Thoughts and experiences on various topics: puzzles, games, AI, collaboration, music, politics, and whatever else is on my mind

Archive for August, 2013

Notes from the Library – part 2 (Books that influenced my life)

There are many books that have influenced and shaped both who I am and the directions my life has taken.  I can’t mention them all, but I’d like to note a few highlights.

Robots and Artificial Intelligence

The first robot book I remember was Isaac Asimov’s  I Robot,  a collection of science fiction short stories about robots, especially the “Robbie” story.  These stories introduced me to the idea of “intelligent robots”, and had enormous impact on my career choice to pursue studies and work in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.   It inspired me to commit much of my life to what I consider one of the most challenging and fascinating intellectual questions:  What is intelligence, and How does it work.  Studying human intelligence is just part of that quest – a deeper understanding, I believe, is to be gained by discovering the fundamental principles of intelligence (in all its manifestations), and applying that understanding in creating new forms of intelligence, significantly in machines such as computers and robots.

Another brilliant book is Mindstorms by Seymour Papert, my advisor in grad school at MIT.  I highly recommend it to anyone with interests in learning and education, AI, and understanding thinking.   There are many important ideas in this book, but the single one that most deeply influenced me was Papert’s analogy between “artificial intelligence” and “artificial flight”.  He pointed out that studying neurons in the brain in order to understand intelligence, was rather like studying feathers in order to understand flight.  Early attempts at engineering flight tried to mimic bird flight, with mechanical flapping wings.  In hindsight we realized that the fundamental principles of flight involve aerodynamics and not flapping motion or feathers!   The conclusion suggested is that machine intelligence will grow out of a deeper understanding of higher-level principles governing thinking, and not the low-level substrates such as neurons (or electronic gates, for that matter).   This argument convinced me to abandon studying neurophysiology to gain insights into how the the brain (and intelligence) worked.

Douglas Hofstadter’s book Godel, Escher, Bach was another tour-de-force.  He brilliantly weaves together  themes from mathematics, logic, and computation, with Escher’s graphic art, and Bach’s music.  The book is an exploration of self-reference and formal systems.  Truly fascinating!   It had enormous appeal to me, given my diverse interests in math and computation, my passion for music, and  my enjoyment of Escher’s etchings, especially their exploration of visual-spatial ambiguity and self-reference.

Puzzle Books

I have already mentioned how deeply I was influenced by the writings of Martin Gardner, including his many collections of recreational math puzzles and essays.  Another of my favorite “logic puzzle” books is Raymond Smullyan’s brilliant Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.   It is a book of chess puzzles, but not traditional “mate in 2 or 3 move” puzzles, but rather retrograde analysis puzzles,  where one has to reason backwards from a given position.  Typical questions posed are “What was the last move?” or “Is it legal to castle in this position?”.  The reasoning and logic of these puzzles is incredibly rich and deep, and naturally appealed to me both as a puzzle-lover and a chess-player.  Smullyan brilliantly presents these puzzles in the context of stories about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, with occasional references to Moriarty thrown in!  A truly whimsical and thoroughly enjoyable presentation of a delightful collection of retrograde chess logic puzzles!

I also loved the Winning Ways volumes by Berlekamp, Conway, and Guy.  I’m totally in awe of the amazing recreational mathematics collected in these volumes!  Deep analysis of many fascinating games and puzzles.  I thought I had become fairly expert at “peg-jump solitaire” puzzles, with my discovery of “macro-operators”.  but I was humbled to discover the depth and breadth of the analysis covered in Winning Ways — yes, they had “macros”, which they called “packages”, but they went so much further in developing mathematical tools for analyzing questions that I hadn’t even thought to pose, as well as solvability of classes of problems.  I don’t know if I’ll ever finish reading all of the collected puzzle and mathematical wisdom in Winning Ways, but it is an amazing menu of “food for thought”!

Spiritual Books

My spiritual journey has been long and winding.  I plan to devote one or more future blog posts to recounting this journey in more detail.  There are a number of books that have greatly influenced my spiritual seeking and thinking.  Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy  started me thinking about many fascinating questions, including “Is there a God?”.  After reading about the thinking of many philosophers on this issue, I came to the conclusion that there was no way to “prove the existence of a God”.   I particularly esteemed the philosophical approach called Empiricism, which reflected my scientific world-view.  I couldn’t see how any experiments could bear on the question of God or the supernatural, so I concluded that the simplest explanation was that religions and the notion of a “God” were based on myths and fables, with no bearing on “reality”.

In high school and college, I came across Edgar Cayce, famously known as “The Sleeping Prophet”.  The book There is a River by Thomas Sugrue is a fascinating biography of Edgar Cayce.  This book, in particular (which I highly recommend to anyone), opened my mind to the possibility of the reality of psychic phenomena.   I followed up with additional reading in the area of psychic phenomena, and discovered the scientific field of Parapsychology, and the rigorous work of researchers like J.B. Rhine at Duke University.   My thinking shifted dramatically — if psychic phenomena were genuine, and could be scientifically studied, then that pointed (at the very least) to the existence of dimensions of reality, or the operation of physical phenomena beyond our ordinary scientific and every-day experience.  Perhaps these studies would lead to a “science of the soul” .  If psychically gifted individuals can know things at a distance (without conventional sensory observation) and predict the future with results that are statistically significant), then our understanding of sensory experience, along with time and causality, needs to be revised and expanded!

