Letters Column for April 2006: The Interval Between Z

Posted on May 2, 2006 by Jenna

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Thanks for bearing with me during the extended absence. I have been sleeping. All day, sleeping, or seizing, or sleeping, or doing dishes, or eating, or drinking water, or even sometimes sleeping!

It makes it hard to write. I think I actually did have a long dream in which I wrote a Hitherby but I did not explicitly reify the plot.

(That’s funny, you see, because it’s a valid use of reify even though nothing would have been made concrete. A plot is concrete when you know it!)

It used to be that when this happened I would actually write better on those days. But I think it’s because I’m diurnal right now and it’s summer so instead of boring night hours when I’m drained but awake there’s all this visual stimulation and such.

So! Please bear with me for a while on poor Chapter 3, where I’ve got miles of plans and intermittent awakeness to write them down for you in!

Thank you for your kind words,

  • ADamiani
  • BethL
  • bradv
  • cariset
  • David Goldfarb
  • DSPaul
  • Eric
  • Ford Dent
  • GoldenH
  • Graeme
  • Luc
  • Mithrandir
  • Ninjacrat
  • Ravious
  • rpuchalsky
  • rylen
  • seborn
  • Sparrowhawk
  • Taliskar
  • tylercat
  • villum
  • vincentavatar

Some of you may wonder: why this particular list of commentors? The answer is simple! These are the people whose posts included a well-wish or a compliment. (Sometimes it’s a pretty well-hidden compliment, but since I’m giving generic thanks I don’t have to ferret it out and hold it up to the light!) I instituted this list back when I started doing letters columns so that I could reply to such things without making the whole letters column a stream of thanking people for compliments and well-wishes. Then it occurred to me today that maybe the people I’ve left out will be weeping somewhere saying, “Rebecca didn’t even thank me! And my comment was insightful!” No, sad commenter! That is unneccessary; the only reason I didn’t reply to your comment is that I have finite time and if I let people expect replies to comments it’d be even harder to do regular entries. ^_^

Donations for April totalled $30. Thank you! Also thank you to anyone who purchased Primal Chaos recently.

It is like a Hitherby, and yet not… Non intellego…
— cariset

The April 1 entry is a legend that Jane imagines the monster and Tina might tell, if it were they and not Jane and Martin who worked at Gibbelins’ Tower.

It creeps me out too!

I’m…a bit saddened to be called a dreary man. But just because something is dreary or sad doesn’t make it not true.
— David Goldfarb

Perhaps you are simply a dreary man sympathizer! That can happen when you’re young and impressionable. Or old and impressionable. Or old and cynical. Or young and cynical! They are an equal-opportunity sympathized.

Here is what I think. I think that life and death have definitional issues. You can define life one way and death is quick—it comes even before the body dies. You can define life a different way and death is slow—it doesn’t come until the universe ends! That’s the flexibility that makes us misunderstand one another.

What is life? The Buddha said that nothing is really as we perceive it. You look at a table: there are legs, there is a top, there is dust on the top *^_^*;;, there are supporting sticks of wood, there are screws that probably came from Ikea, there are all these different things, but where is the table?

He said that there isn’t really a table.

But I don’t say that. I say that the table is an abstract protocol, a data structure, a construct in our minds of the information that tables meet. It’s a definition. It’s a summary of our ideas about how tables behave. That’s why fantasies in which tables talk are generally seen as a bit more childish than fantasies in which wizards cast mighty spells. Everyone knows wizards cast mighty spells, but everyone also knows that tables don’t talk. If you widen your definition of table to include talking, then you might as well start following some dark god and eating people, as the inevitable progression in a typical Lovecraft novel might be.

(“Hi! I’m your table!”

“I must go eat Aunt Bess now.”

“That’s just blasphemous!”

“Also, squamous!”)

So you have to understand that I really can’t speak as to how your vision of life ends. I mean, when biological processes cease, the biological processes cease, along with everything inextricably dependent upon them. Similarly, when biological processes cease, impact continues— your life continues to have an effect on people around you and that, while it arguably attenuates over time, goes on quite a while. You can’t just look back and say, “That Queen Victoria, she was cool while she lasted.” There’s stuff that comes out of her life even now.


Ah! you say. But the big question is consciousness.

And what is consciousness?

