YOU ARE IN A STORAGE ROOM

I have managed to collect a ton of CD-ROMs. And diskettes. And two flashdrives. And no, Google, I don’t delete emails, I just leave them in my mailbox so you can data mine them. I have at least two email accounts that have gone dormant. Maybe I should check that earthlink account. . .

One thing that I don’t have, alas, is any of the disks for Mystery House. One of the things that I was inspired to do after reading Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms is to try to read the mechanism of my old disk for Mystery House. I remember playing the game over at Greg Donohoe’s house, and solving the mystery. It seems that people who like games like this also tended to like Choose Your Own Adventure Books. We also liked Trixie Belden over Nancy Drew.

I wanted to play along with Kirschenbaum: I wanted to find the crack screen so that I could see what else was on the disk. Alas. No diskette was to be found, and so I went to the FTP server that Kirschenbaum used to get a disk image of Mystery House at ftp://ftp.apple.asimov.net. I wanted to see if I could access any disk image at all there. I downloaded an ftp of a game that I recognized because Mystery House wasn’t there. Bang. A problem. I needed to download an emulator so that I could emulate an Apple II on my MacBook Pro. I found one at http://www.virtualii.com/. I also found Mystery House at another apple ][ site that had some cool stuff, like an apple ][ for sale (ah, yeah), and downloaded that. Then, I chickened out.

A lot about computing for somebody like me is not chickening out. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the process. Sometimes, it’s like reading Greek. Sometimes my contact lenses fog up and I can’t see. All that happened. And I chickened out. So now I have an emulator, an disk image of Mind Castle, and only a blog post to show for it. YOU ARE IN A STORAGE ROOM.

Then, I struck a little bit of blogging gold. I wanted to find what others were doing with classic games. I found this interesting little site where a review was posted of Mystery House. Here are some screen shots (click on them to read them; it’s enlightening):

The most interesting and telling thing that the reviewer, fragmaster says is:

Mystery House is basically a sub-standard text adventure with simple graphics. The graphics consist of (sorta) black and white lines and look like something a ten year old would create in MS Paint. The command system doesn’t match Infocom’s, and neither does the writing. It just isn’t a very good game. When compared to Zork, which was also released in 1980, it just doesn’t compare. The plot of Mystery House involves the search for jewels in an old house, with a lot of dead people thrown in for good measure. It’s somewhat of a predecessor to The Colonel’s Bequest and other later Roberta Williams mystery games.

I would hate to think that this review was written by either Martin Scott Goldberg or James Hunt, who are the staffers on classicgaming.com, because it reads like a review written by some zitty youth living in his parents’ basement sucking down Mountain Dew and eating RedVines like they’re going out of style, and not some Gen Xers who have actually tried to get classic gaming into the hands of people too young to enjoy games created at the moment of personal home computing.

The review is a really great example of what Kirschenbaum makes of Jerome McGann’s bibliotextual interpretation, but only part of it, the formal materiality of the computer program. Formally, from an eye unused to examining a game or a disk as a mechanism, the game as experienced by an end user is “just not a good game.” The graphics suck. The directions are tedious and long and hard to read. The mystery is easy to crack. It’s a choose your own adventure book that is not worth a re-read. Kirschenbaum agrees: “Solving the murder is not hard, and the game offers no replay value” (129).

Textually, the disk image is much, much more interesting. As a forensic text, Mystery House would be a “trophy. . .a multivalent forensic environment, one where all these different levels of engagement — player, pirate/cracker, postmortem investigator — find their correspondences in the multiple layers of textual events that both drive the game as code and are explicitly thematized within its forensically charged spaces” (129). I would hate to think that classic gamers such as Goldberg and Hunt are not thinking of the code that hides behind the game in the disk image. The mechanics of the game are much more interesting than finding a note saying, VALUABLE JEWELS ARE HIDDEN IN THIS HOUSE. FINDERS KEEPERS. The valuable jewels are the code and all that the code can teach about the history of computer gaming and the mechanism of a disk operating system.

Kirschenbaum points out the following about the graphics. “The graphics for Mystery House were created with a Versa-Writer, a primitive CAD tablet that worked by tracing a stylus (mounted on a mechanical armature) over a line drawing. The software then plotted a vector image that corresponded to the drawn art. . .Perhaps Roberta Williams felt the allure of the machine ‘reading’ her writing” (132). For Goldenberg and Hunt, who I desperately hope are not fragmaster, the question is not whether or not the graphics are good, but how Williams created them, writing with a stylus on a tablet, something that was quite advanced and novel at the time. It is as though fragmaster has refused to step into the wayback machine: he can’t envision how graphics for World of Warcraft came to be. They always were.

