Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Late to the Party Again

I finally got around to watching the 2009 Michael Jackson movie, This Is It. It was pretty great. It made me think about how he really was a musical genius, and how crazy it was that at 50, he was still just as skinny as ever and could still totally do dance moves that shouldn't even be humanly possible.

He also comes across as really nice, gentle, and humble--which is funny considering that this is the same person who spontaneously accepted the fictional "Best Performer In the Universe" award and made videos featuring giant statues of himself. I guess we'll never quite figure him out.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Recommended viewing: Mad Monster Party.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

English Sausage Dinner

Guy got inspired to make sausage rolls after a big platter of them appeared at the pub in the plotline of one of his TV shows from the seventies about life in the English countryside.

They turned out great! We used frozen puff pastry from the supermarket so it was easy to prepare. To go with it, I made brussels sprouts in garlic butter (I was trying to think of something English) and Dee's Corn & Tomato Salad from The Joy of Cooking.

For dessert, we had Spotted Dick boiled in a can! It's a moist steamed cake, sort of like a coffee cake.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

"'Hey, you're from Yonkers? Do you know Stu Burns?"

"It does if you leave it on the stove long enough."

That's a joke from the "What's a Henway?" era of my childhood.

Anyway, last night I made the best stew ever and I wanted to share it. It's modified from a recipe I found online. I added more bay leaves, switched out some of the potatoes for sweet potatoes, added a shallot and peas, and roasted the vegetables instead of frying them. And I replaced the butter with olive oil. The basic ingredients are:

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 and 1/4 pounds stew beef (cut in small pieces)
6 garlic cloves, minced
8 cups beef stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
8 bay leaves
2 large sweet potatoes
1 regular potato
Olive oil (for brushing the vegetables)
1 large onion
1 shallot
2 cups peeled and chopped carrots
1 cup frozen peas

The first thing I did was heat the oven to 450 and peel and slice all the vegetables--except the garlic and peas. (I took the peas out of the freezer to let them thaw.) I loaded up 2 tin baking trays with the vegetables and (very) lightly coated them with olive oil.

I tried out my food processor's slicing feature for the first time. It worked really well but sliced very thin, so I only did about half the carrots, a sweet potato and part of the onion this way. The rest I sliced more thickly.

On the first tray, I put 6 bay leaves and a light sprinkling of kosher salt on top. The other one I left plain (except for the olive oil). After a while, the bay leaves started smoking, so I took them off eventually...but they made the kitchen smell really good.

While those roasted, Guy cooked the stew beef. He heated the vegetable oil in a cast iron pan on medium-high heat before adding the meat, then cooked until brown, about 5 minutes.

I then transferred the meat to our large Le Crueset pot and pushed it to the sides so that I could saute the garlic in the middle of the pot for about one minute. I added the beef stock, tomato paste, sugar, thyme, Worcestershire sauce and 2 bay leaves, and stirred. The original recipe said "bring to a boil" but I've noticed that it takes a really long time for anything to boil in the Le Crueset so I just waited until it seemed hot and then reduced the heat to medium-low, covered it and simmered for an hour, stirring occasionally.

At some point, I turned off the oven and let the vegetables sit in the oven until it was time to add them to the stew. After the beef had cooked for an hour, I added the roasted vegetables and peas and simmered the stew uncovered for 40 minutes until it thickened.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

Avocado Plant

Have you ever grown a plant from the pit of an avocado? I've been getting interested in plants lately so I decided to try it. It's a slow process. I got my instructions from www.gardenweb.com:

"How do I do it?"

Open the avocado and remove the pit from the center. You can eat the fruit of the avocado, it's yummy and is full of nutrients!*

Wash the avocado pit under cool running water, you don't need soap to clean it. With your fingers gently wipe away and remove any of the green fruit that might be on the pit. Rinse it well and then blot it dry with a paper towel.

Carefully push three toothpicks into the thickest width of avocado, you want to push the toothpicks into the pit about a 1/2" deep. (It's okay if you push them in deeper or even a little less) The toothpicks will help suspend the avocado pit in water and keep the top part of the pit in fresh air and the fat base of the pit under the surface of the water. Be careful pushing in the toothpicks, they have pointy edges and could hurt if they poke your hands, it's all right to ask a grown-up to help with this.

