Thursday, April 28, 2005

Spirals Bound

Back to front,
Front to back,
Into spirals bound,
My love —
Into spirals bound.

I would place my hand
Upon you.
I would move my fingers
Through your hair.

With love,
I would close my fingers,
Bursting bone,
And blood,
And brain.

And, with dread,
I would read
The gore-soaked prophesies
Upon the wall.

They would say
That love makes hate,
That life births death,
That I, and all,

Are into

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Stupid Google Trick

For today's fun, I'd thought I'd share a stupid Google trick that I worked out all on my own.

Let us suppose that you've decided to write some science fiction. Let us further suppose that you've decided to allow for faster-than-light (FTL) in your stories. You now need to figure out how much faster than the speed of light your fictional technologies will allow. Can people zip off to Alpha Centauri in a matter of hours, or would it take a five month journey. The precise speed will have a rather important impact on your fictional cultures, to say nothing of the machinery of your plot-making.

Figuring this out isn't too difficult, fortunately. You could just get out a calculator and some paper and work through the calculations. A few minutes worth of work will give you an idea of how fast your characters need to be to be able to get from point A to point B in order to advance your plot.

Let us suppose that you are lazy.

You may already be familiar with Google Calculator. Basically, if you put a calculation into any Google search, it will give you the answer. So if you type "4 + 4", Google spits back "4 + 4 = 8".

The calculator comes pre-programmed with all sorts of conversions and standard values, as well. Thus: "5 gallons in cups" = "80 US Quarts". You can also try such entries as "mass of the Earth in metric tonnes". Google already knows the mass of the Earth and is easily able to provide that it is about six trillion trillion metric tonnes.

Among the things that Google knows is the speed of light, and it recognizes the physics shorthand of writing as the constant c. Google is also able to perform calculations involving velocity and time (50 miles per hour is 134,400 furlongs per fortnight), so I wondered if it could do something similar with multiples of the speed of light.

Let us suppose that you want to see how fast it would take to get to Alpha Centauri (4.3 light years) if you had a warp drive that could go one-hundred times the speed of light (or 100 x c, which can also be written as 100c). Enter: "4.3 light years / (100c) in days". Google returns: "(4.3 light years) / (100 * c) = 15.7054145 days".

Just vary the multiple (e.g. 45c), adjust the distance (8.6 light years to Sirius, for instance), and the unit of time (e.g., months or years) to customize your results.

Bonus exercise: use Google to figure out how tall you are in attoparsecs.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Off-site Essay: Loco, Completamente Loco

I've got a personal anecdote to introduce this week's off-site essay. It's a pertinent anecdote since it's about something that the author of the essay touches upon. I'm offering this anecdote as a validation to his claims.

When I was in the fifth grade, my family filled out a survey from my school. The survey asked a number of questions including one that asked whether or not any other languages were spoken in our home.

My mom's first language is Spanish. Now, just to forestall you leaping to any conclusions, I should mention that her family has been living in (what would eventually become) the U.S. since the 16th century (take that Daughters of the American Revolution!); it's simply that they've lived in a state of relative isolation from the rest of the country that only really ended in the 1940's as a consequence of World War II. It is for this reason that my mother didn't pick up English until she was already eleven years old (acquiring a degree of fluency that is genuinely astonishing).

As you might expect, mom tended to speak with her siblings and her parents in her native tongue, generally during phone calls because my father (an Anglo) objected to being excluded from conversations. These chats that my mom had with her family were completely opaque to me because my command of Spanish is limited to Mexican restaurant menus. I had the chance to learn it, of course, but by the time I was five I categorically refused to have anything to do with it, mainly because none of my friends spoke Spanish — a choice that I have long since come to regret.

