Private Industry Doesn’t Do Research

“Industrial research” is an oxymoron. Private industry doesn’t do research. They say that they do. The government says that they do. But the truth is that they don’t; and for a good reason. Research – real research – doesn’t turn a profit and the raison d-etre of industry is to generate a profit.

The explanation lies in the phrase, real research. What industry does in their so-called “research labs” is not real research, it is product development. Product development pays. In fact, it is the lifeblood of industry. A corporation must have new products to entice consumers away from their competitors. Corporations that don’t develop new products are weeded out by economic darwinism.

So what is real research? It is the discovery of basic knowledge, as opposed to the design of a specific product.

Is research important? Hell, yes! We have to understand organic chemistry and physiology to cure diseases; understand biology and demography to feed our growing population; understand ecology and meteorology to keep the earth habitable; understand astrophysics and  astronomy to find new worlds; and so forth.

Science has rescued us from living in caves, surviving on what we can hunt with clubs, and dying before we reach the age of thirty. Science has let the earth sustain more than a few million people. Science keeps our lives from being short, nasty, and brutish.

If physics and chemistry and math are needed to build a refrigerator, and more advanced physics, chemistry, and math are needed to build a more advanced refrigerator, why doesn’t a company which builds refrigerators have laboratories to conduct research in physics, chemistry, and math?

Because it wouldn’t pay them to do it.

First, the payoff for basic knowledge is too long delayed.

For example, almost any modern technological development requires a branch of mathematics called calculus. Calculus has been used to develop countless trillions of dollars of profitable products for the modern world. But calculus was developed in the 1600s. If a private company in Renaissance England had funded the development of calculus, they would never have reaped the profit from it and would have gone bankrupt long ago.

Second, and more important, there is not a one-to-one relationship between research results and products.

Any single product requires knowledge from many different scientific theories. Producing the bottle of Coca-Cola sitting on my desk required organic chemistry, biology, and botany. The machines that were necessary to bottle it in large quantities required physics, metallurgy, chemistry, and mathematics. If the Coca-Cola company had to pay for all the research results that they used to produce that bottle of pop, they would have been bankrupt before they started.

But they didn’t have to. We, and our fore-bearers, paid for it, both directly and indirectly by paying for a government, society, and culture that supported legions of scientists.

The public pays for science because, every time scientific knowledge improves, life improves. A new scientific theory developed today will be used to develop hundreds of thousands of new products in the future. We will use some of these products in our lifetime; some of them will be developed for our great-great-grandchildren.

The mistake that people often make is that they think that one scientific advance is used to produce one product. There are countless myths and legends about the lone inventor – Thomas Edison, Edwin Land, Bill Lear, or Bill Gates – getting a single new idea and making a product worth millions. Those romantic stories ignore all the rest of the science that was necessary to make the lightbulb, Polaroid camera, Learjet, or personal computer. None of those products would have been possible without a millenium of scientific development first.

No product will ever make enough money to pay for all the research that was required to develop it.

But the myth that one scientific result is all that is required for one product is dangerously attractive to people who don’t want to pay for scientific research any more, because it  implies that corporations will fund all the research necessary to develop new products. And it implies that if corporations don’t want to pay for research, then that research is esoteric and unnecessary.

This simple model is a prescription for the stagnation of corporations and a failed economy.

There is a reason why those countries which have a strong culture of scientific research are good places to live today and those countries which do not, are not.

We all have to support science so that corporations can do what they are supposed to do: not conduct research, but develop new products for our use.

Anyone who claims that we can have the benefits of a modern economy without funding basic research is blowing smoke at you. Either they are genuinely ignorant of the fundamental role of science in our lives or they have a secret agenda that will benefit themselves at a devastating cost to you.

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I Don’t Like Labor Unions

I never liked  labor unions.

I came by this position honestly.

My father was an entrepreneur and owner of a succession of small businesses.

My great uncle Pete was a union organizer. My parents believed that he was a communist. They liked Uncle Pete, but they didn’t like communists, so they didn’t tell people about Uncle Pete. In my family, supporting unions was a shameful thing that should be kept secret.

