24: Godel, Escher, Kurt Halsey

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Godel, Escher, Kurt Halsey
Original title: Strip series

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I love the idea here, though of course it's not a great-quality drawing or scan.Original caption: One of a series of strips I drew during a long and boring NASA lecture. It careers wildly from intellectual to chaotic to Godel, Escher, Bach to Kurt Halsey to chaotic and sappy.The whole series is here.
Title text: I love the idea here, though of course it's not a great-quality drawing or scan.

Original caption: One of a series of strips I drew during a long and boring NASA lecture. It careers wildly from intellectual to chaotic to Godel, Escher, Bach to Kurt Halsey to chaotic and sappy.
The whole series is here.


This was the sixth comic originally posted to LiveJournal. The previous one was 1: Barrel - Part 1, and the next one was 13: Canyon. It was among the first thirteen comics posted to LiveJournal within 12 minutes on September 30, 2005, on the first day of the xkcd LiveJournal account.

At the time xkcd was created, Randall was working on robotics at NASA's Langley Center. This comic was drawn during that period, while attending a talk that he didn't seem to like. The comic is drawn in the form of a storyboard and is intended to be visualized as an animated sequence. In the first part of the comic, two people discuss the difficulty of comparing past and present generations, since the person making the comparison invariably belongs to one of the two groups. The character with a hat is not Black Hat, as Randall hadn't standardized his character designs yet. The assembly of text panels found in the middle of the strip is similar to 124: Blogofractal. The philosophy of Kurt Gödel is also a theme in 468: Fetishes.

The name of the comic is a portmanteau-like play on the following:

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach is a book by Douglas Hofstadter. He is an American author who has written several books about philosophy, mathematics, and science. This particular book is his most famous one, about "strange loops", self-reference, and recurring patterns, partially shown through the works of the three people in its title:
    • Kurt Gödel was a 20th-century mathematician most famous for proving that in our commonly used axiomatic systems, there are true propositions that cannot be proved from the axioms. His proof used a self-referential paradox.
    • M. C. Escher was a 20th-century artist most famous for mathematically inspired engravings of tessellated animals, impossible scenes, hyperbolic geometry, and so on. The form of this strip resembles one of his Metamorphosis etchings.
    • Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer and musician from the Baroque Period, famous for numerous works such as the Brandenburg Concertos and his extensive use of the fugue form of composition, which involves the expression of a theme, its development, and finally a recapitulation or return to the original expression.
  • Kurt Halsey is a comic artist from Oregon. His work often contains introspective philosophical musings. At least one phrase in the letter is attributed to Halsey, "The past is just practice".

The original caption contains a defunct link, which indicates that the comic posted on LiveJournal was only part of this series. Unfortunately, both the image in the LiveJournal post and the link in the caption weren't archived in the Web Archive, so we can't confirm if there is even more to this comic than now available on xkcd.com or if the original post only covered part of this series. However, based on how Randall describes the "full series" in the caption ("It careers wildly from intellectual to chaotic to Godel, Escher, Bach to Kurt Halsey to chaotic and sappy."), it's more likely that the comic on xkcd.com is the full series, and the LiveJournal post only included the initial part, possibly to occupy less space in the feed. All the adjectives used in the caption perfectly match the flow of the comic.


  • The bubbles may illustrate ideas, memories, or subjects that one could wonder about. In the context of the boring talk, this would mean that Randall is lost in thoughts and gradually loses focus of things going on around him. He sees the talk as mundane, as a part of so many other "subject bubbles". Even the comic vertical lines (and therefore the strip's structure) seem to lose their sense to Randall as they collapse and become part of the scene, eventually merging three panels into one. They later reappear for the last six panels.
  • The big bubble pushing the small ones further outside may demonstrate how shallow the surface bubbles are to him, or represent an infinite (or very large) number of small bubbles.
  • The quote stating "There's too much. And so little feels important." tells us that he feels overwhelmed by the world, maybe by information given in the NASA talk or by events in his life. He recognizes what is important to him, and he feels that it is small compared to the size of the worries of the world (or the big bubble). He may have experienced a sort of existential crisis before turning to his feeling of love in the last panels, when asking himself, "What do you do?".
  • The structure of the strip has some abstract connections with the structure of the book. The beginning, middle, and end sequences reflect back on themselves; the strip displays some symmetry. In the book, there's an interplay of contributions from the artist, the musician, and the mathematician; some of this is present in the strip [Lots of citations missing].
  • The biggest bubble is expanding, and on it is a fractal arrangement of articles describing various scientific and philosophical discussions. A subjective interpretation is that the fractal nature of the excerpts is a comment on the unending attempt to rationalize and justify the unchanging nature of humanity. The largest bubble bursts, leaving the two figures on a shred of what once was. The final question is, "What do you do when the bubble bursts?" It seems that his answer is to find someone and love them; in the end, that's all that matters. The rest is just air.


