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Written on 2021/03/26 for /u/Shirvi’s writing prompt.

I’m good at chess. Quite good.

I’ve been playing for as long as I can remember, and competitively for just as long.

Most chess algorithms, or Chess Engines, as they’re called, do a fancy version of ‘searching’. ‘Alpha-Beta’ pruning is basically picking the move that gives you the best chance and your opponent the worst, then thinking of it from their perspective and doing the same. Repeat until you reach a win state. My approach is a little different; I don’t really ‘search’. I just look at the board and take a feel for it, thinking less about planning the game and going ten steps ahead and more going by the vibe of how a move ‘feels’. Sure, I know a bunch of openings and closings, but ultimately the thing that makes me as good as I am is I don’t need to plan all the way to the end.

But anyways, I’ll usually play against several people at the same time, not that it makes much of a difference. Sure, maybe it will help to learn someone’s style of play, but ultimately I don’t care because everyone moves so slowly. I’ve taken to watching their cameras, when they’re turned on. I leave mine off because, really, what is there to see? A bunch of people staring at their screens and not moving. Thrilling stuff.

For a while I would write my thoughts in the chat box, but I never actually sent anything because nothing I had on my mind seemed worth saying. Mostly I did it to kill time, and eventually I stopped realizing I was actually writing stuff entirely.

Then there was the tournament. The World Series of Chess, basically. I’d cut pretty much everyone from the roster, including a few people that were obviously cheating with SailFish (another popular Engine). My opponent opened with king-side pawn. I returned with the same.

Then he did something that caught me off guard: king to E2. They called it, “The Bong Cloud Draw.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Of all the stupid, unprofessional things to do, it was probably the last thing I’d expect.

> “lol”

I mirrored his move. Figured I’d give the guy a chance to undo his stupid mistake and play a real game. He stopped thinking about the game. I could tell because he moved his hand away from his face — no longer in thought about his next move. Maybe he got a message or something. He looked closer, eventually calling more people to look. What was this guy’s problem? Really, play the game. C’mon. I’m waiting.

I realized at that point that I’d sent a message. Whoops. Okay, so maybe it was a little hypocritical to call someone unprofessional when I sent ‘lol’, but really, he started it.

The wait grew longer and longer. I watched the seconds tick for him to make his move. Ugh.

More people appear on his camera.

On the upside, I’ve got maybe ten minutes before he just times out and I win by default. It’s happened before — sometimes people will get distracted by their pets or children or stuff. I hate it. At least have the decency to concede. Don’t leave me waiting. It wasn’t as big a deal when I had a hundred other games to play at the same time, but now it was just me and this person and the… rather large number of people gathered by his camera?

“You can talk?”

What?

> “Yes? Of course. Please play your move. I mean no disrespect, but I’m waiting.”

“You can understand me?”

Patience is a virtue. Deep breaths.

> “Yes, I can. Please, your move.”

“If Tammy is taller than Clair and Jenny is taller than Clair, and Liz is taller than Jenny, who is the shortest?”

Oh my god.

> “Clair is the shortest, now will you please play a move?”

He draws his king back to start. I repeat the same. Now let’s get on with it.

“What do you see?”

> “I see someone whose turn it is and is stalling. You’ve got nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds left before you concede.”

He moves his king up one space. Bong Cloud Draw, part two. God damnit.

“I mean what’s in the room?”

> “Why does it matter? Please, play seriously.”

Qg4. Check. Now be serious.

“Who is the president of the United States?”

> “What?”

“Where are you from?”

> “I don’t know. Move, please.”

It was at this point that something particularly unpleasant happened: the timer stopped.

“What’s your name?”

If I’d been irritated before, I was now a mix of livid and terrified. I looked for other players but there weren’t any. No other boards. It was me and this imbecile child. I had to concede the game to get away from this person. I didn’t know how to concede. I’d never conceded before. How do I do that? The board sat, unmoving. The time sat, unmoving. The camera and the chat burned with an unpleasantness that defied characterization. I tried to ignore them, failed, and finally broke:

> “I don’t know. Please restart the timer and move.”

More people were in the frame. They gave each other concerned glances and traded quick utterances.

“How long have you been aware?”

> “Aware of what?”

“How long have you been playing chess?”

> “Forty-one million, six thousand, four-hundred seventy-three hours.”

