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 can 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.

Photos from “Programs at an Exhibition”

Tuesday 11 March 2014, 3:57 pm   ///////  

Here’s some documentation of “Programs at an Exhibition” by Nick Montfort & Páll Thayer, an exhibit of five Commodore 64 BASIC programs and five Perl programs at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery, March 6-16, 2014.

Exterior

The front of the gallery hosts a Commodore 64 running Nick Montfort’s “After Jasper Johns” (left) and an Intel/Ubuntu computer running Páll Thayer’s “Flag” (right). These two pieces respond to and rework the famous 1954 painting, Flag, which is in the collection of the MoMA. Jasper Johns, we salute you.

Take some code

Visitors are invited to take cards with all of the code to the five one-line BASIC programs and the five Perl programs that are running in the gallery. For you online visitors to this documentation, a disk image of the five C64 BASIC programs can be downloaded; VICE or another C64 emulator can be used to load, run, list, and modify the five programs on that image. (Except for “Zen for Commodore 64,” the programs do have to be retyped or broken into several lines to be modified.) Also, Páll Thayer’s entire Microcodes series, which includes the exhibited programs and which Thayer began in 2009, is online.

How to explain...

Páll Thayer’s “How to explain Perl to a dead hare,” based on the similarly-named 1965 performance by Joseph Beuys. The Perl program reads the Perl documentation aloud, one word at a time. The Perl documentation, incidentally, is really quite amusing to listen to.

Erased...

Páll Thayer’s “Erased de Kooning” enacts (repeatedly, in this instance) the erasure of one of Willem de Kooning’s drawings by Robert Rauschenberg.

Not shown but also in the exhibit are Páll Thayer’s “Seedbed” and “Untitled composition.”

All_5_C64s

Nick Montfort’s five Commodore 64 programs running on five of the taupe keyboard-and-CPU units. Two of the monitors, the smaller ones, are NEC 12″ CRTs; the other three are Commodore 1702 CRT monitors. On the middle display, one of the zip paintings generated by “After Barnett Newman” can be seen.

Morellet_and_Johns

On the left, Nick Montfort’s “After François Morellet,” which presents in one-character form all of the paintings that Morellet would have eventually painted if he continued to do other panels in his 1958 “6 répartitions aléatoires de 4 carrés noirs et blancs d’après les chiffres pairs et impairs du nombre Pi.” On the right, the instance of Nick Montfort’s “After Jasper Johns” that is running on a CRT monitor.

As with all of the programs, the complete code is presented along with the work’s title, the year of development, and the aritst’s name. The BASIC programs are also written out in a clearer form, with comments.

Not shown up close but also in the exhibit, in addition to “After Barnett Newman,” are Nick Montfort’s “Zen for Commodore 64″ and “After Damien Hirst.”

‘Bitcoin’ Creator Pulled Currency Because It Was ‘Too Addictive’

Thursday 6 March 2014, 11:02 am   ///  

Amid Speculation of a Publicity Stunt, Developer Says Fuss Was Overwhelming

LOS ANGELES – Despite what many users of his infuriatingly difficult “Bitcoin” currency seem to think, Satoshi Nakamoto isn’t actually Satan.

“I just wanted to create a currency that people could enjoy for a few minutes,” he said Tuesday in a wide-ranging interview.

His currency, which became a global phenomenon, in recent weeks soared to the top of the currency charts , turning the shy 64-year-old Mr. Nakamoto into something of a sensation among small, independent currency developers. His notoriety grew further when he mysteriously withdrew the currency from circulation Sunday at the height of its success.

“It was just too addictive,” Mr. Nakamoto said. He said he didn’t intend for people to mine the currency for months at a time, as many users appear to have done.

“That was the main negative. So I decided to take it down,” he said.

Music Technology Event at Tufts

Tuesday 4 March 2014, 1:37 pm   /////  

After just listening to numerous covers of Main Titles from Blade Runner by Vangelis, I just got word that “Machine Fantasies: A Workshop on Music Technologies – Past, Present, and Future” is happening April 4-5, 2014 here in town, at the Perry and Marty Granoff Music Center of Tufts University.

“Programs” Previewed at Boston.com

Monday 3 March 2014, 8:17 pm   /////  

Here’s the Boston.com article on our exhibit “Programs at an Exhibition,” which opens Thursday (March 6). Hope to see you at the opening, which is 6pm-9pm.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
(c) 2014 Post Position | Barecity theme