You walk in. The wall decorations vaguely suggest psychedelia. The music is pounding, head-splitting, amelodious. Everyone is struggling to speak over it. Everyone assumes everyone else likes it.

You flee to the room furthest from the music source. Three or four guys are sitting in a circle, talking. Two girls are standing by a weird lamp, drinks in hand. You see Bob.

“Hi, Bob!”

“Hey, good to see you again!”

“What’s new?”

“Man, it’s been a crazy few months. You hear I quit my job at Google and founded a fintech startup?”

“No! What do you do?”

“War insurance!”

“War insurance?”

“Yeah. We pay out if there’s a war.”

“Isn’t that massively correlated risk?”

“Yeah. The idea is, we sell war insurance to companies who do badly if there’s a war - tourist attractions and the like. Then we sell the same amount of peace insurance to military contractors. As long as we get the probabilities and costs right, we make the same profit either way.”

“Neat idea, how’s it going?”

“Great! Ayatollah Khameini just bought a ten billion dollar policy.”

“Of the war version or the peace version?”

“Can’t say, confidentiality agreement.”

“Did I hear someone talking about fintech?”

A man with a buzz-cut. His shirt had an incomprehensible symbol - his favorite band’s symbol? His company’s logo? A chaos magic sigil? and he was carrying a half-decayed slice of pizza.

“I’m Ramchandra,” he said. “I’m working for a fintech startup. Love to hear from anyone else in the business!”

“I’m Bob, good to meet you. Who do you work for?”

“You know ViraCoin?”

“No, tell me about them.”

“New crypto. You mine it by promoting about it. Once every eight minutes, a decentralized algorithm searches for tweets containing the word ‘ViraCoin’ with a positive sentiment score, weights them by number of likes, and then picks one at random to award a ViraCoin to.”


“No, you don’t understand. This is just the first step. Once we make it super-big, we’ll introduce other things into the algorithm. Charities. Political causes. We’ll have millions of people competing to praise UNICEF in order to get that next million-dollar ViraCoin drop. If you think about it, all problems are caused by lack of awareness. We’re an at-scale solution to awareness. Solve that, and you solve poverty, inequality, racism…”

You wander off. There’s an open bedroom, with a few people sitting on the bed talking inside. A woman in a blue dress is saying something about how she’s trying to build a secular scientific interpretation of Buddhism.

“There’s no alpha left in secular scientific interpretations of Buddhism,” says the guy on her right, a thin white man with a carefully trimmed beard. “Half of California spent the past hundred years trying to create secular scientific interpretations of Buddhism, you can’t throw a stone without hitting one.”

“You don’t understand,” says the woman, “they stopped halfway. There are a bunch of Buddhist doctrines nobody’s ever come up with secular rationalist versions of. Like reincarnation. You ask those Californians about Buddhism, they’ll say it’s all just about brain waves and mindfulness, but change the topic when you get to reincarnation, or say it’s all an ignorant myth.”

“So how do you come up with a secular scientific interpretation of reincarnation?”

“Have you ever heard about the quantum suicide thought experiment? Suppose that there are near-infinite parallel universes. There are versions of you in some of them - people who are exactly identical to you and each other. It’s meaningless to ask which of them ‘you’ ‘are’” - she made the scare quotes with her hands - “because you’re all of them at once. ‘You’ are the mathematical pattern, not the atoms, anything that instantiates that pattern is you. So if you shoot yourself, you won’t die, because you can’t have the experience of not existing. You’ll just find your thread of consciousness ‘waking up’ in those universes where the gun jammed. Or where a sudden gust of wind knocked you over and out of the bullet’s path. Total immortality.”

“How does that imply reincarnation?”

“Cause I don’t believe in infinite parallel universes, or infinite versions of you. But your consciousness can transfer to a being that’s slightly different from you. That happens every moment, the atoms in your brain never stay in exactly the right place. So when you die in our universe, which is the only one you are, your consciousness ‘wakes up’ into the other being whose internal pattern is most like yours.”

