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A True Story (wikipedia.org)
525 points by benbreen 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

Lucian also wrote the earliest known version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which I view as the ur-example of an "AI rebellion" storyline. A programmer is harmed by their creation not because it goes against their orders but because it follows their orders to a much greater extent than they were anticipating.

Given those two pieces of evidence, it's clear now: we've found our missing time traveler.

> A programmer is harmed by their creation not because it goes against their orders but because it follows their orders to a much greater extent than they were anticipating.

This is theme also explored by Isaac Asimov regarding the Three Laws of Robotics, in short stories such as "...That Thou Art Mindful of Him".

It's also the basic idea explaining allergies.

A better example may be lupus or arthritis, both examples of the immune system being over-active and attacking the host.

Interesting. How do? Care to elaborate?

Cells in your immune system are programmed to follow a set of rules in order to attack foreign invaders. This is very effective in defeating bacteria and viruses. It is not so effective against allergens like pollen and dust. Cells will continuously produce antibodies and histamines to attack these particles to the point where it overwhelms the rest of the body and causes collateral damage.

If you want to see a fictional representation of this, watch Cells at Work episode 5.

A couple more Asimov Three Law stories on this theme would be "Reason" and "The Evitable Conflict".

At least once a week:

Me: I solved my problem at work today!

Wife: Was the computer doing exactly what you told it to do and not what you actually wanted it to do again?

Me: Yes ::sulks away::

> A programmer is harmed by their creation not because it goes against their orders but because it follows their orders to a much greater extent than they were anticipating.

Like Reapers in Mass Effect.

in another unrelated story that happened some 60 years before Lucian of Samosata:

... emperor Vespasian (is said) to have purchased and destroyed the model of a mechanical device that would have made construction work more efficient, saying, “You must let me feed my poor commons (Sine me pascere plebeculam meam)” In these cases, preserving political stability motivated government to suppress technology ...


This is bogus. Abhimanyu’s story in Mahabharatha and Sanjiva’s story from Buddhist Jataka tales both predate Lucian and are both Sorcerer’s Apprentice type tales.

Interesting, could you post one of them? The version from Lucian is as follows:

“Whenever we came to an inn, he used to take up the bar of the door, or a broom, or perhaps a pestle, dress it up in clothes, and utter a certain incantation; whereupon the thing would begin to walk about, so that every one took it for a man. It would go off and draw water, buy and cook provisions, and make itself generally useful. When we had no further occasion for its services, there was another incantation, after which the broom was a broom once more, or the pestle a pestle. I could never get him to teach me this incantation, though it was not for want of trying; open as he was about everything else, he guarded this one secret jealously. At last one day I hid in a dark corner, and overheard the magic syllables; they were three in number. The Egyptian gave the pestle its instructions, and then went off to the market. Well, next day he was again busy in the market: so I took the pestle, dressed it, pronounced the three syllables exactly as he had done, and ordered it to become a water-carrier. It brought me the pitcher full; and then I said: Stop: be water-carrier no longer, but pestle as heretofore. But the thing would take no notice of me: it went on drawing water the whole time, until at last the house was full of it. This was awkward: if Pancrates came back, he would be angry, I thought (and so indeed it turned out). I took an axe, and cut the pestle in two. The result was that both halves took pitchers and fetched water; I had two water-carriers instead of one. This was still going on, when Pancrates appeared. He saw how things stood, and turned the water-carriers back into wood; and then he withdrew himself from me, and went away, whither I knew not.”

Not the OP, but I was curious so I read a bit about Abhimanyu and Sañjīva.

Abhimanyu was a warrior in the Mahabharata who, while still in his mother's womb, heard Arjuna tell the secret of how to break into the powerful circular battle formation known as the Chakravyūha. His mother, and with her, Abhimanyu in her womb, fell asleep before hearing how to break out of the formation. Once an adult, Abhimanyu entered the Chakravyūha of his enemies, the Kauravas, and killed many of their soldiers. But, not knowing how to exit the formation, became trapped inside and was eventually weakened and killed by the combined might of his enemies' heroes.

