The stories that guide us

“…Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry—that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast flowing tears of the child and the man—Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon—these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.”

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“I do not know what young Catholics today actually learn, but my brief experience with teenage preparation for Confirmation suggests that it is nothing much beyond vague sentimentalities about God’s love…. Hooper would be barely sensible to the shipwrecks of Paul, the exile of Athanasius, the trial of Formosus, the conversion of Augustine, and the death of Joan of Arc. Annoyance and sentimentality are the only passions left to the Hoopers of the world. Greatness is quite literally unimaginable to them, whether that greatness be heavenly or hellish; Paradise is bland and the Inferno desolate. Heroism and hedonism alike hold no appeal for Hooper.”

— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

We humans are a talking breed. Language and story are inextricably mixed, and it seems clear that the stories we tell eachother around the campfire—the narratives of our lives and imagination—are what define us as moral and ethical beings.

Life provides us with various types of existing narratives. There are the stories of our childhood, the teachings of religion, the tales of heroes. We learn from these what it is to be good, true, courageous, loyal, stalwart, cunning, indomitable, kind. We hear how to rise from defeat, how to withstand trial, how to protect others, and how to sacrifice ourselves when all else fails.

And most of all, we learn how to judge behavior—our own and everyone else’s. We explore what it is to be a coward, to be the object of shame. We internalize these judgments, and that helps keep us from shaming ourselves and makes us reliable and trustworthy members of our communities. As the stories tell us, there are always people who fail to live up to these standards, as we do ourselves from time to time, but at least there is a general consensus about what we’re aiming at, or trying to.

But that was then.

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Gödel, Escher, Bach

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An Eternal Golden Braid

Thirty-six years ago, one of the greatest books of its decade was published — Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach.

It’s hard to describe how this book affected a certain kind of person. You had to have an interest in logic, recursion, and self-reference in the fields of mathematics, music, and the visual arts, for starters. But if it caught you at the right stage in your life, when these interests were important to you and you had some familiarity with at least Escher and J. S. Bach, then there was nothing like this book. Anywhere.

And that’s still true. Even Hofstadter’s other books, fascinating and improbable as they all are, don’t come close.

It’s a tour de force — both witty and compelling.

There’s little original I can write on the topic, but here are some highlights…

The basics — Wikipedia and Amazon.

Here’s the reasonable (if not entirely sympathetic) review from the New York Times in 1979 by Brian Hayes. (Some readers just don’t seem to appreciate the linguistic humor, the playfulness with which Hofstadter approaches his subjects.)

In looking for good reviews, I was especially interested in recent ones, to see how the book is still received. I was quite happy to find this gem: A discarded review of ‘Godel, Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid’. Not only do I advise you to read it (the comments section illuminates the variation in fans vs non-fans), but inside I found a surprise — a reference to a paean by Eliezer Yudkowsy, whose deliciously intelligent fan-fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a treat in its own right:

This is simply the best and most beautiful book ever written by the human species…

I’m not alone in this opinion, by the way. For one thing, Gödel, Escher, Bach won a Pulitzer Prize. Or just pick a random scientist and ask ver what vis favorite book is, and 1 out of 5 will say: “Gödel, Escher, Bach“. No other book even comes close.

It is saddening to contemplate that every day, 150,000 humans die without reading what is indisputably one of the greatest achievements of our species. Don’t let it happen to you.

Sure, if you’re just an average person, you might not understand everything in this book – but when you’re done reading, you won’t be an average person any more.

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A habit of old words

A great many writers (perhaps most) have known they wanted to be writers all their lives, scribbling away in childhood, until finally some breakthrough brought writing to the forefront and they began completing and publishing their work.

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Many musicians work in mathematics or computer-related fields

But not all of us…

I have an intellectual background in mathematics, which (indirectly) led to a career first as a programmer and then as an IT executive in a number of startup software and computer consulting firms for almost 40 years. But, like many math-types, I also had a competing fascination with music, languages, and the visual arts. Everything, in fact, except writing.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s all Tolkien’s fault. I was a high-volume, indiscriminant, and rapacious reader as a child (still am), never going to grade school with fewer than half a dozen paperbacks to get me through classes, with a strong focus on science fiction and such fantasy as was available in the early 60s. My encounter with Tolkien when his first American editions and then the “authorized” editions came out in paperback, in early high school, gave me a sudden and immediate focus. In brief, I’m the sort of person who reread the Appendices obsessively, trying to understand why his hints at deep history worked so well, how he had built a world with so much consistent detail and background that resonated so effectively with his readers.

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Some of the joys of Welsh

I’m slogging through the character names index and a Welsh pronunciation guide for To Carry the Horn (very necessary — sorry to do it to you folks. One of my beta readers is complaining bitterly. I say, could be worse – could be a Russian novel.) This requires me to look up every name and make sure I provide some clue about how to say it. Welsh looks much harder than it is because of unusual spelling conventions. “Gruffydd” is Griffith, “Rhys” is Reece, “Vachan” became Vaughan, and so forth, but there are some genuine problems, too.

To begin with, you can’t just look up Welsh words in a dictionary. Perhaps you didn’t know this… Celtic languages share a phenomenon known as “mutation” and are annoying enough to change the spelling accordingly. This means, when you pronounce a word differently because of the influence of its surrounding words or grammatical syntax, you spell it that way.

Consonant mutation in Welsh
Consonant mutation in Welsh

We’re used to this in English for vowels in some of our older words, such as our class of strong verbs. We share with other Germanic languages couplets like “run/ran”, “fall/fell”, “know/knew”. Initial letters, on the other hand, rarely do this in English, so it doesn’t seem so bad because we only have a few of them, and the initial letter isn’t involved. It’s different in Welsh.

Let me give you an example. In English, we write “an apple”, but we say “a napple”. In Welsh, they spell it that way, too. So a hypothetical sentence in English, spelled as the Welsh do, might read. “Mary couldn’t decide which apple she wanted, but John gave her a napple she couldn’t resist.”

Got that? How would you look up “napple” in a dictionary? You have to know the language well enough already to understand what might happen so that you can guess what the unmutated form of the word “napple” might be, after you fail to find it. Good luck with that if you’re skipping the grammar and going straight to the vocabulary lists.

In English, we have some other famous examples, both of which demonstrate how this can all go terribly wrong. That little amphibian we call a newt? Sorry, wrong name. It’s actually an eft. At some point circa Middle English, the phrase “an eft” was reanalyzed, incorrectly, as “a neft” which became “a newt.”

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