Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thoughts on Watson: the Jeopardy robot Part III

OK. Watson won. He won kinda big time, and I was gonna post a picture of a chain-link-fence-holding Sarah Conner engulfed in flames on judgement day, but it was sort of gruesome and anyway I don't really feel that way about this particular robot triumph. That said, burying an arms cache in the Mexican desert and maybe learning a few tips on how to outsmart logic-beholden machines via a re-read of Asimov's I Robot might not be a terrible idea. (no, watching the movie won't help)

Before we get into the gloomy excitement of computers getting really really smart all of a sudden,  let's quickly discuss the saving grace for humanity here which is: Ken Jennings managed a (reasonably funny and certainly appropriate) Simpsons reference within his final jeopardy answer!

We're still good at something! Being funny! Take that, machines!

In case you're not a Simpsons nerd, see the classic Kent Brockman clip below.

Maybe IBM's next challenge should be to develop a robot that wins Last Comic Standing. No, seriously, give it a shot, IBM. It's even OK if it uses props, or ventriloquism, or a redneck-y catch phrase, but I think your best bet is to have it write 45 minutes about the quirks of being robotic, then stock the audience with robots. But perhaps I digress.

Back to the show.  What can I say except to ask more questions about how Watson works? I find this stuff sort of endlessly fascinating.

Why does it seem like Watson's so much better at Double Jeopardy than Single?

Does Watson benefit from any sort of momentum of confidence factor after a series of correct answers (like a human would)? (Presumably, followup question: Would that be an inherently bad thing to build into a computer's programming? Discuss)

How did Watson put together Moldavia and Wallachia to get Bram Stoker but not get the Chicago airport question?

Let me jump into that one.

As a reasonably intelligent human being, I gauged both of these (final jeopardy) questions as fairly easy, although I would agree that the Chicago one was a little tougher. Although the inherent difficulty of any question is debatable and of course skewed by whether someone knows or does not know the answer, I feel my opinion is at least somewhat founded in objective analysis and also supported anecdotally by the fact that both human players got both questions correct.

I'm being presumptuous about how Watson thinks through these questions, but what the hell (bbq). To get to last night's final Jeopardy solution (clue paraphrase: "So and so's published anthropological survey of Moldavia and Wallachia was the inspiration for this author's most famous work"), I feel Watson must have had to throw "Moldavia" and "Wallachia" into the gears and realize (quickly) they were a reference to Romania. (Wikipedia informs me that these comprise the north and south historical regions of what is now modern day Romania). From there the path gets a little murky though. The category was "19th Century Authors". So now Watson must filter through a list of authors with whom Romania is associated?  Or does he, in his geographical search come up with keyword "Transylvania"...which when filtered through the category title yields "Bram Stoker", author of Dracula. Perhaps "Dracula" has to occur first to Watson but I sort of doubt it. This all seems pretty reasonable, except if this type of database list generation and subsequent list cross referencing is how Watson arrives at answers...
then why not nail that Chicago airport one?

Pull up a list of major airports, filter by US cities (or don't, even) and cross reference with cities with 2 airports. Even without the US filter (or if the US/American filter includes all of the cities in the Americas) this ought to yield a fairly short list.  Then filter by historical names, and see which are associated with WWII.  As I mentioned, Toronto's airport is Lester Pearson International (YYZ), but he's got no direct association with WWII (that I can see). A good but incorrect guess would have New York City (because of JFK)
I find all this puzzling, is all. Hopefully we'll get more coverage and learn more about how Watson ticks in the near future.  For now I'll take our triumphs where we can get them, but more pertinently...where's my holodeck?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thoughts on Watson: the Jeopardy robot Part II

Last night was sort of hard to watch, right? Watson mopped the floor with the humans and went out to a $20,000 lead. Last night Watson got both Daily Doubles and eventually played in Final Jeopardy. The main question I want to ask is:

How does Watson decide what to wager?

Presumably it's an algorithm based on a simple (quick) examination of Watson's stores of info on any given category, crossed somehow with the game's current scores and score gaps, etc... Does Watson (actively) take into account the remaining board squares' monetary values when deciding what to wager? Does Watson learn about playing styles as the game goes on? In other words, does Watson know he's winning and is likely to continue to win, or only that he's currently ahead in points?

What jumps out to me most about last night was the final Jeopardy clue.  The category was US Cities, and the clue had to do with airport names.  Paraphrase is "what US city's largest airport is named for a WWII hero and second largest named for a WWII battle?" Ken, Brad, and I came up with the correct answer as 'Chicago' (references to airports O'Hare and Midway) but Watson flubbed it pretty big with "Toronto".

For starters, Toronto's not in the United it seems genuinely strange to me that Watson could try to pass that one off as correct, even as a shaky guess. Secondly, Watson only wagered $947 bucks on the clue.  One obvious explanation of that could be that Watson was way way ahead in the score, so oftentimes players in that position won't jeopardize (ha!) the guaranteed win in a gambit to accumulate money...however those helping normal human contestants give them a series of scenarios (at least, this is my understanding as a viewer) to help them decide how much to wager.

Watson was almost $20,000 dollars ahead, so he could have bet almost 20 times as much and still ensured his overall win in this round. Watson did no such thing, at least in part because the two day game is cumulative and so he must have it in his programming to generate as much money as possible...

This is all a roundabout way to get back to what made the category "US cities" appear daunting to Watson, and why he guessed incorrectly on a clue that at least three humans got easily. Why be intimidated by this category, and then furthermore why get it so wrong? It seems a cursory cross reference of major US airport names with WWII associated people would have quickly yielded the Chicago answer.  Also note that Toronto's largest airport (YYZ, the one Rush wrote the song about) is called Lester Pearson Airport after a Canadian prime minister.

More questions than answers...looking forward to the conclusion.

"too clever is stupid, dude."
 - Icepick (from Skate or Die II)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thoughts on Watson: the Jeopardy robot Part I

Last night was part 1 of 3 for the competition between IBM's Watson and the two Jeopardy wizards only as known as Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. I've been anticipating it since I first heard it was happening late last year, but I gotta admit I hadn't really thought that hard about it beyond a standard "holy shit' feeling.

I've long been a proponent of Star Trek style technology, despite it's inherent evilness and capability to trap us inside Agatha Christie trains or make us obsessed with gaming technology. I've publicly stated that I'll have the matrix plug installed as soon as it becomes available (read: covered by insurance) because once that thing exists, who knows what's what in any real sense so why not jump on the jelly wagon post haste and ride it to freedom (or slavery). Watson appears to be an important step in this lineage.

Watson takes the questions and spits out answers in plain (question-oriented) english after ringing in on the buzzer. I had been under the impression it would be analyzing Alex's actual speech in order to receive the clue info, but apparently that's not the case.  Trebek said Watson receives the clue as a text file simultaneously to it being revealed to the player. That's slightly less impressive--(but still cool) and it brings up a couple questions that weren't answered last night:

Does Watson get the text file entered at the moment the question gets "revealed" on TV (and presumably to the contestants as well) or immediately after Alex is finished reading it?

My guess is the former, which slants the game significantly in Watson's favor, since it's reading speed has got to be worlds faster than any human. In reality, the time it takes Alex to read through a clue is almost an eternity for a machine so gosh darn sophisticated.  But OK, still pretty cool.

Here's another relevant question though:

How does Watson receive the category information?

This is more vague, I guess. Watson presumably receives the categories as text files at the same time as contestants, but this point was not specified. It's important, I think, because as soon as you hear the categories your (human) brain is priming it's internal filing cabinet for what might come up in the context of said category. So assuming Watson gets them simultaneously with the humans. I wonder how the programming parsed that information specifically, or if Watson chooses how to move through the board based in part on a perceived wealth or paucity of information in any given category. Maybe tonight's broadcast will reveal more of this type of stuff.

A couple other observations I'm hoping to explore after seeing more of the game:

I noticed that in one instance, Ken Jennings answered something incorrectly (in the "what decade?" category) and then that Watson rang in and gave the same (incorrect) answer directly afterward. Did Watson's developers miss a fairly obvious aspect of the game with this, or was this instead an extremely difficult programming obstacle?  Or perhaps they are scrambling as I type to fix this glitch.

