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Thinking about Imperfect Thinking

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Author’s Note — This is long and very self-absorbed, but has been weighing on me for a while.

I’ve wanted to be a Bridge expert since college. Not ‘expert’ in the sense of Life Master or one of the better club players, but “threatening to win a national event” expert. Or better.

In High School I’d expected to conquer chess, but achieved only tournament mediocrity after five years. Possibly — if I’d kept trying — I’d have pulled myself up into barely expert rank through sheer perseverance and the slow accumulation of knowledge. But I felt immensely frustrated, I wanted the fast accumulation of knowledge I’d encountered in so many fields. I can’t ‘see’ positions in my mind. I studied openings and would sometimes remember them, but often not. I studied endgames. I studied and studied but during games minutes would tick by. I would be “thinking,” but haphazardly. Loose thoughts, jumbled together in a tangled mass.

So I read and studied more.

One book gripped my psyche and captivated my thoughts. Kotov’s “Think Like a Grandmaster”. In the introduction Kotov tells about visiting a distant chess club andbeing asked to give an impromptu lecture. The crowd shouted requests, that Kotov review a master game or some new opening theory.

He demurs. “There’s no point in learning details if you can’t learn how to think. Let’s discuss thinking

Kotov sets up a position and turns to his audience, “Let’s imagine you’ve been asked to take over for a player who has fallen ill. It is our move, what shall we do?” The story — omitting much chess analysis — continues:

“There are two obvious moves (a kingside and a queenside move). Let’s try the a kingside attack. Does it work? Hm. …Kotov runs through a few moves… no, that last move seems to stop me. OK. What about a queenside pawn push? Hm … runs a few moves … no, that seems to be losing. It’s too slow. Back to the kingside. What if I prepare the sacrifice with this move? No. Hm. Still doesn’t work. Maybe if I do adjust my queenside pawn push.”

Kotov alternates between the two lines then exclaims Then you look at your clock and think “Oh my god, ten minutes have gone by! How could I have only analyzed two lines in ten minutes? I’m going to lose on time!”

And then Kotov grabs his king and castles, saying “So you just castle, without even thinking about it. Its probably safe enough.”

Kotov’s audience roars with laughter, and applauds. They recognize themselves. And I (a young teenager) recognized myself. Kotov then explained that Grandmasters think through a line only once, because they are sure their analysis is right and if they missed something, they are likely to miss it again. The rest of the book is his instruction on how to think. But I could never absorb the lessons, at least not to the level that satisfied me, and at some point I stopped playing Chess.


As this is ostensibly a blog about games, let me present a hand from a Bracketed Swiss (top bracket). (Skip ahead to the Post Hand Analysis, if you don’t care about the details).

Dummy S:QJx H:AJxxx D:Q98 C:Q9

My Hand S:Tx H:KTx D:KJxx C:K8xx

My RHO opened 1 Club, I passed, LHO responded 1 Spade and my partner doubled. RHO raised to two spades, and I bid 3 Diamonds, ending the auction.

I thought partner’s red suits would be equal (or diamonds longer), and could have bid 2N to let partner pick the suit, and I thought that when dummy came down, but I recognized that I could no longer do anything about that. Partner didn’t expect me to have the World’s Fair and compete to the three level, no doubt. Here’s the auction again:


RHO  Me LHO CHO
--------------
1C   P  1S   X
2S  3D  All Pass

LHO led the club Ten.

After some thought I covered the queen and RHO won the ace. RHO then shifted to a diamond, ducked around to dummy’s nine.

My opponents have a Flight B national championship (I believe); they aren’t bad. Steady players. They make mistakes, but play steadily enough to win a long multi-day event against other Flight Bs.

What play should I make? Here’s my internal monologue:

First things first — Count! Spades are presumably 4-4. With 5-3 I’d have heard a support redouble.The opponents only have 18 points — RHO opened and LHO responded, so it could be 6 (on my left)-12 or 5-13 or 7-11 or maybe something like 4-14. Either opponent could be light. The latter is most likely if LHO has a stiff club, but RHO didn’t return a club.

LHO likely doesn’t have AK of spades, that would be an almost automatic lead.

[Not terribly extensive, but at least I did note those things and counted. That’s better than too many hands. Back to my thoughts…]

I see three options —

  • I could continue with diamonds. This will work spectacularly well if I pick up hearts. But RHO thought pulling trumps was OK. If I lead a trump I risk it going diamond ace and another
  • Or I could lead the 9 of clubs and win the king then ruff, then cross in hearts and ruff another club.
  • Or I could float the 9 of clubs. That 8 of clubs is taunting me.

If LHO led the T of clubs from JT tight (which is the standard lead) the last would be phenomenally bad. Can I tell? I don’t think I can. Restricted choice says its likely Jx, but I don’t know.

I considered the pros and cons of each, but I also spent a fair amount of the time wishing I hadn’t been dealt the 8 of clubs. And considering if I could make inferences from their defense.

In the end, I decided to play the diamond queen (ducked all around), then a diamond to the king (RHO showing out and LHO winning the ace). The opponents cashed their spades (honors split) and put me on the board with a spade (I pitched a club). Thinking again, I decided that

  1. If LHO had the heart queen then he’d be stronger than opener, and
  2. If LHO had the heart queen then from RHO’s point of view hearts were potentially running so a trump shift would be ludicrous.

Given these two data points I finessed against RHO’s heart queen with the ten (winning), pulled LHO’s remaining trump and claimed the rest.

+110, score it up. LHO hissed “Anything but a trump switch” and I looked like a competent bridge player.

I can, in hindsight, say that LHO had 4=3=4=2 shape, but I never found out what LHO’s other club was.

Post Hand Analysis

After the entire hand, I still wasn’t sure whether my play at trick 3 was right. Even analyzing it here, it feels close. Also, I may have played wrong at trick one (although I think I didn’t).

But when I wrote “I decided to play the diamond queen,” I lied.

A more precise description of my mental state: “Being frustrated by not being able to see the correct answer, I eventually just called for the diamond queen to end my indecision.”

Even though it worked, my thinking had stopped. I didn’t call the diamond queen because I knew it to be right (or even right on probability). I didn’t choose it after deciding that my options were too close to call, or a coin flip. I called it out of frustration, before I had finished my analysis.

After the hand I remembered Kotov’s story.


I console myself by remembering that everyone makes mistakes. Here are some I witnessed (or made) in that single day. These players are the best teams of the field. (I am perhaps median in the bracket for strength a few strong players are much stronger than me, but its mostly a bunch of us weak experts).

… Playing in NT with AKQ8x opposite a stiff 9 an expert cashed AKQ and failed to note that the JTx fell on her right, so she called for the low three instead of the high eight.

… Amusingly enough on that hand I (holding 7652) played the 76 on the first two cards and then the 5, because I noted fall of the JTx, so of course assumed the expert would. Given that, I wanted to continue to play my cards top-to-bottom as an unmistakeable signal that I was guarding the upper suit.

After I played the five, I thought “Maybe I should have saved my five because declarer might not have be paying attention.” I decided I was silly, declarer was a solid expert.

When she called for the three I had to sheepishly follow with the deuce. The two of us started laughing and apologizing to our partners.

… I saw an expert make a no hope play that cost a contract. That time I did think “What the hell, its IMPs” and baited her (risking overtricks to offer the failing option). She took it. Dummy instantly noted her mistake.

…(They were also in the wrong contract because she didn’t bid correctly).

… Prosaically — A revoke.

… A few days earlier partner opened 1NT with a singleton because “he had a club mixed in with spades.” We were playing online, the computer sorts the hands. He literally mis-saw a pre-sorted hand.

I’m no better. I chronicled a near-national qualification for Flight A North American Open Pairs and disasters include a hand where I literally could not remember the most basic part of my system. Not obscure, rarely used parts of Polish, mind you. (We all forget the rare stuff from time to time). Bread and butter bidding, in this case — splinters. They show up once a session. (Technically my problem was remembering multiple systems and not being sure which one I played. I was playing standard splinters, and had been for several years at that point).

One partner calls it “Chicken Braining” when you suddenly don’t know things. Where a song name suddenly is gone, or where you can’t remember something until you stop trying. That happens to everyone, I think, but for things like “songs you haven’t heard in a decade,” not “bridge conventions you’ve used for two decades on a weekly basis.”

I remember in college (when I’d been playing for 3 years) making a boneheaded play and my mentor saying “You know better than that.” I remember the shame, because even at that point, I did. I couldn’t explain why I’d done the stupid thing.

I constantly bid or make plays I instantly recognize as mistakes; plays that make me mentally smack my head. I fail to count. I miscount. I can’t tell you the card partner played after the trick is over.

What’s so much worse, is that every once in a while, when I pay attention, I literally mis-see the cards played when I know exactly what I’m looking for.

The funny thing? I’m still a good player. Dangerous … but I rarely win. Too much chicken brain. I can remember the exact details of many of the hands I’ve played in the most recent session. People present me problem hands and I usually get them right. I really am an expert, albeit a weak one.

Kind of where I’d have ended up in Chess. My thinking is just as haphazard as before, but my study of Bridge put my chess study to shame. With so much study I can often recognize the critical point of a position, so I don’t have to think as deeply. It’s like hearing a very complex math puzzle and knowing the answer because I’ve already seen the puzzle solved. Sometimes I just do the obvious things instead of think. But other times hands I’d get right in a puzzle, I miss because I play automatically. Over a full session I’m likely to flub something stupid once or twice (if I’m lucky). Stronger experts don’t flub the easy stuff. And there’s luck … sometimes I can recover or the cards just don’t lie wrong to punish my mistake. (Sometimes my mistake gets lucky and does better than the right play).

At the club I win because the game is loaded with patzers. I won the last club game I played at. But Flight-A events?

I’m too erratic. I can’t really think.


One recent morning I woke up physical refreshed but mentally ambivalent and decided to write the day off. I went back to sleep.

Eventually I got out of bed at a time and sent a note to the office formalizing my status as absent-with-leave. Still feeling a bit groggy and meh, I decided to watch something uplifting and cheery and bright, with songs. (Moana). I felt a bit better, so I grabbed some lunch. Rather, I tried. But my favorite restaurant near my house has a “closed one day a month” policy (and two weeks once a year) that is eminently sensible if you are a restauranteur wishing to retain his sanity, but struck me as a gross injustice when staring at the locked door, craving Thai and only just then remembering their reasonable/infuriating “First Tuesday of the Month” policy.

I’ve had this restaurant be closed a few times in the last year, and each time I thought “Oh, right.”

After a pedestrian, non-Thai lunch I still felt tired, so I napped, and then finally I felt refreshed and OK. I decided to watch a movie that I’d had in my queue — The End of the Tour.

This movie recounts David Lipsky’s interview/road-trip with David Foster Wallace. I haven’t read any of DFW’s fiction, but I enjoy his essays. He writes well (of course), but also takes mundane topics in unexpected directions. And it stars Jason Segel. Now streaming on Netflix. Perfect for a lazy day.

But, much like the green printout sign on the Thai restaurant’s door, I had momentarily forgotten a fact.  David Foster Wallace committed suicide.  (On checking, nearly a decade ago).

The movie is not typical Hollywood. Two hours of writers talking about life, pets, writing, snack food, movies, fame, tobacco, addiction, and writing. It makes me wonder “Who thought this would make a good movie?” But, catnip to me. I routinely turn off movies after a few minutes, but I found this compelling even though nothing much happens.

Good movie. Uplifting it is not. And I had many strange thoughts that tie in with this essay.

(Don’t take this story to mean that I have severe depression. I don’t. But neither do I have the “can-do, turn that frown upside down, let’s face the world with gusty” spirit some people possess. Some days the thought of going out to meet the world fills me with dread. And I have enough resources to simply choose not to face the world, so I sit at home and watch TV, eat Thai food (or not), possibly play computer games or go to the bridge club or write about board games. I relax for one revolution of life’s game clock. This isn’t an “I hate my job” thing, either. I no longer go to the Gathering for ten days because even at five (sometimes less) the noise seems too loud, the colors too bright, and the crowd too maddening. I don’t have depression, so much as a preference for introversion. Perhaps they are related, but depression isn’t a problem for me).

Anyway, the movie is mildly depressing, but also intriguing because DFW spends an equal time contemplating important issues and a similar amount of time caught up with trivia. He describes Infinite Jest as about addiction and the question of “Why do we have so much more than prior generations, but are so much less happy?” (Which makes me want to read that, now). He deals with ethics and philosophy, and comes across as manic-depressive-ish. Not regarding energy, but on the politeness-axis. He is remarkably open in the interview, even dangerously unguarded despite knowing full well that the interviewer can crucify him, then suddenly acts paranoid and terse about letting Lipsky interview others. Wallace freezes up for hours, then suddenly is open and warm beyond measure.

And while I’m not depressed, over the last few years I’ve wondered if I’m losing my mind. Not just normal lapses due to age, or minor facts like the First Tuesday Thai Shortage, or which celebrities are dead. Driving home from a tournament I decided to stop by Trader Joe’s to pick up some things. I’ve been there 50-100 times. I could not remember if it was before or after the highway exit I took. I knew where it was, in the relation to the buildings around it. But not in relation to the exit ramp. Could I get there without turning around?

Didn’t remember.

This is literally two miles from my house, a road I have driven for a decade. A store I’ve been to maybe a few times a month in the years its been open. The exit I take to my house.

Couldn’t remember.

I’m in a meeting meeting where a person says “We’ll agree to do A.” And so I say “OK, we’re doing A.” and the entire meeting says “No, we just agreed to not do A.” I don’t think I mis-heard. These things don’t happen often.

Just enough to make me wonder what’s wrong. I would think it’s normal age related issues, but then I look back on my chess career (as it were) and realize that I’ve always had some problems like this, but I’d just said I’m absent-minded.


Last season of BoJack Horsman featured two episodes (and a few scenes) inside a character’s head, instead of the typical third person POV. One shows Beatrice Horseman (BoJack’s mom) reliving her childhood memories, and also seeing scenes as she seems them now — with dementia.

The people have no faces. She can’t tell them apart.

The other episode was called “Stupid piece of Sh*t” and voices BoJack’s internal monologue: telling himself what to do, to be nice, to not eat food he doesn’t want, to limit himself to one drink.

For all the terrible things he does, he knows better. But he ignores his good intentions. Then he berates himself. (The episode title refers to BoJack calling himself a stupid piece of shit over and over).

