The Future of Newspapers

If you want to know about the future of newspapers, you might look at the ones that are thriving rather than the ones that are struggling or collapsing. I learned recently that there is at least one fairly new, very successful newspaper company – Metro International. With a price point of zero for their tabloids, they offer advertising-rich layouts and tiny stories that (for clarity’s sake) don’t jump to other pages. It’s the newspaper equivalent of that gag on where Terry drew a Web page full of advertising that had a tiny “content banner.” (Wish I could find it … but at least is still online, for those who want to look.) Having recently read about this newsprint wunderkind, I picked up this weekend’s issue to see what they actually write Metro stories about…

My friend’s cat.

The First Oration against the Parser

Emily Short wrote an intriguing post about the parser in IF – actually, somewhat against the parser in IF. She explores alternatives to what she calls the “command line” in IF (not entirely inaccurate, but not the connection I’d most want to make) and ends up finding it to be more or less the worst of all systems except all the others, like democracy. The post has already garnered about 50 comments. In it, Short writes:

We have a two-part accessibility problem. One part is the interpreter: people don’t want to download separate files and don’t want to have to figure out file formats … The other problem is the parser.

I see a few problems with this. First off, let’s not stop at two. The world model that IF presents (with “rooms,” containment, light sources, and so on) is hardly accessible or immediately obvious. I think it works fairly well and creates a good abstraction of world that is suitable for text-based interaction. I think the world model of IF is a strength of the form, a success. But you still have to learn it. Figuring out the layout of an IF world is perhaps easier for new players in 2010 than it was in 1976, but there are certainly challenges to accessibility today in this aspect of IF.

The discussion in this post of the natural-language interface of IF and its supposed failings is what really seems to me to fall short:

Fundamentally, however, we’ve got a bigger problem, which is that the command prompt is a lie. It tells the player “type something, and I’ll understand you.” Which it won’t.

All interfaces are lies, in this case. If I click on my desktop, or on a blank area of the menu bar, it does nothing – or, you could say, it “doesn’t understand me.” If Mario is up against a wall, pushing the joystick (or d-pad) in the direction of the wall does nothing. There are plenty of ways to get almost any computer interface to not give you results, if you don’t learn how it works. You always have to learn something about how to use the interface to be able to control the computer program that uses it.

The parser, which asks “What do you (the detective) want to do now?” is making an offer: Tell me a simple action, usually a physical one such as PICK UP AX, and I’ll instruct the player character to do that. Yes, we have abbreviated way to indicate these actions: “east” or even “e” to mean “walk east,” “inventory” to mean “look at what I’m holding,” and so on. But I see the overall framework of interaction as being clear enough for players to learn, even if there are some issues for newcomers to IF.

I find Aaron Reed’s work hypertextualizing IF and allowing for other sorts of inputs to be intriguing, but I’m not compelled to go in this direction myself. I’m pleased with the textual exchange between player and computer and the basic framework in which the player is invited, consistently, to give a character an action to carry out. In the service of making things accessible, efforts to extend the parser to understand things such as “herring” are moves away from consistency. They may work in some ways, but they make this sacrifice.

Similarly, I disagree that it would be a good idea to have (as Short proposes) “a system where the player could select a noun, see what he could do with it, and select one of those options.” I actually wouldn’t particularly want this, any more than I’d want to be able to say “TURN LEFT!” to my car and have that override the steering wheel. It makes sense for a programmer to be able to determine an object’s methods, but the experience of IF for me is not mainly about programming; instead, it’s about directing a character through a world, often one that is strange. Using langauge, and specifically, a reasonably negotiated subset of a natural language like English, seems suitable for this.

I have to note in closing something that I find a bit amusing: As Inform 7 is taking a programming language for interactive fiction in a radically more natural-language direction, Short is arguing for an IF interface that is less like natural language.

Short has provided a prototype as part of her discussion, which I admire and wish I could do. Maybe after I finish Curveship…

Wheel Make You Texts

Just posted at ebr (Electronic Book Review) is Whitney Anne Trettien’s article “Computers, Cut-ups, and Combinatory Volvelles.” (We already love computers and cut-ups, but be aware that volvelles are extremely cool.) Some illustrations are still to come, but the article’s text and references are now up … I believe in link early, link often.

