[Creative writing contest] Blue bird and black bird

by Lizka2 min read16th Sep 202135 comments


Effective altruism art and fictionCreative Writing Contest

This is a submission to the creative writing contest. See notes at the bottom. 


  • I made this somewhat off the cuff (for context, it's hastily formatted in Google Slides), but I figured posting it sooner and then possibly modifying it would be better than holding on to it in the futile hope that I would have time to edit it later.
  • As a result, I would be very grateful for feedback, and would be more than happy to modify this in response to any specific suggestions. I can also imagine adding some more "episodes" (pairs of pages, really).  And the illustrations can also be easily modified.
  • I can send anyone who wants it a pdf version of this.
  • This is obviously in "picture book" style, but my hope is that it's not exclusively interesting to children.
  • For convenience, the text of the story below:

Black bird,” said the blue bird. “Why are you flying so far with that piece of bread? I understand if you're full, but there are birds in our tree who are hungry. Don't you love them?”

Blue bird,” answered the black bird. “I do love them. But there are more birds in the maple tree, and they are hungrier. And they're smaller birds, too, so a small piece of  bread will mean more to them than to a bird in our tree.”


Black bird!” squawked the blue bird. “What are you doing over there pecking at this oak sprout! Don't you see the man with an axe coming for our tree?”

Blue bird,” answered the black bird. "I see that man with an axe, and he seems terrible... ...But I also see all our friends swarming and pecking at him. I don't know if he'll get to our tree, but I’m not sure that I would help much by flying over there and pecking at him, too. I do know that this sprout here could grow into a giant oak, displace our home tree, and block our sun. Soon it will be too difficult to stop it from growing too large, so I need to peck at it now.”


Black bird,” cooed the blue bird. “You're not so bad.”

“Thank you, blue bird,” said the black bird, smiling.

“Although I still can't understand why you won't eat beetles. You can't think they're as important as birds.”

“Well,” said the black bird. “I can't be certain they’re important, but they seem to have interesting lives, and I can eat bread, so it's not that hard to not eat beetles, and...”

“Shush,” said the blue bird. “Let's focus on one thing at a time.”

Thanks for reading, and for encouraging fiction!


35 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:05 PM
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I'm sorry, but I really felt this was too preachy for me. I don't expect this will apply to everyone else, but my response was to flinch away from the work, rather than enjoy or embrace it.  It felt... I don't know. Trying to examine my feelings, I think it was that it felt like propaganda, not art? I know the point of this is to persuade more than to entertain, but this work of art also felt as if it was more to persuade than to explain; it triggered defense reactions that neither the overt ("Inflation") nor the more narrative ("The Reset Button") high-rated submissions did; my defense reactions against political ads and internet memes, which usually do not apply to narrative, did in this case, and I would probably put down an EA pamphlet without further reading if I saw this entry in it.

I really am sorry, and you should weight all the positive comments more than this negative one. But my reaction was negative, and I can explain why, but not how to fix it.

To me, this comment exemplifies what I have in mind when I emphasise that negative feedback should be honest but also delivered in a compassionate manner. :) And I also liked that you shared some of the investigation of your reaction to it!

I am both glad and relieved that you are not greatly offended, as I admit I was worried you would be. If there's anything you can think of that I could say to contribute to the cause if improving the work, I would be happy to provide it. But so far the only things I've thought of, I've already said.

Either way, good luck!

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Quick notice that Dario isn't the author of the piece — your response indicated that you might have thought they were. Sorry if I misinterpreted your reply!

Aaargh I completely did! facepalm

Sorry about that.

For what it's worth, I highly enjoyed reading this interaction:) +1 to Dario and everyone else here. 

Thanks for the feedback! I definitely dislike propaganda, and would be curious to see which parts felt the most propaganda-y to you. Also, to echo Dario, below--- I appreciate your very kind delivery of the negative feedback. :)
I don't know if I will ever end up spending much time improving the story, as my life is pretty hectic at the moment, but I would be interested in any specific improvements you suggest. (So far, I haven't really tried much, but I've considered ways of addressing the inadequacy of the oak sprout metaphor by e.g. replacing it with something flammable.) 

See, the thing is, I can't find any improvements because the entire premise feels to me inherently propaganda-ish. I'm sorry, I can try to break it down into more detail, but I suspect that it will be unfixable for me.

I'm going to try to rank the main bullet points of my discomfort in order of how important they are, most to least.

• I feel very uncomfortable with the entire dynamic of a 'right way / wrong way' pair. Partly this is because of individual cases where people using it ticked me off, but fundamentally it is that the idea of the character 'who exists solely to be wrong' makes me uncomfortable. Even if he isn't a strawman, he makes me uncomfortable.
• • The spiritual equality of humanity is a fundamental... not religious but sub-religious belief for me? The kind of thing you make religion out of, or that determines which religions feel right to you? Starting with the statement "all people are equally valuable" implies "in representative fiction, all people ought to be equally valuable to the extent to which the work is attempting to be representative of people's mental and spiritual states." That's why, e.g., the Sharpe series will never be a favorite of mine - because there are all these horrible people who exist so the protagonist can be better than them.
• • Worse: My natural instinct is always to support the underdog. There's a part of my brain that thinks that the underdog must be right, purely because he is the underdog. And the ultimate underdog is the one where the entire universe is opposed to him; the character created to be wrong therefore has the highest level of underdog power humanly possible, far exceeding normal victims, who at least have the author's sympathies, or actual villains, who might win partial victories or get awesome scenes; the Bad Example is doomed by the nature of the universe he lives in, and is therefore the character my underdog instinct must make me support.
• • The only exception I can think of to this general principle is Yudkowsky's "Inadequate Equililbria," but that's because Simplico gets some very good lines; he genuinely makes good arguments for his position, even though the author disagrees with it. But you, in your situation, can't give the bluebird better lines, because you are writing an extremely short, extremely simple parable, and witty dialogue or complicated back-and-forth arguments would spoil the whole effect. 

• The general style of it - soft, beautiful art, accompanied by largely one-syllable words in that specific kind of style and formatting - immediately suggested something aimed at small children. (2-5) This, to me, implied two things - first, that it would treat its audience like children, and second, that the material would be presented for children. But:
• • I didn't like being treated like a child when I was a child, and I still feel lingering discomfort about anything that treats me like a child.
• • I dislike simple analyses of complicated topics, and by this work's nature, it has to be a simple analysis, because you're either aiming it at small children or making it look as if you are.
• • I dislike the idea of giving propaganda to small children, so I'm going to feel more negatively about any propagandistic elements that exist; this is a magnifier, not a source, but it's definitely a magnifier.

• I am not, personally, a vegetarian. I'm inside EA, but only inside the first circle; my belief in the fundamental equality of humanity, combined with historical knowledge that helps me realize how terrible the lives of people in the third world are, leads me to believe that obviously third-world charity is more important than first-world charity, and clearly other people who are worse off can use the money more than I can, I have a reasonably comfortable life even by first-world standards. And I worry about X-risk literal and metaphorical because history is terrible, and I see insufficient reason to assume it won't continue to be. But I have not yet been convinced of animal rights even to the extent of vegetarianism. I agree that I ought to carry out a serious investigation; the serious investigation is currently in the queue behind a serious investigation of what religion, if any, is true, and I am not seriously altering my actions prior to the investigation for Pascal's Mugging style reasons. But as a result of that, any attempt to preach vegetarianism to me is automatically going to trigger my brain's 'defend beliefs' module, which will run a quick check to determine if this is the kind of argument I need to take seriously or if it (a) puffery or (b) emotional manipulation, and almost any argument that doesn't fit the 'serious analysis, making strong arguments, responding to my concerns, and logically explaining why I am wrong' pattern is going to end up in one bin or the other.
• • This wound up in the 'emotional manipulation' bin, partly because I'd already been feeling emotionally manipulated by the first few panels, partly because of the aimed-at-children style, and partly because it felt as if it was executed with too much craft to be puffery. But I dislike emotional manipulation, vegetarianism is a political cause, and emotional manipulation for a political cause is propaganda.
• • So, stacked on top of all my other issues, this resulted in my initial comment, an attempt to convey 'this strongly didn't work for me' while attempting to be as polite and informative as possible.

Again, I'm sorry. I can explain what my reactions were, I can analyze and dissect them, but I can't explain how the story could be altered to avoid triggering them because the problems seem to me to be fundamental to the nature of the artwork, and I cannot imagine an alternate design for the artwork that would not feel to me as if it shared these problems. This doesn't mean it's impossible, but it means it is beyond my level of skill to achieve. 

One possible way to "fix" it in the sense of being better for WSCFriedman's preferences, and I'm not saying this is necessarily a good idea because by excluding the current framing there might be information loss in conveying some other important aspects of EA: instead frame the blue bird/black bird dialogues as looking more like "intro to moral philosophy for children."

In particular, an underlying narrative of "ethics is hard" might be appealing.

So instead of black bird having clearly right answers, we instead have both black bird and blue bird posit naively reasonable considerations and having a dialogue that address each point. 

Eg, black bird posits that they should bring food to the other tree, blue bird talks about good reasons for partiality and the limits of morality, black bird says this is better from the point of view of the universe which is selfishly reasonable using one of Parfit's arguments, blue bird says why local information (with some analogy to bird-Hayek) is an impartial reason for partiality, black bird says that the empirical situation should be clearer enough to exceed that general principle, and so forth. 

I could be mistaken, but I feel as if that would completely change it into a different sort of thing. I admit it would be a thing that I-personally would probably like more, but I feel it would also remove all the power the story currently possesses. I feel as if this would be removing a thing from existence and replacing it with a new and different thing, instead of improving a thing - and this is clearly a popular thing, since it's the second-highest-rated submission to the contest, so far.

