Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What a Long, Strange Loop It's Been

Review of I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter

Some years ago, Douglas Hofstadter published a large book called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It won a Pulitzer Prize. It sold many, many copies. I have one. I am convinced that few people actually finished it, or even got far into it. It was unquestionably the product of a brilliant mind. But man, reading it was work, lots of little exercises to work through, lots of symbolic logic to learn, but worst, the goal of all that work was unclear. I like a challenging read, so I’m not proud to say I didn’t get far before I put it back on the shelf, where it reposes to this day. The fact is, I just didn’t get it, and I’ll bet not many people did.

I think I will win that bet, because no less an authority than Douglas Hofstadter himself has expressed his disappointment that not many people got it. I quote from Wikipedia: “In the preface to the twentieth-anniversary edition [of GEB], Hofstadter laments that his book has been misperceived as a hodge-podge of neat things with no central theme. He states: ‘GEB is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?’”

To remedy this, he says, he wrote I Am a Strange Loop – to make the point that apparently eluded readers of GEB. It was published in 2007. It had been sitting on my to-be-read shelf, in hardcover, since then. It is almost 450 pages long. I read it to the end.

Capsule review: Looks like he’s going to have to write another book.

Its goal is to – well, now there’s the first puzzle. Recall that he says he wants to explore “what is a self,” and there is a lot of talk about self-ness in the book. Also consciousness; also possession of a human soul; also what it is that distinguishes humans from other animals.  But there is next to no explanation of what he means by these concepts, which question (if any) he is trying to answer.  I am very tempted to say that he would say that these questions are all essentially the same thing, which launches us into a muddle right at the outset.   

Which is too bad.  I'm interested in these things, and Hofstadter is really a fine writer and a brilliant man with some interesting things to say, so this volume should have been right in my wheelhouse.   But I can tell you very succinctly why this is not a good book: Hofstadter not only doesn’t get to the point, his thesis is all but invisible. If you handed him the book and asked him to find a paragraph, or even a page or two, clearly describing (1) the question he is trying to resolve (i.e., “what is a self,” “what distinguishes humans from lower animals,” “what is the nature of consciousness” “what do we mean when we talk about having a soul” – am I close on any of those?), and (2) his resolution of it, he might be able to do it. Personally, I never stumbled across it. I can’t tell you how his belief that humans are like what he calls “strange loops” gets him much of anywhere.

Why is this? The cheap answer is “because he had a lazy editor, or maybe an intimidated one,” but the real answer is that Hofstadter just may not have a clear answer to any of these questions.  If he does, it gets lost among the analogies and metaphors and stories and personal anecdotes he loves.  Nothing wrong with those strategies.  But after (actually, before) one employs them, one must articulate the idea the technique is employed to illuminate. The book is so thick with explanatory symbol-filled vignettes that they crowd out a simple, clear statement of his belief respecting these issues (and what he believes those issues to be).

The problem is illustrated right on the cover, which is a stylized representation of “video loop.”  Much of the first part of the book is devoted to a description of images Hofstadter created by pointing a video camera at a teevee that was displaying what the video camera was receiving – that is, displaying itself over and over and over.  Moving the camera distorts the image in interesting ways. You’ve seen the effect if you stand in front of a mirror with another mirror behind you – you see yourself receding into infinity. This is a purely mechanical phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with consciousness, but Hofstadter goes on and on and on about it, even including a number of useless color plates of his teevee images, as though it tells us something profound about ourselves as human beings. It doesn’t, and if there is a useful analogy to the way humans perceive the world and re-transmit it, I missed it.

Of potentially greater interest might have been his analysis of Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (1931) and its undermining of Bertrand Russell’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica” (1910-13).  His explanation – which is very lengthy and punctuated with fictional dialogues and analogical fables – isn’t bad, but would it be asking too much for a simple statement, or even a complex or subtle statement, of what these abstract mathematical theories have to do with “I-ness,” or “soul,” or “consciousness,” or “self”?

Let’s return to his central simile. A “strange loop” is a self-referential system (that’s reductive but saying any more would not illuminate this discussion). I have called this Hofstadter’s simile, but I can’t even report that with any confidence – are we “strange loops” in the way that is understood in topology, logic, and mathematical systems, or is he only saying we’re like them in some way that is meaningful to his theory? I went in search of what other people think Hofstadter is trying to say when he says argues that human beings sorta have this characteristic and that it somehow relates to their essential humanity. What I discovered is that no one else knows, either, and those who purport to know sort of skip over what the hell they – and he – think any of this has to do with a unique human nature.

