Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The End of Things

I like wisdom as much as the next person, but it has always niggled me that dead people's words tend to have a certain cultural weight to them. Casual witticisms from Mark Twain and Albert Einstein have been transformed over time into Very Profound Thought. What's that all about? We say all kinds of stuff throughout our lives, much of it nonsense or filler. But as soon as we die, <pop!> there's meaning to be had.

But then I started looking at death merely as an end, among other ends and endings. The end of a book or movie is when we attempt to digest what we've just experienced. The frame of a photograph ends what we know to be a much wider canvass. Even a simple sentence experiences death in the form of a period.

What? You don't believe me?

First let me say that I'm not saying the end of a sentence is the same thing as dying. Obviously, it's not. But something is triggered by their finality. Something clicks. I don't profess to know why that something happens, but I know it's happening just the same.

Close a book, and you're still thinking about it. Finish a movie, and, especially if it's a good one, you want to hash out just what was happening all along. The end of a scene or chapter generates a similar effect. You're not getting any more information. The book, the movie, the scene, the chapter... they're finished. But their ending gives you permission to look into them more closely. The end invites scrutiny.

There's an infinite amount of information in all directions, but ends, edges, frames, dust jackets, fades to black - these are the tools that invite comprehension. The meaning has been there all along. We just need the occasional reminder to look for it.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Future Match Configuration for the World Chess Championship

Gary Kasparov vs. Anatoly Karpov
World Chess Championship 1984

The World Chess Championship has concluded in New York City, NY, USA. The reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway has defended his crown against challenger Sergey Karjakin of Russia.

The match was to be decided by 12 games, governed by classical time limits (or what might pass as classical today). Players were to have 100 minutes each for the first 40 moves, an additional 50 minutes until move 60, and an additional 15 minutes after that. Plus, they have an additional 30 seconds per move.

These long matches are brutal. Players are under tremendous stress and often lose several pounds throughout a match, just by thinking. Because of the high level of play, draws are common. Draws can also be strategic, though, as a quick one can give both players a much needed break from the stress of the match. In this last World Championship series, 10 of the original 12 games ended in draws.

Because both Carlsen and Karjakin won a single game, their 12-game series ended in a 6-6 tie. After that, the match was settled by a series of speed rounds. Carlsen won.

Between Carlsen and Karjakin, Carlsen's the stronger player by far. Before the match, he was the best player in the world by classical time constraints, best player in the world by speed time constraints, and second best in the world at blitz. In short, this guy is chess incarnate.

It's important to preface what I'm about to say with proper respect for the world's best. Because winning the World Chess Championship with speed game tiebreaks is a bunch of crap.

Apparently, the debate goes back decades, perhaps to the very beginning of the World Chess Championship. At the famous Karpov-Kasparov match in 1984, the first player to win 6 games would be crowned champion, and ties weren't counted. The match went to 58 games and lasted six months. They eventually cancelled it, under much controversy, and allowed Karpov, who was leading in points, to keep the crown.

Such an extreme condition seems unthinkable in today's world where the average Western attention span has been tempered by 30-second commercials, Facebook, and viral Youtube videos. That said, I still prefer it to what just happened between Carlsen and Karjakin.

Classical chess and speed chess aren't the same thing. Speed chess and blitz chess aren't the same thing either. The changes in time controls literally change the game. It's not like adding an extra five minutes to the clock in the NBA. The pieces move the same, but the level of game play changes fantastically.

In fact, there already is a World Rapid Chess Championship and a World Blitz Chess Championship. Can you imagine either of those titles being decided by chess played under classical time controls? No way! It defeats the whole purpose!!

First, FIDE has to resolve to use only classical time controls for a classical time control championship title. It's ridiculous to do otherwise.

Second, I think 12 games is too few. I also think 24 games is too many. However, the need to maneuver within the format has got to be respected. Every little thing means something in these World Chess Championships. The choice of opening, the repetition of moves, the speed at which certain moves are made. More games means more of an open arena for these players to really interact and create some great games.

One simple solution would be to divide the match into fixed sets with artificial end points. The winner would be whoever emerged from a set with a lead in points.

