Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Yahoo Answers

I've been goofing around with Yahoo! Answers of late. This is a sort of general forum where people can ask questions, and other people can answer them. I already have a Yahoo! email account, so it was totally painless to start.

I've no idea why i started. It's not like Yahoo! Answers is new. Nor is that i'd never heard of it before.

There's a section under Science and Math called Astronomy and Space. I do astronomy. Some of the questions looked easy. For example, every few minutes, someone asks if the world is going to end in 2012. The Mayan calendar flips over then - sort of like we did going from 1999 to 2000. Did we survive? There are no Mayans left to flip the calendar over. And someone has been saying that there is a planet out there, Planet X, that is going to strike the Earth in 2012. (We'd have seen it by now.) There's some other nonsense too. After typing in my answer for this a half dozen times, i started a file for frequently asked questions. Someone even asked people not to ask this question. That held the flow back for... less than 20 minutes.

When you ask a question, Yahoo! Answers generates links to similar questions. It's hard to imagine that you wouldn't notice that your exact question was already asked - and has answers - well before you get through the asking process. These people just want to ask for whatever reason. They aren't going to be deterred.

So, one day, i ran out of questions i could answer. It's not that somehow the river ran dry. It's just that Yahoo! doesn't let people answer an infinite number of questions. Once you start answering questions and they get picked or voted as the best, then Yahoo! Answers lets you answer more per day.

So what kinds of questions do i ask? Well, there are two kinds. First, i ask questions for which i think there isn't an answer. Second, i ask questions that will evoke some humor. Third, i ask questions for which i already know the answers. Despite these strategies, i've managed to learn something. Highly unexpected, but welcome.

Here's an example question - though i posted it under mathematics.

Why is the line at the bank that i pick always the longest?

There are five lines at the bank. They're more or less the same length. I do my best to pick the shortest one. I note who is at the end of each of the other lines. All four are served before i am. Should i apologize to the people in front of me for picking their line - thus slowing their service?

I'm hoping it's funny because it's common experience. After all, you only have a 20% chance of picking the fastest lane, so most of the time at least one other line is faster. You feel that despite your best efforts, there is no justice in the Universe - someone got ahead of you that shouldn't have. Everyone feels like that. But i've added another twist. The other four end-of-line people get served first. Is that fair? Am i such an intrinsically unlucky person that i should apologize to the rest of my line for slowing them down?

Of course the four other end of line people really were in front of you. They should be served before you. It's the people behind them that are in any way behind you. So, the answer is "no". The Universe works the way it should up to this point.

Yahoo! Answers are nearly a complete waste of time. It's the blind following the blind. Neither the questioners nor the answerers have much in the way of a clue what they're saying. And i'm not just talking about the ones who can't type. Is the best answer from the novices any good?

And what if you really know what you're talking about? What good does it do to say that the Earth won't be destroyed? The only help you can give seems to be when the student has copied the question verbatim from their homework. (I've asked people to tell me where they're going to school - but no responses yet.) And if you know the answer and bother to give it, aren't you bursting with pride?

Perhaps the right thing to do is to write a Yahoo! Answers bot. This bot will have the answers to a bunch of questions, and when one of them gets posted, it will spit out the canned answer. The trick here is to recognize that the question matches an answer. Step two would be to let the bot scan all the questions and answers, figure out what the best answers were, and feed those as canned answers in the future. It might be fun.

Just three more days to answer my question on Yahoo! Answers. Feel free to copy and paste from this blog entry.

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