Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world besides the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?

–Henry Miller

Chapter 5. It was a story told by my mother to Paul that grabbed…

It was a sto­ry told by my moth­er to Paul over tea and cook­ies and I believe some inel­e­gant cheese that grabbed me by the Saskatchewans, pitch­ing me into a fever dossier and a full count I am prob­a­bly still suf­fer­ing con­sec­u­tive­ly this very day, near­ly sev­er­al thou­sand dawns of Cool­ing Earth lat­er. Why had she nev­er men­tioned this before. Why had she strug­gled with my pangs of sen­si­tiv­i­ty all these years? Why did she strike us in urgency when we only begged for some greater under­stand­ing of the way the uni­verse worked than she did?

Paul said noth­ing. I made a small speech upon hear­ing what I con­sid­ered a rev­e­la­tion of some blind­ing mag­ni­tude. Paul was an ana­lyt­i­cal alco­holic from Utah. A free­lance CPU who lived in squat hous­es, and a cou­ple of changes of suits, ties, and white shirts whose clients knew what they were get­ting and got what they knew they had com­ing. he did­n’t work every­day, but he did drink every­day. In his late 40s at the time. Matric­u­lat­ed at Brigham Young. A failed Mor­mon. I was in my mid-​20s, charm­ing no one but myself with long back-​length hair I wore in a braid, and fun­ny britch­es to boot. I met Paul at a bar, and we breezed in and out of each oth­er’s tes­ti­mo­ni­als in half-​lives for about a month.

These were also the hack­neyed days of Tere­sa. I met her in an air­port. She was pass­ing out pam­phlets. She was attrac­tive, but rather hairy, and unique­ly over­dressed for the sum­mer with long woolen skirts and sweaters.

At the time, I had just left Cor­pus Christi TX, after find­ing a book called ¶del, Esch­er, Bach: An Eter­nal Gold­en Braid by Dou­glas Hof­s­tadter on the cof­fee table of the broth­er of my broth­er’s brother-​in-​law, who had gone over to check the igni­tion and tires on the old 1966 Mer­cedes his broth­er owned. His broth­er was some­where in the Mid­dle East, work­ing as a con­trac­tor. I have no idea what he was doing over there. It was top secret, and this was the ear­ly 80s. It paid well, and thus his old­er broth­er, a chef-​in-​training peri­od­i­cal­ly kept a solemn eye on his younger broth­er’s more exot­ic acqui­si­tions. The Mer­cedes did­n’t inter­est me, but this book caught my eye imme­di­ate­ly. I picked it up, han­dling it like cush­ioned gold. Then sat down, switch­ing on the lamp.
Described by the author in the tagline as “a metaphor­i­cal fugue on minds and machines in the spir­it of Lewis Car­roll” I was imme­di­ate­ly hooked.

On its sur­face, the book exam­ines logi­cian Kurt ¶del, artist M. C. Esch­er and com­pos­er Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach, dis­cussing com­mon themes in their work and lives. At a deep­er lev­el, the book is an expo­si­tion of con­cepts fun­da­men­tal to math­e­mat­ics, sym­me­try, and intel­li­gence.

Through illus­tra­tion and analy­sis, the book dis­cuss­es how self-​reference and for­mal rules allow sys­tems to acquire mean­ing despite being made of “mean­ing­less” ele­ments. It also dis­cuss­es what it means to com­mu­ni­cate, how knowl­edge can be rep­re­sent­ed and stored, the meth­ods and lim­i­ta­tions of sym­bol­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and even the fun­da­men­tal notion of “mean­ing” itself.

© 2011, Gabriel Thy. All rights reserved.

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