Friday, November 17, 2006

Chapter 1. Linus, Minus, and Max

Linus liked chess and loved herring. That's why he was pretending to sleep, standing on the ice, with his beak tucked under his tiny vestigial wing. He always earned plenty of herring when he played chess, but today Max was trying to teach him backgammon instead, and the contrary little penguin wasn't cooperating.

Listen to the podcast with robo-reader Audrey

Max wasn't in much of a mood to fight. Instead, he lounged back in the lime green lawn chair he'd parked out on the ice and gazed at the turquoise sky. Far above, a single ribbon of a cloud draped itself across the pristine expanse. A mountainous iceberg crept almost imperceptibly along the sea on the distant horizon.

Maybe, Max thought, I should take a vacation.

He hadn't really ever traveled for pleasure. And as he studied the lone cloud above, he wondered if he might enjoy a cruise. Maybe one of those trips for singles in search of a life partner. He was still in decent shape, despite his ambivalence toward exercise. The paunch that he had begun to develop when he crossed the threshold into his thirties wasn't too bad yet, and his hair was still thick and dark with no sign of the bald patch that cursed the men on his mother's side of the family.

Cash was tight, as always, but he could probably swing the price of a ticket. Then again, he'd need to factor in the cost of revamping his wardrobe if he was going to make an effort to socialize. He had consciously avoided developing a decent fashion sense over the years, but even he knew that the plaid orange Bermuda shorts, and purple Hawaiian shirt he was wearing at the moment were rough on the retina. Max didn't care what other people thought about his clothes most of the time. But if he were going to take a cruise he'd have to pick up some new garb, not to mention tiny travel shampoos and soaps, a folding toothbrush, swim trunks, and a beach towel.

And luggage. He'd need to buy luggage. At least one of those little rolling electric jobs that seemed like mandatory traveler hardware, puttering behind their owners' heels as they dashed to the security lines, and dutifully opening up for inspection before trundling down the loading ramps. Max had so far avoided ever acquiring one, relying instead on his ancient suitcase with a pop-out handle and screeching wheels , to the perpetual annoyance of airline security, luggage wranglers, and fellow passengers.

He'd also have to put in for vacation at least a month in advance, pick a cruise package, update his vaccinations, track down his passport, and apply to Homeland Security for a background check and traveler's clearance, all for the privilege of riding a boat to nowhere surrounded by strangers who were probably just as miserable and lonely as he was.

"Screw it," Max muttered, caving into inertia, "I'll just stay home."

He peered at the sleeping penguin.

"Wake up Linus," said Max. "Come on. Wake up or you'll get nothing at all."

Linus fluffed his slick black feathers a bit, but otherwise remained motionless.

Max reached into a bucket standing next to the lawn chair and pulled out a single flaccid herring.

"I'll tell you what." He leaned forward and dangled the limp fish in front of the bird. "How about one now, and five if you win the match?"

Linus' beady eyes popped open and he wriggled the toes on his webbed orange feet, which protruded slightly out onto the ice from under his chubby bowling pin of a body. Still, he kept his beak tucked away in protest.

"Alright -- one now, half of the rest if you lose, and the whole bucket if you win."

It was good enough. Linus pulled his beak from beneath his wing, scrunched his head down into his feathers, then stretched it out straight up toward the sky and let out a squawk. He opened his mouth and waited for his first installment. Max tossed the herring and Linus snatched it out of the air.

"OK now, pay attention," said Max as he opened the leather briefcase leaning against his lawn chair, revealing the alternating black and white triangles of a backgammon board. "It's a game of luck and skill." He laid the pieces out in their starting positions as he explained the ancient rules of backgammon to the attentive penguin at his feet.

"Have you got it?" he asked.

Linus opened his beak and clapped it loudly.

"OK, best three out of five games. High roll goes first."

Linus picked up a die in his beak and tossed it onto the backgammon board.

"Three," noted Max.

He rolled the other die.

"I got a six, so I start."

The penguin cocked his head to the side and patiently waited his turn.

Linus soundly lost the first game, as Max expected, and did nearly as badly on the second. Although the penguin picked up enough strategy to pull through on the third, Max had been forced to make a few intentionally poor moves to keep Linus from losing interest. In the fourth game, Linus set up a blockade that trapped Max on the bar. It was a shortsighted scheme, but pretty good for a penguin who had just learned to play. Of course that meant it wouldn't take long before Linus would be beating the pants off Max at backgammon, just like he always did at chess.

