Archive: May 2003

Turn your scanner into a chessboard!

I love this. Jeff Breidenbach at Xerox PARC has written a piece of software that turns a scanner into a chessboard — automatically reading the location of the pieces for the chess software.

Learn by phone

Dig this: The European Union is running a demo to investigate the idea of delivering interactive educational materials via SMS and mobile-phone browser. According to a BBCs story:

“With mobile phones you can text in answers and get instant feedback,” said Jo Colley, m-learning project manager at Cambridge Training and Development.

“It can be done privately and can be practised in private too.”
The company has also developed a range of learning materials for use on handheld computers.

One is aimed at young people who are about to move house and has questions with a practical element such as how much paint will be needed to paint a room and how much it will cost.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless News for this one!)

AT&T starting a Hiptop plan!

Hot damn! After over 7 months of being available solely via Tmobile, the Danger Hiptop is finally branching out to other carriers. AT&T subsidiary SunCom has announced a Hiptop service, and — dig this — they’re undercutting Tmobile by offering a data-only plan for $30 a month.

This rocks for people like me, who already have a main mobile phone and use their Hiptop solely for email, IMing, SMSing, and web surfing. Currently, I’m paying Tmobile for a plan that includes 200 minutes a month, and frankly, the last thing I wanna do with my Hiptop is talk on it. More significantly, the data-only plan illustratest that someone in the telco world finally gets it: Data is, for some customers, way more important than voice.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

20% of companies have sacked a pornhound

(You know, I really didn’t intend that headline to have a double meaning.)

Check this out: According to a story in, a study of 544 HR departments found that 20% of the companies surveyed had fired someone for a misuse of the Internet at work. The vast majority of these were people viewing pr0n. Even more interestingly was how these people were caught:

In most cases employees were shopped by fellow staff who were miffed by the guilty party wasting time on the web.

U R f1r3d

Here’s the latest development in our SMS world: Getting canned via instant message. According to The Inquirier, over 2,500 workers at the British Amulet Group received the following text message on their mobile phones:

you are being made redundant with immediate effect

Down in Australia, an air-traffic controller is actually suing over this. As a story notes, Tom Earls got the following message in February from JNI Traffic Control:

Its (sic) official, you no longer work for JNI Traffic Control and u (sic) have forfided (sic) any arrangements made

As it turns out, the company claims that Earls wasn’t fired — he’d actually quit the previous day. But even so, a commissioner with the NSW Industrial Relations Commissioners was less than impressed:

“What happened to the old-fashioned letter or talking to someone in person?” Ms Bishop asked.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding the previous one!)

Cursor clock!

Here’s a cool app — a piece of javascript that transforms your cursor into a clock! You can check it out here.

(Thanks to Chris at Donut Rock City for finding this one!)

Why the Matrix annoys the hell out of me, pt. 29

Once again I must ask: What the heck is the big deal with The Matrix?

I recognize that it’s a gorgeous film; I love the movie’s special effects. The fight scenes are so balletic they out-Peckinpah Sam Peckinpah. The design and aesthetic are the best riff on the ruined-yet-sumptuous-futurama since Bladerunner.

Yet what galls me is how the critics constantly bray on about how deep the movie is. Salon nods deferentially to the sequel’s “dense and intense geekdom — the level of Philip K. Dick references and Jean Baudrillard quotations and the apocryphal teachings of a noted Jewish heretic prophet born in Bethlehem 2,000-odd years back — all has changed, changed utterly.” The Village Voice warmly approves of the first movie’s “heady cocktail of gnostic Zen”. Newsweek gushes about the director’s “brainy” vision, and the “philosophical riddles” with which they challenge viewers. And in a recent Entertainment Weekly profile, one of the brother directors boasts about how the cast members used to ask “okay, so which German philosopher will we need to read to understand this scene?”

Oh, please.

Complex? Brainy? Philosophically challenging? What in god’s name are people talking about? The movie’s central conceit is incredibly, dementedly simple: The world’s a big illusion. This idea dates back so many thousands of years that it is more at risk of being hackneyed than revolutionary. Socrates based his philosophy on it, Christians based a religion on it, Chaucer wraps up Troilus and Cressida with it, Boethius toyed with it — and almost every major science-fiction writer in history has kicked it around like a hackey sack.

Which is what made the first movie such so excrutiatingly boring, in between the lovely and fantastic fight scenes. The directors put in easily 45 minutes of explanatory dialogue outlining this “world is an illusion” stuff — most notably that distended, bloated speech by Morpheus, which was delivered with less grace than a Powerpoint presentation.

Yet in reality, the idea is so painfully simple that it could have been compressed easily into, say, two or three lines of dialogue:

Morpheus: Dig this — the world is a massive illusion, created by machines to keep humans docile. You’re actually a body floating in a jar.

Neo: That would explain a lot.

Morpheus: Cool. Now let’s go kick some robot ass.

… and honestly, the movie would have been 44 minutes shorter, and a lot better.

But no, the critics continue to insist that The Matrix and its sequel are somehow intellectually challenging, deep, resonant, exciting, inscrutable, woof woof, meow meow. And it occurred to me the other day that this is probably because most mainstream critics have never read a single page of good science fiction. (More worryingly, they may never have read a single page of good philosophy, either.) They really do find the movies deep. This is genuinely their first interaction with a literature of existentially weird ideas.

At any rate, I was thus totally relieved to open the New York Times today and find a superbly acerbic piece by Frank Rich about The Matrix. I urge you to read the entire piece, from which I quote:

The genius of the P.R. strategy was its exploitation of the original film’s geeky cult status as a thinking kid’s kung fu extravaganza. “The Matrix Reloaded” would not be just another bloated Hollywood sequel but instead would have the philosophical heft to fuel a new generation of metaphysical Web sites. And so every puff piece about the film has emphasized that its creators, the siblings Andy and Larry Wachowski, do not give interviews — as if behaving like Thomas Pynchon would give their movie the gravitas of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” To second the motion, along came Cornel West, the Princeton professor who has a cameo in “The Matrix Reloaded” and is not at all shy about meeting the press. He told Time (for its cover story) that “the brothers are very into epic poetry and philosophy, into Schopenhauer and William James” and that “Larry Wachowski knows more about Hermann Hesse than most German scholars.” This does not explain why the movie’s multicultural orgy scene looks like a Club Med luau run amok, but maybe the inspiration for that was Kahlil Gibran.

