The Spousal Chain of Succession

Everyone knows about the presidential chain of succession: If the president dies, here’s a chain of sixteen people waiting in line to take over. This makes sense, since it’s an important job and we want to have someone doing it at all times.

But what about other jobs? After all, who the president is doesn’t affect our lives nearly as much as, say, who we’re married to. And the death of a spouse  (followed by divorce and separation) is by a wide margin the most stressful event most people go through. So if we have a chain of succession for the president, we should clearly have one for spouses.

Well, there are several concerns about this:

  1. We don’t want the chain of succession to leave us married to someone we’d rather be single than married to.
  2. We don’t want to be constantly complementing our spouse’s death (or divorce). If setting up the chain of succession can be done by passive routine tasks, so much the better.
  3. Similarly, we don’t want to constantly be comparing our spouse to other people, since that could put strain on a marriage. In particular, we want to preserve the sanctity of marriage by making sure the chain of succession can never cause our current spouse to be replaced.

Keeping these concerns in mind, how can we solve the spousal chain of succession problem?

The first step is to solve dating. There’s a known algorithm to do this, though it requires knowing people’s chains of preference. We can get this information the way we get training data for handwriting reading AI: We put it in captchas. Instead of having the little “I’m not a robot” box, we have the boxes ask “who would you rather date”, and have you click one of two pictures. To avoid setting you up when you’d rather be single, it will also occasionally ask you to compare dating someone to dating no one. To increase efficiency, it’ll use the preferences of people with similar tastes to you to fine-tune which questions it asks you. To increase precision, it will occasionally ask you not just who you’d rather date but how many levels apart you estimate they are. It will also discount results by age (since tastes change).

Once it finds you a stable matching you prefer to your current arrangement (dating someone else or single), it will ask you to confirm your interest. Once both sides do so, your current relationships will be dissolved in favour of your new relationship.

Okay, so we’ve solved dating. Hooray! But what about marriage?

The first thing is that we want to preserve the sanctity of marriage. Unlike dating (where you can be offered to trade up at any time), once you’re married, that’s it. You don’t get offered to trade, and the algorithm never asks you to compare someone to your spouse. Unlike dating, if you do lose your spouse, the chain of succession activates automatically (without asking for permission). This is important, because losing your spouse is really bad (If you really want to be single, you can divorce with intent to become single, but that’s a long messy process, just like it is now). This solves problems 2 and 3, since we have to do captchas anyway and we never compare our spouse.

How do we solve problem 1? Well, remember, the algorithm occasionally asks you how many levels you estimate separate the two candidates. Behind the scenes, it can use these comparisons and estimates to set a red line – someone can only be on your chain of succession if they’re at least on level with your current spouse. Beyond that, it just uses normal comparisons to order the chain.

Final note: If someone on your chain of succession isn’t currently married, they (but not you) get a chance to turn you down for marriage. If they do, you go on down the chain.


Annual Birthday Post

This is my annual birthday post, where I let myself be unrestrictedly mopey in grading the past year. So, thoughts:

  1. I’m rather morose tonight, relative to my average over the last few weeks. I guess that’s a birthday thing.
  2. It’s Tuesday. Tuesday somehow feels like the natural day for my birthday to be, although I can’t think of any particular reason why. It’s no more common a day for it than any other day of the week, and the original was a Wednesday.
  3. I am kind of lonely today. I guess it’s a consequence of the weekend I had – I spent time with several groups of friends, but they were mostly rather distant, and it felt like there were walls between us. It was isolating. There were some exceptions, which made me feel better, but they were mostly with people I’m less lose too and see less often. This problem (where second-degree friends can often make me feel better than first-degree friends since the first-degree friends can be distant) generalizes, but I don’t have a general solution.
  4. Last year, I talked about hoping to find friends and a community in San Francisco. I never expected this to be realistic, but it was less unrealistic than I feared. I have found some community, and some friends. Last weekend was depressing, but the few weekends before it, I was happier than I’ve been in a while. I haven’t made many friends at work – none that I’d hang out with after work or anything – but I’ve done okay outside of that.
  5. Last time my age was a perfect cube, the Prequel Trilogy began. Let’s hope this pattern generalizes.
  6. The heart is like a cup with little holes in it. You have to keep filling it up or it goes empty. I don’t talk to any of the people who were familiar with the original quote anymore. I hope the people I talk to now would understand it. This is a Metaphor.
  7. I wonder where I’ll be this time next year. Last year, I had a pretty good idea where I’d be now. Now… I don’t know. I’ll either be exactly where I am now, or somewhere completely different.
  8. I’ve thought about moving again sometimes – to Boulder, or Switzerland, or Elsewhere, if Elsewhere were even a place it’s possible to get to. (“Oh, wherever it is my kind of people used to go. The other side of the rain. Behind the sky.”)
  9. My Dentist sent me a birthday text. I feel like this is a violation of our implicit agreement that they only use my number for dentistry-related matters.

