June 2009


Very telling chart from the New York Times, showing divorce rates, teenage birthrates, and subscriptions to porn sites, sorted into red and blue states:

Divorce, teen births, porn by red/blue states

Divorce, teen births, porn by red/blue states

Notice a pattern?  Red states cluster at the top, blue at the bottom.  To put it simply, conservative moralism doesn’t produce morality… quite the opposite.

Though I have my doubts about the last column… who subscribes to porn sites?  Listen, you red staters, I’ll tell you a secret… you don’t have to pay for it. 

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I realized something of what makes Mirror’s Edge so cool: you can finally move completely freely around the map.   It’s not that parkour needs to be added to every game– though the more the better.  It’s that you are no longer defeated by a chain link fence or a chest-high wall.  Or even a knee-high wall as in Jade Empire.

Not cool at all however: the DLC doesn’t work if you bought the game over Steam.  Sigh.  Might as well go back and finish Fallout 3.

I just finished Of Plymouth Plantation, the memoirs of the colony’s first governor, William Bradford.  I expected it to be dry, but it’s highly readable… Bradford himself might have meant to be dry, but his curse was to live in interesting times.  Lots was happening: persecution in England, exile in Holland, starting a new colony, meeting the Indians, getting screwed by capitalists, hotheads, and Frenchmen.  There’s even a hurricane and a visit by pirates.

Garrison Keillor talked about his ancestors coming over from England “in hopes of discovering greater restrictions than were permissible under English law”.  This is a great joke but not at all fair; the Puritans came over because King James, he of the Version, felt threatened by their rejection of the Church of England and actively persecuted them.  The Salem Witch Trials permanently darkened their reputation, but, hey, that was a different colony and two generations later.  Bradford himself seems quite level-headed and must have been an exemplary public servant– he was re-elected governor thirty times.

Curiously, he describes the Indians as cruel savages, but also valued peace with them and complains hotly of dissolute Englishmen who stole from the Indians.  There was no need to steal their land– he mentions pestilences which decimated the Indian population and left their land up for grabs.  Very likely these pestilences were spread by European fishermen and others who had visited the coast before settlement began.

The Pilgrims were supported by English investors, which led to endless squabbles which occupy much of the book.  The best early source of cash was beaver pelts– thousands were shipped to England each year.

It was fun to see names of quite a few places I knew, including the neighborhood I lived in for three years, Wollaston.  There was a settlement there founded by one Capt. Wollaston, but for awhile the main base of a lawless group of men centered on one Morton, whom Bradford singles out for dissolution and licentiousness, and for selling guns to the Indians.

Plymouth helped settle the region, and then declined, largely due to the rise of Boston.  Plymouth wasn’t well situated to be a major agricultural center, and it was an inconvenient port, too far within the Bay and with too shallow water– goods had to be brought ashore by boats, while at Boston they could be unloaded on a wharf.

A cute bit in Mirror’s Edge: at one point you’re in a janitor’s closet, complete with a diploma on the wall he’s made for himself, and his pet rat.  He also seems to be puzzling over why so many red doors are getting busted.  (Objectives are marked in red, and you open doors by kicking them in.)  A bit later you see a room with a supply of red doors. 

I think I’m almost done with the game.  I replayed it– it’s amazing how much faster the chapters go on a second run– and I have at least one star on all but two races.  I think I’m probably not the three-star type.  It’s fun to whittle down times and learn to do moves routinely that were huge challenges at first; but to get three stars you have to do everything perfectly, and that’s more frustrating than fun.

At a book sale, I picked up Early Civilizations, by A.A. Goldenweiser, an introduction to anthropology dating to 1922.  It’s surprisingly modern in approach, rejecting racial biases and stages of culture, respecting the mentality of all cultures and careful to draw parallels to our own when they exist.  But Goldenweiser was a student of Franz Boas who virtually invented multicultural liberalism.

You’re probably not going to run out to score a copy, but it does have useful sketches of the Eskimo, the Tlingit , the Iroquois, the Baganda, and the Central Australians.  The only really weak part of the book is the discussion of early religion and magic, and that isn’t the author’s fault– the weakness is in the early authors he’s reviewing, from Spencer to Durkheim to Freud.  They all wanted a simple system and they all seem pointlessly naive.  For instance, Spencer posited that bear totems derived from someone named Bear whose ancestors forgot that he was named Bear and thought they were descended from bears.  Freud is even worse; he creates a primeval drama of rebellion against a tyrannical father, which entered a “racial unconscious”.  Goldenweiser can’t help but point out that Freud’s myth is “without any foundation in the known facts of history or biology.”

