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SapphireSteeel Software



April 1997

This month Huw Collingbourne goes looking for alien technology but finds that Microsoft has beaten him to it. This column first appeared in PC Plus issue 126.


A dry desert wind was blowing down the main street of Rachel as Chuck Clark pointed towards S-4, the high security base where the US Military are currently developing alien technology.

Here I am in the middle of the Nevada desert searching for a nice ordinary, down-to-earth pub....

Clark does not look or sound like a crank. A solid, mature, seemingly down-to-earth guy, he does not give the impression of being prone to delusions. So when he starts telling you about the glowing objects flying over the desert at speeds in excess of 14,000 miles per hour, you are inclined to take him seriously.

When he goes on to say that these same objects can travel nearly five miles in just over a second yet don't make a sonic bang, you may still be inclined to consider this possibility. Even when he tells you that these craft can go from top speed to a total stop in a split second, you might be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But when he tells you that these top-secret flying machines have been developed from crashed alien space ships, well, then you start to wonder. You start to wonder whether Chuck Clark really is as level-headed as he seems. You start to wonder whether he might not be making up these stories as he goes along. Or whether he's just letting his imagination get the better of him.

And finally, you start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, he really is telling the simple, unadorned truth. That out there, a few miles away across the bleak, arid landscape of the Nevada Desert, there really is an elite team of pathologists conducting autopsies on extraterrestrial corpses while scientists and engineers sift through the wreckage of their space ships.

"In December of 1988 Area 51 entered the public spotlight when a Las Vegan named Bob Lazar claimed on a local television program that he was part of a team which has been conducting tests on 'flying-saucers' there for the government. According to Lazar, there are at least nine saucers housed at a hangar facility called S-4."
(Excerpt from the Xsightings Web site, http://www.xsightings.com/etreport.html.
This link no longer active. )


With signs this big, you know this place must be pretty damn' top secret!

Area 51, S-4 and Groom Lake are names that have become famous around the world, due to largely to fictionalised accounts of the US Government's covert UFO research. This, after all, is one of the basic premises of the X-Files TV series. You might think it is science fiction. Many Americans regard it as science fact.

It is certainly the case that some kind of top secret research is being undertaken in and around Area 51. This almost impenetrable base lies at the heart of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, surrounded by the three million acres of the Nellis Air Force Range. The air space above the base is off-limits to most planes. The only terrestrial viewing point, Freedom Ridge, has been closed to civilians. And, most eerily of all, this most famous of 'secret facilities' officially does not exist.

"The Pentagon refuses all comment on the remote, closely guarded facility. Military specialists say it has been used to test new and secret aircraft, such as the Stealth bomber, and that these account for most or all of the supposed UFO sightings.
"This does nothing to shake the faith of the believers, who spend their time comparing notes on the Internet and say the U.S. military has simply learned to incorporate captured alien technology into its most advanced planes."

(The Internet UFO Group Media Archive, http://www.schmitzware.com/IUFOG/Headlines/Month/News/846700561.html
This link no longer active )


The great global conspiracy to cover-up alien contact is one of the most popular subjects on the Internet. Not as popular as pornography (which is the reason why most people first get an Internet account), but certainly more popular than the educational content (which is the excuse most people give when they first get an Internet account).

Chris Carter, who created the X-Files, has acknowledged that he took many of his ideas from the Internet's UFO newsgroups. If you want to keep up to date with the latest alien information, disinformation and general paranoia, you might like to take a look at alt.conspiracy.area51, alt.alien.vistors, alt.paranet.ufo or alt.ufo.reports. Not to mention alt.tv.x-files.

At last, I've arrived at the Little A'Le'Inn. But where is everybody?

On the Web, probably the biggest and best of the UFO sites can be found at the UFOMind Guide To Knowledge (www.ufomind.com). This site comprises more than 2,100 documents and 650 images. It is supported and maintained by the Area 51 Research Centre - an organisation whose offices are located in a mobile home parked at one end of the town of Rachel.

