Thursday, 29 March 2012

Can a computer write poetry? How are science and art distinct?

Obviously these are two very different questions, and I'm certainly not going to suggest that computers can somehow do science but not art, but still, I hope by the end of this entry you will agree that I have justified connecting them like this.
I should give some background first though. The first question came up during a lunch break at work when one of my colleagues was talking about a computer programmed to write poetry. It worked by first being fed thousands of lines of actual human poetry, it was then able to replicate its own based on rules it had found (mostly I think simply which words it had seen paired together*). His argument was that, similarly to the way they have in chess, perhaps computers ability to search huge spaces efficiently would allow them to also create poetry better than humans one day. For reasons I still can't quite explain I had an immediate and powerful gut reaction against this idea. I couldn't say why at the time, but it seemed axiomatic to me that no computer could ever write poetry as well as a human. I've since spent a while searching for a reason why I felt so strongly about this and also trying to come up with a more reasoned argument. This entry will be all about the ideas I came across in searching for those answers and, ultimately, where they led.

The first thing I want to make absolutely clear is that I do not think we, as humans, are in some way 'more' than machines. I don't believe in (or think there is a good argument for) any basic essence or soul which will allow us to create art where computers never can. I think for almost every task, we will one day create robots which can do it better than us. I'm taking it as a given that we are essentially just biological machines.
However what I realised is that there is something involved in creating art which robots can't do (**). That is, when you make really great art, of any form, you are picking some corner of your brain and finding a way to show it to other people. This is why we enjoy these things, because when we look at a great painting we are looking at a map which guides us to those same areas in our own brain. It is about sharing the shape of our own heads with one another.
In this sense, I hope it's clear that computers can never do this. Not because they can't think better than us, but because they will never have those same pathways to discover for themselves. Of course, you can argue that they might be able to if we made them very similar, or identical, to us, with the same internal patterns, but it isn't clear to me why we would do that (and besides at that point the question probably shifts from 'can these robots create art?' to 'aren't these robots just humans themselves?). This doesn't mean they will never be able to create art. I'm sure there will be areas of our brains which are well enough mapped that they are able to work within them, but we, as humans, will always have access to more of our own minds (and from a more uniquely personal perspective).
[I think the other interesting thing about this argument, is that once robots become complex enough that they would be able to create art which is meaningless to humans, but which is beautiful to other robots.]

So then, how does this relate to the second question? Well having seen this perspective, it allowed me to consider creating in a different light, leading to comparisons between art and science in finding the value of the former.
Firstly, before I get into this, I want to admit openly that it is doing a brutal disservice to both thought and language to emphasise this distinction. I've found it helpful to consider for the purposes of clarifying my own artistic endeavours, but generally speaking I'm not at all a fan of dualism of this type.
Right, that disclaimer out of the way I think that once you frame art in the way I have here, it becomes easy to see a division between these two things. That is, science is the knowledge of external things (things that are dropped will fall, they will fall at some particular rate based on a set of verifiable equations), it is a set of rules which can be easily verified in the real world by anyone who tries. However art is a more internal knowledge, 'this Picasso is very moving' is a statement about the reality of what the painting does inside the human mind. Even if we were to hook a person up to study their brain patterns, what does “moving” mean, the statement says that the painting has a profound effect, but something profound inside my head may not translate to a big observable effect. This is especially true if we suppose that what the painting is doing is activating dormant possible links in our own brain, it is showing us new possibilities, but the only way to see those possibilities is to experience them first hand.
It's easy to see this second type of knowledge as invalid or useless, after all if it's unverifiable then what use is it? But there are a huge number of shared and repeated experiences in this area. Many people may be moved by the same song or same lines of poetry and artists may have ways of touching you which are repeated across many apparently different pieces.***

