Sunday, December 30, 2007

Goban R&D

Scrounging about the house and yard, I have located sufficient wood for three gobans:

One in 3/4" furniture-grade pine with nice grain and figurings. (I can possibly double it to 1.5", depending on knot holes.)

One in 3/4" high-grade cherry.

One in 2" high-grade cherry! (If I sacrifice some turning stock, which I'm loathe to do.) If I decide to use this, there will also be enough left over to make legs for it as a thin floor board.

I think the cherry boards, though darker than traditional boards, would look awesome with Yunzi jade-luster stones.

So I will start with the pine and work my way up, teaching myself the process as I go.

Pictures to follow, I hope.

-Neil

Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Best Game to Date Against SmartGo


This is my best game to date against SmartGo.

-Neil

Friday, December 28, 2007

Learning to Play Go

My first experience of Go was in high school in Hawaii. My social studies teacher was of Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry and she kept a Go set in the classroom. It was a really large, heavy floor goban and a set of stones that (if memory serves) were of some really nice intermediate grade material like marble. I seem to remember the goban as having incised lines, but I may be mistaken about that. Unfortunately, Go was not in the revival that it now experiences, so none of us took the opportunity to learn how to play.

Later in life, I decided I wanted to learn to play, but I kept putting it off. I don’t know exactly why I chose this time in my life to start playing Go, but I think it has a lot to do with my interest in the aesthetic of wabi-sabi. Of all the games I’ve encountered, Go seems to best embody the concept of wabi-sabi. This is certainly true of the equipment, but it is also true of the game itself.

About a six weeks ago, I decided to take the plunge. Being a computer programmer (and living in a very small town), it was natural that I should decide to use my computer to help me learn. So I made a promise to myself: “When I can learn to beat Igowin freeware, I’ll buy a nice software learning package.” It took about two weeks to beat Igowin, and – after looking around – I decided to try the 15-day trial of SmartGo. After 15 days with SmartGo, I decided that I liked it enough to pay and register it, so I did. It’s not perfect, but it seems to be a great learning tool and I am enjoying it.

My next goal is to beat SmartGo at least once. When I can do that, I’ve promised myself, I will buy a nice goban and some stones. In honor of my high school memory of Go, I have decided on a Japanese size goban and biconvex stones in the size 33 range.

Also, as part of my pursuit of wabi-sabi, I have decided to make my own goban someday. It may be a while, though, since I want to wait for just the right piece of lumber. I’m not sure running down to the local “wood-r-us” store and picking up lumber by the board-foot will give me the aesthetic I desire, lol. I want the goban to mean something to me as a work of art and a personal process. In art and craft, as in Go, the first and last moyos to be claimed lie within. As the Zen saying goes: "The skilled archer aims not at the target but at himself."

-Neil

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Jung in Boston

Let me state I am generally skeptical of paranormal anecdotes and research. I am trained in the proper use of statistics, and have used statistical testing and modeling in my professional career. I am aware that the most amazing coincidences are to be expected in large populations: no supernatural explanations are required. I have seen more than a few strange coincidences in my own life, none of which bothers me much, but the following experience continues to make me wonder.

I was staying in a hotel in Boston on business. It was my first visit to Boston, and I had been looking forward to doing some sight seeing. One thing I particularly wanted to see was the Old North Church. As a child, "Paul Revere's Ride" was one of my favorite poems. I had been captivated by Longfellow’s imagery of the church at night:

“A moment only he feels the spell,
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread,
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;”

I talked about the possibility with friends until they were tired of hearing about it. Unfortunately, I did not have as much free time as I had hoped, and I had to cancel my plans for sight seeing.

I had a meeting scheduled with a business associate who lived in Cambridge. We had been planning on meeting for dinner at his house, but it was Halloween night and his wife and children were busy with "trick-or-treat," so he drove into Boston instead. He suggested a North Boston restaurant, and after dinner we decided to walk to a bistro on the next block for coffee and desert. Along the way, we came to a street corner where local youths -- dressed in black and with faces painted white -- were throwing eggs at passing cars (apparently a local Halloween tradition). Afraid that pedestrians might also prove tempting targets, we decided to backtrack and detour.

