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Ghost in the machine

I found the Sun.Star Cebu newsroom abuzz yesterday over a website that seemed to know a lot of details, even intimate ones, about people and things. When I entered the newsroom, I found reporters, editors, librarians, and newsroom assistants gathered around TV host Jude Bacalso, the paper’s lifestyle editor, who was entering questions and getting correct answers on the Peter Answers website. ANSWER TO LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, AND EVERYTHING. It’s in Have fun fooling your friends with the website. Click on photo to view larger image.

At first glance, it was freaky. How could the website know the names of a co-worker’s children, the pet peeve of an editor, what I was doing at the precise time the question was asked (holding out my cellphone), what was on a reporter’s head (a polka-dot headband), and what one reporter told another reporter about his mother-in-law?

I initially thought that Jude had a conspirator on hearing distance providing the answers but no one within the vicinity was typing when Jude entered the questions. It was also impossible for Jude to have pre-programmed the answers because the questions were thrown at him at random.

Jude, it turned out, was providing the answers himself right before our very eyes and none of us noticed it. In defense, though, Jude is a great actor and he did put up such a convincing show.

To asks questions in the Peter Answers website, you first have to “enter” a petition by “typing” Peter, please answer the following question: or Peter, please answer: in the petition space. You then ask the question in the next space and as soon as you enter the question mark, Peter “provides” the answer.

The trick, I learned from this WikiHow article, is that you do not actually type Peter, please answer the following question: or Peter, please answer:, you are actually typing the answer to the question you plan to ask. But to the people around you, it appears that you are typing the petition statement.

To enter an answer, press the period button and while you are typing the answer, the website displays the petition statement a letter at a time, making it appear to people that you are typing the statement. Once you’re done entering the answer of your intended question, just press the period button again and continue typing the petition statement as normal.

Ask the question you already entered the answer to and watch as people around you gasp in amazement at how the machine was able to know the answer.

I couldn’t stop laughing after being told how co-workers were tricked by Jude and some other pranksters. An editor in our Bisaya tabloid, after being thoroughly impressed that the website knew that Chilen chicharon was his favorite food, spent a lot of time in front of the PC trying to get answers to his questions.

The prankster, apparently, had told him that you have “to believe” in order for the website to cooperate and give you answers.

By Max Limpag

Max is a journalist and blogger based in Cebu City, Philippines. He is co-founder of the journalism start-up InnoPub Media.