February 10, 2005

Anne of Green Gables and conversational optimization

A couple of days ago, Geoff Pullum asked amazon.com for a book by J. A. Green on the theory of sets and groups, and got answers that included one of the Anne of Green Gables novels. That very same evening, I happened to be reading a passage in William Gibson's 2004 novel Pattern Recognition where something similar takes place in a conversation between two human beings. Although both of Anne's intrusions were unexpected and unwelcome, they were the result of conversational strategies that make a lot of sense in general.

Pattern Recognition is about Cayce Pollard's search for the source of "the footage", a set of mysterious film clips spread anonymously around the internet. The footage has attracted an international cult, and Cayce's sub-cult of footageheads hangs out at a site called Fetish:Footage:Forum, run by someone named Ivy from her apartment in Seoul. One of Cayce's F:F:F friends, Parkaboy, has been doing some of what he calls "kanji-crusing" with his pal "Darryl, AKA Musashi, a California footagehead fluent in Japanese." In email to Cayce, Parkaboy explains that

Darryl and I, burrowing deep into back posts on an Osaka-based board of quite singular tediousness, had happened across what seemed to be a reference to #78 having been discovered to be watermarked.

Parkaboy and Darryl spread some "genderbait" on the Japanese forum:

... to get on with the narrative of Parkaboy and Musashi in deep kanji-space, we came back to the present, and our own language, with this one glancing and highly cryptic reference -- which I at first was convinced might be nothing more than an artifact of Darryl's translation. I returned to Chicago, then, and Darryl and I, curiosity's cats, began to lovingly generate a Japanese persona, namely one Keiko, who began to post, in Japanese, on that same Osaka site. Putting her cuteness about a bit. Very friendly. Very pretty, our Keiko. You'd love her. Nothing like genderbait for the nerds as I'm sure you well know. She posts from Musashi's ISP but that's because she's in San Francisco learning English. Very shortly, we had one Takayuchi eating out of our flowerlike palm. Taki, as he prefers we call him, claims to orbit a certain otaku-coven in Tokyo, a group that knows itself as 'Mystic,' though its members never refer to it that way in public, nor indeed refer to it at all. It is these Mystic wonks, according to Taki, who have cracked the watermark on #78. This segment, according to Taki, is marked with a number of some kind, which he claims to have seen, and know.

Cayce, who earns her living as a coolhunter and logo consultant, has been hired to find the source of the footage by the Belgian marketing genius Hubertus Bigend. She travels to Tokyo, posing as Keiko's English teacher on a tourist visit, where she is supposed to meet Taki and exchange a signed picture of Keiko for the Mystic-decrypted number from footage #78.

She meets him in a bar, "one of those apparently nameless little red-lantern pub-analogs they have here, ... set into ground-floor walls in back lanes like this one."

What she's confronted with here, she decides, is an extreme example of Japanese geek culture. Taki is probably the kind of guy who knows everything there is to know about one particular Soviet military vehicle ...

Their conversation does not go very well.

"Keiko's told me a lot about you," she says, trying to get into character, but this only seems to make him more uncomfortable. "But I don't think she's told me what it is that you do."

Taki says nothing.

Parkaboy's faith, that Taki has enough English to handle the transaction, may be unfounded.

And here she is, halfway around the world, trying to swap a piece of custom-made pornography for a number that might mean nothing at all.


He isn't, as Parkaboy has indicated, the best-looking guy she's recently had a drink with. Though that, come to think of it, would be Bigend. She winces.

"I do?" Responding perhaps to the wince

"Your job?"

The barman places her beer on the table.

"Game," Taki manages. "I design game. For mobile phone."

She smiles, she hopes encouragingly, and sips her Asahi Lite. She's feeling more guilty by the minute. Taki -- she hasn't gotten his last name and probably never will -- has big dark semicircles of anxiety sweat under the arms of his button-down shirt. His lips are wet and probably tend to spray slightly when he speaks. If he were any more agonized to be here, he'd probably just curl up and die.


"That's interesting," she lies. "Keiko told me you know a lot, about computers and things."

Now it's his turn to wince, as if struck, and knocks back the remainder of his beer. "Things? Keiko? Says?"

"Yes. Do you know 'the footage'?"

"Web movie." He looks even more desperate now. The heavy glasses, lubricated with perspiration, slide inexorably down his nose. She resists an urge to reach over and push them back up.

"You ... know Keiko?" He winces again, getting it out.

She feels like applauding. "Yes! She's wonderful! She asked me to bring you something." [...]

Taki fumbles in his sport coat's side pocket, coming up with a crumpled pack of Casters. Offers her one.

"No, thank you."

"Keiko sends?" He puts a Caster between his lips and leaves it there, unlit.

"A photograph." She's glad she can't see her own smile; it must be ghastly.

"Give me Keiko photo!" The Caster, having been plucked from this mouth for this, is returned. It trembles.

"Taki, Keiko tells me that you've discovered something. A number. Hidden in the footage. Is this true?"

His eyes narrow. Not a wince but suspicion, or so she reads it. "You are footage lady?"


"Keiko like footage?"

Now she's into improv, as she can't remember what Parkaboy and Musashi have been telling him.

"Keiko is very kind. Very kind to me. She likes to help me with my hobby."

"You like Keiko very much?"

"Yes!" Nodding and smiling.

"You like ... Anne-of-Green-Gable?"

Cayce starts to open her mouth but nothing comes out.

"My sister like Anne-of-Green-Gable, but Keiko ... does not know Anne-of-Green-Gable." The Caster is dead still now, and the eyes behind the dandruff-flecked lenses seem calculating. Have Parkaboy and Musashi blown it, somehow, in their attempt to generate a believable Japanese girl-persona? If Keiko were real, would she necessarily have to like Anne of Green Gables? And anything Cayce might ever have known about the Anne of Green Gables cult in Japan has just gone up in a puff of synaptic mist.

Then Taki smiles, for the first time, and removes the Caster. "Keiko modern girl." He nods. "Body-con!"

"Yes! Very! Very modern." Body-con, she knows means body-conscious: Japanese for buff.

Cayce does get her number, in the end, and Taki gets not only Keiko's photo but also, miraculously, Keiko herself (or at least Judy Tsuzuki, the Japanese-American barmaid that Darryl got to pose for the picture).

So why did Anne of Green Gables intrude into these conversations among Geoff, Amazon, Cayce and Taki? Geoff suggested that it happened to him because Amazon now searches on the contents on books as well as on their titles and authors. And he's right, insofar as "set" and "theory" occur in the text of Anne of Avonlea but not in its title or author (though "Advanced Search" allows you, as always, to limit search to specified fields, and searching for author="green" and subject="set theory" returns only one result, the book that Geoff wanted).

But there's another factor: the Anne novels are quite popular. The Complete Anne of Green Gables boxed set has an Amazon sales rank of 3,223. In comparison, the paperback edition of Sets and Groups by James A. Green -- the book that Geoff was looking for -- has an Amazon sales rank of 3,147,553, or almost 3 orders of magnitude lower. Actually, this is the worst Amazon sales rank I've ever seen.

And Amazon is no doubt ordering its search results, in part, according to the popularity of the items in the list. This makes sense, since more popular items are, other things equal, more likely to be what a searcher is looking for. If you have too many things to say to someone, why not start with the things that you think they're most likely to find interesting?

And since Amazon is keeping track of what items users look at online, as well as what they buy, there's another aspect of conversational dynamics here as well: one way to decide what to say to someone is to ask how much information you can expect to gain from the response. If you're trying to figure out who someone is, the ideal question would be one that would cut the set of people they might be exactly in half, in which case you'd learn one bit of information from their response. If you ask a question that 99.5% of the relevant population will answer in a predictable way (e.g. "are you interested in set theory?"), then you can expect to gain less than a quarter of a bit of information from the response. Of course, some bits are more interesting than others, so you'd also want to weight the expected information gain by its expected value to you.

I'm not sure whether Amazon is also using this second principle of conversational dynamics, but I'm pretty sure that (we're supposed to think that) Taki is. He knows that young women in Japan have traditionally made a cult of Anne of Green Gables, ever since the American occupation, but he also knows that this is now changing. Apparently "modern girls" are different, in ways that interest him. And Cayce's lack of response to his question is enough of a response for him.

Unfortunately, Geoff clicked on the link, and even searched inside the book. He thereby informed Amazon that he is an old-fashioned type who will also be interested in Heidi, Black Beauty, Little Women, The Secret Garden, and so on.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 10, 2005 07:30 AM