The director and guiding light behind the organisation is a man named Glenn Campbell. He describes himself as "a serious UFO researcher who thinks a few of the stories about government involvement with UFOs deserve attention."

In spite of his interest in UFOs, Campbell is not a welcome guest at other end of town (half a minutes' walk away). Here a diner named the Little A'le'Inn is the meeting place of many ardent UFO watchers, many of whom consider Campbell to be a dangerous sceptic. The main reason Campbell is so unpopular is that he tends to dismiss most of the UFO sightings made by the other residents of Rachel.

"I believe the majority of the UFO sightings associated with this highway are nonsense and reflect the misidentification by inexperienced observers of airplanes, flares and other routine military activity associated with the nearby Nellis Air Force Range."
(Glenn Campbell, E.T. Go Home?, http://www.ufomind.com/area51/events/highway_bill/et_go_home.html)

Sceptics or not, the good people at the Area 51 Research Centre are very happy to sell you any amount of alien merchandise including tee-shirts, books, posters, mugs and a whole load of other assorted tat. I bought my tee-shirts in person. You can browse the catalogue from the comfort of your own home on: http://www.ufomind.com/catalog.

When you've been stuck in the Nevada Desert for a while, the comfort of your own home seems a distinctly preferable location. However, since the only way to find if the Truth really is Out There is to go to look for it, I and a camera 'team' (in the person of the fearless Wendy 'Sculley' Smith) decided to go in search of the Extraterrestrial Highway, Area 51 and the truth about the strange lights flickering silently through the night skies above Groom Lake. You can see what we discovered on this month's SuperCD. Watch it and tremble…


I don't know if aliens have developed artificial intelligence (AI) yet. What I do know is that AI has long been one of the great, unrealised goals of earthly technology. Years ago, I wasted much time and effort trying to write an AI computer program capable of understanding 'natural language' commands. My aim was to make it possible for someone to type in a command such as 'Please would you put the juicy sausage on the Willow-pattern plate' and for the computer to reply with 'Do you want me to put the juicy sausage that's currently in the fridge onto the Willow-pattern plate? Or would you rather than I put the juicy sausage that's currently on the Willow-pattern plate somewhere else, in which case you'd better tell me where you want to put it.'

The art of breaking down sentences into their component parts and trying to make sense of them is called 'parsing' and it's a lot harder than you might suppose. It's fairly easy to write a program that can understand combinations of simple 'noun-phrases' and 'verb-phrases' such as "Get me a whisky and soda" but almost impossibly difficult to write a program that can interpret the nuances and ambiguities of real-life speech.

The parsing technology in old games such as Infocom's Zork, Magnetic Scrolls' The Pawn and Legend's Gateway is probably about as good as you'll get on the PC. Every once in a while, however, a company tries to introduce natural language commands into mainstream business software - inevitably without much success.

Symantec's Q&A database is probably the most famous example to date. Unfortunately, most users find that typing instructions such as "Please sort the database in ascending order" to be rather less user-friendly than making a menu selection to do the same thing.

Now Microsoft has resurrected natural language commands in Office 97. Instead of a plain help system, this comes with a little cartoon 'assistant' which can be configured to look like a dog, a cat, Shakespeare or Einstein according to the size of your ego.


The parser I wrote all those years ago (for an adventure game) was fairly basic. I reckoned that most people wouldn't want to type complex, ambiguous commands. So instead of trying to make sense of every single word, my parser just looked for important words (e.g. "Put…sausage…on…plate") and ignored all the 'padding' ("Please would you…the juicy… the Willow-pattern").

Most of the time this works fine. And most of the time people are ready to believe that my computer program 'understands' a lot more than it really does. This probably explains why Microsoft adopted precisely the same kind of word-searching parser in Office 97.There is a difference though. When my parser didn't understand a command it said so. Microsoft's parser doesn't give up so easily.

Try it out for yourself. Ask the Office Assistant something simple (e.g. 'Tell me about outlining') and it will respond relevantly ('Would you like to reorganise a document by using outline view?'). Then try it out on a more elaborate question such as, "Shall I compare thee to a Summer's Day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate?".

