Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Disappearing Christmas

When I say Christmas can disappear, I'm not talking in the metaphorical sense, like your parents forgot to buy the Christmas presents. I mean that it is possible to experience a shorter version of it, or in the extreme case, no Christmas at all, due to travel around the Earth.

Let's look at an example. Flying from Los Angeles to Sydney takes about 15 hours. A flight leaves at 6pm Christmas Eve. In 10 hours it crosses the international date line. Just before the plane crossed the line, the time was 4am Christmas Day in Los Angeles (GMT -8), however for the passengers on the plane, the time was 12am (midnight) Christmas Day, since they were at GMT -12, just to the east of the international date line. When they crossed the line, time jumped ahead by 24 hours and it is now 12am December 26. Continuing to travel west, the plane will arrive in Sydney at 3am December 26 local time (GMT +10).

As you can see, the passengers on the plane have no experience for any time between midnight Christmas Day to midnight December 26.

Computer Games

When computers finally managed to beat us at chess, a game of ingenious human invention, we did not say they were now officially smarter than us. What we did was give computers another game - another puzzle to struggle with.

Go is a board game that is a magnitude more complex than chess. Whereas computers could memorize well studied opening books for chess, such a strategy is unmanageable for Go, since there are 361 possibilities... for the first move alone. Today's fastest computers with the best Go algorithms are still beaten by human players with a few months of experience - mere novices.

I believe that computers will one day manage to beat us at Go. But that is a discussion for another time. Now I want to talk about what game, what puzzle we will toss future-computers after that, to assuage ourselves that NO - they are still not smarter.

Settlers of Catan is a board game that is a magnitude more complex than Go. Whereas future-computers only had to think about winning or losing for Go, a binary 1/0 that they are familiar with, such a strategy simply doesn't work for Settlers, since bartering between players involves the hazy variables of human psychology that computers are ill-equipped to define. First there is the game. It is played on a board, which has over a million different possible configurations - and that's before any player has had a turn.

Then there is the meta-game. It involves players bartering with each other, forming alliances, and knowing when to stab their former partners in the back. To give you an example of how complex the thought process can be, we need to take a quick diversion.

From personal experience, I've seen a human player propose an ingenious trade, that would have given her an enormous advantage. To fully understand the significance however, you first need to understand more about the game. Victory in Settlers is achieved when a player has 10 victory points. There is a longest road development card, which is awarded to whichever player has the longest road* of at least 5 segments. It is worth 2 victory points.

You also need to understand more about this particular instance of the game. There were four players. The human player and another player (let's call him the opponent) were both just mere points away from victory. One of the two other players currently held the longest road card. However the opponent had two large sections of road, and if he was able to connect them, held a good chance of gaining the longest road card for himself.

The human player proposed that she refrain from building a road at a position where it would block the opponent from connecting his two road sections in return for him giving one of his resource cards on every turn to her for the rest of the game (like a tax). Right as the opponent was about to agree to this outrageous deal (remember he still might not have gotten the longest road card), the human player realized it was better to take away all possibility of the opponent gaining the longest road card, and she built the road anyway.

What will happen when future-computers beat us at Settlers of Catan? That's when we can say they are officially smarter than us - and be right.

* The length of a road is the longest possible segment, not counting branches.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Keyboard Cat Piano

What better way to test a new piano?

P.S. - I'm testing my new HD camera at the same time. :)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Running the Seattle Marathon

About three months ago, my friend David and I decided to run a marathon. Neither of us had run so much as a 10k before. Although it was a spontaneous decision, we took it seriously. I found a beginner's training schedule and we stuck with it as best we could. Rain or shine, night or day, oncall or not, we ran.

Marymoore park was our preferred training location. We would always start at the park, run out half our training distance, turn around, and try to make it back to the car. I had blisters on my feet, sore joints, and aching legs, but we would always made it back. We ran that trail so many times, that it became a part of me; I learned every twist and turn, and every mile marker. We could run it with our eyes closed, and sometimes we did, in the pitch black of night.

The night before the marathon, my roommate cooked. I went to sleep with a belly full of pasta. I was woken up at 4am by an unexpected text message. "What are ya doing man?" it read, but I was too bleary eyed and preoccupied with the marathon to reply. I needed to get going anyway. When we hit traffic driving to Seattle Center, David kept busy by measuring the rate of raindrops hitting the windsheild. "It's slowing down," he told me.

We managed to park and walk to the race start with a few minutes to spare. My Dad had come to support me and take pictures. It was the first time I had seen him in a month. He didn't say anything about my hair. The raining stopped just as we came to the start time.

The first half of the marathon flew by for me. Seeing everyone else running with me, and hearing the spectators cheer us on really got me going. At that moment, I felt like I could run 100 marathons. We started near the back, but we kept passing runners. As we ran across the I-90 bridge, we caught up with the 4 hour 45 minute pace runners. We managed to stick with them through the halfway point, giving us a split time of 2 hours 22 minutes.

At mile 15, things got a lot harder. Pain and fatigue caught up with me and I couldn't keep up my pace. I had to slow to a walk, and the aching that was masked by endorphins really kicked in. It was the worst I felt during the entire race, and perhaps my entire life. I wondered how I could ever finish the remaining 11 miles. Giving up was so tempting. But I remembered the guy at mile 9, holding up the sign that read "Pain is temporary, pride is forever". I remembered the smile of the little girl at mile 12, cheering and making more noise with her little cowbell than anyone else. I remembered the man with the loudspeaker at mile 7, saying how he was so proud of all us. I remembered all the reasons that I had to run. And I kept going.

Each mile after that was a struggle. The time between mile markers grew and felt like an eternity. At mile 20, my Dad called me, wondering how I was doing. At the time, my phone felt like a brick in my hand. He asked if I wanted him to come pick me up. "No", I said without hesitation. I had made up my mind. There was no way the day was going to end without me finishing what I had started.

Just short of mile 25 I heard David yell out in pain. I turned around and saw him holding his leg. It had cramped up. David told me to keep going without him, but I wouldn't have it. I wasn't about to abandon my friend. Not when we had gone so far, and were so close to the finish. I waited for David to recover. Then we limped/walked/ran/sprinted the final mile.

It took me 5 hours 42 minutes and 10 seconds to run my first marathon. So why did I do this? Why did I choose to put myself through such pain? For me, it's more than just being able to say I've run a marathon. It's about pushing the limits of my ability, experiencing new things, and most importantly, achieving something that I really want.