NAFTA Party

Wednesday 11 May 2011, 10:06 pm   /////  
A collaborative story by Jesse Ashcraft-Johnson, Eleanor Crummé, Alex Ghaben, Cisco Gonzales, Ray Gonzalez, Boling Jiang, Nick Montfort, Shannon Moran, Kirsten Paredes, Carter Rice, Tyler Wagner, and Jia Zhu

“Mr. President, can you summarize the events of the G-6 conference?”

“First, a bunch of world leaders surrendered their favorite prostitutes. Then, we all yelled ‘Yeehaw!'” That was what George H. W. Bush thought, anyway, as he delivered a quick straight answer to the question.

“Mr. President, what was your holiday message to the troops?”

“I told the boys: either step up to the challenge or there will be no Christmas presents this year.”

When the photo-op smiles fell away, there was a moment of hesitation between Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney and Mexican President Salinas. The prepared statements about NAFTA were left on the podium, the talking points and teleprompters left in the press room with the reporters. Music swelled outside closed doors. “Well — either we dance or we lose ourselves in emerging global markets!” Bush blurted out, the twang in his voice inviting them to the hoedown.

Whiskey heavy on his breath, Bush turned to Salinas and elbowed him playfully. “Were you tutoring someone last night in long division? Either that was a very short 18-year-old or you might want to go see a priest. I hear they’re good with that sort of thing.”

He felt Mulroney’s eyes on him and turned abruptly. “Do you have a staring problem, boy? You’re looking at me like a damn homosexual. Either you face me like a man or spend the night. I’ll pound you ’till you’re tender.”

Mulroney flashed a smile, then started. A SWAT team was scaling the White House wall. “Look!” he said, gripping President Bush’s hand. “Either monkeys are flying out of your butt, or we should really rethink what we told the police last night. Maybe that anonymous call to the FBI tip line about hiding little boys in the attic wasn’t such a great idea.”

As their hands touched, Bush remembered the secret NAFTA initiation ceremony of the previous night.

Salinas had been pouring shots of tequila for a while. Stumbling up on top of the table, Bush called for attention and announced: “In order to promote unity, we must remove all barriers to our freedom. That includes our clothing.” Salinas nodded gravely, adding, “we must be pure and unfettered in body as well as soul.” There were noises of confusion from the others gathered there. “Hey, I’m from Texas, bitches. This is how we roll. Go big or go home!” Mulroney reached deep into his pants and pulled out a 12-ounce bottle of maple syrup. “Big enough for you, Bush?” he shouted as he chugged it down with a giant sucking sound.

One thing led to another. In the darkness, having slipped past the Secret Service, they ended up joining hands while riding bicycles naked down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bush was snapped out of his reverie by the arrival of the NAFTA treasurer who had come to brief the world leaders, who were inebriated once again, on the state of the budget.

“First, take off your clothes,” Bush told him. “Then we’ll talk … “

Improviso is Out

Wednesday 16 March 2011, 11:40 pm   /////  

Jeff Orkin, of Restaurant Game fame, has just launched Improviso, a system that allows players to improvise (online) and make a somewhat corny science fiction film by taking the role of director or lead actor. Orkin developed the system with collaborating students at the Singapore MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. I was pleased to see an early version of the system this summer, and very glad that the project has now blasted off. If you do Windows, download Improviso and see what you can make of it and with it.

Label This One a Failure

It’s tough to write about the ideas that didn’t work out. Sometimes the negative results actually aren’t very interesting, and it’s better not to discuss them. In other cases, it’s impolite to point out other people’s roles – to blame them – and impossible to discuss the failure otherwise. But when a failure is not too big of a deal, possibly instructive to bring up, and as least as much my fault as anyone else’s, that rare opportunity to post about it presents itself.

In 2005, those of us blogging at Grand Text Auto had the idea of starting a “label.” We wanted something that would riff on our blog’s name and serve to showcase larger-scale projects that we did. The idea was that our creative projects would benefit from being associated with each other, just as our blog writing was more lively and had wider reach thanks to the shared context of Grand Text Auto.

