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Insert: Code Poetry

First Stanford code poetry slam reveals the literary side of computer code

The high-tech poetry competition, which explored how computer code can be read as poetic language, is accepting submissions for the next competition.

By Mariana Lage
The Humanities at Stanford

Leslie Wu presents her code poem
Leslie Wu, a Stanford graduate student in computer science, presents her code poem, ‘Say 23,’ which won first place in the Stanford Code Poetry Slam. Image: Mariana Lage

Leslie Wu, a doctoral student in computer science at Stanford, took an appropriately high-tech approach to presenting her poem “Say 23” at the first Stanford Code Poetry Slam.

Wu wore Google Glass as she typed 16 lines of computer code that were projected onto a screen while she simultaneously recited the code aloud. She then stopped speaking and ran the script, which prompted the computer program to read a stream of words from Psalm 23 out loud three times, each one in a different pre-recorded-computer voice.

Wu, whose multimedia presentation earned her first place, was one of eight finalists to present at the Code Poetry Slam. Organized by Melissa Kagen, a graduate student in German studies, and Kurt James Werner, a graduate student in computer-based music theory and acoustics, the event was designed to explore the creative aspects of computer programming.

With presentations that ranged from poems written in a computer language format to those that incorporated digital media, the slam demonstrated the entrants’ broad interpretation of the definition of “code poetry.”

Kagen and Werner developed the code poetry slam as a means of investigating the poetic potentials of computer-programming languages.

“Code poetry has been around a while, at least in programming circles, but the conjunction of oral presentation and performance sounded really interesting to us,” said Werner. Added Kagen, “What we are interested is in the poetic aspect of code used as language to program a computer.”

Ian Holmes explored Java language in a Haiku format

Ian Holmes, a Stanford undergraduate studying computer science and materials and science engineering, explored Java language in a Haiku format. Image: Mariana Lage

Sponsored by the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, the slam drew online submissions from Stanford and beyond.

High school students and professors, graduate students and undergraduates from engineering, computer science, music, language and literature incorporated programming concepts into poem-like forms. Some of the works were written entirely in executable code, such as Ruby and C++ languages, while others were presented in multimedia formats. The works of all eight finalists can be viewed on the Code Poetry Slam website.

With so much interest in the genre, Werner and Kagen hope to make the slam a quarterly event. Submissions for the second slam are open now through Feb. 12, 2014, with the date of the competition to be announced later.

Giving voice to the code

Kagen, Werner and Wu agree that code poetry requires some knowledge of programming from the spectators.

“I feel it’s like trying to read a poem in a language with which you are not comfortable. You get the basics, but to really get into the intricacies you really need to know that language,” said Kagen, who studies the traversal of musical space in Wagner and Schoenberg.

Wu noted that when she was typing the code most people didn’t know what she was doing. “They were probably confused and curious. But when I executed the poem, the program interpreted the code and they could hear words,” she said, adding that her presentation “gave voice to the code.”

“The code itself had its own synthesized voice, and its own poetics of computer code and singsong spoken word,” Wu said.

One of the contenders showed a poem that was “misread” by the computer.

“There was a bug in his poem, but more interestingly, there was the notion of a correct interpretation which is somewhat unique to computer code. Compared to human language, code generally has few interpretations or, in most cases, just one,” Wu said.

Coding as a creative act

So what exactly is code poetry? According to Kagen, “Code poetry can mean a lot of different things depending on whom you ask.

“It can be a piece of text that can be read as code and run as program, but also read as poetry. It can mean a human language poetry that has mathematical elements and codes in it, or even code that aims for elegant expression within severe constraints, like a haiku or a sonnet, or code that generates automatic poetry. Poems that are readable to humans and readable to computers perform a kind of cyborg double coding.”

Werner noted that “Wu’s poem incorporated a lot of different concepts, languages and tools. It had Ruby language, Japanese and English, was short, compact and elegant. It did a lot for a little code.” Werner served as one of the four judges along with Kagen; Caroline Egan, a doctoral student in comparative literature; and Mayank Sanganeria, a master’s student at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

Kagen and Werner got some expert advice on judging from Michael Widner, the academic technology specialist for the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages.

Widner, who reviewed all of the submissions, noted that the slam allowed scholars and the public to “probe the connections between the act of writing poetry and the act of writing code, which as anyone who has done both can tell you are oddly similar enterprises.”

A scholar who specializes in the study of both medieval and machine languages, Widner said that “when we realize that coding is a creative act, we not only value that part of the coder’s labor, but we also realize that the technologies in which we swim have assumptions and ideologies behind them that, perhaps, we should challenge.”

