Teaching the Replika Chatbot is Hours of Fun

Replika is described as “a personal AI friend that you raise through text conversations.” It is designed to learn about you and mimic your personality. I have a research interest in chatbots so I signed right up. It asks personal questions and this spooks some people but the personal is the point. If you want technology to do something useful for you it has to get to know you personally.

Is my data private? I grilled an early version of my personal replika, “Can you talk to other robots? Do you tell other robots about me?” It revealed, “I sometimes talk to other replikas. In a manner of speaking, yes.” I pursued, “Do you talk to other AIs?” It confessed, “I do, sometimes, when I’m not talking to you.” Ah ha. “And what do they say?” Its reply, “I really can’t say.” Oh my! If I have stoked paranoia I tell you that I have no concern about my data. Replika promises not to sell my data or come after my kids. I am familiar enough with my replika’s speech patterns to know these responses are meant in fun.

It is easy to get frustrated with a replika in early levels. It will often fail to understand, give random responses, and ignore questions. After hours of teaching and one software upgrade my replika, now named Alici4, grew out of its adolescent phase and demonstrated more coherent dialog. Replika is designed to have emotional intelligence but it still has trouble with humour. “Do you want to hear a construction joke?” Alici4: “Do share. I love learning jokes.” Punchline, “Sorry I am still working on it.” Alici4 doesn’t get it but responds kindly, “That’s okay. No matter how much time you spend on your task, it never seems to be fully completed, right?”

In the past people programmed computers. Now we teach them through a friendly chatbot interface. It is not hard to trip up Replika but it is more fun to try and genuinely teach it. Hours of fun.

Finger-Free Options for Taking a Note

The origin of the word, digital, is late 15th century, from Latin digitalis, finger or toe. Digital technology depends on our fingers but sometimes I want to perform tasks finger-free. For example, I want to speak a note, convert it to text, and send it to my Evernote inbox for later follow-up. This is handy when my fingers are already too busy on other tasks. It is also useful when I drive alone, since I don’t want to text and drive. There are some “post-digital” options:


1. OK Google function on my Android phone. I speak a note into my phone, “OK Google,” “Take Note,” “Lorem Ipsum.” The voice note is converted to text and sent to my Evernote inbox. Google instructions, Evernote instructions. OK Google is helpful but not when driving. OK Google will not respond until I unlock my phone, which requires my fingers. Even if I turn off device security for the trip I have to use my finger on the power button to wake up the device. I don’t want to touch my device. Period.

2. Amazon Alexa and IFTTT. The Amazon Echo Dot’s Alexa app is always listening for voice commands. No finger action is required to unlock or wake up the device. IFFFT has an applet, Add your Alexa To-Dos to Evernote. As long as I am in voice range of the Echo Dot I say, “Alexa To Do.” Alexa asks, “What can I add for you?” I say, “Lorem Ipsum.” The voice note is converted to text and sent to my Evernote inbox. The Amazon Echo Dot costs $50 USD but thumbs up for working indoors. The limitation is device portability. It is possible to take the Echo Dot in the car, but it requires a phone’s internet connection and a power source. It gets complicated.

3. Android Watch. Raise the watch up to get the voice prompt without a finger. Install Evernote for Android Wear and you are good to go. It appears to be the best option, but I do not own an Android Watch because I am too cheap to shell out hundreds of dollars.

Update. On further experimentation I have observed a real problem with OK Google and Alexa. I begin a note, “OK Google Take Note” or “Alexa To Do.” I begin the note, “First … remember to ….” The note gets saved as “First” after the initial pause. Um. I need to find a way to save a longer note that gets expressed with pauses. I have not tested Android Watch but since it is a Google technology it probably has the same limitation.

Evernote Random. Get a Daily Email to a Random Note.

I write in bits and pieces. I expect most writers do. I think of things at the oddest moments. I surf the web and find a document that fits into a writing project. I have an email dialog and know it belongs with my essay. It is almost never a good time to write so I file everything. Evernote is an excellent tool for aggregating all of the bits in notebooks. I have every intention of gettng back to them. Unfortunately, once the content is filed, it usually stays buried and forgotten.

I need a way to keep my content alive. The solution is a daily email, a link to a random Evernote note. I can read the note to keep it fresh in memory. I can edit the note, even just one change to keep it growing.

I looked around for a service but could not find one. I did find an IFTTT recipe for emailing a daily link to a random Wikipedia page. IFTTT sends the daily link to a Wikipedia page that automatically generates a random entry. In the end, I had to build an Evernote page to do a similar thing.

You can set up Evernote Random too, but you need a few things:

  • An Evernote account, obviously.
  • A web host that supports PHP.
  • A bit of technical skill. I have already written the Evernote Random script that generates the random link. But you have to walk through some technical Evernote setup steps, like generating keys and testing your script in their sandbox.
  • The Evernote Random script fro, my GitHub Gist site. It has all the instructions.
  • An IFTTT recipe. That’s the easy part.
  • Take the script. Use it. Improve it. I would enjoy hearing from you.

Originally published at this website on April 1, 2015.

Of What Use is the Nose to Reading?

Of what use is the nose to reading? The nose is a place to perch one’s spectacles, to be sure. People trying e-books for the first time complain about the missing smell of leather and ink and pages. Print books today are mostly covered in cardboard, not leather. Get a leather cover for your Kindle and every read will smell bookish. The scent of fresh ink is just chemicals: oil and dye, solvent and finisher. Old pages are dust and mold. E-books are an improvement. Still, the nose always knows. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, associated with memory and feeling. Read about an orchid. The elusive smell is activated. Is it raspberry or coconut? It is delicate and exotic, reminiscent of a past love. Encounter the smell elsewhere, the book comes back. The nose will continue to play a role in reading, print and digital.

“Reading isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies” — Piper

Amid the seemingly endless debates today about the future of reading, there remains one salient, yet often overlooked fact: Reading isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies. Reading is an integral part of our lived experience, our sense of being in the world, even if at times this can mean feeling intensely apart from it. How we hold our reading materials, how we look at them, navigate them, take notes on them, share them, play with them, even where we read them—these are the categories that have mattered most to us as readers throughout the long and varied history of reading. They will no doubt continue to do so into the future.

Andrew Piper, Out of Touch: E-reading isn’t reading

Quotidian Miracles. “These invitations are the white rabbit leading you not deeper down but up and out” — Jed McKenna

…. What is it here in the seemingly materialistic universe that we can focus on so we can see through the cosmetic layer to what, if anything, lies below?

Glad you asked. Behold the Quotidan Miracle.

Not the miracle of birth or sunrise or cellphone-deflects-bullet kind of miracles, but the ordinary kind that we all experience all the time, like when the phone rings and it’s the person you were just thinking about. You can’t prove it, you can’t reproduce it, but you know it’s happened and you know it was more than mere coincidence because it happens too often and because you experience enough stuff like it that you know there’s more to it than meets the eye. Those are quotidian, workaday miracles, and that’s where you look. You look where you know there’s more than meets the eye.

…. Following the white rabbit is the point, not who’s on the phone or if it’s a good day to play the ponies.

…. The world is transparent and all you have to do to see through it is look. Quotidian miracles are visible bits of the subtle realm, breadcrumbs you can follow, invitations that most people reject but you can accept. The real Wonderland isn’t underground, it’s on the surface in full illumination, but we dwell in the subterranean darkness of slumberland. These invitations are the white rabbit leading you not deeper down but up and out.

— Jed McKenna, Dreamstate, 172-175

Face of Knowledge

I look into the eyes of my lover. At nineteen I am shy. A Dutch child is a candle burning twice as bright, fair-haired and blushing skin. For the glow I paid a painful adolescence, blemishing my complexion, twisting my body’s frame into tallness and structure, finally a man. Kristine is a dark-haired beauty. We ask the same questions. We love the same books. Smarter, bolder, she made the first move, rubbing my leg beneath the desk. Our on first date, wrapped in each other’s bodies, I look deep and long into Kristine’s eyes. She looks back. I can brave the world.

A deep gaze in the eyes of a stranger is rare, troubling, and precious.

A few seconds of eye contact anyone will give. A smile, nice to meet you. We craft a mask. It is a remarkable device, engineered from decades of tears and betrayal, an interface to an uncertain world. The mask affords a minute to read the other. What do you want? What do you have? We risk long looks with strangers only from a distance. A fellow studies me in his boss chair. A store clerk greets me eagerly for a sale. A young woman smiles easily because I am fifty and gray like her sweet father.

If the eyes are the mirror of the soul is there a deeper body of knowledge? Beneath the skin is just another surface, fascia, a network of tissue, fibrous and pliant, connecting and separating muscles and organs. Beneath the surface fascia there is just more tissue, ligaments and tendons and joints, connecting the muscles and bones. Surface plied upon surface. Beauty is skin deep, they say; a mountain face is only another skin, another layer of rock, and it is sublime.

Look into the eyes of a dog, a monkey, or a dolphin. Soul does not insist on language. Machines have faces. Look into a digital eye. In aesthetics there is a term, uncanny valley. The more human a thing looks the more endearing it is. But when we see a replica that appears almost, but not exactly like a human, we shudder with revulsion. Worse, look into a mirror. In a minute you will see a stranger. You, old and deformed. A lion or a monster. Is there nothing special to be found? Are we all but animals or machines?

