December 2013

Apparently Neo-Reactionaries are a thing now. Here’s a Metafilter discussion; here’s David Brin’s excellent takedown; here’s Scott Alexander’s devastating rebuttal.

The irony is that these dudes, while swooning over the loveliness of noblemen, have no chance of becoming nobles themselves. And surely they know this? I mean, Mencius Moldbug doesn’t think he’s going to be king, does he? So he’s hoping to be named house intellectual for the thugs.

None of this is really new; there have always been intellectuals (almost all white men) with a hankering for feudalism. More strangely, quite a number of them add to this a fascination with science fiction. This has given us one of the weirdest of sf tropes: the Wild West space habitat– examples include Gibson’s Freeside, Heinlein’s Luna, and Firefly.  More cheap irony, because a space habitat is the last place compatible with libertarianism.  Guns and anti-authoritarianism do not mix with fragile life support systems.

Brin speculates that the neo-reactionaries “have swung in this bizarre direction because they are too smart to be fooled any longer by the undead thing that has hijacked American conservatism”.  That is, the GOP has become so anti-intellectual that they’re no longer comfortable being its intellectual lackeys.  As they can’t bring themselves to admit the other side is right, they retreat further into contrarianism.  But I think Brin gives them too much credit. The neo-reactionaries, like the Tea Party, think the GOP just hasn’t been GOP-ish enough.  They want more more economic quackery, more elitism, more trolling of liberals.

I just read Idoru, and that’s sent me on a cyberpunk binge.  Re-read Neuromancer and re-cyber-read parts of Snow Crash.  Intermittently jacking into cyberrealms, keeping my eyes out for ninjas in meatspace.

Before comparing Stephenson and Gibson, I have to reference Stephenson’s own awe-inspiring account of their rivalry.

After that, my own insight is paltry: Gibson is Dashiell Hammett, and Stephenson is Raymond Chandler.  Only with the respective output level reversed: there’s lots of Gibson to read, and lots of Chandler, but only two real Stephenson cyberpunk books, and one Sam Spade novel.

I read somewhere that genre fiction invariably passes through three stages: serious, baroque, and parodic.  Gibson more or less invented cyberpunk, and he himself spans the range from serious to baroque.  What struck me in these two books is the seriousness: the situations are outrageous, but the heroes face them with utter graveness.

Stephenson goes from baroque to parodic. If anything, he’s more realistic than Gibson– YT doesn’t sport surgically implanted sunglasses, Hiro doesn’t want to marry an AI, the Metaverse makes sense to a developer.  Yet he seems to realize the ridiculousness of his situations, sharing the joke with the reader and perhaps even the characters, who never have the sense of being in over their heads that oppresses Gibson’s main characters.

I prefer Stephenson– for that sense of realism, and his sense of fun.  Gibson’s books are tenser, but the plots have the impenetrability of noir.  Neuromancer is a heist caper which depends on every eccentric character doing the right thing, which is always a disaster; this makes for a great story, but in real life someone sensible would look for a better plan. Idoru has a plethora of intersecting obsessives whose motivations never quite make sense.  A rock star wants to marry an AI… no one quite knows what that means, and by the end of the book I don’t know either.

All these books hold up pretty well after twenty years, though of course they all got significant parts of cyberspace wrong.  The main error is of course that they underestimated what can be done online.  In Snow Crash normal citizens just go to the Metaverse to party; in Neuromancer the characters go to a software store… software is apparently only sold in little crystal shards in the equivalent of Radio Shack.  Neither author could foresee that almost all retail, to say nothing of entertainment, news, and education, would simply move online.

The other error is the perpetual one of the sf writer: when he’s writing, and we’re reading, we need to find this stuff fascinating.  In the actual future, we’ll find it banal.  There will be new things to be excited about, sure, but marrying an AI?  You can buy a RealDoll now, and the Japanese will surely have the software ready for it in a few years, and all it’ll be will be a rather pathetic lifestyle choice for otakus.  Or you can log into Second Life and go have sex with a furry.

Gibson imagined cybercowboys carefully piercing their way through massive defense of important corporate data… here the irony is that the massive corporations haven’t actually bothered with ice at all.  They figure if they require your mother’s maiden name, they’ve provided more than enough security.  Oops, hackers got in and stole ten million credit card numbers anyway.

Edit: One more thing that bugs me about Gibson: the fact that hacking is done entirely visually.  It’s like he’s anticipating the movie version.  I know it’s a trope in every cyberspace movie ever, but this is a book.  I can just buy that all the corporate data has a nice geometric graphical interface; but hackers won’t look at the pretty graphics, they’ll dive down into boring-looking files and code.  (Stephenson understands this.)  And who the hell provides pretty graphics for hacked data structures?  “Johnson, you’re in charge of visualizing the database.  And while you’re at it, make sure you provide alternate, very complex graphics for when hackers invade the system.”

