Monthly Archives: November 2004

10,000 Monkeys Typing

How soon will it be before computers can write novels? In "Computers as Authors? Literary Luddites Unite!" (NYT) Daniel Akst says that "They are perfectly capable of nonfiction prose, and while the reputation of Henry James is not yet threatened, computers can even generate brief outbursts of fiction that are probably superior to what many humans could turn out – even those not in master of fine arts programs."

Fortunately, flesh-and-blood writers are nowhere near having to hang up their turtlenecks. When I called Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist whose research focuses on language and cognition, he pointed out that the human brain consists of 100 trillion synapses that are subjected to a lifetime of real-world experience. While it is conceivable that computers will eventually write novels, Dr. Pinker says, "I doubt they’d be very good novels by human standards."

Computers are just as subject as humans to Simon’s "bounded rationality." Computers cannot create narratives by using brute computational force to mindlessly try every alternative. It may be fun to think that 10,000 monkeys typing for 10,000 years will sooner or later randomly produce "Paradise Lost," but evidently this is no more plausible for silicon than simians. Computers don’t even play chess this way, Dr. Pinker told me, having noted elsewhere that the number of possible sentences of 20 words or less that the average person can understand is perhaps a hundred million trillion, or many times the number of seconds since the universe was born. "The possibilities boggle the mind very quickly," he says.

The article mentions Selmer Bringsjord and David Ferrucci’s Brutus 1 project (check out their paper "Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity" [pdf]) and Charles Callaway and James Lester’s StoryBook, a "narrative prose generator" (see these papers on natural language generation).

Where Does the Buck Stop?

Investor’s Business Daily cavalierly dismisses worries about America’s twin deficits and declining dollar.  IBD is not bothered that even the normally more sanguine Alan Greenspan has chimed in with a warning that the deficits "cannot continue to increase forever."

With all due respect to the
"maestro," he really shouldn’t worry. And neither should you.

IBD’s explanation is likewise cavalier.

One, the Fed has held real interest rates below zero for a prolonged
period. It has printed money to keep the economic expansion on track.
Two, the dollar isn’t plunging against all currencies; it’s mostly
falling against the euro.

Exactly. Interest rates were held low because the economy had slowed and needed stimulating (don’t forget that policymakers at one pointed even feared deflation). Low interest rates were a necessity, but implying that they characterize economic strength is a bit much. Now the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way, and Greenspan and company are having to think about what happens in a more inflationary environment. The weakening dollar also weighs on the minds of traders worried about inflationary forces on the U.S. economy.

And why has the U.S. dollar mostly fallen against the Euro and not against the Asian currencies? Well, as we have stated before, the Asian countries continue to help prop the U.S. dollar through their purchases of our Treasuries and other securities; they do so because they need us to keep buying their products. As long as they stay comfortable doing so, IBD can keep happily peddling its bullish scenarios in its newspaper. But if some of these net buyers of our securities finally start becoming a little more anxious about our country’s fiscal health, there could be a problem, says Bloomberg’s Andy Mukherjee:      

There’s another important reason why Bretton Woods II may
have to be dumped. Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says that the current global financial system can be sustained only if Asian central banks act as a cartel and keep their existing and future reserves in U.S. dollars.

There is, however, no formal cartel. As a result, every Asian central bank will want to protect itself against an erosion in the value of its assets from a decline in the dollar. In other words, what’s in the interest of one Asian central bank isn’t for all. Social scientists have a name for this phenomenon: “Tragedy of the Commons.” [Actually, "prisoner’s dilemma." –Wayne]

“All central banks may be better off if no bank tries to diversify its reserve holdings,” Roubini says, “but as the risks of dollar depreciation grows, each central bank has an incentive to defect and to try to protect itself from losses.” Losses could indeed be large. Asian central banks own more than $2.2 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves out of a global total of $3.4 trillion.

