Posts Tagged ‘Jeopardy’

It’s interesting how an artist sometimes severely views a piece of their own work. Even more interesting when that same piece of work that fell under their critical eye becomes extremely popular. In the case of the great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, that piece became arguably his signature piece of music.

This came to my attention last night when there was a question on the current Jeopardy Greatest of All Time Tournament (big fan- been watching Jeopardy since the 1960’s when Art Fleming was the host on the daytime version) that made me laugh out loud.  It had to do with Grieg’s work that he was composing as music for Henrik Ibsen‘s epic verse drama based on a Norwegian fairy tale, Peer Gynt. His work for the play was meant to be just incidental music but turned into 26 pieces for the long five act drama, much more than he had anticipated when initially agreeing to work with Ibsen. It was obviously a very trying collaboration and Grieg was not impressed with some of his work.

He wrote the following to a colleague about one of the pieces, part of which was also the question ( or answer, as the format requires) on last night’s Jeopardy:

And I have done something for the hall of the troll king in Dovre which literally I can’t bear to hear, it reeks so of cow-turds, ultra Norwegianism, and to-one’s self-enoughness! But I am hoping that the irony will be able to make itself felt.

The answer (or question) was : What is In the Hall of the Mountain King.

That he thought that this piece which is now so associated with his name reeked of cow turds just made me laugh. Maybe it was just the idea that he used that term. Okay, maybe that’s a little sophomoric but, hey, he said it first!

You most likely know the piece in question here. It is surprisingly short and has been performed and used in many ways over the years. It always makes an impression. I am sure it was used in a Warner Brothers or Disney cartoon at some point and I liked a version from the early 70’s from the Electric Light Orchestra.

Here’s a performance of the In the Hall of the Mountain King section from the ballet Peer Gynt from the Zurich Ballet in 2008. Great visuals to go with the music.

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 Man versus machine.  John Henry and his hammer versus the steam drill. Now Jeopardy.

I’ve watched with interest the first two nights of the exhibition on Jeopardy pitting the two top players in its long run, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter against Watson, the IBM supercomputer that contains something like 15 trillion pieces of data.  It’s been a pretty impressive display in these first two days for Watson as it racked up over $36,000 in winnings versus Jennings’ $4,800 and Rutter’s $10,400.  In the Double Jeopardy round, Jennings and Rutter only managed 5 correct answers.

Maybe I’m rooting too much for the human mind to defeat a machine that takes a room of servers and a huge team of techs to operate but I found this whole thing pretty frustrating.  It wasn’t that the machine defeated these two players in knowledge but that it seemed to have a definite mechanical advantage in ringing in first to answer.  Outside of a couple of questions, which all the contestants, including Watson, missed, this was not an extremely difficult game.  You could see that the two champions knew the answers but were simply defeated mechanically.  It was irritating to watch and there seemed to be a bit of frustration on the two humans’ faces at the end. 

When the machine missed, it missed wildly.  For instance, the Final Jeopardy question was in the category U.S. Cities and asked which city had an airport named after a World War II hero and one named for a WW II battle.  The answer, of course, was Chicago.  Watson answered Toronto, which doesn’t even fall under the final category.  With the thirty seconds given to answer, it seems there was breakdown in its comprehension.

I have some question as to how the machine is given the questions.  I believe that Alex Trebek stated that the computer was digitally  fed the questions simultaneously.  So this was not voice recognition technology.  It was, instead, just a very large computer pulling up data at a fast pace then beating its opponents to the buzzer with superior mechanical timing.  Timing is vital in ringing in on Jeopardy so a tuned mechanical device would have a definite advantage against even the most adept human.

I sound like I’m a bit technophobic here.  I do appreciate the advances of technology and am constantly amazed at how quickly our world changes with each new breakthrough.  It’s mind-boggling  how different our world is today when compared to even a mere thirty years back due to the changes in technology.  And I’m sure that there are applications where Watson’s power and speed will greatly benefit us as a species in the future.  But for now I find this whole thing a bit frustrating and secretly wish for a John Henry moment where Brad Rutter pulls out a sledge hammer and takes it to this irritating machine.

Here’s my favorite version of that great folk song, John Henry, sung by Johnny Cash:

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