Friday, April 26, 2013

Self-Reference Engine

A self-reference engine, such as that created by the Japanese theoretical physicist and science-fiction writer Toh Enjoe, translated into English by Terry Gallagher and published by Haikasoru, can only be reviewed self-referentially, if it can be reviewed at all. Either this review will successfully evoke the type of self-referentiality created in this book, or it will fail. If it succeeds, and you appreciate it, you will know that you are the sort of person who is likely to appreciate Self-Reference Engine. If it fails, you will not know, since the review will bear no resemblance to the book, and your reaction to the review will tell you nothing meaningful about your possible reaction the book. But how will you know whether or not this review has succeeded or failed? The only way to know that with certainty is to read the book.

So whether or not this review succeeds, this is what you should do: Read Self-Reference Engine.

"But," you may say, "There are many books out there to read, and I have limited time and money. How will I know if Self-Reference Engine is the sort of book I would like, or if I am the sort of person who would like it?" These are some empirically-derived sets of people whose probability of appreciating Self-Reference Engine can safely be said to be greater than zero:

  • People whose favorite parts of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris were the discussions of symmetriads and asymmetriads
  • People who wish Jorge Luis Borges had given more thought to the set-theoretical implications of "The Library of Babel"
  • People who recognize combinatorial principles in the composition of Samuel Beckett's novels
  • People who laugh at math jokes
  • People who like Haruki Murakami but find his plotting a touch too predictable

If each of these attributes intensifies the probability of your appreciation of Self-Reference Engine, then the set that is the intersection of those sets would likely have a very intense appreciation of it. There may be other sets that the author of this review cannot recognize. These are the ones the author of this review recognizes because they apply to him. We know therefore that the intersection of these sets is greater than the null set.

What happens to that set, however, when the author of this review dies? If there is at least one other person in that set, then the statement that the set is greater than the null set remains true. But what if there is no other such person? Could the statement be made false by my death?

That depends on what can be said about the existence of a temporally finite being within a space-time manifold. Death closes the loop of the author of this review, but it does not mean that the author ceases to exist. Only something capable of making it such that something had never existed, something capable of reshaping the space-time manifold itself--something like the giant corpora of knowledge in the Self-Reference Engine--could render the set null. This implies therefore that the author of this review existed as a member of this set even before he had read Lem, Borges, Beckett, Murakami and Cantor, even before he was born, even before Lem, Borges, Beckett, Murakami and Cantor had written their books, even before they were born. He existed as a minuscule vibration within the probability space of the universe, intersecting with their minuscule vibrations through the medium of their words, or more precisely, the words of their translators.

Thus, the set of people capable of appreciating Self-Reference Engine is greater than null through all temporal values. Therefore you should read the book. Even though it is in translation.

Kibbitzers may find some slight flaws with the translation. Even without a knowledge of Japanese, the author of this review had sufficient mathematical ability to detect one, or to think he detected one. Yet the structure of Self-Reference Engine makes it unusually resilient to such flaws, as this review will illustrate.

Consider the following passage from the chapter "Japanese," which is presented in the book as a "speculative translation" into Japanese of a memorandum in the apparently extinct language of Japanese, as re-translated now into English:

As demonstrated by the game Twenty Questions, the identity of unknown objects and concepts that can be categorized by people can often be guessed at via a series of about twenty yes-or-no questions. Making these choices is a process requiring 220 codes, a figure that makes 12 billion look modest.

Mathematically, 220 is only 1,048,576, which is quite modest in comparison to 12 billion. It would take 34 binary choices to reach a number exceeding 12 billion. One suspects therefore that Gallagher, confronted with Enjoe's reference to a Japanese game requiring many more choices, opted for an example that would be more familiar to English-language readers--at the expense of the consistency of the math.

But then again, perhaps not. For as we discover in the final two paragraphs of the chapter:

In fact this thirteen-page story is the very text that was brought back by the first research team to visit the former Japanese archipelago.

The current giant corpora of knowledge contend this is prima facie evidence of the plot to confound them, but this too is a question that should be examined by all scholars of ancient Japan.

This forces the reader, the author of this review, to re-examine the analysis of the apparent translation error. Perhaps there is in the book a plot to confound the giant corpora of knowledge, and this basic mathematical error, of presenting 220 as if it were much greater than 12 billion, was part of that plot.

An attempt by the author of this review to correspond with Terry Gallagher about this has not resulted in a conclusive answer. What we can say with certainty is this: That the author of this review has something in common with the giant corpora of knowledge, an inability to understand Japanese, and thus an inability to conclusively answer this question on his own.

Therefore, you should read Self-Reference Engine.