March 14 in Philadelphia: Platform Studies, Material Computing, and the Atari VCS

Wednesday 9 March 2011, 6:34 pm   //////  

Platform Studies, Material Computing, and the Atari VCS

Nick Montfort, MIT

A presentation in the
Workshop in the History of Material Texts
University of Pennsylvania – March 14, 2011 – 5:15pm
Van Pelt Library, 2nd Floor

Platform studies is a family of approaches that aim to help us understand the relationship between computational platforms and the creative work that is done on them. At a high level, two realizations are particularly important to platform studies: First, that creative production on the computer, using computation, is culturally relevant; and second, that we can usefully look to the underlying systems and structures that constrain and enable this creative production. In this talk, I will describe how participating in this workshop helped me to engage with the materiality of texts and then of computing, how I initially sought to investigate the relationship between textual studies and computational media, and how, working with my collaborator Ian Bogost, I found a deeper, productive connection between digital media and textual materiality that is based on the concept of the platform. Along the way, I will discuss and use as my main example the Atari VCS (a.k.a. Atari 2600). This famous early cartridge-based game system was the focus of my and Bogost’s 2009 book, Racing The Beam, the first book in the MIT Press series Platform Studies.

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.

Horror Lurks on Halloween

A special event: The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction is hosting a session in which we’ll play The Lurking Horror, October 31, 2-5pm, MIT’s room 4-145. We’ll take a tour of some MIT campus locations that inspired the ones in this game, and David Lebling, the Infocom implementor who created the game, will be joining us.

Also, remember that there’s a Tuesday Nov 2 book party for the release of my Riddle & Bind, at Grafton St. in Harvard Square, 6-9pm. And on Sunday Nov 7 we’ll have a codefest where people can work on games in Curveship, or on the core system, if they like. Contact me (the login name is “nickm”, the domain to use is this one) if you’d like to join us for that event.

Riddle & Bind is out. Party!

Tuesday 26 October 2010, 6:51 pm   ///////  

My book Riddle & Bind (with an official publication date of October 31) is out. One day Amazon will have an image of the cover. But for now, anyone can order it through Spineless Books or Amazon, and … there’s a book release party here in Cambridge, in Harvard Square:

Grafton Street Restaurant and Bar 1230 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge, MA 02138

Tuesday November 2 6-9pm

You’re invited to stop by, peruse the book, and hang out with us. The book will be available for sale, too, but if you just want to come by and flip through it, or try to crack the code of Christian Bök’s encrypted back-cover blurb, that’s fine too. Grafton Street serves fine food and drink, and you’re welcome to purchase yourself some of it – there are no retail obligations, though. I’ll 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!

Purple Blurb, Spring 2010

Tuesday 9 February 2010, 6:52 pm   ////////  

I’m delighted to announce our Spring 2010 Purple Blurb events:

Video
Roderick Coover & Nitin Sawhney
Monday, March 1
5:30pm-7pm

Poetry
Stephanie Strickland
Monday, March 8
5:30pm-7pm

Interactive Fiction
Jeremy Freese & Emily Short
Monday, March 29
5:30pm-7pm

Poetry
John Cayley & Daniel C. Howe
Wednesday, April 28
7:30pm-9pm

All events are in MIT’s 14E-310.

Note that the first three events begin earlier (5:30pm) than in semesters past, while the final event this semester begins later (7:30pm).

Please also note (or recall) that 14E is the east wing of Building 14, the building which also houses the Hayden Library. This is not building E14, the new Media Lab building.

March 1

RODERICK COOVER

Canyonlands (www.unknownterritories.org) is a film and interactive documentary about the works of the novelist and essayist, Edward Abbey (1927-1989). Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger and forest lookout in Western parks and forest-lands, wrote in praise of wilderness, and called attention to the destruction of the desert landscape. His descriptions of eco-sabotage in his novel The Monkey Gang were an inspiration for the formation of the environmentalist organizations such as EarthFirst! Canyonlands takes users into a virtual representation of the Colorado River and Utah canyonlands. There, users will follow Abbey’s road and fascinating side routes as they weave their way through history.

Roderick Coover makes panoramic interactive environments, collaborative streaming visual poems, and multimedia documentary projects about histories, narratives, and the sense of place. Some titles include Unknown Territories (Unknownterritories.org), Cultures in Webs (Eastgate Systems), From Verite to Virtual (D.E.R), The Theory of Time Here (Video Data Bank), The Language of Wine (RLCP), and Something That Happened Only Once (RLCP) among others. An associate professor of film and media arts at Temple University, Roderick Coover has received awards from USIS-Fulbight, a LEF Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation, among others. URL: http://www.roderickcoover.com

NITIN SAWHNEY

Strawberries, Roosters and the Chocolate Seas is an upcoming feature-length documentary. It is a personal journey into the heart of Gaza using a satirical and poetic rendering of everyday life and the extraordinary events witnessed by the filmmaker, during his visit there one year after the devastating 22-day siege in January 2009. The film, shot during two intense weeks in January 2010, includes interviews with fishermen, farmers, physicians, teachers, and working professionals, interspersed with footage that captures dramatic events like the large convoys of aid arriving in Gaza despite the blockade, tunnels used to smuggle goods, hip hop bands striving for creative expression, and the floods that turned Gaza’s seashore from deep blue to chocolate. 

