Yharnam Metal Hypernym

Internet, Programming

To start off 2016, I thought I’d take a moment to write about some of the new Twitter bots I assembled last year. In my last post on the subject, I indicated that I was reluctant to continue making bots because it was distracting me from larger projects. However, since lately I’ve been focusing hard on a big exciting endeavour, I’ve found that making bots has continued to be a relaxing creative outlet in my downtime.

Yharnam Notes is a small tribute to Bloodborne, one of my favourite games of 2015. The game’s asynchronous multiplayer features include the ability to leave notes for other players using templates of words and phrases. These permutations can often be inadvertently lyrical, as Natalie Zed explored in her Bloodborne poetry. Inspired by this, I made a bot that constructs random messages using the vocabulary of the game’s note system.

Hypernym Bot was inspired by the folk proverb “For Want of a Nail”. I wanted to find a way to generate the same structure of text programmatically. Fortunately, Wordnik maintains a list of hypernyms (words that are more generic or abstract) for each word in their database. This made it simple to start with a random word, then iterate up the chain of abstraction of few times.

This is one of the silliest ideas that I’ve actually followed through on. Somehow my errant thoughts on @EveryWord and heavy metal clichés intersected, and led me to render every word in the English language in a heavy metal font. Tweeting a new word every four hours, @EveryMetalWord will complete its task by 2065.

You can find the complete list of my Twitter bots here. Wishing you all a happy new year, may your 2016 be programmatic and random!

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Playing Games on Twitter

Internet, Video Games

Twitter Bot Quilt

I was recently interviewed by Jason Johnson at Kill Screen about the intersection of two of my favourite topics: video games and Twitter bots. Specifically, he wanted to explore the possibilities of using Twitter as a platform for games, and I was happy to oblige! You can read the interview over on their site:

Kill Screen – Is Twitter the Next Playground for Gamers?

In preparation for our discussion, I took some time to catalogue all the game & game-like bots I could find. For instance, image bots (such as Lowpolybot, a_quilt_bot & pixelsorter) are interactive, but are they games? Others explore content from games (MinecraftSigns, Book of the Dead) without being games per se.

Some bots (AnagramBot, ThesaurusGame, and my own TinyCrossword) function like public game shows; anyone on Twitter can reply but only the first correct answer will win. More egalitarian bots (wordassocbot, mazebotgame & fmkvote) let everyone play, and choose their inputs randomly or in aggregate1. There’s a category of bots that don’t take player input at all, but instead play games against themselves (ChessBotWhite & reverseocr). You could even interpret artassignbot as a game, if you approached its assignments sincerely!

Bots can also explore game-like procedural generation and world building. ARealRiver, tiny_star_field and dungeon_bot assemble unicode symbols into microcosms, cleverly working within the constraints of Twitter. Similarly, fantasy_florist and youarecarrying evoke imaginary worlds using only brief descriptions.

Ultimately, I believe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to playing on Twitter and interacting with bots. There are many interesting creative opportunities in both, so I encourage my fellow bot enthusiasts to continue creating and experimenting!

1 The popular streaming bot Twitch Plays Pokémon uses a similar approach.

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So Many Twitter Bots

Internet, Programming

Since making @HoroscopeBot and @EveryBookBot, I’ve been on what you might call a bot-making rampage. I’ve really enjoyed tinkering with tiny scope coding projects that can be finished over a weekend, as opposed to my game-making side projects that often take months. Here, briefly, are five new bots I’ve assembled over the last few weeks:

@RandomChessBot plays random chess moves until it finds a checkmate, then tweets the final board state. This bot was particularly easy to code thanks to Jeff Hlywa’s excellent chess.js library, which provides a list of legal moves and exports the board state in ASCII. It’s worth noting that the majority of random chess games do not end in checkmate, but rather in an “insufficient material” draw state (the bot disregards these results.)

My friend Peter Javidpour made an amazing website called See Hear Party, which plays GIFs in time with the beat of a song (using Giphy & SoundCloud). As soon as he demoed it, I immediately wanted to help promote it with a Twitter bot. @SeeHearPartyBot pairs three random GIF search terms with a random electronic song from SoundCloud, occasionally creating an affecting juxtaposition or serendipitous harmony. This was also the first bot I implemented in Python instead of JavaScript.

@GameOfLifeBot tweets GIFs of Conway’s Game of Life simulated for 100 generations from a random initial seed. I used Tristan Hearn’s game of life library; since his implementation uses matplotlib, it was easy to export each generation as an image using various colour maps. I then used images2gif to assemble the individual frames into an animated image. This bot has inexplicably been my most popular bot since @HoroscopeBot; maybe people just like GIFs?

I noticed that Twitter has an official account that follows every verified user (a.k.a. “key individuals and brands”). This gave me a silly idea for a bot that tweets the out-of-context descriptions from the bios of random verified accounts. Fortunately this concept only took a few hours of coding to get up and running, and @VerifiedBioBot was born.

