Review of I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter – Part 2

Part 1

The toilet flush is one of the simplest and common feedback mechanisms that we find. There is a float which rises with the water level which controls the inflow of water. After a certain height is reached the water inflow is stopped. Do we attribute intentionality to the water flush? We usually do not. And this is the theme that Hofstadter explores in Chapter 4 Loops, Goals and Loopholes.

But what kinds of systems have feedback, have goals, have desires? Does a soccer ball rolling down a grassy hill “want” to get to the bottom? 52

We anthropomorphize objects and impart them our human attributes. Adding a “purpose” or a “goals” to any system is considering it from a teleological perspective. Teleology is the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes. Considering examples of variations on this theme, we can say that answer to the above question is not clear cut. There are no black-and-white answers but are judgment calls. We tend to move towards the idea of teleology and intention for a system when the feedback mechanisms are not directly perceptible.

Among other examples, Hofstadter considers plants which in normal time will appear to be static and without any “goals”. But a time-lapse of the same would show that they have “goals” and “intentions” and use strategies to achieve them.

The question is whether such systems, despite their lack of brains, are nonetheless imbued with goals and desires. Do they have hopes and aspirations? Do they have dreads and dreams? Beliefs and griefs? 53

The claim is made that presence of a feedback loop in a system, triggers in us a response which shifts the description from a goalless level of mechanics to a goal-oriented level of some cognitive mechanism. Things have the desire to move!

So far we have considered basic feedback loops. Now we move onto a more complex idea of a positive feedback loop. In a positive feedback loop, a part of the output of the system goes into increasing the output by a certain factor. With each iteration the output increases, which causes the next output to increase even more. A small change in input can cascade into a very large change (exponential) in output.

Perhaps the most common example of a positive feedback loop is the unpleasant, high pitch sound one hears in an auditorium or a meeting. This happens when a microphone gains some of its output as an input and produces an ever increasing pitch and volume of the input sound. An example is given below:

Now one can imagine that due to the exponential nature of growth, any little disturbance in such a system might lead to a sound which will eventually destroy everything.

In theory, then, the softest whisper would soon grow to a roar, which would continue growing without limit, first rendering everyone in the auditorium deaf, shortly thereafter violently shaking the building’s rafters till it collapsed upon the now-deaf audience, and then, only a few loops later, vibrating the planet apart and finishing up by annihilating the entire universe. What is specious about this apocalyptic scenario?

But this is a fallacious argument. The first fallacy is the physical nature of the setup and the amplifier in our scheme of things. If the roof falls, it will destroy the amplifier too! The second case is the nature of the amplifier, it doesn’t amplify in an unlimited way. After a certain gain, due to the physical design, the amplification becomes equal to unity and the system stabilizes at its natural frequency. It so happens that the natural high frequency of an audio amplifier is close to a high pitch scream. This is achieved by the system tends to go towards that pitch in series of rapid iterations. These are the screeching high pitch oscillations that we hear. It seems the systems “wanted” to go there, the stable point of its existence. Thus we see that

Similarly, we can also “see” visual feedback loops, when the output of a camera is given back to the camera. This can be most easily setup by pointing the camera towards a screen which is showing a live output of the camera. The cover image of the book is one such image, captured during Hofstadter’s “experiments” with the visual feedback system. One of the difference, in this case, is that the camera is not an amplifying device, it just transmits. Yet the pictures it produces are bizarre and beautiful. Seeing images of video feedback gives one a sense of mystery and wonder. There is some inherent beauty in it, yet it seems un-natural to watch.

Feedback — making a system turn back or twist back on itself, thus forming some kind of mystically taboo loop — seems to be dangerous, seems to be tempting fate, perhaps even to be intrinsically wrong, whatever that might mean. 57

Shifting gears, we get a Hofstadter’s introduction to Gödel when he was fourteen. What intrigued him was the thought that one could have an entire book about a single book. The book was Nagel and Newman’s Gödel’s Proof, published in 1958. Hofstadter wrote the introduction to the new imprint in 2001. He was fascinated by footnote on formal use of quotation marks.

