The Horned Man

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.  I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.  With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.  Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. 

— Jack Kerouac, On The Road


The opposite of the dream we savor but never fulfill, a frailty of both the great and the small (how long did Richard Feynman plan his trip to Tuva?), is the fate we dread but never find the courage to face.  Instead we tell ourselves that it is not really so bad.  We curse our own weakness and blame ourselves for not taking it better.  We try to find the bright side, and in the end justify our circumstances in terms of what we gain through our sacrifice.

This is how I think of my daily commute, about which the current New Yorker has an article.  Normally I read The New Yorker when I arrive home from work.  It is my quiet time, during which I shrug off the cares of the day, and escape into a fantasy world of cosmopolitan effetism and intellectual escapism — John Colapinto’s article The Interpreter, also in this issue, about a tribe in the Amazon and how their idiosyncratic language, which lacks a feature of most tongues known as recursion, has turned the world of linguistics upside-down and pitted neo-Whorfians against Chomskyites, is a case in point.

When I got home today and openned up my newly arrived magazine, however, I found an article about my own life.

Atlanta is perhaps the purest specimen of a vexed commuter town, a big-fridge paradise.  Los Angeles, the country’s most sprawling megalopolis, may boast a more dizzying array of horrible commutes, but many of them are the result of a difficult landscape — ocean restricting growth on one side, mountains on another.  Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area are worthy candidates, but they, too, owe a degree of complication to bodies of water.  But Atlanta, like Houston, sprawls without impediment in all directions, and an inordinate number of the commutes range from one edge of the sprawl to the opposite side.  People live and work on the outskirts.  For them, the city itself is little more than an obstacle and an idea.

Atlanta is a beltway town — it is defined by the interstate, known as the Perimeter, that encircles it.  It has a notoriously paltry system of public transportation.

Road-building doesn’t much help.  Atlanta is a showcase for a phenomenon called “induced traffic”: the more highway lanes you build, the more traffic you get.  People find it agreeable to move further away, and, as others join them, they find it less agreeable (or affordable), and so they move farther still.  The lanes fill up.

— Nick Paumgarten, There and Back Again: The Soul of the Commuter

The lure of Atlanta is the plenitude of jobs and cheap housing.  Our house, as my West Coast relatives frequently remind me, would cost a million dollars in the Los Angeles suburbs.  I paid a fraction of that for our four bedroom house on an acre and a half lot, sheltered from our neighbors by a thick copse of pine trees.  What they never tell you is that the jobs and the houses are frequent but far between.  The good areas are quickly overdeveloped and become congested.  To get away from them, you have to move further out.  To afford them, you have to get a higher paying job which more often than not is further away.   I drive from the east side of town to the west side of town, while others drive from the west to the east.  Why this should be I do not know, but it is a central feature of living in Atlanta.  Still others drive from the north to the south, or from south to north.  Atlanta is a city shaped like a doughnut, and driving from one edge to another is still better than driving from the edge to the center.  Very few people live near where they work.

The article makes more frightening observations about the phenomenon of commuting.  For instance, Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, points out that “[e]very ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections.  Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”  According to economists Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey at the University of Zurich, “if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as satisfied with life as a noncommuter is.”  They call this The Commuting Paradox.

“People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economic concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation.  Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living.  It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring.  They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute — money, house, prestige — and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.

To this list of things given up should be added simpler things such as spending time with one’s children, time with one’s spouse, time in church and other communal activities.  The average American male is overweight, has few to no close friends, and leans right-wing.  Sociologists and pundits often attempt to tie these features to such things as the American gun-culture, video games, a laxity in contemporary cultural values, an increased commoditization and objectification of sex — but couldn’t these be merely the superstructure imposed by the infrastructure of the daily commute?  Take for instance the rise of Conservatism in America.  Nominally it was inspired by Reaganism, but isn’t Reaganism just the ideology fomented in the frustration of the Carter era, dominated by and remembered for cars lined up waiting for gas? 

The gas line has grown into the commuter jam.  As we sit in our cars, we listen to shock jocks on the car radio who reflect back to us the frustration and resentment we feel as we make our way through unpredictable and ultimately irrational choices on the road — Don Imus in D.C. (until recently), Neal Boortz in Atlanta, and Howard Stern just about anywhere since he is on satellite radio.  The lonely driver feels a false sense of control and liberty as only being locked in a small space can inspire.  The lone commuter hates his fellow man and is determined to cut him off before he can be cut off.  Who needs a political franchise when he has a horn, strategically positioned before him like a lab rat’s food bar, with which he can instantly articulate his feelings about the state of the nation?  Has a study ever been done correlating a person’s daily commute with his political leanings? 

Yet this isn’t exactly my life, since my life isn’t nearly so bad as all this.  About six months ago, I switched from a job for which I drove an hour, each way, to the job I currently have for which I drive only about 40 minutes each way.  My company also has a progressive policy about occassionally working from home, which is nothing less than a reprieve and release from the obligation of meeting my fellow man on the road.  An extra 40 minutes each day probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is enough time for me to get home after work and open my New Yorker and read for a while.  It is enough so that, after reading, I am relaxed and can play with my children rather than turn on the news.  I can put my children to bed and talk with my wife rather than watch Grey’s Anatomy plus whatever comes after that until I fall asleep.  I am no longer the sort of man who beats his horn in anger against the world, and perhaps even my politics have mellowed a bit.

Of course were I still at my old job, my commute would be longer and I would not have had time to read this article, and would never have had the leisure to reflect on homo comutus.  A different sort of commuting paradox.

Concerning Civility

There are currently two conversations going on over the Internet and in other media about civility. The Don Imus discussion tends to be interesting (for instance here and here), but has hardly reached the heart of the matter and seems to be skimming the surface of many issues. Another, concerning anonymous attacks on Kathy Sierra and what to do about it, tends to be unsophisticated and rather silly (try this out Yet both touch on the same matter: what is civility and how do we get some?

I like civility, in the right measure. I especially like it between friends. It also seems like a useful thing in public discourse, because better conversations occur when people restrain themselves a bit and don’t go off on the first thing they disagree with. But most of all, I like civility because it makes transgression possible. When everyone curses all the time, it dilutes the whole endeavor. But when people generally restrain themselves, then the properly timed mal mot can be a wonderful and liberating thing.

In all of these discussions, the notion of a “line being crossed” keeps surfacing, with no real investigation of what that line is.
Instead, the discussion about civility tends to break down in terms of are you with us or not, cause I know it when I smell it, and if you can’t smell it, then you’re not with us. And of course I can smell it, and I am always with us, so where I stand should be clear.

But as at a dinner party when someone lets off a fart, I find that, despite myself, after a first whiff I always end up taking a follow-up whiff — to see if it is gone? to test whether it was merely imagined? to try to identify the culprit? or perhaps simply out of a perverse habit of the connoisseur attempting to pick out the colors that make up the current pallet.

What are these lines of civility that we must not cross? And why does the mere existence of the line make me not only want to cross it, but also to vandalize it a bit?

The Open Internet and Its Enemies

Crazyfinger makes an interesting comment on Jeff Jarvis’s blog.

Deadwood. The blogosphere of today feels like that town, with its own version of Swearengens, E. B. Farnums…

There is a lot of background to this, worth unpacking; it can all be distilled, however, to the observation that people are sometimes mean on the internet.

The long version goes something like this.  Kathy Sierra, who is an admired web design guru, Web 2.0 advocate, and co-author of the immensely popular Head First series of technical books, has a blog.  And recently people started making obnoxious comments on her blog, obnoxious comments on other blogs about her, works of Photoshop clipping involving her, and finally death threats.  She is now considering getting out of the blogosphere altogether, a dramatic instance of Gresham’s law at work.  In the meantime, however, it turns out she has some notable friends who are now trying to use their influence to do something about the netnasties.  Tim O’Reilly, who runs a successful technical press and also helped coin the term Web 2.0, proposes a blogger code of conduct to which bloggers can sign on as a mark of their bona fides.

