January 2011

I finished Mark Twain’s Roughing It, which is a lot of fun. His style of humor is a bit out of date in the Internet age, though Garrison Keillor preserves it: he tells stories which take several pages to develop— the inveterate liar; the man who is infinitely digressive; the extremely tough sea captain; the judge taken in by a practical joke; the life of a desperado.

What will stick with me more, I think, is the portrait of Western life in the 1860s: the initial stagecoach journey, the disappointing life of run-down Indians, the strange vision of polygamist Mormons, the murders and inquests, life in the Nevada mining bubble, a vision of early Chinatowns.  (I wouldn’t have guessed that Twain knew how to wrangle chopsticks.)  It’s interesting to note that in this supposed heyday of laissez-faire, one of the things the pioneers were most eager to do was to set up a government.  You wanted courts and sheriffs and telegraphs and railroads and above all registration for mining claims, without which the bubble would have been murderous.

Here are there Twain extols the majesty of nature— Lake Tahoe, the desert, the volcanoes of Hawaii.  Though he is genuinely enthusiastic about these things, he feels it appropriate to break into a higher register, a sort of polysyllabic breathlessness that wears less well than his miner slang.

I also read Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep, where humans take their first space journey, only to find that they’re already there: space-traveling aliens have been abducting humans from Earth for a couple millennia, so there’s already a human presence in space.

MacLeod alternates chapters from this wide-scaled future and from a near-present when that first journey was being set up; this creates a structural problem, as the near-future story is much more interesting… the characters are sharper and they’re in much more of a predicament.

The book’s politics are unusual— in his near-future, the Russians took over the EU, and the resulting communist EU is described fairly sympathetically.  I think he gets a key bit of economics wrong, though: he thinks that the success of capitalism is due to increasing its size, and that it can’t last if this expansion is impossible— e.g. if Space is already full.  It’s quite true that within a few centuries we’re going to have to move to sustainable resources and population.  But what he’s missing is the expansion due to productivity, which is responsible for much more of the First World’s wealth than our population increase.  And productivity could increase indefinitely.

This was a bit of Against Peace a.k.a. AD 4901— the protagonist wastes a few hours cruising students’ datascenes on the Vee, assigning points according to the following list.  At a reader’s suggestion I’m removing this bit from the book, but I might as well put it somewhere.

10 points for a cute hologram; 15 for one that depicts an embarrassing situation; 20 if it involves nudity

10 points for a résumé of the student’s achievements in high school (50 points if it goes back to grade school)

5 points for a misspelling you haven’t seen before

1 point for each declaration of support for an enormously popular band; more points being awarded for extraordinary gushiness

2 points for each college paper or class project preserved in the Vee; 3 points extra if the grade is attached; 5 if it’s bad

5 points for a cloying expression of devotion to a love interest, parent, or pet; 15 extra points if it rhymes

5 points for solutions to political problems, plus a point for each incorrect fact

10 points for any scene presented entirely in an alien language the student obviously has not mastered

15 points for any complex bit of scene programming (for instance, a neural interface, or a responsive holofractal animation) which serves only as an under construction banner

5 points for a huge unsorted, unannotated pile of links

10 points for any scene that links to all the student’s friends’ scenes, none of which link back

The Language Construction Kit is available again.  There was a printing problem that delayed acceptance of the proof, but it’s fine now.  Sorry for the delay if you wanted to order the book, but I can rest easier without all those typos.

I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s Roughing It.  I’ll have more of a review later, but I was struck by a chapter in which Twain revels in the slang of 1860s Nevada.  Here’s an extended sample– a man contracting with a clergy for his friend’s funeral.

“Obs’quies is good.  Yes.  That’s it– that’s our little game.  We are going to get the thing up regardless, you know.  He was always nifty himself, and so you bet you his funeral ain’t going to be no slouch– solid silver door-plate on his coffin, six plumes on the hearse, and a nigger on the box in a biled shirt and a plug hat– how’s that for high?  And we’ll take care of you, pard.   We’ll fix you all right.  There’ll be a kerridge for you, and whatever you want, you just ‘scape out and we’ll tend to it.  We’ve got a shebang fixed up for you to stand behind, in No. 1’s house, and don’t you be afraid.   Just go in and toot your horn, if you don’t sell a clam.  Put Buck through as bully as you can, pard, for anybody that knowed him will tell you that he was one of the whitest men that was ever in the mines.  You can’t draw it too strong.  He’s done more to make this town quiet and peaceable than any man in it.  I’ve seen him lick four Greasers in eleven minutes, myself.  If a thing wanted regulating, he warn’t a man to go browsing around after somebody to do it, but he would prance in and regulate it himself.  He wasn’t a Catholic.  Scasely.  He was down on ’em.  His word was, ‘No Irish need apply!’  But it didn’t make no difference about that when it came down to what a man’s rights was– and so, when some roughs jumped the Catholic bone-yard and started in to stake out town lots in it he went for ’em!  And he cleaned ’em, too!  I was there, pard, and I seen it myself.”

Twain represents the parson as an erudite Easterner, for contrast; from his portrayal, educated speech was not given to contractions.  Most of the specific bits of slang Twain quotes are outdated (though some survived in Western movies), but it’s fun to see a few bits that are still current.  Another lesson for conlangers: some slang changes every generation; other bits stay alive for decades, even a century, without entirely gaining respectability.

In case you’re trying to buy the Language Construction Kit, bless you, it’s delayed.  Hopefully Amazon will fix the problem soon, if not forthwith, and it should be available in a week or so.

I changed the contents, making a number of corrections.  But for some reason Amazon messed up the cover, which I didn’t change— they shrank it about 15%; you can even see this on the Amazon page.   They’re trying to sort it out now.

Update: It’s available again.

I’ve put up a page giving the background material on the Incatena (emphasis on cat), the universe and timeline used for my sf novels.


I’ve started revising the book, currently renamed Against Peace.  Because, you see, the main dude is fighting the Peace Movement.  It’s, like, ironic.

Amusing bit: I prepared the star map using actual values for right ascension and declination.  Then I decided to copy the Milky Way from another map, only it didn’t fit the map.  Finally I realized that I’d labeled RA wrong: up from 0 to 24, not down from 24 to 0.  So I had to flip all the stars.

There’s a great article in the New York Times, by Tina Rosenberg, on anti-poverty programs in Brazil and Mexico that really work.

Today, however, Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country.  Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians.  Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.  Here’s the basics:

The program, called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) in Brazil, goes by different names in different places. In Mexico, where it first began on a national scale and has been equally successful at reducing poverty, it is Oportunidades. The generic term for the program is conditional cash transfers.  The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements.  The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention.  The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families.  The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow.

It’s refreshing to have any good news at all in this area; usually all that can be offered is the hope that general prosperity will trickle down sometime, and as Amy Chua points out, in many areas this just doesn’t happen.  Not only do the Brazilian and Mexican programs measurably help, but they’re large-scale national programs.  It’s relatively easy to make a difference in one town somewhere; the usual problem is scaling the solution up.

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