After going through our usual best practices process of name development – perhaps, based on experiences like these, I’ll one day start a naming firm – we chose to call the label [auto mata]. With the square brackets and everything, if you want to really give a shout-out, although “Auto Mata” could work if that’s what fits your house style.

I offered to design the logotype. Now, I’m much less likely to start a career in graphic design, and certainly couldn’t drive that auto very far if I did, but I do like to indulge my dilettantish design interests when the opportunity presents itself. This is what I came up with:

Admittedly, it doesn’t exactly slap one in the face.

I don’t think my understated logo was the real problem with [auto mata], though. First Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade (July 2005) and then my own Book and Volume (November 2005) were released “under” (perhaps “with” is a better preposition) this label. And that was it. No other “extraordinary e-lit, digital art, and computer games” appeared as [auto mata] releases, which was one big problem. A list of two things isn’t doing that much helpful association or offering people very much to browse. I think if we had kept adding a piece to the [auto mata] catalog every few months, we’d have accumulated a very interesting collection that people would be looking at. We might even encourage the crossing of boundaries between (the stereotypes of) literary work, visual art, and computer games that Grand Text Auto was all about. But we weren’t all regularly doing larger-scale projects that were downloadable. [auto mata] couldn’t really, in any straightforward way, “release” an immense, functional Atari VCS joystick.

Another problem, though, is that [auto mata] was just a list on a Web page. We didn’t build much buzz around [auto mata] itself, or work to promote the label per se as opposed to the two pieces that were released under it. Perhaps this work would have done itself to some extent as our list of publications grew and our offerings drew in people from different communities. But, unfortunately, the work wasn’t done.

Michael, Andrew, and I often mentioned [auto mata] in promoting our pieces. The site is still up. But now it’s 2011, and it’s worth noting that both Façade and Book and Volume have been published again in the fine context of the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2. Although some “previous publication” information is included for each piece in the Collection, Michael, Andrew, and I all neglected to tell the editors that these two pieces are [auto mata] releases, so that information (provided within the pieces) doesn’t appear on the introduction pages where other bibliographic information is available.

Ah, well. I don’t regret the discussion that led to our developing [auto mata]; nor do I regret the not particularly onerous efforts that we took to get this label launched. In a different situation, such a label might have served not just to catalog work, but as an incentive or rallying point for the Grand Text Auto bloggers in creating work that could be proudly presented alongside other pieces. Perhaps a similar label could still do that for a different group of people.

Here’s the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2

Wednesday 9 February 2011, 4:30 pm   //////////  

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.

Colloquium Past, Conference to Come in Mexico

I’ve recently returned from a great trip to Mexico City. I was at the 5th Mexican International Colloquium on Computational Creativity presenting alongside two other foreign guests, Graeme Ritchie and Dan Ventura, and two local researchers, Rafael Pérez y Pérez and Eduardo Peñaloza. There was a productive and lively roundtable on interdisciplinary work and collaboration the day before the talk, too. Rafael Pérez y Pérez, a collaborator of mine, arranged the colloquium and was a very gracious host, making sure that we got to and from the airport, to all of the colloquium events, and to several excellent meals.

Rafael presents the collaborative version of the plot generator MEXICA.

They must love George Perec's La Disparition in Mexico City.

I have a few things to mention about the 5th MICCC, but I’d like for this post to be mainly forward-looking rather than backward-looking. That’s because ICCC-11, the 2011 International Conference on Computational Creativity, is an event on the same topic as this recent colloquium, and it will be taking place in the same city thanks to the local organizing work of our wonderful host, Rafael. Although the colloquium was intellectually rich and I enjoyed visiting Mexico City for its own sake, I was also very pleased because I was anticipating this larger-scale academic gathering that will be taking place April 27-29. In part, I was reminded of the conference because I and the other organizers, Rafael, Graeme, and Dan, spent a good bit of the time working to make the remaining decisions and to prepare for ICCC-11. But even just walking around the city, I had in mind how much other computational creativity researchers would enjoy coming to México.