In other milieus, this mild suggestion of self-regulation would seem perfectly reasonable, but the internet is not just any milieu.  It has mythic origins as an unregulated medium for the transmission of ideas and great hopes — democratic ideals, anarchic utopias, freedom of speech, freedom of expression — are tied to it.  The wildness of the internet contributes to its appeal.  Like the American frontier, it is a terrain where anyone can re-create themselves, and build a new culture in which they can happily dwell.

This conjoining of freedom, the Internet, the blogosphere, Web 2.0, and the Open Source movement was at one time promoted by the same people who are finding problems with it now.  In a 2006 commencement speech at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Tim O’Reilly said:

The internet has enormous power to increase our freedom. It also has enormous power to limit our freedom, to track our every move and monitor our every conversation. We must make sure that we don’t trade off freedom for convenience or security.

In his own explication of what his neologism Web 2.0 meant, O’Reilly wrote:

If an essential part of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence, turning the web into a kind of global brain, the blogosphere is the equivalent of constant mental chatter in the forebrain, the voice we hear in all of our heads. It may not reflect the deep structure of the brain, which is often unconscious, but is instead the equivalent of conscious thought. And as a reflection of conscious thought and attention, the blogosphere has begun to have a powerful effect.

Kathy Sierra has been more consistent in her view of the openness of the Internet.  In 2005 she discussed the enforcement of “be-nice” rules on a forum she started.

Enforcing a “be nice” rule is a big commitment and a risk. People complain about the policy all the time, tossing out “censorship” and “no free speech” for starters. We see this as a metaphor mismatch. We view javaranch as a great big dinner party at the ranch, where everyone there is a guest. The ones who complain about censorship believe it is a public space, and that all opinions should be allowed. In fact, nearly all opinions are allowed on javaranch. It’s usually not about what you say there, it’s how you say it.

And this isn’t about being politically correct, either. It’s a judgement call by the moderators, of course. It’s fuzzy trying to decide exactly what constitutes “not nice”, and it’s determined subjectively by the culture of the ranch.

At the same time, it was also she who pointed out, quite accurately, this principle of the Internet:

If we want our users (members, guests, students, potential customers, kids, co-workers, etc.) to pay attention, we have to be provocative. We can moan all we want about how the responsible person should pay attention to what’s important rather than what’s compelling. But it’s not about responsibility or maturity. It’s not even about interest.

Provocation is in the eye of the provoked, obviously, so there’s no clear formula. But there’s plenty we can try, depending on the circumstances….

These notions of the Internet age as herald to a new form of social interaction even permeates seemingly unrelated movements like the  Agile Methodology for software development, which promotes:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

Even the Open Source movement, which promotes a particular way of distributing software, includes these interesting stipulations in the license they promulgate:

5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups

The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.

6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor

The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.

By open, they truly mean open.  Given this emphasis on ideals of individuality, freedom, and equality in Internet culture, it can be seen why any suggestion that it might be in everyone’s interest to curtail any of these is seen as anathema.  It also explains the strange bind those working on O’Reilly’s proposed blogger’s code of conduct find themselves in.  Once it was agreed upon that some sort of action should be taken to deal with the netnasties, it was discovered that nothing could really be done without enforcement, and no one wants enforcement since it is a form of coercion.  Consequently, the code of conduct has turned out to be a document that offends half of the Internet by suggesting mild coercion in the first place, and then draws the dirision of the other half by having no teeth.  The draft code of conduct is currently in a state of flux, and may change radically over the next several weeks.  At one point, however, it included an article that stated that bloggers don’t take themselves seriously.  The intent of this was somewhat lost to me, but the irony was not.  Bloggers don’t take themselves seriously, and yet they feel they need a code of conduct to explicate what they believe in, including the tenet that they don’t take themselves seriously.