I was worried about Saints Row when the publisher went bankrupt, but apparently Volition itself was preserved, and they took what was going to be some DLC for SR3 and turned it into SR4. Which sounds like it could be lame (like Arkham Origins’ idea to tell Batman’s pre-Batman days as a set of combat maps), but turns out to be a lot of fun.

The president in fake Steelport in her alien princess outfit

The president in fake Steelport in her alien princess outfit

The story starts a few years after SR3, when the Saints leader (i.e. you, or in my case me) has become President of the US. Then aliens invade, under British-accented overlord Zinyak, and throw you into a simulation of Steelport, the setting of SR3.

The re-use of Steelport threatens to make the game a rehash of SR3… except it turns out not, because within the simulation you have superpowers. And surprisingly, that’s enough to make it feel like an entirely different game. For instance: you can drive around all you like, but you won’t, because sprinting, jumping and gliding are faster and more fun. And the combat superpowers change combat quite a bit.

The missions vary rather unpredictably in difficulty– there are a few very hard fights, as well as a jumping-sprinting mission that was pretty annoying (there’s one overlong jump in it which I kept missing). I found that the most reliable superpower is the freeze blast, which you get early– it’s great for immobilizing some of the really jumpy enemies; you just have to learn the dance of freeze-then-shoot.

The game freely borrows from all over– the waking-up scene from The Matrix, the ’50s simulation from Fallout 3, the loyalty missions from Mass Effect 2, various old-skool side scrollers, plus earlier versions of Saints Row.  There’s even a mission which satirizes stealth missions.  But all of these are done well and add some needed variety.

SR3 was essentially an open world game, where the goal was to take over Steelport, confronting each of its gangs in turn.  The emphasis was on fun, and it never threw too much story at you.  It had fun characters, and the voice acting for the player character was exceptional, but the Boss was, in fact, the one character that was barely there.  Which was fine, as you could interpret her the way you wanted.

SR4 gives a good deal more personality to the Boss.  There’s some explicit discussion of whether she’s a sociopath or a puckish rogue, there’s some conflicts with underlings, there’s her strange devotion to Johnny Gat.  This was fine with me, as Volition’s concept of the Boss accords all right with mine.  Neither of us are interested in exploring the actual mentality of a gang leader.

Another difference: it’s way more unified as a story.  One villain, one goal, and where you were encouraged to just mess around in SR3, finding mission hotspots on your own, in SR3 the side quests systematically lead you through them.

I finished it tonight; I’ve got over 40 hours in it, mostly very satisfying hours, but I probably won’t replay it multiple times, as I did SR3.  Not that there’s something wrong with it; it’s just rare that I get as involved with a sequel as with the original.  (Arkham City is the big exception.)

Overall, SR3 and SR4 are really solid, fun games.  They don’t take themselves too seriously, they don’t attempt a realistic simulation of everything; at the same time, you’ll probably end up genuinely enjoying the little band of minions you’ve accumulated.

My one quibble is that I could have used quite a bit less Steelport.  They’ve changed it in clever ways (e.g. all the city’s signage is now demoralizing messages from Zinyak), but many of the side missions explore other worlds, and I’d like to have had more of that.

So, one of the conlangs I worked on this year was Sehimu Thinara, the magical language for the card game Serpent’s Tongue.  The game is now shipping, so go buy a couple dozen.


The game’s head sorcerer, Christopher Gabrielson, approached me with kind of an emergency request– they had some people working on it but there was a disconnect, and they needed something fast.  So I reworked the vocabulary they already had and worked out the grammar.  Christopher and Jeremy Scherer did a lot of the initial work and carried on my stuff.

The game attempts something I wouldn’t have thought possible: it makes people speak in a conlang!  Sehimu Thinara (ST) is the secret language of the universe, you see; spells are orders spoken in the language.  I’m told that players take to the idea pretty well.  The game itself only makes you say words that are on the cards, but they wanted a whole language to generate them reasonably, and for later use.

They had developed an alphabet and phonology, so I worked with that.  Anyway, since gamers will be expected to say these words, it wasn’t a good idea to make them learn unusual sounds.  (As for the alphabet, the Serpent’s Tongue folks have access to far better artists than me!)

They had also worked out a vocabulary which divided the letters of the alphabet into six spheres (zokrul): quantum, soul, mind, biology, force, matter.  Now, this is the sort of non-naturalistic feature probably only a non-linguist would create, but I went with it, because a magical language should have some strange but satisfying features.  I think it’d be really disappointing if the secret language of mages built into the structure of the universe turned out to be just like Dutch or Jaqaru or Luo.

