The Infinite Loop


I was watching a documentary about Aaron Swartz the other night: The Internets Own Boy. Spookily my cable TV service and internet cut out before the end, and stayed down for a week. But I managed to catch-up when it eventually came back. There was some excellent footage of the fourteen year old boy genius giving talks to technologists thrice his age; his head barely visible above the podium.

I was reminded of my own early enthusiasm for coding; back in the last century. Although I was in no way precocious; computers, compilers and the like were not so cheap and available back then. And I was well into my twenties before someone actually paid me money to write an application.

The Swartz documentary was the first thing I’d watched on TV after spending a week in hospital. I prefer to sleep, read magazines or listen to music when confined to bed. Nothing too heavy or taxing on the brain. The pay per-view service, I left well alone. Not because it’s terrible, I just wanted a break from the twenty four seven rolling news loop. To have a little quite time. Although any one who’s spent a night on a Male Surgical Ward will understand that my use of the word quite does not refer to sound. At night there are machines a-bleeping and men a-moaning. Medical staff talk. People talk; sometimes unintelligible, but they talk.

In the bed next to me lay a man of advanced years. He’d outlived my own father by six years, and appeared to be cruising in the direction of Ninety. He was a talker; noisy at unusual times. But his programming had gone awry. Someone, something, had messed with his mind. Consciousness was still there, and so were his motor skills. Sometime during my anaesthesia high he’d hurled a potato at an orderlies head. He didn’t like the food, and he was vocal and physical about it. But, there was something orderly about the way he expressed himself.

Mr P, which is not his real name, was stuck in a series of loops. Not one great infinite loop, but a series of small ones. A loop for those who don’t know consists of one or more instructions repeated for a certain length of time. Its up to the programmer to determine the start and end point. An infinite loop will never end, unless some physical intervention occurs – like the killing the application (a rather unfortunate expression in the current context) .

My fellow surgical traveller had become a little like a labyrinthine answering service, set to random. A character in a Samuel Becket play, but much sadder; because he was and is a real person.

While watching the Aaron Swartz documentary, and thinking about programming I also thought about how my neighbours brain had been reduced-down to a series of short raps. A couple of sentences long, that actually had meaning. My understanding of his dietary likes and dislikes may have been limited to a narrow collection of foodstuffs: Birdseye Fish fingers, Soft Sausages and Real Chips. But I knew what he liked.

Sometimes the discourse would be more philosophical, almost poetic – here’s one :

Life is about death

Princess Diana car crash.

A tragedy.

Suicide bomber.

A tragedy.

Life is about death.

He was unhappy, as you may gather. Staring death straight in the eye. Yet, even with the intricacies of his brain greatly diminished, he was still able to express, succinctly and with great clarity, his world view. A testament to the complexity of the human brain. Nothing was another recurring word; nothing framed by a rap of regret. I imagine if his brain continues to deteriorate, he would be left with one infinite loop. I just pray that it’s stuck on hope and not tragedy.

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