Children’s book

Recently I got inspired and wrote out the text of a children’s book, with descriptions of the illustrations I want to draw.

It’s about dragons and fairies and wizards.
It’s also about definitions.
It’s also about learning to see how amazing things are, even if they’re common and you’ve gotten used to them.

I don’t know if I’m good enough at drawing to do the illustrations justice. I want them to be really gorgeous and magical. I might end up commissioning someone else to do them, except I don’t have money, so I might have to wait until I do, or find someone who’s willing to draw them in exchange for getting a percentage of any revenue from the book.

Anyway, here it is.

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Optical Illusion Rays

Here are some rays in the Wild Reef exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium.

Fun fact about me: I had been to the Shedd Aquarium once before, as a small child. I have only the vaguest memories of it. But to this day,  I still have lots of weird surreal dreams, which often come with a sense of being somehow connected to the Shedd Aquarium.

One recurring dream is about going around in some kind of museum with lots of exhibits behind glass, each with something strange and otherworldly in it. Visiting the Shedd Aquarium last week definitely brought back that feeling.

Another dream I often have involves fish inexplicably swimming around in the air.

It can’t have been caused by this exhibit, which was installed pretty recently. But this is a freaky optical illusion.

The rays are swimming in a shallow pool in the center of a darkened room. The pool is lit from within. So there is virtually no reflection on the surface of the water, which makes the water effectively invisible.  It looks as if the rays are swimming around in the air, an inch above dry sand.

It took me a while to figure out what was going on. If you look at the right angle, you can faintly see some reflections that tell you the water is there.

But there is no plaque or anything to explain the illusion. So, I’m pretty sure some people go to the Shedd Aquarium and come home thinking it has LEVITATING LAND RAYS.

 

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Shedd Aquarium

Some bizarre fish. I especially like the guy that swims around with his giant mouth open under his paddle-shaped nose.

 

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Sirius the Artist

Lately I’ve been trying to teach Sirius to draw.

It’s harder with a starling than a parrot. Parrots are made to hold things in their feet, and once you’ve gotten a parrot to grasp a pen, it’s easy convincing him to move it against a sheet of paper for a while. But starling feet can’t really hold anything except the branch the bird is perched on.

First I had to make flat holders for little crayon pieces, big enough for his beak to grasp, but light enough for him to lift and move easily. Then came the task of presenting him with a crayon-holder and rewarding him whenever his beak touched it in any way at all. Gradually I’ve worked my way up to giving him a special treat when he holds the thing on his own for a few seconds. Some day in the future, I may be able to get him to hold it and then mash it down on a piece of paper, in the same way he attacks a bug or a blueberry, creating a few artistic strokes of color in the process of shaking it to death.

It certainly won’t be great art. It’ll be barely a scribble, and somewhat less satisfying for the fact that the bird didn’t come up with the idea on his own. People looking at Siri’s drawings may experience some of the disappointment they felt when they saw that online video of an elephant making a detailed painting of an elephant, only to find out later that elephants NEVER paint a realistic picture unless they are rigorously trained to paint that specific thing.

Now, I am not equating Siri’s artistic career to that of the elephant in the video. From what I’ve heard, those elephants are treated terribly, beaten and gouged every time they draw a line the wrong way. I don’t do punishment. I train exclusively with positive reinforcement. Siri gets plenty of healthy food every day (the recommended mix of dog food and poultry mash, with applesauce on the side), but if he does a trick I’ve taught him, he immediately gets dried flies and other special treats he wouldn’t otherwise have. If he disobeys me, nothing happens; I just don’t give him a treat.

There are many reasons why I don’t use punishment or negative reinforcement. I don’t like making any living creature unhappy. And I don’t think it would work well, either. Some animals just don’t understand it. Truth be told, I didn’t understand it in my own childhood. Punishment didn’t work on me. I always saw it as an attack that deserved retaliation, instead of a consequence to be avoided by changing my behavior. Whenever it happened, it poisoned the relationship between me and the people teaching me, instead of making it the enjoyable social interaction it should have been.

Positive reinforcement works. It’s the process behind Siri’s progress on the piano, from showing zero interest in that silly toy, all the way to elaborate recitals like this:

And yes, it may be disappointing, in a way, that he didn’t come up with it on his own. But, at this point in time, it’s worth remembering that he enjoys it enough to do it on his own. When he’s craving attention and treats, he will spontaneously fly to his piano and start playing, without my having to initiate anything.

