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Some More Rambling About “The Sopranos”

Some More Rambling About “The Sopranos”

We’re still watching “The Sopranos,” and are now into Season 3. This is the season that features the iconic “Pine Barrens” episode. It’s also the last pre-9/11 season, still containing a brief shot of the Twin Towers (in a sideview mirror of Tony’s SUV) during the opening credits. This shot was removed from the credits in the later seasons.

As we watch the episodes, it makes me feel nostalgic for old times. I can’t help but identify with these wise guys and their partying lifestyle. Their camaraderie and their gusto for life reminds me of my circles of friends back in the day, back when I was young and carefree. And a fool, no doubt, though not as dumb as some of the young men on this show who come to terrible ends. I knew the limits.

We didn’t live anything like the characters on The Sopranos, except maybe in our imaginations. I mean, we skirted the law in some ways, and we were rough around the edges. We surely used the same crass language. But some really awful stuff happens on this show; I get that this gangster lifestyle of extortion and murder is not to be celebrated. Yet somehow watching these guys evokes nostalgia for the smoke-filled dens of my wayward youth.

Maybe it’s just how well this show represents its social era, with its looser mores, and inevitably takes me back to life then, when I was younger and had different priorities. When I was a bachelor man and spent a lot of time hanging with the gang. Before mid-life hit and everyone moved on. The old groups have scattered; some of us got married and had kids and became responsible. Some of us moved to far away places to pursue new dreams. Some of us died. I sure miss them.

These episodes that we’re now watching were originally broadcast twenty years ago. Twenty freakin’ years ago! Where does the time go? All too quickly it passes by.

Steve Barrera vs. the A.I.

Steve Barrera vs. the A.I.

It hasn’t come up much on my blog, but I am actually really into board gaming. It’s odd that I don’t blog about it; maybe I don’t want to mix business and pleasure, I don’t know. But anyway, I have been blogging about these coronavirus times, and how life has changed so much this past year. And one way that it’s changed from my board gaming hobby perspective is that I have fewer opportunities to sit down for tabletop gaming sessions. I haven’t been to a gaming convention since January!

So one way to compensate for that lack of real life gaming is to play digital versions of favorite games. I don’t mean video games; I mean computer programs that simulate board games, and there are actually quite a few good ones. You can play online against other people, or you can play a “local” game – meaning no network required – against the computer itself. You play against simulated “A.I. player” opponents.

Which takes me to the topic of this post, which is the quality of the A.I. opponents. What I have found is that for some games they are very good, and for others – not so much. Some games I win against the A.I.s every time, and others it’s more 50/50. Now there are two possible explanations for this: 1) I am better at some games than at others or 2) the A.I.s are programmed better for some games than for others.

I stole this graphic from a book about
A.I. game programming.

It seems obvious that it’s a bit of both. But then you have to wonder, in the case of both explanations: why?

Is there something about my cognitive psychology that makes some game designs or mechanics easier for me to figure out than others? It honestly seems that way to me. I generally do well at board games, but there are some that I struggle with compared to others. There are some that I have never won playing against other humans, even though I have won against those same people at other games. I’m sure that other board gamers understand the experience. So there must be some correlation between how my intellect works and what sorts of games I am good at.

As for the programmed A.I.s, well, there are two possibilities to consider. It could be that some games are inherently easier to program A.I. players for than others, and it could be that some programmers or programming teams made a better effort at the A.I. programming than others. Let’s face it, these projects have limited timelines and bugdgets, and if the programmers only made the A.I. so good before release day, that’s just the level of A.I. that everyone will have to live with.

A screenshot from Terraforming Mars, one of my favorite digital board games and one where I always beat the A.I.s.

If some games are easier to program A.I.s for than others, then the next question is – what are the parameters that make for a game that can be mastered by A.I.? Probably the most famous example of such a game is Chess: it’s common knowledge that a computer program beat a world Chess champion, back in 1997. And it just keeps getting worse for the humans. Another game that humans might as well retire from is Go.