Let's say the match goes to 12 games at first. If a player is winning by game 12, he wins the match. If it's tied, the match continues another 4 games. If a player is winning, he wins the match. If it's tied again, the match continues another 4 games. The match should go like this until 24 games. If it's still tied, the world champion retains his title.

Match sets could be in any configuration. 12-4-4-4 or 12-8-4 or 8-8-8 or 8-8-2-2-2-2. With artificial end points, players will likely push a little harder to try to end the match prematurely.

Third, the way FIDE alternates white and black now is ineffectual. Switching in the middle of set is meaningless. In fact, the way it worked with Carlsen playing white in the first AND last game of the match really benefited Carlsen. For the artificial end points to work, you need to allow both players to be white at the end of a set.

Using Carlsen and Karjakin as an example, let's say a match was divided into 12-4-4-2-2. This would allow for a maximum of 24 classical games and a minimum of 12 classical games. The first 12 would see Carlsen start with white and Karjakin with black in the first game; the last game of the 12 would see Karjakin with white and Carlsen with black. If they remained tied, Karjakin would start the next 4-game set with the white pieces. If they still remained tied after the game 16, Carlsen would start the next 4-game set with the white pieces. Still tied, the next 2-game set would be lead by Karjakin with the white, and finally, if still tied, the last 2-game set would be lead by Carlsen with the white pieces.

This particular set up allows for multiple chances to end the match using ONLY classical time controls. It also incorporates a bit of natural tension to encourage players to avoid draws.

Really, anything is better than what actually happened. No offense, Magnus.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Allure of KENKEN


This is KENKEN, a puzzle that piggybacked on Sudoku's popularity over a decade ago. I personally fizzled out on Sudoku pretty early on when I heard about editors merely deleting some of the numbers off the opening Sudoku puzzles to make them harder (never mind that the puzzles had been designed to be solved through logic alone). Disillusioned with a puzzle that could so easily be tampered with, I turned to KENKEN.

KENKEN, like Sudoku, requires the same numbers to be entered into every horizontal row and vertical column. In this particular puzzle, because the grid is 6x6, every row and column require the numbers 1 through 6 exactly once each.

What makes KENKEN different is that it incorporates basic math. Every bold shape (usually a rectangle or square, though sometimes a funky looking piece) has either a number alone or a number and an arithmetic symbol. The squares that have single numbers have no puzzle attached and can be filled in, as below:


After these giveaways, a solver must look to the other bold shapes, or cages, to solve the puzzle. Most cages have a number and symbol which is the clue to that cage's numbers. For example, the long rectangle next to the 1 in the upper left corner has "30 x" in it. That means the three numbers in that cage, when multiplied, equal 30. Two sets of numbers makes this true: 6, 5, 1 and 5, 3, 2. Since 1 is represented in that row, the set 6, 5, 1 is eliminated, leaving the other. However, the solver doesn't know what order to put those numbers in, so the puzzling continues. 

Like Sudoku, you have to sort out exactly what you can logically deduce from the information given, fill in a square or two, then repeat. Do this enough times, and you solve the puzzle.

The reason I linked to this particular puzzle is because it beautifully illustrated what I like about KENKEN. Even though these examples are time-stamped within a few minutes of starting, I actually had to spend nearly half an hour to make my first move!

I first went around the grid, trying to learn what I could. After figuring out part of the "30 x" cage, I knew the upper right corner had the numbers 6, 4 because they were the last two numbers for the row AND the equation made sense (6 - 4 = 2). But I still couldn't write anything. I moved on wondering about all the "2 ÷"s and feeling a little hopeless about them because they could all be solved with 2, 1 or 4, 2 or 6, 3. They represented too many variables to sort out. I looked at the "10 +" and the other "10 +". The second one can be problematic because it wraps around a corner, just like the "15 +" below. Because of this wraparound, they obey slightly different rules. These corner cages can have the same number in them so long as those numbers don't fall in the same row or column. In fact, several of my first KENKEN puzzles were ruined because I didn't understand this fact. The corner "10 +" could be 3, 4, 3, as long as the 3s didn't touch. Anyway, I looked at all these potential avenues for breaking into the puzzle, and though I collected bits of information, it wasn't enough to write anything down.

Finally, I had a breakthrough.

