Quality communications

I’m always amused when I call some customer service place, and they start the conversation with “This call may be recorded for quality purposes.”  Since the quality of customer service never seems to improve, I assume that it is the quality of my requests that is being studied.  “Listen carefully, and you can tell riiiiight… there… that he didn’t explicitly decline the Platinum Package.  That’s just a rookie mistake that will cost him $99 a month until he’s dead.”

So I’m driving to work this morning, and my car rings.  My cell phone is connected to my car via Bluetooth, so it feels very high-tech to me when I can answer the phone with my car.  (Disclaimer: I’m old, and I still think this is cool.  Leave me alone.)  The following is the entirety of the conversation.

Me: Hello?

Synthetic voice on the other end: You have reached an invalid extension.  Please hang up and try your call again. <click>

I really wish I had recorded the call for quality purposes.  I have no idea what I did wrong.

Disclaimer: Yes, I really want to do this to someone else.

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I’m of two minds

Sometimes the only thing that makes an earworm tolerable is if it’s a song you like.  My current earworm is the Proclaimers 1988 hit I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). Part of my brain has decided that it wants to hear the refrain over and over again.  I’m fine with that.  I really like the song, and the tune is catchy.  And it’s only been a couple hours.

Unfortunately, another part of my brain has decided it wants to play too.  It’s probably angry because I made it walk on the treadmill at the gym today.  So while my secondary auditory cortex is playing the song, my left frontal lobe is singing the following lyrics:

I would walk a couple miles
And I would walk a couple more
Just to be the man who walked four miles
And stopped because his feet were sore.

I guess I just lack the commitment and the endurance to continue.

Creative creativity

In “you-can’t-make-this-up-but-we-did” news, first dates could become much less stressful and awkward thanks to an emotion detector that could tell if a person has the hots for you. If such a thing existed. Which it doesn’t.

The new device features an earpiece which measures body functions (top), and a sort of combination electric fan/death ray that attaches to the the bottom of your cellphone (below).  Neither actually do anything.

Ear-piece

However, the plausibly real device is at this stage still pure fiction, and while not creating it has inspired imaginative use of the word “plausible”, it has been not built to convey a serious message.

The device is inspired by the Voight-Kampff machine (created by designers Jon Voight and Mine Kampff) featured in the film Blade Runner. And the new machine bears notable similarities to that machine, such as being fictional. Also, as in the movie, the prototype device causes thick billows of smoke to emanate from the wearer’s head (below), which reduces the awkwardness of first dates by giving the couple something to talk about. “Hi, Harrison, I’m Callista. It’s very nice to meet you. Why is your head on fire?”

Harrison-Ford-stars-as-Rick-Deckard-in-Blade-Runner

The design team — which includes the Centre for Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London (UCL) — insists it has been (not) built created to convey a serious message.

“How many times are we going to have to keep saying this? We (not) built created this device to convey a serious message!  We know there’s an extra ‘A’ in the acronym CASA. It’s not like there’s even one A in our acronym before the S. But when we used our original acronym CSA, oversensitive campus radicals kept confusing us with Confederates for Spatial Analysis, and claimed that their hurt feelings were causing global warming. Rather than mock them mercilessly, we decided to change the acronym and leave the mockery to others.  And yes, I did say ‘built created’!”  (The design team was granted anonymity in case they ever wanted to get real jobs.)

Neat, bright, compact and totally fictional, the detector clips onto a smartphone or tablet, according to neat, bright, compact and occasionally fictional scientist Natalie Portman (below, right).

thor__the_dark_world__thor_and_jane_keyframe_by_andyparkart-d75x0of

(Disclaimer: The picture above shows Ms. Portman being bright, compact, and fictional. Her appearance is also surprisingly neat, given how hard it’s raining.)

The nonexistent device comes in flaming screaming bright yellow, making it nicely inconspicuous on first dates when worn by everyone from Minions to Moe (pictured below).

 

Team leader Professor Paul Coulton, Lancaster University’s design fiction expert, hailed the potential of the imaginary device, which he says is attracting a lot of attention. “Not as much attention as my cancer-curing cold fusion time machine, but close. Maybe if we picked a color that wasn’t so inconspicuous.”

Design fiction is, in broad terms, a combination of Powerpoint slides and outright fraud which heralds what might come about in a future world where research grants can be generated by wishing really hard.  In narrow terms, it’s just making stuff up.

“The factor that differentiates and distinguishes design fiction from other approaches is the word ‘fiction’. By making our products 100% reality-free, we cut down on development costs and product defects.  Plus, our fantasy process is entirely eco-friendly.  Well, mostly. There’s still a lot of smoke coming from Harrison Ford’s head.”

