From the mailbag

11/10/2004 – While columnist Steve Lopez doesn't answer every e-mail he receives, he does read and consider them. Steve dips into the mailbag and comes up with some interesting messages that lead us from chess into the world of linguistics and the importance of context and subtext. Boring? Not when Steve sharpens his pen and gets going. Read all about it in the latest ChessBase Workshop.

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FLAK

by Steve Lopez

My copy of ChessBase 9 finally arrived in the mail a few days ago, but since I'm no longer a full-time chess software professional it's had to go on the back burner -- I've not even installed it yet. We'll have a look at some of its new features next week. But right now, with everything I have going on, I need a little "room to breathe" (with a tip of the cap there to my favorite musician, Delbert McClinton). It's mid-October as I write this and I'm trying to get a couple of articles ahead, so this week we'll crack open the mailbag.

"How can you get mail?" you might ask; "There's no e-mail link to you in your columns!" Right-o, and I have several valid reasons for this omission. The main one is provided in the previous paragraph: I'm no longer a full-time chess software guy. I have a day gig, children, numerous time-consuming hobbies and interests, and I just don't have time to answer the weekly 50 to 100 e-mails I used to receive, most of which asked for help using various software features. That was a five to ten hour per week chore and, honestly, I just don't have the time any longer. And, not to sound mercenary or anything, but it's no longer part of my job description.

Rest assured, though, that e-mails sent for me to ChessBase GmbH do make their way to me. And while I seldom answer them, I do read them. We'll specifically address a couple of recent ones a bit further on. But first I'll look at a few generalities.

Before I do, I'll remind you that I'm a curmudgeon. At 44, I think I'm now old enough to be considered "curmudgeonly" instead of just "ill-tempered". I started out as simply a "smartalek", which is loosely defined as someone who is sarcastic but does it just in fun. Then I graduated to "curmudgeon" -- that's a guy who's sarcastic and actually means it. Years reading and posting to the rec.games.chess.* hierarchy of Usenet newsgroups accelerated the graduation process.

That's why I don't read many chess message boards anymore and post to just one. That's also the reason why my own Chess Kamikazes home page and message board went by the boards. The Interrant is a wonderful sounding board for people with all sorts of interesting personality disorders to vent their frustrations and receive catharsis without resorting to expensive psychotherapy treatment. After three or four dozen angry e-mails from chessplayers who were incensed that I wasn't updating my web page on a "timely" basis (i.e. providing an analysis page and download of a new gambit every week, for free and in my dwindling spare time) I decided to hang the thing up. Curmudgeons basically want to be left alone, so I was doing the natural thing.

You see, I was becoming what I beheld, and I wasn't crazy about the transformation. That's why I leave the chess message boards alone -- now, instead of being a loudmouthed jerk, I'm just a quiet jerk (this column being a notable exception to that general rule). So I'm an isolated curmudgeon. People need to resort to e-mail to get my ear.

Now I will tell you straight up that over the seven and a half years that I've been writing a weekly ChessBase column, the feedback has been about 98% positive -- and I am truly and sincerely humbled by that. It can be some pretty heady stuff for a patzer from Maryland whose unrefined tastes include barbecue and being entertained by TV/movies containing smartassery or blowing stuff up (or, in the profoundly glorious case of Megas XLR, both simultaneously). I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart for the support and appreciation you've shown for these years.

And I do appreciate being corrected when I screw something up. It's interesting to note that ChessBase Workshop (and its predecessor T-Notes) is almost entirely unedited -- you see the material exactly as I type it (there have been maybe two exceptions to this over more than 350 columns). If I make a procedural or factual error, there's nobody backing me up to correct it pre-publication; I work without a net. It's a ton of fun but I do make mistakes. Contrary to what a few of the remaining 2% of responding readers may think, I'm not some infallible divine oracle who's privy to the innermost programming of ChessBase and Fritz. In fact, most of what I pass on to you is stuff that I figure out for myself. I'm just an average player and regular ChessBase user who has a knack for stringing together words and sentences in a readable (and occasionally entertaining) manner.

So I do screw up occasionally (the law of averages will see to that); when I do, I can always count on a reader or two to nudge me and point out the error. I treasure that, because it shows that somebody cares enough to set me straight. You guys know who you are -- and I thank each and every one of you. And, by the way, I consequently count that stuff as part of the 98% of positive feedback.

The fact that you see the material exactly as I write it is a double-edged sword. I'm a genuine mutant -- I have the ability to compose sentences and paragraphs in a (mostly) finished form entirely in my head. That accounts for what a lot of readers have pointed out as the "conversational" tone of my columns -- I'm just talking to you, but instead of speaking the words, I'm typing them. That, however, also accounts for most of the screwups; nobody can converse with 100% infallible accuracy (except for one guy I know who has an encyclopedic memory, but he's a bigger mutant than I am).

That ties directly into much of the 2% of negative feedback I receive. Most of it points out (usually rudely) some typographical or grammatical error. I generally chalk it up as "nitpicking" and move on. People love to bust on professional writers for such mistakes and I'm happy to gratify them (I was considering deliberately misspelling "gratify" just for cheap chuckles but thought better of it. You're welcome).

I do sometimes get some very interesting, worthwhile, or just plain amusing corrections forwarded to me. One that really cracked me up was a forwarded e-mail in which someone found it necessary to point out that I'd called referred to the Internet as the "Interrant", and the writer felt the need to correct me. Trust me -- I know the terminological difference. I don't see any practical difference, but I can make the terminological distinction.

A really interesting one hit my mailbox a few weeks ago. In a recent column, I'd referred to the explosion of chess positions as "near exponential". A reader with a mathematical bent wrote to remind me that there's no such thing as "near exponential"; a progression is either exponential or it's not. He's right, of course, but math was always my worst subject (which, I suspect, is partly why my results suck in RoboForge tournaments). He is right and my only defense is (again) the conversational tone I take with these columns. That was a really good correction, though, and I'll try hard to not make that mistake again.

Given the choice between "exact precision" and "readability", you can always count on me to err on the side of the latter. I frequently find myself taking shortcuts in order to move an article along and prevent it from reading like a UNIX manual (and I can count on some UNIX programmer to take me to task for that remark -- hee). So I'll shortcut and take the lumps later; mea culpa.

That's what got me in some mildly warm water with a message board reader the other day. He was offended by my use of the word "sucks" (while not being offended by the point I was making or the context). I had to stop and think about that one a bit. As a radio announcer, I once used the word "sucks" in that context as far back as 1984 with no fallout from the listenership or the management (and this was before the days of "shock jocks", so it's not like people were numb yet to that kind of broadcasting). After all, my eleven year old twins use the word "sucks" and I don't bat an eye. It's genuinely become a part of our everyday lexicon.

However, I did select that word for a reason (and, yes, there was forthought involved). You don't often see it used in chess publishing, so it was used to emphasize a point. I could have gone with "stinks", but that sounded too 1940's to my jaded ear. I could have borrowed a term from my kids and said "rots", but I figured that non-American readers might have trouble with that. And "blows" would have been way funnier, but that would have drawn more flak than "sucks". So I went with the latter.

My message board correspondent implied that the problem may have been generational; I'll grant that (if I'm reading the implication properly). My dad (who is 80) will occasionally cuss, but there are some words he just won't use -- typically those with any kind of sexual connotation. So maybe it's an "age thing".

While I did put a fair amount of thought into my use of that word, I put even more thought into considering that post on the message board. So, yes, friends, I do read and consider what you say. I might not agree with it, it might not alter my behavior, but I do at least think about it.

(That reminds me of something that occurred on a message board about five years ago. I'd posted a message that contained the word "Jeeze" and an ordained minister took me to task for it. I was really blown away by his reply -- I grew up on Jonny Quest cartoons in the 1960's and it seems like every fifth or sixth sentence Jonny uttered started with that word. It's an expression that's been around since at least the 1930's [I seem to recall Spanky and the other kids saying it in the Our Gang comedies] so I was baffled by the objection. Still more baffling is the fact that respelling it as "Geeze" seems to cause no consternation. But I made the switch, and I now start that word with a "g" whenever I type it.