Nitin Sawhney is a research fellow in the Program in Art, Culture and Technology in the Department of Architecture at MIT. He co-founded the Voices Beyond Walls initiative for digital storytelling in Palestinian refugee camps. The program was founded in 2006, when pilot digital media and storytelling workshops were first conducted in the Balata and Jenin refugee camps in the West Bank. Since then local and international volunteers have conducted nearly a dozen workshops in six different refugee camps. See: http://www.voicesbeyondwalls.org Sawhney was selected as a Visionary Fellow with the Jerusalem 2050 Program: http://envisioningpeace.org/visions/media-barrios He has recently returned from a trip to Gaza and is sharing footage from a documentary he is co-producing: http://www.GazaRoosterFilms.com

March 8

STEPHANIE STRICKLAND

Strickland will read from four collaborative digital poems created over the past twelve years, each of which uses the screen differently: V: Vniverse, Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot, Errand Upon Which We Came, and slippingglimpse.

Stephanie Strickland is a print and hypermedia poet who, in addition to having written the digital poems mentioned above, has published five books: Zone : Zero, V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una, True North, The Red Virgin: A Poem Of Simone Weil, and Give the Body Back.

March 29

JEREMY FREESE

Violet is an interactive short story about romance and procrastination in which the main character is struggling to complete his dissertation. The things that happen in the simulated graduate student office are narrated to the player by the (imaginary) voice of the main character’s Australian girlfriend. Violet won several XYZZY awards in 2008, including the award for Best Game, and was the winner of the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition.

Jeremy Freese is a professor in the Department of Sociology, School of Communication, and Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

EMILY SHORT

Alabaster is a fractured fairy tale by John Cater, Rob Dubbin, Eric Eve, Elizabeth Heller, Jayzee, Kazuki Mishima, Sarah Morayati, Mark Musante, Emily Short, Adam Thornton, and Ziv Wities, illustrated by Daniel Allington-Krzysztofiak. This interactive fiction is an experiment in open authorship. The introduction to the story was written and released by Short in 2008. The game is implemented in Inform 7 using a conversation system, developed by Short, that will be released for general use by Inform 7 developers. There are eighteen possible endings to Alabaster.

Emily Short is author of or collaborator on more than two dozen interactive fictions, including Galatea (winner of Best of Show in the 2000 IF Art Show) and Savoir Faire (XYZZY Award for Best Game and in other categories, 2002) and Floatpoint (winner of the 2006 IF Competition) along with other XYZZY award-winning games: Metamorphoses (2000), Pytho’s Mask (2001), City of Secrets (2003), and Mystery House Possessed (2005). Short, who is a classicist and a scholar of attic drama, has worked on the development of Inform 7, has reviewed dozens of games, and writes the column “Homer in Silicon” for GameSetWatch.

April 28

The Readers Project is a collection of distributed, performative, quasi-autonomous poetic ‘Readers’ — active, procedural entities with distinct reading behaviors and strategies. We release these Readers onto inscribed surfaces that may be explicitly or implicitly, visibly or invisibly, constituted by their texts. Over time, the Readers will address themselves to a wide range of material — from conventional found texts, through poetic reconfigurations of appropriated (fairly-used) sources, to original compositions by the project’s collaborators, and so on.

Designed to support the creation of novel works of digital literature, Howe’s RiTa library, in which The Readers Project is implemented, provides a unique set of tools for artists and writers working in programmable media. Combining features of natural language processing, computational stylistics, and generative systems, RiTa enables a range of tasks, from statistical methods, to grammar-based generation, to linguistic database access (e.g., WordNet), to text-mining, to text-to-speech, to image, audio, & animation, all in real-time. RiTa is free and open-source and integrates with the popular Processing environment for digital arts programming.

JOHN CAYLEY

John Cayley writes digital media, particularly in the domain of poetry and poetics. Recent and ongoing projects include The Readers Project with Daniel Howe, imposition with Giles Perring, riverIsland, and what we will. Information on these and other works may be consulted at http://programmatology.shadoof.net. Cayley is a visiting professor at Brown University, Literary Arts Program.

DANIEL C. HOWE

Daniel C. Howe is a digital artist and researcher whose work explores the intersections of literature, computation, and procedural art practice. He recently received his PhD (on generative literary systems) from the Media Research Lab at NYU and was awarded a ‘Computing Innovations’ fellowship from the National Science Foundation for 2010. He currently resides in Providence, RI where he teaches at Brown and RISD, and is a resident artist at AS220. His site: http://mrl.nyu.edu/~dhowe/

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.

Marina Bers Speaks in Purple Blurb, Monday 11/30

Tuesday 24 November 2009, 4:22 pm   //////  

On Monday (November 30) at 6pm in MIT’s room 14E-310,

The Purple Blurb series of readings and presentations on digital writing will present a talk by

Marina Bers.

