Today’s CMS Masters Presentations

Today we heard final thesis presentations from the 2010 masters students in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program.

I’ve taught in CMS, which has an undergraduate and masters program, since I came to MIT three years ago. It’s a diverse program that has included digital media research and has brought contemporary computational work, among other types of media production and reception, into juxtaposition and under consideration. Here are the titles of this semester’s masters presentations:

  • M. Flourish Klink: “Laugh Out Loud in Real Life: Twilight, Women’s Humor, and Fan Identity”
  • Sheila Seles: “Audience Research for Fun and Profit: Rediscovering the value of television audiences”
  • Florence Gallez: “Open Park Online News Production: A Proposal for a Code of Ethics for Collaborative Journalism in the Digital Age”
  • Audubon Dougherty: “New Medium, New Practice: Civic production in live-streaming mobile video”
  • Nick Seaver: “A Brief History of Re-performance”
  • Madeleine Elish: “The Evolution of the Companion Species: Creating Realms of Possibility for the Personal Computer”
  • Jason Begy “Interpreting Abstract Games: The Metaphorical Potential of Formal Game Elements”
  • Elliot Pinkus: “The Physicality of Floating Numbers”
  • Hillary Kolos: “Not in it just to win it: Inclusive gaming in an MIT dorm”
  • Michelle Moon Lee: “Designing Game Ethics: A Pervasive Game Adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo”

I’m not advising any CMS masters students this year, but this program does allow for research into my area of interest (computational art and media) and should accommodate more research in these areas in the future. (The program has had some great thesis on computational media in the past, too: Brett Camper’s work on the Game Boy Advance homebrew programming community is an example.) In 2010-2011, because the program is in transition to new co-directors, we won’t have any graduate students around, but we will be running admissions for a class of masters students that will join us in 2011. If you’re interested in working with me or my colleagues here at MIT on a masters degree, let me know.

Two to Read on ebr

That’s electronic book review, which does indeed host electronic reviews of good old books, but also offers up scholarly articles on digital literature, as it has been doing for a while. Two recent articles, in particular, are not to be missed by those interested e-lit.

First, Daniel Punday’s piece on how computer games could break the homogeneity of e-books, in which he describes the uniformity implicit in the e-book concept, in the idea of a modular library, and the disappointing implications of such restricted formats for digital, bookish innovation. Punday is more optimistic than I am about the possibility that gaming might lead us out of e-book thralldom, but whether or not he’s right about this potential solution, he points out an important and overlooked aspect of the e-book situation that we need to attend to – at least, for instance, by being willing to build e-books as individual iPhone apps when we want to do more than the standard formats can accomodate.

And, Maire-Laure Ryan’s discussion of how digital art engages with dysfunctionality extends the conversation beyond the playful forms of programming that Michael Mateas and I have discussed to broadly consider political, ludic, programmatic, and even inadvertent types of digital malfunctioning, or breakdown – or should we call it “dysfunctionality”? (Thank goodness that my creative work wasn’t cited in the section about that last category of brokenness, although I’ll admit that it could have been…) Ryan argues that the digital medium has proven better at producing anti-books than books (or, I suppose, e-books) and that creative dysfunction helps to make us “aware of the codes and processes (technological, linguistic, cultural and cognitive) that regulate our social and mental life.”

PAX Blurb

This weekend was a great time, both at the official PAX-East, where we saw the premiere of Get Lamp, and in the alternate but connected universe of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction Hospitality Suite, where Andrew Plotkin’s organizational acumen and contributions allowed us to hear panels, write and play Speed IF games, and snack and converse. The 2010 IF Summit at PAX-East was a great success. There and at the main expo, I got to speak with people from the contemporary IF community and many old-school IF luminaries from Infocom and before – and even got to be on a panel with several of them.

Dave Lebling, Don Woods, Brian Moriarty, Andrew Plotkin, Nick Montfort, Steve Meretzky, Jason Scott (standing, in absurd outfit). It is April Fool’s Day. Am I Photoshopped into this panel? Photo CC by Eric Havir.

And, I got to play on the proto-Ms. Pac Man board – the one Crazy Otto board that is known to still exist.

After PAX, I hosted a great reading of interactive fiction by Emily Short (who read from Alabaster) and Jeremy Freese (Violet), with interacting done by Kevin Jackson-Mead and Jenni Poladni. The event was at MIT (as with all Purple Blurb presentations), had standing room only, and prompted a great deal of good conversation afterwards.

There is much more that could be said, and many more PAX-East IF people that I could mention – a few of those, beyond the PR-IF regulars, are: Sam Kabo Ashwell, Liza Daly, Brendan Desilets, Stephen Granade, Juhana Leinonen, Jacqueline Lott, Jesse McGrew, Carl Muckenhoupt, Aaron Reed, Dan Schmidt, Robb Sherwin, Dan Shiovitz, Emily Short, and Rob Wheeler. (My apologies to those whose names I’m overlooking or don’t have on hand.) Some of these are locals I rarely see; others are people I have known for years, had numerous extensive discussions with, and in one case, collaborated with, and yet PAX-East was my first chance to meet them in person.

Based on last weekend and last Monday, the outlook for IF is extremely bright: We can share games and discuss important questions about IF in person as well as online, we have plenty of ideas that we’re making progress on but can certainly discuss further, and we have a documentary film coming on DVD that will please IF diehards and help to introduce students and other sympathetic viewers to the pleasures of the text adventure.

The Garden of Grand Forks: UND Writers Conference

I recently went from presenting at the prestigious and vibrant University of North Dakota Writers Conference to being on a panel at the massive Penny Arcade Expo in Boston.

First things first: The former was “Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art,” the 41st UND Writers Conference. Last year at UND the presenters included Charles Baxter and Chuck Klosterman; the year before, Russel Banks, my colleague Junot Díaz, Alice Fulton, and Salman Rushdie.

To provide some perspective, back in 1978 the lineup at this conference was John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, Ring Lardner, Tillie Olsen, and Eudora Welty.

This year I heard Art Spiegelman in conversation about his comic and New Yorker cover art, Frank X. Walker on his poems giving voice to the journey of York (who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition as Clark’s slave), Cecelia Condit on her video art, and three of my fellow electronic literature writers, with their diverse approaches: Mark Amerika, Deena Larsen, and Stuart Moulthrop. I had to leave before I could hear slam poet Saul Williams, but I’m grateful for what I was able to experience of the conference. And I’m grateful that I was able to be on two panels, select a reel of music videos for the associated film festival, speak to a computer science class, and present several collaborative and individual projects to a sizable audience in the main room of UND’s student union:

  • Ad Verbum, my interactive fiction piece from 2000, inspired by the constrained writing of the Oulipo. Thanks again to the young interactor who volunteered to try collecting items in and escaping from the Sloppy Salon.
  • 2002: A Palindrome Story, by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie. I showed the Reifier interface and read from the very beginning and end.
  • Implementation by Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg. I explained the project and read eight texts (stickers, mailing labels) from it.
  • Currency, by Roderick Coover (video) and Nick Montfort (text). I showed “Filip a Guinea: The Elephant and Castle.”
  • Taroko Gorge, the poetry generator I wrote in Taiwan.
  • My ongoing series of tiny perl poetry generators, ppg256.

The people in Grand Forks, ND were polite (I was told I shouldn’t be surprised about this) but also surprisingly receptive. It was certainly a different sort of crowd than I met at Banff, with many people from the community and even driving in from surrounding areas. I think they saw some of the pleasure in writing under constraint, some of the benefits of writing collaboratively, and some of the potential of computation, which I tried to show could be turned to literary ends.

Although I got to converse with Stuart and Deena on and off our panels, I came in too late for one of their readings and had to leave before I could hear the other one. I did get to hear Mark Amerika take us from his early writing in The Kafka Chronicles up through his Web work and recent moving image project, all of which are fresh and impressive. His video work is certainly impelled ahead by the work of Chris Marker, whose Sans Soleil Mark selected for the film festival. I should note that I also loved getting to watch Timecode, Stuart Moulthrop’s selection.

Thanks again to Crystal Alberts for inviting me and for her work on this very successful conference.

When I can manage, I’ll write a bit about the very different but also incredible Penny Arcade Expo East…

IF Purple Blurb today

A last-minute reminder for you local Post Position readers: Emily Short and Jeremy Freese are reading from their interactive fiction work today in MIT’s room 14E-310 at 5:30pm. Hope to see you there!

We Cured Unix – Now What?

I’m here at LibrePlanet 2010. Although I’m not going to bust out with full-conference liveblogging (that’s so 2005) I do have a quick summary, and a reaction, to today’s opening talk and the ensuing discussion. The presentation was “We’re done cloning Unix, what next?” by John Gilmore, co-founder of the EFF and founder of the “alt” branch of USENET.

My notes from Gilmore’s talk: The GNU plan from the beginning (with Stallman writing Emacs) was to replace proprietary Unix with free software. Now … “We’re sort of like one of those medical charities that has succeeded in wiping polio from the face of the earth.” And it’s not only Unix – CodeWeavers has also pretty much finished reimplementing the user side of Windows, so that Wine (a free software Windows emulator) works more often than not with arbitrary Windows programs. Replacing Windows makes sense as an external goal, but “how many people in our community want to understand the guts of Windows and replicate it?” So, what is our common goal now?

Mentioned in Q&A: ReactOS … We’re not finished with free software beyond the nerdy command line; for instance, video editing; free software for hackers only as opposed to school systems, the business world? … Wine and Samba are very tactical moves to keep the majority market-share players from having control; what about Facebook? … Reverse-engineering tools to understand binary programs … Support the abandoned Windows XP platform for the users trapped there … Communications, content, and services; for an open Facebook, we need open services … free software that uses new paradigms, not the Microsoft model … Having a solid computer gaming framework would be good; the best games make you think and expand your mind … Wine should be like Vaseline, easing the transition from non-free to free; we need a better UI … What about free software in cars?

Although I am part of the FSF, I’m in no way a GNU hacker and my participation in free software isn’t nearly as great as with most people in the room. So I decided, rather than jumping in to the discussion, to offer my comment and my suggestion for a post-Unix project here:

The real thing that the group here has to offer the world is not to follow up a free Unix-like system with a free Windows-like one or with free firmware. It’s probably not even a better user interface or better video-editing software. I suggest that it’s the power to program the computer and to control computation and networking, not just to edit documents and media. Obviously computers *can* be programmed right now, but people like the ones here have a oligopoly on this sort of programming. Whether or not we’re equally skilled in all areas, we’re for the most part comfortable with the idea writing Perl to process text, setting up cron jobs, writing GUI applications, writing servers in Python, and programming games. We don’t think it’s beyond our reach.

That’s not a typical attitude. Maybe it was in 1983, when home computers ran BASIC (gasp – Microsoft BASIC! Ripped off from Dartmouth…) and people who bought these computers and brought them home learned to program them as a matter of course. But it isn’t now. Proprietary software discourages programming by “ordinary people” and encourages office-style and traditional production-style approaches. The people here who hack on GNU aren’t, generally speaking, expert video editors or UI designers, although there are surely of few of each here. The real strength that the group has is in being expert at programming. What they can offer the world, beyond free imitations of existing systems, is a computer that is more free to program, that by design (not just by license) encourages users to work and play powerfully as programmers.

GNU’s first project, Emacs, is not just a text editor; it is also a programmable environment, a major part of its appeal to many programmers. To look to more recent projects, I find Processing a particularly powerful piece of free software that allows students and artists to use visual, computational capabilities and to understand programming in an extraordinary context. What if the improved programmability of the computer, in a broad sense, for many purposes, became a major goal for free software developers? Couldn’t we do a few orders of magnitude better, and allow for people to be even more empowered by the use (and programming) of computers?

Free / Writing / Game Gatherings

This weekend, I’m attending LibrePlanet, the Free Software Foundation’s conference and hackfest here in Cambridge. I don’t have anything to present or hack upon at this one, but I’ll be listening and learning more about free software and software freedom.

On Tuesday, I head to Grand Forks, ND for the University of North Dakota Writers Conference: Mind the Gap – Print, New Media, Art. The featured authors and artists this year are:

  • Art Spiegelman
  • Frank X. Walker
  • Nick Montfort
  • Cecelia Condit
  • Saul Williams
  • Mark Amerika
  • Stuart Moulthrop
  • Deena Larsen
  • Zeitgeist
  • Kanser with More Than Lights

I’ll return on Friday and head straight to the Penny Arcade Expo East (PAX East) in Boston, where the confluence of about 60,000 gamers is expected. At 9:30pm on Friday is the world premiere of Jason Scott’s interactive fiction documentary Get Lamp. Afterwards is a panel with:

  • Dave Lebling (Zork, Starcross, The Lurking Horror)
  • Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, Hitchhiker’s, A Mind Forever Voyaging)
  • Nick Montfort (included in this august group for writing a book about this stuff)
  • Brian Moriarty (Wishbringer, Trinity, Beyond Zork)
  • Andrew Plotkin (Spider and Web, Shade, Dual Transform)
  • Don Woods (co-author with Will Crowther of the canonical first IF, Adventure)

And then, on Monday, March 29, at 5:30pm in MIT’s room 14E-310, I’ll host a reading in the Purple Blurb series. Emily Short (author of many award-winning interactive fiction pieces, including the recent Alabaster) and Jeremy Freese (winner of last year’s IF Comp for his Violet) will present and read from their work.

I hope to see some of you here in the Boston/Cambridge area or, perhaps, in Grand Forks!

Gotta Get Outta this 8-Bit Town

Brett Camper, who recently presented a great paper on the “fake bit” game La Mulana at Digital Arts and Culture 2009 and whose Comparative Media Studies masters thesis here at MIT was “Homebrew and the Social Construction of Gaming: Community, Creativity and Legal Context of Amateur Game Boy Advance Development,” has an excellent new interactive map of New York City.

It’s called 8-bit NYC,and it looks like this:

Playing the Race Avatar

Race in videogames is not an entirely overlooked topic, but mainstreams games, at their best, tend to play, strech, and poke up against stereotypes rather than offering affirming visions of our identities and communities and how they interrelate. So, I was glad read that discussion of this topic “found its way to GDC ’10,” as noted in the post “What Color is Your Avatar?” in Brainy Gamer. The writeup covers a industry/academic panel at GDC with Manveer Heir, Leigh Alexander, and my colleague here at MIT, Mia Consalvo. Although I wasn’t there, it seems to relate their important points well, and it certainly offers some food for thought.

As Michael Jackson sang, if you want to be my baby, it don’t matter if you’re black or while, but it might matter if video games’ representation of minority races and women is absent, extremely scant, stiff, stereotypical, or obligatory. Why not add diversity of this sort to the list of things we’re willing to devote effort to – those things we want positively imagined and powerfully simulated in our games?

Art as Process, BASIC Considered Helpful

Two quick interruptions to our unscheduled blog hiatus:

Francisco J. Ricardo of RISD’s Digital+Media Department has written a deep and detailed blog post, “From Objecthood to Processhood.” In it, he defends artists, their work, and their discourse about the digital, responding to Henry Jenkins’s 2000 article “Games, the New Lively Art,” which celebrates video games but isn’t as keen on the work of artists. He also describes the transition from a focus on the artwork, an object, to consideration of art as process, concluding with reference to my ppg256 series.

Also, a rather innovative defense of BASIC is advanced in “Where Dijkstra went wrong: the value of BASIC as a first programming language,” a post by Mike Taylor, who, by the way, has a totally sweet banner at the top of his blog. Edsger W. Dijkstra, who was my teacher at the University of Texas, is known for his work on structured programming and just about as well known for his quick denunciations of COBOL and BASIC. The post argues that BASIC is useful to programmers and allows them to discipline their thinking about programs. I would defend BASIC for a different, although not inconsistent, reason: The huge outpouring of innovative, diverse, creative programs – often very short ones – that were written in the 1970s and 1980s, making programming a widespread activity and showing people the potential of the computer for (among other things) amusement, simulation, play with language, and production of visual art. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and I wrote a bit more on this back in 2003 in our introduction to two BASIC programs on The New Media Reader CD-ROM.

In(ter)ventions in Medias Res

I’m here in Banff (in Alberta, Canada) at the cutting edge, or maybe the precipitous edge, or, as I’d prefer to think, the connecting edge. The occasion is In(ter)ventions: Literary Practice at the Edge: A Gathering, organized by Steven Ross Smith.

The presenters include: Charles Bernstein, Jen Bervin, Christian Bök, J.R. Carpenter, Maria Damon, Ram Devineni, Craig Dworkin, Al Filreis, Christopher Funkhouser, Kenneth Goldsmith, D Kimm, Larissa Lai, Daphne Marlatt, Nick Montfort, Erin Moure, Lance Olsen, Stephen Osborne, Kate Pullinger, Stephanie Strickland, Steve Tomasula, Fred Wah.

The presentations (which include critical papers, but also many readings, screenings, performances, and artists’ talks) have been provocative and have unfolded new types of beauty and new understandings of process.

On Thursday, February 18, I was honored to join Larissa Lai and Chris Funkhouser as part of the opening reading. I read from Implementation (a collaboration with Scott Rettberg) and ppg256, concluding with the premiere of a new poety generator in this series, ppg256-5:

perl -le '@a=split/,/,"conceptual,digit,flarf,maximal,modern,pixel,quiet,real";sub f{pop if rand>.5}sub w{$a[rand@a]}{print f("post").w."ism ".w."s ".f("the ").w."\n".(" "x45)."WHAT DOES ppg DO?";$a[rand@a]=~s/[aeio]/substr("aeio",rand 4,1)/e if $l++>5;sleep 5;redo}'

As I explained in my talk the next morning, this program is based on a section in the middle of Tristan Tzara’s February 1921 Dada Manifesto, a section that begins:

cubism constructs a cathedral of artistic liver paste


expressionism poisons artistic sardines


If you run ppg256-5 (which is the real way to experience the program) it might begin:

postmodernism flarfs digit


realism reals the conceptual


Because this section of Tzara’s manifesto ends “50 francs reward to the person who finds the best way to explain DADA to us,” so I concluded by presentation similarly, offering a 50 character reward for the person who finds the best way to explain ppg to us. Chris Funkhouser said, “It does a lot with a little.” John Cayley offered that “ppg combines atoms of language.” These aren’t bad explanations, but the most impressive so far has been from Travis Kirton, who, without having any previous experience programming in Perl, created and sent me this modified version of ppg256-5:

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}'

A run of this may begin by outputting:

deltrizes ionation


deoverltrizes mutations


I’ll have to see if anything can top that and earn the 50-character reward.

Here’s what’s being said on Twitter about the conference. I’ve found that one participant, Claire Lacey, has been writing about In(ter)ventions on her blog poetactics. Finally, here are just a handful of memorable (mis)quotes to give you another impression, however slanted, of this gathering:

Stephanie Strickland: “The front of your wave is the back of someone else’s.”

Steve Tomasula, in reference to Magritte: “No one ever says that this isn’t a cigarette:

My mishearing of Maria Damon, who was discussing healthy eating with someone as we were descending a staircase: “You need a multi-prawn strategy.”

D Kimm: “We are always unknown to someone.”

Update: Steven Osborne has just launched a blog with a post about the conference.

“Geração sobre a fala” / “My Generation about Talking”

“Geração sobre a fala” (“My Generation about Talking,” Nick Montfort) Tradução para o português, Cicero Inacio da Silva.

“My Generation about Talking,” a text generator which I first presented at the Software Studies Workshop on May 21, 2008, is now available in Portuguese translation, thanks to Cicero Inacio da Silva. It was made for use in a presentation, but the program is set up to allow a user to play the entire presentation or to access any of the fifteen individual voices, each of which affirms repeatedly in some way.

The program is in Python and will run from the command line in OS X and on many Linux systems. It will run on Windows after Python for Windows has been installed.

For instance, to run the English version of this program on OS X:

  1. Download to the desktop; if you download it to another location, move the file to the desktop.
  2. Start the Terminal application and open a terminal window. An easy way to do this: Click on the Spotlight magnifying glass in the upper left, type “terminal”, and select the Terminal application. A window will open.
  3. In the terminal window, type “cd Desktop” and press return to change directories to the desktop.
  4. Type “python” and press return.