I was excited to hear that Luc Besson was making a movie of Valérian, the French BD. And I finally got to see it!


The top image is from the movie

Briefly: it’s pretty good, with caveats.  (JWZ hated it, though.) Pluses:

  • It’s visually stunning, far outdoing Fifth Element.
  • It’s a surprisingly close adaptation of the 1975 Valérian comic Ambassador of the Shadows.
  • It’s also faithful to the anti-colonialist spirit of the comics.
  • Laureline.


  • Besson lays it on pretty thick at times.
  • Nowhere near as compelling a villain as in Fifth Element.
  • Valerian.
  • Not enough Laureline.

It wasn’t very successful in the US, for about the same reason as Fifth Element: American sdon’t read French comics, so they just don’t know what to make of this sort of material. We expect our heroes to be rock-jawed and earnest, or maybe disturbed and grimdark.  And when it comes to satire, we have no subtlety: everything either has to be cynically absurdist (The Simpsons) or over-the-top dystopia (pretty much every recent sf movie).

The comic started in 1967, drawn by Jean-Claude Mézières and written by Pierre Christin, and continued to 2010. French comics are often gorgeous, and Mézières did amazing work bringing aliens, space vistas, and 28th century technology to life. Valérian and Laureline  are “spatio-temporal agents”— their missions cross both space and time, protecting the future Earth state, “Galaxity”— but there’s a strong humanistic and anti-establishment tone to the stories, and often they have to disobey orders and do what’s right instead.

In the comics, Valérian is kind of a big lug— good enough at executing his missions, but not very imaginative. Laureline is always depicted as smarter, more empathetic, and more versatile. (She also has the more interesting background: she’s from the 10th century; she met Valérian on one of his missions and, discovering his time travel ability, had to go back to the future with him, whereupon Galaxity trained her as his partner.)

Watching the movie, you can kind of see that that’s what Besson was going for— only he spoiled it by making Valerian an asshole. I’ve heard people complaining about the casting, or the chemistry between the actors, but I think Cara Delevingne does fine, and Dane DeHaan does what he can with his terrible part. The problem is the script: Valerian talks like a bad pick-up artist, and doesn’t really have much to say when Laureline points out that he loses all interest in a woman after seducing her.  The script suggests that going through an adventure together and saving each other’s lives a few times might change all that.  Maybe, but more likely it’d seem like a huge mistake in a month’s time.

The movie at least starts with strong source material: it adapts Ambassador, including the mega-space station, the primitive-seeming alien race, the converter creature, the shape-shifting aliens, the information-dealing little aliens, the sea monsters with telepathic jellyfish on top, the ambivalent and arrogant Earth government, the attack and kidnaping of the Earth official. But Ambassador was also virtually a solo adventure for Laureline: Valérian was kidnaped as well and spends most of the comic offscreen. Although it might be a weird introduction to the series, I’d much rather have called the movie Laureline, focused on her, and lost the ham-fisted bro-romance angle.

Still, if you look at Fifth Element too closely, it falls apart too.  Too corny; over-the-top excess; Ruby Rhod. And yet, it’s spectacular and eccentric, and Besson knows how to make a movie move. It’s really well put together, and very enjoyable if you just accept that the characters are caricatures.

And Valerian is pretty similar. It’s really beautiful, and the first bit of plot— the dimension-crossing Big Market— is crazy and amazing. It’s always beautiful and never boring. And though Valerian himself is kind of excruciating, he’s also, I think, meant to be that way.


Here it is!

Generated sentence did that frog not sit on these fat big mice?

Note, it’s not minimal, it’s Minimalist. By that I mean, it’s generated by a program that uses Minimalist theory to build sentences.  Here’s the final tree:

                    D:<that frog>

Still not clear?  I’ve spent the last few days creating a program to model Minimalism.  And I don’t even like it much as a syntactic theory! But I like it for its ambition: give some simple rules for building up a sentence word by word.  This is not, as you might expect, using phrase structure rules; it really is built up word by word, from the bottom up. And that makes it a natural match for programming.

