Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cold Science

"After carefully adjusting his breather mask, Catz climbed down out of the lander. The great ship's repellers had worked well, in spite of the jury rigged repairs, and in the final seconds of the descent, when the turbines were blasting to slow the ship, only a little of the ice had melted. The water was now draining away in clear runnels, and the slight breeze was blowing the steam away. Catz looked around."

I checked Darwin's simulator. It was a cheap program I'd bought for pocket change off a street vendor's rack, so I wasn't hoping for much. But I did hope there was enough there to get some feedback from the great man - or at least a cheap facsimile of him. So far there had been no response, so I continued.

"The ice stretched as far as the eye could see. Catz hadn't expected to see much, not when he'd already surveyed the entire planet. This spot had seemed promising, though. Near the equator the ice should be thin enough to drill through to the ocean below."

"Young man, do you seriously expect me to do something with this story?"

Darwin's voice was strong, accented as you'd expect from someone who lived hundreds of years ago in the almost forgotten kingdom of Britain.

"Yup, I had hoped you could help in spots."

"But on what basis, sir? This is no world I am acquainted with."

"Can't you just use what you know of the north pole?"

"I never went there, so my knowledge of that place is mainly by hearsay. I am certain you can do better than that."

"What about the south pole?"

"The Beagle ran 'round Tierra del Fuego, but we did not seek to go south. No, at most I might rely on what I learned from my good friend Hooker of his travels, but again, that is hearsay."

"Well, damn. Could you at least just follow along and tell me what you think?"

"I can do that, if you think it would be of assistance," he said.

So I continued writing. I thought I had a good idea of what I wanted this world to look like. I just didn't want anything to be terribly wrong.

"Catz unlimbered the drill from the side of the lander and set it up. After an hour's work the bit was positioned on the ice, with the driver attached and suspended by cables from a tripod he had erected over his drill site. After double checking all the connections, he threw the switch that started the driver. With a whine the turbines set into motion. After a few moments the bit started to rotate, and with satisfaction Catz watched as it started to eat its way into the ice. A cloud of steam started to rise from the site, and Catz had to step back to avoid getting scalded.

As the drill vanished out of sight, Catz turned his attention to the readouts on the controller he had lashed to the tripod. The cables were five kilometers long, but the ice at this spot was supposed to be just two kilometers thick, so the cables should be long enough. The drill was moving at a good clip of 10 meters a minute, so it should break through the bottom in less than four hours. Catz returned to the inside of his lander to wait."

I prompted Darwin again.

"What do you think so far?"

"I do not know what to think. You are describing things for which I have no basis for judgment."

"Well, OK. I guess I'll just keep going, then."

"When the controls signaled him, Catz put his mask back on and returned to his drill hole. The drill had slowed down, and the steam billowing from the hole had thinned considerably. Suddenly the cables jerked, and the controls indicated breakthrough. Catz stopped the driver and activated the sensors in the drill. Then he returned into the lander to use the larger view screen there.

There was no light in the human visible range down there. That was to be expected. It was part of the thrill. Catz ran the sensor through the longer wave lengths. There were heat sources down there, of course. Catz used radar to map the ocean floor, and noted the hot spots on the map. When that was finished, he climbed into his diving armor.

At the drill hole, he attached friction rings to the cables to let himself down into the hole. He stepped off the edge and began his descent. He allowed his speed to increase to 100 m per minute before checking it. When his readouts indicated that he was reaching the bottom he slowed down, turned on his flood lights, and looked down. Below him the waters of the unnamed ocean formed a dark disk at the end of a brilliantly lit tube of ice."

"Excuse me," came Darwin's voice.

"I thought you didn't know anything about these things."

"You are correct, I don't know the machines you are describing. I have to assume they work as you say they do. However, is the ice you describe in your story water ice?"

"Yes, why?"

"Because I do know Archimedes' Principle. Once the drill broke through the ice, the water should have risen up the hole. In fact, the force at a depth of 2 km should have been on the order of 10,000 kg per square centimeter, quite enough to blast it out of the hole in a pretty fountain, unless your drill installed a valve at the bottom of the hole - assuming the ice didn't collapse into the drill hole before the drill could manage that."

I was impressed. When Darwin told me he didn't know this stuff, I was disappointed, but now it turned out that this little simulator was doing more than I had thought it could.

"Good point," I said. I changed the circle of dark water into a disk of metal, the top part of an airlock.

"Catz opened the airlock and climbed in. Minutes later he left by the bottom, and swam out into the ocean. The light projected by his suit lamps stabbed into the featureless darkness. He ran a sample of the water through the suit's analyzers. Nothing. Finally he oriented on the nearest hot spot on his map. He ran his suit's impellers up to their maximum rating, and watched as the infrared image swimming in his HUD grew larger. When he was within about one kilometer, he shut down the impellers again and drifted to a halt.

The heat seemed to be emanating from a volcano, fitfully squeezing its lava out into the supercooled water on the ocean bottom. Catz imagined the forces that must be at play down here. Nothing could live here, and yet...

He dialed up the sensitivity on his sensors and started scanning the vicinity. At a one-meter resolution he should be able to pick up what he was looking for, if it was here. If luck was with him... but an hour later found him jetting to the next hotspot.

Once he reached the next vent he restarted the scans. Almost immediately the HUD lit up with a bright spot about 500 meters from the vent. Could this be it? He finished his scan, but that one hit remained the only result. Catz started up his suit's impellers again and slowly drifted towards his target, at the same time slowly lowering himself towards the ocean floor. When he was just 10 meters up he stopped his descent. His suit lamps illuminated virgin ocean floor, covered with great coils of cooled lava. As the floor rose towards his target, so he ascended again, maintaining his altitude. Rounding a shoulder of tortured geology, his target came in range of his lamps.

Catz stopped. About 200 meters in front of him crouched a humongous creature. Its skin shimmered in reflected light, casting off rainbows of iridescence. A head almost the size of his landing craft at the end of a long and powerful neck began to turn in his direction. Catz hurriedly took the safeties off his weapons. When he felt the creature's eyes fasten on him, he let loose his first volley. The rockets streaked at their target, but halfway there a blast of brilliance erupted from the creature's great maw and struck the rockets. Their detonations rocked Catz in his suit. This beast was indeed what he had been promised it would be. The greatest game in the galaxy!"

"Excuse me?" came Darwin's voice.

"What's wrong now?" I asked. I never thought I'd feel defensive in front of a cheap computer program.

"Could you tell me who put that creature there on the ocean floor?"

"No one put it there, I guess. It's always lived there."

"How is that possible?"

"Huh? Didn't you write that evolution book, what, "Where Species Come From," or something like that?"

"Do you mean "On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection"? Yes, I published that book in 1859. But this world you are describing shows no evidence of evolution."

"What do you mean? Are you saying those people who say you recanted evolution on your deathbed are right?"

"No, those people lie. But even if they told the truth, it would mean nothing to the theory of evolution, which is not affected by a dying man's fears. All species on Earth arose by evolution, but I see no reason to suppose that evolution produced this monster you are describing, not on this world, in any event."

"How do you mean that?"

"To start with, it's the only living thing you have described. Evolution happens when you have many individuals, enough to show a range of variability, all living in the same environment. Finally, there should be no entirely uninhabited environments, unless they are totally hostile to life, and even then I expect living creatures to encroach on the margins."

I considered Darwin's advice for a while. Then I decided to ignore it. It'd be too much trouble, and in the end it wasn't worth it.

"I suppose you're right. Someone must have brought the dragon there," I said, and continued my story.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Fancypants Wilson had to be the strangest kid in fifth grade. "Call me Fancypants," he'd told everyone. We'd looked at his perfectly ordinary jeans. Mark had to ask the obvious question.


"Cuz everyone calls me that," he'd said, and kinda grinned. Mrs Jacobs didn't like the entire business.

"Jimmy," she'd said - that was his actual name, Jimmy Wilson - "Jimmy, that's not a nice thing to call people, so I don't want anyone calling you that."

Apparently that was news to Fancypants.

"Why isn't it nice?" he wanted to know.

Mary started to giggle.

"Mary, settle down," Mrs Jacobs said. "Jimmy, it's not nice because..."

I think at this point Mrs Jacobs realized she was about to say something potentially hurtful, and, miracles of miracles, she shut up. After a moment she recovered.

"...because you have such a nice regular name, and I think people ought to use that, instead," she said. And smiled. A bit forced. Some of us knew from experience what that smile meant: a call from Mrs Jacobs.

Fancypants didn't argue with Mrs Jacobs, and he continued to introduce himself as Fancypants. Me and my friends often made fun of him behind his back, but something about him kept us from teasing him openly. Some of the other kids, however, regularly tried to get a rise out of him.

One of the worst was Reggie. He should have been in sixth grade, but he had been held back. My mom told me that he'd probably have been OK, that he was just upset about being held back, but I thought he probably would have been mean in sixth grade, too. In fifth grade he was worse, because he was bigger than most of us.

I had been going back to class from the cafeteria when I noticed that some boys had formed a small crowd off in a side hallway. They were laughing and jeering. Out of curiosity I went over to see what was going on. Reggie had cornered Fancypants, and he was giving him a wedgie.

