NꙮW WITH MꙮRE MULTIꙮCULAR ꙮ

The Logician And The God-Emperor

Once upon a time a logician accomplished a great deed, and the God-Emperor offered him a choice of rewards. “You may,” said the God-Emperor “have the hand of my eldest daughter, who is the heir to the throne, yet plain to look upon. Or you may take my youngest daughter, who is beautiful beyond words, but without inheritance.”

The next day, the God-Emperor caught the logician in bed with both his daughters. Enraged, he hurled threats and abuse at the scholar, who responded with a grin: “Guess someone never learned the difference between ‘or’ and ‘xor’.”

The God-Emperor ordered the logician brought to the throne room in chains, and told him “You have offended me and betrayed my generosity, so you will be subjected to trial by ordeal. I have placed in front of you seven chests. Six of the chests contain skulls. One of the chests contains the key to your chains. I have asked the most devious minds in my kingdom to prepare a logic puzzle giving hints as to which chest is which. You may open a single chest. If you do not find the chest with the key on your first try, you will be slathered in barbecue sauce and thrown to the wolves.”

The logician approached the chests, and upon each was written a clue in complicated logical notation. He examined all seven, and then stood a while, deep in thought. Finally, he opened the third chest. Inside was a golden key.

“Very impressive!” said the God-Emperor. Then he yelled “Guards! Slather this man in barbecue sauce and throw him to the wolves!”

“But…but!” babbled the terrified logician “…but you said…!”

The God-Emperor grinned. “Guess someone never learned the difference between ‘if’ and ‘iff’.”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

83 Responses to The Logician And The God-Emperor

  1. Anonymous says:

    Haven’t these kind of logic puzzles been dubunked? The Emperor could have written whatever he wanted on the chests, and just placed the key in a random chest.

    • PeppermintShine says:

      If you’re referring to the comparable story from Less Wrong, The Parable of the Dagger, then part of the story’s appeal is that the King does not lie. He merely says, “One box contains a key to unlock your chains; and if you find the key you are free. But the other box contains a dagger for your heart, if you fail.” This is true. The Jester is the one who takes it upon himself to ascribe meaning to the inscriptions.

      In this story, the Emperor actually does put forth the inscriptions as a logic puzzle, and the Logician correctly solves it. The trap is elsewhere.

      • Jack says:

        I guess I assumed the emperor probably “cheated” by using inscriptions which you could solve “logically” and get the wrong answer, but the logician predicted that and chose the correct box anyway.

        In fact, given the emperor’s somewhat-justifiable desire to grandstand, maybe ALL the boxes had keys, just so he could snatch hope away at the last minute just when the logician thought he was so clever.

  2. Geist says:

    This story is obviously fake. Everyone knows that the god-emperor is infertile because of his fusion to sandworms.

  3. PeppermintShine says:

    I take the lesson to be: leadership is hard, and people who get themselves into such positions are usually more generally intelligent, well-informed, and clever than people with narrow technical competence are inclined to admit.

  4. Eric Rall says:

    Reminds me of the observation that the outcome table for Pascal’s Wager is missing a column for “God exists, but he hates smartasses”.

  5. suntzuanime says:

    The moral of the story is “This man was a smartass, then he was fed to wolves. Don’t be like him.” It’s a good moral.

    • Vanzetti says:

      Actually, the moral of the story is “It is for the father to decide who his daughters should sleep with, and any transgressor should be put to death”.

    • Giacomo says:

      One should live in a glass house nand throw stones!

      (But isn’t imperative logic, if that’s how someone is treating imperative speech, problematic?)

      P1. Jane and Anne are princesses.
      C1. Therefore, Jane and Anne are princesses or I’m a banana.

      P1. You may marry Jane xor Anne.
      C1. Therefore, you may marry Jane xor Anne, or help yourself to the crown jewels.)

  6. Vanzetti says:

    This parable is stupid.

    It doesn’t make sense that the logician will know the difference between or/xor, but not between if/iff.

