In 1994, people had to call the bank to check their balances. Or inquire in person, or wait for a paper statement to arrive in the mail. Baseball box scores were found in the newspaper. Weather forecasts came over the phone from the weather bureau, or on TV. Then along came the Internet.
—This morning, on CNN.com
The UNIVAC-1 was the first general purpose computer capable of processing alphanumeric as well as strictly numeric data. In other words, it played host to the first electronic alphabet, a 6-bit character set that mapped more or less directly to a typewriter keyboard. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s character sets proliferated; IBM, for example, had its own proprietary 8-bit character set called EBCDIC which saw use on mainframe computers well into the 1980s. By the early 1960s, however, the smart people recognized the need for a standard, and so ASCII was born, in 1963 and officially adopted by the American National Standards Institute in 1967. ASCII was (and is) a 7-bit character set; so “A” was represented by the binary string 1000001, and so it ever more would be, world without end, Amen Amen 1000001110110111001011101110. But of course it’s more complicated than that. National variations soon proliferated; the character set known as ISO 646 substituted the British £ sign for the dollar symbol, for example. Still, computers like to think in terms of 8-bit “bytes,” or octals as an 8-bit sequence is more properly known. So, given that ASCII couldn’t accommodate all of the characters necessary for Western European languages, let alone other languages, it wasn’t long before there were 8-bit extensions, which added another 128 characters to the 128 characters of the original 7-bit set for a total of 256. These became codified in the family of ISO-8859 character sets. If you’re reading this in the US or Western Europe, chances are your Web browser is set to display ISO Latin-1, the variant of 8859 that supports character symbols for the national language of those countries. (If you like, you can read about these things here.) Recently there is a movement afoot to replace Latin-1 with Latin-9, which also includes the character code for the Euro sign (“”). Your browser might display it anyway because it includes native Unicode support, but that’s another story. Obviously the socio-political dimensions here are enormous, and the proliferation of character sets and encoding standards gives lie to the notion that there is finally any such thing as “plain text” in the electronic sphere.
But really I wanted to mention all this because it leads to a fascinating tidbit in Paul E. Ceruzzi’s History of Modern Computng (MIT 1998). You might have wondered, above, why ASCII wasn’t established as an 8-bit standard in the first place. There were a couple of reasons, but chief amongst them was the concern that the fragile paper tape which was a common storage medium of the day would be too susceptible to tearing if there were as many as eight holes punched across its width. Seven bits, however, was felt to be within acceptable fault tolerances. And so we find that ASCII, which defines the conditions of electronic textuality at the most fundamental level, is—literally—informed by the materiality of paper.
The Last Few, a portrait book of living WW II Battle of Britain veterans, uses a smartly done Flash-based interface to allow prospective buyers to “flick through” the book (be sure to grab and pull the top or bottom corner of a page with your mouse).
What’s interesting about this, other than the grace of the effect itself (not unlike the British Library’s Turning the Pages interface) is the way it has had to reconceive the traditional bookstore browsing experience. In a brick-and-mortar store, you can “flip through” the whole of a book and generally take as long you like; open access is mediated by the fact that it is finally only temporary and you can’t take the book away with you without purchasing it. Here, however, the book comes to you as often as you like via your Web browser, so access must be modulated by selectivity of the sample.
Our Web site for the nora project is now open. There’s not much to show (yet), but there’s a lot happening behind the scenes and content will start to appear in earnest over the next several months. We plan to have a white paper describing the initial phase of the work in some detail made available very soon.
Anyone not already privy care to guess why we chose the name nora?
Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness.”
Notice how they come in threes?
Photograph I took a earlier this afternoon during a walk down Georgia Avenue. Compare this scene to a surburban strip mall with its modular units of Kinkos, Mailboxes Etc., and wireless provider outlets. This is an alternative information culture, one which speaks to the specifics of a different community. The sign in the foreground offers parcel service to Columbia. Western Union is visible just behind. The white placard beyond offers auto insurance and electronic filing for tax returns.
There is wiring here, and infrastructure. Invisible in the hot summer sun.
. . . where some canonical work of literature is presented together with a bunch of critical essays that systematically work it over from different critical perspectives (Formalist, Deconstructive, Feminist, Psychoanalytic, Post-Colonial, etc.)? It’s a popular pedagogical series, but the series title and publisher escapes me at the moment.
Back in April I had an opportunity to inspect the New York Public Library’s copy of AGRIPPA, the 1992 artist’s book/electronic literature collaboration between Dennis Ashbaugh and William Gibson (published by Kevin Begos). If you do not know how cool this is you can go here for some basic background information. The purpose of what follows is to make public a reasonably complete physical description of the book, something which appears to be lacking at the present. Indeed, there is a great deal of internet lore and misinformation surrounding the project; Gibson himself, for example, once claimed never to have seen a copy, in turn leading some to conclude none were ever completed—but this statement is belied by the appearance of Gibson’s own signature on the flyleaf of the copy at NYPL. The best technical description to date is from the Center for the Art of the Book; while it is authoritative on bibliographical matters it lacks any description of the book’s actual content.