For instance, the above derivation started with the word mice, randomly selected from a list of possible nouns. It then searches the lexicon for things that can be linked with a noun— basically, determiners or adjectives.  So it builds up a prepositional phrase (PP), then looks for something that can be linked with a PP.

The verb sit is marked in the lexicon as waning  PP and also a D. We’ve got the PP, so we can merge sit into the tree. The rules do not allow extending the tree downwards, only upwards, so to get a D we have to find another subtree (that frog), then merge to the left.

The stuff above that… well, that takes a lot more explaining than I can fit in a blog post; you’ll have to wait for the Syntax Construction Kit for that. As a teaser, though, when you see <things in brackets>, they’ve been moved up the tree to another spot; and some of the superstructure handles Do-support— that is, the fact that English requires an inserted do to handle questions that have only bare verbs.

Along the way the program handles determiner agreement (which is why we have these mice),  verbal inflections, and pronoun case (which didn’t happen to be triggered here).

Anyway, I’ll show you the program later; I’m not done with it, though it has about all the features I expect to have.  A lot of it is quite general; you could use it for a conlang or something, if you happened to really like Minimalism.  But some things are pretty kludgy, partly because Minimalism is clunky in spots, partly because English is. Do-support, for instance, is a really weird mechanism.

(Also, I know, didn’t the frog… would be more colloquial, but the current output is at least grammatical, so I may or may not fix that.)


Jeff Kaplan posted the most popular 10 characters for each tier of competitive, and I decided to make them into a nice chart.


I’m mostly a D.va main, so it’s nice to know that pretty much everyone thinks she’s a good choice. I like playing Moira too; I’m kind of surprised she rates so highly.

It’s interesting to see the trends over skill levels. I guess if you can actually aim, it pays to play McCree rather than Soldier 76.

Hey, pubbies of the world: see where Hanzo and Widow appear on the chart?  That’s right, nowhere.

I was out with a friend last night, and he asked about the book I’m working on, and I said it was on syntax.  So he asked, reasonably enough, what’s syntax?

Well, how do you answer that for a non-linguist?  This is what I came up with.

Suppose you want to make a machine that spits out English sentences all day long.  There should be no (or very few) repetitions, and each one should be good English.

How would you make that machine in the simplest way possible?

That is, we’re not interested in a set of rules that require the Ultimate Computer from Douglas Adams’s sf. We know that “make a human being” is a possible answer, but we’re looking for the minimum. (We also, of course, don’t want a machine that can’t do it— that misses some sentences, or spits out errors.  We want the dumbest machine that works.)

One more stipulation: we don’t insist that they be meaningful. We’re not conducting a conversation with the machine. It’s fine if the machine outputs John is a ten foot tall bear. That’s a valid sentence— we don’t care whether or not someone named John is nearby, or if he’s a bear, or if he’s a big or a small bear.

That machine is a generative grammar.

The rules of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures are in fact such a machine— though a partial one.  And along with the book I’m creating a web tool that allows you to define rules and let it generate sentences with the Syntactic Structures rules, or any other set.  It works like a charm.  But the SS rules were not, of course, a full grammar.

Now, besides the amusement value, why do we do this?

  • It’s part of the overall goal of describing language.
  • It puts some interesting lower bounds on any machine that handles language.
  • As a research program, it will uncover a huge store of facts about syntax, most of them never noticed before.  Older styles of grammar were extremely minimal about syntax, because they weren’t asking the right questions.
  • It might help you with computer processing of language.
  • It might tell you something about how the brain works.

I said we wouldn’t worry about semantics, but in practice generative grammar has a lot to say about it. Just as we can’t quite separate syntax from morphology, we can’t quite separate it from semantics and pragmatics.

You might well ask (and in fact you should!), well, how do you make such a machine?  What do the rules look like?  But for that you’ll have to wait for Chapter Two.