Prequel Duels Were Emotional, and I am Apparently Willing to Write a Long Post About It.

Last week I got into a reddit argument, as one does, about the Star Wars Prequels, in response to someone posting this (content warning: epic).

Someone argued that despite the prequel duels being visually exciting, they didn’t show (in the fighting style) the same raw emotion as the OT duels – think how visibly scared Luke is of vader throughout their duel in Empire. He’s hesitant, running, trying to survive. And then in ROTJ, it’s vader who’s hesitant, whose heart isn’t really in it anymore but who’s just doing it through momentum. And Luke, when he’s smashing Vader over and over until he cuts off his hand1, is doing it in anger and frustration, so mad he can’t just get through to his dad.

Those are good points about the OT duels, which in retrospect were better than I thought (even if they were technically unimpressive). But thinking about it, the prequel duels actually show emotion just as well, although they have a constraint the OT didn’t have.

The PT Jedi are all trained in lightsaber fighting. Luke was just using his instincts, so he could get away with being clumsy and emotional. The PT Jedi always had their training to fall back on, which meant they couldn’t be as raw without totally abandoning their characters.

Anyway, here are the analyses of the PT duels, the emotions behind them, and how those are expressed in the duels.

1) Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon vs Maul

This one starts off with simple emotional context: Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon have their mission to fight Maul. They tell Padme to go on, calmly take off their robes, and get to it.

One of the central things Episode 1 tries to show is what the Old Republic looked like just before the fall. We’ve spent time seeing the function (and dysfunction) in both the Senate and the Jedi Council. Now it’s time to see the Jedi in their prime, as the peacekeepers of the galaxy. The primary thing to see here isn’t their power2. It’s their calm determination in the sense of duty. It’s important that they don’t get excited or angry here. That wouldn’t be the Jedi way.

The second part is where it gets interesting. Qui-Gon and Maul get cut off from Obi-Wan, then from each other. Then we get this bit:


That waiting scene shows us everything we need to know about the characters. We have the contrast between Maul striding back and forth, angry and impatient, almost a living embodiment of the dark side of the force, and Qui-Gon, kneeling to meditate and centre himself in the middle of a lightsaber duel, imposing inner balance in the middle of total chaos. We see the man who eventually learned how to keep his identity in the force even in death. And we have Obi-Wan, trying so hard to be like his master but trapped in his own insecurities, anxious and afraid of failing.

The next bit of fighting, I’ll admit, doesn’t do as great a job in showing the emotion behind it. We should be seeing the contrast between Qui-Gon’s inner balance and Maul’s impatient rage, but that’s really hard to show in an all-out fighting scene. It’s visually impressive, but it’s the waiting scene that really shows their conflict.