Yes, he’s doing it in order to get something… but that whole process of playing piano, getting a treat, then playing some more, is fun enough for him that he deliberately chooses to begin it.

I think training can be a great part of life with a pet, enjoyable for both human and animal. I’ve known this ever since I was a child teaching tricks to the family dogs, and whatever other creatures found their way into our home. We took in a lot of unusual stray animals over the years; our house seemed to attract them somehow. Once we even found a guinea pig under some bushes in the backyard. After we brought it inside and fed it, my first reaction was to teach it to shake hands.

It was a very young and cute black-furred guinea pig, very friendly and eager to please, if pleasing me meant that I would give it carrot sticks. This creature would do anything for carrot sticks. So I held a piece of carrot in its face, letting it sniff and nose at the morsel, but holding on tightly, not letting it have a bite until it actually started to paw at my hand. I rewarded each touch of the paw with a carrot bite, until the guinea pig had begun to associate the treats with the action, and soon it was putting its paw in my hand every time I reached out to it.

My parents didn’t let me keep the guinea pig; we had enough pets already at the time, so they gave it to a family they knew. It wasn’t a family of close friends, just casual acquaintances, so I never saw it again… but I’m told that it lived for ten more years, which is ridiculously old for a guinea pig.

I’m certainly not claiming that this long lifespan was due to learning how to shake hands. But I do believe that learning tricks is healthy for pets, and fills a void they may have inside them, left over from their wild ancestors.

If there’s one thing most pets are in great need of, it’s mental stimulation. They live in an environment where predators are unheard of, and food and shelter are given to them with no effort on their part. Certainly it’s less stressful than life in the wild, and most pets don’t want to leave this safe haven. But one can’t deny that it gets a little boring after a while.

Animal minds, including ours, are made for a world where they’re facing constant challenges in order to stay alive. Of course most of us, human and animal, will choose a safer alternative if we can get it. But in order to stay happy in that safety, we need hobbies and games to challenge our minds.

I believe that learning tricks is one of the greatest games that pets can get to play. It’s a combination of engaging mental challenges, snacks, and social time with the humans they love. In fact, it’s so fun that it could even be translated into an enjoyable game for our own intellectually advanced species.

Imagine playing with a friend: you are the trainer, and he is the trainee. You have a task that you want him to do (arrange all the pencils in order of color, or walk in a square three times, or wave a feather-duster at the television; be creative and make up something weird) but you can’t use language to communicate it.

Your only way to tell him what you want is to give a specific reaction when he gets part of it right. He moves randomly around, doing random things to get your attention, and if he happens to touch the pile of colored pencils, you say “Good!”

He pays more attention to the pencils, moving them around. You say “Good” again when he gets two of them parallel to each other, then again when he happens to get a couple of them in order of color, and so on. See how complex a task you can teach without any words except that one little expression of praise. It’s like a cross between “Charades” and “Warmer, Colder.” It’s fun!

I think Sirius enjoys his piano lessons and drawing classes, and not just because he gets dried bugs to eat. The strongest proof I have is a certain thing he does from time to time. In fact, he did it just now, while I was typing an earlier paragraph.

He flew to his piano, and played several notes. I poured him a little pile of flies next to my computer, and he came and ate a few. But before finishing, he flew back to the piano, leaving flies uneaten. He played some more notes… and then, without me doing anything, he returned to the pile of flies and rewarded himself.

If he were only doing it for the treats, wouldn’t he just have stayed and finished the flies at his leisure? I believe that the give-and-take of playing, eating and playing again— the pattern of the game— fascinates him on some deep level, and he enjoys it for itself, as a whole.

Maybe some day we’ll be able to say the same about drawing.

Otherkin

I have occasionally described myself as an alien.

And lately I have spent a significant amount of time on Tumblr (where all genders, orientations, and other forms of identity are accepted and defended, and furthermore, there are new and unusual identities gaining recognition all the time).

So I’m sure some people are wondering what my opinions are on the phenomenon of “otherkin.”

That question encompasses several questions, which I’ll try to answer one by one.

1. How do you define the term “otherkin”?

As I understand it, otherkin are people who experience a feeling of being something other than a human, trapped in a human body.

2. Is it real?

Of course. It’s a feeling, so, if people feel it, then by definition it is real.

3. Is it just a feeling? Or is it really what people say it is?

If you mean being a literal reincarnation of some animal, a literal descendant of some alien, or a soul that some supernatural power literally placed in the wrong body… then, in my opinion, no.

However, I don’t find those ideas any more unlikely than the claims of mainstream religion.

