Three Things on Thursday #11

Hello, and welcome to the 11th edition of Three Things on Thursday.

This week, our things include: The life and death of Microsoft Clippy, making (and racing!) your own electromagnetic trains, and decades long Search for Extraterrestrial Life that uses your home computer.

Let’s go check them out!

1. The Life and Death of Microsoft Clippy

[Image Credit: Microsoft]

Before there was Clippy, there was Microsoft Bob.

Despite its down-home name, Microsoft Bob had been designed to reflect cutting-edge social science research conducted by Stanford professors Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves (who were eventually hired as consultants for the nascent program). In the early 1990s, the pair developed a theory: People unconsciously respond to computers as if they are human. As further tests would reveal, evaluations of a computer’s performance were significantly more positive when people completed them on the machine that was actually running the program. Users who delivered their review on a different computer were more truthful (and therefore more critical)—essentially replicating the level of “politeness” used when evaluating a person to their face, rather than to a peer.

To capitalize on these findings, Microsoft Bob’s developers decided to add anthropomorphic “assistants” to guide users through the program. Ostensibly, these would more concretely embody the the humanity users were already instinctively assigning to their computers.

Microsoft program manager Karen Fries, one of the project’s strongest proponents, had already observed the enthusiasm these digital guides could inspire. During a test session with new PC users, she introduced a prototype cartoon duck that walked participants through the software. “'This guy was very emotional about it,” Fries recalled in a 1995 interview. “He grabbed my arm. He said, ‘Save all the money on the manuals, and just give me this duck to always be there and tell me what to do.’”

Read more about the paperclip the world loved to hate (and his friend Bob) on

2. The World's Simplest Electromagnetic Train

Did you know that you can make your own electromagnetic train, with a battery, some raw copper wire, and a pair of neodymium magnets?

Me either.

Mind. Blown. 🤯

3. How Astronomers Deputized Early Internet Users to Help Find Aliens

Frank Drake, (Left) president of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) reviews data from radiotelescopes used to scan the universe for intelligent life. [Image Credit: Lou Dematteis / Reuters]

The year was 1999, and the people were going online. AOL, Compuserve,, and AltaVista loaded bit by bit after dial-up chirps, on screens across the world. Watching the internet extend its reach, a small group of scientists thought a more extensive digital leap was in order, one that encompassed the galaxy itself. And so it was that before the new millennium dawned, researchers at the University of California released a citizen-science program called SETI@Home.

The idea went like this: When internet-farers abandoned their computers long enough that a screen saver popped up, that saver wouldn’t be WordArt bouncing around, 3-D neon-metallic pipes installing themselves inch by inch, or a self-satisfied flying Windows logo. No. Their screens would be saved by displays of data analysis, showing which and how much data from elsewhere their CPUs were churning through during down-time. The data would come from observations of distant stars, conducted by astronomers searching for evidence of an extraterrestrial intelligence. Each participating computer would dig through SETI data for suspicious signals, possibly containing a “Hello, World” or two from aliens. Anyone with 28 kbps could be the person to discover another civilization.

When the researchers launched SETI@Home, in May of ’99, they thought maybe 1,000 people might sign up. That number—and the bleaker view from outsiders, who said perhaps no one would join the crew—informed a poor decision: to set up a single desktop to farm out the data and take back the analysis.

But the problem was, people really liked the idea of letting their computers find aliens while they did nothing except not touch the mouse. And for SETI@Home’s launch, a million people signed up. Of course, the lone data-serving desktop staggered. SETI@Home fell down as soon as it started walking. Luckily, now-defunct Sun Microsystems donated computers to help the program get back on its feet. In the years since, more than 4 million people have tried SETI@Home. Together, they make up a collective computing power that exceeds 2008’s premier supercomputer.

But they have yet to find any aliens.

Read A Brief History of SETI@Home on The Atlantic

Edition #11 done!

See you next week, for more Three Things on Thursday.

Chris ~ Resident Collector of Things
(Searching for Alien Life on the Internet)

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