Stanford’s cactus garden and Stone River

I spent Friday and Saturday at Shift CTRL, a great academic conference in Stanford. There was a little more free time to explore the campus than on previous times I’ve been down there, because I had a bike and was by myself. Fortunately, I got tips to visit the cactus garden and the Stone River sculpture, both of which I recommend very highly as quiet, beautiful, contemplative spaces. Some pictures below.

Choochoobot in Source’s #botweek

I wrote about some of the things I learned from @choochoobot’s development (and popularity) for Source for its annual #botweek. It’s a little strange writing about programming projects, because I still feel very inexperienced, but I think there are some easy lessons to pull out here.

People do not behave rationally around emoji. A large and growing group of people love them more than anybody should love a font, and a small and shrinking set of people think they signal the end of polite interpersonal communication. In any case, that split has fueled the reaction to this bot, and it’s something to keep in mind: when crafting the “tone” of your tweets, you can choose to make them fun, and make people like seeing them.

Much more where that came from over at Source, and I’m hoping to do more @choochoobot work this weekend.

Making ethical bots, over at Motherboard

To my tremendous honor, Sarah’s Motherboard article about instilling ethics in Twitter bots quotes me in a few places. In particular, it recounts a story I hadn’t told publicly about a bot I didn’t make.

Recently, Higgins hoped to make an iterator bot out of turn-of-the-century popular music that had been digitized by the New York Public Library. But quite a lot of the scanned sheet music was, to say the least, extremely racist. So he scrapped the whole idea. “It was acceptable at the time, but that’s not what I would want my bot to say,” said Higgins. Loosely paraphrasing Darius Kazemi, he said, “My bot is not me, and should not be read as me. But it’s something that I’m responsible for. It’s sort of like a child in that way—you don’t want to see your child misbehave.”

The whole article is great, and the other botmakers she included are each an inspiration. Go read it!

New bot: @choochoobot

It’s a goofy idea: After a few happy-hour drinks on Thursday, I decided to write a little Python script to make emoji “trains” of random length, combining the steam engine with the two styles of rail cars. Once I got that running, I remembered reading about Emma Winston’s “Tiny Gallery” bot, which tweets little scenes of generative emoji “art galleries.”

In fact, there’s a whole “tiny universe” of bots that tweet emoji scenes—most prominently, Katie Rose Pipkin’s amazing “tiny star fields”. But as far as I could tell, none of them have trains. So I set to work putting my trains into some tiny landscapes, and quickly got something together.

Friday morning I “launched” the bot, by tweeting about it from my own account. I’m not sure what reaction I expected, but it wasn’t this one: over the course of the next 24 hours, over a thousand people followed it. By 10 tweets in or so, it had surpassed @pomological as my most popular bot. Over the weekend it climbed to 1,600 followers and it seems to still be on the rise.

Best of all though, I’m getting nice feedback from people speaking all different languages. That’s something I don’t usually get when I’m writing, but of course these “scenes”—if you can even call them that—are equally intelligible in any language. It feels really great to know that people around the world like this thing.

The source code is online, and I’ll write up more of a how-to soon. More excitingly, I want to keep developing out the possibilities here. Even out of the idea phase, it’s still a goofy project, but it’s a fun canvas to explore some more elaborate ideas.

Mark Twain’s ghost haunts copyright history

After years of toying with the idea, Kash finally convinced me to write up the bizarre copyright story that started seven years after Mark Twain’s death, when his ghost reportedly dictated a new novel, via Ouija board, to Emily Grant Hutchings. His publisher said: well, if Twain wrote it, we own it.

So the more firmly they insisted Twain himself was behind the work, the more they strengthened the Twain estate’s copyright argument that it, as the owner of all things written by Twain, owned this book, too. And Twain had a deal with Harper & Brothers that gave it the sole rights to publish books by Twain, so Hutchings and her publisher would have to produce credible evidence that he wanted to break that deal in his afterlife.

They just don’t make them like this any more. I’ve been pretty happy with the reception this piece has gotten, too, including a write-up by Techdirt and the lead spot in the Paris Review’s link roundup this week.