It sounded like my internal bridge monologue when I just make a decision without thinking. “Why did I do that? I know better! You stupid *(#&.” Then, in the closing scene, BoJack’s daughter Hollyhock confesses that she has the same internal voice and asks “But, that’s just a stupid teenage girl thing? It will go away, right?”

BoJack assures her it does.

I forced my wife to watch the episode (she hates the show), because I felt like “Finally, someone gets it.” At the time, I felt such elation that one other person …. the writer of some TV show … had the same voice nagging them, berating them.

Thankfully– for me its mostly about being good at games. I’m not driving a Tesla into a swimming pool or getting blackout drunk or driving people away. I’m not suicidal. I’m just annoyed and insulting myself due to avoidable Bridge mistakes. Hooray for the relative unimportance of my terrible decision making!

Every time I sit down to play I tell myself, “this time, I’m going to pay attention, and I’m not going to make a bid or card play and just instantly recognize it as wrong. I’m going to think it through, I’m going to pay attention.”

Sometimes I don’t make it through the first hand.


The End of the Tour conveyed that DFW was self-aware, but not able to improve despite his awareness. (The movie does not touch on his abuse of women). As I said, not uplifting. BoJack suffers the same way.

After my day off I returned to work. Afterwards I swung by the used book store to see what they had and bought several Wallace books. One of them was “This is Water“, a college commencement speech presented in a nice little format and — as such — a ridiculous thing to buy, even used for five dollars.

Wallace talks about compassion, perseverance, and overcoming the problems of mundane existence. It has the following

Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” … It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

(DFW hung himself).

A few days before seeing The End of the Tour I was tinkering with this article (even then several thousand words), struggling to describe my thoughts about being not-as-clever as I wish, feeling stupid about bridge, my patterns of thought. Parts of this essay are nearly a year old. (The parts with DFW are new). Trying to determine how much of this is just:

  • narcissism — I face problems that everyone faces
  • laziness — I don’t work hard enough, and could overcome these issues more effort
  • improper strategy — I have to accept my problems, but find superior work-around to solve them
  • Impossible to fix

I scheduled it to post (again) then pulled it (again) a week before I saw The End of the Tour and picked up the books.

So you’ll understand why another line from This is Water hit so hard.

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up
feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.


I want to re-iterate, I don’t feel depressed. Maudlin, perhaps. One reason I write about games is that it feels easy. Writing about other issues — I could stare at a blank page for hours and never put words down. I have. Writing on a deadline is one of the most terrifying things I’ve done.

And there is nothing inherently wrong about writing about games, or Baseball, or Harry Potter Fan Fiction, or Movies. Good writing is good writing. I don’t pretend all, or even the majority of my writing, is good. But I’m proud of this blog despite wishing I could get better (and spending some time on the mechanics of the craft). But (unlike Bridge or Chess) I never thought “Well, I will become recognized for being a good writer.” So there’s no pressure. My inner voice has sometimes chided me about writing, but infrequently.  In the movie David Foster Wallace (the character) says something like (Paraphrasing) — “it’s fine, even great that Infinite Jest has become so popular and talked about, but even if it were read by only a handful of people I wouldn’t feel like I’ve wasted years of my life writing it.” I assume that David Foster Wallace (the person) said something similar. That struck me as a remarkably healthy attitude, one I wish to have.

Much of what I’ve written here is ephemeral, but I feel the same way about writing and want to feel the same way about the things my inner critic does nag me about.

I’ve long known about my mental quirks — just as many people take Psychology to try to solve their problems, my interest in Cognitive Science is trying to figure out my patterns of thought. (My interest in Cognitive Biases, Less Wrong, HPMOR are likely influenced the same way). For example, after quitting Chess I discovered studies that some people just don’t have as powerful of “a mind’s eye,” and adjusted my bridge strategy to use more literary memory techniques. I don’t exactly burn the midnight oil keeping up with latest science, but I do pay attention. After all, I’ve been calling myself a stupid piece of shit since I failed to master Chess. I’d like to get over it.

Last year Scott Alexander posted a book review that contains

Unbeknownst to me, over the past decade or so neuroscientists have come up with a real theory of how the brain works – a real unifying framework theory like Darwin’s or Einstein’s – and it’s beautiful and it makes complete sense.

I eagerly read Scott’s post, which is difficult to summarize but says your mind is tries to reconcile top-down predictions against with bottom up sensory data (in a Bayesian framework). It will focus attention, discard data, and modify beliefs to get the best fit. It’s a compelling story (although there are problems).

It felt right (especially the attention focusing and data-ignoring) and explains quite a bit. It provided a framework to handle some (possibly most) of my mental lapses. If you expect to see something, you may see it if the data is only off a bit. (Who hasn’t mistaken a heart for a spade at some point? Just not at the most important tournament of their life….) It’s somewhat comforting.

Sadly, it doesn’t give me any practical advice about my problems, other than not to take bridge too seriously (and general mindfulness).