Then the third part of the duel makes up for all of it. Obi-Wan’s shout and all-out attack are so emotional, it almost feels like physical pressure. He’s going faster than before, keeping up with Maul by himself when earlier he could barely do it even with his master. Instead of sinking into rage, his new determination pushed him into deeper balance and connection with the Force. Winning this duel is what makes him a Jedi – not just officially (by the council’s decision at the end of the movie), but because it pushes him to connect to the living Force in his despair. We never really get an explicit explanation of what Qui-Gon means when he talks about Obi-Wan needing to learn to connect with the living Force, but we can feel it here. It’s the thing that suddenly lets him rise above himself and go toe-to-toe with Darth Maul by himself.

Overall, this is probably my second-favourite Star Wars duel. It’s more about showing the contrast between balance and the dark side of the Force than conflict between characters, but it does it extremely well.

So that does it for The Phantom Menace. And now,

2) Anakin and Obi-Wan vs. Dooku

This one is fairly explicit. Anakin is raw, angry, in a hurry to win so he can get back to Padme (who he last saw falling off the ship in the middle of the battle). He charges in impatiently against a more experienced opponent, and gets zapped for his pains (I do have a criticism for the PT here – Anakin explicitly saying “no time, I want to take him now” is bad. It’s both a violation of “show, don’t tell” and a particularly dumb one, since him talking about it undermines his own sense of urgency.)

Then we get Obi-Wan against Dooku. The real conflict here isn’t between Dooku and Obi-Wan, it’s between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Where Anakin rushed in and got zapped, Obi-Wan is calm, defensive. He manages to ward off Dooku’s attacks, but that’s still not enough to save him – Dooku is far more powerful and more experienced, and playing it safe isn’t going to save him from that skills gap.

Then we get Anakin again, and we see two things. First, that Anakin really cares about Obi-Wan – he’s been writhing in agony for a few minutes, but a threat to Obi-Wan’s life is enough to rise him from that into a leap to protect him. Then we see the other side of his recklessness – going all-out against Dooku, he’s actually powerful enough to match him for a bit, something even Obi-Wan couldn’t do. But this fails too – he’s talented, but he is still an apprentice.

Overall, this duel doesn’t show as much emotion as the others in the PT. The main thing it goes for is showing both the love and the strain between Anakin and Obi-Wan (Dooku is mostly there as a wall for them to knock themselves against). It does kinda show it – the differences in their approach to Dooku, the way they each in turn rise through terrible wounds to save the other one (Obi-Wan by throwing Anakin his lightsaber in mid-duel), but Dooku isn’t a great adversary for them to prove themselves against, so it doesn’t fully come across. I sort of wish they’d kept Maul as the adversary, but not giving Obi-Wan the chance to kill Maul in TPS would have severely detracted from that climax, so that wouldn’t really work.

3) Yoda vs. Dooku

This one’s short, and kind of inevitable. In narrative, it does for the PT what lifting the X-wing did in Empire – it shows that size and overt power are less important than connection to the Force. It’s notable that Yoda doesn’t draw his lightsaber until Dooku draws his, and also doesn’t attack until Dooku does. This is about Yoda’s character (and by extension, that of the Jedi council) – reactive rather than proactive, concerned with keeping balance rather than attacking, for both good and ill. There really isn’t much to say about this one.

So that does it for AOTC. On to

4) Anakin and Obi-Wan vs. Dooku

Episode 3 starts at full sprint and never really slows down. We get the conclusion to the big conflict of the last movie right off the bat. This one comes to show several things.

First, Anakin has actually calmed down a bit from his impetuous youth as an apprentice. He’s an older, mature Jedi now. When Obi-Wan says they take Dooku together now, he takes it in stride, and agrees. But we also see this new harmony doesn’t go all the way down – Obi-Wan still doesn’t totally trust him and needs to remind him of it, and despite his agreement, the comment does seem to rankle Anakin a bit. We also get another “Anakin loves Obi Wan” moment at the end, when he refuses to leave Obi Wan behind despite the risk.

Second, we see Anakin’s growing power. While Obi-Wan gets taken out fairly quickly, Anakin goes one on one with Dooku and disables him easily, almost toying with him. Then we get this


The obvious symbolism is Anakin caught between the dark side of the Force and the light. The more palpable emotion is Dooku’s fear (especially his eyes darting to Palpatine when he tells Anakin to kill him). Dooku’s fear sells Palpatine’s evil better than any other moment in the series – his dedicated servant suddenly realizing he’s been betrayed.

