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A Primal Love of Binary
by DJ Lunan
Yellow binary integers communicated by other worlds flash on the screens covering the walls of the HALO nerve centre. With integers at an 8-point font size, the room’s 30 square metres of monitors show barely half-a-second’s worth of data.
As a spectacle, it is truly mesmerising. Three walls, alight with messages from light years’ away.
As a process, it remains oddly unautomated.
And as an enterprise, it has proved utterly pointless.
Humans have failed at the first hurdle to decipher our first alien contact. We remain muted, the sum total of our knowledge unexpanded.
30 years since ‘First Contact’, HALO has received and analysed 5 Petabytes of this alien binary code, spent hundreds of trillions of dollars, clocked one trillion man-hours, and sextillions of computing-hours – all to no avail. We have failed to decipher one message.
Stubbornly, HALO’s radio antennae array continues to capture the radiowaves from the solar system HN18733 at 8 million characters per second.
On HALO’s FAQ, it states: “We can’t decipher the data, because it utterly random, and therefore completely meaningless. Why an alien race would waste its time and energy transmitting this signal isn’t clear to us. It is another mystery of the universe.”
The fervour of first contact had long faded – churches burning, billions pledged by every nation, necks craned to the skies at every opportunity, and the brightest future promised.
Slowly, the reality of the unintelligible data was leaked to the public. The absence of infinite energy, ray-guns and interstellar travel plagued HALO. Its scientists tried everything. But the public and the media all turned away, found other shiny things. Wars, famines, and celebrity murders returned to the headlines and funding dissipated.
Thirty years on, the world had almost forgotten space when HALO advertised for a part-time data manager, and I applied.
I remain an artist. But during the working day, my art stretches to shifting vast bundles – ‘bales’ – of data to HALO’s twelve nerve centres positioned around the globe. These bales are convoyed into the world’s most powerful computers, analysed in real-time by over 50 billion different algorithms and programs.
My role feels like the sort of job computers and robots were built to conquer. Even my mum grasps its anachronistic nature: “It sounds like that’s what my laptop does with my storage needs, baby, what are you really doing?”.
I hold hard to the belief that someone is communicating us some love. A very long love letter.
Astronomers ridicule my job as the ‘Matrix detail’, call me Trinity, and constantly make lewd references to Keanu.
Partially its because I am a girl, and partially because I am an artist. Both excite and cow my fellow workers in equal measure.
Here I am, shifting data with elegant mouse flourishes.
And for love, I am committing global treason.
I blame Alun, my maths doctor boyfriend, for the theft.
One day over burnt vegan lasagne he confided “Binary excites me”.
My eyes sparkled, we made out on the sofa.
And that’s the reason I tolerate HALO. And the reason for my little crimes. Binary fires my mathlete.
“Really, how?” I asked concerned for the prurience of the reply.
“Aliens are communicating, but how do we know zero is nothing and one is something?” replied Alun.
“I know the answer to that!”, I screamed excitedly, “From the HALO FAQs: ‘Its our post-analogue pre-internet system making a judgement on a 1 or a 0 from the peaks and troughs of their radiowaves’”.
“Great, but maybe their signifiers are X and Ys or Rock and Papers? Maybe their digits aren’t binary, it could be trinary or quaternary or radial or irrational. Imagine if it was Morse Code. But HALO renders as binary.”
My freshly animated, excited, and vivacious mathlete’s binary fixation inspired the suppressed artist in me.
For his 37th birthday, I designed a vivid coloured print for Alun’s office using 1Kb of raw alien binary stolen by copying into a shareware spreadsheet package on an old laptop I’d found in a skip, reconditioned and plugged into my HALO terminal. No fingerprints.
The 0s and 1s were gridded in green and purple, with a psychedelic background.
#BinaryLove4ever was a hit with Alun and his boffin colleagues. Commissions rolled in, and before long, vivid evidence of my ongoing crime wave was displayed on walls and in galleries from Wilmington to Brasstown.
Treasonously, I had 400 files of raw alien binary code on my laptop, memory sticks and in the cloud, under an assumed identity – Trinity Reeves.
My final theft was for a Professor’s gym wall to emulate an inverted Arecibo binary message – 23 columns by 73 rows. For an added in-joke, his wife requested the average of 13 ones in each row. Art and maths, binary and love. My sort of commission!
However, this would require some data mining, and worryingly, a substantial breach of HALO protocol.
Alun calculated the chances at 1 in 10,000 of finding a total of 949 ones across 1679 binary digits.
I downloaded 15Kb of raw alien binary, and knowing we’d scroll a lot, Alun programmed a key data summary to find data that fitted the oddly un-triskaidekaphobic commission.
First page, summary: “cells: 1679; average: 0.5; sum: 867.47”.
“Alun, your programming genius has failed! Again!” I shouted into the kitchen.
Alun quickly appeared at my shoulder, began controlling the mouse, flicking through code and worksheets at an electrifying pace. After a frantic minute, he exclaimed “No surprise, my code is right! Maybe your spreadsheet is shot!
“Unless…”, he continued, leaning down, face almost touching the screen.
“Unless?”, I countered.
Alun selected the 1679 cells, right-clicked and selected “increase decimal places”.
In a few clicks, there were no binary integers, but fractions between 0 and 1 with decimal places.
“Its not binary!”, we simultaneously exclaimed.
An assumption of binary code made 30 years ago, had wrong-footed HALO analysts, who were analysing the wrong data all this time.
“Now that’s alien art, sweetpea!” confided Alun.
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