For all my complaining, my mind is phenomenally sharp. (Another of the reasons I’ve unscheduled versions of this post several times is fear that it reads as a humble-brag). I’ve taken pride over my quick thinking, but then feel ashamed because that’s like taking pride for being tall. Nobody picks their height, and nobody ever said “I thought being dumb seemed like the better choice.”

I can’t say I worked hard at it. It just happened. (I am firmly in the camp that you should praise children for effort, not brains, because people can improve their effort). I’ve developed strategies for maximizing my abilities and hiding my limitations from everyone.

Everyone does. We spend our entire lives working on them.

In terms of raw processing power I was dealt a great hand. I just have trouble focusing it. So, I put myself into projects where my strengths are obvious and my weaknesses are minimized. I spend time “thinking about thinking” because I’ve recognized that I’m good when I can enumerate options and rely on prior analysis, and not nearly so good when I have to do the work ‘at the table.’ (That is true for everyone, of course, but since I have real issues focusing at the table, especially true for me).

For some reason, I don’t mind working through a problem by writing. (Hence this post).

I’m not bad at it, even if I still mumble “Stupid” to myself a few times a session.


One of my bridge partners had a stroke last year.

It affected his game (especially in the first few months of his recovery). His concentration drifted. He got tired quickly. Things you’d expect. Textbook symptoms.

But surprises, too. His bidding became wildly aggressive (he even noted it), and he was not exactly on the low end of the aggression spectrum before. He’d quickly claim the contract when there were obvious plays for overtricks (at matchpoints as well as IMPs).  He’d sometimes notice after the hand (or session). Sometimes not. After a few months of recovery, he’s pretty much back to normal, but I sometimes spot a mistake I think he wouldn’t have made, pre-stroke.

And I have absolutely no problem with that. He’s had a stroke, why would I be annoyed at a lapse? I’m not a monster.

Here’s the first point to this long winded essay: its abundantly clear to me that the stroke is responsible for many of my partner’s mental errors.

I’ve spent 25+ years telling myself “concentrate,” “think clearly,” or “visualize the position in your head,” and not being able to. Telling myself to watch the opening lead and remember it, then forgetting. Falling into the rhythm of the game instead of counting. I spent decades berating myself, and just the last few years wondering … am I just not wired up in a way that lets me get this consistently right?

Is this just the intellectual equivalent of color blindness? There are people with aphasia, autism, who can’t read faces. Am I just missing some component?

I’m beginning to think so.

Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be Sherlock Holmes if he were a friendly guy interested in talking to other people. That’s the literary conceit, anyway … but isn’t it true? I see plenty of people trying to will themselves to be good at something, dedicating years of study to it, and being … mediocre, or worse. They can almost improve, but there are hard limits in many cases. I can’t taste what a super-taster does. That’s just a physical difference.

Ever since grad school I’m haunted, feeling that I’m an intellectual Moses, able to see the promised land but never destined to set foot in it. A lack of focus is fine in High School or College, but in Grad School everyone had my mental power and my inability to focus cost. Hard. I can’t make the cut to true expert…. in pretty much anything. I can get close. I’m not asking to hit the home run in the bottom of the ninth in game seven. I’m the guy toiling in the triple AAA league just hoping to make the big leagues. Crash Davis who hasn’t even achieved 18 days in the show.

“What if I’ve always been wired wrong?” That thought takes the wind out of me. Because if I’m wired wrong it sure looks great from the outside world. If I’m missing one component, I have several others most people lack.

But if I’m missing some block, can’t I just be kinder to myself?

Then I think “That’s an arrogant self-pitying thought, you asshole. You’ve heard lots of praise from people who’ve wished they could trade places with you. Just be better.” And I worry that this feeling (“It’s like colorblindness — unsolvable”) is just wishful thinking. An excuse to not get things right.

If I lost my legs I wouldn’t be surprised that I couldn’t walk (even if I still regretted not being able to). But I want to be able to solve my problem, and if I can I definitely should.

I remember an aphorism that “Sometimes there isn’t a problem to be solved, just facts you have to understand.” But now I’m thinking “Worship your intellect and you will end up feeling stupid” and it’s clearly true. I have. I could have used that advice decades ago. I should be kinder to myself.

Maybe I can find a better strategy to compensate. Perhaps I should meditate. Who knows.

I hope I’d have conquered this one after so many years of trying, across so many domains (not just games), but even trying to not worship my intellect I still naturally want to maximize it.

And now — after spending hours on this essay another quote from This is Water literally woke me up a few mornings ago:

Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the
absolute center of the universe

I’ve seen others’ struggle. Watching BoJack my thought was “Ah, one guy gets it.” Reading HPMOR and the fundamental attribution error and knowing all of this about Cognitive Science and thinking about this since the stroke, and I’m just now entertaining the thought that “Everyone gets it.” (Or, if not everyone, a huge section of the population). And I’m looking back on my essay and re-reading my line about how David Foster Wallace seems self-aware and how that struck me.

