Tiny Trope Tank Productions

Recently, at the suggestion of our writer in residence, Milton Läufer, we in the Trope Tankt have been producing digital files for discussion at meetings. These productions, almost always computer programs but not constrained to be such, must be at most 256 bytes.

It’s been extremely productive in terms of thinking about digital media, platforms and programming languages, and how we approach creative projects — and even other projects — generally. Postdoctoral researcher Sofian Audry prompted us to discuss this some at the last meeting.

So far we have three sets of 256b files which have landed in this directory, organized by date and with file names that indicate who wrote what:


They include work by RA Chris Kerich, who has produced rather demoscene-like visual effects using Python running in a terminal, and by postdoctoral researcher Angela Chang, who has provided short example programs for use in teaching. Angela’s examples show that you don’t have to have hypercompressed, confused code when you write short, interesting programs. You can value clarity and pedagogical usefulness if you like, or you can pack in as much as possible, for instance, in order to produce a visual effect.

Sofian has explored creative computing history by writing a 256b Commodore 64 BASIC program that implements, or at least strongly refers to, the classic Lemonade Stand BASIC program. Milton has generated various compelling visual displays. His and Chris’s most recent programs are less clearly mathematical and regular, instead imitating the natural world.

It was very apropos that Christian Bök pointed me to Dwitter, a framework for making tiny programs that can be easily shared on the Web, just recently. I’m sure we’ll all dig into that soon.

My pieces include one bash script, one Python 3 program, and an executable of 256b written in assembly for the Commodore 64. The Python 3 program is actually a very tiny text adventure, Wastes, and is listed on the Interactive Fiction Database. In fact, I’m pleased to see that at this point, it has one four-star (our of five) review!

Trope Tank Writer in Residence

Wednesday 3 August 2016, 5:29 pm   //////  

The Trope Tank is accepting applications for a writer in residence during academic year 2016-2017.

The Trope Tank, 3 August 2016

Our mission is developing new poetic practices and new understandings of digital media by focusing on the material, formal, and historical aspects of computation and language. More can be discovered about the Trope Tank here:


The main projects of the Trope Tank for 2016-2017 are Renderings and Heftings, as I’ve described for a forthcoming article in Convolutions 4:

The Renderings project is an effort to locate computational literature in languages other than English — poetry and other text generators, combinatorial poems, interactive fiction, and interactive visual poetry, for example — and translate this work to English. Along the way, it is necessary to port some of this work to the Web, or emulate it, or re-implement it, both in the source language and in English. This provides the original language community better access to a functioning version of the original work, some of which originates in computer magazines from several decades ago, some of which is from even earlier. The translations give the English-language community some perspective on the global creative work that has been undertaken with language and computation, helping to remedy the typical view of this area, which is almost always strongly English-centered.

Heftings, on the other hand, is not about translation into English; the project is able to include translation between any pair of languages (along with the translation of work that is originally multilingual). Nor does it focus on digital and computational work. Instead, Heftings is about “impossible translation” of all sorts — for instance, of minimal, highly constrained, densely allusive, and concrete/visual poems. The idea is that even if the translation of such works is impossible, attempts at translation, made while working collaboratively and in conversation with others, can lead to insights. The Heftings project seeks to encourage translation attempts, many such attempts per source text, and to facilitate discussion of these. There is no concept that one of these attempts will be determined to be the best and will be settled upon as the right answer to the question of translation.

The Trope Tank’s work goes beyond these main projects. It includes developing creative projects, individually and collaboratively; teaching about computing, videogaming, and the material history of the text in formal and informal ways; and research into related areas. Those in the Trope Tank have also curated and produced exhibits and brought some of the lab’s resources to the public at other venues. The lab hosts monthly meetings of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction and occasional workshops.

There are no fees or costs associated with the residency; there is also no stipend or other financial support provided as part of the appointment. A writer in residence has 24-hour access to and use of the Trope Tank, including space to work, power and network connection, and use of materials and equipment. As a member of the MIT community, a writer in residence can access the campus and check out books from the MIT Libraries. We encourage our writer in residence to attend research and creative discussions and join us in project work and other collaborations, but this is not expressed with a particular requirement to be in the Trope Tank some amount of time per week.

To apply, email me, Nick Montfort, at moc.mkcin@mkcin with short answers (in no case to exceed 250 words each) to the following questions:

  • What work have you done that relates to computation, language and literature, and the mission of the lab? Include URLs when appropriate; there is no need to include the URLs when counting words.

  • How would you make use of your time in the Trope Tank? You do not have to offer a detailed outline of a particular project, but explain in some way how it would be useful to you to have access to the materials, equipment, and people here.

  • What is your relationship, if any, to literary translation, and do you see yourself contributing to Renderings, Heftings, or both? If so, how?

