Friday, February 17, 2017

Memories of Games -- From Downsizing and Memory to AI

Today (Feb. 17, 2017) it is painful in a way to give away games which meant so much to me in childhood. But I certainly do not expect to play them myself, nor would Luda, and it is time to do more downsizing – and to give them away to those who may derive more benefit from them, either my children or to Unique (a local thrift store cum charity).

As a parting ritual, I will try to record the associations I have with the specific games we will be giving away -- Stratego, Axis and Allies, Scrabble for Juniors, Chinese Checkers and Jumanji – as well as similar associated games (Gettysburg, checkers, chess, Candyland, Parchesi) and Risk. This does not count card games or computer games, which were also a big part of our life, let alone physical children’s games; maybe I will recall some memories of those here today as well, after doing a “memory dump” of these.

Jumanji and similar games

I start with this , even though it is the least important to me by far, just because it should be easy and quick.

I never played this game. When I was married to Lily and lived in College Park, we saw an old movie, Jumanji (and another of the same genre).. moderately amusing children’s sci fi movie, maybe healthy but I don’t remember many details. Something about children brought to another planet or such, facing mental challenges; that much I could relate to, but those aspects are not unique. I think the movie was more meaningful to Lily from HER childhood, and maybe the game even belonged to her before it migrated to me. I never played it, and probably she put it in a pile for me after the divorce because she had no interest in playing the game and thought Christopher might. But he never did. I remember experimenting a bit with chess with Chris, as I did more with Alex and Lissa when they were small, but not as much; Chris gravitated more to computer games and games like laser tag and paintball with friends. I have the impression he never was attracted much to normal board games, but he can record his own memories of such.

I have a fuzzy impression that there was also a box of Candyland in the pile somewhere, and that – like Parchesi and Monopoly and the Game of Life and Chutes and Ladders, and Dungeons – it was one of those games where little tokens move around mostly clockwise on a path around the edge of a board. (OK, life and chutes and ladders had a more complicated litle path, but it was the same idea.)

Maybe I started to play Candyland just once, back when I lived at Haws Lane with parents, sister and then John. Suzie liked it a lot, but I felt some disrespect for that ... “baby?”.. game. Just luck throwing dice. No real skill, no real use of intelligence.  So maybe I played or looked just enough to feel convinced it was not interesting, just kid’s stuff. Maybe I even saw it once in the house of my friend, Ben Roberts, across the street... but never even opened it.

But of course, the game Monopoly was EVERYWHERE back in those days. It involved more skill and intelligence, deciding where to invest money in real estate around the board. I remember playing it with both my parents and maybe even someone else... issues in managing the physical play money and deciding on banking rules. I would guess I did play it with the Dales (Dicky and maybe Nancy too or maybe not)... but not Ben. (We lived at 205 Haws Lane; the Dales lived two doors up the hill, and Ben lived across the street in a house which was previously owned by Dales’ investor grandfather Josh Smith.)  I forget when we stopped playing it. It is possible we even played it before then, when we lived in Oreland. But as I got older, I played it less and less.

The Game of Life I remember a bit more distinctly. I remember... when it was a new game for Christmas at the Dales, a source of great excitement for them. For many years, Dicky was my closest friend, and it was really quite possible that I would have married Nancy. (Long, long story ... and maybe even an alternate time track which actually happened...). I played the game only with them, and only in their house, and it was designed to raise interesting question about which tracks people would choose to follow in their lives... an interesting thing to
 remember in THIS context, in retrospect!! But otherwise, it was a bit like monopoly, with chance cards to pick up and decisions a bit LIKE investment decisions...

In later years, I did try to stay in touch with the Dales, but did not succeed. I suppose there was too much water over the dam. I thought about how the Dales would play “Auld Ang Syn” (sp?) on New Years Day, with great energy... but I suppose  only in specific context.

Parchesi we also had. I remember playing at Haws Lane, and at Ben’s House, only a little, but it wassomewhat amusing.
I also remember how it was a kind of national game in India, with a central role played by the strategem of two pieces cooperating to block the path of progress of opponents.   I later associated that with awful behavior of certain slow fat people blocking me on metro or some stores, and even with caste system people blocking progress in other areas. (Better I not name names, but zerosum thinking can be a serious problem in certain places.)

