Eden

Sunday 29 August 2010, 8:41 pm   ///////  
The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010

Eden, by Pablo Holmberg, Drawn & Quarterly, 2010

Yes, these comics sometimes veer into the extremely sappy, but they’re metafictional and wonderfully fabular throughout. Eden collects more than 100 simple four-panel strips featuring a diminutive, somewhat rabbit-like king, or at least, someone who wears a crown, in a magical land. An extremely insightful naïvite, of the sort that one hears in the occasional oracular pronunciation of a child, comes through at times. But these comics do not overlook death or other serious subjects. Holmberg, who writes and draws in Buenos Aires, has Eden and more available on his website, in Spanish. Odd that to learn about a Web comic, I had to go into my local comic store and buying a book, but it goes to show that book-based institutions have more than a retail function. And, it seems unlikely that Holmberg’s work would have appeared in translation without a publisher such as Drawn & Quarterly. Through such everyday efforts, we sometimes find the extraordinary.

Font’s Unusual Creative Kinetics

Thursday 26 August 2010, 9:54 pm   /////  

Two recent hit songs on the Web are the tribute “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” by Rachel Bloom and the non-tribute “Fuck You” by Cee-Lo. Perhaps after me and you – us, them, him, her, and it will be next?

The typographical treatment of “Fuck You” in the video is much more straightforward than in the well-linked “Say What Again” video by Jarratt Moody, which sets dialogue from Pulp Fiction to animated type. The words and letters in “Say What Again” aren’t demanding to be read as insistently, and they’re doing so much that it’s a joy to see them in motion. When there’s not as much happening, getting presented visually with the same words that are being sung to me seems a bit like having someone slap me repeatedly while saying “Slap! Slap! Slap!”

Of course, type can be used with music to do other things besides writing out the lyrics. An even simpler typographical treatment can be seen in Flash pieces by Young-Hae Chang, including the excellent “Dakota.” In those, though, the text doesn’t repeat something in the audio channel, it proceeds at a rapid pace but is legible to the attentive viewer, and it all makes for compelling reading and listening. By the way, in case you think I’m wandering off topic, the first word of “Dakota” is “fucking.”

I wonder if a straightforward animated type video, a sort of blank slate, tends to encourage remixing and the creation of new videos? In any case, Cee-Lo’s song has already been mashed up with other videos. You can see what the last scene in Dirty Dancing is like when set to that tune, for instance.

Oh, and let’s not forget Ray Bradbury. This purports to be a picture of the famous writer watching Rachel Bloom’s video.

TV Audiences, Here’s Pole Position

Saturday 21 August 2010, 4:32 pm   ////  

Ms. Blue pointed out a great Atari commercial that has been online for a while, but which is particularly appropriate to mention here: A TV ad for Pole Position. (The name of this blog does in fact refer to that game.) A few notes about this amazing TV spot:

  • There’s an amusing jab at corporate executives, people who “stop exciting things from happening.” Even though the makers of the commercial may not have known or cared, this no doubt resonated among programmers at Atari.
  • “Muffy, Buffy, Biff Junior, and I …” Nuff said.
  • The family’s incredible, fun experience begins as they are picked up by the hand of god, which also destroys their car.
  • There’s an amazing, rocking song called Playing Pole Position. Or maybe Playing Poh-oh-oh-ol, oh-oh-ol, ole Position.
  • The ad is for the Atari 5200 version of the game. The original was a 1982 arcade game by Namco, later licensed to Atari; there are ports for the Atari 2600 and many other platforms.
  • Although the billboard in the ad has something on both its front and its back, the Atari 5200 game’s billboards are all blank. The arcade game’s billboards featured one of the first examples of in-game advertising.
  • The ad suggests that four people can play at once, particularly if you’re thinking of today’s racing games (or even Mario Kart), but the Atari 5200 Pole Position, like the arcade game, is for one player only.
  • A few seconds from the end, you can see where they got the idea for the Segway.

Finally, Your 50 Character Reward!

Saturday 21 August 2010, 12:15 am   ///////  

After I presented poetry generators ppg256-1 through ppg256-5 at Banff in February, I shouted out, more or less spontaneously, “50 character reward to whoever gives us the best explanation of what ppg256 is!” Why did I say that? Childhood trauma, possibly, but the more immediate reason, as I mentioned earlier, is that the last of these, ppg256-5, is based on a section of Tristan Tzara’s February 1921 Dada Manifesto, one which ends with the phrase “50 francs reward to the person who finds the best way to explain DADA to us.”

I got some great answers, including “It does a lot with a little” (Chris Funkhouser) and “ppg combines atoms of language” (John Cayley). But at this point I’ll skip right to the one from Travis Kirton, who did the following without having any previous experience programming in Perl:

perl -le '@a=split/,/,"illmn,imgn,ltr,mut,pxl,popl,strlz,pnctu,typfc,poetc,glmr,idl,ion,cptl,cpsl,cvl,atom,pltc,txtul,erotc,rvl";sub f{pop if rand>.5}sub w{$a[rand@a]}{print f("de").f("over").w."izes ".w."ation".f("s")."\n".(" "x45)."IS WHAT ppg DOES!";sleep 5;redo}'

The program is a modification of ppg256-5, one that answers the questions that ppg256-5 generates. That’s not only clever; it showcases the expressive power of small programs and the many, if not arbitrary, uses to which a language generator can be put. This certainly earns the reward. Travis, here’s an base64-encoded version of a 32-byte DOS intro, matisse, by orbitaldecay. When you run it after decoding it with a base64 decoder, it should look like this. The base64-encoded string, you will notice, is exactly 50 characters in length:

sBPNEMUPHgeLFwmXQAEJVwFL4vSsQKq5ZQDkYEh16cM=

Okay, I lied. It’s only 44 characters long. Please accept base64 as the remaining part of the prize.

Now, I think Mark Markino’s explanation of ppg256, which I wrote about yesterday, is also great and will suffice. It’s a wide-ranging and deep study of the series of generators, similar programs I’ve discussed, and some relevant contexts of techneculture. I can’t really decide which of these explanations is best, as they both work excellently for what they are. So I am going to offer Mark Marino a 50-character generator, too. Mark, here is an ASCII encoding of a set of tools that, used properly, will allow you to draw any image:

())___RED___))_> ())__GREEN__))_> ())___BLUE__))_>

Enjoy!

Code is Beauty, Beauty Code

Friday 20 August 2010, 12:07 am   //////////  

Beautiful CodeIn recent years, I’ve written a series of 1k (that is, exactly 1024 character) reviews on here. This ruse has helped me compose succinct (and possibly useful) notes about many things that I wouldn’t have otherwise written about. But some things that are worth reviewing, such as a documentary about interactive fiction, are really better treated in a bit more depth. Given my interest in the aesthetics of code, and in code that produces aesthetic output, a book entitled Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think is certainly one of those things.

Beautiful Code is an edited collection of 33 articles by a well-known publisher of technical books. The articles deal with how programmers solved a variety of problems, some of them very general computational problems, others quite specific to particular systems and applications. Several of the authors discuss their own code. The book is part of the Theory in Practice series with Beautiful Data, Beautiful Architecture, and Beautiful Security.

Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think. Edited By Andy Oram & Greg Wilson. O’Reilly Media, 2007.

Beautiful Code is a success in several ways. It widens the conversation about code and the innovative development of it beyond particular programming languages, which have often been silos for such discussion has taken place in the past. At least, book-length discussion of programming – in textbooks, in introductory and reference books, and in “tips and tricks” books – has often been language-specific. While encompassing many systems and code in many languages, the book doesn’t take the position that the programming language can be abstracted away, that knowing about data structures, algorithms and an arbitrary programming language allows on to say all that can be said about how to program.

The first article is a particularly excellent one. In it, Brian Kernighan discusses 30 lines of regular expression matching C code which Rob Pike wrote as an example in an hour or two. This concise article deals with how to solve the core of the regular expression problem elegantly and correctly, but it also touches on many other important aspects of code and programming. By suggesting a series of modifications, Kernighan shows that code is an element of future programs rather than simply a fixed solution. Kernighan mentions how the code takes advantage of C pointers and suggests converting it to Java to see how the result would be slower and would require a lengthier program. If you can only read one essay in Beautiful Code, be glad that the editors have placed this one in the front, allowing you to retrieve it in a constant-time operation.

I was also interested in how several of the essays dealt with the need to consider hardware specifics, something one might expect pure, beautiful code to avoid touching. There’s some hint of this specter in chapter 7, which discusses how Jon Bently’s official, “proven” algorithm for binary search has a bug when it’s implemented on most real systems. When the code finds a midpoint within the array by computing (low + high) / 2, the sum of low and high can, in very extreme cases, exceed the maximum integer value, giving a negative (and obviously wrong) result. Later chapters deal with more productive connections between hardware and code. In chapter 10, Henry S. Warren, Jr. delves into the amazing intricacies involved in efficiently computing the population count or sideways sum: the number of bits in a word, or an array of words, that are 1. The current best way of doing this for an array involves using a special circuit called a carry-save adder. Chapter 14, “How Elegant Code Evolves with Hardware: The Case of Gaussian Elimination,” explores the relationship of leading matrix algorithms to changing hardware architectures.

Several other articles interested me; I suspect that programming language researchers, professional programmers, and others will find that a good number of the selections are worthwhile.

But despite the title and some compelling discussion inside, this is really isn’t a book about “beautiful code.” There is almost nothing in it about beauty or what that concept means when applied to code. “Aesthetics” isn’t in the index. When beauty is mentioned, it seems obligatory and stands for whatever the author of a particular chapter values. This, for instance, by Travis E. Oliphant:

“Iterators are a beautiful abstraction because they save valuable programmer attention in the implementation of a complicated algorithm.” (p. 318)

Could one say anything similar about paintings? Sunsets? Or even something that has an important functional aspect, like a building? “Frank Ghery’s Stata Center is a beautiful building because the layout of its hallways saves valuable programmer time.” That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? There are more reasonable-sounding, if not very elaborated, statements about code and beauty in the book, but some of those seem to express a very narrow perspective. For instance, Adam Kolawa writes:

“In sum, I believe that beautiful code must be short, explicit, frugal, and written with consideration for reality.” (p. 266)

Michael Mateas and I have written about obfuscated code, a topic that isn’t mentioned at all in this book. While obfuscated programs are usually short, they are also the opposite of explicit, gratuitous rather than frugal, and written without any concern for “realities” like re-use, practicality, and legibility. An obfuscated program isn’t good programming practice – that’s part of the point. For reasons that Michael and I have written about, we consider the best examples of obfuscated code to be beautiful, and I suspect we’re not the only ones. They simply display a different kind of beauty, an aesthetic of complexity and extravagance that shows us things about programming and about the language in which the obfuscated code is written – things that technical essays don’t reveal. You may share this aesthetic and be willing to consider obfuscated code beautiful, if, for instance, you saw beauty in the exorbitant Ok Go video “This Too Shall Pass.”

A final disappointment: There are no articles on the creative, artistic use of code, on programming projects that are meant to create beautiful output – no music, poetry, story, or terrain generators, lightsynths, demos, intros, or Processing sketches. Certainly a book about beautiful code, even if it is targeted at the professional programmer, would benefit from investigating a program or two of this sort?

This isn’t to say that valuing conciseness and clarity is a bad idea, or that having a book about utilitarian programming practice, particularly a wide-ranging one with many interesting articles of great technical depth, is a problem. It just means that much work remains to be done on matters of beauty and code. Perhaps we’ll soon see a book that brings together the diversity and depth of technical discussion that’s displayed here with consideration of the nature of beauty, of what it means for code to be beautiful, and of how the workings, conception, code expression, and wider contexts of a program are all involved in its beauty.

New Journal Primes You for ppg256

Thursday 19 August 2010, 10:26 am   /////////  

Emerging Langauge Practices is a new journal based at SUNY Buffalo (poetic hotbed and host of the next E-Poetry) and founded by Loss Pequeño Glazier, Sarah JM Kolberg, and A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz. Issue one is a real accomplishment.

There are eye-catching creative projects by mIEKAL aND & Liaizon Wakest and by Lawrence Upton and John Levack Drever. There are also pieces by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries and Molleindustria. (We can only hope for further industrialization of this sort and more of these compelling productions in future issues.) The issue also includes a piece by Abraham Parangi, Giselle Beiguelman’s mobile tagging, Sandy Baldwin’s plaintive piece “** PLEASE REPLY MY BELOVED **,” and Jorge Luis Antonio’s wide-ranging article on digital poetry.