The article is born of Trettien’s born-digital MIT Comparative Media Studies thesis “Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms,” a two-or-more-dimensional arrangement of reconfigurable texts. Like a conservative child reacting against his liberal parents, the ebr article is linear, but that should offer an helpful complement to the machinations of the thesis. The article reels back to long before the 20th century avant-garde to find recombinatory text machines and perspectives on reading that are relevant to the digital age. I highly recommend the ebr piece to those working with ergodic texts and operating today’s textual computer machines. It will hopefully serve as a nice gateway drug, too, interesting more readers in Trettien’s combinatory thesis.

ELO_AI at Brown Wraps Up

The Electronic Literature Organization‘s conference at Brown University has new concluded – the workshops, performances, screenings, exhibits, and sessions all went very well, as did the coffee breaks and other times for informal conversation. Many thanks to the organizer of ELO_AI (Archive & Innovate), John Cayley!

The conference was a celebration of and for Robert Coover, co-founder of the Electronic Literature Organization and major American novelist, whose teaching and promotion of electronic literature has been essential to the field. Robert Coover was toasted and at least lightly roasted, heard papers presented on his work, and did a reading of the “recently renovated Hypertext Hotel” – a famous early project by students which did indeed turn out to have some recent renovations.

ELO_AI began on Thursday with an array of workshops by Damon Loren Baker, John Cayley, Jeremy Douglass, Daniel Howe, and Deena Larsen. Deena Larsen was later part of a great roundtable on archiving with Will Hansen, Marjorie Luesebrink, and Stephanie Strickland; the group discussed Duke University’s work with Stephanie Strickland’s papers (and digital works), the Deena Larsen Collection at the University of Maryland, and the efforts that the ELO made in the Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination project. On the first day of the conference, Mark Marino organized a great panel with four undergraduate presenters. And, there was an opening reception at the Westminster Street gallery where an excellent show of digital literary work has been put together. While there was an array of work (in the screenings, performances, gallery, and sessions) from people who were presenting at an ELO conference for the first time, I was also glad to see many of the people who were instrumental in creating and publishing literary work on the computer more than a decade ago.

Without trying to enumerate every session of the conference, I’ll mention the Sunday 10am plenary to try to get across how wide-ranging the presentations and presenters were. In this session, George Landow, author of the famous Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992), told the tragicomical tale of hypertext’s use in education at Brown. Angela Chang and Peggy Chi described two interactive projects for very young readers, projects that used my Curveship system and the Open Mind Common Sense project from Henry Lieberman’s MIT Media Lab group. Lawrence Giffin used the not-very-democratic framework of the salon to consider the important avant-garde site Ubuweb. And finally, Paola Pizzichini and Mauro Carassai looked into the Italian edition of Michael Joyce’s Afternoon and its almost total absence from Italian libraries. Certainly, some sessions were more focused – very focused in the case of the one on William Poundstone’s digital writing work; at least with a theme of process intensity, in the case of the session were I presented my work on Adventure in Style. But we had a genuinely diverse group of presenters, and sessions like this one on Sunday revealed this, while also showing that we do have cross-cutting interests and that we can have valuable conversations.

A special area if interest for me, interactive fiction, was represented by Aaron Reed, who did a reading of his Blue Lacuna in which he deftly showed both interactive sessions and the underlying Inform 7 code while a volunteer interactor spoke commands. Aaron Reed also gave a paper on that large-scale piece, explaining his concept of interface and his work on developing a non-player character who ranged across different spaces without being a simple opponent or companion character. In the same performance session and paper session, I got to see and learn more about Fox Harrell’s Living Liberia Fabric, a piece produced in affiliation with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia, incorporating video testimony, and employing Fox Harrell’s GRIOT system for poetic conceptual blending.

We welcomed new ELO board members and officers. Joining the ELO board are Fox Harrell, Caroly Guertin, and Jason Nelson. Dene Grigar took office as vice president, and Joe Tabbi completed his term as president, handing that role over to me.

During the sessions, we heard critical perspectives on many particular electronic literature work and some on the ELO itself, which will help us think about the challenges the Organization faces and how we can better serve readers and writers beyond American universities. The ELO has had ten years of growth and learning by now, and while there will be more of each to do, our four main projects are now well enough established that all of them are past 1.0:

  • The Electronic Literature Collection, the second volume of which has been edited and produced by an independent editorial collective and will be published soon.
  • The Electronic Literature Directory, which in its new manifestation offers community-written descriptions as well as metadata.
  • Our conference – this most recent one at Brown was our fourth international gathering.
  • Our site and our online communications, which offer information about the ELO and an introduction to electronic literature.

I’m glad to be starting my service as president of the ELO at a time when the organization has just had a very successful conference and has these other effective projects rolling. Thanks to Joe Tabbi and other past presidents and directors of the Organization for bringing us to this point – and, again, to John Cayley for bringing us all together at Brown.

Congratulations, CMS Grads

Now that I’m out of my academic robe and back into my more comfortable usual attire, I wanted to send a blog-based shout-out to those in Comparative Media Studies who finished their work in the past year and were awarded masters degrees on Friday:

  • Jason Begy
  • Audubon Dougherty
  • Madeline Clare Elish
  • Colleen Kaman
  • Flourish Klink
  • Hillary Kolos
  • Michelle Moon Lee
  • Xiaochang Li
  • Jason Rockwood
  • Nick Seaver
  • Sheila Murphy Seles
  • Lauren Silberman

Hurrah for Technology, ‘ology ‘ology oh – and for these recent MIT graduates.

Once More into the Gorge

J.R. Carpenter has taken apart and reassembled my poetry generator Taroko Gorge. (The first to appropriate and rework that piece, as far as I know, was Scott Rettberg, who created Tokyo Garage.) J.R.’s piece – one might call it a tract of sorts – is simply called Gorge. (Update: J.R. has a post discussing Gorge, too.) See if you can stomach it, and for how long.

Also, check out J.R.’s project Story Generation(s), which involved reworking two of my 1k Python programs and which launched May 8 at PW10 Performance Writing Weekend. The project includes a JavaScript port of “Excerpts from the Chronicles of Pookie & JR.” This is generally not a bad idea; I wrote Taroko Gorge originally in Python (a programming language I prefer for when I’m thinking) and converted it to JavaScript for easy web viewing.

Critical Code Studies Conference at USC

My collaborator Mark Marino is putting on a conference at USC which looks to be a great event. (I don’t pimp conferences on the blog here unless I’m involved in organizing them or planning to attend; I’m certainly submitting to this one.) Note that abstracts are due very soon – June 1.

Announcing a 1-Day conference on Critical Code Studies at the University of Southern California

Critical Code Studies @ USC

July 23, 2010
Hosted by The Center for Transformative Scholarship & The Institute for Multimedia Literacy

Keynote: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Brown University

As digital humanitarians continue to turn their attention to the software and hardware that shape culture, the interpretation of source code offers a rich set of symbols and processes for exploration.

Critical Code Studies names the practice of explicating the extra-functional significance of source code. Rather than one specific approach or theories, CCS names a growing set of methodologies that help unpack the symbols that make up software. While still in its initial state, this nascent area of study has been growing rapidly over the course of 2010.

Following the massively successful Critical Code Study Working Group, we will be gathering at USC for a one-day conference to present readings of code. We are currently exploring the innovative publication of conference proceedings through Vectors and others partnerships.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, author of Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, will present a keynote address. During the Working Group, she presented a powerful chapter from her monograph, Programmed Visions: Software, DNA, Race (forthcoming MIT, 2010).

Please submit a 250-word abstract to markcmarino at gmail dot com by June 1, 2010 (Subject: “CCS @ USC 2010”). Presenters will be notified by June 15.

IF in College Education?

Mary Dooms, a middle school teacher in Illinois who has used interactive fiction in her teaching, recently asked me if I knew about any uses of IF in teaching in higher education. That’s a good question.

She had found Utah State’s Voices of Spoon River and Myth Mechanic. I know right off that Jeff Howard has taught The Crying of Lot 49 using IF, and that students read IF and create it as a digital literary practice in two of my classes, Interactive Narrative and The Word Made Digital.

I’ve certainly heard of many other uses of IF in education, and when I can, I’ll begin to collect and list those. Rather than wait, I thought I’d call for links from Post Position/Grand Text Auto readers, since I know there are many classroom deployments of IF that I’m not aware of. If they have well-packaged downloads like the Utah State projects, that’s particularly nice, but I imagine that other information about the classroom use of IF would also be helpful. Any ideas?

“Experimental Writing”

We concluded the Spring 2010 21W.750 (Experimental Writing) today by composing a definition of the class’s title phrase, based on what we learned during our studies this semester.

EXPERIMENTAL WRITING (vbl. n., c. 1872)

1. The elephant is tiring. X-raying with yttrium, the pact seems tame, empty. Of yore, a raisin says “nope” to an igloo.

2. The octopus, magnificent, eats a tiger and an elephant. (a) Turn no oblog torpor. Revel! (b) An acrobatic cat, loyal, limp, is politicized.

3. What Twitter rhetoric: lame, incredible, empty. Tomatoes, made sarcastic, ignite both earrings.

4. A notorious sarcophogus, glorious static.

(This is an analytic definition using content words beginning with particular letters, including the letters in “experimental writing,” that were provided by students in the class.)

IF Contests Everywhere

Hello from the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction.

The TWIF Comp, a contest for interactive fiction with code of 140 characters or less, recently wrapped up. (We’re playing some of the games at the PR-IF meeting today.) Although it certainly had its in-joke aspects, the competition did bear amusing fruit, and it’s only one example of several recent competitions beyond the traditional big annual IF Comp. Given my interest in tiny literary systems, I certainly gave some thought to entering this one. However, I’ve pledged to spend all of my IF-writing time working on or in Curveship, and 140-character programs in the system weren’t at the top of my to-do list.

Before the TWIF Comp, there was the Jay Is Games interactive fiction competition, and after it there is the Second Annual MetaFilter Interactive Fiction Contest, which just started on Saturday. Those who read German will be delighted to know, if they don’t already, that the Grand Prix 2010 has just concluded. There’s also going to be an interactive fiction competition (for 30-minute-playtime games) at the Massachusetts demoparty @party. (Information will be posted on the site soon.) And Introcomp is gearing up: Interested parties should indicate their intention to enter by the end of the month. In case you’re new to online competitions, comps, or “compos” as they are sometimes called, these are not furious masculinist agons; they are mainly excuses for people to complete games and have them played by a bunch of people.

At the very least, you IF-interested parties should take a look at the games being proffered in recent contests – or, see if you want your IF to be part of one of these occasions.

Bill Gates at MIT

Bill Gates spoke at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium today as the chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, advocating for the brightest minds to work on the most important problems of the world – such as reducing childhood deaths through health, sanitation, and development programs. The talk was part of a tour that also includes Stanford, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and Harvard. There were only a few seats free in Kresge. Among other things, Gates suggested separating the accreditation function of higher education to allow for non-place-based learning. He softened the blow by praising MIT’s Open Courseware and listing several of the OCW courses that he himself had taken.

Since I didn’t see Richard Stallman in line, I didn’t stay for all of the Q&A.

There wasn’t a torrent of new information in Gates’s talk, but it was fascinating to hear in relation to Gates’s 1976 “An Open Letter to Hobbyists.” There are actually some similarities in tone: In both the letter and the talk, Gates expressed dismay at the current system not working very well. But in the letter, he declares that computer hobbyists should stop stealing software, says that people who have been re-selling his product without authorization should be kicked out of the club, and invites members to write him and pay up. This, he hopes, will advance him toward his dream, in which he can “hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.” Today, he’s the world’s wealthiest man, actively seeking more effective ways to benefit society by giving his money away.

On the one hand, one wonders if we might have done just as well if we had kept our money in the first place.

On the other hand, Gates becoming a full-time philanthropist and speaking to our technical institute here from that perspective makes for quite a development. It reminds me that his rival and fellow college drop-out, Steve Jobs, got his start selling blue boxes with Steve Wozniak to allow his customers in the Berkeley dorms to resist the man and make free long-distance calls. Now, Jobs, the man, has a worldwide telephony empire of his own via the iPhone and its thought-crushing App Store.

It’s too bad you can’t tell who the good guys are going to be – say, by looking for a “don’t be evil” button.

Two Profs on Boing Boing

Two of my friends and fellow investigators of digital media have recently been featured on Boing Boing:

The article on Fox Harrell was reblogged on Kotaku, too: “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Hard.” While the title is catchy, I have to point out that Fox’s work is about richer and more multidimensional ways of representing oneself digitally, beyond the one idea of skin color or race. So, we should anticipate that this work is likely to benefit “whitey” as well – and anyone who wants more than a Monopoly token as an in-game or online representation.