Trope Tank Annual Report 2012-2013

Trope Tank home computers

I direct a lab at MIT called The Trope Tank. This is a lab for research, teaching, and creative production, located in building 14 (where the Hayden Library is also housed), in room 14N-233. Its mission is to develop new poetic practices and new understandings of digital media by focusing on the material, formal, and historical aspects of computation and language.

Trope Tank Atari VCS

The Trope Tank is a physical facility with unusual material computing resources from the past few decades – as well as places for researchers to sit and work with their more modern computers. The facility and materials provide for visits from classes, discussions with visiting researchers, and support for creative and research projects. The lab space continues to house the monthly meetings of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, the Boston Area’s local IF group. Trope Tank equipment has supported talks this year at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery, Microsoft Research in Redmond, UCLA, the University of Maine, and other venues.

This academic year, two Trope Tank affiliates are becoming faculty members:

  • Clara Fernández-Vara, who took part in the Tools for the Telling project back in 2007-2008 and has been a visiting scholar at the Trope Tank this year, is joining the faculty of NYU’s Game Center at the end of summer as an associate arts professor.

  • Amaranth Borsuk, who was guest organizer of the Purple Blurb series in 2011-2012 and is a current collaborator on The Deletionist, is joining the faculty of The University of Washington, Bothell as an assistant professor. She has been a senior lecturer there.

The Trope Tank’s series of technical reports, called the “Trope Report” series, now features five items and is archived in MIT’s DSpace.

There have been two major research projects (both with artistic aspects) and one creative, poetic project this past year:

  • The book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 was published last year by the MIT Press (and is also available for free download as a PDF). Various subsets of the ten authors have been doing presentations related to the book in many different contents.

  • The story generation project Slant was initiated and the first paper was accepted at ICCC 2013. It will be presented there, in Sydney, next month. The project involves integrating or developing new work based on decades of research by Nick Montfort, Rafael Pérez y Pérez, and Fox Harrell; those three and Andrew Campana have collaborated to initiate the project.

  • The Deletionist is a current poetic project by Amaranth Borsuk, Jesper Juul, and Nick Montfort which will premiere at E-Poetry next month at Kingston University, London.

The Trope Tank will continue to support research, creative work, and teaching this summer and beyond. This is a laboratory to allow people to work with material computing systems; while it is not an archive, museum, or library, and does not offer all that such institutions do, it does provide for hands-on access to the history of creative computing. If you are interested in using the systems and materials in the Trope Tank, please contact Nick.

House of Leaves of Grass

Monday 13 May 2013, 11:32 pm   //////  

What miracle is this? This giant tree.
It stands ten thousand feet high
But doesn’t reach the ground. Still it stands.
Its roots must hold the sky.


HYMEN! O hymenee!
Why do you tantalize me thus?
O why sting me for a swift moment only?
Why can you not continue? O why do you now cease?
Is it because, if you continued beyond the swift moment, you would soon certainly kill me?

[This “House of Leaves of Grass” is a 24K poetry generator that produces about 100 trillion stanzas. Vast, it contains multitudes; it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. By Mark Sample, based on “Sea and Spar Between.”]

Flores on Sea and Spar Between

Friday 4 January 2013, 10:04 am   //////  

Leonardo Flores has posted a nice discussion of Sea and Spar Between (by Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland) on his blog, I ♥ E-Poetry.

Lede, Based on a True Story

Thursday 22 November 2012, 10:01 am   /////  

Sometimes I encounter language that sounds like it was computer-generated, or that sounds like it would be even better if it was. Hence, the slapdash “Lede,” which is based on the first sentence (no, not the whole first paragraph) of a news story that was brought to my attention on ifMUD.

This very simple system does incorporate one minor innovation, the function “fresh(),” which picks from all but the first element of an array and swaps the selection out so that it ends up at the beginning of the array. This means that it doesn’t ever pick the same selection twice in a row.

Happy Thanksgiving, my fellow Americans.

Two E-Lit Gatherings in Europe

I was at a workshop in Bergen on Tuesday and a conference in Edinburgh Thursday through Saturday. There were many interesting things to report or at least mention, and I’ve only managed to note two of them on the blog so far. I’ll also mention that in Bergen, I did the first transverse reading of the full ppg256 series, reading through the seven generators’ output four times. I was very pleased with the art gallery setting, the other readings and screenings, and the way my reading went.

Fortunately there is good documentation of both events in the ELMCIP Knowledge Base, a resource that lists critical work, events, and presentations about electronic literature as well as works of e-lit themselves. For these two events, abstracts and (in the case of the “Remediating the Social” ELMCIP conference in Edinburgh) full papers are included in the Knowledge Base as well.

For instance, my presentation in Bergen, represented by an abstract in the Knowledge Base, was “The ELO and Two E-Lit Exhibits.”