We made our way to a courtyard that seemed like it might be a shortcut through the middle of the block. It was a warm night for late October and there was a light fog in the air. We walked past a college-age couple who sat on a bench in the courtyard studying. The place had an other-worldly, "stage set" feeling, like a film-noir street scene. At the end of the courtyard was a short flight of steps that ended in an iron rail fence with an alleyway to each side. When we reached the top of the steps, I noticed a plaque on the fence. It was an historical marker that began: "The Old North Church…"

I had somehow, through a series of coincidences, and in a bizarre setting, obtained the object of my quest without trying. And not only that, but as in the poem: at a secret hour and seemingly under a spell. It's difficult to express, but the experience had a numinous, scripted feeling -- as if I were a character in a book or movie. It's this feeling of the whole thing being "set up," I think, that haunts me even more than the event itself.

To commemorate the experience, I bought an "Old North Church" souvenir coffee cup at the airport. It has yet to do anything strange.

-Neil

Friday, September 14, 2007

New Year's Eve, A Diary

From a diary, New Year's Eve 1991-1992

---------------------------------

December 31, 1990* – New Year’s Eve

3:00PM – I should have started this diary a year sooner. 1990* was an eventful year. It opened with the United States about to go to war in Iraq, and has closed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The world has changed radically during the last 3 years**, and the next three may prove as tumultuous. I’m not sure what we expected from the downfall of communism in Europe, but what we got was a range of effects, from economic turmoil to bloodshed. The patient was almost too far gone when the resuscitation was applied, and has come back choking spasmodically and still in serious condition. A rise in nationalism has led to fighting in some republics of the former USSR and Yugoslavia. Russia, which was fairly strong of old, and the center of the USSR, is doing surprisingly well. There is some apprehension concerning Yeltsin and whether he may yet prove to be a dictator, or conversely, whether he can control the military if the country revolts in the face of exploding prices.

10:00PM – It’s after midnight in Moscow and the Soviet Union is no more. Here in _____ it’s windy and rainy, after a cold and windy day.

11:15PM – I plan to take a photo of myself at midnight.

11:58PM – Bye bye 1991.

12:02AM – The first minutes of 1992. What will this year bring? I should do like _____ [a friend] and try to wonder where I’ll be this time next year. But for now I’m tired and I will go to bed.

---------------------------------

I did not continue the diary much past this point. I do still have the photo I took of myself.

-Neil

*These errors are in the original, both should read 1991.

**The length of time I had been living in the city in which I was writing this diary.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What the Maasai Can Teach Us About Software Engineering

An article on the Maasai started me thinking about why I like my teakettle better than the microwave. The teakettle is no easier to use than the microwave; it probably takes slightly more energy; and of course, boiled water is boiled water.

However, when the teakettle whistles when the water boils, that whistling is an integral act that stems from the nature of the process. Certainly, someone had to design the whistle and attach it to the kettle. But once this was done, the whistle noise occurs automatically and naturally arises naturally as a side-effect the primary process for which the kettle was designed (i.e. boiling water).

A microwave oven, by contrast, beeps because of a series of processes disconnected from function being performed and of an arbitrary character. Even in a very advanced microwave oven that can sense the water boiling, the chain of events resulting in the beep is still arbitrary.

One problem with software is that nearly all of it has this arbitrary nature. And things become more arbitrary and indirect as one moves up from the hardware, until the entire experience for the user is arbitrary and disconnected not just from the physical hardware, but even from the form and semantics of the software that is creating the user experience.

So how and where to recapture the lost integrity of software?

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any way of doing it at the user level. At the programming level, however, it is still quite possible. The trick is to stop seeing oneself as a designer and to see oneself as an architect in the true sense of the word. In computer science, we have mistaken the meaning of the word architect; it doesn’t mean “really good high level designer.” Architect is from the words “arch tech,” and is Greek for “master builder.” To be an architect, one must build things, not design them.

This is doubly confounded because we have also mistaken the roles of design vs. building. Nothing of value is ever designed, it must be built. Sometimes good things appear to be designed, but only because some builders get really good at doing the building in their heads or on paper.* But trying to design something without going through a building process nearly always results in something that is at best sub-optimal and usually creates more problems than it solves.

Our elevation of the design myth over building also causes us to mistake the meaning of the word building. Building is not a construction process. (Construction is simply one of the operations that enable building.) Building is a growth process, and growth processes are non-linear, non-monotonic (i.e. they involve deletion as well as addition**), and are to a certain extent unpredictable.


As Christopher Alexander said:

“It creates order, not by forcing it, nor by imposing it on the world (through plans or drawings or components): but because it is a process which draws order from its surroundings – it allows it to come together”

“But if course, by this means far more order can come into being, than could possibly come into being through an invented act.”

“It is vastly more complex than any other kind of order. It cannot be created by decision. It cannot be designed. It cannot be predicted by a plan.”