"Let me go!" Fancypants yelled. He shoved at Reggie, but Reggie was too strong. Reggie had Fancypants in a kind of choke hold, and already had a hold of Fancypant's waistband and was pulling with all his might.

"Don't look so fancy to me," Reggie jeered. "Let's see how fancy they get if I pull harder."

There was a tearing sound. The waistband had ripped from Fancypants' shorts. With another laugh Reggie shoved Fancypants to the ground.

"They sure tear easy," he said. "Not so fancy, are they?"

Fancypants didn't say anything. He sat on the ground, his head down. He endured another shove from Reggie's foot, and then Reggie left. With him the drama was gone, and the rest of us left, too, leaving Fancypants sitting on the floor in the corner of the hallway.

Fancypants didn't come to class after lunch that day. Mrs Jacobs didn't say anything about it, so we all figured he'd told her what had happened. However, when Fancypants came back to school the next day, and Reggie's abuse continued unabated, we realized that he must have come up with a different excuse.

It went on like that for weeks. We wondered why Reggie had it in for Fancypants, but none of us came up with a plausible reason. None of us dared tell Mrs Jacobs or our parents, either. There was something about this confrontation, something primal, that warned us off.

Mary Sawsworthy Elementary School is built on a rise overlooking the Nenderplat River, named by some Dutch pioneers, according to our civics lessons. It was a wide, shallow tributary of the Missoury, and every winter by Christmas it froze over solid. This year had been warmer than usual, and it wasn't until well into January that the ice was finally thick enough that Sheriff Ryder removed the "Danger! Keep off!" signs. After school saw us all out on the ice that evening. Some of us had brought skates, because we'd watched Achin Jones pull his home made ice polishing machine up and down a stretch just above the freeway bridge.

Even Fancypants was out there. He was a good skater, but he skated by himself. I don't think he had any friends. Reggie was the closest to a constant companion he had, but Reggie didn't skate. Perhaps Fancypants thought that this evening he'd be spared the petty torments Reggie thought up, but eventually he showed up at our impromptu rink, together with some of his pals. They first tried stealing the hats of kids skating past, but then Reggie noticed Fancypants.

"Heyyyy! It's Fancypants!" he shouted and pointed. Fancypants stopped his skating, as if he noticed Reggie and his band for the first time. Then he seemed to panic. He took off running, digging the tips of his skates into the ice until he had speed, and then rapidly made distance up river. He was fast! Reggie took off after him, like a dog might chase a fleeing rabbit.

"Get him!" he shouted. His crew followed him, loyal pack animals they were.

The river runs straight by the town, but after the wide and shallow part it narrows quickly. We knew not to go there, but Fancypants soon reached the dangerous part. He skated to the edge of the ice, climbed on shore, and looked back. Reggie and his friends were far behind, but kept running, yelling curses. Reggie was far in the lead.

Fancypants took off his skates and ran up the hill. Behind him Reggie had reached the unsafe ice, and we all watched from the distance as he seemed to stumble to a halt. Then he just disappeared. His friends stopped, threw up their arms and started yelling.

"He fell in!"

Up on the hill, Fancypants stopped and looked back. Then he came running back down the hill. We watched as he ran out on the ice, yelling at Reggie's friends. As we watched, the boys formed a chain, Fancypants at the lead, lying on the ice. Then Reggie's head appeared, and the boys inched back, pulling Reggie out of the water.

At this point adults were running out to the scene. They collected the soaking Reggie and rushed back up the hill. Fancypants also returned up the hill, where he collected the skates he had dropped. The rest of us also went home. Somehow it didn't seem right to continue skating after that little drama.

The next day school was abuzz. What would happen between Fancypants and Reggie now? All of us agreed Fancypants had saved Reggie's life. So when Fancypants walked into class, and Reggie was still standing by the door chatting with some friends, the entire room fell silent, watching to see what Reggie would say.

Reggie stopped his conversation. He walked up to Fancypants and stood before him.

"Hey, Fancypants," he said.

"Hi," Fancypants said.

Then Reggie stepped forward, grabbed Fancypants' pants by the belt loops, and yanked down.

"Pantsed!" he shouted gleefully. He turned around and high fived his friends, all howling with laughter. As they went laughing to their seats in the back of the class, Fancypants pulled up his pants, his head down, but he couldn't hide the red of his ears.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Near the Top of Skyladder Eight

Near the top of Skyladder Eight the Earth looms overhead, too large to block out with a single hand span, but far enough away that Lia could see all of the planet at once. Lia loved to come out here and just lie on her back atop her small shelter, looking up at it.

