Author: Alex Thompson

Lincoln in the Bardo in Galway

LINCOLNINTHEBARDO

On my first day of walking around Galway I stopped into a local bookstore, as was inevitable. There I found a book I had been meaning to pick up but had no time to read as I was finishing my Masters Thesis and then moving back to CT. Now, though, I would have plenty of time to read George Saunders’ first novel. The author, known for both is short stories and his non-fiction essays (most notably this fantastic piece about Donald Trump) delved into the longer-fiction end of the pool with Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel told through a combination of dialogue (kind of) and historical accounts (a mix of real and made-up sources) about the time directly preceding and following little Willie Lincoln’s death. The boy’s spirit (or something) pops into being at the beginning of the novel and the rest of the book concerns the other spirits’ quest to help him transition onto the next place while his father, the unpopular President only 1 year into the Civil War, lingers around the cemetery and, following real events, holding the body of his young boy in his arms. That is the majority of the story that happens in this book, but Saunders accomplishes much more in the course of the novel.

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Saxophones in Galway

I’m pretty sure saxophones are not traditional Irish instruments, but that didn’t stop the person playing it as I sat with some new friends from Lehigh at a small restaurant outside yesterday. I had arrived in the country at a tiny airport that had more sheep than planes at it at about 8:30 AM local time (that’s about 3:30 AM back in Connecticut where I started my journey) and it was grey. So grey. That grey mixed with the deep greens that covered the landscape as I took the bus about an hour up to Galway was familiar to me. It was the green and grey that I had seen in countless films and TV shows and it was what I expected to see. There were few times in my transatlantic flight that I didn’t see clouds out the window, though we were above them most of the time. In fact, I filmed a pretty cool little video as we broke through the cloud cover taking off from Bradley International Airport on the way to Philly, my pit stop into Ireland. Check it out:

Anyways, back to the saxophone. It provided a nice background to the conversation I was having with my new charges. I’m here to make sure all the study abroad students from Lehigh stay safe and have working appliances in their apartments. That’s about it, after the end of this week. They’ll all be here and settled in and I’ll have about 5 weeks left to just chill out in Galway. In that way, the sax was the perfect accompaniment to my first small meal in Ireland. It sets the mood for what I hope will be a smooth and easy transition time for the students and myself. If we can get in harmony with each other quickly and easily, everything will run like a jazz song and we’ll all be able to experience fun new things.

And hot damn, Ireland is both very familiar and quite strange. Their plugs are so weird looking! There’s no grape jelly at the store (don’t worry, I got raspberry instead). They drive on the wrong side of the road and therefore walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk, too. My impulse to cut to the right if I’m on course to hit another pedestrian will only exacerbate the problem as they go in that direction as well. And I’m still not used to looking in the opposite directions to see if cars are coming as I cross the street. And speaking of streets, Galway is a medieval city and that means that there’s no real rhyme or reason to the way that the streets work. It’s not a hub and spokes as in Paris nor is it a grid like many modern cities. Instead there’s a complex web of streets and I still don’t understand how people navigate them in their cars as the signs are incomprehensible to me so far. I’m still calling everything dollars instead of Euro, but between food shopping last night (after a 2-hour nap) and going to TK Maxx (yes, it’s the same store as TJ Maxx but it has a K instead of a J for what I assume are nefarious reasons) to pick up a towel and washcloth and bath mat, I’m at least settled in a can now take the time to start exploring the city. Tomorrow most of the students will be arriving and it’ll be a busy day of getting them from the bus station up to our apartments, but after that and the next day of getting them to the University where they’ll be doing their work, it’ll be time to start working on my own things.

Which brings me to what you can expect to see on this blog for the next month and a half. I’d guess about twice a week you’ll see stuff like this about my experiences in the city. But I’ll also be doing some academic work to make this trip meaningful. I have full access to the University all the students will be going to, so I’ll be doing some reading and writing about what I read. I want to shore up some of my literary theory knowledgebase, so I’ll be reading some Jameson, some comics theory, and probably some film theory as well depending on what they’ve got at the library here. If you want to see what I’m seeing as I see it, follow me on Instagram and Twitter (this one is a new account, by the way, so follow that one from now on if you’re interested). The best pictures will likely also show up here as well. And I think that’s about it. I’m also going to be on a mission to have fries from as many restaurants and pubs around here as possible. I’ll be sure to let you know which place has the best examples of the form. I’m sure you’re all desperate to know. If you have any questions, leave ‘em here and I’ll address them! I’ll also take recommendations on places to visit if you’ve been here before. For now, so long.

“String Theory”: A Work of e-lit

Twine 1

This is “String Theory.” That link will bring you to my story and you can play it there as many times as you’d like. I encourage you to try it a few times because it changes, especially as it goes on. Below you’ll find an explanation of what I did and how I did it and why, but don’t read that until after you’ve tried the story out a few times because I’ll reveal some secrets there that would be better experienced for the first time within the story itself. Just know that if things seem weird, they’re supposed to. It isn’t broken even if it seems like it might be. Oh, and please try to play it in Chrome because that’s the only browser that I know works for sure.

What this is

It’s a work of e-lit, the final project for my Digital Humanities class. I wrote everything here myself and figured out how to get Twine, the tool/platform I used to create the story, to do what I wanted it to do. It wasn’t easy! I had initially planned on just remediating a story I had written before (and posted here!), perhaps expanding it a bit in the process, but I quickly realized that my previous story, which was written with a kind of nothing-protagonist and in a very purposefully vague way would not work within the structure of the Twine story. Here I needed a definite protagonist with a real life and ambitions and stuff, he couldn’t be an everyman. He’s still a pretty boring guy, but at least he has some personality. I also made the dog a more integral part of the story, gave him a winking name, and even used him as a POV character in a few passages. That was fun.

The story starts off linearly as Jake grows old and discontented. When he takes his dog out for a walk in the woods behind his apartment he stumbles across a long piece of string which brings him to a line of trees, each of which has a peep-hole in a door which opens onto an alternate version of Jake’s life. The first tree is always the same, but the next three can come in any order. They change minor things, mainly his income level as he sees a very rich version of his house and a very poor one, and one in which his interests have shifted slightly. Like I said, you will visit all three of them, but the order will change depending on the random choices in the program. After those first four doors, the fifth through the fifteenth are any random selection of 9 possible passages. Because of how the numbers work out there, you will see at least one door more than once, and you’re likely to see a few doors multiple times while you miss out on other doors entirely. Your fifteenth door triggers a concrete next passage, one which sees Jake think about what he’s doing and determine to take it further.

After another ten doors, you’ll trigger another concrete passage which has Jake determine that he’ll go on for forever if he needs to. The next few passages are likely to lead to some repeated doors and I hope that some readers will just give up, convinced that the story will just loop on these nine passages for forever. But if they make it to their 30th door, they’ll see that Calvin, the dog, takes matters into his own hand. He rescues Jake from his demented mission and brings him back to the apartment. The end!

How this is

Twine 2

This is the full map of the Twine story. Each box is a different passage except for one, “doors visited” in the upper left corner which keeps track of the number of doors you’ve visited and outputs the phrase “Doors visited: ##” and increments each time it is called.

Twine Doors visited

This is the first use of what Twine calls variables and I use that number to trigger the three concrete events later in the story after the 15th, 25th, and 30th doors. You can see the highlighted box which starts the story and how it progresses through many passages to get you into the rhythm of clicking to move on to the next part of the story. This isn’t a traditional branching narrative, you’ll never have a choice except to go on or leave the story mid-way through, so I decided to have each passage end with the link to the next one. It also helped when I had to write modular bits of the story which needed to work in any order. I could start each passage with a version of “at the next door” and end with a version of “he moved on to the next door”. After the linearity ends, you can visit any of three doors, which will randomly be displayed in the passage which is at the end of the reverse-C at the top of the map. After that first door, yet another random selection of the two remaining doors would happen, which is why it forks again in each of the three initial forks. See, it is a branching story! The branches are just hidden.

Twine Door 5

As you can hopefully see on that map, each of the last of those 3 random doors leads you to door 5, or the hub of the remainder of the story. I kinda stumbled into a way of displaying a random passage inside another passage, so the contents of door 5 are not really there. They are just the container for an “if” statement which tells the program to output any of the 9 individual doors I wrote so long as the door count isn’t at 15 or 25 or 30. If it is at any of those numbers it will display a specific passage, titled “Introspection,” “Forever,” and “Calvin” respectively. It will also display the “doors visited” passage underneath the randomly or specifically chosen passage which will let the reader know where they are in the story.

The story ends linearly, just as it began. Calvin interjects after readers have proven that they’ll keep going and snaps Jake out of his weird loop, quite literally in terms of the program itself. The penultimate page has Jake grasp the door handle to open into his apartment. This links to the “The End” passage which displays one last door count, again incremented to 32 to account for the door he almost entered back at the woods and his apartment door here and the words “The end”.

There are two things that I haven’t yet talked about yet here as far as the programming goes. The first is that two words or objects get text effects in the story. The first is the string which leads the two to the line of trees, which is always red and has a strike through it to indicate the twine itself and to call attention to the danger it poses. By the end of the story though, it has turned back into a regular piece of string and I did not give it that effect on purpose to indicate that the danger had left thanks to Calvin’s interjection into the story. The other is the piece of ice which makes the peep-hole that Jake peers through before he enters each door. I made that a kind of icy blue color and I wanted it to actually shiver but it wasn’t working, so I condensed the text there to at least give the impression of a kind of huddled up word trying to keep warm.

The second is “Door 13” which I conceived of as a kind of Holodeck experience. There is an entirely empty room which transforms into one of two pretty extreme situations (a jungle attack and a space explosion) randomly. It’s hard to demonstrate where these two experiences are separated in the program itself, but I’ve circled the comma which separates one version of the passage from the other. I used the same “either” function as I did in “Door 5” to randomly display a passage but this time I knew I wanted it to start and end in the same way so I knew I should keep the two passages that will get swapped out within the actual passage itself rather than writing them within their own boxes and just calling them out on their own. It was pretty fun to think of this idea and implement it. I hope that people notice what is happening there and see the two different versions of the room for themselves!

Why this is

I’ve already explained most of my decision making process up there, but here I’ll cover some loose ends. Firstly, my motivating force here was first to do a DH assignment, a fun assignment, but an assignment nonetheless. Because I was doing schoolwork, technically speaking, I knew I had to push myself a little more than I might have if I were just messing around. Figuring out the text effects, for example, was surprisingly difficult and was the first big hurdle I had to face. Then I knew that I wanted to demonstrate at least two kinds of randomized storytelling, so I had the more structured bit early on where the order of the three passages might change but you were forced to see each of the passages. Later, I experimented with having the passages be more random, which would inevitably lead to repeated passages appearing in the story. This would happen even if I had more passages than I had doors to open by the end of the story (30, remember, is the trigger for the end of the story, so there are around 23 passages which appear totally randomly from a pool of 9 written passages) which I don’t. And that’s where the other end of the school assignment bit comes in. If I had my druthers and more creativity in my bones I would write 50 (or more!) passages to have the experience be even more varied for each reader. That would certainly reward people’s efforts to read the story a few times, and it would make repeats less likely (though not unlikely or impossible given how random selection works). Heck, if I wasn’t going slightly crazy trying to finish this whole thing before tomorrow’s deadline I would write 5 more passages just to get some more stuff in there. But it’s also nice to have to finish. The story lends itself to the desire to keep improving, but that’s also kind of the point. Sometimes it’s ok to be done.

Perhaps a better way of changing things up would be to use the “either” command how I used it in the Holodeck tree. I could mix up some wording in each passage to say the same thing in slightly different ways. That way each repeated passage would have a chance to be a bit different every time you see it. This fix is both easy and daunting, because while the programming and writing aspects of it wouldn’t be too difficult to implement, the sheer amount of text already there is more than it seems and writing slightly different versions of it would only lead to a kind of crazy multiplication of effort. Certainly a version two of this project would have that kind of mutability in it, and now that I know how to do it I could implement it from the get go rather than go back and edit it in later.

Another thing I wanted to do but didn’t have the knowhow nor the time to figure it out was changing the look of the story more. This is pretty much the standard look of Twine’s most popular version, and only the text effects really change anything. See “Even Cowgirls Bleed” for a heavily edited CSS which totally changes what is still “just” a Twine story. I have visions of a background picture which appears once you get to the trees and some fancier things. But also, text on a page has been pretty good for writers throughout history. It’s not terrible to let a reader imagine their version of a location or what a character looks like without me imposing my own vision. Besides, I’m not sure a picture exists that would fit the story as written, and I don’t know where to go to find an infinite line of trees to take it myself. And I certainly don’t have the artistic talent to draw or paint one myself! Perhaps this is where the DH collaborative spirit could come in. Well, next time.

The last thing I want to do is share a bit of backstory which might explain what I was going for, if that matters to you. I wrote the first, vague version of this story a few years back when several of my friends and I were wandering around the post-college world, free of any real ambitions beyond a vague (aha!) sense of letting our lives drift away and a paralyzing sense that there were so many things that we could be doing so anything we did decide to do would mean giving up the possibility of something better. I noticed both within myself and my friends this strange paradoxical view and wanted to write myself a way out of it. I’m not sure I achieved that end either in that early version, which ends very differently than this one does, or this one, but I think this is a better version of the story. I opened myself up a bit more, having recently taken a big, concrete step towards a definite future when I entered grad school this semester, and examined some other identity questions a bit through this writing process. It was fruitful to examine myself as I wrote for Jake, who is not me but a conglomeration of a bunch of people and ideas.

And we’ll end with the dog, who readers familiar with Italian magical realists might recognize as the inspiration for this kind of story. Italo Calvino wrote a bunch of stories called Cosmicomics which took scientific ideas and weaved fantastic fairy tales and hilarious sci-fi stories out of serious scientific principles. I wanted to participate in the same kind of science-kickstarted storytelling, so I settled on the multiple universe idea that, at least at some point, was a part of string theory to my rudimentary understanding. It opened the possibility of an infinite number of worlds and here, finally, I was able to feint at that idea with the Twine platform allowing both the possibility of randomized storytelling and the ability to use that storytelling to touch on some science-y ideas like the fact that there would be a bunch of universes where nothing noticeable is different from Jake’s own universe, which would also be true for any of the noticeably different universes as well. So the repeated passages would have some grounding in scientific theory, it’s not just me being frustrating!

Ok, I think 2.5K words about this project is enough, don’t you? Finally, if you would like to see in more detail how this project was put together, you can download the full HTML file here and open it with your own (free!) copy of Twine. It’s a pretty fun program to mess around in and I’m glad I was pushed into doing it by my professors. I hope it did something for you, too!

Harlem Echoes: A Reflection

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One large assignment in my Digital Humanities class had the entire class work cooperatively to create an online version of Claude McKay’s poetry collection Harlem Shadows and then write some criticism or biographical information or analysis of his style, with each participant writing a roughly equal amount about the poems. This is a reflection on that process and a discussion of how great it was to participate in.

Harlem Echoes is a site the entire class can be proud of. From Heather’s excellent design work and careful use of period appropriate pictures to Jenna’s outstanding color coded analysis of Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet form, everybody contributed above and beyond the parameters of the assignment and created a fantastic resource for anybody looking to learn more about a wonderful poet.

We met in person around five times, often at great length in order to decide exactly what we were doing and how we should do it. One of our first major decisions to make was who our audience was. We needed to decide if we were writing to graduate students such as ourselves or high school students encountering the Harlem Renaissance for the first time or even a more public audience which might not have any background in the time period or poetry at all. In the end, we decided on a late-high school to early-college audience with an eye to an even broader base of eventual users. This allowed us to engage in some higher level ideas but not go so heavy on the theory that only academics would be interested beyond the first sentence or two.

The next step was to decide what the website would look like. We knew we wanted to foreground the poems themselves as the most important element of the site, so they would come first in our top menu (this actually changed later as we realized that the poems would be stronger if a reader had bibliographic knowledge of McKay’s life and our own process of creating the website, so those two bits come first in the final menu). We also wanted to present some alternate ways of reading the poem, by category as well as in the traditional print order. This was accomplished through the use of tags on the poems and some clever HTML. The tags were assigned by each of us as we went through and corrected the OCR text we originally had to work with and cleaned up the formatting. After we all assigned our own tags, we had yet another meeting to vote on each tag. We had to decide if two tags meant the same thing, or if we were missing any important categories that we should have covered. It was a long but fun process, and I was the one in charge of updating our shared list of tags with the revisions.

Next we struggled with the formatting of the poems as we tried to upload them to our WordPress site. Although WordPress is a WYSIWYG platform, it’s not super open to classical poetry formatting, and so we had to figure out how to (and whether to) include the indents from the original text in our versions of the poems. I’m still not sure that we actually achieved parity across the entire class’s efforts, but we tried for it, at least!

After we had the poems on the site, we began to work on our own additions. The end of this project would have a kind of digital critical edition of the Harlem Shadows text combined with our insights into the text. I was intrigued by “If We Must Die” as I cleaned it up, and since it is McKay’s most famous poem, I decided to do a version of Peter Middleton’s “long biography” of the poem in three parts and trace both its origins and its legacy (23). The legacy would be divided into two parts itself, one in which I tried to track down the story of Winston Churchill quoting the poem during World War II and the other in which I examined the way the poem has touched the Civil Rights movement in the United States and its role in the Attica prison riot. These were extremely satisfying short essays to write, as I was able to first discover just how powerful the poem is and its intriguing origin story. I was also able to bring in some textual analysis in order to demonstrate where that power comes from and how McKay wields it. It was especially fruitful in the case of the Churchill example because it turns out that there is no record of Churchill ever quoting the poem nor that he had any knowledge of it. In that case, I decided to look instead at one of England’s most famous war poems, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and see what connections there might be to McKay’s own war poem. That unexpected connection really sparked my interest, and I think even more could be said about the two poems and how McKay’s education means that there’s very little doubt about whether he was aware of the poem when he wrote his own call to arms. I was equally excited about finding Vernon Jordan’s account of reading the poem after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.

I think I was able to ride that line between academic writing and public writing, though I struggled with going to one side or the other too much and it took some drafting in order to find the right path. I also had a tendency to over-claim  some things in my initial versions of the essays in an effort to exaggerate how important the poem was. It was enthusiasm mixed with an unsure sense of how to approach the audience question which led to those few cases of exaggeration, but I have since tamped them down and restored the poem to its proper place in history. I also remembered that this was still an academic endeavor and went back to properly cite all of my information, so users can know where to find more information if they want to. I also added links to things like the archives of the two newspapers McKay was published in and the PBS documentary about Attica from which I drew some helpful information. The power of the INTERNET!

My final contribution was to click a button. Ok, perhaps it is a bit bigger than that, but I knew from my own blog (this one that you’re reading right now!) that there was a tag cloud widget which could be easily placed in our sidebar and would provide yet another way of exploring McKay’s poems. We had already done all the tagging and it was the work of two minutes to get the widget in the right spot and customized to show only the top 75 tags. Though I downplay the effort involved, it is a truly useful bit of the site, as it allows for the hypertext enabled reading that digital archives can do what paper versions can’t. If a person new to the site wants to read all of the poems that have the “nature” tag assigned to them, it’s as easy as clicking the biggest word in the cloud. It is just a different way into the text, but it is a cool example of what is possible in the digital realm.

In the end, I’m glad that we were forced to do this project on a work by a man with whom I had no prior experience. It was fun to learn about him and his work alongside my fellow classmates, and it was even more fun and rewarding to create this really great website with them. The project highlighted the extensive behind the scenes effort that it takes to create something presentable, and it showcased just how important teamwork is in the DIgital Humanities. One person alone would take months to do what we did in three weeks. I am proud of what we accomplished, and I am proud of our class for doing it all without a fuss.