Tuesday, August 09, 2005


My girlfriend was telling me a trick that she once used on kids she was babysitting, called the “How Long Can you be Quiet?” game. I imagine you understand the gist of it. One has to beware the perils of using a game to advance nefarious aims, as the participants eventually grow wise and either co-opt the game (Hurry up to bed, little Timmy, or Santa won’t come) or come to resent it (Santa’s not real, little Timmy, and Jesus was born in April, too. Now go to bed and read your Proust).

If you’re very clever, though, you can make something a game AND keep an ulterior motive without causing too much strife and Santa bashing. Take, for example, Peekaboom. On one hand, it’s a fun collaborative online game in which two people take turns either revealing an image through clicking it or guessing what the image is from the area revealed by the clicks. For example, player one starts with a picture of a flamingo stooping to drink. The computer states that player two has to guess “wing,” so player one clicks on the flamingo’s wings. Player two sees a black screen gradually lightening to show wings and guesses as best as possible. Player one can give hints like noun, verb, or related noun, but otherwise can only work through revealing choice pieces of the image. After one image is guessed or both players agree to pass, the roles are reversed until three and a half minutes go by.

On the other hand, the hidden purpose of Peekaboom is that it’s an effort of Carnegie Mellon University and the National Science Foundation to help train computers that can recognize objects within images. This would allow for a search engine that could look at every picture on the web and return every one that contains “Keira Knightley’s earlobes.” What makes this so hard is that computers are not very good at doing what human eyes do, which is define objects within a field of many objects (just watching Photoshop’s Magic Wand brush try to grab things is pretty damn amusing) and separating foreground from background. Every session of Peekaboom is feeding data into computers regarding just what a human eye needs to see to recognize “wing” or “airplane” or “sky.” One of the pictures was “landscape.” Think about what you need to see to recognize “landscape” and you can see how computers might have a hard time with this and the joys of competition from trying to get another person to see what you see.

Just like any good game, scores are logged according to your own private screen name for everyone to see and are calculated by both how fast you guess images and how fast you get your partner to guess. At the moment, Butthilda is in the lead. If you’re looking for something fun to do to kill time and advance the eventual subjugation of man to robot armies, head over to Peekaboom and try a couple of rounds.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Walk Your City

I had the good fortune to see author Bill Bryson give a talk at GW last week, which left me in a particular mood. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Mr. Bryson is a native Iowan who fell in love with Britain and a Briton, married one, moved to the other, and began writing about the various differences he found and the changes he went through. He gradually extended his curiosity to other countries and continents, stopping briefly to write a brief history of science and then another of language, but his approach to writing about a place remains the same throughout: start walking until one can find a place that serves beer, drink said beer for a while, then continue walking to another bar while keeping a keen and observant eye on everything.

So, also last week, I had the fortune to apply a bit of Brysonian trek skills to my hometown. My girlfriend was leaving for the weekend via Chinatown bus, so I dropped her off at the bus stop, waited for a communication breakdown between some passengers and the staff to be resolved, and bid her a heart-heavy-I’ll-never-last-a-weekend farewell. On the communications problem, I had wrongly assumed that all the Asian languages were mutually intelligible. Korean passengers who do not know exactly which city they’ve been dropped off in are not helped by a Chinese driver yelling and pointing to the writing on the side of the bus. This came as a shock to me. Does this mean that everyone in Africa can’t just speak... African... and get by, either?

Finding myself in Chinatown late on a Friday night normally might mean that you, my dear reader, would saunter over to the Hard Rock Café and try to roll some tourists for cash. I am above such thugwit desires. It was too late to call anyone and I hadn’t had a night alone in a while, so I figured that it would be nice to walk for a while past the various Metro stations that were on my way home and if I became tired I could just hop a train or a bus and that would be that.

Then I noticed, after about three blocks, that my favorite German restaurant was open. It also happens to have my favorite German bar inside, too. I ordered a pear schnapps in my high school German and was rewarded for the effort with what could only be called the Big Gulp of schnapps. It was, for want of a better liquid comparison, roughly the size of a pear made out of pear schnapps. I was about halfway through it, taking very small gulps, when the bartended walked over and said, “goink for a long valk tonight, ja?” I finished the damned thing, overtipped the kind barmeister, and stumbled into the humid night.