At this point I’ve written about 150 pages, plus two web toys.  (One is already available— a Markov text generator.)

I mentioned before that my syntax books didn’t extend much beyond 1990. Now I’ve got up to 2013, kind of. I read a book of that date by Andrew Carnie, which got me up to speed, more or less, on Chomsky’s middle period:  X-bar syntax, government & binding, principles & parameters. The good news is that all this is pretty compatible with what I knew from earlier works, especially James McCawley.

I’m also awaiting two more books, one on Minimalism, one on Construction Grammar.

Fortunately, I’m not training people to write dissertations in Chomskyan (or any other) orthodoxy… so I don’t have to swallow everything in Chomsky.  (But you know, rejecting Chomsky is almost a full time job. He keeps changing his mind, so you have to study quite a lot of Chomsky before you know all the stuff you can reject.)


As I’ve said before, we in the US live under plutocracy, where we once had liberalism.
Even given that, it’s getting harder and harder to defend capitalism. A few years ago it would have been biting satire to point out that we were moving back to robber baron capitalism. Now it’s just robber capitalism. The plutocrats are not even building things any more; they’re just looting.

The news these days is almost all bad news, and that’s before we get to the politics.

  • The leading tech firm is Facebook, whose business model is monetizing your life; which is easily used by bad actors to spread right-wing fake news; which is touting an app called “Protect” which installs spyware on your device.
  • Amazon is trying to patent wristbands that track employees’ locations to the inch.
  • Salon has decided that it’s not enough to pile up their pages with bloatware ads; if you turn on an ad blocker they want to mine cryptocurrency using your computer.
  • Speaking of cryptocurrency: it’s nice that the nuts have a hobby, but did they have to create one that wastes massive amounts of electricity and drives up hardware prices?
  • Barnes & Nobles is apparently on its way out: they just fired their most skilled employees and keep reducing the space for books. Shouldn’t capitalism be able to manage one of its core competencies— running a fucking store?
  • Toys R Us is apparently going out of business, not because they can’t make money selling toys, but because vultures loaded them up with debt.
  • Silicon Valley’s idea of brilliance is to take an old industry and “reinvent it”: that is, throw out all regulations and turn the salaried workers into precarious part-timers.
  • Do you think that only happens in fringe industries? 94% of the jobs created since 2005 are temporary or freelance.
  • The latest stock market crash was said to be spurred by investors’ fears that with unemployment at a low, wages would rise. That is, the investor class is terrified of a prosperous nation. Adam Smith warned us about this, but isn’t the whole reason we tolerate capitalism so that the rest of us live better?
  • IT, long an area where actual workers were paid well, is no longer immune. Remaining devs: enjoy the permanent death marches, and the mergers and layoffs.
  • Peter Thiel deserves his own bullet point here. His favorite book is apparently a Randian political screed that hopes to destroy democracy so rich people can rule even more openly.
  • The move from manufacturing to services is perhaps inevitable, but it seems much harder to make these operate humanely. The natural structure of a manufacturing-based economy is a set of competing firms— which at least means they compete with each other for consumer loyalty, and anti-trust law can keep them from getting too big. Tech firms naturally seek monopolies— which are anti-consumer.

And again, that’s just recent news, without getting into our overall predicament: productivity gains are now going only to the 10%; income and wealth are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the super-rich; the US and even Europe are returning to a rentier economy, where wealth isn’t even held by entrepreneurs and innovators, but by their do-nothing offspring.

And all that’s without considering the political climate. The GOP just gets worse and worse… in the Bush years, they at least threw the middle class a bone once in awhile, like Medicare prescription drugs. Now all they want to do is deregulate busines, cut taxes for the super-rich, and cripple government services. Oh, and throttle immigration, because somehow a growing economy is bad.

(BTW, I’m aware that reading the news can overemphasize the disasters. But that’s why we look at long-term and large-scale indicators too. So long as the productivity/compensation chart looks like that, we’ve got a big problem.)

What happens next? Well, there’s three overall possibilities.

