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Nov. 14th, 2018 @ 04:52 pm Boyarin: Fucking Talmud
Oh gosh, there was a lot to say about this limmud talk. It was a reading of an academic paper, so it had a more coherent theme than several of his previous talks, which were amazing, but impossible to follow if you didn't have a lot of context about what he was already working on.

I certainly understood it better for structure, although I admit, my brain follows talks better when they're broken down into clear discrete blocks, "Today we will advance a theory that X. This is supported by three arguments, A, B and C. Here is A. Here are several supporting examples in favour of A, referencing B and C where appropriate. Etc." But apparently this is out of style basically everywhere.

So, I'm going to reflect his argument quite badly here, but there were enough really interesting things it will hopefully be interesting even if it's a bit of a random selection.

The story

It was all framed around a little-known (?) story from the Talmud, going roughly, "He went away to study and become a rabbi. He worked hard studying every day, except one a day year he went home to visit his wife (and presumably the only occasion they have sex). One year he kept working and forgot to go home. His wife was really upset at him and he fell off the roof and died."

This raises several questions. One of the smallest but also intriguing was "why was he on the roof?" To which there's no good answer, other than "if you live in a country with flat rooves, studying on the roof is fairly normal".

The thesis

Different cultures have different words for concepts. E.g. Some languages have a word for "blue/green", some one word for each, and some have a separate word for "dark blue" and "light blue" (not sure if they have a word for "blue as a whole" or not).

This affects our perception. English speakers CAN distinguish a dark blue from a light blue, but it's not as obvious as in languages where there's a word for it. We are (I think) more likely to muddle up the dark blue and light blue game piece than another two, even if we can see the difference, because our brain didn't remember the look, it remembered the label.

The same applies to emotions. They can be collated into named concepts in different ways in different cultures. Boyarin had some contemporary examples from anthropology.

Thus we might expect emotions to present differently in different cultures. I don't know about cultures, but I very much recognised the "I know I feel bad, but I only realised I felt annoyed not guilty when I stopped to think about it" phenomenon.

Boyarin phrased this quite strongly, "the ancient hebrews had different emotions to us", although I think it's interesting whether or not I can remember enough of the talk to justify it. And you need to understand that to understand many talmud stories.


He said, people often think of anthropology as assuming we have "correct" concepts, and describing another culture in those terms, when it might be better to think of it as, describing another culture understanding of something by translating it into concepts we have -- which might involve reducing or increasing ambiguity in order to convey the original understanding.

Feeling "Upset"

Earlier, I used the word "upset". Boyarin used "distraught". He described the word used in the original as a concept encompassing feeling bad -- either sad or mad, which you can usually tell from context. The literal translation was "weakened mind" iirc (?)


This is the one Boyarin spent most time on.

He said that ancient hebrews had the same word for several sorts of passion, including studying, and sexual desire. But *didn't* use the same word for love-as-sexual-desire and love-as-a-family-eg-parent-to-child.

That's a considerable simplification of what he actually described, but I think that was a reasonable summary.

This was important, because to us it doesn't completely make sense the husband just forgot. Even if he preferred to stay studying, he wouldn't really get confused between "go home and have romantic time with his wife" and "stay studying". But if you think those are the same word, he might -- or the story might have been written with that correspondence in mind.

I'm not sure if that word was actually used in this particular story -- I think this is Boyarin's interpretation, not that he's sure it's the only sensible interpretation.

This is where the "Fucking Talmud" subtitle came from (mine, not Boyarin, although he made that sort of allusion throughout :))

Magic vs strong feeling

This is my gloss, not Boyarin's, but it seemed so apt I wanted to include it. It references this story and also the one Boyarin has previous written about and referenced several times here, where the Rabbi Yochanan is sooooo beautiful the highwayman falls in love with him and for his sake marries his sister and becomes the famous rabbi Resh Lakish.

My summary: https://jack.dreamwidth.org/695757.html

In both cases, they end where someone's really upset, and end up accidentally or in a fit of rage killing someone they love by a poorly-specified supernatural mechanism.

