Category Archives: history

Go / Weiqi / Baduk


So as an escape from the mundane (and a vent for stress), I started studying Go (a.k.a., Weiqi in Mandarin, Baduk in Korean). It’s the oldest board game we know of that is still played today, with boards and pieces dating from 2,000 years ago.

We call it Go because that’s what the Japanese call it, and they introduced it to the west.

If you are after a challenging, infinite game that has no luck to it, this is your game. It FAR easier to learn than chess — almost as easy as checkers — but the strategy is much deeper.

Only this last year did a computer finally manage to beat a top human player in Go. (They started beating Chess Grandmasters in the 70’s).  According to one article, there are more legal board positions in the game then there are atoms in the universe. This has made Go the holy grail of AI research, because if you can make an AI that can learn to master Go, it can — by definition — master anything easier than Go.

All hail our new AI overlords, AlphaGo and (soon) Zen. May they be kind and gracious tyrants. 😉

Robert Johnson, the Rock and Roll Faust

If you haven’t heard about the blues legend Robert Johnson — who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to master music, and who sang about walking with the devil, being chased by hell hounds, and making a deal with the devil at the crossroads, and who supposedly died at age 26 howling and barking like a mad dog at the moon — then you have now. To say his impact on rock and roll was astronomical would be to put it too weakly.


Robert Johnson has often been held up as one of the most amazing musicians ever by many rock and roll legends, however a lot of his songs sound very high-pitched, eerie, and can be offputting to new listeners. This is because they were recorded slightly too fast on the record machine, probably to cram more songs on the record and save money.

Well, now someone has at last gone in and slowed them back down again, and man, I like them better this way. I could listen to them all day. As an added bonus, you can now hear the influence of Son House on his singing, hear the emotion and humor in his voice, and his songs also feel like a natural extension of the Mississippi Delta Blues.

Listen to them here:


This Learning Life: The Ming Dynasty of China

One of my passions is learning — languages, history, strange esoteric subjects, how to clip bicycle pedals in, it doesn’t matter — everything is fair game. Since learning new things and random research tend to take up a significant part of my life, I’m starting up a new feature on the site: This Learning Life.

Because to me, life is all about learning. Staying interested. Making unexpected connections.

So what did I learn today?

I learned about the Ming Dynasty in China.

Now, I’d known OF this dynasty for quite some time — I mean, who has never heard of a Ming vase — but, man, I really knew nothing.

If you already know something about China’s imperial dynasties, just in general, there’s much the same — the Confucian Scholars/Literati/Aristocracy (the Shr class) run the bureaucracy of government, the Eunuchs run most of the stuff in the court (and, later in the dynasty, when things start to get corrupt, the Eunuch lead the way in decadence and corruption, as normal). This is the great cycle of Chinese Imperial Dynasties, the “circle of life”, as it were, and it still holds true for the Ming.

But the Ming have a lot of new innovations going for them — a lot of new mechanisms of state that help hold things together — and that’s one reason that the Middle Ming (the middle period of the dynasty) is considered one of the golden ages of China.

So what’s so cool? Infrastructure. Post roads to be precise. What? Hold, on let me explain.

You see, the first Ming Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, also called the Hongwu (“vastly martial”) Emperor, also called Taizu (“Great Ancestor”) of Ming, was paranoid and more than a little bit crazy. When one of his Shr class advisers started to get a little too powerful, he would automatically assume a plot to overthrow the dynasty and purge:
– The adviser himself
– The adviser’s immediate family
– The adviser’s entire family unto the 9th degree (this happens a lot in China — I’ve hard a rumor there is a dedicated verb for exterminating a family unto the 9th degree of relation)
– Anyone the adviser was known to have talked to or write letters to.

For the first adviser purged, Hu Weiyong, the Hongwu Emperor killed roughly oh, say, 10,000-15,000 people. Now that, my friends is some serious killing. By the time the first Ming Emperor had died of old age, he’d killed roughly 100,000 Chinese in these purges. Nice guy, right?

Well, being paranoid, Hongwu wanted to control everything. He abolished the position of Chancellor, for instance, and took all the powers on himself. But to control everything, my friends, you must KNOW everything as well. So Hongwu had the post road system developed.

A network of postal roads, garrisoned with soldiers, with rest stops for postal couriers and fresh horses at evenly spaced intervals was put in so that information could flow from all over China right to Hongwu’s door. And it was fast too, 15 days, I believe, to the farthest reaches, but don’t quote me on that, I can’t find the citation for that (yes, I’ll warn you when I might be blowing smoke — nice, isn’t it?). Now remember, this was before telephones, the internet, before cars even — 15 days over those huge distances is FAST. A few previous empires, like the Zhou, had collapsed because they hadn’t been able to solve the communication problem and had doled out authority to local strongmen whose kids, after a few generations, came to challenge the throne. So just on this point, this is a major step forward — Hongwu can send and receive information rapidly at vast distances, and this means he can rule outlying regions as if he is right there.

But that’s the SMALLEST part of why this is cool. To understand the next part, lets do a little bit of roleplaying:

Imagine you’re a Chinese Merchant. You keep getting robbed on the main roads to everywhere because, well, there are bandits. But hey, that postal road has troops on a regular basis, guarding the imperial post offices… You put one and one together and what do you decide to do?

You start using the postal roads, of course! And trade moves swiftly through them, and safely, and robbery goes WAY down. Awesome! Now you can grow your business.

Now… Imagine that you’re a peasant whose tired of farming, and you see all these merchants on this postal road, and they are always hot and thirsty and starving after a long day’s march… So you come up with the idea to open an inn there, and offer beds and food. And you get rich!

Well, this happened all over. The economy went wild due to the secure infrastructure — it added more roads, better roads, and improved safety, so trade flourished and the population increased from roughly 100 million at the beginning of the Ming to 300 million at the end, and a large proportion of those people had better lifestyles.

Why does this matter to you?

Well, think about it — cities do this all the time: they broaden the major roads, make new highways, and repave roads to make trade travel easier. They (should) staff a good police force to keep crime down (yeah, we see how well that works in Dallas!)

In a high-demand area:
New Infrastructure + Security = Growth

Next time that local bond comes up talking about broadening a highway or It applies to us as much as the Ming!

…Now if we could just get rid of the private tolls on the tollways — I strongly believe this is just a way for the friends of politicians to get rich. Now how did the Ming Dynasty fall again? Corruption?

You can find a timeline of the Ming Dynasty here.