Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Journeyman: In the Stone House

The latest installment of Teodorq's adventures on World appears in the latest (June 2014) issue of Analog.
"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail."
Louis L’Amour

A Peep at the Wall
     The Great Escarpment edged World along its northern marge, from the Hill Country in the far west to the eastern verge of the shortgrass prairie.  But there, an unexpected southward spur pinched World into a narrow waist through which all men must pass should they travel east or west.  It was no great surprise to Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand, who was cunning in all matters relating to stalking and ambush, to find the neck between sheer cliffs and steaming swamplands stoppered by a stronghold nestled against the flank of the escarpment.  But never had he seen a fastness so large and built entirely of great stone blocks.  Atop the walls men in iron kept watch on east and west and – of greater immediate interest to Teodorq and his companion – south.  But being wise in the ways of camouflage, Nagarajan’s son remained hidden from their gaze in a grove of trees a gallop south of the cliffs while he considered ways in which that happy state could be continued and his eastward journey resumed. 
Round about the stronghold huddled scores of lesser dwellings, cattle and sheep pens, yapping dogs, curling smoke from under which issued irregular clangs.  Smells of dung and compost floated with the burnt tang of the smoke.  Beyond the settlement a waterfall plummeted from the very lip of the plateau, and from that direction issued a steady thump, as if a frost giant strode the earth. 
     Earlier that morning several wagons bearing men with farming implements had ridden west under a mounted escort.  A practiced eye – and Teodorq possessed two such – estimated upwards of four hundred habitants in the settlement, the largest village he had ever seen. 
     Even though most of the villagers were not warriors – Their farmers needed guards against the shortgrassmen! – Teodorq doubted he could take them all, especially those wearing iron shirts and carrying long iron swords.  Not even with Sammi o’ th’ Eagles to help. 
     “Hey,” he whispered to his companion, “you hillmen build stone houses, don’t ya?” 
     Sammi shrugged without moving.  “Not so big.”  The hillmen were anciently enemies of Teodorq’s people, but the two young men were alike strangers in a strange land and had perforce become allies. 
     “Least now we know why the shortgrassers call ’em the ironmen.  Must get hot in them outfits come summer.” 
     “Maybe star-folk, like Jamly tell us find?” suggested Sammi.  “Big magic, pile stones so high.” 
     Teodorq studied on that some.  Farther west, where the shortgrass prairie gave way to the Great Grass he had once called home, he and Sammi had come upon an ancient wreck, a “shuttle” that had tumbled down from the sky in the long ago.  Jamly, a drawing that somehow moved and spoke and who had been custodian of the shuttle, had sent them forth to find the settlements of Iabran and Varucciyamen, so that the starmen might come and salvage what remained. 
     For Teodorq, seeking out the star-folk had a better ring than fleeing from the Serpentines who pursued him.  “Don’t think so,” he finally decided.  “That shuttle was made of pottery – whatcha call it, esramig? – not stone.  And when Jamly killed them Serps following me, she used a buzzing fast stonethrower, which I don’t see they got over there.  Hey, hillman, how do you build a stone house?” 
     Sammi glanced at him.  “With stones?” 
     “Yah, you lay one row on top another row.  Yonder –”  He nodded toward the stronghold.  “– they forgot to stop adding rows.  So, no magic.  Least not shuttle-magic.”  He wondered how they lifted the blocks onto the highest rows.  Maybe that was a giant he heard hammering away in the distance. 
     Sammi grunted.  “Jamly Ghost say much kenning lost since big-fight-in-sky.  Stupid plainsmen forget most; hillmen not so much.  Maybe ironmen forget less.”  He pursed his lips.  “We stay in trees, iron hats no see us.  Sneak past stone house, then ride like hell.” 
     The woods they lurked within contained more trees than Teodorq had ever imagined grew on World.  But he did not suppose that the men in the iron hats were stupid, and he expected the trees would soon give way to cleared ground.  What man would build a stronghold to guard the passage and then allow trees to screen passers-by? 
     “I dunno, hillman,” said Teodorq, pointing toward the distant wall.  “Them sidemen up there, we know why they’re watching the west.  Shortgrassmen don’t like they come down off’n the cliffs and taken their prairie.  But they’re studying on the east, too.  And before we ‘ride like hell’ into it, I wanna know what they’re so keen on spotting.” 
     Sammi looked at him.  “Sometimes, for plainsman, you not so stupid.” 
     “Beside,” Teodorq said, “I wouldn’t mind sneaking in there and getting me one of them swords.” 
     “Sammi take back what he say.” 
     They watched a while longer in science.  Then Sammi sighed.  “How you plan get one?” 
     “First…  We need to find a way into that stone house.” 
     Behind them they heard a click. 
     Teodorq looked at Sammi.  “That can’t be good.” 
     They turned to see a mounted figure dressed in dun leather and aiming a crossbow at them.  “Be pinned to the spot, sodbusters, or be pinned to it.” 
     It was a woman’s voice and spoke the plavver of the shortgrassmen with an odd accent, harder on the final consonants, careless of the vowels, and swallowing the liquids in the throat.  Teodorq said to Sammi in the long-grass sprock, “Only one bolt.” 
     The hillman shrugged.  “Sammi always remember kindness of stupid plainsman.”
     “You bigger.  She shoot you first.  Sammi get away while reload.” 
     As if intuiting their discussion, the woman whistled sharply and four men emerged from the trees, one of them leading the horses and pack mule Teodorq and Sammi had picketed in a hidden meadow.   “Turn you right about now and start you a-walking toward yon sawak.”  When Teodorq feigned incomprehension, she gestured with the crossbow, indicating by signs what they were to do. 
     “Awright, babe, we get it.  C’mon Sammi, let’s go.”  The two turned and began walking toward the stone house, striding for all of World as if they were leading the others home. 
     Sammi commented dryly in the hill country lingo.  “First part of plan working.  Got second part?” 
     Teodorq shrugged.  “Not yet.” 

The next episode, "Against the Green," will appear in the next episode: Jul/Aug 2014.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Miracle on Folk Street

This morning in a mood of bullet-biting, TOF decided to forage for a new laptop. So he went to the kitchen table where he had placed his old deceased laptop with the thought of measuring its screen size.

He had retrieved the body from the Geek Squad mortuary, where they had cried three times "Lazarus come forth!" -- once with power+battery, once with power/no battery, and once with battery only -- but the machine remained alas unresponsive and would not "boot up" (in the colorful jargon of computer mavens). Such pity did overwhelm the Geeks that they refunded TOF's unrefundable give-it-a-try fee on the basis that they could not do jack and therefore deserved no jack. (O! Would that more vendors took similar attitudes.) 

"Let us go forth among the gentiles," said the Incomparable Marge, "and find a replacement for Faithful Companion!"

And so TOF approached the corpse with a yardstick to measure its screen. (Well, the yardstick was handy. What can I say.)  He flipped open the lid, measured the urim and thummin and the diagonal, turned away for a moment. Then he looked back and saw to his amazement, the device was booting itself. No buttons had been pressed. No one had cried "Erwache!" But there were the lines of DOS chiding all and sundry that the computer had previously been shut down in irregular wise. TOF agreed that spilling water thereon was indeed irregular. Then, Lo!, Starting Windows appeared and soon thereafter, the Desktop, apparently none the worse for wear.

Sore amazed, TOF stuck his fingers in the holes. Files were opened, intertubes accessed, functions tested. All appeared well. This is apparently a direct intervention by St. Isidore of Seville, patron saint of computers, and would surely qualify the dude for canonization were he not already among the ranks of the Elect. TOF sends a hearty, "Thanks, Izzy!" for his timely intervention. 

Faithful Companion is now to be renamed LAZARUS.
Flynn and friend in palmier days,
with a laptop on, of all places, his lap.

Friday, March 28, 2014

America's Next Top Model -- Part III

Top Models.  Let's sexualize kids.
What could possibly go wrong?
Resuming our discussion of modeling from Part I and Part II...

Recall that in his Nobel laureate speech, "The Pretence of Knowledge," Friedrich August von Hayek (the father, we may suppose, of Freddy September) pointed to organized complexity as a major issue in economics and similar fields:
Organized complexity... means that the character of the structures showing it depends not only on the properties of the individual elements of which they are composed, and the relative frequency with which they occur, but also on the manner in which the individual elements are connected with each other. In the explanation of the working of such structures we can for this reason not replace the information about the individual elements by statistical information, but require full information about each element if from our theory we are to derive specific predictions about individual events. Without such specific information about the individual elements we shall be confined to what on another occasion I have called mere pattern predictions - predictions of some of the general attributes of the structures that will form themselves, but not containing specific statements about the individual elements of which the structures will be made up. [Emph. added]
In classical thought, the part that depends on "the properties of the individual elements of which they are composed" is the material cause, a/k/a "reductionism." (The term 'matter' means simply the elements of which a thing is composed. Bricks are the matter of a wall.)

The part that depends on "the manner in which the individual elements are connected with each other" is the formal cause. In modern parlance this is sometimes called "emergent properties" because the whole system has the property while the individual elements do not.

In other words, it's the form (pattern, organization) that is the key to intelligibility. Given a set of interconnected elements X1, X2,... Xn, we cannot legitimately replace the specific Xs with X-bar as we may in cases of disorganized complexity. At best we would obtain only statistical conclusions about the entire system -- as we do in fact regarding quantum mechanics.

When there are only a few elements in the system, the scientist introduces simplifications: infinite Euclidean space, ideal gasses, perfectly elastic collisions, and the like. Arrhenius' law relating CO2 to temperature assumes the atmosphere extends to infinity. TOF read a joke - he has forgotten where - about using models to predict the SuperBowl, which is a sort of football game sometimes (but not this past year) played by two teams. In the punchline, the physicist says, "consider each player to be a perfectly elastic sphere on an infinite Euclidean field..." Mathematics tends to become ornery when bumping up against boundary values* and it is precisely at the extremes where many models pop their suspenders.
(*) boundary values. TOF has his old college text, Fourier Series and Boundary Value Problems, by Ruel Churchill, which he will someday nerve himself to re-read.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Disaster at Lunacon!

TOF was "special guest" at Lunacon this past weekend, and very special he was. He got to wear a ribbon like unto a prize steer at the stock show and had melons placed under his arms. In return, he sat upon certain Panels, picked a Winner at the Art Show, and started a presentation on THE GREAT PTOLEMAIC SMACKDOWN. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

TOF at Lunacon

TOF is "special guest" at Lunacon this weekend.  If you're near the RyeTown Hilton, here is his schedule AFAIK
  1. Fri 4:00 PM     Character Building     Bartell     Your clever plot twist or interesting theme will mean nothing if readers don't care about your characters. The panelists will discuss techniques to use to make sure your characters are memorable and that the story is about them.
  2. Fri 10:00 PM  Rules! Rules????? There are no Rules!     William Odelle     When writing fiction, if it works, it works. Our panel debates whether authors need to know "rules" that they can then break if they are good enough, or if this only constrains creativity.
  3. Sat 11:30 AM     Reading: Michael Flynn     Elijah Budd 
  4. Sat 2:00 PM     Alternate History That Isn't About War     William Odelle   Can't we imagine alternate history about something other than the outcomes of battles. Think of how history might have changed if certain IDEAS had formed differently or come at different times.
  5. Sat 3:00 PM     Magic and Religion     Westchester Ballroom A2   How do Magic and Religion intertwine?
  6. Sat 4:00 PM     Autographing: Michael Flynn     Westchester Assembly       
  7. Sun 1:00 PM  The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown     Westchester Ballroom B     How the heliocentric world replaced the geocentric one against all evidence and common sense.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

America's Next Top Model -- Part II

PREVIOUSLY, WE DISCUSSED the emergence during and after WW2 of model-building as a means for dealing with organized complexity, a distinction, first made in 1948 by Dr. Warren Weaver:
  1. Organized simplicity. Systems with few elements. Analyzed mathematically.
  2. Disorganized complexity. Systems with many elements acting "randomly." Analyzed statistically.
  3. Organized complexity. Systems with many interconnected elements. Analyzed with operations research/model-building methods.
George Box said that "all models are wrong" because of the uncertainties to which models are subject. Honest modelers are obligated to assess these uncertainties and to inform their clients of them. Alas, too few do, and models are presented, understood, and press-released as being more certain than they actually are.
Joe Martino tells TOF that "One of the most horrible examples I ever encountered was the use of a Cobb-Douglas Production Function to predict the effectiveness of bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail. When I first saw the model it fairly screamed 'wrong!' But the people who put it together saw nothing wrong with it."
And yet, these things have so many pretty equations they seem like they damn well ought to work. And they do, in some cases. Kingsbury Bearings has a model for hydraulic bearings that works well in predicting the performance of new bearing designs.* So what's the problem?  Operationally, what is the difference between a model that is "useful" and one that is "true"?

(*) hydraulic bearings. TOF digresses. At the entrance to the Kingsbury plant is a placard honoring the Kingsbury Bearing installed in Holtville #5 in 1912. TOF inquired of his hosts in the 1980s when he spent some time with them: "How long did it last?" "We don't know yet," was the response. "It's still running." As of 2008, Wikipedia tells us, it was still running with an estimated TTF of 1300 years. That's craftsmanship! It's also a system whose elements and interactions are pretty well understood.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Incomparable Marge

celebrates another birthday, and immediately Western Christendom goes into forty days of fasting and mourning.

Monday, March 3, 2014

What's Wrong With the Cosmos?

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey - Standing Up in the Milky Way
Season 1 Episode 1
Giordano Bruno's spiritual epiphany about the universe; a compressed version of the cosmic calendar.

'Nuff said.

New Story from Michael F. Flynn

 Greetings All.    Mike (Dad) has a new story in the July/August edition of Analog . I know Analog is available on Kindle store and Analog ...