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Strange Loops

August 14, 2011
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As I am a n00b poster to Gnoetry I thought it (perhaps) wise to introduce myself. My name is David Tolkacz (aka: Rollie Bollocks) and I’ve been operating two blogs BaseInfinity, and BaseNothing for several years now and have lately brought my dual interests in poetry and programming together in a much more concrete way. Having written Infinite Monkeys, I learned a lot about the echo of grammar. The structures atop which we place our words. And the way they sound after other words are randomly placed on top of them. The rhythm is still there creating an interesting echo effect.

Though I am not a professional programmer, I have been around computers all my life, and learned programming at a young age. I believe it heavily influenced my approach to problem solving and perhaps even more so my writing. My approach to writing was almost always algorithmic, and when it wasn’t it was rhythmic.

Out of algorithm and rhythm, repetition is born, and repetition has a long and storied history in poetry and music. The metered verse of the ancient poets was inherited across Europe. Repetition was necessary, these poems were performed in public. It served as a guided thread, an expectation that the audience could ground itself in.

The repetition of course, was a closed loop, an algorithm which controlled and limited the set of words which were allowed to be spoken, how and where they were allowed to fall on the line, and how they were to be sung.

They were rules for creating patterns, and those patterns could be turned into images. Like the bumps on the cylinder of a music box, they were mechanical and they translated. Translation is the key. The machine could translate its components into the sound of music. In this lies a key to its structure: the demand of some pattern or the patterns interwoven in a web.

When the pattern becomes an image it doesn’t necessarily degrade, an image can contain a pattern, and a pattern can contain an image. They are not the same, but mutually translatable. Possible translations are in infinite abundance. Translations in this sense are really mappings, but mappings of one language onto another, is a translation. Suffice it to say all translations are mappings, but (perhaps) not all mappings are translations, only because translation is generally the term used specifically of language. But those who dabble in programming know better than to make a distinction. And the language poets were aware of the mutability of translations and mappings, and so were map makers, who were forced to map a globe to a rectangle: it forces an apprehended continuity between the extremes. That relooping is what has become of the sphere when it was forced into a place where it didn’t quite fit.

Getrude Stein’s recursive poetry proved a loop in language where it had remained hidden for generations. The reflexivity of language, it’s ability to reflect back on itself, it’s ability to recall itself as a totality to be re-entered as an input, in the case of context-referentials such as this. Language was indeed a machine, and one of its mechanics was metanymic substitution, supplementarity, self-supplementing functions.

Take for instance the strange case of This sentence is false. “This sentence” is in fact a metanym for the entire sentence This sentence is false. If we supplement the entire sentence for its metanym, we end up with (This sentence is false) is false. After another re-entry, we get: (((This sentence is false) is false) is false) is false). In fact, it doubles the amount of “is falses” each interation. And the number of “is falses” present at any iteration is 2 to the power of that iteration, or the binary logarithm f(N)=2^N.

Not only does this sentence have a physical duplicity, where the matter of the sentence itself is mutated unto infinity, but it’s also a logical paradox that proves itself true if and only if it is false, and false if and only if it is true. If we assume the sentence speaks falsely of itself, we must conclude that it is speaking truthfully. If we assume it is speaking truthfully, we are admitting that it is false. Each assumption leads to its logical opposite. And as it endlessly grows it inverts its last meaning in a closed vacillating loop, like an alternating power series, a 0 dimensional circle composed of two points for poles, TRUE or FALSE.

The issue that presents itself in a situation like this is the problem of time. The output depends on the input, then output becomes the next input, it reverts to its opposite, it is the snake which swallows its tail. It is the Mobius strip. Extremes meet, they imply their nextness in the sequence.

Consider this, then, in terms of our rectangle map of the earth. There is an imaginary point just beyond each extreme that connects the two in fluid continuity. The sphere when mapped on a rectangular plane retains continuity between extremes and this signals to us it’s former sphere-hood, as a line like a list signals its own circularity when its last member circles back to its first, or something like two linked nodes vacillate in sequence, like a diode.

So the next time you’re constructing a linked list or a binary tree, or a poem for that matter, remember that your data is shaped by the structures that contain it, because no better resource has ever been available for human beings to scope out the limits of ontology and epistemology by simulating our constructions of it (of course at any given time this could be true).

