The MechaPoet experiment


The MechaPoet has now retired from performance. She currently sits on a chair in my flat beside the printer. I like to think they are friends; possibly, in time, something more.

MechaPoet was an attempt to produce a performance poetry robot. The idea came from discussions about creating real-person slash fiction with text generators. This led to the idea of MechaPoet, an attempt to relieve human beings from the drudgery of writing poetry. Me and Chris (my partner in the enterprise) have posted a few times about this (1, 2, 3 posts from me and one from Chris ), but I thought I’d do a quick overall post summarising things.

The technical side of MechaPoet was relatively unsophisticated, being based upon Markov Chains. The wikipedia page on this is not a particularly easy read. A simple way to explain them is that the Markov chains store every combination of two words in a text, and the word that follows them. This map of the text can then be used to generate plausible sequences of words that aren’t found in the original text. The best explanation of Markov Chains is by, who illustrate the concept with the Smiths song, this Charming Man. They go on to show how Markov chains can be used to generate wine reviews.


Obviously the project wasn’t just using Markov chains. I found a corpus of word pronunciations and used this to find generated phrases that ended on the same sound, and this could be used to generate couplets. The rhyming made the poems much more interesting. To quote Chris:

As someone who gets a bit sketchy and stressed out when I hear a lazy rhyme (part of the reason that I gave up rhyming altogether a couple of years ago), it might sound like quite a contrary request, but I think it gives a real shape to what MechaPoet comes out with, and makes the leap from the sort of Avant-Garde poetry that looks like an arbitrary list to the sort of semi-avant-garde-rhyming-doggerel that can be all too familiar to someone who goes to enough poetry nights. What was surprising was what eventually came out – sometimes, poems that are genuinely quite moving, and which contain some remarkable and surprising images.

The idea such an unimpressive way of generating the content was not simply laziness. I’d been thinking of something Matt Jones had said, about being ‘as smart as a puppy’: “Making smart things that don’t try to be too smart and fail and, indeed, by design, make endearing failures in their attempts to learn and improve. Like puppies.” The idea bring that it’s best not to try being too clever, but to cover for the shortcomings by being charming – hence the cardboard body of the robot.

A good example of simplicity working well is a bot written by Mark Humphrys which ‘passed’ the Turing test with “profanity, relentless aggression, prurient queries about the user, and implying that they were a liar when they responsed”. There’s also the classic story about the Eliza bot, where people felt their interactions with it were both significant and personal.

We had an interesting ‘uncanny valley‘ problem with the voice. The first version of the MechaPoet used the FreeTTS voices, which were good enough to tell that you were hearing poetry, but many of the words were garbled. After a show-and-tell at Brighton Java, Luke Whiting suggested using Google text-to-speech.  This is incredibly good, so much so that I had to make it sound imperfect to make the listener more sympathetic. (There was some research on this effect, and I’ll add a link when I find it again). The final version of the MechaPoet was a server-based poetry generator which was accessed by an Android phone providing the speech generation.

I look very young in this photograph

During the project I met up with zenbullets and shardcore, two local digital artists. I first met them after telling them their dedbullets collaboration was featured in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing. Zenbullets’ book Novelty Waves is worth a read, by the way, and some of shardcore’s talks are online – for example, What is it Like to Be a Bot?

Shardcore, quite rightly, pointed out many more sophisticated techniques I could use, but lack of time and focus meant I never explored them. It’s a great shame, as we were given some lovely ideas. As Shardcore writes about Markov Chains, “I’ve never been a huge fan of Markov chains for creating text, since the results can be somewhat haphazard and ungrammatical.”

There are still some fun projects involving the technique. King James Programming takes three texts as its source, moulding them into a new form. (“And it came to pass, that he who fleeth from the noise and confusion of ordinary software engineering or academic research.”) Or there is Garkov, which uses Markvo chains in an attempt to produce plausible Garfield strips.

I also wrote The MechaPoet in Java, which is a lousy language for hacking together prototypes, particularly for text manipulation – but when I wanted to produce the robot, I didn’t want to fiddle about learning Groovy, or sharpening my blunted Python skills.

MechaPoet was intended as a performance poet. She was involved in Chris’s award-winning Brighton Fringe show, as well as an appearance at the Hammer and Tongue night which, I think, baffled people more than it entertained. We never quite managed the trick of making MechaPoet entertaining rather than interesting.

