Tag Archives: Story


As told to me by Sarah Constantin, the story of Melusine:

A lady is cursed by a bad fairy to turn into a loathsome serpent every Saturday. She meets a man, and they fall in love, and she says, "you can marry me, but don't visit me on Saturday, no matter what."

He responds, "Sure, sure, anything," and leaves her alone on Saturdays.

But his friends rag him about this. "What's up with your wife, what is she UP to on Saturdays?"

So he sneaks into her bathroom one Saturday and sees a giant snake in the bathtub, and runs away in disgust and abandons her.

Moral of the story: nobody can actually handle the snake. Nobody can be allowed to see the snake.

Of course that has to be the primary form of the story that is told, because it is a direct version of this basic fear, that if we are known, we will be reviled. But like Kierkegaard, I see other stories to unfold out of this one, that we might better comprehend its nature.
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When Cincin saw the huge fallen tree in the road, he stopped short. By force of habit, his mind probed for the hungry tendrils of the firestone - but no. The firestone was gone. He crouched down with his hands on his knees, to wait out the wave of nausea that passed through him. With a firestone, this log would have been no obstacle. He’d have summoned his full strength, more than he usually could, and pushed the obstacle off the road. Or he’d have used the other members of his party like extensions of himself to coordinate, and get the tree off the road somehow. Or come up with some clever plan to do it. He had to get the firestone back. He needed its power. He could persuade the group to turn around, raise a peasant army in the surrounding towns, and storm the city, to take back his firestone by force. Or he could go back alone, and shamelessly beg his friends in the Senate - or the people of the city - for just one more use of it. Or figure out some other key thing his city needed. Or make them need him.

But no. He’d given up the firestone freely. He let the sense of loss pulsate through his soul. He was alone now - he had his traveling companions, but he had no firestone. And it had never helped him do anything he couldn’t have done himself, if he had been just a little cleverer, more determined. And - he forced his thoughts onto this track now, out of the well-worn rut reaching out towards the firestone - this wave of loss was just a sign of weak places where he could become strong. He had to learn to do without - but he could mimic the patterns the firestone had taught him.

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Looking at your story, looking at the world

This is a kind of prequel to Iterated Self-Improvement.

Reading Bonds That Make Us Free, it occurs to me that it, Ayn Rand, Games People Play, and The Last Psychiatrist are all talking about the same vision of evil, and proposing different alternatives to it.

Bonds That Make Us Free calls it self-betrayal, when you tell a story about how you can’t help it, how it’s really other people who are responsible for your failures and if it weren’t for them, you’d be good. It proposes as an alternative a genuine outward orientation of love towards others.

Ayn Rand calls it social psycho-epistemology, where the opinions and feelings of people are what are truly real and the material world is a social construct or matter of opinion, and contrasts it with rational selfishness where you orient yourself towards the world outside, and try to make it the way you want it without worrying about justification or conformity. Other people's thoughts shouldn’t be as real to you as the material world, and the life you want to live in it. You can only pick one - living in your own world, or living in the world of other people's intentions. Similarly, you can trade your need for their justification and vice versa - or you can trade value for value. Rereading Atlas Shrugged was able to temporarily pull me out of a days-long downwards spiral recently - because it suddenly seemed boring to present my needs as a claim check. It seemed contemptible. It seemed like a betrayal of self and integrity. So I stopped - at least for a bit. I started thinking again about how to provide value for my friends, even as it seemed nearly impossible to succeed at.

The Last Psychiatrist calls it narcissism - the desire to be seen as good, and as fitting your role, rather than the intention to be good to others, to fulfill one’s responsibilities, to discharge one’s duties.

Games People Play doesn’t really have a vision of the good, but it talks about how people set themselves up in situations where they can show that they’re justified, instead of acting towards their nominal goals, because what they care about is the justification.

I think I’ve been struggling with this problem. In mid-August I was too worried about how I was failing in one of my relationships to take responsibility for my own experiences. I’ve been too worried about being a responsible, conscientious worker to think about what kind of rhythm of life I actually want and am willing to accept. I wasted thought cycles on how the house I'd just moved into with friends wasn’t good yet and I’d been incompetent, instead of trying to make it good for myself in immediately achievable ways.

But I also seem to have something like the opposite problem more often.

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Nobody Knows What It's Like

"You can't kill me," growled Bruce. He had been stupid enough to allow himself to be captured - and he would have to resort to desperate measures to avert permanent failure.

"I'm not going to kill you," said his nemesis, pointing to the terrified, unwilling participant standing next to Bruce on the bridge. "But he might."

