Thursday, 7 August 2014

Competition in the 21st Century

Margaret Sarlej, at the University of New South Wales, has devised a programme that enables computers to generate simple stories. In a statement that may cause some concern to authors, she claims "computers will be making interesting and meaningful contributions to literature within the decade", although she does go on to admit that "it's pretty unlikely a computer will ever produce works like War and Peace."

For those of you who are interested in what, to some, raises a dystopian view of the future, here is an example of one such story, 'written' by a computer.

Once upon a time there lived a dragon, a fairy and a princess. The dragon hated the fairy. 
One summer's morning the dragon gave the treasure to the princess. As a result, the princess had the treasure. The princess felt joy that she had the treasure. The princess felt gratitude towards the dragon about giving the treasure to her because she had the treasure. The fairy and the princess started to love the dragon. 
A short time later the princess killed the fairy. As a result, the fairy was dead. The dragon felt joy that the fairy was dead. The dragon felt gratitude towards the princess about killing the fairy because the fairy was dead.  

Yes, it's pretty silly. But substitute king for dragon, and wicked queen for fairy, and it starts to make sense.

Once upon a time there lived a king, a wicked queen and a princess. The king hated the wicked queen. One summer's morning the king gave the treasure to the princess. As a result, the princess had the treasure. The princess felt joy that she had the treasure. The princess felt gratitude towards the king because she had the treasure. The wicked queen and the princess started to love the king. 
A short time later the princess killed the wicked queen. The king felt joy that the wicked queen was dead. The king felt gratitude towards the princess about killing the wicked queen.

A child of seven could write that. Give the child ten years and they would be writing something rather more sophisticated. They wouldn't come up with anything quite War and Peace, perhaps, but would be writing a decent story within the decade. Just like a computer, in fact.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Does It Matter What We Read?

     It seems that amazon and Apple have whizzy computer algorithms (whatever they are) capable of analysing our reading habits in order to recommend books to us. As far as I can gather, they do this by registering data such as references to sex, and no doubt word length and sentence length as well.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? No, not that computers will soon be writing books for us -  if that isn't already happening. (How would we know?  Because some books are so badly written? Hmmm. That might explain a lot... ) Forgive me, there are some areas that are simply too horrendous to contemplate so no, I'm not musing about computer-generated books.
      I'm wondering about the subtleties of context.

''Did the victim have sex last night?'
'No, Sergeant. There's no evidence of any sexual activity, or any sexual interference of any kind last night, although she was sexually active.'
'Yes, and we know she was a lesbian.'
       That's four references to sex in what is clearly a (badly written) murder enquiry, with no mention of death.

'She lay immobile as a corpse when he entered her, and could have been dead throughout, her body rigid and unresponsive.'
Two references to death and no mention of sex in what is clearly a (terribly written) sex scene.

What might amazon and Apple's whizzy computer analysis systems make of those? Fair enough, they were written specifically to illustrate the point. Let's pose the same question with some proper writing:

'Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. With the ring of light from his lantern dancing from side to side he lurched across the yard, kicked off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs Jones was already snoring.
As soon as the light in the bedroom went out there was a stirring and a fluttering all through the farm buildings. Word had gone round during the day that old Major, the prize Middle White boar, had had a strange dream on the previous night and wished to communicate it to the other animals. It had been agreed that they should all meet in the big barn as soon as Mr Jones was safely out of the way.'

      What conclusions might a computer draw from that? And what about Shakespeare's verse? Or the poetry of TS Eliot?

'Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.'

     The mind boggles. The mind of the analysing computer, that is...

And yes, amazon and Apple, I've read Orwell, Shakespeare, and TS Eliot, as well as Chandler, Lee Child, Edith Wharton, P G Wodehouse, Kurtz Vonnegut, Dickens, Mark Twain, JD Salinger, Dostoevsky, Kazuo Ishiguru, Jerome K Jerome, Jeffery Deaver... to name just a very few of the random and eclectic collection of authors I've enjoyed. I could name thousands - from Alfred Tennison to Jane Tennison, William Shakespeare to Just William... a hotch potch of authors most of whom who could  never be linked in any way, other than that they are all brilliant in their own way - in my very human opinion.
The issue is that taking any one of these books as a starting point, a computer programme would never recommend most of the others. 'You enjoyed Carry on, Jeeves? You'll like Crime and Punishment.' I don't think so.
Do we really want to restrict our reading experience to one kind of book, or one narrow genre? Surely that misses the point of reading fiction. Yes, we read to be entertained, but through reading the words, ideas and thoughts of others, we can also widen our horizons.
We shouldn't allow an ingenious computer programme to limit our understanding of the world.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Why You Should Visit Your Local