Now, Chess and Go are both games that are simple in their rules, but strategically very deep. They also have no random elements, meaning all possible future paths of a game are determined, given the current game state. Computers have an innate advantage over humans in these sorts of games in that they have much more capacity for information storage, which allows for plotting ahead many moves – pretty much the key to winning these kinds of games.

The board games that I prefer have more complicated rules, generally because they are simulating some real life scenario like exploration and development, or world-building. They are what we call heavily thematic games. And they have some randomization to them – typically a deck of cards that are shuffled and dealt out, or drafted, to the players. This means the outcome isn’t deterministic, and there is some luck involved. You can have an advantage by chance, not just because of superior information processing ability.

But you would think that, even then, the A.I.’s would reign supreme. They just have to include the stochastic factor of the game in their algorithms. The only advantage humans should have might come from intuition – the old ‘gut feeling’ that might be able to predict, or even influence, random outcomes. This is a tantalizing possibility based on the idea of primacy of consciousness, but I won’t get into it any further in this post.

Now another thing about Chess and Go is that they are both games where you can be ranked compared to other players. If you are lower ranked than another player, you pretty much have no chance to beat them at the game. Improving your rank requires much practice. This is because of how strategically deep these games are.

The board games I like really aren’t as deep, despite being more complex in terms of total rules. I wonder if it would ever make sense to have rankings for such games; the closest thing to that would be win rates and high scores as tracked on the online gaming platforms. But those statistics alone don’t constitute a ranking in the Chess sense; they aren’t as strong a predictor of who would win a game, in part because of the random element.

Probably ranking systems for all these different board games won’t emerge, because there just isn’t as broad an interest in them as there is in classics like Chess and Go. And probably no A.I. will ever be programmed that plays them perfectly, to prove once and for all how inferior humans are. No one will bother to take the time, given how many of these board games there are and how niche they are.

Maybe when the Singularity comes, the A.I. net will finally get around to mastering every known board game, and put us humans in our place. Hopefully it will let us play against “dumbed down” A.I.s as we while away our pointless lives in our soylent green pods. It will help to pass the time.

Watching You, Watching Me

Watching You, Watching Me

Outside she goes, to explore the planet of the Covidiots. They volunteered her because she’s such a good observer.

***

I worry when she’s gone. The world is plague-ridden and full of hostiles. But at least I have a tracking device with which I can monitor her progress from headquarters.

***

The device in question is our Android smartphones running Trusted Contacts, which lets us always see one another in Google Maps.

***

I had long resisted getting any kind of tracking software for my phone, counting on loved ones to report their location if ever needed. But then my partner got a job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. Knowing that she was going out and knocking repeatedly on strangers’ doors, in a country that has suffered an implosion of trust (and never much trusted in government, ever), changed the equation. Suddenly getting tracking software became an imperative.

First we tried Waze, but found the interface difficult. Not to mention I couldn’t see her on the map even though I connected to my Facebook contacts. The app isn’t really made specifically for tracking individuals. But then her son suggested Google’s Trusted Contacts, which integrates easily with our Google accounts, as well as Google software like Maps. It requires mutual agreement between two account holders, and then one can see the location of the other in real time.

Now I can see her as she moves about the area. Since her profile picture on Google Accounts is a sunflower, I see her as a flower floating about town. It’s reassuring to watch her moving in the expected pattern, because I can take that to mean everything is fine.

To her, I would just be a floating head at home base, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker, not an essential worker like she is. From where I sit, life is safe and comfortable. She is out braving the dangers of post-apocalyptic America, but at least I can keep an eye on her.

***

So I wait into the evening, watching her on my screen. And have dinner waiting for her return, to her one safe haven in this ravaged land.

The Bear Comes Home

The Bear Comes Home

The culmination of years of events has finally come to pass – I am now officially moved in with my BFF in Morgantown, PA. Depending on how much you have followed my blog and whether or not you know me IRL, you may have been watching the story unfold.

First, she came to visit me from Pennsylvania while I was living in North Carolina. Then we started visiting each other frequently and travelling together, and a new phase of our lives began. I went up and met her kids for the first time; they were boys age 10 and 13. She came down and met my tabletop gaming buddies. She even brought the kids with her sometimes, and they all joined me at gaming conventions.

