Rise of the Silicon Dynasty

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The final position of the famous “Blood-Vomiting Game” of 1835 *

Chess computer programs have been beating our grandmasters since 1997. One game, though, still eludes artificial intelligence. This is the ancient Chinese game of Go. Despite its incredibly simple rules, master Go players still destroy our best computers.

Is man’s dominance temporary? Or will Go always be our territory?

The exploration of why humans still win at Go, and whether or not they always will, promotes discussion about game theory, computation and human psychology.

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Death and the Lover

Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse tells the story of two companions, incredibly different from each other but nonetheless entirely complementary; between the two, no path goes unexplored, no way of life untested.

Narcissus lives a quiet, faithful, studious existence at the Mariabronn cloister. He devoutly studies the inner workings of logic and mathematics, Greek and Latin, and theology. Ultimately, he becomes the abbot of the monastery.  Narcissus finds a permanent home in the sparse world of the mind.

Goldmund, on the other hand, leaves the monastery at a young age and travels for many years through medieval Germany. In the process, the reader is drawn into a spiraling whirlwind of color, texture and light.

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Only in Russia

This article is part of a series entitled Russian Caravan Tea. See also:
1. Only in Russia; 2. The Lonely and Forgotten Nation; 3. The Eternal City

Russia is different from America. The differentness, however, resists enumeration; it defies lists. The differentness is a comprehensive “fabric” filling the air. Russia’s environment, culture, and texture together assemble into a dense subjective experience. Beyond my window lie the broad walls of a complex of tattered, stucco apartment buildings; raindrops drip from the trees onto the puddles covering the dark sidewalks. Power lines arch across the sky. Opposite the nearby road, the iron structures of the metro station jut above the retaining wall. The tiny local grocery store is empty: inside, a solitary clerk sits past the shampoo and next to a wall of alcohol bottles.

Inside the dormitory, the slow “bunsen-burner” stovetops are mustering their strength below a pot of hot noodles. A big jar of fresh tea is steaming on my table, next to the honey, as it cools. The chessboard is ready. Soon the room will be filled with hot tea, deep discussions of mathematics, and the excitement of king-of-the-court blitz chess. Welcome to Moscow.

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A view from my dormitory in Moscow

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Sunrise at Montmajour

Today, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal: Sunset at Montmajour, thought for a century to be a fake, turns out to be a real Van Gogh!  New technology in paint analysis confirmed that the pigments used in Sunset were the same as those taken from Van Gogh’s palette in Arles, the southern-France town where the artist is believed to have painted the work.

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Alex Ruger, curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, presents “Sunset at Montmajour”. Note the Montmajour Abbey on the far left of the painting.

The painting had been passed from owner to owner, selling for very little each time.  It spent over 50 years lying in an attic.  It underwent several reassessments, but each concluded that Sunset was no Van Gogh.  Now, though, it’ll serve as a lead act at the prestigious Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam—one of the very museums that had called it a fake several decades earlier!  Its value hasn’t been assessed, but Sunset could be worth well over 50 million dollars.

This entire situation prompts a serious reevaluation of what creates value in art.   Continue reading

The Adblock Dilemma

The other day, I loaded a video on YouTube, and was met with a 20-second advertisement.  “You don’t have Adblock?” my friend asked, astonished.  “You gotta download it.  Gets rid of ads,” he said, as if it were that simple.

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Adblock users won’t see this!

Sure, if my friend uses Adblock, YouTube won’t notice, and he gets to avoid ads.  But what happens if everyone uses this logic?

  1. A significant portion of YouTube users—say, 10 percent—download Adblock.
  2. Advertisement vendors realize that their ads aren’t reaching as many people.  So, they’re not willing to pay as much to have their ads shown.  Perhaps a 20-second ad on a popular video used to fetch $1000, but now, only $900.
  3. YouTube’s losing significant revenue.  They might implement longer or more frequent ads, but this only causes more people to get Adblock, which causes the price of ads to slide further.
  4. Eventually, YouTube is making so little money from ads that they’re forced to change their business model.  They might reduce the size of their server network to cut overhead, increasing load times.  Or they might start charging for a YouTube Pro membership.  Users would have to pay to view videos over a minute long, or to view over 20 videos per month, or to upload.

And that’s how Adblock could ruin YouTube for all of us.  Looks like there really is no free lunch!

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Pirahã: A Linguistic Anomaly

Indo-European Language Tree

Imagine a rare, exotic language, that contains some of the most uncommon sounds pronounced by man; a language with no words for number or color, but that can be hummed or whistled instead of spoken.  You’ve imagined Pirahã, the language spoken by the 300 or so indigenous Pirahã peoples of Amazonas, Brazil. And, though the number of Pirahã speakers is small, use of the language is vigorous and most speakers are monolingual.  Pirahã isn’t going extinct any time soon.

Several incredible facts combine to make Pirahã, without a question, one of the strangest and most interesting languages out there.

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