All posts by ericweitzner

A Long Post on a Digital Poem

Computer technology endows the poet with unique capabilities, many of which K Michel and Dirk Vis have taken advantage in their electronic poem “Ah (a shower song).” Upon clicking the button on the appropriate webpage, which is accessible from the Electronic Literature Directory, to “BEGIN,” the reader is transported to a white screen. A sequence of words formed with black letters slides leftward into view at a leisurely pace, but some words slide faster than others. At times, one may be able to discern only a jumble of nonsensical letters, but the seeming chaos resolves into logically ordered words. Michel and Vis’s messages are cryptic and invite imaginative interpretation. Just as all people have unique thoughts and emotional states while in the shower – or anywhere else –, all readers will have unique emotional experiences of this poem and ideas about what it – or anything else – may mean. There is likely to be less variety in the interpretations of a very straightforward message; “Ah (a shower song)” likely is deliberately ambiguous, befuddling, in order to generate a diversity of impressions upon its readers. But while the words may seem chaotic at some instances, nothing about this digital poem is random. Its every feature is a manifestation of precise computer programming. Similarly, although the thoughts that come to one in the shower may seem random, they are manifestations of precise biological workings, so only in appearance are words or thoughts random – I think.

One of the earliest strings of words in the sequence, which runs for about five minutes but replays indefinitely on a loop, is “not Einstein no after a lifetime’s study this morning while singing in the shower I realised time passes but doesn’t exist no not,” but because of the ceaseless motions of the words, these words only exist in this order for a few moments. The entire poem has no punctuation or capitalization; it can be thought of as a single line, a single continuous thread, just as one’s thoughts in the shower are a single continuous thread. At the junction between thoughts, one thought intermeshes with the next. “Not Einstein no after a lifetime’s study” is such a junction between thoughts; the speaker’s musing about time’s nonexistence is a seamless, immediate continuation of his thinking about Einstein. Perhaps the “no” in between “Einstein” and “after” is an expression of doubt the speaker has about what he just thought about Einstein, as in ‘no (that cannot be).’ Perhaps that “no” is more like a ‘no (Not Einstein. Nooooo)’ – maybe even ‘no (not Einstein)’ in an Et tu, Brute kind of way. Maybe the “no” is a subliminal cue planted by the authors to seed doubt in the reader about his/her own interpretation of the poem. I certainly have no idea what to make of the words, “time passes but doesn’t exist.” How can one define existence, and in what senses can time be thought to exist or not to exist? I have no idea. The words’ mobility and varying speeds, which cause them to become jumbled, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity. Ambiguity is the essence of “Ah (a shower song).”

The poem continues to expand upon the nebular nature of time with the phrase that a “clock counts the smoke of the hours but you don’t see it.” We can directly observe the results of the passage of time (“the smoke of the hours”), but do we observe time itself? Our experiences are manifestations of the unseen (time is unseen), just as the poem’s visual elements are manifestations of unseen code and as thoughts are manifestations of unseen biological activity; ordered processes can have chaotic, seemingly random manifestations. In addition to ambiguity, continuity of motion – defiance of stasis – is a central theme of the poem. Consider the stretch “despite that the rusting goes steadily on ah yes.” The flow of time is inexorable, just as is the flow of words across the screen. In this instance, the form of the poem reflects its content, as both form and content involve continuing motion. Perhaps the “ah yes” following this thought on the march of time reflects pride speaker feels at the thought he just had, as in ‘ah yes (good thought, Me).’ The “ah yes” may in fact have been planted to influence the reader subconsciously to agree with the statement that precedes it. The role these words play, as well as the original intentions that account for why they have roles to play at all, is ambiguous.

Before the content of the poem repeats itself, it continues to develop the ideas of continuity and ambiguity. One stretch reads, “there and here are banks of the same river ah aha you and me are both liquid oh ah ah oho.” The metaphors “river” and “liquid” mirror the fluidity of all the words’ motions. The roles of the “ah aha” and the “oh ah ah oho” are ambiguous, but they could be musical sounds sung by the speaker; the poem is entitled “Ah (a shower song),” after all. “You and me are both liquid” could be a comment on how human bodies consist mostly of water molecules, or it could be a comment on how a person’s identity is fluid – that is, it is always in flux. In “Ah (a shower song),” which parallels aspects of the process of thought, there is no escape from ambiguity or flux.

