Go more meta by developing an immunity to iocaine powder

You might not be as meta as you think you are.

“…so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of…”

There’ s a famous scene in The Princess Bride, in which, after winning a game of skill and a game of brawn, the Man in Black engages with Vizzini in a “battle of wits” The Man in Black prepares two cups, and places one in front of himself and the other in front of his adversary. It’s pretty hilarious. Watch here, or read the transcript below.

Man in Black: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right… and who is dead.

Vizzini: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man in Black: You’ve made your decision then?

Vizzini: Not remotely! Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

[…this goes on for some time…]

Man in Black: You’re trying to trick me into giving away something. It won’t work.


Man in Black: Then make your choice.

Vizzini: I will, and I choose—What in the world can that be?

[Vizzini gestures up and away from the table. Man in Black looks. Vizzini swaps the goblets]

Man in Black: What? Where? I don’t see anything.

Vizzini: Well, I—I could have sworn I saw something. No matter. First, let’s drink. Me from my glass, and you from yours.

[Vizzini raises his glass, waits for the Man in Black to drink, then himself drinks]

Man in Black: You guessed wrong.

Vizzini: You only think I guessed wrong! That’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders—he most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia”—but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line”! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha…

[Vizzini stops suddenly, his smile frozen on his face and falls to the ground dead]

Buttercup: And to think, all that time it was your cup that was poisoned.

Man in Black: They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocaine powder.

There’s a powerful lesson in here about how to win games: play a bigger game (aka hypergame) than your opponent such that within the game they’re playing, they think there is a way to win but there actually isn’t. Note that Vizzini did actually play a hypergame as well, by watching the Man in Black’s lack of hesitation in drinking what he believes is the glass Vizzini is about to drink. The Man in Black’s hypergame is just much larger, rendering this strategy totally moot.

I want to draw a different lesson about “going meta”. If you hang out with the kind of people I hang out with, every now and then, someone will start talking about the conversation, and then remark “aha, now we’re having a meta-conversation”. At which point someone else might chime in “but now it’s a meta-meta-conversation, because we’re talking about the meta-conversation”. Do this long enough and you’re just repeating the word “meta” over and over.

But you haven’t actually gone anywhere. You’re just repeating over and over, “so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of {me, you}”. The way to actually go somewhere is to have an immunity to iocaine powder, such that you’ve controlled the entirety of the game underneath. For Vizzini to win, he’d have to not just switch the glasses when the Man in Black looked away, but do something more like emptying each glass then filling his adversary’s with a different poison then his own with something safe. Which, of course, would be tough to perform in half a second (making it safe to look away). But the point is that that would get him outside of the hypergame created by the Man in Black.


Douglas Hofstadter, purveyor of meta and self-reference, calls this JOOTSing, which stands for “Jumping Out Of The System”.

So: going back to meta-conversations. Just remarking “we’re having a meta-conversation” is not more meaningfully meta than the original meta-conversation. (Arguably it’s less-so, because it’s actually an object-level “meta” conversation, i.e. people playing around with the word “meta”. But I digress!) In order to become actually more meta than the original conversation, you need to have a conversation that jumps out of the system of just pointing-out-that-things-are-meta.

Such conversations can exist. If you were hearing this from me in a conversation rather than reading it, then we would actually be having a meaningful meta-meta-conversation, because we’re actually building a structure within which to think about meta-conversations. The takeaway here is that:

In order for something to be meaningfully meta, it has to create an abstraction or structure of the level below it, creating order on that level.

Note that the hypothetical meta-meta-conversation described in the paragraph above is also a meta-conversation, which means that you can apply its model to itself, which we did in that very paragraph. That doesn’t somehow multiply out the metas though, because the structure hasn’t become any more complicated.

Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

“It is often important to distinguish the object level from the meta level, and sometimes we need to have conversations about how much meta is appropriate (meta-meta), but no useful discourse has ever occurred at the meta-meta-meta level, or if it has, it’s indistinguishable in practice from meta-meta.”

What Eliezer is pointing at is that virtually all meta-meta-meta-conversations have the same structure as meta-meta-conversations.

Examples for the examples god! Concreteness for the concrete throne!

I figured that in order to communicate this thing that is about meta, it would be helpful to have a bunch of examples of situations where you can get a lot of value out of abstracting the thing below. These aren’t perfect examples, but hopefully if I have enough fingers pointing then we can triangulate the moon.

Biological factors: When someone’s asking for help on a problem and seems super worked up, not assuming that them being worked up is necessarily due to the problem, and checking to make sure they’re not hungry or tired. The structure applied here is: worked-upness is a physiological response, which might be caused by the content of the problem, but which can have other causes. If possible, let’s try to deal with it first.

Polyamory: Rather than thrashing* around trying to figure out “do I want to be with this person or that person?” you just drink from both cups! The structure: realizing that exclusivity/monogamy is an assumption, but that relationships can operate very functionally under different assumptions.

*(Thrashing, btw, is actually a technical term I find really useful as a mental model. In CS, it refers to when a computer doesn’t have enough free memory and so is constantly taking stuff out of memory and putting it back in, making a huge ruckus going back and forth without accomplishing anything.)

Constructive Developmental Theory: This might not be helpful for people who aren’t familiar, but it was one of the motivating examples for me. CDT outlines 5 stages of development, and at each stage you gain the ability to think about the stage below. But you’re not just “thinking about” it in a trivial sense like “here’s this stage”, but actually organizing it meaningfully so that rather than that stage appearing to be all-there-is or the-way-things-are, you can view it as one particular self-consistent paradigm that isn’t exhaustive. Read more about this structure in Subject-Object Notation.

Deregulating Distraction: Nate Soares describes in this post how “this changed the game entirely”:

In a few different cases, I experienced scenarios where I wanted to do something but couldn’t will myself to do it. I suffered ego depletion and hit a vicious cycle of unproductivity and depression. […]

To break the cycle, I decided to stop fighting myself.

The world is full of distractions, and I have plenty of vices. I am just as susceptible as anyone to binging on TV shows or video games or book series. Instead of trying (and often failing) to stop myself from indulging, I decided to allow myself to indulge whenever I really wanted to.

“It’s your time”, I told myself.”

Rather than simply coming up with new strategies for forcing himself to do things, Nate has recognized that the forcing itself is part of a system that isn’t helping. And he jumps out of that whole system.

In programming, simply “going meta” could be seen as just writing a wrapper for a concept. For example, I have a few places in my code where I want to perform the same string transform, so rather than remember the regular expression that converts the two, I write one function then call it in a bunch of places. But then the “building a structure” thing I’m talking about is more like having a higher level programming language that ultimately compilers into some machine code, but with memory management abstracted away.

It could be something smaller. The key difference is that there is no structural change with the string transform—it’s just shorthand—whereas each new layer of language abstraction (machine code → C++ → Python) adds something structurally new. This highlights the point that there are often multiple ways to structure the level below: different programming languages ultimately map down to machine code, but they do so in very different ways that lend themselves to different purposes.

“…it would be absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable.”

A closing thought: one trait Vizzini is known for is for frequent incorrect use of the word “inconceivable”. I think that this provides a delightful foil for the point I’m trying to make here: you can imagine him presenting you with the original frame for the problem, and when you turn around and abstract the entire problem away, he cries, “INCONCEIVABLE!”

Which, of course, it was, until you did.

If you liked this post, you might also like the previous one: Staying sane when you can’t find the edge of the frame.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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