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When Robots Write Headlines: Earthquake Rattles Shaky LA Conversations

When Robots Write Headlines: Earthquake Rattles Shaky LA Conversations
March 17
17:37 2014

When an earthquake of 3.5-magnitude or above disturbs Los Angeles, everybody talks about it. The teller at the bank will ask if you felt it that morning. Your hairdresser will say she’s thankful it didn’t happen while she was cutting your hair. The boys at the coffee shop will be chattering about the little early morning shake. None of them will admit they were scared their ceilings were going to collapse on the heads of their families. Twitter will also be abuzz about it. #EarthquakeLA will trend for hours, and maybe even the entire day.

And believe it or not, a robot wrote the first news report about the 4.4-magnitude earthquake before any human had the chance. The robot is an employee of the LA Times, and his name is Quakebot. He works for free. He can eat all the electricity he desires, though.

Humans were not so steady during the quake.

Newscasters grabbed their desks. Their conversations about Disneyland and celebrities suddenly seemed useless when the cameras and flimsy backdrops wobbled helplessly. A couple news anchors even crawled under their desk for a couple of seconds. They emerged, unharmed, and unabashed in their decision to have taken cover on live TV. Another news anchor decided to recall the earthquake with the clarity of John Madden doing a football game play-by-play.

“We felt great shaking,” he said. His voice, at first uncertain, fell back into the timeless, official rhythm of newscasters’ voices everywhere. “The studio shook. The desk shook. There was very strong shaking,” he said again. “Everything shook.”

Hours later at the local coffee shop the regulars held their cups and talked about the rumbling that morning. Was the California earthquake drought over? After the 7.8-magnitude roller up north, plus the one that morning, nobody could rest too easy. The ongoing joke was about how if the venture capitalist who wants to break California into six chunks waits long enough, he’ll get his wish.

Molly Shannon stood next to their table. She seemed especially hot-wired that morning. Nearly combustible with energy. Molly Shannon playing Molly Shannon. Warm, positive vibrations. Her red sneakers seemed to flash like warning signs.

I picked up a copy of the newspaper on a nearby table. Shannon climbed into the biggest SUV I’ve ever seen. A model crafted by Lexus. A craft too clunky for inner city streets, but nearly streamlined and bubbly enough to consider an exploration into outer space, if only somehow the over-engineered vehicle could lift its rubber off the road.

I spoke to a man sitting next to me about a rumor I’d heard being discussed just outside the bagel shop. He had big, soft doe eyes and his hair was spiked in the front. He was soaking up everybody’s conversation around him. Everybody else had stories about the earthquake that morning, so I thought I should throw a few out there as well.

The former LA mayor had his life flash before his eyes, I said. That’s what people are saying. When the quake hit, he was naked in bed. His wife had woken up earlier to head to the gym. Nobody remembered her name, though, probably because he rips through wives like any other celebrity out there, but either way, she was gone when the temblor hit.

He quickly dressed even before the shaking stopped, I said. Afraid that rumbler would trigger the big one and they’d find him, the former head of Los Angeles city, nude and disgraced, buried under a pile of expensive designer rubble and stacks of Herbalife pamphlets scattered around like confetti. So he made a late new year’s resolution to always sleep in stylish, upscale pajamas just in case the worst befalls him. He’s a trendy man, I said.

“You saw that in the Times?” my new friend asked. He picked up the discarded paper from the table. It was only the “Style” section.

You won’t find that information in the Times, I said. They don’t report on things like that. They only fabricate very tiny, seemingly inconsequential details, but they won’t run a whole story based on solid rumor. In fact, they had a robot write their first report on the 6am quake. It was up in three minutes online. Just imagine when that robot hardwires his own brain during the off hours, and nobody notices it. The Quakebot will be blasting out news reports every second based on scant facts, but centered in juicy rumors.

“I’d love to see that as a front page headline. Naked Former Mayor Shaken Up By LA Earthquake, Vows to Sleep In Luxury Pajamas,” he said, holding his hands up and imagining the bold letters.

I can’t verify these things, I told him. Be careful who you tell about this. The former mayor has a short fuse. Either way, rumors pick up substance like snowballs rolling down a snowy mountaintop. You know how that goes. Bits and pieces are true, I imagine, but then again, I heard all these things from a bunch of men sitting around eating bagels stacked with slimy eggs and lettuce. Who knows how deep it gets with them.

[LA City Hall photo by PKM]

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2 Comments

  1. Divine Diva
    Divine Diva March 19, 22:22

    You’re on a roll! Earthquake preparedness is finally being embraced by L.A. movers and shakers.
    All the usual and not so usual suspects-Herb Wesson, Councilman Tom LaBonge, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mitchell Englander in a recent line up announced a new city quake-preparedness effort.
    That new spiritualist of yours must be rubbing buddha’s belly and streamimg those waves of energy, high and clean, to help you rouse these politicians from their impotent slumber and take this quake business seriously. Happy to know this one’s a she and not a he. That poor one note oaf was misguided and genetically flawed. Feminine energy is just more reliable in these dark times, well in any time, really.

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