Monday, May 30, 2011

Tactics vs Strategy

Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do, strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.
Savielly Tartakower

Monday, May 23, 2011

Beautiful Blows

Anatoly Karpov, my favourite chess player, turns 60 today.

I haven't been able to track down the original source of the following quote, but it is entirely consistent with Karpov's approach to the game:
"Let us say the game may be continued in two ways: one of them is a beautiful tactical blow that gives rise to variations that don't yield to precise calculation; the other is clear positional pressure that leads to an endgame with microscopic chances of victory [...] I would choose the latter without thinking twice. If the opponent offers keen play I don't object; but in such cases I get less satisfaction, even if I win, than from a game conducted according to all the rules of strategy with its ruthless logic."
In a recent interview with Big Think, Karpov explains his style.

One of the best performances of Karpov's career was at the 1994 Linares chess tournament where he crushed an outstanding field of the world's best grandmasters, including Kasparov, Shirov, Kramnik, Kamsky, Anand, Topalov and Polgár (Judit). There he played one of the best games of his career, against Topalov. Some chess enthusiasts call it Karpov's Immortal.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A remarkable man

This week the New York Times published a brief interview with Professor Stephen Hawking. Here is one of the questions and answers:
Q. Given all you’ve experienced, what words would you offer someone who has been diagnosed with a serious illness, perhaps A.L.S.?

A. My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.
Good advice for anyone, disabled or not: focus on what you can do (well), not on what you can't do (well).

Professor Hawking was one of my heroes growing up (he still is) and one of the people who inspired my interest in science and technology.

I remember going round to my ex-primary school headmaster's home one afternoon to borrow his copy of A Brief History of Time. (Finding, let alone buying, the book was out of the question for me then for various reasons.) It had just come out and was making headlines around the world. As he handed it to me, he said in that wonderful Canadian accent of his: "It's a strange sort of book. Doesn't seem to answer any questions. Only seems to raise more!"

I later came to realise that that is the very essence and engine of science and technology: always asking questions.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The misuse of space

A highly entertaining short piece by Robert Fisk on the growing misuse of space, the word "space" that is. (Here's another one he wrote on academese, the arcane language of academia.)

Friday, May 06, 2011

How to Get a Real Education in College

That's the title of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Scott Adams (0f Dilbert fame) in which he does indeed offer advice on how to get a real education in college. His basic idea is that much academic-oriented education is wasted on many people; these people would instead, Mr. Adams's says, profit from a much more skills-oriented education, "something useful, like entrepreneurship''.

The only problem with Mr. Adams's proposal is that it rests on what appears to be a false, or at the very least misguided, premise: namely, that so-called academic subjects like "physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature" are necessarily useless, whilst so-called vocational subjects like entrepreneurship (whatever that is; the subject I mean, not the activity) are necessarily useful. Education (or knowledge) should have its uses certainly, but it should have it's non-uses, too. And knowledge can (and does) move unpredictably from useless to useful, or vice versa, and not bat an eye. Consider the following two cases of apparently useless knowledge.

G. H. Hardy revelled in the uselessness of his mathematical research:
"I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world."
He was wrong. A number of his discoveries have turned out to be very useful indeed.

The second example is from the life and career of Steve Jobs. He recounts his decision to drop out of college:
After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. [...]. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

[...] I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.
[Emphasis added]
There is the initial, apparently immutable uselessness again. And there, too, is the later, apparently inevitable usefulness

The trick to finding something useful, it seems, is to follow your intuition, indulge your curiosity and cultivate your interests.

I wonder how much of what appears to be really useful now turns out to be utterly useless later?

Quite a lot, no doubt. So isn't it better to follow your deepest whims (not passions, mind)? If they turn out to be useless, well, at least you enjoyed yourself. If they turn out to be useful, that's a bonus. Either way, you win.

