Sunday, April 17, 2005

Fun With Algorithms! 

Yay Innovation! Yay Internets!

Google keeps giving and giving, giving away essential services, and all they ask in return is that you let them collect information about you to sell to advertisers (nothin' important, you know, just like, what kinda car you drive, if you shave with an electric razor, your favorite Wilco side project, that kinda stuff). Now they have free and fairly detailed satellite photos of most of the country available for people who enjoy squinting at things from great distances. It's not actually good for anything, but what a neat toy! Here's where I got a summons for smoking on an elevated train platform! Here's the old headquarters of the Daily Worker! Here's where I played wiffleball once!

Useless but briefly interesting!

That phrase, the official motto of the internet, is also a fairly accurate discription of all the shit Amazon's been doing lately. There's the stuff that one could see being very helpful, if it actually worked -- say, linking yellow pages entries to photographs like this one. And there's the crazy shit they're doing over at their bookselling arm, which has excited four or five people the world over.

Living in Manhattan, I don't use Amazon that much; I find most of my books in cardboard boxes on the curb. But they're trying oh so hard to get me to like them, so I checked around the site and saw what was new.

First, many books allow you to "search" their content, and to view images of the first few pages. It's a remarkable, revolutionary new way of shopping for books -- one might call it "browsing" (in this, Amazon falls still short of real-life bookstores, as most Barnes and Nobles have chairs to read in and many Border's, from what I understand, encourage patrons to shoplift). And part of the search feature is fun, computer-generated statistics that explain the book so you don't have to. My favorites are the "readability stats." Let's take a look, shall we?
The Readability calculations estimate how easy it is to read and understand the text of a book.

* The Fog Index was developed by Robert Gunning. It indicates the number of years of formal education required to read and understand a passage of text. A score between 7 and 8 is considered ideal, while a score above 12 is considered difficult to read.
* The Flesch Index, developed in 1940 by Dr. Rudolph Flesch, is another indicator of reading ease. The score returned is based on a 100 point scale, with 100 being easiest to read. Scores between 90 and 100 are appropriate for 5th and 6th graders, while a college degree is considered necessary to understand text with a score between 0 and 30.
* The Flesch-Kincaid Index is a refinement to the Flesch Index that tries to relate the score to a U.S. grade level. For example, text with a Flesch-Kincaid score of 10.1 would be considered suitable for someone with a 10th grade or higher reading level.

And, of course, some representative examples:

Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger, By Sonny Barger
Fog Index: 9.5
Flesch Index: 66.5
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 7.9

The Da Vinci Code
Fog Index: 9.1
Flesch Index: 63.2
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 7.2

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
Fog Index: 6.1
Flesch Index: 83.7
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 4.2

Battle Ready, by Tom Clancy
Fog Index: 12.8
Flesch Index: 53.1
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 10.1

Fog Index: 9.0
Flesch Index: 68.1
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 6.8

So there you have it. Sonny Barger is officially a better writer than James Joyce.

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