Let's talk about the concept of a democracy

In 2010, the democratic government of the United States of America put to a vote the question of whether or not to set in motion a reform of their health care system. Except there is no such government.

Let's talk about democracy, and why in theory it's the best way to govern. Let's also talk about "Kino's Journey", which highlights why it's also the worst way to govern.

Democracy is a relatively misunderstood form of government, and in reality practiced by virtually no countries on this planet. The basic idea behind democracy is that "the poeple" (the demo- part in democracy) are the ones who steer the direction of government (the -cracy part in democracy). The usual way this is expressed is by stating that "the will of the people defines the policies of government". But this ignores a relatively important point in the original idea behind democracy: there was no "the" in "the people"; it was rule governed by the will of only some people. And the qualifications of who those people were typically came from being a representatives for a group of people, chosen to be a representative by people who knew what they were asking for.

You did not "run for office", you needed a backing of people who thought it was a good idea for you to be part of the governing body. These choosers (because they didn't vote, they chose, and we'll come back to the fallacy of voting later) were not just high and mighty people with the money to put someone in a government position, but also large representative groups, such as guild representatives (or what might today be called a union leader). Thus, the people who had no fucking idea about what was going on at a higher-than-my-own-life level could rely on the fact that they picked someone who they believed would be competent enough to both understand the rilings and tidings of politics, and represent their interests at the same time.

Democracy, at its core, is a distilled form of "every man for himself".

However, the power behind a democratic system came from one crucial implicit promise that everyone who participated made by the very act of participation: in a democracy, everyone is allowed to have a different opinion about some matter, but the moment that the democracy as a single entity reaches a decision, everyone will abide by that decision. It's how things gets done(tm). The idea is that the decocracy as a whole can be considered everyone's boss. What the democracy says must be done, must be done, even if you don't like it. You can disagree, and you can work on alternative ways to get what you wanted in your own time, but as part of the democracy, what your boss tells you to do, you do. And until such an order comes down, you get to try and steer the democracy's opinion so that it comes out in your favour. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is a democracy.

To put it in terms that are closer to home: you agree to do what will come out of a majority vote decision (and 'majority' is any threshold that none of you disagree on constitutes one. it's typically either either 1/2 or 2/3 of the people involved, but the number itself is irrelevant), and before a decision is made, you all get a chance to convince other people to see your point of view. And you're allowed (or rather, by the act of reasoning you no choice but) to reevaluate and potentially change your opinion if others can show it is currently based on incorrect information. As part of a democracy, what you want is important up to the moment the democracy moves for a decision. Then, once that decision is taken, that's it. You will do what everyone agreed on must be done, even if you don't like it. Because that's what you promised to do.

So back to the United States of America, which voted for a health care reform.

Okay, no, I lied. First, let's talk about voting. You may be familiar with voting because you think it's the same as making a choice, but you'd be slightly wrong. A choice between two options has five possible answers. And if you just went "what? no it doesn't, it has two" you sorely need to be educated. In a choice between two options, there are the obvious two options themselves, and then there are the three universal options: neither, both or 'this is an irrelevant choice'. And they all mean different things. Let's analyse what happens in a binary choice between coffee and cake:

coffee expectedunwantedupsethappy
cake unwantedexpectedupsethappy
neither unwantedunwantedexpectedparticularly unwanted
both waitingwaitingvery upsetexpected
"not a choice" unwantedunwanted particularly unwanted

There's a gap in that table where "wanted: not a choice" and "got: neither" meet. This fifth option is a tricky one, because it's a bit like the tree in a forest choice: a tree falls in a forest; do you want it to be a redwood, or an oak? Frankly, this is a nonsense choice, and whoever is asking it should either focus their attention on things that do have meaning, or leave the asking of questions to people who can actually think about matters that, err, matter.

So with that covered, back to voting. The problem with voting is that the possible choices have been reduced from the real five ones, to only three. You can vote for either A, B, or you can abstain from voting and effectively pick "neither" by way of not picking in the first place. But this not picking is not the same as indicating that the vote was meaningless. Nor does the final result of the vote tell us how people really felt about the vote. The voting system, as you know it, is a fucked up simplification of the choice mechanism, and only works if we assume that the vote called made sense in the first place, and we all agree that we'll ignore the statistical error in treating the outcome of a poll to see which option is disliked least, with the outcome of a poll to see which option is liked most.

So... back to the health care vote. After eight hours of heated debate (itself a curious fact, given that the idea had been mulled over by everyone for months) a vote was called, and all the little parts of the democracy had to come to together so that the democracy as a whole could issue its order: the vote was in favour of health care for all citizens, paid for by all citizens.

And that's where the comparison with a democracy end, because what followed was all the parts that voted against the will of their boss went "well, fuck that, we're not going to help. We didn't vote for this, so we don't have to do what you say."

There's a different word for this kind of policy. It's "tyrrany". That's pretty much the exact opposite of democracy, and no, the word's not been used for dramatic effect; that's just what it's called, and that's what the government of one of the most crucial nations on this planet practices. It's not inherently a bad thing per se, but it IS something very different from what they claim to practice. Let's at least call things by their correct name.

But wait, I forgot to talk about "Kino's Journey". This is a Japanese animation about a person with a talking motorcycle traveling through a country and only staying in places for three days. This is basically a thinly veiled attempt at showing how fucked up taking a particular stance on matters can be, and the places visited are all uniquely bizar in how they took a core value that underlies a principle that is valued in modern life, and taking it way too far. One of these places is an ultra-democracy, relying on the same flawed concept of voting. There's also only one person left. The story goes like this: once upon a time a town decides to do everything democratically, except instead of relying on chosen representatives, it's a direct democracy, meaning every single person in town gets to vote.

For a while this works out pretty well, but then something bad happens and the people are called to opine about what to do with the people responsible. With no one to hold anyone else morally responsible, there are some suggestions to put those responsible to death. You can see where this is heading -- eventually the death penalty becomes an votable option for smaller matters, and the irony of the direct democracy is that there's no one on the sidelines to tell their representative "this is wrong, we forbid you to vote in this manner".

The democracy shapes the town's moral system, and finally people are getting beheaded over things like littering and leaving their music on too loud. Ultimately, with only one person left, democracy breaks down, and because Kino and the talking motorcycle outnumber the last remaining townsfolk, an argument between them is called to democratic resolution. Since Kino and bike outnumber the survivor two to one, I'll leave you to conclude who wins.

So just as a parting thought, a real democracy is not about implementing the "will of the people", because the will of the people is a diverse landscape of differing opinions. It's about reaching an agreement on what to do, and then doing it. Regardless of whether you want to or not. If you don't like it, you can either quit, or you can get fired. Except that in the U.S., it seems that last option has been forgotten.

