Saturday, June 29, 2013

Wishlist for a Chessbase endgame challenge database

The people over at Chessbase have a quite nice selection of training software. These, along with the ones from other providers, such as Chess Assistant, oftentimes prove superior to printed materials because of chess engine and database support, digital organization and the occasional multimedia features such as highlights and video commentary (tiring your eyes by looking at a screen is the biggest downside, but that's off-topic).

From Dvoretsky's manual
Taking a look at their endgame software selection I cannot help but feel there is  gap in there: the lack of a proper endgame challenge database. Let's examine what they do have: there are the Karsten Müller series, now past a dozen; a couple of DVDs by Danny King; Dvoretsky's manual, which in Chessbase media might be its best embodiment; and Kasimdzhanov's Endgames for Experts; all of these, instructional. In light of this, I believe it is high time for them to prepare a database program that tests or challenges the player on the wide-ranging fields of the endgame. Here's my wishlist:

  • Be at least a couple thousands big. Up to a point, the bigger the better. Would-be solvers need a room to exercise
  • Be categorized, probably supported by the endgame key features
  • Include all areas, not just, say, rook or pawn endings
  • Resist the temptation to include studies for difficulty's or beauty's sake. Include them, by all means, only when illustrative of the theme at hand.
  • Allow solving, but of course

  • Be in standard *.cbh format
  • Include exercises all the way to master strength and, perhaps, just a bit beyond
  • Offer some sort of solving ladder such as by difficulty (good) or rating bracket (best perhaps). All the material lumped together wouldn't do
  • Offer commentary and/or variations on key positions in a way that clarifies the theme, and on possible, relevant alternatives
  • Allow the solver to test herself on a theme or, if possible, on a random mix of several
  • Be affordable
  • Not be spread over several volumes. Everything fits on a single DVD

Many of these features already exist in the competing Convekta product Chess Endgame Training by IM Alpert, which has an over a decade head start over Chessbase. What brings this one down are the clunky Convekta conventions that can be painful to use.

Go on Chessbase! Show us!

Side note: if studies are your thing, check out Harold van der Heijden's superb database at

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Definitive Bio of PDQ Bach

For those who are already well acquainted with PDQ's albums, the PDQ experience doesn't end with the CD's and odd videos. Back in the 70's Prof. Schickele released The Definitive Biography of PDQ Bach.

This book attempts to lay rest once and for all those critics that still doubt the existence of PDQ doing so with a rich documentary exposition. While at it, it also gives ample info on the author's experience of working with PDQ's music, his job at the University of Southern North Dakota and relic-finding digs.

We also get sketches of some of PDQ's associates, such as Jonathan Boozey Hawkes, prince Fred and Pater Martini, who are just mentioned in the recordings. There is also the complete (at the time of the writing) catalog of PDQ's compositions with commentary and illustrations divided on his three creative periods  and list of recordings.

There is an audiobook version of this book read by Prof. Schickele himself. I've not listened to it, but it appears to be a very abridged version as it only tallies about an hour of material.

There is at least another use for this bio. As a prank try giving a copy to a friend and see how long it takes him to decide on the veracity of it.

Overall, a very nice, funny book and a must for those who are already interested on PDQ. It can be purchased used online very cheaply. Go for those of the best conditions. My copy had some pages missing.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

PDQ Bach: Gateway to classical music

Classical music can be very boring. So boring in fact that it can effectively be used to put someone to sleep.  No surprise here. However, have you noticed how in record stores there's always a classical music section, oftentimes of sizeable extent? Maybe there's something to it, else they wouldn't dedicate so much space to the genre. Maybe we are missing out on something by not taking a closer look.

If only it were not sooo boring.

The music of P.D.Q. Bach is a great way to get to know and listen to classical sans stupor. PDQ has nothing to do in reality to the better known JS Bach; rather, he is a fictional character invented by the American composer and musicologist Peter Schickele.

This PDQ happens to have  a mind is so twisted by fate/booze/genetics that  coupled with his utter lack of talent has made his works all but lost. However, dutiful Prof. Schickele has unearthed many of his pieces in unusual places by luck or by commisioned discovery. As it turns out many of the themes that PDQ uses have been taken (read:borrowed [read: stolen]) by later  composers and then made popular (or maybe the other way around as PDQ's lifespan is problematic and most [all] of his output was fueled by plagiarism).

Be it as it may, the odd characteristics of the compositions turned out to produce a well-defined psychological effect on audiences: hilarity. And this what, in part, makes this music so special: you cannot be bored with music that makes you laugh. And indeed the music is very funny and entertaining and it's classical music! The compositions, too, are very clever and make use of a wide range of musical devices and instruments, some specially crafted for or adapted by PDQ.

