Song translation: Matter of Time

Original song, Lyrics:

Take your time, you can take it slow,
The world will wait outside for you.
Take a moment out to feel the flow,
Stop and breathe for a minute or two

Addicted to the heart’s exhilaration
To the wild imagination,
To the depths of the elation,
That touch the edge of pain

You’ll see the world before you’re through,
Whichever way you go, you’ll find
You can still be a different you,
You aren’t trapped inside your mind

If love hurt you yesterday,
Tomorrow it could spare your heart,
If you still cry and look away,
You may yet find a brand new start,

Addicted to the heart’s exhilaration…

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Witch Story, Part 2

Part 1

Chapter 2: The Scrounger of Teeth

Elsenya was almost finished cleaning for the day. This was a good thing, since she’d been hungry for the last three hours and was just about ready to eat a tree by now.

Marie, who had finished cleaning just five minutes before, leaned on a wall and watched her clean while chewing on her apple. She was eating it slowly in order to mock her, Elsenya decided, although in her current state she was fairly certain anyone having lunch within a mile of the inn was doing it to mock her. But she grit her teeth and bravely persevered. Today would not be the day she failed in her duties.

The reason Marie was eating slowly was the same reason Marie always ate slowly, which was that she talked between taking bites. “And they say there was some kind of fight between the wizards at the top of the tower, and now they’re too busy to protect us and the Raiders are going to come raiding all the way up to our gates”, she paused to take a bite, “and the king sent a whole company of his knights up from Maradon to ward them off.” She took another bite, then continued without a break. “And Moira from the cabbage store told me there’s a monster loose in the sewer that steals people’s teeth from their mouths when they’re asleep.” It was amazing, Elsenya thought, that she hadn’t choked on her food yet. She finished her cleaning and went into the kitchen, Marie happily chattering behind her.

Before she could eat, she ran into Lacey, who was just coming out of the kitchen. “Good, you’re here” Lacey said. “Finish taking the food to the guests, and then go get some cabbages from Moira’s. I need to go visit my new grandkid.”

Elsenya sighed. Two new things to do before she could eat, and she was already so hungry. She loaded up the food tray  and went up to the second floor. There were two guests staying there that week, but neither of them were in, so she just took all the food to the third floor.

The tree in the middle of the room was swaying to a breeze that wasn’t there, and Sorin was at his desk, staring out the window. Elsenya put the tray on the desk and tried to see what he was seeing, but all she got was an odd feeling that the town outside the window wasn’t quite the same as the town she would see if she walked downstairs and out the door. But he spoke before she could ask about it.

“Have you finished your chores yet?”

“Almost! I still need to buy cabbages, but the cabbage store’s just a few streets away, and I’ll be done in a bit. And then can you start teaching me magic?” Before he could answer, she remembered the other thing she needed to ask him. “Also everyone’s talking about this monster that lives in the sewers and steals teeth. Is it real? Do you know where it came from?”

He looked at her firmly. “It is real, and it came because of you.”

“Because of me?” She couldn’t remember creating any monsters.

“Erlich created it as an experiment. When you had Arthur arrest him, his containment spells broke down and let it loose in the sewers. Your first lesson is to pacify it.”

“How… how am I supposed to kill a monster no one’s even seen? How can I even find it? And what’s this supposed to teach me?”

“Go into the sewer entrance and look. You will know it when you see it. The lesson here is that you need to finish what you started, and that includes closing off loose ends. Besides, wandering in the sewers is always a learning experience.” He frowned. “And I never said you should kill it.”

Her stomach rumbled loudly, reminding her this was another chore she had to do before she could eat. “The faster you finish this, the sooner you can eat. If you finish early you’ll be back in time for lunch.” He picked a fruit off the tree and threw it to her. It took her a moment to realize the fruit was made of crystal, and another moment to realize it was glowing from the inside. “Make sure you bring it back when you’re done.”

 

She saw a sewer entrance on her way to the cabbage shop. It was just a hole in the street covered by a grate, and somehow shed walked by it every time she bought groceries and never once noticed it. She looked around to make sure no one saw her, then opened the grate and climbed down the ladder into the tunnel.