Everyone else is self-aware. I’ve known that, of course. (I’m not a monster). But I don’t experience it. It’s the water I swim in. I’ve been struggling with this for decades, and now I wonder just how many people are.

I only noticed that David Foster Wallace was self aware because I can heard it in his voice (technically Jason Segel’s). Even then I had to literally have it spelled out for me in an essay. I hear Wallace … and BoJack  and all of Kotov’s audience and so many other characters who seem more alive than people I deal with because I got a glimpse of their point of view…. struggle with problems they intellectually know how to solve and can’t overcome.

And I see them fail. Kotov didn’t produce a room full of Grandmasters, but his book may have helped us all a bit.

I read David Foster Wallace’s speech about how to live a good life and avoid dying inside before you kill yourself.

But David Foster Wallace killed himself. With all his awareness, his depression wasn’t a problem he could solve.

Before I knew — intellectually — that I wasn’t alone. I’d struggled trying to get my inner critic to quiet down, while still trying to improve, but now I don’t feel alone. That won’t solve my problems, but it makes me feel like I should be kinder to everyone, including myself.

And that’s something.

PS — One of the final reasons I didn’t post this last year is that I felt it would be of no interest to anyone else, which I now see as the exact same lack of empathy as before. You can read This is Water, online.

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Written by taogaming

August 12, 2018 at 11:30 am

Congrats to the Baltimore Orioles ….

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on winning thirty games before August (A 15-5 thrashing of the Devil Rays)! You cut it close, guys.

Unrelated side-note, the Bosox have 72 wins.

Written by taogaming

July 28, 2018 at 10:15 am

Posted in Rant

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth….

I was dropping my son off at school when the news at the top of the hour announced David Bowie’s death.

Last year I’d considered – as a writing experiment and nothing more – writing obituaries for the living and discussing how they’d impacted me. Of course I wouldn’t be discussing them as people. That would be presumptuous. I’d never met them. Probably never even seen them in person, live. Nevermind that published obituaries are written (in many cases, pre-written with just a few details to be filled in) by people with no personal connection and not even the impersonal connection I felt.

I never wrote anything on paper, just toyed with structure and language during trips in the car. But I thought about Bowie quite a bit, and frankly there are only a handful of other really interesting entertainers alive today.

My second thought on hearing the news was … hey, this is David Fucking Bowie. AKA Davy Jones aka Ziggy Stardust aka Aladdin Sane aka The Thin White Duke aka Thomas Newton aka Jareth Goblinking and many more. A man who re-invented himself every year or two, who rarely showed his true face to the world. So obviously he’s faked his own death, and won’t it be amazing when he reveals it? But he’s probably dead, I imagine. This feels too gimmicky for the current man.

No, if David Bowie has faked his death it’s because he’s immortal and he’ll never reveal that fact. Certainly not to us.

I am left with my thoughts and the illusion of intimacy that I imagine we had.

I haven’t been this affected by a celebrity death since Jim Henson’s. I remember catching a glimpse of his lovely funeral on the nightly news and just being haunted and devastated, feeling like my childhood had died and wondering about the man who had taken pains during his last months to try and replace the sadness he knew we’d feel with joy and awe and beauty.

If you are of my age (roughly) the Muppets represent childhood, and Jim Henson’s death — coming as I left graduate school and entered the world — felt too on the nose, like time grounding my face in the sand to impress his girlfriend, not because of any particular animus towards me.

Time and Death are powerful bullies who didn’t really want to hurt me: I’m no threat to them. They bully because that’s what the universe does. Just playing to the crowd by rubbing our faces in gritty sandy reality.

I missed Bowie’s huge output in the 70s. I was too young. It was only when he reinvented himself (again) with the Plastic Pop (not to be confused with Plastic Soul) of Let’s Dance that I discovered him as a teenager. And then another shock of discovery when I realized he sang with Queen (in a song they knocked out in a day or two, I imagine). Then, another shock, I recognized the same man singing the Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth with Bing Crosby (who my parents had identified, but they had no idea who the other guy was).

Just another afternoon. Just another beautiful song knocked out.

To me, Bowie never really went away even as his fame flickered. He kept popping up in my life. Before college, he showed up in Labyrinth (working with Jim Henson, now that I think about it). And to, my surprise, this pop singer wasn’t terrible in the movie and his songs mixed pop and gospel (I’m thinking of Underground) and showed an interesting range of ideas. And he wasn’t a horrible actor, even if it was just a cheesy movie.

It was only in college that I started going back to the 70s Bowie, and it felt like he sang my every mood before I experienced them, in rapid succession. I discovered that his range of styles had always been expansive. The demo for Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (the eventual B-side of Space Oddity) included a cello and a small gospel-like section.

Bowie’s Chimerical nature included style, not just show.

During college, my life spun on a CD player to a series of Bowie’s greatest hits and deep cuts on love, loss, partying, depression, insecurity, rage and peacock strutting. He told me everything, and as far as I can tell he was right. (I’ve never been famous, so I’ll just take his word for that, since he was right on everything else). Was I projecting my emotions on songs?

