Microsoft Word: A Poet in the Machine

By Niraj Chokshi

Quick: Sum up Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass" in ten sentences. No idea where to start? Well, fire up Microsoft Word. Here's the distilled book, according to the program:

Alice began. Alice asked.
Alice asked. Alice laughed. Alice laughed. Alice pleaded. Alice explained.
Alice interrupted.
Alice enquired.
Queen Alice

It may not be the most comprehensive summary, but it's poetic in a way. New Media Artist Jason Huff used Word's "autosummarize" feature to create similar ten-sentence abstracts of the top 100 most-downloaded, out-of-copyright works. In some instances, the word processor churned out surprisingly apt and hilarious summations. For example, here's what Word spat out when Huff plugged in "All About Coffee" by William H. Ukers:

Coffee...
Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. COFFEE

Just like reading the book. Inspired by Huff's work -- and by mashing up memes! -- I decided to run a few pieces from Kevin Kelly's new list of "best magazine articles ever" through the poetry-making machine. But first, here's our most recent cover story, Hanna Rosin's "The End of Men" in concentrated form:

"Women live longer than men. Women moved to the city and went to college. What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men? Yes, women still do most of the child care. Who's the damn man? Who's the man now?" As for the men? In 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. In 2007, among American women without a high-school diploma, 43 percent were married. Especially women.

That pretty much explains it. In 1965, Esquire asked writer Gay Talese to write a profile of Frank Sinatra. The resulting piece is generally considered to be one of the best celebrity profiles ever written. Here it is in ten sentences:

Sinatra was ill. Sinatra repeated.
Sinatra stopped.
"Captain Sinatra."
"Congratulations, Captain Sinatra!"
Sinatra asked.
--Nancy Sinatra, Jr.
--Dolly Sinatra
--Frank Sinatra
Sinatra yelled back.

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten teamed up with renowned violinist Joshua Bell in 2007 to conduct a social experiment: Would anyone notice if one of the world's best musician masqueraded as an average busker? The resulting column won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize. The Word version:

Joshua Bell.
"NO!!!"
The curators invited Bell to play it; good sound, still.
Bell drained his cup.
Bell's a heartthrob. Bell doesn't mention Stradivari by name. Bell is laughing. Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. The music stops. What about Joshua Bell?
Picarello knows classical music.

And, finally, here's the summary of our own "First Wave at Omaha Beach," military historian S.L.A. Marshall's 1960 recount of the D-Day Normandy landings:

Six men drown before help arrives. That leaves five boats.
Machine-gun fire still rakes the water. Two men. Only one other Baker Company boat tries to come straight in to the beach. Somehow the boat founders. Padgett's men lower the rope and jump for the water. "Where's the fire?" The men scatter. Taylor leads his section crawling across the beach and over the sea wall, losing four men killed and two wounded (machine-gun fire) in this brief movement.

The summaries are far from comprehensive, but they do seem to capture the gist of the original texts in a bizarre way. You can buy Huff's book or download the PDF. (Check it out, many of the summaries are fantastic.)

(The Valve via The New Yorker.)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/07/microsoft-word-a-poet-in-the-machine/60717/