One thing I had overlooked was that certain cages COULDN'T have certain numbers in them. For example, all of the "2 ÷"s could never have a 5 in them. Once I figured this out, then I was able to bounce to the row with the 4 in it. Since it had two cages with "2 ÷", I knew that the 5 had to be in the "3 -" cage. This meant that the two numbers were 5, 2 (because 5 - 2 = 3), though I didn't know the order. That in turn meant that the rest of the row had to be filled in with 1, 3, 6. Only two of these numbers (6, 3) could fit into the far right "2 ÷" cage and make sense in an equation.

So after all of that, I knew definitively that the 1 had to go in the yellow square below. My first written square after the freebies!


Yes, that one square took me about half an hour. If I did these puzzles more regularly, I'm sure I would have found it quicker, but I'm out of practice. After the 1, I could fill in the square below it with 2 since that's the only equation that can work (2 ÷ 1 = 2).

Then it was back to the drawing board. Once again, you have to analyze the cages and figure out what information is there. With the "15 +" cage, I knew that it had to have a 6 in it. No combination of numbers adds up to 15 without a 6. But where did the 6 go?

If you'll recall, the top right cage has a 6 in it, and the cage to the right of the 4 has a 6 in it, so the 6s in both of those columns are spoken for, so to speak. You don't know which square they belong to, but you can black out those columns. And for our purposes, that's enough information!

With one square left in the "15 +" cage, we know definitely that the 6 goes in the yellow square below:


This is your introduction to KENKEN. I love it and I hope you enjoyed your introduction to it. How it fits in this blog is perhaps somewhat puzzling, but I leave it to you to figure it out. Any ideas?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Meta-Sitcoms: The Future of Television?

There is a very specific superhero craze going on right now. I'm not referring merely to the abundance of television shows and films, which our society has pretty steadily been into for a long time. I am thinking specifically of the crossover.

Marvel laid the groundwork with their heroes Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, connecting them all with the Avengers franchise. Then they made the jump into television with Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. Following this is the Captain America movie Civil War which pits Captain America against Iron Man. There's even early buzz right now that Spider-Man might make a cameo in The Avengers III, connecting that whole other movie franchise.

DC Comics has jumped in on the game with their Netflix deals on DareDevil and Jessica Jones, both set in the same universe, as well as The CW shows Arrow and The Flash, the characters of which both frequently visit one another's cities. And of course who could forget the upcoming Batman v Superman movie which though not technically a crossover in the same vein as the above experiments (Ben Affleck, this movie's Batman, has never been Batman and is bouncing off the mega popularity of the Christopher Nolan series), still gets crossover appeal for putting two of the best known comic book heroes in the same story.

Who knew it would be so popular to connect movies and shows? Viewers get rewarded for watching multiple shows and movies and making connections between characters and their interrelated histories. What used to be a self-contained unit (either a TV series or a movie series) is now a dynamic meta-set of stories.

So if this kind of stuff can work with fantasy, why not do it in other genres?

Sitcoms are primed for this. For years, television has produced spinoffs, launching Frasier from Cheers, Mork & Mindy from Happy Days, etc. Some have succeeded, successfully carrying the audience from one show to another. Others have failed, like the short-lived Three's a Crowd (from Three's Company). But at the heart of it all is the crossover appeal.

What if a series of sitcoms came out that all overlapped and had crossover appeal? Off the top of my head, I think that if the children from The George Lopez Show, Fresh Off the Boat, and Everybody Hates Chris all went to the same school, it would make one crazy meta-television experience. Right now, these shows pretty much exist as islands, pandering to their specific minority's experience. But of course, while these shows are generating a lot of interest and mass appeal that TV execs never thought possible, keeping the camera on any one particular family isn't what the American experience is all about.

The school sitcom has been done. Saved by the Bell, Boy Meets World, Girl Meets World, Head of the Class, etc are well traveled territory. But we never really knew those characters' back stories. They were largely two-dimensional. But if you take the kids from existing shows, put them in a school together, you could get an unparalleled television experience.

Imagine! Exploring a particular character's life within a school-based sitcom would mean opening the door to that character's family-driven sitcom. Based on the success of the Marvel/DC franchises, I can't help but think that this would be an incredible venture in situation comedies. A meta-sitcom, an uber-sitcom, whatever you want to call it, could make for bold new television.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Paris: Merely a Litmus Test?

