- - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

… and a dollar short

“Even in a week that concentrated all eyes on the magnificent courage and maturity of the people of Cairo, a report from Kabul began with what must surely be the most jaw-dropping opening paragraph of the year … the New York Times reported: ‘International and local human rights groups working in Afghanistan have shifted their focus toward condemning abuses committed by the Taliban insurgents, rather than those attributed to the American military and its allies.’ …

“The story became more mind-boggling as it unfolded. One had to ask oneself what had taken the human-rights ‘community’ so long. … The turning point, in the mind of the human rights ‘activists,’ appears to have occurred in late January, when a Taliban suicide-murderer killed at least 14 civilians in the Finest Supermarket in Kabul.

“Among the slain was a well-known local campaigner named Hamida Barmaki, whose husband and four small children were also killed. One wonders in what sense this was the Taliban going too far — women are killed and mutilated by them every single day in Afghanistan. Yet let the terror reach one of the upscale markets or hotels that cater to the NGO constituency in Kabul, and suddenly there is an abrupt change from moral neutrality.”

Christopher Hitchens, writing on “News Flash: The Taliban Violate Human Rights” on Feb. 14 at Slate

Contestants Ken Jennings (left) and Brad Rutter and a computer named Watson compete on the game show "Jeopardy!". (Associated Press)
Contestants Ken Jennings (left) and Brad Rutter and a computer named Watson ... more >

Sensitive food

“February is Black History Month, and kitchens in black homes everywhere are filled with the intoxicating aromas of crispy duck with glogg sauce, dill-crusted Arctic char in a Pinot Noir reduction, and pan-roasted venison chops with fruit-and-berry chutney and fois gras ganache. Or not. …

“Confused? Me, too. Another Black History Month is upon us, and with it another scandal. Last year, a fusillade of angry protests rang out over NBC’s audacious decision to honor black American culture by serving collard greens and black-eyed peas in its cafeteria. This year, cries of racism are still flying over U.C. Irvine’s outrageous plan to serve chicken and waffles on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Not to worry, though. The Aramark Corporation, which runs the university’s dining hall, has mandated that the kitchen staff undergo ‘sensitivity training’ so they’ll know better in the future.

“Of course, unless someone explains to them what they should be serving as representative black cooking, it’s hard to imagine they won’t commit the same politically incorrect faux pas next time. After all, the cretin who planned the NBC commissary menu last year was herself black, and even she wasn’t aware that serving soul food was an insult.”

Howard Portnoy, writing on “What to Serve — or Not — During Black History Month,” on Feb. 13 at the Hot Air blog Green Room

Unfun machines

“Watching [Ken] Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two most successful human ‘Jeopardy!’ champions, try to keep up with Watson last night was fascinating. … When its data-processing algorithms are on target, it is indomitable, and even its runner-up guesses and slip-ups made you think about how it works. But after one round of questions, its novelty was beginning to wear off. Our television critic, Nancy Franklin, observed on Twitter, ‘On the fun/tense scale, things on Jeopardy are leaning toward too tense, not enough fun. Watson just hits the button faster than people can.’ …

“Of course, Watson’s servers have been optimized for correct answers, not for pleasure, ours or its own. Watson has no capacity for fun, and its creators have more at stake than the outcome of a game show. David Ferrucci, who leads the Watson project for IBM, told Clive Thompson last year that ‘he was recently prescribed a mouth guard because the stress of watching Watson play had him clenching his teeth excessively.’ …

“Ferrucci should be able to stop clenching his jaw soon. If Watson does not eclipse the best human players by Wednesday, one assumes it is only a matter of months before it would blow them away. Watson has many potential applications in medicine, law, science, and other fields, but its prospects for a career in television are no better than Brad Rutter’s. Who would want to watch a computer win seventy-four nights in a row?”

Blake Eskin, writing on “Watson 1, Fun 0,” on Feb. 15 at the New Yorker blog News Desk