360 Days of the Cherry Tree

January 17, 2014 at 4:58 pm (Guest Post)

by Nobuyuki Kishi

When you hear the words “cherry tree,” I bet you think of the cherry blossoms. But those flowers blossom for only five days out of the whole year. And once the flowers are gone, people don’t pay any attention to the trees. Considering the number of days, however, you can say that the normal appearance of the cherry trees actually is without blossoms. Life is the same way: you go through beautiful times and not-so-beautiful times; you might even go through hard times. When your blossoms are gone, you see how people around you can leave you at the speed of light. People praise the beauty of the cherry blossoms and turn their backs once the flowers are gone. Sad, isn’t it? But you should remember to be the cherry tree itself, not the flowers. The tree that continues to stand tall and magnificent with its strong roots, especially when the blossoms are gone and people have left. This is why I admire cherry trees and compare life to them. They don’t say, “All my flowers are gone and no one is looking at me anymore, so I think I’ll collapse now.” You don’t see cherry trees do that. Those flowerless trees may seem dead and quiet, but beneath the surface they are full of life and energy. And they constantly grow stronger to let the flowers out again the following spring. Whether people admire them or not makes no difference to these trees.

When a person gains fame and social status in his youth and then loses that power, he may think that he’s failed for life. He then struggles hard to become successful again, to regain everything he’s lost, like trying to collect all the fallen flowers on the ground and glue them back on the branches. Some people might end up attempting suicide out of despair, but that’s because they have misunderstood something important: the cherry tree without the flowers. That’s the real you. Don’t be thinking, “This is not what I’m supposed to be.” It’s exactly who you are supposed to be. A cherry tree without flowers is still a cherry tree. I’m in my mid-60s now. When I was still around 45 years old and had ambitions for the New York Kishi Dojo, my mother became sick and I left the city for good to be home with her. Training here for twenty years has been rather quiet and lonely, and it’s quite different from the environment in New York. But now my Karate juniors and students come here to Shinjo from all over the world, just to visit me. My life hasn’t been so outstanding that I’m in any position to preach to others, and I understand that many youngsters long to have the cherry blossoms in their lives. But I want to tell them this: “Instead of focusing on blossoming, focus on rooting deeply into the ground.” And, “Stand strong and tall even when you have rains and storms in your life.” Japanese often describe cherry blossoms as graceful when they fall, but that’s not the only thing that is graceful. What’s truly graceful is the tree that lets the flowers go and focuses on growing its roots, trunk, and branches in order to become stronger and to live tomorrow.

From The Karate With No Name: Seeking the Wellspring of Karate in Japan

By Nobuyuki Kishi, as told to Takeru Fudo


Translation by Emi Mimura; editing by Susan Convery and Annie Gottlieb

Posted with permission

Sensei Nobuyuki Kishi was my karate teacher from 1974 to 1987, and a close friend of Jacques and me. While he returned to Japan for good two decades ago, his teaching continues to influence me, and his student Sensei Masahiko Honma is now my karate teacher in New York. ~ amba

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Never Get Out of the Boat!

January 18, 2012 at 12:00 am (Guest Post, Icepick)

A Guest Post by Icepick

Never get out of the boat. Absolutely G*d-damned right. Unless you’re goin’ all the way.

This was a lesson NOT learned by Francesco Schettino, Captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia.

Authorities were holding Schettino for suspected manslaughter and a prosecutor confirmed Sunday they were also investigating allegations the captain abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped. According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.

The accounts so far don’t look good for the Captain’s future. He should have stayed in the boat – or hightailed it to Brazil.

Better still, never get IN to the boat.

For blogger/opinion writer Steve Sailer this brought to mind a similar incident. In 1991 the cruise ship Oceanos sunk off the coast of South Africa. What happened was covered by People Magazine:

On Saturday evening, Aug. 3, as a 50-mph gale buffeted their ship, passengers aboard the Greek cruise liner Oceanos gamely made their way to the main lounge for the evening’s entertainment. No sooner had they settled in than the lights went out. The 492-foot ship, suddenly without power, tossed in high seas off South Africa’s aptly named Wild Coast. For 361 weekend tourists, one of the most harrowing nights of their lives had just begun. The Oceanos was sinking.

Disgracefully, many of the 184 crew members clambered aboard the lifeboats ahead of some of the passengers and paddled to the safety of tankers and trawlers that had drawn nearby. At daybreak on Sunday, South African Air Force helicopters joined the rescue operation. But to the astonishment and anger of the 217 passengers still aboard, Capt. Yannis Avranias grabbed the second chopper off the ship. With no one clearly in charge, an unlikely hero emerged among the remaining crew: Robin Boltman, 31, the ship’s magician.

Giving the performance of his career, Boltman entertained and calmed passengers throughout the pitch-black night. In the morning he ascended to the bridge and maintained radio contact with rescuers. Finally, at 11:30 A.M., after all other passengers and crew had been removed to safety, Boltman was lifted from the ship by a helicopter. At 1:45 P.M. the luxury liner nosed into the Indian Ocean and disappeared under the waves.

I had seen Sailer’s excerpt earlier in the day and left it up. I wanted to read it to my wife when she got home, and did so. This caused her to say, “I think I heard of this guy recently, before this wreck in Italy.” So I hit Yahoo up for some search engine action, and found a story up near the top with an interesting headline:


It’s an article from the Daily News of South Africa, written by Barbara Cole, and starts off with

[M]any are asking whether Midlands magician Robin Boltman was on the doomed cruise liner Costa Concordia. Boltman has a knack of being aboard cruise ships that go to watery graves.

Um, what? He’s been on more than one? Yes, he has, although he wasn’t on this Costa Concordia. Besides being on the Oceanos on her final voyage, Boltman was also on the final voyage of the Achille Lauro back in 1994. In that incident the ship caught fire off the coast of Somalia and eventually sank. Here’s a tidbit from the Daily News story:

When fire broke out on the Achille Lauro, the captain Guiseppi Orssi called Boltman to the bridge and asked for his advice, telling him he did not want to make the same mistakes as the Oceanos captain.