So then what are these niches in our brains? We can see examples of them in the way that so many movie plots and pop songs tread such familiar ground, they are leading people along paths which they already know, taking them step by step along that road because there are some things (mostly of a wish fulfilment variety) which we never get tired of experiencing.
This is a bit of an aside, but I don't think this is necessarily as hateful as it seems. Obviously it's difficult to associate your standard romantic comedy with any concept of art, it is fairly cynically leading us along a known route without doing anything interesting along the way, but this doesn't have to be true. Take van Gogh for example, with most of his paintings he isn't showing us anything new, we've all seen a field at night, but he takes the time to point at the stars and say, 'look your brain can see them like this'. In this way even a tired romance story or hero's tale can be made refreshing and new if the artist, as they lead us along, takes the time to point out previously unseen landmarks or perspectives along the way.
Okay, aside over. I think the whole point about these niches is that they are knowledge, but knowledge about the shape of us as people. When I learn how calculus works, I build new circuits which allow me to do conversions and operations using these new rules, but when I see the Starry Night I am shown how close that image of the stars is to the part of me which produces exultations and wonderment. It isn't about me learning to love the sight of stars, it is about me seeing that the way I am wired I always loved it (of course, that's an oversimplification, but I hope it suffices to make my case).
I think there is a really good argument that we need this, that it is of great value to us as people. We spend so much time pottering around in our heads alone, that having someone else occasionally take us by the hand and say 'look, you missed this' is incredibly valuable, whatever form it takes. It doesn't just serve to show us how similar we are to one another, but it also teaches us about ourselves, extending our conceptual limits. We instinctively know this too, it's wonderful every time it happens, experiencing that burst of wonder at the freshness of it.

So, I should try to wrap up this uncharacteristically long entry. I hope I've shown that this perspective answers the first question rather neatly. That if we're talking about little pieces of the human mind, then while computers might stumble across some, we, as humans ourselves, will always have a huge advantage. Though I think it's important to say that this isn't saying that computers will always be limited to be less than us. Rather I think it's more accurate to say that WE, as humans, are limited, and that art is the expression of the bounds of that limitation.
As for the second question, well honestly I hope I haven't fully answered it, because I don't think there is much value to demarcating that dividing line more clearly. My intention was more to use the question to have a conversation about what the art side of the equation means, and what it ought to mean, at its best.
New perspectives are always interesting, partly because they enlighten us as to the skews of the old ones, but also because they force us to shift and accommodate them and, I often feel, it's by moving that we know we are alive.

*[Sadly my colleague wasn't able to provide a link to the paper in question, though it was written in Chinese (for replicating ancient Chinese poetry) so you're not missing out on much]

**[realised while editing that I quickly switched from computers writing poetry to robots creating art. I think that's because it's just a far more vivid image (while still describing essentially the same problem), so I've left it in]

***[note that, although what I'm talking about isn't necessarily emotional (we're talking about areas of our minds, little bits of potential experience), all of the words I'm being forced to describe experiencing them are emotional. I think this is because experiencing these things causes us to have an emotional reaction, to feel that charge of newness, and as a result these are the words which we've come to associate with them]

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Pimping myself

I started this blog for a number of reasons, but a big one was that I wanted to be forced to show off my work, to open myself up to criticism. Honestly, I know my writing (and thinking) is far from perfect and I hoped that by playing up to an audience I would improve. Sadly thus far it doesn't appear as though I have much of an audience. Where I'd envisaged a heady back and forth of ideas and discussions, instead there is a vast emptiness.

Obviously this was wishful thinking on my part. There are enough actually famous people with blogs not getting read that there isn't any reason why mine should be among them. Still, I haven't exactly been active in promoting myself. With that thought in mind, here is a summary post, a place where you can browse through what I've written so far and decide if any of it is likely to interest you at all.

Here then is a run down of the blogs thus far:

- Why Blog?: My first entry, this probably isn't worth reading, really it existed as a way for me to justify to me the fact that I was choosing to blog.

- Does the tiger dream of the jungle it's never seen? And where does our jungle lie?: A particular look at one of my favourite topics, how humans are incredibly geared towards being social and why that's amazing.

- How the world is a little bit magical: A description of the ways I like to re-imagine the day to day world around me to make it just a little bit more interesting.

- Space and why I could never be a speechwriter: In this entry I talk a bit about writing speeches, but mostly I get all lyrical about why space exploration is so important.

- Why you should have a religion and what mine is: The beginning of my four part series all about religion and atheism, this is my attempt to justify being religious in an entirely rational manner as well as the rather muddled facts of my own beliefs.

- Why I think all religion is personal: This is really an attack on both atheism and organised religion, to the tune of get your opinions out of my head.

- What, as I see it, is wrong with Atheism: I talk about why the modern atheist movement (with all it's bombastic 'religion is ignorance'-isms) could do with backing up and checking itself.

