Happy "New" Year

The earth is a spinning ball of rock, metals, and gas, rotating around a continuous mass fusion reaction. That orbital rotation takes approximately 365 days, 5 hours, and 56 minutes to complete one full cycle.

At the same time, the center of the orbit, what we call the "Sun", is moving through space, both orbiting around the center of the galaxy and moving with the galaxy through the stretches of the universe.

There is, literally, no point in our motion where we are "back where we started". At no point is the Earth ever in the same place twice. Even if we only count the orbit around the sun, friction causes slight changes in velocity and, thus, orbital distance.

The arbitrary designation of a single day of the year as being the "end" or 'beginning" may be appealing but has no functional value.

Add to that, this year we're going to have a 12/31/2008 23:59:60 (adding a second) to account for the disparities between our calendar system and the actual rotation.

So, eat, drink, and be merry - tomorrow's not really all that different from today. It's only in the mind that any significance exists.


Don't talk to me about life

All definitions are arbitrary.

That statement is pretty simple in its construction but extremely complex in its implementation.

All definitions - every single one - are arbitrary. This was touched on slightly in the last post, but it's something that needs repeating with emphasis.

A specific reason I bring this up is an article on physorg: Why Life Originated. It's a good question, but to ask it we must first ask: what is life?

For those who aren't aware, there isn't a consensus definition for life. As we've discussed earlier, "red" and "blue" are semantic designations based on arbitrary separation of frequencies of light; while we may not agree on where to draw the lines or what to call the separate segments, there is still a characteristic of differentiation between "red" and "blue".

Life holds no such characteristic that we can determine. In simpler terms, everything that we would say defines "life" can be found - individually or in conjunction - in what we would generally call "non-life". Ergo, we have no definition: we can draw no separation between "life" and "non-life".

The scientists in the article come to this point and then conclude that, thus, life and nonlife are synonymous: if you can't differentiate it, it's the same thing. Other people (some in the comments) argue that the distinction exists, we just don't have the tools or concepts to define it (though they put it in far less specific terms).

Rationally, the two results are the same: something you can't observe in any way, shape or form does not have any impact on your universe, so it can be considered "irrelevant" in five-sided logic (true/false/maybe/unknown/irrelevant).

It boils down to the same argument of pornography: the old "I know it when I see it" concept, which, while perhaps useful for ethical standards (which are all relative anyway), is totally absurd in rational discussions.

All definitions are arbitrary; most people just don't realize how much of their "life" is limited by arbitrary definitions.



When we talk about any situation, problem, or idea, we automatically make certain assumptions without really even thinking about them.

The first involves the domain of the problem: the set of conditions under which our specific situation takes place. Sometimes, the domain seems obvious from the issue itself: for example, a solution to a chess match takes place within the domain of the rules of chess. Many times, however, the domain is assumed but not necessarily clearly stated.

The second involves the definitions related to the problem. When we talk about "chess", do we mean western chess, "Chinese" "chess", or some other form that may or may not be widely known? If I say the word "red", do you and I agree on what, exactly, "red" is - which shade, hue, or brightness it incorporates? Definitions are where people generally have the most issues in communication: without common definitions, we can't communicate at all.

Both of these factors combine into a common issue: accurate communication can only take place between equals. If we have different education levels, different life experiences, different goals, or different standards, we can't assume either our domain or definitions are equivalent. Therefore, we must make sure to standardize definitions and domains as the first part of the discussion. This is why, in contracts, one of the first things you'll read is a terms list; also, for many scientific papers, you'll see a list of definitions or scope at the start of the paper.

In general, we don't need to define everything in every-day conversation: whether what I call "red" you call "pink" doesn't really matter for most discussions (unless we're painting something): in situations where relative differences matter more than details, we can get away without exact definitions. If we're going to talk about specifics, however, we must make sure our definitions and domain are similar; otherwise, we're introducing a chance for errors.


It's a small thing

We live on a (roughly) spherical ball of rock floating in space. At this point in history, there isn't anyone who denies this. Every elementary school student is taught it, every adult knows it.
And yet, when people happen to be outside at night and see the stars, they still think of it as looking up, not out.

It's a small thing, but it points to something larger: how humans, as a species, live in two completely different worlds, the world we know and the world we live.

Another discrepancy: we know humans are animals, 98% similar to our nearest primate relative, but we still think of some magical divide between humans and animals, or that most of human behavior isn't as mechanically predictable as animal behavior. We have the same kinds of hormones, chemicals, impulses, and reactions, but somehow we think of ourselves as unique or different on some fundamental biological level.

Why is it important? Because these kinds of thoughts shape our realities. If we think of "the world" as everything there is, we then treat it as a closed system - limited resources, limited space. It becomes a zero-sum game, where every gain for one group has to come at a cost for someone else.

This model is patently false, though. The Earth isn't a closed system. Many resources may be limited here, but we can get them from other places as well. And, as such, it isn't a zero-sum game. It's possible for everyone to be fed, for everyone to be healthy, but it takes a shift away from what most people feel as reality to what everyone knows.

I've spent most of my life looking out at the stars. I know I'm a member of a vast galaxy, a piece of something that dwarfs the planet in the same way that the planet dwarfs a grain of sand. I look at the night sky and I can feel the depth: the distance to the moon is vast, but it's just another ocean to cross, like mankind has done so often before. We have the potential to do so much, but we, as a species, need to see what's really there and not what's in our heads.

It's a small thing, but it's time to start looking out, not up.