I feel as if this would be removing a thing from existence and replacing it with a new and different thing, instead of improving a thing

Yeah I was imagining it as a different storyline rather than the same thing. I personally like Lizka's story as-is, except for the convoluted lumberjack vs small tree metaphor. 

I am commenting purely to let you know that one of the thumbs-up on your post is mine.

Wait there's a more highly-rated submission? 

Last I saw, "The Reset Button" was leading it by one vote.

something flammable seems reasonable. Maybe also removing snake eggs (though that might be considered too violent for a pro-vegetarianism children's book). 

Love the beatifwl and poetic style of this. Makes me feel happy inside!

Thank you! I'm glad. :)

I enjoyed this. I liked that it was short and sweet, and the art is excellent. I'd be curious what people who have children think about this.

Very cute. 🙂

I'm curious about your thinking on colour symbolism. On the one hand, ravens are smart and crafty, so "black bird = smart/strategic bird" makes sense. But on the other hand, blue is kinda an EA colour, so at first I thought the blue bird would represent EA. Why did you choose to make the lay-bird a blue bird?

To be honest, I didn't think very hard about the names. The thought process was roughly: 1) I want to make a story whose characters are birds, and I could have a smart black bird. 2) Incidentally, I like that it doesn't have to be technical or complicated--- there are birds you can call "blackbirds," and there are birds you can call "bluebirds," so 3) I'll call my characters "black bird" and "blue bird." And I liked the colors this suggested, so that didn't veto the decision. :) 

In any case, I'm glad you liked it, thanks! 

Death of the author interpretation: currently there are few, large, EA-aligned organizations which were created by EAs. Much of the funding for EA aligned projects just supports smart people who happen to be doing effective altruism.

The blue bird represents the EA community going to smart people, symbolized by the black bird, and asking why they’re working on what they’re working on. If the answer is a good one, the community / blue bird will pitch in and help.

I'm highly enjoying the "death of the author" interpretation (and even just its existence), thanks! :)

Oh nice. Socratic irony. I like it.

I felt some cognitive dissonance at the small tree / lumberjack scene. Black Bird could have helped fight the lumberjack, then cut down the sprout. So it doesn’t map very well to actual catastrophic risk tradeoffs. I don’t know how to fix it though.

I did also initially think that it might be good to try to change the lumberjack instance, if possible, although it wasn't for the same reason: I just feel that there is much more of a case to make that the lumberjack deserves a whole-of-community effort since there is a plausible chance the extra bird could make a difference. But after considering this about the non-urgency of the sprout vs the lumberjack, I especially feel it may not the best example. Still, I understood the message/idea, and it's hard to know how non-EAs might react to the situation. Just something to keep in mind.

Thanks for the comments! The urgency argument makes sense. I'm not sure if I'll end up changing things, but I'll consider it, and thanks for pointing this out! 

Saw this quote somewhere and it made me think of this comment again: 

Ah, but are there a thousand hacking at the branches of evil for each one who thinks they are striking at the root?

Yeah, and I don't think the example of the sprout maps particularly well to catastrophic risks in itself. 

If the sprout grows into a giant oak tree that is literally right next to their current tree, it seems like they could easily just move to the giant oak tree. It sounds like the 'giant oak' would eventually be bigger than their current tree, meaning more space per bird, allowing for more birds. Oh and some birds eat acorns!

In this case I think black bird could be making things worse for future birds.

Fair point, thank you! If I have some time, I might replace the sprout with some other kind of risk (maybe something flammable), but I haven't though about it very carefully yet, and would definitely take suggestions. 

This beautiful.

I think you put so many ideas together so well.

This is incredible, fantastic.

Thank you for this comment! 

I can't say I've read that many of the creative fiction yet, but of those that I have read this is probably my favorite. It's simple, has nice/sweet illustrations, and not too heavy while also conveying some basic ideas. +2

Thanks a bunch--- I'm glad you liked it!

I thought this was lovely, Lizka! I wasn't expecting to see a picture-book-type entry in this contest, so thank you for that. 

My biggest suggestion would be that I'm seeing several picture books presented in your story as it is right now. How did Black Bird make the decision to peck at the little tree? What were some counterarguments from the birds swarming the man with an axe? I feel like you could draw each scenario you presented out into a full picture book with a clearer central conflict. This could also help draw older readers in, and perhaps address the 'preachy' vibe some commenters mentioned.

I'm immediately reminded of The Little Red Hen - which focuses on not sharing bread with others. Written during the social-Darwin-ish Gilded Age, it was popular during the Reagan administration as a tool for illustrating the dangers of welfare. I'm seeing some evidence that Reagan even rewrote the story as an 'economics lesson' for a 1976 radio program. Birds + bread seem to be good parable fodder, perhaps?