Friday, July 29, 2005

More geoWriting

More thoughts on geoWriting (a name I tire of already). I was really looking forward to attaching every Amherst user's plan (their blog sort of thing, see planWorld entry below) to their dorm room, but it is becoming fairly clear to me that people won't be comfortable with that. I cynically assume that anything that someone can associate with the word "stalking" will never be allowed by the public, even if it does not reveal any information that wasn't already available. This will make for a good rant later, but more to the point I have some further thoughts below suggesting that the project might still be worthwhile. Whether all this is a sound contemplation on many of the topics discussed in our program so far, or just late-night induced overoptimism, will be determined by the light of day, and by your comments.

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Add photos of your favorite places and attach them to those places. Add little text notes about your favorite nooks on campus and attach them to those very nooks. Keep a weblog and a gallery of recent photos attached to your dorm room. Attach diatribes against the football team to the gym, complaints to the President on the President's House, suggestions for the IT department on the Computer Center building. Write a hint for great places to read on the Library steps or a party invitation on the Quad. Attach bird song to the bird sanctuary, concert audio to the music building, a recorded sermon to the chapel.

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Then: glide over your favorite parts of the campus to see what people say and think and see about them. Find out what parties are going on in a part of campus on a given night. Read the writing of people who live in a totally different part of the campus then you, and see how similar or different they really are.

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Prospective students can see, read and hear our physical campus. Alumni can see what current students think of their old haunts, and pass on their own thoughts about any given place. Current students can get a better feel for the diversity of the campus.

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Encourage a sense of community on the campus. These are, after all, the people that you're living with. Read what your neighbors are thinking about.

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I think this comes from an article that I read and dismissed some time ago. It talked about how the internet had removed the barriers of location, how that had been a nice thing and all, but how now it was doing the exact opposite, and how really great that was. I think the idea was that content was determined by your location, but I think it also mentioned the idea of locating content by geographic location, like pinning your photo to your own front door.

The Internet was so great because it let us ignore characteristics like location. You could find people that were just like you, and not have to interact with the very different people you were stuck with next door. So perhaps the beauty of this system is that it's, in a way, unfiltered, uncustomized. You see what everyone thinks, and the commonality is the place, not the demographics.

It may not be the case that this glorious melting pot will remain forever -- I quite expect that if this is used significantly, communities will pop up such that certain geographic sections are de facto bordered off for non-geographic communities. But I am hopeful that organization in this way will be different enough to break those closed communities a bit, and let them re-form, slightly changed, all the stronger and better.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Photoshop & JavaScript

You might have thought I would have had enough of JavaScript by now, what with working on it every night, but oh no, it can be used for Photoshop as well.

This site has a long, fairly useful tutorial, complete with examples:
kirupa.com Photoshop Scripting

Those examples -- at least the ones that I used -- didn't work, of course. But it didn't take very many coding changes to get them to work (for the most part). Both that I tried crashed at one point, but did a lot of interesting stuff first. Being able to automate this is pretty cool: you can take dynamic input and create cool images, on the fly maybe, for simple stuff. Also, images with lots of repetitive details could be done with JavaScript.

Anyway, check out the two .png's in this directory: photoshop stuff. The _modified.js files are the scripts that created the images.

[For the most part, though, ignore this post, except perhaps for the theoretical possibility and a quick look at the images, and read the several long posts below which have no comments and for which I would really enjoy feedback.]

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Another idea, call it "geoWriting"

So having been considering audio searching, database narration and the rest for a while, I have of course now thought about something else that might be worth doing.

I think I may have read about this being implemented somewhere, or maybe it's just an idyllic idea that my father (a cartographer) mentioned to me. It would be neat if we could attach writing and other media to geographic locations. So, looking at a 3d map of Amherst College, users can attach pieces of writing to buildings, trees, quads, etc. I described earlier today how each student has a "plan", or small text file, so those can obviously be attached to each person's dorm room. But then we can also attach comments about our favorite spots in the area, photographs of beautiful campus scenes to the geographic coordinates of that scene, audio of lectures to the building where they took place, party announcements at the party locations, etc. Move around the map from the administration buildings to read about campus policies, etc. to the dorms to read student plans to the academic buildings to see whatever they're up to.

Anyway, there are a couple of questions I still have about this idea:
First of all, is this worthwhile? Is it useful to organize information in this way? Would you gain some understanding by attaching a place to a piece of text or audio? In some cases this must be valuable (in applications where the location is very important: perhaps in certain scientific contexts, or in sociological viewings of a place and how it is used), but is in most cases, as in the college campus example, examples where the content is pieces of media?

