««I» am a Strange Loop» is a Strange Loop: { Self-reflecting Loopholes | Feedback | Augury | starLingual Murmurations | Spy vs. Spy' }

« It occurred to me some time ago, in developing this lexicon for Ark Codex, that one way to circumvent the issue of apparent unreadability in my natural way of writing was to put things between quotes. In fact, I got to thinking that I could write an entire book, or at least one of the trilogy, sandwiched between quotes, thus allowing me to explain the "story" in plain, grammatically correct English. Or not. It's an interesting idea that I wonder if anyone has executed to completion?

starling flock

With this in mind, I just finished reading I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. I don't know if it's a book I'd recommend reading. If you haven't read Hofstadter you'd be better to start with Gödel, Escher, Bach, though even that I'm not sure the payback is worth the effort (of some 800+ pages). Maybe get the cliff notes or wiki it. Hofstadter explores some interesting ideas no doubt, it's just the way he writes about them that is hard to digest. He comes off as a pompous academic mired in the loophole of his own bellybutton. Not that either book is overly academic—he awkwardly straddles between, trying to pepper his ideas with pop-culture metaphors and personal digressions—and it consequently comes out all over the map, never tying itself together at any point, loose pontificated ends everywhere (though in all fairness this sort of goes with the territory). And although he brags about his math and science background, he is not at all scientific or rigorous in his arguments, but just thinks everything he says is right (and ingenious)—resting on the laurels of GEB (which even that I remember being annoying in the same respect) or his father's nobel prize.

statue and starlings

cumulating clouds and  clouds of birds

Nevertheless, the ideas he explores are interesting food for thought. I Am a Strange Loop is mostly a further rehashing of Gödel, Escher, Bach—though fixated ever more on Gödel and his incompleteness theorem. And in I Am a Strange Loop he tries to further apply these ideas specifically to self-awareness and consciousness (a subject I think is pointless to even attempt to study, though the very act of attempting to is fascinating in itself). Personally, I think it's more interesting to focus on language (the interface to consciousness), which Hofstadter touches upon at times. It's one thing to develop a system for assigning symbols to objects in our world, but to have a language that can refer to and analyze the complexities of the language itself is mind-boggling if you stop to think about it. To be able to read a string of characters, such as this, and ascertain abstracted meanings is not something we should ever take for granted. Beyond just the characters on the page, we have structural or chemical mechanisms in our brains that can retrieve and associate these certain patterns of symbols. Especially strange is when you stop to think about words like "word" or "nondescript" and what kind of recursive leap of faith we use in understanding these, or in making sense of sentences like "This sentence is false" or "I am unprovable" or "This sentence is unreadable." Or how about this one (used by Hofstadter to try to understand in English what Gödel did):

"preceded by itself in quote marks yields a full sentence" preceded by itself in quote marks yields a full sentence.

seagull pursuit

seagull in pursuit of starlings

Putting things in quotes is once-removing the words from the "real" world. It can be a crutch, or a way to distance yourself, to illustrate but not take claim for the idea expressed—but it can also have interesting consequences, of inserting language back into itself.


seahorse configuration

This sort of logic is how Gödel brought the accepted world of mathematics (laid down by Russell & Whitehead in Principia Mathematica) tumbling down. In a nutshell, the wrench that Gödel threw into the otherwise air-tight machine of Principia Mathematica was a (numeric coded) version of itself. Or as Hofstadter puts it:

"And yet, despite all these centuries of highly successful mathematizations of various aspects of the world, no one before Gödel had realized that one of the domains that mathematics can model is the doing of mathematics itself."



