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Algorithms, DVD CSS and Haiku

My mother dropped off a book for me to read called “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking” by Gabriella Coleman.

The section on poetic protest within the chapter “Code is Speech” reminded me of the haiku called

How to decrypt a
DVD, in haiku form
Thanks, Prof. D. S. T.

A quick search for the original text of the poem brought me to an interesting backstory by its author, Seth Schoen:

A strange tradition current among programmers calls for the use of the 5-7-5 pattern — preferably cleverly — to express technology, or jokes about technology, or really anything at all, just for the fun or the challenge of writing within the constraint. I remember particularly that the UC Berkeley Computer Science Undergraduate Association has a mysterious tradition of writing haiku poems about the chemical element zinc. The tradition seemed to start with a 1995 transcript of a conversation in which CS students began to write poems about zinc, but it continued within and without the Berkeley CSUA, and I know that I personally helped spread the tradition to other forums and communities.


It’s clear that the practice of writing 5-7-5 verses and calling them “haiku” seizes on only one aspect of the haiku form and entirely removes it from its original cultural context. I freely admit that my poem has no cultural continuity with the ancient Japanese haiku artform, although I think it has its own sort of literary merit.

Well, maybe if the ancient Japanese had DVD CSS to deal with…but seriously, poetry often can be revealing and controversial through indirect methods. It can be a backdoor of communication on subjects where the front door is sealed. There is perhaps more continuity than Schoen realizes.

Posted in History, Poetry, Security.

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