IBM Wins Even If Watson Loses

15 Feb

There’s a scene in the hilarious movie Groundhog Day when Bill Murray’s bewitched character, Phil, is sitting in the parlor of the antique- and lace-ridden B&B where he’s staying. He and other guests are viewing Jeopardy on television. Phil already has seen countless Groundhog Days by then and has watched this show many, many times. As Alex Trebek rattles off the answers, Phil tosses off the correct question, one after the other. He even gives a correct response before Trebek finishes his prompt.

By this point, an older woman is gazing at him, not in awe at his intelligence, but in horror. Phil is not just smart. He’s scary smart like some kind of dangerous machine.

IBM’s Watson was in danger last night of becoming just another scary machine on the popular TV game show. After finding the Daily Double on its first query choice, a rarity for anyone who has watched Jeopardy over the years, Watson, like Phil, went on to give one correct response after another. This might not have been so impressive against the likes of, say, me, but Watson was whipping the two greatest Jeopardy players in history.

Then Watson slipped up. It answered “chic” when it should have said “class” and that opened the door for the humans to stage a comeback.

Good thing for IBM Watson flubbed. Its failure made the 2,800-server computer more human, which made for better television. Instead of millions of people turning off their TV sets, they’ll all be back tonight to see if Watson can regain its dominance or remain imperfect, human-like.

Sure, IBM’s engineers and marketers who are staging this week’s event want Watson to win. But the worst thing would be for the computer to trounce its flesh-and-blood competitors. It would fuel people’s underlying fears about soulless machines relentlessly pushing people aside as they continue their march to dominate humans. What viewers want and what IBM needs is for a close match, one that goes down to the wire with the outcome unknown until the very end.

Then, let the best man or machine win. That would be fun. And even if Watson lost at the end, IBM would still emerge victorious because it would fuel much more interest in the company’s high-performance computing systems. And, ultimately, that’s what the 100 year old firm wants: attention brought to the company’s accomplishments and what those achievements can do for others.

Spring Teases the Willamette Valley

12 Feb

Still deep in winter, the Willamette Valley had spring on its mind today.

On my ride this morning I watched a redtail hawk fight a stiff headwind while hauling a substantial addition to its distant nest in its beak. Dusky Canada geese rode the southeast winds to the north, forming and reforming their trademark V patterns high overhead. Llamas haughtily watched me pedal by from their corrals and flocks of wooly sheep on green sloping hills fussed over their gaily tromping black and white newborn lambs.

Blueberry field after the harvest

Blueberry field in winter after pruning

In the blueberry fields of Breyman Farms near Independence farmworkers spiffed up the strikingly red bushes that bear the fruit. Last fall I snapped a photo of my Torelli “after” the harvest but pre-pruning. Today I took a “before” photo near the same spot. Obviously, based on my scant evidence, the antioxidant-rich fruit needs a fair amount of TLC handiwork before it gets to market.

Further on my ride along Riverside Road the folks at Ankeny Vineyards had prepped most of the hillside’s vines for this year’s vintage. Ankeny, which makes some tasty pinot noirs, is also one of the few wineries in the country that produces Maréchal Foch grapes and wines.

I continued around Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge, as I often do. Today its fields, ponds, woods, and roadside bramble were alive with wild doves, Steller’s jays, redwing blackbirds, more hawks, a Spotted Towee or two, and many other birds I did not recognize.

As I climbed up Liberty Road at one point off to my left I could see Polk County and the coastal mountains in the distance being kissed by the leading edge of a Pacific storm heading our way. If I looked to my right I saw the sun light up the snow and glaciers on Mt. Jefferson looming 3,199m (10,497 feet) above a fifty mile stretch of the Cascade Mountains.

Winter may rule the calendar, but for today, at least, spring held sway.

Give Reagan to the Right

11 Feb

Ring-wing conservatives in America have a major problem. They stand with hands on hearts, tears in eyes, and proudly proclaim their patriotism. Yet, there is no great president in U.S. history that they can call their own.

Look at the major presidents, the significant ones who remain in the public mind as substantial characters of the past: even if the details are a bit murky in most people’s minds, not one of the top five U.S. presidents can be considered a conservative in the mold of today’s Republican party. If anything, the Big Five great presidents were all on the progressive edge of their era and, arguably, ours; something even most Democrats these days can’t claim.

