibility”.)  But I’d answer this question in terms of what I’m expected to do with my superpower.  Will I be a crime-fighting superhero, or just a guy who uses his power to make his own life somewhat better?  If the latter, well, I wrote last week about my “magic button“, which would definitely act like a superpower: stopping time.  That’s one I’d primarily be using to make my life better.  Ostensibly, if you granted me more liberal use of the power, I could use it to fight crime as well. Continue reading

Weekend Assignment: Lone Wolf, Pack Animal

The latest Weekend Assignment poses an interesting question:

Some people are happiest when they’re part of a group. They may be leader of the pack, or actively contribute to the group’s efforts, or simply hang out with the others for companionship, and any scraps they may get. Other people are more the lone wolf type: the explorers, the loners, given to solitary effort and independent thought. Where do you prefer to function in human society: as part of a group, or your own, or in some combination of the two?

Extra Credit: Is there a group with which you’re currently affiliated that is especially important to you? What is your relationship with that group?

Growing up, I was often the odd man out.  I had few close friends.  I was always the last picked for any sports team.  I was relatively unpopular, because the things I was good at – studying and doing well in school and trying to expand my knowledge of the world – were not things that made the list on “how to win friends and influence people“.  Add to that a relatively uneven self-image (I was a scrawny kid, lacking in physical prowess, and I wasn’t what I would consider photogenic; albeit, I didn’t really care about those things, either).  Consequently, I was frequently a loner.  I’d spend time in books, or making up my own stories, or drawing, or otherwise engaging my imagination. Continue reading

The Great Houdini Redux

Some time ago I talked about how my dog, Shasta, was apparently the reincarnation of Houdini (hey, he said if there was a way to come back, he would… I guess he didn’t reason it’d be as a dog).  Somehow, she manages to find escape routes that we can’t even imagine or conceive.

I had mentioned that we had bought a large metal gate that screws into the wall in order to keep Shasta penned into the kitchen when we’re out for the day.  We chained up the cat door to keep her from waltzing through that.  Well, now she’s one-upped herself yet again.

She’s learned to open the gate.

I mean… she’s somehow figured out how to unlatch the gate and open it.  Which, of course, is impossible.  Except, somehow, for her, it’s not.  Dear Wife has come home three times this week to find the gate open and our happy little dog enjoying herself in rooms other than the kitchen.

So, this weekend we’ll be heading out to get some more chain and a small padlock.  We’ll be chaining and locking the gate closed from here out.  If she can figureout how to open that, then, frankly, she deserves to spend the day sleeping on the living room couch.

Weekend Assignment: Magic Button

I’m a little late to the party this week… but here’s my response to this Weekend’s Assignment

If you could have a magic button that would do one particular thing for you, up to once a day, what would that function be?

Extra Credit: Would your answer to the above change if it were a person doing the task (for free and without complaint, using ordinary human abilities) rather than a magic button?

That would be an easy one to answer.  There’s one ability that I always come back to, time and time again, one function that I always wish I had access to. Continue reading


Okay… so… if you’re into, you know, ebooks… and if at the same time you somehow follow me instead of actual famous people, and still further if the phrase “unicorn pegasus kitten” somehow piques your curiosity, and yet again also if you are a human being and therefore the sworn enemy of disease and illness, then there is a chance, however microcosmic, that you have not yet heard of “The Clash of the Geeks” and yet will be interested in the same.

If you belong in that category of the as-yet uninformed, allow me to say this: this is a free e-chapbook full of strange stories about an image of Wil Wheaton (i.e. Wesley Crusher of Star Trek: TNG fame) and John Scalzi (i.e. sci-fi author of bookshelf fame) locked in some kind of mortal combat – the former bestride said “unicorn pegasus kitten” with a lance and the latter as an orc.  The book is free, but the creators are collecting donations in return for their ridiculous efforts for the benefit of the Lupus Alliance of America, an organization dedicated to helping those afflicted with Lupus.

Therefore, if this is actually news to you (and let’s be frank, chances are, it’s not, but hey, there you go) and you’d like to help the fight against Lupus, then you should get thee hence to http://unicornpegasuskitten.com to score  yourself a copy of the ebook and to make your donation.

You have been warned…

Gaming Chess

I don’t play chess – as cerebral as the game is supposed to be, it somehow never really appealed to me, perhaps because the level of abstraction in chess was to high for my tastes.  Sure there are kings and knights and such locked in mortal combat.  But, I’ve always reasoned, at its heart, Chess is really a math problem.  The kings and queens and knights and bishops are just trappings.  You could call those pieces anything you want, and the math works out the same.  In theory, chess can be solved

And I never really found that particularly inspiring.  

Well, now I’ve started a new semester, and one class – called “Strategic Decision Analysis” – has really caught my interest.  Considering that one of the primary topics of study in the class is Game Theory, I suppose that comes as no surprise. 

Game Theory, as the term is intended to be applied, is meant to be a study of the competitive actions taken by two or more “players” whose interactions are, well, interactive, such that the actions of one player affect the decisions and actions of another, each trying to get to some desired outcome or result.  Wow, that’s a lot of words… but what it boils down to is: game theory isn’t about games like you or I know them, it’s about nations, corporations, and individuals struggling to get what they want in a world where other people are trying to get what they want.  In MBA school we study it for its effect on business. 

But even so, the concepts of Game Theory can be applied, no surprise here, to actual games.  You know, the ones you play for fun

And that includes Chess – a game, incidentally, which I typically don’t play for fun – vis-à-vis the aforementioned distaste for the math of it all – but about which I am fascinated nonetheless. 

In class this week, we began looking at an application of Decision Trees in “Sequential Games”.  Sequential Games, boiled down really simply, are games where one player takes a turn then another player takes a turn.  (That’s not really the definition – it’s a lot more complicated than that, and turns don’t necessarily instantly pass to other players, etc. – but it’s close enough for our purposes here.  )  Chess, obviously, is a great example of a Sequential Game.  As the class went, I began imagining the Decision Tree for a game of Chess.  This,  I realized, is how you solve Chess

What does a Decision Tree for a Sequential Game look like?  Well, you have but to ask, and Wikipedia doth provide: 

A Decision Tree for a Simple "Battle of the Sexes" Game

A Decision Tree for a Simple "Battle of the Sexes/Bullfight" Game

In this “game”, a husband and a wife are trying to decide where to go for the evening.  They are both away from each other with no means to communicate, so each will drive to one of the events – either a “Bullfight” or an “Opera”, separately, and simply expect the other to be there.  (In reality, as presented in the description on Wikipedia, this game would be a Simultaneous Game, not a Sequential One, but since we’ve got this handy tree, we’ll treat it as Sequential.)  Each has a decision.  The Wife knows the husband prefers the Bullfight and the Husband knows the Wife prefers the Opera.  How much they enjoy their evening depends on where they end up – indicated by the scores on the right hand side of the tree (higher scores are better).  So, for example, if the Wife decides to go to the Opera, the Husband, to maximize his score, ought also to go to the Opera – even though he would prefer the Bullfight, we prefers time with his Wife even more.  Likewise if the Wife decides to go to the Bullfight, the Husband ought happily to go as well.  If he ends up at the Opera instead, both Husband and Wife will be at their least-favorite destination alone, and both lose

That’s a rather simple game.  There are only two moves, one to each player. 

So, what would the Decision Tree for Chess look like, I wondered?  I began to imagine. 

It turns out, there are about twenty possible opening moves in Chess.  White goes first, and can move any of 8 pawns (each with two possible moves) or 2 Knights (each also with two possible moves).  So, where you see the Wife’s first move in that tree above, the gray box labeled “a”, imagine that with twenty lines coming out of it.  In response, the Black player has another twenty possible moves.  So those twenty lines go to twenty decision boxes for Black’s move.  Each of those twenty boxes has twenty lines coming out as well. 

