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Hot Diggity

February 24, 2010

No progress on the novel.  No excuse today; I have the time for it but it’s a question of feeling the momentum and I’m just not feeling it.  There’s a lot to be said for writers’ groups and workshops and teaching – you surround yourself with other creative types and there’s that impetus to prove yourself, a bit of the competitive spirit that motivates athletes and, well, most everybody in social groups.  I’m so not a joiner, though – the idea of joining the local writers’ group fills me with precog dread, dismay, irritability.  One of my few really cerebral friends is off to grad school in the fall (congrats, Ted!), so I’ll be even more isolated here intellectually, if I “let” myself be so.  I wonder after our recent, endlessly gray months here how well I’d do in Seattle – I would have to have a hell of a rich, full social and intellectual life to generate enough internal sunshine to make up for all that darkness, but it would be much easier to accomplish there than in Reno, NV.

I had a few moments of dread at work lately; this is the time of year where work dries up as the fiscal year wanes, and it looked like I might be facing unemployment or at least severely diminished hours like I did last year at this time. (Wow, I really haven’t done a lick of work on this book since May of last year, have I…)  That turned out not to be the case, at least for the next month or two, but it still got me thinking:  WTF am I doing writing for free?  Why don’t I get an agent and sell this puppy?  I’d have the double motivation of instant, on-signing, cash (very powerful) and a deadline (to get the second half of the cash) to force me to write again.  I had both high and practical motives when I started this process – having jettisoned my gay novel writing career, I was determined to write something better, and with my old connections in “gay publishing” of no use now, faced with the exhaustingly endless process of rejection inherent in finding a new agent, I thought, fuck it I’ll just write it for fun and when it’s done I’ll think about all that, if then.  But that does seem now more like the route a Gentleman of Leisure could take than one that will work for me.  And the feedback, the connection I’d hope to get – well, the Internet isn’t that different from the rest of the world; you have to fluff and flog yourself and your project relentlessly everywhere you can to anyone you can to get anyone to notice at all.

I’m still engaged with the project, still reading things that make me reach for my mental highlighter, like this article in Wired about how Google realized that its algorithm needs better English as much as it does finer math:

Take, for instance, the way Google’s engine learns which words are synonyms. “We discovered a nifty thing very early on,” Singhal says. “People change words in their queries. So someone would say, ‘pictures of dogs,’ and then they’d say, ‘pictures of puppies.’ So that told us that maybe ‘dogs’ and ‘puppies’ were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it’s hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance.”

But there were obstacles. Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”

I wish there had been a bit more on who at Google was creative enough to turn to Wittgenstein to refine search… 

Still, this got me thinking – for a long time we’ve been obsessed with “computational linguistics,” the quest to get computers to speak English.  And yet, if we think of “the Internet” and the huge body of knowledge it contains as another country or another person, something with a “culture” of its own with which we are attempting to communicate, it makes sense that we would learn its language – which we do when we run searches like “hotel san francisco waterfront” or “airfares europe last minute discount” – these aren’t English sentences you could say to a human child (at least, not one who hadn’t used a computer yet), but the computer understands them, and so do you and I.  We and the computer already speak a sort of Pidgin English together.  And when cultures mix and merge, words and structures from one get incorporated into the other.  Texting has already created utilitarian new spellings and grammar out of labor saving necessity, and while u r not goin 2 c these in the OED or Strunk and White in the near future, nevertheless they are changing the language from the ground up.  Maybe the future of human-computer communication doesn’t need to stall while we teach the natives our superior ways; maybe we can get where we need to go faster if we speak computer a little better.

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