Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 11th day of Winter

The winter solstice is, technically, not the shortest day of the year, but the brief instant at which the Earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun; this occurred on Dec. 21, at 17:47 UTC. More colloquially, it is the day on which this instant occurs, which is commonly known as the first day of winter. So, today is the 11th day of Winter. The solstice can occur at varying times; in 2006, it happened 22 minutes after midnight UTC, according to the USNO. The solstice being an instant rather than a day can be a source of some confusion, as when pagans celebrate the solstice on the wrong day, showing up at Stonehenge a day early (since it seems Stonehenge observes the first sunrise after the moment of the solstice).

Measuring this precise moment is difficult for non-astronomers, but ancient peoples built many structures aligned with the changing position of the rising or setting sun throughout the year. The summer solstice is easier to determine using their methods than the winter, because around the winter solstice, the "sun stands still". More modern instruments can use this phenomena, the analemma, in an analemma calendar.

This New Year's Eve will also see the second full moon in the month of December, a "blue moon" (1, 2, 3, 4). The next winter solstice, on December 21, 2010, will feature a total lunar eclipse visible in all stages throughout North America.

I reckon everyone will celebrate the end of the Aughties tonight, since 2010 begins in a few hours. Of course, the 10th year is the final year in a set of ten years; 2010 is the last year of the first decade of the 21st century, and the second decade begins in 2011. We begin counting with the number 1, not the number zero. But the common parlance will have tonight as the end of the Aughties, and (not being a fan of the decade) I'd say we should move on to a new one sooner than later.

Happy New Year!


Saw "Avatar" yesterday. I'd been planning not to, because I surmised that the story was pretty terrible (boring, unimaginative dialogue and plotline that's a patronizing fantasy of white guilt), even if the graphics would be so amazing as to change the industry. I decided to see it after seeing it compared to "Dune meets Fern Gully": too weird to miss. It was fun, but the movie started to lose me somewhere in the inexplicably flying mountains, or when Na'vi begin having hair sex with animals.

Thinking on it further, it seems like one of the main reasons the Na'vi couldn't mount an effective response without Jake Sully's help is that our hero, who had primary responsibility to negotiate their relocation from the Home Tree, failed to even inform the Na'vi of the Sky People's goals in negotiation until armed gunships were poised to launch a surprise attack. Sully's failure to even begin pursuit of a diplomatic solution is what left the Na'vi so utterly unprepared. Although one might imagine that sniping the human soldiers with poisonous arrows might have been a more effective plan than a cavalry charge into machine gun fire.

Before I saw the movie, though, I had been thinking that the movie would be a flop, and the idea that Na'vi would be a new Klingon was badly overambitious. Now, though, I have a fear that it will be taken up in earnest...but by furries and creepily hot catgirls.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

37 Languages

Perusing the Anthropologist in the Attic, I happened on 37 Languages, written by a fellow Louisvillian. This blogger is reviewing a substantial number of languages as part of a process to settle on one that he would like to learn fluently.

I don't know if it's really a great way of going about this, but the project has captured my attention for some reason. His approach is relatively systematic, examining each language one by one, and relatively intensive, doing some of the work of studying the language seriously (such as learning to read and write its script). But his criteria is also idiosyncratic and aesthetic, and that subjective aesthetic assessment of a variety of languages is interesting. Maybe it's merely that, instead of learning some ~about~ the languages he might want to speak, he's learning some ~of~ those languages. If a smattering only.

Gaining a passing familiarity with a foreign language is fairly easy, but gaining fluency is fairly difficult: you have to master a different sound system, internalize a number of rules, develop strong fluency and listening comprehension, and memorize some tens of thousands of lexical items. It's a lot of work, usually for only occasional or intangible benefits; the ten-thousand-hour hypothesis may be relevant. Developing real fluency takes sustained learning over a period of years, during which time interests will shift and motivation will wax and wane. A language you choose to learn should be one that'll you'll be able to maintain a high level of motivation and interest in for a long time. The process of choosing a language is important, and it's probably an area that prospective language students don't spend enough effort on.

In terms of developing future fluency in natural languages, I'm probably limited by a certain path dependence: I've attained a certain proficiency in Japanese, which I would like to maintain and extend, which is fairly laborious. And the practical merits of Spanish will likely make it my next main target. But examining languages in the way that the 37 Languages blog has seems like taking "language vacations" away from my main interests, which sounds like fun.

