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Sep 29, 2022 4:00 AM
dath ilan marian alt in atlas shrugged
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They have--some way to cheat death . . . they're not just a world that's alive and vital while his world slowly seizes and grinds and shudders like a locomotive in the first stages of breaking down, they're all individually keeping themselves alive . . . and now she can't have that, because she's out here with them. The fact that she got here by dying in a plane crash in the first place does nothing to reduce the injustice of it.

"We don't have anything like that," he says softly. "I'm sorry."


"I think," Merrin says, very calmly, "that there are substantially bigger problems here than I realized and - that one is actually one where I'd know...a lot of details on how to fix it. Except probably we need to address the economy problem first because I'm starting to suspect you need higher production-per-capita than this world or even just this country has, right now, to even have enough resources to do that." 

She has gone past internally screaming and is now internally whimpering quietly in a dark corner, and trying to guess at how many plane-crash-equivalents of true deaths must happen here, every year - every day, even - and people must think it's normal, it's hard to wrap her mind around that but - 


- but that would have been true, right, at some point in her own world's past - the history may be tucked away out of sight but it existed, and there was a time before industrialization, and even if this isn't a version of dath ilan's past, which is seeming increasingly implausible actually, she can't imagine her Civilization ever having been this dysfunctional and yet still ended up in the configuration she observed - but even if Civilization never looked like this, at one point it was poorer, at one point it had less scientific knowledge, and people would have died, forever, and not known there could be any alternative... 



...It feels like the sort of thing that could be classified as an infohazard in both directions, actually, and judging by Eddie's expression, the revelations here are almost as disturbing to him as they are to her, and she feels sort of bad about bringing it up except what alternative did she have... 


Eddie spends several seconds just staring into space, trying to imagine what Merrin must be feeling, trying to imagine crossing the gap between where they are now and the world she's giving him a glimpse of. Then it resolves into a will to action, spinning senselessly in his head with no direction in which to act.

"We will. Have to fix the economy first, I mean. Thank you for telling me--all of this. There's a research hospital in the city, Manhattan General Hospital, you might be able to invent things there. Or there's--no, I think Manhattan General would be best." For reasons he cannot put into words, he knows it would be a bad idea to send Merrin to the State Science Institute.


That sounds like the start of a plan?

Which, on the one hand, GREAT, Merrin haaaaaaaates operating without a plan - probably that's another aspect of the trait about herself where all appearances to the contrary she actually does, quite, prefer a known routine - but on the other hand she still feels a bit like she's metaphorically walking in the dark on uneven ground and every time she thinks she understands the terrain, suddenly the next step finds her foot landing in a random pit or tangling against some unseen obstacle and she doesn't even begin to have enough information to make predictions, not real predictions - she's been flagging surprise and confusion, over and over, but not only is she failing to put numbers on it, she's mostly not succeeding at pinning it down in words in her own thoughts, not even in Baseline - though that's partly because in order to COMMUNICATE in English which is terrible she's ending up having half of her thoughts in it and on reflection it's predictable that this is going to make things harder– 


Stop. The thing her mind is doing right now is clearly a response to overwhelm, and it's not surprising - if anything she's making a positive update here, about her own capacity to handle novel complex out-of-context epistemically baffling situations - and she's noticing a flicker of pointless resentment, that Eddie is STILL not stepping in to lighten some of the cognitive load, but of course they're in symmetrical positions, here, he's being hit in the face with just as many rapid wide-error-bars updates as she is. And - he's not one of her colleagues, however steady-and-competent his manner reads as to her, he doesn't have her specialized training or even the minimal basics that anyone in dath ilan, even someone two or three standard deviations below median intelligence, would have as a matter of course.

How could he. If his Civilization she's starting to realize that word is pulling in a lot of misleading connotations, when she uses it in her thoughts - if his country doesn't have the capacity to consistently follow known basic safety precautions in factories run by people outside a small group of specific heroic individuals (and what a horrifying thought THAT is), if they don't have any kind of selection-process to ensure that the people working in Governance know how to reason sanely and are capable of basic updates such as 'noticing that the People's State model of governments and economies seems to consistently produce unfortunate results' - let alone the education and models to make that obvious as an advance prediction even without having observed the outcome yet, then - how can she possibly expect that a random individual, especially one who is probably operating with less total native cognitive ability than even she has, to notice that she's overwhelmed and do all the exact right things in a situation where he himself is also overwhelmed... 

Merrin is pretty sure that several of the premises in that chain of reasoning wouldn't hold weight but she's also not sure which ones and she's running out of working memory and ending up stuck going in circles and it doesn't take a lot of metacognition to notice that this is unhelpful


"That makes sense. Thank you. I - think I'm going to want some more background information on 'Manhattan General' before I try this, and...I should come up with a plan and talk it through with you on how to, um, approach them so they don't think I'm insane but they do have the expectation that what I know is worth listening to? ......But I think I need some time to think first. And paper. To take notes on. And - um, sorry, I'm guessing you probably also need some space to think, and this is your apartment but I don't actually have anywhere else to go...?" 


He can tell that she's annoyed, that she wants some kind of answer to some kind of question, but even if he understood the question he doubts he'd know the answer. He can at least get her what she's asking for out loud. 

"Don't worry about me, I'll be alright. Here, you can use my desk, I've got pencils and paper, if you want me to go into the other room I can do that or I can stick around and answer questions as you think of them." He had been planning to sleep when he finished the round of timetable updates he had been working on, but his head is too full of planning for sleep to be possible, even if he wasn't going to offer her the bed as soon as she expressed any interest in sleeping. 

While she does her thinking he writes up everything he knows about how the medical system in general and Manhattan General Hospital in particular work, what the specialities are, the utterly unsystematic way that new innovations are introduced and catch on or are squashed under public outcry. He includes the recent history of Rearden Metal as an example, even though it isn't more than incidentally a medical invention, because he knows the sequence of events in detail.


Merrin sits down at the desk (which, incidentally, has terrible ergonomics, not that this is surprising, her mind gets five seconds into calculating exactly how many person-hours of productivity this world is probably losing to suboptimal desks before she manages to cut that off as not the point right now -)

"I think I would prefer if you went into the other room," she hears herself say. "I - think we could probably both benefit from, um," how do you even SAY the thing she wants to convey in English, this would be so much easier in baseline, "- from...being able to have our thoughts freely and unpressured without also having to track the interpersonal effects of them?" 


"Okay." He goes into his bedroom and sits on his bed and takes notes using the book of maps as a clipboard.

This is good news, for him and for the world, someone from a better world who wants to fix things. He should be happy. Instead it's like he's wandering in the wilderness, and found a road that might lead somewhere, but now that he can see the road it's clear that it might still be farther than he can walk. 


Merrin holds herself in the chair at an angle where Eddie won't be able to see her face even if he suddenly re-enters the room, and closes her eyes, and cries. Very quietly. She doesn't want to make her emotions visible to Eddie in a way that might push him into feeling that comforting her is his responsibility, and she especially doesn't want to do anything that will prompt him to come back into the room at all, because she isn't up for that right now. 


And then, because she has priorities here, she wrestles herself under control. 



The most pressing challenge, here, is that she's out of her depth. And she needs to not instinctively fall back on her training, on what's comfortable to her and doable even when she's overwhelmed, because - all of that was under the assumption that she was operating within Civilization. Oh, there are plenty of instances of Exception Handling where she would be, temporarily, on her own, but this isn't the same. 

(...Okay, possibly a more...upstream, if not more important overall...challenge, here, is that when she tries to think about this, she keeps feeling CRUSHING EXHAUSTION. Which she's pretty sure is in some way an illusion or mis-attribution of her actual emotions, because she knows what her physical and mental limits are, she's explored all those edges, and this shouldn't be anywhere close. Though...maybe her emotional limits are something distinct, and - it's not actually surprising, that for all her training she wouldn't have been emotionally prepared for this - she's not actually sure that there's any possible way that dath ilan could have provided THAT kind of preparation, even if anyone in Governance had thought it was a good idea to prioritize, which they wouldn't have - she thinks they might be horrified at the concept, even, that it's worth training people to endure situations that SHOULD be awful and traumatic and unacceptable...) 


- So. She needs to find an approach that's workable for her, specifically, with the strengths and weaknesses she actually has, and not those of someone who would be better placed to address this world's problems, because that isn't the situation she's in. She needs to find the right attitude that will let her do this alone, with only the knowledge she has in her head and not the knowledge she wishes she had - with no backup, no one else to fill in the gaps that aren't her comparative advantage - 


Most of those thoughts are still half-formed, incomplete, probably missing critical pieces. But it's a lot easier to have them at all, when half of her mental processes aren't semi-involuntarily being redirected toward reading another person's nonverbal signals and modeling their emotional state. 