At the colloquium, I was the only one who didn’t discuss a large-scale system that is somehow related to the creative process. (I do have a such a system, Curveship, but I wanted to focus on something else in this talk.) I spoke about creative computing and the relationship that this area has to computational creativity. In creative computing, the computer is seen as a medium and platform for human creative work. There’s a strong relationship between this area and computational creativity, but there are some distinctions, too. I spoke about a very short, simple Commodore 64 BASIC program:

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

The C64 BASIC program executing.

This one-line program is the focus of a deep investigation that I am undertaking with nine other authors. We plan for this study to result in a single-voice academic book – not an edited collection, not a “chapter book” with separately authored segments, but something that reads like a single-author book but is written by ten people. We are still in the early stages of writing this book, but it’s our hope that 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 by Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Mark Marino, Michael Mateas, C. E. B. Reas, Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter will be published by the MIT Press in 2012. (Yes, the book’s title is the program itself.) Since the colloquium focused on interdisciplinary work and collaboration, this seemed like a nice project to discuss, even though the ten of us working on this project are not trying to model the creative process using computation. I described how the study of this program shed additional light on the relationship between platform and creativity, and how it suggested that computational creativity models try to take into account that relationship.

This poster was in the lobby of the auditorium where I did my presentation. Looks a bit like the output of 10 PRINT, no? It seems to show just that with two other characters (a horizontal line and a vertical line) thrown into the mix.

The other talks offered some excellent descriptions of and discussions of computational creativity systems: MEXICA, DARCI, and STANDUP (along with its predecessor, JAPE). These systems, and the things that have been done with them, are all great examples of creative computing, by the way, in addition to being computational investigations of creativity! I could do a post this long covering just the new thoughts that have come to me about these projects, each of which I knew about before. For now, I’ll refer you to the abstracts and links for more on those projects.

Coming up: The 2011 International Conference on Computational Creativity, April 27-29 in Mexico City

Interior of La Casa de Primera Imprenta.

I’ve been to Mexico City before, but this was my first trip to the city’s main square, the Zócalo. This is the area where ICCC-11 will take place. It’s an amazing sight. You can see that Mexico City is mind-bogglingly big as you fly in, but the Zócalo is massive in a different way. The plaza and the area is human-scale (designed for pedestrians and very walkable, with many shops and restaurants) while also being tremendous and impressive. On the north is the cathedral; the National Palace, where President Calderón works, is to the east. An enormous Mexican flag flies from the National Palace during the day. To the west are several buildings, including the Best Western Majestic Hotel, which will be offering a discounted rate for ICCC-11. Just off the plaza, between the Cathedral and the National Palace, is where ICCC-11 will be held – at La Casa de la Primera Imprenta. The first printing press in the Americas was installed in 1536 in this building. It now offers a conference facility of just the right size for ICCC-11 presentations and demos, several galleries, and a bookstore.

SHRDLU fans will note that the Linotype machine in La Casa de Primera Imprenta has a different layout than an English Linotype machine.

The Autonomous Metropolitan University, Cuajimalpa is the host institution for ICCC-11, which is also supported by UNAM’s postgraduate program in computer science and engineering. The colloquium that UAM-Cuajimalpa put on with UNAM was well-attended by students and faculty who had some good questions for us. I know that we will have great local arrangements for ICCC-11; the participation we had in the colloquium suggests that we will be part of some good conversations (and, no doubt, see some good presentations and demos) from local ICCC-11 attendees.