“I told him he first had to sound the alarms,” he said.

“It is important to stay calm and collected. Passengers should also go to their cabins and get their life jacket and any medication.”

So score one for Captain Orssi for consulting an expert!

For those of you who think the Achille Lauro sounds familiar, that would be because of the high seas hijacking back in 1985. So add that to the list of reasons to NOT get on a cruise ship.

So here’s a partial list of reasons to not get on cruise ships: sea sickness, sickness (there’s a freakin’ CDC page for this!), terrorists, pirates, rocks, icebergs, storms, U-boats, rogue waves (two links), drunk captains, dare devil captains, incompetent captains, incompetent crew, too few life boats, Bond villains. Not to mention the strange men in blue boxes looking for some chap named Alonzo OR the freakin’ tigers that try to eat your ass (and presumably the rest of you) when you go looking for mangos!

Never get in to the boat!

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Ellroy Confidential

May 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm (Guest Post, Icepick)

A guest post by Icepick

  • Best place to start reading James Ellroy? was the question that started this glorious thunder rolling.  It has made Ellroy irresistible to me.  I’ll be hitting the bookstore tomorrow. ~ amba

Well, you will either love Ellroy or hate him. I don’t see how one can react to him any other way. His style became very refined, and like strong distillates isn’t for everyone. The language is very rough as well, and if you’re offended by racist language then skip this stuff altogether. And after the Black Dahlia there are no true Good Guys, and it’s an open question if there were good guys in that one.

(I mean of the main characters. Russ Millard is a secondary character of importance that comes across as good, competent and decent. That makes him the rarest bird in the books. Probably the next closest after that is the almost psychotically violent Bud White, whose strongest moral characteristic is his ability to beat anyone to within an inch of their life, or worse, if ordered to do so. The third most decent guy keeps killing all the wrong people, gets his wife killed for NOT killing the right person, sleeps with his stepmother, helps her kill his father, pushes heroin, is involved in slavery and human experimentation, etc. But he feels REALLY BAD about it. Not for the faint of fucking heart!)

OTOH there’s lots of great stuff. The way he can paint a picture of someone’s interior life is brilliant, and some of the chapters amaze. The final lines of American Tabloid are brilliant, as is the intro. (You can see the intro and a chunk of the first chapter on Amazon. The final lines: “She held him with her eyes and her mouth. The roar did a long slow fade. He braced himself for this big fucking scream….” The setting for that was just off Dealey Plaza.)

He’s got seven novels that really count – the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz) and the Underworld USA Trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover).

The last three of the L.A. Quartet tie together, but any of them can be read separately. L.A. Confidential is the most well-known to non-Ellroy readers, just because of the highly successful movie. It and White Jazz are the two best written – by that point Ellroy had fully mastered his craft and his POV. But the books are dense and complicated, plot-wise. For example the movie L.A. Confidential only covers about a third of the story at best.

Anyway, each of the two groupings features characters that overlap from one novel to the next, and the Underworld USA stuff starts with a minor character from White Jazz. If this is sounding Byzantine, that’s because it is.  For example, Ellroy says that the men that wrote the screenplay for L.A.C. took it from eight story lines down to three, and shaved off about two-thirds of the characters.

I’d recommend starting with L.A. Confidential. The Big Nowhere is good, and it explains how Buzz Meeks comes to have a bunch of Jack Dragna’s and Mickey Cohen’s heroin and money at the start of L.A.C., but it also lacks the driving force of L.A.C. The Commie Hunt at the center of TBN just seems silly. (To be fair, it seemed silly to most of the characters as well. It was done solely for reasons of political ambition.) White Jazz is perhaps the best written, but I really think it needs the set-up of L.A.C. to fully appreciate the ongoing clash between Edmund Exley and Dudley Liam Smith. The Black Dahlia has its moments, but the plot and especially the resolution are kind of out there. I swear, the last 60 or so pages of Dahlia feature more apparent endings that the LotRs novels, and about seven major plot twists per sentence.

(Incidentally, I think Dudley Smith is scarier, by the end of White Jazz, than Hannibal Lecter. Lecter was kind of a demigod amongst men, but essentially a loner. Smith is an organizational genius, a brilliant operator, ruthless, efficient and very intelligent, with a flair for extreme violence. And he’s got psychopaths that work for HIM.)

The L.A. Quartet is focused on the L.A. police department of the post-WWII era. Underworld USA is focused on the intersection of the various underworld types in the US from the late 1950s to the early 1970s: CIA, FBI, Mob, billionaire recluses with insane amounts of wealth (Howard Hughes), and a millionaire gangster (Joe Kennedy) intent on taking over the country by getting one son after another elected to the Presidency. Throw in white supremacists, scheming pols and Mormons and you round it out, with a bunch of nutty commies thrown in for leavening in Blood’s a Rover. The books are insanely conspiratorial, and ultra violent. Basically, almost every conspiracy about the JFK assassination you’ve heard is correct in Ellroy’s telling. Ditto the MLK and RFK assassinations. As he puts it in a later novel, “Everything you suspect is true, and not at all what you think.”

American Tabloid would be the place to start those novels. The LAQ novels aren’t necessary at all for these, but these three really should be read in order. Ellroy specializes in characters with deep flaws, and not the kind that are redeeming either. He’s rather disdainful of Raymond Chandler, although I can’t find the quote I want on that topic.

And this Wikipedia bit explains his narrative style quite nicely:

Hallmarks of his work include dense plotting and a relentlessly pessimistic—albeit moral—worldview. His work has earned Ellroy the nickname “Demon dog of American crime fiction.”

Ellroy writes longhand on legal pads rather than on a computer and prepares elaborate outlines for his books, most of which are several hundred pages long.

