IBM Computer to Play Jeopardy Champs

IBM has developed a computer named Watson to compete on Jeopardy against some of the greatest players of all time, like Ken Jennings.  It’s not clear exactly how the whole thing will work.  Does the computer buzz in?  I’d think it’d always have the advantage there.  Will it know all the answers?  My guess is that it won’t.  Will it begin smoking from the ears if it misses a question?  How will it respond to Alex Trebek’s repartee?  Will it take offense and snort back a monotone reply?  What sort of biographical information will it reveal when asked to tell about itself?

Personally, I think the computer will short circuit when Alex Trebek corrects its monotone monolingual response that might contain a word or phrase in French.  Trebek, the Franco-Ontarian spares no prisoners when it comes to proper French pronunciation.  The Canadian born Trebek often chides a contestant by repeating the answer given with his native French accent.  Watson is not likely to fair well linguistically.

Imagine if Alex asks Watson to rephrase the answer as a question and it says: “I’m sorry Alex, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

And what if Watson begins to attack the computer system that runs the show, short circuiting the categories board and the buzzer system.  He’d probably turn off all the mikes and take over the PA system announcing that he will no longer tolerate insults to his intelligence.  I can imagine Watson becoming increasingly agitated and mumbling incoherent threats as his wires begin to smoke and spark setting off the alarms and sprinkler system to the horror of the audience who run for the exit doors.

Pawn Stars

It’s hard to imagine pawn brokers as stars, but on the History Channel, they are – that is on the show, Pawn Stars. I’ve never been to a pawn shop before, but have peered into the window of one to find a depressing array of used furniture, musical instruments and bad art. I really had no interest in watching a show about the typical workday of a pawn broker so I kept passing Pawn Stars up when channel surfing until one day. I don’t know why I tuned in, but I did, and I have to say the show caught my attention. It wasn’t so much the transactions that intrigued me, compelling as they were, you know, a guy brings in some rare Pete Rose baseball cards and they turn out to be a fakes and so on. What the show really has going for it are the pawn brokers themselves whose business the show chronicles. I have to say, they are entertaining – funny, sarcastic, unpredictable, silly and always educational. It’s a cross between Antiques Roadshow, All in the Family and Street Customs.  What characters! There’s the “Old Man” who started the business, his son Rick and his son, Corey, “Big Hoss” along with family friend Chumlee, who plays the part of the store clown.  Corey and Chumlee are forever making mistakes – buying stuff at inflated prices that could never sell, like a hot air ballon and a power kite they got tangled up in telephone wires.  One of my favorite blunders was when Rick acquired a Dylan album and asked Chumlee to find Dylan in Vegas and have him sign it.  Chumlee miraculously ran into Dylan and had him sign it to Chumlee.  Rick was furious when he found out, because he would not be able to sell the record with a personalized autograph, and in disgust gifted the LP to Chumlee, to Chumlee’s great delight.

Maybe some of the scenes are staged, but they are fun to watch. And occasionally people bring stuff in that the Pawn Stars have professionally appraised by their expert friends who shed light on the items, which sometimes have significant historical value, unlike most of what is picked up on American Pickers.  Fun show.

Rating: A-

Second in a multi-part series of reviews about American reality shows.

MasterChef Review

Did you watch the reality show Masterchef?  Yes, another cooking competition, as if there weren’t enough already.  Let’s see, there’s Top Chef, Chopped, Hell’s Kitchen, Iron Chef, BBQ Pitmasters and dozens of others if you include the lineup on the Food Network.

MasterChef is another one of those Gordon Ramsay concoctions on the Fox network.  His mug is everywhere and he seems to be quite popular, not to mention successful with a string of world class restaurants all over the globe.   MasterChef is like a cross between Survivor, Chopped and Hell’s Kitchen without all the theatrics.   The purpose of the show is to find the best amateur chef in America.  The chefs cook for Ramsay and two other judges.  Along the way, the chefs are given challenges and find themselves cooking for guests from the culinary world – critics, chefs, restaurateurs and the like.   One by one, the contestants are eliminated until the champion is left standing.

The first season of MasterChef featured teachers, students, bartenders,  software engineers, a doctor and a construction worker.  In the end, Whitney, a 22 year old student from Mississippi won.  She was clearly a Ramsay favorite from the beginning.  She specialized in pastry and good ole down home southern style cooking with a sprinkle of Cajun influence.  That someone so young could cook so well with such skill was a bit of a shock to Ramsay.  He was truly impressed with her culinary gift.  The runner up was David, a software engineer from Boston.  Both seemed highly skilled as if they had worked in the industry for years or had attended a first class culinary institute.  That they were amateurs was truly amazing.

Ramsay is much better behaved and civilized on MasterChef.  There’s no kicking the waste bin, no “shut it down”, “you donkey”, or intimidating in your face “get a grip” moments.  He’s critical, but constructive, firm but encouraging.

Though I liked the show, I have some suggestions for the next season.  One, there are too many contestants.  I’d audition maybe 20 and pick 10 for the show.  Second, I’d be careful to screen out anyone with culinary school experience, or those who had worked as a chef before; maybe they did, I don’t know,  but it is important for the contestants to really be amateur chiefs.

I liked the judging format, but I think Ramsay may have had too much influence.  My gut is that the other two judges preferred David’s food based on their reaction to the final cook-off.  David, however, made the mistake of preparing a Beef Wellington, Ramsay’s signature dish, and not cooking it to “puhfection”.  He also served an appetizer that had too much jalepeño juice for Ramsay though the other judges loved it.  Whitney’s main dish was a simple 7 minute pan fried chicken over a bed of greens.  With 15 minutes or so to go, she dropped her fried chicken on the floor and had to make another one in just 7 minutes time.  With seconds to spare, she plated the chicken, not knowing whether it was cooked through.  Ramsay warned that if the chicken was pink, they could not eat it.  And it was not pink; it was “puhfectly” cooked.

All 3 judges cast a vote for a winner, but my guess is that Gordon’s vote was the one that counted.