(MechaPoet was a she, by the way. It’s amazing how many people assumed that a robot/performance poet must be a ‘he’. Hopefully, we weren’t sanctimonious in that, but if you’re going to gender a spray-painted cardboard box with a phone inside…)

I do want to return to the MechaPoet project at some point. I started work on a haiku generator (referring to haiku as the 5-7-5 version of the form). I’m convinced that the constrained, gnomic style of these haiku means it would be easy for a computer to create poetry far superior to what humans could do. My eventual plan is to use some sort of Bayesian filtering to pick good haiku. So far, I’ve got no further than a rather scrappy github repo. But it does at least have some unit tests.

I must also recommend Bot or not, which allows users to guess whether a piece of poetry is wtritten by a human or a computer. Apparently Blake’s The Fly is the most human-like poem written by a human being.

Two Knocks for Yes


Last Friday I spoke as part of the Two Knocks performance at St Andrew’s Church in Hove. I’d been involved in some early discussion and it sounded so ambitious that, when I was invited to participate I had to say yes.

I gave a talk about ‘The Folklore of Death and Water’. It was a deliberately bland title, playing with some of my obsessions while feeding into other aspects of the event. I was a little nervous as the night approached, particularly as the audience hit 100, but I was fairly happy with my performance.


The venue was probably the most atmospheric place I’ve ever performed. It was incredible speaking from the pulpit, the audience dimly lit in front of me. The building was sufficiently spooky to freak me out completely during rehearsals. I was talking while Curtis listened, Emily ran tech and Simon checked his kit. We had the doors locked so that we weren’t disturbed. From where I was I could see through the doorway into the church’s entrance corridor.  As I described a haunting, I saw a shape move past the doorway. The rehearsal fell apart as I started laughing nervously. I’m not the sort of person who imagines seeing things.

As I said in the talk, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in hauntings. Even during daytime rehearsals, the effect of the performance and venue was spooky. I hope there are more of these in the future. Future events will be announced via the Two Knocks mailing list and the soundtrack is online.

The ‘South Lanes Burger King’ Petition

I missed the fuss about the recent petition against a new Burger King in Brighton’s Lanes – the only post I saw on facebook simply questioned the petition’s reference to the ‘South Lanes’ (now corrected). But it looks as if there is a planning request for “Installation of 3no. air conditioning units, 2no. chiller and freezer condenser units and other associated alterations.” at Clarendon Mansions, evidently for a new Burger King.

I’m not a fan of burger restaurants that aren’t Grubbs, and haven’t set foot in a Burger King for about a decade. Even so, this petition made me uncomfortable. And that’s not just snark about the misnaming of the Lanes (although, as one signer suggested, “if we’re concerned with the history of the area let’s get its name right”).

  • Why did the petition only go up just before the deadline? The petition’s creator implies that the annoucement was delayed to prevent protest. Is this the case? I assume there is some sort of standard consulation period. Was this really not followed?
  • Are the “independent Burger provisioners … already resident around the street serving up far better nom noms?” really competing with a Burger King? Maybe people who don’t use words like nom-noms have different requirements? Some people genuinely prefer visiting a chain they are familiar with.
  • “the move to open more chain shops on East Street signals the beginning of the end on a irreparable slope of genericism, that sees our local elected council try ever so hard to turn our city centre into a carbon copy of every other British city” – Any evidence for this?
  • The petition refers to “proven fake evidence supplied by the police” against the Northern Lights bar. The petition owner needs to publish this proof. And, while there have been some bitter arguments over licensing recently, there have also been some venue owners distorting the facts significantly.
  • Whitbread, who own the lease on the building have left it empty for three years. Is an empty pub really better than an open restaurant?
  • “The council have decided, Brighton’s lovely vibe now needs more corporate sponsors”. Is there any evidence for this claim, given that the planning request was from a private individual?
  • 10,000 signers in 24 hours is impressive. What are the signatories doing about other things that are far bigger problems in our city, like the housing crisis, lack of mental health provision, collapsing seafront infrastructure, parking problems and poor public transport? (And where were they when the petition for a life-size replica of the West Pier was published? Why weren’t there this many objections to the strip club just down the road?)
  • The planing applicant was previously a franchisee of the Aquarium redevelopment, one of the few business to survive there. No question here, just wanted to point out how awkward that area would have looked without a Burger King.