My father watched television news, read newspapers, and later listened to talk radio. He had an extensive repertoire of stories about unions’ support for socialism, strikes for the flimsiest reasons, corruption, greed, and – that perennial staple of union bashing – their unflagging support for lazy, incompetent employees who can’t be fired even though they richly deserve it.

When I became older, I heard the same things on the media myself. And I knew that much of it was true. Not all of it – especially as the American news media became more concerned with entertainment value than veracity – but much of it. Unions do sometimes throw their might around; sometimes they are corrupt; and sometimes they support employees who should be fired.

Union leaders really do make dramatic statements in favor of socialism. I have met some, personally, and heard those statements directly.

Later, when I joined the workforce, I saw the other side of the coin. Unions are a problem, but employers are worse.

I worked for a federal government and saw hard-working employees bullied and harassed both by their individual supervisors and by the system as a whole. Some managers, envious and egotistical, would have fired their most productive employees because they didn’t like them personally and feared the competition from below.

Only the rules established by union-negotiated contracts kept the system fair.

I was protected by those contracts. I still didn’t like unions, but I joined mine because the reality was that the unions were necessary to sustain my working environment.

With broader experience, a few things became obvious.

First, the government might be a poor employer, but those parts of private industry that were not unionized were far worse. I heard endless horror stories from my friends. I have seen my children mistreated by non-union employers and been powerless to help them.

Second, the unions don’t automatically protect people who need firing, even in the government. I saw employees whose incompetence was documented and they were fired. In other cases where employees were ushered out the door by ad hoc methods without a whisper of complaint from the union.

Third, employers are tenacious in trying to reduce wages. They never stop trying to give pay raises that are less than inflation. Never. The unions might ask too much, but employers always, always offer too little. And, more than once in my career, the government enacted laws to freeze wages and limit strikes when contract negotiations became inconvenient.

The unions don’t have any walk in the park.

Today, raising my eyes from my personal situation and looking at the broader developments in the economy, we all are in a precarious fix.

Unions are losing their strength. Decade after decade of relentless anti-union propaganda is eroding public support for unions.

That is damaging the country.

America, and every other industrialized country, was built by the middle class, not by the elites. Every tin-pot third-world dictatorship has a wealthy elite class. That doesn’t make them strong countries or good places to live (except for the fraction of a percent of the population in the elite class who can literally get away with murder of the common folk).

Only a vast middle class has the skills and industriousness to build a first-world country.

But the erosion of the power of unions is eroding the middle class in America. Fewer Americans are members of unions: only half as many Americans are in unions today as thirty years ago; and only eleven percent of the American workforce is unionized. Wages are falling. Fewer people consider themselves middle-class and, of those that do, they have lower incomes than the middle class of the last generation.

For the first time in history, the next generation of workers, our children, will have a lower standard of living than we do.

Yet the media continues to propagandize against unions relentlessly. Why? Because the media is big business. It is owned by wealthy people and they do not like unions or the middle class. They want all the money in their pockets, not being paid out to their employees as fair wages.

Even if America becomes a third world country, the elite know that they are still going to be the elite. In fact, they will become even richer and more powerful as the country degrades.

The decades of anti-union propaganda has left its mark on me. I still don’t like unions.

But I will support them to the end because American needs them.

Yours, Ashley

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Conservatism Is Less Than a Culture; It’s a Cult

If you see American “conservatives” as people with a certain political view and try to talk to them, you will be hopelessly confused. You can only understand them if you realize that they are members of a cult.

That word has pejorative connotations. Conservatives will be insulted when I call them members of a cult. Sorry about that, but I’m not just name-calling. It’s the only way that I’m able to make sense of their statements and actions.

What makes them a cult?

First, they have a dogma – a set of core beliefs that they take on faith. This dogma is invulnerable to observable facts. Any fact that contradicts their dogma will either be re-interpreted or ignored.

