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Are you ready for this: “Don’t miss this exciting new thriller, The Mount Rushmore Murders, by r2d2.”


It wasn’t terribly long ago that if you wanted to know something, you had to look it up in a book. Now we’re used to finding tons of information by doing a quick google search. If we’re too lazy for that, we might ask Siri, Alexa, or some other artificial intelligence (AI) creature.


In Project Debater, a computer, armed with a massive wealth of knowledge, went up against a champion debater. The computer clearly had more facts at its disposal than the human. The audience, however, declared the human as the winner, not because he won points on knowledge, but probably because he was able to make statements that were off-point yet seemingly meaningful, a tactic often used by politicians and TV pundits. If the audience had been more thoughtful, perhaps the computer would have won.


According to Moore’s law from 1965 (named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore), computing power doubles every twelve to eighteen months. This sustained increase in computing power has led many people to predict that one day a computer will pass the Turing test.


The Turing test was put forward in 1950 by the computer scientist, cryptanalyst, and mathematician, Alan Turing. He proposed it as a simple way to determine if a computer is truly intelligent, i.e., able to think like a human.


The test has taken on many forms but basically requires a questioner and a responder who are hidden from each other. The questioner interrogates the responder and is subsequently asked to decide whether or not the responder is the computer. This exercise is repeated a number of times. If the questioner thinks the computer is human in at least half of the trials, that computer is considered to have passed the Turing test. Turing had predicted computers would be able to trick humans into thinking they were real by the year 2000.


At first, the test was performed using yes/no questions about a specific subject, and all input and output were typed. The game was upped when output was changed to free-form answers. Now, the test can be performed using spoken language on the part of the interrogator and even, theoretically, the answerer.


A computer named Eugene Goostman is said by some to have passed the Turing test in 2014, using unrestricted conversation. However, the computer masqueraded as a 13-year-old non-native English speaker, so the judges excused some of its poor and/or illogical communication on the basis of the respondent’s immaturity and poor grasp of English. For that reason, not all experts agree that Eugene Goostman passed the test.


One may quibble over whether the Turing test has been passed, but there is no denying that the field of AI has taken off. This has led some, like Elon Musk, to fear where it may lead. While he may be worried about robots taking over our planet, other concerns are on the horizon.


In addition to accessing an enormous amount of information, calculating, making algorithmic decisions, and dominating in jeopardy and chess, computers are making inroads in the creative arts. Since the 1980s, neural networks have been developed to predict next notes (for music) or sketch lines (for art). Already, AI is being used to create original music and art, e.g., Google’s Magenta https://magenta.tensorflow.org/.


This brings me to an area of exploration I personally find disturbing. Computer scientists are now probing AI’s ability to write creatively. Will computers successfully write interesting TV shows, movies, and novels in the future? Will we be reading books created by a distant relative of Eugene Goostman in twenty years? Will there still be a market for fiction penned by mere humans? Are youth taking writing classes in the hope of becoming successful authors wasting their time?


Before all you writers out there start smashing your computers and typewriters, be assured that such a scenario is not just around the corner. But it may be around several corners.


I recently came across an article reprinted from the Los Angeles Review of Books by Patrick House, titled I, Language Robot. In it, the reader gets a glimpse of a language bot being developed by a San Francisco AI research lab. Basically, the computer fills in words according to how likely specific words follow or precede other words (a bit like the predictive wording used in instant messages that gets me in trouble now and then). As a reference, the bot uses about 8 million documents (written by humans, I assume).


Parts of known literary works have been changed by the computer and given to literary experts. They have failed to identify the computer-generated passages. One of the literary works was from Shakespeare’s King Lear. So far, the bot is more of a writing partner than a sole author.


In a 1958 interview, Ernest Hemingway was asked about how he rewrites. He gave the following answer:


“Most of the time I just sit down and write the lines on the piece of paper. If there are any changes I make I usually go back over it and rewrite the line until I get it exact the way I want it.”


When asked about the function of his art, he answered:


“I’m afraid to answer that for fear of being laughed at. To answer that, you have to get at the heart of how a writer creates reality. It is a question I always have to ask myself: ‘Who, exactly, is doing the authoring?’ The answer to that question is usually not me. It’s the readers. It is the readers who author the work, who create the truth.”


Actually, the above are the bot’s answers. Hemingway’s answer were:


“I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped. When it is all finished, naturally you go over it. You get another chance to correct and rewrite. When someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. The last chance is in the proofs. You’re grateful for these different chances.”


and


“Why be puzzled by that? From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?”


Did the bot fool you?


