Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Douglas R. Hofstadter

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

The astrological song

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Astrologers in Utriusque cosmi historia

Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 13, 2016.

In the novel Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein writes: “A touchstone to determine the actual worth of an ‘intellectual’—find out how he feels about astrology.” But what did he really mean? It might not be what you think. A while back, I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in years when my attention was caught by a passage that I don’t remember noticing before. Jubal Harshaw and Dr. Mahmoud are discussing Allie Vesant, the astrologer who has joined the religious movement founded by the Martian Valentine Michael Smith. Jubal says, “Astrology is nonsense and you know it.” Dr. Mahmoud replies:

Oh, certainly. Even Allie knows it. And most astrologers are clumsy frauds. Nevertheless Allie practices it even more assiduously than she used to…It’s her device for grokking. It could be a pool of water, or a crystal ball, or the entrails of a chicken. The means do not matter. Mike has advised her to go on using the symbols she is used to…That she used as meaningless a symbol as astrology is beside the point. A rosary is meaningless, too…If it helps to turn your hat around during a poker game—then it helps. It is irrelevant that the hat has no magic powers.

I don’t always agree with Heinlein’s pronouncements, whether he delivers them himself or through the voice of an authorial surrogate, but I found myself nodding as I read this. And while astrology might seem like a strange beachhead from which to mount a defense of divination, its essential “meaninglessness,” as Heinlein seems to have sensed, is what makes it so potent an example.

The usual objection to astrology, aside from the point that there’s no known mechanism by which it could work, is that it does nothing but provide a few vague statements that users can interpret pretty much however they like. Here, for instance, is a reading that the psychologist Bertram Forer has prepared specifically for you:

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, weary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done right right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome or insecure on the inside…You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

As Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote, after quoting this “reading” in Metamagical Themas: “Pretty good fit, eh?” In reality, it was cobbled together by Forer from a paperback astrology book in 1948, and when he asked his students to rate the result—telling each of them that it was the result of a customized personality test—nearly all of them said that it was excellent. Which just demonstrates, if we needed the reminder, that newsstand astrology offers up little more than a series of platitudes that anybody can fit to his or her own situation.

The signs of the zodiac

But this isn’t a bug—it’s a feature. When we read a horoscope like this, what we’re doing, essentially, is taking a few generic sentences and asking ourselves: “How is this statement like me? In what sense is my situation like this?” Like it or not, this can lead to interesting insights, as long as you’re willing to look for them. Going to a daily horoscope site, for instance, I find:

Your slow and steady approach may need a sharp kick in the pants today, Gemini. Don’t withhold your opinions. This is a time to get it all out on the table, despite the tension that it may cause. Strong forces are at work, so don’t be surprised if things get a bit more heated than you’re used to. The fact is that incredible breakthroughs can be made through disagreements among different types of people.

If you insist on treating astrology as a way to predict the future, there isn’t much to go on. But if you’re more inclined to look at it for clues about how to approach the present, there’s something to be said for it, provided that we approach it with the right attitude, and remember that any string of words can be used to trigger a useful train of thought. Reading my horoscope, my natural tendency is to think: “Hmmm…I guess there’s a sense in which I’ve been holding back on that problem that has been bugging me. Maybe I should get the ball rolling.” And if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a new angle on the situation, especially if the connection between the reading and my circumstances isn’t immediately obvious. (Along these lines, I’ve often thought a book like The Secret Language of Birthdays would be a valuable tool for filling out a fictional character in a story. You’d pick a profile at random, and ask yourself: “How, exactly, is my character like this?”)

As Heinlein points out, the means of grokking doesn’t necessarily matter. Astrology isn’t any less useful a way of generating random associations than, say, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, even if the quality of the material leaves something to be desired. It might be wiser, in fact, to cast your horoscope yourself, which would create the kind of mental blank space that I’ve elsewhere found in tarot cards. In my post on the subject from a few years ago, I wrote:

It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of note-taking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger.

And although I haven’t tried it, it seems that casting a horoscope, properly understood, would provide many of the same benefits: the arrangement and interpretation of arbitrary symbols, according to a preexisting system, is a great way to do some serious thinking. The future isn’t in the stars—but if they nudge us in new directions in the present, they can’t be entirely useless. And I suspect that even Heinlein would agree.