Earthlink adopts reverse Turing Test to halt spam

This is incredibly cool. Last year, I wrote a piece for Wired about how Yahoo was stopping spambots by creating a reverse Turing Test: Before you can get a free Yahoo email account, you have to prove you’re a human. How do you do that? By asking users to answer a simple visual-recognition question — i.e. recognizing the text in a graphic image. Even a five-year-old can easily do this, but almost no robots can, because visual recognition is something that’s incredibly hard for machines to do.

Since then, I’ve written more about this topic; recently, I posted an interaction with a customer-service bot where I successfully determined that I was in fact talking to real, live person. And during a particularly cool discussion here about phones, Franco suggested a very cool Reverse Turing Test to use to thwart telemarketers — by demanding anyone who calls you out of the blue prove that they’re human:

I’ve been thinking about how to do this with email for a while now. The charge doesn’t have to be that high to deter systematic marketers without posing much problem for random contacts. The key, though, is to make it virtually painless for almost anyone to contact you out of the blue.

With email, another idea is to simply authenticate humanness with something like the reverse turing test blogged here a while back ( I’ve thought about automatically bouncing unrecognized email with such a test and asking the sender to resend with the answer to a reverse turing test kind of question. I suppose it’s probably not that hard to do that with a phone these days, either, but it’s much harder to generalize it to any phone that might be calling you. Maybe an audible turing test: you get a recording that asks you to pass some simple test, like dial a specific 2 digit number. However, the test is read by a stuttering drunk.

So today’s big news is … Earthlink is going to try precisely this technique as a way of thwarting spam! According to today’s USA Today:

Here’s how it works: Anyone who sends e-mail to a challenge-response user quickly receives an e-mail asking them to prove they are a live person. They do so by copying a series of numbers displayed on their computer screen and returning the message. Their original message is then allowed through. Verification needs to be performed just once, and future e-mails from the same e-mail address are recognized. Blocked messages are sent to a suspect mailbox, which customers can view.

The system lets users create approved e-mail address lists so family, friends and business associates are spared e-mail challenges. It also has a feature to generate additional e-mail addresses to purchase goods online.Many vendors send sales-confirmation notices via e-mail.

I love this. As we live in a world populated by more and more bots, we’ll be developing increasingly more techniques for figuring out who’s real and who isn’t. Some of it may even become experiential, rather than technological. We may find that a crucial technique for navigating the everyday world is a sort of “bot-sense” — being able to intuit whether someone who’s talking to us on the phone, sending us an email, or chatting with us online, is truly a human.

How do you make a cat want to kill itself?

Easy! Buy a “cat transformation set” from this site in Japan. The kits include various adornments that you put on your cat’s head to, uh, transform them. For the kit pictured above, the web site offers the following description, translated loosely into English:

It is spring new work! They are chicken transformation goods!

This is a dear chicken transformation set. It is made from the two-tone felt cloth of yellow and orange, and even if it takes, it is finished to the pop impression. Please observe the feather of the chicken currently attached to the both sides of a hat. please imagine a profile when a cat covers it is as dear as it blows off involuntarily — since it can equip with the head volume to which the reed of a chicken also attached hat on a piece of Velcro, attachment and detachment are easy

Sorry the image above is messed up — I’m not sure why the bottom half got cut off. But I really do implore you to go visit that site and read the text and photo captions. I cannot stop laughing.

But what I really want to know is … however did they get that cat in the picture to hold still long enough to attach that thing to its head? My cat Tuna would rip my arm to ribbons if I even thought about trying something like that with her.

(Thanks to boing boing’s guestbar for this one!)


Whoa. A little startup called No Contact has created a jacket for women that uses a 9-volt battery to generate a low-amp 80,000-volt charge. If anyone tries to grab ahold of you while you’re wearing this — ouch. There’s a totally wild video of the jacket in action here, and some text from the web site:

Fashion and culture through out history have tended to place women in positions of vulnerability. Female clothing designs historically and in modern times can be physically confining and limiting in mobility such as in corsetry, high heel shoes, dresses and tight clothing. Clothing that prevents protection creates a space around the body which is vulnerable and powerless. We have reclaimed the use of fashion to dramatically reidentify the female body and to protect her physical space and boundaries. Equally as important we are exploring the use of the body as an instrument of disruption of powerlessness and of limiting social dress codes and conventions.

The No-Contact Jacket also challenges existing power landscapes between men and women and alters ideas of human space and boundaries. Protecting and empowering the female body from unauthorized contact will allow for her to inhabit her environment in a more confident way and thus redefine and renegotiate her physical space and identity. The Non-Contact Jacket will begin to shift ideas of perceived female vulnerabilities.

And dig this — to show people that the jacket is “turned on” and active, the jacket has a small area on the right-hand chest side that produces a series of tiny electric arcing lightning-bolts. The video is here, and it’s totally mind-blowing! I mean, sure, the use of this jacket as a mechanism for calling attention to violence against women is cool … but damn, a jacket that has crackling, arcing electricity on display as a design element? How much more insanely l33t can you get? I want one!

Whatever would happen if two women wearing these jackets hugged?

(Thanks to Wired News for this one!)

Aibo sees all

To celebrate the fourth anniversary of its robot Aibo dogs, Sony is introducing a neat new feature: “Aibo Eyes”. From their press release

With AIBO EYES software, the four-legged robot can now be controlled remotely via e-mail commands. Users can send an e-mail message to the robot and receive a JPEG image with their computer or other mobile communication device, capturing a picture of what AIBO sees allowing them, for example, to view their home or children while away.

In addition, AIBO EYES software will allow family and friends to communicate through audio messages. For instance, AIBO owners can now send a message command from a remote device, such as a PC or mobile communication device, to AIBO and have the robot deliver a pre-recorded message aloud such as congratulations! Further, AIBO EYES will also enable owners to remotely e-mail message commands to AIBO and have the robot perform selected songs, such as When the Saints Come Marching In and Ode to Joy.

I’ve always been totally charmed by the idea of “telepresence” — using robots as a proxy when we’re away. A few years back, I interviewed someone from irobot, the Boston-based robot making company. We were talking about their original (and now discontinued) irobot, which was a robot they were hoping to sell to corporations. It looked sort of like a eight-wheeled hoover vacuum with an eyestalk, and included a camera, speakers, and a microphone. A company could buy one and leave it at the head office. If an executive couldn’t make it into the office for a meeting, she or he could “robot in” — they would go a web site where they could take control of the robot and move it around the office, seeing what it sees, hearing what it hears, and talking to people. (A Wired reporter tried it out and described the experience here.)