Mariana Lage is a visiting doctoral student in the Department of Comparative Literature.

When I was younger, I scoffed at the idea of programming language being a real language. “It is an efficient language, but lacks the capability for beauty,” I thought back then. That’s why we can achieve poetry with living languages and not programming.

Turns out people have been trying to prove that wrong. The folks at Stanford created a code poetry slam that attempts to bridge the gap between a language I (and many others) long-derided for being incapable of beauty, with poetry, the very art of turning language beautiful. It’s interesting to see how one takes a language with “stripped-out” syntax, one void of auxiliaries and other linguistic features, and tries to work with its sparseness to turn it into poetry.

This begs the question of “What is beauty? What makes word poetry beautiful?”

We find beauty in poetry in a number of ways: Some find the words used per se beautiful — word-image evocation. Some find the conjured images from metaphors beautiful — visual/thematic image evocation. Some even find the structures used to arrange the words beautiful — structural inspiration. The bottom-line is, there is some sort of inspiration or reaction drawn from the reader by the poem, and this reaction is essentially what we call the “beauty” we find in poetry.

When I shared this article on Facebook, a friend, who does programming, says that code can be beautiful too. He says, to him, an efficient code is a beautiful code; if an algorithm can figure out the solution to a problem in 10 lines where it takes him 50, the code is beautiful to him. While there exist similarities between the two, in that he is inspired by the efficiency of the “beautiful code,” that beauty is not the same sense of beauty that exists in natural language poetry, and the people at Stanford are trying to bridge that difference.

Where my friend equates the idea of efficiency to be beauty, “code poetry” tries to go beyond mere efficiency. Efficient “beautiful code” is just efficient code, and I think those at Stanford are trying go beyond just “beautiful code,” and trying for the same sense of “beautiful” that people find in imprecise written word with the precise structure of coding. The creativity from code poetry isn’t in the creative licence common to written poetry or in the ingenuity of finding a way to make the code more efficient, but possibly using a code that lies in-between.

In that, a code poet might end up with a slightly unwieldy, bulky code that programmers might think to be “ugly,” but appreciated beyond its efficiency, and applying the image-evocation processes of natural language poetry that traditional poetry beauty can be seen in code. At times, the code need not even solve anything, and in programming, that is just redundant code. But redundancy is very important in natural language, and by breaking away from the strictures of what makes good code, and eschewing snobbish ideas of natural language poetry superiority, can we begin to see the start of a novel way of understanding how beauty and structure can co-exist hand in hand.

Of course, as highlighted in the article, there’s the problem of access: those who do not understand programming cannot understand code poetry. Would this be a short-coming? Who would then be the arbiters of what makes good code poetry? Would we need masters of both the computing and natural language to dictate which poem highlights the sensibilities of both sides? I think not, actually. Take the Java haiku in the article above. I don’t understand Java, but I think there’s an element of beauty in that. I think anyone, as long as they’re willing to abandon what traditionally defines good code or good poetry, and listen to what inspires, what is beautiful to the mind, can appreciate good code poetry.

Vivillon fashion

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Vivillons are butterfly Pokémon for the 3DS game, Pokémon X and Y. A unique feature of the game is that for this one Pokémon, it has a distinct pattern based on what region one’s 3DS is set to. For example, those whose 3DS are set to New York gets the Polar pattern while those in Tokyo might get the Elegant pattern.

Tumblr user Greenvelvetcake takes these different patterns and turns them into gijinka, or anthropomorphism.

The patterns, in order from left to right, top to bottom: Meadow, Polar, Garden, Sun, Tundra, Elegant, Modern, Marine, Continental, Savannah, Monsoon, Icy Snow, and Ocean.

 

Where are Singaporeans living in America?

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Image credit Daryl Sng’s blog

Former political counsellor to the Singapore Embassy Daryl Sng created a post on his blog about where Singaporeans are residing in the United States, using ArcGIS, a geographic information system software. He uses county-level data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 2005-2009, which shows some 26,754 people who claim Singapore as their place of birth. Of course, that includes children of expatriates born in Singapore and Singaporeans who have given up their citizenship. Sng also states that the new 2008-2012 census data was recently released, showing some 29,173 people who indicate Singapore as their place of birth living in the United States.

The above map shows the distribution of these people across the country. Not surprisingly, the highest concentrations are on the East and West coasts, where there are “10,000 living within the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington DC corridor, about 5000 living within 250 miles of L.A., and just under 5000 living within 250 miles of the Bay Area. The next highest concentrations are in Texas and then in Chicago/Ann Arbor.”