Written by nevalalee

November 24, 2017 at 9:00 am

The sense of an ending

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Note: This post discusses details from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

When I was working as a film critic in college, one of my first investments was a wristwatch that could glow in the dark. If you’re sitting through an interminable slog of a movie, sometimes you simply want to know how much longer the pain will last, and, assuming that you have a sense of the runtime, a watch puts a piece of narrative information at your disposal that has nothing to do with the events of the story itself. Even if you’re enjoying yourself, the knowledge that a film has twenty minutes left to run—which often happens if you’re watching it at home and staring right at the numbers on the display of your DVD player—affects the way you think about certain scenes. A climax plays differently near the end, as opposed to somewhere in the middle. The length of a work of art is a form of metadata that influences the way we watch movies and read books, as Douglas Hofstadter points out in Gödel, Escher, Bach:

You have undoubtedly noticed how some authors go to so much trouble to build up great tension a few pages before the end of their stories—but a reader who is holding the book physically in his hands can feel that the story is about to end. Hence, he has some extra information which acts as an advance warning, in a way. The tension is a bit spoiled by the physicality of the book. It would be so much better if, for instance, there were a lot of padding at the end of novels…A lot of extra printed pages which are not part of the story proper, but which serve to conceal the exact location of the end from a cursory glance, or from the feel of the book.

Not surprisingly, I tend to think about the passage of time the most when I’m not enjoying the story. When I’m invested in the experience, I’ll do the opposite: I’ll actively resist glancing at the clock or looking to see how much time has elapsed. When I know that the credits are going to roll no matter what within the next five minutes, it amounts to a spoiler. With Twin Peaks, which has a narrative that can seemingly be cut anywhere, like yard goods, I try not to think about how long I’ve been watching. Almost inevitably, the episode ends before I’m ready for it, in part because it provides so few of the usual cues that we’ve come to expect from television. There aren’t any commercial breaks, obviously, but the stories also don’t divide neatly into three or four acts. In the past, most shows, even those that aired without interruption on cable networks, followed certain structural conventions that allow us to guess when the story is coming to an end. (This is even more true of Hollywood movies, which, with their mandated beat sheets—the inciting incident, the midpoint, the false dawn, the crisis—practically tell the audience how much longer they need to pay attention, which may be the reason why such rules exist in the first place.) Now that streaming services allow serialized stories to run for hours without worrying about the narrative shape of individual episodes, this is less of an issue, and it can be a mixed blessing. But at its best, on a show like Twin Peaks, it creates a feeling of narrative suspension, cutting us off from any sense of the borders of the episode until the words Starring Kyle MacLachlan appear suddenly onscreen.

Yet there’s also another type of length of which we can’t help but be conscious, at least if we’re the kind of viewers likely to be watching Twin Peaks in the first place. We know that there are eighteen episodes in this season, the fourteenth of which aired last night, and the fact that we only have four hours left to go adds a degree of tension to the narrative that wouldn’t be there if we weren’t aware of it. This external pressure also depends on the knowledge that this is the only new season of the show that we’re probably going to get, which, given how hard it is to avoid this sort of news these days, is reasonable to expect of most fans. Maybe we’ve read the Rolling Stone interview in which David Lynch declared, in response to the question of whether there would be additional episodes: “I have no idea. It depends on how it goes over. You’re going to have to wait and see.” Or we’ve seen that David Nevins of Showtime said to Deadline: “It was always intended to be one season. A lot of people are speculating but there’s been zero contemplation, zero discussions other than fans asking me about it.” Slightly more promisingly, Kyle MacLachlan told the Hollywood Reporter: “I don’t know. David has said: ‘Everything is Twin Peaks.’ It leads me to believe that there are other stories to tell. I think it’s just a question of whether David and Mark want to tell them. I don’t know.” And Lynch even said to USA Today: “You never say never.” Still, it’s fair to say that the current season was conceived, written, and filmed to stand on its own, and until we know otherwise, we have to proceed under the assumption that this is the last time we’ll ever see these characters.

