Making Glaurung easy enough for a 7-year old

There are more than a hundred chess engines out there and many (most?) of them play extremely well. For example, Glaurung, a free chess program, easily and consistently wipes the floor with me.

S1 (the 7-year old) is getting into chess. He loves to play checkers on my iPod, so showing him Glaurung seemed like a good idea. But I do want him to win once in a while, so I started fiddling with the settings. It turned out to be much harder than I expected. So, for other people out there, here's what you've got to do to make Glaurung play easy enough for a 7-year-old to beat once in a while:

  1. Set the playing style to be "Passive". This means that the program only rarely goes on on a sacrificial attack sequence.
  2. Set the playing level to 1. The levels range from 1-100 and even 1 is quite solid.
  3. Turn off Permanent Thinking. By default, the program continues to think when it's your turn to play. The CPU on the iPod is fast enough that if you let it do that, it's way too good.
  4. Set the Book usage to Low.
  5. Deviate quite quickly away from the book.
I should probably explain setting 4 and strategy 5. There are lots and lots of opening sequences fed into the program and even at a low playing level, if the program uses the book, a child would be done for. The issue here is that the problems with not-so-good lines may have taken years to find. There's little chance that your 7-year old (or even you!) will find them at the table under time pressure. What step 4 does is to tell the program not to always choose the best opening line.

But the strategy in 5 is also something your child has to do -- he'll have to take the program along a bad tangent. At that point, settings 1-3 come in; the program plays poorly enough that it's possible for a bright kid to beat it. This strategy is no different than what you'd do when playing an over-prepared human opponent, so it's a good skill to have anyway.

Before I figured all this out, I found a blog post talking about Glaurung and asked the blogger for advice on settings. He suggested that I try A1 Chess instead. And so I did. A1 Chess is great for beginners. It's ridiculously easy -- S1 has beaten in 2 out of 3 times so far (tied the 3rd time) and it has an encouraging sound-track (with applause greeting every win). I have to wean him off it and towards Glaurung in a few months, but for now, it's good.

Investment banking profits are not that outrageous

An efficient market is one in which middlemen are non-existent or have wafer-thin margins. So, this sounds right:
Surely, one measure of that efficiency is how little is skimmed off by the financial middlemen. So the next time someone tells you that it's no concern of yours if Wall Street traders are earning a king's ransom, remind him of the story of Goldman and Morgan and the financial wizards who thought they could spin capital out of straw
Newspapers would rather print fables about kingdoms and traders than actual numbers. But the numbers are not quite so damning. Rental car companies have a net profit margin of 6.7%. Architecture firms make 7.2% and so on for pretty much every industry. They're all in the 7% range. Investment bankers? They pull in 10.4% : 50% higher than "normal", but not outrageous either.

Gross profit in investment banking is an eye-popping 99.83% but that's because interest payments -- a normal cost of business in banking -- is not factored in. Once interest payments are factored in, gross profit is about 32%, which is on par with other professional services. Even payment to top management (1.5%) is not outrageous.

Plastic kills

You may have heard about the floating garbage dump on the Pacific. It's twice the size of Texas and exists because ocean currents concentrate plastic into that location.

Birds flying over the floating island of rubbish pick up plastic, thinking it to be food, and feed it to their babies. The babies then die.

The image shows the contents of an albatross chick's belly. The photographer says nothing was moved or staged.

Barn door. Horses.

Over the weekend, the county headquarters of the Democratic Party was broken into and vandalized. So, for the past couple of days, there has been a police car parked infront of the building.

Talk about closing the barn door after the horses have fled.
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A Parai Drumset

Graduate students from India organized a Diwali celebration at the university last weekend. One of the programs was by a professor of "ethnomusicology". She'd spent several years in South India doing research on Dalit/Adivasi ("aborigine") drumming and is making a documentary on the tribals and their culture.

We got to talking to her after the program. The art form, apparently, is becoming more professional. It used to be the kind of music that village people would get to play at weddings, parades and funerals. Forty or fifty years ago, the tribals had to show up when commanded to do so and take whatever they were offered. Otherwise, they might get beaten. But now, young tribals are moving out and seeking better oppportunities. So, there's a movement afoot to preserve these cultures before they vanish. There's a huge native arts festival every February in Chennai (the state capital). Everybody who's anybody (the Chief Minister on downwards) shows up. The tribal musicians are now rather well-respected and highly sought after. If you want them to play at your function, you call them on the cell phone and negotiate an hourly rate. They cost more, much more, than a band of Carnatic musicians.

