Put Another Token in the Jukebox, Baby

“D.P.O.” is a pretty amazing X-Files episode, featuring not only an arcade, which is central to the episode, but also a Lenscrafters cameo, glimpses of a Jerry-Springer-like show and a music video, a reference to the land art piece Lightning Field, a rural boy pranking cows, Jack Black, and a Playboy centerfold with at least a passing resemblance to Sarah Michelle Gellar.

I particularly like how Mulder picks out the suspect by locating his initials on the high score screen of a Virtua Fighter machine. One thing I’m wondering about the arcade in this episode, though: It has a jukebox, which is rather instrumental (no pun intended) to the way the episode … plays out.

Was it really common for arcades to have jukeboxes? In my recollection, which may be rusty, arcades were noisy enough thanks to the games themselves. I suppose one could have turned the games’ volumes down to let other music be heard, but there weren’t jukeboxes in the arcades I remember, from, say, The Gold Mine up through Le Fun. Did your arcades have other soundtracks, beyond those coming from the cabinets?

Portal Past

Truth is often stranger than fiction. Sometimes fiction just exaggerates for effect, of course. In the world of this commercial,

– Early Macintoshes have a green-on-black, all-caps display.
– Interactive fiction text goes only 3/5 of the way across the screen.
– Macs use 5.25″ floppy discs.

These changes were no doubt thoughtfully made to construct the “retro” in a more intense way, allowing for a readable and seemingly old-school display and collaging different aspects of 1980s home computers. This way the green-on-black display and 5.25″ disks can live alongside the iconic presence of the early Mac. Plus, GLaDOS gets to say the multisyllabic word “Macintosh” at the end of the video. The creators of the video surely knew they were doing it wrong but decided to try to construct something more 80s than 80s.

I wonder if they knew they were making a tribute video for Rob Swigart, whose game/novel Portal was released by Activision in 1986 on 5.25″ and 3.25″ disk for Amiga, Macintosh, Commodore 64, Apple II, and PC.

Swigart also contributed to another early entry in the “pseudohacking” genre, the Activision game Hacker, which sported an all-text beginning that looked very much like the on-screen display in the video.

The commercial testifies to our memories of the 1980s by making things up. But there was Portal on 5.25″ disk in 1986. This video documents the Amiga version. Interesting to see that the first commenter on there can’t believe that something like this could crawl out of our memory hole, through the portal from the past.


Google’s spam cop, Matt Cutts
the head of the Webspam team
in the sprawling, subterranean world
found 2,015 pages with phrases like “casual dresses,”
snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles,
a Google no-no.

Liquid nitrogen and “fairy tale pumpkin”
will flag a Web site that goes from zero
zero influence on the latter, he said.
Chinese cooking can bolster your profile if
organic search results
warn against using tricks

to snooker his employer.
You could imagine a dozen contenders
“Samsonite carry on luggage,” for instance,
And bedding? And area rugs?
Who is that someone?
The next it was essentially buried.

Cf. “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search” in The New York Times

Here’s the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2

Thanks to the hard work of the editorial collective, Laura Borràs, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Kim Stefans, and to contributions of more than 70 (often collaborating) authors, we now have an incredible new anthology: volume 2 of the Electronic Literature Collection, which offers 60 new reading experiences for the networked computer.

(Here’s the ELO’s announcement about the new volume.)

To make the first volume of the Collection possible, my fellow editors and I limited ourselves to the sort of e-lit projects we could easily publish on CD-ROM and on the Web. The formal range of the ELC has expanded in the new collection, which documents several projects that wouldn’t, themselves, fit on disc. The range of languages represented has also widened, and the collective has brought it own perspectives and concepts to offer a different sort of selection than is seen in the first volume.

I’m certainly pleased to have some of my work included: Book and Volume and the first program in the ppg256 series. And I’m glad that Laura, Talan, Rita, and Brian worked so carefully and at such length to gather and edit this diversity of material. They’ve made this project a success for the ELO and for e-lit readers. And finally, as a reader, I’m also really looking forward to diving into the pages and windows of this collection.

Pocket Curveship

Curveship running on a tiny computer, the Ben NanoNote.

Curveship runs on the Ben NanoNote, by the way. It could be faster, certainly – I and others will be working on that. But it does run, which is a good start and bodes well for the ability of Curveship games to run on many different platforms.

