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Archive for June 2014

Chess as a game (among many)

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Chess is often called “the queen of games”, at least in Western culture. The game’s austere appearance, when combined with its tactical and strategic depth, provides an air of challenge and mystery.

In many ways, chess is the prototypical Western game. Strategies and tactics are direct, with little progress to be made unless you directly confront your opponent. Chess is also a perfect information game, meaning there is no element of chance. You might not know your opponent’s next move, but there’s nothing hiding it from you. If you didn’t see what was coming, you can only blame yourself.

Although chess has increased in popularity in Asia, the traditional strategy game of Japan, China, and South Korea is go. Unlike chess, where the goal is to create a position where your opponent’s king is under attack and cannot move to a safe square, go players place their stones in an attempt to surround territory on the board. Chess boards are 8 x 8, with 64 squares, and the pieces stand on the squares. In go, the board has 19 x 19 lines, with 361 intersections, and players may place a stone on any unoccupied intersection (with a few exceptions).

The complexity of go far outstrips that of chess, at least in terms of the computation required to analyze and evaluate a position. Computers have conquered humans at chess…their calculating speed and positional evaluation let them beat even the strongest carbon-based players regularly. The most advanced go programs can only beat top professionals if they are given a substantial head start. That said, the gap is closing.

I said that chess is the prototypical Western game, but it’s mostly thought of as a European (and even more specifically, Russian) game. In America, the game of choice is poker. Poker is a gambling game, with a significant element of chance involved. You can do everything right but still lose if your opponent decides to fight the odds and draws the cards they need. Ironically, the better you play, the more of these “bad beat” stories you’ll have to tell. If you’re always in the lead, the luck of the draw means you will get chased down on occasion.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. But I am.

Do the Russians play chess, the Chinese play go, and the Americans play poker? If you look at our cultures and practices, you’ll see there’s a fair amount of truth to that statement. How well that metaphor translates to actionable intelligence is debatable, but it’s an interesting way to start a conversation.

Chess and Motivation

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To paraphrase the Great Oz, “I’m a good man, but a very bad chess player.” I can beat almost any non-serious player in a casual game, but I’m in the lower half of  those of us who pay to play on the Internet Chess Server.

And yet, even though I lose a lot more than I’d like to, I enjoy the game immensely. In some sense, I like the idea of being a chess player…there’s a certain nerdy caché to the game that fits my personality. I also enjoy my occasional successes (I wouldn’t call them brilliancies) where I’ve seen just a bit farther or evaluated a position more accurately than my opponent.

My rating, the number that indicates my relative strength as compared to my fellow competitors, swings up and down within a range that runs from kind of impressive to “maybe I should go back to Candyland.” Sometimes I feel strong, like I’m concentrating well and see the outcomes of move sequences, while at other times I make the first move I see and hope I get lucky. I’m not sure why my concentration varies so much, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

So why, if I’m not a very good serious (or even semi-serious) player, do I keep playing? What are the psychic benefits I get from banging my head against 32 pieces and 64 squares? Sure, the game’s fun in and of itself, but what specifically keeps me coming back?

I’ll address these questions in more detail in my forthcoming series of posts, but I’ll start out with a note on what my motivation is not. A friend once said, when I was furious at myself for a series of embarrassing losses, “It would be a shame for you to give up the game after you’ve put so much into it.”

She was right in a way, but her statement is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that the investment (of money, or time, or whatever) you’ve made in an endeavor should affect future decisions. In fact, if you have no way of reclaiming the money or time you’ve invested in something, those “expenses” should in no way affect your future decisions. All you should care about is whether future investments are worth the cost.

I keep playing, so I obviously must think it’s worth my effort to continue. Chess is a rich game, after all, one that rewards its players for their efforts beyond rating points or games won. I look forward to examining it more closely.

Performers, Releases, and Misrepresentation

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I straddle two professional worlds — technology and performance. Those fields overlap in more ways than you might expect, especially when it comes to the types of contracts we’re asked to sign.

Note: I am not a lawyer. The following statements are not legal advice. If you have any legal questions about a contract or its terms, consult an attorney who is licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

Contracts are put in place to codify an agreement between two or more parties. Almost all contracts have an “entire agreement” clause, which states that the written document is the sole representation of the agreement between the parties. That means that any side conversations, verbal agreements, or even written statements not included in the contract are non-binding and unenforceable. They don’t count. What matters is the signed document.

Because contracts matter so much, each party is motivated to negotiate an agreement that is most favorable to them. Reality television show contracts, created by the production company and to be signed by the individuals appearing on the show, are some of the most one-sided contracts available. Terms include the right of the production company to misrepresent a person’s statements, actions, or motivations for the sake of drama. I probably don’t have to tell you that this provision is slightly weighted in favor of the producers.

Recently, Maker Studios’ Polaris unit started taping footage for GAME_JAM, a reality show intended to run on YouTube. The show was set up as a team competition (like Top Chef or The Amazing Race), so there was some tension to the scenario. Polaris offered one-sided contracts to potential participants, with mixed results: some people signed them, some negotiated better deals, and some refused to sign but were allowed to participate anyway. That last consideration is telling…would the show have gone forward without their participation? Were not enough qualified programmers interested?

The GAME_JAM project came to a crashing halt when a production company employee attempted to create controversy by asking if teams with female programmers were at a disadvantage. After one day, the individuals who were not under contract walked away from the project, forcing it to shut down.

