I'm still working on redoing my personal website, but I have decided to move my blog over there already. So you won't see any new posts on blogger; make your way to to see my new stuff (and update your feed readers, if you follow blogs that way).

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So, have you heard about Watson? You probably have, but if not, here's the quick rundown: IBM designed a computer to compete on Jeopardy, against two of the highest-profile Jeopardy champions: Ken Jennings, the holder of the longest winning streak, and Brad Rutter, the highest-scoring Jeopardy player ever. Watson won handily.

This whole situation had the wonderful ability of striking a chord with just about anybody using the internet - the nerds picked it up because of the AI ramifications, and the masses picked it up because it's Jeopardy. Everybody has an opinion on the meaning of the contest, and its results, and just about everybody falls into one of two camps - they either downplay the significance of Watson, or blow the significance out of proportion.

Here's what you really need to know about the whole situation:

The most common comment I see online is some variant of "so what? A computer winning a trivia contest isn't anything special." Well, yes and no.

The fact that Watson won Jeopardy is not impressive at all. After all, Watson has a massive "memory" bank and lightning-fast reflexes - probably the two most important things for a Jeopardy player. Watson can recall information in an instant, can never forget, and is immune to the variety of pitfalls that humans face: pressure, pride, frustration, etc. Any physical, mental, or emotional characteristic of humans that could possibly degrade performance has been eradicated in Watson. In that way, it is superior, and its victory really should come as no surprise.

The fact that Watson won Jeopardy is not impressive... but the fact that it could even PLAY Jeopardy in the first place is VERY IMPRESSIVE. See how I bolded it? THAT'S how impressive it is.

Watson was not just "speed Googling" it's own database of information. That is beyond an oversimplification - it's a blatant misrepresentation. Consider the following category and question (technically an answer, in Jeopardy's reverse-question format):

Category: Superstitions
Answer: You can get four of these lucky charms from one animal.

All you humans out there probably identified the correct answer as "(lucky) rabbit's foot". Of course, it's possible that you went with "horseshoe" as well, but that'd be wrong, as we'll discuss in a moment.

If Watson was merely "speed Googling", here's what it would have to work from:

Search results for the answer phrase.

The first result is about a pickup line. The second and third are about 4-leafed clovers. None of the results on the first page suggest that "rabbit's foot" is actually the right answer, and none of these would've produced that correct answer.

What Watson needed to do (and successfully did) was analyze the question, pick out key words, run multiple algorithms in parallel on these various words, analyze all the results, and determine the confidence interval for each one. And ONLY then, if the confidence interval was high enough, would it buzz in.

The way a human would approach this problem is very similar - you would think about all of the different words, and determine the key phrases ("superstitions", "lucky charms", "four", "animal" being the main ones). You would then think through EVERYTHING you know, trying to find anything that has a clear link between them all.

One piece of knowledge that you almost inevitably have (that Watson would need to "discover" with an algorithm) is that most animals have four feet. And that fact gives you an extra clue that Watson doesn't innately get - that some kind of animal's feet may be part of the answer. If you repeat the above search, with the word "feet" added to the query, you get the following:

Modified search query

Now, the top two results are for horseshoes and rabbits' feet, which is much better, but still not enough. In order to determine the correct answer from these, you (or Watson) would need to recognize that you need something that comes FROM the animal. Horseshoes are put onto horses - they don't naturally occur on them. This is another piece of information you likely take for granted, but that Watson would need to determine.

As you can see, it's more than just running a Google search, and returning the top result. The fact that we now have a program that can search through TONS of information, draw connections between them, and determine the answer with pretty good accuracy, is something to be amazed by and proud of.

However, you should go so far as to believe that Watson can actually think. That's absurd. John Searle puts it pretty well, but all Watson can do is analyze data according to predefined rules. Watson (unless it was to be reprogrammed otherwise) is incapable of giving a wrong answer just for fun. It has no capacity to decide to do that. You could, by feeding it carefully selected prompts, control its every action.