    It doesn’t make sense that the God-Emperor, if we establish that he knows the difference between if/iff, won’t know the difference between or/xor.

    It doesn’t make sense to slather the logician in a barbecue sauce for wolves.

    • g says:

      It doesn’t make sense to respond to a joke with such pedantry. Are you making a meta-joke?

      • g says:

        (Also, the pedantry is wrong. The logician does know the difference in both cases, but paid pedantic attention to it in the first case where he thought he saw an opportunity and ignored it in the second where he didn’t. The God-Emperor either knew both differences, ignored them in ordinary speech as everyone does, and then took them overliterally to punish the logician for doing likewise, or consulted other experts between the logician’s offence and his punishment. And the barbecue sauce might just be for humiliation.)

    • ShardPhoenix says:

      The point (well, one of them) is that people don’t make these distinctions in ordinary speech.

      • Creutzer says:

        Oh, but they do! “a v b” is pronounced “a or b or both” in ordinary speech. (No, this does not show that the English word “or” denotes xor, because “a or b or c” is interpreted as “one of a, b and c”, which is not equivalent to a xor b xor c.)

        • Jeff Kaufman says:

          What about “I wouldn’t do that unless someone paid me a lot of money or I needed to impress a girl.”? The speaker isn’t trying to rule out the “both” case.

          Human language is kind of ambiguous with “or”, as it is with everything.

  7. alternate punchline says:

    Alternate punchline …

    Given that the disjunctive equivalent of an if-then conditional p-> q is ~p v q. Thus making the statement:

    “If you do not find the chest with the key on your first try, you will be slathered in barbecue sauce and thrown to the wolves.”

    Into (by double negation of the antecedent):

    “You find the chest with the key on your first try, or you will be slathered in barbecue sauce and thrown to the wolves.”

    Thus giving the alternate punchline:

    The God-Emperor grinned. “Guess someone never learned the difference between ‘or’ and ‘xor’.”

  8. DSimon says:

    See, this is why all forward-thinking logicians and God-Emperors speak only in Lojban.

  9. linkhyrule5 says:

    As amusing as this is, there is a phonetic difference between “or” and “ecks-or” and none between “if” and “if”.

    Unless you say “iffffff”, anyway…

    (Though I suppose he should’ve asked for clarification.)

    (Also, yes, annoying the God-Emperor tends to be a bad idea.)

    • Creutzer says:

      There is no phonetic difference between if and if, obviously, but there is between if and iff. One is pronounced “if”, the other is pronounced “if and only if”. I mean this literally; iff does not just mean “if and only if”, but it is an abbreviated notation for that same phrase.

      • Daniel Houck says:

        Just because it’s an abbreviation of the phrase doesn’t mean it’s pronounced the same way. For example, AWOL isn’t pronounced like “absent without leave”, but instead (approximately) like “eh wall”.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          <just-being-a-pedant-in-reply-to-comments-and-not-objecting-to-the-original-joke>Yes, but “iff” really is usually read as “if and only if”. Or less commonly as “I-F-F”. Saying “iffff” is not common. And obviously just saying “if” would defeat the purpose.</just-being-pedantic-in-reply-to-comments-and-not-objecting-to-the-original-joke>

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’m dismayed by how many replies tried to deduce some moral from this story.

  11. Shmi Nux says:

    Note that the logician never got a permission to bed either girl before marriage.

  12. Creutzer says:

    “You may do A or B” is not about xor. It has an implicature that you may not do both; but that is not equivalent to “You may do A xor B”. All that “You may do A xor B” tells you is that you may do A or B and you needn’t do both.

    • Daniel Houck says:

      Another detail is that “You may do A or B” generally means that doing neither is also acceptable. In this case, the God-Emperor might have been offended, but in general that’s how it’s used.

      • Creutzer says:

        Indeed, that’s another implicature of it. Though that one doesn’t really play a role in the scenario here, does it? We’re obviously not talking about a celibate logician.

