23 April, 2021

Puzzle Portraiture

Made by Katherine Hess.

In May of 2018, Katherine sent me a photo of a piece she was working on. "It's a puzzle portrait," she explained. "Do you think you can solve it?"

I was fascinated by the small photo she sent me. It was a portrait of me, all in orange (my favorite color), using Futhark and Greek characters. I don't speak any languages other than English very well, but I did spend two years in college learning koine Greek, and I know enough to be able to muddle through a Loeb Classical Library-style text, so long as it has the English translation on the opposite page. And in middle school I transliterated Futhark characters whenever writing in my personal journal; to this day, I am still more comfortable writing freehand in Futhark transliteration than in actual English, because whenever I write for others, it is on a keyboard; when I write in freehand, it is always in my journal, which uses no English characters whatsoever.

If you're interested in attempting to solve this puzzle yourself, it may help you to at least know a few more things about me, since the puzzle was created specifically with me in mind. I'm an amateur mathematician and I adore mathematical games, such as the ones that Martin Gardner used to post in his old Scientific American column. Katherine is a lover of art, and the combination of art and mathematics is a common theme that comes up in gifts that she gives to me. Books like Gödel, Escher, Bach are prominent due to that combination of themes.

You now have enough information to solve the puzzle. I encourage you to give it a try before reading on, as the solution will be spoiled below. Don't look at nor use anything below this line of text when solving the puzzle. Open the above image in a new tab if it helps.

At the time I received the above photo, Katherine was still working on the actual drawing. You can see that only some of the boxes are shaded. She was working on it in her studio, which means I couldn't see her work on it. Instead, I had only the above photo to go on. She said she would finish soon and bring it home to me, so I set to work on solving the puzzle immediately. I wanted to see if I could find the solution before she made her finishing touches and brought home the piece.

It took a while to notice the pattern. At first, it seemed like a jumble of Futhark and Greek characters. Writing them out provided a few clues, but nothing too substantial. I found myself writing things like "ITJPEKS", "SOFZ", "ZDTHATL", and "KSJUZDTT". Most of these didn't make much sense to me. But a few stood out: "NLURKS" looked a bit like "lurks". "TORDERS" looked kind of like "orders". It didn't fit with all of the words, but I decided to separate out the first character from the remainder, to see if anything might happen. That's when I realized that all the initial letters were Greek.

Once I hit on this pattern, I realized that also all of the ending letters are Greek. It wasn't obvious at first because there are some characters which look extremely similar in both Futhark and Greek. It wasn't clear whether "I" was a Futhark "I" or a Greek "I". But I made a hypothesis: what if all internal letters are supposed to be interpreted as Futhark? This would change a number of my initial transliterations. Suddenly, I started seeing several words in the banners.

The words came quickly: "tjpe", "of", "that", "turnz", "can", "just", "of", "a", "lurk", "bejond", "an" "kaoz", "out", "order", "it", "fakade". Some of these weren't quite correct, but it was easy to replace "z" with "s" and "j" with "y", especially after remembering that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where it is remarked that "j" is just "i", which also is just "y". Suddenly, I recognized the quote. It's from Douglas Hoftstadter's Metamagical Themas: "It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just beyond a facade of order."

But the word "eerie" is nowhere to be found in the puzzle. Nevertheless, this is clearly what was intended. I love Hofstadter's work, and I'm certain that Katherine chose this quote specifically because it would mean something to me. (The full quote is slightly different: "It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order -- and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.") 

Looking back at the initial Greek letters, I realize that they are now in alphabetical order. Gamma corresponds to "it"; delta corresponds to "turns". And the ending Greek characters are in reverse order. Interestingly, the missing word "eerie" ("ΘᛖᛖᚱᛁᛖΝ") would correspond to theta and nu, and theta is missing in the initial Greek characters, while nu is missing in the ending Greek characters.

This is it, I think. I'm onto the solution. Hurriedly, I texted Katherine: "ΘΝ".

While I waited for her reply, I tried to figure out what these letters mean. It can't just be two random characters as the solution to the puzzle. So I thought deeper.