So now I am stuck in a storage room with Goldberg and Hunt, and we all fail at being real geeks. Nice, guys.

What up with the sexy, Cyborg?

“We’ll become silhouettes when our bodies finally go” We Will Become Silhouettes The Postal Service

For the full effect, play the video when you read.

My life on the web and in cyberspace has early beginnings, and continues at a dizzying rate. Early on, I played Zork. I also would log on to the UNM internet and get my fortune told to me via a logarithmic text that would spit out a proverb or quote when you entered a command. I sent my first email to Pascal Adam in 1993. My life as a cyborg started early. Blade Runner on VHS was all burbly and wobbly by the time it got tossed out in a move to Santa Fe. Now, having read Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”, I wonder if we aren’t standing somewhere she predicted we would find ourselves: hybrids of machines and humans, in identity and purpose, framed by our gender and undone by that framing at the same time.

This week has been a particularly rich week on the interwebz. Facespace gave me a really good lead for how our interaction with cybermedia is changing our engagement with the world on a global and a personal scale. First up is Sabastian, one of my former students, who has suddenly come to terms with the inexorable and execrable link between video games and drone warfare.

seebass

Both Vannevar Bush and JCR Licklider anticipated a not so distant future of drone warfare, where the interface between humans and machines became as close as a sniper to the trigger. Instead, adolescents, trained up on multiplayer online games, would perfect the art of killing from a distance in Air Force training labs on bases around the country. Halo and Call of Duty have created interfaces that do the desensitization for the military. Cyborg selves no longer recognize the humanity of the target. Haraway warned at the birth of Reagan’s Star Wars project, “modern war is a cyborg orgy, coded by C31 (command-control-communication-intelligence), an $84 billion item in 1984’s US defense budget.” The most unfortunate part? The young players don’t see themselves as cyborgs enlisted in a war against humanity. They are part of the machine. The symbiosis is so total that Sabastian is just becoming aware of what Chelsea Manning was trying to warn us about in 2010 in her leak to Wikileaks. We are losing ourselves. And somebody is profiting at that loss. And, as Haraway points out, that someone is the military industrial complex. In a subversion of the employer-employee relationship, consumers pay for the games that turn the consumer into the fodder for the cannon–except that they can stay safely in the confines of Kirtland Airforce Base, never venturing to the battlefield except in the multiplayer world of the game-room.

The second surprise that I had was the sexualization of the term “cyborg.” Go ahead. Google that. What do you see but hypersexualized images of both male and female bodies. While Haraway longs for a Cyborg without gender, that will subvert the male dominated cyberworld, this is not so. It is sadly, just not so. First up in cybermisogyny is the prevalence of intimations of violence by males, who perceive some sort of gender transgression by cyberwomen. Rebecca Watson, of Skepchick.com, blogs about her interactions with some deranged cyberbully named “Rick”. Her cyberidentity is threatened as much as her physical safety is threatened, and I have to wonder if these intimations and menaces of rape and murder have something to do with the popular notions of what cyber”chicks” look like. They are penetrated, skin flayed off, hypersexualized, and mechanical. They are, for the viewer, not real women, not real human beings, and the sensual poses they adopt echo poses not just from comic books, but also from pornography, strip clubs, and peepshows. Shut up, Rebecca, and be the cyberslut I want you to be.

Another surprise came from gamer and cosplayer Caitlin Seida who writes in Salon about how her photo, uploaded to Facebook and shared widely, gained rather creepy attention from those who believed that her Lara Croft costume should be reserved for those cisgender females resembling Angelina Jolie. Seida, in her article, reports how commenters on various failblogs and reddits were suggesting that someone kill her or that she kill herself. The cyborgs are going to eat us alive. None of the sensuality of Lara Croft would be possible without the female voice actors who depict her in the games: Keeley Hawes, Shelley Blond, and Jonell Elliott. Their disembodied voices carry the script with a sexiness that one commentator compared to velvety quality of Kathleen Turner’s Jessica Rabbit. Indeed. The voice, even in cyberspace, should match some gendered ideal of what a cyborg woman should look like.