And so it goes.  Back and forth.  The math gets pretty complex pretty quickly – some moves, once taken, invalidate the possibility for other moves.  Other moves, like crossing the board with your Pawn, open up a whole new universe of possible moves.  In fact, my professor postulated this week, there are more possible combinations of moves in Chess than there are stars in the universe. 

Yes, Chess is a math problem, and it can be solved.  In theory.  But in practice, you would need a super-computer the size of the entire universe to do it. 

So, how is it that Chess Champions do what they do?  How is it that Deep Blue – a super computer not the size of the Universe – beat Chess Champ Garry Kasparov

Well, they’re not solving the whole tree.  Not even Deep Blue.  Instead, man and computer both have typically developed heuristic models of the game – they memorize positions and relate them to other positions in the game, either favorable or unfavorable, and try to maneuver the pieces to their advantage.  Even Deep Blue, which was capable of brute-force calculating the game to a farther degree than any other computer, couldn’t solve for the entire game – it lost to Kasparov in several bouts. 

So, why has this exploration fascinated me that I’ve written such a long blog post about it?  Honestly, it’s hard to pin down.  In some way, a part of me wants to like Chess – but even knowing that as a practical matter Chess can’t really be solves like an equation does little to lessen my distaste for actually playing the game.  And neither does getting beaten at it, over and over, by my laptop (Deep Blue it is not).   In other ways, though, I guess I see Chess as analogous to the history of all games, and in another way, as analogous to the history of the Fantasy genre.  Chess was once the Kingly game.  Is there not certain to be such a game that is common and popular in a fantasy world not only of Kings and Knights but also of Wizards and Dragons?

Weekend Assignment: History

Since I’ve cut back to one or two posts a week, currently, I’ve been pretty choosy about what I post… That means for the past couple weeks, I didn’t join in on the Weekend Assignment, because the topics didn’t quite catch my imagination.  This week I’m going to make a try for it.

We don’t all live near the site of a battlefield or other world-famous event, but any place has its own history: political, cultural, even natural history. How aware are you of the past of the town, city or state where you live now? Share with us a story of local history. 
Extra Credit: Have you ever participated personally in an historic event? (This doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering.)

The city I live in bears on its seal the motto “Resurgens” and the emblem of a phoenix rising from the flames.  This seal and motto is a reminder of certain historical events.  No, I don’t live in Arizona.  I live in Georgia.  And the events in question were chronicled in a certain classic old movie, that being “Gone With the Wind”. 

In Atlanta, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a sign for a historical marker declaring the site of “so-and-so’s last stand” or “the charge of somesuch brigade”.  It’s part of the fabric here.  Heck, this is largely true of much of the American Southeast.  In the rest of the U.S. the Civil War is an important historical event.  It’s something that happened.  It’s important but it’s over.  The good guys won, the bad guys lost, Honest Abe freed the slaves and everyone lived happily ever after, the end.  Except, in the South, it’s not over yet.  It’s a living part of the culture and personality of this part of the world.

You’d think, too, that in Atlanta this would be doubly true – that here, it’d be personal, what with General Sherman and his rather infamous dealings with the city.  But no, despite the plethora of old bronze markers glorifying the Fall of Atlanta, this is a city quite unlike the South in which it resides.  It’s modern and urban – at least by comparison –  and as such is far less conservative and lives not in the past but is far more grounded in the present than the rest of the state.  And, having lived both in the rural South of Georgia and in this city, I can tell there is a difference, something in the flavor of the place.  It’s a city that acknowledges its history only as prologue for the future.

As for this week’s Extra Credit: yes, I have, though my own role in the historical event was rather small.  The historical event in question occurred on November 4th, 2008, and I am still proud of my contribution.