The Digital Rear-View Mirror

I’m at the intriguing and very sucessful third 2011 symposium of TILTS, the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies. (Interestingly, TILTS can be spelled using only letter from “The X-Files.”) I might have written more about the event, but my computer has been identified by automated UT-Austin systems as being a rooted Windows machine (although it’s not a Windows machine at all) and is banned from the network. Desite my radio silence, though, the symposium has certainly been a space of lively discussion of digital media work, computational linguistics and its application to humanistic inquiry, and the representation of technology in media.

I’ll mention a bit about the talk I gave today, one entitled “The Digital Rear-View Mirror.” The title was based on the dictum of Marshall McLuhan: “We see the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” The most obvious version of the digital rear-view mirror is the one on your Prius, but I started my comments about three specific topics (and one lament) by examining the nature of emulators, a type of rear-view mirror that’s been of great use to me.

I considered how emulators can be understood, via textual studies, as editions of computers, and how this helps us to better conceptualize the emulator and make more effective use of it in our work. This is a topic I wrote about recently here on Pole Position.

Then, I quickly introduced my current book project, which often involves emulators and is entitled “10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1);: GOTO 10”. I am writing a single-voice academic book with nine other authors; the book is about the one-line Commodore 64 BASIC program that is its title.

For the last of my three specific topics, I took my recent collaboration with Stephanie Strickland, Sea and Spar Between, a literary and aesthetic project which was based in part on consideration of the lexicon of Dickinson’s poems and of Moby Dick.

I wound up with some discussion of how the mainstream definition of the digital humanities, as effectively provided by funding agencies, does not clearly admit any of my specifics (building or using emulators, writing a book with nine others about a short program, collaborating on a poetry generator). None of these projects involve digitization or computational analysis of cultural heritage materials. Perhaps Sea and Spar Between, which involves computing on language but is not even a scholarly project, is actually closest to being a digital humanities project, but it isn’t that close.

Although people like our keynote speaker Johanna Drucker, Matt Kirschenbaum (who spoke on the panel with me), and Lev Manovich have done extremely significant work with contemporary objects of study and are also significant figures within the digital humanities, the exclusive fixation on the past means that we do not have major digital humanities projects about contemporary computational work – electronic literature, video games, computer music, digital installation art, etc.

So, I concluded with a plea to let there be some intersection between “digital media” and “the digital humanities” – to allow us a side-view mirror that would let us see what is happening alongside us, and in the recent past, as well.

An Amazing Linked List

I strongly encourage those of you who haven’t seen it yet to check out Brian Kim Stefans’s Introduction to Electronic Literature: a freeware guide.

Right now it is “just” a list of links to online resources, from Futurism through 2010, that are relevant to understanding different important aspects of electronic literature – making it, reading it, sorting through different genres, and understanding its historical connects.

It’s extremely useful in this form, but Stefans is also hoping to put these selections together in a book that he’ll sell at cost. To that end, he’s selected only texts – work that will fit in a book – as opposed to pieces that need to be read on a networked computer. Stefans also intends to put together a website that collects and mirrors these writings, uniformly typeset in a legible way, as PDFs.

I’m of course pleased that Stefans was inspired by The New Media Reader, which Noah Wardrip-Fruin and I edited for the MIT Press, and that he included a few of my pieces.

As I have a strong preference for assigning publicly available texts instead of scanned articles that live being a university paywall, I find these texts very useful for teaching. Stefans is taking suggestions for how to revise his Introduction over on his post.

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

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.

The IF Theory Reader Arrives

Almost a decade after the project began, the IF Theory Reader is finally here, thanks to the hard work of editors Kevin Jackson-Mead and J. Robinson Wheeler. The book has been published by Transcript On Press and has made it out in time for PAX-East, where Kevin’s group The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction will be hosting a hospitality suite.

There are 438 pages in this book, which can be downloaded as a PDF for free or purchased as a paperback for a mere $13.26.

My own contribution, “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction,” has a first page which (except for the title of the article) is entirely occupied by a footnote. Perhaps ominously. I did, however, revise the article for the N+1th time, trying to make it a bit more accessible. I began writing this particular piece back when this book project was first being formulated, and am very, very glad to have it officially published after all these years.

The compendium of writing about interactive fiction that we finally have here includes 26 articles – the same number, I should mention, as there are letters of the alphabet:

  • Crimes Against Mimesis – Roger S. G. Sorolla
  • Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction – Nick Montfort
  • Characterizing, If Not Defining, Interactive Fiction – Andrew Plotkin
  • not that you may remember time: Interactive Fiction, Stream-of-
  • Consciousness Writing, and Free Will – Mark Silcox
  • 2 Brief Dada Angels – Ryan Stevens, writing as Rybread Celsius
  • Object Relations – Graham Nelson
  • IF as Argument – Duncan Stevens
  • The Success of Genre in Interactive Fiction – Neil Yorke-Smith
  • Parser at the Threshold: Lovecraftian Horror in Interactive Fiction – Michael Gentry
  • Distinguishing Between Game Design and Analysis: One View – Gareth Rees
  • Natural Language, Semantic Analysis, and Interactive Fiction – Graham Nelson
  • Afterword: Five Years Later – Graham Nelson
  • Challenges of a Broad Geography – Emily Short
  • Thinking Into the Box: On the Use and Deployment of Puzzles – Jon Ingold
  • PC Personality and Motivations – Duncan Stevens
  • Landscape and Character in IF – Paul O’Brian
  • Hint Development for IF – Lucian Smith
  • Descriptions Constructed – Stephen Granade
  • Mapping the Tale: Scene Description in IF – J. Robinson Wheeler
  • Repetition of Text in Interactive Fiction – Jason Dyer
  • NPC Dialogue Writing – Robb Sherwin
  • NPC Conversation Systems – Emily Short
  • 10 Years of IF: 1994–2004 – Duncan Stevens
  • The Evolution of Short Works: From Sprawling Cave Crawls to Tiny Experiments – Stephen Granade
  • History of Italian IF – Francesco Cordella
  • Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF – Hugo Labrande

Again, congratulations to Kevin and Rob, and thanks to my fellow authors. I’ve read many of these articles before; I’m looking forward to sitting down and reading everything, previously seen and unseen, in this excellent codex.