Of course, there are some "useful skills" that are virtually a dead certainty and Mr. Adams highlights a few of these. My favourite is the one on writing: Write Simply, he admonishes. It is an excellent example of itself. A self-evidential example, so to speak. (How's that for a Russellian paradox?) Observe:
Write Simply. I took a two-day class in business writing that taught me how to write direct sentences and to avoid extra words. Simplicity makes ideas powerful. Want examples? Read anything by Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.
Hear, hear.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Einstein proved right. Again

New experimental verification of some predictions of Einstein's general theory of relativity from the Gravity Probe B project. Paper accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters.

Monday, May 02, 2011


"Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."
- George W. Bush, 20 September 2001

"Justice has been done."
- Barack H. Obama, 2 May 2011

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Stig of the Dump

Just started reading (to the boys):
Stig of the Dump
One word: brilliant. Here's the first paragraph of the first chapter.
If you went too near the edge of the chalk-pit the ground would give way. Barney had been told this often enough. Everybody had told him. His grandmother, every time he came to stay with her. His sister, every time she wasn't telling him something else. Barney had a feeling, somewhere in his middle, that it was probably true about the ground giving way. But still, there was a difference between being told and seeing it happen. And today was one of those grey days when there was nothing to do, nothing to play, and nowhere to go, Except to the chalk-pit. The dump.
I challenge anyone to resist reading on after such an enchanting start. And read on we did, enchanted, all the way to the end of chapter. The only sad part is this enjoyable experience will be over far too soon: Stig of the Dump only has nine chapters.

Update (10 May 2011): Well, it started brilliantly. The prose is consistently good, but a chapter or two into the book and the plot has literally thickened to the consistency of molasses. The boys are getting bored, I can tell. And your intrepid narrator certaintly is. We're somewhere in the third chapter at the moment. The best children's writing should follow at least three of Dahl's 4 Laws: "It's got to be exciting, it's got to be fast, it's got to have a good plot, but it's got to be funny." Dahl's books are all funny (or at least, meant to be) in a way that Clive King's Stig of the Dump is not. So it has to satisfy all three of the other laws. And sadly, so far, it doesn't. But we'll press on. Perhaps the tide will turn. Or we'll get fossilised in the molasses. One or the other.

Update 2.0 (16 June 2011): We finally finished Stig of the Dump. My final verdict is: It doesn't work, it is less than the sum of its parts. The book's main problem is the plot, or more accurately the lack of one. The story veers from chapter to chapter in disjointed fashion and many of the episodes just don't seem to make sense. I get it that the story is deliberately told in such a way as to leave it unclear whether the events being narrated actually happened or were just a bored youngster's daydreams. But still: a reader is entitled to a certain amount of consistency and narrative logic. Sad, for a book that started so well.

And then there is the depiction of Stig and, later on, Stig's tribe. For instance, here's how King describes Barney's first encounter with Stig after falling into the cave in the chalk-pit (the eponymous "dump") where Stig lived:
He lay quiet and looked around the cave again. Now that his eyes were used to it he could see further into the dark part of the cave.

There was somebody there!

Or Something!

Something, or Somebody, had a lot of shaggy black hair and two bright black eyes that were looking very hard at Barney.

'Hallo!' said Barney.

Something said nothing.

'I fell down the cliff,' said Barney.

Somebody grunted.

'My name's Barney.'

Somebody-Something made a noise that sounded like 'Stig'.
And on and on it goes throughout the rest of book: Stig is simply unable to speak. He only grunts, makes noises, and does hand gestures. Even his name, "Stig", isn't really his name at all. It's just a word that sounded like the noise he made after Barney introduced himself. Understandable, you may think, if you consider the fact that Stig is supposed to be a Stone Age man. And Barney is supposed to a 20th Century boy. A fair point, until you read a statement made by Barney much later on in the book when he says "There aren't any savages in England." Quite. But plenty outside England, presumably? What exactly is a child supposed to make of such ideas?

My overall recommendation for Stig of the Dump is: dump it.