Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
Sunlight enriched air already alive with curiosity, as dawn rose on Brennan and his fellow students in the place to which Jeffreyssai had summoned them.
They sat there and waited, the five, at the top of the great glassy crag that was sometimes called Mount Mirror, and more often simply left unnamed. The high top and peak of the mountain, from which you could see all the lands below and seas beyond.
(Well, not all the lands below, nor seas beyond. So far as anyone knew, there was no place in the world from which all the world was visible; nor, equivalently, any kind of vision that would see through all obstacle-horizons. In the end it was the top only of one particular mountain: there were other peaks, and from their tops you would see other lands below; even though, in the end, it was all a single world.)
"What do you think comes next?" said Hiriwa. Her eyes were bright, and she gazed to the far horizons like a lord.
Taji shrugged, though his own eyes were alive with anticipation. "Jeffreyssai's last lesson doesn't have any obvious sequel that I can think of. In fact, I think we've learned just about everything that I knew the beisutsukai masters know. What's left, then -"
"Are the real secrets," Yin completed the thought.
Hiriwa and Taji and Yin shared a grin, among themselves.
Styrlyn wasn't smiling. Brennan suspected rather strongly that Styrlyn was older than he had admitted.
Brennan wasn't smiling either. He might be young, but he kept high company, and had witnesssed some of what went on behind the curtains of the world. Secrets had their price, always, that was the barrier that made them secrets; and Brennan thought he had a good idea of what this price might be.
The room in which Jeffreyssai received his non-beisutsukai visitors was quietly formal, impeccably appointed in only the most conservative tastes. Sunlight and outside air streamed through a grillwork of polished silver, a few sharp edges making it clear that this wall was not to be opened. The floor and walls were glass, thick enough to distort, to a depth sufficient that it didn't matter what might be underneath. Upon the surfaces of the glass were subtly scratched patterns of no particular meaning, scribed as if by the hand of an artistically inclined child (and this was in fact the case).
Elsewhere in Jeffreyssai's home there were rooms of other style; but this, he had found, was what most outsiders expected of a Bayesian Master, and he chose not to enlighten them otherwise. That quiet amusement was one of life's little joys, after all.
The guest sat across from him, knees on the pillow and heels behind. She was here solely upon the business of her Conspiracy, and her attire showed it: A form-fitting jumpsuit of pink leather with even her hands gloved—all the way to the hood covering her head and hair, though her face lay plain and unconcealed beneath.
And so Jeffreyssai had chosen to receive her in this room.
Jeffreyssai let out a long breath, exhaling. "Are you sure?"
"Oh," she said, "and do I have to be absolutely certain before my advice can shift your opinions? Does it not suffice that I am a domain expert, and you are not?"
"Do as well as Einstein?" Jeffreyssai said, incredulously. "Just as well as Einstein? Albert Einstein was a great scientist of his era, but that was his era, not this one! Einstein did not comprehend the Bayesian methods; he lived before the cognitive biases were discovered; he had no scientific grasp of his own thought processes. Einstein spoke nonsense of an impersonal God—which tells you how well he understood the rhythm of reason, to discard it outside his own field! He was too caught up in the drama of rejecting his era's quantum mechanics to actually fix it. And while I grant that Einstein reasoned cleanly in the matter of General Relativity—barring that matter of the cosmological constant—he took ten years to do it. Too slow!"
"Too slow?" repeated Taji incredulously.
"Too slow! If Einstein were in this classroom now, rather than Earth of the negative first century, I would rap his knuckles! You will not try to do as well as Einstein! You will aspire to do BETTER than Einstein or you may as well not bother!"
Jeffreyssai shook his head. "Well, I've given you enough hints. It is time to test your skills. Now, I know that the other beisutsukai don't think much of my class projects..." Jeffreyssai paused significantly.
Brennan inwardly sighed. He'd heard this line many times before, in the Bardic Conspiracy, the Competitive Conspiracy: The other teachers think my assignments are too easy, you should be grateful, followed by some ridiculously difficult task—
This time there were no robes, no hoods, no masks. Students were expected to become friends, and allies. And everyone knew why you were in the classroom. It would have been pointless to pretend you weren't in the Conspiracy.
Their sensei was Jeffreyssai, who might have been the best of his era, in his era. His students were either the most promising learners, or those whom the beisutsukai saw political advantage in molding.
Brennan fell into the latter category, and knew it. Nor had he hesitated to use his Mistress's name to open doors. You used every avenue available to you, in seeking knowledge; that was respected here.
"—for over thirty years," Jeffreyssai said. "Not one of them saw it; not Einstein, not Schrödinger, not even von Neumann." He turned away from his sketcher, and toward the classroom. "I pose to you to the question: How did they fail?"
The students exchanged quick glances, a calculus of mutual risk between the wary and the merely baffled. Jeffreyssai was known to play games.
The torches that lit the narrow stairwell burned intensely and in the wrong color, flame like melting gold or shattered suns.
Brennan's sandals clicked softly on the stone steps, snicking in sequence, like dominos very slowly falling.
Half a circle ahead of him, a trailing fringe of dark cloth whispered down the stairs, the robed figure itself staying just out of sight.
Not much longer, Brennan predicted to himself, and his guess was accurate:
Sixteen times sixteen steps was the number, and they stood before the portal of glass.
The great curved gate had been wrought with cunning, humor, and close attention to indices of refraction: it warped light, bent it, folded it, and generally abused it, so that there were hints of what was on the other side (stronger light sources, dark walls) but no possible way of seeing through—unless, of course, you had the key: the counter-door, thick for thin and thin for thick, in which case the two would cancel out.
From the robed figure beside Brennan, two hands emerged, gloved in reflective cloth to conceal skin's color. Fingers like slim mirrors grasped the handles of the warped gate—handles that Brennan had not guessed; in all that distortion, shapes could only be anticipated, not seen.
"Do you want to know?" whispered the guide; a whisper nearly as loud as an ordinary voice, but not revealing the slightest hint of gender.
Brennan paused. The answer to the question seemed suspiciously, indeed extraordinarily obvious, even for ritual.