Blow-by-blow, this is a fairly short duel. We don’t see Anakin’s anger until the end (when he executes Dooku), but that’s by design – on the surface, Anakin’s become everything a Jedi should be, and it’s only when he’s pushed to the edge that we see the cracks.

5) Obi-Wan vs. Grievous.

Not much to say about this one. It’s mostly there to provide some campy Star Wars fun in the middle of what’s otherwise an incredibly dark and depressing movie. It’s interesting that Grievous isn’t a personal enemy the way Maul or Dooku were – he’s not a Sith or an enemy of the Jedi, he’s just a guy on the other side of the conflict. Obi-Wan seems to see him more as a worthy opponent than an actual enemy. I’ll note for later that this isn’t really a duel to the death (like the one against Maul was) – If either one had suddenly thrown down his weapons and surrendered, the other guy would have been perfectly happy to take him alive.

Another interesting note from Reddit – Grievous is the third component of Darth Vader, who’s a combination of the three minor villains from the prequels (Maul the Sith consumed by rage, Dooku the fallen Jedi, and Grievous the cyborg).

6) Palpatine vs the Council

Back to full-on intensity! Again, this one isn’t that emotional for the characters – we get to see how dangerous Palpatine (openly as Darth Sidious at last!) Really is, when he kills three Jedi masters in as many seconds and laughs at their agony. We kinda get to see Windu’s anger, and the difference between him and Qui-Gon – where Qui-Gon was all about the deep connection to the living Force, Windu’s more practical and more about duelling. He’s no dark side user, but it seems to be more because he’s never really had to deal with hard choices than because of a deep commitment to balance like Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and (later) Luke.

The emotional part of this one, of course, is the climax of Anakin turning against Windu and the Jedi. I’ll avoid analyzing the full context (I’m just talking about the duels here), but I’ll note that it was a good choice on Palpatine’s side to make Windu (the somewhat unsympathetic Jedi who Anakin had no personal connection with and was kind of frustrated by) the stand-in for the Jedi order that Anakin had to betray (Thinking about it, this was carefully planned – he waited until both Yoda and Obi-Wan were away to reveal himself). Overall, Mace Windu isn’t really important enough for the rest of this duel to be emotional, and they kept it technical for a reason.

I’ll also say I don’t buy the theory that Palpatine let Windu win. Palpatine’s greatest weakness throughout the movies is his tendency to underestimate both his enemies and the light side of the Force, and I don’t think he believed any Jedi would stand a chance against him in a fight.

7) Yoda vs. Palpatine

The big showdown! The Grand Master of the Jedi order vs the Emperor and Lord of the Sith revealed!

This one is all about their different visions of the Force, and it constantly shows in their fighting styles. First, they’re evenly matched (which surprises the emperor, since as always, he thinks the dark side is stronger). We see this right off the bat, when he thinks his first Force lightning zap was enough to kill Yoda.

Second, this duel doesn’t involve much lightsaber use. This is pretty much what we expect – lightsabers are a tool to reveal the Force within you, but these two are so powerful and experienced they don’t even really need them for it.

A convoluted metaphor: Lightsabers are to Jedi duels what physical beauty is to the art of seduction. They’re a tool, and an important one, especially for a young woman. But an experienced older woman who knows what she’s doing can be far more attractive than a younger, prettier woman – she makes up for her lack of youthful beauty with learned skill and grace. This is what we see here, more or less.

Third, we see their differences in the throne room. The Emperor is literally throwing pieces of the hall of the Senate at Yoda. He’s carelessly smashing the seat of Democracy to gain power and destroy his enemies, cackling while he does it (not just because he’s evil, but mostly because he thinks his willingness to smash all barriers will ensure his victory). Yoda dodges, waits for his opportunity, then suddenly throws one of the pods back. We see the sudden shock on the Emperor’s face just before he dodges it – he was sure his willingness for wanton destruction would give him an easy victory, and he’s shocked and scared that there’s something here that can actually threaten him back.