Sometimes I would go up to see her, and sometimes she would come down to see me. And we went on a lot of fun trips together. She took me on my first trip to New York City, and to my first Broadway show. We’ve seen so many shows since then; I’ve basically become her theater buddy. And since she’s a director, I got to see a lot of her shows. I became her number one fan.

We travelled to Chicago every summer for G-Fest along with the boys’ Dad, who is also my friend. This was a tradition with them since the boys were even younger, and my joining them was part of the process of being enfolded into their family. But I wasn’t completely enfolded yet, since I was still living in North Carolina. The distance between us was kind of fun at first, since it was exciting to see each other again after an absence of a couple of weeks. But the travelling got tedious. It was a seven hour drive between our houses. Flying was an option, too, since we could get cheap tickets on Frontier Airlines, but even that has its inconveniences.

Then, a few years ago, some Water Spirits came and trashed my house, teaching me a lesson about the relative importance of material things, but also helping me to realize what a spoiled bear I am. Some months later my job in North Carolina came to an end. It was starting to look like the Universe was sending me a message. I went up into the mountains to watch a solar eclipse and ponder my next course in life.

I started looking for work in Pennsylvania, so that I could move closer to my BFF and her family. I enjoyed my last months in North Carolina boardgaming with my buddies and performing with my choir. Then I landed a position in Wilmington, DE and in a whirlwind five weeks got an apartment in West Chester, PA and moved on up. My recently renovated house quickly sold, and I’m pretty sure the buyer re-did all the work that the insurance company paid for.

The apartment was expensive and the commute to Wilmington was a pain. It made sense for me to eventually move in with her family, though I would have to find a new job first that would put me closer to her house. I have to admit I was dragging my feet. I have a lot of stuff and I like to control my personal space. It would be a big change for me to move in with someone for good, after more than a decade of living alone.

I did get a new job, which took care of the commuting problem. And then along came a little thing called the novel coronavirus. Suddenly I was working from home, and it only made sense for me to be doing this from my BFF’s house. I brought my essential things over and hunkered down with her. The apartment languished, unused.

As we got used to the routine of living together and sharing her house, it was obvious that I should just complete the move. There was a little wrangling over how we would use the space and where my stuff would end up. I mostly fought to have a place to shelve all my books and boardgames – that carefully curated collection I’ve built up over my many years. Figuring out how to share space is just part of the hard work of building a lasting relationship.

The big move happened last week, and all that’s left now is to clean up the apartment and collect a few final possessions. The lease expires soon. As for my new commute – well, I’m not sure when that will start up. Pennsylvania is loosening coronavirus restrictions, but I haven’t heard anything about going back to the office. So I’ll be here in Morgantown for the foreseeable future.

It’s been a long trip to get to this stage of my life. Along the way I’ve done a lot with my BFF, and our relationship has bloomed. I’ve joined her family and I’ve watched her boys grow up – her eldest is in college now, and has a car, a job, and a girlfriend! And it’s good that I’m living with her now, considering that she needs support at a time when her industry – theater – is so troubled.

It’s also good that we got so much travelling done during the past six years, considering that we’re likely to be homebound for a long while to come. I’m just glad that home is here now, with my girl.

Books and games waiting to be unpacked in the office.
Just Call Me A Zoomer

Just Call Me A Zoomer

It’s been six weeks in lockdown. Except for cashiers at the grocery store and a few curbside pickups of take out food, I haven’t interacted face-to-face in real life with anyone other than family. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t socialized. Like many of us shuttered in at home, I have videoconferenced – both for business and pleasure – using the software that has suddenly taken over our lives: Zoom.

So far I’ve attended a couple of hangouts with old friends, one of which was a surprise birthday party. I’ve been to happy hours with my work colleagues – and yes, we are welcome to have a drink. It’s nice to see the faces of my coworkers after a week of working online from home. I’ve also particicpated in a couple of script-readings for the eldest son’s script analysis class (put together by his attentive mother), including one where we were Zoombombed by professional actors.

Ok, we weren’t really Zoombombed, because the participants were invited. Ok, at work we actually use different software. I just mean to stick a label on this phenomenon where our socializing has abruptly moved into the digital space, as the Internet proceeds to the next phase of its complete takeover of our lives. We’re all Zoomers now.

