Tuesday, December 28, 2010

82 Moves -- Few if Any Brilliant Ones

1. e4 c5 2. ♘f3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. ♘xd4 e5 5. ♗b5 ♗d7 6. ♗xd7 ♘xd7 7. ♘f3 ♘gf6 8. ♘c3 a6 9. ♗g5 ♗e7 10. ♘d5 ♘xd5 11. ♗xe7 ♘xe7 12. c4 ♕a5 13. ♘d2 ♘c5 14. O-O ♕c7 15. ♘f3 ♘xe4 16. ♕e2 ♘c5 17. ♘g5 h6 18. ♘f3 O-O-O 19. b4 ♘e6 20. b5 ♘d4 21. ♘xd4 exd4 22. bxa6 b6 23. ♕f3 ♖hf8 24. ♖ac1 ♕c6 25. ♕h3 ♕d7 26. ♕f3 ♕c6 27. ♕h3 ♔b8 28. c5 dxc5 29. ♕g3 ♔a7 30. ♕a3 ♘d5 31. ♖fd1 ♘b4 32. ♕g3 ♘xa6 33. ♕xg7 ♕g6 34. ♕e5 f6 35. ♕e7 ♔b8 36. ♕e6 ♔b7 37. ♖b1 ♘b4 38. ♕e7 ♔c6 39. ♕e6 ♖d6 40. ♕c8 ♔d5 41. ♕xf8 f5 42. ♕a8 ♖c6 43. ♕d8 ♖d6 44. ♕a8 ♖c6 45. ♕a4 f4 46. ♕b3 ♔d6 47. ♕f3 ♘d5 48. ♖e1 ♕f6 49. ♖e2 ♔c7 50. ♖be1 ♕f7 51. ♖e5 ♖d6 52. ♖e8 ♔d7 53. ♖a8 ♘c7 54. ♖a7 ♖c6 55. ♕g4 ♔d8 56. ♕h4 ♖f6 57. ♕h3 ♖f5 58. ♕xh6 ♖h5 59. ♕d6 ♕d7 60. ♕xf4 ♖f5 61. ♕h4 ♔c8 62. ♕h8 ♕d8 63. ♕h3 ♕d7 64. ♕h8 ♕d8 65. ♕h3 ♕d7 66. ♖a3 ♔b7 67. ♖b3 ♖d5 68. ♕f3 ♕c6 69. ♕h3 c4 70. ♖f3 d3 71. ♖d1 d2 72. ♖a3 ♘b5 73. ♕h7 ♖d7 74. ♕h3 ♘xa3 75. ♕xa3 c3 76. h3 c2 77. ♖xd2 ♖xd2 78. ♕e7 ♖d7 79. ♕e2 c1=Q 80. ♔h2 ♕f4 81. g3 ♕ff3 82. ♕f1 ♖d2 0-1 {White resigns}

This afternoon, on the Free Internet Chess Server, I suffered through one of the most tedious, damnably dull chess games of my life. I was rated 1211 going into the game, and my opponent was rated 1109. He or she had set the time setting for the game, 3 12, and I had accepted the seek. 3 12 means that each player starts with 3 minutes on clock, and gains 12 seconds with each move. The clock starts after each player's first move. So on the second move, each player has 3:12, and, for example, if they take 5 seconds to move, their clock goes down to 3:07, then up to 3:19 until their next move. If a player takes 2 minutes to make his second move in a 3 12 and 1 minutes and 12 seconds to make his third move, he will forfeit on time on his third move.

If, on the other hand, each player takes less than twelve seconds per move, if neither player is checkmated or stalemated, and if neither player calls a draw for 3-fold repetition of the same board position or 50 moves without a capture or promotion, and if they build up enough time to take naps when they are tired, or get other players to cover for them while they sleep or do whatever else they have to do, then theoretically the game could last forever,

I don't know how long this game lasted. It felt like forever. I prefer games with no increments: 3 or 5 or 10 minutes or so per side to make all of your moves. That way you know it will end in 6 or 10 or 20 minutes or less. But I sometimes accept seeks for incremental games rather than just wait around for a 5 0 or a 10 0.

