GPT-3 and the future of writing

Liam Porr recently askedWhat does it mean when a computer can write about our problems better than we can?”. He backed this up with the claim that he had received 26,000 views on a blog post written by GPT-3. GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3) is a tool based on 4.5 TB of data that can generate text that seems like it has been written by a human. One of the Liam Porr’s blog posts even made it to the top of the hacker news site, with only one person asking if the texts had been generated via Machine Learning. Porr went on to say “I believe that GPT-3 has the potential to change the way we write“:

All I need to write is a good title and intro. I could write five of them in an hour and publish them all in one day if I wanted to.  In other words, one good writer with GPT-3 can now do the same work that took a team of content creators before. 

This is a bold claim, and worth looking into. After all, if Porr is right, then I need to be paying attention to this. I could, at least, save time on writing by giving GPT-3 some seed text and letting it write my blog posts. Right?

The text that emerged from the algorithm was not perfect. It needing some editing but “Cut out irrelevant stuff, write a conclusion, and boom – people don’t stand a chance of telling the difference.” Porr then takes the example of Buzzfeed, suggesting they can reduce their headcount if they use this new platform, suggesting there is space for “a new kind of media company. One that’s fast and lean. The writing team will be small, but experts at bending GPT-3 to their will.

It’s interesting that Porr chose to work with self help, admitting, “GPT-3 is great at creating beautiful language that touches emotion, not hard logic and rational thinking”. The reason for this is that a lot of online writing has a particular style. It is already programmed by the requirements and restrictions of search engine optimisation, or sharing on social media. The fact that GPT-3 works so well for these texts may be a reflection of how restrictive these styles are.

There are already tools that produce news articles without human intervention. Stories, particularly those based on reporting numeric data have already been automated. GPT-3 offers a means of producing more complicated text, which can fool casual readers.

The effect of a large amount of generated text appearing on social media platforms might produce problems beyond the need for quality control. We already have an avalanche of generated text on social media platforms, and this has not gone well. Twitter has never dealt properly with its bot problem, and the idea that these fake accounts are real has distorted politics for the last few years. Using GPT-3 to produce large amounts of political opinions makes it all the more important for journalists and politicians to understand how the web works.

Of course, all the above aside, Porr managed to release a set of blog posts that produced far more readers than I have acheived with this blog. But that assumes that all readers are equivalent. I’m writing for a smaller audience, but a more engaged one.

Do I believe that GPT-3 could produce literature? It could – but there is more to literature than language. Given some good samples, GPT-3 could churn out beat poetry, and it might even produce things that produce an emotional response. Some of the Beat writers such as Burroughs and Gysin were even involved in early experiments with computer texts, but these are remembered mostly as a curio. But a poem like Howl connects to other stories, just as Kerouac and Burroughs wrote meta-novel novels that resonated with their own lives. A computer might be able to produce poems, maybe even new Ginsberg poems – but there are things missing which means a computer would never produce a ‘body of literature’.

We might be willing to accept vacant life-advice from things that are alive, but for art we want some connection with the authors. Remember how angry people were when JT Leroy was revealed not to be a real writer, but a character? Or when it came out that James Frey’s book was a novel marketed as a memoir?

But, as far as the text goes – would I read a novel generated by a computer? I could imagine doing so. But that’s another story, for another post.

Zine submissions wanted: How Did You Become Invisible?

The London Invisibles Salon is collecting submissions for a zine responding to The Invisibles. In the 25 years since Grant Morrison’s comic was first published, it’s inspired and influenced people. We’re looking for personal responses to the book:

  • How has the book inspired you and changed your life?
  • What adventures and interesting people has it led you to?
  • How you feel about the comic now? Has it stood the test of time?
  • If someone discovers the book now, what should they do next?

We are looking for pieces of 100-500 words, on “How I became invisible” for a print zine that will be published in the Autumn. We will also be publishing a PDF/Kindle version that will be sent to all contributors.

We don’t want this zine to be simply an exercise in nostalgia. It’s an opportunity to show how some present day counter-cultures that connect back to the book.

Deadline – We need your submissions at invisiblesalon23@gmail.com by midnight UK time on Monday August 31st 2020. We are open to longer contributions too, but please get in touch with us first.

The zine will be published on November 23rd. Keep an eye on invisibles.orbific.com for the latest information. It is being produced by the Invisibles re-reading forum, and the London Invisibles Salon.

For more information, please email us at invisiblesalon23@gmail.com.