At any rate, the school got back the survey and took note of the fact that Spanish was spoken in my home (however tertiarily). This raised a bright red flag. So one day, without warning or preamble, I was summoned out of my regular classroom and told that I needed to take a test with some other students in order to determine whether or not I was proficient in English or whether I should be shunted into a bilingual education class. I was rather nonplussed by this (and, later, amused) given that I had already been tested as having a high school level proficiency back in the third grade. By this point, I was reading college English texts in my spare time.

My objections, to my immense frustration, fell on deaf ears and I was forced to go along with the silly exercise. That was the end of the story, for me. I easily proved I could comprehend the lingua franca of my culture and was allowed to go back to being an ordinary student in an ordinary class. Since then, I've wondered about the other kids. None of them were my friends, so I don't know how many, if any, of them were compelled to take bilingual ed.

Not everyone has great English skills and not everyone is good with those kinds of tests. I knew plenty of kids whose first language was English who would have been challenged by the questions on the test. Of course, those kids weren't required to demonstrate that they could understand the language. It seems to me that a lot of kids whose English skills weren't any worse than their monolingual peers could, very well, have been required to take classes taught in a language that they might not even have known well or, in fact, at all (considering that I couldn't even have counted to ten in Spanish but I was considered a candidate by default).

I think that bilingual education &mdash at least the sort that tends to be taught in most districts, which is known as transitional bilingual education, or TBE &mdash is an excellent example of good intentions and soft-headed thinking triumphing over empirical evidence and pragmatism. The problem is that the focus of TBE is not on getting children up to speed in English but, rather, to keep kids "comfortable" by, essentially, removing English instruction from their educations altogether. The end result is that kids end up being consigned to linguistic ghettos.

Today's external link is to a 1998 article in Reason magazine that explores the issue. Be warned, Reason is very much a Libertarian publication with a definite political agenda and more than a little of that view comes across in this article. Never the less, I think that the article, on the whole, makes some very good points and provides some excellent examples of what's wrong with the current state of bilingual education (there has been progress since 1998, but TBE is still alive and kicking, unfortunately). Whenever I re-read this article I feel a slight shudder when I realize how close I actually came to being caught up in that mess.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Next Tuesday

Next Tuesday
You will agree to belong to me

It’s a moral slavery
Where you will consent
To the lash and the flame

I will make you stoop
And gather roots
To take to me
That I might throw them at you
And berate you for being late
And lazy

You will try to escape
There is no doubt of this
But I hunt you
Through the fennels and bogs
And find you
Exhausted, alive
And craving death

I may take off your foot
In retaliation
Or may decide to be kind
And merely whip your back
Bloody and raw

My children will beg your children
For forgiveness and redemption
A fair exchange, I hope

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Whale Go Boom

Today I'd thought I'd bring out an internet classic.

Back in 1970 a whale beached itself on the Oregon coast. The Oregon Highway Division, which at that time was in charge of beaches as well, decided — unwisely — that the best way to dispose of the carcass was to blow it up. The resulting effort blew enormous chunks of flesh over a quarter mile radius, including one hunk that crushed a car.

For a long time this story was considered an urban legend until video of a news report covering the explosion surfaced on the internet in the early 90's. When the World Wide Wed started to take off (circa 1994) this was one of the first popular web memes.

The link, below, connects to a page of video captures (in various bandwidths) of the event. It really does need to be seen to be believed.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

On Science and Teleology, part I

Let us begin without preamble: science has its critics. One of the most common criticisms of science is that science can only answer "how" questions as opposed to "why" questions. There are a number of problems with this criticism that I will address in this essay.

On the face of it, this would appear to be an absurd claim. If you want to know why a bridge collapsed, science can give you the tools to determine that (say) one of the critical supporting struts suffered failure due to metal fatigue. If you want to know why the sky is blue, science provides the methodology to understand that this is a result of the particular way that light is scattered by our atmosphere. Science can also tell you not only why the sky is blue in the daytime but why it's red at dusk and dawn.