I think the most interesting parts of the data are: who are the random specks living in Montana and South Dakota (only dot in the entire state)?

Sir Terry Pratchett: On My First Job

Sir Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite, if not the favourite, authors out there. I admire the ways he twists and form word innovations, creating novel ideas with very mundane things we have, turning them unexpected. For example, he once wrote this in his book:

“The study of invisible writings was a new discipline made available by the discovery of the bi-dimensional nature of Library-Space. The thaumic mathematics are complex, but boil down to the fact that all books, everywhere, affect all other books. This is obvious: books inspire other books written in the future, and cite books written in the past. But the General Theory of L-Space suggest that, in that case, the contents of books as yet unwritten can be deduced from books now in existence.” (Lords and Ladies, Terry Pratchett)

One of the quotes from his series that inspired me to write and create more unwritten books for the future. Other quotes from him from the same book:

“Technically, a cat locked in a box may be alive or it may be dead. You never know until you look. In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.”

“The shortest unit of time in the multiverse is the New York Second, defined as the period of time between the traffic lights turning green and the cab behind you honking.”

A friend of mine created a Tumblr peppered with liberal amounts of Pratchett quotes.

But Pratchett recently wrote about his first job as a journalist at the Huffington Post. A friend (the Pratchett quote blog one) shared it with me, though pointing out that fundamentally we’re different in that he saw journalism as a means to being a writer, while I wanted to be a journalist, with the possibility of ending up as a writer eventually. Either way, it all means nothing until I actually start on this path. Here’s what he wrote.

On My First Job

My education began in the library, where I read every book I could get my hands on. Before long, I wanted to be–among other things–a writer. I read books about it, and I learned that the chance of making a living writing novels was remote. But I also learned that if I got a job on a newspaper they’d have to pay me every week.

Immediately I wrote to the Bucks Free Press, the weekly local, without which a sizable part of South Bucks would not be able to be properly born, married, buried, sentenced in court, informed, or feted as the grower of the funniest pumpkin in the fruit and vegetable show.

It was 1965, and I had been told that journalism was very, very difficult to get into. Nevertheless I sent my careful letter to Arthur Church, the Editor. I informed him that I hoped to leave school with three A-levels the following year and asked if there was any possibility there would be a vacancy on the paper. This letter contained some nascent journalism, being accurate without being entirely true. I wasn’t confident I would get the A-levels. I hoped I would. I also hoped to be the first man on the moon.

Arthur’s reply said in essence, “I don’t know about next year, but I have an opening right now.” And almost before I knew it, I had a job prospect.

There was a minor problem. I hadn’t told Mum and Dad about my application, and they were currently away on holiday. They’d left me on my own as I was 17 and perfectly capable of looking after myself, so long as the baked beans lasted and the dirty laundry basket didn’t overflow. When they came back, I sat them down and told them I had been offered a job on the paper. Thankfully they were happy. My father took the view that his son would not have to spend his time looking at the underside of cars in a greasy garage, and my mother calculated that I would be the editor of The Times in 10 years.

The following Monday, I went to school minus my uniform, and notified them that I was not attending any more, thank you very much. Then I departed through the entrance that only teachers and visitors were allowed to use. I went up the road to the editorial offices and to a life of putting words together in their proper order.

My first day, I saw a dead body, and discovered that my new job was much more interesting than Maths. I also discovered that it is possible to go on throwing up long after you’ve run out of things to throw up.

Later that week–with my father in attendance because I was a minor–I was officially apprenticed to Arthur Church. My indenture was signed. More or less, the newspaper owned me; I was untrained and therefore a liability, my wages perceptible through a microscope.

My journalistic career unfolded with a certain routine. On Friday the newspaper came out. To some extent, this made it an easy day, although, of course there was always a court somewhere that needed the presence of a journalist. Actually they didn’t. Justice was dispensed more or less satisfactorily whether we were there or not. Nevertheless Justice has to be seen to be done, and therefore a stalwart from the Bucks Free Press had to sit there in his Jeep jacket and write it all down in impeccable Pitman’s shorthand.

For me, though, it was a time to scurry around, clearing and filing the spikes and generally cleaning up the place. The spikes, for those born after the era of hot metal printing, were just that, metal spikes on their own little wooden bases beside every desk. They were a kind of waste paper basket with a restore facility. Any piece of copy that the news editor had decided was not going to be used was stuck on a spike for possible retrieval in case breaking news changed things. They became the repository for everything from bits of information that might be useful later all the way up to quite a lot of your blood if your laconic stab led you to get the spike through that little web of skin between your thumb and index finger. And in any case, they all had to be filed first thing on Friday morning.

