Tuesday, 17 September 2019

World Checkers Champion -- 25 years later

August 18, 2019, was the 25th anniversary of a personal and professional milestone. On that day in 1994, the University of Alberta program Chinook won the World Man-Machine Checkers Championship. Chinook was the first program in any game to win a human world championship, a feat recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Chess grandmaster Raymond Keene (left) speaking at the opening ceremony of the World Man-Machine Checkers Championship, with Jonathan Schaeffer (representing Chinook) and Marion Tinsley (World Champion)
The victory was bittersweet. After Chinook narrowly losing the Championship in 1992 to Marion Tinsley, I spent most of the next two years preparing for the rematch. Then, in Boston, after 6 games of a 20-game match, all draws, Tinsley uttered the words that haunt me to this day:

“I resign the match and the title to Chinook.”

There is no need to go into the details of what happened next and why; they are recounted in my book One Jump Ahead (Springer-Verlag, 1997 and 2009). Suffice to say that Tinsley felt ill, and it was unthinkable to continue playing against an opponent who could not perform at their highest level. Chinook was awarded the match on forfeit and subsequently defended the title twice. Along the way there was much animosity expressed by a few people external to the match, taking a bad situation and turning it into an awful mess. It didn't end there -- less than a year later, Tinsley passed away from the disease that manifested itself at the 1994 match.
Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus, Ohio -- note the position on the checkerboard, taken from a Chinook-Tinsley game
In 1997 Chinook was retiredhaving vanquished all comers.

Rob Lake, a member of the Chinook team, reminded me of this milestone a month ago. So, why has it taken me so long for me to post something? I am immensely grateful to have been part of an amazing and historic adventure, and I treasure my memories of the amazing Marion Tinsley. However, the events of 1994 were painful. It took an enormous effort in 1996/1997 for me to put the 1994 story into words for One Jump AheadTime has done little to diminish the discomfort. I find it more comfortable to contemplate the future rather than dwell on the past.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Toward No Earthly Pole -- Preface

Here is the Preface of Toward No Earthly Pole: Letters from John Franklin's Last Expedition.  It will give you an idea of what I was trying to achieve with this book.

In May 1845, Sir John Franklin, his crew of 128 men, and his ships Erebus and Terror sailed north to seek the fabled North-west Passage. After their last contact with Europeans off the coast of Greenland in July, the expedition disappeared. It took a decade of searching through the labyrinth of islands that make up Canada's north to find evidence of what happened. The only relics of significance that were found included three marked graves, a trail of weathered bones, and a single piece of paper telling a sad tale (and, recently, the two ships, but they have yet to reveal their secrets). The mystery of what happened to Franklin and his men intrigues professional and armchair historians to this day. With global warming creating an increased interest in the Canadian Arctic and the future of the North-west Passage, the Franklin expedition is once again garnering public attention.

Why do we need yet another fictional account of the doomed Franklin expedition? The literature is rife with stories that stretch credibility and are inconsistent with historical fact (and, often, common sense). The truth, of course, is more prosaic and not as exciting. This book takes the factual record and fills in the gaps with events that are reflective of what may have happened. This is not new; books like John Wilson's excellent North With Franklin do a fine job of creating a believable tale of what may have happened. Given the vast literature on and relating to Franklin, an author who wants to tackle this subject needs to find a new angle for presenting an old story.

