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On Salmon, Trout, and Chat

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Several friends of mine have reported strange chat sessions over the past few months. The chats are a form of mediated communication between strangers that seems either like a prank or an art project (or perhaps both). The scenario generally goes like this:

1. A chatbot (posing as a human) starts up a conversation via AOL Instant Messenger (or another chat service). Some bots (like TheGreatHatsby) use a single, distinctive opening line like, "I say, old bean, have you seen my hat?" while others use a randomized statement intended to spark a conversation.

2. Unbeknownst to the first user, the chatbot has also initiated a similar chat session with another user.

3. When both randomly targeted users reply (generally with a statement along the lines of, "Who is this??"), the chatbot connects both bewildered users via some behind-the-scenes magic, and bizarre chats ensue.

Because to both users it appears that the other user initiated the chat session, confusion is common in the first lines of the chat -- but very often, it settles down into an actual conversation between two complete strangers. Here are the first few lines of a chat session from a Livejournal user who was recently contacted by the RegretfulCoho bot:

[01:18] RegretfulCoho: Hi.
[01:19] thesquidflu: Hi!
[01:19] RegretfulCoho: lol What's up
[01:19] thesquidflu: not much!
[01:19] thesquidflu: How about you?
[01:19] RegretfulCoho: Not much at all, who is this by the by?
[01:20] thesquidflu: I'm... Brandon! Who's this?
[01:20] RegretfulCoho: Brandon who?
[01:20] thesquidflu: [last name redacted]
[01:20] RegretfulCoho: Do I know you from somewhere?
[01:21] thesquidflu: I... I don't know!
[01:21] thesquidflu: hehe
[01:21] thesquidflu: where didja get my aim?
[01:21] RegretfulCoho: You just now msg'd me
[01:21] thesquidflu: You messaged me first, according to my aim!
[01:22] RegretfulCoho: Ok
[01:22] RegretfulCoho: Is this a bot program?
[01:22] thesquidflu: Nope!
[01:22] thesquidflu: hahahah
[01:22] thesquidflu: :D
[01:22] thesquidflu: I'm a real boy!

The chat continues for almost half an hour, as the users collaboratively try to figure out what's going on, and eventually land on the Wikipedia page explaining the phenomenon. These chatbots are often called Salmon bots (the "Coho" referenced in the chat log above is a species of salmon) or Trout bots, as the bots themselves adopt various fishy names and implement different strategies for passing messages. Some of the bots actually filter the conversations, removing screen names and words related to bots. Others simply connect two users and let the chat happen.

A Livejournal community has formed around this phenomenon, called themissinghat. Users post their experiences, including chat logs -- some are filled with profanity and confusion, others are just friendly chats between strangers. You can now even request a Salmon bot connection, in case you want to try out the randomness for yourself. Wow.

Have you been chatted up by a fishbot? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Courtesy Umbrellium
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Design
These LED Crosswalks Adapt to Whoever Is Crossing
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Courtesy Umbrellium

Crosswalks are an often-neglected part of urban design; they’re usually just white stripes on dark asphalt. But recently, they’re getting more exciting—and safer—makeovers. In the Netherlands, there is a glow-in-the-dark crosswalk. In western India, there is a 3D crosswalk. And now, in London, there’s an interactive LED crosswalk that changes its configuration based on the situation, as Fast Company reports.

Created by the London-based design studio Umbrellium, the Starling Crossing (short for the much more tongue-twisting STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) changes its layout, size, configuration, and other design factors based on who’s waiting to cross and where they’re going.

“The Starling Crossing is a pedestrian crossing, built on today’s technology, that puts people first, enabling them to cross safely the way they want to cross, rather than one that tells them they can only cross in one place or a fixed way,” the company writes. That means that the system—which relies on cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor both pedestrian and vehicle traffic—adapts based on road conditions and where it thinks a pedestrian is going to go.

Starling Crossing - overview from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

If a bike is coming down the street, for example, it will project a place for the cyclist to wait for the light in the crosswalk. If the person is veering left like they’re going to cross diagonally, it will move the light-up crosswalk that way. During rush hour, when there are more pedestrians trying to get across the street, it will widen to accommodate them. It can also detect wet or dark conditions, making the crosswalk path wider to give pedestrians more of a buffer zone. Though the neural network can calculate people’s trajectories and velocity, it can also trigger a pattern of warning lights to alert people that they’re about to walk right into an oncoming bike or other unexpected hazard.

All this is to say that the system adapts to the reality of the road and traffic patterns, rather than forcing pedestrians to stay within the confines of a crosswalk system that was designed for car traffic.

The prototype is currently installed on a TV studio set in London, not a real road, and it still has plenty of safety testing to go through before it will appear on a road near you. But hopefully this is the kind of road infrastructure we’ll soon be able to see out in the real world.

[h/t Fast Company]

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iStock
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Live Smarter
How to Make Sure Your Cell Phone Receives Emergency Alerts
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iStock

Thanks to smartphones, we’re more plugged into the world than ever before. Some of us receive notifications for everything from Amber Alerts to trending news stories, so it makes sense that we’d also depend on our phones to alert us to emergencies in our neighborhoods. But as The Daily Dot reports, relying on your cell phone alone for such news might leave you in a dangerous situation.

Unlike Amber Alerts, local notifications for natural disasters like wildfires don’t operate on a broad alert system. If counties were to contact every single resident every time a specific area was threatened, it would lead to traffic jams and unnecessary panic, putting more lives at risk. So instead, the police only contact people in their database that live in the affected location.

The Reverse 911 law allows law enforcement to contact you at your home in case of emergencies. If you have a landline you can expect to get the call there, but because the law was enacted before the age of cell phones, receiving a call anywhere else isn’t guaranteed. To make sure your county knows to contact you on your cell phone, you need to reach out to them and ask for that number to be listed as your primary mode of contact. Just over half of all households in the country use cell phones for all personal phone communications, which means that most Americans need to opt in to receive life-saving emergency notifications.

Fortunately, getting your cell number into your county’s database isn’t hard. You can starting by searching your county’s name and “emergency alert” online. There’s no uniform system across the U.S., but on Los Angeles County’s emergency alert page, for example, residents are asked to indicate their name, address, phone number, and the type of alerts they wish to receive. This information can be updated at any time—so if you get a new phone number, make sure your local police department is one of the first to know.

[h/t The Daily Dot]

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