“But this is actually a tool for creating some pretty serious discussions around the dorms at 2:30 in the morning, once we’ve decided who would win in a fight: Tris from Blade Runner or Cameron from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” (below)

The research team presented a paper in San Jose at CHI, the world’s leading conference on Completely Hallucinatory Inventions.

Click here to read the amazing untrue story.

Editor’s Note: University College London did not respond to our queries about why the Centre for Spatial Analysis employs a design fiction expert, or what emotion detectors have to do with spatial analysis in the first place.  We hope their silence is because they’re too busy analyzing space.

Making a name for oneself (or others)

Earlier today I was at Barnes and Noble.  As I was leaving, I passed the maternity/baby section, and one title caught my eye: 100,001 Best Baby Names. I didn’t have time to stop and check,* but I’m really hoping the last name on the list was “Irrelevant”.**

Actually, I did have time to check, but the names were listed in alphabetical order, not rank order.  The last name in the book was “Zygmunt”, which while being a bad name for a baby, is certainly not worse then “Dweezil”.

** For those who don’t follow football, the last person selected in the NFL draft each year is given the nickname “Mr. Irrelevant”.  He is always cut during training camp, but as a consolation prize, his mother gets a nice picture of him in his NFL uniform.

Trigger warning: “Trigger” did not make the list of the 100,001 best baby names.  It came in at 100,003, right behind “Cruella“.

By “football”, I of course mean football.  The kind played in the United States and Canada (and London in weeks 4, 7, and 8).  You’re thinking of “fútbol” (pronounced “SOCK-er”), which is an endurance match in which a dozen men see how long they can run around a field in shorts without scoring any points or doing anything interesting.  The current record is 60 minutes, plus two 15-minute overtime periods, held by every soccer game that ever went into double overtime.

Notice of Total Justification Anecdote:  One time at the gym, I was on the treadmill, and the TV in front of me was showing a World Cup semifinal match between a European team and a Latin American team.  (I believe it was Germany vs. Argentina, but it could have been the Holy Roman Empire vs. the Incas for all it matters.)  There was about 5 minutes left in the game, and the score was tied 0-0.  I walked away as fast as I could, but as I was on a treadmill, I didn’t get far.

So I watched the rest of the game, rooting for a final score of 0-0, so that the semifinal game of the world’s most inexplicably popular competition would have to be decided on penalty kicks.  (For Americans, this would be the equivalent of having the NFC Championship game end 0-0 and be decided by a punt, pass and kick contest, or the NBA semifinals end 0-0 and be decided by a game of Horse.)  I knew little about soccer, so when they announced at the end of regulation time that there would be an overtime to break the tie, I was very disappointed, but I was still on the treadmill, so I kept on rooting.  Eventually (15 minutes later chronologically, 7 weeks later subjectively), the overtime ended at 0-0.  I was devastated to find out that there was another 15 minute overtime period, but at least it would be the last.  To my great dismay, one of the teams (either the Toltecs or Austria-Hungary, I don’t remember) scored with less than 2 minutes (subjective time: 3 months) remaining.

I remember two things that reinforced my preconceived notions of soccer (the best kind of notions):

  1. Since the purpose of soccer is to avoid scoring points, one of the important statistics they maintain is “shots on goal”, the number of times a player accidentally kicks the ball toward the goalie.  In this game, at the end of regulation time, the Mayans had 0 goals on 12 attempts, and the Merovingians had 0 goals on 13 attempts, for a combined Futility quotient of 0-25.
  2. At one point, the color commentary guy (who was British, or possibly English), made the following statement after a missed shot on goal:

That would have been a splendid goal had it occurred.

When you have been reduced to subjunctive commentary, it’s time to go watch cricket.  At least it’s confusing enough to hold one’s attention.

Public service announcement: While searching for a baby wearing Carolina Panthers gear, I stumbled upon this picture of a baby wearing a Cleveland Browns helmet:

baby browns helmet

The child is clearly waiting for the Browns to make the playoffs, or possibly got confused and is watching fútbol.  Child Protective Services has been made aware of this abuse in either case.

Author’s note: This post was written in the style of Edgar Allen Poe, who apparently didn’t like soccer either.

I write like who?

This evening, I was enjoying science trivia night at the museum with a longtime improv friend who blogs at The Flehmen Response under the name Sparky MacMillan.  (Disclaimer: This is his nom-de-plume.  I don’t call him this.  I use his name.  Partly because I’ve known him by that name for over a quarter of a century.  Mostly because having my closest friends be named Mookie and Sparky is bad for my image.  It makes people think they’re imaginary.  And I’m pretty sure they’re not.)

