What do really smart computers do in their free time? They play Pac-Man, or more accurately, they play Ms. Pac Man.
Let’s start with a little bit of background. Pac-Man was developed by Toru Iwatani, a Japanese game designer working for the Japanese company NAMCO, in 1980. It was first launched in Japan where it received a weak response. But when it came to the US in October of 1980 it launched a craze of epic proportions. In its first year, Pac Man arcade machines across the country gobbled up four billion quarters! Inflation adjusted, that would be about three billion dollars today.
For those of you who have never met the Pac-Man, he was a little yellow head that went around a board eating pellets, while being chased by four ghosts. By eating one of four Power Pellets, the Pac-Man head could turn on his tormentors and eat them. There are various fruits that show up, and eating them get you bonus points. The game was incredibly unsophisticated, comparing it to one of today’s blockbuster computer games would be like comparing a Boeing 747 to a paper airplane. But let’s remember that this was a time when Connect Four could hold a child’s attention for ten minutes straight, it was a different world.
The problem was that by late 1981, it stopped being so thrilling. People soon discovered that all the characters in Pac Man always moved the exact same way, and if you memorized the best way to complete each board, you could complete that board the same way every time without ever getting out. Even worse, the game reached its maximum difficulty at the 21st board, and then simply repeated itself for the next 225 boards. At Board 256, the computer would malfunction, creating a garbled split screen where one side of the board was visible and the other side was just a mess of letters and numbers. It emerged that the entire game was 21 boards of predictable but increasing difficulty, and then 225 boards that were exactly the same. Not exactly the most fun way to spend an afternoon. Life became boring again, and Pac-Man arcades started collecting dust.
When life gets dreary, you can always depend on a few M.I.T. dropouts to spice things up, and in 1981 that’s exactly what happened. They tore apart the code for Pac-Man and modified it, adding randomness to the game. The ghosts would now take different paths, the fruit would no longer hover stationary in the middle of the board, but would float around the board randomly, and there were four different layouts for the boards that would show up randomly. Suddenly, all the Pac-Man experts were challenged again, life was no longer boring and predictable again. The game had become significantly harder, and even more Ms. Pac-Man arcades were sold than the original Pac-Man. Games imitate life, the lady is far more complex, much deeper, and much less predictable than the Pac-Man!
Today, computers are significantly more complex. In 1980, the most commonly used computer chip was the Intel 8086 which had 29,000 transistors and ran at 4.7 megahertz. Today, we have the Intel Xeon Broadwell E5, which has 7.2 billion transistors, and they can run at 3.5 gigahertz (almost 750 times the speed of the Intel 8086). The chip in an iPhone 6 is 120 million times more powerful than the computers that NASA used to put a man on the moon!
So why are really smart computers playing Ms. Pac-Man? Precisely because Ms. Pac-Man is a randomized game. A regular computer can beat the regular Pac-Man while asleep at the desk, but Ms. Pac Man is much more complicated, because there is nothing predictable, the computer can’t easily learn a pattern and then execute. The computers have to learn how to deal with an ever-shifting world, and that is hard even for a really smart computer.
Silvia Ferrari, the director of Cornell University’s Laboratory for Intelligent Systems and Controls, uses Ms. Pac-Man to help train computers for autonomous military machines. An autonomous fighter jet will never know when its foes will turn and twist or roll away, it will never know when anti-aircraft missiles will be fired at it, but it needs to learn how to expect the unexpected, it needs to know how to react to whatever dynamic changing environment it is thrown into. Ms. Pac-Man provides the computers with a relatively simple platform to start learning how to deal with the unexpected.
In fifteen years, when your self-driving car pulls up in front of your house every morning to bring your kids to school, or when your Amazon order is dropped off by a drove operating with no human oversight, you can thank Ms. Pac-Man for training them. Real technological leaps forward can only be made when technology learns how to work with the unexpected.
In human life, we see a tension between the Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man worlds. The Pac-Man world is something we crave, it’s reliable, it’s stable. Sure, there are a few different boards, there is work, home, school, etc. But we want to simply learn the rhythm of each board and then simply get through it without much thought. It may not be an inspired and creative life, but we can get through the boards with relative comfort, we can go from Board 44 to Board 144 without much thought. Five years can go by without any significant self-challenges.
But then there are the people who embrace the Ms. Pac-Man model. These are people who want life to be vibrant and dynamic. These are people who are always throwing themselves into new challenges, willing to take a fall and get out a few times, but also looking to grow and become bigger and better human beings. As it turns out, we often have to choose between what’s easy and what’s right.
In Egypt, the Jews were enslaved in a culture that wanted to go with the easy and the stable. They worshipped the sheep and the sun, two things that are always stable, two things that always stay the course. While the moon waxes and wanes, ever dynamic and ever changing, the sun always stays exactly the same. The sun is Pac-Man, the moon is Ms. Pac-Man. The Egyptians craved a society that was stable. There was very little variation, a noble was always a noble no matter what rotten thing he might have done, and a slave was always a slave no matter what noble thing he might have done. Morality played no role, the name of the game was stay the course.
There may have been physical hardships suffered by various people, but the hardships were tedious and the same, not dynamic, like Pac-Man running from the ghosts in Board 178. There was not much waxing and waning, not much wrestling with the unexpected.