When a Spade is More than a Spade

My high school freshman English teacher David Knight gave our class an essay exam on each of the parts of speech and the major forms of punctuation. Don’t blame him if you find me grammatically incorrect. (To PC or not PC is another issue entirely.) So it was with a feeling of deja vu that I stumbled onto this blog entry from CSM’s Ruth Walker. In "Mass Confusion You Can Count On," Walker explains the difference  between "mass" nouns and "count" nouns.

It’s sometimes enough to prompt a twinge of envy
within me at people laboring in fields where the tools have simpler
names, like "rake" or "hoe" or "shovel" or even "spade." It’s always
great to be able to call a spade a spade. And so I was thrilled a few years ago to discover that fellow wordsmiths use the simple straightforward terms "mass noun" and "count noun" to distinguish between, well – to distinguish between "stuff" and "things."

If that is not enough wordsmithing for you, check out her blog Verbal Energy, which features her Punctuation Boot Camp.

Smalltown to Sepia Dreams interviews Matthew Jordan Smith (bio), a celebrity photographer who was born in New York but grew up in my hometown of Columbia, SC. Smith has photographed celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Britney Spears, Vanessa Williams, Samuel L. Jackson and Star Jones, and he has published a book called Sepia Dreams.

When I find myself slacking, then I’ve got to go out and dig deeper,
try harder, and reinvent myself, read more books, read books on
creativity, go to shows, go to museums, and take in anything I can,
visually, to be inspired.  When I first started photography I had my
goal of just being published.  And then you get published and you’re
like, ok I want to get published in this magazine.  Then you want to
shoot this campaign.  It just gets bigger and bigger and better.  The
dream just continues.  There’s always something else.  There’s a lot
more I want to do.

Blame It On the Flame

Clay Shirky talks about how poor computer-user interfaces still are at helping us find ways of managing and moderating our social interaction.

And yet, when we poll users about what they actually do with their computers, some form of social interaction always tops the list […]. The practice of software design is shot through with computer-as-box assumptions, while our actual behavior is closer to computer-as-door, treating the
device as an entrance to a social space. We have grown quite adept at designing interfaces and interactions between computers and machines, but our social tools — the software the users actually use most often — remain badly misfit to their task. […]

The design gap between computer-as-box and computer-as-door persists because of a diminished conception of the user. The user of a piece of social software is not just a collection of individuals, but
a group. […] There are also behaviors that can only occur in groups, from consensus building to social climbing. And yet, despite these obvious differences between personal and social behaviors, we have very little design practice that treats the group as an entity to be designed for.

There is enormous value to be gotten in closing that gap, and it doesn’t require complicated new tools. It just requires new ways of looking at old problems. Indeed, much of the most important work in
social software has been technically simple but socially complex.

His piece goes on to talk about what social conventions (and the technological tools used to help enforce them) have developed around Internet-related interaction. (A nod to the Social Media Group for highlighting this and the Rubel articles. SMG has also posted a link to the recent Newsweek article on wikis and Wikipedia.)

Watch that Tail

Steve Rubel of Micro Persuasion says the "long tail of the blogosphere" is going to continue disrupting the way we think of media content.

As blogging becomes more popular, it is now easier for news consumers to find specific niche blog sites that adequately meet their information needs. […] In addition,  really simple syndication (RSS) is starting to move mainstream as a tool that empowers consumers to TiVo the Web and assimilate all the content they care about onto a single Web page. Yahoo!’s recent adoption of RSS content on its My Yahoo! customized page will drive blog readership and usage. […] Taken in all together, the result is that big media will increasingly adapt and embrace blogging in order to maintain their dominance.

Steve notes how media outlets are now "openly embracing bloggers — either by
buying them out entirely or by signing them to joint operating ventures
that include revenue sharing."

The media will turn themselves into blog-like online aggregators that link readers to all relevant content in their area of focus, whether it’s a blog or a news site. […] Media Web sites will morph into social sites, employing comments, trackbacks, RSS feeds and other blog-like structures in order to create community.

Put Your Essay in the Mail

Ink Pot’s creative non-fiction contest ends in days. Nancy McCabe is judging the contest for the magazine. (A ‘thanks’ to Fred Schoeneman for reminding me.)