Linus ultimately lost the fifth game and the match. Max stretched his legs and leaned back in the lawn chair as he watched the penguin devour the consolation prize scattered on the ice, gulping down each herring whole.

The penguin waddled to the herring bucket and poked at it with his beak.

"Pause," Max said, as he pitched a bonus herring toward Linus. It halted in mid air. Linus also instantly froze, with one sparkling eye trained on the motionless herring. "Save program."

Max pondered the creature bitterly. Linus was a silly little thing, cartoonish in proportions and coloring. The choice of a penguin as the interface to Persky's artificial intelligence program was arbitrary. There was, in fact, no real reason for a graphical interface to the program at all. It would have made little difference to the neural network he was training whether he interacted through a virtual penguin, or a dog, or even, God forbid, a keyboard. The penguin, the herring and the landscape were nothing more than visual mnemonics that Persky claimed would help Max maintain a reasonable consistency in the training. Privately he suspected it was all some silly inside joke. And as he sat there day in and day out playing games with virtual penguins, he was pretty sure the joke was on him.

As far as Max was concerned, he was little more than a penguin babysitter. And the damnable part of it was, he usually felt as though the penguin was too smart for him, at least at chess, and no doubt at backgammon soon enough. It was like being a nursemaid to an idiot sah-vant in a tuxedo.

He briefly toyed with the idea of checking his messages with Betty 2.0, a mildly erotic virtual assistant interface that some of the grad students had built. Max had found that a little soft-core porn was just the thing to liven up email from time to time. But he was too far behind at the moment as it was. He resisted the urge to call up Betty and instead reached for a tablet stashed beneath the lawn chair, recorded his impressions of the match, and reloaded the page.

"Open aversion training twelve," Max called out. A ripple crawled across the landscape. The lumbering iceberg leapt backward a few degrees on the horizon, and the penguin was once again standing motionless before him. Although the bird was an exact replica of Linus, this one was called Minus to distinguish it from the penguin in the reward-based training program. A chain stretched from under Minus where it was clamped to one of his legs hidden beneath his row-tund abdomen. The chain was anchored at the other end to a spike driven into the ice.

"Let's get to it Minus."

Max picked up a riding crop that had replaced the herring bucket when the program was reset. He reached out and swatted the penguin across its chubby belly. Minus snapped to attention.

"Today we play backgammon," he said as he smacked the crop against the palm of his hand. Minus tugged at the chain, his head sinking down into the feathers around his neck.

"Pay attention. It's a game of luck and skill. Five lashes if you lose," said Max, "and two if you win."

Minus cowered at the end of the chain. Max swatted him again.

"And seven if you choose not to play."

Spare the rod and spoil the penguin, he thought.

It would have been a sadistic exercise, if Minus had been anything other than a computer algorithm. But the research project was specifically designed to compare the relative merits of reward and punishment in the training of neural networks. Each had its benefits, in theory. While pain often seemed to be a more efficient method, it was Persky's thesis that the rigid discipline it instilled would limit creative problem solving. Max suspected a combination of punishment and reward would likely lead to the optimum approach. Still, he could see that it was more straightforward to study the simplified models separately.

Minus craned his neck toward the board in a desperate attempt to absorb every detail, as Max laid out the pieces and explained the rules once again.

"Best three out of five games," said Max, "High roll goes first." Minus frantically snatched up a die in his beak and pitched it at the backgammon board. "Three," Max said as he rolled the other die. The penguin's tar black eyes were wide with anxious anticipation. "I got a six, so I start." Minus dropped his head to his chest and gloomily waited his turn.

The first game went badly for the penguin, but not as badly as it had in the reward scenario with Linus. Minus took every chance he had to put Max on the bar, desperately attempting to disrupt the play even though he had little understanding of backgammon strategy. Between turns Minus plucked absently at the white down that coated his chest, without ever taking his attention from the board.

Even after it was clear that he was doomed Minus played with an intensity that suggested he was hoping for some backgammon miracle to rescue him. But it was not to be, and Minus ultimately lost.

Just as Max was setting up the pieces for the second game, a wave of nausea passed over him.

"Oh shit," he said.

He dropped a backgammon piece onto the board and collapsed into the lawn chair, clenching the armrests until his knuckles turned white with strain. He struggled to remember if he had taken his medication with breakfast as his legs began to tremble and the tunnel vision closed in. Not that it would make any difference now; the epileptic storm was already raging in his brain, and there was nothing he could do but ride it out.

Youtube Videos Featuring Jonathan Coulton's Music