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The Working Dead: The Posthumous Career of Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century. All signs point to the author holding the same place in the 21st century, despite the fact that he died April 11, 2007. The late Vonnegut has accomplished more dead than most of us will alive, from social media celebrity to indie film success. We’d expect nothing less from the ironic author who wrote in Slaughterhouse Five, “How nice—to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”

1. RT @Kurt_Vonnegut

Vonnegut's a Twitter star. The @Kurt_Vonnegut Twitter account (not verified, natch) tweets the late writer's quotes and has 169,666 followers and counting. Meanwhile, he only follows @TheMarkTwain. (The two writers probably would’ve followed each other in real life, if they’d had the chance. Their work is frequently compared. Vonnegut called Twain an “American saint” and even named his first son after him.) Like any major celebrity, Vonnegut also has a few other Twitter accounts dedicated to him, including @Zombie_Vonnegut. If you think Vonnegut’s funny in 140 characters, you should read one of his books.

2. Check Out the Vonnegut Library

Vonnegut said, "The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries." In fall 2010, his hometown of Indianapolis opened the Vonnegut Memorial Library in his honor. The building is part library, part museum and showcases a replica of Vonnegut's writing studio and some of those famous rejection letters he talked about. Writer Corey Michael Dalton recently lived, worked, and slept in the front window for "Locked Up with Vonnegut," part of Banned Books Week. Guests can type messages on the late writer’s typewriter, which are then tweeted from the Twitter account @kurtstypewriter.

3. All Eyez on Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s the Tupac of American literature—the posthumous hits just keep coming. His latest book, We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works, contains one of Vonnegut's first novellas and the establishing chapters of his last novel. Three other collections have been published since his death: a collection of short stories, drawings, and essays called Armageddon in Retrospect in 2008; the unpublished short story collections Look at the Birdie in 2009; and While Mortals Sleep in 2011. Back in April, Vonnegut's writings from his college newspaper days were published in the Amazon eBook, Kurt Vonnegut: The Cornell Sun Years 1941–1943. What's next? 50 Shades of Kilgore Trout?

4. Digital Luddite


Photo Courtesy of davitydave's flickr photostream.

Before the release of Look at the Birdie, some of Vonnegut's unpublished short stories were made available as e-books. Now you can access all of his work via e-reader. Vonnegut was a proud Luddite who wrote in longhand and used a typewriter long after most writers switched over to a computer. We wonder if the book-loving technology critic would have found the digitalization of his work—and books, in general—ominous, or a good use of “damn fool computers.”

5. The Third Adaptation’s a Charm

Vonnegut's 1961 short story "Harrison Bergeron" is set in 2081 when all Americans are forced to be equal in not only rights, but also abilities. No one’s smarter, richer, or ahem, more prolific than anyone else. The dystopic work has been adapted for the screen three times. Vonnegut praised the short film version Harrison Bergeron released a year before his death. He might've liked the latest reworking even better: the 2009 short film 2081 is the closest adaptation of “Harrison Bergeron” yet. The sci-fi film runs 25 minutes and cost only $100,000 to produce, yet it's one of IMDB's most popular short films.

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An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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