So, I hope to see you readers who work in computational creativity in Mexico City at the end of April. I’m the publicity chair for ICCC-11, but in addition to publicizing the conference, I’m glad to email with anyone who has questions about the conference or about visiting Mexico City. And, remember that the deadline for submissions (of short papers, long papers, or show-and-tell proposals) is December 13, less than a month away now: The call for papers has the details, and there is more information on other parts of the ICCC-11 site.

Curveship Codefest Coming Up

Anyone who is in the Boston area and interested in spending a day (or a good chunk thereof) helping me push Curveship toward release should shoot me an email. Thanks to a great suggestion from Prof. Fox Harrell, I’ll be hosting a one-day Curveship Codefest soon in MIT’s building 14. People are welcome to write games, to write spin (ways of narrating), and to hack on the core Curveship system with me. We’ll be working toward a release of Curveship under a free software license in December or January.

Notes on the IF Community

I was a sort of “international observer” at the latest ELMCIP Seminar in Bergen, Norway. ELCMIP is a European project, funded by HERA, which looks at the ways electronic literature communities function and foster creativity. On the first day of the seminar (Monday, September 20) I presented about the IF community, supplementing that evening’s screening of Get Lamp at the Landmark Cafe. I offered some thoughts, summarized here, for those working in other types of electronic literature practices.

By “interactive fiction” (often abbreviated “IF”), I mean pretty much exactly what you will find if you Google for the term and starting looking through the first several pages of results. In my dissertation, I defined interactive fiction as: “A form of text-accepting, text-generating computer program that narrates what is happening in a simulated world in reply to input from a user, or interactor. Interactive fiction can have literary qualities and qualities of a game.” In recent decades, people have used the term in different ways, but this is how the interactive fiction community understands IF today and has understood it for a while. This means that IF is not defined by a particular platform, the way that Flash games are, but that people do expect something to work like a “text adventure,” with the simulation of space and objects and natural-language-like input, to be considered IF. Members of the interactive fiction community may find chatterbots, story generators, hypertext fiction, point-and-click graphical games, and other things very interesting, but these productions would not have a place in the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, for instance, because they aren’t interactive fiction.

I have to note at this point that I can’t offer any proper sort of study of the interactive fiction community, as I am not an anthropologist by training (or pretension) and I don’t understand the workings of community in the way that people with a better background would. What I can offer, as a member of this community, are some notes about my experiences and some pointers to ways I have seen the community working together. My hope is that may notes may be of some use in generating ideas about e-lit community or for someone undertaking a systematic study.

Also, I’ll explain at this point that what I and others call “the IF community” is not the only IF community, even for English-language work. One other community is that of authors and players of ADRIFT games. ADRIFT (Adventure Development & Runner – Interactive Fiction Toolkit) is an easy-to-use shareware system for IF development. Another locus of interactive fiction practice and playing is “adult interactive fiction” or AIF, which prominently depicts sexual activity. The AIF community has its own annual awards, the Erins, which are analogous to the IF community’s XYZZY Awards (discussed later). Beyond these communities, there are IF communities, or at least IF activity that involved several people and that I know about, in Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Russian language communities.

An important early resource for the IF community was the IF Archive, originally hosted in Germany thanks to Volker Blasius. The archive was announced on November 24, 1992 and is mirrored today on sites throughout the world, with the main site being ifarchive.org. The archive was originally accessed only by anonymous FTP and can still be reached by that method today, although there is a simple Web interface at the main site and a searchable interface at Baf’s Guide to the IF Archive. The “archive” is not a repository for an organizations old, inactive files; it a system for publishing and sharing new work, including the games for each year’s IF Competition.

The IF community communicated for many years on two USENET newsgroups – and some in the community still read these newsgroups. rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction were not originally devoted to what we now call IF, but those discussions came to predominate. The “arts” and “games” groups do not argue for different perspectives on interactive fiction; they are simply for discussion of making games (“arts”) and playing them (“games”).

