Ouliperrata and Palindromes

The End of Oulipo? : An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement by Lauren Elkin & Scott Esposito (2013) claims that “Georges Perec … wrote a palindrome of over 5,000 words …” (p. 15, also mentioned on p. 25). However, this is wrong, unless these authors have access to an extraordinarily surprising never-before published palindrome of Perec’s. His long palindrome does not have this many words.

In 1980, Hachette published Perec’s La Clôture et autres poèmes, which contains “Le Grand Palindrome,” written in 1969. “Le Grand Palindrome” is also online; it is posted on another page without its title but with a declaration that the palindrome is 1247 words long.

Wikipedia states that this text has 1247 words and 5566 letters, and the French entry on Perec agrees. (The number of letters was probably the source of the confusion about 5,000 words in Elkin & Esposito’s book.) Since the palindrome is online, we can do some original research to determine the word and letter count – someone must have, because the cited source does not say how many words and letters there are; the source is simply the text itself. The Web is littered with different numbers that are supposed to be the length, in words, of Perec’s palindrome. David Bellos, who quoted and translated the beginning and ending of Perec’s long palindrome in his extraordinary biography, Georges Perec: A Life in Words, described the palindrome as consisting of two halves, each of five hundred words (pp. 428-429).

Standard word-count programs come up with a larger number of words than either Bellos or Wikipedia have: The Gnu utility wc counts 1367, for example. In part, that’s because some of the punctuation is set off with spaces. But it may also have to do with a reasonable way of counting words in French being different than wc’s method.

So, leaving aside the question of words for the moment — but noting that the answer seems to be in the 1000-1400 range, and couldn’t be 5000 – let’s take a look at the number of letters. I placed the palindrome’s text (all of it, including the strange title that is a reversal of Perec’s name and the place and date of writing) in a file called perec.txt and did the following to count the letters:

% fold --width=1 perec.txt | grep -c '[[:alpha:]]'

The result is 5219. Yes, I checked to make sure that accented letters are being counted on my system. I’m not sure where the extra 5566-5219=347 letters are supposed to be. There are only eight digits, so the ‘1969’ at the end (and ‘9691’ at the beginning) couldn’t account for the larger number. And I counted 736 punctuation marks, so the puzzle isn’t solved by considering punctuation marks to be letters, since that (in addition to being incorrect) would make the palindrome too long. Unless my text is corrupt, I suppose that some of the punctuation marks were counted as letters before.

You can read in Daniel Levin Becker’s 2012 book Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature that Perec “wrote a palindrome of more than 1,200 words, the world’s longest until a computer program eclipsed it” (p. 181). The approximate word count seems right, but what about the rest of the statement?

On January 1, 2002, the first edition of Nick Montfort & William Gillespie’s 2002: A Palindrome Story was published. This text, published in a much nicer edition later in the year and made available in several formats online, is a 2002-word palindrome that we wrote together. We had actually hoped that the suite of software we developed, Deep Speed, would generate text for us and serve as a third co-author, but unfortunately its main use ended up being to check our work. In the end, 2002 was about as much generated by computer as “Le Grand Palindrome” was generated by typewriter.

(Perhaps Becker was referring to the data-driven palindrome found by Google’s Peter Norvig? That was composed and published on February 20, 2002, weeks after 2002 was first published in celebration of the new year. Also, while I consider it a brilliant hack, and while I certainly think that computer programs can produce literary output, I’m not sure how to understand or learn from this program and this text as a literary project. In terms of pure length, it’s a long palindrome, yes, but so is this; in fact, that one is longer than any that Norvig has produced.)

Now, to reassure Oulipo fans, 2002 and “Le Grand Palindrome” are written in different languages, so it would be awkward at best to claim that we directly outdid Perec. Also, it took two of us to write our English palindrome and only one of Perec to write his palindrome in French, so Perec still holds the record per-person per-palindrome. And finally, as my parenthetical remark and link above is supposed to show, it’s just silly to compare palindromes’ length alone; it’s important to read them and see how compelling they are. Writing a palindrome of more and more words involves conducting a more lengthy and profound exploration of language. Perhaps that type of exploration means falling off a cliff – as some thought Perec did; as some surely thought that William & I did in writing the exceedingly difficult text 2002. But it’s an exploration, and for us, as for Perec, it resulted in a radical and unusual literary work.

2002 received praise from members of the Oulipo and a positive review in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. It certainly wasn’t the usual one-line palindrome fare that many are used to. Although it’s challenging, I hope that more intrepid readers will eventually engage with text. I’m disappointed that a major magazine article on palindromes and the Wikipedia page on the topic don’t mention it. I’m disappointed that scholars and literary critics (who have devoted time to other works of mine and of William’s) haven’t delved into 2002. And it doesn’t give me much hope when the well-known long palindrome of a tremendously famous and influential French writer, however well-known it is, is still widely unread. We can’t even figure out how many words and letters it has.

Books O’ Poems

I’ve read a few books of poetry recently that I found particularly interesting, so why not mention them here?

Man Years by Sandra Doller. Beautifully damaged utteraces that are highly unusual, resonant with known ways of speaking, and allusive. E.g., in the poem “Eggphrasis,” which begins “eggs / eggs / baby”.

The Container Store by Joe Hall and Chad Hardy. Urban space is explored, and its commercial division and compartmentalization. The typography is compelling, with black blocks often occluding the text like the blind eyes of office buildings.

Meditations 1-52 by Matthew Klane. Also quite engaged politically, also quite well-done typographically, but in another interesting mode. Includes a list of things Vannevar Bush did not invent.

Neural has the Nerve for 10 PRINT

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 has been reviewed in Neural, an excellent long-running magazine, print and online that covers creative computing from digital art and music through hacktivism. The reviews in Neural (which is published in Italy, in Italian and English) are short and to the point; I’m pleased to see that they neuronally grasped the concept of 10 PRINT and appreciated the work that my collaborators and I did on it.

&NOW AWARDS 2

Although the &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing may appear at first to be an HTML character entity reference, it’s actually a new book. Arranged back-to-back like Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee in The Killer, it offers copious amounts (400 pages) of recent provocative writing in various genres. It’s published by Lake Forest College Press.

I’m delighted to have my work in the good company of that by many excellent writers, including J.R. Carpenter, Craig Dworkin, and Michael Leong. My contribution to the volume is just a page each of output from the Latin and Cyrillic versions of “Letterformed Terrain,” from Concrete Perl.

How to Buy Some of My Most Obscure Books

2002: A Palindrome Story

By Nick Montfort and William Gillespie. Illustrated by Shelley Jackson. Designed by Ingrid Ankerson. (24 pp., acknowledged by the Oulipo as the longest literary palindrome.) Spineless Books, 2002. $16.

The First M Numbers.

By Nick Montfort. Edition of 80. 4 pp. No Press, Calgary, Canada, 2013. $2.50.

In New York, Saint Mark’s Bookshop has copies of these two books for sale; in Cambridge, MA, they are available from the MIT Press Bookstore. 2002 is also available from the publisher, Spineless Books, and other online and local bookstores. I believe that No Press is out of copies of The First M Numbers.

Implementation: A Novel

By Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg. (270 pp., a 4-color book documenting the 2004 project Implementation.) 2012. $77.95.

This book is only available for purchase directly from the printer, Blurb.

An Auto-Interview about All the Way for the Win

Poet Michael Leong “tagged” me, not by spray-painting me or by assigning me a folksonomical string, but by sending me the following template of interview questions. This process is part of the project “The Next Big Thing,” in which people answer robotic, monomaniacal questions about recent or forthcoming books. I was supposed to post this on Wednesday, apparently, so it’s a good thing that I can set the date arbitrarily on my blog posts.

What is the working title of the book?
All the Way for the Win.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Decades of intense poetic engagement with the English language.

