Wednesday, 28 January 2009

New Insights On Learning Languages (& Possibly Chess)

Language Lab - image by Walter Parenteau

New research from Victoria University, New Zealand, has given us further insights about learning foreign languages. The answer appears quite simple. The brain needs to initially set up the neural structures that then enable us to learn new combinations of sounds. This initial neural setup stage can be achieved by passively listening to a foreign language without any need for there to be an understanding of the words heard. The report is found - here.
Revolutionary approach to learning languages

Published 27 January 2009

The teaching of languages could be revolutionised following ground-breaking research by Victoria University PhD graduate Paul Sulzberger.

Dr Sulzberger has found that the best way to learn a language is through frequent exposure to its sound patterns—even if you haven't a clue what it all means.

"However crazy it might sound, just listening to the language, even though you don't understand it, is critical. A lot of language teachers may not accept that," he says.

"Our ability to learn new words is directly related to how often we have been exposed to the particular combinations of the sounds which make up the words. If you want to learn Spanish, for example, frequently listening to a Spanish language radio station on the internet will dramatically boost your ability to pick up the language and learn new words."

Dr Sulzberger's research challenges existing language learning theory. His main hypothesis is that simply listening to a new language sets up the structures in the brain required to learn the words.

"Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language—which is how babies learn their first language," Dr Sulzberger says.

He was prompted to undertake the research after spending seven years teaching Russian to New Zealand students and observing drop-out patterns.

"I was very conscious of the huge difficulties students have when they tackle another language, especially at the beginning. Many drop out because they feel they are not making progress."

Dr Sulzberger says he was interested in what makes it so difficult to learn foreign words when we are constantly learning new ones in our native language. He found the answer in the way the brain develops neural structures when hearing new combinations of sounds.

"When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation. A student trying to learn a foreign language may have few pre-existing neural structures to build on in order to remember the words."

Dr Sulzberger looked for ways people could develop these structures to make the learning process easier. His finding was simple: extensive exposure to the language, something made easier by globalisation and new technology.

"It is easier to learn languages these days because they are so accessible now. You can go home and watch the news in French on the internet."

He says people trying to learn a foreign language in their home country are at a disadvantage compared to those who travel to another country and immerse themselves in its sounds and culture. For the same reason, he says, we need to rethink the way languages are taught.

"Teachers should recognise the importance of extensive aural exposure to a language. One hour a day of studying French text in a classroom is not enough—but an extra hour listening to it on the iPod would make a huge difference," Dr Sulzberger says.

"Language is a skill, it's not like learning a fact. If you want to be a weight lifter, you've got to develop the muscle - you can't learn weightlifting from a book. To learn a language you have to grow the appropriate brain tissue, and you do this by lots of listening—songs and movies are great!"
Does the same principle apply to learning chess?

I am reminded of the story about the young (aged 4 years) Capablanca who learned the game of chess by simply watching his father play. It is quite possible that the brain visuo-spatial neural structures need to be in place before a chess player can make any real skill progress. This neural structure development may possibly not require an understanding of the rules of chess. Just a wild hypothesis, but potentially testable. The discussion by Richard Feynman on the analogy between understanding the rules of nature and discovering the rules of chess by watching a chess game, also comes to mind (youtube video here).

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Political Chess - Obama's Chess Presidency - Strategy Over Tactics

Barack Obama - Flickr Creative Commons licence.

The new US Obama Presidency appears set to be very much more strategic than the previous more tactical Bush Presidency. The effect on the local and world political landscape is likely to be profound.

I have previously posted (here) about a cartoon showing Barack Obama (playing Chess) vrs Hillary Clinton (playing Checkers). The best US political chess related content, however,
comes from Susan Polgar's Chess Blog with specific Barack Obama posts here.

Political journalists (and chess journalists) are also picking up on the chess metaphor for the Obama Presidency (below are just some examples):

Pelosi draws her lines with Obama
Allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi call her a grand master at “three-level chess” — a skilled politician who games out her complex relationships with the White House, the Senate and her own fractious, heterodox House Democratic Caucus.
Chess: Michelle has Barack on a string
Obama Cabinet Chess
Obama's chess master talks strategy
Obama Makes Next Move in Economic Chess Game
Chess as the Pivotal Issue in American Politics (article by Jonathan Rowson)
Lynch mob lies (article by Garry Kasparov)
Barack Obama wins U.S. Presidency!
(article by Daaim Shabazz of The Chess Drum)

Inauguration: Obama's Inaugural Speech: Parts 1 - 5:

Inauguration: Barack Obama Sworn in As 44th President:

Related Posts:
Political Chess - Obama Chess Metaphor Update
Political Chess - Barack Obama (Chess) vrs Hillary Clinton (Checkers)

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Benefits of Digital Gaming & Chess For Disability Therapy

The advent of digital chess (computer chess and internet chess) has had a beneficial effect on the lives of many people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy. The benefits of digital chess include, apart from recreation, the use as a learning tool for children and adults. For the more highly skilled chess players the internet has also revolutionised accessibility to chess competitions that could never have been imagined before the 1990s.

In this article (here) Amit Pitaru, from the Intertelecommunications Program at New York University, discusses the potential beneficial effects of computer gaming for disabled children. Pitaru describes how the occupational therapists at the Henry Viscardi School (HVS - Albertson, New York) have effectively incorporated digital gaming into their therapy program. Included in this article is some discussion about the therapeutic benefits of digital chess.
For example, some students at HVS cannot reach out and move chess pieces on their own. Instead, on every turn they must communicate their choice of move to an assistant, who then carries on the physical task for them. Playing the game in this manner develops valuable cognitive skills for the children, but it bears little value toward development of hand–eye coordination, muscular exercises, and other physical aspects. On an emotional level, not being able to control the play independently enforces the notion of helplessness that the child experiences on a daily basis.

In contrast, installing a digital chess game on an accessible computer may enable the child to move the simulated chess pieces on the screen without assistance. Here the child is in full control of the challenge by completing a cognitive desire with a physical act, which heightens the child’s sense of accomplishment. From a therapeutic standpoint, the child improves hand–eye coordination, directionality, and visual perception. By practicing the operation of the computer on which the game is installed, the child also improves his or her overall literacy of using computers toward other nongame tasks.

In providing alternate means for children with disabilities to utilize their cognitive abilities, their pathway to the game mirrors that of a typical child. Aware of this fact, the children not only tap into the full learning potential of the game, but are also empowered by the fact that they can play the game in a “typical” manner. All of these factors render the digital game beneficial as a therapeutic tool, and an equally fun one for the children to play.
Pitaru, Amit. “E Is for Everyone: The Case for Inclusive Game Design." The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning.
Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 67–88.
doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.067

World's Largest Wooden Chess Set - Vilnius University, Lithuania

World's Largest Wooden Chess Set
Vilnius University (2008)
From flickr by andrius.v

Dimensions - Square size = 3x3 m; total chessboard size = 24x24 m; King over 3 m high.
Location - Faculty of Physics, Vilnius University, Lithuania.
Occasion - FiDi 40 Physics Day.
Date - 5th April 2008

Further images of the chess set available - here.

This Youtube video shows a game using the giant chess set.
Opening - Sicilian Defence, Najdorf variation with 6. g3.

Chess Photography - Squirrel & Outdoor Chess Table

Squirrel & Outdoor Chess Table by mdumlao98
Flickr Creative commons image

Outdoor chess playing tables are increasingly being seen in community and park areas - giving photographers opportunities for "cute overload" pics. This squirrel appears to be in chill out mode.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Terra Firma Chess - Lindenhof Square Giant Chess Set - Zurich, Switzerland

Giant Chess Set - Lindenhof Square, Zurich, Switzerland
Photo here by Jay8085 on Flickr

Lindenhof square, in Zurich, is a lime tree-fringed square popular with chess players because of the associated outdoor giant chess set. This square is also one of the most scenic places in Zurich, and well worth a visit.

The Power Of The Internet - ALCHEssMIST - A Drop In The Ocean

The power of the internet amazes me.

In June 2008 I set up an account on to access some of the excellent member content there. The name chosen was ALCHEssMIST - a hybrid of ALCHEMIST and chess. At the time there were no examples of alchessmist to be found on the internet using any of the popular search engines, i.e alchessmist was a new word.

In September 2008 I set up a small niche blog focussing on chess, games and cognition. My first blog posting (18th September 2008) was "Chess is the Drosophila of artificial intelligence.". Since then, there have been 96 short postings on chess and cognition related issues.

A google search of alchessmist today suggests that there are about 17,900,000 web pages containing the term "alchessmist" (see snapshot above).

