Prologue

To Hyuntae, and to myself. I read Ted Chiang's short stories this week. I loved them. I took some notes while reading, because I wanted to. Maybe you'll enjoy peering into my mind. While this is no substitution for the conversation I trust we'll have soon, I want to share. My thoughts on Vonnegut's book also don't really belong here (especially considering the URL lol) but whatever. I also didn't read through and edit what I wrote. If you find it unintelligible then we'll just have to call or talk about it next time I see you in person. I can wait, the thoughts this book gave me won't go away any time soon, and I'm going to try and get other people to read this, too.

These notes are stream of consciousness, it might help to have the book's table of contents next to you as you read what I'm writing, or else it might be hard to follow what I'm referring to. As these notes were written just for me, to scratch an itch, I make no attempt to explain until I realize how complicated the ideas are, and I see that I'll need help understanding them later.

Also, as you'll quickly see, I cared a lot less about the book and my thoughts on the book at the start of reading it. I have much more to gleam from the book, reading it again may be just as enjoyable as reading it for the first time. The realizations gained from the book will help me interpret the rest of it.

And so on.

Book 1

Vonnegut's book "Breakfast of Champions"

Where everyone is a robot in Dwayne's mind

Is why Vonnegut can't live in the fiction that he creates

He needs real humans, or else life isn't worth a damn.

He must acknowledge every life as a beautiful unwavering band of light.

He must respect other people, or life isn't worth a damn.

And so on

In the epilogue, it is shown how even with free will, people so commonly make the same decisions. That is, they're all robots. That is, they're all unwavering bands of light.

The way the characters were real to Vonnegut, he was struggling with how his characters were or weren't real. He needed them to be real, for his own sanity. This meant that he couldn't torture them

Book 2

"It was the realization that, because he couldn't understand what had brought her to such an action, he couldn't feel anything for her"

The parallel between falling outta love and proving that 1=2. Something so so so certain reduced to a contradiction.

What a fantastic description of depression. Depression finds a way to make you feel alone.

The book is about being different because of intelligence, knowledge being a burden. About loneliness.

The isolation is because of being smarter - or thinking that one is smarter. It might be a lack of ability to relate, and it might be a lack of respect. Maybe both.

Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions: An unwavering band of light. Trout felt safer in anonymity

The title is Story of YOUR life to not exclude the reader like Chiang used to exclude all others (?). Of YOUR life to make the reader, who maybe ALSO excludes all others, listen and relate. To help the reader realize that he's not alone just as Ted is not alone.

Babylon loses, Leon loses, Renee loses. The smart people lose every single time. Chiang is preaching to respect the intelligence of others.

I learned in Hebrew school, on a section about Kabbalah, G-d's true name is said to have 72 letters. Invoking it was said to make miracles, everything from better crops to bringing the dead back to life. This knowledge as why the Jews were the chosen people, it was central to their identity. Only the high priests knew it. When the temple was destroyed, there were no more high priests.

It is said that there's only one such way to commit blasphemy in the Jewish tradition. To invoke the true name of god asking him to kill himself. There is a very special trial that occurs when this happens, and there is much detail about it. People were to mourn horribly if this happens.

Some say that this is why god is no longer with us, and that it was a knower of the name's wish that the name be forgotten.

One of the many names for god in the Jewish tradition is HaShem, meaning, The Name.

Ted is so biblical. SO biblical. I found this strange coming from a man so scientific. This feels like a contradiction, reminiscent of the linguist's confusion about the photon seeing the future was based on a contradiction.

The classic Ted Chiang sentiment: "Those who were already devout found Benny's descriptions thrilling, but to Neil, they seemed frustratingly vague."

I fucking love the Calli story. Ted's ability to see both sides of an argument, so convincingly. Well, really he was just incredibly pro-Calli, but he played the role of Orwellian oppressor with the PR firm SO well! God that was kinda scary, to be honest.

Ted's short stories always get RIGHT to the point in terms of wacky and interesting stuff. I love the mechanics. They're always so simple, and he takes the implications so far. I think he does it in a very fair and unbiased way, too. Like he doesn't just run with something, he convinces you that that's how humans would think about it, and I find myself agreeing with him most every time

The Merchant and Alchemist's gate is a fantastic story. I can't speak highly enough about it. I am filled with so much love for the world after reading it.

The determinism, "no free will", leads to an enlightened type of life. It's very zen, where it doesn't matter what you do yet you do it well anyway. Respect and grace, a willingness to accept tragedy and continue living well through it. Just as that man didn't make it to Heaven, yet didn't complain.