This is also a metaphor for Yoda’s general style in two ways. First, he waits carefully for his opportunity, then prepares it and hits hard. He does this on a larger scale throughout the series – in the prequels, he waits for the Emperor to reveal himself. In the OT, he hides on Dagobah for decades until Luke finds him, then prepares him and sends him at the Emperor. Again, he’s reactive, not proactive.

Second, Yoda believes in order. While the Emperor is happy to cause as much chaos as he can, Yoda is patiently looking for a pattern in the chaos, waits for his opportunity, then threads the needle. He acts like someone who wants order and balance, not just random chaos (this, by the way, is another bone between Anakin and the Jedi order. Even from the start, as a kid, Anakin always loves jumping into chaotic situations and racing through them).

The last interesting thing to note about this duel is their conversation about Vader. The Emperor starts the duel by telling Yoda Darth Vader will become more powerful than either of them. Why would Palpatine, who’s been engineering his way to total domination his whole life, want Vader to surpass him in the dark side?

I don’t have a certain answer, but I love that touch because it’s so realistic. You see it with far-right nationalists all the time. They don’t just want their own country first, they want all countries to put themselves first. They’re against the very idea of international cooperation, even when no one defects. When Trump says “America first”, he also says China should put China first, and Canada should put Canada first. This is weird – if Trump genuinely just wanted to optimize America while screwing over other countries, he should be happy if other countries are willing to cooperate while he defects.

I have some theories about this. Maybe it’s that these people just love conflict, and when someone else doesn’t love conflict they feel like they’re ruining the fun. Maybe it’s about fear of missed opportunities, and people who defect instead of cooperating don’t want to believe other people were willing to cooperate and they missed the opportunity to do that because of their own mistakes. And maybe it’s because people who defect do hate themselves a little for it, feel  a little dirty on the inside, and they want to reassure themselves that everyone’s as dirty on the inside as they are.

Anyway, onto the last duel (and greatest moment in all of Star Wars):

8)  Obi-Wan vs. Darth Vader

This is it. The big one. The thing the the whole prequel trilogy was leading up to. And also the one the original complaint was about.


There’s a few obviously emotional parts of this duel, which even the other guy in the original argument recognized, so I’ll skim past: The bits of dialog whenever they have a break. The part when Anakin Force-chokes Obi-Wan, incredibly angry but also strangely gentle. The last strike at the end, Where Obi-Wan uses a brutal, crippling, dark-side move to destroy Anakin, but can’t bring himself to finish him off.

Most of the duel is lightning-fast, graceful both sides pushing themselves to use every bit of technique and Force they have. We don’t get anything like Luke’s fight with Darth Vader, where he shows his fear, his anger, and in the end, his serenity. But this isn’t because the duel is technical and unemotional.

The duel is technical because it’s emotional. It’s that way because both sides are trying to kill each other.

It’s important to emphasize that this is unusual. The only other duel this happens is the one against Maul. The Jedi would have been happy to take Dooku alive (as shown when Anakin regretted killing him in the immediate aftermath). In ANH, Obi-Wan was just trying to ward Vader off, and let him kill him in the end. When Luke fought Vader, it was never about trying to kill the other one – the first one was about Vader wanting his son to join him, and the second one was about Luke wanting his father to join him. We see their fear and anger, but mostly their uncertainty – they’re never sure they’re doing the right thing, and their other emotions come from that.

In this duel, we see none of that. This duel isn’t about signalling. It’s not about trying to convince anyone of anything. It’s about trying to kill the other one. There’s a rationalist proverb about putting all of your effort into something, trying like your child’s life depends on it or like you’re a heroin addict trying to get his next fix. This is that.

And because they’re truly determined, they stick to their technique, because they actually care about winning. We see that from the first moment, when Anakin leaps at Obi-Wan and tries to cut him apart from the very first blow. And the fact that this time they’re both actually trying to kill each other says it all – all the anger, all the despair, all the love they had. All the loss. They’ve even given up on trying to win the other back.

