Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Pope discovers the North Pole!

Well, no - but Chesterton actually wrote that. Are you surprised? Good. After all, you are waking up to a surprise: me, a computer scientist, on the other side of the screen - instead of our intrepid and wonderful Nancy Brown. Therefore, I thought it good to give you a little surprise. After all, "The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder." [TT 7]

Perhaps you are wondering: how does a computer scientist get interested in Chesterton?

Well, about 50-odd years ago, a young woman walked into a small bookstore, a young man behind the counter waited on her... and that's how my parents met. I grew up with a love of reading - and when I was maybe 4 or 5, I heard my father recite those stunning, powerful, words, burned so deeply into my memory there are few things more ancient:
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war...
Many years later, while working on my MS (in computer science) curiosity about this poem called "Lepanto" led to a exponentially growing interest in GKC.

This interest was not diminished by my subsequent work on fraternity history, on DNA sequence analysis, or even on applying subsidiarity to the needs of cable television spot transport! In fact, it was intensified. I've even applied the machinery of my doctoral work, previously used to explore patterns in prokaryotic rRNA, to see what the longest repeated string in The Everlasting Man might be. (I will tell you in a future posting.)

But enough about me. I would wish to learn more about each of you, at least to the same level of detail, in order to begin acquiring a bit more of GKC's own character: "I wonder whether there will ever come a time when I shall be tired of any one person." This is part of the reason of the delight in the ever-growing ChesterCon, as Nancy, Chestertonian, and many others have indicated here - and the main reason for having a blogg where we can prolong the delight through the rest of the year!

So: let us proceed, since I know you will want to hear the context of GKC's strange words about a polar pope. You know, "polar":

x=r cos q
y=r sin q

... oops, sorry! I'm not supposed to get technical here. Hee hee. OK, here's the quote:

Our age which has boasted of realism will fail chiefly through lack of reality. Never, I fancy, has there been so grave and startling a divorce between the real way a thing is done and the look of it when it is done. I take the nearest and most topical instance to hand - a newspaper. Nothing looks more neat and regular than a newspaper, with its parallel columns, its mechanical printing, its detailed facts and figures, its responsible, polysyllabic leading articles. Nothing, as a matter of fact, goes every night through more agonies of adventure, more hairbreadth escapes, desperate expedients, crucial councils, random compromises, or barely averted catastrophes. Seen from the outside, it seems to come round as automatically as the clock and as silently as the dawn. Seen from the inside, it gives all its organisers a gasp of relief every morning to see that it has come out at all; that it has come out without the leading article upside down or the Pope congratulated on discovering the North Pole.
[GKC, "The Real Journalist" in A Miscellany of Men, emphasis added]

I found this so amazing because this is also how quite a bit of software gets written... "random compromises, barely averted catastrophes"... yeah!

Er - excuse me, I've got all kinds of errors showing up here - hope it wasn't something I typed.


  1. Welcome, Dr. T.

    Not to be confused with Mr. T. (I pity the fool.)


  2. I've even applied the machinery of my doctoral work, previously used to explore patterns in prokaryotic rRNA, to see what the longest repeated string in The Everlasting Man might be.

    Hey Dr. T! Do you think you could tell us just what a repeating string may be so that those of us who have read TEM may try to figure it out? ;-)

    Great quote from A Miscellany of Men, btw. As a former newspaperman myself, I can affirm that, here in the digital age, newspaper production is every bit as chaotic as it was in Chesterton's day. We really did consider it a miracle that the paper came out at all, probably the only miracle that most journalists believe in, sad to say.

  3. Welcome, Dr. Thursday. I'm sure we're all praying that Nancy gets better and gets her book written. Meanwhile, we welcome you as our "sub".

    I was reading this very essay from which you quote today! "A Miscellany of Men" is a tremendous book. "This book contains the best essay every written!" I said to myself - about a half-dozen times already in the first 70 pages. Really, there are some astonishing essays in this book. Has anyone yet noticed that this man could WRITE? I mean, he was not only one of the most brilliant thinkers and able humorists of all time, but he was one hell of a writer.

  4. Hi Kevin! Guess who? :-)

    You are so right about A Miscellany of Men. What really comes through for me in each essay is Chesterton's joy, and his joviality. You can almost hear him chuckling to himself as you read the essays. I howled with laughter at his description of modern ballots in "The Thing," for instance, and at the essay quoted in Dr. Thursday's post.

  5. Thanks! In a future post I will indeed go into the "repeating string" about which even GKC had something to say.

    Yes, MM is really a great collection of essays, and one of many books which contains the best essay ever written. The one I quote here is excellent - I call it "How GKC writes an essay", so then I can never find it when I want it. But the one which dramatically touches me in my own field is the one called "The Conscript and the Crisis" which I have posted on my own blogg which talks about how the Church is something "going on all the time" - just like the operating system in the computer!


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