The visualization of Watson's thought process was pretty intriguing.  The concept of a confidence threshold was covered and then presented as a bar graph on the screen. Although Watson was typically quite confident in the answer (and subsequently correct) there were a few instances where Watson wasn't particularly certain which of three top answers to select. Here's one thing it made me wonder:

Does Watson's option weighting and/or overall confidence in any given answer correlate to what us humans might call "the overall difficulty" of the question? 

Although Jeopardy works hard to weight the difficulty of the clues accurately with a monetary value, it's easy to agree that this is a flawed system. What makes question difficult? (besides not knowing the answer).
Example: In the "Literary Villains APB" category, the mid-level clue was indicating the villain from the Harry Potter series: Voldemort.  Watson incorrectly surmised "Harry Potter" and the confidence bars indicated a degree of confusion (although the threshold was not met). Two pieces of information in regards to that are worth thinking about: 1. the clue didn't mention "Harry Potter"  and 2. "Voldemort" is (somewhat) rarely referred to by his actual name in this series of books.
Watson must be using a sort of "fill in the blank" algorithm which correctly identified other words in the clue (like Hogwarts) as being related to Harry Potter, while also correctly identifying that "Harry Potter: himself did not appear in the clue. This may be an interesting, somewhat non-intuitive piece of the "what makes a clue difficult" puzzle.
The second point however, speaks more directly to what it means for a question to be difficult. There is simply less information connecting that particular answer to the clue, less repetition of the specific idea, fewer linguistic bridges.

I'd like to get more into this avenue of thought after I watch Double Jeopardy tonight. Right now, Watson is tied for the lead at $5000.  Humanity still has hope, and the Holodeck may still be a ways off I guess.

Note: wanted to get my thoughts down first, without reading others' take...but now that I did here's another article, which makes mention of an interesting contextual aspect of correctly answering that I didn't recount above--very interesting stuff...referred to as "leg-gate" in the comments.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chinese vs Japanese / Man vs Robot

OK, first the bad news. I re-watched The Matrix: Reloaded. When the original Matrix came out I was a sophomore in college and I went to the Newark shopping center to watch it with my bros. The ad campaign for the film had been a really good example of creating actual intrigue in regards to a blockbuster movie with the whole "What is the matrix" tagline. Anyway we were stoked to finally see it and the movie wrecked shop on our 19-year old brains and didn't disappoint at all.
Of course years later when the 'trilogy continued' I was only cautiously stoked (at best)...but paid up to see more slo-mo ass kicking and 360 bullet dodging. Everyone knows it sort of least relative to the original film, and I hadn't forgotten this but the other day I was in a position to pick out a mindless movie to watch while I was completely immobilized for about 3.5 hours doing leukophoresis (white blood cell donation) and so I was thinking "why not? this movie had some cool fights in it and I like those". And to be fair, The Matrix: Reloaded held my complete attention while my entire blood volume was drained, filtered, and then put back into my bod on the other side.

The Matrix films are basically very high concept/high budget martial arts movies, so on to the kicking people in the face part. The coolest fight in the movie is probably the one where Neo fights like hundreds of Elronds all dressed up for the white house press correspondents' dinner.

I realize that Neo is supposed to be seeing everything in slow motion, but he also kind of kicks in slow motion, which isn't really so cool. Anyway--like lots of kung-fu movies of yore, this one employs lots of physically impossible wire trick stuff but also makes copious use of that patented (they wish) slow down and strafe camera work. Difference is, this isn't even trying to look particularly real, which works great for Keanu. When he gets the pole out and goes all tether ball it's pretty awesome regardless.

This movie makes very little sense, and when I saw it the first time I recall thinking: it's a windup for the next movie...hopefully 'Martix: Revolutions' will swing hard and hit it out of the park. We all know that didn't pan out (maybe I'll go ahead and rewatch that one soonish as well), so this movie just seems jumbled up unnecessarily. I think it would have worked better if they dropped a little of the over-reaching hero quest narrative and focused on what I'm seeing as the primary (read: most interesting) plot driver of the movie which is the following: given that this thing called the matrix exists, check out all the weird alt-programs that float around inside of it (including, as the climax indicates, Neo himself).