The funniest thing about consciousness is its defining characteristic, which I think I can argue has to be its defining characteristic.

I would define something as conscious if it has a model of itself that is wrong.

There’s fuzziness about what it means to actually have a model. It might need to have some buzzword like “adaptive” in there, either in the definition of consciousness or model, so that paintings of paintings don’t screw up and accidentally consider themselves conscious.

And I know that a picture of a man holding a sign reading, “This picture is conscious” opens a certain hole in my theory that requires the work of twenty philosophers for twenty years to close. But! I think that you can establish definitively that consciousness has to mean something like that as follows:

We routinely say that consciousness and self-awareness are about the recognition of our own existence. Really, since different populations and languages construct the concept of “I” differently, I suppose it’s the recognition of something’s existence. But if you convert a mind into bits, then the bitlength of a perfect real-time model of one’s own mind is equal to the bitlength of the mind itself. Accordingly such a mind contains an infinite amount of information. That’s not good, as a simple review of Pun Pun indicates. Once you get one infinity into play they’re faling out all over.

So being conscious isn’t about being right about yourself, because that would be very difficult. Being conscious is about being wrong about yourself, either because of incompleteness in the model or an uncompression/access delay.

Can we remain wrong about ourselves even after we die? Can we continue to possess such a false model?

The answer is, “Well, as biological entities, probably not.”

That is, to the best of my knowledge, brain processes do actually stop. It’s probably interesting to reflect that this isn’t necessarily meaningful— I mean, there’s a ton of information and viable states available in the slow devouring of one’s brain by worms, and it’s not clear that it’s intrinsically less capable of supporting thought than thinking. What it is is less able to support purposeful world modification. But we’ll be generous to the dreary men and say that the biological process of thought ends.

I knew someone once who believed in reincarnation who thought that she’d shot herself in the head in a previous life. She cautioned me not to suicide that way ever— I was a depressive teen— because you keep thinking for a little while afterwards, only you’re insane. But that’s just horrifying so because I believe we should have a cheery and optimistic attitude I’m not going to leave you thinking about brain death states like that.

Instead I’m going to talk about software and what I meant when I suggested that software doesn’t stop when the computer stops.

The thing is, the way I see it, the computer doesn’t run software. It serves as an interlocutor between software and ourselves.

Software is a pattern of information.

Here’s how you can tell. Suppose you have a computer. And you say, “I have the source code for the software it’s running. Can you walk through it on paper and tell me what the output will be?”

And meanwhile in the other room you start it up on the computer.

And one step— just one step— before it finishes, the computer blows up. That’s because of your psychic powers. Please! Keep them under control until this example finishes.

Anyway, the computer blows up. All that’s left is the partial printout.

So you get the results from the person who walked through the software step by step and wrote down the output, and you compare them to the partial printout, and you say, “Hey, you, you did this wrong.”

And they say, woefully, “I did not account for the computer blowing up. It’s because that event was outside the definition of the software.”

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I have always been in love, all my life, ever since I was eight or so, with the natural numbers. I attended this class at the local college on number theory and we covered Peano’s Postulates. And yes, my entire life has been warped and changed and defined by this, and I think more kids should learn basic number theory when they’re still young enough for it to change who they are.

Cause here’s the thing. The beautiful part about the natural numbers is that you can get all the details out of just a few basic assumptions. I mean, you define 0, and the successor function, and what plus and times are, and bam, everything falls out of that. Six times nine is fifty-four, I don’t care what Douglas Adams says, anywhere you’ve got the basic postulates.

That’s beautiful.

But it’s not the best part.

The best part, the mad wack beautiful part, the mind-blowing leaves-you-staggering-back-against-the-wall insane crazy good part, is that any infinite set has a subset that obeys these properties.

You don’t need much to have one, two, three, four, five, six …

You don’t need a counting person. You don’t need a machine. You don’t need objects. You only need an infinite number of things.

If you have an infinite number of things, no matter what they are, you have the natural numbers.

If you have the natural numbers, you have people.

No, seriously. You have people. Because even cooler than the mad wack beautiful part is the fact that we are all implicit in the natural numbers. You can take all the data about us, run it through Godel (who’s practically a god but still lets you run people through him which I think is very cool of him), and you have a number that means us.