In the end, I think that the Frankfurt School and Haraway have it right: we are not in control of the symbiosis that is the cyberworld. We are products of it, and we produce what it expects us to produce. In turn, we consume what we are conditioned to demand it produce. Sexy, muscular, cyborgs, instead of real cosplayers, typing bloggers, and thinking posters. We are disembodied, and will become silhouettes when our bodies finally go.

She Who Gets Slapped

The medium is the message.

The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed on them by our senses.

The telephone: speech without walls.
The phonograph: music hall without walls.
the photograph: museum without walls.
The electric light: space without walls.
The movie, radio, and TV: classroom without walls.

From Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan (1964)

Culture today is infecting everything with sameness.

From The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944, 1947, 1969)

I needed a break this weekend, but could ill afford to spend either time recovering from a massage or a massage itself. I needed time away from a screen, time in the air, time when I was not typing or reading something that someone else had typed. My life is ruled by the immediacy of type. Or maybe it is ruled by the mediacy of type. At any rate, j’en avais marre, and I needed to take a break.

So I went and sat in front of a screen. In the dark. And watched a screen. With a digital print of a silent movie on it. It was glorious. The medium, or rather, the media, were the message.

LARMES DE CLOWN

This weekend has been dedicated to some rather dense critical theory that I find myself agreeing with, once I am able to untangle it. I am breathing the rarefied air of the Frankfurt School, engaging in the dialectic of the enlightenment (or rather, trying to keep up with people who are talking over my head), with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Let me tell you something. Every word is worth it. Every hour spent muttering about the culture industry; fretting about mass art as opposed to art for the masses; grumbling about whether we have all been duped about beebop, that it might not be art; worrying about pseudoindividuality; every one of those moments is a moment well spent. If you haven’t read the Dialectic of Enlightment, then, believe me, you are totes missing out. And I am not being ironic about this.

grumpymen

You’re missing out on some real gems: “Existence in late capitalism is a permanent rite of initiation.” “Fun is a medicinal bath which the entertainment industry never ceases to prescribe.” And this one: “Joy is austere.” But it started me thinking. . . was I about to go out to experience art? Or culture? Or entertainment? Or something else?

I needed a break from Adorno and Horkheimer, but I also needed a break from Marshall McLuhan, who, after Theo and Hork, was a laugh riot. McLuhan expands upon Northcote Parkinson’s law, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” by asserting that with the computer, ” ‘work to be done’ is actually the movement of information.” I needed to stop moving information for a while. But in doing so, I would have some time to think about the medium of silent film being the message.

Marshall McLuhan seemed to make his living coining neologisms and witticisms about the media–all media. Clothing (a medium for. . .not being naked?). Cars (a medium of conveyance disguised as a statement, or maybe the other way around). TeeVee (it’s sound! It’s moving pictures! It’s soap and JFK and Jack Ruby and Jack Parr). The hifi (get your Mel Torme ready). Money (more than a store of value). Clocks (a medium of time). Wheels fer chrissake. We have him to thank for the phrase “global village,” and if you can make it through his book without grinding your teeth at his own self-satisfaction at being a white guy who pats Africans on the head when they don’t know how to look at a photograph and without poking your eye out with a pencil every time he refers to a not-man as a girl, you’re going to get to think about some really interesting stuff. Around eye poking and teethgrinding. For McLuhan, whose estate carefully controls all McLuhania, the medium is the message. Rarefied air it is not.

The Alloy Orchestra was my escape. They set silent films to music, and I had the opportunity to see them at the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque in 2011, where they accompanied a screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Alloy Orchestra is three guys who make a lot of noise. Their score is performed live without loops or delays, which lends an intense immediacy to the performance. Yet these three guys, Roger Miller, Terry Donahue, and Ken Winokur, create atmosphere and mood with synthesizer, clarinet, accordion, and a “rack of junk.” Electronic and traditional instruments together. Oh my.