This has important implications for how we watch it from one week to the next. For one thing, it means that episodes near the end will play differently than they would have earlier in the season. Last night’s installment was relatively packed with incident—the revelation of the identity of Diane’s estranged half sister, Andy’s trip into the void, the green gardening glove, Monica Bellucci—but we’re also aware of how little time remains for the show to pay off any of these developments. Most series would have put an episode like this in the fourth slot, rather than the fourteenth, and given the show’s tendency to drop entire subplots for months, it leaves us keenly aware that many of these storylines may never be resolved. Every glimpse of a character, old or new, feels like a potential farewell. And with each episode that passes without the return of Agent Cooper, every minute in which we don’t see him increases our sense of urgency. (If this were the beginning of an open-ended run, rather than the presumptive final season, the response to the whole Dougie Jones thread would have been very different.) This information has nothing to do with the contents of the show itself, which, with one big exception, haven’t changed much since the premiere. But it’s hard not to think about it. In some ways, this may be the greatest difference between this season and the initial run, since there was always hope that the series would be renewed by ABC, or that Fire Walk With Me would tie off any loose ends. Unlike the first generation of fans, we know that this is it, and it can hardly fail to affect our impressions, even if Lynch still whispers in our heads: “You never say never.”

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2017 at 8:48 am

The Chinese Room

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In 1980, the philosopher John Searle presented a thought experiment that has become known as the Chinese Room. I first encountered it in William Poundstone’s book Labyrinths of Reason, which describes it as follows:

Imagine that you are confined to a locked room. The room is virtually bare. There is a thick book in the room with the unpromising title What to Do If They Shove Chinese Writing Under the Door. One day a sheet of paper bearing Chinese script is shoved underneath the locked door. To you, who know nothing of Chinese, it contains meaningless symbols, nothing more…You are supposed to scan the text for certain Chinese characters and keep track of their occurrences according to complicated rules outlined in the book…The next day, you receive another sheet of paper with more Chinese writing on it…The book has further instructions for correlating and manipulating the Chinese symbols on the second sheet, and combining this information with your work from the first sheet. The book ends with instructions to copy certain Chinese symbols…onto a fresh sheet of paper. Which symbols you copy depends, in a very complicated way, on your previous work. Then the book says to shove the new sheet under the door of your locked room. This you do.

Unknown to you, the first sheet of Chinese characters was a Chinese short story, and the second sheet was questions about the story, such as might be asked in a reading test…You have been manipulating the characters via a very complicated algorithm written in English…The algorithm is so good that the “answers” you gave are indistinguishable from those that a native speaker of Chinese would give, having read the same story and been asked the same questions.

Searle concludes that this scenario is essentially identical to that of a computer program operating on a set of symbols, and that it refutes the position of strong artificial intelligence, which he characterizes as the belief that “the appropriately programmed computer with the right inputs and outputs would thereby have a mind in exactly the same sense human beings have minds.” According to Searle, it’s clear that there isn’t any “mind” or “understanding” involved here:

As regards the first claim, it seems to me quite obvious in the example that I do not understand a word of the Chinese stories. I have inputs and outputs that are indistinguishable from those of the native Chinese speaker, and I can have any formal program you like, but I still understand nothing.

I’ve never been convinced by this argument, in part because I approached it through the work of Douglas R. Hofstadter, who calls it “a quintessential ‘bad meme’—a fallacious but contagious virus of an idea, similar to an annoying childhood disease such as measles or chicken pox.” (If it’s a bad meme, it’s one of the all-time greats: the computer scientist Pat Hayes once jokingly defined cognitive science as “the ongoing research program of showing Searle’s Chinese Room Argument to be false.”) The most compelling counterargument, at least to me, is that Searle is deliberately glossing over how this room really would look. As Hofstadter notes, any program capable of performing in the manner described would consist of billions or trillions of lines of code, which would require a library the size of an aircraft carrier. Similarly, even the simplest response would require millions of individual decisions, and the laborious approach that Searle presents here would take years for a single exchange. If you try to envision a version of the Chinese Room that could provide answers in real time, you end up with something considerably more impressive, of which the human being in the room—with whom we intuitively identify—is just a single component. In this case, the real “understanding” resides in the fantastically complicated and intricate system as a whole, a stance of which Searle dismissively writes in his original paper: “It is not easy for me to imagine how someone who was not in the grip of an ideology would find the idea at all plausible.”