The power of the internet amazes me.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Chess Quote - Mikhail Tal on Vices

I drink, I smoke, I gamble, I chase girls -- but postal chess is one vice I don't have.
-- Mikhail Tal

Mikhail "Misha" Tal (1936-1992) was a brilliant Soviet-Latvian chess grandmaster and the 8th World Chess Champion. Tal was a chain smoker and heavy drinker who lived life to the full, despite repeated bouts of ill-health.

I am uncertain which of "Dante's seven deadly vices" (see Wikipedia) Tal was referring to when describing postal chess as a vice. Perhaps he considered postal chess to equate with intellectual "sloth or laziness" as difficult chess board complications could be analysed at leisure - i.e. without the need for the immediate intense concentration and visualisation which is required for over-the-board play.

Related Posts:
ALCHEssMIST - Chess Quote - Mikhail Tal on Vices
ALCHEssMIST - Chess Quote - Fischer vrs Tal, (Bled 1961)
ALCHEssMIST - Mikhail Tal - 10 Board Blindfold Chess Simul

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Chess Quote - Charles Buxton on Forethought, Life & Chess

Charles Buxton (18231871) was an English philanthropist and writer who followed in his famous father's (Thomas Fowell Buxton) footsteps to become a brewer and member of Parliament. In chess circles he is remembered for his famous quote:
"In life, as in chess, forethought wins."
Amongst his other attributed quotes the comment about time is also particularly relevant:
"You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it."

Cartoon Chess - Dilbert Playing Chess Against Computer

Dilbert Cartoon Season 2, Episode 11 - The Return - part 3/3

The chess game dialogue between Dilbert and Comp-U-Comp:
Dilbert: [Dilbert grabs King]
C-U-C: I have already calculated 4 billion potential outcomes. Guess how many of those has you in it? Thats right! None.
Dilbert: Hey! I didn't jabber when you were trying to make a move.
C-U-C: Do you know how many ways the human body can spontaneously malfunction resulting in instant death? 7 million.
Dilbert: I can't let it get to me.
C-U-C: Does anyone feel itchy? It feels very itchy in here.
Dilbert: Ahh! Stupid mind games.
C-U-C: Have you ever wondered what happens when humans die? I know the answer. All I'm saying is big surprise.
Dilbert: [moves King]
C-U-C: Rook to Queen 4, checkmate. You have proven you are inferior.
Dilbert: Thats only one event. We're not done yet.
Dilbert is a satirical US comic strip produced by Scott Adams, which is known for its humorous portrayal of a white-collar, micromanaged office work environment. The star of the cartoon is the engineer Dilbert.

In this episode Dilbert buys a new computer over the Internet which he has sent to his work place, in order to show-off. The boss, however, signs for something he has not ordered. Dilbert tries complaining to the online retailer, eventually finding out that his own organisation provides the complaint line for the online company Comp-U-Comp. Dilbert tracks down the location of Comp-U-Comp and goes there to complain. It transpires that Comp-U-Comp is run by a computer which also runs the whole world. The computer challenges Dilbert to the best of 3 games (Chess, Badminton, Scrabble) to get his ordered computer. Dogbert saves the situation by pulling the electrical plug on the Comp-U-Comp computer.

Chess Art - Outdoor Chess Portrait - Bulgaria

Chess by ~dechobek (c) on deviantART

A fine chess player portrait by ~dechobek from Sofia, Bulgaria.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Chess Quote - John Fowles on Chess, Rules & Freedom

Fowles, John (1926-2005):
"Chess permits freedom of permutations within a framework of set rules and prescribed movements. Because a chess player cannot move absolutely as he likes, either in terms of the rules or in terms of the exigencies of the particular game, has he no freedom of move? The separate games of chess I play with existence has different rules from your and every other game; the only similarity is that each of our games always has rules. The gifts, inherited and acquired, that are special to me are the rules of the game; and the situation I am in at any given moment is the situation of the game. My freedom is the choice of action and the power of enactment I have within the rules and situation of the game."
- (John Fowles, 1964, The Aristos)
John Robert Fowles (19262005) was an English novelist and essayist. His first work was the novel The Collector (1963), followed by a book containing a non-fiction collection of philosophy entitled The Aristos: A Self-Portrait and Ideas (1964).