Chutes and ladders... did I get that for Christmas even, like maybe when I was 7 or 8? It was more fun than Candyland, with maybe a bit more choice of moves... but not something for later years... maybe I played it just once at Ben’s.

Axis and Allies

Now, THAT was a game I had more respect for!

Perhaps I was 12 when I first played (Christmas gift?) the Avalon Hill strategy Board game, Gettysburg. THAT was a big deal for me, much more than those old kids’ games. I remember being excited... and using my earnings from weeding our yards and neighbors’ yards (and shoveling snow and selling stuff) to buy more Avalon Hill games.

In truth, Gettysburg and Tactics II were the ones I remember enjoying and playing most. Axis and Allies ... never worked out as well as they did somehow.

I vividly remember playing Tactics II in the ground floor study/library in Ben’s house, and also his big attic bedroom. I remember playing when it was snowing and beautiful outside, and the game itself had winter and summer and movement cards reflecting what snow did to the movement of our armies. And I remember enjoying feeling clever about how I could use that to advantage in winning the game.

Gettysburg I remember more playing in my house... and also with a beautiful girl of 12 or 13 and her sister, when
we went to visit former classmates of my mother living... I think in Maryland, yet by Rock Creek Park or such. I remember wanting to see both them and that place again... but we never did, and I never really remembered where it was exactly.  I do remember how Bob Parks, the husband of ONE of my mother's former classmates at that gathering, gave me a book “The Economics of War (copyright 1942!), which looks very much like a leading book in its niche, still on my shelves but also likely to go away in this downsizing. We played it moderately often in my house, though maybe just once with my father involved (never my mother)... and I learned those hills moderately well. Only years later, with Luda, did I actually visit Gettysburg proper, and get deep into some details.

Scrabble for Juniors

In truth, I never played Scrabble for Juniors.  I don’t even remember how we got it. Probably from Lily, like Jumanji, but maybe we bought it jointly before in hopes Lissa or Alex would be interested.

However, Scrabble proper was even more popular than Monopoly... and I don’t remember how many times in how many places we played it. I respected it more than I respected Monopoly, so maybe it was a game I played MORE often with time at Haws Lane and later. I certainly remember enjoying it... but not with deep enough value to keep at it. I think I remember Lily’s mother being very deep into it, with an entire Scrabble dictionary and circles of friends she would play it with. (By contrast, my mother...played pinochle with circles of friends like her sisters.... and I played that a bit too.)

The Scrabble game I remember most vividly was in Westchester county in new York , visiting the house of a friend Jeff Keppel from when I was at Harvard Graduate School and Young Republicans. Jeff was very well connected, and we had many long discussions of the future of the world. To be honest, we both liked the idea that he would grow up to be President (following a path not unlike Nelson Rockefeller’s) and I would be his advisor... so he would learn how to get into power, and I would learn how to use it to greatest benefit of humanity. This was a lot more realistic than you might think... (and possibly better for humanity than my going to Princeton, marrying Nancy, majoring in math sci and engineering with some economics, migrating from Bells Labs to perhaps banking or AT&T)... but when Jeff died suddenly and strangely, I had to regroup quite a bit, as much as I did after 7/14/14.

In Jeff’s big house in the family compound... I really enjoyed that game of scrabble with him and his family connections, all people I enjoyed being with... as well as their visitors from the UK, and a visit related to them in a nearby swimming hole (former quarry). Jeff also gave me copy of a precious limited edition family book, describing their connections to Columbia, Harvard, Morgans, Mellons and Rockefellers. I wish I knew where it was; most likely thrown away by my ex-Marine stepfather who had no respect for other people’s books. But in any case... Jeff’s life was by far the greater loss, and utterly weird, to me even more than to his family.  Much more could be said about that... but certainly it showed me that game plans are useless which do not adequately account for games on higher levels of the global and galactic chessboard.  

