Category Archives: Hypertext

Reading Ecologies and Information Architecture

I caught Andy Fitzgerald’s last post titled Architecting the Connected World this morning. He writes:

Here (the model of down-scrolling) we can see different modes at play. The trackpad isn’t strictly symbolic, nor is it iconic. Its relationship to the action it accomplishes is inferred by our embodied understanding of the physical world. This is signification in the indexical mode.

“Embodied understanding” is the language I’ve been looking for in the context of thinking across or against digital and analogue objects. Translation: reading a NYT article in a database vs the paper NYT vs the digital NYT. Fitzgerald’s analysis has to have something to do with how teachers approach research and reading with their students. Objects can be out of their original context. Sure, a rattle snake in a boot is still dangerous. But the serpent is “out of context.”

I’ve always thought scrolling was a bad idea. Such a text is fundamentally different than a page turn or swipe text. As the scrolling habit has evolved, I’ve begun to rethink how reading on the screen and scrolling through hidden abundance just adds to more hidden abundance. The prior paragraphs slide out of field. There’s only so much one can see in the traversal, and then there’s the swipe. In Tinderbox, the writer can side-by-side the draft. He or she can write against the scroll.

It’s a different leverage to craft.

Why Code? On Expanding Human Possibility

Over the past several years, I’ve developed a conviction that future work in academic humanities studies should involve students and developing professionals in human and machine languages. This is a conviction not a belief. Mark Bernstein, in a recent review of Hockenberry’s iPhone App Development, writes:

The treatment of design as a separate and superior activity to programming is, I think, misguided. The author is a designer and is writing, I think, for people who are not; he urges them to hire themselves a designer and then do what the designer says. Since the book clearly envisions individual developers or very small teams, this model may be unrealistic. Design and code are not separate things, and attempts to separate them are misguided.

My experience with numerous systems has trained me to agree with Mark’s statement. A couple of significant issues come to mind here.

In learning pedagogy, whether it’s engineering or poetry, we work with a traditional Aristotelean process, working from general to specialized knowledge. This is not cut and dry. In manuscript culture, specialties existed. Scribes may not have prepped the surface for their work. The labor intensity of the scribe’s work prohibited preparation of the skin. Even more complex, the scribe may not have needed reading ability, only a visual/aural understanding of the spoken word or the ability to copy already existing work. Vannevar Bush describes new conditions for the specialist in his famous As We May Think essay, where specialties can be vast in scope but also narrow in their intensity, meaning that they provide little space for study in other disciplines even though they’ve been shaped by them.

Modern education systems, as manifest in most secondary schools, don’t concern themselves with the Aristotelean tension: questions such as: what should be “learned” become strange when testing content provides a ready framework for instruction. School systems have other pressures: testing, funding, demographics. But these school systems are still dominated by the superstructures of reading, writing, and ‘rithetic in a context of “grades” of students. I consider the question of “grade level” as a critical problem to be solved. The question “What is a fifth grader” is a strange one. If she reads and understands The Lord of the Rings is she still a “fifth grader”?

For the past few weeks I’ve been buried in the Rails framework, scratching the surface of the ruby programming language and the Rails machine that puts it into a working context beyond a compiler. But I’m a poet and fiction writer, not a computer programmer. However, the framework has provided me a means of visualizing and framing a couple of systems I’ve wanted to develop for some time, systems indescribable without understanding the “limitations” of the object: what can I “not” do is a significant question. It might be true that 15 years ago a person who regularly wrote into their journal might have envisioned a web-based publishing system. The journal or notebook, such as the Moleskin, has been supported by hundreds of years of “technology,” which provides a model–a date, a body of text, an author, and a perma surface.

The computer is still a pretty simple concept if one can understand electrons. It’s instructed to do things by people using an energy one can’t see with the naked eye. How it is instructed to do something is complex. The amount of instructional language it takes to tell a computer to turn on or to display a body of text can be mind-numbing, as I continue to relearn as I dig around the notion of MVC.

I’m not arguing that all students of the humanities should become programmers or system engineers. Nor am I arguing that all programmers should write poetry. They certainly may, if they wish. I would contend, however, that some important images and relationships require competent understanding of these disciplines for teams to be successful. The Tinderbox forum provides a peek into this team concept. People use Tinderbox, they have questions, these inspire questions back, and deeper understanding of the system and its possibilities.

It’s a nice thing to behold: the possibilities or capabilities of people not computers.

Tinderbox, Emberlight, Apartment 9: On Collaborative Linking and Learning

In this year’s first iteration of New Media Perspectives, we’ve started a long-term project called Apartment 9. The specific assignment for students can be found here.

