June 2012


More excitingly, after years of waiting, Meet the Pyro is out!

I confess (though I’ve watched it half a dozen times by now) to a slight cavil: it’s basically a one-joke film, though that joke is extremely well executed.  It doesn’t have the side elements piled in as in the production high points, Medic and Spy.  In that way it’s more like Engineer.  (I say those were the production high points to accommodate the view that the comedic high point was Meet the Sniper.)

But, major kudos for taking that joke and applying it in an amazingly thorough way to the game itself.  You can now experience the actual gameplay in Pyrovision.  Best bit: when you’re dominated by or dominate a player, the in-game notification changes to “Zompist is BEST FRIENDS with ___.”  I can’t wait to figure out how to enable Pyroland in my own maps.

If you look at each of the Meet The films in turn, it’s fascinating how each one is designed to make that player class look heroic.  Note how manly the Medic looks in Meet the Medic.  In Pyro the non-Pyroland portions beautifully emphasize the power and menace of the Pyro– he even walks taller than normal.

It’s also interesting that they completely sidestepped any backstory for the Pyro; we don’t even learn what he looks like under the suit.  Partly, I suspect, this is because they were trapped by an earlier joke.  The costume cabinet prop has a purse in his slot, which is an obvious and kinda dumb gay joke (pyro = flamer), but which many people took as implying that the Pyro was female (despite his obviously male mumble and figure).  Instead of going in either of these directions, they made the Pyro batshit insane.  Which, you know, will displease approximately zero Pyro players.

When we last visited this topic, I was sending out a draft of Advanced Language Construction for review.  As comments came back, I’d made corrections or add clarifications.  The only fairly big revision came when my friend Daniel suggested talking about “prestige”.  I decided I wanted to include what Labov said about the leaders of sound change, and that turned out to require finding out what he said about the leaders of sound change.  And you really can’t skim Labov.  So that took awhile.

If you think of books only as a readers, they’re products– a solid slab of text that seemingly emerged whole from the mind of its author, like Athena.  For the writer, it’s not solid at all; it starts out gaseous and only slowly solidifies.  It’s at about the consistency of Play-Dough right now.  I occasionally reshape a bit or plop on a bit more clay.

The good news is that the people who’ve read it seem to like it.  That’s more than can be said of the first draft of APAF!

I just sent a revised draft to a few more people.  So the idea is, I get some more comments, revise, and then order a physical proof copy.  I find that a lot of things (especially formatting) are only evident on paper.  So start saving your lawnmowing money, the book is coming soon!

If you prefer Kindle format, that’ll be a bit longer, as all the illustrations have to be converted into fuzzy, half-readable JPGs.

I just finished William Labov’s Principles of Linguistic Change: Social Factors, which is a detective story.  No, really.  You don’t expect a linguistic tome to have the literary quality of suspense, but this book does.  It’s organized around the central puzzler of historical linguistics: why does language change?  Why do people bother with sound changes, especially when everyone agrees that they’re destructive if not positively evil?  It takes the whole book to create a framework to answer the question.

This is mostly because Labov details his methods, his data, and what he does in the dark with statistics.  He mostly works with surveys he and his students have done at the University of Pennsylvania, though he references similar work that’s been done all over the world: New York, Detroit, Montreal, Cairo, London, Belfast, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Hong Kong, and more.

One hypothesis we can immediately reject: that people imitate the leaders of society.  Bluntly, people don’t come to talk like the king, or Congress.  All of the ongoing sound changes that have been identified are divergences from the standard.  Labov calls this change from below; other sociolinguists speak of covert prestige.  One obvious example is AAVE, the speech of urban American blacks, which more or less completely ignores both standard General American and the local dialects of northern whites.  Blacks and whites in the US don’t want to sound like each other.  (This isn’t a universal– Jamaican Londoners talk like everyone else, which Labov confirmed by playing recordings of them to white folks; they couldn’t tell that the speakers were black.)

