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10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

by Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample and Noah Vawter
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
304 pp., illus. 69 b&w. Trade, $30.00
ISBN: 9780262018463.

Reviewed by Brian Reffin Smith
Collège de Pataphysique, Paris

It’s taken me ages to begin reviewing this book. Was it normal too-much-to-do laziness, or some hidden prejudice, a secret shame about an art that either dare not speak its name or else shrieks it vulgarly from the rooftops of many a shiny academy or computer arts get-together? In either case I was daft, since the book is well worth delving into and has no need for defensiveness or to provoke it in a reader.

It’s ostensibly about the ability of small old computers to print graphic characters on the screen, and the analysis of the instructions to do so from a textual point of view. In the old days - we’re talking about the late 1970s - that was about all you could do. But what power it seemed. You could print different characters, and some of them might sort of join up, and make shapes! Indeed, a few characters on a few machines were intended to do that, being formed of blocks, lines or triangles of varying dimensions, that could be painstakingly assembled into larger graphical units, with which you could… er… make other shapes. Or move them around. A bit. Slow space-rockets or aliens, for example.

And then we discovered the amazing, wonderful RND function in BASIC, the Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code that everyone used on these machines, which was not excellent at anything, but sort of OK at loads of different things. The title of this book, is of course a one line computer program in the old but still used language of BASIC (which I love: not very good at anything, but quite good at almost everything. There were, and are, versions that could synthesise speech, sing, move robots… and there are versions of BASIC available free or nearly so for iPad, Mac and PC.)

So 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5 + RND(1)); GOTO 10 simply translates as “print on the screen one of two short diagonal lines chosen randomly, and then go and do it again forever until the program is interrupted.” The CHR$(X) business means “the character whose code is X”, X in this case being either 205, a line leaning left, or 206, a line leaning right.

For this reviewer, the whole point of such exercises comes at the beginning of the book, on page 23, where it is suggested that the value of 0.5 be changed to something else, for example .25 which would make one line 3 times as prevalent as the other.

Here is the essence, the joy of making art, or something, with a computer. You immediately learn two things and then a third that will stay with you forever. First, you learn that a small or large change in a parameter, here the only one really, can have amazing, perhaps beautiful (in some sense) results on the screen. A piece of paper would do as well, and a coin or dice toss, but would take very much longer. Second, you see that other similar results, in art, nature, mathematics and so on, might also be the result of such small parameter changes. Third, you understand that, transcending both the first and second insights, it is this very two-way process of expansion outwards, but equivalently of condensation inwards, that provides the canvas of beauty, conceptually as well as mathematically, computationally or graphically, on which many of your ideas might be expressed.

You might think that the universe is like that, and life. I would assert that most of the most interesting computer based art, in any domain, is a demonstration of the power of emergent properties and of the possibilities of beautiful and lossless simplification.

The rest of this book is an intelligent unraveling of all this, addressing questions of different dialects of BASIC, other random programs and so on. There are chapters on randomness, mazes, on the Commodore 64 computer they used, on BASIC itself, and so on. But again, the wonderful universe that emerges from a few simple instructions is, for this reviewer, the point. And it is very well made indeed.

Last Updated 1 February 2014

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