A Poetry Class for 36,000

December 10, 5:30pm in MIT’s 6-120

Al Filreis

Teaching Modern & Contemporary American Poetry to 36k

Al Filreis has taught his “ModPo” course at Penn for years; in Fall 2012 he
offered a 10-week version of the course online, via Coursera, to more than
36,000 students. The course, as in its previous versions, does not include
lectures, being based instead on discussion – the collaborative close
readings of poems. The course grows out of Filreis’s work at the Kelly
Writers House; he has been Faculty Director of this literary freespace since
its founding in 1995. Filreis is also co-founder of PennSound, the Web’s
main free archive of poetry readings, publisher of Jacket2 magazine, and
producer and host of “PoemTalk,” a podcast/radio series of close readings of
poems. In conversation with Nick Montfort, Filreis will discuss ModPo and
his perspective on writing, teaching, and digital media.

Filreis is Kelly Professor of English and Director of the Center for
Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is
the author of Wallace Stevens and the Actual World, Modernism from Right to
Left, Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modernism,
1945-60, and other works. He was chosen as Pennsylvania Professor of the
Year by the Carnegie Foundation in 2000.

Co-sponsored by the SHASS Dean’s Office and the Literature Section.

All Purple Blurb events are free and open to the public. The Purple Blurb
series is supported by the Angus N. MacDonald fund and Writing and
Humanistic Studies.

What’s the Story on Digital Media?

I generally will reply to any email messages that was personally written to me and which requests a reply. Perhaps because I wrote for my college newspaper, I’m inclined to try to help student journalists when I can. Sometimes, though, the best suggestions I can offer are ideas about how to rethink the basic approach and find a real story, rather than the sought-after quotations. As when, recently, I wrote basically this in reply to some extremely general questions about digital media and changes in the way we communicate – perhaps prompted by a class assignment rather than part of work toward an article for publication:

Grouping together Facebook, blogs, and text messages on one side and letter-writing on the other isn’t really sound, since it assumes that Facebook, a blog, and a text message are the same sort of thing and that a letter is a different sort of thing. Is a letter typed on a word processor the same as or different from a hand-written letter? Is one a digital media letter and the other pre-digital? Why is publishing a long, public blog post at all like sending a text message to a friend?

Your questions also suggest that people are constantly making choices between using digital media and traditional media. We live in a media ecology in which old media are not simply replaced by new. There are many ways to communicate, but we very seldom choose one over the other. I suppose there are circumstances under which you might send a friend a postcard, for instance, but I find it very unlikely that you’d make a direct and conscious decision to do that instead of sending that friend a text message.

Your questions also seem to assume that new media technologies just appear and that we are influenced by them, because you ask only about the effects of these technologies. Facebook was not given to the Earth by aliens, though. It was developed by people based on existing ideas about communication. The same can be said for the Web and any other digital communication system. Someone who is interested in knowing why communication online is the way that it is will never figure that out just by asking about how Facebook influences the way people write. It’s also necessary to understand why Facebook came to be the way it is, in terms of its original motivation and development and down to specific questions (such as your last one) related to particular features.*

I would suggest focusing on a particular digital media system and asking about how it arose, how it is used, and what’s special about it — not just in relation to some non-digital means of communicating, but overall. It can be worthwhile to ask what niche such a system has in the media ecology: What does it offer in particular that is better than other media channels? Then, you can see how people use language within that channel in interesting ways that is revealing in terms of culture, cognition, and so on. The people who study these systems successful in the humanities and social science, and those who build them and do well at it, take this sort of approach, and there are certainly interesting stories that result about why certain systems are successful in certain ways and how they are actually used.

The paragraph marked with *, of course, is just as true for computational platforms (the focus of the platform studies approach and the MIT Press Platform Studies series) as it is of communications systems, and it’s one of the core ideas behind platform studies and what it comprehends.