It is strange how we find humor even on abstract stuff and in music, doubly so. It was high time someone opened this vein.

The principal way to listen to PDQ are still CDs. I wouldn't try Youtube or Mp3s as it might get tricky to choose among individual pieces. Each Cd has a listening plan and it would cause undue confusion not to follow it. PDQ's album output is vast and is divided between the Vanguard and Telarc labels, the former having the earlier recordings and the latter the most recent ones. Probably the best albums to begin with are, Two Pianos are Better Than One from Telarc  and an Evening with PDQ Bach from Vanguard. Two pianos, in fact, was my first PDQ album and I got it quite by accident in one of those "Choose 5 Cds for 2.79 ea." catalogs and the music was so plausible and yet so odd that it took me many months of informal listening before smoking out its true nature . I still consider it one of the top 5. Now, for non- German speakers, Black Forest Bluegrass is best left for the end as it is sung in that language. Also, the most recent album, The Jekyll and Hyde Tour, is somewhat unlike the others (I can hear Prof Schickele now: "Each PDQ Cd is unlike the rest. Whaddya expect?"), so also skip that one for now.

I don't think that listening to this music might, by its contrast, make you less inclined to listen to serious composers. On the contrary, it might help a non-classical listener venture a bit further afield.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Books on Last Things

Skull on black; taken by Benjamin Miller; source: I came across an unusual investment vehicle. This was the Pauze Tombstone Fund which invested in cemeteries, funeral services and the like. It actually sounded like a good idea: everyone sooner or later would need of these services and with the size of the population nowadays and the reasonably expected bump by the baby boomers the sector would surely thrive. However, the fund went under not long after, sporting some of the worst performances in the investment universe. After its demise, it was not altogether gone, as it left me with an itch to know more on final matters. This was cured by a couple of books.

The first, and most notable is Stiff by Mary Roach.  In this book she looks at the adventures a human body can go through after its last breath, from old-fashioned decomposition to cannibalism. She goes about her way with a healthy curiosity of how things work out after expiration by approaching different experts. She also takes some detours to take a look at how things used to be, namely body snatching and reanimators, and recent developments on final disposal.  Probably the best aspect of her treatment is that she isn't ghoulish about anything, except perhaps her wish for her brain's final resting place, which makes this book readable to all but the squeamish.

A good companion to Stiff is Wilkin's Death: A History of Man's Obsessions and Fears (AKA The Bedside Book of Death). Although this one still has a high content of cadaver issues, this one focuses more on the cultural aspects (western mainly) of death and the ways man has sought to cope with posthumous fears. Premature burials, mummification, the incorruptible, famous bodies, funerary monuments and more are to be found here. Unlike Stiff, which has a more journalistic slant, DaH, is more anecdotal on its cases and stories, and unavoidably a bit more gruesome. It also has lots of of BnW illustrations.  Wilkins is a trained psychiatrist.

While Roach shows that death isn't the end, at least for human cadavers, Wilkins adds that so is the case for man's fears about it.

If you too have a healthy curiosity, these two fit the bill. If you want even more, there are these (which I've not read):
  • Working Stiff by Judy Melinek
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
  • Mortuary Confidential: Undertakers Spill the Dirt by Kenneth McKenzie
  • Over Our Dead Bodies: Undertakers Lift the Lid  also McKenzie
  • Down Among Dead Men by Michelle Williams

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Creative Whack Pack Review

According to Colby, men will confess to treason, murder, arson, false teeth, or a wig, but not to a lack of humor. I believe that something similar happens with creativity: people like to think that they are creative, don't even  consider otherwise and… they may be right!

What many of us need to bring forth our innate creative powers is some sort of catalyst. Roger von Oech's Creative Whack Pack fits the ticket. In its original form it consists of a deck of 64 cards divided in four suits. Each card is gives a bite-sized story or situation and a strategy that may be adapted to the problem or concept the user is working on. The idea is that drawing cards singly or in combination and considering the strategy can shift the user's mind to previously unexplored, creative directions. The accompanying booklet gives some pointers on how else the pack may be applied but encourages the user to come up with her own methods.

The concept works. I've been using it since the mid 90s and has helped me overcome humps time and again. The only problem I find with it is that after many years of use, the strategies and stories have become a bit too familiar making the pack lose some of its spark. Still works fine, but I feel that now I need a tad more extra effort on my part to make the magic happen.

A good companion to the deck is the book A Whack on the Side of the Head by the same author. Here he explores his ideas on creativity more thoroughly sans cards. I believe that reading it once can make the reader appreciate the spanning concepts more and draw more benefit from the pack.

Inevitably, on this age of the tablets, an official app has been released. I've not checked it out, still preferring the physicality and feel of a deck of cards, but you might want to take a look into it. Thoroughly recommended.