This line of thinking led me to revisit my conclusions about religions and the existence of a deity.  I began reading and learning about the various religions of the world.  I had been raised in Protestant (Lutheran) Christianity, but rejected it early on when I learned about missionaries, and couldn’t see any rational basis for believing that any one religion was “more correct” than any other.  Now I became curious to learn more about religions and spirituality, with the thought that there might be some common core of truth, even if no single viewpoint was “correct in itself”.  Recall the parable of the “Blind Men and the Elephant” that I mentioned in last week’s blog post.  It seemed that a more complete understanding of an elephant could be arrived at by collecting and comparing the various blind men’s reports of “elephant experience”.  Perhaps similarly, a deeper understanding of the spiritual and supernatural could be gleaned by studying and comparing the various teachings, thinking, and experiences of various religious traditions.   I greatly enjoyed the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith which was an excellent survey and point of departure in my explorations.

The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of great interest, especially among the youth culture, in Eastern philosophies, traditions, meditation, etc.  The Beatles, especially George Harrison, made pilgrimages to India, and studied and practiced meditation.   I found myself similarly fascinating with “Eastern thinking”.  I especially was drawn to writings about Yoga, which seemed to offer a scientific (empirical) approach to religion.  One was encouraged to “know God” through personal experience — spiritual practice and meditation.  This was very appealing to me — I had always distrusted dogmatic pronouncements (“This is true because we said so”, or “The Bible says it, so it’s true”).   The book Autobiography of a Yogi  by Paramahansa Yogananda (published by Self-Realization Fellowship) deeply influenced me.  It is a fascinating account of Yogananda’s spiritual journey, from his early experiences to his passionate quest to find teachers (guru’s) and to grow spiritually to know God.  It led me to affiliate with SRF, and practice mediation for many years.

Another book that had enormous influence on me was Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss, M.D.  This is a book by a medical doctor (psychiatrist), steeped in the scientific world-view, who used hypnosis in his therapy practice, and stumbled upon the phenomenon of past-life regression.  His conventional scientific paradigm could not account for the phenomena he was observing, that patients could regress to past-lives through hypnotic suggestion, and that the recollection of past-life traumas could lead to nearly instantaneous remission of present-life symptoms.  Among other things, this book reinforced my growing belief that reincarnation was genuine, and that we have a soul-consciousness that survives physical death – a notion I was first exposed to in reading about Edgar Cayce.  I believe that a truly open-minded scientist must take note when other scientists report observations that run counter to the accepted scientific paradigms.  That is, in fact, the history of scientific progress – initial rejection of data that contradicts the existing paradigm, and later acceptance of these “contradictory facts”, leading to revised or novel theories that account for the “new phenomena”.   Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a wonderful exploration of this dynamic in the history of science – another book that I recommend highly!

Books on Philosophy

I already mentioned reading Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy, which provided me an excellent overview of the history of philosophy and various flavors of philosphical thinking.  In college, as an undergraduate, I stumbled upon E.R. Emmet’s excellent book Learning to Philosophize.  This book was about how to do philosophy,  and greatly influenced how I view the enterprise of philosophical inquiry.   Memorably, it described the practice of philosophy as one of posing deep questions,  carefully defining terms, and examining alternative proposed answers to questions.   I recall that this book got me to thinking deeply about the meaning of “meaning”, which I find a very fascinating subject (and of course involves my love of self-referential ideas).

Political Books

As with many of my generation, I was profoundly shaken by the assassination of president John F. Kennedy.   I remember marveling at how quickly (within only a few hours) the media were reporting information about the “suspect”, later identified as Lee Harvey Oswald.   It set off a slight sense of doubt as to whether we were receiving the truth through the media, but I ultimately accepted the Warren Commission conclusions at the time the report came out.  It wasn’t until later, in my college years, that I began to seriously explore alternative theories of the assassination.   There turned out to be a remarkable amount of evidence that contradicted the Warren commission, and suggested that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy.   I read many books and articles on this subject (too many to list here), and have concluded that we have been lied to by our government, and that the JFK assassination was an instance of a coup in our home country!   I believe this has profound implications for understanding our country’s subsequent history, including our involvement in Viet Nam, and our more recent “wars of empire” in Iraq and Afghanistan.   For me, the deep questions here include: “Who really controls our government?”,  “Are we being systematically manipulated by our media?”.   I plan to write much more about this in future blogs.

Recently I read two very informative and insightful books about our current political-economic situation:   Corporations Are Not People  by Jeffrey Clements, and Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith.    These books opened my eyes to the fact that the decline of the middle class and the rise of corporations is not an accident — it is the result of a sustained and systematic campaign by Corporations to increase their political and legal power and influence.  I learned that the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court was not an isolated thing, but was instigated by Justice Lewis Powell, who, through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, advocated for corporations to work together to increase their influence over legislation to obtain corporate-friendly laws.  This all began back in the 1970’s when Powell worked for Nixon, and before Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court.   The doctrine of “corporate personhood”,  as foolish as it sounds, and as famously and ineptly referred to by Mitt Romney in his sound bite “Corporation are people, my friend”,  only developed over time.  The Citizens United decision, further opening the floodgates to unfettered corporate influence on our elections and legislative processes, was just another small step in corporations march to amass vast political power and influence.   If Fox were reporting on this they would call it the War on the Middle Class,  but they won’t, because they are another tool of  corporations, working to manipulate the uncritical populace into further supporting the “job creators” (corporations) — this would be a funny and ironic joke, if it were not so devastatingly real and harmful to those of the “99%” (middle and so-called lower classes), not to mention harming the health of our country, our economy, and our political processes.  We are facing a crisis – and I promise to devote some posts in the future to more deeply exploring these important and critical issues.

