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The Tragic Life of Clippy, the World's Most Hated Virtual Assistant

Microsoft
Microsoft

When a large company stumbles, it’s major news. Coca-Cola infamously angered millions of soda drinkers when it tinkered with its recipe to produce New Coke in 1985. Netflix may now be the country’s biggest single source of entertainment, but it wasn’t long ago they tried to spin off their DVD and streaming services into separate entities, confusing millions of otherwise satisfied consumers.

Stationed somewhere in between those gaffes sits Clippy, the unofficial name for the bouncing, sentient paper clip introduced by Microsoft in 1996 in a bid to help people hone their word processing skills. When Microsoft Office software users began writing a letter by typing “Dear,” for example, out would pop Clippy with an unsolicited offer to help.

The first time this happened, users may have been amused. But as they grew more proficient, Clippy would redouble his efforts to interrupt, his roving eyes scanning documents in what felt like a gross invasion of privacy. In no time at all, he would be the subject of scorn and ridicule, an ever-present voyeur into your home computer navigation.

In order for Microsoft to continue to flourish, Clippy would have to die.

A screen shot featuring Clippy
The Science Elf, YouTube

In the 1990s, Microsoft had already revolutionized personal computing with its Windows interface. Taking navigation out of its sterile DOS command prompts and making it feel more like the welcoming layout of Apple's Macintosh line, Windows helped facilitate the PC boom.

The company wanted to take it one step further with Bob, an operating system programmed to resemble the rooms of a house. Going to the “checkbook” on the desk, for example, would open financial software. Released in 1995, the virtual domain never took off, with users and industry observers declaring it so purposely cute that it was nauseating. (Even worse, the hated typeface Comic Sans was created for use in Bob, perpetuating a cycle of user cruelty.)

Although Microsoft quickly abandoned Bob, it seemed stuck on one of the characters that populated the OS: Clippit, an energetic paper clip that injected itself into tasks to see if it could make the experience easier on users. According to Clippit illustrator Kevan Atteberry, Microsoft had developed over 250 characters for such a purpose: Clippit, which users later re-named “Clippy,” won out, and the company decided to keep him around for the 1996 release of its word processing software.

Despite Microsoft harnessing the knowledge of social psychologists from Stanford to develop these software assistants, there were early signs Clippy was destined to annoy users. Focus groups exposed to the character made frequent references to his “leering” eyes, which female product testers found particularly unsettling. (Though he lacked any genitalia, Clippy was labeled male by Microsoft.)

Failing to heed their criticism, Microsoft inserted Clippy into the version of Office released in 1996. Users opening a blank document were greeted by a jovial paper clip that offered advice on everything from spelling to saving files. Even if keyboard shortcuts and other operating commands were mastered, Clippy materialized from the ether, repeating himself until they could figure out how to shut him up for good. (For Office 1997 users, that meant manually changing his program folder name from "Actors" to "NoActors.")

Although Clippy received the brunt of criticism, he wasn’t the only Office mascot available to distract and annoy. The Genius was an Einstein-esque icon; Power Pup was a dog that could help you retrieve information. But Clippy was the pre-set helper, and his wiggling eyebrows and contorted paper clip frame burrowed into Windows users' psyches.

Clippy meets his maker
Stan Honda/Getty Images

Microsoft was not insulated from the Clippy criticism. Writing of his time working for the company, James Fallows reported for The Atlantic in 2008 that the excitable little stationery accessory was bemoaned by employees. Yet Clippy remained, getting a minor makeover in Office 2000 before being automatically turned off in 2002. (Microsoft poked fun at the user enmity, announcing the character was out of work and creating a game that allowed players to zap Clippy with a staple gun.)

Why the allegiance? Fallows said it was in part related to Clippy’s origin as a resident of the failed Bob operating system. That project was spearheaded by Melinda French, who later became Melinda French Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. While Fallows is quick to point out that it wasn’t the sole reason Clippy remained an uninvited guest, no one was particularly enthusiastic about getting rid of him, either.

Clippy eventually met his end in 2007, when the latest version of Office shipped without his grating interjections. Distanced from the pain of actually having to deal with him, a number of Clippy’s critics began to produce damning fan art, from Clippy being a general nuisance to engaging in lewd acts. In 2015, author Leonard Delaney self-published Conquered by Clippy, a 16-page erotic short story that was either a meditation on how technology is seducing us or just a weird story about a paper clip copulating with a human. (Delaney also penned Taken by Tetris Blocks.)

Clippy’s final bow—for now, at least—came earlier in 2017, when an anonymous programmer offered a Chrome extension that allows Clippy to pop up virtually everywhere you go. Like the original, he’s basically useless.

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Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
Al Bello/Getty Images
Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
Al Bello/Getty Images

Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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Pop Culture
10 Adorable Facts About Cabbage Patch Kids
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Although there have been other toy crazes throughout the 20th century, none have inspired the frenzy that met the 1983 debut of the Cabbage Patch Kids. Mass-produced yet all slightly unique—each was computer-sorted to have a distinctive combination of hair, freckles, and expressions—the dolls were in such high demand that shoppers risked bodily injury to try and grab one: In 1983, a Wall Street Journal editorial asserted that more Americans were worried about obtaining a Kid than the possibility of nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War. Check out 10 facts behind this dimpled phenomenon.

