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For our midterm assignment in Reading and Writing Electronic Text, we were to devise a new poetic form and create a computer program that generates texts that conform to that new poetic form.

The form

My poetic form, which I have named “Chiastic Wood” is a seven-line poem that adheres to a loose chiastic structure, with one line of the poem randomly pulled from Craigslist listings for antique wooden furniture. The structure of my form adheres to this pattern: ABCDCBA.

A chiasmus, or chiastic pattern, is a narrative technique in which two ideas, A and B, appear in the pattern ABBA in the text. Here’s a simple example of chiasmus:

Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves.
—Shakespeare, Othello

It’s a circular, palindromic way of speaking or writing that reflects the structure of oral traditions and epic texts. These kinds of symmetrical patterns are often found in ancient literature such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Hebrew Bible, and other texts rooted in oral tradition.

On a personal note, I also couldn’t stop thinking about this line from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in an Italian monastery:

I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another.

This leads to my central question: How could I write a computer program that would generate a recursive, self-referential poem? How could I get each line of the poem to “talk” to one another?

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The texts

I decided I wanted explore more contemporary interpretations of oral culture and traditions. Immediately I thought of television. I decided to download the screenplay of every episode of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s television show from the 1990s and work with the text. I spent hours using Linux to clean up the text. Try as I might, I couldn’t adequately clean up the text to a point where I was happy with the outcome. After working with the text file for 3+ hours, I decided to quit and found a long list of the most popular lines from the TV show.

I also created a text file of descriptions people had written in various Craigslist listings for antique wooden furniture.

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The structure

The structure of my form adheres to this pattern: ABCDCBA.

All the lines are pulled from one text, except for line B, which is pulled from Craigslist ads for antique furniture. Here are some examples of the poems that were generated:

The fire I speak of is not a kind fire.
a solid teak frame with tongue and groove joinery.
Never seen so many trees in my life.
Shelly Johnson: I’ve got one man too many in my life
Never seen so many trees in my life.
a solid teak frame with tongue and groove joinery.
The fire I speak of is not a kind fire.

 
Sometimes when we see the eyes — those horrible times when we see the eyes,
some cat scratch damage at the upper edge of the back.
Some of them are stories of madness, of violence.
Log Lady: Shhh, I’ll do the talking. Dark. Laughing.
Some of them are stories of madness, of violence.
some cat scratch damage at the upper edge of the back.
Sometimes when we see the eyes — those horrible times when we see the eyes,
 
that cherry pie is worth a stop.
Full length, fully upholstered, arched backs.
Maybe, if it was harder…
these creatures who introduce themselves
Maybe, if it was harder…
Full length, fully upholstered, arched backs.
that cherry pie is worth a stop.

 
Eyes are the mirror of the soul, someone has said.
Mounted on Brass Hardware
Audrey Horne: Eighteen.
You’d never guess.
Audrey Horne: Eighteen.
Mounted on Brass Hardware
Eyes are the mirror of the soul, someone has said.

 
Now I’m going to get the food and you’re going to get dressed.
Cedar Chest for sale, Lane Brand.
Call it what you want.
My log saw something that night.
Call it what you want.
Cedar Chest for sale, Lane Brand.
Now I’m going to get the food and you’re going to get dressed.
 

Critical questions

In this case, the Twin Peaks text that I picked absolutely shaped the overall feeling and mood of these poems. From the Log Lady’s philosophical musings to Agent Coopers love affair with coffee, these poems feel very much in dialogue with the source text. 

Could this poem have been written by a human? Perhaps. A human could have combed through the script of a Twin Peaks episode and jumbled together some of the lines. I would argue, though, that a poem curated by a human just doesn’t feel as random as a poem curated by a computer program.

A word on failure

TL;DR I failed a lot.

Initially, I was hoping to be able to reflect the narrative arc of most murder mystery stories and so I created a series of lists of “dangerous/murder words,” “food words,” “character names,” so that I specify the “mood” of each line. For instance, perhaps I would start the poem with someone getting killed/finding a corpse, then investigating, then drinking coffee, then investigating, then getting killed/finding a corpse.

The first idea failed. So I tried to create a chiasmus in which each line echoed the line before it by seeking out common words between the lines. For reasons I still don’t understand, I couldn’t get that to work at all. Perhaps the program was searching that the word (ex: “do”) was being used anywhere in a line (ex: “adoration”). This wasn’t doing what I wanted to do.