Personal Growth

I have tried to commit my life to personal growth – to becoming the best person that I can be.  My commitment is to life-long learning and self-improvement.  I have ready many books in this area, but the single most inspiring and influential book was a work of fiction:   Musashi  by Eiji Hoshikawa.    The story (saga) of Musashi Miyamoto is a Japanese epic set in Feudal Japan, and recounts the life and development of Musashi from an angy, undisciplined, rebellious, and ambitious farmer into the finest and most expert Samurai swordsman in all of Japan.   Along the way he learns that becoming the best he can be is a lot more than developing skill and proficiency in swordmanship.  It has as much to do with humility, respect and love for others, and learning in all aspects of ones life.   I had first encountered the Musashi story through the movies – a series of three movies called The Samurai Trilogy.   I loved the epic story on many levels and saw the trilogy multiple times (I now own the set of dvds), and it was gripping and inspiring to read the book as well!

to be continued …

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Notes from the Library

I Love Libraries and Books

Because I love books, it is simply natural that I love libraries.  It is easy to take them for granted, yet they are amazing and wonderful institutions.  In facts, books themselves are wonderful inventions.  Libraries gather together not only books, but other media (magazines, newspapers, reference works, and more recently music and videos).  They represent a vast collection of knowledge, information, and entertainment.  The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is a truly wonderful book that completely changed my thinking about and appreciation of libraries!  It is set in the middle ages, when “books” were hand-copied manuscripts, and were not only rare, but valued and treasured.  The book is a murder mystery detective story set in an old monastery.   One of the greatest tragedies was for a library to burn (with incalculable loss of irreplaceable recorded thinking and knowledge!).  I wonder what wisdom and knowledge was lost when the great Library of Alexandria burned?  Fortunately today, with modern printing, not to mention electronic recording and distribution, collected knowledge is not so vulnerable.

Home “Library”

The very first “library” I remember is the collection of children’s books available in our home.  My parents purchased the Childcraft Collection,  which was a marvelous series of volumes including many fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, poems, and short stories.  I loved having this literature read to me, and later reading it for myself!  My favorite poem was “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.  I loved both the tragic story and the incredible rhythm of the words.  One of my favorite stories was the “parable” of “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, which I understood much later to convey a deep truth about perception and knowledge, and the relativity of understanding.  If you are not familiar with it, essentially there are several blind men engaged in heated dispute about the nature of “the elephant” – each argues that he is the only one who truly appreciates and understands the nature of the elephant (one likens it to a wall since he felt the elephant’s side, another to a rope after touching the tail, still another to a snake because he felt the trunk, a tree trunk from feeling the leg, and so on…).  Much later, I came to view this as a parable about various religions, and the silly, pointless arguments about which is the “one true religion” and who “really” understands the nature of God.

Our “home library” also included many Dr. Seuss books.  These were read to me often enough that I soon had them virtually memorized, especially my favorite The Cat in the Hat.  This was perhaps the first book I “read to myself” as I was learning to read.  I loved the rhythm and rhyme, as well as the incredible playfulness of all the Seuss books.   In third grade, we students had on opportunity to order and purchase books through Scholastic Book Club, and I remember acquiring and reading some wonderful books like:  Snow Treasure,  Stranger than Fiction,  and many, many more!

Fifth Grade Classroom “Library”

My fifth grade teacher had an informal library of books and puzzles.  I remember reading a few Tom Swift books she had, and then starting to buy them for myself (my first personal book collection).  Tom Swift stories combined science fiction with Tom’s wonderful inventions and exciting adventures.   Her puzzle collection included Kohner Brothers’  “Hi-Q” peg jump solitaire puzzle.  I loved playing with that, and remember how difficult it was.   Later, in college, when I discovered “macro-operators”, it became easy to solve puzzles like this by thinking about them in higher-level chunks.

Hershey Public Library

I have frequented many public and school libraries over my lifetime.  The first I remember is the Hershey Public Library, which was located in the center of town in the Community Center.  It was not a large library, but I found lots of fascinating material to read both for enjoyment and learning.  My most vivid memory is discovering the “mathematics” shelves, there.  In the Summer after 7th grade, I spent a lot of time reading as many of the math books as I could.  I particularly loved the MAA series, which seemed reasonably accessible, if still challenging.  Here is where I first learned about the various classes of numbers (integers, rationals, reals, and imaginaries).  I remember struggling to accept imaginary numbers because the conventional names suggested “they weren’t real“.   Great food for my growing mathematical appetite!   I also continued to explore science fiction – I remember reading a lot of Heinlein in those days, and I think this is where I discovered Isaac Asimov’s I Robot (and other robot stories).

Hershey Junior High School Library

   I continued to explore SciFi, reading more Asimov (especially loved Foundation Trilogy), Andre Norton, and more Heinlein.  SciFi reinforced my interest and passion for technology and science, and stretched the boundaries of my imagination.  I also developed an interest in biography, reading about many famous people.  I was especially interested in inventors, and the most memorable biography was about Nicola Tesla, the inventor of generators, motors, and alternating current.   Thomas Edison tried to suppress his ideas about A.C. but they have won out in the end. Alternating current is what supplies power to our homes and appliances, though it now needs to be converted back to DC to power computers and charge phones and other devices.

Hershey High School Library

Here I continued to learn all I could from books on math and science.  My favorite magazine was Scientific American, and of course my favorite feature was Martin Gardner’s monthly Mathematical Games column.  There were also a number of collections of Martin Gardner’s essays (Mathematical Diversions), which I also enjoyed tremendously.  Martin Gardner, as I’ve noted in previous posts, had an immeasurable impact on the growth of my passions for math and puzzles.    I also recall reading the various chess books in the H.S. collection – I not only loved puzzles, but board games as well, and developed a strong interest in chess.