A central institution in the IF community – perhaps the central one – is the annual IF Competition, which began in 1994. Now in its 16th year and run by Stephen Granade, “the Comp,” as it is called, showcases a wide variety of short games, some poorly written and/or poorly programmed and others quite exemplary. While winning the Comp or placing well in it is certainly desirable, anyone who enters the comp can be sure that dozens, if not hundreds, of people will play the game submitted. Many will even write review of it, since it is a tradition among the most enthusiastic members of the IF community to review all of the Comp games. Competitions are central to many popular communities of digital practice – the demoscene as well as creators of Flash games, homebrew 8-bit games, and graphical games. These comps or compos usually do not involve substantial rewards for winners or agonistic competition; instead, they provide an event (in person in the case of the demoscene, online in other cases) that focuses the interest and energy of the community.

Recent years have seen other IF events of different sorts, including “minicomps” with different themes and the “Speed IF” sessions in which several participants each write a themed or constrained game in two hours. Some of the community’s events highlight the different metaphors that are in play, ones that work across literary and gaming concepts. Although works of interactive fiction are conventionally called “games” and the people who interact with them are called “players,” the person who writes a game (almost always the same person who programs it) is an “author.” The online “Interactive Fiction Book Club,” founded in 2001, brought together those who had played a particular game for conversation modeled on conversation about books. In 2009, “Interactive Fiction Writing Month,” with some in-person events that took place mainly at CMU, made an obvious connection to National Novel Writing Month. The annual XYZZY Awards for interactive fiction, on the other hand, are styled after the Oscars. Although they are awarded by popular nominations and popular vote, they are named in the manner of Academy Awards and presented at an online event. Many IF community members even virtually dress up for the award ceremony.

The XYZZY awards take place on ifMUD, a simple text-based MUD that serves almost entirely as a chat room. That is, role-playing and puzzle-construction and -solving have little place there and RPG-style combat has none. The people on ifMUD do use some of the unique MUD-like facilities to support their communications, however, and they also program new capabilities into the MUD for that purpose. There is a bot, Alex, who parrots things that he has been taught, allowing people to query him for the definition of terms and acroymns. An “automeeter” keeps track of which pairs of people have met in person. People use another bot, Floyd, to play IF together on ifMUD, participating in “Club Floyd” sessions. People also ask for programming, design, and writing help, and sometimes even discuss theoretical or critical ideas. Much of the discussion is not directly focused on IF, but when one does want to discuss IF in real time, ifMUD is a great place to do so.

There are now local groups that meet in person to discuss and play interactive fiction. The one I know most about is the one I host in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, organized by Kevin Jackson-Mead. PR-IF meets monthly, and had a hotel room with snacks and talks, thanks mainly to Andrew Plotkin, at Penny Arcade Expo East. They have also produced a card with instructions for first-time IF players. I organized the first meeting of the PR-IF writers’ group, Grue Street. And two successful events have been held in which the public was invited to play interactive fiction together: the early MIT version of Zork, in the first case, and Admiral Jota’s Comp-winning game Lost Pig in the second.

By now, most people who deal with electronic literature in some way seem inclined to accept that interactive fiction falls under this umbrella term. But even if some resist this, it’s hard to ignore that the community itself connects its meetings, events, roles, and practices to literary ones. Of course, simply importing the institutions of IF into other communities is unlikely to be helpful: Other e-lit communities may not need an FTP site, two USENET newsgroups, a MUD, and so on. But understanding how different structures, conventions, and tools have helped IF authors and players could have broader applicability. For instance, the IF Comp has worked to encourage the annual production of games, but it has also dominated IF production so that the best-known games are those short ones released for the IF Comp. (The community has responded with other comps and with projects to review other games, so the IF Comp is not too much of a victim of its own success.) Nevertheless, this situation can highlight the benefits and the dangers of a regular, central activity with its own format requirements. Considering the IF community may also point the way to other groups that are less obviously literary, but are creative communities of practice involved with computing.

