Unfortunately, the films are not narrated by a talking tortoise
April 12, 2008 3:00 AM   Subscribe

MITOpenCourseWare offers an online high-school course on Douglas Hofstadter's much-loved 1980 Pulitzer-winning exploration of maths, patterns, music, art, recursion, and computability, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Previously, some here had indicated an interest in such a course.

There are two unfortunate drawbacks to the online course:
1. it is not narrated by a talking tortoise;
2. and, the course videos are in RealPlayer format, and installing RealPlayer means an eternal rusty chain of spamming by Real.com. And buf-buf-buf-buf-er-er-ing.

There is a great work-around to the second problem, Real Alternative, which a) actually works, and b) doesn't spam. That codec and the Media Player Classic viewer (which is also a great substitute for the Microsoft's MediaPlayer), can be found here.

Anyone interested in organizing a group or groups to buy copies of GEB:EGB, "take" this "class", and meet virtually to discuss it?
posted by orthogonality (28 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite

A few of my high school students are reading this now, on their own. I imagine they might be interested in this. Great post!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:22 AM on April 12, 2008

If I ever end up going back to the boarding school I attended for a few years to teach (after I pay off my student loans and save up some money), this is definitely going to be one of the courses I teach.

Seems like it could be done in 4 or 5 weeks with 90 minutes of class five days a week.
posted by blasdelf at 3:27 AM on April 12, 2008

I've watched a few other lecture series at MIT with real. I found that the only way to alleviate the buffering problem was either 1) increase the buffer size to an obscene value or 2) use mplayer to intercept the streaming data and reassemble it on my hard drive.
posted by substrate at 5:17 AM on April 12, 2008

ew real media required : (
posted by flyinghamster at 5:19 AM on April 12, 2008

i don't think bach would have used real media files : (
posted by flyinghamster at 5:20 AM on April 12, 2008

What Windows-centric advice. ;-)

Oddly, Real Player for Mac is a lot more professional looking and un-spammy.
posted by jock@law at 6:17 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

The buffering issue: if you don't mind a bit of bother, the instructions here for downloading the rm files for local playback work seem to work fine for this course. And I'm sure if it weren't illegal or something there would probably be a couple of ways that Google knows about to convert the rm to something more palatable.
posted by facetious at 6:44 AM on April 12, 2008

The problem with streaming media (and I use that to leave out the http-delivered Flash video, although I have heard that there's a Flash streaming server out there, which I haven't researched) is that you've got three choices: Windows Media Player, QuickTime, and Real.

Windows Media Player is a great choice as long as you are only serving to Windows clients. I hear it has gotten better recently, but I haven't fired up my Windows Media Server for a while. Just not a lot of demand for MMS. They weren't even in the game several years back, so one can see a couple of reasons why MIT might not have selected the Windows solution back when they first started out.

QuickTime? No solid advantages over Real. Still doesn't come native on the box. They still want to send you email, want you to install Safari and iTunes. And a lot of is very Apple-centric. Serving QuickTime off of anything but an Apple server is a fool's errand. Helix Universal supposedly can do it, but even an employee for Apple was unable to pick the right encoding options so it could be done, which means you get locked into a Apple or Darwin Streaming Server.

I'm sure that all of the companies involved have made technological advancements, but a university typically doesn't re-evaluate this stuff every year and say, "Hey, let's go back and re-encode everything!" Real was the best choice at the time because they weren't wed to either OS X or Windows. They even have a Solaris client kicking around.

Now that my technical rant is over, can I ask if I am the only person who felt kind of annoyed by G.E.B. and Hofstadter?
posted by adipocere at 6:47 AM on April 12, 2008

Now that my technical rant is over, can I ask if I am the only person who felt kind of annoyed by G.E.B. and Hofstadter?

More information. You mean by the tone or something? By the reputation they gained? Honestly can't think of how this stuff might be annoying, and I'm a pretty easily annoyed human.
posted by facetious at 6:51 AM on April 12, 2008

I don't think more information is required - one should reasonably be able to say if something annoyed them or not. I was wondering if anyone else experienced the sensation of annoyance. My guess is that you're asking why I was annoyed, which is usually a prelude to a reply stating that the person shouldn't have that opinion, "and here's why you are dumb for feeling that way!"

So here goes: The tone is certainly part of it. The kind of "golly, aren't I clever?" bit that I also felt from David Foster Wallace but not Carl Sagan. My main problem with it is I see too often: a person or book with some Big Idea, and they then proceed to attempt to staple that idea to freakin' everything, whether or not it belongs there. You know how you'll stumble across a Jesus freak for whom everything is an opportunity to tell you about the Good News? Yeah, like that. Some of the compsci bits were neat when I was younger, but even then I got the impression that he was trying to rub his pet hypothesis over all conceivable topics.
posted by adipocere at 7:18 AM on April 12, 2008

the kind of "golly, aren't I clever?" bit that I also felt from David Foster Wallace but not Carl Sagan.

