Apples, Oranges, Arguments

From October 2013 (with some edits):

“You can’t compare apples to oranges.”

They, whoever “they” are, say this a lot, often, in my experience, without giving much thought to what the saying means. Instead, this common idiom seems to be used most of time as an expression of contempt, of dismissing what a person just said as if it were not worthy of a serious response.

Properly used, the apples-to-oranges idiom reminds us to be on guard against false analogies. It reminds us that two things that appear superficially similar in some regard may still be importantly different in other ways. For example, I can compare the solar system to an atom. I could say, “Just as planets orbit the sun, so to do electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom.” While this comparison may help a student visualize the structure of an atom, as science per se the comparison is less than helpful. Electrons can jump from orbit to orbit, or even leave orbit entirely. From this observation, I cannot reasonably conclude that planets do the same thing. Or, taken the other way, from the observation that planetary orbits tend toward stability and regularity, I cannot conclude that electrons behave the same way planets do. To do either of these things would be to make a false analogy.

Consider another example. I have former students who are now married and have children of their own. I can remember that this former student, when he or she was in my class, exhibited certain characteristics, such as laziness or honesty. I cannot reasonably conclude from that memory that the student’s children will exhibit the same characteristics. Just as I cannot compare apples to oranges, meaning I cannot convict an orange for not being an apple, I cannot assume that a child will exhibit the same characteristics that the child’s parent did in my class more than 10 years ago.

Now, all of that said, it is important to realize that “You can’t compare apples to oranges” is only contingently true. It is only true if certain preconditions apply. Otherwise, the idiom cannot be fairly used. After all, anyone can sensibly note that, yes, apples and oranges can be compared because they’re both fruits. They are both part of a larger set that includes strawberries, bananas, papayas, and mangos as well. Therefore, any comparison between apples and oranges that relies on characteristics common to the larger set of fruits, such as the presence of fructose or seeds, would not be a false analogy.

To speak zoologically, I can fairly compare any member of the family Felidae so long as I limit my comparisons to traits common to that family. I cannot claim that they are all the same in that they can purr, for example. Animals in the genus Panthera belong to the family Felidae, but they cannot purr. That is a characteristic of genus Felis, another member of the Felidae family. To say that Felis, part of Felidae, can purr means Panthera, also part of Felidae, can also purr is to compare apples to oranges. To say that members of the genus have fur or claws or are carnivores is not comparing apples to oranges.

So, what’s my point?

Well, my point is that trotting out a clichéd idiom is no substitute for an honest argument. An honest argument requires that, at a minimum, I seriously consider the truth of whatever my interlocutor states. This requires humility on my part. Even if I am not wrong about whatever issue is under consideration, I need treat the other side as if I could be wrong. Otherwise, I run the risk of being dismissive. This might get the other person to stop talking, but it isn’t going to demonstrate that I am correct.

Of course, humility and an honest effort to view someone whom I disagree with as worthy of respect can require effort, and I think that is probably why the apples-to-oranges idiom is, in my experience, used as a way of shutting down conversation. It’s a mildly clever way of saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about so you should stop talking.” Dismissive rhetorical devices aren’t anything new. Socrates, for example, in the 400s B.C. waged philosophical battles against people who were merely clever rather than genuinely thoughtful.

In classical education, we don’t want our students to be merely clever. We want them to struggle toward the transcendentals: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Contrary to popular opinion, whether something is true, good, or beautiful isn’t just a matter of opinion. Some things really are objectively true. To think otherwise isn’t to express an equally valid opinion, but instead is to be in error. This is most obvious in mathematics. Two and two are four. The reciprocal of one-half is two. These statements, and many others, are true regardless of what I think or want. Likewise, some things are good. Period. Some things are beautiful. Period. As I’ve told my students more than once, someone who says a rose isn’t beautiful is incorrect. Someone who claims that all moral statements are matters of opinion or societal convention is likewise incorrect.

What muddies the waters, especially when discussing the Good and the Beautiful, is that it is often difficult to arrive at a firm conclusion. Even after careful consideration, doubt may remain. “It is wrong to X,” where X stands for some activity, is a common claim. Demonstrating the truth of that claim is not as common. It is easy to assert. It is harder to present a reasoned demonstration that takes seriously the objections of those who disagree. And, because it is harder, many people just don’t bother. Instead, people substitute volume for reason.

“It is wrong to X!” is countered by “No, it isn’t!” Few people seem to advance their arguments much beyond just trying to shout the other side down. This is dangerous. If we abandon the conviction that the True, the Good, and the Beautiful are objective categories that can be discovered, however imperfectly, by human reason, then we reduce all arguments about truth, morality, and art to shouting matches. The winner is whoever shouts the loudest, whoever can apply the most force to get the other side to surrender. Throughout human history, societies have abandoned human reason in favor of force. The results — from the Reign of Terror to the killing fields of Cambodia and beyond — have never been pleasant.

