Wednesday, April 26, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Yasser Seirawan

Title: Winning Chess Tactics
Author: Yasser Seirawan with Jeremy Silman
via Amazon
It was through playing chess that I first learned the difference between a strategy and a tactic.  A strategy is a broad plan of action designed to gain a long-term advantage: controlling the middle of the board, for instance.  A tactic is an action intended for short-term gain: forking the king and queen with a knight.  Naturally, the two ideas are closely related and, in fact, often employed in concert but the distinction is important.

Tactics are my greatest weakness as a chess player.  I am good at setting up strong positions (strategic play) but I am not good at seeing the tactical possibilities that will lead to victory.  Even more problematic, I tend to be vulnerable to tactics employed by my opponents.  If I'm ever going to progress as a player, this is the part of my game that needs shoring up.

The Winning Chess series is written by Yasser Seirawan, a Syrian-born U.S. chess champion.  His book on tactics covers all the tricks: forks, pins, skewers, deflections, etc.  He also profiles several of the great tacticians of chess history: Alekhine, Tal and Kasparov among others.  He includes full transcriptions of some of their most famous games, too.  This was my second time reading the book.  It's all fascinating but I think I'll need to refer back to it often for it to help my game.

If you'd care for a game, I'm ikaspiel at  My current rating is 1246.  I hope to improve that in time for my next chess post!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Clone Wars: Missing in Action

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Missing in Action"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 12
Original Air Date: January 4, 2013
via The Clone Wars Wiki
If there's one way to save a droid story (part three of four), it's by throwing in an interesting clone trooper story - counterbalance the series at its worst with the series at its best.  This week, D-Squad wanders into Pons Ora, a sketchy town on the desolate world of Abafar.  There, they encounter a dishwasher who goes by the name of Gregor.  Gregor is clearly a clone, though one with amnesia.  Colonel Meebur works to remind him of his past and win him over to their own cause.
via Wookieepedia
Gregor, as it turns out, had been in the Battle of Sarrish.  While in retreat, his transport crash landed on Abafar, his injuries inducing the amnesia.  This episode marks his only appearance in The Clone Wars.  Gregor is voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, as are all of the clones.

Next week: "Point of No Return."

Monday, April 24, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Eric Temple Bell

Title: The Magic of Numbers
Author: Eric Temple Bell
via Amazon
It took me a while to sort out a major in college.  I arrived fully intending to be an English major but then I hated my first lit course.  Then the activist in me thought either sociology or political science (coincidentally my parents' college majors) might fit but the intro classes didn't do much for me.  Eventually, I came around to mathematics.  All through school, math had always been by far my best subject - better than music, even.  I didn't especially enjoy it but it came easily, far more so than subjects like English and history which were considerably more fun.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I'd never gotten caught up in the history of math the way I had with music, for instance.  In kindergarten, I had a wonderful music teacher who introduced us to all of the great composers.  While I certainly enjoyed their work, I also saw them as characters in a captivating story.  I never got that with Pythagoras, Euclid or Galileo.  Math isn't really taught that way.  I enjoyed fiddling with numbers but never got caught up in the history behind them.  That is why I picked up this book, The Magic of Numbers by Eric Temple Bell.

So, that was 25 years ago.  I tried reading it that summer before sophomore year but didn't get too far.  The book has survived on my shelves through several moves and book purges.  Now, I've finally read it.

The book was interesting, though not everything I wanted it to be when I was pondering my future as a college sophomore.  Pythagoras is the star, though Plato has a strong supporting role.  While most of the book is devoted to ancient Greece, the historical path runs all the way to the 1930s.  The intertwining of mathematics and philosophy has been a vital thread for both disciplines so I suppose it shouldn't be surprising to see significant material devoted to Aristotle, Bacon and Kant in addition to Copernicus, Newton, Lobachevsky and Einstein.  There is some mention of the important work in the Arab world, though more would have been historically appropriate. 

Most of the numero-philosophy discussion was over my head though some of it was fun.  I learned about harmonic means for the first time.  You take your numbers, find their reciprocals, average their reciprocals, then reciprocate the average: 2 and 4; 1/2 + 1/4 is 3/4; half of that is 3/8; reciprocal is 8/3.  I love stuff like that.

My most meaningful connection was the discussion of the five regular polyhedra - also known as the Platonic solids - as discovered by the ancient Greeks.  These are the only convex, three-dimensional objects in Euclidean space that are comprised entirely of regular polygons: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron and icosohedron.  Those of you have devoted significant portions of your life to Dungeons & Dragons know them better as the 4-sided, 6-sided, 8-sided, 12-sided and 20-sided dice.  Those dice were an important part of my childhood and while I always thought they were neat, I never before realized they were the only shapes that were composed of regular polygons.
My own dice, which I've had for closer to 35 years
For the record, there are also four star polyhedra and they're pretty cool, too:
via Dan Elton
The book was worth reading for the D&D dice discovery alone.  The book was intended for non-mathematicians though occasionally, more numbers would have been nice.  Numerology - unfortunately, the driving force in the discipline for centuries - was never fully explained.  I realize it's all hooey but Bell was clearly too disgusted to provide meaningful details of what was so objectionable.

