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

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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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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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fun
How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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