ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms

July 2007


Musings24 Jul 2007

An article in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan (you can read the first page here but they don’t have the full thing online for free; I bought mine at the newsstand) called “Babes in the Woods” details the perils MySpace and other social networking sites present to children and teens.

The article doesn’t cover any novel ground. Here are the highlights:

-Myspace is huge with kids
-Kids are often mean to each other and this carries over online
-Kids are naive about the intentions of others
-Kids put a lot of personal information online
-It’s really easy to track a kid down in real life using their myspace profile
-Parents are mostly clueless about their kids’ online activities

Flanagan, a former school teacher, details the above at length, and even describes how she easily finds and tracks down a student from a local high school via MySpace and Google. This is clearly meant to shock and startle the aforementioned parents: while they weren’t looking, the world beat a path to their child’s bedroom door.

Now, I’m not a parent. Nor am I a particular partisan of social networking sites. However, Flanagan’s implicit starting assumption seems to be that a child’s social interactions must be managed, and all contact with other people is potentially harmful. To me, this seems, well, paranoid. Other than implying via some allusions to the NBC show “To Catch Predator” that there are of armies of pedophiles banging on the gates of digital Rome, Flanagan doesn’t really explain why a kid’s on-line presences is such an awful thing.

She gives a lot of time to school bullies “following kids home” via the internet, but doesn’t do enough to distinguish online bullies from adults looking to abuse kids. Being able to find a map to the kid’s school online doesn’t help the bully any, he already sees the kid there every day. Meanwhile, the faceless stalker lurking online can’t inflict emotional torment by dropping their quarry from their “Top 8 Friends”.

All of Flanagan’s discussion is anecdotal; she doesn’t offer any statistics about internet predators or cyberbullying, so the reader doesn’t get any sense of the real risks, and I think she’s overstated her case.

It’s journalism, that, however well-intentioned, and however real the dangers to the MySpace generation might actually be, ultimately fails because it appeals to the reader’s gut but neglects the reader’s head. Come on Atlantic, you can do better.

***

Interactions between kids and unfamiliar adults may not be automatically sinister, but I’m sure you are horrified to know that grown men sometimes mingle with ‘tweens at Pokemon tournaments (second and fourth posts).

A.I. and Games and Musings20 Jul 2007

Chess genius Bobby Fischer once tried to popularize his own version of his game. It replaced the standard starting arrangement of pieces with a randomized back row, making the players’ knowledge of the standard opening plays irrelevant. Fischer was reacting against the trend towards increasing memorization of lines to play among the chess elite; his version of the game would force the players to rely instead on their innate talent.

I think he felt that if one plays moves according to the “book”, one isn’t really playing a game so much as participating in a mechanical process that might as well be automated. Of course, playing chess has increasingly been automated—culminating in the famous Kasparov vs. Deep Blue series in which the super computer defeated the super human. Computers typically don’t play chess openings well, and so Deep Blue employed a “book” of many many game openings, and chose moves from that. Deep Blue, in other words, was playing “from memory”, exactly what Fischer didn’t like human players doing.

I was talking about computer game playing with a chess-playing friend and he remarked that against machines, one plays “anti-computer moves”—that is, unconventional plays that will force the computer to abandon its “book” early and switch to heavy calculations instead. This is what Kasparov tried to do in ’96: force the computer off its script as early as possible.

It’s probably a good thing that Fischer played chess and not checkers. For a number of years, a checkers program by Jonathan Schaeffer from the University of Alberta has been better than the best humans. That program, while essentially unbeatable, was not actually perfect. It is now, though.

I read today that checkers has been “solved”. Schaeffer and his group have crunched the numbers, played out every possible avenue, and have proved that it is always possible to force a draw. You can only win at checkers if your opponent makes a mistake. What’s more, they’ve saved this information in a giant database, which you can “play” against (but never can you win).

It turns out playing checkers doesn’t have much to do with checkers: instead it’s a problem of searching a huge database.

The question I find myself pondering: is checkers any fun anymore? It’s certainly not much fun to play against Schaeffer’s program, but what about against another human?

There are something like 10^20 possible checkers positions. As the human brain only has around 10^11 neurons, it’s a fairly safe bet that no human will ever memorize their way to perfect play. Still, does knowing that, at every juncture, a perfect move has already been found and recorded in a database ruin the game? The checkers player can no longer aspire to invent a perfect game, he can only rediscover what has already been written.

I wonder how long until someone solves Chess…

News and Photos15 Jul 2007

Last weekend my mom and I spent two nights a Milford House, a “rustic resort” in the Annapolis valley. It’s a very relaxing setting, and carries a bit of nostalgia for me because we used to go there every summer when I was a kid.

I took a bunch of photos.


Let it not be said that the famous “Pompey Rock” does not have a web presence.


Dinner under a canoe.


Water under a canoe.


Sand under a… you get the idea.


Me, moments before I crocked that croquet ball a mile and a half.


Lily pads.


The cabin we stayed in, “Otter”.


A giant dragonfly! Well, perhaps he was normal sized.


A very tame squirrel.


The reason he’s so tame.

Movies13 Jul 2007

At least until the sequel.

I’ve just seen Transformers. It gave me a headache. Bleh.