Monthly archives: June, 2019

Science and fiction: can a robot become a top writer?

A hallmark of civilisation has been the drive to create unique stories that explore the human condition. Now robots are learning to write fiction. Is nothing sacred?
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No computer has yet written the Great Australian Novel because they have some of the same handicaps that afflict human writers. Writing is hard. Although computers can work unhindered by free will, alcohol or divorce, such advantages are outweighed by a lack of life experience or emotions.

Computers are quietly elbowing their way into the workplace. They’re flying planes, driving cars, selecting job candidates and writing news stories. The Associated Press employs a company called Automated Insights to create short news reports from raw data. More advanced software is working on longer pieces. To be able to write fiction, a machine does not have to think like us but it must “understand” patterns of human experience. While not discounting the life of the mind, computers are being fed millions of novels and short stories to “teach” them character, pace and plot.

This is the goal of the What-If Machine (WHIM) project, a venture involving teams at five universities across Europe. WHIM analyses databases of human prose and then inverts or twists what it has learned to introduce a new idea as a premise for a story. Knowing what is typical is the first step in generating atypical stories.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have been working for four years on a program called Scheherazade, which analyses crowd-sourced human anecdotes and then produces plausible short stories.

The program writes convincing sentences: “You entered the movie theatre … you find the seats allocated on your ticket.”Stories generated by Scheherazade about everyday situations are nearly indistinguishable from human-written short stories. Using code, they are taught to learn from their mistakes.

I was the former head of the creative writing programs at a large university in Melbourne, where students were taught the difficult art of writing fiction. The majority of the themes involved young women living in the inner suburbs who had gotten themselves involved in drugs, prostitution, a gender change or domestic violence. I never realised things were so grim in Fitzroy and Newtown.

Could a computer write those plots? Absolutely. The reason is they are programmatic. It’s innovative and unique writing that computers have trouble with. Could they write like James Joyce or Ursula Le Gunn? Forget it.

The philosopher Leibniz speculated that humans wrote, uttered words and phrases that were derived from individual emotions and perceptions. Behind this was an important supposition. Humans are not only knowable but predictable (sort of).

If our thinking and how we express our thoughts in language can be expressed in an equation or by a “middlebrow algorithm”, then we can also model the product of that thinking. That means a computer can write novels and poetry.

I know what you’re thinking. Computers aren’t alive. Their “writing”is flat and lifeless. There’s no surprises, nothing that rises up off the page and goes for your throat or heart. But such criticism may be premature.

It’s intriguing that human beings, whose very consciousness is born from experience, may relate in some way to stories that have no experiential grounding. That truly would be science fiction.

Malcolm King works in generational change and is an Adelaide writer.

What if?: Can a computer master the art of writing fiction.

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Port Stephens Council sounds out sale of landmark block in Raymond Terrace CBD

OPEN TO OFFERS: The main site opposite the Raymond Terrace police station, and the second smaller site, both highlighted in red. Picture: Supplied.
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Unit blocks up to five storeys high could be constructed at thegateway to theRaymond Terrace town centre if Port Stephens council pushes ahead with the sale of alandmark site.

The council has begun an expressions of interest processfor the 11,167 square metre parcel, which is opposite the police station and bounded by William, Adelaide and Sturgeon streets.

It is currently occupied by a large car park, the YMCA andseveral shop fronts, including a Kip McGrath education centre and Bamboo Terrace takeaway.

The leases return revenue of $347,000 a year to council and the land is zoned commercial core.

Howevercouncil’s land acquisition and development manager Sean Fox said the zoning also allowed for medium-density housing to be developed on the site.

“We know there’s generally a shortage of accommodation close to the CBD and we see it as a great opportunity to try and provide some of that accommodation.

Vacant land on the site.

“It might be suited to people who are a bit older and want to downsize and be close to town.We also see it as important to have people in the town centre supporting the existing local businesses,” he said.

However Mr Fox said the EOI process was about “teasing out” a range of options for the site, which has a 15 metre height limit.

“You could have apartments with some ground floor parking and aretail component,” he said.

Mr Fox downplayed concerns about a loss of parking in the CBD, saying the developer would have to make a provision for parking in any plans lodged.