It seemed pretty funny to think of a robot wandering into a meeting and announcing that it’s actually Jeff from accounts receivable, who’s going to be there via telepresence. Then I imagined an even better scenario: Say your company has a dozen of these, traffic is really bad one day, and everyone shows up to the meeting remotely as a robot; the room is filled with twelve robots in a circle, all discussing their quarterly sales projections.

When I temporarily relocated to MIT last year, I thought about getting a telepresence robot to leave at my girlfriend Emily’s place in New York. I discussed the idea with a friend who studies webcamming and online culture. “With the robot, I could sort of wander around her apartment while I’m in Boston, say hi, and see what’s going on,” I enthused.

“Dude,” she said. “That’s not telepresence. That’s stalking.”

Dress yourself in Clive

While surfing around trying to figure out why I’ve recently lost some Google juice, I was pumping my name into the search engine. And out the corner of my eye, I noticed a small “Google Adwords” ad — for a company called

Clive Bags?

So I click on it and, sure enough — it’s a site filled entirely with bags, hats, and clothes for skateboarders, surfers and snowboarders … emblazoned with the word “Clive” on it. Check out: they make travel bags, t-shirts, caps, wool caps, and incredibly cute girls’ t-shirts.

According to the “Who We Are” section on the web site:

welcome to clive. we’re backpack and bag specialists who are dedicated innovating and evolving today’s carry-all culture. we are committed to making the most comfortable backpacks and travel bags for sport and everyday use. clive is leading a new direction with our design, quality and comfort. the clive team features some of the best athletes in the world, including skateboarders bam margera, stevie williams, kerry getz, bucky lasek and ryan sheckler; snowboarders todd richards, scotty wittlake, matt hammer and gaetan chanut; and surfers rob machado, matt keenan and eric mchenry. clive products can be found in leading skateboard, snowboard and surf shops in the united states, canada, japan, europe and australia.

clive world headquarters are located in vista, california. clive products are of supreme quality and are made in the best factories in the world

And here is where I should point out that this is clearly THE COOLEST COMPANY THAT HAS EVER EXISTED ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH. I am, of course, slightly biased. When your name is “Clive,” it’s not easy to find your name on things. You know when you’re 10 years old? And your parents are taking you on an incredibly boring road trip to visit the country’s oldest mud hut or something, and you stop at a tourist trap store that sells those little license plates with kids’ names on it? When your name is Clive, you sit there and watch all the other kids with names like Bill and Jeff and Karen and Ronald and Jennifer and Brad and Jason all go and find their names and buy them and nail them to their bedroom doors and squeal with delight. And when your name is Clive you hate those kids with a venom and intensity that could punch through plate steel, because nobody ever thinks to put the name “Clive” on a little tourist-trap license plate that was probably made in a Chinese prison or whatever, because Clive is such a weird name, right?

Well, I am here today to tell all those kids that they kiss my ass. Because not only is there an incredibly cool company in San Francisco making Clive clothes, but TV commercials with an enormous and incredibly cool-looking Clive logo! And because there is a Clive BMX team out there somewhere. And because even as we speak there are probably chicks in the East Village walking around wearing Clive t-shirts, and there just is nothing at all wrong with any of this.

I think my favorite part is reading the descriptions of the bags:

clive travel bags are functional and tough enough to transport your belongings on voyages near and far.

you will never look as cool as when you’re using these clive bags. the backpacks feature clive’s revolutionary comfortzone™, which ensures superior fit and makes your day better.

I am now going to pretty much empty my bank account buying this stuff.

I’m losing Google juice!

Hmmm. It seems I’ve lost some of my Google juice.

For months, when you typed “Clive Thompson” into Google, you got Collision Detection as the top, first link. (Indeed, that’s one of the reasons I started the blog in the first place — to ensure that it was easy to find me online, as I wrote in a blog posting a while ago.)

But I just typed “Clive Thompson” into Google, and it appears Collision Detection has slid to the #4 spot on the first page.

I wonder why? One interesting clue is that my personal domain-name site — — appears higher than Collision Detection, in slot #3. That’s weird, because as far as I know, there are almost no inbound links to Meanwhile, there are at least several score inbound links to Collision Detection. And the logic of PageRank, one of Google’s main search strategies, is to prioritize “popular” sites — ones that have a lot of inbound links pointing to them.

What could it mean? Obviously, Google regularly rejiggers its algorithms, and that’s happened here. But why the heck would they prioritize, a site that is almost invisible in the social network of the Web, over Collision Detection, which is empirically way more “popular”? It would seem to suggest they’ve somehow tweaked their stew of algorithms so that syntactic or semantic meaning — the appearance of the words “Clive Thompson” in the URL — have edged out the importance of Pagerank-style, links-based calculations. Weird.

Well, nothing I can do about it.

Actually, yes, I suppose there is something I can do about it.

I can NAKEDLY AND SHAMELESSLY BEG ANYONE WHO’S READING THIS POST to put me on their “blogroll” — put a link named “Clive Thompson” on their site, and have it link to Collision Detection. I mean it, people! Seriously. Drinks are on me. Heh.


Many high-tech pundits have examined the new generation of camera-equipped mobile phones — and wondered why the heck anyone would want one. (Well, other that voyeur-camming your fellow workout-mates in the locker room at the gym.)

Here’s one new reason: Celebsnapper. It’s a mobile-blogging concept; if you see a celebrity out in the wild, you snap a picture of ‘em on your phone and post it to the site. I haven’t logged in yet to see what it’s like — stupidly, the site doesn’t even let you view any snaps unless you log in, and for some reason I don’t feel like handing out my email address today. But they get points for coining a new word: “Snaparazzi.” (Or did they invent it — or steal it from a previous usage? Anyone out there know?)

(Thanks to Rachel for this one!)

“UFO culture” day

New Mexico — home of Roswell, famous site of the first-ever supposed UFO crash — has declared the second Tuesday of every February to be “Extraterrestrial Culture Day”. According to the Associated Press:

Some lawmakers scoffed at the idea. But the sponsor of the memorial, Rep. Daniel Foley, R-Roswell, said life on other planets - if you believe in it - surely has its own set of cultural beliefs.

“They have some sort of culture, whether it’s something we understand or not,” he said.

The measure, approved Friday, claims extraterrestrials have contributed to recognition of New Mexico. The state has been associated with little green men for more than half a century, staring in 1947 with a purported UFO crash that came to be known as the Roswell Incident.

