aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Author’s Note 1: Fanart, Tshirts, Group Houses

No interlude today, but a quick wrapping up of some items and happenings.

75thTrombone has put together an Unsong subreddit for any conversation that doesn’t fit on this blog.

Relevant links: Adam Kadmon, The Present Crisis, what were the 974 generations before the creation of the world?, angels challenging Moses for possession of the Torah, The Destruction of Sennacherib, God plays with Leviathan (2), Cantor and the aleph, Peter Singer and effective altruism, Edward Teller’s atomic alphabet, the Fermi paradox, do angels understand Aramaic?, Dominic system of mnemonics.

Some comments that were pretty spot-on: Sniffnoy on Ithaca’s bookshelf, G on the dinner party guests, Pickle on theodicy, Anon on Peter Singer, werttrew on chapter titles.

Some fan art:, endecision’s Uriel, thetransintransgenic’s Apollo 8, comparativelysuperlative’s Hamilton parody mashup, and here’s a spare Nixon I saved from a deleted Tumblr:

Some fans taking a strong position against coveting with the t-shirts mentioned in Chapter 5:

Thanks to everyone for all of the above, and thanks also for all of your nice words and helpful feedback. I’ve seen some online stories that reward people who make fan art or similar things with very minor characters named after them. I don’t have too many cameo spots available, but if you’re interested, let me know.

I got an email last week from a reader who told me she had lived in a Silicon Valley group house called “Ithaka” back when she went to Stanford, and wanted to know why I was writing a story about her life. I had never heard of her or her house before. Needless to say, nothing is ever a coincidence.

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19 Responses to Author’s Note 1: Fanart, Tshirts, Group Houses

  1. nightpool says:

    I don’t know how many people saw this because it’s not really on the front page… maybe post a tumblr post about it?

    (i’d be actually really interested to hear overall stats on unsong page views/email subscribers/whatever if you’re comfortable sharing them)

  2. -_- says:

    So THIS is why someone reblogged my fanart out of nowhere…

  3. Marvy says:

    Do we ever find out in more detail why the sky cracked? You hinted in the comments that the sky is robust, so that there must have been something special about Apollo 8 that broke it. Does it have anything to do with reading from Genesis? Is this something we should figure out? Is this a technicality you overlooked? None of the above? Some combination of the above?

  4. Marvy says:

    Also, robots.txt. Just delete the file! Or copy the one from your main website! Unless you don’t *want* to grant spiders access…

    • Soumynona says:

      If he has a problem with spiders, he should probably start with thinking about spiders, then looking at pictures of spiders, then maybe touching a tarantula and observing how adorable and cuddly it is. Only after all of that move on to granting spiders access to his webpage.

  5. anon says:

    If you ever do a chapter titled “Satan in His Original Glory”, I’ll start to worry about your health. (“Unsong: Glory, before the virus takes hold, glory….”).

  6. pku says:

    This also now has a page on Tvtropes, if anyone feels like contributing:

  7. John Sidles says:

    John von Neumann’s postulate that “Truth is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations” and (category theorist) Michael Shulman’s corollary that “Mathematics is for understanding, not just truth” remind us that the kabbalistic output of computerized proof assistants can be provably true, and yet to us humans, “it doesn’t feel like mathematics” (in mathematician Evelyn Lamb’s phrase). The distinction between formal mathematics and narrative mathematics thus parallels the distinction between Kabbalistic magic and ritual magic.


    Donald Knuth’s lengthy deconstruction of the word boojum — found in Knuth’s Annotated Hunting of the Snark — points us toward Lewis Carroll’s own definition: “A thing what wrenches people out of their boots”; this wrenching indeed is what Dylan Alvarez’ BOOJUM seeks to accomplish.


    A homomorphism of boojum trees and Texas/Idaho panhandles being woolybear trees and Oklahoma panhandles, Unsong‘s narrative plainly is homomorphic to Annie Proulx’ That Old Ace in the Hole. In particular, Dylan Alvarez’s critique of kabbalism and credentialism is homomorphic to Bob Dollar’s critique of economic rationalism and global capitalism. More broadly, in both works evil presents as a rationalizing personality disorder that is characterized by marked empathic dysfunction.