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is, of course, a large field of implementation of attaching information to geographic location. It is extraordinarily valuable in scientific contexts, there is no question of that. I remember someone in Bangkok using a GIS system and a series of data about air currents to track and predict the movement of mosquitos and disease. Whether useful, interesting, creative applications can be made of this by knowing, organizing, or viewing media (text, pictures, audio, video) through geographic location seems to me an open question.

Secondly, is this feasible? Theoretically all the information is there; there are extensive GIS systems in place for attaching information to location; there are satellite and 3d maps of Amherst College, or practically any location I want to use. But I'm not sure where I would start in actually programming the thing (whereas with search I could start some of the coding tomorrow if I wanted to). There are a lot of Google Maps Hacks out there, and though I don't know exactly how they work, it seems that it wouldn't be too difficult to do (there's even a Public API for putting Google Maps in your webpages, though I would probably want to do more than that). I would prefer to have a 3d interface on it if possible (why not have the ability to climb hills, etc. if this really is about getting a sense of the place and the media) about it: should I be looking at Google Earth (does not run on Mac or Linux) or more traditional ArcGIS (something I have had some formal training in, but which is extraordinarily complex -- and I'd rather not make users use ArcReader).

Anyway, any thoughts on this idea compared to others (searching audio, database narratives, etc.)? Comments (technical, creative, whatever) would be most appreciated.

planWorld

It is remarkable that I've lasted this long without telling all of you about planWorld. If you are at all interested, I am personally obsessed and would love to talk you about it. In the meantime, this about file is really pretty interesting, I think, and it explains the relevant, interesting history.

About planWorld (a famous text file used to introduce people to our online community):

Written by jlodom on vax2.amherst.edu
13-MAR-2001

Welcome to planworld! If you are to live here, you should know a little history. Not a lot, because I have bored more patient folks than yourself with the full epic of planworld. But enough to get by. If you want to know more you can always e-mail me at jlodom00@alumni.amherst.edu or contact the friendly Planworld Development Team

Planworld History

Writing plans began in the days when computers were big and costly enough that they had to be shared by many people, usually scientists, academics, or the military. Every user on a mainframe was given an account with a couple of kilobytes of disk space. Because computing power was limited, users needed to know something about one another in order to figure out how best to share the system. A "plan" file was a small text file that a user wrote to explain their current projects. Other users could read the plan by "fingering" the user.

In the early 1980s, Amherst College purchased a state-of-the-art VAX computer. VAX was actually the name of the processor (and eventually it used the ALPHA processor instead) and the operating system was called VMS. But everyone called it the VAX anyway. It had a whopping 30MB of hard disk space for roughly 2000 users. It also had tons of cool features like word processing and spreadsheets. And, if they knew what they were doing students could also write plans on it. Two of those students were jwmanly (John Manly '85) and jhwelch (Jonathan Welch '84). This pair became so proficient in the administration and programming of the system that they were employed to run it after their graduation.

As time went on, the VAX became more powerful and more students used it to write term papers and send e-mail. They discovered that by writing plans they could keep each other company during all-nighters--writing back and forth between bouts of wrestling with essays. Some adventurous souls even kept plans on the college's new UNIX machine.

Jwmanly heard about this activity and started to read plans again. But he found that he could never keep track of who had written a new plan, and so he would often reread plans that hadn't been changed for weeks. He solved this problem one night in the early nineties by using the DCL programming language to hack up the program that would make him famous: Planwatch.

Students used planwatch to keep track of when their friends' plans changed. It could also be used to read a bunch of plans at once. It was with this program that "planworld" was really born. But there was an element missing; plans only worked one way. You could read someone's plan, but you could not know who read yours, and thus you could not know to read theirs. Jhwelch solved this problem in 1999 when he stepped down as VAX administrator. SNITCH was his final gift to the students of Amherst College. It allowed users to see who had fingered them--but only if they in turn were willing to be visible to those whose plans they fingered.

The VAX was a great system, but after a while, students stopped wanting to explore it. It became arcane and difficult to maintain. Amherst hackers were interested only in newer UNIX-based systems, and new users wanted the friendlier world of the World Wide Web. The VAX was slated to be turned off. For some time it seemed as if planworld would die with it. If so, then the world would fade away at the height of its glory.

