Thursday, September 27, 2007

Garry Kasparov: How Life Imitates Chess

Author: Garry Kasparov.
Title: How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves from the Board to the Boardroom.
Publication: New York: Bloomsbury, 2007, 224 pages, hardbound, ISBN 1-59691-387-8.

Former “retired” world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now in his 40s and graying, has become known in Russia for his leading of opposition to president Vladimir Putin. In this book, he explains how he sees chess as a paradigm for success in life.

He does give some accounts of his world championship matches, especially his multiple matches with Anatoly Karpov. The Soviet Union tried to steer international chess into a direction that favored its own privileged established Communist party stars. He describes a couple of games in detail, especially the 24th game in a 1987 match in Seville, Spain where he had to win with White to keep his title. He played the Reti Opening, went into relatively unbooked lines, and forced Karpov to risk disadvantage if he played for too many exchanges to equalize. Karpov got into time trouble, grabbed a gambit pawn, and wound up with an inferior queen engine, which he lost with another slip in overtime.

In time, Kasparov became more disenchanted with the politics of international chess, even trying to split FIDE, in a period that leads to his current activism in Russia.

Chess is, after all, the most individualistic of “sports.” There are the elements of strategic thinking and tactics, and the paradoxes that occur with the events on the board. There is the need to be decisive and press an attack when a win is really there, or a game can be lost. Yet, there is room for various approaches to success in life. The behavior of entrepreneurs and companies follows the pattern, and results in the transformation that has happened with the “flat world,” globalization, and the Internet. Kasparov sees success in an individualistic, libertarian-like fashion. He speaks briefly of his family and son, but does not write as if family or lineage were essential to identity.

Kasparov says that in international chess, White wins 29% of the time, Black wins 18%, and 53% of games are drawn. That is, Black wins about 38% if grandmaster games played to decision. The old Chess Charts in the 60s gave winning percentages by opening and move, with the Sicilian the best for Black and Caro Kann the worst; in those days the Queen's Gambit Declined was very strong for White statistically.

Kasparov talks about computers and chess (IBM “Big Blue” in the 1990s), but because of the staggering number of possible moves, he does not believe that computers can necessarily make the game obsolete as a competitive exercise. Because of computers, however, international games no longer had adjournments.

I can recall in college, where we had an active chess club in the 60s, that we joked about what majoring in chess would be like. Courses in the various opening types (Kasparov does see 1 e4 as the most aggressive). A year course in the middle game. Various courses in technical endgames. The phases of a chess game correspond to the phases in war, with the endgame often leading to negotiated treaty. Kasparov uses an analogy with the end of the Napoleonic wars.

There is a commentary by Anton Troianovski "Kasparov's Political Gambit
Grandmaster Calculates How to Checkmate Putin: Life imitates chess, except when it doesn't" in the Oct. 20, 2007 Washington Post, Style section, p C01, here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Randall J. Larsen: Our Own Wosrt Enemy: Asking the Right Questions

Author: Randall J. Larsen, Colonel, USAF (Ret).
Title: Our Own Worst Enemy: Asking the Right Questions About Security to Protect You, Your Family, and America.
Publishing: New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007. ISBN 0-446-58043-0, 302 pages, indexed, hardcover, Foreword and 10 Chapters.

Recently the local Books-a-million had a booksigning party for the author, who is head of the Institute for Homeland Security. I missed the event because of a film festival. I would like to have gone.

The author is trying to reset or restructure our thinking about homeland security. Essentially, he wants to see government, business and individuals think about this strategically, rather than tactically or reactively. He is like the chess teacher who says “develop your pieces before you attack.” One of the biggest dangers, especially economically, is overreaction. Because of our sociological economics, a relative small attack somewhere can cause an enormous disruption.