This way, the walls that wrap all around you and pin you in aren't oppressive. They always have been there and always will be, so there's no reason to be afraid of them. Embrace it, and it will embrace you. Accept it, and continue living well through it.

There's nothing wrong with it. It's perfectly natural, and a goddamned good place to be.

God! The world Ted builds, and the casual descriptions of them. It is fantastic fun. These simple pieces of magic are the most natural things in the world to him. There's nothing special about them, these wondrous blessings and curses. They simply are. There to be accepted. You may struggle fight and reject, but the universe marches on.

Very personable academics.

The simple mechanics yield surprising results, so gracefully! When you make people robots, and they can't naturally reproduce, they develop a high sense of honor and respect for the agency and well-being of others. And that, coupled with no pain, makes the dude operating on his own brain something that makes the most sense!

When we hear what he's doing as a series of sensical in-the-moment decisions, what he's doing doesn't seem crazy at all, but like the most natural thing in the world. When inspected, these natural actions appear to be quite fantastic. I interpret it as Ted speaking to the potential for greatness in all of us. Keep doing your thing, and you'll get what you deserve. There's no other way to live life, under a world view of determinism. The fantastic and the mundane are no different, and one shouldn't cause you to rejoice any more than the other.

Ted writes so beautifully. The machine examining itself, such a sense of wonder and discovery. As he examines himself with a machine, what a strange and beautiful thought "were these manipulators not essentially my hands? Were the magnifying lenses at the end of my periscope not essentially my eyes?"

Replacing electricity with air is a fantastic and strange thing. God! It's incredible! "The lattice was not so much a machine as it was a page on which the machine was written, and on which the machine itself ceaselessly wrote". "the source of life is a difference in air pressure, the flow of air from spaces where it is thick to those where it is thin."

This concept is very important: "It was by chance as much as by intention that my hands adjusted the controls to avert my periscopic gaze from the latticework, so all I could see was the plain surface of my worktable.", a piece of knowledge that a being can't handle - that's what learning of determinism can be like. I've never heard of an argument that makes such an elegant case to accept this concept.

It's not just being smart that isolates you, but it's this particular type of knowledge - no matter how you come about obtaining it. This is why those who see heaven's light are eyeless. They seem blind to those who don't understand how they've accepted it. They ARE blind. They are fools. But… they're enlightened. This contradiction is the lesson.

"There is no source of power in the universe that does not ultimately derive from a difference in air pressure, and there can be no engine whose operation will not, on balance, reduce that difference."

These mechanics let you talk beautifully about the universe, replacing humans with robots and electricity with air and an infinite universe with a walled one allows an elegant and incredibly natural metaphor for the inevitable heat death of the universe. "I don't care because it's infinitely far away - in terms of distance AND time" turns to "Oh snap, we can literally count it".

With a God, the order of the universe is much closer to us than the bounds of the universe, and can thus be inspected and maybe even fully grokked, in very specific and unique cases. With a god, the inevitable end is understandable, and thus a great tragedy. And as with all great tragedies under this mindset, it won't be the end of the world. This is quite a curious contradiction.

It's almost a tragedy that the lesson at the center of the universe proves itself wrong. Unless… the contradiction IS the lesson.

I see it, but I struggle to describe it! The "normal" Mindset of the world, Mindset 1, equates tragedies to pain. But under Mindset 2, tragedies are okay. Mindset 2 protects you from the pains of tragedy. Yet under Mindset 2, you must recognize Ultimate Tragedy. The Ultimate Tragedy can take any form, but at its crux is this: It is the realization of that which would destroy someone under Mindset 1. So to protect from pain, you must accept literal death. Clearly a bad trade, but that's a hard thing to describe... Under Mindset 1, it's an okay trade, I suppose. But under Mindset 2, it's an awful trade!! So. Why do something painful for benefits that you won't appreciate! It's the monkey's paw paradox. Your wish is granted, but only in a way that makes you wish it weren't.

So because of Mindset 2, you get struck that that which you would have been safe from otherwise, Ultimate Tragedy. And you accept that to protect yourself from tragedy. Accept Ultimate Tragedy and you'll be okay. Accept the Human Condition. And make sure you keep living well.

"Because even if a universe's lifespan is calculable, the variety of life that is generated within it is not. The buildings we have erected, the art and music and verse we have composed, the very lives we've led: none of them could have been predicted, because none of them were inevitable. Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you."

When you realize what the first person narrative of the copper tablet REALLY means, it feels like your transported from one time to another. It's very jarring and sudden, it almost makes you feel like you're a part of the story, just like when the man saw Raiyna ! The way he plays with time is very awe-inspiring.

"but it's not the whole story when it comes to love; over the long term, love also means working through money problems and picking dirty laundry off the floor."

Done