Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence



First among world champions Garry Kasparov reviews a book on computer chess and artificial intelligence as a pretext to explain it all in NYRB. It is as cogent a non-technical essay as any I've seen on what it means not only for chess, but for computing and beyond. Which is not to say that it's not quibblable, but that's not my aim here; instead, a few points on which to expand or expound:

Like so much else in our technology-rich and innovation-poor modern world, chess computing has fallen prey to incrementalism and the demands of the market. Brute-force programs play the best chess, so why bother with anything else? Why waste time and money experimenting with new and innovative ideas when we already know what works? Such thinking should horrify anyone worthy of the name of scientist, but it seems, tragically, to be the norm. Our best minds have gone into financial engineering instead of real engineering, with catastrophic results for both sectors.
Well, I'll quibble a tad here: Financial engineering (FE) has not deprived real engineering of real expertise; computer engineering has probably been more of a brain-drain on traditional disciplines. But what comprises financial engineering is largely the same kind of brute-force computation that chess programming relies upon. Unlike chess, finance is not a game of total information (efficient market theory doesn't go that far), and representations of the underlying processes and parameters are critical to the veracity of the outcome (whether for pricing or risk assessment: one common weakness of implementation was that the latter overrelied on the former, since pricing had to be more precise, on the "why waste time and money" principle). Model deficiencies were masked by the enrichment afforded by the Moore's Law expansion of computational power, whose better-faster-cheaper trifecta cached out other strategies (I'll forgo the martingale subreference here) before it broke the bank with Monte Carlo. (NB: Moore's Law is just as empirical [and to some degree as self-fulfilling] as many posited economic laws.) But the root deficiency was not in the models, but in how they were used within the banking establishment; what Kasparov says earlier about computer-assisted chess holds institutionally: Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

Perhaps chess is the wrong game for the times. Poker is now everywhere, as amateurs dream of winning millions and being on television for playing a card game whose complexities can be detailed on a single piece of paper. But while chess is a 100 percent information game—both players are aware of all the data all the time—and therefore directly susceptible to computing power, poker has hidden cards and variable stakes, creating critical roles for chance, bluffing, and risk management.
Hidden behind this metaphor is the old saw about bipolar nuclear strategy (Soviet chess players, American poker players). (Hidden behind that is CIA misassessment of Soviet capabilites.) But, ex ante, I'll raise the point that it's still the wrong game: In pre-FE days, option modelers were chess-players, options traders were bridge-players ... and so's Warren Buffett, but then so's Bear Stearns' XCEO Cayne ... and of course there's Citi's XCEO Prince's penchant for Musical Chairs ... anyway, bridge mixes imperfect information into both competition and co-operation, not to mention its contractual aspects. But there is no right game, and that's why we keep playing; and, let's face it, looking for the optimal research algorithm is a mug's game, despite which it's one of the best ways to get ahead. (Game for the times? Yikes! I brought Mornington Nomic to the attention of David Chess ten years ago! Perhaps MCMC isn't Markov Chain Monte Carlo but Mornington Crescent Musical Chairs ...)

OK, more quibbling than I intended. But Read The Whole Thing, as it is written ... (also, I recommend Jonathan Schaeffer's book, One Jump Ahead, not mentioned in the article)

throwaway lines:
Kafka once met Einstein
they discussed the problem of our laws
unfortunately no transcript exists

related posts:
On chess: Calculus of Variations
Sample fiction: Inside Job


I listeth where I goeth, cometh if thou canst and hearest the sound thereof

Ordinarily I pay little attention to the short- or longlists of literary awards (or, more generally, best-of compilations), other in that they usually assure some minimal standard of quality, even then often subordinated to marketing imperatives (as much the awards themselves as the candidates), as is much general interest book reviewing. Commercial publishing no longer serves literary tastes so well, preferring a lighter seasoning on genrefication, and writers have followed suit. While the decline in publishing may be incidental, it has exacerbated the trend. This has prompted me to look farther afield for challenging reading, particularly to translations, which, long neglected by the big houses, have afforded non-profits such as Dalkey Archive, Archipelago and Open Letter an opening and a way forward. All of which are well represented in the 2010 Best Translated Book Award [BTBA] longlist, which I take more stock in than any majors' shortlist.

Literary translation occupies difficult territory, an academic step-child, an original voice mediated by another. This 'defect' is in fact a virtue for those of us lacking deep fluency (comparable to first language) in the source language: Nuances altered into the target language are nonetheless not lost, resonances or harmonies emerge consistent with the change in matrix (but it's the cultural not the linguistic matrix that's determinantive). I've likened translation to musical transcription, with English playing the part of pianoforte, but this over-emphasizes arrangement at the expense of performance, a necessary interpretive element that goes beyond the score. Translations have provided vitalizing cross-cultural infusions and feedback: Baudelaire's Poe, or Borges' rendering of Faulkner's The Wild Palms triggering The Boom (Garcia Marquez in turn preferring the Englishing of his writings). As literature itself is self-aware, reflexive (pomo only ostensibly mo'so), this interaction between languages and cultures holds some critical interest ... and for my part, as a reader, the defamiliarization is a way of making it new; that, and that of late they'd been making it newer in the southern new world and the eastern old one.

I attended last year's inaugural BTBA ceremony at Melville House Books (a new indy pub for imports as well as domestic brews), and plan to be at the extended ceremonies hosted this year by Idlewild Books, with a panel discussion accompanying the winnowing to a shortlist on February 16th, and the ultimate winner announced in the same venue March tenthatively. (The last event I attended there was Jacques Roubaud's reading, whose book didn't quite make the cut but should've; I wasn't able to make it the following week for the last BTBA winner.) Idlewild is discounting all the longlist titles, but I'm not; I already have a third of the list in hand and a fifth under my belt, and haven't yet been disappointed. Chad Post is elucidating each candidate in turn in the run-up, and may well add to my fractions. Sure, this is about selling books, but I'm already sold on the concept.
add 19.1: Literary or no, Idlewild's buyer speaks to this (via Conversational Reading).