I’m speaking loosely so you have to forgive me if you need real numbers or something. I’m pretty sure you can get those out of any adequately big set too so no big deal. ^_^

Now you have to say, “Suppose I were the consciousness of the numbers the Count is counting as his head rolls down the hill towards the lake.”

And he’s counting, “One, two, three.”

And then sploosh!

What happens next to my consciousness?

Well, one possibility is that it goes sploosh.

The other possibility is that it goes ‘four’.

You can’t really decide between them. Both happen. Both are equally valid and validity is what matters for information, not truth.

What goes on after the body dies? Well, you see, if it’s “nothing,” then suddenly I have to change my whole model. That’s not simple! That’s really complex! That’s like insanely difficult to justify. It’d be a miracle if I lived through puberty, lived through my first breakup, lived through abuse, lived through moving to a new town, lived through college, lived through that time when I broke both legs, lived through losing my dog, lived through being on this brain-affecting medication, that brain-affecting medication, through being hungry, through being full, through dancing, through sleeping, if I lived through all of that and then it just stopped.

Now you may certainly quite reasonably point out that it is difficult to conceive of what life is without a body and that pragmatically and empirically ghosts don’t seem to exist and so the dead are gone from our perspective. That’s all fine but I think I am within my rights to complain that it’s dreary to imagine that just ’cause all you folks can’t see me any more that I have to stop writing, dancing, or playing!

That said, “dreary men” was a rhetorical flourish, and I definitely didn’t mean to hurt any reader’s feelings!

Well, this is why I’ve always questioned the Hitherby focus on holes in one’s worldview, distrust of contradictions, and so on. Because the least contradictory, most consistent worldview for our world is that souls, God, an afterlife, indeed all spiritual qualities and entities, do not exist. That’s far less full of holes than something like Christianity, say, which is always asking one to believe in things that are contradicted by scientific evidence or by methods such as textual analysis or by a basic sense of justice.
— rpuchalsky


I don’t have a good explanation for what Hitherby Dragons is. I regret that! I don’t have a word for what I’m doing when I redefine angels and souls, for example. I don’t know what type of thing this is. But I doubt it’s unique in the sense I mean here. ^_^

So it’s my fault that you’re getting misled by the terminology and I’m not entirely sure how to fix that.


One thing I can clarify is this. Consistency isn’t the be-all and end-all of an idea. It’s not important to me as the test of goodness. It’s not the test of goodness. It’s important to me because it’s a milestone.

See, I’m pretty sure that if I worked for five years I could nail down a consistent version of “A=A” complete with, you know, what it means to say that. It might even be quicker: maybe if I go read Principia Mathematica it’ll be in there, saving me most of five years.

But this would not help me win at life. In general when you look around you do not see legions of cheering fans adoring the people who have mastered the understanding of “A=A.” They do not strut around in regal capes and bestow consistent blessings on the crowd. Nor are their lives at home simple or painless; in fact, I weep for them regularly because they have learned so much and yet so little.

Consistency is the line of relative completeness at which point you can stop working on the internal bugs of a thesis and begin looking for an antithesis with which to synthesize it. My truth model is apparently pretty similar to Hegel’s, although I’m waiting until I’m healthier to get to the library or until I have more money to buy his books. It’s consistency plus completeness, up to a certain level of scope and precision. The woglies need to vanish beneath the precision horizon of smallness or outside the scope horizon of space.

These stories aren’t about consistency. Rather they’re about resolving inconsistency.

Further, using this work to determine what’s true and what’s false— or even what’s provable and what’s unprovable— is a bad application of Hitherby. Of course empiricism is better at explaining the world consistently than Christianity; Christianity self-identifies as inexplicable. And it’s also probably going to be better, if you want to understand the world, to pick up a physics book than to read about how the Buddhist demon Maya failed to save a bunch of Nephilim at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

If I had the right words for what Hitherby is for, I could tell you what you should use it for.

That said, I think it’s probably an adequate beginning to note that souls as defined in Hitherby have an observable existence in the real world. See above, and then reread The Army, one of my favorite stories here. ^_^


And, of course, if you want to know what Hitherby Dragons is doing, and what kinds of questions it needs to answer, I guess Dragons is also useful!

Just got back from visiting a friend and am totally exhausted so I’ll end here even though I’d wanted to get further in the month. Ta! More soon.