I also remember having a sudden violent case of flu when visiting Jeff... that time?... and soaking in a bathtub there with intense fever... and fever dreams of one of his visitors riding a horse and such... and also feeling intense but sadly distant attraction for one of his blond cousins.  


Stratego is one of those classic games which I only played once or twice, both times at Ben’s house.
The box we have is very clean, not played so much. 

When Ben brought that game out in his attic room... we were both quite interested, maybe me more than him! Maybe it was one of his Christmas presents?

I remember we never quite got the rules exactly straight, a minor problem.

It was a fascinating idea to me – a strategy game as serious as checkers or chess, but with hidden information. Each player moves his pieces around the (checkerboard, like... a bit more interesting but similar...).. and the adversary sees where they are. But the adversary does not see WHAT they are. They vary in rank, as in chess, but the rank is given on a label on the side of the piece which only the player himself sees, not the adversary. (No, I never played kriegspiel, mainly because of how hard it would have been to set up.) Like poker? Of course, someone channeling the spirit of Von Neumann like me would immediately be intrigued by the implications. (I walked over to Ben’s house a lot when I was between 12 and 14 years old, playing these games... AFTER I had completed the junior level course in advanced calculus at U. Penn at age 12!! Maybe I had already read The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by then. Maybe even on train coming back from Penn at age 12... when I most remember reading Klein’s Metamathematics.)

But we never got the rules entirely straight, and it was more a strong loose end in my thinking, not a clear resolution...


It may be that the classic game Risk is the one that Ben and I played most often at his house... and one which I also received (Christmas?) at my house and played there. I really liked his version, an older version with wooden tokens for armies, more than the more modern version I received, and even more modern later versions with funny-looking plastic tokens. But whatever.

Of course, this was a two-or-more player game of world conquest. To be honest, I enjoyed always winning regardless of how many players. I was growing up in a conservative Republican world (not counting my mother,
in an environment where being female and being a Democrat were somewhat associated... not like now, exactly, but even more intensely)... and it is interesting how my winning strategy was not unlike the crusading strategy used by the US and Russia at the time in the Cold War, and before that in World War II.   

However... I pretty much gave up playing zerosum games when I was an undergraduate at Harvard (see chess and checkers below), and that stopped Risk too.

Still,  many years later, when I went for the M.Sc. in International Politics at the London School of Economics, I remember hanging out in the big cafeteria/tea room there where undergraduates were earnestly playing Risk.  I refused to play, but one of the friendly kids insisted that I “act as his Henry Kissinger,” giving him my thoughts. I said OK... and was basically startled to learn that the strategy which always won in the US would NOT win there, and that a radical readjustment was needed even to survive. (Not a pleasant discovery at first). In fact, people aligned with the Foreign Ministry of the British Empire learned a huge amount of practical stuff, which I was very grateful to learn about at LSE, ‘way beyond the simpler, prouder, more theoretical and more superficial stuff that even the best people at Harvard had been teaching. (And yes, that still tracks. I did get my PhD under Karl Deutsch after all, and have refined my theoretical perspectives both with better math and richer empirical reality.) The most central part of their worldview was the idea of balance of power. Even as Chinese intellectuals viewed the Emperor Qin and the greatest agent of peace and tranquillity  within China... British felt that a secure, intelligent balance of power was the most rational way to make the waste and ravages of war gradually go away, WHILE strengthening the freedom and growth of all the people.  Like Karl Deutsch, they understood that some kind of COMMUNITY effects would also be essential to growing peace and prosperity and spiritual/intellectual growth, but they felt that the path to GET THERE would have to be like the great PATH TO MAGNA CARTA, a great deal. A deal like Von Neumann’s concept of rising step-by step to a Pareto optimum.

Well, the kids playing Risk hadn’t taken all THOSE courses. They knew enough to arrange to respect each other’s spheres of influence, and not play crusading games which would end up simply killing anyone who tried that too hard. Would the game be won by those who respected spheres of influence, by quietly choosing the RIGHT spheres of influence? Or with those kids playing would the game simply go on forever, with no one winning? It seemed that way. But of course, earth is NOT a zerosum game in any case.