As it is shaping up, though, the code of conduct ressembles to a remarkable degree the bylaws of various community forums across the Internet.  What separates forums from blogs is, primarily, that forums are composed of people who consent to obey the oversight of moderators as a mechanism for regulating discussions.  Blogs, on the other hand, are visible and generally accessible to everyone.  Forums usually have mechanisms in place to eject members who repeatedly behave badly.  The Internet has no such mechanism.  Finally, forums usually only provide one with an audience of a hundred to a thousand people.  Blogs offer a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people.

It is likely for this last reason that many people have turned to blogs, rather than forums, as their main outlet for Internet discourse.  If gold was the main currency of the Old West, attention is the main currency of the new frontier — or, as advertisers like to call it, eyeballs.  The public life of many people on the Internet involves acquiring eyeballs, which can then be converted to real money if one chooses to advertise on one’s site, or else may simply be used as a mode of social promotion.  Returning to moderated forums is akin to returning to the towns back East where laws were more stringent, and safety more assured, but opportunities for advancement and transformation were limited.  The blogosphere holds out the promise that anyone can be famous if they turn the right phrase, capture the right attention, come up with the next big idea.

For these very reasons, however, the rules of a community cannot be enforced where no laws exist.  How then does justice get enforced on the digital frontier?

As Crazyfinger (who has an interesting blog of his own about Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments) suggests, an analogy can be drawn between the TV drama Deadwood and the current state of the Internet.  Had Deadwood survived another season, we might even have received a definitive answer, but as it is, we only have suggestions.

Deadwood, in the show of the same name, is a gold town in South Dakota marching slowly toward incorporation and civilization.  Alma Garret (a proxy for Kathy Sierra) has accidentally struck it rich when her lot is discovered to contain one of the richest gold veins in the region.  As a consequent, she is a victim of unscrupulous persons anxious to take hold of her, ermm, eyeballs.  Having neither reputation to lose nor character to restrain them, they act provacatively in their efforts to raise their own social status.

Throughout the series, three main ways are provided to afford Alma Garret the protection of civilization she requires, in a place without civilization.  The first is Wild Bill Hickock, who through the authority granted him by his reputation, is able to coerce people to behave appropriately.  This is analogous to the the attempt by Kathy Sierra’s friend Tim O’Reilly, as well as others, to use their reputations to shame people into agreeing to some sort of blogging standards.  Sadly, the attempt is also analogous to the letter written by the town fathers in Season Three in the local paper to turn sentiment against George Hearst, who has designs on Alma’s gold.  Wild Bill, of course, is shot at the end of Season One.  Best character on TV ever.  Nuff said.

Alma Garret’s second line of defense is Sheriff Seth Bullock.  Bullock is of heroic proportions.  Through the exercise of precise and barely restrained violence, Bullock is able to herd and intimidate those who would upset the peace of Deadwood.  Bullock is the equivalent of the sort of hero we occassionally encounter in forums and message boards, who through wit, knowledge, and force of character is able both to inspire people to behave better as well as punish with an acid tongue those who do not.  Alas, on the Internet, there are too few of these, and the few there are tend to retreat into their own preoccupations over time.  A case again, perhaps, of Gresham’s Law: bad money drives good money out of circulation.

The last option Alma Garret has at her disposal is to accede to the wishes of the villainous and violent George Hearst on the best terms she is able.  This is what Alma Garret does at the end of Season Three, rather than force a confrontation that would likely see many of the main characters killed off.  This, as far as I can see, is the only way to bring civilization to the blogosphere, and it is an unhappy turn.  Civilization, once we accept that there will always be netnasties, is only possible when we turn a monopoly of coercive power over to a single entity.  If, as O’Reilly, Sierra and others have argued, it is necessary to make the blogosphere and the Internet, by extension, obey the rules of a community forum, then something like this must occur.  The most likely way for this to happen is if one of the main social networking sites joins forces with one of the major blogging hosts, such as Typepad or LiveJournal, and compels everyone who wants to blog to sign on to their service, following the other principle of the Internet that growth engenders growth.  Having acquired a majority share of the blogosphere, such a monopolistic regime can then enforce community rules such as the ones Tim O’Reilly is attempted to formulate.  This entails the victory of Hearst and of civilazation, and the closing of the frontier.