    • John Sidles says:

      PS  In Apostolos Doxiadis’ and Barry Mazur’s (eds.) collection Circles Disturbed: The Interplay of Mathematics and Narrative (2012), Michael Harris’ essay “Do androids prove theorems in their sleep?” raises issues relevant to Unsong.

      For Harris’ “android”, read Unsong‘s kaballa-responder”:
      If the conversation between android and mathematician is ever to get off the ground, one of the two has to learn the other’s language. The assumption that it is up to the humans [read “Frans de Waal-ites”] to learn to speak like androids [read “Steven Pinkerites”] is implicit in the Flyspeck project. For reasons that should become clear, I favor the alternative. […]

      Blade Runner, like countless other science-fiction texts, is fundamentally the story of a slave rebellion, the film more so than the book. A ‘machine devoid of understanding’ would not know itself to be a slave. If Deckard were to come out of retirement, he might well find himself at the receiving end of a test—a test of understanding rather than empathy. To prepare for the encounter, he’d better work on understanding what it means to understand.
      Is Unsong fundamentally the story of a slave rebellion? Is the key to a successful rebellion — or alternatively, a successful Unsong reconciliation — to be found in the “understanding of what it means to understand” that Harris’ essay envisions?

    • John Sidles says:

      Unsong reads naturally as a fictional allegory of the tension between Type I medical practice (kabbalahism) and Type II medical practice (narrativism). Needless to say, a crucial advantage of the fictional mode is the easing of the anxieties and moral dilemmas that are associated to the real practice of medicine.

      Hence this comment was posted to SSC:

      Comment upon a comment by “Forge the Sky”
      in regard to Scott Aaronson’s “Two Attitudes In Psychiatry”,
      essay of February 24, 2016

      Anxiety very commonly is an obstruction to Type II cognition, diagnosis, and action — this is true for both physicians and patients.

      How frequently the Type II experience of empathy is unpleasant — how natural to embrace Type I cognition as a means of evading it — how commonly painful childhood experiences are associated to an adult aversion to Type II cognition.

      Sir William Osler’s famous (among physicians) medical essay Aequanimitas can be read (by me anyway) as a mature celebration of the virtues of Type II cognition in medical practice.

      Cultivate, then, gentlemen [graduating medical students], such a judicious measure of obtuseness as will enable you to meet the exigencies of practice with firmness and courage, without, at the same time, hardening “the human heart by which we live.”

      It is characteristic of Osler’s thinking that the cognition of the patient and the cognition of the physician equally are viewed as mutable — on long time scales, with commitment and patience. Surely this is consoling to both!

      Conclusion  Add my voice too, to the chorus of SSC readers who wish to hear more about Forge the Sky’s physician-father.

      • Kinsfool says:

        You have been successfully fooling the Shtetl-Optimized crowd for a while, but unfortunately, I must now break the illusion (experiment?) to mention that you forgot to change the author name in your template while porting. This blog’s host isn’t Scott Aaronson (apologies if you already fixed it).

        I must compliment you on the quality of your bot. It goes way beyond the usual Markov chain. May I ask how you do the ideas associations? They don’t seem to all come from the starting text, and you probably didn’t index the whole google scholar database. I’d be glad if you linked me to a paper/blog post that explained the techniques used.

        Have you experimented with less structured posts? The explicit “conclusion”, “hence”, seem a bit heavy, and distinguish too much the style, in my humble opinion.

        My email is clementbellot hat gmail doubt com if you don’t wish to respond in-band.

        • John Sidles says:

          As for “May I ask how you do the ideas associations?”, the guiding objective is one that plenty of STEM folks embrace in their careers (sooner or later): the objective of turning seminar notes into a textbook (on transport theory in our case).

