Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Don't Believe Me

"My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

Watching a Q.I. Episode from two years ago, I laughed as Stephen Fry tried to convince his panel about the nature of gravity ... specifically that the bullet fired from a level gun will hit the ground at the same time as a bullet simultaneously dropped from the other hand (discussion begins at 18:40 into the video).

Fry rightly begins by saying that his panel won't believe him; then adds that he can't quite believe it himself, though he knows it to be true.  What follows is the usual amount of doubt that is to be expected, which carries on intermittently for the remainder of the program.

Something that must be understood with knowledge is that the more you know, the weirder the universe becomes.  This is not just true of physics and biology - it is true of everything.  As you approach the hard facts about things, the more difficult it becomes to reconcile those facts with things you once took for granted when you were ignorant.

I'll give another example, one that is close to my heart.  I live in a city - Calgary - that is understood by geologists to sit in an area of "low" seismic activity, as indicated by this map:


Calgary is in the dark green area covering the upper left corner.  For most people, low seismic would suggest an absence of earthquakes, or at least that an earthquake occurred infrequently.  Certainly, by the dates indicated on the maps of big earthquakes, it would seem Calgary hasn't had an earthquake since the province was explored around the 1860s (no date is indicated).

As it happens, however, Calgary experiences between two and three hundred earthquakes per day.  They really do.  I've watched the seismograph that used to be kept in the basement of what was Gulf Canada Square (when I worked there in the 80s), and seen the earthquakes happening.  I was assured it was not "traffic" or some other man-created phenomena.

These earthquakes occur so low upon the richter scale (in the neighborhood of 1.1 to 1.3) that they're undetectable.  The earth doesn't shake.  Buildings don't collapse.  People don't "feel" anything ... or so they think.  Sometimes, if you live here and you know what's happening, you can get a feeling of nausea that lasts less than a second; the higher you are, the more evident the feeling is.  Of course, people have no idea where it came from, and presume it is something in them.

There's other evidence for the occurrence of these earthquakes, but the evidence is overlooked or misunderstood.  Calgary's streets and sidewalks are in a constant state of repair; people here view that as a sign that the city is responsible, and that they're replacing old streets from a desire to keep the city modern and neat.  Sometimes, it is supposed the cold weather cracks the pavement.  The culprit is constant daily vibration.  Edmonton, 180 miles north of here, and Regina, 500 miles east, do very well with paving that manages to hold up for thirty or forty years - even though the weather is in fact colder.  Calgary needs new paving on its major streets every ten.

I knew an artist who moved to Calgary from Edmonton who could not understand why her pictures would not hang straight.  She had hundreds of pictures, which studded her house.  In Edmonton, she never had any trouble ... but since moving to Calgary, she constantly had to straighten her pictures.  She could not understand it.

Sometimes, if you load dishes into a sink all higgledy-piggledy, and leave them, they'll sit for hours without moving.  Then suddenly they'll shift, dropping in place.  People around here are apt to say a dish "lost its grip."  My mother used to say that.  It's ridiculous, of course, but ordinary human observation doesn't allow for a better explanation.

I have tried to explain hundreds of times to people who live here this simple reality about their environment, but of course most don't believe me.  Why should they?  Their experience doesn't account for movements of the earth they can't feel in their toes.   Therefore, by definition, the earth does NOT move.

As I say, all knowledge is like this.  The more you know, and the more you talk about what you know, the crazier and crazier you appear to other people.  That is why I've argued that Dr. Seuss's book, Horton Hears A Who, is really about a scientist who has discovered something that others believe doesn't exist, that Horton is nuts, and that the matter must be crushed from everyone's mind, lest they be polluted  (the horrendous movie, predictably, missed this point and was thus dreck).

I am duty bound to provide a D&D example.  This is a D&D blog, and those who read me regularly know that I will eventually drag this jaunt around the barn back to the subject at hand.  It follows that D&D is something about which knowledge can be gained.  I argue that knowledge about D&D also possesses that circumstance described above.  If you know something more than the ordinary player about this game, the ordinary player will think you're full of shit.

Yes, yes, this all seems like a clever bait-and-switch.  A number of gentle readers will by now have their tongue firmly stuck in their cheek, waiting for the cheap, cruddy bit of knowledge I've built this argument up to justify.  Really, it is as if I couldn't simply write a post saying, "Orcs are fucking stupid," and add to that, "Shove it up your ass if you don't agree."  After all, this is all that 98.5% of blogs do (you can rely on that statistic), albeit more politely.  I'm not duty bound to prove anything to my audience in a field where most don't bother ... and in any case, I presume my reader is intelligent enough to know what bullshit looks like.

Look, I know I'm smarter than a lot of people.  I know because there are books full of proven, actual knowledge, and because I believe those books.  Most don't.  When they don't, I'm quite aware of how stupid they are.  Anyone knowing a bit about physics, geology, math or medicine knows very clearly how profoundly fucking stupid people really, really are.

After 33 years of playing this game, and 29 years of hearing A LOT of praise for my world and my ability to DM, from many, many people, I know I'm good at this.  I work hard at it and I'm critical and cynical enough that I'm uncomfortable with taking things at face value.  I don't trust face value, anymore than I trust people who think a earthquake only exists when it's described as 5.0 or more.  Ever wonder why you never hear on the news, "An earthquake of 2.1 struck Memphis today ..."

No, I suppose most don't.

Ah, fuck it.  A D&D example:

I've said it before, without the preamble.  D&D should not be played for laughs.  It can be played for laughs ... and if you've never played it any other way, it will seem like playing it for laughs feels exactly right.  If that's your whole experience, you'll crow about your playing-it-for-fun game until your brain pops free from your butt and goes to market for toilet paper.  You'll never guess that you're wrong, because you've got shit for brains and brown seems like a damn good color.

"Fun" - for those who don't know it - is measured in little blobs of chemical released into your brain.  They're nice blobs ... they make you feel nice.  But they're just one kind of blob your brain has on tap.  Where it comes down to what you could feel, you haven't begun to break open bottles at your personal built-in pharmacy.  You've got fear, terror, pride and a hundred other manic hypos ready to launch straight into your cortex.  Delusion, confidence, bravery, dependence, brilliance and a whole mess of certifiable paranoias just wait to be injected into your game ... but you haven't got a clue how that's done, because over and over you just keep going back to that bottle marked eff-you-en.  You poor, ignorant sap, you.

1 comment:

JDJarvis said...

A coworker and I were speaking about time and the nature of time (or so I thought) and I started going on about some reading I'd done on the topic and I suddenly realized my coworker and I weren't having the same discussion and likely never would be able to.
We are not all going to remember the same yesterdays (personal experience aside) and surely not find fun (or distraction) in the same things.Understanding our limits and a lot of what surrounds us isn't something a lot of people will ever have fun with and certainly don't want to be distracted by.