  13. Multiheaded says:

    How very feminist, Scott. I mean, that part with the daughters, not the skulls.

    • Crimson Wool says:

      Feminists are well-known to be big fans of polygamy.

      Actually, now that I think about it, this story has some problems with the logistics of the logician’s relationship with the two daughters. He claims that the God-Emperor gave him permission, on the basis of the or/xor difference. But, the God-Emperor gave him permission to marry his daughters, not to have sex with them. While marriage implies sex, agreeing to let someone marry your daughters doesn’t mean agreeing to let someone sleep with your daughters before marriage!

      So, we must conclude that the logician married the two daughters before having sex with them (in order to avoid possibly pissing off the father). But how can this be? Surely the God-Emperor would be informed of this beforehand. Sorry, Scott, but I just don’t find this story believable.

    • Jed says:

      Not just Emperor, God-Emperor. A god means mythic, and mythic incest is OK.

      Mythic feminism, i.e. witchcraft, is not OK under any circumstances.

      • Brian says:

        Generally speaking, the parts of witchcraft — or at least what calls itself witchcraft in the modern era — that are the most mythic are also the least feminist, or at least the most gender-essentialist.

        Reconstructionist pagans sometimes do a better job of blending the two, but they tend to get irate if you call them witches.

    • Jack says:

      Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. (But without the sarcasm.)

      In response to other commentators, the problem isn’t “yay, threesomes”, it’s the fact that the daughters are presented solely as a prize to be withheld (by the king) or won (by the logician).

      Couldn’t you find a way to tell the story just as well, where logician is equally transgressive (because that’s the funny bit), but where it’s clear that the daughters enthusiastic about the arrangement?

      • Benquo says:

        You’re somebody. How about YOU give it a try?

        • Jack says:

          You’re somebody

          My favourite complement of the day.

          Does that mean, you’d genuinely like to see that, or that you think it’s unfair of me to criticise without helping?

          If it’s the second, my serious answer is (a) I would actually like to try that and see how it turns out, but I probably don’t have time and (b) I don’t think there’s much to be gained by rewriting this story, but I thought Scott might agree, and if so, bear it mind next time he writes a parable (or if not, explain why I’ve missed the point).

      • Crimson Wool says:

        Couldn’t you find a way to tell the story just as well, where logician is equally transgressive (because that’s the funny bit), but where it’s clear that the daughters enthusiastic about the arrangement?

        Couldn’t you assume that sex is consensual unless you have good reason to believe otherwise?

        • Daniel Houck says:

          In this case, the father saying “you may marry (one of) my daughters” in this way implies he did not ask his daughters if they would be willing to marry the Logician. This is the main problem, with or without sex at any point.

        • Crimson Wool says:

          In this case, the father saying “you may marry (one of) my daughters” in this way implies he did not ask his daughters if they would be willing to marry the Logician. This is the main problem, with or without sex at any point.

          Why do you assume it implies that? Maybe he did. If I was arranging a marriage for my daughters, I’d make sure they were alright with it first.

        • Amanda L. says:

          Yeah, sure. The part with the daughters just squicks me out a bit b/c their only role is to titillate with the threesome fantasy. They’re just there as props for the logician and emperor to be clever around.

          I can’t say that this is the most airtight argument ever, but fwiw for many women reading stories where the girls are just there because “omg threesomes so hot what man wouldn’t want to sex as many girls at once” are gonna be a little squicked. It just *seems* kind of dehumanizing. Again: subjective impression.

          Loved the rest of the story.

        • Amanda L. says:

          Upon further reflection, it would seem like the girls had agency if they were given names, separate capital-lettered titles, or any sort of story / personality trait besides “beautiful” and “plain.” They just don’t seem like people to me, they seem like generic-girl-props.

        • The part with the daughters just squicks me out a bit

          How’d I miss this when I was posting my first comment lower down? Within internet progressive jargon is a flashing neon light screaming in bright red letters, this is a purity response!

