# Mortality

(Faux-philosophical blog content, posted as part of a daily posting streak I have openly committed to; standard disclaimers apply)

This is a hard essay to write because (1) it’s very irrational and I should (and I do) know better — death by car accident is much more likely than death by an airplane crash, but the latter is scarier because it’s more vivid and we have less control over it, and (2) people don’t like talking about it. When I tried writing it, though, I realized I already burned through most of the down-to-earth worries in the posts I made between April and August of 2010. They still coherently and accurately sum up my current thoughts surprisingly well. And most of the irrational, overly philosophical fears appeared in Thoughts at Midnight. So there used to be a lot of fluff here like this, which was inducing procrastination because I don’t know what to include and what to cut, but now that I have a daily deadline, I cut most of it. Here’s what’s left.

One, xkcd:

Two, bonus quote: As really-long-term readers know, I have had a reason to think that I might actually die in the past few years, a real reason that has stayed with me and gotten me thinking now and then about what my meaning of life is, instead of a short-lived fuzzy philosophical feeling obtained from reading Tuesdays with Morrie (which is not to say that Tuesdays with Morrie isn’t a good book; I just suspect no book can convey everything a personal experience can.) Anyway, it’s over in all likelihood, but the point is that in the middle, I wrote an essay for class in ninth grade, which I find equally coherent and equally representative of my views. The conclusion runs thus:

To this day, I cannot tell if I have truly accepted death for what it is, or if I have only managed to retreat to a more secure bubble of denial. If I have learned anything from this, it is that my worrying over such matters is a terrible way to use my life. The time I have spent brooding, not accomplishing anything at all, could have been used in so many other useful ways. As Miss Maudie said from To Kill a Mockingbird, “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.” More deaths of people I know have occurred in the days since, and I have treated each one as a reminder that my own life is not to be wasted. If I live my life well enough, I believe I will not have any difficulty when it comes time to face death once and for all.

Three, an informal will, simply so that I have one less irrational thing to worry about when I board airplanes and relinquish most of my control over my own survival: on the ridiculously small chance that I die in a freak accident, please

1. Don’t get everybody together to mourn. Mourning is overrated. Feel free to get together, but keep it happy; the world has enough sadness in it already. If everybody there is composed enough to handle it, play “Another One Bites the Dust”. Even better if you sing along. (Thanks, reddit.)
2. Donate everything possible to science. Put everything else anywhere where it doesn’t take up any space and ecological resources. Don’t plant an ugly memorial unless you want to plant a tree and take in some zarking carbon dioxide next to it.
3. If you think of me please try to spend the effort on thinking of somebody who can actually benefit from your thinking. Write a puzzle or make a math joke or generate some art with a program or something.

Actually, I’ll go ahead and propose one (I saw this somewhere before, then rediscovered it on xkcd wiki puzzles when chaotic_iak linked me there. There is a more precise phrasing on Puzzling StackExchange, but I feel that it might give too much away, so I’m going to rephrase it myself.)

A dragon and a knight live on an island where the only sources of fresh water are a pond (containing ordinary water) and six wells, numbered 1 to 6. Each well’s water is completely indistinguishable from the pond water, but contains a magical poison that has no immediate symptoms, yet suddenly kills the drinker about an hour after drinking.

To make things more complicated, each well contains a different variety of poison. If a drinker who has been poisoned by a well drinks the water from another well, the result depends on the relative numbers. If the second well has a higher number then both poisons will eliminate each other and the drinker will be cured. If the second well has the same number or a lower one, it is as though the drinker had only drunk from the first well. For example, if you drink from well 1 and then from well 4 you will not be poisoned, but if you drink from well 4 and then well 1 you will be poisoned as though you had drunk only from well 4.

As a result of these rules, water from well 6 can cure poison from any of the other wells, but, when drunk by someone who is not poisoned, is incurably lethal. Furthermore, while wells 1-5 are a short walking distance from each other, well 6 is located at the top of an unclimbable mountain on the island that the knight cannot reach but the dragon can fly onto very quickly.

This sets the stage for the following puzzle: both knight and dragon understand these rules completely, know the numbering of each of the wells, and each want the other dead. Being evenly matched in combat, they arrange a special sort of duel. Each secretly fills a glass of water from one of the island’s sources, then at an arranged time, they meet each other in a field, where they exchange glasses, and drink.

Easy version: if the knight knows the dragon is going to bring him water from well 6 and is going to attempt to cure himself by drinking from well 6 right after the duel (pfft), can the knight survive the duel and slay the dragon? How?

Hard version: can either the knight or the dragon guarantee their own survival no matter what the other player’s strategy is?

Harder version: since the xkcd-wiki version doesn’t specify what happens when, while you are poisoned from a well, you drink from a well with lower number than the first one, suppose we change the rules so that you die instantly if you do that. Can either the knight or the dragon still guarantee their own survival?

(Four, disclaimer: To be clear, I am not suicidal and I think I will seek help if I become such.)

Five, yes, I know this post stopped making any sense around the middle of point three. Expect more of the same.

Six, if you saw this post show up and then disappear somewhere and are wondering why: it’s because, without me realizing, WordPress assigned the slug (the thing at the end of the URL) mortality-2 to the post because there was already an earlier draft in its system with slug mortality, and bad slugs really really bother me.

Seven, by me from the future: w00t, in this post-WordPress world, silently assigned bad slugs are a thing of the past.

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)