And, my keynote address at the beginning of the ELMCIP conference in Edinburgh was “Programming for Fun, Together,” for which a corresponding paper is available. I covered the main topics of the paper in about the first half of the talk and spent the second half trying to explain how to program in Commodore 64 BASIC, using concrete-poem-generating programs (including 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10) as my examples. I began by developing a program that prints “H” or “I” at random, using bpNichol’ favorite letter (“H”) and an adjacent letter that can be seen as either a rotation of “H” or a component of it. A one-line program was developed to printing either one uniformly at random. In part, this was my response to the less interesting but certainly more conventional “HELLO WORLD” program. I continued to show how a program that printed “x” or “y” could be quickly developed by modifying this one, after using Commodore BASIC itself, via the ASC function, to determine the appropriate new ASCII code. Then, I converted that program to “our” 10 PRINT (that is, the program I and nine co-authors have written a book about) and showed how the distribution and pair of characters could be changed.

In presenting these various 10 PRINT programs and developing new ones through modification, I wanted to show that BASIC programming can truly be undertaken in an exploratory way without a great deal of background. I also wanted to share with the group some of the amazing facility for poetic experimentation that is provided by a 30-year-old computer, inexpensive even at the time, that allows you to program immediately after being turned on.

Jill Walker Rettberg liveblogged my keynote (bringing back another wonderful historical tradition in digital media!) and there was also some discussion of the talk on Twitter.

My only regret related to the talk was that Rita Raley, who was scheduled to be the respondent for my talk, was unable to make it to the conference due to the storm damage and flooding in New York City. Scott Rettberg filled in and made a worthwhile connection from collaborative, social programming activity to collaborative writing, also questioning my four points about programming socially for fun.

The Edinburgh conference, which featured an exhibit at the Inspace gallery and performances throughout, resulted in a book that includes not only academic papers but also “artist’s pages” documenting the artistic works. I hope you’ll be interested in taking a look at the good supply of online “Remediating the Social” material.

Purple Blurb at MIT this semester!

Yes we have Purple Blurb! The first event is in less than a week – sorry for the short notice; I hope you locals can join us. Here are the details:

Monday October 1, 5:30pm in 6-120

Rafael Pérez y Pérez, Fox Harrell, and Nick Montfort

In conversation about narrative generation and MEXICA, GRIOT, and Curveship

Three creators of poetic and imaginative systems speak about computational creativity, narrative generation, and the way systems for this sort of work are culturally generated. Rafael Pérez y Pérez is creator of the plot-focused MEXICA system for the generation of stories and is Profesor/Investigador Titular C in the Departamento de Tecnologías de la Información at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Cuajimalpa, México D. F. Fox Harrell is creator of GRIOT and the Alloy algorithm, which generates literary and multimedia texts based on conceptual structures. Harrell is associate professor of digital media at MIT in CMS/WHS, a principal investigator at CSAIL, and head of the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory. Nick Montfort developed Curveship, an interactive fiction and text generation systems that allows for parametrically controlled narrative variation. Montfort is associate professor of digital media at MIT in CMS/WHS and head of the Trope Tank.

Thursday November 8, 5:30pm in 32-155

Tracy Fullerton

“Finer Fruits: Experiment in Life and Play at Walden”

A joint event with the CMS Colloquium

Walden, a game, is an experiment in play being made about an experiment in living. The game simulates Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in living a simplified existence as articulated in his book Walden. It puts Thoreau’s ideas about the essentials of life into a playable form, in which players can take on the role of Thoreau, attending to the “meaner” tasks of life at the Pond – providing themselves with food, fuel, shelter and clothing – while trying not to lose sight of their relationship to nature, where the Thoreau found the true rewards of his experiment, his “finer fruits” of life. The game is a work in progress, and this talk will look closely at the design of the underlying system and the cycles of thought that have gone into developing it. It will also detail the creation of the game world, which is based on close readings of Thoreau’s work, and the projected path forward for the team as we continue our sojourn in experimental in play.

Tracy Fullerton, M.F.A., is an experimental game designer, professor and director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she holds the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair in Interactive Entertainment. The Game Innovation Lab is a design research center that has produced several influential independent games, including Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and The Night Journey – a collaboration with media artist Bill Viola. Tracy is also the author of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, a design textbook in use at game programs worldwide.

As always, all events are free and open to the public. The Purple Blurb series is supported by the Angus N. MacDonald fund and Comparative Media Studies / Writing and Humanistic Studies.

A Rough-Cut Gorge

Wednesday 8 August 2012, 5:48 pm   /////  

“Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process,” a set of “middle-state artifacts” curated by Kari Kraus, has just been presented as part of The New Everyday, a project at MediaCommons.

My contribution is a printout of “Taroko Gorge” in the original Klingon Python. I also offer some discussion of this printed page, representing one phase of a poetry generator that has been reworked and plundered more than a dozen times.

A Thousand Twitters

Thursday 2 August 2012, 11:24 pm   ////////  

News of a strange new social network, Monolyth, reaches us from December of this year and from Chris McDowall.

To sate the great appetites of the system, which will only publish messages at least 140,000 characters long (and will abbreviate longer ones), authors turn to unusual techniques.

