Editrix wrote a very intriguing post about a Silicon Valley startup that's developing "comment-correcting software" called apostrophree. The lower-case a, she said, is intentional. What a boon: automatic correction of their/there/they're, affect/effect, and missing or misplaced apostrophes (whence the software's name). Who doesn't want that?
The full story is over at Typical Programmer, in the form of an interview between TP (Portland, OR, computer guy Greg Jorgensen) and apostrophree's founder, a person called "John Scogan." My quotation marks are intentional, too, because there is apparently no such person--and, sorry to disappoint--no such software.
The tip-off is in the first sentence:
In a little-noticed deal that closed yesterday the Silicon Valley startup apostrophree secured a $25 million first round with Bolus Venture Capital of Palo Alto. apostrophree received seed money from Paul Graham’s Y Combinator earlier this year.
A Google search confirms that there's no Bolus Venture Capital in Palo Alto or anywhere else, but I didn't need Google to tell me that bolus is part of the joke: it means, variously, "a mass of chewed food," "a vaginal or rectal suppository," or "a single dose of a drug." But it does sound VC-ish.
There's also no apostrophree--in fact, if you fancy the domain name (which I concede is darned clever), it's available right now, with one or two e's.
What makes it such an effective hoax is that Typical Programmer is a generally dead-serious blog about dead-serious programming issues. Which explains why so many earnest commenters were taken in ("At least once in a while, the system must produce false positives: correcting ‘errors’ that do not exist, or correcting things in an incorrect way").
I can't resist quoting from the "Scogan interview":
But how does apostrophree save time? Don’t people just read through bad spelling and ignore missing apostrophes?
Most people either don’t recognize or don’t care when they encounter a misspelled word or incorrectly-formed plural. But some people do notice, and there’s a personality type that will spend a lot of time demonstrating their superior English skills online. We’ve studied this for over a year, in many settings, and over and over we find the same thing: the most expensive employees, especially technical people such as programmers, can be provoked by the smallest error to post a comment of their own correcting the error and chastising the original poster. Observing technical staff in one organization we found that just two common errors — it’s instead of its and there instead of their — accounted for six hours of essentially wasted time per month per employee.
At least one element of this parody is 100 percent accurate: the bit about the "personality type that will spend a lot of time demonstrating their superior English skills online."
Of course, even hoax startups have business plans:
How do you plan to grow apostrophree so you can sell upgrades and keep money coming in?
We’re working on some things now, like cliché removal, that look promising. We have a team in the U.K. working on changing passive voice to active. Even something as simple as correcting capitalization of technical words and acronyms can pay off. If one of your expensive programmers comes across PERL instead of Perl he can spend thirty to forty-five minutes posting a correction, including extracts from two or three Wikipedia articles and Usenet archives. That’s ten to fifteen minutes per uncapitalized letter. And your programmer will compose and post a new version of the correction every time PERL is encountered online. That’s more than five times as long as is typically spent correcting presently when currently was meant.
By the way, this is Typical Programmer's second interview with a programmer "working on interesting projects and pushing new ideas and technologies." The first, posted on July 28, was with Boyd Hakluyt (um, pronounced hack-light?), who is working on "a new web application framework called Miasma." I especially enjoyed this:
What was it called before you renamed it Miasma?
Originally it was called Darlene. One of our lead developers, who wrote the core URL routing code and the template parser named the first version after his girlfriend. When they broke up we talked about renaming it couldn’t settle on a good name that wasn’t taken. When he left the project Darlene didn’t seem to fit anymore. I think Miasma is cool name and no other programming project is using that name. I have a friend working on a logo, too.
How many people are working on Miasma?
Right now it’s just me, but I’m working on it almost every day.
I love "almost every day."
Jorgensen even includes some code snippets, which are probably just as hilarious as the "interview transcript," but I haven't a clue.
Here's the actual Miasma.com, a nice blog by a San Francisco gal. And here, for your further edification, is BBC World Service Digital Planet contributor Bill Thompson on "miasma computing" (hat tip: Nick Carr):
It is often useful to conceptualise online activities as cyberspace, the place behind the screen, but the internet is firmly of the real world, and that is one of the greatest problems facing cloud computing today.
In the real world national borders, commercial rivalries and political imperatives all come into play, turning the cloud into a miasma as heavy with menace as the fog over the Grimpen Mire that concealed the Hound of the Baskervilles in Arthur Conan Doyle's story.
Update: From the comments thread on this Metafilter post about "Apostrophee": Seems that John Scogan was a jester in the court of King Edward IV. He was "an Oxford scholar" who "loved practical jokes."