Tag Archives: mythology

Weaponized Prophecy: How to easily win the Trojan War for either side

Despite their reputation, prophecies in Greek mythology are actually fairly nice. You’re allowed to mess with them and control how they come true, and the universe doesn’t destroy you for it unless you try to stop them. The prophecy is just giving true information about the future, which is basically the best way it can work in terms of twisting it to your advantage. And if they had just used it, either side in the Trojan War could have guaranteed victory easily.

They had way too many prophecies floating around. Any time anyone wants to do anything, you can be fairly sure that they’ll be stepping on the toes of destiny somehow. And they really should have taken advantage of it. Imagine Professor Quirrel or any other actually smart character being in the Trojan War and being told about the prophecies. They would have been unbeatable just by sheer force of fate. (Evil Overlord Rule 111: I will offer oracles the choice of working exclusively for me or being executed.)

To start with, the Trojans had a ridiculously obvious way to never lose. They had a prophecy that the city would be safe as long as a particular artifact was inside it. You’d think armed guards would be a no-brainer, as would keeping the location secret. The concept of a “decoy” could also come in handy. (Evil Overlord Rule 27: I will never build only one of anything important.) Who told Odysseus where to find it? The Greek king’s ex-wife. Yep, the Trojans let her (of all people) know that. (Evil Overlord Rule 133: If I find my beautiful consort with access to my fortress has been associating with the hero, I’ll have her executed. It’s regrettable, but new consorts are easier to get than new fortresses and maybe the next one will pay attention at the orientation meeting.)

Do these people even have a concept of information you might not want to tell the whole city? Yes they do, actually. They successfully kept secret the fact that such a prophecy existed for years, leaving the Greeks fighting an unwinnable war. Good for them. (Evil Overlord Rule 198: I will remember that any vulnerabilities I have are to be revealed strictly on a need-to-know basis. I will also remember that no one needs to know.) But then after the Greeks found out, the Trojans didn’t know they knew, so they had no way of taking precautions and the Palladium just got carried right out by an awesome Achaean. (And Odysseus.) Except of course that the Trojans should have protected it anyway, because unbeatability is a property that you probably want to keep. Especially when it’s as simple as “protect the magic item.”

But lest I be accused of being unfair to the Trojans, the Greeks passed up a way cooler guaranteed win. There was a lesser-known prophecy that provides a perfect example of a situation that’s just begging for some rules lawyering. An oracle said that the first Achaean to walk on the enemy’s land would be the first to be killed. This being the ancient Greeks, some guy named Iolaus declares it to be totally worth it and dies gloriously in battle.

He did get to kill four of the enemy, get famous, have Euripides write a play about him, and get shrines built by his cult following. All of which, in the ancient Greek mindset, is more important than being alive. They would look back on that and see a successful prophecy that worked out for everyone; I would look at it and wonder what they were thinking.

The obvious thing to do is have someone volunteer, then get them back on the ship and protect them like the Trojans should have protected the Palladium. The Trojans are then stuck fighting through an army of men they can’t kill. It doesn’t go well for them. And while they’re at it, they should publicize that particular prophecy and let slip the wrong name to the Trojans. (Evil Overlord Rule 221: Whatever my one weakness is, I will fake a completely different one.)

Obviously this can’t work for the Greeks; the writers wouldn’t let it. They’d probably have Iolaus get shot in the back or something, so he’s just as dead as in the original but he doesn’t end up being worshipped. So have Achilles do it instead. He has already been prophesied to have either a long and unremarkable life or a short but glorious one. So if he jumps down and then turns and sails away, the entire army is guaranteed to not only win the war but also outlive a young man who will live to be old. You get free victory, and longevity for all the soldiers into the bargain. The only problem is that Achilles is literally the hardest person in the army to convince that this is a good thing.

“Hey Achilles, I know how you can easily guarantee that your side wins the war and save the lives of thousands of your friends and allies!”
“Do I get to be remembered throughout history as the greatest of all the heroes in the war even though I’m a whiny jerk? Because I like Homer’s version already.”
“No, but…hey, come back!”

Of course, winning the war isn’t that easy. The seer Calchas told the Greeks that the city would fall in the tenth year. So if they did the Iolaus thing, it’d be an army of men who can’t die attacking a city that can’t fall. That’s what you call a stalemate. But why bother besieging a city if you already know not only what the outcome will be but when it will happen? Here’s what you should do: Declare war. Then, instead of attacking the city the regular way, start telling them that Calchas says their city is going down in ten years and if they release Helen now you’ll let them live. (Evil Overlord Rule 40: If I have an unstoppable superweapon, I will use it.)