What genre does your book fall under?
In terms of literary tradition, it’s an example of the sort of constrained writing that was pioneered by the Oulipo; in terms of the retail channel, it will end up in the poetry section if anywhere.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Mos Def, Zhu Zhu, Rex Lee, Won Bin, and (although I don’t think he’s a member of the SAG) Tan Lin.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
A book written using only three-letter words.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I haven’t written anything close to a complete draft. I’ve only been working on the project seriously for about four years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
All the Way for the Win is 0% inspiration.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The English langauge bursts with words brought to us by commerce and colonialism, is scarred by decades of wars and invasions, and both traces and propels our thinking as a culture. It is an urgent and important project to find principled, unusual subsets of this language and to make new works out of these, revealing qualities of our language through poetic practice. Readers of this book may also considerably improve their Scrabble play.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
No.

10 PRINT Marches on

The news service of my school at MIT, the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, has an article about 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10.

Also, there has been some furious and pretty amazing program creation and compaction going on in DOS/x86 land. It all seems to have started when demoscener Trixter (a.k.a. Jim Leonard) decided to port 10 PRINT to x86 assembly. His first, straightforward version was 42 bytes long, but he was quickly able to chop it down by replacing the random number generator with a single instruction: 25 bytes. Getting ready of some of the nice and tidy but strictly unnecessary startup and shutdown code brought the program down to 15 bytes. Then, thanks to the clever use of an opcode that I’d never heard of before which is meant for string comparison and is called SCAS, he was able to trim the code to 13 bytes — the shortest he thought it could ever be.

Of course, someone (Peter Ferrie) found a way to get rid of another byte, so the program sat at 12 bytes long.

herm1t came along to provide an optimization that assumed DOS was loaded, reducing the program to 11 bytes.

And, most recently, Peter Ferrie returned to lop off another byte, showing that the program (on Intel CPUs, at least) need only be 10 bytes long.

Trixter provides the full story (so far!) on his blog, Oldskooler Ramblings.

My joke about this is that the shortest possible 10-PRINT-like program will be a single jmp instruction to a run of 8 or 9 bytes that happen to already be in memory. However, this is probably only a joke: the number of possible 8-byte combinations of bits are 256^8 = 18446744073709551616, so it really isn’t very likely, even for an extremely short program of this sort, that it will just happen to be lying around somewhere in memory initially.

Speaking of the demoscene, I mentioned in my last post that viznut has checked out the book. He’s also written a very nice VIC-20 version of the program that uses two of the tiles from the Black Path Game instead of the original diagonal lines:

0 FORI=7168TO7183:READA:POKEI,A:NEXT:POKE36869,255
1 PRINTCHR$(64.5+RND(.));:GOTO1
2 DATA16,16,32,192,3,4,8,8,8,8,4,3,192,32,16,16

The result:

VIC-20 Black Path Game version of 10 PRINT

Finally, we had a great time exhibiting the 10 PRINT program and the 10 PRINT book at the 2013 MLA’s electronic literature exhibit and presenting the program and modifications of it at the MLA offsite electronic literature reading. Thanks to Dene Grigar and Kathi Inman Berens for curating the exhibit and the reading. And, thanks to Patsy Baudoin, Mark C. Marino, and Mark Sample for joining me for that presentation and for offering commentary (play-by-play and color) as I coded on the Commodore 64.

Radical Books of 2012 (7/7)

Book from the Ground

Keyhole Factory
William Gillespie

Soft Skull Press · 368 pages

William, congratulations to you – and Soft Skull Press – on the new, big publication of Keyhole Factory, which some might think is your first novel. Actually, your intensity of writing would humiliate Roberto Bolaño. You have at least eight books (some pseudonymous, some collaborative) available via your press Spineless Books, which publishes other people’s work as well. You share a quality with George Perec in that you are a graphophile, and you share another quality with him in that you are an incredible writer, imaginative on all levels, as you demonstrate in Keyhole Factory. It’s great that Jeff Clark designed the cover. I think I see why he used the picture of the monkeys. They’re voyeuristic subjects; we’re watching them as if through a keyhole. That one in the middle looks back, making us nervous. If they were people they’d be eating lunch or making love or watching TV or something, and we’d fixate on that. But they’re monkeys, so we just notice that one of them is watching us. You think?

Radical Books of 2012 (6/7)

Book from the Ground

· → → ·
Book from the Ground
Xu Bing

120 pages

The dot of unconsciousness opens – and then winks out again. The book, one point in a project that Xu Bing has undertaken since 2003, is written entirely as a series of symbols, narrating a daily odyssey (or perhaps a Ulysses) that is read left-to-right and from top to bottom but almost entirely without the use of words or letters – they only appear as part of logos and the like. Symbols derived from Neurath’s Isotype system, which led to today’s airport signs, are used alongside emoticons and computer icons to describe the workplace experiences, fraternal beverage consumption, dating, and insomniac video game play of a rather harried, forgetful, busy, and not particularly productive generic man who lives in a city located on [globe icon]. By borrwing a bit from comic conventions within this typographical framework, not only actions but also thoughts and the topics of discussions are depcited (to me, at least) legibly.

Radical Books of 2012 (5/7)

Cutting Time with a Knife

Cutting Time with a Knife
Michael Leong

Black Square Editions · 124 pages

When randomness is employed in poetics and succeeds, it is because of how it plays within regularity of different sorts. This book sutures the two very well. Concrete elemental sqaures sit at the top of each page, containing irregularly arranged phrases of regular syntax (“The [buttock] of the poet is the [geodesic dome] of [Rhodium].”) The text and sometimes symbols underneath read like a Google Books snippet view. Leong constructed this book “by etherizing T.S. Eliot’s classic essay,” “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” upon the periodic table. The cyborg text, animated with galvanic force, is made from cut-ups of this essay and the Wikipedia articles for the 118 elements. The periodic table has offered a rich lattice for poetic production, digital and otherwise; here, the unique twist was provided by the amalgamation of this tabular framework with an (ostensibly random) avant-garde writing technique, a classic essay on how individuality relates to commonality and a collaboratively-authored encyclopedia.

Radical Books of 2012 (4/7)

I'll Drown My Book

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women
Edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place

Les Figues · 455 pages

Community Reviews (showing 1-30 of 96) filter | sort: default (?) | rating details

Nov 19, 2012 Mark Noack rated it ***** review of another edition
a fantastic book. as an overview/introduction to current post-modern writing, the most interesting anthology i have read to date. while some of these writers might not have made the “cut” for the Goldsmith/Dworkin anthology, possibly due in part to their work being too “baroque” (in Vanessa Place’s terms); this is my preference. while i find conceptual/experimental writing interesting, much of what has been done suffers the danger of becoming automatic/generated/stenography. while the dadaist ar…more
like · see review

Oct 17, 2012 Sigrun Hodne marked it as to-read
A perfect gift from dear a friend! Looking forward to diving into it!
like · see review

Oct 26, 2012 Erin Lyndal added it
This wasn’t my cup of tea, so I didn’t finish. Bummer because I was really psyched about it.
like · see review

Dec 08, 2012 Janey Smith added it
My review of I’ll Drown My Book

Radical Books of 2012 (3/7)

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form
Anna Anthropy

Seven Stories Press · 208 pages

The discussion of mainstream gaming in this book, while it isn’t exactly generous, covers both what is produced and the labor issues of how it is produced. The book’s DIY instructions point readers to tools and sketch the simplest sorts of development processes. (Such pointers may be what a book does best, as there is plenty of relevant information online.) What makes this book valuable and radical (other than the conceptual writing exercise cataloging game topics on pp. 137-139) is the amazing world it presupposes in which Halo and Bioshock can go unmentioned while there are pages about Anthropy’s Gay Sniper. Unofficial games made by individuals are shown to be part of culture and the politial and social discourse. Beyond newsgame and artgame, although not detached from some of their tactics, are many short experiments, games about “putting down your dog” that speak to everyday experience. Games that say what you want them to say and not games that say what someone else wants you to say.