Sometimes thinking about self-reference is like banging your head against a wall, but such thoughts keep percolating in my brain, in literature (see my recent post on Italo Calvino), in film (see Woody Allen, or Being John Malkovich), in music (Hofstadter would say Bach, but I'm thinking Sonic Youth), or in physics (the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics). I'm starting to wonder whether it all just points to a limit to knowledge, a boundary wherein if you include the observer (or author) of the system within the system all hell breaks loose. And the only way to get past this wall is to remove the observer or author from the system. This is how starlings roll.

starling font

starling as individual characters

Which brings me to another postulate about Ark Codex (for which this blog could be considered journals/sketches for the making of), that I may have alluded to before but will now state explicitly here since I am writing candidly within the safety net of quotes. «Ark Codex will not have a specified author», thus eliminating any paradoxical confusion (with a narrator) or contradictions that may arise. Now, you may say that by me stating that here I already ruined it. But this isn't part of that system. A book object is a self-contained system that should not contain any references to itself or who is authoring it.

belfry lings

Hofstadter goes on a lot about video feedback—pontificating how he took fancy cameras in high-tech laboratories and pointed them at themselves. But the images he comes up with are less than inspiring (and his lengthy descriptions of them even worse). They are nothing like the fractal images Mandelbrot came up with using his recursive equations. But even those, while interesting to think about, and some interesting shapes and patterns arise, in my eye are lacking something (if we are to think of them as art)—a human touch, some sort of intervention. It's one thing to discover a powerful method or process, and it's another what you do with it. Kind of like going to the moon, we went there, but so what?

cluster statue

Hofstadter scarcely mentions audio feedback, except to say it's an annoying squeal. But to me the audio world is an arena that lends itself perfectly to feedback loops. I wrote an article on this once for some music magazine that some designer took and added shit too, but I can't find it, all I can find is what I took back, put it in quotes and filtered back through some sort of concrete poetry mash-up machine—something that ended up as a piece of BC/AD:


My lame attempt at feeding language about feedback back on itself. Like Hofstadter's videos, it suffers from being digital. I don't think the digital world can accurately accommodate feedback. The old tube amps generate the best audio feedback and the best art is fatto a mano. Maybe it's from staring at janky websites for the last 10-20 years, but at least my eyes yearn for analog intervention, something "real".


untitled grapheme

In case you're wondering what these photos are, this happens every evening in the skies above Rome during these winter months—starlings (sturnus vulgaris) or storni as they are known here, congregating and murmuring before taking to the trees along the river to sleep for the night. Ever since first visiting Rome, I have been mesmerized by this display. Hypnotized.


porpoise morph

Another thing I like about Rome (besides of course the starlings) is the way it's aged. Most people complain about the graffiti and dirt and general state of decay of Rome, but that is what makes it more real. I don't (aesthetically) like most new things, until they've been weathered or have stood the test of time. Until they've been "ruined" in other people's eyes.

The music (Philip Glass) in the above video was recorded from vinyl onto a tape and then digitized to MP3. It may not have the sound quality that most people consider good, but it is the only recording of its kind in existence—with these particular scratches, or magnetic cassette warbles. We are losing these touches.


birdwatchers on ponte garibaldi

Which brings me to the 3rd postulate about Ark Codex: «each page will be the original of itself». The text of it can be composed digitally, but the final version will be printed and "cured". In Italian, the verb curare means "to take care of, to cure, to edit, to follow a treatment, to mind." Treated as in A HumumentHumument, but the book I would be treating is my own. Or its own since I'm no longer the author. Once the ink dries, when it's set in stone, then the digital copy will be discarded. Revising the text after this point will be impossible. It will not be possible to quote from such a book, or copy and paste, or translate.

storni clust

This is all for my own benefit, these images and text here. This expository making of, the cart in front of the donkey. Not that I will "do anything" with this in "this" form. Maybe some of these murmuring formations will become an underlying part of some of the pages in Ark Codex. As might some of these ideas, though not in a cognizantly recognizable way.

walking flock

walking flock

from Wikipedia: «The augur was a priest and official in the classical world, especially ancient Rome and Etruria. His main role was to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds: whether they are flying in groups/alone, what noises they make as they fly, direction of flight and what kind of birds they are.» And «the very story or legend of the foundation of Rome is based on augury, i.e. the ascertaining of the will of gods through observation of the sky and of birds. Romulus and Remus indeed acted as augurs and Romulus was considered a great augur throughout the course of his life

auguring steeple

I'd rather be an augur than a haruspex.

synagogue plague

I like augur because it sounds like auger. I like the word starling because it is composed of STAR and LING, which in mind conjures some sort of celestial language.