Suspend the pit over a glass filled with water....the toothpicks will rest on the rim of the glass and hold the pit in place so it doesn't sink to the bottom. Always check the water level in the glass and see that the water is covering the fat base of the pit by about an inch depth. If the water is below that level you'll need to add some more. Slowly and carefully pour in more water from a small cup to avoid splashing.

Place the glass in a bright windowsill. In about three to six weeks the top of the avocado pit will begin to split and a stem sprout will emerge from the top and roots will begin to grow at the base.

When the stem grows to about five or six inches pinch out the top set of leaves. In another two or three weeks new leaves will sprout and their will be more roots.

It's now time to plant the young avocado tree. Place enriched potting soil in a large flowerpot (maybe 8" to 10" across). Fill the soil to about an inch from the top of the pot. Make a small depression in the center of the soil and place the pit, root-side down into the depression. Don't put it too deep...you want to have the upper half of the pit above the soil line. Add some more soil around the pit to fill in any air holes by the roots and then firm it into the soil by gently pushing the soil around the base of the pit. The tree's stem and leaves should be straight and pointing up (like a flagpole).

Give the soil a drink to water the pit. Water it generously so that the soil is thoroughly moist. Water the soil slowly and gently so that when it's poured in it doesn't gouge out holes in the soil. Keep your tree watered but don't let the soil be so moist that it ever looks like mud.

How do I care for my avocado tree?"

Keep your tree in a sunny window, the more sun it gets the bigger it will grow.

Remember to give it frequent light waterings but don't let the soil get muddy. If the leaves turn yellow it means that the plant is getting too much watering, let the tree's soil dry out for a couple of days, then return to light waterings.

When the stem grows six more inches pinch out the top two sets of leaves. This will encourage the plant to grow side shoots and more leaves, making it bushy. Each time the plant grows another six inches pinch out the two newest sets of leaves on top.

"Can my avocado tree ever go outside?"

Yes it can go outside in the summer. If your winters are cold ~ below 45 degrees (F) or 7 degrees (C) ~ you must bring your tree inside for the winter. Otherwise, if your winters are cool and mild, the tree may stay outdoors year round.

"Will my tree ever grow fruit?"

Sometimes they will begin setting fruit after they are three or four years old. It helps to have several avocado trees growing together to aid with pollination.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dwight Schrute: Quote of the Day

"I just want to be friends. Plus a little extra. Also, I love you."

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The "Cleaner"

Today I was looking for good places in our apartment to store the vacuum cleaner. I finally picked a place to the right of the refrigerator but I was worrying that it was an eyesore. Guy asked me if I wanted to get a "vacuum cleaner cozy." Old ladies sometimes put twee coverings over their vacuums to whimsically disguise them as butlers or grannies. See also: toilet paper cozy. These products usually involve crochet and/or yarn (to represent granny hair).

Then Guy came up with the concept you see here: The Ax Murderer Vacuum Cleaner Cozy! He's lurking in the shadows to the right of your fridge, waiting to kill you.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hulk's Bumper Stickers




Bumper sticker ideas by Guy Foulard

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My New Hobby

I'm teaching myself shorthand! It's really fun. I'm using the second edition of Gregg's Shorthand Manual Simplified which is the original 1955 version, including helpful photographs of secretaries and their bosses with captions such as: "The businessman insists that his letters be correctly punctuated and that they contain no spelling errors. This secretary has taken her employer's dictation and checked the spelling of any words about which she was in doubt when she transcribed. Her employer is obviously pleased with the letter!"

From Wikipedia:

Gregg shorthand is a form of stenography that was invented by John Robert Gregg in 1888. Like cursive longhand, it is completely based on elliptical figures and lines that bisect them.[1] Gregg shorthand is the most popular form of pen stenography in the United States and its Spanish adaptation is fairly popular in Latin America. With the invention of dictation machines, shorthand machines, and the practice of executives writing their own letters on their personal computers, however, the use of shorthand gradually declined in the business and reporting world. Gregg shorthand is still in use today.