In order to address how sounds change, Labov focussed on whose speech is changing.  The community doesn’t advance uniformly.  His findings:

  • The leaders of sound change are almost always women; they’re often a generation ahead of the men.
  • Women keep advancing a sound change in a linear fashion; men’s advance is stepwise.  The obvious interpretation is that men don’t pick up the change from their contemporaries, but from their mothers.
  • There’s a typical curvilinear function of class: neither the lower class nor the upper class are in the forefront of change, but those in the middle– even more specifically, the upper working class.
  • Nonstandard variants often peak in adolescence.  So older speakers may retreat from a change.
  • There’s only a very small contribution from ethnicity or neighborhood (except to the degree that these correlate with class).
  • A phoneme doesn’t change all at once; some words are leaders, some laggards.  For some reason, the tensing of short a in Philadelphia strongly affected the word planet, while Janet remained lax.  (This is reminiscent of the effect of Trojan horse words in gender change.)

Beyond this, Labov was able to identify individuals who were in the forefront of sound changes in Philadelphia.  Interestingly, they shared several characteristics.  They were upper working class women, with a strong nonconformist streak.  Perhaps most interestingly, they were what Malcolm Gladwell calls Connectors, people who were not only intensely involved with their neighborhoods, but had strong connections to other areas as well– the perfect people to spread ideas.

This tends to falsify notions that sound change is due to ignorance or laziness; the leaders are bright and upwardly mobile.  Sound changes are also not due to isolation; they’re centered on the most social people.  The paradox is that these women are just rebellious enough to fight social norms, but not enough to be dissipated or burned out.

So what happens, exactly?  Labov outlines the steps like this:

  • Some phoneme P has asymmetrical neighbors in phonetic space: there’s a farther gap between its near neighbor N and a farther neighbor M.  Phonemes are realized with a certain amount of spread; as there’s more room in the direction of M, outliers in that direction are heard as valid instances of P.
  • New languages learners thus move the phoneme in the direction of M– in effect, they mishear the outliers as normal tokens.
  • The change is taken as characteristic of younger speakers and less formal speech.  It’s preferentiallyl taken up by nonconforming young women.
  • Upwardly mobile women spread the change to higher and lower social classes.
  • Men catch up to women in the next generation, as they pick up the now advanced sound change from their mothers.

Now, all this is unconscious.  These are not overt markers like a regional dialect– people are generally unaware of these changes, and if they’re pointed out the speakers are typically apologetic.  If a change does reach public awareness, it’s stigmatized.  It may continue to advance (it still has appeal as a marker of nonconformity), or it may just be retained as a long-term class marker.  (E.g. there’s some evidence that the pronunciation of -ing as -in’ goes back for centuries.)  If a local language variety is losing ground (generally to the standard language; this seems to be common in Europe), the leaders in this process also tend to be women.

A corollary is that people are lousy self-reporters.  Labov played people recordings of words showing different stages in different sound changes; invariably people reported themselves as much closer to the standard than they were, and even claimed that “no one talked like” the more extreme variations.  This should be a note of caution for linguists who rely on people’s evaluations of grammatical correctness!

Another curious fact: the closest analogue to sound change may be fashion, which is also driven by the preferences of middle class, highly social women.

I finished Saints Row the Third.  So naturally I’m eager to start up another game, this time on a more difficult setting.

A cutscene featuring my homies and my purple lip gloss

To its credit, the game retains its fun and humor to the end, as well as its effortless match between player and character goals.  (Player goal: have fun and blow stuff up.  Character goal: pretty much the same.)  There’s no attempt to address the real world or teach a lesson or make you feel that crime is bad.  There’s no Troubled Betrayer.  For awhile the game just keeps topping itself.  You get missions like these:

  • ride around with a live tiger; keep him from mauling you by driving fast
  • get a tank and blow up as much stuff as possible in a time limit
  • defeat wave after wave of attacks by mascots and furries
  • deal with a zombie infestation
  • piss off the military by burning its banners
  • also by blowing up an aircraft carrier
  • bond with a military woman by talking about your favorite R&B star
  • streaking (shock as many passersby as possible!)
  • protect your homie as he goes around distributing mixtapes
  • take on a Mexican wrestler, in the ring
  • throw yourself at cars to run up insurance charges:

Ragdolling for profit

So, you rarely get bored.  A couple of activities are not easy (they involve racing the clock in a part of town that’s hard to get around), but they’re just side quests.  I also found the airplanes kind of hard to fly, but no showstoppers.  A couple missions feel a bit tacked-together (like an excursion into cyberspace).  Oh, and it’s a bit laggy on my machine, though playable.  That’s about it for downsides.

