One of, possibly the most favourite of my books is Lem’s Cyberiad, a set of apparent childrens’ stories which are actually morality tales for grownups.
Laden with physics, maths, robotics and computing jokes – not to mention philosophy and mock-history – the book’s influence on hacker culture is significant, to the extent that Google honoured the 60th anniversary of its printing with an interactive doodle; and the second puzzle of the interactive doodle is a pastiche of my favourite chapter: The Sixth Sally, or How Trurl and Klapaucius Created a Demon of the Second Kind to Defeat the Pirate Pugg.
For those who have not read the book – and you really should – there is a nice synopsis on E2; Pugg is a PhD Pirate of Information, and …
A Demon of the Second Kind is a fictional machine that writes factual statements, but only all too well. It appears in the short story “The Sixth Sally,” which is part of the novel The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem.
In the story, two clever, space-traveling robots (Trurl and Klapaucius) fall into the clutches of an evil robot, the giant pirate Pugg. This pirate does not want to rob them of gold or silver; instead, he wants information. Specifically, Pugg tells his two captives that he will forcibly hold them until they tell him everything they know.
Faced with the possibility of spending eons reciting all their knowledge, Trurl and Klapaucius offer the pirate a bargain. If he promises to let them go afterwards, the pair will build him a Demon of the Second Kind, a special machine that can print out an infinite amount of information.
The process is straightforward. In any gas, molecules are bumping into each other with trillions of collisions per second. Sometimes, they happen to arrange themselves in the shape of a letter. More rarely, they arrange themselves in the shape of a word. Rarer still, they arrange themselves to read out a statement. Some of these statements are true; some aren’t. The specialty of a Demon of the Second Kind is that it can separate the false statements from the true, and given a roll of paper, it will write out the truth and forget the falsehood.
Pugg accepts the deal, and his captives place this Demon atop a small hole in an otherwise airtight drum. The Demon immediately prints out the facts it sees, and Pugg greedily reads the steadily advancing paper with his hundred eyes. Meanwhile, Trurl and Klapaucius run away as fast as they can, for they know what is about to happen. The Demon can separate fact from fiction, but it cannot separate the useful from the useless, and almost every fact it prints is good for absolutely nothing.
And it grew dark before (Pugg’s) hundred eyes, and he cried out in a mighty voice that he’d had enough, but Information had so swathed and saddled him in its three hundred thousand tangled paper miles, that he couldn’t move and had to read on about how Kipling would have written the beginning to his Second Jungle Book if he had had indigestion just then, and what thoughts come to unmarried whales getting on in years, and all about the courtship of the carrion fly, and how to mend an old gunny sack, and what a sprothouse is, and why we don’t capitalize paris in plaster of paris or turkish in turkish bath, and how many bruises one can have at a single time. And then a long list of the differences between fiddle and faddle, not to be confused with twiddle and twaddle or tittle and tattle, then all the words that rhyme with “spinach”, and what were the insults which Pope Um of Pendora heaped upon Antipope Mlum of Porking …
Lem, translated by Michael Kandel, p. 158-159.
Pugg is doomed, bound by piles of paper, forced to read every inane fact that runs past his face. He can only wait for the Demon to run out of paper.
MORAL: An overabundance of useless information is a curse.
It’s also a important lesson in the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom; to not understand that leads to hubris.
You can get more of a taste of Lem’s writing, here.