I Am In a Strange Loop

    ”The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte says that "This is not a pipe." A strange loop.

I got a copy of Douglas Hofstadter's book, Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, when I started working at NJIT in 2000. It was my lunch reading. I read it in almost daily spurts. I often had to reread because it is not light reading.

book coverIt was published in 1979 and won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. It is said to have inspired many a student to pursue computer science, though it's not really a CS book. It was further described on its cover as a "metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll." In the book itself, he says "I realized that to me, Godel and Escher and Bach were only shadows cast in different directions by some central solid essence. I tried to reconstruct the central object, and came up with this book."

I had not finished the book when I left NJIT and it went on a shelf at home. This summer I was trying to thin out my too-many books and I came upon it again with its bookmarker glowering at me from just past the halfway point in the pages. So, I went back to reading it. Still, tough going, though very interesting.

I remembered writing a post here about the book (it turned out to be from 2007) when I came upon a new book by Hofstadter titled I Am a Strange Loop. That "strange loop" was something he originally proposed in the 1979 book. This post is a rewrite and update on that older post.

The earlier book is a meditation on human thought and creativity. It mixes the music of Bach, the artwork of Escher, and the mathematics of Godel. In the late 1970s when he was writing interest in computers was high and artificial intelligence (AI) was still more of an idea than a reality. Reading Godel, Escher, Bach exposed me to some abstruse math (like undecidability, recursion, and those strange loops) but (here's where Lewis Carroll's "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles" gets referenced though some of you will say it's really a Socratic dialogue as in Xeno's fable, Achilles and the Tortoise) each chapter has a dialogue between the Tortoise and Achilles and other characters to dramatize concepts. Allusions to Bach's music and Escher's art (that loves paradox) also are used, as well as other mathematicians, artists, and thinkers. Godel's Incompleteness Theorem serves as his example of describing the unique properties of minds.

His new book back then was I Am a Strange Loop which focuses on the "strange loop" that he originally proposed in the 1979 book. I haven't read that book, but since I made it through the earlier volume (albeit in 18 years), I may give Strange Loop a try.

From what I read about the author, he was disappointed with how Godel, Escher, Bach (GEB) was received. It certainly got good reviews - and a Pulitzer Prize - but he felt that readers and reviewers missed what he saw as the central theme. I have an older edition but in a 20th-anniversary edition, he added that the theme was "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?"

I Am a Strange Loop focuses on that theme. In both books, he addresses "self-referential systems." (see link at bottom)

One thing that stuck with me from my first attempt at GEB is his using "meta" and defining it as meaning "about." Some people might say that it means "containing." Back on the early part of this century, I thought about that when I first began using Moodle as a learning management system. When you set up a new course in Moodle (and in other LMSs since then), it asks if this is a "metacourse." In Moodle, that means that it is a course that "automatically enrolls participants from other 'child' courses." Metacourses (AKA "master courses") feature all or part of the same content but customized to the enrollments of other sections. 

This was a feature used in big courses like English or Chemistry 101. In my courses, I thought more about having things like meta-discussions or discussions about discussions. My metacourse might be a course about the course. Quite self-referential.

I suppose it can get loopy when you start saying that if we have a course x, the metacourse X could be a course to talk about course x but would not include course x within itself. Though I suppose that it could.

Have I lost you?

Certainly, metatags are quite common on web pages, photos and for cataloging, categorizing and characterizing content objects. Each post on Serendipity35 is tagged with one or more categories and a string of keyword tags that help readers find similar content and help search engines make the post searchable.

A brief Q&A with Hofstadter published in Wired  in March 2007 about the newer book says that he considers the central question to him to be "What am I?."

His examples of "strange loops" include Escher's piece, "Drawing Hands," which shows two hands drawing each other, and the sentence, "I am lying."

Hofstadter gets spiritual in his further thinking and he finds at the core of each person a soul. He feels the "soul is an abstract pattern." Because he felt the soul is strong in mammals (weaker in insects), it brought him to vegetarianism.

He was considered to be an AI researcher, but he now thought of himself as a cognitive scientist.