Anyway, we were talking about blogging, and he mentioned a website he had found a while back called I Write Like, which takes samples of prose and analyzes them against the writings of about 50 authors to determine who your writing style compares best to.

This got me intrigued, so I went and found the website.  I plugged in about two dozen or so samples from my blog.  Here’s some of the results:

  • The most common match (around 40%, I would estimate) was Edgar Allen Poe, followed by Margaret Mitchell (maybe 20%).  Poe, as every English major learns in college, was famous for his obsession with robots and Scarlett Johansson.  (He was very much ahead of his time.)
  • I got multiple responses for James Joyce, Cory Doctorow, and Dan Brown, and a few one-offs.
  • I took a series of 4 posts I wrote about my hand surgery a couple years ago. Two of the four (the first and last) came back Stephen King, indicating I guess that I ended the story badly.
  • One other sequence I did was 3 different stories to explain the “Legend of Moleskine” sign I saw at Barnes & Noble.  One came back as Douglas Adams (a particularly proud moment).  The other two came back as H.P. Lovecraft.

I don’t have nearly the ego to take any of this seriously, but I find stuff like this fascinating, the same way people on Facebook post which Harry Potter character they are most like. (Disclaimer: No, I don’t know which Harry Potter character I’m most like, unless it’s the one that doesn’t want to know what Harry Potter character he’s like.)  Douglas Adams is one of my favorite authors, so being compared to him is flattering.  I gave my friend Stephanie a couple of Dave Barry books as a baby shower present, and she told me when she read them, she kept hearing his words in my voice, which is also flattering, as he is another of my favorite humor writers.  It’s dangerous to believe stuff like that, but it’s still nice to hear.

I read the “About” section of the website, and with only 51 authors in its database to compare with, a certain amount of redundancy is expected.  The site creator describes the algorithm used to correlate the writing styles as based on a Bayesian classifier, the same algorithm that is used in spam filters.  Which I guess means that reading A Labor of Like is the equivalent of getting spam mail from Edgar Allen Poe and Margaret Mitchell.

You can read more about it in my upcoming book, Gone with the Raven.

(Disclaimer: According to I Write Like, this post was written in the style of Edgar Allen Poe*. The original e-mail that I sent to Sparky on this subject was written in the style of Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita.  You’re welcome for the rewrite.)

* A critical literary deconstruction of the stylistic similarities between this post and Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart would be weird and creepy.  Hopefully in a Poe way, and not in a Nabokov way.

 

A taste of honeys

Recently (very recently), my friend and fellow blogger Joseph Nebus posted a tidbit on his blog about a can of pumpkin.

(Disclaimer: I have never actually met the very splendid and worthwhile Mr. Nebus.  Our interactions to date have consisted of cross-blog discussions of subjects such as the history of the color indigo, how to use tea lights as toys, the relationship between Vincent Price and St. Louis, and the connection between Robert Boyle and 3rd Century Saint Pancras.  However, I find his writing very entertaining, and I believe that should I ever find myself in Michigan or he in North Carolina, our meeting would be quite amicable, and dominated by some random aspect of our surroundings.  His blogs are quite good.  Go read them here and here while I try to remember what I was saying.)

Ah, yes, now I remember.  Joseph was doing a statistical analysis of the ingredient of 100% canned pumpkin and took great comfort in the results.  (Spoiler alert: it’s pumpkin.)

In what could only be termed synchronicity if this train of thought had been recorded by The Police in 1983, I had a similar revelation a few weeks ago.  I found a packet of honey (pictured above) in the break room at work, and I was taken by two thoughts:

  1. Honey can be graded, which means that there is an occupation called “honey grader”.  I am now considering a second career in the lucrative and prestigious honey grading industry after retirement  I wonder how much schooling is required.
  2. It’s hard to read because I am such a lousy photographer, but just below the honey-pot-obscuring glare, the following is written in tiny, friendly letters:

INGREDIENTS: HONEY

At the time, I was taken aback by the idea that one had to list the ingredients of pure honey, and happy that the term “pure” was apparently not a euphemism, like “natural” or “nutritious”. But after reading Joseph’s report, I now have a more important question: Why is pumpkin considered an ingredient (singular), but honey is considered “ingredients”.  Is it because that can of pumpkin all came from the same gourd, while the honey was gathered from multiple hives?

Or were the corporate lawyers for Big Honey just covering their bases.  “Let’s call it ingredients, just in case we find something else in there, like mangled bee limbs, or tungsten.  It’ll save on printing costs later.”