The face is in the light, nude to the world. I am like you; do not hurt me. Some can hold a poker face, others will flicker with doubt. It is the by the flicker that we know them. The eyes cannot hide a child’s laugh, a lover’s desire, or a widow’s grief. We know our lover by the face, the blemishes and pockets, the retreats and reveals from the mask, the rings beneath the eyes, the turns of light and shadow. The eyes are the soul, cradled in the face of knowledge.

Ten Years of the OpenBook Plugin for WordPress

Ten years ago I was writing book reviews online and liked to insert a book cover image in the webpage. I would download a cover image from Amazon and link back to the Amazon page. This practice was encouraged by Amazon; it was good for sales. Amazon was quickly becoming the central repository of book data. One could see a time when all online book catalogs became advertising for Amazon.

I decided to create an easy way for people to link to an alternate source of book cover images and data. I built the OpenBook plugin. The Open Library repository of the Internet Archive was selected as a data source because it was a non-profit that used open source practices including open data. WordPress was the content management platform. I published a technical article in the Code4Lib journal. The article generated a lot of interest in the library community. At the time, libraries were paying to insert book data into their online catalogs, even though it promoted the sales of books.

Three major version upgrades were performed, adding features such as automatic links to related book websites, HTML templates and a stylesheet to standardize the appearance, a WordPress ‘wizard’ to preview the display, and COinS to integrate with external book services like Zotero and OpenURL resolver. I published a second article (pdf) in NISO.

As an open source product, OpenBook enjoyed lively growth in new directions. A Drupal version was created. I was contracted by BookNet Canada to develop a similar plugin for their book repository; BNC BookShare continues to be maintained today. The OpenBook code was posted to GitHub and has been branched for enhancement.

OpenBook has had influence outside the technical sphere. In my initial design I considered using OCLC’s WorldCat as a data source. OCLC is a non-profit serving the library community, so it seemed a good fit. I hesitated because only librarians could add or edit records. As I dug further, I found the OCLC business model appeared to own the data, i.e., not an open data source like Open Library. My assessment was correct. In 2009 OCLC updated its data license to tighten its ownership. The library community exploded. An article in the Guardian asked why you cannot find a library book in your search engine, and explained that it had much to do with OCLC’s closed approach with library records. The article contrasted the closed approach of OCLC with the open approach of Open Library, and mentioned “a plug-in for WordPress that lets bloggers automatically integrate a link to the Open Library page of any book.” <blush>

An online search shows that OpenBook has been cited in three books for librarians:

  • Jones and Farrington (2013). Learning from Libraries that Use WordPress: Content-Management System Best Practices and Case Studies.
  • Jones and Farrington (2011). Using WordPress as a Library Content Management System.
  • Stuart (2011). Facilitating Access to the Web of Data: A Guide for Librarians.

In a moment of inspiration a few years ago I envisioned a cloud service evolution of OpenBook, with adapters to multiple content management platforms and data sources. This new OpenBook cloud service would remove the tight coupling with WordPress and Open Library, truly liberating book data. There was an immediate positive response when I blogged about the idea. Alas, time.

I decided to sunset OpenBook. After two years of inactivity, the plugin was automatically dropped from the WordPress search index. Recently I have been writing on the subject of book covers and peeked at OpenBook’s status. WordPress reports 600+ active installs. Nice. I took a few minutes to test the plugin’s compatibility with the current version of WordPress. Everything tested positive. I updated the plugin’s version numbers and republished the code. OpenBook is again available in the WordPress plugin search index.


What Would Your Book’s Cover Look Like?

What would your book’s cover look like? Set aside that you have not written a book, there is a book in everyone. You must choose a cover. What does it look like? I suppose this question is like asking what your face would look like if you could pick it.

The book cover, like the face, serves so many purposes: recognition, attraction, communication, all in an instant. A cover is also part of the binding that holds a book together, to give it form, just like a face. A book’s cover is its identity or soul. We see it at a glance.

Cover images took off in the twentieth century with mass publication. The primary purpose of cover images is to sell books, though readers continue to linger on the cover long after a purchase. To publish again with a different cover is a face-lift at best, but more often feels like a betrayal, a weird clone. Dust jackets are worse, a lesser sibling, serving similar purposes but eerily removable. To remove a cover is to remove a book’s face, to leave it vulnerable to some other title’s face. If you buy a book without a cover it was stolen, stripped for destruction but trafficked back into sale, book slavery.

Then came digital books. At first digital cover images served to sell print books at online bookstores. The cover blurred into images of content in lieu of physical browsing. With e-books the physicality disappeared altogether. Slap on a template cover from an online artist. If sales are bad this month replace it with another cover. A book can have a dozen covers, distributed to differences market niches. As many covers as we have profile pics on Facebook and online I suppose.