The light from the grate ended even before the ladder did, so she took the glowfruit out when she reached the floor. Its light was otherworldly and strangely soft. Now that she saw it by itself, she realized it was the same strange light the room on the third floor always had. The fruit wasn’t even that bright, but she could see every detail within a dozen yards by its light. Magic light, she decided, was entirely more useful than the normal kind, even if it was rather strange.

She was on a thin walkway by a stream of something that looked like water and smelled so bad she almost stopped thinking about food. She supposed this was what sewage was.

If I were a tooth-stealing monster, she thought to herself, where would I hide? She started walking downstream. A monster would be hiding at the end of all the flows, she reasoned. The deepest part of the sewers, where the streams all came to it and nothing would leave it downstream.

She walked down along the stream. It joined another stream, and she started hearing sobbing in the distance. She walked on downstream, towards it, past two more branches and (to her relief) another ladder to the outside. Every intersection, the noise sobbing noise got louder. And then she saw the Snailtelope.

It was about eight feet tall, with the shell and body of a snail on top of six furry legs, like those of a common antelope but thicker. Its torso grew out into the head of an antelope with two grand, pronged antlers. Its body was covered in thick grey furwherever it was exposed under the shell. And it was crying great acid tears that sizzled when they hit the ground. Elsenya had expected she would feel afraid, but now that she saw it, she felt sorry for the strange, sad creature.

“Why are you crying?” She asked it softly.

“Because everyone hates me, and because I am so very hungry.” It said between sobs. Her stomach grumbled in sympathy.

“What do you eat?” She asked. “Doesn’t anyone feed you?”

“I eat human teeth. There was a man who used to feed me delicious magical teeth whenever I got hungry – they weren’t real teeth, but they helped me grow. But then he stopped coming, and I had to break out and look for teeth by myself. But I can only find them in people’s mouths now, and people don’t like it when I take them.”

“But you take them anyway?”

It nodded, sobbing. “I know I shouldn’t, because people hate me when I do. But I get so hungry. I sneak in at night when they don’t notice – I’m a combination of two stealthy animals, so they never notice me, even when I take their teeth. I don’t want to bother them, you see, but then they wake up missing teeth and they get mad at me anyway. I try to stop, but I always get so hungry again.” It was sobbing much more quietly now, but its tears had already made a deep groove in the floor.

Elsenya tried to think of a solution. All the creature needed was food, but where could she find a supply of teeth that didn’t involve stealing them from people’s mouths? She had no idea how to make teeth by magic, and she didn’t think Sorin would make them for her if she asked. Then she remembered Lacey talking about her new grandkid, and she had an idea.

“What if children threw their teeth into the sewers when they fell out? Could you find them down here and eat them?”

The snailtelope nodded. “Everything people throw down here gets to me eventually,” it said. “But how would you get all the children to do that?”

“I can convince at least one family to do it” she said, thinking of Lacey. “I’ll tell them you offered to make a deal, wheree you won’t steal teeth from anyone on a street where people throw their teeth into the sewer. And people on other streets will see how they keep all their teeth, and they’ll start doing it too, until everyone in the city gives you their teeth and you don’t have to steal teeth anymore.”

“But what if they forget?”

“Then you can just start stealing their teeth again. They’ll remember soon enough.

The snailtelope stopped crying. “You promise?”

“I promise.” She nodded solemnly, and the snailtelope gave her a small, real, smile.

It took her less than twenty minutes to finish buying cabbaged and get back to the inn (the ladder she used to climb back out turned out to be right next to the cabbage shop). She ran into Lacey coming back in.

“Just getting back from the cabbage shop? Good girl. Now go stack them up and you can eat.”

“Miss Lacey!” She said. “Can you tell your daughter to throw her kids’ teeth into the sewer when they fall out? I met the snailtelope who’s been stealing people’s teeth and I made him promise that if they did that he wouldn’t steal teeth from anyone on theor street anymore. And then they wouldn’t have to hate him and he could stop being sad and crying all the time.”

Lacey shrugged. “Why not. Make sure you put the cabbaged in the second box, I put carrots in the first one.” She walked off to the kitchen and started cooking. Elsenya stacked the cabbages, and then she finally got to eat.

 

Much later, because she kept eating for a long time, she went up to the third floor.

“I found the snailtelope.” She told Sorin. “It said no one took care of it after Beardface left. Why didn’t the tower send someone else?”

“The tower couldn’t have known about this.” He said. “They forbid any magical experiment that involves a creature with a mind and soul. Erlich did this in secret, on his own. It must be the reason he needed a secret magic stash in the first place.”

“Why is it forbidden?”

“Because,” he said grimly, “there’s no known magic that can create a mind or soul. They can only steal them.”

She frowned.

“The glowfruit?” He asked, and she handed it back to him. He walked over to the tree and put it back on, where it hung like it had never been picked.

“How did you do that?”

“It’s easy once you know how. Like picking it, except that time moves in reverse. I’ve learned a lot about time from cats.” The cat jumped in through the open window, and climbed up on his shoulders.

Epilogue

“And that”, she told Alicia, “is why you always have to finish what you started. Did you finish your carrots?”

Alicia nodded. “But what happened to the snailtelope? Was it lonely and sad forever?”

“Oh, no, not at all” she answered. “It had a very happy life indeed. People in the city even started liking it, after it stopped stealing their teeth. It even made friends, with the inquisitive children who came down the sewers to explore.”

“So you didn’t have to fight it at all?”

The old woman nodded. “There’s almost always a better way to solve problems than fighting. Of course, sometimes there isn’t, and then you have to fight. I never liked it though. My brother was always much better at that.”

“You had a brother?”

“I had three. And two sisters. My older brother, he left home to go be a soldier in the Capital years before I came to Tel Antora. I never expected to run into him there when I left. But then one day the soldiers came to town…”

Poetry Translation: City Wrapping Light

Poetry translation again! The original song is around Jerusalem, but the line about the golden dome got lost in translation, so it works for pretty much any city with hills and trees that’s not in the arctic circle. Original Song, Hebrew Lyrics.

The evening sky covers the city as it hushes,
And a falcon hovers over the abyss,
As the red sun’s dying embers over brushes,
and covers towers, hills, and buildings with its kiss

I saw a city wrapping light,
And it glowed in all the colours of the rainbow,
And the traces of it echoed in the night,
I saw a city wrapping light.

Here crawls the shadow from between the pine-wood hills,
And like a lover comes to rest against the streets,
And the ten thousand eyes of light trapped in its thrills,
Have opened wide to watch the city sleep in peace

I saw a city…

And with the dark the evening’s breath begins to deaden,
And in the fabric of the night the last light dies,
But with the dawn the city’s roofs begin to redden,
Under the warm young light that comes from morning skies.

I saw a city…

Sin, Crime, and Suicide

Epistemic status: Trying to translate a network of ideas into a linear post.

First question: Is there a useful definition of sin that doesn’t involve religion?

Informally, we can define sin as a corruption of the soul that twists people in ways they can’t easily find a way out of, even if they know it’s hurting them (sin ca also cause someone to hurt others, but that’s a second-order effect). Mathematically, we can think of sins as traps of inadequate equilibria – locally optimal habits that are pretty bad globally. Since the reaction to being in a bad place is to look for anything you can do locally to improve the situation, this makes them self-reinforcing.

This is consistent with the religious idea of sin – if there is a caring God who also respects free will (for whatever reason) out there, he’d be able to see we’re at a bad local optimum even when we can’t. We can model a God who respects free will as thinking of us the way we think of ML programs we try to train. And God tries to steer us away from bad local optimum just like we do to them.

Consider the classical examples: Gluttony is when you can’t stop eating, even when it’s bad for your health, even when you’re stuffed and have long since stopped enjoying the food. You want to get back to having a healthy appetite and eating just the right amount to enjoy it, but you don’t know the way anymore. Consider lust (in its negative form) – it can make you chase gratification, or power, when what you really want is just to hold someone you love. And I’ve written here before about pride.

