Writ Ludicrous

Ludicrous, that writing should be so difficult! In the mind thoughts flow fluidly. In speech, rants segue tirelessly. Pen hits paper; and faculties fail.

Thought! Unbounded by the material; an infinitely associative symphony of synthesis guides your movements. A fanciful flight of possibility.

Speech! The wheels of production greased by evolution; the audience real time critics. Awful, stupid sounds fade away; ephemeral manuscripts memory can mend.

Writing! Majestic dimensionality made flat, living lights compressed. Mutilated and dismembered, their bodies scatter across a page. Ink fixes their form. Carefully arranged squiggles articulate the shadows of the dead.

Colorful dreams pinned; exciting ideas rendered dull. Structure makes plain your vacuity.

An Awkward Game of Baseball


NSFW

This post is personal and sexual; if that’s not your cup of tea then it’s time to leave. Apologies to my boyfriend who’s privacy I am implicating in this post.


I have a problem penis. It’s kind of both. My penis poses several problems for me: dysphoria, can’t have kids, accidentally outing me etc. These things considered, my complaint today is relatively minor in magnitude, but makes up for it in frequency. Like an awkward game of baseball, my sex life is missing third base.

For the uninitiated, the baseball metaphor of sex is as follows:

  1. First Base: Kissing, making out
  2. Second Base: Shirts off, touched her boobs
  3. Third Base: Hand in the pants, touching someone’s junk
  4. Home Plate: Handholding

This is accurate to the best of my middle school knowledge.

My frustration stems from the interruption of natural sexual progression. Fantastic foreplay foments a deep and instinctive feeling in my body about where to go next – but I can’t go there and I don’t know what to do. I get a weird feeling in my perineum, where the base of my bulbospongiosus muscle is, but I can’t really indulge it.

The best analogy I can give is preparing food, sitting down to eat, raising the fork to your mouth, opening wide only to find you cannot chew. It’s still possible to eat, but you feel deep down that there is something you’d like to be doing, but for some reason you physiology won’t permit it.

This post is mostly a dressed up complaint; I find that writing about my problems helps uncover solutions, or at least lay them to rest in my mind. I suppose the only thing to do it wait for surgery. If anyone has found a workaround I’m all ears.

I Am A Strange Loop

Upon finishing Douglas Hofstader’s I Am a Strange Loop I threw it across the room. Not because the book’s contents were offensive, heretical, or objectionable to me. Quite the opposite; I found the book a bloated banality and was happy to be free of it. This is made all the more tragic because I wanted to like the book. It caught my eye in the basement of a San Francisco bookstore and the title immediately invoked a prior musing about how the brain is the only muscle that flexes itself. I was eager to read the thoughts of someone that had put the time in to develop the idea. Unfortunately this book doesn’t develop them very far and repeats the few ideas it does have again and again and again.

The Big Idea

The mind is an illusion, an epiphenomenon of a material substrate. Its primary components are symbols. As a person develops, more and more symbols accrete in their mind; the “largest”such symbol, the one “activated” in the most “loops” is the “I” or ego of a person. A consequence of this is that the “I” believes itself to be a prime mover, an agent of causality. The eponymous strange loop is perceiving events which activate certain symbols culminating in action (and then starting over). Also Gödel’s incompleteness theorem allows for self referential mappings in any sufficiently complex arithmetic system therefore any sufficiently complex perception to action mapping could be self referential. Hofstader talks about some other topics, such as simulation capture and how categories, including self identification are blurry.

My issue with I Am A Strange Loop is that it stated the obvious without building upon it and pretentiously hand waved the hard questions of consciousness. The idea that humans map perceptions to “symbols” in their head and then act on the world is as old and overly simplistic as it is obvious. Hofstader could have elucidated what constitutes a symbol, or the minimum set of symbols required for consciousness or explained the neurobiological underpinnings of symbolic systems or anything that would have made this observation interesting instead of unoriginal.

Ironically, on page 328 Hofstader lists and gently mocks a set of questions that, if he had attempted to answer, would have made his book far more valuable.

Which physical entities possess Consciousness, and which ones do not? Does a whole human brain possess Consciousness? Or is it just the human’s brain that is Conscious? … What organizational or chemical property of a physical structure is it that graces it with the right to be invaded by a dollop of Consciousness?

This goes on until it ends in the question the book eminently avoids answering:

How does Consciousness coexist with physical law? That is, how does a dollop of Consciousness push material stuff around without coming into sharp conflict with the fact that physical law alone would suffice to determine the behavior of those things?

i.e. the preeminent question of the mind.

This is made more frustrating because Hofstader states a pragmatic definition of truth and how it then it conveniently avoids applying the same definition to consciousness. For instance, Hofstader relies on the idea of self referential mapping that causes consciousness to arise from arbitrarily extensible sets of symbols. Functions are mathematical constructs dreamt up by the mind and do not exist in the same way the material world exists. Pragmatically they could both be said to be real but then you couldn’t hand-wave consciousness away as an illusion.

