Posts Tagged ‘Recursion’

Repetition, Redundancy, Recursion, Teaching, Slow Poetry, Repetition

April 8, 2011

Information can be handled quite well by a drum. If we follow along with James Gleick in his new book The Information, it seems that one of the important advances in information was made by the ‘talking’ drum. The great advantage was that they were loud. You could pass a message a good distance and everyone with ears to hear got the message. The great disadvantage was that drums trying to reproduce human speech needed a great deal of redundancy built into the messages sent. And you needed more than ears. Here is a message transcribed by missionary Roger Clark in 1934:

In the morning at dawn, we do not want gatherings for work, we want a meeting of play on the river. Men who live in Bolenge, do not go into the forest, do not go fishing. We want a meeting of play, in the morning at dawn.

All this to announce a funeral. Because there were only two sounds to work with on the drum, conventions developed; more information was needed to overcome the drum’s limitations. If the same sound gets you to a puddle, a promise, or a poison, you had to say a little more to keep things clear. The message above was a call to a funeral that was happening in the morning when you might be thinking of gathering for work, or of going into the forest, or of going fishing. Tomorrow morning, don’t go.  And…if you want to promise to poison the puddle, you’re going to have to elaborate very carefully. There’s a muddle for us to step in, I promise. It will be like a poison in the middle of the puddle.


I tell this story over and over: There’s this logician who gets into the shower one morning with a bottle of shampoo. The instructions on the package are to soak your hair thoroughly, wash, rinse, and repeat. He never gets out of the shower.

The reason I tell the story repeatedly is different that the reason the logician can’t get out of the shower. He’s caught in a loop; I’m always warning my logician friends not to get in the bath with this soap—at least not with an infinite amount of it.


Good teaching relies on repeating. You stand in front     of a room full of confused eyes. ‘Let me say that again.’ Just don’t say it exactly the same way, okay?


What about translation?  In class the other day, we were learning about Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Here’s the opening line, thrice:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

One morning as Gregor Samsa awoke from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed INTO A GIGANTIC INSECT.

They do say pretty much the same thing. Version 3 uses the same words as 2, but moves them around a little. The upper case letters—does that really change anything?


But perhaps you can never repeat anything. But perhaps you can never repeat anything. But perhaps you can never repeat anything.

Fess up. You read the second ‘but’ differently from the first, didn’t you? And the third time? There was a little murmur of, ‘okay I got it’—right? I heard you.

Suppose I asked you to write the above three sentences ‘in your own words’.

Suppose I asked you to summarize the sentences so as to show me you understand the point I was making.

Okay, take out a piece of paper and number from one to ten. Write this sentence—‘Take out a piece of paper and write this sentence ten times, but do not repeat yourself.’—ten times and do not repeat yourself.


It is time to listen to Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room’ .


And last, take a look—I mean, read—John Armstrong’s foray into what he is calling slow poetry. ‘Slow’ because he’s asking you to read it slowly. ‘Poetry’, because he’s calling it poetry. Slow, because you’re going to have to perform it. Poetry, because you’re going to have to perform it. Poetry, because maybe it’s a type of music and music always messes with poetry.

Slow poetry? Slower poetry? John, you mean to tell me there is such a thing as fast poetry?