Bob Schwartz

Category: Writing

AI Writes: Talk to Transformer

Artificial Intelligence (AI) won’t replace writers. No machine can ride the emotional roller coaster that writing can be, and what computer could consume the inappropriate volume of coffee (or alcohol) it takes sometimes to string words together? I mean, where would you pour it?

But then…

The Verge:

Even the most advanced chatbots can’t hold a decent conversation, but AI systems are definitely getting better at generating the written word. A new web app provides ample proof, letting anyone enter a text prompt to which AI software will automatically respond.

Enter the start of a made-up news article, and it’ll finish it for you. Ask it a question (by formatting your input like this: “Q: What should I do today?”), and it’ll happily respond.

The site is called TalkToTransformer.com, and it’s the creation of Canadian engineer Adam King. King made the site, but the underlying technology comes from research lab OpenAI. Earlier this year, OpenAI unveiled its new AI language system, GPT-2, and TalkToTransformer is a slimmed-down, accessible version of that same technology, which has been made accessible only to select scientists and journalists in the past. (The name “transformer” refers to the type of neural network used by GPT-2 and other systems.)

If you want to learn about AI language generation, there’s no better way to understand its huge potential and serious limitations than by playing around with TalkToTransformer.

On the plus side, the model is incredibly flexible. It’s able to recognize a huge variety of inputs, from news articles and stories to song lyrics, poems, recipes, code, and HTML. It can even identify familiar characters from franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

At the same time, you’ll soon see that, at a fundamental level, the system doesn’t understand language or the world at large. The text it generates has surface-level coherence but no long-term structure. When it writes stories, for example, characters appear and disappear at random, with no consistency in their needs or actions. When it generates dialogue, conversations drift aimlessly from topic to topic. If it gets more than a few responses, it seems like good luck, not skill.

Still, as The Verge explained in our original coverage of GPT-2, this system is hugely impressive. Remember: this is a single algorithm that has learned to generate text by studying a huge dataset scraped from the web and other sources. It learned by looking for patterns in this information, and the result is a surprisingly multitalented system.

It may not be hard to find gaps in GPT-2’s knowledge, but it’s impossible to know whether you’ve explored the limits of what it can do.

Putting Talk to Transformer to the test, I prompted it with some of the most famous opening lines from classic novels (shown in bold). Note that for the sake of space, I have not included the actual opening paragraphs for comparison, author v. machine. If you’re not familiar with the real thing, you can easily look it up.


Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. But no one would speak of him as a beggar. He has nothing that may entitle him to such a wife; and therefore it lies open to him, as to a man of ill estate, and who does not have any means, that he might marry his daughter, to whom his fortune might furnish a dowry—a woman who bore his child. So that, in other respects, the poor man is so fortunate in life as almost to be the chief benefactor of his country, without the necessity of making a comparison of his wealth with his want of property. But he has no reason to make such an comparison. For without it his property may grow to become much greater than the property of the richest in the family, whom it is not fit to receive any assistance from. So that no one will be willing, by any means, to enter into a marriage-contract with any one who is rich enough to support him. But if the property of any one whom he is bound to support can be reduced to…


Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It is possible that the old prophets who would write in our days, the last of them we are not able to remember, would go mad during the coming of the Age of Light, but only among us, for now all is still the same to them.

The world, or at least that part of the world, which is not dominated by the forces of light and sound, becomes a desert of blind blindness, which has its origin in the lack of knowledge in the human brain. The old prophets said that all of us who have knowledge of God must, sooner or later, fall into an abject state of ignorance about the reality of Things. However, those who are the more ignorant, have never the slightest fear of the Age of Light, as there is…


James Joyce, Ulysses:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.  He had a large brown dog with blue eyes in his mouth, about twelve feet long.

“We are in the presence of the gods,” he said with a tone like a dog barking. As I walked inside, I glanced through the mirror which had the words “THE GODS” stamped upon it .  I recognized the face that stood behind the mirror and the voice of the god.  The god, whose name was Ouroboros, the One who is above and beyond, asked him if it was his name.  The dwarf replied that his name was “Buck”.   The god asked Buck Mulligan how he liked to be called.  Buck answered, “Well, in order to be called what we are, we must be named. I like it when you call me that way.”   The god had been talking about the god with his eyes shining and he felt something in his chest.
“I need a shave,” said Buck,…


Albert Camus, The Stranger:

Mother died today.  I’m sure she has a daughter too.  I’ve been trying to get her to talk to me for years.  I tried to give her a name, to remind her what her life was worth, to show a smile to tell her I love her and that she is special.  But, I couldn’t talk to her much.  She just was.  I’m not sure even if I could talk to her on the phone that would be enough to help her out.  Not a real good idea because, the moment she does meet someone, she will feel abandoned and so will almost any adult.   The last time I talked to her was before she passed away.  She was sick.  I saw her one last time in one of her many hospitals in the hospital.  She didn’t talk very often.  She seemed okay, at least when I had her.  She told me she was sorry she didn’t talk to me sooner.  I asked her about her kids, she said she was not home for the kids…


J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. If the hobbit was happy, it was also easy to look upon him. Why, that hobbit could do whatever he liked, and so he came often and went noisily and noisily of one to another to meet his needs, but the poor hobbit felt nothing and never had anything to feel for. How can a hobbit feel for someone else? It is hard for him to have the confidence that someone else would feel for him.

