Technophobic journalists – still funny?


I love NPR’s On the Media. Really I do. I never miss a podcast and it’s because of OTM that I still give money to WNYC even though I live in Boston. But I found it jarring when Brooke Gladstone, describing how the Moveable Type sculpture in the New York Times building works GIGGLED as she said the following:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Hansen has spent long hours in the lobby of The Times, programming natural language processing algorithms, whatever they are, [giggle] to craft the scenes, scenes that will continue to play out long after Hansen and Rubin appear in the obits. I’m sure they won’t mind I said that – it’s quite an honor.

Of course that before I was privileged to enter the geeky kingdom of the Berkman Center last November, I certainly had no idea what natural language processing (NLP to some) was either and I’m sure I would have laughed right along with the idea that it’s kind of cute for us humanities types not to understand “this Internet stuff.” But the fact is, not only do I now have a basic understanding of what NLP is, and I’m embarrassed that I don’t know more, since I’m involved with a project that is using it to help understand how the media cover various topics. Ignorance is not always bliss.

For folks like Brooke and the mere-months-younger me who want to know what NLP is… there’s a serious intro here, but I also like the short explanation from Microsoft’s NLP group:

“The goal of the Natural Language Processing (NLP) group is to design and build software that will analyze, understand, and generate languages that humans use naturally, so that eventually you will be able to address your computer as though you were addressing another person.”This goal is not easy to reach. … As an English speaker you effortlessly understand a sentence like “Flying planes can be dangerous”. Yet this sentence presents difficulties to a software program that lacks both your knowledge of the world and your experience with linguistic structures. Is the more plausible interpretation that the pilot is at risk, or that the danger is to people on the ground? Should “can” be analyzed as a verb or as a noun? Which of the many possible meanings of “plane” is relevant? Depending on context, “plane” could refer to, among other things, an airplane, a geometric object, or a woodworking tool. How much and what sort of context needs to be brought to bear on these questions in order to adequately disambiguate the sentence?”


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1 Comment

  1. poto

    November 17, 2008 @ 2:41 pm


    I don’t think technophobic journalists are very funny at all. NLP is a serious science and making light only reduces it’s credibility in the public eye. Although, I can understand wanting to interject a bit of humor into things, there have to be boundaries. There is a time and a place for giggles, and reporting on a serious story is not the time. Brooke Gladstone should be ashamed.