Archive for the 'Academia' Category

Maths, mnemonics, chess

or, How to memorize chess openings (long version)

Watch Arthur Benjamin, “Mathemagician,” multiply two five-digit numbers IN HIS HEAD:

The scene in question starts around 10:30, although the whole video is quite interesting.

He explains his methodology just a bit, and then attempts to verbalize the whole thought process as he solves the problem, which he breaks down into three segments. After finishing one segment, he remembers the resulting number by repeating a phrase: “cookie fission”.  Substituting words for numbers. The mathemagician’s mnemonic aid. After he finishes another of the three segments, he will recall his first segment result with “cookie fission”, combine those two segments, and continue on from there.

Now stay with me:

There is a wonderful, ridiculous, ultra-sharp, ultra-theoretical chess opening called the Botvinnik variation of the Anti-Meran line in the Semi-Slav defense against the Queen’s Gambit. (Yeah.) Starts 1.d4 d5 2.c4 [Queen’s Gambit] … c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 e6 [Semi-Slav, versus a …Bf5 setup] 5.Bg5 [Anti-Meran, rather than 5.e3 Meran] …dxc4 [Botvinnik, as opposed to 5…h6 Moscow variation].


Botvinnik Anti-Meran
Botvinnik Anti-Meran: let the fun begin!

Now I don’t have a great chess memory. I have to keep looking up these names in Wikipedia just to know what a Meran is and what an Anti-Meran is. And the Botvinnik line is so notoriously well-researched that GMs often play more than 20 moves they’ve memorized before making any original decisions. So this is not a logical line for me to play, with either color.

However, it’s fascinating and fun. Either side could get mated, or lose or win an ugly endgame. So after taking it up in blitz for a time, I had a chance to play it over-the-board for the first time against a 2350+ player this weekend. I half-expected to get embarrassed by making some basic well-known theoretical blunder. And I did make a bonehead mistake immediately upon forgetting the book line on move 14 (but actually we wound up making a draw!).

Listening to IMs talk about this kind of line, I was always blown away that they not only remember reams of analysis, but even remember specific games between other players that have taken this course or that course within the opening. “Shirov-Van Wely, Wijk An Zee 1994, continued 27…Qg8! and won” they might say.

Holy mackerel! They remember who played it and where?! Astonishing!

But does Arthur Benjamin give us a hint as to why that might be? I think so.

What I failed to grasp previously is that the names and locations are actually HELPING the chessplayer remember the analysis. I know who Shirov is, and I know van Wely – what they look like, where they are from, how they play. I can attach their names to particular strings of chess analysis just as one might store a string of numbers as “cookie fission”.

Now that I have grasped this probably obvious fact, I may actually be able to remember some of my King’s Indian lines.

Consilience spotted in the wild

The New Yorker (no less) says Steven Jobs’ secret sauce was consilience, which I earlier described as “the puddling together of all knowledge.”

Point is, technology became exponentially better when married with design.

Just as content strategy is emerging from comingling journalism and SEO and UX. And physical security is merging with digital security.

And so on.

And so on.

Before Google

Google seems like a revolutionary company in some respects. Google Labs is just being shuttered, but it’s been chock full of experimental tools and toys for years, all free. Very cool. Employees are encouraged (required?) to set ridiculous quarterly performance goals for themselves – point being that if you think small and incremental, that’s all you get. They want creativity and order-of-magnitude advances.

Know what was cool like that once upon a time? Bell Telephone Labs.

AT&T at midcentury did not demand instant gratification from its research division. It allowed detours into mathematics or astrophysics with no apparent commercial purpose. Anyway so much of modern science bore directly or indirectly on the company’s mission, which was vast, monopolistic, and almost all-encompassing.

That’s a snippet from The Information, which I’m just beginning to read, and with glee.

One more:

The transistor [1948] sparked a revolution in electronics, setting the technology on its path of miniaturization and ubiquity, and soon won the Nobel Prize for its three chief inventors. For the laboratory it was the jewel in the crown.

But it was only the second most significant development of that year….


Dragon kings

Now HERE’s some reassembly:

Dragon Kings, Black Swans, and the Prediction of Crises

We develop the concept of “dragon-kings” corresponding to meaningful outliers, which are found to coexist with power laws in thedistributions of event sizes under a broad range of conditions in a large variety of systems. These dragon-kings reveal the existence ofmechanisms of self-organization that are not apparent otherwise from the distribution of their smaller siblings. We present a generic phase diagram to explain the generation of dragon-kings and document their presence in six different examples (distribution of city sizes, distribution of acoustic emissions associated with material failure, distribution of velocity increments in hydrodynamic turbulence, distribution of financial drawdowns, distribution of the energies of epileptic seizures in humans and in model animals, distribution of the earthquake energies). We emphasize the importance of understanding dragon-kings as being often associated with a neighborhood of what can be called equivalently a phase transition, a bifurcation, a catastrophe (in the sense of René Thom), or a tipping point. The presence of a phase transition is crucial to learn how to diagnose in advance the symptoms associated with a coming dragon-king. Several examples of predictions using the derived log-periodic power law method are discussed, including material failure predictions and the forecasts of the end of financial bubbles.  —- Abstract


An Irish fort and a Roman colosseum

Crowd control in an ancient Roman colosseusm

My coworker Scott Berinato, who won virtually every national awards competition for editorial excellence during his years at CSO, wrote two very cool articles:

One about how the Roman colosseum at Pompeii beautifully illustrated concepts of crowd control and safety that even modern stadia don’t always incorporate.

Another about how the Bronze-age fort Dun Aengus, on an obscure island off the coast of Ireland, illustrated concepts of defense-in-depth that can usefully be applied to today’s computer networks.

These were highly visual articles in our magazine, and due to limitations of our online publishing system at the time, the illustrations and diagrams didn’t get posted.

But I just fixed that. Both are really smart and enjoyable articles, for history buffs as well as security wonks.

Why wasn’t high school history this fun? (Probably because I was in high school!)

irish fort demonstrates defense-in-depth

Statistics smackdown

Old joke:

An economist is someone who wanted to be an accountant but didn’t have the personality.

Fairly or not, statistics shares this reputation. Intermittantly, haltingly, I have been reading Statistics for Dummies. And unfortunately it is indeed kinda boring.

But if you take statistics and throw in a dash of discord, an argument, a few accusations of bias, it becomes quite fascinating!

(As almost any science does, you might recall.)

The secret powers of time

If you haven’t already stumbled across this, watch it now.

I Tweet

  • RT @jaltma: A lot of people think design is about being creative and artistic, but it's really about being logical and empathetic 2 days ago
  • "Tater Day brings to town ... a 'biggest potato' contest, which attracts large potatoes from across the county." Thank you, Wikipedia. 3 days ago

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