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T Minus 24 Hours

February 1, 2010

So, having decided on a new approach to the book, there’s nothing holding me back other than procrastination.  Which means I have to set a date on which to begin the “reboot” of the book, and that date has to be soon.  So tomorrow’s the big day.  I’m sleeping 5-6 hours a night these days, which seems to be plenty when I’m eating right, exercising, taking care of myself, so I’m up by 3:30 a.m. at the latest (yeah I go to bed early – when it’s Dark O’Clock by 6, it’s hard not to, especially since I can’t see for shit at night, more due to other drivers’ headlights than the dark itself). 

I don’t have to worry about “feelings” being churned up with my new angle, I’m not planning any travel until a short vacation trip in March to NYC, so it’s a good time to initiate a new routine.  Bitter disappointments aside (like what happened Thursday when my browser froze with exactly 30 seconds to go before the last available Jeopardy online test, which required a bottle of wine to medicate), I should be good to go.  I’ll stay true to my word about documenting the entire development of the book by bundling up the “old chapters” into a document that’ll remain up on the site, for anyone who wants to explore that dead end.

In the meantime, it’s time to flush out my cache and round up some links I’ve been holding on to.  Following up on the Kasparov article in which he discusses the way that chess AI has increased the level of human play by providing young players with a phenomenal database from which to learn, here’s an article in Wired in which it turns out the same assistance may be provided to athletes who play games such as Madden NFL:

Today’s football players have an edge that no athletes before them have possessed: They’ve played more football than any cohort in history. Even with the rise of year-round training, full-contact practice time on the field hasn’t increased – in fact, it has actually gone down, as coaches have tried to limit the physical punishment that the game exacts. But videogames, especially the ubiquitous Madden NFL, now allow athletes of all ages to extend their training beyond their bodies.

If you’re, say, an All-American quarterback at a top college program, odds are that you’ve been training on a very sophisticated, off-the-shelf simulator – a cross between a football tutorial and a real-time documentary, drizzled with addictive Skinnerian action-reward mechanics – for as long as you can remember. The many hundreds – even thousands – of hours that athletes put into videogame football give them more game experience (and, as Stokley demonstrated, sometimes more game awareness) than Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, or Joe Montana were able to log in previous eras. And there’s the possibility, too, that all this electronic play is changing the structure of their brains, at least in some ways, for the better.

AI as human enhancement rather than human replacement; that’s the wave of the future.

Jonah Lehrer notes on his blog that Kasparov’s student Magnus Carlsen, the youngest player ever to reach a number one ranking, has played tons of chess against a computer, and yet in the end makes decisions because “sometimes a move just feels right.” Lehrer’s take on this:

At first glance, there is something surprising about a teenager weaned on chess software extolling the wonders of intuition. It’s as if we expect Carlsen to act like his software, to be as explicit in his strategic decisions as Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer. But that misses the real purpose of practice and the real genius of the human brain. When we practice properly – and this means engaging in deliberate practice – we aren’t just accumulating factual knowledge. Instead, we’re embedding our experience into our unconscious, so that even insanely complicated calculations – and Carlsen can regularly plan twenty chess moves in advance – become mostly automatic.

This is a truism of expertise. Although we tend to think of experts as being weighted down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast set of facts, experts are actually profoundly intuitive. When experts evaluate a situation, they don’t systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information. Carlsen, for instance, doesn’t compute the probabilities of winning if he moves his rook to the left rather than the right. Instead, experts naturally depend on the emotions generated by their experience. Their prediction errors – all those mistakes they made in the past – have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows them to tap into a set of accurate feelings they can’t begin to explain. Neils Bohr said it best: an expert is "a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field." From the perspective of the brain, Bohr was absolutely right.

Alex is coming ever closer to fruition, at least in his practical aspects, as another Wired article notes about a PDA called “Siri”:

Siri is a free service that aims to transform your cellphone into “your personal assistant.” Ask it to find, say, a nearby theater showing Avatar on an iMax screen within a few blocks of a romantic Italian restaurant that has a table open at 7pm, and it will help you buy tickets and book a reservation. The service interprets your language and then draws on commercial taxonomies, databases of film schedules and restaurant listings, mapping services, and so on to assemble a dynamic mashup that responds to your query. Tell it, “I’m drunk, take me home,” Gruber said, and Siri will call a cab. And it’s designed to learn about your world, so when you say, “find a bar near the office,” it knows to search near your workplace…

No doubt, the new Rosie is in her infancy. For one thing, natural-language processing is a work in progress; Gruber was amused when Siri once rendered “Tell my wife I’ll be late” as “Tell my wife ovulate.”

Finally, on the subject of writing, a valuable lesson to me in the hazards of leaving emotion out of your work entirely.  John Scalzi’s blog has the story of how Josh Sundquist, who lost a leg to cancer as a child, wrote and then rewrote his memoir.  He submitted the original manuscript to an unnamed author who said to him, “My advice to you is to throw away this draft of the manuscript and start over from scratch.”

You to need to tell us what it was really like for you,” he wrote. “You’re hiding behind motivation.”

He was right. It was a habit I’d developed on stage as a fledgling speaker, coupling motivational clichés with an I’m-so-perfect-and-heroic version of my story. But it wouldn’t be until I returned to writing in my mid-twenties that I was ready to take his advice.

Back in the first draft, for example, I wrote about my amputation like I was some kind of inspirational wunderkind, perfectly resolute in my bravery even at the tender age of nine. Why I wrote this way, I’m not sure. I guess it was a role I thought I was supposed to play as a motivational speaker. But when I wrote the new draft, I was ready to share the real story, the story of how for weeks leading up to the amputation I would sit in bed and hold my leg and cry myself to sleep. I wasn’t brave. I wasn’t inspirational. I was just a boy facing the fact he’d never play soccer again.

A reminder to me not to leave feelings out – the trick is to manage them, not let them overwhelm me to the point where I can’t write, but nobody wants to read a novel that reads like a magazine article, a soulless forecast of the future like the dullest of the old SF, in which the ability to forecast a believable future, never mind the cardboard characters, was enough to get you published and read.

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