• Derek Davidson

The Second Half of the Chessboard

Okay so there was this King who was looking for a game to keep him busy and someone presented him with Chess. The King loved it and wanted to present its inventor with a prize. He offered bags of gold, land, etc. But the inventor said “Oh no, I could never take something so extravagant. Please just put one single grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard and double it for each square after that.”


“So little?” the King asked. And the inventor agreed. Because he understood exponential growth. Spoiler alert: the last square ends up with 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice (is that a quintillion?), more than the value of the King’s entire kingdom.


This apocryphal story is used to show how exponential growth works, and the phrase “the second half of the chess board” is referred to by futurists talking about how incremental increases in technology can seem to accelerate beyond our anticipation.


So this morning I read this article in the Atlantic about taking the COVID-19 virus seriously, and I have to say, the educator and parent in me is compelled. This virus may not be as deadly as others, but it’s hard to know beforehand. The number of confirmed cases in the United States was 15 less than a month ago. Now it’s over 800 with over 260 new cases in the last 24 hours. If patterns follow from China or Italy, it could easily be in the tens of thousands a month later. Italy jumped from 800ish cases to 4000ish cases and then promptly shut the country down. And last week Japan shut down every school in the country.


The classic argument for not closing schools is one of feeding students who might not otherwise have meals. I am sympathetic to this. I faced food scarcity as a child and also had to choose when to close school as an administrator. The issues are complex. But we cannot let the complexity paralyze us.


Teachers and building staff could, and I bet happily would, continue working during a shutdown to deliver meals to children in need. Classes can be taught online (instruction has already moved in that direction with google classroom and schoology, etc). Meetings can be had through email (like we always wished they would be). This can be done.


And if it can be done, it likely should be done. How many nursing homes have to get ravaged for us to decide this matters. Everyone’s older or immunocompromised loved ones will soon be in peril. We’re not even in the second half of this chessboard. Why don’t we stop before we get there?

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