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When the weather is warm you may need to turn off the heat in the daytime but switch it back on at night. This community-authored work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Here is a list of more or less digitally-oriented sessions at the upcoming Modern Language Association convention.
Since 2009 I’ve been compiling an annual list of more or less digitally-oriented sessions at the Modern Language Association convention.
DH sessions at the 2015 convention make up 7 percent of overall sessions, down from a 9 percent high last year. This is a list of digitally-inflected sessions at the 2014 Modern Language Association Convention (Chicago, January 9-12).
I recently proposed a sequence of lightning talks for the next Modern Language Association convention in Chicago (January 2014). Electronic literature can be broadly conceived as literary works created for digital media that in some way take advantage of the unique affordances of those technological forms. Attention artists, creators, theorists, teachers, curators, and archivists of electronic literature!
I’m putting together an e-lit roundtable for the Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago next January. Seeking to have a rich discussion period—which we did indeed have—we limited our talks to about 12 minutes each. This joke actually speaks to a key aspect of randomness: the need to reuse random numbers, so that, say you’re running a simulation of nuclear fission, you can repeat the simulation with the same random numbers—that is, the same probability—while testing some other variable.
Now the thing with going down a list of random numbers in a book, or pulling words out of hat—a composition method, by the way, Thom Yorke used for Kid A after a frustrating bout of writer’s block—is that the process is visible. To begin to answer these questions I am going to look at two early works of electronic literature that rely on chance operations.
The Love Letter Generator has attracted—for a work of electronic literature—a great deal of scholarly attention. As Wardrip-Fruin calculates, given that there are 31 possible adjectives after the first sentence’s opening possessive pronoun “My” and then 20 possible nouns that could that could occupy the following slot, the first three words of this sentence alone have 899 possibilities. On the whole, Strachey was publicly dismissive of his foray into the literary use of computers. Wardrip-Fruin coined this term—the Tale-Spin effect—from Tale-Spin, an early story generation system designed by James Mehann at Yale University in 1976. But even in these suggestive cases, the narratives give no sense of the process-intensive—to borrow from Chris Crawford—calculations and assumptions occurring behind the interface of Tale-Spin. In a similar fashion, no single love letter reveals the combinatory procedures at work by the Mark I computer. This Tale-Spin effect—the underlying processes obscured by the seemingly simplistic, even comical surface text—are what draw Wardrip-Fruin to the work. In the case of Strachey’s Love Letter Generator, we must consider the computer it was designed for, the Mark I.
I have more to say about randomness in the Strachey Love Letter Generator, but before I do, I want to move to my second case study.
The TX-0 was built at Lincoln Laboratory in 1956—a classified MIT facility in Bedford, Massachusetts chartered with the mission of designing the nation’s first air defense detection system. In 1960, CBS broadcast an hour-long special about computers called “The Thinking Machine.” For the show MIT engineers Douglas Ross and Harrison Morse wrote a 13,000 line program in six weeks that generated a climactic shoot-out scene from a Western. Each “run” of SAGA was defined by sixteen initial state variables, with each state having several weighted branches (Ross 2).
There’s also a variable the programmers called the “inebriation factor,” which increases a bit with every shot of whiskey, and doubles for every swig straight from the bottle.
First, a random number was set; this number determined the probability of the various weighted branches. What I want to call your attention to is how the random number is not generated by the machine. In a foundational work in 1996 called The Virtual Muse Charles Hartman observed that randomness “has always been the main contribution that computers have made to the writing of poetry”—and one might be tempted to add, to electronic literature in general (Hartman 30).
But the Mark I’s random numbers were so unreliable that they made debugging programs difficult, because errors never occurred the same way twice.

The examples of the Love Letters and SAGA suggest at least two things about the source of randomness in literary computing.
Catch up on Baumer product innovations, technologies and exhibition participations, and get a free subscription to the Baumer eNewsletter. Hall sensors host a current-carrying semiconductor element which is exposed to permanent magnetic prestress built by a stationary permanent magnet. Functional principleThe magnetoresistive element is made of a specialized material which will only respond to magnetic fields, such as generated by a permanent magnet, by outputting a digital signal.