In chess, each player begins with 16 pieces. To be sure, some pieces are more powerful than others, but in a good game every piece is important. Generally speaking, all other things being equal, the player who best succeeds at using his pieces in combination and in marshaling all of them into the common cause will have the stronger game. For readers fluent in chess, it will give convey some impression of the nature of this afternoon's game when I say that my opponent, out of 82 moves, moved his Queen 42 times, and put me in check 20 times. As one of the leading chess writers of the past century pointed out, I apologize for not remembering the author and title of the book in question, novice-level players -- that certainly includes me and my opponent here -- often overestimate the importance of check. Check is not checkmate. My opponent checked me 20 times, I checked him 3 times. If the player who put his opponent in check the most times won, my opponent would've scored a rousing victory. But he lost.

A great danger for me in this sort of game is boredom, leading to lack of concentration, leading to blunders and often enough to lost games. It was clear that my opponent, who had manoeuvred his Queen into a position where could check me with it frequently, was going to check me about as many times as he could. 20 times, as it turned out. That's a lot. 42 is an awfully big number of moves for one piece in one game. 82 moves is an awfully long game. In this case, an awfully long, awfully monotonous game. Early on it became clear to me what my opponent was going to do: check me with the Queen relentlessly. There was none of the texture, the drama and surprise that comes from an attack co-ordinated between several pieces. All I had to do was stay awake and fend off one piece until I could find some holes in my opponent's position and exploit them.

I almost didn't. No, I didn't literally fall asleep, but at one point I lost concentration sufficiently to go behind in material.

Several times we had repeated the same board position twice, check with the Queen, evade, check with the Queen from another square, evade, then back to the first one -- once I thought we had a had a three-fold repetition, and I gladly hit the "Draw" button, willingly to lose a point or 2 or 3 in order for this to be over -- but I had been mistaken. And so hitting the "Draw" button didn't result in an automatic draw, but gave my opponent the option to accept a draw, end the game and win a point or 2, or 3. But he kept on.

And finally there was no way for him to keep checking me, I had manoeuvred out of that situation, he could either trade pieces or re-group, and he didn't want to trade pieces, maybe because that would mean no more Queen and hence no more hammer-away-with-the-Queen, and he couldn't regroup, apparently. All he could do was hammer away with the Queen, or quickly die. I'm not a great chess player, far from it, but there is more than one note on my keyboard, so once I silenced his one note, that was that.

So there we were, with his King on the 8th rank behind 3 Pawns on the 7th rank, and me with 3 pawns together in the middle of the board -- because you advance your Pawns, it's one of the basic things you do in chess if you have more than one note -- and enough skill to easily promote one of them, because all 3 were passed: no Pawns were facing them. My opponent floundered, lost material until we were even again, and then it was him with a Queen and Pawns and me with a Queen and a Rook and then with 2 Queens and a Rook, all 3 of them concentrated on the Pawn covering up his King, and he resigned 2 moves before I was going to checkmate him, taking that Pawn with my Rook, then taking his Queen and pinning his King on the edge of the board.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Being an Atheist Doesn't Mean You Don't Have to KEEP Thinking Rationally

So you've figured out that God is a fairy tale and that Jesus didn't walk on water. Congratulations. But that was a pretty low hurdle you just cleared, Sparky. Also, the rise of "new" atheist authors like Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris, their spending more and more time on the bestseller lists and TV, makes it less and less likely that you cleared it on your own. In short, as the public presence of atheism spreads, so does the visible presence of dumb atheists.

They state flatly that Jesus never existed. Now, I'd be with them if they'd said that the stories of Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes and walking on water were just as fictitious as stories of Harry Potter flying and casting spells. But that's not what they're saying. They're saying that Jesus is as fictitious as Harry Potter, not allowing for the possibility that someone named Jesus really did preach, for example, the collection of bad advice and farfetched promises which has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount, and really was crucified in Jerusalem on Pontius Pilate's watch. I don't know if there was such a man. I certainly don't know that there wasn't.

They say that the earliest records of His life appear 70 years after His alleged death. No. The Gospels, according to most experts, date from AD 70 and later, which would be 70 years after Jesus's alleged BIRTH, Sparky, which would be 35-40 years afters His alleged death. And they forget, or more likely didn't know, that the writings of St Paul are the earliest known writings about Jesus, pre-dating the Gospels, beginning to appear within 20 or 25 years of His alleged death.

But some of these atheists are even dumber, and insist that the Bible was written around AD 400 at the Council of Nicea under Constantine's supervision, ignorant of the facts that 1) the Council of Nicea took place in AD 325, not in 400, 2) Constantine had been dead for 63 years in AD 400, 3) Constantine didn't care much what was in the Bible, he just wanted the bishops to stop squabbling among themselves and for a unity of the Church to mirror the unity of the Empire, 4) that manuscript fragments of the New Testament pre-dating Nicea by over a century have been found -- just generally really spectacularly ignorant.

"Gnostic" has become a buzzword. Today's atheists have learned that Gnostics were opposed by early Christians, and apparently that's enough for their approval -- the enemy of their enemy is their friend. These atheists have not gone to the trouble of finding out anything about the Gnostics, or Arians, or other dualists, whose teachings, in fact, were even crazier than those of conventional Christians, and who were often viciously antisemetic, claiming that the Old Testament represented the imperfect, evil world of the Demiurge which was to be wiped away by the new and perfect spiritual world of Jesus -- see Steven Runciman's book The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy.

One self-satisfied atheist bonehead I've run across recently points out triumphantly that the lack of video and photography in Jesus' time, and the practice of reading intestines and tarot cards, are relevant to the quality of historical statements about the period and that therefore the Magi are fictitious. (I couldn't make this up. Well -- I wouldn't. I didn't.) Neither video nor still photography existed in the time of George Washington or Christopher Columbus. Does this guy think that therefore nothing can be said about Washington or Columbus? (He might. I wouldn't be surprised.) Intestines were read in the Roman Senate -- does he think therefore that Julius Caesar is a fictitious character? Does he think tarot cards were read in the time of Caesar and Jesus? If so, he's off by over 1200 years. I mention this atheist not because he is a rare bird, but because, on the contrary, he does NOT stand out from the mass. He's TYPICAL.

It would be nice if we could transition from an age of discourse among believers to an age of reason. But I think we may be overly-optimistic if we believe that this is already occurring. All too often conventional religion is being traded for beliefs which are equally unsound, resting in an equally uncritical way upon equally unsound authority. I'm not saying there are no bright atheists who think critically and do serious research into historical subjects before pontificating upon them. I just wonder whether there are very many of them, or if typically second-hand reliance on one set of authority has merely been exchanged for equally unthinking acceptance of other authorities.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Medieval Learning

Nancy Marie Brown has written a book about Pope Sylvester II.

"In the popular mind today," Brown writes, "the Dark Ages are wrongly considered a time of superstiti­on and hysteria, when the Christian church suppressed all scientific investigat­ion.

"Just the opposite is true."

No. The opposite of the Church suppressin­g ALL scientific inquiry would be the Church suppressin­g NO scientific inquiry. The Church most certainly did suppress some inquiry, and most certainly did foment some hysteria and superstiti­on -- even if one doesn't put Christiani­ty under the category of superstiti­on. I do, but for the sake of argument I'll accept Brown's definition -- and on the other hand it supported and encouraged some scientific work. So many people, on one side or another, seem to want to make black-and-­white statements about this or that historical period, in order to score this or that political point -- one reader of HuffPo, for example, responded to Brown's article with the flat statement "the Pope was never a scientist" -- as opposed to really trying to find out what happened, which in my humble opinion is difficult enough under the best of circumstan­ced with no preconceiv­ed notions clouding one's view. (Well... SOME preconceiv­ed notions will probably always cloud the view to some extent.)

Brown writes:

"Gerbert devised an abacus, or counting board, that mimics the algorithms we use today for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. It has been called the first computer."

(Called the first computer by whom?) I was worried that someone might think that Brown had said that Gerbert invented THE abacus, as opposed to AN abacus -- the first known abacus was made in Sumeria somewhere around 2500 BC -- but luckily that doesn't seem to have happened so far.

"In a chronology of computer history, Gerbert's abacus is one of only four innovation­s mentioned between 3000 B.C. and the invention of the slide rule in 1622."

That just makes me think: Wow, that's a pretty weak chronology. Where did you get it -- from a placemat in a diner on the Interstate somewhere?

Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Sylvester II in the last 4 years of his life, really was a very interesting man, and Brown lists off some of the high points from his resume, but she betrays the spirit of careful scientific inquiry exemplified by Gerbert, by Sylvester, with absurd statements like "A thousand years ago [...] our modern tension between faith and science did not exist."

As a corrective to such sweeping statements, I would like to recommend once again, as I did in another blog post recently, Lynn Thorndike's superb Chapter XXII: "Magic, Witchcraft, Astrology, and Alchemy," in The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. VIII: The Close of the Middle Ages. In the bibliography to this chapter ones sees that Thorndike consulted an extraordinary number of primary documents. Thorndike tries neither to exalt medieval thinkers nor to condemn them but to show them and their situation as they were: surprisingly advanced in some ways to modern eyes, and surprisingly limited, primitive and superstitious in others.