          Then again, is it large enough in the democratic head-counting sense for it to show up in a mass survey like Haidt’s? I actually don’t know. If there are any psychologists in the audience with access to a pool of -studies students to study…

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          [the daughters’] only role is to titillate with the threesome fantasy. They’re just there as props for the logician and emperor to be clever around.

          Yep. Instead of padding the story with excuses for the daughters being in it, try keeping the same length with some other promised reward — instant dullness, I predict.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Here is a list of a hundred stories in which kings offer their daughter’s hands in marriage in exchange for a great deed. Criticizing a king doing this in a fairy tale is like criticizing a haiku for being too short.

        But actually it’s a lot worse than that. Like, I would have thought that the fact that this whole thing takes place in a theocratic monarchy, or that people are executed without trial, or that the punishment for consensual sex is being thrown into a pit full of wolves…that some of these things might have clued people in to the possibility that this story was not intended to present a perfect world which I am claiming our modern society should try to emulate in every respect. Even if you’re the sort of person who draws your morality from short stories on blogs.

        Actually, no, it’s even worse that that. Why no objections to the point that the guards are portrayed as faceless objects only good for carrying out the sadistic orders of the God-Emperor? Is it because you secretly think working-class people don’t matter or have personalities and are only tools to satisfy the whims of the wealthy? After all, you’re the one who’s acting as if it’s necessary to point out “problematic” parts of this story, and you totally neglected to bring that up. I think that says a lot about you.

        Or is it because this is a short story on a blog and these “characters” are half a sentence made up to advance a dumb gag and your Near Mode knows this just as well as I do? And you would have been perfectly willing to act like it was the thing you clearly know it is, if we didn’t for some reason live in a society where you get social points for inventing ways to accuse other people of being mean to women, even if their entire life they’ve been perfectly nice to women and they just want to write a couple paragraphs of fiction set in a medieval empire without having it become part of a made-up Culture War.

        • suntzuanime says:

          You can’t just submit to the Heckler’s Veto like this. There are too many trolls out there who would love to destroy everything good and beautiful.

        • Roman Davis says:

          Please don’t do that, Scott. I really like your fiction. So do a lot of us. Please don’t let the internet hate machine win.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          It will be a sad thing if you stop posting fiction in this blog. You write fun short stories.

        • Amanda L. says:

          Hey, I’m not sure if you read my comments before posting this, but I just want to say: while I do stand behind them, I didn’t mean them as a personal attack. I know that you’re lovely person and you don’t think of women as beings with less agency.

          It’s just that as a girl who loves stories, the fact that traditionally (as in the king-gives-daughter trope) stories tend to involve guys as the agents and girls as the ones with less agency does really start to get to you, to the point that seeing it in a story causes an automatic cringe reflex. That wouldn’t be the case if girls were 50% of the characters with agency in all stories, but since that’s far from the case… well, I’m gonna have that reflex.

          It doesn’t mean I think personally badly of you. I love your blog. I love almost all of your writings. But if I’m not allowed to make a comment that could be viewed as a feminist-critique without it being viewed as a personal attack on an author, then that’s going to make it very difficult for me to honestly express my reactions to stories, you know?

        • Amanda L. says:

          “if we didn’t for some reason live in a society where you get social points for inventing ways to accuse other people of being mean to women”

          I don’t think this is very fair. Do you really think girls complain about the ways women are portrayed in some works of fiction because they want to get social points?

          As a girl who loves books and gets very frustrated at the way other women are portrayed in many of them, that’s really, really not the case. Like, really. The same way I don’t think you’re trying to score manosphere points by critiquing how certain feminist writings portray socially awkward men as creepy. Please do apply Principle of Charity here, Scott.