This book differs from what others have done in several ways.
  • Fiction with Fact. This book intertwines historical fiction with historical fact. The fiction part comes from the "recent discovery" in the Arctic of documents (mostly letters) written by James Thompson, Acting Engineer 1st Class on the Terror. They tell of his experiences on the voyage. The fact comes from sidebars detailing information from contemporary sources (books, newspapers, etc.) allowing the reader to understand what was known at the time, and see how the historical record motivates the story. The fiction has been done before (e.g., Wilson); combining it with the contemporary historical documents is new.
  • Maps. I find most exploration literature frustrating to read because in an expedition of discovery, the maps usually reveal all the answers in advance. Hence, I have the Thompson letters include maps that are reflective of what he knows at the time. The initial map shows the world at the start of the expedition (1845). As the story progresses, the map is updated by Thompson with the new discoveries.
  • Excitement. The reader needs to experience the emotions of James Thompson. Hence a discovery for him has to also be a discovery for the reader.
  • Life. I want to show the reality of a 19th century Arctic expedition -- things like life on ship,
  • man-hauling sledges, extreme cold, the long polar night, and starvation. Since I have not experienced these things myself, I will base them, in part, on the written records of those who have.
  • Realism. I have read books with fictional letters before, but they often lack realism. Frequently the letters become information dumps to the reader; no real participant of those events would write like that. Thus I try to avoid including in the letters information that one would normally not see. The sidebars present much of this information using the original sources.
  • Emotion. Historical journals (real and fabrications) are almost always emotionally muted. I want to try to bring out the emotion, good and bad, that the men of the Erebus and Terror experienced.
  • Conversation. Fiction-based journals that contain detailed conversations do not resonate with me. Who would possibly remember a conversation word for word and transcribe it in a letter? Hence, there are few conversations in this book.
  • Tragedy. I want to recount the tragedy as it likely unfolded based on the historical record.
Because the story is based on the facts, it will have similarities to other works of fiction about the Franklin expedition. This is unavoidable, as in some cases the evidence points to a single likely scenario; everyone agrees what probably happened and hence the perceived duplication occurs.

To make the book seem more believable, it is presented as an edited book. The fictional editor, Bill Counter, gives the letters in an edited form complete with the historical context. This is a convenient way to interject information at appropriate places to give "glue" to the story. Again, I am trying to make the book appear believable. Any set of letters that contain enough detail so that glue is not needed lacks plausibility.


Sometime before the age of twelve, I become fascinated by the history of geographic discovery. For some unknown reason, perhaps because I lived in Canada, I focused in on the exploration of the polar regions -- Arctic and Antarctic. I have a picture of myself at the age of thirteen proudly holding my first polar-related possession: a modern reprint of John Franklin's book on his first expedition (1819-22) to the Canadian Arctic coast, a gift from my parents. I devoured that book, and every other polar history book I could get from the school library.

I have been a fan of polar history for four decades now and have always wanted to turn my passion into something tangible. As a university professor of computing science, there was no easy way to combine my hobby with my profession. After mulling over many possible ideas, I decided to stretch my abilities and try my hand at writing fiction. This is my first attempt at such an endeavour, and no doubt some of my amateurism shines through. However, writing this book fulfills a dream of mine. If this book instills the excitement of discovery in some readers -- in this case geographic, but it could as easily be scientific -- then the book will have been a success.

I tried to be true to the historic record and the body of evidence with respect to the important events that (likely) happened to the expedition. All the crew member names and their positions in the expedition are accurate. However, the personalities and interactions of the crew members are fictional. Franklin purists will undoubtedly point out factual errors in this regard. This book is telling a story, and my priority was to get the story right. Doing the research to ensure that all characters are represented in the correct historical light is peripheral to the goal of the book. However, there may be living descendants of people mentioned in this book that are cast in an unfavourable light. This was done for purposes of building an interesting story, and does not reflect who these people were in real life. For any difficulties that this causes, I truly am sorry.

All the "discovered" documents reported in this book are fictional. The sidebar content is factual and is mostly taken from contemporary sources. The story is intended to be true to what is known about the expedition, but the places where I deviated are given in Appendix A.

Although I have tried to be true to the historic record, undoubtedly some mistakes or omissions will have occurred. For this, I accept full responsibility.

Toward No Earthly Pole

I am delighted to announce that after eight years, I have finally finished my book on Sir John Franklin's last (spoiler alert: and fatal) expedition. It is now available for sale from Amazon. Treat yourself and buy a copy. Better yet, treat your friends and family too!