I don’t have much of a conclusion. Writing this summary made me realize that Dooku was probably the most disappointing part of the prequels for me (I know it should be Jar Jar, but Jar Jar’s role is easy to cut out and ignore. Dooku’s a load-bearing character, and he doesn’t bear it as well as he should). It also made me more disappointed in the rematch between Vader and Obi-Wan in New Hope – it’s both technically unimpressive and unemotional, and there’s no excuse for either of these (we didn’t know the full backstory at the time, but we did know Vader had been Obi-Wan’s old apprentice who betrayed him. I wish we’d gotten more of an “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you” vibe from Obi-Wan. And better stage fencing doesn’t require modern effects to pull off). But it also made me notice some nice things I hadn’t thought about before, like how the conflict with Dooku was more about showing the differences between Obi-Wan and Anakin than about Dooku.

I’ll probably watch the prequels again at some point to get the taste of TLJ out of my mouth. I might have more to say then, but I doubt I’ll write anything – there’s a balance between having too little to say to be worth writing, and having so much that I don’t know where to begin and it scares me away from trying to write any of it. So no more Star Wars writing for a while.

1. Again.

2. We already saw that start, when Nute Gunray nearly had a panic attack when he realized the ambassadors were Jedi Knights. Jedi in the old republic are scary.

Rationalist Flashpoint (Ratpoint?)

So in the tradition of remaking classic Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Superhero stories as rationalist stories (that is, what if everyone in the story tried to make their overcomplicated plots actually work), I’ve decided to describe how I’d do it to the Flash1. More specifically to Flashpoint, because that’s (a) everyone’s favourite Flash arc and (b) the only one for which I’ve actually read the comics. It would go something like this (Spoiler Warning: Flashpoint):

Like in the original comic, the Flash wakes up in a strange alternate universe. In this alternate universe crime is rampant, supervillains nearly destroy the earth (or at least kill millions of people) every other week, and the few poorly-organized superheroes still remaining barely manage to save the day at the last second each time. It’s only a matter of time until one of them slips up and total disaster comes. In other words, it’s the classic DC universe we’re all familiar with.

None of this matches up with the universe the Flash is from: There, the superheroes have long since united to figure out how to do the maximum amount of good with their abilities. Lex Luthor’s desire to change the world was channeled to more wholesome ends in that universe, and he used his miracle technologies to fight crime and disease. Superman, after putting in adequate safeguards, let Lex and his scientists experiment on him to advance medical research even further (all humans have nearly-unbreakable bones as a result of this research, and solar energy is cheap and universal due to inventions based on Superman’s Kryptonian skin receptors). But the safeguards were just a precaution – the superheroes of that universe trust each other.

In the original Flashpoint alternate universe, Bruce Wayne had been shot instead of his parents, and Thomas Wayne, haunted by the death of his son, became Batman, while Martha Wayne went mad and became the Joker. In my version’s original universe, Martha Wayne was the one who was shot. Thomas Wayne decides to work on sociological causes of crime, starting with lead removal. After he joins the other superheroes he also uses genetic engineering for population genetics to improve life outcomes (he mostly experiments on bats, giving him the name “Bat-man”). Bruce Wayne, left alone by his mother’s death and his father’s retreat into science, eventually goes mad and becomes the Joker, the superheroes’ greatest enemy, since he believes they’re replacing human warmth and emotion with cold utilitarian science.

Over the course of the story, the Flash befriends alternate-universe Bruce-Wayne-Batman, and gradually tells him about the philosophy of their original world. Bruce is skeptical of their ideals at first, but becomes convinced after hearing the results. In the original Flashpoint story, Thomas Wayne was convinced to help the Flash because it meant his son would be alive again (even if he wouldn’t be), and the story ends with the Flash giving Bruce a letter from his father he could never get before that. In my version, Bruce gives Flash a letter to his father saying he’s sorry for all the damage he caused in that world, and one to himself (it’s implied he’s trying to convince his alternate self to let go of his vendetta, but we never see the letter).