For example, a core tenet of contemporary conservatism is: “No government can do anything as well as a private corporation.” What happens when the government issues a clear specification for a contract and the corporation that wins the bid fails to deliver on time and within budget? Do conservatives blame the corporation for lying about what they could deliver; failing to produce a useable product; and overcharging for their service?

No. The conservative lays the entire blame on the government for not managing the contract properly.

Apparently, signing a contract with a company in good faith and honestly reporting when they fail to deliver is “mis-mangement”. But only when the government does it. When the corporation does the same thing to a conservative, then the corporation is at fault. But the conservative will invariably add the aside, on the basis of dogma alone, that “if the government had been providing the service, they would have done worse.”

On a far larger scale, conservative policies have brought us into an economic depression, eroded the middle class, increased the disparity between the wealthy and the average citizen, driven countless small businesses into bankruptcy, and increased poverty.

Yet conservatives cling to their economic dogma with utter conviction. No matter how much visible damage is done by de-regulation, lowering taxes to unsustainable levels, and favoring anti-competitive corporate behavior, conservatives will insist that we need more of these policies, not less.

That’s the practical definition of dogma.

Second, conservatives follow charismatic leaders. A few strong personalities deliver the conservative dogma to the masses all day, every day over Fox News, talk radio, and endless best-selling hardcover books.

For most of us, it’s hard to find much charisma in the egocentric Rush Limbaugh, the bombastic Bill O’Reilly, the totalitarian Ann Coulter, or the irrational Glen Beck. Conservatives, though, are endlessly entertained by irrational, egocentric, totalitarian bombast as long as it reinforces their dogma.

Think of these conservative pundits as delivering sermons to their cult and you’ll understand their appeal to that segment of the population.

This brings us to the third characteristic of a cult. An in-group is established which self-identifies and distinguishes itself from everyone else at every opportunity.

This is pretty obvious. Talk to a conservative and he’ll identify himself as such almost immediately. Chances are that he’ll say, “I’m a conservative.” If not then he’ll start spouting conservative dogma in response to almost any statement you make.

You: “Nice day today.”

Con: “Not as long as Obama is destroying the country.”

The clearest indication of the strength of the conservative in-group mentality is their insistence that there is no middle ground. “If you aren’t with me, you’re against me.”

This means that any label applied to people who are not conservatives is automatically an insult. Conservatives consider liberalsocialist, and progressive to be slanders. And they apply those slanders to anyone who is not in the cult, no matter what position he takes on any individual issue.

Cults do not tolerate free-thinking or reasoned dissent.

The dichotomy between the in-group and the out-group is all-encompassing. You can’t agree with them on some policies and not others. If you are not 100 percent conservative, then you are not in the cult and you are one of the bad people.

Once people, rather than ideas, are placed into one category or the other, the classification generalizes to every behavior, attitude, and idea. If you’re not a conservative, you cannot be patriotic, moral, or decent. You have no place in their America.

At this point, the conservative has only two options: to convert you or to abandon you.

The fourth characteristic of a cult is that its members proselytize. This is why it is so difficult to talk to conservatives. You think that they are interested in rational discussion, sharing information, learning, figuring out the truth. That is the purpose of intellectual discussion, right?

Not for the conservative. His purpose is to induct you into the cult. That is why the conservative’s conversation consists of sound bites: bits of rehearsed dogma, irrelevant factoids that sound “truthy”, and a boat-load of name-calling.

He will tell you about his other conservative friends and will recommend that you start listening to conservative pundits on TV and radio.

His meta-message is that he will be your friend only if you agree with him; that you will feel wonderful if you agree with him; and that you will be a better person if you agree with him.

His only objective is to recruit you because every cult needs more members.

The final characteristic of cults is that their followers tolerate exploitation by the leadership. The leaders and the powers behind the leaders create and maintain cults for their own benefit. That is obvious to everyone but the members of the cult.

Cult members donate, tithe, and give the profits of their labor to the leaders. L Ron Hubbard lived on a yacht in the Mediterranean  Reverend Sun Moon lived in a palace; and so forth.