Watson would be unable to throw the competition. If the rules of the game changed even slightly, Watson would be toast - it is completely unable to adapt to changes (again, unless it was reprogrammed). As stated above, Watson can't get flustered, flattered, happy, sad, angry, or complacent. And in this way, it is a long, long cry from true artificial intelligence. It will not become Skynet. It won't refuse to open the pod bay doors for you.

The fact that Watson exists is very, very impressive. There are plans to use this technology in medical fields, allowing for a computer system that can access vast amounts of historical patient data, analyze trends, and aid in diagnoses; this will be especially useful when it comes to patients that have more common symptoms, but less common diseases.

It's important to maintain perspective in things like this. Watson is indeed a triumph, and the fact that we have this kind of technology is something to be proud of. But in the end, humans designed and built Watson. And as impressive as Watson is, we humans are still that much more impressive.

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Song Lengths


I was watching Million Dollar Money Drop the other day (which is a FANTASTIC game show), and the following trivia question came up:

"Which of the following songs, on it's original album release, was the longest?"

a) "American Pie", Don McLean
b) "Ramblin' Man", The Allman Brothers Band
c) "Bohemian Rhapsody", Queen

This show reveals the answer choices prior to the question, and the contestants indicated that they were familiar with all of these songs. Which is why it was so odd (but very enjoyable) to watch them bet all their money on the wrong answer, and walk away with nothing.

Take a moment and think it over. Which of these songs do you think is the longest? I'll even give you a hint: there's more than a minute's difference in length between each of them.

Now be honest - did you guess "Bohemian Rhapsody"? If so, you're no better than the contestants, who were going off about how that one is "such a long song!" And had you bet all your money on that, like they did, you'd be walking away empty-handed.

I knew they were going to pick it, and I feel confident saying that most people reading this would also pick it, because for some reason, people think of "Bohemian Rhapsody" as being a really long song. And while it is longer than many popular songs (especially more recent music), it clocks in at only 5:55 - shorter than QUITE a few well-known songs.

I think what trips people up is how varied and complex the song is. It has quite a few distinct parts, and a slower overall feel to much of it. Many popular 3-4 minute songs these days lack this kind of musical complexity and variety, which makes "Bohemian Rhapsody" seem that much longer by comparison.

The correct answer, by the way, is "American Pie", which runs for a good two and a half minutes LONGER than "Bohemian Rhapsody". The contestants completely discounted this one - baffling, since they seemed to be familiar with it. But oh well - they lost their million dollars because of it!

Here's a list of some fairly well-known songs that are longer than 5 minutes, for comparison. Take a look at how many are longer than "Bohemian Rhapsody" - quite a few you'll recognize, even if you aren't a big classic rock person:

Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Free Bird" (9:10)
Don McLean - "American Pie" (8:37)
Metallica - "Master of Puppets" (8:36)
The Who - "Won't Get Fooled Again" (8:33)
Led Zeppelin - "Kashmir" (8:29)
Dire Straits - "Money For Nothing" (8:26)
Led Zeppelin - "Stairway to Heaven" (8:02)
Black Sabbath - "War Pigs" (7:58)
Boston - "Foreplay/Long Time" (7:48)
The Rolling Stones - "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (7:35)
Daft Punk - "Around the World" (7:11)
The Doors - "Light My Fire" (7:08)
Guns 'n' Roses - "Paradise City" (6:46)
Jethro Tull - "Aqualung" (6:34)
The Eagles - "Hotel California" (6:32)
Pink Floyd - "Money" (6:22)
Elton John - "Tiny Dancer" (6:18)
Styx - "Come Sail Away" (6:10)
Deep Purple - "Highway Star" (6:09)
Muse - "Knights of Cydonia" (6:04)
Michael Jackson - "Thriller" (5:58)
Black Sabbath - "Iron Man" (5:57)
Guns 'n' Roses - "Sweet Child O' Mine" (5:56)
Queen - "Bohemian Rhapsody" (5:55)
Deep Purple - "Smoke on the Water" (5:41)
Billy Joel - "Piano Man" (5:39)
Duran Duran - "Rio" (5:39)
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Snow ((Hey Oh))" (5:35)
Lil' Jon - "Get Low" (5:34)
Eminem - "Lose Yourself" (5:32)
Metallica - "Enter Sandman" (5:32)
Celine Dion - "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" (5:31)
Black Eyed Peas - "My Humps" (5:27)
Kansas - "Carry On Wayward Son" (5:23)
Pat Benatar - "Love Is a Battlefield" (5:22)
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Californication" (5:22)
Kanye West - "Stronger" (5:15)
AC/DC - "Hell's Bells" (5:13)
Bon Jovi - "Wanted Dead or Alive" (5:11)
Europe - "The Final Countdown" (5:09)
Elton John - "Bennie and the Jets" (5:09)
The Who - "Baba O'Riley" (5:09)
Blue Oyster Cult - "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" (5:09)
Boston - "Peace of Mind" (5:02)

