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What is “Awesome?” IBM’s Watson vs. Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter

IBM has a history of pitting man versus machine in PR stunts that capture headlines — and yeah, it’s happening again, tonight. In 1989, IBM took on chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov using its Deep Thought machine…and lost. In 1996, IBM returned with Deep Blue…and lost. But in 1997, a reengineered version of Deep Blue narrowly defeated Kasparov (IBM refused Kasparov’s requests for a rematch; the topic is thoroughly covered in the documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine). So what’s my point? Starting tonight, IBM’s Watson computer will play Jeopardy against Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The three Watson shows air tonight (January, 14 February 2011) through Wednesday, and you can bet nerds worldwide will be glued to their TV sets. Check your local listings for channel and time info.

Here’s some video of a short preview match from earlier this year (watch closely for how the buzzer timing seems to be crucial — Jennings apparently tries to buzz in on all of these questions but barely misses most of the buzz opportunities):

For technical details about Watson, check out this article — some sample specs:

Watson is comprised of 90 Power 750 servers, 16 TB of memory and 4 TB of disk storage, all housed in a relatively compact ten racks. The 750 is IBM’s elite Power7-based server targeted for high-end enterprise analytics. (The Power 755 is geared toward high performance technical computing and differs only marginally in CPU speed, memory capacity, and storage options.) Although the enterprise version can be ordered with 1 to 4 sockets of 6-core or 8-core Power7 chips, Watson is maxed out with the 4-socket, 8-core configuration using the top bin 3.55 GHz processors.

So it’s two men against 2,880 cores of computing power and a massive database of human knowledge. Who will win? Honestly, my money is on Ken Jennings by a nose (and that’s not just because Ken writes for us — I just think he’s the man). Having Rutter in the mix will serve to split the humans’ scores, so the games may come down to aggressive betting on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. My advice for the humans: if you get a Daily Double, bet the farm, because there’s no buzzer disadvantage involved. Given that there are three games, we’ll have three long days of tension — and nerds of the world may be sorely disappointed if Watson wins the first round.

After the jump: a preview of NOVA’s The Smartest Machine on Earth, which airs February 9th at 10/9c on most PBS stations. The episode digs into the history of Watson and similar computer systems. I have seen an early cut of this NOVA episode, and it is required viewing if you’re even remotely interested in Watson — all the key players are interviewed, and the technology is discussed in depth. You also get to see projects like Cyc, which uses a very different approach to language learning.

Previous coverage: IBM Invents Jeopardy-Playing Computer, More on IBM’s Jeopardyputer, and 4 Classic Battles Between Man (or Horse) and Machine.

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science
4 Expert Tips on How to Get the Most Out of August's Total Solar Eclipse
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Richard Bouhet // Getty

As you might have heard, there’s a total solar eclipse crossing the U.S. on August 21. It’s the first total solar eclipse in the country since 1979, and the first coast-to-coast event since June 8, 1918, when eclipse coverage pushed World War I off the front page of national newspapers. Americans are just as excited today: Thousands are hitting the road to stake out prime spots for watching the last cross-country total solar eclipse until 2045. We’ve asked experts for tips on getting the most out of this celestial spectacle.

1. DON’T FRY YOUR EYES—OR BREAK THE BANK

To see the partial phases of the eclipse, you will need eclipse glasses because—surprise!—staring directly at the sun for even a minute or two will permanently damage your retinas. Make sure the glasses you buy meet the ISO 12312-2 safety standards. As eclipse frenzy nears its peak, shady retailers are selling knock-off glasses that will not adequately protect your eyes. The American Astronomical Society keeps a list of reputable vendors, but as a rule, if you can see anything other than the sun through your glasses, they might be bogus. There’s no need to splurge, however: You can order safe paper specs in bulk for as little as 90 cents each. In a pinch, you and your friends can take turns watching the partial phases through a shared pair of glasses. As eclipse chaser and author Kate Russo points out, “you only need to view occasionally—no need to sit and stare with them on the whole time.”

