Myths of the Veritas: The Fourth Ring of Empathy

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As was their wont, the Veritas celebrated each day but celebrated especially the completion of the harvest of the fullness of the fall. She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives, She-of-Many-Paths, Eyes-of-Eagle, Shade-Walker, Pond Mud, Alt-R, and all those who sought the rings of empathy and all those who did not participated as best they could in the harvest and in the celebration, for both, all knew, proved vital to the life of the Veritas. 

The Veritas likewise celebrated the first snow, and She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives spent the winter carefully observing all among the tribe and especially the Six-Who-See-With-Animal-Eyes. She also began devising the next trial. And among the Six-Who-See-With-Animal-Eyes, all awaited the call to the next trial. One among those six, named Trunk-of-Tree, waited in stillness like the sleeping trees, silently wondering what the next test might be. One among those six, named Fleet-of-Foot, waited like a cloud letting the winds of chance and fortune shape his days and his thoughts. But four among those six, did not wait for the next words of She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives to prepare for the next test. 

She-of-Many-Paths continued to study the Wolves and as she learned more about them, she became less afraid of them and they became less afraid of her, so much so that she observed them mating. When she observed this, she somehow wished that Shade-Walker was watching with her although this wish struck her as a strange one and her cheeks grew flushed. 

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She-of-Many-Paths did not limit herself to trying to see through the eyes only of Wolf. In the long dark evenings of storytelling, she listened to the tales but tried to imagine each one through each being in the story, whether human, animal, lake, cloud, or tree. When she helped with harvests or any other task of Fall or Winter, she would try to learn from the wisdom of those who had done such tasks many times before. Some in the tribe jokingly though lovingly began to call her, She-of-Many-Questions. 

Likewise, Eyes-of-Eagle continued to observe Eagles though her real passion had become shapes and what they signified. She wondered, among many such wonderings, why Acorn had a sharp point on the bottom. She tried dropping acorns in various ways and if they were dropped from sufficient height, they always landed point down. She imagined that she was a mighty oak and that the acorns were her babies. She liked it when they landed point down. It seemed the right thing. 

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Eyes-of-Eagle watched also how water flowed around rocks. She looked at the legs of running animals including her tribe-mates and saw how cleverly the shapes of all such legs flowed by each other without catching on each other. She saw the ways in which every snowflake was the same and the ways in which every snowflake was different. Eyes-of-Eagle took notice as well of the changing shape of Shade-Walker whose arms and legs became adorned with larger muscles. 

Likewise, Shade-Walker became obsessed, not only with Snakes, but also with light and also with heat and how light became heat. He imagined what it was like to be light and what it was like to be heat. He noticed as well how many, but not all, animals and plants slept a long sleep when light and heat were less. He noticed how each animal and even sleeping plants made their own heat even when there was no light. He became more convinced that Snake could feel the heat of animals from a much greater distance than he himself could. In his noticing of heat and light, Shade-Walker began to notice the way that sunlight played in the hair of She-of-Many-Paths and in the hair of Eyes-of-Eagle. The sunlight in their hair brought warmth to his own body, and this he found mysterious. 

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He whom the tribe called Easy-Tears continued to observe Squirrel. He was surprised to learn that Squirrel seemed to forget many of the places he had saved acorns and hickories and butternuts though he himself recalled each such one he had seen buried. He began to wonder whether Squirrels had their own language. When eagle, hawk, or owl flew nearby, it seemed to Easy-Tears that the first Squirrel who saw such a Squirrel-eater would warn the others. But was the chattering just a general warning such as “Beware! Beware!” or did the warning say where to look as well or say how far away such a Squirrel-eater was? Easy-Tears marveled at the way Squirrel could leap from branch to branch, just catching on to a far tree and nearly but never falling. On one such marveling however, during a thaw, he saw one such unlucky Squirrel miss a very high branch and fall onto a hard rock. This was a fall that Unlucky Squirrel did not recover from. Then, Easy-Tears watched through the thick boughs of a scented cedar as all of the friends of Unlucky Squirrel came to circle around him and look upon Unlucky Squirrel in chatter-less and respectful silence. 

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She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives observed or otherwise knew how each of the Six prepared themselves, or not, for the next trial. But, this was not the limit of her knowledge and observations. She also followed with some close attention Pond Mud and Alt-R as well. Though both had failed the third test, their reactions were quite different. Pond Mud took no further interest in learning about ants. Indeed, he was often seen taking such a small person as an ant and crushing her between his fingers as though to prove his superior strength. This and his other actions indicated he was feeding the “Bad Wolf” within. He sometimes used his superior strength, not for the good of the Veritas, but to force his will upon others. Pond Mud seemed to think little of how he appeared through the eyes of Ant or indeed through the eyes of any other among the Veritas. 

Alt-R however, seemed to realize that, smart as he was, he did not know all things and set himself to learning from the best weaver how to weave and from the best stone chipper how to chip stones and from the best tree hewer how to fell trees. In this way, he gradually learned how to see more clearly through the eyes of others. The Shaman felt that perhaps she had been too hasty in her judgement of Alt-R. She would continue to watch him with careful eyes and a careful heart.

At last, the icy snows and winds of winter withdrew and the speckled red and green heads of Skunk Cabbage appeared in the swamps and likewise, the slender rods of Garlic and Onion began to welcome the spring sun though their roots lay beneath melting snows. When at last, no snow or ice remained except on mountain peaks and in shady caves, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives called the Six-Who-See-With-Animal-Eyes to her. 

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“As you all know,” began the Shaman, “the animals of the air, and the lakes, and the forests, and the plains are all different and each has their own skills and their own ways of knowing and seeing. So too, even among the Veritas, there are many different skills and many different ways of knowing how-to. Indeed, even among you six, I have observed that you have different flavors or colors of how-to.”

{Translator’s Note:} What follows is necessarily a very loose translation. The Veritas apparently had many words to describe the quality of what was made as well as how it was made. No-one to my knowledge has determined precisely how the various mind sets relate to what happens in terms of either what is produced or the experience of the production. I am not sure, for example, whether the word for the way of how-to for Fleet-of-Foot necessarily implies a sloppy end result as well as a result achieved quickly.  

“Among you Six, Fleet-of-Foot likes to run quickly. But so too, does he do everything quickly. He has learned to gather acorns quickly. He has learned to weave quickly. His tongue is as quick as his feet as you have all no doubt noticed. 

“Trunk-of-Tree is much slower and stronger, but he also has learned the how-to of building, weaving, and spear-making to be strong against winds and winter and many throws. When, he speaks, he speaks slowly and carefully but with purpose.

“Easy-Tears wants everyone to be happy to save his own tears. He therefore has learned the how-to of making things that all or many will like immediately. So too, when he speaks, he is careful not to offend but to make everyone like what he is saying. 

“Shade-Walker has learned the how-to of making things so that the making itself is a pleasurable thing. This too is a valuable how-to as are all such ways in different circumstances. 

“Eyes-of-Eagle has been learning the how-to of making things beautiful.”

Now, Fleet-of-Foot spoke, “Which among all these many ways of how-to is the best though? Surely, it is always best to make all things as quickly as possible. Isn’t that what all should be learning?”

“Each way of how-to is best under different circumstances, Fleet-of-Foot. There is no best part of a tree. Without roots, the tree will die. Without bark, insects will eat the tree. Without leaves to welcome the sun, tree will die. Without nuts, fruits, or cones, tree can have no children. Every part is different, but each is important.” She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives looked at each of the others in turn. When, she came to She-of-Many-Paths, their eyes held and She-of-Many-Paths began to speak.

“So it is also with Wolf. Without legs, Wolf cannot run. Without eyes, Wolf cannot see. Without a mouth, Wolf cannot eat. Without ears, Wolf cannot hear. Every part is vital. I see this clearly, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives, but I am not so sure what my how-to skill is. I think all of these ways of how-to are vital.” Then her eyes silently questioned the Shaman.

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She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives smiled with her gentle eyes at She-of-Many-Paths as she answered. “Each thing we make comes from the earth; comes through the people and their work; comes to those who use such things and everything returns to the earth once again. When you take reeds from the Lake of Reeds and weave a basket, the basket is a gift from the earth and the lake and also from your own labor. Your labor is also a gift from those of our ancestors who learned how to weave. I think your own way of how-to is to make such a connection clear so that each such person who uses your basket or throws such a spear as you make is quite aware of that connection. Such a basket or spear feels good in the hand but it also feels good in the way it connects the person and therefore all of the Veritas to the earth and all of us, living and dead.” 

She-of-Many-Paths had never had such a clear vision of her how-to calling, but when she heard it, she felt her heart quiver. This, she now realized, had always been in her heart as she did things and made things. Each day she had seen more and more clearly how all things were connected and that all the people were connected. A gift, she thought, should make those connections clearer to everyone else. The image of Pond Mud and his well-muscled body came to mind and she wondered whether she could construct such a gift as to make him see how he was connected to all so that he would stop trying to bully smaller boys and stop crushing ants to no purpose. 

She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives continued, “Each of you has began exploring a different way of how-to. As you grow in experience, you will learn more about your own path. You began on your path patly because of your own nature. And partly you began on this path because of circumstance. As you learn, people will come to know you and seek you out according to your special way of how-to. Over time, you will become more and more expert at your particular way of how-to. This is good. All of these are appropriate or less so according to circumstance and task. However, it is also good that you learn at least something of the way of how-to of some other person. This has many benefits for you and for the Veritas.

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“It will be good for you in the very process of trying to do something according to someone else’s how to. It will stretch your mind. You will also be better connected to someone else for having tried to use their how-to skills. In the future, in some cases, it will be necessary to make something for the people that makes use of more than one of these skills in order that it may most benefit all the Veritas. It may also be that in such a working together you may discover a new way of how-to that none yet know. Between two paths in the forest, another path may be laid. In a storm, a river may take a new path. Therefore, listen as I tell you your next trial.

“Fleet-of-Foot, your task will be to create a hammock with the way of how-to of Trunk-of-Tree to his satisfaction and with his guidance.

“Trunk-of-Tree, your task will be to create a basket that will be as instantly popular as though it were made by Easy-Tears himself.

“Easy-Tears, your task will be to create a travois that will be as grounded and mindful as one created by She-of-Many-Paths.

“She-of-Many-Paths, you will make a hide tent to the satisfaction of Shade-Walker.

