"I could kill for a bacon sandwich". Photo: Getty.
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US Secret Service seeks Twitter sarcasm detector

The US Secret Service is seeking some help with its online snooping, and needs a company that can detect sarcasm online - because you need to be able to distinguish between "I love Al Qaeda" and "I love Al Qaeda". Good luck with that, pals! 

“How do I look?”

“Great.”

Without the benefit of other clues, this conversation could have gone any number of ways. Perhaps Ed Miliband was consulting Justine on his latest portrait with a bacon sandwich. And even then, who knows, maybe Miliband’s wife really loves his bacon buttie face. The English language is so delightfully, confusingly rich in meaning that “great” can mean anything from “wonderful” to “mediocre” to “awful”.  

Which brings me to a great piece of news. The US Secret Service is looking to commission a Twitter sarcasm detector to improve its online social media surveillance. It is inviting analytics firms to bid for a five-year contract to monitor and analyse online trends and sentiment, and one of its requirements is the ability to “detect sarcasm and false positives” – presumably because when scanning the web for potential threats to national security, you don’t want to deploy police to the home of the tweeter who could “totally kill for a bacon sandwich right now.” (We know who you are.)  And you need to be able to distinguish between “I love Al Qaeda” and “I love Al Qaeda”.

Humans are not actually very good at detecting sentiment in written language. Consider, for instance, that for over 500 years, scholars have tried to improve the way in which irony is expressed on paper – including by developing several irony marks, from backwards question marks to squiggly exclamation marks (more on which here).

Because tweets and text messages are too short to give much context, there is an even greater potential for misunderstanding. The emoticon might have helped a little, and yet over the years, a billion sentiments have been furnished with a winky face.wink

According to one study published in 2005 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, respondents had a 50/50 chance of correctly judging the tone of an email – although they thought they were right 90 per cent of the time. 

Still, the Secret Service can take heart. A number of attempts to develop computerised sarcasm detectors appear to have slightly better odds of being correct than the humans in the above study. In 2010, scientists at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem reported they had developed an algorithm to judge sarcasm that had a 77 per cent success rate at identifying snark in Amazon reviews. The French company Spotter claims to have an 80 per cent success rate at identifying sentiment correctly, and can work in 29 different languages. Its clients include the EU Commission, the Home Office and the Dubai Courts. Perhaps they will be offering their skills to the US as we speak.

If this new information on government surveillance gives you the heebie-jeebies, there is some cause for optimism. The US Secret Services computer technology might not be as advanced as you feared – as the BBC points out, the Secret Service requests that the software be compatible with Internet Explorer 8, a web browser released over five years ago. Good luck with it all, guys!

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle