Our new overlords?

Ken Jenning's final answer vs Watson

The recent set of Jeopardy! matches between Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter and Watson, IBM’s question-answering machine, has been entertaining. Sure, there’s a lot of self-promotion going on, but that’s par for the course with the show. As a trivia nut and computer scientist, this challenge appealed to me on multiple levels. As much as I would have loved to see our carbon-based brethren dominate, I’m not surprised by Watson’s victory. The format of the show presents some challenges. Watson bombed some questions in spectacular fashion, but for straight-up knowledge questions, the machine was dominant.

If you want to read more about the match, there’s lots of commentary, so I’ll leave it at that. However, there is a particular article that I wanted to point out. In his answer to the final question, Jennings riffed on a classic Simpson’s line in welcoming our new computer overlords. Ben Zimmer takes exception to the comment in his piece about the match for The Atlantic.

Elsewhere, Ferrucci has been more circumspect about Watson’s level of “understanding.” In an interview with IBM’s own magazine ForwardView, he said, “For a computer, there is no connection from words to human experience and human cognition. The words are just symbols to the computer. How does it know what they really mean?” In other words, for all of the impressive NLP programming that has gone into Watson, the computer is unable to penetrate the semantics of language, or comprehend how meanings of words are shot through with allusions to human culture and the experience of daily life.

We still have a long way to go before we have computers with true natural language processing.

Baker’s undoubtedly right about that, but we’re still dealing with the limited task of question-answering, not anything even vaguely approaching full-fledged comprehension of natural language, with all of its “nuance, slang, and metaphor.” If Watson had chuckled at that “computer overlords” jab, then I’d be a little worried.

After the Toronto answer to the question about U.S. cities, I remember thinking that Watson must be joking. I actually thought the machines were mocking us on national television. It concerned me. Time to figure out where I put that red pill.

The Last Ringbearer

Imagine being on the losing side of the battles in The Lord of the Rings — Russian author, Kirill Yeskov did just that, and produced The Last Ringbearer. From an article about the book:

In Yeskov’s retelling, the wizard Gandalf is a war-monger intent on crushing the scientific and technological initiative of Mordor and its southern allies because science “destroys the harmony of the world and dries up the souls of men!” He’s in cahoots with the elves, who aim to become “masters of the world,” and turn Middle-earth into a “bad copy” of their magical homeland across the sea. Barad-dur, also known as the Dark Tower and Sauron’s citadel, is, by contrast, described as “that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle-earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.”

An English translation by Yisroel Markov is available for download, although just in PDF at the moment.

Swanky.org archives

Swanky inspired illustration

It’s possible that we may see work from the old Swanky and Swankarmy crew — the old archives have been found. From a tweet by Dustin Vannatter:

I found a series of 20+ CDs that contain a fs dump of all Oh, Hello projects inc Scribble.nu and Swanky.org .. going to try to restore it.

Swanky was one of the first design communities on the internet in the late nineties. They were heavily inspired by the work of David Carson; a lot of grunge and distorted typography. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it was an influence on a huge number of designers. Scribble was a journal site, a sort of precursor to weblogs.

I found the scene in 1998 when it was beginning to implode. Still, Swanky was one of the reasons I started getting interested design. It also led to my discovery of typography and the creation of a bunch of crappy typefaces, before realizing that it took a lot of effort to make a good one. I was never a member of Swanky, but ended up forming Suffocate.org with a number of ex-members. We had themed issues and a number of side-projects — including the Conform Project, which was similar to Layer Tennis. Most of my Suffocate work is lost, but I found some of the early Conform series in an old archive, and posted them a few years back.

I’d love to see the old Swanky stuff, brings back a lot of memories. As for Scribble, I don’t know if the world needs my high-school ramblings, but it could be an interesting historical archive.

Divided attention

Colm O’Regan examines the constant stream of things that demand our attention. I’m not sure if he made up divided attention disorder, but I was amused by the analogy to tabbed browsing.

It’s the equivalent of sitting on the floor of a library desperately trying to remember what I was looking for with 20 books open around me, unable to concentrate because people keep giving me a thumbs up to tell me they “Like This”.

Update: It appears that Esquire had an article about DAD in a recent issue, but the full-text isn’t online.

Dark Ages not so dark

Apparently the Dark Ages weren’t as bleak as we’ve been led to believe.

We have this idea that it was a time of superstition and ignorance when people didn’t look at the world around them and certainly didn’t look at it with a scientific eye. In fact, the Church considered mathematics the highest form of worship. Before you were allowed to study theology, you had to study the seven liberal arts — grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

So the concept that the Church was against learning is wrong. For five or six hundred years after the Fall of Rome, it was the Church that preserved and expanded learning. And in Gerbert’s time they were actively seeking it out among Muslims and Jews. The Crusades were a hundred years later, and the Spanish Inquisition took place two hundred years later. All of the “dark” stuff happened after the Dark Ages.

One space after a period

Despite whatever you’ve been told in the past, you should only put one space after a period, not two.

Is this arbitrary? Sure it is. But so are a lot of our conventions for writing. It’s arbitrary that we write shop instead of shoppe, or phone instead of fone, or that we use ! to emphasize a sentence rather than %. We adopted these standards because practitioners of publishing—writers, editors, typographers, and others—settled on them after decades of experience. Among their rules was that we should use one space after a period instead of two—so that’s how we should do it.

In my high-school typing class, we were working on ancient ICON computers which used monospace type, and were told to leave two spaces after a period for readability. I then spent years developing muscle-memory that had me double-tapping the spacebar after every full-stop. In university, I started writing for one of the newspapers and got yelled at for putting in double spaces and messing up the copy-setting — I learned quick. Fast-forward to book design, and given any sort of manuscript, getting rid of the double spaces is one of the first priorities. Remember, just one space.

Cracking scratch lottery tickets

Mohan Srivastava, a statistician from Toronto, cracked the numerical system behind a series of scratch lottery tickets.

“Once I worked out how much money I could make if this was my full-time job, I got a lot less excited,” Srivastava says. “I’d have to travel from store to store and spend 45 seconds cracking each card. I estimated that I could expect to make about $600 a day. That’s not bad. But to be honest, I make more as a consultant, and I find consulting to be a lot more interesting than scratch lottery tickets.”

Eventually the gaming commission listened to him and removed the tickets from stores.