Sunday, August 12, 2012

Good news/bad news

Good news: I have a paying freelance writing gig thing.

Bad news: unpaid work has to take a back seat in order to hit my deadline. Back in early September.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Forever Man - Part 1 - To Live is to Serve - Pages 13-20

Petros froze. He didn't even allow himself to breathe, not even to blink. Beetles couldn't seem much, but could detect the slightest movement. He'd seen beetles lunge for worms, wasps, even grass twitching in the wind. And they were dangerous, far more dangerous than worms, in some ways. From above the enclave's wall, a worm was a greater threat, able to climb and, should it get high enough, pull an unwary defender down. But once down, the beetles were worse. Beetles would swarm their prey, ripping and tearing with their mandibles, using their forelegs to shovel pieces of the living and screaming into their mouths. Once, when still young and new to the wall, he'd seen a half-dozen Pulmeks leap from the wall to repel a swarm, only to be swarmed under and devoured. The entire slaughter had taken no more than a minute.

And those beetles had been smaller, about half his own size. These -- he'd never seen any so big. The one he faced he literally faced, its compound eyes on line with his own, even as it squatted over the sand. Its mandibles were twice as long as his arms and three times as thick. He could hear the bile leeching from its mouth, spattering on the ground, a beetle's digestion being notoriously foul and prolific; some beetles, he knew, had developed the ability to spit this bile at their prey, beginning to dissolve their flesh before they had even been bitten. And the smell in the air, which he should have recognized, that steaming, near-boiling ichor emanating from the spiracles on its abdomen, which was usually reserved for enemies. Unfortunately, Pulmeks usually qualified as both food and foe.

He wasn't sure why he hadn't been attacked yet. He could hold his breath for some time, but the lack of blinking was becoming a problem, his eyes starting to tear and his vision blur. He risked a blink, quick, to clear them. And the beetle still didn't move. But why? He was alone, clearly no threat, obviously could be food.

And the other beetles. He risked another move, a slight turn of the head. There had to be twelve or thirteen, a sizeable swarm. Why had they not turned towards him? Why were their antennae laid still? They all simply squatted on the sand, the wings concealed and their rears turned down. Their eyes were open -- in fact, to his knowledge, they had no eyelids to cover them -- but didn't appear even alive. Yet, he could smell and hear their breath, their stomach acids. So, they weren't dead, nor recovering from injury.

Apparently, he decided, even beetles needed to sleep. There was really no other explanation. He only knew beetles during the heat of the day. Now, nearing the darkest part of the night, past the setting of the moon and before the rising of the sun, they seemed to have gone somewhat dormant. Perhaps it was the cold, or the lack of light, or even simple exhaustion. He couldn't be sure. But -- he risked another move, a slow wave of one hand -- they clearly weren't reacting to his presence at all. And this presented him with a perfect opportunity to do what a proud warrior always did when outnumbered, outarmed, and vulnerable. Namely, take the quickest escape route he could find.

The best option seemed to be around to his left. The beetles were largely concentrated to the right -- nine in that direction -- and were partly buried by the blowing sands on that side. To the right, he could clearly see four beetles, plus the one immediately before him. Which made fourteen, he noted, correcting his previous count. So, he needed to sidle around the one in front, cut left around the next, bear a wide semi-circle around the next three, and that would get him to the other side of the swarm. At which point, he could pick up the pipe's trail again and continue on his way.

Easier thought than done, of course, and the moon was already starting to fade into darkness. He didn't have much time. Carefully, he picked his feet up, one by one, settling them back down, step by step, trying not to disturb the dunes and the piles, hoping not to awaken the beetles with the rasp of sand against sand. He kept his breathing slow, deep and even, held his body fixed as he moved, arms loose and hands up. No sudden moves. No quick turns. No flinching. Every muscle in his body controlled, he moved around the first beetle, closed in on the second.

Now he was starting to sweat. The heat of the desert hadn't drawn it from him, but the tension and real fear that he felt was taking its toll. He couldn't remember when he had last drunk any water. He knew he hadn't eaten for too long. His right foot started to tremble and he paused for a dreadful moment, not five centimeters from a sharp, segmented foreleg, willing it to still, to stay under his control until he was passed. Then it could tremble as much as it liked, his whole body could spasm for all it was worth. But for now, he needed control.

He reasserted it, and kept on. Around the second beetle. Cutting to the left. It shifted its midleg slightly as he went by, and he almost snapped his head towards it, but choked off the reflex at the last moment. The leg stilled, and he went on.

