Informatics: a sense of entitlement

Technology win for the day- regaining access to word-processing on my laptop, having become bereft of Microsoft Word after updating to Lion. Also signed and sorted my contract, and delivered a package of books to a friend. The book package included The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé mentioned in last week’s blog: I enjoyed it, it was funny, but it was also a bit slight at the end (n.b. I am critical of the endings of most books). The Turing reference turned out to be a naming reference for the main character: according to this novel, Turing committed suicide by soaking an apple in cyanide, painting a still-life of said apple, then eating it. If anyone can tell me if that’s true or not, I’d be most grateful.  Other books in the parcel were Down The Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, The Testament of Jesse Lamb by Jane Rogers, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, and Girl Reading by Katie Ward, all of which I highly recommend, especially Down The Rabbit Hole, which was both innovative and heart-breaking.

I’m about two thirds of the way through the Ada Lovelace biography which, annoyingly, is mainly focussed on her mother’s actions. I have hopes for the more recent biography (currently out on loan). Today I wrote a little dialogue from the end of the Ada & Gil story, but most of my creative engagement was with writing the first half of a short-story about a robot moth (extract at the end of this post) called the Math-Moth™.

Research-wise I started the day by attempting to write a text-based computer game via Inform. It started off well, then I swiftly realised I didn’t know what I was trying to say, so I gave up. I enjoyed playing with the technology though, so that’s something i’ll return to once I find the right inspiration. Then I read up on some papers Clare had sent me about analysing academic paper titles. That led on to me attempting to find the equivalent research into analysing fiction titles. I found an old article by John Harvey in 1953 about ‘The Content Characteristics of Best-Selling Novels’ which was a mixture between useful and amusing. Then I found the Lulu.com title scorer, which attempts to predict if your title will be a bestseller or not (read the science behind that here). It requires some confidence in your grammar skills to play, but perhaps I’m bitter because the title I tried only had a 10.5% likelihood of winning me worldwide fame and financial rewards…

Jon and I met with Dr Alex Murdoch from Scottish History and the artist Catriona Taylor at lunchtime, to talk to them about the Leverhulme application they’re putting in for Catriona to be artist-in-residence at the School of History, Classics & Archaeology, Edinburgh University. Apparently Jon & my application is the only successful Leverhulme artist-in-residence application Edinburgh University has had to date, which was rather gratifying to hear. We talked through the steps we’d taken to develop our proposal, and hopefully gave them some things to think about for their full application- the project (linked around diaspora) sounded really interesting, so fingers crossed.

We also met with Clare again to touch-base on ideas around titles of academic papers. Aside from a lot of bad puns (‘Whose title is it anyway?’, ‘Titles as gateway drugs’, ‘A sense of entitlement: what does your title entitle you to?’) we also managed to generate some more solid ideas of what was achievable in the research area and how the results could be put to use. My favourite phrases from the meeting were ‘temporal corpus’, ‘mutual information in words’, and ‘words have become more frequent and more meaningful’.

Here’s an extract from the beginning of the Math-Moth™ story:

The antennae were definitely a mistake: made from coiled aluminum, they bounced in a disconcertingly jolly fashion as the Math-Moth™ crawled across the floor and began to scrabble at the far wall of the laboratory.

‘They throw it off balance,’ said Tim. ‘We should’ve used plastic.’

‘They’re not an essential element of the interface,’ said Lindsay. ‘We ought to take them off. I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.’

Over the intercom, Janice’s voice told them to wait until after the review board. Lindsay turned off the ultraviolet light and the moth bumped back down and began to crawl towards the desk lamp.

‘There’s something wrong with the wings,’ Tim walked over and bent down, shading his eyes.

‘Aside from the fact that it can’t fly?’ Lindsay didn’t bother looking up from the keyboard, the joke having become more of a mantra of disappointment by this stage.

‘Ha. Ha.’ The Math-Moth™ brushed against Tim’s knees, the curved metal edges of its body cold through the cloth of his trousers. He braced and reached out his hand. The wings whirred and vibrated under his touch, the artistically wrought layers of gossamer polymers acting as an integral cooling system for the mechanism housed within the abdomen. ‘It’s purring again,’ Tim said, then repeated himself louder in case Janice hadn’t picked up. He made the signal at Lindsay and she switched the frequency in the lab so that all three of them — Tim, Lindsay, and the Math-Moth™– were bathed in hot yellow from the ranks of bulbs lining the walls. The Math-Moth™ stopped moving for a moment, long enough for Tim to press down between the offensively jocular antennae and deactivate the energy cells.

‘Janice? Did you get that?’ There was no reply. Lindsay tapped away at the keyboard and beyond the thin walls of the laboratory they heard a bell ringing. The whirring against Tim’s leg decreased slowly and finally stopped. The bell kept ringing. Tim picked up the Math-Moth™ and put it on the observation table. The bell stopped.

‘You called?’

‘Moth malfunction,’ Lindsay said. Tim mouthed purring at her. ‘We should push back the review board another fortnight.’

‘No can do, sweetie.’

‘It won’t run a full cycle like this.’

‘Then we’ll run a half cycle.’

Tim carefully flipped the moth over, stroking the fibres of the wings so they lay flat before placing it back on the smooth, grey plastic table-top. ‘I could try re-installing the cooling algorithms,’ he suggested. ‘Or we could accept the fact that Mammoth likes to purr.’

‘It’s negative feedback, Tim,’ Lindsay shut her eyes and rubbed her temples. ‘It doesn’t like you. It doesn’t like playing with the lights. It doesn’t –’

It has a name.’

It doesn’t have anything. It doesn’t own, it doesn’t feel, it doesn’t communicate original thoughts. It is an advanced piece of phototaxic hardware with the capability of calibrating movement in reaction to light wavelength. It is supposed to be able to triangulate its own positions according to the polarity of –’

‘Sweetie one and Sweetie two, will you please stop bickering?’ Janice’s voice was flat and bored.

‘Which of us is Sweetie one?’ Tim asked. Lindsay turned her back on him and began clearing the files of paperwork off her desk.

‘Neither of you is going to be either unless you get back to work.’ The intercom clicked off, leaving a damp echo hanging in the air: Janice had disconnected the call-back function, something she normally left to the end of the observation day.

It was only after he’d removed the top layer of thin metal sheets which lapped over each other to coat the Math-Moth™’s thorax that Tim remembered the irrational bobbing of the antennae. Lindsay was over by the tanks, holding a dropper up to the light and frowning.

‘Do you want me to take these off?’ He said. She looked startled. ‘The antennae. Should I get rid of them?’

‘Janice said after the review board.’

‘Janice said run a half cycle. There’s no such thing as a half cycle.’

‘Haven’t you got us into enough trouble for one day?’

‘Don’t you ever get bored of — what are you looking for?’ Lindsay was still holding the dropper up to the light, the tube seemingly empty.

‘It’s glucose, mainly. They’re off the nectar again, I wanted to see if I could tempt them to eat.’

‘Has it worked?’

‘I don’t think so.’

Tim remembered finding Alan crying by the tanks, two months into the project. All he’d say between sobs was ‘They haven’t any mouths, Tim. They spend their whole lives starving to death.’ There wasn’t anything Tim could think of to say except I’m sorry, and that was both insincere and not enough. Alan had quit before the next team meeting and Tim hadn’t heard from him again, with the exception of an unsigned postcard from  the Museum Witt in Germany.  After Alan had left them so suddenly, Tim had told Lindsay what he’d said and her response had been to snort and call Alan an idiot.

‘Nectar. Grain. Not to mention Aglossa Cuprina, known to feed on people.’

‘Vampire moths? I’d rather you didn’t mention them.’

‘Technically they ingest the grease produced by bacteria feeding on decaying matter. Grease moths.’

‘Like grease monkeys?’

‘No.‘ Lindsay had no sense of humour, Tim decided. Nor compassion. Whether Alan was or was not an idiot was beside the point.

The antennae had been Alan’s idea — the whole visual design of the Math-Moth™ was based on his drawings. Tim supported the head and unscrewed them very slowly, aware that he looked as though he were cradling a baby and willing Lindsay to notice and comment and start another fight.

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