So, 25 years later, I'm still glad I eventually majored in music.  Math might have been more profitable but music has been more fun.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Squid Mixes: Greyhound

A greyhound or a salty dog?
My wife picked up a bottle of grapefruit juice and suggested it might go well with vodka or gin.  That opened a discussion.  I always thought that grapefruit juice with vodka was called a salty dog but my wife insisted it's a greyhound, a name I'd never heard.  As it turns out, while both contain these ingredients, the two are entirely different cocktails.  A salty dog is served in a cocktail glass, salted rim, with equal parts juice and vodka.  A greyhound is served in a collins glass: 2 oz. vodka over ice, topped off with juice.  It's essentially a screwdriver but with grapefruit juice rather than orange.

The greyhound was, in fact, what she wanted so that's what I made.  I got the recipe from American Bar by Charles Schumann.  Here's another question, though.  As I used ruby red grapefruit juice, does that change the name of the drink?  Color matters in mixing.  I found ruby red greyhound recipes online, though all seem to involve additional ingredients.  So, until I learn otherwise, I'll stick with the basic name.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Clone Wars: A Sunny Day in the Void

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "A Sunny Day in the Void"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 11
Original Air Date: December 7, 2012
via Wookieepedia
This week's episode is the second in a four-part story arc.  D-Squad, led by Colonel Meebur and consisting of five droids including R2-D2, crash land on the planet Afabar.  Determined to complete the mission begun last week, Artoo leads his fellow droids across the wasteland.  Meebur reluctantly tags along.  The most interesting part of the story is an argument between Meebur and droid WAC-47 weighing the value of a soldier's training and intuition against a robot's programming.
via Wookieepedia
WAC-47 is a DUM-series pit droid.  This arc is his only canon appearance.  He is voiced by Ben Diskin.

Next week: "Missing in Action."

Friday, April 14, 2017

Squid Eats: Poor Service

via Toronto Sun
I have a lot of sympathy for those who work in the food service industry.  While I never have done so myself, I have done other customer service work and I know how difficult it can be.  I'd like to believe we are generally easy-going restaurant patrons, too.  We are polite.  We don't make fussy orders.  We almost never send anything back unless there's something obviously wrong.  We tip generously.  For the most part, our kindness earns the like in return.  That's the way the world's supposed to work, right?

Every once in a while, though, you hit a restaurant on an off night.  I've chosen to believe that's what happened to us recently.  I've chosen to believe that a near-universally highly regarded establishment in our northwest corner of Vermont was having an off night when we made our first visit.  As such, I am also choosing not to name said establishment in my post.  They also did right by us at the end of the evening which certainly helped me in feeling forgiving.

There were warning signs early.  The hostess - also the co-owner, we later learned - seated us rather hurriedly.  Then it took a while for our waitress to even come by for a drink order, long enough for my wife to ask if we had a Plan B for dinner.  She got my beer order wrong.  She forgot to tell us the specials, causing some confusion when she finally took our food order.  Little things in themselves, but a pattern was set for the evening.  On the rare occasion when we'd see our waitress, she seemed preoccupied.  Tables near us, serviced by other waitresses, were turning over a lot more quickly.  The food itself wasn't bad and we thought about dessert but as my wife said, "I don't want to give them any more of our money."

Eventually we had to practically tackle another waitress just to get our check and she picked up on our unhappiness.  The hostess came over to make amends and we learned what had happened.  A cook had gotten ill and gone home.  Our waitress, the only member of the waitstaff qualified to help out in the kitchen, was pulling double duty.

It was, to a point, an understandable situation.  Even high-end restaurants get a wrench in the works from time to time.  But especially for the amount of money one puts down for such a meal, the staff should be better able to weather such a storm.  Knowing they were one down, tables could have been reassigned and tips shared.  The hostess herself should have made doubly-, triply-sure we were covered.  It didn't happen.

Once she realized our dissatisfaction, the hostess moved quickly to make it right.  She comped our meal and even gave us a $25 gift card to encourage our return.  It wasn't enough to save the evening but it was perhaps enough to keep us from writing the place off forever.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Clone Wars: Secret Weapons

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Secret Weapons"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 10
Original Air Date: November 30, 2012
via Wookieepedia
R2-D2 and three of his astromech droid colleagues have been enlisted for an important mission, capturing a Separatist decoding module from a battleship.  WAC-47, a pit droid, is also part of the team, a good thing for the audience as none of the astromechs are, by human standards, technically verbal.  Their leader is the diminutive Colonel Meebur Gascon.

As a rule, I don't care for the droid episodes and this one is as hokey as all of the others. WAC-47 is especially annoying.  However, I will grant that this story provides a credible narrative premise for focusing on the robots.  The droids are sent on the mission because no one would expect mere service machines to be up to anything suspicious.  They could slip in and out of the enemy ship without anyone paying any attention to them whatsoever.  Indeed, the plan works perfectly.  As an added, geeky bonus, there's a James Bondish scene in which all of the droids are fitted with new gizmos for the job.

Alas, this is not just a droid episode.  It's a four-part droid story arc.  Groan...
via Clone Wars Wiki
Meebur Gascon is a Zilkin.  He is listed on Wookieepedia as 33 cm, small enough to fit into the head of an astromech droid.  His design came from Phantom Menace concept art originally intended for Jar Jar Binks.  This arc marks his only canon appearance.  Gascon is voiced by Stephen Stanton.

Next week: "A Sunny Day in the Void."