But if you think of a curse as something that just naturally happens when someone has a strong enough hatred (like people believe in some circumstances, and happens mechanically in the roleplaying Dogs in the Vineyard), then "don't get upset with someone, they might die" makes sense. It's not just that -- there's a specific story about R Yochanan's eyes being so beautiful they can kill you if you look in them unexpectedly. But there's the same theme of "got really cross, oops, someone died", which makes sense if you divide up "strong emotion" and "magic" into categories differently to how we usually do in this culture.

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Nov. 9th, 2018 @ 10:47 am Friday Five: Cheese!

OK, this is going to be a bit repetitive, because I REALLY like cheese, but I don't have a lot of specifics, just, like, almost all cheese :)

1. What was the first type of cheese you ever ate?

I mean, I really don't remember, but most likely corner-store cheddar, that's what we'd have often, and for that matter, is still what I have most often (although I usually buy extra vintage, or whatever the strongest is, which we didn't use to).

I can't remember if I ever ate baby bell or other cheese I think of as more likely to be specifically liked by children -- I really don't like it now, I don't know why, so I'm guessing I didn't, but I don't remember for sure.

2. What was the type of cheese you ate most recently?

See above :) But other than that, we did buy a selection of interesting cheese from the botanic garden apple day, being Cornish Yarg (always good), Dragon's Breath Cheddar (which was indeed, very strong), and another I've forgotten.

3. What is the most unusual cheese you ever ate?

Good question. I'm pretty happy to try anything that's vegetarian (and I cheat a bit with cheese even though I don't with meat), but I don't remember anything that stands out. See the "likes" selection for ones that may be a bit more unusual in Britian.

4. What is your favorite cheese?

I'm not sure I have a single favourite. Well, possibly "strong cheddar" in that if I had to pick one type of cheese for the rest of my life it'd probably be that one, but it's not the most *exciting* cheese. But for cheeses I really like, I can list quite a lot:

Really, really strong cheddar, like more so, like the dragons breath above, or the quite similar monk something cheese we get from swedish supermarkets.

British milder cheeses like Cheshire and Wensleydale, which I feel are really underrated and I really like. See, I don't ONLY like strong cheese :) I mean, you go into a supermarket and they have fifteen types of strong cheddar, and I really like strong cheddar, but they're just not that different. but they have ONE type of Cheshire, sometimes not even that.

Raclette, a style of meal where you lightly roast vegetables and pour semi-melted cheese over them a bit like fondue.

Funnily enough, I used to dislike runny cheeses. They just seemed strange. Now I've finally started enjoying them, but there's none I've totally fallen in love with.

Some particular cheeses I've noted down to return to:

Cornish Yarg is always good
Lincolnshire Poacher is really good, really strong and flavourful
Apres Solei we had once from the shelford deli (as with several others on the list),

Halloumi, both eaten straight, roasted or fried, or battered, or cubed and used and filling in a sauce like paneer. Oh, and rather different to most other cheeses, but I guess paneer too :)

I'm always interested to try sheep's cheese or goats' cheese, even though I can't name a particular brand as a favourite.

Parmesan (or preferably Grana Padano as Osos introduced me to) as a garnish is very appreciated too.

And for that matter, I'm not sure of the underlying sort of cheese, but bubbly, crispy cheese topping I really really like.

5. What is your favorite dish made with cheese?

...all of them? :) I pretty much always love things with cheese.

Although I didn't used to like cheese on toast (I do now).

And funnily enough, I never really liked eating cheese by itself, I always wanted it with *some* sort of carbs.

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Nov. 8th, 2018 @ 01:21 pm Writing plot that doesn't seem fake
This is something that is likely obvious to other people but appeared in my head and I couldn't easily put into words.

Often, when plot happens in a book, it feels like it kind of comes out of nowhere. It feels like (and maybe was) that the author had written a note that at that point "then the main characters have a big argument" or "then the assassins guild attack them". And then that's what happens. Even if it feels out of character or doesn't make sense with what happened before.

But if instead, I think of it as, "X resents Y for foo but doesn't admit it as long as bar" and "Y thinks X is bad at baz but doesn't want to say so" and "the assassins guild put a bounty on them but have't found them yet", then that typically shows through in previous scenes, naturally creating some amount of factual or thematic foreshadowing.