The Dark Side of Scanlation

The Art of Translation
Much as anime fansubbing underwent a shift from fans working for fans (ye olde VHS days), to fans working for fun (the rm, asf and vivo days), to fans resisting the commercialisation (the speedsubbing and DVD ripping days), to fans not getting in the way of commercial release (the present), the manga translation scene seems to be going through the same progression. Of course, the phases overlap a little, so it's hard to say exactly where we are, but the prolific releasing and the associated quality seems to suggest we're in an interesting combination of the last three phases.
With scanlation having moved away from tankoubon ('anthologies' or 'collections') to individual chapters from the syndicating monthlies or biweeklies, the speed scanlation groups have started moving in, sacrificing quality for quantity, and doing something probably no one had realised was possible: shaped the expectations of the audience, not just for scanlations, but for official licensed products too.
Hopefully as someone with an understanding of Japanese, as well as language in general, my arguments will carry a bit more weight than a random user complaining on a manga forum, but it's time an uncomfortable truth was discussed: the kind of English used in modern scanlations is, on average, not English in the slightest. With the emergence of speed scanners the quality of translation has gone down so much that we're seeing this nonsense English back in actual official, licensed, English speaking country distributed products that we are charged money for to own - made possible because we're collectively responsible for indoctrinating the scanlation audience with nonsense English, breeding an expectation that is preventing the medium from being taken serious. After all, if you can't bother to translate something to real English, clearly it's not worth paying attention to.
So, Where does it go Wrong?
Essentially, it's going wrong with enthusiast manga translators not translating from Japanese to English. Allow me to explain.
It is relatively easy to translate words. If we don't know how to translate certain words, we rely on dictionaries or native speakers to help us find alternative meanings that we might use in order to translate them within the setting of a sentence, and we'll typically end up with a coherent sentence.
But the story in a manga isn't composed of individual sentences. No running text is. Instead, it consists of sentences linked by what is known as discourse, and translating is about preserving discourse. You cannot translate any other way without doing a bad job at translating.
"Discourse" is the collection of underlying thoughts and intentions that motivated someome to write a text in the first place. Discourse is what makes a collection of sentences feel like "a text", instead of loose sentences. Put concisely, discourse is what an author "wanted to say", rather than what the words that he or she used say. Crucially, it is the presence or absence of identifiable discourse that determines whether or not a translator did a good job, or simply isn't a translatore.
And here we hit a snag.
The Problem of Breeding Expectation
Continuous use of certain practices sets up a 'common ground' for contributors and consumers in a particular setting. That sounds complicated, but what it really means is that if for instance a group of people says "desu" at the end of every sentence, after a while people stop noticing how odd it is, people in the group stop questioning it, and when people outside the group remark on it, it's defended as a group-defining aspect. Americans have this with gun ownership, Canadians have it with using "eh", and the scanlation scene has it with completely nonsensical English...
If you consider the English used in scanlation to be just fine and you're wondering at this point what the actual problem is, allow me to go into more detail. In the scanlation world, translation started out as a hackjob: people wanted to be able to read manga, so suboptimal translations were just fine, people just wanted to be able to enjoy manga a little, and poor English was accepted as long as the reader could roughly understand what was going on.
And that was fine.
However, these days manga translation is big business. There are plenty of scanlation groups that will point out they are 'better' than other groups, and that they take pride in the quality of there work, and it is at this point that things become a problem: if you start to take pride in your work enough to assert that you are better than others, perhaps it is time to let go of the argument that "it's good enough for the audience" and actually start doing what you're pretending you're doing, and start translating Japanese to English.
Examples of nonsensical English are legion. Read any chapter of translated manga and you're likely to run into anything ranging from minor harassments of the English language to full blown rape homicide, leaving behind a trail of bleeding interpunction and a chalk outline of what was once language.
So Where do Translations go Wrong?
Actually, in many places. There are a number of things that a translator has to keep in mind, and try to avoid at all cost:

  1. Idiomatic constructions should not be translated literally

  2. Sentences should not be translated "per bubble", since the bubbles work for how Japanese sentences are chopped up, not how English sentences are chopped up.

  3. Words that are already entailed by translated words in a sentence should be left out.

  4. Verb mood, tense and even polarity may need to be changed to express the same grammatical construction.

Japanese and English are two different languages. This sounds elementary, but all too often people do not seem to realise this when they translate every word in a Japanese sentence and consider the translation done, even though this leaves the English translation with too many words; a sentence such as "even if by doing so we succeed, it will become difficult" is not an unsual sentence in a translated manga, even if it's not an English sentence at all.
This might sound weird to some people. Even if you don't read scanlations at all, you might be wondering how that statement could be true - after all, it uses English words, and you can figure out what it means.
However -- and this is a big however -- proper English does not need "figuring out". Real, natural English sentences are understood exactly because they are natural language. They don't have to be figured out before you know what they mean, because the way the words are arranged immediately reveals how you should interpret them. Arranging them differently, because the original phrase was not in English, just makes for unnatural and potentially highly convoluted sentences; the entire book "Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002) used the idea of writing out a non-English speaker's thoughts and sayings using English words and it was a mind-splitting pain to read.
Now, in the world of novels, this work could succeed because editors demand high quality English. You're not going to get a lemon fanfic or blog post published purely on "what the author has to say", he or she better damn well have some writing skills, being able to instill a sense of discourse in the reader. This also means that when a novel is intentionally written in broken English, this has to be done for a good reason, and Jonathan Safran Foer found one such reason.
In scanlation, it seems things are exactly the opposite; the quality demand by group leaders for their translators seems to be 'as low as still allows figuring out by the reader', and reasons to actually produce good translations are few and far between.
An Analysis
Let us look at that ealier sentence, "even if by doing so we succeed, it will become difficult", in more detail. We can pretend it is a translation for the Japanese phrase しても難しくなるぜ. The English sentence would be a near literal translation of this, but a good translator doesn't actually translate the sentence, he or she translates what the sentence means, and he or she translates them by using words and constructions in the target language that make sense in that language, not ones that map closest to the source language.
In general, an English sentence isn't English because it uses English words, it is an English sentence because it uses the right words and the right grammatical constructions, where "right" is a subjective term, but comes close to "what a professional editor would not consider wrong". So in this particular case, we can identify at least four problems with the aforementioned sentence "even if by doing so we succeed, it will become difficult":

  1. it has too many words,

  2. the words are in the wrong order,

  3. a pronoun is used where it shouldn't be, and

  4. the wrong verb tense is used.

In proper English, the sentence should have actually been: "Even if we succeed, things will be difficult".
Why? Because the act of 'succeeding' entails performing an action in English. We don't need to, and in fact shouldn't, add "by doing so" to the sentence. Second, "even if by doing so, we succeed" is simply the wrong word order. In Japanese the operative information comes later in the sentence, in English it comes earlier in the sentence: "we succeed by doing so" is natural, "by doing so, we succeed" is far less so. Now, mind, that is not to say you cannot use "by doing so, we succeed", but placing operative information later in the sentence is formal English.  Unless the material you're translating is formal Japanese, carrying the ordering over to the translation is being a bad translator. That could simply be because no one ever told you, but that doesn't excuse the end result. It just means you can learn and improve.
Third, the pronoun 'it'... the dreaded pronoun 'it'. There's of course nothing wrong with this pronoun itself, but translators abuse the hell out of it. In English, we use 'it' for contextual back reference, and then only if we do not have an idiomatic expression to fall back on - in this case, we use "things" instead of "it", because that's what we use. Context in Japanese doesn't warrant using 'it' in English at every turn. Think before you commit to a translation.
The same goes for the last mistake. While the Japanese sentence used a verb form that translates to "will become", the English "will be" entails becoming, so using "things will be difficult" is perfect; "things will become difficult" on the other hand uses a double future tense.
What's in it for Me?
I can understand you may read this and wondered why it would be worth to analyse every sentence in this way, when the meaning is sort of there in the original sentence, but the point is not that you - as a reader - can figure it out, the point concerns translators - my problem is with translators who don't bother to learn how to translate. A proper translator learns to think about translations by analysing what he or she produces:
Is what I translated English, if I ignore what the Japanese line reads?

  1. Did I put in words that are already entailed by others, if I ignore what the Japanese line reads?

  2. Did I leave off words that are required by idiomatic expressions, if I ignore what the Japanese line reads?

  3. Are my words in the right order, if I ignore what the Japanese line reads?

  4. Should I use a pronoun, or should I use actual nouns for contextual omissions, if I ignore what the Japanese line reads?

  5. Am I using verb mood, tense and polarity correctly in English, if I ignore what the Japanese line reads?

  6. Does this sentence link up to the previous sentence, or are they unconnected, if I ignore what the Japanese line reads?

