Category Archives: News nerdery

If robots wrote campaign speeches…

In the wake of this summer’s Republican and Democratic national conventions, Washington Post reporter Dan Zak wrote a piece spoofing the conventions speeches called “We’re all in this together, separately.”

“We’ve fed the transcripts into a robot that synthesizes and streamlines the partisan political sentiments of the past 10 days,” Zak writes in the introduction to the piece.

Northwestern professor Larry Birnbaum taught text processing in his introductory programming class, and one of his assignments involved writing a program that could generate text in the “tone” of a real person. The Python script involves using Markov chains to make a dictionary of words that commonly occur together. Using this dictionary, the program can output text that “sounds like” the author, since it is using words the author tends to use together.

After reading Zak’s article mocking the robotic language of campaign speeches, I thought it would be fun to actually run the speech transcripts through this algorithm. The results are not gramatically correct but hopefully give a fun perspective on the catchphrases of the convention speakers.

Click a speaker to read the computer-generated text based on the transcript of the real convention speech.

Dan Hill challenges incumbent in Nebraska congressional race

Dan Hill Reports(me) We share the same name.

Dan Hill Yeah, there’s a lot of Dan Hills out there.

DHR Have you been able to meet any Dan Hills during this campaign?

DH No, you’re the first one. I know they’re out there because you just google Dan Hill and all kinds of stuff shows up, like the Canadian singer.

DHR I’m curious, my real name is Daniel and I was named after the Elton John Song. Is your real name Dan or Daniel?

DH It’s Daniel. I was named after my grandfather.

DHR Did you ever go by Danny? I was a Danny with some of my friends.

DH Yeah, I was a Danny. My family called me Danny and when I got halfway through elementary school I wanted to be called Dan. People at school called me Dan but my family called me Danny and it took me a long time to break them of that.

DHR I don’t know how many Dan Hills are in Nebraska’s 3rd district but are there any promises you can make to all those Dan Hills out there to represent well because you’ll be one of the most high profile Dan Hills if elected.

DH Yeah, boy, I wish I could come up with something clever. I don’t know, I’ll have to think about that one and come up with something.

DHR How do you feel going into Tuesday?

DH Actually I feel pretty optimistic. This is an extremely interesting race in the sense that if I win because this is one of the most conservative districts in the entire country. Generally what that means is we only elect republicans. As we get towards the end, my best indication of how we’re doing is how he reacts and I think he’s kinda in panic mode. He’s making calls to people in the press and he’s pressured people in the press off the record they tell you these things. He wouldn’t go to these lengths if he wasn’t pretty darn worried about what’s going to happen. I feel pretty good about it but in terms of objective data we don’t know what’s going to happen on Tuesday because our campaign can’t afford the polling but if it happens it’ll be a national news story and you’ll be on the cutting edge of it because we’ll have won this election probably easily with less money than any race in the country and it’ll be very unique to have a conservative independent knocking off a conservative republican in an upset that noone would have seen coming.

Hill said his campaign has distributed 9,000 copies of his book describing his background and political views.

DHR How did you design your campaign?

DH You’ve seen the book. We printed up hard copies of the book and I think we’ve distributed about 9,000 of the books. That was really the planting the seeds phase of this. We had to do everything different to do a campaign like this. The way I looked at the earlier part of the candidate was we were planting the seeds so a few people look at you. You can’t get people to take an interest in politics in July. I knew a lot of the election would come down to how many people we can reach in the last week of the campaign because that’s when a lot of people actually do pay attention to the election. They get their voter guide, they see things on television, they hear things on the radio. So we saved up all of our big money for advertising for really the last week of the campaign and determined people really were unhappy with this guy. If we swing it, we’re swinging it at the last minute and he really doesn’t have time to react. By the time he realizes he’s in trouble, which I think is now, it’s too late for him to really do anything about it. Most of it’s played out like we hoped it would.

DHR Do you have a staff?

DH We have no paid staff. It’s me, my wife and she has a part time job outside the campaign and we have some very dedicated volunteers who do a lot of canvassing, traveling around and talking to people for us. The closest thing we have to a fundraiser was a yard sale. We’re having our party on Tuesday night for the volunteers of the campaign in a barn. It’s actually a very nice barn, but it’s a barn. We have a yard sign that says “Vote for Dan,” the biggest problem we have with that is the high schoolers think they’re cool and they steal them but it’s gotten around. People see the signs and say “who’s Dan, what’s he running for?” and that’s exactly what we want them to do. That kind of thing has gotten us a lot of attention. It’s all grassroots and rural Nebraskans, I think, like that a lot.

DHR In your book, one of the things you foresaw as a challenge was how you’re not originally from Nebraska. Has that been a challenge?

DH That’s been less of an issue than I thought. That’s why I put it in the book, to make it a non-issue and say it’s positive because I’ve been to many places and I appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of different places. Far western Nebraska is full of cowboys, it’s ranch country. In Michigan, people in rural Michigan had something bad to say about Detroit. In Illinois, I’m sure rural people in Illinois have plenty to complain about Chicago. That’s just the way it is in most states with rural versus urban. Western Nebraskans a lot of times, I’m from central Nebraska, they don’t feel like we understand each other.

DHR At 45 years old, you’ve lived a lot of life: marriage, children, military service. If you made it to Congress, where would it rank among your life milestones?

DH It’s a big deal. I guess it would seem like a really big deal if I was 30. At this point in my life it’s not nearly as intimidating if it would have been 10 years ago or 15 years ago to do something like this. It’ll be a challenge and I’m sure I’ll feel some stress to actually walk into the capitol building and things like that. I guess it’s not something that scares me or really intimidates me. i think it’ll go well. You don’t know how people are going to react to you, I don’t know how the republicans in congress would receive me. I would caucus with the republicans even though I’m an independent kind of like a Joe Lieberman is to the democrats. It’d be a big deal but I think I’m mentally and emotionally ready for that.

So how do you feel about Nebraska being in the Big Ten next year?

DHR It’s gonna be cool. We were kinda hoping for Notre Dame because they bring that legitimacy and they’re just awful now so we could kick them around. Does Nebraska have a big game this weekend?

DH We’re playing Missouri and really we’ve got to beat Missouri and that will determine who goes to the Big 12 championship. It’s a big game.

DHR The whole state will be watching?

DH Yeah, that’s the thing about Nebraska. We don’t have anything but the Huskers. We have smaller colleges and stuff but there is no professional team of any kind. There’s semi-pro hockey but we don’t have a professional football or baseball team, we don’t have another large university here so everybody is a Husker fan. It’s kind of neat. One thing Nebraska will bring to the Big Ten is they’ll bring the most polite, nice fans that you’ll find. They’ll applaud the other team when the other team beats you and plays a good game. That’s the way they are. They’re intelligent football fans, they know all the assistant coaches, they know the offense, they know the defense, they’re really into. Really nice people, well behaved at games, they follow the team around. When Nebraska comes to Northwestern you’ll see a lot of Husker fans but you won’t have to be afraid of them.