ELO on the Move to MIT

ELO logo

The Electronic Literature Organization is moving its headquarters to MIT this summer. The organization is an international nonprofit with many partner institutions, but the main office is a particularly important site for the ELO – hence, I want to thank the ELO’s former hosts MITH (at the University of Maryland) and UCLA, which have generously sustained the organization for most of its existence since its founding in 1999. As the current president, I’m very glad that MIT will be the ELO’s host. I’ll be working with others to form a lasting relationship. As we continue to serve our international membership and pursue our mission, we’re going to have many fun events and collaborations based at MIT.

MIT seal

Here’s today’s press release, from MIT, about the ELO’s move.

Emulation as Game Facsimile (or Computer Edition?)

I’ve noted here at MiT7 (Media in Transition 7) that we’re now achieved some very reasoned discussion and understanding of the virtues of different approaches to preserving and accessing computer programs. Not that we’ve solved the underlying problem, of course, but I’ve been pleased to see how our overall approach has evolved.

Instead of simply dismissing emulation, migration, or the preservation of old hardware, we’ve had some good comments about the ways in which these different techniques have proven to work well and about what their limitations are. We saw this in the plenary discussion on archives and cultural memory late this morning – audio of that conversation will be coming online. Update: Here it is.

Clara Fernandez-Vara’s presentation “Emulation as a Tool to Study Videogame History” [Abstract] developed this discussion extremely well with regard to one important tool, the emulator. She presented the idea of a game in emulation as facsimile – not the original edition, but also not the Cliff Notes that we’d have to consult otherwise. She showed us a range of work with emulators that gives reserach, teaching, and casual access to older games, which would otherwise be neglected. Saving state, speeding games up, and even playing several of them at once with the same inputs are all facilitated by emulators.

Fernandez-Vara went on to note some limitations of emulation, such as that the physical controller, often significant to play, cannot be replicated in hardware; nor can particular hardware features such as those of the Dreamcast’s VMU or of a C64 floppy drive, which would whirr when something interesting was about to happen in a text adventure. Boxes and manuals are often very important and can’t always be effectively digitized; with online games and worlds, keeping the context is even harder. Finally, emulators have to be updated for new contemporary platforms every few years.

Much of the work of building emulators, Fernandez-Vara also noted, is done by fans who work as volunteers – institutional support can help them and can allow libraries to accumulate holdings. It would be nice if current platforms (the PS3!) were more backwards-compatible, too. “Abandonware” could be officially made available for use, to clear up legal questions.

The only thing I’d add to Fernandez-Vara’s excellent discussion is a slightly different framing perspective on the emulator. The emulated game may be usefully understood as a facsimile, but I see a different way to understand the emulator itself.

My suggestion is that an emulator can be conceptualized as an edition of a computer.

The first edition would be the original piece of hardware – for the Commodore 64, the August 1982 beige keyboard-with-CPU. Actually, in the case of the Commodore 64, even keeping to the United States there are at least three different “hardware” editions, since there are three ROM revisions, one used in very early machines, one in 1982 and 1983 computers, and one that was used in Commodore 64s and in the C64 mode of the Commodore 128. The three ROM revisions are not the only things that changed during the time the Commodore 64 was manufactured and sold, but they do change the behavior of the system. I suppose these better understood as being different “printings,” since the changes are limited to the ROM. That would be an interesting discussion to pursue. Either way, though, printing or edition, there are three different sets of hardware, three hardware Commodore 64s.

When the creators of VICE (the emulator I use) produce a program that operates like a Commodore 64, I understand this as being an edition of the Commodore 64. Yes, it’s a software edition. It isn’t an official or authorized edition – only being a product of Commodore would allow for that. (There are official, authorized emulators, but this is not one.) It’s not, of course, the original and canonical edition. But it’s nevertheless an attempt to produce a system that functions like a Commodore 64, one which took a great deal of effort and is effective in many ways. Thinking of this an edition of the system seems to be a useful way to frame emulation, as it allows me to compare editions and usefully understand differences and similarities.

Computer Histories at MiT7

At Media in Transition 7 here at MIT, after a good start in the opening plenary and first break-out session, we had a fascinating session yesterday on “Computer Histories.” The papers presented were:

  • Sandra Braman presented “Designing for Instability: Internet Architecture and Constant Change.” [Abstract.]
  • Kevin Driscoll spoke on “Revisiting Bill Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists.” [Abstract.]
  • Colleen Kaman’s talk was “‘Interop,’ Internet Commercialization, and the Early Politics of Global Computer Networks.” [Abstract.] [Full paper.]

