"Everything can be made radically elementary." ~Steven Rudich

Category: Essays and Short Stories

CoZE 3: Empiricism

This is part 25 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

The boy on the right has gone places. The boy on the left has a map. Whom do you marry?

Sometimes, I think that most of the value of the CoZE experiment lies not in the expansion of comfort zones but in the experimental attitude it conveys. A good map-maker must constantly check the territory; the trick is to figure out how.

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Design 3: Intentionality

This is part 24 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

Intentions are momentary, but problems last forever.

A human being’s attention flits around like the Roman God Mercury, root of the word “mercurial” – subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind. The biggest problems in life require concentrated effort over years or decades, but you can only muster the willpower to even intend to solve a problem for minutes or hours. Worse, you can pretty much only maintain one intention at a time.

How do we make intentions count?

The philosophy of Design is: build intentions into external reality. Like your problems, external reality also lasts forever.

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TAPs 3: Reductionism

This is part 23 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

In school, we spend thousands of hours learning about the building blocks of the universe. We learn that reality reduces into little pieces: organisms into cells, books into pages, skyscrapers into atoms.

Your life belongs inside this infinitely divisible reality. Your psyche divides into subpersonalities, emotions into qualia, actions into goals and aversions, habits into TAPs. In fact, what we think of as objects are usually patterns of interaction between many tiny pieces.

Day 23: Reductionism

Trigger-action plans are the building blocks of habits – all habits can be built out of single steps.

I want to share a model for why it’s so important to break actions down with reductionism.

Zeno’s Paradox Retold

Here’s the old paradox of Zeno:

To win a race, you have to run the first half. Before you finish the first half, you must complete the first quarter. Before you finish the first quarter, there’s the first eighth, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, by halving the first segment, every race is divisible into infinitely parts, and to complete the race you must make infinitely many actions.

What can we learn from Zeno’s paradox?

Of the infinitely many steps in the race, the first step accomplishes almost all of them. It follows that the first step in a race is infinitely more difficult than every later one.

The Method of Exhaustion

From Zeno’s Paradox, we readily derive the following algorithm for deconstructing problems:

  1. Pick an action.
  2. Divide it into halves. Focus on the first half.
  3. Repeat to exhaustion.

For example, I can decompose the action of “write a blog post” in exponentially ascending order of difficulty:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Visualize success.
  3. Turn on computer.
  4. Open Chrome.
  5. Log in.
  6. Type a letter.
  7. Type a word.
  8. Type a sentence.
  9. Type a paragraph.
  10. Type a section.
  11. Type a post.
  12. Click “publish.”

After having completed the method of exhaustion, executing the action is much easier. Notice that even though I’m ostensibly only 1/3 of the way through writing this post, I’ve already accomplished 10.5/12 steps in the workflow.

I’m almost done!

Steps of Equal Difficulty

You may think the last section was flippant or self-delusion.


I’m completely serious.

Walk through the whole activity of blogging (if blogging’s not aversive to you, pick whatever else you’re procrastinating on and apply the method of exhaustion to that one instead), and note how much total mental resistance you push through at each step in the 12-step process. Also note how likely you are to give up at each step.

The normal method of planning is to break into equally sized blocks, where size means “time and effort in objective reality.” Take stock of all the plans you’ve made in your life. How many failed at the very beginning? How many failed near the middle? How many failed towards the very end?

Most things fail before they begin. Of the ones that do begin, most fail immediately.

You don’t live in objective reality. You live in the mad world of Zeno, where the first step is infinitely difficult. The Method of Exhaustion is designed to parse a hard problem into steps of roughly equal psychological difficulty and failure rate.

Exercise: Apply the Method of Exhaustion to your next big project. How many pieces did you break it into?

Daily Challenge

Share anecdotes or data on how long it takes [intentions, projects, plans, relationships, careers, startups] to fail. What do the curves look like?

Yoda Timers 3: Speed

This is part 22 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

At some point around the end of high school, being fast became unfashionable. When did this happen?

Why do we channel so much more energy into doing more difficult things, instead of doing simple things faster? How much faster could you do your job? Two times faster? Five times?

Instead of I want to be stronger, say I want to be faster.

If you pay attention to speed, you might just find a way to do a whole week’s worth of work in five minutes.

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Bug Hunt 3

This is part 21 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

I took a long break from Hammertime to check the fundamental question: am I actually better at achieving my values now?