The front page story of The New York Times today explores the finances of the terror group ISIS. With reserves in the millions and perhaps in the billions and an estimated 900,000,000 in regular annual revenue, the group isn't likely to be going anywhere anytime soon.

I think the bigger message from the article is that ISIS is learning from the model of the West. Tickets for broken tail lights? That trick is straight out of the West's playbook. How many times have people gotten a speeding ticket only to complain afterward that the police should be out there stopping real crime? ISIS has studied how the West (particularly its local, state, and national governments) has inflated its coffers and successfully duplicated its practices. 

The real question now is: What else are they learning from the West? 

Awful as it sounds, I can't help but think that Paris may have been merely a litmus test for these guys. Station several hundred operatives across the world's major cities, attack Paris, and see what happens. Which services go down first? How fast? How many? Is there a pattern to it? How much is reported on the news versus what people are seeing in person?

Write it all down, report back to HQ.

What really strikes me is how detailed the process must be. I mean, tail light tickets? Folks, ISIS is taking notes. Really detailed notes. And while I applaud efforts to "study the enemy," I think trying to understand how they understand us is at least as relevant.

Monday, November 23, 2015

More Ideas About Curtailing ISIS Recruitment

ISIS recruits members from the West. They look for the downtrodden, of which, unfortunately, there are many.

I don't know the numbers, though. They might be getting more people who are just showing up on their doorstep rather than people who are actively sought out and lulled into the group. The real danger, as the various attacks around the world have shown us, is converting an otherwise ordinary citizen into a harbinger of unspeakable atrocities in the place where they're living.

To address this internal threat, governments have been monitoring, monitoring, monitoring. Sure, do some more of that. There's no telling when intelligence will become crucial. No argument here. But these ISIS trolls still appear to be finding young people and convincing them of their ideology. This has got to stop.

Here's a radical suggestion: encourage high schoolers to reach out to ISIS.

Right now, ISIS is finding these young people around the world because they're easy to find. But what if there were 1,000,000 more fake personalities out there crying for help? It would be seriously difficult to find the real people susceptible to extremism with a deluge of fakers.

Our government doesn't have the time to pull off a plan like this. They don't have the manpower either. But teens? I can't think of a group with more time to kill. Train them, prepare them for craziness, let them pretend to be someone else online, and then hand over the fishing pole when they bring in a big fish.

With so many fake cases out there, it would be a complete waste of time for ISIS to scour the internet looking for real people. And if they found someone, how could they trust them with so many fakers out there?

This would effectively bring an end to local US enrollment (or any other government willing to do it). As for the rest of ISIS, I'll get back to you.

Friday, February 20, 2015

ISIS and Curtailing Recruitment

This past week, the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, made international headlines by releasing a video tape of the beheading of twenty-one Christian Egyptians along the Libyan coast. They are gaining ground in the Middle East, and their enrollment numbers are also increasing. Take a look at this map of ISIS (in gray) on the wiki site to see specifics.

From all of this has emerged a conversation about why some people turn to radicalism and others don't. The New York Times ran a video about three friends, two who are working normal jobs and the third who left to join ISIS. It doesn't really offer any specific reasons why the third friend left home. The video just chronicles someone whose personal beliefs were no longer in sync with his friends'.

I don't think this line of inquiry - trying to understand the why of radicalism - will be a particularly fruitful path. So what if you discover the ins and outs of one particular person's reasons for joining ISIS? A thousand people might have a thousand reasons for doing the same thing.

In the short term, better to focus on a strategy to curtail enrollment. For that, look no further than our country's own relationship with home-grown terror: the Ku Klux Klan. They too enjoyed high enrollment for a while. But what happened?

As the story goes, one man infiltrated their organization, learned all of their secret code words, handshakes, whatever, and aired them over the radio on children's programming. That was it. Over time, with children repeating all of their mumbo jumbo, the mystique of the Klan was broken. It became a bad joke to join the KKK. For more of that story, read here.

My idea is to do the same with ISIS. Make a video of some clowns talking about clown jihad. Have a kid saying that challah is great. Make some Weird Al remake of some of their youtube releases. Above all, make the entire thing ridiculous.

You get the world laughing at these clowns, and their numbers will tank.