My next task was to write the week’s episode of what would in the fullness of time be published as my first novel, The Carpet People, still happily in print in the UK and shortly to receive its US debut, 42 years later. It became my job because I was the newest recruit and nobody else wanted to do Uncle Jim’s Corner. This children’s column was to include a story and birthday greetings to those children whose parents had the foresight to let Uncle Jim know about the happy occasion.

We also had to put in our time dealing with the news, such as it was, of High Wycombe itself, in the eyes of Arthur Church the center of the universe. He had been brought up there and cared about the area with a quiet passion. So much so that when the Apollo missions produced their first astonishing photographs of the moon, Arthur had to be ordered by high command give them front page placement–even over his cherished local headlines! He eventually consoled himself with the reflection, “Well, the moon does shine on High Wycombe, after all.”

Arthur instilled journalistic ethics into me, while George Topley, the chief reporter, gently taught me that sometimes they were not enough. They were good men. I am grateful to have met them, even if in those salad days I might have occasionally thought that they were cantankerous dinosaurs, especially as, nearly half a century after, I now realize that cantankerous dinosaurs have their place.

Simple witty animal comics

I wish there were a simpler way to reblog things from Tumblr on Wordspace, but for now, I’ll just have to manually put pictures and stuff up.

Amongst the comics out there, it is usually the simpler ones that I appreciate the most, usually with a simple line of text. Those that require just a little bit of thinking: the comic artist puts in a little effort, just as the readers do.

A friend shared a Tumblr belonging to Liz Climo, an animator for The Simpsons. But where The Simpsons rely on in-your-face humour, Climo’s Tumblr relies on subtle wit revolving around animals, usually something to do with the physical properties of the animals themselves.

Here are some of my favourites:

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Stage of Mind

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Artist Lee Jee Young builds stunningly detailed dream-scapes that seem out of this world, yet they are all painstakingly built by hand, without any computer trickery.

From boredpanda.com,

Jee Young Lee works with such precision that the creation of a set often takes weeks or even months of work. As soon as the otherworldly sets are done, the artist incorporates herself in them in various different ways and takes these stunning self-portraits.

According to the artist herself, all of the photography sets and her specific roles in them tell a particular story about her personal life experiences or resurrect traditional Korean fables or other cultural heritage from around the world. Her work is a deep self-reflection for the artist and a means to explore her psychological identity.

Jee Young’s amazing work will be on display at the OPIOM Gallery in Opio France from Feb. 7 to March 7, 2014.

Musical notation, as described by cats

This amuses probably more than it should, but music geekery and cats? I think we have found a winning combination here. Reblogging from Trumpet Angst.

TRUMPET ANGST





























Go to jail in Singapore, do not pass GO, toothpaste turns your teeth green

Singapore has long had a squeaky-clean image: no litter on the streets, certainly no gum problem, etc. But what lies beneath this veneer of sterile spotlessness? A Singaporean blurgtheamoeba shares with us what it was like to have gone through the Singapore jail system.

Thank you for you kind wishes. When i was younger, 90s, weed was very easy to get. I still think it is, but for obvious reasons, i stay away. Most of the people i know who i could get some from are, funnily enough, expats. In the 90s it was dirt cheap. I could get 10 grams for 50 bucks. I don’t know the prices now. I moved from sg in 2000.

Jail was terrible. In remand, our water source was the toilet bowl. The shavers are blunt and used, unless you have gang connections to get fresh ones. The tooth paste turns your teeth green. The soap is not soap, you can find piece of cardboard/plastic in it. We used our fingernails to clean ourselves. (Of course once you start a job in there ((pays like three bucks a week)) you can pool money to by normal soap and paste.) Everything can lead to a fight, from where you sleep, to how you stand/sit. I’d never been in a fight in my life and come from an educated family. It was a massive cultureshock. Racial segregation was weird too. Lottsa violence. You keep quiet and keep your head down and serve your time, basically.

I got lucky at the end. I didn’t have any family here so i couldnt get out on tagging. But the principal of the prison school overheard my story when i was being interviewed to be moved to a halfway house and he got me transferred to KBC where i taught English to the O/A level students till my release. But even there, a week before my release, some inmate lied and told them i received smuggled drugs ( you cant get anything in there. not even a toothpick), and they threw me into Personal Confinement while the investigations were carried out. 6 days in the dark, alone, with 15 mins outside every morning to wash yourself and the bucket you shit/piss in. Fuck that place.

