restricted access 5. Travesty

From: Virtual Muse

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»» / 5 / T R A V E S T Y In November 1984, Hugh Kenner,the greatModernist literarycritic, and his colleague at Johns Hopkins, the computer scientist Joseph O'Rourke, published an article in Byte magazine called "A Travesty Generator for Micros." Neither literary scholarsnor computer science professors publish often in microcomputer magazines. Kennerand O'Rourke were both playing hookey, from different schools. (It's worth noting, though, that Kenner had already written on Buckminster Fuller's mathematics and on the relevance of group theory to poetry.) Naturally enough, the article's claims on its readers'interest are divided. On the one hand, the authors are demonstrating the implementation of algorithms (that is, computational procedures) for pattern matching that were first suggested by Brian P. Hayes in the "Computer Recreations" column of Scientific American a year earlier. Most of the Byte article is devoted to details of the algorithm and its implementation , with discussion ofways to improve efficiency. Thearticle inspired an unusual number of letters to Byte's editor, and most of them offered programming improvements andalternatives. On the other hand, the purpose of the program itselfis to generate "travesty" texts from other texts so as to examine the relation between the original and its transformation and deduce various things about the language of the original. In short, Travesty is a computer stylistics program. Here's what the program does. A text, such as a passage from a novel, is among other things a set of characters. It consists of so many e's, so many f's, and so on. It's also a set of character pairs (so many ex's, so many ch's, etc.) and of triplets (die's, wkw's, etc.), and so on. For any same-size group of characters—call the sizen—it's possible to make a frequency table for a particular text. From that table, another text can be constructed that shares statistical properties, but only those properties, with the first one. That'swhat Travesty does. It produces an output text that duplicates the frequenciesof n-character groups in the input text. To put the same thing the other way, it thoroughly scrambles its input text but only down to leveln. At n = i all you get is a mishmash of letters that more or less obeys the usual frequency distribution of English. (Eis the most frequent letter, t is next, and so on). If you set n equal to 2, the result is slightly more organized gibberish: Dengethe pr: o Is h thee. wicach Ye thur. obbug lesila thicatetonoisthate Thrit O athe are. t is: winsict kerprurise, y m? th o mor sty hetseatheancathensous. The longest pattern-matching string allowed by the originalTravesty is nine characters.Atn —9, the output text largely duplicates the input text—except for some odd leaps. Here's the beginning of the tenth chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes: Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour. A'wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left. . . . And here's an n = 9 travesty (using the whole chapter as an input text): Dead flies cause the ointment of the ruler: folly is set in great dignity, and the end of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk is mischievous madness. A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall bite him. Whoso removeth stones shall be endangered thereby. Ifthe iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength:but wisdom is profitableto direct. The last sentence in this passage remains perfectly intact. If it sounds strange—well, that's one of the program's effects on our reading. On the other hand, the "ointment of the ruler," though it T R A V E S T Y [55] sounds plausible, is a figment. The program has compounded it from "ointment of the apothecary" and "spirit of the ruler" by way of the repeated nine-character run (including blanks), t ofthe . Formally, as Kenner and O'Rourke point out, "The connection of the output to the source can be stated exactly: for an order-n scan, every n-character sequence in the output occurs somewhere in the input, and at about the same frequency." The authors use Travesty to make a number of paradoxical...


Subject Headings

  • Computer poetry.
  • Computer poetry -- Technique.
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