The Trojans know to take prophecy seriously. And you can’t say they wouldn’t buy it, because they totally fell for “Calchas said we needed to sail away and leave you this giant wooden horse, so we did” and that wasn’t even true. After a few raids with no Greek casualties whatever, they might start paying attention. They probably still refuse to surrender, because there’s a lot of honor in impossible last stands, but at least there are fewer casualties when the sack does happen and a less unpleasant intervening decade.

Often in Greek myths, messing with prophecies is a Bad Idea. But apparently that’s just because people keep trying to keep them from coming true, which is the opposite of this. But you’re allowed to cause the prerequisites for prophecies to be fulfilled, manipulate conditional ones into not applying, steal sacred artifacts of the gods, or even make up prophecies entirely. The gods themselves do some of those. So it’s a safe guess that they won’t mind you being clever with how they come true.

Incidentally, whoever arranged for Cassandra to be at Troy basically handed the war to the Greeks. Her prophecies have the properties of being 1) true and 2) never believed. So the Trojans end up being divinely forced to not believe important true things. Ouch. That all but guarantees that they lose any war based on weaponized prophecy. (Evil Overlord Rule 203: All crones with the ability to prophesy will be given free facelifts, permanents, manicures, and Donna Karan wardrobes. That should pretty well destroy their credibility.)

So the obvious question is, what happens if both sides are smart? If they’re both run by competent Evil Overlords wielding prophecies?

Priam hides the Palladium. On second thought, Priam doesn’t do this because a previous king did it a long time ago because it’s just that obvious. Anyway, since the city is protected as long as the Palladium is within the walls, it gets bricked up inside the walls of the innermost citadel. You’re safe as long as that’s there, and they’re not getting a chance to find or extract it without completely destroying multiple layers of walls, which would be difficult to do without violating the protection.

Agamemnon picks some volunteers to dramatically disembark first with an army behind them. Then he orders them back to the ships, making sure to keep track of which one is actually the prophetically important one. The Trojans will probably find out the reason eventually, but they won’t know which to attack first, especially if the Greeks use Odysseus’ “jump on your shield so you didn’t touch the ground” trick. (Yes, this would make the Trojan War secretly a game of The Floor Is Made Of Lava. Alas for what could have been.) And the Trojans definitely don’t get to know that the first person was actually Achilles the previous day.

Agamemnon then withdraws and sends everyone home, to come back in ten years.

Priam sends Cassandra to the enemy. Either by telling her the plan or by driving her away angry enough that she wants to betray Troy, depending on how Evil we’re talking about.  When Cassandra tells the Greeks she has foreseen that Troy will fall, they give up. She can also undermine Calchas’ credibility by agreeing with him.

Ten years later, the city falls anyway. That was a pretty direct prediction, not really avoidable. But the Palladium guarantees safety for the city, so Priam just has to pick someone to surrender to. The city is then conquered completely nonviolently and still under the protection of the Palladium, fulfilling both prophecies.

The final outcome is that the Trojan War never happens and Troy stays protected. Priam isn’t king anymore, but that’s nowhere near as bad as having the city change hands the usual way. All the Greek soldiers survive at least as long as Achilles does, making this probably the only war in recorded history to have a negative death toll. And Agamemnon takes over the world with his armies of men who have been prophesied to not be killed. After all, they can’t very well fight each other like they normally would. You’ll notice that this worked out better for both sides than the original did. Moral of the story: Don’t just ignore potential instant win conditions.


In Which I Drop an Anvil

And not just casually dropping it a little bit onto someone’s head, like in all those cartoons. No, this is a drop of mythic proportions.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, it’s stated that Tartarus is as far below earth as earth is below heaven; a bronze anvil will take nine days to fall to earth from heaven and, if dropped again, nine to fall to Tartarus. This is problematic on a number of levels.

Here’s what happens if you try the anvil thing on or around Earth, using mostly real physics.

You pick a starting point high enough for the fall to take nine days. This is going to be significantly higher than when we dropped the Enterprise, since that only took a couple days at most. We’ll be dropping the anvil from a lot more. I haven’t estimated the numbers (I wouldn’t have the equation to find a precise answer anyway), but I’d bet that it’s easily high enough to be outside the Moon’s orbit and probably a lot further out than the human distance record on top of that. Anyway, we’re dropping it from really high.

Nine days later (minus a few fractions of a second), it’s falling at several thousand kilometers per second. It punches through the earth’s atmosphere and probably vaporizes. Hopefully. If not, it hits the surface at precisely the nine-day mark and Bad Things Happen.