As the Argus points out “The petitioners [sic] concerns may not be considered valid planning objections because the building already has permission to be used as a pub and will not need permission to become a restaurant…”

A lot of the objections are based around the idea that a Burger King would be the ‘wrong sort of development’. For whom? This idea of Brighton as a utopia of independent businesses is one that I love, but it needs a lot more thought than simply rejecting businesses people don’t like – particularly when the same street has a number of chains on it. We need a stronger vision of Brighton than snobbery.

I’m not saying that this restaurant is a good thing, but I am sick of these knee-jerk petitions (particularly ones with this many typos); and I am tired of ill-thought outrage about planning, when there is often a little more to these stories than the things announced on social media.

Season Notes 4

This post has been sitting around in my drafts folder for months without being published. But I like these season-notes and want to keep them going. So, catching up very quickly on April to June:

I finished my long post-Crunch holiday with a trip to Morocco and, at the end of April, I started a new contract close to Brighton station. The election was a great storyline but a disappointing result. I saw Nick Cave play in London. I discovered that my Dad had met Grace Hopper (I’ve no idea why he didn’t mention that before now).

Birthday celebrations were fun. I saw Eddie Argos doing his spoken word tour; and Lou-Ice and Sara visited for the launch of Swenglish. The Glastonbury Festival was the best yet, with Sarah, MJP, Rosy, Robin, James and Dina all being awesome. Kanye was ambitious but missed; Patti Smith played an incredible set where the Dalai Lama’s appearance halfway through was not the highlight.

I had a few performances. I did a piece at Hammer and Tongue, featuring Chris Parkinson on video. I asked him to be Flava to my Chuck D and he killed it. I spoke at the Catalyst Club on ‘Not Walking Around the World’; I gave a talk as part of Brighton Fringe on Sussex Death Folklore, which I loved researching and was delighted by how warmly people responded. I was part of the Nocturnal event at the Towner Gallery.

I wrote about the Cheeky Walks for Brighton-A-Budget and did a piece on meetups for the Crunch blog. I also published my first collection of stories, and tiny booklet of 6 stories in 600 words (review here):



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The i360: Sauron’s Trojan Horse

An artist's impression of the completed i360
An artist’s impression of the completed i360

A week or so back I realised I could see the i360 from my flat. When I mentioned it on Twitter, a friend said that its red light reminded them of the eye of Sauron. And there is something oppressive about the way it overlooks everything.

I’ve written a lot about the i360 over the years (see here and here). I try not to resent the project but given the disruption to the seafront, the decay of the Terraces and the associated development, I really wish it wasn’t going ahead.

Scribe tweeted me a recent celebratory article from the Guardian which talks up the project and its organisers. As the piece points out, the i360 probably will make a profit (see my discussion of the Council’s loan document). The piece goes on to acclaim it as an exciting development, linking it to the Pavilion and the West Pier itself. The article claims that most people are in favour, but there is something bullying about the tone:

It will loom over the seafront, more or less where Brighton meets Hove, and nobody in either town will be able to ignore it… It seems presumptuous to give a quarter of a million people a new symbol that they didn’t ask for, but that is unavoidably what’s happening, which makes the emotional stakes extremely high.

Rachel Clark of the West Pier Trust is quoted as saying that “far more people… are in favour of it than against”, which is fair enough. Most people I’ve met have a weary contempt or make jokes about its ridiculous phallic nature. As to Clark’s claim that the i360 will transform Brighton, “putting it absolutely fairly and squarely back on the map as an exciting, glamorous and daring place to be”? I wasn’t aware the town at any risk of disappearing from the map.

At the same time as the i360 goes up, the old Concorde/Sea-life development remains a ghost town, although there is a new scheme to do something with it. Further East, the ‘artist’s quarter’ near the Concorde 2 is being evacuated as sections of Madeira Terrace are close to collapse. Estimates of the cost of repair are eye-wateringly (fantastically?) high. All the focus on the i360 draws attention away from the very serious neglect of other parts of the seafront.

As much as I resent the i360 for disrupting the flow and calm of a massive area of seafront, I am most concerned about the scale of the associated development. I’d always imagined it being a tower with ticket/waiting area. But there is also a restaurant, as well as a 1000-person conference center. This sounds like a large development, and I find myself wondering if the i360 is little more than a way of redeveloping an area of the seafront. Is there additional development to come? And, if the tower should be removed in the future, will this new development be left behind?

Stranger than we can Imagine


This weekend saw the launch of John Higgs’ new book Stranger than we can Imagine. It was also the first chance I’d had to read the copy I bought a few weeks ago at the Wilderness Festival, where I spoke just after John. His book on the KLF is one of my favourite books, so I’d been looking forward to this for some time. It’s a pretty bold undertaking, being a history of the twentieth century and takes its title from a quote by the physicist Sir Arthur Eddington.

Apparently a review in a history journal said that, rather than being the Great Man theory of history, this is the strange person history. The figures Higgs picks are marginal: Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley, Emperor Norton, Mark Everett. There is a fantastic portray of Von Neumann as a supervillain, which vividly illustrates the madness of cold war strategy. The book’s theme is the shifting frames of reference at the start of the century in areas such as psychology, politics, science and literature. My favourite quote is the cautious claim that “If you were feeling  brave you could argue that Einstein was a modernist scientist, although to do so would annoy a lot of physicists”

I tend to be a little nervous about popular accounts of physics. Over the years I’ve read too many accounts of quantum entanglement that veered off into telepathy. The handling of science here is careful and thoughtful without being dry, particularly the discussions of special relativity.

(The time traveller and poet Rosy Carrick recently teased me for the class of degree I earned and, yes, I was much less successful than she was as an undergraduate. However, I feel that I achieved the aims JA Smith set out in his teaching: “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life – save only this – if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”)

Another interesting discussion is about the alleged riots at the opening night of Stavinsky’s rite of Spring. Like the riots that were said to have happened in response to Tzara’s random poetry, there is little evidence that this happened. Higgs dismantles the myth, then turns to a surprising conclusion: “An actual riot only tells us about the impact of the performance on one particular day. A mythic riot, on the other hand, shows us that the impact of the music transcends that point in time. Myths don’t just crop up anywhere.”

The narrative of the book emerges quite late, and for a while I wasn’t sure if there was a story to be told, but the conclusion is fascinating. Something happened in the 20th century and this book provides an interesting explanation of what this was.

PS – Higgs raises an interesting question about UFOs through his outline of a discussion by Jung. UFOs, according to Jung, are a modern manifestation of things seen through the ages, such as fairies and angels. Since the cameraphone became ubiquitous, UFO sightings have dropped off – what is going to replace them?


Nothing Strange Has Ever Happened to Me

Last night, at a book launch in London, I was talking to a magician. He told me how his interest in magic was sparked by strange experiences in childhood; magic provided a means of understanding these events. My experience of the world is very different. As I explained to the magician, nothing strange has ever happened to me.

That’s not to say my life isn’t interesting (not least because it involves meeting up with magicians at book launches in nightclub basements). And I’ve been to lots of strange places and events, such as the Mari Lwyd or the Karni Mata temple. It’s just that, in all these adventures, I’ve never seen any direct evidence of particularly odd or inexplicable.

I’ve always been interested in the weird and supernatural. As I child, I loved my copy of the Usbourne Books’ Supernatural Omnibus. As I’ve grown older, I retained that fascination, for example being obsessed by Grant Morrison’s Invisibles comic. Recently, I gave a talk on Slenderman and Creepypasta. But my interests are only as an observer. I’m probably the only Robert Anton Wilson fan without any personal synchronicity stories.

But that doesn’t make me a sceptic. Another thing I’ve always loved are stories. I can appreciate other people’s narratives, even if they don’t work for me. Maybe it comes from attending chapel three times a week at school, the whole establishment following a religion it didn’t believe in.

If pushed, I could explain away any particular incident of weirdness – whether through marsh gas, drunkenness, credulity or a desperate desire for attention. The problem comes with explaining away all of them. Too many times, on a summer afternoon, I’ve seen conversation slip into the unexplained. It amazes me how many people have a story to tell. It’s more than good manners that stops me from claiming they must be making it up. A single story can be explained away, but there are too many such stories.

We live in a strange beautiful world, and one of the things I love most about it are those gaps, the things that can’t be quickly explained away: accounts of magic, interventions by spirits, strange coincidences. I know a lot of people who’ve had odd experiences, but these things all happen to other people. Nothing strange has ever happened to me.

Nocturnal at the Towner Gallery


This Thursday, May 14th, I will be appearing at Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery as part of their Nocturnal event. I will be talking twice during the evening, about night, sleep and dreams. The research I’ve done has been fascinating, and I am looking forward to sharing it.

There are a load of other things happening – music, mask-making, an awesome cocktail menu, video and a sound installation from Gazelle Twin. It should be a fantastic night!

