Seven Games: A Human History

Oliver Roeder

Tagged as a biography of seven games: chess, draughts, go, scrabble, poker, bridge, and backgammon, both in their structure and social histories. The social parts are often the most intriguing, especially how some games, at some times, become almost proxies for a person’s character features – to the extent that without proficiency, it’s hard for someone to succeed.

The least satisfying aspect, for me as a computer scientist, was the emphasis on whether, when, and how well, computers can learn to play different games. There are some great stories about the lengths to which some individual programmers have gone to create game-playing programs, that it would be good to learn more about. But it’s easy to assign too much significance to a computer’s gaming abilities. These revolve around the structure of the game and the effort put in to understanding it. But they tell us very little about how people play the game. Taking go as the example I’m most familiar with, using a “deep” network to create AlphaGo makes its playing decisions entirely inscrutable. It provides no insight into either the game itself or the way humans play it so well, which are surely two of the most interesting scientific questions to explore. There’s a tendency to regard a game as “solved” once a computer can beat any expert human – an entirely arbitrary quality threshold, surely – without trying to understand how a human, with far different (and probably less) computing power, came to offer that threshold in the first place.

3/5. Finished Monday 2 May, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

Matt Alt (2020)

A fascinating take on the effects that Japanese has had (and continues to have) on the rest of the world. This is very much a cultural history grounded in technology, and in the ways that technology drives new cultural possibilities. It’s also often a study in the illogic of cultural trends, and how impossible it is to pick cultural winners.

The history of the karaoke machine justifies the book on its own. The vignettes are fascinating, perhaps most of all for me the way in which the actual machines were invented several times in response to different driving forces. But the most outstanding observation was how one of the inventors realised that perfect reproduction of songs wasn’t the goal, and spent years re-recording tracks to make them easier for karaoke-singers to perform well. This is the sort of techno-cultural feedback that’s fascinating.

Alt tries to draw the threads together, noting that in many ways what Europe and America are suffering in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis was presaged by Japan’s “Lost decades”, making the Japanese experience perhaps more characteristic of late-stage capitalism than we realised. It’s an interesting point: I’m not sure Europe will ever have otaku in quite the same way that Japan has, but that’s again a techno-cultural interaction in progress as we see whether social trends follow the technological or vice versa.

5/5. Finished Monday 25 April, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Ikigai

Hector Garcia Puigcerver (2016)

A short and focused excursion into the Japanese notion of ikigai, meaning something akin to “a sense of purpose”.

The authors’ interest in the idea comes from studying the residents of an Okinawan village that’s thought to be the home of more centenarians than anywhere else, even in such a traditionally long-lived country as Japan. Studying their habits, the authors don’t fall into the common trap of identifying the “one secret thing” that can transform anyone’s life – although frugality, physical movement, and community clearly all help. The most potentially transformative observation, however, is how the long-lived never retire in any real sense. They’ve found their ikigai, and as such they keep practicing it as a part of what they are rather than as something they simply do (to get paid). This a commonality here with the lives of many scientists, writers, and academics, whose work and lives are so bound together that they never stop working as long as they live – and it’s this that plays a large role in keeping them healthy and alert. It also chimes with a lot of modern advice to follow your passions, and is something that’s eminently practical for everyone.

4/5. Finished Monday 11 April, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Anna Della Subin (2021)

Accidental divinity seems to have happened more frequently than one might expect. The mechanisms are very different, ranging from deliberately playing into people’s expectations (in the case of Cortés and the Spanish conquest of South America), to possession by spirits in Nigeria and India, to the entirely accidental raising of Britain’s Prince Philip to godhead.

In Prince Philip’s case the claims are taken very seriously. When his new worshippers want a photograph of him, it initiates a flurry of activity to consult with anthropologists and archaeologists to determine the right way to carry the ceremonial pig-killing stick he is to appear with. There seem to be a mixture of motivations: a sincere desire not to offend, but also an unmistakable impulse to gain a subtle lever of control over a far-away imperial possession. Having a god on your side, as the Roman emperors knew, never hurts.

One perhaps has to feel sorriest for Haile Selassie, the very Christian emperor or Ethiopia who had to run for his life ahead of Mussolini’s invasion and spent an exile in England campaigning for is country’s liberty. After all this genuine accomplishment, he accidentally becomes a god to people he didn’t know or understand as part of Rastafarianism (before becoming emperor he was known as Prince – or Ras – Tafari), which itself emerges from a Jamaican nationalism needing an origin myth. It shows how a need for religion remains entwined into the modern world’s most modern impulses towards self-determination and independence.

3/5. Finished Saturday 2 April, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

Casey Cep (2019)

A biography of a book that was never actually written. Actually also the biography of at least two people who never met but nonetheless interacted strongly, one an alleged multiple murderer and one a notable novelist.

Harper Lee returned to the area where she grew up to research and study the case of Willie Maxwell, a sometime preacher and woodsman who was himself murdered at the funeral of the woman he himself was strongly suspected of murdering – and whose murderer walked free despite his confession and the abundant eye witnesses. It’s a compelling story, and it’s a tragedy that Lee never in fact published the book she devoted years to creating.

It’s easy to hear the echoes of In Cold Blood, both in Lee’s endeavours and in this text. It’s gripping and fast-paced, and inhabits the Alabama land where the action occurs just as much as Capote inhabited rural Kansas. It’s amazing that such an engaging book can be constructed from events that are essentially lacking in any conclusions: we don’t know Maxwell’s guilt for sure, nor Lee’s intentions of how to tell the story, so the book rests entirely on process and location, and very much succeeds.

4/5. Finished Tuesday 29 March, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)