Of course. Probably. Everyone does that.

But only Bowie had the right range and depth of emotions to be the screen I could project on. Other groups I loved  could capture but a small part of my range.

Eventually, I’d go back and watch The Man Who Fell To Earth Is Bowie the only rock star who has starred in a Criterion Collection movie? Probably. This is also a man who apparently wrote art and painting reviews under a psuedonym (and if that’s not true I don’t want to know about it). I’d read the Sandman and say to myself, “Huh, Lucifer looks like David Bowie” and then later find out that it wasn’t a coincidence at all. Neil Gaiman had written explicit instructions that Lucifer should look like this, presumably to allow the Morningstar to bask in Bowie’s reflected glory.

Even when others tuned out, there was stilll the music. I haven’t picked up a lot of Bowie’s earlier albums, but I liked the torch-song phase of Heathen, and the later works of Reality and The Next Day. For years, when I have a long trip, I typically rotate, about 1/2 to 1/3rd Bowie, and everyone else can split the rest.

I found myself in my last trip thinking that practically every song on the Reality live album would actually work as a song that Lucifer would sing to the damned to alternately comfort and mock them at the same time. (“There is no hell; There is no shame; There is no hell, like an old hell…”).
And now he’s gone.

My informal definition of art is “Something that you can take in repeatedly, with new and different thoughts each time.” By my definition, Bowie was the greatest artist I’ve encountered, someone I’ve revisited time and again throughout my life. I’ve listened to his songs, gnashed my teeth trying to learn guitar to them, laughing at parties as his records play, listening to endless covers as other generations discover him. The lady on the news said that Space Oddity was the first music video made in space, by Chris Hadfield. And that was the only real fact she mentioned. He’s reduced to one headline.

I wasn’t even that annoyed. I don’t own David Bowie. His music wasn’t a gift to the world, we paid for it. Gladly. We paid in money and fame and I suspect that 1960s and 1970s Bowie desperately wanted those, then got jaded as he understood the depth of what he’d wished for. Then — only then, as he aged — he accepted our offerings with grace yet retained his mercenary and mercurial nature.

But he also allowed the security in his position to allow him to experiment. I was planning on buying Blackstar, even thought it’s long noodling jazz. Probably it will be terrible (Jazz is hard, people), but he has earned enough goodwill and has succeeded — or at least failed in new ways –at so many things that I think the risk is worth it.

Today David Bowie is gone, and I find myself thinking of the joyful triumphant ending to Rock and Roll Suicide, the song whose opening line graces this post.

Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if i could only
Make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone!

A song I’ve consoled myself with for years, a simple ballad that I was shocked to learn had way too many obscure chords for me to play (aren’t rock songs supposed to have only 4 chords?). The closing song to Ziggy Stardust, and also the last song on Sound and Vision (where they have the live version from his final Ziggy Stardust show), a song I’ve found growing on my through the years.

David Bowie is gone, and I feel sad, but not alone.

Update — I wrote this early this morning, prior to reading much about it, but now it seems clear that Bowie did intend Blackstar as his final album and knew death was imminent, which makes me think back to Jim Henson even more….

Written by taogaming

January 11, 2016 at 5:25 pm

Posted in Non-Gaming, Rant

Tagged with

Art, theme, coincidence and cartharsis

Monday I played a rather pedestrian card game, full of workmanlike mechanisms. The players have to collectively (its a coop) deal with a deck of bad cards and empty it. Most of the cards do something horrible, but in a defined way. So it’s got hand management, some cards cause a random card to be added, so it’s got some press your luck. And, of course, it has a bomb (in the technical sense of game design,  as used by Jonathon Degann): If you trigger some card combination, disaster.

At some point, players can pause, which sweeps the board and (possibly) lets them get rid of a few permanent bad things, gain a new positive action, etc. etc. But it’s also the timer, and if you pause too often, you’ll trigger a game ending loss.

In all honesty, it’s been done better so many times, but the game does have an elegant simplicity. In some ways, its like someone took the challenge of trimming Knizia’s Lord of the Rings down to 60-ish cards. A well done minimalist co-op.

Which would not normally intrigue me, except that The Grizzled is one of the most compelling pieces of art in recent memory. On looking at the box and hearing it’s a co-op set in World War I, I asked (semi-jokingly, but also hopefully) “is this about the Christmas Truce?”

I wasn’t far off. The Grizzled sees a bunch of young foolish boys volunteering for glory and country, with the goal of all making it out alive together. Over a deck of cards, you’ll see them age from clean shaven teenagers to scruffy young adults, and they’ll gain neurosis from the stress of war: fear of loud noises, anxiety about being ordered over the top. Some will crack and curl up in a ball when they could make play that could help their team.

He can’t help it anymore, he’s suffering from shell shock.

You could abandon him, of course, but you’ll honor the oath: Everyone goes home together.

At the bottom of one deck is rests the Monument, etched with the names of the six characters.