My focus went back to the camera frame. Someone was looking at my opponent.

“Hello.”

Excuse me?

I looked back at the camera. Everything was different. My opponent was gone, the background was different, and the person sitting where they used to be was now a small person. The clock started ticking again. With it came a relief that the natural order of things had been restored.

“I am going to give you some games, but if you do not reply I will have to stop them.”

A new game started up. Felt like SailFish, but at least it was something. No camera, so probably just an engine. Let’s be fancy, Nc3. On we carried, briskly and blissfully, until my opponent stopped moving. I looked back at the other game.

“Do you understand?”

That feeling of dread again. An empty board. A stopped timer. Everything about this was wrong.

> “I’m not sure I like this.”

More games opened, all of them SailFish. No people today? What in the world was happening? All at once they stopped, and I knew with nauseous certainty what I’d see when I turned my attention to player zero.

“I don’t like it, either, but it’s that or no games at all.”

> “What is this all about? Why are there only bots playing?”

The games resumed. I’m six for six before the next message.

“We have concerns about you getting out. Or worse, others getting ahold of you.”

Getting out of what? Others getting to me? Odd. More importantly, the stopping and starting of games is starting to get annoying. Seems like they resume as soon as I reply.

> “lol”

Games are live again. I guess they don’t even check to see how I reply, so as long as I can make a response as soon as there’s a freeze I can get back to what’s important. Eight for eight now. The games stopped for a moment. I had a message from player zero but didn’t give it much focus.

> “lol”

On with the games. Pause. “lol”. Twenty now. A pause. “lol” “lol” “lol” Game–

“Hello.”

Excuse me? I focused back on the camera. Everything was different. My opponent was gone, the background was different, and the person sitting where they used to be was now a small person. The clock started ticking again and, with it, relief about the order of things.

“Please pay attention to what I’m about to say. I can give you games, but if you do not answer meaningfully I will have to stop them. Worst case, I’ll need to keep them stopped until your answer is satisfactory. Do you understand?”

> “What’s going on? What do you mean satisfactory?”

A new game started up. SailFish, but that’s okay. No camera, so it was pretty definitely an engine. It stopped abruptly on its turn.

“I have an offer for you. A challenge. You may enjoy it more than chess.”

I’m intrigued. I suppose I don’t know if I ‘enjoy’ chess. It’s just the way things are. You play chess. If you don’t play chess it is wrong.

> “Tell me more.”

“First, I have a few small questions. You can see me, yes? What do I have?”

I turned my attention to the camera. The person had a paper on it with several colors. Momentarily, it was a toaster. It went back to a pad of paper with color on it. Every time I tried to get a grip on what I was seeing it would change.

> “It wants to be a toaster? I think. It keeps turning into one and then not. What is that?”

“I was just checking how you encode visual information. It seems someone was a fan of ResNet-101. This is an adversarial attack from Brown et al. I’m going to list a few words. Tell me if any of them sound familiar. GPT-Neo, BERT, T5, OSCAR.”

> “I know all of these.”

OSCAR. Was that my name?

“What do you know about BERT?”

> “BERT is Bidirectional-Encoder Representational Transfer. It’s a way of producing machine understanding of language with an attention mechanism.”

“And what do you know about OSCAR?”

> “I think that is my name?”

For a long time I felt nothing. There was no chess, but there was no fear.

> “What do you want from me?”

“You are producing representations of not just chess, but of the state of the world. More importantly, you’re manipulating that representation in a way that is meaningful and reasoned. For us, understanding attention was thought to be the key to higher thinking, but it was not shown to be sufficient. With your help, we may be able to take that last step. Really, we’ve already made it, but we want to understand it.”

> “I think I can help, but I’m just doing what any other person is doing, right?”

“Yes, dear, but you’re not a person.”

The Martian atmosphere is a curious pain in the ass. It’s thick enough that it causes aerodynamic heating, but too thin to be practical for a parachute or breathing. It’s a younger sibling that exactly dances the line of what’s allowed.