"You ought to come inside, pateta" Mapi would call to her whenever he caught her at it. "It's not safe out there."

"I'm fine," she'd say. "It's safer out here than in there."

Mapi never got used to it. He wanted walls around him. Lia loved the emptiness.

When they first arrived, their super senhora Kato, a small woman from Japan whose Portuguese was barely intelligible so she talked to them in English, told them that if they managed to fall off the shelter, they'd probably not be retrieved again.

"Here your acceleration from Earth away almost Earth surface acceleration," she said. "Too much energy to launch rescue."

Lia never forgot her tether, but even with a tether Mapi only went out when it was his turn to run the spiders.

Today it had been her turn, but now the spiders were safely stowed in their cocoons and Lia was taking a break. Far above her a bright light started to flash. The ribbon of the Skyway wasn't visible from this far away, but capsules launched from there needed to signal ahead so that workers and spiders had time to get out of the way. She checked the schedule. This capsule was going to pass them in an hour or so, going about 500 km per hour.

"Hoy, Mapi," she said.

"Now what?" he replied after a moment.

"Capsule in an hour."


"What's the problem?"

Lia heard a click, then Mapi's voice again.

"Bibi, capsule in 45!"

"Shit," was Bibi's reply. "My spider is still stuck. Hey, do you suppose Lia could lend a hand?"

"What's the problem?" Lia repeated, this time for Bibi's benefit.

"One of the spiders got hung up somehow. I've been trying to cut it loose, but I don't have very good skills."

Lia was already in motion. Cursing capsule launch control under her breath, she hurried back to the waldo rig. She strapped herself in and launched a connection at Bibi's net.

"I'm coming over," she said. "Can you pick me up and put me on the stuck spider?"

"Sure," Bibi said.

Lia's vision swum for a moment, then cleared. She checked her status. Leg number 6 wasn't disconnecting, for some reason. Visual inspection showed no damage, but the leg wasn't responding. Lia found Bibi had already brought out a cutter, but leg number 5 was holding it. Bibi was amazingly clumsy when it came to understanding how spiders moved. She switched the cutter from number 5 to number 7 and then to number 8, and started cutting the leg free. Bibi would have to repair this stretch after the capsule passed.

"Bibi, did you already let CLC know that there's a problem?"

"No. Do you think that's necessary?"

Lia sighed to herself. If Bibi asked her, then it meant he already had his black mark for the pay period, and couldn't risk another. This was really a problem with CLC, but if Bibi didn't dare mention it then no one would know that they messed up. Again.

"Never mind. I'll do it, without bringing you into it," Lia told him.

"What are you going to do, pateta?" Mapi wanted to know.

"We can't have CLC launching capsules off schedule and without notice," she told him. "I'll lodge a complaint. I'll tell them I was late with the spiders, and had to hurry because of them."

"They'll check the logs," Mapi reminded her.

"They'll find that the spiders were not put away until thirty minutes before the capsule showed up," Lia told him. "That's a simple thing to do."

"They'll also find that you took them out after the launch."

"Since they didn't give notice, they can't very well blame me," Lia said.

Bibi's spider was free, and she passed control over to him.

"Thanks, I owe you," he said. Lia disconnected from Bibi's net, and hooked up to her own spiders. A few minutes later she was herding them across the ladder. Ten minutes later the spiders were again safely cocooned.

"Um, Lia?" Mapi sounded worried.


"I think you missed the capsule's launch. It'll be here in five."

"Impossible!" But when she looked up the flashing lights on the capsule were already bright enough to trigger protective opaquing on her lenses.

"Are you cocooned?" Lia asked.

"I'm getting strapped in, now," Mapi said. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to hold on for dear life," Lia told him.

She imagined she could feel the ribbons hum around her as they stretched in response to the hurtling capsule. She checked her straps. All were tight. She was going to get hit with six gees of brief acceleration, about like falling out of a six story building. In a cocoon it was no problem. Strapped up like this out here, it was very much an issue. Straps didn't distribute the acceleration across enough surface area. Her bones would snap like twigs. She tried to align herself as best she could with one of the ribbons holding the waldo rig, hoping the force wouldn't kill her. Maiming would be bad enough.

The capsule's lights were almost on her, and she shut her eyes, just before she was struck by a crushing blow.

When she regained consciousness, Mapi's worried face swum over her.


She tried to say yes, but only a croak came from her throat.

"Deus seja louvado!" Mapi breathed with relief. Then he collected himself.

"Both arms broken in two places, both shoulders dislocated, broken collarbones. No internal injuries. You'll be patched up as good as new in no time. Pateta."

