The electric train riddle and more

Over Christmas I traditionally run a chess puzzle contest on the news page of my company. The problems have to be “computer resistant” — it has become trivially easy, and also very tempting, to simply switch on a “chess engine” to get the solution in seconds. So I use unorthodox variants of the game, like “checkless chess” (checks are not allowed except when it is checkmate), or selfmate (White forces Black to mate him, Black tries his best to avoid that), or add-a-piece. Let me give you a taste of this last one:

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In these “twin” problems (by Bengt Giöbel) you are asked to add a white queen on the board and then mate Black in one move. The additional question is: why are the solutions quite different in the two diagrams that are clearly 1:1 horizontal reflections? The answer is that the queen must be placed to the left of the king to make the position “legal”. Since all the pawns are on their original squares the queen could not have reached a square to the right of the king. So the solutions are: +wQc1 and 1.d3 mate and +wQa1 and 1.b3 …

Some are doubtlessly genuine, but some are easy to learn

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Everyone knows Rain Man, the 1988 film telling the story of an autistic savant, wonderfully played by Dustin Hoffman. The character Raymond was modelled on was the autistic “mega savant” Kim Peek, who displayed mind blowing feats of mental skill. You can search for him on YouTube and watch him perform — it is quite extraordinary.

Except I am not convinced that all of it is true. Kim, who has mental and neurophysiological problems, is clearly not autistic. His memory is remarkable, and he can recite large passages of Shakespeare, memorize the data of cities and highways, and many other such feats. …

It is astounding how early a comprehension of the mechanisms of language sets in, and how sophisticated it is

I have always been interested in language development. In my university studies I specialized in linguistic philosophy—where you attempt to define and solve age-old philosophical problems by looking at the linguistic structure of the questions posed. I also studied ethology (animal behaviour and communication), and language development in human infants and children, following the work of Jean Piaget on this subject. I naturally used my two sons as subjects for my studies, and am now doing the same, albeit it informally, with my two grandsons. That is what I will write about today.

Enders, the older grandson, has remarkable linguistic skills: he started speaking at a very early age, developed a large vocabulary of words, and constructed sentences well beyond his years. It was quite normal for people to ask: “Wait a minute, how old is he?” when he said something precocious. He was well ahead of the other kids in his day-care group. …

We cannot afford not to.

We are in the middle of a hideous pandemic. It has cost the world between ten and fifteen trillion dollars so far — and disrupted the social lives of billions of people. And it has not peaked yet. But help is in sight: the first vaccines have been developed (in record time!), so there is a chance that, in a year or so, our lives could return to some form of normality. However, we cannot let our guard down. There are two things we need to do. Urgently.

1. Urge people to accept vaccination

Fortunately there are vaccines to combat the current Covid-19 pandemic, and they are quite likely to prove effective. But they need to be taken, and taken widely. It is not clear that this will happen. A vast campaign of disinformation had led a large number of people to be sceptical about vaccination. It is possible that a quarter to half of entire national populations will not agree to take the shot, and the world will remain a dangerous place. …

In 1970 I wrote the introduction to a TV documentary on artificial intelligence. It was very clever — but completely wrong!

As a preamble I need to tell you this: when my originally intended career as a teacher of philosophy ground to a halt (I realized that there would be no vacancy for me at university to get a post — ever) I embarked on an alternate career: I went on to become a science journalist, making documentaries for German TV. That is described in this article, which might be of interest.

Well, after making half a dozen documentaries on science subjects — for instance on how the pyramids of Egypt were built, on superconducting materials, Rubik’s cube, debunking astrology — I was commissioned by a major publishing house to research the current state of “Artificial Intelligence”, an emerging field that was still in inverted commas. The publishers gave me funding to travel around the world, visiting all the major AI labs in the U.S. and Japan, talk with all the famous AI pioneers. I interviewed Claude Shannon, Marvin Minsky, Ray Kurzweil, John McCarthy, Raj Reddy, and a number of others who were actually building AI, as well as thinkers and philosophers who had written on the subject, like Daniel Dennett, Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle. …

What Bangalore, the “Silicon Valley of India,” was like fifty years ago — absolutely nothing like today!

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In the previous story, Journey to the East (3), we had completed the arduous journey, by train, bus and car, to the South Indian “garden city” of Bangalore. There my mother and brother lived, in a beautiful villa, built in British times. We repeated the journey a few more times, and spent weeks exploring the city and the surroundings. Later our son Martin, and then his younger brother Tommy joined us. There were adventures galore — today I will tell you a little about the earliest of our trips.

Bangalore was called the “Garden City of India.” It is located on the Deccan Plateau, around 1000 metres above sea level, and has a mild temperature — which is why my German father, who had worked for decades in the sweltering hot Bombay, moved to Bangalore after retirement. I spent a couple of years in my early teens in this house. …

It is dispassionate and brutal — and it is not taking place in humans. My provocative view on the subject.

There are two reasons for this article: on the one hand the grandkids want to know, in Covid times, why there are viruses (short answer: because it is possible), and also why every six years the grounds are covered in acorns. Secondly, Discover Magazine recently published a story telling us that we can see human evolution in action even today. They describe an example:

“More and more people are being born with an extra artery in their forearms, one that usually disappears in utero. …

Both the plane and the ship suffered disastrous ends, thankfully some time after I was on board

Kashmir Princess

In 1952, together with my parents and brother, I spent some time in Europe — Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The final leg of the trip was from Geneva to Bombay, and we booked a plane flight.

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Farewell in Geneva — that’s seven-year-old me in the middle. And that’s our plane in the background.

The amateur Independent Film scene of the 1970s

During my university days I had an idea: to become a film producer and director. The desire arose for two reasons: one, everyone was doing it, people were making “indie films” left right and centre, everyone was talking about them. Secondly, a young film expert, Jay Tuck, was holding courses on the production of independent movies. Jay was an American who lived in Germany — and still does. Here’s an interesting lecture by him on the dangers of Artificial Intelligence.

Indie stands for independent movie and is a low budget, usually short film made and distributed outside the normal studios. Indies have a different style and content: they are “artistic.” …

A few more logical tasks for kids in Covid times

Social life in general has ground to a halt, for the grandkids group play is heavily restricted. We usually meet them in the garden. Strolling around in unusually beautiful November weather I give them some new logical problems. Here’s the first one this week:

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A man needs to take two pills a day, one green and one white. Normally his wife puts them into a cup each morning for him to take. But she is going to be away for the weekend, so she puts four into the cup and leaves. Unfortunately she forgets that her husband is blind. The pills are exactly the same size and shape, and can only be distinguished by their colour. The husband is alone at home, and on each day he needs to take exactly one of each kind. …


The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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