Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pattern Recognition

Sharon Wildwind

A while ago my computer and I were locked in the Battle of the Commas. My grammar/punctuation-checking program didn’t like some ways I wanted to use commas. I was equally adamant that my usage was what I wanted. In the end, I turned the program off and got on with my life, and my commas.

A couple of weeks ago, world health officials asked Google to do a retrospective review of the use of Google search-requests for information on treating fever, respiratory symptoms, and muscle aches. They found a consistent, predictable pattern: several days before the first cases of swine flu were diagnosed in a country, there was a noticeable blip in the increase of Internet searches on related symptoms.

The New Scientist published an article on May 8th about teaching computers to understand and categorize the emotional content of what’s being posted on the web. Go here to read that article.

We’re talking about pattern recognition. Some people do it naturally. Mothers can tell when the silence has been a little too deep, a little too long.
“What are you doing in there?”

It’s harder for writers. Ask five other writers how commas should be used or how a manuscript should be formatted and you’re likely to get at least seven different answers, one of which will be, “Do whatever feels right for you.”

So I eagerly anticipate the development of bigger, better pattern recognition software. Here is my big three wish list.

First, I want a program to which I could give character parameters and have it invent likely character names, then cross-check those names against known personalities where there might be a conflict. The result might look something like this:

It can’t be that hard; they do things like this on Star Trek all the time.

Second, I look forward to the day that my grammar/punctuation program
a) is polite,
b) realizes that I might have a reason for going outside the standard parameters,
c) is able to batch-process identical mistakes, so I don’t have to do them one-by-one, and
d) can learn my patterns and remember them for next time.

Third, I want the computer to keep track of the current best practices related to publishing and, once again, batch correct my manuscript to have it match any changing format preferences.

While we’re waiting for tomorrow to arrive, here are two sites you might enjoy. Both are even better than Solitare for eating up huge chunks of writing time.

Three spinning discs that can keep you amused for hours. Think of it as a gerbil wheel for writers.
Don’t just spin the little wheels. When you get your three words, try to write a blurb for the story that will contain this element.

This one comes courtesy of Benjamin Moore Paints.
Click on the link
Select U.S. or Canada
Select For Your Home
Select Personal Color Viewer ®
You will get a choice of lots of different rooms and, for each room, you can choose different color combinations. It can keep you amused for hours planning where your characters might live. There’s also a CD or download available for purchase that allows you to take photographs with a digital camera, feed them into your computer, then re-paint them to your heart’s content. Unfortunately, the CD or download does not work on some Macintosh machines, but you can still have fun with the standard rooms.

Writing quote for the week. Okay, so in the interest of pattern redundancy, I’m quoting myself.

Writing is like quilting. Collect the scraps. Cut into pieces. Look for the pattern. Sew them together. Embellish. Don’t confuse sturdy construction with embellishment.
~Sharon Wildwind, mystery writer


Sheila Connolly said...

Ooh, this sounds like fun. Of course, it would make writers' lives far too easy--or distract us far too much.

Don't you hate it when the Cyber-Grammarian tries to fix your dialogue? Um, excuse me, people in the real world don't always talk in nice complete sentences.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

It was time to sit down and write--so I read your blog instead, Sharon. ;)

Paul Lamb said...

I have no use for the grammar function in Word. I've turned it off. First of all, I know my way around in the grammar rodeo, but second, I think grammar is overrated at least for creative writers. I use to check on just what Word thought was wrong about some of its citations in my writing, and at least a third of the time the objection wasn't even valid. I can't imagine anyone relying on this function. Seems like I remember reading an article about some office supervisors who insisted that their employees make whatever corrections Word told them. The result got them in the newspaper at least.

Sandra Parshall said...

I find that the more I write, the less I want my word processor to do. I certainly don't want it tampering with my grammar. My grammar is just fine, thank you, and so is that of my characters. Word processors have too many features, and writers get too hung up on them. I ignore most of them. All I require is that my word processor accept what I type in and display it the way I want it.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Paul and Sandra, I agree with you about weaning away from the need for a grammar checker as you mature as a writer. Like Paul, I use it occasionally. Once in a while it reminds me of a bad habit I have yet to correct.