  • What connections could you potentially make between communities of practice and other groups you know, either in the Boston area or beyond, and the existing Trope Tank community within MIT?

Include a CV/resume in PDF format as an attachment.

Applications will be considered beginning on August 15; applicants are encouraged to apply by noon on that day.

We value diverse backgrounds, experiences, and thinking, and encourage applications by members of groups that are underrepresented at MIT.

@Party 2015 Productions

Sunday 21 June 2015, 6:38 pm   ////////  

I had five productions (one of them a collaboration) this time around at @Party, the Boston-area demoparty.

Browser demo: “More Tongue.” This was, well, not really a standard demo, even for a browser demo, that generates nonsense poems with compact code. Like everything at demoparties, it’s been released, but I’m going to work on a post-party version, so I’m leaving the party version out of this list.

Wild: “Shortcat.”

Shortcat is a very simple encoding scheme to make bytes (thus computer programs) into pleasing Unicode tweets, IMs, etc. #demoscene

Encoder: cat x.prg | perl -pe 'binmode STDOUT,":utf8";tr/\x00-\xff/\x{2500}-\x{25ff}/;' > x.txt #demoscene

Decoder: cat x.txt | perl -pe 's/[\x00-\x7f]//g;s/\xe2(.)(.)[^\xe2]*/chr((ord($1)-148)*64+ord($2)-128)/eg;' > x.prg #demoscene

To decode, copy the Shortcat string to a new text file, save it, decode. ASCII (incl. spaces & newlines) will be ignored #demoscene

When decoding, don’t include other Unicode besides the Shortcat string in your selection #demoscene

Add a hashtag (e.g., #c64) and/or other info (e.g., SYS4096) to help people run the program. That’s it. Nanointros everywhere! #demoscene

Check this Tweet for an example.

Executable music: “Dial Up” by devourant & nom de nom.


Play it in an HTML5 player.

Intro: “Chronon,” a 32-byte Commodore 64 program.

PRG file. Source.

PET Code

Demo: “PET Code,” a 128-byte Commodore 64 program that is a demake of Jörg Piringer’s “Unicode.”

PRG file, demo version (runs once & ends). PRG file, looping version. Source.

Thanks to Metoikos, Dr. Claw, Luis, and other organizers and volunteers for putting this year’s party on – and to Boston Cyberarts and the sponsors of the event.

“Apple II vs. Commodore 64” Trope Tank Video

Thursday 11 June 2015, 2:33 pm   ///////  

Apple Commodore videoErik Stayton’s 12-minute video “Apple II vs. Commodore 64” is now up on YouTube. It’s shot in the Trope Tank with him in conversation with me there. We discuss several of the things you’d experience in emulation, but also make reference to material specifics of these systems and the two specific computers and controllers that were used.

Erik played three quite different games that we had on hand, on disk, for both systems: Skyfox, World Karate Championship, and Hacker. Besides discussing graphics and sound quality, we also talk about the playability of these games with the controllers we have and issues such as loading times.

Des Imagistes Lost & Found

Friday 20 March 2015, 1:22 pm   ///////  

Des Imagistes, first Web editionI’m glad to share the first Web edition of Des Imagistes, which is now back on the Web.

I assigned a class to collaborate on an editorial project back in 2008, one intended to provide practical experience with the Web and literary editing while also resulting in a useful contribution. I handed them a copy of the first US edition of Des Imagistes, the first Imagist anthology, edited by Ezra Pound and published in 1914.

Jason Begy, Audubon Dougherty, Madeleine Clare Elish, Florence Gallez, Madeline Flourish Klink, Hillary Kolos, Michelle Moon Lee, Elliot Pinkus, Nick Seaver, and Sheila Murphy Seles, the Fall 2008 workshop class, did a great job. The project was prompted, and indeed assigned, by me, but it’s the work of that group, not my work. The class put a great deal of editorial care into the project and also attended to principles of flexible, appropriate Web design. The cento they assembled and used for an alternate table of contents made for a nice main page, inviting attention to the text rather than to some sort of illustration. I’m not saying it would have been exactly my approach, but what they did is explained clearly and works well.

I told the class that the licensing of their project was up to them. They chose a CC BY-NC-SA license, more restrictive than I would have selected, given that the material was in the public domain to begin with, but a reasoned choice. They were similarly asked to decide about the hosting of the work. They just had to present what they’d done in class, answer questions about it, and let me look at and interact with it. While I would be glad to place a copy on my site, nickm.com, it was up to them as to whether they would take me up on the offer. They placed their work online on its own domain, which they acquired and for which they set up hosting.

After announcing this edition, readers, scholars, and teachers of Imagist poetry commented and thanked the class for it work. But as I bemoaned last October, Des Imagistes was no longer online a few years later. I asked around for files, but asking former students to submit an assignent six years later turns out to be a poor part of a preservation strategy.

