August 31, 2004

Dreams of a final theory   {Comments: 148}

Will Baude weighs in on the solution to chess with the sexy idea that Black, moving second, might actually have an advantage over White at the most precise levels of play,

because the game would naturally tend toward a lock-down where being forced to move was a major disadvantage, and black would be able to capitalize on white's tempo "advantage".
Possibly. But I'm not so sure we will ever reach a solution for chess, or even the "still higher levels of play" he refers to. Computers are making rapid advances, yes, but a couple things suggest to me that this progress will be limited. First, depsite massive increases in processing power, Kasparov and other top level players still aren't getting wiped off the board -- and in fact, they are finding ways to win some games. This situation may change, but the tide hasn't turned yet, despite declarations to the contrary after Kasparov's loss to Deep Blue (a bogus result anyway, if you ask me and a small cadre of chess-players).

More importantly, the way chess programs work is at issue. Computers, even the top level machines that play against top level humans for top level championship purses, aren't doing much besides chugging vast numbers of positions and evaluating them by assigning a score. This method is effective because of the sheer processing power at the computers' disposal, but also because the computers are programmed by international masters and grandmasters with the values of various pieces and piece combinations, positional circumstances, etc. This is to say the computer cannot evaluate the game by itself; humans must decide what the relevant values are, either through their own expertise or through constant play testing.

At some point, perhaps we'll be able to program a machine with elegant pattern recognition skills that allow it to play positionally without human coaching. When that happens, chess may or may not be transformed. But even then, the level of complexity in this game is astonishing (did you know that after 10 moves for White and Black, there are more possible positions on the chess board than there are hydrogen atoms in the universe?), and it's hard to imagine that tactical foresight could lead to a "lock-down" from move one.

(Incidentally, with a friend I've invested quite a bit of time into various permutations of two move chess, which ends up being much more aggressive than its popular counterpart. My friend and I don't play at a very high level, but there were definitely "lock-down" circumstances in many of our games, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that black had an advantage there. Does this work against what I've said above?)

August 27, 2004

Poetic license   {Comments: 3}

I like posting poetry, but there are a couple of obvious issues that ought to (but probably won't) be resolved before I'll feel comfortable posting verse wholesale. For one thing, it would seem to be blatantly illegal, and at the expense (literally?) of what I generally consider to be a disadvantaged group. I think of myself as having pretty radical views on copyright, especially when it comes to the creative; but I'm not yet ready to impose those views on others.

Also, there are formatting problems with poetry -- so often poems require spacing at the beginning of lines, which isn't the most convenient thing to arrange. In the case of some simple concrete poems (and I'm a big concrete poetry enthusiast) different fonts, both fixed width and otherwise, are needed -- so there are (important!) choices to be made there. And then there's the whole question of whether to put poems in blockquotes with introductory text and titles, or to take a more poem-as-post approach, which is probably related to the questions above about intellectual property.

(It's interesting, I think, that bloggers take so much care with quotations and credit. The form makes it so easy to steal things, and so easy to blur those lines -- and yet people seem very conscientious about attributing even the smallest of borrowings. Is this because attributing things has positive external effects, as in other bloggers notice when you credit them and it feels good, or does it have more to do with reputational? I guess it's mostly the former.

Does anybody know of any high profile cases of blog plagiarism? The only think I can think of is the whole Agonist flap at the start of the Iraq war, and I'm not sure everyone would even agree that the Agonist was even a blog at the time.

In my experience, there aren't a lot of people playing with this aspect of the medium -- there doesn't seem to be much experimentation with the mechanisms of attribution or the expectation of veracity in blogging. In that sense maybe it's still in a confessional phase? Little known fact: before I first started blogging, I had the idea that I would write a blog that was entirely made up of commentary on nonexistant and/or false news stories, complete with quotes (but no links, I guess). This pomo idea gave way to the much less interesting stuff I actually write, but if you've been with me long enough, you'll remember that the very first title of this blog was counterfactual, and that's where the name came from.)

MORE: The title of this post also happens to be the title of a literary magazine I started with a couple friends in high school, and incredibly I have just discovered that it's still operating there (scroll down... it's right between the Ping Pong Club and Promise to Keep, the CHS chastity police).