In the murmurating constellations they form each evening, starlings (as a whole) dissolve into pure language.

birdcloud layer

(punctuation mark indicating a pause between parts of a sentence)

Starlings are communicating to or from their collective self. When playing in an orchestra, an amateur fixates on his or her own instrument, but once you're good enough at your own instrument you can let go of it and hear the big picture. The 30,000 foot view.

fell swoop


Is a musical note any different than a letter of the alphabet?

Is imposing a structure to your writing imposing your will? One should represent facts in whatever order (not thinking about it too much) and let the reader piece it together. David Markson is king of this. It is in the process of sequencing that whatever happens happens. Unless you are talking strictly about intellectual knowledge that can be articulated in words, but I am talking about more than that. I was going to say, "it's a fine line between blah and blah..." but it's more interesting to just say, "it's a fine line." And let the reader conjure their own fine line.

moon pie

moon beam

The same goes with captions. I shouldn't tell you what these images mean, to me. I could say "untitled" or "no caption," but is "no caption" the same as no caption? And how many paintings can you have labeled "untitled" before it loses the effect?

bushy blur

When i see birds I see quotes around them. Like it's something they are saying, not me. Which is to say they are a metaphor for something else. Who they are speaking to is another question. There are plenty of theories out there (see references under collective animal behavior). There's evidence in the 3rd photo above that seagulls are trying to catch the starlings, perhaps substantiating the 'predator confusion effect' theory, but I've never seen a seagull actually catch them. And whose to say the seagulls aren't inspired and just trying to join in on the fun? Unless it's some sort of hypnotic effect—wherein once all the predatory birds are hypnotized the starlings can settle down safely in the trees for the night. The 'peloton' effect' is absurd in this case—that they do it to draft or conserve energy in flight. The starlings aren't going anywhere except around in circles. Like I already said on the aptly named clusterflock, starlings do what they do because they like doing it—because they can.


sum sort of proboscis

But I'll just shut up now and let the starlings speak for themselves.

Seussian amoebas

for what it is


stay puff marshmallow

to even think is anthropomorphic


vizpo cloud

it all depends on your angle

yoU are a state in "statUe." If there's two U's in W, does that mean there are two yoUs in We?

starling characters

lingual constellates

Something about the shapes of the starlings & dwelling on self-referentiality got me to thinking about Spy vs. Spy.

spy vs spy

spy vs. spy quantum bootstrap augering

Spy vs. Spy also made you think about the use of negative and positive space, between matter and anti-matter. Maybe this is another reason for the pulling appeal of the starlings—they are celebrating, pixel by pixel, the possibilities of space, filling it, if even for a brief second, so we know it's there, and what it's capable of. You can't help but to think of the aurora borealis when watching starlings—replacing the birds with charged particles. In which case, continuing this metaphor, the starlings are excited particles in a sea of positive holes, forming unthinkable orbitals, collapsing cloud probabilities. Another interesting fact about Spy vs. Spy is that it was wordless. And also of interest, is rather than sign his name to it, Antonio Prohías (a Castro-fleeing Cuban) put his name in morse code: "-••• -•-- •--• •-• --- •••• •• •- •••".

st. peters swarm

clouding over St. Peters

This is by no means the first time I've gone on like this about starlings. There's this, from before we even lived here. And before that even, there's this. Good thing the birds are in my own backyard now. Or perhaps that was the plan all along.

Once the sun goes down the starlings take to the trees, louder than ever, but somewhat sedentary. Until an ambulance goes by, or a worker hired by the city, wearing a full-body suit to protect from shit, blaring horrific noises of birds being mutilated. For real, they do this. I can't imagine where they expect them all to go except to some other tree across the river so they can do it all over again.

Sometimes if I was on the island, down by the river, I'd remain there.

infinito fine

the fin in infinite

We (j & i) seem to gravitate to rivers. Someone told us once it's a genetic thing. But I'm not sure how you could validate such a claim. Though for my part, on my father's side, I come from where the Willamette and Columbia rivers intersect. Rivers put things in perspective. When you look at a river it's like the history as seen from the banks piles up all at once. It keeps flowing, the water, but it's the same "river" that, say, Caesar, or Romus and Remulus, undoubtedly looked at. I find it strange that the word river is similar to "rive" which means riverbanks in Italian. As if the banks are the quotes that go around the otherwise intangible river ("fiume" in Italian).