Immediately, I am struck: written in Greek like this, I am reminded of Θέων ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς (Theon of Alexandria), a mathematician who edited and arranged Euclid's Elements. This fits! (ν is a lowercase Ν, so "ΘΝ" corresponds to "Θν", which consists solely of the consonants of "Θέων".) Theon was a great lover of order (which is why he edited the Elements), yet his additions to the text introduced new errors that persisted for thousands of years, before someone finally found a copy of Euclid's Elements from before Theon messed with them. This fits perfectly with the quote. It's natural to think of Theon, given that he was Greek, like the characters from the puzzle; he was a mathematician, which matched Douglas Hofstadter, the originator of the quote; and he was responsible for both the order and chaos inherent in Euclid's Elements, just like the quote suggests.

The answer, then, is Θέων, or perhaps Euclid's Elements. Or, perhaps, as my mind raced, the answer is Hypatia. She was Theon's daughter, a talented mathematician and philosopher in her own right. She lived an orderly life, working with astrolabes and hydrometers, and yet is most well known for her martyrdom, when chaos took hold and a mob of Christians murdered her. The 2009 film Agora portrays Hypatia as "the only woman who stands between civilization and chaos".

Here, I felt, we have finally found the true answer to the puzzle. I was certain that Hypatia was clearly the correct answer.

And then I received a response from Katherine. She was confused by me texting her "ΘΝ" a while earlier. I stopped in my tracks, realizing that something in my line of reasoning must have gone astray. She calls, and I speak with her.

It turns out that the omission of the "ΘᛖᛖᚱᛁᛖΝ" clue was an error. I had already solved the entire intended puzzle just by getting the Hofstadter quote. She said she would draw the missing clue before giving me the finished piece.

The final version.

I was flabbergasted. I had felt so sure, which, obviously, I should not have felt. But I had thought that everything made sense, and I asked her if she might not want to add in the final clue, so that its absence could be a clue in itself, as I had originally thought it to be. But she declined, and she finished the drawing.

I re-learned several valuable lessons that day:

  • It's irresponsible to just assume that things have intended meanings beyond the first link in a chain. Each successive link in a chain of reasoning depends on all previous links, and so each has to be discounted proportionately.
  • Even when someone makes something specifically for you, it is inappropriate to assume that it will have more than a half dozen properties that are intended to speak to you. Continuing to find more in each detail is nothing more than pareidolia.
  • It's insufficient to just make a claim; one must also consider one's credence in that claim. And you should be properly calibrated to ensure that you're not putting more confidence in a low probability situation than it warrants.

Nevertheless, I adored the piece. It touched on many aspects of me, including my favorite color; the transliterated Futhark I've used all my life in journals; the Greek that I learned so long ago so that I could better appreciate Plato in the original; a quote by Hofstadter, who wrote so much that I enjoyed over the years, and which was about a topic I cared about deeply in mathematics; and a likeness of me that shows what I look like when I am uncombed, working my way through a puzzle just like this.

The framed drawing currently sits in our gathering room. It's one of my favorite pieces that she's done for me.

Post 5: nominate 10-day! I was nominated by the incredible found object sculptor and art education master Linda Popp and...

Posted by Katherine Hess on Thursday, April 22, 2021

03 April, 2021

The Reality of My Dreamscape

We should not fall prey to the typical mind fallacy. Our minds are not so similar as we at first think.

Robin Raven trying to protect the innocent.

My friend Robin became vegan very early on because she saw fellow consciousness everywhere. As a young child, she cried when a Halloween-carved pumpkin would be thrown away because she deeply felt that having a face was sufficient for a being to have feelings. This experience was not typical, and it took her until high school before she internally understood that other people didn't feel the same way.

Katherine is a supertaster. She didn't understand that this was a different way to be when she was younger. She was called a picky eater because she'd turn down certain foods that she didn't like the taste of. Those foods, if tasted, would linger for days, tainting all other meals. I've gone with her to fast food places and watched mesmerized as she could identify all the foods made previously on the same grill as the item she was eating. As a child, she wanted most of all to make others feel okay, so she would often sacrifice her own desires when others were arguing -- whether this was choosing who got to sit in the front seat, deciding who had to take "the high road" when friends or family got nasty, or even just "sucking it up" and eating what was given to her even though it tasted vile. Adults around her would say: "We all have to sometimes eat stuff we don't like", but they did not understand. For her, the taste lingered. It was significant and primary. Katherine was a supertaster, and this was a big deal. She describes with relish the day she first found out:

You can test if you're also a supertaster.