Like, instead of the current status quo being a natural peaceful state and each plot development being instigated by a new impetus, imagine the status quo is an equilibrium between many opposing forces, both internal to the character (what they want to do, what they're scared of) and external (other factions, things that will likely go wrong, etc). And then every event occurs naturally if you just knock the situation off balance a bit, without needing to contrive new forces of motion.

Also, if the characters have a smaller number of motivations they pursue through many situations, it feels more like a whole plot instead of a series of coincidences.


If anything, that's probably even more important in roleplaying, and was the way I was thinking of roleplaying scenarios even if I didn't put it in those terms. If you have an overall force pushing the players towards the main antagonist (revenge, macguffin, curiosity, he's hunting them down, whatever), and a force pushing them away (typically, "he's too tough"), then the scenario will likely end up with a big showdown somewhere even if it goes off the rails at every intermediate point. If the momentum is already in that direction, it's easy to improvise some of the details, e.g. they don't know where he is, all you need to do is drop an appropriate clue.

But if you don't have existing motivation shared and understood by the players (often subconsciously), then every event feels tacked on, with the players constantly looking for clues what they're "supposed" to do.


Obviously, this is just a way of thinking, it's not actually a solution. And even if you do show problems coming they can feel fake: you repeatedly show a characters' anger, but the reader doesn't accept it and is shocked when it bubbles out of control; or you repeatedly reference the risk of death from something, but without even small consequences, it doesn't feel "real" and when it actually kills someone, it feels "unfair".

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Nov. 5th, 2018 @ 01:54 pm Cambridge Limmud
Tags: ,
Osos, Liv and I went to the one-day Jewish conference, this year held at hills road. It was really interesting, I should maybe try to go to some conferences related to things I actually know about.

This year seemed unsurprisingly well organised, there was little difficulty finding lunch, the rooms were the right size for the talks, etc.

Session 1: Daniel Boyarin

Unsurprisingly, Boyarin unearthed some Talmud story most people haven't heard of and extrapolated it into a big chunk of scholarship upending interpretation of... various things. This one probably needs its own post.

Session 2: Israel's Foreign Policy

After a very academic first session, I braved a potentially depressing talk about Israel's government's rightward shift, and friendship with unsavoury right-wing governments elsewhere.

Session 3: When is a joke not a joke

By an academic who'd written several books about jokes, but darker than I thought at first. I was expecting black humour (although it included one of the very darkest jokes I think I've heard), but in fact the specific topic was the alt-right's adoption of humour as a confusion/deniability tactic. Which was very interesting, although also quite depressing.

Session 4: Writing the other

Two authors discussing their novels, and the ways they were and weren't recognisably Jewish even when they hadn't planned/expected that. Managed to go 59 minutes without mentioning Hitler.

Session 5: break

There wasn't anything I was specifically interested in this session, so I took a little walk from the college, and found the old site of the Rattle and Kett stoneworks, now decorated by public art and the culinary school experimental cafe.

Session 6: Jonathan Romain, confessions of a Rabbi

This was really interesting and less heavy than most of the middle of the day. He talked about specific (anonymised) moral dilemmas he'd encountered during his career, mostly about personal problems of the congregation, should an estranged father be allowed to gatecrash his daughter's wedding? Someone had been stealing but maybe that didn't make a difference, what should they do now? Some about infidelity and not. And invited the audience to share what they thought the right decisions were, or what issues they thought needed to be considered, before describing what he'd done (without pretending he was right).

It touched on jewish law, and british law, but unlike a lot of problems they were mostly ones where anyone could have an opinion.

Amongst many other achievements, he's apparently written an entire book about these examples (I'm curious about several, including the virgin birth one). He was notably exceptional at involving an audience without letting anyone steal the microphone.

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Oct. 29th, 2018 @ 11:40 am Inktober
I really need to sort out the best pictures from inktober, I've fallen behind posting all of them, but some turned out surprisingly well -- not great by objective standards, but having something I liked. Especially the obelisks, the library woman and the wolf man, and some of the top-down computer game art.

