Unexpected Mystery of the Cold Iron Pope

Posted on July 21, 2004 by Jenna

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Before there were writable DVDs, there were writable CDs. And before that, zip drives. And before that disks. And before that tape. And before that tickertape. If you trace this process backwards, you ultimately arrive at the archival method of the Middle Ages, which is to say, the manuscript drive. To write on a manuscript drive requires monks. They labor for years painstakingly illuminating your data. The process is slow but beautiful. Early financial records, binary pornography, and collections of unfiltered email prominently featuring the phrase “hihi lol” are some of the most magnificent products of the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately for the monks, computer science in the Middle Ages was a poorly developed field. Many of the processes performed in monasteries were extremely inefficient. For example, their primary method for sorting data before compressing it for illumination was the “bubble sort”—a technique now understood as one of the slowest functional sorting techniques. The monks would line up, each carrying a piece of data. Then, from left to right, strictly avoiding parallelism for religious reasons, each monk would look at his rightwards neighbor. “Excuse me, honored brother,” the monk would say, “but is it possible that the number you hold is lower than mine?”

“Fie on thee!” the monk to the right would say. “Your words reek of Satan’s foulest temptation: pride!”

“But surely, honored brother, it is virtuous to investigate the truth!”

Then, hesitantly, the rightward monk would glance at his data. He would look over, slyly, at the leftward monk’s data. Perhaps he would confirm his worldview, and with smug resolve declare, “This questioning monk is too big for his britches, but too small for comparison and exchange! Perhaps he had best attend to his rosaries and meditate on his sins!” Or perhaps he would not, and shamefacedly, he would shuffle left, and they would be exchanged. Sufficient repetition of this process inevitably led to fully sorted data.

Occasionally, a monk or priest would suggest a new method of sorting, such as a selection, insertion, or parallelized bubble sort. This invariably produced harsh reactions from the entrenched and conservative power structure of the Church. “Unsanctioned sorting methods are as vipers in the eyes in the Lord!” railed one ecclesiast. Vipers were even less popular in the Middle Ages than they are today, so one must consider this fairly strong language.

Nor was the early Church kind to other modern data management techniques. From the perspective of the modern computer scientist, the “tree of life” is an extremely inefficient method for storing sephirot. Most would recommend the “balanced binary tree” instead. When monks assemble into a balanced binary tree, each monk claims 0, 1, or 2 of the other monks as his “children.” The leftmost child embodies sin, and should always have a Kabbalistic number smaller than the parent monk, while the rightmost child embodies virtue and should always have a Kabbalistic number greater. When the Church elected to abandon the traditional Kabbalistic tree of life arrangement on account of it “being more of a rabbi thing,” many pressed for the immediate adoption of balanced binary trees. Authorities of the time refused, proclaiming that “balanced binary trees shall be cast into the pit of fire and brimstone, where, as they float in brimstone, they shall bob up and down eternally as a reminder of the paths best not taken.” Monks were forced to store their data in unofficial “unbalanced” trees, in honor of the primacy of God.

Today, of course, one can store more than a billion monks’ worth of data on a single shiny disk. Is doing so theologically correct?

Only the mysterious ecclesiast called “the Cold Iron Pope” knows for sure.