Cut & Paste. Fold, Bend, Staple & Mutilate.

This past weekend I attended a reading of selections from William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch. I had not read the work before (it’s now on my TBR list), but I knew enough about the Beats to not be shocked by its strange, surreal and sometimes profane language.

In the discussion that followed the reading, someone mentioned there are now websites that will “translate” any text into Burroughs style and I have been eager to try them out. But first, a little background. Burroughs’ strange language is not merely the product of his mind, it is the product of his hands: after typing some of his text, he cut up the paper and rearranged the pieces, thus reordering the words and even inventing new words. That became the “final” version. This wasn’t Burroughs’ own invention (I learned that today by researching online), but he is the most widely-known practitioner of the technique. There’s a video of an interview with Burroughs that includes a short demonstration of the cut-up technique. You don’t need a demonstration, though; it’s easy enough to try it yourself with a printed text (that you’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of art) and scissors.

Or you can do it virtually using online tools. This is fun to play with. Open up a text file on your computer—the odder the better—and give it a try!

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Under the Influence

I have always liked old buildings. On vacations I usually seek out old house museums. My home is almost a century old (the original part, anyway, which is only two rooms). I love that high-tech companies are putting their offices into old lofts and industrial buildings. So when I learned that Christopher Gray, who writes about architectural history for the New York Times, was speaking at a local historic preservation organization, I went.

After Gray’s talk I got into a conversation with a woman who is a regular member of the group. She said it was nice to see a “young person” like me (this was several years ago; I was still in my 30s) attending an event in person. It seemed to her that many young people spent too much time with “this new Internet thing.” Then she asked how I’d heard about the event.

“I read about it on the society’s website.” Her face fell.

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Back to My Roots

Trinity College Library
Trinity College Library by Nic McPhee

I was a nerdy, bookish child–the kind who got As (if not always straight As; a B or two might slip in, but nothing less than a B), the kind who read under the bedcovers with a flashlight after I was supposed to be asleep. It felt like there was so much to know and I couldn’t seem to soak it up fast enough.

My parents are to blame, of course. They read to me at bedtime from before I can remember, probably before I understood the words. I knew the alphabet when I started kindergarten and then taught myself to read. (I’d memorized the picture books and matched the words to the pictures.)

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Can You Pass a Turing Test?

In 1950 Alan Turing proposed a test to determine whether a machine (such as a computer) could overcome the limitations foreseen by Descartes in his Discourse on the Method:

For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words… But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do.

Turing called it the Imitation Game; we now call it the Turing Test. Two people—or perhaps one is a machine—sit at teletype terminals and have a conversation. Neither can see the other, but they are allowed to ask each other anything.

Hashtag pretzels from the Tweet-up

In those days it would have been a teletype terminal, not a video monitor, so you wouldn’t have been able to send or request a photograph. You have to determine whether the responses are from a human or a machine based entirely on the text.

Six decades later we actually encounter something similar in online social networking. But I’m not here to discuss “bots” that send automated status updates, advertising, or non sequeters to Twitter or Facebook. I want to talk about humans who, when they log on to their social networking accounts, forget that they are human or social.

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