One of his big ideas is that we have to recognize a distinct, if asymmetric, enemy, which he calls Al Qaeda, to mean all of radical Islam. The biggest threats (especially nuclear) have to be managed overseas (by accounting for loose nuclear material, a concern that others like Sam Nunn have promoted). It is not possible to keep all catastrophic contraband out of the country with purely defensive measures. (That’s like saying, in the Dragon Sicilian in chess, Black must counterattack; he cannot simply sit behind a defensive hedgehog) – possibly a contradictory concept for someone who wants us to think about security strategically. Likewise, he thinks that the current administration’s obsession with illegal immigration (“amnesty” notwithstanding) is misfocused; people who come here to get jobs are not a problem; it’s specific people who are a problem. Of course, much of this comes from the fact that, politically, government can’t get caught “profiling.”

He believes that a new paradigm is needed for domestic intelligence: one that is defensive (essentially a contradiction) and observational, with no law enforcement policies. This is the sort of thing that average citizens, especially those with specific skills (computer, medical, like reserve nurses) can help. From a knowledge management point of view, that sounds good, but it could lead to a “spy on they neighbor” society. He wants to bring back the idea of the citizen posse (which he distinguishes from vigilante). He thinks a 501C3 kind of organization should prototype homeland security concepts. This leads to a discussion of MIPT.

He talks about journalistic protection of sources and the danger of releasing classified information. Even bloggers might do this inadvertently, and on that point he punts, saying that the right questions need to be asked. He has a lot of discussion of Section 304 of the Intelligence Authorization Act.

He does advocate partnership between business and government, and it is obvious that business can sometimes do a much better job of responding to disaster than government, or even disorganized individual volunteers. Why not have Wal-Mart, Lowes, Home Depot and similar companies help provide pre-manufactured housing to hurricane victims on higher land? Companies are good at this, as are some large faith organizations.

He also talks about oversight agencies as important in a democracy and important to the strategic management of terror threats and other possibilities (like pandemics).

At the end of the book, he gives a detailed discussion of how to shelter in place, even after a nuclear incident. He does advocate homeowner gun ownership.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

National Geographic Oct 2007 on ethanol fuels, global warming

The October 2007 issue of National Geographic is important for the global warming and fuel supply debate. The cover shows an ear of corn, and the title: Growing Fuel: The Wrong Way, the Right Way.

On p. 38 the heavily illustrated article by Joel K. Bourne, Jr. appears, with photography by Robert Clark. It is called "Green Dreams: Making fuel from crops could be good for the planet -- after a breakthrough or two." The article compares the relative energy profit and carbon cost of corn ethanol and sugar cane ethanol (quite successful in Brazil with its midwestern "oceans of green"), and sugar cane comes out way ahead. (Corn ethanol does not come out to be too good a deal; the Libertarian Party was saying that ten years ago as governments in farm states forced gasohol use.) Maybe it could work in the Gulf States -- which means some good karma. More research would be needed to make ethanol efficiently from non-food crops like sawgrass, with their heavy cellulose. Even algae could make ethanol with more research.

On p. 32, Bill McKibben has an article, "Carbon's New Math: To deal with global warming, the first step is to do the math." The author reinterates Di Caprio's point from "The 11th Hour" that before the industrial revolution, we lived off of current sunlight and carbon was stable. It went up quickly thereafter, and the article pretty much reproduces Al Gore's numbers. He presents a chart with "three possible paths for future carbon emissions" as three wedges. The biggest problems seem to be political: the developing countries want to reproduce western standards of living and will resent the greediness of western lifestyles. This could some day to individual-based carbon accounting.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

CBS News "What We Saw"; Other album books remembering 9/11

CBS News has a hardbound book “What We Saw: The Events of September 11, 2001—in Words, Pictures and Video", with an introduction by Dan Rather. (Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0743241908).

The book is accompanied by a DVD called “The Witnesses” in eleven Chapters. The most interesting portion may be the first fro, Bryant Gumbel, which came on the air with a “Special Report” at 8:52 AM, six minutes after the first plane struck the World Trade Center. In the beginning people did not realize that this has to have been a crash with a large airliner. He talks to three street witnesses, two men and one woman. It was hard to grasp the gravity of what was unfolding (“Stewart” says, “it’s not too crazy right now”), until a second witness says he tried to put a fire out on a burning man on the street, and then the third witness, a woman, is talking while the second plane hits at 9:03 and the woman comments immediately that this must be on purpose. The woman saw the plane hit before Bryant Gumbel did; the fireball on the South Tower appears without the plane on this particular video. Then the DVD switches to Gumbel's reporting on the crash into the Pentagon at 9:43 AM.

