Saturday, December 26, 2009

First Poem in English

Now we must praise the Guardian of Heaven,
the might of the Lord and His purpose of mind,
the work of the Glorious Father; for He,
God Eternal, established each wonder,
He, Holy Creator, first fashioned
heaven as a roof for the sons of men.
Then the Guardian of Mankind adorned
this middle-earth below, the world for men,
Everlasting Lord, Almighty King.

This simple hymn is the earliest known poem in the English language. It is a strange fact that English literature began with a humble cowhand who could not read or write. His name was Caedmon, and he was not a poet until relatively late in life, when one night he dreamed that a stranger came to him and told him to sing. Caedmon replied, "But I don't know how." The stranger said, "But you will sing to me." Caedmon then asked what he should sing about, and the stranger told him to sing "of the Creation of all things." To his surprise, Caedmon found himself singing a song he had never heard before, and remembered the song when he awoke. (The above translation from the original Old English is by Kevin Crossley-Holland.)

The Anglo-Saxons, like any people, of course had composed poems before Caedmon came along. But their poetry, because of its pagan nature, was not deemed worthy of being written down by the scribes of the church. Caedmon forever changed this situation by taking the distinctive rhythms and feeling and flavor of his native Germanic poetry and using them to express Christian themes. His innovation influenced the whole art of Old English poetry, which reached its peak in the magnificent epic Beowulf, a powerful blend of the heroic and melancholic tones of pagan Germanic poetry with the moral and spiritual values of Christianity.

Since Caedmon, the Germanic dialect spoken by the Anglo-Saxons has become one of the most important languages in the world, as close to a universal language as we have come since the domination of Latin in the ancient and medieval worlds. It is stunning to think that this development owes itself at least in part to a poor, uneducated farmhand living in England in the Dark Ages, whose mind was illuminated by a dream.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Computer Knows All

One of my childhood fantasies involved a computer that was capable of answering any question. This was in the early 80s, when personal computers were becoming common, but before my family owned one. This fantastical idea was perhaps influenced by old popular notions about computers that still had some currency at that time, having been expressed, for example, in science fiction movies like The Invisible Boy (see picture). However, with the currently popular (but false) belief that "everything" is on the Internet, and with Google's stated goal of "organizing the world's information", it is worth asking this question: Could computers (or the worldwide network of computers known as the Internet, or an Internet search engine, etc.) ever actually become capable of answering any question?

This is ultimately a question for the philosophers more than it is one that is solvable by the computer technicians. For it essentially boils down to deeper questions about knowledge and truth.

Let's first consider this: If a computer can answer a question, it must "know", or at least be able to figure out or find out, the answer. How does a computer know something?

A computer's body of knowledge exists in the form of data files or a database (or, as it was known in old sci-fi films, its "memory banks"). But where did this knowledge come from? Or in other words, how did the computer learn all this stuff?

Of course, the computer acquired its knowledge by being programmed. This programming consists of both data entry, which can be thought of as "teaching" the computer raw facts, and what we commonly call "computer programming", which is essentially teaching the computer how to think (consisting essentially of logic and arithmetic).

So far, so good. The computer starts its life with a body of facts and the mental tools to reason and calculate other facts from those. It can also "learn" new facts as these are entered into it, and it can either "remember" or "forget" as we command.

It is true that the computer is able to "think" much faster than the human brain, at least when it comes to performing logical and arithmetic calculations, and in this sense it is superior in capability to the human mind. This is why we invented computers in the first place--to figure things out much more quickly than we ever could. In this sense we can say that computers are capable of creating new knowledge. But even so, the knowledge that is discoverable by the computer is entirely dependent on the knowledge (in the form of data and programming logic) that is given it by its human creators.

In other words, the computer can never discover or tell us anything that is independent of the data and logic with which we ourselves have programmed it, as though it could attain a godlike perspective. The computer, like us, is finite, its universe of actual and potential knowledge bound by the limitations of our own knowledge. It can marvelously extend the sphere of human knowledge, but it can never get outside that sphere.

The computer, too, cannot think creatively, imaginatively, or intuitively, but can only reason and calculate. This, too, limits the questions it can answer. It can only answer questions that are subject to logical or mathematical determination and empirical data, which is why it has been so heavily utilized in the worlds of business and science. It cannot tell us any truths of the kind traditionally told to us by poets and priests. It cannot question the basic assumptions of our own knowledge that are inherent in its programming.

I say none of this to disparage the computer, one of humanity's most remarkable inventions. Like all of the tools we have fashioned, the computer is there to help us and to make our work and our everyday lives easier and more productive. For many reasons, I am grateful to be living in the age of the computer.

But I won't be expecting to find the answer to "life, the universe, and everything" (somewhere amid "about 2,090,000,000" results) on Google anytime soon.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Home Pages

I have always been at home in books and in those homes for books that we call libraries. I developed my love for books from a very early age, and cannot imagine life, or a world, without them. However, having been a child in the 1970s, I am among the last generation that remembers what life was like without ubiquitous personal computers and Internet access. I'm sure that many people younger than me cannot imagine life without these things, and that a significant number of them see books as being far less central to their experience than I do.

To me, a life without books, by which I mean traditional printed and bound paper volumes, is a life that is greatly impoverished. The reasons for this are varied and complex, and it is not something I could fully explain in a single blog post. Many people my age and older will understand this instinctively, and I am hopeful that many younger people continue to share this feeling as well, despite their (and our) increased dependence on digital technologies.

One reason I am hopeful that a love for books will survive my generation is the fact that I myself grew up on television as much as I did on books. Both media were equally old (and, for that matter, equally new) to me, since both had existed before I was born. Even though I loved to watch TV, my love for reading was at least equal in its intensity. Perhaps the children of the 21st century, at least those who are so encouraged by their parents, might still develop a love for printed books alongside their understandable fascination with electronic media. To me, a life without books, in any age, is as culturally deprived as a 21st century life completely devoid of the Internet, TV, movies, or recorded music.

Both at work and at home I am surrounded by books. There are more books in the world than any mortal can ever hope to read or even know about, a universe of knowledge and expression that was already far too vast for any single person to comprehend even before the Internet came along. The overwhelming majority of this knowledge is still not "online", and much of it perhaps never will be, despite Google's best intentions. But, like knowing a few precious souls in a world of billions, we can know a few of these books, and they can become friends that continue to enrich our experience throughout our lives. The books I have known have contributed to my own mind, have helped shape my intellect, imagination, emotions, and spirit, and helped make me who I am. I delight in reconnecting with old, long-lost books as much as discovering wonderful new ones. For each book is the voice of one or more of our fellow human beings, sharing something useful or something entertaining, something profound or something absurd, something funny or something sad, something strange or something familiar, something wonderful or beautiful or remarkable about the world we live in or about the things we can dream, and always something human.