To people who earnestly believe them, I extend the same respect and tolerance that I extend to religious people, as long as they aren’t using it as an excuse to hurt others.

You don’t have to share people’s beliefs to respect their feelings.

4. Is it comparable to being transgender? (In other words, is it the same type of feeling, and of the same strength?)

Without having had both those experiences, I can’t give a confident answer to that.

I’m not telepathic. I can’t know for certain what another person feels, or how strongly.

I can only make guesses based on people’s words and actions.

From observation of words and actions, I’m pretty sure there is a wide variation among individuals, both transgender and otherkin, in terms of how strongly they identify as such.

In both groups there appear to be some who identify with the group consistently and strongly throughout life, and others who identify temporarily and less strongly while they are growing up and trying to figure out their own identities.

Is the consistent-and-strong identification more common among transgender people than among otherkin? Yes, from what I can tell.

The recorded history of the transgender movement gives lots of evidence of transgender identity being felt very strongly, often to the point of undergoing major surgery, and risking one’s job, relationships and even survival for the sake of expressing one’s identity.

There’s less recorded evidence of otherkin going to such extremes.

However, to be completely open-minded and scientific, I have to consider the possibility that this is because otherkin are less common overall, or because they have not had communities that recognized the existence of their identity until the last few years.

And otherkin (or possible otherkin) are not completely absent from recorded history: there is, for example, the 1987 case of the Leopard Man of Skye.

Also, even if the experience of being otherkin is generally much less strong and enduring than the experience of being transgender, that doesn’t mean it is undeserving of any respect at all.

5. Should we demand respect and recognition for otherkin, in the same way we demand it for transgender and gay people? Or would that harm the social justice movement overall by causing people to take it less seriously?

I can see both sides of that. On the one hand, I would find it very hard to argue that any group does not deserve respect and acceptance. But on the other hand, I’m not sure society as a whole is ready to accept otherkin.

And, if otherkin associate themselves with the transgender movement by using some of the same terminology and rhetoric, it’s possible that could cause setbacks for society’s willingness to take transgender people seriously.

Society is starting to accept gay rights, transgender rights, women’s rights, and racial equality. That’s a great thing, and it would be terrible to lose that progress by pushing demands for more acceptance on society faster than it can adapt.

I’m not saying that people *shouldn’t* be ready to accept all non-harmful forms of self-expression at once. I’m saying that, in reality, they aren’t… and, however unfair it may be, the success of all the various human-rights movements depends on society being ready to accept them.

So maybe we need to wait a while, in the same way that we’re not going to start fighting for the right to polyamorous marriage while we’re still struggling to get gay marriage accepted.

But, even if that’s the case, it’s not a question of whether otherkin deserve acceptance; it’s a question of whether it’s feasible at this point in time. I’m all for accepting everyone who expresses their identity without hurting other people with it.

6. Do you identify as otherkin?

I can see how people could get that idea, since my first published book was literally titled “Born on the Wrong Planet.” But no.

As a teenager, maybe even as a college student, I might have identified as otherkin, if I had known about that community. I have even actively described myself as feeling like an alien trapped in a human body.

But that feeling isn’t prevalent enough in my life for me to consider it part of my identity.

(Especially since I’ve managed to surround myself with friends and loved ones who are as alien as me. It’s easier to feel that I fit in on Earth, if I carefully pick the elements of Earth that I get to spend time with.)

Sirius the Starling takes the Ice Bucket Challenge

The ice bucket challenge is really working for raising awareness. It may be silly and gimmicky, but it’s getting people to donate.

So Sirius stepped up and tried it.

He’ll take a bath in ANYTHING. Well, almost anything. Maybe he had to wait until the ice melted; so what. He’s adorable.

A Bridge in Time

I’ve been thinking about how strange it is that our sense of time can tell us, simultaneously, contradictorily, that the same period of time has felt both longer and shorter than it actually was.

Recently I saw a mention of the I-35W bridge collapse on TV. I was barely paying attention, and at first thought it was talking about a new bridge collapse. Once I figured out that it was actually referring to the anniversary of the old one, I started wondering how many years it had been.

Looking it up was a shock. My memory had stored that event as if it were very recent: I would not have been surprised to find out that it happened last year. But 2007? Seven years ago? For a few minutes I was convinced that Wikipedia had a typo.

I spent a while wondering how the last seven years could have flown by so fast. Was my perception of time speeding up that much as I grew older? Was the rest of my life going to slip through my fingers as if it were just a couple years?