So here was a book talking about how language can talk about itself talking about itself (etc.), and about how reasoning can reason about itself (etc.). I was hooked! I still didn’t have a clue what Gödel’s theorem was, but I knew I had to read this book. 58

This is something that happens to me too. Some time back (almost a decade now) I had posted about books attracting me. Perhaps it happens to many people.

We next look at famous Russel’s Paradox. One of the examples derived from it is Barber’s Paradox

The barber is the “one who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.” The question is, does the barber shave himself? [.]

There is also a loop here and there is contradiction too.

This loophole (the word fits perfectly here) was based on the notion of “the set of all sets that don’t contain themselves”, a notion that was legitimate in set theory, but that turned out to be deeply self-contradictory. 60

Russell tried to overcome this by formally re-defining the concepts of sets to save this, but it didn’t work out well. Rather it became too complex, though built on solid, atomic (in the mathematical sense) ideas.

In Principia Mathematica, there was to be no twisting-back of sets on themselves, no turning-back of language upon itself.  61

But why is self-reference considered problematic? Here Hofstadter quotes from his column Metamagical Themas (an anagram of Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games) in Scientific American on Self-Referential sentences. But all were not receptive to the idea, some of the readers were sceptical about the utility of self-reference and denied any meaningful output of such activities.

In the next chapter On Video Feedback we explore the theme of video of video feedback and Hofstadter’s experiments with it. He explores and explains many of the images which were made by adding slight things in the image, fox example, truncated corridor, endless corridor, helical corridor etc. The common element in all these video feedback is the repeating of the primary image in scaled down fashion till the resolution of the screen can support (theoretically infinite). During one the experiments, he covers the lens and then removes his hands. During this, the movement of his hand is captured and forms an endless image which is moving, even when the hand is removed. This action has formed a loop and is feeding itself in a cyclic setup.

A faithful image of something changing will itself necessarily keep changing! 67

A similar phenomenon is that of dogs barking in sync. Some dog somewhere, starts to bark for something that is passing near it. Now, other dogs pick up and start barking too. And the chain goes on. Once setup, it doesn’t matter what was the reason for the first dog to bar, it may have gone away. But the chain of barking sustains itself. During one the flights, I have seen this happen with small babies. There were about 5-6 babies on the flight. It so happened that one of them started to cry for some reason. Then the rest joined in one-by-one. Perhaps the others were crying because the heard another one cry. And the event became self-sustaining. This went on for quite some time.

This is one of the core idea of an emergent phenomenon, once

In general, an emergent phenomenons omehow emerges quite naturally and automatically from rigid rules operating at a lower, more basic level, but exactly how that emergence happens is not at all clear to the observer. 68

The video explorations led to some fantastic images, many of which are reproduced in color in the central pages of the book. In the last part of the chapter, Hofstadter drives towards one of the central themes which we will explore in the remaining book. The idea is that strange and robust (self-sustaining) structures can emerge from the process of looping.

Once a pattern is onthe screen, then all that is needed to justify its staying up there is George Mallory’s classic quip about why he felt compelled to scale Mount Everest: “Because it’s there!” When loops are involved, circular justifications are the name of the game. 70

Some of the images I myself have collected are shown below:

The locking-in gives rise to abstract phenomena at higher levels.

In short, there are surprising new structures that looping gives rise to that constitute a new level of reality that could in principle be deduced from the basic loop and its detailed properties, but that in practice have a different kind of “life of their own” and that demand — at least when it comes to extremely finite, simplicity-seeking, new level of description that transcend the basic level out of which they emerge. 71

Whether we will be able to actually do it, or want to do it is another question. This reminds me of the saying: In theory, there is no different in theory and practice, in practice there is.

Here are a few more:

 

Nothing remains to be held…

” It happens, sometimes, that things are too much.

Stacks overflow.

Trusses break.

I get that.

What I don’t get is: how one barrels through.

Where does that strength come from?

How is it fed?

And if it doesn’t appear on command, how does one hold on, waiting?