So. If I were to do something like this, what languages would I nominate? Probably something like: Old English, Latin, Coptic, Greek, Hindi, Farsi, Icelandic, Frisian, Armenian, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Cornish, Czech, Russian, Evenki, Ainu, Tibetan, Korean, Hungarian, Turkish, Tatar, Tuvan, Mongol, Arabic, Kriol, Fon, Khoekhoe, Iñupiaq, Hawaiian, Myaamia, Chickasaw, a Dhegiha Siouan language, Cherokee, Caddo, Nahuatl, and Quechua.

That's 38. Lots of those languages sound as if they'd be great to visit, even if I couldn't live there. The list includes some widely varied languages, and a few clusters of closely related languages, which seems like a good way to pick between competing options. The main things to overview would be some background; obvious hurdles; phonology and orthography; cultural, linguistic, and aesthetic appeal; and educational resources.

The Internet has heralded such a golden age of language learning opportunities; it's like the opposite of the Tower of Babel. And helps information about language revitalization spreading over the globe.

A nice discussion of "Difficult languages" at Language Log.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A River of Stars in a Dark Sky

In Japanese, the Milky Way is known as "天の川 (あまのがわ)", the River of Heaven, because it appears as a mighty river of stars flowing through the night sky. Every summer, people celebrate "Tanabata", a festival that recognizes this phenomena.

Long ago, there was a princess named Vega, who was the daughter of the king of heaven. Every day, she went to the banks of the Milky Way River to weave clothes for her father. But since she worked so hard, she was very lonely. One day, she met a cowboy tending his herd on the other side of the river. His name was Altair, and they fell in love and soon got married. But after they were married, the princess didn't weave clothes for her father, and the cowboy let his animals wander all over the sky. This made Vega's father angry, so he banished Altair to the other side of the river to separate the couple. Each of the pair could only sit on opposite sides of the river and look wistfully at each other. But on one night every year, on the seventh night of the seventh month, the pair of stars are allowed to meet one another, since a flock of magpies agreed to form a bridge over the river with their wings.

This phenomena is hard to see, because of pervasive light pollution in the developed world, the extent of which is apparent in maps of Earth's city lights. In most cities, light pollution is so severe that only the very brightest starts are faintly visible, while in truly dark areas, the light of the Milky Way can cast a visible shadow.

The International Dark Sky Association advocates against light pollution. There are a few locations in the eastern US designated as a dark sky preserve, including Cherry Springs State Park in northern Pennsylvania. The park has annual star parties that attract hundreds of astronomers, which began in the late 1990s when individual hobbyists noticed an isolated black patch on nighttime satellite photos.

Similar maps can be seen at the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness. One of the largest patches of dark skies in the eastern US appears to be in eastern West Virginia in the Monongahela National Forest. This area is the heart of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which has the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope in a radio quiet zone at Green Bank, WV.

For nearer places, the DarkSky Finder is a Java application that works in Firefox. Near Louisville, the darkest sites are southwest of Leavenworth, IN, in the southeastern portion of the Hoosier National Forest and across the river in the corresponding section of Kentucky. There is a slightly darker area immediately west of Hazard, KY, around Buckhorn Lake (an area with a high incidence of communities with interesting names). There are some maps and brochures of the Daniel Boone National Forest for this area; the Redbird Crest Trail, especially the eastern side, is in the middle of this dark spot. The topo maps could useful as well; 17 is Buckhorn Lake; 44 shows the area around Thousandsticks west of Hyden; and the Redbird Crest Trail is on 11 and 28, centered on Creekville.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Multiparty democracy in parliamentary systems

Matthew Yglesias points out Clay Risen's reflection on the recent German election and Germany's experience with multiparty coalition democracy, although Yglesias and his many commenters note some problems with the piece.

But as American liberals tend to wistfully wish for a system more like Germany's, with multiparty coalition politics in the context of a parliamentary system or proportional representation, it's healthy to have a splash of cold water now and then. I certainly wouldn't endorse the view that the American two-party system is the best possible, but I tend to think that electoral fusion is a likelier and possibly more productive way for third parties to coexist in American politics than the electoral system underlaying Germany's party system.

German Lessons: Germany is a vibrant parliamentary democracy, yet its body politic is asleep. ...Next to European health care and European urban planning, the aspect of European life for which liberal Americans pine most often is the continent’s parliamentary politics. Whenever I run down the litany of niche German political parties–alongside the Greens, the FDP, and the Linke, there’s the Animal Protection Party, the new-age Violet Party, and the Retired People’s Party, among others–for left-leaning American friends, they sigh and say, "I wish." Parties that actually represent people’s interests? Coalitions built on cross-party compromise, rather than ideological stone walls? Wouldn’t that be great, they say. ...After seeing German politics up close, I’ll take my two-party system, thank you very much.