Then when the hobbit is very tired and doesn’t know what to do, how he feels for somebody is also not easy to come in contact with him if he is far from civilization; there is so little contact with a non-European. The one time the hobbit fell very sick he looked back in vain for all his friends and nobody would tell…


 

Advertisements

Ten Reasons a Letter Board Is a Perfect Gift

Ten reasons a letter board is a perfect gift:

1. It is not digital.
For most people, most words are now digital. Words are not digital.

2. It is a perfect place for very short poems, including haiku.
The haiku on the letter board above is by Hokushi (1665–1718), a student of Bashō.

3. It is creative.
Some people have many creative outlets; some have few or none. This is one more.

4. It promotes awareness and mindfulness.
Enlightenment, however, is not guaranteed.

5. It raises awareness that writing is made with letters.
Paragraphs are made with sentences are made with phrases are made with words are made with…letters.

6. People will say, “Wow, that’s so cool!”
If being or seeming cool is important to you.

7. It solves gift giving.
People either already have a letter board and wish they had more or don’t have one but will wonder how they ever lived without it.

8. It promotes slowness.
Many things we do are done too fast. Many things we do are better done slowly. Putting words together is one of them.

9. It helps overcome fear of the blank page.
Facing a blank page is daunting for some people. But as you dig into the plastic letters, you will feel yourself emboldened to take a chance. What’s the worst that can happen? If you don’t like the words you put up, you can take them right down and start over.

10. Letters are sacred.
Almost all religious and spiritual traditions have special regard for letters. In some cases, it is said that all creation is constructed from letters.

To discover more about the joys of letter boards, visit Felt Like Sharing, who make the highest quality letter boards in all kinds of colors (black board, white letters is still my simple preference).  Or visit Felt Like Sharing letter boards on Amazon.

This I Can Almost Do

This I Can Almost Do

When I hear music I think
About playing I don’t play
When I see pictures I think
About painting I don’t paint
When I read I write.
Who are they to lay claim
To words on my lips
At my fingertips
Since words were born.
They don’t own the letters
Spaces stops and starts.
My music my picture.

©

Periods and Commas

Periods and Commas

I search the poems of
More artful and crafty poets
For punctuation
Periods and commas
Colons and semis
Dashes short and long
Where do they belong
For a while
I thought I knew
But at this moment
Give up pretending
Discard them all
They gather together
Leftover parts
From a ready to assemble kit
In cryptic conversation
.,.,?-;
—,,.-
Meaning no less
Than the words
They will all be back
As soon as later
Or now.

©

Random Torah: The Continuing Conjunction in Leviticus 9

Today’s Random Torah chapter (Leviticus 9) is helpful for bible students, students of translation, all writers and all lovers of language. All you need to look at is the very first verse.

In Hebrew the first verse is:

וַֽיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א משֶׁ֔ה לְאַֽהֲרֹ֖ן

(Vayehi bayom hash’mini kara moshe l’aharon)

Two reputable translations render it this way:

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons (New Jewish Publication Society)

On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons (New Revised Standard Version)

But Robert Alter and a number of traditional translations (including the King James) show that something is lost in translation:

And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron (King James)

Or as Alter has it:

And it happened, on the eighth day, that Moses called to Aaron (Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

Alter notes:

And it happened. This formula (wayehi) is characteristically used to mark the beginning of a unit of narrative.

It is hard to know why so many translations leave this out and jump right into the story (“On the eighth day”). But this omission is more significant than it seems.

Beginning writers are often taught never to start a sentence with a conjunction. Like many rigid rules of writing, it can rob creativity and meaning.

“And” in this verse is what might be called a continuing conjunction. If you are a fan of TV series, you get this. Episodes begin with a “previously on” prologue, followed by the implicit “and now this.” Everything that happened before is still present, and now this is happening.

It’s true that as a writer I have a tendency (sometimes edited out when excessive) to start sentences with conjunctions. And I do recognize the habit. But if it’s good enough for Leviticus, it should be good enough for you or me.

Use Simplenote

simplenote

If you don’t make and take notes, you probably should. Those great thoughts won’t remember themselves. And when you make and take notes, you should use Simplenote.

Simplenote is free and simple. Nothing fancy, not multi-function. It just lets you make text notes and sync them across devices. It is available for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux and the web.

Simplenote was bought a few years ago by Automattic, the folks who give you WordPress, the platform for this and multi-millions of blogs.

Simplenote is my most used and valuable app. Some notes are just one sentence or a link. Some notes are longer, the length of an essay, a poem or a blog post. In fact, the majority of my blog posts start out as Simplenote notes. Like this one did.

