On destruction, knowledge, and posting while drinking too much.

I have this tendency to think that I don’t like comic books. Then every so often I’ll wander the internet reading comics that I like… so clearly there’s nothing about the medium itself that I dislike. I suppose what I really don’t like is the sort of “comic book culture”, that’s grown around mainstream comics, mostly Marvel and DC.

Plus the superhero genre really doesn’t do much for me.

But there are comics that I like, and most of them are freely available on the internet. I’ve mentioned Girl Genius, probably my favorite, before, and another excellent example is The Order of the Stick, a Dungeons and Dragons based fantasy with a remarkably expressive style of stick figure art. There’s actually a surprisingly long list, and yet I usually think of myself as someone who doesn’t like comics. People are weird.

Today I’m thinking about the latest installment of Chasing the Sunset, another sword & sorcery fantasy with possibly my favorite title ever. It’s a poetic description of the plot’s quest, which takes the characters westward. I guess they’ll have to end the story before our heroes turn around to head home. Unless they circumnavigate the globe or find a new home elsewhere or something.

This is going to have some spoilers for the most recent subplot, if you worry about such things. I’ll try to keep it vague.

Leaf’s philosophy of destroying things.

Anyway, some context: Leaf (blonde elf-boy) and Ayne (blue elf-amazon), our protagonists, have helped some glowy guys by smashing a magic crystal. A side effect of doing so is that some knowledge has been irretrievably lost. Now asking for information from those they helped, they’re told such knowledge comes with a price.

Ayne is incensed, thinking that they’ve already paid it by putting themselves in danger and doing the others’ dirty work. Leaf feels differently, that whatever good may have come from their actions, they destroyed something irrevocably, and that should never be a bargaining chip.

The maddening thing is, I agree with both of them.

I think Leaf says it pretty well, really. And this was necessary, not to build any goodwill with the glowy guys, but, as Leaf put it, “To protect innocents”. But Ayne’s right, this should have given them some credit with the cranky glow brigade, who explain their position on the matter thus:

We did not agree to give knowledge for that.

All knowledge needs a price so people don’t abuse it.

The first is a pretty simple, “well you should have haggled before you did this thing that had to be done which we wanted you to do”, asinine as hell, and pretty standard practice for assholes. The second interests me.

In the real world, knowledge always comes with a price when it’s first attained, but it has a habit of spreading around after that. When Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth around 240 b.c., he double-checked the distance between Aswan and Alexandria by hiring someone to measure it. (I can’t recall when or where I heard this, but I’m certain I did. However, the Wikipedia entry doesn’t mention it. Huh.) In doing so, not only did Eratosthenes gain an accurate measurement of that distance, but so did his hireling. Both paid for that knowledge, Eratosthenes in money and the surveyor in effort, but once they had done so either could casually say to any random person, “Hey, I just found out that Aswan and Alexandria are 5,000 stadia apart.”

(On a side note, I’m intrigued that there’s argument over which stadia Eratosthenes used. According to Google maps, Aswan to Alexandria is 841 kilometers as the crow flies. Surely it’s a safe assumption that whichever stadion is closer to this is the most likely to have been used? Surveyors may not have had as accurate tools back then, but they weren’t incompetent. My math shows the “Olympic” is the closest. Presumably there’s a good reason for the dispute, and I’m sure there are many details in there that I’m unaware of.)

Okay, I may have had one more glass of wine than this post really needed. Moving along!

I guess I really have two questions of the glowing spirits. 1) Does affixing a price really prevent abuse? B) Does the benefit of affixing a price to knowledge outweigh the benefit of widespread knowledge?

The first one really doesn’t seem to be so. It would make it harder for the casual abuser, I suppose, but what it really seems to do is simply to make abuse more expensive. Now this is a worthwhile tactic, most security measures are not to actually make something impossible, (which usually can’t be done,) but to make it expensive enough that the cost outweighs the benefit. We don’t yet know what price will be asked this time, but since the glow-people are more or less librarians, their knowledge has to be accessible to be useful. It seems unlikely that this price does anything more to prevent abuse than to narrow the range of potential abusers, while equally narrowing the range of legitimate users. I’m not a security expert, but I’m pretty sure a good policy makes things harder for abuse than it does for legitimate use.

(A common criticism of current airport security policy is that it increases the difficulty of legitimate air travel far more than it increases the difficulty of hijacking or otherwise abusing aircraft. Not going to comment on that further, at least in this post.)

The second one is interesting because a lot of knowledge only has abusive power by its scarcity, and cannot abused if it becomes commonly known. Try blackmailing Bill Clinton with a sordid story about Monica Lewinsky and a cigar, for example. While Bill laughs in your face, consider that most of the knowledge that is really dangerous by itself, how to build a weapon, for example, has other costs built into it.

The Warwolf was the largest trebuchet ever built, capable of hurling 300lb missiles accurately. If you took detailed schematics of this weapon back to Eratosthenes’ time, the people of that era could probably build one, if they were rich enough. It would be a fearsome weapon, far outperforming the catapults the ancients used, but it wouldn’t be a game-changer. Having the resources to built it wouldn’t let you easily conquer the world, though, it would merely be an advantage. Simply declaring conquest would take something far more dangerous.

Send back detailed schematics from the Manhattan Project and it doesn’t matter how rich someone is, those plans are useless to them. Atomic weapons require electricity, high explosives, and very refined and hazardous radioactive materials. The tools of the third century b.c.e. aren’t good enough to build the tools needed to build the tools to get started on something like that. It’s not a single technology itself, but a combination of many which all have to work together with great precision. Maybe if you include a whole library of technical books in the appropriate languages the great-grandchildren of the king willing to invest the most in them will have nukes. Maybe.

I’ve picked two extremes here for illustration, and there is clearly a vast continuum between them, but it seems to have a direct, inverse relationship between “able to be used right away without developing new technologies to make it work” and “devastating advantage against weapons and tactics of the time” for everything I can think of. Actually Warwolf is about the most destructive thing I can come up with that the ancient Greeks could readily build. I imagine it would be pretty nasty loaded with Greek fire.

With knowledge, there’s always one thing that seems to matter more than any other, and that’s the willingness to look for it. Maybe the glow-brigade has a monopoly on a lot of info, so that the only way to learn it is through them, that would explain their reticence. But unless their price is something esoteric that also provides a judge of character, making it only available to those pure or heart or something, they’re just reducing the pool of abusers to those who can afford them.

Really the whole “price” is probably just an excuse for them to play power games and get stuff, given the whole “we didn’t have an agreement” attitude. Leaf doesn’t want dangerous knowledge, he just wants the location of his father. And that’s why even though I think he’s right that there shouldn’t be a price on destruction, I also agree with Ayne that they really should have enough credit to get this question answered.

I haven’t been writing much at all lately, and judging by this mess it’s been building up! In writing this I’ve wandered, gotten lost, forgot what my point was, deleted whole paragraphs, picked another point to expound on, forgotten it, drank too much, and started wandering again.

It’s been a long time since I had a few drinks and just started writing. Kind of fun once in a while, but I don’t intend to make a habit of it. I’m off to read a bit and then bed, goodnight everyone!


About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on August 10, 2012, in Daily Post and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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