Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A book you read in reverse?

As I was sitting at my desk struggling to do a job that at times bores me to tears. I was listening to an album on my headphones. I was struck by a track from The Shins called "Pink Bullets". There was a line in there that started the old wheels in my head grinding:

"Since then it's been a book you read in reverse So you understand less as the pages turn. "

He's talking about how an event just confused the shit out of him, but it made me think of something else. Books that I've read that I felt that I understood things even less having read them. There are some books that are so bad that you are measurably dumber having read them, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm thinking of books that I started out thinking "Damn, I'm pretty fucking smart for reading this book. I bet nobody I know has read this book.", and end up realizing that I'm not nearly as smart as I though. These are books that I've read with some idea that I knew their subject matter, but having read them, I've realized that their subject matter is unknowable. There were three books that had this effect on me. First was "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking. The second was "Chaos: Making a New Science" by James Gleick. The last was "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas R. Hofstadter. I picked up each of these books at some point during highschool, but I had to go back and reread them several times before I understood what they were saying and the implication of the ideas that they held.

I was given "A Brief History of Time" as a gift when I was a freshman in highschool. Thank you Mom. I read it a couple of time, but didn't fully understand it until many years later when I'd take enough physics to grasp what was being said. The experience of reading that book was immensely important to me because it drove my fascination with the real world, but humbled me to the extent that I knew that I'd never be able to rise to the level of understanding that the author and his peers shared. I was also struck with the realization that even if I were to gain that level of understanding it would still be almost meaningless because Hawking and his peers only understand the smallest fraction of how things really work.

About a year after I was given "A Brief History of Time" I think I picked up Chaos on my own. I was fascinated with the notion of fractals and was drawn to the picture on the cover. I had much less trouble reading Chaos, probably due to the fact that Gleick is a much better writer than Hawking. Anyway, Chaos had several effects on me. First it opened my eyes to the notion that the world wasn't totally deterministic. Second, it had a great deal of influence in me eventually going into Computer Science. My first program that I wrote that wasn't part of a school assignment was taken from an algorithm that I found in that book. It drew on the screen a picture of the Mandelbrot set. Yeah I know it's not cool anymore, but I did this back in 1989 or 1990. It took a couple of hours for the program to run and finish filling up the screen. I was so proud when I managed to speed up the algorithm by optimizing the program to avoid using the math coprocessor on the computer. This is probably the genesis of my computer geek self. Anyway, having read that book I was amazed by the way that it managed to describe the larger world in a much different light.

Finally, the book that really blew my mind "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid". I think this book is more or less required reading for a computer science majors at this point in time. I started reading this one as well in high school. About half way into my first reading I knew that I was in over my head, and that I was not intellectually equipped to digest what that book had to say. Then about my senior year I made my second attempt at this book. I got more than two thirds into the book, and had to stop again. Have you ever been reading something, and realize that you understood every word in a sentence that you've just read, you even understood the sentence and believe it to be true, but your mind refuses to accept the implications of that sentence and assimilate it into your brain. I got far enough into this book and realized that I'd read an entire paragraph of sentences, but was in no way capable of forming a logical and reasonable gestalt from the collection. I put it away again, but not after having been effected by it. While not directly about computer science, it ties into the theories necessary for computer science to be a science. I'd had my path in life further cemented in place by a book. Somewhere near my senior year in college I picked up the book again and reread it. This time I had a lot fewer instances where I had to just accept what the author was saying, but rather was able to understand and follow along with his ideas. I managed to make it through the book and assimilate the ideas expressed into my own. However I did finish the book understanding that the level to which Gödel as well as Hawking and others understood reality would always be far superior to my own knowledge and that my life would be spent as a dilettante and apprentice to those who understood things far better than I. Not that this is a bad thing. In fact it is probably a good thing to realize and accept one's own limitations.

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