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Murphy’s Quest Postmorterm



Kudos to lifelonglearner for amazing cover art that is also an example of Murphy’s Law.

The full text of Murphy’s Quest (with many corrections) is now available in PDF.

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Murphy’s Quest Ch 13: Existential Risk

FTH: -23335

The first battle is a rout.

Surrounded by a dedicated defensive squad, I pummel the enemy with gigantic balls of death. Negative FTH Heal deals an entirely new category of damage, completely bypassing Damage Reduction. I call it my Bubble of Doom.

After the battle, we track the trails of my orbs for thousands of feet. Crimson Inquisitor swords, chimes and robes scatter across the ground in long rows. Entire platoon vaporized in place, their equipment laid out in neat, legible squares.

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Murphy’s Quest Ch 12: Meta-Contrarianism

[Any resemblance to actual persons, intentional or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.]

“Where’s Mencius?”

“In the old fort.”

Nyra leads me through the bedraggled Undead camp. Skeletons and embalmed dead make way respectfully, but they shoot me glares that send shivers up my spine.

As the creaky drawbridge to the fort lowers ponderously, she briefs me on the Dead King.

“Mencius is a wise and competent king, but he has peculiar ideas about government.”

“Such as?”

“He insists that a king is a public servant, and must be – what does he call it – democratically selected by his people on a regular basis.”

“That’s common where I come from.”

She shoots me a queer look.

“That’s him,” Nyra whispers as we enter the courtyard.

The skeleton she points to stands half a head shorter than his attendants, wearing sleek metal armor under a black cape. His left eye is covered by an eye-patch.

“Mencius, I’ve brought the boy.”

“Nyra, welcome home. And you must be Murphy!”

Just to be on the safe side, I bow. “Your Majesty -”

Two firm skeletal hands lift me out of the bow.

“Save the formalities. Here we are all equals, living or dead. Call me Mencius.”

“Nyra told me all about you, sir.”

“Uhoh. You must forgive an old man his crazy ideas.”

The attendants laugh a little too genuinely. A shadow flits across the few remaining sinews of Mencius’s face.

“We have a saying in my homeland: government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Mencius beams widely.

Before he can reply a raven swoops in from the heavens and lands on his outstretched hand. It has only one bulbous eye.

The courtyard falls silent.

“What have you learned, darling?”

Mencius strokes the bird with his bony fingers, and it dissolves into smoke, leaving behind the much-too-large eyeball. He pulls back his eyepatch and pops it into the waiting socket. With a flick of his a finger, the eye spins it into place.

“I’m sorry, but there’s no time for banter. The enemy will be upon us by nightfall. Will you shed blood with us, Murphy?”

In the eyes of the king of the Undead, I see what I can only describe as a triumphant call to life.

“With all my heart, sir!”

Nyra leads me from tent to tent, outfitting me with custom-made equipment. Had we been less pressed for time, I might have befriended the blacksmith brothers LeBrawn and LeBrain despite their heavy accents. I might have acquired a fetch quest or ten from the alchemist Solomon and learned from him the secrets to absinthe and wormwood.

One trip, however, could not be rushed.

The jeweller Penelope’s tent stands out, twice the size of any other tent in the camp, decorated with gaudy silks and gems. Penelope turns out to be the old hag from my dream. That explains why her skin looked like it was melting off.

Penelope unlocks a trunk and picks out a handful of brilliant diamond rings for me.

“You can wear more than two rings at once?” I blurt out in surprise. I expected this universe to prevent such an exploitable mechanic.


Penelope waggles her right hand at me. Each finger fits three identical sapphire rings, for a total of fifteen.

I squeeze a ring onto my forefinger. The next one – refuses to go on my hand. It goes onto my other hand fine, but then the third ring won’t go on either.

“You’re in for a treat, darling.”

Penelope draws my eye to the pentagram on the floor. She whispers the procedure in my ear.

“- It only works with exactly identical rings.”

To say I rolled on the ground laughing would be an understatement.

Wear a Massive Diamond Ring on each hand.

Step into the Summoning Circle.

Chant the incantation and the Demon’s name.

All my equipment is removed by the spell.

A Minor Fell Imp appears in the center of the pentagram.

“Whaddaya -”

Chant the Cancel Summoning incantation.

The Minor Fell Imp disappears.

My equipment reappears.

The two Massive Diamond Rings appear together on my right forefinger.