Next time you're on a game show, and you successful avoid confusing complexity with length, you can send me a check. You're welcome.

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Bing Commercials Need to Stop


Microsoft Bing has been running a series of commercials touting itself as a "decision engine", and lamenting what "search overload has done to us". The commercials are kind of funny, but they have one real problem that I just can't get over.

First, here's one of the newer ones:

Now, the problem the guy is trying to solve is whether he should serve salsa or quacamole at his party. But the word salsa, apparently, triggers results of the latin dance, and it's all downhill from there.

This is bullshit. Google's algorithms (and let's be real, that's who Microsoft is targeting with these ads) are VERY smart, and when they see "salsa" and "guacamole" in the same search, they KNOW you aren't looking for the dance. Want proof? Here you go.

So if you're looking for information on salsa or guacamole, Google's "search overload" really isn't bad. But maybe Bing still has a point; after all, this doesn't help you DECIDE between the two. So how well does Bing's "decision engine" work? Not much better.

Two of Bing's responses actually DO have polls to address the decision between the two, so there's something to be said for the ability to help make decisions (in this case, at least). But many of the links match exactly, and there isn't a significant difference.

Now, Google uses words like "and" & "or" to help with advanced searches. We can argue all day about if it's better or worse that Google allows (and to a degree, expects) users to use these advanced search terms to fine-tune, but the fact is, they do. I happen to like it, but that's besides the point.

When you use Google's advanced search features, and search for "salsa or guacamole", with the quotes, you get these results. How many poll-like results are in the first page? Two. Same as Bing.

This isn't an argument for or against either one as a search platform. It's just to show that Bing's commercials aren't really rooted in truth. And their falsities are rather annoying.

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3 Movies That Make/Made Me Cry


In ascending order of tear volume:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
I just saw this last night, and teared up at the two parts I knew I would. Won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the movie or read the book, but the first and last deaths of this movie are just really heartwrenching as a fan of the series.

Toy Story 3
I mentioned this in my review of Toy Story 3, but this movie is all about growing up and moving on to new phases in one's life, and how friendships fit into these changes. Watching it in the theater so close to graduating college, it just hit me in a way that I could fully relate.

Homeward Bound
I swear, if the ending to Homeward Bound doesn't make you bawl uncontrollably, you have no soul. Or, at the very least, are not a dog person. But you also probably have no soul. I remember going home one weekend, and walking into the house to find my sister watching this movie on TV. It was near the end, so I sat down to watch with her. And we were both just a MESS after it. I can't even THINK about this ending without crying.

Now, please excuse me while I wipe the tears from my face after watching the ending on YouTube.

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Open and Closed


Today, Facebook announced some major updates to their messaging system. There was a lot of speculation over the weekend that they were going to be launching an email client, perhaps in an effort to compete with Google and Gmail. And while email is definitely a part of this new messaging system, it isn't strictly email - it's a new way of handling messages altogether.

The service is currently opt-in (which means Facebook is learning about how to roll out features), so until I get a chance to give it a try for myself, I'll hold off commenting about it. If you want to learn more, you can read their blog post I linked to above, or watch a recording of their announcement. You can also catch Gizmodo's wrap-up of it, or read arguments for and against, courtesy of Lifehacker.

This announcement, however, has inspired me to write on something that I've been giving a good amount of thought to lately - open and closed systems.