The quintessential requirement here is "if I ignore what the Japanese line read". A good translator will produce a text that stands on its own, without needing to be justified with "I know it sounds quirky, but otherwise it wouldn't say what the Japanese line said". A translation takes an idea from one language, and expresses it in another language. If the idea cannot be expressed in the target language, and this happens, then deal with it by coming up with an alternative text, expressing the same idea, rather than using unnatural constructions just to mimic a language that the audience doesn't understand.
Of course, you can rely on an editor or a proofer (technically these are different things, an editor checking whether discourse isn't broken, and a proofer making sure there are no typographical mistakes), but the problem starts at the translator. A good editor can turn a bad translation into a good English story, but it won't be a translation anymore. The best editor in the world cannot turn a bad translation into a good translation. They can only turn bad English into good English, so as a translator it is your responsibility to make sure that your translation is as good an English text as you can get it in the first place. Editors aren't there to catch your mistakes, that's what other translators are for.
Why Should I Care?
I know many people will go "we're only doing this for fun, why are you harping on doing it right", to which I have only one reply really... just because you're doing it for fun, doesn't mean you're not fucking it up for everyone else.
That's right, I said it.
Don't get me wrong, doing something "just for fun" is fine,  as long as you don't pretend that once you get a real translation job, you'll change your method of work - because you won't.
There are, certainly, good translators out there, and there have been good scanlation translators who've gone on to get a job in the translation field, and deliver good work there, too. I salute these people, they do their profession justice. But, and this is a universal truth not just for translators, but any artist: they didn't become good translators after getting a real job, they were good translators to begin with.
Just like musicians become good at their music before the industry lets them on board, and visual artists must become good at their art before being able to sell their art, if you're a bad artist -- regardless the subject -- then getting paid for your art doesn't magically make you put all the things you know good artists do into practice. You'll still be a bad artist. Only now you're getting paid for it, even though you don't deserve it, and that means that suddenly you won't listen to critique anymore because the paycheck validates the quality of your work.
It does not.
In fact, and this is the really sad part, people tend to use their paycheck as a justification for delivering poor quality. Rather than working towards getting as good as possible at their art, they now only work towards keeping that paycheck, no longer being interested in improving or not, as long as they get paid.
And this is the reality of the situation: bad scanlation translators who find their way to a real manga translation company such as Viz or Dark Horse will end up creating just as bad translations as they did before, and guess what? Those translations make it to print. Yes, even commercial manga translators can produce nonsense translations, because they were bad translators before they got hired, and they didn't improve after they got hired because no one tells them to.
The convoluted part of this writing is that these people can be hired because the standard of the audience has been primed to be low. Scanlation has made the readers accept that nonsense English is not just acceptable, but is the golden standard, and licensed manga translators are hired at this competency level - because scanlations primed the audience to expect low quality, companies can get away with hiring people on the basis that "the audience won't mind, they're used to this anyway".
So the bottom line is that because we're translating "just for fun", we've shaped an industry where mediocricy is rewarded by us, with our own money.
In Conclusion
Translation is an art. You can do it just for fun, or you can do it to make a living, but either do it right or don't do it for an audience. The internet certainly allows you to publish anything you think others might like, but while art critiquing in general on the internet has become mostly a standard (image boards are prolific, youtube is filled with performers learning from their audience's comments), for translation this seems to not have taken off (hopefully, yet).
It's easy to spot a hand that looks unnatural in a drawing, or spot a series of chords that "sound wrong" in a song, but reading a translation, comparing it to the original, is a lot of work - the unfortunate reality of the matter is that just because no one comments on how bad your translation is, that doesn't mean they didn't notice. It just means you, and everyone before you, bred an audience that just doesn't care anymore. You are, essentially, not taken serious, because "it doesn't matter".
So please, be self-critical. Listen to anyone who points out mistakes in your translations, because that is the only way you're going to learn from your mistakes. Unlike physical activities, you don't get better at translating by just doing it a lot, you need that feedback to know what you're doing wrong, or you'll just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Without correction, every repeated bad translation will make you more likely to use that same translation a next time, entrenching the mistakes. Seek out corrections, because waiting for people to comment on them isn't going to help you improve.
Read. Read English and Japanese books, know what sounds right in English, and what sounds right in Japanese, and most crucially, realise where the differences are. Both are just languages to express similar ideas, so how can you best express these ideas? Just because one language uses an "if" construction doesn't mean you need to find an "if" construction in the other language when the thought behind the expression isn't actually a true conditional - translation is an art for a reason: it's hard.
As parting words I suppose there's not much left to say... Mangahelpers.com is a great start, offering a place for translators to get feedback on their translation, and working with publishers towards a situation where scanlation and licensed publishing can coexist, but you need to put in the effort yourself.
Do we really consider manga to be so untinteresting a product that we simply don't care about the quality we, and by extension the industry, delivers? Keep expectations low, and anything mediocre is considered good?
Thank you for reading.
- Mike "Pomax" Kamermans, of nihongoresources.com


Let‘s have a little poll and see at what point you start to disagree with the following predicates: 
  1. Freedom means doing what you want.
  2. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as you deal with the consequences of those actions.
  3. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as you do not inconvenience others by those actions.
  4. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as those things aren‘t harmful to others.
  5. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as those things aren‘t what people agree on harmful means.
  6. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as those things aren‘t confronting or harmful to others.
  7. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as those things aren‘t what people agree on confronting means.
  8. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as those things aren‘t what people agree on is bad.
  9. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as those things aren‘t what people agree on is improper.
  10. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as it‘s things everyone agree on is proper.
  11. Freedom means being allowed to do what you want, as long as you‘re not doing what other people think you shouldn‘t be doing.
Particularly the last one is paradoxically delicious. Doing what other people think you shouldn‘t be doing is not freedom, right? Well, unless you lived in Stalinist Russia, then that was in fact the very definition of freedom. 

Freedom is not "one thing". There is, strictly speaking, no correct definition of freedom other than "the degree in which others curb what you are allowed to do". Yeah, freedom is a graduated concept. Like brightness. You can look at something and think it‘s very bright, and the person next to you can think it‘s actually not that bright at all. It’s the same with freedom. You can look at a situation and claim someone‘s liberties are being curbed, while someone else might look at the situation and see something they could only dream of give the example of freedom it is. 

Now, if you think I‘m going to tell you which to pick, you‘re sorely mistaken. Instead I‘m going to advocate freedom instead: whatever your upbringing and whatever your choices, you better figure out what you think freedom means, and why you‘ve chosen that particular definition. Personally, I‘m a number 2-er. I believe people should do whatever the hell they want, as long as they own up to the fact that if their actions screw over others, others will exercise their own freedom to counteract. Some will raise the argument that you cannot base a society on that idea, because without laws, crimes would fall under those freedoms. 

Sadly for you, crimes already fall under that freedom. The law does not prevent people from committing crimes; it merely outlines the consequences they‘ll have to deal with. If this is the first time you heard that argument, take a moment to read it again, but it‘s the fundamental essence of the judicial system. You are perfectly free to commit crimes, as long as you face the consequences that breaking the laws pertaining to your crimes come with. 

But leaving that for a moment, let‘s take a look at the most interesting topic on the American market right now. No, not the economy, I said interesting, not depressing. 


Yeah, I said it. Sexual development is to a large degree determined by your upbringing. Freedom in sex can range from "you will have sex after marriage, and then only with a specific single member of the opposite gender" to "you‘re free to have sex with whoever you want". It can also range from "sex is for reproduction only" to "sex is mostly a pastime activity". 

By nature, humans are pretty much capable of loving anything when they‘re born. If you don‘t abuse the hell out of them (and make sure they don‘t get abused outside the household), they‘ll love mum, dad, and all the little siblings in the pack. But they won‘t love outsiders. Pack behaviour is pretty much rote for humans, until you start teaching them rational thought, and sadly that never fully sticks for most people. We only use 10% of our brains on average, I conject this is because most people aren‘t busy analysing their own opinions for validity at each and every step (which is a shame, really, but hey, to quote Bender Rodríguez: "Freedom.") 

