Mathemagical 2

Mathemagical 2: Local Optima

[Author’s Note: The method of “back-planning” that Dokan describes in this chapter is an actual experimentally backed way to improve your plans. You can find it under Planning 101, if you’re interested.]


 

I drummed my fingers on the window of the car. The taxi driver had been blissfully silent throughout the ride, leaving me free to my thoughts on the way to meet Andre at Kumori.

When we had first settled back into my apartment, I had been worried that Dokan might be bored just milling about in my apartment until we figured things out.

He ended up diving into my library, which made me glad I hadn’t sold all of my books when I left college for the monastery. Interestingly, Dokan started reading Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind and Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach at the same time.

I asked him why he’d chosen those two.

“To be honest, throughout all my years of focusing on my awareness, I have yet to turn my attention to attention itself. I have reflected upon the reflector, or that which you might call ‘me’, yes, but I have yet to look into the nature of consciousness, as these two books do. ‘Better late than never’, as the adage goes,” he said.

I nodded. Consciousness, among other things, had been on my mind as well. Since discovering magic, I’d updated on several hypotheses about the nature of reality:

One: Human consciousness actually was some sort of extraphysical phenomenon that relied on weird physics, similar to Penrose’s idea of neurons and quantum mechanics. The fact that magic was mentally activated and only worked on “objects” from my perception both lent some credence to the idea that my mind was fundamental on some level of reality. (So much for reductionism, Hofstadter.)

Two: “Reality” was a high-fidelity program being run on some supercomputer somewhere in the Actual Universe. The fact that magic was literally “applied math” was perhaps evidence we were in a simulation, given that math built up physics, which built up our world. A few philosophers like Nick Bostrom backed me up on this, with intricate arguments based on anthropic reasoning and probability theory, which I half-understood.

Three: A few other scattered ideas I’d lumped together, suspecting things like the presence of aliens, hallucinogens, or false memories, but I tried not to dwell on them. The space of possibilities grew exponentially vast when I considered things that didn’t require me to stick with the known laws of the universe, let alone the laws of probability.

As much as possible, I tried to constrain my thoughts to the practical object-level—figuring how to not end the world and using magic for good.

This whole “find out how to save the world” thing, I’ll admit, was stressful. Very stressful. Early on, there were moments where I’d seriously considered just leading a normal life. Which, I know, is probably one of the stupidest things you could do after gaining magical powers.

“Come on Sarah. Let’s just hurry up and get our priorities straight. You can’t stay all mopey. Trees are being cut down as we think, people are dying, and a killer asteroid might be on its way,” my brain had unhelpfully added.

I do want to say that I was trying to be aware of all the stupid pitfalls people in power fall into. My moral compass was pointed strictly towards Good, and the obvious thing to do now was to figure out the best way possible to abuse my powers for maximal humanitarian benefit.

In philosophy, I’d studied my Kant, Nietzsche, Singer, and Drescher. I was going try to be pragmatic and smart about this whole process, taking my time and staying cautious.

The world was a scary place, with disease and death. Even in the face of magic, the universe still seemed a chaotic, entropic place ruled by no one. As a result, that meant that the responsibility of figuring all this stuff out lay squarely on my shoulders.

I pulled Dokan away from my books and asked him to help me with some brainstorming.

And his shoulders too, I guess.

“Okay, we’ll set a twenty-five minute timer,” I said.

Then the two of us sat down to think.

****

For the first few days, though, Dokan and I had done a flurry of tests to figure out the extent of my abilities. As two responsible adults, we both had reservations about messing around with something potentially dangerous and uncertain.

But, I had argued, figuring out the extent and range of magic could come in very handy in the event of a killer asteroid, nuclear missile, or any other kind of projectile-based threat. (Assuming I could use magic to hurl it out from Earth, or something like that.)

So we had very carefully set up some small experiments, making sure the curtains were closed.

