A peek behind Philip M. Parker's curtain
April 14, 2008 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Remember Philip M. Parker, the much-reviled "author" whose system churns out ultra-long-tail books on ultra-niche topics? Well, here's video of his software, in action. (Via)
posted by jbickers (37 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would urge watching to the end of the video to experience the full surrealistic glory of learning Spanish with Webster the flying tomato.
posted by robself at 11:22 AM on April 14, 2008

He flies to fight ignorance!
posted by Tacodog at 11:25 AM on April 14, 2008

I'm only 1.5 minutes in and I'm already convinced he's an expert on taking a small nugget of fact and expanding into an ultra-long, boring dissertation.
posted by DU at 11:25 AM on April 14, 2008 [4 favorites]

That tomato game is nightmarish. "Fear"...."Dry"...."Stab"..."Father" voiced over a fireball-spewing anthropomorphic tomato destroying labeled boxes as an enormous sliced orange looms over the horizon like a dying sun? I think this may outsell Portal, and it's educational besides!
posted by contraption at 11:27 AM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I understand the importance of this system yet, but I will tell you, that tomato is gonna be a big time meme. I'm talking Hamsterdance, Goatse, Rickroll here. In a year, you will be ready to strangle the next person who posts a "To fight 'ignorance', he can fly!" snowclone to an Internet forum.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:41 AM on April 14, 2008

Wait, why do we revile him?
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 11:48 AM on April 14, 2008

Man, just when I think I've got Philip M. Parker figured out, he goes and springs a bilingual tomato superhero on me.
posted by cortex at 11:48 AM on April 14, 2008

Um, okay.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:49 AM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am really at a loss for what to say in this letter other than to convey my shock. Let me begin by citing a range of examples from the public sphere. For starters, I can't possibly be alone in my view that the best gauge of the value of my attitudes, the sincerity of my convictions, and the force of my will is the hostility I receive from supercilious party animals. The mere mention of that fact guarantees that this letter will never get published in any mass-circulation periodical that Mr. Philip M Parker has any control over. But that's inconsequential because I fully intend to take action. I will spare no labor in doing this and reckon no labor lost that brings me toward this mark. Even so, Mr. Parker says he's going to pander to stingy knuckleheads sooner than you think. Good old Mr. Parker. He just loves to open his mouth and let all kinds of things come out without listening to how benighted they sound.

In order to understand the motivation behind Mr. Parker's half-measures it is important first to balkanize Mr. Parker's callous, ostentatious little empire into an etiolated and sapless agglomeration. There is no inconsistency here; my goal is to comment on Mr. Parker's analects. I might not be successful at achieving that goal but I honestly do have to try. Others may disagree but I suspect that Mr. Parker likes to cite poll results that "prove" that five-crystal orgone generators can eliminate mind-control energies that are being radiated from secret, underground, government facilities. Really? Have you ever been contacted by one of his pollsters? Chances are good that you never have been contacted and never will be. Otherwise, the polls would show that if you were to ask Mr. Parker, he'd say that he doesn't remember turning headcases loose against us good citizens. Not only does Mr. Parker sincerely have a very selective memory, but I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people. I can therefore assure you that we've tolerated his loathsome op-ed pieces long enough. It's time to lose our patience and chill our kindness. It's time to protect innocent, little children from amoral, conscienceless popinjays like Mr. Parker. It's time to shout to the world that his self-ordination as a god has caused people like me to proclaim that Mr. Parker is doing the very thing for which he criticizes others. As an interesting experiment, try to point this out to him. (You might want to don safety equipment first.) I think you'll find that somebody has to clean up the country and get it back on course again. That somebody can be you. In any case, I recently checked out one of Mr. Parker's recent tracts. Oh, look; he's again saying that his vices are the only true virtues. Raise your hand if you're surprised. Seriously, though, there's something I've observed about Mr. Parker. Namely, he may not know how to spell "ultrastandardization" but he doubtlessly knows how to confiscate other people's rightful earnings. I've further observed that if Mr. Parker had done his homework, he'd know that he thinks we want him to hamstring our efforts to take the initiative to act as a positive role model for younger people. Excuse me, but maybe his forces don't represent an ideology. They don't represent a legitimate political group of people. They're just flat incomprehensible.

