Monday, April 23, 2007

Discovering a miracle

I have seen at least fifty "slide shows" on the Web giving the Top 100 Inventions or Top Ten New Technologies or The Best Discoveries of the 20th Century. But they always leave out a little idea that was almost stumbled on early last century; an idea which in my "humble" opinion is clearly the most important idea produced in the last 2000 years. It isn't a huge shock that it doesn't make the top-ten lists because as an idea, and a subtle one at that, it doesn't work in an e-zine slide show and thus... No ad revenue!

There are certain ideas which, once you really internalize them, create a before and after version of you. When I really grasped, on an emotional level, that authoritarianism and love were almost opposites, I created an "after" version of myself. The process of really understanding it took years, so I can't point to a certain date and say that's when the new Bruce came into being. But the way that I see, and even enter in to, all kinds of human relations is very different and I can never go back. Roles like parenting, governing, pastoring or managing look completely different to me now.

The idea I am thinking of is such an idea. At first, the subtlety of it may seem underwhelming, but when the implications of it worked their way through my conceptual framework I was taken back by how many of the foundational rules-of-thumb I regularly use to organize the World were drastically different. I'll explain the idea here and I'll try to express something about why it is so drastic and why its truth seems almost like a miracle to me and why it is so important to my journey of removing redundancy to shrink the size of my possessions and knowledge while maximizing the functionality of my stuff and my knowledge.

I first began to suspect the miracle when I took a beginning computer programming class some time ago. Before the class I had tinkered around programing in BASIC. But now I was learning C++, a "real" programming language and I thought it would give me great new powers. Then it occurred to me: I could write a BASIC program to process the C++ language, and I could also write a C++ program to process BASIC. Somehow these two languages must be exactly equivalent. It seemed I would get no new powers, but, paradoxically, the idea I had stumbled upon does give new technological powers.

Here is the idea from Wikipedia; and you'll see why it wouldn't make a good slide show:

"Every function that can be physically computed can be computed by a Turing machine."

It sounds like math. And what-the-heck is a "Turing machine?" Alan Turing, one of the people who came up with the idea of computers in the first place, defined an extremely simple computer and it is called a "Turing machine." In essence, it means that as long as no important features are missing, all computer programming languages are exactly the same as far as what programs can be written with them.

Well so what? Any program can be written in any language? Who cares! But the key lies in the realization that computers can simulate anything... anything at all. Here is a quote from that Wiki page:

"This also means that any solvable problem can therefore be reduced to previously solved problems (the Turing machine instruction set) or by definition is unsolvable."

Think about what that means! Any solvable problem can be reduced to previously solved problems. I think this fact is the key to processing knowledge and the key to unlock the secret of how to drink from the fire-hydrant of knowledge flowing at us today. It means that if we understand a few basic principles then any piece of information anyone can produce can be seen as a pattern over those principles.

It's 3:30 in the morning here so I'll leave you to think about whether there is a way to use the idea I just discussed. Click on "comments" if you have any ideas!


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