The New Electronic Literature Directory

Monday 6 September 2010, 6:23 pm   /////////  

I interviewed Joseph Tabbi, author of Cognitive Fictions and editor of electronic book review, about the Electronic Literature Directory project that he’s currently heading. I took over from Joe early this summer as president of the Electronic Literature Organization. The Directory, which has already had success in its “version 1″ form, has been reworked to allow collaboratively-written and richer writing about e-lit work.

nm: Joe, what sorts of people are going to find something compelling in the Electronic Literature Organization’s new Directory?

jt: I imagine the majority of readers are going to be teenagers and college students, people who have come of age learning to read in different ways than you or I learned. You and I may have retrained our habits of attention with each new delivery device. But the current generation of readers likely started with web browsers, wikis, blogs, texting, sexting and so forth.

nm: What do you envision this project will offer when it’s – “completed” is perhaps the wrong word, but when we’ve had large-scale participation and significant coverage of e-lit?

jt: The renewal of a general audience for literary arts – the way that Grub Street writers and publishers turned newspaper and letter readers into an audience for novels. (But of course, e-lit does not, and surely won’t, look at all like nineteenth-century realist fiction.)

nm: What stage of the project are wehttp://deviantforms.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/eld-1-0-vs-2-0/ at now?

jt: We’ve got a sample of works and some model descriptions of works. We have a cohort of editors to build on that sample, and a programmer and graphic artist who will turn the current wrap into a designed interface. That will happen early next year. We’ve also got a number of prominent e-lit authors who are going in to ‘tag’ the works, which ought to expand the language we have for talking about works that in many cases will be sui generis. Others will be right in the mainstream of literary production.

(By “mainstream,” I mean antecedents like Oulipo’s processual writing, Musil’s conceptual writing without character or ‘qualities,’ the novel before Fielding and Richardson, and very likely the formulaic, generative epics in oral traditions.)

nm: The ELO had previously developed a directory with a different format and different sorts of listings. Can you tell me some about what you learned from that project, how the current one builds on it, and in what ways it’s trying to go beyond the “1.0” version?

jt: Now, as then, we have plenty of writing by women, people of color, writers whose first language is not English, and so forth. But there’s no need to divide all this up, at the start, into special-interest group-writing, the way it’s done at a Borders or Barnes & Noble. That’s how 1.0 was set up, but the idea here, in version 2.0, is not to impose top-down categories (however inclusive and open-minded the categorizers might imagine themselves to be): the thing is to use the low-level tagging (an affordance specific to networked media) as a way for semi-autonomous communities to elaborate their own vocabularies, their own favored works, and ultimately their own values.

Another difference – I learned that you need many, many editors, not a few. And you need to set things up so that a contributor who’s not an editor, not an e-lit author, and not anyone special – can feel comfortable drafting an entry and see it live the moment it’s submitted. If it’s not that easy, people won’t bother to write about works they have discovered. And if that happens, we’ll lose the chance to locate, cultivate, and renew a general literary readership.

nm: It’s clear that the Directory will benefit the reader who is seeking e-lit to read, seeking to learn about new and different forms of writing, and looking for critical perspectives. How will the Directory benefit the contributor? Why should people interested in different forms of e-lit want to write entries and take part in the Directory project?

My expectation is that the more people use it, the more people there will be who want to use it. We need to make better known the Directory’s common cause with other existing projects – directories of interactive fiction, the Siegen-based Directory of critical writing on e-lit, NT2’s directory of French e-lit, the Australian directory under development at the University of Western Sydney, and many, many others. A number of us, from the ELO board, will be in Sydney in December to discuss that particular co-development. But it has to be more than an exercise in mutual respect and swapping entries. We need to instantiate these affinities with a design that makes, for example, an Australian or an IF entry stand out as such. And we need to use the same community-building processes that are current in software development and so familiar to the next generation of readers.

nm: So, once someone does want to take part in the project, how can that person get involved and contribute?

jt: It depends I think on where people are coming from, whether they approach the field as a researcher/scholar, an author, or a general reader. Anyone can post a description of works they’ve discovered, comment on an existing post, or compose an alternative description. Those who have works of their own, can fill out a stub entry so that others can draft a description. And those who have a professional stake in the field can join the editorial workgroup, where they can participate directly in the project development and their entries will be credited as academic publications.