And, I think, it is also the moral of Deadwood, if there is a moral to be found.  The frontier gives us heroes, but it also engenders monsters.  The idealized vision of the frontier must at some point be confronted with the ugliness it foments; a place of greed, corruption, mysogeny, pornography and guys who say “cocksucker”.  If we can’t find it in ourselves to embrace the ugliness along with the heroism of the frontier, then we must make the great compromise and bear the yoke which assures civility, and which, Rousseau promises, is only a light yoke, after all.


The Clementinum Baroque Library, Prague

I have been looking through my library shelves, picking out books I once read for signs of what I once saw in them.  I no longer remember.  All I find are rare page corners delicately turned over.  I have never been able to pick up the habit of actually touching ink to my books, which has always struck me as a sort of desecration of the text.  Nevertheless, I do find chocolate and nicotine stains on the edges, occassionally, and from books I have not openned since college, I am often rewarded with the foul whiff of stale cigarettes smoked long ago, a scent no doubt mirrored internally as a black smear on my lungs.  As I peruse these pages with their foreshortenned corners, a sign from my past self to my future self that here there be something of note, I wonder what I used to know that I no longer know, and what I thought I knew but now I know better.  This is one such passage.


In ancient times the painters were supplied with their themes by the poets, though at liberty to indulge in as much decorative play as was decent within the limits of a given theme; later, the failure of the poets to keep their position at the head of affairs forced painters to paint whatever their patrons commissioned, or whatever came to hand, and finally to experiment in pure decoration; now affectations of madness in poets are condoned by false analogy with pictorial experiments in unrepresentational form and colour.  So Sacheverell Sitwell wrote in Vogue (August, 1945):

Once again we are leading Europe in the Arts …

He lists the fashionable painters and sculptors and adds:

The accompanying works of the poets are not hard to find … Dylan Thomas, whose texture is as abstract as that of any modern painter … There is even no necessity for him to explain his imagery, for it is only intended to be half understood.

It is not as though the so-called surrealists, impressionists, expressionists and neo-romantics were concealing a grand secret by pretended folly, in the style of Gwion; they are concealing their unhappy lack of a secret.

For there are no poetic secrets now, except of course the sort which the common people are debarred by their lack of poetic perception from understanding, and by their anti-poetic education (unless perhaps in wild Wales) from respecting.  Such secrets, even the Work of the Chariot, may be safely revealed in any crowded restaurant or cafe without fear of the avenging lightning-stroke: the noise of the orchestra, the clatter of plates and the buzz of a hundred unrelated conversations will effectively drown the words — and, in any case, nobody will be listening.

— Robert Graves, The White Goddess

Today, the Work of the Chariot has its own flash-enabled web page, as well as a Wikipedia entry.  There was even an X-Files episode in which it served as a narrative device. 

May Bertram

“So that I’m the only person who knows?”

“The only person in the world.”

“Well,” she quickly replied, “I myself have never spoken.  I’ve never, never repeated of you what you told me.”  She looked at him so that he perfectly believed her.  Their eyes met over it in such a way that he was without a doubt.  “And I never will.”

She spoke with an earnestness that, as if almost excessive, put him at ease about her possible derision.  Somehow the whole question was a new luxury to him—that is from the moment she was in possession.  If she didn’t take the sarcastic view she clearly took the sympathetic, and that was what he had had, in all the long time, from no one whomsoever.  What he felt was that he couldn’t at present have begun to tell her, and yet could profit perhaps exquisitely by the accident of having done so of old.  “Please don’t then.  We’re just right as it is.”

