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93 of 96 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It is big and it is clever
This enormous book is a hymn to the "strange loop", a term coined by the author. Loosely, a strange loop occurs when, after moving up a level in a conceptual hierachy, one is brought strangely back to where one started. It's closely related to those paradoxes of self-reference which can occur when form and content become intertwined.

An example is the old joke...
Published on 7 May 2007 by muddy-funster

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151 of 176 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars WARNING: Do not buy this edition! Go for a previous one!
Don't buy *this* edition of this wonderful book.
The paper quality is really bad (the paper is very thin, almost transparent), the whole book has shrunk in size, the text looks really cramped, the margins are smaller than they should be (I guess to save paper!) and to cut a long story short the aesthetic appeal the previous editions had is completely lost.
My...
Published on 20 Dec 2001


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93 of 96 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It is big and it is clever, 7 May 2007
By 
This enormous book is a hymn to the "strange loop", a term coined by the author. Loosely, a strange loop occurs when, after moving up a level in a conceptual hierachy, one is brought strangely back to where one started. It's closely related to those paradoxes of self-reference which can occur when form and content become intertwined.

An example is the old joke about the park keeper angry that his park has been littered with leaflets entitled "Keep Britain Tidy". Another is building one computer system to test another computer system, and then needing a third system to test the one you've just built. Yet another is the Wikipedia entry of Douglas Hofstadter which, at the time of writing, contains a quote from Hofstadter stating that his Wikipedia entry is full of inaccuracies. (So, do you trust the entry enough to believe this quote claiming it's unreliable?) You get the idea.

Hofstadter sees these strange loops everywhere: in the music of Bach, the art of Escher and, most significantly, Gödel's incompleteness theorem, in which an algebraic system is used to prove a result about itself (rather than about numbers). After he's presented the various variations on these ideas, he then moves on to Artificial Intelligence, examining the "state of the art" as he sees it and discussing the implications of the earlier material for this subject.

Along the way he delves into various other diverse subjects such as the structure of the human brain or the challenges of translating a novel into different (human) languages. Much of this is fascinating stuff and if you are mathematically inclined, there is plenty to love about this book.

Given all the above, why not give the man 5 stars - what more could one possibly ask for?! Well, personally I have a number of objections to this work which I'll mention briefly before the crowd throws rotten fruit at me. Firstly, I am not sure that *all* Hofstadter's examples are on the ball. For example, the loop in Bach's "endlessly rising" canon is simply a consequence of there being 12 semitones in an octave, rather than any subtle paradox of self-reference. Similarly, the main theme from Bach's Musical Offering is not "Babbage" backwards, however you push it! In short, I suspect the author's obsessions can cause him to see patterns in the world around him which aren't really there.

Secondly, his would-be humorous writing style, quirky and lively though it is, will not be to everyone's taste ("Why, you don't say, Mr T!"). Thirdly, some readers will wish he had been more honest up-front about the book really being about AI (and something of a polemic, as evidenced by his almost mean-spirited attack on the philosopher John Lucas in several places): personally, it's not a subject close to my heart and I would have been rather more interested in delving into, say, what makes Bach's music beautiful and spiritual, as the cover suggests we will be doing. And fourthly, and most seriously, I am not convinced that Hofstadter is that great a pedagogue: the facetious style and inordinate length of the book can serve to obscure, rather than illuminate, his meaning.

