Informatics: reading in the rain

Another rainy day here in Edinburgh. Spent the first part of the morning making myself a reading list of books from the library, and reading the PDF of a PhD thesis by Henrik Schärfe (Aalborg University, 2004) entitled ‘CANA: A study in Computer Aided Narrative Analysis’. Then I took a writing break and doodled around with the characters of Gil & [unknown female narrator] which had come up in my dialogue sketches on Day 2. In switching from 1st person to 3rd person I needed a name for the female character: a swift google or two later and I was avidly reading about Ada Lovelace – Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter, friend to Charles Dickens, and possibly the world’s first computer programmer. This took me straight back to the library catalogue to add some biographies of Countess Lovelace to the reading list, and gave me my character’s name – Ada. I was particularly interested by her connection with the literary world (more or that another time, but she saw poetry and mathematics as two sides of the same coin, as far as my brief investigations can work out) since the Informatics Forum stands on the site of the old Paperback Bookshop, which played a key role in the incendiary scandal around Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the 1960s Penguin trial.

Scottish half-term put paid to a quiet repeat visit to the National Museum of Scotland with Ian, but we did unexpectedly run into a friend from Newcastle who researches representations of language in museums, up for the day on a field trip, which was a nice surprise. I also bought a bright green brolly, which meant I was able to make it to the library and stock up on some reading on human irrationality, myths, cyberbodies, virtual embodiment, and the intriguing Ada Lovelace.

Back in the office I typed up my writing from the morning, and interspersed reading more of the ‘CANA’ thesis with making notes on quest narratives and investigating computer-data literary analysis techniques and other propotypes for diting software. The most interesting examples I found were from Stanford’s Literary Lab, where directors Matthew Jockers and Franco Moretti seem to have been running some ambitious projects using the kind of things I’m interested in to analyse existing bodies of literature, rather than the focus I want to take on first-draft works-in-progress: grouping  and analysis tools rather than editing tools.

Here’s a short extract from today’s writing about Gil and Ada. To give a wider context, Gil is secretly a sort-of robot (Genetically Intelligent Lifeware), and Ada is (not at all secretly) a cleaner:

Every step you take, every move you make, you’re choosing to fall. Every time you go – whether fast or slow – you risk losing it all.

Gil’s words ran through her brain, tripping over themselves as her feet marked out the distance on the rain-pocked, uneven cobbles between the bus-stop and the Forum.

‘Doesn’t it scare you, Ada?’ he’d asked. ‘Being so… temporary… in everything you do?

She’d said she didn’t know what he meant and he’d frowned down at the floor, fiddling his eyebrows at each other.

‘Always switching from one thing to another.’

‘From standing still to walking?’

Gil had made his sort-of face. She’d said – honestly – that she hadn’t really had occasion to give it much thought. She picked her mop back up. He’d shaken his head at her and backed away, slipping off to whichever of the offices his desk was in this week.

It was almost half-past. Ada pushed herself to run faster, keeping one eye on the ground for wet leaves.

It’s more like flying than falling, she thought, and let herself leap through her own loping gait and hang for a moment in the air. Surely it only counts as falling if you don’t mean it, if – the twisting stub of a bad landing knocked it out of her head. Her arms flew out to stop the stumbling and her hand – her fist really, clutching the plastic carrier bag with the soup-pot – made solid contact with an old woman’s midriff.

Later, when Ada was scraping mud from her shoes back at home and trying to pretend to Archie that her apology to the old woman was a tragic-comic masterpiece rather than a brusque mumble, she wondered if perhaps flying really was just falling by another name – or falling was flying – and the only thing left to do was to pray for better balance.

‘I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,’ Archie said.

‘Like what?’

‘Babbling on like this Professor Gilmore would ever listen to what you think.’

‘Gil. Not Gilmore.’

‘Flying, falling, walking upside-down. Can’t you just do your job then come home, like a normal person?’

‘Gil says there’s no such thing as normal.’ He repeated her words, exaggerating her high-pitch into a mouse squeak and throwing his hands up into the air. Then the coughing started and his face went grey and he slumped back into the armchair. Ada dropped the half-clean shoe,  took the lid off the pill pot and passed it to him, then went to put the kettle on for a steam-basin and there was no more talk of flying or Gil or falling for the rest of the evening.

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