        • Amanda L. says:

          Also, just to add: I really appreciate that in the majority of your stories you actually *are* careful to make half the characters female (or you accidentally do it?) That’s actually really really awesome and makes reading your stories really refreshing. And I understand that when the one time you write a story modeled after a trope/traditional story a couple of people leap on you for being anti-feminist it feels really unfair.

          okay i’ll go away now and stop being that weird person that replies a billion times to one comment

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          Since Amanda is failing to make her case, here is shot (Although admittedly I don’t really believe it and I think this story was awesome and you shouldn’t be discouraged from sharing more of your writing by Amanda’s reaction):

          The king offering his daughter’s hand in marriage is worse than the other moral issues because it is the only one relevant to our society. Theocratic dictators aren’t something that modern Western society has to deal with, but every day that there are women being treated with less respect ,or being talked down to, or being given less independence. Even well intentioned acts such as the men in an engineering research lab coddling a new female member, contribute to the perceived helplessness of women. As a result regular portrayals of women being given less independence in fiction harm women by reinforcing this perception whereas the portrayals of other morally objectionable things do not harm anyone.

          Well that was the strongest case I could make, I don’t think I’m very good at the whole steel manning thing though.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Why do the first two comments write as if Scott stated that he is going to stop? Am I missing some passage in that comment? Or do they have a better model of him than I do? (there was that post about his reactions to criticism)

        • Andrew G. says:

          Scott has edited the comment at least twice since first posting it, and at least two versions did say that he was going to stop posting stories.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Thanks.

          Were some of the edits to delete and republish it? There are so many hours from the comment to the responses, but so few between the responses.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Yeah this has mostly actually been surprisingly civil.

        • @scott

          yes… let the hate flow through you

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Oy6DwHAi70

          @amanda

          “I don’t think this is very fair. Do you really think girls complain about the ways women are portrayed in some works of fiction because they want to get social points?”

          I don’t think it has to be conscious, and maybe the “social points” thing is a bit over the top, but one might respond to your justification by noting that you probably had to be socialized to have a negative response to that one particular issue. As Scott points out, there are many transgressions against modern social norms in this story and in fiction in general, but most of the reaction is against any perceived insult against women.

          I’m not a woman, so I can’t introspect for you, but I think that negative reaction is a product of socialization. And to the extent that it’s a) a product of social norms and b) harmful, Scott’s counter-reaction against the social norms that produced your reaction is reasonable.

          On the question of whether it is harmful, it raises the social/emotional cost of publishing stories, or wastes authors’ time scrubbing their stores clean from crimethink, which results in less stories and more frustration of people like Scott.

          In fact, (generalizing beyond this instance now) this social norm where SJWs are able to bully productive people for insufficient goodthink is just a useless tax on production. Anything that disturbs the fragile mind of the producers is probably far worse overall than could possibly be made up by nebulous social gains. If you had to choose between eg James Watt being bullied for crypto-misogyny or not, which do you *actually* prefer on reflection?

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Oooh. If the story were about offering a Black person to sweep the logician’s floor, or a Native American to do some other chore,* would a reader’s objection be classed as part of a made-up Culture War?

          * roll his cigarettes, maybe

        • Creutzer says:

          No, complaining about a black person sweeping the floor would not be classified as such, but the reason is obvious: you have to actually do something to make it offensive, namely to specify the person as black. You could just refrain from that and everything is good. No extra effort required.

          This is different from the case with women, because usually the complaint is about a lack of specificity; and hence its negative ramifications for storytellers who have to wonder “did I not forget to add stuff about the girls” even when obviously and consciously using a traditional, predetermined story template. A template, I might add, where the girls’ personalities really do not matter, and where putting focus on it would detract from the point. Also, these girls princesses do have more personality than the average princess whose hand is offered for marriage: we know at least that they’re open to premarital threesomes.

        • There’s a good case to be made that, contra Haidt, some progressives’ purity reactions are even worse than conservatives’. This isn’t the equivalent of talk show hosts having disgust reactions to reports of wild orgies; it’s not even oldschool Puritans campaigning against dancing. Maybe I’m just bad at history, but I can’t think of a group that existed before the ’60s to draw an analogy to. (Maybe those Saudi extremists who keep smashing archeological sites? Then again, progressives don’t outright destroy things; it’s more like the index librorum prohibitorum. Heretic studies professors have to be able to attack the heresies of the past, so you can’t erase them outright; but if you’re not in heretic studies, no, it’s impure and it will contaminate you.)