For the meantime, I’d decided to stick with translational functions. They were predictable, and I’d used them successfully so far. I wasn’t ready to try and risk something new when I wasn’t even sure how translations worked.

Once the experiments started, I felt my expectations go all over the place. Part of me was staying realistic about things, and part of me was not. I noted that this had also happened when I was back meditating.

“You know, if you have secret expectations, you should probably just bring them up to the surface. It’s confusing handling multiple levels of belief,” my brain said.

The good news seemed to be that even if anyone else from Dokan’s class had figured out the whole “math-magic-universe” association, they probably couldn’t just end the world from their living room couch:

We started with how the range of functions worked; the translational functions could only affect things in direct view. We’d tried some variations, like half-obscured objects and my looking at a live video feed, but those all failed. It looked like the entire object had to be visible, and it had to be about three meters away or less for me to move it.

Also, the weird ontological filter still applied, meaning I could only move “objects” that were distinct in the human sense. We’d tried moving the table, which had other things on it, and it had moved. The carpet, though, hadn’t moved, and I wasn’t sure why. My guess was that the carpet counted as the ground for most purposes, which meant it might not budge.

I figured a good general heuristic for the meantime was “magic works on any unobstructed object not held down by other ‘objects’”, which seemed valid for all things we tried.

I could also only apply one function at a time, and the space between moving one object to the next was constrained by my focus. My current time between translations was about five seconds.

As for the actual range once I’d applied a translational function on an item…that part was still confusing too. I wasn’t sure if my equations were actual kinematic equations in the sense of being able to affect velocity or acceleration. (Obviously position was being affected, though.)

Feeling creative, I had briefly wondered if the objects were making actual “jumps” through space, teleporting a miniscule distance at a time. Yes, I know this would have made little sense physically, but neither was anything else we were seeing.

Also, I had been tired.

I had attempted to disprove it anyway. But when the objects appeared to move faster when I only meant to move them farther, I gave up for the meantime.

In conclusion, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop a nuke until it was staring me in the face.

****

Once we had left the monastery, it also seemed prudent to give Bhante Dokan a makeover.

“I was all over the news, Sarah. People could easily see me and recognize who I am,” Dokan said.

“Hm, true. You should probably grow your hair out and dress normally,” I said.

His near-shaved head and robes had given him a distinctive look when he went on TV. If he removed those key identifying features, though, we’d probably be fine.

There was general buzz online from news sites and scientists who’d found that Bhante Dokan hadn’t been replying to their requests. A few groups had went to the actual monastery and found it understandably deserted.

I had been unsure how to manage the whole “magic monk mysteriously missing” situation.

Then things folded in on themselves rather neatly.

Someone posted a conspiracy theory online claiming to show how Dokan’s levitation worked (they claimed Dokan had just ripped off Copperfield). The theory got a bunch of traction, and for some reason James Randi refused to make an official statement on the matter.

This only fueled the interest in debunking Dokan’s levitation. Suddenly, a bunch of people came forward claiming they knew what was going on. Magic exposés were all the rage, and it now seemed fashionable to disbelieve.

In the end, the reporters who’d gotten an exclusive to the monastery ended up publicly admitting that maybe they’d just made the whole thing up.

I found the whole matter weird, but I moved on. It didn’t look like the media was interested in tracking us down, and that meant we could focus on other things in the meantime. Also, people were often pretty odd.

****

The pomodoro method is an obvious but useful productivity hack. By that I mean, the entire method is just a schedule that interleaves twenty-five minute chunks of “work time” with five minute chunks of “break time” in between. But for some reason this is surprisingly effective. It’s supposed to be good for doing your homework, taxes, writing—anything that requires you to put in time.

Turns out, it’s also good for planning world optimization:

“What about lifting rubble from disaster sites to save people?” Dokan suggested.

“Hmm, aren’t charities like the Red Cross already pretty on top of things like this? I’m not sure this would be the best use of my time—not to sound callous, of course,” I said. “Plus, then my abilities would be widely known.”

“Oh, yes,” said Dokan, “that could bode poorly.”

“It’d still be better than sitting in your room writing stuff down,” my brain said. I ignored it.

Maybe the primal part of me itched to be out doing superhero-esque things, but if I was going to save the world, I was going to do it right.

Which meant doing obvious tasks like taking the time to think things through.

I wrote “disaster relief” down on the “Maybe” category of my Potential Actions list and took another deep breath. The alarm went off.

“Five minute break,” I said.

Dokan left to get some water.

We’d already run through the fairly outlandish ideas like storming into the UN or convincing people I was the Messiah.

There were lots of other things I had at the back of my mind, like smashing stuff for the Large Hadron Collider, but those also required my abilities to be publicly known. I’d also suggested we focus on plans that brought change as fast as possible, so we hadn’t discussed anything very long-term.

In fact, I’d actually quite liked the Messiah idea, but Dokan pointed out that I’d probably need more proof than just floating. He’d done that, after all, and in the end things had just died down after skepticism flared up as people returned to their little bubble of normality.

“True. I’d need to be able to read people’s minds, or turn water into wine, or do something even more extravagant,” I said.

Then the timer rang, and we got back to work.

****

A few more cycles had passed, and I was feeling tired.

“I think we should stop for now. I’m not sure I can take too much more of this,” I said.

“Indeed, let us pause. If anything, Sarah, I believe our methodology has been flawed,” Dokan said slowly.

“Really? What are doing wrong?” I asked. I was sure there were ways to optimize our whole process, but I wasn’t sure what he’d suggest; Dokan’s mind ran quite differently from mine.

“So far, we’ve been looking at things you could do with your awakened abilities and finding ways to help others with this gift,” Dokan said.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“But our minds cannot easily navigate the tangle of threads moving into the future; they are far too numerous and variegated.”

“Sure,” I said.

“It seems far more prudent start from the end—the change you wish to see in the world—and then follow that thread back to where we are. Perhaps, then, it would be more fruitful to ask yourself what your desires are for the future and chart a reverse path to this specific future,” he said.

I blinked. I’d just had the concept of back-planning explained to me from a monk. I’d been expecting some indignant reply about how maybe we’d been considering some potentially unethical ideas, but this was far better.

“Dokan, wait, that actually makes a lot of sense,” I said.

“So Sarah, tell me, what is it that you hope to achieve?” Dokan asked.

I let the question hang for a moment and thought about it. What did I want to achieve?

“Erm, didn’t we sorta go over this before we started?” I asked. “The point here is to find ways of quickly helping as many people as possible. I’m open to pretty much anything except killing people.”

Dokan shook his head.

“I’m sorry; I will rephrase. What is your ultimate goal? If all goes well, what is the future you wish to see?” he asked.

“As in, what I want humanity’s direction to be?” I asked.

A feeling of “ugh” crept upon me. I saw what he was getting at.

“Yes. What is that world? What will your Earth be, that runs with your vision? If you could shape the world, what would that be?”

Dokan looked at me intently.

It was a valid question, but I wasn’t sure I had a good answer. I tried to ignore the rising feeling of aversion in my head.

“Well…I do hope it’s more than just Earth,” I said, “we only have a few billion years left here before the sun goes supernova. So I hope that we’ll at least have moved to other star systems. I want humanity to keep on going, past the stars. There’s lots of great things we could do into the future.”

Dokan seemed to think for a moment.

“Sarah, those dreams are so nebulous, like vast galaxies. And their reach is so far. Do you see Earth as only a blue-green sphere? A stepping stone for your ambition? Still, let us hone more in on how you relate to the universe. What are your personal aspirations for our species? Where do you fit in?” he asked.

I was going to comment that Earth really was nothing but a blue-green sphere, but I decided not to ruin his rhetoric.

“Um, If I beat entropy, that’d be pretty good? I guess I’d like to work towards that,” I said.

I snapped my fingers. “Oh, which reminds me, it might be worth considering seeing if magic is actually producing energy from nowhere. In which case, if I can’t think of anything else good to do, we can look into using magic as a perpetual energy source. Or, we should see if I can get an MRI to see what’s happening in my head when all this happens,” I said, all at once.

“Sarah, Sarah! Stay with me—I’m talking about your vision of the future,” Dokan said.

I groaned. It was always way easier talking about object-level things, like what to do, instead of why we do them. The “ugh” feeling was still there.

“I dunno, Dokan. Doesn’t it seem a little arrogant to think that my future of the world is how it’ll actually turn out?” I asked.

“You’re entitled to your opinion, Sarah,” said Dokan gently.

“Hah, as if,” my brain said, nearly automatically. I didn’t say that aloud either.

Dokan’s question was honing in on something I didn’t want to look at. There was a definite sense of “NO NO NO” in my head.

I wonder what’s causing this “ugh” feeling, I thought.

I took in a deep breath and actually focused on the answer that I’d squished down. I peered into myself. I looked into the messy tangle of aversion inside my head with a sense of, not enmity, but with curiosity.

And I accepted it for what it was.

“You know,” I said slowly, “I don’t know.”

Dokan was silent.

“Like, obviously there are things I want, like making sure everyone is healthy and generally not suffering. But I don’t know what the long-term future of our world looks like. So I’m mainly trying to focus on things that Future Sarah won’t regret,” I said.

The uncertainty of it all now wedged itself in my center, like a tight knot. It rose up as I spoke. I continued, “Apart from that, though, I don’t have it all figured out. I…I’ll probably need people smarter than me to help me figure this out. Or just generally get smarter.”

I felt the tightness in my chest lift slightly.

“Yeah, so that’s what been in my head,” I said. “So at some point, it seems like a really good idea to find smart people and bring them into the loop.”

My brain responded, “Great idea. Just wait until one of them betrays you and everything falls apart.”  

I ignored it and wrote down “find trustworthy intelligent people” down under the “Definitely” category.

The “ugh” feeling had abated somewhat. I continued with my original train of thought.

“And, of course, we’ll need to get people off this planet at some point. Wait—can I send things into orbit with magic?”

“Going into space, you mean?” asked Dokan.

“Yeah…” I said. Dokan’s words had struck a chord.

Why was spaceflight sounding so familiar?

It took a few seconds, then I got it. I felt slightly stupid for not having seen it earlier. I didn’t beat myself up, though, because I had been juggling a lot of things, but I still felt stupid that I hadn’t thought more about space earlier.

I mean, I knew someone who was in the field.

Andre. Satellites. Kumori.

“Sarah?” asked Dokan.

“I think there’s someone I should to talk to,” I said.

****

Andre Huang had made Forbes “30 Under 30” list last year when he went public with his company, Kumori, which launched private satellites.

He also happened to be a good friend of mine.

Things had been strictly platonic, but we’d been very close throughout high school. Andre was smart, reasonable, and took well to crazy ideas—it was how he started Kumori after all.

If I wanted to test the feasibility of using magic for space travel, or just get a trustworthy third brain working on this problem, talking to him made a lot of sense.

Andre and I had hung out less after he started working on Kumori full-time. Then I’d left to go learn meditation, so we hadn’t connected for several months. Under a pretense of catching up, I could probably rope him into helping me test some more ways to exploit magic.

“I’m going to give a friend a call,” I said to Dokan.

There was no reply. He’d apparently fallen asleep on the couch. I didn’t blame him.

I brought up Andre’s number on my phone. After a few rings, a voice picked up on the other end:

“Hello?”

“Hey Andre, this is Sarah. It’s been a while,” I said.

“Sarah! No ways! How have you been? We need to, need to catch up!” Andre said.

“I’m doing not-terrible,” I said.

“Great! What about catching up?”

“Yes, let’s catch up. I have something that’ll probably blow your mind!” Some of the enthusiasm was forced, but I really did want to catch up.

“Gah! Awesome! Did you finally solve something cool in decision theory? I know you were doing some independent research back in college,” Andre said.

“Ah, unfortunately the decision theory stuff didn’t really pan out well. So this is, uh, actually something different. Even more awesome, I think. You’re going to love it, I think. Look, can we set a time to chat? Maybe at your office?” I asked.

“Definitely! For sure! I’ve got some free time coming up next week…”

****

Andre and I had set up a time to meet. I spent the days leading up trying to figure out the most tactful way bring up the fact that I had pseudo-telekinesis that might prove helpful for space flight. I ended up just settling for the simple approach—telling it to him straight .

Then the day came, and I got in a taxi, staring out the window.

Dokan had opted to stay at home instead, finishing up the two books. I also hadn’t told Andre about the monk yet.

The driver finally pulled up to Kumori, which housed its offices in a downtown business complex. I paid him and got out. Andre was standing near the curb; he smiled.

We’d decided to meet on a Saturday, which meant that no other employees would be present. Andre had thought it weird I’d insisted on meeting at his offices, rather than at a local cafe, but I just told him I’d tell him when we met.

“Sarah! It’s great to see you again, in the flesh!” he said, giving me a quick hug.

“Hey, Andre,” I said.

“So. What’s so weird and secret that caused you to think meeting at Kumori would be a better idea?” he asked.

“Let’s go inside first,” I said.

“Wow, so it’s that secret, huh?” Andre didn’t object though, and punched the keypad, allowing us in.

****

“No ways. No freaking ways. Do it again!” said Andre.

I lifted him up once more.

“Oh my gosh! This is in-freaking-sane!”

The two of us were set up on the floor of his office, having moved boxes and desks aside.

I’d given him a quick overview, skipping over magic’s connection to math, and merely told him I’d learned magic from Dokan. It was to Andre’s credit that he didn’t start laughing outright. He did ask, however, for proof.

In response, I applied a quick translation function and moved him up about a meter.

Surprise ensued.

“Okay, okay, just let me actually think about this for five minutes,” Andre said after he had calmed down.

“Sure,” I said.

He took out my phone and set a five-minute timer. Andre cared a lot about really taking the time to do things, and I respected him for that. (He was the one who got me into pomodoros.)

“Okay,” Andre said after the time was up. “I’m sure you’ve probably already covered the obvious stuff, like not using your powers for evil, blah blah blah.”

“Yep,” I said.

“Cool, just checking,” he said. “Because, that is important, you know.”

“Right. So, um, thoughts on using this for space launch?” I asked. I tried not to dwell on the fact that I could, if I wanted to, throw Andre through the window. Not that I wanted to, of course.

“Yeaaah, that seems like a good idea in practice, but there are way too many unknown unknowns here,” he said, “My short answer is that I don’t think it’ll be likely to be useful until we get more information.”

My excitement faded and was replaced with a sinking feeling.

“To be honest, I don’t really know what’s up with this whole magic thing either,” I said.

“Well, it’s still really insane that you’re literally breaking several physical laws right now! And, uh, you mentioned you tried some basic experiments?” Andre asked.

His tone was more gentle. I realized my disappointment had probably shown on my face.

Stupid facial cues, I thought.

“Nothing definite,” I said, “Basically, I found out my range is only about three meters; I can’t move stuff farther away.”

“Really? Weird. I’m actually pretty curious about that,” Andre said.

“Maybe we can try nailing that down first?” I asked. “We should probably start small.”

“Normally, I’d object about how this is an example of bikeshedding, but I’m still trying to collect my thoughts. So, uh, sure, let’s try this thing first. It shouldn’t take too long,” he said.

We got out a tape measure and started trying to pin down my range.

****

“Oh God, what the actual heck? What the actual heck?” Andre was screaming.

I wasn’t holding up much better.

“This plot, this freaking plot,” I said, quoting from somewhere.

It was, as Andre would say, un-freaking-believable.

It turned out that the range of my magic was e meters.

As in Euler’s number.

As in Euler’s number.

As in the limit of one plus one over X to the X as X went to infinity.

As in Euler’s number.

“What,” I said.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly 2.7182812 exactly, but it was scarily close. Also, the numbers were inconsistent depending on if I was standing, sitting, or whatever.

But the point remained that for the vast majority of the time, the distance between me and the object I was affecting was e.

“What—what—what,” Andre was saying to himself.

I took in a deep breath. My brain tried to reassert itself, offering explanations for everything that had just happened.

“Well…I mean, confirmation bias is definitely a thing,” I said, trying to not lose my mind. “We should definitely make sure we haven’t just been subconsciously engaging in, like, motivated reasoning, right?”

“That’s good, Sarah, just keep sticking to your reasonable sounding arguments and discount the evidence in front of you. Remember, the Matrix Lords can’t kill you if you don’t show any signs that you’ve figured it all out,” my brain said.

“R-right,” Andre said, “maybe we just got a little carried away.”

We tried the measurements again.

The numbers still matched up.

“I’m going to just quietly shut off for a little bit,” my brain said. “Don’t mind me.”

“Maybe we could talk about something else in the meantime?” I asked.

“Yeah, that seems good,” Andre said.

There was false sense of calm in the air.

We went over a few other ways to leverage magic to save the world.

Andre, with a critical mindset, proposed turning me into a human battery. His point was that if I could seemingly move anything, regardless of weight, then there might be some sort of setup where I could mentally move a generator or something. He argued that this could probably produce net energy assuming the energy I produced was greater than the energy I took in as food.

“Think about it, Sarah, with the right setup, you might be able to power all of humanity!” he said.

“Sounds good. Except that if we become a battery, we’ll probably be locked up somewhere, forced to do the same thing over and over until we die,” my brain said.

“Shut up brain, you’re being selfish,” I told myself.

“Uh, yeah, I’ll consider that,” I said aloud to Andre. I really didn’t want to be locked up, though.

The rest of the conversation didn’t go very far, and then it was somehow already evening.

“So I guess you can call me when you’re free again to schedule another meetup?” I asked.

“Yeah, that seems good,” Andre said, “I’m going to, uh, re-check those figures on your range and units.”

“Great,” I said.

The ride back took a long time.

Dokan’s words still echoed in my mind—what did I want to gain from all this? So far, I’d been winging it, immediately jumping to possible ways to use translational functions for maximum humanitarian benefit.

And then it turned out I wasn’t even actually trying to maximize humanitarian benefit—I’d just discarded Andre’s suggestion of turning myself into a battery because I found it absolutely terrifying. Forced to spend all day generating energy? Even if it was for everyone’s benefit, I shuddered at that.

Whether I liked it or not, it looked like my sense of self-preservation was working against me here.

As for the new development on the units of how magic worked… I really didn’t want to think about that right now. Andre had left me some more notes on other ideas, though it had been clear neither of us were operating at full capacity after the tests.

But it was definitely a start at unraveling how this magic stuff worked.

Watching cars stream past the window, I updated my belief that mathematics secretly controlled the universe.

****

I made my way up to the third floor to my apartment.

The hallway was illuminated by the setting sun, with the light streaming through the windows set in the walls.

Someone was hanging around in front of my door. I stopped short.

It was an unfamiliar girl who looked Chinese and about my age. She turned her head, looked at me, and nodded, giving me a cool gaze.

“Sarah Khan,” she said.

I frowned. “Hello. Have we met before?”

Someone I didn’t recognize knew my name. Paranoia flared up.

“I rang the bell a little earlier, but you weren’t home,” she said.

My question remained unanswered.

“Um, so, yeah. I’m Sarah. What’s this all about?” I said. It looked like Dokan hadn’t opened the door when she rang earlier, which was smart of him.

The girl stared off into space for a brief moment, before her eyes widened.

“Um,” I said.

Her attention shifted back, eyes on me, face impassive.

“I have been looking for you, Sarah,” she said.

Which obviously didn’t explain how she knew where I lived or why she wanted to talk to me in the first place. Still, politeness came first; I extended my hand.

“Oh. Well, hello. I’m Sarah Khan, as you apparently already know,” I said.

The girl looked at my hand for a moment. Slowly, she shook it.

“My name is Mei Fong Lin,” she said.

“Sarah, do you not see these warning signs? Suspicious person shows up at your door and knows your name? There are two possibilities here: government agent or professional assassin. Why are you still standing here?” my brain said.

“Um,” I said.

“I can assure you that I’m not working with the US government or anyone else but myself,” Mei Fong said, as if reading my mind. She nodded, like this cleared up everything.

“You do understand that’s not very reassuring, right? I know nothing about you or why you’re here at my door,” I said.

“Right. I’m here to talk about magic. And you,” she said.

“What? Magic?” I asked, trying to mimic how I thought a normal person would react.

“That’s good, Sarah. Plausible deniability. Keep it natural,” my brain said. “Also, maybe we should get out of here right now?”

“I’m talking about magic. Math. Whatever you call it. You don’t need to pretend with me,” Mei Fong said.

“Pretend about what?” I asked.

Her expression remained smooth and cold.

“Sarah, this conversation would go a lot quicker if you just acknowledged everything. You learned magic from Bhante Dokan. That’s obviously why I’m here,” she said.

My heart beat a little quicker. Was this public info?

I supposed someone could have tracked my online application. Also, someone could have hypothetically just asked another student who had been at the monastery, like Kevin.

I really didn’t want to deal with this right now. My brain was screaming at me to get out of the situation. Mei Fong was had her back to my door, so I couldn’t even get past her without opening the room, where I’d undoubtedly give her a glimpse of Dokan.

I currently pegged her as an overzealous journalist who thought she had the next big story.

The unfortunate thing was, she was on the right track.

“Well yeah, Mei Fong, I went to Dokan’s place, but it was all super cultish. I never learned anything. And didn’t you see the articles? It was all a trick with hidden wires. There was no magic,” I said, deciding to admit my attendance.

Mei Fong zoned out for a few seconds again before she answered. I wondered if she was totally healthy.

“Incorrect. I know what really happened. I’ve already spoken to Kevin, and he told me,” she said.

Screw you Kevin, I thought.

Still, it it was also possible this was a trick and she’d just pulled his name from some records. I didn’t know. With the new information of e on my mind, I didn’t have the mental capacity to deal with this shady journalist.

“Right, we’ve got a lot going on. It’s a wonder we haven’t snapped yet and thrown a car at a building,” my brain said. “And can we please leave this situation already? A mysterious girl who knows more than she should? How is this not alarming? Let’s go!”

Except that my only choice was to leave the apartment, and Mei Fong could follow me. Still, it was probably better than just standing here leaking bits of information. Even a dismissal can give data, and it looked like Mei Fong knew that I knew about magic.

Which meant that she had good reason to discount anything that came out of my mouth.

“I’m really sorry, but you’re blocking my doorway. Could you please move?” I said, “It’s been a long day.”

Mei Fong narrowed her eyes.

“Look, Sarah, from the outside view you’ve already lost. If you actually didn’t know anything, you’d already be inside the door, or you would have pushed me out of the way. The fact that you’re still here tells me that I’m right,” Mei Fong said. “Just admit everything, and then we can talk candidly.”

I blinked. She was good at this; I’d obviously been playing at the wrong level in this conversation. Of course, I couldn’t really back out now—that would be an even more obvious sign of admission from me.

“No! I don’t know anything about magic, and you’re intentionally blocking my way,” I said. “Leave, or I’m walking to the nearest police station and if you follow me, I’ll…I’ll do whatever sort of action I can take once I’m there.”

“Great; as if walking away doesn’t signal any information about how much we’re admitting,” my brain said. “Not to mention that we haven’t yet actually denied anything.”

Mei Fong shook her head and and looked at me.

“I don’t have time for this. Haven’t I just proven that you don’t lose anything by admitting everything? I already know about magic. And Dokan. Magic has a radius of about e meters. Can’t we just move forward now that it’s common knowledge that you know that I know?” she said.

I registered that Mei Fong had just revealed she also knew about the whole deal with e. Meh. I didn’t have any more capacity for shock. Apparently the universe (which might or might not be a simulation) was set on throwing absurd things at me.

I wasn’t going to take it.

“Look, I have no idea who you are or what you want. You’ve been obstructing my doorway, and you come around making ridiculous accusations. This is not how you engage in good human-to-human interactions!”

I realized my fist was up in the air. I slowly brought it down.

Suddenly, Mei Fong’s whole face changed.

A slight smile graced her face. She took a step back, and the pressure that had been building up in the conversation receded. Her stance shifted inward.

She spoke, “My apologies, Sarah. In my excitement, it seems I’ve violated several social boundaries. Regardless of what the flow of information would dictate, it seems I failed to consider things from your perspective. You obviously have no reason to trust me and no incentive to engage with me right now.”

“Um,” I said.

Potential psychopath right here, I thought. Wait, probably not.

I wasn’t sure about the actual base rate for the Dark Triad, but I recalled it was something like one percent for that trio of “dark” mental disorders. So Mei Fong probably wasn’t a psychopath if we were just going by the statistical base rate.

“You’re forgetting that she just said some crazy things and showed up out of nowhere!” my brain said. “This is obviously strong evidence in favor of Mei Fong being abnormal!”

I took a step back.

In my head, I did the math. The correct thing to do in this case was to multiply the strength of the evidence by the base rate to get a conditional probability. Which meant that even if psychopaths were a hundred times more likely to say the weird things Mei Fong just said, the chance of her actually being one were still about fifty-fifty.

And there was no way that the chances of saying odd things were actually a hundred to one. It wasn’t that strange to have such a sudden change of attitude—Andre and I had had weirder conversations.  

None of this, though, changed the fact that continuing the conversation was stupid.

“Great, as if we didn’t know that before,” my brain said.

“So, Sarah, as a gift and not a transaction, I will voluntarily give you some information,” Mei Fong said.

My mouth opened and no sound came out. I had no idea where this was going.

“I think it’s safe to say you have altruistic aspirations, yes?” she asked.

I slowly nodded.

“Good; you will like this,” Mei Fong said. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and checked it.

“One… week from now, at midday, a group is planning on bombing the National Archives. They’ll come from the back and drive up in a grey Toyota, license plate 3GHG149,” she said, reading from the screen.

Okay. Well then.

“That’s a bold falsifiable claim,” I finally said.

I didn’t care about the Archives right now. I just wanted her to leave.

“No matter; I’m just giving you the information. What you do with it is up to you. Here’s my phone number,” Mei Fong crouched down and placed a white business card on the ground, in front of the door.

“Bet you there’s chloroform on it,” my brain said.

“You see, I want us to work together in the future, Sarah. I have information, as I’ve just demonstrated in a somewhat costly way to myself. It would be fun if we could continue this conversation,” Mei Fong said.

The smile on her face was not comforting.

“And, yes, I’ll be leaving now. Do verify the bomb threat. Or stop it. Whatever best suits your preferences. I just want you to see that I can be useful to you. Of course, you’re under no obligation to call if it turns out I’m not credible,” she said.

“Um,” I said.

Then she left.

“Can we agree that this at least made the top three weirdest conversations we’ve had?” my brain said.

I waited a few minutes and looked out the window in the wall to confirm her leaving the building. Mei Fong’s slim figure faded into the street.

Somehow, as improbable as it would be, I knew I’d be making a trip to the National Archives in three days.

I stared at the card on the ground.

Finally, I opened my apartment door.

“Dokan?” I said, “There’s something on the ground here I want you to check out for me…”

****

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