Sex is one of those marvellous things that mostly gets fucked up (in terms of freedom) by bad parenting and society at large. Take a moment to ask yourself "what is it that makes each the following options objectionable, if I find them objectionable": 
  • having sex with someone of roughly the same age, of the opposite gender 
  • having sex with someone of roughly the same age, of the same gender 
  • having sex with someone of roughly the same age, of the either gender (but not at the same time) 
Still with me? What about the following: 
  • having sex with more than one person of the opposite gender, roughly the same age, at the same time 
  • having sex with more than one person of the same gender, roughly the same age, at the same time 
  • having sex with more than one person of either gender, roughly the same age, at the same time 
Okay so that covers threesomes and up, gangbangs and orgies. What about these? 
  • being in a relationship, and having sex with someone who isn‘t your partner, of the same gender as your partner 
  • being in a relationship, and having sex with someone who isn‘t your partner, of the opposite gender as your partner 
  • being in a relationship, and having sex with someone who isn‘t your partner, of either gender (but not at the same time) 
That should cover cheating, extramarital relations, as well as experimenting with your sexual orientation. Of course the options don‘t stop there: 
  • being in a relationship, and having sex with more than one person, of your partner‘s gender, at the same time, without your partner there 
  • being in a relationship, and having sex with more than one person, of the opposite gender, at the same time, without your partner there 
  • being in a relationship, and having sex with more than one person, of either gender, at the same time, without your partner there 
  • being in a relationship, and having sex with more than one person, of your partner‘s gender, at the same time, with partner there 
  • being in a relationship, and having sex with more than one person, of the opposite gender, at the same time, with your partner there 
  • being in a relationship, and having sex with more than one person, of either gender, at the same time, with your partner there 
Alrighty, now we‘ve covered cheating with group sex, as well as couple swapping and swinging in general. 

And this is where it really get interesting. Take a genuinely important moment to ask yourself "what is it that makes each the following options objectionable, if I find them objectionable", for these fairly controversial options: 
  • having sex with a 20 year old, when you‘re 20. 30? 40? 50? 60? Keep going until you find it objectionable and ask yourself why. 
  • An 18 year old, when you‘re 18. 20? 30? 40? You get the idea. 
  • What about an almost 18, 17 year old 
  • What about almost 17, 16 year old? 
  • 15? 14? 13? (Yes, thirteen year old kids have sex. Welcome to the world of today. Are you for it? Would you do one yourself? Could you call it consensual? What would the consent be for?) 
Not consented sex is arguably morally quite wrong, but at which point does it become impossible to tell consented sex from statutory rape? (i.e., technically consented sex, but one of the sexidoers did it because they somehow felt a kind of obligation to have sex, in addition to getting their fuck on). If an 18 year old woman has sex with a 15 year old boy, is that okay? What about the other way around? Why? what if the woman‘s 25 and the boy 15? What about the other way around? Again, why? 

Maybe you don‘t want to think about these things right now. But if you never thought about them before, you really should take the time out of your busy schedule today to stop doing what you want to do instead, and force yourself to think about these questions. What‘s right, what‘s wrong, and why is it wrong? Can you justify that? (and remember, if your justification, at any point, ends at something that‘s a judgement call, then expecting everyone else to agree with you is hubris. Even if it sounds like a ‘reasonable assumption‘. I want you to think about whether your opinions are genuinely justified, or deeply rooted in some arbitrary morality). 

I promise I‘ll stop soon, but there are just a few left to cover.. 
  • having sex with inanimate objects 
This happens. It‘s considered a psychological condition, but just because psychology considers it a condition, can you independently come to the same conclusion? Can you, without saying ‘and psychologists agree‘, explain to yourself why such an activity would be overstepping one‘s sexual freedom? (Annoying as it is, personally, I can‘t. I wouldn‘t do it, but I have absolutely no arguments for why others shouldn‘t) 

Okay, last one. And if you spent the article using that 10% of your brain, you might suddenly realise that things aren‘t as black and white as they used to be: 
  • having sex with family 
"Oh my god, you didn‘t!" except yes, of course, I did. Everyone knows that incestual offspring is fucked. Literally, and figuratively (however, that only goes for direct family, many people for no reason whatsoever still believe that branch hopping to your cousins is equally detrimental: it’s not. No evidence ever supported that theory, either). 

But all those people also know that since the invention of contraception, sex doesn‘t mean making babies in the slightest. It can happen, but if every rump in the sack gave the parties involved a baby, there wouldn‘t be an empty spot left on the face of the western world. We have so much sex, it‘s a statistical miracle that sex and babies are causally linked. If you looked at the number of times people have sex, compared to the number of times those people have a baby or a pet, you‘d be far more likely to believe that having sex means you‘ll have a pet at some point rather than offspring. So, what exactly is wrong with having sex with a family member? And again, the question comes down to freedom. If both parties enjoy it, there‘s clearly no harm done. If they talk about it, it might freak people out, but is that because of what they did, or because people expect others to behave like "the norm"? Remember that norms only exist because of inequality. If everyone acted or thought the same, there wouldn‘t be a norm to deviate from. That‘s another interesting lie: deviation from the norm. While a statistical deviation, it‘s not an actual deviation from anything, since the norm doesn‘t indicate "how things should be", just "how things on average are". (Man, those blasted statistics keep ruining everything, don‘t they.... well no they don‘t, and that’s the technical aspect of statistics people love to overlook).

So how many did you find objectionable? How many of those objections could you properly justify? And here‘s the bigger question, the one that‘s actually the point of this whole article: for those that you couldn‘t properly justify, did you change your opinion from "bad" to "neutral, I guess, although I certainly wouldn‘t do it myself"?

Because that‘s the main issue here. If you have preconceptions about freedoms, be they sexual or otherwise, and someone challenges you to justify them, then are you developed enough to change your opinion if you can‘t justify your own opinions to yourself? If you can, congratulations. Your life is more complex for it, but at least you can believe yourself. If you can‘t, equal congratulations. Your life is easier than for those thinkers, but you‘re also constantly lying to yourself.

And you know what? That‘s also freedom. I don‘t care which of the two you are, but I will only admire one of you. Because "you‘re free to think the way you do, but I sure as hell won‘t join you in it".

- Pomax out.

Abortion vs. the death penalty

(I forgot to cross-post this one when I released it in www.int13h.com a while ago...)

 If you ever want to get everyone falling over you, raise both issues and claim you can‘t be against only one of them because the only difference between them is the age of the person you‘re murdering. Of course, you‘ll be telling a blatant lie, since the differences are legion, but if you ever want to see the worst in people who are quick to take something personal, prepare for a good tyrade.

Once they‘re done, it‘s your turn to point out that they really should have looked at what you had said, instead. Abortion, when applied at the right time, does not kill anything sentient. It just does what the word implies: it aborts the process by which a pretty much inanimate clump of matter ends up forming the basis upon which a sentient system is built. The reason most countries use the 22-25 week as maximum period in which abortion is legal is because it takes into account that as long as there is no synaptic activity, the lump of matter is simply no more alive than fungus or a plant. If you took it out, it simply had as much ways of telling that something bad was happening as a rose has a way of telling that it‘s been cut off a rose bush; preciously little.

The bottom line is really that you cannot murder something that isn‘t sentient or even in a limited sense reactive. And now we hit upon language land, that boon of humanity: murder is bad. It‘s bad, because that‘s what we took as primary reason to distinguish between murder, and killing. A lion kills a wildebeast, and then eats it. That‘s nature, nothing wrong with it, nothing cruel about it, and any realist will acknowledge this. Murder, on the other hand, is the act of killing for no justifiable purpose. Welcome again to language land: justifiable? Well, yes, justifiable to the rest of relevant group.

In a group where killing your wife for fornication by stoning is de rigeur, this isn‘t "murder"; it‘s "justice". If in that same group people eat meat, then killing your cattle because you want to eat isn‘t "murder", it‘s just the necessary act before carving, preparing and consuming.

In a group where people should have the right to make their own decisions, including who they have sex with, killing your wife for fornication is considered murder, not justice. But if in that same group eating meat is considered normal, then killing your cattle is still not murder.

In a group where all life is revered and even stepping on an ant is considered murder, no form of killing by someone from that group is "just" killing. It‘s all murder.

The difference between killing and murder is whether or not it‘s bad in a particular groups‘s view (and yes, at this point you should have realised that the word "group" is synonymous with "society"). If it‘s bad, it‘s murder; if it‘s not, it‘s killing. And this is where things get tricky, because the two groups pro and contra abortion are really two different groups. How do you explain to each other why you think something is bad?

The answer is remarkably simple: as best you can. And ,if you can‘t explain it, then that‘s your own shortcoming. Blaming others for not understanding your views when you cannot explain them is blaming the wrong person.