“Shade-Walker, you in turn, will devise a set of fine clay jugs that will delight the sense of beauty of Eyes-of-Eagle.

“Eyes-of-Eagle, you will make me a new dream catcher with the how-to ways of Fleet-of-Foot. 

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“Each of you will help any of the Six with any asked questions and observations. But the work itself must be made by the person assigned. I may observe you from time to time and I may not. When a task is finished, you are to show me the finished work in pairs for I want to question you both. At such time as all six tasks are done, I shall then determine how many of the six of you will pass on to the next trial. It is even possible that some may join in the next trial who did not participate in this one. 

“Do not be deceived. This is a more difficult test than you might think. You may fail by not satisfying your judge. But you may also fail by not helping sufficiently the person you are judging. And, both of your pair may fail if I feel that your judge has not been sufficiently strict in his or her critiques. Go now in peace. I look forward to seeing these artifacts designed and built with the way of the how-to of another.”

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The protégés returned to their own lodgings. They began their walk in silence but by the time they returned to their lodgings around the central fire, they were talking excitedly about their plans and all were resolved to begin at dawn. 

She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives returned to her cabin smiling. She badly needed a new dream catcher, for lately, her dreams had been disturbing indeed. Well, soon enough, that would be fixed. She drifted off wondering why it was so difficult to explain that all of the ways of how-to had their place in different circumstances. It seemed quite obvious to her, but this had not been  so obvious to the Six. Well, they are yet young. She noted too that they were becoming quite aware of the presence of particular others among the tribe. All part of life, she thought. The Shaman began to imagine a world where the ways of how-to are all one way. She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives dropped off to sleep and began dreaming of a world in which everyone made things only using the how-to way of “Fleet-of-Foot.” It was not a peaceful dream. 

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Myths of the Veritas: The Third Ring of Empathy.

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When the full moon rose after the hottest days of summer had passed, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives summoned the Eight-Who-Feel-Another’s-Hunger to a great council fire at their customary places. “You have served your tribe well and each of you has grown even since the first such trial. A new challenge awaits you. At your place, you will find a small piece of deerskin and upon that deerskin the picture of an animal. That animal you will observe, copy, learn from, speak too, listen too, come to love as one of your very own family. I want all those who live near you to understand your tasks as well so that they may not impede your study. 

“The full moon is here. There shall be another. And another. But on the third next full moon, we will reconvene our council fire. You shall indeed share your knowledge with all the tribe. And, then, I will question you separately to determine who shall win the Third Ring of Empathy and be so invited to the next trial.” The entire council including the Eight-Who-Feel-Another’s-Hunger left as well, all save Pond Mud, who politely asked the favor of a question. 

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“Oh, She-Who-Saves-Many, I fear that though my muscles may be strongest among my peers, my powers of perception are yet weak, for I looked upon this deerskin and it appears that it may be an elk, that it may be a deer, it may be bison, but it most looks to me like…like an ant.”

She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives laughed, “It is not your perception, my young friend; it is my lack of artistic skill, though you are indeed correct. It is an ant. Now, go forth and study her for three moons.” 

“But, but, they have nothing to teach; they have no power; they have no thinking; they are teeny insignificant things that are simply a pest.”

“My decision is final, Pond Mud. I only sought to aid you in removing your uncertainty. If you become Shaman, you may devise tests as you see fit.”

Pond Mud bit his lip and turned away though a slight shake of the head did not go unnoticed. 

The Shaman therefore spoke once more: “You are judging the ant, though you have not studied them. You know almost nothing about them. Spend three moons watching and then we will see whether I have given you something unworthy of study.” 

So it was that the Eight-Who-Can-Feel-Another’s-Hunger began their various studies of Ant, Eagle, Possum, Tiger, Snake, Squirrel, Horse, and Wolf. On the moonrise of the next month, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives bestowed on each of the eight a mask suited for the animal that they were studying. She suggested that they may want to spend some time each day trying to imagine what life was like through the skin, nose, ears, and eyes of that creature and the using the mask might help in this endeavor. 

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So it was that on the third full moon, each of the eight was ready to give an account of what they had learned before the entire tribe. And, it was so. 

{Translator’s Note}: The actual legend is filled with minutia for every single one of the eight animals. It’s not surprising that such detail would be included for these specific details about each of these other creatures could spell the difference between life and death for themselves or possibly even the entire Veritas people. They took the time to find out about the world and pass on every detail they could to their offspring. Education was a serious business that everyone respected as crucial to their very survival. We live in a different world, however, and therefore I am only translating the first and most obvious thing or two about each animal. 

First to speak was Alt-R who spoke of some of the cleverness of the opossum such as keeping their unprotected ones close by, of hunting at night when they had less worry about those who might harm them, although on balance, they seemed quite stupid, concluded Alt-R. 

Next to speak was She-of-Many-Paths. She spoke with such passion and in such vivid detail that the children, and the youth, and the married, and the old of the tribe all listened in fascination and learned much about Wolf. Not just the Shaman but all could feel that indeed, she had come to love the wolves. She spoke of they way they hunted together and took turns chasing down prey until that prey was exhausted. She spoke of their social order and how they communicated and how they kept the peace among themselves. “And,” she concluded, “I’m just getting started! There is so much more to learn!” 

Eyes-of-Eagle had been assigned the Eagle. She spoke of how the eagle changed it very shape according to the task at hand. 

“When an Eagle wished to soar on the winds it spread its wings as far as possible and flattened its chest and tailfeathers. When it spotted prey below, after a few strong thrusts of its wings, it folded them tightly and made itself nearly into a teardrop. It fell like a rock, only shooting out its wings at the very last possible moment to arrest its fall and save its life and at the same time twisting just so onto the back of rabbit or squirrel or mouse!” This much was known by the adults of the tribe, but Eyes-of-Eagle had many more  details to share on the subject. It was clear to all in the council that she had been aptly named. 

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Shade-Walker spoke next of his observations of snakes. Like he himself, he had noted, the activity of a snake is much determined by the heat of the sun. But Shade-Walker then said, quite unexpectedly, that he believed that snakes could feel the heat of their prey just as we can feel the heat of a fire or the heat of another’s skin if it’s quite close. Shade-Walker noted that a snake too can change its shape. Some can unhinge their jaw and some who swallow their prey whole change from that large swallowing. 

Initiates also spoke of their many observations of Tiger, Squirrel, and Horse. 

Last to speak was Pond Mud. He still viewed ants as unworthy of study because they were weak enough to be crushed in his fingertips. However, he had noticed a kind of war between black ants and red ants. 

“Somehow, an anteater became aware and filled his belly on the fighting ants. Normally, ants are keen to sense a nearby enemy, but in the heat of battle, they didn’t seem to see the anteater at all! He seemed the only beneficiary of the ant war.” 

Most of the adults in the council were quite convinced that two more would-be inheritors of Shaman-ship would be dropped from consideration and that these would almost certainly be POND MUD and ALT-R. Sadly, they seemed not to understand the value of creature so different from themselves. 

Indeed, it was so ordered and came to pass. 

The next day, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives summoned Alt-R to see her. “I have a game for you to try your luck at. Do you accept this challenge?”

“Is this part of the test? Everyone seems to think I lost. Is this a chance to redeem myself?”

“Do you accept this challenge?” 

Alt-R said, “Yes, I accept. What am I to do?”

“I have three cups. You choose one of the three. You will have 100 chances to guess and we will see how many acorns you acquire,” explained She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives.   

So, the game began, and every time Alt-R thought he had at last figured out the rule, he proved wrong on the next guess or the one after that. At long last, the 100 chances had all been used up. Alt-R had managed to obtain 11 acorns and felt very frustrated. Alt-R searched the face of She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives but saw no hint of the rule. 

“Has anyone figured out your rule? Has anyone done better?” asked Alt-R as politely as he could in his state of frustration.

“Yes, indeed, I’m must say, that someone did indeed do much better. In particular, one of my friends was able to gather 34.” 

Alt-R was taken aback, but he was still curious. “But then no-one has gotten all 100? No-one has really figured out the rule?” 

She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives cocked her head to the side and her endless brown eyes looked into the heart of Alt-R. “Who said there was a rule?” 

“Who…? I mean, there has to be a rule, right? How did you know how to switch the acorn each time and mostly fool me?”

She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives lowered her voice and looked down. “Who said there was an acorn every time?” 

“But…! You said…I don’t understand? How did someone gather 34 then? Who was this one who outguessed me three to one?”

She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives looked at him long and hard watching him go through the possibilities in his head. Some he gave voice to. Was it this young man? Was it this young woman? Was it this elder? At last, he ran out of likely possibilities.

“None of those, Alt-R, it was the very creature I asked you to study. The possum.” 

“WHAT?” shouted Alt-R, against all protocol. “I was outsmarted by a possum? That’s impossible!”

“Not at all impossible, Alt-R. It happened. The reason is quite simple. You looked at this as a test of how smart you were or how much empathy you had. You assumed there was one acorn per trial. You assumed that there was a rule. And then you spent all your time trying to determine the rule. What did possum do?”

Alt-R frowned, “What did possum do? How could I possibly know?”

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“You couldn’t. Because you didn’t follow my advice and learn to know possum and how he felt about things, what he smelled about things, what he saw, how he loved, and feared, and died.”

Alt-R hung his head. This had not really been a test. This had been another teaching – a teaching that taught him that he should have followed the first teaching. “You are right, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives, but I still don’t see how possum could have done better than I did.”

The Shaman explained, “You came in here and made assumptions. You were trying to find the acorn each time assuming that there was one. You were trying to figure out the rule. I put one acorn always in the one left-most cup to you and to possum 1/3 of the time not according to any rule. After two acorns from the left cup, the possum always chose the left cup, most often being wrong but 1/3 of the time being right. You came in hungry for rules and assumptions. The possum came in hungry for acorns.” 

“Thank you, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives.”

“Please return tomorrow night, Alt-R, for I have one further lesson.”

The next morning, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives summoned Pond Mud, for Pond Mud, like Alt-R, had another few lessons to learn. 

“Come, Pond Mud, I have a simple task for you. You are one of the strongest young men in the village. Is that not so?”

“Well, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives, I do not know but I have overheard some say that, yes.”

“So, Pond Mud, you value physical strength. Is that so?”

