Saturday, July 28, 2007

Game of the week: Chess and Chessfest 2007

Chess, similar to Go, is a tough game for the "gamer" to get into. By a "gamer" I mean the sort of person who likes games generally, as epitomized by the folks over at
The problem is that Chess,like Go, is a profoundly deep game of longstanding and intense devotion among a fairly large group of players. It has its own literature, clubs and professional players. It's been intensely analyzed to such an extent that a casual player will have no chance of winning against an aficionado. Unlike Backgammon or Poker, where the presence of a certain amount of luck provides scope for an upset, in Chess and Go there's no external factor that can help the casual player.
Being a gamer of eclectic tastes then, it's no surprise that I'm only an indifferent chess player. I have a few books, coached my kids' chess club in school and fiddled around with playing for about 40 years. But I've never devoted any study to chess openings, which is pretty much a prerequisite for serious play, so I don't consider myself a serious chess player.
But I do enjoy watching a good game and like to see the game become more popular, so it was nice to see that the local Chessfest event in New London seems to be off to a good start. I missed it entirely last year because of military duty and I wasn't able to take part this year because of some local "family taxi" chores, but I did get to observe some of it. It looks like several dozen people took part in three divisions -- youth, amateur and open. It was a diverse group too: Male and female, tiny and grey-bearded, American- and foreign-born.
I do think I'll go ahead and take a stab at it next year. I may not do very well, it it sure did look like everyone was enjoying themselves.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Made-up Lincoln quotes "If I had six hours to chop down a tree"

One of my more amusing past times is tracking down made-up quotes attributed to famous people. I happened to come across one today that sounded so fake I just had to check it out.
The quote is "If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four sharpening the axe."
It's cute, and it makes a worthwhile point, but as soon as I read it I doubted that Lincoln ever said it.
A very quick Google search (which anybody can do in seconds) finds a fair number of uses of the quote, but none that provide any actual citation. The uses all seem pretty recent, too, so I'd guess this made-up quote has a recent origin.
It's not uncommon to have quotes that a misattributed to some famous person. I guess the thought goes: I may make a good point, but if Lincoln made the same point it's even better. Lincoln is much more credible than little old me.
I'm sure this motivation prompts the initial creation of the misattribution. From there it takes off with the uncritical use by others and next thing you know, it's a "Lincoln quote."
Well, Abraham Lincoln said a great many good things, but this one wasn't one of them.
As this made-up quote seems to be in its early stages you can amuse yourself by being on the lookout for it and see how many time you spot it. It does have its usefulness, by the way. You can judge that anyone who does use the "quote" hasn't done even the minimal amount of homework required to legitimately use a quotation, and you can assess the rest of their work accordingly.

Harry Potter

Got my copy Saturday morning and started reading after lunch. Aside from one break I read until I was done.
When I have some time, I plan to go back and read the whole series again, searching for the clues I missed the first time around. I'm expecting there will be some kind of special edition (maybe next year) that will provide all seven books in a nice hard-cover format. Certainly, if I were a marketer that's what I'd do.
Meanwhile I'm also revisiting the Lod of the Rings trilogy with a reread of that. If a book is good, it's good for reading again.
The whole project is really an astounding one.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Game of the Week: Checkers

It isn't often boardgames make the news, but a rather big deal was made this week of checkers being "solved" by a computer program. Turns out that there are a finite but measurable number of possible board positions (500 billion billion) and if played perfectly the game will invariably end in a draw.
Here's a link to one of the many stories about this development:

Like most "serious" gamers I "moved on from checkers a long time ago. Compared to chess, it seems a much less involving game and I'm not surprised that it can be solved.
What does impress me, however, is that there's much more to the game than I would have guessed. 500 billion billion is an awful big number. It's a big enough number that it makes me reconsider not just checkers, but games in general, especially abstract games. If checkers has 500 billion billion possible board positions, then how many must more involved games have?
Non abstract games, such as wargames, may have uncountable possible positions, although it appears to me that wargames are generally more subject to factors that make many different board positions meaningless variations that really don't affect play. I think that in abstract games minor variations in board positions may genuinely represent different things more so than in some other games.
Still, this was astounding news and gave me a deeper appreciation of checkers. I don't look at it as a kids game so much.
Another fact related to checkers that came out in these stories was the incredible record of a certain Michael Tinsley, who lost a grand total of seven competitive games of chess over the course of four decades -- and several of those losses were to computer programs. He played thousands of games against top-flight opposition and lost just seven!
The news stories called him the greatest checkers player who ever lived. I can't think of a similar record of dominance in any other game or sport. Even the Yankees, Celtics, Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan could never dream of 1000+ to 1 win ratios. Indeed, has there ever been anything like that in any game? Games with random elements such as poker, backgammon or wargames would make achieving such a record impossible. The dice and cards would ensure that.
But even games with no randomness such as chess, go or Diplomacy see nothing like this guy's record.
The gentleman passed away without much fame outside checker-playing circles, it appears, but it was a singular achievement.