- What, as I see it, is wrong with Religion: I talk about why religions really need to get out of their believers business and leave them to their believing.

- Turning 30 or My fear and me: A very personal entry, where I talk about how scary the world used to be to me and how turning that around has been life changing.

- Symbolism in fiction: I talk about how and why my approach to symbolism has shifted in the past year or so, and why I convinced myself to back off it just a little bit.

So, hopefully you found something to interest you in there. I think I've ended up with a far broader set of topics than I originally intended (such that I don't think any one person would ever care about all of them), but in a way that's nice, I'm finding my footing as it were. I thought I would end by giving some teasers for future blogs.

I have an entire file packed with ideas I'd like to get to some day, but there are certain ones which I'm particularly keen to get to. For instance there are some ideas I'd like to share that I came across while arguing about whether a computer could ever write poetry, about how art and science are distinct and what that has to do with the shape of our brains. I've also been meaning for a while to write a diatribe against the expression “you're over thinking it”. Finally I'm planning a series of entries, like the religion/atheism ones, where I'll talk about actual Magik, probably passing through Tolkien, Robert Anton Wilson and willpower on the way.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Symbolism in fiction

I've always loved me some symbolism, just the idea of all the hidden depths it reveals and implies is exciting. One of my favourite games used to be searching for the symbolism in places where it clearly wasn't intended. Music videos are an excellent source, is the chair Britney's dancing with just a prop? Or does it symbolise her attempt to make art within the restrictions of fame and the music industry? Of course partly what's fun about this is that it specifically wasn't meant (and that it drives certain people up the wall) but it also, naturally, makes you feel pretty clever to find these things and make them work.

Now that I'm writing in a more serious way I'm coming to frame the whole issue in a very different way. As an example here's a story I wrote called After. I wrote it a little while ago, so I can see all sorts of things wrong with it (too short and messy tenses just to mention a couple). None of that's important however because I just want to talk about how the story came about in my head.

The initial seed was that I wanted to write about one of those gangs you often find in post-apocalyptic stories, who attack people on the road, but I was interested in the perspective of a member of the gang. I wanted to think about what it would feel like to end up robbing people after the collapse of civilisation. As the story took shape in my head I realised that not only would you feel pretty guilty, but that actually the entire story works quite well as an analogy for that feeling. That is, like guilt, there is some awful even in the past which is having constant ramifications on how the main character acts and feels in the present. I saw that there were all sorts of ways I could play around with the situation of my protagonist, relating it back to how they felt in a very intertwined and detailed way making the whole story a symbolic re-telling of the feeling of guilt.

I'll come back to the story and what happened with it in a minute, first though I want to talk about how my feelings on symbolism developed. You see, as the above paragraph shows, initially I considered it a very important tool, a vital part of the writer's arsenal which allows you to make their message clearer and stronger. I couldn't see why you wouldn't want it. Then a few things happened.

It started with reading. I just found more and more that I was greatly enjoying what I had thought of as frivolous books, ones which set out to be fun, to tell a story well in a readable way. Equally I was less and less enjoying the books of depth, of greater magnitude, which had a deeper lesson to impart and which had much less regard for the reader. I'd always felt that a novel ought to have something to say, that if all you're doing is making up a story then you were on the same level as Mills and Boon. Obviously I'm a massive snob, but it's very strange to me that I never realised this. That that deciding that the most important person is the reader doesn't mean your book has to be shallow and devoid of real content and equally, not having some deeper message to impart doesn't preclude the existence of depth.

Like I always do when I find myself at a crossroads with ideas like this, I set out to read as much on the subject as I could. One of my favourite essays that I came across on the subject is called Settling the Colonel's Hash by the author Mary McCarthy (though at the time I read it I had no idea who she was). She sets out to explain the misunderstanding she had with some of her students on the issue. The conclusion she comes to (though really the essay is interesting enough to make it worth reading yourself) is that symbols are something which really ought to emerge from the subconscious. That they should appear in a story because the writer is a person with depth, not because they are forced in there. The most important point which she makes, is that the story should be perfectly intact if the symbolism was removed from it.

