Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Tale of the Scipline Islands

This is a continuing piece (read: I'm tired and need to complete the typing later, although the story's finished) and my first attempt at a learning parable a-la Papert. Many thanks to Chris Carrick, the first audience of the story, who provided many helpful comments which have been incorporated here. I'm curious whether readers can guess where this story is headed (heck, it might be better than the one I've got written already). Bonus points if you can pick up the naming references. (Hint: They're not all that subtle.)

The Tale of the Scipline Islands

There was once a place called the Scipline Islands, a series of island villages in the midst of the ocean (More often the natives just referred to their home as "The Sciplines," and themselves as "The Sciplinarians.") All the Sciplines spoke a similar language, traded amongst themselves, and were generally on friendly terms with each other. It wasn't hard to travel between villages, but most people generally spent most of their time in the place where they were raised.

This was not because they disliked traveling. It was because of fruit. The primary food source of all the villages was an amazing variety of fruit-bearing bushes - many varieties of delicious fruit, but fruit tricky enough for humans to gather that it took some good amount of skill to be able to efficiently pick it. For the most part, everyone had to gather their own food - a skilled adult could gather just a bit more than what he or she needed in a full day of picking, so specialization in things other than fruit-gathering was rare. Most villagers spent their time gathering enough fruit to feed their family. Finally, each island's fruit was peculiar to that island (there had been several attempts to plant fruit from one island on another, but the soil composition was different between islands and these experiments inevitably failed), and the fruit perishable enough and the distance between islands far enough that the fruit would barely last the length of a journey.

This meant two things: First, given the choice of living in a place where you knew how to pick the fruit and having several hours of free time left (after an efficient fruit-picking session and the subsequent tasty meal) to enjoy each day, or moving to another island and spending several miserable and slightly hungry years spending long, inefficient hours trying to get the hang of picking a different type of fruit entirely - well, most people picked the former.

Second, given the difficulty of transporting fruit from one village to another, a small number of traders ran a tricky but profitable business shuttling fruit (usually the sparse extra fruit that others had picked, as the traders had to spend most of their time and energy crossing the ocean) between two islands. But fruit is best when it's picked ripe, and one that had crossed the ocean was never quite the same as a fresh-picked one, so the people on each island though the Inter-Sciplinarians (as the traders were called) must not be terribly good fruit-pickers, as the exotic foodstuffs they brought from the other lands never tasted nearly as good as their own...

One fateful season, a number of hard, round objects washed up on the shores of one of the islands. They were grey, smooth, about the size of a person's head... and, as the Sciplinarians soon discovered, yielded an edible brownish-tan flesh when repeatedly bashed with a heavy rock. Further experimentation led to the conclusion that this new "fruit" was moderately nutritious and not unpleasant to consume, rather versatile in recipies, but nowhere near as delicious as their island's local bush-fruit. Out of curiosity, they decided to plant the remaining objects to see if they were seeds (as some of the Sciplinarians theorized) and would sprout into some sort of plant.

An Inter-Sciplinarians arriving at that island the following season was astounded to see several tall, spindly trees jutting from the usual low cover of bush-foliage. After several queries, she found a boy named Henry who explained that the trees had been planted just the season before, and offered to climb one for her. "In this tree, we get fruit," said the boy. "Indus tree - you get fruit?" misheard the trader. After being shown the hard grey orbs (procured by Henry with some difficulty), the trader decided to take a few of these "Indus tree fruits" to see if they would trade well at the other islands - not as fruit (as it wasn't nearly as tasty as bush-fruit) but as an easy source of plentiful wood.

It turned out that Indus trees (the name stuck) flourished equally fast in all the islands - the first plant known to do so - and since timber and fuel are always handy things to have around, within several seasons all the islands had tiny groves of Indus trees growing amidst their fruit-bushes.

ndus wood grew popular, but the Sciplinarians still hadn't acquired a taste for Indus fruit. Indus trees were yet another plant to learn how to pick fruit from, and their fruit wasn't nearly as tasty as bush-fruit. It just wasn't worth it... for the older adults, at least. On yet another island, some of the younger Sciplinarians began to hear the traders talk about thriving Indus tree groves on the other islands and began to think. It went something like this:

1. We want to travel and see the world!
2. Why can't we?
3. We can, but it's difficult because we have to relearn how to get food every new place we go to, and struggle and go hungry until we figure it out - and figuring it out takes years.
4. Well, why do we have to relearn how to pick fruit at every island?
5. Because the fruit on every island is tricky to pick in a different way.
6. But supposing there was a plant with edible fruit that grew on every island? We could learn how to pick just that plant, and we'd be able to eat on any island...

The next morning, the island's elders were astounded to find a small passle of young people doing pull-ups, braiding long ropes, and (with great difficulty and loud grunts and shouts) climbing the Indus tree grove with great diligence and concentration. They, of course, asked the youngsters to explain themselves. What were they trying to do? Why were they learning to climb trees that yielded not-so-tasty fruit? Wasn't this a waste of time?

"Learning this will give me freedom - maximum mobility to get where I want to go," said a teenage girl perched halfway up a trunk. "It's not as good to eat, but it's worth it to be able to travel," added a boy of about the same age cracking an Indus fruit open against a rock. "Besides, we're the ones eating it." "Yes," the girl agreed, "and we ought to be able to decide what we want to eat, right? And if we want to eat it, we've got to learn how to get it." The island elders shook their heads and walked away, some smiling softly.

(more to come...)

3 comments:

L33tminion said...

I find myself tempted to read that parable a bit more literally than is probably intended.

... Been reading too much Quinn.

Erin said...

So, you want to learn Esperanto? :)

How did that speech therapy thing in Chicago go, btw? I meant to ask, since it sounded really interesting.

Erin said...

oh, or is this a usability parable? I keep thinking of things in linguistic terms these days, lol. :)
Or you could make it work for the metric system...or phonetic alphabets...or lots of other things...
Yay for standards!