Equip another Massive Diamond Ring on the left.


The Minor Fell Imp pops in and out of the tent.

“Whaddaya -”

“Stop -”

“Who the -”

“The fuck -”

I kinda feel sorry for the little guy.

Before the final preparations, Nyra pulls me aside.

“Are you sure you can do it?”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“Not too long ago, you seemed awfully shaken up about murder.”

I struggle for words to explain how a sixteen-year-old might understand warfare.

“I was shaken up about killing good men. In war, there are no good men. Only monsters.”

The bells toll the alarm. The army of Undead gathers in the courtyard, spilling out into the camp in a wide circle.

On the ramparts, the Dead King Mencius stands alone.

Cinematic time.

“Children! Brothers! Sisters! The Valley of the Dead is the eternal resting place of the Undead. The Inquisition dares to disturb our slumber with their blazing crosses and holy swords!

“With their cowardly techniques and overwhelming numbers, they beat us back temporarily. But our enemy is blind! Blind men cowering under the skirts of a blind Goddess.”

“Blind men!” The crowd roars back.

“Yesterday, the Seeing feared the Blind. Yesterday, the Dead feared the Living. But that is not the way of the world. From this day forward, the Blind will fear the Seeing. From this day forward, the Living will fear the Dead!”

The crowd bellows.

“The Living will fear the Dead! The Living will fear the Dead! The Living will fear the Dead!”

Mencius’s left eye flutters to life, shooting out of his socket in the form of a raven.

“I, the One-Eyed Raven, have flown across the kingdoms of Demons and Men looking for the key to this war. Today, I found that key!”

Nyra prods me, and I run up the steps to Mencius’ side.

“This boy will be the Ultimate Weapon in our war against the Blind Inquisition. Bring the prisoner!”

Skeletal guards drag out a man clothed in the red robes of the Inquisition.

“Our sister Skala, out of the kindness of her unbeating heart, nursed this cretin to health. For that mistake, he murdered Skala in cold blood.

“Today you face the judgment of the Ultimate Weapon!”

With a flourish, Mencius turns to stand next to the bound Inquisitor. He nods to me.

I hold up my Chime.


The army of the dead cries out in alarm as a giant purple orb blossoms from my weapon to envelop their king. In the blink of an eye, it clips through almost half the fort, extending ten stories into the sky. The orb travels into the distance.

Mencius appears out of the purple completely unscathed. Of the Inquisitor, only crimson robes remain.

The Dead King turns to face the crowd and lifts my hand to the sky.

“The Ultimate Weapon!”

“The Ultimate Weapon!” The sea of faces chants. “The Ultimate Weapon! The Ultimate Weapon!”

Murphy’s Quest Ch 11: Resolve

As far as the eye can see, the ground is lit up by white-gold runes, tongues of blue flame and roving God Rays. The mountains ahead look like someone applied a “Heaven” filter to a demonic hellscape.

“Consecrated Ground. I’ve never seen a patch this large.”

“I’m guessing it’s not Undead-friendly?”

“You could say that. Wait here.”

Nyra walks up to the boundary of the Consecrated Ground, whispering spells under her breath.

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Murphy’s Quest Ch 10: Gears-Like Models

“Show me my friends.”

“Ask nicely.”

I swallow what little remains of my pride. “Show me my friends please?”

Nyra draws out the enchanted mirror.

Tess and Vant sleep around what remains of a campfire. Perched precariously in a nearby tree, Plun keeps watch.

“You have loyal friends, Murphy. They visited establishments of – poor repute – to find help to rescue you.”

“Is that where they found you?”

“No, I made sure the three of them had no luck finding aid. I also sent them – fun dreams – about being rescued from terrible fates by yours truly. So you see they practically begged me to join when I passed them on the street and accidentally showed off a touch of street magic.”

“Fat help you were.”

The girl bristles. “There were complications. If anything, it’s your fault we got caught.”

My fault? I was stuck in a cell!”

“Your friend Pluneth insisted we take a detour into the main chapel to check out your – handiwork. Against my better judgment, I agreed. We were found out immediately – the Goddess statue is blessed by a high level detection spell even I can’t see.”

“Shit! That’s how they caught me that night!”

We share a silent moment of commiseration, two souls defeated by the same block of marble.

“The monk and the snake – you sent them, too?”

