"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Column by tzo.
Exclusive to STR
Hello, and welcome. I would like to introduce you today to my metamouse, Stanley. Let me tell you a bit about Stanley: Stanley depends upon cheese in order to survive, and he has been, as a rule, very well fed. This is Stanley's home over here, which as you can see, is a maze. If you look closely, you will notice that scattered about on the floor of the maze are blue squares, which I will explain presently. Over on that table is Stanley's schooling box, where he spent his pre-adult life.
Now I referred to Stanley as a metamouse, and I suppose I have to explain what that means. You see, Stanley represents a group of mice—a society of mice, if you will—hence the meta- prefix. So when I explain to you how Stanley's life works, please understand that this is not the life of just one individual, but rather that of the metamouse that represents an entire society.
Stanley began his life in the schooling box, where he learned all about the blue squares that he currently encounters in his maze. Whenever food appeared in the schooling box, it appeared within a blue square on the floor. Stanley was rather quickly conditioned to associate the presence of blue squares with tasty cheese, which for him was not only a pleasure but of course a necessity for survival.
Later on, every once in a while one of the food-giving squares would give Stanley a mild shock. Stanley thereby became conditioned to having to accept this slightly unpleasant possibility whenever he wanted cheese, but he became resigned to this fact of life. After all, one does have to eat, no? A small price to pay.
As Stanley grew a bit older, he was introduced to a new category of blue squares that contained no cheese upon them whatsoever. These squares gave Stanley a very strong and unnerving electric shock if he ventured to step on one, and he quickly learned to avoid them. If a large blue cheese-less square blocked his path, he knew that was not the path to take.
As an aside, I have taken to calling these blue squares “government squares.” It seems right to me, somehow.
I often wonder what rudimentary thoughts or feelings pass through Stanley's brain upon encountering one of these omnipresent blue squares. There would be a moment when he saw the square but did not yet know if it contained yummy cheese or high voltage. I imagine a tingle of excited anticipation and a shiver of anxiety mixed together for an instant before he could ascertain a particular square's function.
Just imagine, if you will: Blue squares are good, but are also to be feared. I imagine little Stanley feels a bit ambivalent about the blue squares, but he must inevitably deal with them. Are they good, or bad? I should think he bypasses such complicated thoughts and merely takes the pragmatic approach. When they feed him, he takes their gifts. If the gift comes with a mild shock, he accepts it. When the blue squares threaten him, he obeys.
After the completion of the conditioning—umm, schooling—phase of Stanley's existence, he was then moved to the maze. Now an interesting part of this experiment is that one of the maze's paths leads to a large wedge of cheese. Stanley can smell this cheese, and no doubt he is very interested in finding his way to it. But at one location along the key pathway, the floor is covered with a large wall-to-wall blue square, and Stanley dares not pass. He learned his lessons well in the schooling box—he is no dumb metamouse.
But here is another interesting detail about this experiment: None of the cheese-less blue squares in the maze can shock Stanley. Stanley is free to traverse them without any negative consequence whatsoever. But of course he has no way of knowing this, as he was taught only that they are all dangerous. Dangerous but necessary, of course, since they also supply his necessary food supply.
So, conditioning has placed a model of reality in little metamouse Stanley's head that does not quite match up with the real world. He has been taught to fear, respect, and love the blue government squares during his time in the schooling box, but these squares provide no real barrier to Stanley’s reaching the cheese haven, and so are not necessary to him even if they are adorned with a small cube of cheesy tastiness. He has the power to go and get his own cheese—cheese that is not a gift from the gods of the blue squares.
And now, one final aspect of this little experiment: I am, over time, providing Stanley with less and less cheese. This is undetectable to him on a day-to-day basis, but eventually he is going to feel less and less satisfied in the hunger department. Eventually the hunger will turn into an ever-present, dull ache, like a rotten tooth in his gut. He will begin to lose energy and become lethargic. Ultimately, the end result will be fatal.
But slowly, slowly.
I am testing to see if by decreasing the food at a slow enough rate, Stanley will become accustomed—conditioned, if you will—to accept his increasingly miserable state as normal. But even if he does, will there be a line in the sand beyond which he will decide to take action and upset the deteriorating status quo?
But what can he possibly do? What options exist? Surely he cannot penetrate the walls of the maze. But one of the walls is in the form of a blue square on the floor. Traversing it is the equivalent of passing through one of the implacable walls. But it is different somehow. I mean, it’s a wall, but not really. But it may as well be. Right? There is something here, but it can’t quite get untangled.
Then a bolt from the blue: What if the blue squares don't really shock him? That was the lesson learned in the schooling box, but this is real life in the maze. Maybe things don't work the same way here as was taught in the schooling box.
But who would be cruel enough to mislead the poor little furry animal, and for what conceivable purpose? Seems preposterous to even consider it.
So it can’t be that.
Besides, the government shocks are quite horrible. Even if Stanley does consider defying the big blue square, he can always quite easily talk himself into waiting at least one more day. The discomfort can be endured a bit longer instead of trading it in for that nasty piece of violence. Besides, perhaps the food supply will get better (Was it really better before? He’s pretty sure it was, but it’s hard to remember exactly.), and everything will be as it was before.
The blue squares have always been there. Stanley has never experienced reality without them. The pragmatic metamouse knows that the system works, albeit imperfectly. He is living proof of its success, and so perhaps he just has to wait out the tough times and have faith that the blue squares will provide him once again with a comfortable standard of living.
Besides, it’s not all that bad, and it certainly could be worse. What if he found himself in a maze with, say, green squares or—gosh—no squares at all?
These thoughts dredge up a bubbly, oily dread from a black pit in his mind. He hastily slaps the cover back over the top of that deep, dark well: This place may not be perfect, but it’s familiar, and it’s home.
I know that Stanley really wants to get to the delicious-smelling cheese. He continues to retrace all the routes he is permitted, but they all run into dead ends. Sometimes the tantalizing smell is overwhelmingly strong, and he knows he must be close, but he just. can't. get. to. the cheese.
If he could just reason it out. There must be a solution.
If not, perhaps he may eventually conclude in his little metamouse brain that the quest is hopeless. The flaw must lie within him, somehow. He has failed to solve the maze. Perhaps he is not worthy of continued existence.
Because if the benevolent blue squares ever fail to provide cheese for him, he will surely perish. Perhaps it is just a matter of time—but this is yet another line of thought he dares not pursue too far . . . .
Sometimes, late at night I will hear Stanley scurrying softly around in his labyrinthine reality. I may lean over the maze and whisper to him: Stanley. Walk over the blue square. What on Earth do you have to lose? And think about what you have to gain!
He stops and looks up at me, the beady little hungry eyes locating the source of the sound. He does not understand me. He puts his ever-twitching tiny black nose back down on the floor and continues sniffing out his quest for the holy grail.
I go back to bed.