February 2010

Say, just in case you don’t check zompist.com that much, the Language Construction Kit is coming out as a book.

I’m awaiting the proof copy right now.  It’s amazing how much last-minute work has been necessary– proofing, corrections, last-minute additions, indexing, Amazon wrangling, tweaking the cover and some illos. 

It takes Amazon a few weeks to set up the order page.  But at least I’m not the bottleneck right now.

Grand Theft Auto IV: I have a bad habit of giving up and going to bed once I’ve failed a nasty quest a few times.  That’s bad because I’ll have to face it again when I reload and in this case, I just haven’t felt like it.  (These mostly involve car chases, which I’m lousy at.)

Still, it’s an intriguing game.  I like the fact that– unlike, say, Oblivion– not all quests involve killing people.  The characters are fun and the game both celebrates and satirizes vulgarity and violence.  A cute touch: if you play pool with your cousin Roman, he makes fun of you; if you go with your girlfriend Michelle, she’s supportive.

Mass Effect: Yes, #1.  I decided to replay it a) to redo the ending for ME2’s sake, and b) to see if it’s more fun with harder combat.

Futuristic winter driving

Answer: yeah, it’s a lot more challenging… I have to be careful in fights now, and use all my resources.  Mind you, the combat is still not as varied or interesting as many another game.  I hope they’ve spiced it up in ME2.

I’m a lot better at shooters by now… there was a particular fight I was dreading, since I had to try it over and over on my first playthrough.  It’s the first encounter with a Geth Armature, and replaying it is doubly annoying since it starts with an unskippable cutscene.  But it was actually pretty easy this time.  (Hint: head left into cover and deal with the minions.  Then just pick off the Armature from cover– its attacks are deadly but predictable.)

Bioshock: Also #1… hey, it’s hard to justify dropping 50 clams on a game right now.  I’d kind of dropped Bioshock after dealing with the first couple of Big Daddies.  I’ve gotten a lot further this time… fortunately I’ve learned how to handle them, and you get better weaponry and plasmids anyway.  I still run into spots where I’m frustratingly low on weapons, health, and Eve; on the other hand, that makes it all the more rewarding to finish a level.  The environment is spectacular, and they’ve taken a refreshing approach to villainy– Andrew Ryan is a crazy arrogant bastard, and yet they give him some great lines and great voice acting.  It’s refreshing to have the villain serving not eeeevil but a recognizable, real political ideology.

Neat video simply showing legendary French artist Moebius drawing. Which can’t be embedded apparently.


I’m always fascinated by (and jealous of) the speed of real artists. He has a rough sketch, but he can lay down the final line immediately and perfectly.

Also: graphics tablet/monitor: WANT.

Here’s an idea for a satirical horror story: a major party descends into complete incoherence and contradiction… and its members don’t notice.  Like the Monopods in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, they cheerfully repeat their leaders’ latest dictum even if it’s the compete opposite of the last one.   And their movement only grows stronger.

The Tea Party is now furiously in favor of reducing the deficit– so long as it’s not by raising taxes or by reducing spending.  (Reducing health care spending is bad, means-testing entitlements is bad, and of course no touching the defense budget.) 

And they’re opposed to the stimulus, because government can’t create jobs, and at the very same time Tea Party Congressmen are busy getting stimulus money for their districts– in order to create jobs.

And they’re capitalizing on populist anger against the Wall Street bailout… by giving in to Wall Street’s resistance to reform.

Jacob Weisberg made the case that the real problem is the American people, who have a toddler’s insistence on getting whatever they want and not paying for it.  But that gets things backwards, I think.  Why do so many Americans think government spending is good but paying for it is bad?  Because their leaders have been telling them so for thirty years.  Irresponsible leaders make for irresponsible voters.

There’s also the only-got-a-hammer syndrome: the Tea Party is so caught up fighting the 1960s, or perhaps Bolshevism, that they just can’t see that it’s 2010 and their enemies left the stage long ago.  (Anyone who thinks Obama is a socialist reveals that they know nothing about either.)  Tax cuts and apocalyptic vitriol are the only tools they have. 