And this is exactly the kind of order that we have forgotten but that Maasai herder and a man living in the house made of trees he cut himself still remember. For them, things “just work.” Literally: “stuff just works,” that is, the stuff itself works by dint of its very nature, not because of arbitrary bits glued on during artificial processes. And that’s what we need to find again in the 21st century, because the Maasai and tree-man are not living in the past, they are also living in the 21st century, and it makes no sense to call them primitive or unsophisticated when it is we who have forgotten things.

-Neil

*In fact, the idea that things even can be designed is probably a myth that arose from people not understanding how skilled builders work.

** We forget that to put up a building, one often has to put up a scaffolding. We do this because we think of the building (a noun) is the result of building (a verb). But we forget that this semantic separation is artificial and is a trick of our minds. That dismantled scaffolding is as surely a part of the finished building as child’s experiences are part of the adult. Both were left behind in form, yet not in effect, since in both cases the finished product, in its very nature, bears the unmistakable marks of the construction process.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Book Review: A Bright and Shining Lie

A Bright and Shining Lie – John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
by Neil Sheehan.

I begin this blog with my thoughts about a work by another Neil.*

Exciting and interesting on the whole, with a few tedious sections. More balanced than one would believe based on the title, and than most reviews indicate.

It analyzes the American mistakes in Vietnam unblinkingly, yet doesn't come across as overly cynical. Where the players involved – political or military – had good intentions, it is clear about separating the laudable aspects of those intentions from the situations which made them unrealistic and unattainable.

Sheehan’s views are slanted to the left, and there is a bit of “novelization” involved as he seeks to show how the war is mirrored in the life of one of its protagonists: John Paul Vann. But it’s not too bad, given the politically charged nature of the topic, any book on Vietnam is bound to step on a few toes.** He depicts many of the military and political people involved in the conflict as being seriously concerned for the Vietnamese people as a whole, yet in many cases still blinded by the kind of na├»ve, benignly-intentioned racism common in the post-colonial era.

The book also contains an excellent analysis of how WWII and the French/Vietnamese conflict transitioned into the American/Vietnamese conflict. This shows how the actual problems that made the American involvement in Vietnam an unfortunate quagmire are in many ways a result of things that happened before the war (as popularly defined) even began. By the time the conflict began, it was being carried in part by the momentum of past events and its own inertia rather than the needs of the day.

In a way, two overlapping wars were being fought by three protagonists: the South Vietnamese vs. the North Vietnamese as a continuation of the French/Vietnamese independence conflict***, and the Americans vs. the North Vietnamese as a proxy war between the West and Communism.

One thing many Americans failed to realize is that the Vietnamese peasantry identified with the independence conflict, and really didn’t care much about the Cold War. The Southern leaders were, in this view, seen as representing earlier Mandarins who became corrupted by colonialism, while the Northern leaders were seen as representing the earlier Mandarins who had stayed true to Vietnamese nationalism. In some cases, in fact, this was literally true.

Thus, though peasants would pragmatically support whoever was in their area at the time, they were always somewhat more sympathetic to the North Vietnamese. So, in the South, it became very much an urban vs. rural war – the boundary of every city and base was a war front.

The fact that both the U.S. and the South Vietnamese tended to conduct the war as a war of sortie from cities and bases into the countryside only intensified the urban/peasant polarization and made it continue to resemble the earlier war of independence. The main protagonist, John Paul Vann, for all his other flaws, realized this and saw that the war could not be won as long as this divide remained. He saw many of the ways in which the Vietnam conflict was different from earlier wars and even earlier guerrilla conflicts, and yet missed many other important things.

In summary: the book is not without its flaws and biases, but if studied in conjunction with other sources, it is a valuable contribution to the understanding of the American experience in Vietnam.

And that's what I learned from A Bright and Shining Lie.

-Neil

*Other than our first names, Neil Sheehan and I are unrelated.

**I think Sheehan is a bit overly critical of the role of the Catholic Church in the time leading up to the conflict. Not that there is no blame there, but I’m sure there are balancing, positive aspects that are ignored. Also, though he mentions the atrocities and illegalities committed by all sides, he seems to gloss over them somewhat more when it comes to discussing North Vietnamese actions.

***Because of the post-WWII history of Vietnam, North Vietnam was very much identified with independence side of that conflict, and South Vietnam with the French colonial. That this identification also split along West/Communist lines was largely the result of an historical accident involving a single individual: Ho Chi Minh.