MechaPoetry

The MechaPoet is my attempt to rescue humanity from the drudgery of writing verse. I’m not quite sure when the idea emerged, but as Chris explains, we were originally considering a computer program to generate real-life slash fiction. Which might still happen, but these things take time (we originally hoped to debut the MechaPoet in February’s Brighton Science Festival Slam, which will give you an idea of our pace).

ChrisP, MechaPoet and me

ChrisP, MechaPoet and me

The MechaPoet finally made its public debut at this month’s Brighton Java meeting. It’s a mix of Chris’s hardware skills and my programming. MechaPoet takes a big pile of texts (tweets from me and Chris along with the texts of Jurassic Park and American Psycho), learns the patterns in them, improvises a rhyming poem, then recites it. The results are surprisingly good – occasionally a line will make me laugh or even prove moving. A lot depends on the soiurces used. Tweets tend to produce something quite emo, whereas novels produce something more consistent.

The techniques I’m using are not particularly obscure. Computer-generated poetry has a long history, dating back to the 1950s. Most of the techniques were outlined by the time Oulipo‘s ALAMO project wound down. The MechaPoet text itself is generated by Markov chains, not a particularly sophisticated technique (a really good, gentle introduction is here).

The Mechapoet is unveiled!

The Mechapoet is unveiled!

Chris has done a good job of explaining the non-technical aspects of the project, so I should probably talk a little about the programming. The MechaPoet was written in Java, which is a lousy language for hacking together prototypes, particularly for text manipulation – but when I wanted to produce the robot, I didn’t want to fiddle about learning Groovy, or sharpening my blunted Python skills.

The first version of the MechaPoet used the FreeTTS voices, which were good enough to tell that you were hearing poetry, but many of the words were garbled. There is a recording of the original voice on Youtube. I tried a number of different voice packages but couldn’t get any of them running on Ubuntu.

The good thing about sharing a project at an event like Brighton Java was getting feedback. Luke from Brandwatch showed me the latest Google TTS voices, which were incredible. I spent Good Friday hacking together a new version of the MechaPoet to run on my phone. The solution involved a microservice using Spring Boot with an Android client. It’s interesting to see the places a good project will take you, and making my first Android app was fun – although it would have been easier if I’d read more about programming Android in advance.

The only problem with the current version is that the new Google voice is a little too good. With a scratchy robot voice, people are more willing to forgive little errors in pronunciation and emphasis. The Google voice is so clear that there is something of an uncanny valley problem – errors are jarring rather than charming. The next piece of work I need to do is to reduce the quality of the voice a little to make it flow better.

The first stages of the MechaPoet

The first stages of the MechaPoet

There are some interesting questions about whether what the MechaPoet does is poetry or not. After all, many human poets such as Tristan Tzara and Kenneth Goldsmith have worked with algorithms or arbitrary techniques. William Burroughs argued that the cut-up technique was still authorship, since the user chose the source texts, where to cut etc. I’d argue that the MechaPoet’s work is actually written by Chris and I rather than the algorithm. Poetry is a wide and complicated artform: a good example of this is Bot or not, a website that asks you to choose whether a piece of poetry is human- or computer-generated. The crossover between those two categories is significant.

What’s next? Well there’s the possibility of an appearance at a gig, as well as some poetry performances. The main aim is to enter the robot into a slam to see how it performs against human poets. I also want to work on generated haikus: I genuinely believe is that a program can be written than will produce better haiku than any human does. Chris and I are also trying to find a bootleg copy of Alastair Campbell‘s diaries so we can generate new entries from that. (Imagine mixing his diaries with Jurassic Park? Wouldn’t that be incredible?)

Jet-lag and transitions

In William Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition, the main character says that jet-lag is waiting for the soul to catch up after a flight. I could check, but my copy of Pattern Recognition (if I still have one) is in a box somewhere. I could look online, but I don’t have broadband.

