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Machine “Translation” and What Words Mean in Context

One of the biggest commonly known flaws of mahcine translation is a computer’s inability to understand differing meaning in context.  After all, a machine doesn’t know what a “horse” is.  It knows that “caballo” has (roughly) the same meaning in Spanish as “horse” does in English.  But it doesn’t know what that meaning is.

And it certainly doesn’t know what it means when we say that someone has a “horse-face”(/”face like a horse”).

 

But humans can misunderstand meaning in context, too.  For example, if you don’t know how “machine translation” works, you’d think that machines could actually translate or produce translations.  You would be wrong.  What a human does to produce a translation is not the same as what a machine does to produce a “translation”.  That’s why machine and human translators make different mistakes when trying to render the original meaning in the new language.

 

A human brain converts words from the source language into meaning and the meaning back into words in the target language.  A computer converts words from the source language directly to words in the target language, creating a so-called “literal” translation.  A computer would suck at translating a novel, because the figures of speech that make prose (or poetry) what they are are incomprehensible to a machine.  Machine translation programs lack the deeply associated(inter-connected) knowledge base that humans use when producing and interpreting language.

 

A more realistic machine translation(MT) program would require an information web with connections between concepts, rather than words, such that the concept of horse would be related to the concepts of leg, mane, tail, rider, etc, without any intervening linguistic connection.

Imagine a net of concepts represented as data objects.  These are connected to each other in an enormously complex web.  Then, separately, you have a net of linguistic objects, such as words and grammatical patterns, which are overlaid on the concept net, and interconnected.  The objects representing the words for “horse” and “mane” would not have a connection, but the objects representing the concept of meaning underlying these words would have, perhaps, a “has-a” connection, also represented by a connection or “association” object.

In order to translate between languages like a human would, you need your program to have an approximation of human understanding.  A famous study suggested that in the brain of a human who knows about Lindsay Lohan, there’s an actual “Lindsay” neuron, which lights up whenever you think about Lindsay Lohan.  It’s probably lighting up right now as you read this post.  Similarly, in our theoretical machine translation program information “database”, you have a “horse” “neuron” represented by our concept object concept that I described above.  It’s separate from our linguistic object neuron which contains the idea of the word group “Lindsay Lohan”, though probably connected.

Whenever you dig the concept of horse or Lindsay Lohan from your long-term memory, your brain sort of primes the concept by loading it and related concepts into short-term memory, so your “rehab” neuron probably fires pretty soon after your Lindsay neuron.  Similarly, our translation program doesn’t keep it’s whole data-set in RAM constatnly, but loads it from whatever our storage medium is, based on what’s connected to our currently loaded portion of the web.

Current MT programs don’t translate like humans do.  No matter what tricks or algorithms they use, it’s all based on manipulating sequences of letters and basically doing math based on a set of equivalences such as “caballo” = “horse”.  Whether they do statistical analysis on corpuses of previously-translated phrases and sentences like Google Translate to find the most likely translation, or a straight0forward dictionary look-up one word at a time, they don’t understand what the text they are matching means in either language, and that’s why current approaches will never be able to compare to a reasonably competent human translator.

It’s also why current “artificial intelligence” programs will never achieve true human-like general intelligence.  So, even your best current chatbot has to use tricks like pretending to be a Ukranian teenager with bad English skills on AIM to pass the so-called Turing test.  A side-walk artist might draw a picture perfect crevasse that seems to plunge deep into the Earth below your feet.  But no matter how real it looks, your elevation isn’t going to change.  A bird can;t nest in a picture of tree, no matter how realistically depicted.

Calling what Google Translate does, or any machine “translation” program does translation has to be viewed in context, or else it’s quite misleading.  Language functions properly only in the proper context, and that’s something statistical approaches to machine translation will never be able to imitate, no matter how many billions of they spend on hardware or algorithm development.  Could you eventually get them to where they can probably usually mostly communicate the gist of a short newspaper article?  Sure.  Will you be able to engage live in witty reparte with your mutually-language exclusive acquaintance over Skype?  Probably not.  Not with the kind of system we have now.

Those crude, our theoretical program with knowledge web described above might take us a step closer, but even if we could perfect and polish it, we’re still a long way from truly useful translation or AI software.  After all, we don;t even understand how we do these things ourselves.  How could we create an artificial version when the natural one still eludes our grasp?