Everything is collapsing.

By definition, that means: nothing remains to be held. ”

~ Anon.

via Lessig Blog, v2.

Anonymous Stranger

Last month I has a strange experience with a anonymous stranger.
I call the person anonymous is because the identity of that person is not known to me. I received a SMS which has some riddle like lines..
This led to an exchange of SMS which I am reporting here.
This is a monologue, which some people in the past have accused me of doing, for the reason that `Save sent msgs’ function is disabled on my phone. So feel free to fill in the in between SMS on my side, where you want to

It all started with these two messages from this number 902856xxxx
[The numbers at the beginning are YEAR:MONTH:DAY:HOURS:MINUTES]


2010:04:14:00:46: Yews over unwilling. Restless elated yet. Elated sumer amply relumes each..
2010:04:14:16:36: Each Not Chancing His Arrival Not To Ingenuity Not Green

I tried to call, then  all other SMS came from this number, when 909612xxxx

2010:04:14:20:31: Dont dont dont call.. Look what happens when you do.. Now i have to text you from this number..
2010:04:15:20:35: so i assume you could not decipher the first two text s code
2010:04:16:21:15: Ok lets take it this way.. If you dont want me to text give me a missed and if you want dont react.. I highly suspect we have the prevalence of the former here.. So please go ahead..
2010:04:16:22:05: You know you are like pepin but of course in only your stubborn and nonchalant ways..
2010:04:17:09:41: Finally.. Not that i know what s m means but still its porgress.. Did you decode?
2010:04:17:09:47: Attitude.. It like it.. Infact i think you should patent it.. For obvious  reasons you know..
2010:04:17:10:01: Ok now amit s again become pepin.. Tell me are my text so loathable or its just you..
2010:04:17:11:27: Ok so my texts are not good and you are intended upon talking in monosyllables.. At least we agree on one thing.. Its progress again..
2010:04:17:14:07: didnt intend upon disturbin bt i texted n it ws nt deleverin so i thought i hav troubled u 2 d extend of switchin off ur phone..wanted 2 ask if u really dont like.. I wont text.?
2010:04:17:14:11: Yea i know you want to say ‘your wish’.. cos i started.. But seriously you can say bluntly..
2010:04:17:14:16: Oh regarding choice between texting or not texting or something more difficult..
2010:04:17:14:22: Ah.. Thats  what i meant by difficult.. No nothing.. Nothin at all infact.. Lets save us both some messages.. You : then why are you texting me. Me : nothing particular but i ll stop the moment you tell me to.. you: ….. Me : oks… Now you can complete..
2010:04:17:14:25: Flattered..
2010:04:17:14:25: At least pepin thinks i m worth hmmm s..
2010:04:17:14:28: Ok then.. Do think.. Do what you rmind says.. What is it saying now..
2010:04:17:14:36: Ok forget if you dont want to answer.. Or still wordless.?
2010:04:17:14:43: Come on pepin.. Ok dont try to know your mind. Its complex.. Ask me who has been trying to extract replys from you all week..
2010:04:17:14:45: Oh god.. Will you ever reply without me asking you a question..
2010:04:17:14:53: He was french dictator.. Reminds of you..
2010:04:17:14:59: Angry?
2010:04:17:15:02: Hmmm.. So you know him..
2010:04:17:15:13: Cute.. but dont know try to know him personaly.. not a nice guy..
2010:04:17:15:17: Why not.. I know all dictators personally..
2010:04:17:15:19: Ok.. Who s your ideal person.. O mean you admire the ideas of whom,, Somebody i would know..
2010:04:17:15:26: Lets see if i am a physicist if would like chandrashekhar or einstein or stephen hawking.. Read breif hostory of time? Its beautiful..
2010:04:17:15:30: Come on pepin… Say na..
2010:04:17:15:34: Khan
