Some Houses of Dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megawatt Incarnate

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

Megawatt bound (the proof)

Megawatt interior

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

Z-Machine Implemented in Hardware

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

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

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

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

A Great Platform Studies Answer

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

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

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

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

A Gysin & Sommerville Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Antonio: The Twig Book Shop

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

Austin: Monkeywrench Books

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

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

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

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


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


Memory Slam and Code Poetry at ITP

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

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

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

Love Letters
Christopher Strachey, 1952

Stochastic Texts
Theo Lutz, 1959

Permutation Poems
Brion Gysin & Ian Somerville, 1960

A House of Dust
Alison Knowles & James Tenney, 1967

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

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


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

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

A System 5 Unix Experience for the Z80

Wednesday 5 November 2014, 12:42 pm   //////  

Alan Cox has just released Fuzix, a Unix-like OS for the Z80. The kernel runs in 40kb. Designed for portability, it’s been compiled on the 6502 and 6509, but further work will be needed to fully support those processors.

Zegar Światowy, the Polish World Clock

World Clock in Polish, displayed World Clock (book, code) has now been published in Polish. The translation is by Piotr Marecki, who translated the underlying novel-generating program and generated a new novel in Polish. ha!art is the publisher, and the book appears in the Liberatura series, which also includes some very distinguished titles: The Polish translations of Finnegans Wake and of Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, for instance.

The Polish World Clock on the shelf

Code Poetry Slam in NYC Seeks Entries

Monday 22 September 2014, 7:10 pm   ///////  

ITP (the Interactive Telecommunications Program) at NYU is having a Code Poetry Slam on November 14. And they are seeking entries now! Send them along no later than November 7.

Shakepeare, coding away

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.

This Thursday! In Stereo!

Monday 15 September 2014, 11:52 pm   ///////  

I will be reading from and discussing three recent books this Thursday at 7pm the Harvard Book Store here in sunny Cambridge, Massachusetts. These are:

Counterpath Press, Denver
a book of programs & poems (pronounced “shebang”)

World Clock
Bad Quarto, Cambridge
a computer-generated novel

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10
MIT Press, Cambridge
a collaboration with nine others that I organized, now out in paperback

These all express how programming can be used for poetic purposes, and how new aesthetic possibilities can arise with the help of computing. Also, some portions of these (which I’ll read from) are quite pleasing to read aloud and to hear.

I would love it if you are able to join me on Thursday.

Reading of #! etc. September 18, Harvard Book Store

Thursday 11 September 2014, 9:13 am   ////////  

I’m reading at the Harvard Book Store on September 18 – a week from now, on Thursday. The reading is at 7pm.

I’ll be presenting and reading from my latest book, #! (pronounced “shebang”), which is a book of programs and poems, published by Counterpath Press in Denver.

I’ll also discuss my previous two books, one of which is World Clock. I developed this for National Novel Generation Month last November; it’s a computer-generated novel. Cleverly enough, it’s been translated into Polish via translation of the underlying program.

The other recent book is 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, which I organized and wrote with nine others. This one, an MIT Press book, is just out in paperback. This is a critical, scholarly study of a one-line program, and although it is an academic book of this sort, it of course has a strong relationship to the code-generated World Clock and the programs-and-poems #!.

The programs behind #!, by the way, are all available online as free software at my site, The book is there as an example of how this particular material form can represent the code and the output, and how page differs from screen, sometimes in very interesting ways.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Harvard Square often, please do come by to the reading. I will do my best to make it fun and provocative, and to provide some additional insight into computing and how it interacts with language.

#! Bops Up to #4 … Shebang, Shebang …

Thursday 4 September 2014, 12:51 pm   //////  

My recent book #! (pronounced Shebang) made it to #4 on the August 2014 SPD Poetry Bestseller List.

Another Nod to BASIC

Thursday 4 September 2014, 12:09 am   /////  

Doug Orleans pointed me to “Lost Lessons from 8-Bit BASIC,” a blog post that makes the case that there were real, practical advantages to the much-maligned BASIC programming langauge, at least in the context of the home computer era.

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