So I moved on to a more literal interpretation of the chiasmus, which ended up being the final outcome of this project. I decided to inject some randomness into the form with the Craigslist listings, which surprisingly fit neatly into each poem. Here are a few more examples:
This particular song will end with three sharp notes,
normal wear consistent for the age
You can ask it now.
Sheriff Truman: OK, I’ll bite again. Why are you whittling?
You can ask it now.
normal wear consistent for the age
This particular song will end with three sharp notes,

 
But that answer cannot come before all are ready to hear.
in very good condition for it’s 50+ years of age
— some of them are sad, some funny.
Never seen so many trees in my life.
— some of them are sad, some funny.
in very good condition for it’s 50+ years of age
But that answer cannot come before all are ready to hear.

 
I wrote that for my girlfriend.
HANDWRITTEN NOTE WAS DISCOVERED UNDER THE TOP DURING A RESTORATION IN 2005
— it is beyond the “Fire”, though few would know that meaning.
Log Lady: [voiceover] There is a sadness in this world,
— it is beyond the “Fire”, though few would know that meaning.
HANDWRITTEN NOTE WAS DISCOVERED UNDER THE TOP DURING A RESTORATION IN 2005
I wrote that for my girlfriend.
 

 

I’ve been surprised by how obsessed with plastic pollution I’ve become since starting this research. Lately everything I do has been colored by the reading I’ve done about material culture studies/discard studies. With that in mind, I wanted to give a brief update on my project. As always, I need to check my impulse to obsessively collect information and concepts and just start iterating.

//research, continued.

Critical discard studies.

Critical Discard Studies is an emerging interdisciplinary sub-field that examines waste in its many forms: things that are left out, devalued, left behind, and externalized. Scholars in this field are unified by their belief that waste is not produced by individuals and is not automatically disgusting, but that both the discarded material and their meaning is part of wider sociocultural-economic systems. Activist/scholar/artist Max Liboiron heads up the field, so I contacted her as one of my experts (still waiting on a response).

Something that emerged out of my research was the idea that in a disposable culture, it’s not just trash that’s getting thrown away. There is growing evidence suggesting a correlation between cultures that throw away stuff and cultures that are more willing to dispose of human relationships or view those relationships as replaceable. In short, individuals who view their trash as disposable tend to view their relationships as disposable.

Sacred waste.

I came across the performance piece Sacred Waste, directed by Bonnie McDonald, which aimed to”make mundane consumption and discard practices hypervisible with a series of performances inspired by what she calls the “ritual gestures” of plastic consumption. The physical motions of buying single-use plastics, using them briefly, and then casually tossing them are performed in an over-the-top, slowed-down performance by different community theater groups.

“If we respect plastic’s history as a petroleum substance formed across the vastness of geologic time and its future as a material bound to outlive us and most if not all conceivable future generations,” she writes, “then we might treat it with the greatest respect instead of as mere junk.”

I like how this project reimagines the “rituals” of consumption in terms of shamanism and performed religion. I also like that this performance piece communicates the kinetic nature of waste. Plastic trash moves: across geographic regions, across oceans, into the stomach of animals, onto our plates. There’s a narrative of displacement and alienation embedded into plastic pollution.

Waste as wealth.

In a TED Talk, Suja Lowenthal looks at the externalized economic costs of plastic consumption and disposal. In a post-colonialist era, she argues, we have convinced developing nations that once reused everything that the sign of modernity is waste. We’ve exported values of disposability, the idea that being able to throw things away is a sign of wealth and progress. I’m interested in disrupting this attitude towards waste.

//the project

I’m moving away from the idea of a 3d archive of people’s trash – as an intervention, it feels too stale, too static. I’m trying to explore ways to make the “rituals” of plastic pollution more kinetic, pushing movement forward. A plastic bottle is not just a plastic bottle: it has the potential to become meaningful, magical to us. It has the potential to become microplastics, swallowed by some fish 100 years from now. It could continue disintegrating for another 400 years. There’s a lot of movement and shape-shifting in that story.

I keep thinking about MIT’s Trash Track project, in which MIT researchers tracked the location of 500 pieces of trash. Still figuring out how this will shape my own project.

As a woman, I’m constantly told that I apologize for too much. Friends and colleagues tell me I don’t need to say “sorry” as often as I do and in the past I’ve made a conscious effort to reverse those habits.