If we took Hesiod literally, it would mean that Tartarus and heaven are both at the same height (plus or minus the diameter of the earth), because if we let that anvil fall through the earth (through a strategically placed hole painted on the sidewalk?), it’d come out the other side and start going upward to nearly the same height as it started from. He did say it’s the same distance. And things don’t fall up, so let’s see what happens when we drop it and leave it for nine days.

To find the depth of Tartarus, we’ll have to assume there’s a frictionless hole deep enough to drop the anvil down. Either that or it’s a special divine lump of bronze endowed with the ability to pass through regular matter and affected only by gravity. For our purposes, those will act the same.

If you drop that down, it’s going to go straight through, accelerating until it reaches the center of earth. Then it’ll keep falling, but slowing down because gravity is pulling it the other way. When it reaches the other surface, it’ll stop and start falling back. One direction takes a bit over 42 minutes.

(Side note because it’s really cool: It’s the same amount of time for any frictionless straight line through Earth, no matter what angle it’s at. The math is a bit beyond me, but that doesn’t make the fact less cool.)

The anvil is falling from one side of the earth to the other, repeatedly, every 2530.3 seconds, for nine days. It traverses the earth 307.3 times, so that after precisely nine days it ends up 2011 km deep, as measured from the other side of the world. So it’s most of the way through the earth’s mantle, on the other side of the core. Of course, it hasn’t “landed” in any way, but that’s where it is when it hits the nine-day mark so that’s where Tartarus is. Even if it’s nowhere near as far down as the heavens are up.

OK, so that didn’t fit with Hesiod, like, at all.

But gravity doesn’t work the same way in mythology! Everything falls at its own natural speed, and “inverse square” doesn’t even mean anything. So we can just figure out the natural speed for a bronze anvil to fall at, and ignore all this Newtonian silliness.

Finding that is probably impossible. What we can do is find how fast an anvil would actually fall, and assume that that’s the number the Greeks would say is its natural speed. So, we just have to use the awesome power of the Internet to find terminal velocity.

Getting representative statistics from an online anvil store (of course there’s an online anvil store), your classic anvil would weigh about 167 lbs and has a cross-sectional area of 102 square inches. Those anvils are made of steel, and bronze has more variation in its density. But the range is about right.

Those numbers can get plugged into a handy terminal velocity calculator, and it spits out a number of 84.7 m/s, about the speed of a high-speed train. Since it’s falling for nine days, or 9*24*3600 seconds, it started at 65,800 km above the surface. And so that’s the height of heaven and the depth of Tartarus.

On the real Earth, those would be up in space and down…in space. The distance is about five times the diameter of Earth. But we don’t need to worry about that future stuff right now; it’s 800 B.C.

One last mental image: The anvil falls for over a week, and then flies directly into the bottleneck of the underground prison in the deepest pit on Earth. There was probably a red bulls-eye painted around it. Then it falls for another nine days, where it lands directly on the head of the most hated enemy of the gods, Wile E. Coyote. Tell me you weren’t picturing that all along.

Sanguine v. Westley School for the Undead

Sanguine v. Westley School for the Undead,  283 F.3d 203.

STOKER, Circuit Judge.


In this action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Vlad Sanguine seeks monetary damages to compensate him for the 2008 decision of the Westley School for the Undead to expel him from high school after he was found carrying a cross to school. Sanguine argues that the School’s action violated his right to expression of religion; the School argues that its action was necessary for school safety.

The district court’s judgement is AFFIRMED.


In the fall of 2008, Vlad Sanguine was a student at the Westley School for the Undead. On October 30, he came to school carrying a five-inch wooden cross with the inscription “Cathedral of St. John Calvin.” Sanguine testified that he received the cross from a friend and he himself had never been to that cathedral, as he cannot set foot on hallowed ground.

The School expelled Sanguine for bringing a dangerous weapon to school in violation of their zero-tolerance policy. State law encourages such policies, requiring schools to institute procedures that “impose swift, certain and severe disciplinary sanctions on any student” who “brings a dangerous weapon” onto school property, or “[p]ossesses a dangerous weapon” on school property. The parties have stipulated that a cross may cause intense fear to many of the students at the Westley School if they see it, and physical pain on contact.


In April of 2009, Sanguine’s sire and guardian initiated an action on Sanguine’s behalf in the United States District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. After reaching legal majority, Sanguine was substituted as the plaintiff. Sanguine claimed that his expulsion violated his right to free expression of religion.

