Friday, March 27, 2009

Tumbarumba, the Random Story Dispenser

If you use Firefox, enjoy reading science fiction and fantasy stories (especially free ones!) and don't mind surprises while surfing the web, you should consider giving Tumbarumba a try.

Tumbarumba is an art project and Firefox add-on that comes with twelve stories. When it is first installed, the stories are inaccessible to you. You need to unlock them, one by one, which you do by doing what you usually do with your browser anyway: surfing the web.

Tumbarumba looks through the web pages you access for words that are also found in its twelve stories. When it finds a match, it splices the rest of the story's sentence to the beginning of the web page's sentence, producing a new sentence that is syntactically sound but doesn't make much sense.

To take an example from my own Tumbarumba-tinted surfing, the Tales of the Talisman's web site contains this sentence:

The hadrosaur talisman logo is inspired by a duckbilled dinosaur called a tsintaosaurus.

As well, the Tumbarumba story "The Little M@tch Girl" contains this sentence:

As Nera tossed him his fare, he called, 'Have fun, little sluts.'"

The word common to both these sentences is "called." So when I came across the Tales of the Talisman web page, I was faced with this puzzling declaration:

The hadrosaur talisman logo is inspired by a duckbilled dinosaur called "Have fun, little sluts. [sic]

When you come across one of these gibberish sentences, you can either conclude that the writer was smoking some bad weed when he wrote it, or that your Tumbarumba has kicked in. To find out which is the case, slide your mouse pointer over the anomalous sentence. If it changes to a link pointer , that's Tumbarumba. Click, and the add-on will insert another chunk of story text. If you keep clicking, eventually (in my experience, it varies from one to five clicks) the original web page text will fade out and the story will fade in.

Tumbarumba stories don't have their own web pages. The only way you can read the twelve stories is to allow them to hijack the web pages you are reading. The story text is forced into the format of the web page, sometimes with awkward results. I had one story that began in the thin left-hand column where the original web page had had its menu. Another story took over a form, which resulted in the story text being interrupted by fields. If you don't like the resulting format or find it unreadable, just wait, and eventually that same story will hijack a different web page.

To go back to reading the original web page, open the Tumbarumba pull-down menu in your Firefox browser, and select "Disable Tumbarumba on this page."

If you go to the Tumbarumba Table of Contents, also accessible from the pull-down menu, you should find that the story is now unlocked; that is, it is no longer plain text but is clickable. (Should: Tumbarumba does have bugs. See below.) One thing I haven't figured out yet is whether clicking just once on the gibberish sentence will unlock the story, or whether you have to keep clicking until the story hijacks the page. I suspect it's the latter but haven't experimented enough to be sure.

Obviously, this add-on is not for everyone. Some people would find it annoying. However, there's no risk involved in trying it, as you can always turn it off completely, again via the pull-down menu.

I have unlocked seven stories so far, and gotten around to reading three and a half. (The fourth was not to my taste.) Mostly, they're quite good. "Little M@tch Girl," a futuristic retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson classic, could haunt your dreams.

But the stories are not the only pleasure Tumbarumba has to offer. There's also the experience of coming across a sentence that produces a mental double-take. I've found it interesting to observe my brain's reaction to these sentences. First, it tries to go on reading, thanks to that built-in mechanism we all have in our brains that glides over anything that doesn't compute. This makes us more robust than those women robots encountered by the Starship Enterprise, that would break down when faced with paradoxical or nonsense statements.

So I tended to read on for a couple of sentences, then think, wait a minute, and rewind to the offending sentence. I'd reread it a few times and wonder what the author had been thinking. Only then would I remember: oh yeah, Tumbarumba. But this reaction varied if the sentence made sense in a whimsical sort of way. When I saw the dinosaur sentence mentioned above, my first thought was, "What a silly name for a dinosaur!"

I have since found that as I get more accustomed to the effect, I become quicker and quicker to recognize the gibberish as the result of Tumbarumba. Recently, I've even been able to skip the whole double-take routine. I kind of miss it. It's a reminder of what a small piece of reality we normally perceive. I also like feeling the shift in perception that comes at the moment of understanding. It feels like a bit of enlightenment.

Happily, I can still be tripped up in certain situations. Recently, I was searching the provincial government's web page for information on their latest budget, as research for my blog post on the subject. I read that the budget "provides Leadership for a Stronger horizontal," and laughed with glee at the lengths to which officials will go with their obfuscating jargonspeak. I had no idea what was meant by "a stronger horizontal," but I didn't doubt for a moment that it was something that would be put on a government web page. Like other inhabitants of modern society, I long ago abandoned the expectation that government officials would make sense, either linguistically or ethically. I decided to copy the sentence, because it was so funny, and it was only when the mouse pointer changed to a link pointer that I realized, at last, that I'd been Tumbarumba'ed.

The original phrase was actually "a budget that provides Leadership for a Stronger Economy." OK, that does make slightly more sense, even if it's hard to imagine how a budget can provide leadership.

To download Tumbarumba and try it yourself, go to the Tumbarumba home page and click on "Download." Note that you have to have Javascript enabled in your browser to navigate the home page.


Bug Notes: After I'd unlocked my first Tumbarumba story, I found that the hijacking mechanism kept failing. The original web page would fade out, but the story would not fade in, nor would it become clickable in the Table of Contents. I contacted support, and was told that there was probably something about the web pages that was interfering with Tumbarumba. I found this unlikely, since it had happened three times in a row. When I went back to the one story I'd unlocked, I found that I had disabled Tumbarumba on that page. I enabled it, and after that everything worked fine. This leads me to conclude that there is a bug in the disable mechanism, though the support guy might not agree with me. I feel even more certain of that since the most recent story failed to unlock in the Table of Contents. I had disabled that page as well. So if you have problems with Tumbarumba, try enabling all the disabled pages and see if that does the trick.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the benefit is to the authors. Have these stories been published elsewhere, or is this their first "publication"? How do you describe that sort of writing credit to a publisher? Or is this more a marketing tool - a quirky way to get exposure for your work?

I'm also curious about the developers themselves, where they got the idea, how they see the role of the add-on. Do they plan to release more stories, or is this a one-time thing?

An intriguing example of using new media creatively. Thanks for posting. :)

Vivian said...

Hi,

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. You can see info on the writers by going to http://transition.turbulence.org/Works/tumbarumba/about.html and clicking on "Authors." The ones that I have looked at are experienced writers (one of them I'd even heard of before). I suspect they were invited to participate, so probably no new authors among them. I don't know whether they are getting paid; obviously this is not a money-making venture but there could be arts funding behind it. I would think it still counts as publication in the same way as an online magazine does.

I get the impression these guys do a different project every year. Maybe they have something new planned for 2009. The Tumbarumba web page is hosted by Turbulence - http://www.turbulence.org/ - which funds online art.

You're welcome!

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