The individual presentations were very interesting, and it was a fascinating set to hear together. Two were on the development of the Internet: Braman delved deeply into the more than 6000 Requests for Comments (RFCs) used to develop Internet protocols, doing a line-by-line discourse analysis. In these documents, which people might guess would be dry and purely technical, she found a great deal of embedded political and social thought. The complete manuscript on this topic should be done and available in a few weeks. Kaman looked a different forum for communication that was important to the dramatic expansion in Internet connectivity from 1991-1997: a trade show. Following on discussions in 1996, to deal with the Internet’s rapid growth and the competing European standard for networking, the Interop conference was formulated. It included a demo network, Shownet, where vendors could come to test products and academic and research work could connect to practical experience in a “negotiation space.”

And, there was one presentation on early microcomputing. Discoll began with the image of a book cover featuring a two-tier desk typical of HAM radio operation, declaring: “Hobby Computers Are Here!” He showed a response to Bill Gates’ famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” and a clip from Revolution OS with an increasingly hysterical reading of the original letter – the dominant understanding of the letter today, as if it were the beginning of opposition to free software. Hobbyists learned to program on calculators and didn’t have contact with, for instance, the Internet protocol developers. In Interface, Art Childs (the editor) questions what software is and deals with many important issues in free software in replying to Gates’s letter. He concludes that a service model is best – just as GNU did later. This antecedent to free software has been overlooked, just as computer culture in much of the country (beyond Boston and Silicon Valley) have been overlooked.

I was fascinated at these two different perspectives on the formation of the Internet (finding surprising non-technical discussion in RFC and surprising technical implications of a trade show) and on the difference between the culture of hobbyist computer builders, programmers, and users and that of those involved with the development and growth of the Internet. Driscoll’s more sensitive reading of Bill Gates’s “open letter,” Braman’s deep analysis of RFCs, and Kaman’s exploration and discussion of Interop provide great models for the understanding of computer histories.

An Enigmatic Business Card

TEch WArp: MIT is out of joint. Find an entry point, a placard, and play Tech Warp on your phone or on the Web. Check: A bookstore in Kendall, A mid-infinite location, A former arcade site, MIT’s main entrance, A corner lot dorm, A student street. Align MIT in time & unlock space for imagining the future.

These cards have been seen at MIT. Some say they point the way to an interactive fiction that you can play, if you search the campus and find a way in.

Book Arts and Broadsides Showcased

a photo (and not a very good one, sorry) of the Building 14 WHS Books Arts & Broadsides display case

MIT’s Building 14 has a great new display thanks to poet Amaranth Borsuk, who is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Writing & Humanistic Studies program, where I also work. There are some wonderful pieces from many of my colleagues and their students, all of them displayed brilliantly. I’ll mention the digital tie-ins: The broadside “Love Letters,” done in one of my graduate CMS.950 Workshop classes, consists of computer-generated poems produced by a Manchester Mark I emulator. These were set on a letterpress by the class thanks to the Bow & Arrow Press’s John Pyper. And Peer Hofstra, who took my 21W.750 Experimental Writing class last semester, did an extraordinary untitled book for his final project. It’s made of punched cards, with the words are formed by alphabetically-arranged letters punched out from those pages. Each word is some are subsequence of the alphabet, so “APT” can occur, while “APE” cannot. Alex Corella’s Experimental Writing final project, which cuts up and rearranges the text on Cambridge historical plaques, is also on display. If you’re on campus, do stop by to see the case, which is by the elevator on the first floor of Building 14. It will be up for at least this month, December 2010.

Death and the Powers Arrives

The opera and “robot pageant” composed by Tod Machover, directed by Diane Paulis and with a libretto by Robert Pinsky has finally been staged in Monaco. I won’t see it until it comes to the Boston area in a few months, but I’m delighted to see the project reach the stage. Death and the Powers (discussed in this WBUR interview) has been in the works for about a decade. I wrote about it as we rang in the new year (2006) at Grand Text Auto, and I was very pleased to hear the workshop performance of the opera at A.R.T., here in Cambirdge. By now, we not only have the performances in Monaco: The libretto has been printed in Poetry and is available online at the Poetry Foundation. And those of us in the US can look forward to the March arrival of Death and the Powers in Boston.

Wheel Make You Texts

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

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

Congratulations, CMS Grads

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

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

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

“Experimental Writing”

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

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

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

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

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

4. A notorious sarcophogus, glorious static.

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

Bill Gates at MIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s CMS Masters Presentations

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

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

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

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

PAX Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

IF Purple Blurb today

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

Free / Writing / Game Gatherings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotta Get Outta this 8-Bit Town

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

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