A second smaller parcel–the car park next to the old squash courts on Port Stephens street–has also been listed in the EOI process, for sale either separately or as a joint venture with the main site.Covering just over 2,000 square metres, it is zoned for low density residential.

Expressions of interest for both sites will close on February 24.

Mr Fox admitted the main block was in a‘prominent’ position with the potential tochange the landscape of the town centre.

“We know it is a gateway site and we’re obviously looking to get a good design outcome,” he said.


Student slams Gillian Triggs’ Human Rights Commission over handling of 18C race hate case

Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs says there has been misinformation about the QUT case. Photo: Andrew Meares “A shambles”: QUT student Calum Thwaites took aim at the Human Rights Commission and its president Gillian Triggs.
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Liberal senator James Paterson said Calum Thwaites’ testimony “deserves to be taken very seriously”. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The student at the centre of a racial vilification lawsuit that sparked fresh debate about free speech laws has accused the Australian Human Rights Commission of causing chaos and distress in its “poor” handling of the complaint against him.

Queensland University of Technology law student Calum Thwaites told a parliamentary inquiry the commission had consistently failed to contact him or the other students accused of causing insult or offence under controversial section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

He also complained the case was primarily handled by a “junior staff member” – whom he conceded was an approved investigator – rather than directly by the commission’s president, Gillian Triggs, or one of her close aides.

“Neither the president nor a staff member with delegated powers had a hand in the process in the slightest,” he wrote. “[The commission’s] handling of the [complaint] can only be described as, at best, a shambles or, at worst, a breach of statutory duty.”

Mr Thwaites was among a group of students accused of making offensive remarks in a Facebook group after being ejected from an Indigenous-only computer lab. The case eventually made it to court but was thrown out, with the judge deeming there was no case to answer.

In particular, the court accepted Mr Thwaites was not responsible for a post made in his name using the phrase: “ITT niggers.”

But Coalition MPs pushing to weaken or axe section 18C seized on the case and its three-year duration. Under pressure from the backbench, Attorney-General George Brandis established an inquiry, which in a submission from Thwaites heard the commission had presided over a “shambles” that brought “distress and chaos” to the 25-year-old and his family.

He accused the commission of making “no attempt to get any facts beyond those asserted within the complaint”, either through the university or the other students originally caught up in the saga.

“Had there been even the shallowest level of inquiry, in a situation where the student respondents had been appropriately informed about the complaint and allowed to participate in the process, the factual inconsistences of the [case] could have been ventilated,” Mr Thwaites told the inquiry.

A spokesman for Professor Triggs declined to comment as the case is subject to ongoing court action. But last month, Professor Triggs told a Senate hearing there had been a “high level of misinformation” about the QUT case and it would be “very important ultimately for the public to understand this case if and when it becomes possible to discuss the details”.

It comes as the Turnbull government eyes up replacements for Professor Triggs, whose controversial reign ends in July and who will not be reappointed.

Liberal senator James Paterson said Mr Thwaites’ testimony “deserves to be taken very seriously” and called for reform of not only section 18C but the commission itself. “No one who says they believe in justice can read it and fail to recognise change is needed,” he told Fairfax Media.

Mr Thwaites also complained of the difficulty in obtaining legal aid. He was ultimately represented pro bono by prominent Queensland barrister Anthony Morris.

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Cost of hiring tradespeople in NSW increasing, with plumbers most pricey

A plumber in NSW will charge an average of $78.84 an hour, according to serviceseeking南京夜网419论坛. Photo: Phil Carrick “The building boom has a little bit further to run in NSW:” HIA chief economist Harley Dale.
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 If you are considering having your pipes checked for the first time in a while, be warned: plumbers are now the most expensive tradie to call in NSW.

With an average hourly rate of $78.84, plumbers came out on top of the quarterly Tradie Price Index, released by jobs website ServiceSeeking南京夜网419论坛.

The index, which compared a sample of 52,000 quotes submitted online between October and December last year, found that the cost of hiring a tradesperson increased 9 per cent in NSW since the previous quarter, taking the average hourly rate to $64.46.

Building and construction, carpentry, electricity, landscaping, painting, plastering, plumbing and tiling were among the trades surveyed by the index.