What aspects of thought have specific parallels in the poem? Thoughts seem to have lives of their own. They come from an unknown source, and if they leave my head, I can’t necessarily call them back. Just as I cannot choose the words that appear in my head (if I ‘decide’ to think about puppies right now, did I really decide that? Where did puppies come from? Why not urban poverty in China? Why not lemons? Why not some other topic that hasn’t yet come to mind? It doesn’t seem to me that I control what comes to my mind), I cannot choose the words that appear on the screen, nor can I influence the behavior of those words; additionally, once those words have gone off-screen, there is no calling them back. Just as the form of the poem embodies its theme of perpetual motion, the form of the poem also embodies its theme of ambiguity. The poem directly references ambiguity in the following way: “where you see a vase I see two faces see here.” Michel and Vis are speaking to the ambiguity of their own words. Then, the form of their words itself becomes ambiguous, as I hope the following screenshot demonstrates.

Turtle, crab, jellyfish, lips, hat, Pringle-guy mustache, camel hump, flying saucer, hut, DNA?
Turtle, crab, jellyfish, lips, hat, Pringle-guy mustache, camel hump, flying saucer, hut, DNA, none of the above, all of the above?

Whereas previously the words slid across a single horizontal plane and traced out a straight line, their motion becomes more complex and traces out arcs.  Just as the words that form these arcs can be interpreted, the arcs form images that can themselves be interpreted.  For instance, the bottom half of the image looks like a DNA double helix, a twisted ladder, or the mustache on the face of the Pringles logo.  What is the significance of the prominence of “etcetera,” “not,” and “one?”  I don’t think that question has a clear answer.  The functions of these words are ambiguous, just as is the function of the larger image they create.

“Ah (a shower song)” is an exemplary work of digital literature.  Its authors utilize the unique capabilities of computers in order to make the form of their poem directly reflect the themes of their poem.  The motion of the words is outside the watcher’s control, just as the stream of thoughts one has in the shower is largely outside one’s control.  Additionally, the ceaseless motion of the words reflects the ceaseless motion of time.  The poem directly addresses the notion of ambiguity, and its visual form as an image adds an additional element of ambiguity.  However, though much about the poem may remain unclear to its watchers, every aspect of the poem is as it is and appears as it does for very particular reasons, even if those reasons are unknown.

Nonsense (Better “Not-So-Clear-Sense”) Poem

The cubicle of function reposes magnetically;

the cathartic gerund weans eponymously.

Sunlight births metaphor, bold as a square root;

Forlorn, like frosting; everything is moot.

I have tried to construct sentences (from my own head, not from Google search results or other external sources of readymade words/phrases) that make grammatical sense but that do not explicitly seem to mean anything.

What does it mean for something to be “bold as a square root?”  In what sense does “Sunlight [birth] metaphor?”  That depends on whom you ask; I, for one, could elaborate on this poem very extensively (it means a lot of things to me).  However, this poem very likely says a lot fewer things, and very different things, to other readers/listeners.  But whose interpretation is right; what does it really mean, independent of what any given person might think it means?  The answer to “whose interpretation is right” is: that depends on whom you ask; the answer to “what does it really mean, independent of what any given person might think it means” is: that is a meaningless question – if you ask me.

Thus, everything is moot (moot meaning fundamentally unresolvable) – if you ask me.

The Insidiousness of the Feed

The Insidiousness of the Feed

             The prevalence of and sophistication of technology in one’s society have a major influence on one’s experience of the world.  Certainly, technology changes lives, but whether it makes them better or worse is an open question.  Feed, a work of young adult fiction by M.T. Anderson, provides insight into answering this question.  In this fictional world, consumerism has come to dominate virtually all aspects of life; classical educational systems have become defunct, replaced by instruction on how to operate one’s Feed, which has become the very center of one’s existence.  Additionally, human interaction has lost some of its value, as it is always tainted by the incessant noise coming from the Feed, and what it means to be human has also lost its value: to be human is to provide a vessel for a Feed.