There’s a lesson here.  We see it around us every day, in government, in the workplace, on Wall Street, in the academy, in science:  Brains aren’t enough.  Learnedness isn’t enough.  Opinion leaders, all kinds of leaders, have an obligation to be clear.  Heck,we all have an obligation to be clear with one another.  I don’t care how complex the subject matter is – if you’re writing a nonfiction book for a general audience, especially one that purports to solve a problem or take a position, you have a sacred duty to state your position early and clearly. If you can’t or won’t, you probably haven’t really figured it out for yourself.

With over a thousand pages of closely-printed text sitting on my bookshelf, I don’t know if Douglas Hofstadter is a strange loop. I can say that he is damned near an endless one.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A One-Term President Because He Doesn’t Care All That Much about Two

And, more importantly, because it shows.

Yeah, recently he's taken to saying that he's "unstoppable," but his heart doesn't really seem to be in it. 

Back in May 2010, when my readers were in the mid-one figure, I wrote that I didn’t think President Obama much cared about a second term.   My theory was that the President is motivated primarily by academic theory, and he judges success not on whether anyone votes for him, or his party, but whether the theoreticians he admires in the academy (to which he’ll unquestionably return) approve of his policies.

A couple of weeks ago, the President said a couple of extraordinary things that got much less media play than they deserved. I won’t say they prove my point, but they trend that way. In an interview with ABC’s Ann Curry, he said:

“There are days where I say that one term is enough.”

He went on:

“Michelle and the kids are wonderful in that if I said, 'You know, guys, I want to do something different,' they'd be fine. They're not invested in daddy being president or my husband being president.”

How many terms does he want?

That may sound like an offhand expression of mid-term weariness, and it may have been that. But this isn’t a midterm. This is the beginning of his campaign for his second term. This is the beginning of his big fundraising push. Let me ask you: If you had just heard this and the President asked you to write a large check for his campaign, would you?

He’s said things like this before. In January 2010, he told ABC’s Diane Sawyer: "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.”

Mind you, I’m not being critical of this mindset. It is entirely proper to say “I will govern according to my principles, which I think are really great principles, even if it proves unpopular at the ballot box.”  But I think it says something very important about this puzzling historical figure.  

First, he says he sometimes thinks that “one term is enough.”

Enough because . . . he’s tired? No, couldn’t be. He couldn’t possibly be intending to convey the impression of fatigue to his supporters and financiers.

Enough because . . . that is all he will need to accomplish his goals? Well, we know about the economy and the prospects for recovery before November 2012, so he won’t have improved that over what he inherited. He sometimes talks about his accomplishments, but Obamacare is on the run in the courts, will probably not survive a single-term presidency. His accounts of other “achievements” are frequently misleading; recently, the Washington Post – yes, WaPo – said of his speech extolling the success of the auto industry bailouts “What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech.” He got bin Laden, that was good. Excellent, in fact. But compared with his own expectations and those of his voters, it’s pretty thin gruel for three years.  No, hardly anyone thinks he's accomplished much or expects him to accomplish a lot more by November 2012.  And I don't think he believes it, either.

Enough because . . . he knows he cannot enact his social theories into law, at least not for long, and well, OK, he tried, and that’s enough?

Or: Enough because . . . he’s bored?

I think it’s some combination of these last two. Listen to him claiming to make a point about Michelle and the girls, but really making a point about himself (surprise!), suggesting that he might say to them: “You know, you guys, I want to do something different.”

Now think about that for a minute, especially in light of the “one term is enough” suggestion. You’re the President of the United States. What “something different” might you want to do as the end of your first term approaches that would be – I don’t know, more helpful to mankind, more fulfilling, more prestigious?

Look at it another way: What different thing would be better to Barack Obama than being President from 2013 through 2017?  Really, what’s bad about being the American President when you are nothing but a politician?  (Yeah, he taught some law school, but come on.  Guy's done nothing but politics, and has done it pretty darned well.)   I can think of some things: Hard work. Compromising cherished theories to get legislation enacted. Never-ending judgment of your performance. Exposure to a public that is sometimes less than enthralled with who you are, who see you as something other than an extraordinary symbol.