“Blograising” and the fate of journalism

There’s a very neat debate taking place at Calpundit, about whether it’s possible for writers to support themselves by raising money from their blogs. Kevin points out the example of David Appell, a freelance science writer, who’s using his blog to raise money for a story he wants to write on the sugar industry. David raised $370 in only 24 hours, and the total is climbing! Kevin riffs off this and imagines a ebay-style marketplace for projects:

How about some kind of journalism eBay for this kind of stuff? You know, journalists could post story ideas and get bids from potential readers (or editors who just wanted to buy the story outright). If the bids get high enough, the reporter would then go off and work on the story. Alternatively, readers could suggest stories and see if there are any reporters willing to follow them up. Reporters could end up with eBay-style satisfaction rankings based on how highly the bidders think of the delivered product.

There’s a really superb discussion that follows that posting, so scroll downwards. I weigh in myself with a post — but the fun part was, while I was writing the post, I was trying to think of a simple word to describe the act of using a blog to cultivate an audience and raise money for a project. Then it hit me:


You read it here first, heh. Anyway, here’s what I posted:

I doubt many journalists — or even more than a tiny few — could rely on blogging for their regular bread and butter. But … I actually do think there blog journalism could easily be supported on a case-by-case basis, much as Chris did with Back-to-Iraq. It would work like this:

A journalist or writer — or even a nonjournalist blogger (these categories are breaking down even as I type this) — could propose to the public an interesting, in-depth project that might take a couple of months to pull off, and which the mainstream press wouldn’t support. The blogger puts a price tag on it — i.e. “I’ll need $5,000 to pay my way while I do this story.” Then she or he waits to see if people are willing to support it. To help generate buzz for it, the blogger can essentially sort of begin blogging regularly on the topic, as Chris did with Back-to-Iraq, to help build an audience. If the audience is intrigued enough, they may well cough up the cash for a full-length treatment of the subject. This isn’t all that different from how documentary makers do their work; frequently they cobble together money from several sources, ranging from friends-and-family to foundations and interested companies to broadcasters.

But the downsides of blograising (heh … term I just dreamed up now for “raising money via your blog”) are, of course, legion. One problem is that it wouldn’t work well for investigative projects — since investigative projects work best when the researchers are quiet about what they’re doing, so as not to alert their subjects or scare them off. Say, for example, that you publicly announced on a blog that you’re looking for money to investigate a major corporation. Well, that’s going to set of piercing alarm-bells at that corporation, and any chance you have an inside access is shot.

But the idea is worth exploring more, for sure!

(Thanks to Chris from Back-to-Iraq for pointing this one out for me!)

More Flash commentary on the war

As I’ve written about copiously in the past, Flash is becoming a pre-eminent medium for searing political cartoon satire. Here’s a recent, savagely spot-on piece by Mark Fiore about how the media pays such inordinate attention to some conflicts, while ignoring others. Check it out!

Goldfish in a blender / I know, I know / It’s really serious

Man, at this rate, “installation” art is just never going to be taken seriously. A museum director in Denmark is in court for a cruelty-to-animals charge because of his latest exhibit:

The exhibit at the Trapholt modern art museum in 2000 featured live goldfish swimming in a blender. Visitors were given the possibility of pressing the button to transform the fish into a runny liquid.

Artist Marco Evaristti, the Chilean-born bad boy of the Danish art scene, said at the time that he wanted to force people to “do battle with their conscience”.

But the Danish association Friends of Animals filed a complaint against the artist as well as the director of the museum, Peter S. Meyer, for cruelty to animals.

Police ordered Meyer to pay a 2,000-kroner (269-euro, 311-dollar) fine for failing to respect an injunction to cut the blenders’ electricity so that visitors would not be tempted to kill the goldfish.

Two goldfish died after two visitors pressed the button.

Okay, so, like, whatever about the issue of cruelty to animals. My question is — what precisely does a “bad boy” of any arts scene consist of? Rebelling against bourgeoise upper-middle-class taste? Injecting a frisson of liminal sexuality to freak out the squares? Oooooo — that‘ll show ‘em.

I’m amazed that artists are still plying this weary I’m-more-alt.-than-you crap. There is no horse more dead to flog. When conceptual art is done well, it’s crazily good. But this stuff … I mean, my kid coulda done that, and I don’t even have a kid.

(Tip of the hat to Plastic for unearthing this one!)

Blogs + news = citizen reporters

I’ve been predicting this for some time. In South Korea, there’s a new site called — where everyday citizens contribute news stories they encounter in their daily travels. It has a readership of 1.2 million per day, which makes it bigger than virtually every U.S. newspaper, and 26,300 citizens registered as regular reporters. It is now so popular that South Korea’s new president Roh Moo-hyun granted his first interview to after being inaugerated in February. As reports:

“With Ohmynews, we wanted to say goodbye to 20th century journalism where people only saw things through the eyes of the mainstream, conservative media,” said its editor and founder, Oh Yeon-ho.

“Our main concept is every citizen can be a reporter. We put everything out there and people judge the truth for themselves.”

I love this. As a journalist myself, one of my biggest complaints about media is that editors — and too many reporters — have no idea what’s really going on in the world. We’re locked to our desks all day long, and in the evening we socialize solely with friends and associates from virtually identical social-class and educational backgrounds (putting us usually in the top-10-per-cent elites of our countries, if not higher). This is why, in the U.S., our news is regularly suffused with stories that would seem to prey solely and exclusively upon the psyches of well-off urbanites in Manhattan: The dire nanny shortage, the difficulty of juggling a law career with dating, the agony of Stephen Glass. That’s because we well-off urbanites in Manhattan are producing a stunning amount of the nation’s media, and we live in what amounts to a parallel quantum universe that bears almost no resemblance to life in the rest of the nation. I admit that some reporters sometimes get out in the field to report on stories, but not as many as you’d think; and the editors are essentially chained to their desks, so they’re forced to believe that the stuff that gets reported in the Wall St. Journal and the New York Times is really all that’s happening. Every time I read another story about The Matrix, and the writer talks about how wildly sci-fi dystopic it is — a world where everyone is deluded into believing the illusion around them is actually real!! Dig it!! — I think, well, yeah, that’s pretty much the world of New York media, in a nutshell.

But je digress. Theoretically, a news service that is authored by roving citizens could be one useful mechanism for leading us out of this platonic cave. The problem is, with a few notable exceptions, news organizations try reasonably hard to fact-check their stuff and make sure it’s true. A citizen-reporting system has no such safeguard. The people claim they do checking ….