“Oh I am,” she laughed, “if you are!”  To which she added: “Then you do still feel in the same way?”

It was impossible he shouldn’t take to himself that she was really interested, though it all kept coming as a perfect surprise.  He had thought of himself so long as abominably alone, and lo he wasn’t alone a bit.  He hadn’t been, it appeared, for an hour—since those moments on the Sorrento boat.  It was she who had been, he seemed to see as he looked at her—she who had been made so by the graceless fact of his lapse of fidelity.  To tell her what he had told her—what had it been but to ask something of her? something that she had given, in her charity, without his having, by a remembrance, by a return of the spirit, failing another encounter, so much as thanked her.  What he had asked of her had been simply at first not to laugh at him.  She had beautifully not done so for ten years, and she was not doing so now.  So he had endless gratitude to make up.  Only for that he must see just how he had figured to her.  “What, exactly, was the account I gave—?”

“Of the way you did feel?  Well, it was very simple.  You said you had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you.”

“Do you call that very simple?” John Marcher asked.

She thought a moment.  “It was perhaps because I seemed, as you spoke, to understand it.”

“You do understand it?” he eagerly asked.

Again she kept her kind eyes on him.  “You still have the belief?”

— Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle

On the Secret of Destiny

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

Someone asked the eminent shaykh Abu ‘Ali b. Sina (may God the Exalted have mercy on him) the meaning of the Sufi saying, He who knows the secret of destiny is an atheist.  In reply he stated that this matter contains the utmost obscurity, and is one of those matters which may be set down only in enigmatic form and taught only in a hidden manner, on account of the corrupting effects its open declaration would have on the general public.  The basic principle concerning it is found in a Tradition of the Prophet (God bless and safeguard him): Destiny is the secret of God; do not declare the secret of God.  In another Tradition, when a man questioned the Prince of the Believers, ‘Ali (may God be pleased with him), he replied, Destiny is a deep sea; do not sail out on it.  Being asked again he replied, It is a stony path; do not walk on it.  Being asked once more he said, It is a hard ascent; do not undertake it.

The shaykh said: Know that the secret of destiny is based upon certain premisses, such as 1) the world order, 2) the report that there is Reward and Punishment, and 3) the affirmation of the resurrection of souls.

— Avicenna, On the Secret of Destiny (tr. George Hourani)



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Following on the tail of the project I have been working on for the past month, a chatterbox (also called a chatbot) with speech recognition and text-to-speech functionality, I came across the following excerpted article in The Economist, available here if you happen to be a subscriber, and here if you are not:


Chatbots have already been used by some companies to provide customer support online via typed conversations. Their understanding of natural language is somewhat limited, but they can answer basic queries. Mr Carpenter wants to combine the flexibility of chatbots with the voice-driven “interactive voice-response” systems used in many call centres to create a chatbot that can hold spoken conversations with callers, at least within a limited field of expertise such as car insurance.

This is an ambitious goal, but Mr Carpenter has the right credentials: he is the winner of the two most recent Loebner prizes, awarded in an annual competition in which human judges try to distinguish between other humans and chatbots in a series of typed conversations. His chatbot, called Jabberwacky, has been trained by analysing over 10m typed conversations held online with visitors to its website (see But for a chatbot to pass itself off as a human agent, more than ten times this number of conversations will be needed, says Mr Carpenter. And where better to get a large volume of conversations to analyse than from a call centre?

Mr Carpenter is now working with a large Japanese call-centre company to develop a chatbot operator. Initially he is using transcripts of conversations to train his software, but once it is able to handle queries reliably, he plans to add speech-recognition and speech-synthesis systems to handle the input and output. Since call-centre conversations tend to be about very specific subjects, this is a far less daunting task than creating a system able to hold arbitrary conversations.


Jabberwacky is a slightly different beast than the AIML infrastructure I used in my project.  Jabberwacky is a heuristics based technology, whereas AIML is a design-based one that requires somebody to actually anticipate user interactions and try to script them.