In other news, a lawsuit was filed last week against John Searle and the Regents of the University of California, where he has taught for decades, accusing him of sexual harassment. The plaintiff is a twenty-four-year-old woman, Joanna Ong, who was employed as Searle’s research assistant for three months. The complaint states:

On or about July 22, 2016, after only a week of working together, Searle sexually assaulted Ong. On that date, he asked his previous research assistant to leave his office. He then locked the door behind the assistant and then went directly to Ong to grope her. Professor Searle slid his hands down the back of her spine to her buttocks and told Ong that “they were going to be lovers,” that he had an “emotional commitment to making her a public intellectual,” and that he was “going to love her for a long time.”

When Ong took her story to the director of the John Searle Center for Social Ontology, she was allegedly told that Searle “has had sexual relationships with his students and others in the past in exchange for academic, monetary, or other benefits.” No further attempt was made to investigate or respond to her claim, and the incidents continued. According to Ong, Searle asked her to log onto a “sugar daddy” website on his behalf and watched online pornography in her presence. The complaint adds: “On one occasion, when Ong”—who is Asian-American—“brought up the topic of American Imperialism as a discussion topic, Searle responded: ‘American Imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now.’” When Ong complained again, the lawsuit states, she was informed that none of these issues would be addressed, and she ultimately lost her job. Earlier this month, Searle ceased to teach his undergraduate course on “Philosophy of Mind,” with university officials alluding to undisclosed “personal reasons.” As far as I know, neither Searle’s attorney nor anyone at the university has commented on the allegations.

Now let’s get back to the Chinese Room. At its heart, the argument comes down to a contest between dueling intuitions. Proponents of strong artificial intelligence have the intuition, or the “ideology,” that consciousness can emerge from a substrate other than the biological material of the brain, and Searle doesn’t. To support his position, he offers up a thought experiment, which Daniel C. Dennett once called “an intuition pump,” that is skewed to encourage the reader to arrive at a misleading conclusion. As Hofstadter puts it: “Either Searle…[has] a profound disrespect for the depth of the human mind, or—far more likely—he knows it perfectly well but is being coy about it.” It reduces an incomprehensibly complicated system to a user’s manual and a pencil, and it encourages us to identify with a human figure who is really just a cog in a much vaster machine. Even the use of Chinese itself, which Searle says he isn’t sure he could distinguish from “meaningless squiggles,” is a rhetorical trick: it would come off as subtly different to many readers if it involved, say, Hungarian. (In a response to one of his critics, Searle conceives of a system of water pipes in which “each water connection corresponds to a synapse in the Chinese brain,” while a related scenario asks what would happen if every Chinese citizen were asked to play the role of a single neuron. I understand that these thought experiments are taking their cues from Searle’s original paper, but maybe we should just leave the Chinese alone.) And while I don’t know if Searle’s actions amounted to sexual harassment, Ong’s sense of humiliation seems real enough, which implies that he was guilty, if nothing else, of a failure of empathy—which is really just a word for our intuition about the inner life of another person. In many cases, sexual harassment can be generously viewed as a misreading of what another person needs, wants, or feels, and it’s often a willful one: the harasser skews the evidence to justify a pattern of behavior that he has already decided to follow. If the complaint can be believed, Searle evidently has trouble empathizing with or understanding minds that are different from his own. Maybe he even convinced himself that he was in the right. But it wouldn’t have been the first time.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2017 at 9:07 am

The strange loop of Westworld

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The maze in Westworld

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, the critic Emily Nussbaum delivers one of the most useful takes I’ve seen so far on Westworld. She opens with many of the same points that I made after the premiere—that this is really a series about storytelling, and, in particular, about the challenges of mounting an expensive prestige drama on a premium network during the golden age of television. Nussbaum describes her own ambivalence toward the show’s treatment of women and minorities, and she concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way—like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld…The American Old West is a logical fantasy only if you’re the cowboy—or if your fantasy is to be exploited or enslaved, a desire left unexplored…So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that Westworld? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