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Oct. 15th, 2018 @ 11:52 am Doctor Who, Sol, Librarians
Tags: ,
Doctor Who, Ep i

I love everything it's doing, featuring northern england, featuring a little group of different people who are not all white, #13's manic energy, spending some time making do without a tardis.

I am really sad that one of the best characters didn't become a regular :(

I've found that first episodes of new doctors usually drag somewhat for me, that the pacing feels off, and the new doctor is still settling into making the role feel natural, so I'm very positive about this series so far, but didn't actually enjoy ep i as much as I might have thought I would.

Sol: Last days of a dying star

This game is INCREDIBLY beautiful. The game board is the dying sun, with two levels of orbit around it and three levels of orbit within it, and it drips flavour off the page.

Each player has a mothership which automatically rotates one space round the sun, and everything else they do needs to be launched from the mothership, so the geography changes as you have to make use of different players structures at different points in the turn.

The gameplay is quite interesting. Your mothership launches little construction ships called sundivers, which can assemble themselves into energy collecting buildings, sundiver manufacturing foundries, and beam-power-into-space-for-victory-points towers, and activate those buildings. The general outline is of building a collect-energy-beam-energy engine, and then use up everything you can at the end in a big burst of energy.

Variety comes from instability cards -- when you build or activate buildings in the three layers in the sun, you draw a number of cards, which both give you some one-off ability, and when you draw solar flares hasten the end of the game. So the game accelerates quite a lot, because the end approaches quite slowly if you're still operating in the higher orbits, but once you build stuff near the core of the sun you go through cards very rapidly. Each game has three or four effects drawn randomly at the start of the game, which determine which abilities the cards grant, so part of the game is recognising how to make most efficient use of them -- how to build your infrastructure differently if you have the opportunity to move buildings, or if you can move sundivers into the sun more cheaply, etc.

There's a few things mostly just about the flavour that I wish were a bit clearer. You're propelling an ark away from the dying star, but the flavour would work better if the player with the most energy got "ark gets to target planet first" not "ark escapes dying supernova", because running faster/slower than the other players doesn't affect whether you die in a supernova. I wish the rules explained things in a slightly different order. I wish the name "sundiver" could be one that reminded people that the sundivers *turn into* buildings. To activate a building you need to fly a sundiver to it, and then that sundiver is not destroyed but teleports back to the mothership, but I wish there was a clearer representation of how that happened.

The designers have clearly thought about these questions and put some effort into the flavour, and in clearing up rules edge cases, but we were bugged by some of them anyway. (If you're reading, thank you so much!)


This series is so ridiculous, it's awesome. Last episode, they fought an evil company that was sacrificing interns to the minotaur in the labyrinth. Next episode they rescued the spirit of father christmas.

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Oct. 12th, 2018 @ 10:45 am Friday Five

Oh gosh, this is a lot of stuff I already introspect about a lot.

1. What was the best compliment you ever received?

I unfortunately tend to be overly hungry for validation, so it's a bit weird to answer. But probably when someone described me as kind and calming, because I'd always thought of myself as over-emotional and bad with people, so it was really lovely to think that I can actually be good for people.

And when I solved some 3d reverse transformation problems and my manager found a plastic medal and gave it to me.

2. What are your five best talents?

Oh gosh. Um. Programming? Dealing with temporary crises? Something-about-writing-I'm-not-sure-what. Introspection and self-improvement, maybe? And... not sure. Hugs? Understanding other people's point of view? Cooking the three dishes I cook well?

What do other people put here?

3. What do you wish most people knew about you, and why?

More just sort of... everything. I'm always too scared of talking about myself too much, so I can easily end up not sharing anything. When I looked at what I'd been doing recently -- Inktober, board game design, visiting stockholm, going to Ghoti's canadian thanksgiving, it's all things that many people might be interested in about me. But I keep persistently failing to mention things.

4. What has been your biggest accomplishment so far, and why does it mean so much to you?

Oh god, I don't know. It feels like I failed to accomplish anything. The last biggest accomplishment I was really excited by was getting into university at Cambridge. My life has overall been undeservedly successful, but not much feels like *my* accomplishment.

I'm proud that I -- finally -- started jogging, but that was six years ago and I kept backsliding.

I've written a couple of toy computer games, but they weren't *done* done.

