17 September 2011

Tour of the Alps 2011 Trip Report

This past June and July, I went on a bicycle tour of the Alps with Piaw Na and Xiaoqin Ma. I've now posted my trip report, which includes a map (reproduced below) and remarks and mini reviews of equipment and other things.

01 September 2011

White Noise

White Noise by Don DeLillo is (…I think…) a caricature of 1980s suburban America. The protagonist, Jack Gladney, is head of the department of Hitler Studies at his small-town college, and the book follows the misadventures of his family (Jack, his wife Babette, and their many children by previous marriages) as an "Airborne Toxic Event" forces an evacuation, and Jack tries to track down the drug that his wife is secretly taking.

What is so entertaining about White Noise is the juxtaposition of the characters' hilariously misinformed and inane dialogues, and the seriousness with which they seem to take everything, no matter how inconsequential.

Very funny, though in an unsettling way (in the year 2011): the setting of the book is by now very clearly not our generation. I feel like we can point and laugh because we left that era behind… right, guys?

Metamagical Themas

Metamagical Themas is a collection of Douglas Hofstadter's (Gödel, Escher, Bach) columns (of the same name) for Scientific American in the early 1980's.

If you enjoyed GEB I think you will really love this book. Hofstadter's favorite themes are represented here, and like GEB it is full of fascinating nuggets. But unlike in GEB Hofstadter is no longer constrained by the requirement to build a path from the starting blocks to a single central thesis. His Scientific American columns, collected, feel much more like what he really wanted to be writing.

The columns vary in quality (his comments on then-current AI projects, and on the cold war, seem of little interest today) but the best are no less than thrilling to read. Among my favorites are his columns on self-reference, language and its power to shape thought, the nature of creativity and cognition, and the genetic code. And his remarks about where AI research has to go if it is to really fulfill its charter of implementing "thinking" (here spelled out more explicitly than in GEB) are still relevant today.

Metamagical Themas is at least as good as, and possibly even better than, GEB. Recommended.