The lesson for employees, independent contractors, and performers is obvious. You can decide which projects to take on and under what circumstances. If you’re offered a contract, have a lawyer or (if you’re a performer) an agent look it over and get their advice on how to make it better. Yes, you have to pay for their services, but it’s often worth it. If you don’t have an agent when you’re offered a role, don’t worry. If you approach an agent with a contract offer in hand, you are giving them a shot at 15% (or the rate you negotiate) of a relatively sure thing. Even if it’s just for that single deal, having an experienced attorney or agent on your side gives you leverage and removes you from the negotiations, allowing you to concentrate on your performance.

And you can always walk away.

Law and Magic: Revealing the Links

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I had the very good fortune to speak at the Law and Magic: Revealing the Links conference, co-hosted by the Law and Humanities Institute and the Thomas Jefferson School of Law last Friday in beautiful San Diego. The conference was organized by Professors Christine Corcos of the LSU Law Center and Julie Cromer Young of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Licensed attendees could earn up to 6.5 hours of CLE credit.

As the conference’s name implies, the day’s presentations were about how the art and practice of the law intersects and interacts with the art and practice of magic and what Professor Corcos called the “crafty sciences.” I had the good fortune to perform a 30-minute show over lunch. Later in the afternoon, my presentation Rhetorical Mathematics examined how performers and lawyers can use and abuse math to further their arguments. Practitioners of both arts have a wide range of confusion-inducing techniques from which to choose: misstating probabilities, relying on unspoken assumptions, pulling numbers out of thin air, and many others.

I think my paper went over pretty well. I covered probability calculations that went beyond simple liability calculations such as the Hand Rule articulated in United States vs. Carroll Towing, so there was some head scratching at times. The most fun for me was when I presented the Monty Hall Paradox, which describes the math behind the game played at the end of Monty’s show Let’s Make a Deal. The idea of the game is that Monty displays three doors, two of which hide a losing choice, such as a goat, and the third a prize such as a new car. You start the game by choosing one of the doors. Once you do, Monty (who knows where the car is) opens a losing door. You can then either stay with your original choice or switch.

The question for you: does it matter whether you switch or stay? If so, what are your chances of winning for either strategy?

Review of Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

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Title: Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

Author: Kristie Macrakis

Publisher: Yale University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-300-17925-5

Length: 392

Price: $27.50

Rating: 91%

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.


Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies, a book by Christie Macrakis, provides an interesting look into the history of invisible ink and other forms of secret writing. Much has been written about cryptography, including such classics as David Kahn’s The Codebreakers and Bruce Schneier’s Applied Cryptography, but relatively little had been published about invisible writing.

Prof. Macrakis is a professor of history, technology, and society at Georgia Tech. She’s written a number of other books on espionage-related topics, so it makes sense that she would turn her attention to invisible writing.

More Complicated than You’d Think

The problem with this sort of book is that everyone thinks invisible ink is a simple topic. Everyone who has ever owned a beginning magic book or a chemistry set knows that you can use lemon juice and a toothpick to inscribe a message on a piece of paper that only appears when the paper is heated over a flame or a lightbulb. For many years, the science of invisible writing was in fact limited to a number of easily obtained substances and the use of heat or simple developing fluids that reacted with the ink.

The study of natural magic, instituted in the Middle Ages and a precursor to the Scientific Revolution, led to number of discoveries that were of use to the prisoners, lovers, and spies named in the book’s title. During the late 16th century, the partisans fighting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, and even Queen Mary herself, used invisible ink in their attempts to communicate secretly with their supporters.

Skipping forward a few centuries, invisible ink played a huge role in every war from the American Revolution to World War II and beyond into the Cold War. The scope and breadth of mail censorship and interception, all with the goal of discovering both indiscreet and discreet communications, was staggering. Even with the tens of thousands of letters going through the British Imperial Censorship office in Bermuda and the American stations in Miami and Puerto Rico, a total of 339 letters with secret writing were intercepted.

After the end of World War II, the Germans instituted a new means of secret communication: the microdot. These tiny circles, which could be hidden in a book as the dot on an “i” or a period, could contain a substantial amount of information for the time. As World War II ground to a close and the Cold War started, microdots played a significant role in covert communication. That’s not to say that invisible ink and secret writing went away. In fact, the author leads off the book with the story of how she came to acquire a carefully hidden East German Stasi formula for invisible ink through an archive request at the German Cold War library collection. It was a story worth waiting for.

Further Considerations

Macrakis covers specific historical periods in each chapter. She states in the introduction that she wrote the book so that anyone could dip into it and read about the time they were interested in. That choice, which is eminently reasonable, means that there is some noticeable repetition when you read the book in one go, but it’s not too distracting.

What I find particularly interesting, in addition to the art and science of the writing itself, are descriptions of the organizations put in place to detect, develop, and exploit information from secret writing. The scope of the mail interception effort during World War II is impressive. Although the author doesn’t make this comparison explicit, I can’t help but wonder what the level of effort would be in relation to current National Security Agency efforts to intercept secret communication.

The last chapter of the main part of the book gives a brief overview of steganography, which is the process of hiding a message within another file. For example, one could use the least significant bits of an image file to encode a message without changing the image’s appearance to the casual observer. Of course there are tools to detect steganographic writing, but experts in the field are extremely reluctant to talk about what they do. That means the chapter on steganography is a bit disappointing, but it’s hard to blame the author for her sources’ lack of forthrightness.

The appendix contains a number of formulas that can be used to create and reveal invisible ink. Some of the substances can be harmful to humans, so creating any of the inks or developing agents would be done strictly at your own risk. I’m glad the publisher didn’t shy away from providing these recipes, though—they’re an important part of the subject’s history and the book would be incomplete without them.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies is a worthwhile book for anyone with an interest in espionage tradecraft or who just thinks that secret writing is a fun and interesting subject. I fall into both camps, so I enjoyed Prof. Macrakis’ work. Recommended.


Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.