Consider:

George Washington led an army in revolution against his king. He then took the helm of a new republic and willingly stepped down from power. He warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements in his Farewell Address. And while he supported the institution throughout his life, he did the right thing by freeing his slaves upon his wife’s death. This was not a man who wasted his time dreaming about an idyl of some false bygone years. He  was a true believer in the primacy of progress.

The next great president by consensus would be Thomas Jefferson. The author of the Declaration of Independence. A voice for the yeoman farmer. An intellectual. A Deist. Not a conservative idol, by any means.

Following Jefferson in the public mind would be Abraham Lincoln. Freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. Defeated the South, something the racist wing of the Republican party denies to this day. While perhaps the greatest Republican ever, he’s not one that its contemporary membership will embrace in a big way because it would kill its aggrieved white male, Southern appeal.

Oddly, the next first-rate White House denizen, Theodore Roosevelt, is another Republican who also fails the contemporary GOP sniff test. The rabidly libertarian wing of the Republican party hates TR for his famous trust-busting and the establishment of the National Parks. Transgressions all. Regulating business is an affront to their Ayn Rand sensibilities; while Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the rest of the magnificent jewels among our National Parks are not worth the price of another government agency in their simple minds. Nope. He won’t do at all. Too progressive.

Like it or not, and conservatives don’t, the next great president on anyone’s list would be TR’s distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Can you imagine America without Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Security and Exchange Commission, and so much more? Fringe Republicans would like to, of course, but no one else would. And can you imagine how World War II would have gone if either Wendell Wilkie or Thomas Dewey, who ran against FDR in 1940 and 1944, respectively, had been commander in chief? You’d probably be speaking either German or Japanese, depending on which coast you lived on.

After FDR, I’d argue no one matches up to the Big Five. Some might vote for Truman or Kennedy, and an argument can be made for both, but I don’t think they fully rise to the Big Five level. Yet, it’s interesting to note that even these two men would be labeled as progressives in their day and ours.

Think about it: not a single conservative president ranks among the great ones. Americans revere presidents who have led the nation forward, not backward. That must really rankle conservative Republicans, who want to drag the nation back to some phantasmagoric past that somehow has escaped the history books. Even should a GOP conservative of today ascend to the Oval office, his very principles are likely to condemn him to the middling and tainted ranks of Hayes, Harrison, Harding, Nixon, and (pick your) Bush.

So the right wing is desperate for Reagan to be seen as one of the greats. They have no one else who comes close. And, to be honest, Reagan barely achieves the stature or competence of Truman or Kennedy. During the centennial of his birth his obvious weaknesses have been jumped on by mean-spirited progressives who see Reagan as a failure or as someone they mock as anathema to the current GOP Weltanshauung.

Progressives should let go of their antipathy to Reagan. Although a telegenic, while mediocre president, he was, after all, a pragmatic one, which is a lesson in itself. His massive tax increase deal with Congress saved Social Security in its day, something liberals need to give him credit for accomplishing. Yes, he was wrong in many ways, most strikingly in his support of apartheid. Yet, so was Jefferson, the great liberal icon, who wrote stirringly about freedom while keeping and selling slaves to support his opulent lifestyle.

Every great president has feet of clay. So, why not let the right wing have their flawed man? Is there room for a sixth chair around the table of the nation’s truly great presidents? I think so. The Big Five, like true progressives, were gracious people who would enjoy the company.

AT&T: The Good, the Not-So Bad, and the Darn-Near Pretty

7 Feb

Go to Google. Type in “I Hate AT&T” (with the quotation marks) and you’ll get around 209,000 hits. That’s a lot of dissatisfied customers. And it’s the given reason why so many iPhone users will switch to Verizon later this month.

But now key in “I Hate Verizon” (inside the quotes) and, if you’re like me, the search engine will return 207,000 results. Within the context of the Internet, that’s an equal amount of expressed dissatisfaction. Maybe those angry iPhone users might want to reconsider their plans.

When Cathie and I arrived in the Willamette Valley we were Cingular Wireless customers with another year to run on our contract. Luckily my company set me up with two landlines because Cingular’s cell towers could not get a strong enough signal to our house. But within a year, the company improved its technology and we got decent, though not great reception. However, I was skeptical and called the company to express my doubts about continuing with its service once our commitment expired.

