Competitive Scrabble

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive ScrabblePlayers

A good read, filled with an obligingly weird cast of characters. There is something deeply appealing about a bruising, trash-talking pro tour for Scrabble heads. The author, Stefan Fatsis, goes native and eventually becomes an expert player himself as he tells his story. I like the part where he’s talking to the former world champ, Joel Sherman, who’s complaining that Scrabble should be more popular than chess, because it’s more accessible. Millions of people could watch, he whines. “Watch what?” replies Fatsis, “watch you play TREHALA, and then run for their dictionaries?” (Rambles reference: April 27, 2002)

Bureau de change ici

Suppose your Rodian character in the online game Star Wars Galaxies has banked a small fortune of 10 million credits. But you’re also playing an impoverished pauper of a halfling in Everquest. If only there were a way to distribute Star Wars largesse to the Everquest needy. This is exactly the problem that
IGE’s Virtual Exchange solves. Using the exchange, your halfling is in line for a tidy windfall of 136,000 platinum pieces. I can already picture Sally Struthers pleading with wealthy Wookiees to feed the homeless children in distant Ultima Online. 400 credits a day is all it takes!

It’s a good idea to join these worlds, but it’s not clear how the exchange rate is set (the site’s FAQ is still empty). It sure doesn’t look like an open market sets the rate, which can only mean that there must be a black market somewhere. Can you buy game money on eBay? Yes you can. I just found someone offering 200,000 platinum pieces for 100 honest-to-goodness British pounds. No bids, though. One million Galaxies credits can be had on eBay for around $20. Assuming these prices are reasonable, that suggests an exchange rate of around 49 credits/platinum piece, as opposed to the “official” rate of around 83 credits/plat. Those lousy Everquest border guards are robbing you blind! They’re as bad as the North Koreans!

I’m sure it won’t be long before we have serious money changing hands in a truly open market for fantasy world money. That’s the funny thing about money. If you think it’s real, it’s real.

A game called Nash

I’m reading Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind, the biography of the schizophrenic Nobel Prize winner John Nash, and I’ve just reached a point where, as a graduate student at Princeton, he invents a little game to illustrate game theory. This game, which captivates the math department, is called Nash in honor of the creator. It later was sold commercially under the name Hex. Hex is very similar to a game called Twixt that I remember playing as a kid. The idea is to build a chain from one side of the board to the other while simultaneously preventing your opponent from doing the same.

I went searching for it on the web and found several places where you can play it in the privacy and comfort of your own browser. Here’s a good one: MazeWorks – Hex

Incidentally, John Nash is still alive despite the fact that his best-selling biography was written years ago. Here is his home page at Princeton. He doesn’t appear to be much of an HTML hack, but you can find presentations he’s given in the last few months if you poke around. And Princeton is good enough to keep his 32 page Nobelworthy thesis available for ready download. Here it is. It’s a big PDF scan of the original, complete with typos and handwritten Greek letters. We don’t need no stinking TeX.

The coming electric navy

One hundred years or so ago, Winston Churchill, in his capacity as the First Lord of the Admiralty, worked vigorously to convert the old coal-burning Royal Navy to a newer and more efficient oil-burning fleet. This turned out to be a strategically sound decision despite the fact that it entailed a new dependence on oil that the British Isles could not supply. Oil simply had too many advantages over coal to fret overmuch about the fact that it would have to be produced in and shipped from remote, difficult-to-manage locations around the world. This single fact has, by itself, largely shaped geo-politics across the last century.

Curiously, today the U.S. Navy is undergoing a Churchillian revolution of its own: ships are being converted from oil power to electric power. The change is somewhat subtle, because the electricity comes from onboard gas turbines that in turn are still powered by fossil fuels. But there are a number of advantages. You can put the gas turbine wherever you want, and you can use the enormous electrical power generated for other purposes, like vaporizing enemy ships and planes with high-power directed energy weapons. Superconducting electric motors can be put in movable pods outside the hull, thereby eliminating the awkward drive shafts that have dominated hull design and dramatically improving maneuverability.

If this sounds a lot like the move to hybrid cars from conventional gas powered cars, it is. The exact same principle is at work, which leads me to speculate that high-power directed energy weapons will be a popular accessory for the 2005 Toyota Prius.

