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March 2011

February 2011

Newspapers Don't Get Soggy Online

Images My newspaper is sitting in a forlorn little heap at the bottom of my driveway this morning, already soaked through from a driving rainstorm, despite its little blue bag of a raincoat. On mornings like this, when I don't much want to get soaking wet myself, I just call the print version a loss, and read the paper online.

But reading the paper this way is an entirely different experience. I end up following the news much less throughly. Even though I could click on "Today's Paper" and dutifully read all the page one stories first, which I do with the print version,  I am instead all over the place when I read online. I peruse one piece and at the bottom of it, it may have a link to a related piece, which ultimately leads me down a rabbit hole of various stories I would have otherwise missed. But I also never get around to reading the featured stories. This is a loss, because I know how much thought, jockeying and planning goes into putting together page one. (The Times, and I assume other papers, have Page One meetings during which they decide which stories warrant being featured on the front.)

Instead today I meandered off into Oscar nonsense, and realized eventually I was reading a story that was published last week. Ah well, back to what's happening in Libya, which probably has more long-term consequences than Ann Hathaway's Oscar hosting abilities. 

Mother-Son Quote of The Week

Washington Irving Oil Portrait-Resized

"A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine desert us; when trouble thickens around us, she will still cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.

-Washington Irving

Guess Who?

Images Guess who I am meeting today?

It is pretty amazing.

Hint - check out the subject of several of my recent blogs. And only a secret nerd like me could be this excited about it. OK, folks, here we go. Today I am meeting... WATSON!

I kid you not. It turns out that a guy I know who works at IBM actually wrote the software that helped Watson communicate with the Jeopardy computer. And when he found out how devoted I was to the big match-up, he invited me to the Yorktown campus to come meet the machine and see the set. The Boy, who is also a Jeopardy/Watson fan, is home for a college break and is invited too.

Well, I'm beside myself. Stay tuned and I'll tell you all about it tomorrow.

Learning Anew

Baby-and-computer Now I really need to learn about book promotion. That big author's packet that the publisher sent me - it's been kind of languishing in my inbox since it arrived. This is very out of character for me, but the truth is, I just needed some time away from thinking about the whole project. I have been living, breathing, writing, editing this book for three years (that's one year for the book proposal and two for the actual book) and I just had to take a mental vacation from it.

But now I must think about it again in a whole new way. The author's questionnaire asks for some basic biographical information, and that is easy enough. But it also has such queries as "what are five questions an interviewer could ask that would help you best explain your book?" and "What are the most controversial angles of your book?" All of this requires thought. The hardest: "Describe your book is 250 words." 250 words?! My whole book?!

There are many advantages of having written for the NYT for more than 18 years. One of them - when someone asks you to produce something complicated with a specific word count, there is no argument. You just figure out how to do it.

Watson's Victory

Images-1 "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords," wrote Ken Jennings on his video screen, after his answer to Final Jeopardy. Ken had the correct answer but was already acknowledging defeat to Watson, who did in fact, blow away the two human contestants.

Jennings' quote was from an episode of The Simpsons. He was basically good-humored about the match, though there was one reference to unplugging Watson. You could see both Jennings and Brad Rutter's frustration as the game went on.

This morning I discovered two things by reading the NYT coverage of the match. First, I may not be the Jeopardy whiz I always imagined myself to be. Just because I can shout out the answers to some questions as they are being read doesn't mean that would translate into victory. Contestants have to wait for a light to signal that they are allowed to push the button to "buzz in."

Evidently there is a science to anticipating the light. If you buzz too soon, you are punished by being "locked out" of answering for a quarter of a second. Watson could time this perfectly, and you could see Ken and Brad, buzzer in hand, looking as if they were sometimes choking on the answers they knew. 

The second thing I learned was that I am not alone in my nerdiness. If the NYT considers Watson a front page story, my obsession with this match is clearly widely shared.

Tonight is "Teen Jeopardy. " I bet I can beat those kids....

Watson - Round Two

Images What comfort in knowing that there is a world full of other nerds like me! Not only are people watching the man-versus-computer match on Jeopardy, but also the press coverage is beginning to sound something like sports reporting. Here's the roundup, from NewEnterprise: "Day two was very different. Watson dominated, winning nearly every buzzer and answering nearly every “Jeopardy” clue put to it, correctly. The first segment was all Watson, and it would be like that all night. The computer jumped out to an enormous lead, quickly breaking last night’s tie, soon running up a score of $21,035 to $5,000 for Brad Rutter and $2,000 for Ken Jennings, the scores they had at the close of play last night."

By the end of the second round, Watson was leading $36,881, to Rutter's $5400 and Jenning's $2400. The super computer finally stumbled during "Final Jeopardy." The category was "cities" and the question was "Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero, and its second largest was named for a World War II battle." Both Jennings and Rutter got it right ("Chicago") but Watson came up with "Toronto."

What went wrong? According to Stephen Baker, who is writing a book about the the inside story on the IBM challenge, Final Jeopardy is Watson's "Achilles heel." He says it's often a more complicated clue, requiring several different levels of analysis. Also unlike other Jeopardy questions, it must be answered, so even if Watson is uncertain, it has to come up with a guess. "Here we saw how stupid Watson can be," Baker said in a phone interview with the NewEnterprise.

