Saturday, April 11, 2009

I Am A Twenty-Seven-Year-Old Strange Loop

Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders what the part that isn't thinking isn't thinking of...
--They Might Be Giants

So I'm nearly finished with Douglas Hofstadter's newest book, I Am A Strange Loop. His middle book, Le Ton Beau De Marot, is one of my favorite books ever, and I have to admit that I've never made it all the way through GEB but am starting it over again and this time I will prevail!

A quick summary: Hofstadter wrote this huge tome called Godel, Escher, Bach about... um... recursive mathematical properties and their associated paradoxes (is that a good way to sum it up? it's a bit more complicated than that, especially with all the Bach canons thrown in). Then he wrote another huge tome called Le Ton Beau De Marot which is all about linguistics and translation (maybe if one says GEB is about the paradoxes of math, Marot could be about the paradoxes of language). Lately he wrote a much shorter book called I Am A Strange Loop which is about the paradox of thought itself (the part of us that wonders what the part that isn't thinking isn't thinking of).

The last book is by far the easiest to read, mainly because it deals with a lot of things that most people have probably pondered at some point in their lives (to wit: how does that mass of cells in my brain churn out thoughts?). In fact, as I read it, it seemed a little unfair that Hofstadter had taken the time to write out all of these ideas that I had, myself, already present in my own mass-of-cells brain. It was like he was stealing the inside of my mind and selling it.

And then, deep within the recesses of this book that seemed to contain my own ideas in Hofstadter's writing, he happened to casually mention that he wrote the 900-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning GEB when he was twenty-seven years old.

That's the age I am now.

There are huge chunks of GEB which explore Zeno's Paradox (Achilles can never catch the tortoise because even in the time it takes for Achilles to reach the tortoise's point X, the tortoise will have moved incrementally forward to point Y, and by the time Achilles reaches point Y, the tortoise will have inched forward to point Z, etc.). Sometimes I look at my generation and think that we're in our own version of Zeno's Paradox; every time we approach the bar of adulthood, it has inched a few years down the road; and when we hit that age, we find the bar is still further away.

Hofstadter was 27 in 1979; he had been an assistant professor for two years already. No one gets to do that anymore. Some people would say that today's twenty-somethings aren't prepared for the job (Hofstadter wrote GEB, but my own peers turn out things like this). That's, of course, a causality loop as much as it is anything else, combined with the unfortunate fact that few people now get the careful, one-on-one mentoring that Hofstadter got as a student.

(For all of education's current emphasis on group learning and group work, and for all of the internet's development of the hive mind, it is interesting to read biographies and notice that most people who are notable enough to have biographies trace their work back to a lengthy period of one-on-one mentoring. Just sayin' is all.)

But I suppose there's another side to all this Zeno Paradoxing: if thirty is the new twenty, as it were, then I have another ten years to create my seminal work. That tortoise is still just a bit ahead of me. I had better start running.

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