MIT Libraries

MIT has a large and distributed library system, spread over many different campus buildings.  The “main library” is the Hayden Humanities and Sciences library.   I spent a lot of time here, since this is where the math books were!  I could also be found at the Barker Engineering library, where more technical books, journals, and proceedings in computer science and artificial intelligence were available.  I also enjoyed the Music library, which has a great collection of classical sheet music which I took advantage of to feed my music (piano and keyboards) passion.  I was proud when my first technical publication appeared in the MIT math journal collection:  Greene,C., and Iba,G., “Cayley’s Formula for Multidimensional Trees,” Discrete Mathematics, vol. 13, no. 1 (1975), pp. 1-11.  A tiny drop added to the “sea of knowledge”.

Lexington’s Cary Memorial Public Library

We residents of Lexington, MA, are fortunate indeed to have a truly wonderful Public Library.  I am particularly fortunate in that I live (since the divorce and move in 2002) just 1 block away from the library, so I can walk there very easily.  Cary Library has an incredible collection of resources:  books, magazines, newspapers, electronic data bases, eBooks, videos, and CD’s.   Even better is the fact that Cary Library belongs to the Minuteman Regional Library Network, and offers the ability to do a single on-line search of all the libraries in the system, and then request materials, which get delivered to the local library!  A tremendous resource and service!   I found that there are numerous advantages to borrowing books instead of buying them.   Buying books has the advantage of (sometimes) getting them more quickly, and providing as much time as you care to take to read them (but this is also a disadvantage, as I will describe).  The downside is that purchased books accumulate and take up space (I’m a pack rat, and have difficulty casting off possessions, especially books).  It also turns out that many of my purchased books sit around unread for the longest time (I estimate that I’ve only read perhaps half of the books I’ve collected over the years).  Borrowing from the library has a built in “deadline” for reading it — the “final” due date (when there are no more renewals possible).  Sometimes I don’t finish a book before I have to return it, but I then simply request it again.   For popular books (especially new releases) there are no renewals because there is a waiting list, and I often have to wait weeks or months before a request finally arrives – but there are always other things to read (and lots of other things to do!) in the meantime.

Being a music lover (especially of the blues), I have purchased a rather extensive CD collection, but I simply cannot afford to buy all the music I’d like to.  The library, especially through the Minuteman Network of libraries, gives me access to a broad and rich variety of music on CD.  It lets me explore new music (new groups, new albums and songs) to see what I like and then only purchase that which I truly love.  This all gives an entirely alternate and new meaning to the title of this post:  “Notes from the Library”. 

The staff of Cary Library are dedicated, professional, and friendly.  I am profoundly grateful to have Cary Library as a convenient resource, and personally wish to thank all the staff for their hard work and service!

[… hey, looks like I finished this week’s post a little earlier for a change, and managed to keep it a little shorter!  Stay tuned for next week…]

Notes on a Life In Progress – part 7 (Divorce, Freedom, and Self-Employment 2002-2013)

Divorce 2002

If my first years at MIT were peak years in my life, then 2002 was an absolute low.  In June of that year, my (now-ex) wife divorced me.  It came as a shock, though in hindsight perhaps I should have seen it coming.  The first clue was in 1998 when my wife received her inheritance following her father’s death.  One of her first reactions was to tell me “Now I don’t need you any more”.   More evidence that economic issues were the basis of our relationship in my wife’s mind.   I couldn’t believe she would think like that – even if she didn’t need me economically, there was a very strong reason to persevere in the marriage (difficult as it was) – specifically our co-parenting our 3 children.   I was always committed to trying to work things out in our marriage, and we tried lots of counseling  (individual, couples, and even couples groups).   In fact on the morning of June 6, 2002  (a day that will live in infamy in my memory, and ironically D-Day, where D could stand for “divorce”), my wife and I were (so she told me) scheduled to meet a new counselor to try working again on our marriage difficulties.  It turns out there was actually no therapy appointment, rather I was set up to have “divorce papers” served on me at that time.  I was totally shocked, and terribly upset at being lied to.  The old cliche is “it takes two to make a marriage work”, and apparently my wife wasn’t committed to that.  I remember telling my boss at Gensym (back in 1998) that I might be facing a divorce, given my wife’s attitude.  Fortunately, it didn’t happen at that time.  Later I learned that she in fact had consulted lawyers, who advised her that divorcing me immediately after receiving her inheritance might lead to her having to split it with me.  So she waited, but (whether consciously or not)  made my life miserable – perhaps trying to push me into divorcing her.  That wasn’t going to happen, because my children were so important to me that I’d put up with almost anything to maintain my close relationship with them. During those intervening years she used her inheritance money to hire an architect and have extensive renovations done on our house – which was enormously stressful, and included our having to move out to an apartment for 3 months.

I became extremely depressed that day (June 6, 2002) and the weeks following.  I was walking around in a daze.  I had to scramble to line up a lawyer to represent me, and I was in fear and terror of what would happen to me.   I didn’t know where I’d be living, how I’d manage economically (I was still working part-time at MIT, but that was more for tuition savings than for income), or most importantly what would happen to my relationship with my children (2 of which were still living at home).  I quickly sought out a psychiatrist and got on medications to help me cope.   Throughout this time, my son Aaron, who was then at MIT, tried to reassure me that this would all turn out to be a blessing in disguise, and that I’d end up much happier being out of the unhappy marriage.  He was absolutely right!  In just 2 or 3 months I was changing my attitude and looking at the bright side of things — something I learned particularly from my mother!   Fortunately I didn’t have to move out immediately (my wife intended to stay in the house), and most importantly I found a terrific lawyer that I really enjoyed working with.  Unfortunately, my 50th birthday (July 4, 2002) came at a time when I was not in any mood to celebrate, so I felt I missed out on marking that half-century milestone.