Happy Chinese New Year.

Curveship 0.5 Released

Happy Groundhog Day. Today, I’m releasing Curveship, my interactive fiction system that models not only the fictional world, but also the narrative discourse. A development version (0.5) of this Python framework is now available for download. You can find the links, along with some description and documentation of the system, at curveship.com.

(Original photos by April King and Postdlf, Wikimedia Commons; they & these modified versions are CC by-sa 3.0.)

Fair Use and Poetry

“Code of Best Practices In Fair Use For Poetry” has just been released by the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute. “Poetry” as a cultural force, in the popular consciousness, is very traditional, but poets of course also have undertaken some of the our most unusual, avant-garde writing. The document gives a hint of the wide sweep of poetic practice while showing that poetry has long played host to quotation, parody, and other remixological practices. And the “Code” achieves its main purpose of outlining common sorts of writing and use that fair use seems to cover, as poets see it. I’m glad to have been involved in some of the meetings that led to this document. I hope it will helpful us continue the discussion about alternatives to cultural lockdown, bringing in the perspectives, not of industries, but of the creators of different sorts of culturally significant work.

The “Code” was compiled in collaboration with American University’s Center for Social Media and its Washington College of Law. Those who attend AWP can pick up free printed copies of the document; The PDF is online now.

10 PRINT Talks Galore

Two of my talks on this program:

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

have recently come online. I’m currently studying this program deeply and writing a single-voice book about it with many other authors.

My earlier talk, given jointly with coauthors Jeremy Douglass and Casey Reas on July 23 of last year, was “Studying Software by Porting and Reimplementation: A BASIC Case” at USC. As of yesterday, video of it is online with the rest of the conference proceedings from Critical Code Studies at USC.

More recently, on January 10, I spoke about the program at UC Santa Cruz. My talk “Line of Inquiry: Many Authors Explore Creative Computing through a Short Program” is available on video in six parts. Part 1 will let you link on to the rest.

Teejay Spins Tales

Last night I projected words to accompany music at a local lounge. This practice does not seem have an established name – does it? Please let me know if you’re aware of the conventional term. I have heard the phrase “text jockey” used. I’ve also come up with some other terms that don’t seem to fit perfectly. In a sense, this is VJing, but it’s also a practice that is compatible with VJing, since words can be projected in a subtitle-like fashion on moving images.

Using a small bit of Python code and pyglet, I put a number of texts up a word at a time in very plain and uniform typography. Each successive word appeared centered on the same point as the last in a rapid, serial, and visual manner. Sometimes I showed several texts in juxtaposition, sometimes just one. I thought the combination of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual and the text of Beckett’s Rockaby was particularly nice. The Unabomber manifesto and the Timecube website were utilized, as were Moby Dick, a Roberto Bolaño story, some altered versions of Little Red Riding Hood, a poem by Harry Mathews, and a few pieces I put together that drew randomly from word sets to confuse gender stereotypes and our notions of otherness. One of the people who came thanked me and said that he wasn’t expecting to spend the evening reading from great books, but that it was pretty cool.

My thanks to DJ Flack & Wayne and Wax, who very kindly invited me to join them.

Today’s Curveship Koan

You put yourself on something unseen.
  Then, you are unable to take a look at something because you are not in the world.

Lessons from the Breakdown Lane

While attempting to upgrade to a new Ubuntu distribution Sunday late night, I managed to slag nickm.com. I don’t mean that I insulted my server; rather, I irrevocably converted it into a molten heap, or at least the software equivalent.

The bright side of such failures (perhaps the light is provided by the glowing and otherwise useless material that used to be serving my website) is that one learns how good one’s been at backing up. In my case, I actually had recent copies of almost all of my data stashed away: not only important files, but also the mysql database. That means that after about 12 hours of reinstalling and once more setting up my server, most of it was up and running.

