Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — numbers as analytic categories, one, self-reference ]

Is that a self-eating watermelon?

Not exactly. It’s the ourobouros, the serpent in many mythologies which eats its own tail…


The thing about one is that it’s itself: as the song says, One is one and all alone, and ever more shall be so.

One is itself, it is self-contained, sufficient — it refers only to itself.

And so it is that all things self-referential have a special quality to them. Douglas Hofstadter recognized this specialness of the self-referential, and made it a feature of his book Godel Escher Bach. And my point in writing this post is simply to say that whenever I as an analyst recognize a self-reference, I pay special attention.

And I am almost always rewarded, either by an aha!, a sigh, or a laugh…


So for the last two months, I’ve been quietly noting down every self-referential structure in my twitter-stream. Insights, jokes, regrets, they’re all here:

@BryanAlexander, 120508: The trick is to have 3d printers printing 3d printers
@BryanAlexander, 120508: 3d printers all the way down

@tejucole, 120508: Perfectly sane except for persistent paranoia about being sent to an asylum, Miron, 20, of Elizabeth, N.J., was sent to an asylum.

@GEsfandiari, 120509: Kafkaesque Iran where Khamenei’s Fatwa on Antifiltering is Filtered

@emptywheel, 120514: MEK, about to be rewarded for its assassination of Iranian scientists, AKA terrorism, by being delisted as terrorists.

@carlacasilli, 120515: “By default, Brackets shows its own source code (MIND BLOWN).” How’s that for recursive?

@imothanaYemen, 120529: Paradoxically, I can’t watch @frontlinepbs on Al-Qaeda in Yemen live because I am in Yemen :) . Trying to do something about that!

@shephardm, 120612: Think someone has new chapter…Man hitchhiking across US writing “The Kindness of America” hurt in a drive-by shooting

@JimmySky, 120615: #ff @DaveedGR, one of the world’s foremost authorities on foremost authorities.

@DaveedGR, 120707: Ironically, the Brown Lloyd James firm is now in need of its own Brown Lloyd James firm.

@holysmoke, 120709: I wish sarcastic Tweeters would stay classy and STOP SAYING ‘STAY CLASSY’.

@rwhe, 120712: Attention, comedians! How’s “How’s that workin’ out for ya?” workin’ out for ya?


Each of those very bright fellows noticed a self-reference and thought it noteworthy, worth tweeting on to their various followers. It was the shape they noticed, the form, the way what they were tweeting about turned back on itself, like that proverbial serpent eating its own tail.

And the same shape crops up in scripture and poetry:

Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Ephesians 4:8, KJV — the Vulgate has captivam duxit captivitatem.

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die! — John Donne, Holy Sonnets, X.


Self-reference is an important analytic signal: pay special attention. It doesn’t tell you what kind of attention, or why it might be important, just that there’s something worth looking at. A data point, possibly an anomaly.

That’s the number one thing to note.


I am eager to know what sorts of insights you can derive from or find echoed in this series of posts.