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Syntax Error

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; 10:15 AM

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Reporters who write about the technology sector crack themselves up over the abstruse, jargon-laced language of their beat.

Sometimes we'll mix and match corporate tech-talk to come up with our own press releases: "It's a plug-and-play seamless connection paradigm that produces a win-win across multiple platforms for asynchronous synergies." You might think that's laying it on a bit thick, but I've seen worse. Technology writers should get a special bonus check every year for translating geek-speak into plain English.

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It turns out that certain members of the academic community feel the same way about the arcane argot of their peers. The Associated Press reported that three graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a computer program that generates fake research papers loaded with ridiculous gobbledygook -- and got one of the resulting papers accepted at a conference.

"The program, developed by Jeremy Stribling, Max Krohn and Dan Aguayo, generated a paper with the dumbfounding title: 'Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy,'" the AP reported. "Its introduction begins: 'Many scholars would agree that, had it not been for active networks, the simulation of Lamport clocks might never have occurred.'"

The program takes its cue from the Mad Libs books that some of us grew up with. It uses sentences from real papers, but fills in blank spots with random gems stolen from academia.

Stribling told the AP that the idea was to expose the conference "as being willing to publish any paper regardless of whether it's been peer-reviewed, which is kind of a dangerous precedent to set."

Here's a sample of what got by the conference reviewers, as posted at Blogcritics.org: "Many physicists would agree that, had it not been for congestion control, the evaluation of web browsers might never have occurred. In fact, few hackers worldwide would disagree with the essential unification of voice-over-IP and public-private key pair. In order to solve this riddle, we confirm that SMPs can be made stochastic, cacheable, and interposable."

The story got a lot of play in the global news media, even garnering an editorial from the Boston Globe. The paper's editorial board correctly surmised, "The reason something like that can slip by editors without an eye blink is that a lot of people in academia think, speak, and write that way -- and they're hardly alone. The business world can take a simple idea and turn it into a paradigm with parameters faster than a mouse click -- and the affliction keeps getting worse, no matter how many consultants are hired to promote clarity."

The event in question is the 9th World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, and you may be forgiven for thinking that the conference title itself was randomly generated by the MIT students' program. Scheduled for the second week of July in Orlando, the conference is devoted to a mish-mash of topics -- information systems development, robotics, network applications, computer science and something called mechatronics.

The organizer is retired professor Nagib Callaos, who told me this morning that he's not enjoying all the free press his academic gathering is getting these days.

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