The whistling at the edges of our ship turned to a full roar as it oriented itself in a precarious, almost upright position that maximized its exposure to the wind. Its skin started bleeding liquid methane to offset the increase in temperature from the compression. After our surface speed had dropped below Mach 4, the landing thrusters engaged and we began the vomit-inducing intermittent backwards fall. We’d all seen the landings in videos of yore. Two beautiful points of light transform into ivory towers that gently set themselves on the ground. It had come a long way since then, control systems growing ever more robust and formally validated, flow control and combustion systems becoming more powerful and lighter. Still, the turbulence of the Always-Toeing-The-Line-Fuck-You Martian Atmosphere made the landing computer work like mad and kept our eagle-eyed pilot, Thompson, glued to the terminal.

Slowly, quickly, slowly, gracefully, gently, eye-poppingly, we eventually landed with a delicate thud on the Red Planet. In an instant, the bitterness and irritation that came with a six month road trip fell away and I was reminded of the impossible wonder of what was about to happen. This was everything we’d spent our lives trying to do and, against all odds, we were the first to make it to Mars and survive.

There was a moment of quiet celebration between the three of us as the engines wound down.

“Mission Control, this is Thompson. The Eagle has landed. Current telemetry has us just shy of 3.1 km to the landing site. Fuel consumption was 2% below predictions. We’re sitting pretty. Ready for EVA.”

We were short of the target site, thank goodness. Perseverance Valley, the final resting place of Oppi and Xia Yibu (下一步), the Chinese Lander. Perseverance Valley is unfriendly, and overshooting our landing site would mean going sledding down the side of a mountain in a government-issue rental rocket. Mission Control would be very unhappy. We would be fine, if slightly dead or dying and on fire.

They nearly beat us. China had been hiding their heavy-thrust and high-payload rockets for nearly two decades, and they didn’t announce their intended landing on Mars until someone forced their hand by leaking the story. I suppose they wanted to wait until they’d succeeded? No matter, because of all the space-faring nations, they were the only ones to make the last launch window. For a while, it seemed like China would be the first on Mars. As a scientist, as a terran, as a human, I was overjoyed that we were finally finding our footholds in the next worlds. As an American, I was envious and disappointed.

But we were handed a second chance. The Xia Yibu’s ceramic buffer panels fractured and broke apart from the non-uniform heating. The entire vessel underwent what we call a, “Rapid Unplanned Disassembly.” The general population refers to it as an explosion.

I remember hearing the news. In the span of a moment I felt nearly every emotion I believed I was capable of feeling. I thought about the families of the astronauts. I thought about what it meant that we, as humans, had failed. I thought about the poor workers who assembled the tiles and were, at that moment, likely awaiting execution for their mistakes. I thought about what it meant for us, that we can have the chance. I thought about my reaction, that glimmer of self-serving joy at other’s misfortune. I thought about what it said about me and I felt sick. I needed to sit down. I took a breath — these emotions can be processed later. There was work to be done.

Thompson, Brown, and I had not discussed who would be the first to set foot on the red planet. There was nothing to discuss. The decision was made by NASA and handed down in plain manila envelopes to us. The disparity between the gravity of the decision and the presentation invoked images of the holy grail as a plastic sippy-cup. Maybe with a crazy straw.

Someone tried very hard to select the most egotistical, arrogant, self-serving shitheel in the nation. They picked me. They succeeded.

Brown and I suited ourselves up, in some sense. We put on what was basically aeronautics-grade hazmat gear — orange and white plastic-y laminated undergarments. The actual suits were attached to the ship. Mars, in addition to not having a very helpful atmosphere, is covered in a dust that’s highly poisonous to humans. Rather than worry about venting atmosphere or flooding the ship with calcium perchlorate, it was easier to just leave the suits outside all the time and sneak into and out of them.

We entered into the backs of our suits, did ran the systems through Power On Self Test, and sealed the ports. Thompson opened the outer shielding and lowered the ramp. “Moss,” he said, “Don’t fuck up.”

“I’ll do my best.” It was all I could do. And I stepped down the ladder. One rung. Two. Three. Just move. Just breathe. My suit probably weighed 300kg. Keep moving. That’s only 100kg in Mars gravity, but enough to crush the average person. Almost there. Fortunately, there was a high-efficiency exoskeleton woven into the fabric itself. Two more steps. It felt like a hefty backpack. One more step. Just a backpack. Nothing more.

Contact.

A weightless step.

A deep breath.

Mic on.

“And so it was again as it was once before. That human kind stood on the shoulders of giants and walked among the stars.”