I added another such feature: reversing the phonemes in a word reverses the meaning.  E.g.:

  • ketig fire / gitek ice
  • devop acid / poved base
  • fekhar woman / rakhef man
  • sauhu war / uhuas peace
  • zhowa circle /  awozh point
  • pivda easy / avdip difficult

(The word construction method uses a lot of the possible phonological space, and generates words that sound very non-Latinate, like avdip above.  It’s interesting that simply using more voiced stops makes for words that seem very odd to an English speaker.)

The language is optimized for casting spells, which are in effect imperatives addressed to the laws of magic.  So ketig as an utterance is actually a command for something to be on fire.  An object can be specified, of course: rakhef ketig, set the man on fire.

As should surprise no one who knows my languages, there’s quite a bit of derivational morphology.  You can make a root into a noun with –a, or after a vowel –ra; thus thina ‘know’ > thinara ‘knowledge’. The general adjectivizer is –i, or after a vowel –li, thus ketigi ‘fiery’ or ‘flaming’, zhowali ‘circular’.  With verbs –u has a passive meaning: ketigu ‘flamed’ or ‘set on fire’; sehim ‘hide’ > sehimu ‘hidden’.

A cute touch, I think: syllables belonging to each of the six spheres serve as derivational infixes.  E.g. –da– belongs to the Matter sphere, and names substances or objects: gayit ‘move’ > gadayit ‘vehicle’.  Or –na– belongs to Mind and names persons, so bo-w ‘cast a spell’ > bonaw ‘mage’.  There is no 1st person pronoun, but bonaw generally serves in its place, along with ezhow ‘self’.

There is a 3rd person pronoun for each sphere, to be used for referents in that sphere, which is effectively a gender system.  Not something I’d normally impose on beginners, but as the spheres are basic to the game and to the vocabulary, it seems fair.

Ordinary sentences can be distinguished from spells by the use of a tense/aspect/mode prefix, such as u– present, is– past imperfect, me– past perfect, yau– irrealis.  Thus Rakhef u-ketig ‘the man is on fire’; Rakhef yau-ketig ‘the man may be on fire’.

There’s also a pure aspect particle bab which can be modified iconically in various ways to express the precise nature of the action: e.g. ba expresses that the action started but didn’t stop; ab that it stopped; baba that it was repeated; baab that it was prolonged.

The syntax is SOV; subjects and objects are separated by the clitic an-. Thus Bonaw an-rakhef baba me-ketig ‘the mage kept setting the man on fire’.

Here’s one more glimpse, a more complicated sample sentence:

Suya saukh-da imi-pabodez me-dimsu imi-obawta, ezhow an-ulani-ra lo depav-a u-abu.

SUB every-object in-world PERF-lose IN-day / self SEP-hope-NOMN and strong-NOMN PRES-be

When all is lost in the world, I am hope and I am strength.

Edit: The whole grammatical sketch is here.

A couple good books I’ve read lately:

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman.  The first third of the book is the best; it’s a demolition of the idea that we run our brains.  That is, there’s this thing we call us, the conscious mind, and like a bad manager, it takes credit for its underlings’ hard work.   This is not a novelty in philosophy, but Eagleman is a neuroscientist, so his examples of how the conscious mind isn’t in control are based in neurology and psychology, and they’re fascinating.

One of his examples: you know how to change lanes, correct?  Can you explain it, as a short sequence of instructions for a smart (and English-speaking) robot?  Give it a try.

Most people say something like “Turn the wheel right; when you’ve moved over, straighten it out.”  If the robot tried that, it would steer off the road.  The thing is, after turning the wheel right, you have to turn the wheel an equal amount left in order to get back to your original direction.  Your brain knows this, but you probably don’t.  Any skilled behavior like this has been shuffled off to unconscious routines which manage all the details (and far more fluidly than the conscious mind could do them).

After this he reviews some theories of mind; he like Minsky’s Society of Mind, but extends it to include a multitude of competing sub-units– what he calls a “team of rivals”.  Another of his metaphors is an electoral system.  This broadly makes sense, though I think Eagleman overestimates how revolutionary it is: it’s an updated version of the theory of mind put forth in medieval allegories.

Then he gets into issues of responsibility, including legal responsibility.  We used to blame the person for everything; now we think that some things, like mental illness, are ‘not the person’s fault’.  He suggests that we go all the way and just admit that nothing is anyone’s fault. This doesn’t mean that we don’t punish anyone; it means that we take a scientific view of what it takes to prevent bad behavior from recurring.  This last part of the book is the least convincing, as by now he’s gone far beyond our actual knowledge.

