UK City of Culture

Acava Studios: Spode Works Open Studios October 2017

18 Oct, 2017

Recently at Spode it was the Acava Studios: Spode Works Open Studios event, and a chance for us to open our doors to the public and invite people to see what we’ve been up to lately here at bitjam.

We’ve introduced you already to ANNA, but if you didn’t see our last two blogs, ANNA is a learning algorithm that analyses poetry and audibly delivers it in an old-fashioned regional Potteries dialect. The open studios event was the chance for us to play around with ANNA, test her abilities and see if we could get a computer to understand and be able to reproduce Stokie dialect – something that’s famously difficult to do for non-natives!

Well, ANNA was, as NASA would say, a successful failure! She was designed from an idea that our senior developer Liam had had, as he has a background in machine learning from the work he did for his dissertation. So our objective was only to take a playful look at neural networks and how they might be trained to learn local dialect. We didn’t exactly expect to achieve it, rather we were curious to see what the results might be. We got ANNA to recreate snippets of prose and dialect, and at times she successfully pieced together and understood some of the dialect, but she sounded a bit more like actress Joanna Lumley than local storyteller and actor Alan Barrett (he helped us with the machine text input. You can read our Q&A with Alan about Stokie dialect here).

But what was amazing about this project was the ways in which is pulled people together from around the area, and got them talking about Potteries accent and dialect, from Keele University to artists and locals. It was a great celebration of the UK City of Culture bid and an opportunity to prove that Stoke does have digital creativity.

Special thanks to actor and storyteller Alan Barrett and local author Jason Snape for their contribution to ANNA, and to Roger & Ian Bloor for providing their Father Wilfred Bloor’s Jabez Tales (the Jabez character is a countryman living in the shadows of industrial Potteries).

In other news, our weather station “Thee Weather Duck”, will be going up in the Spode Works studios, giving artists and visitors the chance to tweet the weather in Stokie dialect. Something that came up in conversation time and time again during the ANNA project, is that young people are losing their accents, and are becoming very unfamiliar with old-fashioned Stokie dialect because of moving away to other areas for their studies, and the influence of the media and the rising popularity of standardised received pronunciation (RP). According to our recent Q&A with Alan Barrett, retaining dialect is a positive reflection on the community, and helps to establish and retain links to our cultural heritage and history. So  maybe you’ve got children at university who need a reminder of home? Follow Thee Weather Duck on Twitter (@theeweatherduck) and RT the Stokie weather to them! The machine works with data collected from the weather station, and converts the results to Stokie dialect, for example “Iteside Temperature: Foetayn deegraze. If thees got chance, goo sunbeethin tidee!” (Translation: Fourteen degrees. If you’ve got chance, go sunbathing today!).

Our recent projects such as ANNA and Thee Weather Ducky are examples of “The Internet of Things”, a subject we’ve discussed in a previous blog post. The ‘Internet of Things’ is the interconnectivity of physical devices such as smartphones, WiFi modems and software, to the internet. We’ve got more projects coming up working with sensor data, redesigning systems, working with data from different types of sensors to create an interactive product, and we’re able to use our experience and knowledge of neural networks to complement these projects.


“Dine Stoke”: A Q&A with Alan Barrett

4 Oct, 2017

As part of this weekend’s ACAVA Studios: Spode Works open studios event, and our contribution to the Stoke for UK City of Culture bid, we’ll be showcasing ANNA, a learning algorithm that analyses poetry and audibly delivers it in an old-fashioned regional Potteries dialect. To create ANNA, we needed to feed text input into the system to “train” her to produce the poetry, so we enlisted the help of Stokie actor, storyteller, writer and poet Alan Barrett to provide the content to give ANNA authenticity. Here we have a Q&A with the man himself about the history of dialect, the importance of retaining traditional Potteries “speak” and the relevancy of it to the SOT 2021 City of Culture bid.


The Potteries dialect is a very distinct one!  Can you give us a little background about it?

Most of the dialect stems from local idiosyncrasies, as it does across the world. What one area calls a stew, another calls a hotpot, or in our case, a lobby. Add that to the increased industrialisation of the 18th and particularly 19th centuries, where new jobs and technologies brought in new words, to a largely uneducated population and they made up their own pronunciations for ease of use and learning. I suspect this is not unique to our city.