The School moved for summary judgement, on the grounds that Sanguine, like many of the more vampiric students and faculty at the Westley School, is a thing of Satan and therefore cannot be a Christian, meaning that the religious belief Sanguine expressed is not one that he sincerely held. The district court granted this motion.

Sanguine appealed this judgement, and this court held that it was in error. The statement that something is “of the devil” is a theological question, which it is not the function of the district court to answer. After the case was remanded, the district court found that while the belief was sincerely held, this is outweighed by the fact that the School’s decision was necessary to maintain safety of its campus. On appeal, this court agreed to review that question de novo.


Precedent has established in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” It is against this background that we turn to consider the level of First Amendment protection accorded to Sanguine’s actions in inflicting a dangerous object on a high school attended by hundreds of students who could have been harmed.

It has been affirmed repeatedly that students’ rights are more limited than those of adults. As Justice Burger wrote in Bethel v. Fraser (478 U.S. 675),

“In New Jersey v.T. L. O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985), we reaffirmed that the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings. As cogently expressed by Judge Newman, “the First Amendment gives a high school student the classroom right to wear Tinker’s armband, but not Cohen’s jacket.””

If a school can prohibit a student wearing a jacket with an obscene message even if that message is political in nature, then it must also be acceptable to prohibit expression of a religious message if that message is itself intrinsically dangerous.

A Westley School disciplinary rule prohibits “conduct which significantly interferes with the educational process.” Similar rules have been upheld in courts (Bethel v. Fraser, supra.) Sanguine’s conduct was in bringing a cross to a school full of children who would be put at risk by it. It is uncontroverted that that religious symbol of self-sacrifice and eternal life causes harm to undead creatures who prolong their own existence by draining others’. Where many of those individuals are students, this would necessarily put those students in danger and disrupt the school environment.

In addition to their duty to educate, schools act in loco parentis. Given this enormous responsibility, and the potentially devastating consequences of weapons on campus, a strict weapons policy can be a necessary measure to protect students. In this case, while the cross was not intended as a weapon, it could easily injure some of the students or disrupt classes by its mere presence. For the reasons set forth above, we AFFIRM the decision of the district court.


Sanguine v. Westley School, Supreme Court of the United States, PER CURIAM.


Vampires don’t exist. Reversed.

NOTE: Philosophy won’t let me claim credit for all of this, because since I am a lazy person some parts of this have been taken directly from actual court cases (especially Seal v. Morgan and Bethel v. Fraser.) Those parts are mostly ones that don’t involve vampires. Since I am a lazy non-lawyer, this should not be taken as any kind of representation of what an actual court would say. Before bringing a cross to a school full of vampires, consult a lawyer.

Kardashev Confusion

On a scale of one and up, how advanced do you think your species is?

The Kardashev Scale, apart from having one of the coolest-sounding names in existence, is also one of the coolest measurements in existence. It’s a scale for measuring the general technology level of entire civilizations. It only measures power usage, not effectiveness of their technology, or whether they’re a dystopia, or anything else. Just power usage.

A level one Kardashev civilization is one that uses or can use approximately a planet’s worth of power. This is defined, or at least approximated, by the amount of power that reaches Earth in the form of sunlight. (About 10^16 or 10^17 Watts.) If the entire Earth were covered in solar panels, and those solar panels were all perfectly 100% efficient, that number (ten or a hundred  billion megawatts or so) is how much power it would collect. This is what is required to rank as level one.

A level two Kardashev civilization can harness all the power produced by a star. If you thought the last thing was impressive, this is a lot more so. Imagine if the Sun were surrounded by those perfectly efficient solar panels. Every photon of light coming out of it gets absorbed and turned into electricity. Whoever built that sphere would get around 10^20 megawatts from it.

Level three, as you might have guessed, means being able to use an entire galaxy’s production of energy. Like if you do the Dyson sphere thing to every star in the galaxy. It’s a lot.

So, pick your favorite technological civilization and see how they stack up! Take humanity, for instance. According to Wikipedia, as of 2008 they used an average of about 15 million megawatts. It’s presumably more now, but it’ll still be somewhere in that ballpark.  15 million is, as you might have noticed, less than a hundred billion. So the puny Earthlings do not reach level one because they haven’t even managed to take over their own planet yet. They’re something like a 0.7, which sounds pretty good but actually means one tenth of one percent of the power usage of a level one.

With the explanation of exactly what the scale means out of the way, we can compare some other examples.

The Death Star superlaser has a power output of 2.4*10^26 MW. This number is from the Star Wars wiki, where it is marked “citation needed,” but this actually is about the amount of power it would take to blow up an Earth-sized planet in one second. It is also an awful lot. It can give them a pretty big rank on this scale just by itself.