Perhaps the most misguided/mistakenly hilarious scene of all is the notorious "cave-rave" pictured above. The part that really tickled me was right before the Zion-techno-oontz starts bumping where Morpheus announces (triumphantly) 'let us shake this cave' in righteous defiance of the robot overlords that will soon consume and enslave us. Youtube wouldn't let me embed this one (the line is at about 1:30)

So amongst such original ideas as twin albino badasses, orgasm cakes, keymasters who unlock secret stuff (wait a sec...), and having Harold Perrineau being able to steer a ship straight and true despite being in a weird non/ultra reality, this movie is probably worth about:

.56 of the 1

sidenote for any science-types reading this: when Neo 'reaches inside' Trinity to kickstart her heart Mola Ram-style at the end, all I could think was "terrible sterile technique, dude."

1/24/11 topical update: Keanu, please don't make anymore of these.


I also watched a modern kung-fu film called Ip Man.  It's on Netflix streaming and you should watch it. It's much more of a "film" film than most martial arts movies, but the fighting in it is really really kickass. (see below)

This may be old news to some of you because I believe they already released a sequel to this bad boy...but in quick summary, Ip Man is a real guy who lived in southern China during the second Sino-Japanese war, and was the first to teach Wing Chun style kung fu. He had tons of students the most famous of whom is Bruce Lee.

The movie is set during a time of Japanese occupation, and Ip Man is the old standby peaceful man character who doesn't really want to fight, but holy crap look out when his blood gets angried up.

Though this scene below is only about half way through the's probably the coolest fight scene.  The setup: Japanese soldiers are challenging all the Chinese guys to come fight them, to prove that Japanese martial arts is better or whatever, and because they're an occupying army they're bullying them into it big time, and being dicks in general. Ip Man's all like "I choose not to fight" etc.. and that's part of how you know how unbelievably badass he is, because he's super calm about it and everything. But then...well, you know.

Were you digging all the multiple rapid punches and painful limb breaks like I was?
You should watch this movie for more of the same. Netflix streaming, like I mentioned. Do it.

9 out of 10 japanese guys with broken legs and multiple face bruises agree.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Year in Review

So what did I do this year? Let's recap in a slapdash way that romanticizes minor occurences while downplaying major ones and adds a sheen of coolness to basically everything.

I started 2010 watching fireworks on a couch in Kuala Lumpur, and ended it just now at a karaoke bar somewhere in the LA outskirts belting out "Alive" with two Japanese dudes I just met. Pretty solid on both counts.

I played the last show with an old band and the first show with a new one. I took two GREs. I got engaged. I soaked in a Japanese mountain hot spring and walked on the great wall. I turned 30.

I saw Arcade Fire in Berkeley, and a Broadway production of South Pacific. I went to the symphony a couple of times. I bought Guess Who and Dvorak records. I ate a fried Oreo.

I drank some wine from 1910 and made eggnog from scratch. I watched The Sound of Music for the first time, and ran into Tom Waits at the Hotel Utah in SF. I had a surprise birthday party and was completely surprised.

What comes next?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Sweet Science (of Nintendo)

I've started sparring recently, and as you might imagine I'm sort of terrible at it. That's primarily because, although I've been learning how to properly punch and kick for the last two years, the actual dance of boxing is totally separate from drills and forms training. It's completely exhilarating though, and spikes up along this raw dimension I sincerely forgot I had.

As I'm learning the basics of the sweet science...a retro-nerdy thought occurred to me: Punch Out was pretty right on.

Hear me out, because there are several aspects of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out that are brutally unrealistic to boxing, among them the idea that plumbers can be referees or that pink sweatsuits are acceptable workout attire. But dig all these ways that the boys at NES got it right:

1. It's all timing

Strength is sort of overrated. I've got a decent natural amount of it because of my size, for instance, but speed and finesse and timing are really the keys to the fortress. In Punch-Out, when you "stun" a guy with a hit, the gameplay subsequently emphasizes a rhythmic series of punches to maximize your attack strength. No rhythmic punching, less success

Also, in general, the game focuses less on wild punching right from the get go than does, say, Wii Boxing...and rather emphasizes watching, waiting, blocking and dodging in time.