Some of the remaining chapters zero in quickly on Osama bin Laden, referring back to the 1993 attack, and have the tone that many people had understood that a battle with radical Islam had been going on for a long time. The book has many other contributors, including Byron Pitts, Pete Hamill, Bill Geist.

Life Magazine has a book “One Nation: America Remembers September 11, 2001,” with an introduction by Rudolph Guliani, published by Little Brown.

The Robin Hood Relief Fund (and de.MO) has a glitzy paperback “NewYorkSeptemberElevenTwoThousandOne.” The first page has a copy of the front page of the New York Times that morning, a primary day, and oddly there is even an article on school dress codes.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rafe Esquith: Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire (review)

Author: Rafe Esquith. (“An Actual Classroom Teacher”)
Title: Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56. New Publication: York: Viking / Penguin, 2007. ISBN 978-0-670-03815-2, 244 pages, hardbound, 17 Chapter, 3 Parts.

Well, helping a student with a chemistry experiment, his hair really did catch on fire once. He tells that story in the Prologue.

The Three parts of this book by an inner city male teacher with 22 years experience, in Los Angeles, apparently teaching mostly or all elementary school (fifth grade), convey a sense of its tone and message:

Part 1 is called “There’s No Place Like Home: How Room 56 Creates a Safe Haven and Provides Children with Shelter from the Storm:

Part 2 is called “The Method: A Few Simple Ideas to Enhance a Child’s Development”

Part 3 is called “The Madness: D___ the Torpedos: Full Speed Ahead.”

Mr. Esquith certainly experiences teaching as a Life, not just a “job.” With personal immersion in character mentoring and chaperoning kids, Esquith presents teaching as a complete life assuming that one is already personally socialized by marriage and being a parent oneself, or at least by strong social connections (perhaps through church) with family responsibility in general. What a contrast. In graduate school, one walks into class and watches the professor spending fifty minutes proving topology theorems from left to right on the board. That was once my concept of teaching. Actually, I taught two semesters “remedial” algebra in graduate school at the University of Kansas, and that was an experience. Others said I did not try to “sell” the material. And recently, in “retirement” I have been a substitute teacher in a couple of northern Virginia school districts, with extremely varied experiences. Some classes, like AP in high school, are essentially like college. Even, in say tenth grade, with Honors chemistry, one can set up the computer, opaque projector, and go into Google and let the students research classwork questions on atomic orbital levels and electronegativity with no fear of misuse. Once, to keep a physics class busy when lesson plans ran out, I found (with Google) a page with the derivation of the gas law equations from the standard hyperbola form with parametric equations in trigonometry! That’s a lot better than hip hop or Myspace, which is blocked at school.

The chaperoning caught my eye, indeed; it seems to be a significant expectation of teachers. I went on some major field trips in school (Williamsburg in 7th grade, and then as a senior when I took the chemistry placement test in April 1961 at William and Mary -- we visited a paper plant on the way down; the Science Honor Society trip to New Hampshire and Mount Washington, NH; a ninth grade trip to France that I passed up, and I regret that now; a football trip to Richmond (I don't remember why non football people were invited to go).

With a certain kind of student, for someone (like me, "retired") to come in from the “real world” of work and media and all kinds of political issues, and show students who are mature enough real stuff, is exciting. It can also be dangerous, given the politics and legal ambiguities in public school systems. The public school is a sheltered place, a sub-universe, and Mr. Esquith says so.

Instead, the author has spent his life as an educator, and of the young, those needing differentiated instruction, those needing constant role models in loco parentis for character development, which Esquith describes in graduated steps going from fear of punishment to being able to set your own standards to do the right thing. In high school, at least with AP / IB / honors etc. most students know pretty much what is expected and are eager to do it. After all, one can get college credit at public expense with no student loan debt later, so why not take advantage of it. Role modeling means something even here, but it is more relative to the expectations of the adult world and “personal responsibility” as libertarians know it. In the elementary world and disadvantaged environment, role modeling seems almost like being a substitute parent. That’s more than just a job.

