Copyright © 1995 by Ann Wesley
Converted to HTML by Scott Pakin.

Newspaper article about my complaint-letter generator

The following article, written by Ann Wesley, appeared in The Herald Times (Bloomington, IN) on November 16, 1995. Just call me Mr. Famous! However, I would like to be more famous, so if you've written anything that puts me in a good light, just send me a copy and I'll put it online.


Love and anger easily expressed on the Web

Can't find the right words to express your undying love? Angry at someone or some community event, but feel inadequate to express your opinions publicly? The World Wide Web can help.

Two of the most popular pages on the Web are designed specifically to help users compose letters to express love and complaint. The process is easy: fill out a basic electronic form, hit a button and voila, there's your letter.

If you are shy or unimaginative but you would like to tell someone how you feel, The Cyrano Server, created by Elizabeth Shamblin, is designed to be a sort of electronic serenade.

[Stuff about the Cyrano Server deleted. I'm too lazy and egotistical to retype the parts of Ann's article that aren't about me. --SDP]

While the basic premise is the same, another Web site helps users compose complaint letters, rather than verses of love.

http://www-csag.cs.uiuc.edu/individual/pakin/complaint

Maintained by Scott Pakin, the Automatic Complaint-Letter Generator, asks users to provide the name of the person who has offended them and the person's gender. Users then select, from 1 to 10, the number of paragraphs they would like written and the program generates a complaint.

Technically, each time the complaint button is hit, a different letter could be produced. That's because Pakin wrote his program so that the complainer does not have a set of stock fill-in-the blank letters. Instead it randomly patches words, phrases, and sentences together according to a set of grammatical rules.

A complaint requested about John Doe, brought the follow example:

"I am angry. Angry that events have transpired that lead me to write this statement. First and foremost, John Doe leads me to believe that he is corrupt. He gives new meaning to the world `tasteless.' But I digress. He and his cronies are puppets of militant worthless stool pigeons, I am not going to go into too great a detail about what I call mean-spirited detestable hermits, but be assured that I am quite certain that you can see exactly where this is going. If you agree, read on. Mark my words: I must protest John's use of drugged-out bohemians to foster favoritism at every opportunity. John and others of his ilk are symbols of annoying fanaticism. I will let the record speak for itself. It's not that I have anything against vigilantes in general. It's just that the world would be better off if he had never been born. In conclusion, let me just say that it's my hunch that all John Doe wants is to lead to the destruction of the human race."

Pakin came up with the idea for the page a few years ago at Carnegie Mellon University while reading letters in an alternative student newspaper.

Pakin was complaining about how badly the letters were written when a friend said they were so random-sounding they could have been generated by a computer. "I thought about it for a while, and concluded that it wouldn't be too hard to write such a program. So I did, and it became an instant hit with my friends and local techies.

It also became a huge hit on the Web. The complaint page over the past six months has generated an average of 350 complaint letters a day, or about 14 letters every hour.

Originally designed to be used only in jest, Pakin has found many Web users are actually sending the complaint letters.

One user wrote Pakin and said, "I have spent several hours today sending personalized complaints to all my friends. It's amazing how accurate they are! I posted a complaint about Bill Gates on alt.fan.bill-gates and I have received several thoughtful responses. One lady thought I was right on but a bit too wordy and someone else dismissed my thoughts as an incoherent rant. Of course, they both received personalized complaint letters."

The most common complaints about public figures are geared toward Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Bill Gates, Pakin said, though most of the letters are generated to complaint about ordinary people.

What amuses Pakin, is that people using his letters tend to pick up on the true statements that fit their situation and ignore the inaccuracies or the fact that the letters frequently use big words but don't really say anything.

"It reminds me of people's comments on hand reading, horoscopes, psychic readings, handwriting analysis and the such -- it's general enough to be true or fit anyone and everyone, yet specific enough to mean something," Pakin said.


Thanks to Tony Marshall and Neerav B. Modi for their fan mail, which was quoted in the above article. ("I have spent..." and "It reminds me of...")

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