I program to learn and explore. I wrote InkWell to explore how to automate the sort of deliberate writing that trained fiction writers and poets do. Some call it research, but I had no hypotheses—I went where the landscape took me.
Peter Turchi, essayist and fiction writer, wrote:
Artistic creation is a voyage into the unknown…. We are off the map. The excitement of potential discovery is accompanied by anxiety, despair, caution, perhaps, perhaps boldness, and, always, the risk of failure…of our becoming hopelessly lost. We strike out for what we believe to be uncharted waters, only to find ourselves sailing in someone else’s bathtub.
I began with this simple question: how can a machine recognize personality from writing. And after wandering in directions my programming pushed me—in directions my program showed me—after sailing off the map many times, after being lost, I ended with a program that can (sometimes) write hauntingly beautiful poems and that can understand (some) deceptively simple sentences better than a purely machine-learned system can.
If there is a lesson in this work, it’s this: sometimes you need to see a cat, and sometimes you need to prove a theorem.
Richard P. “Dick” Gabriel overcame a hardscrabble, working-class upbringing in the dreadfully industrialized and famously polluted Merrimack Valley of Eastern Massachusetts to become one of the few genuine Renaissance men to emerge from the PL milieu: scholar, scientist, poet, performance artist, entrepreneur, musician, essayist, and yes, hacker….
Though somewhat less well-endowed of the effortless intellectual incandescence, easy charisma, and raw animal magnetism of so many of his generation of future programming-language luminaries, he was able, with discipline, determination, and hard work, to survive the grueling demands of elite, first-tier academic institutions such as MIT, Stanford, and UIUC to earn his PhD and become a leader among the burgeoning legions of Lisp-dom during the early nineties.
However, after a series of the inevitable, endemic startup setbacks that the Internet boom all too often left in its wake, Gabriel grew weary of the cold, cloistered, celibate tedium of engineering culture, and fell willing prey to the lure of the exotic social and intellectual stimulation and blandishments that only the Liberal Arts could offer.
And they, in turn, embraced this gruff emissary from the exotic, intimidating, but newly chic world of technology. Gabriel’s dissonant, desiccated, plainchant blank verse was dark, disturbing, distant, candid, calculating, and desperate, at once florid yet monochromatic. It could “cons-up” a soul in a single haunting, searing stanza and remand it remorselessly, insouciantly to the heap in the next. It was like nothing that could be heard on the stale, staid, inbred Writers’ Workshop circuits of those times.
But then, as always, poetry alone seldom pays the bills, so the prodigal poet, like a salmon to spawn, returned to his programming-language roots, proselytizing a newfound artistic sensibility to an aesthetically impoverished community.
His technological audiences, who had subsisted on bland, austere stylistic pabulum born of their collective status as a poor stepchild of mathematics, physics, and engineering, embraced his audacious set-piece guerrilla performances and this novel aesthetic dimension in a manner akin to that in which Medieval European palates had embraced the infusion of spices from the East Indies.
His considerable successes in synthesizing the “Two Cultures” in this software setting will likely stand as his enduring legacy.
Gabriel lives in Redwood City, California. He writes a poem every day.
I used to be Dick Gabriel. Those days are long gone. Now I’m just Dick Gabriel.