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I am trying to find a story I read once, about a fellow who finds a strange device that draws pictures. He can't figure out how it works, or what the controls do, but, through trial and error, he discovers that he can get it to print out an artistic drawing by pressing a particular button. IIRC, the man makes a (possibly short) career out of selling the art that this thing produces. He is amazed at the "evolution in style" that the machine seems to exhibit: art critics and buyers assume that "the artist" is going through phases. Over time, though, the art gets simpler and simpler. The man assumes, at first, that this is part of the "evolution." After a while, though, he realizes that, in pressing what he has assumed is the "draw and print" button, he is actually erasing patterns and artistic elements with each instance of output, so that the device eventually becomes completely useless. It was one of the first stories that made me think of how difficult (and potentially dangerous) it might be, to try to operate highly advanced (possibly alien) technology, and I'm sure its lessons were an influence on me as I labored to design simple and intuitive human interface elements in software in the 1980s and 1990s.

I read this story decades ago (my most active time of reading SF was during the mid-1960s to mid-1980s, and in the early years I read a lot of classic work from the 30s-50s); the title and author's name faded away from my memory surely before the turn of the century! Does my description ring a bell with anyone? I'd appreciate any pointers to the title and author, or even better, to places online where this story might be available or at least obtainable in printed form. Thanks in advance for any help anyone can give!

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    Your question has been answered. Please let us know if the posted answer is satisfactory. If you choose to do so, you can accept an answer by clicking on the check mark next to it. – user14111 Jun 19 '16 at 3:41
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I am trying to find a story I read once,

You're looking for "Thing of Beauty", a novelette by Damon Knight, originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1958, which is available at the Internet Archive. Any of these covers look familiar?

about a fellow who finds a strange device that draws pictures. He can't figure out how it works, or what the controls do, but, through trial and error, he discovers that he can get it to print out an artistic drawing by pressing a particular button.

What else? There were red buttons marked "Utplåna," "Torka" and "Avslå." He pressed one down, but nothing happened. Then a series of white ones, like on an adding machine, all numbered. He pressed one down at random, then another, and was about to press a third when he leaped back in alarm. The hooked arms were moving, rapidly and purposefully. Where they passed over the paper, thin dark-gray lines were growing.

Fish leaned closer, his mouth open and his eyes bulging. The little points under the ends of the arms were riding smoothly over the paper, leaving graceful lines behind them. The arms moved, contracted on their little pivots and springs, swept this way and that, lifted slightly, dropped again and moved on. Why, the machine was drawing—drawing a picture while he watched!

IIRC, the man makes a (possibly short) career out of selling the art that this thing produces.

Murals, institutional advertising, textile designs, private sales to collectors—my God, how it was rolling in!

After a while, though, he realizes that, in pressing what he has assumed is the "draw and print" button, he is actually erasing patterns and artistic elements with each instance of output, so that the device eventually becomes completely useless.

Yep. He gets the strange language identified:

What about the middle button? Torka . . . to wipe. To wipe? Let's see, there was another word—Avlägsna, that was it. Sometimes the phrase "Avlägsna ett mönster" would be running through his head when he was half awake, like a whispered warning . . . Here it was Avlägsna . . . to remove.

His hands were shaking. "To remove a pattern from bank after use, press button 'Wipe.'" He let the folder fall. All this time, not knowing, he'd been systematically using up the precious patterns in the machine, throwing them away one by one, until now thee was nothing left—just eight big hunks of useless machinery, made for somebody somewhere who spoke Swedish.

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