The pro abortion group is fairly clear: until synaptic activity takes place, the clump of mammalian matter is not sentient, conscious, or more alive than a sprouting plant. It‘s just growing towards something that will allow synaptic activity, at which point it can be considered more alive than a sprouting plant by virtue of allowing a form of sentience. Even if the thing ends up growing into something with retarded mental faculties.

Contra abortion groups are not quite so clear. "All life is precious and therefore should be protected" is an easy rally cry, but also one that needs a hell of a lot more explaining. "Precious" to who, for instance? If you mean precious to you, then you may want to rememeber that the little clump of matter is not yours. You get to voice an opinion, but extending that opinion to a right of ownership is a pretty big leap. If you mean ‘precious to everyone‘ then you‘re clearly just wrong, because there are plenty of people who indicated that they disagree. If you mean ‘precious in the eyes of [insert your deity/deities here]‘, then you‘ve really lucked out - religious matter apply to the religious population, and are ordained by religious leaders. They do not apply to people who do not share that religion. If you find their non-invasive behaviour offensive, you haven‘t quite mastered the art of understanding the difference between "us" and "them" yet, which is odd, since that‘s one of the few hardcoded traits in human beings.

More importantly, where is the "therefore" in the rally cry? Just because something is precious, does not necessitate it being protected... So you need some justification there, too. Yes, I realise that contra abortion groups don‘t always appreciate logics, but then logics is really the only thing we have to convince each other that we are right, or that we are wrong, but that our reasoning at least is correct. If there are gaps in the logic, then either you didn‘t think things through, in which case you are not explaining yourself properly, or you‘re intentionally leaving things out, in which case you are not a very worthwhile person to listen to in the first place.

The really interesting part comes when you look at the problem of when something is alive. Strictly speaking, the little clump of matter that‘s slowly growing to form the basis of a living mammal has never been "not alive". Both the egg cell and sperm are alive onto themselves (while they can or be fertilise(d) they are alive, once they die they lose that ability) and when the come into contact the combination of the two doesn‘t suddenly stop being alive for a brief moment - there is never a moment between ovulation and ejaculation and inception, that the components of what will become foetal matter have not been alive. Life does not "begin at inception", as many christians will try to tell you, life never "began". The couple is alive, and through succesfull coupling that life simply gets perpetuated without any kind of hitch. The life part is the trivially boring bit. The "when is it a human" is the interesting bit. And that‘s at synaptic activity, after 22-25 weeks.

Monty Python weren‘t wrong when they wrote that all the sperm is sacred... if you think abortion is murder, then by extension jerking off into a tissue, or deciding not to have sex so your ovulated eggs will die, is murder too. Rational thought on the matter reveals some very uncomfortable things for lots of people...

But leaving that for a moment, the death penalty.

The fun keeps going!

The death penalty is a way to deal with crimes committed within a group for which no punitive measure is deemed sufficient. No amount of punishment will set right or even satisfy the aggrieved party or parties, so the offending one is removed from existence.

There is no question about the fact that something sentient and conscious is being killed - it‘s a prerequisite for being charged and sentenced to death. If you are not sentient or conscious, you cannot commit a crime that may result in the death penalty in the first place.

Is the death penalty bad? Frankly, it depends on how you look at it. In reality, the death penalty means twenty years in prison, before you‘re either executed, your sentence is converted into "life", or your sentence is overturned entirely because DNA evidence finally cleared you. In the future that last part will most likely vanish with the use of DNA profiling in pretty much every case these days, but for the moment it‘s still possible. So there you are, the tax payer, and that means the people who wanted to see you executed, too, have been paying for you to be kept alive for twenty years. Does that make sense? Don‘t know, not thought about it long enough yet. Frankly, don‘t care that much, either. Judicial punitive measures are only that - punitive measures. Laws that prescribe which measures follow which crime do not prevent crimes, they just give you an indication of how big the hand is going to be that slaps you for committing it. So there‘s a far more interesting problem in that the death penalty is more an indication that the punity measures system is not adequate because killing someone is not a punishment. Punishments are endured. Death doesn‘t need enduring, it‘s one of the easiest tricks in the books when you‘re a human. You can bank on the fact (and life insurance drives this point home quite well) that no matter what situation you are in, no matter how limited your options, not matter how good or bad things are, you‘ll always be able to die. It‘s the easiest trick in the book of human tricks.

So what are the problems with the death penalty? For one, it‘s irreversible. Once someone‘s been executed, that‘s it. New evidence that clears them of whatever crime they committed can bring them back. And saying that "the justice system" will just have to "live with that" is nonsense. There is no "the justice system", just individual people all of whom will be affected by the knowledge that they got someone who apparently did not deserve to be murdered, murdered. This is why I personally like to see the worst punitive measure to be life imprisonment, with the voluntary option of being executed instead. Free up some resources, be less of a drain on a society you‘re never, ever, going to see again, ever, anyway. Sure, your deity might not let you into whatever heaven there is for your religion, but then if you got life imprisonment it would be unlikely that you were getting in anyway.

So, abortion and the death penalty... Two very different things, for either of which you need to form a well reasoning opinion before you start to opine about them. Do the world a favour, sit and think. Then talk. Not only does it make things more interesting, but you might even end up being able to explain why you think what you think. Imagine how much better life would be if we could all do that.

No, seriously, go imagine it.

Maybe it will motivate you to form a proper opinion for a change.

Fallaceous Division... not as sexy as it sounds

(I forgot to cross-post this one when I released it in www.int13h.com a while ago...)

Ahem... "The whole is different from the sum of its parts."

This little writing is to highlight the problem of the Division Fallacy: taking a generalised statement, and then projecting the properties onto every constituent that falls under the generalisation. For instance: when we‘re talking about traits of nations, I could say that "the Greek are lazy". If you then get all upset and prissy because you think I said all Greeks are lazy, and you "know plenty of Greeks who aren‘t, where do you get off", you are committing this fallacy.

So why did you? Surely individual Greeks make up "the Greek"?

Actually, they don‘t. Because "the Greek" do not exist at the individual level - they are simply individuals with each different personal traits - you cannot consider "The Greek" to be "the collection of all individual Greeks". It‘s tempting too, certainly, and almost everyone will do this (if not with the Greek then with a million other things) but it does not hold.

So let‘s do a little comparison:

- Apple pies are delicious, but that doesn‘t mean every apple pie is delicious.
- Cats are mammals, but that doesn‘t mean every cat is a mammal.

Hang on a second... somehow the logic seems to have broken down. Why? Same kind of words, same logical structure, but the first is true while the second is false. What‘s different? Crucially, the difference is a judgement call. In the first phrase, we call apple pies something that we believe to be true in the first place.

- Apple pies are delicious.

This is open to debate - there might be people who simple do not like apple pie, no matter the particular incarnation. However, in the second sentence this is not the case:

- Cats are mammals.

this is factual data. Anything that you want to call a cat has to first be a mammal (in fact, it has to be a backboned animal of the carnivorous mammal inclination, more specifcally of felidea family, and preferably even be of the genus felis).

The real fun part starts here: what say we claim that we "wish that Los Aangeles was wiped off the face of the earth, because it is a cess pool", which honestly it is and I wish it were. Does this mean I want everyone in LA dead? Not really, there isn‘t even the slightest logical connection between the two because "the people in Los Angeles" do not stand equal to "Los Angeles". If we removed the people for a moment from L.A., there is still a hell of a lot of stuff left, and it will still be a cess pool, just without people for a moment. In fact, removing the people still leaves "L.A." in place. If we remove everything that‘s left after the people leave, and then put the people back, we just have a whole bunch of people standing on an empty plot of land - clearly the people of L.A. in fact don‘t really matter than much in what makes L.A. at all

(critical thinking is a nasty thing - you can use it to prove yourself silly)

Let‘s look at it from a mathematical perspective. The Division Fallacy amounts to saying that 10 is the same as 1 plus 2 plus 3 plus 4. You might wonder where the problem lies in this, but keep in mind what natural language does. This statements tells us that some number is the sum of four other numbers.