Is all the violence kind of questionable?  Well, I’d argue that treating it all as camp is more respectable than dressing it up with faux seriousness, a la Grand Theft Auto IV.  GTAIV ends up, I think, papering over our enjoyment of the cartoon violence by making gestures toward deepness.  But you know, if you really disapprove of cartoon violence, then just don’t make the player into a violent criminal.

There’s a part of us that likes to just break all the rules.  That’s half the secret of games and jokes and stories.  It’s also why villains are almost always more memorable, more beloved even, than the heroes.  Batman would be a bore if he just had street thugs to deal with; he needs the Joker and Penguin and the whole grisly crew.

For what it’s worth, though SR3 doesn’t pretend that the Saints are saints, the bad guys are always presented as a bit worse, and the protagonist is not without virtues… she’s loyal, she’s fearless, she runs her operation based on mutual profit and fun rather than fear, and she gladly helps out when Burt Reynolds asks.

Nothing says respect like a gang boss in bondage gear with a rocket launcher

What about sexism?  Well, like Skyrim, the game is all about equal opportunity brutality; your homies and enemies alike are totally on board with armed and dangerous women. I dunno, for the most part I think the developers keep the crudity on the side of funny rather than offensive, over the top rather than over the edge.

If that sort of thing bothers you though, just play as a female.  I tried both, mostly because there’s an achievement for it, and somehow the game feels a little squeamy when playing as a male.  A female boss subverts the whole gang theme.  Plus, Female Voice 3 (the Latina, played by Rebecca Sanabria) is awesome.  While being brash and tough as necessary, she’s also lighthearted and cute, and that helps sell the notion of the game as campy fun.  I like being able to play a villain, but not a psychopath.

As I’ve mentioned before, it often felt like GTAIV was mostly about driving, with criminal interludes.  SR3 makes this aspect of an open-world urban RPG much more fun: better steering, respect earned through reckless driving, some diversions like stunt jumps, an afterburner to get through long highway rides.  Still, you eventually get access to helicopters and planes, which makes getting around town for missions easier.  (Also, FWIW, I finished SR3 in 52 hours, which is a pretty satisfying amount, while I put more time into GTAIV while barely reaching Act II.)

I still haven’t tried co-op, which should be big dumb fun.

The game is pretty good about teaching you what you need to know, but one thing I didn’t realize till late was that you can upgrade weapons (at the gun stores).  Also, if you need a bunch of money, kill one of Prof. Genki’s clones.  (Easiest method: kick him in the balls, shoot him while he’s down, repeat many times.  He has a lot of hit points.)

Quick question about the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and future Englishes— it seems to me an awfully regional shift to be incorporated broadly into subsequent daughter languages or dialects of English. When I look back at other sound changes in English, like the Great Vowel Shift, their success seems to be predicated partly on the more regionally restricted nature of English before British colonialism really took off— not to mention the fact that nowadays English seems to have more than one prestige dialect (American English might be argued to enjoy a little more prestige that British English globally, but American English is hardly monolithic).

I could easily see in a civilization like the Incatena, where you have a new central focus of political and cultural influence being established (Mars) whose standard language is not necessarily the mother tongue of many people who speak it (cf. the number of people in India or Africa who speak English as a second language), various dialects contributing to the formation of a new standard. Obviously some will have outsize influence, based on population and cultural influence, but it doesn’t seem to follow that a regional shift like the Northern Cities Vowel Shift would come to dominate.

Just curious if you followed a different line of reasoning on this.

—James.

It’s pretty simple, really: designing a future English, rather than simply make up the first step, it makes more sense to use a sound change that’s actually in progress, though it’s currently below public perception. 

For the “regional” objection, two points.  First, what’s the alternative, given that I want to use a real sound change?  I don’t think there’s any sound change of similar phonetic importance that is more geographically widespread.

Second, if anything is going to affect near-future American English, the Northeast US is probably about the best place for it to start.  It’s already the core of General American, and other US dialects (New England, New York, the South) have historically been stigmatized and not spread outside their regions. 

A better objection might be that it’s highly urban, and doesn’t seem to have spread to the suburbs and thence to the media.  But Labov says that typically sound changes spread from the working class upward and downward, so again this is just what we’d expect for the origins of a major change.  It’s true that not all changes keep spreading; but this is sf, not physics.  I wouldn’t bet a lot on the NCVS not spreading; but I wouldn’t be surprised if it stopped, either.

Now, I said Stennud was “50C Earth English”, but this is taking a broad interstellar view.  To be more precise, I’m going to say that UK and American English will no longer be mutually intelligible, and Stennud is the descendant of the latter.  It’s likely to be more of a world standard simply because North America is a much much larger clot of English speakers.

This could change if India actually switched to English.  I don’t think this is likely, and it’s even less so in the Incatena timeline.  Currently there’s something like 86 million Indians who speak English as a first or second language; compare that to 520 million for Hindi.  In the Incatena future, Dravidian India splits off (which removes a significant barrier to the further spread of Hindi), and the Collapse reduces American influence worldwide. 

Recall that interstellar travel is expensive and time-consuming; the vast majority of people never leave their home system.  Thus planets tend to diverge linguistically; there is no “Incatenese”.  Interstellar travelers tend to use either Hanying, the major language of Mars, or Sihorian Franca.  Stennud is not that big a deal off Earth.

I’ve been reading William Labov’s book on social factors in sound change, and I’m finally getting to the good bit: where he starts explaining who are the leaders in change.

But more on that later.  For now, I realized that future Englishes should really incorporate the completed Northern Cities Sound Shift.  In particular, the “Stannud” of the Incatena should be Stennud or even Stiynnud.

Have you considered putting out something on Verdurian on print-on-demand— some sort of more advanced Teach Yourself Verdurian or the like, or a more in-depth dictionary/grammar?

—Dhokarena56

I have, in fact, though I’ve thought more about (say) an edition of all the ancient Eastern languages (Caďinor, Cuêzi, Axunašin, Obenzayet).

So it’ll happen eventually.  The main holdup is that I don’t think sales would be phenomenal, while the book production would take as long as any other project, so it’s not terribly high priority.

It’s been awhile since I’ve stayed up way, way too late playing a game, and I never expected it would be this one: Saints Row the Third.  My Mefite friends said it was big dumb fun, and it was on sale.  Guess what?  It’s damn big dumb fun!

I never played the first games, so this was in medias res, not that it really matters.  The opening is a blockbuster.  It starts out cutsceny, though you get to shoot dudes.  It’s a heist, but just so you don’t get the idea this is a serious examination of criminal behavior like say Ocean’s 11, everyone is wearing giant Johnny Gat heads.  (That’s one of the gang leaders.  Johnny Gat is there, also wearing a giant Johnny Gat head.)  The heist goes wrong, and then there’s an insane bit where you’re parachuting, holding onto one of your co-gangsters; you drop her, plunge through the window of an oncoming plane, kill most of the rival gangsters inside, drop out the back, and dive to pick up your friend again.

At some point you pick a character.  I couldn’t stop laughing when I came to the Fat Slider:

Trying hard to pull the slider even further to the right

SR3 is not content to just give you a bunch of character options.  It gives you insane character options.  After all the normal skins, there’s oiled skins, then metallic skins, then skins of all colors of the rainbow.  I ended up going with a very pretty alabaster.  For voices you can pick any of three male or three female voices… or a zombie moan.  And of course you can combine all these– a mustachioed horribly old fat man with a Russian woman’s voice?  No problem!

And then pretty soon you’re on the streets of Steelport, building up your gang and your respect level.  It’s an open world, and you can do all sorts of things: kill rival gangsters, buy up businesses, spend cash on threads or wheels or guns, do assassinations, steal cars, run Dr. Genki’s reality show deathly obstacle course.  Or just mess around: you get respect for driving in the oncoming lane, or nearly missing other cars.  Or for streaking close to people.  Or taunting rival gangsters.

