Collateral Benefits

I like things that do things. It would be more complete and more accurate to say I like things that do *extra* things, things that are beyond the original things' primary purpose or reason for being, but which are still nice things to have happening.

It'd be more accurate still to say that I like things with these "collateral benefits," as I've joyously heard them called, so much that (or perhaps because) I *despise* their opposite: stuff that wastes stuff.

For instance, I like my laptop and all, and feel good about it because it was the cheapest Mac they sell, and I got it refurbished and all, and it's absolutely as much computer as I need. Maybe a little more. Nice 'n tidy.

But then, of course, I found out about all the resources used in my laptop's manufacturing, all the chemicals released by mining and forging and shipping and packaging the battery alone, and my heart sank. Not because I've become a raging eco-weenie (though I have), but because something deep in my heart has just abhors waste. Always has.

I remember as a kid liking -- really enjoying, in a way I couldn't quite articulate -- the idea of Levi's 501s. I'd heard somehow that they were made differently from other jeans, in some proprietary and time-honored tradition, perhaps with some fantastic fabric beyond run-of-the-cotton-mill denim, and actually *improved with use.* Every time you wore them, the story went, they broke in a little more, got a little bit softer, contoured to your butt a little more precisely, and thus became more your own.

Compare that to the only other item I gave a second thought to purchasing in those days, which was shoes. You whined and moaned and lobbied your mom for weeks on end to buy you some outrageously -- really, the Nike guys should have been ashamed of themselves, but definitely were not -- overpriced tennis shoes with little bubbles of "AIR" under the heel, and sometimes even a window through which you could peer and see the little capsule of nothingness you just paid for.

Air Maxes were only cool the first time you wore them. After that they were old, and stinky, and probably flecked with mud from whatever puddles you tromped through on the way home from school. Everyone had seen them already, and peered through the window, and nobody cared. Not even you.

Even then, years before I ever heard the acronym for Return On Investment (me in the meeting: "Roy? Is she saying Roy? Why do we have to worry about Roy? Is he sick?") I knew that cool shoes were just way too expensive, which is another way of saying not worth the trouble. (I'm reminded of the Dean Martin quote, "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day.")

Oh, I tried some 501s once, too, and they pretty much just seemed like regular jeans, only more of a pain to get in and out of.

But man, the *idea* was solid, and ever since I've harbored a secret affection for anything that improves with usage, instead of just plain wearing out. Don't get me wrong; it's okay if things wear out eventually, as all things must, myself included, but I'd prefer not to be able to draw an equals sign between using something and destroying it.

And so few things are like this. The jeans were an illusion, though I've had a couple beloved t-shirts that fit the description over the years, bringing me more happiness (tinged with a bit of wistful awareness that One Day They'd Be Gone) each time I wore them. And, naturally, as naturally as any process can transpire, One Day they were Gone.

So I looked for something similar. I've found a few things so far, and I would love to hear about more.


The first is a technology you may have used. It's (in my opinion) a completely ingenious scheme in which you, well, I'm paraphrasing here, but you basically prove you're not a computer and decipher books at the same time.

Here: instead of paraphrasing, I might as well just cut and paste from Wikipedia. Accurate description is always the tedious part of writing anyway, and since someone else has already done it, why duplicate labor? That would be wasteful, would it not? "CAPTCHA is a type of challenge-response test used in computing ... The process involves one computer (a server) asking a user to complete a simple test which the computer is able to generate and grade. Because other computers are unable to solve the CAPTCHA, any user entering a correct solution is presumed to be human. A common type of CAPTCHA requires that the user type the letters of a distorted image, sometimes with the addition of an obscured sequence of letters or digits that appears on the screen. The term "CAPTCHA" ... is a contrived acronym for 'Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart'."

If you've ever left a comment on a blog, you've probably seen this and know what I'm talking about. Well, the new "official implementation" of CAPTCHA, as decreed by the system's inventors at Carnegie Mellon and IBM, is reCAPTCHA. reCAPTCHA earns my love by doing what 501s cannot: it truly accomplishes two things at once, with one occurring as a direct result of the other. It's like if, oh, driving your car somehow improved the environment, by generating oxygen instead of depleting it let's say, and the further you went the greater the benefit.

reCAPTCHA is a magical tree car because it takes those squiggly words you have to to decode and uses *real* words, from *real* books, books that computers have been working on digitizing. Teams working on book preservation scan thousands of pages of text all the time, and when their computers hit a word they can't read (because the page is wrinkled or the ink is smudged or somebody doodled in the margins), they give you a shot at it. And if you guess it, they let another person try. And if you both agree, presto -- case closed. "I guess it says 'following,'" thinks the computer, and goes back about its optical character recognition.

30 million times a day. Facebook, Twitter and StumbleUpon all use reCAPTCHA, and their users (you perhaps among them) collectively give Carnegie Mellon University approximately 3,000 man hours of free labor, day in and day out, to help in the preservation of books. And you do it all while protecting those sites from "bot" programs that are set up to flood websites and send you spam.

Collateral benefits. A two-fer. Free lunch. Whatever you want to call it. All I know is it's awesome.

So what else? I plan on jabbering about this all week long, and I welcome any and all submissions you've got. Help enlighten the world on things that do extra things, and know that as you're spreading the word, you're also literally warming my soul. Measurably, in degrees Kelvin. Which is a nice little bonus, wouldn't you agree?

1 comment:

dino martin peters said...

hey pallie, like thanks for sharin' the Dinoquotation...so cool to see our Dino still bein' quoted and his Dinowisdom bein' imparted to new generations....never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool...oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth...