Ouliperrata and Palindromes

The End of Oulipo? : An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement by Lauren Elkin & Scott Esposito (2013) claims that “Georges Perec … wrote a palindrome of over 5,000 words …” (p. 15, also mentioned on p. 25). However, this is wrong, unless these authors have access to an extraordinarily surprising never-before published palindrome of Perec’s. His long palindrome does not have this many words.

In 1980, Hachette published Perec’s La Clôture et autres poèmes, which contains “Le Grand Palindrome,” written in 1969. “Le Grand Palindrome” is also online; it is posted on another page without its title but with a declaration that the palindrome is 1247 words long.

Wikipedia states that this text has 1247 words and 5566 letters, and the French entry on Perec agrees. (The number of letters was probably the source of the confusion about 5,000 words in Elkin & Esposito’s book.) Since the palindrome is online, we can do some original research to determine the word and letter count – someone must have, because the cited source does not say how many words and letters there are; the source is simply the text itself. The Web is littered with different numbers that are supposed to be the length, in words, of Perec’s palindrome. David Bellos, who quoted and translated the beginning and ending of Perec’s long palindrome in his extraordinary biography, Georges Perec: A Life in Words, described the palindrome as consisting of two halves, each of five hundred words (pp. 428-429).

Standard word-count programs come up with a larger number of words than either Bellos or Wikipedia have: The Gnu utility wc counts 1367, for example. In part, that’s because some of the punctuation is set off with spaces. But it may also have to do with a reasonable way of counting words in French being different than wc’s method.

So, leaving aside the question of words for the moment — but noting that the answer seems to be in the 1000-1400 range, and couldn’t be 5000 – let’s take a look at the number of letters. I placed the palindrome’s text (all of it, including the strange title that is a reversal of Perec’s name and the place and date of writing) in a file called perec.txt and did the following to count the letters:

% fold --width=1 perec.txt | grep -c '[[:alpha:]]'

The result is 5219. Yes, I checked to make sure that accented letters are being counted on my system. I’m not sure where the extra 5566-5219=347 letters are supposed to be. There are only eight digits, so the ‘1969’ at the end (and ‘9691’ at the beginning) couldn’t account for the larger number. And I counted 736 punctuation marks, so the puzzle isn’t solved by considering punctuation marks to be letters, since that (in addition to being incorrect) would make the palindrome too long. Unless my text is corrupt, I suppose that some of the punctuation marks were counted as letters before.

You can read in Daniel Levin Becker’s 2012 book Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature that Perec “wrote a palindrome of more than 1,200 words, the world’s longest until a computer program eclipsed it” (p. 181). The approximate word count seems right, but what about the rest of the statement?

On January 1, 2002, the first edition of Nick Montfort & William Gillespie’s 2002: A Palindrome Story was published. This text, published in a much nicer edition later in the year and made available in several formats online, is a 2002-word palindrome that we wrote together. We had actually hoped that the suite of software we developed, Deep Speed, would generate text for us and serve as a third co-author, but unfortunately its main use ended up being to check our work. In the end, 2002 was about as much generated by computer as “Le Grand Palindrome” was generated by typewriter.

(Perhaps Becker was referring to the data-driven palindrome found by Google’s Peter Norvig? That was composed and published on February 20, 2002, weeks after 2002 was first published in celebration of the new year. Also, while I consider it a brilliant hack, and while I certainly think that computer programs can produce literary output, I’m not sure how to understand or learn from this program and this text as a literary project. In terms of pure length, it’s a long palindrome, yes, but so is this; in fact, that one is longer than any that Norvig has produced.)

Now, to reassure Oulipo fans, 2002 and “Le Grand Palindrome” are written in different languages, so it would be awkward at best to claim that we directly outdid Perec. Also, it took two of us to write our English palindrome and only one of Perec to write his palindrome in French, so Perec still holds the record per-person per-palindrome. And finally, as my parenthetical remark and link above is supposed to show, it’s just silly to compare palindromes’ length alone; it’s important to read them and see how compelling they are. Writing a palindrome of more and more words involves conducting a more lengthy and profound exploration of language. Perhaps that type of exploration means falling off a cliff – as some thought Perec did; as some surely thought that William & I did in writing the exceedingly difficult text 2002. But it’s an exploration, and for us, as for Perec, it resulted in a radical and unusual literary work.

2002 received praise from members of the Oulipo and a positive review in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. It certainly wasn’t the usual one-line palindrome fare that many are used to. Although it’s challenging, I hope that more intrepid readers will eventually engage with text. I’m disappointed that a major magazine article on palindromes and the Wikipedia page on the topic don’t mention it. I’m disappointed that scholars and literary critics (who have devoted time to other works of mine and of William’s) haven’t delved into 2002. And it doesn’t give me much hope when the well-known long palindrome of a tremendously famous and influential French writer, however well-known it is, is still widely unread. We can’t even figure out how many words and letters it has.

Funk’s SoundBox 2012

Chris Funkhouser’s SoundBox 2012 has been posted in the online gallery space of DDDL, which I believe stands for Digital, Digital, Digital, digitaL. Or maybe Digital Digital Digital Littérature? There is a rich array of work up there; Chris’s contribution blends sounds with the carefully-recorded speech that he has recorded across many conferences and beyond, providing a rich audio record of activity in electronic literature and E-Poetry. As the description of the work says,

> Combining music, demented artistic performances, lectures, and studio experiments, Funk’s SoundBox 2012 draws from hundreds of digital recordings produced by poet-critic Chris Funkhouser, who condenses them into a single interactive space. Users of this personal archive – a balance of words and sounds Funkhouser wishes to remember and share – will find ambient and raw materials amidst discussions led by some of the most influential figures in the field of digital writing, grand improvisations featuring a range of instrumentation, software play, and more weaved into a unique sonic projection.

Except — wait. Those are documented artistic performances, lectures, and studio experiments. Sheesh.

New bleuOrange Revue with Three Rails Live / Trois rails sous tension

Except for its celebratory nature, it may ultimately have little to do with the New Zoo Revue, but the latest issue (number 7) of the French-language bleuOrange revue, from Figura and Laboratoire NT2, has now arrived. The issue publishes the results of a competition to translate electronic literature into French.

In this issue there is a rich selection of new translations, including translations of work by by J. R. Carpenter and Mark Marino, who are here with me now at the 2013 ELO conference Chercher le texte. One of these, too, is the translation of Three Rails Live by Roderick Coover, Nick Montfort, and Scott Rettberg. The translation is entitled Trois rails sous tension and is by Carolyne Ouellette and Jordan Tudisco, with the voices of Serge Bouchardon and Laetitia LeChatton. For now, there is video documentation of our piece and its translation, as the piece was developed as an installation. Next year a Web version of the video generator, the combinatory database narrative film, will be published on bleuOrange in English and French.

Talks from Media Systems

Noah Wardrip-Fruin was an organizer the Media Systems workshop at UCSC just over a year ago, August 26-29, 2012. It was an extraordinary gathering about computational media and its potential, with famous participants from a variety of disciplines and practices. The workshop’s sponsors were also remarkable: the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Research, and Microsoft Studios. Now, Noah is working to put high-quality videos of talks from this event online, and to offer some very useful framing discussion of those talks.

This month, three have been posted. The first of these is a talk by Ian Horswill: “Interdisciplinarity is Hard.” I’m collaborating with Ian now to edit a special issue on computational narrative and am looking forward to seeing him at AIIDE. In addition to his talk, I recommend (and assign) his short but rich article “What is Computation?,” which discusses some of the fundamentals of computation as a science along with its intellectual and cultural importance. Those with access to ACM content can also get the later version of the article that was published in Crossroads.

The second talk posted is from the inestimable production designer Alex McDowell: “World Building.” McDowell (The Crow, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club, Minority Report, Watchmen, etc., etc. ) describes how the development of movies is no longer a storytelling process driven by a single person or idea, but is becoming a process of world building in which a variety of concepts, including design and in some cases engagement with urban planning and spaces, influence each other. McDowell made his points with some of the most beautiful and byzantine diagrammatic slides since David Byrne was doing work in PowerPoint.

The most recent talk is mine – Nick Montfort: “The Art of Operationalization.” I spoke about my experience implementing humanistic ideas (in my case, about narrative) in computational systems, ones that not only can produce narrative results, but which can advance our understanding of the humanities and arts. Prof. Janet Kolodner (now serving the National Science Foundation) seemed to be uncertain about the value of this work, and questioned me about that during my talk – in a way that surprised me a bit! But looking back, I see that our discussion was one of the benefits of having a diverse yet fairly small in-person gathering. I seldom have these discussions either on this blog or in larger, multi-track conferences.

I think of Curveship and even the development of small-scale programs such as Through the Park as research activities (in the humanities, but potentially also in computation) that as connected to narrative and poetic practice. While some people (such as Ken Perlin, who was also at workshop and whose video will be up next week) work in this sort of mode and see the value in it, the benefits are not obvious. The result may not a direct educational outcome, an incremental advance that can be directly measured and evaluated, or a work of art or literature that is recognizable in a traditional way. So, whether I was able to answer well at the time or not, I appreciate the questions, and hope to get more of those sort in other workshops such as these.

Software Freedom Day

Next Saturday (September 21, 2013) is Boston Software Freedom Day. This event, like the Boston Festival of Independent Games yesterday, is also taking place in Cambridge rather than Boston – at Cambridge College, 1000 Mass Ave, between Central and Harvard Squares.

Come by to hear about and discuss freedoms on the computer and online, privacy, and government transparency. I’ll offer one of the very quick lightning talks at the end of the day, discussing some of the history of creative computing and its relationship to software freedom.

The event is not only libre, but also no-cost. And the cake to celebrate the 30th anniversary of GNU is not a lie.

Zombies, Run! Enhancement Instructions

Beginner: Run up behind the participant unseen, assume the attitude of a zombie, and say “ggrgrghrhrhHHH BRAINS!” and the like.

Intermediate: Run up alongside the participant, assume the attitude of Michael Jackson in Thriller, and say “It’s only a movie!,” “What’s the problem? Come on, I’ll take you home,” and the like.

Remix Redux

Of my “Taroko Gorge”:

“Take Ogre” by John Pat McNamara, remixed Febuary 16, 2013 on Achill Sound, Ireland. The piece trades off the images of the natural world for language of the mind, and sports a nice recursive background. (View source for some further information in a comment up top.) Thanks to publisher Michael J. Maguire for noting this remix in a comment here.

“TransmoGrify” by Leonardo Flores of I ♥ E-Poetry, published in Springgun Press Journal, issue number 8. (There’s a note on the piece in the journal.) This one is also about contemplation and mental work, endlessly describing the process of remixing “Taroko Gorge.”

In a different way, “TransmoGrify” is as meta as the remix “Argot Ogre, OK!” by Andrew Plotkin, whose titular monster also returns in John Pat McNamara’s work. Take my ogre — please! Take my gorge…


Pad, Steven Zultanski, Make Now Press, 2010
Pad, Steven Zultanski, Make Now Press, 2010

Can God be a big enough dick that he cannot lift himself? This is one of the many questions suggested, though not posed explicitly, by Pad, in which Steven Zultanski catalogs every item in his apartment, indicating whether or not each can be lifted with his penis:

My dick can lift the third clove of garlic from the windowsill. My dick cannot lift the sink.

Some sentences read like interactive fiction error messages, indicating how items that are fixed in place, or are part of the apartment, cannot be taken (by Zultanski’s dick). However remarkable a part of the book it is, the dick is a distraction, offered in the same way the burglar provides a bit of meat for the house-dog. Yes, masculinity in poetry is treated, etc. But what makes the exercise interesting is the pudendum’s gymnasium. The domenstic inventory reveals a personal history, a personal moment, through possessions — ones always in the shadow, or perhaps in some sort of grip, of authorial presence. My dick couldn’t put this book down.

Ultraconcentrated and a Suit that Outdoes the Moon

I went to New York to attend the opening of Ultraconcentrated, Casey Reas’s solo show at bitforms. As a rather pure computationalist, one who always tries to maximize code and minimize data, I was a teensy bit wary of the data-driven nature of Casey’s work in this show, which is based, to some extent, on digital television. This idea of using data wasn’t completely offputting, though; Casey and collaborator Ben Fry have done a nice mural here at MIT, which I often walk by, called Signals and based on the interconnections of proteins.

The works in the show certainly didn’t display data in a straightforward or disappointing way. There were prints (Control Room (Forward Command Post)) that seemed studies of color. There were also two laser etched anodized aluminum pieces, each with two semicircular segments, which present television signals as if they were converted to a monochrome and very uncanny landscape or cityscape. The main screen that turned on — two screens, actually — was a diptych video that shifts very rarely into a somewhat figurative or identifiable image. The work (including that on the 6th floor) was all appealing and interesting. It certainly justified the packed house at the opening.

Overall, the trip was great, as we caught up with several friends in New York. The other art-related encounters were excellent, too. I met Ben Fino-Radin and others at the XFR STN exhibit and project at the New Museum, where video and born-digital materials were being recovered for artists.

Most oddly, as I was walking though Chelsea after seeing Casey’s show, I noticed an opening of collage art by someone who — however conventional, however absent from today’s avant-garde — has written a great amount of poetry that has pleased and provoked me over the years: Mark Strand. (Among other things, such as dozens of poetry books, he is the author of a very offbeat book of prose, Mr. and Mrs. Baby.) He was wearing a white suit, as I expected (see, for instance, the beginning of his book Dark Harbor). And while I couldn’t think of anything to say to him that would have merited interrupting the excellent time he seemed to be having talking with others, it was nice to see his collages and share the room with him for a bit.

10 PRINT in enculturation

I don’t seem to have linked to this yet, but there’s a thorough review, by Chris Lindgren, of my and my nine co-authors’ book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 in the journal enculturation. Here are the final sentences of it:

>The book is a rich example of what a possible fusion of theory and techn? might look like in future academic scholarship. In the conclusion, the 10 argue that “reading this one-liner also demonstrates that programming is culturally situated just as computers are culturally situated, which means that the study of code should be no more ahistorical than the study of any cultural text” (262). Code is a text, but, as the 10 indicate, it also operates and “can be representational” of cultural ideals, people, and things. “10 PRINT,” they conclude, “is not just a line of code; it defines a space of possible variations” (266). This insight is perhaps the most useful, since the 10 themselves produced this “assemblage of readings” from a cast of diverse scholars and scholarship. For me, as a rhetorician who is interested in literacy and the fostering of computing cultures, this assemblage also serves as a potential baseline blueprint for the means, processes, and types of cross-disciplinary relationships necessary to build an infrastructure in which Kemeny and Kurtz’s BASIC vision can come to fruition.

Is ppg256 Green?

I recently answered a series of interesting questions about ppg256, questions that pertained to digital preservation among other issues.

I just wanted to share the one that I thought about the longest. Although I care deeply about properly addressing issues of energy use, recycling, and ethical sourcing of computer components, I think that there are some problems with putting a great deal of weight on these when one is specifically in digital art and digital poetry contexts. I was asked:

> What effect does the environment, both location and ecology, have on the
> work?  Does it have long term implications such as power usage, recycling,
> etc?  Are those addressed in the work itself?

And I replied:

> Centrally, my project is to show that computer programs can be poetic. The
> ppg256 programs can be run on any computer; they do not require a museum,
> gallery, proprietary operating system or Apple Store. So, practically anyone
> with access to computing can run them at any location. The development and
> running of computational poetry, to be honest, is not killing our
> environment. The mindset that computers are for business, war, and science
> but cannot be used to make poems and art does risk — to be honest —
> killing our future.

Books O’ Poems

I’ve read a few books of poetry recently that I found particularly interesting, so why not mention them here?

Man Years by Sandra Doller. Beautifully damaged utteraces that are highly unusual, resonant with known ways of speaking, and allusive. E.g., in the poem “Eggphrasis,” which begins “eggs / eggs / baby”.

The Container Store by Joe Hall and Chad Hardy. Urban space is explored, and its commercial division and compartmentalization. The typography is compelling, with black blocks often occluding the text like the blind eyes of office buildings.

Meditations 1-52 by Matthew Klane. Also quite engaged politically, also quite well-done typographically, but in another interesting mode. Includes a list of things Vannevar Bush did not invent.