“Marketing people and activists can pose as journalists to promote their own products and ideas,” said Choi Joon-suk, a senior editor at South Korea’s largest printed newspaper, Chosun Ilbo. “The quality of the online media is a huge problem.”

Oh disagrees. All stories are fact checked and edited by professional reporters before being posted on the Internet, he said. Only two stories have led to defamation cases.

I doubt this is true, or if it is, that it will remain true if grows larger. There’s no way anyone could do rigorous fact-checking on zillions of citizen contributions. That’s an inherent problem of an open-ended system.

So why not use the devices of an open-ended system to help solve it — like a reputation-management system? Instead of having a small, overworked cadre of editors try to fact-check each citizen article — have the readers themselves do it. You open up the system so that people reading a story can input confirmation of it, or denunciation of its facts if the writer was lying.

A reputation-management system at an open-source news organization could work like this: You have three columns on the front page. One is news that is “pretty much rock-solid true”; it’s been either independently verified by a paid editor, or it’s gotten hundreds of independent thumbs-ups. The next column is stuff that is “disputed” — and the third column is stuff that is like “yeah, this stuff is almost certainly false, but what the hell, you can read it for fun.”

Obviously, it’s possible to fake out a reputation-management system — by having people vote down stuff that’s true, or vote up stuff that’s wrong. But with such a large audience — 1.2 million people — would probably find that this would be minimized. Rep-management gaming tends to happen only in systems where a small number of viewers can have a powerful swing effect. If you have thousands of people voting on stories, it’s much harder (though not impossible) for someone to organize a campaign to game the system.

Indeed, wouldn’t it be fun if traditional news media implemented this system? What if, every day, Fox News or the Philadelphia Inquirer let you vote on whether or not a story were true? After all, one of the reasons Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass were able to get away with so much chicanery was that their audiences had no real way to complain. They had no input into the media system. If they had, maybe the writers’ fakery would have been noticed earlier.

Either way, I predict this concept — user-generated news — is going to increase in size and importance, worldwide.

(UPDATE: Jonathan has been writing some interesting thoughts about reputation-management, and argues on his blog that the word “credibility” may be a better term to use. Indeed, “credibility” is precisely the word journalists themselves use.)

(Thanks to Smart Mobs for finding this news item!)

We stand on guard

Apparently, 20,000 people on the last Canadian census declared their religion to be “Jedi.” According to the Vancouver Sun:

It’s also a “religion” that’s growing around the world. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are more Jedis than Jews: 400,000 Jedis compared to 260,000 Jews. In a 2002 Australian census, more than 70,000 people named Jedi as their faith.

Dion can understand why. “[Jedi knights] have qualities people aspire to,” he said in an interview from his office Tuesday. He wasn’t wearing robes at the time, merely a golf shirt and black trousers.

“They do the right thing generally. And of course myself and a lot of people I know have the same kind of aspirations. We try to do the right thing all the time. And we follow Star Wars.”

By the way, of those 20,000 Canadian Jedi, over half live in British Columbia — Canada’s acknowledged drug capital and the source of “B.C. bud,” a marijuana strain so intense that the U.S.’s drug czar calls it the “crack” of marijuana.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

Monkey Shakespeare

This one’s been blogged all over the place, but what the heck — I’ll post it here, too. Apparently, a gang of artists decided to test the old infinite-monkeys idea. So they put six monkeys in a room with a word processor for a month to see if they’d write King Lear. Thirty days later, they had not managed to write a single word — and in fact mostly just pushed the letter “s”. As Wired News reports:

At first, said Phillips, “the lead male got a stone and started bashing the hell out of it.

“Another thing they were interested in was in defecating and urinating all over the keyboard,” added Phillips, who runs the university’s Institute of Digital Arts and Technologies.

Eventually, monkeys Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan produced five pages of text, composed primarily of the letter S. Later, the letters A, J, L and M crept in.

On their web site, they note that this was more of an art project than hard science — and that they wanted to explore the question of creativity:

The joke (if indeed there is one) must not be seen to be at the expense of the monkeys but on the popular interest in the idea - especially those in the computer science and mathematics community (interested in chance, randomness, autonomous systems and artificial life). The fact that the work of Shakespeare is probably the work of a group of writers working under a pseudonym adds further irony to the work. Clearly, Shakespeare did not produce his works by some chance operation but it is also entirely disputable that he existed at all or certainly that he was one person in fact, one commonly held view is that he was an illiterate actor and a consortium of writers used his name as an ironic joke. The creative thinking subject as the site of consciousness, and the subject as a crucial part of a sentence and text - that which the action is determined by - remains a contested and contradictory set of ideas. Creativity is neither random nor entirely predetermined, in other words.

How filesharing could save music, pt. 68

Yet more indications that file-sharing is more likely to save music than usher in its demise. A radio station in San Francisco has begun using peer-to-peer music-swapping networks as a way to figure out what’s hot amongst listeners. According to ABC:

It’s the job of program director Sean Demery to figure out what people want to hear. One new way is by monitoring what file swappers are searching for and sharing most. And he does it with the help of a market-data software company called Big Champagne.

“It basically gives me pretty much what’s happening in the mass culture,” Demery said. “It tells me what’s popular.”

Eric Garland, CEO of Big Champagne, compares what his company does online to what the Nielsen rating system does for television.

Actually, peer-to-peer sharing is infinitely better than what Nielsen does. Nielsen’s ratings are a mere sampling of a tiny, tiny fraction of the TV-watching audience; networks like Kazaa or Morpheus are filled with millions of millions of folks. (Though they may be biased towards a particular type of music, since file-sharers tend to be younger, I’d bet.) But the point remains: This is an example of people using tech to tap into the unruly spirit of the masses, something that — for all its vaunted attempts to please its audiences — the entertainment industry doesn’t always do very well.

More importantly, it’s an example of how artificial-intelligence techniques are going to become more and more useful. Up until now, they’ve been interesting curiousities — but mostly useful to people like bankers, who have oceans of data they need to sift to find patterns. With peer-to-peer networks, everyday people are now generating oceans of data that we ourselves might want to sift.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this!)

Scrabble and love

The guy who directed the teenspoitation flick 40 Days and 40 Nights is apparently in negotiations to direct a movie called Your Word Against Mine — a romantic comedy set in the world of Scrabble championships.