Introducing Rhymewave

Over the last couple of years, I’ve helped out with a project called Rhymewave, which finally launched a few weeks back. Rhymewave is an online rhyming dictionary, the brainchild of rapper Jon Clarke. It takes a different angle to a lot of rhyming dictionaries, helping to craft interesting multi-syllabic lines.

I’ve known Jon for a few years via Poets vs MCs, as well as seeing some stunning performances from him at Slipjam B and with his current band Sombras. He’s one of the most creative and surprising rappers I’ve seen. He also appeared with Professor Elemental and Dizraeli on one of my favourite hip-hop tracks, Graveyard Shifts, about the Bear Road Cemetery:

Jon first approached me as he was looking to put his rhyming dictionary into an app. I suggested that he take a different approach – apps are expensive and frustrating and it’s hard to get people to spend time with them. We decided to focus on the original aim of producing a website.

One of the reasons I thought Jon should put this up quickly and for free was to give lots of people the chance to use it. Looking at the site’s analytics, there are clusters of users in countries I’d never thought about in relation to hip-hop. Some of them are using the tool to help with pronunciation, but I hope they are also inspired to start writing lyrics.

The best thing about the project is that it is a true labour of love. Jon has been collecting words over years. The dictionary includes specifically local terms too (North Laine, Lewes Road), reflecting bits of Jon’s own life. As Jon said in an interview, ”A word can be a signpost to a world you never knew.”

One of the things I love about hip-hop is the connections it builds. An artwork from out of New York has spread across the world, mutating and shifting. I’m excited about what new, unexpected turns this project will take in the future.

The Peaks of Brighton

I’ve always been a little jealous of people with the time and location to collect Munros and Wainwrights. All the interesting climbs in Britain are some distance from the south coast. The chalk geology of Sussex does not lead to exciting peaks – the highest point is a mere 280m, at Blackdown. I mean, it’s better than Essex (highest point 147m) or Norfolk (103m), but it’s not much.

In November 2017, the Brighton Urban Ramblers did a City Three Peaks, but they went for steepest streets rather than highest points, picking Dyke Road, Preston Drove, and Southover Street. Still, there are high points in Sussex, which means they can be collected.

There is a list of Brighton Hills in Tim Carder’s Encylopedia of Brighton which is reproduced on My Brighton and Hove, although the heights are given in feet. Taking an arbitrary cut-off at 100m, the ‘peaks’ within the borough are:

  1. 645 Bullock Hill, Woodingdean
  2. 584 Hollingbury, Patcham
  3. 580 Holt Hill, Patcham
  4. 534 Falmer Hill, off Falmer Road
  5. 531 near Pudding Bag Wood, StanmerPark
  6. 510 Varncombe Hill, Patcham
  7. 509 The Bostle, Woodingdean
  8. 503 Heath Hill, Woodingdean
  9. 485 Tegdown Hill, Patcham
  10. 476 on Ditchling Road south of Old Boat Corner
  11. 463 Race Hill, by Bear Road
  12. 435 Scare Hill, Patcham
  13. 430 in Stanmer Great Wood
  14. 430 Red Hill, Westdene
  15. 427 Sweet Hill, Patcham
  16. 417 Race Hill, by the Race Stands
  17. 417 Telscombe Tye, Saltdean
  18. 411 at Balsdean Reservoir
  19. 410 Ewebottom Hill, Patcham
  20. 398 High Hill, Balsdean
  21. 396 Whitehawk Hill, Brighton
  22. 387 Coney Hill, Westdene
  23. 367 Mount Pleasant, Woodingdean
  24. 355 on Dyke Road Avenue, near Dyke Road Place
  25. 352 Red Hill, Roedean
  26. 334 Tenant Hill, Saltdean

That is a lot of hills. I decided that a better starting point would be the trig pillars, since they should have good views and account for Topographic prominence. There is an excellent database of trigpoints at trigpointing.uk, which includes all the trig points around Brighton. Some of these are listed as destroyed, but are still useful target locations. Their catalogue of Brighton trig points includes 6 pillars:

I’m going to take this as the starting point for my ‘Brighton Peak bagging’, although it makes sense to expand this into the wider Brighton Downs – using the arbitrary definition of the area covered by Dave Bang’s book A Freedom to Roam Guide to the Brighton Downs. This would expand the area to cover Beeding Hill through to Lewes, also including the north slope of Clayton Hill and Ditchling Beacon. So far, I’ve done one of the trig points, now I just need to divide the others into a few sensible routes.

Anyone interested in joining me for a session of Brighton peak-bagging?