The tribals don't call their music by its traditional name "parai" any more. "Parai", of course, has a rather negative connotation -- it is the root of the word "Pariah", a Tamil word that made its way into English. So if you want tribal music at your wedding, what do you now ask for? You ask for a "drumset" -- an English word that has now made its way into Tamil.

Ironic that the class-conscious British would borrow the Tamil word, and that the upwardly mobile, assertive tribals would turn to an English word to paper over their discomfiting history.

Indian Standard Time in recipes

If an Indian tells you that he'll be with you in 2 minutes, take a seat. It could be anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes. Time is pretty elastic that way in the subcontinent.

Still ... one doesn't expect this relaxed view of time to extend to recipes. The wife saw whole wheat noodles at an Indian groceries store and because the package directions said to boil for 2 minutes, we thought they might make a healthier replacement for rice noodles in stir-fries. Unfortunately, it was not 2 minutes. The noodles needed 8 minutes to become al-dente.
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Subliminal tarring

So, an ex-NASA scientist is charged with passing military secrets. To Israel. Why is the background of the photograph the Taj Mahal?

Oh, yes, he was a co-PI on an Indian project to find water on the moon (this American "tech support" was the subject of a really funny Jon Stewart and Asif Manvi sketch). But that was all above board, people.

Please find a picture of Mr. Nozette standing by the Wailing Wall or something.

UPDATE: Uh-oh.

How many degrees of separation between me and Richard Heene?

The Norman Transcript did me a favor by printing an article on the whole sordid "Balloon Boy" episode. I'd gathered a vague idea about it from snippets of lunch-time TV at the gym and from friends' Facebook updates. But it's hard to pull together a coherent story about a boy in a balloon throwing up in TV interviews and a sheriff wanting to prosecute the parents. So now, I know.

Unfortunately, I also learned that the dad is a storm chaser. Since the community of storm chasers is rather small, I've started wondering how many degrees of separation there are between me and Richard Heene. How many degrees of separation, in other words, between me and celebrity-hogging insanity?

Scientists attempt human sacrifice

Seriously. This is from a police report from Gwalior, India (hint: think Ole Miss):
... the wife of a junior scientist ... complained to the police ... that two senior scientists ... had tried to kill her husband as part of a human sacrifice ritual.
The newspaper story disappointingly carries no further details.

Making stairs fun

How can you make climbing stairs fun? Volkswagen in Sweden had an idea:

Me thinks that stuff like this has diminishing returns. The second time around, these people are not going to take the stairs.

The Washington DC metro transit authority has a better system. They just turn off the escalators at rush hour.

Nobel to the new Soviet chairman?

We are the new Soviet Union. In the eyes of the Nobel committee, anyway. They gave the prize to Gorbachev, in 1990, not for what he had done but for what he had started: Perestroika. This was to strengthen his hand against anti-reformers. That seems to be what they are thinking when they give the peace prize to Obama, not for what he has done, but for the process of engagement that he has started. They're afraid that neoconservatives will push back this reform, so they want to strengthen Obama's hand.

But still ... for speeches? Take some comparable awards: Wilson created the League of Nations; Willy Brandt reunified Germany; Al Gore gave voice to global warming; Carter brokered peace between Israel and Egypt. Barack Obama has made 3 speeches. I know, I know, I sound like Hillary Clinton. But ... yikes!

p.s. Bill Clinton of course brokered peace in Northern Ireland. He's got to be downright pissed.

If you make a pun that nobody gets ...

A colleague and I were in an art gallery in Virginia killing some time before we went to a restaurant when I ran across this piece:
The writing on the piece is the Tamil alphabet, almost like the alphabetaries or samplers used in Early American cross-stitch.

The title of the piece, "Senthamil" is a pun. It could mean "written Tamil", as opposed to spoken Tamil (more than most languages, written Tamil is very formal and spoken Tamil is very informal: they are referred to as Senthamil and Kochaitamil respectively). The word "sen" in Tamil also means "red". And red is the predominant color in the piece.