The other article of note I found on the subject is this set of replies from authors. They come from a series of surveys which a high school student in the sixties sent out to a series of writers. A surprising number of them wrote back and it's really interesting to get answers like this from the people actually doing the writing. It's very curious that they give such a range of responses, but in particular I found it interesting because it gave me the chance, at last, to see who I actually agreed with. I think (strangely, because I have mixed feelings about his writing) that the answers which make the most sense to me are those given by Ray Bradbury. He talks again about how it is a subconscious process, but also cautions that while it is a valuable piece of good writing, if it is tampered with too much it can end up ruining the quality of the work. This rather neatly brings me back to my story.

You see, what happened when I realised that I was writing about guilt was that I started throwing it at the story in spades. I put a series of my own experiences in there, weaving them all into the story so that, on the subject of this one feeling, there is quite a bit of depth, but in terms of actually telling a story the whole thing ended up quite flat. Of course, partly that's the length (only just over 3500 words something which I've struggled with for a while), but I think it's largely my fault, for focussing so completely on what should really have just been one small part of the story.

So, where do I stand now. Well I still think that this is one tool among the many that writers have and I also feel, like with most such tools, that it is only by occasionally overusing and over-emphasising it that I will ever get the hang of it at all. Really though, I agree with Bradbury, it shouldn't be something I focus on, it should just be a small, natural part of the much larger tapestry of each story. I am slowly tending towards the opinion that, like so many things, writing is one of those activities which happens the best when there is very little thought going on and it is just flowing through you (though I'm sure, given time, that opinion will be equally proven wrong).

The wonderful upshot of this particular pompousness having been popped is that now I am feeling a lot happier about writing more frivolous/fun stories and, really, that's made the entire process a lot more pleasant.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Turning 30 or My fear and me

I promised a fun entry this week, something which might steer clear of the rocks of belief and scepticism, something more digestible. I had intended to write a piece all about symbolism and my feelings therein, but unfortunately I've found that needs me to prepare some source material, so instead you get this (it will likely come next week). This will be a very autobiographical entry, that's a type of writing which I find hard so... that's good, because this will be great practice, sadly it's also potentially bad, because well, it could turn out to be self involved drivel (I trust if it does then someone will let me know).

When I first found that, inevitably, I was turning thirty, I was scared. Not in a 'there's something behind the closet' way, but more in a dull 'oh god, I didn't do my homework' kind of way. I did a few crazy things, possibly the craziest of which was to set out to write two hundred thousand words before the awful date came around. The net result of that challenge is what you see here, these words on this page, that decision was so extreme that I'm still suffering (gladly) the ramifications.

The thing which I didn't realised I needed to do though, was to completely rewrite, in my own head, what it meant to be in your thirties. You see, when you're a sprightly twenty something, for those ten odd years, it's easy to see that date as an arbitrary cut off and beyond that point oldness lies, with babies and mortgages and all the various effluvia of age. But once I'd found myself in that strange new land, I suddenly had to build a new map, one which wasn't made up of generalisations and speculations, I had to tell myself a new story about what it meant to be in my thirties.

Obviously this was all a bit silly, it's an arbitrary number and letting et get to me marks me out as both foolish and incredibly normal. Still, it turns out that the date did have some importance after all, or rather the new story I started telling myself did, and it's a story all about fear.

There is the fear which got me through those two hundred thousand words of course, that fear of failure which I'd somehow yoked towards my hoped for future career. But there was another kind of fear, a kind which, day to day, bit by bit, I found I didn't have to carry around with me any longer. Really this was a fear of living and it's something which has been with me through most of my life.

You see, ever since I was a child I've been particularly and peculiarly afraid of the world. When I was very young this fear didn't have a definite shape, it was a fear of loud noises, of the mummies (in the Egyptian sense) and witches and ghosts that I assumed to be lurking behind every door and in the depths of each shadow. Just going to the toilet, with that flush and all those closed doors, that was scary, I didn't know what could sneak up on me while that water was rushing by and I didn't want to know.

As I grew up different this fear took on different forms. I still remember clearly the day when, aged about ten, I realised that if god didn't exist then dying meant nothing forever (I've actually committed a good number of brain hours to trying to find the root of that fear of death, a subject I'll likely bring an entire future post to bear on). Most of all though it was interacting with the world that scared me, with other people. I'm talking about completely normal things, any situation which might lead to a conversation with a stranger, or just an unexpected question. I remember as a child being given some money and told that I could go into a shop and buy any sweets I wanted, being genuinely torn between the prospect of sugary goodness and the remote possibility that the shopkeeper might ask me something about my purchase, and I might not understand them, and beyond that there was no script in my imagination, just a fearful unknown.

