The thinking toy’s man

20 Questions Handheld Game

On our bus ride to the baseball game yesterday, I became acquainted with a new toy which I plan to purchase at my next opportunity. Run, don’t walk, to Wal-Mart, Target or your nearest toy store and look for Radica’s “20 Q” or “20 Questions” game. (Or just click on the Amazon associates link above.)

This is a handheld game about the size of a billiard ball, costing between $10 and $15. You imagine any item and the game asks you 20 yes-or-no questions about it. (The first question is potentially in four parts, about whether the item is animal, vegetable, mineral or other.) For each question, you push one of four buttons to answer “yes,” “no,” “sometimes” or “unknown.”

The game then guesses your item, with astonishing accuracy. If its first guess happens to be wrong, it will go up to five more questions before conceding.

The questions seem so vague that you don’t realize how much information is being garnered, which makes the final revelation all the more startling. Both times I tested the machine yesterday, at the end of 20 questions I didn’t think (based on the questions that had been asked) that the machine was anywhere near the right answer.

And yet, on my first game, I imagined a shoebox — and the game guessed “cardboard box,” which I would consider an exact match. Then, I imagined binoculars — and the game guessed “binoculars.”

Someone else on the bus reported imagining a llama, and the machine nailed it. The algorithm inside this little toy must have thousands and thousands of possible answers programmed into it, along with a tree of yes/no questions leading to each one.

It’s a fascinating conversation piece, and I can’t wait to have one of my own.

An unfortunate metaphor

Back in March, I posted about a Washington Post column which referenced the overuse of the term “turning over in his grave” or “spinning in his grave.” At the time, the term was being applied to Edward R. Murrow — who, the columnist pointed out, could not be turning over in his grave due to the fact that he was cremated.

Now, this blog, pointed out to me by my brother Michael, points out an even more unfortunate cliché — one which shows just how low the level of debate has fallen in this country.

Bachelor Bob

I met “Bachelor Bob” Guiney this morning.

I had no idea who he was, mind you, but I met him.

It started yesterday, when my editor received an e-mail from a local teacher. The teacher and her sister had nominated their mother for the dubious honor of having “America’s Messiest Garage” in a contest on the morning talk show “The View.” (“The View” is the panel show hosted by Barbara Walters, Meredith Viera, Star Jones et al.) The mother, who was blissfully unaware, had been selected for the program. At 7 a.m. today, the mother — still in her pajamas — was called to the front door to discover a TV crew, several large trucks, a fire engine, the Central High School marching band, Shelbyville Mayor Geneva Smith and Bedford County Mayor Jimmy Woodson standing in her front lawn (in the rain, I might add).

The host of the pre-taped segment identified himself as Bob Guiney, and at one point, when he was shaking hands with the mayors, he introduced himself to me as well. No one on the TV crew had much time to talk, of course; they were busy.

The name “Bob Guiney” stuck in my head for some reason, and so I Googled him when I got back to the newspaper. It turns out he was the star of one of the more popular seasons of ABC’s reality show “The Bachelor,” and since that time he has appeared every now and then as a roving correspondent for “The View.” Since (being a man) I don’t watch either of those shows, I didn’t know him, but several of my female co-workers were suitably impressed.

As we speak, professionals are overhauling the winner’s garage, and tomorrow afternoon the TV crew will document the finished product for posterity. The winner and her daughters will be flown to New York later this month to appear live on “The View” on the same day their segment is televised.

I had carried an umbrella during the half hour or so in which we waited for the segment to begin, and then walked from our staging area to the winner’s home. But once things got busy, I had to drop the umbrella so that I could take photos and notes.

Two or three hours later, Mayor Smith stopped by the newspaper on some errand and stopped by my desk to speak to me. She placed her hand on my shoulder as she started to talk, then laughed.

“You’re still wet, John,” she said.

It’s true; I was.

JACK-FM links

The original JACK-FM in Vancouver.

My local JACK-FM’s site is still under construction — but note that they’re using the same logo as Vancouver. (The URL refers to the station’s previous format.) The name and logo have been trademarked and are being licensed to stations along with the format.