Dialog and narration in Ellroy novels often consists of a “heightened pastiche of jazz slang, cop patois, creative profanity and drug vernacular” with a particular use of period-appropriate slang.  He often employs stripped-down staccato sentence structures, a style that reaches its apex in The Cold Six Thousand and which Ellroy describes as a “direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that’s declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards.” This signature style is not the result of a conscious experimentation but of chance and came about when he was asked by his editor to shorten his novel White Jazz from 900 pages to 350. Rather than removing any subplots, Ellroy achieved this by eliminating verbs, creating a unique style of prose. While each sentence on its own is simple, the cumulative effect is a dense, baroque style.

The thing that gets me is that he can write in a variety of different styles, and do it well. The man is a true craftsman – it’s obvious he has worked and worked and worked on his craft, and as is the case with most masters, he makes it look easy.* It actually makes me despair of doing any writing, even blog comments.

Which is not to say I don’t have criticisms here and there. But criticism in general often comes down to complaints about how the nostrils flare on Michelangelo’s David. Nitnitnitnitnit….

The language as Ellroy uses it is appropriate for the milieu and for the characters. He mostly writes using third-person POV perspectives. Any given chapter will use the perspective of one character. Typically he uses three characters for each book. The Black Dahlia and White Jazz are exceptions, written as straight memoirs. Blood’s a Rover has a frame of sorts that makes it seem as though it should be a memoir, but that frame has no impact on the body of the book. There are characters in the Underworld USA trilogy that object to such language. They tell others so in conversation, and the language doesn’t appear in the non-dialogue portions of their chapters.

Incidentally, Blood’s a Rover is actually the weakest book of the bunch. The plot is murky, the character’s motivations don’t always make sense, and it has other problems. (Including, strangely, four obvious typos. Those were the only typos I saw in seven books. However, I think that was the only first edition I read, so that’s probably it.) But it still contains some brilliant writing, and it also has the best title. When I saw the title I thought, “Now THAT sounds like a noir title!” I was surprised to find it’s actually from an A. E. Housman poem:

Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover;
Breath’s a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad; when the journey’s over
There’ll be time enough for sleep.

I confess I just don’t get most poetry, and thus I miss out on stuff like this.

White ethnic awareness (and friction) was one of the things that surprised me when I moved to Baltimore in 2000. I’d hear Germans complaining about “drunken Micks,” Irish folks bitching about “Polacks,” etc. And that was in the office! Having been born in Florida in 1968 almost the only ethnic difference I was aware of was White and Black. You were one or the other and that was that. (There was a smattering of “other” here and there – Vietnamese and Filipinos and such. Almost no Hispanic presence in Central Florida back then. And all the Others put together didn’t amount to any kind of presence.) I’m guessing that was a byproduct of The Movement.

But Ellroy’s heavy use of derogatory slang* terms for Blacks especially stands out to the modern reader – one just doesn’t SAY that kind of stuff anymore. If someone asks a question which has an affirmative answer, the person being questioned invariably responds “Can n*****s dance?” Whenever anyone is going to the Black section of LA it is referred to as N*****town. And since all the characters are jazz fiends someone is always going to that part of town. It actually reminds me of listening to my father and his buddies in construction talking back in the day – a “reckless verisimilitude” matches reality to a ‘T’.

* [1940s – ’50s period slang, remember ~ ed.]


I only started reading Ellroy earlier this year. I was clicking around the tube one night when I couldn’t sleep and stumbled on the premier episode of James Ellroy’s LA: City of Demons on the Investigate Discovery (ID) channel. Ellroy doesn’t just write “detective fiction”, he is also a true crime buff. And so he did a six part series for ID about various crimes and criminals from the LA scene. The first episode focused on the unsolved murders of Elizabeth Short in 1947 (the Black Dahlia case – back in 1947 it was the Case of the Century. I don’t know what the Case of the Century was in 1948) and of his own mother in 1958, when Ellroy was ten years old. “Dead women own me” was the constant refrain. I was hooked.

I went to the library the next day and checked out The Black Dahlia (his fictionalized retelling of the Elizabeth Short murder) and L.A. Confidential. That library branch didn’t have The Big Nowhere so I read that one out of order after White Jazz. Down here in Orange County we have a very good public library system. The nicest feature is that they will deliver books to your home free of charge. I could have just ordered the books and waited, but I HAD to go to the nearest branch ASAP, even though I had to take my seven-and-a-half month old daughter with me and lug her around the branch with me. (Carrying a young squirming child while browsing the stacks isn’t the hardest thing I’ve done, but it wasn’t easy.)

(Incidentally, I don’t really read much in the detective/mystery genre. I’m off and on making my way through the original Sherlock Holmes stuff. I must have read Poe’s detective stuff when I was a teenager. And I have read Booked to Die, which was kind of fun. But that’s really it for me.)

Ellroy on camera is nothing like Ellroy the author. He has crafted a public persona that is much like the Sid Hudgens character from L.A. Confidential. (That was Danny DeVito’s character in the movie.) Speech suffused with gratuitous alliteration, absolute moral judgment, and a tabloid taste for scandal and depravity. That persona is somewhat buffoonish, and the alliterations often make no sense at all if you parse them out, but it is mesmerizing. Even the CGI talking police dog was a hoot. The next two episodes focused on the scandal rags (including a new interview with Lana Turner’s daughter – the one that stabbed Lana’s boyfriend Johnny Stompanato to death) and serial killers. AND THEN THEY TOOK IT OFF THE AIR! What the Hell? How bad do the ratings have to be to cancel a six part special series already in the can halfway through on the ID channel? What, you can’t air them at three in the morning on a Thursday? I’m still miffed.

(At least they stopped on a high note. Ellroy ends the episode on serial killers sitting in a diner speaking with Barko, the CGI police dog. Ellroy is bitching (ahem) that “the novelty of a talking dog is wearing thin. Besides, everyone knows you’re the real star of the show.” Barko offers to cheer him up by the two of them knocking over a liquor store and framing some gangbangers. Ellroy responds, “What about witnesses?” Barko: “What are they gonna say? ‘We were robbed by an aging burn-out and a talking dog’?”)

