Thursday, May 3, 2007

Giant Mackerel Gets Married

Lent is a time when Catholics try to identify something in their lives that is a bad habit, and sacrifice it for a month. I gave up for Lent. Actually, what I gave up was wasting time on the internet. I'm not sure there's a distinction.

It didn't go so well. I think I ended up reading Reddit more when I was trying not to, than I ever did before or since the Lenten period. At one point I reached Reddit link number #999. That's like sitting down to eat a few Cheetos, and ending up eating a whole bag instead of dinner.

It seems that all bad habits share a common feature - they involve consequences such that one might decide a priori that the activity is not worthwhile, but when broken down into pieces, each infinitesimal step does not entail enough harm to cause someone to stop. One more potato chip, one more cigarette (thank God I don't smoke), reading one more Reddit article - I used to think this kind of procrastination was my own peculiar personality flaw. I'm beginning to realize I'm not as alone in this as I thought.

In a remarkable expression of candid self-awareness, one of the founders of Reddit blogs about this very problem. In that well-written post, Aaron Swartz characterizes the basic problem: people might rather do things more substantial with their time, but "reading bite-sized blog posts is by far easier," and "looking at photos of sunsets or reading one-liners takes no cognitive effort."

I took a Bioinformatics class last year that was co-taught by professors from computer science and biology. The biology professor wanted to underscore the importance of the discovery of DNA, or perhaps just had a chip on his shoulder; he took pleasure in baiting the minority of computer science students in the class by telling us that the invention of the computer is nothing, completely irrelevant, compared to the enormity of the discovery of DNA and genetic engineering, and that we should all stop studying computers and study biology instead. Rather than let him irritate me, I only smiled - because it is laughable that he would say this, while not realizing his whole syllabus relies on a third technology which eclipses both in significance: the web.

So what do we do with the greatest invention of all time? What are we using the internet for? If you have Ruby (a computer language) installed on your computer, I can save you the trouble of reading 999 reddit links to find out. This Ruby program (from my Downloads page) rips every current reddit title and runs a modified Markov learning algorithm on the titles. Then it uses what it learned to generate sample titles in reddit "style". What results is a hilarious mis-mash. I'll leave you with a few of the most interesting tidbits it generated (these are machine-generated; I didn't make these up):

Giant Mackerel Gets Married
Giant Mackerel Gets Even Creepier
Baby Marmosets Are To Analyze Software Patents
Cockatoo Guarding Chocolate Good, Morbid Obesity Soaring
Even worse than one peep jousting: Two peeps
Anarchy On Sudafed Claims First Free Gps
Extreme D.I.Y. - Solitaire
Doomsday For How Blogging Can Die Of Education
Reddit Users To Prevent Manatee Deaths? Prevent Manatees!
Ask Reddit: what modern world?
I Read Reddit Users Are Small. [pic] This Pathetic Story
Anatomy Of Yoda [photo]
sex-mad? Mabye. Obsessed? With Chainsaw Could possibly be stopped
Grindhouse: Good movie or faked orgasm?
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