The New York Times

April 8, 2004

Lottery Numbers and Books With a Voice


Fill out this online survey and you may win a prize! The StudyResponse Project ( helps conduct online surveys that offer incentives (mostly raffle-type prizes) to encourage participation in social-science research. It links researchers with registered volunteers through a system of anonymous messages and reminders, thus ensuring privacy.

The site owes a debt to consumer marketers in more ways than one. “E-commerce sites have trained a wide swath of people to fill out online surveys — it’s a kind of basic literacy now — and that has helped us,” said Jeffrey M. Stanton, an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, which administers the site. His job is to study the studies — that is, to draw conclusions on the best way to collect research data on the Web.

The project has attracted more than 53,000 volunteers and has been used by 65 research studies on topics ranging from the death penalty to emotional intelligence. The average age of volunteers is 33.9; 68 percent are women. In most studies, participants have a 2 percent to 3 percent chance of winning a prize, typically an Amazon gift certificate. “Some of our volunteers are curious about the research topics, but most are more interested in the prizes,” Dr. Stanton said.

With mail and phone surveys encountering high rates of refusal, online research has become mainstream. Recent studies that have used the site have achieved response rates between 20 percent and 30 percent using surveys that took about 10 to 15 minutes to fill out, he added. Shorter surveys have sometimes reached response rates of 50 percent.

But researchers must adhere to strict rules to tap the StudyResponse panel. For instance, participants must be allowed to skip questions.

“If you force a response, you’ll get bogus data,” Dr. Stanton said.

Pick a Number

Lotto players, note: it’s awfully hard to come up with a truly random number or number sequence.

Most online random-number generators actually offer “pseudo-random” numbers because computers aren’t good at doing anything by chance. To generate numbers that are truly random requires a source of entropy, or disorder, outside the computer itself.

A new site,, locates such a source in quantum physics, specifically, the reflection of a light particle on a semitransparent mirror. The site exploits this optical process to generate up to 1,000 random numbers on demand.

“You need a quantum process if you want real randomness,” said Grégoire Ribordy, chief executive of Id Quantique, a commercial spinoff of the University of Geneva, the project’s originator.

Other sites also offer true random numbers, said Mads Haahr, lecturer in computer science at Trinity College, Dublin. His site,, uses atmospheric noise from a radio as a source of disorder; the random numbers at HotBits ( are generated by radioactive decay; and LavaRnd ( taps the unpredictability of lava lamps.

Aside from players looking for an edge in Pick Six, true random number are needed in applications like cryptography. But people also have used’s output in unexpected ways. One writer used random numbers to help decide on the next plot twist in his novel. Others have tapped the site to determine the order of words asked in a spelling bee and to help decide which chores on a list to do first.

For some, then, random numbers are the holy grail of decision-support tools: a truly unbiased source.

Books With a Voice

Project Gutenberg ( is well known for offering free electronic versions of famous public-domain texts. Now Telltale Weekly ( wants to be its audio-book equivalent.

Telltale Weekly sells audio versions of mostly public-domain texts for as little as 25 cents to $1.50. After five years or 100,000 downloads, these works will be released under a Creative Commons Attribution License, meaning anyone can copy, distribute or even make commercial use of the audio files as long as they are properly attributed.

The files are in the MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats.

This “cheap now, free later” philosophy will allow Telltale Weekly to cover costs while underwriting the creation of a free audio library, according to Alexander Wilson, 27, the site’s founder and an actor and writer in Chapel Hill, N.C. The site plans to offer 50 public-domain works this year, many of them shorter texts that can be performed in less than 45 minutes. Mr. Wilson also plans to release at least 20 copyrighted works.

So far the site offers audio versions of 16 works, including the first section of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” Audio versions of texts by Poe, Thoreau and Chekhov, among others, are planned.

Project Gutenberg itself is now dabbling in computer-generated audio versions of its books. But Mr. Wilson hopes to attract experienced voice actors to perform the works on his site. “Text-to-voice programs are practical for some purposes,” he said. “But few people would choose to listen to them for pleasure.” He acknowledged one advantage of computer-generated readings: “They do ensure a completely neutral interpretation of the text.”

On the Radar

Mars, shmars. NASA’s Microgravity Science Division is the host of online videos of something truly amazing: water balloons popping in space ( and its companion sites offer a comprehensive view of noir crime novels and films. …A daily index of Op-Ed pieces from American newspapers is available at John Peter Zenger Lives (


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