For Apartment 9, students are provided proper names to grow inside the world using Tinderbox. The students also know the nouns of the other students in class so that they can call to each other with ideas from one side of the room to the other. “Does anyone have a parrot,” for example. As we’ve just started, these proper nouns are the first pieces of the puzzle. Students develop their places and characters, send me their files, and I add those individual maps to the master Apartment 9 document on my computer. Then, with the air of the screen and projector, we start interlinking the maps, reading sections of text, assessing the potential for links, and traversing the narrative to ascertain how the reader might react if, for example, in one space Slater the Dog is walking down the street and suddenly becomes Slater the Cat sleeping on a jazz club piano after the reader has clicked on a link.

In Apartment 9, bubble worlds, simultaneous choices, and competing figures of speech are permitted.

To lead up to the project, students read hypertexts, built a smart-phone simulation, engage new media concepts, embark on some system interpretation, and were provided some tutorial lessons on Tinderbox and Emberlight. We also introduce useful pattern concepts that help to concretize the often baffling relationship between making something and understanding it as a user. Making an essay for example without really worrying about pagination is very different from composing an essay with explicit visual and tactile references to its structure.

Since we’re dealing with maps and worlds, we developed some pattern principles such as color, size, and spatial proximity. In addition, the more distant a note from another “linked” note, the more spacetime is expanded, like a slow fade in film might convey a big time jump. We also work with container hierarchy, juxtaposition, explicit referencing, natural English work order, visual irony, and a variety of stacking methods. The big question at the moment is how to represent an initial state of a world that could grow for as long as we have CPU with which to calculate it.

We have yet to link in the Monday Wednesday NMP course, but the Tuesday/Thursday people are pretty much done. In moving through the collaborative linking process, which might move the reader from one student map to another student map, or from one voice to another voice, the significance of the Tinderbox/Emberlight relationship is becoming that much more powerful. For example, a student asked yesterday if they could link to an Emberlight note from Facebook. The answer is yes, as each note in Emberlight comes with its own URI. Thus, a student could link to some portion of the Facebook Graph and then provide the note URI in a update or Facebook Note, allowing re-admittance back into the note and to the structure of Apartment 9 as a whole, where every note is a place to begin in the world (at least ideally). This is incredibly powerful, as the web is held together by links and link APIs, and thinkers may want to consider these powerful tools for collaborative work of their own stamp. Conceptually and physically, Apartment 9 could be a container for Facebook and Google, depending how one traverses space to space.

Consider a poet who writes a poem on a weblog and links to a relevant note in Apartment 9 (or to a poem some other writer has placed in Apartment 9). The poem becomes, therefore, a part of that space, and the space becomes a part of the poem, extending the fiction ad augmenting the reality of it.

David P and Trent W visited class last night and watched the students work at connecting their ideas in Tinderbox and were quite taken by this activity, claiming that they wished they’d been able to do this and then watch it all go onto the web for further relationship building. Why? I’d suggest that the power comes from revision and additional ideas that grew as we sought linkage and remediated errors. New ideas came, new link ideas, and fresh eyes could see weaknesses better. They also saw, I think, the pedagogy: Apartment 9 feeds well into the next phase of the course where the floor plan has already been laid for work with Inform 7. We can build further dimensions of Apartment 9 (again it’s a world, a virtual world) in a whole separate vision for constructing digital objects and yet still link them all together with the aid of a web-based z-machine.

Future work with Apartment 9 opens up several learning possibilities, such as work with object-oriented concepts, linkages to other objects, such as eportfolios, Alice games, and a whole host of other potential digital creations, and when Emberlight ventures into the mobile world, things will get even more interesting. Of particular interest will be to fashion search, agent, and navigation principles around figures of speech massaged into prototypes, such that notes that contain elements such as flashback and plot turns take on the attributed of those assigned prototypes and thus can be pumped into sections of Apartment 9 for study and organization.

For example, we have a working prototype called recipes and an agent that finds them. Anytime, therefore, a student writes in a recipe, the note will appear in a separate Tinderbox/Emberlight container, turning Apartment 9 into a tool for cooks.

Interestingly, we have all the problems of world builders: how to organize, what to build, how to keep some semblance of quality, boundary definition, and system coherence. But what will it look like in 5 years?

Emberlight: A Review

At Tunxis Community College we’re always looking for ways to provide students opportunity for challenge. In a course titled New Media Perspectives, the introductory course in Tunxis’s New Media Communication program, we employ Tinderbox, software developed by Eastgate Systems. This powerful software provides students flexible methods of visually illustrating relationships, physically linking ideas, and developing system and game prototypes. However, our only method of sharing and submitting Tinderbox files was via local network dropbox.