The one thing I didn’t have, due to a permissions/backup quirk, was the image directory for this blog. I had a very old copy of the directory, but had stopped storing local copies of blog images a while back, trusting in my backups that didn’t work. Obviously, I’m to blame; of more general interest than my culpability is what I tried in an attempt to find the missing images, and what did and didn’t work:

FAIL: The Internet Archive Wayback Machine. As best as I can tell, the Wayback Machine’s acquisition apparatus has been switched off since mid-2008. Nothing of Post Position is available at the Internet Archive – no trace of it. There’s no record of Grand Text Auto since mid-2008, either. I found only the tiniest hint of activity in recent months. The major, bustling site Reddit has exactly one image available for all of 2010. The IA Wayback Machine was better than nothing, but was never searchable; now it seems to be over.

SEMI-FAIL: Google. Google’s cache had/has a very small number of my images – only the ones I have recently posted. Perhaps Google cached my images from three months ago and longer in the past, too, but has removed them? The cache is nowhere near a snapshot of the Web, in any case. Google also keeps smaller copies of my images within its image search. All images there are degraded by being reduced in size and converted to jpg, even the smallest of images. This at least allows people in my situation to see what they’ve lost, though. Of course, Google’s cache is not meant as a serious archival tool, so recovering at least few recent files from there was nice.

FAIL: Bing. Yes, I checked the Bing cache (used by Yahoo) also. It doesn’t seem to cache images at all.

WIN: The Electronic Literature Organization and Archive-It.org. After I had more or less given up, and after I had started to recreate images to fill the gaps in blog posts, I remembered that Archive-It, thanks to the work of the Electronic Literature Organization, has archived not only works of electronic literature but also contextual information, such as e-lit authors’ websites. Their archives are searchable, too. Archive-It and the ELO did keep copies of material from nickm.com, and succeeded in preserving the images that I’d lost, outdoing the Internet Archive as well as Google, and Microsoft. (Again, I did get some copies of recent images from Google, and neither that cache nor Bing’s is intended as an archive.) Scott Rettberg did a great deal of work on the ELO Archive-It project, I know, which was undertaken by the ELO when Joe Tabbi was president. Matt Kirschenbaum worked to connect the ELO with Archive-IT, and Patricia Tomaszek did much of the implementation work. A particular thanks to those ELO folks along with the others who worked on this project.

Online archives don’t exist as backup services, of course, but it’s not absurd to see if they can help individuals and organizations in times of crisis – in addition to performing their main function of serving scholars and helping preserve our cultural memory. Given the intricacies of backing up, data storage and formats, and technological change to new systems and platforms, this is sure to be an important secondary function for the digital archive.

Please let me know if you find anything missing or broken here at nickm.com.

Announcing Sea and Spar Between

Just published in Dear Navigator 1:2/3 is a new poetry generator, Sea and Spar Between, by Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland.

This has been a major project of mine and Stephanie’s over the past year. We started seriously working on this project on December 15, 2009, when we met for the first of a few days in New York to discuss and start developing it. I thought it might take only a few days to complete – not a completely outrageous idea, since I have been working on tiny poetry generators such as “The Two” those in the ppg256 series, which were not time-consuming to produce. As you might guess, since it was just published today (on December 16, 2010), I was wrong about the time it would take. But, I am delighted that the project is appearing now in wonderful company in Dear Navigator, a beautiful and appropriately-named journal.

If memory serves, Stephanie and I met at Digital Arts and Culture ’99 in Atlanta. I remember the conversation we had about innovative literature soon afterwards at Limbo, a long-gone coffeehouse on Avenue A in New York. Stephanie offered her advice as I was putting together my application to the Boston University poetry program – one way in which she’s long been a mentor as well as a friend. We’ve served the Electronic Literature Organization together; I had the chance to collaborate with her in editing the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 1; and I’ve gotten to read with her and present in the same session at conferences many times over the years. Sea and Spar Between, though, is our first collaboration as poets.

We have a short statement about the project on the “How to Read Sea and Spar Between page; the text also appears on the page of Dear Navigator that introduces and links to the piece. I won’t quote from that page here, but I’ll mention that the generator produces a navigable space of stanzas and draws on the vocabulary of and our readings of Dickinson and Melville.

A few words about our collaboration on Sea and Spar Between: I sketched in code as the two of us worked together; we looked at and ran many intermediate versions as we figured out how we wanted to generate lines. I wrote the early versions of the stanza generator in Python, because I find that a better language to think and sketch in than JavaScript. Although I was the one who did the programming, Stephanie and I worked closely on all aspects of the project together: The strings that serve as data, the way lines are assembled, the way stanzas are assembled, the overall interface, and beyond. She and I were even working together to properly comment the code as the new issue of Dear Navigator was preparing for launch.