The Sañjīva-Jātaka is a story-within-a-story. The main story tells of King Ajātasattu who followed Devadatta, the enemy of the Buddhas and how he paid for it. The story-within, tells of a young brahmin, named Sañjīva, pupil of the Bodhisattva, who taught him a spell to raise the dead. Wishing to impress his peers, Sañjīva cast the spell on a dead tiger. But, not knowing the counter-spell, he could not control the tiger, who bit him in the neck and killed him, then fell dead by his side. The story-within is meant to teach how an evil person cannot be a true ally and will soon turn against you:

  Befriend a villain, aid him in his need,
  And, like that tiger which Sañjīva raised
  To life, he straight devours you for your pains.
There are obvious parallels between the two stories and the Sorcerer's Apprentice tale (modern and ancient). However, Abhimanyu's story is also significantly different, in that the Chakravyūha is not his own creation that he lost control over.

If we take Abhimanyu's story as similar to the Sorcerer's Apprentice story, and accept that the theme is one of knowing how to initiate a process, but not how to stop it, then we may also heed the story of Phaethon, the son of Helios, the sun god, who asked to drive his father's chariot (i.e. the sun) but couldn't control it and was killed by Zeus to stop him wreaking havok to the Earth. This is a story from Greek mythology and therefore much older than the story of Sañjīva and at least as old as the Mahabharata.

Therefore, as a stereotypical Greek, I will claim the oldest telling of the story of The Boy Who Lost Control for the legend of Phaethon.



Abhimanyu's article on wikipedia:


Chakravyūha article on wikipedia:


The Sañjīva-Jātaka:


Phaethon's article on wikipedia:


Phaeton is a credible origin for starting-something-you-can't-stop stories but I think Sorcerer's Apprentice has a further facet, where the process that you start is autonomous to some degree and causes problems by doing exactly what you told it. (In the case of the undead tiger it was being more of a live tiger than Sañjīva expected.)

I think that the Sañjīva story is rather about a something that you awaken (call out) that you fully do not understand.

It would be similar to calling out a demon.

Lucian story is about giving orders to an existing automaton.

I think these stories are different.

Hey, I don't disagree completely, but it's hard to decide how to answer this kind of question. In short, we are trying to figure out a way to identify a class of stories, based on a single example and on the observation that it has some common elements with other stories we happen to know. The difficulty is in the fact that there are many such "common elements" we might decide to focus on, or ignore, and each set thereof can substantially change the stories we identify as "similar to" our single example, the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

So, for instance, we could broaden the description to include any story of losing control over one's, or someone else's creation- therefore "covering" stories as diverse as the legend of Icarus, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and of course the stories of Sañjīva, Phaethon and Abhimanyu. We might focus on the moral dimension of the story, which draws more stark parallels to the story of Sañjīva but also King Midas. We might choose to stay as close as possible to the them of "magical automation" in which case, we 'll only include stories like the original tale in Lucian's work, the Sorcerer's Apprentice many versions, and the story of the Golem of Prague, all of which include something like the Paperclip Optimiser AGI. And so on.

I guess now I make it sound like navel-gazing, but this is actually a legitimate problem with very real applications. For example imagine trying to organise the stories I list above, plus who knows how many others, in appropriate categories _automatically_ based on their narrative characteristics. It's probably impossible to do that sort of thing with current NLP techniques, or at least to do it in a way that would satisfy a majority of human classifiers. Not to mention, the problem of choosing what part of a _story_ (as opposed to what portions of _text_) to attend to when categorising a document is also not something we can currently solve convincingly.

So it's an ill-defined, hard, classification problem. Perfect subject for a machine learning paper :)

Interesting take on the topic, thanks! I think part of the problem is trying to categories stories on some kind of taxonomy rather than seeing them as bundles of attributes.

> Therefore, as a stereotypical Greek, I will claim the oldest telling of the story of The Boy Who Lost Control for the legend of Phaethon.

And of course, if that fails, just claim that Alexander discovered India so you basically invented the Indians :p

The Greek plan B :D

You know the Greeks well, friend :P

Thank you, this is a great thread.

I think the elements that make Lucian's version specifically like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are:

* the Sorcerer's magic is appropriated by another party that doesn't understand the magic

* a "broom or pestle" is the animated object

* the object is ordered to fetch water but won't stop, eventually filling the house with water

* the object is chopped to pieces in an attempt to stop it, but the pieces continue to fetch water

* this continues until the Sorcerer comes back and angrily reverses the magic.

Don’t trust evil people is an incredible theme.

> This is bogus.

That's somewhat harsh, isn't it? Perhaps the commenter was not familiar with the Indian stories? The word 'bogus' has a pejorative connotation - the implication is that the commenter is being deliberately misleading which would seem a fairly uncharitable reading.

As for the Indian stories themselves, I may be forgetting some crucial details but I'm not able to see how they are Sorcerer's Apprentice type stories.