But by then I was already through Dahlia, into L.A. Confidential, and it was the written word that mattered. I didn’t finish the books until about week ago (I can only read in short bursts because of my daughter, so it took a LONG time), and I’m still kind of stuck in the Ellroy Zone. He’s got other stuff I can read, including the novels he wrote before Dahlia. But my impression is that Ellroy was still learning his craft at that point so I’m going to pass. There’re also memoirs (probably very interesting – he is one seriously fucked up individual), a couple of short story collections and some true crime stuff (Destination: Morgue!). But I really need to decompress, so I’m going to back off for now and search out something less intense to read.

PS It was unfair in one of the comments above to describe that one guy as the third most “good” character in the two series. He’s probably only the fifth or sixth most good character.

PPS My cat deleted well more than 200 words. I composed this in Word just to be safe. You’d think I’d do that with most comments after sharing homes with cats for the last 13 years, but the lesson never sticks.

One final Ellroy comment – at times the guy is fucking hilarious. There’s a scene in American Tabloid with Jimmy Hoffa talking with some Mob bosses. Jimmy starts off with “Those goddamned cocksucker Kennedys are trying to fuck me like the Pharoah fucked Jesus!” The conversation goes downhill from there and ends with “So don’t make Joe Kennedy sound like Jesus handing God the Ten Commandments on Mount Fucking Vesuvius,” which is, of course, in Yosemite National Park.

One FINAL final Ellroy comment. After I finished Dahlia I gave my wife (who wasn’t reading the book and hasn’t read the book) a three hour plus recap of the last sixty pages. She told me it was an interesting recap, but I was just completely wound up. She also tells me I’ve been recapping stuff regularly since then. (She actually said “nightly” but I don’t quite believe that – I’ve occassionally gone a few days without reading any Ellroy.) I’m still wound up over a week later, as perhaps you have surmised.

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The Gift of the Dying

March 17, 2011 at 12:10 pm (Guest Post)

My brother visited us the weekend before, and wrote this 3 days before J died.


The gift of the dying
Is their knowing.

The dying know it all
But only their eyes say so.

And what they say is this:

Go. Live. Sing.
Pray for me,
But don’t spend all day on it.

Outside, the world
Is growing accustomed
To my absence,
And being ceaselessly amazed
At the arrivals,
Raw from their journey and,
Like you, shocked
At being torn away.

Turn your attention to me,
Ever so briefly,
Say the dying,

So that the fierce forward-leaning
Of life
Can shock you anew,

And build your resolve
To call out to the cosmos
With all the devoted desperation

Of your borrowed soul.

Say the dying with their fluttering eyes.
Go, but don’t leave me.
Come back,
So i can see what coming back is like,
Once more,

And so that you may remember
That in coming back,
You are practiced
In the art that i learn even now:
The art
Of going

Mr. Gobley

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Can Computers Play Chess?

February 24, 2011 at 1:02 am (Guest Post, Icepick)

A guest post by Icepick

[Ed. note:  Icepick agreed to my request to promote this to a post in J’s honor.  As I told him, J was riveted by chess and was quite a strong player, although — as with writing and jazz — his true genius was as a generous and penetrating appreciator of other people’s brilliance.  He could watch high-level chess play for hours.  He didn’t play more because he feared falling into chess and never coming out. In the words of an old Russian proverb in a book of chess quotations he treasured:  “Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.”]

I have seen computers play pretty mean games of chess. Wait, let me check….

I have to date played 7605 games against the BulletB program on the Internet Chess Club. I’m currently +950. Disappointing, but those are 1 1 games, and I’m just not that good with a mouse, so my current ratio is probably about as good as I can hope for long term.

Based on my experience of playing a few thousands of games against people live, and another several thousand against people over the internet (still looking for a day where I can play against people on all seven continents in one day – personal best is five continents in one day) I think I can be a reasonable judge of whether or not a computer can or has played chess.

And the judge SEZ – Computers can and do play chess.

As for the Turing Test – too few human beings can pass it.

*    *    *

A further elaboration:

Machines have been built that do most PHYSICAL feets better than humans. (I believe John Henry got his ass whupped long ago.) Autonomous machines (robots) started getting used in manufacturing decades ago. And adding machines have been faster than (most) humans for a long time now.

But what happened over the last few decades with chess playing computers was a different matter altogether. Chess was chosen for a reason – namely that it was a very difficult game that didn’t come down to a simple formula. (Unlike, say, tic tac toe.) The variety of different pieces also separated the game in complexity from checkers. (Checkers HAS been largely beaten by the computers. Only Marion Tinsley could match them.) Chess requires memory (a specialty of computers), calculation (another specialty of the silicon monsters), pattern recognition (not a strength – or at least it wasn’t a few decades ago), and positional judgement.

That last was somewhat mysterious – the good chess players knew better than the poor ones when a position had something in it. The very good players had a better sense than the good ones. The very best were better still, and the true greats leave everyone baffled. But it’s hard to define what the “it” is. It was more than just pattern recognition, although that was part of it.

I remember an anecdote about Bobby Fischer. He was playing in some open tournament somewhere in his youth. He walked by the board of an acquaintance, looked at the position for maybe five seconds, and wandered off. Years latter he ran into the man again and asked him, “Did you win that game against so-and-so?” The man replied that he hadn’t won, so Fischer quickly explained to the man what he should have done to win the game. A mere glance at a complex position was enough for Fischer to judge the position accurately and formulate the winning plan. FIVE SECONDS. Such powers mystify us regular players.

Then there was the story of Capablanca explaining an endgame to some other masters. He stopped by an analysis session and started explaining the position to them, one they had been working on for some time at that point. He said something along the lines of “this piece should be here, and that one there, and then White wins easily.” They asked for variations and he replied that he didn’t need them – once he knew where everything went the rest was elementary. I’ve heard similar stories about (amongst others) Bisguier (an under-rated American GM), Kasparov, Tal, and especially Karpov. Even Kasparov (the greatest chess player ever – human player anyway) seems in awe of Karpov’s ability to just know where the pieces belong.