Speaking of that code, as you can see for yourself in the file seaspar.js, Sea and Spar Between is licensed under a free software license. As the license says, anyone may copy it, modify it, or make use of it in some other way in creating another project. I hope the project proves pleasing to interact with and read from on the Web and pleasing for those who wish to turn to the code.

Book Arts and Broadsides Showcased

a photo (and not a very good one, sorry) of the Building 14 WHS Books Arts & Broadsides display case

MIT’s Building 14 has a great new display thanks to poet Amaranth Borsuk, who is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Writing & Humanistic Studies program, where I also work. There are some wonderful pieces from many of my colleagues and their students, all of them displayed brilliantly. I’ll mention the digital tie-ins: The broadside “Love Letters,” done in one of my graduate CMS.950 Workshop classes, consists of computer-generated poems produced by a Manchester Mark I emulator. These were set on a letterpress by the class thanks to the Bow & Arrow Press’s John Pyper. And Peer Hofstra, who took my 21W.750 Experimental Writing class last semester, did an extraordinary untitled book for his final project. It’s made of punched cards, with the words are formed by alphabetically-arranged letters punched out from those pages. Each word is some are subsequence of the alphabet, so “APT” can occur, while “APE” cannot. Alex Corella’s Experimental Writing final project, which cuts up and rearranges the text on Cambridge historical plaques, is also on display. If you’re on campus, do stop by to see the case, which is by the elevator on the first floor of Building 14. It will be up for at least this month, December 2010.

Actions in Curveship

I’ve been working the past few days to change the way actions are represented in Curveship. The previous model for actions is described well in sections 5.1.3 and 5.1.4 of my dissertation. I won’t go into it in any detail here, but it involved two sorts of abstractions (one higher-level and associated with intention and narrating, the other lower-level and used directly in the simulation) and was considerably more complex than what I have in the current system.

I will mention something about why actions are represented in the system at all – that is, with first-order representations, objects. This is a departure from the way IF systems have worked up to now. In other IF systems, when you “get lamp,” you change the state of the world. The lamp object has a different parent when you are done with this action. But there is no object representing the action itself, the adventurer getting the lamp. As you can tell from playing IF, this works fine if you want to stick to one character and narrate what is happening exactly once, as it happens.

Having a representation of action, on the other hand, allows for much more flexibility in narrating. One can narrate an action in flashback (because it’s still there, represented as an object) and can easily maintain lists of actions for each character, to represent what each specific character is aware of. In Curveship, these are kept in “concepts” which are theories about the world that are almost always incomplete and can even be wrong. Since all actions are reversible, the representation of actions also provides an infinite “undo” capability.

So, the action representation now simply provides actions of four types:

  • Behave – Any action that doesn’t change the world, from speaking to jumping up and down.
  • Configure – An action that causes an item to be moved to a new place, or to be in a new relation, in the item tree. (“get lamp” is an example.)
  • Modify – An action that causes an item to change state, to have one of its features take on a new value. (“light lamp” is an example.)
  • Sense – A perception of the world which does not change the world but may update a character’s concept.

For instance, this is the code that maps the command “get lamp” (or “get” followed by anything) into a particular “take” action, which is a configure action:

def take(agent, tokens, concept):
    return Configure('take', agent,
                     template='[agent/s] [pick/v] [direct/o] up',
                     direct=tokens[1], new=('of', agent))

“take” is the verb and agent the agent; all Actions must have these two. The template is optional. It specifies the string-with-slots that is to be used in representing this action. All configure actions have a direct object, the item being configured, and need at least a “new” keyword specifying the link and parent that item will be in. Here, it’s “of” (indicating possession) and the agent (the one who is doing the taking.)

Curveship Analysis at Tufts

I just wanted to thank Norman Ramsey, Eddie Aftandilian, and Brad Larsen for the very productive day-long discussion of Curveship that we undertook on Friday. I’ve spent most of the weekend and much of today implementing just one of the ideas for changes that came out of this. The discussion certainly gives me more to do, but it also does a great amount to focus my efforts as I work toward a release of system.