Welcome to the CODEX Hackathon 2016

It’s all about books, publishing, literary & library

By Matt Carroll <@MattatMIT>,Elisa Mala <@Elisa_Mala> and Anika Gupta

Hello, from the the CODEX Hackathon. We’ll be live blogging here all weekend, so come back often as we update. To follow on Twitter: #codexhack.

The hackathon is about “literary/publishing/library/books,” as the web site describes. Whew! That covers a lot, which is OK, because a lot is getting accomplished over this weekend. The hack is being held at the MIT Media Lab on January 8–10, 2016, to coincide with the American Library Association mid-winter meeting in Boston.

CODEX is a community of folks who want to imagine the future of books and reading. Programmers, designers, writers, librarians, publishers, readers, says inimitable organizer Jenny 8. Lee. It’s the second CODEX; the first was last year in San Francisco.

btw: Errare est humanus. If you spot typos etc, or want some info or pictures added, let me know. I’m banging this out fast.

The presentations look great

3:25 pm: Presentations are starting. Below are thumbnails for each one; here are fuller descriptions.:

Hippo Readers: It makes difficult text more accessible for young readers by transforming difficult vocabulary into more digestible words. It can filter by grade level.

Cover Design History: The goal is to create a visual library of book covers, which can be browsed through time. For instance, Dracula started as a monster, then turned into a suave guy with a cape.

Read Member: We can’t remember what we’ve read online. This allows you to track what you’ve read. It can also be accessible to your friends. Tracks and aggregates your reading stats: what read, time spent reading, how deep read into articles.

Abstractify: Helps you want to find articles outside your main interest.

Texting with Authors: Engaging with complex literature is difficult. Let’s gamify it, with random texts from authors (even dead ones). For instance, from Emily D. You have to figure out who these people are, based on clues which helps you learn more about their works and life.

REBook: Why are physical books superior to ebooks? With used books, sometimes you get previous readers’ annotations. That’s nice. REBook lets you mark up or doodle on ebooks, which other readers can see.

WriteNow: Individuals respond to writing prompts, then to other people’s prompts. It’s like a newsletter, but backwards. Can read everyone’s prompts on a web site.

Less And More: Takes text, makes less like some things and more like other things, by changing words. eg: Moby Dick: It turns it less about whales and more about dragons.

Project Jardin: Leverage connections with friends and relatives to write stories, using text messages. You can create branching stories that are sent to friends and relatives.

Browsing History: Click on a word and pull up historical references. It’s a Chrome browser extension.

Plot Plots: Visualizing complicated novels. Breaks down individual plot lines in a book by lines and colors.

Infinite Library: Project Gutenberg is great, with 40,000 titles, but it has an ancient look and feel. It’s not user friendly. Infinite Library takes pre-existing texts and makes them more attractive to readers.

BorderlessFic: A platform for sharing and translating stories. Helps shatter language barriers for writers whose work is not translated.

Down The Rabbit Hole: A platform for turning books into games. For instance, Alice in Alice and Wonderland hops and falls along the lines text, as they flow along. The visuals reflect the style and tone of the book.

StoryCreator: Helps you make your own interactive stories.

Gavel: Can you judge a book by its cover? Take a pic of a book cover, and Gavel does a reverse image search, then pulls up the New York Times review, Amazon star rating, and other info.

Paige Turner: Books don’t have notifications in them, or addicting apps. They are not part of habit loop. But Paige Turner will send you reminders on Twitter to do more reading. More: paigeturner.co

Stories2Life: Helps turn stories into cartoons, by creating animations easily.

Haikudex: We feel like “commit messages” should be more poetic. So it turns those messages into haikus, by adding or subtracting words and syllables, to fit the form.

Book Quest: How can we create maps for books that don’t have them? This tool creates pins and connects them. It even adds in Street View.

Glasnost — Censorship Transparency: Fight censorship through openness! It allows users to submit examples of censorship in their country.

subTEXT: People run across hard words or concepts but don’t want to interrupt their reading experience to look up the word. This helps them get past that, without breaking the reading flow, by adding in contextual information on the side.

Replace the Characters: It allows you to replace characters in a book. It produces a list of the top characters and you can (for instance) replace those names with your friends’ names, and send them a copy.

Stanza: What if there was a service like Pandora for poetry? It might give you curated playlists of poetry. That’s Stanza. Where to go next: What if users could upload own poems or curated lists?

LitCity: Change way people use literature and relate to their space. It works like this: You are visiting a city, like Boston. You see a quote about Boston, to put you in mood for your literature trip. You can explore authors, characters based in city, get maps, quotes.

Gutenberg’s Labyrinth: Scavenger hunt for words. In order to win, you explore books you might not normally read. It is a 3D dungeon crawler. Every room is a sentence. Walls are book cover art. Can go down side passages and find connections between books.

BookPlaylist: Collaborative environment for building music playlists for books. It explores the intersection between books and music.

Library for all: We bring ebooks to children across the developing world. We’re looking for developer help. www.libraryforall.org

3:15 pm: Here’s a full list of the presentations, which haven’t started yet.