The actual formula for approximating Kardashev levels is log(MW)/10. So the Death Star, with a power of 2.4*10^26 MW, places the Galactic Empire at log(2.4*10^26)/10, or a 2.63 on the Kardashev scale. This one weapon uses as much power as the amount produced by over a million stars. If you ever see that coming at you, I recommend immediately using a good pair of running shoes.

But of course this isn’t the full extent of the Galactic Empire’s power. They have a galaxy full of resources, and it’s not like all of them were focused on building the planet destroyer. In fact, they even managed to build a second one within a few years of the first one being destroyed. It’s hard to guess just how much power they have available, but it’s definitely at least towards the high end of type 2. Scary.

For those of you who paid attention to the math stuff, you might have noticed that it’s a logarithmic scale. So it’s not like a scale of one to ten where there’s a maximum; it’s mathematically possible to keep going indefinitely. Just very, very hard.

The entire observable universe is estimated to have an energy output of around 10^39 MW. Plus or minus a few orders of magnitude. By a nice coincidence, this is pretty close to where we would want it to be so that we can say that a Type 4 civilization can use all the power in the universe. Practically speaking, you aren’t likely to use any more than that. Offhand, I can’t think of anyone with that kind of power output except for Phineas and Ferb and God.

And not one of those wimpy secondhand gods, either. It’s got to be the real thing. For instance, Quetzalcoatl could manage being the Sun, but his brother and rival Tezcatlipoca wasn’t good enough. The question of how they were going to keep the Sun shining was one that gave them some difficulty, so it’s safe to say that the Aztec pantheon is (at best) more or less a Type 2. They certainly couldn’t manage to do the same thing billions of times simultaneously.

Or look at the Greek gods. You might think that since they move constellations around on a whim and put the Milky Way Galaxy there by accident, they would be at least Type 3. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Or less complicated, depending on how you look at it. In Greek mythology, the heavens were an actual bronze roof over the world. The stars and planets and things were basically decoration on the inside of that. So when they put, say, the constellation Orion in the sky, they were just moving some twinkling points around. They were definitely not doing anything involving gigantic nuclear furnaces that dwarf the Earth. (Side note: I feel like there’s an excellent “your mom is fat” joke in there somewhere, since in that mythology the Earth is a maternal goddess and Zeus’ grandmother and is also the size of, well, the Earth. But I couldn’t think of a good one.)

The answer will be relatively low, but we do have a way of estimating their power. The sky is (at least, was) held up by the giant Titan Atlas. This is manageable for him, but pretty darn hard. And the Olympians fought the Titans to a standstill before finally beating them, so they’re on the same scale as far as power level goes. So, how much power would it take to handle a bronze dome over the world? Quite a bit. Enough that you probably don’t want to get in a wrestling match with this pantheon. But only planetary amounts of power. Not stellar scales, let alone galactic ones.

But wait! The Greek gods are in charge of a sun, too! So surely they must be at least a Type 2? Nope. Their sun is just a flaming chariot, intimidating but much less of a power source than any actual star. The same probably goes for the Aztec sun, since the real Sun is fairly impressive and it’s hard to describe a pantheon as having powers that the myth writers can’t imagine. This is why they can only manipulate continents at most. Not even planets, really. Although, to be fair, humans can’t do either of those yet.

Point is, most alleged gods are actually pretty weak. Picture Thor swinging his magic hammer as hard as he can. He’s aiming at the giant Skrymir, but his enemy blocks the blows by interposing a mountain. The three gorges that the hammer left are visible to this day, and this is supposed to be impressive. Seriously. Their strongest god, using his best equipment as powerfully as he can, managed to scratch a mountain. That’s something that humans can do right now if they want to. Look at Mount Rushmore, where they did pretty much exactly that except better.

In other words, the Empire from Star Wars is way more powerful than any mythological pantheon. Easily. Thor might register on the Richter scale, but the Death Star is measured on the Kardashev scale. “More powerful than the gods themselves can possibly imagine” might be literally applicable here.

Keep in mind, though, that the Empire is “only” about a three. They’re nowhere near the upper limit of sheer power.

To be a Type 4, someone would have to basically be able to control all the power production of the universe. That’s kind of a big deal. It’s less like the Valar and more like Iluvatar. That’s where you’re talking about serious power. Read Job 38 for an example. The general tone is “you cannot comprehend my power; to rub it in here are some descriptions of impossible-sounding things that are easy for me.” It’s actually some pretty intimidating bragging. The specific metaphors used are mostly only talking about Kardashev Level 1 stuff, with some stars and constellations thrown in. Since I don’t know what or where Job thought the stars were, I can’t say if that’s below level 1 like it would be if the Greeks said it or level 2-3 like it would be if I said it. But unlike the previous cases, it’s emphasized that none of this is hard for the person doing it. After all, anyone who can actually create the universe ex nihilo is pretty much automatically a big deal. Too big to be measured on this, even.