My most recent Twitter bot is @TinyCrossword, and it’s a personal favourite. It generates tweet-sized crossword puzzles, drawing clues from Simple English Wikipedia. For a tweet with an image (117 characters remaining), each clue can be no more than 36 characters long. It creates a new puzzle every day at noon PST, then tweets the solution a few hours later. This bot also scans the replies it receives, and will credit the first person who solves the puzzle correctly (sadly, nobody has yet to do so). I’m glad that I finally came up with a bot idea that was interactive!

These five new bots bring my total to eight. Sadly these will also be my last, at least for now. I’ve been using these short development cycles to procrastinate one some of my larger side projects. Making bots has been extremely entertaining and valuable, but I’m ready to get back to some meatier long term endeavours.

Also, if you’re interested in bots, be sure to check out the livestream of Darius Kazemi’s Bot Summit 2014 this weekend.

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More Twitter Bots

Internet, Programming

Tweets by @EveryBookBot

Since I released @HoroscopeBot earlier this summer, I haven’t stopped thinking about Twitter bots as a creative medium. Corny “I could make a bot for that” ideas kept popping into my thoughts. After reading this appreciation of museum bots, I decided to try my hand at making something similar for a different catalogue.

This led to the creation of @EveryBookBot. Every hour, it takes a random word from Wordnik and tweets a book on that subject from the Google Books API. The goal is to mimic the serendipity of browsing a library or a friend’s bookshelves. Books cover such a delightfully broad range of topics, everything from crackle glass and Spanish fashion to concise philosophy and thumb wrestling. The more obscure subjects fascinate me; who loved this thing enough to write a book about it, and who was their audience?

Tweets by @EveryGameBot

Its sibling @EveryGameBot isn’t quite as diverse, but perhaps that’s to be expected from a younger medium. This bot tweets a random video game or board game every hour, drawing data from the Giant Bomb and Board Game Geek APIs. Highlights so far include a political game from 1894 and an obscure fighting game best remembered for its FF7 tie-in. Exploring old esoteric games feels particularly worthwhile in a culture that’s too often fixated on the new and popular.

On the technical side, both bots resize and tile the book/game covers using a JS ImageMagick library. The cover tiling is done to reach the 440×220 image size that Twitter prefers, though I rather like the aesthetic effect as well. I’m also using a simple PostgreSQL database (which Heroku conveniently provides) to ensure the same item doesn’t get tweeted twice. The source code for both bots is available on Github.

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Making @HoroscopeBot

Internet, Programming

Tweets by @HoroscopeBot

Last weekend, as a side project, I decided to create an oracle. Like most oracles he spouts nonsense, occasionally happening upon a cogent statement by random chance and serendipity. His name is @HoroscopeBot, and he takes the auspices of Twitter to post a semi-coherent prophecy every twenty minutes.

What inspired this unusual creation? Through another act of internet happenstance, I became acquainted with two prolific bot-makers: Darius Kazemi and Rob Dubbin. As I followed their various projects, I slowly became convinced that bots were more than a mere novelty. Their playfulness with language and meaning was strangely revealing. They were subversive in a world that is increasingly run by algorithms. They could also embrace the inherently unpredictable nature of automation and make it charming.

While ruminating on these bots, I conceived of a simple bot idea of my own. I decided that I needed to make it right away, and devoted an idle weekend to develop the minimum functionality. The idea was to to find tweets of the form “you will ______”. If I prepended two such statements with a zodiac sign, it would create a disjointed horoscope. For instance:

GEMINI ♊: You will come out on the banks of the Rio Grande, but you will have to build a jail.

LIBRA ♎: You will be my queen, but you will NEVER MAKE A FREE THROW IN YOUR LIFE.

SCORPIO ♏: You will understand it, but you will need tissues.

On the technical side, this involved communicating with the Twitter API using OAuth, parsing text with regular expressions, and finding a host that could re-run the logic at set time intervals automatically. Following an online tutorial, I began developing my bot in Google Apps Script.

I initially thought that grabbing tweets would be the most difficult technical hurdle, but the API was actually quite straightforward. The rub was that my application required manual reauthentication every few hours, which is a major annoyance for a program that’s defined by its ability to run 24/7. Twitter has a workaround for this; they will provide you with a single access token that will never expire. However, Google’s OAuth library would not allow me to simply provide it with a token; it wanted to do authentication the “right” way.

To make the bot fully independent, I had to port the logic to Node.js and deploy it on Heroku. This was not a smooth process (mostly due to the limitations of my git knowledge), but the twit library finally enabled me to connect to Twitter indefinitely with my access token. As of Sunday morning, @HoroscopeBot should regularly tweet new prognostications with no further intervention; you can check out the source code on GitHub.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Darius says he was inspired by Ian Bogost’s idea that, in lieu of writing, objects can embody philosophy. In that context, I’ve thought about what sort of viewpoint my bot is advancing. Maybe it demonstrates the incompleteness of written language. Sentence fragments are fungible, and simple juxtaposition can create unintended meaning; context is always important. Alternately, perhaps it celebrates second-person aspirations. Somebody is saying “you will”, will you?

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