By October, I had found a great (if expensive) apartment in Lexington, very near the high school  — great for my son, David, who was attending LHS at the time.  Once I arranged for the apartment, David committed to moving with me — the choice was entirely left up to him.  I was very grateful to have the opportunity to live together with him during these years.   Sadly, if understandably, my daughter Rachel stayed with her mother, and I felt a sense of loss for the reduced level of our interaction and relationship during her middle school and high school years.  Of course I saw her as much as I could, but I missed seeing her on a daily basis, reading with her, working on homework together, and simply kissing her goodnight when she went to bed (I used to sing her lullabies when she was younger).  She occasionally stayed over, but that was inconvenient for her – since all her “stuff” was at her mother’s house.

The divorce turned out much better than I had feared.  We finalized an agreement in November, 2002.  I got enough of a settlement (mostly for my half of the equity we built up in our house) that I was ok financially — turned out that by living frugally, I could live off the income from investing my assets.  Most importantly, I didn’t have to pay alimony, and my ex-wife assumed responsibility for the kid’s college expenses (something that had always been promised by her father while he was still alive, so we had never “saved for college for the kids”).

Freedom

I discovered the joys of freedom!  I was free of the constant stresses of a difficult marriage.  Economically free to pursue any career directions I wished.  And free to seek out new relationships.

I started dating even in the Fall of 2002, as I was getting re-settled and finalizing the divorce.  At first it was difficult to re-accustom to the dating world, but I ended up trying on-line dating (JDate), and met quite a number of very interesting women, some of whom are still friends.  No, I was not a JDate “success story”, but I ended up in a wonderful relationship with someone I had known even before the divorce.  But that was a bit later (2006).

In Summer 2003,  I decided to have a “make-up” celebration for my 51st birthday (half-century + 1).   July 4, 2003 was a very special Independence Day!  I was much happier by this point, and invited a number of my friends and former classmates and colleagues to celebrate with me.   We had lots of food, and had an open musical “jam session” in our back yard.   I had written a number of songs during this period (song-writing and music helped me in dealing with the emotional roller-coaster of 2002).  One of the songs I wrote and shared at the birthday bash was “Losin’ the Blues”.  I was always a blues fan, but I was feeling so happy those days that I felt it was more difficult to play and write blues songs.  I plan to share that song and others on my web site, but I’m not quite there yet, so look for it in a later post on “Musical Notes”.

Self-Employment

My part-time teaching at ESG/MIT ended in 2004.  After that, aside from the occasional consulting gigs, I devoted myself to working on my game and puzzle interests, as well as trying to get back into basic AI research.   While there are many advantages to working at home, I missed having colleagues and co-workers to interact with (and learn from!).  I started seeking out collaborators, but it was hard to find them — academics were wary of “working with someone who technically was un-employed”.

In 2008, I went to the G4G8 conference, the 8th Gathering for (Martin) Gardner.  I neglected to mention in my earlier posts how deeply I was influenced in high school by Martin Gardner’s famous Mathematical Games column published in Scientific American.  I was so glad our high school library subscribed to  Scientific American, and I, like many other budding mathematicians and puzzle lovers, voraciously read Martin Gardner’s column every month!   The G4G8 was the first “Gathering for Gardner” that I attended. It was an expensive trip for me to go to Atlanta for nearly a week, but I’m so glad I did.   It was great to see old math and puzzle friends, and to also find new ones!  These gatherings bring together people interested in the areas of Recreational Mathematics, Puzzles, and Magic (all interests of Martin Gardner’s).   Thank you, Martin, for fanning the flames of my puzzle passion, and introducing me to so many fascinating mathematical topics!  I’m sorry I haven’t been able to meet you in person and thank you directly for all your inspiration.  At G4G8  I presented a short talk on my Target Tiling video game inspired by Tetris.  Another major highlight of G4G8, for me, was meeting an editor from Sterling Publishing, who encouraged me to submit a proposal for a puzzle book based on my Round Trip puzzles.

Becoming a puzzle book author

I submitted a proposal, which was eventually accepted, so I set to work producing several hundred Round Trip puzzles, for the book.  Although I had a computer program that generated these puzzles, I still needed to hand-solve every one to rate it for difficulty.  There were also some nitty-gritty technical issues surrounding creating images for the puzzles — turned out that screen-grabs were not of sufficiently high-quality resolution (I had modified my program to automatically display and do an image capture of puzzles).  So I turned to postscript, and learned how to do rudimentary postscript programming – I was totally surprised to discover that (.ps) postscript files were simply text files with postscript commands in them and that postscript was simply another programming language.  I learned enough postscript to format .ps files of my Round Trip puzzles, and then wrote a program to automatically generate all the .ps images in a batch!   I was fortunate that my editor (or one of the publisher’s departments) was willing to do the layout of the images – that saved me a lot of work.   I did write a 20-page introduction which you can find on my web-site just under the Round Trip Puzzles book icon.   Turned out the publisher only wanted a 4-page intro, so I put the full (what I call “expanded”) intro on my web page.   After nearly 3 years, my book Round Trip Puzzles finally appeared in January 2011.   I personally think these Round Trip puzzles have the potential to be the next Sudoku and KenKen puzzle success phenomenon — and they fill a niche of logical-spatial-geometric puzzles, which I personally (being a spatial-visual thinker) relate to.  I have tried to publish a column (for free!) in various newspapers, but with very limited success thus far.  With the right promotion, I truly believe these puzzles could take off!  I should mention that Scott Kim’s “Brainteasers and Mind Benders” Page-a-Day calendar  typically includes 12 or 13 of my Round Trip puzzles, and in some years the variant One-Way-Trip puzzles.