Thinking of sin as internal corruption also explains why they can be forgiven if someone makes genuine repentance, why the prescription for them is prayer and meditation instead of punishment, and why thinking the wrong thing can be a sin even if you never act on it.

Compare crime, which is a result of individuals optimizing for themselves instead of society. In principle, this is a much more straightforward problem with a simple solution: Have society impose a penalty on crimes so that it’s never optimal to commit it on an individual level (warning: The details on this may get complicated). Unlike sins, which no one wants to fall into, crimes need to be disincentivised in order for people to avoid doing them.

We can’t do this for sin (among other reasons, we normally can’t decompose people into sub-characters and punish only some of them). This suggests the idea of priests – people who can help steer you away from suboptimal situations, but whose status in the community is based on spiritual wisdom rather than order-based authority.  Therapists have a similar role in secular society, but priests seem to fit a bit better, since their social status is (in theory) based on a scale orthogonal to normal authorities (while therapists are somewhat inbetween), and because they can get away with being judgemental when they think it’s appropriate.

This all leads up to suicide, which follows the definition of a sin pretty closely but we tend to treat as a crime in practice, by putting people who threaten or attempt it in suicide jail (or suspending them from  school, or work). I wonder if priests at confession would work better as targets to talk to about suicide. (Well, priest stereotypes, anyway. I’ve never met a real priest and they’re probably far less helpful than stereotype suggests).  If nothing else, at least they can’t forcibly hospitalize anyone.

But if suicide is a sin (and we switch back to religion for a moment), this raises the question: The punishment of sin is hell. What’s suicide hell1 like?

Well, if hell is just a terrible place full of demons that torture you forever, that’s that. But if it’s not run by demons, if hell is just other people… Maybe it’s better. Maybe being surrounded by everyone who’s ever understood, they can finally find the cure they never could in life.

I guess that’s not too different from suicide jail, which by all accounts isn’t a nice place to be stuck in (unless suicide hell is better because it passed a critical mass, or because the inmates are running it). But if I’m being honest, this equivalence is why I’ve never been able to hate the concept of suicide jail. On the one hand, I’m plenty mad at the actual practice of forcing people to watch what they say to their therapist when they’re hurting. But on the other hand, I believe that if heaven isn’t up there we should try and make it. I mean, in practice this almost always ends disastrously and needs to be destroyed immediately, so in practice I’m pretty set against anything but incrementalism. But I can’t bring myself to hate the core feeling behind the attempt.

1. When I left Israel, a friend gave me a book called Kneller’s Happy Campers, about a guy who commits suicide and ends ends up in suicide afterlife. This wasn’t even the first book she’d given me about suicide afterlife. When I asked her about it, she said it’s a whole subgenre of Israeli literature.

Autumn Wind (Poetry Translation)

In an attempt to centralize my writings (and since I’ve apparently given up and conceded this blog is going to be about 50% poetry translations), I’m uploading yet another one. Original song, lyrics.

Do not be shy, you can be sad.
Don’t feel bad that you feel that way,
It’s just that seasons change, my lad,
It’s just the fall; it goes away.

Through the forsaken town you stray,
You search for stars, you look up high,
even a young man, sometimes, may
feel a bit old, when fall is nigh,

It’s the autumn with the clouds,
and with the wind wailing all around
And you can say, you just don’t care,
But you still feel it sting, somewhere.

With fall wind whistling in your ear
To the girls you no longer say
“Hey honey babe, come over here” –
But “see the autumn night today”

“It’s just a mood”, you laugh and say
“Just some excitement, what the hell…”
But still you sent a saffron lei,
To that girl yesterday as well…

It’s the autumn with the clouds,
and with the wind wailing all around
And you can say, you just don’t care,
But you still feel it sting, somewhere.

A tear, don’t be ashamed, my friend,
It won’t cause no one any harm,
Just say “It’s rain, and nothing else”,
And yet we both know that’s not the end.

