Skip to main content

Teaching Your Computer to Write Your Sacrament Meeting Talks

(This post is inspired by a great post by Orson Scott Card regarding lousy sacrament meeting talks. (Which post, incidentally, was very hard to find since the search box on is broken.))

So, I'm not sure about you, but it seems to me that there are a number of "musts" when it comes to giving a sacrament meeting talk, at least in Utah. When following these "musts" you can easily take up 5 minutes of your 15-minute talk without actually talking about the topic.

The three lousy talk musts

First, you must tell some story about how you received the assignment to give the talk. This will take up a minimum of 30 seconds (e.g. I was just mowing my lawn on Wednesday when I got a call from Brother So-and-so to give a talk this Sunday) and could very well take up your whole 5-minute pre-talk.

Second, you must tell a joke. It would be better to make sure that the joke has nothing to do with the topic since that might end your pre-talk earlier than you intended. Again, there is great flexibility here and, if you don't have a good how-I-received-the-assignment story, a great joke could easily take 5 minutes.

Third, you must mention what Webster's Dictionary has to say about the word. It might be hard to make the pre-talk part of this extend 5 minutes, so you will definitely want to focus on the first two.

(To read more on the above, do check out Card's article with the link at the top.)

After you include a few general authority quotes and scriptures, you're done!

So easy, my computer can do it

To demonstrate the facility of accomplishing these three items, I have harnessed the computing power of natural language generation and recursive transition networks (that's not a mouthful at all) to generate sacrament talks for me. Here is an example of a talk that it created for me in about 500 milliseconds:

I was just washing my dog last Thursday when Brother Wu invited me to give a
talk on repentance in sacrament meeting this Sunday. (turn to bishopric)
Thanks, Brother Wu! Thank you for bearing with me as I try to express you my
findings on the topic.

I want you all to raise up your left hand. Now lower it. Now you can all say
that you've been uplifted by my talk today. I heard that in a sacrament meeting
in Monticello and got a kick out of it, so thanks for letting me share that
with you.

I decided to look up repentance in the dictionary. One definition that caught
me off guard reminded me of something J. Golden Kimball clarified to us in the
April 1946 session of General Conference: "If you will remember to repent in
your every thought, you will you will increase in truth and light."

Mosiah 3:4 admonishes us that to repent, we must also have charity. I like how
J. Remington Cummings expressed to us in the October 1946 session of General
Conference: "repent and have charity. One cannot be enjoyed without the other."

May we all try today to repent. I know that the Church is true. I know that the
Book of Mormon is written for our day. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Not bad, eh?

(Warning: The techie part of the article is now beginning.)

RTN and NLG: Are those two new Church abbreviations?

A recursive transition network is a way to describe a specific language domain via a template. (There is much more to doing good natural language generation, but I won't talk about that here.) "Lousy sacrament talks" are just one of those language domains where the expressions used are typical enough that we can list the majority of them and create a human-sounding text that varies widely at each instantiation.

For example, take the first pre-talk point: Telling everyone how you got the topic and that you sooo didn't want to speak today. It typically involves mentioning the member of the bishopric that gave you the topic and what you were doing at the time when you got the call.

Here is what my very basic template looks like for the first sentence in my talk generator:

bishop: "I was just " doing-something " last " day-of-week " when " off=local-official " " issued " me to give a talk on " top=topic " " talk-when ". " sarcasm "! Thank you for " conciliatory-attitude " as I " non-yoda " to " transmit-to " you my " mental-construct " on the " subject "." ;

Whatever is in the quotes, like "I was just ", is always printed out. Whatever isn't, like doing-something, is another part of the template that the program looks up.

Here is what doing-something looks like:

doing-something: "mowing my lawn" | "at my kid's soccer game" | "washing my dog" | "watching tv" | "surfing the net" | "reading a book" ;

So, the idea is that the program can randomly choose between any of those options.

If you put the two ideas together, you can get a very complex-looking rule like the one for the first made-up quote:

future-blessing: "be blessed" | "have " the-spirit " with you" | positive-inner-change " in truth and " desirable-characteristic | find positive-difference inner-power " in your life for " reason-for-power ;

Given enough time and rules (the existing "lousy sacrament talk" RTN took me 30 minutes to write up), one could fool most listeners.