These niggles notwithstanding, this book really is a fine achievement and, if you have the time and inclination (you'll need both in spades), likely to be a very rewarding read.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very clever, very readable, 4 Feb 2006
‘GEB’ is a hodge-podge of maths, philosophy, music, art and computer science, centred around a single idea that was captured mathematically in the early 20th century. known as Gödel’s theorem. It is difficult to describe briefly (indeed it takes a few hundred pages for it to become clear in the book) but it is, basically, an idea which states that it is impossible to have a complicated system governed by formal rules in which everything which is supposed to be in the system is described by those rules, and those rules alone are sufficient. Although Gödel’s theorem refers to number theory specifically, he realised that it would also apply to anything which could be described in number theory which, as Hofstadter demonstrates, is pretty much everything. Thus, things that we like to think of as being governed by formal rules (up to and including our own thought) actually can’t be. This expansion of Gödel’s theorem is mind-blowing.
Although ‘GEB’ follows the development of a mathematical idea, the book doesn’t require the reader to have a great maths brain. Hofstadter approaches Gödel’s theorem obliquely from all angles (particularly maths, music and art), partly because it has implications for all of these, but partly because it is so difficult to think about it directly that indirectly thinking about its implications is the easiest way of understanding it. (Hofstadter draws an informative analogy with Zen Buddhism, in that it is very Un-Zen to study Zen directly). He builds up a huge array of analogous systems with which to think about the problem, but builds them up so skilfully that you start to see the relationships between them easily, and flipping between music, art and maths becomes conceptually simple. I am not a mathematician, but had no problem understanding the importance of Gödel’s theorem.
As well as been very scholarly, ‘GEB’ is also very entertaining. The chapters are separated by dialogues featuring Achilles and the Tortoise, and other characters. In the dialogues, the characters discuss Bach’s music, Gödel’s maths and Escher’s art. The subject of the dialogue helps to illustrate the following chapter, but each also has many layers of meaning, with the structure mirroring a Bach fugue or Escher drawing. This helps to draw the apparently disparate strands underpinning the book together. These dialogues were very entertaining, and helped break up what would otherwise have been a slightly heavy read.
Overall, ‘GEB’ is clever, entertaining and informative. It illustrates an extremely difficult, but astoundingly important, idea very well, and its application to thought as a whole was mind-blowing, and felt like a revelation to me. It does get difficult in places, but never discouragingly so. Some of the latter chapters (after I had got the point) did drag on a little. Nevertheless, this is a brilliant book, and I would recommend it to anyone prepared to challenge their world view.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably the most influential book I have read, 17 Sep 2000
By 
Simon Beaumont (Cambridge) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I first read this book as a budding software engineer. It inspired me to a lifelong interest in logic, AI and cognitive science, twenty years later I am still on that road and on my third copy having worn out two previously - maybe I should get a hardback edition! Be warned this book may change your life, certainly it was an intellectual watershed for me. Read it.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, brilliant, flowing...quite good, really, 28 Jun 2000
This is a brilliant book. Back when I was in school, I used to borrow this book from the library during summer vacation, read it throughout the summer and return it in the autumn. For every year, I understood more and more :-) Mind, I was around 15-16 years old, so this was all new and exciting stuff. Now, several years later, I find that bits and pieces crop up in ordinary discussions - recursion, DNA/RNA mechanisms, fractals on a musical level, Zen philosophy,Number theory, AI and mind discussions - that I have long since gotten a sort-of grasp of, due to this book. This is also the book that led me to read "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" (another necessary book). Nowadays, 10 years later, I keep two copies of GEB on my shelf, one in english and one in swedish. Everybody need at least one...but you won't get mine!
I guess I should comment on the way tha hofstadter manages to mae the most complicated subjects understandable, how he manages to find links and analogies in very interesting places, how one can read the book again and again and still find new things to ponder...But I won't. You need this book. Your brain need this book. If you haven't read it yet, Do.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastically in-depth, whilst still light enough to enjoy reading if you don't understand it all!, 13 Oct 2008
By 
