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binary translator

I don’t know much about computers, programming, or coding, but I had a little bit of fun with this binary to text translator:

In particular, I used it with the picture of the orb that’s completely made out of binary code on page 640. I know the broader idea that the orb is composed of binary is much more important than analyzing what the specific binary says, but I thought it would be interesting to plug in some of the streams of alternating zeros and ones to see if there’s any meaning to them. It looks like most of the lines are simply a long string of ‘U’s follow by a ‘P,’ so ultimately it’s the word ‘up’ repeating many times. I’m not sure if there’s any significance to that, though–I just found it interesting…

What we talk about when we talk about coding language

Interactive fiction that incorporates computer coding language adds a fun and challenging new dimension to writing prose and poetry.

For instance, Trevor Byington noted a “syntax error code” on page 89, and discussed how syntax errors could be analyzed as a commentaries on character speech, or some other aspect of communication in the novel.

In this way, computer coding language can create new, inspiring challenges for the writer, though it’s easy for a reader who is uninitiated in programming jargon to become lost. There must be a balance between accessible narrative and what is hidden, or implied, within coding language.

In an interview recorded at Skylight Books during their Author Reading Series, Mark Z. Danielesky mentioned that he never underestimates his readers, and that he’s been rewarded for not ‘writing-down.’ I believe that without knowing the coding language as it appears throughout the novel, the reader can still walk a way with a fairly complete understanding of the plot. The use of code and computer language is like an Easter egg (one of many) that Danielesky litters throughout the novel, inviting us to revisit the novel from different perspectives, see what new ways it can surprise us.

One aspect of computer coding language that is constant, however, is that the rules of computer language dictate that the form the prose take must provide a mechanism for measuring success. If the piece “executes” without “error,” then it is a “success,” essentially (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).

Computer coding language also provides a unique form. The reader (if he is tech-savvy) develops expectation as to where the narrative is going based on his level of familiarization with the coding being employed by the author.

In addition, the double-entendre can be achieved by blending traditional and coded narrative. See: Kernel (as in, computer kernel) vs. colonel, or Sin() vs. sin, as in the sin of man.

How can an understanding of c++, Java, etc. inform our reading of chapters that feature coded language.

There is an interesting article by Sharon Hopkins titled “Camels and Needles: Computer Poetry Meets the Perl Programming Language,” which I used to study this topic further.

Syntax and Semantic Errors

Since I am only on page 384, this will be a short(ish) post, but I wanted to put this idea out there and see if it connected with anyone else. In my non-school life, I work for a software company and spend a lot of time programming, so I glance over the Anwar stuff with an eye for bugs, but not too critically (I am trying to get through the book after all). But I did catch a syntax error in the code presented on page 89:

//          int main()
//          {
//        std::cout << ‘My thoughts unaloud look like this!\n’
return 0;
//          }

This is c++ code and the “//”s mean that what follows on the line is a comment (until the next carriage return, which is why I included the output as one line), but the return line is not commented out. If you were to try to run this through a compiler, you would get a syntax error. When I first saw this, I didn’t think it was intentional, but I didn’t have enough of the book read to feel like I could associate it with something. But while flipping through the book today after having read about the bug in the scene loading code on page 382 something clicked. “Bugs” in code are semantic errors, problems in meaning, where the error above is a syntax error, an error in the grammar of the language (grammar in the linguistic sense, the rules of language; possible sentences versus impossible sentences). You know who makes a lot of semantic errors in their speech? Xanther. But jingjing’s narrations make a lot of syntax errors, which makes the sections harder to read, your brain can’t compile correctly, and you have to debug the sentences.

I got to thinking, couldn’t the syntax and semantic errors run through all different layers of the book? That seems to me to be sort of the idea of the signiconic. It’s sort of a syntax error in the language of books, so we have to stop and debug it, figure it out.

It could also be that I am just very sleep deprived.

Realms of Existence

I’m calling this post ‘Realms of Existence’ and have tagged a lot of things because I really find that the way this book works–the more you read and think about every decision that went into what Danielewski has created–you will find that it’s all  truly somehow related. That being said, I’m specifically wanting to talk about narrative presentation [i.e. syntax format] and how that relates to the larger idea of mediation and social existence.