The item that particularly caught my eye, though, was this article by Mark Marino: “The ppg256 Perl Primer: The Poetry of Techneculture.” Marino is an officer of the Electronic Literature Organization with me and a current collaborator of mine, although he completed this article before joining me on our current project. The discussion he developed for the first issue of ELP is really in-depth. Marino not only considers the workings and connotations of my ppg256 series of poetry generators, and considers related code and literary traditions from Perl Golf to the Oulipo – he also considers other programs that interest me and that I’ve discussed publicly in various contexts, sometimes with collaborators. And, he connects the coding traditions relevant to ppg256 to technical practices in boy culture and (via needlework) girl culture.

In one section near the beginning of the article, Mark relates a line of BASIC that I posted on his Critical Code Studies forum and notes (partly in jest, I think) the following:

I cannot include the full discussion here (over 5000 words) because as Montfort told me over the phone (in jest, I think), he is planning a book-length anthology of readings about the program.

Well, that’s more or less the project Mark and I, along with several others, are now embarked upon. However, we’re writing this book in a single voice rather than collecting articles about the program. More on that before too long; for now, go and enjoy the new Emerging Language Practices.

Get Lamp and Watch

Get Lamp DVD package coverYou may have noticed a slew of posts on the Get Lamp blog, Taking Inventory, or seen the writeups on Boing Boing, PC Gamer, CNET, or other sites. But I’ll say it here too: Jason Scott’s documentary about text adventures, years in the making, is completed, has been pressed and assembled, and is now for sale and shipping. The movie is Get Lamp, and there is a trailer for it online.

Tipped off by my book Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Jason Scott got in touch with me way back in 2005, before he had started filming interviews for Get Lamp. He came to Philadelphia, where I was working on my Ph.D. at Penn. I ended up doing one of several interviews with him there and bringing him to Autostart, a digital literature festival I helped organize at the Kelly Writers House, where he interviewed a few of the participants – just a handful of the many dozens of interviews Scott did for the documentary. I’ve gotten to see the documentary develop. I listened to audio files of the interviews, discussed the project on ifMUD, and got to see screenings of early versions with audiences at the Penny Arcade Expo East and @party.

Get Lamp is an essential film for the interactive fiction enthusiast – as I think more or less all of us know already. It’s also going to be an important film for students of electronic literature or computing history. There are some good short YouTube videos explaining interactive fiction, such as Exploring Interactive Fiction, which I did with Talieh Rohani, and Jason McIntosh’s The Gameshelf #8: Modern Interactive Fiction. These are great for people whose interest has been piqued already and who want to know a bit more about IF history and how to play. But it’s really difficult to get contemporary, non-IF playing students to understand why they should give interactive fiction a chance. Those who put a few short games on a syllabus often return to classrooms of perplexed or disgruntled people who have made no progress. Screening at least the “non-interactive” cut of Get Lamp will be time well spent. It will provide ideas for discussion and will give students permission to appreciate interactive fiction in several new ways, allowing them to better engage with assigned games.

It’s people and their stories that are always the focus of a documentary, and that’s certainly the case with Get Lamp, which assembles quips, and the occasional longer argument or rant, from players and authors of different eras. The statements from people in the film give a great sense of the many ways in which interactive fiction was and is important. This is something you don’t get in Twisty Little Passages, because my method wasn’t to interview people about their experiences; I focused more on the printed and digital record, on describing how interactive fiction works, and on scholarly questions about the status and history of the form, for instance, as it relates to the literary riddle. While people are central to the documentary, Scott certainly doesn’t shy away from archival materials such as printouts, maps, and notes or from original early packages in the documentary, though. He uses those worth-a-thousand-words pictures to give a sense of the contexts in which interactive fiction has been played from the early days of Adventure through today. Which I guess means, as everyone’s favorite retail site says, “Buy these items together!” (Actually, though, you should go to the Get Lamp order page to buy the documentary.)