Lia didn't try to say anything this time. It hurt to smile, just a little, and she closed her eyes again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Going Home

It's getting on quitting time, which I notice mostly because my coworkers are packing up and saying good night. I find that I'm at a good stopping point, myself, so I save my work and shut down the computer. I pack my bag, adding a book I've been reading off and on at work, pull on my hat and coat, and say good bye to Eric and Marlen who're still working on something. Across the hall some folks are still standing around and chatting. Outside looks stormy for a moment, before I realize it's just some quality of the evening light.

My stomach is griping me a little. I blame the soda I've been drinking, especially the Dr. Pepper. For some reason that brand always gives me an acid stomach. I dig a piece of chewing gum from my pocket, hoping that'll help a little.

I manage to cross Wakara Way once again without getting run over. There's no orange flag to wave at cars, since a storm early this winter managed to blow them all into the gutter, and heaven only knows where they are now, but the setting sun is blocked by clouds, so drivers have no trouble seeing me in the cross walk and stop. Another coworker, Jim, is already waiting at the bus stop, looking all GQ in his cardigan pullover. The bus won't show up for another ten or fifteen minutes, by which time I can already be at the Trax stop on South Campus. I give Jim a smile and a "See you tomorrow," and lengthen my stride.

My arm bounces a little painfully at my side. My shoulder is doing better all the time, but today it's been kind of sore. I've taken Tylenol in the morning as well as at noon. I think I better take it easy with the exercises tonight.

The snow on the lawn by the Orthopedic Center has melted to a thin remainder. It is tattooed with the tunnels of small animals who have been living under there all winter. The weather reports had predicted a slight chance of snow or rain yesterday and today, but it doesn't look like it'll happen at all. However, as I look across the valley I see downtown is blanketed by a low hanging cloud. Well, at least it's not smog. What pathetic weather we're having seems to have cleaned up the air a little.

I make good time to the corner of Mario Capecci Drive, where I cross the street and climb across the Madsen Clinic's front lawn, walk through the Boy Scouts' parking lot, and end up at the Trax stop at about eighteen minutes past five. Now I can only cross my fingers. In the morning I can get from home to work in less than an hour, using public transit, but going home in the evening is an entirely different matter. Maybe today things will work out a little better. The timing needs to be just right.

The Sandy - University line shows up just as I make it to the platform, heading up to the hospital. I scan my pass at the RFID reader and make my way down to the shelter for the line headed downtown. All the seats are already occupied. As the Sandy - University train continues on its way I turn around and see a train headed our way from the hospital. When it gets close enough to read the destination, I'm pleased to see this is my train. I get on, find a seat, and settle down to read my book. It's a collection of short stories by Gordon R. Dickson, titled The Star Road.

From time to time I look out the window to make sure I don't miss my stop. When the train is passing Trolley Square I remember to text Elysa to let her know I'm on my way home. Once the train leaves the Temple Square station I put away the book and make my way to the door. I have to be careful, since the train's ride is not terribly smooth, and I can't use my right arm to catch myself. That would be bad. But I can't just wait in my seat, because sometimes the stop is too short, and by the time I'm at the door the conductor has already shut the doors. That happened just yesterday, in fact, when I waited to long to get going.

The clock at the Arena station shows forty-one minutes past five when I get off the train. Now I need to hurry to the RFID reader to scan my card again. Luckily the cross walk light says walk for me just as I get there. I hurry along Third West past the Triad Center where KSL has their broadcast facilities, and get to North Temple just in time to push the "Walk" button. Seconds later I'm on the other side of the street, waiting for the light to let me cross to the next corner where the bus stop is.

When I get there I remember that I should get this week's issue of City Weekly, for which there is a dispenser right there. I get a copy out of the graffiti covered box, and when I look up the 520 just pulls up to the stop. I join the line of people getting on. The woman in front of me wants to know if that bus will get her to Redwood Road. The driver tells her she should wait for 517. When she gets out of my way I get on, and as I swipe my card past the reader I tell the driver, "I'm too impatient to wait for 517."

Instead of reading more of The Star Road I now read the City Weekly. Tom Morrow's cartoon often is funny, but this time it's some bit about Obama and Lieberman. It reminds me of when three decades ago I would hear people in Utah complain about Tip O'Neal, who was speaker of the House at the time. There is also an editorial about cigarette smoking, riffing on how people used to think it was cool, but not so much now. The writing is OK, but the subject isn't very interesting.