Shielded (flush) installationMagnetoresistive proximity switches are conceived for shielded (flush) installation, meaning the sensing face being plain to the carrier surface. Functional principleThe piston inside the cylinder carries a permanent magnet which builds a magnetic field to penetrate all non-ferromagnetic materials. The magnetic fields of the permanent magnets inside the cylinders scatter and will differ in their specifications according to the cylinder type.
Functional principleThe heart of a magnetic angular sensor is the integrated dual differential Hall element which builds an electrical parameter related to the flux direction of an exterior magnetic field. Your use of this website constitutes acknowledgement and acceptance of our Terms & Conditions. These sessions in some way address digital tools, objects, and practices in language, literary, textual, cultural, and media studies.
The participants are tackling a literary issue that is not at all theoretical: the future of electronic literature.
Hallmarks of electronic literature (e-lit) include interactivity, immersiveness, fluidly kinetic text and images, and a reliance on the procedural and algorithmic capabilities of computers. The panel will be “Electronic Literature after Flash” and I’m hoping to have a wide range of voices represented. The panel was Reading the Invisible and Unwanted in Old and New Media, and it was assembled by Lori Emerson, Paul Benzon, Zach Whalen, and myself. My presentation was therefore more evocative than comprehensive, more open-ended than conclusive. Suffice it to say that long before Tristan Tzara suggested writing a poem by pulling words out of a hat, artists, composers, and writers have used so-called “chance operations” to create unpredictable, provocative, and occasionally nonsensical work. In fact, most of the early work on random number generation in the United States was funded by either the U.S. Randomness in these cases produces surprises, but the source itself of randomness is not a surprise. And when I say early works of electronic literature, I mean early, from fifty and sixty years ago.
Programmed by Christopher Strachey, a close friend of Alan Turing, the Love Letter Generator is likely—as Noah Wardrip-Fruin argues—the first work of electronic literature, which is to say a digital work that somehow makes us more aware of language and meaning-making.
Adverbs and adjectives randomly drop out of the sentence as well, and the computer randomly alternates the two sentences. Using Strachey’s original notes and source code (see figure to the left), which are archived at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, David Link has built an emulator that runs Strachey’s program, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin has written a masterful study of both the generator and its historical context.
And the entire sentence has over 424 million combinations (424,305,525 to be precise) (“Digital Media” 311).
In his 1954 essay, which appeared in the prestigious trans-Atlantic arts and culture journal Encounter (a journal, it would be revealed in the late 1960s, that was primarily funded by the CIA—see Berry, 1993), Strachey used the example of the love letters to illustrate his point that simple rules can generate diverse and unexpected results (Strachey 29-30).
But I want to go deeper than the algorithmic process that can produce hundreds of millions of possible love letters. One of the remarkable features of this computer was that it had a hardware-based random number generator.
After TX-0 proved that transistors could out-perform and outlast vacuum tubes, the computer was transferred to MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics in 1958 (McKenzie), where it became a kind of playground for the first generation of hackers (Levy 29-30). The programmers did this simply by typing a number following the RUN command when they launched SAGA; you can see this in the second slide above, where the random number is 51455. The random number instruction eventually fell out of use on the machine (Campbell-Kelly 136).
One, there is a social-historical source; wherever you look at randomness in early computing, the Cold War is there. The story of randomness in computing—and especially in literary computing—is neither straightforward nor self-evident.
Any change in the magnetic field intensity caused by a ferromagnetic object penetrating the field will be identified by the semiconductor element as voltage change. Capable of detecting even very weak magnetic fields, the material is about ten times more sensitive than a Hall element and thus allows for substantially extended sensing distances. This magnetic field rotating about the elementa€™s center axis generates two sinusoids shifted by 90A° which are utilized to detect the rotation angle for output as an absolute value. You might also be interested in my short reflection on how the 2015 program stacks up against previous MLA programs.