Of course, a good sacrament meeting talk would be extremely difficult for a computer since good sacrament meeting talks typically involve the personal experiences, devotions, and reflections of the individual speaking. Precisely what makes a good sacrament meeting talk is also what would be particularly difficult for a computer: Being human. That language domain is obviously much more diverse.

So, where are recursive transition networks useful?

RTNs are used in a lot of places. The most basic is when a computer will take a set of data and give the reader/listener an English version of that data. You see examples of it when you step into an elevator and it says "Going up" or "Going down" depending on which floor button you press when you get in.

A more complicated example would be a computer reading the temperature over the next 5 days and saying "It's gonna be a hot one today at 83 degrees, but things will cool off a bit by the weekend to 69 degrees." You use an RTN to vary the "language glue" bit and make the forecast sound more realistic. For example, an RTN would teach the computer that the phrase above is just as valid as "It'll be on the hot side today as the high will approach 83, but we'll cool back down by the weekend to 69." What the computer needs is 1) to know the temperature, 2) to know the average temperature for this time of year, 3) to know that the weekend is within the 5-day period, and 4) to know common vernacular surrounding weather forecasts.


So, may the thought of RTNs being able to replace a significant portion of our pre-talk inspire us to simply speak more like ourselves when at the podium and less like a person trying to postpone the inevitable: Giving the rest of the talk. I know that if we do this, more hearts will be knit together and more cherrios will be better spent.
Enhanced by Zemanta


Popular posts from this blog

How Many Teeth Does The Tooth Fairy Pick Up Each Night in Utah?

Somebody asked me a question about my Tooth Fairy post the other day that got me thinking. How many baby teeth are lost every day in Utah? I began with Googling. Surely someone else has thought of this and run some numbers, right? Lo, there is a tooth fairy site that claims that the Tooth Fairy collects 300,000 teeth per night . That's a lot; however, when I ran the numbers, it started to seem awfully low. Let's assume that the Tooth Fairy collects all baby teeth regardless of quality and we assume that all children lose all their baby teeth. The world population of children sits at 2.2 billion , with 74.2 million of them in the United States. Of those, approximately 896,961 of them are in Utah . This means that somewhere around .04077% of the world's children are in Utah. If we assume that kids in Utah lose teeth at the same rate as all other children in the world and that each day in the year is just as likely as the rest to lose a tooth, then we have that of

BYU and the Sunday Compromise?

I read an article by Brad Rock this morning where he quoted heavily from Dr. Thomas Forsthoefel who was giving his opinion on religious institutions being involved in sports . BYU , of course, came up. I think Forsthoefel came off sounding a bit misinformed about the culture, drive, mission, etc. of BYU . Below is the email that I sent to Brad Rock this morning after finishing the article: Brad - That was an interesting article. I tend to disagree with Forsthoefel, though, or at least disagree with what I may have read into his comments. A quote in your article says: "There may be a kind of growing pain. BYU is in the real world and the real world works on Sunday. Can we (BYU) live with the adjustment? I'm empathetic with that, whatever decision is made, people are going to be unhappy.… Some will say get with the program, we'll be OK at the next level, others will say we've sold out and we've made a deal with the world." This seems to suggest one o

Baby Names: What my daughter's name has to do with an ancient Persian Fairy Tales

If you read my previous post on my sons' names, you'll know that this post is about my daughters' names. When we found out that we were going to have twins, I vowed that there names were not going to rhyme or alliterate. We weren't going to do Jadyn and Jordan, or Kim and Tim, or Esther and Edgar (all likely candidates for other, less elitist parents, especially Esther and Edgar). I did want the names to have something to do with one another somehow. Felicity Mae Cummings Felicity's first name has little to do with its underlying Hebrew meaning or its tie to Biblical history and everything to do with the fact that this was a name that Kristi had always wanted one of her girls to have because she liked that it meant "happiness". So, to tell you the truth, I didn't do a lot of research on this name because its place in our family had already been decided. But, it was excellent material to work with. The initial spark that 'Felicity' pro