Can computers write poetry?

March 27, 2013 at 9:43 pm (art, computers, interesting, internet) (, , , )

Working and being fascinated by computers and the Internet, I regularly come across interesting applications where someone has taken technology and done something quite unexpected with it.

But every now and again I happen upon something even more unexpected – a side effect of technology in action that is both quite unanticipated and extraordinary.  The website Google Poetics is one such site.

If you use Google, I’m sure you’ve seen how it anticipates what you wish to search for.  It is at times an interesting barometer for what the world is thinking about a topic.  I remember a very topical time when typing ‘how to quit’ had ‘how to quit facebook’ right at the top.  Probably after some Facebook update that was annoying people at the time.  Today it has how to quit … smoking; smoking weed; your job; drinking.  I don’t think this is personalised to me!

Now Google works very hard to anticipate everyone’s needs all as part of their mission to ‘return one search result – the one you want’.

But I doubt that even the engineers at Google anticipated that sometimes it will return a set of results that strikes a chord with people and actually means something quite profound.  That is what Google Poetics is collecting – examples of poetry made from the accidental (or at least, algorithmic) collisions from millions of people searching using Google.

Here are some of my favourites so far.

Would you like me to

  • Would you like me to be the cat
  • Would you like me to seduce you
  • Would you like me to
  • Would you like me to rephrase the question

We are not p

  • We are not permanent we’re temporary
  • We are not pilgrims
  • We are not pirates we are fishermen
  • We are not promised tomorrow

As I turn

  • As I turn the pages
  • As I turn away
  • As I turn up the collar on my favourite winter coat
  • As I turn my back on you

Sometimes I p

  • Sometimes I pretend to be normal
  • Sometimes I pretend
  • Sometimes I pretend I’m a carrot
  • Sometimes I put my hands in the air

The examples above bought to you courtesy of @GooglePoetics.  I could lose quite some time reading some of these.  And all as a consequence of the Google algorithms (far to) honestly regurgitating the behaviours of millions with some quite profound results.

And another interesting property of these poems, is that they are changing and not always the same for all readers. Try it yourself – type the titles into Google and see what you get back for you.  It will depend on your location, your search history, what everyone else has searched for recently and hundreds of other ‘small signals’ that combine within the walls of Google HQ to give you what it thinks you want.  Imagine attempting to design a system from scratch that could do this.  Talk about an emergent property!

Try it – its not quite as easy as I looks, and it can sometimes be dominated by song lyrics.  But every now and again you might find a gem.  If you do, make sure Google Poetics get to know about it.

Here is one of mine.

She is missing

  • She is missing
  • She is missing you
  • She’s a freak never missin a beat
  • She is missing me

Can computers write poetry?  I think this is proof that they can, albeit as an unintended consequence of something quite different.

Kevin.

 

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Some Quirky Videos

December 24, 2012 at 12:16 am (art, interesting, internet, music, odds) (, , , , , , , , , )

I’ve recently got into Twitter, after having an account sitting unused for around 5 years and in that time some rather interesting, but slightly quirky videos have wandered past my twitter feed.

The Christmas Almost Number 1

First of all, a great candidate for a Christmas #1, but unfortunately they didn’t make it. They should have done.  Funny, slightly tongue in cheek, a little humble, and musically very accomplished, is “Christmas Gets Worse Every Year” by ‘The Other Guys’ – 12 students from St Andrew’s University, in Scotland.  See it for yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YvZn1hgIvo

Thanks to the QI Elves (@qikipedia) for that one.

A Pale Blue Animation

This is a nice animation to accompany Carl Sagan’s monologue ‘A Pale Blue Dot’, itself inspired by the most distant photograph taken of Earth – a photograph from Voyager 1 from a distance of almost 4 billion miles away .  A thought provoking, perspective giving monologue with a slick animation to nicely drive home the meaning. See it here: http://vimeo.com/51960515

Thanks to Robin Ince (@robinince) posting in Brian Cox’s Twitter feed (@ProfBrianCox).