August 26, 2004

An additional poem   {Comments: 0}

Where then shall hope and fear their objects find?
The harbor cold to the mating ships,
And you have lost as you stand by the balcony
With the forest of the sea calm and gray beneath.
A strong impression torn from the descending light
But night is guilty. You knew the shadow
In the trunk was raving
But as you keep growing hungry you forget.
The distant box is open. A sound of grain
Poured over the floor in some eagerness -- we
Rise with the night let out of the box of wind.

--John Ashbery, from The Tennis Court Oath

The rest is opera   {Comments: 3}

Sometime in the next week or so, The Trio of Minuet (also here, with short video clips) is going to be syndicated nationally via American Public Television. Only a couple local stations are showing it right away, but stations all over the country (inlcuding in some big media markets -- Chicago, LA, SF, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit) have committed to airing it at some point. So, watch your local listings!

By the way, the television production of the opera has been nominated for three Regional Emmy Awards -- not the national kind, but the ones that are awarded in Cleveland. The nominations include Best Children's Special and Best Entertainment Feature.

August 25, 2004

Free stuff   {Comments: 3}

If any readers want a Gmail account, I have plenty of them sitting around and would be glad to give you one -- just send me an email at the address in the sidebar. (My user-level quibbles with the Gmail interface are here.) I don't know how long they're going to keep up this by invitation only business, but it's starting to feel a bit silly...

August 24, 2004

Remaindered   {Comments: 4}

Cool links I've been saving up:

One of the few surviving workers from the disaster at Chernobyl speaks out in an interview about the accident and his recovery (also see here for pictures of Chernobyl today).

eXile's War Nerd valiantly defends France's embattled military reputation, insisting that "over the past thousand years, the French have the most glorious military history in Europe, maybe the world."

And a Filipino family kills a relative and feeds his flesh to unwitting wedding guests. Please keep in mind that I am only half Filipino. On a related note (!) here are the Wily Filipino's thoughts on adobo.

Likewise pitiable   {Comments: 0}

Not to make light of this awful tragedy, but I think Russia's the only place in the world you'd have to prepend a caveat like this one:

"There's still a chance this is an appalling airplane maintenance problem, but it seems more likely this is a terrorist act, given the prevailing conditions in the region," said Fiona Hill, a Russia scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
An appalling maintenance problem? Bozhe, moi! For the sake of Russian national pride, let's hope this was terrorism...

UPDATE: Be careful what you wish for.

August 23, 2004

Virtual progress   {Comments: 6}

Speaking of Barcelona, this virtual replica of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia (it's nearing completion) has got me excited. Progress on the actual cathedral proceeds at an agonizingly slow pace, to the point where one of my lottery daydreams has always been to pay for its completion. When I visited there 7 years ago, the construction made it hard to envision a finished product, or even appreciate what was there. This should help!

Three little letters   {Comments: 4}

I'm not enough of an organizational theorist to argue the merits of Pat Roberts' intelligence restructuring proposal -- although it's certainly intriguing, and expanding the scope of the debate can't be all bad.

One thing about the proposal really struck me as a good idea though: not only would the CIA cease to exist under the Roberts plan, but its name would likely be eliminated. How frightening is that name, how menacing in the minds of the people of the world! (Remember that bit in Barcelona about the AFL-CIA?) It's kind of the like the FSB, the apparently emasculated but arguably just as nefarious successor agency to the KGB... changing that name can seriously lower your profile and help reduce world suspicion/animosity. The only real question is, can we find a sexy enough acronym to replace it?

August 19, 2004

Grandmother tongue, or the tale of Gonya   {Comments: 8}

Incredibly, Will Baude writes a post about his head to head Scrabble match with my grandmother (unless by some freak chance there's another elderly lady named Gonya on the Indianapolis Scrabble scene). The story has the ring of truth, although I will say her English is better than he suggests -- she's been in the country since the early 50s, and while the thick Filipino accent remains and her hearing is deteriorating (from age, not immigration), she's certainly communicative! Maybe Will's charm just isn't so evident in person...

At any rate, there's obviously a challenge to be made here, in defense of the family honor! Baude can name the time and place of his choosing, and we'll settle this once and for all (but I must warn him that confidentally and the like will be promptly challenged).

I do agree, btw, with Will's point about how native speaker status affects a Scrabbler's prospects. If a non-native can take advantage of grammatical rules to genereate new possibilities, isn't a native speaker positioned to do so more accurately? We can spend all day cherry picking examples of words that will seem strange to a native speaker, but that doesn't change the fact that the native has a leg up on both grammar and vocab.