The most glaring danger of the Feed is that a malfunctioning Feed can be fatal.  On a vacation on the moon, the protagonist, Titus, meets a girl named Violet.  He, she, and several of Titus’s friends are assaulted by a hacker, who causes their Feeds to break down temporarily.  Everyone recovers, except for Violet; the damage to her Feed eventually leads to her death, as the Feed is hardwired into her nervous system.

But the insidious Feed causes harm in more subtle ways.  Education is centered on operating the Feed, rather than on growing one’s mind; in this world, all but a few people see no need to learn because all information is only a thought away from a Feed-owner.  Indeed, Titus explains, “You can be supersmart without ever working.  Everyone is supersmart now.  You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit” (Anderson 47).  Ironically, Titus explains how “supersmart” he and everyone is while committing egregious factual and grammatical errors.  Merely looking up a tidbit of information is not conducive to internalizing it; learning is facilitated through extended engagement with the subject matter.  But in Titus’s world, all that people are really learning is how to operate the Feed.

After the incident on the moon, Violet explains to Titus at a mall,

“Everything we’ve grown up with – the stories on the feed, the games, all of that – it’s all streamlining our personalities so we’re easier to sell to….They do these demographic studies that divide everyone up into a few personality types, and then you get ads based on what you’re supposedly like….they keep making everything more basic so it will appeal to everyone.  And gradually, everyone gets used to everything being basic, so we get less and less varied as people, more simple.  So the corps make everything even simpler.  And it goes on and on.” (97)

In Titus’s society, humans have precious little diversity of thought or individuality.  Whereas in our society, a person can expand the horizons of his mind through exposure to people who think differently, such expansion of the mind is rendered virtually impossible in Titus’s.  Everyone thinks in essentially the same ways, and no one really can really make unique or valuable contributions to remolding the framework of another’s mind.  The human mind loses its wonder; all people (except for Violet and her father) become sheep consumed by both advertisements for products and entertainment shows devoid of intellectual value.

Later in the story, Violet berates Titus and inveighs against society for this ‘sheepification’ of the human race.  She bitterly asks,

Do you know why the Global Alliance is pointing all the weaponry at their disposal at us….Do you know why our skin is falling off….Do you know the earth is dead?  Almost nothing lives here anymore, except where we plant it?  No….We don’t know any of that….We take what’s coming to us.  That’s our way. (273)

Concerns such as the state of the world, the health of the environment, and even the health of oneself have become utterly subordinate to concerns about products or entertainment that provides instant, rather than lasting, gratification.  But worst of all, compassion itself has become a commodity that must be purchased.  When Violet suffers a serious breakdown of her Feed, she calls FeedTech and implores them for a repair.  She receives this response: “Unfortunately, FeedTech and other investors reviewed your purchasing history, and we don’t feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time.  No one could get what we call a ‘handle’ on your shopping habits….Sorry – I’m afraid you’ll just have to work with your feed the way it is” (247).  Because Violet refuses to bow to the tide of rabid consumerism, she is deemed unfit to live.  Her ascetic habits become a death sentence.  There is no way to articulate the injustice and inhumanity of that fact.  In this world of Feeds, a human being’s right to life is contingent upon one’s purchasing history.

In Feed, the Feed kills Violet in two different ways.  Its malfunctioning causes her nervous system to fail, and its record of her scant purchasing history rules out any hope of restoring her health.  But the Feed also poisons one’s every living moment.  As Violet nears her end, Titus goes to say goodbye to her unconscious body.  He narrates, “I tried to talk just to her.  I tried not to listen to the noise on the feed, the girls in wet shirts offering me shampoo” (296).  Human interaction is diluted and tainted by the incessant buzzing of the Feed.  Other people must always compete with the Feed for one’s attention, much like we must compete with smart phones for other peoples’ attention.  Anderson’s message is clear: while technology obviously offers numerous benefits (health care, transportation, and on and on), we must be vigilant not to let technology cause us to lose sight of what is truly important: compassion, meaningful human interaction, diversity of thought, real education, and valuing of others.

[Sorry about the improper block-quote formatting; I can’t correct it, despite my best efforts]

Meet etcML

etcML strikes me as an incredibly useful tool, in the right hands.  I will explain how etcML works by providing an overview of a highly successful usage of it.  All of the information that follows can be found on etcML’s webpage, which is about as user-friendly as any webpage I have ever visited.

