Words & Stuff

JJJ: Mix and Match

(7 May 2000)

The juxtaposition of incongruous elements is at the root of a lot of humor.

I purchased Encyclopædia Britannica on CD-ROM a while back. It's an invaluable reference; I keep it in the CD drive of my PowerBook, so I have access to the encyclopedia (plus Webster's Tenth, on the same disk) wherever I have my laptop. Generally when I open Britannica I have something specific that I want to look up, but for those interested in browsing, the encyclopedia provides handy random suggestions. These suggestions come in two forms: an example question to show the kinds of questions you can ask, and a "featured article" on a particular topic. The question and the article are often in the same general topic area, but rarely on exactly the same topic. If you read the featured-article title as an answer to the question, the results can be amusing, or at least interesting. For example:

"What is a black hole?" "Halley's Comet"

"Where is the Tower of Babel?" "Confucianism"

"What dogs are noted for gentleness?" "Komodo dragon"

"What are the objectives of botanical gardens?" "Wright, Orville and Wilbur"

"What was George Bush's first job after college?" "Kennedy, John F(itzgerald)"

"What, besides, fire, causes burns?" "Aurignacian culture" (another time the answer was "emotion")

"What is the purpose of the United Nations?" "weight lifting"

Of course, even though you're encouraged to enter questions in natural language, the words you enter are fed into an ordinary search engine, which searches the CD for relevant files. I usually don't bother entering full questions -- I know, for instance, that the search engine will ignore question words like what, and so-called "stop words" (common words like of or the), so it seems unnecessary to type out full questions.

Since the search engine doesn't "understand" your question in any usual sense, some of the answers it provides may be somewhat irrelevant. For example, if you ask "Who painted Whistler's Mother?", the first hit is indeed an article on James (Abbott) McNeill Whistler; but the second is the article in the topic hierarchy "Ancient European Religions: Baltic religion: MYTHOLOGY: The gods." (That article contains no whistlers, but lots of occurrences of the word mother.) Some other questions come up with surprising apropos answers; for example, if you ask "Why do fools fall in love?", the search engine returns articles on Troilus, Clio, Touchstone, Olivia, Titania, and Cupid, and one on the Capulet and Montague families -- a set that almost adds up to a reasonable answer.

Search engines on the Web, too, can often produce unintentionally entertaining results. Memepool noted back in October that entering the search phrase "more evil than Satan himself" on Google brought up the Microsoft home page. (These days it brings up an article about that search phrase. How meta!) The people who created the Ask Jeeves search engine were very proud of their "natural language" search engine -- but it no more interprets natural language than the Britannica search engine does. Like most search engines, the one at Ask Jeeves throws away the stop words and then uses some kind of matching algorithm on the remaining words, with little regard to what humans would consider sense. It then chooses a set of canned questions that it "thinks" might be relevant to your question, and lets you "ask" one of those questions instead. Those of us who like entertaining non sequiturs can exploit this fact by asking Jeeves questions it's unlikely to be able to answer. For instance, you might ask:

What is the date format in an HTTP header?

To which Jeeves provides the following suggested questions:
What are some good ideas for a fun date?
Where can I find a date?
What day is it?

Jim Moskowitz tried some philosophical questions:

Original: In what sense is a human being the same person in old age as they were in childhood?

Jeeves' suggestions:
Did dinosaurs and people live at the same time?
The Official Scientology and Dianetics Glossary
How old am I?
How can I find someone?

Original: For how long should a people be held accountable for the crimes of their ancestors?

Jeeves' suggestions:
A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by Samuel Johnson
Support an Elected Canadian Senate!
Renee Allman portrays Danielle Ashley in the ABC Daytime drama, "Port Charles."
How can I find someone?
Where can I find out about researching my family's history?
Where can I find my family's coat of arms?

Original: Was there ever a time when the progress of technology was halted and reversed?

Jeeves' suggestions:
Where can I find information about the job search or career topic "How to deal with a past job termination"?
Wheeled Conveyances
Activities for Children Make Car Trips Speed By

(Note that most of the above no longer produce as entertaining results. This is probably due partly to the ever-changing nature of the Web, and partly to one nice feature of Ask Jeeves: their employees look over the questions that have been asked, to get a better idea of what questions are being asked and how to produce better results.)

Will, Fred, Joel, and Sarah asked Jeeves: "How can I crush my enemies?" Jeeves suggested: "How can I find out if that special someone likes me?" (Altavista's response to that question is pretty good; its first hit is a page titled "Crush your enemies")

Jeremy D asked: "Do you like what life is showing you?"

Jeeves' suggestions:
What is showing on the current TV lineup?
What is on television tonight in Australia?
Where can I learn about biodiversity and an introduction to the History of Life?

Jeremy also asked: "Why am I here?" The suggested question was the same as the original; in this case it was the answer that was entertaining: an article titled "Food for Worms."

Finally, Melissa B asked: "How do I achieve world domination?" Jeeves' first suggestion: "What is the mythos surrounding the Illuminati?"

By the way, there's a very entertaining interview with Jeeves at SatireWire.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>