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September 17, 2006

Currently Reading: "The Mind's I" and "1776"

The Mind's I, Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett

The Mind's I is a book that I've owned for years and I read quite a bit through maybe a decade ago, but never finished. It's a book about consciousness, a conglomeration of pieces written by quite a few different authors, then each piece reflected upon by Daniel C. Dennett (author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea) and/or Douglas R. Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach). If there is a strong philosophical bent to your thinking, you may like this one.

1776, by David McCullough

1776, by David McCullough, is a new book to me, and is very interesting. I had no idea how little I knew about the revolutionary war. The book centers around General George Washington, but it employs many different characters. It reads like a novel, but is heavily interspersed with actual surviving quotes made by the historical characters within its pages. It's very interesting and I recommend it to everyone. (It is good enough that I am likely to follow up by reading one of his other books: John Adams.)

More on The Mind's I:

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter, is a book which compares the mathematics of Godel, the paintings of Escher, and the music of Bach to one another. There's a great deal of similarity.

There's a long chapter in that book called, "Prelude...Ant Fugue", which is reprinted in the book The Mind's I.

The chapter, in and of itself, is (supposed to be) a fugue by Bach. The content of the chapter is a dialogue between four characters: Achilles, (a) Tortoise, (a) Crab, and (an) Anteater. The dialogue is about a friend of theirs by the name of Aunt Hillary. Aunt Hillary is an ant colony. She doesn't participate in the discussion, of course, because she's not present. Much of the discussion is about how it is possible that Aunt Hillary can even be referred to as an individual, being as how she's composed of ants, and of how Aunt Hillary can consider Anteater to be such a good friend (which she does) in spite of Anteater being...an ant eater (he doesn't eat colonies, so it's not like Aunt Hillary has anything to fear - but the ants which of which she is composed don't like Anteater in the least!).

Also, the conversation is occasionally self-referential, in that its participants sometimes discuss the very Bach fugue which is composed of their very conversation. That would be like the Bach fugue actually thinking about itself, in some strange way. No, that's not quite accurate...it's more in the other direction...hmm....

Anyway...the whole idea is to make clear the distinction between different levels of description (such as how this picture, at one level of description, is a bunch of photos of soldiers, but at another is a single picture of George Bush's face [note that it is very poor art, given that they just put a bunch of photos together, and then they bleached some of them and darkened others in order to create the light and dark portions of Bush's face; that's pretty amateur]).

Here's an excerpt:

CRAB: We would never have noticed if it hadn't been for you, Achilles

ANTEATER: I wonder if the coincidence of the highest and lowest levels happened by chance? Or was it a purposeful act carried out by some creator?

CRAB: How could one ever decide that?

TORTOISE: I don't see any way to do so, since we have no idea why that particular picture is in the Crab's edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

ANTEATER: Although we have been having a lively discussion, I have still managed to listen with a good fraction of an ear to this very long and complex four-voice fugue. It is extraordinarily beautiful.

TORTOISE: It certainly is. And now, in just a moment, comes an organ point.

ACHILLES: Isn't an organ point what happens when a piece of music slows down slightly, settles for a moment or two on a single note or chord, and then resumes at normal speed after a short silence?

TORTOISE: No, you're thinking of a "fermata" - a sort of musical semicolon. Did you notice there was one of those in the prelude?

ACHILLES: I guess I must have missed it.

TORTOISE: Well, you have another chance coming up to hear a fermata - in fact, there are a couple of them coming up toward the end of this fugue.

ACHILLES: Oh, good. you'll point them out in advance, won't you?

TORTOISE: If you like.

ACHILLES: But do tell me, what is an organ point?

TORTOISE: An organ point is the sustaining of a single note by one of the voices in a polyphonic piece (often the lowest voice), while the other voices continue their own independent lines. This organ point is on the note of G. Listen carefully, and you'll hear it.

ANTEATER: There occurred an incident one day when I visited with Aunt Hillary which reminds me of your suggestion of observing the symbols in Achilles' brain as they create thoughts which are about themselves.

CRAB: Do tell us about it.

ANTEATER: Aunt Hillary had been feeling very lonely, and was very happy to have someone to talk to that day. So she gratefully told me to help myself to the juiciest ants I could find. (She's always been most generous with her ants.)

ACHILLES: Gee!

ANTEATER: It just happened that I had been watching the symbols which were carrying out her thoughts, because in them were some particularly juicy-looking ants.

ACHILLES: Gee!

ANTEATER: So I helped myself to a few of the fattest ants which had been parts of the higher-level symbols which I had been reading. Specifically, the symbols which they were part of were the ones which had expressed the thought "Help yourself to any of the ants which look appetizing."

ACHILLES: Gee!

ANTEATER: Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for me, the little bugs didn't have the slightest inkling of what they were collectively telling me, on the symbol level.

ACHILLES: Gee! That is an amazing wraparound. They were completely unconscious of what they were participating in. Their acts could be seen as part of a pattern on a higher level, but of course they were completely unaware of that. Ah, what a pity - a supreme irony, in fact - that they missed it.

CRAB: You are right, Mr. T - that was a lovely organ point.

ANTEATER: I had never heard one before, but that one was so conspicuous that one one could miss it. Very effective.

ACHILLES: What? Has the organ pint already occurred? How can I not have noticed it, if it was so blatant?

TORTOISE: Perhaps you were so wrapped up in what you were saying that you were completely unaware of it. Ah, what a pity - a supreme irony, in fact - that you missed it.

CRAB: Tell me, does Aunt Hillary live in an anthill?

ANTEATER: Well, she owns a rather large piece of property. It used to belong to someone else, but that is a rather sad story. In any case, her estate is quite expansive. She lives rather sumptuously, compared to many other colonies.

ACHILLES: How does that jibe with the communistic nature of ant colonies which you earlier described to us? It sounds quite inconsistent, to me, to preach communism and to live in a fancy estate!

ANTEATER: The communism is on the ant level. In an ant colony all ants work for the common good, even to their own individual detriment at times. Now this is simply a built-in aspect of Aunt Hillary's structure, but for all I know, she may not even be aware of this internal communism. Most human beings are not aware of anything about their neurons; in fact they probably are quite content not to know anything about their brains, being somewhat squeamish creatures. Aunt Hillary is also somewhat squeamish; she gets rather antsy whenever she starts to think about ants at all. So she avoids thinking about them whenever possible. I truly doubt that she knows anything about the communistic society which is built into her very structure. She herself is a staunch believer in libertarianism - you know, laissez-faire and all that. So it makes perfect sense, to me at least, that she should live in a rather sumptuous manor....

This dialogue is also about the differing appropriateness of using reductionist and holistic interpretations of events.

See also: John Adams, by David McCullough.

Posted by Jeff at September 17, 2006 11:19 PM

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