Note to self: Next Time We Invade Someplace Let's Be Smarter

A well-reasoned and provocative lessons learned:

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Media Missing In Action

As a member of the media, I'm disappointed in the coverage of government and politics recently. There's been a slow, downhill slide for a while in the quality of the coverage overall. It became very noticeable during the Clinton administration and the emergence of the "permanent campaign," but it's a problem that's been brewing for a while. Every political dispute is reduced to a "he said, she said" formulation. Instead of analysing the true state of affairs modern journalism seems to believe it's being fair by trotting out two hacks to yell at each other. Most of the time you could turn off the sound, because you already know what each hack will say.
Along with this has been the abandonment of principle -- and nearly even the abandonment of a pretense of principle -- in favor of blind partisanship. Our side can do no wrong, your side can do no right. The other side can't possibly have a point, because it would be a sign of weakness to agree with them, even partially.
This has been a poisonous way of doing business and it's gone on too long anyway, but the Bush administration demonstrates what happens when the gatekeepers don;t do their job. Any lie, no matter how bald-faced, transparent and ridiculous becomes a sufficient retort to any criticism, no matter how reasoned, sober and reality-based.
The failure of the Republican Congress to provide any meaningful oversight at all over the executive branch has caused a lot of damage to the country in ways large and small. However, it has also caused a lot of damage to the Republican Party as well. Any political party is going to go off track now and then. Honest internal debate and criticism can help pull a party back on track and avoid the worst disasters. One of the problems the Democrats have had (and they haven't completely shaken it off) is the undue influence of some of their more extreme elements. When Al Sharpton says something stupid, Democrats don't call him on it.
It's in the nature of things that the opposition party can't perform that task for you. For one thing, partisans tend to automatically discount anything the other side says without thinking about it. (Which is dumb. It defies logic and human experience to believe that one side is ALWAYS right and the other side wrong) For another thing, the opposition may not be in a big hurry to rescue you from your follies.
The American public, for the most part, isn't intensely engaged in politics. People prefer to lead their lives as best they can. They work, love and survive. They interact with the government when they must and generally prefer to be left alone by it whenever possible. Wonks, pundits, politicians, journalists and bureaucrats are NOT the public. The best of them have a steady finger of the pulse of the public, but only to the extent that they are intellectually honest about what they know and how they know it.
When an issue hammers itself into the public consciousness the public deals with it and then goes on with life.
The Iraq War has forced itself into the public consciousness and the public has made up its mind. It was a mistake and poorly-executed to boot. Only an unimaginably dramatic turnaround could possibly change that dynamic.
This is why the administration's attempts this week to "move the goal posts" on Iraq and say that September is too soon to know if the surge is working, now it should be November. Of course, this is merely a variation on the "next six months will be critical" argument that's been made for the last four years. And six months go by and nothing changes -- or at least nothing changes for the better. People are tired of that game and it's not going to work any more.
Now, it just so happens that Petraeus and his generals are right that September isn't enough time to turn things around. But where he is wrong is thinking that any amount of time is going to be sufficient. There are, indeed, promising aspects to his new approach. But sometimes it's simply too late. Creighton Abrams had a superior approach to Westmoreland in Vietnam, but he couldn't change the outcome. Rommel was right about the best way to defend France from and Allied invasion in 1944, too, but it was too late to change the outcome of that war.
Had elements of Petreaus' approach been tried in 2003 or 2004 maybe things would have been better. On the other hand, it's more likely it still would have been overwhelmed by the botched handling of every single other thing. (Has Bush waged any part of this war right?)
Unfortunately, little of this reality shows up in media reports, especially electronic media. Instead shallowness reigns. This provides fertile ground for executive branch mischief.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Game of the week: Latrunculi