There are many other examples in the book of this unequal treatment (mostly because there are too many examples in the book in general), but this one stood out to me as particularly egregious:

SL #642: All of this I see, but why do you keep implying that one of these views is an illusion, and the other one is the truth? You always give primacy to the particle viewpoint, the lower-level microscopic viewpoint. Why are you so prejudiced? Why don’t you see two equally good rival views that we can oscillate between as we find appropriate, in somewhat the way that physicists can oscillate between thermodynamics and statistical mechanics when they deal with gases?

SL #641: Because, most unfortunately, the non-particle view involves several types of magical thinking. It entails making a division of the world into two radically different kinds of entities (experiencers and non-experiencers), it involves two radically different kinds of causality (downward and upward), it involves immaterial souls that pop into being out of nowhere and at some point are suddenly extinguished, and on and on.

This is sophism. Hofstader fails to explain why the world can be divided into particles and non-particles (and different types of particles) but not “experiencers” and “non-experiencers.” In addition Hofstader doesn’t find it objectionable that particles frequently pop into and out of existence or can have a virtual existence. The epistemological bottoming out of materialism, as humorously illustrated below, is never considered either.

I was not impressed with onerous retelling of basic phenomenological facts and inconsistent treatment of the ideas present within the book. There are some familiar ideas but they aren’t well developed.

Writing Style

The writing style is unexceptional, and Hofstader’s first person explanation of ideas to me came off as unnecessary and often pretentious, although that could just be my own projection. Speaking of projection, Hofstader goes out of his way to conspicuously note how not sexist he is (e.g. page 57 and 312) which gave me pause for thought.

The book is 363 pages long and ~300 pages too long. The cause of this bloat is the abundance of redundant examples for an idea. Hofstader would explain a concept and then throw in an example or analogy to facilitate comprehension. That’s well enough, but then he’d throw in another example. Then another. Plus a metaphor and two tangential anecdotes. I started skimming about the third of the way in because much of the book repeats itself.

My final complaint is that the puns are bad and Hofstader makes them worse by explaining them. A book this long doesn’t need to be padded by bad puns and their explanations.

Conclusion

This book is for no one. If you have never considered your own consciousness before, this book provides a minimal foundation, made scarce through its own verbosity, for you to build on. If you’ve given the paradox of existence some thought there is nothing new in this book; unless you really want to know about Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and even then I recommend the Wikipedia page.

Other Reviews

Reviews of the book corroborate my analysis, mentioning the book is: not as good as his other works, contains only one idea and is too long. Other people genuinely enjoyed the book, so don’t let this review dissuade you from this book or Hofstader’s other works.

Selected Reviews

This book is good in the sense that his major premise has much to commend it. In another sense, his major premise could have been explained in a rather lengthy article in only 36 pages, rather than the 363 pages it takes to explain.

It’s very long and tiresome at places […] I suggest reading it topological (don’t be afraid to skip pages or only read intros of sections). It’s still a good read with valid logic.

This is rather long for a one-trick pony ride and, after about the middle, devolves into what looks to this old psychoanalyst like pathological grief.

Something Broken

I’m not much of a poemer or an artist, but last year I was feeling down and so I sketched out the following.Girl in the corner appearing sad holding a mysterious item. I don't know what it is but I do that it's mine. I know it held a light within for when it worked it shined.

Initially, I wanted to write more about what was broken. However, it’s been so long that these feelings are vague and foreign to me now.  I wouldn’t want to do a disservice to them by trotting out platitudes to cover up my gaps in understanding.

I guess this is the price of procrastination. Poem below in writing.

I don’t know what it is,
but I do know that it’s mine.
I know it housed a light within,
for when it worked, it shined.

A Letter to Dr. Peterson

Tonight I have the pleasure of attending a talk in San Francisco featuring Jordan Peterson. As an avid fan girl of Dr. Peterson, I am very excited to meet him in person and deliver a letter of thanks.

If you ever doubt Peterson’s claims about the letters he receives, then you can know that at least one is true.


Dear Professor Peterson,

I am so happy to meet you in person and wanted to express my sincere gratitude for your works. My life is orders of magnitude better and I now have the tools to move forward.

I had been suicidally depressed for two years before coming out as transgender. While this provided temporary relief; I had spent two years building up the most vicious, overly rational and nihilistic arguments against existence, hoping to convince myself into suicide. I was afraid that during difficult times in the future, these demons would come back to lecture me on the irredeemable corruption of being and, lacking a counter argument, I would be equally vulnerable.

Synchronous, perhaps, that I was introduced to your works through your criticism of Bill C-16. I found your assessment apt and your University of Toronto free speech oration unforgettable. Intrigued, it lead me to your lecture series and I can honestly say I have watched every video on your YouTube channel. You are the first person in my life to adequately acknowledge the suffering of being while providing a theory for transcending it.

Tangentially related, I think your assessment of trans activists is correct. They do not represent me and often work against my interests by undermining the biological basis of gender. The idea that trans people cannot exist in a system with free expression is infantilizing and laughable. Given the nature of dysphoria, I think that trans people in particular could benefit from your lectures.

Thank you,
-Amy Jie