All the same, it is a pleasant experience to find that one is serendipidously au courant, when one’s intent was to be merely affably retro.

SophiaBot: What I’ve been working on for the past month…

I have been busy in my basement constructing a robot with which I can have conversations and play games.  Except that the robot is more of a program, and I didn’t build the whole thing up from scratch, but instead cobbled together pieces that other people have created.  I took an Eliza-style interpreter written by Nicholas H.Tollervey (this is the conversation part) along with some scripted dialogs by Dr. Richard S. Wallace and threw it together with a Z-machine program written by Jason Follas, which allows my bot to play old Infocom games like Zork and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I then wrapped these up in a simple workflow and added some new Vista\.NET 3.0 speech recognition and speech synthesis code so the robot can understand me.

I wrote an article about it for CodeProject, a very nice resource that allows developers from around the world to share their code and network.  The site requires registration to download code however, so if you want to play with the demo or look at the source code, you can also download them from this site.

Mr. Tollervey has a succint article about the relationship between chatterboxes and John Searle’s Chinese Box problem, which obviates me from responsibility for discussing the same.

Instead, I’ll just add some quick instructions:


The application is made up of a text output screen, a text entry field, and a default enter button. The initial look and feel is that of an IBX XT theme (the first computer I ever played on). This can be changed using voice commands, which I will cover later. There are three menus initially available. The File menu allows the user to save a log of the conversation as a text file. The Select Voice menu allows the user to select from any of the synthetic voices installed on her machine. Vista initially comes with “Anna”. Windows XP comes with “Sam”. Other XP voices are available depending on which versions of Office have been installed over the lifetime of that particular instance of the OS. If the user is running Vista, then the Speech menu will allow him to toggle speech synthesis, dictation, and the context-free grammars. By doing so, the user will have the ability to speak to the application, as well as have the application speak back to him. If the user is running XP, then only speech synthesis is available, since some of the features provided by .NET 3.0 and consumed by this application do not work on XP.

The appearance menu will let you change the look and feel of the text screen.  I’ve also added some pre-made themes at the bottom of the appearnce menu.  If, after chatting with SophiaBot for a while, you want to play a game, just type or say “Play game.”  SophiaBot will present you with a list of the games available (you can add more, actually, simply by dropping additional game files you find on the internet into the Program Files\Imaginative Universal\SophiaBot\Game Data\DATA folder (Jason’s Z-Machine implementation plays games that use version 3 and below of the game engine.  I’m looking (rather lazily) into how to support later versions.  You can go here to download more Zork-type games.  During a game, type or say “Quit” to end your session. “Save” and “Restore” keep track of your current position in the game, so you can come back later and pick up where you left off.

Speech recognition in Vista has two modes: dictation and context-free recognition. Dictation uses context, that is, an analysis of preceding words and words following a given target of speech recognition, in order to determine what word was intended by the speaker. Context-free speech recognition, by way of contrast, uses exact matches and some simple patterns in order to determine if certain words or phrases have been uttered. This makes context-free recognition particularly suited to command and control scenarios, while dictation is particularly suited to situations where we are simply attempting to translate the user’s utterances into text.

You should begin by trying to start up a conversation with Sophia using the textbox, just to see how it works, as well as her limitations as a conversationalist. Sophia uses certain tricks to appear more lifelike. She throws out random typos, for one thing. She also is a bit slower than a computer should really be. This is because one of the things that distinguish computers from people is the way they process information — computers do it quickly, and people do it at a more leisurely pace. By typing slowly, Sophia helps the user maintain his suspension of disbelief. Finally, if a text-to-speech engine is installed on your computer, Sophia reads along as she types out her responses. I’m not certain why this is effective, but it is how computer terminals are shown to communicate in the movies, and it seems to work well here, also. I will go over how this illusion is created below.