Who profits from the conservative cult? The answer is so obvious, it hardly needs to be stated. America has never had such a wide disparity between the wealthy and the average worker. It has the worst economic mobility of any industrialized country. The rich really are getting richer while the rest of the country is getting poorer and poorer. The Great Recession didn’t reduce the wealth of the elite at all; it made them wealthier.

The conservative masses not only tolerate these conditions, but keep pushing for more of the policies that created them. They can only do that because they are true believers in the dogma of their cult.

If you are not a conservative, I hope that this perspective will help you understand people who are. And if you are a conservative, no problem, you didn’t read past the first paragraph of this essay. Cult members never read or listen to anything that contradicts their dogma or criticizes their leaders.

Yours, Ashley

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Rise of the Celebrity Intellectual

celebrity intellectual is a person known to the general public for his or her intellectual achievements. There are many, many intellectuals who are known to their students and peers, but few of those manage to float into the consciousness of people outside their narrow academic discipline.

We have always had celebrity intellectuals. Socrates was certainly a celebrity in ancient Athens. Mass media made Einstein more famous more quickly than any scientist before him and, arguably, since. Television brought many more scientists, like Von Braun and Oppenheimer and Watson to public view.

Today, though, the Internet has accelerated the dissemination of all kinds of information to previously unimaginable velocities, including the accomplishments of key intellectuals. One of the biggest forces has been the digital broadcasting of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference talks. TED.com has made thousands of talks by designated intellectuals available to anyone who is connected to the Internet.

Suddenly we have so many celebrity intellectuals that we can’t remember their names. But we remember their claims to ideas and accomplishments. It’s not unusual today to hear someone at a party asking, “Did you hear that TED talk by that woman who studies why victims of domestic violence don’t leave their husbands?” That Woman is as much a celebrity as that actress who plays Sheldon Cooper’s mother in The Big Bang Theory. You can be a celebrity even if people don’t remember your name.  

This phenomenon is not a fad. There is good reason to want to hear what the leaders of scientific and cultural revolutions have to say. You don’t have to make any outrageous assumptions to predict that the number of celebrity intellectuals in our lives will be greater than ever before in history.

This has some good effects.

It stimulates interest in intellectual pursuits. The more voters who talk about what they saw on TED instead of on Jersey Shore, the better off we all will be.

And we need more of our youth to aspire to be rocket scientists. Especially when they are inspired by intellectuals on the leading edge of science and technology.

But there are some pitfalls in the creation of celebrity intellectuals.

It begins when someone, like a TED conference organizer, selects an individual to present his or her work. This selection may be based on the existing fame of the individual; or the ability of the person to be entertaining; or even on the personal preferences of the organizer. People may be promoted to celebrity status because of their ability to network, to entertain, or even because of nepotism. Not all celebrity intellectuals are, in fact, the most accomplished intellectuals in their fields.

However, the celebrity is chosen, he or she is then in a position to take credit for creating a whole field of study when, in fact, he or she is normally only the tip of a large iceberg. More than once, I have heard TED speakers present their invention as a unique advance that stands alone when in reality, it is but a single stone in a huge pyramid.

Too often a celebrity uses the phrase, “I invented…” in a sentence which obscures exactly what small part of a much larger technology he or she invented and implies that he or she is personally responsible for an entire academic discipline. Often a discipline that was active and thriving years before the celebrity graduated from high school.

In effect, the celebrity becomes a personification of a field of academic study in the public mind. That’s okay to the extent that it makes the work easier for the public to understand and remember. But, to the extent that research funds are diverted away from other, arguably better, researchers, it can be detrimental to progress.

Worse, celebrity can pervert the scientific method. Science works on constant examination of ideas. Theories must be discarded when flaws are discovered or when new data invalidates them.

The celebrity’s work can become invulnerable to refutation simply because too many people automatically believe in the authority of the celebrity and considers him or her to be an unassailable expert. The celebrity can’t be wrong because he or she is the one who was made famous.