          And that’s what it is: a purity reaction. Certain things are impure and must not be mentioned no matter what.

        • The king offering his daughter’s hand in marriage is worse than the other moral issues because it is the only one relevant to our society.

          No.

          Why no objections to the point that the guards are portrayed as faceless objects only good for carrying out the sadistic orders of the God-Emperor? Is it because you secretly think working-class people don’t matter or have personalities and are only tools to satisfy the whims of the wealthy?

        • Crimson Wool says:

          You forgot the unwritten assumption that the logician would be interested in a marriage to a woman! Nice heteronormativity, you third derivative of the position function of an object. And of course the logician and the God-Emperor are both men. Apparently, you think only men are capable of logic or higher management. And what about the negative portrayal of wolves here, as ravenous beasts that eat people on demand? Don’t you care that wolves are going extinct thanks in large part to this negative (and largely false) stereotype?

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ Creutzer December 8, 2013 at 2:26 am

          ‘Girls’ is already specific, ‘daughters’ more so. Can you find something equally attention-catching, in the same number of words?

          I thought not.

        • Jack says:

          I’m really sorry. I genuinely meant this as a constructive suggestion for a story by someone I very much enjoy reading, not as a game of one-up-man-ship, not as a criticism of YOU.

          I know how dispiriting it is when you post something and the response is a parade of people you don’t really know saying “you’re a horrible person because X”, and not saying anything positive. Because it happens to me EVERY TIME, and I always feel awful and want to drop off the internet.

          And I’m desperately trying to strike the right balance between “constantly hauling everyone over the coals for everything and inhibiting anyone from saying anything ever” and “never saying anything positive or negative all in case everyone disagrees with me”.

          To me, it feels like I’m just a guy and you are an Internet Personality and I tentatively offer suggestions at the Feet of the Blogger… 🙂 But to you (I imagine) it feels like a parade of comments from Everyone Else who Knows How to Write Right and is telling you off. I’m sorry! I want to avoid that, but I suck at it 🙁

          I don’t think it’s obvious what use of language in throw-away jokes is ok, and what isn’t. My comment is something I’m working out in my head as I go along, not something I already know and think you should know too. I suspect a large proportion of feminists would not agree, either disliking any mention of threesomes at all, or thinking that my suggestion was pointless.

          I constantly put my foot in my mouth. And I’m not _sure_ how to deal with that. But I _think_ the right answer is to go on making throwaway jokes, and accepting that some of them may offend people, and apologising in a “I wish I’d known that but I hadn’t thought of it yet” way rather than a “any decent person would have known that and I hate myself” way. But I really suck at doing that. But I hope people-other-than-me do it better.

          I don’t think you PUT IN the sexism. I agree it was there in the original fairy stories! But I think we should make an effort to take it OUT for new stories, even though everyone already knows the original ones, for reasons partially listed below…

          May I try to make the case for my point in a rationalist way? I’m not sure I’m right — if you disagree, please argue against, being proved wrong would be disquieting but extremely useful.

          I feel silly doing this, because I’m trying to work it out as I go along, and I know (a) I’m likely to ramble and be incoherent and even end up proving I don’t know what I’m talking about and (b) I feel like I’m trying to explain from first principles some things some people think should be an automatic part of human dignity, which is rather offensive of me to suggest they’re not obvious 🙁

          1. What I specifically propose.

          1a. Scott should not feel bad.
          1b. People (including me and Scott) should try to get into the habit of avoiding inadvertently making even brief references which reinforce extremely negative stereotypes, specifically that it is common/acceptable that people who have female bodies are more likely to be valued for the bodies being beautiful to men, than for anything else about them.