So, here's what I'm wondering: Why would an artist who creates a fusion piece by marrying an Indian script with an American folk art form decide to give it a title that would make sense only to a small minority of his viewers? After all, what was the chance that any Tamil-speaking person would ever see that piece of art?
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An unappetizing name for a restaurant

"Potbelly" seems to be a chain restaurant in Virgina. They serve ridiculously large sandwiches.
Doesn't the name of the restaurant put off their clientiele? Why would they draw a straight line between their enormous sandwiches and potbellies?

When Pepsi first came to India, some overpaid taste consultant told them that Indians liked sweet things. So, the initial Pepsi formula was a little too sweet. The reigning Cola manufacturer hit back with an image of a bottle of Pepsi swarmed with a bunch of flies. For a long time, Pepsi in Indian minds was associated with something so sweet that it was fly-infested.

So, what's the idea behind Potbelly? Why would a restaurant chain actively try to induce feelings of revulsion? Is there some thing else going on?
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Posters on the white house walls

Count me thoroughly disappointed by the Obamas' art selections.

Take the picture on the left. Don't tell me that this is high art. It's a poster. Sort of like the inspiration posters of golf courses and mountain streams that middle managers like to hang on their walls.

A little self-aware in its depiction of wishy-washiness, maybe (but who wouldn't come off as wishy-washy after Bush the Decider?). But still nothing more than a poster.

And of course, as would befit a "Modern White House", there are craft projects and collages that wouldn't be noteworthy if they had come from a pre-school class. Yikes!

The only piece in that collection that has me drooling is this patent model of Morse's electric telegraph:

The broad shoulders start to shrug

I was changing flights at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, when I saw this worker scraping off "Chicago 2016" signs:
Sad for Chicago, definitely, but Rio deserves it more. The 2016 Olympics will be to Brazil what the Seoul ('88) and Beijing ('08) games were to South Korea and China. They would never have been as momentous to the US, Spain or Japan, all of which have already hosted an Olympics.

Mission accomplished in Afghanistan

What should we need to do in Afghanistan? Send more troops (as McChrystal wants) or carry out focused drone attacks (as Biden recommends)? Neither, says Brahma Challaney, a professor in a New Delhi think tank. He says that we should withdraw:

An American military exit from Afghanistan would not be a shot in the arm for the forces of global jihad, as many in the US seem to fear. On the contrary, it would remove the Taliban’s unifying element and unleash developments – a vicious power struggle in Afghanistan along sectarian and ethnic lines – whose significance would be largely internal or regional ... In fact, the most likely outcome of any Afghan power struggle triggered by an American withdrawal would be to formalize the present de facto partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines – the direction in which Iraq, too, is headed ... As in Iraq, an American withdrawal would potentially unleash forces of Balkanization. That may sound disturbing, but it is probably an unstoppable consequence of the initial US invasion.

His analysis of the situation is probably tinged by disgust at the increased American aid to Pakistan even as Pakistan shelters all sorts of anti-Indian terrorist groups. But that doesn't make it any less true.

Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is broken. The non-Pushtun groups are strong enough to resist a Taliban takeover of Kabul. Mission Accomplished. Time to leave.

Prechewed food for adults

Because I've been traveling a lot the past month (and therefore, eating packaged foods and in restaurants a lot), the book "The end of overeating" by the former head of the FDA was like a punch in the gut.

This is how he describes Chili's (a typical restaurant chain) "Margarita Grilled Chicken" (something, that because of the "grilled" in its name, I'd have assumed was relatively healthy):
The uncooked chicken had been in a marinade that combined orange juice, tequila, triple sec, sweet-and-sour mix, and artificial color, thereby including sugar, two kinds of oil, and salt.
The marinade is injected into the chicken using needles, or by tumbling in a "cement mixer". The idea is to prechew the chicken, to make the food go down easier and quicker.

In general, our bodies have evolved to crave fat, sugar and salt, but also to automatically regulate our appetite. But when we eat packaged or restaurant food, the level at which that appetite control kicks in is pushed upwards. So, we end up eating more.

Prechewed food. He even has the numbers. In the past, Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food about 25 times before swallowing. The food we are served now needs to be chewed just 10 times. Reasons? The processing of course: packaged/restaurant food is made easier to swallow by increasing the fat (lubrication) and removing bran and fiber. Vegetables, if any, are grated finely and mixed in high-fat dressing (the dressing is cheaper than the vegetables). It's applesauce vs. apples. "Adult baby food," one industry source calls it.