One Pen Two Caps

One Pen Two Caps

I inadvertently put caps on both ends of one pen.

I think this may mean something. But I don’t know what.

My Cheap Blank Tablet, My Tabula Rasa

I’ve started keeping a tiny blank black chalkboard on my desk, next to a stick of white chalk.

It is also known as a tablet. But I am not confused between it and the three other devices on my desk that have the same name, though it is just about the same size. This one cost about two dollars at Walmart and stays fully charged and useful forever. As long as I don’t run out of chalk. The others were substantially more expensive and need constant electrification.

There are the expressions “clean slate” or “blank slate.” Clean slate indicates that all is forgotten or forgiven, that one is starting over. Blank slate indicates thought that starts without prior or preconceived ideas.

In Latin it is tabula rasa, a clean, erased, or literally scraped tablet, based on wax writing tablets used by the Romans. Aristotle used this as a philosophical concept, as did John Locke.

I draw circles on it. I draw lines on it. It doesn’t have room for many words, just one or two, so I don’t do much writing on it. I do that on the other fancier tablets. Whatever I do chalk there, I always erase. Blank, for the next time.

Random Notes on Editing

Random Notes on Editing
1. Whether working on a business report, legal brief, story or even a non-written creation, you have either had the privilege to edit others or have suffered the tough medicine of being edited.

2. All works are improvable. Ask God.

3. There is a difference between edits that are improvements and changes based on subjective sensibilities, though there is a gray area in between.

4. It is easiest to identify improvement editing when the creation is discretely functional and results are measurable, as with some sorts of advertising copy. Some would say readability and clarity fall into this functional category—that is, unless tortured readability is a creative choice and can be handled deftly. Ask Faulkner or Joyce.

5. Voice may be the hardest part of editing. It may also be the hardest part of writing. Even the most technical sorts of work can convey a distinctive voice—you will find this in textbooks, in legal articles, even in judicial rulings. Some writers don’t know abstractly what a distinctive voice is because they just naturally have one. Others work to develop it. That is the dual quandary for editors. If a writer has a voice, or the beginnings of one, you want to cultivate it without editing it away. If a writer doesn’t have much of a voice, there is a risk of the editor—who is often a pretty good writer too—to substitute a different voice entirely.

6. The Bible is the most importantly edited work in Western history, maybe in human history. Speaking of voice, imagine being the one responsible for editing the voice of God, Moses or Jesus. Yet somebody did. These editors took no credit, though it is fun to consider what those acknowledgements might look like. “And finally I’d like to thank my editor, without whom these transcripts of my speeches would not have the power that they do. JC.”

“I Shook The Hand Of The American Dream”: Rick Santorum And The Weirdness Of The Tortured And Overextended Metaphor


This is about Rick Santorum speaking at the Republican National Convention. But it is not about politics.

It is about rhetoric, as in writing and speechifying.

Rick Santorum is a fearless stylist. Some of us love sweater vests, and were happy to see someone so openly and proudly wearing them.

But as a speaker, his RNC speech, while obviously heartfelt and clearly partisan, contained an over-the-top device that all writers and all speakers and just about any communicator needs to avoid: the tortured and overextended metaphor.

To begin with, metaphors are tricky for anybody, even the most seasoned writer. When a metaphor is off by more than a little, the term we use to describe it is “torturned.”

Beyond the tortured metaphor is the extended one. Even an apt metaphor gets its strength from its ability to surprise and hook our imagination. Like all great moments, it is here and should soon be gone. The extended metaphor milks that moment dry.

And so without further ado, this excerpt from Rick Santorum’s speech:

America is still the greatest country in the world – and with God’s help and good leadership we can restore the American Dream.

Why?

I held its hand. I shook the hand of the American Dream. And it has a strong grip.

I shook hands of farmers and ranchers who made America the bread basket of the world. Hands weathered and worn. And proud of it.

I grasped dirty hands with scars that come from years of labor in the oil and gas fields, mines and mills. Hands that power and build America and are stewards of the abundant resources that God has given us.

I gripped hands that work in restaurants and hotels, in hospitals, banks, and grocery stores. Hands that serve and care for all of us.

I clasped hands of men and women in uniform and their families. Hands that sacrifice and risk all to protect and keep us free. And hands that pray for their safe return home.

I held hands that are in want. Hands looking for the dignity of a good job, hands growing weary of not finding one but refusing to give up hope.

And finally, I cradled the little, broken hands of the disabled. Hands that struggle and bring pain, hands that ennoble us and bring great joy.

“I shook the hand of the American dream…. Hands looking for the dignity of a good job…And finally, I cradled the little, broken hands of the disabled.”

While Rick Santorum may be wrong on the issues, he has proved himself a man of conscience and conviction (maybe one of the reasons he failed to get his party’s nomination). But as a speaker, the image of those hands with eyes wide open, looking for a good job, may be one that sticks with us.