“Yes, indeed, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives! That is why the ant…well, we will not speak of that.  Anyway, yes, I am strong and I value physical strength.” 

“Good, Pond Mud, then you will have no trouble with this small task. I would like you push over that old cabin. I wish to build a new one.” 

“Well, She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives, I am strong but … I mean the cabin is well-built…it is meant to withstand snow and wind and you want me to try to push it down?” queried Pond Mud. 

“No, I want you to actually push it down, not try to push it down. Proceed.” 

Pond Mud walked over the cabin and walked around it looking for a possible flaw or weak point but found nothing. He braced himself and pushed with both hands but nothing moved. He turned his shoulder to the edge and pushed but nothing moved. He lay on his back and pushed with his legs but that slid him backwards. He found two giant boulders and rolled them near the cabin and used the boulders to brace himself and pushed with both legs. He could not budge the cabin. He looked at the boulders and began to hatch an elaborate plan to smash the cabin with the boulders. 

“Pond Mud, you failed to push over the cabin. Please follow me. I want to show you a larger, stronger cabin that someone did push over. It is near. Follow.”

They soon came to a small clearing where the collapsed remains of a large cabin lay scattered about. “Pond Mud, what would you say regarding the strength of the creature who pushed this cabin down?”

“Gigantic. Perhaps a great cave bear. Or perhaps a bison? But it’s in the woods. A giant moose perhaps?”

“Pond Mud, look closely at that log and tell me what you see.” 

Pond Mud strode quickly to the indicated spot. “It’s just a log. I mean it’s filled with … it’s filled with … carpenter ants. It’s filled with carpenter ants.” 

“I see you studied the ants enough at least to recognize one when you see one. Let us return now to my cabin because your friend Alt-R is about to appear.”

They strode in silence back to the cabin of She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives. Indeed, Alt-R had just arrived. 

She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives looked at each of them and said quietly, “I am sure by now you both realize that you will not be getting the Third Ring of Empathy. However, I am giving you each two other gifts. And each such gift, I can assure you, is worth far more than a ring with a pretty stone affixed.”

“The first gift is that you now realize not to dismiss a human or any creature because it seems they are not so smart nor so strong as you. And, now that you understand this, you may choose to become better and better at seeing things through another’s eyes. And, if you so choose, you will have a much better life and help those around you to also have a much better life. If you so choose, you can instead ignore this lesson and disdain those who are not like you. It’s your choice.”

“But if I learn the lesson, then why cannot I not be yet in contention to be your replacement?”  wondered Pond Mud & Alt-R aloud and almost in unison.

“Because,” said the Shaman, “it was not your first instinct to do so. Under stress or duress, you will be prone to revert to your first instinct and that is just such a time as when your empathy is most needed. Over time, over many wanderings of the stars back to their homes, your first instinct will change and you will be just as able to see through the eyes of another as any of the initiates. But if I die tomorrow, it would not be well for you or for the tribe or even for all the other creatures that share this world with the Veritas.”

The silence grew at first and the crickets decided it was their turn to talk. And so it was. But after a time, Pond Mud spoke again.

“What was then the second gift?” asked Pond Mud. 

“The second gift is that now you know that you are not always the best at everything though you, Alt-R are well the smartest among all the Veritas. And that knowledge that you are not the most able at everything can save you an ocean of pain if you choose to keep learning from those around you who know things you do not or those who are able to perceive things you cannot. And you, Pond Mud, though you are strong, you are not therefore to demand special privilege because of it. To the sun and the moon and the mountain, your strength is as like to the ants only less so. Keep about you the humility that befits being strongest.” 

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Alt-R spoke then, “Thank you,” She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives. “It is well. And, I take your teaching as my learning kept close to heart. I will choose to follow the path of the greater wisdom.” 

Pond Mud spoke next, saying, “Thank you,” She-Who-Saves-Many-Lives. I too shall now look at such strength as I may sometimes have as a treasure not for myself alone but for all of the Veritas. 

{Translator’s Note}: The reader may well wonder why so much of this myth revolves around the two who lost the contest rather than those who won. This focus on continually trying to teach the entire tribe to learn from failures rather than simply be shamed by it, is typical of the Veritas. The Veritas, insofar as I can tell from such a distance in time, space, and culture, not only cared for the lessons of those who lost the contest, but also in those who lost the contest, for among the Veritas, every leaf on the tree got sustenance from the rest of the tree and provided loving sustenance from the sun itself to the rest of the tree. 

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Myths of the Veritas: The Second Ring of Empathy. 

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Myths of the Veritas: The Second Ring of Empathy. 

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[My photo of masks created by Sarah Morgan].

“She Who Saves Many Lives” began the very next dawn to craft ten of The Second Ring of Empathy. This she fashioned from bronze as well but each ring sported a small but fiery opal. Each was beautiful and ever-changing yet each was different from each of its kin. 

After caressing the final touches on the first such ring, she summoned that one of “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of Others” who was known among the Veritas as “She of Many Paths.” She had been named this because of her penchant for trying many paths before settling on the way to take. 

The instructions to this first such were to immediately begin fasting. On the dawn of the fourth day, “She of Many Paths” was instructed to travel to the twisted oak near the waterfall that sings and to sit quietly by the dark pool at the bottom of the falls and notice all that she saw. When the sun was high she was to return to “She Who Saves Many Lives” and tell all that he had observed. And, it was so. And so she did.

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{Translator’s Note}: It isn’t said in this part of the legend that the initiates were explicitly told to be silent, but those familiar with the Veritas will see that such secrecy was indeed implicitly assume. Naturally, the young Veritas were sorely tempted to share their experiences with each other. However, they most probably did not. If they did, the narrative below makes it clear that any such sharing was well disguised. 

“She Who Saves Many Lives” had not been idle. While “She of Many Paths” had been fasting and observing, the shaman had been crafting another opal ring set in bronze. After “She of Many Paths” shared her observations, “She Who Saves Many Lives” summoned another of “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of Others.” The girl was called “Eyes of Eagle” for her superior eyesight. “She Who Saves Many Lives” told “Eyes of Eagle” that she was to drink nothing and eat nothing for the whole next day. When the dawn of the next day came, she was to travel to the twisted oak, rest, reflect, and observe. When the sun was high, she was to return to “She Who Saves Many Lives” and tell all that she had observed. And, it was so. And so she did. 

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From the time of the crescent moon to the first quarter, no more were called from among “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of Others.” It happened then, that a day became hotter than any could remember. No-one wanted to do anything besides sleep and swim. At noon, “She Who Saves Many Lives” summoned another of “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of Others.” He was called by the Veritas “Shade Walker” for his definite preference to stalk, walk, and sit in the shade. “She Who Saves Many Lives” instructed “Shade Walker” to trek the journey to the twisted oak; to sit by the dark pool (but not partake of its refreshing waters); instead to observe and reflect and then relate it all back to “She Who Saves Many Lives.” And, it was so. And so he did. 

{Translator’s Note}: In the recounting of the next part of the narrative, I have slightly shortened the repetitive structure of the original since the modern reader is much more impatient than were the Veritas.

One by one, “She Who Saves Many Lives” called each of the remaining from among “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of the Others” and gave them a task. Each such task, “She Who Saves Many Lives” constructed to be especially apt for that particular person. Each such task was different. Each such task was designed quite deliberately to put each particular person in a different frame of mind. Just as the first three had been hungry, thirsty and unbearably hot, so too were the successive candidates from “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of Others” variously exhausted from physical labor, desirously aroused by tales, angry, fearful, over-filled with food, in pain, and in a happy and hilarious mood. “She Who Saves Many Lives” knew well that each person would see, smell, hear, feel, and recall different things because of these different states of mind. And, as she heard their various recountings, her judgment on this was confirmed. 

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On the day when Winter and Summer balance each to each and Summer promises to give way to Winter, since all had now accomplished their task, “She Who Saves Many Lives” invited all them to a council fire. They were now asked to dialogue about their observations of the deep pool, the spraying cataract, the twisted oak and the nearby surrounds. “She Who Saves Many Lives” did not speak but listened carefully to all that was said.

{Translator’s Note}: Here the word “dialogue” is used to convey a process much like Bohm Dialogue. The English word “dialogue” is often erroneously thought to connote a two-sided debate because of the apparent Latin root “di” meaning “two.” However, the English word “dialog” actually comes from the Greek roots, “dia” meaning “through” and “logos” meaning “meaning.” A dialogue is not properly a debate with two sides. Rather it refers to a process of developing meaning through the processes of the group: recounting experiences, listening respectfully, and reflecting upon what was said. No-one “wins” and on-one “loses.” It is much like group problem solving except that there is no specified problem to solve. More on Bohm Dialogue can be found here. Again, with a nod to the great impatience of the modern people, I have taken the liberty to summarize much of what was actually related.

“She of Many Paths” spoke first of the many frogs, rabbits, and insects she had seen by the dark pool. She spoke of how tasty they would be and what manner one could cook frog, rabbit, and dragonfly but she had been instructed only to observe and thus had not eaten any though she was quite hungry. She also observed how frogs lay just beneath the surface of the water jutting their quick tongues out to capture fly or mosquito. She had also observed rabbits eating the large ripe blackberries she would have rather had for herself. 

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“Eyes of Eagle” said she had not noticed any rabbits at all though she had seen a few dragonflies skimming the water eating mosquitos. There may also have been frogs but mainly, she had noticed that the water falling over the cataract fell mainly into the deep pool but many drops also hit upon the rocks at the sides of the waterfall and that such drops splattered high into the air. At some times of the day, these made rainbows. Several times, wonderful cool breezes wafted mist onto her thirsty tongue. 

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“Shade Walker” had also noticed such lucky sprays. He recounted that when he first arrived beside the deep pool, he could think of little else than how wonderful it would be to dive into the depths of that cooling pool. Five fish jumped into the air from the pool and then dove back in. “Shade Walker” had imaged five times that he had been such a lucky fish. He had thought he might go mad with the heat and began silently cursing his ancestors for ever leaving the water. As the sun continued its sky journey however, he noticed the shadow of the twisted oak approaching him. Soon, his knees and feet were in the cool shade of the twisted oak. Soon, his torso and finally his face and head were also in shade. Still the water splattered off the rocks making a cooling mist. When the sun was half-way between its high point and sunset, a cool breeze flitted through the glade. 