Drawn during an unending NASA lecture
[Two people are talking, one in a hat.]
Cueball: it's just so hard to compare kids now with kids in the past. you can't help but to belong to one group or the other.
Cueball: and of course every generation seems awful to the one before it. look at quotes from throughout history.
Hatted: yeah, and it sure would be nice to have some historical perspective on some of this stuff. I just don't know what to make of it.
[Circles are appearing--maybe snow?]
Cueball: i guess you do what you can to help the people around you and hope it turns out okay.
Cueball: in the end, what else can you do?
Hatted: lead a crusade?
[We can no longer see the people, just the circles.]
it's presentism, man. the idea that historical context is irrelevant, that we understand it
all that we need take no warnings from the follies of the past. that we're facing something new.
socrates couldn't imagine the internet. but people don't change.
[We can start to see a darker circle in the lower right corner.]
(The borders between the three panels on this line are cracking.)
have you seen those collections of historical pornography? talk about historical context.
did you know the first porn photo was bestial in.
[inside a circle:] nature?
at least that stuff was out of the mainstream
[each word in one circle:]
(the three panels have merged into one on each row.)
i don't know about you, but
[circled] I
[uncircled] never
even once seen
[The circles are highly variable in size now, and pressed up against a larger one on the right side.]
[There is mass of circles of different sizes, with some dark fissures in between, against the side of a large circle which we can see part of in the right half of the panel. They look like cells. There's a tiny square in the center of the giant cell.]
[We see only the tiny square, centered. It has a few marks inside it.]
[Closer, the square is divided into rectangles of different sizes, each of which has text in it.]
[Much closer, we can see fragments of the text. Some are sideways, some are cut off, some are too small to read.]
machine language translated by principles of isomorphism it is a consequence of the Church-Turing thesis that ...
but how do you select the channel you wish to se-
thou ... shou ... palin ... stri ... it is a ... crab ...
be obvious to one-s ... your great intellectual achievements ... Tortise. Why ... you give this old Tortise ...
[Closer still, we can just see a huge sideways s and h.]
[Those letters are faded and mixed with a faded version of the next panel.]
girls take boys away ...
never be further than a phone call and a goosebumped shiver away ...
drove all night listening to mix tapes ...
the past is just practice
[There is a heart at the bottom and, in the lower left, the name Kurt.]
[The same as the previous panel, but with the words blurred out to scribbles.]
[Jagged, shaded shapes and strands start to fall. Faint panel borders appear again. There is a person on the far right.]
(Back to three panels per row.)
[Cueball and Megan are standing amid the fragments.]
Cueball: There's too much. And so little feels important.
[The jagged edge of the shaded area is encroaching on the sides of the panel.]
What do you do?
[We see them from farther away through a rough hole in the shaded area. Bits continue to fall around them.]
[They are holding hands.]


This is the first xkcd comic featuring stick figures, Cueball, Megan, and Multiple Cueballs.

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I have been told during editing comic 287 that the trivia should be below the transcript. But can see here that this is not always the case. As I have stated in the talk on that comic it would make so much more sense to have the interesting trivia above the (in most cases) uninteresting transcript. I only look into the last if I cannot easily read the text. But the trivia info is always interesting to me. And often the transcript is long enough that I would not notice a trivia entry below. I may now know better, but new users may overlook interesting bits of info. If there is a "rule" I would suggest it was changed to the format that this comic had when I wrote this entry. Trivia before transcript. (Written here only because it is todays Incomplete Explanation of the Day). Kynde (talk) 14:07, 14 March 2014 (UTC)

The trivia section doesn't belong to any explanation. Like other wikis do, it's at the bottom of the page. If there is important content belonging to the explain section it has to be moved. Trivia means triviality and contains only some sidesteps to some similar issues or even more. --Dgbrt (talk) 21:54, 14 March 2014 (UTC)
Agree but the trivia header makes that clear. The transcript is not a normal part of wikis so could have been at the bottom. That is just my opinion. I will not move any trivia sections! And I can see you have corrected the error here so the trivia is now at the bottom. Kynde (talk) 10:59, 16 March 2014 (UTC)
This layout isn't an invention by me. But I think that it's correct to show some remarks, but if it doesn't explain the comic it belongs to a special section at the bottom. --Dgbrt (talk) 20:07, 16 March 2014 (UTC)

This comic is on the "incomplete explanation of the day" like twice a week these days. Is everyone just like me and literally helpless? Because we didn't have this problem when the two Online Communities were undergoing rewrites 18:51, 3 May 2014 (UTC)

I think it's sill to require a 'complete' explanation of a somewhat abstract comic. Any 'explanation' is only someone's interpretation. ~~Bob 14:34, 13 May 2014
There are so many elements of this to be explained. I hope there is some hope of recovering some lost details of the NSA lecture. What a masterpiece of using the medium for abstract expression. So, I'm so thankful for a loose interpretation for 'incomplete explanation of the day' that brought the strip back to my attention. Eternal golden booger (talk) 17:30, 24 August 2014 (UTC)

I had a sudden and strong urge to s/Godel/Gödel/g when I loaded this page. Maybe I'll leave editing it to someone less tired than I am. lcarsos_a (talk) 05:31, 14 August 2014 (UTC)

I think the zooming in section is a reference to Powers of Ten ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powers_of_Ten_%28film%29 ) 09:23, 27 August 2014 (UTC)

The last six blocks remind me of an illustration in the actual book by Hofstadter, it is a graphic -very in the xkcd way- where axioms, theorems and unreachable truths in a system are represented. It can be seen here. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Removed this comment from the 'Interpretations' section - preserving it here:

While I feel this article can't be improved with rational arguments, I believe a standalone section with different hypothesis is a great way to tackle the problem. If the goal here is not to go into subjective interpretations of the comic, then I think it's better tagged as closed, because you obviously can't go any further by ignoring the symbols. (You may want to edit meta-comments out, but I wanted to make my point first). Please add to or adapt my interpretation to whatever suits you or the community here. It would be very nice if we could have a subjective section for people to explain what they interpreted out of the strips. 14:47, 6 May 2014‎ 10:20, 5 January 2018 (UTC)

Thanks. It's a comment but not an explanation.--Dgbrt (talk) 21:55, 10 January 2018 (UTC)

Would a perspective rendering of an infinite checkered plane be a fractal? I don't think so. Escher's tilings of the hyperbolic plane are not fractal either. —Ikr (talk) 18:41, 18 May 2022 (UTC)

"did you know the first porn photo was bestial in nature?" can this claim be sourced? -- 07:20, 30 July 2023 (UTC)