I am sorry to say that this is a naïve rebuttal of the criticism. On the other hand, such a rebuttal is, itself, a response to a slip-shod formulation of the criticism. "How" and "why" are simple and intuitive terms but they lack precision. To understand the criticism and, therefore, to rebut it we must first eschew imprecise language in favor of technical precision.

When people say that science can't address why questions, the actual claim is that science isn't teleological but rather etiological.

Teleology is the branch of philosophy that pertains to the issue of purpose. To explain something in teleological terms means to account for something in terms of its purpose and meaning. To provide a simple example, the teleological nature of a chef's knife is that it is a tool designed to cut or chop food. Note that even though such a knife can be used for other functions, such as a lever or a crude can opener, those functions are not part of its intended purpose.

By contrast, etiology is the study of causation. It describes entities and events in terms of the sequence of events that led to their instantiation. Whereas the teleology of a knife is bound to its intended purpose, the etiology of the knife is found in its construction. In like manner, although explaining the color of the sky in terms of light diffraction answers the question of why the sky is blue, the explanation is etiological in that the explanation is bound in a causal framework. It is not teleological because it doesn't offer a purpose for the color of the sky.

Before we go any further, it should be noted that teleology is a word whose meaning can be a bit tricky. The knife example provided a fairly generic example of a teleological case; however, many philosophers would consider big-T Teleology to be the study of ultimate purpose. Some philosophers would go so far as to define Teleology has a branch of Theology with the goal of Teleology being to explain the universe in terms of God.

That's well and good. Science, however, is defined as the study of the natural world. Science doesn't have anything to do with such metaphysical entities as gods (unless those gods have some posited interaction with the natural world that science can investigate). On this level, saying that science isn't teleological is a tautology, meaning that it's a truth only because the terms of the claim are such that it's defined to be true. In other words, it's a bit like saying that gentiles aren't Jewish: true by definition and, therefore, trivial.

Moving only slightly beyond Theological Teleology, we have flavors of teleology that try to describe the universe and its entities in terms of ultimate meanings while stopping short of explicitly positing gods (usually by leaving the question open). Almost everyone has asked themselves, at some point or another, what the meaning of life is. That's a perfectly teleological question but it also comes with its own hidden implication: that there is such a teleological meaning to be found. One of the big, open questions in teleology is whether there is, in fact, anything to be found at that teleological level. It is plausible to suppose that the universe is only the result of etiological causations and that it did not come into existence with an over-arching purpose. In like manner, the only meaning bound to our lives may be those meanings that we, ourselves, generate from within. In other words, saying that science isn't teleological may be as relevant as saying that elephants aren't angels.

Leaving aside theology and metaphysics, is the claim that science can't address any teleological questions true? Is science, in fact, only good at doing etiological work?

In a word: no.

It is true that scientists tend to prefer addressing questions that fit into either an etiological framework (how does this happen) or an ontological framework (what is this that is happening). The simple reason for this is that those kinds of questions are easier to address.

Let us consider lightning. We start with observation. There are big flashes of light that appear to travel from the sky to the ground. One of the very first questions a scientist studying lightning would ask would be what is it (i.e., what is its ontology). That's what Benjamin Franklin was doing when he sought to demonstrate that lightning was a form of electricity. Having worked out its ontology, a scientist would then want to understand how lightning works (i.e., what is its etiology). This is a more complicated question but one that can usually be broken down into smaller components. Since we've already established that lightning is electrical in nature, we can start by investigating how electricity works in the laboratory and in other controlled settings. We can also create models of how lightning should work in the real world and compare those models compare to real-world observations. Ultimately, we can come up with a well-developed theory of lightning that does a thorough job of explaining the etiological aspects of the phenomenon.

Now suppose that we were a scientist who was interested in the teleology of lightning. Even supposing that we assumed that it had a teleology, for the sake of argument, how could we possibly do anything to approach that teleology in a reliable manner? To be sure, we could conjecture. We could speculate, for instance, that God created lightning (or, more precisely, the conditions that allow for the existence of lightning) in order to turn the soil. In this case, we could use science to investigate whether or not lightning does, in fact, turn the soil. Suppose that we found that lightning does turn the soil, however. All we've done is demonstrate that the conjecture isn't contradicted by observation, but we haven't actually supported the proposition that God's will is involved. Let us consider an alternative speculation: lightning exists because Thor needs it as a weapon against the enemies of Asgard. Here we have a claim that we can't even begin to approach using the methodologies of science.

Does this not suggest, then, that science is, in fact, unable to approach even the most basic of teleological questions? Not quite.

But how can this be? If the tools of science are only appropriate for discovering ontological and etiological facts, how can science approach even the most rudimentary of teleological questions?

I have the perfect example, which I'll share with you in the next and final installment of this essay, two weeks hence.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Crooked Feet

The day walked on crooked feet
Turning in hard, little circles,
From again to again,
And then stumbling off
In the direction
Of a dozen different bruises.

It was a sore and weary thing
By the time it walked me home.

Now it rests,
With its feet propped up
As I content myself
To your pedicural expertise.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Unstructured Relationships

The graph that you see below is the result of an eighteen month study by researchers at Columbia University, Ohio State University and University of Washington which tracked the romantic and sexual relationships of students at a highschool from the midwest.

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If you find this as thought provoking as I do, the link below connects to the original paper which contains detailed information about the study as well as quite a few more graphs from the study.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Off-site Essay: The Technological Singularity

Vernor Vinge is a computer scientist and a science fiction author of some reknown. Given this, it shouldn't be a surprise that he spends a lot of his time thinking about the future.

One of the things that Vinge noticed while he was doing this was that the pace of change appeared to be increasing at an exponential rate. He found the the horizon of the future, meaning that point in time beyond which we couldn't reasonably extrapolate, was getting nearing and nearer to the present. This led him to suspect that, in the relatively near future, the pace of change would be so rapid that the future would, in a sense, collide with the present.

He called this point in time The Singularity and identified it with the development of greater than human intelligence (>H for short). He reasoned that once you had an intelligence that was >H, this intelligence would, in turn, be able to produce an even greater intelligence: >(>H). This would be followed be an expanding series of intelligences with the endpoint being an intelligence (or intelligences) so far beyond the scope of human understanding as to be literally incomprehensible. This would also, incidentally, represent the point were human history becomes superfluous (and if that sounds a bit ominous, maybe it should).

A pretty wild idea, no? A lot of people think so. Many people think that it's too wild: the product of a hyperactive imagination. I have, personally, gone back and forth. My current opinion is that an eventual singularity is plausible and perhaps likely (but not necessarily inevitable) but that Vinge's timeline is exceptionally optimistic (supposing, of course, that we want a singularity). I sincerely doubt that we'll see the advent of >H in my lifetime.

You, however, can be the judge. Today's offsite essay is a link to his original paper on the subject, which was presented at a NASA symposium back in 1993.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


She wore a shroud of rumor
With a fimbriation of glances.

It was a small town,
But I am sure
That she would have been
A stranger, anywhere.

I was not her friend,
I would not be her friend —
I couldn’t have been
Even if I tried.

Her standards were
Inhumanly high.

It was a small town;
She made us feel small,
But she would have
Diminished anyone.

She was unloved
And more than a little loathed,
But even the children
Would not mock her.

We wouldn’t mock her,
Even when she wasn’t there.

It was a small town
And above us, she loomed,
As she would over
Towers and clouds.

She walked away, one day:
This menace, our marvel.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Unstructured Umlauts

If last year was the Year of the Blog, I would like to think that this year will be the Year of the Wiki. A wiki is essentially like any other web page with one crucial difference: anyone can edit the pages.

It's one of those things that sounds like it really ought to not work but actually does work surprisingly well. The most famous wiki is, of course, Wikipedia which is an on-line encyclopedia that's actually giving such well established brands as Britannica a run for their money (although the editors of established encyclopedias have made a point of contemptuously dismissing the challenge — with just a bit too much protest).

Todays link is to a flash documentary of how a particular Wikipedia page evolved, that being Jon Udell's Heavy Metal Umlaut: The Movie. Although the topic of the heavy metal umlaut is a bit silly, the history of the page is actually a marvelous example of how Wikipedia pages grown via collaboration and how, in particular, they resist spurious and vandelous edits.

As a final note, the Wikipedia entry for the heavy metal umlaut has already been updated to include Jon Udell's analysis as an external link.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The F Word

Be advised that I'm going to be talking about a word that is generally considered inappropriate for either polite company, children, or for most professional environments. I will be making reference to the word directly and non-euphemistically as well as other "bad words". If you are of a sensitive disposition, too young to go to R-rated movies, reading this in a working environment, or easily offended by such words, I would strongly advise you to skip this particular essay.

Allow me to give you the opportunity to decide.


The word I am going to discuss is, of course, the word fuck. In the event that you are suffering from some post-juvenile giggles, allow me to help you get it out of your system.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

There, that should do.

Websters offers the following dry definition of the word:

intransitive senses
1 COPULATE — sometimes used in the present participle as a meaningless intensive
2 MESS — used with with
transitive senses
1 to engage in coitus with -- sometimes used interjectionally with an object (as a personal or reflexive pronoun) to express anger, contempt, or disgust
2 to deal with unfairly or harshly

One of the most basic indications of a word’s age is its phonetic complexity. Basic words, such as "tree", "dog", "sky" and "love" tend to be simultaneously simple and ancient. As one might expect of the word fuck, it is a very old world, indeed.

Let us start by dispelling some etymological myths. Fuck does not stand for "Fornication Under the Consent of the King" nor "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" (in fact, always be suspicious of supposed acronymic origins), nor does it come from the disfigured archers at Agincourt shouting "pluck yew!" at the French.

What is remarkable is that "fuck" has cognates in both Latin and German. This indicates that the original word may precede the lost point in our history when the Latin class of languages diverged from the Germanic classes although it should be cautioned that most scholars believe that it came into Latin by way of Scandinavian at some point in our more recent history. Unfortunately it is difficult to trace the etymology due to the taboo nature of the word. The word, in fact, has such a taboo association that, in the British Commonwealth, it was forbidden to use it in print until 1961! A distinction that is only shared with the word "cunt". Certainly it is one of the favorite words of the teenaged vocabulary due to its efficiency at delivering shock and offense.

Not all "inappropriate" words are of the same kind. I believe that it is worthwhile to consider why words are considered unacceptable and where the word fuck fits into these categories.

The word "profane" indicates a contrast to the sacred or the divine. In many theologies, the world is divided into the sacred and the profane. In this general usage, baseball, money, jokes and VCRs are all profane; however, the more common sense of a word being a profanity comes from the verb "to profane", meaning to take something that is sacred and then to desecrate it. In the Abrahamic religions, using God’s name in vain is a precise example of a profanity (hence the exclamations "God dammit!" and "Jesus Christ!"). Some do consider sex to be a sacred act and might, therefore, qualify "fuck" as a profanity; however, for most usages of the word, the goal is not to desecrate a sacred idea, therefore fuck would not generally be considered a profanity.

The concept of vulgarity has its origins in the division of classes between commoners and nobility (or between the proletariat and the patrician in the Roman world). Vulgarities are simply words that are used by the commoners while those who are, supposedly, more refined avoid their usage. This division has especially sharp connotations in English stemming from the conquest of Britain by the Norman French. For many generations, Norman was the dialect of the nobility while Anglo-Saxon was the language of the peasantry. An example of such a division is expressed in the language that we use to refer to certain food animals and their byproducts. We raise cows (peasant work) but eat beef (the diet of the nobility). Likewise, we hunt deer but eat venison. It is for this precise reason that it is considered crude to discuss fucking but perfectly acceptable to discuss acts of copulation. Fuck is, definitely, a vulgarity.

Finally, there is the idea of obscenity. In the modern sense of the word, something is obscene if it is repulsive, disgusting or abhorrent. This is the sense that the U.S. Supreme Court uses when distinguishing between that which is merely pornographic and that which is obscene. The origin of the word obscene, however, can be found in its literal meaning of "off scene". In ancient days, just as in modern times, when people would put together theatrical productions certain things were deemed appropriate for the stage whereas other things had to happen offstage. A famous example of this can be found in Oedipus Rex. I am not talking about Oedipus having sex with his mother, Jocasta, although that also happens offstage, but, rather the scene where he impales his eyes upon learning of his relationship with her. When he performs the act, he goes offstage to do it and then comes back onstage clutching his mutilated eyes. One might suppose that this is because theatrical technology wasn’t advanced enough to handle the special effect of him gouging his eyes out in front of an audience. Given the cleverness of the Greeks and their love of theater, I find this doubtful. I suspect that this was a case where it was considered too shocking to have an audience witness the actual act.

Moving out of the realm of theater, an obscenity was generalized to the concept of something that ought not to be witnessed by others and, of course, the words used to describe those things. Shit, for example, is perfect example of such a word since the act of defecation (note, again, the distinction of vulgar and polite words for the same thing) is an obscenity.

Of course, what one culture considers obscene another culture might not. Our own culture has had a very conflicted view about sex that has varied quite a bit throughout history. The historian James Burke notes that one of the biggest changes to our (by which I mean Europeans) perception of sex came from the invention of the fireplace. Before the fireplace allowed for the existence of central heating within a house, people needed to sleep, en mass, within a central room (or hall). When people slept together, one can expect that people also slept together. In all likelihood, being in the immediate proximity of others having sex wasn’t an unusual event, even for the young. Once the fireplace was invented, couples gained the luxury of their own rooms and sex went offstage, as it were.

Even at this point, the majority of the population were peasants who lived on farms. One can not live on a farm without being aware of the realities of the sexual act since livestock lack any sense of prudishness. The only people who could be isolated from the physical reality of sex (i.e., fucking, not to put to fine a point on it) were the nobility. In particular, female nobles were shielded from sex. This wasn’t done out of a sense that women were too delicate to understand sex (although that was certainly the post-factual rationalization) but, rather, in the hopes that preventing them from knowing about sex would help to ensure their virginity. Female nobles were commodities. Noble houses traded them in marriage with one another as a means of cementing alliances. A virgin daughter was an asset that needed preservation, which ultimately led to an elaborate system of cloistering and chaperonage.

It should be noted that the reason that virginity was considered a virtue had less to do with sex than with paternity. Then, as now, men feared being cuckolded with a bastard child. Since there were no reliable paternity tests before the modern era, men (and especially nobles) were obsessed with ensuring the fidelity of their wives. A virgin bride was an ironclad assurance that one wasn’t marrying a woman who was already carrying someone else’s child.

That digression aside, our standards with regards to how far "offstage" sex should be has fluctuated dramatically. The Victorians were loath to so much as hint at sex. They went so far as to make it impolite to refer to the breasts and thighs of a chicken. The Flappers, by contrast, were, for the most part, perfectly at ease discussing sex in frank terms in mixed company (often in the company of mixed drinks). My own America of the early 21st century clearly has conflicted feelings. We enjoy salacious shows like Desperate Housewives and Friends where the characters hop from bed to bed on a regular basis but are shocked and outraged at the brief flash of a nipple during a sporting event.

In general, we don’t mind depictions of sex in cinema although we require that the sex be simulated and that, under no circumstances, should we witness actual penetration (simulated or not). Indeed, we’re reasonably comfortable with breasts and buttocks but we don't feel comfortable seeing genitals. This isn’t to say that there aren't plenty of depictions of genitals and, indeed, actual sex acts with graphic penetration out there to find. Depictions of such do, in fact, constitute a billion dollar industry and account for a hefty fraction of all internet traffic. However, we say that such depictions are pornography and automatically exclude them from legitimate cinema, theater, photography, etc. Curiously, we don't place the same exclusion on literature. A story can still be considered legitimate even if it includes intensely specific descriptions of sexual activity, so long as the depictions aren't the whole of the story (and, sometimes, even then).

One of the things that I find interesting about the word fuck is that it helps to illuminate our mixed feelings about sex. In the English language, it is one of the few words that directly refers to the physical act of coitus. Nearly every other word that we use to describe sex is a euphemism.

The word “sex” is, itself, something of a euphemism. Sex does not, strictly speaking, mean sex. Sex is the word that is used to describe whether a given organism (and that includes people) is male or female. Now, you might be thinking that the word for that is "gender". You would be wrong. Gender is only used to describe whether a word is masculine, feminine or neuter. In the English language, all words are neuter, so the word "gender" is really only useful if you are discussing another language, e.g. German. We have misappropriated the word "gender" to mean sex because the word "sex" has become too closely associated with fucking. When we say that two people are "having sexual intercourse" ("having sex" for short), we are literally saying that they are having an exchange of some kind between the sexes. In a strict sense, this could mean that a man and a woman are talking together. That fact that we mean that they are fucking is only implied.

Many of our euphemisms for sex come with emotional nuance. I am particularly fond of the phrase "making love". It implies, for certain cases, that by fucking, two people are weaving into an existence a beautiful thing that transcends the mere fact that they are fucking. They are creating and enhancing their love for one another. It takes a very cynical person to not find that a charming idea.

Beyond the fact that "fuck" is non-euphemistic, it is also direct. She fucks him. On the other hand, she engages in sexual intercourse with him, she makes love to him, and she copulates with him. All of these (and others) are examples of indirection that illustrate the offstage nature of sex and our discomfort at considering sex directly.

It is worth noting that one of the few cases where people are apt to use the word fuck as a non-obscenity is when they are, in point of fact, fucking. Not everyone does that but sexual studies have shown that when people, including polite people who otherwise avoid naughty language, are engaged in the sex act (there’s that euphemizing again!) , they are much more prone to use to word "fuck" to describe what they are doing with one another. A polite lady who might otherwise blush when saying "damn it!" may well find that she has no inhibition when comes to telling her husband to "fuck [her] harder". It seems that when we find ourselves actually engaged in the real, physical act, euphemisms are harder to maintain.

One of the curious things about the word fuck is that most of the time we use it we aren't actually using it to talk about fucking. More often then not, we use it as a context-free intensifier. When a man says "fuck my boss!" he’s generally not expressing a desire to engage in an intimate physical act with his superior. Instead, he is using the word as a way to intensify his contempt for his boss. Such intensifications aren't invariably negative. Many people will say "fuck yeah!" when they want to express approval or endorsement. When we say “I don't give a fuck” we may be expressing profound disinterest (or, again, we may be expressing contempt — it depends on context).

Unfortunately it is these non-sexual connotations of the word that make it unlikely that fuck will ever be admitted into polite company, even when it is being used to describe the act that it is so uniquely qualified to express sans euphemism. It is a word that is, more often than not, used in anger. It frequently comes with connotations of violence and the aura of threat ("fuck you!"). Because of this, it sounds harsh upon our ears. In most contexts, we can't hear it without feeling some of that sense of threat. It is for this reason we would usually find it discomforting if someone were to tell us that they fucked their lover while we would have a much easier time with a report that someone made love to same. It is only in the most intimate of settings, with those whom we are engaging in an act of supreme trust, that we can — sometimes — let our guards down enough to allow ourselves to use it for what it actually means, without any sense of threat, bluster, or euphemism.

Perhaps that is as it should be.

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