AGRIPPA measures 11 x 15.5 inches. The cover is linen over boards, pale green, artificially aged and liberally spotted with what can only be burn marks.
The interior comprises 30 separate leaves, apparently handcut with ragged edges. The flyleaf is signed by both Gibson and Ashbaugh, and numbered copy 12 of 95.
On the next page the following printer’s marks appear:
Sun Hill is the name of the press where the letterpress type for the DNA text (see below) was set and printed.
The bulk of the interior pages are occupied by a four-letter sequence of text, apparently a C-A-T-G nucleic acid quartet. A recent exhibition label from NYPL states that it is a literal encoding of the text of Gibson’s poem. Whether that is correct or not I cannot say; if so I have not broken the code myself.
The sequence occupies four double-columned pages, printed left justified in an all upper case san serif font (Monotype Gill Sans), maybe 16 points; the full sequence is repeated eleven times, for a total of 44 pages of text.
Here is a transcription of the code on the title page, representative of what one finds throughout:
Preliminary checking with the NCBI’s BLAST database (thanks Jess) does not suggest any correspondence to any known genetic sequence, and moreover it is important to note that there were only a handful of such sequences that had been mapped by the Human Genome Project c. 1991 when AGRIPPA was completed.
Interleaved on different paper (the Fabriano Tiepolo of the CBA description) are a total of seven prints of Dennis Ashbaugh’s artwork. These generally feature what the stylized “chromosomes” (characteristic of Ashbaugh’s work) and sometimes other imagery and text besides, all variously legible. The second etching, for example, includes traces of an antique camera. The third displays a pistol. These are simple line drawings. (Readers of Gibson’s poem will recognize the objects from the text.) The etchings are generally of a single hue, ranging from an almost florescent green to browns, oranges, and greys. None of them altered or faded in any appreciable way during the course of my engagement with the book (about two hours).
There are also several other pieces of artwork in the volume. On the verso opposite the opening page of text there is a drawing of a hand (bearing some resemblance to an old-fashioned manicule) dangling a plummet. The following text is printed (ellipses indicate illegible gaps):
Anthony’s Timing Plummet
This . . . is constructed to mark one second of time at each beat and intended to simplify timing of expressions . . . 25 cents.
Likewise, another two-page opening of printed text has a TV set overlaid in charcoal, as though it were transferred from an absent etching in the manner of some other localized rubbings and corruptions in the book. The same image appears on both the recto and verso of the opening, with the text partially legible beneath.
The last third or so of the book consists of leaves that have been glued together—therefore they may not be turned. This is in addition to the count of 30 leaves indicated above. A well is cut into these leaves, apparently by hand, measuring 4.75 x 4.75” and about a half-inch deep. This is where the floppy disk containing the “text” of Gibson’s poem resides. The interior of the well is painted black. The topmost leaf (a recto) begins a twelfth repetition of the genetic sequence. The verso page opposite the well is the seventh and last piece of Ashbaugh’s art (it includes traces of illegible text).
The case: AGRIPPA comes packaged in a fiber glass case. It is bulky and awkward to handle, maybe 14 inches by 20 and about 2 inches high (alas, I didn’t measure). There is a small label coated with what might be resin in the upper right hand corner; there are several lines of text on the label, but only “CA. AGRIPPA” is actually legible (and only barely).
Opening the case: the bottom half of the interior is given over to what appears to be corrugated cardboard spraypainted black, as well as some stiff netting or webbing use to seat the volume, much like the disk is embedded in the back of the book.
The diskette itself is a 3.5” Maxell disk, with the following printed on the manufacturer’s label:
MF2 . HD
DOUBLE TRACK/135 TPI
There is no marking by hand on the label. Whether the disk contains the text of the poem, whether the poem is truly encrypted as is purported, and whether it has ever been (or ever will be) “run”—read—one can only speculate.
In a little while I’m headed over to the HCIL’s annual symposium. Among the items on the program is a student poster on visualizing an Emily Dickinson corpus that originated as an offshoot of the nora work.
This has already made the rounds in the mainstream media so apologies if it’s old hat, but: Kent Norman, who is here at the University of Maryland, studies computer rage and has developed an elaborate taxonomy of user responses, ranging from “mouse barbecue” to such culinary delights as “hard disk on the half shell” (Season disk with salt, pepper and lemon juice; rub with butter. Wrap in foil; bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes. Remove foil; add more butter and brown. Enjoy!) to provide people with release mechanisms. His tone is light, but there is a serious point at stake: computers have the power to elicit seemingly disproportionate responses from their users, and a surprising number of presumably otherwise mild mannered folk have enacted acts of violence against the inanimate object which has stymied them in some way. Like “road rage” or “air rage,” computers have become a focal point for postmodern aggression.