I was in Europe on vacation and every meal had fish. I abhor fish. I ate it anyway, because I didn't want to rock the boat. Days later, over a breakfast that I ordinarily would have loved, I mentioned to others how the fish was still so pungent to me that it was ruining what would have been an excellent breakfast. To me, this was commonplace; it happened all the time in my life whenever I'd give in and eat something disgusting. But the surprise on others faces clued me in on the reality: other people do not have this same internal experience of taste.


Bebeflapula explains different levels of phantasia.

For me, it is my dream world which differs from so many others. I have aphantasia, and so cannot visually imagine anything at all in my waking life. But when I dream, I have full access to visual imagination. I'm also a lucid dreamer: unlike most people I get to choose what happens in my dreams. Unexpected things do happen there, but I have at least the illusion that I get to choose how I react to things that happen in my dreams. The combination of aphantasta with vivid lucid dreams is that I grew up valuing my dream worlds much more than other people do.

To me, the worlds that I visit when I sleep are alive. They feel like real spaces that truly matter. They aren't fuzzy or indistinct, like I see them portrayed so often in movies or when others describe their dreams. Rather, they are much more solid and distinct than anything at all that I can imagine in my waking life, and since I wear glasses they also appear much less fuzzily and as though they have a strength of reality to them that the actual real world lacks. Combine this with the fact that I get to explore that world just as lucidly as I get to explore the waking world, and you get a hyperrealistic upside-down conception of existence where the waking world just feels inferior to the dreaming world. At a gut basis, naively, I just feel as though the two worlds are equally valid and valued. The waking world is more fuzzy and less distinct, but it has continuity between every day, which I value. And the dreaming world is more solid and feels more real, even though I only get to revisit places intermittently as I return to well-known old dreamscapes.

From the now defunct study-hack site.

Of course, I understand that that the dream world is not real. But it took many years for me to get to a point where I was actually acting that way. Getting glasses for the first time as a child was a surreal event: all of a sudden the waking world started looking like the dream world did when at a distance. Glasses made me start to value the waking world much more in a way that I don't think happens with many other people. Later in life, I would tolerate living situations that many people would not be able to stand, because in dream life things could be fixed so much more easily than in waking life. Yes, I'd have to tidy up in both worlds, but, in one, I could but make the intention to do so, and it would happen, just as a nose-twitching witch might; but, in the other, tidying up meant actually taking the time to do so. When both worlds felt (naively) equally valuable to me, you can imagine that this resulted in me prioritizing the effects that occurred in my dream life over those that I built in my waking life. Many times in my life I would accept squalid conditions in one if I had good conditions in the other, merely because, to me, both were real.

It wasn't until I understood that aphantasia was a thing in mid-2020 that I finally realized what was going on here, I had had the typical mind fallacy for so long that it just hadn't occurred to me that the reason I valued dream life so strongly was because there I could visualize, even though I couldn't anywhere else.

Today, I finally value the waking world more. But it is a thoughtful decision that I do so; it still feels naively as though they should be equally valid. I just realize that this is a wrong thing to think now.

Yesterday, I had a nightmare, Jasper's dead body had come home. We were mourning when suddenly his body moved, and I heard the smallest of sneezes. I rushed to him, horrified to realize that maybe the euthanasia had not worked, and when I got next to him, his head raised, looking at me with the most expressive face. It was a face of unbridled pain. He was suffering physically, but more than that, it was a look that showed he felt betrayed. Why had I not fought harder to help him to live? Didn't I love him? Why had I caused him to die, and to suffer these many days in pain away from his family?

I screamed, waking up both myself and my partner. I was sweating. I looked over to the box where Jasper's remains actually lay in the waking world. I cried. Katherine reminded me that Jasper lived a happy life, right up until the end. I had not betrayed him. Jasper loved me. Slowly, I calmed down.

Nightmares for me are thankfully rare. But when they happen, they are horrendous. I don't think I can successfully explain just how real they are to me other than to point out that my dream world naively feels more real than my waking world. It is only with intellect that I understand the waking world to be more real than my dream world. Nightmares, to me, are true horrors second only to the waking world horrors one learns of in rationality or effective altruism circles.

From Corey Mohler's Existential Comics.