One of these is generating massive texts using modified versions of Taroko Gorge, one of which is included in the blog post.

“Taroko Gorge”: The Vandalism Continues!

Thursday 5 July 2012, 10:40 pm   ////////  

As I wrote a few days ago, I made a statement about “Taroko Gorge,” and all of its vandals, at the ELO conference in Morgantown, WV.

Sepand Ansari created a Beckett-based “Taroko Gorge” remix at the ELO conference. And now I have the URL for this piece, “Waiting for Taroko Gorge.”

Kathi Inman Berens has created “Tournedo Gorge” “to mash the space of computation with the female, domestic, and tactile,” as she discusses in her blog post.


Wednesday 25 April 2012, 11:52 am   ///////  

Developers of digital storytelling systems, take note: The call for papers for the Fifth International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling is now out. Conference to be held November 12-15, 2012 in Spain.

Taroko Gorge … Makoto, Guile

Monday 5 March 2012, 9:28 pm   //////  

Take the natural splendor of Taiwan’s beautiful canyon and add side fighting action. Or, just see how Damian Esteves has already done it in yet another Taroko Gorge remix.

Taroko Gorge Remixed & Installed

Tuesday 14 February 2012, 6:11 pm   ///////  

Designer Gulch by Brendan Howell is another remix of my oft-remixed poetry generator, Taroko Gorge. This one is installed in the lobby of the Berliner Technische Kunsthochschule.

Yo Dawg, I Hear You Like Taroko Gorge

Tuesday 27 September 2011, 11:52 pm   //////  

In his just-released “Argot Ogre, OK!” Andrew Plotkin presents mash-ups and remixes of (almost) all the “Taroko Gorge” remixes to date (and of course the original “Taroko Gorge”), producing such poignant lines as “LAWN DARTS linger” along with single-source remixes and some different stanza shapes. Anyone interested in this thread of poetry generation projects should check it out and should certainly “view source.” Or don’t, if you don’t want to discover more about the secret of the monkey.

This, my friends, calls for a recap of the generators of this general sort to date – eleven of them, so far. Note particularly the two generators mentioned only in comments (“Whisper Wire,” a third remix with visual elements by J. R. Carpenter and the fanlicious “Takei, George” by Mark Sample, which was released after my post) and two other generators released after my post (“Alone Engaged” by Maria Engberg, made at and perhaps redolent of Georgia Tech, and a generator for the the Harry Potter wizarding world of Weasleycest, “Fred & George” by Flourish Klink). In alphabetical order by title, here is a linked list of all of them so far:

Alone Engaged by Maria Engberg Along the Briny Beach by J. R. Carpenter Argot Ogre, OK! by Andrew Plotkin Fred & George by Flourish Klink Gorge by J. R. Carpenter Takei, George by Mark Sample Taroko Gorge by Nick Montfort Tokyo Garage by Scott Rettberg Toy Garbage by Talan Memmott Whisper Wire by J. R. Carpenter Yoko Engorged by Eric Snodgrass

Winter in Brazil, Southern Edition

Wednesday 24 August 2011, 3:26 pm   ///////  

Like my collaborator Noah Wardrip-Fruin, I have come to Brazil for the winter. But not to a nice warm part of Brazil — I’m in Passo Fundo, in the far South, at the 14th Jornada Nacional de Literatura. Here, it has been cold outside, but there has been great excitement about writing and literary art.

Nick Montfort speaking in Passo Fundo

I have been correctly identified as a space man as I’ve shown and discussed interactive fiction, poetry generation, and other forms of electronic literature.

I gave a longer talk this morning about these topics, which was translated into Brazilian Portuguese as I spoke. Tomorrow, I will speak on a panel in the main tent to about 5000 people about certain types of “convergence” in writing and literature. The type I will address is a convergence between authors – collaboration.

Generador de la Historia “The Two” en Español

Wednesday 8 June 2011, 3:43 pm   //////  

Thanks to Carlos León, there is now a Spanish version, “Los Dos,” of my simple but (I think) provocative story generator “The Two.” The system was previously translated into French as “Les Deux” by Serge Bouchardon.

Stop by and check them out; all three are available in JavaScript versions that run right away in a browser. For those who are interested, the original Klingon, er, Python, is also available for each of the three languages.

The reader who takes the time to try to actually understand the output and resolve the pronouns in it will see that often this task is complicated by ambiguity in gender, although syntax and power relations also work to suggest certain ways that pronouns can be resolved. The need to leave the gender of the characters indeterminate in the first line posed particular problems, and slightly different problems, for the French and Spanish translators, who each found a solution.

Rettberg on After Parthenope

Thursday 17 March 2011, 9:21 pm   /////  

If you’re interested in story generation or Processing, do check out Scott Rettberg’s new screencast describing the process he undertook in writing and programming After Parthenope. He goes through the nuts and bolts of the piece and how it rolls out language using a hand-crafted trigram model; he also explains some of the pleasures of authoring a system like this.

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.

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