These sessions address digital culture, digital tools, and digital methodology, played out across the domains of research, teaching, and scholarly communication.
I’ve also built in a substantial amount of time for an open discussion between the audience and my participants—who are all key figures in the world of new media studies. Unlike the avant garde art and experimental poetry that is its direct forebear, e-lit has been dominated for much of its existence by a single, proprietary technology: Adobe’s Flash.
There are primary sources I’m still searching for and technical details I’m still sorting out. John Cage famously used chance operations in his experimental compositions, relying on lists of random numbers from Bell Labs to determine elements like pitch, amplitude, and duration (Holmes 107–108). And indeed, the Love Letter Generator qualifies as an early example of what Wardrip-Fruin calls, referring to a different work entirely, the Tale-Spin effect: a surface illusion of simplicity which hides a much more complicated—and often more interesting—series of internal processes (Expressive Processing 122). The random number generator pulled a string of random numbers from what Turing called “resistance noise”—that is, electrical signals produced by the physical functioning of the machine itself—and put the twenty least significant digits of this number into the Mark I’s accumulator—its primary mathematical engine (Turing).
In short, every possibility has its own likely consequence, measured in terms of probability.
Next a timing number established how long the robber is alone before the sheriff arrives (the longer the robber is alone, the more likely he’ll drink). In fact, launching SAGA with the same random number and the same switch settings will reproduce a play exactly (Ross 2).
The Strachey Love Letter Generator would appear to exemplify the use of randomness in electronic literature. Skip ahead 8 years to the TX-0 and we find a computer that doesn’t even have a random number generator. The impact of the Cold War upon computing and videogames has been well-documented (see, for example Edwards, 1996 and Crogan, 2011), but few have studied how deeply embedded the Cold War is in the software algorithms and hardware processes themselves of modern computing.
Magnetoresistive proximity switches are omnipolar and therefore capable of detecting both north and southpole of the permanent magnet. Shielded installation in a ferromagnetic material will reduce the sensing distance by up to 25%, unshielded or non-flush installation (sensing face protruding by its diameter from the ferromagnetic carrier surface) will enhance the sensing distance by up to 25%. The integrated electronics evaluates the sinusoids into a linear voltage or current signal.
Mauris semper, velit semper laoreet dictum, quam diam dictum urna, nec placerat elit nisl in quam. For the purposes of my annual lists I clump these varied approaches and objects of study into a single contested term, the digital humanities (DH). And I’m thrilled that two of them—Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop—just received an NEH grant dedicated to a similar question, which is documenting the experience of early electronic literature. For fifteen years, many e-lit authors have relied on Flash—and its earlier iteration, Macromedia Shockwave—to develop their multimedia works.
Jackson Mac Low similarly used random numbers to generate his poetry, in particular relying on a book called A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates to supply him with the random numbers (Zweig 85).
Alan Turing himself specifically requested this feature, having theorized with his earlier Turing Machine that a purely logical machine could not produce randomness (Shiner). The TX-0 was the first computer to replace vacuum tubes with transistors and also the first to use interactive graphics—it even had a light pen. But—and I didn’t say this earlier—the random numbers generated by the Mark I’s method tended not to be reliably random enough; remember, random numbers often need to be reused, so that the programs that run them can be repeated.
So that even when we understand the concept of randomness in electronic literature—and new media in general—we often misapprehend its source. And for fifteen years, readers of e-lit have relied on Flash running in their web browsers to engage with these works. This is something the program—the source code itself—cannot tell us, because randomness operates at a different level, not at the level of code or software, but in the machine itself, at the level of hardware.
And Turing knew—like his Cold War counterparts in the United States—that random numbers were crucial for any kind of statistical modeling of nuclear fission. And with it, potentially an entire generation of e-lit work that cannot be accessed without Flash. The slow death of Flash also leaves a host of authors who can no longer create in their chosen medium.
It’s as if a novelist were told that she could no longer use a word processor—indeed, no longer even use words.

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