Monday, 28 March 2011

Post #100: Or, When Is a Q a 9?

And so we reach a milestone: this is the one-hundredth post on Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem. That is, with this post I have written one-hundred posts since I started posting back in May of 2009, and I am obviously still at it.

So, how should this milestone be celebrated? Well, seeing as how the second anniversary is less than two months away, I would not want to place the focus on the passing of time per se, or contemplate what has gone by (in terms of topics covered and whatnot). If you would thus instead allow me to contemplate numbers for a brief moment or two of your time, I would be content.

Numbers, you ask? Well, fear not, I am neither turning into a mathematician nor a numerologist, but I have happened to notice a number (and language) related issue with regards to Haruki Murakami's latest novel 1Q84 (in Japanese ichi-kew-hachi-yon). The novel, which will be published in Swedish in three volumes (the first two already released this spring), a single volume in the US, and two volumes (1Q84 and 1Q84 2) in the UK, cleverly references both its own temporal setting and George Orwell's famous novel 1984 with its own Japanese title. The pun, if you will, is that the letter Q is a homophone to the Japanese word kyū, (or sometimes, as in the title, transcribed as kew) meaning "nine".

Now, obviously the pun is untranslatable as the letter Q is not pronounced anything like the number nine (either in English or Swedish), but it seems to me that at least the Swedish publisher has missed an opportunity in their typographical choice of using the capital letter Q in the title 1Q84. Clearly, the homophone is lost but if you place the numeral 9 next to a lower case q, one can note an interesting similarity. Perhaps not enough to strictly generate a homograph either, but at least, I would argue, the lower case q would at least suggest the reference to a reader in any language using the Latin alphabet. Clearly 1q84 reads much closer to 1984 than does 1Q84 (which does not really at all). Alas, as stated, a missed opportunity, I fear.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Immeasurable Nature of Subjective Experience

Recently I came to ponder upon something, and not for the first time: How does one measure subjective experiences? Or perhaps even more appropriately: Can one?

True enough, we can compare one experience as relative to another. However, this is not perfect, since the temporal perspective affects us adversely. Memory may well be less than exact when it comes to subjective experiences. It may enhance or belittle that which we experienced, in essence causing our memories not necessarily to correspond with our own actual experience.

But even discounting that (after all, even objective measurements can be off, if the tools used to do the measuring are flawed or inexact), taking the comparative approach as a given; how can we possibly compare our relative results to that of other people's subjective experiences? While I am not discounting the importance of communication for our species (I am, after all, something of a fan of the concept), language is never exact enough to measure our experiences. We can use it to share our experiences with others, true; but any measurements given will always be relative and somewhat inexact.

And before you brush me off as a crazy nihilist here, consider our understanding of pain. If you go to the doctor or participate in certain tests, you may be asked to describe your type of pain (i.e. how we experience it). These descriptions are certainly often helpful for our understanding each other in regards to this, because they help us relate it to our own experiences. Yet, doctors also frequently want to measure the pain in some sense (as do maybe we ourselves too). On a comparative level we may make some advances. We may even find that the relative relation (as in something being more, or less, painful) between two things, say a slap and a punch, is equal in more cases than not. That is, the punch will be considered more painful than the slap, most likely. But by how much?

Doctors and tests sometimes asks us to rate pain (or other subjective experiences) on a graded scale. Putting a number to the experience would certainly seem a key component to measuring it, no doubt, but what exactly do the numbers mean? Even with a somewhat strict descriptive qualification for each number, how do we read those descriptions? How do we understand them? How do we compare them to our experiences? And is my 8 equal to yours?

Taking these question a step further, one might also add that the limits of our experiences affect our understanding of any grading system. Not that we lack imagination (well, some people certainly do) but it makes it more challenging. And surely there are times when human beings transcend their own individual understandings of any grade; when the dial suddenly, and in the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel, goes to eleven.