However, we do have several unique words. How many areas have a “jigger” or “jollier” as both job and equipment? The word “sneyped”, or “sneeped”, depending on how you prefer to spell it, is almost onomatopoeic. I have no idea of its origins, but I can tell you I learned it very early in my life. Some phrases are distinctly geographical; for instance “up ‘anley” is clearly because Hanley is on a hill, whereas “dine Stoke” is because Stoke is on the valley floor.

Dialect and accent are usually regional, and Stoke-on-Trent is no exception, but we’re a half way stage for the roads intersecting north and south, as well as east and west. This means we’ve evolved a unique dialect without much outside influence. It’s almost impossible to copy the dialect if you’re not local.

We’re also an area with traditionally manual labour, which means the dialect gets passed around very quickly. Outsiders coming in for work adapted to fit in. If you add to that, the canal users and their slang, it becomes so much easier to understand how different dialects evolve. It’s a definitively working class dialect, with a distinct lack of “h”. As with many others, it’s the vowel sounds that determine its eventual outcome.

When the pottery industry was in its infancy, many people still spoke with biblical reference, thee, thou, shalt etc. This is not unique to us, but much of it has remained. “Dust ‘ear?” probably began as “Dooest thou hear?” and “Coss do eet?” from “Canst thou do it?” As I’ve travelled the country, working as an actor, I haven’t found the same level of biblical  referenced pronunciation retained. It does cause me to consider that we have closer links to “olde Englishe” than most regions. That might just be wishful thinking on my part, but it’s worth condering.

There’s also a modicum of preferred brevity about regional accents and dialects, taking the spoken language down to its simplest form. This applies nationally, but we seem to have mastered linguistic brevity to degree level!

We have also given a word to the English lexicon. It’s not a great word, but it says everything you need to know about it – “pothole”, a hole dug from a flattened road of clay. The resultant clay used to make pots.

Why do you think that it’s culturally important to retain local dialect?
It’s absolutely imperative to keep all regional dialects, no matter where they are in the country. It’s a positive reflection on the community, helps to establish and retain links to our cultural heritage and history and – speaking personally now – I loathe the TV speak and imposed accent of the “trendies”. It is unique, and we have far too much that demands we are all the same.

I know what I sound like when I’m just talking socially, but I do make an effort when conversing with strangers. I’m happy to do both, not to fit in, but simply out of courtesy. We’re all much happier conversing with friends and family because we don’t have to make the effort to speak with perfect diction.

We should be proud of our heritage and that includes the dialect. We must not be bullied or made to feel somehow lacking simply because we don’t have RP as a standard. The dialect also reflects the culture of evolving industries, and though the words may change because of new and different jobs, the way we pronounce them should not.

How did you become involved in the development of ANNA? 

I am a storyteller, and one of my characters is Toby Jugg, a Victorian kiln placer brought forward 150 years by Dr. Who to tell people what life was like on a potbank in 1868. He uses old terms, and “spakes wi’ a pott’ry dylikt”. Carl contacted me and asked me to help out.

Anything that preserves what we’re rapidly losing, or potentially losing, is something I want to be involved with.

I love language with all its nuances, especially English. People forget, it’s essentially a hybrid tongue, made up of many influences. The original Brit language is likely a mix of Welsh and Cornish. The Romans pushed the Brits back westwards and couldn’t be bothered to follow them over the Welsh mountains or the Cornish moors. As well as Latin from the Romans, we also have Gaelic from Scotland, along with Anglo-Saxon, Jute, Danish, Norse, which includes Norwegian and Swedish, and other linguistic influences they brought with them from other places they conquered. Add to this the local and regional dialects and accents and you can see where what we now call “English”, is actually not “local” to the island at all!

Do you think modern technology is an effective tool for educating a younger generation on the history of their home town?

To be honest, I never gave it a thought until Carl spoke to me about it. I suppose that’s an age thing. However, once I saw his enthusiasm for the project, and he led me through it, (being gentle with the science and tech-speak), I could see its merits.

We live in an increasingly tech savvy world, where I have to ask my grandkids to sort my phone out, so I think it’s sensible and desirable to apply that technology where it’s most beneficial. If that means making an app they can use, rather than watching a documentary, then so be it. I’d still rather they read a book, but I’m pragmatic.

Do you think that the local dialect is important to the promotion of SOT 2021?

Yes. Absolutely! Can you imagine a Birmingham bid without a Brummie accent, a Liverpool bid without a healthy dose of Scouse?

I think we need clarity, and any dialect can lose its appeal if overused external to its origins, but we shouldn’t shy away from it. It’s part of who we are, so whilst it’s good and proper to have the bid written down well, it’s equally important to take the public with us, and that means not ignoring the way we speak. That would be insulting.


See ANNA in action this Saturday 7th October at Bitjam’s studio (number 22) as we put her to the test against artist and painter Fred Phillips to create some ‘Pottr’y’ poetry, in “Fred Against the Machine”. You can find out more about Alan Barrett here at Manic Meanderings.


May Un Mar ANNA

29 Sep, 2017

Yesterday we introduced you to the latest project at Bitjam: ANNA. A learning algorithm that analyses poetry and audibly delivers it in an old-fashioned regional Potteries dialect, the project has been inspired by the bid for Stoke-on-Trent as the next UK City of Culture. We interviewed Liam Mountford, Senior Developer at Bitjam, about the technical elements of creating artificial intelligence (AI) that is able to independently learn.

Why did you have the idea to create a computerised system that creates poetry and delivers it in a potteries dialect?

The initial idea came about from a discussion between me and Carl. Carl knew I had an interest in machine learning from the work I did for my dissertation, I created a neuro-evolutionary algorithm that was to predict the results of the 2015 general election. I have had a number of discussions about neural networks and similar machine learning and AI algorithms with Carl, where I tended to ramble on about some of the more interesting aspects such as trying to create a Neural Network (NN) that could produce pieces of art. Carl liked the sound of a creative learning machine and formed the idea of using it to create potteries poetry.

From a more technical point of view, how does ANNA actually work?

Once we had our idea we sat down and had a discussion about the possible complexity of the project. A fully fledged bespoke neural network is quite a lot of work so we decided to try to find some existing neural networks to base our work off of. With the help of Jacob we found a Recursive Neural Network (RNN) designed to take text input and after a large number of training cycles we then tried to get ANNA to output some meaningful ‘learned’ poetry.

So, tell us more about neural networks.

In it’s simplest form a NN consists of 3 layers. The input layer accepts various inputs. In theory, as many or as few as you need. Next the hidden layer, this is the heart and soul of a NN and helps to create the correlating links between the various inputs supplied at the input layer. Finally the output layer, is the part of the NN that spits out – hopefully! – some sort of meaningful information. Where a RNN differs is that there is a recursive link between the output and hidden layer, this part is important as it helps the RNN to learn the structure of the language supplied. In turn this means that the particularly interesting part with the RNN is that it is able to learn dialects such as potteries.

How does ANNA learn poetry?

ANNA is a python script based on a simple RNN, we feed in around 200 pages worth of potteries dialect poetry aiming to produce some sort of meaningful poetry. Anna runs through about 500 recursive cycles of the input text per “epoch” of learning for a total of around 30 epochs. An epoch is essentially a single full training cycle.

What were the challenges of this project?

One problem that always rears it’s head is a shortage of data to feed into the RNN. So the next step for us was to source plenty of potteries dialect based poetry from poets past and present. First we tried to source as much poetry as possible from an online source, the main works we used were by Arnold Bennett. We then tried sourcing further poetry from Wilfred Bloor‘s sons Roger & Ian. Wilfred Bloor wrote over 400 Jabez tales in Potteries dialect (the Jabez character is a countryman living in the shadows of industrial Potteries). We also spoke to Alan Barrett, Stoke-born writer, storyteller, poet, and actor. Thanks to the kind contributions of these people we managed to collect plenty of poetry that has been fed into ANNA.

Come and see ANNA in action at the ACAVA Studios: Spode Works open studios event on Saturday 7th / Sunday 8th October from 12pm at Bitjam, studio number 22.

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