“Then how come people don’t all have each other’s memories?”

“Even in Buddhism, reincarnation isn’t a transfer of souls. It’s a transfer of karmic bundles. Suppose that you’re violent and greedy your whole life, and then you die. You ‘wake up’ in the consciousness of the most similar being you can find. Maybe it’s a wolf, or a praying mantis. But suppose you use your reason and really lean into the purely human virtues. Then you’re basically guaranteed to ‘wake up’ as another person. Not that they’ll have your memories or anything. They’re just whose qualia you’ll be experiencing.”

“So your thread of consciousness can never wink out of existence?”

“Of course it can, that’s the whole point of Buddhism. You need to become nothing, gradually, naturally, in a way where each step is causally linked to the step before. Then, when you die, your consciousness won’t continue at all. It’ll just stay nothing. Nirvana! Seems pretty straightforward to me. I don’t know why everyone else keeps saying that Buddhism has ‘supernatural elements’ or parts that are ‘hard to square with modern science’.”

She’s gathered a small audience now. “What about the Pure Land stuff?” asks a guy in a beret. “If you say the words Namu Amida Butsu ten times, then when you die Amida Buddha will pluck your soul from the aether and ensure it gets reborn in his heaven dimension. Still doesn’t sound very scientific to me.”

“No,” she says, “come on, that makes perfect sense. Imagine you’re a group of benevolent superintelligent aliens. You know all this stuff about reincarnation, so you want to help. You tile your home solar system with trillions of sentient beings living in a heaven dimension, and you make sure that every so often, they all say Namu Amida Butsu at some super-high rarefied level of consciousness. There are so many entities, of such high consciousness, who are so associated with the phrase Namu Amida Butsu , that any consciousness that has ever said the words at all inevitably pattern-matches to one of those. When that consciousness ends, it ‘wakes up’ as one of the entities in the heaven dimension whose information-patterns are correlated with it through the focus on those words.”

“In this hypothetical, how do the aliens know Japanese?”

“They don’t! We’re talking about information-patterns! The signified, not the signifier! They’re focusing on the concept of I call upon some powerful entity that has seized control of the cycle of reincarnation to draw my soul into their heaven dimension , and the closest human-language equivalent to that is Namu Amida Butsu. So by saying it, your information pattern shortens the distance to their information pattern!”

“I still don’t think this is what the Japanese intended,” says Beret Guy.

“Oh,” says the woman in the blue dress, “and you’re some kind of expert on Japanese Buddhism, I suppose?”

“Mmmmm, kind of? I was really into Zen in college. I would sit zazen for two, three hours every day. A few years after I graduated, I took the plunge and quit my job at Google to study a Zen monastery near Kanazawa. The first day I was there, the master said ‘This very world is the Pure Land, and each one of you is already enlightened.’ I was really relieved, because I’d thought I would have to stay at the monastery like ten, maybe twenty years to get enlightened. So I thanked him and went off to pack my stuff. He ran after me, asked ‘Where are you going?’ I said that honestly I wasn’t that into the Zen aesthetic and I was just there to get enlightened - but if I was already enlightened, then mission accomplished and I might as well go back to Google. I spent a couple days seeing Kanazawa, then flew home.”

“You moron, that’s just a cryptic riddle. You have to spend the years at the monastery in order to appreciate the sense in which you’re already enlightened.”

“Nah, I got an email from the Zen master a few months later telling me that I was the best student he’d ever had.”

The discussion is starting to get heated, so you wander back into the first room. Bob and Ramchandra are still talking about fintech, but there’s a person of ambiguous gender sitting alone, playing with a fidget spinner. You strike up a conversation:

“Hey, nice to meet you.”

“Hi,” they say, “I’m Wind, they/them pronouns.”

“Please tell me you’re not in fintech.”

Wind steals a glance at Bob and Ramchandra and laughs. “Oh god no. I’m an artist slash philosopher.”

“What . . . does that involve?”

“Right now I’m lying naked on rocky beaches until I almost die of dehydration.”

“Is . . . that the art, or the philosophy?”

“Both! It all started when I learned about pilot whales. See, we used to think that humans had the biggest brain relative to their body size, and that’s why we were so smart. But it turns out there are loads of animals with bigger brain:body ratios. So it’s got to be something more complicated. People have come up with a lot of measures for calculating animal intelligence: encephalization quotient, neuron number. If you combine them all together, you can get one that mostly makes sense, with the dumbest insects at the bottom and humans on the top. The only exception is pilot whales. However you calculate it out, they should be smarter than we are.”


“So I looked up what pilot whales did, and the answer was mostly that they seem to swim up onto beaches and die of dehydration unless they can flop their way back into the sea. Nobody knows why. I sure don’t. But I figure, if they’re smarter than we are, there must be some reason for it. Maybe it’s The Good. You know, like the moral law. I’m not sure. I just feel like it’s an underexplored possibility. So I’m traveling to beaches across the world so I can lie naked on them and almost die of dehydration. And if I learn something important, I’ll write an article about it.”

“How did you get the money for this?”

“Same place every young would-be philosopher who’s overly confident in a crazy idea gets money . . . ”

You and Wind say it together: “ . . . Peter Thiel!”

It looks like the food had arrived, so you head to the kitchen. A couple of guys are trying to clear off the table and get the food and drinks set up. You ask if they need help, they say yes, and you find yourself walking with them to their van to bring in more boxes.

“What do you do?” you ask.

There are two of them, a blond guy and an Asian guy. Blond guy speaks first: “We’re the caterers.”

“Oh. That makes sense. What’s it like?”

“It sucks,” said Asian guy. “We’re just doing it to make money after my restaurant startup failed.”

“Too bad. Tell me about the startup.”

“Oh, it was a great idea. You ever read Harry Turtledove? Yeah? We named it after him. Turtledove’s Alternate History Cafe. What would Southern comfort food be like if the South had won the Civil War? Or how would Mexican food taste in a world where Europeans never discovered America?”

“How would it taste?”

“Some parts would be surprisingly similar! You take your basic taco, and you can keep the tortilla - corn, of course - the tomato salsa, the beans, and the guac. But the cheese and sour cream have got to go - that’s an import from cultures with lactase-persistence. And you can’t have beef or chicken - the typical Aztec meats were rabbit, lizard, and - if you can believe it - axolotl. A common spice was culantro, which is actually noticeably different from Old World cilantro. We think that with time, the Aztecs would have expanded into North America and added bison, and established trade routes with the Inca and gotten potatoes. The conditions in the Mexican Plateau were almost ideal for…sorry, I’m quoting our literature. All our dishes came with a pamphlet explaining when the world-branch it came from diverged from our own and how it differed.”

“Well if you served axolotls, I’m not surprised you couldn’t get customers.”

“Oh no, we were booked solid every day.”

“Then why’d you fail?”

“The city shut us down.”

“Are axolotls endangered or something?”

“Oh no. We asked ourselves - what would modern cuisine be like if the Axis had won WW2? So we made up a whole menu of German-Japanese fusion fare - teriyaki bratwurst, beer-battered sushi, stuff like that.”

“What’s wrong with teriyaki bratwurst?”

“The waiters had swastika armbands and said ‘Heil Hitler!’ when they took your orders.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess that would do it. You going to try again?”

“Not sure,” says the blond guy. “John here wants to. I think we should try something else.”

“Any particular ideas?”

“When we were planning the Axis menu, I told John it would be fine, people had a sense of humor. Then it got us shut down, and I said I really had to eat some humble pie. That gave me an idea. We have all these food metaphors. Eat humble pie. Eat crow. Eat my hat. There’s so much alpha in food metaphors. Imagine - you’re an executive and you steer your company the wrong direction, nobody gets bonuses. As an apology, you take your employees out for dinner at our restaurant and order a crow sandwich. Now they can all see you literally eating crow.”

“What would the employees eat?”

“Well, we have a lot of teriyaki bratwurst we need to get rid of. That stuff keeps forever.”

You finish unloading the food onto the table. A few people trickle in and start eating. You make conversation with a woman to your left.

“Hi, what’s your name?”

“I’m Sara.”

“What do you do?”

“I quit my job at Google a few months ago to work on effective altruism. I’m studying sn-risks.”

“I can’t remember, which ones are sn-risks?”

“Steppe nomads. Horse archers. The Eurasian hordes.”

“I didn’t think they were still a problem.”

“Oh yeah. You look at history, and once every two hundred, three hundred years they get their act together, form a big confederation, and invade either China, the West, or both. It’s like clockwork. 400 AD, you get the Huns. 700, the Magyars. 1000, the first Turks start moving west. 1200, Genghis Khan, killed 10% of the world population. 1400, Tamerlane, killed another 5%. 1650, the Ming-Qing transition in China, also killed 5%. We’re more than 50 years overdue at this point.”

“But I would think with modern technology - ”

“Exactly! With modern technology, the next time could be so much worse! Usually the steppe nomads are limited to a small fringe around the steppe where they can still graze their horses. But with modern logistics, you can get horse food basically anywhere. There’s no limit to how far the next steppe confederation could get. That’s why I think this is a true existential risk, not just another 5 - 10% of the world’s population like usual.”

“I was going to say that with modern technology, it just doesn’t seem like steppe nomads should be such a problem any more.”

“That’s what the Ming Dynasty thought in 1650. You know, they had guns, they had cannons, they figured that horse archers wouldn’t be able to take them on anymore. Turned out they were wrong. The nomads got them too.”

“Are there even any steppe nomads left?”

“Definitely! Lots of people in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, stick to their traditional ways of life. All they need is a charismatic leader to unite them.”

“And the effective altruists gave you a grant to work on this?”

“Not Open Philanthropy or Future Fund or any of those people, but I was able to get independent funding.”

“From who?” you ask, as if you don’t already know the answer.

“Same place every overly confident young person gets money! Peter Thiel!”

You let her drone on about Avars and Hephthalites for a few more minutes, then politely excuse yourself and strike up a conversation with the guy to your right.

“So what do you do?”

“Nothing. I got fired a few weeks ago.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine. You know what they say. People are like clay pots - getting fired just makes them stronger.”

“I never heard anyone say that.”

“No, really, it’s fine. I’m not even bitter. Just - five years working on the Trust And Safety team at Twitter, and Musk comes in and fires me just like that.”

“Oh, you were involved in that!”

“Yeah - are you smirking? You’re not one of those freeze peach people, are you?”

“I guess sort of . . . “

“Whatever, I know everyone hates us. But let me tell you, it’s not all just banning any conservative who gets too popular, or burying stories that embarrass the establishment candidate a week before an election. We did good, important work.”

“Like what?”

“Like - have you heard of the Temple of Artemis? One of the Seven Wonders of the World. Burned down not by a Christian or a Muslim, but by a random Greek guy who wanted his name to be remembered by history, and figured that burning the most beautiful building in the world would ensure it. The Greeks responded by banning anyone from mentioning or recording his name, but the historian Theopompus wrote it down anyway, and it’s survived to the current day. No, I won’t tell it to you. Anyway, I was going to lead a consortium with the censors at Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, all the big name sites. We were finally going to complete the ancient Greeks’ work. We were going to memory-hole this guy’s name from the Internet. Even the people at Amazon were going to be on board - they would stop selling editions of the Theopompus book that gives his name. And then, finally, the burning of the Artemision would be properly avenged. We were this close! And then some dumb billionaire waltzes in and says ‘muh free speech’ and ruins everything!”

“I actually don’t think that saying ‘we should be able to unperson whoever we want’ helps your case that this is valuable and non-creepy.’

“The Temple of Artemis burner was just the beginning. The ancients used damnatio memoriae as a frequent punishment. How frequent? We don’t know! There’s no way of knowing! We only know when someone like Theopompus defects from the plan. How many ancient Hitlers and Stalins might there have been, now totally forgotten? And how many others were dissuaded from murder or other abominable acts because of the fear of erasure? And now that tool is lost to us forever. I hope you enjoy the world that you and your freeze peach buddies have created.” He storms off in a huff.

You finish your food and walk out into the main room. The music if anything seems even louder now. You find the host, tap him on the shoulder. “Hey, do you think you could turn the music down?”

“What?” he asks. You swear that the music got louder right when you asked the question.


“WHAT?” You’re definitely not imagining it. The music has learned to defend itself against being shut off. If only people had listened to Eliezer Yudkowsky before it was too late. You give up.

“This is an amazing party!” you shout. “How do you know all these people?”

“I don’t!” he shouts back. “I’m trying Partyr. It’s a new all-in-one party-throwing service. You give them an address, a time, and an ideal number of guests, pick from one of their preset themes, and they make everything happen.”

“Including the guests?”

“If needed! The idea is, you have some friends you want to impress by throwing a big party. But you don’t know how many of them will come. And you don’t want only two or three people to come, and then it’s really embarrassing. So you set an ideal number of people to come to the party. Then you see how many people RSVPed, and if it’s less than your ideal Partyr sends you enough guests to make up the difference.”

“Where do they get the people? Are they employees?”

“No, you sign up to be on standby for their service, and they send you a text if someone needs you.”

“How many of the people here tonight are paid Partyr guests?”

“About half, I think. I got most of the RSVPs I wanted, I just thought maybe with a few more people it could seem extra popular.”

“You definitely succeeded there!” You grab a guest on their way to the food table. “Hey, are you here with Partyr?”

“Yeah,” she says. She’s a tall woman in a fashionable dress. “This is my third time with the service. They always come through.”

“What’s it like?”

“It’s pretty great. You tell them what times and days of the week you’re available. Then if they have a need, they text you a day or two beforehand and tell you where to go. You get to eat other people’s free food, drink their free alcohol, and meet a lot of cool people. Sometimes you meet the same Partyr standby guests a few times in a row and make friends with them. Sometimes they even pay you a stipend. I got to say, it’s a pretty great deal.”

“Have you ever used them to throw a party yourself?”

“Oh no, there’s no alpha left in generic Partyr parties. I have my own methods.”

“What’s that?”

“I shouldn’t tell, but . . . oh, whatever, I’m pretty drunk right now. What you do is - you come up with your ideal guest list - who would you invite if you knew they were going to say yes. Actors, billionaires, all the coolest people in your social circle. Then you send them all an email saying - hey, Elon Musk is going to be at this party, you want to come? Of course they all say yes. Then, a few days before the party, you send out an email - sorry, Elon has to cancel, but we’ve still got [list of actors, billionaires, and all the coolest people in your social circle]. Everyone agrees that’s still a pretty amazing guest list and decides to come anyway. Win win. It’s like that quote about how God is so powerful that He doesn’t even need to exist in order to save us.”

“But surely that only works once.”

“You only have to do it once, then you get a reputation as a person who throws good parties and all those same people will come again next time. And so will people who want to party with those people, and people who want to party with those people, and . . . ”

“Okay, but surely you can do this only once per group of people. If some cool actress gets five invitations to parties with Elon Musk a week, and he never shows up to any of them, eventually she’s going to catch on.”

“Yeah, that’s true. There needs to be a way to coordinate this across communities, so that no one person overdoes it. I’m thinking of automating the process and turning it into a startup. That way the app can keep track of who’s already been tricked and who’s ripe for the picking.”

“Lies about Elon Musk coming to your party as a service. Capitalism really is great.”

“It doesn’t have to be Elon Musk. Depending on who your guests would be interested in, it could be Taylor Swift, or Tyler Cowen, or Peter Thiel . . .”

“No, it can’t be Peter Thiel, he’s the one funding the app.”

She almost jumps. “What? How did you know? That was supposed to be secret!”

“Call it intuition,” you say.