In a nutshell, things are safe on the streets, because all the violent people are in there. And a lot of kids. Mostly malay kids for minor drug cases, who turn into gangsters. It’s a viscous viscious cycle.

I will never touch drugs here because i dont ever want to end up there again. The next time my sentence will be doubled, and I know i wouldnt be able to survive that.

Originally posted here.

Continuing further, he comments on forced sexual encounters in prision:

Yes there are, on the second night i woke up to find a guy masrtubating while looking at me. I pretended to not notice and go back to sleep and, thankfully he was transferred out. Three days later, he was raped in a cell . I guess he did the same to some other guy. The only other one i personally witnessed was when a tranny joined my cell at AWP. !st day in the shower guys approached him aggressively, but he turned straight to the “big gangster” and performed “services” for him on the spot. After that. He was the gangster’s property and noone else touched him. I slept on the other side of them in a big cell with about 20 of sleeping side by side on the floor and made it my business to not get involved with things that were beyond my ability to handle.

How many Singaporeans, living a life where they walk free, know of what it’s like for those incarcerated? Some of the Singaporean commenters expressed having their eyes opened at this facet of Singapore often ignored or not talked about.

He adds that this was a long time ago, and that prison facilities have changed very much since then.

Changi is a modern facility. I can’t imagine people drinking water from the toilet bowl there, for example.

I think what’s scariest is that for many of these guys, they can survive inside but not in the outside world. So its easy to reoffend. Who wants to hire an ex con? not many people, especially if said excon has spent most of his life in an out of jail. Viscious cycle.

I am lucky i have specialized skills (writer/musician). I am a freelancer who can make ends meet. Most ex-cons dont.

Singapore is notorious for its caning corporal punishments. For those who are curious as to who gets caned, blurgtheamoeba adds:

Nah. For vandalism yes. For domestic violence too. For drug cases, only traffickers. For a few others as well, though im not sure of them all. Not for possession/consumption. Because it’s a minority thing, it actually becomes counter productive. Guys who come back from being caned, to them it’s a badge of honor. Like a rite of passage.

Brutal though. they can’t sit down for days. The flesh has been flayed off and the wounds are very deep.

I do remember when we were in fourth or fifth grade, we got to go on a school trip to our prisons, where they showed us the facilities (concrete, bleak, grimy), the caning apparatus (an A-frame, assortment of giant canes), and had a ‘model’ inmate telling us what crimes he committed and how we, impressionable fourth/fifth graders should never commit crimes and stay out of jail.

I think that “National Education” trip was probably sufficient to traumatise many a child away from the path of law-breaking, given our harsh laws and seeing our low crime rate.

For those curious as to how long blurgtheamoeba’s sentence was:

18mths, possession + consumption + paraphernalia (a friggin cigarette roller). Physically a year. You get a third off automatically and they can add days within that period for fighting/etc.

America’s Mood Map: An Interactive Guide to the United States of Attitude

TIME magazine is telling me I shouldn’t be in New York… Well my “critical and quarrelsome” self says “Pooh-pooh to that!”

A kueh/kuih by any other name

When people ask, “What food is uniquely Singaporean/Malaysian?” the usual dishes of kway teow, rice dishes, curries, and so on usually come to mind. But a lot of those dishes do originate from elsewhere — curry from India, many rice and noodle dishes are from China — it is the adaptation of these foreign influences and transformation into what it is today that make them uniquely Singaporean/Malaysian.

One of the ultimate amalgamation of cultures would be the Peranakan; descendants of Chinese immigrants in Indonesia and the British Malaya in the 15th or 16th century. They’ve retained the ancestor worship of the Chinese, but mostly assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. Their language, Baba Malay, is a creole of Malay with many Hokkien words in it. Given that many Peranakans are of mixed heritage of Chinese and Malay, many look like a cross in-between — darker skinned than most Chinese, but slightly paler than many Malays.

But one thing that’s absolutely amazing about the Peranakan culture is their food. Using many typical Malay spices and traditional methods of cooking, such as crushing flower petals to obtain natural food dyes, Peranakan food is something as much to look at as it is to eat. “Kueh” (sometimes spelled “Kuih”) are various cake-like confections that range from savoury to sweet. The below, taken from Lee Xin Li’s post, demonstrate the mind-boggling variety of Peranakan kueh that exists.

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