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10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (Software Studies) Hardcover – November 16, 2012
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10 PRINT CHR$ (205.5 + RND (1)); : GOTO 10, a new book collaboratively written by 10 authors, takes a single line of code -- inscribed in the book's mouthful of a title -- and explodes it. That one line, a seemingly clumsy scrap of BASIC, generates a fascinatingly complicated maze on a Commodore 64.... Though 10 PRINT CHR$ (205.5 + RND (1)); : GOTO 10 is occasionally whiplash-inducing in its headlong rush through history, the connections it makes over 294 pages are inspired. One of the most compelling sections of the book discusses the cultural history of mazes, relating 10 PRINT's maze back to the labyrinth of Knossos, where, according to the great Greek myth, Theseus waged battle with the terrifying Minotaur.(Geeta Dayal, Slate)
10 Print is a creative adventure in reading source code as a technical object and cultural icon, as well as a window onto the ways in which technical and artistic practices mingle. Wildly imaginative and boldly collaborative, it sets a high bar for the emerging field of critical code studies. It celebrates the 'Maker' philosophy and the DIY spirit of home computing at its best. A romp, a scholarly exposition, and an experiment in writing in a collaborative authorial voice, it is a delight not to be missed.(N. Katherine Hayles, author of How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis; Professor of Literature, Duke University)
To see the world in a grain of sand -- or a slice of silicon -- has always been the great hermeneutical project. Here we find that project disassembled and recompiled by Nick Montfort and his collaborators, who focus their diverse training and intellects on a single eponymous line of vintage computer code. The result, 10 PRINT, is an executable that is also an open source for a powerful new mode of collective and cooperative scholarship.(Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland; author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination)
Well before the Web browser and even the desktop metaphor came to be, there was the blinking cursor of the command line. It sat in silence, submissively waiting for the incantations of the programmer. Until the C64--a VW Beetle equivalent in its affordability, reliability, and simplicity--only a precious few had access to the command line and the order and chaos it could produce. Through an investigation of one line of code, this book reveals what happened when the C64 opened coding up to 'test driving' hobbyists and began to reveal itself as a platform for true creativity.(John Maeda, President, Rhode Island School of Design)
This microscopically close reading of a one-line BASIC program opens to reveal, fractal-like, the breadth and depth of critical code studies. Taking what the authors refer to as a 'variorum approach' allows 10 PRINT to explore not just the multiple forms in which this line of code circulated, but the rich array of its cultural resonances and technological offspring. Blending ten scholarly voices in one coherent, collaborative text, 10 PRINT itself produces a new kind of code, a working system that points the way to one viable future for scholarship.(Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication, Modern Language Association)
About the Author
Nick Montfort is Associate Professor of Digital Media at MIT and the coauthor of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press, 2009). Patsy Baudoin is Digital Humanities, Media and Film Studies, and Women's & Gender Studies Librarian at MIT. John Bell is Assistant Professor of Innovative Communication Design at the University of Maine. Ian Bogost is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC, and the coauthor of Newsgames: Journalism at Play (MIT Press, 2010). Jeremy Douglass is a postdoctoral researcher in software studies at the University of California, San Diego, in affiliation with Calit2. Michael Mateas is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Mark C. Marino is Associate Professor (Teaching) and directs the Humanities and Critical Code Studies (HaCCS) Lab at the University of Southern California. Casey Reas is Professor of Design Media Arts at UCLA and coauthor of Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists (MIT Press, 2007). Mark Sample is Associate Professor of English at George Mason University. Noah Vawter is a sound artist.
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Each chapter explores a different facet of this program, and by doing so it covers an incredible amount of ground. There is a chapter on mazes, a chapter on randomness, a chapter on grids, a chapter on the BASIC language, and so on. If you think this is a lot of pages to devote to a one-line computer program, you are mistaken. The book barely scratches the surface of each of the diverse subjects it touches upon, from Falcon looms to flying toasters. There have been many books written about mazes, and whole careers built upon studying randomness, and this is a short little book.