One: Keep going! Transfer even more power to a rentier aristocracy; have a cyberpunk dystopia forever.

I hear a lot about “late stage capitalism” these days, but I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking. A rentier aristocracy can stay in power indefinitely— it’s basically what Europe had from 1815 to 1914. Even more broadly, a conservative aristocracy maintained power in Latin America for five hundred years. It’s not that hard. They have all the main sources of power; they co-opt the small middle class; they use religion and racial solidarity and the police to keep the bulk of the masses in control; the bottom of the heap suffers forever.

That said, we should remember George Orwell’s point: aristocracies are pretty stupid. And this stupidity is not accidental: to be smart enough to see how the system operates makes you incapable of defending it.

The European upper classes were destroyed by two world wars. That’s the problem with stupidity: it’s fine for dull times, but it becomes a liability during a crisis. So I don’t really think we’ll have a rentier aristocracy for five hundred years; if we keep going, we’ll have world wars and/or ecological collapse by 2100.

The irony is that empowering Donald Trump was possibly a fatal miscalculation. Yes, it turned out his populism was a sham; the 1% got their tax cuts and can run rampant for a few years. But it turns out Trump is really unpopular, and the GOP victory risks being swept away. Honestly, to pull off this scam you want either a complete nonentity like Dubya Bush, or a friendly uncle like Ronald Reagan. (And again, as I’ve been saying for a long time, the problem is not Trump himself. He was an unusually poor choice, but so was runner-up Ted Cruz; so was Ben Carson; so is Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.)

Option two: Socialism!

You almost have to hand it to the capitalists: they’ve made young Americans turn against capitalism, 51% to 42%. That’s pretty amazing, in the one country where “socialist” was historically a slur and political death.

And who can say the young people are wrong? They’re the most precarious victims of  plutocracy. They lost their jobs in 2008; the good careers are mostly gone; housing prices are insane; they’re crippled by college debt; they’re watching their elders try to take away their health care, deport their friends, stomp on their sexuality.

What I said above about the 19th century has to be nuanced: in the modern world, the oppressed can communicate, organize, and rebel. Socialism didn’t come out of nowhere; it’s the inevitable response when the oppressors get too blatant. And when the upper classes keep trying to make life shittier, the rest of the population starts to feel it has nothing to lose with radical change.

Now, I have some reservations about socialism, based on how it’s been practiced. Reigns of terror bad, OK guys? But so long as it stays democratic, it should stay sane. “Socialism is running amok!” is not a worry on our actual planet in 2017.  “Reactionaries running amok” is.

If you’re a socialist, here’s some free advice: start building cooperative institutions now. We’ve seen that capitalism apparently can’t even run a bookstore chain anymore. Why not create a bookstore that’s worth visiting and breaks even financially? (Actually, the only bookstore left in my town is already run by socialists.)

Option three: Back to liberalism!

I know, you’re thinking “What, Hillary Clinton?” I think you underestimate Hillary, but if you can’t get past that, at least think about Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Obama.

If you want to totally turn me off, start spouting both-sides-ism and dissing the Democrats. They’re not as progressive as I’d like either. But there’s something to be said for not destroying the country and the planet. There’s also something to be said for understanding the political predicament we have in this country: up to half the electorate is extremely regressive— and our political system is set up to give recalcitrant minorities exceptional power. Obama got quite a lot done, but he would have done a whole lot more if he weren’t opposed at every step of the way by Congress.

Plus, for too long leftists have considered politics a spectator sport. They sat by and complained about Democrats, while conservatives packed the school boards, primaried their moderate opponents, took over state legislature after state legislature. Now, I think, that’s changing. Progressives are starting to organize, to demonstrate, to run for goddamn office, to get out the vote. If we don’t mess it up, we might actually win a midterm election this year. But if not, remember that conservatives were willing to play the long game. They started that low-level organizing in the 1980s; it paid off twenty years later.

