Thursday, December 07, 2006

New Year's Infinite Loops

New Year's? Yes, we are now in Advent: this is the new liturgical year, and we remember how God gave us the sun and moon to "regulate" time (Gen 1:14-18) - that is, to give an unmistakable arrangement to our experience of life. In the day and night, in the spring and summer and autumn and winter, we get a hint of a larger reality: life and death - but even more, Creation and Judgement, which might also be called Fulfillment.

Click to Enter the Infinite Posting

Well, now you've done it... we're stuck here until somebody turns off the computer. Did you bring any snacks? Ahem.

There are so many glorious analogies which reach across the Great Chasm between the tech side and the "liberal arts" side of the University - I am always amazed at the struggles (if not downright warfare) between them. But then, you see, long ago I read Newman's Idea of a University and saw that he faced them too. So, (like Newman and GKC) I work on the bridges. After all, during the Middle Ages it was considered a work of mercy to build a bridge, and Aquinas pointed out that it was a good reason to beg for money, placing this task even before the building of a church!

So. I have hinted about infinity at great length, though of course not all that long, hee hee. And this is an important idea when one wants to talk about science. Dr. Jaki spends six chapters of his great Science and Creation considering the six major ancient civilizations, all of which got stuck in the idea of a Great Cycle, by which all things would eventually repeat. Every one of them failed to produce a viable science because they were stuck on something or other philosophically contrary to science. It was only when a civilization held to the idea of a creation in time, and a created universe, in which Jesus was the Monogenes (the Only-Begotten) and NOT the universe - there, in Christian Europe, science began the life we now see.

But this idea of infinite loops comes up in computing in a very different way, and for a different reason - so much so, that it shares in that Christian character which one expects to find in every part of science.

To put it simply, the infinite loop, of which I gave two forms in a previous posting, is far from being a bug or piece of nonsense arising from lack of knowledge. Rather it is the heart and symbol of the whole other realm of computing, the realm which is called "operating systems". This subject is an important part of a college course of study in computer science, and it provides two dramatic links across the chasm I mentioned earlier.

1. The "end" of an operating system is to NOT end. That is, its purpose is to be there, ready to serve, and never to stop - until someone outside turns off the computer. Deep within every operating system worthy of the name is the "last" instruction at which the system "rests" (cf. Genesis 2:2). Its technical name is the "interruptable program stop" but in FORTRAN or BASIC it looks like
10 goto 10
(Real systems don't use that form for another very technical reason but I have no room to explain it now.)

2. The operating system is to computing what liturgy is to the Church. We have our "Great Cycle" - the loop aroundthe year by which we recall ALL of history from its beginning (Advent) to its conclusion (Christ the King) - and we do it every year since it will never end - until "Someone from Outside" turns it off. Analogy? Well... when I was in graduate school, I served on the admissions committee. I had to read over the transcripts of prospective students to verify that they had taken the required preliminary coursework. Once I had the transcript from someone who had gone to the University of Athens (in Greece!) - it had both the original and a translation, and I thought it would be useful to learn the Greek terms for computer science classes.

I was utterly and completely astounded when I read that "Operating Systems" was taught under the term leiturgika = leiturgika.

But even more astounding was this from A Miscellany of Men (Ah, you sigh. Finally we're getting to the Chesterton quote!):
In the course of a certain morning I came into one of the quiet squares of a small French town and found its cathedral. ... There were already a great many people there when I entered, not only of all kinds, but in all attitudes, kneeling, sitting, or standing about. And there was that general sense that strikes every man from a Protestant country, whether he dislikes the Catholic atmosphere or likes it; I mean, the general sense that the thing was "going on all the time"; that it was not an occasion, but a perpetual process, as if it were a sort of mystical inn. [GKC, "The Conscript and the Crisis"]
Well. There you see. GKC certainly did not intend this in the technical sense we use it now, but then again, the bridge is solid. For every operating system is a perpetual process, it is truly "going on all the time" ... for the user's programs (correctly called applications) it serves their every request, as "if it were a sort of mystical inn". Make mine a lager, please?

Then, to complete the unity, I recall two other lines. The first, from The Napoleon of Notting Hill: "'For you and me, and for all brave men, my brother,' said Wayne, in his strange chant, 'there is good wine poured in the inn at the end of the world'." The second, from the Gospel of John: "But thou hast kept the good wine until now." [Jn 2:10]

Happy New Year!

1 comment:

  1. You remind me that somewhere in the world, at any time, in some place, there is a mass going on. And when I was in with Mother Teresa's group, we used to pray a prayer for the Eucharist to be loved in all places in every land all over the world. The Eucharist, the liturgy, goes on and on and on...until at last, we celebrate it together, at the inn at the end of the world...and have that good wine.


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