Several versions of this system were published. Pre-Anniversary, which includes the first five editions, the first one published in two small paper-covered pamphlets in 1888, the second published in 1893,[2] the third in book form in 1897, the fourth in 1905,[3] and the fifth in 1916.[4] Anniversary, a revised and simplified form published in 1929, called Anniversary because it was to be published on the fortieth anniversary of the system (1928), but there was some delay in publication.[5] In 1949, Simplified was created, in which many of the principles and memorized forms were removed or simplified due to findings of studies by the publishers and suggestions of many shorthand teachers.[6] Diamond Jubilee was published in 1963, which simplified the Simplified version.[7] Series 90 was published in 1978, which simplified it further.[8] The last version was Centennial, published in 1988, with several similarities to the Diamond Jubilee system earlier.[9] Besides these main editions, which were designed for the dictation speeds expected of any shorthand system of the time, a number of simpler, personal-use editions were published from 1924 to 1968. These included "Greghand" in 1935, and "Notehand" in 1960 and 1968.[10]

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dog Day Afternoon

Guy was happy that a recent book I read (Stalling for Time, a non-fiction book about hostage negotiation) made me curious to watch the classic film Dog Day Afternoon. I loved it! I would never have expected to love a movie about a botched bank robbery starring Al Pacino, but after seeing it, I really get what's great about him. He was so funny and interesting in the role. The movie was so New York-y and I loved the deadpan humor of it.

When we watched a "making of" documentary, I was surprised to learn that they actually filmed it in autumn, when it was cold out. The story is supposed to take place on the hottest day of a NYC summer, and I would never have guessed that that wasn't at all the case. The director Sydney Lumet said that they discovered a big problem in that the actors' breath was noticeable in the outdoor scenes. He said the solution for it was simple--you give the actors ice cubes to put in their mouths, which chills their breath and makes it match the temperature outside. Clever!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Weird Flyer

Some friends dropped by yesterday and found this on the sidewalk outside our apartment building! I like the bullet point specifying "not sex or heavy duty cleaning." The idea of hiring this person and then expecting serious heavy cleaning makes me laugh.

The part about "group rates" is thought-provoking as well. And why is the service cheaper for females? I have some theories. But even though "all questions are welcome," I would prefer to leave it as a mystery.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Easter!

Here is a list of songs that I would like to sing next time I do karaoke:

Islands In the Stream
More Than a Woman
Bird Dog
The Look of Love
It Had Better Be Tonight
Catch a Wave
Rock With You
Ring of Fire
(Living In) The Land Down Under
We've Only Just Begun
You Should Be Dancing
(I'm on the) Top of the World

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Islands In the Stream

You know how sometimes you don't particularly like a song--or you even dislike it--but then you hear it in a movie or TV show that you like and it totally changes how you feel about it? That happened to me with Islands In the Stream....after seeing it on Gavin and Stacey, I now really love it! Weird that an English show set in Wales is what helped me appreciate Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Well, whatever works!

In this scene, two of the Welsh characters perform this song. I can't remember if the actors are actually Welsh or English.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Easter is coming! And we all know what that means--Peeps! Doesn't it seem like Peeps have grown in popularity over the years? Peeps contests are all the rage.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fishstick's Book

The problem with reading someone's blog (or book or anything similar) is that it has the insidious effect of making you gradually sympathize with them, even if you hate them.

I have experienced this phenomenon with Gwyneth Paltrow. As someone who deeply hated her, I subscribed to her newsletter Goop out of the same impulse with which you would pick at a scab.

Sadly for me, what started out as a nice clean hate gradually morphed into a more complex feeling: still hate but now combined with a certain amount of affection and even empathy. What can I say? She alienates me with her off-hand recommendation that the Ritz is a fun place to stay while in Paris (thanks for the tip, Gwynnie!) and yet...she seems like a well-meaning person albeit extremely over-privileged. She's probably nice to her friends. She now hates Madonna, which I can't argue with. And her recipes are good!

So I know I'll end up eventually owning this book even though the cover repulses me. There she is again, with her self-congratulatory insipid smile, harping on and on about how wonderful her family is, and how she's a daddy's girl--and there's the foreward from Mario Batali, the most celebrity butt-kissing chef in the world. But I bet the recipes are good! Stop me before I buy this book!!

Sunday, April 3, 2011


This is a photo of an amazing new place that recently opened in Capitol Hill called Rockbox. It's a karaoke bar with private rooms! This is the perfect venue for people like me who are too shy to sing in front of strangers. If, like me, you feel shy with strangers but hammy with your pals, this is the place for you!

