Reviews > Culture

Woodstock nation

Culture | Reaping the whirlwind of the '60s, building a better search engine, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Is there no tomorrow?," Aug. 7, 1999

The summer of peace & love
Woodstock '99 was supposed to be about "Peace, Love, and Music," but it ended with fire, mayhem, and rioting. Instead of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin, this edition had Alanis Morisette, Rage Against the Machine, and Metallica. This year's Woodstock in Rome, N.Y., closed with 200-500 concertgoers rioting and thousands more cheering them on, according to police. During a destructive melee that took several hours to quell, rioters smashed booths and tents and concert light stands, and a speaker tower collapsed as they tried to demolish a radio station truck. The mess started as the Red Hot Chili Peppers were busy on stage and a group named Pax was handing out candles to audience members. Some decided to set fire to everything in sight. Soon, tents and booths were being looted and destroyed everywhere. A dozen vendors' trailers were set ablaze, as youths stole soft drinks and merchandise from the trucks. The rioters, who fueled the fire with pieces of the plywood wall surrounding the site, also pulled down a large T-shirt stand, looted a trailer full of hardware, and tipped over a car and burned it. Woodstock promoters said a 1,250-man security force was ready for the festival, but not trained for such conditions. So state troopers in riot gear finally showed up and were greeted with lemons and oranges thrown by the crowd. Eventually they moved the remaining 150,000 of 225,000 concertgoers off the site, leaving about 200 people hanging out, using trash cans for drums as firefighters tried to bring the flames under control. So much for the media-generated image of youthful innocence mixed with large doses of drugs and sex. Search for a search engine
One of the great pains about the Internet is that search engines don't work. Type in a query, like "auto detailing" or "cotton candy" or "covenant theology" and one is likely to get a bunch of useless, off-topic, and often obscene results. After digging through a few pages, a person might finally find something that resembles the correct topic. There's just too much stuff on the Net and too many people trying to beat the system for search engines to be reliable. Princeton, N.J-based NEC Research came out with a study in July that concluded that not all websites are indexed equally. Some aren't even looked at for months at a time, and even the best search engine indexes only about 16 percent of the Web. Larry Page and Servey Brin spent three years at Stanford developing what they think is a way out of the problem. They built a search engine called Google (at www.google.com, naturally), which uses a different system for returning results. Google's algorithm examines every word in a query, like "golf courses and hotels in Montana" and finds web pages relevant to those keywords. Then it counts the number of other web pages that point to each page. Extra credit is given if another high-importance page points to a page. Then Google spits out a results page, including excerpts from each page that include the keywords in the query. Usually the search engine lives up to its expectations, which means it is getting a growing cult following against names like Altavista, Excite, and Lycos. The problem every search engine faces is that no computer can understand context clues well enough to point someone in the right direction all the time. Instead, one often has to find an online guide somewhere to locate all the details on hypoglycemia or pinewood derbies or Keanu Reeves. Eventually, a permanent solution must be found-and someone who finds the way out of this mess can find an easy billion. The robots of academia
You knew this hype was coming: Teachers of the future purportedly will be able to teach ever-larger auditoriums full of students and leave essay exams to robot graders. An experimental program called the Intelligent Essay Assessor, developed by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and New Mexico State University, is touted as being as powerful as the professor. "The program has perfect consistency in grading-an attribute that human graders almost never have," CU-Boulder doctoral student Darrell Laham, co-creator of the program, bragged last year. "The system does not get bored, rushed, sleepy, impatient or forgetful." How does it work? A computer with tons of memory is fed 50,000 to 10 million words from textbooks and other source material. Then when exams comes in, it grades them by semantic analysis, how the student uses the vocabulary of the topic. Its inventors say that a wily cheater could beat the system by throwing together a jumble of terminology, but that doing so would require enough study as writing a good essay. They claim it works from sixth grade to the first year of med school. Nobody is using the Intelligent Essay Assessor outside of experiments, and it is unlikely to work well on papers that show creative intelligence, but its advent provides fitting commentary on modern academia. The program is grading the papers the way many students write them: They grab the book and their notes the night before, then shove everything into their heads at night over cold pizza and Pepsi for regurgitation in the morning. Thus what fills the exam books is summarization, not analysis.

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