I feel a campaign coming on. "Oh no!" I hear you cry, "not another bloody campaign." Yes, we do seem to see rather a lot of them, and yes, I do seem to be forever banging on about different issues, hopefully with a modicum of good sense thrown into the mix from time to time... but this is an issue that concerns us all. It's an issue that should matter deeply to a society that aspires to call itself a civilisation.
   OK, lots of sweeping statements here. You are free to challenge anything I say. In fact, comments are welcome on my blog. They are screened as I reserve the right not to publish comments, not from readers who disagree with my views - I like a lively debate. The ones I delete tend to come from people who arrived on planet earth from elsewhere in our solar system, or even further afield than that. You know the kind of comments I mean. I deleted one only the other day from a reader who was not from earth, because that's blatant nonsense... isn't it? (If I'm wrong, hearty apologies to the alien in question, if you're still reading this, and of course we should make allowances for your poor grasp of English grammar.)
   Back to the serious matter. I'm talking about visiting your local. When was the last time you wandered in off the street, took the weight off your feet, looked around to see who was there, perhaps exchanged a friendly word or two with the girl at the counter, and left feeling mentally refreshed and invigorated? And all without spending a penny. "All that for free?" I hear you cry. (Apologies, dear reader, you see  to be doing a lot of crying out in surprise in this post...) Well, yes. It's all free. 
It's a poor reflection on our cultural values if you automatically understood your "local" to be the pub (which is also struggling to survive - but that's another campaign). 
   I am writing about your local library - if you still have one. 
   "Why should we care," (is that you, crying out again?) "when we can access thousands of free books at the touch of a screen?"
   I remember experiencing a visceral thrill the first time I entered a library. Within one sweep of my eyes hundreds, maybe thousands, of books were there, within reach: stories waiting to be read, imaginary worlds to enter, and characters to meet. Mr Tumnus, Lucy, Emil, Lottie and Lisa, Alice, Oliver Twist, the water babies, and later Jane and Rochester, Heathcliff, Philip Marlowe and Hamlet - anything and everything to explore. 
   Yes, they are all there, waiting to be discovered on our screens. With one touch we can access any book that has ever been published. It is absolutely wonderful. But our immediate view is limited to a few titles that appear on the screen in front of us. With one sweep of our eyes we cannot encompass row upon row of books that we can reach out and touch in a physical interaction. Ebooks are wonderful, but they offer a different kind of magic. 
   I worry that my children's children will never experience that sense of excitement I felt on gazing around in wonder at row upon row of books, all waiting to be explored.
   So this bears repeating - support your local library. When did you last go in and browse... and read... and exchange a few friendly words with your local librarian... and borrow a few books...? It's free, and if we don't use them we will lose them. 
   If you believe libraries matter then make space in your busy schedule to visit a library this week.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The original 'Mysteries'

What better way to end a weekend at Harrogate Crime Festival talking about mysteries than watching the York Mystery Plays?

Forensic Panel

I was particularly looking forward to the panel on new developments in forensic science, and it  didn't disappoint. As with all the panels and conversations, it's impossible to do it justice here. All I can do is offer a tiny snapshot of the fascinating insights we were given by Tony Thompson, Dave Barclay, Elizabeth Haines and Paul Finch, chaired by David Hewson.
From the earliest recorded forensic examination when someone was killed with a sickle in the 13th century (everyone in the village had to bring their sickles - flies settled on only one) to the most modern methods, the discussion was wide ranging. The panel discussed Oscar Pistorius, and the forensic minutiae left when a victim is shot through a door (leaving traces of wood and paint in the wound). Dave concluded "we mustn't say if he is guilty or not - but he certainly did it."
There was a discussion about how DNA can establish guilt but can also establish innocence, cases where DNA testing was deliberately circumvented, and cases of inadvertant cross contamination.
Paul told anecdotes from his days as a police officer in Manchester, and pointed out how clean crime scenes are when depicted on television, compared to the reality.
Elizabeth explained the role of a police analyst, and the case where she spotted the criminal, while Tony said he prefers talking to criminals, rather than the police, as "crims know more." 
Dave's concluding advice was that if you want to kill someone, "keep it simple. Push them off a cliff." 

Sophie Hannah and S J Watson in conversation

Sophie told us she's interested in the mysteries of life. "If I'm sufficiently interested in something to be thinking about it at all then I'm thinking about it constantly." I real life there are many small mysteries that are never resolved, but that can't happen in crime fiction. The successful solving of a mystery is a feeling we rarely have in real life.   
They discussed what drives their narratives, for Sophie it's plot, for Steve character. Crime fiction tells us that people are not necessarily who we think they are. "We all wear masks all the time." Sophie told us she doesn't have "baddies" but what she calls "flawdies." 
Steve talked about the strangeness of the transition from sitting at his desk typing to seeing Nicole Kidman on the big screen playing the character he had created. 
Along with some hilarious anecdotes, it was a thought provoking and enjoyable discussion.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

An interview with Lynda La Plante

I have to confess that I arrived late to this interview - no, I didn't oversleep... I misread the programme... I caught most of it, but couldn't barge through to the front of the room, so the photo here is a little distant, for which I apologise.
    Lynda told us "these events are fantastic for me, I meet the people who read me. It's a fantastic feeling." 
     She described how she insisted on Helen Mirren to play the part of Jane Tennison. She is very excited about writing a prequel. Asked where Jane Tennison came from, Lynda said she's very excited to discover her background. There are  precedents for this. When he was asked where Philip Marlowe came from, Raymond Chandler said "I've no idea." As for who she would like to see playing the young Jane Tennison, she said "I don't want a name, I want to find her and that's going to be very exciting."
      She gave us some hilarious insights into her research in Russia, talked about crimes she wouldn't write about, and about her love for writing. "The key is I love it. I love every second of it. It fills my life."