Retreat, Days 38-40

  • The birdsong seems so loud these days. I’m particularly noticing it in zoom calls. Zoom does some fairly clever things with audio, and I wonder if this is a side-effect?
  • The world continues to be strange. This week I received a £25 rebate on my car insurance as so few people are claiming. It’s very welcome, but it’s odd.
  • This month, the price of oil turned negative. Vice had a couple of good articles on this: a good explainer, and a discussion of whether buying an oil tanker to take advantage of this would work. It’s a fascinating story, showing how the futures market does indeed involve actual real things – which traders came very close to taking possession of.
  • A beautiful quote from a recent Rebecca Solnit article: The philosopher-mystic Simone Weil once wrote to a faraway friend: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.”
  • Remember the banana bread era? An age of innocence, when we still thought lockdown was going to be like a wet half-term in an Enid Blyton book” – Jess Cartner-Morley
  • One of the local hairdressers seems to have transformed into a greengrocers. A sign of the times, but I welcome having more options for fresh food.
  • Another sign of ingenuity – on a conference call this week, a colleague showed us their system of mirrors, placed in the garden to angle sunlight into their office.
  • Nick Caves transformation into spiritual leader continues with this lovely recent piece of writing on prayer: A Prayer to Who?
  • Busy day today, including running a workshop. Off to bed now to get a good night’s sleep, ready for tomorrow’s virtual session with Slow Yoga Club.

Retreat, Day 6: The Happening

There is a stunning sequence in the middle of M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise disappointing film, The Happening. A family are fleeing an horrific end-of-the-world scenario and seek shelter at a remote farmhouse. The owner says she is happy to offer hospitality, but refuses to be told anything about what is taking place. It’s strange and disturbing to see the urgency of the film paused by the interlude, and this has stuck with me ever since.

Last night, I stayed in a remote shepherd’s hut. I’d told the hosts I was social distancing, which they were fine with, and I have avoided being too close to anyone while hiking. I’ve skipped the news, and will catch up on Monday night (although I asked a friend to tell me if there was anything I needed to know). It’s been good to have this interlude.

My walk home was lovely, and far more relaxed than yesterday’s stomp across the downs. Walking on the promenade, it seemed like a normal summer’s day, lots of people out strolling. I guess a lot of people are not so into social distancing.

I arrived home, had a bath, and have been relaxing otherwise. I followed Ben Graham’s recommendation and watched the first couple of episodes of Britannia. I’ve done some writing, and mostly been disconnected from the networks. I now have a good list of activities planned, including learning Mill’s Mess. I originally took up juggling 26 years ago so I could do that trick, but never got round to it.

It’s been good not to think too much about events, but there are still shocks when I think of the enormity of what’s happening. I guess the coronavirus is one of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, impossible to hold in mind in its entirety. As overwhelming as this is, I want to maintain focus on my life, and to make that as rich as possible.

Today was, of course, Mother’s Day, and it’s been bittersweer. We’d originally planned to take my Mum for a pub lunch. This was downgraded to a dinner at my sister’s. On Monday, I asked my sister if she thought I should cancel given the current situation, but we decided to hold off a decision. By Tuesday it was obvious that my parents are in strict isolation for the foreseeable future. They’re taking their seclusion very well, but it must be difficult. Sorry I couldn’t be there today, Mum.

No plank today, again, because I walked 90,000 steps this weekend. Back to planks tomorrow though.

Book launch: Famous for 15 People

On March 15th 2018, I’m holding a Brighton launch for my ebook, Famous for 15 People. It takes place at Brighton’s Regency Town House, and features performances from me, Rosy Carrick and Chris Parkinson. Tickets are available online and cost a mere £4. There’s even a bar at the venue.

Many of the stories had their origin on the Sussex university creative writing MA, where I first met Chris and Rosy. I’ll perform a couple of regular pieces, as well as some multi-media performances that I’ve only done once before. There will also be some microfictions; and I’m going to talk a little about why ebooks are so exciting as a way for people to share their writing.

I describe Famous… as a ‘mixtape’. It contains short stories (some very short!) and non-fiction written over the last ten years. The title comes from a quote from the artist Momus that I love. I’m pleased to have made a home for all these stories.

The book actually came out in May last year, but I got distracted by work and other events, so the launch never happened. I am the worst self-promoter ever – as you can also tell by the fact I’ve got multimedia performances I loved that have only been performed once.

Do come! Tickets are £4, and the book can be downloaded from Amazon. And if you do get a copy from Amazon, please leave a review!