A Father-Daughter Yearly Pilgrimage

This is a nice story – every year Steve Addis takes his daughter to the same street corner in New York and takes a photo of him holding her.  Something that started when she was a year old.  This is a TED talk he shares his 15 most treasured photos from doing this, and the experience of getting a random stranger to take their picture – and how no-one has ever declined.  See it here: www.ted.com/talks/steven_addis_a_father_daughter_bond_one_photo_at_a_time.htm

I can’t remember where I first saw that one retweeted, but now I subscribe to TED Talks (@tedtalks) to make sure I don’t miss any more.

Don’t Assume Anything

This is another one that I saw courtesy of a retween from someone and then followed up.  It took me to the site of Richard Wiseman, that contains a number of very well done videos that challenge your views of the world – this is a particularly nice optical illusion.  See it here: http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/do-you-make-assumptions/

Now I follow Richard Wiseman (@RichardWiseman) too.

The Boy and His Robot

This is a lovely tale about a boy and is robot companion.  It combines the imaginary with the real, an idea of a fantasy future with the here-and-now and love, hate and dependency.  You might be tempted to click back after a couple of minutes to whatever you were doing before, but don’t – I thoroughly recommend watching the full 12 minutes.  Its sensitively surprising.  See it here: http://io9.com/5970839/a-lovely-short-film-about-a-boy-and-the-robot-he-cant-get-rid-of

Thanks to IO9 (@io9) for that one.

So a very interesting first few weeks on twitter – long may it continue.

Kevin.

 

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Creativity during mundanity

December 14, 2012 at 8:59 pm (art, interesting) (, , , )

Inbetween dozing on the train today, I happened to notice the person sitting next to me was typing on a laptop – as many often do.  Then I noticed that rather than something that looked like an email or a formal document, she was typing raw text into notepad, so I looked a little closer and then saw what she was doing.  She was writing a story; part of a narrative about a relationship.

Intrigued I then noticed the title of the document she was writing, and made a mental note, as I wondered if she was writing it to publish it anywhere or just writing for her own personal curiousity.  Well it turns out that the story is part of a series of fan-fiction writings being published via a LiveJournal.

Now, I have to say I am not a fan of the specific subject in question, but then I seriously doubt I am her target audience either.  But what really intrigued me though was to see a small glimpse of the creativity at work.  How the author was using the time as part of a commute (I don’t know if its a regular commute or not) to escape from the mundanity of the day into her own private fantasy world, using that time to turn that private world into a publicly visible fantasy world for others to enjoy too.

The LiveJournal blog contains the prolific writings of two authors, and it would appear that for a small moment, I stumbled across part 7 of a 9 part series being created right there and then.  It was interesting to see the care over writing, thinking, editing, deleting, writing some more and so on – the time taken to construct just a few phrases until they appeared to her liking.

I do wonder how many times during the day the author’s mind was with her fantasy world when it should have been on the real world and how long the entire work will take in terms of hours consumed to bring it to the public.  How many more train journeys it will take.

In interesting short insight into the act of creation as it happens.  I’ve made a mental note to check back in a month or two to see if the series is complete.

Kevin.

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Colossal Artistic Discovery

December 2, 2012 at 10:03 pm (art, interesting) (, , , , , , , , )

I just stumbled across this blog today – http://www.thisiscolossal.com. In the owners own words:

I like to describe Colossal as a blog that explores the intersection of art, design, and physical craft, specifically artwork that is tactile, physical and non-digital in nature. Each week you’ll find roughly 20-25 posts on photography, design, animation, painting, installation art, architecture, drawing and street art. There are frequently posts about things far out in left field, but generally Colossal is a reminder that in this digital age there are still countless people making incredible work with their bare hands.

Naturally there is a wonderful irony in using the tools of the digital age to promote art work that is firmly placed in the physical.  It is great that these works can reach such a large audience, and the owner of the blog appears to live up to his word when he states that he spends a lot of time considering what to include.

If you have the time, I strongly recommend browsing through the visual gallery (a visual index to all the posts).  If you want a quick taster, you could check out the top 20.  Otherwise, here are some of my favourites from the most recent entries.

Birds on Twitter – Someone has attached bacon and fat to a keyboard, and when birds land to peck at it, the result is a series of rather odd looking tweets to the @hungrey_birds twitter account – interspersed with various tweets about the project and a bit of this and that too.  Go back to March to see the tweeting birds …

Anamorphic Illusions – These are superb.  Paper based 2D illusions that look like 3D objects.  You just have to watch the video expose to appreciate what is going on here.

Cardboard Stop-motion Animations – This is a video where frames have been turned into paper cut-out frames which themselves have been stop-motion animated.  Again, you have to see the videos to appreciate this wonder.  Very, very clever and quite effective.

Cloned Video Animations – These are a set of animated gifs that give the impression of one of those repeated patterns you’d get on a zoetrope.  They are a bit large and slow to load, but well worth the effort and very slickly done.

Flawed Symmetry of Prediction – A time-lapse photography film that includes lots of amazing skylines, elements of graffiti and some perspective based optical illusions.  It’s very well done.

Slit Scan Photography – what a great effect!  And there is a classic moment where someone wanders by in the back corner of the video and goes a little wobbly too!  This had me wandering off to wikipedia to read more about the technique – although I must admit I’m still not really any the nearer in understanding it …

Moleskine Notebooks Stop-motion Animation – an interesting idea, just take notebooks and animate a scene or several.  Very smooth and inventive.

… and that just takes me back through a single month of the posts!  I think this website will keep me busy for some time to come.

Kevin.

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Listening to Numbers

October 31, 2012 at 11:19 pm (art, computers, interesting, internet, music) (, , , , , , , , , )

I get Make Magazine and from time to time find something that peaks my (software related) curiosity.  This time it was an article about making synthesized music from data using the algorithms from Dr Jonathan Middleton’s Music Algorithms website – http://musicalgorithms.ewu.edu/

Basically this takes a sequence of numbers, scales it to a pitch range you select, gives you options for translating pitch – e.g. scale backwards, replace specific notes with another note, use division or modulo arithmetic, etc – and then gives you options for applying a duration to each note – either a fixed duration or using a scaling formula.

Finally you have the option to play it, download it as a MIDI file or see it in a crude representation of notation.

There are a number of ‘preset’ options to get you going – I experimented listening to pi, the Fibonacci sequence and their ‘chaos algorithm‘ using ranges of 0 to 88 (a full piano range) and 40 to 52 (basically an octave starting from middle C).  I tended to use a fixed duration of 0 or 1 as it went by suitably quickly and kept things interesting.

Then I thought I’d try something a little different.  Using the option to ‘import your own sequence’ I took a wander over to Google Trends.  This plots the frequency of people searching for specific terms over time.  If you login with your Google account you can download the results as a CSV and then its trivial to open it in a spreadsheet, select the column of results and paste it into the Music Algorithms form and listen to what something sounds like.

For my own entertainment, I had a listen to the following:

  • Default ‘swine flu‘ search that Google Trends offers.  This works well scaled 0 to 88, as the pitch then mirrors the graph quite well.  I didn’t paste in all the zeros, just the portion with the shape and got a nice quickly peaking and decaying piece.
  • Facebook is a good one … it goes from continuous low through a slowly rising scale, increasing in pitch and frequency of change as time moves on, finally tinkling along in the high register as search frequency fluctuates.  This would be a really interesting one to do with number of users, scaling from Mark Zuckerberg as #1 up to user 1 billion …
  • Considering the date, Halloween was an interesting one – you get a random sounding very quickly rising and falling scale and then silence … the ration of silence to scale is around 1 in 12 funnily enough and the pattern repeats 8 times (for 2004 to the present day) … this works well with a duration of 0 across the full piano range – nice and quick.
  • The text ‘music algorithms‘ generated a curious pattern – reasonably random around a specific value, but that value has slowly decayed over time.
  • Then I tried a whole range of whatever came into my head looking for an interesting graph – seeing fluctuating searches, lots of rising trends – then finally settled on Tim Berners-Lee.  Not sure why!  But that gives a nice, angry sounding (especially on duration zero) left-hand piano line for the majority of the data set, generally getting slightly lower, adding to the angry nature, until there is a quick high flourish representing him appearing in the Olympics opening ceremony!