France 1940

To Lose a Battle : France 1940

Hard to believe now, but the French army was widely considered the greatest in the world at the beginning of 1940. It is painful and eye-opening to see how quickly it was punctured, deflated, and slashed to ribbons by a smaller but infinitely better armed and trained German force in May and June of that year. This book paints an excellent picture of how inferior doctrine (static defense as opposed to fast-moving armor attacks) can absolutely wreck an army. Poor France. She lost so many men in World War I and then learned all the wrong lessons as a result.

The guy in the red Civic

Today my good friend Jay Czarnecki (who has guest-blogged here before) joins us once again with some rambles of his own about rambling across the Maryland countryside in a red Honda Civic. Leave a comment for him and tell him what you think. Here’s what he has to say…

These days I have an hour-long morning commute to work, but since it runs from one Central Maryland suburb to another, I travel through open farmland for much of the drive. There are places where it is quite scenic, although the sharp boundaries between green pasture and gleaming white housing developments can be jarring. The ascendant real estate market has made it inevitable that most large tracts of land will eventually be sold to developers. I imagine that each successive generation of the land-owning family must make the choice whether to keep and pass on the land or to convert it into an exorbitant amount of cash. The growing number of shiny new single-family homes dotting the landscape like dots on a scatter diagram tell me which outcome has the upper hand over the long term. Sometimes I wonder about the owners of these old homesteads I pass by – often set far back from the road at the end of a long driveway – I wonder if they watch me from behind their windows as I drive to work, just passing through, clearly not of this place. I wonder if they curse me and my fellow passers-through for clogging up their backcountry roads, so clearly not designed to deliver commuters from one part of the state to another. Do they blame me for driving up the cost of living with my high-tech job until they are forced to cash out because they cannot afford the tax assessments? Or instead, do they smile upon me as the benefactor who turned their patch of arable land into a gold mine, freeing them from it. I confess I never thought much about this until I occasionally began to see one of these unseen people, outside, an old woman with a large-brimmed white hat – and of course this sighting changed how I perceived that particular place. Before it was just the farm with the winding driveway that I zipped past each morning, and the idea of associating it with a real live person or persons was a vague notion at best. Just like any other of the landmarks that pace my morning routine – the crooked barn, the brick house unusually close to the road, the mini-mansion with ostentatious pillars marking the entrance – you just don’t focus on the fact that real people live there. It’s not unlike the way you perceive other cars while driving: always the vehicle, never the occupant. It’s the white Chevy that is going too slow, or the green minivan that didn’t use it’s blinker before turning – until you hit one or one hits you, and the driver emerges and you discover that the green minivan is actually a fat man with a New York accent in an ill-fitting suit. Who would’ve thought? I suppose it’s the same for him looking at me and thinking, “This guy is the red Honda Civic?”

So I begin to spot this woman outside on her property, the one that used to be labeled in my mind as the ‘the farm with the winding driveway’, but now is ‘the farm with the old lady with the white hat.’ I see her walking, slowly, down the long gravel driveway (it looks to be a quarter mile long) toward the road, or sometimes heading back toward the house if I’m running late. There is a mailbox at the street, but it is early in the morning, too early for rural mail delivery. And I also begin to see an old man out there as well, and of course I make the logical leap that they are husband and wife. But oddly, they never are walking together: one is always a good twenty or twenty-five feet ahead of the other. So I wonder: why wouldn’t a husband and wife, who have toiled together their whole lives to reap the Earth’s sweet fruits from the soil, why wouldn’t they share their morning constitutional together, side-by-side? Are they estranged? After many sightings, I have a theory. One of them wants to give in to the inevitable and sell the land to a developer who will fill their fields with cul-de-sacs and ftwo-story Colonials while the two of them head south with their windfall to Myrtle Beach or St. Petersburg. The other can’t bear to let go and will never leave. They used to take their morning tour together, but this irresolvable argument has come between them and now they walk separately as if connected by a long unbending pole, keeping them joined forever but at a fixed distance apart. I wonder who is whom – which one wants to cash out and head south, and which one wants to stay and be buried in the family plot out back? I am tempted to stop someday and ask, but I never will. I’ve already been intrusive enough, clogging up their backcountry roads on my way to work. Besides, I know they’d look at me and say, “This guy is the red Honda Civic?”