I agree with many of her reservations, especially when it comes to race, but I think that she overlooks or omits one important point: conscious or otherwise, it’s a brilliant narrative strategy to make a work of art partially about the process of its own creation, which can add a layer of depth even to its compromises and mistakes. I’ve drawn a comparison already to Mad Men, which was a show about advertising that ended up subliminally criticizing its own tactics—how it drew viewers into complex, often bleak stories using the surface allure of its sets, costumes, and attractive cast. If you want to stick with the Nolan family, half of Chris’s movies can be read as commentaries on themselves, whether it’s his stricken identification with the Joker as the master of ceremonies in The Dark Knight or his analysis of his own tricks in The Prestige. Inception is less about the construction of dreams than it is about making movies, with characters who stand in for the director, the producer, the set designer, and the audience. And perhaps the greatest cinematic example of them all is Vertigo, in which Scotty’s treatment of Madeline is inseparable from the use that Hitchcock makes of Kim Novak, as he did with so many other blonde leading ladies. In each case, we can enjoy the story on its own merits, but it gains added resonance when we think of it as a dramatization of what happened behind the scenes. It’s an approach that is uniquely forgiving of flawed masterpieces, which comment on themselves better than any critic can, until we wonder about the extent to which they’re aware of their own limitations.

Inception

And this kind of thing works best when it isn’t too literal. Movies about filmmaking are often disappointing, either because they’re too close to their subject for the allegory to resonate or because the movie within the movie seems clumsy compared to the subtlety of the larger film. It’s why Being John Malkovich is so much more beguiling a statement than the more obvious Adaptation. In television, the most unfortunate recent example is UnREAL. You’d expect that a show that was so smart about the making of a reality series would begin to refer intriguingly to itself, and it did, but not in a good way. Its second season was a disappointment, evidently because of the same factors that beset its fictional show Everlasting: interference from the network, conceptual confusion, tensions between producers on the set. It seemed strange that UnREAL, of all shows, could display such a lack of insight into its own problems, but maybe it isn’t so surprising. A good analogy needs to hold us at arm’s length, both to grant some perspective and to allow for surprising discoveries in the gaps. The ballet company in The Red Shoes and the New York Inquirer in Citizen Kane are surrogates for the movie studio, and both films become even more interesting when you realize how much the lead character is a portrait of the director. Sometimes it’s unclear how much of this is intentional, but this doesn’t hurt. So much of any work of art is out of your control that you need to find an approach that automatically converts your liabilities into assets, and you can start by conceiving a premise that encourages the viewer or reader to play along at home.

Which brings us back to Westworld. In her critique, Nussbaum writes: “Westworld [is] a come-hither drama that introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She implies that this is a bug, but it’s really a feature. Westworld wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t being produced with this cast, on this network, and on this scale. We’re supposed to be impressed by the time and money that have gone into the park—they’ve spared no expense, as John Hammond might say—but it isn’t all that different from the resources that go into a big-budget drama like this. In the most recent episode, “Dissonance Theory,” the show invokes the image of the maze, as we might expect from a series by a Nolan brother: get to the center to the labyrinth, it says, and you’ve won. But it’s more like what Douglas R. Hofstadter describes in I Am a Strange Loop:

What I mean by “strange loop” is—here goes a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.

This neatly describes both the park and the series. And it’s only through such strange loops, as Hofstadter has long argued, that any complex system—whether it’s the human brain, a robot, or a television show—can hope to achieve full consciousness.

The astrological song

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Astrologers in Utriusque cosmi historia

A touchstone to determine the actual worth of an “intellectual”—find out how he feels about astrology.

—Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

But what did Heinlein really mean by that? Frankly, it might not be what you think. Yesterday, I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in years when my attention was caught by a passage that I don’t remember ever noticing before. Jubal Harshaw and Dr. Mahmoud are discussing Alexandra Vesant, or Allie, the astrologer who has become a member of the Martian religious movement founded by Valentine Michael Smith. Jubal says, “Astrology is nonsense and you know it.” Dr. Mahmoud replies:

Oh, certainly. Even Allie knows it. And most astrologers are clumsy frauds. Nevertheless Allie practices it even more assiduously than she used to…It’s her device for grokking. It could be a pool of water, or a crystal ball, or the entrails of a chicken. The means do not matter. Mike has advised her to go on using the symbols she is used to…That she used as meaningless a symbol as astrology is beside the point. A rosary is meaningless, too…If it helps to turn your hat around during a poker game—then it helps. It is irrelevant that the hat has no magic powers.

I don’t always agree with Heinlein’s pronouncements, whether delivered through the voice of an authorial surrogate or not, but I found myself nodding as I read this. And while astrology might seem like a strange beachhead from which to mount a defense of divination, its very “meaninglessness,” as Heinlein must have sensed, is what makes it so potent an example.