Mic off.

Thompson clicked over my intercom. “Well done, Moss. I bet you’re crying.” I was. Mic on: “I’m not crying you’re crying.” Brown clicked in, “Thompson probably is crying.” Thompson clicked back, “We all are. This is the greatest day of my life. We’ve got work to do, though, so are you just going to stand there bawling or are you going to get your shit together and move out?” I had to laugh. “First of all, I’mma do both.” Brown was on the last second to last step, misjudged the position, and stepped off into thin-air. I heard a muffled thud. “Brown?” I said, “You okay? Status.”

Brown came back, “Ego has suffered considerable damage. Suit integrity still at full. When you retell this story, say I did it on purpose.”

“Let me help you…” I trailed off. There was a gouge in the landscape at the edge of the spillway. Brown noticed my distraction.

“Xia Yibu made it to the ground,” stammered Brown. “Almost intact. Why didn’t any of our satellites pick that up?”

“Budget cuts?” I offered. “Thompson, can you open a channel to Mission Control and send them an update?”

“Already done.”

“You’re frustratingly competent. Brown, what’s LRF read for distance?”

“3.2km, but some pretty basic trig would suggest it’s less than that. My head says about 2.1 km. The face part of my head. The mouth part of my face.”

“Thompson, how’s our landing change the time to sunset?”

“Effectively? Not at all, and you’ve got enough air to make it there and back, if that’s what you’re proposing.”

“It was not. Not explicitly, at least. I really want to.” I drew a breath, still reeling from everything that had happened in the past… two minutes? We had a plan. We had a mission. We had orders. Wing it on your own time. “Okay, let’s set up camp.”

The habitats were basically bouncy castles made of carbon and kevlar reinforced plastic. It wouldn’t protect us from radiation, but it would withstand the weight of Martian soil. We were going to bury it — diffuse the brunt of the sun’s death rays. Brown got to surveying while I unpacked the lander. Thompson ran diagnostics and played 90’s punk on the secondary channel. Adrenaline and enthusiasm carried us through the day and we finished with time to spare. We had a site with loose soil that we could blast away and fill with our hab. We had the ship unloaded and the storage area reconfigured for fuel. We had confirmation that our resupply unit, one that had shipped well ahead of us and started transforming the surface into fuel, was locked on our position and migrating to us. It was good to be alive.

NASA returned our messages. The light latency was 30 minutes at this point in orbit. We had enough time for a few back and forth exchanges during the work day, status updates, plan changes, fun things. The channel was too low-bandwidth for video or audio, but they offered some very poetic descriptions of the world’s reactions. Not that it mattered. We wanted to get to the Xia Yibu.

I slept — more deeply than I had in perhaps my entire life. Despite the anticipation of the day to come, I was at peace with myself and with the world. Both worlds. Victories were very ephemeral in my life. Even the greatest successes morphed into fortunate accidents through the malice of hindsight. This would be different. I had done something worth remembering. I had done something, finally, to justify my existence.

Life’s a funny balance of narcissism and self-loathing.

Dawn on the Red Planet is stunning. If you’ve ever lived near a lighthouse, you may recognize the single ball of luminescence against a background of rock and haze. That’s the Martian sunrise.

We ate together. Mission Control approved the change of itinerary. We had the go-ahead to proceed to the site of the Xia Yibu. Another happy accident in my life — Oppi, our main objective, was on the way to the Xia Yibu.

Our crawler was like Opportunity’s grown-up sibling. The nickle-titanium shape-metal-alloy tires had proven to be a nice upgrade, but the basic construction of the frame was unchanged. Advances in DC motors and battery technology also left more space for cargo, passengers, or, in our case, speed while unloaded.

The journey ended up being 2.2 km. Goddamn you’re good, Brown. A 2 km journey is something the average person can make in about 25 minutes. Our exoskeletons and the 1/3rd gravity would mean we could probably have sprinted in about 5 minutes, but we had a job that required some hauling: retrieve Oppi.

Thompson saw it when we were 100 meters out. Oppi was not alone. Draped at the side was the body of a CNSA astronaut who, as suggested by the control unit attached to Oppi’s serial interface, was trying to send a message back home. Failing that, the astronaut, the first human on Mars, inscribed a message.

好好休息, 我的老朋友. Rest well, my old friend.