A key lesson even in Von Neumann’s book is that multiplayer games, even zerosum games, are not “closed” mathematically. The rational outcome depends on additional information beyond the formal statement of the game,
in many cases. Later, when I read Tom Schelling’s nice clear little book “The Strategy of Conflict,” I understood a whole lot more clearly how that really works. To really understand the art of the deal in mundane international relations... it is ever so important to  understand what Schelling and Raiffa have written about the underlying principles and applications... but then maybe a couple of Deutsch’s books (Nationalism and Nerves of Government maybe) and then more esoteric stuff  (as real life becomes ever more esoteric).

But we don’t have that one on our giveaway pile.

Chinese Checkers, Checkers and Chess (and Go)

Of these games (this section), Chinese Checkers is the only one on our actual “give away” pile.

As with Stratego... we have a really beautiful box, the most beautiful box on the pile, which we might have never played at all. But I played Chinese chess many times as a child.

In fact... I am pretty sure that I played Chinese checkers and actual checkers with friend like Patrick King (my best friend at age 5, across the street when I was at 223 Lyster Road... or Leicester Road in Oreland) and Bobby Mergner
(who lived one street back, who later moved to the other side of the railroad tracks and whom I visited by bicycle when I was7 or 8).

I liked Chinese checkers more because there was some openness or flair to the game. I recall moving colored marbles on almost rusty color-painted metal gameboards. When I was young, different people seemed to have different ideas about the rules of regular checkers, which was part of what put me off about the game. Later... Chinese checkers had enough of a nonzerosum option or flavor that I grew tired of it less.

But of course, regular chess was the Big One.

Back when I was 7, I had a hernia operation, and I ended up a week or two (which seemed forever) spending my days recovering on the big red couch in the living room at Oreland. (I don’t remember the children’s ward at Chestnut Hill hospital so clearly... but then... wait... I remember that I wanted to come home and ran a fever of 105 just by being angry at confinement, which caused some consternation and discussion before they agreed to let me go. But I also remember it wasn’t such a bad place, just confining, and that I enjoyed talking with some older kids in the same ward.)

At that time, my father (with encouragement no doubt from my mother) tried to entertain/help me by showing me how to play chess, and playing many games with me.   Not surprisingly, he beat me every time, and was utterly uncompromising about it.  (Now that I think back... he also had many vibes similar to those of one of our sons ... Both really straight shooters, different kinds but still...). As he played... I could see the patterns in my mind more and more... above all, the patterns in space needed for impregnable defense, accounting for all the things someone might do... and just a little of decisive but quiet shifts in the pattern when one is ready... in retrospect, I can see that the faculty of what Roscicrucians called “assumption” (like mirror neurons but more powerful) was a key part of what I learned and used in playing with him.

Is it possible that activating this assumption ability was a key reason why I took off in mathematics to an amazing degree when I was 8? I think that was part of it. Ability to really deeply tune in to a teacher, even a teacher with an opposing situation or viewpoint, can be an incredible advantage in learning from them. Maybe this needs to receive more attention and strategic analysis in a world which needs to upgrade all of its education systems.

But in all fairness, my mother would remind me of the mathematics awards SHE won in school, and there is an interplay of DNA, mathematics, music and assumption. That, and my deep “channeling” of Von Neumann (whom my mother idolized at some point, briefly but enough for me to notice).. also contributed.

Also contributing, to be honest, was probably the shot of male hormones which the family doctor, Doctor Bone,  
gave me “just in case” after the operation, to make sure I fully recovered. Later studies of progesterone (a female hormone) given to pregnant women showed a mix of effects, horrible for boy fetuses in an obvious way, but still raising IQs a whole lot. This makes a lot of sense, from what we now know of neuroscience. In my case... I remember the specific day when I was eight, when a beautiful Italian babysitter showed me her algebra book, and my mental energy was certainly aroused... Years later, I would ride my bike near her house and wonder what happened to her...

Anyway, I was pretty good at chess after that, maybe not as good as my father, but good enough to beat absolutely everyone I played with.

