Thursday, November 21, 2013

26. … b2! What a Chess Move.

Young Magnus Carlsen now leads Viswanathan Anand 6 to 3 in a 12-game match for the world chess championship. Carlsen will become the next world champion if he draws or wins any of the remaining three games, a likely conclusion. I’ve been following this match. The games begin too early for me, so I joined today’s decisive ninth round at about 7 a.m., in the middlegame.

Carlsen made a defensive move that looked desperately ugly, 25. … Ne8. It seemed obvious that Anand had a simple mate in four with his queen and rook. I eagerly went to the live commentary. Was there any way Carlsen could avoid mate?

The first words of the analyst I heard were, “I don’t see how Carlsen can avoid checkmate.”

We watched and waited, and then Carlsen played b2, threatening to queen his pawn if Anand’s attack persisted. Anand could have withdrawn his pieces to defend against this pawn, but if he did, a victory seemed unlikely. Instead, Anand moved his rook up to proceed with his mating plan, leaving his first rank undefended, and Carlsen queened his pawn with check.

There are many exciting games in which a player sacrifices his queen for a mating attack. This was different: Anand allowed Carlsen to have two queens on the board while he proceeded with his attack. Carlsen’s defensive tactic was obvious: if he could sacrifice his extra queen for any of Anand’s four attacking pieces, he would blunt the attack. This exciting chess position deserves a lot of analysis, but so far it appears that with best play, the game should have been a draw. Sadly, Anand, twice Carlsen's age and suffering both physically and mentally from the stress of this match, blundered and resigned.

26. … b2! What a move.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Here’s how IBM can take Watson to the Next Level:

Today’s New York Times has an article by Quentin Hardy about how IBM has beefed up its Watson program (the computer system that defeated two humans in Jeopardy on TV). The general idea is that Watson will be a powerful computing application in the cloud. The article suggests that IBM is unsure how to profit from Watson-in-the-Cloud, but by making it available, they will find out.

I can tell IBM how to take Watson to the next level. Make a deal with Facebook! Here’s how it would work:

Facebook users could make a single query, or buy a few minutes of time for queries. The price would range from, say, $1.99 to $29.99, depending on the number of queries and the user’s level of privacy. IBM would charge the least amount for a single query that was accessible to all Facebook users along with its answer. And of course, Watson would get access to the Facebook user’s own data, if they agree, to help Watson tailor the answer to the questioner. And of course, IBM (and Watson) would be able to save all the Q’s and A’s, anonymously, to improve their system.

Here’s how IBM would benefit:

First, I’m sure that hundreds of scientists have worked on this question: what do people want to know that Watson can tell them? Well, after the Facebook deal, an additional 150,000,000 people or so will offer their suggestions. Crowd Wisdom can innovate.

Second, IBM will make money. I’m sure you can imagine the trickle of funds coming from this arrangement, but it’s better than that. Some public queries will go viral, and everybody will want to know how Watson will answer them. Thus, some single queries will each be asked 50 million times, yielding nice profits.

Hey, Watson, what are my chance of earning a million dollars in my lifetime?

Hey, Watson, is it time to look for a different job?

Hey, Watson, where should I look for my lost hat?

Hey, Watson, how should I roast my 22 pound turkey?

IBM: Facebook is calling …


Sunday, November 10, 2013

I am trying to give up football:

I am a fan of professional football. When I watch games on TV, I often rewind to go over plays four or five times. I like to understand how offenses and defenses work, and to appreciate the skills and planning that come together to make a good team. I'm a Giant's fan.

No more. I hope.

I'm well aware of the violence that drives this sport. I know that the more violent team gets a real advantage. I know that teams try to injure key opponents, or to wear them down with brutal tackles and hits. I know that in the locker rooms, the veterans give the rookies an unconscionably hard time. I've known all that for years.

Now I know about the concussions. I know that hundreds of thousands of kids are playing tackle football and rattling their skulls, imitating the professional players whose league is still trying to pretend that concussions aren't all that serious.

I can't, in good conscience, get my enjoyment from a game, however deep and fascinating, that brutalizes its humans for my pleasure, and encourages the brutalization of the youngsters whose unlikely goal is to make it to the pro level and earn millions.

Frank Bruni summarized the issues very well in an editorial on pro football today, a column called Violence, Greed and the Gridiron. What he wrote was my last straw.

I really ought to stop. And I'm pleased that I didn't see a single game today.

I'll let you know if I backslide and start enjoying pro football games again. But I think I'm through.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Welcome to the New York Tech column, David Segal!

David Pogue has left the New York Times, and - apparently - the weekly Thursday Tech Column is now being written by David Segal. I think we are very lucky to have Mr. Segal take over this column. He has been a very fine writer for the Times, and I look forward to some stimulating Thursday columns.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Jakob Nielsen's website offers articles about usability in computer user interfaces. The recommendations are based on studies of people trying to use apps and websites, as well as common sense. There are many articles here worth reading, but I wish to point out a new one about the rather horrendous user interface that people must navigate in order to sign up for insurance. The author is Jen Cardello, and the article's title is:’s Account Setup: 10 Broken Usability Guidelines

The bottom line here is that users who find the interface frustrating will spend much more time on its screens (contributing to overload of the system), and many will give up and overload the support staff with phone calls. The developers of the healthcare website seem to have made many bad decisions (please read the article!), but two are particularly fascinating:

There is an enormous image atop the first screen. Users with low resolution CRTs may not realize that there is anything they can do on this screen, because the instructions are lower down. Many users will have to figure out they must scroll to get started.

Users must supply a unique ID, but they cannot use their email address as their ID. Email addresses are unique (although I must say people's email addresses can change, and that could be a problem). The instructions, and the process, for selecting one's ID and password are unnecessarily complex and confusing. Why? 

Why wasn't there a good user interface specialist to help the developers design this website?

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Conference Call: They Are Not Listening!

I have retired, and I no longer work in a business world that has irrevocably changed.

I recall many long, dreary conference calls. The essence of a conference call is that too many people, at too many locations, have an interest in some greatly wounded but still thrashing project. Some part of the conference call will involve us, so that we must stick the phone to our ear, listen, and wait.

Brian Brushwood, on a TWIT show, brought the utterly new business world to my attention when he exclaimed: “Those people on a conference all: they are not listening! They are playing Candy Crush!”

Oh, I wish I had had an iPad in 1986.