According to the plan, this next was the easy part. Having passed the first beetle, gone around the second, he simply had to walk in a smooth, wide semi-circle around the remaining three, and that would leave him on the other side of the swarm. Then they could sleep, he could walk on, and, at a safe distance, give way to the panic that he was doing his best to staunch with sheer will. For now, he was winning that fight, and only had to win for about another minute. He was almost there.

And, with a gurgle and a scrape, the pipe pulled free from the sand. Petros watched in horror as, almost with a mind of its own, it slid past two beetles, grating on the sand as it moved, the beetles stirring with antennae coming to life. It hooked on the rear leg of another and, with a yank, the creature tumbled to the ground. Its wings snapped out, the sound echoing in the empty desert night; wings whirring, legs kicked, it shot sand around on its fellows.

As one, the swarm awoke. Petros, having no choice, tried to run. He almost made it.

The last beetle of the three he had been circling caught his right ankle in its mandible, digging in with terrible strength, cutting tendons with ease. He pivoted around the joint, suppressing a scream as he felt the bones grind, drove the heel of his left foot into the lowest segment of one mandible, and felt a certain satisfaction as it cracked, causing the beetle to loose its grip and rear away. But even this slight attack, a delay of only seconds, was enough to give the swarm time to find him, scent him in the air and hear his scurrying on the ground.

Two more beetles came at him, one from either side, legs skittering and mandibles scything the air. He dodged one with a quick roll, nearly came up into the mouth of the other, avoiding it only with a quick spring, re-breaking his ankle before it could fully heal. He landed badly, wrenching his wrist, but came back to his feet, favouring the injured side and keeping his hands up and ready. The beetle on the right lunged, bile spewing from its mouth and spattering on the ground. He threw his right arm up, protecting his eyes and mouth, and took a glob of the foul spew on his forearm, where it quickly burned through to the bone.

The beetle on the left had regrouped, latching its mandibles around his left bicep, digging in and drawing blood. Having little choice, Petros threw himself back, the mandible dragging down and nearly stripping the flesh from his upper arm before it pulled free. His ankle had healed by now, but his arms were both useless, and the remainder of the swarm was closing fast. Petros jumped again and landed on the nearest of the beetles, kicking out at its eyes, managing to burst the right. But, when he tried for the left, the beetle hurtled suddenly sideways and he lost his footing, tumbling back to the ground.

He rolled as he landed, came up against the side of another beetle, grabbed hold of its midleg with his right hand, the forearm regrowing skin over new muscle, and flipped himself up onto its back. He braced himself on his knees and drove one hand into a spiracle on its abdomen, howling in pain as the steaming chemicals stew within blistered his flesh in seconds. But, clenching what was left of his fist, Petros allowed the beetle to buck him free. As he fell off, his fist ripped through the beetle's skin, spilling the boiling ichor onto its rear legs, which crumpled and dissolved into a vile black goo.

That was three injured, one likely blind, one crippled, and one merely weakened. Petros thought he was holding his own, though. But he had neglected to remember the time. Caught up in the heat of battle, surrounded by beetles, he had not seen the failing moonlight and lengthening shadows. And then, in a moment, he saw nothing at all. The moon had set, leaving only the inadequate light of the few pale and distant stars.

His fight went from desperate to impossible. Deprived of his sight, he could only react to the touch of the beetles. He couldn't anticipate their attacks, couldn't defend himself quickly enough, couldn't find their weak points with his fists or his feet. He felt one beetle grab on to his throat and brought both fists up, prying the mandibles apart and squeezing his head through the gap. Then another grabbed him by the stomach, cutting through muscle and into the organs below. He tried to wrestle free, tried to flip the beetle off its feet. Then another grabbed his throat. He jerked his head towards the mouth -- what he thought was towards the mouth -- and, miraculously, popped his head free. But the one around his gut simply tightened its grip, and he felt his legs go dead as it cut through his spine.

The rest was nothing but pain. He knew that he screamed, kept screaming as the beetles swarmed over him, tearing away his limbs, cutting into his organs, sucking at his eyes and tongue. He felt the mouth of one close over his hand, almost caressing him as it got hold, then felt the arm suddenly end as the mandibles closed and cut it away.

For some reason, though, they didn't kill him. Perhaps they couldn't tell he wasn't killed. After all, they couldn't see any more than he could -- had been able to, when he still had eyes -- and their antennae could only sense movement and sound. When his screaming stopped, as his lungs were devoured from his chest, and his movement ended with the last of his limbs ripped away -- maybe they simply couldn't find him in the deep night. Or, perhaps, they simply weren't that hungry. They had been startled awake, after all, had reacted mostly on instinct to the presence of a possible enemy, possible prey. They hadn't sought out food, but hadn't wanted to let it go by when it was so close at hand.

Whatever the reason, he was still alive. Without lungs, he was drowning, but only for a short time. They regrew, filled with air, fed his starving brain. His other organs also began to regenerate, slowly filling the wreck of his torso: stomach, kidneys, liver, spleen. All the soft parts that the beetles had enjoyed slowly began to return. As the muscle began to regrow, so, too, did his spinal cord, and as it did the pain began to increase, apparently without limit. Unable yet to move, the root nerves still spinning themselves together, still unable to scream, all he could do was endure, feel the endless, searing agony of his body remorselessly returning itself to health and vitality. All he could do was wait, and suffer, and strive, as best he could, not to go mad.

His eyes were among the last to return, useless as they were in the moonless night. But still, it was comforting to have them. It was comforting to lie on the cool sand, his fingers and toes stretching and separating, the last of his body healing, and just let himself cry.

Eventually -- he didn't know when, having lost all sense of the passage of time -- he made himself stop. No one would come to save him. He had two choices. Lie here and indulge in his suffering, until the beetles -- or worse -- returned to finish him off. Or get back up, keep moving, and fight on.

Lefent Petros chose to fight. He didn't have much left. The extensive regeneration after the swarming had depleted most of his energy. He didn't even trust his legs to bear his weight. But, he could get to his hands and knees and, like a newborn, he could crawl. So, blind in the darkness, he picked up his head and began to crawl.

The sand tingled on his new fingers as he crawled, new nerves firing for the first time. The shuffling scrapes of his knees were the only sound he could hear, other than his own breathing. He allowed himself to relax, at least slightly. The beetles, if they were around, would have already attacked a source of this much noise. For now, at least, he was safe. So, he kept crawling, slowly and deliberately.

After some time, his questing right hand went to pull him along and touched only air. He let it drop down, about a half-metre, if his sense of place was still reliable, and it hit flattened ground. He dug his fingers in. The sand wasn't just flattened, it was compressed -- and damp. As if something heavy had lain there for some time, something which had leeched some water into the ground.

It had to be the trench that the pipe had been lying in. He remembered the pipe had moved, and that was what alerted the swarm. But he had expected the winds to have filled in the trench by now. Apparently, they had not. And that, at least, gave him a direction to move in.

Thus Petros moved on. His movements grew slower and more deliberate, as the last of his energy ebbed away. He knew he couldn't die from being tired, although he was exhausted past all experience. He knew he couldn't die from being hungry, although he was now ravenous, nor from being thirsty, even though his throat felt drier than the sand he crawled along. He couldn't die from these failings, but they could make him stop. He could stop crawling, lie down in the sand, and wait for something to come along and kill him.

He picked his head up, shook it. Somehow, he had been lying down in the sand, the winds had even blown a fine dust over him. Fatigue, hunger, thirst -- they were taking their toll. He surmised he had passed out briefly, his brain simply refusing to continue to drive his body onward, forcing him to rest. Well, now he had rested. And he kept moving on, sliding one hand forward, then one knee, then the other hand, then the other knee. And repeat. And repeat.

And repeat.

And he was down again. He let himself lie in the trench for a moment, his breath blowing the sand, his eyes clogging with grit. Struggling, his arms and legs shaking, Petros pulled himself back up to his hands and knees, then up further, to just his knees. He felt sand cascade off his back, and knew he had been down for longer this time, the winds blowing more over his prone form.

He was sure he would fail, eventually. He wouldn't die -- he wasn't nearly old enough to die -- but when he couldn't move any more, he would be buried by the sands, and then either devoured by a worm or choked by the crushing weight of the desert itself. He found this thought didn't frighten him. What disturbed him more was the thought of not discovering the truth about Cene's plans, not being able to show her and Adir and Swith and Jian that he hadn't died at the failed ambush of the worms, not being able to return in triumph to the enclave and receive his just reward from Zdeti.

Being killed didn't frighten him. Failing did.

Petros forced himself up. He staggered as he did so, his knees impossibly weak, his legs quivering and frail. He compelled them to strength, imposed his will upon them as best he could. They denied him, nearly buckled and dropped him. Somehow, he stayed standing. And refused to fail.

He took one step forward -- more of a slide than a step, barely able to pick his foot off the ground. But his leg didn't shake as he set it down. His knee didn't collapse. In short, his body obeyed his will, for now. And so, he took another step. Step by step, he picked up speed, from a slow shuffle to a careful walk. He kept following the trench, now almost filled with sand, but his feet could still feel the compressed base where the pipe had lain, and he used that as his guide.

He walked on through the deep night.

In time -- he still had no idea how much -- he saw something ahead. He actually saw it; not just in the faint glimmer of the starlight. It was the beginning of the sunrise.

Petros stopped and watched. He knew he shouldn't, and should just keep moving. As the sun came up, so would the desert heat and the searing winds. His fatigue would worsen, and the trench would fill faster. But he couldn't help it. He just wanted to see the sun rise, even if it might be for the last time.

It didn't disappoint him. The first rays over the horizon were pale orange, the next brighter, the sand ahead of him starting to gleam in the light. Then came the yellow bulk of the sun, and he found himself reaching a hand towards it, feeling its warmth spill out onto the empty, rasping world of grit that surrounded him. It grew higher in the sky, the faint lines of its rings darkly visible across its surface, and Petros turned his head to follow it. Then, he turned his head down, towards the remains of the trench. The winds were indeed picking up now, and the sand had almost obliterated all trace of where the pipe had been. But he saw the direction it was heading, still mostly straight.

He took that heading, as best he could in the empty desert, and continued to walk.

As the sun kept rising, life returned. He saw a worm break the surface of the sand in the distance, to his left, and what he thought was a swarm of beetles hovering just over the ground to his right. A cloud of wasps drew close to him, buzzing and darting near his head. He kept his eyes largely fixed on the ground, though, glancing up only occasionally to watch for danger. All signs of the trench were gone now, and he could only hope that he hadn't deviated from its path. He had tried turning about as he walked, to see if his current path was straight in relation to his trail, but had given it up as hopeless. The wind which now roared across the desert was removing his traces as soon as he made them.

A few wasps stung his neck. He was too tired to swat them away, and let his body heal away the poison. He knew this was risky, as it continued to deplete his dwindling reserves, but it consumed less effort than trying to bat the wasps away. Besides, these were small, nothing like the predatory monstrosities that swarmed near the enclave. He could handle their stings.

Hours passed. As they did, Petros found himself moving slower and slower. Even at tis extreme, past what he had thought was the limit of his endurance, he refused to allow himself to stop walking. So, he moved slower. But he kept moving. The wasps swarmed faster, stung him harder. The pain was minor compared to what he had already suffered, and so he easily endured.

Then the wasps moved away. That was unusual. He had never known wasps to leave prey alone unless compelled. Looking up from his own trudging path, Petros saw that he had, inadvertently, come to the middle of a herd of cows. He stopped walking. This could be difficult. Unlike beetles or worms, cows were not overtly hostile, at least not usually. A few had attacked the enclave to his memory, but the creatures had simply battered themselves senseless against the wall. Zdeti had concluded that they were probably diseased, and had them shot and burned at the wall's base. Mostly, cows kept to themselves, wandering the desert from scrubby grass patch to grass patch, surviving on their own inner stores of fat and, when necessary, battling and feeding on bugs.

They weren't large creatures. The nearest one barely came up to his elbow, and the rest of the herd -- twenty or so -- were no larger. Their bodies were thick and stocky, slabs of muscle covered with horny plates, and their legs were short, keeping them low to the ground. One curled its lip at him as it tramped by, baring a set of heavy fangs. Petros kept his hands down, his own mouth closed. No sense in riling the beasts, especially in his current condition.

The wasps had left him alone to torture the cows, which turned out to be a foolish plan. The cows easily plucked the wasps from the air, their heads twitching this way and that, jaws snapping open and shut around the insects. In few minutes, the swarm was gone, and the cows continued to mill about. Petros wasn't sure what they were doing and, having no real idea where he was or where he was going, decided to watch them for a time.

There was no clear leader in the herd -- which, he supposed, made it less of a herd and more of a swarm. But “swarm” didn't seem the right word for animals such as these, true animals rather than bugs. They were wandering here and there, always staying within the same ten-metre radius or so. He couldn't see any point to the movement and surmised that it was meant to be pointless. In other words, the cows were waiting for something.

He didn't have to wait long to see what. After ten minutes of waiting, without any clear signal, the cows formed a rough wedge. The leader of the wedge waited for the others to be in position, looking back occasionally as it did, and then led them away at a slow march, in a curving path off to the right. Shrugging to himself, Petros followed. At the very least, the cows would keep the wasps off his back and, should worms or beetles loom, he could let them fight with the cows while he did what little he could to escape.

After another hour, with the sun cresting its highest point overhead, Petros saw where the cows were leading him. They were heading to an oasis, the lush green of the vegetation and deep blue of the pool standing out starkly against the sheer white of the billowing sands. He did not, as much as he wanted to, run for the water. The cows were leading the way still, and he was in no shape to battle a herd. He would have a better chance of taking what he needed if he could establish that he was no threat to them. And that would require taking his time, allowing them to start to eat, and then cautiously approaching, without any move that could be considered hostile.

So, he waited. The cows drew away from him, entering the oasis. Their wedge disintegrated as they did, some pulling away to feed on a nearby bush, others grazing on the tall grasses, still others bowing their heads to the pool. And he drew closer, walking slowly with hands held loosely at his side, head slightly bowed. He wanted to seem docile, non-threatening -- actually was quite docile, the earlier trembling having returned noticeably to his limbs -- and made sure to walk slowly and deliberately, with no quick moves.

The cows barely noticed him. Feeling a little foolish at wasting such caution on the creatures, Petros approached the oasis. Still ignored by the cows, he bent towards the pool and drank quickly and deeply. He felt the effects of this sudden rehydration almost immediately -- his stomach churned and his arms spasmed violently. He doubled over, fighting the urge to retch, and his vision started to swim. But he refused these consequences. He had come this far, and would not allow himself to fail here. And, in a few moments, he had healed. His body drew on the salt stores it still had, flushed some of the water, and, gradually, the symptoms faded.

Petros stood up, feeling better than he had since leaving the enclave yesterday, and looked around. The oasis was quite substantial, he found. The pool itself was nearly a hundred metres across, and it was surrounded by deep vegetation on all sides. Vegetation which, to be fair, the cows were doing the best to tear apart, but even at the rate they were going, it would take days before the oasis was stripped bare. Beyond the oasis, to his right, was an outcrop of rock, barely visible above the desert surface. And standing in front of it, fortunately looking in the wrong direction, was a familiar figure.

It was Agnant Adir.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Practical Philosophy - Chapter 1 - Logic and Language - Page 10

In the 17th century, it was widely believed that objects contained a substance called "phlogiston", which was emitted when the objects were burned. There were a lot of lines of evidence supporting this theory, including the fact that some materials become lighter when they are burned -- explained as the emission of their phlogiston -- and that objects will only eventually stop burning in an enclosed space -- explained by the limited capacity of air to absorb phlogiston.

This became harder and harder to accept as a theory, though, through the 18th century. Particularly problematic were the cases of materials -- magnesium is the obvious one -- which actually gain weight as they burn. So, phlogiston proponents started to amend the theory, claiming that phlogiston was either lighter than air or actually had negative mass, or arguing that phlogiston was more of a general term, not precisely a substance.

Note what's happening here. The theory is proposed -- that intuitive leap I talked about earlier. The theory runs into trouble -- it is inconsistent with observations. As a strict matter of logic, one could just reject the observations. After all, any observation may be mistaken. Perception isn't perfect, and when we're dealing with precise measurements of chemicals, metals, and gases, it can become easy to attribute contradictory observations to observer error rather than problems with the theory. However, once observations start to stack up, it looks more and more like the theory is wrong. So, to seek the truth, we amend the theory, as little as possible in order to accommodate the observations.

Unfortunately, Antoine Lavoisier argued decisively that even the amended theory of phlogiston had to be wrong. Lavoisier heated a material -- tin -- in a set of closed vessels. The point of using closed vessels was to ensure that nothing could enter or leave the experimental setup during burning. If the phlogiston theory, as amended, was correct, then we would expect that heating would cause the tin to lose phlogiston to the air; and further heating should cause it to lose more and more phlogiston, until it was entirely dephlogisticated (seriously, that was the word). However. Heating the tin initially seemed to prove phlogiston theory right -- the tin became a mercury residue, and the volume of air measurably decreased. That's consistent with phlogiston theory, as the air is absorbing the emitted phlogiston. However, further heating caused the residue to revert back to tin, and the volume of air to increase. According to phlogiston theory, that's just impossible, and no jimmying around with weights is going to make the theory work.

Here's the argument:

  1. Phlogiston theory predicts that tin, when further heated, will remain a mercury residue.
  2. Tin, when further heated, becomes tin again.
  3. (1) and (2) contradict.
  4. Therefore, either phlogiston theory is wrong or the observation is incorrect.
  5. The observation is not incorrect (because repeated).
  6. Therefore, phlogiston theory is wrong.
This is a pretty standard sort of refuting argument, which identifies a logical consequence of a theory -- a prediction, in other words -- and then shows that the consequence doesn't actually follow. Again, as a matter of logic, one is entitled to reject the observation. But, since the experiment is repeatable -- and was repeated -- eventually we hit that point of stacked-up observations which require a theory revision or, in this case, a total theory change.

Better reasoning through logical technique gets us closer to the right answers. One more example.

The Forever Man - Part 1 - To Live is to Serve - Page 12

Minutes passed as he ran smoothly across the moonlit desert, the only sounds the rasp of the sands under his feet, the occasional gust of cooling wind and his own harsh breathing. He kept flickering his gaze down towards his feet, looking for the signs of the partially-buried pipe. Occasionally, he let a foot slip below the sand to touch the pipe, ensure he hadn't slipped away from its path. He changed direction a few times, as the pipe's progress shifted about.

Fifteen minutes from the oasis, he drew to a sudden halt, kicking up a small cloud of sand as he skidded and stopped. Before him, stretching across the horizon, he could see the edge of a great cliff, the sand dropping away suddenly, replaced by the dark and empty night sky. A haze billowed up around the cliff which, he realized, was the sand shifting and rolling over the edge, as water over a waterfall.

He drew closer to the sandfall, walking now, wary of weaknesses in the ground, cracks or faults which, if they failed, might cause him unnecessary pain and delay. The cliff seemed stable, though, and he reached the edge without incident.

Petros peered down. The pipe jutted out from the sand to his right, trailing loosely down the face of the cliff and re-entering the sands below. He judged the distance no more than two kilometers, a drop he could easily survive. Looking out past the edge, he saw no sign of the others, nor any clear indication of where they were going. The moonlight was starting to fade, as it did every night, and he expected to have to complete his hunt in the deep darkness. Which would, of course, make things that much more difficult.

Standing, Petros looked for an easy path down the cliff, somewhere he could slide or skid down rather than simply drop. Unfortunately, he saw none; the cliff was sufficiently sheer that, if he didn't know better, he would have thought it artificial, the work of some great machine or another. But it was nowhere near straight, the edge curving and wavering as it stretched out before him, and no machine would cut so erratically.

Bracing himself, Petros jumped lightly over the edge, making sure to clear both the pipe and the cliff's face, and plummeted to the sand below. He landed fairly lightly, dislocating his left knee and breaking a few toes, injuries which healed almost immediately.

The sands in front of him shifted and fell away, and he found himself face to face with the largest beetle he had ever seen. And it wasn't alone.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Practical Philosophy - Chapter 1 - Logic and Language - Page 9

Here's some bad reasoning. The movie The Dark Knight Rises features a character called "Bane". "Bain Capital" is the name of (presumptive) Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's old company. "Bane" sounds like "Bain". Therefore, Bane represents Bain.

Now, if you know who made this argument, you know that it was intended neither to seek the truth nor to avoid error. It was, in fact, not really an argument, but instead a performance intended to elicit anger and draw attention. But, let's treat it as an argument, and see where it goes wrong, and how fixing the logic would get us closer to truth and/or away from error.

The most obvious problem with this argument, among the many that exist, is the lack of a connection between homophony -- the sound-alike between "Bane" and "Bain" -- and symbolic representation. Just because two words sound the same doesn't mean that one stands for the other. "Doe" and "dough" sound the same, but bread doesn't represent deer. Similarly, "knight" and "night" sound the same, but an armoured man doesn't stand for the moon and the stars.

At least, they don't obviously represent those things. You could do a little work here and establish a symbolic connection between the homophones. In the knight/night case, one could draw attention to the fact that knights were prevalent in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages were metaphorically dark, in the sense that much learning and civilization was lost. At night, learning and civilization may also be lost, as those who prey on others -- indulging their bestial natures, so to speak -- are more prevalent at night. So, knight represents night because: knight connects to Dark Ages, connects to lack of civilization, connects to muggers and other miscreants, connects to the night.

Sure, it's tenuous, but metaphor often is. The point here is that what I've done is show how a little bit of logical analysis can make a bad argument into a better one. What we started with was an argument with an obvious oversight: there is no reason to think that Bane and Bain, despite being homophones, actually have any other relationship. What I've shown is that homophones can be made to have a symbolic connection, however weak, if there is a chain of ideas spelled out which shows a sequence of commonalities from one to the other. In the Bane/Bain case, one could say as follows. Bane the character is anarchic and destructive, desiring to destroy the things which make Gotham City worth living in. Bain Capital, according to some, was destructive and anarchic, acting to destroy things -- stable jobs, for example -- which make the United States worth living in. So: Bane is anarchic and destructive, Bain Capital is anarchic and destructive, hence Bane stands for Bain.

Of course, there are other problems with the argument. Batman, who opposes Bane, is a wealthy industrialist, which makes him much more like Mitt Romney than Bane who, in comic book canon, grew up in a Caribbean prison, before becoming the subject of macabre medical experiments. Furthermore, the histories of naming Bane and Bain are highly divergent. Bane gets his name from the word "bane", meaning a cause of death; Bain is named for founder of its predecessor company, management consultant Bill Bain. But, at least one egregious error in the argument can be corrected by examining the argument, noting its oversight, and repairing the oversight by making explicit a connection between the ideas.

Okay, so, that example was easy. Here's a more complicated one, this time of a good argument which reaches the truth because it is logically sound.

The Forever Man - Part 1 - To Live is to Serve - Page 11

But as he drew near to the oasis, Petros could see that he was too late. The pool and the area around it -- a few trees, some loose grasses -- were devoid of any living things, let alone the four that he wanted to find. He ran on, nevertheless, hoping to at least gain some time on Cene and the Agnants, that they were marching rather than running. He was moving quickly enough that he barely noticed the strange object half-buried by the sand, almost stumbling over it as he ran.

Petros drew to a halt and crouched down beside it, smoothing the sand out of the way with his right hand. What he revealed was a length of pipe, although made of an odd substance he had never seen before. Corrugated and dark grey, the pipe was flexible in his hand. It deformed as he picked it up, partly moulding to the pressure exerted by his hand, and then reformed as he released it. It bounced slightly as it struck the ground. It was clearly empty -- all he could feel inside was air, and no full pipe would bounce like that.

He got back to his feet, ready to leave this mystery behind, and his eye fell upon the oasis pool. Or what had been the pool. It was nothing but wet sand, slowly drying in the night. Frowning, Petros bent and picked up the pipe again, this time keeping it in his hands and playing it out as he walked, following its path. It led to the pool -- what had been the pool. So, clearly, he concluded, it was meant to drain the water. But where did it go?

He tugged on the pipe experimentally, trying to see if it would pull free, to no avail. And he couldn't see where it went into the desert, given that the billowing sands had covered it completely past about three metres away from the oasis.

Petros frowned again. He wasn't sure what to do with this. He could see that the pipe was meant, somehow, to pull water from the oasis. The exact mechanism wasn't obvious, but there had to be a pump or similar somewhere, possibly buried in the desert, possibly some distance away. However, he had never seen a pipe quite like this. And, to his knowledge, this particular oasis was fed by an underground source -- far enough underground that digging to it had never made sense, but close enough to be detected with the few functioning glasses that remained. How could an underground river be drained so dry that the pool became empty?

And, moreover, what would be the point? Of course, tapping the river would make sense -- his people had thought of that one -- and whoever had put this pipe here clearly had greater technological resources available. But draining the river was another matter. It made the pipe useless, for one thing, and would force whoever had left it there to find another river to tap into.

He thought he was faced with a dilemma. Keep going as he had been, towards the cliff and Cene and the others, to try to discern their purpose. Or follow this pipe, and see if he could find who had left it here, and why they had done so. He clearly couldn't do both, and yet each had attractions to him.

And then he had a revelation. He started to follow the pipe away from the oasis, pulling it out of the sands as he walked. He had walked about six metres before he was sure. But by then he could tell: the pipe turned away from the oasis and headed almost straight north. Towards the cliff.

Petros dropped the pipe. And he started to run in earnest.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Practical Philosophy - Chapter 1 - Logic and Language - Page 7 and 8

Here's how this all links back to logic. Given that reasoning serves either the goal of seeking the truth or the goal of avoiding error, it follows that reasoning well means reaching these goals, at least most of the time. But, reaching these goals, it seems to me, just is thinking better. That is, you're a better thinker, objectively, insofar as you are better at finding truths and/or avoiding errors. So, reasoning well means being a better thinker. But reasoning well is a matter of logic, basically by definition. Thus, linking the ideas together: logic is a matter of reasoning well, which is a matter of reaching the two goals, which is thinking better. Therefore, logic is a matter of thinking better.

Now, let me explain all the pieces here, as that went by a little quickly, even by my standards. The first bit is the link between reasoning well and reaching the goals of seeking truth and avoiding error. I think that follows from the discussion above. There are forms of reasoning, scientific reasoning being the clearest case, which allow us to seek truth better than otherwise. So, if you're good at scientific reasoning, for example, then you're going to be good at seeking truth. And being good at reasoning is the same as reasoning well. The same works for the syllogistic form of reasoning which keeps us from falling into error. If you're better at constructing syllogisms, then you're better at reaching the goal of syllogisms, namely avoiding error. And being good at reasoning is still the same as reasoning well.

The second bit is the link between the two goals and thinking better. Why is it that seeking truth or avoiding error is what constitutes being a good thinker? There are other things we might consider important to thinking well -- clarity, for example, or creativity. But I don't see how other cognitive goals could be really worth having unless they served to either seek truth, avoid error, or both. Take clarity, for example. Someone thinks more clearly when their thoughts are easier to understand, can be expressed more straightforwardly, aren't filled with confusion or vagueness, and so on. Now, in what circumstances is it actually valuable to think clearly rather than obscurely? I find it hard to think of any, except those where clearer thoughts are thoughts that get us closer to truths; or, alternately, where clearer thoughts are thoughts that help us to see mistakes and avoid them.

Consider the contrary case: where someone is a very clear thinker, but is constantly falling into error and believing things that are false. Is it really such a good thing that this person thinks clearly? Is clarity any longer a feature of thinking well? I don't see how it could be.

Similar things can be said for creativity. Obviously, there are very creative thinkers -- many work in politics, many more in movies, even more in religious institutions -- who think in ways which lead them into believing false things and into making mistakes. Some of these false things are benign, even entertaining, as in the case of creative writers who come up with fictions (fiction, after all, being strictly a form of lying); and some of these false things are very dangerous, as when a political leader starts to believe he can cut his country back to prosperity, or a religious leader believes that his deity commands him to fleece his flock for as much as he can. So, creativity, like clarity, is far from a bad thing. But when it isn't attached to seeking the truth or avoiding error, it seems to me, again, that it's really not a valuable thing.

The tricky case is the case of fiction, as we do tend to believe that fiction is valuable, and it seems to require creative thinking which gets us away from what is actually true. However, I think this can be misleading. Fictions aren't wholly false, after all; even a fiction very far removed from our own experience -- say a story of a man battling monsters after being transported to Mars -- is still grounded in something familiar and true -- in this case, the man, his battles, the planet Mars. Furthermore, the best fiction provides true and useful insights into real things; the fictional setting is used as a device to expose us to truths about what people are like -- think of Golding's Lord of the Flies or Orwell's Animal Farm -- or expose errors in our ways of thinking about the world -- historical fiction is often surprising in this respect. [Note: Of course, historical fiction isn't always fully accurate. But, I maintain, the best and most memorable historical fiction makes the past come alive by showing us what it was really like, even when that conflicts with what we would like it to have been.]

Finally, there's the link between reasoning well and logic. It seems to me that if logic is anything at all -- if it isn't just an empty name which attaches to nothing, like "round square" or "the present King of France" -- then it has to be a matter of reasoning well. As said, this seems to me to be just definitional. If I were being technical, I might call this a "platitude" or "conceptual truth". But these are bombastic ways academic philosophers have conjured up to say that there really isn't any other way to conceive of the one idea without conceiving of the other. So, it's a "conceptual truth" that squares are rectangles. The very idea of a square contains within it the idea of a rectangle; it's impossible to bring to mind the concept of a square and not have brought to mind, possibly inadvertently, possibly without realizing it, the concept of a rectangle. Similarly, it's a "conceptual truth" that all effects have causes. The very idea of an effect contains within it the idea of having been caused. So, in the same way, the idea of logic brings with it the idea of reasoning well; and reasoning well brings with it the idea of logic.

That's the argument, then. But this is all very abstract. How about some examples of how this thinking well by reasoning well works? That is, cases where improving our reasoning ability helps us to achieve the two goals, and thus count as cases of improved thinking -- that is, cases where logic is helping us in just the way I said it should.