 

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The “Next Big Thing” Generation

So, a common topic in many of the writing communities I used to frequent was “the next big thing”.  Generally, what genre of book was going to be the next Twilight vampire romance or Hunger Games dystopia.  I had a lot of fun with those discussions, but only recently have I really stopped to consider how damaging the “next big thing” mindset is.  Not only to literature, but to any field and to our characters as people.

First, it’s damaging to the quality and diversity of books coming out.  If everyone is chasing the next “popular” genre, they aren’t writing, reading, or accepting for publication many good books who just happen to not be the next big thing or who are part of the last big thing.  Even though 90% of the books in the genre of the last big thing were crap, and 7% of the rest were mediocre.

Which ties into my next issue: This attitude creates a hunger for similar books, despite quality or whether the reader would like to try something else because it creates a comfort zone for the reader.  They know they like dystopia because they liked Hunger Games, so they’re more willing to take a chance on another dystopia than a high fantasy or Mundane SF.  (Mundane SF itself having once been the next big thing, thus the proper noun moniker.)

But this is a false comfort zone for many reasons.  The reader may not actually like dystopia, but just that one book.  They may like dystopia but ignore other things they would also really enjoy to keep from having to stray outside their comfort zone.  They may gorge on so many dystopias that they learn to see the flaws in the genre finally,  and therefore ignore a wonderful dystopia down the line, because they’ve moved onto their next big thing.

Or, if they’re jumping on the bandwagon, they may perceive all of YA, say, as mediocre dystopias or obsessed with love triangles.  Perhaps they think all epic fantasy is ASOIAF, which they disliked, and so they don’t take the chance on other works.  For example, maybe they watched the TV show, and aren’t fans of gratuitous sexposition, and so they don’t read the books or similar books because they don’t want to get buried in another avalanche of incest and prostitutes.

Many authors have stories of agents or publishers telling them they have a great book, but they missed the window, or it doesn’t fit with whatever the next big thing is, and so they can’t sell it.  Or they already have ten of these, and even though 8 of them are sub-par, they can’t cancel the contract and pick up this new book.

Or perhaps they like the book, but everyone acquiring fantasy stories right now wants ASOIAF, not comedic contemporary fantasies, or low-key urban fantasies in the original mode without kick-ass leather-wearing, tattoo-bearing heroines with troubled backstories and seriously poor taste in lovers.

And the same can be said for things besides commercial fiction.  Google+ was going to be the next big thing in social media.  Then it was Ello.  Tinder was the next big thing in online dating, and it spawned dozens of clones.  Social media itself is something of a successful next big thing in human interaction and the Internet.  Object-Oriented programming was the next big thing in software design, and yet now the backlash has been going on for years.

Sometimes a next big thing is a great thing.  But the mentality of always hunting for the next big thing is not.  And despite the pressure from our capitalist economy, it might be better in the long term to look for alternatives.  And it is capitalism that is a major driver of this obsession, because history shows even mediocre products can ride the wave of a predecessor to make big money.  Following a successful formula is a bit of a dream situation for many producers of entertainment or products.  That’s why Walmart and most other chains have their own brand version of most popular products, from medicine to housewares to groceries.  The next big thing trend might make some people a decent amount of money in the short-term, but it has long-term effects that have created a sort of creativity pit that we’ll have a hard time climbing out of any time in the near future.  And in the short term, the people who don’t manage to catch the wave, as wonderful as their contributions to literature or software or society may be, are left choking on the dust.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2017 in atsiko, Uncategorized

 

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Hiatus: Again

So, as I hate my life and happiness and am currently in the process of working on a video game project, including the coding and a narrative arc that could probably be comfortably condensed into 47 fantasy trilogies, schedule posting on the Chimney will be on indefinite hiatus.  That does not mean I won’t be posting.  I probably will.  But it will be sporadic and all post series are on hiatus.

I’m having a hell of a fun time, so though I am a bit sad that I won’t be ramping back up my posting schedule, I’m not too sad.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2016 in atsiko, Blogging

 

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Getting Your Priorities Straight

I’ve had a great time working on this blog.  It’s been loads of fun, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’ve met some great people.  I really appreciate everyone who’s read and commented here.

That may sound like a goodbye speech, but what it really means is that I’ll be posting less on here than I used to.  Probably once or twice a month at the most.

