Craig Vick's Scattered Thoughts

Adventures in Virtual Community


Playing Chess

At several points in my life I became enamored with the game of chess. I loved the game. Finding challenging opponents was sometimes difficult but always rewarding. I went so far as to study books on chess. I followed the Fischer-Spassky world championship match as if I were observing a great historical event. A good friend took me to see the Second Piatigorsky Cup, a tournament including all of the best players at that time. I realize that for many of you this sounds about as exciting as watching grass grow, but I assure you that being there, in the midst of those games, was as thrilling for me as watching my beloved Green Bay Packers. I joined several chess clubs and even played in a few amateur tournaments.

In Junior High, I joined our school chess club. We challenged another school to a match. We were supposed to rank our players and then match our best against their best, our second best against their second best and so on until one of us ran out of players. Neither of our two best players, however, wanted to play the opposing school’s best. He was well known and intimidating. I was new to the club and so asked if I would play as our best player. I naively agreed and proceeded to lose. I lost in a most humiliating way, making an embarrassing blunder. I didn’t see a mate in one. The next time our club met, I was ridiculed by one of our best players. “How could you miss a mate in one?”, he repeatedly asked. I found this more than a little irritating since by all rights he should have played in the top slot not me. He then challenged me to a game. As we played he continued to remind me of my stupidity in my loss. As the game progressed I saw a simple way to set up a mate in one. I was sure he would see it. I tried to camouflage it a bit before I set the trap. It was not a good move on my part, from a purely tactical point of view, but I couldn’t resist. To my amazement he didn’t see the trap. I won. That was the most enjoyable game I’ve ever played. It wasn’t a very good game, but I relished being able to ask my opponent at the end how he could have possibly missed a mate in one.

I imagine learning chess is quite different today because of the growing power of computers. I played against and easily beat the first popular computer chess toys. This wasn’t because I was so good but because these programs were so poor. That’s all changed. Today several inexpensive programs exist that would easily win against even my best efforts. More than this, a specially designed computer has been able to defeat a world champion chess player. That special design is relevant to this post. Experts in artificial intelligence in that day had thought the best way to program a computer to play chess was to make it play like a human being. They looked for algorithms to express things like chess theory and strategy. Their computers didn’t perform very well against good human players. The switch came when some IBM engineers designed a program to play like a computer and not like a human. Deep Blue relied on blazing quick processing speed and a huge database of openings. It favored brute force which means that rather than analyzing a position’s strengths and weaknesses to find the best move it looked at as many moves as possible. In theory, a computer could look at all possible chess games and find the best moves by avoiding any path that leads to a loss. What makes this difficult in practice is the vast number of possible games, a number in the trillions. As computers get faster and faster, however, this difficulty becomes less of an obstacle. Deep Blue was the first computer to beat a world champion.
All of this suggests a thought experiment. Let’s imagine someone learning to play chess, developing strategic and tactical skills, learning to avoid blunders and find the best move, without ever playing against a human opponent. The tutor would be the latest and greatest computer. What would result? Given a modicum of natural talent, our imaginary chess player could become incredibly skilled and proficient. Given brute force processing, faster processors and a huge database of games the computer could, in theory, always find the best move. The computer wouldn’t miss anything. It would be totally objective. It would focus on outcomes. Its results would be deterministic and, therefore, repeatable. The computer wouldn’t need theory, beauty or elegance. Trained by such a tutor, our imaginary chess player would be only a perfect memory away from being able to play perfect chess. Perhaps, but I’m not so sure.
In fact this scenario haunts me. It seems to threaten to destroy everything human about chess. Is our imaginary chess player really learning to play chess? The best play would involve following a list of computer generated moves. These moves would need to be committed to memory. Can following a list of moves committed to memory pass for playing the game? Why would our hero play? What would draw him or her to the game? What if we eliminate the human element altogether? Can a computer play chess? What would be its purpose in doing so?
This scenario haunts me not just because of my enjoyment of chess. It haunts me because it seems like a picture of our modern world. On the one hand we see and experience the tremendous, almost miraculous results of science. On the other hand we find our humanity to be more and more alien to the very world we’ve created. I don’t think it’s an accident that two of the most totalitarian regimes in recent history, those of Hitler and Stalin, lauded science. What scares me isn’t science, it’s forgetfulness. It’s forgetting that doing science, really doing science, is a human activity. It requires people. It’s social. Its purpose is to serve not obliterate human beings.


