18 May 2020

On Wednesday, the lockdown restrictions were relaxed a little in England. We are now allowed to meet one other person from outside our household, outdoors, and staying 2m apart. It had been two months since I had spent any time with the family I moved down here to be with. My nephew and I made full use of the new freedom and we met on a nearby hillside to have a picnic and play a game of chess — he thrashed me! We also tended to our bees together for the first time in months. It had been so long since the last one that Ben had grown out of his bee suit and wellies, but things looked broadly good in the hive!

[Go] Playing go continues to be mysterious, addictive and fun.

I bought another go book that Chris recommended, called The Second Book of Go, for when I complete Learn Go and get some of the elementary stuff understood. I bought it from Amazon for £21.67, quite a lot for a fairly low-quality print-on-demand volume. I usually check Amazon books to see if they're print on demand as soon as I get them, and I saw that this copy was printed in an Amazon centre in Torrazza Piemonte in Italy before it was shipped the 1500km to me here! Despite it being print-on-demand, I won't be sending it back — it's the perfect size to stick in my backpack for when I'm waiting for a train connection or something. Its 152 pages cover a fair bit of ground.

Chris has encouraged me to move up to 13×13 boards after just a couple of 9×9 games. The larger board encourages you to keep an eye on several unfolding situations rather than concentrating on just the one or two that the smaller board contains. Hopefully, in time, I'll not make the mistake of fixating on one part of the board, or what Chris is doing in a locality of it, to the exclusion of the rest of the situation.

The main skill I'm working on right now is the ability to judge whether a group is alive or dead, trying to read ahead and extrapolate the possible plays from the current position, how to approach the situations I see. Doing puzzles and problems helps with this, but in games, it's important to know when to leave a dead group alone, and it's this I'd like to gain some intution for next.

I learned that there is an algorithm — for computers to execute — called Benson's algorithm which checks whether a chain of stones is unconditionally alive. It's not really suitable for a human to apply manually, though, and doesn't cover all the nuance of play — things like ko or seki.

Especially in these pandemic times, we'd welcome people out there joining our group on OGS to learn along with us. We hold a (voice) conference call alongside the games in which we discuss how the game is developing and interesting situations on the board. Currently this is done using Discord, but we easily can change to another method if we become at all uncomfortable with it or its privacy shortcomings. We also play other, less abstract board games using Tabletop Simulator, so far Azul, Forbidden Desert, Jaipur, Patchwork and Splendor, but go, via OGS, seems to be emerging as a regular favourite. The handicap system in go makes it easy to match players of differing abilities, and we're happy to explain the simple rules and play lots of 9×9 games to give you a feel for the game. Most Monday and Wednesday evenings just after 8pm London time seems to be the time of the week we get together so far.

[Haskell] I'm pleased to report that studying the ways of Haskell continues to be an almost-daily habit. I've now finished Learn You a Haskell For Great Good! I bought it on 24 November 2014, so I got to the final page just before the 5½-year mark — pretty good going for me. I'd definitely recommend it for beginners. Through the many and various descriptions around, I feel I'm getting a pretty good intuition on what that mysterious thing — a monad — actually means. I guess now I should look at some of those monad papers by Phil Wadler. Incidentally, Wadler maintains a list of functional programs applied to real-world tasks which is worth a look.

I started on my trail explorer program, just to put some of the more basic stuff into practice. I'm not sure where it will lead yet, and I might drop it at any point. It's worth it just to get into the habit of daily coding instead of just reading, even if that coding involves getting to grips with cabal, haddock or other tools.

[Screen time] My television has been on quite a bit over the lockdown, so here are a few notes on programmes I've been watching and games I've been playing.

My current binge-watch is Connections (1978). James Burke travels the world of over forty years ago in order understand the history of science and invention. Specifically, how they build upon each other, driven by the needs of humanity, to bring about the modern technology on which we absolutely depend. Specifically, eight inventions are covered, perhaps typical of that which lead up to the world as it was viewed in the seventies. They are: telecommunications, the computer, the jet engine, plastics, rockets, television, the atomic bomb, and the production line. Not everyone liked it, and many said that it wound an arbitrarily-chosen path through the chains of events of history. But people make a similar criticism of Adam Curtis, whose films are similar, but about power and society. I think in both cases that path passes through a lot of new facts, theories and ideas so they're interesting in any case.

I've come back to the best video game time-sink of all (apart from Universal Paperclips, of course). In January 2017, on Julian's recommendation, I bought a copy of The Witness. We both played it for hours, referring to it as The Funny Garden. To say more than a couple of sentences about it would ruin more and more of the game for a new player, so I'm summarise it by saying it's an open-world, single-player puzzle game. You explore an island, solving puzzles by drawing paths on panels scattered throughout it, but never with any explicit instructions for how to do so. In fact, it's entirely non-verbal. You just rely on careful observation, getting it wrong lots, and that inevitable happy epiphany. The game's art is beautiful and the experience of playing it immersive and very engaging. Don't let the fact it's a few years old put you off — that just means it's not very expensive and on a wide variety of platforms, including tablets.

Its creator, Jonathan Blow, tends to work for many years on each game he produces, and has a philosophy of game creation rather more profound than usual. He has said that his next game will take twenty years to complete. Braid (2008), his first game, allows the player to rewind objects in the game backward in time, even after dying.

A conversation about this sprang up on IRC. Jules mentioned he'd been meaning to play Fez (2012), having seen and enjoyed Indie Game: The Movie (2012). Reenigne recommended The Talos Principle (2014) as another good example of this sort of game. And The Witness is itself a sort of descendent of Myst (1993). I'd like to try that too, but, given the age of it, it looks like I'd need to understand a bit more about emulators before I can.

I bought Braid and Fez to play over the rest of the lockdown, but if you're looking for this sort of game to occupy yourself, I'd say you can't go far wrong with The Witness. I think I'd go so far as to say that it's my all-time favourite video game.