Then I started thinking of other things that happened around the same time.

My book, for one. My memoir “Born on the Wrong Planet,” first published in 2003 by Tyborne Hill, was republished by AAPC in the year 2008… the year after the bridge collapse.

That republishing, though more recent, feels much longer ago. Six years feels about right to me, if not a bit short. The switch from my old publisher to my new one feels like a long-ago stage in my growth as a person; a scene from an earlier era of my life.

Why does the bridge collapse feel more recent to me than AAPC’s publication of my book? Was it because it’s a more important event? Yes, we do tend to say things like “it seems like just yesterday” when talking about memories that are important to us. And yes, objectively I realize that the bridge collapse was a more important event, affecting more lives more severely, than any event in my own life.

But in terms of my own emotional reaction to it, my brain does not seem to perceive it as more important than my book publication. It’s hard to react emotionally to a disaster that kills hundreds, when you see such disasters on the news every day. Exposure to the constant violence and destruction of real life will desensitize you faster than any gory video game or horror movie. The emotions close off as a defense mechanism.

I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed or injured in the bridge collapse, so my mind filed it as just another in a long line of deadly catastrophes on the news that my emotions couldn’t keep up with. So why, I wondered, was it so fresh in my mind, while the republication of my book– a deeply emotional process for me– seemed so long ago?

I think my mind measures time by change, not by actual passage of time. After all, change is the only way we really can measure time: the change of the seasons, the motion of the sun and moon and stars, the progress of the machinery in a clock. By observing how much things have changed, whether it’s the position of the clock’s hands or the color of the leaves, we get an idea how much time existed between now and the last time we checked.

The switch to the new publisher was an event in my own life, so I measure the time since it by how much I have changed. The bridge collapse was an event in the history of Minneapolis, so I measure the time since it by how much Minneapolis has changed.

Minneapolis is certainly a bit different now from how it was in 2007, but it’s stayed more the same, overall, than I have. Or maybe I notice the changes in myself more than the changes in my city.

I don’t know. I just know that my sense of time doesn’t provide a general feeling of time flying or time crawling for “the last seven years,” or “this past week,” or “today.” Instead of consistently judging that a certain period of time went by “fast” or “slowly,” it measures my perceived speed of time differently depending on which event I’m counting from.

It’s not really perceiving the speed of time; it’s simply tagging various memories as “recent” or “long ago,” with seemingly little regard for how long ago they actually were.

If it chooses these tags based on how much change has occurred in the relevant area since the event, that’s why the same period of time can feel like an eternity or an eye-blink depending on which memory I’m recalling.

The more a thing changes, the more time passes for that thing. A new form of temporal relativity, perhaps.

What Data meant by “emotionless”: The mind and body of feelings

When John and I sat down and watched all of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the thing that most consistently strained my suspension of disbelief wasn’t the faster-than-light travel, the plethora of humanoid aliens, or the idea of Wesley being allowed on the bridge.

It was Data the android. Not because he was an intelligent machine, but because he claimed to have no emotion.

He functioned, in all the most important respects, exactly like any creature with emotion. He made efforts to preserve his own life. He showed loyalty toward some people and distrust of others, and seemed to prefer the company of certain people. He was constantly motivated to seek new and interesting experiences. And on top of it all, he said, outright, countless times, that he had a desire to feel emotion.

At the time, I couldn’t find any way to spackle this gaping plothole. Desire is typically considered an emotion– one of the strongest and most important.

In fact, if you’re a conscious being, capable of making your own choices, you have to have the emotion of desire. That’s because all choices are caused by desire. I’ve analyzed hundreds of the choices I’ve made, and every single one was made because I either wanted it, or wanted something I could get by doing it.

I don’t often make absolute statements, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to make a choice for any reason other than desire.  Even if you do something because someone has a gun to your head, you’re still choosing to do it because it’s a means to the end of staying alive, which is something you presumably want. Even if you did something totally pointless that gained you nothing, just to prove you could, it would still be because you wanted to prove it.

So, I thought, if a creature that behaved like Data truly had no emotion, then he would not be a conscious entity. He’d be an automaton, programmed with an assortment of stock responses to an assortment of types of situations that his creator imagined he might face. Complicated, yes– it would take an enormous number of pre-programmed responses and simple algorithms working together, to simulate sapience as well as he does. But not truly conscious. The choices he made would actually be the choices of the person who programmed him. The prosecutor in “The Measure of a Man” would have been right about Data: he would not be a sentient being.