At the risk of oversimplifying, let's define the two as follows:

An "open system" is one in which the system user, more or less, controls what they can do in it. A key component of an open system is the ability of a user to break from the intended use.

A "closed system", by contrast, is one where the system designers dictate what can be done within it. It is, by design, difficult to break from the intended use or funtionality.

These definitions are geared somewhat more toward technical/computer systems, but the general ideas can be applied to many things:

A game of solitare, played with physical cards, is an open system - you can break from the rules if you so desire. The same game, on a computer, is a closed system - breaking from the rules is, by design, impossible (unless you hack it somehow).

Driving a car is, relatively speaking, an open system - you control what you bring in it, how fast you drive, where you drive, when you leave, where you park, etc. Riding a bus is a more closed system - you lose some of this control. Even less open would be air travel (as new TSA regulations are clearly demonstrating).

In the tech realm, we have high-profile clashes between Microsoft and Apple for operating systems. Windows is more open, which has the effect of making it more vulnerable to viruses. Apple controls their system more strictly, which affords users more protections, at the expense of some flexibility in what they can do with it.

This mentality extends to mobile phones, where Apple's iPhone is fairly well locked down - they tightly regulate what apps you can download. Google's Android system is more open; one of their ads proudly proclaims that "when there's no limit to what Droid gets, there's no limit to what Droid does".

And, speaking of Google, they're battling Facebook over online identities. Facebook very tightly controls your information, and has only just started allowing users to pull their information back out. Facebook is notoriously difficult to leave (there's no simple "cancel account" feature - only a "deactivate" feature). And you can really see the difference in their approaches by looking at Facebook versus Buzz.

Facebook doesn't play nice with other services, though they DO make it fairly easy to connect OTHER sites to Facebook. They pull data one-way, into their closed system.

Google Buzz, on the other hand, is fairly minimal in features of its own. Instead, they allow you to integrate other services of your choice to Buzz, without locking down the data. By comparison, Buzz is pretty open.

The way Facebook and Google, two GIANT aggregators of personal data, treat this data is a wonderful example of differing philosophies. Facebook, by nature of trying to "map your social network", MUST tie your data to you. There's no other way for it to work. Facebook wants to aggregate your personal data, and use it to map how you connect with other people. And, in (presumably) an effort to keep you on the Facebook system, they close this system, making it hard to export the data it has collected.

Google also collects data from its many users, and there's no way for a user to really "delete" the data Google has collected about search habits, program use, etc. The difference, however, is that Google's information is more or less anonymous. They don't need to tie your search data to you in particular - just that SOME user has made that search.

When I was watching Facebook's live stream (that I linked to above) earlier today, they talked at one point about the differences between how Facebook and "other services" (really, Google, and Gmail in particular) serve ads. Google determines the ads to serve based on the content of the messages; when I open an email from Toshiba, I'm served ads about laptop computers. Facebook, by contrast, serves ads based on the information you've given them. In my case, I often get ads for games, despite what content I'm viewing. This difference gives an illustration of how the data they collect is used.

Now, none of this is meant to push one style of system over another, in general or in specific circumstances. Both have benefits, depending on the situation. As a general rule, I prefer open systems (so if my tone in describing closed systems above is slightly more negative, you know why). I think power and control should belong to the user, not the designer - good design, in my opinion, should GRANT users freedom, not take it away.

But I know not everybody agrees. There are tons of people who prefer the "just works" mentality of Macs, even if a more appropriate claim is "just works - but only in the way we intend". And that's fine - consumers certainly have the choice to use whatever system they prefer. The most important thing, really, is to understand the limitations and rules of the system you choose to interact with.

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Wheel of Fortune Ad


There's a giant billboard on Olympic and Barrington advertising Wheel of Fortune. It shows the following partially completed puzzle:

H _ T   T _ E
J _ C K P _ T

Now, obviously, the answer is HIT THE JACKPOT. But this board CAN'T POSSIBLY EXIST! If somebody had guessed the letter 'H' (as evidenced by it existing in 'HIT'), then it would have to have been present in 'THE'!

How you make an ad for your puzzle game, and fail that miserably, is beyond me.

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