TITLE: Databases and the Box AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 07, 2008 5:49 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Last time I mentioned a Supreme Court justice's thoughts on how universal access to legal case data changes the research task associated with the practice of the law. Justice Roberts's comments brought to mind two thoughts, one related to the law and one not. As a graduate student, I worked on the representation and manipulation of legal arguments. This required me to spend some time reading legal journals for two different purposes. First, I needed to review the literature on applying computers to legal tasks, ad in particular how to represent knowledge of statute and cases. Second, I needed to find, read, and code cases for the knowledge base of my program. I'm not that old, but I'm old enough that my research preceded the Internet Age's access to legal cases. I went to the campus library to check out thick volumes of the Harvard Law Review and other legal collections and journals. These books became my companions for several months, as I lay on the floor of my study and pored over them. When I could not find a resource I needed on campus, I rode my bike to the Michigan State Law Library in downtown Lansing to use law reviews in its collection. I was not allowed to take these home, so I worked through them one at a time in carols there. I was quite an anomalous sight there, in T-shirt and shorts with a bike helmet at my side! I loved that time, reading and learning. I never considered studying the law as a profession, but this work was a wonderful education in a fascinating domain where computing can be applied. My enjoyment of the reading almost certainly extending my research time in grad school by a couple of months. The second thought was of the changes in chess brought about by the application of simple database technology. I've written about chess before, but not about computing applications to it. Of course, the remarkable advances in chess-playing computers that came to a head in Hitech and Deep Thought have now reached the desktop in the form of cheap and amazingly strong programs. This has affected chess in so many ways, from eliminating the possibility of adjournments in most tournaments to providing super-strong partners for every player who wants to play, day or night. The Internet does the same, though now we are never sure if we are playing against a person or a person sitting next to a PC running Fritz. But my thoughts turned to the same effect Justice Roberts talked about, the changes created by opening databases on how players learn, study, and stay abreast of opening theory. If you have never played tournament chess, you may not be aware of how much knowledge of chess openings has been recorded. Go to a big-box bookstore like Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Borders and browse the library of chess titles. (You can do that on-line now, of course!) You will see encyclopedias of openings like, well, the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings; books on classes of openings, such as systems for defending against king pawn openings; and books upon books about individual openings, from the most popular Ruy Lopez and Sicilian Defense to niche openings like my favorites, Petroff's Defense and the Center Game. In the olden days of the 1980s, players bought books on their objects of study and pored over them with the same vigor as legal theorists studying law review articles. We hunted down games featuring our openings so that we could play through them to see if there was a novelty worth learning or if someone had finally solved an open problem in a popular variation. I still have a binder full of games with Petroff's Defense, cataloged using my own system, variation by variation with notes by famous players and my own humble notes from unusual games. My goal was to know this opening so well that I could always get a comfortable game out of the opening, against even stronger players, and to occasionally get a winning position early against a player not as well versed in the Petroff as I. Talk about a misspent youth. Chessplayers these days have the same dream, but they rarely spend hours with their heads buried inside opening books. These days, it is possible to subscribe to a database service that puts at our fingertips, via a computer keyboard, every game played with any opening -- anywhere in the recorded chess world, as recently as the latest update a week ago. What is the study of chess openings like now? I don't know, having grown up in the older era and not having kept up with chess study in many years. Perhaps Justice Roberts feels a little like this these days. Clerks do a lot of his research, and when he needs to do his own sleuthing, those old law reviews feel warm and inviting. I do know this. Opening databases have so changed chess practice, from grandmasters down to patzers like me, that the latest issue of Chess Life, the magazine of U.S. Chess, includes a review of the most recent revision of Modern Chess Openings -- the opening bible on which most players in the West once relied as the foundation of broad study -- whose primary premise is this: What role does MCO play in a world where computer database is king? What is the use of this venerable text? From our gamerooms to our courtrooms, applications of even the most straightforward computing technology have changed the world. And we haven't even begun to talk about programs. -----