The Fox and the Low-Hanging Grapes

by Strange73 min read6th Mar 201234 comments


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One day a clever, itinerant fox came upon a vineyard. Being unfamiliar with the local customs, and not wanting to make a fool of himself, he planted his haunches on a nearby hill and observed.

In the morning of the first day he saw tortoises crawl lazily out of their beds and lean against rocks. At midday he saw tortoises marching out to the vines and chatting among themselves. All afternoon he saw tortoises climb the poles supporting the vines and nibble away at grapes. As the sun set he saw tortoises crawl back to their beds, and with clever eyes in the darkness he saw many low-hanging bunches of grapes left uneaten.

On the first night the fox thought to himself, "Why do the turtles leave without eating the low-hanging fruit?" For he did not yet know that they called themselves tortoises. "Perhaps it's actually sour. No, that's absurd, how could someone possibly tell sour fruit from ripe without tasting it? I'll have to make more observations."

In the morning of the second day the fox saw tortoises crawl lazily out of their beds and lean against rocks. At midday he saw tortoises marching out to the vines and chatting among themselves. All afternoon he saw tortoises climb the poles supporting the vines and nibble away at grapes. As the sun set he saw tortoises crawl back to their beds, and with clever eyes in the darkness he saw many low-hanging bunches of grapes still left uneaten.

On the second night the fox thought to himself, "Ah, of course, the turtles simply can't reach those grapes! That's why they lean against the rocks, to slowly move them into place as ladders. I can't see the progress they've made, of course, because I've only been here two days and turtles necessarily plan for the longer term. To justify such effort, the low-hanging grapes must be very sweet indeed."

In the morning of the third day the fox saw tortoises crawl lazily out of their beds and lean against rocks. At midday he saw tortoises marching out to the vines and chatting among themselves. At this point his hunger got the better of him, and he ran out to greet them and present various clever schemes by which he could help the turtles (for now he had been properly introduced) harvest the low-hanging grapes in a more timely fashion, in exchange for a modest share of the proceeds. The turtles had no interest in any such plan, and were for the most part befuddled by this fuzzy red stranger darting among them at incomprehensible speeds. By afternoon an agreement had been hammered out: the fox would be allowed to harvest and eat as many low-hanging grapes as he cared to, in exchange for which he would stop talking so fast and confusing them all with his disregard for traditional methods.

On the third night the fox thought to himself, "I don't really enjoy taking advantage of these poor turtles, but I suppose it's their just desserts for being so caught up in... aaugh, my stomach! Why does it hurt so much?"

In the morning of the fourth day the tortoises crawled lazily out of their beds and leaned against the immovable rocks to let the sun warm their blood. At midday the tortoises marched out to the vines and chatted among themselves.

"I'd always heard that foxes were clever."


"Yes, and dishonorable besides. Maybe that one was just an exception?"

"Maybe the rumors got it completely backwards."

"I dunno, diarrhea is at least a little bit dishonorable."

"You sure? He got rid of those hard-to-reach sour grapes for us, and returned the biomass to the soil. Kinda gross, but ultimately a valuable service."

"I still think there's more going on here. Some tricky foreigner-fox plan. Why would he eat the low-hanging grapes at all when any fool can see they've turned brown?"


34 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:02 PM
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Interesting, but downvoted because it doesn't fit my normative model of a LW appropriate parable. I tend to distrust parables because they are effectively anecdotes, but with out the benefit of being true. Sometimes they can still be useful for illustrating points that are being supported by real evidence. But as I don't see any non-fictional evidence being presented in this post and the point isn't very clear I feel justified in downvoting this one.

So you're saying fiction shouldn't be a respectable form of moral argument here?

Downvoted for suffering from the illusion of transparency.

Interesting parable. Not quite sure what the point of it is, though...

I got “Don't assume that the experts in the field [or the vineyard] are missing something obvious.”

Also, don't starve yourself for two days immediately before making food-related decisions.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

People often suggest not to go to the supermarket when hungry. But I've found that it works the other way too: if I go shopping right after a large lunch, little of the food I see ‘inspires’ me, so I buy way too little and I'll find myself having to go back to the supermarket way sooner than I had planned (well, either that or having to endure hunger for a few hours a day -- which one I choose depending on whether my weight is above or below my (moving) target).