Three Minute Fiction: Bathtime Apocalypse

Photo by Al_HikesAZ (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In an infinite multiverse, there are an infinite number of ways for the world to end. Some are tragic – and some are silly. On one sad earth, it was sentient bathtubs that did it; a world reduced to a charnel house by plumbing that came to life. News anchors wept as much from the indignity as from the doom. The last human was glad when it was all over.

(For over ten years, Ellen de Vries and I have run Not for the Faint-Hearted, a workshop where people have three minutes to write a story prompted by a picture. This is a story I wrote in a recent session, lightly edited)

A Cheeky Walk: Walking With Werewolves

The Cheeky Walk ‘Walking with Werewolves’ has an exciting premise. It’s intended as a night-time stroll, best carried out at full moon. Since full moon only happens once a month, this required planning ahead. By the time Friday arrived the weather wasn’t looking good, but we’d made an arrangement and we would stick to it.

IMG_20160422_201903

Lela and I met up with Romi and Katharine in Firle’s Ram Inn. With darkening, gloomy skies, the place had a slight Slaughtered Lamb feel. This ambience was worsened by the creepy sticker in one of the parked vehicles. Who thinks that sort of thing is funny rather than disturbing?

IMG_20160422_201819

After a quick drink, we set off through Firle’s deserted high street and were soon in the countryside. A narrow path went up onto the ridge of the Downs, joining the South Downs way. Climbing up to the hilltop, rain whipping and bitter wind, it occurred that this walk is another that might be improved by waiting until later in the year. It was still fun to be wandering about in the countryside by torchlight. It reminded me of the days when I’d sneak out of school at night to explore.

IMG_20160422_220846 IMG_20160422_230206

Given that it was raining, the moon was hidden behind clouds. Apparently the effect of moonlight on chalky downland paths is quite something, but we will have to take the guidebook’s word for it. The views were still pretty good, with the night-time world moving below us. And, of course, the i360 back in Brighton, for the first time a welcome sight, pin-pointing where we’d come from.

IMG_20160422_213416
Stunning view of Sussex

The walk was pretty tiring – a few points we weren’t sure if we had overshot the route and needed to check it on google maps. We did find the two stony humps said to be bishops who lost an argument with some witches.

IMG_20160422_214221 IMG_20160422_220836

We didn’t see any werewolves, but there was a creepy moment when a car approached us on the muddy coach lane. We stepped to the sides and waited, and the car stopped and reversed away once more.

Another fun walk, and actually pretty tiring. I want to do more night-hiking!

IMG_20160422_203000 IMG_20160422_205228 IMG_20160422_212210 IMG_20160422_212626

 

IMG_20160422_233154

An Article in Ernest Magazine

ernest4

Ernest Journal is one of my favourite magazines. It describes itself as being “for curious and adventurous people”. Recent issues have featured ghost villages, numbers stations, some amazing travel features, and Queen’s Brian May writing on Victorian Diableries. The most recent issue, number four, includes writing by me about the Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard. The magazine also smells truly excellent, which is an important consideration for paper-based goods.

The piece came about through meeting the editor, Jo Keeling, when I was speaking at Wilderness Festival last August. Jo was running the Odditorium, the venue where I spoke. Nervous before my performance, rather than have an actual conversation, I told Jo at great length about Cherry-Garrard. Instead of making excuses to get away, Jo invited me to write an article about it. I sent her a slightly strange outline and she said she I should go ahead with it.

I first heard about Cherry-Garrard through a friend’s recommendation. I ended up reading his book, TheWorst Journey in the World, among a lot of Antarctic literature for my MA dissertation (I read about a dozen books for this, which ended up as a mere 2 pages of the final text). The Worst Journey refers, not to Scott’s fatal mission, but to the miserable trek that Cherry-Garrard engaged in with two companions.

It’s strange to think that most of Cherry-Garrard’s reputation rests upon a single section of his work, where he describes the stubborn fortitude with which he  and his companions faced the grim, unrelenting cold – just to collect a couple of penguin’s eggs, needed to support an evolutionary theory that was dismissed without needing his sacrifice.

My article was particularly inspired by the work of Sara Wheeler. As well as writing a biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Wheeler has written an account of her own time in Antarctica, Terra Incognito. It’s a powerful, emotional book, as well as being incredibly funny in places.

I’m currently working on my next article which will be about… something odd and unrelated. And I love that there are places like Ernest with spaces for this sort of writing. My piece sits alongside an article on modern reproductions of Shackleton’s clothing (featuring a rather grisly fact) and a guide to wild butchery (“Remove skin and store away – you can use it to make a rug later”).

Ernest 4 is amazing and is available here – and if you’re in Brighton, the magazine shop on Trafalgar Street should have copies.