This student didn’t seem interested in approaching the topic differently and more productively, and asked instead if I could recommend someone who would provide quotes. That’s not a surprise – it’s the typical nature of this exchange, after all, and not a desire to roast any (unnamed) person, that motivates me to post this. It does go to show that whether you use in-person interviewing, an analog land-line phone, or email, you can miss gaining insight in the same way.

Review of 10 PRINT in Slate, New Ports/Variants

Geeta Dayal reviewed 10 PRINT in Slate. As far as I know, this is the first published review of the book, and I greatly appreciate how it traces the discussion of mazes and other topics, pointing out the many cultural and well as technical touchstones.

Over at Stack Overflow they have a nice thread going with several shell scripts that implement 10 PRINT.

Daniel Haehn has written a 3D version of the 10 PRINT program in WebGL.

And my lab’s server is back up after a power outage here in Cambridge, MA, so the PDF of the book that was hosted there is once more available.

10 PRINT Event, Post, Site, Photos

Our event at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery (with me – Nick Montfort – Patsy Baudoin and Noah Vawter) went very well, with the gallery full for the salon and people willing up after the discussion to come program on the two Commodore 64s that we brought. There were some fascinating variants developed, too. Thanks to George for setting this up for us and to Dan and Bill for getting the space set so that the C64s could be powered up and connected to a projector.

Lev Manovich, one of the editors of the Software Studies series in which our book appears, writes of it:

10 PRINT was “coded” by 10 writers. However, rather than producing yet another academic anthology made up by independent parts, they made a coherent single “intellectual software” which executes beautifully.

We have a site for the book now at http://10print.org – you can download the entire contents, Creative Commons licensed, from the site there in a 50MB PDF. We’re happy to follow up on how the original program was shared in the 1980s by sharing our book in this way.

Finally, Casey Reas, our co-author and the designer of the book, has posted a set of photos of the 10 PRINT book. These are very effective in showing the care that Casey took in putting together the book, and how well it communicates the insights we reached together – and why you may enjoy reading the physical, printed 10 PRINT.

10 PRINT at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery

As seen on Bruce Sterling’s blog, we have an 10 PRINT (or, to be precise, a 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10) event tomorrow, Wednesday, here in Boston. The Boston Cyberarts Gallery (formerly AXIOM) is located in the Green Street T station on the Orange Line; the event’s at 7:30pm.

An evening to celebrate the publication by MIT Press of 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10. This book takes a single line of code-the extremely concise BASIC program for the Commodore 64 inscribed in the title-and uses it as a lens through which to consider the phenomenon of creative computing and the way computer programs exist in culture. The ten authors of this collaboratively written book, treat code not as merely functional but as a text-in the case of 10 PRINT, a text that appeared in many different printed sources-that yields a story about its making, its purpose, its assumptions, and more.

They consider randomness and regularity in computing and art, the maze in culture, the popular BASIC programming language, and the highly influential Commodore 64 computer.

Nick Montfort will start off the evening leading a discussion among co-authors and the audience about this celebrated piece of software. And there will be a short hackathon.

ATNE Salons are informal discussions on art/technology topics. At each event, we start the discussion with a presentation by an expert in the field who’ll provide context and raise provocative questions. Next, with the help of a moderator, we turn the debate over to you. Share your ideas, discover new ones and participate in analytical discourse and artistic cross-pollination.

About Art Technology New England

ATNE is a member-run organization whose purpose is to foster existing and new collaborations in the New England art and technology communities, including non-profit, academic & corporate entities, as well as individuals.

When: Wednesday, November 28th, 7:30pm
Where: Boston Cyberarts Gallery,
141 Green St.,
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

Free event!
RSVP to info [at] atne.org
www.atne.org

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction … Today

Boston-Area IF group The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction (PR-IF) is set to meet at 6:30pm today in my lab, The Trope Tank (MIT’s room 14N-233). We’ll check out some of the winners of the 2012 Interactive Fiction Competition, the 18th annual Comp, which recently concluded. Congratulations to Marco Innocenti for his 1st-place Andromeda Apocalypse, to the anonymous author of Eurydice (which took 2nd), and to Jim Munroe, for Guilded Youth, which was 3rd – and to all of the other winners!