          2. What I believe is the current state of the world.

          Most people have read studies showing that even if people don’t insist negative stereotypes are ALWAYS true, they’re still biased by them. This is true for everyone. Even if you’re a hardened feminist, you know that if you see a man and a woman in a room, one member of the board and one secretary, it’s _more likely_ that the man is the member of the board. Currently, that’s likely to be true. The PROBLEM is that your brain tends to GO ON believing it, even if you learn your initial guess was wrong. Your brain doesn’t instantly update with the appropriate priors, once your brain has deduced from “most women are not X” that “most have little experience with X”, you go on thinking that a woman who IS a member of the board is STILL likely to have less experience, even when that’s false.

          It’s not that some people are bad people for having these ideas. These ideas can be dangerously misleading, and essentially EVERYONE from ALL political backgrounds has them to start with. And accepting that all people are equal in principle is a big step on the road, but needs to be followed with rooting out all the false data which society has filled our brain with before we knew how to filter it out.

          3. Arguments (in a random mix)

          3a. I think even casual mentions of negative stereotypes (even if true) can reinforce them.
          3b. I think those have a measurably bad effect on the correctness of people’s beliefs and actions.
          3c. I think avoiding reinforcing negative stereotypes in casual conversation isn’t THE MOST IMPORTANT THING, but I think it’s a good thing to try to do.
          3d. We can’t point out ALL things that people could do better. I pointed this out to you, because I thought you’d already thought about this a lot, and were likely to think it was important. I’m sorry if it also seemed critical of you as a person, I really regret that 🙁
          3e. I think avoiding ALL negative stereotypes is completely impossible, but I think we can strive to do better. I was intellectually interested in the non-rhetorical question, COULD one rewrite this story so it was equally funny, equally terse, but had more positive stereotypes? I think it’s tricky but hopefully possible.
          3f. I think *small* mentions are harder to avoid because watching every small thing is really difficult. But I think they still matter. I think a half-line throwaway joke that genuinely endorsed the idea that “black people are automatically X” would be rightly seen as unacceptable, and I propose (which is still very controversial) moving some of the stereotypes of women to the same category of “this really matters”.
          3g. Yes, people find “woman used as sexual reward” more offensive than “man used as sexual reward” even though they’re both equally acceptable morally (ie. ok assuming everyone enthusiastically consents, abhorrent otherwise). That’s not just fashion, it’s because “woman used as sexual reward” is a stereotype which is prevalent and harmful in the real world. In order to communicate effectively, it’s often necessary to know what other people are getting wrong and avoid it, even if in a vacuum it would be harmless. That sucks, but it’s unavoidable.
          3h. Specifically, “autocrats can be capricious” is indeed a negative stereotype, but (a) it IS necessary to the story and (b) autocrats, by definition, are less marginalised and less need my defense.
          3i. Good point. Yes, it’s a negative stereotype that the ruler rules and the logician logics, and the guard doesn’t really do either. And yes, I should have noticed that, and no, I didn’t because the stereotypes are in my brain 🙁 Yes, it would also be better if we could also avoid that stereotype, although I think it’s harder to do and keep the story intact.
          3j. I touched on this above, but only realised it as I was typing. It’s not that we should ALREADY have purged our brains of stereotypes, and thus AUTOMATICALLY avoid writing about them. That would be a lot better, but we are a long way from achieving it. We may have to settle for spending the effort to notice them, and deliberately excising them, and make the world a little bit better, even though far from perfect.

          I’m sorry, that was extremely long and rambling. These are thoughts I tried to get straight, and explaining them to someone is one way to do that, but it means I splurged them all over your journal, and maybe you didn’t want that. But I assumed you would rather I tried to think about it, rather than not, even if the results were very mixed…

          Does that explanation make my comment make any more sense? Is there anything I can do make comments seem less combative? Or should I just leave commenting on people’s journals to people who actually know them, not just enjoyed their essays?

        • Jack says:

          “complaining about a black person sweeping the floor would not be classified as such, but the reason is obvious: you have to actually do something to make it offensive, namely to specify the person as black. You could just refrain from that and everything is good”

          Excellent analogy!