2. And endurance

Little guys fight hard and sometimes even win, and it's mostly because of this. Strength can only take you so far, and in many situations will simply fail in the face of persistence/ belief in a just cause/ or just plain old heart.

Underestimate your opponent only at your peril, dude. Little Mac is scrappy. And he wants it bad...hence he's able to train harder and hold up longer.

3. And speed

Pretty obvious, but the big swinger knockout star punch that Little Mac puts all of his weight behind won't accomplish anything if Sandman sees it coming.

4. And patience (fighters usually have tells)

Like everything else in life, your first approach to a new situation should be to lay low and keep your mouth shut and observe what's going on. Though the fighter tells are obviously exaggerated in Punch-Out, it still makes for a fairly accurate representation of how fighters follow patterns and have weak spots or give consistent openings.

5. Judging the distance from your target is probably the most important aspect of a punch

Epitomized by Little Mac's series of fights with Bald Bull, Punch-Out is subtly communicating perhaps the most vital "technical" skill of boxing...which is the weird dance of distance. Couldn't possibly overestimate the importance of being the correct distance from your target-it's everything. Constantly staying in the "goldilocks zone" of perfect distance from your opponent (out of his reach, and then quickly stepping into the sweet spot to strike) is basically what boxers are trying to do the entire time they're fighting.

Monday, May 24, 2010

LOST is telling us to relax

LOST ended last night, and hundreds (if not thousands) of analyses will soon be written and posted. Before I go ahead and read any of those (notably: Noel Murray's from the A.V. Club, who I've been following pretty consistently but haven't read in a couple weeks) I thought I'd make some comments of my own. Majors spoilers to follow.

In quick summary, what happened last night was this: they killed Smokey after pulling out the earthquake plug, then Jack put it back in and left Hurley in charge before keeling over in the bamboo forest where the series began. Sawyer, Kate and "the rest" were last seen taking off in the Ajira plane to escape. But more importantly (at least, in the context of this post) they wrapped the alterna-timeline with Jack realizing he (and everyone else) is dead, and that they've basically constructed this reality in order to ease their passage onto the next stage of the afterlife game. In other words, alterna-LA was purgatory, but the island was real life.

The crowd I was with last night gave it an immediate (and knowingly hasty, half-joking) thumbs down. I've always been of the opinion that LOST is the type of show you either decide to like or decide to be frustrated by, and after making up your mind about this what actually happens on the show is of small consequence. Having of course chosen the former, I've always been slightly confused as to why the latter continue to watch religiously each week. In any case, the common complaints about the show (it's slow, it's cheesy, no answers, or the plot's too ridiculous) have always puzzled me as well, since it seems to me these are actually the foundations the show has been built on and has managed (somewhat impressively) to stay consistent to throughout. Also I've never found it "slow"at all (except maybe season 3) but I think that's just a difference of opinion on what the word "slow" means in this case.

He's aiming at Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan!

On to the analysis: I've digested it a bit and as predicted I've been liking this ending more and more. On the one hand, they've managed to tie up their gambit with the alterna-timeline and package it as an epilogue of sorts, albeit a psychological one. Secondly, they've stayed consistent with the show's own format of outlining characters lives past, present and future. And finally, they've reinforced one of the major themes of the show which is "letting go of old shit so you can move on".

Throughout the season I found the alterna-timeline interesting but also exhausting. Like past LOST story arcs and secret methods, I couldn't see where it was going and so it was easy to be frustrated with it. It didn't appear to be moving the plot forward at all or serving the show as a whole other than perhaps continuing to question the relative nature of time-space and fate versus free will, while also (now it's easier to see) not so subtly pushing the "let it go" philosophy. The end has Jack finally coming to terms with (basically) his own death, then embracing the most important people in his life one last time before letting go and moving on. It was a nice way for the audience to see the characters interact again (even post-death, I mean) and within a more subdued and calm reality (read: LA after a safe landing). It also helped a lot in rinsing our mouths of the potential evil-Locke aftertaste by showing the Locke we love triumphing (finally!).

would anyone care for pie?