In narrative form, whether first-person or third-person omniscient, an author usually leaves out some things and instead places subtleties or nuances that the learnèd reader would then pick up on and interpret accordingly. What I love/hate about this novel [specifically in the Ibrahim family chapters {though it can be seen everywhere in one way or another}] is that he leaves nothing out. Every thought that passes this character’s mind is on the page there. Take this passage from pp. 393-394:

Xanther [at once] punches the spacebar [another laugh from everyone {Xanther more eager than ever <which wouldn’t disturb Anwar <<it’s good that she’s excited and enthusiastic>> were it not for one of her wildly pumping legs <<her right>> sometimes <<though certainly not always ((and certainly not even often))>> signalling the onset of an event> is that what’s on the immediate horizon?} Anwar’s breath always coming up short at just the thought].

This stream-of-consciousness inner dialogue and over-explanation of every little thing is somewhat taxing for the reader. [It adds to what we know {what Danielewski wants us to know} about what’s happening, though, and it does encourage us to {if even subconsciously <though as the learnèd readers we can/have all decided to read into everything mediated to us>} read much more quickly]. Even in this very post, I’ve attempted to do something similar. I just find it worth noting and something that’s both interesting/intriguing and taxing. It’s nothing like I’ve ever read before, this book.

But what that makes me think about is things are communicated to us and how we exist in society, constructed inevitably through communication. The realms of existence for all of us could also be annotated in a similar way.

I am human [that is, homo sapien {North American <American <<South Carolinian ((Florentine))>>>}].

That’s a more taxonomic look at my existence but socially, it’s the same [and with social media and the Internet, we have the introduction of something that complicates everything {not necessarily in a bad way}].

Timehop allows me to see what I posted on twitter last year [which I then can share on instagram {which I can also tell to post on both twitter again <and facebook<<which ultimately means my mother will see it ((which I wouldn’t mind [[if I hadn’t called her a cow in the post]]))>>>}].

This all being said, I love how this books make us analyze how we specifically present our existence in narrative form–certainly a type of media [a medium]. It’s almost a sort of code [but that’s another blogpost altogether..].

(Containment) and Its Failure

While the relationship between the narrative arcs remains uncertain to this point (395) of the novel, a tension between containment and excess ties many (or all) of them together thematically already; perhaps more significantly, it offers as one primary link between the content level and the experimental design. Because this is occurring on multiple levels in big and small ways, I’m going to break it into a few different (arbitrary and permeable) sections for now.

On the content level, Xanther of course evokes this explicitly, from the start. Her concern with counting the raindrops isn’t just the difficulty of finding a way to track them all; rather it’s a concern for the impossibility, the ways that the number would exceed our sense of measurement. She wonders, “What kind of counting equals this sort of overwhelmingness? . . .  It has to exist, but if no one will ever name it, is it ever real?” (61). This concern persists so that she later asks Talbot and team if it would be possible with their program (348). The question resonates with her seizures, as she notes that “sometimes people describe seizures as an overwhelming amount of information in the brain,” fearing that makes her an “A-hole” (350). Furthermore, she relates it to her parents and the deluge of calls and emails, which starts to open up the fact that even though Glasgow dismisses her rain question, the other characters often share the concern. The idea of programming an AI evokes this, as it’s an attempt to create “rules,” a form of containment, for something that will exceed those rules and be able to make its own decisions. Bobby describes how “the distribution went everywhere. Self-replicating” (144). The human/animal relationship similarly evokes this; Astair thinks of the seizures as a “wild beast,” “shapeless except for claws and teeth” (254), and Luther’s crew tries to control the dogs for pit-fighting. The animal is suggested as specifically at odds with containment, by Astair who questions, “Was repression at work in Xanther? or had the vital threat of such events drawn forth animal reactions” and by Isandorno, who calls the human chest a “fragile cage” and sees in the totems “everything he cannot tame” (319, 323).