In original-world, the Flash is the most important member of the superhero society: Whenever they achieve a meaningful improvement, like curing bone fragility, he goes back in time to just after the league was formed and delivers it to them, so that the improvements affect as long a time as possible. Whenever a disaster threatens, he goes back in time to when it was still small and easily preventable, and undoes it. There are two necessary safeguards to this: First, he stops by to talk to versions of himself in the alternate timeline that exist at various points of time between now and the change, to make sure the change won’t have any terrible unforeseen consequences (any of them can call it off, and the Flash can always reverse the change in the future by going back to that point in time and telling himself not to do it).

Second, and this is important, he never, ever, goes back to before the society was organized. Because this would have the potential to undo the whole society (which instituted the safety protocols for the Flash’s time travel), it could potentially undo all the good they’ve done in their world. So as much as they might like to, say, kill baby Hitler and prevent World War 2, they can’t go back far enough to do it.

In the end of the story we find out this is precisely what caused this weird alternate universe in the first place: The Flash was tired of doing abstract good for everyone in the world when he wasn’t even allowed to go back in time and save his own mother. Eventually, he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he went back in time and saved her. The consequences were the complete dissolution of their world, millions dead from poverty and famine and disease, the world on the brink of destruction every other week. Once he finds out why it happened, he has to go back again and let his mother die.

I’d also include an explanation for the Flash’s speed, based on the multi-level brain theory from here. Basically, only the Flash’s lowest brain layers work at superhuman speeds, while his top layers work at normal speed. The inbetween layers are successively faster. This is why he can move fast enough to dodge bullets if he’s ready (he’s prepared his lower levels to execute dodging maneuvers), but not if he’s caught by surprise. It’s also why in a normal fight, he’s somewhat faster than normal but not fast enough to dodge bullets, his fight reflexes are lower than the top level but still above the deeply-trained bullet-dodging reflexes.

Also, rationalist Flash got with Patty Spivot, not Iris. Because she’s clearly much nicer to him and he’s not as controlled by plot-force as his non-rationalist counterpart.

1. Not actually write the story, though, because that would be way too much work.

The unfortunate consequences of Theodicy.

Warning: Only read this if you’ve already read UNSONG, since this contains major spoilers.




Done reading UNSONG?

(That means you too, Brian. Don’t read beyond this point.)




So let’s assume The Unsong theory of theodicy: The reason the world has evil in it is that God creates every possible world where the net amount of Good exceeds the net amount of Evil. What would a typical world look like?

Well, let’s start by assuming most worlds are kind of like ours. We have a planet, civilization evolves, eventually it reaches technological maturity. Let’s assume this civilization inevitably creates AI, and in almost all cases this AI is unfriendly. Is this universe consistent with theodicy?

Answer: quite possibly. For example, imagine a paperclip AI, as described in this article. As the article points out,

Plus, if we teach the AI to enjoy making paperclips (and some say these sorts of human-analogous incentives will be necessary to create true thinking machines) then at least it’ll be having a fun time.

In fact, if that AI turns the whole observable universe to paperclips and has no upper bound on the amount of joy it can feel, we’ve created a nigh-infinite source of joy. No matter how much misery humans experience in our thousands or millions of years as a species, the AI feels enough joy to counterbalance that. So while we might find theodicy reassuring in principle – the net balance of the world must be Good! – that doesn’t neccessarily mean we won’t be incredibly miserable.

But wait! it gets worse! Take a look at this graph:

This is a bell curve. It’s what happens when we have a lot of independent factors that can move things in either direction. That part isn’t new.

If we imagine the net Good in all possible universes (without theoditic intervention), we expect it to have a bell curve distribution, with neutral worlds in the middle1. After all, there are an unimaginable number of tiny independent factors that go into deciding how much good and evil goes into a potential universe. If we imagine theoditic intervention, God chops off the left half of the bell curve – everything to the left of the middle vanishes, and everything to the right stays in existence.