In the end it was saved by the diverse efforts of many individuals, including anhochron (Alex Hochron '02), snfitzsimmon (Seth Fitzsimmons '02), and others who worked hard to port it to the web at Amherst and beyond. Here is one rendition, translated but intact, for the graphical Internet.

Planworld Philosophy

This little text file, labeled "about," is supposed to tell you what planworld is. The problem, though, is that the moment I tell you what planworld is, I have destroyed it. Planworld began accidentally, is littered with accidents, and if it is to continue it will continue accidentally.

I can tell you what planworld is not. It is not a chat room, or a message board, or a clique--although it may encompass all of these things. Nor is it a place for anonymity. Indeed, many of its inhabitants feel free enough here to write down the conversations they only have in their own heads. This is a place where the things of the self and the oustide-self mingle and the private and public lose their identities. Most paradoxically, no matter how active you are within it, it not a place that you are, but a place you have been.

The best way to know what planworld means is to read plans. Plans of people you know. Plans of people they know. Plans of people who cannot possibly exist. And then you write a plan of your own. Write what you want to write, whether it is yours alone, or a response to someone else, or stolen.

One thing I must warn you: planworld is about words. It began as text, and text is its life and soul. Pictures and colors and hyperlinks are all well and good, but they are outsiders. They are artifice and facade. When all else ends the text will remain, stuck in your head and the heads of those who read you. Write. Write what you will, but put it down honestly.

Let me close by saying "welcome." This is a special place, one of the last enclaves of what "cyberspace" used to be when the command line was everything. I came late here, only in 1998, but even since then there have been planworld field trips, planworld romances, planworld breakups, even planworld proposals. And on one memorable occasion not so long ago, someone was mistakenly declared dead. Which is to say, this is a real world. It is full of human beings.

And that's about it.

Book of Waste

Bryan sent me to the Dreaming Methods site to take a look at one of their projects of "digital fiction". You are welcome to follow along with the one that I went through and will comment on here. "Book of Waste" is currently the top left project on the main page, though perhaps there is a more permanent link. I wouldn't really recommend going through the entire thing, as I didn't really enjoy it very much, but you can take a look at any one of the Flash videos inside "Book fo Waste" to get an idea of most of what I'll discuss here.

I'll just focus on a couple of themes here, as they exist throughout the work. The first, and I think the most important, is the method of navigation. Each episode in "Book of Waste" handles this slightly differently, but they have much in common. The one thing in common for all is that the top left hand corner has a box to exit the current episode and return to the main page. In the top right, almost all episodes have a series of unlabeled boxes to move between different pages. These are assorted in various ways, usually to suggest some purpose about the flow of the story.

The big difference here from traditional media or traditional stories is that there isn't any set way of moving through the story. A handful of the stories move linearly -- you click on a box at the end of each stanza/page and it brings you the "next" page (in quotes as this isn't always the next chronologically, or the next logically in the pattern of the navigation corner -- but it is certainly next as the author has made a clear choice to take you there -- I assume that it isn't random). But in the non-linear cases, the user chooses which box to click on next, and even given the directed path, the user can often choose to jump around. This is interesting because it's not really something we're presented with in traditional media -- when you read a book you're forced to read the pages in exactly the way that the author set them out for you, if you want to understand the text at all. That being said, the element of 'control' or 'reader interaction' here is extremely limited, I think. The user, in almost every case that I can think of, "chooses" randomly. This is considerably less interactive than a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, and merely requires that the stanzas be self-contained enough and the story be mysterious enough to function in some sense in a variety of random orders.

This is no doubt a real difference (I do not mean to dismiss that claim) from traditional media. And it certainly fits the spooky, disturbing, confusing mood that the "Book of Waste" is trying to set. But I would be loath to conclude from this (as one might be tempted to do at first) that the work is interactive, personal or responsive. I feel that I have not added any more to the experience of this piece of art than I do when I interpret any work.

Another commonality in many of the episodes of "Book of Waste" (and, apparently, in quite a lot of the content that Dreaming Methods has) is that the Flash interface makes it difficult, at times, to read the text. Content is shown, shaking, in brief spurts, alternatively with other text, etc. The way that Flash is used to handle text can at times be very interesting. In the "findings" episode, for example, the ends of sentences are occasionally changed as the text sits in front of you: some pair of words fade out, and others fade in, or words move out of the way so that others can fade in. This has some nice, meaningful touches behind it: interchangeable words, objects in a large assortment, etc. are rotated cleverly underlining their logical place; alternate endings to sentences and paragraphs are tried out, the reader can determine what the difference is; in one case the words "new and improved" are inserted after the fact before a brand name, cutely emulating the smarmy advertising technique.

But I find these methods very different from the more prevalent methods for distraction. These distractions are no doubt purposeful (and have this very purpose):

Digital Fiction as a reading experience offers a purposely, almost naturally, fragmented narrative; sentences, happenings, cut off as though erased .... [from the concept page]

I don't find this effect particularly compelling. I suppose it contributes to the confusion, mystery, and ominous tone of "Book of Waste" but I think it simply distracts me from the text, hinders my suspension of disbelief (which you would expect Flash to achieve with relative ease), reminds me of the form, at the expense of the content. Perhaps the authors of digital fiction would object here that this digital fiction is not purely about the textual content (which is neither particularly extensive, nor impressive), but the (interrupted) feeling of the form. [I'm not sure what to conclude here yet; the below may make my thoughts clearer.]

An interesting difference between old and new media is that one knows how old media works. The form is extremely well understood. Their is a structure, a syntax, determined over the centuries, set by convention, studied in literature classes that the artist may/must work within. The reader knows how much of the book is left at any given time, is sure about the static nature of the text, has expectations (almost universally fulfilled) about the grammar, punctuation and style. There is no set form here -- I am constantly on edge and surprised by the Flash created digital fiction. The rules are extremely limited: I know that the file is limited to the box in the window in front of me, that there are certain limitations on its video capabilities -- though this can be overcome to the point where I know only that the fiction is limited to the computer screen and speakers and cannot reach out and touch me. I have no conception of what its length will be, what format it will use for presentation (text, video, audio?), what the rules of interface are (though I am reasonably sure that I will move my mouse and click to get around). Much of art (this is a theory of mine that may not be accepted in the community at large, but I think it probably is) works by breaking pre-set rules -- these are particularly easy times for the reader to be aware of the choices that the author is making -- and Flash and digital fiction have very few. In order to make some statements about navigation and linearity (and the lack of either), for example, "Book of Waste" must first create a consistent, ordered system of navigation: these boxes in the upper right corner. This gives the medium extraordinary advantages and disadvantages -- on the one hand it can easily break from all of the conventions that readers expect in standard narrative media (it seems kind of like a movie, but, ah, it does this and that differently; the text is like a book, but, ah, it differs here and here for some reason), but on the other having no conventions it is limited, must make conventions in order to break them, must struggle to have anything notable but its form.

I think I am somewhat critical above of this lack of form and convention and the necessary limitations, but to its credit, Dreaming Methods makes no claim to be fixed or well-defined:

Digital Fiction doesn't claim to know what it is exactly. It tries to be appealing and entertaining, compulsive and, at least in some ways, literary. Above all, it tries to be a celebration of an evolving state of artistic affairs, an opportunity to imaginatively explore (sometimes its own) lack of identity, appeal, even meaning. [ibid.]


This digital fiction is experiment, and for that I cannot fault it. The forms that it tests may help us better understand other forms, and the potential forms of digital media. The stories in the meantime, though, are, to me, uncompelling, and experimental form alone does not encourage me to delve in any further here.

[For those readers who have read Wittgenstein On Certainty, I find the explanation of "hinge propositions" relevant here. Something must be kept fixed.

341. That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are, as it were, hinges on which those turn.

where 'making questions' is art.]

Monday, July 25, 2005

Project Idea: Search

So as I talk about rather a lot, I created this group on my campus to record audio of various events: the Amherst Recording Council. We've created a large collection of audio (29 events worth of audio online, and at least 30, probably more, waiting to be edited and uploaded) that we make available to the world. And that's a lot of information, about various obscure scholarly topics, that you can get if you sit and listen to all of our audio.

But a big problem, obviously, is that you don't know what all information is there in the audio format until you listen to all of it (all 30 hours of it), and no one is willing to do that to maybe get the information they want. So I'd like to add the ability, to make this resource more than a list of recent events and a place to look up your favorite intellectual speakers (and that is a good thing to have, no doubt, but I'd like it to be more), to search the text of all that audio content. This would let people who come to the site find what it is they're looking for, and would let the world (via Google, Yahoo, or what-have-you) find the ARC site as a source of the information that they're looking for.

Whether or not this will work as a project to take up over 2 weeks (but not to be a lifetime's work) is unclear. I think it's probably too small and disconnected, but perhaps it would work. I don't know. Comments are appreciated. Just so it's clear, I've been creating a series of transcripts (made by student slaves), so I think the search will have to work with that.