I only played the MIDI files back using the standard instrument, i.e. a basic piano sound. It would be really interesting to actually use some of these data sets to define a synthesized timbre too.  Could be the start of a very interesting musical piece.

What would be really interesting is to hook it up live to some Google or other Internet stats and then allow you to hear what is going on, say on Twitter.  A bit like a musical version of The Listening Post.  Maybe that could be a job for my Raspberry Pi

Kevin.

 

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Faces in the Sand

August 5, 2012 at 10:25 am (art, computers, interesting, internet, science) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

I had an hour spare in London yesterday so took some time to visit the Science Museum.  Now this is something I like to do from time to time, if nothing else just to pop in if I’m passing that way to see if the Listening Post is still there.

This time I had two aims in mind.  First to catch a little of the Alan Turing exhibition, although most of it I already knew, from having visited Bletchley Park in the past.  Then, from the birth of modern computing, I wanted to visit the Google Chrome Web Lab.  This is a recently opened exhibition, running until June next year.

So, I find the museum, wander in and immediately see the Turing exhibition, so walk through that.  Mission accomplished, I walk on through the main gallery, past the steam engines, through the space section, past the ‘building the modern world’ gallery, home of the cut-in-half mini, the cray supercomputer and the ‘decades’ displays.

I had a brief pause when I noticed the prototype Clock of the Long Now.  This is something I have literally just read about in Richard Watson’s book ‘Future Minds’ (which I totally recommend).  In the book he presents a search for slowing down, worried about how the ‘always on, always interrupting’ nature of the modern, connected world leaves no time for quiet thinking, reflection and the kind of deep thought that really leads to new ideas.  He mentions the clock as a symbol of “thinking slowly”.

The prototype of the 10000 year clock ticks once every 30 seconds and has been installed in the science museum.  The final clock is being built inside a mountain in the US (like the fictional Colossus)! The web page lists the prototype as being created December 1st 01999 – not many projects will list a 5 digit year! (reminds me of As Slow as Possible, but I could digress about such topics for ages, so I won’t!).

Once past the main galleries and into the newer Wellcome Wing, an immediate right turn will take you down some steps to the Chrome Web Lab.  And after all this old, long term thinking you are brought right into the current, connected present.

The idea behind the lab is to make the Internet seem real.  A very topical subject for me right now as I’m currently reading Andrew Blum’s ‘Tubes’ about his discover to find the real, physical Internet (but more on that another time).  Of course whilst educating the populace, it has the side effect of raising awareness of Google’s own web browser technology, Chrome, showcasing its future looking HTML 5 application development ability.

Google have created 6 experiments that can be run locally in the museum and online at chromeweblab.com.  Visitors to the museum can see the online participants and those online can see elements on the physical displays too.  Based on the kinds of Internet projects I’ve seen Google push in the past, I was very interested in seeing what they will do themselves.

When you first walk in (or register online) you get a “lab tag” which you put in the experiments to “log in”.  You can also hold it up to your webcam when you get home and link back to your time in the lab.

There are five experiments in total, but the ones that really appealed to me were the Universal Orchestra and the Sketchbots.

The Universal Orchestra is a set of six digitally controlled musical instruments.  A marimba, xylophone, drums, tuned drums, shakers, wood blocks, etc.  It is controlled by programming using a system of dots that appears to owe quite a lot to a Tenori-On.

Three instruments can programmed from within the physical lab and three are programmed only online.  A computer provides an ethereal accompaniment track based on the notes chosen at any one time.  The continuously changing nature of the music provides a fascinating aural background to the rest of the lab.

But the experiment that prompted the title of this post is the collection of sketchbots.  Again, six in total, three controlled only online and three from the lab.  You insert your tag and stand in front of a webcam.  It takes your picture and then goes through a series of image processing steps to isolate the key lines of your face.  These lines are then drawn in some smooth sand by a robot arm.