I set off from the hotel in Kochi, South India, at 1:30am on Saturday – 8pm on Friday GMT. I only slept a little on the flight to Dubai then had a dash through the airport to make the connection, led through corridors and on buses to the gate. It was my eighth visit to Dubai and the first time I’ve stepped outside. The flight to Gatwick was seven or so hours that dragged on and on. I watched Day of the Doctor and the combination of tiredness and travel left me teary. England provided a disappointing welcome, aggressive police greeting the plane and an expensive train ticket home.

After nineteen-hours’ travel I arrived at my flat about three; it would’ve been sooner if I’d not walked via the West Pier. I was jetlagged and useless, pottering through the rooms. I moved in less than 48-hours before my flight to India and had only spent a single night here. I’ve been living in single rooms and have few pieces of furniture. Boxes of books take up very little space.

I have no idea how I will fill this space. I quickly realised I needed a thing by the door to put things on – keys, bike lights and so on. And I have so many places to hide odds-and-ends – a cupboard with travel items, a drawer of cables. My possessions have been squeezed into such small spaces and I can feel myself expand.

But jet-lag. I roamed the house, unpacked my rucksack, unpacked a box, took a bath, watched Donnie Darko, fell asleep about six. Woke at one. I might have some adjusting to do. So I’ve tidied a few things up, unpacked the boxes of ‘useful things’. My sprits were lifted by the Indelicates Podcast with Michael James Parker. I remember seeing Julia and Simon Indelicate and MJP perform together years ago at the Komedia, all under different names. Back then, I didn’t even get that the night’s name was a reference to Howl.

This is the first home I’ve had to myself since Coventry, and the first place I’ve lived with the expectation of staying for years. Everything feels different. Having a stable base, even one without little furniture, makes me feel calmer. A lot of worries have vanished and I’m looking forward to seeing what other worries turn up in their place. I have more space in my head and my life now and I wonder what will fill it.

Psychogeography Workshop

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On Saturday I ran a a two-hour psychogeography workshop. It was based on one I originally devised for Kate Shields‘ Ways of Seeing season, in May last year. My interest in psychogeography has been piqued recently, which led to running the session again.

This time we were based in the Friends Meeting House which was a great location, right in the centre of Brighton’s most historic area. I knew a lot of the participants but there were a couple of people I didn’t know, including one who was told about the course by a university tutor. One of the great things about events like this is meeting new people.

I gave a brief introduction to the subject before we went out in Brighton to try some experiments. We were very fortunate to have good weather, as I’d not prepared any alternative activities. One of these, pictured at the top of page, involved being the participants being blindfolded on the beach. Being Brighton, very few people paid it any notice, apart from one passer-by telling a friend that “it must be some sort of sex game“. Then, as I led my housemate, someone leaned over the promenade railings wearing a lion’s head. Brighton is a fantastic place for events like this one.

Teaching a subject is an excellent way of deepening your understanding of it. Some interesting questions were asked, particularly about the role of women in the subject. There were also some good ideas for activities to try in the future.

The session sold out and a lot of people who wanted to come couldn’t attend. I’ll run the workshop again in the Spring, possibly in an expanded form. Email me at james@orbific.com if you’d like me to send you details.

Seafront photos by sooxanne soox

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i360: The Saga Drags On

I wrote most of this back in September, but it’s taken me a while to finish it off. I think it’s all still relevant.

The headline in Friday 20th September’s Argus was Hammer blow for i360 as private funding falls throughThis referred to the latest chapter in the i360 story, with Brighton and Hove council debating whether to continue their support of the project in light of the latest collapse in funding.

The story’s opening paragraph was ambiguous: “The developer behind a £38 million tourist attraction said he had ‘no fears’ it will be delivered – despite the hammer blow of private funding falling through.” The article later expanded on this quote: “David Marks, who is behind the scheme, told The Argus he has ‘no fears’ over delivering it,” which is slightly clearer.