Becoming an iPhone game developer

When my book appeared, I mentioned to my son, Aaron, that it might be cool and fun (as well as good business promotion for the book and the puzzles) to make an iphone app based on my Round Trip Puzzles.  Aaron liked that idea, and said he’d be interested in learning how to program for iphone.  I originally was hoping to learn from an iPhone app development mini-course through MIT’s IAP (January intersession), since such a course had been offered through IAP in 2010.   Sadly, it wasn’t offered in 2011, but Aaron said we could learn on our own — he is an amazing programmer (and I consider myself to be a rather accomplished programmer), and in addition he has unbounded confidence (which I lack).  So he relocated to Boston (from San Francisco) for the month of January and we started our intensive self-study in Objective C and iPhone programming.  It took us a good month just to learn how to do basic graphics display – it really shouldn’t be that hard, but it was!  We both signed up as Apple developers to get the iOS programming and development tools.  By April, we had a working rough draft of our app, and published it on the iTunes store!   The graphics and interface were all pretty rough, but the game was pretty solid and playable (and, I think, fun!), not to mention free!  We initially got a rather negative review based on the low production quality, despite our having announced it very clearly as a rough draft with the intention of getting user feedback.   There was a 2nd review that was much more encouraging – it pointed out that the app was only a “rough draft” and that the puzzles and playability were quite good!

We decided to name our app Monorail.  By April we were ready to launch our 1.0  official first release, including 50 free puzzles, and 350 more puzzles available through In-App-Purchase.  With the help of some TapJoy promotion, we had 500,000+ downloads during July, and reached the top 10 in educational puzzles (briefly #1 in a few foreign stores) in many international iTunes stores.   Actual paid sales were a small fraction (maybe 1%) of the free downloads.   Downloads (and sales) slowly tapered off as the promotion ended, but by January 2012, we passed the 1,000,000 (free) downloads milestone.  Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, with many reporting that “Monorail is addictive”.

I truly enjoyed collaborating with Aaron.  I know myself well enough to realize that I would never (and I never say “never” lol) have been able to create Monorail on my own.  It was another important lesson in the power (and enjoyment) of collaboration!  I really loved working with Aaron on this project, and wished our collaboration could have continued, but he decided to return to his ambitions of creating new startups (he had already created one startup, called AppJet, and sold it to Google several years earlier).

I was fortunate to find some new collaborators who helped me update Monorail .  In November 2011, we released a version that included ads in the free version, and 2 additional puzzle packs for In-App-Purchase (total of 880 puzzles in all).  Also made some improvements to  the graphics and interface.  Unfortunately, the updated Monorail did not generate enough revenue to keep them involved, so there has not been an update in well over a year.

Experiencing a “Glennaissance”?

Over the last few years, I feel I’ve been entering a period of my life where I’m (once again) becoming more productive, happy, and energized with my various creative and “work” endeavors.  I quote “work” since so much of it is truly great fun.  I’m trying to follow Steve Job’s mantra of “Do what you love!”  and have been fortunate of late to be able to do that.  The things I love are:  puzzles, programming, math, and music.  I’ve been doing a good bit of each, lately.  I even started performing (keyboards and singing) again at local Open Mics this last year.  I had written a lot of songs over the years, many of them in the period following my divorce — which was a period of intense emotions (both negative and positive), and it’s been fun to share those in small supportive venues!

My search for collaborators, though on-going, has led to a number of fruitful joint-endeavors.   I loved the iphone puzzle app Relix, which I think is wonderfully challenging, so I was very excited to be able to work with the developer in producing a sequel Relix 2 (which I like even better).   I contributed a pack of really hard puzzles for Relix 2, called the Iba Insanity Pack.  I would love to hear from anyone who has solved , or even attempted(!), any of those puzzles.  They are not for beginners (fair warning!).

More recently, I’ve been enjoying working (as a level-designer) on a new iPhone puzzle app that should appear sometime this Fall.  I’m also working with one of my brother’s former students on an Android version of my Target Tiling (Tetris-inspired) game.   It would be great if some of these ventures turned out to be financially rewarding, but even if not, I’ll be very happy to share some of my puzzle ideas with a broader audience.

I still hope to get back to AI research, but to make significant progress, I know that I need collaborators to work with.  I’ll be blogging about my AI ideas in future posts, so stay tuned, and if any of the ideas interest you, please get in touch.

Whew! 

Made it through a first-pass overview of my life.  Seems it mostly focused on career, with other elements tossed in.  There are lots of life arcs I’d like to review and share in more detail, including my spiritual journey, more on parenting, more on my childhood / family environment, and the books that I’ve found particularly influential over my lifetime.  I also plan to elaborate on my philosophical explorations and thinking, my ideas on AI research, programming environments (programming should be much easier!),  puzzle explorations, my musical creations, and may even venture into my personal political thinking and viewpoints.  Lots to write about — I should be kept busy for a long time!

Notes on a Life In Progress – Part 6 (Career Transitions 1996-2002)

Software Developer (Gensym 1997-1998)

In January, 1997 I found a job as a software developer (programmer) at a small company called Gensym (not to be confused with the biotech company Genzyme!).  Gensym developed an expert system product called G2, which it sold to large corporations.   Gensym did its internal development in CommonLISP, which was great for me since that was (and still is!) my primary language.  Deployment was done in the C language, with cross-compilation for multiple platforms.  To accomplish this, Gensym used a Lisp-to-C translator (created by a different company).  I was hired to work with my boss (who was an amazing and accomplished programmer, as well as an all-around great guy!) on building Gensym’s own in-house Lisp-to-C translator.  Of course this translator was being written in Lisp, and I learned a lot of C in the process of working on the project.  This was not research by any stretch of the imagination, but it was technically challenging and interesting work, and I really enjoyed collaborating with my boss, who had designed the translator, and actively worked with me on the implementation.  I learned a lot, and enjoyed the first year immensely!