Radical Books of 2012 (2/7)

How It Is in Common Tongues

How It Is in Common Tongues
Cited from the Commons of digitally inscribed writing by John Cayley & Daniel C. Howe

NLLF [Natural Language Liberation Front] · 296 pages

Some seek diamonds in the rough on the Web; others mine from this lode of language mud and darkness. This profound document was fashioned with snippets of pages, with the search engine, and with the novel first publised as Comment c’est – using all of them quite perversely. Samuel Beckett’s 1964 How It Is describes a person moving and not moving through the mud, alone, not alone, and then once more alone. Cayley and Howe, bending the service known as Google to their literary purposes, have located every phrase of the novel on Web pages where no reference to Beckett is made. For instance, the first words, “how it was I quote,” are found in a New York Times excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s And The Sea is Never Full. The phrase is provided, the URL is given in a footnote … and the same is done for every other phrase in How It Is. The result is an edition of Beckett’s book made of text that was literally found on the Web. The only thing funnier will be the Beckett Estate’s response.

10 PRINT “HAPPY NEW YEAR”

Happy new year!

A few updates related to our book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

Booksellers had some problems keeping the book in stock in recent weeks. The MIT Press is addressing this by printing more copies.

We learned in November, and were recently reminded by Finnish scener and programmer of one-liners viznut, that there is a pre-Commodore 64 version of the program. It’s in a fairly obvious place, too: The VIC-20 User’s Manual, on page 102. The program is identical to the first variant in our book (Variant 1982) except that the line numbers are 10, 20, and 30 instead of 10, 20, and 40. This wasn’t a big surprise to us, as we knew since early in the process of writing the book that the program worked not only on the Commodore 64 but also on the VIC-20 and the PET. It would have been nice to have documented this variant in the book, of course.

mjcohenw on Hacker News states that the program originated even earlier:

I discovered this on my Commodore PET probably about 1980 and presented it at a users’ group meeting (in the Los Angeles area). I have no way to prove this right now, but I swear that this is true.

So, there’s a testament to the program being written and shared on the PET even earlier. That it comes from human memory, and not from some print source, should be no surprise to readers of 10 PRINT.

Finally, I’ll note that 10 PRINT appears as one of the “creation stations” at the 2013 Modern Langauge Association Convention. The exhibit it’s in, Avenues of Access: An Exhibit & Online Archive of New ‘Born Digital’ Literature, will be in room 312 in the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center. Exhibit times are:

Thursday, 3 January, 12 Noon to 7:00 p.m.
Friday, 4 January, 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, 5 January, 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The exhibit closes on Saturday afternoon and will not be open on Sunday.

There will be a reading to accompany the exhibit on Friday night, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., at Emerson College’s Bordy Theatre, 216 Tremont Street. 10 PRINT will be part of that and will be presented by five of the book’s co-authors.

Radical Books of 2012 (1/7)

The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail
Gregory Sherl

Mud Lucious Press · 65 pages

Consciousness wobbles between the “real world” of Barry Manilow concerts, streetscapes that look like Frogger, and private Facebook messages on the one hand and a fabled simulation bleeding beyond the phosphors of the computer-connected CRT television on the other. Amid tender moments featuring the wife, child #1, and child #2, these poems also offer reminders of the political context in which Westward expansion was undertaken. “The Oregon Trail 2 Starring Mel Gibson Directed by Mel Gibson” notes, for instance, “We have Manifest Destiny in our cocks.” This book about the American journey, not the destination, may appear to be a nostalgic romp. (Perhaps the book’s dedication, “FOR YOUTH,” and the theme of adult responsibilities invites such an attitude.) There is no home to ache over, though, in these 39 poems that join intimate imagination to a famous if floppy American document, showing that however personal or national memory flows past, in whatsoever form, you can’t ford the same river twice.