She's going to need to be better at that, too. At focusing and doing abstract reasoning even in circumstances adversarial to it. She has some ideas for that. Executing the naive versions of said ideas would make her worse at her actual job - there's a reason she hasn't pushed on those particular mental levers before now - if she were smarter she would plausibly be able to think of something here that was less a direct-tradeoff-between-known-legible-value-sources and more of an outside-the-paradigm-creative-utility-multiplying-innovation* - and in fact that's a pattern here, one that generalizes far beyond the questions that are specifically about her own traits and emotions - there's an entire way-of-thinking here that she's not specced for and it doesn't help, to waste energy on resenting that, that's not moving forward toward what matters, here... 


*Both standard Baseline words (as translated by Merrin into English.)


Eddie is not, actually, a complete novice at giving people emotional support, however much of one he feels like tonight. He's helped overstressed, underslept clerks deal with backordered materials and packed schedules. He's talked down Jim from various upsets and never given a sign of how stupid he thought those upsets were. He has even, he thinks, helped Dagny handle more than she could alone, just by being a second person, an extra bit of brain, a notepad that follows her around and gives convenient unprompted reminders, and above all a bodyguard against anyone and everyone who tries to waste her time. In almost every case, being what the people around him want has been synonymous with doing his job, and he has always known what his job was. Now his job seems, by virtue of an opportunity he should be happy about, to have expanded to encompass the whole Earth and he doesn't know what doing it entails. 

Dagny would know what to do. He can't bring this to her, she has too much to do already. She's supposed to delegate things to him, not the other way around, and she can't divert her attention from the railroad now.

He can't do any less work for the railroad than he was doing before today. Helping Merrin is a personal project to be done entirely on his own time.

He is so, so tired and he couldn't sleep if he tried. He keeps thinking over and over that should be happy.


Okay. Merrin thinks she has a plan. Or - a meta-plan, at least, a plan for how she should think and feel and what shape she needs to be, to engage with this bizarre situation, to find traction on it and come up with actual concrete plans-to-influence-reality. 

...She's not delighted with it. Mostly because it, in some sense, involves - or demands - expecting much less of herself than she's used to. She can't expect herself to make swift, efficient real-time decisions, right now. And she especially can't expect herself to smoothly and with poise handle all of the social complications - she probably isn't good enough to do that even under the most convenient accidental-circumstances and even if she were focusing on it fully, but in this case she has to actively deprioritize it, and be ready to deal with the fact that this will, inevitable, result in awkwardness and missteps and hurt feelings, and it will feel avoidable, which might or might not be accurate but it doesn't, actually, matter... 

- all right, framed like that it feels a lot less like 'expecting less of herself than usual'. And more like deliberately pushing toward a growth-edge. Which isn't why she's doing it, of course, but - it helps, to frame it that way purely to herself, and right now she has little enough in the way of solid ground to stand on, so she's going to flag that as possibly-some-sort-of-rationalization but not otherwise object to it. 



She doesn't have backup right here and now, but - in some sense she has all of Civilization behind her, still. In some sense, anyone in her position would, even the people who (a flinch, a mental sting) choose to spend their lives in the Quiet Cities. And she may be young, and not especially intelligent, but she's worked hard, her whole life, ever since she was old enough to understand what it meant to have a goal. She's learned from the best. She may not be the best dath ilani for this - 



- but it doesn't actually help, to grade herself against the counterfactual where someone else - even restricting it to someone else who died the truth death, even to someone else on that exact same plane - ended up here instead. She has minimal information on that and so trying to model those hypotheticals is just going to overload her working memory and waste precious time. 

The only counterfactual that matters, right now, to the core of her motivation system, is - comparing the future of this world where she appeared from thin air in someone's apartment, and the future where she didn't, and everything continued on as it was. 

Can she, given that premise, cause this world to be better-in-expectation by existing here? 

Yes. Yes, she can. She's actually not even slightly in doubt of that. (And, if anything, she expects that most of the inevitable updates ahead of her will point toward being more sure of that, not less - and given that she can predict the direction, there, Bayes' Theorem says she ought to just make the full update already, except she can't, actually, her remaining uncertainty is in some direction entirely orthogonal to 'how competent is this place compared to the Civilization I know' and yet it feels as though that orthogonal vector matters, a lot...) 

((She is going to write down that particular line of thought, in Baseline and half in the shorthand she learned in her training (because, of course, some Exception Handling certification courses require you to take notes using inconveniently low-tech mediums), and then drop it from her working memory, she can tell when pushing-toward-discomfort is no longer accomplishing anything useful.))



"Eddie?" she calls out, tentatively, and quietly enough that she hopefully won't actually interrupt him if he's, like, sleeping or something. "I - would be ready to talk now. If you wanted." 


Eddie hasn't fallen asleep. He also hasn't written as much as he had hoped to in this amount of time, partially because he keeps bouncing back and forth between topics and doubling back to fill in more context. His notes have margin notes which have their own secondary margin notes but the bottom half of the page is still blank. He comes out, holding them in front of him in both hands.

"How can I help?"


Merrin takes a deep breath, and turns toward him. 

(Feeling embarrassed and vaguely-ashamed of her reactions here is NOT going to help and also just about anyone looking at her from an outside perspective and judging on dath ilan standards would not think that either emotion was justified. That isn't quite enough to not feel that way but it gets her partway, at least.) 


"I...wanted to say some things...apologize, I guess...for the mistakes I'm predictably going to make here. And - ask for your support in compensating for my weaknesses, I guess, to the extent that I can expect that, which to be clear isn't very high, I - realize that your entire Civilization - country, state, whatever - is operating with very little surplus. But it still seems worth at least trying to say this explicitly so that we can be on the same page?"  


That's not what he was expecting. 

"You don't seem weak. And--you want to help. You didn't have to want to help. I'm not going to be ungrateful for that. I'm going to do whatever will make it easier for you. I know you don't know--what things are like, here. I'll explain them."


She didn't have to want to help

...That's a weird and uncomfortable - and informative, probably, but she's not focusing on parsing that aspect yet - way of expressing the sentiment that she can read much more clearly in his expression and body language. Merrin...will make a mnemonic handle for that confusion, it seems important, but then set it aside to think about LATER. 


"- Yeah. I know. I - really appreciate that you care about doing that - making this lower-cognitive-load for me, that is - I know you don't have the training for it that people in my world would have, and controlling for that you're doing really well. Anyway. I'm...finding it pretty difficult, trying to - conceptualize myself as a lone hero who's here to fix your world?" That's the best translation she can manage on short notice, even if it's not exactly what's in her thoughts and the divergence itches. "That's not what my training is aimed at, and I'm not - smart? I don't know what the median intelligence is in your world or even how good your measurements of it are but in dath ilan I'd be well below median. And I've trained accordingly. I don't have a lot of practice– well, I do have practice working on my own under adverse circumstances, that's what a lot of the Exception Handling certifications are about, but still. Your world isn't something I've trained for and I feel pretty out of my depth and I'm not used to that, and especially I'm not used to - having to figure out what the right questions are to ask, and whether we're looking at things on the right level of meta...."

She takes a deep breath. 

"- Sorry. That was probably mostly confusing. The shorter version is - I think the mistakes I'm most likely to make, when I'm overwhelmed, are going to be - diving into fixing a particular concrete problem, without necessarily keeping enough outside-view to remember if it's the highest priority problem? I'm not sure if any of those words even made sense to you. But in dath ilan, it's the sort of thing where I could - say that, and ask my colleagues to help me notice if I were making that particular mistake." 


There was a lot to think about there but one thing sticks out, rather in the way a knife sticks out. "You're unintelligent, by your world's standard? You're probably one of the ten most intelligent people I've ever met. I know that's really not what you were hoping to hear."

Eddie has wished, thousands of times, that he was smarter. He has also wished thousands of times for the people he was working with to be smarter. So far every difference between Merrin's world and his own has made his world look more and more like something constructed out of Merrin's nightmares.


"I - wow - I guess that isn't...actually very surprising or much of an update. Compared to all the rest. It'd explain– actually I still feel confused about the banning the concept of having an economy thing but plausibly once I've thought about it longer it might make sense of why you could end up in that equilibrium. .....I'm sorry. Your world sounds - really frustrating to exist in - I guess I'm noticing that for myself but you've been doing it for way longer and with...less vocabulary to think about it productively...and that sounds really hard." 


"Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. The other thing you said, about focusing hard on one problem and not looking at the bigger picture--I'll keep that in mind, but I should warn you that that's what I've been doing on purpose. Keeping the trains running, leaving everything else to the people who know how to do it. I can see why that has to change, of course. But--when I was just starting out at Taggart Transcontinental, I got a job in a tiny station where I only had to think about one train a day. And that taught me the things I needed to know to think about the whole railroad. And maybe it's different for you, but maybe it isn't. Maybe it's alright to solve one problem and use that to learn how to solve the kind of problem this place has." He says all this with the open, straightforward gaze of a man who believes that the worst that can happen is that she'll fail to spot any flaws in his reasoning.


"Okay but–"


"I - sorry - I need a moment to think over that." 