It’s the autumn with the clouds,
and with the wind wailing all around
And you can say, you just don’t care,
But you still feel it sting, somewhere.

Songs I Can’t Translate

There’s a few songs I can’t translate. This is one, and this is another. I’ve tried, and I just can’t do it.

It’s partly the language. It’s one thing to speak Hebrew, but I don’t speak it poetically.

Poetic fluency seems like a thing. That is, some people seem to be able to speak fluent poetry by nature, like it’s a different language  – one of the really difficult ones, like Basque, that no one who isn’t a native can do naturally. Read Tolkien writing conversational prose, it still ends up as poetry. The best the rest of us can do is fumble and pretend, holding onto a rhyming dictionary like a tourist with a book of common phrases. We make manufactured poetry – often very good poetry that flows out almost naturally, but still manufactured. That kind of stuff  I can translate.

(Well, usually. Sometimes the rhyming scheme is just too awkward – I haven’t managed to translate Till we have built Jerusalem, because Jerusalem has five syllables in Hebrew and the three I have left aren’t enough to make a good line).

This all bothers me, because I want to translate them. They say something important that I want to say and don’t know how, and it’s how I process things.

Well, without being able to do that, I guess this is the best I can do: Sometimes you can’t say things, and the best you can do is say you can’t say them. At least it’s enough to draw them on the map, if not actually show the territory.

 

Does suicide imply consciousness is divisible?

Epistemic Status: Armchair Philosophy. Content warning: Considers pro-suicide arguments.

Consider two models of consciousness (defined here as the ability to experience qualia).

First, we have the discrete model: Consciousness is caused by a discrete soul, which is an emergent property of sufficiently complicated computation/life. By this model, some things (definitely people who talk about qualia) are conscious, and others (probably rocks) aren’t. There’s a lot of debate on where to draw the line, but it can in principle be settled.

Second, we can model consciousness as divisible. There’s a lot of ways to do this – maybe all humanity has a shared soul and each individual is an iteration of it (so if someone dies, their part of the soul is gone, but the general form still exists). Maybe souls are distributed by similarity of information (so creating an exact replica of someone means they share most of their soul until they diverge). Maybe “soul” is just some kind of mystic goo that’s spread around all over the place, concentrates in people’s minds when they’re alive, and just kinda dissipates into the surrounding air or into other people (the Philip Pullman model). The common factor in any of these models is that when someone dies, their soul isn’t exactly lost (in a binary sense), it’s just folded back/dissipates into a more general state.

Now, let’s talk about suicide.

First, assume consciousness doesn’t exist, and people are purely self-replicating automata trying to tile the universe with copies of themselves (or at least something substantially similar to themselves, since automata that can change are more durable than ones that can’t).

In this scenario, suicide can make sense: If you don’t see a path towards achieving your goals (or creating sustainable copies of yourself), or come to the belief that you’re doing more harm than good to the cause of spreading humanity (by a sufficiently large margin to overwhelm your preference for yourself over humanity in general), it can be a reasonable choice to stop consuming resources and get out of the way. (This argument also works if you’re trying to optimize some other goal).

But in practice, we generally assume that we do have consciousness. And if you assume an indivisible soul, then suicide means removing an unrecoverable ability to experience qualia from the world. Unless this suicide is done in order to save lives (most suicides aren’t), this is completely unjustifiable. Removing the ability to experience things is always worse than having it, because existence in itself has value, and nonexistence doesn’t1.

If we assume consciousness is divisible, we don’t run into this problem – suicide doesn’t cause your consciousness to vanish forever, it just redistributes it in some complicated way. And an explanation for why suicide happens that assumes no consciousness can easily be extended to the case of divisible consciousness.

 

1. There’s a negative utilitarian counterargument about existence being a net negative pit of despair, at least for suicidal people. I don’t think that’s right – the correlation between misery/depression and suicide isn’t as strong as we’d expect based on that (and richer countries tend to have more suicide). Suicide being a resort of people thinking they’re a negative contributor to their own/society’s goals is more consistent with that.