Bad news: unpaid work has to take a back seat in order to hit my deadline. Back in early September.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
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 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
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:
- Phlogiston theory predicts that tin, when further heated, will remain a mercury residue.
- Tin, when further heated, becomes tin again.
- (1) and (2) contradict.
- Therefore, either phlogiston theory is wrong or the observation is incorrect.
- The observation is not incorrect (because repeated).
- Therefore, phlogiston theory is wrong.
Better reasoning through logical technique gets us closer to the right answers. One more example.
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
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.
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
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.
The enclave might be under some sort of threat of which he was unaware. Perhaps the bugs had successfully undermined the wall, and Cene was searching for a way to drive them back more permanently, or for materials which could be used to keep the wall from falling. Or, perhaps the dead had started to fail, the trauma of their periodic rebirths finally killing them. And thus Cene was searching for something which, in her view or that of Commer Zdeti, would help keep them safe and well.
Or, worse, perhaps they believed that the Pulmeks were dying more frequently than before. Certainly he paid no attention to such things, but the hospices were growing at a rapid pace, and every Pulmek spent some time on their construction and care. He didn't know, or couldn't remember, if this was going more or less quickly than before. But, if it were quickening, then that would threaten the survival of their kind. And that would certainly justify an outlandish risk, a bold plan, in order to save them.
He shook his head, still walking. It must be something more. Something strange or incredible, for Cene to risk as much as she did, and to risk their lives on the other side of the wall. A threat to the enclave or to the survival of the Pulmeks would require significant effort to ward off, but it would have involved them all. They had repelled bugs before, had dealt with failing machines and the swelling ranks of the dead. Barring catastrophe -- and he had seen no such thing -- secrecy made no sense.
Some of the oldest Pulmeks, scattered amongst the dead, occasionally spoke of other groups. Other Pulmeks, somewhere across the deserts. He knew these stories well, as most told the same ones, leaving him to suspect it was a repeated story from some point in the distant past, not a true report of the world as it was. They also spoke of vast enclaves, many hundreds of times the size of the one he knew, and machines with capacities beyond those which remained. Even machines that could think.
Petros enjoyed the stories, always enjoyed his time among the dead, but he had never thought to take them seriously. After all, the minds of the dead were deeply confused when they were reborn, and became more disjointed and unclear as they aged. At time, they barely remembered who they were, and gave false names, even false histories of their own past. They couldn't always tell the difference between what was real, imagined and distorted by the inevitable rot of memory.
But, it was possible, although just possible, that there was something to this talk. Someone with more time than himself -- such as a Genal -- might have been able to sit down and listen to many of the dead, sifting out what made no sense and recording what did, thus piecing together an idea of where the truth behind their talk might be. It was unlikely, in his view, that there would be anything as clear as a map. But there might be a hint of a direction. And in that direction might lie new tools, even allies -- or enemies.
Petros picked up his pace. He didn't like where this line of speculation had taken him. He particularly didn't like its conclusion. Zdeti, as far as he was concerned, was a good enough leader -- he kept the Pulmeks fed and protected, guarded the dead, built the enclave. He couldn't quite believe that Zdeti had the ambition, never mind the ruthlessness, to send Cene on such a mission, in secret and without telling the others that there might be some great secret lost in the desert. And yet, try as he might, he couldn't think of another possibility. There was nothing else which could justify this sort of plot.
So, even if he didn't have it quite right, there had to be something like this at stake. Something big and important. Something which could change the path of his people, possibly forever.
He suddenly stopped. Although he had been lost in thought, part of his attention had been focused on the ground, keeping him following the line in the sands, which kept him hading more or less straight east. But now it curved sharply, heading around to the north. Petros frowned, calculating. He had been walking no more than ten or fifteen minutes, at most. At his usual pace, he couldn't be more than four or five kilometers from where he had started, which meant he was well within the range specified by the enclave's maps. To the north, then, was known territory.
Fortunately, he had thought to bring a map. Unfortunately, it was in his pack, which had been taken while he battled with the worms. So, he had to rely on what little he could remember. As far as he could recall, to the north about twelve kilometers or so was an oasis, surrounded by rough scrubgrasses, generally favoured by rats, but no bugs. Passed that, by another fifteen kilometers, the desert suddenly dropped off, the sands seething over the edge of a great cliff, their boiling fog concealing the floor far below. No one, to his knowledge, had ever gone over the cliff and survived. So, it was possible that this was Cene's goal: stop at the oasis to refresh her supplies, and then head over the cliff, to explore whatever could be found below.
Still following the line, Petros broke into a jog, then a run. If she stopped at the oasis, he had a chance, although a small one, of catching up. But he would have to hurry. If she went over the cliff before he got to them, there would be no further way to follow. No line in the sand would be able to lead him onwards, and the mystery of Cene's ultimate purpose would remain.
