Tuesday, March 01, 2005

defending my mathematical honor

Donald thinks I didn't come up with a cool numbering system. How sadly mistaken he is. I guess a lot of people probably didn't get the significance of the "th" on "13th". I blame the school system for failing to forcefully explain the difference between cardinal and ordinal numbers.

Cardinal numbers are used for counting. A single cardinal number represents the cardinality (the size) of set, or under some ontologies, a particular equivalence class of sets under the relation of equinumeracy. Ordinal numbers, by contrast, represent positions within an ordered sequence (there are more ontologically complex interpretations of ordinal numbers just as for cardinal numbers, but I don't want to get in too deep here).

For a more concrete example, take this sequence: A,B,C. There are 3 positions in the sequence. Here, 3 is a cardinal number. It is used to count things. In addition, the last element in the sequence is in the 3rd position. Here, 3rd is an ordinal number, it denotes a position.

Clearly, there are some close relationships between cardinal and ordinal numbers. For example, the nth element in a sequence is the last element in a subsequence of n elements. But this should not be allowed to obscure the differences. Notice in particular that it makes no sense to add ordinal numbers together. What do you get if you add 1st and 2nd? It is impossible even to attach a meaning to this question unless the items of the sequence are themselves cardinal numbers.

Donald has been using the common device of presenting cardinal numbers and allowing them to stand for ordinal numbers according to a traditional correlation: 1 represents the 1st, 2 represents the 2nd, 3 represents the 3rd, etc. He tries to conceal this barbarism by resorting to roman numerals to represent the cardinal numbers, suffering under the illusion that they are somehow more elegant or more sophisticated, yet to the trained mathematical eye, his subterfuge is manifest.

The innovation in my use of the ordinal number "13th" was in ripping aside the contrivance and relying instead on the mathematically correct formulation.

In addition, my use of " the 13th" was an allusion to a popular horror film. How did he miss that?

evaluating history

Around the lunch room at my office, I have several times had to listen to the accusation that the US used germ warfare to commit genocide against the American Indians. They claimed that there were many instances where Americans distributed infected blankets from smallpox victims to Indians with the intent of giving smallpox to the Indians.

Having no knowledge of any such thing, there wasn't much I could say about it, but I always believed that the accusation was greatly exaggerated or outright fabricated. It turns out I was right. This article exposes the academic fraud of Ward Churchill, the likely source of their accusations. Ward Churchill has also advocated terrorism and engaged in art fraud, and has probably lied about being an Indian.

Apparently there has only been one documented case of this attempt to pass smallpox to Indians, and that was by a lowly British --not American-- army captain. In addition there were various rumors, none of which seem well-founded.

So how did I know not to believe the lunch crowd? I took into account their similar beliefs about American history. There was one well-documented witch-burning travesty in American history, yet the lunch crowd believes that all of New England was a witch-burning hell for centuries. There were a small number of documented massacres by the US Army against Indians, yet the lunch crowd believes that the Army did almost nothing else during the Indian Wars. There was one documented major war crime committed by American forces in Vietnam, yet the lunch crowd believes that the Vietnamese all hate us for all the torturing, raping, and massacring that the US troops did in Vietnam (no word on what the Vietnamese think about the French who actually did do those things). There was one documented prison abuse scandal in the entire War on Terror, yet the lunch crowd is sure that Americans are committing war crimes all over Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay.

Notice a trend? I'm not talking about the anti-Americanism here (that's just a given), I'm talking about the tendency to take one or a few spectacular incidents and to treat them as the norm. Yet the reason we know about these specific incidents is because they were not normal. The reason everyone knows the names Salem, Mai Lai, and Abu Ghraib is because these were exceptional events that caught the attention of historians and journalists. They stood out for being unusual.

It is a common fallacy to exaggerate whatever attracts your attention and to view it as the normal course of events, even when it should be obvious that the reason that it attracts your attention is that it is not the normal course of events.

Someone once observed that "clearing the table" in pool tournaments is a rarer event that the announcers realize. It is common for the announcers to say something like "this is a difficult shot, but if he makes it he will clear the table". Then he makes the shot but fails to clear the table. We think like this because we distinctly remember the impressive sequences where the table was cleared, but all the failures kind of merge into a featureless morass.