This is for several reasons:

  1. I made a commitment to my friends review blog, where I’ll be reviewing various speculative fictions books in many genres.  I’ve posted several reviews there already, and I encourage you to go check them out.  If you like Young Adult books, my two co-reviewers each review about the same number of those a month as I do spec fic books, so definitely check that out.  Most recently, I reviewed Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds with my co-reviewer Marisa Greene.  In about a week, you’ll be able to read my reviews of Richard K. Morgan’s The Dark Defiles, the third and final novel in his Steel Remains series.  Here’s the blog: http://notesfromthedarknet.wordpress.com/
  2. I’ve decided to spend more time actually writing books.  High/Epic fantasy has been becoming more popular in the YA field, and many of my projects fit that category, including my current WIP.  After that, you might get to see some reali, live chimney-punk! 😉
  3. I’ve found less and less to write about on here as time goes by.  Part of this is that I’ve said a lot of what I have to say on some subjects, such as world-building.  And part of it is that more general topics, such as genre and writing mechanics have already hit their third cycles on some of the blogs that started out around the same time I did.  Many of those blogs have even stopped posting at all.  I’ve been less active commenting on other blogs for that reason, which means a large decrease in traffic here, as well.

The Chimney is still my home on the web, and will be for the foreseeable future.  I’m not closing it down, and I hope I never do.  This change has already been occurring over the past year or so, it’s just not been official until now.  Once my schedule settles down, and I get into the groove of writing prose, I’ll probably be back to posting here more regularly, especially since writing actual manuscripts really gets my creative and research juices flowing.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging

 

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Reader Interpretation and Authorial Intent: A Review of Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

Before we get going, I should explain that if I’m trying to find a book to read by online reviews, I look almost entirely at the negative ones.  Most books have only a few 1- and 2-star reviews, so usually I read all of them, and some of the more popular 3-star reviews.  Maybe a couple 4-stars.  (I mean on Amazon and GoodReads.)  That’s because the majority of five-star reviews in my experience are mostly gushing, don’t discuss the reasons why the reviewer felt that way except in terms so abstract as to be useless, etc.  Sure, some low-star reviews are like that.  But a lot of them take the time to point out every little itch and then about half are in between.   And I find it more sueful to hear what people hated about a book when deciding if I want to buy it.  Although unless a book has almost nothing over 2 stars, I don’t actually pay much attention to reviews for decision-making anyway.  I just enjoy reading them for their own sake.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with Imaginary Girls.  I don’t usually post reviews on this blog, partially because my taste is so weird, and partially because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea of what this blog is about.  I primarily enjoy writing about the theoretical aspects for speculative fiction, and as with this reviews, occasionally about YA.  There are plenty of awesome review blogs out there, and I’m not interested in competing with them.  I’m not capable of competing with them; my goals in writing a review are different than theirs.  The reason I’m writing this review, besides that fact that Nova Ren Suma is an awesome writer and I loved this book, is because after I finished I was surfing reviews on Goodreads, and I saw a review, not surprising, but quite illustrating of a topic that’s been percolating and/or fermenting in my mind for awhile.

As the title says, it’s the tension between reader interpretation and authorial intent.  By reader interpretation, I means the feelings and insights and the rewarded or frustrated expectations that a reader takes away from a story.  And there’s a unique interpretation for each reader.  I won’t debate the issue of validity here.  It’s much too heated and ambiguous a discussion for me to get side-tracked on here.

So, instead, let’s begin with my review.  The review I mention earlier had a different reader interpretation of Ruby than I did.  She hated her.  So did I.  But whereas the other review saw this as a flaw, I saw it as the point.  I don’t know Nove Ren Suma enough to make a firm claim to her intent.  To an extent, it doesn’t matter.  half the point of the novel seems to be to provide ambiguity.  I admit that I am going to go a bit into spoilers.  That’s where my goals in a review differ slightly from traditional reviews.  Ruby is not a nice person.  She’s not a mean person either.  She’s more just amoral.  What matters to her is what she wants, not what’s right or wrong.  And the book does a great job of taking that, and still making her not a complete monster.  When people have always done everything you wanted, it’s not that strange to take it for granted.  Ruby holds the whole town under her spell.  Her character isn’t cruel, just a bit purposefully oblivious.