By bringing the scholars, authors, and audience this way into a single forum, maybe we can begin to change the current situation where intellectuals and creators talk only to themselves. At the least, those who read around in the directory should get a sense that literature is not a settled body of work but a field that’s in the making, and nothing’s stopping anyone from taking part in that.

I encourage readers to leave any questions you have about the Directory for me and/or Joe in comments.

Videos on Storytelling

Thursday 5 August 2010, 4:46 pm   //////////  

Kurt Reinhard of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences and Arts has posted a 10-part video series about storytelling in our networked, digital age. The first part (“Change of Storytelling”) includes comments by:

  • Ian Condry (MIT)
  • Joshua Green (UCSB)
  • Dean Jansen (Participatory Culture Foundation)
  • Henry Jenkins (USC)
  • Joe Lambert (Center for Digital Storytelling)
  • Nick Montfort (MIT)
  • Clay Shirky (NYU)

I also appear in part 7 (“Risks of Social Media”) and part 10 (“Bits and Pieces”). Besides the august company listed above, you can see that the videos get to some of the critical issues in storytelling today: fans attired as stormtroopers and “Charlie Bit My Finger – Again!”

@party: Weaving thread

I spent this weekend at @party 2010, the first (and hopefully not last) demoparty of this name. The event was in the Town of Harvard, Massachusetts – a bit outside of Boston. I heard four live music performances, saw an early cut of Jason Scott’s almost-finished Get Lamp documentary, and saw and heard grafix, music, and demos (wild and windows) in the Saturday evening compos. There were great tunes, a truly excellent 4k windows demo, an incredible demo running on an Arduino, and much more. Many thanks to the organizer, Metoikos, and everyone who helped her out. And, a big thanks to the demoscene!

Working with two others and using the moniker “nom de nom,” I completed my first demoscene production: thread, a Commodore 64 demo that has fewer than 32 bytes of code. (There are no C64 demos this size or smaller on pouet.net, as far as I can tell.) This demo is a tribute to a BASIC program that generates random mazes, one that exists in one form in the C64 User’s Guide but has also circulated as a one-liner. Here’s a version of the program:

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

I developed thread working in person first with Le Colonial of Atlanta, a sometime co-author of mine who also writes Atari VCS games. (He’s also known as Ian Bogost.) At the party itself, I was fortunate to encounter C64 expert rv6502 of Montréal, who joined me and did the heavy lifting in the second phase of this project.

After working one evening with Le Colonial in Cambridge, we had a 32 byte program that wasn’t exactly like the original, but did something pretty cool. When I checked it out on my actual C64 right before I left for the party, however, it didn’t work. The SID was initialized differently in the emulators I’d used than it was on the box itself – as it happened – and there was something odd happening with my video display as well.

I brought my C64 to the event rather half-heartedly, without any way of getting programs onto it other than typing them in and without a display. Alas, I wasn’t going to get away from the program that easily: Dr. Claw brought me a monitor to use and NO CARRIER loaned me a flash cart – and, later, a physical copy of the Commodore 64 Programmer’s Guide. rv6502 and I sat down to work further on the program. It turned out my C64’s video was different that of the emulators I used, but also different from Ferris’s actual C64 (which matched the behavior of the emulators I tried). So it wasn’t just an emulator failing to match the metal; the two different C64s apparently have different KERNAL code in ROM. Dumping my machine’s ROM and used that with my emulator would have solved that part of the mismatch.

