Monday, March 22, 2010

The memory palace

I can't remember where/how I saw this blog, but it's pretty sweet. It basically summarizes a historical event or idea in a 3-5 minute audio story.

So far, I've already heard about World War II bat bombs... (Episode 4):

In the plan, members of a top-secret World War II-era unit of the U.S. Air Force would net literally millions of Mexican free-tailed bats, from Texas or New Mexico caves, before gluing a tiny, specially-made napalm time-bomb onto every individual one. More than a thousand such armed bats would then be hung beneath stacked trays, inside a hollow, five-foot-tall bombshell perforated with air holes and equipped with a parachute. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these bombs would then be loaded into planes. The bombs’ temperatures would be lowered enough to send the bats into temporary hibernation—to eliminate the need to feed and calm them—and the “bat bombs” would then be flown, via the Micronesian island of Tinian, into the early-morning darkness over Japan.

The bombs would then fall through the air until, triggered by an altimeter about 4,000 feet up, their parachutes would bloom, their sheet-metal sides would fall away, the pins of the time bombs would pull out, and the bats themselves would awaken and emerge. The moonlit sky would fill with leathery wings, and the bats would fly down to roost before dawn, down to the eaves and overhangs of the city of Osaka. Fanning out for an estimated twenty miles in every direction, the bomb-bearing bats would roost all over the overcrowded city, before settling into the nooks of the city’s picturesque but notoriously combustible wooden buildings—shifting into sleep, and then exploding—bursting into flame, and burning down the city, a city that at the time boasted a population of approximately seven million people.

This crazy idea went so far as to actually be successfully tested on a mock Japanese town in the Utah desert. The bats functioned as expected and burned the entire mock up town to the ground. That was enough to convience the USAAF to go ahead with an operational development and deployment. The nuclear bomb put an effective end to the bat bomb however before it was deployed.

Four biological factors gave promise to this plan. First, bats occur in large numbers (four caves in Texas are each occupied by several million bats). Second, bats can carry more than their own weight in flight (females carry their young — sometimes twins). Third, bats hibernate, and while dormant they do not require food or maintenance. Fourth, bats fly in darkness, then find secluded places (often in buildings) to hide during daylight. (here and here)


... And about the oft troubled 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce. (Episode 6...)

Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen

GREAT interview with Magnus Carlsen, the youngest person to become a chess grandmaster at the age of 13 years, four months and 27 days. He is currently the number one ranked chess player in the world, and trains with Garry Kasparov. He talks about general intelligence, work ethic, a bit of chess, and even less about girls. (via Kottke)

Here are some excerpts (SPIEGEL being the interviewer, Der Spiegel Magazine):

SPIEGEL: Where did this enthusiasm for chess come from all of a sudden?

Carlsen: I don’t know. No more than I can tell you why I wanted to do 50-piece jigsaw puzzles when I was not even two years old. Why did I want to know all the common car makes at the age of two and a half? Why did I read books about geography at the age of five? I don’t know why I learnt all the countries of the world off by heart, including their capitals and populations. Chess was probably just another pastime.

SPIEGEL: You are a sloppy genius?

Carlsen: I’m not a genius. Sloppy? Perhaps. It’s like this: When I am feeling good, I train a lot. When I feel bad, I don’t bother. I don’t enjoy working to a timetable. Systematic learning would kill me.

SPIEGEL: How were you able to stand maths lessons then?

Carlsen: When I was 13, my parents took me out of school for a year. They travelled around the world with me and my sisters, and on the way they taught us. That was fantastic, much more effective than sitting in school. I do understand that it is a problem for a teacher having to look after 30 pupils. But the slow speed was quite frustrating for me. I didn’t miss school at all.

SPIEGEL: Many football players use music to get in the mood before a game. Do you do that too before sitting down in front of the board?

Carlsen: Oh, yes. If I am feeling gloomy before a game, I listen to gloomy music.

SPIEGEL: Such as?

Carlsen: You probably won’t know it, a song by Lil Jon. A silly rap song, but it does me good, I loosen up. I listen to music on the Internet, but don`t download any songs. It’s all totally legal. Many people may find that boring, but I think it is important.

SPIEGEL: How is he (Garry Kasparaov, his coach) useful to you?

Carlsen: He still has loads of unused ideas for openings. And the fact that he has played against most of my opponents himself is invaluable. He senses what mood they are in, how they will open the game. I can’t do that.

SPIEGEL: Viswanthan Anand, the current world champion, is worried that you will dominate the scene for years to come. He thinks it is time you met a girl at last. How is that going?

Carlsen: I get a certain amount of fan mail from younger women.

SPIEGEL: Do you answer it?

Carlsen: It depends.

SPIEGEL: On what?

Carlsen: That is private and confidential.


Last night the family got our first opportunity to play Settlers of Catan IN REAL LIFE. So far I've just played on the iphone, and although the game is great either way, playing with people was (obviously) definitely better as, ummm, is the case with most things. There are two more online Catan resources. First, if you want to practice in front of your computer against computer opponents, go here. It's a Java version; no downloads and instant access.

Second, you can play against other actual live people online here. There is a program you have to install to participate, so not sure what that's like yet, but I'm pretty sure it's straight forward. My one outstanding question would be if you can you choose to play against specific people? Not sure with the free version.

Finally, there do seem to be plans for a Settlers facebook game... Here's a interview with Klaus Tueber, the Catan designer, at Cannes about a week ago.