Or browse the Saints store. Sadly you can’t buy one of the inflatable gangstas.

The inevitable comparison is to Grand Theft Auto IV, which has the curious distinction of being one of the games I’ve played the most (74 hours) without coming near finishing it.  GTAIV is incredibly big and ambitious, but I think it doesn’t manage to make its themes coincide with its gameplay.  It’s an actual saga of criminal life, seemingly intended to make you question the psychopaths and wannabes you hang out with.  And yet the actual gameplay is organized around killing people, interspersed with endless driving.  All the depth is in the cutscenes; when you actually get control of Niko there’s not much to do besides go take on his next crime.  (Well, unless you really like the bowling and pool minigames.)

There’s no such conflict in SR3; it’s all mindless mayhem played for laughs.  (The difference is a little like the different treatment of mercenary life in Far Cry 2 vs. Team Fortress 2.)  Plus, as a friend pointed out, it’s optimized for fun.  Driving is easy; there are keystrokes for powered turns that are easier and more fun than GTAIV; plus the little respect augments you get for reckless driving make the driving itself part of the game in a way GTAIV didn’t manage.  (GTAIV often felt like a driving simulator with crime minigames.)  You have plenty of health, so it takes a fair amount of effort to get killed.  You can have your car delivered anywhere just in case you don’t feel like stealing a car.  I just kept playing one more mission, one more activity, ooh I have money now let’s buy more clothes, say what’s this activity here… omigod, tank mayhem, can you do $325,000 property damage in three minutes?  I can!

Not as angsty as Niko, but way prettier

If you drive with a friend in GTAIV, you’re likely to get a long dramatic dialog, possibly delivered in Jamaican creole.  In SR3, by contrast, I got my character and her buddy laughing and singing along to the radio… really an unexpectedly charming moment, especially as I love my character’s brash Latina accent.

(To be fair, GTAIV’s undercurrent of radio shows, TV programs, and ads adds up to a biting satire of American life, whereas SR3 is more of an affectionate parody.  Plus I really liked some of its tunes, not that SR3′s music is bad.)

There’s also a co-op mode, so you can go cause mayhem together.  Haven’t tried that yet.

I suspect this is going to be another review of a book that makes you run right out and not buy that book.  So let me start by telling you about the book you should run out and buy: Jerome’s Three Men and a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog).  It’s been in print for a century, and for good reason– it’s great.  I think people on this side of the Atlantic no longer know it, but it’s the narration of a trip upriver on the Thames, with frequent, hilarious digressions.  It’s part of the tradition of British books celebrating messing about with boats, along with The Wind in the Willows, Gaudy Night, and The Voyage fo the Dawn Treader.  While telling you everything that can go wrong with such an expedition, it makes you want to try one.

Good, but not quite as good, is the much later sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, about a cycling trip through Germany, perhaps most notable for its observations on German culture of the time (such as the horrific student duels).

The book I just finished is Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, which is a set of humorous essays– the Victorian equivalent of stand-up comedy or blogging.  It’s pretty variable.  He’s often quite funny, and it’s also a fascinating window into the mores of the Victorian middle class– which are suprisingly recognizable.  With corporate jobs, railroads, and the telephone, it doesn’t seem that far from our society.  A little more sex-differentiated, but very little that shakes the weirdness meter.  (One of his frequent topics is the relations between the sexes, and sometimes it’s a bit sexist, but he makes a real effort to make fun of men too; he has the English attitude that everyone is rather silly.)

Occasionally he gets tedious, partly because the essays are overlong, partly because he often lapses into moralistic flights of fancy.  I think these are intended to fall somewhere between parody and earnestness; their usual message is that this world is ultimately vain, or that we don’t live up to our ideals; or he laments the loss of youthful vigor and naivete.  For a modern reader, the joke if any is lost– if nothing else these passages are way too long to come off as tongue in cheek.  It’s kind of interesting, though, that the ancient moral lesson of dismissing this world (riches are vain, remember we’re all going to die anyway) was still strong in 1899; American evangelicalism is much more likely to sell prosperity theology and blip right over death (many even try to give the impression that Christians don’t even have to die, as they’re gonna get raptured any moment now anyway).

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