          Yes, if the story had said “two adult children fitting the logician’s sexual orientation” that would have been fine. Clunky, still a little problematic, but wouldn’t have stood out to me as a problem.

          You hit the nail on the head. The problem is that they were specified to be daughters. WHY daughters not sons? Because everyone expected them to be daughters so much they didn’t even think of it as question.

          PS1. And yes, that’s something EVERYONE does, Scott is much less wrong about it than most people, just higher profile.

          PS2. I notice several people complaining how much disagreement there was. I notice there were approximately two comments saying “hey, good story, but this one thing bothered me” until a giant argument started. I think that’s a perfectly acceptable ratio of commenters pointing out a minor mistake, it shouldn’t feel like a pile-on even if it does 🙁

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Okay, here’s for the same story with actually fewer words.

          “[…] you may choose my most attractive slave, or my prize sheep.”

          Better image, too.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Why don’t you mean the part with the skulls?

  14. Paul Torek says:

    I guess after running into all those “liars” who are fantastically bad at deception, the Logician’s luck finally ran out.

  15. Steve says:

    Well, since there seems to be not one comment straightforwardly praising this, I’ll speak for the silent masses: this put a smile on my face

    Please continue being awesome, Scott

  16. Ben says:

    I liked this joke, but I’m disconcerted that so few of the commenters are familiar with what jokes are. I mean, I know some of you are probably drily over-analysing for comic effect, but I’m worried it’s not all of you.

    Until 2 minutes ago, I would have assumed it was totally redundant to recommend Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal on this blog, but if any of my fellow readers want to learn more about these things the Earth-men call “jokes” then go to http://www.smbc-comics.com/

    Also, Scott, you haven’t explicitly explained that the logician obtained informed consent from the two daughters. Is he raping them? That’s not OK! Could you put in a paragraph where they negotiate boundaries and agree a safeword? Also, even if they enthusiastically consent, the story kind of suggests that the women, in this imaginary historical fable-land ruled by a god-emperor who gives away his daughters as prizes, don’t have much agency. Now I don’t feel bad that I liked this joke, because Tumblr told me it’s OK to like problematic things, but I think if you’d portrayed a more gender egalitarian society in the joke, it would have been better. How am I supposed to tell my imaginary daughter this joke? What kind of role model is it setting for her?

    • Seamus says:

      Isn’t the more problematic aspect of this society that it is governed by someone who calls himself a God-emperor and has the power to horribly execute people he doesn’t like at will? If we were concerned about reforming it, fixing its sexism would be problem #2.

      I propose that when you tell the joke to your daughter, you substitute the country for a store, the god-emperor for its owner who’s holding a sale, the reward for two pairs of jeans (one blue and one black), the transgression for wearing them both at the same time, and the punishment for a disapproving frown.

      • Ben says:

        I was joking about being upset about the contents of the joke. I thought the first paragraph would tip people off.

        • Seamus says:

          Yeah, sorry. I think I realized that when I first read through the comments, but when I came back to respond I just sort of glanced through and landed on yours instead of the earlier one.

          Anyway, I wasn’t entirely being sarcastic with the second paragraph. I probably wouldn’t tell the joke as-is to my daughter.

  17. Joe from London says:

    Just my $.02 – this story was awesome and trolls gonna troll.

  18. AR+ says:

    I’ll join those in saying that my main response to the story was, “haha, that’s funny.”

    However, I’ve also written an alternate version that, while perhaps failing to achieve either the theme or humor of the original, is more in line with social-justice sensibility:

    Once upon a time a logician accomplished a great deed, and the God-Empress had him slathered in barbeque sauce and fed to the wolves for failing to check his able-minded, straight, cis-male, and presumably white privilege.

    THE END

  19. Douglas Knight says:

    For superficial reasons this reminds me of Many Moons by renowned chauvinist James Thurber. I recommend it.