It’s been fun figuring out the finer points of Zoom. Gallery view is best for a general conversation, but active speaker is good for the script reading. If you have a lot of participants, you can scroll through them to catch late arrivals, and make sure they get welcomed. And don’t forget about the chat option!

I do find that an online video hangout satisfies the need for social interaction. It feels like a change of scenery, and it alleviates the cabin fever. Good thing, because we don’t want this Sim’s mood to drop too low. Now if I could just get my virtual background to work…

Everything changed so fast

Everything changed so fast

Time moves fast in a Crisis.

I remember back when 2019 was coming to an end, and everyone on social media was posting retrospectives of the 2010s. There was this exciting sense of being there for the end of an era. I even participated by Tweeting a list of my favorite streaming shows, since I saw the rise of streaming on-demand television as the decade’s big story in the media and entertainment space.

When 2020 began, I had plans already lined up to hit the many travel destinations I like to visit periodically. I don’t know why, but I felt this compulsion to do it all as soon as I could. It was like I wanted to start the new decade right.

I went down to North Carolina, where I used to live, and attended a gaming convention with my BFF. That was in January. In February, we went to Washington, D.C. and visited my mother and sister. We also went to New York and saw two shows, as well her best friend from high school days. By then, the novel coronavirus was in the headlines.

At the very end of the month, I went down to Virginia to play Magic: The Gathering with old friends that I have been playing with since the 1990s. It was a fun get together after a year apart. We were making jokes about the coronavirus.

As March began, I looked forward to the high school theater season starting up, since my BFF and I attend performances as part of the Philadelphia Independence Awards. By then, the severity of the novel coronavirus contagion was becoming apparent. There was talk of shutdowns. The company where I work had a WFH day as a drill.

We ended up seeing one Independence Award show, and it was a dress rehearsal because the actual performances were cancelled. The last large gathering we attended was a funeral. We thought about maybe not going, but we wanted to pay our respects to a friend who had died tragically at too young an age. The funeral was attended by hundreds of people.

Since then we’ve been in lockdown, only leaving the house for grocery runs, or to go on walks in the neighborhood. Everyone at my office is working from home. I know that I am very lucky to have that opportunity, because many others are out of work and with no prospects.

All that travel and activity in the recent past seems like it might have been too risky. Especially the trip to New York. We actually came down with colds when we got back from there. Did we have it? I don’t think so, but we can’t be sure.

What now? The future looks ominous. I had all these ideas for blog posts lined up, but now they don’t seem relevant. Everything changed so fast. I’m glad I got all that travelling in at the start of the year, since it looks like that might be the last of it for the year. Personal, private life will be slower for awhile, even as events in the outside world move faster and faster.

Exactly what you’d expect in a Crisis Era.

A common practice

A common practice

I’ve finished another book, a relatively quick read, taking me to 2 out of 20 books completed in my 2020 reading challenge. I just might get it done!

The book was Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson, a brief treatise on innovation. I left a short review on Goodreads. but wanted to blog about something interesting I learned during my read.

A commonplace book from the mid 17th century

As part of the history of genius inventors, and of how information is organized and shared among them, Johnson covers the history of the commonplace book. This was a way for private individuals to compile knowledge, particularly popular in the early modern period. It was basically a loosely organized collection of notes. Typically it would be one volume, but it might take a lifetime to fill it, becoming a kind of jumbled encyclopedia with a personal touch.

There were even methods devised for the best way to organize the information, so that it could be found easily, but wasn’t too restrictively compartmentalized. The idea was that a freer arrangement could help reveal connections between different subject matters, allowing new concepts to emerge.

I realized that I have actually been following this practice my whole life. I’ve just been keeping smaller notebooks, to the point that I have piles of them now. Inside there are notes from reading books, as well as ideas for stories and games and world settings, all jumbled together. Sometimes I go back through them to revisit old ideas and ruminate more on them.

Some of my “commonplace” notebooks.