It took a long time for the Republicans to get into this situation and I’m afraid it’ll take as long to get out.  There are smarter, younger conservatives out there… but they won’t be influencing party policy for a generation.  The Tea Party is no good at actually governing, but they’re formidable at enforcing ideological purity.  Normally losing elections is the way that a party learns that its message needs changing, but that’s not working, obviously– loss only makes them more bitter and more extreme.  And the few Republican moderates are just too weak to stand up to the extremists.

Violence is regrettable, but sometimes we must be ready to protect our way of life from zombies, aliens, Alpha Sections, and splicers.  Here’s what I’ve learned from an intensive study of Left 4 Dead 2.

1.  A steel door can be shattered to pieces by hitting it with your fists three times.

2. It’s possible to kill someone by repeatedly shooting them in the foot, but it takes time.

3. Pistols do not require ammo, but they do need to be reloaded.  Other weapons, you need to find ammo, but fortunately it’s widely scattered around town.

4. Shooting fellow survivors is rude; if you’re shot, you should say something witty to dissuade them from trying it again.

5. Just about any wound can be healed by bandages.  In a pinch, swallow an entire bottle of pills.

6. Watch out: zombies can get through doors.  Unless they’re closets or outhouses, which are therefore safe to hole up in.

7. However, if you take refuge in a closet or even a bathroom stall, it’s impossible to get out, even if you have a gun.  You must wait for assistance.

8. The helicopter pilot will always turn out to be infected.

9. It’s a noble and terrible thing to die for your comrades.  However, sometimes it’s a valid strategy as you will respawn with 50% health.

10. Getting shot or slashed allows you to do all your normal activities, but you’ll have to walk slower.

I just gobbled down Daniel L. Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, his account of his lifework in the Amazon studying the culture and langauge of the Pirahã. 

It starts inauspiciously, with a page and a half attempting to tell English speakers how to pronounce Pirahã.  But then it gets to the good parts– the naive, ambitious American missionary dropped off in Rondônia, one of the remotest regions of the Amazon.  It’s hard to go wrong with a story like this, and Everett doesn’t disappoint: there are faux pas, threats of violence, sad stories, malaria, caimans and piranhas, tarantulas that feed on the three-inch cockroaches, lessons learned from supposed primitives, and thrilling discoveries of phonological facts.  (I hope that doesn’t sound snarky.  This is all real stuff; Everett went out and lived the life of a field linguist, and you learn exactly what that’s like.)

About a quarter of the book then attempts to explain the challenge Pirahã has posed for linguistics.  This is the most frustrating bit for the linguistically trained, because Everett has to explain everything for non-linguists, and that leave little meat if you already know your way around evidentials and Syntactic Structures.  It’s not a grammar or a linguistic paper; if you want the evidence behind his assertions it’s going to be elsewhere.

If you let your subscription to Language lapse, the oddities of Pirahã include: no numbers, no quantifiers, no conjunctions, no dedicated color terms, just eleven phonemes, and– the real kicker– no embedded constructions at all.  No relative clauses, no subordination; a reluctance, even, to have more than one adjective per sentence.  And if that weren’t enough, no rituals, no creation myths, and no sense of history.

Some of this is (as you might expect) nuanced.  E.g. there’s no quantifier like every; but Pirahã can say something like “A bigness of the men left”, which is hard to distinguish from the quantifer most.  There are words to distinguish relative quantity; they just don’t pin down to specific numbers.  Colors can be described by referring to specific objects.  And most interestingly, Everett collects a sentence that translates to “Hey, Paitá, bring back some nails.  Dan bought those very nails.  They are the same.”  This isn’t the same as relativization (“Hey, bring back the nails that Dan bought”), but it’s a way of getting across the same idea, not unlike the logical connectors in Old Skourene.  You could say that relativization is not grammaticalized in Pirahã, but can be expressed in discourse, just as we can say that person and number are not grammaticalized in the Japanese verb, but can be explicitly added.