People often suggest not to go to the supermarket when hungry. But I've found that it works the other way too: if I go shopping right after a large lunch, little of the food I see ‘inspires’ me, so I buy way too little and I'll find myself having to go back to the supermarket way sooner than I had planned

Perhaps if you go to the supermarket when you really don't feel like going to the supermarket you will end up with decisions biased towards not needing to go to the supermarket. ie. Buying lots of food.

That's what I got as well, and then I downvoted the article because the parable was overly long and confusing, as compared to the clarity of this simple message.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Me too. I didn't imagine many people would fail to get this or get something else. Indeed I was a bit surprised to read Strange7's comments on this thread.

LessWrong, you've been trolled. Y u no realize that?

I think the site has some very noble aims, but I'm not all that confident in the corresponding ability to realize those aims. My hope is that a bit of roundabout satire now and then might help. "Trolling" implies something more like opportunistic malice.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

Well, judging from the post's karma score, we do realize that. (Personally, I upvoted, because I think I've been in similar situations -- though I can't remember any specific one.)

The karma score has been oscillating between -8 and +8. That does not indicate realization. That indicates confusion.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

BTW, I've noticed that lots of times comments are downvoted in the evening and upvoted in the morning (where I am -- Italy, timezone UTC+01:00). I wonder if this mean that people from certain timezones are more liberal with karma than people from other timezones.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

It may be Decision Fatigue and the corresponding tendency to form uncharitable judgments.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

BTW, what do people here feel about the use of we to denote a group of people which includes myself even though I didn't personally take part in the action? I don't do that very often (it reminds me of the days when I was a football (soccer) fan and it was customary to say us and you (pl.) to mean ‘the team I support’ and ‘the team you support’); OTOH I once saw a documentary where the presenter consistently used us and them to mean ‘Homo sapiens sapiens’ and ‘H. sapiens neanderthalensis’ when speaking about events taking place several tens of millennia ago, which kind of jarred me.¹ And I've seen a comment in a feminist blog when a female commenter scolded a male commenter because he had said “men” instead of “us”.

¹ Maybe because, as an European, I likely do have a non-negligible fraction of Neanderthal DNA.

It can be jarring when, as in the parent, you attribute to 'us' attitudes you don't agree with.

Foxes are red-green colorblind, and thus cannot distinguish between fresh and brown grapes at a glance.

The parable would have been much more effective if this were hinted at or something. Very few people (I would think) possess this key bit of background knowledge.

Why would it have been more effective? Effective at what?

At not being confusing.

Well, that clears up part of it... but what's the moral of the story?

It hasn't got a moral. It's just a pattern of human activity I've noticed, filtered through a metaphor to highlight the relevant parts and remove distracting contextual details.

Capping the end with explicit advice would imply that I knew how to fix the pattern in question.

Your metaphor has unfortunately also obscured the relevant parts and inserted distracting contextual details.

I didn't get the parable at all until I read this. Thanks for pointing it out.

This is a strange pattern. Your post is massively downvoted, and every one of your comments on it are massively upvoted; enough to make the post a large net karma gain.

I'm not sure if that means the post and comments taken as a whole are something LW wants, or whether perhaps there was a better way to get the insights in your comments into the post itself.

Both of those seem like plausible inferences given your observation.
I also take it as evidence that LW's standards of evaluation for posts are very different than for comments.

That said, I suspect your observation is wrong. Given that each vote on a post is worth 10 karma, the post + comments is still a significant net karma loss at the time that I write this.

Last night it was down as low as -8. Currently it's at -2, which puts me back in net karma gain territory. I suspect the main post will continue to be upvoted as more people have time to think about it.

I think my standard for a convincing parable is not just that the parable feel true, but that it feels true and would feel false if it had gone the other way.

For example, there's a parable about rowing on a lake in the fog. Another rowboat comes out of the fog and collides with yours. You get angry and start yelling, but when you notice the other rowboat is empty, you aren't angry any more.

If we reverse the conclusion of that parable - the rowboat is empty, but you remain angry anyway - it would seem false to me.

By contrast, if the low-hanging grapes had tasted good and been nourishing, I don't think I would find this parable false. This fox has a different perspective than the turtles, and it's completely possible it could have found a niche that was not occupied previously.

Sure, outsiders who come into a new field and think they can solve everything in one quick blow are usually wrong. But outsiders who come into a field and try to cast old problems in a new light are sometimes right and productive, too.

Clever remake of the old parable, thought-provoking, definitely worth an upvote.