So that was a cool thing to get out of this read, the knowledge that I have been following a time-honored practice shared by scholarly types of centuries past. In fact, nowadays, most of us probably do, if only in the form of bookmarked web pages! So much to know about the world, and yet so much that remains undiscovered.

Inside one of my notebooks.
So many books, so little time

So many books, so little time

I’m way behind on my reading challenge so what do I do? I pick up a new book to read, of course. Actually, there is some logic to this decision – I tend to read ponderous works of nonfiction which means it takes a long time to get through a work. So I am adding a short piece of fiction to my list, which should increase my odds of finishing a book soon.

The fictional work is the novel Freedom Road, by Howard Fast. I didn’t know this before, but he is the same author who wrote the novel Spartacus, on which the film was based. And Freedom Road was also made into a TV mini-series, starring Muhammad Ali. So I’m going to look for that on streaming video once I’m done with the book.

I have small paperback edition I can carry with me at work in this odd little bag I bought, to read during my lunch breaks. Now that’s progress!

My 2020 Reading Challenge

My 2020 Reading Challenge

I have read a lot of books. I have been especially interested in reading history, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is how much there is that I don’t know. Of course, this drives me to read more, so now I have a fairly long reading list of books that I just haven’t gotten to quite yet.

This is not an uncommon thing; there is even a term for collecting unread books – tsundoku. A collection of unread books is called an antilibrary, and supposedly it’s good to have one, to remind oneself of the limits of one’s knowledge. My antilibrary, honestly, is actually not that large. But it’s large enough, possibly, to last me the rest of my life.

Between work, family, and other hobbies, I have not found much time to read lately. So, for 2020, I have decided to read more, and to track what I read on the social website Goodreads. My goal is simple – 20 books completed in 2020. And I plan to post reviews, some of which I may share on this blog.

Let’s see…20 books a year. If I live for 30 more years, which is plausible, that means 600 more books to read before I die. That’s it!?? There’s more than that many books in one aisle at the Barnes & Noble!

When will I have time enough? It almost makes me wish for the fate of Burgess Meredith’s character in the famous Twilight Zone episode. But of course, we know how that turns out. And even if I found time to read 6000 books, I would only scratch the surface of all that humanity has recorded.

Ah well. It’s still a joy to read a good book, despite the limitations of our mere mortal lives. I end with a quote from a great poet.

Knowledge is precious to us, because we shall never have time to
complete it.
All is done and finished in the eternal Heaven.

Rabindranath Tagore
A small sample of my library. There’s even more on my Kindle.
10 Indispensable Albums

10 Indispensable Albums

So I accepted this challenge on Facebook where you post ten indispensable albums, one a day. Here are the albums I chose, along with the text I posted on FB (with some edits). I consolidated them into one list for the blog format, also figuring I should save the information somewhere that doesn’t belong to the android overlord of social media.

So without further ado, here are my top ten indispensable albums.

1) Jesus Christ Superstar

My first experiences with music were listening to my parents’ record collection. They had a lot of old albums that I remember, but the one that I remember most fondly is the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. They had the double LP set, with Sides 1 and 4 on one record and sides 2 and 3 on the other, so you could play them on a turntable with a record changer. My sister and I knew all the lyrics and would sing along together. This was actually a concept album before it became a Broadway musical, and as a musical is still produced to this day. It’s a brilliant work that has stood the test of time.

2)We’re An American Band

My generation grew up on rock and roll, and was greatly influenced by the music made by the generation that came before us – the Baby Boomers. We call that music “classic rock” now, and there are a ton of possible choices that might go on a Gen-Xer’s list of indispensable albums. I chose this one: We’re an American Band by Grand Funk (Railroad). It was also in my parents’ collection; they had one of the original gold foil copies, and I listened to it from an early age. I think this album captures perfectly the energy, attitude, and ambition of the young Boomer generation. I still have it on CD and pop it into my car stereo when I need to get my blood flowing.

3)Space Ritual

Here’s where my list of indispensable albums starts to veer away from the ordinary. When I was in high school some friends introduced me to the progressive rock/space rock/acid rock/whatever you want to call them rock band Hawkwind. I was instantly hooked on them. It’s not that they are that impressive musically; I just loved their weird style, their use of electronics, and the psychedelic and science fiction themes in their songs. And I’m telling you, until you’ve listened to Hawkwind’s epic live double album Space Ritual with your headphones on in a dark room in an altered state of mind, you have not truly experienced the mystery and majesty of this Universe.

