Open Thread

Some random observations and some links:

i. I’ve written about diabetic hypoglycemia before – I even blogged a book on the topic just a few weeks ago. So I’ll keep this short. Here’s the key observation from the post to which I link: “Hypoglycemia causes functional brain failure that is corrected in the vast majority of instances after the plasma glucose concentration is raised”.

Functional brain failure is pretty much what it sounds like – the brain stops working. The point I want to make here is that hypoglycemia can strike pretty much at any point in time, including when I’m doing stuff like blogging or commenting. I sometimes develop hypoglycemia while deeply engrossed in some intellectual activity, like reading, writing or chess, in part because in those situations I have a tendency to forget to listen to my body’s signals – perhaps I forget to eat because this stuff is really much more interesting than food, perhaps I don’t really care that I should probably take a blood test now because I’d really much rather just finish this book chapter/chess game/blogpost/whatever. That happens. When it happens while I’m blogging, what comes out the other end may look funny. I occasionally write stuff that’s incoherent and stupid. Sometimes the explanation is simple: I’m an idiot. Sometimes other things play a role as well.

This is a variable you cannot observe, but which I have a lot of information about. It’s a variable I’d like readers of this blog to at least be aware of.

ii. Maxwell wrote this post, which you should consider reading. I won’t pretend to have good reasons/justifications for disliking people I conceive of as arrogant, but I do want to note that I do this and always have. Arrogance is a trait I dislike immensely.

iii. Over the last few days I’ve been reading Okasha’s great book Evolution and the Levels of Selection (I’ve almost finished it and I expect to blog it tomorrow) – so of course when Zach Weiner came up with this joke yesterday, I laughed. Loudly:



(Click to view full size. The comic of course has almost nothing to do with the content of the book, but I’ll take any excuse I can get for blogging that comic…)

iv. The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Available to you, online, free of charge. Stuff like this sometimes makes me think we live in a very nice world at this point.

But then I read posts/watch videos like this one and I’m reminded that things are, complicated.

v. A few Khan Academy lectures:


August 8, 2014 - Posted by | Genetics, History, Khan Academy, Lectures, Medicine, Personal, Physics


  1. As a chess knowledgable person could you give your input on the quality of (with game noobs in mind)?

    Comment by Stefan | August 9, 2014 | Reply

    • I’m not familiar with the site, but I gave it a quick glance. Here’s my impression (as mentioned from a quick glance only – I’ve never spent time on that site before):

      The instruction videos seem to be by an NM. It’s probably safe to assume that he knows the rules of the game and how the pieces move and so on, so I don’t expect there to be any major errors in the coverage which are super relevant for a beginner (though see also below). He doesn’t understand chess as well as do strong GMs, so some subtle points will probably be missed in the coverage – but if this is a ‘game noobs’ context, this really doesn’t matter, and from the limited impression I got from the stuff I looked at he seems to try to keep it simple in order not to confuse people, which is probably a good strategy. I’m however reasonably sure, though it’s hard to tell as the position is somewhat messy, that in one of the ‘diving deep’ exercises I had a look at, the best defence is not what is played by ‘the machine’/opponent, which made the puzzle confusing to me. The machine/opponent decides to open up the position despite being underdeveloped, which is suicide in the specific position, despite having the option of closing the position instead. I think the other move also loses as black’s position stinks, but I wouldn’t even consider the move that was played and rejected the move you’re ‘supposed to find’ for that specific reason. This is sort of a problem in a context like this, because weak/new players in particular are quite prone to having a limited imagination in terms of which responses the opponent might come up with; one will think up a beautiful combination, which turns out to be completely wrong because the other guy didn’t play the move you expected him to play – which means that precision and accuracy to me seems to be important. However even if a specific puzzle is slightly problematic, as long as the ‘usual stuff’ like developmental principles and opening ideas, tactical motifs, some positional stuff like how to find good squares for your pieces, a bit of endgame stuff like how pieces and pawns often tend to change in values as the game proceeds in foreseeable ways and how piece activity is very important also in the endgame, etc., are covered, it’s probably an okay resource. I can’t really endorse the site without trying it out, but I have no interest in trying it out because if it covers the stuff it’s supposed to cover, it will teach me nothing I don’t already know. So consider it a conditional endorsement. If a NM is behind it I’m sure there are lots of worse resources out there.