2010:04:17:15:38: ?
2010:04:17:15:44: Yeah y him.. He was worse than pepin.. Are you kidding..
2010:04:17:15:58: Please talk in more than one word.. Its difficult you know..
2010:04:17:16:30: Kay zhala..
2010:04:17:16:33: :-).. Am i very boring.. Yes you are interesting..
2010:04:17:16:55: That means yes?
2010:04:17:17:02: That is because you.. No first answer.. Am i really boring..
2010:04:17:17:03: Or moderately so..
2010:04:17:17:19: At least yes or no..
2010:04:17:17:24: Can you know if you ll talk to me..
2010:04:17:17:25: Did you realise this was your longest sentence
2010:04:17:17:26: No.. I m otherwise very boring.. Its better on text..
2010:04:17:17:27: Yup.. Your highness is gettin better..
2010:04:17:17:31: No.. I m otherwise very boring.. Its better on text..        
2010:04:17:17:32: Yup.. Your highness is gettin better..
2010:04:17:17:35: You feelin it.? Because for me its like.. Come on girl.. Come up with something cool..
2010:04:17:17:48: The signal is bad here.. Airtel sucks.. And what else s going on..
2010:04:17:17:50: Ok mr pepin but please say more that two words..
2010:04:17:17:51: Okay chose one.. Sea or moutain.. Orange or red.. Cat or dog..
2010:04:17:17:54: Afraid? Of what 🙂 I have given up on studies.. How s your ph d going..
2010:04:17:17:59: No silly.. Given up means going okay okay..
2010:04:17:18:00: Y u got married..
2010:04:17:18:00: Sounding so sad like hmmm..
2010:04:17:18:02: Okay chose one.. Sea or mountain.. orange or red.. Cat or dog..
2010:04:17:18:04: Sea or moutain..
2010:04:17:18:05: Cat or dog..
2010:04:17:18:05: Yaar amit i dont know.. Y would otherwise i ask you..
2010:04:17:18:10: Ok.. You are somebosy who gets angry unexpectedly, likes travelling, loyal to very very limited people and.. Okay select one.. Eyes or nose..
2010:04:17:18:12: And think what people are from inside is more mp that what people look..
2010:04:17:18:13: .Am i correct or wrong. What percent
2010:04:17:18:24: You know this is what is unexpected.. The moment i think you are ok you become cold again.. Ok you only say since my talks are vague apparently
2010:04:17:18:27: Your game.?
2010:04:17:18:30: Cute but.. Anyways..
2010:04:17:18:32: Its just too early… And by the way mr pepin my knowing your identity is default.. And playing games.. Not my cup of tea
2010:04:17:18:33: Well you r naive.. Lets assume for the moment what you said was cute..
2010:04:17:18:35: Ok then it is.. Do you realise.. One sms includes more than sixty char nad you use just two of them.. National wastage..
2010:04:17:18:35: Ok fav author..?
2010:04:17:18:36: Coffee.?
2010:04:17:18:38: Amit say na..
2010:04:17:18:40: Say one.. You are such a spoilsport..
2010:04:17:18:45: Yeah since i am an expert on abbreviations that one beats me..
2010:04:17:18:47: Ok..
2010:04:17:18:51: Kay zhala again?
2010:04:17:19:10: So what does sm really mean
2010:04:17:19:11: No say na..
2010:04:17:19:12: Come on say na
2010:04:17:19:14: I understood that pepin.. But justified enough.. I m keeping my share of identity so you can keep your sm to yourself..
2010:04:17:19:16: No my initials are not that.. But whats that.. Where did you get it from..
2010:04:17:19:17: No ad they are not my initials..
2010:04:17:19:19: No.. Come on.. I m hidin.. Will not lie..
2010:04:17:19:21: Yeah.. I really dont know where you are getting that from but do tell me..
2010:04:17:19:21: Say na whats sm
2010:04:17:19:24: And you have appeal for..?
2010:04:17:19:25: Seriously..
2010:04:17:19:27: No not why not at all.. Cool..
2010:04:17:19:33: Kay zhaka again?
2010:04:17:19:38: Ok.. Will text you once i am in a position to disclose my identity.. Take care..

I really don’t know what sense to make out of all this…