Daily Archives: February 22, 2009

What’s in a name?

I recently browsed my way over here and found it eminently amusing.

New meme: here’s a totally random way to make your new random band’s new random album cover. Post one! Go to “Wikipedia.” Hit “random” and the first article you get is the name of your band. Then go to “Random Quotations” and the last four or five words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album. Then, go to Flickr and click on “Explore the Last Seven Days” and the third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

I tried it a few times and found that it worked amazingly well.  But what was more fascinating to me were the kind of backstories people would make based solely on a series of randomly chosen phrases.   In particular, people seemed to be assigning genres to bands whose names were arbitrarily scraped from wikipedia.  Is there some latent logic behind these assignations?  Would people generally agree on genres for these made up bands?

In the old days, I would furrow my brow and call it a day.  Nowadays, we have Mechanical Turk.  Here’s the experiment: I randomly chose article titles from wikipedia (I did a little automatic processing to get rid of excessively long article titles, disambiguation pages, etc.).  I offered this random article title as a band name to three turkers and asked them to guess the genre.  In sum, I had genre guesses for 200 bands, each one done in triplicate. 

The results are here (start registering those myspace pages!). It really looks like people had a lot of fun with this assignment (some more than others). And while there are plenty of differences, there are similarities which would suggest that there’s some sort of common cultural knowledge that goes into choosing a band name. For example, people agree that “Cut the knot” should be a metal band (in actuality it’s a magazine devoted to mathematics). A couple of people thought that Larry Ellison (the CEO of Oracle) should be a jazz/lounge act, while two people thought Brook Lundy (the creator of an e-card humor website) should be a country singer. They’re just names for god’s sake!

Now the thought rolling around my brain is whether or not we can teach machines what people already seem to know about what’s in a name…


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