Of course, it's not dispositive; my grandmother still kicks ass, most of the time!

August 18, 2004

Those ugly vowels   {Comments: 2}

I guess I'm dealing with a lot of name related issues this week. The latest research (actually the only research) on the sexiness of various names is out, and the news is not good. It turns out that, for males, names with back vowels were considered less sexy (by those who know, that is, folks on the internet at the website than names with front vowels. The specific example they gave of an unsexy name was Paul (of particular interest to me, for some reason). The reverse was true for female names: long-vowelled names were considered sexier than short-vowelled names. So, I guess my options are to change my name or change my gender?

Maybe I'm motivated by my own newfound name insecurity, but I have a couple gripes about the paper's conclusions/methodology. From the introduction:

The Saussurean assumption that there is nothing inherent in the relation between a sound pattern and a concept is taken for granted in most of cognitive science. Though the notion that sound-meaning pairings are arbitrary is rarely challenged, there is some evidence indicating that this conjecture may not be wholly true.
And from the conclusion:
This research argues against the Saussurean notion that word-referent associations are completely arbitrary pairings. It suggests that at least under some circumstances, there is a systematic and significant link between some sounds in a language and the semantic associations belonging to words with those sounds.
But the research doesn't show that at all! Saussure's point wasn't that word-referent pairings are completely arbitrary within a linguistic context. He was saying that the sounds we use to create meaning are arbitrary across languages. So, while the name Paul might be unsexy in English or in America, there might be other cultures or liguistic contexts where that same sequence of sounds has an entirely different meaning and effect (and that's where, apparently, I should move). For Saussure, the linguistic context is what creates meaning, rather than anything intrinsic about the sound itself.

If this research had looked at the sexiness of names with long and short vowels across all world languages, or at least a random sample, then one could begin to draw the conclusion that Ms. Perfors has drawn. But I'll lay any odds that the result wouldn't hold up in such a test.

MORE: Mark Liberman has a further discussion here.

August 17, 2004

Words and non-words   {Comments: 7}

Speaking of Will Baude, he's been writing lately about words banned in Scrabble, from tournament play or generally. I've been taking close note of which words are and aren't allowed in online Boggle, and it turns out that while, like in Scrabble, jew isn't accepted, the word goy (of particular interest to me, for some reason) is. Goy, at least, is banned in Scrabble.

Distractions   {Comments: 8}

Sorry for the lack of posts. I've been spending all my time playing online Boggle instead. I'm not sure whether boggling is more or less virtuous than blogging, but at least these days it seems more addictive. (Asides: is addiction necessarily unvirtuous? And is unvirtuous a legitimate Boggle word? And, does Will Baude really score in the 400's at Scrabble, or is he just playing Nabokov, or both?)

I've also been making some modifications to the site, including the long overdue installation of MT-Blacklist after a failed spam policy. I'm also in the process of setting up MTClosecomments, so older posts will no longer accept your witty repostes and all that vitriol. Sorry, but it looks to be the most effective way of avoiding comment spam, which almost feels like a civic responsibility these days. Finally, I will be moving to a new server sometime over the next week or so, so there may be some downtime whenever I get around to that.

August 13, 2004

Dangerous and pungent oddments   {Comments: 1}

A poem about a number (see also paraskavedekatriaphobia):

Triskaidekaphobia across the centuries
Kept us seating one more at the table, even when
The extra one was silly or redundant or gross.
Moreover, the new arrangements--the sexes paired off,
The doubled sevens, the mysteries of ten and four--
Masqueraded as reasons, hiding always our fear
Of dangerous and pungent oddments behind the bright
And interesting arrangements that terror had us make.
Like grownups now, allowing the black cats to amble
Across our shadows in the forenoon without alarm,
We can at least, in a poor time for discourse, invite
Exactly whom we please, whom we need: it will be right
In a new shape, finished beyond the old completion.
-- from John Hollander's Powers of Thirteen
August 11, 2004

And now you're older still   {Comments: 2}

John Flansburgh (of They Might Be Giants) on the future of music and the industry. TMBG has done some interesting things with free content and now they're trying to market individual songs by themselves (ie they've obtained their own digital rights). Flansburgh thinks there's a good chance that we won't be paying for recorded music in the future though, and I agree. Can this be generalized to all digitizable content?