The Kardashev scale is…let’s just say kind of big. A human (unaided by technology, which admittedly kind of defeats the point) ranks a little below a negative five. Physical condition barely matters; that number isn’t getting any better or much worse. But at least you get to say that you personally register on a scale used for measuring gods and advanced civilizations.

Memetic weapons through the ages

The following is safe to read. This might become important later.

It’s well known to anyone who has thought about it for a second that when you observe the world, you aren’t directly perceiving the world. Your eyes picture some image, and your brain translates it, and with a few exceptions it corresponds pretty well to the actual world. When it doesn’t, we call that an optical illusion and it’s nothing too exciting. Usually.

But what happens if, instead of interpreting an observation incorrectly, the brain simply has no idea what to do with it? In the worst case, the brain can completely shut down. Picture an episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk heroically tells a robot that “this sentence is false,” causing it to explode. For the robot’s brain, that sentence is a memetic hazard, something that it simply can’t deal with.

Obviously human brains can handle that without a problem, and so could any competent artificial intelligence. And who builds an exploding robot, anyway? The point is that there can exist some information that a brain cannot handle, and that could have almost any effects. A memetic hazard would have to be something a lot less obvious and less likely to come up by accident than “this sentence is a lie,” but the existence of fictional examples (even stupid ones) doesn’t make the concept impossible. It’s entirely possible for this type of thing to work on human brains as well.

In some cases, a memetic hazard has been used as a weapon. It doesn’t have to be in the form of a sentence (it usually isn’t, in fact), just any image or statement or sound that the human brain cannot interpret. Advanced memetic weapons can exploit the fact that the brain isn’t functioning properly and include a command that the brain will automatically follow. It doesn’t know what else to do. This should not be confused with ordinary subliminal messaging, where the effects range from placebo to negligible, and never last long anyway. A memetic weapon can have major effects all the way up to insanity or death just from looking at it or sometimes even thinking about it.

The earliest known memetic weapon is known today as Medusa. Anyone who looked directly at it would be instantly killed. This was passed down through the mythology as a monster so ugly that anyone who looked at her turned to stone. Despite how extreme the effect was, Medusa was actually a fairly primitive memetic weapon. All the image did was shut down the brain. A more advanced version could have caused almost any effect on the victim, from complete mind control to speaking only in limericks to forgetting the whole experience. Causing instant death is simpler, if scarier. It also had a certain flaw, specifically the fact that the mirror image was harmless. Modern visual memetic weapons are often made symmetrical by placing the picture’s mirror image next to it, for precisely this reason. But then, we do have a few thousand years of development that the inventors of the Medusa didn’t.

Another ancient memetic weapon is from much later, at approximately 1000 B.C. Instead of being an image, this one was auditory. A king, known for being both a warrior and a musician, wrote about his enemies,

As soon as they hear, they obey me.
Foreigners lose heart,
And come trembling out of their fortresses.

That sounds rather like an auditory weapon. It could, for instance, shut down the brain and then (unlike Medusa) allow it to continue, but trigger all the brain’s circuits signifying fear. It would be very useful for making one’s enemies surrender on demand, and would have effects exactly as described. This king was very explicit that these victories were not from his military might, and he wrote that this was all a gift from his God. You might have heard of this before. Specifically, you might have heard about a secret chord that David played that pleased the Lord.

Those are both ancient, but as you might guess there are more recent examples as well. In 1944, the British army unleashed a joke so funny that anyone who heard it would die laughing. They had armies of soldiers who only spoke English reading it out in German, and anyone who understood it would be dead in seconds. There was a well-known documentary made about it.

Related in the “idea that will destroy you” category is some mathematics. Specifically, infinities. Infinity plus one is infinity. It doesn’t get any bigger, not even one bigger. Two times infinity isn’t any bigger either. For that matter, infinity times infinity is still the same size. But, despite all that, some infinities are bigger than others. For instance, the number of numbers between zero and one is greater than the number of integers. These statements were all proven by a man named Georg Cantor in the early 1900s, and he was tragically driven insane. This may or may not have been caused by his discoveries. The proofs have since been reworked into a form that is safe to understand, and I’m not too worried about accidentally destroying anyone’s mind by posting this here.