I‘ll give you a moment.

Okay, moment‘s up - 10 is not the sum of the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4. In fact, "10" is just a number, while "1+2+3+4" is a compound addition. If you work out the addition, you come up with a number that happens to be "10", but who said I am thinking of that particular "10" when I ask "I am thinking of the number 10. What‘s its decomposition?". Here, the number "10" is like the Greek: lazy. It has not told us anything about what it really is. Is it just the number 10? Then it has no decomposition at all. Is it the result of some function I was thinking of, instantiated with some specific parameters? Then it‘s just being lazy not revealing this function, or the parameters, so that we can guess at the missing bit. Is it actually "10"? Maybe it‘s just "1" and "0" stuck together as a string, in which case it‘s not even a number. What the hell is "10"?

And there‘s the question you should be asking instead: The Greek are lazy, but what do I mean with ‘the Greek‘?

But then, most people don‘t like asking questions because the answers might require them to think something over, and that‘s not what got us ahead in the evolutionary game, where making a snap judgement and sticking to it meant you survived. Oh no, wait. That evolutionary game ceased to matter when the human race organised itself into cooperative societies, now we‘re only internally competing.

"The human race doesn‘t suffer from the evolutionary game anymore."


Time traveling to see the past

I can hear you think that I'm stating the obvious. In order to see the past, you need to travel back in time, everyone intuitively understands the logic in that. But wait, because if it were obvious then I wouldn't have bothered writing this little article.

Time travel is, for all intents and purposes, a curious thing. It's "impossible" according to most leading physicists (at least, the ones we tend to take serious), but theoretically it might be possible as long as something is able to reach a speed that is greater than c, the speed at which electromagnetic radiation perpetuates. The idea is that there is no such thing as independent time, the temporal dimension is linked to the direction dimensions, and there is nothing that prevents motion in one dimension to "bleed into" another dimension. For instance, if you are traveling forward then you are probably moving around on the lef-right and up-down axis a little too, even if you don't intend to. The same is possible for time, but you need to go pretty damn fast if you want to have a noticable effect in the temporal dimension.

The idea is that the faster you go, the slower time goes for you (yes, even at normal speeds. If you take the airplane from China to South Africa, then the flight time for you in the air is actually slightly less than the flight time if you were to look at the clock in China when you left, and the one in South Africa when you arrived). this slowing down of time would continue until you reach c, which is physically impossible, and then if you were to somehow go even faster than c, you would actually be travelling backwards in time.

That's quite insane, because you'd still be travelling positively directionally, but negatively temporally, meaning you'd go forward, but everyone around you would see you going backwards. It's just flipped out sci-fi that way... Kind of like a pharcyde music video, but then infused with physics instead of hip beats.

But that's not the kind of time travel I was thinking of. You see, you don't need to "go back in time" in order to see the past. To see why, let's look at our universe, as if we're on the earth (I know, unrealistic concept given its size, but humour me a moment). Say you're standing on earth, and you're looking out over the ocean, and at the edge of the horizon there's a ship that you can barely make out. However, you have a radio setup that allows you to send radio signals to the boat, and obviously they have radio equipment to answer, and both your and the boat's equipment is pretty new and outfitted with a directional dish so that you don't waste energy just broadcasting all over the place, but specifically target each other.

He's the interesting bit. Someone on the boat has a powerful flashlight, and you have a powerful flashlight. You call up the boat with your fancy radio and say "turn on your flash light in exactly 10 seconds from ... now" and then you start counting with your atomic-clock-synchronised wristwatch and after 10 seconds you turn on your light, and pretty much at the same time you see the light on the boat being turned on.


The remarkable bit is that both events seem to happen at the same time. Of course, this is ridiculous, they don't, but the distance - even though big for conventional purposes - is just not big enough to make a really noticable difference. There might be a half second delay, but what's half a second?

Now imagine you're standing on earth with a telescope, and you're looking out into the universe, peering at stars that are not the distance to the horizon away, but are 10 billion times further away. All of a sudden it wouldn't take an increase in luminosity of the star half a second for you to notice, it would take over 300 years for you to notice!

So what you're seeing now, is a picture of what the star used to look like, over 300 years ago.

The amazing bit is that no matter where you look around you, you're not seeing the present, but the past. Even if you look at the sun, you're seeing the sun the way it was 8 minutes ago, rather than the way it is now. You may be thinking "so what, we alreayd knew this", but the real fun starts now.

Consider the earth a point in the universe. In any direction you "point" a telescope, you will see a region of the universe as it some point in the past. Say we're looking at a star that is 60 light years away, then we see it the way it was 60 years in the past. Now, we take another point that is 2 light years closer to this star, and look at the earth - we see the earth as it was 2 years ago. Then we look at the start - we see it the way it was 58 years ago. Now we take another point that is 57 light years and 355 days closer to that star. If we look at the earth, we see it the way it was 60 years minus 1 day ago, but if we look at the star, we see it the way it was yesterday.

The impressive conclusion is that If we take the universe as a whole, then the universe contains a 3 dimensional picture of its own past, but the only way to see the full history is to look at every point in the universe *from* every point in the universe.

That's a hassle.

But it gets worse, because it's not just a hassle, say we wanted to look at the earth 400 years ago, then we somehow need access to a battery of telescopes, all of them about 400 lightyears away from the earth, all pointed at the earth, and all of them able to transmit their data at a speed of 400 lightyears per much less than 400 years. That would require the information to travel faster than the speed of light...

So here we have a problem: if we want to see the past without travelling in time, we need to get something else to do the time travelling for us.

So the good news is that there is a complete copy of the universe's visible history floating in the universe, and the bad news is we can't really access it.

Science sucks =(

Are you getting the most out of your air?

Imagine if you will for a moment, that you could label the air you're breathing. You suck up air, and when you say something or exhale, it has a little label going "this passed through me". But you probably wouldn't be using air that doesn't have a label yet. Certainly, some of the air you're breathing is "new" air, but then again some of it has probably been breathed by other humans before you, not to mention a crazy amount of animals and plants. While the animals and plants are cute in thought at best, the really interesting bit concerns the other humans.

If popular science is to be believed, "there are more humans alive now than ever lived", which means there have been throughout the history of mankind less than 12,000,000,000 (give or take a few hundred million) humans. Given that the average human has a tidal lung volume of about half a liter, and the average human has a respiratory rate of between 15 and 30 breaths a minute (so lets set that 25 just for convenience) then in the history of man (if we take an average human age of 40 years - remember, of all time, so on average over several hundred thousand years, we're more likely to have died at 40 than, say, 80 years of age) we can calculate the amount of air moved around in human lungs throughout the ages:

roughly 378,432,000,000,000,000 liters.

In a usable metric, that means 378,432,000,000,000 cubic meters. That's 378 432 cubic kilometers of air. Now, the estimated amount of breathable air on the earth *right now* is somewhere around 2,500,000,000 cubic kilometers, which is actually significantly more than we ever collectively breathed... so there goes the theory that all the air we are breathing now has been breathed before...

However, just because there is far more air than all the humans in the word, ever, could have breathed in and out, that doesn't mean that there is't a chance that the air you're breathing right now hasn't been breathed out by some other human aleady. In fact, given that there are many places where we live in close proximity to each other, it's quite likely that the air you're breathing in at the office for instance has been breathed in and out by your coworkers too.

but... how probable is this?

This is where we reach the "this is impossible to say", not because math fails us, but our knowledge of the world fails us. There isn't enough information by far to calculate the average probability that you will be breathing in the air from someone at a distance of x, across a time period of y. Even guessing is pretty useless here.

However, this doesn't mean we can't think about a rather ackward question: Say we did know the probablity that you are breathing in air already breathed out by someone else, and that we knew the probability that you are talking while exhaling... then what are the odds that what you are saying, with this breath of air, something more significant than what the people who breathed it before you did?

And carrying the thought through: what are the odds that what you saying is the most profound thing ever said with this breath of air?

It makes you think. Even if the probability that you are breathing in and out air already breathed by someone (or more likely someones, since a breath of air has billions upon billions of molecules, most of which come from multiple other people, if it comes from other people already) is astronomically small, then provided this *is* the case, is the probability that what you're saying is more important than what's ever been said before with it significant? Or are you just wasting your time saying things anyway?

Most of the things we say are fairly insignificant and mundane, but every now and then you say things that are truly profound. For instance, the moment you say "I do" at a wedding might steer the course of history to an arrangement that leads to the eventual birth of the first emperor of the first global empire earth. You just don't know. But you do know what people in history said that has been significant: Nixon saying "I am not a crook", Ghandi saying "we will not fight you", Mao saying "Yes, I actually do think it's a good idea to destroy all of China's cultural heritage and kill anyone who owns sheet music or a musical instrument". Of course, these are all paraphrases, but you get the idea. Some pretty significant things have been said, with even more significant results.

But are these expressions far and wide apart, or are they more common than you might think? Every human has at least a few moments of significant utterances that steer the course of their life, if not also the lives of others, but when they said it, was that the most profound thing ever said with the breath of air they used?

To be honest, we'll probably never find out.

By far the most interesting thing about this whole treatise is really that I may have just said something so profound you won't quite realise how profound it was for a long time, and I did it without ever opening my mouth to speak.

At least I made sure to breathe more than average while writing this. Take that, ghandi.
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Universal minimum speed

I had been reading "The Ancestor's Tale" by Richard Dawkins before going to sleep, and woke up the following morning with a curious thought: "Is there a minimum speed?" Now, I have to admit this has very little to do with the evolutionary zoology the book is about *, but it does raise an interesting series of thoughts.

For one, this question is not "can there be no speed", or more succinctly, "can there be a no-velocity state", like the "velocity" 0 m/s. If I had asked this, I would have greatly disappointed myself; a zero velocity is not actually a velocity, due to the meaning of "zero". While we use 0 as if it were a number in the mathematical language, it isn't actually one - it is a conceptual symbol much like infinity or the complex number, allowing us to perform calculations that make sense, but having no "real world" equivalent. When asking about the existence of a minimal velocity obviously it stands to reason that this phrasing discounts, exactly because of the presense of the word velocity, the situation where no velocity is manifest. I digress a little, but that was important. Anyway, is there some kind of universal minimal velocity?


There are a few things that make a minimal velocity possible: discrete spacetime or discrete energy. The second is the simplest solution, so let's look at that one. Quantum mechanics shows us that if anything, energy is actually quantised - that is, it comes in discrete quantities, rather than in any possible quantity - but it is not entirely clear why, and whether this is universal. The energy released by electrons upon excitation is highly quantised, with an electron requiring a minimal amount of energy to be added to it, in order to release another energy packet, conveniently called a photon.

larger sub-molecular particles do roughly the same thing - all energy conversions (that we know of that is) happen through discrete valued particles, and this leads us to believe that based on the evidence we have so far energy is in fact universally quantised at the quantum level of reality. So this leads us to a certain line of reasoning. If energy is quantised, and velocity is a direct consequence of the addition of energy to a system (which it is), then there has to be a minimal velocity, some velocity value "v", such that a velocity lower than v but higher than zero is universally impossible.

But what if spacetime, too, is discrete? If this is the case, we would suddenly have an interesting problem: velocity is measured in distance units per time unit. Meters per second, miles per hour, parsecs per year, all of these indicate some discrete distance, over some discrete time - but all these discrete values like meters or miles or parsecs, are plucked from a continuous "space", and seconds, hours and years are plucked from continuous "time". What if space and time are not continuous at all?

In fact, let's rephrase: is spacetime discrete?

Well, it might be. We just reached a cutting edge question in science, which is not experimentally answerable yet; a slight problem. However, it is becoming more likely that it actually is discrete at the scale lower than the "Planck length", which is a remarkably small length of roughly 0.000000000000000000000000000000000016 meters. This means that even at the molecular level this scale is simply invisible. To make this invisibily a bit more clear, the estimated "size" (if you can call it that) of a proton, one of the two submolecular particles that form a atomic nucleus (the other being the neutron) is estimated at 0.000000000000001 meters. Even if we got that value wrong by, say, a margin on a thousand-fold (which is quite a ridiculous margin, the real error margin is at most a factor 10), this means that the discretisation of space is still 160 quintillion times as small. That's a million, times a million, times another million. Times 160.

This is phenomenally small. So small in fact, your human imagination cannot envisage it, because the scale difference is unknown to you - nothing in the world that you experience has that kind of size contrasts. In comparison, the diameter of our sun is roughly 1.4 million kilometers, and the distance from the sun to the edge of our solar system is less than 14 thousand times that. In fact, the distance from one end of our galaxy rather than just the solar system is only 675.752.029.000 times as big as the diameter of the sun. To get a feeling for the size difference between a proton and (possibly) discretised space, you would need to get something that is at least another million times as large. Let's for the sake of argument assume that the current estimate for the size of the entire universe is accurate at 156 billion lightyears. That would be roughly 1.475.842 quintillion kilometers... The scale difference between a proton and discrete spacetime is roughly comparable to the the scale between the entire universe and just our solar system.

That's, realistically speaking, a scale difference that can drive a person insane trying to envision it.

But then, we're thinking scientifically and zeroes don't phase us one bit. If discretised spacetime is true, then this gives us an "upper limit" of what the minimum velocity is: 1 discrete space unit per ... per what? if spacetime is discrete then it basically means that not just space, but spacetime is discrete, so our upper limit is actually "one spacetime unit", which already carries in it both possible distance, and possible length of time. Hurray! But what are they?

And that, we just don't know. But that's okay, because the question doesn't need to actually know what it is, though it is fun to think about it - the question was "is there a minimum velocity, below which there is no velocity".

In case spacetime is continuous, the answer seems to be "yes, there is, but it's hard to say how the value should be expressed": the minimal velocity will be whatever the minimal energy packet transmittable by the smallest particles in the universe is, when translated into particlewave motion (which is pretty small, but definite). However, expressing this in for instance miles per hour or meters per seconds will be too suggestive, because even the tiny scale "nanometer" will probably already be too big to represent the velocity involved. In short the velocity unit would be too suggestive in secretly claiming that with this velocity a particlewave could traverse a nanometer, or a meter, or a mile, or a parsec, or any other distance we picked as unit measure. Units are tricky that way.

In case spacetime is discrete, the answer seems to be that "yes, there is a minimal velocity because of the fact that there is a discrete minimal energy value, and we can express this value in spacetime units, once we discover what the heck these are". Except the very fact that we ourselves are embedded in spacetime will probably make it impossible to directly measure what the discretisation factor of spacetime is. Clever physical (in the sense of physics) math might help us, but it'll be daunting nontheless.

So there we have it: "Is there a minimum velocity?" - "yes"

Another burning question answered thanks to a bit of thinking and the progress of science.

*) I recommend that in addition to reading this book, because it is quite good, you read "The Selfish Gene" by Dawkins, particularly before or after reading works by Stephen J. Gould on the subject of evolutionary "law" (yes, every evolutionary biologist knows it's no more law than a macro-physics law, which is to say a descriptive one), so that you may notice that both extremes these men advocate(d) for evolutionary biology are right, but operate on different levels of abstraction. Once you become accustomed to the multiple perspective interpretation of the world, inherently caused by our own abstraction of it, it becomes blatantly obvious that many contrapositions are simply void because their arguments pivot around different levels.

A profound and as ever simple statement.

I was considering writing an article on why the statement that I will make is true, but frankly there is not much to explain. I know there is a certain annoyance about basic "truths" being stated without an explanation of why they are supposed to be true, but unlike a book on "Zen Wisdom" or something equally silly, you can always ask me what I meant, which you have to admit is a tad hard to do with a book. Suffice to say that when you really think about it, there's not much of a case to make for any other interpretation than the one I offer.

I am but a thought.

Anthropocentrism is a natural but still curious thing.

The most immediately curious aspect of this is probably our need to see things that aren't there. Literally. We have words for holes (which aren't there, it's the absence of material), we have words for shadows and darkness (which isn't there, it's the reduced presence of light), we have a word for zero (which isn't anything, it's the absence of some unit thing). We have words for these things, and because we do we believe that they exist. We see holes, and say "that is a hole", and mean that there "is something".

What we actually do is say that there are pattern variations in the world we observe, which we can describe with the word "hole" or "shadow" or "zero" or the like. We are biological pattern matchers. In fact most animals are. We sense patterns in what we experience, and use these patterns to determine things about the world around us. I'm not saying the behaviourists were right, but they weren't entirely wrong either.

When you start to think about Anthropocentrismm, things become tricky, because many people will feel your thoughts somehow dictate how they have to think, rather than describe how they are already thinking. So for this post in particular (though essentially for all posts on the subject) you should continue to remind yourself that what will be presented is not a new way in which things will be done, but a description of the way things have been done ever since we were advanced enough in the history of humanity to contemplate things.

A great many things we talk about do not exist in the world outside our thoughts. Take very simple things like "red" or "the edge of a table". The colour "red" is not really one colour, it's a particular frequency range of visible light that doesn't just differ per person, but also differs in the same person depending on what they are looking at. If someone is looking at a red ball then other balls will be "red" if they are close to it in colour, whereas if someone was looking at a green ball, colours that would have been rejected in the previous setting will now be accepted as "red"; "red" does not exist as a binary quality (meaning that something is either red, or is not red) but is a subjective quality - it is inside us, not inside the world; just the frequencies of visible light are in the world. The same goes for the "edge of the table": put the table in space, and all the things that are associated with the edge of a table, like things rolling or falling off, no longer happen. In fact, you can't even tell if what you call "the edge" of the table is actually on the bottom or on top (just flip a table surface on earth and what you called the edge earlier is now a angled surface on the under side). So again we have something that exists in our mind, but not objectively in the world.

This goes quite far, actually. Usually when you explain these simple examples, people will find them amusing or evocative for further thought, and they will have liked the conversation (unless they are the kind of people that do not handle new perspectives very well, in which case it's best to talk about what happened in a TV show they like rather than about something mentally challenging... but let's not dwell on those people). However, most people that like to talk about these things without giving it much thought themselves start to feel uncomfortable when the conversation moves into the area of fundamentals. Allow me to show you how this works - if after reading the rest of this post you feel somewhat unsettled or even upset with the theory proposed, you are one of these people (this is normal behaviour, don't worry. Just remember that being upset because you don't understand or like something doesn't make that something false - or true for that matter)


Take causality for instance. One might expect that causality - one thing causes the other - is one of those fundamental things in nature, but when you get down to it causality is nothing more than anthropocentric reasoning. We are temporal creatures, who think in one direction of time. When we see a queue ball hit a red ball in snooker, we think that the two balls are not linked to each other by any laws of physics before they hit, and that they are linked by newtonian laws of physics after they have hit each other.

This is silly.

From an objective point of view, the fact that the red ball moves the way it does after being hit and the white ball remains in its place, means that it has to have had a past which is conductive to this situation. In the same way a white ball rolling towards a red ball must have a future that is conductive to this situation - it cannot be that the white ball will hit the red ball and then neither of them move. The correlation between the two events is symmetric in time, so if there is a situation in which we as humans say we see causality, then the situation is just as causal the other way around. A simple example borrowed from Huw Price: say two people work in the same district and run into each other purely by chance because of this, roughly once every two weeks. Whenever they do, they agree to have a drink later that day. We see a correlation between "meeting each other" and "having a drink", but the relation also works the other way around, we see the *exact same* correlation between "having a drink" and "meeting each other". If we see an increase in them having a drink, then they meet more often, and if we see them meet more often they will have drinks more often. Causality is an anthropocentric projection on these correlations - we accept the past influencing the future, but we do not see the future influencing the past, because we can only think in one direction of time.

This is fairly drastic for most people, since it seems to say that backward causation is not just entirely possible but happens all the time, in such a way that the fatalist is right in saying everything is predetermined. The fatalist would be right in this assumption, but there is a difference between the future (or the past) being predetermined (ie, has only one set of truth values) and it being accessible (ie, being of a nature that allows us to say something about the truth values without being at the time we are talking about). Even if the future is predetermined, it's not accessible. Amusingly (and an anthropocentric perspective will have great issues with this one too:) the past is not accessible either. Only the "now" is accessible, with the past being accessible through recordings that exist "now" (such as history books). However, amusingly these do not guarantee us the truth values of the past; they only offer the truth values as someone believed them to have been.

So that basically covers causality and time... what we call causality is just the forward flavour of a time-symmetrical correlation between events, and time itself is a mostly-nonaccessible dimension except for the "now". "The past" and "the future" are once more just words for things that do not exist, like shadows or table edges.

Important is to remember that for every day life you don't need to know, believe or even remember that the future is just as correlating to the past as the other way around. On the other hand if you want to do physics, it would be ridiculous to ignore this (but you're probably not a physicist).


Another interestingly anthropocentric topic is "life", or more precisely "the quality that something posesses that allows us to say it is alive". Again you might think this is some objective quality but it turns out this too is a mere anthropocentric construction. The most constructive way to show this is by a reduction argument, which basically means taking an example that is alive, and stripping away things until we can no longer say it is alive. If we can do this, then there is some thing inherent to the objective world that determined whether something is alive or not.

Are humans alive? almost by definition, we are. Do we differ from animals in this respect? The typical answer is no, both humans and any other animal can be said to be alive. So let's start simplifying. Animals are alive. Are they alive because they have a brain? Well, we say that plants are alive too, and they do not have brains, so "alive" in the general sense has be to related to something else. Are plants and animals alive because they grow? Well that would not be very sensical because crystals grow too, but we don't call them alive. But crystals grow slowly, do things that are alive perhaps grow fast? A quick look at the speed with which certain lichen and corals grow, we can safely say "no not really" and we are forced to look at something else. Are things perhaps alive because they are made up of cells? A good initial thought, let's reduce our domain to the single-cell organisms, and then notice we call these alive too... this might be the winning ticket - but then what makes the single-cell organism alive, that causes everything else that consists of cells to be called alive too? Is it alive because it manages to ingest nutrients? well, the ingestion process is just pure physics; a certain molecular imbalance inside the cell triggers it, and the ingestion of nutrients levels the balance again. In fact, everything that happens in a single-cell organism is just pure physics. Nothing brain-like "controls" the actions because anything that even resembles a brain consists of many many cells in itself.

So this poses a problem: if a single-cell organism is really nothing more than a complex physical process, then "being made of cells" is not a criterium for being alive. In fact it would basically mean that the single-cell organism is not strictly speaking alive at all, it's just a bit of physics in action. Complex, of course, but still just physics.

What's going on here? Well, basically the same thing that happens when we think about "red". Like "red", "alive" is something we as humans project onto things. Consider what red means. It's a colour, right? Except it's not, it's far more. Consider what "red" means in different, but comparable, context: "a red apple" vs. "a red grapefruit": we know what red means, but in these instances it doesn't mean that the apple and the grapefruit are normal apples and graprefruits, but then entirely red. For apples it means that the peel is red, and for grapefruits it means the pulp is red. Nowhere in our definition of "red", however, do we every mention peels and pulps... "alive" is just as annoying, we use one word to mean many different things when we use it: "that plant is alive" and "that man is alive" mean two completely different things. What's worse, we also use it to describe things that we don't even think are alive at all, by virtue of the fact that we think that something that is alive also leads a life. "The story started leading a life of its own" - are stories alive?

And so we hit upon the unavoidable anthropocentrism. "alive" is just some pattern that we see things exhibit, and this pattern does not even need to be the same for all things that we consider alive.

A great many of the words you use in daily life are anthropocentric, and for good reason: as anthropoids it makes perfect sense that we experience the world from an antropocentric point of view.

However, whenever you want to talk or even think about things that are part of the "objective world", true regardless of whether a human describes it, you have to think about every word you use, you might be tricking yourself by reaching a conclusion using words that are meaningless when you consider them outside of an anthropocentric perspective.

Beware the anthropoid wielding language.
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