Transatlantic Flight


Right now I’m reading a book by Michael Erard called Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean, which begins with an interesting anecdote about Flakey, a robot developed by SRI International in the 1990s.

Flakey was mobile and could understand human speech, so you could ask him to get you a latte (or something) from down the hall, and he’d set about his mission. But, as Erard points out…

The problem was…that if you ordered Flakey to go on a mission, you didn’t know for several seconds if the robot had comprehended what you said. It would sit there, humming. So you might repeat yourself, giving Flakey two commands to process and perhaps confuse, making it stall.

So the scientists programmed Flakey to use a single, two-letter syllable to signal to his human communication partners that he understood and was processing a request.

I won’t tell you what they came up with. (I’m sure you can guess.)

I went in search of Flakey online and discovered this transcript of Alan Alda interacting with Flakey and Kurt Konolige, a computer scientist at SRI International, for an episode of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers. There’s something about reading this disembodied dialogue that’s probably even better than watching the original footage. 


ALAN ALDA: Flakey, follow me.

FLAKEY: Um. Following. I don’t see you.

ALAN ALDA: There he goes… What does he say, “I do see you?”

KURT KONOLIGE: No, he says “I don’t see you,” but it’s wrong.

ALAN ALDA: He’s obviously lying.

KURT KONOLIGE: Yeah, I know. It’s going to be a little hard …

ALAN ALDA: Well, I don’t know, he doesn’t…. Flakey, stop.

FLAKEY: Um. Duh.

ALAN ALDA: Duh, that’s a great thing to say after you nearly killed me.

KURT KONOLIGE: Tell him to turn right and we’ll follow him out.

ALAN ALDA: Yeah. Flakey, turn right.

FLAKEY: Um, turning, boss.

ALAN ALDA: Turning boss. I love that boss stuff, and then he steps all over my feet.


Flight #42
August 7, 2008, 11:58 am
Filed under: Arriving/Departing | Tags: , , , ,


Click here for Flight #42.

Click here for Flight #42.

Word #3

shyamalanaise \shī-‘mǝ-lȯn-āz\ noun [F malaise]

The feeling of discomfort and lethargy that followed me back home after last night’s screening of The Happening by M. Night Shyamalan at a second-run theater.

I love the swell of eco-horror films; I hated this one.

The remedy: Thinking of the plastic potted plant that rustles at Mark Wahlberg.

Serial Story #1 Starts Here

If it hadn’t been for the gravy covering every surface of the room, Lois could’ve imagined herself in this apartment – putting up curtains, filling vases with flowers, establishing small barricades around the windows and doors, just in case. But the gravy, really, wasn’t it too much to ask of her?

She looked at her realtor, who hadn’t made it past the doorway, which she occupied like a politician preparing to give a speech of resignation.

“Lois, you’ve come all this way, and you didn’t like the one with the goat cheese or the apple juice, so give this one a chance. I don’t have anything left to show you today.” 

The realtor dabbed at a bit of gravy that had dripped onto her white blouse.

Lois was nothing if not resourceful. She walked around the living room inspecting all four walls, the gravy-covered sofa, the potted plant drowning in gravy, the cat and dog bowls – empty! She peered into a landscape painting hanging above the mantelpiece, curious whether it was a scene of the polluted landscape outside the window or just smudged with gravy.

Her realtor thought Lois looked like a woman who knew how to consider things carefully and reasonably and with a tendency for lists.


Lois had noticed the constellation of gravy drippings on the armchair in the living room.

The armchair, like everything else in the room, was a soft and slippery brownish-gray, its original color irretrievable at this point and really of no relevance anyway, since rarely was the color of furniture a factor in the decision about an apartment. Instead it was always, “Can I bear the presence of curry in my closet?” Or, “Is the profusion of broccoli going to eventually create a plumbing problem?”

Lois understood this, that her decision was one of inevitable compromise, and she was trying hard to realize how she really felt, deep down, about gravy. Better to have the epiphany before she put down a deposit.

But what had distracted her from the search for gravy in her private lexicon of fears and fantasies was the unexpected outline of a human form imprinted in the armchair. Where someone evidently had been sitting – and apparently for quite some time – very little gravy had accumulated, leaving a gravy void in the shape of a person. She shuddered … then slipped and fell into some mashed potatoes that had accumulated under the windowsill.

It was kind of odd. The place had a new-car smell, not a Thanksgiving-meal smell.

Still to come: Lois might discuss apartment life with her friend, who lives in an apartment plagued by a different food infestation. Lois may or may not discover the strange source of the imprint in the armchair.

Tiny is the bug in my ear
August 4, 2008, 9:59 pm
Filed under: The Black Box | Tags: , ,

Just like everyone else on the planet working from a computer, I occasionally Google random phrases just to see what turns up. One day, hopefully, my search phrase will land me in the El Dorado of the lost blog.

Today’s search phrase: tiny is the bug in my ear.


Speaking is a very physical experience for me — so much so that I sometimes suspect I’m in a wrestling match with a mastodon.

As a result, I’ve lately been preoccupied with the ways the body lives a secret double life, as the saboteur of language as well as the great little instrument cranking out the pleasantries and phonemes.

In contrast with speaking, writing doesn’t usually give me the feeling of wrestling with a prehistoric elephant. It’s a little more like sitting beach-side with an umbrella drink. 

(Shrug!) If language is derivative, it will be as the instrument that produces it.

I sometimes think of the speech/writing duel/dualism in terms of maps. If you’re carrying around two maps — one map of The Province of Speaking, one map of The Duchy of Writing — won’t you end up at a different destination depending on the map you use? How closely can those two destination points be brought together?

Flight #271
August 4, 2008, 8:57 pm
Filed under: Arriving/Departing | Tags: ,


Click here for Flight #271.

Click here for Flight #271.