He started to run faster.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Cene grabbed hold of the nearest worm, wrapping her arms around its shell, searching for a gap between the plates and the soft, vulnerable flesh therein. The worm immediately whipped its head around towards her and, with a flare of power from her skinsuit, Cene tucked and rolled away, leaving the worm's gaping maw to crash into its own flank, drawing dark blood. The second worm, disturbed by the sounds of battle, turned away from its meal and reared back, preparing to dive into the familiar comforts of the desert floor. Cene grabbed hold of the worm's tail, digging her fingers in below a plate there and, hurling herself backward, managed to tear it free, the worm screeching in inhuman pain as she did.
Petros ran towards her, and saw Adir poke his head out from his pit, confusion on his face. With a sharp move, he beckoned him forward and called out to the other two Agnants who, despite the battle erupting around them, had yet to leave the protection of their own pits. Adir clambered out, calling to Swith and Jian as he did, and Petros reached Cene's side. He grabbed the plate from her hands, to her surprise, then turned and hurled it at the lunging head of the first worm, all in one smooth motion. The worm snapped its head away, but too slowly, and the plate tore into its mouth, shattering teeth and drawing another spray of black blood.
His skinsuit flaring with power, Petros pivoted towards the second worm and drove both fists into the flesh Cene had exposed in its tail, a maneuver which only drove the creature from fear and pain into fury. Its head scythed around with terrifying speed, dragging its full length around like a whip and smashing Petros across the head, pulverizing most bones in his face and bursting his left eye. Staggering, Petros was hit again by the first worm, which grabbed hold of his hand in its mouth and pulled him from his feet, then smashed him to the unyielding sand, breaking both his legs and numerous ribs. The wounds healed in seconds, but Petros could not fight free of the two worms as he healed, and they continued to maul him, tearing at his limbs, whipping his body with their heads and tails, savaging his flesh with their teeth.
He had no idea how long the attack went on. But, eventually, tiring of their sport -- or, possibly, having drunk their fill from his blood -- the worms left the battered Pulmek lying on the cold sand and drove themselves back underground. A few moments passed as the last of his injuries healed, and Petros, exhausted, pulled himself to his knees. His skinsuit was in tatters, useless to protect him any longer, certainly incapable of boosting his strength or his reflexes. He was, however, fortunately alive, the worms being too consumed with anger to focus on trying to kill him, thus allowing his native healing ability to keep pace with his injuries.
He looked around, and cursed silently to himself. He was alone. Cene and the three Agnants, Swith, Adir and Jian were nowhere to be seen. To make matters worse, they had taken his pack, leaving him with no supplies whatsoever. Hunger and thirst could be survived -- his body would keep him from dying, after all -- but were hardly pleasant, and would slowly sap him of vital resources, leaving him unable to defend himself from the desert's predatory creatures.
Stowing his anger, useless baggage that it was, Petros looked around again, this time more carefully. The fight with -- and beating from -- the worms had disturbed the sands fairly extensively, even collapsing two of the four pits the Pulmeks had dug for themselves, leaving no sign of any tracks. However, the disturbance was fairly confined and, now that the winds had died down, it was possible that some trail or sign remained. He allowed that, as they walked, the others were probably obliterating their path, a task made easier by the fact that they were walking on easily-shifted sands. But, in the initial stages, when they were scrambling to leave, abandoning him to the mercies of the worms, it was possible that something had been missed. In the dimming light of the setting sun, Petros searched around the periphery, crawling on his hands and knees and looking for any signs of movement. And, at first, he saw nothing, and then nothing again. The sands were smooth and clean, showing not even a line of grass, let alone a sign of intelligent life.
He struggled to keep his anger under control, and looked even more carefully. And then he saw it, faintly before him: a thin but deep line in the sands, barely a centimeter thick but more than three centimeters down, heading roughly east. But that was it. No footsteps, no discarded supplies, nothing that was a clear sign. On the other hand, he didn't really have anything else to go on. Returning to the enclave was an option he immediately discarded. Whatever else was supposed to happen out here, it was clear that he had been intended to stay, killed by worms, wasps, beetles or the like. It was equally clear that the Agnants were unable, or unwilling, to countermand the orders of Genal Cene. Which was really fair enough; after all, had the positions been reversed, he would have found it difficult to simply disagree with her orders, no matter what the cost to a newly-ranked Lefent.
So, if he returned, he would likely be at least demoted, if not executed, in order to keep what he had discovered about Cene from being more widely known. Which meant that he had to keep going, and hope that he could discover enough that he would be more dangerous dead than alive. Whether or not that was possible he really couldn't say. All he could do was try.