Instead of getting a bunch of excuses, I got an intelligent description of how Cingular planned to continuously update its technology in our area. Plus, I got an attractive offer for new phones and cheaper rates.

Over the years, even after Cingular became AT&T Wireless and then just AT&T, our service has improved. While riding my mountain bike in narrow ravines or my road bike on remote country roads in the region I seem to be able to get a good enough signal when I need it, whether I was using a Nokia candy bar cell phone, a Samsung flip phone, and, of course, my current iPhone. And I don’t think I’ve had a dropped call in five years. Maybe longer.

On the rare occasions when I visit an AT&T retail store I’ve found the staff competent and eager. Most recently I dropped by to reduce my monthly data usage fee and I was treated as if I was upgrading to a top-of-the-line contract. Also, the company’s website is  comprehensive, responsive, and easy to use.

So, why does AT&T’s service get such bad press and attract the ire of folks like comedian Jon Stewart? I know a couple new Verizon users who tell me they regret their change. Not, they say, because the service is worse than they got from AT&T but because it’s about the same.

Here’s my theory: some people expect a wireless cell phone to be as rock solid as the land line they grew up with. When it isn’t, they get angry. But their fanciful expectations taint their relationship with the service provider…forever. AT&T and Verizon, being among the biggest wireless companies in the U.S., receive the brunt of this customer dissatisfaction.

Think I’m wrong? Key “I Hate Nextel” into Google. Only 18,100 people have expressed their ire about its service in that manner. Do the same for T-Mobile and Google yields 65,000 hits. Will you change to either of its offerings because fewer people whine about their service? I won’t. One friend who uses T-Mobile couldn’t get any signal at my house. These carriers may have far fewer angry customers than AT&T or Verizon, but there’s a reason for it. They have fewer people to piss off.

And just to be clear: I have no business relationship with AT&T. I don’t own its stock. I’m just a long-time satisfied customer. Imagine that.

MobileMe’s My Gallery Isn’t Mine, It’s Apple’s

4 Feb

I’ve been testing the value of Apple’s MobileMe service. I use it to backup some critical files, but it’s more expensive than many other similar services. I use its e-mail service, which is very good. It does a fine job of synchronizing my calendar and contacts. All of these I use in private. This is my first public use of Apple’s online $90-a-year service.

MobileMe offers something called My Gallery, where you can post multimedia files, such as movies and photos, and share them with others. Kind of like YouTube only more difficult to use and share. In this test, I’ve created a slideshow of me (of course, it’s MobileMe) and friends on various cycling trips. Many of the photos include my riding partner, jazz musician Mike Nord.

In all honesty, I see little value in the My Gallery service. First of all, I cannot embed a My Gallery slideshow into my blog. I can only link to it. If the link launched the video, I’d be mostly satisfied. But it doesn’t.  It takes you to the MyGallery directory, not to the file I specifically put in the link. Then you need to click on the album, in this case Croisan Views. You then click on the file to launch the slideshow. How stupid! (See Comments below.)

My Gallery is a lame offering. YouTube is much more flexible, easier to use, and, being free, is far, far cheaper. 🙂 In truth, My Gallery belongs to Apple’s development team, given the limits they put on my ability to use their service. Maybe the company should re-brand the service as “MobilePartofMe.” Or “NotAllofMobileMe.” Something a little more accurate.

Here’s the link again, in case you missed it above.

Egypt’s Aftermath: Four Things That Will Happen Here

3 Feb

If the democratic impulses of the people in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East prevail, instability will rock the region as their success inspires more revolts against Western-backed dictators. Even if Mubarak’s corrupt regime manages to hold on, it will fuel even more radical responses than we’ve ever seen before throughout the Middle East.

So, what, if anything, will happen in the United States as a result of the turmoil? 

First, everything will cost more. Rightly or wrongly, Western financial and commodity markets perceive stability to be the best of all possible worlds, even if that stability is carried on the backs of poverty-stricken, oppressed people elsewhere. Oil, which underpins our modern economy, will skyrocket in price, driving up the cost of everything else.

When the Shah of Iran lost power, the uncertainty of oil prices helped usher in years of economic stagnation. And while Mubarak does not control oil production, Egypt does manage the Suez canal where a lot of it passes through in tankers. Only the potential of that waterway closing has pushed up crude oil prices to their highest level since the speculator-driven oil crisis of 2008. Imagine the impact if the flame of self-determination begins to burn elsewhere in the region?

Second, the Republicans will gain control of the Senate and extend its hold in the House in 2012. It will also win the White House. (Unless the GOP is stupid enough to put Sarah Palin on the ticket. She’s toxic to a majority of voters who see her as a selfish quitter and an ignorant shrew.) That’s because voters in this country always punish those in power when something bad happens. And because the hard right controls the GOP, it will accelerate the increasing inequality in this country as tax policies will favor the rich even more and, to pay for it, the Republicans will raid the budgets of social services.

Third, the wars in the Middle East will widen beginning in 2013. America depends too much on oil to let it slip from its grasp without a fight. And no political party better represents oil companies than do Republicans. Just as the Iraq war was all about oil from Day One, though gussied up to be about WMDs or spreading democracy, the next Middle East conflagration will be explicitly about keeping petroleum flowing to prime the pump of our economy.

Fourth, incompetent GOP economic policies and those new Middle East wars will hasten the end of the American Empire. The dollar will be the first victim. The British pound sterling dominated the planet for centuries. World War I changed the situation. It only took from 1914 to 1925 for the pound to give way to the Almighty Buck, which replaced it to become the reserve currency of choice among nations. Whether the euro or China’s yuan rides triumphant over the dollar is too early to tell.

Naturally, this is all speculation by your average joe. Nothing qualifies me to see into the future. Admittedly, I’m a glass-is-half-emty kind of guy, but it seems obvious to me that the consequences of what is happening in Egypt will reverberate beyond the the Nile to the broader Middle East and, thus, to the world as a whole. And because the United States has let its dependence on foreign oil become inextricably linked to the health of its economy and polity, risking its loss will become unacceptable to the powers that be, but attempting to sustain it will become how the American Empire passes into history.

Dumping Netflix After 10 Years?

27 Jan

We’ve been with Netflix since 2000, so long, in fact, that we get four DVDs for the basic monthly subscription fee instead of the three that most subscribers receive. Still, Cathie and I are considering dropping the DVDs and moving to the eight dollar a month streaming-only service. Or quitting Netflix completely.

It’s clear that Netflix wants its customers to shift to streaming and stop using DVDs. Despite the lower monthly fees, the costs of streaming for the company are 5% of what it costs them to handle DVDs. Labor is involved in processing DVDs; only machines are needed for streaming. Like any capitalist operation, Netflix hates its workers. No, not in a personal sense, but as line items that require salaries and benefits as well as people to manage them.

The problem for me in making the switch to just the streaming service is that the company offers so few choices. And what it does offer is, for the most part, frankly, crap.

Go to the Watch Instantly tab and click on New Arrivals and then, say, Drama. I got 11 pages of choices recently with 30 movies on a page. Sounds promising. And the first page looks fair: Precious, Brooklyn’s Finest, Casino, Apocalypse Now, and The Client stand out. After that things start getting iffy. Old made-for-TV Perry Mason flicks show up a lot. As you get deeper into the list the movies get more obscure and silly: The Boy With Green Hair, Those Secrets, The Rocking Horse Winner, Sand, as well as 50-plus-year-old losers like So Evil, So Young and So Young, So Bad.

Yes, so very bad.

Unless you’re studying film, there’s no earthly reason to see the vast majority of movies available to stream on Netflix.

But there’s always TV shows to stream, right? I admit to having watched 30 Rock not on television but via Netflix. But that show is only available through the 2009 season. According to one study, Netflix has a pathetic list of TV show options compared with Hulu, Amazon, and Apple services. If you missed the latest House you’ll need to visit Hulu. Or if you think The Good Wife is hot, you need to be a member of Apple’s iTunes service. Netflix doesn’t have them. If you want to watch the complete series of a TV show, Netflix has a mere two: Lost and something called Mercy. Hulu has 12, Amazon 28, and iTunes offers 39.

Company CEO Reed Hastings has argued that investors who bet against Netflix might lose their shirt. He may be right. I’m not saying Netflix isn’t a good investment. I’m just saying it doesn’t offer enough compelling choices to long-time subscribers. We’ve seen most everything and the New Arrivals they throw up on their site are time wasters. And we don’t want to waste that time or our money on mediocrity.