Planning permission was originally granted for the i360 in October 2006 and a series of proposed completion dates have swept by. The current plan is for the attraction to open some time in 2015. I’ve been following the sagas of the Brighton Wheel and the i360 for a few years now. I have no special insight into the topics involved beyond an ability to use Google. Any conclusions or predictions should be taken with a pinch of salt – I’ve previously told people, at length, how the Brighton Wheel was a ridiculous project with no chance of success.

The three main questions I had about the project were:

  1. Isn’t the annual visitor estimate of 800,000 people far too high?
  2. Why are the council lending £15 million to this project in the midst of appalling cuts?
  3. Why is the i360 continuing when it is a ridiculous project with no chance of success?

A lot of these questions are answered in greater detail in the documentation that comes with the i360 Loan Agreement, and my summaries are below.

Visitor Estimates

The commercial predictions for the i360 are based upon receiving 800,000 visitors in the first year. On the face of it, that estimate seems too high. The maximum capacity for the eye is 200 people. Each trip lasts twenty minutes, with the exception of the ‘Skybar’ evening rides, which will last 30 minutes. The expected visitor numbers average out at 2200 people per day.

At first this appears high, particularly given how poor trade at the Brighton Wheel seems to be. Some of the commenters on the Argus article have made similar calculations. But if the estimate is so bad that an Argus commenter can see the flaws, one would expect architects and councillors to figure that out too. The visitor estimates were run by AECOM Economics and their work is pretty sophisticated. Their report (included in the loan agreement) lists some of their previous visitor predictions and they seem to have done a good job.

The documentation with the Loan agreement explains that there will be 27 rides a day, averaged over the year (which actually seems a little high when the ride is open between 6 hours a day, Nov to Feb, and 12 hours a day, May-Aug – 27 twenty-minute rides will take up to 9 hours, excluding loading and unloading). This means an average of 81 people on each ride.

Looking at other attractions provides a good basis for these predictions. The London Eye has 3.5 million visits, with a peak of 4 million in 2003. 5 million people a year visit Brighton’s beach and the Pavilion receives 350k visitors. Apparently “if the Brighton i360 performed as well [as the London Eye, based on catchment area], this would mean it would achieve around 1.7m visitors a year”. If the i360′s performance is similar to that of the Spinnaker tower, which has underperformed, the project can apparently still make enough money to repay the council.

A sensible estimate is less interesting than the council supporting a project that makes no sense. The mundane truth is that the project ought to get the numbers estimated. I’m still baffled as to the attraction of the scenery visible from the i360 but if Blackpool Tower can get decent numbers for what is a truly boring view, Brighton’s i360 should do OK.

Project Funding

The main problem for the i360 is funding. The £38 million required is divided between public loans and private finance. The government has offered £3 million and the council are planning to take out a loan of £14 million which will then be loaned to the project. This loan is contingent upon sufficient private funding being available for the rest of the money.

Some people have asked why the council is lending a huge sum of money to a tourist attraction attraction when there are many other worthy causes. As the council’s website points out, “the government’s  government’s strict guidelines mean we can only borrow to help commercial projects that make enough profit to more than cover these costs.

The proposed private funding for the i360 fell through earlier this year, forcing the developers to go “back to the market”, but apparently nobody is willing to invest until the project is finished. As I understand it, the council has continued their support despite the setbacks meaning that the i360 saga will trundle on for a few more years.

Why is the project continuing?

My third question is why this saga is continuing. The reason for the council debate is that £20 million of private funding had fallen through with just weeks to go until the most recent start date. Despite this, the town hall has continued to support the project and continues to offer the loan, contingent upon sufficient private funding.

Discussing their loan guarantee, the council website reassures us “Bear in mind the investors signed up so far all think it’s viable – so does the government”. Which is somewhat contradicted by the continuing lack of substantial investment. But there are a lot of people with a lot invested in this project, people who have staked their reputations on it. The steel work for the tower has apparently already been made and is waiting to be moved to Brighton.