Other great things about it: the food is great--affordable but gourmet; the drinks--same; and the prices are totally reasonable. It's $4 per person per hour during happy hour (and all day on Sunday) and $7 per person per hour the rest of the time. If there are only 2 of you, you get a tiny room. The first time, Guy and I went together. Then we went again and took my mom. Both times were MEGA-FUN.

Oh, also, the rooms are clean and swanky, with lots of wood. The server comes by enough to keep the drinks and food coming, then closes the door! Five stars!


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chocolate Banana Cake

These are pictures of a chocolate banana cake I made. It was actually a fairly mediocre cake, but it looks pretty.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Happy St. Patrick's Day! I just found out today that Libya is the only country that has a flag composed of one solid color--green. And Guy told me why--it's because Khadafi is obsessed with the color green. I thought he was just making that up until I Googled it. Weird.

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, here are some other things that are green:

Trees, limes, moss, emeralds, envy, lizards, frogs, grass, Ireland, leprechauns, aliens, cucumbers, peas, spinach, football field, army uniforms, shamrocks, an inexperienced person, money, street lights, seaweed, lettuce, mold, green tomatoes, green eyes,
turtles, parrots, green M&Ms, snakes, the Jolly Green Giant, Robin Hood, Soylent Green, green tea, olives, apples, jade, iguanas, grasshoppers, dragons, 7UP, caterpillars, crocodiles and cacti.

I think that about covers it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Neutrinos Are God?

There's a volunteer at work I like a lot--he's a Vietnam vet named Larry who owns an old blind cat named Stinky and he does metalwork (Larry, not Stinky). Today Larry came by the office and started talking about "neutrinos" which is something I'd never heard of before. As he was talking about them, I was sort of thinking in the back of my mind, "Neutrinos sound like God!" and then Larry said, "If you were so inclined, you might see a spiritual force there." I said, "Yeah, I do!" and then Larry shared that he is an "unordained Baptist minister." He's from a small town in Missouri and apparently they trained him how to be a minister "but not necessarily a good one." He said, "I'm so liberal, I think a lot of people are surprised that I'm a Southern Baptist" but I said, "Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist too, so you're in good company." Then he said he liked Rastafarians because "their concept of God is really intense" but he left before explaining.

From Wikipedia: A neutrino (Italian pronunciation: [neuˈtriːno], meaning "small neutral one"; English pronunciation: /njuːˈtriːnoʊ/) is an elementary particle that usually travels close to the speed of light, is electrically neutral, and is able to pass through ordinary matter almost unaffected. This makes neutrinos extremely difficult to detect. Neutrinos have a very small, but nonzero rest mass. They are denoted by the Greek letter ν (nu).

Neutrinos are similar to the more familiar electron, with one crucial difference: neutrinos do not carry electric charge. Because neutrinos are electrically neutral, they are not affected by the electromagnetic forces which act on electrons. Neutrinos are affected only by a "weak" sub-atomic force of much shorter range than electromagnetism, and are therefore able to pass through great distances within matter without being affected by it. Neutrinos also interact gravitationally with other particles.

Neutrinos are created as a result of certain types of radioactive decay or nuclear reactions such as those that take place in the Sun, in nuclear reactors, or when cosmic rays hit atoms. There are three types, or "flavours", of neutrinos: electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos and tau neutrinos. Each type also has a corresponding antiparticle, called an antineutrino. Electron neutrinos (or antineutrinos) are generated whenever protons change into neutrons, or vice versa—the two forms of beta decay. Interactions involving neutrinos are mediated by the weak interaction.

Most neutrinos passing through the Earth emanate from the Sun. Every second, in the region of the Earth, about 65 billion (6.5×1010
) solar neutrinos pass through every square centimeter perpendicular to the direction of the sun.[1]

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled

O! M! G! This is my new favorite non-profit:

"Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled is a national nonprofit serving quadriplegic and other people with severe spinal cord injuries or mobility-impairments by providing highly trained monkeys to assist with daily activities.

"We raise and train these monkeys to act as live-in companions who, over the course of 20-30 years, will provide the gifts of independence, companionship, dignity and hope to the people they help."