When I speak to people in my life, I'm not likely to mention any nightmares I have. It doesn't come across well. Others have nightmares, too, but their nightmares don't seem to have that same feeling of reality that mine have. My nightmares linger. For others, a dream passes quickly from the mind. Mine do, too, in the specifics. But, unlike others, when I sleep again I go back to the same place, and the specifics come back to me. An area previously explored has some changes, but the layout is the same. The rules are the same. I get to talk to the different people that are there, and visit the areas I care about most as often as I want, even years later when I return to that same dreamscape. Over time, the memories of these repeated dreams linger in my waking world memories. Even now, I can tell you about a certain dream place that I have gone to dozens of times, even though I haven't visited in the past year or so, where certain people live, where the decor is a certain way, where a path leads from the back door through the woods, where the path diverges to different locales depending on where I want to visit.... I know this dream place well because I've gone there so often. It's real to me. And so even though I have only had this Jasper dream once, I feel fear. Because it has been 24 hours now and I still remember every detail. I remember Jasper's tortured face. I remember feeling that it was my fault. I remember not fighting for his life.

There are even more reasons to stay up for me now. I don't want to go to sleep.

01 April, 2021

The Tuft of Flowers

Screen print by Katherine Hess.

From Robert Frost's The Tuft of Flowers:

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.


The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.


I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.


But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,


‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’.


John Donne wrote that no man is an island. He was arguing for the normative claim that we should expand our moral circle to include all of humanity, but I've heard the phrase used several times since to refer instead to the descriptive claim that social connections are a core human need. I personally feel that descriptive claim most strongly when I read Frost's The Tuft of Flowers.

The protagonist is "turning the grass", meaning that he is taking recently cut hay and turning it over so that it will dry and can be gathered later on. A man before him has cut the grass that he is turning. They both are working to make hay, but they do not see each other at all as they work. The first man has already left for the day by the time the second one has started.

Our protagonist feels alone as he works. Not just lonely, but deeply, depressingly lonely. "As all must be, … whether they work together or apart." When I was young, long before I ever read any poetry at all, really, I felt this way often, and I continued to feel this way into my early thirties. I worked in an office, but I never socialized. I'd attend birthday celebrations for the slice of cake, and I'd be personable enough to respond when others talked with me, but I think it's safe to say that I was always the quietest person in the office, even when I worked in offices with hundreds of people. My workplace was always where I went to earn money, not where I wanted to meet friends or maintain relationships.

I wasn't a complete loner, of course. I interacted with a few select friends and courted numerous relationships outside of work plenty of times. But work, for me, was a solitary procession. Each step I made in the workplace, whether it was coding later in life or being on the phones earlier in life, would just be a successive step to run out the hours until it was time for me to leave the office. Work was a way to earn money; nothing more.

The Veteran in a New Field by Winslow Homer.

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly


Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.


And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.


And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.


I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;


But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,


A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.


I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.


At first, the butterfly is a momentary distraction. It's maybe a little sad to know that all the flowers the butterfly enjoyed were cut this morning, "withering on the ground". Our protagonist would have returned to his work of tossing the wet grass, but then the butterfly showed him that a small tuft of flowers still lived by the reeds in the water. He's intrigued enough to actually leave his work to go see them close up.

To thirteen-year-old me, this reedy brook was the internet, and the various fora I found there were those same tufts of flora.

I've always tended to be shy, both when I was young and even later, even outside of my workplace. Being IRL ("in real life") was never really a smooth type of interaction for me. I much preferred going online.

When I was 13, I took the moniker MG377 on America OnLine and pretended that I was an adult. I'd go to forums and debate all kinds of things. I made friends with a young Anthony Bourdain back when he was writing his first book. You could often find me in the Book Nook chatroom. (Interestingly, I could find only a single reference to the now defunct Book Nook in a 1997 interview with Diana Gabaldon. I'm not sure why I searched so long for this link. I think I just wanted the post the old Book Nook chatroom logo, but it is now inaccessible.) I lied a fair amount if anyone asked who I was or what I did; but when the topics were about things other than me, I always tried to be myself. It was invigorating. The internet allowed me to interact with people in ways that I never could IRL. Even if I rarely told the truth about my physical personal details, like my age, being on the internet allowed me to truly be myself and connect to real other human beings.