Bruce could hear the trolley coming closer. If he didn't do something soon, one of two things would happen. Either the five people on the tracks would die, or Bruce would be pushed off the bridge to stop the trolley with his body. Neither was acceptable. If he died, he would protect these innocents - maybe - but others would doubtless die in future experiments. If he did not stop the trolley, then five people who had not signed consent forms or waivers of liability would be killed, in an unauthorized experiment. Continue reading

I So Curious

Dr. John Kinyago had first noticed the problem when one of his research assistants had spilled her coffee on a test subject. After recovering from the unpleasant surprise, the subject had looked at her with clear suspicion. “I'm sorry, it was an accident!”, the research assistant said, truly but unconvincingly.

He worked the makeup remover over his face, wiping away the mask he carefully composed each morning to bring his vitiligo-altered skin back to some semblance of normality. He had tried more permanent treatments, but the result had unsettling effects. Michael Jackson could make money off his strange appearance; Jack Kinyago had to look impeccably conventional, conforming to expectations, unimpeachably serious. Except now.

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Doubt, Science, and Magical Creatures


I grew up in a Jewish household, so I didn't have Santa Claus to doubt - but I did have the tooth fairy.

It was hard for me to believe that a magical being I had never seen somehow knew whenever any child lost their tooth, snuck into their house unobserved without setting off the alarms, for unknown reasons took the tooth, and for even less fathomable reasons left a dollar and a note in my mom's handwriting.

On the other hand, the alternative hypothesis was no less disturbing: my parents were lying to me.

Of course I had to know which of these terrible things was true. So one night, when my parents were out (though I was still young enough to have a babysitter), I noticed that my tooth was coming out and decided that this would be...

A Perfect Opportunity for an Experiment.

I reasoned that if my parents didn't know about the tooth, they wouldn't be able to fake a tooth fairy appearance. I would find a dollar and note under my pillow if, but only if, the tooth fairy were real.

I solemnly told the babysitter, "I lost my tooth, but don't tell Mom and Dad. It's important - it's science!" Then at the end of the night I went to my bedroom, put the tooth under the pillow, and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up and looked under my pillow. The tooth was gone, and in place there was a dollar and a note from the "tooth fairy."

This could have been the end of the story. I could have decided that I'd performed an experiment that would come out one way if the tooth fairy were real, and a different way if the tooth fairy were not. But I was more skeptical than that. I thought, "What's more likely? That a magical creature took my tooth? Or that the babysitter told my parents?"

I was furious the possibility of such an egregious violation of experimental protocol, and never trusted that babysitter in the lab again.

An Improvement in Experimental Design

The next time, I was more careful. I understood that the flaw in the previous experiment had been failure to adequately conceal the information from my parents. So the next time I lost a tooth, I told no one. As soon as I felt it coming loose in my mouth, I ducked into the bathroom, ran it under the tap to clean it, wrapped it in a tissue, stuck it in my pocket, and went about my day as if nothing had happened. That night, when no one was around to see, I put the tooth under my pillow before I went to sleep.

In the morning, I looked under the pillow. No note. No dollar. Just that tooth. I grabbed the incriminating evidence and burst into my parents bedroom, demanding to know:

"If, as you say, there is a tooth fairy, then how do you explain THIS?!"

What can we learn from this?

The basic idea of the experiment was ideal. It was testing a binary hypothesis, and was expected to perfectly distinguish between the two possibilities. However, if I had known then what I know now about rationality, I could have done better.

As soon as my first experiment produced an unexpected positive result, just by learning that fact, I knew why it had happened, and what I needed to fix in the experiment to produce strong evidence. Prior to the first experiment would have been a perfect opportunity to apply the "Internal Simulator," as CFAR calls it - imagining in advance getting each of the two possible results, and what I think afterwards - do I think the experiment worked? Do I wish I'd done something differently? - in order to give myself the opportunity to correct those errors in advance instead of performing a costly experiment (I had a limited number of baby teeth!) to find them.

Cross-posted at Less Wrong.

Sharks are Forever

Back in the 5th or 6th grade my science teacher was telling the class about sharks. She said something about how sharks are an example of a perfected product of evolution, and that some sharks have been around basically unchanged for thousands of years. I'm now quite sure that she meant, some species of shark. But at the time, I thought:

If she meant "species," surely she would have said "species." Therefore, if she didn't, by modus tollens, she must mean that some individual sharks have been around for thousands of years. Unchanging. Undying. All-consuming.

I'm sure that this was like many subtle childhood misunderstandings, insofar as it didn't affect my day-to-day life very much. I don't interact with elderly sharks very often. I've never had to take a shark's vital readings, or card a shark at a bar. There's basically nothing in my life where I would need to know how old a shark is. Until Freshman year of college, that is.

In Freshman Lab (non-Johnnies can think of it as intro biology), my tutor (professor) Mr. K made some point about aging - in particular, about how animals that reproduce sexually instead of by cell division don't destroy the original in the process of making copies. He noted that it seems like all such animals have a natural aging process. They only get so old before they start declining with age, and they can only age so long before they die. But I had the perfect counterexample.

"Excuse me," I said, "but what about sharks?"

"Well, what about sharks?" responded Mr. K.

"We all know that sharks are immortal, right?"