I set off down K Street, past my old office building, and marveled at the lack of whores. If you’re not from DC, here’s an interesting thing: K Street (NW) is where the majority of the lobbying firms and other NGOs that sort of Lady Marmelade their way around for Big Poppa Gubmint have their offices. But after 5, they clear out, all the little lunch places close, stores shutter, and not too long ago the doyennes, oldest professionals, and the occasional traditionally bedecked pimp would take over. I have no idea where they went, though I understand that the MCI center and the convention center picked up where K Street left off. Every now and then you’ll be driving down K Street and see some office worker overly underdressed on their way to a club and you’ll slow down to get a good look to see if the Street is back. It isn’t.

There is one place in the midst of the business district of K Street that stays open past 5; a strip club/pool hall named Archibald’s/Fast Eddie’s. This is located right across the street from the Catholic Information Center, so if you’re ever looking for a strip club to go to for an after-work breather, just look for the Catholic Information Center, purveyor of fine books on the lives of saints and the place of morals in this world, turn around directly, and walk across the street.


I know Archibald’s from a fateful evening with a friend and coworker who also happened to be a very attractive lesbian who had just broken up with her girlfriend and had been drinking heavily with me. I was driving her home when she saw Archibald’s and literally pulled on the steering wheel until we curbed next to the place. The bouncer let us in with that “you kinky freaky couple” look and I took a place at the bar while my friend went off in search of the bathroom. After a while of staring down at a watery whiskey, the bouncer tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I knew where my girlfriend was. He then pointed me to the stage, where my friend was onstage with one of the strippers, halfway through getting her shirt off while trying to keep a fiver clenched in her teeth. I turned to the bouncer, finished my drink, and said, “she’s not my girlfriend,” to which he could only reply a drawn out, “daaaaaaamn.”

DC is a weird town even when you’re not out with an Albanian Muslim lesbian. It was a late Friday night in a part of town that there’s not much to do in and there were still plenty of people just wandering around. There were small groups of elderly people, resplendent in their “I (heart) DC” T-shirts, khakis, and fanny packs. There were solitary black guys riding low-rider bicycles that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, just enjoying the empty streets and the slow pedaling. You could see homeless guys coming back from begging by the dance clubs, looking for an overhang that would be out of the sun in the morning. There was a white guy in jeans and t-shirt (Hey!! Me, too!!) who was walking the same path with me for a while and I was almost schnappsed up enough to ask where he was going, but after a block he turned to actually go somewhere.

There are strange things that one notices while drunk and alone. There is a giant blue fluorescent ziggurat that rises out of one of the office buildings. A Chinese restaurant as you approach Washington Circle has the traditional pair of stone lions out front, but one has its paw on a tiny globe and the other is crushing a baby lion to death. It must symbolize being owned by one of the Triads. Write in if you can think of something better. I noticed that more and more “going out” wear for girls incorporates sparkly things and shiny coins splashing against sexy bits. There is nothing more effective than reducing men to mockingbirds.

On M Street, after leaving K via a brief trip down Pennsylvania Avenue (not the bit with the White House on it, out-of-towners), there was a beggar without the usual strain of “God bless you,” or “help a brother out,” but instead “please help so I don’t have to sell my car on E-bay.” I’d been slowly doling out my change all night, but this was so specific as to deserve a dollar. There was a guitar and violin duo who were playing Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” which I had been singing to my girlfriend that morning. They got a dollar for the coincidence. A band in the Rhino Bar was playing the theme song to “Shaft” and a convertible full of Persian girls stuck at a light emptied itself so that they could make blaxplovocative poses behind the band, snap a picture, then get back into the car before the light changed. If I’d been sober, I would have just seen a blur. It was like finally being able to see the city’s hummingbird wings.

I walked across the Key Bridge and into Arlington, not really feeling my feet. All in all, from Chinatown to my apartment is about 4 miles and took about 2 hours. I wrote as much as I could remember in a pocket journal before I crossed the bridge because I knew that I would climb into bed with a popsicle and pass out. So, if you think you know your city, walk the breadth of it. Use whatever cheats you need, whether it be drunk, coked up, or with a 2 liter bottle of espresso, but no matter what get the street under your feet and feel it in the flex of your knees and smell it in the back of your nose.