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So in turn, did each of “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of Others” recount to the others their observations. Each of “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of Others” listened respectfully. Occasionally, one would make a brief comment. “She Who Saves Many Lives” sat in silence, neither speaking word, nor gesture, nor grin nor grimace.

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Now it came to pass that each of the ten sat silently reflecting a long while on the experiences of the others. At last, “Shade Walker” spoke: “It seems that perhaps the same place seems quite different depending on whether it was day or night.” All nodded. 

“Eyes of Eagles” spoke next. “As well, the hungry see food; the thirsty see water; the hot, see shade; the fearful hear enemies; the exhausted see little but ways to rest.

The one known as “Bent Finger” claimed that his observations had been the best and encompassed the whole of what everyone else had seen. 

“She of Many Paths” asked whether he had noticed dragonflies catching mosquitos or rabbits eating blackberries. 

“Bent Finger” scoffed, “I meant important things. I saw all the important things.” 

“She of Many Paths” then proceeded to tell a story about her own experiences the point of which was that it is sometimes difficult to know at the time what is an important observation.

“Many Muscles” opined that he had had the most difficult task for “She Who Saves Many Lives” had sent him exhausted from three day’s worth of hard labor to sit and observe. “In such a state, it is very difficult to observe anything.” 

“She of Many Paths” observed that she had probably never been so exhausted as “Many Muscles” had been and therefore it would be difficult for her to know exactly how “Many Muscles” had been feeling just as it would be difficult for someone without three days hunger to know just how she had felt. 

“That’s my point exactly!” added “Bent-Finger.” I was probably the only one in a good mood and that’s why I saw the most.

Their dialog continued for many hours until at last “She Who Saves Many Lives” spoke. 

“I thank you each for your many observations and as well for your thoughtful reflections each to each on what each of you said. I think the future generations of the tribe will be well served by such as you. Indeed, no one person can feel and see and hear what many can. Hopefully, you will now be in a slightly better position to know what it’s like to be hungry, thirsty, hot, tired, aroused, angry, fearful, over-sated, in pain, or happy. I have made my decision.” 

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At this, “She Who Saves Many Lives” stood and began walking around the outside of the circle, handing each of eight among “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of Others” one of the rings of opal. “Many Muscles” and “Bent-Finger” received no such ring. For 

“She Who Saves Many Lives” waved her hand and extinguished the remaining embers. She spoke thus: “Arise now, rest, and further contemplate the teachings that each of you has provided to the others. And, know that it is hard to know what someone else is feeling be they hungry, thirsty, hot, tired, aroused, angry, fearful, over-sated, in pain, or over-happy. Soon, there will be another task for you who would earn the Third Ring of Empathy.” 

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Myth of the Veritas: The First Ring of Empathy. 

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Myth of the Veritas: The First Ring of Empathy. 

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In the heyday of the Veritas, when the people had prospered and spread far beyond the lake of reeds and bubbling streams, yet long before they forgot the field of flowers, there lived among them many who dedicated their lives to learning and teaching. The people of the Veritas sometimes variously called them “Shaman,” or “Wise One,” or “Great Leader.” And among these, one in particular they called, “She Who Saves Many Lives.” They devised this name because of many wise insights she had but also because she literally saved individual lives with her knowledge of healing herbs and ways but also because she helped to save even the lowliest creatures in the forest, field, and stream. Of course, none of the Veritas chose to kill any of the creatures wantonly but only for need. For all of the Veritas saw that the lives of the Veritas all depended on the prosperity of all of life. “She Who Saves Many Lives” went beyond this and developed ways to encourage many of the creatures of forest, field, and stream to be healthy and fruitful. In this way, the Veritas themselves were also healthy and fruitful. 

{Translator’s Note}: Try as I might, I find this part difficult to translate into modern English. I seem hamstrung by our modern notions of “agency” and “responsibility” and “choice.” It wasn’t that the Veritas “decided” it would be in their “long term interests” not to kill creatures for no purpose other than to show that they could. Such actions were out of harmony and out of character with their very existence. Consider the following modern metaphor. People who are gifted musically spend much of their lives improving their skill. The very best of them may be able to play in a symphony orchestra. The whole point of their playing is to be part of the creation/recreation of beautiful music. A flautist in such an orchestra does not “decide” not to make horrid screeching noises rather than participate in making beauty. Theoretically, of course, they could. Or, they could bring fire-crackers and set them off in the middle of the symphony. But why would a person who dedicates their life to making beautiful music do such a thing? In a similar way, insofar as I can tell from artifacts, scholarship, and the entire mythic structure of the Veritas, these people did not consciously “decide” not to wantonly kill their cousins in other parts of the Great Tree of Life for no reason. Any person of the Veritas would gladly want to help the forests, fields, and streams to flourish. However, one of the talents of “She Who Saves Many Lives” was that she apparently saw many new ways to facilitate such flourishing. 

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The other phrase I’m not entirely satisfied with is the name of the Shaman herself. A more literal and more accurate translation of her name would be: “She Who Fosters the Entire Tree of Life with a Focus on Her People but Who is Ever Mindful of the Music of the Entire Tree” I think you can see why I chose the shorter name!

“She Who Saves Many Lives,” though strong and healthy and young, yet foresaw that while the Great Tree of Life would grow and prosper for many, many moons, her individual life would, at some point, come to that same end that awaits all individual lives. Thus it was that she wished to help choose and prepare the next Great Shaman. And thus it was that she devised a series of seven tests. The tests would be carried out in public and any who thought they would like to dedicate their lives to learning and teaching and healing could try their hand at these tests. 

“She Who Saves Many Lives” crafted seven types of beautiful rings. Each type of ring was studded with a different type of beautiful polished stone. Each such ring would be given as a prize to those who passed the tests she devised. Each such type of ring, “She Who Saves Many Lives” called a “Ring of Empathy.” The first type of such rings were known to be made of bronze and each bronze ring sported a crystal of clear calcite. These she made openly and all could see her exquisite craftsmanship. Those who wished to try their skill at the trials came to her before the spring rains began and let her know their intention. Each time another initiate wished to be admitted to the trials, she made another ring. However, she said nothing whatever about the nature of the first trial, nor indeed any of the trials. She created them all in her own mind. When various would-be contestants came to her to watch her work, they tried a number of clever ploys to try to learn the nature of the trial so that they might better prepare themselves. “She Who Saves Many Lives” merely smiled at each such person and wished them good luck. 

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At last the spring rains came and spring flowers bloomed all around the end of the lake of reeds where “She Who Saves Many Lives” made her home when she was not traveling amongst the many villages of the Veritas. At last, the spring rains gave way to the hot dry period. When the new moon first began to show its crescent, it signaled the appointed day of the trial. A dozen came to try their skill in the trial but many more from all the lands of the Veritas came as well in order to see who would prevail. “She Who Saves Many Lives” gave each contestant a small piece of deer hide with a rough map of the area. On each map, the symbol of each of the contestants was designated at a particular nearby and noteworthy place. Each of the participants knew each of these symbols and recognized the places as well, for all people in those days made it their business to know the location of every tree, path, stream, and boulder. 

{Translator’s Note}: The Veritas, so far as I can tell, did not at this point have what we would call a “written language” but they did make maps, some of which have survived to this day. Many (but by no means all) of the symbols on these maps would be interpretable by modern humans of most cultures. In addition, everyone not only had one or more spoken names, but also had at least one unique symbol. Such symbols typically reflected something of the physical or behavioral aspects of that person and were therefore much easier to remember than most modern names are for us to remember. 

Each contestant was well aware of the symbol for each of the others. Each of the twelve maps were identical and showed the location that each of the twelve contestants was to go to as quickly as possible. Once there, further instructions would be sent by drumbeat. Having the final instructions sent in this way was not only the most practical method of distant communication; it also increased the drama for everyone. 

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{Translator’s Note}: No-one knows the precise coding for the drumbeat language of the Veritas. I can, however, say with a high degree of certainty that it was nothing like Morse Code. The drumbeats were more like a hierarchical description of the instructions and each series of beats further refined the instructions. In what follows, I try to give some sense of that, but it’s largely a guess as to specifics though the details are unimportant as to the outcome for the participants. The only necessary point is that each contestant understood what the instructions meant.   

Welcome. Contest. Be smart. Be accurate. Be quick. Mark on the map. Numbers. How many do you see? How many do each of you see? Mountaintops. Begin! Run back with your map. Filled with 12 sets of marks. 

In this way, the first contest of the Veritas began. As you can see, although “She Who Saves Many Lives” called this an empathy test, it really required a number of skills in addition to empathy. It required a knowledge of the terrain, good eyesight, the ability to understand a new task quickly, good spatial visualization, and good foot speed. Within ten minutes of the end of the drumbeats, some of the contestants could be seen entering the outermost ring of the sacred circle, running swiftly with their maps. Soon, all twelve of the contestants had breathlessly handed their maps to “She Who Saves Many Lives” who had so far given no hint as to how many contestants would be entered into the next phase of the contest. All the contestants gathered in a semi-circle around “She Who Saves Many Lives” and at her instruction, everyone in the crowd sang a song of praise for all who had attempted the task. Then, without a word, “She Who Saves Many Lives” bestowed bronze rings adorned with a calcite crystal on the ring fingers of those she deemed worthy to continue on to the next contest. There were ten, who collectively came to be known by the Veritas as “Those Who May See Through the Eyes of Others.” All ten had correctly and perfectly counted, not only the mountaintops that they themselves could see from their own assigned positions, but had also accurately counted how many each of the others could see.

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“She Who Saves Many Lives” did not herself use that designation for the ten. For this had only been the first, and easiest of all the tasks she had devised for being able to see through the eyes of others. When she thought of them collectively, she privately called them, “The Ten Who Can Count Mountaintops with the Eyes of Others.”  

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Now, dear reader, you may now see that I have included these translations of the Myths of the Veritas because they very much relate to the fields of “User Experience”, “Human Factors,” or “Human-Computer Interaction” despite the fact that these tales greatly predate modern technology! To the Veritas, choosing a new leader for their people was never a matter to be left to chance, or visions, or a contest to see who could lift the most or lie the most. A leader of all the people should be able to see the world through the eyes of any of the people. How else might such a leader help insure a decision was for all the people and not just a few? 

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The Myths of the Veritas: The Forgotten Field

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The Myths of the Veritas: The Forgotten Field

{Translator’s Note}: I should have made it clear that I am not so much creating these stories as translating them from the original language family known by pseudo-linguistic scholars as the Veritas language; a language remarkable mainly in the mythical nature of their myths. This is quite different from every other set of creation myths because so many (though not all) of the people of every other religion know that their story is the “correct” one. There is no way to tell which myth is true, because they are all myths. However, there is a way to tell whether the sun is still in the sky. Go out and look. And say what you see. And if you disagree, solve the problem together. Fighting it out is completely stupid. What you need to do together is uncover the truth. But I diverge from the task. Back to the translation: 

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The people of Micah’s tribe lived long and prospered untold generations in many camps on all sides of the lake of reeds and bubbling streams. Using their gifts of sounds, made whole into the patterns of language by the careful work of the story-weavers, they prospered greatly. In a nearby valley, the people soon found the field of flowers. Whenever someone felt sick at heart as sometimes happened, the wise would walk with the world-weary to the field of flowers. Here they would sit together talking quietly among the buzzing bees about this and that. Sometimes, the wise would spin tales to help the weary once again see the unity of life; the essential oneness of all things; the long view; the broad view. The weary grew weary no longer and the pair returned to the nearby village, both renewed as to purpose. Now, the brick-makers made bricks with love in their heart for they could see that their bricks were part of a pattern that made life better for everyone in the village and their children and their children’s children and their children’s children’s children. The bread-makers baked bread with love in their heart for they could see that their bread was part of a pattern that made life better for everyone in the village and as well, for their offspring for all generations. The bead-makers polished beads with love in their hearts for they knew they were making the world more beautiful with each passing day and that they could teach their children and their children’s children to do the same. 

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As the people prospered, some explored well beyond the shores of the lake and settled on the sides of mountains while others journeyed to edges of deserts. Still others moved to the depths of the forests. Over time, the people began to build different buildings that were suitable for different locales. Over time, the people began to weave different kinds of clothing as appropriate to different climates. Over time, the people learned to hunt different game and to gather different plants. Over time, they began to weave different sorts of baskets. Over time, they began to weave different sorts of stories as well. 

{Translator’s Note}: Is this surprising? Would you expect anything else? Doesn’t this seem to comport precisely with your own experience in life? Oh, well. Back to the story. 

Yet, the people did not fight battles over whose stories were correct. If the were stories about things that could no longer be seen or heard, and had no impact on one’s actual life, everyone agreed that everyone could have their view. 

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When it came to things that could be proven, one way or another, all the people worked together in a spirit of curiosity because all wanted to know the way of things. Some of every tribe went together as friends into the field of flowers. And, here they thought, and they spoke and they listened. And they agreed on ways to test that which they did not know. And, the people checked each other’s logic and it happened many times that new ideas came from their speakings and listenings and thinkings. 

All the people worked together, though they built different sorts of buildings. All the people worked together, though they wove different kinds of clothing. All the people worked together, though they hunted and gathered differently. All the people worked together, though they wove different sorts of baskets. All the people worked together, though they wove different stories. 

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And the people saw that the very fact that there were now so many tribes and so many ways of building and so many ways of weaving and so many different ways of hunting and so many different stories was a testament to their strength as a people. If they had not flourished and expanded and become different, they would be but a tiny tribe with one kind of building and one kind of clothing and one kind of hunting and one kind of story. Far from being reasons to fight, these were reasons to celebrate. And whenever they sought to settle a disagreement, they began with a recognition of their common ancestry and acknowledged that it was only because of their tribe’s success that they spread out to different situations and that these situations led quite naturally to different ways of doing things. This is what the people did every single time. 

Until, they forgot. They forgot to go to the field of flowers. And they forgot to go in a spirit of love. And they forgot to begin by acknowledging their common ancestry and they forgot to acknowledge that their differences were a testament of their mutual success. This was something to celebrate! But they forgot.  

{Translator’s Note}: You can see in the primitive pattern of repetition the kind of immature thought process that a culture like this is prone to. In our modern societies, we have obviously moved far beyond that to systems that exaggerate the differences among people (for profit, mainly but sometimes just out of hate) and cause arguments and prevent common resolutions and instead make more profit out of sending other people’s kids off to be maimed or killed in wars and also, by the way, to maim and kill people that they don’t really know from Adam. And, how much do the surviving soldiers really gain from all that compared with the destruction of lives and property that they do on orders? But I digress. Yes, I was simply making the point that we are so much more evolved now than were the Veritas. Now, we do not only build buildings; we bomb them down. Now, we do not only weave baskets, we shred them to pieces. Now, we do not only weave stories to entertain or to teach the truth but we weave stories to deceive. Oh, incidentally, How and Why they Forgot is a different myth to be translated soon.

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Myths of the Veritas: The Orange Man

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(A continuation of the thread: the myths of the Veritas. The immediately preceding myth describes the creation of humans).

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In this age, each person had enough. But one day, a man, who happened to be astoundingly fat and orange had an astounding idea. Enough was not enough. He had plenty to eat. But it occurred to him that he would feel even more satisfied if other people had less. So he decided to steal some of the food of others to test whether this would indeed make him feel even more satisfied. It worked! On the second day, he again went to steal from his neighbors, but they objected. Still, he tried to steal their food so they would be hungry and in their hunger he might again feel even fuller and more satisfied than ever before. 

His neighbors grew impatient and when the one they called Orange Man continued to try to steal his neighbors’ food, they eventually beat him with their fists and drove him away. He sat alone in a barren cleft of rock and out of the sunlight and thought long and hard. “True, I am satisfied with enough food. But I felt so much better when I had more. Perhaps I will go in the night when everyone else is asleep and steal their food. Because when they are hungry, I will feel so much better when I am fat and full.” 

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That night, when everyone was asleep, Orange Man snuck into the camp of his neighbors and began to steal their food. But Orange Man was quite fat and graceless and soon woke his neighbors who quickly surmised what he was up to and again drove him out of the camp. Now, the people were genuinely angry with him and told him that from now on, he would have to gather his own nuts and catch his own fish. None wanted to share with the greedy Orange Man. 

That night, Orange Man went hungry. He had had enough all his life. He tried to steal more than his share and now he was hungry. From this experience, many might learn the value of sharing. But not Orange Man. Instead, he plotted and schemed; schemed and plotted. How could he steal from people when they were all on the lookout for him? That was the question that obsessed him. 

He had never learned to make a fire on his own, so he was cold as well as hungry that night. He at last cried himself to sleep and began to dream. In his dream, he saw all the people sitting around their campfire talking and laughing. They were not only sharing their food. They were sharing stories. This was not a strange dream, for indeed, this is exactly what they did every night in good weather. They shared their food. They shared their fire. And they shared their stories so that they could work together better; make better houses; find game more easily. 

The next morning, Orange Man awoke more hungry than ever and very very angry. He was angry with his neighbors for not letting him steal more than his share. He was angry with the gods for making them too smart to give away all their food to him. Surprisingly, he wasn’t even a little bit angry with himself for being so greedy. Nonetheless, he was too hungry to mope all day. He needed to find some food. So, he went foraging for insects. Some of the bugs were much too fast to catch, but many were not. Of course, while searching for bugs, the Orange Man saw many weeds and twigs but he had never bothered to learn which ones were edible and which ones were poison. He happened to be staring at a twig trying to see whether there were any bugs under it, when all at once the twig walked. It was not really a twig at all! It was just another bug that looked like a twig. Once he realized it was a bug, the Orange Man grabbed at it to eat it straight away.

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Before he could snatch it up, however, the bug waved one of its little insect claws back and forth and stared into the little insect eyes of the Orange Man with its little insect eyes. Weird, thought the Orange Man just as he gobbled it up.  It wasn’t very tasty compared to some bugs, but it gave him pleasure to eat it because he was angry at the bug. He didn’t know why he was angry. Indeed, it never occurred to Orange Man to wonder why he was angry but if he had thought about it, he might have realized it was because the bug made Orange Man change his mind. First, he thought it was a twig and then he had to change his mind and realize it was a bug. And, then the little bug had seemed to wave to him in that annoying way that other people seemed to wave at friends. Of course, as a child, Orange Man may have felt love, but he worked hard all his life to kill love within himself and eventually he succeeded. 

After another afternoon of eating bugs, Orange Man at last grew thirsty and he knelt down to drink from a nearby lake. As he did so, he could see his reflection in the water. There he was, fat, ugly, and orange. Orange Man ate up many more bugs that afternoon and was less hungry than the night before. He fell into a fitful sleep and dreamt that night of returning to the lake for a drink of water. Again in his dream, as he had done in real life, he knelt down to drink. But in his dream, he heard frogs creaking and croaking. They seemed to be saying, “Greenie, greenie, greenie” and this time, when he looked at his reflection, instead of being fat, ugly, and orange, he appeared to be fat, ugly, and green. How could this be, Orange Man wondered. Even in his dream, he remembered that he was orange. This weirdness wakened him with a start, the sound of the frogs reverberating in his ears: “Greenie, greenie, greenie.” Is it possible that he saw himself as green because the frogs were saying the word “green” the whole time he was looking? 

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The next day, the Orange Man had much to think about. So far, words and stories had been used by the people mainly to work together by sharing knowledge. On a few occasions though, people told stories for entertainment. They made up stories about the stars and how mountains came to be, and how deer grew antlers. Everyone knew that they were simply made up stories. But now, the Orange Man thought of the bug that looked like a twig and how the frogs made him look green even though he was orange. What if I told people a story about where to find game but it was really just a made-up story to get people to go hunting and leave their things where I can steal them? 

The next morning, the Orange Man decided to test his plan. He went to the village and told everyone that he had seen a giant mammoth just over the layered ridge at the edge of the village. Most were skeptical, but a few argued that it might be worth a look since felling a mammoth could help feed the village through many moons. The Orange Man jumped up and down and yelled and screamed telling them that they should all go because a mammoth is a huge animal and they would need everyone to hunt it. One young boy named Micah pointed out that it wouldn’t be a good idea for everyone to leave the village. “Rats may come and eat all our food,” the youngster argued. 

“I’ll stay here and protect the food,” offered the Orange Man. Try as he might, twisting the truth this way and that, he was unable to convince everyone to go on the mammoth hunt. A few braves went off and returned at dusk. They were, of course, empty-handed but they also reported to the tribe that they had seen no evidence of a mammoth. There were no tracks, no spoor, not so much as a toppled sapling to indicate a mammoth. The eyes of the tribe turned toward the little insect eyes of the Orange Man. He yelled and screamed and jumped up and down and said they were blind or liars or both.  

It was hard to get a word in edge-wise because the Orange Man screamed continuously, but at last when he stopped to take a break, Micah asked, “What is this word that you used? What is a ‘liar.’?” 

That stopped the Orange Man. He had called them liars because that’s what he was doing. None of the people in the tribe had ever used language to intentionally mislead others for their own gain so they were unfamiliar with the word as well as the concept. In a flash, the Orange Man realized he had made a mistake to use such a word. “Oh, Micah, you must have mis-heard me. I said, ‘They must be blind as briars.’ or something like that.” But Micah knew he had heard a new and different word. Several others chimed in as well. But the Orange Man would hear none of it. 

“Look, I saw a mammoth. I have very good eyes. The best eyes, in fact. If you hunters can’t find it, you’re not very good hunters. But I don’t really care. Go hungry. Don’t find the mammoth. I don’t care. More mammoth for me. I’ll go get it myself. I’ll bring the mammoth back here single-handedly and show it to you big as life! Good-bye.” 

No sooner had the Orange Man uttered these words than he realized he had made a big mistake. Before people started questioning him, he strode off, refusing to engage in any questions and answers about how he would kill a mammoth all his own. Day after day, the Orange Man ate bugs, planned lies aimed at convincing the villagers to leave their village while he and he alone guarded it. And each day, he tried to be more and more convincing about his lies. But each day, the villagers became harder and harder to convince. The Orange Man was careful never to use the word, “liar” again, but people discounted what he said nonetheless. 

At long last, The Orange Man decided that it would be easier to convince another tribe of his lies. So, off he trudged across the plains to find another tribe. IMG_1224From a mesa, he observed the tribe from afar and watched them come and go, waiting for a time when the village was unguarded so that he could go in unseen and steal everything for himself. But people always hung out in the village, grinding corn, drying skins, or sitting around campfires talking. All in all, he found it quite disgusting. Why wouldn’t they leave so he could steal their stuff?

Then, one day, he had a wonderful inspiration. Buffalo! He would tell the people in the village that a great herd of buffalo was coming to destroy their village. They would all have to leave immediately and leave everything behind because there was no time! He too was fleeing from the buffalo but, he would caution them not to wait for him but to save themselves running as fast as they could to the next bluff to save themselves from trampling. He went into the village at dusk, yelling and screaming and waving his arms. He told them that a great herd of buffalo were coming to destroy the village and that they should save themselves and run to the bluff and clamber up it as best they could. Some of the villagers indeed panicked and began to gather up their children. But some of the villagers put their ears to the ground and heard no such stampede coming. Several of the villagers did not wait to see the outcome, however, and ran off as fast as they could. In their haste, a few fell and one woman dropped her baby on a rock which broke its soft head and killed it. But not everyone left the village and so Orange Man was not able to steal anything. He claimed that he had a potion back at his camp which would bring the broken baby back to life and he hobbled off to get it, or so he claimed. Of course, when he saw that everyone was not leaving the village, Orange Man realized he needed to leave before it became obvious that no giant herd of bison was coming.  

Several days went by before the Orange Man ventured to try again. He was heartened by the fact that his lie about the bison herd had almost worked. Several people did flee the village and at least one person died and several were injured. This, he chuckled at, but it wasn’t really the full scale all-out panic he was aiming for. 

That night a great thunderstorm flashed all about him. Atop the mesa, a bush was struck by lightening and it smoldered and flamed. He took some of the smoldering branches and made a little fire in a crook of rocks, feeding it dry firewood he had stashed nearby for just such a lucky occasion. Finally, he had found fire to keep him warm. Then, he had a great inspiration: Fire! “That’s it!” he thought. He would tell people a great fire was coming to destroy their village. Surely, that would cause panic and this time, everyone will leave the village and I can steal everything. 

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The next morning just as the sun rose, the Orange Man walked toward the village, rehearsing his lies in his head to make them more convincing. When he came in sight of the village, he trot-wobbled up the path waving his arms and yelling at the top of his lungs, “FIRE! FIRE! Run for your LIVES!” Sure enough, the villagers were worried. But they all recognized the Orange Man and although they did not yet realize that he was simply lying to steal all their stuff for himself, they did realize that his judgement was not sound. So, instead of immediately racing out of the village, they instead scanned the horizon for signs of smoke. There were none. Indeed, the ground was still damp from last night’s rain. While lightning sometimes did cause prairie fires, this seemed unlikely in the present circumstances, and no-one believed him. He shouted and screamed and waved his hands but no-one believed him. There was no smoke. At last, realizing that he would again leave empty-handed, he headed back to his mesa to gather some bugs and grubs. Well, he thought, as he trudged back. At least I have my fire now. 

The days grew hot and dry. The Orange Man grew still fatter on his diet of grubs and bugs. Then, at last, he reckoned that perhaps the people would have forgotten his lies and be willing to believe him again. This time, however, he would be smarter about his lies. He waited for a dry windy day and took a torch from his fire with him. He descended the path at the edge of the mesa and walked toward the village. He again planned to trot-wobble into the village while waving his arms and screaming about a fire, but this time, he would be smarter! He laid his lighted torch into some of the brush and grass near the edge of the village. This time the villagers would see smoke and maybe even see flames. This time, they would all panic as he hoped. After setting several small fires, the Orange Man trot-wobbled down the path to the village. As he approached, he began shouting, yelling, and waving his hands wildly. “Run!” he yelled. “There’s fire coming! FIRE! RUN!” Oh, yes! At last, this time, his lies were working! He could see that indeed, this time, people were grabbing things at hand and running away. It’s the smoke, he thought! I’m so smart! And, they are so stupid! Everything in the village will be mine. He smiled a broad smile at the stupidity of people who would fall for such a lie. The Orange Man turned back to glance at his little smoke trick to see what it looked like. What he saw, however, pounded his heart right through his chest and out the other side. Rather than clouds of smoke, what he saw was a wall of fire behind him. Now, the Orange Man trot-wobbled in earnest. He immediately fell over his own feet. He crawled back to his feet, but the cuffs of his pants were already on fire. He frantically waved and twisted but the fire burned his pants and soon the flames engulfed him. His last thought was, “It’s not fair! I’m so much smarter than everyone else. I deserve it all. 

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Indeed, it wasn’t fair. Everyone from the village also perished in the flames. No food was left to plunder had there been anyone nearby to plunder it. Many miles away, it happened that Micah looked up from chipping an arrowhead to see plumes of black smoke on the horizon. For some reason, the thick, ugly, black smoke reminded him of the Orange Man. He wondered what had become of him. Once again, Micah wondered what that word had meant. An odd word: Liar. Liar. 

It seemed to Micah that everything the Orange Man said had been for the sole purpose of getting the villagers to leave so that the Orange Man could steal everything. But why would someone do that? After all, the Orange Man had not been starving. Far from it! He was the fattest person Micah had ever seen. Perhaps he had wanted just some of the things in the village; things he had no way to craft himself. But if that were the case, why not just trade for one? The Orange Man could have traded something he was good at for something he wanted whether it was blankets, spears, or baskets. Theft was extremely rare among Micah’s tribe. Perhaps the Orange Man had come from a tribe where everyone stole from each other rather than making and trading things. Micah shuddered to think how terrible it must be to belong to such a tribe as that. The rest of the day, as he gathered acorns, Micah contemplated what “Liar” meant and he concluded that a liar was a kind of thief. If you said something that you knew was not true, it must be to steal something. 

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It occurred to Micah that while the Orange Man might have wanted to steal blankets or baskets or food, he would have stolen much more than that. He would have stolen the soul of the tribe. As they worked together, loved together, hunted together, ate together, sang together, the words of the tribe were a bond that held them together, each to each. This was so because everyone was doing it together and each word spoke, carefully measured, acted like an arrow aimed at a larger prey. Together these arrows could bring down a mammoth. But the Orange Man would use these words like arrows aimed at other Humans. A liar could destroy the entire tribe! Micah did not then know that the Orange Man had literally destroyed a tribe with fire in order to make one of his lies more credible, but Micah foresaw that if people in a tribe lied to each other, it would ultimately destroy the working togetherness of the tribe and therefore the tribe. 

If someone said that they would watch a toddler and then they didn’t, the toddler might wonder into the river and be drowned. If a hunter said they would be ready with a large boulder up above to smash the prey that someone below was luring into a narrow canyon but then never showed up or never dropped the boulder, the person luring below would be eaten or trampled. Just as the mortar held their bricks together to make a house, the truth held the tribe together as a whole; a whole who could survive long winters and floods and dry spells and fend off predators. A tribe of liars would destroy themselves. Micah shuddered at such a prospect. He tied the ends of the great blanket filled with acorns he had gathered, for a chill and a fog lay heavy in the air. He trudged back to the village and heard the distant voices of his tribe, the Veritas singing together sharing their food and their love and their songs of true talk. 

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The Creation Myth of the Veritas: Part I

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The Creation Myth of the Veritas: Part I 

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The gods grew bored and decided to hold a kind of maker fest. Using the wet clay by the River of Life, they fashioned all sorts of strange and wonderful life forms including whales that swam in the seas, giraffes, tigers with strength and speed, cunning and claws, They created birds that soared in the skies and tiny worms that squirmed in the dirt. After many eons, all of creation was done and the world was filled with wondrous creatures of all sorts. All the gods had participated and each admired the work of all the others. Only Dionysius had failed to participate. As usual, he had been roaring drunk the night before, and as usual, arrived late to the party. 

Ever the bon vivant, Dionysius after glancing around at all the beautiful creatures, said, “Hey! Cool! I want to play too!” 

Zeus shook his head for no matter how many times Dionysius missed out by being drunk, he never seemed to learn. “Well, Dionysius, had you been here on time, you could have played. But all the materials are gone. All the best fangs, the sharpest claws, the keenest eyes and ears, the strongest bones are all gone. You can see that all that’s left is a tiny pile of clay by the estuary and that little cluster of the very most pathetic weapons over by that mesa. 

“Oh, crap,” opined Dionysius. “No matter, I’ll make something cool.” Unfortunately, Dionysius was not a morning person. In fact, when he was this badly hungover, his design skills were, if anything, even worse than when he was besotted. Worse, he rushed everything and today was no exception. He hastily slung together the remaining wet clay in a kind of rough approximation of a bear or an ape. He threw in a few bits of bone, teeth, and claws and was ready to call it a day and then try to locate the next party. But the result was so pitiable that it didn’t even meet his own low standards. 

Zeus, not for the first time, considered banning Dionysius from Olympus. “My god, Dionysius, could you make it any uglier?” 

Dionysius felt a twinge of guilt at his shoddy work. No sooner had he felt this than he decided to show Zeus a thing or two. “Indeed I can!” The only saving grace of the poor design of Dionysius had been the luxurious silver and black fur that covered the poor creature head to foot but, out of spite, he now hastily stripped it all off, save for a few odd hanks here and there. “There! That’s better!” 

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The other gods simply shook their heads in disgust. Dionysius was Dionysius after all. Without comment they walked off. “I’ll show them,” he thought. While their backs were turned to him, Dionysius took a tiny spark of creative curiosity out of his own heart and imbued his creation with it. He dubbed the result “Human” but it held little interest for the other gods. He placed “Humanity” on the earth and gave it no more thought, caring nothing for how it might or might not survive. 

When the other nearby animals saw the featherless, scaleless, nearly furless monstrosity, they chuckled to themselves. Some, such as Lion, Tiger, and Bear were hoping it would prove tasty despite its looks. Zeus however, felt some pity for the poor creature and asked the other animals if any would be willing to give Human something to help it survive. Lion and Tiger did not want to give up their speed, their claws, or their fangs. Eagle would not give up his superior eyesight. Elephant had no desire to give up his trunk, his great strength or his amazing hearing. Mammoth loved his thick coat of fur. Even the lowly chameleon would not give up his camouflage. Without knowing about the strictly illegal spark of creativity that Dionysius had bestowed, Zeus took pity and added just a small spark of intelligence. 

Those first years were very hard on Human. His only gifts were creative curiosity, some small intelligence, and, like all life, love. (For love, was not a gift bestowed by the gods, but inherent in the very stuff of Life itself). Upon seeing how hard life was for Human, Zeus again asked whether any of the other animals would give up any of their gifts. None wanted to give up their great gifts, but one by one, they gave some small gifts out of pity for poor Human. 

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Snake, for example, allowed Human to borrow the sound of his hissing sizzle and thus did Human receive “ssss.” Crow, not to be outdone, allowed Human to share his cursing “Caw! Caw!” Mourning Dove shared his “Cooo. Cooo.” Chattering squirrel offered up “t-t-t-t.” Sheep let Human borrow, “aaaa – aaaa!” Horse let Human use “Neigh! Neigh!” Eagle, ever jealous of his keen eyesight allowed human the use of “Eeee.  eeee.” Busy buzzing bee bestowed a “zzzz” for Human’s use. 

In this way, Human was able to make the sound of many animals. Though the animals did not realize it at the time they bestowed these gifts, they were actually quite useful. Making these sounds helped disguise Human as he went about hunting and gathering. Because Human, like all the other animals, had the gift of love, they also began using these sounds to share their treasures with others. If a Human found some honey, they would make the buzzing sounds of a bee and point to the direction of the honey. 

Humans lived in small tribes and it happened that some particularly smart Humans fell in love with other smart Humans and produced a Very Smart Human. Very Smart Human saw how spider spun a strong web made in a pattern and learned how to weave baskets of reeds. 

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Then, Very Smart Human saw how the sounds of the beasts could be woven into words and the words could be woven into statements and the statements woven into stories. And these stories could be shared. Over time, leaders learned to weave stories into a shared vision so that many people could have their purposes woven into a strong fabric of purpose to make projects to help all the people. They told a story of making dams to catch fish. And it was so.They told of making rooms to hold corn. And it was so. They told of traps and plans to corner prey. Working together, people could plan and build for all the people. And Humanity prospered.


Author’s Note: The first three pictures above are original artworks by Pierce Morgan.


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Buggy Whips to Fingertips

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My degrees are in psychology.  I have also been fascinated by computers. One main reason I went into HCI/UX/Human Factors was that I saw computers as devices that would amplify collective human intelligence. Thereby, with a mixture of people and computers, we would be able to solve such complex problems as world hunger, overpopulation, disease, global climate change, wars, and so on. I definitely saw myself as most interested in the people side though I thought comparing and contrasting computers and people shed new light on the people side. If you only have one type of computational mechanism; viz., us, then it’s hard to know how much of what happens in trying to solve a problem is because of our common human heritage and hardware and how much is intrinsic to the problem. 

This interest in the novel light that computing could shine on human intellect was what initially drew me to computers, but I later saw them as fascinating in their own right as well as being extremely important tools for a psychologist. For example, I used a PDP-8 to run experiments on the psychology of aging and to analyze the data. Only when I joined IBM did I begin to change my focus from how computers could be useful tools for psychologists, but how psychology could be useful tools for improving computers (or at least the actual performance of the computer in doing useful work when used by a person). 

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Although I took a number of programming courses, I only ever became an amateur programmer. My main method for programming some task was to think about how I would do it and then step by step, make the computer do it. This process has many limitations, a few of which are obvious even to me. For example, when doing my dissertation work, I had the computer register the time whenever any one of five subjects made a response. While sitting in the computer room (while the subjects were in their booths), I was sitting and reading something while the disk kept buzzing next to me: Bz-b-bz-bz. Bz-b-bz-bz. Bz-b-bz-bz. 

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I had used my “What would John do?” method of programming. If I saw a long number and had to go write it down, I would want to do it immediately, and then be ready for the next number. But this was insane for the computer! The computer could “remember” hundreds of these numbers and then write them out to the disk en masse. Anyone who had gone through even an introductory programming course would approach the problem differently than I had — at least until the computer used its disk buzzing to wake me up to its modus operandi which are really quite different from mine. 

Like every other human, I make mistakes all the time in every sort of endeavor. For example, I like to play tennis and I like to hit a serve that’s hard to return. So, I am typically trying to serve to a particular spot. I’m not dead on accurate. I might miss long or wide by a couple inches or hit the net. But I will not (or at least haven’t yet) turned around and sailed the ball out of the court behind me. Nor have I ever yet struck the ball straight down at my feet. Nor, have I tossed the ball sideways into the screen and then swung anyway (!), and accidentally let go and flung the racquet across the net. But if you have ever programmed a computer, you know any of these behaviors might be possible based on the slightest error you can imagine. 

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It is ironic because most people think people are unreliable while computer are reliable. Well, it’s not that simple. Most people are pretty reliable most of the time and especially when they are acting within their bailiwick. Yes, they slip up and make mistakes but they are usually (not always) both understandable and fixable. A computer can do anything. The hardware is typically reliable but can still fail. Much more likely is that there are differences between what the programmer thought she or he was telling the computer and what the programmer actually told it to do. But wait! There’s more! Even more likely is that the intent of the programmer solves only a small part of the overall problem, solves the wrong problem, or actually makes the situation worse. That is not — or at least not solely — the fault of the programmer (more likely, the fault of an entire bureaucratic process). 

This kind of weird and catastrophic error appeared in the program that ran my dissertation experiment at Michigan. Worse, it was a different weird and catastrophic error that appeared every time I ran the program! Often, the program would run correctly for five minutes or fifty minutes and then – BANG – unrecoverable error. 

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The program was in FORTRAN 2. Someone had added some useful macro functions for doing experiments. For instance, there were a number of initializations for the displays. We had five displays so these functions all had the form FUNCTION1(2) which applied the function1 to the second display. To make it even more convenient, if you wanted to do the same thing to all five displays (which was always the case for me), you could simply pass it the argument (7) and the macro code would apply it to all five displays. So, I had a list of about 5-6 commands of that form: Function1(7), Function2(7), Function3(7) etc. Having initialized the displays, the next thing on my agenda was to initialize the array that held the timing information. Since I wanted to do this for all five of the arrays, it seemed as easy as rolling off a cliff to use the (7) convention and thereby apply it to all five reaction time arrays. In more modern version of FORTRAN, they won’t allow you to do that (you will get a compile time error). But back when Joy to the World by Three Dog Night topped the charts, there was no error message at compile time. Secretly, of course, you just know that compiler was snickering as it thought: “Oh, you want to write some time stamp into the seventh element of a five element array? Fine. The customer is always right. Be my guest. Good luck with that.” This is the computer trying to “serve” and instead smashing the ball directly into the ground. 

Yet, keep in mind that there are some (not all) very rich and powerful people out there who sincerely wish that “people” could just be more like computers and do precisely as they’re told, always, and without question. And, when I say there are “people” they want to control like a computer, I mean you. That is exactly what they want. For you to do what they insist you do. They are about to get away with it – and if they do, there will be no Joy to the World – not for a very long time. Because if someone else lays out all the choices for you, you are not living your life at all. You are a tool in their life. 

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It isn’t even really a good system for them. Willing collaborations yield insights and creativity and productivity. It is precisely what has taken us from buggy whips to fingertips in an astoundingly short time. Society and technology and learning progressed at a snail’s pace in Medieval times. I don’t mean those really speedy thoroughbred racing snails either; I’m referring to the garden variety garden snail. A politician who has competition will want to show some sort of real progress. But a dictator? Maybe if they are particularly partial to scientific advancement or the fine arts, they might throw a few dollars that way. And some have. But many have not. What they typically put time, energy and thought into is war and the weapons of war. 

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Now, instead of, or at least in addition to, having computers help provide a coordinating infrastructure of knowledge so that human beings can collaborate and solve more interesting problems as I had initially hoped a half century ago, computers and social media are being used to trick people into denying the validity of their own experience and existence. How do we debug this situation before it’s too late? I sometimes think that part of the problem is that we have tried to jam seven elements of serious social and technological change into an array that can only hold five elements. But maybe that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that people are at their best when they are free to be people and at their worst when they are made to pretend that they are machines. 

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Study Slain by Swamp Monster!

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Study Slain by Swamp Monster!

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I’m trying a new format for blog posts. 

For those of you in a hurry, to get to the “bottom line” of this post, you can skip the story and go right to the bold-faced “lesson” at the end. I’d really you rather read the whole thing of course, but I know some readers are harried and hurried. So, if that describes you right now, feel free. 

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In the early 1980’s, researchers at the IBM Watson Research Center invented a new kind of system. Originally, this was called the “Speech Filing System.” It was initially designed to allow so-called “office principals” (sales people, managers, executives, engineers, etc.) to dictate letters and memos which could then be typed up by the pool of typists. Instead of requiring each “office principal” to have (or borrow) a dedicated piece of dictation equipment, they could accomplish this dictation from any touch tone phone. While this offered some savings in cost and convenience in the office, it was even more wonderful on the road. People did not have to take their dictation equipment with them on their travels. They could use any touch-tone phone. 

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The system was invented largely by tech-savvy psychologists (including Stephen Boies, John Gould, John Richards, & Jim Schoonard). When they observed people actually using the system, they discovered that the trial users more often used the ancillary messaging facility than they did the “real” dictation features. So, the system was redesigned and repurposed and then renamed, “The Audio Distribution System.” In some ways, using the “Audio Distribution System” was much like leaving a message on an answering machine. However, there were some crucial differences. Typically, a person calling someone and encountering, instead of a human being, a message asking them to leave another message was somewhat taken aback. Many messages on answering machines went something like this: “Hi. Stephen? Oh, you’re not there. OK.  This is John. I was hoping … well, I thought you’d be in. Uh. Let’s see. You know what? Call me back. We need to talk.” And, when Stephen discovered that he had a message, he might listen to it and call back John. “Hi, John. Stephen here… I … oh. OK. A message. Sorry. You just called me. Well, um. I’m not sure what you wanted to talk about so. Call me back when you get a chance.”

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By contrast, when someone called the “Audio Distribution System” they knew ahead of time they’d be interacting with a machine. So, they could compose a reasonable message before calling the system. Hence, the messages tended to be more coherent and useful; e.g., “Hi, Stephen. This is John. If it’s okay with you, I’m taking off this Friday for a long weekend. If you have any issues with that, let me know.” See? Easy and efficient. 

A second critical difference was that you could listen to your message and edit it. People didn’t do this so often as you might think, but it was comforting to know that you could in case you really messed up. (For instance, a person might say, “You are fired!” when all along they meant to say, “You are NOT fired.”). 

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Introducing any new system will have consequences, both intended and unintended. I wanted to see what some of these consequences might be. Corporations, IBM included, like it when they sell lots of product and make lots of money. A related question then was – what is the value of this product to the customer? Why should they want to buy it? 

One hypothesis I wanted to test out was that such a system would increase people’s perceived Peace of Mind. After you leave a meaningful message for someone, you can “cross off” that little item off your mental (or written) “to do” list. By using the Audio Distribution System, I thought one of the user benefits would be increased “Peace of Mind” because they would be able to leave a message any time and any place they had access to a touch tone phone. They could save their working memory capacity for “higher level” activities such as design, problem solving, and decision making. We were going to roll out a beta test of the Audio Distribution System at the divisional headquarters for the IBM Office Products Division (OPD), in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Not coincidentally, OPD would be the division selling the Audio Distribution System (just as they were now selling dictation equipment). Before the trial commenced, I developed a questionnaire designed to get at how much people felt harried, too busy, coping, etc. The hope was that I could compare the “Peace of Mind” scores of people who did and did not get the Audio Distribution System and perhaps show that those with the system felt more at peace than those without. I could also compare “before and after” for those internal beta customers who had the system. 

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Before I was to roll-out and administer the “Peace of Mind” questionnaire to a sample of people at the OPD Franklin Lakes location, guess what happen just two days before the beta roll-out? OPD was re-organized out of existence! The people who worked there would now be looking for another job elsewhere in IBM (or, failing that, just elsewhere period). The beta trial was cancelled. In any case, even if it hadn’t been cancelled, the impact of the re-organization would have completely swamped (in my estimation) the impact of this new tool. Moreover, it struck me as insensitive and slightly even unethical to ask people to fill out a questionnaire about how hassled they were feeling just days after finding out their entire division had been blown up. How would you react if some psychologist from the Research Center showed up asking you to fill out a questionnaire two days after finding out you no longer had a job?

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What is the lesson learned here? You have to understand what is going on in the lives of your users over and above the functions and features directly related to your product or service. Of course, there is always a fairly good chance that some of your users will have overwhelming things going on in their lives that will impact their reactions to your product. Generally you won’t know about divorces, deaths in the family, toothaches, etc. But if something is impacting all your users, you’d best be aware of it and act accordingly. 

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Speech Filing System

Audio Distribution System – NY Times

Longer explanation of Audio Distribution System

Video of Audio Distribution System’s cousin: “The Olympic Message System”

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In the Brain of the Beholder

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In the Brain of the Beholder. 

MikeHurdles

Most people in the related fields of “Human Factors”, “User Experience”, and “Human Computer Interaction” learn how to run experiments. Formal study often largely focuses on experimental design and statistics. Indeed, these are important subjects. In today’s post though, I want to relate three experiences with actually running experiments. Just for fun, let’s go in reverse chronological order. 

In graduate school at the University of Michigan Experimental Psychology department, one of my classmates told us about an experiment he had just conducted. Often, we designed experiments in which a strictly timed sequence of stimuli (e.g., printed words, spoken words, visual symbols) were presented and then we measured how long it took the “subject” to respond (e.g., press a lever, say a word). Typically, these stimuli were presented fairly quickly, perhaps 1 every second or at most every 4-5 seconds. This classmate, however, had felt this was too stressful and wanted to make the situation less so for the subjects. So, instead of having the stimuli presented, say, every 4 seconds, my classmate decided to be more humane and make the experiment “self-paced.” In other words, no matter how long the subject took to make a response, the next stimulus would be presented 1 second later. So, how did this “kindness” work out in practice? 

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A few days later, I heard a scream in the lab down the hall and ran in to see whether everyone was okay. One of my classmate’s first subjects had just literally ran out of the experimental room screaming “I can’t take it any more! I quit!” My classmate was flabbergasted. But eventually, he got the subject to calm down and explain why they had been so upset. The subject had begun by responding carefully to the stimuli. So, perhaps they took ten seconds for the first item, and the new stimulus came up one second later. On the second go, they took perhaps 9.5 seconds and then the next stimulus came up one second later. As time went on, the subject responded more and more quickly so the next stimulus also came up more and more quickly. In the subject’s mind, the experiment was becoming more and more difficult as determined by the experimenter. They had no idea that had they slowed back down to responding once every 10 seconds, they’d only be presented with stimuli at that, much slower speed. 

So, here we have one way that these so-called subjects differ from each other. They may not interpret the experiment in the framework in which it is thought of by the experimenter. In this particular case, there was a difference in the attribution of causality, but there are many other possibilities. This is one of many reasons for doing a pilot experiment and talking with the subjects. 

The next earlier example took place at Case-Western Reserve. In my senior year, I was married and had a kid so I worked three part time jobs while going to school full-time. One of the jobs was teaching “Space Science” and “Aeronautics” to some sixth graders at the Cleveland Supplementary Educational Center. Another one of the jobs was as a Research Assistant to a Professor in the Psychology Department. We were doing an experiment with kids in an honest-to-God “Skinner Box.” The kids pulled a lever and won nickels. Meanwhile, on a screen in front of them, there appeared a large red circle and then we looked at how much the kid continued to press the lever (without winning any more nickels) when confronted with the same red circle, a smaller red circle, a red ellipse, etc. 

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There was a small waiting room next to the Skinner Box and that had a greenboard on it. So, since there was another kid waiting there just twiddling his thumbs, I decided to give him a little mini-lecture on the solar system: sun at the center, planets in order, some of the major moons, etc. 

After each kid had finished the experiment, I always asked them what they thought was going on during the experiment. (This was despite the fact that the Professor I was working for was a “strict behaviorist”). When I asked this kid what he thought was going on, he referred back to my lecture about the solar system! 

Oops! Just because the lecture and the experiment were two completely unrelated things in my mind didn’t mean they were for the kid! Of course, they seemed related to him! Both involved circles and they both took place at the same rather unique and unusual place: a psychology laboratory. 

And this too is worth thinking about. We psychologists and Human Factors people typically report on the design of the experiment and hopefully relate the instructions. We, however, do not typically report on a host of other things that we think of as irrelevant but may impact the subject and influence their behavior. Was the receptionist nice to them or rude? What did their friends say about going to do a psychology experiment or a UX study? When the experimenter explained the experiment and asked whether there were any questions, was that a sincere question? Or, was it just a line delivered in a rather mechanical monotone that encouraged the subject not to say a word? 

Of course, the very fact that humans differ so much is why some psychologists prefer to use rats. And, the psychologists (as well as a variety of biologists and medical doctors) don’t just use any old rats. They use rats that are carefully bred to be “lab rats.” They are expected to act in a fairly uniform fashion. And, for the most part, they do.

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Photo by Alex Smith on Pexels.com

I was helping my girlfriend with her intro psych project. We were replicating the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This states that as you increase stress, performance improves, but only to a point. After that, additional stress causes performance to deteriorate (something that software development managers would do well to note). One of the ways I helped was to get some of the rats out of their cages. I would open up the top of the cage, reach around the rat behind their next and pull them out. Not a big deal. All the rats were quite placid and easy to handle. They all acted the same. Then, it was time to get the day’s last rat who was to be placed in the “high stress” condition. I went to the cage and opened it just as I had done for the last dozen rats. But instead of sitting there placidly and twitching it’s nose, this rat raced to the bars of his cage and hung on with both of his little legs and both of his little arms with all his might! Which might was not equal to mine but was rather incredible for such a tiny fellow. Rats sometimes squeak rather like a mouse does. But not this one! This carefully bred clone barked! Loudly! Like a dog. Whether this rat had suffered some previous trauma or was subject to some kind of odd mutation, I cannot say. 

But this I can say. Your “users” or “subjects” are not identical to each other. And, while modeling is a very useful exercise, they will never “be” identical to your model. They are always acting and reacting to a reality as beheld by them. And their reality will always be somewhat different from yours. That does not mean, however, that generalizations about people — or rats — are always wrong or that they are never useful. 

It does not mean that gravity will not affect people just because they refuse to believe in it. There really is a reality out there. And, that reality can kill rats or people in an eye blink; especially those who actively refuse to see what is happening before their very eyes. 

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Who knows? You might be about to be placed in the “High Stress” condition no matter how tightly you hang on to the bars of your cage – or, to your illusions.  

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