The silent film they scored this time was HE Who Gets Slapped, a tragicomedy about Paul (Lon Cheney), a theorist whose ideas are stolen, and scorned by the Academy, he turns to clowning. His schtick? Getting slapped. The Baron (Marc McDermott) who steals his ideas, also steals his wife, and will try to steal the girl again. The Girl (Norma Shearer), is the bareback rider Consuelo, the daughter of a disgraced count who is reduced to wearing only an undershirt with cuffs and collar under his coat. Paul, as the clown HE, falls sweetly in love with Consuelo, but knowing that he can never have the girl, protects the nascent love of Benzano (John Gilbert) and Consuelo, unleashing a lion on the ignoble Count and Baron. You see. . .ok. Enough of this. Two guys get eaten by a lion. And they deserved it. But HE dies. And I was wondering. Why is it important that this medium, or these media, had this message? Is the message one of “hotness” or “coolness?”

McLuhan, probably in an attempt to get jiggy with the hipster youth of the 1960’s, decided to adopt the terminology of cool and hot. He’s such a square, so it comes off badly, but let’s go with it. “Cool” media is that media that does not give away too much, or does not contain a large amount of information. A telephone call, speech, “so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener.” “Hot” media is low in participation because it contains so much data, so much information, that is “high definition.”

The movie that I saw, and the concert that I listened to contributed to a “hot” experience, according to McLuhan. But according to his statement, that the media are the message, I was having a cool experience. i need to figure out what the message was. Was it that the clown gets slapped? Was it that schadenfreude is a cruel sentiment? Was it that the bad guys get eaten by lions? Was it that silent movies make you think about the music, and the music makes you think about the movie? Was this the tonic bath of fun that the culture industry prescribed for me?

What ever it was, it shook my brain loose from my typewriter for an hour or so, and I experienced a bit of amusement, a bit of relief, and the bad guys got it in the end.

clown

My gramophone. My Film. My typewriter.

JackKeeler

The way that I compose has become disjointed, disoriented, dysphonic. I used to write long-hand, and I had a gigantic bump on my right middle finger to prove it. My nail there did not grow out the same way as my other nails. This of course, was a reason to chew it off. I wrote so much that I had a permanent cramp in my hand, and now I have a little arthritis in my thumb.

Every essay, every tutorial paper, every seminar paper, every long preceptorial essay was first handwritten on yellow legal pads. It was revised, annotated, rearranged, and then finally typed. My first typewriter was a Brother typewriter that had a teeny tiny screen that held about three pages worth of elite pitch words. If my essay was longer than three pages, it got whacked out three pages at a time. The finality of typing is different from the temporary print button. If I changed a word that was long enough, it would change the layout of the entire page, which would change the layout of the next page, and soon a complete revision was in order. The pages that I saved were saved only in hard copy. There was not enough memory on the Brother to save a paper, let alone a semester’s worth of work. My words were physical, not ephemeral electronic impulses. I could not backspace over them, eradicate my error, correct it, and move on. I had to use an eraser strip, back up over the erroneous word, type over it, whiting it out, and whack out the new word. I found that the organization of my papers was meticulous, diligent, beautiful; I felt myself crafting something, not producing something.

Now, when I write electronically, I find that the quality of my writing is not nearly as exacting as my handwriting. It is easier, however, to manipulate my voice, my tone, my personality. My persona. The person that I am on twitter in 140 characters is not the person that I am on facebook, is not the person that I am in emails, is not the person that I am in person. The distance that we have from each other is vast, here in the world of the gramophone, the film, and the typewriter. What had been a point of direct contact is now a distance away.

The distance between ourselves and the electronic self is immediate and mediate. The face is there, the person is there, the place is there, on the screen in a second’s second. The photograph is not. It is mediated by ones and zeros, by distant servers interconnected and linked with miles of fiber optic cable, wireless data waves, satellite signals. The Library of Congress puts the American Memory Project at our disposal, and we can go back to Truchas, NM, back to Trampas, back to Silver City. Somewhere, an FSA photographer made those photos, and now here they are, for everyone to see, and then forget. Maybe they’ll be part of a MOOC someday.

But they aren’t Aunt Joyce as a baby sitting on Granma’s handlebars in front of the CCC camp in Silver City. They aren’t photographs of that day in Taos with the sun filtering through the trees on the the lift. They aren’t a bobcat named baby Baby sitting on Granny Hall’s lap. They can’t be handed back and handed down and shoved in a drawer. As the family archivist, my job is to catalog the memories of the family, to organize the photographs in albums and conserve the negatives. I order reprints from Camera and Darkroom, and ask for prints, not digital copies when a cousin requests them. I don’t send out DVDs.