Pulling himself to his feet, Petros took a few moments to remove what was left of his skinsuit. It was not only useless but actively dangerous, as its damaged circuitry could spark to life at any time. Dropping the remnants behind him, Petros walked off to the east, following the line in the sand.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
That is, one can reason in order to find things out. This sort of reasoning is often going to be intuitive and take leaps forward, running the risk of being mistaken. Scientific reasoning is the paradigm of this sort of reasoning. The point of reasoning scientifically -- one of them, anyway -- is to learn new things about how the world works. Doing so requires intuitive leaps. In the development of the germ theory of disease, for example -- that is, the theory that diseases are (often) caused by microorganisms -- the theory was developed and defended long before Anton van Leeuwenhoek ever actually got a look at them. Similarly, the heliocentric theory of the Solar System -- the theory that the planets orbit a stationary Sun -- was propounded by Nicolaus Copernicus long before it was formulated carefully enough to even be better than its geocentric alternative, derived from the ancient work of Ptolemy.
In both cases, the scientist in question starts with something given -- a set of observations, disease and its prevalence in the case of the germ theory, the movement of the heavenly bodies in the case of heliocentrism -- and then leaps past them, intuitively creating a hypothesis to account for those observations. The hypothesis is then confirmed (in these cases; disconfirmed for failed hypotheses) by further data, of course, but that amounts to a procedure of checking the reasoning, and eliminating the most obviously erroneous. Heliocentrism could be wrong (depending on the formulation, actually is wrong; after all, the Sun isn't literally stationary). Even the germ theory of disease could be wrong. There is no guarantee that a hypothesis generated intuitively is correct. However, without coming up with these sorts of intuitive leaps, then there will be truths we cannot find.
Let's contrast this with reasoning in order to avoid error. This is the sort of reasoning involved in trying to confirm (or disconfirm) a scientific hypothesis; but, more paradigmatically, it's the sort of reasoning involved in what's called a “syllogism”. The technical explanation of what a syllogism is only really fascinates logicians, and the occasional boring historian; for what I'm doing here, examples will suffice. So, here's a syllogism:
All men are mortal.The nature of a syllogism, clearly, is that the conclusion -- the bit after the “therefore” -- is guaranteed by the other sentences. That is, given that all men are mortal, and that Socrates is a man, then Socrates must be mortal. There's no other way things could be. Granted, it may be false that all men are mortal, and it may be false that Socrates is a man. But those aren't the claims this bit of reasoning is trying to demonstrate. This reasoning assumes that all men are mortal and Socrates is a man. And, on the basis of that assumption, it cannot but be that Socrates is mortal.
Socrates is man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
So, syllogistic reasoning is a great way to avoid error. As long as what you're starting with is true -- that is, as long as your assumptions are true -- then syllogisms will always yield true conclusions. If you start with a sufficiently narrow assumption, and proceed by syllogistic reasoning, then you will never go wrong. For example, Rene Descartes, (in)famously, ran the following argument [Note: There's more to it, of course.]:
Anything that I can doubt, I may not know.The first seems unassailable. If it's possible for me to come up with some narrow, outlandish doubt about a claim, then it's possible that I don't really know that claim. That's what a doubt is, after all; an indication that I could be wrong. But, I can't doubt that I'm thinking. This is because doubting is a form of thinking; so, if I doubt, I must be thinking. It follows, therefore, that I exist -- that is, that there is a me that is doing some thinking. [Note: There are ways of criticizing this argument, in particular the (unexpressed) assumption that thinking cannot occur without a being doing the thinking. I tend to think this is a bad objection, though, as, at this point, Descartes hasn't really described the “I” -- a Kantian transcendental ego is still a possibility here. Where Descartes goes off the rails is when he tries to load the “I” with more content than just this, such as having an essence and being an immaterial substance.]
I cannot doubt that I am thinking.
Therefore, I exist.
The problem with syllogistic reasoning is that it will never allow you to make an intuitive leap to some truth. By forcing you to avoid error, it confines you to never risking error, never advancing a hypothesis. Really, syllogisms don't do anything more than make explicit connections between ideas that are implicit in the assumptions. Going back to the first example, Socrates' mortality is already implied by the mortality of all men plus Socrates' manhood. All the conclusion does is say outright what was already contained within the other claims.
Petros walked away from the wall and looked out into the desert. He saw nothing there but the empty sands and constant winds. The forests near the wall were similarly devoid of life -- even the usual swarms of wasps were nowhere to be seen. Behind him, Cene, Jian, Swith and Adir hit the ground, Adir staggering slightly as his right hip tore out of joint, but all four were up and beside Petros in moments, their injuries healed as quickly as his.
"Let's go," he said, and led the group away from the enclave.
By the end of the day, the five Pulmeks had left the enclave far in the distance, barely visible at the edge of Swith's acute sight, entirely invisible to Petros. The sun had dropped to just above the level of the horizon, and the heat of the sands was beginning to fade as night descended. Even the searing winds were starting to die away. Petros had no intention of stopping to rest, however. Night was when the desert came to life and, officially, his task was to obtain supplies for his people. Bug food wasn't the best, by any means, but it was substantially easier to obtain than the meat of cows or rats, who tended to live near the scattered oases, and guarded their waters with jealous fury. Not to mention that most of the bugs, the worms in particular, stored a sort of brackish liquid within their shells. With some minor processing -- boiling, distillation, and careful filteration -- the water could be extracted, the distasteful poisons of the bugs discarded.
What he should do, then, is prepare an ambush. Leave something -- fruit or blood -- on the sands for the bugs to scent, and bury himself and his group in shallow pits nearby. When the bugs surfaced to eat, they could be quickly brought down and slaughtered. But, if he did that, then the mission would come to an end, and he would need to return to the enclave. And then never find out its true purpose.
On the other hand, perhaps he could force Cene's hand. Set the ambush, spring it, capture the bugs, and make to head for home. If Cene really did have an ulterior motive for coming on a simple raid, then she would have to concoct some excuse for staying outside the walls. And that might indicate what she was really up to.
Petros weighed the options. Either seemed possible, as far as he could tell. Cene might just wait until the next raid to accomplish her mysterious goal. Or, she might have already accomplished it. This was the frustrating aspect of her goal's being mysterious; he really had no way of knowing whether she'd reached it or not. Or, it might be possible to goad her into revealing too much, either through keeping the group outside the enclave past the conclusion of the raid, or through sabotaging its plans somehow.
Now that was an idea. If Cene had done what she had set out to already, then there was nothing Petros could do, short of torturing her for information -- always a tricky prospect with a species as tough as theirs -- to find out. However, if he gave her the opportunity to sabotage the raid's success and she did so, then that would prove, first, that she had another reason for accompanying the group and, second, that her purpose had not yet been achieved. And that would be valuable information indeed.
Decided now, Petros gave his orders. He would bait the ambush. Jian, Adir and Swith would surround the ambush point in a rough triangle, each buried inches below the surface of the sands. Cene and himself would be in a joint pit, slightly away from the side of triangle between Jian and Adir. Ostensibly, this was so that they could back up the three Agnants, taking care of any bugs that arrived late or had sufficient, if crude, intelligence to hang back from such an obvious meal. In reality, he hoped that Cene would somehow interfere with his attempts to either bait the trap, or to intervene in the battle to assist the other three. And that would tell him what he wanted to know.
They didn't have to wait long. After slashing his wrist and squeezing a small stream of blood onto the sands -- the wound healed in an eyeblink, and Petros had to reopen it several times to get enough blood to attract bugs -- he barely made it to the pit with Cene before the sands near the small patch of crimson began to shift. The shifting expanded, quickened, and gave way as a pair of worms surfaced, the white of the sand spilling across and striping their dark, segmented casings. Each raised its eyeless head and swept back and forth in slow, swinging arcs. Petros had heard from some of the older Pulmeks that the worms, although unable to see, had tremendously acute hearing; the sweeping movement was their way of cupping a hand to an ear, directing their sense-organs towards all possible sources of sound.
He stayed as still as he could, breathing slowly and evenly, his head back from the sands so as not to disturb them, and create enough noise to alert the worms. Beside him, he could sense Cene doing the same, although he did not dare turn to look at her to make sure. Worms, when frightened, usually ran. But that was only usually; sometimes, if startled enough, they would fight. And while fighting a worm on the ground was fairly easy, fighting a worm in a pit was tantamount to suicide. The underground was their domain, after all, and only a foolish warrior allowed himself to fight an enemy on terrain that favoured them rather than himself.
So, Petros forced himself to be patient just a little while longer. And, while he waited, everything went wrong.
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
It was an old hatred, although how old he could not be sure. He knew he had been young -- not younger, but young -- and new to his place. His travails at the desert's heart had come later. Before now, and before that, he had been sent over the wall.
Whoever had built the wall had built it well, to seal the enclave off from the hazards of the outside world. Not only was it too high for bugs and herding animals to scale, and too strong to be destroyed, it had neither gates nor doors nor apertures, no weak points in its sheer surface to allow an external enemy to gain access. Unfortunately, those master builders, whoever they had been, had not foreseen everything. Years earlier, before Petros' time, or so he was told, the machines which fed the enclave had failed. Wonderful devices they had been, he was told, able to create food and water from the light of the sun itself. But, he was told, the machines had failed, either through age or neglect, and the only food for the Pulmeks came from outside the walls.
He had been told many, many things by the old and by the dead, and most of it he dismissed as hazy memory, hopeful myth or some combination. But this had the ring of truth, if only because the machines still existed, still sat in the base of the great tower at the enclave's heart, silent and immobile. And, of course, because of excursions like this: the periodic sorties over the wall, into the realms of the enemy.