Emberlight, a system developed by J. Nathan Matias and Frederick Cheung,
immediately solved our distribution and document sharing limitation. Emberlight is software that makes Tinderbox files available for reading and distribution on the internet. It took students little more than seconds to upload their Tinderbox files into Emberlight and make URLs available for readers and assessors. Students may now cut and paste URLs to their work for assessment, distribution in digital portfolios, and for analysis by their peers. In addition to this solution for distribution and sharing, Emberlight also provides for version control of Tinderbox files, making revising and redistribution a simple matter of re-upload into the online system.

Emberlight was highly responsive, open to development input, and understanding of the needs of faculty and students. They worked with us on software features critical to the teaching and learning process, and we had input into the development process every step of the way. Their understanding of assessment frameworks, semester work schedules, and student learning issues was insightful, creative, and refreshing. Emberlight will become a standard feature of our curriculum.

Spring New Media Perspectives and Other Thoughts on Teaching

It’s always interesting after a course has run to think back through and consider content, method, and production. New Media Perspectives has seen several versions and we’re really just hitting our stride in the course. We cover several issues:

1. An overview of new media principles and examples we think are generalized and reflect digital culture and history, such as the intrinsic dimensionality of digital objects (code, interface, culture)
2. An introduction to some basic observation, planning, and production techniques
3. Practice with a few tools that provide opportunity to work with media relationships, actions and events, abstraction, data manipulation and visualization
4. Survey of works and applications that reflect interdisciplinary ideas and states of the art

But the content, even though we don’t delve too deeply, is still difficult for students to keep up with. One observation we’ve (by we I mean me and John Timmons) been making is that students have difficulty using technology in a methodical fashion. They either want to leap to the good stuff or don’t pause long enough to think about even the most rudimentary “processes” as significant building blocks for complex analysis. (I’m teaching my self how to play guitar so I am very much sympathetic to this impulse). Another issue has to do with the relationship between concretion and abstraction. In a game, for example, students had difficulty understanding the nature of a walkthrough, even though they’ve probably encountered plenty of them. A walkthrough is, of course, a concrete and explicit representation of a physical but abstract system of rules and potential states of a system. Visualizing the walkthrough as a set of decisions for another player to follow was hard for most of our students to grasp.

Another example of abstraction has to do with spatial representation. Thinking about how an object can be constructed as “another kind of surface” is just plain difficult to do. A house for example can become an aggressive and strange monster if we’re asked to describe how we move through it in a descriptive essay when we don’t consciously think about how we move through that space, unless we’re lost, looking for the restroom, have just had our eyes poked out, or trying to find a location in Hartford. Coding that space in Inform is yet another challenge. “Mapping a space” in Tinderbox and Inform proved fairly difficult.

I don’t think any of this is new or controversial or even all that insightful, as many of my students in Composition courses really never leave with a strong sense of claim or thesis. I have some students who simply cannot understand, at least at this point in their careers, how to compose a coherent and purposeful paragraph and how to frame a position in the construct of an essay. An essay does have a structure but that structure can seem complicated to people who don’t really experience a lot of them or read many books or who who are not used to working with fundamental processes. It can get complicated. An essay, like a house, has a front door.

Another example of this “question of abstraction” is a particular work I received that used semi-colons incorrectly (but with gusto!) throughout the paper. The semi-colon would either tell me it wanted to be a comma, a colon, a dash, or some other punctuation mark meant to act as a strenuous signification of pause, signal into a quote, swift transition to a different argument or example, or perhaps even a mid-sentence paragraph shift. In the end, the semi-colon became like that strangely tall person you had in the third or fourth grade. The semi-colon is, indeed, not a difficult punctuation mark; it, for example, can be used thusly. They provide the opportunity to show clausal relationships between ideas, assuming one doesn’t enjoy the technique of coordination with words like “and.” They’re also quite unnecessary, and we can probably thank Ben Johnson for their occurrence in the language. We should probably get used to blaming him for everything language related.

A relationship exists between the purpose of punctuation in composition and color in mapping. I’ve been thinking a lot about the grammar of maps, thanks to Nathan Matias, who made me aware of this item.

A deeper problem is trying to understand how freshmen in college think Screen shot 2010-05-18 at 12.10.27 PM.pngabout punctuation and abstraction and why they think about such things as they do. If every room in a structure is painted the same color, it potentially performs the same purpose. This may or may not be true. Rooms, of course, have different attributes. The designed regions of Facebook screens are significant in considerations of spatial representation. The observer can make the code layer available to make inferences about those regions.

The student who misused the semi-colon is a valuable lesson, as is the student who forgot to use color to distinguish his map from his objects in Tinderbox. These students will help improve my approach in discussions about the logic of a variety of languages.

iPad Tests

We did some iPad tests today with That Night. Some basic content filtering and attention to CSS3 makes making for the device pretty simple, in fact, so simple that the writer can concentrate on content. The fonts are a little small, but Juanita and Cadif will fix that issue. That’s a plus.

