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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SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/11/2014 | 7:20:29 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@David, I would tend to believe that those who are enlisted or are employed by the intelligence agencies understand the chain of command and that the majority follow it but part of me sees movies, games, stories where the good soldier turns into a great hero only after breaking out of that mold.  This makes me wonder how often that really happens, not that they become great heroes but that they try to break away because they think that will make them great.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/10/2014 | 10:23:37 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@saneIT- Good question. I suspect different parts of government respond differently to that. The military seems to impart from the beginning that being a hero by ignoring orders is not cool. I'd like to think intelligence mostly does the same. 

But we're all the heroes of our own stories so I suspect Hollywood inspires us all to have a little rebellious streak. 

But if you hear "We follow orders or people die" enough I'd like to think you get past the movie stuff.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/10/2014 | 7:09:23 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@David,

That brings up another issue, do our government agencies think they are portrayed in a good light in most movies?  Sure in some they are the heroes but in nearly every movie that involves the FBI, CIA any intelligence agency or even local police departments there is a lot of dysfunction and it's the person who goes against all the rules who actually gets the job done.  Does this mean that FBI and CIA agents are using those movies as a model for their jobs?  This would explain some things like Edward Snowden's situation.

 
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 11:24:23 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
Sorry, there will be no digital way with only words to convey the complexity of expression that comes with the face and body language. Perhaps the government can ask us to post a selfie every time we tweet so that they can try to discern our earnestness that way.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
6/9/2014 | 10:09:32 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
that is a good point David. I read somewhere the japanese are big on emicons, may be instead of talking we will all be communicating via emicons.  I really think our tax dollars could be spend on much wiser projects than developing a program to detect sarcasms.  How a about a computer that will tell better knock knock jokes.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 3:58:54 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
I think the sarcasm font would just start being used sarcastically. But I love the idea that we need to use technology a little better to communicate what we lose with out body language and inflection.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 3:52:58 PM
Re: 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?


That's a toughie. I think a lot of humor is the expression of anger. They say humor is about someone else's pain. If you fall down it is funny to everyone but you. Someone else falls down, and it is funny again.

That said, we also use humor to see joy in painful situations.

There's a difference between sarcasm and irony. Irony is probably less angry. Still, I think there's room for all sorts of humor even in the office. But you have to earn your reputation for being kind, honest, and willing to say what you mean to folks so that when you are sarcastic or otherwise using humor people don't think you are doing it to hide your true feelings.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 3:38:27 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
The most shocking thing in Dave's article is that the Secret Service currently uses a FEMA's social media app...


@snunyc- I wonder why every government department can't use the same one to a certain extent. And the FEMA one seems to be a pretty good one. Our own Curt Franklin a few years ago wrote a great article about FEMA using Waffle Hosue openings to help know where to send the most assistance. They have some pretty clever ways of thinking through things.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 3:30:17 PM
Re: Gov vs Humor
There is hope for the future of funny in the government (at least for today).

@CIA

"We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet."


@Michelle- That is hilarious. Good for the CIA. I wonder how many contractors, vendors, and consultants it took to do that? But seriously, am I the only one uncomfortable with the idea of the CIA having a Twitter account?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 3:27:52 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@snunyc- funny enough, I like exercising my own BS detector. But I HATE when I don't get sarcasm and look like a fool.

That said, it would be nice if Google, Facebook, or someone else invented a plug-in that could put "We know this to be not factual" tags on articles, pictures, etc that infect the internet.
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