“Word” follows a young man trying to become national Scrabble champion. But his plans are put in jeopardy when he meets an equally competitive female player.

I am weirdly looking forward to this.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

Apollo spacecraft to come back?

A couple of days ago, you may have read my post about my visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center — where I marvelled at the old, 1960s-class spacecraft like the Gemini and Apollo modules. As a spaceflight fan, I was enormously impressed by the ingenuity of the craft, but was stunned by how incredibly low-tech it was. “We think of NASA as being all computerized and automated, but lemme tell you, peek inside a Gemini capsule, and it’s literally nothing but manual controls, about 800 tiny manual toggle switches, and slider switches and rotary dials that look as if they’d been plucked of the front of a vintage Fender amplifier,” I wrote.

Well, according to the U.K. Guardian, NASA is considering using Apollo-style craft once again — as a replacement for the grounded Shuttles:

The American space agency Nasa is thinking of resurrecting its Apollo spacecraft, which took men to the moon in 1969.

Nasa needs to get astronauts off the International Space Station in a hurry in an emergency. Its most high-profile plan is for an orbital space plane, which looks like a stubby version of the space shuttle. But with funds tight, the agency is considering other options. Nasa documents leaked to a space website reveal that these include docking an Apollo-style command module on to the station as a lifeboat. Nasa has even considered refurbishing modules built in the 1960s, and currently in storage or museums. The command module from the Apollo 10 mission is at the Science Museum in London.

“We are considering a number of options along these lines,” Nasa confirmed at its Johnson space centre in Houston.

This isn’t a joke or a prank — the report, which came out of a late-March 2003 meeting by spaceflight veterans, is online here! Most interestingly, it points out that the Apollo craft had one major advantage over the Shuttles: Escape hatches. Should something have gone wrong, it was possible for the crew to eject while still in Earth’s atmosphere:

The virtually full-envelope abort and recovery system provided a very high level of safety for the crew. The Launch Escape System LES) itself was a very simple but robust system to provide for crew escape starting from the pad through the most critical ascent phase.

By the way, here’s another funny low-tech coda. According to a story in MSNBC, Soyuz capsule re-entries so frequently overshot their landing points that one once touched down in a remote forest populated by hungry wolves. That’s when Russian space officials “decided to pack a sawed-off shotgun aboard every spacecraft.” I love it.

Self promo: “Future of kitchen” gadgets in New York Times Magazine

I almost forgot to post this — on Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature package on “The Future of Food,” to which I contributed a pictorial spread on way-new kitchen gadgets. Essentially, I hunted down a half-dozen prototype designs for really futuristic — and weird-looking — kitchen toys that don’t exist yet, but should. The piece is online here, though unfortunately the pictures, which are the main attraction, get shrunk down considerably in the online version.

Automatic poetry pt. 2

In the wake of my recent posting about Rob Malda’s automatic poetry generator, Alfred Cloutier sent in some interesting comments about other auto-poetry engines online. It reminded me of a funny story from one of my previous jobs.

Back in the early 90s, I worked for the League of Canadian Poets — the country’s national poetry association. One of my jobs was to sift through the applications for membership. To apply, you had to send in a bunch of poems, a literary history, and the membership fee, which ran from around $50 to $180 annually. Possibly because we had a very tight budget and those fees were pretty important, we accepted virtually anyone for membership, no matter how horrid their poetry was. And believe me, some of that poetry stank with virulent, pestilent force. So I’d sit there, grimly reading this godawful verse from prospective poets, then photocopying it to send off to our membership committee, where it would invariably be rubber-stamped.

One day while taking a break at lunch, I wandered by a local computer store and found a bin of shareware on floppy disks. (This was 1992, when floppy-disk shareware was pretty l33t.) There was one called “Automatic Poetry Generator”. It was about $5, so I bought a copy, installed it on my machine at the League, and fired it up. It would produce stuff like this:

you know they’ve got you now

stop dreaming about
the choir members
with plans for you
they are constantly plotting
and you remember
no matter what you do
broken cherry blossom lie beneath the trees

Not bad, eh? The poems were fairly rote — it seemed to have a pretty limited vocabulary of a few thousand words and phrases, so the more poems you generated, the more you’d see the same stuff repeated. But in way, that almost made it seem human; real poets frequently have images and words they return to, too (though not usually with such robotic regularity). Anyway, I was pretty impressed. Jesus, I thought, this program’s better than half the sludge we’re approving for membership.

At which point I began to wonder: Hey, could I actually enroll this piece of shareware as a poet in the organization? If I generated a dozen poems, printed them up, gave the “poet” a name and wrote a fake letter of introduction, I figured it would breeze through the application procedure. So I printed the poems, and even went so far as writing the letter of introduction. I think I claimed I was a suburban Toronto poet in his mid-40s or something. But I chickened out, and never sent it in.

By the way, that poem above? I don’t actually have that piece of 1992 shareware any more, but I downloaded a similarly simple generator here — from R.K. West’s site. I found it using a Google search for the string “automatic poetry generator”, which produced 5,610 hits on Google. There’s quite a boom, it seems, in generating poetry via Pentium chips — heck, everyone’s getting into it!

All of which makes for a lovely irony: While geeks have become increasingly interested in automatic poetry generation, the audience for the stuff written by actual humans has massively declined. I’d hazard a guess that there may now be more people reading verse authored by computers than by flesh-and-blood bards.

Maybe we need a technical fix for the readership problem, too! Instead of creating programs that generate poetry — maybe we should develop some that read it.

UPDATE: I emailed Rosemary West, who created the poetry program that I used above. She wrote back to tell me she suspects the application I used back in 1992 was hers also! That makes sense, because if you look at all the stuff on her site, it’s clear she’s a veteran of shareware.

Urine interface update

I can’t believe I just typed that headline. But actually, I do have an update to that item I posted a few days ago — about the MIT urinal that allows you to use your flow of urine as a track-pad-like computer controller.

Today, some sources inside the Media Lab told me an amusing story about that project. See the photos on the project site — one of which I reprinted below, in my original posting? Well, the students took those pictures early one recent morning. They hooked up their female friend with a prosthetic penis, loaded it with water, and wheeled their urinal contraption into an empty classroom. They figured it was so early in the morning that no one would disturb them.

So they’re happily running their demo, and taking video stills and pictures of their friend peeing in the urinal, when in walks none other than Marvin Minsky — artificial-intelligence pioneer and co-founder of the Media Lab. Even better, he’s got an entire classful of students with him.

