Douglas Hofstadter’s Impact On My Life – A Strange Feedback Loop

Douglas Hofstadter shakes Mike's hand

The blogger closes a loop, shaking hands with the author after having his copy of GEB signed, (photo credit to Mike Bridge, @michaelbridge)

Douglas Hofstadter is one of those people who is known but to a few, yet is celebrated greatly among that small number. He is a professor of cognitive science, and learned in physics and philosophy, but he is a celebrity among computer scientists, primarily due to being the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” (well, that’s where my story starts anyways).

The First Step of The Loop

I came to GEB a little over 20 years ago, some time around the late Summer of 1994, at a time when my life was very much in transition. My friend Eric Markham had lent me his copy, a tenth anniversary edition, with a bookplate inside it indicating it was a high school award to him for excellence in mathematics. Like so many others, I was immediately spellbound by the book – and it truly changed my way of thinking about the world.

At that time I was on the brink of academic probation. I had entered college in 1992 intending to be a physics major without realizing that I lacked the passion or skills to pursue a career in the field. For almost two years I failed out of nearly every physics course I signed up for, and it had thrown my grades into the toilet. Eventually it dawned upon me (after spending inordinate amounts time on the Internet and BBS systems, and staying up night after night on dumb terminals messing around in IRC and MUDs) that computers were the thing I was really interested in, and that I should switch majors to computer science.

It was at first a pretty tough row to hoe. I had only ever programmed in BASIC on a Commodore 64, and that was about eight years earlier; now I was suddenly thrust into a world of C and data structures, as I switched over midway through the year and had missed the intro comp sci courses. But as I took more courses and learned more about the fundamental theories of computer science and programming languages, I only became more and more fascinated.

The timing of Douglas Hofstadter’s book entering my life couldn’t have been better. Unfortunately, other tragedies occurred, and by the end of 1994 I found myself suspended from school and recovering from a car accident at my parents’ home. I turned all my energies towards doing the makeup work necessary to improve my grades. My newfound passion for the beauty and elegance and creative power of programming languages drove me back into my academic career. Looking back I can see now that studying physics was a quest for truth and beauty; I have always been on that quest, and writing software ultimately became another extension of it once I realized that code was beautiful and that the theories of computer science were full of truths about the universe.

The Second Step of the Loop

Fast forward about ten years – my career as a software engineer takes a number of interesting twists and turns. I ultimately find myself living and working on Cape Cod for what I believed was a cutting edge software company, building with a product that builds itself. CranBerry was a really interesting tool that created web apps using metadata in database tables – no code was ever generated, everything rendered on the fly in the browser. We used SQL to create the models, views, and controllers; DDL gave you all the “types” and lengths of data variables, and DML created literal views on the tables that were the display layer on a web page as well as the stored procedures that ran business rules.

But the best part about it was the app that let you build apps; it built itself from its own metadata, and would all come crashing down if you just tweaked one little field. Thinking about the meta nature of this tool and other applications of it brought me back to the recursion and loops in GEB. So I started thumbing through the book again and carrying it around with me, and that’s why I was reading it in a café in the West Village in New York City.

I had visited my sister and her wife in Greenpoint off and on for several years, and on occasion would attend parties in Bushwick. I always thought that New York was too big for me, too busy, too crowded. Back then I was actually afraid of getting lost on the subway and thought it was impossibly complicated. One of the only places I enjoyed going to at all in Manhattan was the West Village, which mostly reminded me of Boston. So when I came to visit, that’s where I hung out.

What I didn’t understand at the time about New York City was that the magic of the place comes from serendipity; specifically from the power of meeting interesting people at odd times in unusual spaces and establishing a connection that would never occur anyplace else in the world. And this is exactly what happened when a contributing editor of WIRED magazine by the name of Josh McHugh came by my table to sit and talk with me. Why me? Because I was reading GEB, and as he explained, in his experience people who read GEB were fascinating in some respect and worth talking to.

I felt like the coolest person on the planet. Chatting casually with a guy who wrote features for WIRED about everything under the sun; computers and technology, economics, government and politics, you name it. It’s not a stretch by any means to say that experience inspired me to keep coming back to New York City, and ultimately led to me moving here when it came time to pull the stakes up – I remember thinking: “Sure, I could go to Boston where the tech scene is jumping; but if I want to really live my life, New York has everything Boston has plus way WAY more.”

The Third Step of the Loop

Jump ahead about ten more years. I’d been established in New York for some time, and was now starting to make a name for myself in the tech scene. I became a part of StartupBus, changed my life again for the better, and helped grow our alumni community and otherwise do my part to nurture the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the city. I tried my hand at startup stuff, but ultimately that didn’t pan out – so I found myself working at About.com, after being independently referred for a job twice by folks working there. This of course led to my team becoming internally acquired by Ask.com during a reorg… and this led to me attending Strange Loop 2013, the programming languages conference named after the very concept Hofstadter had coined and written about in GEB.

When I learned that Douglas Hofstadter himself would be giving the final keynote, I immediately retrieved my copy of GEB and packed it in a suitcase. I needed to have him sign it, although I had no idea whether meeting him would even be possible – turns out all I had to do was wait in the grand theater of the opera house, because he came right off the stage and on the floor. It all happened fairly quickly; he signed the book, and I thanked him for his work, and got away as fast as I could before I embarrassed myself by being an awkward nerd fanboy.

But it wasn’t until after the conference ended and I was walking away from the opera house directly behind Dr. Hofstadter that I had the sense of having gone through a loop myself; it wasn’t until I saw him walking ahead of me that I really thought about what an impact his writing had on me, and when I ran my mind back across all those threads of time and found them joined together at those crucial points by his book… Well, it’s just humbling when you consider how vast and connected the web of causality is. When you really stop to examine the impact we all have on each others’ lives, when you go down that rabbit hole and you realize just how much every decision we make affects everyone around us, you discover yet another profound truth, a truth just as vital as the ones found in maths and computation, in natural laws and in natural beauty – the system is everything, and everything is the system, and we only experience the smallest corner of it for the briefest time.

A Return to the Beginning

I came across The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows while I was at Strange Loop in St. Louis. I was feeling awkward and a little sad about feeling too socially inept to connect in real life with a person who I had only followed on Twitter (and had not even tweeted at). Another friend of a friend on Twitter replied to me after I described this feeling and told me about the word sonder. It fit perfectly, and now I find myself wanting to use the words sonder, sonderous, and sonderful more and more often. And look at Twitter, yet another web of webs that continuously produces sonder as we connect and disconnect with one another; it’s so great at illuminating more of the threads between us and lets us traverse more paths than we’ve ever been able to before.

I certainly felt most sonderful as I watched Dr. Hofstadter walk away; he surely didn’t realize that his work had led to our shaking hands that day. That feeling of sonder was only reserved for my side of the loop that had formed between us; his side was the execution, and mine was the consciousness of it.

So meta!

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