A blog for fans of Bananagrams, word games, puzzles, and amazing things

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Group read-through of "Gödel, Escher, Bach"

Every few decades an unknown author brings out a book of such depth, clarity, range, wit, beauty and originality that it is recognized at once as a major literary event. [This] is such a work.

- Martin Gardner
One summer, long ago, I read the first half of an amazing book called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, but then I had to return it to the library, and I never found the time to finish it.

Now I've discovered that a group read-through of "Gödel, Escher, Bach" is being organized through Reddit. It's being run by Rob Speer who has previously taught seminars on this book (and who has read it five times!).

What makes it amazing? It discusses Escher's art, Bach's music, and Gödel's mathematics and ties them all together. It's got puzzles and paradoxes and ponderings about the nature of consciousness. And it is terribly fun. It has a whimsical style evidenced by its wordplay and humor. The author incorporated a wonderful dialogue written by Lewis Carroll called "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles" in which the Tortoise and Achilles have a discussion which illustrates a paradox of logical inference.

Here is how it begins:
Achilles had overtaken the Tortoise, and had seated himself comfortably on its back.

"So you've got to the end of our race-course?" said the Tortoise. "Even though it does consist of an infinite series of distances? I thought some wiseacre or another had proved that the thing couldn't be done?"

"It can be done," said Achilles; "It has been done! Solvitur ambulando. You see, the distances were constantly diminishing; and so—"

"But if they had been constantly increasing?" the Tortoise interrupted. "How then?"

"Then I shouldn't be here," Achilles modestly replied; "and you would have got several times round the world, by this time!"

"You flatter me—flatten, I mean," said the Tortoise; "for you are a heavy weight, and no mistake! Well now, would you like to hear of a race-course, that most people fancy they can get to the end of in two or three steps, while it really consists of an infinite number of distances, each one longer than the previous one?"

"Very much indeed!" said the Grecian warrior, as he drew from his helmet (few Grecian warriors possessed pockets in those days) an enormous note-book and a pencil. "Proceed! And speak slowly, please. Short-hand isn't invented yet!"
He then wrote similar dialogues with the Tortoise and Achilles and other characters to accompany and introduce each of the book's chapters. And these are just a fraction of the things that make this book so great!

The plan is to read the book slowly, over six months (from January to July of 2012), so even if you start a little late, there's plenty of time to catch up. Rob will post insights and discussion threads in the group forum at http://reddit.com/r/GEB.

It is a challenging book, but a rewarding one. If you have ever thought about trying to read it, this is a great opportunity to follow through.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Deeper Meaning of Liff

While cleaning out my closet, I came across The Deeper Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. The preface to the original, unexpanded version of this book (The Meaning of Liff) read:
In Life* there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no word exists. On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places. Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.

* And, indeed, in Liff.

Lloyd had helped Adams on the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio scripts, and while visiting Greece, where Adams was supposed to be writing the novelization, they wound up playing a game that Douglas adapted from an English class exercise. As related in Neil Gaiman's
Don't Panic: The Official Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (also from my closet),
...someone would say the name of a town, and someone else would say what it meant. [...] As John Lloyd explained [...] "Near the end of the holiday, I started writing them down, not having very much else to do. By the end of the holiday, we had about twenty of these things, some of the best ones in The Meaning of Liff, like 'Ely' — the first, tiniest inkling that something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong."

Here are some of my favorite words from the book:

Ahenny (ah-HEN-nee) adj.
The way people stand when examining other people's bookshelves.

Ballycumber (ba-li-KUM-ber) n.
One of the six half-read books lying somewhere in your bed.

Boolteens (BOOL-teenz) pl. n.
The small scattering of foreign coins and halfpennies which inhabit dressing tables. Since they are never used and never thrown away boolteens account for a significant drain on the world's money supply.

Dalmilling (dal-MILL-ing) ptcpl. vb.
Continually making small talk to someone who is trying to read a book.

Delaware (DEL-a-wair) n.
The hideous stuff on the shelves of a rented house.

Duddo (DUD-doh) n.
The most deformed potato in any given collection of potatoes.

Dufton (DUF-tn) n.
The last page of a document that you always leave face down in the photocopier and have to go and retrieve later.

Farnham (FAR-num) n.
The feeling you get at about four o'clock in the afternoon when you haven't got enough done.

Ferfer (FER-fer) n.
One who is very excited that they've had a better idea than the one you've just suggested.

Frating Green (FRAY-ting GREEN) adj.
The shade of green which is supposed to make you feel comfortable in hospitals, industrious in schools and uneasy in police stations.

Fulking (FUL-king) ptcpl. vb.
Pretending not to be in when the carol-singers come round.

Hewish (HEW-ish) adj.
In a mood to swipe at vegetation with a stick.

Hoggeston (HOG-us-tn) n.
The act of overshaking a pair of dice in a cup in the mistaken belief that this will affect the eventual outcome in your favor and not irritate everyone else.

Kabwum (KAB-wum) n.
The cutesy humming noise you make as you go to kiss someone on the cheek.

Kent (kent) adj.
Politely determined not to help despite a violent urge to the contrary. Kent expressions are seen on the faces of people who are good at something watching someone else who can't do it at all.

Kentucky (ken-TUK-ee) adj.
Fitting exactly and satisfyingly. The cardboard box that slides neatly into an exact space in a garage, or the last book which exactly fills a bookshelf, is said to fit 'real nice and kentucky'.

Liff (lif) adj.
A common object or experience for which no word yet exists.

Millinocket (MIL-in-ok-et) n.
The thing that rattles around inside an aerosol can.

Nacton (NAK-ton) n.
The 'n' with which cheap advertising copywriters replace the word 'and' (as in 'fish 'n' chips', 'mix 'n' match', 'assault 'n' battery'), in the mistaken belief that this is in some way chummy or endearing.

Plymouth (PLIM-uth) vb.
To relate an amusing story to someone without remembering that it was they who told it to you in the first place.

Quoyness (KWOY-nes) n.
The hatefullness of words like relionus and KopyKwik.

Rochester (RO-ches-ter) n.
One who is able to gain occupation of the armrests on both sides of their cinema or aircraft seat.

Scethrog (SKETH-rog) n.
One of those peculiar beards-without-moustaches worn by religious Belgians and American scientists which help them look like trolls.

Thrupp (THRUP) vb.
To hold a ruler on one end on a desk and make the other end go bbddbbddbbrrbrrrrddrr.

Woking (WOH-king) n.
Standing in the kitchen wondering what you came in here for.

There ought to be a word for a book that you've never fully read and haven't looked at in years, but suddenly can't bear to part with. Inspired by Douglas Adams, I've decided to call it a "Spennymoor".