Scott has done a great deal to provide coverage of today’s “modern era” of interactive fiction development while also covering its origins in Adventure, the ties that game has to caving, and the commercial heyday from Adventure International through Infocom. The history of the IF Comp is explained by current organizer Stephen Granade and others, and the emergence of short-form IF (and its relationship to the comp) is discussed as well. But the documentary’s perspective on interactive fiction clearly gazes longingly over the “golden age” of commercial IF, when Infocom was king. There’s the sense – which several people share – that interactive fiction has managed to continue in some ways from that time, which was its finest hour.

That’s not the perspective some contemporary IF authors have, though. For some, Infocom is a happy but dim memory rather than the holy city of Byzantium. Others never even played an Infocom game before playing modern IF and writing their own IF. And of course, games are not just shorter now; they are written in a wider variety of styles on a wider variety of topics. It won’t be tough for enthusiasts to find other favorite aspects of IF which didn’t manage to fit into this full and rich documentary: the relationship to MUDs or the graphical adventure, commercial games in English outside the US, or global communities working on IF in recent years. Which is just to note that while Get Lamp relates an important and untold story, it’s not the only story of interactive fiction. It’s the kind of movie that leaves me listening to my fellow IF authors and aficionados and being constantly surprised about how much I share certain people’s perspectives and how different, at other times, my view of IF is. That’s not just informative; it’s also thought-provoking.

Yes, despite the breadth and unusual textures of the topic, the film goes beyond being a great introduction to IF and the people who play and write it. There are many surprising discussions outside the main line of IF history. The academic study of IF is discussed by Mary Ann Buckles, whose 1985 dissertation on Adventure is the first study of IF and probably the first long example of work in game studies. John Romero explains the debt that computer games in general owe to text adventures. Robert Pinsky, who has served as poet laureate in addition to writing the IF Mindwheel, discusses puzzles and the pleasures of literature. Other less-than-usual suspects chime in, including fellow academics and collaborators of mine Jeremy Douglass, Ian Bogost, and Stuart Moulthrop.

One of my favorite points in the movie is when Brian Moriarty says empathetically of the Infocom catalog, “It was for literate people – it was for people who like to read!” Get Lamp is also for people who like to read, explore, and see from different perspectives. It’s not only for those who have already discovered interactive fiction, but it will delight most those who are enthusiastic about computing and what the computer can do with storytelling, language, and the modeling of words.

Jason Scott is now preparing for a “Jet Lamp” tour in September, in which he’ll show the film around the country. Perhaps you’ll get to catch it at a theater near you.

Videos on Storytelling

Thursday 5 August 2010, 4:46 pm   //////////  

Kurt Reinhard of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences and Arts has posted a 10-part video series about storytelling in our networked, digital age. The first part (“Change of Storytelling”) includes comments by:

  • Ian Condry (MIT)
  • Joshua Green (UCSB)
  • Dean Jansen (Participatory Culture Foundation)
  • Henry Jenkins (USC)
  • Joe Lambert (Center for Digital Storytelling)
  • Nick Montfort (MIT)
  • Clay Shirky (NYU)

I also appear in part 7 (“Risks of Social Media”) and part 10 (“Bits and Pieces”). Besides the august company listed above, you can see that the videos get to some of the critical issues in storytelling today: fans attired as stormtroopers and “Charlie Bit My Finger – Again!”

The Secret History of Science Fiction

Wednesday 4 August 2010, 7:00 pm   /////  
The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010

The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010

This book seeks to prove that science fiction cannot really be distinguished from mainstream literature, arguing this in the introduction and in quotes before each story. Whether it prevails or not, it offers stories by some of the usual suspects (powerful ones by Ursula K. LeGuin and Connie Willis) some liminal figures (Johnathan Letham, who presents a prison made of criminals) and others – e.g., Don DeLillo, in whose story two men orbit Earth during World War III. (In a beautiful scene, they begin saying whatever they feel like as they calibrate the lethal system to their voiceprints.) There are non-human primates: T. C. Boyle’s tale of a man whose primatologist wife leaves him and George Saunders’s “93990,” a deft critique of science. Carter Scholz’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” has its own take on that author Pierre Menard, created by Borges. (Was he a science fiction author?) Even the weakest stories in here are well-written and worthwhile; most go far beyond that, making for a truly great collection.

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