A good story on the format from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Frampton comes alive? That’s the fact, JACK

In the old days, radio stations had huge playlists, and played a wide variety of musical styles and genres. But a radio programmer named Gordon McClendon noticed one day that teenagers at restaurants or other hangouts with jukeboxes would happily listen — pay to listen, even — to the same songs over and over again. McClendon went out and bought a small record rack, which — by sheer chance — happened to have 40 slots. He filled it with the 40 most popular records and directed his disk jockeys to keep playing those 40 records over and over again. Top 40 radio was born.

Top 40 wasn’t by itself a bad idea, but a number of other factors over the years — the increasing use of programming consultants and the gobbling up of radio stations by a handful of corporations, such as Clear Channel and Infinity — have made many radio formats predictable and boring. Because of our short attention spans, radio tries to make sure that the target demographic for a particular station never hears a song it doesn’t like, because that would be an invitation to change stations. So we get all these niche demographic stations, each of them an exercise in tedium.

But recently, programmers noticed the opposite phenomenon from Gordon McClendon’s jukebox. Individual people are not idiots or automatons. They’re capable of liking more than one type of music, and many do. Furthermore, the availability of MP3s, satellite radio and other programming sources has given people the chance to listen to a wider playlist than is offered by the typical cookie-cutter radio station (pop, soft rock, urban, country, etc.)

This has led to an ironic new development — one which thrills me to no end. The hottest new format in the country right now is called “JACK-FM,” and most of the stations are using that trademark to market themselves. It’s based on a station in Vancouver which had built a following on the Internet. The basic format is oldies from the 70s, 80s and 90s — but the playlist is huge, as much as three times the size of the normal radio station. And the selection is eclectic. Here, in chronological order, is the exact rundown of songs that I’ve heard while thinking about or working on this post:

  • “Baby I Love Your Way,” Peter Frampton
  • “Tubthumping,” Chumbawumba
  • “Dancing With Myself,” Billy Idol
  • “Stacey’s Mom,” Fountains of Wayne
  • “Tell Me Something Good,” Rufus featuring Chaka Khan
  • “Missed Again,” Phil Collins
  • “Crash,” Dave Matthews Band
  • “Respect,” Aretha Franklin

I think this is a killer format. It makes me want to install a radio in my car. (Don’t ask.) It’s not the old days when disk jockeys played whatever they wanted to. (The JACK-FM marketing slogan is “We play what we want,” but don’t be fooled — the playlist, big and friendly as it is, is almost certainly coming from corporate automatons.) Even so, it’s a tiny step in the right direction, and I am having a heck of a time listening to it.

The news from Lake Wobegon

When I posted about two other public radio shows yesterday, I mentioned A Prairie Home Companion. In her comment on the post, Georganna noted that she’d been to see APHC in person. So have I, several times. The biggest thrill was probably the show that they did to celebrate the re-opening of the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. That was personal to Garrison Keillor because it was a visit to the Grand Ole Opry which gave him the inspiration to create APHC.

I have to admit, I really don’t listen to APHC too often any more; there for a while, it was getting a little too political. It’s not necessarily that I disagreed (or agreed) with the politics so much that the politics took away from the timelessness and innocence that first attracted me to the show. I probably need to check back in and see what’s going on lately.

Anyway, just by coincidence the New York Times has a nice profile of Sue Scott, the show’s female voice actor. (You may have to register with the NYT web site if you haven’t already.)

Not much. You?

Something I Said? : Innuendo And Out The OtherSince cutting back to budget cable a month or so ago, I’ve rediscovered what used to be one of my great Saturday morning pleasures: listening to “Car Talk” and “Whad’ya Know?” on public radio.

“Whad’ya Know?” did a show from Nashville a few months back — I should have gone, but tickets were in the $40 range, and I just didn’t need to spend that kind of money. As I note elsewhere on the site, I was once the phone-in contestant on the “Whad’ya Know?” quiz. One of my uncles, in Louisville, Ky., heard me and called my mother to ask if that was really me on the radio. I hadn’t told them about it yet, and they’d never heard of the show.

For the uninitiated, “Whad’Ya Know?”, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is a sort of combination talk show, quiz show and comedy show hosted by Michael Feldman. Feldman opens each week’s show, after a little comedy teaser, by saying “Well, whad’ya know?”, to which the studio audience responds “Not much. You?”

The show’s home base is in Madison, Wisc., but (like another public radio staple, “A Prairie Home Companion”) it frequently goes on the road.

If I ever do get to see the show in person, my real dream is to be called upon to read the “Four Disclaimers” which precede the quiz portion of the program.