It also reminds me that language does change with the passage of years. If you said the word "Zounds!" today, nobody would bat an eye [other than to maybe think you're some kind of dork]. But it's a fine example of Renaissance-era swearing. The word "Zounds!" is a contraction for the expression "God's wounds!", a reference to Christ's injuries during the Crucifixion, and was considered quite blasphemous in its day. Shakespeare used it and expressions like it [like "S'blood!"] a lot to jazz up his work. But nobody's looking to censor the Bard today, despite the swearing and dirty jokes that grace his plays. Language changes).

I anticipated a boatload of flak for my column on Bangiev's CD on Squares Strategy (three columns ago for those scoring at home). I was amazed when it didn't happen. At this writing, the e-mail is running about four to one in agreement with the points I made. A Danish player wrote: "This is one of the best previews Mr. Lopez has written. He is absolutely correct when he says that the amateur player do not think correctly at the board, and learning a better "chess vision" is not a "fast food" concept." Another writer said: "He is quite correct; naturally, I think so because his opinion agrees with mine, and because I now own a copy of Bangiev's CD. But, that aside, I know that the only way I can improve my play is by changing the way I think." And so on.

I'm stunned. I was expecting a lynch mob.

But one e-mail positively floored me. I'll reproduce it in its entirety but withhold the name of the correspondent:

Steve Lopez’s review of Bangiev’s squares CD was certainly very provocative but I think for the wrong reasons. I am not a good chess player and welcome all the help I can get but I have no idea if Bangiev can provide this help despite reading Steve’s review. He told us we wouldn’t like it and I didn’t, not because Steve comes out in favour of a little skull sweat but because he gave a very negative impression of the CD while challenging us to see it positively. The review breaks down like this:

  • Review length: 2,000 words
  • Telling us we’re not going to like his review: 200 words
  • Discrediting negative reviews he hasn’t read: 859 words
  • Explaining the CD’s technical content: 188 words
  • Explaining that you can’t explain colour complexes in 25 words: 250 words
  • Telling us Bangiev’s CD will be hard work: 300 words
  • Telling us Bangiev’s CD probably won’t improve our chess and hasn’t improved his: 149 words
  • Praising Bangiev’s CD: 9 words
  • Justifying the praise: 0 words

I hope future reviews will concentrate more on the product and be less of a rant about unattributable attitudes that Steve doesn’t like.

I'll confess that I fell on the floor laughing after I read it. How do you respond to something like this? C'mon -- a word count??? But then I reread it...

The only thing I found objectionable in this message when I first read it was the line: "Telling us Bangiev’s CD probably won’t improve our chess and hasn’t improved his: 149 words". I never said that. Here's what I said, verbatim, from the preview:

Will it work? Time, as well as later volumes in the series, will tell. I'd love to be able to tell you that I completed this training CD and it instantly improved my play -- but if I did so, I'd be lying. I've only studied a few of the games on the CD and, while I understand what Bangiev is saying, I'm still struggling to incorporate the material into my own "chess vision".

I did not say that it "hasn't improved my chess". What I did say is that I don't know yet, which dovetails quite nicely into the theme of the preview: that this CD is no "quick fix" and that a great deal of effort is required on the part of the reader. And nowhere in the preview did I say that the CD "probably won't improve our chess" -- nowhere -- much less devote 149 words to that "point".

Upon later review of this e-mail I also spotted this: "Discrediting negative reviews he hasn’t read: 859 words". That's misleading and, in my view, unfounded. Here's how I began that passage:

I've personally not seen either of the reviews in question nor heard anything about their specific content. But I can already guess why two reviewers panned this CD.

The operative word here is "guess". It's a key word, an important word, and is required to satisfy my sense of journalistic ethics. How can I "discredit" something I've not read? I can't, therefore I tell you right up front that I'm making an assumption, and I tell you this by using that important, key word: "guess". Besides, I don't give a hoot about someone else's negative review (if I did, I'd never read a book or see a movie), but I did utilize the existence of said reviews as a writer's "hook" and a springboard for my own preview of the CD. I thought that would be logically evident from the context. One can't discern context by simply counting words.

