In Which The Author Is First A Loser, Then A Winner, Then A Quitter

Let’s start this off with some well-deserved humility: Assuming that my Android chess program is correctly configured, and that its psuedo-ELO ratings have some correspondence to reality, then this is a list of approximately thirty-five children, aged 7 or younger, who could beat me in chess. My rating in AI Factory’s version of the game, which I have been playing a few times a week for the past six months, has never crested 1210 and currently hovers at 1195. Of course, I have the luxury of contemplating my moves while I sit on an airplane and eat snacks; in the crucible of sanctioned competition against seven-year-olds, I would almost certainly underperform that rating.

Until a year and a half ago, when my son started thinking about chess a bit, I’d never paid much attention to the game. You will laugh, because you should, but I had just a little contempt for it. I thought of chess as a plodder’s hobby, the sort of thing that attracts SAT-test-preppers and tiger-mom spawn and other people whose brilliance is best suited towards refining the quantum-leap insights of others. You can’t be much good at it unless you have spent obscene amounts of time learning the appropriate theory and practice, otherwise you’ll just wind up making the same mistakes made by other lazy players before you. I like to say that the first person to paint a blank white square was an artist, and everybody after that was a square-painter; in much the same way, the first fellow to play a Ruy Lopez or the Slav Defense was a genius and everybody after that merely has a decent memory. It’s not for me. I like to speak, and write, and think, in the sprezzatura of the moment, not with the dogged calculation of an autism-spectrum pedant.

The best chess players of 2019 aren’t even people — they are racks of multi-core processors grinding through all possible permutations of a vast but mathematically comprehensible future. What’s the point of competing against them? Imagine spending your whole life learning to do something as well as a human can possibly do it, only to be supplanted effortlessly by $10,000 worth of white-box computers. Look at it this way: it is apparently beyond the grasp of modern technology to fix broken toilet or drive a cab through any borough of New York City, but when it comes to chess I’m afraid humanity is yesterday’s news. Why bother?

A few things happened to change my mind. The first was that I saw the potential chess would have as a developmental tool for a little bit of needed extra rigor in my son’s developing intellect. The second was that I got fired from a job I hadn’t even started yet.

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Vignette: The Author Discovers A New Way To Jimmy And Is Despised For Having Done So

I blame science fiction, and all the various ideas of consciousness that it contains. You see, for much of my life I’ve struggled with a fear that goes something like this: Sleep is essentially equivalent to death. It’s a break in consciousness. So when you go to sleep, you basically die. The “you” that wakes up tomorrow isn’t actually you, any more than a clone would be. It’s just picking up the dropped thread of consciousness where you left off, the same way you are picking up where yesterday’s version of you left off. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll still be around tomorrow, any more than watching someone else’s home videos makes you that person.

The logical, if absurd, conclusion to this philosophy is that all of us are only alive for a single day. Remember the song? “Sha na na na na na live for today, hey hey”. The only things that you will ever experience before you “die” are what you’re going to do today.

It’s a very seductive theory, and there’s a bit of evidence to support it, but I’ve had to convince myself to let it go. First off, truly believing that today is the only day that I will ever be alive is a terrible incentive to skullduggery/adultery/aggravated-assault/impulse-purchasing/ZX-14R-wheelies and the like. Secondly, it’s hugely depressing on the days when nothing good or interesting happens. Consider today, if you will. The weather was miserable. Work has been annoying. And then there’s my usual $7.27 lunch at Jimmy John’s Subs. But wait! Today wasn’t entirely worthless, because I got to make other people unhappy.

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Vignette: In Which The Author Is Mistaken For A Homeless Honda Salesman

This past weekend, I went to the motorcycle show in Cleveland. After years on the auto-show circuit I’ve somewhat lost my enthusiasm for the bread and circuses of Detroit/Chicago/NYC press days, but this public-entry bike show impressed me with both the enthusiasm of the crowd and the presence of every bike I’d hoped to see. The new BMW line including the RnineT Racer, the Kawasaki Z900/H2 Carbon/ZX-10RR Winter Livery, the XSR900 and FZ-07 in the new metallic blue, and so on.

One bike I did not expect to see: the revised-for-2017 Honda CB1100EX. Yet there it was, banished to a back corner next to the Groms. I immediately hopped on to check it out. The new tank has more fuel capacity (good) but it’s from the modern wide-wing school. About fifty percent of the “vintage” feel disappears with that tank; you might as well be on an XSR900. There were two old dudes standing next to me discussing what the CB1100 was probably like to ride, so I chimed in.

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