4)Angel’s Egg

After being introduced to Hawkwind, I started getting into more alternative rock music, especially what was coming out of Europe. There’s a lot of interesting stuff from this time period (late 60s through 70s), but as for indispensable, I would have to pick the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy by Gong. This is a three album series that tells a strange mythological tale involving, among other things, magic tea, extraterrestrials and mystical prostitutes. A wonderful expression of the spirit of its age, it is playful, humorous, and – to me at least – has a profound spiritual message. The second album, Angel’s Egg, is the centerpiece and my favorite of the three.

5)Liege & Lief

So what makes an album indispensable, I think, is that you’ve listened to it many times, never tire of it, and feel that the world would be a lesser place without it. With that in mind, I have to include Liege & Lief, by Fairport Convention. This folk rock album features adaptations of traditional Celtic music and the enchanting singing voice of Sandy Denny. It is an all-time favorite of mine.

6)Extraterrestrial Live

When I was in high school my friend Joe Webb introduced me to my next indispensable album, Extraterrestrial Live by Blue Öyster Cult. It’s the second live album I’ve put on this list. I guess there can be something in a particular concert performance that makes it memorable and unrepeatable and better than a studio album, and this is one example. And of course it has the sci-fi/fantasy appeal that is a staple of heavy metal music. This double LP set has so many great numbers – Black Blade, Godzilla, Don’t Fear the Reaper, Joan Crawford, and my all-time favorite, Veteran of the Psychic Wars.

7)The Dreaming

There is a lot of music from high school days on my list of indispensable albums. It just goes to show how the impressions made in your formative years are the ones that stay with you. And here’s an astounding album that has made a lasting impression on me: The Dreaming by the inimitable Kate Bush. It’s so uniquely creative, and every song is a gem.

8)Joe’s Garage

This next indispensable album might not appeal to all tastes. Frankly (heh), it’s obnoxious and crass and has lyrics that would get an artist ratioed and hashtagged into oblivion in today’s social climate. But it fit into its time, which was a much more free-wheeling age.

I’m talking about the brilliant satirical rock opera Joe’s Garage, by Frank Zappa. I want to listen to it many more times before I die, and when I do die, you can play this song – which features the greatest guitar solo in history – at my funeral.

9)Beaucoup Fish

Suddenly I’m jumping ahead two decades to 1999. What about all the wondrous varieties of rock music of the 80s and 90s? Well, I can appreciate it and admire it, but none of it made it to…indispensable. Maybe if this was a top 20 list.

Plus, at some point later in life, I started getting heavily into electronic music, so that genre gets the last two of the ten albums.

Now, for electronic music, I actually have an indispensable band, and that band would be Underworld. They are just freaking amazing in their mixing skills and their composition and tempo – and what’s even better is they’re still active and producing as much as ever. Just follow them on Spotify for endless fresh tracks. They’ve had a lot of great stuff since the early 90s, but if I had to live with just one of their albums, then that album would be Beacuoup Fish.

10)Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost

My number 10 indispensable album is a probably obscure psychedelic trance masterpiece by electronic musical project Shpongle. It’s title is Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost, which is taken from William Blake and speaks to the ineffable mysteries of time and consciousness. It’s a work of genius, a dream journey in an electronic and world music soundscape that is utterly entrancing and profound. That’s my opinion, anyway; I think it’s one of the best albums in its genre. It is best listened to in its entirety as one continuous piece, which you can only approximate on YouTube.

11)Illinoise

That’s right, my top ten list goes to eleven.

Most of the albums were from the way back, when I was first developing my attachment to music. But I really do appreciate the more recent waves of artists as well, so here is one more. My eleventh and final indispensable album of this list is Illinoise, by the quirky, creative indie musician Sufjan Stevens. He is a multi-talented virtuoso, and while his albums can be hit or miss as he genre-hops, this is one that I never tire of hearing.