Meaningful machines?
Metafilter links to this article about improving the quality of machine translations. It seems like a smart enough approach, but it's not going to solve all the translation problems out there. Specifically, I don't think there's a wide enough pool of translated discourse for a computer to be able to solve larger contextual problems.

Let me put it this way: Is the context of this sentence the paragraph in which it appears, the post in which it appears, this whole blog, the blogosphere itself? The problem isn't just that we need to look at context when we translate or understand something. We actually have to be able to figure out which context is important. This kind of thing is going to be much more difficult for a computer to handle - and if the context turns out to have a very wide scope, it may render statistical techniques like this one useless.

I do think this is a step in the right direction - given the computational strength we have at our disposal, this kind of narrow contextual analysis seems like it will clean things up considerably. But we have a long way to go before we can handle more serious translation problems like metaphor or irony.

Chasin' a rainbow dream
An interesting thing about A Mighty Wind is the way it backs away from the documentary framework that was so successful in Christopher Guest's previous films - I'm told it's actually been criticized for this. I guess such a critique comes out of the notion that documentary/mockumentary was central to Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman, but I'm not sure I buy it. Yes, formally these other films adhered pretty closely to the documentary format (although in Best in Show some scenes become pretty implausible as part of a documnetary), but I think what's much more important is the fact that the bulk of the films are improvised.

Improvisation is pretty difficult to pull off in free form. Jazz musicians for instance don't just play whatever comes into their head - there's generally a strong constraining framework, and a very limited musical language to employ within that framework. Another example I like to bring up is the Homeric epics, which were improvised in much the same way - there were specific metrical constraints (not to mention those of the plot), and the poet/improviser relied on a vocabulary of metaphoric constructions ("the wine dark sea" or "rose fingered dawn") to help manage those constraints.

I see Guest's brand of improvised humor in much the same light. Guest and his collaborators spend some time carefully building an elaborate world in which to play - in Wind they design album covers, write songs together, invent a simple plot they can riff off of. Then, they start shooting, coming up with a lot of the most hilarious parts on the fly. But like the jazz musicians, these jokes aren't just free form - structurally a lot of their humor is very similar, so that it almost seems methodical.

I think this kind of improvisation works so well in a documentary is that documentaries are so mannered - they're highly constraining, and improv needs a somewhat constraining framework to succeed. Could this be why some people think Wind is less effective than the earlier films?

I don't think it's that big a deal here, in part because Guest and company have done such a convincing job building their backdrop, but maybe also because the form is implicit after so many trips around the block. It's no mistake that each successive production has less documentary in it - Wind only really has a documentary feel at the very beginning. It'll be interesting to see whether they can pull away from the form altogether in the future.


I didn't know the moon had a song
I've been back from Indianapolis for a couple of days now, trying to get reacquainted with the real world. Watching The Trio of Minuet come alive last week was absolutely magical for me on so many levels. Audiences young and old responded well to it, and the children on stage had a wonderful time. I can't wait to start writing another one...

The Indianapolis Children's Choir website has dozens of pictures up, and you can download the program (with notes and a synopsis) there as well. The Indianapolis Star has both a preview and a review. No word yet about a video or sound recording, but I'll be sure to post again as those things happen.

MORE: There's also this preview from WISH TV in Indianapolis - I guess it was actually a television spot, but I didn't get to see it.

Not just the worm
BigOldGeek is wondering about the difference between Mezcal and Tequila, and this LATimes article I read a couple months back is somewhat illuminating:

The main difference between tequila and mezcal is the method of production. Mezcal dates back almost 500 years to the arrival of the Spaniards, who brought the art of distillation to Mexico. Tequila came later. Originally it was called "mezcal produced in the town of Tequila," which is far north of Oaxaca, in the state of Jalisco. Today, tequila is made in factories, in high volume, and known around the world.

But mezcal is still hand-crafted and rustic. Like tequila, it starts with the hearts of the agave plant, known as pinas because they look like enormous green and white pineapples. For mezcal, the pinas are roasted in a pit dug in the ground. A wood fire heats a layer of rocks, and the pinas go on top, protected from direct contact with the rocks by a layer of agave fiber. Covered with more fiber, and then woven mats or canvas and earth, the pinas roast for several days and are then crushed, fermented in wood tanks and distilled, usually in a copper still.

I haven't noticied any mezcal for sale in liquor stores around here, but I'll probably be checking into that in the near future. The mezcal cocktails we had last night at Frontera were pretty spectacular - they had a powerful smokiness that reminded me of some scotches I've had.

Help wanted
Lots of shakeup in the Republican race for Illinois senator in the past few days. Jim Edgar, Judy Barr-Topinka, and Jim Ryan have all indicated they don't plan to run. Meanwhile ice cream magnate James Oberweis may be interested...

MORE:Archpundit has some analysis over at Political State Report.

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