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spider Misinformation

One of my co-workers told me the other day that there are brown recluse spiders in Washington state and that they are extremely dangerous--that their bites "wither" your skin.

I sort of believed her because this particular co-worker seems down-to-earth and practical...but it still sounded fishy so I researched it online. I found a spider-themed website written by the "Curator of Arachnids" at the Burke Museum. (Nice work if you can get it!) Naturally her story turned out to be wholly false.

Here's an excerpt. I especially love the foot-long "camel spider" in Iraq who runs at 25 miles an hour, screaming like a banshee. Ha ha! Yeah, you gotta watch out for those:

Myths, Misconceptions, and Superstitions About Spiders

Rod Crawford, Curator of Arachnids, Burke Museum

As the only spider specialist in a large metropolitan area, I get many spider inquiries from the general public. Since I'm mentioned on the Internet as a spider specialist, some of the public inquiries come from distant places. When I lecture on spiders, adult and child audiences always have questions and comments. So do casual acquaintances when they learn that I work with spiders.

These people's concerns come from a widespread and surprisingly uniform set of assumptions and "general knowledge" about spiders. And almost all of this widespread information about spiders is false!

I don't really expect that this document, by itself, will make much headway against the flood of spider misinformation. However, I hope that those curious about spiders who find their way here will absorb enough information to ask me some new questions instead of the same old ones. I can hope, can't I? green spider, Leucauge venusta

Opinions expressed here are not necessarily endorsed by the Burke Museum or the University of Washington, but are entirely my own, founded on 39 years experience working with spiders and misinformed humans. Note also that I use "myth" here as a convenient catchall term for any kind of widely believed misinformation about spiders.

Just Plain Weird Stories

From: The Spider Myths Site at http://www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/spidermyth/index.html

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book Review: Strange Piece of Paradise

On a recommendation at Elliott Bay Bookstore, I just finished reading this book, and I think it's one of the best books I've ever read. I'm just going to put the blurb from the back in my post, because I can't do a better job than that of describing it. I like her writing style and it's just such an interesting blend of psychology and introspection and Oregon legal history and lots of other stuff all intertwined in an extremely readable way. You really get drawn into it. Anyone who enjoys true crime would especially like this book:

In the summer of 1977, Terri Jentz and her Yale roommate, Shayna Weiss, make a cross-country bike trip. They pitch a tent in the desert of central Oregon. As they are sleeping, a man in a pickup truck deliberately runs over the tent. He then attacks them with an ax. The horrific crime is reported in newspapers across the country. No one is ever arrested. Both women survive, but Shayna suffers from amnesia, while Terri is left alone with memories of the attack. Their friendship is shattered.

Fifteen years later, Terri returns to the small town where she was nearly murdered, on the first of many visits she will make “to solve the crime that would solve me.” And she makes an extraordinary discovery: the violence of that night is as present for the community as it is for her. Slowly, her extensive interviews with the townspeople yield a terrifying revelation: many say they know who did it, and he is living freely in their midst. Terri then sets out to discover the truth about the crime and its aftermath, and to come to terms with the wounds that broke her life into a before and an after. Ultimately she finds herself face-to-face with the alleged axman.

Powerful, eloquent, and paced like the most riveting of thrillers, Strange Piece of Paradise is the electrifying account of Terri’s investigation into the mystery of her near murder. A startling profile of a psychopath, a sweeping reflection on violence and the myth of American individualism, and a moving record of a brave inner journey from violence to hope, this searing, unforgettable work is certain to be one of the most talked about books of the year.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Parable of the Pie

Once upon a time, there was a very sick girl. A man in town heard about the sick girl and decided to visit her, hoping to cheer her up.

He visited her every day for a week and his visits made her happy. One day, as he was leaving the sick girl's house, he noticed a man waiting for him on the sidewalk outside.

"I'm the sick girl's brother," said the man. "Thank you for visiting my sister! As a way to express my gratitude, I have brought you a piece of pie." And he handed the visitor a delicious piece of apple pie.

For the rest of the month, every time the man would leave the sick girl's house, her brother was standing there, waiting to hand him a delicious piece of pie.

But one day, as he was leaving, the brother was standing in the same place--with no pie.