Edit: I _was_ forgetting! I still don't quite get the parallel with Abhimanyu's story but the Jataka story is definitely similar.

> The word 'bogus' has a pejorative connotation

"Bogus" is one of those words that carries different emotional weights based on your background. The 1980s street-tough in me sees bogus in the Bill & Ted's sense, but the data scientist in me sees it in the "I didn't control all the variables in my experiment, and got bogus results" way.

I think we can assume good faith in this case, that it wasn't meant as an insult.

Cute. This was worth researching. Given Wikipedia's description of the Vedic Abhimanyu the 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' analogy may be pushing it a bit, given his status as the reincarnation of the son of moon-god Chandra. But the Sanjiva-Jataka story ends with an interesting maxim:

Befriend a villain, aid him in his need,

And, like that tiger which Sañjīva raised

To life, he straight devours you for your pains.

Which reads like an early version of the line no good deed goes unpunished :)

There's another Jātaka involving a brahmin and a tiger that teaches pretty much the same lesson: The Tiger, the Brahmin and the Jackal:


From the article:

A brahmin passes a tiger in a trap. The tiger pleads for his release, promising not to eat the brahmin. The brahmin sets him free but no sooner is the tiger out of the cage then he says he is going to eat the brahmin. The brahmin is horrified and tells the tiger how unjust he is. They agree to ask the first three things they encounter to judge between them. The first thing they encounter is a tree, who, having suffered at the hands of humans, answers that the tiger should eat the brahmin. Next a buffalo, exploited and mistreated by humans, agrees it is only just that the brahmin should be eaten. Finally they meet a jackal, who at first feigns incomprehension of what has happened and asks to see the trap. Once there he claims he still doesn't understand. The tiger gets back in the trap to demonstrate and the jackal quickly shuts him in, suggesting to the brahmin that they leave matters thus.

See, the Jackal is the Trickster, innit.

This is fascinating. I never heard about this.

The most fascinating thing for me is that at that time, he was able to conceptualize that people could walk on the moon, and that it was big enough to have a war on the ground. I'm not sure why, but something in me makes me think that I never would have imagined something like that back then. Quite the imagination.

Of course, he seemed to also think that you could walk on the sun, but can't blame him for extending the logic and not knowing that the sun's composition wasn't great for walking.

Colonising Venus is a greater leap of imagination, to the best of our knowledge the ancient Greeks had no telescopes so would have only ever seen it as a point of light.

> Of course, he seemed to also think that you could walk on the sun, but can't blame him for extending the logic and not knowing that the sun's composition wasn't great for walking.

William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, also speculated that the Sun might be populated. It wasn't until the 19th century that the surface temperature of the Sun was estimated.

Lucian wasn't an ancient Greek. He was Syrian and lived in the 2nd century AD. But, your point about a lack of telescopes still stands.

Using “Ancient Greeks” in this context doesn’t seem too unreasonable, in the sense of “Greek-speaking province of the Roman Empire”.

Greek was also the lingua franca of philosophy, mathematics, etc. in the Eastern Mediterranean for several centuries. If we are talking about astronomy, it is also e.g. common to call Ptolemy a “Greek” astronomer, even though he lived in the Roman province of Egypt.

Well, the Ptolemys were actually Greek though, more specifically Macedonian, and descended from one of the leaders of an army that created the Hellenistic era. I'm not sure we can equate them with a scholar who just happen to speak the same language if we're doing so to qualify people as "Greek".

I also feel the need to point out how hilariously pedantic this conversation is, and how much I enjoy that.

Different unrelated Ptolemy (it was apparently a common name at the time; according to Wikipedia he was a Roman citizen but it’s not known whether he was ethnically Greek or Egyptian). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemy vs. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemaic_dynasty

According to Wikipedia, it is speculated that Lucian’s native language may have been Syriac (Aramaic). But then all of his writing was done in Greek, mostly while he was living in Athens (after a lawyer/philosophy professor career traveling around the Roman empire). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucian

Fair enough.

When I hear "Ancient Greece" I generally think of Greece through the Hellenistic period. Though now that I've said that, Lucian would have lived through the Roman annexation of Greece.

Really, my point was Lucian lived at the more recent end of antiquity. Humanity's knowledge of the world around them was quite a bit different then than 500 years prior.

They had geometry, you can figure out fairly accurately (within tens to thousands of miles) how large and how far away the moon is based on parallax and the kind of math that Eratosthenes used to calculate the circumference of the earth 400 years earlier.

The only celestial bodies that you can't do that with are the ones that are point sources to the naked eye, like the planets. Those take lenses and telescopes.

It's sad that ancient civilizations knew the Earth was round, yet we still have that debate in some communities today...

I'm pretty sure most people claiming to be a flat-earthers are either trolls or somehow try to gain something (money, power, or attention) from it.

I used to think that, but lately I'm not so sure.


I would categorize it as the "people making profit" bracket. Selling tickets, merchandise, ...

But then there's the group of consumers of course, which is worrying.

I know a flat-earther, and he is definitely not a troll, or pretending in any way.

I dont think "ancient civilizations" is a fair description. Some of them only, and few compared to the number of civilizations. And even in the ones where it was known, that knowledge was most probably only shared within a small group of scholars.

Your comment got me wondering about how widely Hellenistic cosmological models of the spherical earth circulated. I, like you, assumed it was only known to a small group of scholars like Eratosthenes. But digging around a bit, it seems like any literate person in the Mediterranean basin and Middle East during the time of the early Roman Empire could've been exposed to the idea of a spherical earth, via Aristotle or the Pythagoreans. Or at least so says Wikipedia's (surprisingly good) page for the history of the spherical earth model: "After the 5th century BC, no Greek writer of repute thought the world was anything but round." [1]

The page documents how this then filtered into Roman and early Muslim astronomical traditions. Granted, since only a small percentage of people in these societies were literate, it was probably true that most people in, say, the Roman or Sasanian empires thought the earth was flat. But given what we know about the ways that premodern books were read (often in public, sometimes to a large groups of people) it seems to me like an open question.

There's also this very interesting aside about the possibility that the Phoenicians also knew the earth was round, perhaps even predating the Greeks: "In The Histories, written 431–425 BC, Herodotus cast doubt on a report of the Sun observed shining from the north. He stated that the phenomenon was observed during a circumnavigation of Africa undertaken by Phoenician explorers employed by Egyptian pharaoh Necho II c. 610–595 BC (The Histories, 4.42) who claimed to have had the Sun on their right when circumnavigating in a clockwise direction. To modern historians, these details confirm the truth of the Phoenicians' report and even open the possibility that the Phoenicians knew about the spherical model. However, nothing certain about their knowledge of geography and navigation has survived."

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth#History

A globus cruciger is a small sphere with a cross affixed to the top. Christian medieval rulers would hold one as a symbol of dominion over Earth (with the cross dominating the Earth's globe).

Even before Christ, they used to just hold globes. It's the same image as that "evil megacorporation controlling the world" hand-holding-Earth image we've all seen before.

My point is that they seem to have known continuously since ancient times that the Earth was a sphere. They were using globus crucigers the whole time. Even in the Dark Ages, the Byzantine Emperor had coins made with his image holding such a globe, around 700AD.

It seems more like they'd know the Earth was round but really have no reason to care or spend any time thinking about it, the same way we don't spend time talking about the microwave background radiation from the big bang or the structure of our local galactic supercluster. These people didn't even have a standard unit to measure bags of grain from one village to the next. Assuming they had any grain to measure at all.


(Incidentally the ritual orb which Elsa must take in Frozen is a politically correct de-Christianized version of this).

> I, like you, assumed it was only known to a small group of scholars like Eratosthenes. But digging around a bit, it seems like any literate person in the Mediterranean basin and Middle East during the time of the early Roman Empire could've been exposed to the idea of a spherical earth, via Aristotle or the Pythagoreans.

Don't forget that the literacy rate for pre-modern societies was 10% and probably much lower on average. There were some extreme exceptions, I think the Hebrews had much higher rates, but as a whole, the world's population couldn't even write their own name.

Yeah, and let's not forget that level of literacy was among citizens... not even accounting for slaves, which could account for a large part of the populace in some civilizations.

Even if they were illiterate, it's entirely possible that to the extent people even cared, they knew the Earth is round.

All sea faring peoples must have known or suspected the Earth is round?

Yes, agreed. Unless they were ever only sailing short distances and only in their local near-coastline seas (and very local - as soon as you start looking at the sun, moon, stars and planets to get some idea of where you are it's pretty much impossible to not understand that you're not on a flat disc).

As for illiteracy - it's not always necessary to be literate in order to know something. In our modern world there's a great many things 'everybody' knows, without necessarily ever having read about it. True things as well as false things, obviously.

Democritus, who lived many centuries before Lucian, reasoned his way to discovering the concept of atoms, and that the world must be built up from a finite set of small indivisible particles. I find that even more fascinating...

