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Showing posts from September, 2018

The Mechanical Turk: Artificial Artificial Intelligence

One of the earliest video games made for computers was chess. It’s not hard to see why chess was chosen: the rules are pretty simple, and the game is widely played. Artificial intelligence mastered chess early on, and programmers have long been able to set chess programs to play at different levels of difficulty. The first person to suggest that a computer might play chess was the celebrated computer scientist Alan Turing. Turing started talking about this in the 1940s, and in 1950, he wrote the first computer chess program. Turing himself was a weak chess player, but he started something, and a lot of others agreed. It was a common belief that by 1970, the world chess champion would probably be a computer. This never came to pass, of course, probably because human beings still got to decide who could enter chess tournaments in 1970 (and they haven’t given up that privilege yet), and humans never let computers in. With the arguable exception of IBM’s Watson’s appearance on Jeo…

Adding stars to the US flag

When we think of the early flag of the United States, we often think of the version with 13 stripes and 13 stars in a circle in the blue field in the corner.  While this is accurate, this is not the only version of this particular flag that was common in the early days of the republic. The number 13 represents the number of colonies that revolted against Great Britain in 1776 to form the United States of America, of course.  According to the Continental Congress’s Flag Act of 1777, the stripes were to alternate red and white, but there was no rule to the layout of the stars.  Putting them in a ring was fine, but so was putting them in rows, or in a star shape, or whatever you might want. All that mattered was that there was 13.  As long as you got that right, nothing else mattered. By 1795, the United States had grown to 15 states, following the admissions of the state of Vermont (1791) and the commonwealth of Kentucky (1792).  A new flag was approved to reflect this. It had 15 st…

The Cowboy Hat

In 1865, the John B. Stetson hat company introduced a new product.  It called it the Boss of the Plains hat: a durable, waterproof, good-looking hat for men.  The Boss of the Plains had a wide brim and a rounded top, and quickly became one of Stetson’s top sellers.

Brand-new Boss of the Plains, fresh out of the hatbox.

The Boss of the Plains dominated men’s hat fashion (back when there was still such a thing as men’s hat fashion) for about twenty years.  Post-Civil War photos frequently show men sporting one.  The hat was originally made of beaver pelts.  Stetson said it took about 42 beaver belly pelts to make one hat, which retailed for around $4.50, which is roughly $64.00 in 2017 money.  The design of the hat didn’t really change over this time… not really.  Not the product that Stetson manufactured, anyway.

The Montgomery-Ward catalogue was the Everything Store of the 19th century.

The change started with the customers.  The Boss of the Plains was designed to look good in all situati…

Manhattan Sinks – A personal account of September 11, 2001

Every so often, I share this piece.  I wrote it the night I got home from Manhattan on September 11, 2001.  I worked in Manhattan at the time, about ten blocks north of the World Trade Center.  The train I took from my home in Jersey City, New Jersey, would arrive beneath the World Trade Center, and I'd walk from there.  I cleaned up the piece a few days after I wrote it, but this is pretty much what I remember.

I also remember how we used to refer to what happened on that day.  We called that day "Tuesday" for the first week, because that's what it was.  Then "last Tuesday," once next Tuesday came around, and then "the eleventh".  I don't remember hearing the term "9/11" until almost a month later.  I've never liked the term, and I still refer to it as "September 11".  This might seem like a picayune point, only of mild interest to linguists, but I think it shows how we were trying to sort out what had happened.  It w…