Here’s what I take away from President Obama’s remarks: He views his service in office more as a hobby than a calling. In line with my earlier thoughts, it’s an academic exercise for him. Doesn’t work out, cuts into the golf, people mad at you all the time, middle class just doesn’t understand the theory – fine, I’ll go do something different.

But I think there’s something else. Can’t prove it. Just kind of feel it.

I think Barack Obama just doesn’t think it’s all that big a deal to be President of the United States.

I think he thinks this because he doesn’t think the United States is all that big a deal to be the President of. He seems to take pleasure in suggesting that the U.S. is just another country in a world full of them. He certainly rejects American exceptionalism. He does not have a high regard for the Constitution. (That’s not a Tea Party sentiment – that’s my personal conclusion from his utterances, including this one I noted (scroll down) and others I’ve noted from time to time.) He feels bad about America’s past international initiatives.  He shows absolute unconcern at its slipping status in the world -- along with much of the academy, he thinks it deserves it, and that it is historically inevitable to boot.  And borders -- when you're not much of a country, what difference does it make who lives there? 

So being President of that country, to him, is just one of many “different” things to which he might apply his considerable gifts.  And by no means necessarily the most important one at this stage of his life. So it’s good that Michelle and the kids are so understanding.

I have a feeling that unless the Republicans nominate a diseased marmot or Sarah Palin (of which they are eminently capable), Barack Obama is going to have the chance to do that different, better thing come January 2013. 

Put aside whether his policies are good or bad, or whether or not you like them. 

He's just not that into the gig.

Monday, June 13, 2011

BREITBART: I've Got Weiner's Colonoscopy, Genome

Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) political and personal problems deepened today with reports that conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart has come into possession of Weiner’s recent colonoscopy and a complete chart of his entire genetic structure.  The images were transmitted via Twitter to several women with whom he was conducting online conversations.

Political observers are taking these latest reports seriously. Breitbart’s earlier claims that he possessed lewd photographs Weiner tweeted to young women proved correct when Weiner admitted they were photos of him, or parts of him, and that he had sent them to the young women in question.

Weiner, Cats
Since then, Breitbart has posted self-portraits of a shirtless Weiner and has displayed a photo said to be Weiner’s massively engorged johnson, also said to have been sent to a young woman via Twitter. The image of the fully turgid thunderstick appeared to be a cell phone photo of a photo displayed on a cell phone that was originally taken by a cell phone. Despite the degraded image, Rep. Weiner has not denied that the luridly gleaming tumescence is his, possibly because it favorably compares in shape and volume what appears to be an unopened tube of Family Size Sensodyne Iso-Active Multi-Action toothpaste that also appears in the photograph.

The reports of tweeted images of Rep. Weiner’s lower intestine and gene map will likely prove a challenge to efforts to rehabilitate his image. Weiner, whose marriage to Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin was performed by Bill Clinton, has been seeking advice from the former president on how to handle this crisis. However, the Weiners’ family dog, a Samoyed named “Schumie,” has denied taking the pictures or sending the offending tweets. His alibi -- that he was out of the country representing the U.S. at a tree-planting ceremony in Kenya with First Dog Bo and lacks opposable thumbs -- has been verified by Julian Assange’s dog, “Leaky.”

On his website (, Breitbart speculates that Weiner’s relationship with the numerous young women began as what was intended to be merely a joking display of his furiously aroused wrinklebeast. But, Breitbart states, “as the exchanges became progressively more intimate, it seems that Weiner thought it important to convey ever more complete information on his reproductive allure and evolutionary suitability.”

The new images, which Breitbart is currently sharing only with upper level Justice Department officials and and wacky morning AM radio DJs, show that Weiner is enjoying robust alimentary health and does indeed have a set of recognizably human chromosomes.

Eventually, Breitbart speculates, Weiner became obsessed with digitizing and preserving for transmission every imageable part of his body, “in line with his public calls for full disclosure and transparency at the federal level.”

The images were reportedly sent to a Luby’s waitress in Dime Box, Texas; LeBron James's mother Gloria James; and Marilyn vos Savant.

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