Aristos Covers - 1980 - 1993 - 2001:

In Aristos John Fowles sets out his ideas on life, taking inspiration from Heraclitus (the 5th century BC philosopher). The Aristos was seen as the supreme good, an ideal of human freedom, in an over-conforming, materialistic unfree world. Many subjects are covered in this book including, God, christianity, socialism, existentialism, humanism, materialism, technology, art and sex. It was Fowles' wish that people think for themselves, and reject "intellectual consumerism".

Subsequent novels included The Magus (1965), and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969). The French Lieutenant's Woman (film) was adapted into a screenplay by Harold Pinter, and released in 1981.

Philosophy and Chess - Philosopher Chess Player-Writers

Below is a list of philosophers who have either been active chess players or discussed chess in their philosophical writings. The list is by no means complete, and will be updated as further philosophers come to mind.

Ayer, Alfred (1910-1989)

Bacon, Sir Francis (1561-1626)

Dennett, Daniel C
(1942- )

Dreyfuss, Hubert (1929- )

Fowles, John (1926-2005) ... link

Gödel, Kurt (1906-1978)

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)

Hume, David (1711-1776)

Kierkegaard, Soren (1813-1855) ... link

MacIntyre, Alasdair ... (external link)

Mill, John Stuart (1806-1873)

Peirce, Charles (1839-1914)

Pirsig, Robert M. (1928-)
... link

Pigliucci, Massimo (1964-)

Robin, Richard Shale

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-1778)

Russell, Bertrand (1872-1970)

Santayana, George (1863-1952)

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905-1980)

Schiller, Johann Friedrich (1759-1805)

Vallicella, William F. (Maverick Philosopher)

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889-1951)

And some notable amateur philosophers:
If anyone knows of any other philosophers who should be on this list, I would like to hear from you.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Chess Quote - George Bernard Shaw on Chess

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950):

“Chess is a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever when they are only wasting their time.” - George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw was a very talented Irish playright who was apparently a chess player. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925. Many of his literary works dealt with contemporary social problems, which he would attempt to make more palatable through the use of comedy. He was a commited socialist who was very angered by the exploitation of the working classes at the time. Shaw was a charter member of the Fabian Society, a middle class organisation to promote the spread of socialism through peaceful means. The adjective shavian is a term best described as relating to, or characteristic of George Bernard Shaw or his works. Shaw had a lifelong dislike of schools and teachers. Despite this, he was one of the important founders of the London School of Economics (LSE). (Wikipedia)

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Are Men Superior To Women At Chess?

Free download preview - Page 1 (pdf)

Time is running out for the argument that men are superior to women at chess. One of the most recent examples of this chess chauvinism came from GM Levon Aronian when interviewed by Berliner Zeitung (translation of interview reported in chessbase news here). The research study by Waters, Gobet & Leyden (2002) "Visuospatial Abilities Of Chess Players" (posted here) concluded that for adults " ... visual memory ability, and perhaps visuospatial intelligence, may be relatively unimportant factors in the long-term acquisition of chess skill." This study has helped to remove one of the perceived explanations for male chess playing superiority

Now a recent paper by Merim Bilalić, Kieran Smallbone, Peter McLeod, and Fernand Gobet in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences suggests that 96% of the statistical difference in playing abilities between the sexes can be explained by the greater number of male chess players (Link). It is interesting that Gobet has been a author on both of these important papers. The new Bilalić et al abstract is copied below:
A popular explanation for the small number of women at the top level of intellectually demanding activities from chess to science appeals to biological differences in the intellectual abilities of men and women. An alternative explanation is that the extreme values in a large sample are likely to be greater than those in a small one. Although the performance of the 100 best German male chess players is better than that of the 100 best German women, we show that 96 per cent of the observed difference would be expected given the much greater number of men who play chess. There is little left for biological or cultural explanations to account for. In science, where there are many more male than female participants, this statistical sampling explanation, rather than differences in intellectual ability, may also be the main reason why women are under-represented at the top end.

Chess Art - Chess Game - Photos by Shawn Shu

Deathnote - Chess by ~shiawase-chan

Deathnote - Game by ~

Abstract Chess Art - Chess Leg, Stocking & Shoe

Chess Shoe by ~Ephourita
(Deviant Art)
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Update (11.1.09) - A wallpaper version of ~Ephourita's Chess Shoe is available here.