I like this future and webkit is fun.

Tinderbox to iPad here we come.

Godard, Bolaño, and Things in Between

The past few years have seen different themes. Last year we were talking and studying jazz music and its relationship to issues of performance, creativity, history, hypertext, and new media. This semester, we’ve picked up a new or more elaborate theme: film, new media, hypertext, and performance: we’ve gone from Roberto Bolaño through to Anthony Braxton, connecting items along the way. This has all in many ways played out in 100 Days 2009 and will continue in 100 Days 2010.

I remember John Timmons visiting and showing me work he’d completed on one of his recent film projects. His sense of screen space is sensual and evocative and much of his study (how he thinks about it by making films) of the camera reminds me of the way Bolaño dramatizes character, but it is recalls Godard’s existential vision of “cinema as life” and what this may mean in literary craft and music.

Carol Maso in The American Woman in the Chinese Hat plays will different methods of narrative, often inviting the metaphor of the camera into her work, as, I would argue, a counterpoint to the aesthetcs of conventional point of vew: how can Catherine “run away” from the eyes of the reader? And then there’s Coover’s A Night at the Movies, where the old cinema screen is perforated and comes alive. Much of the work we touched on Contemporary Fiction plays with visual apparatus. The image of projectionist is cast against the dying world of the theater become moving, mechanical photography, ad thus a part of sculptural memory. In Bolaño’s novel Distant Star, the vision of the historical study of the dim characters of political coup, which is a facet of the study of human memory, is problematic because of what we chose to turn into a fiction and that fiction’s epistemological context. I contend that Bolaño’s is a Borgesian method, a persistent act of examination of the images we think we know well, such as those images created by Garcia Marquez, those images that are so powerful they impinge on the real. The unnamed narrator of the novel does not imagine the death of the murderer/poet Carlos Wieder ,but he is free to dramatize the death of the Garmendia sisters, two acts of image making that frame the novel’s travel and the narrator’s becoming. In 2666, the critics’ subject is a random agent; his novels are the critics’s only anchor but they are a foam anchor in turbulent seas.

I’ve watched Godard’s film Vivre sa Vie to get a feel for Brody’s elaborate examination of the work. In the film, Nana makes a decision to pursue an acting career only to take up prostitution as a means (we assume) of making a living or as a means of pursuing curiosity, slowly moving from one to another complex choice. But Godard’s method is both intimate and objective (objective intimacy? Sure). In context, Godard makes it difficult to interpret Nana’s actions as why something happens is either unknown (not on screen but suggested perhaps through dialogue, text, or dance) or should perhaps be obvious; we don’t really know why Nana wants to be in films as this would suggest absolute or pure circumstance. The film doesn’t negate interpretation or meaning, however. Priests don’t swoop in and save the day. We know that much.

Multiplatform Publishing

This semester (as time for me is broken into semesters) I’ll be working on taking a few documents through a multiplatform publishing work flow. The first objective will be take all the Leon stories from the 100 Days project and make them available on mobile, e-reader, and standard screen.

The core technologies are HTML, XML, CSS3, and javascript, with some dipping into Objective C for experiments with applications. I have mixed feelings about building device-specific apps but working with Xcode is fairly straightforward and the time spent won’t be wasted.

I was a little surprised at the ease with which EPUB handled html documents. Tinderbox, therefore, will play a key role in producing hypertext content. The content will then be tailored for mobile, iPad, web, and other reading devices. The territory looks pretty interesting at the moment.

Can Hypertext Narrative Translate?

Stacey Mason at HTLit asks an interesting question:

And then it occurred to me: Perhaps for the first time, we’re moving into narrative media that are not backwards-compatible. The written word can be spoken, the printed word written, movies can be translated to books, but games and hypertext narrative don’t go backwards.

I disagree but on nuanced questions.

I would submit that

1. The dramatic questions are different: what story would we tell with the latest rendering of Prince of Persia, given the game?

2. What path would we follow creating a script for the film version of Patchwork Girl? Or would we local a generalized core?

I would suggest that compatibility would work fine, if we synthesize PG and reconsider the narrative arc of the game. But these films would not “be” the original, as I disagree with the notion of adaptation by definition. There are no adaptations. There are narrative versions, however.

Susan Gibb’s hypertext, Blueberries

Susan Gibb’s Blueberries is up at the New River Review.

Sometimes I don’t wash myself for two days after making love. I’m afraid that if I rinse off the lingering scent of sex that I will disappear into the clearness of the water. That place where all the other men in my life have evaporated.

The story has edge and is a particular favorite of mine. The other accompanying works are by Jason Nelson and Roxanne Carter, just to name a few. We are definitely not done with hypertext.