2. DON’T DIY YOUR EYE PROTECTION

There are plenty of urban legends about “alternative” ways to protect your eyes while watching a solar eclipse: smoked glass, CDs, several pairs of sunglasses stacked on top of each other. None works. If you’re feeling crafty, or don’t have a pair of safe eclipse glasses, you can use a pinhole projector to indirectly watch the eclipse. NASA produced a how-to video to walk you through it.

3. GET TO THE PATH OF TOTALITY

Bryan Brewer, who published a guidebook for solar eclipses, tells Mental Floss the difference between seeing a partial solar eclipse and a total solar eclipse is “like the difference between standing right outside the arena and being inside watching the game.”

During totality, observers can take off their glasses and look up at the blocked-out sun—and around at their eerily twilit surroundings. Kate Russo’s advice: Don’t just stare at the sun. “You need to make sure you look above you, and around you as well so you can notice the changes that are happening,” she says. For a brief moment, stars will appear next to the sun and animals will begin their nighttime routines. Once you’ve taken in the scenery, you can use a telescope or a pair of binoculars to get a close look at the tendrils of flame that make up the sun’s corona.

Only a 70-mile-wide band of the country stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will experience the total eclipse. Rooms in the path of totality are reportedly going for as much as $1000 a night, and news outlets across the country have raised the specter of traffic armageddon. But if you can find a ride and a room, you'll be in good shape for witnessing the spectacle.

4. PRESERVE YOUR NIGHT VISION

Your eyes need half an hour to fully adjust to darkness, but the total eclipse will last less than three minutes. If you’ve just been staring at the sun through the partial phases of the eclipse, your view of the corona during totality will be obscured by lousy night vision and annoying green afterimages. Eclipse chaser James McClean—who has trekked from Svalbard to Java to watch the moon blot out the sun—made this rookie mistake during one of his early eclipse sightings in Egypt in 2006. After watching the partial phases, with stray beams of sunlight reflecting into his eyes from the glittering sand and sea, McClean was snowblind throughout the totality.

Now he swears by a new method: blindfolding himself throughout the first phases of the eclipse to maximize his experience of the totality. He says he doesn’t mind “skipping the previews if it means getting a better view of the film.” Afterward, he pops on some eye protection to see the partial phases of the eclipse as the moon pulls away from the sun. If you do blindfold yourself, just remember to set an alarm for the time when the total eclipse begins so you don’t miss its cross-country journey. You'll have to wait 28 years for your next chance.

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HBO
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Pop Culture
IKEA Publishes Instructions for Turning Rugs Into Game of Thrones Capes
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HBO

Game of Thrones is one of the most expensive TV shows ever produced, but even the crew of the hit HBO series isn’t above using an humble IKEA hack behind the scenes. According to Mashable, the fur capes won by Jon Snow and other members of the Night’s Watch on the show are actually sheepskin rugs sold by the home goods chain.

The story behind the iconic garment was first revealed by head costume designer Michele Clapton at a presentation at Los Angeles’s Getty Museum in 2016. “[It’s] a bit of a trick,” she said at Designing the Middle Ages: The Costumes of GoT. “We take anything we can.”

Not one to dissuade customers from modifying its products, IKEA recently released a cape-making guide in the style of its visual furniture assembly instructions. To start you’ll need one of their Skold rugs, which can be bought online for $79. Using a pair of scissors cut a slit in the material and make a hole where your head will go. Slip it on and you’ll look ready for your Game of Thrones debut.

The costume team makes a few more changes to the rugs used on screen, like shaving them, adding leather straps, and waxing and “frosting” the fur to give it a weather-worn effect. Modern elements are used to make a variety of the medieval props used in Game of Thrones. The swords, for example, are made from aircraft aluminum, not steel. For more production design insights, check out these behind-the-scenes secrets of Game of Thrones weapons artists.

[h/t Mashable]

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