All the New York Times news that's fit to print -- in haiku
A NYT software architect gets creative and crafts an algorithm that turns select articles into short poems. For news junkies, this could be a real time-saver.
Not long ago, The New York Times published an article exploring the likelihood of a solar storm hitting Earth. I didn't get around to reading it, but I probably don't need to now that I've discovered Times Haiku.
The site recasts Times stories in the traditional short poetry form of three phrases containing 5, 7, and 5 syllables. It offers this poetic summary of the solar-storm article: Only rarely does/a giant solar blast fly/directly at Earth. Well, phew.
Jacob Harris, a Times senior software architect, created the site between his more serious endeavors -- building news-driven sites for events like the November election. His original algorithm checks the paper's home page every few minutes for new articles, then scans each sentence looking for complete sentences that fit the haiku pattern. The software does this using a list of words and their syllable counts; if it spots a word it doesn't know, it skips to the next sentence and logs the unknown words to a database.
The result: some rather amusing, and poetic, little summaries. A riff titled "A Modest Proposal for More Back-Stabbing in Preschool" becomes this truism that extends way beyond the toddler years: "It's hard to find your/bearings in the middle of/a cataclysm." A review of Kate Atkinson's latest novel, "Life After Life," turns into "The buzzing of a/thousand bees in the tiny/curled pearl of an ear."
Harris acknowledges that Times Haiku may not always break at the perfect Pulitzer-winning image, but "that's a lot harder to teach an algorithm... and so, I hope even the haiku poets will forgive me for this little exercise in found poetry." The site produces about 15 or so of these "found poems" per day, but you won't see haikus on every subject that hits the news.
"The algorithm automatically avoids making haikus from sensitive topics where it might seem we're making light of a serious situation," Harris tells Crave. "For instance, we aren't going to make haikus from a story about North Korea's nuclear threats. Otherwise, though, it's up to the human moderators to vet haikus and that the code is running OK."
While I wouldn't suggest news junkies switch to haiku-only consumption of The New York Times, sometimes the terse poetry does convey just about all one needs to know. From an article titled "Why Retailers Ask for Your ZIP code," for example, comes this bit of smart haiku advice: So if you don't want/to provide it, you should just/politely decline.
The site will remain up and poetizing through the end of this month, but "much like the Mars Rovers, I personally hope and expect it to keep operating long past its originally forecast time frame," Harris says.
Once he's done with this project, I'm hoping he can help CNET engineers create a similar engine for Crave. I'd really, really like to seein haiku form.