Where are our voices, images, and music going to go without us to conserve them? Who will get a copy of my iTunes catalog? Who will download all of the photos in my computer, that I neglected to save anywhere else? Somehow, we have fooled ourselves into believing this totality of digitization is totality, and it isn’t. Its impermanence is its totality.

Such Great Heights

Video

Hello, Kittler?

I was wondering what you would make of this cathartic experience? There we were, all singing along, to electronic music, capturing the moment on our smart phones, and uploading our images, our voices, our collective experience, on those optic cables that are the internet.

Come on down, now, Kittler!

Poiesis and Techne

3rm4y

There is a desire to make sense of the whatness of technology. What are we doing with it in the humanities? What should we be doing with technology in the humanities? Is what we are doing with technology dangerous? If it is dangerous, should we proceed with caution, or throw our caution to the wind and proceed with reckless abandon and do statistical analysis, generate word lists and concordances, digitally image and represent, shut up in silos, and certify authorship without let or hindrance? What are we doing and why?

It is interesting to turn to Martin Heidegger with regard to the nature of the essence of technology. Despite the fact that reading Heidegger can make anyone feel like a first rate moron, persistence will pay off. After all, you can feel like a super-mega-hella-nerd when you are able to throw around seemingly incomprehensible phrases like, “Enframing means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve. Enframing means that way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological.” What? Just. . .What?

Let’s get down to this. Heidegger presented a few lectures on the nature of technology. Writing after the destruction of the firebombing of Dresden, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the attempted cultural annihilation of Jews (and gypsies, and homosexuals, and communists, and labor union organizers, and political dissidents, and religious people of all stripes who opposed the Third Reich’s state-based religion of Nazism), Heidegger had a reason to question the essence of technology. An unapologetic Nazi sympathizer, though he did say that it was the “die größte Dummheit seines Lebens” (the biggest stupidity of his life), Heidegger saw technology put to violent uses–chemical pesticides and atomic energy used to kill humans. He also saw developments that would be more peaceable–radar, originally developed by the RAF to detect the Luftwaffe, used to track weather, and Alan Turing’s “bombe”, the machine at Bletchly Park that cracked the Enigma Code, eventually made into computers, such as the one that you’re reading this blog on. Heidegger’s entire philosophy rests on his annoyance that people don’t question enough. They don’t look into the quidditas of the world and of their perceptions. They’re hampered by philosophy. What is the essence of technology?

The essence of technology, Heidegger asserts, is to allow people to order nature, for people to uncover the already unhidden. After all, nuclear fission and fusion happen, they happen without human beings making them happen. Human beings can start a nuclear chain reaction, something that happens, thanks to physics, without human beings. All physicists have to do is put the correct things in order, order their experiments, and then, bam! The Gadget. The problem is, that human beings shouldn’t be the “standing-reserve” of technology. We shouldn’t be used by technology. Technology shouldn’t be an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. We should be able to make something of this revelation.

We need to question our techē, these activities and skills of craftsmen, to bring that technē into poiēsis. Certainly, this is difficult if we are talking about atom-splitting, but the research library at Los Alamos National Labs seems to point at this a way to approach this difficulty. Using the supercomputers available through LANL and Stanford University, researchers are able to write programs or use programs written by others, to reveal what is already present in texts that have been digitized. Research libraries like LANL’s give a place for researchers to develop programs and write code to untangle the unhidden. The problem then becomes, what do we do after we have ordered this text. Are we going to order it, as the technology allows us to do, and say that’s the end of our technē? or are we going to do something new with it?

What is already present is the text, the author, the sentiments, the plot, the words, the affect, the themes, the book, the print, the paper. What needs to be revealed is what the human being must reveal, but, as Heidegger observed, it’s unconcealed, it just needs to be detected. Here’s a good example. Karina van Dalen-Oksam presented a paper at the 2013 Digital Humanities conference about the epistolary novels of Elisabeth Wolff and Agatha Denken. She wanted to know if one author wrote some of the letters and adopted a voice for those characters, and if the other author wrote the other characters’ letters and created their voices. Basically, her research looked into authorial attribution and the formation of character voices. Using a stylometric R-script program developed by Eder and Rybicki, she inquired into technē and poiēsis. What she found out was not what she was expecting. She expected to find that one author wrote a set of characters and that the other author composed the other set of character’s letters, and voila! Instead she found that Wolff and Denken shared the labor of crafting letters for a number of different characters, except for one. And that character was Abraham Blankaart, whose letters have a distinctive style and voice, pointing to authorship by either Wolff or Denken, but not both.