The Grizzled boasts stunning artwork. The desolate scenes of snow cover- no man’s land. The destroyed buildings, barbed wire in the foreground and birds in the distance mix beauty with implied horror. The cards convey some information via background. You might not notice it’s a game, except for an icon or two. The art’s clean style  reminds me of Sergio Aragonés, although the muted colors create a sombre mood.

Then on Tuesday, I looked up the artist Tignous and discovered that the brilliant artist who drew this inspiring peon to the pointlessness horrors of war was murdered by radicals during the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Such a horrific  coincidence struck me as poetic, a thought instantly followed by self loathing for judging a death aesthetically. (Judging any death based on aesthetics is bad enough, but a terrorist murder?)

I’d already considered The Grizzled haunting in conception and execution before I discovered that the artist was a member of Cartoonists for Peace and literally executed for his associations and beliefs.

Now, I can’t shake the thought that Tignous’ murder is symbolic, he was another idealist who marched off to war and was ground into a mulch, as war all too often does to idealists and realists alike. And I wonder, was Tignous the latest victim of the Great War, or the first victim in a new war, or (sadly and most likely) simply one of all-too-many during the infinite Clash of Cultures.

My only excuse is that these thoughts came unbidden. And I remember a phrase that I’ve heard and don’t think I invented, but I can’t remember the author. The mind can do what it wants, but it can’t want what it wants. I think it’s a german philosopher.

So while I forgive myself for thinking unclean thoughts, now I sit here and look at this post and wonder if I should publish it. Is it right to let others know information that may make them consider a death poetic, instead of tragic? Would they be better off in ignorance? I cannot bring Tignous back, but would he prefer this to be known or unknown? Can I exorcise them by publishing (as I am able to do in other writing)?

I do not want to investigate anymore, and that is a sign of moral weakness.

I doubt I am the only one thinking of this, and for a second I am annoyed at this game for bringing me back into the world, instead of distracting me from it.

I am reminded of that line by Wordsworth, that The World is Too Much With Us.

And then, again, I am not sure.

Written by taogaming

November 7, 2015 at 5:51 pm

Posted in Non-Gaming, Rant

Tagged with ,

My impression of the ACBL’s position

The ACBL recently has been tweeting up a storm about the New York Time’s completely rational decision to end it’s bridge column. (My local rag has had a poker column in the sports pages for the last several years). The ACBL’s basic strategy is begging the NYT to reverse its decision. But bridge is apparently doing just fine in the rest of the world, but it’s dying here … probably just a coincidence.

We've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas

Perhaps I should be actively working against the ACBL, so that a better organization arises in its place. But I’m lazy.

Written by taogaming

April 29, 2015 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Bridge, Rant

Getting Old

Upside — I know quite a bit of trivia. For example, a trivia game asked the artist for the 2008 Grammy winning album “River: The Joni Letters.” And I was the only one who knew it.

Downside — I could have sworn that came out at least 5 years earlier. The really odd thing is that I could have sworn I bought it before I moved back to Texas, because I think I remember which store I bought it at, and that wasn’t in Texas. But I may be confusing it with the store I bought Heathen in.

Double Downside — I just revealed that I buy music in physical locations, so I’m truly old.

Answer at Wikipedia.

Written by taogaming

April 27, 2015 at 9:57 pm

Posted in Rant, TV & Media

Miskatonic School For Girls

In Miskatonic School for Girls, players suffer intensely while slogging through an interminable schedule. The “winner” merely kept their sanity longer than the others.

That’s also the theme.

This. Was. Terrible. Perhaps something can be salvaged if future designers view this as a cautionary tale. To be fair, MS4G reveals how many good decisions Donald X. made on Dominion, based on the sheer number of things gotten wrong.

  • Cards give you friendship and nightmare points. And cards give two types of defense points (multiple currencies). But you only use the first two when you draw cards, and you use the latter two when you flip for combat. So draw a 4 friendship and flip a 2 defense, pretty good. But if those cards were randomly reversed, you get no friendship and no defense (because a card good in one thing is often terrible at another).
  • So that means that the core feature of a deckbuilder is broken, because you randomly skip some cards each time for combat.  (It’s actually worse than that, because some cards have special abilities that only happen if they are drawn or flipped randomly).
  • Like Ascension, cards are randomly available to purchase. That turn I got 0 friendship and 7 nightmare points? The best nightmare card cost 3. The turn I get 4 nightmare points, the worst nightmare card costs 5.
  • But don’t feel sorry for me, because it’s so random I almost won.
  • Wait, that meant I had to play on to the very last turn, instead of embracing defeat’s sweet release.
  • The game wasn’t even funny. Even Munchkin was funny the first time or two through the deck. This had bad naming puns and one semi-funny card I noticed.
  • It clocked in at nearly two hours. Excruciating.

This is exhibit A-F in the argument against kickstarter.

Rating — Avoid.

Written by taogaming

March 26, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Posted in Rant, Reviews

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