...Clinton’s welfare reforms of the 1990s also produced enormous disagreement on the left. But because there was nowhere for dissenting factions to go, they had to fight it out internally–and, over time, these centripetal forces created a new consensus, which formed the basis for Barack Obama’s ride into the White House and the backbone of support for his progressive agenda. The German left, on the other hand, simply picked up its toys and went to play elsewhere, thanks to the centrifugal forces of the parliamentary system. The result is a rump center-left, an eco-centric postmaterialist left, and a self-righteous neo-Marxist far-left, none of which had anything constructive to say during the recent economic crisis, a time when, typically, left-wing, pro-government parties are needed most.

The constant proliferation of parties is an expression of the system’s shortcomings, not its strengths; rather than adapt to sociopolitical changes, as America’s does, it fragments. ...The problem is that the big decisions in contemporary politics–climate change, global terrorism, international financial reform–demand a policymaking coherence and stability that only broad-based, pragmatic parties like America’s can provide. Not surprisingly, big changes, particularly on climate, are increasingly passed up the ladder to the EU, where less transparent, less democratic bodies can make the tough decisions that national parliaments can’t.

This post is probably the best place to link to Yglesias on The Real German Resistance to Hitler: The Social Democrats and Hendrik Hertzberg on the history of the German Social Democratic Party.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

SRS after three weeks

So, three weeks in, and I still think this SRS stuff is pretty cool. Even though I started reviewing even the most basic Japanese, I've polished up a recollection of Japanese postpositions of motion that I hadn't realized had gotten so weak. Starting with Japanese vocab and sentences that are relatively easy, as well as stuff that needed review, studying the flashcards has been fun.

It's fairly easy to make flashcards that review front and back, so that (for example) you're testing your understanding of the phrase from Japanese to English and from English to Japanese. Creating the cards to do this is a little different from the introductory instructional screencast video, possibly because Anki is frequently updated. I'm using Anki with the Japanese plugin. To create forward and reverse cards in the Basic model, choose "Cards: Forward, Reverse" before you create in the cards. In the Japanese model, make sure it's set to "Recognition, Recall".

My strategy is essentially based on sentence mining, studying grammar and vocabulary in full sentences (even if it is something as basic as "This is a chair"/"Iste es un sedia"/"これはいすです"), and say the phrase on each card aloud in the target language before I check and score it. For Interlingua, I've created Forward and Reverse cards focusing on vocab and sentences from "Curso de interlingua pro comenciantes anglophone"; I've gotten through the first four lessons in three weeks at the default settings (20 new cards a day). For Japanese, I've created Recognition and Recall cards for model sentences and vocab from "しんにほんごのきそ I" and "漢字マスター, Vol. 1: 4級漢字100, 100 Kanji in 10 Days, The Easy Way". In three weeks, I've gotten through two lessons of each book. At this rate, I'll finish the Interlingua text in about four weeks, the kanji text in 12 weeks, and the Japanese grammar book over a period of several more months.

The workload is pretty managable. As long as I study every day, reviewing the flashcards doesn't take more than about ten to 15 minutes. Making cards does take some time, but spending an hour or two once a week usually creates enough cards for the rest of the week. I'm working on two decks, which means I'm spending twice as much time reviewing cards.

So, for example, on December 1, I spent 13 minutes reviewing 86 cards, which was pretty typical. Then I spent a few days away from the computer, so when I came back on December 5, I had to spend 38 minutes reviewing 243 cards (with some modest distractions). On December 6, I spent 9 minutes reviewing 60 cards; on December 7, I spent 14 minutes reviewing 90 cards; and today I spent 5 minutes reviewing 39 cards, because I had run out of new cards.

I can see the need, apart from SRS, to create a language-immersion environment for yourself. This method doesn't teach you to think in the target language, or teach fluency or creativity. However, I always found memorization through flashcards to be rather a chore; this is more like a game. And making memorization of vocab relatively fun is both remarkable and useful.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"The most beautiful toy in the world"

The Lousy Linguist is amused by this rather breathless profile of Paul R. Frommer, who created the Na'vi language for the film "Avatar".

"In fact, the average second year grad student in linguistics can do it, and typically they do, just for fun," Chris notes. Indeed. But that bar is too high; anyone can "create a language." Many conlangers began when they were children, including some fairly well-known ones; it's just harder to create something that's interesting to other people, or not merely a relexified English when English is the only language you can think in; and people with exposure to more languages can have a broader view of the variety of options.