So this positional judgement thing was a great challenge. It was a perfect problem for the programmers.

In the early years they hoped to mimic a human approach to the game. That was the great hope of early pioneers, including Mikhail Botvinnik, the greatest of the Soviet players (and their longest tenured world champion). Botvinnik also happened to be an engineering whiz, and he hoped to construct a machine to mimic the human mind’s functions. He failed miserably.

Early on the programmers realized that the strongest element of a computer’s ability was the calculation aspect. So they put more and more effort into algorithms to evaluate positions along strictly mechanistic means, and to calculate as many positions as possible. No gestalt in this approach, nothing “holistic”. This approach bore fruit.

And it was ultimately this approach that led to the creation of programs that could best all but the strongest humans. And as it stands today, the humans really can’t hope to win a match save by glitch in the machine. They might tie (the match, not any individual game, which they still win on occasion) with best play, but that’s all they can really hope for. In about five years I doubt they will have any hope at all of even winning a single game off the best programs. It’s changed that much.

In addition, these programs have shown people new ways to play the game. Their calculating abilities have revealed any number of flaws in old approaches to specific positions. About ten years back they even started occasionally started showing new strategies and positional motifs in certain positions. (I remember a game with a Re3 lift that kind of blew everyone’s mind – computer programs weren’t supposed to DO that.) But it wasn’t understanding, it was more and more calculations.

These days the best of the younger grandmasters show unmistakable computer influence on their style of play – not just in the opening preparation but throughout the game. (I thinking most notably of Magnus Carlsen’s relentlessness and Hikaru Nakamura’s tactical wizardry.) The computer programs have changed the game. (The old-timers generally don’t seem to like it – they believe it has removed much artistry. I don’t entirely agree, as their is much beauty in the new stuff as well. Times change.)

But the sad upshot of all of this has been that computers don’t think like people when playing chess. The more … call it … holistic approach never worked. Botvinnik would have been disappointed, as is his latter successor Kasparov. The big loss isn’t for chess, it’s for understanding how human thought works, and determining if it can be duplicated. Chess just didn’t hold the answer.

OTOH, we have observed two things in the meantime. First, that computers CAN solve extremely complex problems through systematic refining of brute force algorithms. Second, that humans can learn to mimic that approach, within limitations. So some things have been learned.

But there is still hope that the computer guys can do something different. The hope now rests on coming up with good Go programs, as that game turns out to be much more difficult for programmers to figure out. I’ve heard they hope to have some success with poker playing programs, but I expect that to be a bit less worthwhile. Poker can be reduced to mathematics fairly easily (for a computer at least), and some clever application of game theory ought to insure enough variability that I expect such a program to be better than pretty much all humans in the not distant future. (Assuming it hasn’t happened yet. I only follow that peripherally.)

But the upshot has been this – the brute force “materialist” approach works. And I mean that both from a chess esthetics viewpoint (computers, like Victor Korchnoi, are suckers for grabbing all the material they can get) and as a programming solution to complex problems.

*     *     *

(The BulletB program I mentioned is one that has been “lobotomized” to play at around a certain strength at certain time limits. The Crafty program upon which it is based is a pretty solid free-ware program developed primarily by Dr. Robert Hyatt. Interestingly for me, the program’s origins date back to 1968, the same year as my birth. I’ve been lucky enough to play a few games (fewer than five, I think) where I have managed to draw a non-lobotomized version of Crafty. )

* But the humans are catching up. There’s a reason that we have so many people who’ve become grandmasters at 13 these days. Playing programs and especially databases have drastically altered the learning curve. The kids are getting programmed too these days.

*     *     *

H. G. Wells’ description in this piece is wonderful. Here’s the best extract:

The passion for playing chess is one of the most unaccountable in the world. It slaps the theory of natural selection in the face. It is the most absorbing of occupations, the least satisfying of desires, an aimless excrescence upon life. It annihilates a man. You have, let us say, a promising politician, a rising artist, that you wish to destroy. Dagger or bomb are archaic, clumsy, and unreliable–but teach him, inoculate him with chess!

I must say, however, that the game does have some charms. The Dutch GM Hans Ree once said, “Chess is beautiful enough to waste your life for.” If you don’t understand that statement, if you don’t feel it in your soul, you aren’t really a chess player.

About three years ago I started entering all my existing live game scores into a database. I forget what the total is, but it’s around 300 games, if memory serves. Those are just the live tournament games, plus some games from high school matches, and together they span 27 years now. Not a great big number, not by any stretch. I’d play every weekend, given the opportunity, but they haven’t always presented themselves. But I played regularly with a couple of diehards back in my Maryland days. One of them has played in over 655 EVENTS since late 1991, and the other has played in over 1273 EVENTS in the same period of time. They’re both lifetime Class B players at best. But they’re out playing every chance they can get. And that’s just the rated events they PAY to play in. I can find one of them online just about every day, looking for more action. I just checked a recent tournament they both played in, and I recognized every player in the tournament. Dedication, baby!

So the short bit is that yes, it can dominate/ruin one’s life!

*     *     *

Another proverb from J’s book of chess quotations, this one German:

No fool can play chess, and only fools do.

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Mom Rant Deux

October 13, 2010 at 9:54 pm (By Amba, Guest Post)

Too bad for us — this stuff is too good to be Sh*t My Mom Says.


Mom asked me:

If J were sentient, I wonder how he would react to the drama of the Chilean miners: would it be unbearable for him to watch it? I can only be glad he is spared the anguish of waiting for the painstaking process to be finished; but I wish he could share the exhilaration of each rescued man–if he could stand it.

I answered:

I know how he would react because I saw his reaction to an earlier rescue and surrounding media fest.  It was one of rather bitter irony — when he escaped, the whole world was most definitely neither watching nor helping.  It was in loneliness and nearly complete obscurity and indifference whether he lived or died — but for a few crucial individuals who could have turned him in but, with remarkable consistency, hid and fed him instead.  It’s so odd to compare that solitary, one-to-one humanity to our media-metastasized combination of curiosity, compassion, and spectacle.