Stupid? Not the word I would use. But fallable, yes, thank goodness!



Watson and Me

Watson31 I have been shamelessly excited about Watson, the IBM computer, competing on Jeopardy. I love Jeopardy, and like so many others, have won thousands of dollars playing the game show in my own living room. (That is, if only I had actually been competing, I had a lot of correct answers first, and should have won the money.)

The idea of a computer being able to master the complex word games of Jeopardy, with their double entendres, play on words, etc., was intriguing. But I didn't really believe that Watson could whump Ken Jennings or Brad, the other champion.

So last night was the first of three episodes, and Brad and Watson are tied for first place. Unlike regular Jeopardy, they are dragging out one game over three days. I am rooting for the human beings. I can't help it. I have this horrible thought of a computer being programmed with hundreds of plots and plot twists, characters and narrative arcs, and producing great novel after novel. Got to stick with the species!

The Boy and I have watched many episodes of Jeopardy together in the past. He is up in Maine, but tonight we have a phone date to watch the second playoff between man and machine. The clue: The kind of person who gets ridiculously excited about watching Jeopardy. Answer: What is a nerd?

Winter In The Adirondacks

The Weatherman and I were upstate exploring the beauty of an Adirondack winter. First, here is a photo of the Ice Palace, part of the Winter Carnival in Saranac Lake, N.Y. It's a pretty awesome structure - inside there are ice thrones, an ice "fire place" and an ice maze you can walk through. At night it's lit up from the inside and out, giving it a sense of warmth. And trust me, that's just a "sense" - it is not a warm place!

Ice palace

Later, we drove over to  the more remote Franklin County where we went snowshoeing. Check these out:


Lake at Alderbrook
Guess what the forecast is? Yup - Snow.


Mother-Son Quote of The Week

Keith Richards

"But what can you say about the first woman in your life? She was Mum. She sorted me out. She fed me. She was forever slicking my hair and straightening my clothes, in public. Humiliation. But it's Mum. I didn't realize until later that she was also my mate. She could make me laugh. There was music all the time, and I do miss her so."

-Keith Richards


New Writing Project

Images-3 No, it is not another book, at least not at this point! Today I am going to start a project I have been wanting to do for a long time - work with my mother on her memoirs. My mother has had a very interesting life. Among other things, she was the first woman mayor of her town. She also happens to be a terrific writer, yet she has been resistant to writing down her own history. I'm not sure if its modesty - she says she doubts that anyone would be interested - or if the idea is daunting.

In any event, I am very interesting in learning more about my mother's past, especially her early days growing up in Texas.  I also know this is something that the rest of my family would value greatly. So this morning I am heading to her house, laptop and tape recorder in hand, to begin the process. That is, after yet one more meeting at the Food Pantry.

Marketing The Book

Images-1 It's been just over a week since I sent the manuscript in, but I've already heard from the publisher about marketing.

My first learning curve came in figuring out how to write a book. Now comes my second - how to sell it. The initial steps involve filling out an author's questionnaire and then developing a website  and  linking to "etailer" sites like Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, etc.) Meanwhile the publisher has scheduled  preliminary meetings of the marketing and publicity folks for early March.

It is bit overwhelming and pretty exciting.

Non-Profit Board Headaches

Images I have served on several boards for non-profits. Each one has a lofty goal, and the missions are benign - improve the school, feed the hungry, house the homeless, whatever. So why do things always become painful and contentious? The board members are well-meaning volunteers who dedicate countless hours to running an organization. Most serve with the very best of intentions. But it is my experience that somewhere in the course of my term, there will be some issue that causes conflict and sleepless nights.

And always, ALWAYS, there is a moment after the meeting at which I have spoken my mind, when someone who remained completely silent during the controversial discussion later pulls me aside in the parking lot and whispers, "I totally agree with what you said in there." Really? Sure could have used that support out loud during the meeting.

Winter Competition

Thermometer 2 There's been an email chain circulating among my family about who is experiencing the worst winter. My cousin Tomas sent a photo from his home in Colorado, showing his outdoor thermometer reading minus 38. This was impressive, as was the description of the standstill in Chicago that my cousin Magoo (yes, I have a cousin nicknamed "Magoo," real name "Margaret") sent in from her apartment there.

But I was proud of my own entry into this discussion, the photo on the left which I took a few days ago in my backyard. My driveway is a skating rink and the snow situation is bordering on ridiculous. My cousin Andrew, a software developer, was impressed enough with this photo to "tweet" it to his many followers. What can I say? In this weather, we don't get out much.

Visit From My Roomie

Images In the last weeks that I was working on the book, I would get emails of encouragement from my friend Sally. One morning, it was a link to a video of the Lone Ranger, complete with the theme song. Once it was just a recording of applause. They all had a "you can do it!" theme.

And now that I'm done, Sally, a.k.a. "Roomie" (she was my freshman roommate in college) has arrived to celebrate with me. She arrived the day the mammoth ice storm was going to hit, catching the last plane out of Philadelphia (she had already flown from Raleigh to PA) before they shut the airports. She walked in my door with a big hug and a bottle of champagne.

That champagne may have been the reason I forgot to blog yesterday. Or maybe it's because we are just having too much fun. Sally and I have known each other since we were 17 years old and no one in the world makes me laugh like she does. Old friends are the best.