And that’s part of what makes the book as good as it is.  Ruby’s complete narcissism plays so beautifully into the magical realist elements of the story.  It’s Chloe’s complete belief in her sister that allows all the fantastic events in the story to seem believable.  London’s revival is perhaps the most unambiguous magical element.  But for the rest of it, when you finally have a break from the consensus reality that Ruby holds over the town, when Chloe and London and their friends pass the boundary line and start to say all sorts of awful things about Ruby, there’s a moment where you realize that maybe Chloe isn’t the most reliable of narrators.  Is she so under Ruby’s spell that she never saw these cracks?  That’s one interpretation.  Or there’s the idea of the boundary of Ruby’s power.  There’s enough wiggle room to take either route.  Or perhaps even the boundary is real, in the sense that Ruby doesn’t have enough energy to control things outside of town for mundane reasons involving time and physical stamina.  The moments near the end of the second third of the book, where Chloe sees Ruby for once tired, not perfect suggest that this too is a possibility.  This tension between various possibilities is part of what makes magical realism, real-world superstition, and a magician’s tricks so bittersweet.

Chloe has a few other moments of cognitive dissonance, as well.  And in general she takes the route of doubling down on her faith in Ruby.  Totally believable, to me.  All fiction requires suspension of disbelief.  Even the real world does.  And Ruby has, evidenced by little hints throughout the story, taken a great deal of time to set up her perfect little world, or at least the image of it in Chloe’s eyes.  When you have the scene at the beginning of the book, at the reservoir, and everyone seems under Ruby’s spell, there’s another interpretation to consider:  perhaps many people are under Ruby’s spell–temporarily, or patchily, or entirely–but there’s also an aspect of rubber-necking and denial that could be in play.  Some people absolutely see through manipulation and tricks.  But they still love to see the master work.  Or they want to be part of the legend, even though they know the legend is a fraud.  It’s easy to forget that with humans, sometimes appearances can be more important than reality.  You see it in rich-people take-down stories all the time.  The cracks being exposed, the polite but purposeful ignorance.  The winks that say “I saw saw that” or “we all know the truth but it’s more useful for us to pretend we don’t”.

But it’s common theme that the people most capable of casting these sorts of spells are also not the nicest of people.  They understand manipulation.  They know how to play groups off against each other, how to get someone to overlook the many little problems in the face of the one big wonder.  And they learned those things for a reason.  We don’t really get to learn Ruby’s reason. They had family troubles, and their mom was not the most perfect.  Perhaps some things happened in the past we didn’t get told about.  But I know people like Ruby, I’ve seen how they construct their worlds, paper over the cracks, and the portrayal of that in Imaginary Girls is very well done.  It wouldn’t be the book it is if Ruby wasn’t so selfish and controlling.  The tragedy of the book, the great and terrible beauty of it, is that even if the magic is real, even if Ruby did what she did, and Chloe and then London were brought back from the dead, even if she truly loved her sister in her own way, Chloe is still, for the foreseeable future lost in the spell of someone who’s dead and gone.  (Or is she?!)  It doesn’t even matter if things were really how Chloe saw them, because Ruby has screwed her up just the same.

 

Nova Ren Suma has done a beautiful job encapsulating what it’s like being a teenager, looking up to someone–loving someone, even–looking past their flaws.  Even though I’ve never lived by a reservoir, or had the family situation Ruby and Chloe had, or whatever, this book definitely resonates with me, and reminds me of things that happened when I was younger, and most of all it created a great mystery that was fun to investigate, even if it was impossible to figure out the right answer.  And she did it with brilliant prose and fascinating characters.  And it’s hard to ask more from a book.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Books, Reviews

 

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Real Life Sucks

So, the whole planning a posting schedule idea has run smack dab into “real life”.  If only I had nothing better to do than sit around all day writing blog posts, my life would be complete.  Hopefully things will get back on track by the end of next week.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2013 in Anime

 

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NaNoWriMo!

It’s approaching November now, which means NaNoWriMo is just around the corner.  It’s been awhile since I’ve done it, so I’m really excited!!!  I might actually win this time… maybe.

Here’s me: Atsiko on NaNo

Anybody else planning to do it this year?

 

I haven’t decided on a novel to work on yet, because there are so many options. Decisions are so much trouble.

 

Anyway, good luck to everybody planning to do it.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in atsiko

 

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