Tuft of Flowers by Ken Fiery.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us


Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.


The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,


That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,


And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;


But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;


And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.


‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’


Work is no longer something I do just for money. Internet memes are no longer just something funny to chuckle at. Being isolated during the pandemic year is not so bad as it may have one day been to me.

I don't know you, dear reader, nor do you know me; yet as you read my words here I hope that you feel as I do: working together, whether together or apart.


25 March, 2021

Remembering Shawn Allin

Shawn at the Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala.

This will be the fourth blog post in a row that I've written about death, euthanasia, and/or suicide. Maybe you, the reader, will think this is a sign that I am focusing in an unhealthy way on these issues ever since Jasper's death last week. Well, maybe I am. It's been a difficult time for both Katherine and myself. Every time we reach over to pet Jasper only to find an empty armrest, it is a newly punched hole in our collective ability to be okay with how life is now.

However, this time I have an excuse. A few days ago, I received an email from someone asking me about my memories of Shawn Allin. Shawn was my friend, teacher, and mentor. His first day of teaching classes at Spring Hill College was also my first day of taking classes there. We hit it off immediately. Four years later, my final days at Spring Hill College were also his final days. Except instead of moving on, as I did, to places beyond the university, he died suddenly in his office, possibly of suicide.

Carpe Diem is near Spring Hill College.

I'm calling him Shawn now. It's weird because of course I'd call him Shawn now. We were friends. But when I met him, he was Dr. Allin to me, and when I think of him today, that's the name that pops up in my head. Still, I'll try to address him as Shawn here, as he undoubtedly would be addressed by me today, had he ended up living.

I knew only a small part of Shawn. I never visited his home. He never talked with me about his passion for motorcycles (nor of his apparently quite rad motorcycle helmet with satanic goat images airbrushed on it!). I never asked him about the rollerblades he used to travel on campus. We never discussed the obscure punk musical albums displayed in his office. The only times we had dinner together was when we both stayed late in the Chemistry building doing work of some kind. (I would help to analyze and graph data from his and his upper-level students' experiments.) But we did have lunch occasionally, and we would meet for afternoon tea at Carpe Diem. He would loan me countless books, which we'd then discuss later that week. We were close enough that when summer break came, he invited me to come with him to the badlands of South Dakota to dig for dinosaur bones

Shawn w/ Fr. Michael Williams
blessing Quinlan Hall in 2003.

But we never really talked about his personal hopes and dreams, nor the problems he was having after his divorce with his depression. I didn't learn about these things until after he died. Throughout the time I knew him, he kept his personal problems separate from his interactions with me.

Does this make me less of a friend? Or perhaps he had a personal rule not to fraternize too closely with students at the institution at which he worked? I don't know. I can't know. But he was certainly a friend to me, and I very much enjoyed his company.

The person who emailed me a few days ago asked me to tell a few stories about Shawn. I was given permission to also share those stories here, on my blog. These small stories come partly from the small sliver of his life that he chose to share with me, but also from the long discussions I had with others after his death.

Shawn's first class at Spring Hill was also my first class. This coincidence, alongside the fact that I was more of an adult than his other students (I was 21), meant that he ended up singling me out as an initial friend at the school. I remember going to his office after that first class and being amazed at all the cool knickknacks on his desk. There were mathematical structures, models of chemical bonds, simple physics machines…. But also there was a plethora of books.

Books were one of Shawn's things. He had a number of varied interests, and so obviously you might expect him to own books on several different topics. But he didn't just own the books in order to have the content at hand; he liked books for books' sake. Each book was treated extremely well. There were no marks within, no dog-eared copies. But you always could tell his books apart: he would emboss the title page of every book in his possession with his name: From the library of Shawn B. Allin. It was the only mark that you'd ever find in any of the books in his collection.

Shawn w/ Gregory Morgan at Rydex Commons

Nevertheless, within an hour of meeting him, he had already decided to loan two of his books to me. I was honored, especially as he gave a stern warning about how well to treat them. The first was The Panda's Thumb, by Stephen Jay Gould. I adored it. Gould was an excellent writer and Shawn was absolutely perfect in picking that first borrowed book to entice me to keep coming back for more. (After Shawn died, his family gave me his copy, which I treasure to this day.) The second was In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, by John Gribbin, which also enamored me. He had caught on quite quickly to my prior interests in quantum physics and skepticism, and chose perfectly to suit my interests. I stayed up half the night reading both books and returned them first thing in the morning before classes started. Upon their return, he smiled gently: "Eric," he started, in his distinct Canadian accent, "I anticipate this will be the start of a great friendship."