It is indeed. But even more so for me is that then Epicurus, starting from this, deducted a whole ethic that is essentially modern. If you haven't read it yet, I think you would appreciate an account of the whole story, of how it was supressed by the church for centuries and eventually triumphed: "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" https://www.amazon.com/Swerve-How-World-Became-Modern/dp/039....

Ancient Greeks were able to determine the diameter of the Earth just by solar and shadows observations, so determining an approximate size of the moon is not something that sounds very improbable, while certainly more difficult.

What's also worth noting and easily observable:

I went to Egypt a couple of weeks ago. Around half-moon, my wife noted that the moon was looking strangely to her eyes. I realized that being more south, the terminator on the moon has a much shallower angle than more up in the north where I live. This indicates that the angle of observation has changed and hints also to a spherical earth.

This reminds me of a quote from the late Ursula K. Le Guin:

> I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.

The novelist produces statements that are blatantly untrue, knowing that they are untrue. The reader also knows that none of the stuff they're reading is true, yet is able to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story while it lasts. The story might be full of lies, but the enjoyment is true. The message contained in the novel might also be true, as is the person you become after having read many a classic. So it seems that a well-written falsehood can sometimes convey truth better than raw truth itself.

The whole text (it's an introduction to the Left Hand of Darkness) is great: http://theliterarylink.com/leguinintro.html

Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.

Nice. It is akin to my favorite movie line: I'm too truthful to be good.

My personal line is "Truthful 50% of the time. Lying 50% of the time. Exaggerating 50% of the time."

God, I miss her (and I'm an atheist too). I never knew her except though her books but I miss her nonetheless.

I think this is what separates it as Science Fiction as opposed to ancient classical legend telling or religious texts. I'm now thinking about L Ron Hubbard and Scientology - perhaps it's too easy to switch from "this is a lie, I am telling the truth" to "This is not a lie, I am telling the truth".

All great writers will also write truthfully - their works will have truths in them, even if it's fiction - I think thats how they are recognised as being great.

I once worked with someone who viewed all types of fiction, including science fiction as "bullshit". He would only read non fiction. I felt sad for him for missing the point.

Wow. It's true because we (the audience) want it to be true. More than suspension of disbelief, it's buy-in. I've read A LOT of sci-fi. And I very much bought into the beliefs (of my favored authors).

Le Guin could just as easily be talking about current events. Today, we call it "make your own reality".

Thank you. I hadn't connected these dots before.

'The book ends abruptly with Lucian stating that their future adventures will be described in the upcoming sequels, a promise which a disappointed scholiast described as "the biggest lie of all"'

"Wait! Where are you going?!? Coming soon! Don't miss, History of the World Part II!"

I have read almost all his books as a kid, because I had found them very cheap (10c each) in Athens, Greece where I live. The most impressive is the "style" of the author which was VERY modern.

I thought ancient greek was rather different from modern? Or were they translations?

There was an evolution in the language. Homer is harder to read than Plato and Plato is harder to read than the New Testament.

By the time the New Testament was written 50-100 AD the language was quite close to todays form, so you can easily understand it, although it would be harder to talk like this.

Lucian lived about 100 years after this, so the language was easy to read. Moreover his use of the language made it even more easy, because he despised those authors that were trying to appear "serious".

http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/true/index.htm here is a translation of the story, will be reading it...

> [...] if he looks into the looking-glass he sees every city and every country just as if he were standing over it. When I tried it I saw my family and my whole native land, but I cannot go further and say for certain whether they also saw me.

Google maps?

I remember thinking of Luciano (we read him in Latin in high school back in Italy) when Fargo by The Coen Brothers came out. We’re all just remixing since centuries!

"They find sinners being punished, the worst of them being the ones who had written books with lies and fantasies, including Herodotus and Ctesias.[25][24]"

We the fiction writers are condemned to the deepest layer of hell... man. Pa always said nonfiction was the answer.

I love the thing at the end about the sequels. This guy sounded pretty clever.

See also The Golden Ass[1], the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Ass

I will definitely give this a read based on all the comments here. Studying Latin in high school, one thing I found fascinating how the same stuff the Romans and Greeks dealt with thousands of years ago is very similar to the same things we deal with now.

This brings back memories.. A page from "A true story" was the ancient greek translation in the 1990 national graduation exams in Italy. Unusual stuff, completely different from the usual suspects (Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristotle)

It would be a bit funny if somebody wrote the Wikipedia article in the same style as the novel (parody, sarcasm, and a complete lie).

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