“The monk, yes … I Charmed him to scout the grounds out and find you. We were already surrounded by those pesky priests when the idiot finally found you. I thought I might as well try getting you out of there while the attention was on us. As for the snake, I have no idea…”

“My friends, will they be OK?”

“They’re alive, aren’t they? Want me to send them a message?”

“You can do that? Sure!”

“Write them a note on this. Keep it short.”

I jot a few words down.

“Not much of a poet, are you?”

I shrug.

“Well, here goes.”

She whispers something, and the parchment disappears. In the mirror, the letters appear in crimson on the sleeping Tess’s forehead.

Dear Plun,
It’s Murph. Thanks for trying to rescue me.
Don’t look for me. I’ll be fine.
Take care,

“What? You told me to send them a message, right?”

I can’t help admiring her style.

“Still hung up over those pesky priests?”

“They didn’t deserve to die.”

“If it’s any comfort, I woulda killed them anyway.”

“It really isn’t.”

“Worse things have happened to better people.” Nyra pulls back the bandages around her chest to reveal several missing ribs under dry, peeling skin. “See?”

I try not to gag. “Stop!”

“It still itches, you know.” She inserts a finger into the cavity where her heart should have been and starts scratching. “Ahh, that feels better.”

“Cover that up! I feel much better now!”

“If you can read minds, send dreams, and mind control people, what do you need me for?”

“Hah! Those parlor tricks only work on low INT enemies and are easily blocked by all sorts of spells and trinkets. Check out my stats.”

She reveals them briefly.


“Even with my INT I can barely read your mind. As for the mind control spell, it’s called Charm. Wanna hear its secret?”

I nod eagerly.

Nyra leans in with a conspiratorial whisper.

“Charm was invented by the first Dead King, Charmer. Charmer figured out that among the living, a rare few have no soul. They look like the living, they move like the living, they talk like the living, but they feel nothing.”


“Charmer called them philosophical zombies, or p-zombies. The living dead, as opposed to the Undead. The Charm spell allows a Mage specializing in Dark Magic to take over the mind of a p-zombie. I scoured your town and only found one – that silent LVL 1 monk.”

“So your skills are smoke and mirrors and you need me to do the real work.”

She ignores my jab, “the Valley of the Dead is under attack -”

“Let me stop you right there. You’ll never convince me to fight a war for the Undead.”

To make a long story short, the mind-reading mummy girl convinced me to fight a war for the Undead.

To be honest, Dark Warlock Emperor Murphy was chomping at the bit to accept her quest.

Did I mention she can enter dreams in a … rather pleasing … form?

The flesh is weak.

The next three days on the road are almost as monotonous as prison.

Punctuated only by my regular bathroom breaks, Nyra explains the state of affairs.

The current Dead King Mencius is on the losing side of a long defensive war against the Inquisition – a militant faction of the Church. Their Holy magic completely neutralizes Undead powers. They only survived this long by guerrilla warfare and constant retreat.

Nyra travelled to Beltine undercover to investigate an old rumor that FTH can drop negative and reverse Holy spell effects, damaging the living and healing the Undead. Her plan was to find and enlist some low-level clerics, until she learned of my “incident.”

From her bags, she shows me a number of powerful FTH spellbooks, all of them useless for me. Most are buffs that would turn to debuffs given my stats. The rest are aura or AoE heals that affect the caster and would insta-kill me.

I’ll be relying on the basic Heal spell to save the Valley of the Dead. FTH is a percentage modifier on its size and power, so 10 FTH corresponds to a 10% larger orb that heals 10% more damage, while anything below -100FTH starts dealing damage instead of healing. The orb’s speed scales off INT in the same way, and it lasts a fixed 1 minute in duration which can only be increased with consumables.

Nyra decks me out in level-appropriate Mage gear to increase my INT.

My stats are now:

NAME: Murphy

RACE: Human

CLASS: Cleric

LVL: 31

HP: 595/595

STR: 35

INT: 217

FTH: -13643

AGI: 35

EQUIPPED: Salamander Cloak of Knowledge, Salamander Vambraces of Knowledge…

“Mencius will explain the rest.”

“We’re about a day away.”

“The only road to the Valley goes through a narrow pass in the Ghoul’s Teeth. The Inquisition set up patrols all along it, but in that crampt space they should be sitting ducks for your Heal.”

As the word “should” leaves her lips, my stomach drops.

The carriage jolts to a stop.

“What the – ”