Petros was newly a Lefent, recently mere Agnant, and he had yet to be given a group of his own to command. For now, he was meant to watch and to learn, to see how Zdeti and Jary and Sten and Kuoni and Cene -- superiors all -- guided and guarded the Pulmeks, their enclave, and the hospice rooms of the dead. Even now, as he prepared at the top of the outer wall to drop down below, guided by his skinsuit's power and his own skill, he was not in command. Command was held by Genal Cene, friendly and genial and -- in Petros' opinion -- simply too weak to hold such a vital position. Commer Zdeti trusted her judgement, for some reason he couldn't begin to fathom, so the story went. And yet she was here, commanding a group far below her stature, readying them to foray out for food and water.
There were three others in the group besides Cene and himself, all Agnants. Swith he didn't know particularly well; she had been on an alternate rotation from his, thus he had only seen her from afar, during raids and other battles. She had been impressive, to be sure, but other than that, he knew little.
By contrast, Adir, standing off to his right and checking the straps on his pack, was an old -- well, what would you call him? Not a friend, as Adir seemed to have no friends at all, spending what little free time he had on his own, designing and planning improvements to the enclave's buildings. Not rival, for, as he had told Petros on numerous occasions, he really didn't care what others thought of him, not even Zdeti himself. Acquaintance, perhaps, or comrade. Certainly reliable, and a redoubtable fighter.
A frown crept over Petros' face. Now that he thought about it, this was quite an unusual group to send out foraging. He had never heard Swith described as possessing great ability as a hunter or gatherer, nor Adir, and certainly not Cene or himself. And the third Agnant, Jian, was more a thinker and strategist than someone who could venture past the walls and thrive.
Something else was going on here. He knew that Cene would never tell him what; was fairly certain that Cene would never reveal the reason she was leading rather than a Lefent like himself. But the others, assuming one of them had some clue, might be worth pressing for information. Jian, possibly. He seemed the weakest, in terms of personality, the one most likely to wither under sustained pressure. He was also, Petros knew from experience, the most intuitive and intelligent of the group, which suggested that he was likely to know almost as much as Genal Cene.
He brought himself up short, realizing that everyone else was looking at him expectantly. He cleared his throat. "Apologies, Genal. I was in thought."
Cene rolled her eyes at him and grinned. Petros considered both insincere, and clearly forced. "To repeat," Cene said, "we will proceed under Lefent Petros' command -- assuming he can keep his attention on our mission. It will be his responsibility to keep us safe in the deserts, and return us here with as much food and water as we can carry." She gestured to the canteens and packs they all carried. "In those, of course. Keep your arms free. It's never quite as safe out there as you might think. Whenever you believe that you can load yourself up and drop your guard -- that's when you're killed."
That shouldn't have been a surprise, Petros thought, as he nodded assent. What better way for Cene to do what she had been ordered to, in secret, than to keep him occupied with a group of unskilled Agnants, put their safety and success in his hands? He would want to prove himself, the Agnants would want to push him and see what he was made of, and the deserts themselves would throw challenge after challenge their way. It was a simple way to keep everyone from looking directly at Cene, distract their attention away from her actions.
He needed a better plan. He walked towards the edge of the wall, the Agnants and Cene trailing behind. He needed a way to get Cene to reveal herself, to make a mistake that would show him what her actual intentions were. He had no serious doubt as to whether her plans came from Zdeti; of course, they must. However, newly-promoted, he was still ambitious, still looking for more authority and power. What better way to impress the Commer than to outshine his hand-picked Genal, to prove himself capable of her position and responsibilities? But, to do it, he needed a plan. And now was not the time to think of one.
Raising his hand over his head, Petros paused at the edge of the wall, one foot braced on its lip. He dropped his hand sharply, and stepped out over the edge.
Friday, June 22, 2012
As I said, though, this is a trite point. For one, it may be that learning really is pointless. For two, it's plausible that learning doesn't extend our cognitive resources so much as it activates ones which were already present, but dormant. Consider the use of language, for example (and, yes, I am eventually going to get back to language as my primary topic). It seems to be widely believed that humans acquire language some time after birth through a process of exposure. Parents, siblings and others talk to infants, and infants learn to speak by mimicking what they hear. Eventually, this mimickry transmogrifies itself into genuine skill; rather than simply repeating phrases or words that have been heard, the infant -- child -- generates new sentences on his or her own.
This is a great object lesson in how unreliable common beliefs really are, because it's a complete load of crap. The first and most obvious problem with this story is that the process by which mimickry -- which parrots and other birds can do -- becomes actual skill in using language is not described at all. One may as well say "and then a miracle occurs!", because on this story, there is no explanation as to how ordinary skill with language becomes present. The second problem is more subtle, but also more serious. This is the fact that infants are simply not exposed to enough language quickly enough to account for their developing facility with using a language. In other words, kids learn to talk too quickly to be just repeating what they've heard other people say. This has lots of names; the one I like is "poverty of stimulus". This means that the supposed stimulus -- the thing that's supposed to get infants to be able to talk, namely people talking to them -- isn't rich or full or detailed enough -- hence, "poverty" -- to produce the ability to speak.
It's not entirely clear what the right story is (although it is very clear that the mimickry plus miracle equals skill story is flat wrong), but the best one I know goes like this. We are all born with a set of possible languages we can speak. Think of it like a set of switches in the brain. The brain comes with the switches, that is. When we are exposed to language from other speakers -- parents, grandparents, siblings, random strangers, the television -- some of those switches are flipped off. That is, the ones which would allow us to produce and hear sounds in our language doesn't us, the ones which structure sentences in ways not needed for our language, and so on. So, we are born with the ability to learn a language, and stimulus from others enables that ability, turning it into a real skill, by teaching us which of the things we are born able to do we actually need to be able to do.
Learning all things could be just like that. We could be just activating a set of innate capacities. Which would mean that learning actually does not extend or improve our cognitive abilities.
What I need, then, is a clear case of improvement in cognition, one which can't -- or can't readily or plausibly, at least -- be explained as the activation of something innate. And the best way to get that case on the table is bring back a topic that I let drop earlier, and talk some more about reasoning.
As Petros pulled himself over the top of the wall, he saw the rest -- his squad, a few others -- on the opposite side of the gulch. Far below lay a few dozen freshly-killed wasps, their wings still twitching, spasming their last on the corpses of earlier brethren. Nothing had yet made the top of the outer wall, and he could see no other new kills between the walls. A quiet raid, then.
He hailed the other side, and, receiving no response, hailed them again. A Pulmek turned and jogged out along the leftmost cable, easily balancing, skinsuit barely flaring to course-correct. He recognized her quickly as she drew near -- Swith, one of his Agnants. If he were honest, one of his favourites, if for no other reason than her ability to think for herself. It was a rare gift, he knew, among the lowest of the Pulmeks. There were reasons they had stayed as Agnants, after all.
Swith stepped off the cable lightly, and inclined her head. "Lefent."
"Swith," Petros said, returning the nod. "How go things?"
"They go as they go." She shrugged. "A handful of beetles. You’ve seen the wasps. We’re not sure what they’re looking for."
He frowned. "They seek food, as always."
"No. With respect. But no." She pointed over the top of the outer wall. "We’ve seen a herd on the horizon. Cows, we think, but can’t tell. There’s too many -- the sand covers them."
"Then that is why the bugs came. They aren’t hungry. They’re running away."
Swith considered for a moment. "That could be. Do you need to look for yourself?"
Petros nodded, restraining a sigh. "By Jary’s order. I’ll see this herd first. Have them," he gestured over the inner wall, "bring me a glass. I need to know what they are, exactly, and where they are going. We could use the food."
Without waiting, knowing as he did that Swith could be trusted, Petros crossed the cable to the outer wall, his skinsuit flared more frequently than hers, helping him stay balanced. He nodded to the Pulmeks there, noting those who were his -- Wiht, Alp, Kuwat, old Trum -- and overlooking the ones that were not.
He looked out over the wall, ignoring the few bugs who seethed at its base, skittering and murmuring to themselves; ignoring as well the occasional discharge of the guns as they sought prey. Beyond the wall lay the desert, the trees of the enclave quickly turning to shrubs, then grasses, then thin and scant reeds. And the desert stretched across the horizon, as far as any eye could see. He knew what was out there, was one of the few living Pulmeks who had been deep into the desert’s heart, rather than scavenging on the fringes. And he hated it, with every fibre of himself.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Now, there are clearly good reasons to be suspicious of any general claim that human cognitive ability cannot be significantly altered by human activity. It happens all the time, after all. It's called "learning". Whenever you learn how to do something, you alter the way that you cognize. This can be profound, as when you learn how to read, and thus become unable to not see the marks on this page as meaningful. It can also be minor, as when you learn who Winston Churchill is, and thus become unable to hear the name without a handful of associated concepts being brought to mind. (For me, it's cigars, waistcoats, and bulldogs.) So, if this is what the criticism amounts to, then it's patently silly.
But, I think there is a better way to take the point, namely that any theory of logic which aims to improve our cognition is going to run into limits which have been established by the evolutionary processes which produced our human brains. There are some things we're just not going to be able to do. Probability calculations, for example. We're very bad at estimating probability; in fact, we're systematically bad at it, bad in ways that can be predicted in advance. Casinos make their money by exploiting those systematic biases. Similarly, we are bad at acknowledging our own faults, and bad at acknowledging others' strengths. If something good happens to us, it's because we deserve it; but if something bad happens to us, it's simply luck. Contrarily, if something good happens to someone else, that's just luck; but if something bad happens, well, then they had it coming.
We can build tools to accommodate for these biases, once we see that they are there. We can use calculating devices, like computers, to figure out probabilities for us, and learn to rely on their results. We can also work to counteract our tendencies to laud ourselves and to denigrate others through a variety of means; for example, we can insist on consensus between a number of people, thus reducing the chance that the resulting conclusion has been unduly swayed one way or the other. [Note: I'm ignoring the issue of trade-offs because it just complicates the issue, but they are a concern, too. When we rely on tools to counteract systematic cognitive biases, we do so at a cost, usually a cost of speed. This is particularly true when we end up relying on the work or thoughts of other people; as anyone who's tried to forge a consensus knows, the more people get involved, the longer it takes to reach a decision.]
Notice, though, that these are all ways of counteracting systematic problems in human thinking. They aren't ways of improving it; they're workarounds, alternate routes that try to avoid the ways in which our thinking leads us away from truth and into error. So, logic, as I'm defining it, is more. It's not just a workaround. It's not a counteracting influence. It's an actual improvement in our ability to think. And that, I think, is the real concern that could be raised about my proposal: that I'm suggesting we do something - implement a significant improvement to our ways of thinking - which we actually cannot do.
"Are you listening?!"
"Yes, I am listening!"
"Then do as I say!"
Lefent Petros nodded and turned towards the wall. The habit of duty was an old one, as old as he could recall, and consequently he was loath to break it. But somehow Genal Jary always found a way to encourage doing so. It was partly his attitude, that snapping, brittle irritation, unknowingly perfected over years of failed challenges and lost opportunity. But, mostly, it was the fact that he had no idea what he was doing; had risen far beyond his ability, and stayed there through connections and luck rather than any genuine merit.
Today was a perfect example. Petros and his group had been the first at the wall when the attack came, sirens blaring throughout the enclave, shattering the forest’s tranquil peace. The wall had never been breached to his memory, had only been scaled twice, and each time the bugs had been driven back to their deserts to wither and die. And both times, he, Lefent Petros, had led the charge. Both times, he had stood shoulder to shoulder and back to back with Commer Zdeti himself, hammering their way through the writhing hordes of the worms, the skittering legions of the beetles, skinsuits flaring with power, songs of battle in their hearts. Fighting to protect both the few remaining living and the ranks of the helpless dead.
Genal Jary had, as far as he remembered, stayed on the wall itself, firing the guns. An important task to be sure; but a leader’s role was to lead, to fight, to inspire, and not watch and kill from safety.
Still, Jary was Genal and could not be denied. He had ordered Petros to scale the wall -- an easy enough task -- and report back what he saw on the other side. It was beneath him, a task worthy of an Agnant at best. He had wanted to point this out, in some more diplomatic way than he otherwise might. But Jary had decided to insist. And so, Petros would climb the wall, would report back what he saw, would do exactly as he had been told.
But no more.
The wall itself was vast, filling the entrance to the valley completely, and made of the same warm, faintly electric metal as the few remaining machines in the enclave. It was, to be accurate, a double wall, with a gulch in between, with narrow cables strung taut between the tops. The cables would be difficult for a bug, even the flying ones, to land on safely, never mind cross, but a Pulmek warrior at full charge could easily keep his or her balance even while running. And Petros knew, from experience, that it was technically possible -- although somewhat risky -- to leap from one to another. At the four corners of the wall stood guns, powerful tools that kept the flying bugs at bay. At least, they were supposed to. More and more frequently, they had to be manned, as the auto systems could no longer target accurately. And Pulmeks were fast to react, but nowhere near as fast as the machines.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
The evolutionary angle is rather silly, really. Evolution is, at best, a tinkering process. Think of it this way. Imagine that you have a boat -- it doesn't really matter what kind of boat, but let's say it's a big ol' Viking warship. That's your boat. And this boat serves you well for a while, but then problems crop up. It's difficult to find a dock for your boat. The oars aren't all long enough, so you don't move as quickly when becalmed. There's a rip in one of the sails. And so on. Now, there's two ways you can try to improve your boat. You can replace it -- get rid of the old familiar boat, and get a brand-new one, without all the old boat's problems. Or, you can alter the parts that aren't working well for you.
The latter is pretty much how evolution works. Since it doesn't have the option of getting rid of a species and replacing it with a brand-spanking new one, evolution always takes what it has -- the resources available, biologically and ecologically -- and makes minor changes to them. That's how evolution is a tinkering process: it takes what there is, and makes minor changes to it. However, the boat case is only "pretty much" like evolution. When we're talking about your Viking warship, you're looking for the best Viking warship possible. When we're talking about evolution, we're not talking about the best species possible. The goal of evolution -- insofar as it makes any sense to speak of a biological process having a goal -- is to produce creatures that are better adapted to their environments. And "better-adapted" just means "less likely to get killed or drop dead before they reproduce and raise offspring to viability". (That last clause is sometimes optional; some offspring are not raised to viability by their parents, but have to figure it out on their own.)
So, it's silly to think that the way our brains work -- if we take that as a result of evolution -- as being the best way for us to think. There are going to be limits on how we think, of course; we're not going to be able to think in ways our brains can't physically handle. But it's just wrong to say that evolution has given us the best possible means of thinking imaginable. Evolution never reaches for the best possible anything -- it settles for what's good enough to get a species to successfully reproduce. And evolution always tinkers -- it may improve our brains, but it will only do so marginally and fractionally; big honking leaps forward in our ability to understand and know will have to come from somewhere else.
That "somewhere else" would be us, incidentally.
A more sophisticated counter-argument is available, though, which would hold that it is actually not possible for our brains to work in a way that is consistent with logic. That is, accepting that evolution has given us brains that work for "good enough" purposes, rather than perfect ones, we're never going to be able to think in a way that's much better than the way we actually do. So, it's not that we shouldn't mess with evolution's results; more that we can't. And any view, such as my own, which is contrary to this is dangerous, as it holds up a standard humans just can't live up to.
In fact -- Rayner peered more closely at the image -- she was not only unhurt, she was in fact unmarked. Rayner knew a fair bit about the medical history of her employees; had needed to, in order for the experiment to be at all possible. Mary should have been marked in a few places. She had fallen about two years ago, while taking a short skiing vacation, and cut herself badly. The clinic where she was -- Switzerland or something; Rayner couldn't remember -- had been poorly-equipped, and, while fixing the worst of her hurts, had left her with a ten-centimetre scar over her right shoulder. She also had a very faint, but very long, scar down the outer side of her right calf, stretching from the knee almost to the ankle. The result of some childhood trauma or another. But what Rayner was noticing -- the reason the Machine was filling her mind with the location of every slight imperfection on Mary's body -- was that none of them were there. No scars. No tattoos. No freckles. No ingrown hairs.
She seemed, in short, to be physically perfect. Or, perhaps more accurately, perfected.
Rayner turned away in her chair, the image flickering off as she did and the surface of the Machine going back to black. The best she had hoped for was that Mary would survive the fall, possibly with crippling injuries. Then, she could have returned to R&D, improved the process, tried again -- and again, and again, as many times as necessary -- until she had reasonable assurance that even serious bodily insults could be survived. That had been the goal, after all. Survival after otherwise fatal harm, for those who could pay.
But never had she believed that something like this would happen. Healing all injuries. And doing so perfectly, to the extent that even old injuries, old wounds, blemishes and imperfections had been removed. She had to be sure, though. She flicked a thought at the Machine, to send a group of technicians down to retrieve Mary for further testing. And, with another thought, added a group of guards. Not that Mary was likely to resist, but you never quite knew what you'd run into outside the tower on a night like tonight. The data the technicians would collect was too valuable to risk.
In fact, Rayner decided, the process itself was too valuable to risk. She couldn't rush this. Not that she hadn't done that before, pushing a product out to the market before it was ready, consequences be damned, but this was too important. It had to be confirmed and verified. Every step in the process had to work, every time, with every possible biochemistry. There could be no flaws, no accidents, no long-term side-effects. It had to work.
Because, if it did -- if she had actually achieved what she thought she had achieved…
"This changes everything," Rayner said to the empty room.
Empty except for the Machine.
Monday, June 18, 2012
And that's all fine and good. These are useful topics to think about and explore, and I'll probably get into some of both before the chapter is done. But the point of this chapter is to consider what logic and language are for. That is, what purpose, or purposes, they serve; whether better purposes are available; and whether there are ways to improve our logic and our language to achieve important goals.
So, let's start with the purposes. I'm going to give two ideas that seem, to me, to be pretty plausible as the purposes of logic and language, respectively. Both are somewhat controversial and will require refining. Once that's done, I can then move along and talk about the ways to serve those purposes.
Here's the first stab at what the purposes are. Logic is supposed to help us think better. The reason for having logic, and the importance it has for us, is to take the grabbag of psychological shortcuts evolution has given us, all the weird little cognitive habits human beings have developed over thousands of years, and refine them. Cut out or block the stuff that leads us away from knowing and learning, and improve the stuff that gets us closer to understanding our world. This means that logic's purpose is basically solitary. Me improving my logic doesn't help you out, nor vice versa.
Language, on the other hand, is essentially social. There's no such thing as a language without someone to talk to, someone you can use that language with. That probably seems a little obvious. It's equivalent to saying that the purpose of language is to communicate. Since communication requires at least one other person to communicate with, it follows that language requires some sort of social interaction. However, that's not quite the idea that I hold. I think that language is required in order for social interaction to exist at all. So, the purpose of language is to make it possible for us to be more than solitary creatures.
Those are the two claims I want to defend first. Logic is meant to improve an individual's ability to think. Language is meant to make it possible for individuals to form societies. There are, however, lots and lots of reasons to think these ideas are not only wrong, but dangerous.