Even when depressed people enter a phase of “emotionlessness,” they still have the basic emotion of desire, on a few of the most fundamental issues. When they are unable to feel most of the emotions in their day-to-day lives, they can get bored and exhausted with this life of doing things they don’t care about. Sometimes the desire to stop the pointless routine becomes so strong they commit suicide. Sometimes they press onward and keep going through the motions anyway, because they want to avoid making other people sad– which is also a desire.

If you were capable of conscious thought, and not controlled by anything, but you were incapable of feeling desire… then you would do nothing. You wouldn’t go to work, because you’d have no desire to make money and keep your home. You wouldn’t respond to requests, encouragement or commands from other people, because you’d have no desire to please them or avoid their retaliation. You wouldn’t eat or drink, because you’d have no desire to stop being hungry or keep being alive. You’d die soon, but you wouldn’t actively kill yourself, because you’d have no desire to die. If you had no desires, you would absolutely not give a crap either way about anything.

But maybe desire isn’t always an emotion.

How do we define “emotion”? Lately I’ve realized that, for my whole life, I’ve been defining it as “any state of mind that can be described using the word ‘feel.'”

I’ve been using the word “desire” for the condition where your chest feels tight and you have to force yourself to breathe and your muscles are cramping with the effort to hold them back from trying to grab what you want… and I’ve also been using it for the condition where, rationally, you realize that the thing you’re reaching for is more likely to contribute to the achievement of your long-term goals than the alternative.

In either case you can say that you “want” the thing, or “feel a desire” for it. But maybe those two cases aren’t just different degrees of the same emotion.

What is emotion? It’s partially a mental condition. Mentally, you realize that you want something– to run away from danger (fear), to fight your enemy (anger), to be close to your loved ones (affection). It’s like a thought, but one that’s not necessarily put into words.

Usually, you don’t give conscious thought to why you want the thing. If you analyze it, you’ll almost always find that you want it because you think it will make you more happy than the alternative– “happy” being perhaps the only emotion that isn’t a form of desire.

Then again, maybe sadness isn’t a form of desire, either. It goes along with a wish for things to be better, but the sadness itself is focused on the feeling that things are bad right now. Most feelings involve motivations, but the mental portion of happiness or sadness could be described instead as an opinion: it’s the opinion that things are bad right now, or the opinion that things are good.

But for any feeling, in addition to the opinion or motivation itself, there are all the physical symptoms that go along with it.

When I try to imagine what fear feels like, my sensory memory supplies a pounding heart, cold limbs, muscles on a hair-trigger, ready to run or jump, and a slight tingly pain on the skin from the rush of adrenaline. Love feels warm, with a relaxed sensation, a swelling of the chest, and a different skin tingle that seeks touch. Anger is tight-chested, with pressure in my head and an ache in my cheeks and eyebrows, and the reflex to clench every muscle.

But what is an emotion, aside from a motivation or opinion and the body’s response to it? Is there anything beside those components?

I try to define what fear feels like, besides the opinion that I’m in danger and the motivation to save myself. Besides that, all I can think of are the physical sensations, ebbing and flowing in response to my thoughts about whatever I’m afraid of.

Every time I analyze a particular part of how an emotion feels, I realize that it’s a sensation of the body, not the mind. The only parts that aren’t physical are the thoughts that the situation is good or bad, and that I need to do something about it.

Maybe that’s what emotion is: the synergy of the mind’s part and the body’s part. Maybe the Tin Man was right: maybe you do need a heart to feel love.

Maybe it’s no accident that we use the word “feel” for both emotions and physical sensations.

I think Data had the “opinion and motivation” part of emotion. Probably he was programmed to have it. He considered some situations bad and some good, and he tried to seek out the good ones. And that couldn’t have been based only on logic, because if you try to base your desires only on logic, you eventually reach a question you can’t answer.

Why do I want to fight that alien monster?
Because if I don’t, it could kill my captain.

Why do I want it not to kill my captain?
Because he is valuable to the Federation.

Why do I care if the Federation loses a valuable captain?
Because anything that weakens the Federation threatens the political stability of the galaxy.

Why do I care about the stability of the galaxy?
Because instability could kill millions, including me and everyone I know.

Why do I care if everyone dies?
Because that would be terrible.

Why do I consider it terrible?
…I don’t know. I just do.

Logic is a way of deducing conclusions from premises. It can’t choose which premises you start out with.

Data seems to have had a few basic motivations, probably programmed into him by Dr. Soong, from which he reasoned all his decisions and conclusions. Basic motivations like “I must protect life.” He couldn’t logically explain why they made sense to him; he felt them in the same way we feel an instinct. But despite this, he still didn’t consider himself to have emotions.

Maybe it was just because he didn’t have an organic body. When something bad happened and he recognized that it was bad, his brain couldn’t respond by pumping his body full of the hormones of fear or anger or sadness.  He couldn’t feel the part of emotion that goes beyond opinion and motivation: the accelerated heartbeat, the tingles, the muscle tightness, the building of tears in the eyes. I think that was what he meant when he called himself emotionless.

Maybe the “emotion chip” he eventually got was a simulator that fed his brain the sensory feedback of an emotional body.

I was thinking about all this because I sometimes feel a bit guilty when I see something terrible in the news and don’t have a strong emotional reaction to it– because it’s too huge to process, or because I’ve been desensitized by reading so much news, or whatever causes those unfeeling moments I have.

But even when that happens, I still have the opinion-and-motivation part of emotion. I believe that what happened is bad. I experience a desire for it not to happen again. I do what I can to help prevent it.

And maybe that’s enough.

Data didn’t have the physical component of feeling. But he was a moral person. If a crewmate died, he didn’t feel a pang in his heart, a tightness in his throat and tears welling up in his eyes. But he still did everything he could to prevent their deaths. His desire to save them wasn’t physical, but it was strong– he prioritized it above other, less important things that he also valued.

So, if you do good things not because you love it, but because you believe you should… if you help others and protect civilization because you believe it’s the right thing to do, even if your heart doesn’t hurt when imagining the alternatives… if you see tragedies on the news and you don’t react by crying or clenching your teeth, but you still donate to charity or call your congressman to fight against those tragedies… then you don’t need to feel ashamed at not feeling the expected emotions. Data was one of the good guys, and you’re at least as good as he was.

The Alien F-Word, and other twists of science-fictional linguistics

(Note: In this post, I mention several alien words from episodes of science fiction programs. The shows in question do not always display these words onscreen in written form. Therefore, I may not have spelled all of them in the way the scriptwriters intended. However, since the aliens who supposedly made up the words did not even use the same alphabet I use, my spellings cannot be said to be “incorrect.” So bear with me.)

The science-fiction show “Farscape” is not one of the most well-known shows out there, but it has one detail that is familiar to a wide circle of sci-fi fans, even those who have not seen any episodes of it.

That is, of course, the curse word “frell.”

In the far corner of the universe where astronaut John Crichton finds himself, this word is used by aliens of all species. “Translator microbes” native to this area make most speech understandable to Crichton, but not certain words. These untranslatables include measures of time, like “arn” and “microt,” and measures of distance, like “metra,” but also swear words, like “frell.”

Which is strange, since “frell” appears to be an exact synonym of the F-word in English. It can be used as an interjection (“Oh, frell!”) and as a verb meaning “to copulate with” (“You frelled her?”). It is used in the phrases “Frell you!” (a generic insult), “We’re frelled” (we’re in big trouble), and “Don’t frell it up” (don’t make a mistake). It acts as an otherwise meaningless expression of anger or shock, in phrases like “What the frell are you doing?” and “That’s frelling stupid.”

I cannot think of a single use of “frell” in all of Farscape where our own F-word could not have been substituted. That already strains my suspension of disbelief– just to suggest that any alien language (let alone all of them!) would have a swear word so close in meaning to ours. But even if they did, then by all logic, the translator microbes should have rendered it as its closest– really, identical– English equivalent.

Of course, to keep Farscape an acceptable TV show, they couldn’t. But they could have found ways around it. They could have made the usage of “frell” so different from the usage of any English curse that the microbes could reasonably consider it untranslatable. They could have had different alien species use different untranslatable curses, which would have made perfect sense, since their words are presumably being translated from different languages.

And for that matter, make different species use different units of measurement, too! The translator microbes offered the terms “arn” and “microt” for whatever alien measures of time were closest to an hour and a second, respectively. It’s possible that these were words they simply left untranslated. But for a unit of time close to a day, they gave the translation “solar day,” which suggested that they were trying to convert the aliens’ statements of time into terms Crichton could understand. For an approximately year-length period, they said “cycle,” which suggests a similar idea.

Unless there was an interplanetary time standard, these measures should have been different from species to species. If aliens, like humans, have one measure of time based on their planet’s rotation and another one based on their planet’s travel around their sun, then those words would indicate different amounts of time depending on the planet and star system. Any translation method with the goal of making this comprehensible to Crichton should have converted these measures into Earth days and Earth years. If it couldn’t do that, then it should have just left them untranslated, giving him different words from each alien species he spoke with, leaving him to ask the aliens for clarification on how much time they meant.

Maybe “arn,” “microt,” and whatever words were translated as “cycle” and “solar day” actually were part of an interplanetary system of time, agreed upon by all the species in this area of the universe. But that seems improbable; Crichton met groups of aliens that had gone many years with little or no contact with the surrounding planets, and they still used those words.

This is the sort of thing that always keeps me from getting fully sucked into any work of sci-fi, no matter how much I love it. Being a language geek has its downsides when it comes to appreciating fiction.

The “universal translator” in Star Trek drove me crazy. Okay, I’ll buy the idea of a machine that can learn to translate languages through exposure to them. It would have to be exposed to a lot of words, in context, along with visual or other physical cues, before it could reliably translate a language. And it wouldn’t be able to translate a word it had never heard before, unless there was significant contextual and etymological evidence to suggest a likely meaning for the word.

But a machine that can voice-over the entire first conversation of your first contact with an alien species, right from the first word? Forget it. It’s like the science-fiction and crime-drama trope of “enhancing” a blurry photograph. You can use technology to gather all manner of information, but not from a place where that information isn’t there to begin with.

It’s been suggested that the universal translator actually reads brain activity to figure out languages. But that presupposes that all, or nearly all, intelligent species in the Star Trek universe have brains similar enough that the same brainwave-reading equipment would work on them. It’s bad enough that they all look similar enough to be played by human actors, but near-identical brain structure as well? No way! Not when they’ve canonically got different internal organs everywhere else. It’s as unrealistic as the Vulcan mind-meld working on every species. As far as I remember, Picard’s Enterprise only encountered two species on whom the translator did not immediately work. That is too high a success rate.

And you may recall that one of those species was met in the episode “Darmok and Jalad.” These aliens communicated only through historical and/or literary references, used as metaphors for all the day-to-day situations they encountered. For example, when they were met with a situation of failure, they said, “Shaka, when the walls fell.” To express the idea of realization, they said “Sokath, his eyes uncovered!” Picard spends most of the episode trying to figure out what they mean by “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

The thing is, if a species really did communicate this way, their speech would have to have evolved (devolved?) from a more typical language. If you say “Shaka, when the walls fell” to indicate failure, that quotation must have originated in a time when words like “walls” and “fell” actually had individual meanings of their own.

If words no longer have individual meanings, and exist only as parts of metaphorical phrases, then modern people who speak that language have no way of reading the stories from which the metaphors came. So when they use the reference “Shaka, when the walls fell,” they can’t actually have the image of Shaka’s falling walls in their minds. To them, that series of syllables means nothing but “failure.”

These aliens’ culture has apparently changed until they say “Shaka, when the walls fell” when the thought in their mind is just “I’ve failed” or “We are going to fail.”  So why doesn’t the brainwave-reading universal translator render their words as an expression of the thought they’re actually having?  I mean, English speakers say the word “goodbye,” which is actually a shortened version of the phrase “God be with you,” but most of us don’t know that, and when we say that word, we’re not always thinking about God actually accompanying the person we’re saying it to. I’m pretty sure a universal translator aimed at an English speaker would not give a translation of “God be with you” for every instance of “goodbye.”

I try to spackle the plothole by assuming that this species actually had two languages: an informal language for use at home, with individual word meanings and everything, and a formal language for polite company, composed entirely of metaphors. But it’s still weird that they wouldn’t try using the informal language, when their attempts at talking to Picard in the formal language kept falling flat like Shaka’s walls.

Even in my favorite novels, this language thing can ruin pieces of the story. Charles Sheffield is wildly creative when it comes to making up aliens, but his names for them are inexplicable. A member of a species that communicated only through smell was somehow named Atvar H’sial, a sound-based name that she could obviously neither say nor hear. A team exploring an unfamiliar planet found two heretofore unknown species, which communicated through high-pitched shrieking. Upon learning to communicate with them, the language expert reported that they were called the Coromar and the Maricore. I can only assume the linguist was making that part up, because their language did not contain the sounds necessary to form those names, and there was no other species around to name them.

It’s like Spock and his mind-meld in “The Devil in the Dark.” How could that blobby creature tell him telepathically that it was called a Horta? How could it be called a Horta? Did it have a spoken language with human-pronounceable words, and did it, for some reason, just never attempt using that language with the humans? Did it have a sound-based language that wasn’t human-pronounceable, and was “Horta” just as close as Spock could get to saying its word for its species?

Or was “Horta” a translation of some word in its non-sound-based language– a language based on smells or touches or ground vibrations or electromagnetic waves? That wouldn’t make sense either. How could a non-sound-based message translate into a particular series of meaningless syllables? (My pet theory is that it’s not meaningless: perhaps the creature’s name for itself literally means “garden” or “cultivation” in its language, so Spock translated it into the root of the English word “horticulture.” But that doesn’t make much sense either; why would a subterranean rock-being associate itself with gardens?)

It’s not just the aliens who speak unrealistically in science fiction. Star Trek is set about 200 years from now, but the people use pretty much modern English. (Or rather, English that changes depending on the year of filming. In episodes of The Original Series, I catch the occasional phrase that I suspect is 1960’s slang, like when a minor character in “The Enemy Within” reports to Scotty that he has fallen down, using the words “I took a flop.”)

This is, of course, a flaw of nearly all science fiction. It’s fair to assume that people two centuries from now will be speaking something as different from present-day speech as present-day speech is from what people were speaking two centuries before now. (When I was a kid, I thought the changing of language might stop with the current generation, because we’ve gotten so good at writing things down and documenting what the correct spelling, grammar and usage is. But as I grew up, I realized our technology was speeding the changing of speech more than it was slowing it down. Centuries ago, it took newly coined words a long time to spread. Now, a new word or phrase can span the globe in a matter of days, when a few influential people use it on social media.)

Of course, I can give Star Trek the benefit of the doubt and assume that people in this future really are speaking drastically evolved languages, and it’s just being translated for the benefit of the listener (in the same way I can read a novel set in France and understand that the characters really are speaking French, even if their words show up in English on the pages).

But still, when I’m engrossed in a foreign or futuristic story, the spell can be broken for me by something as minor as a character making a bunch of puns. I have to stretch my suspenders of disbelief to imagine that all the puns work in both modern English and their language! But at least I can try and pretend that the puns they actually used were translated into somewhat similar puns in English for my benefit. It’s worse when a major plot point hinges on a character misunderstanding another’s words in a particular way; then I can’t pretend that it was just a similar thing, I have to accept that the words have that same double meaning in both my language and the characters.’

There is no perfect solution to this. Misunderstandings, and puns as well, are part of life. A story without them wouldn’t be realistic. And you pretty much have to write your dialogue in such a way that readers will understand it. Few audiences are willing to learn a new language, or even a drastically altered version of an old language, just so they can read a story.

Authors just have to do their best, and learn from their mistakes. In “Kea’s Flight,” I had the characters speak pretty much present-day English, suggesting that the natural development of language had been stunted by the control of a totalitarian government. Looking back on it now, I feel that wasn’t quite enough reason for the language to remain as unaltered as it did.

I think I did a better job with “Furnace,” my short story in the anthology “This is How You Die.” In it, I described a future so distant that our descendants have evolved not just linguistically but physically, and their concept of wordplay has been shaped by the heightened abilities of their minds and bodies. They are explicitly stated to be speaking a future language, not English, and their puns are left somewhat to the reader’s imagination:

In the Pnn-kiai language, the sentence she had just spoken was an aural palindrome: recorded and played backward, it would sound the same. Skeeiao had always been a lover of wordplay.

I’m not saying that was a perfect solution either. There are very few works of fiction that have handled this sort of thing in a way that truly impresses me. The “Ender’s Game” series tried to have young characters using an occasional future slang word, but mostly it seemed like an afterthought. “1984” came up with the innovative idea of Newspeak, but, for the sake of readability, had to relegate it to the status of a work in progress, a language-in-the-making that nobody actually spoke yet.

For an example of future speech that’s different enough to be believable, but familiar enough to understand, I have to recommend the movie “Demolition Man”: a futuristic vision that’s a comedy on the surface, but has much deeper and more well-thought-out worldbuilding than most viewers realize.

The cost of good mental health, and my fuel-efficient body


If gasoline is expensive and you have a lot of driving to do, then you want a car that can do a lot of driving without burning much gas. Similarly, if food is hard to get and you have a lot of physical labor to do, then you want a body that can do a lot of exercise without burning many calories.

So, most of human history has encouraged the survival of fuel-efficient bodies that gain weight easily and don’t lose it easily. They can lose weight if they try hard enough, but in some cases, the amount they would have to try would be enough work to comprise a full-time job.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.