35: Early Days of a Better Nation


In his book Our Pet Queen, writer John Higgs claims that Britain has two monarchs. One is Elizabeth Windsor; the other is King Arthur Uther Pendragon. In comparison with Elizabeth, King Arthur is “more likely to sleep in a ditch, drink cider until he pukes and set fire to people for a laugh”,  but is “recognized as a King because his followers don’t know anyone who would make a better king”.

King Arthur was born John Timothy Rothwell in 1954 and spent time as a soldier and a biker. After reading a book on the mythical King Arthur, he spotted certain similarities and decided that he was Arthur reincarnated. He changed his name and was proclaimed King by several Druidic orders.

According to Higgs, King Arthur knows how mad this is, but he is also determined to live up to the ideal of King Arthur. He does not work or take benefits: “[King Arthur] can only eat and drink if people value him enough to feed him. His stout frame is, therefore, a source of some pride. Together with his long white hair and beard, it is hard to deny that this ex-soldier and biker has come to look an awful lot like a king.”

(Higgs also tells an excellent story about how King Arthur Pendragon found Excalibur, but I’m not going to regurgitate the book. My friend Michael Parker has also found Excalibur. I texted him while I was writing this piece to ask if he’d met King Arthur. Mike texted back to say that he had: “I told him that I had ‘an’ Excalibur, and he said then that I am ‘an’ Arthur”)

As a King, Arthur Pendragon took his first stand against the long-running exclusion zone against Stonehenge. He continues to participate in direct action with his followers, the Loyal Arthurian Warband and has accumulated a series of honorary titles.


King Arthur Pendragon is reminiscent of another figure, the Discordian Saint, Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Norton declared himself Emperor in San Francisco in 1859, on nothing but his own authority. Despite that, his 21-year reign is generally seen as a good thing. Norton I is said to have dispersed anti-Chinese riots, released his own currency and was fed by the city’s restaurants. When arrested for a mental disorder there was uproar, with the town’s citizens demanding his release. The police chief apologised when the Emperor was released: “he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.”

When Norton died in 1880, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle declared “Le Roi est Mort”. At first, a pauper’s funeral was planned but his citizens demanded something greater. On January 10th 1880, the body of Emperor Norton I was paraded past 10,000 people with a funeral cortège 2 miles long.

King Arthur Pendragon and Emperor Norton draw attention to something important about power and legitimacy. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland has existed only since 1801; governments have come and gone. While they may not also be what we would choose, we can choose our ideals and leaders to an extent – but this does come with a responsibility. As King Arthur Pendragon says on his website: “Arthur is what Arthur does and I will be judged solely by my accomplishments.”

A quick post about India

It’s just over two months since I landed in Delhi on my most recent trip to India. It was the first trip where I’d taken a smartphone, and my first where I wasn’t travelling with or meeting someone – both things I’ll try to avoid next time. I arrived at Gatwick frazzled from work and decided to revise the route I’d planned, which didn’t work out perfectly, but was fun.

The weather in Delhi: smoke


Delhi was smogbound and I was almost tricked by the touts in the railway station. A couple of shopkeepers recognised me, one noting that I’d cut my hair; I’ve not been in Delhi for two years. I went to Mathura to see the river, but the hotel claimed not to have my reservation, and everyone I met was negative and rude. So I headed to the bus station and spent the night in Bharatpur instead. There, the hotel owner thought she recognised me, but I’ve never been there before – then she figured it out, saying that I looked like someone from an old cereal advert.


From Bharatpur I took a dusty bus journey to a hotel near Dausa. The guesthouse owners in Bharatpur told me not to bother with Dausa, that there was nothing there. I was the only guest in the hotel and could see no other buildings from my balcony. When the power went out the darkness was almost total. I liked it there a lot.

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From Dausa I made excursions to visit a local temple, the step-well at Chand Baori and Bhangarh fort, said to be the most haunted site in Asia.

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From there I went to Pushkar, with its beautiful holy lake and massive amount of hippies – my next door neighbour in the hotel was practising a didgeridoo. But it was a good place to relax and enjoy walking up the small mountains.


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From Pushkar I went into the mountains proper. I felt little love for Mussoorie so went straight back down again, settling in Rishikesh for the last few days of the holiday, walking, relaxing, visiting ruins. It was hard to find a good room due to the Yoga festival but my friend Emily eventually found me a stunning place with a view of the Ganges. I then spent a night in Haridwar, with its amazing night-time Ganges ceremony, before turning back to Delhi and heading home. It was a good trip.

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