Maybe the last real chess game I played... was with my cousin Eddie Donohue (child of my Uncle John Donohue, whose IQ my father often said was much higher than his own). Eddie was some kind of chess champion in his school, and he was very confident in the one game he played with me. He even smiled a little about the inexorable strategy he had... and it really did feel as impregnable as my father’s (and as a computer I once saw playing at MIT).
Move by move, he was closer to crushing me. And of course, being a kid, I felt a rush of adrenalin and will...
I could not see his strategy, but I could marshall mental resources to destroy it, both on the board and in his planning which I could intuit...  so yes, I won, but I did not like the price I felt I had paid. I never played a serious game after that, and I resolved more and more never to play a serious game of chess again. I did not want to turn into some kind of mind killer.

Later, at Harvard... I strongly disbelieved in psychic or spiritual phenomena (whatever you call them) until I became a little open-minded towards the end of my senior year... but consciouous beliefs and subsymbolic feelings are different. As I heard of Bobby Fischer, a world class chess champion and mind killer (who also later repented and learned from his feelings)  ... I resolved more and more never to play chess, especially, or any other zerosum game.

Still... in the warm cozy common room of Adams House at Harvard, a brilliant friend of mine, Ngo Vinh Long, recently from Vietnam, pleaded with me please to play chess with him there. Ngo was a very interesting guy, and I gave in sort of: “OK, but only if I am not really playing and fully engaged. I have read a lot about computer chess playing machines, and about various evaluation systems algorithms they might use. If it entertains you, I will emulate one of those algorithms, to see how it turns out, with the understanding that I will NOT let myself become emotionally engaged at any level, and will not override the algorithm.” We did that just once, and no, the algorithm would not have beaten him.

Many many years later, life and both wives reminded me it would be good for child development if I could play chess with MY children... but still refrain from being a mind killer. So with four kids, I played chess, giving them a huge handicap (usually me starting with no queen), and quietly wishing them to win, without compromising in my own vision of the board; that was a reasonable mental discipline. Better or worse than what my own father did? Who knows?!!!

For the record, I did once play a game at Lawrenceville (senior year of prep school) of Chinese chess or checkers... incomplete... entertaining, but never further. And..

Go I actually did play a little in 1962, in the tea room of the mathematics department of Princeton, a scene depicted in “A Beautiful Mind,” where I was the young kid of 14. But no, I never played with Professor Fox there, who won the world championship. I never got deep into the game, and somehow never even enjoyed it much as a computer game years later. (No problems being a mind killer of a computer program, I thought... though I have sometimes wondered at uncanny pushback and encouragement Luda and I get sometimes from computers.) I wrote a few papers on how a computer could beat Go using methods similar to what Google recently used to beat the world champion in that area with even more powerful methods... but the people I funded refused to actually go with the crucial details... which may be just as well. I have learned a lot about entropy in academia... and how slower development of real computer intelligence may be making us safer...

One final funny story I cannot help mentioning.      

Back when I was in graduate school at Harvard, I had a lot of friends in the engineering school I was embedded in , mainly from hanging out over tea in Harkness common (the main cafeteria for us). At one time, I hung out with an Italian guy named Aglieta whose family owned a shipping company, and with a French guy... closer I think to courses I took from Raiffa.

One evening, the French guy suggested we go over to the MIT AI lab for fun. I had been there in the daytime before, for my independent study with Minsky, but this was my first time in the evening.

It really was hugely entertaining, in a Gothic sort of way.

As we entered the most dark building, I think the French guy told me the legend of how Minsky had gotten a huge contract in the 1960’s from NASA, promising a giant robot for use on Mars to as intelligent as human “20 years in the future” (1980s’). “Sorry, we can’t see that big robot, they locked it up, but there are stories of what it did to secretaries.”

