Message in a Bottle

(continued from part one)

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter was published to acclaim in 1979, winning the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and the National Book Award for science; it hasn’t been out of print since and is popular enough to be known by its initials, GEB. If you know the book already, you probably love it, and if you don’t, I despair of being able to properly describe it. The central conceit is the thematic overlap in the work of the mathematical, artistic, and musical geniuses who give the book its title. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Escher’s drawings of hands drawing hands, and the endlessly rising tones of Bach’s canons are all demonstrations of self-reference and self-consciousness, which Hofstadter posits as the root of mental activity—thought isn’t thought without an awareness of itself. With that in mind, patterns of recursion and reflection start to appear not just in mathematics, art, and music, but everywhere, from computer science, formal logic, and philosophy, to physics, foreign languages, and cellular reproduction.

So many topics are treated that it may be easier to ask what the book isn’t about than what it is. It’s almost unbelievable that Hofstadter can hold all these concepts together as his book spins faster and faster, widening in scope as it goes, but he does. Though it may seem sprawling, at its core GEB tries to answer the most fundamental questions there are. In the preface to the twentieth anniversary edition, the author says his book “is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?” That may sound like heavy going, but reading GEB is a surprisingly uplifting experience, probably because its author’s tone is unrelentingly enthusiastic, even amazed by the rich complexity of his material.

The wonder of the book is that it doesn’t just present ideas, it embodies them. When Hofstadter wants to make a point about physical or intellectual systems that circle back on themselves, taking the output they produce and using it as their next input, he does so in a chapter that circles back on itself, ending in the same way that it began. Discussion of the intricacies of language and the alphabet abounds with palindromes, acrostics, and other wordplay. The fine points of applied philosophy are addressed through miniature dramas enacted by the figures from Zeno’s classic paradox, Achilles and the Tortoise. At every stage, the argument of the book is integrally bound up with its form. I don’t know another non-fiction book—in fact, I can’t imagine one—that’s more deeply (and properly) concerned with style. For me, this kind of literary sensibility, where ideas and their expression productively entwine, is essential in a science book if it’s to be considered among the best of its breed, truly noble in reason.

A book has just come out that’s making a fair bid to join that group (it’s what set in motion the train of thought that resulted in my last couple of posts). Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul was written by Giulio Tononi, an Italian-born neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, and it lays out his theory of human consciousness, a subject that he began exploring through extensive study of the mystery of sleep. How do we lose awareness each night and regain it in the morning? Tononi’s distinctive take on the problem eliminates the binary nature of awareness. Rather than determining whether consciousness is on or off, he argues that it’s possible to quantify different levels of consciousness, and he uses the twenty-first letter of the Greek alphabet to refer to that quantity. Increasing it is more complicated than just adding neurons, of course. From a New York Times article:

How the parts of a network are wired together has a big effect on phi. If a network is made up of isolated parts, phi is low, because the parts cannot share information. But simply linking all the parts in every possible way does not raise phi much…Networks gain the highest phi possible if their parts are organized into separate clusters, which are then joined.

Our brains are organized in just such a way. Actually measuring phi in humans is so far theoretical, since there are far too many neurons to track all their interactions, but in simpler creatures, Tononi has had some lab-verified success in at least approximating their phi. With the publication of his latest book, he’s well on his way to successfully seizing the popular imagination, too.

Just picking Phi up is enough to make its ambition clear. It’s literally weightier than a normal volume its size, printed on the slick, substantial paper that’s used in the finest art books. And there’s art galore within it. Almost every page includes a glorious image, ranging from intracranial scans to architectural photographs to Renaissance paintings and beyond. These accompany a text that elucidates Tononi’s thinking in narrative form, depicting an allegorical journey undertaken by one of the forefathers of science, Galileo Galilei. Three famous figures guide the bearded sage along the way—with Francis Crick, discoverer of DNA, he examines the morphology of the brain; with artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing he learns about integrated information and its relation to consciousness; and with Charles Darwin he ponders the ever-evolving role of self-awareness in history and culture. With the mind itself as the subject of their investigations, no topic or area of human endeavor is out of bounds, and they allude to law, poetry, religion, cosmology, matters of life and death, and more.

As is the case for Hofstadter’s GEB, no synopsis can do full justice to the range of ideas Phi expresses, certainly not mine. I’ve only had the book in my hands for a few days, not nearly enough time for it all to soak in. Fortunately, Giulio Tononi will be visiting Seattle on September 12th and available to answer all my questions, so I’m sure after that I’ll be able to integrate all the information and raise my phi higher than ever.