Unfortunately Gensym started to hit trying times, and after a year my boss became disillusioned with management and chose to leave.  This left me in a quite difficult position – I was not fully up to taking over the translator project on my own, so I ended up transitioning to a more “standard” developer position – doing bug fixing and feature coding directly on the G2 product.  I was not particularly good at this, and my heart was not in it, so my second year at Gensym was a downward spiral, ending in my own decision to leave later that year.

Free-lance puzzle consultant / designer (1998-2001)

I had tried teaching (Hampshire), research (GTE Labs), programming (Gensym), but now I had thoughts of pursuing my puzzle passion as a free-lance consultant and puzzle designer.

I had tried to sell a few puzzles in the past, but only in passing, and not very successfully.  My first non-trivial sale was modifying and licensing a “sliding block puzzle” search engine that I had developed for fun over the preceding years.  ThinkFun (maybe it was still named Binary Arts at that point), used my search engine to analyze and design puzzle levels for their Railroad Rush Hour puzzle (a sequel to the enormously popular Rush Hour puzzle by Nob Yoshigahara).  I ended up designing a few levels myself, and received a credit on the box of the game when it was released (though you might need a magnifying glass to find it).

In the early 1990’s I also published a few puzzles in my favorite puzzle magazine: Dell Champion Variety Puzzles  (sadly now out of print).  I started with RoundTrip path puzzles, invented and first published by a puzzle author using the name Stitch (that’s his “nom” in the National Puzzler’s League, which I later also joined – my “nom” is now Macro).  I started out simply writing (for fun!) a program to solve RoundTrip puzzles.  It then occurred to me that I could use the solver as part of a puzzle generator.  As often is the case with fun “hacking” projects, I kept adding new features and variations.  I had the idea of changing the geometry from square/rectangular to triangular/hexagonal.  You can see samples of my puzzles (under the name Grand Tour) on my web page:

http://glenniba.com/grandtourhexbranch/GrandTour.html

I wasn’t sure if I could publish Round Trip puzzles in Dell Champion Variety Puzzles (or any other magazine), since I did not originate the puzzle idea itself, not to mention possible issues with using the name “Round Trip”.   When I contacted Dell about this, they aid it was fine, and encouraged me to to send in puzzle submissions.  So I sent them a batch of both square and hex RoundTrip puzzles.   Later I sent in some “Dominoes Logic” puzzles (both square and hex variants) that I wrote a different program to generate.  These puzzles began to appear in the magazines.  The most amazing result happened once while I was on a plane trip:  I was reading the In-Flight magazine, and I saw a Round Trip puzzle!  Wow, I thought, someone else published a round trip puzzle!  Then I looked, and the name was mine!   Turns out Dell had “re-printed” my puzzle in the flight magazine.   I didn’t know they could do that, but I didn’t complain — I was pleased to have my puzzles (and name) getting “out there”.

Later I implemented a suggestion by Scott Kim to generate One-Way-Trip puzzles which feature a start and end vertex for the path.  In both types of puzzles the object is to create a path that connects all the dots (vertices) visiting each dot once and only once.  For RoundTrip puzzles the path is closed, i.e. it returns to its “starting point” (though you can start anywhere – it makes 1 big loop, or a “Grand tour”).  For OneWayTrip, the solution path starts and ends at the specified dots.  My program that generates these puzzles ensures that there is always only 1 solution.  The link to the OneWayTrip Java applet on my web site is:

http://glenniba.com/OneWayTripHexBranch/OneWayTrip.html

The JavaApplets provide puzzles of different sizes and both square and hex geometries.  They range from simple to very challenging!

Jumping ahead a bit in the story, I later wrote a book titled  Round Trip Puzzles  (published through Sterling in January 2011).  Following that, my son, Aaron, and I wrote an iphone logic puzzle app called  Monorail, which has hundreds of challenging puzzles of this type (it’s also out for Android, now, too – but be sure to look for the Monorail by IBA Puzzles  (there is another app that uses the same name, which only creates confusion).  Here is link to my Monorail puzzle page (where you can find info about both the RoundTrip puzzles book and the Monorail apps for smartphones):

http:// glenniba.com/monorail/

Making a puzzle variation of Tetris  (1989-present)

Another puzzle project I worked on, which I consider potentially my “magnum puzzle opus”, is an extremely challenging version of the game, Tetris.  When Tetris appeared in the late 1980’s (I’m thinking I first started playing it on MacSE’s around 1989),  I was instantly addicted.  I loved the music (Russian folk songs) and the video game challenge (play as fast and survive as long as you can).  At GTE Labs we actually formed a Tetris Team and I remember we had a “match” against the team from MITRE Corp.  Great fun.

I wasn’t satisfied to simply play the existing version(s) of Tetris.  I wanted to try out my own variations.  So, naturally, I started programming my own Tetris simulator, first running on Lisp Machines, and later on Macintoshes.  With my own simulator, I could vary all sorts of game parameters such as:  board width, and height, piece set (no reason to limit pieces to size 4 — I supported both smaller and larger pieces, too), speed of the game.