August 10, 2004

What could have been   {Comments: 12}

Today is my twenty-eighth birthday, which reminds me of a conversation I had a couple years back with a friend of mine who is an aspiring fiction writer. I was talking about how I had been doing some writing of my own, and he told me that I couldn't be a writer, because to be a writer you have to have your first novel published by the time you're twenty-eight. So, as of today, I guess it's too late for me! But, that's probably for the best. We'll leave the real writing to the professionals...

August 6, 2004

The dying of the light   {Comments: 0}

The Guardian has a good sized excerpt of Edward Said's last essay, which will be in the next London Review of Books. Said writes about how artists change in their twilight years, with plenty of just contrasting examples, including this one:

Philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno uses the phrase 'late style' in his posthumously published book on Beethoven (1993). For Adorno, Beethoven's last works -- which include the last five piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis -- constitute an event in the history of modern culture: a moment when an artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works are a form of exile from his milieu.

It is the episodic character of Beethoven's late work, its apparent carelessness about its own continuity, that Adorno finds so gripping. He speaks of the late work as 'process, but not as development', as a 'catching fire between extremes which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity'. When he was a young composer, Beethoven's work had been vigorous and organically whole, whereas it has now become more wayward and eccentric; as an older man facing death, Beethoven realises that his work proclaims that 'no synthesis is conceivable'. Beethoven's late works, therefore, communicate a tragic sense in spite of their irascibility.

A friend forwarded this somewhat unsatisfying post about creativity a few days back, and Said's grafs about Beethoven provided a nice counterpoint (in the musical rather than the rhetorical sense (if you think they're different)).
A strong word   {Comments: 1}

Gary Alan Fine has a different take on why people hate George W. Bush so much. Instead of pointing to Bush's apparent stupidity or his gross policy missteps (the usual targets), Fine talks about Bush's upbringing and rise to power as emblematic of a hated (by some) social stratum/phenomenon. So, Bush represents something larger, but it's not necessarily something strictly political. It's a persuasive piece, but for me at least the preachy conclusion (why can't we all just focus on policy?) seems a little naive.

August 4, 2004

Conventional wisdom   {Comments: 0}

William Saletan looks more closely at the post convention poll numbers for Kerry and sees better news (for Kerry) than everybody else. This was my own reaction to the breakdowns in the WP/ABC poll, which was the only one I got a chance to see in any detail. Kerry didn't gain much overall, but on some key issues and perceptions there were huge changes. Specifically, on questions about who Americans trust to deal with Iraq or the war on terror, Kerry got an 8-point bump at Bush's expense. For the economy, health care, education, and taxes he got smaller but still sizable bumps. And after the convention, on every single issue except his prosecution of the war on terror, Americans trusted him more than President Bush.

So, the view that the convention did nothing to alter people's opinions or perceptions about Kerry is obviously wrong. The opposite seems to be true: the convention seems to have brought people around on precisely the issues that were targeted. The question is, why didn't this translate into an overall bump?

Once and for all   {Comments: 0}

A reader is thinking about business school. Here are three lists of the top 10 bschools in the country, according to some reputable sources. I had thought Northwestern and U of C were the top two for last year, but either I was mistaken or that listing came from somewhere else...

According to

1. Harvard
2. Columbia
3. University of Chicago
4. Dartmouth (Tuck)
5. Yale
6. University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
7. Stanford
8. UNC (Kenan-Flagler)
9. Northestern (Kellogg)
10. Virginia (Darden)
According to US News:
1. Harvard
2. Stanford
3. University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
4. MIT (Sloan)
5. Northwestern (Kellogg)
6. (tie) Columbia
6. (tie) University of Chicago
8. UCLA Berkeley (Haas)
9. Dartmouth (Tuck)
10. University of Michigan
And according to Business Week:
1. University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
2. Northwestern (Kellogg)
3. Harvard
4. MIT (Sloan)
5. Duke (Fuqua)
6. University of Michigan
7. Columbia
8. Cornell (Johnson)
9. Virginia (Darden)
10. University of Chicago
Interesting that the ratings are so different. You definitely get a picture of which ones are the very best though -- which is probably all that concerns this particular reader.
August 3, 2004

One more than fascism   {Comments: 10}

Colin Quinn telling Terry Gross about why he'd vote for Ralph Nader, perhaps even this year:

Why would I vote for him? Just because I'm outraged that people are so mad that... it's like so funny cause like in fascism, you have one person that is your choice -- it's so horrible, dictatorships you only have one person. And here, you have two -- one more than fascism.
I like the sentiment -- I've always been outraged myself at the contempt toe the line Democrats have for those who supported Nader in 2000. Of course, Nader doesn't really represent much of a choice anymore, now that he's taking money from Republicans.
August 2, 2004

Spat   {Comments: 0}

This little conflagration caught my eye because one of the principals is a former professor of mine (also I'm always watching for analytical approaches to the media bias question). The Groseclose/Milyo paper is here (PDF), Geoff Nunberg's critique is here, the Groseclose/Milyo response is here, and a nice little wrapup post from Mark Liberman, the moderator (!) of Language Log, is here. I don't have a lot to say about the methodology of the paper, although my gut reaction is that anybody who tries to nail down a political center for this country (a necessary first step for analyzing media bias) needs a theoretical framework for decribing how political views are formed and what the influences are -- that is, you can't just take a snapshot of political views at a moment in time and evaluate the news accordingly, since views are influenced by news and vice versa.

What I really found interesting about this exchange is the fact that all occurred on Language Log, and that Milyo (my old prof) and Groseclose don't have a web presence. When Nunberg attacked their paper, they asked that their response be posted on Language Log, and Mark Liberman agreed, even though their response is larded up with sass for Nunberg and academic bloggers generally. Why did Mark Liberman agree to post their response? Was he concerned about media bias? Had it been me, I wouldn't have given these guys the time of day -- there are plenty of other more appropriate places they could have posted a response, blogs and otherwise.

Adobo plug   {Comments: 0}

FYI this week I am posting a series of adobo recipes over at Too Many Chefs.

The future of design   {Comments: 5}

This beautiful and ingenius site popped up on Monkey Filter, and even though it's apparently been around for a while I thought it was worth a link. My own programming skills are still mired in a world of tables, but maybe this will get me off my ass to do the redesign I've been thinking about. There are actually serveral changes taking place at this site (besides the systematic dumbing down of the content): just the other day I reworked the way excerpted posts expand, pruned the blogroll, and took down (temporarily?) the rot(a)ting links.

The radio star   {Comments: 0}

Via Gapers Block, a short interview with Abby Ryan, Chicago's bright voiced and apparently nearly ubiquitous traffic princess (her own moniker, btw). One question isn't answered: to which political Ryan is she related?

August 1, 2004

Low fi   {Comments: 0}

Norman Lebrecht had an article about the evil that was the Walkman up at La Scena Musicale and I wanted to write a response but it seems to have disappeared (I have some hope that it will return, and I'll be sure to post an update if/when it does). At first I thought I'd be reading an attack on the ubiquity that the Walkman provided, and he made a point about the ability of the listener to control what she's listening to that had some merit. But then he turned a corner and it turned out the article was mainly about the Walkman's poor sound quality: Mr. Lebrecht sees the iPod not as the nefarious modern day heir to the Walkman, but as as almost messianic device.

An argument against the increasing popularity (in the sense of popular availability I guess) of mobile music would have at least had an elitist zing -- and along this dimension there are plenty of ways to critique the seemingly harmless Walkman. The ability to control one's own musical consumption, the ability to duplicate music easily/mix-and-match, the ability to create a private musical sphere that excludes others from listening -- all of these could be seen as tremendously subversive developments for music, perhaps especially for the classical listener (ie Mr. Lebrecht) because they play havoc on the traditional

relationship. These features, along with computer networks, play the crucial role in today's democratization of music -- which threatens, in addition to the recording industry, almost all established modes and methods of musical producation/creation. It's not really surprising that a music critic would have issues with the Walkman (and its souped up descendants).

Am I suggesting that Mr. Lebercht has ulterior motives for this bizarre rant against the Walkman? I don't know. I certainly don't share the hypothetical criticisms I suggested above -- in fact, for me maybe the Walkman itself was the messianic device, ushering in a transformation in intellectual property and the commons.

Black smoke   {Comments: 0}

Big fire in Oak Park just down the street from me yesterday -- it was in a municipal building where they store the snowplows, which means the village probably took a big hit. The upside is of course that nobody was hurt, although it sounds like a couple of apartments in the neighboring building were damaged, and when I ran by today it looked like the whole building has been temporarily evacuated. My wife and I were impressed that the Salvation Army was on the scene even before the fire was out.