Monday, February 25, 2013

Dragons, Google Translate, and 'found' poetry

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post asking the question "Should technology shape art?" ... and I 'fessed up right at the start that the question is a canard. Technology does shape art.

That truism was evident in stark and intriguing form on Saturday afternoon at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, where the bookstore was hosting a "Small Press Love Fest" on 24th and Harrison. From the store's announcement of the event:
Authors and editors from New York City and the SF Bay Area come together to celebrate unique voices and indie publishing. Presented by Ambush Review, Corium Magazine, great weather for MEDIA, and Red Bridge Press.
The bookstore's revamped gallery space was full, standing-room-only full, and the poets and short story and flash fiction writers who took their turns at the podium had a wealth of witty, funny, haunting things to read.

As a professional geek I was especially intrigued by the 'found poetry' project from which Jordan Reynolds will publish in the Writing That Risks anthology forthcoming from Red Bridge Press later this year.

Starting with the poetry of Federico García Lorca as translated (or interpreted) by Berkeley Renaissance poet Jack Spicer, in After Lorca (1957), Reynolds speaks an English translation of a Spanish poem into his phone's Dragon mobile app for Android, which -- this is important, follow along please -- is configured to interpret spoken input as Spanish. Then, he copies the resultant text -- whatever Spanish the software thought it 'heard' in the English words read into it -- to Google Translate, which transforms the Spanish text back into English. Then he makes a poem from the Google Translate results.

That's an intricate sieve of process to sift a poem through. Let's break it down, with apologies to Jordan Reynolds if I am misrepresenting any particulars of his explanation:

  1. Already-translated Spanish text is spoken aloud, in English.
  2. The spoken words are interpreted by a software algorithm for turning spoken words into digitized text. But wait: the algorithm is deliberately sabotaged. Lied to, if it makes sense to call the use of software in a manner different than its makers intended 'lying.' ("Of course I'm speaking Spanish," one imagines Reynolds crooning to his Android ... in English.)
  3. The algorithmically-generated Spanish text is then presented to another algorithmically-driven software service for translation back to English.
  4. The poet arranges the results into a poem.

What I found intriguing about this process (which did, against all odds, result in something beautiful to hear Reynolds read) is the participation of software engineers in the creation of poetry. Not that they were asked or informed. They did not participate consciously. And, in fact, the poet (I'm speaking of Reynolds here, not Lorca or Spicer) had no angle, no theory about how the engineers' algorithms contribute to his work (I asked him, after the reading).

And that's the most intriguing part to me: that Reynolds accepts, as intrinsic elements of the digital substrate from which much 21st century culture grows -- with no particular interest in weighing them critically -- algorithms engineered over the course of, I don't know, twelve or fifteen years (as a system administrator I was installing Dragon Naturally Speaking for colleagues on the Berkeley campus sometime around the turn of the millenium ... so at least a dozen years).

Engineers, of course, make choices, as poets do. Those choices influence the workings of whatever they've built. Hence, to the way of thinking that struck me as I listened to Reynolds read at Alley Cat Books the other day, the participation of engineers as collaborators in the creation of his poems.

I don't suppose widely-available software is any different from the materials used to create other 'found' art: finding materials from which to make written, plastic, audio, visual, and/or video art has and always will be influenced by whomever lost the bits and pieces where an artist might find them, not to mention manufacturers of the materials themselves.

A child's discarded schoolwork. Old transit passes. A red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water. Not that one thinks of the artist's work as a collaboration with a school child, a commuter, or a chicken farmer. It's the artist's work, after all.

Intriguing, though, that certain software is so ubiquitous in these times that its origin and influence is as invisible as ... a transit pass. We see through a Google glass, darkly?

I can't end before mentioning the last author who read at the Small Press Love Fest: Jenny Bitner read half of her story "We ♥ Shapes," written in the voice of a mother whose child is a shapeshifter. This ... difference in her child gives the story's narrator oodles more than the usual mom has to worry about ... and I absolutely must find out how it ends, which means that Saturday's reading gave more than enough reason to find myself a copy of the Writing That Risks anthology; scuttlebutt is that it's due out from Red Bridge Press in May. I'll be waiting.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Should technology shape art?
Google Translate, AI, and Searle's Chinese Room
Google yanks APIs, developers caught with pants around ankles
Four eyes: 4 ways Google Glass might change the world

Thanks to snake eyes for his image of the Golden Gate Bridge; to Steve Rhodes for his 2009 image of John Kuzich's Fast Pass art at the de Young museum; and to William Carlos Williams for The Red Wheelbarrow.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Flowering plum trees on Presidents Day weekend

Life isn't fair. There, I've said it, it's on the table, out of the way. My apologies to those of you in the snowbound states, but I'm just reporting the facts here.

When I was a wee lad, some years before I arrived at UC Berkeley as a dewy-eyed Freshperson, I'd already heard rumor of a fellow who went by the name Pink Cloud. Often, legend had it, Pink Cloud could be found at a student co-op called Barrington Hall, a house of mythic debauchery. Pink Cloud, people said, was the man to see if you were after doses of lysergic acid diethylamide, a.k.a. LSD, a.k.a. acid, as in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Pink Cloud truly existed, it turned out. The man was no myth. I did my share of hanging out at Barrington Hall as the dew burned off, and Pink Cloud was still to be found there (though he and I never actually consummated a business transaction, so I can't speak authoritatively to that part of his legend).

He's still around. Matter of fact, The Daily Californian, UCB's student newspaper, quoted him in an article about a local ballot measure in early November of last year. Barrington Hall was shut down at the dawn of the 90s. Things had gotten pretty ugly there in those last half-dozen years or so.

What's not ugly in Berkeley is President's Day weekend, smack dab in the middle of a time of year when the plum and ornamental cherry trees burst into flower all over the city and campus.

Here's a sampling of what it looks like -- clouds of pink blossoms, clouds of white blossoms, in parking lots, out front of houses and churches, serving as a gentle scrim to a towering stand of redwood trees -- but without any claims as to the quality of my snapshots...

February's a great month to visit Berkeley, though not if you've got allergies. The acacia is in full-bloom too, which is also lovely ... unless the pollen makes you sniffle and sneeze.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

April showers brought May flowers
On the bright side: an iris in someone's front yard
Flowery front yards in Berkeley

Monday, February 11, 2013

Should technology shape art?

Is it coy to title a blog post with the wrong question? Mea culpa.

The question is not whether technology ought to shape art. The fact is that it does, and always has.

  • We read books, not scrolls: the codex was a technological development, first described in writings still known to us about two thousand years ago ... and overcoming an older text-recording technology, the scroll, a few hundred years later.
  • We generally read printed books, not hand-copied books; the printing press as we know the technology here in the west was invented in the fifteenth century.
  • Musical arts? Beyond the human voice, music is produced with mouth harps, violins, oboes, zithers, trumpets, drum kits, synthesizers, and so on -- that is, with technologies at all levels of complexity.
  • The art of cinema? A nineteenth-century technology.

Drawing on cave walls with charred sticks, painting in oils, cast bronze sculpture, splitting dead cows in half and mounting them in tanks of formaldehyde? Okay, maybe never mind that last, no need to get ridiculous. The point is, technology has had a major role in the ways art could be created and experienced for a long time ... arguably for as long as we've had art.

I remember hanging out with my BFF, a student at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early eighties, and rolling my eyes at the bazillions of 'pieces' being produced by John, by his teachers, and by fellow-students that consisted of videotaped 'scenes' in which pretty much nothing happened. I never figured out the attraction myself, but the availability of video cameras that art students could afford must have had something to do with the phenomenon.

Now, of course, we have YouTube. Heck, we have video on YouTube of dead cows split in half and mounted in tanks of formaldehyde:


I have to admit my jaw dropped last month when I read Betsy Morais reporting on last month's Digital Book World. Her 22 January piece on The New Yorker's web site -- The Book of the Future, Sliced and Diced -- was brought to my attention by a FB friend. Here's how it starts:
At the Digital Book World conference, held in New York last week, one could hardly pass muster by holding up a stack of pages bound together. The crowd's sensibility was more conceptual; the word that filled the air was "content." This was a fairground for companies like Innodata, DigiServ, Biztegra, and Datamatics, with booths snaking through the hallways of the Hilton Hotel. They passed out business cards and flowcharts, decked out with spritely taglines: "Unleash your inner book ~ just $99." In a conference room, Linda Holliday, the C.E.O. of a digital publishing company called Semi-Linear, leaned against a presenter’s table, having just wrapped up a panel discussion on "Making Content Searchable, Findable, and Shareable." She spoke in an excited stream. "A book is an amount of knowledge that I feel good about finishing," she told me. "A book is a clump of knowledge that goes together."

"Look at a book as a bag of words," suggested Matt MacInnis, another panelist, who had been working on education projects at Apple before forming an interactive-book company called Inkling. "Bag of words," he pointed out, is a computer-science term: a model by which a machine represents natural language. "Computers are terrible at natural language," he said. "Humans are shitty at multiplication and division." For a reader searching the Internet for information, he explained, "the word rank is going to be terrible for a bag of words of book length." But a book that is broken up into component parts would show up higher in an online search result, because each discrete section coheres around a single idea, which can be tagged, indexed, and referenced by other sites. This is known in the business as "link juice."
"A book is a clump of knowledge that goes together"? Really?

"Look at a book as a bag of words"?

Books as "link juice"?

Not what I signed up for, either as a reader or a writer. Not how I read books now, or write them, or want to read or write in the future. (Cf. Hamlet as a bag of words in the image at left, courtesy of Wordle. Can we agree that's not nearly as interesting as the play Shakespeare wrote and published as a sequential set of lines spoken by characters?)

Now, to be fair, these folks at DBW were focused on non-fiction, says Betty Morais, and I mostly read and write fiction. Different kettles of fish.

Sort of.