In a similar fashion, while the individual birds have come and gone, the flocking behavior remains the same. Can a "flock" ever die? Or does it just keep self-perpetuating bird by bird? Evidently the seagulls are a relatively new thing (them hanging out and nesting in Rome). This talk of rivers ties in to what I was saying about analog and digital feedback in art. Digital art doesn't hold history, it doesn't hold water. The history of something is held by the physical viewing of it. A book takes on meaning from all the eyes that have read it. It's nothing if no one has read it. It only becomes a story when it has a history. Art in a museum is sterile, unsusceptible to "feedback." Street art ages, hopefully gracefully. If not, perhaps it wasn't meant to be. But even "graceful" is a viewer-dependent attribute. It just becomes what it becomes. You can plant the seeds, but how the plant grows depends on the environment it's growing in. This web page is shit because it remains an unchanging replica of itself with each page view.


buoy on the Tiber

Speaking of page views and controlled feedback, there seems to be a sudden interest in my musing on The Edge's delay effect (to the order of 5,000+ views a day). My web stats kind of suck but it seems it must've been tweeted and this started some sort of cascading effect. I got some funny emails about it, one person asking "Say, you aren't an academic, are you? You don't have a longer research paper written out that you pulled from for this blog post, do you?" As if that might make these "findings" more legit. I hope I don't come off like Hofstadter, straddling awkwardly between an academic canoe and something else. To that I usually say, «I am not a "scientist", but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night.» I navigate on the ark of something else.


unresolved bat

I have resolved bat photos, from under the bridge where I take starling photos from, but I'll save those for another spread. That's a whole 'nother story.

ponte sisto falls

tiber falls near ponte cestio

I don't get kickback from Holiday Inn for saying I'm not a "scientist," but they deserve it. This I say under the influence of finishing season 4 of Mad Men the other night. Yes, we have been hopelessly addicted. Another ad I've always thought is brilliant is Morton's salt. Not just because of the self-referential nature of the girl with the umbrella holding another blue cylinder under her arm, with herself on it holding an umbrella and another blue cylinder, ad infinitum... Okay, her arm is blocking her own image on the cylinder, but still, it's the idea that counts. And compounded with the tagline, "when it rains it pours," it's genius. And to top it off, the product they are peddling is SALT. That's up there with selling air or water. It has always been a dream of mine to open a shop with a bunch of cool things, where nothing is for sale. Not quite a museum or a library, just a place that might feel like a store, with things on display, things you might find on the street or ordinary things, cylinders of Morton's salt, stuffed animals, objects isolated from context, a paddle with no canoe, a host of things that collectively hint at something else, but where neither individual pieces are for sale, or even the whole thing.

metaphor for something

Another thing I was reminded of reading Hofstadter was the concept of prime variables (e.g. x' for x) in mathematics (not to be confused with prime numbers). The prime (') is used to refer to the same variable, say x, after it has undergone some sort of transformation (in which case it becomes x'). For example I often use (i, j) to refer to Jess and I, so after a trip of some sort we would become (i', j'). Ever-changing variables. Or Spy vs. Spy should technically be Spy vs. Spy'. You can even have a double-prime, I'' or Spy''. (Another interesting tidbit is that it was sometimes called Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy or "X & Y & Z" in some countries, when it featured a third female gray spy, to further complicate manners). It seems this priming would be a useful concept in everyday language. For example it feels weird to me to refer to an individual starling as a starling. "Starling" is an idealized concept of what a starling is, the entry in the dictionary. If I said a starling pooped on me (which happened quite a number of times in the process of taking these photos), it's not the starling from the dictionary that pooped on me, but a particular starling', or s' for short. Anyway, I think I have enough ammo and provisions for now. Now I'm just waiting for a flood, which at the rate that it's raining here in Rome will come soon.»



(©omPostED|tranScribed) 2010 Derek White