Lede, Based on a True Story

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.

Palindromes, the Next Best Thing to Rounded Corners

Mark Saltveit, palindromist and comedian, delivers a compelling “CHAD” talk on the e-levels of palindromes and his new approaches of Palindromics and its natural cultish extension, Scinegenics. In his talk, he covers some palindrome history and the development of weaponized palindromes. Although Mark is a letterist, he mentions a classic word-unit palindrome from the book of Exodus, “AHYH ASHR AHYH,” or “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” or, to rend it into a Popeye-esque English, “yam whaddaye yam!”

Statistics Outta My Face

Ben Grosser created Facebook Demetricator, a tool that removes counts from Facebook, so that instead of displaying “14,836 people like this” your interface will simply say “people like this.”

I love the concept. I haven’t seen it in action myself, because of my use of a manually-implemented “DeFacebookizer” that, rather than enmeshing me in the most direct possible corporate system of social control and structure, leaves me with only the heterogeneous, diverse, and open communications from people on the World Wide Web. The Web is not a pure wonderland, though. These sorts of communications are, of course, also continually subject to statistical analysis and displays of counts – how many comments on a blog post, for instance. To intervene in the count-obsession of digital media, it makes sense to go to where it is most prominent.

Grosser discusses his deaugmentation of Facebook in an interview with Matthew Fuller.

The 2013 ELO Conference in Paris

The Electronic Literature Organization’s 2013 conference will be in Paris:

Chercher le Texte:
Locating the Text in Electronic Literature

The Electronic Literature Organization (http://eliterature.org), the leading organization devoted to electronic literature, announces its 2013 conference to be held in Paris, France, September 24-27, 2013, in collaboration with Université Paris 8. Proposals are welcome on topics within electronic literature, including but not limited to:

  • Digital culture
  • Code and software studies
  • Digital art
  • Translation of electronic literature
  • E-literature and the body
  • Digital poetics
  • Digital storytelling
  • Mobile/locative media

The website is being prepared now, but a call for proposals (with further information) is already out. The deadline is December 31, 2012.

10 PRINT Exhibit, Reading

Our book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 has been printed and bound and is making its way to bookstores now. It’s featured in a current exhibit at Hampshire College, and three of us ten co-authors did a reading to celebrate the release at the Harvard Book Store yesterday, where the first copies were available.

Nick Montfort of 10 PRINT

Our reading at the Harvard Book Store drew a sizable crowd, including MIT colleagues from Comparative Media Studies / Writing and Humanistic Studies and the Literature section; comrades in the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, librarians, and local free software folks and hackers, among others. The three of us read some short excerpts from the book and discussed the project, first with each other and then in response to questions from the audience. Several people assumed that the book was a collection of individually-authored articles, which is not a surprise, since that’s usually how a book like this is done. So we spent some time explaining the process of collaborative authorship that we used. The photos here are of me (Nick Montfort) on the left, then of Patsy Baudoin and Noah Vawter.

Patsy Baudoin of 10 PRINT Noah Vawter of 10 PRINT

Meanwhile, back in Western Massachusetts … and specifically at Hampshire College, the exhibit “Pulp to Pixels: Artist’s Books in the Digital Age” is on until November 16. The exhibit is curated by Andrea Dezsö, Steven Daiber, and Meredith Brober, is part of the “Non-Visible and Intangible” series, and is located at the Harold F. Johnson Library. There’s a news item about the exhibit and site with curatorial descriptions and documentation.

Below are photos of John Slepian, who offered his Commodore 64 for the exhibit and set it up, and a gallery visitor enjoying a 10 PRINT variant.

Setting up the C64

A visitor using the C64