Marina Bers

associate professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and adjunct associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Tufts University.

Her research involves the design and study of innovative learning technologies to promote positive youth development. At Tufts, Bers heads the interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies research group. Bers received the 2005 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding investigators at the early stages of their careers. She also received a five year National Science Foundation (NSF) Young Investigator’s Career Award and the American Educational Research Associations (AERA) Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies. Over the past fourteen years, Bers has conceived and designed diverse technological tools ranging from robotics to virtual worlds, from tangible programming languages to storytelling environments. She conducted studies after school programs, museums and hospitals, as well as schools in the US, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, Costa Rica and Thailand. She teaches seminars on learning technologies for educators and does consulting on ways to use technology to promote positive youth development. Her book “Blocks to Robots: Learning with Technology in the Early Childhood Classroom” has been published by Teacher’s College Press in 2008. Bers is from Argentina and did her undergraduate studies in Social Communication at Buenos Aires University. In 1994 she came to the US where she received a Master’s degree in Educational Media and Technology from Boston University and a Master of Science and PhD from the MIT Media Laboratory, where she worked with Seymour Papert.

Pythonic Textuality at NYU

Friday 31 July 2009, 12:56 am   ///////  

I was very interested to learn that Adam Parrish, whose own Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) masters project was “New Interfaces for Textual Expression,” is now teaching Digital Writing with Python at NYU’s ITP. The course is concluding; Parrish and his students will mount a final performance on August 5 at 7pm. Parrish eschewed powerful, cryptic Perl for clarity of Python in this course on creating text machines, as I did in putting together The Word Made Digital, which I’ll be teaching again this Fall. His reading list overlaps with mine a bit and includes a nice article on appropriation in writing – I may just rip that right off. I won’t manage to be in New York to hear students read their programs’ output, but I hope the conclusion to the class goes well and that I’ll be able to read and run some things that will give me a sense of the event.

Rafael Pérez y Pérez to Speak at MIT

Thursday 9 July 2009, 4:55 pm   //////  

Next week, the Purple Blurb series offers a second special summer talk by a leading researcher in creative text generation. Rafael Pérez y Pérez will speak on …

MEXICA: A Computer Model for Plot Generation of Prehispanic Stories

MEXICA is a computer model that generates plots for short stories about the Mexicas, the old inhabitants of what today is México City, based on the engagement-reflection cognitive account of writing. During engagement MEXICA generates material guided by content and rhetorical constraints, avoiding the use of explicit characters’ goals or story-structures. During reflection the system breaks impasses, evaluates the novelty and interestingness of the story in progress and verifies that coherence requirements are satisfied. In this talk I will explain the main characteristics of the system, I will show how emotions are employed to progress a story in a coherent way and generate novel situations, and how the dramatic tension of the story in progress might be employed to evaluate its interestingness. I will present results showing how story generation is affected by various model parameters and I will compare MEXICA with other story-generators programs. Finally, I will mention how we are employing MEXICA as starting point for new research projects.

Pérez y Pérez will speak on Wednesday July 15, 6pm-7pm, at MIT in room 14E-310. This is in the same location as Pablo Gervás’s talk in May, and just one more floor up the stairs from the Trope Tank, where other Purple Blurb events were located. The talk is (as with all Purple Blurb presentations) open to the public.

Rafael Pérez y Pérez.

Rafael Pérez y Pérez, creator of the MEXICA story system.

Rafael Pérez y Pérez earned a BSc. in Electronics and Computers at Universidad Iberoamericana in México City, a MSc. in Knowledge Based Systems and a DPhil. in Artificial Intelligence at Sussex University in England. His research has focused on computer models of creativity. He and his students have developed programs that write short stories, compose music, and solve geometry problems, among other things. In 2006 he organised the Mexican Creativity, Cognition and Computers research group (MCCC) which aims to gather together a multidisciplinary group of researchers and students interested in computational creativity. He has published different papers in the area and has participated as a PC member and co-chair in international events related to computational creativity. Currently he is a researcher and lecturer at The Autonomous Metropolitan University (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana or UAM) in México City and an invited Lecturer in the MSc and PhD programs in Computer Science at The National Autonomous University of México (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México or UNAM).

Pablo Gervás to Speak at MIT

Thursday 14 May 2009, 11:30 pm   //////  

Next week, the Purple Blurb series offers a special talk by a leading European researcher in creative text generation.

Pablo Gervás (center) keeps his head above water.

Pablo Gervás (center) keeps his head above water.

Pablo Gervás works as associate professor (profesor titular de universidad) at the Departamento de Ingeniería del Software e Inteligencia Artificial, Facultad de Informática, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He is the director of the NIL research group and also of the Instituto de Tecnología del Conocimiento.

His research is on processing natural language input, generating natural language output, building resources for related tasks, and generating stories. In the area of creative text generation, he has done work on automatically generating metaphors, formal poetry, and short films.

He will speak on Wednesday May 20, 6pm-7pm, at MIT in room 14E-310. The talk is (as with all Purple Blurb presentations) open to the public, and (as with all Purple Blurb presentations so far) will be in English.

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