One F. Graebner opined that cultural and technical elements must always be attributed to diffusion, as independent origin is unproveable.  It strikes me that this is a handy counterexample to Occam’s Razor.  Independent discovery is a more complicated theory, and yet very often it’s quite correct, as we can verify when we can examine the evidence historical times. 

Another tidbit: the author partly dismisses environmental factors as determinative of cultures and techniques.  Environment is obviously a huge factor; it’s just that it doesn’t explain everything. For instance, the Eskimo have lots of snow and build snow houses– fine, but the Chukchi in a similar environment do not.  (On the other hand they domesticated the reindeer and the Eskimo didn’t.)  The Indians of the northwest coast lived in the forest and had an impressive wood industry; those of the California coast didn’t, though they lived in a similar environment.  A warning to conworlders…

I just finished the main story for Mirror’s Edge.  It’s really a great game, especially once you figure out all the moves.  Everything was covered in the tutorial, but just once.  A few moves like wallrun-turn-jump were pretty awkward; I got it right by accident and hoped I’d never use it.  The solution to this is the time trials mode; I practiced them enough to get them into the cerebellum and now I can execute them on demand.  Mostly.

Pretty cityscape from the finale

Pretty cityscape from the finale

Especially for time trials, there are a lot of factors that apply– or to put it another way, a lot of ways to fuck up– when it comes to making a particular jump: your momentum, exactly when you start the jump, even where you’re looking.  Weirdly, there are times when you need to coil-jump (press left shift to crouch or retract your legs; I found this worked a lot better by rebinding it to R) for additional distance, and times when you won’t make the jump if you do so.

In many ways it’s like Portal: immersive first person, clever game mechanics that downplay combat, female protagonist, fast healing so she dies only if she’s damaged too quickly, relatively short main story.  Both even feature songs named “Still Alive”.  The non-story content is actually better; the time trials are addictive, more so than the nastified levels and challenges in Portal.

The story is, well, minimal.  (Curious fact though: the main writer, Rhianna Pratchett, is the daughter of fantasy writer Terry of that ilk.)  At least it doesn’t get in the way.

I’ve been rereading the Appendix to 1984. The Party planned to ditch English and have all its members speaking Newspeak only by 2050. (It’s not certain what they planned for the Proles; O’Brien thought they were ineducable, in which case they would still be using Oldspeak.) But Newspeak was designed to have no redundancy in its lexicon and also to be spoken in a rapid, monotonous voice, with no variation of stress or tone (duckspeak) which would make it very hard to follow even in a moderately noisy environment. Do you think a language like that is viable?

—Mornche Geddick

Your question was an opportunity to reread Orwell’s description of Newspeak.  I think it’s a brilliant satire of totalitarian and authoritarian modes of thought; it should be read along with his less fantastical but equally perceptive “Politics and the English Language”.

The main sources or targets seem to be these:

  • An aesthete’s aggrieved reaction to the regularities of artificial languages like Esperanto.  Though this is slightly provincial— what’s wrong with agglutinative languages?— it fits in very well with the Party’s blunt destruction of everything from the past.
  • The careless meaninglessness and deceitfulness of political jargon.
  • The Soviet fashion for syllabic abbreviations, e.g. Sovnarkom for “council of people’s commisioners”.

But that’s not your question.  Would it work?  As a written language, purposely impoverished in meaning and cut off from the past, I don’t see why not.  There are clear examples of the latter: Atatürk’s adoption of the Roman alphabet cut off Turks from centuries of literature; the adoption of báihuà (the Mandarin vernacular) over wényán (the classical literary language), plus the script reform, did the same for China.  To be sure scholars in both cases could continue to learn and study past works, but it was a new barrier.

Could the Party keep the new language immaculate of heretical meanings?  Only by retaining absolute power, which of course is a political not a linguistic question.

Newspeak depends on what’s normally called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; it was intnded to make all other modes of thought but Ingsoc impossible.  But if the political side wasn’t there, I doubt that the linguistic side would hold up.  Suppose the totalitarian state simply collapses, as in V for Vendetta: would the absence of metaphorical uses of “free” continue?  I doubt it; people would simply invent new words or senses.  Writing in 1948, with all the European empires intact, Orwell might suppose that uneducated peoples (denied access to sophisticated liberal thought) could never rebel; I think it’s clear by now that this was wrong— despite his own hatred for imperialism, Orwell grossly underestimated the capacities of non-Europeans.

As for the monotonous delivery “without involving the higher brain centres at all”, I think this should be taken as a parody of political speeches, especially the propagandists for extremists, mouthing out verbiage with no concern for careful thought, beauty, or internal contradiction.  In the world of 1984, it wasn’t a bug but a feature if torrents of Newspeak were hard to follow; the aim was the suppression of thought and progress.