CLOSE
Original image
Getty

Why Everyone Stopped Asking Jeeves

Original image
Getty

In 14 novels by comic author P.G. Wodehouse, spread over the course of a half-century, a fictional valet named Reginald Jeeves fielded questions of sartorial, societal, and personal etiquette posed by his employer, wealthy London socialite Bertie Wooster.

By the late 1990s, he was being asked where internet users could find nude photos of actresses.

It should be noted that the Jeeves of the Wodehouse books, which were eventually used as a template for the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster, was not quite the same Jeeves of AskJeeves.com, the web portal that debuted in 1997 and encouraged search engine users to field their curiosity in the form of a question. (“What’s the best restaurant in San Diego?” “What is Pamela Anderson’s home address?”) But enough similarities remained for the Wodehouse estate to toy with the idea of litigation in 2000, asserting the dot-com had co-opted the character without any financial arrangement.

That would prove to be the least of the site’s problems. After a spectacular initial public offering (IPO) on the stock market that rocketed from $14 to $190.50 a share, Ask Jeeves became a casualty of the search engine wars of the early 2000s. Eventually, their mascot would be escorted right out the door.

untitled_134.png

The original AskJeeves.com launch page.
Internet Archive

Long before Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, Garrett Gruener had a notion to humanize information-gathering online. A graduate of UC San Diego, Gruener had been a venture capitalist in the burgeoning computing world of the 1980s. After founding and selling off Virtual Microsystems in the 1980s, he looked for other ways to explore the market and the potential of the internet to become a consumer-friendly user space.

By 1992, Gruener had an interface, but no face to put to it. He liked the idea of a virtual concierge, similar to the hotel employee who fields guest requests, but didn’t think Americans would know exactly what the word meant. He went with a butler motif instead, and named him Jeeves—not after the Wodehouse character, he claimed, but more in line with how the name had become synonymous with servitude. In partnership with his former Virtual Microsystems employee David Warthen, Gruener launched Ask Jeeves in April 1997.

Although Yahoo!, Alta Vista, and Excite were all in the market, Gruener felt Ask Jeeves set itself apart with its interface. His team had spent months building a library of "knowledge capsules," snapshots of answers to questions they felt would be most commonplace. If a question wasn’t addressed in their content, the site would default to a more general search.

For users overwhelmed with pages of results stemming from a simple search, Ask Jeeves was more refined—dignified, even—with Jeeves standing at attention near the search bar. Many of the queries were consumer-oriented—asking for the best eateries, plumbers, or hotels—while others sought the kind of information that required both urgency and specialized knowledge. “How to get rid of skunk smell?” was one common query. (Salaciousness won the day, however. One in five questions pertained to finding nude photos.)

Gruener’s hunch was correct. People enjoyed the direct, personalized navigation, and saw themselves as Ask Jeeves loyalists. He once compared them to Mac users, who had tunnel vision when it came to alternatives. By 1998, the site was handling 300,000 searches a day. By 1999, it was up to 1 million. After going public, shares climbed from $14 to $60 to $190.50.

Jeeves was poised to be the internet’s first breakout character. He appeared in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, reportedly the first web-based personality ever to do so. The site signed with high-profile Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz and plotted an aggressive merchandising campaign that would see toys, apparel, and other product further familiarize Jeeves to the public.

(None of this was lost on the Wodehouse estate, which questioned whether Ask Jeeves had infringed on their rights to the Jeeves character. While they owned the butler, the Jeeves of the web was not quite the Jeeves of the books, and both parties announced a non-disclosed settlement in 2000.)

Jeeves would finally lose his composure in 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst. Advertisers fleeing from web development led to mass casualties online. The company posted a $425 million loss in 2001; shares plummeted to 86 cents in 2002. Despite his sharp appearance, Jeeves was dangerously close to insolvency.

4090483544_56dbf44dbe_z.jpg

search-engine-land via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Ask Jeeves would rebound from those dark times. The site was reconfigured to be more search-oriented with the addition of a third-party engine, and Jeeves was recast as more of a mascot; a 2003 ad campaign didn’t even feature him. That same year, Gruener was able to post the company’s first-ever profit, thanks in large part to an ad revenue deal with Google. But the behemoth in the search engine space wasn't sharing the market: It owned 32 percent of the industry compared to just 3 percent for Ask Jeeves.

In 2005, Barry Diller’s InterActive Corp. (IAC) purchased the site for $1.85 billion with an eye toward making it less about questions and more about general searches. Gruener departed; Ask Jeeves morphed into Ask.com, with the butler disappearing entirely the following year.

Why? Perceiving Jeeves to be representative of the 1990s internet culture, Diller and IAC believed his charm had run its course. “I don't see many tears on the floor," Diller said about the character’s absence.

While Diller had designs on being competitive with Google, it was not to be: That site went on to claim a clear dominance of the search market. By 2010, corporate support for Ask.com had dwindled, although the URL remains a part of the search engine landscape. Aside from a brief return in 2009 in the UK, Jeeves has been unavailable to field any additional questions.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES