This Speculative Musing

Monday 1 December 2014, 10:44 pm   ///  

Exists! The Trope Tank.

An idea about libraries...

(It’s from this book.)

Some Houses of Dust

Monday 1 December 2014, 9:37 pm   /////  

Zach Whalen pointed out that it would probably be interesting to compare the reimplementations of A House of Dust that he did early this year and that I did more recently. Whalen’s work to reimplement historical systems is really excellent, by the way, and I in fact showed his animated GIF of “Kick that Habit Man” when I premiered Memory Slam, including a workalike of Gysin and Sommerville’s program and my version of the Knowles and Tenney poem, at NYU ITP’s Code Poetry Slam.

While I’m not going to go deep into code-level analysis of these – that’s a better task for some other code scholar and code warrior – I will make a few high-level points about the two versions, to at least cover some of the obvious differences.

My implementation is much more flat, for better or worse.

Flat in terms of files; all the CSS and JavaScript used by my implementation is packed into the one HTML page, so it’s easy to save it to your desktop, change the file around quickly, and see the result. However, that’s not a very Enterprise way to go about it; Whalen’s version reflects more typical programming practices in that regard, linking to a standard CSS file used throughout the site and using JavaScript stashed in .js files.

My version is also flat also in terms of appearance. While I present the plain monochrome all-caps stanzas scrolling up, Whalen gives a Janus-like look backwards to the pinfeed fanfold paper on which the original poem was published and forwards to the world of social media, via the “Share” button. This is a visual reminder of how the original prinout looked (although it did have four spaces of indentation rather than one!) and an indication of how its output can be part of today’s systems of sharing. I chose to use a proportional font because the monospace font seems too austere and too severe of a historical reminder to me, but I’m glad there is Whalen’s monospace alternative as well. That the lines in Whalen’s version appear a bit at a time is also a nice printerly touch.

It’s an empirical question as to whose version is the most easily modifiable and remixable. One can change the strings around quite easily in both versions to attain new versions of the classic program, after all the files are obtained. I would guess (and hope) that my version might have the edge in providing this sort of flexibility to those exploring the poem through programming, whether new or experienced. If so, that might make it useful in this particular regard and make up for the less historicized appearance and less sharable output.

There was another point to my implementation, which was that it was done more or less uniformly with the other three pieces included in my Memory Slam. So, a new programmer working with any one of those would be more easily able to continue to work with other programs in the set.

That’s something of a start to the discussion of these. I certainly welcome further comments and comparisons.

Megawatt Incarnate

Just as Pinocchio became a real boy, so Megawatt (my generated novel for NaNoGenMo 2014) has become a real book.

Megawatt bound (the proof)

Megawatt interior

The book will be for sale within a few days from the Harvard Book Store.

Z-Machine Implemented in Hardware

Sunday 30 November 2014, 11:25 pm   ////  

It happened to some extent with LISP, which certainly started out as a software programming language, and the LISP machines, which supported the language with hardware features.

Now, the Z-Machine, which was probably the first commercial virtual machine, developed in 1979 by Joel Berez and Marc Blank for Infocom, has been implemented in hardware using an FPGA. The Verilog code is available, so you can make your own if you like.

It all goes to show you … there is no software.

A Great Platform Studies Answer

Sunday 30 November 2014, 3:27 pm   ///////  

To how software keeps getting better and graphics get better-looking on the same old consoles.

Note that for the Atari VCS / Atari 2600, only answers #3 and #4 apply, since developers didn’t use “engines” or even compilers, instead writing their code in assembly langauge. (Presumably the assemblers didn’t improve much over the years.) Also, the VCS had no firmware, flashable or otherwise; although refined versions of the hardware were produced over the years, such as the Atari 2600 Jr., such systems were optimized for cheaper manufacturing and didn’t improve performance.

Still, there are important continuities between the answer to this question for the VCS and for modern-day consoles. And the answer is not obvious, since companies and the press usually emphasize the improvements in hardware that are made between generations of a console.

#! Coverage at MIT – Next Reading at Google

Saturday 29 November 2014, 10:56 pm   /////  

Arts at MIT has a nice new article about my book #!, one that is very aptly titled. It’s by Sharon Lacey. I read from the book at the List Visual Arts Center at MIT on October 22.

My next reading, on December 2, will be at Google in the Authors@Google series.

News Flash: Flash News!

Saturday 29 November 2014, 3:27 pm   /////  

There’s a nice article up at The Atlantic about Flash, written by the two authors of the new Platform Studies book, Anastasia Salter and John Murray. Their new book, I’ll remind you, is Flash: Building the Interactive Web.


Saturday 29 November 2014, 1:13 pm   //////  

Megawatt coverThe fruits of my National Novel Generation Month (NaNoGenMo) labors are now online; the Megawatt generator is available as a single 350-line Python file, while the novel it deterministically generates can be obtained as a PDF, megawatt.pdf or in epub format, megawatt.epub. From the program’s docstring and from the preface to the book:

Megawatt is the title of both a computer program, the source code to which you may be reading, and the output of this program, which in many ways is like a standard novel and which you may instead be reading. This note appears at the beginning of both.

The program Megawatt is based on passages from Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt, first published in 1953 but written much earlier, when Beckett was aiding the French Resistance during World War II.

The novel Megawatt leaves aside all of the more intelligible language of Beckett’s novel and is based, instead, on that which is most systematic and inscrutable. It does not just recreate these passages, although with minor changes the Megawatt code can be used to do so. In the new novel, rather, they are intensified by generating, using the same methods that Beckett used, significantly more text than is found in the already excessive Watt.

(Please note: The following information is handy if you want to, for instance, modify the program and generate a PDF or epub yourself. You don’t need to do this to read the novel. You can download it in PDF: megawatt.pdf or in epub format: megawatt.epub.)

To produce the novel in markdown format, run (a Python 2 program) with TextBlob (a text processing library) installed.

% python > megawatt.text

To produce PDF and epub documents, use pandoc:

% pandoc -V geometry:paperwidth=5.5in \ 
    -V geometry:paperheight=8.25in \ 
    -V geometry:margin=.7in -o megawatt.pdf \ 
% echo '% Megawatt' > info.txt
% echo '% Nick Montfort' >> info.txt
% pandoc -o megawatt.epub info.txt megawatt.text

Megawatt was written/generated for the second NaNoGenMo (National Novel Generation Month) in November 2014, and is free software.

A Gysin & Sommerville Question

Thursday 27 November 2014, 1:30 pm   /////  

I recently released Memory Slam, a set of four reimplementation of classic text generators. I did them over in JavaScript and in Python in the hopes that people would easily be able to play around with them, modify them, and understand them better through this sort of use. I’ve seen a few cases in which this has been done already, but first off, please let me know if you’ve posted modified versions of these, as I would love to see more. The license terms do not oblige you to do so, of course, they are licensed as free software. I’m just asking.

One question that remains is exactly when the program that automatically permuted phrases was written by Ian Sommerville in collaboration with Brion Gysin. I’m very interested in finding this out, but I do have other projects that are keeping me from doing archival or even deep library research into this. After discussion on the original announcement post, I’ve made a few corrections to this sort of metadata, but I still can’t figure out when this permutation code was first written. And since I don’t know which texts are the first examples of output from these programs, I also can’t tell how the permutations were ordered by the program.

The poem “KICK THAT HABIT MAN” was written manually in 1959 and other permutation poems were broadcast by the BBC in 1960. “Around 1960” is sometimes given as a date for the program or programs. However the Honeywell Series 200 Model 120, indicated in several places as the computer used, was not released until 1965. Please let me know if you know that a different computer was used or if you know the exact year in which the permutation poem programs were written.

And I can’t post something about these friends of William S. Burroughs, on Thanksgiving, without including this little prayer:

World Clock Punches in on The Verge

Wednesday 26 November 2014, 4:45 pm   //////  

Some kind comments about World Clock and NaNoGenMo in the article “The Strange World of Computer-Generated Novels” by Josh Dzieza.

Nick Montfort’s World Clock was the breakout hit of last year. A poet and professor of digital media at MIT, Montfort used 165 lines of Python code to arrange a new sequence of characters, locations, and actions for each minute in a day. He gave readings, and the book was later printed by the Harvard Book Store’s press. Still, Kazemi says reading an entire generated novel is more a feat of endurance than a testament to the quality of the story, which tends to be choppy, flat, or incoherent by the standards of human writing.

“Even Nick expects you to maybe read a chapter of it or flip to a random page,” Kazemi says.

There were many great generated novels last year, and are already many great ones this year. I don’t think among this abundance that World Clock is a very good poster boy for NaNoGenMo. Still, my experience with the book does make a strong case for having your generated novel translated in (or originally written in) Polish.

Interactive Fiction Meetup at MIT, Again, Tomorrow

Sunday 23 November 2014, 2:27 pm   ///////  

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction meets once again tomorrow (Monday 2014-11-24) in its regular meeting-place, the Trope Tank. We meet at 6:30 in MIT’s room 14N-233.

There is much to discuss and celebrate, such as the conclusion of the IF Comp – congrats to Sean M. Shore for his 1st place game Hunger Daemon, and to all the other winners. Besides that there’s the recent release of Hadean Lands by PR-IF stalwart Andew Plotkin. And, today there’s a front-page New York Times article about IF, and Twine games specifically. I’m sure I forgot some things we have to celebrate, so come by to see what those things are.

#! in San Antonio Fri 11/21 – #! in Austin Sat 11/22

Wednesday 19 November 2014, 2:58 pm   ///////  

I’m doing two Central Texas readings from my book of programs and poems #! this weekend:

San Antonio: The Twig Book Shop

Friday, Nov 21 at 5pm
The Twig Book Shop
in The Pearl (306 Pearl Parkway, Suite 106)

Austin: Monkeywrench Books

Saturday, Nov 22 at 4pm
Monkeywrench Books
(110 N Loop Blvd E)

#! (pronounced “shebang”) consists of poetic texts that are presented alongside the short computer programs that generated them. The poems, in new and existing forms, are inquiries into the features that make poetry recognizable as such, into code and computation, into ellipsis, and into the alphabet. Computer-generated poems have been composed by Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, Alison Knowles and James Tenney, Hugh Kenner and Joseph P. O’Rourke, Charles O. Hartman, and others. The works in #! engage with this tradition of more than 50 years and with constrained and conceptual writing. The book’s source code is also offered as free software. All of the text-generating code is presented so that it, too, can be read; it is all also made freely available for use in anyone’s future poetic projects.

Nick Montfort’s digital writing projects include Sea and Spar Between (with Stephanie Strickland) and The Deletionist (with Amaranth Borsuk and Jesper Juul). He developed the interactive fiction system Curveship and (with international collaborators) the large-scale story generation system Slant; was part of the group blog Grand Text Auto; wrote Ream, a 500-page poem, on a single day; organized Mystery House Taken Over, a collaborative “occupation” of a classic game; wrote Implementation, a novel on stickers, with Scott Rettberg; and wrote and programmed the interactive fictions Winchester’s Nightmare, Ad Verbum, and Book and Volume.

Montfort wrote the book of poems Riddle & Bind and co-wrote 2002: A Palindrome Story with Willliam Gillespie. The MIT Press has published four of Montfort’s collaborative and individually-authored books: The New Media Reader, Twisty Little Passages, Racing the Beam, and most recently 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, a collaboration with nine other authors that Montfort organized. He is faculty advisor for the Electronic Literature Organization, whose Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 he co-edited, and is associate professor of digital media at MIT.

ATNE Salon Today in Boston: Reditions of Artworks

Wednesday 19 November 2014, 2:47 pm   ////////  

Today I’ll offer a discussion of porting and translation in computational art and literature at the ATNE Salon, Boston Cyberarts Gallery. The event’s at 7:30pm; the gallery is in the Green Street T Station, on the Orange Line in Jamaica Plain.

Reading from #! at UNH Tomorrow

Monday 17 November 2014, 11:12 pm   //  

I’ll read from my book #! at the University of New Hampshire tomorrow: Memorial Union Building, Theater 2. 12:30pm.


Sunday 16 November 2014, 1:19 am   /////  


Memory Slam and Code Poetry at ITP

Saturday 15 November 2014, 3:12 am   /////  

I was delighted to be at the first NYU ITP Code Poetry Slam a few hours ago, on the evening of November 14, 2014. The work presented was quite various and also very compelling. Although I had an idea of what was to come (as a judge who had seen many of the entires) the performances and readings exceeded my high expectations.

A reading I did from historical computational poetry kicked off the event. I read from a new set of reimplementations, in JavaScript and Python, that I developed for the occasion. The set of four pages/Python programs is called Memory Slam. It contains:

Love Letters
Christopher Strachey, 1952

Stochastic Texts
Theo Lutz, 1959

Permutation Poems
Brion Gysin & Ian Somerville, 1960

A House of Dust
Alison Knowles & James Tenney, 1967

These are well-known pieces, at least among the few of us who are into early computational poetry. (Chris Funkhouser and his Prehistorical Digital Poetry is one reason we know these and their importance; Noah Wardrip-Fruin has also offered a great discussion of Love Letters, and Stephanie Strickland, who was in attendance at the slam, has done two collaborative poems based on A House of Dust, one with me and one with Ian Hatcher.) Some implementations exist already of many, perhaps all of them – although I did not find one for A House of Dust. My point in putting these together was not to do something unprecedented, but to provide reasonably clean, easily modifiable versions in two of today’s well-known languages. This will hopefully allow people, even without programming background, to learn about these programs through playing with them.

If I didn’t implement everything perfectly, these are explicitly free software and you should feel free to not only play with them but to improve them as well.


Thursday 13 November 2014, 11:14 pm   /////  

Nick Montfort discusses 10 PRINT etc.; photo from RISD's Future of Writing class, 2014-11-11

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