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A Parable

Some time ago, I took my car out for a drive one fine Saturday. As I was ambling along, I soon found myself on an unfamiliar road. A little way along the road, I came across a sign that proclaimed "Welcome to Diaspar" in large, bold letters.

"Curious," I thought, "I never knew that there was a town out here". My confusion deepened as I traveled further along the road. Although the pavement seemed to be well-kept, there was definitely something odd about the place. At one point, I came across a sign that said "No Passing". This was not odd in itself; what was strange was another sign not more than two feet beyond the first that read "Passing Permitted". Since there seemed to be no-one else around, this did not present a problem. The next set of signs did, however.

"Speed Limit 55" read the all too familiar black-and-white road sign. It was perched, however, immediately on top of another equally familiar sign that read "Speed Limit 40". Not knowing what to do, I decided to stick to the lower number.

This appeared to be a bad choice, however, for it was not more than a few minutes later that I saw the flashing red-and-blue lights in my rear-view mirror. With a sinking feeling, I pulled over and watched as the Police Officer climbed out of his car and walked slowly over to my window.

"Do you know why I stopped you, son?"

I did not. "Not really, officer..." I squinted at his badge. "...Smith.", I finished

"You were going forty in a thirty mile zone, buddy", said Officer Smith, flipping open his pad.

At this point I was really confused. "But, what about the signs?", I asked, pointing back to the still visible set of speed limit notices.

"Ah, that," said Smith, "you must have faith, you know."

I goggled at him. "What?"

"Faith," repeated Smith, "after all, we want our drivers to have real respect for our laws. If we just came out and said that the speed limit is thirty, that would defeat the whole point of having faith, now wouldn't it?"

At this point, I paused to see if Allen Funt was going to pop out of the underbrush. He didn't.

"But, how was I supposed to know that the speed limit is thirty, when the sign clearly says...something else." I didn't quite know how to finish that sentence, since it wasn't at all clear just what the sign did say.

Officer Smith glared at me as if I had just insulted his mother. "Are you tryin' to be funny, son?" he growled, "You're in enough trouble already. How do you think this perfec'ly preserved road got to be here, if the speed limit is anything other than thirty", he finished.

Unable to assail that particular piece of logic, I watched in silence as Officer Smith continued to write in his citation pad. Just when I though that things couldn't get any stranger, I noticed a second squad car pull up, lights flashing. A jovial looking man heaved himself out of his seat, and waddled over to our little scene.

"Now, then," he said, "what seems to be the trouble here?"

Smith stiffened visibly. "Nothin' that concerns you, Jones," for that was what the second officer's badge proclaimed his name to be, "just move along."

"Let's not be so hasty," said Jones, "how about if you tell me what the problem is." He nodded at me.

"Well, " I said, "it seems that I was doing forty in a thirty zone, even though the sign..."

"What thirty zone?" interrupted Officer Jones, "didn't you see the notice?" He pointed a finger at the offending set of road signs.

I was temporarily speechless. While I gaped at Officer Jones, it began to dawn on me that there was something wrong. With the two officers standing next to each other like that, I suddenly noticed that their uniforms were subtly different. The coloring was different, the stripes were different widths. Most obvious was the fact that Officer Smith had a caption embroidered on his left shirt pocket that read "City of Diaspar Reformed Police Department", while Officer Jones' motif proclaimed "The True and Living Police Force of Diaspar".

Officer Smith found his voice. "Now see here, Jones..." he began. Jones waved him quiet.

"The sign clearly says that the speed limit is fifty-five," he said, "you were well below the limit."

I got the feeling that while he was talking to me, his words were actually directed at Smith.

"But what about the other sign?" I asked.

Jones jumped as if he had been stung. "What other sign?" he hissed through clenched teeth.

At this point I abandoned all caution. "The sign just below the fifty-five notice," I said, "the one that says forty!"

Jones stared at the two signs for some time. Eventually he began to speak.

"Ah," he said, "I see your problem now. You are not interpreting the lower sign correctly. If," he continued, "you read the bottom sign in the context of the top sign, you will see that they both say the same thing." He beamed triumphantly.

"What?" I said.

"Never mind," Jones said, "just get out of here. You're free to go."

I didn't need a second notice. Despite the fact that Officer Smith appeared to be about to choke with rage, I put the car in gear and sped off. As I glanced in the rear-view mirror, I noticed that Officer Jones had Officer Smith in a headlock, while Officer Smith was valiantly kicking Officer Jones' shins.

"What a funny little town", I thought, as I headed for home, "let's hope that they stay confined to this little stretch of land."

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