Perhaps this doesn't sound so peculiar. Almost everyone's shy at a young age, children cowering behind their parent's leg is not an unusual sight. In my case though, these effects carried over into my teenage years. Of course the fears developed in places. Every time a plane flew over my house I naturally came to interpret the noise (which was not inconsiderable) as belonging to a nuke, and there was an accompanying few moments of preparing myself for my demise. Equally I found that I was, in sadly disproportionate measures, both attracted to and terrified of girls and all of the prospects for failure and success which they represented. These various new fears weren't replacing the old ones however, they were simply being added to the list. I still found the whole prospect of interactions terrifying, even when, like my monthly trip to renew my bus pass, it was happening repeatedly with nothing going wrong.

As I entered my twenties, I don't think I really ever understood this, I never acknowledged that this was wrong or was in any way different from all the people around me. Of course I had to confront it more often, ringing up to sort gas bills or dealing with university administration. The fear was still there though, I would still always try to make sure I wasn't the one to ring up when me and friends ordered food though and, stranger still, I shied away even from internet interactions, I visited forums and read what other people wrote, but was too scared to post anything myself.

Slowly though, with experience I think (forced and repeated experience), the fear started to dissipate from some of these things. I still remember my surprise when, about to ring Dell and find out what was happening with my new laptop, I checked myself and found that I actually wasn't afraid, I felt totally prepared for what was to come.

I think now that what happened was that, through a childhood and adolescence spent imagining the worst, meticulously laying out the reasons why I should be afraid of each encounter, I went over these things so many times in my own head that I reinforced the reaction. In my early twenties, in any phone call I had to make, the problem was that I knew I would get afraid, I still felt that learned sense of apprehension, however, the essential fear at the centre of the interaction, the imagination so focussed on all the ways that the world might go against me, wasn't there any more. This meant that slowly, where I allowed them to, these learned responses dissipated.

What of my thirties then? Linking this all back to, roughly, where I started. I think that this discovery will really be the joy of my next ten years. Slowly I will get rid of all these learned fears and, ultimately as a result, become myself at last. The strange thing is that, of course it will be scary and of course what the young me feared (that things will go wrong and that I will make an arse of myself) will happen, but that no longer seems like such a bad prospect, it feels natural.

This is then, the new story which I've found to tell myself about what my thirties are and will be. That they'll be awesome, that all the things I avoided doing will be open to me and that, finally, I have the keys to experience life. Whether that turns out to be true or not almost isn't the point, at last I have a great story to tell about where I'm at and where I'm going.

[edit: reading this back I find I am the most uncertain I have been about posting it. Perhaps it's the deeply personal nature of the topic, or perhaps it's that I think, on reflection, some of the things I thought applied only to me, apply to everyone (and vice versa). Either way I'm putting it up anyway and, strangely, that hesitation is rather apropos to the topic at hand]

Thursday, 1 March 2012

What, as I see it, is wrong with Religion

I want to start off by saying that I feel (and, as a result, perhaps you as a reader feel) that this whole series on religion has dragged on a little. There are a few things left which I would like to say on the subject after this entry, but I will leave those for sometime (possibly far) in the future. Still, I promised a series so I will finish it up and, with that in mind, today I'll be talking about the main problem which I see with religion.

I want to try and direct this entry specifically towards the religious reader, but with the assumption that as well as your affiliations you are also a thinking reasonable member of society (something which I feel is sometimes lacking from modern polemics against faith). There are lots of things wrong with religions which I think could stand some debate within their various religious communities. For instance, taking Christianity (as I have a tendency to do), there always seemed to me to be an unnatural dichotomy between the message, of the importance of the meek, and the reality of the church, with it's leaders often going so far as to be dressed in gold and sat upon gold thrones. The problem which I have however is one which I think is more universal. Specifically that I, and indeed even people of a faith, often can't criticise aspects of that faith without being seen to be completely against it. I think there is a tendency to build up modern churches around issues in a way which, while possibly popular, also prevents them from delivering their most important gift.