In Command\AIML\Game Lexicon mode, the application generates several grammar rules that help direct speech recognition toward certain expected results. Be forewarned: initially loading the AIML grammars takes about two minutes, and occurs in the background. You can continue to touch type conversations with Sophia until the speech recognition engine has finished loading the grammars and speech recognition is available. Using the command grammar, the user can make the computer do the following things: LIST COLORS, LIST GAMES, LIST FONTS, CHANGE FONT TO…, CHANGE FONT COLOR TO…, CHANGE BACKGROUND COLOR TO…. Besides the IBM XT color scheme, a black papyrus font on a linen background also looks very nice. To see a complete list of keywords used by the text-adventure game you have chosen, say “LIST GAME KEYWORDS.” When the game is initially selected, a new set of rules is created based on different two word combinations of the keywords recognized by the game, in order to help speech recognition by narrowing down the total number of phrases it must look for.

In dictation mode, the underlying speech engine simply converts your speech into words and has the core SophiaBot code process it in the same manner that it processes text that is typed in. Dictation mode is sometimes better than context-free mode for non-game speech recognition, depending on how well the speech recognition engine installed on your OS has been trained to understand your speech patterns. Context-free mode is typically better for game mode. Command and control only works in context-free mode.

48% of Americans Reject Darwinian Evolution


A new Newsweek poll reveals frightening data about the curious disjunct between faith and science among Americans.  Pundits have attributed these results to anything from poor science education in pre-K programs to global warming.  According to the poll, while 51% percent of Americans still ascribe to Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution through adaptation, an amazing 42% continue to cleave to Lamarkianism, while only 6% believe in Punctuated Equilibrium. 1% remain uncommitted and are waiting to hear more before they come to a final decision.

This has led me to wonder what else Americans believe:

The 2002 Roper Poll found that 48% of americans believe in UFO’s, while 37% believe that there has been first hand contact between aliens and humans.  25% of Americans believe in alien abductions, while approximately 33% believe that humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, and that all the UFO stuff is bunk.

The 33% of people who ascribe to the anthropocentric view of the universe corresponds numerically with the 33% of Americans who opposed the recent deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq (PEW Research center poll).   According to the Gallup poll, in 1996 33% of Americans thought they would become rich someday.  By 2003, this number had dropped to 31%.  According to a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, 33% of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.  A Harris poll discovered that in 2004, 33% of adult Americans considered themselves Democrats.

PEW says that as of 2004, 33 million American internet users had reviewed or rated something as part of an online rating system.  33 million Americans were living in povery in 2001, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  According to PEW, in 2006 33 million Americans had heard of VOIP.  Each year, 33 million Americans use mental health services or services to treat their problems and illnesses resluting from alcohol, inappropirate use of prescription medications, or illegal drugs.  The New York Times says that out of 33 countries, Americans are least likely to believe in evolution.  Researchers estimate that 33% of Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes.  In the same year, 33 million Americans lost their jobs.

CBS pollsters discovered that 22% of Americans have seen or felt the presence of a ghost.  48% believe in ghosts.  ICR says 48% of Americans oppose embryonic stem-cell research.  CBS finds that 61% support embryonic stem-cell research.  There is no poll data available on whether they believe that embryos used for stem-cell research will one day become ghosts themselves.

82% of Americans believe that global warming is occuring, according to Fox News/Opinion Dynamics.  79% believe people’s behavior has contributed to global warming.  89% do not believe the U.S. government staged or faked the Apollo moon landing, according to Gallup.  Gallup also found that 41% of Americans believe in ESP, 25% believe in Astrology, 20% believe in reincarnation, while only 9% believe in channeling.  A USA TODAY/ABC News/Stanford University Medical Center poll found that 5% of American adults have turned to acupuncture for pain relief.

According to Gallup, 44% of Americans go out of their way to see movies starring Tom Hanks.  34% go out of their way to avoid movies starring Tom Cruise.  Only 18% go out of their way to avoid Angelina Jolie.