The Secrets of Alchemy, by Lawrence M. Principe.   This is a history of alchemy, from its origins in Hellenistic Egypt, through the Arab period, and then to medieval and Renaissance Europe.  I read a lot about alchemy while researching substances— the history of alchemy is basically the history of chemistry.  And it’s fun stuff, especially for the beautiful names– orpiment, realgar, the Green Lion, calx of lead, spirit of hartshorn…

Alchemy has a bad rap because, of course, the alchemists were mostly pursuing an impossibility: the transmutation of metals by chemical methods.  Principe answers the obvious question– why didn’t they notice it was impossible?– by analyzing their methods, their principles, and their idea of authority.  Briefly:

  • with (by modern standards) inconstant heating methods and no good tests for purity, it was hard to replicate results and thus easy to think that someone else had done better
  • the best physical theories, going back to the ancients, said that metals were compounds
  • people claimed to have succeeded, and the whole medieval mindset was to trust written sources attributed to known experts.

So the alchemists thought they had good evidence, and their critics (and there were many) had the same limitations, and couldn’t actually disprove the claims.  (There was a lot of fraud, to the point that alchemists in literature are almost always comic figures.)

The most interesting bits are where Principe digs out the retorts and Bunsen burners and attempts to follow old recipes.  His conclusion is that the old alchemists were often careful observers– though they were wont to disguise their knowledge as what sounded like insane mystical ramblings:

Take the ravenous grey wolf that on account of his name is subjected to bellicose Mars, but by birth is a child of old Saturn, and that lives in the valleys and mountains of the world and is possessed of great hunger.  Throw the king’s body before him that he may have his nourishment from it. And when he was devoured the king, then make a great fire and throw the wolf into it so that he burns up entirely; thus will the king be redeemed.

That’s some instructions by Basil Valentine, from 1602.  Principe explains that this is a real experiment: the king is gold; the wolf is melted stibnite, or antimony ore.  A 14-karat gold ring is 58% gold, 42% copper.  Throw it in melted stibnite and it dissolves. The copper turns into a sulfide, while the gold and antimony meld together and sink to the bottom, where they can be easily retrieved.  Roast this mixture and the antimony evaporates, leaving you with pure gold.  So this is an obfuscated but correct recipe for purifying gold.

Why did the alchemists write this way?  Well, they didn’t always; there are examples of very straightforward books.   But it’s clear that the writers were masters of PR.  You didn’t want to give all your secrets away; and if your early steps could be puzzled out, it added authority to the more fanciful steps describing the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone.  Principe describes and reproduces a few quite striking experiments– not transmutation, of course, but chemical tricks that could wow a rich patron.

In the 1900s, a lot of this mystical-sounding obfuscation was reinterpreted as actual mysticism– that is, it was taken as a spiritual rather than a chemical process.  This was a wrong turn; much better to think of alchemy as early chemistry, with a commendable interest in hands-on experimentation.

Principe obviously loves this stuff, and probably makes a few too many excuses for the alchemists.  It’s true that it’s not edifying to simply make fun of early thinkers for bad theories or poor methods.  One Arab alchemist, for instance, had the excellent idea of quantifying the notion of how much of the four humors were active in a substance– there were 28 degrees of hot, cold, wet, and dry.  So far so good, but how did he assign the degrees– some kind of crude measurement?  No, he took the Arabic name of the substance, letter by letter, and applied numerological rules to derive the degree.  Principe carefully explains that this is not as silly as it sounds– it was in accordance with the best Islamic thought, in which Arabic was God’s language, and could be expected to match aspects of God’s creation.  Well, that is an interesting glimpse into an earlier worldview, and you might want to incorporate things like that into your conworld.  But, well, that line of thought was ultimately sterile, and alchemy was not really medieval thought at its best.

Well, this was supposed to be a good day– I was driving to see a friend and show him the new book– and I got into an accident instead.

No one was injured (the airbags deployed, and so I’m shook up but not hurt), but the car sure doesn’t look driveable.  Which sucks because, you know, poverty. I could get by without a car for many things, but I need one to go visit my Dad, which in turn is necessary because he lives alone, is very weak, and needs to be checked on frequently.

Anyway, sorry to be a bummer, but I felt like expressing it somewhere and this is it.

The Conlanger’s Lexipedia is now available at Amazon.

The paperback is out now; the Kindle will be available in a few days.

Perfect for conlangers, conworlders, language freaks, firefighters, actuaries, Methodists, snipers, spies, baritones, lepidopterists, Mind Flayers, and gnolls!