My professional work has gone reasonably well, but it's hard to point to one thing and say "I'm proud of that".

And I'm proud of some other things, of mostly-doing NaNoWriMo, and of learning some rust, and other projects I've set myself, but they never seem to reach a level I'm actually proud of.

Oh, and I just about lifted my previous company out of cvs to git, that was very satisfying.

5. If you could achieve anything in your life, what would it be?

Well, see above, I'd really like to achieve *anything*. But writing some software which catches on and makes a difference to people. I really wish I'd been driven enough to go into academia at least long enough to Contribute One Thing to Human Knowledge No-one Else Did. Writing a novel. Writing a computer game.

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Sep. 23rd, 2018 @ 02:23 pm The right way to write a program depends how it's most likely to change in future
I tweeted this in one sentence, but I thought it deserved revisiting.

In many ways, this is obvious, but I didn't have it all laid down in my head together till now.

When you write a program, there's any number of ways it might change. You might have included provisional "fail when input is invalid" but need to make that be handled more gracefully. You might have hard-coded an integer size, and maybe need to expand that later. You might need to change it from a stand-alone program to a library that other programs can link against, or vice versa.

The point is that for any of these cases, there's a spectrum of choices. You can ignore the problem, you can write the program so that the expansion is easy to add on later, or you can add the expansion in right now.

Sometimes "do it right now" is right. Sometimes the 'right' way is just as easy to write as the 'wrong' way, and equally clear even to inexperienced programmers, so you should just do it always.

I've previously talked about the times when the middle path is right. If you're not sure, it's usually a good call.

And there's always a trade-off between quickness now and maintenance cost.

But today, I want to talk about ignoring the problem. If the cost of making it extensible is real, and the chance of needing it is low, ignoring the problem is likely correct. Think carefully before tying yourself to 16-bit integers, if they may one day overflow and lead to much pain. But accepting 32-bit integers is, a lot of the time, fine, and the cost of making each integer into a type which could hold larger integers is that a lot of code becomes less clear (and in many languages, slower).

Mark Dominus pointed this out in both code and documentation for "small" libraries, especially provided as part of a language's standard set of libraries. The cost of any change, even just explaining that something isn't there, it that all users of the library take *slightly* longer to understand it. And if unchecked, eventually all the "you should clarify this" or "this change is really small, why not?" mount up and turn a small, lightweight library into a heavy, general purpose library. And then maybe the cycle starts again.

He also pointed out that when he was writing small command line utilities mostly for his own use, he often added extra command line options, because when he was originally writing it, the options were clearer in his mind. But he didn't *implement* them, because he'd probably never use them.

I was thinking of the habit of writing coding exercises. My instinct always used to be to look for the "right" solution. But actually, the right solution depends not on the current state of the program, but it's future evolution. If it's ACTUALLY not likely to change, leaving it clearly imperfect may be the right solution. If it will acquire many more users, spending developer effort on making the interface cleaner may become worthwhile. If much future code will be build to interface with it, get the interface right NOW, or it will become locked in.

It's not a matter of what TO do, but equally much what NOT to do.

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Sep. 21st, 2018 @ 12:58 pm Friday Five: Spring and Autumn
These questions looked very simple, but they unlocked a surprising amount of introspection. Thank you for an interesting friday tradition!

1. Do you have the urge to do a Fall/Spring cleaning as soon as the weather turns?

No, because I sucked at housekeeping for a long time, and lived places I was likely to only stay a few years. And I've worked hard at making regular housekeeping habits, rather than a dread of it always being impossible, but I haven't acquired enough faith that what I do will actually work and make the house clean and nice, so everything is more usually a chore I need to force myself to do, than something I'm eager to get on with.

Also, the first house I've lived in with somewhat good habits I'm sharing with Liv, so if there is a spring clean, it's logistically more convenient directly before passover specifically rather than when it get to spring. That's been difficult for many years as our lives have been busy, but hopefully it *will* become a norm.

What tells you that the season (a certain smell, a certain taste, that sort of thing) has changed?

I often spend a long time not wanting to admit it, because as touched on above, I always feel like I'm playing catch up and want to squeeze as much into the current season as I can, rather than feeling eager for the next season.