It may be unfashionable to say so and it may surprise a few of you out there, but Mr. Parker is the picture of the insane person on the street, babbling to a tree, a wall, or a cloud, which cannot and does not respond to his endeavors. Despite what he says, if Mr. Parker's thinking were cerebral rather than glandular, he wouldn't consider it such a good idea to destroy our moral fiber. I avouch that the best way to overcome misunderstanding, prejudice, and hate is by means of reason, common sense, clear thinking, and goodwill. Mr. Parker, in contrast, believes that we should derive moral guidance from his glitzy, multi-culti, hip-hop, consumption-oriented programs of Gleichschaltung. The conclusion to draw from this conflict of views should be obvious: Mr. Parker has had some success in breaking down our communities. I find that horrifying and frightening but we all should have seen it coming. We all knew that when Mr. Parker hears anyone say that there is another side to the issue, his answer is to assuage the hungers of his loyalists with servings of fresh scapegoats. That's similar to taking a few drunken swings at a beehive: it just makes me want even more to resolve our disputes without violence. A final note: At no point in Mr. Philip M Parker's response to my last volley of criticisms was he even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought.

posted by Dr-Baa at 11:51 AM on April 14, 2008 [10 favorites]

Without being able to see the underlying process it's really hard to judge just how competent this system of his is.

Where is the information being pulled from in the first place? The internet? How do we know this is good data?

Notice in the tomato game he's way far away from the object he's shotting at and, in English, we hear the word that was probably written on the object just destroyed. Well if you're trying to learn English you need to have seen what that word was in Spanish so you know what word is being said to you in English. To me the effectiveness of the game is called into question immediately.

I also question the idea that these games take 5 minutes to build. Those 3D models and texturing weren't auto-generated. They had human sources, from photographs (who owns the copyrights of those photos?) to models (again, who owns the copyrights? someone created them.) Then there's the voice over work. All of which will take more than five minutes to produce.

At the very least I think we need to see some independent auditing of the content his programs are generating. Is it good data? Are these teach games effective? Or is this more just the fantasy world of some random guy?
posted by ruthsarian at 11:53 AM on April 14, 2008

I'm pretty much going with that last possibility, ruthsarian.
posted by cortex at 11:56 AM on April 14, 2008

Related Videos:
VeRy FuNNy aNiMaTed GiFs PaRT 452

thanks, you-tube.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 12:13 PM on April 14, 2008

I can has singularity?
posted by jlowen at 12:23 PM on April 14, 2008

ruthsarian, I think the mechanics of the game must be worked out ahead of time. He probably just feeds in a list of words to shoot at and does the voice overs in 5 minutes.
posted by kuatto at 12:24 PM on April 14, 2008

Where is the information being pulled from in the first place? The internet? How do we know this is good data?

I may be wrong, but judging by this video, it looks like his program just takes some economic data about various regions, cities, countries, or what have you compared to the same economic data for the seed region and then extrapolates from there.
posted by ssg at 12:35 PM on April 14, 2008

My tongue is swollen!
posted by Kabanos at 12:39 PM on April 14, 2008

In today's New York Times: He Wrote 200,000 Books (but Computers Did Some of the Work).
posted by ericb at 12:42 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oddly enough, from that article:

"There is a continuous spectrum, also known as a slippery slope, between a program that automatically typesets a telephone directory and a program that generates English texts at the level of variety you would expect from a typical human English speaker," said Chung-chieh Shan, an assistant professor in the computer science department of Rutgers. "The former program is easy to write, the latter program is very difficult; in fact, the holy grail of linguistics. Like Mad-Libs, Parker's programs probably lie somewhere between the two ends of this spectrum."

Emphasis mine. While the substance of Shan's statement rings true with me—advanced Mad Libbery seems like a better description of what Parker is doing than "artificial intelligence"—it seems really weird and off the mark to trot out "slipperly slope" in this context. Or is that a neutral synonym for "continuum" in some English-speaking regions?
posted by cortex at 12:50 PM on April 14, 2008

I honestly can't tell whether this is cool or not. I guess I would need to know more about how he handles the database searching, what his data sources are, how the final books actually read, etc. It's all very interesting, though.

His economics work seems pretty interesting, too. He studies something called "physioeconomics", which is apparently an attempt to put constraints of matter and energy conservation (i.e. eventual resource scarcity) on models of economic growth. Can anyone out there who knows this stuff tell us more about it? It's intriguing...
posted by mr_roboto at 12:53 PM on April 14, 2008

"slipperly slope"

slopes can go upwards, too!

As for this guy's work, welcome to the future. While it's a difficult problem, I will be somewhat surprised if machine generation of content isn't working like this before I die in later this century.

IOW, the ability to query the net, eg. "How many days did it rain in Mumbai last year?" and get an accurate answer shouldn't be /that/ far off.
posted by tachikaze at 12:59 PM on April 14, 2008

So now he can not only autogenerate crappy books, but also crappy games, too? And crappy Youtube videos?

Truly the machines now have no further use for us.
posted by echo target at 1:26 PM on April 14, 2008

This is one of the most surreal, insane, and HILARIOUS things I've ever seen. Watch the video, you'll see more of the most ridiculous and unbelievable things, in one video, you've ever seen. Don't get me wrong, this isn't foolish or stupid, it's just random and absurd.

There is a scene of a flying tomato shooting at spanish words followed by 3D characters of robots, cats, fish, and people who are supposed to be news anchors and game show hosts to spew this patented content generation firehose - through SOME form of media?? What? The? Hell?

The more I think about this, the funnier it gets. I had to stop halfway through writing this post to laugh into my hands and wipe the tears from my eyes.

In the video he has to stop talking to finish shooting the Spanish words in that little game, and the voiceover in the game is his Voice! This is probably the funniest thing I've ever seen.

Phillip Parker is a nut case, and I sincerely thank him for making me laugh harder than I've laughed in years. This is internet excellence.
posted by hellslinger at 2:05 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Phillip Parker is a nut case, and I sincerely thank him for making me laugh harder than I've laughed in years. This is internet excellence.

It's notoriously difficult to evaluate the importance and quality of this kind of work without the benefit of hindsight, so you might consider holding back some of that laughter should it come back to embarrass you in the future. Compare: Bill Proxmire and the Aspen Movie Map.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:16 PM on April 14, 2008

Well I've just bought one of his programs and once I've adapted it to churn out MeFi posts I will rule you all! RULE YOU ALL, I SAY!!! WHA HA HA HA!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:17 PM on April 14, 2008

so you might consider holding back some of that laughter should it come back to embarrass you in the future

It was hellslinger's laughter, but I'll respond for my own part.

There is a difference between disregarding the promise of an idea and disregarding the utility of a given piece of work. That Proxmire had a swing and a miss with the AMM doesn't, for example, vindicate Night Trap.

If Parker turns out to be on to something of genuine use (rather than merely chasing a buck creatively by putting long-extant ideas into questionable practice—which is what it looks like at this point) then I'll be surprised and willingly acknowledge having misread him. Right now he looks like a mix of kook and scammer, and as I said in the previous thread, I'm less than impressed with the available evidence.
posted by cortex at 2:44 PM on April 14, 2008

It's notoriously difficult to evaluate the importance and quality of this kind of work without the benefit of hindsight, so you might consider holding back some of that laughter should it come back to embarrass you in the future.

I'm trying not to mock this stuff, I didn't mean to. I should have been more specific and said that the video itself, and the way the information is presented, is silly and quite hilarious. It's just specious considering he doesn't tell you anything about how it works and you don't get to see any of the generated content that he speaks of other than unreadable blocks of text and random tables being thrown into a word document.

The ridiculous part of this is simple to point out. Where do the data come from and how can you trust any of it? Have you seen the prices of his books on Amazon, they're several HUNDRED dollars a piece. If it really took him 13 mins to create a book about wooden toilet seats in japan, why would it cost 795 dollars? How can you not be skeptical of something that is so ridiculous at face value even if it is legitimate in the end? At the very least it is funny.

Clearly, the spanish speaking game isn't nearly as dubious, it is a flying tomato who is cute and english/spanish translations with a picture of what the word means on archways. Then he shoots the arches and collects cubes and hears the word in English. I don't understand the game though. Why is he shooting these arches? Aside from interactivity, this game is no different from flashcards, the player isn't forced to make the connection between the word in both languages. Highly amusing to me.

Additionally, if good editorial content could just be automatically created, why wouldn't people have thought of this before? This idea isn't exactly new or clever unless he has some truly amazing generator that has the complexity in vocabulary and language skills as an experienced writer. If it doesn't, there is no point in cranking out a bunch of formulaic blurbs next to graphs because a simple computer program will make the same handful of inferences over and over again, and they probably won't be anything a moderately intelligent human won't be able to make from looking at the table/graph for 5 seconds. Fetching a bunch of information from a database and dumping it to a word document is not remarkable.
posted by hellslinger at 3:15 PM on April 14, 2008

I could imagine his Guide to Disease X books could be useful to someone who doesn't know how to use the variety of medical literature search engines (which is most people) to pick out important reviews, common meds, etc. The thinner the starting literature is, the easier it would be to make a reference. To someone who has no idea where to start on research, it could be worth $20. It'd probably be better than wikipedia and worse than UpToDate.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:42 PM on April 14, 2008

Also, if his program generates modestly relevant content from extant sources, it should be plugged in to create baseline wikipedia articles.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:44 PM on April 14, 2008

This should be the patent he has on this

his youtube

I don't really know what to make of this, but it seems like all the stuff he's pulling from the web would be subject to copyright, and I wonder how he gets around this.
posted by !Jim at 6:46 PM on April 14, 2008

His accomplishment seems considerably less sexy if you replace the word "books" with "reports."
posted by jayder at 8:51 PM on April 14, 2008

Everyone realizes this is complete and utter fraud, right? Its completely faked. There is no 'large software' package. He doctored everything you see up himself.

Somehow his program can read and understand english and then write it out again in a way that makes sense, while google cant manage to make translating from english to spanish make any sense? Come on.

I made a bot on IRC that you give the name of a movie to, and it outputs the sumery and rating from rottentomatoes. Thats as close as computers are to this, and its just running matches on strings and stealing content.
posted by rubin at 9:27 PM on April 14, 2008


It appeared to me that his program was only taking a bit of data, then plugging that data into a program that extrapolates the data into a bunch of "forecasts" applicable to different countries. Any English that is written by the program is purely formulaic.

I didn't see anywhere in the video where he claimed his program can read English. Yes, his program is about as sophisticated as your bot.
posted by jayder at 9:41 PM on April 14, 2008

If his online dictionary is any indication of his methods in general, I would guess that he is basically gluing together data sources. Look at "algorithm," for example. The primary definition is from WordNet, a free dictionary / word-database. "Specialty definitions" are pulled from other free online info sources, including wikipedia. "Commercial Usage" seems to be pulled from an Amazon title search. Various statistics are computed from English language corpora. Etc., etc. I'm dubious of the copyright of his translation sources, though, but maybe such excerpts (presented one at a time) fall under fair use?

The projects described in the video are similar. There is a lot of data out there, freely available, and while it takes some work, it's not impossible to draw it all together semi-coherently around any given seed topic. It sounds like he has a separate program for every book topic, for example, which means that he essentially has a "disease book" template that draws from some predefined set of data sources, a "random product market forecast" template that draws from another set, etc.

Given the sheer amount of data he seems to deal with, I'd guess he's (unintentionally) infringed copyright in numerous cases, but there is so much freely-usable data out there that the basic idea is sound.

The 3D stuff? Newscasters / education / video game... not so hot. From what I've read, his books are mediocre quality, but he can make a bajillion of them, sell one copy for every thousand titles, and be doing okay. I don't see that working with video content or games. It will get there eventually, though. Anyone remember when Ananova first showed up? It will be 8 years ago this Saturday (according to Wikipedia).

Like tachikaze said, automated content generation is not entirely out of reach. I think Parker is just applying current technology to the glut of information available these days, and his results are mediocre because there are still some pieces missing on the technology side.

And because it's almost relevant, here are some sentences "composed" by a program I wrote just yesterday:
The jackdaw is a big- brained chimpanzee. There is an enormous dilatable sac beneath the lower jaw from the Heidelberg sand- pit must be regarded as the price paid for a body. There is one point on which all his science is founded.

`But you can't write, you can take it all in the long hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she can't speak plainly. `
Still working on it...
posted by whatnotever at 11:48 PM on April 14, 2008

I thought it was interesting that he said knowing how to use the web well means you probably don't need his books. I was already thinking of his system in terms of a dead-trees representation of the web, with things like the charts and formulaic recitation of country extrapolations the equivalent of fancy HTML tables.

So you end up with dry, unreadable English. It's probably a bit similar to the boilerplate data on city demographics in Wikipedia.

Also, if his program generates modestly relevant content from extant sources, it should be plugged in to create baseline wikipedia articles.


As of the census[1] of 2000, there were 38,426 people, 15,678 households, and 9,328 families residing in the city. The population density was 2,330.7 people per square mile (899.7/km²). There were 16,668 housing units at an average density of 1,011.0/sq mi (390.3/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 85.91% White, 0.54% Black or African American, 0.59% Native American, 11.41% Asian, 0.04% Pacific Islander, 0.30% from other races, and 1.21% from two or more races. 1.04% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. The percentage of Asians reflects Wausau's large Hmong community.

The last line was probably added by hand. But most of this came from Rambot.

Back to Parker. No, the data it all comes from may not be any good, although I'd wager that it doesn't matter since it's a brute force extrapolation, probably over rock-solid country data from the UN or whomever. To him, it really doesn't matter if the input is any good. GIGO. He does know that he can package it and sell it.

it seems really weird and off the mark to trot out "slippery slope" in this context

To mash that up with phrases a bit earlier in the NYT article, the slippery slope is right after the peak of the bell curve and leads down to the long tail ....
posted by dhartung at 1:09 AM on April 15, 2008

Where Parker crosses the line from 'guy with a dubious piece of technology' to outright scammer is when he's taken books generated by computer and posted them on Amazon, without making clear that they're automatically generated compendia of internet sources. When the last article about him appeared on the blue, I looked over some of his stuff, and a lot of buyers seemed very disappointed by what they ended up receiving. And to be honest, had I not found the books because I was knowingly searching on his name, I wouldn't have known they were auto-generated based on Google searches either.

I think there's some borderline fraud in taking a book that's written by a computer program and selling it under a person's name, as if it's authored by a human being. At least there is right now, when the computer-generated product is so obviously inferior. (And it really is. There's no "writing" going on here, at least not any more than the Mefi Markov Generator does.)

There may well be a market for what his computer programs are creating, but he's not doing anyone any service by dumping it on Amazon and hoping people will buy it based on the title and (in some cases) a couple of obviously fraudulent 5-star reviews.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:53 AM on April 15, 2008

Seriously. Qu'est-ce que c'est?
posted by oxford blue at 10:01 PM on April 15, 2008

Shovelware comes to mind. Having access to broadband makes CDs full of shareware seem less exciting. Similarly, I'd guess knowing how to use Google & Wikipedia & critically evaluate references kind of limits the appeal of this.

Leveraging computer power to amplify human intelligence is a good idea, but this isn't a great demonstration of that promise. Instead I'm reminded of cut-rate games based on using game engines & as little work as possible.
posted by Pronoiac at 11:40 PM on April 15, 2008

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