Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book Review

I am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter.

Douglas Hofstadter was an aspiring physicist and recovering mathematician when he accidentally wrote the cognitive science masterpiece/tour de force/award winning/whirlwind/etc... Godel Escher Bach (GEB).  It's long, complicated, very good, and altogether mesmerizing.  If book-critics didn't use the term as much as they do, I'd call it whirlwind.  Apparently, it was so whirl-winded that old Doug thought the message was lost.  So he kicked back for while, and then a long time later, wrote another book called I am a Strange Loop.

This book claims to focus on what was missed in GEB: consciousness rising from the "strange" recursion of symbol-strings made possible by our minds.  He begins by defending his view that there are varying degrees of consciousness. At one end we have amoebas, on the other we've everyone's favorite evolutionary pinnacle: humans.  He draws analogies to music, win, and other things about which people are connoisseurs, but he does it more artistically and less technically than in GEB.  He explains Godel's incompleteness theorem, which proved that math would never be free from self-reference, which is very important for everyone who thinks math is pure and free of contradiction.  Doug goes on to show a couple of "fun" problems with basic mathematical concepts.  Great. 

While he has a gift for metaphor, I could have used more tofu and potatoes.  He centres his first base-hit around an experiment (more of an activity) where he looped some videos of their own playback and took pictures of the results.  (think hall of mirrors in 4-D.)  Very pretty, moderately stimulating, but still astronomically far from consciousness.  In the second half of the book he begins talking in terms of I-referencing, which is what people do when they think "I".  All his examples of strange recursion fall short in one way or another, which almost seems planned so that he can bounce back and say, "you see! you see!  It only works in the mind!  Booyaah!"  Well that's fine.

Interestingly, having begun my endeavor into syntax, and recently been inspired by a certain eminent linguist, the idea of recursion has been made very clear: pretty important.  It's sure evident that recursive schemas in the minds we got gave rise to the linguistic capacity we also got!  Since I am a Strange Loop didn't leave me with much more than that, I'll leave you with it too.

And since you all have to quote old Chuck D. this year: "My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts."  Now that's got to be recursive!

I say 2.5 / 5 on the superior-scientific-star-scale.

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