So what do I think this gift is? There are many sides to it, but I think the main part is a sense of completeness and understanding of the universe and its workings which, for many people, they cant get anywhere else. Honestly, I think this is quite a limited description of what religion offers (there is also, for instance, a sense of wondrous awe), but I am slowly coming to see it as the most important aspect.

Sadly, religions too often seem to focus on their moral contribution and on pushing opinions on the various evils of the day. I hope that this makes as little sense to most people as it does to me. It may seem important to argue against contraception or abortion or homosexuality now, but there were arguments on just such strong terms by religions against interracial marriage and left handedness not so long ago. This isn't by way of saying that they are wrong about any of these things, that is a different matter, I'm just trying to point out that these matters of morality seem to move with the times, they are, generally, quite fluid.

The real importance of the church should be placed on its position as a guide. It has a great place in helping people when they are lost, guiding them and giving reassurance about how the world make sense even when it seems, to them, not to (there have been many low points in my life when I've wished I had such a useful force on my side). It seems to move away from this though, in the interests of pushing forward frankly pointless arguments which don't seem to serve any purpose except to create a sense of us vs them. I realise that I am generalising here, in a local way priests, rabbis and imams do provide guidance, naturally they do, but religions in the larger, more organised sense, more and more seem to spend their efforts on these less useful terms. As an example, which I think few Christians would be able to justify, see the pope recently pretty much claiming that condoms cause aids.

Again, I might not agree with them on many of their beliefs, but I don't deny that a religion should be able to lobby people and governments for the things it believes are wrong. Too often though it seems as though they do so in such a way that these things are become synonymous with their faith, that any person who disagrees is simply not a 'true believer'. This seems wholly wrong to me. I ought to be able to tell someone that I disagree with some aspect of their religion without that being taken as a slight upon every part of it. Equally, and much more importantly, someone within the faith ought to also be able to disagree, even on fairly central issues, without feeling like an outcast.

What I'm trying to get at is that I think the way each person communes with or feels God is so different, that God is such an overwhelmingly large idea, that to imagine all believers must agree on every detail of a dogma which keeps changing from year to year makes no sense to me. Yet religions generally don't allow people (or at the very least disapprove strongly of) this sense of autonomy within the structures of the faith they lay out. This rigidity not only prevents a sense of freedom within the walls of each religion, but beyond. It ought to be possible (in fact it makes perfect sense) for Christians and Muslims, or Mormons and Jews, or any two faiths, to say 'this is just two sides of the same coin', clearly god is far beyond our judgement and understanding, that he might reveal himself in a multitude of ways isn't beyond the bounds of reason. However, it isn't possible to take this leap, because faith is seen as an institutional thing, not a personal one. This stops the church from being that useful guiding presence much of the time, because instead of focussing on helping people overcome their own issues, it is putting focus on telling them to hate their neighbours in various forms.

So why do religions do this? Well fear sells, it gives a bigger congregation if people feel that sense of righteousness where they are in the right and everyone else is wrong (and damned as well). It saddens me that the religious institutions of the world ought, by their own doctrine, to be great movers in the world for peace and harmony, but instead they seem to bicker and fight. And again, this isn't to the benefit of their members, in fact, I think it is possible to see that it is to their direct detriment. These are bad old habits and they will die hard, but I think most religious people can see them for what they are. That's why I think the most important point I make when I speak to religious people is that they should, above all, have more autonomy from the institution of their faith, to be more prepared and able to disagree with it when they feel it is justified. The man at the top may say that it is the word of God, but he is just that, he is the “man” at the top, not the deity itself and it ought to be up to the individual to decide what they feel their God believes.

Finally, I want to point out that, as normal, I have strayed into directing my argument towards the extremes. There are plenty of sub-sects of religions which, to greater and lesser extents, do what I'm asking for. In fact I wanted to take a moment to point that there is one in particular which more or less exactly conforms to what I've been arguing for in the past four entries, Quakers. Here, depending a little upon the Church, people are accepted regardless of their personal beliefs into an environment of worship. Honestly I feel that this is the model which 21st century religions ought to be looking to, though the sad fact is that, because they tend not to resort to the methods of other religions, they spread quite slowly. Still, more and more I feel that, if I were to feel the need to go to church, this is where I would go.