1. THEY WERE ORIGINALLY CALLED “LITTLE PEOPLE.”

When Appalachian artist Xavier Roberts began handcrafting a line of soft-sculpture babies in Georgia in 1977, he referred to them as Little People and created an elaborate marketing plan around their distribution. Gift shops and other retailers would never “sell” the creations—instead, they were to be “adopted.” Roberts also corrected anyone who referred to them as “dolls,” preferring to call them “babies” or “kids.” The fantasy worked, and Roberts sold well over 200,000 of his Little People before signing a deal to mass-produce them in partnership with toymaker Coleco in 1982. Under the direction of advertising agent Roger Schlaifer, they were rebranded as Cabbage Patch Kids after the stock explanation parents sometimes use to describe reproduction—that kids come from “the cabbage patch.”

2. PEOPLE GOT TRAMPLED TRYING TO BUY THEM.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact appeal of the Cabbage Patch Kids, which were perceived by some as homely. Some psychologists interviewed at the time believed that the adoption fantasy appealed to children who were looking to be caregivers themselves, while others pointed to the idea that parents could “prove” their worth by securing a Kid for their offspring. Whatever the case, the 1983 holiday shopping season drove consumers into a frenzy. Stores receiving small quantities of the Kids saw shoppers stampede into stores, suffering broken bones, being trampled, and even attempting to bribe employees into reserving them before they hit the sales floor. One manager resorted to wielding a baseball bat as a form of crowd control.

3. XAVIER ROBERTS MADE ONE KID CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD.

As president of Original Appalachian Artworks (OAA), the company incorporated to produce the dolls in 1978, the colorful Roberts enjoyed perpetuating the fantasy of the Kids as actual personalities. One of his earlier creations, Otis Lee, was named Chairman of the Board and frequently traveled with Roberts, rarely leaving his side.

4. ONE DESPERATE PARENT FLEW TO LONDON TO GRAB A KID.

A vintage photo of a child receiving a Cabbage Patch Kid
Dennis Harper, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Frustrated with the lack of supply in North America, a Kansas City mailman named Ed Pennington flew to London during the 1983 season in order to pick up a Kid for his daughter, Leana. (In England, demand wasn’t quite as strong and few had to risk bodily injury to secure one.) Pennington bought five of the Kids and gave four of them away to charity.

5. COLECO HAD TO PULL ITS ADVERTISING.

With demand for the Kids prompting violence, Coleco was chastised by consumer advocates for a form of “false advertising,” running television commercials that attracted consumers when they knew they would be unable to produce enough supply. James Picken, the consumer affairs commissioner in Nassau County, New York, complained the ads amounted to “harassing small children.” The company soon backed off on their ad campaign, pulling TV spots. It was hardly a problem, though: The furor over the Kids brought them headlines—and free advertising—virtually around the clock.

6. ADOPTION GROUPS WEREN’T BIG FANS.

A child examines two Cabbage Patch Kid toys
alamosbasement, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The marketing for the Kids, which involved an “oath” to treat them with care along with a birth certificate and adoption papers, spoke to adolescent consumers but didn’t find support in the actual adoption community. Feeling the toy trivialized actual adoptive parents and their kids, adoption groups spoke out against the idea, fearing it would prompt children to believe people could be “bought.”

7. THERE WAS AN EASY WAY TO SMELL A FAKE.

With any consumer product sensation comes a parade of counterfeit merchandise, and the Kids were no exception. Consumer advocate groups pointed out that bogus Cabbage Patch items possessed an oily smell due to the industrial rags they had been stuffed with. Thought to be highly flammable, consumers were told to avoid Kids that reeked of kerosene.  

8. THEY SUED THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS.

A Cabbage Patch Kid sits on top of a dumpster
Al Pavangkanan, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Roberts and OAA didn’t find a lot to laugh about when Topps released their line of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards in 1985. Featuring the same rounded heads and cute expressions as the Cabbage Patch Kids, OAA charged that the booger-infested cards were infringing on their copyright. After a court battle, Topps agreed to alter the design of their cards.

9. ONE MODEL HAD TO BE RECALLED FOR EATING THEIR OWNERS' HAIR.

Cabbage Patch mania was on full display through 1984, when Coleco sold 20 million of the toys before demand finally began to wane. In an effort to bolster sales later in the decade, new Cabbage Patch licensee Mattel released Snack Time Kids, which were intended to gobble up fake French fries. Instead, the mechanism could bite down on their owner’s long hair and automatically begin chewing. After complaints—and one 911 call for a child in Connecticut unable to free herself from the Kid’s maw—Mattel offered refunds and withdrew the toy from stores.

10. THEY INSPIRED A MORBID URBAN LEGEND.

A set of Cabbage Patch Kids wearing hats
lisaclarke, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Cabbage Patch Kids that had suffered indignities like dog maulings, sibling amputations, or other misadventures could potentially be repaired by doll hospitals. But one morbid rumor sprang up in newspapers: if your Kid was beyond repair, Coleco would issue the toy a death certificate.  

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