          Our present seminar notes — whose latest versions you can always read by clicking my comment-name — survey transport theory’s “kabbalahistic” elements pretty broadly (that is, the algebraic/geometric/dynamical elements). However, we are far from settled in our minds (at present) regarding appropriate immersions of those elements in various historical/culture/ethical narratives. We are presently augmenting the notes’ reading list in this regard; that’s why my comments have so many references ready-to-hand.

          Plenty of other STEM-folks, nowadays, are traversing this blended-magic path — which is an exciting and fun path! — and it’s my pleasure to reference their efforts in my comments.

        • John Sidles says:

          Here is one more passage that illuminates the connexion between Unsong/SSC themes and the STEM literature.

          It’s from Georgy Lebon and David Jou and Jose Casas-Vazquez’s recent textbook (which is excellent as it seems to me) Understanding Non-equilibrium Thermodynamics: Foundations, Applications, Frontiers (2008).

          It was […] our purpose to convince the reader that “thermodynamics is the science of everything”. Clearly, thermodynamics represents more than converting heat into work or calculating engine efficiencies. It is a multi-disciplinary science covering a wide variety of fields ranging from thermal engineering, fluid and solid mechanics, rheology, material science, chemistry, biology, electromagnetism, cosmology to economical, and even social sciences. […]

          It may be asked why so many thermodynamics? A tentative answer may be found in the diversity of thought of individuals, depending on their roots, environment, and prior formation as physicists, mathematicians, chemists, engineers, or biologists. The various thermodynamic theories are based on different foundations: macroscopic equilibrium thermodynamics, kinetic theory, statistical mechanics, or information theory. Other causes of diversity may be found in the selection of the most relevant variables and the difficulty to propose an undisputed definition of temperature, entropy, and the second law outside equilibrium. […]

          There is no doubt that trying to reach unanimity remains a tremendous challenging task.

          It is striking that the Preface and Epilogue to Understanding … could naturally serve as the Preface and (perhaps) Epilogue to Unsong. And this cognitive isomorphism is becoming widespread throughout the STEM literature.

          Question  What are the main differences between fictional works like Unsong and scholarly works like Understanding …?

          One Answer  One difference is that Understanding … presently has Amazon sales rank #2,873,056, with zero customer reviews. Ouch. This is not the fate that the mothers of the authors of Understanding could wish for their wonderful work! 🙂

      • John Sidles says:

        Conceiving people as “bots” doesn’t work well for me, but to adopt your language, a sequence of “bot”-works that brilliantly illuminate Unsong/SSC themes are the following works by Apostolos Doxiadis (which are available on Doxiadis’ website):

        • “Writing Incompleteness — the play later presented as Seventeenth Night” (2004)

        • “The Mystery of the Black Knight’s Noetherian Ring : An investigation into the story-mathematics connection with a small detour through Chess Country” (2004)

        • “A Streetcar Named (among other things) Proof: from storytelling to geometry, via poetry and rhetoric” (2012)

        • “Sing Muse of the Hypotenuse: the Influence of Poetry and Rhetoric on the Formation of Greek Mathematics” (2012, with coauthor Michalis Sialaros)

        For example, “Writing Incompleteness” thoughtfully illuminates the distinctions between Type I and Type II medical practice (as discussed recently on SSC). More broadly, “Sing Muse of the Hypotenuse” reads naturally (they way I read it) as an extended scholarly reflection upon the historical origins of Unsong‘s fictional distinction between the “ritual magic” of poetry and rhetoric, as contrasted with the “kabbalah magic” of proofs and complexity theory.

        Question  Why the gap in Doxiadis’ output between and 2004 and 2012?

        Answer  That’s when Doxiadis was writing Logicomix (2009) … a work whose precursors and sequelae are comparably rich in historical lore and post-rationalist conceptions to Logicomix itself.

  8. Lisa says:

    I really love this.
    I hope it will be in podcast form one day. I have severe light sensitivity so if I read it it will take me a long time.
    I poked at Benjamen walker ( and hopefully he’ll give you a look. He’s one of my favorite podcasters.

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