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Monday, May 28, 2001
By Paul Ford
Blocks and unblocks
When you can't write, a professor told me in 1993, write about not being able to write. She had good intentions, but if I write about not writing, I end up in recursive spin-loops, wading through mental labyrinths flooded to the knees with half-understood linguistics, brain-function theory, the computational problems of parsing sentences - mixes of technology and philosophy and pure wish-fulfillment that make up my version of science. The mere act of pressing the “s” key can set off a full week of confusion.
Whew. That just about did me in. The number of processes and coincidences inherent in that “S” is exhausting. How did I get to that letter? Why a capital? Oh, and how does the brain work? How does that fit in with natural selection, and the human insistence on God? And where did it start? Can we trace it back to pond-lightning and spitting stars? And why?
This is why it's better just to watch TV. I have never watched TV while asking the cosmic “why,” only the small, self-pitying whys of media and culture.
I suppose writing is one-dimensional; symbols, translated from some mysterious mental workings, are arranged in a line of time. The line is cut and spliced into 2-dimensional pages; pages are layered into 3-dimensional books. The book is distributed; other minds compile the symbols back into the single, long strand of language. A book is a long line cut into bits. It would be inefficient to carry around mile-long ribbons of text wherever you went, endless tapes of symbols.
Cheap analogy: behind modern computers there is the theory of the “Turing Machine,” which is a sort of general case computer. It consists of an infinitely long tape with a little reader, a “state machine,” that can add or rub off symbols on the tape, acting upon the state of the tape according to tape's own instructions. Computers are Turing Machines; they replace the infinite tape with the finite but incredibly small and tight spirals of the grooved hard disk and the more vague, unmoving space of RAM.
So perhaps written language is a kind of Turing Tape, always being erased and rewritten, which makes the book a single state of the state machine. Perhaps we are all state machines and the tape of language is running through each of us, rewriting and editing the tapes left by others.
Or perhaps I am full of shit. Honestly, I'm not expecting much out of myself at this point, and neither should you. Or expect the world; expect truth; and make do with what is delivered.