But anyway, what I mean by liberalism is not ’90s compromises; it’s right back to Roosevelt. Why were the plutocrats under control for fifty years? Because we had 90% tax rates, we had strong unions, we had cheap housing and education, we regulated business, we had social norms that made corporations raise workers’ salaries, hire managers rather than load CEOS with stock options, and compete with each other.


I can’t say I’ve truly explored the walking simulator genre, but I can say that What Remains of Edith Finch is the best so far. It’s deeply weird and beautifully done. I think I’d like it a lot better if it weren’t for the ending, but that’s true of a lot of games.


You play as Edith Finch, returning to your family home after years being away.  And I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, because the Steam store page reveals it and also I think the game does in the first few minutes: your rather large extended family is all dead, and you’ll spend the game learning their stories.

(You never really see Edith, but charmingly, you can look down and see your body. And you occasionally see your hands. For some reason you sport knitted fingerless gloves. Kind of goth, but so is the game.)

This sounds a bit like Gone Home, and you do spend a lot of time listening to Edith’s reactions, but as soon as you explore the first family story– Molly’s– the game veers off in a different direction entirely.  You don’t just hear Molly’s story, you play it, and it’s a weird but exhilarating burst of magic realism.

And that’s kind of the note of the game. It’s really a set of macabre short stories, each told in a different but very inventive style. There’s plenty of environmental storytelling (each person’s room is highly personal and packed with personal items), but the game is constantly exploring new means of interaction. I usually feel I should warn people in reviews of offbeat games that you don’t get to shoot anything, but here you do.

I have some reservations, though I also have reservations about my reservations. I mean, it’s about death, and it’s sometimes appropriately sad or creepy, but it’s mostly about a theatrical, Edward Gorey version of death. And it’s absolutely OK to grieve at death and also laugh at it, but I’m not sure if the game knows which it wants to do. Sometimes it seems a bit flippant– the death of one more Finch feels like a punchline.

On the other hand, sometimes it gets just the right amount of poignancy, such as in the story of the cannery worker, Lewis.  (If you’ve played the game, and NOT BEFORE, read Pip Warr’s wonderful breakdown of how this amazing sequence works and how the developers struggled to make it work.)

Also, as I said, I don’t like the ending.  (Mouseover to read.)  The deaths of Edith’s mother and Edith seem rushed and gratuitous. There’s nothing edgy or macabre or interesting about killing off the player character; it just seems mean. It left a bad taste in my mouth; and yet it’s literally the last few minutes of the game; they could have left it out and greatly improved the game.)

One more note: it’s short, about two and a half hours. (If $20 seems steep for that, wait for the next Steam sale…)

In gameplay and storytelling, I think people will be mining Edith Finch for years.  “Wait, we can tell a story in games without just relying on audiologs and picking up props?”





Two game things.  One, if you’ve already read Concerned and you’re caught up on Freeman’s Mind 2, check out Robert Yang’s playthrough of Half-Life 2 concentrating on level design.

Yang actually teaches level design, and he was one of the creators of the HL1 remake Black Mesa, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll comment on the layout of the rooms or levels, the texturing, how NPCs move around, how the level designer is making things easier or harder for the player, how eager Valve was to show off its physics engine, and so on. But he’s also just a friendly and fun guy, and I like how he gets sad over the death of a lone headcrab, or decides to carry a sentry gun as far as he can.

He’s gone through other games as well, including Half-Life 1 and Bioshock 1.

The other thing: you might also go pick up Gorogoa, a fun little puzzle game.  I heard about it from this RPS article about how it was put together, and it sounded fun.


It’s all gorgeously hand-drawn, and it shows you from two to four pictures at one time.  All you do is move them about or zoom within them, but this turns out to be a surprisingly rich game mechanic.  Sometimes you find pictures that go together, and aligning them will join them (usually advancing the story). Sometimes a picture changes depending on its position.  Sometimes it has holes in it, and that lets you move it over another picture.

It’s short, but that’s fine– you won’t get tired of it.  And I can’t think of any other game that’s quite like it.