      You should note that specific rules introduced in noob-level coverage (assuming all of this is noob-level coverage) are likely to be overturned in specific contexts when you move on and learn more about the game. A specific example might be mentioned here. There was a knight = 3 pawns, bishop = 3 pawns, rook = 5 pawns, queen = 9 pawns conversion table presented at one point when I had a look at the site. If you’re starting out such a table will work just fine, but later on you’ll need to be a bit more careful – for example two bishops are almost always stronger than two knights; the relative value of these pieces are related to the number of pawns on the board (as a general rule, the more pawns on the board, the stronger the knights are relative to the bishops); activity may be worth material (the whole idea behind gambits); absolute disparities in material may often be less important than relative disparities – an example would be that when you’re in an endgame and you have three pawns and a king vs a king and one pawn, you have a much bigger advantage than in a situation where your opponent has 5 pawns and you have 7; if you are up three pawns in an endgame you’ll usually win by converting a pawn whereas having an extra bishop instead (‘worth three pawns’) may lead to a draw because you can’t give mate with a king and a bishop; sometimes endgames with a rook and a pawn vs a queen is a draw with correct play because one can set up a fortress (there are lots of fortress types, so they don’t just apply to this situation); the drawing chances are much higher in opposite colour bishop endgames than in bishop endgames where bishops have the same colour, so in a context where you have a bishop and a knight vs two bishops it may be very important which bishop you exchange the knight with (if you get the option of exchanging), etc., etc.

      Comment by US | August 9, 2014 | Reply

      • I just realized that a very relevant question here is this: Is this site something you’re supposed to pay for? Are there additional resources for people who pay? Are you considering paying for it?

        If so, I don’t think it’s worth the money. I say this without really knowing much about the site, because I think knowing stuff about the site is unnecessary for me to make that judgment. If you’re a beginner there’s a huge amount of free material available online; paying for anything at that level seems completely unnecessary to me unless you have very high search costs. Surely some free resources are better than others, but the more you learn the easier it will be for you to tell the good from the bad, and I think there’s an argument to be made for not limiting exposure to one resource partly for this reason.

        How much have you played? How much do you know? You’ve spent one hour on chess altogether, or perhaps 50? Do you have a rating on a chess site of some kind?

        Comment by US | August 9, 2014

      • Thanks for the reply! I was only considering paying for it with my limited attention.

        Which resources or exercises would you (without wasting to much of your undoubtedly better-spent-elsewhere time on the question) recommend for someone who has only ever played chess for fun if they wanted to get marginally better at it?

        Comment by Stefan | August 9, 2014

  2. @ How much have you played? How much do you know? You’ve spent one hour on chess altogether, or perhaps 50? Do you have a rating on a chess site of some kind?

    Very little “skoleskak” years ago, with one or two tournaments, but can’t remember anything besides the basic rules and whatever intuition about the game the training left somewhere in my brain. No rating anywhere.

    Comment by Stefan | August 9, 2014 | Reply

    • I was thinking about the best approach here. I ended up concluding that assuming I’m smarter than the crowd would be, well, a sign of arrogance. So what I should recommend you to do is to go here, read the faq, and if the faq doesn’t help, ask the redditors or go have a look at what they’ve told other people (though I rarely frequent that subreddit, it’s my impression that such questions pop up often there).

      The problem is also that I haven’t been a beginner in a long time. When I’m trying to e.g. improve my endgame, I’ll be reading articles about in which situations one might be able to win an opposite-colour bishop endgame with an extra pawn, or in which positions one might be able to draw despite being two pawns down in that context, or how to play when you’re down the exchange for a pawn and which variables are important in that context. That’s useful stuff to know, but a sort-of-near-beginner should not start there, and that’s the sort of stuff I know how you can find.

      Comment by US | August 9, 2014 | Reply

      • One thing I’d note is that in order to improve it’s certainly a good idea to do various exercises etc. to learn principles, but it’s also really useful to play rated games as well. If you don’t have a rating anywhere, I think it would be a good idea to set up an account on some chess site (I have an account on playchess, but any site will probably do – I think there’s a list of sites on the faq to which I link above) and play some rated games. Ratings are useful because they help you track whether or not you’re improving. For example I know from the rating system on playchess that my tactics abilities (and my positional understanding, as the exercises also train such aspects) have improved a lot since I started training on that site, as my rating has gone up a lot over the last year. I’m now semi-consistently in the top 100, and occasionally in the top 50 on the tactics list. Which is incidentally also one of the reasons why I feel conceited enough to assume that I know enough about this sort of stuff to evaluate whether the puzzle on chessacademy which I mentioned may be flawed.

        Comment by US | August 9, 2014

      • Thanks for the feedback. I’ll take a look at the /r/chess faq.

        Comment by Stefan | August 9, 2014

      • Thanks for asking.

        If you don’t mind watching lectures, I should perhaps have pointed out that there are a lot of free lectures available here. There’s a 50 lecture playlist for beginners. I haven’t seen those lectures so I don’t know if they’re boring, but I have watched some of the lectures in the ‘advanced’ section and I found some of those quite interesting. Most of them are lectures by Grandmasters, so there’s no doubt they know what they’re talking about.

        I also generally like (IM) Christof Sielecki’s stuff on youtube, and although some of the coverage on that channel is probably beyond you (the material covered on the channel is better suited for a reasonably strong tournament player than it is for a beginner), I think some of his opening videos may well be worth checking out if you’re interested (see this and this).

        Comment by US | August 9, 2014

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