There is a wonderful irony at play here.  On the one hand, the robot draws your picture, the table rotates a quarter turn and in the space of three rotations your picture is no more.  Washed away just like a picture in the sand at the beach.  Forgotten to all.

But in parallel, the digital version that allowed the robot to draw the picture in the sand has been remembered.  It sits on Google’s servers, linked to your own tag to be recalled at a moments notice.  How long will it remain?  Who knows.  “Storage is cheap”.  The cloud is forever.  (Note that the T&C say data will be deleted when the exhibition closes).

We are in an age of digitally never forgetting.  Whilst once it took lots of effort to remember – initially sharing a song around the fire, passing on tales and stories, then writing and language allowing written records.  Finally the printing press allow mass distribution.  Still, recording was an effort.

Today it is almost totally the reverse.  If it’s digital, it is remembered by default by something, somewhere.  We have the technology to record every moment of our lives, but when would we find time to watch it?  Many digital photos are “write only” taken and automatically preserved, but never looked at again.

It is now more effort to forget digital information.  Google knows what you’ve done – what you’ve searched for, what emails you’ve sent – in some cases where you’ve been.  To ask it to forget is next to impossible.  It will maintain your digital footprints in their digital sand for as long as its useful to them.

Hence the wonderful irony enshrined in the Google sketchbots – my picture is long gone in the sand, but lives on (as does the record of my visit) online.  And to me it points to a future where what was once transient is becoming permanent.  Interesting Times indeed.

It is very well worth a visit to the web lab – in the physical space if you happen to be passing, or online.  A very nice way to spend an hour.

Kevin.

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The Robot and the Sparrow

February 5, 2012 at 7:31 pm (art, interesting) (, )

I was exploring the world of independent cartoons and a colleague of mine recommended that I take a look at “The Robot and the Sparrow“, by Jake Parker.  Well, I’ve finally gotten around to doing just that and its wonderful.

Its a story of friendship between a robot and a sparrow (as you might imagine), how they become friends after the robot lands on the Earth.  Its a very simple story, but the details of passing seasons and sense of time passing and learning about the world.

I quite liked the frame where the sparrow asks what robots dream about, and when the robot asks what dreaming is, the comment is

“Though the sparrow had a very clear idea of what dreaming was in his own head, he found it very hard to explain.”

As the seasons pass and the sparrow finally has to fly away for warmer climates, we eventually find out what robots dream out.

A very well drawn, simple and extremely charming tale.

Kevin.

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Augmented Reality Sandpit

July 11, 2011 at 6:38 pm (art, computers, interesting) (, , , )

This is really cool – a new slant on augmented reality.  Take a sandpit, focus a number of cameras on it, project a load of light sources on it and add a significant amount of computer modelling and processing (I would imagine) and you can mix the real and digital in a really neat new way.

As you mould the sand the computer recreates the contours in the virtual space too.  Then things moving in the virtual space move according to the contours in the real space – and are then projected back onto it.

For full details of the project, see http://mimicry.monobanda.nl/

Their video teasers are well worth watching – http://vimeo.com/25666910http://vimeo.com/25665948.

I particularly like the bit where they put a hand in the sand.  Its like a 3D computer version of pin-art …

This could be a really interesting way to get people modelling terrain in virtual worlds or games.

Kevin.

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The Creative Internet

February 9, 2011 at 10:50 pm (art, computers, interesting, internet) (, , , , , , , )

Been meaning to post about this for a while now.  Google put together a presentation of loads of different Internet related projects that people have done.  Next time you see some piece of media highlighting how bad the Internet is, pick one of these at random and redress the balance a little.

See:

Some personal favourites of mine include:

Fantastic stuff.  Tech at its best.

Kevin.

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Map of online communities 2010

October 6, 2010 at 5:17 pm (art, internet) ()

Ok, so this is going to be copied, pasted, and posted all around the Internet, and I’m therefore as bad as everyone else out there for basking in reflected glory – but still … I, like many others, have been waiting for an upate to this map for ages!  Very glad to see it happen.

http://xkcd.com/802/

(Love the ‘plains of awkwardly public family interactions’ and ‘Breaking! Waves’)

Kevin.

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