"Where's my damn pie?" asked the good Samaritan, angrily.

The brother was taken aback. "I'm sorry," he said, "I ran out of apples. But as soon as I have some more, I will bake another pie. In the meantime, I want to thank you very much for visiting my sister."

"What? That's not good enough! I want pie! Where's my pie?" yelled the man, and he punched the other guy in the face.

The girl's brother ran away in fright and was never seen again.

Moral of the story: If someone hands you a piece of pie, enjoy the pie. But don't expect pie every time.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Big Mama Is Delicious

While we're on the topic of chickens, I wanted to share this yummy recipe that I found. I made it last night for some friends, and it's a good recipe for entertaining if you don't have much time because it's delicious but you can also throw it together quickly.

Chicken Enchilada Casserole

Adjust oven rack to middle position; preheat to 400 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Finely chop one onion and cook until softened. (The recipe calls for "about 5 minutes" but I always find it takes longer to soften an onion.) Add 3 tablespoons chili powder and 2 teaspoons cumin and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in 2 (8 oz.) cans tomato sauce, 3/4 cup chicken broth, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

The chicken used in this recipe is a rotisserie chicken. It's tasty and also cuts down on cooking time. You just throw away the skin and shred the meat into bite-sized chunks.

Now toss the chicken with 1/4 cup of the sauce, plus one cup shredded Mexican cheese and 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro in a big bowl. (I added more cilantro because I really like cilantro.) Spread 1/2 cup of the sauce in the bottom of an 8-inch square baking dish. Layer 4 corn tortillas in the bottom of the dish and cover with half of the chicken mixture. Top with 3 more corn tortillas (I ripped one in half to make it fit better) and 1/2 of the remaining sauce. Cover with remaining chicken mixture, 3 more corn tortillas (again, with one ripped in half) and 1/2 cup shredded Mexican cheese.

Wrap with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional five minutes. Serve with sour cream.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Chicken Drama of Big Mama

About six months ago or so, my friends (let's call them J and D) talked their parents (who live in Woodinville, Washington, a pretty rural area) into getting chickens. Actually, they got chicks--the chicks grew up and started laying eggs like crazy. Fresh eggs are different from the kind you can buy in the store. They are lots of sizes and colors--they can be pink and green! Sometimes they can have multiple yolks.

They named the chickens Clara, Big Mama, and Nugget. Big Mama is sweet and stupid; Clara is mean and will peck you; I'm not sure what Nugget's personality is like.

Anyway, Big Mama broke her leg! At this point my friends' parents had become very attached to the chickens, so instead of landing on the dinner table, Big Mama, inarguably the luckiest chicken in the world, was rushed to an exotic vet where the doctor put a cast on her leg to the tune of $300! Lucky, lucky chicken.

Now the family has a dark secret that they have to hide from their uncle, a farmer, whose head would probably explode at the news.

Get well soon, Big Mama!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"I For One Welcome Our New Computer Overlords"

Ken's surprise Simpson's reference during Final Jeopardy last night threw me into a fit of giggles.

CAN A COMPUTER DO THAT? Well, maybe, but Ken definitely got the biggest laugh of the night.

Here's Ken's take on the whole Man v. Machine thing (from Slate, February 16, 2011):

My Puny Human Brain

by Ken Jennings

When I was selected as one of the two human players to be pitted against IBM's "Watson" supercomputer in a special man-vs.-machine Jeopardy! exhibition match, I felt honored, even heroic. I envisioned myself as the Great Carbon-Based Hope against a new generation of thinking machines—which, if Hollywood is to be believed, will inevitably run amok, build unstoppable robot shells, and destroy us all. But at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Lab, an Eero Saarinen-designed fortress in the snowy wilds of New York's Westchester County, where the shows taped last month, I wasn't the hero at all. I was the villain.

This was to be an away game for humanity, I realized as I walked onto the slightly-smaller-than-regulation Jeopardy! set that had been mocked up in the building's main auditorium. In the middle of the floor was a huge image of Watson's on-camera avatar, a glowing blue ball crisscrossed by "threads" of thought—42 threads, to be precise, an in-joke for Douglas Adams fans. The stands were full of hopeful IBM programmers and executives, whispering excitedly and pumping their fists every time their digital darling nailed a question. A Watson loss would be invigorating for Luddites and computer-phobes everywhere, but bad news for IBM shareholders.