It is the surprising depth and far-reaching ramifications of little useless programs like these that got me into this game, back in the early 80s. After my Timex Sinclair, my second computer was a Commodore VIC 20, the precursor to the more successful C64, and I fondly remember writing one-liners like these, staring into the glowing phosphors of a little television, until I could barely keep my eyes open in the early morning light. During the months that I manipulated those phosphors, the symbols they represented were manipulating me. My fevered brain underwent more intellectual growth during that period than any time in my life since my early childhood.
The book was written by a team of what my colleagues call "unicorns" - cross-disciplinary people who straddle the worlds of creativity and technology. I was expecting a set of disconnected essays from different voices, but I didn't get it. The authors used a Wiki to collaborate, and the book feels as if it were written by a single, extremely erudite author. The chapters cover separate subjects, but the whole is very much connected, helped by it's extremely constrained subject - that single one line program. Although the book necessarily describes some technical subjects, it is written for a lay audience.
I think of myself as a unicorn. There are a lot of us out there, but we are not as common as I would like. My feeling is that unicorns provide an important bridge between the liberal arts and the physical sciences, and that unicorn skills should be nurtured. All of my professional career, I have obsessed over a set of subjects which were, until recently, not given sufficient attention in the computer science press.
For example, I've always been fascinated by the RND() function in the BASIC language - I initially thought it was the most important feature of the language. For a long time, the amount of joy I derived from writing software was proportional to the amount that the software depended on randomness. There is a relationship between the RND() function and the perception of utility. To me, programs that are useful, and that do not require randomness, are boring. The RND() function is like a firehose from God, and the programs that use it are fun. They are games, and simulations, and art.
So, as an auto-didact (as many unicorns are), I was surprised that in programming texts that describe programming languages, the RND() (or rand() or random()) feature is always given such brief treatment. I've even met programmers who (gasp!) have never used it! Meanwhile outside of programming language texts, the topic is barely discussed. It's not a topic that non-programmers have been exposed to. To me, it's the first thing you should learn as a neophyte programmer. Yet so many computer science students are not exposed to it early enough - instead, they are compelled to write functions which factor numbers and do other numeric manipulations. Many programmers have thrived in this sterile environment, but it doesn't suit unicorns.
It is the love of RND() that separates this particular creative coder from your dyed-in-the-wool computer science nerd. At this late stage in my creative programming career, I no longer make as much use of RND() - I've discovered new ways to achieve the same important thing it gave me: complex and beautiful behavior with very little effort. The holy grail of the unicorn is the perfect one-line program. The one-line program that succeeds in recreating the universe, and making it's own DNA, and breeding with itself so that a new sub-universe is born. This is our philosopher's stone.
Another feature of unicorns is that they don't mind using programming techniques that are no longer on the list of officially approved methodologies by the software engineering orthodoxy. Incantations are only a means to an end. We are not in the business of making incantations, we are in the business of making universes, using incantations as a tool. 10 PRINT, for example, contains a GOTO command. GOTO, of course, has been the bane of readable code almost since the second edition of "The Elements of Style", and the BASIC language itself sits on a lowly plain of derision slightly above COBOL. The book also addresses the unfortunate gulf between recreational coders and the computer science establishment.
Unfortunately, one line programs, like unicorns, have become an endangered species. Those of us who remember one line BASIC despair at the new hurdles that have been raised, which prevent young people from discovering the joys of the random number generator. When we expunged GOTOs from the reserved words of all the new programming languages, when we made our code structured, object-oriented and useable for large complex software engineering projects, we also made it much harder for kids and teens to use those same technologies to explore the imaginary landscape. If the first programming language I had been exposed to was Java, I think I might have ended up in a different profession entirely.
The proceeds of this book go to PLAYPOWER - a charity which aims to give disadvantaged kids access to extremely cheap computers that have a one line BASIC. This seems like a wonderful thing. Damn, I want one of those computers too! I miss my VIC 20.
The book might not be for everybody. But if you happen to be in my demographic, or to have similar life history to mine, you will really enjoy it.
A big plus: As the book is Creative Commons-licensed, you can download a full copy from the authors' website. If you like what you see, you can proceed to buy the (beautifully printed) book.
I read it, skipped the bits I didn’t understand, enjoyed it, and passed it on.