Archive for the ‘random’ Category

Chess is a solvable game, right?

I mean, once you’ve defined the rules and the starting conditions, then everything else which can ever be said about it all follows inevitably from there. There’s no randomisation brought in from any outside elements, like rolling dice or shuffling cards. Every game of chess proceeds from an identical situation, under the same regulations as every other.

None of which has stopped its vast cultural significance. The more it’s studied, the more poetry and beauty folk seem to find inside it. Chess fanatics talk about it in terms of metaphors for human nature, among other things. The early games and midsections and endgames can be packed with apparent philosophical insights. There are styles of play which can reveal things about you, strategies you can adopt in a given position, and so on. We’ve been playing for centuries, and even those who’ve racked up tens of thousands of games don’t feel like its possibilities have been exhausted. Even starting from exactly the same board, against exactly the same opponent, doesn’t feel samey or unoriginal after decades.

And yet everyone who’s ever sat down to play a game of chess has either: been potentially able to force a win no matter what their opponent does; been able to force a draw; or been doomed to a loss however well they play, if their opponent plays perfectly. That is, depending on the colour you play, you’re always in the same one of those situations – we just don’t know which it is. With enough computing power we could. An answer exists, it’s just too mathematically unwieldy for us to have found it yet.

Would the game be less fascinating, if it were solved? If it was known and understood that, say, white could always force a win, that a sequence of moves exists which you could simply look up in response to whatever your opponent did (in an implausibly large book), which would lead step-by-step to a provable, guaranteed victory? Would the whole venture seem dull and pointless, if the sole deciding factor of the outcome of a game was no longer player skill, and could just be a matter of blindly following an algorithm? Would we stop playing, the idea of self-improvement and learning anything for ourselves suddenly seeming inconsequential and foolish?

If I were a proper writer I’d tie in some deep and impressive parable about free will to close this off.


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Self-reinforcing words

I can’t find the original post now, but a while ago Greta Christina (I’m almost positive it was her) posted about words which are in some way self-reinforcing when said aloud. (It may have been a series of tweets rather than a blog post and that’s why I can’t track it down, I’ve no idea.)

Her suggestions, if memory serves, included “rum” – because when you’re slightly tipsy on rum, saying the word “rum” and really drawing out every phoneme makes you sound/feel even more drunk – and “grump/grumpy” – in that, calling you a grump or asking why you’re grumpy is a great way of making you even grumpier.

Anyway, something made me think of this the other day and I realised I had a couple to add to the list:

Perhaps because the word so successfully sounds like what it describes, I can’t remember ever seeing someone successfully describe someone else as “sneering” without sounding sneery themselves;

and, accusing someone else of being the “Twitter police” invariably makes you sound like the Twitter police.

Any more?

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So over on Tumblr (yes, that’s still a thing that’s happening), ozymandias271 explained what “condoms are 98% effective” actually means in a recent post and it’s kinda made my brain explode.

I’ve been hearing that statistic (or other similar ones) for ages, and never concerned myself with it too closely. Given how little casual (or any kind of) sex I’ve generally been having, it wasn’t of much personal importance, and while I advocate strongly for comprehensive sex and relationships education, it should definitely be someone better-informed than me doing it. But I knew enough to know that condoms are good, and knowing how they work is also good, and if I needed more detailed data than that I’d surely be able to do the research.

But 98% always seemed oddly low. I wasn’t sure how much it was affected by issues like compliance or user error – is that remaining 2% at least partly explained by people just applying them wrong? – but taken on its face that’s actually quite a high-sounding failure rate. Do you really only have to have fifty sexual encounters involving a condom before you’ve statistically had one for which it might as well not have been there and you’re facing all the risks of unprotected sex? Given how much sex straight people on TV seem to be having, this makes it sound like unplanned pregnancies due to contraceptive ineffectiveness would be cropping up pretty regularly, and just something to be accepted as par for the course.

Anyway it turns out that’s totally not what “98% effective” means. Taking the outcome of unplanned pregnancy specifically, here’s how one website describes the effectiveness of condoms:

In one year, only two of every 100 couples who use condoms consistently and correctly will experience an unintended pregnancy—two pregnancies arising from an estimated 8,300 acts of sexual intercourse, for a 0.02 percent per-condom pregnancy rate.

98% effective doesn’t mean a condom is only doing its job in 98% of sexual encounters. It means that 98% of people using condoms for a year will avoid unplanned pregnancies in that year.

Or, assuming you’re using them correctly and having sex about as often as these statisticians imagine, the length of time the average person would have to keep having regular safe sex before encountering a condom failure isn’t fifty sexual encounters, but fifty years.

I have been massively misunderstanding this for YEARS because of what seems like REALLY UNCLEAR COMMUNICATION AND UNHELPFULLY OBSCURE PHRASING, GUYS. Seriously, I can’t be the only one who finds that a totally counter-intuitive interpretation of the “98% effective” line. Did everybody but me already have this figured out? I mean, it’s less important that I understand this than almost anyone else, but still.

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A missed opportunity

Dammit. I could have had an x in the middle of my name. How did I not realise how much cooler that would’ve been?

I could also have got a Facebook fan page and posted regular content that people enjoy and want to share. This guy had all the great ideas I failed to come up with.

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Christ, it’s been ages since I last posted about how it’s been ages since I last posted here.

I guess I’ve been too distracted with BUYING A HOUSE and then LIVING IN THAT HOUSE and hiring people to PLASTER AND PAINT THE WALLS OF THAT HOUSE and then waiting for different people to FILL MY HOUSE WITH AWESOME NON-MANKY CARPETS, and I just haven’t had time to think about this place, and also I can’t really set up my computer properly because everything’s been getting repainted and recarpeted and so most of our stuff is still shoved out of the way in the cellar.

The point is holy crap I actually have somewhere to live and it’s starting to look gorgeous and it’s nearly done and after well over a year of being stuck in a weird transition limbo I almost get to just be at home again.

I have been properly twitching for some kind of creative output lately and I really hope this site’s going to be part of it again. My hobbies once my life resumes will include writing, blogging, playing the piano, travelling the world just a little more adventurously than I’m entirely comfortable with, and paying off alllllllll the debt.

Betting is now open on whether the next thing to appear here will be just a regular post about whatever this blog is supposed to be about, rather than another personal update promising regular content soon.

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I’ve stopped being round, and I’m back in my prime.

At least, in a numerical sense. Physically, after the lunch and cake assortment laid on by my mother-in-law this afternoon, I’m still feeling pretty much spherical.

I’m also a Mersenne prime again as of today. The last time that was the case, the Cold War wasn’t over, Charles and Diana were still making a go of it, Mike Tyson wasn’t a convicted rapist, and Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and Disney’s Aladdin were both yet to rock the word with their cultural impact.

So much has changed, in merely the time it takes to go from 2n-1 to 2n+1-1. By the time 2n+2-1 rolls around… I can only wonder what brave new world awaits.

On with the year, then.

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Year-end round-up

Well, 2014 is at an end, and good riddance to it too.

No surprise, I’m still not really here or back to actively writing again yet. But I did get a few interesting things blogged this year, so I thought I’d do a brief recap of some of the highlights.

For some reason I’m having trouble getting links to the posts themselves to work – the WordPress software’s being buggy or something – but the titles are listed below so you should be able to track them down. Here are my top ten posts that featured on this blog in 2014:

10. Why I’m rethinking my stance on both Jeremy Hunt and chocolate digestives

9. UKIP candidate in bizarre strawberry jam gaff

8. You’ve been using thumbs wrong your whole life

7. Holy shit you guys I didn’t know cats could do this!

6. Most convincing proof of Biblical literalism I’ve seen yet

5. Russell Brand: this generation’s Martin Luther King?

4. Okay, I’m sorry, you can all stop pointing out that the UKIP jam scandal was a hoax now

3. What the fuck’s the Archbishop of Canterbury said now?

2. I think, therefore I am Groot

1. My #icebucketchallenge video

If I missed out any of your personal favourites, feel free to share. Here’s hoping 2015 yields some even more exciting conversations.

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