He continued to loan me books every week until I had exhausted the portion of his library that was suitable for me to read. (I turned down the motorcycle and punk rock books.) It was a tradition that lasted years, well after I had ceased taking any classes with him. In fact, I only took two classes of his in my freshman year. All of my interactions with him afterward were solely due to our friendship.

  • We toasted to the ill-fated Superconducting Super-Collider.
  • We discussed changes in our understanding of quasars, which were only just recently discovered to be different than how they were described in the books I had previously read about them.
  • We talked for hours about skepticism and its role in society; about Carl Sagan's excellent The Demon-Haunted World; and after he died, I attended several skeptic conferences like The Amaz!ng Meeting, where I met several of the authors whose books he had lent me.
  • In class, he would jump onto a chair to reach up high to the periodic table behind him and explain why it's grouped into four blocks, talking with a glint in his eye that showed his dedication to the topic.
  • He told me privately that my being a 21 year old freshman was a good thing, because my life experience is priceless: I appreciated college whereas so many other students did not.
  • Once, when we spoke of philosophical concepts that might not make sense, he argued that 'nothing' as a philosophical concept could only be the absence of properties, and could not properly be attributed properties in itself, as I was claiming at the time. (I have since come around to his point of view on this, but only much, much later, for different reasons than he was arguing.)

Gumbo Buttes of the Badlands.
I stayed w/ Shawn here to dig dino bones.

Despite being otherwise close to him, I didn't spend much time around Lynn, his wife. I'm not sure if he intended to keep these parts of his life separate, or if it was just happenstance. But every time I saw them together, he would use me to illustrate some point of his. I recall once that he had been having some friendly argument with Lynn, claiming that lots of people knew what buckyballs were. Lynn didn't believe him, so when I dropped by, he picked a buckyball model from one of his shelves and loudly asked: "Eric, tell Lynn here that you know what the name of this object is." I froze, stammering, and Lynn laughed: "See? No one knows what a buckyball is. You're just a bad judge of what is common knowledge."

1000 miles from Spring Hill College,
we traveled on this road in the Badlands.

Shawn helped to organize events that would help the students learn more about social justice. He set up a viewing of the movie Hotel Rwanda once in the main hall, and he'd often organize students around Amnesty International interventions. I can remember my fingers hurting after stuffing envelopes for hours; if I think long and hard, I may even be able to remember Condoleezza Rice's office address at the time. (My fingers hurt now just thinking about it.)

I suspect the divorce hit him hard. I can't say for sure, because he never talked about it with me. But a common friend of ours, Bill, was someone that he did confide in. I can relay a few things that I learned from Bill, though I learned these things only after Shawn died.

Covered w/ dirt for 65m years, but only
a few days in the sun bleached these bones white.
Another few weeks would ruin them.

Shawn had been dealing with bouts of depression for as long as Bill knew him. In 2001, these became more regular and more intense. He sought medical treatment for his depression, but it was sporadic at best. After the divorce (the summer before he died), Shawn spent three weeks in Marmarth, ND, with Bill. Bill has a place in Marmarth where he stays while he is doing fossil prospecting; I visited there in the summer previously with Shawn.

I wasn't there during those three weeks, but Bill says that Shawn was not only depressed, but also full of hatred. He was angry at his situation, at his marriage falling apart, and even at his fellow faculty. According to Bill, he had felt that he had found a home among like-minded faculty with a similar high level of standards, but for the previous year he had been very hard on his colleagues for not attaining the levels that he thought they should. Bill seemed to think that this feeling was borne more out of his depression than from how his fellow colleagues actually were. I can offer no opinion on this, because Shawn always hid this side of himself from me. But it was bad enough that he accepted a position at Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL, and was planning to leave Spring Hill College at the same time that I was.

He never ended up moving there, though. He died suddenly, in his office, only a month or so after accepting the position at Monmouth.

This is after digging for a bit.
Had I known he was going to die, I would have prioritized
taking photos with Shawn in them, rather than just of the bones.