He's describing a pattern with some very obvious failure modes, but it's also in fact the thing she was doing, before, in dath ilan. (Except, of course, that she wasn't doing it alone, she didn't have to take on faith that someone else would be handling the rest, and she had career counsellors and metacognition-advisors and mentorship relationships with people a lot more intelligent and experienced than herself...) 

- is that hitting or missing the point, here? She can't tell, for sure, and she shouldn't expect to be able to, she doesn't know enough, but - it at least makes sense, probably, to stop shutting down her instinctive responses and hear them out, if only in the privacy of her own mind?

So. Instinctive responses. 

Keeping the trains running, leaving everything else to the people who know how to do it. 

- is apparently giving her a VERY LOUD flinch response, of unease-and-horror, and - it's not about Eddie, personally, she doesn't think he's the - actual underlying source of the something-terribly-wrong. He's not the entity here that is making, not just suboptimal decisions, something worse than that, something that - almost hurts, to even consider, and then leaves her feeling somehow, indescribably, slimed and dirtied just for having considered it.... 

(There's clearly SOMETHING about that feeling to flag for later consideration, even if this is just a standard emotional response to learning about infohazards and a Keeper could tell her that in five seconds and also what to do about it - she doesn't have any of the usual support systems available and she doesn't have the option of looking-away because there's no one else and– all right she is maybe flinching too hard in the direction of desperate-heroism, when she tries to think about it, but the only and best solution is to make a mental note and think about it LATER when she feels less pressured -) 



- and she's about to open her mouth to reply when the other fragment of it - the first thing he said, in fact, but she's only processing it belatedly - hits her. 

Don't worry about me, I'll be fine.

....Merrin does not believe him even a little bit. Which is...kind of a paternalistic thought to have, about someone who has clearly demonstrated his competence and continues to demonstrate it. It doesn't call for any obvious changes to her actions, and she's not going to bring it up with him because that won't help and also sounds unbearably awkward although she thinks the unbearable awkwardness isn't most of why she isn't doing it. It's relevant to her predictions, though. To - and this is a thought that hurts, as well - to how alone she actually is. 


"I think that mostly makes sense. It - would be nice if we could just fix everything at once but I think that's just impossible, from where I am right now, and I can't change that by wanting it harder or feeling guilty about it. think I need to be - willing to look? It's going to be important to understand all the pieces of this, even the ones we can't necessarily address yet, because it's all going to be - causally interrelated?" Her sense of the language is informing her that that phrase does mean approximately what she's thinking in Baseline in her head, but also that the words are rare and the phrase is obscure, why would those words be rare that's stupid, "- um, I mean, stuff affects other stuff. And that's going to be easier with help but I don't think it just has to be you, I - should probably talk to experts in all the fields that are relevant to things we want to change. Which I'm obviously going to need your help with too since I don't know anyone here and if I just walk up to your scientists I won't have a lot of credibility." 'Credibility' is a weird word and she can't quite pin down what's weird about it but also if she gets distracted poking at the connotations of half the words she says then she's never going to finish any of her thoughts. 


"Yes, I agree, there isn't any one thing you can do right now that will solve everything, it has to be a lot of things at once and we don't even know what they all are yet. But we can start with one industry you understand really well, and figure out all the ways that it's different here from in your world, and see if there's some common root."

It feels like there is, like there's one thing driving the insane laws and the lack of good employees and the way so many people have retired and how hard it is to get anything made as well as things were made thirty years ago, like all of those are symptoms of the same disease.

"I can introduce you to people at the hospital, and do a better job of introducing you to our suppliers and customers, when it's time for you to look at them. And if you solve one problem you'll have money and credibility to use for the next problem."


"Okay. Yeah. That sounds like a decent plan. Should we– oh, sorry, I completely did not think to ask what time it is here. Should this be a plan for tomorrow?" 


"Yes, it's nearly midnight. You're welcome to the bed; I've slept in chairs for worse reasons."


It's tempting to politely decline the offer, she feels pretty bad about kicking a stranger out of his own bed and she's also slept in worse places than a chair, but it's probably not a good idea to follow that temptation - she doesn't, in fact, sleep as well in uncomfortable arrangements even if she's trained herself to do it at all, and she really quite badly needs her mind to be at its best, tomorrow. 

"All right. Thank you. I probably need to figure out somewhere else to sleep longer term but I guess midnight is not the time to try to do that." 


"There are hotels, and once you have a job you can get an apartment, but yes, that's something else for tomorrow. I can take you to the hospital tomorrow morning before I go to my office, make introductions, and meet up with you again at noon?"


Nod. "I do want to hear whatever background context you have on the hospital first, I think, but I'd better not keep you up." 

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