"Sort of" because, when you think about it for seven seconds or so, you realize that the depth and breadth of understanding one gains by reading book-length non-fiction -- say C.G. Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections, to take a random example from my own bookshelves -- is of an entirely different order compared to the several factoids ingested by reading fifty or so words that make up the first paragraph of Wikipedia's article about "the Swiss psychotherapist and psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology." Even if you read those fifty or so words sequentially, I'm saying.

Is it hopelessly old-school to think this way?

Is current technology's influence on art a good thing? A bad thing? Indifferent?

Is its value irrelevant because its influence is inevitable?

Consider Mark Katz on the pervasive influence of recording technology on music, from classical to popular, from his book Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (2004):
Simply put, phonograph effects are the manifestations of sound recording's influence. Consider a straightforward example. When Igor Stravinsky composed his Serenade for Piano in 1925, he wrote the work so that each of the four movements would fit the roughly three-minute limit of a ten-inch, 78-rpm record side. "In America I had arranged with a gramophone firm to make records of some of my music," he explained in his autobiography. "This suggested the idea that I should compose something whose length should be determined by the capacity of the record. And that his how my Sérénade en A pour Piano came to be written." Stravinsky was not alone. Many composers of classical and especially popular music followed a similar compositional approach. (Today's three-minute pop song is a remnant of this practice.) Stravinsky's decision to tailor his Serenade to the length of the record side is a clear manifestation of recording's influence. It is just one of countless phonograph effects, ranging from the obvious -- jogging while listening to Wagner on  Walkman, a pop star harmonizing with herself on disc -- to the more subtle changes in the way we speak and think about music in an age of recording technology.
On the other hand, here's Camille Paglia in Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, published in October of last year:
Looking at art requires stillness and receptivity, which realign our senses and produce a magical tranquility.
Me? I'd say Paglia is making an essential point. Here's more from her introduction to Glittering Images:
The creative energy of our era is flowing away from the fine arts and into new technology. Over the past century, industrial design, from streamlined automobiles and sleek home appliances to today's intricately customized personal gadgets, has supplied aesthetic satisfactions once mainly derived from painting and sculpture. In my experience as a teacher, industrial design students have acute powers of social observation and futuristic intuition, as well as independent and speculative minds, rarely found among today's overly ideological intellectuals. The industrial designer recognizes that commerce, for good or ill, has shaped modern culture, whose cardinal feature is not economic inequity but egalitarian mass communication. Indeed, American genius has always excelled in frankly commercial forms like advertising, modern architecture, Hollywood movies, jazz, and rock music.

But mass media are a bewitching wilderness in which it is easy to get lost. My postwar generation could play with pop because we had a solid primary-school education, geared to the fundamentals of history and humanities. The young now deftly negotiate a dense whirl of relativism and synchronicity: self-cannibalizaing pop, with its signature sampling and retro fads, has become a stupendous superabundance, impossible to absorb and often distanced through a protective pose of nervous irony. The rise of social media has blurred the borderline between private and public and filled the air with telegraphic trivialities, crowding out sequential discourse that invites rereading.


In an age of alluring, magical machines, a society that forgets art risks losing its soul.

No bag of words those. Thoughts worth mulling-over, I'd say.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Everything relates to everything else
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
N-gram fetishism

Thanks a third time to Evan Bench for the image of a stack of books at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bike parking fail

If you live in a city you've more likely than not been thwarted by some moron who left a car parked smack in the middle of curb-space ample for two blimped-up SUVs -- Escalades, even -- hogging the only open spot anyplace near where you need to park.

WTF, you wondered, perhaps out loud. Perhaps even at the top of your lungs. Was the driver an idiot? A narcissist? An arrogant toff with delusions of royal prerogative?

You don't actually care about the particulars. Really, you don't. The particulars aren't the problem. The fact at the side of the road is the problem.

What you want to do is smash the asshat's windshield. But you're not about to stoop that low. Besides, smashing windshields, even asshats' windshields, can get a person ... entangled. So you grit your teeth. You take a deep breath. You circle the block. You circle the block again.

But ask yourself this:

Self, have you ever run across a parking fail like the one depicted in the photo below?

I hadn't.

Not so blatant a case of two-wheeled vehiculum porcus, not in decades of bike commuting in a city filled with bike commuters. Not nearly.

But there it is, not so much in black and white as in gunmetal grey and fire-engine red.

There were other open spaces in the YMCA bike racks in Berkeley the other evening. Heck, you can see one in the photo, just to the right of the yellow bicycle.



What kind of epsilon-minus semi-moron would park a bike to take up space that four could have used?

If you'd ridden to the gym after work, looked for a place to park your bike, and found ... the scene depicted above ... what would you have done?

Let the air out of the red bike's tires? Poured crazy-glue over its derailleur? Removed the gel-filled form-fitting saddle and replaced the seatpost with a splintery-tipped broken broom handle?

Or would you simply have taken a photo and given the world at large a chance to marvel at the self-involved idiocy among us?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Sharrows and stripes: bike lanes for a common good
Fixing flat tires