But things I do notice. The smell of spring, the first... something in the air. The first flowers, the first stirring of green things, the sense of life returning to the world. Mum always notices the swifts and swallows but I'm always too unobservant.

The first really warm day of summer -- although that sometimes happens in march and sometimes not till august :)

When the clocks change and/or when it gets light when I leave work (or leave the gym, or other chronological milestone).

Blackberries, leaves falling, and other autumn signs. The first day of "...did it get cold".

For winter, the clocks changing, having to commute in the dark, the first time we need to put the heating on. I wish there were more positive ones (there are for many friends, but they're not as obvious a "first sign" to me)

3.What do you look forward to the most with the change of seasons?

As said above, I always find it hard to look forward, I'm always worried I'm not doing enough.

Most of the things I'm eager for are summer -- of feeling the sun's warmth flow through me and feeling of contentment, of sunbathing, of being able to swim outside or laze by the river. Treading in autumn leaves. Snow, often inconvenient, but so beautiful I wouldn't be happy to give it up entirely. First spring flowers.

4. What is something that you probably should accomplish but won’t this season?

In brighter news, not much. I've got a lot better at getting things done, and being realistic about what I won't do.

What should I accomplish? Figure out abroad-being plans (unless a miracle cancels Brexit entirely). Continue working on hobbies. Deal with xmas logistics, finding presents, etc.

What might be good but is unlikely to happen? Become a better housekeeper. Become less on edge all the time. Dress better. Being generally more relaxed, fun and open as a person is a very slow ongoing quest, hopefully there's still progress, but probably not completion.

5. What is the most enjoyable part of the oncoming season for you?

I've touched on this above, but autumn leaves, blackberries, halloween, mum's birthday. Not this year but sometimes joining a gym and being freed from worrying about the weather before jogging. Several of my life milestones happen to have been in autumn so I sometimes reflect on how far I've come since them.

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Sep. 20th, 2018 @ 02:30 pm Seveneves
So. Neal Stephenson's recent-ish doorstop about the moon blowing up and the earth becoming uninhabitable, and humanity jump-starting a space settlement to continue the race until the earth's surface recovers. He did write short books once, but not for decades now IIRC :)

The near-future space stuff is all interesting. Sometimes it feels a bit on-the-nose, "I learned about this interesting thing, now I'll force it into my book", but as a look at what humanity could potentially build if countries threw ALL their resources at it, and what an ongoing settlement in space might realistically look like, it's very interesting.

The politics references are a bit tedious. Both the "oh look, geeks resent politics, yes, politics even of a few hundred people is a giant sewer" is probably... plausible, but feels over-done. And the references to earth politics, we get another big dump of libertarians-aren't-exactly-right-but-don't-we-empathise-with-them-lots, which I sympathise with a little bit, but am also massively critical of. And the female US president is an interesting character, and god knows I don't expect us presidents to automatically be nice people, but her naked ambition and cynical manipulation feel like they came out as criticism of a female president *at all*.

He does successfully introduce many female characters -- I haven't counted, but the titular Seven Eves are seven of the most major characters, who all happen to be female.

The post-timeskip "what space settlements look like after 5000 years" was interesting, but felt much less likely. And a bunch of other stuff that happened felt MUCH less likely.

Can you really produce a closed underground system recycling oxygen and carbon dioxide, growing plants under electric lights, all powered solely by geothermal power?

I think epigenetics means "magic ways experiences an organism has as an adult can affect what their children inherit, i.e. basically all hereditary biology that's additional to DNA". But Neal Stephenson seems to think it means "magic ways an organism can suddenly change as an adult and become a significantly different organism". Is that right??

I'm annoyed by, AFTER the seven eves, we revert to current-stereotypical-gender-roles at least somewhat. I do suspect there are SOME inbuilt reasons for that. But after that cultural bottleneck, you didn't think it might be interesting if we DIDN'T have those assumptions?

And I'm annoyed by "oh no, the last seven members of the human race disagree what children to engineer -- lets all just do our own thing and create seven eternally distinct tribes." They couldn't find ANY more compromise than that? Stuck in a small habitat, all the different offspring didn't immediately interbreed?

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