When G-d came to free the Jewish people, the very first mitzvah He gave them was to change their calendar. No longer would they use the sun calendar, no longer would they mark their time on this world by the stable sun, they would start using the lunar calendar, marking their time and value in this world by the struggles, the ups and downs, the dynamism of life. We never know when we are going to be set upon by a moral challenge. We will have to react differently to the various challenges life will send us, and that struggle is going to make us unique and give us value.
Three thousand years later, we still face that same choice. Do we want to live lives that are based on Pac-Man, where the variable have mostly been set, and we just cruise through life without taking on any new challenges, where we don’t question our own moral standing ever. Or do we want to live a Ms. Pa-Man life, where we wrestle with the new and unexpected, where each board is different than the previous, where we constantly tinker with our mode of playing, sometimes taking a hit, but sometimes winning big?
Our ancestors took a big plunge when they headed out into the desert, following nothing but G-d’s directions, not knowing what they would find. Indeed, for many people, the unknown was too uncomfortable, and throughout the their time in the desert, many groups advocated going back to Egypt, the familiar, stable world they had come from. But of course we stuck it out, and made it to our Promised Land!
In exile, we face the same question, do we just want to blend into the comfortable and stable, become like everyone around us, and fade into obscurity, or do we still want to fight for what is right, even if it is not in lockstep with the world around us?
This Passover, let’s really take a Jewish Journey. Not just the familiar matzah, marror, matzah ball soup, and chicken with a side of potato kugel, but a real plunge into our soul, a real searching into who we are, and what we are up to. We may find some uncomfortable emotions, perhaps we’ll find some chametz in our souls that we weren’t aware of, but we’ll tackle it with courage and strength. We’ll be dynamic people, always changing, sometimes falling, but sometimes winning big. Real human leaps forward can only occur in a dynamic world, so let’s grab that lunar calendar and make out time count!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha, Vayikra, we begin reading about the many offerings that were brought in the Tabernacle and Temple. There are offerings brought with livestock, fowl, and even flour and oil. One common denominator between all the different offerings is that they all had salt placed on them. “You shall salt all your meal-offerings with salt and you shall not omit salt, the covenant of your G-d, from being placed upon your meal-offerings. You shall bring salt on every one of your offerings.” (Lev. 2:13)
The Medrash tells us that this was a result of a complaint filed back during the creation of the world. On the second day of creation G-d split the lower waters and the upper water. The lower waters were unhappy with the fact that they were left far away from G-d, and complained that they wanted to be closer to G-d. G-d consoled them by telling them that salt which is taken from the sea would be placed upon all the offerings, and that water would be poured on the Altar on Succot.
If this is the case, why do we put salt on the offerings, why not simply place sea water on them since it was the sea water that desired to be closer to G-d? Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986, Lithuania- NY) answers that the water elevates itself and joins the upper waters simply by evaporating. What’s left behind is the salt, that which does not naturally climb on its own. When G-d tells us that He wants the salt on all the offerings, He is saying that He wants to see us offer up the parts of us that are not inclined toward elevation on their own. The parts of us that we view as the residue, the part that remains behind when we try to grow and raise ourselves up. That is what G-d wants to see us bringing before Him as offerings.
There should be no part of our personality that we hate. Some parts of our personality we love because they are naturally good. Then there are the parts that we should love, because when we iron them out, we not only grow immeasurably, but we tap capabilities we never thought we had! Please pass the salt…
This week’s Parsha begins with G-d calling Moses from the Tabernacle for the first time since His Presence rested upon it. Since the purpose of the Tabernacle is to enable the Jewish People to serve G-d in a focused manner and place, G-d’s first discussion with Moses is about the Temple service and the sacrifices.
The Torah describes the laws of the olah, the wholly burnt offering, as they pertain to animals and fowl. (Quick lesson: G-d says both the olah brought from an animal ($$$$) and the olah brought from a bird ($) will bring a satisfying aroma before Him. This teaches us that whether it is an expensive gift or an inexpensive one, they are equally satisfying before G-d as long as the intent is sincere.) The Parsha then elucidates the five types of meal offerings (that is meal as in fine flour, not meal as in bringing a four course dinner with a side of sushi). After describing these basic offerings, the Torah commands us to put salt on everything offered upon the alter (this is one of the reasons we dip our bread in salt after making the Hamotzi blessing – to remind us that our table should be like an altar, and we should eat in an elevated fashion, not out of gluttony).
The Torah then discusses the laws of the peace offering (called that because everyone gets a piece of the action; some of the meat goes on the Altar, some to the Kohanim, and some to the owners who brought the sacrifice) and the sin offerings. This is followed by a description of an offering brought when a group of the Elders of the Assembly make an erroneous judgment, causing a large group to sin. After that, we are told of special sin offerings brought if the king or the Kohain Gadol commits a sin. The message here is that the more elevated your status, the more you must scrutinize your actions since they have a stronger effect. When a sin is committed by a person of higher stature, the atonement process is more elaborate than the process for a commoner.
Finally, we learn of the Asham sacrifice, the guilt offering, brought for a variety of sins such as broken oaths, entering into holy areas while in a state of unknown impurity, stealing and then making an oath denying it, and certain cases of uncertainty as to whether one committed a grave sin or not. And that, my friends, pretty much sums the whole Parsha up!
Quote of the Week: Liberty is always dangerous, but it’s the safest thing we have. ~Harry Fossick
Random Fact of the Week: Coffee is the second most traded product in the world after petroleum.
Funny Line of the Week: Living on Earth is expensive, but it does include a free trip round the sun.
Have a Superfly Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham