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Ken Jennings: Watson “has never known the touch of a woman.”

Above: Watson as “Turd Ferguson.”

In the days since IBM’s Watson defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy!, Jennings has written several articles about his experience — they’re funny, personal, and a bit technical. In other words, required reading. Here’s a roundup.

My Puny Human Brain

In this Slate article, Jennings discusses his matches against Watson, and what it’s like to play in a humans-versus-machines grudge match. Here’s a snippet:

Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it’s confident about an answer. Jeopardy! devotees know that buzzer skill is crucial—games between humans are more often won by the fastest thumb than the fastest brain. This advantage is only magnified when one of the “thumbs” is an electromagnetic solenoid trigged by a microsecond-precise jolt of current. I knew it would take some lucky breaks to keep up with the computer, since it couldn’t be beaten on speed.

Read the rest for some more insight, including the crucial capture of most Daily Doubles by Watson: “Game over for humanity.”

Ken Jennings Op-Ed: ‘Jeopardy!’ champ says computer nemesis Watson had unfair advantages

In this New York Daily News piece, Jennings writes about the Buzzer Problem, as discussed in a previous mental_floss blog post. Here’s what Jennings wrote:

The key to Watson’s dominance lies in the famously tricky Jeopardy! buzzer, the signaling device that allows players to respond to the show’s clues. Like any human player, Watson does buzz with a “thumb” of sorts (actually a magnetic coil mounted over a buzzer), but it can also rely on the millisecond-precision timing of a computer. The reflexes of even a very good human player will vary slightly, but not Watson’s. If it knows the answer, it makes the perfect buzz. Every single time. And it’s hard to win if you can’t buzz. Imagine if John Henry had to beat the steam engine at a feat of brute strength just to be allowed to swing his hammer, or if chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov had to solve a long-division problem faster than supercomputer Deep Blue every time he moved a piece in their epic match.

Read the rest for some more analysis, including the “split the losings” issue — playing one computer against two humans, so the humans’ totals would be split.

Statistical Analysis of Jeopardy! Categories and Clues

In this Slate article (boy, Slate’s really tearing it up on the Jeopardy! coverage lately!), Jeremy Singer-Vine runs the numbers on the most common categories and the hardest clues on the show, as well as where the Daily Doubles lurk. Here’s a tidbit:

Knowing what categories show up most frequently might be helpful in preparing for an appearance on the show. But let’s get down to the clue level: What’s the most common answer on Jeopardy? That would be “What is Australia?” That response appears in J-Archive 208 times, out of 197,736 total answers—to clues as diverse as “In terms of rainfall, it’s the driest continent after Antarctica” and “The overarm ‘crawl’ swimming stroke was introduced to England in 1902 from this country.” (For technical reasons, I’m only counting the first two rounds of Jeopardy in this analysis. Also note that while Google Refine helped group answers like “Burma (Myanmar)” and “Myanmar (or Burma),” idiosyncrasies among transcribers means that the answer-counts are inevitably imprecise.) In fact, thanks to the prominence of geography-related categories, the Top 23 answers are all places. (Click here for a list.) At No. 24: George Washington.

(Photo of Watson as “Turd Ferguson” courtesy of charliecurve, used under Creative Commons license.)

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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holidays
Custom-Design the Ugly Christmas Sweater of Your Dreams (or Nightmares)
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For those of you aspiring to be the worst dressed person at your family's holiday dinner, UglyChristmasSweater.com sells—you guessed it—ugly Christmas sweaters to seasonal revelers possessing a sense of irony. But the Michigan-based online retailer has elevated kitsch to new heights by offering a create-your-own-sweater tool on its website.

Simply visit the site's homepage, and click on the Sweater Customizer link. There, you'll be provided with a basic sweater template, which you can decorate with festive snowflakes, reindeer, and other designs in five different colors. If you're feeling really creative, you can even upload photos, logos, hand-drawn pictures, and/or text. After you approve and purchase a mock-up of the final design, you can purchase the final result (prices start at under $70). But you'd better act quickly: due to high demand, orders will take about two weeks plus shipping time to arrive.

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