As a teacher in a classical education school, encouraging the reasoned search for the transcendentals is my hardest task. I find myself working against so much of what passes itself off as popular culture, which isn’t really culture at all, but instead is just mass marketing aimed at conformity. I not only have to try to get my students to discover the power of their own reason, but I also have to try to get them to respect that same power in others, especially when they disagree.

July 21st, 2017  in RPG No Comments »

Mephitic Horrors

Another trip through From Unformed Realms, this time aiming to create a Lovecraftian horror for use with Swords & Wizardry!

Its leathery flesh, covered with finger-length spines, sharp and dark, glowed faintly from deep cracks and pocks, as if some internal fire guttered just beneath its skin. It walked upright, like a man, but balanced itself by means of a sinuous tail that ended with a knobby clump of something like bone. Where arms should have grown from its shoulders extended writhing, muscular pseudopods, growing and retracting, seeking to touch, to grasp…to burn!

Mephitic Horror
Hit Dice: 5+5
Armor Class: 4 [15]
Attack (Damage): 2 pseudopods (1d4)
Move: 9
Save: 12
Alignment: Chaos
Challenge Level/XP: 8/800
Special: Constrict and burn, immune to fire, spittle, toxic bile

Mephitic horrors are a sort of evil elemental that serve unholy entities that seek to return to the Material World in order to terrorize, enslave, and devour. In melee, mephitic horrors attack with their pseudopods. A creature struck by a pseudopod is ensnared to be crushed and burned, which causes an additional 1d6 points of damage per round the victim remains grasped. Instead of a pseudopod attack, mephitic horrors may spit up to twice per round (once per pseudopod attack not made). This spittle has a range of 30 feet. If it hits, the target suffers 1d4 points of damage as the spittle burns. The target must also make a saving throw to avoid being blinded for 1d6 rounds. A mephitic horror that takes more than 5 points of damage from a single attack involuntarily coughs up a gout of toxic bile. Creatures in melee combat with the mephitic horror when it regurgitates must make saving throws to avoid being splashed. The ghastly bile quickly worms its way into flesh. Those exposed to the toxic bile (meaning those that failed their saving throws) develop painful, aggressive tumors after 2d6 days (a Cure Disease suffices to overcome this malady, the exact effects of which are left to the Referee’s discretion).

Adventure Hook: The discovery of an intriguing artifact leads to a long-abandoned fort controlled by bandits for nearly three months. The bandits stumbled across the fort while trying to evade the authorities. One or more mephitic horrors prey on the bandits, seeking to slaughter them all.

July 18th, 2017  in RPG No Comments »

Ordinary Greatness

From back in September 2013, now with minor edits:

A few years ago, I watched Puncture starring Chris Evans, Mark Kassen, Marshall Bell, and Brett Cullen. (Caveat: This film has a well-deserved R rating.) The plot revolves around Mike Weiss (played by Chris Evans) and his partner Paul Danziger (played by Mark Kassen in a story co-written the real Paul Danziger) trying to bring suit against medical suppliers to get safety syringes into hospitals.

During one scene near the end of the film, Weiss confronts Nathaniel Price (Brett Cullen). Price represents the company trying to keep the safety syringes off the market. During their conversation, Price says something to effect of, “You think you’re here to accomplish something great, but everyone thinks that. It’s the most ordinary thought in the world.”

Price was right. Thinking that I’m here on Earth to accomplish something great is an ordinary thought. I can easily believe that at some point in time, everyone ever born thinks the same thing. Of course, Price’s intent was to convince Weiss that the ordinariness of this thought means the thought is false.

In other words, Price was saying, “Maybe some people are meant for greatness, but you are not. Give up.”

Of course, Price misses something important. His cynicism blinds him to the full truth. Yes, it is perfectly ordinary for me to imagine that I’m meant to accomplish something great. What Price doesn’t grasp is that the perfect ordinariness of a thought does not mean the thought is wrong. Everyone truly is meant to accomplish something great. When I consider this truth, I must avoid two equally destructive errors.

First, I must ignore the Nathaniel Prices of the world. Other people don’t get to limit my life with their lack of vision. Second, I must avoid becoming my own Nathaniel Price. I am meant to accomplish something great, but my something great may not be the same as or as great as your something great. I’m not likely to cure cancer, be the first man on Mars, or bring peace to the Middle East. Those great somethings are meant for someone other than me. My something great probably won’t be anything greater than being a father, husband, and teacher.

Those three roles are rather ordinary, but, again, ordinary does not mean unimportant or insignificant.

July 15th, 2017  in RPG No Comments »

From Unformed Realms? Excellent!

I recently acquired several Paul Baldowski’s The Cthulhu Hack products-in-print via All Rolled Up. One of these products is From Unformed Realms. According to the introduction, this 20-page booklet is a “system-free supplement for a Gamemaster running games involving creatures of alien horror for role-playing games of all genres, fantastical or horrific”. The author suggests rolling 3d6 six times “to generate a customized aggressive horror”.

Each set of 3d6 determines a category, subcategory, and specific trait. There are six categories, such as Extremities or Fluids. Each category included at least three subcategories, and each subcategory includes six specific traits. That’s quite a lot of variety, and it looks like fun, so let’s play. I get 3d6, one black, one purple, and one red, and I roll them six times each, recording the results in the color order already mentioned. I get these results:

3, 4, 4: Skeleton, Bone Mutations, Blades
5, 6, 6: Appearance, That Looks Like, Ooze
1, 4, 2: Extremities, Weapons, Pincers
5, 3, 5: Appearance, Protuberances, Digestion
2, 6, 4: Senses, Vision, Compound
1, 2, 4: Extremities, Limbs, Spines

In other words, something like this:

Before our horrified eyes, the blasphemous thing lurched forward, glistening wetly in the moonlight. Shadows of bones rolled within its amorphous bulk, translucent and fetid, and some of those skeletal remnants slid from within, hooked and sharp and some clacking like monstrous pincers. Globular compound eyes bobbed within its body, pressing toward air. Even in the dim lunar glow, we could see half-digested remains: a dog, several rats, and — God help us! — a man’s arm!

Turning to The Cthulhu Hack core rules, I put together some quick monster stats:

Hit Dice: 5
Nota Bene: The gelatinous horror moves stealthily (roll with Disadvantage to hear it before it’s too late), and its fluid form is difficult to grapple (also roll with Disadvantage). It is impervious to flame or heat. Its compound eyes see in nearly all directions at once. It attacks 1d4 times per Moment, and each attack inflicts 1d4 points of damage.

After From Unformed Realms describes the various traits by category and subcategory, there is a single page “Summary of Traits” followed by two pages of “The Obligatory Appendix”. The latter provides tables that answer questions such as “The Hook?”, “Location?”, and “Horror’s Motivation?”, and with a few more dice rolls I determine the gist of an investigation into madness and death. Bolded parts of the following sentence indicate the results of dice rolls.

A chance visitation leads to a boot camp that has been a cover for anarchists for nearly two years for the purpose of medical research. The boot camp has become the target of the horror because the camp is built on the monster’s food source.

And there you go. In a fraction of the time than it took me to type, format, and edit this blogpost, I’ve got the framework for an investigation that pits the players’ characters against secretive, Mengele-like anarchists unaware that a Horror from Beyond lurks at their doorstep.


July 14th, 2017  in RPG No Comments »

A New Cleric Spell & A Magical Lake

At that time Jesus exclaimed, “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children.” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew 11-25)

Apophatic Facade
Spell Level: Cleric, 1st Level
Range: 120 feet
Duration: Until dispelled or an attack is made

The object of this spell, whether a person or a thing, becomes invisible to both the normal sight and darkvision of Chaotic creatures. A non-Chaotic creature can see the target if that creature fails its saving throw against the spell. An invisible creature cannot be attacked unless its approximate location is known, and all attacks are made at -4 to hit. If the invisible creature makes an attack, the spell is broken. Otherwise, it lasts until dispelled or removed by the caster.


The Great Northern Forest’s full extent remains a mystery. It is an inhospitable land of rugged, wooden terrain subject to heavy precipitation, especially during the latter spring and fall months. A few days west by northwest of Mirror Rock is a shallow, wide valley into which flows several small streams. These streams feed into Pilkullinen, an alkali lake with remarkable properties. Pilkullinen is shallow for most of its length and breadth, perhaps no more than several yards deep except during the heaviest of rainy seasons. The lake drains into marshes along its southern and eastern shores. During the shorter dry seasons, much of Pilkullinen evaporates or drains away, revealing dozens of large, natural pools. The strange minerals in the lake concentrate in these pools, and impart upon the waters healing powers. Unfortunately, the savage and xenophobic barbarians native to the region believe their fierce gods gave Pilkullinen to them alone, and they zealously guard it against trespassers.

Anyone who soaks in one of the large, natural pools for 1d4 hours may benefit from the lake’s special qualities. Roll on the following table and apply the results.

Pilkullinen’s Powers

1: Cures all diseases and heals 2d6+2 hit points.
2: Cures all diseases and heals 1d6+1 hit points.
3: Heals 2d6+2 hit points.
4: Heals 1d6+1 hit points.
5: Boosts health. +1 saves versus disease and poison for a day.
6: Strengthens will. +1 saves versus charm and fear for a day.

July 10th, 2017  in RPG No Comments »