Wednesday, September 12, 2007


On NPR this morning, I heard this thing about crazy bazillionaire Richard Branson trying to help find crazy bazillionaire Steve Fossett via Google Earth (what are the odds that two crazy bazillionaires would meet and become friends? they must be astronomical!): Google convinced the companies it buys the satellite images from to give them updated images of Nevada, and then they turned the images over to Amazon who put them all into a tool (link) that allows volunteers to search 300-square-foot patches for planes, or plane wreckage, or a scattered pile of "I Hold Five World Records For Circumnavigating the Globe Via Varying Means And All I Got Was This Stupid T-Shirt" t-shirts.

I *guess* this raises questions about why we're helping bazillionaires or what it means that this kind of surveillance is even possible, so I'll just say: (1) I don't want anyone to die (least of all, our crazy bazillionaires) and (2) who cares when Google Earth now comes with a flight simulator, because what I was most excited about was that the tool, which NPR didn't name (racist-sounding? would derail the story because you'd have to explain it?), is the Mechanical Turk! I love the Mechanical Turk (even when it's not being used for good, especially)! Also, I am a pedantic know-it-all!

So here!
The Mechanical Turk is called "The Mechanical Turk" because in the late 1700s, illusionist gadabout and frequent baron Wolfgang von Kempelen created a real live automaton (geddit?) called "The Turk" which traveled around Europe and America kicking butt at chess. The Turk was a wooden, beturbaned mannequin that was connected to some cabinetry, which Kempelen would open up to reveal a mass of elaborate clockwork and gears. Then he would close the cabinet, light a candle, and the automaton would, using its elaborate clockpunk proto-A.I., play chess, and much more often than not win, against such latter-day Kasparovs as Ben Franklin and Napoleon. It could also do a Knight's Tour, and ouija it up.

I will pause while you bask in the awesomeness of all of that before I add that it should come as only the gentlest of surprises that "elaborate clockpunk proto-A.I." is late-1700s code for "there was not really any elaborate clockpunk proto-A.I., it was just that there was a (short!) chess master hidden inside the machine". (I am sorry to let you down.)

(But hence the name: people doing things that computers are not able to do quite yet. And moreover: doing it twice, since most Mechanical Turk HITs involves responding to CAPTCHAs.)

As usual, Wikipedia will tell you more than I care to type right now about the whole thing, but if you've been tolerant enough to read this far, you also might be interested in:
  • Edison's Eve by Gaby Wood, which has a chapter on The Turk, and which I just reviewed on GoodReads because I am lame.
  • this Sound of Young America interview with Ricky Jay where Jesse Thorn totally nerds out because he can't believe he's interviewing Ricky Jay.
  • this hobo drawing I did of Replicant Wemberly Plastiskin and his Clockwork Squrrel [sic], Toothy.
  • all forty-three short stories that Steven Millhauser has written about German automaton makers who take their obsession too far, causing their public to turn away. Or you can read this sentence and save yourself time and money: Steven Millhauser reuses the same ideas over and over all the time and so I think he sucks.
At any rate, good luck being alive, crazy bazillionaire Steve Fossett!

1 comment:

Molly said...

Boy that story about the mechanical Turk sure pushes my buttons.

Oh. Huh.