“Precisely what the hell are you doing?” Minsky asks, as he takes in the spectacle of a young blonde woman controlling a squealing-hamster video-game via a fake penis.

You really have to feel a bit sorry for him. The Media Lab does a lot of phenomenally interesting research, but recently, some funders have been wondering precisely why they’re paying money to potentially kooky projects (like, say, a “self aware kitchen” — which includes research into smell-o-vision.) With the tech meltdown, the Media Lab has felt the financial pinch, and has had to postpone the construction of its new building. Running into grad students with strap-ons is probably the last thing Minsky needs for his blood pressure.

Worms in space

Whoa. Apparently a bunch of “pinhead-size” nematode worms were on board the ill-fated Columbia mission, for experimental purposes — and they actually survived the crash. NASA scientists recovered the seared, melted petri dishes containing the worms, put them under the microscope, and found a bunch of ‘em wriggling around.

Outside of being just cosmically ironic, this does have larger scientific implications. As one scientist told the Washington Post:

“This is of major importance in astrobiology, because it shows that small multicelled animals can travel from outside the atmosphere to the ground in relatively unprotected containers and survive,” said Catharine Conley, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, the project’s chief scientist. “This lends weight to the hypothesis … that species from one planet can be transferred to another.”

(Thanks to Charles Adler for pointing this one out!)

Can’t stop the music

Apparently, some London DJs are using snippets of the Iraqi Information Minister’s statements in upcoming club tracks. According to Reuters:

“It is set to be massive,” one of the track’s backers Les Molloy told The Sun newspaper on Friday. “There has already been a lot of interest from record stations and club DJs.”

(Thanks to Boing Boing again for this one!)

Sing, bard!

This is cool. Rob Malda, the founder of, got bored and created an automatic poetry generator. Go to his engine here, type in an URL, and it’ll scrape bits of text from the page and use it to generate a little poem. I shoved Collision Detection into it and got the following opus:

collision Detection. Nor do I was a local paper, looking
a Japanese camp in
stalls. urination
has an audience that not all
Haidas. how
we expect
them to hear
your stream of their movies would automatically
add and
imprisoned for the
wits at Google News, is precisely
the female, American
prisoner of bonkers crap about
spam to
do the best by the
Gemini look dashing
and the
result? Active
accounts ones his wife, almost thinking about 20
per second.
The fish to
tell you,
go Go! in the road and
not 3D environments per second.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for finding this one!)

The real “Saving Private Lynch”

Continuing in my using-Canadian-media-to-poke-holes-in-U.S.-politics, I draw your attention to an intriguing story in the Toronto Star. Remember Private Lynch — the female, American prisoner of war in Iraq who was saved by a daring raid? And who’d lain, battle-wounded — presumably by gunfire — in what was, we were told, a pretty barbaric hospital?

Well, Mitch Potter — the Star’s Middle East bureau — interviewed all the Iraqi doctors who treated Lynch. The upshot is, they seem like rather nice guys. A few days before the raid, they’d actually tried to personally return Lynch to U.S. custody — but been rebuffed by the U.S. army.

“A few of the senior medical staff tried to give Jessica back,” [Houssona said.] “We carefully moved her out of intensive care and into an ambulance and began to drive to the Americans, who were just one kilometre away. But when the ambulance got within 300 metres, they began to shoot. There wasn’t even a chance to tell them `We have Jessica. Take her.’”

So, while treating Lynch — offering her multiple surgeries so excellent that a U.S. army doctor later came back to personally thank them — the Iraqi doctors befriended her. Then came the raid:

At midnight, the sound of helicopters circling the hospital’s upper floors sent staff scurrying for the x-ray department — the only part of the hospital with no outside windows. The power was cut, followed by small explosions as the raiding teams blasted through locked doors.

A few minutes later, they heard a man’s voice shout, “Go! Go! Go!” in English. Seconds later, the door burst open and a red laser light cut through the darkness, trained on the forehead of the chief resident.

“We were pretty frightened. There were about 40 medical staff together in the x-ray department,” said Dr. Anmar Uday, 24. “Everyone expected the Americans to come that day because the city had fallen. But we didn’t expect them to blast through the doors like a Hollywood movie.”

Dr. Mudhafer Raazk, 27, observed dryly that two cameramen and a still photographer, also in uniform, accompanied the U.S. teams into the hospital. Maybe this was a movie after all.

Apparently, Lynch’s wounds were derived not from gunfire — as media and the military intimated at the time — but from having fallen off a vehicle. Once the soldiers who raided the hospital realized that there weren’t any Iraqi militia at the hospital, they quietened down, and left four hours later with Lynch, saying “thank you” to the Iraqi doctors.

Now, a cynic might conclude that the U.S. military staged the raid so that they could look dashing and heroic — and be “touted by military historians as the first successful planned raid to free an American prisoner of war since Army Rangers freed more than 500 POWs from a Japanese camp in the Philippines in 1945,” as reporters have gushed. But interestingly, the Iraqi doctors themselves don’t believe this; they figure the U.S.’s refusal to let them return Lynch was just a typical mixup in the fog of war.

Canada: More free than the U.S.?

The U.S. just released this year’s State Department report on global terrorism. Interestingly, Canada has become a problem spot — because “it doesn’t spend enough on policing and places too much emphasis on civil liberties”, according to an Ottawa Citizen writer who’s seen the report.

The report says: “Canadian laws and regulations intended to protect Canadian citizens and landed immigrants from government intrusion sometimes limit the depth of investigations.”

“Sometimes limit the depth of investigations”? Well, yeah — that’s what civil rights are for, for god’s sake: To prevent the abuse of government power.

Consider how ironic this is, with respect to American-Canadian relations. On paper, Canada’s civil rights look much more weak than those in the U.S. Sure, Canada has a “Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” guaranteeing civil rights to Canadians. But their Charter has an infamous “notwithstanding” clause — which says that civil rights are only guaranteed “notwithstanding” the government’s overarching desire to maintain “peace, order, and good government.” What does that mean? That means if any pesky civil rights get in the way of “peace, order, and good government” (words that Mussolini might have used, quite frankly), the government can bust heads and revoke those rights. Scary, eh?

Except not really. On paper, Canada may look like it has shakier civil rights than the U.S.; but in practice, the government does far less snooping on and jailing of its citizens, as the U.S is discovering. And more importantly, the Canadian government has infinitely better laws protecting Canadians’ privacy against prying corporations — as the State Department report notes with annoyance.