That's the same annoyance I feel when people decry good work or interesting ideas by smart people because of the perceived tonal threat to their own intellectual standing that they project onto it.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 7:42 AM on April 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

If you download the linked .rm file and read it in a text editor, you'll see it's just a container for an RTSP url. You can use mplayer to download it and playback later (possibly in something with less suck, like VLC). For example:

mplayer -v -dumpstream -dumpfile lecture1.rm rtsp://a947.v7870d.c7870.g.vr.akamaistream.net/..(rest of long-ass path).rm

This makes it possible to actually seek, something I've never been able to get work with streaming Real.
posted by cj_ at 8:20 AM on April 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best. Book. Evar!!! Of course, those of us who think so apparently all read GEB during our formative geek years. The haterz are the folks who read it after they already had a solid grasp of what's introduced in the book.

When I've gone back to reread Godel, Escher, Bach as an adult, I've found the dialogs not nearly as clever as I'd thought. The chapter text following the dialogs seems proud of itself, slowly paced, and pedantic (in the bad way, if you'll accept a "good way" for pedantry). But I still remember the blazing scorch of cognitive illumination to the tune of God-as-Keanu-Reaves-going-"whoa..."-inside-my-head.

The book is filled with "Ah hah!" moments for those who get it. For those who already have knowledge of logic, math, and reason, there's no "Ah hah!" experience, thus no joy.

...excuse me. I think I'd better head over to fark now and post on a nascar thread...
posted by lothar at 9:49 AM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I loved reading that book (In middle school) however it's a little out of date. It's focused on logical AI that was prevalent in the 1970s and whatnot, but doesn't talk at all about the statistical and probabilistic AI that's being done these days.
posted by delmoi at 9:49 AM on April 12, 2008

My guess is that you're asking why I was annoyed, which is usually a prelude to a reply stating that the person shouldn't have that opinion, "and here's why you are dumb for feeling that way!"

Nah, I was just curious. But I get what you're saying.
posted by facetious at 11:03 AM on April 12, 2008

can I ask if I am the only person who felt kind of annoyed by G.E.B. and Hofstadter?

I know people love GEB, and swear by it, and even though I don't think it is entirely harmless, I hate being negative about it because that book is a strange masterpiece of the (dark) art of making people experience anything against it as a slight to their own intelligence and judgment (which I have come to see in myself as a cardinal sign of belief masquerading as understanding, by the way).

But I feel I must stand against the tide with adipocere, here, even though I imagine we'll only get wet for our trouble, if only because I believe courage to state an unpopular truth always deserves recognition.

GEB is like a beautifully constructed and landscaped petting zoo which decided, God only knows why, to try to get away without having any actual animals. Every time the crowd starts looking around with frowns on their little faces, wondering where the heck the pigs and cows and sheep and donkeys are, a Danny Kaye-like figure jumps up to beguile them with songs and stories about animals, an interpretive dance about animals, and even a pretty good imitation of the sounds the animals might make if they really were there. It's a bravura performance, praiseworthy in its own right for what it is, perhaps, but ultimately a sham, in my opinion. The real mathematics just never shows up.

I recommend Howard DeLong's A Profile of Mathematical Logic to those who feel they must have the real thing.
posted by jamjam at 11:54 AM on April 12, 2008 [4 favorites]

GEB also annoyed me (though I love DFW...). Not really because of the content of the book, but because of the way some readers just clung to it and used it more as a shibboleth than anything (though they were never quite so bad as the Illuminatus Trilogy trolls). By the time I encountered it my mind was not to be blown away by applications of recursion, so I guess it was "your favorite pop-intellectual sucks". I wish I'd encountered it without the adherents.
posted by fleacircus at 12:45 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

For those who missed the hullabaloo last year, Hofstader has kicked out a sequel. And I'm with jamjam and adipocere. More than most tomes of its considerable weight, GEB is a young persons book. But then, so is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, from which it adopts much.
posted by paulsc at 1:07 PM on April 12, 2008

Now that my technical rant is over, can I ask if I am the only person who felt kind of annoyed by G.E.B. and Hofstadter?
posted by adipocere at 6:47 AM on April 12 [+] [!]

First off, thank you for bringing this up. I was beginning to feel that I was the only one. And, while I feel the DFW "i've-got-an-intellectual-hardon-vibe" is *kind of* similar (especially in Wallace's Everything and more), Hofstader is just SOOOOOO self-satisfied. As a scholar of at least one of the topics of G,E,B:, (and an interested novice of the other two), I found about 70% of his book to be projections, silly analogies and intellectual legerdermain told in a Very Serious Voice, aaaaand 30% to be novel and fun musings on the sciences, told with a whimsical flavour. I just don't feel the 1000000000pages are justified, or the thousands of people building steel-reinforced bookshelves just to show off Dougie to their girlfriends

(and i am NOT saying this to rain on anybodys Hofstader parade! This is just my first opportunity to vent on it :) YAY CATHARSIS)
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 1:32 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I went to University of Oregon where Hofstadter got his doctorate. I had just finished GEB and was very excited about it, so I asked one of my computer science professors, an old polish man, if he knew him.

In his thick polish accent he replied, "Ah yes. Hofstadter is first order...bullshitter."
posted by mullingitover at 2:23 PM on April 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm in the midst of the sequel paulsc mentioned (I Am a Strange Loop) about consciousness. I feel a bit ashamed at never reading GEB, but the writing style seems to be what you've all described, lots of long tangents and whimsical stories that feel like silly filler. The ideas buried in all this are fascinating, but plowing through pages and pages of fairytale analogies of the same concepts is frustrating. I get the impression that GEB actually might have a better signal:noise ratio...can anyone who's read both give a good comparison?
posted by mayfly wake at 2:50 PM on April 12, 2008

I enjoyed GEB when I was in high school, and I liked his collection of Metamagical Themas columns when I was in college. As an adult I read his book on translation, Le Ton Beau de Marot, and found it rather smug; he wrote as if he were the first person to ever think about how translation worked. I asked a professional translator what he thought of it, and he said Hofstadter seemed unaware that there was an enormous body of professional literature devoted to the very questions he was raising.
posted by frankchess at 3:07 PM on April 12, 2008

feel a bit ashamed at never reading GEB, but the writing style seems to be what you've all described, lots of long tangents and whimsical stories that feel like silly filler.

The thing you have to get about Hofstadter (and you're free to like it or not, I can see where it might be annoying) is that he is playing with language. His books are at least as much about that as they are about whatever they're about. So, if you're not into prose experiments, you're going to feel like some of his stuff is "filler". This goes especially for I Am a Strange Loop. I am trying not to spoil anything, but read through to the very end -- as in don't skip any pages with words on them -- and then see how you feel about it. My opinion of this book changed greatly during the last few chapters, and I even like Hofstadter's prose.

If it still bugs you, yes, I think you are likely to feel that GEB has a better "signal:noise ratio". I think it's his best book, at any rate.
posted by vorfeed at 5:03 PM on April 12, 2008

Hofstadter definitely has that Wolfram vibe about him.
posted by blasdelf at 11:58 PM on April 12, 2008

I bought my third copy of GEB a couple of years ago - it had an introduction written about the impact of the book, in which DH wondered why people went on about the Zen chapter.

It made me feel as though he hadn't actually re-read the thing. As though he was remembering it as he felt it should have been - having said that, the Zen chapter of the book essentially destroyed his reputation amongst serious mathematicians.

"The real mathematics just never shows up."

That's just not true - follow the symbolic math all the way through and you will get the proof. The Turtle/Achilles dialogs contain (and reflect) a lot of the ideas in the book, but they also act as metaphors for the central structure. And that is how TNT (the Hofstadter version of symbolic logic), which is thoroughly worked out within the book, is made to do the Godel dance. It's all there - just obscured at times by the over-enthusiastic supporting prose structure

Twenty years on from reading the book originally I'd say Hofstadter has a tin ear - especially after reading Le Ton Beau de Marot, a book I adore more than GEB but which fails in almost every respect. He gets almost everything wrong in his attempts at translation while demonstrating in the process why he gets it wrong.

It's a wonderful book though, in that it starts with a relatively simple French poem, and the chapters alternate with translations of it in different styles, as an attempt to demonstrate how even something that seems straightforward can be damaged in translation.

In the process of doing this, however, he shows rather strongly his poor ideas of what works in language - have a glancing look at his translation of Eugene Onegin, or rather don't. It's terrifically bad, as bad as the Nabokov translation without a mind as complex and supple as Nabokov to justify it. It's not bad with a point, in other words, it's just bad.

When he writes he turns everything he touches into a heavy handed and rather dull game - a set of poorly thought out metaphors and badly written dialogue. Look at any chapter of GEB in isolation and argue with that.

When it's read in combination though, it falls together and the games work as metaphors, the dialogs works as games, the heavy hand drops and there is an epiphany. A blessed moment, as I have had a few times reading his books, when something complex and inaccessible is made a part of my mental space.

I'm willing to put up with the fact that he's a bit of a dick and that his research hasn't really lead anywhere for that.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 12:56 AM on April 13, 2008

Re-reading the above, I come to the conclusion that DH writes better than me.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 2:17 AM on April 13, 2008

I actually liked "I am a Strange Loop" more than GEB. I didn't get the impression that he was as self-impressed in "Loop"; I think his grief made the proceedings more subdued. It felt like there were fewer points to be made, and they were arrived at more quickly.
posted by Jpfed at 8:15 AM on April 13, 2008

Although I've always been fascinated in its subjects, I have never been able to read Goedel, Escher and Bach all, or even part of the way through, just in bits here and there while looking at the pictures. I'd like to know of more alternative or additional reading suggestions.

I'm intrigued by the allegations of intellectual slight-of-hand described above (I love the "petting zoo which describes animals in detail but has none" analogy). Would someone please give me an example from the text, my email in my profile if no one wants to post at length here. I happen to have the book for reference.
posted by wobh at 1:19 PM on April 13, 2008

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