Greater Seattle

We’re carrying a new CD here in the store that’s catching eyes at the counter with its sleek look. You can’t judge it just by the cover, though, which is why we’re providing some liner notes here. Greater Seattle is the product of area musician Igor Keller (who’s long been the voice behind the Hideous Belltown blog) performing under the name Longboat. It’s a collection of seventeen songs about Seattle-area neighborhoods and cities, all of which are honored by their inclusion even while they’re subjected to a healthy drubbing for their characteristic foibles. Mercer Island gets its comeuppance on track five, and we won’t tell you how except to say that it has something to do with what happens when income exceeds taste.

The album is wide-ranging in style, dabbling in everything from dance beats to the hard stuff, somewhat reminiscent of the diversity on Stephen Merritt’s 69 Love Songs. As such, there’s a little something for every taste on offer. While it’s much more than just a novelty record, it’s obviously a great souvenir for a visitor or a badge of pride for a native—one who has a good sense of humor about his or her hometown, anyway.

We recently conducted a brief interview with Keller via email.


Island Books: Longboat—what’s up with that?

Igor Keller: Hey, every band needs a name—even if it’s just one guy. I wanted something as neutral as possible to keep preconceptions to a minimum. For example, you wouldn’t expect a band called Chainsaw Convention to sound like the Carpenters. With a name like Longboat, people don’t know what to expect. That’s a good thing. 

IB: What’s your musical background and how did you begin writing and recording your own work?

IK: I studied theory and composition at the UW for several years, but ultimately became a Russian major. At the time, I was more interested in traveling than making music. At about the same time, I became quite interested in jazz, especially in the tenor sax. I bought an old horn and eventually started gigging around town. The bottom fell out of live jazz in the mid-2000s, so I turned to classical music by writing the neo-baroque oratorio Mackris v. O’Reilly [based on the transcripts of the 2004 sexual harassment suit against political commentator Bill O’Reilly]. It was staged and recorded at Meany Hall in 2007. Following that I thought that film music would be a good idea. But it wasn’t, as everyone and their brother is trying to get into it. Finally, I figured that pop music would be the most fun. And it has been. Making Greater Seattle was one of the most positive musical experiences I’ve ever had. It’s my first pop album, but second album overall after Mackris v. O’Reilly

IB: What inspired the Greater Seattle CD? Did you conceive of an entire song cycle from the beginning or just start writing individual songs before realizing you had a whole suite on your hands?

IK: The whole thing started with “Bellevue.” After finishing that, I wanted to write a few songs for context and things got carried away. The next thing I knew, I had a full-blown concept album on my hands. All 17 tunes (15 originals and two covers) took just over two months to write. “Mercer Island” and “Edmonds” were finished last.   

IB: The cover art is really striking. Is that your work, or where did it come from?

IK: The concept was mine, but it was realized by a graphic artist named Pete Woychick. He did a great job, because I can’t draw. Even though the songs don’t delve too deeply into the Seattle memes of coffee/beer/computers/rain, I thought it would be good to show them on the cover. 

IB: Is the CD good-natured mockery or sharp satire, or a little of both?

IK: Just as I employ a lot of genres (funk, stadium rock, electronica, marching band, etc.) in these songs, I’ve tried to have different approaches to the subject matter. So yes, a little of both. For some of the tunes, say, “Belltown” and “Tacoma,” I’ve tried to delve a little deeper into what these places are. For example, to many Seattleites, Belltown is where all the bars are and that’s it. For me, it’s been home for many years and I wanted to convey the challenges involved in living here. And Tacoma has always seemed to me in a perpetual state of decline and I wanted to express a little empathy. Those are just two examples, but I put a lot of thought into these tunes. I hope it shows.  

IB: What else are you working on?

IK: I’m always writing music. The plan is to put out an album every year until the sun explodes or I run out of money. This next effort will just be songs—there won’t be an over-arching concept. But I’m always very enthusiastic about unusual subject matter, so each tune will definitely be out of the ordinary. At some point, there may be a Son of Greater Seattle, but that’s a ways down the road.

IB: Since you said you were a Russian major and this is for a bookstore blog, I guess I have to ask about favorite authors. Do you know Elif Batuman’s The Possessed?

IK: My favorite authors are Russians: Tolstoy, Gogol and Nabokov. There is a three-way tie for my all-time favorite book between War and Peace, Dead Souls and Lolita (with The Gift a close runner-up). My least favorite authors are also Russians: Bulgakov and Dostoevsky. I haven’t read The Possessed, but it looks fascinating. I find it extremely difficult to read while I’m writing music and I’m writing music all the time, but this fall I plan to give myself a break and catch up on my reading. I think I need to make room for The Possessed.


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