I can give you an example. I heard a talk on TED in which the speaker presented an improperly-designed experiment as confirmation of her theory. Her theory was probably correct, but one of the graphs that she showed did not support her position. I pointed this out in a comment and received, in reply, a couple of poorly-informed, logically-incorrect rebuttals. People were coming to the defence of the speaker, not because she was right, but because she had been chosen by the TED organizers to be the celebrity and I had not. I continued the argument briefly, then took my own homily – “When you are arguing with fools, so are they” – to heart and pursued the discussion no further. It’s foolish to beat yourself bloody against someone armored in celebrity.

When people can’t see past the celebrity to examine his or her ideas with an objective eye, then science has failed.

Neither of these consequences – ignoring other researchers or ignoring flaws in ideas – delivers a fatal blow to science. The entire scientific process has evolved to be robust and recover from such errors. But it takes time and will slow the progress of science to some degree. In fact, to the degree that the celebrity wields influence over other, less famous peers and over the public purse.

I believe that the rise of a culture of celebrity intellectuals will provide a net benefit to society. But that is not a certainty. What is a certainty is that the culture of celebrity intellectuals will not go away, but will become stronger over time.

It will be interesting to watch and see exactly how much the culture of celebrity intellectuals benefits us over the coming decades.

Yours, Ashley

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Use the Doubling Cube to Intimidate

Many years ago, I was taught to play backgammon by an aunt who didn’t understand the game. She brushed the doubling cube aside with the comment, “That’s just for gambling. It doesn’t really matter.”

She was absolutely wrong. The doubling cube is critical to backgammon strategy. She was a serious bridge player and would have been horrified if someone had said, “Bidding in bridge is just for gambling and doesn’t really matter.” Yet it’s the same thing. The doubling cube is the way you bid in backgammon.

First, you have to understand that you’re not playing a single game when you play backgammon on the Microsoft Internet server. You’re playing a match of five points. It can take as many as nine games for one player to accumulate five points, but more often it requires only three or four games because of gammons and the doubling cube.

Without the doubling cube, each game that you win adds one point toward the five points required to win the match. Unless you gammon your opponent. You get two points if you finish bearing off while he still has all his men on the board. Or backgammon him. You get three points if you finish bearing off while he still has all his men on the board, one of which is still in your inner table.

The doubling cube simply doubles those numbers. At any point, you can challenge your opponent with the cube. If he refuses, he forfeits the game. If he accepts, you are now playing for double the number of points. And he now controls the cube. That means that he can challenge you back again and, if you accept, you’re now playing for quadruple the points. And it’s now you who controls the cube.

Doubling and redoubling quickly brings you closer to winning or losing the match. You want to challenge your opponent with the doubling cube if you think that you’re going to win. But if you think that you’re going to lose and your opponent offers you the cube, you should refuse and forfeit. You only accept the cube if you think that your opponent has made a mistake and you have a nearly even chance against him.

If you think that you’re going to gammon your opponent, you don’t want to double. Why not? Because he can refuse and lose only one point instead of being gammoned and lose two points.

The bottom line, is that if you’re doing well, you want to double, but you want to do it before you’re too far ahead. It’s a tricky decision. I’m constantly thinking about whether I should be doubling or not.

On the other hand, if you’re too far behind, you can only hope that you will be offered the cube so that you can refuse and forfeit a single point.

But surely you already knew all this.

When I play, I double often. Maybe on almost half the games I play. Often I double when each of us have only four or five men left on the board.

Why do so many people who play backgammon on the Internet fail to double when they should?

It’s people who don’t know how to double strategically who are most likely to complain that the dice must be rigged and their opponent must be cheating. The fact is, they wouldn’t be as paranoid about cheating if they knew how to use the cube strategically. They wouldn’t be giving their opponents so many chances to get lucky. The cube is a psychological club that you can wave around to intimidate your opponent into submission.