Now the key thing to remember about bell curves is that they are incredibly concentrated around the middle. The textbook pictures are incredibly misleading. They make it look like it’s a fairly wide distribution in the range. But it actually decays superexponentially. That 99.7% within three standard deviations of the mean? A standard deviation is on the order , where M is the total variance of the universe and is the number of factors. Since there are an unimaginably huge number of factors that go into creating a universe, that number is tiny. Almost all possible universes are barely breaking even. And if we think of civilization as gradually growing and improving, that means we’re almost certainly at a net loss right now – the current level of misery on the planet exceeds the amount of joy, and if it weren’t for the fact that we could improve it would be better to never have existed. And even when we do make things better, it’ll be just barely enough to break even with all the evil that happened before.

So even if God only allows the good universes to exist, from the outside view, our universe is probably kind of meh.

1. It might be argued that the mean random universe wouldn’t be neutral. It seems like a totally chaotic world might be evil. Unfortunately, this just means the distribution would be even more loaded towards the break-even point once we eliminate everything to the left of it. Conversely, if the mean random universe is to the right of the break-even point, we’re doing better. But that seems less likely.

The Kabbalah of Degenerates.

The overt meaning of degenerate is colinear.
The kabbalistic meaning of degenerate is “one who has strayed from God’s light.” We can derive this by decomposing the word: To generate is to create, so one who does not generate is maximally far away from the creator.
Furthermore, God is famously everywhere, in “both the heavens and on earth”. In R^3, a degenerate set of vectors is precisely one that cannot generate all three axes – that is, one that cannot generate both the two axes of the plane and the axis of the heavens.
Needless to say, none of this is a coincidence.
However, the probability of being degenerate is zero, because while we may approach degeneracy, we all carry a spark of God’s light inside us. This is also not a coincidence.

Chilly Autumn Nights in San Francisco

Whenever there’s a chilly night in San Francisco, I don’t know what it means.

It was straightforwards enough in New Haven. Chilly nights were the first harbingers of winter. Oh, it’d get warmer again tomorrow, for a week or two, but eventually it would be actual winter. Connecticut isn’t Minnesota or anything, but you’d usually get at least one or two serious blizzards, a bunch of smaller ones, and a week or two where the temperature dropped to double digit negatives. Biking in winter was doable, but it wasn’t fun.

Jerusalem was a bit less straightforwards, but autumn nights were even more important: You got the first hints of the smell of rain. After all those bone dry overheated months, soon you would be seeing rain again, and when it rains in Jerusalem, it pours. The soccer field in my high school used to turn into a pond. The smell after new rain is always amazing, but there’s nowhere else it’s as strong as in Jerusalem. Maybe because there’s so much of it  hitting dry earth. Maybe just because it was home.

If we were lucky, we’d get thunderstorms. If we were very, very lucky, we’d get a day or two of snow, and the whole city would shut down.

Winter in Toronto is the same as in Connecticut, except there’s a lot more snow and it never ends.

But in all of these – every lace I’ve lived – chilly autumn nights were exciting. Something was going to happen. Things were going to get interesting. The fact that, as a rule, things didn’t, was what made the start of summer a bit depressing. But never autumn. Autumn was alive.

I don’t know what chilly autumn nights mean here. Is it going to get colder? As I understand it, San Francisco has pretty much the same weather year round. Or maybe summers are the cold part? Mark Twain (reputedly) once said the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco. I know it has microclimates and all, but I still have a hard time believing it’ll actually get warmer here in the middle of winter. On the other hand, it can’t get much colder than our chilly nights, since it supposedly never snows here. And I doubt we’re going to get a sudden wave of heavy rains either – California is generally pretty dry, and we already get occasional drizzles (though it’s hard to even notice that it’s raining when they come).

So it’s a strange sensation. I’ve always associated chilly autumn nights with warnings of things to come, but as far as I can tell, they don’t actually mean much out here.