Victoria has the most affordable tradie rates, at an average of $57.90 an hour, while hourly rates increase sharply in Queensland ($69.93) and Western Australia ($73.08).

Nationally the average hourly rate across all of the eight surveyed trades is $66.18.

While plumbers are the most expensive groups of tradespeople in NSW, they are followed closely by electricians ($75.43 an hour), landscapers ($70.46) and painters ($50.49).

“Housing affordability in NSW is becoming increasingly dire and we’re seeing less and less properties on the market,” said Jeremy Levitt, chief executive of the Service Seeking job site.

“It only makes sense that people are choosing to renovate rather than upsize to a new place.”

In its most recent quarterly Trades Report, HIA, Australia’s peak body for residential building, renovation and development, found persistent shortages of skilled workers had led to upward pressures on trade prices, with severe shortages most evident in the east coast markets.

“There are areas of the industry where there is a shortage of workers, bricklayers are a prominent example, as are ceramic tilers,” said HIA chief economist Harley Dale.

“In the case of bricklayers, it’s an ageing workforce and those retiring out of the industry are not being sufficiently replaced, which places an upward pressure on rates.”

Mr Dale said HIA figures show NSW trade prices increasing at around six to seven per cent per annum, as a result of the “booming residential production market”.

“Industry has gone from building less than 30,000 homes a year, to building well over 50,000 a year,” he said.”We were helped by the fact that as the NSW housing boom started…the resources boom was coming to an end, so we had a migration of skilled tradespeople away from the resources parts of the country back into NSW.”

Mr Dale said prices for tradespeople would likely increase throughout the year.

“The building boom has a little bit further to run in NSW, so there will be further pressure on availability of trades, but I think most of the growth spurt in building has come and gone.” Interact with us on Facebook – Savvy ConsumerLatest consumer news

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Woodlock burning bright with new sound

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Woodlock have embraced electronic beats on their new single Something Broke That Day. WOODLOCK have spent countless hours busking on Bourke Street, hoping to convince office workers to stopmomentarily throughtheir sweet harmonies and acoustic tunes.
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Unsurprisingly the horror which unfolded in Melbourne’s CBD last Friday shook the indie-folk three-piece to their core. One madman’s rampage in his vehicle claimed the lives of five pedestriansand injured more than 30, causing an outpouring of grief.

“We found out about that while it was happening,” Woodlock vocalistEzeWalters said.“We’re partof a busking forum, so all of us buskers on Bourke Street can work together and organise times.

“When we were driving to Adelaide and my brother [Zech] was like,‘Dude check out what’s going on’. There was all this messaging on the page from people checking if everyone was OK. It’s weird because things like that don’t happen in Australia.

“We felt really bad. At our Adelaide and Melbourne shows we made everyone quiet and had a bit of a prayer for the families and people affected because it’s just horrible and you don’t expect that.”

Woodlock – Something Broke That DayWoodlock aren’tyour typical indie band. The Walters brothers are devout christians who grew up in New Zealand travelling around due to their father’s work as a pastor. The brothers were home-schooled until they were 16 and have completedmission work in Uganda.

Their songs also originate from unique sources.The latest single Something Broke That Day was inspired by the comic The Sandman. In the storytheSandman’s obsession and anger towards an unrequitedlove, causes him tobanish herto hell.

“I didn’t realise how weird our upbringing was until I was 16 years old and I did my last few years in a normal school,” Walters said. “The good part about it was my mum was a musician and she wrote her own album when we were kids, so our whole family is very musical and it’s our whole way of hanging out together.

“It was an awesome upbringing, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Since the release of their first EP Lemons in 2013, Woodlock have slowly built their fan base through the album Labour Of Love (2014) and EP Sirens(2015). Something Broke That Day signals a move away from their traditional acoustic sound for more electronic beats and greater production.

Walters said fans can expect that stylistic change on their forthcoming second album later this year.

“We’re been experimenting with lots of different noises and sounds and ideas and Something That Broke That Day is something we’re really proud of and we’ll continue writing stuff like that,” he said.“Maybe not so dark, but around that sort of style.”

Woodlock play the Small Ballroom on February 4.