A current example: Some Japanese researchers invented something they call the “SpeechJammer.” Everyone else calls it the “Shut Up Gun.” It records the voice of the person to be shut up, and plays it back at them after a few tenths of a second. The speaker is then forced to shut up. It’s a perfect example of a memetic weapon: The sound of your own voice coming back that quickly is not something that comes up often, and the human brain isn’t equipped to deal with it. So it shuts down the speech. This gizmo won a 2012 Ig Nobel Prize (it’s like the Nobel Prize, only ignoble) and is totally a real thing.

I have a memetic weapon myself. It’s comparatively harmless and is mostly just annoying. It’s a method of infecting people with akrasia, but it only works on people who have more intelligence than common sense. Unfortunately, it worked on me. Ever since I heard it I haven’t been able to stop procrastinating on everything. So no, I’m not going to say what it is.

Memetic weapons: A major threat. Keep an eye out for them. On second thought, don’t.

Happy Whatever Year It Is Right Now!

I have a hard time getting excited about New Year’s Day.
If you say “Happy New Year 2015,” that isn’t exactly what I hear. I hear something along the lines of “Today, the earth has completed precisely two thousand and fifteen revolutions since the annual festival of Janus (Roman god of doors) that took place in the year of the birth of Jesus, according to one incorrect estimate. Plus or minus a few days because of calendar confusion.”

(The date January 1 was picked for New Year’s Day because the new year seemed to go with the two-faced (literally) god who looked both ahead and behind. So that’s what happened on January 1 whatever number of years ago. The number of the year, as opposed to the date, is of course counting from Jesus’ birth, except that it miscounted.)

With all that error and estimation, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to count down the minutes. It’s like the old joke about the man who works in a museum and describes the dinosaur bones as “eighty million and two years, six months old, because they were eighty million years old when I started working here two and a half years ago.” And by “like that joke” I mean “exactly as wrong for exactly the same reason.”

When you can tell me when Jesus was born down to the minute, then this holiday would make more sense. If you want to launch fireworks precisely when Anno Domini 2014 changes to Anno Domini 2015, the least you can do is do it precisely 2014 years after the birth of the lord in question. Using approximations and guesswork and then reporting the answer as if it’s precise is frowned upon. By me, if nobody else.

Of course, you can argue that nobody is celebrating revolutions of the earth or anything to do with Janus. They’re just celebrating the year 2015. They’re enjoying watching that number increment by one and most of them aren’t thinking about what it’s counting from. Which is kind of my point. The date and the year number, and the year length if you have some perspective which most people don’t, are excessively arbitrary, so I tend to not care much about this kind of thing in general.

Most holidays have this problem, some worse than others. I think along these lines every holiday or birthday, but New Year’s Day is the only one that actively celebrates it. (Except birthdays. And anniversaries of national independence or, for that matter, anything else. And probably lots of other things.) OK, I’ll amend that to say that New Year’s Day is the only one that does nothing except actively celebrate it. Other holidays might celebrate a discrete whole number of years since something important happened, but then there’s at least some important thing to celebrate. New Year’s Day is celebrating nothing but the fact of a discrete whole number of years. Which is way too arbitrary on way too many levels.

Of course, some holidays are better than others. I even enjoy some of them. Christmas happens at an arbitrary time, but at least nobody acts like its location in the calendar is some innate law of the universe. And at least Christmas is celebrating something notable instead of just counting years. (If you’re a Christian. If not, then it’s almost as bad as New Year’s.) So despite what you might be thinking, I’m not actually the Grinch.

Actually, I could probably model my grinchiness as a function of time around the year. It’d be unusually high during whenever all the Christmas songs start playing (“If you pick an arbitrary date, you could at least stick to it!”) but by December I don’t mind because it’s close enough to the Christmas season and I really don’t hate Christmas. Then a few days afterward people start celebrating one of my pet peeves, and I get a lot grinchier quickly.

The global maximum occurs in mid-February. Nobody seems to be able to tell me why it’s important that the number of days since I was born is divisible by 365 (+/- 1), and on one particular day around then it’s nearly impossible to get away from. And Valentine’s Day has an arbitrary date plus no obvious connection to Valentine, so I’m already primed around that time of year to be as much of a grinch as possible. Other than February, though, New Year’s Day is the high point on that graph.

The traditional way to celebrate a new year is to make a resolution. This is so that you can belatedly realize that you broke it and resolve to do better next time. Or you could try something more entertaining: “I resolve to keep this resolution.” “I resolve not to keep this resolution.” “I resolve to hold to this resolution for half the year, then half of the remaining six months, then half of what’s left, and so on for eternity without ever actually succeeding.” “I resolve to keep the New Year’s Resolution of anyone who does not keep their own resolution.”