Here’s the situation where the cube can best be used to win. Imagine that you and your opponent are both bearing off and you’re somewhat ahead of him. Gammoning him is no longer in the picture because he’s already taken some of his men off. He might win if he rolls double fours or better and will certainly win if he rolls doubles more than once.

That’s when you double him with the cube. Why? To make him pay if he tries to get lucky.

If you don’t double him, he’ll keep playing, hoping to roll doubles. He’s got nothing to lose by trying. And sometimes he will get his doubles. Sometimes, he’ll even roll two or three doubles. And you’re going to curse the gods or swear that he’s controlling the dice.

Fool. All you had to do was double him when you were ahead. Almost always, he’ll refuse the cube and give you the game. If he doesn’t and keeps rolling, hoping for a streak of big rolls and doubles, then more often than not, you’ll win twice as many points as you should. Then you get to laugh at him.

Consider a crystal clear example. You and your opponent are both bearing off; you both have four men left on your respective one points; and you have the roll. If you don’t roll doubles and your opponent does, you lose. That will happen 13% of the time: ((30/36)/6)=0.13. Why take the chance? Challenge him with the cube and, if he knows what he’s doing, he’ll forfeit. If he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he accepts the cube, 87% of the time you’ll win two points instead of one. Yay!

That’s why I double people in the last few moves of so many games. I’m forcing them out of the game instead of letting them keep rolling and trying to get lucky.

Learn to do that and you’ll not only win more games, you’ll be a lot less likely to think the dice are rigged because you won’t have your opponent coming up from behind and winning with lucky rolls.

Yours, Ashley

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Has My Husband Sexually Assaulted Me?

Some time ago, my husband turned to me and asked, “Have I ever sexually assaulted you?”

A number of my own questions immediately popped into my mind. “Are you an idiot?” “Why the hell would you ask me such a stupid question?” and “Don’t you know?”

This was quickly followed by a number of potential answers, foremost being, “If you had, you’d remember because you’d have been arrested, gone to prison, got divorced, and been murdered in your sleep, not necessarily in that order.”

I found his question vaguely offensive and was tempted to let him know with a sarcastic remark but I couldn’t interpret the expression on his face. He looked sincere. So I settled for saying, “No.”

He turned back to the TV and never mentioned it again.

But his question stuck with me because it is far more complex than it appears on its face.

First, let me say that I’ve never been sexually assaulted  Not by him, nor by any other man. Our sex life is reasonably satisfying and completely vanilla. We’ve never played bondage or simulated rape games that might have been misinterpreted as a real assault.

So why would such a question have occurred to him?

Let’s begin with assault. He said, sexual assault, he didn’t say, rape. The concept of sexual assault has replaced rape in law and that terminology has drifted into popular culture.

Traditionally, rape meant penetration of a woman’s vagina by a man’s penis without her consent. Penetration of her mouth or anus was called sodomy and was sometimes illegal even with her consent. If sodomy was not consensual, it was almost invariably considered equivalent to rape in seriousness.

Rape and sodomy omitted a great many violent sexual acts against women, including violent sexual humiliation, injury to sexual organs, and so forth. These could be prosecuted as any other assault, but there was a feeling that the sexual component made them were more serious than simple assault or even aggravated assault.

Thus, the catch-all term, sexual assault, was written into law. But this was expanded far beyond rape and sodomy to include some minor violations such as touching a woman’s breasts through her clothing without her consent.

Was my husband asking me about forms of sexual assault other than rape that he may have inflicted on me?

Occasionally, when I’m getting out of the shower he is moved to pull me into a hug and caress or massage my breasts and buttocks. He does not ask my consent and I’m not especially fond of him doing that, not because it’s a sexual assault but because I’m damp and chilly and he’s keeping me from getting dressed right away. Annoying but not a crime by any stretch.

Sometimes, when we’re watching television, he is moved to grab a breast and give it a gentle squeeze. That’s also annoying because it distracts me from the program. And because I suspect that he’s motivated to do it, not because he is overwhelmed by my animal sexuality, but because he’s seen a pair of young, firm tits in a bikini or tight sweater on the screen and he’s fantasizing about her as he’s mauling me.