The IBM team had every reason to be hopeful. Watson seems to represent a giant leap forward in the field of natural-language processing—the ability to understand and respond to everyday English, the way Ask Jeeves did (with uneven results) in the dot-com boom. Jeopardy! clues cover an open domain of human knowledge—every subject imaginable—and are full of booby traps for computers: puns, slang, wordplay, oblique allusions. But in just a few years, Watson has learned—yes, it learns—to deal with some of the myriad complexities of English. When it sees the word "Blondie," it's very good at figuring out whether Jeopardy! means the cookie, the comic strip, or the new-wave band.

I expected Watson's bag of cognitive tricks to be fairly shallow, but I felt an uneasy sense of familiarity as its programmers briefed us before the big match: The computer's techniques for unraveling Jeopardy! clues sounded just like mine. That machine zeroes in on key words in a clue, then combs its memory (in Watson's case, a 15-terabyte data bank of human knowledge) for clusters of associations with those words. It rigorously checks the top hits against all the contextual information it can muster: the category name; the kind of answer being sought; the time, place, and gender hinted at in the clue; and so on. And when it feels "sure" enough, it decides to buzz. This is all an instant, intuitive process for a human Jeopardy! player, but I felt convinced that under the hood my brain was doing more or less the same thing.

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.

During my 2004 Jeopardy! streak, I was accustomed to mowing down players already demoralized at having to play a long-standing winner like me. But against Watson I felt like the underdog, and as a result I started out too aggressively, blowing high-dollar-value questions on the decade in which the first crossword puzzle appeared (the 1910s) and the handicap of Olympic gymnast George Eyser (he was missing his left leg). At the end of the first game, Watson had what seemed like an insurmountable lead of more than $30,000. I tried to keep my chin up, but in the back of my mind, I was already thinking about a possible consolation prize: a second-place finish ahead of the show's other human contestant and my quiz-show archrival, undefeated Jeopardy! phenom Brad Rutter.

In the final round, I made up ground against Watson by finding the first "Daily Double" clue, and all three of us began furiously hunting for the second one, which we knew was my only hope for catching Watson. (Daily Doubles aren't distributed randomly across the board; as Watson well knows, they're more likely to be in some places than others.) By process of elimination, I became convinced it was hiding in the "Legal E's" category, and, given a 50-50 chance between two clues, chose the $1200 one. No dice. Watson took control of the board and chose "Legal E's" for $1600. There was the Daily Double. Game over for humanity.

IBM has bragged to the media that Watson's question-answering skills are good for more than annoying Alex Trebek. The company sees a future in which fields like medical diagnosis, business analytics, and tech support are automated by question-answering software like Watson. Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of "thinking" machines. "Quiz show contestant" may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I'm sure it won't be the last.

But there's no shame in losing to silicon, I thought to myself as I greeted the (suddenly friendlier) team of IBM engineers after the match. After all, I don't have 2,880 processor cores and 15 terabytes of reference works at my disposal—nor can I buzz in with perfect timing whenever I know an answer. My puny human brain, just a few bucks worth of water, salts, and proteins, hung in there just fine against a jillion-dollar supercomputer.

"Watching you on Jeopardy! is what inspired the whole project," one IBM engineer told me, consolingly. "And we looked at your games over and over, your style of play. There's a lot of you in Watson." I understood then why the engineers wanted to beat me so badly: To them, I wasn't the good guy, playing for the human race. That was Watson's role, as a symbol and product of human innovation and ingenuity. So my defeat at the hands of a machine has a happy ending, after all. At least until the whole system becomes sentient and figures out the nuclear launch codes. But I figure that's years away.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day, Everyone!

Guy and I usually just celebrate by making a nice dinner. Tonight we're making pasta with peas and prosciutto, and hot fudge sundaes for dessert.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Guy's New Product Idea

It's a toilet cleaner (similar to the one shown), except instead of making the toilet water blue, it makes it yellow.

It's for uptight hippies!

Would you like to 'let it mellow' but you just can't? Now you can! All your friends will call you Mellow Yellow....quite wrongly! etc.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


The same author has another book called The Devil's Teeth which is really good too. It's about great white sharks.