I’m not alone in this feeling: According to a 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science, “women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” so are more likely to see a need for an apology in everyday situations. The trope is so ubiquitous that someone even developed a Chrome extension that identifies and deletes seemingly “weak” words for women as they write emails.

I’m not going to lie: I don’t entirely buy into the idea that removing the words “just” or “sorry” from the female vernacular is going to suddenly give more women credibility in the workplace. As women, we are constantly on the receiving end of advice about what constitutes strong or effective communication but as Marybeth Seiz-Brown states, this way of thinking “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable. If women just spoke like men, sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.”

With this in mind, I decided to delve into my own personal archive of emails for this week’s assignment. I specifically wanted to look at emails in which I offered up some kind of apology, whether it was a late email reply, a rejection, or expression of empathy. My goal was to help myself understand the kinds of things I was apologizing for, and to who.

I created a .txt file of every email since 2011 in which I used the words “I’m sorry,” “sorry,” or “apologize.” In the command line, I broke down that huge file so that each sentence started on a new line and saved it into a new file called apology.txt.

rebeccaricks$ sed -e :1 -e 's/\([.?!]\)[[:blank:]]\{1,\}\([^[:blank:]]\)/\1\\2/;t1' <apology-all-emails.txt >apology.txt

From there, I wrote a python program that would strip each line from the text file, append the lines to a list, and then randomly pick 3 of those lines to print using the random.choice() function. To make the formatting more interesting, I used the textwrap library to give each line a maximum of 30 characters.

And here are some examples of the outcome:

Did you make it to a church?
also, sorry if it was a little
awkward this morning with JP.
I’m sorry to bother you again,
but I’m still unable to sign
into Kronos.

I’m sorry that I committed to
helping you this morning, but
I hadn’t had time to think it
through until today.
I guess you could unfollow me
if you want but I’d rather we
just talk about it 🙂
Oh no!

Sorry, I’m being totally rude.
Good luck selling it on
Craigslist.
oh no!

I’m sorry. As you can imagine,
this has been really hard for
me
I’m sorry – I should have
asked permission before using
the audio from the story.
I just need you to know who I
am.

Hey sorry my phone is dead- I
finished the camera
accessories post.
Thank you again for the
opportunity!
(sorry for the link overload)

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Last week, we designed a physical object that could function as a counter triggered by the end user. Inspired by the classic pomodoro timer, I prototyped a counter that required a twist to move up or down.

This week, I prototyped the app version of my counter with some wireframes. I started the design process by collecting my thoughts about the user of this app: Who is he or she? What would he or she be using this app for? What are the primary functions of this app?

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I decided that I wanted to build an app that allowed the user to set simple numerical goals for herself and then track those goals over time.

I had a lot of ideas about how to make goal-setting a more positive experience. For instance, studies have shown that individuals are more successful at achieving their goals when they frame the experience as an accomplishment rather than a punishment. I thought about adding metrics so that the user could track his/her goals over time.

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The app that I conceived has three major components: adding goals, tracking goals, and reviewing metrics. I wanted to make sure those tasks remained central and accessible at all times, so I decided to add a button on the bottom of the screen for “report” and a plus sign for adding a new goal. Here’s the design I came up with:

timer app-1Here is the initial flow: When you open the app (or when you click the + button on the bottom right hand) the app prompts you to add a new goal. You enter the name of the goal, you input the number you would like to reach, and then you can track your progress.

timer app - 2If you click the menu button in the top left hand, this is what the flow would look like. You can set a goal, track a goal, or view overall trends over time.

It’s hard to imagine now, but plastic was once touted as the embodiment of a democratic future. As Roland Barthes noted in his 1972 book Mythologies, with plastic “the hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized.”

This week I did some more research about the plastisphere and microplastics. When we picture what marine pollution looks like, many of us picture plastic bottles and bags bobbing in the Great Pacific garbage patch. The real threat to the ocean, though, take the form of microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic (smaller than 1 mm) that come from cosmetics, industrial processes, and clothing. Primary microplastics are directly manufactured by companies, while secondary microplastics are generated by the breakdown of larger plastic debris like bottles or synthetic clothing.