But the West Pier remains undeveloped, years after the project began. If this project isn’t going to happen, why can’t it be abandoned and someone else be given a chance? I don’t know the answer for sure, but a good comment was left below the Argus story by saveHOVE:

BHCC made a major mistake when its legal department deemed development to have started when a few bits sitting on the sea floor were picked up and cleared away by Marks Barfield people. It happened for 2 reasons:

1. It sent a message to the Brighton O applicants at the time that the space beside them was not available to help see that off and,

2. To prevent the time limit for use of their planning consent to expire. This is why we now suffer “planning blight” on that site which sees it stay as it is until forever.”

It was this removal of west pier ‘debris’ that sparked my interest in this issue. I loved the old ruins, how they would be revealed when the tide was low enough. I couldn’t see why they were removed in favour of a project that looked so unlikely. This theory gives some explanation – and we do have a series of retail developments due to open in the arches near the west pier. There is also the promise of “a new and thriving artisan quarter”. I’ll leave a rant on that to anyone who asks in person, but most of the artisans I know are crying out for cheap rent, not prestige developments..

In conclusion: the i360 seems to be a viable project, but nobody is willing to put money on the line for it.

Sweden

The thing about blogging is that I post less when life gets really exciting. I went to Sweden almost three months ago and have had this post in draft for weeks. I’ve just not had time to catch up on things. Back at the start of September, I spent several days in Gothenburg with my friend, Swedish writer, Louise Halvardsson. I ate at one of Sweden’s notorious pizza restaurants, saw penguins in the local park, drank beer in a tiki restaurant, met a Rosy Carrick lookalike, went swimming off the southern islands, visited the Liseburg theme park and a disturbing Bruce Nauman exhibition.

Lou wrote a post about my visit, although she’s exaggerated what I said a little to make it a better story. As one should.

My favourite thing was the last day when we took a train to the end of the metro line where there was a small lake. We swam and lazed around in the sun. I knew then it would probably be my last swim of the summer. And then I got back on the metro and headed towards the airport and flew home.

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Stand By for Tape Backup

Hammer and Tongue returns from its summer break on Thursday evening and we’ve got a very special night in store. Our headliner is Ross Sutherland who will perform the entirety of his new show, Stand By For Tape Backup.

Ross is probably my favourite poet (well, non-Brighton poet, anyway). I love his first collection, Things to do Before you Leave Town, which is published by the fantastic Penned in the Margins press – you should listen to the title poem now.

I saw Stand By For Tape Backup at Latitude in July. Ross used to watch TV with his grandfather and found an old video tape containing some of the shows they used to enjoy. As the video plays, Ross recites an amazing monologue, synchronising perfectly with the video. Among the films and shows excerpted are the Wizard of Oz, Thriller, and a lovely sequence on the true story of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

The show is one of the best pieces of spoken word I’ve ever seen and we’re very lucky to be able to have it at Hammer and Tongue. Doors open at 7:30pm in Brighton Komedia’s studio bar, entry £5. You must come!

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Rivers and Tides

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A good way to spend an evening: last night I watched Rivers and Tides, a documentary about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy’s work uses natural materials and is often produced for specific locations. Many of his sculptures are intricate and fragile – a few times the documentary captures moments when a work in progress falls apart. It’s almost unbearable to watch Goldsworthy’s disappointment before he summons the strength to continue.

In my favourite scene, Goldsworthy is with his family as his children prepare for school. He then sets off to work, strolling through the village collecting dandelions in a metal bowl. Finally he comes to a river where he fills a pool with the bright flowerheads, producing a sculpture for the camera.

In some way’s Goldsworthy’s job seems ridiculous – although maybe no more ridiculous, really, than most of the jobs I’ve done. What’s interesting is how convincing Goldsworthy is: art is how he interrogates the world, at one point describing a sculpture he made while negotiating his grief at a relative’s death. He comes across as humble and unpretentious and, by the film’s end, I felt that he performed a useful and important service.