Since I was young, I have been fascinated with tales of geographic exploration. Early on, my interests focussed in on the Polar regions, likely because of the Canadian connection. I read every book in my local library on the subject. Around the age of 12, I received my first Polar book as a present, a modern reprint of John Franklin's first expedition to chart the Canadian North (Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819, 20, 21, and 22, Hurtig, 1969). From that day on I started collecting modern books on the exploration of the Polar regions.

For my birthday in 1985, my parents gave me the book: The Polar Regions by John Richardson. Not a reprint; the original edition from 1861! It is not a rare book, but no matter. It was over 100 years old. I could "touch" history. John Richardson was on Franklin's first (and second) expedition and parlayed this into an amazing scientific career. This book was from the time when Richardson was alive. Perhaps he even held this book. It made history come alive for me.

For the last 34 years I have been building a library of antiquarian and modern Polar literature and ephemera. In 2010 I decided it was time to use it. I had a dream of contributing in a meaningful way to the vast Polar exploration literature. I wanted to write a book and, as a true academic, have it be cited. I did not see a good way of writing an interesting book through the use of my computer science background. A history book would be better, but I quickly realized that I would either have to write a popular mass-market book (of which there are hundreds) or an academic history book (for which I was not qualified). I put my dream on hold.

A couple of months later I hit on the idea of writing a historical fiction book. Take an expedition and create a story around it that educated and entertained the readers (once a teacher, always a teacher). But I wanted this to be a serious effort, so I decided to intertwine the historical record with fictionalized events. What expedition should I choose? The choice was obvious: John Franklin's third and final command. In 1845, he and his crew sailed into the Canadian Arctic to find a path through the labyrinth of islands seeking the fabled North-west Passage. They were never seen alive by Europeans again. There are few facts as to what happened and lots of speculation. It was the perfect opportunity for me to achieve my goals.

With huge efforts in 2011 and 2016, the book was completed. Now all I needed to find was a publisher. I have published several books before that have been well received (in particular, One Jump Ahead, 1997 and 2008 -- another great opportunity to treat yourself). They were computer science related books and I have the professional credibility that appeals to publishers. But when it comes to historical fiction, well, quite frankly, I am a nobody. After over two years of trying to find a publisher, I gave up. Toward No Earthly Pole is self published through Amazon.

I am thrilled that I have finally completed this project. I really do not care if it sells 10, 100 or 1,000 copies. All that matters is that I have now contributed -- yes, in a small way -- to the literature that I so enjoy reading.

There is one thing left to do. Will someone please cite the book, hopefully in a positive way?

Monday, 27 May 2019

Margaret-Ann Armour

Margaret-Ann Armour was a member of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Alberta for over 30 years -- so starts a summary of her career. Such a succinct statement may suffice for academic purposes, but as the lead-in to an amazing biography, it does not do justice. How about... Margaret-Ann Armour is one of those rare human beings who is best described as a force of Nature, infecting everyone she met with a passion for making this world a better place to be. Meeting Margaret-Ann was an experience few could forget.

When you first met Margaret-Ann, you are immediately struck by her smile, the glint in her eye, and her excitement. Life is an adventure, and she aimed to have an impact-filled journey. There seemed to be no such thing as negativity in her life. Even when she was dealing with serious health issues, it was never about what was wrong with her; it was always about what she would do once she got better. Life was something to be enjoyed to the fullest. Ever the optimist, there was no time to waste on pessimism. She -- and by extension, we -- could accomplish anything, if we just set our minds to it.

Margaret-Ann Armour doing what she loved best -- teaching! (Folio.ca)
I only got to know Margaret-Ann well when she was in her 70s. The energy she exuded put many of my colleagues to shame. She worked tirelessly for the Faculty of Science (despite having only a half-time contract), gave many dozens of talks a year, zigzagged across the county promoting women in science, and spent as much time as possible with the group that gave her the most satisfaction: K-12 learners. Her annual report of activities left me shaking my head: how could she possibly find time for everything she did? One can measure academic impact using the traditional metrics such as number of papers, citations, and research dollars. Or one can measure impact in terms of a non-traditional metric: number of lives touched.  Which one has the more long-term benefits to society?

