Monday, October 15, 2007

Review of I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter

I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter

Read this review to see why reading I Am A Strange Loop will change the way you read this review (to see why reading I Am A Strange Loop will change the way to read this review (to see...))

The CPU of my laptop is humming away as I type these words (well, the fan is humming, so I guess the CPU is busy too). It knows nothing of the download that I am making from the organic processor in my skull, but then again how could it? It's just a computer it only understands integer arithmetic, and cannot even begin to comprehend the stream of English that I am typing, undoing, retyping, as I try to find the best combination of words to allow you, the reader, to extract the same meaning from this text as I am trying to inject into it.

It has no idea, because it has no strange loop.

The computer is a universal machine - with the right instructions it can be made to represent any problem or perform any job. The power and depth of simple integers is enough to support a rich symbolic system where words, fonts, undos, files, hierarchies, images, conversations, rules, commerce, relationships, humans can all be modelled to some degree of useful granularity. As I type, I'm not thinking about the encoding of each character into binary representation, or the i/o system that supports the notion of directories and files under which those binary values will be stored. I don't think twice about the electromagnetic physics that lies behind that storage mechanism, or the the conversion of these stored integers into electrical or optical pulses to be sent along copper and fibre optic cables between my laptop and wherever the corporate abstraction called Google decides to keep it (I'm using Google Documents). In fact as I try to descend into these details, in order to write the last few lines, I find it difficult. It feels unnatural for humans to leave our world of the virtual, and think about its physical nature! We must be unnatural creatures.

Some people (most perhaps?) believe that we are in fact supernatural creatures. In a sense I can believe it. The prefix super- has the following dictionary definitions:

  1. something larger, stronger, or faster than others of its kind.
  2. over, above, on
  3. exceeding the usual limits
  4. a more inclusive group or category
  5. in addition to, over and above
  6. greater in size, quality, number, or degree, superior

We humans have a soul that is larger than those of other sentient species on planet earth, which sits on, and usually reigns over the natural infrastructure that supports it. We exceed, in good and bad, the limits that confine our fellow species, and include in our virtual realm of ideas everything that we can directly perceive around us, and sometimes distant particles and concepts that arrive to us only very indirectly. In addition to the duties of basic survival and reproduction, we strive to create, to work, to understand, even to love. When we suceed in this, - even when we fail and collapse into destruction, apathy, ignorance or hate - we do so on a level that is superior to any other organism on earth.

But our virtual super-nature sits on a natural physical substrate as surely as the abstraction of this file sits on one of Google's estimated 126,000 integer-arithmetic CPUs and 5000Tb of memory*. And while a degree in computer science allows me a glimpse and a glimmer of how a machine that only knows arithmetic can serve me in writing and publish an article like this, there are just too many abstractions between my self and the brain that underpins it, for me to comprehend how this self can have these thoughts in the first place. I am trapped at this level of abstraction.

Every now and then, however, someone comes along with the imagination to think about thinking, and the communication skills to rattle the bars of this abstraction cage, and offer a slightly longer glimpse at the architecture of the soul. Douglas Hofstadter is such a soul, and I Am A Strange Loop is a book which, even if it doesn't change your life, will at least offer you an insight into why, sometimes, books can change your life.

We now return you to the normal programming schedule.

* Just to be clear: I don't believe for a moment that my brain is architected like a Turing or Von Neumann machine. I don't think that some morning Google will give birth to Skynet. I don't believe that I'm 'just' a computer.

Rated 5/5 on Oct 15 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

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dathai said...

He might well be a strange loop but
Hofstadter himself seems more stuck
in an infinite loop, churning out rehashes of the excellent
Godel, Escher Bach
(which was also on our college reading list) forever.

Brendan Lawlor said...

I remember that book of course, not because I read it (I didn't) but because it caused quite a stir. But even back then it was old (published in 1975). Was our generation just rehashing an old idea?

So I can't judge if this is a rehash of GEB, but it is definitely a restatement, perhaps in a different way, of the main theme. The introduction to Strange Loop points out that even after so much success, he feels a lot of people missed the main point of GEB. Since 1975 Hofstadter has written 8 more books, some looking at music, language poetry and even morality. His favourite theme is bound to be recursiveness, reflection, loopiness but it's a rich seam and one well worth mining. He has a gift for analogy (another central concept) that can really help people like who aren't natural mathematicians to grasp ideas that are otherwise just out of reach.

So I don't think it's altogether fair to describe what he has been doing as churning out rehashes. It's not unusual to have to make the same argument more than once. Many authors have spent their entire professional lives trying to pick apart human nature through fiction.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brendan,

I can give you a loan of some traditional Chinese music CDs, if you like. Send me your contact address at

Ka said...

Still haven't recovered from exposure to Lisp at an impressionable age I see (me neither (yet))

Brendan Lawlor said...

Well hello!
The sad truth is that I still haven't recovered from being at an impressionable age.

Anonymous said...

Talking about strange loop ;)