The other two levels of this discussion are a little more general. The attempt and inability to contain is apparent on the level of language as well. Anwar’s and Astair’s narratives are notably filled with brackets that try to hold together their thoughts, which nevertheless scatter beyond control. We think of something like brackets as an aid in clarity, and the nesting should theoretically help that, making each part belong to a larger group; instead, the nesting shows more how their thoughts come to mirror Xanther’s Question Song, with digressions leading to further digressions. Exponentiation echoes this, with the repetition of 3/9/27. And the wordplay does so as well, as a resistance to language’s goal of precision and clarity. Lastly, the design aspects show the resistance of thought to the supposed containment of an artistic work. Books especially create a sense of containment in the bound pages and covers, but of course, historically that’s never been an effective constraint on where the audience’s imagination expands the pages. However, Danielewski has made exceeding the boundaries of the book a practice in the past, and immediately does so here. One of the first prefatory pages shows some of the acclaim stretching beyond the page limits, the “previews” allow content to exceed the title page, and the standard Danielewski-ism of experimental formatting breaks the conventional constraints of the page.

This post is getting rather long, but I think what this suggests, and what I imagine we’ll see developing more, is a thematic consistency centering on the idea that the “pre”-human animal and the post-human programming/AI are linked in their resistance to the human drive toward control (a drive suggested even in my making the animal “pre-human” just now), but also that human creations themselves (art, language) break free of their supposed boundaries.

Language and Confusion

As someone who is very interested in languages, having become (basically) fluent in French and hoping to move on to Italian in the near future, I find myself frustrated and confused with the use of different languages in The Familiar. I was shocked to discover my negative reaction to his use of various languages within the lines of English; usually this is something I would enjoy seeing, something that allows me to jump outside my comfort zone and research to deepen my understanding. However, I feel quite the opposite in this situation. I become irritated and annoyed whenever I come upon foreign characters, wishing there was a translation handed to me immediately so I could understand the text at that moment. I think this is due to the nature of the book; it is a quick read, something I can knock out 200 pages of in a short amount of time, so I am not prepared to stop and put the book down to look something up. Further, this is not the only part that is confusing to me. Nearly every “chapter” contains some sort of reference or image that is unclear, so I had hoped that the language elements would be easy for me (if only they were in French instead of Chinese and Russian). There are a couple of examples of French, but nothing that makes me feel like my language skills are useful.

Confusion has been an overarching sentiment for me throughout the readings, and it has only led to frustration. I enjoy the story, mainly though only that of Xanther, Anwar and Astair, because the rest leads to confusion and disruption to my smooth reading. I am wondering if other readers believe it is necessary to stay confused throughout or if we should all be taking the time to understand every Chinese symbol, every coded message and every Russian phrase to fully “get” the story.

I am hopeful at this point that sometime in the near future the ends will be tied and the stories will intertwine, but what if the clue is within the foreign languages? I am curious about how much they contribute to the book as a whole, since they are so disruptive (at least to me) and cause so much confusion and frustration.

TV Programs, Computer Programs, and Book Programs?

Danielewski incorporates many instances of technology and programming into The Familiar. Programming seems to be an reoccurring theme in this novel. The novel mimics television programs, alludes to computer programs, and serves as a program in itself.

What exactly is a program, and what does it do? In my opinion, to program a system is to input information that is executable. Computers have code inputted into their systems that allows them to perform tasks. In the chapter titled, “Square One”, we see instances of computer code inserted into pages. Page 89 shows Anwar’s thoughts appearing as computer code and comments.

The novel mirrors television programs, as well, in many ways. Danielewski incorporates visual aspects that engage the reader, and the introduction to the book was formatted similar to a television show intro. It features various advertisements and movie-like images in the pages prior to the story.

Danielewski places a large emphasis on programs in this book. This made me consider ways in which The Familiar serves as a program in itself. When reading books, we are programmed to read from the front cover to the back cover, from left to right on each page, turning the pages to the left as we go. Immediately, when we start reading The Familiar, we are forced to break this habit. We have to physically interact with the book by turning the book sideways to view the landscape-formatted images. The book deprograms its readers from what we have done all of our lives, and overtime we get used to this strange style. We come to expect the unknown and are not surprised when the author inserts a strangely formatted page of raindrops or an orb outline moving across the page. This acclimation is the process of re-programming us.

We, as readers, are challenged to step out of our familiar ways when reading this novel. Why, then, is the book titled The Familiar? In what other ways does this book serve as a program? Who is being programmed?