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Happy Birthday, Smiley Face


Thursday, September 19, 2002

By Dan Majors, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The hardest thing about communicating through the printed word -- other than correct spelling -- is conveying the feeling behind what is being said.

This is especially true when corresponding via computer. People tend to use an economy of words in e-mails and chat rooms.

Scott E. Fahlman and his world-famous "character sequence for joke markers." (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

The result is that the recipient often is confused about the sender's "tone." Was the message meant to be sarcastic? Was he kidding when he sent that? Was she angry when she responded?

Suddenly, you go from "What are you up to?" to a flame war. ("DO NOT CALL ME!")

Twenty years ago today -- at 11:44 a.m. -- Scott E. Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, sat down at his computer and dashed off a posting in an online bulletin board.

I propose the following character sequence for joke markers:
Read it sideways.

Some other folks tossed out some suggestions of their own, but it was Fahlman's smiley face that laughed last. And, just like smiles in real life, his electronic version was contagious.

"[It] caught on quickly around Carnegie Mellon, and soon spread to other universities and research labs via the primitive computer networks of the day," Fahlman says on his home page.

In an interview a couple of years ago with Bill Schackner, our higher education writer, Fahlman admitted, "I never dreamed that it would get beyond our little campus group."

What's more, it gave birth to an entire language of keyboard-coded expressions. Faces winking ;-) sticking out a tongue :-p and wide-eyed shock 8-o

They've been given the name "emoticons," many of which you can see by visiting a Web dictionary resource.

Also you can a link to Fahlman's home page, at the bottom of which you can read his own account of "Smiley Lore." He even has a link to the original bulletin-board posting, which was tracked down through an "archeological dig" of CMU's "ancient backup tapes."

Today, Fahlman, now in his early 50s, is on leave from his research position in CMU's Department of Computer Science, working as a member of IBM's research staff. But he still lives in Pittsburgh and spends a lot of time on the CMU campus, where he pursues his interest in artificial intelligence and its applications.

Part of his focus is developing "common sense" knowledge in computer systems. As an e-mail from a spokeswoman at IBM said, "Today's computers are very good at solving specialized technical problems, but they can't begin to match the common sense of a 5-year-old. The ultimate goal of his research is to fix that."

Who better to teach computers than the guy who taught their users to lighten up?

Just keep the smiling face part. That's the important thing

To city residents, few things are as reassuring as the smiling face of a cop walking the beat. That was the thinking behind the Community Oriented Police program when it was started 10 years ago. The police department, however, is changing the program, assigning more officers to work on local problems. Still, Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. promises that we won't notice a difference in police presence.

Yeah, but you're still going to be compared to your sister's score
The Pennsylvania Board of Education today will be looking at what our schools need to do to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The goal is to test children in every grade, every year. And kids' scores, which parents will be able to track, will be measured against their own previous scores, not some average school or district score.

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