I won’t try to go into all the details of developing this demo, but there were two particularly great things about the process at a high level. First, I got to collaborate with and learn from two others at different points. Second, I got to learn a lot more about the C64, including many things I wouldn’t have run up against if I hadn’t been working on something like this. I’m not talking about small differences between emulation and the hardware, which were a minor part of this experience, in the end. I mean finding excellent facilities of the 6502 and the C64 to work around those which weren’t doing what we wanted.

We’ve released thread in three versions: The canonical one, which has 31 bytes of code but is in a 33-byte PRG file, because the beginning memory location is stored in the first two bytes of PRG files. If this bothers you, there is a 28-byte version which fits into a 30-byte PRG file and has all the same colors, but displayed in a way that we think is not as pretty. We also include a simple, straightforward reimplementation of the BASIC program above: A 20-byte program in a 22-byte PRG file. I’d love to get this uploaded to pouet.net at some point, but I don’t know how. For now, here’s a zipfile with source and PRGs.

thread got 4th place in the Oldschool category at @party. After you load a PRG file in your emulator (or on your C64), you can run it by typing “SYS 4096″.

Finally, these are the 31 bytes of thread:

A9 80 8D 0F D4 8D 12 D4 A8 B1 F9 8D 86 02 AD 1B D4 29 01 69 6D 20 D2 FF E8 D0 ED E6 F9 50 E9


“Experimental Writing”

Wednesday 12 May 2010, 11:08 pm   /////  

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.)

Now that the Living Outnumber the Dead

Monday 10 May 2010, 10:43 pm   /////  

Dance lessons not enough? Missing that special something? You lack soul? Feel, at times, like something that happened might remind you of a past life … if you only had one?

There’s a remedy: Hop on over to the Chicago Soul Exchange.

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…

We Cured Unix – Now What?

Saturday 20 March 2010, 11:17 am   /////  

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?

In(ter)ventions in Medias Res

Saturday 20 February 2010, 12:42 pm   //////////  

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
WHAT DOES DADA DO?

expressionism poisons artistic sardines
WHAT DOES DADA DO?

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

postmodernism flarfs digit
WHAT DOES ppg DO?
realism reals the conceptual
WHAT DOES ppg DO?

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
IS WHAT ppg DOES!
deoverltrizes mutations
IS WHAT ppg DOES!

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.

Before & After Media (DAC at UCI)

Ian Bogost and I just gave a talk on platform studies at UC Irvine’s Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. We talked about our book on the Atari VCS, Racing the Beam, and about the platform studies concept more generally. A nice crowd came out on the rainy Friday afternoon and engaged us in some good discussion afterwards. Although we’ve both talked about the book and platform studies in several different places, this was the first talk we’ve given together. I think it worked well, but I guess writing a book together is good preparation.

We’re giving another join talk at Digital Arts and Culture (“After Media”), which starts this evening and then runs for three days of panels (which include scholarly and artists’ talks) and more unlikely presentations in the evenings. Besides my paper with Ian on platform studies misconceptions, I have another co-authored paper with Alex Mitchell on interactive fiction development systems, a “solo” paper on minimal poetry generators (the ppg256 series), and a reading at the DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza. I’m looking forward to seeing a slew of digital media folks and to enjoying the program, the company, and the Southern California environment – even if it keeps raining.

A Site for Peace

Wednesday 2 December 2009, 5:32 pm   ////  

I got word from Nitin Sawney, founder of Voices Beyond Walls (which conducts storytelling and video production workshops with youth in the West Bank) and the Boston Palestine Film Festival, of a new site that MIT has launched: Jerusalem 2050: Visions for a Place of Peace. On the site, you can register and engage with other community members about projects and prospects, and can read the project Nitin and two others have undertaken, “Media Barrios: Envisioning Jerusalem through Media Barrios and Performance Spaces.”

One nice thing that this site highlights is that conversation and resources on the Web don’t have to sit apart from particular geographical and urban places; websites can help us work toward a better understanding of and better future for other sorts of sites. Of course, we should be aware of this, almost 20 years after the invention of the Web, but I think it bears repeating.

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