Sunday, 3:30 pm: Presentations have begun! Follow the presentations on Twitter or via livestream:


Sunday, 3 pm: Another SWAG BREAK, this time a boatload of awesome-looking books. Anika goes for a Joyce Carol Oates.

There are also lovely T-shirts, bags, socks and jewelry, all with literary themes, from the creative minds at Out of Print. My friend (now a proud owner of a “Where the Wild Things Are” tote) and I coin the term “swag brag” — feeling unnecessarily proud of the cool items you nab.

Presentations are going to start any minute now.

Tick-tick tick tock: Presentations at 3 pm (can’t wait!)

Teams are focused as the day draws to a close.

Sunday 2:45 pm: Focus levels are high as presentation time draws close. Lots of teams, lots of cool ideas. It’s been a wonderful hackathon, with lots of cool ideas. Judging by some quick visits to tables, the prezis will be fantastic. Looking forward to it. It’s interesting that the atmosphere is relatively relaxed. At some hacks, people sometimes get frantic, as it gets close to demo. Not to say that’s not happening to some teams, but overall, the atmosphere is chill.

Sunday, 1:30 pm: Lunch. And also, the last call. If you haven’t taken look at the hackdash, now’s the time, because presentations are starting ASAP.

Sunday, 1 pm: (Anika) I’m now recruiting participants and sponsors to do mini-interviews about the hackathon. Some of these will make it into the new CODEX video. This is a fun interlude, because it offers me the chance to hear other people’s perspective on this two-day event. As one of the organizers, it’s gratifying when people talk about how much they’ve enjoyed it, especially folks for whom this is their first hackathon. Case in point: me and videographer Elisa have a lovely chat with Michael Gaudet of Hachette. Michael gave a passionate and memorable speech at the start of the hackathon about how publishers need better tools to annotate and mark up the many PDFs they trade back and forth during the publication process. During our video interview, he elaborates, talking about how this hackathon is a great opportunity to learn what young people — “millennials” — want out of the reading experience.

Speaking of young people, we also interview a high school senior named Austin, for whom this is definitely not his first hackathon, but who says he has enjoyed poking around the Media Lab. He tells us his favorite moment of the hackathon was getitng banned by Project Gutenberg for trying to download too many books. Tragedy was averted because someone else at the hackathon suggested a workaround.

I’ve never spent a lot of time in a publishing office, but I can see how this might be a huge change of pace for folks who are used to trading PDFs :D

Here’s the Codex video from last year, featuring a two-second cameo towards the end by yours truly (I did not know that was in there!) as well as a lot of good explanation from my Codex 2015 teammate Doug:


Sunday: 12:30 pm: SWAG BREAK!!!!

Did I say a hackathon is nothing without food? That is true, but also, let’s not forget about the power of excellent swag. These posters arrived courtesy of the Recovering the Classics project, which invites artists to create evocative new cover designs for classic books that have entered the public domain. The Grimm’s Fairy Tales poster I snagged is quite beautiful, but then again, Grimm’s lends itself to gorgeous covers. (The Recovering the Classics folks also take a moment to announce that they have launched their own Kickstarter, possibly with the help of the Kickstarter folks present at the hackathon)

Sunday, 10 am: Breakfast. Because a hackathon is nothing without food. I check in with teams who seem to be cranking away. Having been to several hackathons (including CODEX 1) in the past, it’s always interesting to watch hackathon projects go through the funnel from Big Adventurous Idea Practical presentation. For the teams here, that process seems to have involved evolving a series of workflows, often independent, that’ll then come together in the critical moments before presentations. It’s early, but it’s already crunch time.

Quick summaries of cool hacks

Saturday 5:45: Here are one-line presentations of what people are working on.

Page Turner Team: We’re going to get you to read books by sending awesome tweets. Help needed: Coffee, $100,000 to get this off the ground.

LitLas: “Around the world in 80 books”. Drop a link into a page; receive a Google Map with a pin of where that book is being read. Help needed: Google Maps — Someone mentioned an issue with rate limits.

Highlight Bling: Annotation tool. “As students, we have trouble taking notes sometimes”. Help needed: Google Maps; Javascript

Infinite Library: Brand new web-based reader for e-text that also allows you save offline. Help needed: Design help, especially for mock-ups

Subtext: Through Natural Language Processing, searches for content based on what you’re reading and injects it into the text so that you have extra data within the book. Help needed: NLP or consult

Project Abstractify: Takes abstracts from academic articles and finds common ground between disparate fields. No help needed.

Lit City: 12-person team! Uses geo-locating to provide historical information of the literature and its setting. The team is creating a prototype for a web-based app that will be based in Boston. Proto will be demo-ed tomorrow. Help needed: Goodreads API, Google Maps API, Sponsor API

Glasnost: Transparency in censored cultures: Web-based app for censored materials that allows you to see where the content is censored. The list is published on a block chain (is that right?), and unmodifiable, which allows for transparency.

Book Playlist: Builds a book-based playlist! Help needed: Spotify API, especially with authentication processes

HippoReader: An engine to create computer friendly articles for children.

Project Anonymous and How: A new format for storytelling: Interactive stories through text-messaging. Create a story by texting back and forth with a fake person, which forces you to interact. No help needed.

Haikudex: Haikus out of other people’s messages. Help needed: Wordsmiths, please submit your: excellent adjectives, multi-syllabic words.

(Missed the team name): Online platform that allows your own stories to break down language barriers to share stories with people speaking different languages. Help needed: website-related stuff.

Constantly: Distributed book club — How location affects the experience of what you reading. Scan the barcode, drop a pin on the map, and allow people to add a note with their thoughts. Help needed: Does anyone have a book with a barcode?

Replace the Characters — Keeping it literal! App that uses text-based recognition to replace names of characters in Gutenberg texts with the names of your friends, family, and enemies.Help needed: Flask wizards!

Read Member: Track your reading progress on articles across the webs. Whitelisted, web extension for Chrome. Pulls the data from AirTable and allows your friends to see as well. No help needed.

Gavel: Judge a book by its cover! Take a picture of the cover and locate reviews and prices. No help needed.

No team tame: “The idea is basically to make e-books feel more accessible in that you can see other people’s annotations. We’re putting together a sample of this, really, so that you can read a book and see what other people have written or doodled within the column and give them a digital book that feels more lived in.” No help needed.

Team Binary — Two-person team. Text Scan Engine that transfer a book into a GIF. Help needed: URL experts, GUI, UX.

Let’s Animore: Takes passages and uses word recognition to make them less like others. Turn a story about Scott the Dog into a text about Scott the Cat.

Stanza: Poetry discovery app. No help needed.

Cover Design History: Curating book covers and designers — a visual database. No help needed.

Gutenberg’s Labyrinth: 3D first-person Gutenberg game. Text and data processing. Processing, moving into graphics. Help needed: Not much, but would appreciate Photoshop, Illustrator and logo.

Pitching hack ideas

10:30 am: Here’s a (very short) sampling of some great hack ideas:

  • Guttenberg’s Labyrinth. Create a game based on Guttenberg’s text. It’s a scavenger hunt that also introduces you to great old texts.
  • Let’s create a database of book cover designs. It would allow people to see how book covers evolve over time. It would be for for students, designers.
  • How about creating indices for works of fiction? Usually indices are reserved for works of fiction. Let’s do these for novels, too, so people can look up themes, characters, etc.
  • Wouldn’t it be great if you could talk to your fave authors through text messages? Even the dead ones? The better you know their works, the more responsive the authors will be, which will lead you to know your authors in a better, more personal … fictional sense.

Presentations start: Re-imagining classic book covers

Saturday 10 a.m.: Presentations are starting from sponsors and others, who are supplying data for the hack. Interesting factoid: A lot more books being published now than five years ago. Who would’ve thought that?

One cool talk was by Jenny 8. Lee, our intrepid organizer, about “Recovering the classics,” which is about people of all ages creating new, contemporary covers for classic literature. Yes, we’re being asked to replace those “fusty” old covers that dominate those wonderful classics on library shelves, according to Jenny.

Here’s one of those new covers. But they want students and designers from everywhere to come up with their own versions. They’ve had people as young as second graders come up wth very fun, neat designs. Also, they are trying to get 50 of these covers to visit schools and students in all 50 states, as part of their 50x50 campaign. (Mass. is now covered, thanks.) btw, the covers on the site are covered by Creative Commons licenses, so as long as you are not slapping these designs on T-shirts and selling them, you can use them.

Recovering the Classics is a crowdsourced collection of original covers for great works in the public domain where anyone can contribute.

From the site: “Why? Sadly, many of the greatest classics in the public domain are left with poorly designed or auto-generated covers that fail to capture what makes these books exciting and inspiring to us…. Anyone can contribute, and all designs are available for sale as prints, apparel, and other products to support the artists.

It’s part of an initiative launched with the White House, the New York Public Library, and the Digital Public Library of America, which is bringing the covers to libraries and schools nationwide.

Jeanne Brooks opens CODEXhackathon.

We’re open for business

10 a.m.: Jeanne Brooks, our incredibly well-organized emcee, officially opens the event. Startling large number of people — at least two-thirds — are from out of state. Another solid percent are from outside the country. And what’s very cool is that this is the first hackathon for a large number of attendees. Always good to see people at their first hack.

9:15 a.m: Yikes! Big, enthusiastic crowd already. We expected 100; we’re well past that. First mini-crisis: running out of food. Mike sent out for emergency donuts.

Now a second mini-crisis: Running out of TP. Oh boy… Another emergency dispatch.

Good food, cold beer, interesting coversations

Friday night: The hackathon started off with a well-attended cocktail party, with some cool, re-imagined covers of classic literature. The food was excellent; the beer was cold, the conversations fascinating. What could be better?

Matt Carroll runs the Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab and writes the “3 to read” newsletter, which is a weekly report on trio of stories and trends from across the world of media.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Matt Carroll’s story.