Chess and Go

Friend Who Always Pays for Dinner (previously known as Dr Giant Steps and Fellow Gravitational Wave Detector) and I went to a Burmese place for dinner yesterday. Well, the Burmese place is not actually relevant to the story but I still wanted to show off that I tried yet another cuisine.

On the way to the restaurant we chatted about the concept of decision making and Artificial Intelligence. Well, he talked and I listened. He plays go on and off and was telling me how the game is far more complex than chess. The general idea behind it is that it’s theoretically possible to win a game of chess through brute force but that can’t be done for go because there are more possible configurations of the go board than atoms in the universe. Google has made some breakthroughs in developing an AI go player.

I’m now going to talk about something completely different. I was reading a book on the psychology of a highly sensitive person. The book is surprisingly titled “The Highly Sensitive Person”. Dr Elaine Aron suggests there are four defining characteristics of an HSP: Depth of Processing, Overstimulation, Emotional reactivity (or empathy), Sensing the Subtle.

To the highly sensitive person the world perhaps feels like a massive game of go. To start with we’re more finely tuned to subtle signals than the average person. (median, not average, Dr Dinner Payer gently corrects). No matter how deeply we process the information we are given the world is just too complex to throw up clean answers. To make matters worse, HSP’s can add more complexity through sheer imagination. Of this mess we then want to make sense.

There are no guaranteed right answers. How can there be? We don’t even know what the questions are! That is no deterrent, however, to the more persistent among us. Can you imagine then, even for a moment, being a brute force algorithm against a go game? Can you imagine trying to win a game of go not through heuristics but through sheer stubborn analysis?

Yes, you’re right. That can only lead to overstimulation – a feeling of being overwhelmed by everything around you. The classic analysis paralysis. You cannot make a move. How can you? You’ve set yourself up to find the “right” answer. You want to find the one atom in the entire universe that is right for you. You will not accept anything less.

All around you, meanwhile, other players are using a different algorithm – one better suited to navigating the world. Instead of brute forcing their way into finding the one special atom, their target is to win. Their target is to be good enough to beat the board they are up against.

To drop this pursuit of perfection, however, is to willingly acknowledge that you might fail. Remember the third trait of an HSP? It’s emotional reactivity. The fear of the unknown is far more powerful than anyone realizes. It’s an age old fear, one best articulated by Hamlet.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

This fear of the unknown makes us believe in the mirage of control. We think that if we control what might come, we can save ourselves from a world of pain. Thus we spend our lives trying to control outcomes. We spend our lives trying to brute force our way through a game of go when really, what we need is just a strategy and a leap of faith.

New friendships

wp-1474955005273.jpgLast Sunday marked the completion of my Bay Area Darshan thanks to Dr Giant Steps (who has finally, may I note, learned to walk like a human when he’s around me). We covered all major cuisines – Italian, Greek, Mediterranean, Ethiopian, Thai, Korean and even Indian. We covered all major hubs of wealth – Saratoga, Palo Alto, Mountain View. We made it to most of the San Francisco tourist attractions. We visited the pier(s) and Coit tower the first time around. Yesterday we squeezed in a cursory visit to all major museums (we discovered that we’re both philistines who cannot be around art for more than a few minutes at a time), he even drove me around Union Square just for the heck of it. His meticulous planning even ensured he didn’t take the same freeway twice thus giving me a city view and a picturesque view.

All I had to do was sit back, listen to some weird Korean music (he’s fluent in the language. I could only make out dramatic English phrases peppered throughout), poke fun of his music choices, and occasionally make half-hearted attempts to pay (what can I say, he should have known better than to offer).

With the exception of a highly reactive temperament, Dr Giant Steps and I don’t have much in common. He’s a cerebral, academic IITan. I’m more of a wing-it type. He proceeds with checklists and consults maps. I walk around aimlessly. He at least makes an attempt to look at exhibits in museums. I walk out in two minutes when I see cultural artifacts displayed as art (this is undoubtedly easier for me to do because I don’t pay for the ticket to get in). He checks Yelp reviews before getting even ice cream (and relies on Apple Maps to navigate. Shudder!). I drag him into vintage stores and stores displaying skulls.

The easiest way to understand how the two of us are different is to look at the photos we take. Here is a sample of his photography. Observe the composition and attention to detail. Look how perfectly the trees frame the bridge and the yachts sailing beneath? The picture tells you a complete story with one glance.


Even his street views are captured at just the right angle. This is a perfect urban shot. It could be anywhere in the world, except that you see the building peeking out behind the tree that’s unmistakably San Francisco to me.


On the flip side, here’s the kind of ridiculousness that catches my eye. A bookstore that conforms to my expectations that San Francisco embraces the quirky.


A display in a Mountain View store that represents “ironic geeky” vibe.


A sign that captures the twee-ness of a Saratoga cafe.


There’s no finesse, no polish, no intent to any of my photos. I usually have to crop them and adjust the angle and use the auto-correct feature on the photo editor before they make sense. For most part the photos only make sense to me. Quite analogous to my approach to life in general, I think.

Given these differences you would think Dr Giant Steps and I would quickly run out of conversation and/or patience. At the very least we would get on each others’ nerves after a while, no? Surprisingly, that hasn’t been the case. I do have my theories why this is but for once I’d rather not dissect. Instead I’ll only say it’s quite an unlikely friendship, but one I’m glad to have found.

Under the Golden Gate Bridge

Boats feature quite prominently in The Hero’s and my history. It all started about nine years ago on the day I rode a boat wearing a sequined yellow sari to meet him (long story). Boat rides galore in the Kerela backwaters on our honeymoon. Then a boat ride down the Chicago river to celebrate when he graduated from his PhD. I carried the tickets from that one for many years until they fell apart. A boat ride in San Antonio to celebrate our third anniversary. A boat trip down the Godavari to Bhadrachalam marked our return to India. We haven’t been on a boat since. Pregnancy and a high-energy child scared us off.

So taking a boat ride under an iconic bridge all alone last weekend felt a little wrong – as though I’d left a piece of me behind. As much as I loved the view, I couldn’t help but see bits of us in the people around. A couple sitting across us clearly newly in love and so careful of each other. A couple obviously deeply in love who spent most of the ride in a Titanic pose. A couple with a young child tightly bundled in a warm parka. As general a cross section of humanity as you would find in any tourist spot, really. But as we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, I found myself missing The Hero.

When I got back I called home to complain. “I missed you so much!”

“Well”, replied The Hero, “Now you know why I ask you to come along to every time I have a conference.”

I’m glad that I opted for this trip, really. On one hand it’s reminded me how to live alone and keep myself company. On the other hand, I’ve never appreciated my family more. I miss cuddling my child at the end of a long day. I miss my husband’s quiet support when I have a rough day. I even miss the boys ganging up on me and tickling me. Oh well, four weeks done, four more to go.

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