5 Things You Probably Don't Know About Me

Steve Pietrek tagged me, so...

I may be the world's worst student. I graduated High School by the margin of a D+ (in English yet, where I had 780s on both my SATs and boards), I dropped out of college (where I had dual majors in Marine Biology and, yes, English), and I walked out of the only Adult Education class I ever took (in screenwriting, even though I've sold a screenplay). It's bad enough that I'm never satisfied with the pacing the teacher chooses, but even worse is that I'm a huge skeptic: I synthesize information by reflexively seeking counterarguments. Among peers, that's fine, because saying "But that's not the case with X" is part of a mutual search for an optimum approach. I'm not talking about once per semester, I'm saying this is my mode when learning.

This way of thinking is why, politically and philosophically, I'm a pragmatist. Sure, for the past decade I've probably looked like an unrepentant liberal, but that's primarily a reaction to the rise of the ideologically driven right and the particularly reprehensible hypocrisy of those "conservatives" who are actively working against the very restraints on power that were the greatest achievement of the founders of our country. (I think the founding of the United States was one of the greatest triumphs in the entire history of civics; a view that is not generally identified as "liberal.")

I bet you didn't know that I solved backgammon. And not in the sense of "wrote a really good computer program" (although I did that, too), but in the sense that I wrote down several pages of equations the maximum value of which, when applied to all legal moves, provides the objective best move. I don't have the equation or program anymore (I don't even have the DECTape on which the program was stored...), but the solution can be described very simply: that move is best which creates the greatest delta between your situation and your opponents in the average number of rolls left to bear off all your men. The average number of rolls to bear off your stones can be computed trivially when there is no engagement and you are simply in a race to bear off (average number of rolls is a little different than the intermediate backgammon tactic of tracking the "count" of stones * positions, but not much) . When you are engaged, if you momentarily put aside "hitting" and think only of blocking, it's still pretty easy to figure out (since the efficacy of a block can be compared: a block that extends over six points, for instance, has a 100% chance of blocking all moves from an opponent's stone butting up against it). When you add hitting to the equation, you both directly "push back" the stone and you have a chance of blocking it's re-entrance to the board. But what about the evolution of the board, you ask? Well, that's why you recurse. But unlike chess, the evolution of the board is controlled by probability. Therefore, you only have to look ahead a tiny amount of moves before the immediate contribution of possible future board configuration becomes vanishingly small (I don't recall ever seeing a situation where the correct move altered by extending the look-ahead past 4). Since you can calculate the average number of rolls left for both players, it's easy to calculate the probability of reversing the current situation and therefore determining when a double is rational to offer or accept. Thus is backgammon solved: strategy isn't relevant, since an objective score for every possible move can be rapidly calculated.

I think I'm quite nice. You might not know that if you just know me from my blog and articles. I try to always be fair when I write, but that's not the same as being nice, which I think I am in person. Even though I reflexively seek holes in every argument (see above), I don't feel compelled to share them, especially in social situations. True, I like the argumentative social structure that was common in Boston and New York. I think I would have been a helluva good rabbi, if being an atheist raised as an Irish Catholic didn't disqualify me. Oh and I bet rabbis have to go to school (see above)?

You might know this --  it's no secret -- but if you want to understand me, it's important to know that my wife Tina was diagnosed with leukemia and given 18 months to live when we were 29-year-old newlyweds (14 years ago). She had a bone-marrow transplant from her only brother and I decided that I was not interested in pursuing success at the expense of my time on Earth with her. So, although I love work and spend a lot of time working, when it comes to making the kinds of sacrifices that are necessary to excel in business, I'm not interested. A few years ago I was offered a dream job, one that would undoubtedly have made me lots of money and put me on the track to retiring early as a millionaire. All I had to do was devote myself to this major company for 10 or 15 years, buy a couple suits and a drawerful of stylish black turtlenecks, and do a lot of traveling. It was incredibly easy to turn down. And if I didn't want that job... We moved to Hawai'i six months later.

Okay, so who to tag... Who do I know-but-not-know and who blogs? Hmm... Julie Lerman, casey chesnut, and Jeff Atwood don't seem to have yet been caught in this Ponzi scheme. I bet Alan Zeichick and Scott Ambler will have interesting things to say. I wonder if Andrew Binstock can be persuaded to go off-topic.