Friday, October 31, 2014

Day of the Dead: MARCEL PROUST

Today being the DAY of the DEAD I’m going to celebrate Marcel Proust, who is dead, among other things. Off and on for a couple of years now I’ve been wading through Marcel Proust’s massive masterwork: A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU and I’m a third of the way through the ten volumes in French. Odd that there are only seven in English but I’m told there are supplemental DVD-like features at the end of this, like motivational carrots.

It takes a while to accommodate oneself to his detailed writing and, frankly, if my wi-fi hadn't been cut off,  thus disabling Kindle, I would probably never have got this far or sunk sufficiently into the book to be able to appreciate it.

It’s not because the book is so intellectually challenging that it’s hard to read. Rather, it’s the flowing style using interminable sentences with little punctuation and even fewer paragraphs that makes it difficult to follow. Every facet of an idea is explored which, while presenting marvels of observation and perception, slows the pace to something less than glacial.

Let’s be frank, some of the book is downright boring due to its appalling snobbery and astonishing solipsism. Marcel validates himself by telling us how wild members of the aristocracy are about him, how superior they are to the vulgar family servant Françoise and how beautiful, graceful and elegant they are in their boxes at the opera, unlike the common members of the audience below. He describes corridors, courtyards and stairs being there to serve only him. He thinks the reason a young woman has rebuffed his sexual advances is that she smells bad and doesn’t want him to know it (!)

There are also stultifying passages showing off his knowledge of painting and art, interminable pages about color. He mentions PINK a lot, especially in regard to young women who are all sorts of variations of “rose et or”. This is particularly stuffy because he has obviously not heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. Or maybe he's trying to prove that his words are as good as, or better than, a painting.

But the good stuff is stunningly beautiful, quite unique and surprisingly funny. Just when you're abandoning all hope of ever seeing the plot again, up pops a surprising connection to a character or event that we last saw so long ago we've forgotten it. Some of my favorite bits so far are Odette’s seduction of Swann, Proust’s insights into the French psyche and an anthropomorphised hotel. A wall talks to him, a “solitary beauty of a courtyard” is held captive by high walls, a staircase holds out its steps to him, the soft carpet is there so he can walk about barefoot and the shutterless windows assure him they will not sleep all night so he can come and look out of them at any time without waking them. And this little pearl:

“And behind a drape I surprised a little alcove
which, stopped by a wall and unable to escape,
had hidden itself there and was
 looking at me with its oeil-de-boeuf
made blue by the moonlight.”

   Drawing by David Levine 
UPDATE: Finally finished the book on April 15, 2015 and found a detailed chronology of events and list of characters and breakdown of the plot which would have helped during the reading. 

I'm glad I read the whole thing, it gave me great insight into the French psyche, it showed that it's not always a good idea to write about every little detail you've ever observed. But I think he wrote that way because he knew he was dying and wanted to have a record of everything he'd seen and heard and tasted and smelled in his short life. 
This book made me think of all the people who didn't have Proust's gifts and their unsung lives. Like these poor folks who's only record is the marks made on their cannister coffins.

Friday, October 17, 2014


Why sweat over hand-made, brain-wrought blog posts when there is software featuring algorithms and artificial intelligence that can do it faster and easier? Several different kinds of software actually: Yseop Inc. (this one is European, polyglot and claims to be able to do a sales pitch), Narrative Science, Narrative Analytics, Arria NLG and Linguastat among others. They produce, not the clumsy Google-Translate type of thing, but flowing prose used in actual newspapers as legitimate journalism.

An artificial intelligence engine called QUILL, partly funded by the CIA (!), can generate news articles and business reports in English only. In March 2014 the company Narrative Science launched Quill Engage, a free Google Analytics application that delivers narrative style reports for website owners. I availed myself of this offer and here is the abridged robo-written report generated by the Google Analytics stats for my blog:

All Web Site Data Report for the Week of Oct. 06 - Oct. 12
Sessions + 83% -- Pageviews + 105% -- Avg Time On Site + 82%
Sessions Up, Higher Than Annual Weekly Average. Overall sessions
increased by 83% week-over-week. That's more than triple your annual 
weekly average. The rise in traffic was driven by direct sessions, growing 194%.

I must say, I find this report a hell of a lot more interesting and understandable than graphs, charts and figures. Well, maybe not graphs.

At UCLA I recently bumped into someone who was studying internet linguistics, the study of language used by phones and machines which is a related field imitating human speech and part of the trend of replacing human-to-human interaction with human-to-machine interaction.

So, is it just a matter of time until they can produce an artificially intelligent novel?  Maybe it's already being done. Maybe some of all those millions of books out there are robo-books. Will we be able to tell the difference between a robo-novel and a novel written by a real live human?

UPDATE April 16, 2015: 
Philip M. Parker has created a system that can write a book in twenty minutes and it has generated hundreds of thousands of books, many on Amazon.
World Clock by Nick Montfort is a novel generated with 165 line of Python code in about four hours in November 2013 and published in December 2013.

Artwork above: Matt Groening