Now, working with Erik Stayton (who a research assistant in the Trope Tank and is in the masters in CMS 2015 class), I’ve recovered the site from the Internet Archive. The pages were downloaded manually, in adherence to the robots.txt file on archive.org, the Internet Archive’s additions to the pages were removed, and something very close to the original site was assembled and uploaded.

Some lessons, I suppose, are that it’s not particularly the case that a group of students doing a groundbreaking project will manage to keep their work online. As much as I like reciprocal and equitable ways of working together, the non-hierarchical nature of this project probably didn’t help when it came to keeping it available; no one was officially in charge, accepting credit and blame. Except, of course, that I should have been in charge of keeping this around after it was done and after that course was complete. I should have asked for the files and (while obeying the license terms) put the project on my site – and for that matter, other places online.

Would you like to have a copy of the Des Imagistes site for your personal use or to place online somewhere, non-commerically? Here’s a zipfile of the whole site; you will also want to get the larger PDF of the book, which should be placed in the des_imagistes directory.

“Textual Demoscene” by Piotr Marecki

Friday 27 February 2015, 10:21 am   /////  

A Trope Tank Technical Report (“Trope Report”) on the “Texual Demoscene” has just been posted. Here’s the abstract:

The demoscene is a mainly European subculture of computer programmers, whose programs generate computer art in real time. The aim of this report is to attempt a description of the textual dimension of the demoscene. The report is the effect of efforts to perform an ethnographic exploration of the Polish computer scene; it quotes interviews with participants of demo parties, where text plays a significant role: in demos, real-time texts, IF, mags or digital adaptations. Media archeology focusing on the textual aspect of the demoscene is important to understanding the beginnings of digital literature and genres of digital-born texts.

Piotr Marecki really goes to the “ends of the earth” to investigate this, even reporting on a Polish demoscene production that is a text game and is called The Road to Assland. Here’s the full report.

Trope Tank Writer in Residence, Spring 2015

Wednesday 7 January 2015, 11:54 pm   ///////  

Andrew Plotkin, Writer in Residence at the Trope Tank for Spring 2015

This Spring, Andrew Plotkin (a.k.a. Zarf) is the Trope Tank’s writer in residence. Andy will be at the Trope Tank weekly to work on one or more of his inestimable projects — as a game-maker, programmer, and platform developer, he has been working furiously for many years. (His home page is modest in this respect; See also his latest game, Hadean Lands.)

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.

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.

La Mort Des Imagistes

Tuesday 28 October 2014, 11:18 pm   //////  

Students published the first digital Des Imagistes in 2008, chose to self-host it without sending me a copy. It’s gone.

Wired: It’s up on the Internet Archive. Tired: Without scraping that I can’t get the CC BY-NC-SA site.

Beautiful class project. The preservation strategy was not so great. I should have required the files be sent to me, too. Live, learn.

#! Reading at MIT, Wednesday, 6:30pm

Friday 17 October 2014, 5:24 pm   ///////  

Nick Montfort presents #! in the atrium of MIT’s building E15, just steps from the Kendall T stop. It’s October 22, Wednesday, at 6:30pm, and thanks to the List Visual Arts Center. The book is Montfort’s new one from Counterpath Press, consisting of programs and poems. Please, come join me!

E15 Atrium

10 PRINT in Paperback

Thursday 18 September 2014, 12:33 am   ////////  

Hey, lookit here. Not only is 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (by Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter, MIT Press, 2013) available for free online as a Creative Commons PDF, and available in the original harback edition that MIT Press published, it’s also now in paperback.

10 PRINT paperback

The paperback looks beautiful, by the way, thanks to the design work and attention of our co-author Casey Reas.

Here’s the MIT Press page with both the hardcover and the paperback.

A Platform Studies Book: Flash

Tuesday 16 September 2014, 10:03 pm   ///////  

I’m delighted that Flash: Building the Interactive Web by Anastasia Salter and John Murray has just been published by the MIT Press.

Flash: Building the Interactive Web

This is an excellent study of an influential software platform – our first such study in the Platform Studies series – and it both traces the history of the platform, its development and the contexts in which it arose, as it also covers many famous and representative Flash productions.

Mark Sample writes of it, “Combining historical research, software studies, and a deep appreciate for digital creativity, Salter and Murray dramatically explore Flash—whose very ubiquity has heretofore made it transparent to media scholars—as the defining technology for a generation of artists, storytellers, game designers, and Web 2.0 companies.”

Dene Grigar calls it “a must-read for all scholars and artists of digital media,” while Aaron Delwiche names it “the best and most provocative work I’ve encountered about emerging technologies since the publication of The Cyborg Handbook.

Flash is still with us, but Salter and Murray nevertheless take up the difficult task of providing the historical context for this platform’s creation, from the days before it supported general-purpose programming through its dominance on the Web. The relevance of this book is not limited to a particular product (now, but not always, an Adobe product). It extends to the Web to interactive computing overall.

