Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hubble: Deep Field

My friend Gwyan just sent me this and I actually can't find many words to describe the effect it had on me. There was a moment, and I will let you find that moment, when I caught my breath and actually became too emotional to speak. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It is, quite literally, awesome.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


"Cent mille milliards de poemes" (A hundred thousand billion poems), by Raymond Queneau

For a number of years I've been really interested in the possibilities of hypertext as a vehicle for really interesting and complex narrative. I diddled around with writing stories in hypertext, but was never satisfied with the result; they seemed to me either confusing or aimless or simply mechanistic, and at best I came up with something so voluminous that I couldn't possibly complete it in one lifetime.

I decided to try poetry instead.

Poetry has the virtue of being all about simplicity, about using as few words as you can to create complex images and ideas. It's about making little windows into reality, places where the world stops for a moment and you see, really see, something unexpected.

It's really a perfect place for hypertext, being spare and clear and often having a specific structure. And there is a long history of what is called combinatorial poetry, or combinatorial text - the creation of poems that can be changed around by the reader, usually based on some mechanism in the book form. I decided that I would try haiku, since the form is so fixed. This would a) allow me to work within a specified framework, so I didn't have to also create (and get tangled up in) my own system; and b) would keep the poems from wandering off on a tangent, keeping them simple and clear. I also decided I would specify the number of links so as to keep it as structured as a traditional haiku.

What I came up with, using the simplest tools I could, was an HTML frameset system in a set window size. The top frame held the top line, the middle frame held the middle line, and the bottom frame held - well, you get the picture. Then in each line I chose one word which would be emphasized, making that the link word. When the reader clicks on that link, the line changes, creating a new haiku. (more about my process here)

It's difficult to describe it, and I can't actually insert one here in the blog, so I suggest you try one. Here's my little MetaHaiku site, where you can see a few that I've written.

The thing I like about these is that it enlarges the tiny window of a haiku without compromising its essential qualities. By nature, haiku are traditionally supposed to describe a moment, and they are supposed to contain some clue about season, and they are supposed to speak only of small things - which of course capture something much larger. So when you make a haiku with hypertext, you are creating a series of moments, a progression of snapshots which move slightly through time, describing a longer moment than a regular two-dimensional haiku. It's not so much that they describe more as that they describe longer, and the reader can unveil the moment in a way that is pleasingly exploratory.

The haiku have five links on the top line, seven on the middle, and five on the bottom, echoing the syllabic line-structure. The experience is a lot like our experience of real moments - in other words, you can't go back. There is a starting haiku and and ending haiku, and any number of ways to get there. In the present structure, you have more than 175 ways to get from the beginning to the end, so the process is surprisingly repeatable.

What I've decided is that I'd really like to share these, and see if others are interested in writing some. What I'd really like to do is to find a simple way to do it, given that mine are done in a clunky and complicated way, and then broadcast the template for everyone to use. I'm working on having a friend make a Flash interface to simplify things, but in the meantime if anyone wants to know the more lame way I did it you can email me (look in the sidebar for the address) and I'll do my best to define it for you.

Vive la Interactif!

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Many Personalities We Live With

This is Garky. Garky spent almost a whole day sitting in chairs with Younger Daughter, shooting down the vampires in the trees, and generally sharing many other adventures before geting injured and requiring bandages. Now she lives in this vase.

You might mistake her for some kind of Sogetsu Ikebana*, but you would be mistaken. Despite my daughter's belief that she can hold vampires at bay, she is really an onion flower (don't tell Younger Daughter).

This is the same daughter who personifies such characters as Snitch, Miru, Grumpo, Cute-o, Wadro, Sicko, and Happo.

They all talk in a strange way, saying "You too nice to me" instead of "You're too nice to me".

Snitch likes to eat hair and fingers, because it thinks they are worms. You must keep these things away from it, or it will grab and eat them.

Miru likes to eat fresh skulls with brain juice, as well as having a fondness for the flavor of cactus, and always hugs its pillow. If it loses its pillow it gets really sad and goes and looks for it. If anyone steals its pillow, it bites them.

Grumpo complains all the time, about everything, including nice things. If you're nice to it, for example, it says you're nice to it too much.

Cuto is incredibly cute, but loves to bite off your limbs, and can go for ages and ages without food or water.

Wadro loves its hole. Its hole is any area of water (other than the ocean). If you go in its hole it drags you under and drowns you. When there is no water, Wadro cries, "Hole! Where hole!" in a piteous voice.

Sicko barfs on you.

Happo is always happy and okay with everything. Even if you beat on it or say mean things. Happo is the teflon of characters, to the detriment of itself and everyone else's sanity.

Characters appear when Elder Sister bings them into existence with her invisible magic wand.

The term "characters" is not to be confused with Annoying Little Character, a hand-creature who is incredibly annoying and cheerful, singing its Annoying Little Character song and dancing until someone slaps it, whereupon it lies down and gets sick for awhile. Only time passing can improve its health.

These are not the only characters who appear. When Elder Daughter was three she became intensely enamored of a butternut squash that my father had drawn a cartoon face on with a Sharpie. She called it her "heavy baby" and carried it everywhere, in the car and into bed. We had difficulty with the gales of mirth trying to get out, but we bore with it until it got so shrunken that it had to be disappeared, whereupon she spent several weeks looking for it.

I remember reading an interview with Frank Zappa many years ago in which he talked about following his son Ahmet (aged perhaps three at the time) around trying to catch the lyrics to a song he sang called Frogs With Dirty Little Lips. It fascinated him, he said, because it was such a great concept, and because the words changed all the time, and it drove him crazy. Now I find, looking it up, that he actually did put the song (or some momentary version of it) on his album Them or Us. I need not mention how much I love how Frank Zappa's mind worked. It is a secret, or used to be.

So I suppose, despite our poor housekeeping skills, my household has its interesting moments. At least the Characters don't argue with me much.

An example of Sogetsu

*More on Ikebana and Sogetsu: "the great difference between the Sogetsu School and [traditional] Ikebana lies in the belief that once all the rules are learned and the techniques mastered, there is an unbounded field for freer personal expression using varied materials, not just flowers." [wiki] Curiously, I think the same kind of thing could be said about play. And about storytelling. Or even, perhaps, things like manners and who you feel like being, at the moment.

Here also, some Sogetsu masters' work. And a little about the man who started it. I think I might do a photo post about it, sometime...