Console Yourself In Flight

Monday 14 April 2014, 4:43 pm   ///  

If you, like Ian Bogost, manage to attain Titanium Medallion status on Delta, you too can influence the content of the company’s safety videos.

Transcendance

Friday 11 April 2014, 3:18 pm   ////  

The premiere of the film Transcendance, directed by Wally Pfister and starring Johnny Depp as AI researcher Dr. Will Caster, was last night in Westwood. I got to go since my spouse produced and co-wrote the iOS and Android game that accompanies this movie. Johnny Depp and other cast members were there, but, alas, I did not get to hang with them; there were many interesting conversations nevertheless and I was glad to get to see the film for the first time. (Those involved with it had often seen very many cuts already, of course.) The general theatrical release of the film is April 18.

It’s an idea-packed film with a good bit of action, explosions, and so on, as well as innumerable nanites. Much can and will be said of it. One thing I was pleasantly surprised to note, though, was that the film expressed a bit how AI researchers (and by extension academic researchers more generally) have different motivations for what they do. Some are mainly interested in the challenges that problems present, because those problems are beautiful or inherently interesting. Some want to learn and understand things about the world. Some want to produce benefits in the world. And (although this group is not represented among the top researchers in the world) for some it’s just a job to make a living. It was nice to see the nuance of these different motivations in the way AI research was portrayed in Transcendance.

Microcodes and more Non-Object Art

Wednesday 9 April 2014, 8:40 am   //////  

In NOO ART, The Journal of Objectless Art, there’s a conversation between Páll Thayer and Daniel Temkin that was just posted. (Thayer recently collaborated with me to put up “Programs at an Exhibition,” the first software art show at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery.) The conversation covers Thayer’s code art, including his Perl Microcodes and antecedents, but also touches on free software, Windows, various esoteric languages by Temkin and others, painting and drawing, Christiane Paul’s CodeDOC project at the Whitney, “expert cultures,” and the future of code-based art.

It’s great reading, and objectless art might be just the thing to go with your object-oriented ontology.

Those Persistent Mainframes

Monday 7 April 2014, 12:11 pm   ///////  

Mickey Rooney is no longer with us, but the mainframe computer is. The Register writes up the 50th anniversary of IBM’s System 360, finishing by describing the current zEnterprise line of IBM mainframes. The line was updated just last year.

If this anniversary encourages you to hit the books about the System 360, I suggest IBM’s 360 and Early 370 Systems by Emerson W. Pugh, Lyle R. Johnson and John H. Palmer.

Lance Olsen in Purple Blurb, Mon 5:30pm

Sunday 6 April 2014, 12:36 pm   //////  

“Lance Olsen is at the center of every discussion I have about the contemporary landscape of innovative and experimental writing.”

-Bookslut

Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen

April 7, 5:30pm

MIT’s Room 14E-310

Experimental writing & video

Including a reading from his recent book [[ there. ]] and video from his Theories of Forgetting project.

Lance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing, including two appearing this spring: the novel based on Robert Smithson’s earthwork the Spiral Jetty, Theories of Forgetting (accompanied by a short experimental film made by one of its characters), and [[ there. ]], a trash-diary meditation on the confluence of travel, curiosity, and experimental writing practices. His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies. A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental theory and practice at the University of Utah.

Read the Bookslut interview about Lance Olsen’s [[ there. ]].

More on the Purple Blurb series.

Purple Blurb takes place on MIT’s main campus in Building 14, the same building that is the home of the Hayden Library. 14E-310 in in the East Wing, third floor, across the courtyard from the library entrance (do not enter the library to get to 14E-310).

Purple Blurb is free and open to the public, no reservation required.

Kevin Brooks

Thursday 3 April 2014, 11:54 pm   //  

Kevin Brooks, a storyteller who worked with technology in many contexts, died last Friday of cancer. Kevin was finishing his PhD at the MIT Media Lab when I was there as a masters student. Although he was farther along in his studies and working on a different floor with Glorianna Davenport’s research group, he helped me with my thinking and became a real friend, discussing his work (from Tired of Giving In to his Agent Stories project for his dissertation, “Metalinear Cinematic Narrative: Theory, Process, and Tool”) and how to develop other sorts of interactive narratives. Kevin also introduced me to the storytelling of Brother Blue and the rest of the Cambridge storytelling community. Kevin was at Apple before coming to MIT and went on to work at Motorola and, later, Hallmark. When I came to MIT, I was interested in inquiring about narrative and poetics in the system-building work that I did, and I was lucky to encounter Kevin, who had been looking at the forms and structures of storytelling as well as its ability to treat themes, to change people, and to change the world.