The usual objection to astrology, aside from the point that there’s no known mechanism by which it could work, is that it does nothing but provide a few vague statements that users can interpret pretty much however they like. Here, for instance, is a reading that the psychologist Bertram Forer has prepared specifically for you:

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, weary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done right right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome or insecure on the inside…You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

As Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote, after quoting this “reading” in Metamagical Themas: “Pretty good fit, eh?” In reality, it was cobbled together by Forer from a paperback astrology book in 1948, and when he asked his students to rate the result—telling each of them that it was the result of a customized personality test—nearly all of them said that it was excellent. Which all just demonstrates, as if we needed a reminder, that astrology offers up little more than a series of platitudes that anybody can fit to his or her own situation.

The signs of the zodiac

This is true enough. But this isn’t a bug—it’s a feature. When we read a horoscope like the one above, what we’re doing, essentially, is taking a few generic sentences and asking ourselves: “How is this statement like me? In what sense is my situation like this?” And like it or not, this can lead to an interesting insight, as long as you’re willing to look for it. Going to a daily horoscope site, for instance, I find:

Your slow and steady approach may need a sharp kick in the pants today, Gemini. Don’t withhold your opinions. This is a time to get it all out on the table, despite the tension that it may cause. Strong forces are at work, so don’t be surprised if things get a bit more heated than you’re used to. The fact is that incredible breakthroughs can be made through disagreements among different types of people.

If you insist on treating astrology as a way to predict the future, there isn’t much to go on. But if you’re more inclined to look at it for clues about how to approach the present, there’s something to be said for it, provided that we approach it with the right attitude, and remember that any string of words can be used to trigger a useful train of thought. Reading my horoscope, my natural tendency is to think: “Hmmm…I guess there’s a sense in which I’ve been holding back on that problem that has been bugging me. Maybe I should get the ball rolling.” And if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a new angle on the situation, especially if the connection between the reading and my circumstances isn’t immediately obvious. (On a similar level, I’ve often thought a book like The Secret Language of Birthdays would be a valuable tool for filling out a fictional character in a story. You’d just pick a profile at random, and ask yourself: “How, exactly, is my character like this?”)

As Heinlein points out, the means don’t matter. Astrology isn’t any less useful a way of generating random associations than, say, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, even if the quality of the material leaves something to be desired. It might be wiser, in fact, to cast your horoscope yourself, which would create the kind of mental blank space that I’ve elsewhere found in tarot cards. In my post on the subject from a few years ago, I wrote:

It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of note-taking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger.

And although I haven’t tried it, it seems that casting a horoscope, properly understood, would provide many of the same benefits: the arrangement and interpretation of arbitrary symbols, according to a preexisting system, is a great way to do some thinking. The future isn’t in the stars—but if they nudge us into new directions of thought about the present, they can’t be entirely useless. And I think Heinlein would agree.

The art of serendipity

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Douglas R. Hofstadter

Serendipitous observation and quick exploration of potential are vital elements in [creativity]. What goes hand in hand with the willingness to playfully explore a serendipitous connection is the willingness to censor or curtail an exploration that seems to be leading nowhere. It is the flip side of the risk-taking aspect of serendipity. It’s fine to be reminded of something, to see an analogy or a vague connection, and it’s fine to try to map one situation or concept onto another in the hopes of making something novel emerge—but you’ve also got to be willing and able to sense when you’ve lost the gamble, and to cut your losses…

Frantic striving to be original will usually get you nowhere. Far better to relax and let your perceptual system and your category system work together unconsciously, occasionally coming up with unbidden connections. At that point, you—the lucky owner of the mind in question—can seize the opportunity and follow out the proffered hint. This view of creativity has the conscious mind being quite passive, content to sit back and wait for the unconscious to do its remarkable broodings and brewings.

The most reliable kinds of genuine insight come not from vague reminding experiences…but from strong analogies in which one experience can be mapped onto another in a highly pleasing way. The tighter the fit, the deeper the insight, generally speaking. When two things can both be seen as instances of one abstract phenomenon, it is a very exciting discovery. Then ideas about either one can be borrowed in thinking about the other, and that sloshing-about of activity may greatly illumine both at once…

A mapping-recipe that often yields interesting results is projection of oneself into a situation: “How would it be for me?”

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2016 at 8:40 am

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