Books written by Ray Sullivan

Friday, 6 June 2014

Sarcasm detector required

It's one of those national stereotypes, you know, the offensive ones that the perpetrators don't realise are offensive. Usually aimed at a whole nation, like any modern nation could consistently have one trait. So, not all Germans eat sausages, not all French people think eating the leg of a frog is great and I guess not all Brits speak like Bertie Wooster. In fact, I doubt any Brits do, outside of TV land.

We cultivate these stereotypes because it's an easy, and lazy, way to define what we see as different to us, as a nation. Eating any part of a frog is considered to be weird in the UK, but secretly we probably eat as many sausages per capita as the Germans. But we think our choice of sausages to be better. Naturally we share a lot with our continental neighbours - when we haven't been at war with them we've been spending a lot of time in each others company. We haven't had a decent spat with either the French or the Germans for nearly seventy years now, so that means we should be a lot closer than historically.  I'm still not keen on eating frog parts, mind.

We also share a lot with our US cousins, hence the famous 'special relationship' politicians, mainly British ones, like to mention. But we are as different as we are the same, I guess, and one area Brits like to think they have an upper hand in is in humour. Sure, the UK has exported its fair share of humour, from Monty Python to Douglas Adams, and good British comedic writers make a healthy living in tinsle town. It's probably true that we have a slightly more understated style of humour to that coming over the pond, but from personal experience I know many Americans have a much more subtle sense of humour than US television might suggest sometimes. It's a running gag in the UK, with very little evidence I can find to support it, that Americans have had an irony by-pass and wouldn't recognise sarcasm if they tripped over it.

Like I say, there is little formal evidence for this apparent difference, but now it seems the Secret Service is trying to put the record straight.  Ironically, over this side of the pond, we regard the UK Secret Service to be, well, secret.  To the point that we don't know who are the agents and their activities are traditionally carried out under a cloak of secrecy.  The US Secret Service, however, is often portrayed as being quite open about itself and its employees.  More than that, the US Secret Service is often quite open about what it wants to buy and what it has achieved. And right now it wants to award a contract for a sarcasm detector, for use on social networks.

Probably this is a sensible idea - we all know how the likes of the NSA and the UK GCHQ sift through electronic messages for keywords and 'chatter'.  Many of us probably use words and terms that could be misinterpreted as some of the searched for terms in normal usage and possibly some of us use them from time to time in a sarcastic or ironic way, especially if there has been some governmental or agency activity we don't agree with - the mass interception of emails seems to have irritated a few people recently, for example.

So the Secret Service, probably in an attempt to avoid chasing innocent if sarcastic people so they can concentrate of the real bad guys, are looking for a developer to provide a sarcasm detector.  I just hope it can differentiate between US and UK sarcasm. I think it would be ironic if it couldn't.  Or am I just being sarcastic?

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