While playing around with this simulator, I came up with a novel challenge:  to wipe out the Tetris board, i.e. eliminate all the cells (in Tetris, if you don’t already know, filled rows are cleared and the cells eliminated – then the rows above any cleared rows will move down to take up the cleared space).  The typical objective in playing “normal” Tetris is to survive as long as possible, and score as many points as you can.   This wipeout idea provided novel puzzle challenge, and it appealed to me because it was something you could succeed at (rather than postponing inevitable failure when the board fills up).  I implemented this in my simulator, and discovered that it was great fun (for me at least) and required developing a variety of skills to become “expert” at it.   Accomplishing a wipeout is extremely difficult in original Tetris, or any variation where the next piece is chosen randomly.  This makes it nearly impossible to plan ahead more than just 1 or 2 moves.  I decided to make the moves deterministic (predictable) and this worked quite nicely.   I found that even the simplest deterministic variant (where there was only a single piece type, and you’d always get that piece, was both interesting and challenging.  My experiments led me to discover that board widths 5, 6, and 7 led to interesting and enjoyable puzzle challenge, especially combined with a choice of piece such as “T” or “L” (2 of the standard Tetris pieces).  I also introduced the idea of piece reflection, which makes solving easier or harder depending on whether or not reflection is permitted.

I came to think of this Tetris-inspired puzzle challenge as a kind of Dynamic Tiling Problem  which generalizes the static tiling problem of filling a specified area with a particular set of piece shapes (eg. fill a 4×4 square grid with 4-cell T pieces, or fill an 8×8 grid with 4-cell  L pieces).  In dynamic tiling the Tetris row-clear operation dynamically modifies the fixed cell pattern.

Later, when the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came out, it included Tetris, and I spent numerous hours (really should be measured in months and years) playing the game.  One day, in order to challenge myself, I posed the question (remember: – Think deeply about simple things!):  Might it be possible to fill cells on the Tetris board that are not supported by (or connected to) other cells or the base of the board area?  This amounted to what I call “floating a piece (or set of cells) in mid-air“.   It is natural to think that there is a kind of gravity operating in Tetris, especially since pieces fall (slowly at first), and you can drop pieces (in which case they keep falling until some part of the piece lands on some kind of support (another fixed cell, or the base of the board).  But deeper examination revealed that row-clearing obeys a different rule of gravity.  The row-clear rule is that all the cells above a cleared row (or rows) move down exactly a number of cells equal to the number of rows cleared below them.   So, in particular,  cells above a cleared row do not keep falling until they touch a support!   So naturally, I set about trying to prove that this was possible, and before long I had learned how to create a platform (rows that could be cleared by placing a piece in a hole in the platform), and could use the platform to support a piece – and then, after clearing the platform, have the piece placed on the platform end up “suspended in mid-air”.

I used this discovery to create a Target variation of my Tetris-inspired puzzle, and I named it Target Tiling.   Instead of an empty pattern (wipeout)  being the target, why not have certain cells  (Target cells) be marked (specified) and have a more general objective of contstructing that exact target pattern  (each of the marked target cells must be filled, and no other cells can be filled).   This provided for lots of additional challenge, including the goal (in some target patterns) of suspending cells in “mid-air”.   I considered names such as Tetris Architect  (because you are building up a target pattern according to a “blueprint”), and also Tetris Target,   I think has a nice ring to it, but finally settled on Target Tiling because the name Tetris is trade-marked.

There are many levels of skill one can acquire in mastering Target Tiling.  At the low level there is learning to use the controls to manipulate and place pieces.  Then there is the standard Tetris skill of filling and clearing rows, and uncovering covered “holes” so they can be filled.  Then there is the “working down” skill — reducing a board pattern of many rows to a simpler one with just 1 or 2 rows left.  Next comes the skill of wiping out the board,  which requires much more precise play, and often involves learning lengthy sequences of “moves” (macro-moves)   that accomplish desired transformations, simplifications.  Finally there is the target constructing skill which requires building up the target pattern row by row, and finally wiping out any excess above the top target row (carefully!  since you don’t want to mess up any of the completed target rows below!).   I think this game would be ideal for teaching meta-skills for learning and problem-solving.   I also believe it would make a great testbed for AI skill learning research, and I hope to work on this sometime soon!  If  this sound interesting to you, please contact me (giba@alum.mit.edu) — I’m always looking for collaborators!

You can actually try out my game!  I have posted a free version of Target Tiling on my website, and you are welcome (actually encouraged!) to play it and let me know what you think.  The game has evolved, and now includes a 3D version with 3D pieces.    The latest version has piece sequences (some pre-set for you to choose among), but also lets you pick your own piece sequences.  You can use randomized Start and Target board configurations, or you can edit either or both of these patterns to try out your own specific patterns.  You can find information about the game, the CommonLisp source code, instructions on how to run it, and lots of puzzle challenges,  all at my web page:

http://glenniba.com/target-tiling.html

I made a serious effort to sell this game idea to The Tetris Company, back in the mid-to-late 90’s, but ultimately they turned me down.  Later I tried again with Microsoft, after I learned that Alexey Pajitnov (the original creator of Tetris!) worked there, but sadly, he left Microsoft before we could get a deal in place (even before I got to show him the game, which I would still love to do – does anyone know how to contact him?)

Full Circle – back to ESG at MIT, now as an instructor! (2001- 2004)

In 2001, my oldest son, Aaron, enrolled at MIT as a freshman.  I wasn’t making enough income from my puzzle work to be self-sustaining, so I contacted ESG and was able to get part-time employment there as a Lecturer (staff instructor).  This did not pay particularly well (think adjunct salary level), but the major benefit was that we got a pro-rated tuition break on my son’s MIT tuition, which was a huge financial plus!   I mostly was teaching basic math courses (calculus), but got to teach the occasional seminar on puzzles, or AI/Machine Learning research.  I even got to work with some undergrad students on UROP (Undergrad Research Opportunities Program) projects.  This was great fun, and I enjoyed being closely connected with both ESG and MIT once again.

to be continued …

Next up:  Divorce (2002) and freedom!

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