Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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6/6/2014
07:00 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: Sarcasm Detector Wanted

US Secret Service wants a bucket for those times you are dripping with sarcasm.

Top 10 Secret Reasons Microsoft CEO Ballmer Retired
Top 10 Secret Reasons Microsoft CEO Ballmer Retired
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Welcome to my first Geekend on InformationWeek.com. I wrote this weekly column for three and a half years on EnterpriseEfficiency.com, and now that I'm bringing it to InformationWeek, I'll repeat what I wrote in my very first Geekend:

Every Friday I'm going to talk about stuff I love -- gadgets, games, movies, and the people who make them -- and I'm not going to worry about the enterprise. Just once a week. One post, for a little bit of fun so we can enter the weekend on a high note.

I hope the InformationWeek audience enjoys my little jaunt through the geekier side of life as much as I do.

[How's your company's geek:jock ratio? Read Geeks Versus Jocks: CIOs, Beware Your Culture.]

Speaking of geek life, the US Secret Service is making an interesting jaunt into natural language processing by asking people to make a sarcasm detector. Here's an intercepted video of an early test:

You can see they're still working on it. But seriously, the Secret Service really does want its own social media monitoring software (it uses FEMA's now), and among the criteria -- buried among other humorous requirements, like its needing to be compatible with Internet Explorer 8 -- is the need to detect sarcasm.

Why would anyone need to do that on Twitter? Isn't Twitter the most sincere place on Earth?

As much as I want to make fun of the government's inability to detect humor of any kind, there's a real need here. You know those signs at the airport that say, "All jokes about bombs will be taken seriously"? That's Twitter for the Secret Service. How do they know the difference between a tweet that says, "I want to kill the president over that decision" and "I want to KILL the president over that decision"?

Allow me to share a personal story of this problem before social media even existed. My grandfather was a Navy veteran and literally would have taken a bullet for any US president, regardless of party. But he also considered it important to write letters to express his dissent. Once he wrote a letter to President Reagan (whom he loved) protesting something Reagan was doing with veterans' benefits. He wrote: "A man ought to be shot for thinking like that..."

Uh oh. Somewhere in Washington, a little file was created. And several years later, when Reagan was visiting my grandfather's hometown, he got a knock on the door. The Secret Service agents told my grandmother they'd be outside the house until the president left. My grandfather was confined to his chair because of a stroke, and when my mother informed the agents, they went in, politely talked with my grandfather, and left.

But imagine this encounter on the scale of Twitter. Not just a few thousand angry letters, but 500 million tweets per day, plus Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and countless other social forums. And they aren't all hashtagged #Iwanttokillthepresident #thisisnojoke. How do you tell the difference? How do you even read them all?

So good for the Secret Service, but this is a tall order. How do you teach a computer something that not all people are good at?

We're getting surprisingly close (and yet still so far away), with teaching computers about regular humor. We've even got them writing jokes like this one: "What do you get when you combine a fragrance with an actor? A smell Gibson." That at least resembles a joke. But how do you teach sarcasm, which requires an understanding of the intent

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
6/7/2014 | 7:22:07 PM
Re: Hire a Sarcasm Consultant
@LuFu    Nice.  You mentioned all the greats.   You even threw in Steven Wright for good measure !
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
6/7/2014 | 7:14:30 PM
Re: Sarcasm Detector Wanted
Regarding the Secret Service's quest to develop a way to measure sarcasm - I  really think our tax paying dollars should be spent elsewhere to be honest.  I understand the Govnerment has talked itself into believing that all forms of social media present a opportunity to find trouble before it starts.

I think the sarcasm detector is a bit much - no sarasm intended.
LUFU
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LUFU,
User Rank: Strategist
6/7/2014 | 6:18:54 PM
Hire a Sarcasm Consultant
I think Don Rickles is still alive. Get him as the Prime Sarcasm Contractor and he can sub out a lot of the work to Sarah Silverman, Lewis Black, and a few others. Too bad George Carlin and Bill Hicks are dead - they'd have all of DC in the snide and sarcastic mode in no time. They could get Steven Wright to fix their sense of irony.
Bhori
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Bhori,
User Rank: Ninja
6/7/2014 | 5:08:02 PM
Re: Sarcasm Detector Wanted
Ultimately, sarcasm is a polemical tool used by intellectual cowards.  And trolls

@ BillK627: Very well said. I have mostly used sarcasm at work as an opportunity to demonstrate the anger without leaving any proof. Sometimes it's a best way communicate what you are afraid or unable to communicate straightly.

 
Bhori
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Bhori,
User Rank: Ninja
6/7/2014 | 4:35:46 PM
Re: Sarcasm Detector Wanted
You know those signs at the airport that say, "All jokes about bombs will be taken seriously"? 

Very interesting post, David. The subject remind me of the incident, when I once checked into military college with a bag to meet someone personally. As I was without a car, the person offered me to drop the bag at my location which I accepted, as I was supposed to head somewhere else immediately after there. When I was checking out from the facility & collecting back my ID on the gate, the guard questioned me that "You went in with a bag, where is that". At the first moment, I was amazed at his observance. Then, unintentionally, the reply popped out "I have fitted it". Suddenly expressions gone blanked on the other side, other guards which were hearing the conversation came closer. There was a long pause. Though they understand the joke but certainly they didn't like it. Then, I had to briefly tell them the whole story, and they didn't let me out until they confirmed about the bag with a person I went to meet.
BillK627
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BillK627,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/7/2014 | 12:32:07 PM
Re: Sarcasm at Work
@snunyc,

Yes, the bioepistemological equivalent of sarcasm is a "knife in the back."  It is anger, masked.  The non-passive aggressive equivalent would be the outright expression of one's disagreement, the analog being direct confrontation as if one is standing face-to-face with the polemical (or physical) opponent.

Note the latter (initial, direct questioning or disagreement) also precludes the possibility of an embarrassed rejoinder that all sarcastic people employ when they're not able or not willing to shift to more honest, more open expression after being questioned or challenged about their prior attack:

"C'mon, I was only joking!  Can't you take a joke?!"

Such an excuse by the "joker" is simply another passive-aggressive attack, designed to deflect attention and elicit the one objecting to feel as if there is something wrong with his or her interpretation of the original anger, rather than engaging directly (again) with the intellectual challenger.

Ultimately, sarcasm is a polemical tool used by intellectual cowards.  And trolls.

Bill
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
6/6/2014 | 7:23:50 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@snunyc very true. I know of some people who don't pick up on sarcasm in person on a regular basis, regardless of the deadpan ability of the speaker. Sarcastic messages wouldn't penetrate unless they are accompanies by some telltale emoticon.  
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
6/6/2014 | 6:04:28 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@Ariella: That sarcasm font would certainly make it easier for the government to figure this out, eh?

I used to work with someone who was so great at deadpan humor that 9 times out of 10 he would fool me into believeing something he said was sincere or true--and that was in face-to-face conversations. When you take body language and tone of voice out of the equation, sarcasm in email can be a dangerous weapon--or really really funny.
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
6/6/2014 | 6:00:58 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@Thomas: You WIN the prize for BEST comment of the week. LOL LOL
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
6/6/2014 | 5:59:35 PM
Sarcasm at Work
This post has me thinking back on the many times I've employed sarcasm at work. And then I read some leadership material awhile back that said sarcasm is actually an expression of anger. I've always considered sarcasm to be a form of humor, not an expression of anger.So that really opened my eyes.

What do you all think? Is sarcasm just a passive agressive way to express your anger? Do you use sarcasm at work? how do you feel when others at work are sarcastic to you?
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