The Office Assistant immediately replies: "What would you like to do? Rules for selecting data records for mail merge? Select data records from a data source? … Learn more about Web pages authoring resources?"

That's what I love about the Office Assistant. It never admits defeat. If it doesn't understand something, it just blathers on irrelevantly anyway in the hope that nobody will notice. A bit like a computer journalist, really…

FOOTNOTES - March 2005

Office Assistant...

I wondered if the Office Assistant in the latest edition of Word was any better at understanding questions than the one in Office 97. As before, I tried it out on the Shakespeare quotation, " "Shall I compare thee to a Summer's Day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate?" As you can see from the screenshot above, it does a bit better than its Office 97 ancestor. Its intelligence is still totally fake, of course. And the bloody paperclip is just as annoying as ever it was....


In the late ‘90s, Rants and Raves went multimedia when we made a number of video features for the PC Plus cover CD. Perhaps the most bizarre of these was our attempt to track down evidence of alien technology in the Nevada desert. This came about when my director, Wendy Smith, and I flew to Las Vegas to cover the computer show, Comdex. This gave us the perfect opportunity to take a day out to explore the well known top secret site, Area 51, about 100 miles north of Vegas. This is where alien conspiracy theorists would have us believe that the US Military is constructing aeroplanes and weapons based on the technology of crashed or captured alien spaceships.

Area 51 is slap bang in the middle of a bleak desert landscape dotted with weird spiky Joshua trees. The closest town, Rachel, is little more than a haphazard collection of mobile homes and flimsy-looking wooden houses. At one end of town is the largely sceptical Area 51 Research centre while at the other end of town is the less sceptical bar and restaurant, The Little A’le’Inn. Wendy and I, were driven there by our chauffeur for the day, Louis Castle (co-founder of the Las Vega games company, Westwood Studios). We visited both the Research Centre and the Inn before finally setting off down a long and dusty road towards the perimeters of Area 51 itself.

We’d heard stories that the perimeter was well guarded and, by Jove! those stories were true. Not only were there armed soldiers sitting in vehicles atop ridges but there were also signs forbidding trespass or photography with the threatening warning: “Deadly force authorised”. Now, there are only certain limits to which I will go in the pursuit of a good story and death is definitely not one of them. So we got back into our car and made good speed for the safety of Rachel.

Outside the Little A'Le'Inn, Chuck Clark tells me an astonishing tale....

At least, back in Rachel I managed to get an interview with a man who’d seen UFOs. By good fortune, we happened to bump into local UFO expert and author of the ‘Area 51 & S-4 Handbook’, Chuck Clark, while we were tucking into veggie burgers at the Little Al’e’Inn (mutilated cow burgers were off the menu that day). Here is a little of what Chuck had to tell us….

“Area 51 contains a large conventional secret base. where they work on normal airplanes - just new state-of-the-art things that they need to be secret. But there’s an area about ten miles south of Area 51 just on the edge of Papoose lake, which is called S-4. Whether it’s really called that I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter what you call it. S-4 stands for Site 4. And from down there they are apparently flying, for want of a better name, UFO Technology. It takes off vertically, it glows, it moves around in ways that aircraft cannot move. It literally defies our laws of physics. I’ve seen it cover just under five miles in a second or a second and a half. and stop on a dime. We don’t have anything that can do that. There’s an alien technology being worked on out here at the S-4 area - whether we’re back-engineering a crashed disc or whether we’ve been given one or we’ve fixed one that we’ve recovered, I can’t answer that. But it isn’t our science. It isn’t governed by our laws of physics. Of that I’m certain.”

Clark also told me about one of his most dramatic sightings of a UFO-like craft:

“There was no sound. It was twelve and a half miles from me. There was no sonic boom. It was a glowing object. It did cast a glow onto the ground so it was not a holographic projection. If I was going to order up a sighting this thing would have had almost all the aspects that I would have ordered up to disprove the various explanations.”

So there you have it. Reality or fantasy? I shall leave it to you, dear reader, to form your own conclusions.

Copyright © 2009 Dark Neon Ltd. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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