Let’s Get Radical

While in college I, like many, read with great excitement Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn gives a compelling account of how science works. He slays the myth that changes in scientific thought are primarily the result of new discoveries. He argues that most scientific work consists of filling in the holes of currently accepted theory. This is the day to day work of science. As that process continues, problems with current theory can emerge. When these problems increase, current theory is stretched. It becomes clumsy and less elegant as it’s adjusted to accommodate dissonance. This opens the door to new theories. Such a new theory is not so much a development of current understandings as it is a break. It’s a paradigm shift. At first the new theory has as many problems, if not more than the old.  A battle takes place between scientists committed to the old theory and those committed to the new. Good arguments exist on both sides. Eventually, the explanatory power of the new theory convinces a majority of scientists, and the shift is complete.

After reading this little book it seemed to me that my world had changed. I was not alone. The book created a new discipline and its language began to permeate other academic fields. In particular, it became common to read of paradigm shifts even in Theology and Biblical Studies. Paradigm shifts have become daily occurrences in these fields. I find this trend to be a bit disturbing. Kuhn seems to suggest that paradigm shifts are rare (the Copernican revolution and Einstein’s theory of relativity), and that most scientists are involved not in creating new theories but in confirming the reigning ones. I suspect that work seemed a little too mundane in other disciplines. The desire for the fame and glory of making intellectual history with a paradigm shift proved far greater than the desire to contribute to the working out of current theories. An unfruitful pattern began to multiply. New theories were announced. When criticism followed, the new theories were defended as paradigm shifts. Critics were not only accused of not understanding the new theories but of being incapable of understanding the new theories. The critics, it seems, were mired in the old paradigms and so unable to grasp the new. Sadly, these debates raged even outside of academia. When churches split over the latest paradigm shift, as a pastor I need to call for change. I suggest the following:
First, we need to limit the number of permitted paradigm shifts. Perhaps each academic discipline should be allowed only one paradigm shift every twenty years. That seems more than reasonable given the time between Copernicus and Einstein. Since Theology has had far more than its fair share of late, we should have a moratorium on theological paradigm shifts for the next fifty years.
Next, I suggest we get radical. I don’t mean ‘radical’ in the sense of being way out there, but ‘radical’ in the sense of focusing our criticism at the root. This is the kind of radical criticism that Tillich recommends in his Systematic Theology. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge Tillich’s success. We need to look for the hot points in our various fields, the places where debates don’t seem to make any progress. Rather than joining in these seemingly fruitless debates and using all of our intellectual skills to gain victory for one side or the other, we need to look for the root. What thinking and assumptions do both sides share? Our guess is that at the root there are structures which practically mandate the intellectual parties we see. Focusing on the root has the potential to dissolve the debate.
Finally, we need to reject any paradigm shift proposals that aren’t proceeded by a thorough going radical criticism. Let us be quick to listen and slow to speak.


A Book that will Never be Written

Many years ago I had visions of writing a book. I was going to call it Disability Parables. I was frequently invited to speak to children at schools, both public and private, about life with a disability. A good friend had started a magazine about disabilities (Ability Magazine) and I was a regular contributor. I was even active politically, being a member of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Council on Disability and at the scene of a few disability rights protests.

More than this, I had an observation based on my own experiences of living with a disability. I believed then, and still believe, that there was some wisdom in that observation. I had noticed that a disability looks very different when seen from the inside. More than a little is revealed in that difference. From the outside a visible disability, like mine, takes center stage. If the protagonist in a movie has a disability, the movie will usually be about overcoming the disability rather than about the character. If the movie has a religious theme our hero will be miraculously healed at the end. It has to be at the end because once the disability is removed the drama is over. A less religious film will still end when the disability is defeated, usually through some kind of crisis followed by wise counsel and a change of attitude.

This is the view from the outside. In my case, I’m generally happy. I love life. I love people. I’m blessed beyond my wildest dreams. From the outside my love of life looks like a tremendous victory over my disability. It looks like I’ve learned or acquired an almost magical life formula. In reality this is an illusion. I don’t see myself as a disabled person. I rarely think about my disability. I’m aware of the power of my disability to dominate perspectives especially of people I don’t know well. Over time, however, this power is greatly diminished. Those who know me well see my disability less and less.

Having a disability doesn’t make me a wise counselor. I haven’t overcome my disability. I haven’t even tried to overcome it. It hasn’t conferred upon me any advice that I can pass on to those who wrestle against the harshness of life and despair. With them I can only weep. It hasn’t made me a life coach or a self help guru. Yet, perhaps my disability has some lessons worth thinking about. These lessons aren’t direct. They’re not the result of what I’ve learned doing battle with an impairment. They are, in fact, indirect, hidden in plain sight. They’re like parables, and that’s how I arrived at the title for my book.

I had it all dreamed out. My book was going to be a best seller. I was going to become a famous author. I imagined a talk show tour. I had all my answers ready for the Oprah Winfrey show. I’m tempted to flatter you my readers by saying that I gave all that up so that I could bring you these parables on my blog. I’m afraid the truth is more mundane. I have great respect for anyone who is able to write and publish a book. I lack the discipline and the will. My book will never be written. Even so, I think these parables are worth some time and attention. I’ll publish them here and wait eagerly for your comments. Look forward to my disability parables appearing as future posts on my blog.


Blog Stats

I started blogging with the goal of rich and real communication. I visited other blogs and was delighted with the possibilities of connecting with people I would never be able to meet in less virtual ways. I made a few friends. I’ve had the joy of meeting some of those friends face to face. Then I discovered blog stats.

My son informs me that I need to get about two million hits a day in order to make real money from my blog. My average is two hits a day, so I need to raise that number by 1,999,998. I have a ways to go. My low numbers are in part the result of not posting for long periods of time. If I limit my stats to only those months in which I actually posted something, my hit count goes up to ten per day. That leaves me down 1,999,990.
I’ve developed several tactics to help me reach the money mark. First, I’m going to try to post at least once a week. I may even resort to posting silly pieces about blog stats. Next, I’m asking everyone in my family and all my friends to visit my blog every morning. Perhaps you can do this right after your morning devotions. At least I’m not trying to sell you soap. When you make your morning visit, I suggest you click on every one of my articles. I’m pretty sure I get credited with a hit for each article click. I’ll set a good example in this regard by logging out of wordpress and visiting my blog daily. I’ve confirmed that I get credit for that.
Next, I suggest, dear friends and family, that you tell others to visit my blog everyday. I realize this may be difficult for some. Be bold. I hope to have future posts with helpful hints on how to share my blog. I can teach you how to give a blog testimony. You will learn how to say something like “visiting Craig’s blog changed my life.” I don’t want anyone to be dishonest. If visiting my blog hasn’t changed your life then keep visiting until it does. Also, write down any good things that happen to you after visiting my blog. Include these in your blog testimony. Think of how many blog hits the following might generate: After visiting Craig’s blog everyday for two weeks I won the lottery.
I suspect the above tactics will get me to around three hundred hits a day. I’ll still have 1,999,700 to go. My next move will be to make my blog more blogger sensitive. I’ll need to compile a list of topics from the most popular blogs. I can then use these topic names as tags for my posts. I don’t really need to write anything profound on any of these topics. The tags will do all the work. Controversy’s also good for blog hits. I think I can generate a lot of controversy by acting as if I know just about everything worth knowing and being rude and insensitive to anyone who disagrees with me.
If I keep thinking along these lines I’ll have the most successful blog ever. Of course, I’ll lose my real readers. I understand. You love me too much to let me lose my real self in blog stats. Let’s not love the church with anything less.