Is this what my husband was asking? If I considered his sometimes ill-timed groping to rise to the level of low-grade sexual assault? Groping that would never land him in prison or get him murdered in his sleep. I can imagine myself saying, “Officer, my husband grabbed my tit when we were watching TV together. I want him arrested and sent to prison.” Surely my husband isn’t concerned about any such ridiculous scenario.

Does he do anything else that might be considered sexual assault? Maybe he’s thinking about the foolish feminists of the sixties, like Dworkin and MacKinnon. Some of them went so far as to claim that any sexual intercourse in which the woman does not experience an orgasm is rape. Their logic is that if the woman does not enjoy the act as much as the man, then she is being abused by the expectations of the patriarchal power structure. Even if she consented.

Certainly there have been times, many times, in our marriage when I was not in the mood and my husband was. So, sometimes I spread my legs for him just to stop him from whining, even though I knew that there was no way that I was going to have an orgasm myself.

But I never resented that. I never felt like I was being bullied or forced into sex. There was no question that if I had said, “No,” he would have accepted my answer; and gone away to pout a bit. And, though I was not sexually stimulated by those acts, I wasn’t physically or psychologically damaged by them, either. I was simply a little bored, about equivalent to any other chore, such as washing dishes or doing laundry. The difference was that the sexual chore took a lot less time than housework. Ten minutes and he was done. I only wish I could get the vacuuming done so quickly. And that a clean house would make my husband as happy.

After considering the physical acts, the only way that remained to interpret my husband’s question is psychologically. We both know that occasionally I get groped a bit and sometimes I agree to sex when I’m not quite as horny than a bitch in heat. He couldn’t be asking if  he did that so he has to be asking how I felt about it.

The exact wording of the question becomes critical. My husband did not ask if I like being groped or guilted into giving him sex. He knows that I don’t like it because I never pretend that I do. I’ve never faked an orgasm in my life. By asking about assault, he must be asking if I dislike it so much that I consider his behavior rising to the level of a crime. Not a felony, but a misdemeanor. The sexual equivalent of illegal parking or stealing a bath towel from a motel room?

That makes his question loaded with an accusation because it implies that I act as though I’m being assaulted when I generously give his needs priority over my comfort.

If that’s what he’s trying to imply, then he deserves more than a sarcastic retort; he deserves a swift kick in the nuts.

I think I should think about his question a little longer before I strap on my steel-toed work boots. I don’t want to over-react. Not until I’m certain what he meant.

I’ll let you know when I finally figure it out.

Yours, Ashley

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Cheating on Microsoft Internet Backgammon

Googling “microsoft internet backgammon cheating”, I’ve found a lot of discussion about cheating on Microsoft Internet Backgammon. Silly, ill-informed, immature discussion.

Are there ways to cheat? Maybe, but probably not the way it’s discussed on the web forums.

Most of the people who complain about cheating, complain that the dice rolls favor the other player. From this, they infer that, somehow, the other player has a program that manipulates the dice rolls to give them doubles when they need them, rolls that let them make points more often than they should, or that block you from getting the roll required to get off the bar.

None of these players can point to a site where you can actually download these mythical cheating programs yourself. At best, they mention a friend of a friend who says that he could write such a program if he felt like it. But he never does.

Almost all of these posts about unfair dice rolls show ignorance about basic probability calculations.

One post stood out because it cited actual numbers. The writer had recorded the number of sixes rolled on the opponent’s first roll on over 2000 games. He found that the opponents rolled a six more than thirty percent of the time when the odds should have been one-sixth of the time. See his mistake? A six will come up one-sixth of the time on one die.  But backgammon uses two dice. When you roll two dice, there are thirty-six possible outcomes. Eleven of them contain a six: 1-6, 2-6, 3-6, 4-6, 5-6, 6-6, 6-5, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, and 6-1. Eleven out of thirty-six is about thirty percent. This guy didn’t prove that sixes came up too often, he proved that they came up about as often as random chance would predict.

