March 2018

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 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.)