Why Humans (and Machines) Play Games

Seven Games book cover

Author Oliver Roeder in his book Seven Games uses those seven games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble, and bridge) to explore both the human history of games in general as well as how the approach to creating artificial intelligence (AI) has changed as it has been applied to games. At first those developing AI tried to develop machines that think like humans do. But that direction was unfruitful due to the depth of the games. There was simply too much to these games to simply use brute force calculations. New approaches were attempted and the results were a completely different way to think about games, a machine way.

The book also highlights the best players of each of these games and how AI has affected them and game play in general. The author does an excellent job of showing the human side of playing games and their importance to human development. And he takes what could be a very dry topic (AI) and makes it extremely relatable. For anyone interested in games in general or the development of AI, I highly recommend this book.

Maintaining What We Have

The Innovation Delusion book cover

I have often wondered why we have such a hierarchy of jobs. Why are service and maintenance jobs considered so “low”? After all, someone has to do that work for our civilization to keep working. It takes a different set of skills and experience but there is nothing inherently more valuable to our society about doctors and lawyers than mechanics, nurses, and janitorial staff. We need them all.

Recently I went looking for a book on this subject. I tried searching for the term “maintenance”. Unfortunately most of the results were about how to do it. I had to give up. But then I started reading a book on my list and discovered that unlike its title, it is really about maintenance and those who do it. That book is The Innovation Delusion by Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell.

The authors are fed up with what they call “innovation-speak”. This is newness for its own sake and comes with all the cliches. We definitely need real innovation and technology. And we are surrounded by it – indoor plumbing, public transportation, electricity, etc. But our focus these days is on digital innovation to the exclusion of the physical technology that requires ongoing maintenance, as everything does.

This book is a primer on how our almost exclusive focus on building new stuff has led to us neglecting the maintenance of our existing technology. You hear this in the cries about our decaying infrastructure and the deep backlog of deferred maintenance. Unfortunately, the answers given in public are more about enhancing what is there or building new. We need to address how we will maintain what we have.

The authors do a thorough job of outlining how we got in this state and how it is affecting all of us while often devastating local communities. But the book is short on solutions, and that is on purpose. This book is a call to arms to pay attention to the situation outlined, to start a conversation that will lead to action. It is well-written and inspiring. And if you have any interest, in addition to reading the book you can follow what the authors are doing at www.themaintainers.org.

Which eReader?

Kobo Sage ereader

I have had my current ereader (a Kobo Aura ONE) for a little over five years now. I love it, and use it every day. But it has a few scratches on the screen despite my use of a cover. I’ve started to wonder if there might be some improvements that would entice me to trade up for a newer model. So I did some research.

First, I have to say that I am not really interested in any form of Kindle. They use a proprietary format that is different from everyone else. I’m also happy to support a different company in this space. On top of that, Kobo ereaders include Overdrive integration allowing me to borrow and read ebooks from my local library right from my device. I read more books from the library than I buy, so this is a big deal for me. Newer models also include Pocket integration. As a result, I am really only considering Kobo ereaders.

I like the screen size on my current ereader (7.8 inches) and would hesitate to get anything smaller, though I would consider a 7-inch ereader. I am only looking for something to read on, so I wouldn’t need any kind of note-taking or stylus either, though I wouldn’t eliminate such a device if it met my other criteria. In the end, I’ve narrowed it down to three choices:

The Forma is a generation older than the other two. The Libra 2 is cheapest but also has the smallest screen. The Sage seems to have it all, but is most expensive. Users have also reported that the battery life isn’t great, though a recent software update may have addressed that.

In the end, I just can’t decide yet. And since my current ereader continues to work just fine, I am going to hold off for now. But if I had to decide right now, I’d probably go with the Sage. My current device has lasted me over five years. I expect this one to as well. For me it would be worth the investment for all the time I spend reading.

How I Read

Kobo Aura ONE eReader and Box

Most typically, I read books on my ereader. I have an older model, high resolution, eight inch Kobo Aura ONE ereader. I also wanted something slightly larger than a pocket ereader. The one I have is about the size of a trade paperback. I picked an e-ink reader because I did not want to be distracted by all the things that a tablet could do. I wanted something dedicated only to reading.