Certainly, Elisabeth Wolff and Agatha Denken know who wrote which letters, but they’re long since dead, and what is unconcealed, their authorship, is hidden only because they took their secrets to the grave with them. Technology has allowed Van Dalen-Oksam to reveal the poiēsis of the novel, and she orders it, but she also reveals something in that ordering, and creates scholarship out of the ordering.

Technē indeed.

WolffandDenke

From van Dalen-Oksam, Karina. “Epistolary voices: The case of Elisabeth Wolff and Agatha Deken.” Digital Humanities 2013.

We took analytics. . .

Analytics
. . . Polite literature is in the last analysis emotions; and all its charms and message must be spiritually discerned.

The first requisite, therefore, in teaching literature, would seem to be some certain means of reaching and engaging the sensibilities more directly. So far as their exercise is called for in teaching science the method in general use assures it. By it each student acquires not only systematic knowledge concerning the aspects and nature of the phenomena considered,—which is of the understanding, but also experimental knowledge of each quality and process,—which is of the feelings and becomes part of himself.

(Sherman, viii)

Willa Cather wrote a scathing account of her University of Nebraska-Lincoln literature professor Lucius Sherman, who wanted to reduce literature to its irreducible: the word. Sherman wrote a text in 1893 called The Analytics of Literature, where he advocated a mathematical and statistical approach to the study of literature. Such a scientific process, where a student would break the text into its component parts, would be guided by a teacher in a laboratory setting, where the elemental sources of the poem, the words, would be the materials of experimentation. Such a study could only lead the student to understand the sublime emotions that literature inspires. Sherman proposed a few experiments, including analysis of word count and frequency to devise statistical curves to show “force” and “tone quality.”

When I read his preface, I was acutely reminded of a scene in The Princess Bride, where Count Rugen tortures the Dread Pirate Robert in the Pit of Despair. As Westley’s life is sucked away by the count’s Machine, he is directed to “be totally honest on how the Machine makes you feel. . .Remember this is for posterity, so, be honest.” Cather must have felt that her poetic life was sucked out of her by force curves and frequency lists. I wonder what Professor Sherman would do if he could use a concordance program like TXM or build his own program in R. Texts by Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Browning are left, like the Dread Pirate Robert, “mostly dead,” their elemental life sucked out of them.

When Leibniz took a crack at trying to devise a symbolic language for mathematics so that he could one day create a perfect computing device, I wonder if he wanted to reduce all concepts to a symbolic logic, or to a Boolean if/then or true/false construct of concepts. Already, language and literature are in themselves symbolic, pointing to a truth outside of the word or sentence or phrase or line of poetry itself.

If one could peacefully cohabitate with Leibniz, Boole, Gödel, Cather, and Sherman, it’s not going to a battle to the death, but to the pain, and the pain is going to come from building the code that will allow the frequency lists and concordances to reveal something about the beauty or sentiment or sensation of the text. The trick, then, to becoming a “computing humanist” is to embrace both the mathematics of language and poetry and the language of discrete and symbolic mathematics.

I remember crying helplessly as a second grader trying to understand how to borrow when subtracting, and I suspect that all of my math anxiety comes from that moment. I understood that the 1 needed to be borrowed, but every explanation for the construct that allowed for that was dissatisfying and mystifying. What part of number theory did I not understand as an eight year-old? As soon as I got into more conceptual mathematics in trigonometry and calculus, I was much much happier, and started to enjoy the symbolic language of math. Perhaps Cather, francophile that she was, would enjoy the symbolic language of R, the computer language that would allow her to strip a text down to its parts in a few minutes of processing, so that the grunt work of finding “the least common multiple of Hamlet and the greatest common divisor of Macbeth,” could be done by a computer, counting it all out at last, so that the untangling of the “yarn” would be easier and easier.

The essence, though, of the story is still there for the analyst to pick through. Without a sense of the symbolic, the tune of the meaningful, the taste of the poetic, or the perfume of the aesthetic, the results of such calculations and computations are meaningless, and the analyst must set to work. The program cannot interpret, it can only offer up what the programmer asks for. As the women at Bletchly Park had to, so we must, as computing humanists, search for meaning in the data.

Willa_Sibert_Cather_University_of_Nebraska_sophomore_ca_1893 copy
(Willa Cather Archive)