"Telling us Bangiev’s CD will be hard work: 300 words". Specifically, maybe so. Generally, the whole damned preview was aimed at the point. It was my entire intent to scare the hell out of the reader. And it was my real intent, in so doing, to attract a specific kind of reader. People who spend their time posting to message boards in search of cheat codes for Unreal Tournament need not apply. You have to be willing to bust your butt to make Squares Strategy work for you. Period. No argument. No refutation. That's just the way it is. So I was helping the reader to make an informed choice by letting him know, as much as I could, what he was in for. I could have explained/revealed Bangiev's specific method but I felt that would be unfair to the CD's author.

So while my e-mail reply to the writer was certainly flippant (and maybe even rude) and my reply here might also be considered as such, it was a highly worthwhile e-mail. It reminded me that not everyone picks up on my brand of subtlety or subtext (and using the word "subtlety" in reference to myself is so far beyond just "weird" that the distance can't even be determined by modern scientific instruments). And I don't mind the criticism per se; I do mind that some of it was (in my view) unfounded.

Another reader, a chess publisher (who shall remain nameless) thought he knew where I learned of the negative reviews. He wrote: "I find Chessville a pretty uninformed site and I am sure there are others." I won't name this fellow; I go back a long way with him and consider him a friend -- but Chessville has a lot of hardcore devoted readers/posters who might be miffed by his comment which, in turn, could negatively impact his business.

If I was going to post to any other message boards, Chessville would be at the top of my list. I once referred to it on my old homepage as "The chess site for players who aren't buttheads". And I'll stand by that comment, any time, anywhere. Yes, I've taken some heat from a few posters there, but the signal to noise ratio is always much better than most other chess message boards. And Kevin Fonseca (arguably "Mr. Chessville") was one of maybe a half-dozen people who actually gave enough of a damn about my sudden departure from the full-time chess biz to actually ask me about it instead of making wild, unfounded public claims and insinuations. So for that reason (and for many others) Chessville is aces in my book.

From the same e-mail: "As to Rolf Wetzell's $20 bill tearing up, either my memory has gone really bad, or you have an edition I don't know about. I recall him referring to do this to one dollar bills."

I'll concede the point. I remembered it as being some denomination more substantial than a singleton, but I was too lazy to haul my butt the three feet or so to my bookshelf (where I can plainly see the volume even as I type this) to look it up. Shortcutting again -- mea culpa.

Some of the best negative e-mail comes from ChessBase's competitors. I won't quote, but keep 'em coming, boys -- it's a great yardstick for knowing whether or not I'm doing my job well.

Flipping the coin back over to the "positive criticism" side, Henri Arsenault is absolutely tireless in his pursuit of accuracy -- a fact for which I am extremely grateful. Here's an e-mail he wrote on something I said in my series on "database basics":

"...there is what a think a misleading element when you say that databases don't have to be organized. In fact, they ARE organized by their INDEX, which is the organizing element. For example, the data files in my computer are pretty much randomly located, and without the file DIRECTORY, finding a specific file would be very time-consuming. And both PCs and Macs now have the "index" facility which allows to create an alphabetical index of every word in every file on the hard disk. Although it is possible for a small database to function without an index (and this may be the case for Fritz game databases), this is not feasible for large databases, where scanning the whole file during every search would take too long."

By Jove (and my apologies for that to any Ancient Roman clergy who might be reading this column), you're right, Henri. Of course, in my article I was referring to indexing which is discernable "externally" by the user, not indexing which is internal to the program. External indexing has to be visibly organized or else it's just a flood of useless data. But, as you've indicated, database indexing internally is crucial, otherwise the program is useless. Though here again I was shortcutting for the reader's sake, I did pretty much bypass making that specific point. Thanks for pointing it out.

And, thanks, too for reminding me about indexing on the PC. I've suddenly realized that if someone was to index my computer and do a subsequent search for "large breasts" (or other analogous terms), I'd be in for a world of hurt. So I have some data backup to perform.

Besides, I need a little extra hard disk space to hold ChessBase 9. So let me get to work moving my "special" files to CD while you guys go have fun for another week, secure in the knowledge that I do read and consider your e-mails, even if I don't have time to answer all of them.


© 2004, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.


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