Obviously to really investigate these claims you’d have to study Everett’s linguistic work and, if you want to challenge it, go among the canoes, candirus, and caboclos and learn Pirahã yourself.  But I have to say that I’m reassured, largely because Everett shows that he’s done his homework.  He didn’t start with these notions; indeed, he started as an orthodox Chomskyan.  He did his best to elicit sentences with relative clauses, to teach mathematics, to find creation myths.  He was worried that (say) the Pirahã were speaking more simply to him because he was a foreigner, so he recorded Pirahã speaking to each other (not hard to do, they’re basically talking all day long and most of the night).  He was his own first skeptic.  And really, he’s done the work and no one else has; people anxious to say he got it wrong are probably trying to save some favorite theory or another.

He’s also not as radical as one might fear; the only linguistic theory he really challenges is Chomsky’s.  He’s open to Sapir’s anthropological approach, to Whorf’s linguistic relativity, and to the cognitive linguistics folks.  By this time the dryness and creakiness of Chomsky’s theorizing is widely perceived; it looks too divorced from general cognition, from neurological and biological plausibility, and from cultural influences.

He does go out on a limb a bit about his idea that both Pirahã culture and language are explained by what he calls the Immediate Experience Principle– basically, he sees the Pirahã as refusing to accept anything they can’t see for themselves.  They’ll accept a friend’s testimony, but only if it’s eyewitness.  (For this reason they weren’t at all interested in Jesus, once they understood that Everett didn’t know the man personally.)  This might well be a rough and ready guide to the culture (like the culture tests), but I’m not quite convinced that it’s incompatible with, say, counting or relativization. 

He has a single chapter on how his experiences led him to abandon not only his original missionary goal but his Christian faith.  A bit part of this was realizing that the Pirahã didn’t in any way seem lost.  They’re an unusually cheerful people, generous and friendly (except when drunk), well adapted to their life and little interested in any attempts to change it. 

Ironically, though Everett abandoned belief in the supernatural, the Pirahã believe in spirits, without any threat to their empiricism.  They consider spirits an everyday occurence; if Everett couldn’t see them, well, he often couldn’t see the caimans and anacondas that were right in front of him.

I have a new theory: in today’s political climate, ideas can only succeed if they can be understood in five seconds. As you might expect, this puts a premium on negativity (“no” is always fast) and stupidity.

An example: the Repubs are apparently getting mileage out of opposition to mandates— the requirement to buy health insurance. You can easily understand that in five seconds, and form an opinion on it too. It’s not hard to refute, but it takes more than five seconds.

First, it’s manipulative bullshit. It isn’t a complaint coming from the millions of uninsured who are proud and eager to stay that way. It’s a fake objection made by people who have health insurance and are glad to have it, simply made out of cruel spite to deny it to those who don’t.

I take this personally, because all I have right now is six-month emergency coverage, with a preexisting conditions clause that resets each policy period, and my wife’s better plan is expiring soon. I could sure use some Obamacare right now.

Let’s look at it economically. The story starts with ending the preexisting conditions trap— something it’s hard to oppose. But as soon as you eliminate it, people can game the system. People can get through their 20s and 30s, often beyond, without major health expenses.  So they could skip out on insurance during that time, only buying it once they’ve come down with diabetes or heart disease.

That’s not fair to the insurance system.  Insurance works because it spreads risk— if only people who have disasters pay for them, it’s not insurance any more.   You are really paying for a lifetime of coverage, and your healthy years help pay for the unhealthy ones.  More than that, you and a pool of others like you are paying for each other, so the horrific costs of health crises are spread out.

Thus the mandate, which comes inevitably once you’ve decided to get rid of the preexisting conditions clause.  And then you have to think about subsidies for the poor so they can afford the mandate; and then you have to think about ways to save money overall so we can pay the subsidies.  In short, you end up with a health care bill.

Maybe the Democrats should call the consies’ bluff, though: add an option that lets you opt out of Obamacare for life.  If you register for it, you don’t have to pay for insurance— but for you all the old rules apply: insurance companies can whimsically deny you coverage, you get no subsidies if you’re out of work, you pay higher prices.

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