The point is, that I find programming to be an exceptional tool to investigate metaphysical concepts such as ontology and epistemology, and poetry the perfect tool to express them. I think in a lot of ways, this signals humankind’s dialog with itself, through the lens of the machine (for good or ill). So for me, definitely, the two are in love. Creative writing has forgiven programming for being stinky, so long as programming showers before intimacy, and programming thinks that creative writing’s being an airhead is just an unfortunate side effect of being extremely imaginative. In the end they both realized that they completed one another.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. eRoGK7 permalink*
    August 15, 2011 2:34 am

    Programming and poetry are certainly in love on this blog! I like how you connected experiences with programming in early life (something I share too, having learning QBASIC when I was young, but very little since really) to the rhythmic and algorithmic use of language in your writing. I think there is a lot to be said for the algorithmic in writing; I think of it as logic-rhythm or thought-rhythm sometimes, a patterning of statement.

    Great post! I look forward to more thoughtful statements / works.

  2. August 15, 2011 10:01 am

    Thanks! I also am a QB-kid, and originally was a computer science major. So I picked up C++ in college. There is a great language available called FreeBASIC which is the natural evolution of QB with loads of C++ quality tools (the compiler was written in C++). If you’re interested in re-learning or diddling around with stuff, you should check it out. It has a great community forum page too. I love it. It’s a very powerful language.

    http://freebasic.net/

  3. August 15, 2011 7:08 pm

    TI-BASIC on a 99/4a… read off a CASSETTE, young uns… I bet you whippersnappers never seen a GOTO statement, praise Dijkstra.

    Anyway, great post. I lost track of the argument a couple times in the middle, but I agree on several points.

    First, that the mathematical representations used by computer programs provide structures in which poems can exist: ex, “Cent mille milliards de poèmes”, which is really just a tree of depth 14 with 10 expansions per node, and the more sophisticated examples in Infinite Monkeys and JanusNode.

    Second, that computer programs make ontological and epistemological assumptions a bit more obvious, ex in the n-gram generation we do here, which uses a corpus and/or builds a language model. Though there’s still the issue of performance and subjectivity, which play a part in interpretation.

    Finally, if you look at the range of things done in creative writing and the range of things done in programming and computer science, there’s a near-infinite number of possibilities: not just Oulipo / “conceptual” approaches such as picking an AI or language technology out of a textbook and seeing how it could be used to generate poetry, but also expressive approaches such as seeing the ways in which language technology can be used to assist expressive poetry.

    However, I think the humanist and the cs communities currently have severe cultural differences that for most people make this exploration difficult… even in the “experimental” and digital poetry worlds (bless their hearts! I love em and am not dissing!) Though as computational poets, I think these difficulties don’t really matter. We build things of beauty and truth, and may posterity judge us.

    • August 16, 2011 9:41 am

      Quote:

      However, I think the humanist and the cs communities currently have severe cultural differences that for most people make this exploration difficult…

      Reply:

      Please, do elaborate. I find that the way to relate to the humanities for my work is vis a vis Deconstruction, and Post-Structuralist thinkers. Primarily and redundantly due to the pervasive nature of the shape (by virtue of the “structure”) and even Structuralism is still valuable to this end.

  4. August 16, 2011 5:30 pm

    Quote:

    However, I think the humanist and the cs communities currently have severe cultural differences that for most people make this exploration difficult…

    Reply:

    Please, do elaborate. I find that the way to relate to the humanities for my work is vis a vis Deconstruction, and Post-Structuralist thinkers. Primarily and redundantly due to the pervasive nature of the shape (by virtue of the “structure”) and even Structuralism is still valuable to this end.

    OK, good example. Deconstruction and Post-Structuralist critical theory in general provide concepts and theories that could be useful to recent AI research directions, ex: in cultural modeling, social interaction, and meaningful language use. Likewise AI could contribute to critical theory by providing testbeds and empirical measures. So in theory, there’s a lot of potential for productive interaction.

    In reality… who’s going to explore those issues? Both cs/ai and critical theory have a large amount of highly technical concepts and approaches that require years of study and trial/error experimentation to master. Senior researchers have already spent their years focusing on 3-4 (generally very narrow) areas of research – this is what they needed, to become respected in a research community, get grant money, good positions, etc. Junior researchers don’t have the maturity to even know where to begin. Interdisciplinary teams are challenged by differences in terminology, approaches, goals, expectations, and each side’s sense that theirs is the right way: progress becomes minimal, and each retreat to their respective comfort zones.