Reconsidering GED, he decides that another mistake in that book's approach may have been not seeing that the human mind and smarter machines are fundamentally different. He has less of an interest in computers and claims that he always thought that his writing would "resonate with people who love literature, art, and music" more than the tech people.

If it has taken me much longer to finish Godel, Escher, Bach than it should, that makes sense if we follow the strange loop of Hofstadter's Law. ("It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.)

End Note: 
A self-referential situation is one in which the forecasts made by the human agents involved serves to create the world they are trying to forecast. http://epress.anu.edu.au/cs/mobile_devices/ch04s03.html. Social systems are self-referential systems based on meaningful communication. http://www.n4bz.org/gst/gst12.htm.

Just Trying to Help

woman online

She just wants to help me online.

I have been getting more emails sent to my blogs (I have 9 including this one - which is just ridiculous) offering "help" and also posts I might want to use.

Here's a recent example:

My name is [deleted], I'm a writer and blogger at IvyPanda. Recently I've been working on an article about communication skills and I visited your website while researching. There's a great post named "PowerPointless" (https://www.serendipity35.net/index.php?/archives/210-PowerPointless.html) I enjoyed reading!
Unfortunately, I noticed a broken link there. Here it is: 

Since my brand new article is out, I think you can use it for updating your page. It has 27 tips to overcome public speaking anxiety and a bonus list of great courses available online. It's going to be an excellent replacement! 
Here's the link: https://ivypanda.com/blog/public-speaking-anxiety-tips
What do you think? Just trying to help ;-)
Warm regards,
**   writer & blogger

There is software that can scan sites for broken external links. So, these people find a broken link and use that as a way to email and help you fix your site - which is useful - and then the email will always suggest a related link that I might use which comes from their site.

The first time I received one of these emails, I made the change and used their link and replied with a thank-you. But after receiving a dozen or so similar ones I had decided that this was just a way to place links on other websites.

This particular email I shared also offered links to her Facebook page. Yes, it was a woman, and on all the ones I have received, it was a woman - and an attractive woman at that. (Not the woman shown above.)  I wonder if female bloggers get emails from male helpers? is she a real person? Is this a scam, and if so is it harmful? 

This has a name. It is called "broken link building." This is a link building tactic. You find a broken link, recreate the dead content, then tell anyone linking to the dead resource to instead link to your recreated content. When it works - and I'm sure it often does - it is because you don't want dead links on your website.

You can feel some pride if you get one of these emails because websites targeted have a good following. They target you because they are trying to raise their own search engine optimization which is at least partially based on the ranking of the sites that link to you.

Did I fix my "PowerPointless" post here on Serendipity35because of that email? Yes. I got rid of the broken link, added a new one (not the one that was provided) and fixed a broken image. So, thanks.


overhead projector
There is probably one of these gathering dust in a classroom near you. It still has its uses.

PowerPointless. I really like that as the title of a presentation on the use of "slides" (even if it's Apple's Keynote instead of MS PowerPoint). We all know that it can be much abused, and yet it's in the majority of classrooms. You probably ask your students to do presentations. They get graded. What do you do to make their presentations better?

In the past few months, I've seen three mentions of assigning students (grades 7-20) to give a 90-second demo presentation. It doesn't seem tough. A script for one would be about 150 words, about one page of text. How much can you say in 90 seconds?

The point would be to force students to think about focus & polish and cutting out wasted time, words and images (or props).

What can you do in that amount of time? The very briefest of intros. Define the topic, problem or goal. Work through clearly defined steps. Multitask - talk and demo simultaneously, leading into the next step a beat before you actually do it. Do the steps build upon the previous one? Have a definite finish. Leave a slide or graphic up at the end with your name, demo title, etc. - end with the traditional intro.

Something this short can be scripted/storyboarded without it being a huge undertaking.

There is actually an event called Demo held twice a year where executives from 70+ companies get 6 minutes to do a product demo to an audience of venture capitalists, analysts, and journalists.

Check out:

  1. Video archive from previous Demo events
  2. Guy Kawasaki on How To Get A Standing Ovation
  3. Behind The Magic Curtain (demos with Steve Jobs)
  4. Tips for Successful Public Speaking from the Toastmasters.org
  5. Presentation Zen - a good blog to subscribe to