If it did, and you’re a writer, perhaps you should be worried. I predict it’s only a question of time before these bots start generating original ideas and plots. Most would agree that computers today cannot actually think. But what about five or ten years from now? Will we be reading novels created by r2d2, Eugene Goostman or some other computer? Stay tuned.

Like many of you, I watched The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Overall, I found it very entertaining but was bothered by a few of the details, so I decided to investigate, i.e., I read the novel The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, first published in 1983. As is usually the case, there were differences between the book and the film version, although, for the most part, the series was faithful to the book. Some of the events which I predicted would be different in the novel had indeed been changed or added in the series. Other events, to my surprise, were presented in the film as written.


The filming of The Queen’s Gambit was smartly done, with appealing visuals. As a writer, I appreciated the film editing, as there wasn’t any superfluous footage in the series.


The book was shorter than I expected, at 243 pages. The writing struck me as skillful, without wasted words. I noted increased artful descriptions as the story progressed.


For those of you who have not seen the Netflix series but plan to do so, I issue this warning:


Spoilers Ahead


Rather than rehash the story here, I will mention only those areas of the Netflix series I found worth delving into.


1. In the series, I found the indifference of Beth’s biological father disturbing and wanted to learn more about her mother’s suicide by traffic accident. While watching the film, I expected more information about Beth’s mother, while anticipating her estranged father would re-surface into Beth’s life after she achieved fame. Surely, if he hadn’t been able to find her before, he could have later.


In the book, Beth’s father had died from poor health several years before Beth was orphaned. Her parents were not estranged at the time. While Beth’s mother died in a car accident, Beth was not in the car. Her mother may have been intoxicated, but it wasn’t clear at all that she committed suicide.


2. I was bothered throughout the series that Beth never paid back the ten-dollar loan from Mr. Shaibel, the janitor who first played chess with her. The loan allowed Beth to enter her first tournament. I figured that in the book, she would have paid him back.


I was wrong about that, although Beth had plenty of time to repay him. In the book, after she attained fame, Beth spoke with the orphanage administrator, Mrs. Dearborn, and learned that Mr. Shaibel was still working there. Even then, she wasn’t interested in reconnecting with him. Only later, when she attended Mr. Shaibel’s funeral, did she mention regret for not paying him back. I wish the author had given the reader an explanation. Better yet, I wish Beth had repaid the ten dollars.


3. In the Netflix series, when Beth showed up to defend her title at the Kentucky state championship, she was hungover and left before playing, seemingly on a whim after Harry Beltik, her former trainer and lover, told her she needed help. If she played a game before leaving, it wasn’t shown.


In the novel, although she hadn’t had alcohol for a day, she was so mentally dulled by her drinking that she lost her first game and left immediately afterward, humiliated. That struck me as being sadly realistic.


4. The Netflix series opened in Paris, where Beth was hungover from partying the night before with Cleo, a woman she had met in New York. She overslept and rushed to a chess tournament game where, due to her altered mental state, she was beaten by the world champion and, as she saw it, her chief rival, Vasily Borgov. I was very uncomfortable with the depiction of Cleo leading Beth astray so easily at such a crucial moment. Was Cleo the worst person in the world, and was Beth the weakest?


I was glad that in the book, that never happened. Cleo and Beth did not meet in Paris, Beth had not used drugs or alcohol before the match, and she didn’t oversleep. Beth was simply outplayed by Borgov, as she should have been. He was the world champion, after all. That takes some work, more work than Beth had put in so far. Realistic. I like that better.


5. In the series, Beth’s friend from the orphanage, Jolene, showed up at her door just as she was hitting rock bottom from alcohol. I wondered how Jolene knew Beth was in need of support at that time. Her alcoholism hadn’t been publicized in the news as far as I could tell.


In the book, Beth realized on her own that she needed help but couldn’t think of anyone to ask. She decided to find Jolene, whom she hadn’t spoken to since she was adopted. Not finding her phone number easily, she called Mrs. Dearborn (the call mentioned above when Beth learned Mr. Shaibel was still working at the orphanage), who gave her Jolene’s number. Beth called Jolene, who was an immense help getting Beth physically fit and off alcohol and drugs.


6. In the series, Beth’s government escort in Russia, Mr. Booth, asked Beth to let him know if a Russian chess player gave her an indication he might want to defect. That kept me looking for Borgov to send her a message. Neither he nor any of the other Russians ever did.

In the book, Mr. Booth never mentioned any such thing. Adding it to the series subtracted from the experience, in my opinion.


7. In Russia, the Netflix series showed Beth reconnect with Townes, the object of her crush from years earlier. She was helped by a phone call from her old chess buddies Benny Watts, Harry Beltik, Matt, Mike, Hilton Wexler, and Arthur Levertov.


In the book, Townes did not show up in Russia. He didn’t reappear after they parted ways in Las Vegas (and, by the way, there wasn’t any hint that Townes was gay in the book). We never found out if Townes was interested in Beth romantically, and if not, why not. The phone call Benny made to Beth when she needed help in Russia did happen but involved only Benny, Arthur Levertov, and Hilton Wexler.


8. In the series, Beth was an ugly duckling who grew into an attractive woman and fashionista.


In the book, Beth no longer perceived herself as ugly as a grown woman, although there was no indication that she was beautiful. Her clothes were rarely mentioned. Although she seemed to admire the look of Parisian women and may have aspired to have fine clothes, the novel didn’t describe any shopping sprees to high-end stores or striking fashions on Beth’s part. Beth’s focus was on chess.


9. While the Netflix series was able to capture the tension of chess matches and showed some of the moves, I didn’t gain much of an appreciation for the thought processes of serious chess players. Neither did I learn much about Beth’s thoughts from watching her play.


The novel gave a better depiction of strategy, although I didn’t make an effort to follow all the moves described. Many specific moves were mentioned, something that might be of particular interest to chess aficionados.


10. I was disappointed that neither the series nor the book enlightened us as to the behavior of Beth’s adoptive father, Mr. Wheatley. He remained a bit of an enigma, inexplicably sleazy.


Overall, as to be expected, the book did a better job than the film when it came to describing Beth’s thoughts. For example, before she became a full-blown binge drinker, the author wrote: “She flirted with alcohol for years. It was time to consummate the relationship.”


In the novel, as she was losing the Kentucky state championship, Beth became fearful that she may already have irreversibly harmed her brain. “She hadn’t had a drink for a day and two nights. What was wrong? In the pit of her stomach she was beginning to feel terrified. If she had somehow damaged her talent…”


After she lost the game, she worried, “What if she had already done it to herself? What if she had shaved away from the surface of her brain whatever synaptic interlacings had formed her gift?. . . She imagined the surface of her own brain with the talent for chess wiped away.” She thought of a pop artist who had purchased a Michelangelo drawing and erased it, analogous to erasing her talent.


The Netflix version did a good job describing Beth’s final game with Borgov, using the announcers to reflect a lot of what the author described in the book. In the end, however, the words of the author give more insight. “She steeled herself…and played the best chess she knew, developing her pieces, defending everywhere, watching every opportunity for an opened file, a clear diagonal, a doubled pawn, a potential fork or pin or hurdle or skewer…she saw the whole board in her mind and caught every change of balance in the power that shifted over its surface. Each particle of it was neutralized by its counter-particle, but each was ready to discharge itself if allowed and break the structure open. If she let his rook out, it would tear her apart. If he allowed her queen to move to the bishop file, his king’s protection would topple.”


In the novel, after Beth turned down Borgov’s offer for a draw, the reader is privy to her thoughts and how she reasoned through iterations until she finally came up with the solution—with mate in nineteen moves. “If she made an error, there would be no time for a new strategy. She reached forward and moved . . . ” Alas, she had made no error.


If I could change two elements of the series, I would eliminate the suicide of Beth’s mother and the drunken night before the Paris tournament. That said, I found the series entertaining and exciting, well-paced, visually rich, and well-done. I would recommend reading the book over watching the series only for serious chess devotees.




Warning: This blog is sciencey


As the US races past 0.1% of the population dying of COVID-19, help is on the horizon in the form of shots in arms. With two vaccines being widely distributed in the US and more on the way, one can be hopeful we will conquer this virus soon and get back to our normal lives. This article will focus on vaccines available or soon-to-be available in the US. Additional and/or different vaccines are available in other countries.


SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, is an RNA virus. Such viruses are known to mutate frequently. Vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 are aimed at raising an immune response against the virus’s spike protein, with some eliciting a response against other parts of the virus, too. The spike protein, made of 1273 amino acids, is distributed around the viral surface and attaches the virus to receptors on human cells, allowing the virus to enter. The general thinking is that since binding of the spike protein to specific human cell receptors is crucial to the virus’s infectivity, it is unlikely to remain infective if the spike protein mutates significantly, especially in the region that actually attaches to the human receptor.


If you’ve been trying to keep up with vaccine development in the news, you have probably heard about the different kinds of vaccines. Many are in the pipeline in various countries. Below is an overview of the main types of vaccine platforms, or types:


Nucleic acid vaccines (These are very new and had not been distributed to humans prior to the current RNA vaccines in use.)


Messenger RNA vaccines: Both the Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA) manufactured in the laboratory, then suspended in a lipid coating. The latter protects the mRNA from degradation as it makes its way into the vaccine recipient’s cells. Once inside the cell, the mRNA directs the cellular machinery to make the protein the mRNA instructs it to make—the viral spike protein. Well, almost the spike protein. Due to instability of the viral spike protein in suspension, the vaccine mRNA codes for a protein almost identical to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, but substitutes two amino acids to enhance stability. The vaccines produced by the two companies appear to use the same mRNA, although the lipid coatings are different. As the body produces many copies of the modified spike protein from the vaccine mRNA, an immune response is mounted.


DNA vaccines: These are limited as they need special modes of delivery so the DNA can reach the cell’s nucleus where it can direct the production of protein molecules. DNA vaccines tend to be less potent. A vaccine against COVID-19 using this technology is being studied by Inovio Pharmaceuticals together with the International Vaccine Institute in South Korea.


Viral Vector vaccines (These are fairly new.)

These vaccines use harmless viruses (vectors) in which a component of a pathogenic virus has been added to raise an immune response against the pathogenic virus. COVID-19 vaccines of this sort use harmless viruses carrying the COVID-19 spike protein. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which may be approved for use in the US soon (and is currently being administered in the UK, India, Mexico, and several other countries), and the Johnson and Johnson vaccine (in trials now) are viral vector vaccines. Chinese and Russian vaccines also use this type of platform.


Acellular vaccines (These are fairly new)

This type of vaccine is made from a component of the pathogenic virus. The Novavax vaccine uses the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus having the same changes introduced in the mRNA vaccines, but with additional alterations to render it more stable.


Traditional:

Inactivated virus: These vaccines are made of chemically inactivated, non-replicating pathogenic viruses. (These are being developed in India, China, and Kazakhstan).


Live attenuated virus: Genetically weakened forms of a pathogenic virus are used. These vaccines can be given intranasally to induce a mucosal immune response. Several for COVID-19 are in preclinical development.


Virus-like particles: Viral protein(s) such as the spike protein, are incorporated into virus-like particles.

*

Now a word about clinical trials. These are highly regulated procedures whereby the safety and efficacy of vaccines and medications are tested. Clinical trials progress through phase I, phase II, and phase III. This happens after preclinical evaluation, which includes animal testing. Completing each phase typically takes several years, but the timeline was significantly shortened for the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. Below are brief descriptions of what the different phases are in terms of vaccines.


Phase l: A small number of healthy volunteers (usually <100) is given a low dose. If that dose is found to be safe, other subjects are tested with increasing doses as safety allows. Minimal data regarding efficacy is collected. This would likely include information on the production of neutralizing antibodies and T-lymphocyte response, thought to be important in protecting against COVID-19.


Phase ll: This usually involves several hundred people. More safety information, and data regarding the immune response are collected.


Phase lll: This involves a large number of people who receive the vaccine or a placebo. Safety information is collected, and the vaccine efficacy is calculated. In case you’re wondering how vaccine efficacy is calculated:


Efficacy =

[(attack rate in unvaccinated - attack rate in vaccinated)/(attack rate in unvaccinated)]x 100


Example:

100 people in the unvaccinated (control) group and 100 people in the vaccinated group are followed.

25 unvaccinated people get the disease, while 2 vaccinated people get the disease.

Efficacy = [(25-2)/25] x100= 92%

*

The data on the new vaccines is all preliminary due to the limited number of people studied, and lack of long-term follow-up. Conclusions will be adjusted over time as warranted.


Vaccines are recommended for people who have recovered from COVID-19. Due to lack of data, COVID-19 vaccination within two weeks of another vaccine is not recommended.


What we know (by the time you read this, some information may be out of date):

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine:

Two doses, given 21 days apart.

Age 16 and older are eligible.

95% effective 7 days after 2nd dose.

Patients older than 65 have a slightly lower antibody response.

Side effects are less in people over 55 years of age.

2 weeks after the first dose, the rate of infection in vaccinated people starts to decrease relative to those who received a placebo (52% efficacy).

For those who do contract the disease, there appears to be reduced risk for a severe outcome.

The Moderna vaccine:

Two doses, given 28 days apart.

Age 18 and older are eligible.

94% effective 14 days after 2nd dose

For adults 65 and older, the vaccine is 86% effective.

Side effects are less in people older than 65 and in those with previous COVID-19 infections.

Vaccine efficacy from a single dose is 80%, with a mean follow-up of only 4 weeks. Data suggests there is a reduction in asymptomatic infections between dose 1 and 2.

For those who do contract the disease, there appears to be reduced risk for a severe outcome.

Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine:

70% efficacy 14 days after 2nd dose

Strangely, a subgroup receiving a lower 1st dose had 90% efficacy, but this may not be statistically significant.

There was one possible significant side effect.

Janssen (Johnson and Johnson):

This will probably be given as a single dose, although the effect of a 2nd dose is being studied.

Age 18 and older are being studied.

Recently released data indicates the vaccine is 85% effective in preventing severe disease 28 days after a single vaccination, and 100% after 49 days.

Side effects are lower in people older than 65.

Novavax:

Clinical trial in UK: almost 90% efficacy.

Clinical trial in South Africa: just under 50% efficacy.

Almost all the positive cases were caused by the new South African variant.

Many trial participants infected with the new South African variant had previously tested positive for COVID-19.


What we don’t know:

These vaccines haven’t been tested on children. However, clinical trials are underway on older children and, if found to be safe, will be performed on younger children.


These vaccines haven’t been tested on pregnant women. Studies are being planned, starting with women in the second and third trimesters.


Can you get COVID-19 twice? Probably, but only rarely (this may not hold for the South African variant).


How long are you immune after infection or immunization?


Is a booster needed? If so, what would be the best timing for that?


We don’t have hard numbers on the chances of serious illness or death following one or two vaccinations.


How many vaccinated people are asymptomatic carriers (contagious) after one or two doses? This will affect the impact of vaccination on community transmission. Until we know, it appears prudent to enforce mask-wearing, even among those who have been vaccinated.


What is the long-term efficacy of only 1 dose of vaccines now requiring two doses? (Most people in studies received a 2nd dose.)


Will vaccines be effective against new variants? The South African variant is currently the most worrisome. It has multiple mutations, some of which change the shape of the virus surface and thereby weaken the effectiveness of vaccines. A recent study by Pfizer indicates the South African variants has only a small impact on the effectiveness of the antibodies produced by their vaccine. I don’t know the details of the study, or what the “small impact” was. Experts believe that if the efficacy of an mRNA vaccine is significantly reduced by a viral mutation, they will be able to quickly manufacture a slightly tweaked booster to increase potency.

The Novavax vaccine efficacy is significantly decreased in the South African variant. Preliminary studies regarding the Johnson and Johnson vaccine indicate it is very effective in preventing severe disease from the South African variant. This may not hold up as more data is collected.

*

The pandemic has given us a peek at the complexity of vaccine production and distribution.


Many in the public were amazed that vaccines against COVID-19 were produced so rapidly. This is not completely without precedent. After all, a vaccine against the Zika virus was produced in approximately 7 months by Inovio Pharmaceuticals. There was much less hoopla about that, as by the time the vaccine was made, the Zika virus no longer posed a major threat. The usual exhaustive clinical trials required before marketing a vaccine weren’t done with the Zika vaccine, and still haven’t been completed. There is so little disease caused by the Zika virus now, phase III clinical trials aren’t possible unless volunteers are purposefully infected.


Let’s not forget that the rapid development of the current vaccines is due to the hard work of dedicated scientists. Only after years of basic science research laying foundations for more patient-oriented research, were the pieces in place to rapidly produce much-needed vaccines. This includes the ability to sequence the nucleic acids that form the core of viruses, and the ability to produce specific proteins and nucleic acid segments at will (check out some of this technology in my recently published novel, Unnatural).


It is important to note that Chinese scientists had completely sequenced COVID-19 RNA early in 2000, and shared the information with the world. That gave vaccine manufacturers a leg up in producing vaccines using the various platforms available. Vaccines targeting the spike proteins of related viruses (SARS-CoV-1 and MERS) had already been developed, further facilitating development of vaccines for COVID-19. (Human trials for these earlier vaccines were halted when the diseases they protected against decreased significantly.)


COVID-19 vaccine production was expedited by increased collaboration between governments, regulatory authorities, and the scientific community around world. Governments (including the US, the UK, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands), charities, and Big Parma invested billions of dollars into research and simultaneous (rather than sequential) industrial “scaling up” to mass produce vaccines before they were developed.


The two COVID-19 vaccines currently being distributed in the US were approved for emergency use, eliminating the long wait the FDA usually requires before allowing a vaccine to be widely delivered. Not only was the follow-up time shortened significantly, but the time it took to get a sufficient number of positive cases in the control group after the vaccine was given was much less than expected due to the soaring infection rate.


I hope you can get your vaccine soon if you haven’t already. You probably won’t have a choice, but whichever vaccine you are offered in the US, I’m confident it will be safe. I’m not so sure about the Russian or Chinese vaccines.


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