I discovered the advocacy organization 5 Gyres, which works to restore healthy, plastic-free oceans. In a blog post, the organization outlines “the great divide” between the goals of environmental NGOs and the goals of plastic manufacturers when it comes to dealing with plastic pollution. Plastic producers generally seek to beef up recycling efforts and improve waste management, with the taxpayer bearing the cost. NGOs, on the other hand, push for smarter, better designs and the phasing-out of problematic plastics, with producers taking more responsibility for recovery through built-in incentives. For instance, the U.S. recently passed a ban of microbeads that will take effect in April 2016, an example of how legislation is still needed in this battle to clean up the ocean.

This blog post really got me thinking about one of the central problems with plastic pollution: We live in a society in which everything is viewed as disposable. Rather than take steps to reduce plastic production or phase out problematic plastics, plastic manufacturers continue to put the burden of responsibility on the consumer to figure out how to deal with our trash.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about disposable bodies, the human bodies we have collectively deemed not worth grieving. Judith Butler once asked: Which lives become grievable? Which losses become losses worth mourning? Michel Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics–the state’s exercise of power over physical/political bodies–becomes very relevant when you start talking about the impact of pollution on human bodies.

In his TED talk entitled “The economic injustice of plastic,” Van Jones explores this link between “throwaway” materials and “throwaway” bodies. He argues that our proclivity for disposable products often makes low-income people pay. “Cancer Alley,” for instance, is a stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana where petrochemical companies produce plastic, causing clusters of cancer cases among low-income residents.

“If you understand the link between what we’re doing to poison and pollute the planet and what we’re doing to poor people,” he says, “you arrive at a very troubling, but also very helpful, insight: In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.”

For my project, I want to explore the link between poverty and plastic pollution in the ocean. Marine pollution affects all of us when it enters into our food chain, but low-income populations in coastal regions are especially vulnerable. Plastic pollution can be particularly acute in countries where basic sanitation is barely existent and where recycling is the last thing people have time to worry about. I am imagining that my project will be a web-based piece that explores the different low-income countries and communities affected by plastic pollution.

 

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His power, his passion, is the fabric of America
with the crown with which his mother has crowned him,
He is beholden to no one but we the people, how refreshing
My heart went out when he spoke.
and there, over his head, he’ll be able to see that shining, towering, Trump tower
I called him, but he didn’t answer

And Donald Trump is the right one to do that.
I am my beloved’s. His desire is toward me.
He has spent his life looking up and
its spices may flow out.  Let my beloved come into his garden,
They didn’t want to talk about these issues until he brought ‘em up.
My beloved is mine, and I am his.  He browses among the lilies.

– Odes generated by the Python program I wrote, combining text from Sarah Palin’s Trump endorsement speech with the Bible’s Song of Solomon

Last week, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin delivered a fiery, meandering speech endorsing Donald Trump’s presidential bid. The speech has been described as everything from “post-apocalyptic poetry” to performance art. Her praise for Trump takes the form of a kind of bizarre ode (to capitalism? to the private sector? IDK). To me, Palin’s odd locutions read as both erotica and sermon.

The blending of the sexual and the spiritual in this way is nothing new. The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is a book of scripture that appears in the Old Testament. Scripturally, the book is distinct in its celebration of sexual love. At times erotic, the text takes the form of two lovers talking about their love and desire for one another. Jewish tradition interprets the book as symbolic of the relationship between God and Israel; Christians read it as an allegory for Christ and His church.

All of this got me thinking. For this week’s assignment, we were to write a program in Python that would mimic a function that could be performed on the command line. I decided to write a program in Python that would create a “mashup” of the two texts: Palin’s endorsement speech and Song of Solomon.

The program I wrote searches two texts for lines that contain the words “he” or “his” (lowercase and uppercase). It then randomly selects lines from those lines and generates a simple poem: an ode. In this way, it’s mimicking the grep UNIX command.

The program requires two inputs, both .txt files. The .txt files would ideally take the form of odes, since the words my program is looking for are “he” and “his,” but the program can work with any texts. The output is a 6-line poem that simply alternates between the two texts. If there is a text A and a text B the format would be as follows: A/B/A/B/A/B. For example:

“Trump and his, uh, uh, uh, Trumpeters, they’re not conservative enough.”
in the day of his weddings, in the day of the gladness
He knows the main thing, and he knows how to lead the charge.
then I was in his eyes like one who found peace.
And he tells us Joe six packs, he said, “You know, I’ve worked very, very hard.
I am my beloved’s. His desire is toward me.

Here’s the code I wrote in Python:

Okay, here’s one more:

But, it’s amazing, he is not elitist at all.
He looks in at the windows.  He glances through the lattice.
But he didn’t do it alone, and this is important to remember,
with the crown with which his mother has crowned him,
and there, over his head, he’ll be able to see that shining, towering, Trump tower.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth

 

For my research topic, I was assigned the plastisphere.

The plastisphere is a term used to describe ecosystems that have evolved to live in human-made plastic environments. Because plastic is hydrophobic, biofilms can form rapidly on the surface of plastic. In marine environments, this means that plastic can host a wide spectrum of microorganisms.

Global plastic production exceeds 300 million tons per year, with up to 5% of this entering the ocean as plastic litter. “We have inadvertently created a completely new habitat in the ocean with all of this plastic debris,” says Tracy Mincer, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “This stuff didn’t exist there over 40 years ago.”

Mincer is part of a group of scientists who discovered that thousands of microbes have evolved to thrive on the plastic trash that collects in the ocean, especially in giant gyres like the Great Pacific garbage patch.

The Great Pacific garbage patch (or trash vortex) is a gyre of marine debris particles in the Pacific Ocean that contains high concentrations of pelagic plastics and chemicals. One of the reasons plastic pollution is so difficult to address is because often the pollution is not easily visible, consisting of very small pieces of plastic.

The problem(s)

The plastisphere poses several significant threats to our environment.

Firstly, many of the bacteria and algae that attaches itself to the plastic debris floating in the ocean are part of the genus Vibrio, which causes cholera and other illnesses.

Secondly, because plastic is so durable, plastic pollution acts as a “ship” for carrying microorganisms across long distances. This means that microbes are getting transported to different ecosystems and invasive species and harmful algae could be introduced into other ecosystems.

Finally, some of the organisms that attach themselves to the debris encourage biodegradation of plastic materials, introducing potentially hazardous chemicals into the ocean. As plastic gets broken down, it gets eaten by plankton and enters into the food chain, eventually being consumed by humans.

The experts

  • Dr. Tracy Mincer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Dr. Linda Amaral-Zettler, Marine Biological Laboratory
  • Dr. Erik Zettler, Sea Education Association

This is my response to readings for the class Mediating The Bio-Political Body.

“Power has no control over death,” said Foucault in his Biopolitics lectures, “but it can control mortality.” Tracing the emergence of techniques of power in the 17th century, Foucault observes that these forms of power were centered on the individual body rather than the collective body. In effect, sovereign power amounted to the simple fact that the leader could kill his subject at any moment. With the emergence of new power mechanisms in the 18th century, power was applied not to “man-as-body” but to “man-as-living-being.” In other words, biopolitics deals with the population as a political and biological problem. Under these new power structures, the sovereign possesses the power of regularization, the power of making life and letting die.

Foucault argues that our current society is essentially a superimposing of these two technologies of power: power over the individual body and power over a mass of bodies. The first power is disciplinary and manipulates the body as “a source of forces that have to be rendered useful,” while the second power “brings together the mass effects characteristic of a population and tries to control the random events that can occur in a living mass.”

In modern society, the pairing of these technologies of power has distinct implications. We see governments increasingly controlling the reproduction rate, fertility rate, birth/death rate, resulting in the development of medicine whose main function is public hygiene, sex education, and medical care. As the intersection of body and population, sexuality falls under the domain of both techniques of power and is therefore subject to both discipline and regularization.

This is my response to readings for the class Mediating The Bio-Political Body.

The task of genealogy, writes Michel Foucault in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” is to “expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.” Foucault’s investigation into genealogy examines concepts present in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, a text that interrogates our ideas about the origins of knowledge.

The three German words Foucault references when he talks about the idea of origins are Ursprung, Entstehung, and Herkunft. Herkunft is suggestive of a type of descent or lineage, sustained by the bonds of tradition. Historical meaning, argues Foucault, is generated through a process by which humans inherit the countless logical inaccuracies, hasty conclusions, and ideas of previous generations. Our bodies give rise to the same errors, manifesting “the stigmata of past experience.” Herkunft, or descent, “attaches itself to the body,” rendering the body “the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas)…a volume in perpetual disintegration.”

The body, according to Foucault, thus becomes the site of endless conflict. Our nervous systems, our moods, and our minds are vulnerable to the destructive capabilities of history that is the product of the “endlessly repeated play of dominations.” Domination, like history, creates marks of its power and engraves memories on our bodies.