Over the past three decades, Margaret-Ann has been a champion for women in general, but more specifically for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). She co-started WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, & Technology) as a way to empower women in the male-dominated technology fields. In particular, WISEST reaches into the high schools and helps young women discover education and career pathways for themselves. Margaret-Ann's greatest love was working with students (young and old). She was always the teacher, and generations of students today will tell you their encounter with her was a turning point in their lives.

I have many stories of Margaret-Ann, but perhaps the following is the most impactful and appreciated of them all. I became Dean in 2012 and it did not take long before I realized we had a serious diversity problem in the Faculty: only 14% of the professoriate were female. Further, in the next two years there were a disproportionate number of female professors retiring, pushing our percentage down even further -- to an even-more embarrassing 11%. Something had to change. Margaret-Ann, age 75, started serving on every hiring committee. She made sure that committee members were aware of their biases (especially unconscious biases). She was proactive at getting qualified women to apply. No women earned a position because they were a women; they were simply the best candidate. When I stepped down as Dean in 2018, I am proud that through Margaret-Ann's indefatigable efforts we rebounded to 18%. Of the last 50 faculty hires made in Science prior to my departure, 25 were women -- exactly 50%. It will still take many years before Science has proper female representation in the professoriate, but Margaret-Ann turned things around for us.

In my academic career, I have interacted with many amazing people around the world. Some are notable for their brilliance. Others earn respect for their wisdom. Many are appreciated for their kindness. Margaret-Ann is in a class by herself -- she stands out and is outstanding for the positive energy she exuded every day towards her goal of making this a better place for everyone.

Margaret-Ann Armour quietly passed away at the age of 79 this past weekend. I have lost a valued colleague, the Faculty of Science has lost a tireless champion, the University of Alberta has lost a treasured ambassador -- and the world has lost an amazing role model. 

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Man vs Machine: Challenging Human Supremacy at Chess

In the fall of 1977, I stumbled across a book on the shelf of the University of Toronto bookstore: Computer Chess by Monty Newborn. At the time I was in the third year of my undergraduate computer science program, and the thought of writing a program to play chess fired my imagination. As a chess player, I knew I was not good enough to be the world champion. But as a computer scientist, maybe I could write a program to become the world champion.

It did not take long before I realized my dream was much harder than I thought. Computer access was limited (it cost money), software development was laborious (University of Toronto was still using punched cards), and my time was at a premium (full-time student, part-time job, never enough time for my girlfriend). That is when I made the fateful decision to apply to graduate school. Until then I had no aspirations for graduate work, but I quickly realized that working on an M.Sc. thesis would give me the time to write a chess program.

I did my Masters and Ph.D. degrees on artificial intelligence applied to chess. In 1986, my chess program Phoenix tied for first place in the World Computer Chess Championship, so in some sense I realized by goal of becoming a world champion. But in the next world championship (1989) Phoenix crashed and burned (and did not rise from the ashes). I realized that I could not compete with the deep pockets of IBM's Deep Thought project, soon to become Deep Blue. That is when I moved on to checkers, but that is another story.

For most of the 1980s I was obsessed with computer chess programs. My research has taken me on to many other projects, but computer chess has always been my first love. So in 2016 when out of the blue an opportunity arose to work on a computer chess book, I jumped at the chance.

On November 5, the book comes out. Man vs Machine: Challenging Human Supremacy at Chess is co-authored with chess Grandmaster Karsten Müller. The book tells the human side of man playing machine at chess -- the chess players who wanted to defend humankind's honour and the scientists and hobbyists that wanted to advance technology. Karsten provided the insightful annotations to the key chess games, while I supplied the history and stories.

One of the highlights of the project was having a long phone call with Vladimir Kramnik, world chess champion from 2000-2008. He kindly agreed to write the foreword for the book. How cool is that???

You can order a copy here. It makes a great Christmas present!

Thank you to Hanon Russell for approaching me about doing the book, Karsten Müller for his excellent chess analysis, and Vladimir Kramnik for the foreword. It is a highlight of my academic career to work with such a talented team of people.