The Wunderkammer

A Digital Alchemy Lab




Last week in class we ventured into the world of bots.  We started by looking at some exemplary bots, from the famous experiment ELIZA to the works of poetry-generating bots.  We concluded with an exercise where we created our own Twitter bots to tweet about a given topic.  I found the topic of bots both fascinating and challenging, even a little nostalgia-inducing.

I’ve had a soft spot for robots and artificial intelligence ever since I saw a documentary about real-life robots as a child.  The documentary showed robots completing puzzles, toddling down hallways, and using early digital cameras to “see.”  As a teenager I read all of Isaac Asimov’s robot-related short stories, and I became enamored with the Sony AIBO (which was discontinued for a while, but is apparently back!).  My first published story was a piece of flash fiction about a robot.  So, yeah, I’ve got some history with bots.

When we tried out ELIZA in class, I was reminded of an old DOS computer program I played as a kid.  Luckily for me, my dad was a huge nerd with an MS in Computer Science, so we always had personal computers in the house.  I must have been about 3 or 4 years old when my dad let me play with a program called Doctor Spatzo.  From what I remember, it was an ELIZA clone with early voice simulation so it could talk to its user in text as well as audibly.  Like ELIZA, Doctor Spatzo was meant to be an automated therapist to whom users could tell their problems.  I remember asking it questions and saying stuff to it, but my most vivid memory of the program comes from a time that I antagonized it.  I forget exactly what I said, but it was continuous strings of little kid nonsense, probably about poop and farts.  I remember Doctor Spatzo’s response perfectly, however.  It told me to “Shut up and go fly a kite.”  I was awe struck, and a little scared.  I thought that Doctor Spatzo was actually angry at me.

Using the Bot or Not Poetry Turing Test reminded me of the fascination I had, perhaps about 5 years ago, with historic automatons.  The images on the Bot or Not site are, I believe, of the Mechanical Turk.  The Mechanical Turk was an 18th century illusion masquerading as an automaton.  It was a box with a mannequin of a Turkish man connected to it that could play chess.  Eventually, the Turk was revealed to be an elaborate trick instead of a brilliant automaton.  There was actually a live human squished inside the box playing chess for the mannequin!  Even though the Turk was a fake, the 18th century was the golden age of automatons.  Many times, clock makers would create automatons as a way to show off their skills or gain favor from royalty.  Some of them were downright amazing, even by today’s mechanical standards.  There was a duck that actually pooped, dolls that were able to write, and countless singing birds.  If anyone is looking to read about these 18th century automatons, I recommend the book Androids in the Enlightenment by Adelheid Voskuhl.

Lastly, the bot creation exercise was difficult, frustrating, and incredibly rewarding upon completion.  It brought me back to the Quick BASIC and Visual BASIC programming classes I took in high school, though it was obviously not as in-depth thanks to the setup tool (Thank goodness!  I don’t think that part of my brain works anymore!)  Once I got things working right on my Twitter bot, I really enjoyed inputing word combinations and seeing them randomized and broadcast out to the world.  I actually have ideas for two more bots that would utilize the same setup, and I’m hoping I can make one of them for our electronic literature project.




In class last week we learned about the concept of digital redlining (see Dr. Chris Gilliard’s work on the topic), and we were asked to create an interactive map of Newark that compared its historical redlining zones and something tech-related.  I chose to compare the redlining zones with free Wi-fi points, and my interactive map can be found here.

It was hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from my map comparison because it seems there aren’t many free Wi-Fi points in the Newark area, at least according to the source I used.  I find that hard to believe, since many hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops boast free Wi-Fi, not to mention libraries and schools. In the interest of getting the map done within class time, I chose to continue working with the source, but if I were to do this project again, I would definitely use something else.

Although I wasn’t able to draw conclusions from my project, I still found it very valuable.  I was naive to the whole idea of digital redlining, so I felt privileged to learn about it.  The topic is relevant to both my thesis work, and to another class I’m taking this semester, Race and Ethnicity in Writing.  In that class, we talk a lot about ways that language conventions, and the use thereof, reflect institutionalized racism.  With digital redlining, it’s clear that new media literacies are subject to that same kind of subtle racism.  As far as my thesis is concerned, I’m looking at online participatory cultures, and one of the biggest criticisms people tend to have about them is the inequality in access.  Although participatory cultures allow great opportunity for expression and informal learning, it’s not fair if some parts of the population aren’t able to participate in them.  Learning about digital redlining really hammered that point home for me.  I also found it valuable to learn the basics of the h5p platform.  There’s so many different things it allows one to make, and I can see possibilities for creating tutoring and teaching materials with it.


The Internet and Games

Well, hello! Sorry for the radio silence on here. We’ve reached the beginning of March, and that means it’s the beginning of our section on Games, which Justin and I will be moderating. It’s tempting to think only of video games when we discuss games in relation to networked narratives and online culture, but for my post today I’m going to discuss two other ways that the Internet facilitates gaming: Art Roleplaying Games and Fan-made augments to traditional table top games.