As we entered the mostly unlit big bay of the CSAil area... most visible was the soft blue lighting, lots of little blue lights flashing on and off in the darkness all across the far end of the big room... about head high... the tops of a big cluster of PDP computers running an AI program intended to compose music. I promised you Gothic: what else do you call dim flashing lights, with heavy Bach type music rolling like real horror movie in the background, just a bit more mechanical and foreboding than the version you see in a real horror movie? (I never watched any horror movies after I went to Harvard... but I certainly remember at Haws Lane, watching the black and white TV in my sister’s huge bedroom over the garage, watching the 11PM “From Transylvania to Pennsylvania.”)
Then next, as we entered... on the right... an enclave not unlike booths in a big Chinese indoor market..  where
a woman was engaging her young toddler or big baby with a robot demonstrating Winograd’s program for playing with blocks. Picture a totally black environment, a pool of light about five feet in diameter, with a baby and a robot next to a pile of blocks, well lit with mother looking on..

and then, a bit further, on the other side of the room... the most truly Gothic scene, right out of the Seventh Seal.
In another small bubble of light, a human playing chess with another AI system. We all knew back then that the AI chess players of the time could not beat the human champion, and were merely rated as master class. (Actually, they had more real intelligence than Deep Blue did, but I should save the technical details for another venue). People tended to pooh-pooh that accomplishment... but there, standing the dark.. I couldn’t help FEELING the implications more intensely and vividly. There was a well-rated highly intelligent human chess player, with a big noble brow up to par with the best of the smart Celtic people I knew (well above the average Harvard norm even on faculty), being inexorable crushed under the uncanny light by an inexorable, impregnable computer... forming patterns not unlike what I remembered from my father... with a unique flavor of inexorable cold metal.

Quite a day.

A few years later, I actually worked full time in another floor of that building or one of its clones at Kendall Square at MIT...   and was amused to learn that the Marcus family of the original Golem legend was also working there...
but frankly, that was back in the days when I thought my own family came from Transylvania. (Actually, the Werbos family came to Austria-Hungary from the Trier/Mosel part of Germany, and we are more French than Transylvanian... but there is some Hungarian there in the family tree too.)


Oops. I forgot Dungeons. I never got in Dungeons and Dragons or AD&D, but in the 1976-1977 school year, when I first moved to College Park, my housemates (the McGrath family and Wedge Greene, not yet Lily), Dennis McGrath showed us a little box of the "Dungeons" game which was
possibly the ancestor of D&D. No Dungeon master; in a way more like monopoly or the game of life. Wedge even did try to do a Dungeon Master thing with us all one time, on the old table in our shared dining room... and it was OK... never got far.

That year... the dining room table and the big read couch in the living room ... were from my family from years ago. The same couch I recovered on at age 7! I forget whether we even brought it beyond College Park... but it is gone now. When I was an assistant professor at Maryland, I even gave a few seminars with students sitting on that couch, one quite memorable... strictly Victorian, of course,
extreme in different ways.


And I also forgot Mastermind! That's not in my pile but it was a very big deal in College Park.
McGraths showed me the basic version they played in their family, and we went out and found more interesting versions which we played often...

For card games... in the earliest years, kids played War a lot, but it didn't offer much choice (if any),
and I didn't play it at all in Haws Lane, let alone school. Pinochle was a major staple of my mother's side of the family, and we played it often down the shore or in Donohue family parties. Ben Roberts' mother was deeply involved in some bridge circles, and I played a bit in Lawrenceville...
and that's why I came up with a nice simplified version of whist which I used to entertain several generations of kids, and prepare them for bridge... which none of us actually got deep into.

I do remember very vividly when my brother had a few friends (as usual) sitting on the love seats
 in the house at Haws Lane, in the living room in front of the massive fireplace and mantle arrangement. For hand after hand, nothing I could do would work; my brother was certainly not cheating, but he had a certain kind of smile on his face and would calmly tell everyone what he thought was in my hand (which he really had no chance of seeing). So finally, in frustration, I decided to try an experiment. I let the deep part of my mind see my hand... but filled my front mind with an image of seeing a Green Queen of spinach. Ah, do I still remember the look on my brother's face as he said: "This time... Paul... there is something really weird going on. There is something really... really... weird... weird... strange... something awful about your hand this time." Just a few months later, I saw a new Star Trek episode where a guy playing cards also had a green queen of spinach....


Now if only Donald Trump could wake up the fact that Hillary Clinton is NOT the green queen of spinach, and that his serious adversaries are not her or the Russians... and that Putin has reason to worry about Trump's chances of catching on and surviving.

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