Ester Dyson spoke recently about SurReview in an interview in Discover and misrepresented some of the details of the SurReview's workings. She probably did not intentionally mislead her audience, but this reviewer feels strongly that the truth should be available to the public.

Firstly, a team of five CMU programmers/literature experts worked on the initial programming, not three. Those five are: Randy Acorn, Sheila Dulimer, Jack Furginton, Eigo "The Word" Yanagisawa and Doug Singh.

Secondly, the review database, from which the review algorithms and SurVocabulary (TM) were derived was different than Ms. Dyson mentioned. Twenty five years of New York times theater and movie reviews were digested, not fifteen. And Ms. Dyson completely forgot the movie reviews of Gene Shalit, which were also included. The Shalit contribution is significant, as Jack Furginton said, "You know, Yin and Yang."

Although Ms. Dyson accurately summarized how the review machine works, this reviewer will also include an overview for those who did not see her piece or are not familiar with SurReview. The SurReview page (http://SurReview.exp) has four convenient areas. On top is an open box where one my enter the url to be reviewed; in the middle is another area where text to be reviewed can be entered, below buttons link to the last ten reviews and at the bottom is a "random review" button for those with a serendipitous bent.

Once either a url or text is entered or one of the buttons pushed, the SurReview engine begins. First the ReviewWorm locates the url to be reviewed and retrieves all the important data. Next the ReviewEngine takes over and parses concepts and ideas to the SurVocabulary unit where the review is constructed. Because SurReview is running on a modified Obsorne 1 with 6 parallel Motorola 220MHh 604e processors, the creation of reviews is almost instantaneous.

Most review are about 1,000 words long, but ocasionally this reviewer has seen ones that are almost 5,000 words.

"We're not trying to put reviewers out of work," said Eigo "The Word" Yanagisawa. "I heard that the Village Voice has used SurReview to review several of the summer books."

And except for the Village Voice and maybe GQ, the SurReview engine, in this reviewer's opinion, isn't going to put anyone out of work for some time. Although of great use for mass reviews of the millions of pages on the World Wide Web, the SurReview can't review movies or gallery shows or music or books that haven't been digitized. And even the review of the web pages that it does review often leave a strange feeling of distance and self-indulgance on the part of the reviewer. The SurReview engine, with its New York Times and Shalit roots often makes strange comparisons. A review of the c-net page contained references to early Godard films and a strange paragraph about Anthony Hopkins, the role of "mother" in the modern world, as the world-wide-web as an information "nipple" from which thousands of men suckle daily.

Randy Acorn explained that because of the teriffic speed of their custom built parallel processing cpu array, often the review that comes out is actually a review of its own review and not the original review.

"That's a bug," said Randy, "once we get that strightened out, the reviews should be a lot more focused on what's being reviewed rather than thoughts about the review process itself or the epistemological essence of the review's relation to art and whether or not art exists without a critic and those other topics that start to take over the reviews. We are going to make it an option that you can leave in so the Village Voice people can continue to use SurReview, but for the average user, we're definately working to get that garbage out."

In conclusion, SurReview is presently a still-flawed tool (but an interesting one). Used in conjunction with the search engines it can help one locate valuable information in the enormous haystack of the world wide web. It can provide philosophical entertainment if the review has gone through the processors a few times. And despite what Ms. Dyson said, it will be many years before it's ready for Miramax films, new Kundera novels and Thai restaurants.

-- Jim Williams

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