motd.co: Encyclopedia Wand

“The encyclopedia wand’s a theoretical puzzle, like Zeno’s paradox. The idea is t’engrave the entire encyclopedia onto a single toothpick. Know how you do it?”

“You tell me.”

“You take your information, your encyclopedia text, and you transpose it into numerics. You assign everything a two-digit number, periods and commas included. 00 is a blank, A is 01, B is 02, and so on. Then after you’ve lined them all up, you put a decimal point before the whole lot. So now you’ve got a very long sub-decimal fraction. 0.173000631… Next, you engrave a mark at exactly that point along the toothpick. If 0.50000’s your exact middle on the toothpick, then 0.3333’s got t’be a third of the way from the tip. You follow?”

“Sure.”

“That’s how you can fit data of any length in a single point on a toothpick. Only theoretically, of course. No existin’ technology can actually engrave so fine a point. But this should give you a perspective on what tautologies are like. Say time’s the length of your toothpick. The amount of information you can pack into it doesn’t have anything t’do with the length. Make the fraction as long as you want. It’ll be finite, but pretty near eternal. Though if you make it a repeatin’ decimal, why, then it is eternal. You understand what that means? The problem’s the software, no relation to the hardware. It could be a toothpick or a two-hundred-meter timber or the equator – doesn’t matter. Your body dies, your consciousness passes away, but your thought is caught in the one tautological point an instant before, subdividin’ for an eternity. Think about the koan: An arrow is stopped in flight. Well, the death of the body is the flight of the arrow. It’s makin’ a straight line for the brain. No dodgin’ it, not for anyone. People have t’die, the body has t’fall. Time is hurlin’ that arrow forward. And yet, like I was sayin’, thought goes on subdividin’ that time for ever and ever. The paradox becomes real. The arrow never hits.”

“In other words,” I said, “immortality.”

“There you are. Humans are immortal in their thought. Though strictly speakin’, not immortal, but endlessly, asymptotically close to immortal. That’s eternal life.”

—Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World