It’s fascinating to watch Goldsworthy working with materials that no other artist might use  – bracken, icicles, pinning leaves together with thorns. He crumbles stones containing red iron ores, making balls of powder that he throws into water, red dyes floating down river. The documentary makers have done a fantastic job of capturing the works, whether they are still or in motion, and several times I gasped in awe at their beauty.

In the final scenes, Goldsworthy stands in snow, flinging powdery handfuls into the air, watching it drift through sunbeams. It’s a simple piece, just snow and sunlight and, if it hadn’t been captured on film,  might not have been worth mentioning, its simple beauty unremarked.

“I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive.”

(Apparently there is a sculpture trail in Sussex, containing a series of chalk stones placed by Goldsworthy near the village of Cocking, as well as some of his pieces in Petworth. I’d love to see them)

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On Writing

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an author – wait! That’s not right, I’m just quoting a film. But anyway. Since I was a child, I wanted to write a novel. Which is a slightly strange ambition, since I had no clear idea about the book, just that I wanted to be an author.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the last twenty years writing novels. Some have been awful, but there are others that I’m quietly proud of. They’ve been fascinating to construct, both in terms of craft and in learning about a subject. I’ve enjoyed producing these strange works, but I’ve never successfully sent them into the world. A few have received very positive responses, but none led to publication. Some people have returned the book with nothing but a standard rejection, sometimes just a quarter-strip of A4 paper. Which, considering the effort I’d put in to researching agents and writing appropriate cover-letters, seemed downright rude. I like sending out novels far less than I like writing them.

I recently finished another project, Tourist Planet, about the experience of travelling in India. And I got to thinking, what now? And I realised that I don’t want to spend any more time writing novels. Obviously, as I’ve argued in the past (notably on the Literature Network site), writing should not be coupled to the idea of publishing. But, really, when you’re spending that much time on an activity, there should be a little more to show for it than a few hundred kilobytes on a hard drive. No, I don’t want to waste my life writing computer files.

And it’s not as if short stories are much better for me. I don’t even bother to send out most of the short stories I write. As much as I love stories like Richey Edwards vs Godzilla, it’s hard to find an appropriate home for them. And since I’ve pretty much stopped reading literary journals these days submitting to any would be pretty arrogant. (At this point, I should call out Alex and Elle who ran Penumbra, which stands out as the best place I’ve been published. If there were ever to be a fifth issue, I’d dust something off for them. Nothing else tempts me).

I’ve had two major life changes this year. Firstly, since April I’ve been working a full time job with Crunch. I’m having a great time but the cost is that I have much less free time than before. I can’t do everything I’d like to, which means I have to make choices. Writing has taken up a lot of my time and I’m not sure it justifies its place against other activities, or even spending more time thinking about programming – which is, after all, what’s likely to be feeding me for the next 30-years-or-so of working life.

What it comes down to is that I want to stop writing fiction. To make a clean break with it. Which is one reason for declaring it on a weblog – to underline that I’m serious, both to myself and to other people. Another is that I have a few commitments to break and it would be useful to have an explanation I can point to.

Writing has been fascinating. I’ve met some amazing people – without the MA at Sussex I’d not have made some wonderful friends. I’ve enjoyed doing spoken word, and have been very grateful for all the opportunities in Brighton. But writing takes up a lot of my time and there are other things I could be doing. I’ve met people in their sixties who say that whose lives will feel like a failure if they never publish a novel. I don’t want to face that fate. I don’t want to have an imaginary career.

No, I want to focus on other aspects of my life. I realised recently that I can’t sew. My cooking, once hilariously woeful is now competent – and I’d like it to be more than that. And I want to spend more time exercising, to lose the chubby belly I’ve had since childhood. I’ve always been convinced there was a slightly thinner person inside me and, if there is, I’m sure he’d appreciate being found and rescued.