My Boston-Area Events This Fall

Friday 12 September 2014, 3:19 pm   //////////  

Yes, the first event is today, the date of this post…

September 12, Friday, 6pm-8pm

Boston Cyberarts Gallery, 141 Green Street, Jamaica Plain, MA
“Collision21: More Human” exhibit opens – it’s up through October 26.
“From the Tables of My Memorie” by Montfort, an interactive video installation, is included.

September 18, Thursday, 7pm-8pm

Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA
Montfort reads from #!, World Clock, and the new paperback 10 PRINT

September 24, Wednesday, 7:30pm

Boston Cyberarts Gallery, 141 Green Street, Jamaica Plain, MA
Montfort joins a panel of artists in “Collision21: More Human” for this Art Technology New England discussion.

October 22, Wednesday, 6:30pm-7:30pm

The Atrium of MIT’s Building E15 (“Old Media Lab”/Wiesner Building)
Montfort reads from #! at the List Visual Arts Center

November 15, Saturday, 9am-3pm

MIT (specific location TBA)
Urban Poetry Lateral Studio, a master class by Montfort for MIT’s SA+P

December 4, Thursday, 5pm-7pm

MIT’s 66-110
“Making Computing Strange,” a forum with:
  Lev Manovich (Software Takes Command, The Language of New Media)
  Fox Harrell (Phantasmal Media)
  moderated by Nick Montfort
The forum will examine the ways in which computational models can be used in cultural contexts for everything from analyzing media to imagining new ways to represent ourselves.

“Driverless” or “Self-Driving” Cars

Thursday 28 August 2014, 11:04 am   /////  

So, I’m not saying they’re a bad idea, but why do these things get called “driverless” or “self-driving”? They are being driven by an immense corporation with the most massive store of data on Earth. They can’t function without this corporation or this store of data. They can’t drive themselves.

I dunno, maybe we should at least notice this sort of — hey! These cars are programmed to go up to 10 mph above the speed limit! Shiny!

(Prompted by Erik Stayton‘s great presentation of his thesis work on this topic yesterday. Erik works as my research assisstant in the Trope Tank.)

Forking Paths and Forest Platformer of Depression

Thursday 28 August 2014, 10:56 am   ////  

I’ve revisited two games about depression which seem interesting to compare. One has been discussed more recently, particularly thanks to its recent release on Steam: the Twine game Depression Quest. (It’s also available on the Web.) The other, which is in Flash and on the Web, is the platformer Elude. The latter was developed at MIT, in the GAMBIT Game Lab.

Both of these games have seen plenty of discussion, but I wanted to mention an aspect that make them interesting to compare. Of course, Elude is graphical and played in real time, while Depression Quest is text-based and allows the user to select CYOA-style options. But that’s quite obvious.

More interesting to me is that “Elude‘s metaphorical model for depression serves to bring awareness to the realities of depression by creating empathy with those who live with depression every day,” while “Depression Quest is a game that deals with living with depression in a very literal way.” Of course, being literal or metaphorical goes beyond having a single axis or slider, and it isn’t tied to whether one has a graphical or textual game. It’s interesting to see two games about the same subject matter that declare their intent to be different in this way. I wonder if there is a pair of games on similar topics where the text game is very metaphorical and the graphical game literal?

Waves 3 Ways at @Party

Sunday 15 June 2014, 2:23 am   /////////  

codewiz and I (nom de nom) showed a wild demo at @party yesterday (June 14) at MIT.

It was “Waves 3 Ways (Topsy’s Revenge).” Indeed, there’s video.

Tesla coilThe concept is based on one-line C programs to generate music, the earliest of which were by viznut. I (nom de nom) wrote a C expression in this style to generate a waveform that could be output as sound but also consisted of all printable ASCII characters. The source is about 1kb, without much effort at compression. And the sound, in addition to driving speakers, can be (and was) connected to a Tesla coil.

To connect the oneTesla coil he built, codewiz modified the firmware and the control box to allow the audio output to be read by the potentiometer input. He also wrote dsptee.c to improve the way the text scrolls.

Topsy was the elephant electrocuted by Thomas Edison in 1903 to help prove that AC electricity (advocated by Tesla) was unsafe.

My main disappointment was that the projector, which I thought would be HD and thus the same as my display, showed only the left-hand side of the video. I should have checked it more thoroughly before we got started.

We were very pleased to get second place behind a nice oscilloscope demo.

Title sequence from 'Waves 3 Ways'

We signed the production, too, although it's not very visible when it's running.

The final section of the demo is based on the bpNichol poem “Island,” part of his Apple IIe collection First Screening. This poem, in turn, refers to a concrete poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay. I’ve put a video/screencast of the end of the production online.

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