So I guess the point is: Hey lunch crowd: No, the US did not carry out a campaign of genocidal germ warfare against the Indians. You're going to have to find some other reason to despise your country.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Storyblogging Carnival the 13th

Well, I had big plans for this Carnival. Big plans. Then my company uncharacteristically decided to be serious about today's software release date and I was working all weekend on what should have been (and ultimately turned out to be) a trivial problem. I haven't even read most of the entries yet, so I'm taking the authors words for the rating (you guys better not have been naughty) and I guessed Andrew's rating from his previous work.

But, just so it's not a total loss I'll describe the carnival as it was supposed to be, and you, dear reader, may use your imagination to enjoy it even though it doesn't exists. Consider this a fictional web page:
The caption is in a large, bold font, metallic silver on a dark background. The letters extend back into the background in a 3d effect. The font is blocky but slightly twisted --disturbingly, somehow wrong. The "t" in 13th is a bloody dagger with a gore-spattered hand gripping the hilt.

You read the macabre caption and just as your eye begins to recognize the dagger, the page flashes and animated lightning streaks across post. The entire page darkens and animated rain begins to fall, pooling messily at the bottom of the page. Thunder rolls through your office (I recommend a 5.1 speaker system). The page becomes even darker so that the black words are impossible to read except during the flashes of lightening. However the effect isn't as annoying as it could be, because the post is short and the flashes of lightening are frequent.

A chill goes down your back as you gape at the page design. You think, wow, that Doc Rampage does the best web pages ever.
I only hope you can tear yourself away from this incredible page long enough to read the stories. Here they are:

Third Eye Blind (Excerpt)
by cbeck at Feeding the Habbit
PG, 271 words
Briefly meet Snoop, the only son of Old Carter, from a work in progress.

from Harkonnendog
PG, 791 words
A story about a story about the nature of the blogosphere, and the mind, and intelligence and synaptic connection and influence and heuristics and - this blurb is almost as long as the story just read the derned thing!


by Dave Gudeman, right here at Doc Rampage
PG, 880 words.
The beginning of a great, probably-never-to-be-completed novel.

Nothing Ventured
by Tom Harrison at Monday Afternoon
G, 2000 words
James Harmon expected his degree in linguistics to get him a rewarding, if unexciting, academic position. Then the Karriri offered him a job.

An Ill-timed Walk, Chapter 8 of Eyes in the Shadow
by Donald S. Crankshaw at Back of the Envelope
PG-13, 3,448 words of a 27,253 word novella in progress.
The flight from the psychotic mutant demon called Red-eyes has reached a turning point. Unfortunately, it's a turn for the worse.

The next 3 chapters of 'the child': 35, 36, and 37
by Sheya Joie at Tales by Sheya
PG-13 (fighting), this adds 3451 words to the 30,470-word novella-in-progress.
And more fighting.

It's Waiting Under the Bed
by Darleen Click at Darleen's Place
PG-13, 3580 words
Jan is in a rut. Dead-end job, fellow worker who makes her job miserable and a love life that’s almost non-existent. But there is something dark and cold from her deepest nightmares living under her bed. And now it’s on the move and looking for her.

Sage's Trek
by Andrew Ian Dodge at Dodgeblogium
PG-13, 7297 words
The Sage has to go investigate an odd little village up the coast of Wales.

UPDATE: forgot Harkonnendog's entry. It's added now (2nd entry above).

The next carnival will be hosted over at Back of the Envelope. If you'd like to enter, send Donald an email, or check his site next Monday for the announcement. Previous Carnivals are here.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Scale 7 Artifact, part 1

This is the opening of the first chapter of Scale 7 Artifact, a novel-in-progress. This section doesn't really stand on its own like the others, but heck, I had to get something out for the storyblogging carnival. The previous segments from this novel are here and here.
UPDATE: just click the "continue" link at the end of the story to get to the rest.


In the beginning, there was only Awareness. There was as yet nothing to be aware of, and so it was an awareness of Nothing. Yet awareness has a kind of magic and when the nothingness became the object of Awareness, it became Something.

And when Awareness had distilled Something from Nothing, it became aware of its own power. It became self-aware. It became a self. It became "I".

"What am I?" the self wondered. "What is the Nothing?"

Ephemeral traces of knowing teased at the self. There were answers suspended in the nothingness, if only the self could find a way to trap them. The answers were ... memory.

As if it were an incantation, the word called the thing, and memories began flooding into the self. It --no, he-- was a man, a human being.

He thought at first that all was dark, that his senses were barren, but he became gradually aware that he saw a faint light. What color? Reddish? It was hard to say. He heard a sound that was barely a sound. It had no pitch and yet it was not white noise. It was almost like a continuous pressure change in his ears.

He felt ... he felt something. He could not yet characterize it, but it was becoming more definite. He struggled to refine the sensation into something he could know. He tugged at it like a stubborn creature on a rope, drawing it toward him. Then, as if the rope slacked, it started coming toward him on its own, becoming more definite, more describable. It was a bodily sensation. It was ... it was pain.

The sensation of pain grew suddenly. It became overwhelming, dominating his awareness. It was excruciating. Now he struggled to drive away the sensation he had been drawing toward himself only moments before. The flashes before his eyes became angry red flares, the sound in his ears blared a jarring discordance, and he was ... cold. So very, very cold.

"I'm dying". The realization came with a jolt. He couldn't remember who he was or where, but he imagined that he knew the symptoms of a freezing death.

The thought left him regretful. And in a way, it put the pain into perspective as a less pressing concern than life. He wondered if there was anything he could do to survive. He tried to move an arm. Nothing.

He wondered why the pain was intensifying. Shouldn't it receded with consciousness? So it should! Could it be that he was not dying but recovering?

With that idea, the darkness surrounding his memories vanished in a flash of light and he remembered all. He was Daniel Greaves. He was on a starship. He had been put into artificial hibernation. They must be waking him up. And if they were waking him up, that meant ... that he had reached the stars!

The medical engineer studied the readout in the dim light of the recovery room. The florescent crystals of the display were focused toward her eyes, illuminating her face with twisted words: Daniel Greaves. Sixty-nine years old. Pupils reactive. Auditory nerves responding to stimulation. Tissue samples show full transition.

Her eyes slid to the man on the medcouch. He lay in near darkness under the red lights of the medical monitoring equipment that watched over him with such impassive urgency. For a moment she saw him as a cold pale corpse, twitching occasionally with fading life; the red lights became the eyes of malevolent creatures from the vacuum of space. She shuddered and shook off the vision.

To her medically-trained eye, Daniel Greaves was in very good shape for a man of his age. That would be at least partly an effect of the tissue transition. Eyes twitched under the closed lids --he was making good progress. Mr. Greaves wasn't a bad-looking man. A large, pleasant face with a large friendly nose. She had read his file and the most common words used to describe him were "gentle" and "thoughtful". You didn't need to see the record though; you could read the gentle smile-lines on his face.

This would have been so much easier if he had been a bastard. The med engineer turned back to her medical display where the lifeless numbers would not accuse her as the gentle face did. All readings were positive. Perfect. The woman's lips drew into a sharp line as her hand loitered over the display. One gesture would reverse the process and send the nice Mr. Greaves back to gentle slumber. Another gesture would call a medical tech to help him through the last stages of resurrection.

Involuntarily, the woman waved her hand before her face like she was destroying a spider web, but it was the gossamer fibers of her conscience that she tore at. There was no reason to reverse the process --no medical reason, only her conscience. She stabbed her finger toward the second option and the computer read her gesture as a selection. Somewhere nearby, a wristwatch buzzed to summon a medical tech.

With that gesture she likely had just condemned the gentle Mr. Greaves to a harsh death. The strands of conscience tear easily, but they cling afterward.

The medical engineer paused until the tech replied that he was on the way. She got up slowly and made her way to the door where she turned to face her patient. "Good luck, Daniel Greaves," she said quietly. Then she escaped through the door trailing the broken fibers of her conscience. It wasn't as if she could save everyone.

UPDATE: continued.