    This situation won’t last forever. Recent research has become more inderdisciplinary: ex in virtual agents and affective systems in cs/ai, and in digital humanities. In AI, “interdisciplinary” used to mean CS + Electrical Engineering + Cognitive Psychology. These days it means CS + psychology (ex: models of emotion) + anthropology (ex: Hall’s research on proxemics). In the future it will include the humanities. It’s not clear whether this will be the result of CS “reinventing the wheel” or the result of adoption of concepts from the humanities. But my guess is that it will come from the cs side rather than from the humanities side, since there’s more funding, and because it’s easier to “fake” critical theory than empirical results. I suspect it’ll probably take another 2-3 generations for an ad hoc community to form, and another 4-6 generations for it to be accepted by mainstream research communities.

    In the meantime, performative aesthetics are a great exploratory tool, since they’re low-cost, low-stakes, yet provide implemented testbeds. (and are FUN!!!)

    Plus, if you simplify the question to “what interesting/fun things can humanists do with technology” you get a lot of neat little works like the digital poets and conceptualists put out. In that way, although they are moving only slowly forward, they are accurately reflecting the limitations of their times.

  5. August 17, 2011 11:53 am

    Resisting the urge to specialize has a lot to do with why I’m more of a humanities guy than a sciences guy. And a lot of what is opening up for digital poets is the ability to collaborate on projects with other artists, and in fact sometimes scientists as well. I’m not sure that there is a big distinction between what you can fake in the sciences and the humanities. Producing publications is still the name of the game, and the empirical result that matters most. I’d like to believe that the sciences are less guided by politics but somehow I doubt it. So other than a money and funding gap, the differences may be nominal. I understand your argument though, the terminology barrier is a tough thing to crack, and the level of expertise needed is hard to match.

  6. August 18, 2011 1:25 am

    I’m not sure that there is a big distinction between what you can fake in the sciences and the humanities.

    What I meant by that is: research in the humanities seems to involve analysis (of a text, for example) and developing theories. Research in computer science tends to involve experimentation: building a mathematical model and making hypotheses, then building a system, generating data (possibly by having users interact with it) and statistically analyzing the data to evaluate the hypotheses. Experimentation is hard for someone used to analysis only; analysis only seems easier for someone used to experimentation.

    I’d like to believe that the sciences are less guided by politics but somehow I doubt it. So other than a money and funding gap, the differences may be nominal.

    You’re right, the sciences are influenced by politics, especially when it comes to acquiring funding. But my sense is that the enormous difference in funding levels makes it easier to become one of the funded in CS, especially if you develop collaborations with or extend research by established research groups.

  7. Eric Elshtain permalink
    August 18, 2011 2:47 pm

    I think a lot of the suspicions between the Humanities and the Sciences have to do with a somewhat false dichotomy between essentialist systems and relativistic ones. I’m a humanities person in total sympathy with what the sciences have to contend with vis a vis humanistic theories of knowledge, in particular many of the Gallic philosophies that find in the sciences a fraudulant use of the idea of “fact.” Facts are certainly plastic in nature, but as Sokol and Bricmont have pointed out, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense
    most humanistic critics of the sciences have no good understanding of scientific principles, including what, exactly, a fact is or is an index of. In any case, I have had strange criticisms levelled at Gnoetry at Humanities conferences–that the binary aspect of the code is sexist; that the poetic results are not filled with enough of “the sublime”; that machines, per se, can not be part of a “real” poetic process… Etc. (To be fair, most people find Gnoetry fairly sweet–and some who have come at the program with a hard head leave a conversation about Gnoetry with a sense of how the program is just another tool a poet has at her disposal). On the other side, every sciences person has found Gnoetry to be exciting, or at least amusing. In my mind, Gnoetry and other poetry generating programs call into question a very particular kind of authorship–an authorship that is tied into an idea of ownership and/or “style.” These programs show that the idea of a “poem” is a bounded idea–bound to economics, history, politics and cultural setting. Here’s a quote from a 2005 issue of the Chicago Review:

    “Because Gnoetry replicates and refines a period style, instantly,
    ad infinitum, it threatens to render that style obsolete. For why write
    poems a computer can generate more efficiently? Why labor over unsolicited
    submissions when you can fill a journal over lunch? Gnoetry evacuates
    craft of meaning. When every MFA graduate has Gnoetry on his or her
    desktop, verbal pyrotechnics will no longer indicate a creative, skilled mind at
    the end of the poem. By flooding the market with linguistically innovative
    poetry, Gnoetry asks us to reconsider what we value in the period style, in
    poetry. And as it satisfies our appetite for surprising syntax and
    brilliant word combinations, it challenges poets to invent a new style that
    means, a style that cannot be replicated by a computer.”

    Programs like Gnoetry turn the typical question of the two cultures on its head: the question should not be the Humanities’ query “What in the sciences is relative,” but the Sciences asking “How can we make your poetry more like a sound scientific theory”?

  8. August 18, 2011 7:24 pm

    I don’t think that what scientists consider essentialism is thoroughly understood in the humanities. In fact, when you hear people talk about, it’s always in the form of some inherited value system. It’s always a set a values which have been prescribed. The fact is an essence is a category, or better yet, a template upon which various articulations can elaborated. Something common to a set of objects. It employs reduction in order to produce itself, and is a production of a set of similar things grouped by their similarity, but this process is infinitely various. The essence is really a disarticulated template. I haven’t gotten the sense that this is very well understood in the humanities, and to speak of it inspires all sorts of kneejerk which amount to a ban on reductive logic, upon which science relies. But even other scientists have criticized science for being “too subjective,” such as Thomas Kuhn in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But the humanities provide particularly weak arguments which are easy dismiss. Like E=mc^2 is sexist. What if I believe energy is feminine and mass is masculine?

  9. August 19, 2011 4:55 pm

    I really should have said, that the angry scientists who authored their book chose particularly weak arguments to dismiss. There are better arguments coming from the humanities other than that one. Such as the problems of categorical logic, and a whole slew of other problems involving measurement. Another thing, scientists and mathematicians are as confrontational to each other as these scientists are to the humanities. The job of a scientist is to mistrust conclusions, to restrain interpretation. Instead you see most money flowing toward schools or theories and those within them trying to prove them true. The dialog is not as experimental as it could be. But it bothers me immensely when people start seeing sexism in equations. It’s the kind of thing a right wing counter intelligence agent would publish in order to make a mockery of the entire group.

    Here, let’s handle this maturely:

    “It was the phase in which I showed how a single subject, traditionally the masculine subject, had constructed the world according to a single perspective.”

    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Luce_Irigaray

    Except that’s exactly what Relativity didn’t do. It proved quite the opposite, the perspective must be considered when observing, that time and space are literally relative to perspective.

    Maybe it has something to do with Lacan not being widely accepted as a scientist. I’ve tried this with every psyche major and therapist I’ve ever had. “Have you ever heard of Jacques Lacan?” Same answer every time, no.

  10. August 20, 2011 3:54 am

    elshtain says:

    the Sciences asking “How can we make your poetry more like a sound scientific theory”

    Word!

    davetolkacz says:

    The fact is an essence is a category, or better yet, a template upon which various articulations can elaborated.

    I like that… it makes it generative…

    davetolkacz says:

    Another thing, scientists and mathematicians are as confrontational to each other as these scientists are to the humanities. The job of a scientist is to mistrust conclusions, to restrain interpretation.

    That’s true… It’s like the editorial function in the creative process. I see why it’s important, but I hate the way it’s done (i.e. usually by people with no tact or empathy).

    davetolkacz says:

    I’ve tried this with every psyche major and therapist I’ve ever had. “Have you ever heard of Jacques Lacan?” Same answer every time, no.

    Hey, my therapist has a copy of the “Klein-Lacan Dialogues” on her bookshelf! (but she’s not much help as a therapist…)

  11. August 20, 2011 11:54 am

    And the truth is, the sciences could benefit a lot from the humanities research especially as concerns theories of theorizing. The major problem with post-modernism is that it’s considered by its practitioners to be an anti-theory. But I don’t know that’s necessarily true. Post-modernism should really force us to consider the constructed nature of things like essences, templates, maps etc… I don’t have the impression that this is overly misunderstood.

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