Another reason I chose Kobo over Kindle was Kobo has library integration. I can use my ereader to borrow and read library ebooks from the comfort of my own home. And I borrow and read a lot of books from the library.

Probably my most favorite feature of using an ereader is looking up word definitions. Every ereader that I am aware of includes a dictionary. So, as I am reading and I encounter a word I am unfamiliar with, I simply long press the word with my finger. Then a separate small window pops up with a definition of the word. I simply close the window and go back to my reading. This is much less of an interruption than putting my book down to find a dictionary and lookup the word. I am so used to it, I sometimes find myself reaching a finger to long press a word in a magazine article or print book.

I also carry many books with me. I read around one hundred books a year. When I finish one, I start the next one pretty much right away. So instead of waiting until I am done to find my next read, I have quite a few from my “to read” list already on my ereader ready to go. When I am done reading a book, I return it to the library and pick one of the others already on my ereader.

I also take my ereader with me. When I am waiting in line or for an appointment, I take it out and read a bit. That’s how I am able to read so much in a year. I love reading on my ereader.

I Prefer eBooks

An ereader device is pulled from a shelf of books as if it was shelved like a book

My sister recently recommended a book – A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornavat. As soon as she told me about it, I borrowed the ebook from my library so I could start reading it when I finished the novel I was then reading. But she also kindly sent me a print copy of the book. So as I went to read it, I had a decision to make – do I read it in print or on my ereader?

First I picked up the print edition. At 375 pages, it is substantial though not heavy. I flipped through it briefly. I then opened the book on my ereader and compared the first page in print to that of the ebook. The font was slightly different but largely felt the same. It was at this point that I found myself pulled rather emphatically to the ebook. And that’s where I am reading it. But I am also grateful to have the print edition.

I wondered why this might be. One of my favorite things about reading ebooks is how simple it is to look up word definitions. I definitely miss this when reading in print. I read more that one book at a time so having them easily portable on an ereader is also a big plus. But I still buy print editions of books that really resonate with me because I want to have a physical artifact that I can refer back to and readily see. For non-fiction, I also often transfer any highlights or notes to my physical book as they are easier to reference and share.

This brief experience helped me learn about myself. I prefer ebooks when I am actually reading. But for books that I love, I still need a print book on my shelf for reference, longevity, and to share. I still want and love them both.

Digital Reading and Writing

reMarkable Tablet

I love to read. And my preferred method of reading is on my ereader. Currently I have a Kobo Aura ONE that I use. That’s the hardware. I don’t use the default Kobo software, though. It is good enough, but I found an open source project that I like even better. I was able to load it on my Kobo alongside the existing software. It’s called KOReader. Using this ereader software, I can read on my phone or my ereader, anywhere, any time. And I can queue up any number of books that I want to read. That way I have many choices for my next book when I finish the one I am reading. I also always have my books with me, on my phone or ereader. I try to use my down time to read rather than play games or surf social media.

Today, while I was surfing social media, I saw an ad on Facebook for an eInk tablet called reMarkable. Normally, I don’t click on Facebook ads, mostly because they usually aren’t anything I care about. But this was for a product that I am familiar with. I passed on the first version of the reMarkable tablet. It seemed to have all the flaws of a version one. But this ad was for the second iteration. I decided to click through and learn more.

It bills itself as the tool for reading and marking up PDF files. It also allows users to take notes digitally with an included pen. They even say they have given it the feel of writing on paper. In fact, they call this “digital paper”. You can take notes in your own handwriting and convert them to typed text with OCR. And all this syncs with your phone and computer. What it does not do is distract you with email, games, or social media. It sounded amazing and like something I would use. It is a little on the expensive side, but I decided to pre-order it.

It also serves as an ereader, reading epub files, so I was thinking that it could become my everyday ereader. I have a couple of magazine subscriptions that come with a PDF version of the print edition. I plan on reading those on the reMarkable tablet, so I was thinking maybe I could move all of my reading to it. I did some research and others are saying that it is a subpar ereader. When I searched to see if KOReader was available for it, I found that it is!

Now I am very excited to receive this device and see how it measures up to my plans for it. It won’t ship until September, so I have a bit of a wait. In the meantime, I’ll continue to read on my Kobo and take notes in my notebooks. Happy reading!