Certainly one way the show will be remembered is by its sometimes overly direct, occasionally delicate interaction with the blogosphere. It strikes me as the first show with writing and story arcs being directly affected by nerds analyzing and discussing the show. Clearly this was a curse and a blessing, but all in all I believe Darlton handled it quite well. I think a lot of people will be saying that the whole "purgatory" idea may have originally been planned as the conceit of the entire show (like, the island isn't a real place) but that because of speculation and direct questions to that effect early on in the series, the producers had to change their plan a bit and then come back to the purgatory concept in a roundabout way. I could definitely believe that, but let's leave it aside and just say the show got to where they eventually wanted to go.

The show's always been about the details of the characters lives. At the outset, they accomplished this through a creative flashback structure. Later they used flashforwards, and now, as it's finally been revealed, we even get the characters' post-death stories. Think about that for one second. There's a completism there that is admirable, if nothing else. We got very full stories for our 6-10 major characters.

I've got a soft spot for material that suggests death as another birth, so my immediate reaction was to like this approach. I'm a scientist and an atheist, but find these ways of thinking are completely compatible with the possibility of an afterlife. In fact I dislike the idea that belief in an afterlife is seen as synonymous with belief in god (why's the universe gotta be a dictatorship?), and notice how the non-denominational church in LOST is basically saying we all end up the same, regardless of our beliefs...but anyway this is a digression. The alterna-timeline showed us how the characters all eventually came to terms with what's really the most significant thing humans have to come to terms with: their own mortality. Perhaps it also showed the characters as their own ideal manifestations of themselves (Sawyer's on the right side of the law, Jack's well-adjusted, Hurley's lucky, and Locke has his shit together, sort of). It was pretty uplifting, really, not only because of the suggestion that we can meet up with lost loved ones (so they're not "lost", are they?) but also because it helped put in sharp perspective all the "real life" events of the show, which brings me to my final point: LOST is telling us to relax.

Despite the island being a real place and the events and struggles therein being very real, the purgatory storyline about letting go makes it seem a bit allegorical to the unnecessary stress and out perceived importance of everyday life. This is accomplished two ways, I think: first, the obvious juxtaposition of a relatively calm and simple purgatory/afterlife with the breakneck pace and life or death/save the world shitstorm of (on and off) island life, and second by leaving so much to the imagination in the real timelines' conclusion. Ambiguity was a great move here. We can just assume that Kate and Sawyer made it home to their (sorta) kids and Desmond somehow made it to Penny and Hurley stayed on as protector with Ben as his number 2 (also alluded to in a line from Hurley to Ben outside the church), but also, I don't really care so much. We all end up dead sometime, and the wheres and whens seem a lot less important in retrospect, right? (The other purpose of this was to highlight that the show is really about Jack and that he's the one who get's the most complete arc, and the last shot of the show gave it nice wrap around as well, etc...).

More importantly, everything on the island was put through a prism of black and white, all or none, won or "lost". Every event was seen as having (potentially) grave consequences toward the fate of the universe and each individual's specific importance (and special status) was reinforced again and again. I keep thinking that one of the major issues in the world is so many people seeing life this way (in other words, in terms of the extreme). In truth, nothing is black and white, and realizing this has a remarkable ability to calm people down. Our lives and actions aren't the going to make or break the entire world (see: fate vs free will and the Faraday debate of "details"). We, as individuals, aren't terribly important (see: the shifting candidate list). So in the end LOST is trying to put a fine point on how even through some serious struggles the black and white conception of the world is a fantasy. It's something we dreamed up so that games like backgammon make sense, but you simply can't apply it across the board (ha ha). So seriously, everybody: relax.

post script: I could say more but this seems like plenty
post post script: I also just got back from Japan yesterday, so I'll write about that soon.

Check the Fahey!