Esquith apparently has worked in an extended program where kids are in school for long days, and have extensive supervised after-shool programs. Although many teachers sponsor field trips, Esquith arranges cross-country trips for his kids, where he arranges real-world experiences, supervised, but somewhat away from the sheltered environment of school. He also introduces real-world concepts into the classroom, with chores as jobs and artificial money, where students “rent” their desks but if they save enough money they can “buy” them as condominiums and rent them to other students. At the same time, Esquith is big on community service and getting the kids involved in activities for the homeless, trying to balance the individual initiative of capitalism with the need to help others.

Esquith is a jack of all trades (and reasonable master of some) in his teaching. . Here, remember that in grade school, kids have the same teacher all day. (In fact, World News Tonight on Sept. 6 covered a change in the Kansas City MO schools to eliminate middle school and make elementary K to 8, with kids keeping one teacher through eighth grade. I had grades 7, 8 and 9 as middle school, with some of it “general education” for two periods (English and social studies together).

He gives all kinds of practical tips with reading, writing, math (particularly word problems – he gives a lot of them in his book and algebra teachers could make up exams on word problems from examples that he gives – have at it!) He talks about teaching social studies and geography by using games – and what comes to mind for me is, yes, some board games when I was a boy did help me remember the globe (how many jigsaw puzzles do I see in school libraries?) and even games with fictitious geographical layouts (like Star Reporter) teach geographical concepts and skills. (How about the entire imaginary geography of Tolkien?) I also recall those stunningly colored topographical relief maps of every state and Canadian province in the 1950 World Book Encyclopedia, maps no longer available to day. I based many a project in grade school on these.

Esquith is a big promoter of physical education, and takes responsibility for it. He diverts and talks a lot about the virtues of baseball as a sport. (He particularly likes the idea that there is no clock to run out.) He also talks about art projects that he set up, although he denies that he is an artist. He recognizes that kids involved in performing arts often develop more quickly. (It’s worthy of note here that kids in the movies have studio teachers on set – often mentioned in film credits now – and most of these kids do very well, from all reports.) He calls his classroom The Hobart Shakespearearians studies together) He calls his classroom The Hobart Shakespearearians studies together) and his kids put in a Shakespeare play once a year.

He mentions a lot of novels, and especially film. One favorite he mentions early in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. He sometimes shows films, especially in after school periods when the films can be shown without interruption. He likes classic films with a literary basis, but is critical of cheap entertainment. He does like some high quality thrillers, like Wait Until Dark. When a kid rents a video he or she has to fill out a video worksheet showing that he or she really followed the movie (he shows his worksheet for the 1963 thriller Charade. I’ve seen a teacher give a worksheet for Hotel Rwanda – what is the significance of the ‘tall trees”?) After reading through his favorite film list, I had to add to my Netflix queue.

Since I don’t have a sports blog and Rafe talks about baseball, I put a couple of links here about the Washington Nationals ‘s new ballpark.

Ballpark comparisons

Comments on the ballpark dimensions.

Update: Sept. 7, 2007

There is an important business announcement about the merger of two companies in the supported self-publishing (print on demand) business, iUniverse and Author House (Author Solutions) on another blog today, here. Some examples: an iUniverse imprint book (Aphrodite Jones) was reviewed July 24; an Author House book was reviewed on June 21 here.

Update: Sept. 24, 2007: The Metropolitan Section of The Washington Times has a story by Jordan Bartel, "Author tests trilogy on his students," about Wayne Thomas Batson's trilogy "The Door Within" (published by Thomas Nelson) with the three books being: (Same title); "The Rise of the Wyrm Lord"; "The Final Storm". The book was written by a middle school English teacher (Batson) in Maryland with his students. Mr. Batson had previously tried to get a fantasy published (pre Harry Potter) and editors said it was too long with reading level set too high.

Update: Sept. 30. Check Andrew Ferguson, "No Child Left Alone An education reform run amok" in the Sept. 24, 2007 Weekly Standard, here.