Our Technological Adolescence

butterfly emerges from its cocoon

Note: I am writing as a citizen and resident of the United States of America but I believe that the ideas in this post apply equally to all of us as human beings as fellow citizens of the world.

We hear it every day. Us vs. them. Right vs. left. Republican vs. Democrat. Red vs. blue. Globalization vs. protectionism. Urban vs. rural. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. How did we get here? Why do we seem to be more divided than ever?

A lot has changed in the world over the last twenty to thirty years. Technology has become a bigger and more dominant part of our everyday lives, changing the way we relate to each other and to the world around us. How are we handling that change? I would answer, “Not well.”

As human beings, we have a tendency to hold on to what we know best and resist change when that change is scary or particularly unknown. As we do this as individuals we start to seek out others who think like us, for comfort. Our journalists have been taught to distill stories down to “just the facts”, largely erasing the broad spectrum of struggles that are going on by individuals that don’t fit their story. (See this wonderful article for the beginning of a solution to this problem in journalism.) While this is understandable, it only serves to divide us further.

Collectively, no matter what “side” we are on, we all seem to be deeply dissatisfied with where we are politically and culturally. We are asking ourselves and each other (or we should be), “How did we get here and what do we do?” Perhaps an analogy will give some perspective and provide some direction. By way of illustration, I will share something a little personal.

Growing up, I was the “good kid” in my family. I got good grades and did what I was told (mostly). I graduated second in my high school class and attended Georgetown University receiving a bachelor’s degree in Russian. By all outward definitions, I was a success. But inwardly, I was still an adolescent. I had made no decisions about who I was at a fundamental level. Worse, I didn’t even realize it. I had goals and ideals, but these were ones that I had received from my community. I wanted to help the world not blow itself up. That’s why I studied Russian at (what we didn’t know then was) the end of the Cold War. I wanted to have a wife and family, so I got married and had children. But I wasn’t connected to what it really meant to be a husband and father. I simply expected things to happen and just fall into place like they had throughout my life in school prior to my growing into adulthood. So while I had become an adult, I had never really grown up. Ultimately, this led to a decades long breakdown in my relationship with my wife, finally ending in divorce.

This completely exploded my view of myself and my place in the world and forced me back to deal with my incomplete adolescence in a way that I never had in my teen years and early twenties. I am convinced that if I had used my teen years to wrestle with the questions of adolescence, then much of the pain I experienced and caused others over the past three decades could have largely been avoided. And I fear that my country is in the midst of avoiding its own adolescence brought on by the drastic changes in technology that are affecting every aspect of our daily lives and that this is expressing itself in the division and separateness we feel from others. We are so afraid that our way of seeing and interacting in the world is going away that we are clinging to it and trying to beat the other side into accepting it. This will never work, because our way (whichever way that is) will no longer work due to these profound technological changes affecting our politics and economics. We are in the “teen” years of our global technological adolescence. We need to figure out what this great change means for our coming adult lives in this new world of technology, globalization, and relative abundance. Our current solutions aren’t designed with the new realities we are dealing with, so none of them is likely to work. We need new models and views of our world based on these new realities. But where will these new models come from. I suggest that the answers lies in returning first to the universal lessons of our childhood.

From 1968 to 2001, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught children about their world and how it works. The host, Fred Rogers, also spoke directly to his young viewers about difficult subjects like death and anger. And he ended each show by telling each viewer that he or she was special “just by being you…. And people can like you just for being you.”

In 1986, Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Here is an excerpt that succinctly describes the lesson expanded on throughout the book:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

These are the things I learned:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

These are not partisan ideals; they are human ideals and principles. All our politics and economies have grown out of these. And since the changes we are in the midst of experiencing seem to have blown up the models we have built since the industrial revolution, now is the time to think up new models and identities that will work in this new environment, together. Is it scary? It sure is. But we cannot avoid this “growing up”; we can only put it off. And putting it off will only make the transition more scary and difficult. We have to “embrace the suck” in the short term to get to the freedom and joy of adulthood on the other side. If we don’t, we will only extend the discomfort and pain of this transition period. What exactly lies on that other side? None of us really knows, but let’s explore it together with the same sense of wonder and joy that accompany the fear of growing up into the unknown.