Monday, October 28, 2013

'just a kid fascinated by ideas'

On Douglas Hofstadter and how he's been marginalised by the 'AI' community, this piece by James Somers.

And what a kid he must have been.

Douglas R. Hofstadter was born into a life of the mind the way other kids are born into a life of crime. He grew up in 1950s Stanford, in a house on campus, just south of a neighborhood actually called Professorville. His father, Robert, was a nuclear physicist who would go on to share the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics; his mother, Nancy, who had a passion for politics, became an advocate for developmentally disabled children and served on the ethics committee of the Agnews Developmental Center, where Molly lived for more than 20 years. In her free time Nancy was, the joke went, a “professional faculty wife”: she transformed the Hofstadters’ living room into a place where a tight-knit community of friends could gather for stimulating conversation and jazz, for “the interpenetration of the sciences and the arts,” Hofstadter told me—an intellectual feast.
Dougie ate it up. He was enamored of his parents’ friends, their strange talk about “the tiniest or gigantic-est things.” (At age 8, he once said, his dream was to become “a zero-mass, spin one-half neutrino.”) He’d hang around the physics department for 4 o’clock tea, “as if I were a little 12-year-old graduate student.” He was curious, insatiable, unboreable—“just a kid fascinated by ideas”—and intense. His intellectual style was, and is, to go on what he calls “binges”: he might practice piano for seven hours a day; he might decide to memorize 1,200 lines of Eugene Onegin. He once spent weeks with a tape recorder teaching himself to speak backwards, so that when he played his garbles in reverse they came out as regular English. For months at a time he’ll immerse himself in idiomatic French or write computer programs to generate nonsensical stories or study more than a dozen proofs of the Pythagorean theorem until he can “see the reason it’s true.” He spends “virtually every day exploring these things,” he says, “unable to not explore. Just totally possessed, totally obsessed, by this kind of stuff.”

The IWP is winding down. We have just about a week left here and then a week of travel before we leave for our respective countries. Amidst packing anxieties (of course) there's the urgency of spending time with people we might not see again for years (or ever) and finishing up everything we promised ourselves we'd accomplish in our time here.

There was snow. On one day. Watching from the fourth floor window, flakes flew. We ran down to watch but by the time they hit the ground, they were falling instead of flying. 

Oh Howard, this is how poetry turns into prose.

There might never be a full recap of the experience, at least not on this blog. All that energy must convert into writing.   

1 comment:

david jairaj said...

funny. this is an old post but it came into my inbox today. and funnier. there was a post a couple of days back that is not there anymore. there is line on the left panel on your blog page 'There was an error in this gadget'. and you mention douglas hofstadter. can this be artificial intelligence at play?


btw, GEB: AEGB has had so much impact on my unscientific mind. i am a fan of DH.