I don't actually know what happened. His death could have been accidental. Certainly, it seems strange to accept a position elsewhere, earnestly go looking for a new house, and then to so quickly decide otherwise. But Bill believed his death may have been intentional. Certainly, if it was suicide, it was not due to his rational thought. Shawn most certainly had depression and had had it for a very long time. I never saw that side of him; he kept his depression hidden in all of his actions as a teacher. But his closer friends, like Bill, knew, and I wish so much that he had just figured out something that could have dealt with these extreme emotions pharmaceutically.

I should also mention that another very close friend of his does not believe it was suicide. They were high school sweethearts a long while previous, and had been talking again after Shawn's divorce. Mere hours before he died, he sent a very normal-seeming email to her. This may be taken as strong evidence that what happened was an accident, and not intentional. If there was a suicide note, it was kept private and I was never informed of it. I also know that he had just filled a new prescription the previous day for pneumonia. Maybe it was an allergic reaction? But, if so, this was never stated to be the case publicly. On balance, I believe that it was likely suicide.

Near Marmarth, ND.

In those days, I didn't have a mobile phone. As such, I don't have any personal photos of his office, nor of his person. The photos you see here are all that I have of him. All are taken by other people. It's strange, looking back on them. I have aphantasia, and so have a terrible memory for faces. Nevertheless just glancing through these photos immediately brings me back.

Shawn was my teacher. I didn't end up going into science, like he wanted, but when he learned that I'd switched to a double major in philosophy and mathematics, he would debate me endlessly on philosophy of science, Bayes' theorem, and the limits of what we can know. We were both staunch atheists, but for some reason we never talked about it. This may be because I was a student at (and he was a teacher at) a Jesuit university, and he seemed to have personal rules about what is or is not an appropriate topic of conversation with one of his students.

Shawn loved tortoises.

I don't know a whole lot about his life outside of Spring Hill College. But I did know him as a friend and mentor, and he definitely inspired me in particular to do and be a better person. I do not think that I would be as successful as I am today if it were not for some of his influences. His push for social justice in particular helped me to realize the direction of where I ended up today.

I'd also like to share a few other aspects of Shawn that the person who emailed me might not be aware of.

Shawn published 31 times in various chemistry journals. Five of those have been cited multiple times, and one, on the Solvent Effects of Molecular Hyperpolarizability Calculations, has an astonishing 47 citations today, 8 of which occurred within the last year. (For reference, a mere 10 citations already puts your work in the top 24% of the most cited work worldwide; 47 citations brings you closer to the top 3–5%.) This means that the work that Shawn provided to the scientific community lives on to this day.

Our department was well represented yesterday at Honors Convocation and Undergraduate Research Symposium. Dr Allyn...

Posted by Spring Hill College Department of Chemistry, Physics, Engineering on Saturday, April 21, 2018

Shawn has been memorialized in a dissertation. At Spring Hill College, exceptional chemistry students continue to earn the Shawn B. Allin Memorial Award each year. He is remembered years later as being a huge positive influence (see page 12). Alyn Gamble wrote an excellent article about him in Volume 86 Number 10 of the SpringHillian. (If you only click one link in this blogpost, click this one. Gamble is an excellent writer, and their article about Shawn in the school newspaper was very well done.)

In the years since I posted in my blog of Shawn's passing, I've received several emails. Here are a few excerpts from them:

"I grew up with Shawn in Sarnia, Ontario and from what I can gather, he was as beautiful a person 'all grown up' as he was when we were kids.  I was shocked and saddened by the news of his passing.  Always had hoped that I would have the chance to connect with him again someday.  Your website gave me a chance to do that.  I hold him in my heart.  Thank you."


"I know that he valued teaching and treasured those times when he knew that his efforts mattered to students. … Treasure those times when his efforts mattered."


"Shawn was my first love and we dated all through high school and during our 4 years at the University of Waterloo.  I also dated Shawn while be worked at EcoPlastics in Toronto but when things didn't work out, he returned to school (University of Guelph) and I moved on with my life. … I broke my leg about 3 weeks ago and had been talking with him daily due to my limited mobility.  We spent a lot of time discussing his challenges and we reviewed, in great detail, his career decisions and his acceptance of the offer in Ill. … Shawn has told me lots about you and his other friends at Spring Hill.  He mentioned that you were a superior human being and that he enjoyed all of his discussions with you over coffee at Carpe Diem.  I now wish that I had kept all of the messages that he sent me so that you could read - in Shawn's own words - how much he liked you and appreciated you as a friend."