One difficulty in writing a review for an ancient game that's no longer actively played, such as the ancient Roman game Latrunculi, is the fact that we don't really know for sure how the game was played! We saw the same thing with Senet a few weeks back.
Of course, a game that's been played over many centuries, across several thousands of miles in mostly illiterate or semi-literate societies probably had many variations anyway, so it doesn't pay to be too dogmatic.
Extant boards have come in varying sizes and with varying numbers of pieces. We do know it was played on a gridded chessboard-like gameboard. The Midnight Snacks magnetic version I own has a 7 x 8 field, but there are others and it can easily be played on an 8x8 checkerboard. Most sources seem to agree that the pieces moved one square orthogonally, but not diagonally. Capturing was via the ancient "custodial capture" rule seen in Seega and Morris and other ancient games. It's interesting that this formerly popular rule isn't seen in more modern games, which usually use "replacement" captures (like chess, backgammon) or "jumps" (checkers).
Some versions add a more powerful piece called a dux which has expanded powers of movement or capture (rules vary). The Midnight Snacks game allows the dux to jump, which provides a weak tool for avoiding stalemated situations.
The dux points out the biggest weakness of Latrunculi, which is that it can easily bog down into a stalemated position. This problem, combined with the way the game develops slowly and its general lack of dynamism probably accounts for its obscurity today. While the equally ancient Roman game of Tabula eventually evolved in Backgammon, Latrunculi fell out of favor. Although one might surmise that checkers is related to the ancient game, experts don't draw that link and instead trace the game's origins to about AD 1100, long after Latrunculi was forgotten.
Modern players of abstract games will find Latrunculi an interesting historical curiosity worth a few plays, but there's no prospect of a revival in interest. The game is simply too dry and slow-paced for modern tastes. The dux improves the game, but its just a single piece and not an especially powerful one. It's important to preserve your dux so long as your opponent has enough other pieces remaining to build a wall across the board in order to avoid being blocked or a stalemated position.
If you want to try the game out, you can simply use a checkerboard and pieces. The variation presented in The World of Games by Jack Botermans et al. allows all the pieces the rook's move from chess (while still having custodial capture) which will lead to a speedier game, although that may not be the way the Romans played it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Founders were right, after all

The authors of the Constitution went through considerable effort to make sure the war-making power was vested in the legislative branch, rather than the executive branch, and for the first century and a half of the Republic that formulation held.
Unfortunately, in 1950 we started an experiment in the alternative when Harry Truman committed U.S. troops to a major war in Korea (styled a "police action" at the time) without a declaration of war by Congress. As a matter of fact, Congress has not declared a state of war since, although there's been no shortage of fighting in that time.
Now, human affairs are not subject to "proof" in the scientific sense as no controlled experiments being possible. But it's certainly reasonable to examine the evidence we have to determine whether certain polices are successful or not, and a period of nearly six decades seems more than adequate. It only took about that long to demonstrate, for example, that communism was a failed system.
In the first 160 years of the Republic we fought five foreign wars, with one draw and four clear wins. (War of 1812, Mexican-American, Spanish American, World War I and WWII.) This averages one war every 32 years and an 80 percent success rate. In other words, wars were infrequent and successful. This seems a generally desirable state of affairs I think everyone will agree. During that time the United States grew in power and influence from a relatively weak minor power into the most powerful single country on earth. This period I'll call the Congressional War Era
(I don't count the Revolution because it was prior to the adoption of the Constitution and also because it was a domestic war, which is an altogether different animal than a foreign war. For the same reason I leave off the Civil War, another domestic conflict that has its own sets of legal, moral and practical issues wholly different than the problems of foreign wars).
In the most recent 57 years of the Republic we've fought four major foreign wars (Korea, Vietnam, Gulf and Iraq/Afghanistan). Of those, one was a draw, one was a defeat and one a clear victory. The last is ongoing, but prospects for a clear victory are about nil. This averages a war every 14 years and a success rate of 25 percent. In other words, wars have been more than twice as frequent while being much less than half as successful. I think everyone can agree this is not a desirable state. I'll label this the Presidential War Era.
During both periods the executive branch engaged in minor military actions with mixed success. Because these were, by definition, minor actions however, the risks and payoffs were relatively low. Failures were expected and tolerated. While there were individual tragedies, of course, the country as a whole was largely unaffected by adventures in Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, Haiti, Panama, the Barbary coast, Libya, Lebanon, Grenada, etc.)
On the other hand, major foreign wars unavoidably bring great risks and the certain expenditure of national treasure in the form of lives and money.
The evidence is clear that the Congressional War system provides superior results to the Presidential War system. Why this is so will be addressed in a future post, but the empirical evidence is there for all to see.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Figure-enhanced games

There's really no currently accepted generic term for them (like RPGs, hex-and-counter wargames, CCGs, card-driven wargames, block games) but I wonder if games, especially games featuring miniature combatants, are the next trend.
On the one hand, it seems like the most action is in those parts of the gaming hobby involving games using figures, painted and unpainted. Inexpensive production sources in China have made really nice "bits" pretty affordable.
On the other hand, these games don't share much in the way of game systems and haven't generated a sense of shared identity. Many, for example, style themselves as "miniatures" games, although they are really boardgames that use miniatures. (Heroclix, Star Wars, Axis & Allies land and naval, Heroscape). Even those that admit being boardgames (Memoir'44, BattleLore, War of the Ring, Tide of Iron, Axis & Allies series) haven't generated a sense of shared identity yet.
Still, the most action in retail seems down that road, a fact which the game makers seem to realize, even if they don't always succeed in their attempts (Navia Dratp, Dreamblade).
It will be interesting to see if this sustains and grows or not.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Reluctant commutation?

