The Garden of Grand Forks: UND Writers Conference

I recently went from presenting at the prestigious and vibrant University of North Dakota Writers Conference to being on a panel at the massive Penny Arcade Expo in Boston.

First things first: The former was “Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art,” the 41st UND Writers Conference. Last year at UND the presenters included Charles Baxter and Chuck Klosterman; the year before, Russel Banks, my colleague Junot Díaz, Alice Fulton, and Salman Rushdie.

To provide some perspective, back in 1978 the lineup at this conference was John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, Ring Lardner, Tillie Olsen, and Eudora Welty.

This year I heard Art Spiegelman in conversation about his comic and New Yorker cover art, Frank X. Walker on his poems giving voice to the journey of York (who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition as Clark’s slave), Cecelia Condit on her video art, and three of my fellow electronic literature writers, with their diverse approaches: Mark Amerika, Deena Larsen, and Stuart Moulthrop. I had to leave before I could hear slam poet Saul Williams, but I’m grateful for what I was able to experience of the conference. And I’m grateful that I was able to be on two panels, select a reel of music videos for the associated film festival, speak to a computer science class, and present several collaborative and individual projects to a sizable audience in the main room of UND’s student union:

  • Ad Verbum, my interactive fiction piece from 2000, inspired by the constrained writing of the Oulipo. Thanks again to the young interactor who volunteered to try collecting items in and escaping from the Sloppy Salon.
  • 2002: A Palindrome Story, by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie. I showed the Reifier interface and read from the very beginning and end.
  • Implementation by Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg. I explained the project and read eight texts (stickers, mailing labels) from it.
  • Currency, by Roderick Coover (video) and Nick Montfort (text). I showed “Filip a Guinea: The Elephant and Castle.”
  • Taroko Gorge, the poetry generator I wrote in Taiwan.
  • My ongoing series of tiny perl poetry generators, ppg256.

The people in Grand Forks, ND were polite (I was told I shouldn’t be surprised about this) but also surprisingly receptive. It was certainly a different sort of crowd than I met at Banff, with many people from the community and even driving in from surrounding areas. I think they saw some of the pleasure in writing under constraint, some of the benefits of writing collaboratively, and some of the potential of computation, which I tried to show could be turned to literary ends.

Although I got to converse with Stuart and Deena on and off our panels, I came in too late for one of their readings and had to leave before I could hear the other one. I did get to hear Mark Amerika take us from his early writing in The Kafka Chronicles up through his Web work and recent moving image project, all of which are fresh and impressive. His video work is certainly impelled ahead by the work of Chris Marker, whose Sans Soleil Mark selected for the film festival. I should note that I also loved getting to watch Timecode, Stuart Moulthrop’s selection.

Thanks again to Crystal Alberts for inviting me and for her work on this very successful conference.

When I can manage, I’ll write a bit about the very different but also incredible Penny Arcade Expo East…

IF Purple Blurb today

A last-minute reminder for you local Post Position readers: Emily Short and Jeremy Freese are reading from their interactive fiction work today in MIT’s room 14E-310 at 5:30pm. Hope to see you there!

We Cured Unix – Now What?

I’m here at LibrePlanet 2010. Although I’m not going to bust out with full-conference liveblogging (that’s so 2005) I do have a quick summary, and a reaction, to today’s opening talk and the ensuing discussion. The presentation was “We’re done cloning Unix, what next?” by John Gilmore, co-founder of the EFF and founder of the “alt” branch of USENET.

My notes from Gilmore’s talk: The GNU plan from the beginning (with Stallman writing Emacs) was to replace proprietary Unix with free software. Now … “We’re sort of like one of those medical charities that has succeeded in wiping polio from the face of the earth.” And it’s not only Unix – CodeWeavers has also pretty much finished reimplementing the user side of Windows, so that Wine (a free software Windows emulator) works more often than not with arbitrary Windows programs. Replacing Windows makes sense as an external goal, but “how many people in our community want to understand the guts of Windows and replicate it?” So, what is our common goal now?

Mentioned in Q&A: ReactOS … We’re not finished with free software beyond the nerdy command line; for instance, video editing; free software for hackers only as opposed to school systems, the business world? … Wine and Samba are very tactical moves to keep the majority market-share players from having control; what about Facebook? … Reverse-engineering tools to understand binary programs … Support the abandoned Windows XP platform for the users trapped there … Communications, content, and services; for an open Facebook, we need open services … free software that uses new paradigms, not the Microsoft model … Having a solid computer gaming framework would be good; the best games make you think and expand your mind … Wine should be like Vaseline, easing the transition from non-free to free; we need a better UI … What about free software in cars?

Although I am part of the FSF, I’m in no way a GNU hacker and my participation in free software isn’t nearly as great as with most people in the room. So I decided, rather than jumping in to the discussion, to offer my comment and my suggestion for a post-Unix project here:

The real thing that the group here has to offer the world is not to follow up a free Unix-like system with a free Windows-like one or with free firmware. It’s probably not even a better user interface or better video-editing software. I suggest that it’s the power to program the computer and to control computation and networking, not just to edit documents and media. Obviously computers *can* be programmed right now, but people like the ones here have a oligopoly on this sort of programming. Whether or not we’re equally skilled in all areas, we’re for the most part comfortable with the idea writing Perl to process text, setting up cron jobs, writing GUI applications, writing servers in Python, and programming games. We don’t think it’s beyond our reach.

That’s not a typical attitude. Maybe it was in 1983, when home computers ran BASIC (gasp – Microsoft BASIC! Ripped off from Dartmouth…) and people who bought these computers and brought them home learned to program them as a matter of course. But it isn’t now. Proprietary software discourages programming by “ordinary people” and encourages office-style and traditional production-style approaches. The people here who hack on GNU aren’t, generally speaking, expert video editors or UI designers, although there are surely of few of each here. The real strength that the group has is in being expert at programming. What they can offer the world, beyond free imitations of existing systems, is a computer that is more free to program, that by design (not just by license) encourages users to work and play powerfully as programmers.

GNU’s first project, Emacs, is not just a text editor; it is also a programmable environment, a major part of its appeal to many programmers. To look to more recent projects, I find Processing a particularly powerful piece of free software that allows students and artists to use visual, computational capabilities and to understand programming in an extraordinary context. What if the improved programmability of the computer, in a broad sense, for many purposes, became a major goal for free software developers? Couldn’t we do a few orders of magnitude better, and allow for people to be even more empowered by the use (and programming) of computers?

Free / Writing / Game Gatherings

This weekend, I’m attending LibrePlanet, the Free Software Foundation’s conference and hackfest here in Cambridge. I don’t have anything to present or hack upon at this one, but I’ll be listening and learning more about free software and software freedom.

On Tuesday, I head to Grand Forks, ND for the University of North Dakota Writers Conference: Mind the Gap – Print, New Media, Art. The featured authors and artists this year are:

  • Art Spiegelman
  • Frank X. Walker
  • Nick Montfort
  • Cecelia Condit
  • Saul Williams
  • Mark Amerika
  • Stuart Moulthrop
  • Deena Larsen
  • Zeitgeist
  • Kanser with More Than Lights

I’ll return on Friday and head straight to the Penny Arcade Expo East (PAX East) in Boston, where the confluence of about 60,000 gamers is expected. At 9:30pm on Friday is the world premiere of Jason Scott’s interactive fiction documentary Get Lamp. Afterwards is a panel with:

  • Dave Lebling (Zork, Starcross, The Lurking Horror)
  • Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, Hitchhiker’s, A Mind Forever Voyaging)
  • Nick Montfort (included in this august group for writing a book about this stuff)
  • Brian Moriarty (Wishbringer, Trinity, Beyond Zork)
  • Andrew Plotkin (Spider and Web, Shade, Dual Transform)
  • Don Woods (co-author with Will Crowther of the canonical first IF, Adventure)

And then, on Monday, March 29, at 5:30pm in MIT’s room 14E-310, I’ll host a reading in the Purple Blurb series. Emily Short (author of many award-winning interactive fiction pieces, including the recent Alabaster) and Jeremy Freese (winner of last year’s IF Comp for his Violet) will present and read from their work.

I hope to see some of you here in the Boston/Cambridge area or, perhaps, in Grand Forks!

Gotta Get Outta this 8-Bit Town

Brett Camper, who recently presented a great paper on the “fake bit” game La Mulana at Digital Arts and Culture 2009 and whose Comparative Media Studies masters thesis here at MIT was “Homebrew and the Social Construction of Gaming: Community, Creativity and Legal Context of Amateur Game Boy Advance Development,” has an excellent new interactive map of New York City.

It’s called 8-bit NYC,and it looks like this:

Playing the Race Avatar

Race in videogames is not an entirely overlooked topic, but mainstreams games, at their best, tend to play, strech, and poke up against stereotypes rather than offering affirming visions of our identities and communities and how they interrelate. So, I was glad read that discussion of this topic “found its way to GDC ’10,” as noted in the post “What Color is Your Avatar?” in Brainy Gamer. The writeup covers a industry/academic panel at GDC with Manveer Heir, Leigh Alexander, and my colleague here at MIT, Mia Consalvo. Although I wasn’t there, it seems to relate their important points well, and it certainly offers some food for thought.

As Michael Jackson sang, if you want to be my baby, it don’t matter if you’re black or while, but it might matter if video games’ representation of minority races and women is absent, extremely scant, stiff, stereotypical, or obligatory. Why not add diversity of this sort to the list of things we’re willing to devote effort to – those things we want positively imagined and powerfully simulated in our games?

Art as Process, BASIC Considered Helpful

Two quick interruptions to our unscheduled blog hiatus:

Francisco J. Ricardo of RISD’s Digital+Media Department has written a deep and detailed blog post, “From Objecthood to Processhood.” In it, he defends artists, their work, and their discourse about the digital, responding to Henry Jenkins’s 2000 article “Games, the New Lively Art,” which celebrates video games but isn’t as keen on the work of artists. He also describes the transition from a focus on the artwork, an object, to consideration of art as process, concluding with reference to my ppg256 series.

Also, a rather innovative defense of BASIC is advanced in “Where Dijkstra went wrong: the value of BASIC as a first programming language,” a post by Mike Taylor, who, by the way, has a totally sweet banner at the top of his blog. Edsger W. Dijkstra, who was my teacher at the University of Texas, is known for his work on structured programming and just about as well known for his quick denunciations of COBOL and BASIC. The post argues that BASIC is useful to programmers and allows them to discipline their thinking about programs. I would defend BASIC for a different, although not inconsistent, reason: The huge outpouring of innovative, diverse, creative programs – often very short ones – that were written in the 1970s and 1980s, making programming a widespread activity and showing people the potential of the computer for (among other things) amusement, simulation, play with language, and production of visual art. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and I wrote a bit more on this back in 2003 in our introduction to two BASIC programs on The New Media Reader CD-ROM.