But what did he do? He said that now, whenever his opponent rolls a six on the first roll, he concludes that his opponent is cheating and he immediately abandons the game. Now he wins more often. No shit. He only plays when he has a better than average chance after the first roll. Someone’s cheating, all right. But it’s not his opponent.

What should he have done? He should have recorded how often he rolled a six on the first roll, too. Then he would have discovered that he got sixes just as often as the other guy. And his abysmal understanding of probability theory wouldn’t have mattered.

If you’re going to play backgammon, you have to understand this table that shows all the possible rolls of a pair of dice:

Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 2.28.35 PM

Each row is a different face of the first die and each column a different face of the second die.

First, you can see that there are thirty-six possible outcomes. You can see that doubles, which are found on the diagonal occur six times out of thirty-six. Sevens are found on the other diagonal and also occur six times out of thirty-six.

Any single number occurs eleven times out of thirty-six: six times on the row and six times on the column, minus once where the row and column overlap.

You can also see that getting a six and five – 5,6; 6,5 – is twice as likely as getting double fives – 5,5 – but exactly as likely as getting either double sixes or double fives – 6,6; 5,5. That’s why it’s easier to advance out of your opponent’s one point to your safety point at his twelve point if you haven’t advanced your man to his two point.

This table also shows something more subtle and interesting. Look what happens as you move away from the top-left to lower-right diagonal. Rolls in which the dice are separated by one pip – 1,2; 2,3; 3,4; 4,5; 5,6; 6,5; 5,4; 4,3; 3,2; and 2,1 – are more common than rolls in which the dice are separated by two pips – 1,3; 2,4; 3,5; 4,6; 6,4; 5,3; 4,2; and 3,1. And those in turn, more common than three pip separations – 1,4; 2,4; 3,6; 6,3; 4,2; 5,1. And so forth. This means that you’ll more likely make points when you have men on the board that are adjacent than when they are separated by one or more empty points.

You shouldn’t be playing backgammon unless you can visualze this table in your head.

It explains why people often think that the dice are against them. The chances of a double are 1:6. Unlikely, but hardly rare. The chances of two doubles in a row is 1:36 and three doubles in a row, 1:216. If you play a lot of backgammon, you’re going to see your opponent get three doubles in a row once in a while. It does not mean that the dice are rigged. It means that he got lucky. And not lottery-win, struck-by-lightning lucky, only its-sure-to-happen-sometimes lucky. Frustrating  when you’re neck and neck and bearing off, but it happens.

The chances of making a point on the opening roll – 1,3; 1,6; 2,4; 3,5; 4,6; 6,4; 5,3; 4,2; 6,1; 3,1 – is 10:36 or 28%. It’s going to happen a lot. By the way, expert players don’t recommend using an opening 6,4 roll to make a point because starting the game with a point that deep in your home table is not especially useful. I always know that I’m playing someone who has never read about backgammon strategy when I see my opponent do that.

So what do you do when your opponent gets lucky and you don’t? The stupid thing to do is to swear, claim your opponent must be cheating, and storm away from the computer. Stupid, not only because you’re almost certainly wrong, and very certainly immature, but because you never get a chance to learn about coming from behind to win a game. If you play to the bitter end, you’d be surprised how often you can manage to hit a blot as your opponent is bearing off, keep putting him back while you keep advancing, and squeak out a sweet, sweet victory.

How do people really cheat? They do it by getting a program like GNU Backgammon and using it to advise them on strategy. You won’t see them forcing good dice rolls for themselves more often than chance because that’s not what they’re doing. They’re simply playing better than you with fair dice. But they’re playing more slowly because they have to keep consulting the program to get advice before making their moves.

And you? Unlike chess, the best backgammon programs can still be beaten by great players. Forget about cheating and learn to play brilliantly. You won’t win when your opponent gets lucky rolls, but you will win far more often than not.

And you’ll enjoy playing a lot more.

Yours, Ashley

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