The U.S. is precisely the opposite. On paper, things look great — the U.S. has a terrific Bill of Rights. But it’s also got the insanely creepy US PATRIOT Act, the Total Information Awareness Office, and several hundred prisoners of war being kept in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, to make sure they have no civil or international rights anywhere.

Civil rights aren’t merely about what’s on paper. It’s about what a society is prepared to tolerate.

(Thanks to Gayle for this one!)

Me, blathering on about spam

I got a call from the folks at the Discovery Channel up in Toronto yesterday, looking to do an interview with me about the new anti-spam law passed in Virginia this week. The video of the interview is now online, so you can watch it if you want. I do TV and radio commentary usually every month somewhere — NPR, CNN, the CBC, whatever — but a surprising amount of the stuff never gets posted online anywhere.

Mind you, I look so unusually stiff and robotic in this clip, maybe it’s not such a great thing it is online. Ah well.

By the way, to do the taping I went into the Fox News station here in Boston, which Discovery uses for Boston-located interviews. While I was there, Fox News was playing in the corner, and every four minutes it would run a teaser for that night’s big piece of investigative journalism:

“Tonight — how corporations are being FORCED by LAW to hire TRANSSEXUALS!”


Origins of “pr0n”

I was IMing with a friend the other day and we were wondering about the origins of the term “pr0n” — script-kiddie term for pornography. So I did a search on the USENET newsgroup archive at Google News, and found that the earliest use of “pr0n” dates to June 14, 1994:

From: Sam Brown (
Subject: digital fantasies soft porm cd
Date: 1994-06-14 17:33:49 PST

pr0n i meant!

$15 deliever 2nd day.


I had originally theorized that “pr0n” existed as a way to use the world “porn” without setting off the PG-rated ‘bots that America Online and Prodigy — two of the biggest online services, back in 1994 — used to use to automatically hunt-and-delete discussion postings with R-rated content. But the Hacker Dictionary/Jargon File, however, claims that “pr0n” isn’t a tactical spelling, but just another typical bit of l33t-spe@k:

“pr0n” // [Usenet, IRC] Pornography. Originally this referred only to Internet porn but since then it has expanded to refer to just about anything. The term comes from the warez kiddies tendency to replace letters with numbers. At some point on IRC someone mistyped, swapped the middle two letters, and the name stuck, then propagated over into mainstream hacker usage.

Hmmm. I’m wondering: Does anyone out there know of an earlier use of “pr0n” than the one I uncovered? I’m almost thinking of emailing that guy in the USENET posting to find out how he first heard of the term.

Fish fear

Do fish feel pain? Believe it or not, there’s a raging scientific debate about this — sparked by some recent new data. Apparently, Scottish scientists conducted some experiments and claimed first-ever proof that fish are conscious of pain. From CNN:

The Royal Society published on Wednesday the latest findings of experiments on bees stinging trout lips, which caused some of the fish to display a “rocking” motion, according to the Press Association.

The study at Edinburgh University and the Roslin Institute in the Scottish capital concludes that fish have nervous system receptors, or “polymodal nociceptors,” in their heads that respond to damaging stimuli.

The National Angling Alliance called the results “surprising”:

A spokesman said: “These findings are in direct contrast to the recent work of Professor James D. Rose of the University of Wyoming, who stated in the Reviews of Fisheries Science that fish do not possess the necessary and specific regions of the brain — the neocortex — to enable them to feel pain or, indeed, fear.”

I’m speechless

A few students at MIT have assembled what is likely a world’s first: A urinal equipped with piezoelectric sensors. It turns the urinal into a type of computer track-pad, allowing you to use your stream of urine to control the mouse on the screen — and play a video game with it.

As I am so often forced to remind readers, I’m not making this stuff up — and I can prove it, by pointing you to a rather mind-blowing video demonstrating this thing in action. The research effort is called, by the way, “The You’re In Control” Project. For more fun, check out the PDF of the paper written about this, from which I quote:

While urination fulfills a basic bodily function, it is also an activity rich with social significance. Along with the refreshing release it provides, the act of micturition satisfies a primal urge to mark our territory. For women who visit the bathroom in groups and chat in neighboring stalls, urination can be a bonding ritual. For men who write their names in the snow, extinguish cigarettes, or congregate around lampposts to urinate, urination can be a test of skill and a way of asserting masculinity.

The You’re in Control project is an effort to enchance the act of urination using computational technology. We believe that adding interactivity to urination has valuable applications to recreation, sanitation, and education …

We programmed a custom interactive game in C++ on the Windows 2000 operating system. Our software reads the state of the sensor array from the microcontroller over a serial data link at a rate of 100 samples per second. The game we chose was a variant of Whack-A-Mole, a classic carnival game. Users aim at a series of jumping hamsters, with input position on the urinal corresponding to target position on the screen above. A successful hit turns a hamster yellow, makes it scream and spin out of control, and rewards the player with ten points. The parabolic trajectories of the hamsters conceal the grid-like arrangement of sensors, resulting in a fluid transition between input and output.

By the way, in that image above, your eyes are not fooling you: That’s a woman playing the game. To make this thing egalitarian, the students created a fake penis attached to two water bottles that you stuff down your pants, to let you play the game with anatomical verisimilitude.

Man, the brain I had before I watched that video? I’m never gonna get that brain back.

Given the total deadpan tone in this academic paper, it is possible that this is another of MIT’s famous student hacks and pranks, and not an actual academic project. But then again, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

(Thanks to El Rey for pointing me to this one!)

A.I. service-bot wackiness, pt. 14

Ask Jeeves is a singularly useless search engine, in my experience. I realize this is partly because Ask Jeeves wasn’t really created for people like me. I’m comfortable writing Boolean queries and crafting stupidly precise search strategies; Ask Jeeves, however, was created for newbies who their computer to talk like a human.

An incredibly weird human, mind you. Natural-language-parsing being what it is, Ask Jeeves functions less like an intelligent, nuanced human and more like a computer programmed by Jacques Derrida. The replies can be so strange that the wits at SatireWire recently decided to conduct an “interview” with Jeeves; the screenshots are here, and this is a sample:

Thanks for being with us today, Jeeves. How are you?

What day is it?

It’s Monday.

Monday again?

Yes, they do tend to recur. As often as once a week. What’s wrong with Mondays?

What’s Wrong with Garbage Disposals?

I don’t know. They grind things …

Back to … The Grind.

A joke. Go it. How … human.

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson