Social Liberty: Issues

A theory of government is useless unless it has a connection to the real world. If it does not make practical suggestions and predictions, if it does not yield practical advice, then it is nothing more than a thought experiment. To alleviate such concerns, this post will explore some of the ways a government founded on the Doctrine of Social Liberty would handle some of the most pressing issues of today. The format will be different than usual, with each issue given its own section. Also, while the government described in this piece is theoretical, it is not implausible.


Social Liberty, with the Principles of Cooperation and Equality, sees immigration as a good thing, on the whole. A nation should not isolate itself from all the others. However, it also recognizes that some immigrants are bad actors. Under the Principle of Purpose, therefore, it must take steps to ensure that its citizens’ safety is not compromised by incoming persons.

A Social Liberty government is not allowed to perform racial profiling for the purpose of immigration control—or, indeed, for any purpose at all. And the Right of Faith, something that all states following the Doctrine would observe, also bars profiling based on religion. Instead, this government is required to perform more rigorous tests, including behavioral, background, and psychological checks on all immigrants. For most, these are, at worst, a mild inconvenience; in many cases, they can be done automatically, before the immigration process even begins. It is only when the more basic tests show an anomaly that more serious scrutiny is warranted.

Illegal immigration, on the other hand, can be taken one of two ways. First, it can be seen as an attack on sovereignty. Under the Principle of Purpose, it would be the role of government to respond swiftly at this threat to safety. A contrasting view would see it instead as a violation of the Principle of Cooperation: such immigrants are working against the system chosen by the citizens of the state. The result is the same in either case. Although Social Liberty respects the rights of all mankind, it does not give carte blanche to those seeking to enter a state by subterfuge. By creating a fair, just means of legal immigration, instead of the security theater common today, it would eliminate a major cause of illegal immigration, limiting it only to those who have ulterior motives and thus making harsher punishment socially acceptable.


With the Principles of Purpose and Cooperation, it is easy to envision Social Liberty as a recipe for socialism. This is by design. A representative government is free to implement whatever economic measures its people are willing to approve, but there will always be a sizable segment of the populace without access or ability to work for a living. Whether through injury, handicap, situation, or lifestyle, a portion of the state will be unemployed. It is then up to the government to provide for that segment’s health needs.

Social Liberty, then, is fully compatible with a large welfare state, including universal health care, a universal basic income, and many other measures. However, it can also be reconciled with a more capitalistic approach. The Principle of Purpose only states that a government protects the health and well-being of its constituents. It need not provide for them, if private interests can do so more cheaply and efficiently. Rather, its purpose would then be to ensure that these private means remain in place, and that they do not infringe upon the Rights of the populace. This last part is necessary because, although Social Liberty largely refrains from interference in interpersonal relations, the object here is a function of government. Thus, government must not, by its own inaction, allow for its Principles to be violated within its own sphere.


A Social Liberty government must have a means of defense. It does not, however, require an outsized military-industrial complex, massive expenditures for research and development, or an arsenal capable of destroying the entire world many times over. In short, such a state needs only as much military might as to fulfill its obligations under the Principle of Purpose and those it creates under international agreements.

In addition, as a government following the Doctrine is expected to refrain from offensive, imperialistic warfare, its military actions will be more limited in their scope. Once the primary objectives are achieved, there is no need to continue fighting. Thus, further engagement becomes more and more likely to fall outside the dictates of the Principle of Purpose. When a state is fighting not for its own defense—or that of its allies—then it is no longer serving the needs of its citizenry.

Social justice

Although the phrases are similar, Social Liberty is not intended to advance the cause of social justice. True justice is a matter for government—one of the instances where it is allowed to interfere with interpersonal relations. If rights are being violated, that is a matter for the state to judge. The people are allowed and encouraged to speak their minds, to not associate with those they deem unacceptable; this is simply a restatement of the Right of Free Expression that any Social Liberty government is expected to uphold.

People are not, however, allowed to restrict the same right for another. A concerted effort to deny free expression to an individual or group is a case where government intervention is both required and welcome. The Doctrine of Social Liberty is blind to “privilege”; it treats all such cases equally, because to do otherwise would run afoul of the Principle of Equality.


This concludes the brief look at the Doctrine of Social Liberty, a new vision for a government of, by, and for the people. Founded on the principles of logic and reason, it is intended to be a guiding focus for change, whether evolutionary or revolutionary. It is also an ideal, one that may never truly be achieved. If it is, then I believe that the resulting system of government would be one better suited for today’s world than any that has been tried before. We must all work together, though, always keeping our ultimate goal in mind. To stray from the path is to invite tyranny, inequality, and infighting that will destroy us. But by cooperating, we can reach greater heights, perhaps even the greatest.

Magic and tech: government

Fantasy’s association with the High Middle Ages has the unfortunate side effect of locking the entire genre into the feudal monarchy of medieval Europe, specifically England. True, there are counterexamples, and the subgenre of “flintlock fantasy”, set in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, allows authors to explore other varieties of government, but the classic of kings and lords and knights is still prominent. Does it have to be?

No, it doesn’t. It’s just the default option. We’re used to reading feudal fantasy, so that’s what we think of when we consider the genre. But, as I’ve written before, it’s not the only way to go.

This series, however, is about magic and technology, not politics. So how does magic affect government? Well, we’ll see. First, though, a warning: unlike most other posts in the series, this one will skip right to the meat of the question. My earlier post on fantasy governments (linked above) does a good enough job of explaining the kinds of government available.

The rule of magic

In our magical realm, we don’t have some of the stranger varieties of magic. Total surveillance, for example, isn’t feasible. Precognition is out. Remember, we’re working with a much more down-to-earth system of arcane art.

That also means that wizards aren’t all-powerful. Although it’s obvious that government would utilize magic, it won’t be dominated by it. There simply isn’t the power, nor are there enough practitioners. We’re in that sweet spot where magic isn’t strong enough to take over, but it will still have a sizable influence. In that, it’s a bit like lobbying in our own time.

What it can do, however, is make the government more modern, just as it does for most other aspects of society. Kings kept power because they had it. Some used their power to increase that same power, leading to absolute monarchies like France and Russia. Others had checks on royal prerogative, such as England or the elected rulers of central Europe.

Magic will be another check on power. The government can’t regulate or repress all aspects of it, and it knows that. The only other option is to accept magic for what it is, to work with it rather than against it. So that’s what our magical realm does. By accepting that there is a segment of the population (the wizards) with strength out of proportion to its size, the government takes a reduction in its own power for the sake of stability.

Rulers understand that a wizard could, if he so chose, assassinate them easily. That fear is a motivator, a damper on the inevitable slide towards tyranny. Thus, we have a system that does not become an absolute dictatorship. Our magical society is not an empire whose reins are held in one pair of hands.

But magic is also a counter to heredity. While it may be passed down from parents to their children, it can also occur in “wild” form. If anyone can potentially become a mage, from the royal family to the lowest beggar, but there’s no guarantee that mages will give their status to the next generation, then there can’t be an arcane aristocracy. A preexisting mundane one remains, but it is weakening.

In historical Europe, the Black Death was one of the causes of the manorial system’s downfall; for our fantasy realm, the discovery and harnessing of magic fulfills the same purpose. Magic decreases the need for labor, freeing lower-class citizens from the restraints of land-working. As they spend more time idle, there’s less cause to tie them to the land of a manor lord. Cities are growing, trades flourishing, exactly as in the later 14th century and into the 15th.

Our magical realm isn’t a republic, but it is showing signs of moving in that direction. Both the mages (from their magic) and the growing middle class (from their newfound freedom of social movement) have asked for a share of the governing. They’re still willing to defer to their king, but not to submit before him. Thus, a parliamentary monarchy is in the process of forming, as in medieval England.

On a more local level, while some lords retain their power, the cities are often experimenting with elected governors and mayors. Typically, these are, in fact, mages; they’re considered good candidates because they are obviously both intelligent and restrained. Mundane people can hold office, but they have to be exceptional. Institutionalized elections are in the future, but ad hoc representation is taking hold.

Summing up

So that’s where we stand. Our magical kingdom isn’t ruled by a tyrant, whether an iron-fisted dictator or a grand, evil wizard. It’s rather more like what we’re used to, and closer to today than “then”. And things are only going to get better. Just as magic has compressed the scientific advancement of a few centuries into the span of decades, it’s doing the same for government. True representative government may not be that far off.

This is largely because of the ground rules we’ve made. Since magic isn’t world-shattering in its power, and it’s too common to be confined to a small cabal, the conditions for a “thaumatocracy” just aren’t there. Instead, we get something that’s marginally ahead of the “high” fantasy still stuck in the 1200s, something more like a post-gunpowder, pre-modern setting. Think less Agincourt and more Yorktown. With magic, we come closer to Reformation and Revolution, because the world is moving, and it will take government along for the ride.

Let’s make a language, part 20b: Animals (Isian)

We’ve previously seen that Isian is a language of the Old World. That means it’ll have a generally Eurasian stock of native animal terms. Isian speakers have many of the familiar domesticated animals, such as the dog (hu) and cat (her). Beasts of burden include the horse (tawl, only the most general term), among others, while tame meat usually comes from the tu “cow” (plural form tus for bulls, tur for cows) or the jeg “pig”. The speakers also enjoy many types of fish (pach), and sheep (lini, with the same gendered plurals as tu) are raised for both wool and meat.

Birds (firini) are also well-represented in the lexicon. Two of the more important ones are the choch “chicken” (a hen is a chay, plural chayr) and the duck. The latter has two words: masculine hanka and feminine hadi (plural hadir), with the feminine form being the default.

Isian’s speakers don’t like insects (eketi) any more than we do, but they’ve given names to some of the more common ones. Flies, mikhi, are everywhere in their land, as are iti “ants”. But not all insects are creepy-crawlies. There’s also the fifal “butterfly”, an object of beauty, and the source of delicious honey, the disi “bee”.

Out in the molad “wild” lands, there are even more animals. Plenty of Isian men hunt for onte “deer”. Some prefer smaller game, however, like the habas “rabbit” or hule “fox” (plural hules). Only the bravest or most foolhardy would go after the gor “bear”, though.

Finally, the speakers of Isian know that a certain segment of fauna has something in common with humans. Dogs, cats, cows, and goats (cawat or cawar) all produce milk for their young; the latter two also make it for human consumption. These are the melembini “mammals”, a compound literally meaning “milk-animal”.

General Terms
  • animal: embin
  • den: hosh
  • insect: eket
  • mammal: melembin
  • nest: seb
  • tame: caso
  • wild: molad
Specific animals
  • ant: it
  • bear: gor
  • bee: disi
  • bird: firin
  • butterfly: fifal
  • cat: her
  • chicken: choch (chay(r) “hen”)
  • cow/bull: tu(r) (f.), tu(s) (m.)
  • deer: onte(s)
  • dog: hu
  • dragon: varoc
  • duck: hanka(t) (m.), hadi(r) (f.)
  • elephant: alifan (borrowed)
  • fish: pach
  • fly: mikh
  • fox: hule(s)
  • frog: irpa
  • goat: cawa(t/r)
  • horse: tawl (generic)
  • lizard: dolcot
  • mouse: hish
  • pig: jeg
  • rabbit: habas
  • sheep: lini(t/r)
  • snake: shulbis
  • spider: bidrin
  • wolf: hoga
  • worm: um

Procedural terrain generation in 3D

I promised a look at generating 3D terrain procedurally, and now I’m delivering. This time around, we’ll look at the diamond-square algorithm, a kind of 3D extension of the midpoint displacement method we saw before.

Diamond-square is another way of generating fractal terrain, and it has been popular for a couple of decades. Old terrain generators like Terragen used it, and new programs continue to make use of this classic algorithm.

How to do it

Now, on a line segment, it’s easy to find the midpoint: just average together the ends. For a 2D plane (the source of our 3D heightmap), it’s not that much harder. But a simple midpoint displacement, as we did before, can cause severe “creasing” effects that render our terrain very unnatural, very obviously made by a computer. We don’t want that. That’s where the diamond in diamond-square comes in, as well see.

First things first, we need an array of points to represent our map. This can be as big as you like, but an array of size 2^n^+1 works best (in other words, something like 129, 257, or 1025). If you use that, then the highest index of the array will be 2^n^, and the midpoint 2^n-1^. Very easy to work with, especially once we get into the recursion. As before, we stop when we reach the bottom, which would be when we’ve run through every pixel. (If you’re paying attention, you know this makes diamond-square O(n²). Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it seems.)

Like 2D midpoint displacement, we need a set of initial endpoints. Since we’re working with a 2D plane, we require 4 of them, one at each corner. We’ll average these together at the midpoint (the exact center of the map), and give the result a little nudge up or down, just like last time. This is the “diamond” step; if you look at the illustration on the Wikipedia page linked above, you’ll see why it’s called that.

Next comes the “square” step. We’ve got five points: 4 corners, 1 midpoint. This creates four diamonds (though we’ll sometimes have to overlap them). For each of these, we want to find the center of that, and displace it by a random amount. In coordinates, for a map of size 2n+1, our “square” center is at (n,n), and the “diamond” centers are (0,n), (2n,n), (n,0), and (n,2n).

We’ll repeat this process as long as necessary, alternating ever smaller diamonds and squares. Each time around, we’ll lower the range of our random displacement to make things smoother. At the end, we’ll have a full heightmap, with every point being at an elevation relatively close to the average of its neighbors. In other words, not too many sharp drop-offs. It looks somewhat natural, although I’ll admit that grayscale diamond-square heightmaps tend to resemble clouds to my eyes. Put them in 3D, though, and they look a lot better.

Tricks and traps

As with 2D midpoint displacement, diamond-square displacement has one major knob to tweak: smoothness. It works the same here as there: the less range given to the displacement, the smoother the resulting terrain.

But we’re working with a world now, so there’s more to it than that. One thing that most terrain generators allow is a “sea level” setting. One height is chosen as sea level, and everything below it is underwater. With a high sea level, the effect is something like an archipelago of volcanic islands sitting in an ocean. Lower values create the sense of mountains and valley lakes.

On the downside, diamond-square isn’t immune to the creasing mentioned above. The alternating diamond and square steps are meant to spread it around, but they don’t get rid of it entirely. However, a bit of post-processing can help with that, if it’s too much of a problem. (Or you can always say it’s natural, that your terrain really is sitting on a geological fault.)

The biggest disadvantage of any random displacement algorithm is its randomness, and that’s a lot harder to remove. If you’re procedurally generating terrain for a game, for example, and you use this method, you’re stuck with it. You can’t even change the RNG, because that will give a whole new set of values from the world seed. (This is not limited to purely random generation, however; any algorithm change will render old worlds obsolete. It actually happened with some early versions of Minecraft. To name one prominent example, the map used for the Achievement Hunter Let’s Play series is nearly impossible to recreate because of changes to the generator.) Your options there are limited. Either never, ever change the algorithm, or find some way to keep the old versions in the code for compatibility.

If you can live with those caveats, then procedural generation isn’t a problem. But there’s far more to it than simple randomness. In a later post, we’ll look at more predictable methods of content generation. These have the advantage that they’re easily reconstructible from a seed—as long as you use the same algorithm or sequence of them—so you still all the same benefits of procedural code. And they’re also more amenable to something other than terrain generation, as we shall see. Until then, whether you’re making maps or psychedelic images, have fun!

Social Liberty: Relations

A person does not exist in a vacuum, and neither can a government. We are all connected, whether in our relationships to each other or by the ways we interact with society at large—our society, as well as others. Thus, a proper system of government must recognize these relationships if it is to fulfill its purpose.

There are three main types of relation that are of interest to a governing body: those between two people, those between two governments, and those between a person and the government. We will look at each of these in turn.

Interpersonal relations, those between two members of the same society, are the simplest to handle under the Doctrine of Social Liberty. As the Doctrine’s principles of good government define only those aspects necessary for a stable state, Social Liberty effectively takes no sides. It is not entirely silent on the issue; rather, interpersonal relations are considered private matters, only becoming of importance to the government if and when natural or granted rights become an issue.

One case where this can happen is in contracts. Under most circumstances, Social Liberty considers a contract willingly entered and in good faith negotiated to be entirely outside the scope of government interference. A citizen may waive some of his rights to another, and it is of no consequence to the state. However, a contract may not be designed to break laws, so the government can be asked to intervene to determine if an agreement is unlawful. Similarly, contracts of adhesion—where one party is essentially forced into unfair terms, with no opportunity for negotiation—do become matters for a Social Liberty government, as they are an attack on the founding principles of the state, namely, the Principle of Purpose: onerous contracts affect the liberties and well-being of those parties bound by them.

Other obvious instances where government interference in interpersonal relations is acceptable to the Doctrine include cases of abusive behavior—whether to children or adults—injury through negligence, and most abuses of authority. In general, you may sign away your rights, but you may not take those of another.

International relations are at the other extreme. Here, as a government represents its populace, it has near total control over negotiations and agreements. Within the confines of the Principles, a state may agree on behalf of its people to any number of treaties, trade deals, international conventions, and offers or requests for aid. The populace decides whether these measures are appropriate through the mechanisms of representation, and it should be understood (via the Principle of Evolution) that these international agreements are always subject to renegotiation, should they no longer serve their stated purpose.

It is far easier to enumerate those international actions a Social Liberty government cannot take. It cannot, for example, declare a war for the sole purpose of obtaining land or resources. Nor can it impose sanctions on other nations or regions based on their race, religion, or even their own system of government. And it cannot work to overthrow regimes, as there is no possible explanation for such an act that does not conflict with the Principle of Necessity.

Finally, we must look at the interactions between a person and the government. These are subject to the Principles as well as the Rights, Laws, and Responsibilities of the nation-state. In fact, such interactions are entirely governed by them. Thus, there is little to be said about them here. A government must treat its citizens in accordance with its defining Principles and its code of Laws, while citizens must follow those Laws and uphold their own Responsibilities. Anything else is a violation of the social contract between governed and governing.

However, there are always corner cases, so-called gray areas. It is up to a specific state to clearly delineate these outliers. The Doctrine itself must remain silent on them, as they are often highly situational. For example, what are the intrinsic factors of the Principle of Equality? One can imagine a world in which science has provided the ability to alter skin color at will. Here, “race”, in the sense of color, is no longer an intrinsic factor. Therefore, it does not qualify for the Principle of Equality. Potentially, the same could be true of many other factors we would consider intrinsic, such as sex or other genetic indicators.

It is by relating to others that we experience more of the world. Thus, a government must respect those relations. It must understand them. Sometimes, it must make its own. The Doctrine of Social Liberty recognizes these necessities. Its Principles confine and constrain the government’s role in these relationships, defining that role as the minimum needed to function while upholding the rights of all.

Happy birthday to me

You may have noticed there’s something new over there on the sidebar: a link to Patreon. Yep, I finally did it. Now, if you want, you can support my writing on a monthly basis, instead of the “whenever I put something out for sale” schedule I’ve been doing. And I hope you will.

I’m still working out the kinks, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • $1/month: This gets you basically anything I’ve put up for sale, like Before I Wake or any future novels. On top of that, I’ll throw in the occasional short story. Oh, and everything will always be DRM-free, so you don’t have to worry about that.

  • $3/month: Here’s where the real fun starts. For this much, you get not only my novel-length works, but also the short stories and novellas I’m not quite ready to put on, say, Kindle Direct. Even with those that I do end up selling, you’ll get them much earlier.

  • $10/month: This is quite a bit of money, and I doubt I’m as valuable as, for example, your Netflix subscription. But if you’re willing, I’ll definitely count you as one of my supporters. Literally. I’ll put you in the credits. And if that’s not enough, I plan on doing stories chosen by you. Starting at this level, you’ll get a full vote on those.

  • $30/month: The big one. While I could certainly add tiers higher than this, this is the limit both of what I feel comfortable asking (actually, that’s closer to $3 than $30) and of what I can legitimately do. If you’re giving me this much money, then you deserve a special reward. Therefore, anybody who contributes at this highest level will get 3 votes on my “supporter” stories. And they’ll get to appear in one of my stories. You know, a cameo. (If I’m feeling particularly generous, I’ll write some gruesome way for you to die or something. I don’t know.)

Now, you can absolutely put up more than $30 a month, but you don’t get any extra bonuses besides that warm, fuzzy feeling of helping somebody out. But even if you can’t quite afford that, every little bit helps. Every dollar you pledge is one that I didn’t have before. And I have to thank you for that.

(Note: Last year, I think I posted at 5:38 PM. If so, then I screwed up. I was actually born at 5:48, which unfortunately doesn’t have the same electoral significance. Oh, well.)

Let’s make a language, part 20a: Animals (Intro)

The fauna to plants’ flora, animals are those living beings that move. That’s not exactly a scientific definition, but it suffices for linguistic purposes. Plants just sit there, except when their leaves are falling or their seeds are blowing through the air. Animals, by contrast, are mobile. They walk or fly or slither or swim. They hunt, and they eat. From the perspective of language, they’re more like us.

Just as languages will have words describing plants, they will have a large portion of their vocabulary devoted to talking about animals. Think about how many names of animals you know. More than likely, you can probably recall a hundred or more. (Ubuntu managed to pick one for every letter of the alphabet, although they had to resort to a few obscure ones, like “eft” and “quetzal”.) Add to that the number of terms for animals’ body parts, their young, their meat, and you’ve got a laundry list of language.

The words a given tongue will have for animals can be roughly divided based on a familiar rule: those animals that are known to a language’s culture for a long time are more likely to have native names. Hence, English has dogs and cats natively, but it has to borrow raccoons and koi. “Foreign” animals get foreign or descriptive names, octopus being an example of the latter. And the more obscure ones often have compound names…when they didn’t have to settle for scientific ones. (Interestingly, this is one way linguistic historians can track the movement of a speech group. If they borrowed a name for a “local” animal, then they might not have always been in a place to get to know it.)

Domesticated animals

Those animals that have been domesticated will have the biggest chunk of vocabulary dedicated to them. Not only are there the general terms for an instance of the kind (dog, horse, etc.), but these are more likely to have gender differences even if the language doesn’t normally distinguish gender. In English, for example, we have pairs like horse/mare or bull/cow, where one of the gender-specific words is also the generic, and we also see three-way distinctions such as the generic chicken, male rooster (or cock), and female hen.

Domestic animals can also earn special words for their young. Sometimes, these are derived from the “adult” word: chick, kitten. Others are unrelated: puppy, pony. Note that these are not the same as diminutives. Those refer to smaller animals, not necessarily younger ones.

Languages may also give this type of animal a whole associated vocabulary. Breeding is a popular topic, as seen from words like thoroughbred or mutt. Purpose, for working animals, is often denoted by compounding—lapdog, workhorse—but separate terms can arise, e.g., an ox is merely a specialized kind of cattle.

These animals are also more likely to provide us with a number of metaphorical and analogous words or phrases. We can speak of someone being hounded after, then being cowed into submission. A coward is a chicken, while someone feigning death is playing possum. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, as the saying goes—a rare bit of gender equality. The list goes on.

Wild animals

Those common yet untamed animals will be referred to by a different sort of terminology, but most of it will remain “native”, rather than borrowed. It’s still possible to have gender differences, but it’s more likely that the non-default sex will have a derived name: lion, lioness. Young may have dedicated words, but they probably won’t be specific to a single kind of animal. Bears and tigers both have cubs.

The rest of the vocabulary will be affected to the same, lesser, degree by wild animals. Some of the important ones get immortalized in metaphor (snake in the grass) or even slang (bear, as referring to a specific type of gay man). But they won’t be all that common.

Exotic animals

Even rarer are those animals which don’t really exist in the “natural” sphere of a language’s influence. For English, this includes anything out of the Americas, Africa, or Australia, along with quite a bit of Asia. These animals are much more likely to be called by borrowed names. Indigenous peoples gave us our words for a great many animals. As an American, I can point to raccoons, opossums, and moose, among others. An Australian would instead hold up the kangaroo, dingo, and wallaby, while South Americans and Africans can provide their own examples.

Another option (and this is, in fact, where many of the indigenous names come from) is onomatopoeia. Animals can earn names that resemble the sounds they make. It’d be like us calling a cow moo. Although that sounds strange, plenty of languages do just that.

Finally, a more scientifically advanced culture may try to give a name to everything. Our scientific names (or binomial names) serve to identify every living thing on Earth, including animals, plants, bacteria, and more. They are rigorously rational and mechanical, however, and every one of them is invented. (Not only that, but they’re then shoehorned into an entirely different language, Latin.) For a future language, possibly one needing to name alien species, this is an attractive option.

Mythological creatures

Not every animal named in a language actually exists. Some come from mythology and imagination. Greek myth, thanks to its influence on classical education throughout the West, has given us quite a few “creature” names: phoenix, basilisk, Pegasus, centaur. Dragons are common to many parts of the world, as are giants, which may be important enough to earn their own word. Elves, fairies, and anything else you can think of will fit in this section, as well.

Creatures of myth and legend can be named in any way. Many are derived terms (basilisk coming from the Ancient Greek word for “king”, wyvern from a dialectal form cognate to “viper”, werewolf combining “wolf” with an old term for “man”), but some are original. Sometimes, an entire “race” of creatures can be named after their mythological founder, as is the case with Pegasus.

Animal nature

Animals are very important to our lives. One of the ways we show that is by including them in such a large part of our language. Even the most generic terms have use, as we can speak of animal magnetism or the reptilian part of a brain. More specifically, an animal that we see every day, that we interact with regularly, will insinuate itself into our speech. We’ll compare things to it, judge others by it. And when we meet a new creature, we’ll give it a new name. Sometimes, we’ll relate it to what we already know. Other times, we’ll simply call it as the locals do. And that’s fine, too.

Still to come

After the usual Isian and Ardari posts, we’ll get back to more human concerns by looking at ways to work. Along the way, we’ll (finally!) pick up some more verbs, something we’ve been sorely lacking. I hope you’re having fun, because even though this is the 20th entry in the series, we’re not even close to done.

Software internals: floating-point

Integers are the basis for all computer calculation, but they’re not the only kind of numbers out there. Floating-point numbers are just as important when interfacing with the real world. They represent decimals, fractional quantities, anything other than simple whole numbers. But too many programmers use them without understanding them, and that tends to go horribly wrong.

First off, let’s get one link out of the way. What Every Computer Scientist Should Know About Floating-Point Arithmetic describes everything you need in more technical and precise terms than I ever could. It’s a good read, and it’s important stuff, so check it out if you want the gritty details.

Now, we’re fortunate to live in today’s world, because floating-point numbers are essentially standardized. IEEE 754 (along with some later revisions) defines a common floating-point format that’s used pretty much everywhere in modern tech. If it isn’t, then it’s still assumed to be. So we’ll base our discussion on that.

The theory

Floating-point numbers work a bit like scientific notation. In decimal, you can write something like 1.42 × 10^4^, and that’s understood to be the same as 14,200. But computers work in binary, so we need a binary form of scientific notation. In this case, for example, we can write 14,200 in binary as 11011101111000, or 1.1011101111 × 2^13^.

From there, we can create a way of packing this notation into a sequence of bits: floating-point numbers. What do we need? Well, each number can be either positive or negative, so we need some way of showing that. And we’ll have to store both the exponent (e.g, 13) and the mantissa (binary 1.101110111). The base (2, for binary) can be implied, as we know we’re working with binary. Put those three parts—mantissa, exponent, and sign—together, and you’ve got floating-point.

The practice

But it’s not as easy as that, and that’s why we have standards. First, how many bits are you going to use? Too few, and you don’t have much range. Too many, and you waste space on inconsequential fractions. However, sometimes you need those less-significant bits, so you might want to have options. Luckily, the standard gives us two main options: 32 and 64 bits. Unluckily, a lot of programming languages (like JavaScript) limit you to the latter. Some, like C, give you the choice between float and double (the latter meaning “double precision”, because that’s about what you get with more bits), but high-level programmers often don’t have that luxury. Since the “big” high-level languages tend to use 64-bit floating-point, then, we’ll look at it first.

Given our 64 bits, we need to divide them up among our three parts. The sign bit obviously only needs one, so that’s that. Of the remaining 63, the standard devotes 53 to the mantissa and 11 to the exponent. That lets us store binary exponents over 1000 and the equivalent of about 15 digits of precision. Add in a few special tricks (like denormalized numbers), and the total range runs from 10^-308^ to 10^308^. Huge. (32-bit still nets you 7 digits in a range of 10^±38^, which isn’t too shabby.)

Now, those of you better at math may have noticed a calculation error above. That’s intentional. The way IEEE 754 works, it saves a bit by a clever ruse. In decimal scientific notation, as you may know, the number to the left of the decimal point can’t be zero, and it has to be less than 10. (Otherwise, you could shift the point left or right one more spot.) The same is true for binary, but with a binary 10, i.e, 2. But there’s only one binary number that fills that role: 1. With a few exceptions, you’re always going to have the 1, so why bother putting it in?

The problem with this “implied” 1 comes when you have the one number that has no 1 anywhere in it. That, of course, is 0. But it’s okay, because the standard simply makes 0, well, 0. Exponent zero, mantissa zero. Sign…well, that’s different. Standard floating-point representation has two zeroes: negative and positive. They’re treated as equal essentially everywhere, but they do differ in that one sign bit.

The IEEE standard also does an odd thing with its exponents. Except for the case of a literal 0, every exponent is biased. For 64-bit numbers, the number 1023 is added to the exponent, so a number like 2.5 (binary 10.1 or 1.01 × 2^1^) would be stored as if it were 1.01 × 2^1024^. Why? Because it makes sorting and comparison easier, or so they claim.

In the rare event that you go outside the range, you get to infinity. Like zero, we’ve got two forms of that, one for either sign, but they’re considered nearly the same.

And then there’s NaN. This is a special value used mainly to make programmers scream, but it also represents invalid results like dividing by zero or taking the square root of a negative number. NaN is special in that it’s a whole class of values (anything with all bits in the exponent field set to 1), but they’re completely different. NaN equals nothing, not even another NaN. It’s a null value and an error code at the same time, which is where things inevitably go wrong.

Care and feeding

NaN, though, is only one of the pitfalls of using floating-point. You also have to watch out for infinities, since they don’t play nice with finite numbers. Also, unless you have a really good reason for doing so (such as being John Carmack), you probably don’t want to mess with the bits themselves.

More important than knowing how to use floating-point numbers is when to use them. Or, rather, when not to. They do give you precision, often more than you need, but sometimes that’s not enough. Take the classic example of 1/3. In decimal, it’s an endless string of 3s. Binary changes that to a repeating pattern of 01, but the principle is the same. No matter how many digits or bits you’ve got, you’re never getting to the end. So the simple code 1.0 / 3.0 will never give you exactly 1/3. It can’t. The same goes for any other fraction whose denominator isn’t exactly a power of two. So, if you need exact representation of an arbitrary rational number, floating-point won’t help you.

For 1/100, it’s no different, and that’s why floating-point isn’t a great idea for money, either. Sure, for most simple purposes, it’s close enough, but those tiny errors do add up, especially when multiplication and division get involved. If you’re serious about your money, you won’t be storing how much you have in a floating-point number. Instead, you’ll likely want a decimal type, something a lot of business-oriented languages offer.

In the general case, however, floating-point is the solution. You just have to know its limitations.

Social Liberty: Rights and Responsibilities

The following are some of the founding rights of Social Liberty, as set out by the Principle of Initial Conditions. Each is then given its own commentary regarding how it fits within the system and why it was chosen.

Right of Free Expression — All persons have the right to express in spoken, written, and published forms any truthful or opinionated statement not intended to cause direct harm to another, whether alone or with others.

This is a restatement of part of the First Amendment, covering freedom of speech and the press together with the right to assemble. “Direct” harm is intentional: words have no power to physically hurt, but they can incite others to do so.

Right of Faith — All persons have the right to practice their own faith without interference from a citizen or government.

This one covers the Establishment Clause part of the First, as well as most other “freedom of religion” aspects. Note that something like a cult where members are poisoned, or the rape and slavery practiced by ISIS, are not protected under the Right of Faith; allowing those violates the higher Principle of Purpose, as a government must endeavor to keep its citizenry safe.

Right of Arms — All persons are permitted to own and bear personal arms intended for their own defense.

Your basic Second Amendment, but written more clearly. Also, there’s no room for a comma splice to change the meaning.

Right to Privacy — No agent of government may observe or search a person without a warrant obtained under reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, nor may an agent of government seize any of a person’s property unless that person has been charged with a crime.

Definition of Agent of Government — An agent of government, in regards to the Right to Privacy, is any person working directly subordinate to the state for purposes of defense, security, or law enforcement, or granted such status by another agent.

Here’s your Fourth, with the usual search-and-seizure stuff. “Observe” includes wiretaps, too, and you can see how it also covers the Third Amendment.

Right to Criminal Trial — A person charged with committing a crime must be allowed a fair trial, by a jury if that person so chooses, without undue delay, and the person must be given sufficient opportunity to present a defense of the charges.

Standard Sixth with this one, plus a requirement that the court allow a proper defense. No “freeze their assets so they can’t pay a lawyer” trickery here.

Right to Civil Trial — When two people are in dispute regarding a debt or infringement of rights, either party may request a judicial hearing or jury trial to settle that dispute.

This one’s the Seventh Amendment, often forgotten in our time of binding arbitration. Arbitration, as a private matter, is not part of Social Liberty. Only the use of it in place of a court is within the government’s purview.

Right to Petition — Any person may petition the government, through a trial by an impartial arbiter or jury of citizens, to redress a perceived violation of that person’s rights.

This one’s actually part of the First Amendment (“petition the government for a redress of grievances”), but it’s put here so it falls with the other “trial” Rights. Effectively, it is the right to sue the government if it is breaching your rights. As with the others, the wronged party has the right to choose a hearing or jury trial.

Right to Freedom of Person — No person may be forced by another to work without proper compensation.

Definition of Proper Compensation — Proper compensation, in regards to the Right to Freedom of Person, consists of monetary pay, tangible benefits, and status or rank as befits the work performed.

Slavery, technically, is forbidden by the Principle of Purpose, but this restates it as a Right, roughly equivalent to the Thirteenth Amendment. The definition also subtly invokes minimum wage, “wage gaps” (via the Principle of Equality), and things like insurance benefits.

Right to Vote — All able citizens are permitted to vote on matters of government representation and public petitions, and no action may be taken by another to deprive a person of this right.

Responsibility Of Voting — An able citizen must vote in representative elections or on balloted matters of local or state import, unless this would cause undue hardship or duress.

Definition of Able Citizen — Regarding the Right to Vote and the Responsibility of Voting, an able citizen is a person above the age of majority who is of sound mind.

Voting rights are mentioned in quite a few amendments to the US Constitution: the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th are all concerned with opening up the vote to more people. Social Liberty dispenses with all that; every adult who is capable of doing so not only can vote, but must vote. In other words, it’s more like Australia, where everyone is both automatically registered and required to vote in elections. Also, ballot measures are enshrined here as an important part of the political process.

These are not the only rights granted by the Doctrine of Social Liberty, but they are some of the most notable. For the most part, they flow logically from the Principle of Initial Conditions, sometimes affected by the other Principles. And they are rights that, when stated in this form, should be universally agreed upon. Nothing in them prefers or promotes a specific political agenda, except the general notion of greater liberty for all.

Building aliens: physiology

We’re a few parts into this series now, and we still haven’t discussed what aliens look like! It’s time to remedy that. Here, we’ll look at alien physiology and body structure. From cells to organs to “the surface”, we’ll see what goes into making something seem alien, yet plausible.

On the inside

A lot of the earlier parts go into making aliens. After all, they are organisms evolved in and adapted to a specific environment. That’s going to affect their nature. If you’ve ever watched some of those David Attenborough nature shows, then you probably know this already. Fish that live deep in the ocean tend to be flatter. Desert plants have ways of capturing and storing water. Humans lost most of their body hair, while gaining the larger brains that enable us to write (and read) posts like this.

Physiology, of course, is about more than just appearances. It’s also about how the body works. And that’s a complicated matter. We, as humans, have a bunch of organs, almost all of which have to function just right. Some have redundancy—we can live without one lung, or one kidney. Others, like the heart, brain, or liver, are alone; notice how many of those have extra protection. And then there are a few that don’t really seem to be of any use. We can get by just fine without tonsils, for instance. I do. And the appendix literally does more harm than good, having the sole purpose of occasionally becoming inflamed or worse.

Other complex organisms have organs, too. Some of them have different sets of them. Ruminants (like cows) have multiple stomachs, for example. Birds, being egg-layers, have extra equipment for that purpose. And so on.

But the systems that organs control are fairly general. Those things an organism must do will often have dedicated systems. In addition, there will be a few other “support” systems to make these work. So let’s look at what’s biologically required of us, and we’ll see how that translates to aliens.


Everything living requires some sort of energy input. For us, that comes in the form of food, water, and air. We need all of these to run the chemical reactions that create life as we know it. So does everything else. Thus, we’ve got a mouth that’s front and center, our universal access point for input. So do most other animals.

Plants are a little different. They don’t need to “eat” in the same way we do. Much of their energy input comes from photosynthesis, a different kind of reaction using sunlight as the power source. But they still require water, and they still need air. (And that includes some oxygen, not just CO2.) So you won’t see plants with mouths, except in the case of carnivorous plants—and most of those instead use a trapping mechanism.

As for aliens, the situation depends on evolutionary history and environment. If your aliens eat and drink, then they’ll have some equivalent to a mouth for that purpose. After the mouth, there’s the digestive tract, where nutrients are extracted from the food. While it won’t necessarily be human-like, it has the same function as ours, so it might be somewhat similar to something on Earth.


Not everything is digestible. The leftovers are mostly useless to us, so there’s no point keeping them around. Thus, our bodies get rid of them, in the form of waste. Animal waste, including human, does have its uses (e.g., as fertilizer or fuel), but it’s mostly just that: waste. Because we don’t want it inside us, we’ve got a system to get it out.

For solid waste, of course, we’ve got a dedicated part of the body. Liquid waste (urine) gets mixed in with other parts, however, in a bit of evolutionary parsimony: we’re not going to use both functions at the same time, so it wouldn’t hurt to let one organ do two unrelated jobs. Other organisms, including aliens, might not do this, which is okay unless you’re really into that sort of thing. Excretory systems, in an advanced, sapient species, may develop cultural taboos, too, but that’s a subject for a later post.


The sole reason to live, from an evolutionary perspective, is to reproduce. At its core, that’s why sex is enjoyable—if we didn’t like it, we wouldn’t do it as much. And so it stands to reason that reproductive organs have a lot of cultural significance attached to them. But they’re also interesting from a biological standpoint.

As stated above, human reproduction overlaps with excretion, but that’s not necessarily a given in aliens. What is, though, is that they’ll reproduce. And it’s likely to be sexual reproduction, not the asexual style used by, say, bacteria. Sexual reproduction requires at least two parents (possibly more, as in the recent news about three-parent IVF), but that gives it the benefit of better genetic mixing. By taking genes from two sources, organisms have a better chance to resist a bad mutation. That’s not the only upside, but it’s one of the biggest.

The internal part of reproduction has its own intricacies. For mammals and many other animals, only one parent actually contains the reproductive machinery. Males can impregnate, but females give birth. It doesn’t have to be this way. Other species on our planet show hermaphroditism (some or all members have both sets of reproductive organs). Another possibility, though harder to make work, is more than two sexes. And then there are odder methods. An alien race could be all females, but some can temporarily express “maleness”. Or the males could carry eggs for a period of time.

Just as important as the organs at work is the way reproduction happens. Are babies born live, as in mammals? Do they hatch from eggs? How many are born at once? For this one, humans are mostly one-at-a-time, but multiple births aren’t exactly rare. Other species, especially those that lay eggs, have larger litters or clutches.

(Oh, and before you ask, it’s astronomically unlikely that we’d be compatible enough with an alien race to reproduce with them. Half-human hybrids, though great for storytelling purposes, are not the hardest of science.)


Organisms must experience the world around them, if for no other reason than to obtain food and find a mate. For that purpose, we have our senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Each one has a use, and each has developed over the ages.

Evolution determines which senses are present. The ecological niche of a species is a good indicator of what its sensory capabilities will be. Cave-dwellers often have poor eyesight—if they even have eyes at all. Carnivores might have heightened senses of smell to track prey, while scavengers may have weakened taste. Here, the best guideline is reasoning: think of what your aliens would need where they live—or, if they’re highly advanced, where they originally came from.

Exotic senses can exist, within reason. Echolocation is popular in Earth animals, especially those without a good sense of sight. An herbivore living in a dangerous area might develop better peripheral vision. Hearing in the infrasonic and ultrasonic is perfectly valid for aliens, as are infrared and ultraviolet sight. Some birds seem to have sensitivity to magnetic fields. About the only things that aren’t possible are those that, well, aren’t possible. Like psionics, or seeing X-rays.

Each sense is going to have at least one organ behind it. We’ve got eyes, ears, the nose, the tongue, and the skin. Others are possible, though. Whiskers, antennae, suckers, tails, and anything you can think of can go towards the sensory system, if you can give it a good reason for being there.

Body plans

The outside of the body—what a species looks like—is probably more important from a storytelling point of view.

We humans have a distinct body symmetry. Left side looks like right, and we’ve got a lot of double organs, like lungs, eyes, and ears. And most animals are the same way. There might be small differences, such as fish with both eyes on the same side of the head, but those tend to be exceptions that prove the rule. This bilateral symmetry isn’t the only option. Starfish, for example, show a radial body plan: arms sticking out from around a center. Many plants aren’t really symmetrical at all, instead opting for a kind of “fractal” body plan.

Another thing we, as animals, have is segmentation. You might recall from science classes long ago that our bodies are divided into three segments: head, thorax, and abdomen. The head is where the brain lies, while the other two make up the body proper. And each of those segments has a pair of limbs (it’s a pair because of that bilateral symmetry). If we had another segment, say between the thorax and abdomen, we might have a second pair of legs (like a centaur) or arms (like Goro from Mortal Kombat). And if we kept growing new end segments as we aged, we’d be literal human centipedes!

Interesting minutiae

That covers the most important parts of an organism’s physical body. There are plenty of other systems (circulatory, nervous, endocrine, etc.) that will likely have counterparts in an alien race, but they follow much the same logic as those mentioned above.

Some other bodily things to think about include:

  • Defenses: Some organisms have evolved methods to defend against predators…or each other. Some plants are poisonous. Many snakes are venomous. Cacti and porcupines are both covered in sharp and pointy armor, while turtles and snails opt instead for hard shells. If your aliens were very recently not near the top of the food chain, then they’ll likely have their own ways of protecting themselves.

  • Pheromones: Human pheromones are mostly mythical, but a lot of animals do have them. They’re used to attract mates, mark territory, or as a further defense mechanism. Aliens could have them, as well, although they likely wouldn’t have any effect on us.

  • Vestigial organs: Evolution rarely discards that which is no longer needed. If it’s not actively harming the reproductive process, it’ll likely stick around far past its expiration date. That’s what happened with the human appendix, and it’s possible for an alien species, too.

  • Blood: It’s a staple of sci-fi that aliens don’t always have red blood. Sometimes, theirs is even toxic to us. Both cases result from using a different chemical mix than our iron-based hemoglobin. So if you’re looking for a hard-science excuse for green blood, that’s where you’ll want to start.


I could go on for hours, but this post is long enough already. Again, the best way to create aliens is to think about them. Environment affects appearance. Ecology matters. Inside and out, an alien race is beholden to its environment. If it isn’t, then it’s only a matter of time before it becomes so. But we, as worldbuilders, can work backwards: make what we want, then create the world to justify it.