T. Gregory (England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I have to admit that this book was sitting on my bookshelf for a while before I started reading it. In fact, I think it was about three years (I hadn't heard of the book's reputation, and so wasn't aware that I shouldn't have been intimidated). Once I got going, however, it was immensely enjoyable. The book covers a wide range of topics (number theory, art, consciousness and so on...), all of which are beautifully intertwined, as the title suggests. Some of the maths is pretty heavy going, I can't claim to have fully understood it on a single read, and I didn't do as the book suggested and worked through some of the examples (which would undoubtedly have made later ideas easier to understand), but even so, there is so much else in the book that it really doesn't matter. Different chapters tend to deal with different themes, so maths doesn't enter them all, and all are preceded by a dialogue which sets up the theme and keeps the mood light. These are beautifully crafted, with many hidden meanings, and, once again, probably require several reads to spot all the layers of meaning (however, a single read will illuminate several of these). The dialogues are so well-written, in fact, that they really kept me reading, as I was determined to plow through some of the heavier stuff to get to the next one.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and look forward to coming back to it at some point in the future to see what else I can get out of it.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Godel, Escher, Bach - expanding the mind, 21 Feb 2004
There is some really serious mathematics at one point in this book. I read that chapter 10 times and made myself believe that I understood it. I'd have to read it again because I can't hold it for long.
That is the only off-putting part. You can scan the chapter or skip read it and you won't lose out.
The rest is wonderfully entertaining, thought provoking and carries real insight into the way we view ourselves and our world.
Patterns are important, life needs repetition and replication to anchor itself and provide the secure basis for going forward.
Life, the mind, the ghost in the machine is mystical and can't be explained but this book carries you along paths towards an explanation. Perhaps the truth is that the explanation lies outside our plane of existence but where might those planes be?
Is the ant colony more alive than the ant? Is the "life" in a human being the same "life" that exists in a blood cell, or a sperm or an egg?
If you want to tease your brain or find something stimulating or entertaining to read then this book will reward the effort. You don't have to read it end to end, there is progression in each chapter but I suppose you could read the chapters in reverse order.
In fact one chapter can be read backwards. A wonderful feat when you see it in all its ingenuity. Read it forwards, read it backwards, like Bach, Escher and Godel and all causality, which way does it go?
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151 of 176 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars WARNING: Do not buy this edition! Go for a previous one!, 20 Dec 2001
By A Customer
Don't buy *this* edition of this wonderful book.
The paper quality is really bad (the paper is very thin, almost transparent), the whole book has shrunk in size, the text looks really cramped, the margins are smaller than they should be (I guess to save paper!) and to cut a long story short the aesthetic appeal the previous editions had is completely lost.
My recommendation: Try to find a copy of one of the previous editions if possible, and buy this edition if an only if you fail!
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I couldn't wait to put it down, 9 Nov 2001
By A Customer
This book is excellent at making you think about how a mind works, be it artificial or real. There are lots of interesting ideas put forward and some of the links and parallels between fields is astonishing. It is however quite self-indulgent and depending whether you choose to 'buy into' the experience you might find it a bit slow moving in parts.
I must admit I went through phases of boredom followed by phases of intense interest but this could be due to the author labouring over areas that twenty years down the line I am already familiar with - so perhaps I am a little unfair here. However, you do need to keep your wits about you if you are to truly understand all of the concepts, and for 700+ pages it is asking a bit much to keep up the enthusiasm. This is not to say that the book isn't highly entertaining in parts and one marvels at the ingenuity behind some of the dialogues which simultaneously represent several complex concepts. Reading this book you may feel that you are reading parables of science open to interpretation, and ultimately there is no real conclusion. I do however feel I have learned much and it has affected the way I look at things.
I enjoyed the ride but I'm so glad It's finished.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bit too clever for it's own good, 25 Jun 2012
Just finished reading this book, and my first impressions are this: reading Godel, Escher and Bach is a bit like running a marathon. It isn't something to be undertaken lightly, it will require a lot of perseverance and you may need to pace yourself. There will be times when you are really enjoy it, and times when you strongly consider giving up; but ultimately when you finish you will be glad that you kept at it and made it to the end, and you'll carry the benefit of reading it, and the memory of the experience for the rest of your life.

Why is it such a major undertaking? It isn't just the length of the book (742 pages), and it certainly isn't because it's badly written or dull, but there is just so much in it on so many subjects. Everything from Zen philosophy to computer programming, from classical music to particle physics, to molecular biology to computer programming...and a bit about number theory. In fact, there is a huge amount about number theory and formal systems - probably the majority of the book focuses on these two topics, with long explanations of typographical number theory, how it is written, the kind of statements it can make, how 'theorums' can be formed...Then a lot of discussion of how it is a formal system (and what formal systems are), what recursion means, how Godel numbering can be applied to it...finally how Godel showed the essential incompleteness of this theory when it formulates statements about itself (essentially, it creates a paradox when applied to the statement 'I cannot be proved in TNT').

This lengthy discussion of number theory is important, since Hofstadter states that the neural activity in our brains is itself a formal system, and as such the same kind of approach can be applied to the self reference in our minds that creates the sense of a conscious self. This is the main focus of the book for about the first 470 pages, which is fine if you're interested in number theory and formal systems. Personally, I find number theory tedious and soporifically dull (are there infinite prime numbers? Who cares!) and although the central thesis of the book is supported by this, I think the main points could have been made without such an in-depth approach, and this would make the book as a whole a lot more accessible. Certain references to his PHD thesis and to Zen buddhism don't seem to add a lot (particularly the Zen stuff which I'm not sure the author fully understands), and some people may find the molecular biology a bit much, although I found it interesting.

Saying that however, there is lot to like, especially in the last half. Consciousness and the sense of self have been a philosophical (and now neurological) puzzle for a long time, and it is a difficult topic to approach in a scientific manner. Hofstadter therefore deserves enormous credit not just for taking this on, but for the logically rigorous, articulate and at times highly entertaining way in which his ideas are expressed. Using a combination of basic neuroscience (one area that has probably moved on significantly since this was written), philosophical ideas from mathematics and analogies from DNA, linguistics and various other sources, he formulates a theory of consciousness that it not reliant on the concept of a soul. Importantly, this implies that a computer could one day be programmed to be a conscious, free-thinking entity.

While you might not agree with all of his ideas, it is constantly stimulating and thought-provoking and you are guarenteed to learn a lot of things about a lot of subjects, and to feel fundamentally more intelligent after reading. Special mention must be given to the dialogues before each chapter - there are some parts of the book I feel are unnecessary, but the dialogues are definately not one of them! Featuring discussions between Achilles, Mr Tortoise and friends, they introduce the topics both through the discussions of the characters and the form of the discussion iteslf. Sometimes they explain the theme of the chapter better than the chapter does, and they are amusing and downright hilarious at times. The author himself even joins in, telling an astounded Achilles that he is just a fictional character in a dialogue, when he had believed himself to be a free-thinking conscious being!

My final thoughts on reading it were that it was an interesting book, and well worth reading, but I'm not completely convinced by his argument. There is a lot of reliance on the brain having a 'symbol' (concept) level, but no actual evidence of such a level existing (except in our own intuitive beliefs, and those aren't always reliable). There also seems to be a certain circularity in his arguement, and ideas from Godel's incompleteness theorum , and many of Hofstadter's own ideas, seem to rely on something 'outside the system' being required to make it all work, but he brushes aside the idea of something outside our minds being required for consciousness without fully refuting it. Finally, the references to Escher and Bach aren't nearly as vital as the title of the book would have you believe - it could equally have been called Turing, Godel and Church - a Tangled Golden Chain.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This will make you think, 29 Aug 2008
By 
Like no other book I've read before, Godel, Escher, Bach really made me think. An incredibly clever author, dealing with hard to explain issues (- consciousness and identity primarily), Hofstadter still manages to keep the reader interested and entertained (mostly) throughout. Having said that, it's not an easy read or a relaxing read- I felt like I'd been put through a gruelling mental workout after most chapters. But... no pain, no gain I suppose, as the rewards are well worth it in the end.
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Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter (Paperback - 15 Jan 1999)
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