There is a very nice profile of Kevin in the MIT News section Technology Review, from 2011.

Advanced Bitcoin Simulator

Thursday 3 April 2014, 3:51 pm   /////  

If you felt like you missed your chance to … profit! … from the ascendance of Bitcoin, try the new, shiny Advanced Bitcoin Simulator, an interactive fiction by a sekrit author. It’s built with yui3, Inform 7, and parchment, but also builds on the simulation of online forums found in Judith Pintar’s CosmoServe, incorporates some of the audacity of several recent Twine games, and offers a bit (no pun intended) of the Ayn Rand pillory found in Bioshock.

E.T.‘s Material Mess

Wednesday 26 March 2014, 2:20 pm   ////  

My comments were part of a brief piece on NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday. NPR only turns to me when there’s a very serious issue at stake; this time, some documentary filmmakers were thwarted, at least for the moment, in their quest to visit an Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill and dig up the large number of E.T.: The Extraterrestial Atari 2600 cartridges that, according to reports, are buried there.

Lots of people read the story of E.T. (the video game) as one of monumental punishment for a media company’s disrespect for users/players. To me, there are at least two other important points.

One is that digital media is material. As much as we love to speak of “the Cloud,” “Steam,” and even “the Web” with its gossamer immateriality, the computers that we use are matter, they are physical stuff, and all of so so-called software is ultimately inscribed materially. Digital media is part of our world, capable of being buried and dug up, part of our environment and able to influence its quality.

Another is that when you’re innovating and creating work in a truly new form, it card be easy to cross the line between success and failure. Howard Scott Warshaw takes the rap for creating, under tremendous deadline pressure, the difficult-to-play, difficult-to-enjoy E.T. Before that, he created a hit game, a similar style of adventure, that was also based on a movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, before that, he created a game with a compelling appearance and complex but engaging gameplay: Yar’s Revenge. Ian Bogost and I wrote a chapter about this Atari VCS game in Racing the Beam; it was Atari’s best-selling “original” game for the system. Last year, Yar’s Revenge was added to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, becoming one of only twenty videogames in their collection.

We might need tales of corporate hubris and downfall to remind us not to invest our money, or all of our lives, in today’s digital media companies. But it’s worth noting, too, that media we think of as insubstantial can sometimes be inconveniently material, and that poor work is sometimes not just the result of scorn – it can also happen when a great artist tries to do too much too quickly.

Fox Harrell on Digital Soul

Monday 24 March 2014, 6:09 pm   ////  

Check out my colleague Fox Harrell’s article “Digital Soul: The Computer, Imagination and Social Change, just posted at The Root. It’s a very nice, concise statement of Harrell’s vision of the computer as an imaginative force.

A Book on the Song “Hallelujah”

Saturday 22 March 2014, 8:08 pm   /////  

Acting on a tip from The Kelly Writers House at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, I recently learned about, and then read, Alan Light’s book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.” This intrigued me as an admirer of this song in particular, Leonard Cohen’s songwriting and singing generally, and other aspects of his literary art (particularly the incredible novel Beautiful Losers). It also appealed to me as an entire book written about a single, short work. In this case, the work isn’t a Commodore 64 BASIC program – as in the book collaborators and I wrote, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1));: GOTO 10 – but a popular song with many lines and many covers, one that has been used in a wide variety of contexts.

The author discusses those many contexts well, covering the original release, the famous Jeff Buckley cover, and many other versions. There’s discussion of Shrek, the VH1 9/11 memorial video, manifestations on Idol and X Factor TV shows, and uses in religious ceremonies. The book is not really a deep dive into the music or the lyrics, although the etymology of the world “Hallelujah” and the differences in how the term is used in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are discussed. Cohen declined to be interviewed, so the book also doesn’t spend too much time on origin myths, just recounting a bit from previous interviews. The book works to tease out the many things the song has meant to people and how it has managed to have all of these meanings.

It’s quite a different book from 10 PRINT, both in methodology and because the BASIC program is quite a bit different, culturally, than the song. I found it a quite enjoyable read.

Mourn Google’s Departed

Friday 21 March 2014, 5:40 pm   ///  

You may have noticed that “corpse” and “corporate” are lexically quite similar, and seem even more so when it comes to technology. Slate’s Google Graveyard lets visitors leave a virtual flower in memory of their favorite dead Google product. Seeking to be ever ready, they have dug a hole for Google Glass.

“Envisioning the Future of Computational Media”

Thursday 20 March 2014, 3:55 pm   ////////  

The final report of the Media Systems workshop has just been released:

“Envisioning the Future of Computational Media.”

You can download either the executive summary alone or the whole report.

I took part in the Media Systems workshop in 2012 with about 40 others from across the country. The workshop was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, and Microsoft Research. As Noah Wardrip-Fruin, co-author and co-organizer of the workshop, writes on the HASTAC site:

Our report, “Envisioning the Future of Computational Media,” starts with the fact that the future of media is increasingly computational — video games, smartphone apps, ebooks, social media, and more.

As media evolve and change, the stakes are high, on many fronts — from culture and the economy to education and health.

To create media capable of continuing the expansion of computational media’s impact, we need to combine technical research that develops media possibilities with innovations in the creation and interpretation of media projects and forms.

Instead, today, we generally separate these activities. Technology research organizations generally don’t have disciplinary, funding, or organizational support for making or interpreting media. Media making and interpretation organizations generally lack support for long-term technology research.

Our report is focused on recommendations for how to fix this.

Although I see the success of people who have integrated technical and humanistic viewpoints all the time – in my colleagues and collaborators, to be sure, but also in MIT students who bring together technical depth and with humanistic inquiry and artistic creation – I realize that there is still a gap between computation and media. I hope this report, which offers a dozen recommendations to address this disconnect, will be helpful as we try to improve our own skills and those of our students.

A “Programs” Writeup

Wednesday 19 March 2014, 11:37 pm   ///////  

Matthew Battles has a nice post about the “Programs at an Exhibition” show, up now on the metaLAB blog.

Happy Pi Day: Round

Friday 14 March 2014, 5:15 pm   ///  

My poem Round computes the digits of pi (in your browser, for as long as you like) and represents them as strings of text. It’s published by New Binary Press. Enjoy it on this 3/14.

How to “Train” as a Writer

Wednesday 12 March 2014, 11:10 pm   ///  

After a pilot program (or perhaps that should be “engineer program”?) in which one writer was gifted with a round-trip train ride, Amtrak recently announced that they will begin a larger-scale residency program which “will allow for up to 24 writers to take long-distance trains to work on their projects.”

The Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, was all over this, but they soon posted about how problematic the official terms of the application are. This was originally pointed out at The Outlet.

For instance:

In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties.

There is also a note that applications will not (actually, “NOT”) be kept confidential. This seems like pretty standard fare for a corporate contest, actually, which doesn’t mean that it’s right, that all writers should agree to it, or that any should agree to it without understanding the terms.

Since applications aren’t going to be kept confidential anyway, here’s mine, or at least my at-most-1000-character answers to the two main questions. They mention some other issues that I have with the “Official Terms,” although these do not keep me from being interested in the residency:

Why do you want an #AmtrakResidency?

My work is computational, has many layers of meaning, and is often collaborative, and so much of it is prohibited by the #AmtrakResidency Official Terms, which disallow submissions that “Contain executable programming of any kind,” “Contain … encoded messages,” and “Contain content not created by and original to Applicant.” If awarded a residency, I’ll continue to defy official concepts of writing. Since this opportunity exists to promote Amtrak on social media, I’m also interested in showing how social media isn’t limited to this moment’s corporate systems. I can do this well, as I have been a blogger for more than 10 years, have served as president of the Electronic Literature Organization, and am a professor of digital media at MIT. Finally, the sequential, systematic qualities of trains relate to aspects of my writing process. Although I am not personally inclined to record their arrival and departure times, trains do appeal to me in ways that aren’t just nostalgic or romantic.

How would this residency benefit your writing?

I would have the opportunity to focus on writing work and to do one or more trip-specific digital poetry projects which would be made available for free on the Web. Network access is not important to me for work of this sort, and there is even some advantage to not being online. I’ve already written a great deal on Northeast Corridor trains, did some of the editorial work for The New Media Reader on a train to Chicago, and generally find train travel conducive to many types of writing, including creative digital work. I’ve done one collaboration in which we used Amtrak trains as a meeting place and point of departure: Three Rails Live, a computational video installation documented (in English and in French translation) at http://revuebleuorange.org/bleuorange/07/threerailslive/three_rails/index.html. I mention this here rather than submit it as a writing sample because it is one of my many collaborative projects. More digital poems of mine are at the “Supporting Link.”

The Hunting of the eBook

Wednesday 12 March 2014, 6:47 pm   ///  

I’m quoted in this article on the origins of ebooks, published today in The Guardian. The news hook is the exhibition of Peter James’s Host in its 1993 floppy-disk edition.

“Programs at an Exhibition” Cards

Tuesday 11 March 2014, 10:46 pm   ///////  

From the “Programs at an Exhibition” exhibit, the C64 BASIC (Montfort) card, and the Perl (Thayer) card – both are being offered for visitors to take.

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