Rob Voigt wants to predict whether proposals on Kickstarter will reach the level of funding desired by the architects of those proposals.  He inputs a sufficiently large set of past proposals (the more, the better), labeling each as either “success” or “failure” according to whether or not each reached its funding goal.  Here, Rob is training etcML, which ultimately functions as a categorizer.  Then, in order to test the effectiveness of his success/failure categorizer, he inputs the text of other past proposals which he has not labeled, and he asks etcML to categorize them.  The tool is 20% better than random odds at predicting whether a proposal got funded or not, based solely on the language of the proposal.  The tool also provides a readout of the words/phrases most highly correlated with successful proposals, as well as those most highly correlated with failed proposals.  Rob concludes from this that “concrete plans win”: the better defined one’s goals and available resources (in the language of the proposal), the more likely a proposal is to succeed.

He then retrained his success/failure categorize to deal with just arts-related proposals, or just music-related proposals, and after analyzing the words/phrases most highly correlated with success or failure in each category of proposals, he came up with suggestions for authors of proposals in those categories.

etcML’s best-known usage is to predict the overall tone of Tweets.  Programmers input thousands upon thousands of words/phrases and labeled each with a connotation ranging from “very negative” to “very positive.”  etcML then uses statistical analysis informed by this set of givens (given connotations for given words/phrases) in order to predict the overall connotation/tone/mood of a body of text (a Tweet, in these cases).

Anyone can develop a new categorizer by inputting and labeling bodies of text according to the way one wants the tool to label bodies of text.  Anyone can use any existing categorizer to analyze any existing set of texts on, or one can use any existing categorizer to analyze a new set of texts one uploads.

How can we use etcML in our class projects?  One could upload a large number of literary criticisms and/or scholarly articles and/or layperson reviews/reactions pertaining to one’s text.  Then, one could run the positive/negative/neutral categorizer to determine whether reactions of any and/or all sort(s) are overall positive, negative, or neutral.  Additionally, one might use this tool in conjunction with biographical information about an author to speculate as to how the overall connotations/”sentiments” of an author’s works correlate with  the connotations/”sentiments” of events in that author’s life (this is similar to but different from a suggested usage given on the “Learn more” page).

As stated on that “Learn more” page, the key to maximizing the utility of this tool is ‘framing interesting questions as problems of categorization,’ to paraphrase.  etcML allowed Rob Voigt to answer the highly interesting and practical question of ‘what sorts of language make for successful, or unsuccessful, Kickstarter proposals?’  There is no doubt it can answer other highly interesting questions of practical importance, and conveniently enough, etcML can be accessed at



Lay vs Lie vs Lay/Lie

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The topic of my post, the distinction (if any) between the verbs “to lay” and “to lie,” began as an exploratory probe into the more advanced features of Ngrams.  My initial search is displayed in the first image of this post; I searched “lay_INF” in order to see how the various forms of the verb stack up against one another.  As for why I decided to search that particular verb: I have no idea; it was the first word that came to mind.

Interestingly, as the second image in this post verifies, the breakdown of forms for the word “lay” also includes the breakdown of forms for the world “lie” – and with the same frequencies.  However, the breakdown of forms for “lie” does not include the forms of “lay.”

When one searches “lay_INF,” Ngrams seems to view the verbs “to lay” and “to lie” as indistinct from  each other – that is, Ngrams seems to view them as the same word.  But when one searches “lie_INF,” Ngrams seems to distinguish “to lay” from “to lie” – that is, Ngrams seems to view them as different words.

The Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes the two verbs from each other.  “To lay” is a transitive verb (meaning it takes a direct object), whereas “to lie” is intransitive.  Thus, it is very clear that “to lay” and “to lie” are different words, and depending on whether or not a direct object figures in the sentence, only one of the two verbs applies properly.

What is the significance of this?  It appears that I have found an error in Ngrams; at the very least, I have found an inconsistency.  Despite this, Ngrams strikes me as a potentially useful tool.  I was playing around with other searches, and the ability to view each usage of a word in its particular context enables a curious mind to determine precisely how the usage of that word, as well as how the sort of texts that word appears in, evolves over time.