Archimedes's Fables #4: The King and the Jester
Written 20 June 2001
At one time in a far-away country a king collected ornaments made of a certain rare material found only in his kingdom. The ornaments were thinner than paper and extremely fragile, so that even the slightest breeze would, over the course of several years, warp them beyond recognition. The king prized them over all else and declared that the more ornaments he had, the happier he was. The artisans of his nation, wanting their king to be pleased, therefore doubled and redoubled their efforts, and indeed for some time his contentment did seem to multiply as the size of his collection of ornaments increased.
After a time, however, the supply of raw materials was exhausted, and no new ornaments were created. Meanwhile, the very delicacy that made the ornaments desirable meant that every year the number of undamaged ornaments dwindled. The king funded research to increase their durability and to find new source for the materials, but all attempts failed miserably. His collection became ever smaller, and his subjects noticed with alarm that his happiness appeared to dwindle in proportion.
Finally, his court jester became concerned enough to offer some advice--and the king's depression deepened enough that he deigned to pay attention to it.
The jester explained that it was a matter of perspective. Currently, the king was extremely fond of the ornaments, so that their dwindling brought about a consequent dwindling in his happiness; but if he could just find it in his heart to loathe them, why then a reducing in the size of his collection would increase his happiness by the same amount.
The king agreed to try it. A short course of aversion therapy later he found that what the jester had predicted was true; once he changed his valuation of the ornaments from love to hate their decreasing number became a cause for more and more rejoicing. Before long he took to having piles of them dumped on the floor so he could trample them underfoot. And so he lived happily ever after.
Moral: Two positive quantities multiplied together yield a positive quantity; a positive quantity multiplied by a negative yields a negative; and two negatives multiplied together yield a positive.