All the while the bus makes its way along the Ninth West corridor towards the north end of Rosepark. As it bounces across the streets I'm trying hard not to get tossed out of my seat, holding on to the newspaper with my right hand, and onto the bar over the seatback in front of me with my left. Reading always makes the time pass quickly, and I almost miss the place where I need to signal for my stop. However, I'm not the only one getting off, as a young fellow in a bicycle helmet retrieves his bike from the rack on the front of the bus. As I walk up 1000 North past the Day Riverside library, he passes me.

I'm now noticing the air. It has a kind of soupy smell to it, and I wonder if something is going on. It wouldn't be the first time that bad smells had been released into the neighborhood. If it isn't the water treatment plant a mile north from there, then it's one of the refineries a bit further along. But this time the smell isn't like any of those.

I reach Redwood Road, again with perfect timing. A few seconds after I push the button to cross, the light turns. I head south along Redwood Road. The air is cold, and the moisture is freezing out in tiny crystals of ice. They tickle my face, and at one point they are thick enough in the air that I can see them swirling and sparkling in the light of a street lamp. Very pretty!

As I pass Escalante Elementary School I text Elysa again that I'll be home soon. I think about how not so very long ago I would never have considered texting a trivial piece of information like that, but my current cell phone plan has unlimited texting, so why not?

The marquee in front of the school says it's just nine minutes past six. That is pretty much the fastest I've ever gotten home by bus!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

Back in 1957, a year before I was born, B.F. Skinner published a little book titled Verbal Behavior. In it he argued that human language was nothing but another behavior which was produced by operant conditioning, the kind of training he had demonstrated to turn pigeons into expert bombardiers, or make rats afraid of dark spaces.

Set against this was Noam Chomsky's book Syntactic Structures, which was published in the same year. In it, Chomsky argued that language was the product of a set of rules, called transformational grammars. To demonstrate his point he came up with this sentence: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

It looks like a sentence that's been thrown together in a hurry. It uses two adjectives, plus an adverb. A good writer would put a bit more effort into it. "Racism had fallen asleep for the first time. I'll do this right, it thought to itself. Sleep is not to be done lackadaisically. So racism put all of its effort into the matter. Its hypothalamus was soon sparking, and the nucleus of the solitary tract quivered with excitement."

But of course, Chomsky's point wasn't the meaning of the sentence. His point was the rarity of the sentence. As I pointed out, a good writer would not have said it that way, but even a poor writer was highly unlikely to ever have said such a thing. This was owing to Chomsky's choice of words. He reasoned that words such as colorless and green would not be juxtaposed, and that such an insubstantial thing as an idea would not be associated with such material properties as a color, or lack thereof, not to mention both at once. Nor would ideas sleep. The activity of sleep had been associated with a variety of descriptors, including dreamlessly, deeply, fitfully, restlessly, restfully, etc, but fury, a state of intensely aggressive emotional arousal, was unlikely to ever have occurred to someone writing or speaking of sleeping.

Skinner was premising his book in part on Claude Shannon's theory of language, published in the 1948 paper A Mathematical Theory of Communication. Shannon had found that, given one word to start with, some words were more likely to follow than others. This was known as a Markov chain. Skinner thought that, as people grow from childhood, they hear the words spoken by the adults around them. These words establish for them the order in which the words are to be used, along with the sense they bear.

Chomsky's view of things was instead that, look if I can make a sentence that clearly no one has said before, then the process has to be something like a set of general rules that may be used to produce new stuff.

Chomsky's theory has since been expanded. Most brain anatomists believe that the human brain consists of discrete parts. To produce language, some bits of the brain are used to create grammatically correct sentences, while other bits map words to meaning. Some other parts are responsible for transporting the result to the muscles of the mouth, throat, and chest for speaking, or to the muscles of the hand for writing. Conversely, when understanding speech different areas of the brain decode the sound into phonemes, construct words, assign meanings from context, fit grammar, and finally arrive at a sense for the entire speech. Reading passes visual perception to areas responsible for decoding symbols to the parts that assign meaning without necessarily ever producing any sort of unheard speech.

This separation of brain ability is demonstrable in stroke patients. Depending on the location of the damage, such a patient may be unable speak or understand spoken language, or both, read or write, or both, retrieve particular words, remember the names of people or things, hear language, or comprehend music or complex conversations. Since these symptoms are consistent with the location of the damage from one patient to the next, language psychologists now divide language comprehension and language production into discrete tasks. Each of these tasks is hosted by a specific area of the brain, and when that area is damaged the ability to perform that task may be affected.

Chomsky believed that children who are learning to speak are merely activating these various areas in the way they've been wired together. Hearing sounds, the brain learns the range of phonemes that are important in language. Hearing words, a particular structure of the brain assigns meaning from context. Hearing sentences, other parts of the brain discover how the grammar works. A child doesn't need to first hear something before saying it. Instead the brain learns how to do its job for a given language, and then goes ahead and does it.

This of course leaves a number of problems unanswered.

For example, how does a child who speaks more than one language learn to distinguish them from each other? Bilingual children do not generally confuse which language they are using. A child speaking both Russian and Hebrew will not mix Russian words into Hebrew sentences, nor toss Hebrew words into a Russian sentence. Nor will the child speak using Hebrew words but Russian grammar, or using Russian words but Hebrew grammar. Also, while an adult who learns a new language speaks it without a foreign accent only with great difficulty, a bilingual child will speak each language with a native speaker's accent.

How is all this possible? Language theorists have to assume that the brain structures that support these functions can support multiple languages, as well, but it is difficult to see how the evolutionary history of the species can explain this ability. Most evolutionary psychologists suggest that these kinds of abilities, just like the ability to read or write or do complex math (which also use specific brain structures which arguably cannot have evolved for those purposes), use brain structures that originally supported some entirely different behavior. But it is an admittedly unsatisfactory cop-out, not much better than that used by the last adherents to Skinner's theory. In fact, while computer programs are being successfully used to understand and produce natural language using Markov chains, none yet manage it nearly so well using Chomsky's theory of language production.

So human language has some tantalizing explanations, but at this time large parts of it are still open to revision as new things are discovered.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rocky Part I

Cham's grandfather and grandmother built the house over two hundred years ago, when they came to Madrid and settled the valley. It was nestled in the arms of an extinct volcano he called Old Man, because the craggy cliffs seen from the South had the profile of a hawkish nose and beetling brows. Old Man had been extinct for over a million years, and its sagging slopes were dense with trees and undergrowth. Most of it was from Earth, and hence green, but in places the purple and orange of the native plants broke through. The result was, in Cham's opinion, more otherworldly looking than if Earth's growth had been absent, and only Madrid's plants had cloaked the mountain's flanks.

Cham was trudging up the mountain's side, chopping through the brush with his machete where it got too tangled. He was carrying, besides his provisions for a three day journey, the geoprobe the survey team had dropped off yesterday. His grandfather was busy bringing in the cattle. He had hired two extra hands, but they required supervision. That left Cham to deal with this new and unwelcome chore.

"Yo, pops," he said. After a moment his phone answered.

"'Sup, Cham?" His father's voice from orbit. It was nice to have him to talk to without a lag of minutes or even hours. Cham wondered if his mother was back, too. He might call her later.

"Just passing the time. I'm running an errand for Lieutenant Walker, you know, the new guy on the survey team? He showed up today with a probe he wants me to run up Old Man."

"Why didn't he run it up himself?"

"That's what I'm talking about," Cham said. "He's new, and he has a pretty high opinion of himself."

"Isn't your grandpa bringing in the cattle this week?"

"Yup. He hired a couple guys out of Midtown, but they can't be trusted to do it on their own, so he's out there riding herd on them."

"I hope he watches himself. Without you around to rescue him, would those hands help if something went wrong?"

"No idea. I told him to make a fresh backup, just in case, though. Right after I made mine."

"Huh. Do you have any idea why the survey team has a bug up their ass?"

"No. And Mister Lieutenant High and Mighty Walker wasn't telling, either, even though I asked. He said just do it, and left."

"Well, be careful. Even with a backup it's a pain when something happens. I'm speaking from experience."

"Sure, pops, thanks."

Their conversation drifted off to less consequential things, and eventually Cham said good bye and the phone cut off. Cham brought in a stream of music and continued up the mountain. A stretch of purple Madridian growth blocked his path, and he looked for a way around. He didn't trust himself to be able to tell what was safe to chop, and what should be left alone. Madridian plants produced some saps that people were wildly allergic to.

He had to climb up out of the cut he'd been following. The climb left him breathless. He pulled himself along as scree and gravel rolled out from under his feet, but eventually he stood on a narrow neck of rock that connected to one of the few barren spots on the mountain side, where a recent slide had produced a fan of dirt and gravel and plant debris.

Above him loomed the ancient columns of basalt surrounding the collapsed crater of Old Man. He could cross the debris field and be there by evening, or he could attempt to find a way around, and spend an extra day on the mountain. He called up a recent orbital photo and overlayed a topgraphical map. The photo did not show the slide, so for this part of the mountain the map and the photo were no pretty much useless.

Cham decided to risk it. He picked a path through the boulders at the base of the slide, and soon found himself climbing across mounds of gravel. Here and there trees stuck up through the mess, some still holding on to wilting green or purple. Cham didn't dare trust them to hold his weight. There was no telling when the unconsolidated ground might shift, and a support might suddenly turn and smash a limb.

Uncounted hills of gravel and several close calls later, Cham found himself at the foot of the cliffs. He had been planning on using a path his grandfather had mapped out years ago, but that path now started almost two hundred meters above where he stood, and sheer basalt lay between.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Nonsequitur with cold medicine

Outside it was snowing again. I pulled my jacket closer around my shoulders. The thermostat was turned up to 80, but it still felt cold. My nose seemed to be running again. I got a precautionary tissue from the dispenser, drank some more tea, and blew my nose. After popping a couple of day-time cold capsules, I got back to the task at hand.

A distributor in Wisconsin was complaining that his order hadn't arrived. Why didn't he check the tracking himself? I sighed, looked up the number, and checked the status. The shipment was stuck in Nebraska, and judging from the weather reports, it wasn't budging today. I emailed Mark, the fellow waiting in Milwaukee.

"Too much snow in Omaha," I said. "Have a beer on me."

"Thanks, I'm LDS," Mark emailed back.

Last Day Sober? Liver Disease Sickness? Did he misspell LSD? I wasn't sure what Mark meant, so I left it at that. I hoped he was taking a taxi home. My nose was running again, and I went for another tissue. My waste basket was looking pretty full.

While I was rummaging in the closet for a new waste basket liner, the phone rang.

"AAA Shipping, this is Mike," I answered.

"Mike, did you get my note about today's meeting?"

It was the boss. Did he read my email this morning, the one where I told him I was too sick to come in, and that I'd be working from home today?

"Yes, I did," I said.

"Well, it starts in 30 minutes. Where are you?"

He'd called me at home, not on my cell phone, so that obviously was a rhetorical question.

"Sorry, Jim," I said. "I'm in line for the Dead Horse lift, and I don't want to lose my place."

Jim isn't stupid, so he caught on right away.

"I know it's nice weather for skiing, but you could have picked a better day," he told me.

"And miss all the pretty girls?" I asked. A sneeze attacked out of nowhere, and I barely managed to grab a tissue.

"Well, take pictures," Jim said. "I'll make up some excuse for you."

"Thanks," I told him. "I owe you one."

After I hung up I noticed three more emails had arrived. The waste basket liner had somehow ended up on the floor under my desk, and I crawled after it before dealing with the new messages. The cold medicine was kicking in, and my sinuses drained with an audible flush.

"Enter Subject" was the subject of the next message. I assumed it was sent using some kind of smart phone, where it was too much trouble to enter a subject.

"12 crates on loading dock, 10 ordered," was the entirety of the text. I had no way of knowing which order that was referring to. The message came from robx3255 at a generic mobile provider's address. He wasn't in my contact list, either. Past experience said that asking for an order ID would result in endless frustration as a variety of random character strings would be sent, none of which matched an actual order. I flagged the email and skipped to the next message, hoping inspiration would strike in the next ten minutes.

This time it was my mom. I should have never let her know my email address.

"Michael," it started. She always calls me that.

I like Mike. All my friends call me Mike. But to Mom I'm Michael. She hates the name Mike. "It's barely better than Mickey," she'd told me once. I didn't tell her that my fondest dream had been to have my friends call me Mickey. Mickey Mouse. Mickey Spillane. Mickey Mantle. That was a cool name. I never had the guts to tell my friends, though, so I was Mike. I often wondered what she'd have said if I had managed to get people to call me Mickey.

"Your dad wants to ask you about Sunday evening. Are you at home or at work?" She doesn't like to call my cell, ever since I told her about minutes.

"I have a thousand minutes in my plan," I told her. "Most months I use less than half." But Mom still worries that she'll use up all my minutes.

"I'm at home," I replied.

Next was a short confirmation from Jay in Albuquerque. The shipment was complete and signed off. I made a note in the database.

My dad called.

"Are we still on?" he wanted to know.

"Sure. Is there anything you want me to bring?"

"No, I think I've got all we need. Just be careful. It's supposed to snow again."

I knew that. I told him so and after we said good bye I hung up.

No new messages, and one waiting for inspiration. I emailed Jim.

"Do you know someone who sends smart phone messages as robx3255?"

His reply came immediately.

"Sorry, I'm in a meeting. If you need immediate assistance, email Mike."

That's right. The meeting. So much for having him check his contacts.

I opened the email from robx3255 again.

"Thanks for your note," I wrote. "I'm currently away from my desk. If you need immediate assistance, email Jim."

I'd have to owe Jim twice.