But I’m going to go with something more normal. I noticed that whenever I’m pacing, it’s almost always counterclockwise. So my resolution is to pace clockwise sometimes. (I said more normal, not actually normal.) You probably think that’s ridiculously unambitious, but at least I’m going to keep mine. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean that I’ve been replaced with an alternate-universe version of me who is made of antimatter and therefore evil. That doesn’t even make sense. I’m just trying to be more symmetrical. Janus would approve.

Anyway, happy anniversary of the festival of the god of doors.

Yes, Virginia,

One thing that I strongly dislike is the statement that “you should believe X even if X is false.” The famous “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter just reeks of that. (But there wasn’t much else they could do, so I don’t blame them.) There are a few exceptions, of course, but in the vast majority of cases it should either be “You should not believe X” or “X is true.” This is about the second one.

On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus goes to every house in the world giving presents to all the good children. This gets harder every year, since populations increase and contrary to what parents tend to think, Kids These Days probably aren’t significantly naughtier than Kids Any Other Set Of Days.

Lots of people have calculated and complained about how fast he would have to move. Here’s one saying that he would have to travel over a hundred thousand miles per hour. This is hard. That link explains some of the energy costs and also the more literal costs, but that’s not even the worst of it. Something moving that fast at around chimney-level would be ridiculously destructive. Santa is probably a superhumanly good pilot; maybe he can avoid crashing into anything. But even if he can, that would be a supremely powerful sonic boom. Just by flying past, he would flatten every neighborhood containing at least one kid on the nice list. And that would be counterproductive. He would be remembered not as jolly old Santa Claus, but as the annual “every building spontaneously falls down with massive loss of life” event. Fortunately, he has a better way.

You might have guessed that his speed is well over Earth’s escape velocity. In fact, it’s several times as fast as any human spaceship can go. If he can get that kind of speed, it would actually be easier, and safer, to go into orbit. There’d be less to crash into, and no blast of destruction from the sonic boom blowing everything away.

Rather than deliver presents by landing on every roof, Santa can deliver them from orbit. Going around the world in one night isn’t even a problem anymore; orbiting the Earth in hours or minutes isn’t unusual.
So Santa orbits the Earth however many times it takes to pass over every house, and when he’s directly over a house he beams the presents down through the chimneys. Why the chimneys? Well, some houses have wiring that acts as a Faraday cage and interferes with the signals…you’re not buying this, are you. Tradition, OK? It’s tradition.

Being in orbit takes care of the travel speed problem, but he still has to sort through all the presents and send them to the right houses. And pick up the cookies, if applicable. According to the U.S. Census, there are about 34.6 million households with children in the United States. Since the U.S. has about 4.4% of the world population, estimate 779 million households with children worldwide. He’d have maybe 31 hours to cover all of them. (Which hours depends on time zones; the 31 represents the total amount of time where it would be delivery time somewhere.) That gives him about one and a half thousandths of a second per house.

That’s not nearly enough time. A transporter beam takes up to two and a half seconds to scan the item and reconstitute it on the other end (Source: Star Trek), and while better technology might be able to do it faster, it still won’t be actually instantaneous. He could use multiple transporters at once, but he has to be more or less directly over the target house so that the beam goes through the chimney. The chimney thing is pretty important to him. So how does he do it? Time travel.

Instead of only working one night a year and taking the rest off, Santa works continuously. He uses time travel to jump between Christmas Eves and repeats each night as many times as he needs to to make sure that everything gets delivered. Technology can help do everything as efficiently as possible, (for instance, he uses a NORAD supercomputer to tell him the best series of orbits), but it’s still an almost impossible task. The delivery each year takes him years of work. And he does it anyway, because the presents have to be delivered.

(This is also his response when he’s asked about how hard he works the elves. Nothing he asks them to do compares with what he does, and humans and their standards look incredibly lazy from the North Pole’s point of view. The elves work hard, but Santa works more than is mathematically possible.)

So, if it isn’t Christmas, then Santa doesn’t exist at the moment. He skips over any time that isn’t time to deliver the gifts, and does those few hours over and over again. Like he always says, “there’s no time like the present.” (In his case it’s literally true, so I tolerate the terrible pun.) If it is Christmas, then not only does Santa Claus exist, but there are thousands of him all around the world delivering presents at the same time.

“Yes, Virginia, there is an orbital time-traveling Santa who teleports presents down through your chimney.”