Reader’s Block

Reader's Block, David Markson, Dalkey Archive, 1996
Reader's Block, David Markson, Dalkey Archive, 1996

A pivotal point in this book – one that is reassuringly labeled “A Novel” – is the paragraph that reads, in its entirety, “Spent Adidas.” The other shoe drops. Imagination finally spills from one isolated paragraph to the next. This two-word paragraph does not stand out as unusually short among many that relating incidents or facts; literary, artistic, or philosophical deaths; and sometimes simply an author’s or some famous character’s name. How can we avoid being overwhelmed by the weight of what we know, what we have read about other lives? How can what we have learned about history frame, rather than imprison, what we seek to create as readers and writers? Why even attempt to imagine, when truth is stranger and so weighty? These questions raise themselves like ghosts in Hades scenting blood. As in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a powerful image of a writer’s path of thought. Then, the poesies that succeeded in Borges’s “The Circular Ruins” takes a different turn in Reader’s Block, after a struggle.

Teejay Spins Tales

Last night I projected words to accompany music at a local lounge. This practice does not seem have an established name – does it? Please let me know if you’re aware of the conventional term. I have heard the phrase “text jockey” used. I’ve also come up with some other terms that don’t seem to fit perfectly. In a sense, this is VJing, but it’s also a practice that is compatible with VJing, since words can be projected in a subtitle-like fashion on moving images.

Using a small bit of Python code and pyglet, I put a number of texts up a word at a time in very plain and uniform typography. Each successive word appeared centered on the same point as the last in a rapid, serial, and visual manner. Sometimes I showed several texts in juxtaposition, sometimes just one. I thought the combination of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual and the text of Beckett’s Rockaby was particularly nice. The Unabomber manifesto and the Timecube website were utilized, as were Moby Dick, a Roberto Bolaño story, some altered versions of Little Red Riding Hood, a poem by Harry Mathews, and a few pieces I put together that drew randomly from word sets to confuse gender stereotypes and our notions of otherness. One of the people who came thanked me and said that he wasn’t expecting to spend the evening reading from great books, but that it was pretty cool.

My thanks to DJ Flack & Wayne and Wax, who very kindly invited me to join them.

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.

Robot Prints and Binds Riddle & Bind

If you’re looking for my new book of poems, Riddle & Bind, and you happen to be near the MBTA’s Red Line or Harvard Square specifically, prepare for excitement. You can not only purchase the book in this venerable area of Cambridge; you can have the Harvard Book Store’s book-making robot, Paige M. Gutenborg, manufacture a copy of Riddle & Bind for you in about four minutes. The cost for the book and the bibliotronic display in which it is forged is simply the retail price, $16.

The Harvard Book Store's book-making robot.I have the feeling that someone must have put in a good word for me.

Update: As of August 14, 2012, Riddle & Bind is not available to be printed on the Espresso Book Machine at the Harvard Book Store. The book can be special ordered through the Harvard Book Store, however.

The MIT Press bookstore, down the red line at the MIT/Kendall stop, has copies of Riddle & Bind in the store and available for purchase.

Yay Book Party

Thanks to all who came by to the Tuesday book release party for Riddle & Bind at Grafton Street. Riddles were pondered (and some solved) and many good times were had. Jason Scott stopped by, driving up from his archival compound in New York State! Recently kickstarted Andrew Plotkin (a.k.a. Zarf) was there, too. Fiction writer Ralph Lombreglia, my mentor from Boston University, was one of several current colleagues from MIT’s Writing and Humanistic Studies who stopped by despite their teaching and event schedules – thanks as well to Bill Corbett, Ed Barrett, and Magdalena Rieb. All right, enough shout-outs for now. I do appreciate all of you who were able to come by and celebrate the publication of Riddle & Bind.

Remote readers can find the book for sale via Spineless Books (my very dedicated publisher) or Amazon.

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!

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

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.

Talk, Talk

I had a great time speaking with people and giving a talk about Curveship, my interactive fiction and interactive narrating system, at Tufts University today in the Department of Computer Science.

Next up is my panel discussion with two others at the Boston Book Festival. It’s on Saturday at 10:30am in the main auditorium of the Boston Public Library. If you read the following incisive paragraph very carefully …

Phoenix in flames

You’ll see that Eugenia Williamson of The Boston Phoenix considers me “a novelist of supreme confidence” – wow! I’m flattered!

My New Book, Riddle & Bind

Riddle & Bind My new book – a book of poems entitled Riddle & Bind – has been published by Spineless Books. The book contains figurative language that does not explicitly state what is described, but leaves this for the reader to discern: riddle. And I have placed myself within certain constraints to write poems in this book: bind. The official publication date is October 31, but thanks to the attention and deft work of my publisher, I was able to lay my hands on a book and volume today. I will follow up soon with details about this tome and its availability, but for now: Riddle & Bind is bound. And it even has a spine.