Wes Pruden, in the middle of mocking Bill Clinton's brassiness for talking about the Libby deal given his own 11th-hour shenanigans, characterized Bush's Libby thing as "reluctant."
This seems to be part of the "Official Line," but like most such pronouncements from the Bushists, it doesn't stand up to the minimal standards of logic or sense.
If he was so "reluctant," it seems odd he'd act so quickly (just a few hours) after Libby lost his appeal. I would expect real reluctance to manifest itself in a decision put off until the last possible moment, not the first available one.
The simplest and most obvious explanation is that Libby was offered a corrupt deal, either explicitly or implicitly, that he's be taken care of as long as he kept his mouth shut. This theory matches the known facts much more closely than the alternatives offered by Bush's defenders.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

principles vs. parrots

My young daughter has the nickname of "parrot' because she has a habit of repeating the last thing that's been said within earshot. A trait that's cute with a toddler is decidedly less so with adults, particularly in political discourse.
Unfortunately, parroting party lines is what passes for 'serious' punditry these days. Always a worrisome thing, it's exploded during the Bush era, like many other negative things.
The Libby affair is just another example. Breast-beating law-and-order types who'll gladly throw away the keys for crackhead welfare queens or three-strike burglars are bending over backwards to justify Libby's special deal. Folks like David Brooks, who were appalled at Clinton's staining the Oval Office, criticize Bush for not going far enough. (Actually, I agree in part. It's one more example of Bush incompetence. Instead of getting the dirty deed done once and for all, he guarantees it will kick around for months as Libby's appeals wend their way through the courts)
One of the many disillusioning developments of the Bush era has been seeing the flock of partisan parrots who can justify anything he does, regardless of heretofore bedrock conservative principles. Of course, there have always been parrots on the Left, which is one of the main reasons I've generally held most left-wing pundits in disdain. What's been shocking has been the same debasement taking hold on the Right. Sure, here and there an Andrew Sullivan, a George Will, a Pat Buchanan or a William F. Buckley have stuck to actual, recognizable conservative principles, but most of the Right have "carried water" (paraphrasing Rush L.) for the Bushies, principles be damned.
At some point the conservatives will rediscover their principles or they will disintegrate into Whig-like irrelevance and fade away as a movement. Partisans without principles should at least be smart enough to placate the public, not stick a finger in its eye.

Quick review: A Tragic Legacy

I wrapped up one of my two anti-Bush books I've been reading. Glenn Greenwald's A Tragic Legacy is definitely the quicker read. It's a well-organized, tightly argued piece that makes a damning and disturbing case that Bush's legacy will be defined by his black vs. white, Good vs. Evil world view.
It's disturbing on many levels, but two that come to mind are the whole torture issue and the possibility of war with Iran.
As far as torture goes, Greenwald's book explains how someone who believes they are serving Good can engage in the most monstrous acts with a clear conscience. Of all my beefs with Bush, torture is the most irredeemable.
War with Iran would be an absolute, unmitigated disaster, but Greenwald's book makes a persuasive argument that Bush's worldview makes such a war nearly inevitable. God help us.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Game of the Week: Chinese Chess

There are a select few games that are satisfying enough to absorb all of a person's gaming energy. Common examples are chess, go, bridge, poker, Advanced Squad Leader, Diplomacy and Magic:The Gathering. It's hard for casual gamers like myself to really be competitive in games such as these because there's such an enormous gap between the skill level a casual gamer can reach and what most serious players (even rather poor ones) will have in their favored games.
There's some hope, on the other hand, of playing other casual gamers in some of these games when they're part of a shared cultural background. So, for example, I can expect to occasionally play a casual game of chess or poker.
But getting a chance to play a game such as go or Chinese chess (xiang qi) is much more difficult. Presumably it'd be easier in Japan or China to find casual players, but here if you do find someone who plays, they're most likely pretty serious about the game.
Fortunately the Internet comes to the rescue and it's possible to play go and Chinese chess online. I discovered the Chinese chess site the other day at
I've gotten a couple of games in, (losses, natch) and there's some hope I can play enough over the next year or so to become a competent beginner.
The Chinese version of chess does have a different feel to it that western chess. The pieces are generally less powerful and it seems a little harder to coordinate the pieces. I expect that more experience will help me see better how they can support each other, but chess-like pawn walls and the like are hard to see right now.
Adding to the steep learning curve is the use of chines characters on the pieces. With experience I expect that will stop being a problem too, but I think it makes the entry barrier a little higher. For example, I think it would deter me from trying to teach the game to someone else.
Still, it is one of my goals to become reasonably able in the classic games of the world such as chess, go and xiang qi. Time will tell if that's possible without exhaustive study.