She responded:

There’s been a lot of callous indifference to suffering in this world. Think of how we have turned away from the genocides that have wracked the planet, especially in Africa. I was thinking about J in the cave-in and how that whole terrible memory might have risen again as he thought about these guys and all that time down there. The media had turned away from this story, too, as long as it was just the families whose lives were shattered by the long wait at Camp Whatever-they-named-it, in the dry mountain chill. How he’d have empathized with that feeling of being entombed after the timbers gave way–and he was injured! None of the Chileans was hurt, I gather. You think about that lonely terrifying and incredibly courageous escape into the Unknown from what he must have felt was the certainty of death if he didn’t get out of that hospital. But I was thinking about the terror of the accident itself.

One cannot abide the mentality that wants to be entertained on TV by blood-curdling accidents, prurient and corrupt melodramas, and the anguish of the nameless innocent, whether in massacres, mine disasters, drownings, fires, earthquakes, or floods. The Hungarian toxic flood is almost Hiroshima on a smaller scale: poisoned water that burns the skin off you! Each day we have to have a new–and more grotesquely horrible–event to look at, or we fall asleep over our beer and potato chips out of sheer boredom. The proliferation of media outlets–and I add Facebook and its offspring, if there are any yet, and its progenitors, who, unfortunately go back farther than Barnum–that both create and then pander to this audience has eradicated genuine information and demeaned the pleasure of real communication between real people. So we are all shadows, living in “Second Life,” only we don’t know it—yet.

Love from one Queen of the Disaffected to another (?)–


[Jean S. Gottlieb]

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Mad As Hell! Not Going to Take It Anymore! [UPDATED]

August 31, 2010 at 1:36 am (Guest Post)

Guest rant by Jean S. Gottlieb

Much of our lives seem to be consecrated to making simple things complicated without the benefit of making complicated things simpler. Why is it so hard to get basic information, like a telephone number now that phone books have become endangered species? Computers were designed by people who like intricacy of the Dungeons and Dragons kind of thing, so they don’t “think” in a simplifying streamlining kind of way–at least not for the likes of me. I hate what has happened to the home page on the computer. Full of jumping ads and “information” I neither want nor am interested in. I hate what has happened to television which has been poisoned by the computer bug–all commercials and maybe 10 minutes of programming–I’m speaking of news broadcasts. All channels do the same stories at the same point in their broadcast; all synchronize their commercials to minimize viewers’ opportunity to get news on channel A while channel B is trying to sell you a car or some medication that they warn you to check with your doctor about because it can have ominous side effects.

I guess I am just in a ranting mood, but even simple things, so-called, like ordering tickets, airline, theatre, whatever, has become a humiliation, as has airline travel. What happened to the notion that service was what some of these bozos were supposed to be offering us? Why, with  the the marvel of the computer to handle great gobs of data so that our records will be orderly, intelligible, and simplified, are medical records, for instance, often a muddle? Why does the doctor have you fill out the same form with the same (dumb) questions every time he sees you? Why doesn’t Dr. A. EVER seem to ask Dr. B. what he has been prescribing for you, or why is it sometimes the alert pharmacist who says, “You better not take both these medicines, they react badly on each other”? With all his record keeping the Dr. seems not to know something as important as conflicting medications that are both supposedly listed in your records!

I AM crabby tonight. Dad whupped me again at scrabble . . .

[reprinted with permission from an e-mail to amba]

Jean adds in response to comments:

What comes to mind as a further insult to the senses and the intelligence (?) of consumers is the totally distracting and unnecessary number of varieties even something as basic as TOOTHPASTE comes in: whitening, whitening with cavity preventer, gel or paste, extra scrub power, I can’t even begin to name the huge, unnecessary number of kinds of just that one item.

As for the respondent who says he prefers online shopping, I understand and sympathize. Retail has lost its lustre as a location where knowledge, charm personality, intuitiveness, whatever, are prized–or even exist. That’s a fault of employers who won’t or can’t train people to see the work as dignified. So selling a pair of shoelaces is like selling someone a winter coat (almost). What we gain is quick and easy and sanitized retail, no interpersonal relationship, no exchange, only snippy or bored “associates,” who are undifferentiated from the seller of hamburgers at McDonald’s.

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What You May Not Know About Your Health Insurance

March 20, 2010 at 7:32 pm (Guest Post, Icepick) ()

A guest post by Icepick

Recently I heard President Obama once again claim that his health care/health insurance reform is needed to stop the growing costs of health insurance. He has repeatedly implied that health insurance costs are rising mostly because health insurance companies are raising rates to increase their profits. This is ill-informed at best. Health insurance costs are rising because health CARE costs are rising.

I know this because of personal experience. I used to have the fancy title of Senior Benefits Planning Analyst at a Fortune 100 company. I did the financial modeling of that company’s employee benefits costs for ~54,000 full-time employees, including the medical costs. Our department did a lot of research into the costs of health care, in part so that we could make decent forecasts, and also so we could give corporate leadership recommendations on how much we should charge for medical coverage. That’s right, the company set insurance rates (sometimes after collective bargaining, sometimes not), not some evil insurance company. That’s because the company was self-insured.

Something that the President never mentions is that most large companies self-insure their medical plans – they pay most or all of the medical expenses of their covered employees and families themselves. Let me explain it another way. If a company purchases insurance for an employee, the company only pays for the insurance which is typically a fixed cost. If that employee’s medical expenses are less than the insurance, the company loses money on that employee’s insurance. In a self-insured plan, the company pays those medical costs itself. Once a certain threshold in size is passed a company often finds it less expensive to self-insure.

Most people working for a self-insured company won’t know that the company has self-insured. Usually a company will hire an insurance company to handle the actual claims. Companies do this for several reasons. First, privacy concerns and HIPAA law mean that a company does not want direct access to its employees medical information. Second, most companies do not have the expertise to handle insurance claims. Third, insurance companies typically have more power to negotiate favorable rates with local providers. So a self-insured company will pay an insurance company to handle the administrative side of things, while the company pays for the actual medical expenses.

When I worked for such a company, we analyzed our medical and insurance costs in excruciating detail. And you know what? Our medical costs were increasing at roughly 9% a year for at least a decade. And the insurance company costs had little to do with it. Our costs were going up at that huge rate because medical expenses were going up that fast.

So all the talk of insurance companies fleecing the public is at best a side issue – insurance costs have increased in recent decades because medical expenses have increased. The current bill, which will no doubt be passed this weekend, does nothing to truly address that issue.

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An Open Letter to Thomas Friedman

February 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm (Guest Post)

A Guest Post by Callimachus

answering Friedman’s 2/17 column “Global Weirding is Here.”

Quick credentials: I generally agree with you. I’m a historian/journalist, internationalist, lifelong secularist and apologist for the scientific method; I’ve gone to the mat nationally and locally in public in the ugly fights against creationism and bogus “Christian America” history texts. References supplied upon request.

And this misguided crusade over global warming compromises scientists as a class. Memories of this debate will be an obstacle to anyone who wishes to promote scientific methods. Science will seem to be no better than, no different than, ideology, theology, or political mania.

Look at the language. Skim the AP articles and see how often scientists defending the catastrophic global warming scenario cast their opponents as “the skeptics.” When scientists define themselves against “skeptics,” we’re no longer talking about science as I recognize it.

The “skeptics” may not have tenure, but they have something respectable the other side wants: Horse sense.

You lament the term “global warming” as a bad one — it’s been lamented as a bad one from the beginning by the sober heads who really understood the research. Why did it prevail anyhow, and what does that say about the movement?

You want to change it. It’s too late to change it, just as it’s too late to change “evolution,” a term Darwin lamented (and used only once), but which was thumbtacked to the public mind by Spencer and the social darwinists and eugenicists — the scientific enthusiasts who took it all too far in the name of a better tomorrow.

So if — as in your own recent column — widespread cooling is touted as evidence of “global warming” — you can’t be surprised that the common people increasingly are skeptics. To your credit, you make that point.

Yet the fault is deeper than a mischosen word. For years there had been evidence of a lack of warming in Antarctica. The “skeptics” sometimes noted that inconvenient fact. And the global warming enthusiasts found a way to claim that lack-of-warming in Antarctica was entirely consistent with — even predictable in — their global warming doomsday model. Then some zealous scientists found, in fact, evidence of warming in Antarctica. And that was brazenly welcomed as evidence of global warming.

When “X” and “not X” both prove theory Y, we are no longer talking about science as I recognize it. I go with the horse sense crowd. I’m with the skeptics.

The skeptics see a group of powerful and vocal people trying to ram through an agenda of massive societal and economic change (up to and including capping capitalism and redistributing wealth from rich nations to poor ones) on the plea that to do anything otherwise than exactly that is to deliberately let the planet burn.

And they remember that the same people were pushing the same agenda long before anyone coined the phrase “global warming.” They also remember the number of scientific certainties that have been upended in their lifetimes. Perhaps they even remember that a century ago the scientific consensus was that human races are biologically definable, rankable, would never be equal in their capabilities, and their birth rates ought to be controlled for the good of the species.

No corporate chicanery paid for those racist conclusions. They came out of the minds of scientists, who were products of their cultures and societies. Some of the best scientists of our times, Stephen Jay Gould, for example, devoted much of their work to warning us that scientists are as susceptible to self-delusion and groupthink as any other humans.

If you’re a scientist today researching this topic, what’s your incentive to publish honest results that fail to show evidence of imminent global warming catastrophe? What’s your likely penalty for doing so? You don’t have to be a scientist to ask that question and guess the answer.

The horse sense skeptics are mocked and humiliated for it by the eggheads. They not only insist on crying wolf, they will slap you if you don’t listen. Which is an awful mistake for eggheads to make, but they seem to have been carried away in this by their veteran leftish politician allies. The horse sense people are not dupes of the oil companies: They’re deeply suspicious of and hostile to them, too. Instead, they are approaching the global warming catastrophists with a skepticism I wish scientists used in choosing their allies.

Global warming scientists and their allies often equate global warming skeptics with creationists. Evolution is a statement about what happened in the past, based on millions of fossils and millions of living species, with a full set of subsidiary sciences (genetics, etc.) that can be tested daily in a middle school lab.

When people predict what species and ecosystems will look like in the future, that’s not evolutionary science, even if biologists do it (and generally they are smart enough not to). It’s whimsy, it’s science fiction.

Catastrophic global warming is a prediction about the future, based on computer models.

The scientific study of climate and how it changes didn’t even exist before about 1960. Those who study it still have no consensus about why it changed in the past.

The Earth’s climate changes over time. The change can be catastrophic. We still don’t know what makes it change. What we know for sure is the Earth has been much warmer in its recent past, and much cooler. There’s no guarantee on the climate you see around you.

Why were there Ice Ages after tens of millions of years without them? Why were there dramatic warm spikes in the middle of them? Why has world climate been relatively stable for the past 4,000 years? Nobody knows. No good scientific model of world climate change yet has been constructed.

One of the old books I like to take down and look at sometimes is a school geography text from 1876. I like to see the world as it looked to people then, the world that people learned about in school.

The book opens with the bland statement that the Earth is a sphere. But then it goes on to acknowledge that it doesn’t look this way to us who walk on it, and then the authors tell why geographers know it’s a sphere.

It only takes about two short paragraphs, but it’s something that dropped out of our way of learning. It acknowledges that even a child’s objection that “it doesn’t look that way to me” is worth answering, and that in fact this is a wise question, not a stupid one, and that any authority that makes a bald statement owes it to his students to produce evidence for it.

Nowadays, it’s supposed to be sufficient that an expert says something. Anyone who doesn’t accept the word of the expert, who even dares to ask “How do you think you know that,” is dismissed as a rube or worse. Ross Gelbspan decries “greenhouse skeptics” as “criminals against humanity.”

I wish the people who expect me to join this religion would take the time to make it palatable to common sense and to admit that intelligent people of good will might not be convinced by doomsday movies.

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“Frankly, I Call It Fraud”: A Guest Post on Healthcare [UPDATED]

November 23, 2009 at 3:14 am (Guest Post)

The following was written by a woman whose husband died of a dementia similar to J’s.  It is reproduced here with her permission.

Did anyone see “60 Minutes” tonight where they addressed end-of-life care?  It was quite interesting and certainly appropriate for what many are going through.  They were discussing whether putting people in hospitals when they were at the end of life was more costly, and one woman told of the thousands of dollars worth of bills for her mother, who was terminal with heart and liver failure; yet they did a Pap smear on her, took all kinds of tests, called in a psychiatrist because she was “depressed.”  She told them that she, of course, was depressed because she was dying.

I assume it was a doctor speaking, and one of the things mentioned was that hospitals have to have beds filled and tests given to keep their profit level up.  They also have several doctors “looking after” the patient, mostly so that each can bill separately.

I can certainly relate to that.  When my husband first went to the hospital for a broken bone, he was immediately put on Hydrocodone, even after I told them he didn’t do well on strong pain meds.  Then, they called in a psychiatrist, because he was hallucinating – duh???  [ed:  This is a common feature of “our kind” of dementia — though J mostly doesn’t have it — that can be exacerbated by medications.] Each doctor referred him to another doctor, and at the end of three days, I don’t know how many doctors had supposedly seen him.  Then, he was referred to the rehab hospital, where again, another psychiatrist was called and proceeded to give him several different antipsychotic drugs.  Again, he was referred to several doctors, when all that was supposed to be done was rehab on his injury.

They said that many patients never read their hospital bills, because Medicare of Medicaid is paying for it.  Believe me, every one of his bills was gone over by me, and I was appalled at the cost of things and the number of drugs that he had been prescribed in addition to his Aricept and antidepressant.   I counted the meds they gave him, and between the meds, supplements, etc., he was given 16 different types of pills.  I checked them on the drug interaction site and some of the ones he was taking should not have been used with others, and some it said not to be given to patients with dementia.

The bills from the nursing home were absolutely incomprehensible, and when I would question them, they couldn’t even answer the questions.  If you don’t think there is fraud in the system, just check things out.  While he was on a catheter for several weeks, they still billed for Depends.  I checked them each time I was there, and the package had the same amount in it every day.  When I asked about this, they told me that’s what was allowed.  When he was taken off food and water on the last day of the month, they still ordered his Aricept, Celexa, Seroquel, and other drugs when they knew he was dying and were expecting it any moment.  So, where did those drugs go?  He certainly didn’t receive them.  I could cite many more examples.

I continued to receive notices from Medicare and his secondary carrier for more than two years after his death.  Some were notifications of payment to doctors I didn’t even know he had seen.  One had even moved out of the area.

The hospital where he went now has hospitalists who direct hospital care rather than the patient’s own doctor.  Then, they refer different doctors for each thing.  So, he had psychologist, neurologist, urologist, physical therapist, and I don’t know what all referrals; each one billing separately.  If I recall, they even had a different doctor that billed for his dismissal.
When I figured up all his bills for the approximately last two years of his life, they were nearly $80,000, and that did not include the cost of the nursing home care.

Needless to say, I have a lot of pent-up feelings about the medical profession, and as long as we have greedy doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes, we are going to have fraud.

Have I stirred up a hornet’s nest?

Ed.:  The woman who tells this story says that she doesn’t blame Medicare or Medicaid for this state of affairs (her own experience, as I understand it, was solely with Medicare), but rather “the greedy medical profession,” “including insurance companies, doctors, hospitals, etc.,” and that her specific objection is to the unnecessary overtesting, overtreatment, overmedication, and overbilling, whether due to defensive medicine or profit-seeking.

How should sensible healthcare reform tackle this problem?  It is wasteful, costly, and as often as not, harmful to the patient.

UPDATE: Ed.: I asked my doctor sister to comment.  Here’s what she said:

I don’t know what to say. It’s hard to read about someone’s awful health care experience and be able to say anything meaningful. But the majority of Dr’s aren’t venal and evil or see awful end of life situations such as this as opportunities to make a buck. The hospitals I’m not so sure of.

The way medicine is practiced now is by individual specialists who take care of their little niche and don’t want to be bothered about anything else. Why? Many Dr’s avoid primary care because it’s hard to be the jack of all trades and the master of none.  And the reimbursement sucks. And the paperwork is unconscionable. And more. Plus if you’re a specialist and do procedures you get paid more the more of them you do. Duh. So no one is really taking care of the whole patient, they’re just shoving their tube in their orifice of expertise.

But I also have a serious problem with patients’ expectations. Everyone wants more health and more testing and more access. What happened to common sense?  When a dying demented person is admitted to the hospital the institution takes over to some degree.  The nurses want the patient to be quiet and not too much bother (sorry but it’s true). The Dr’s dread the sad and often angry family who wants their loved one not to suffer and it’s up to us to FIX IT. And it’s not unusual to have several family factions who want different things and we get caught in the middle. Hospitals are terrible places for the dying and one of these health bills will also have provisions for expanding hospice care.

That would be worth a lot.  I can attest that hospice is probably one of the most cost-effective, as well as compassionate, things you could do.  It only kicks in when there is a condition that is incurable and eventually fatal.  Heroic, expensive, and futile efforts are over or have been forsworn.  They will leave no stone unturned when it comes to physical and emotional comfort, but that is mostly low-tech and relatively low-cost.  SAVING is the word.  It won’t save your life, but it can save money and it can save your sanity.  It minimizes both expense and suffering.

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