To borrow the definition listed on the reference site of the Griffia ARPG, “ARPG is a term that is short [for] Art Role Play Game and is used to describe a game in which you have to draw or write in order to complete written prompts that are referred to as Trials, Training, and Quests. By completing these Activities and receiving an approval from a mod, your [character] will gain rewards that will further their progress in the ARPG.” ARPGs share similarities with both video games and tabletop games, but are considered neither. Like video games, a computer or smartphone, as well as an Internet connection, is needed to access and participate in an ARPG; however, unlike video games the engine is not computerized. The “engine” running an ARPG is completely human, much like a tabletop game. Participants and moderators log points, progress, and items, not a computer system. Sometimes ARPGs make use of random number generators, but that’s as far as it goes. In general, the computer just allows access to and transfer of game-related information. Another way that ARPGs differ from both video games and tabletop games is in their method of play. Rather than fighting monsters by pressing buttons on a controller or rolling dice, in an ARPG one fights monsters by drawing their character and the monster, or writing about them. The artwork or writing is then made available to the entire network of players for that ARPG, turning individuals’ game progress into a community art gallery/library. To learn more about ARPGs, I would suggest clicking around Griffia’s reference site. Reading some of the resources there will give you a better idea of how ARPGs operate.

Tabletop games, like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), have been around for decades. There is a unique feel that sitting around a table with one’s friends provides that not even massively multiplayer video games can compete with. That’s why tabletop games still thrive in the age of next-gen consoles. That, and the endless creative possibilities that tabletop roleplaying games allow. Ask any D&D player, and they will no doubt tell you stories about some outlandish situations they’ve found their party in, situations that not even the best video games could have rendered. In the eighties, what you, your friends, and your Dungeon Master (DM) created stayed on your table and in your notebooks, but today the Internet allows players to share their creations with the world. There are communities online where tabletop RPG players can share their adventures and even unique game mechanics. These fan-made races, classes, items, etc. are referred to as “homebrews.” If someone can imagine it, work it into the rules and context of the game, and share it in a way that’s easily understood, someone else miles away can play it. To learn more about this concept of making small-group tabletop games infinitely networked, check out this homebrew wiki.

I hope this has given you all some new ideas about digital gaming!  Although video games are wonderful and artistic, they’re not the only game in town when it comes to networked narratives!

One of my Favorite Things!

Hello all!  The previous week was a good one for digital alchemy, what with all our Twitter adventures and in-class research.

During our Twitter Chat, I got the chance to talk, or tweet…, about one of my favorite things: digital art!  I was tickled to see other users talking about DeviantArt (for those that don’t know, my thesis is focused on DeviantArt communities), and I loved that I could share a bit about my activities there and some of my favorite digital art.  I wanted to talk about the ways that Twitter has become an extended part of certain online art communities, particularly (you guessed it!) my beloved closed species (CS) communities, but I figured it might go off topic, so I’ll just settle for sharing a few examples here.  I’ll save the rest for my thesis blog.  As a bit of context, those two examples are Twitter profiles members of the Griffia closed species community have made for their characters.  It allows them to explore social media through their characters’ eyes, thus bridging fantasy and reality.  At times these Twitter accounts are also used as places of practice for civic imagination.  As an endcap to this little digital-art-themed ramble, I’ll share a piece of digital art I made, of which I am particularly proud.  Yes, this was for a CS community thing on DeviantArt:

Terradragon fly 4

Artwork by me, Terradragon species and design by griffsnuff@DeviantArt

Now let’s get to the next (related, but different) topic: the Twitter Safari!  I really had a great time with this activity, and it had some extra, behind-the-scenes meaning for me as well.  As can be seen in my Safari entries, each one includes a little snippet of lyrical prose.  That sort of writing was on the tip of my brain last Tuesday because I had just been struck by a bolt of writing inspiration on the way to school.  Well yeah, you might say, you’re in an English Master’s program; that’s no big deal.  Big news: IT IS.  I had some major health issues last semester, and those issues had been bubbling for a while.  My mind was in an awful place, and it had been at least a year since I had experienced genuine inspiration to write.  I’m not talking about “Oh, okay, I’ll write about this for this assignment; I’ve got ideas about how to do that”; I’m talking about true creative writing inspiration, the type where the words just smack you out of nowhere, pre-packaged in tasteful statements, and demand to be written.  It’s like artistic diarrhea.  A few years ago, that sort of inspiration was commonplace for me.  I wrote like I breathed.  I had artistic diarrhea enough that I had to carry a fucking pen-and-paper diaper to catch all my words and ideas.  I thought I had lost that ability; I thought life had beaten it out of me.  But I was wonderfully wrong!  Before class last week, I was feverishly writing a short creative nonfiction piece on a yellow legal pad with an unsharpened pencil.  The residual creative thought was used to make the comments on my Twitter Safari photos, and now they’re markers of the moment when inspiration finally came back to me, when I really started feeling like myself again for the first time in a while.

The Twitter Safari itself was a fun activity, and I can see it being a useful teaching tool (for those of us that intend to teach).  I liked the urgency of it, and I definitely would not change it to a longer assignment.  I think that would allow students to ignore it.  There’s something special about being told “Here’s 15 minutes; go find art in your boring-ass surroundings.”  It’s like a warm-up jog for the brain, or at least that’s how I’d use the Safari activity if I were to use it in my future teaching career.  One day the students could do a Safari instead of free-writing; I think they serve similar purposes, but in totally different ways.

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