"Shawn was the Allin's pride and joy - a doctor - a professor - a brilliant man with so much potential - let them know about the gifts that he gave to you and about your friendship - that will give them comfort."


Shawn was 41 when he died. I will turn 40 later this year. Maybe this means it is appropriate that I remember him now, as I am the age that he was when he was still loaning me books and grabbing a drink with me at Carpe Diem. I can only hope to make a difference as much as he did in his 41 years of life.

I miss you, Shawn. Thank you for being my friend.

17 March, 2021

Review: Two Arms and a Head

Two Arms and a Head: The Death of a Newly Paraplegic PhilosopherTwo Arms and a Head: The Death of a Newly Paraplegic Philosopher by Clayton Atreus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two days ago, I held Jasper in my arms as he died. My grief at his sudden death has overwhelmed me, and I've struggled to find ways to deal with it.

My latest method, apparently, has been to read this book-length suicide note by Clayton Atreus. I wouldn't say that it has helped much with my reaction to Jasper's passing, but I did find Two Arms and a Head compelling reading. Atreus became paraplegic in a tragic accident, and he ultimately disvalued the resulting life afterward so significantly that he committed suicide.

I doubt that I would have gotten along with Atreus, had I met him in his prime. His experience of life differs greatly from mine, and, to be quite honest, feels a bit shallow. But he is correct when he says that we are our own arbiters of our own value, and the fact that he values differently than I is not a good reason to dismiss his point of view.

Atreus gives a defense of his sanity in choosing to die prematurely, explaining his disagreements with other persons with a similar disability. He provides a cogent argument, even if in the process of doing so he shows just how different his values are from what I would consider the norm. Several times, he makes claims that I completely disagree with; I would certainly, for example, live 25 years in what he called a "head garden", as a full quadriplegic, rather than die immediately, and perhaps I fall prey to the same typical mind fallacy as he does when I say that I believe there are many who would agree with me rather than with him about this. Nevertheless, these disagreements are ultimately ones of personal value, and they do not harm the greater argument that he makes in his suicide note.

His disrespect for the larger community of activists with disabilities like his is tough to read. Rather than just argue against them, he uses derogatory terms for them that I find particularly distasteful. But, in a way, I almost want to forgive him for this, as from his perspective their actions certainly seem to have caused him a lot of unnecessary pain.

It's hard rating a text like this so highly. I can't stress how much I doubt I would have gotten along with someone as shallow as he in his prime. I find it utterly surprising that he can't even admit the possibility that people might not be lying when they say that they honestly can find life fulfilling and meaningful even with a major disability. I wonder if he would have been receptive to the argument that future humans might very well (in a post-singularity existence, for example) have access to abilities and experiences that we cannot currently imagine. Compared to these future specimens, our most thriving exemplars of humanity might be considered severely disabled. Yet we thrive nevertheless! And so could he, if he allowed himself to enjoy other things.

Then again, I imagine Atreus replying: that would not be me. And I suppose he'd be right, as he appears to define himself in just such a way that would make him impervious to this kind of argument. How convenient for him.

Jasper's death a few days ago was done as a form of euthanasia. The doctor put him to sleep, then stopped his heart. My heart broke in the process, too. Maybe it wasn't the best idea to seek out an essay that argues, in part, for allowing euthanasia of this kind. It hasn't helped me in any real way. But reading Atreus' words did help me to connect with Clayton Atreus, in an odd way, at least for the few hours that his text had me spellbound.

If you're interested in also connecting with him, I recommend the book. It's available in full at 2arms1head.com. Atreus is smart, writes well, is kind of an asshole, and he lacks sufficient epistemic humility. But his suicide note is worth reading, even if it uses unnecessary derogatory terms in several places. I'm going to go ahead and give him a break on that, given the fact that he's doing it while in the process of preparing to end his own life.

Note: While Two Arms and a Head is recommended, I didn't bother reading his contemporary account of the accident, which he also posted on forums as it happened here: advrider.com/f/threads/seattle-to-arg...

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