To be fair, it sounds like much of the story's enthusiasm comes from Frommer, who (it seems) had a blast with this. A U.S.O. interview gives some more detail on the language (ejective consonants, infixing, and tripartite alignment) [EDIT: See also the NYT story Skxawng!, and the NPR interview with Frommer].

There appear to be few or no consonant clusters in the names of the film's Na'vi characters, to judge by IMDB. It sounds like Frommer is interested in further developing and releasing more information on the language, which is a good sign. Marc Okrand's instructional video on how to speak Atlantean on the "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" DVD was great fun.

The comments of this LanguageHat consideration of the most interesting language points us to this lovely quote: "I was fallen in love beyond limites with languages, for, as the renowned Italian Orientalist Alessandro Bausani told, languages are 'the most beautiful toy of the world.'"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Electoral fusion in Kentucky law

I looked up some time ago where the Kentucky electoral law bans electoral fusion in this state, and then misplaced the link. It's KRS 118.405: No candidate's name shall appear on any voting machine or absentee ballot more than once, except that a candidate's name may appear twice if he is a candidate for a primary or a regular election and also a candidate to fill a vacancy in the same office required to be filled at a special election, when the special election to fill a vacancy is scheduled for the regular election day.

KRS 118.015 provides some definitions: A "political party" is an affiliation or organization of electors representing a political policy and having a constituted authority for its government and regulation, and whose candidate received at least twenty percent (20%) of the total vote cast at the last preceding election at which presidential electors were voted for; "Political organization" means a political group not constituting a political party...but whose candidate received two percent (2%) or more of the vote of the state at the last preceding election for presidential electors; and..."Political group" means a political group not constituting a political party or a political organization... KRS 118.105 informs us that any political organization not constituting a political party as defined in KRS 118.015 may make its nominations as provided in KRS 118.325. And it appears that KRS 118.345, preventing defeated primary candidates from having their name on a regular election ballot, would prevent something like what Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman did in 2008.

According to the 2008 Kentucky election results, Independent Ralph Nader received 0.8% of the vote, Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr received 0.3% of the vote, and Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin received 0.3% of the vote.

Why don't we have third parties anymore? The history of electoral fusion

I was looking into the history of the end of electoral fusion in Kentucky, and it seems that the Ohio River Valley was particularly significant in the end of electoral fusion and, consequently, the decline of third parties in American politics. Here are selections from a couple of monographs; RTWT. The "Australian ballot" is the secret ballot, printed at public expense. Previously, voters would use ballots printed by individual political parties.

Duverger's Law, Fusion, and the Decline of American "Third" Parties, by Howard A. Scarrow (The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 1986), pp. 634-647):
During the latter half of the 19th century fusion candidacies were frequent at all levels of government. At the presidential level the first example is found in the election of 1856, when the American (Know-Nothing) party and the Whig party both backed the third party candidacy of Millard Fillmore. ...The last conspicuous example of a presidential fusion candidacy was that of William Jennings Bryan, who was the candidate of both the Democratic party and the Populist party in 1896.

...The introduction of the Australian ballot in the last decade of the century sounded the initial death knell for fusion candidates. The introduction of this ballot reform presented minor parties with the obstable of now having to gain access to the ballot by means of petition signatures, a burden not placed on parties which could gain automatic ballot access by virtue of having attracted a large number of votes in a previous election—that is, the two major parties. The decline of third parties in the United States has thus often been traced in part to this aspect of ballot reform. There was, however, another feature of the new ballot laws which has received insufficient attention... the new ballot laws presented a way for states to outlaw fusion candidacies. When the party-column type of ballot was authorized, the law could require that a candidate's name appear at only one place on the ballot. Where the office-block ballot format was introduced, the legislation could specify that a candidate have only one party label attached to his name on the ballot. By 1895 six states had enacted one of the other of these restrictions. By 1900 the list had grown to thirteen; by 1910 to twenty.

...From their very inception, anti-fusion laws were challenged in the courts by aggrieved candidates. Almost invariably, however, state courts refused to support the argument that the laws violated the respective state constitutions.

...Dissenting opinions, however, used equally righteous language to defend the fusion practice. Fusion candidacies, it was argued, were often the only way of defeating an entrenched and corrupt political machine. They also provided a healthy antidote to narrow partisanship; and they increased voter interest. In only one state, New York, did these latter opinions prevail. In 1911 that state's highest court struck down an anti-fusion statue which had been pushed through the legislature by Tammany forces stung by successful fusion campaigns in New York City.

It should be noted that electoral fusion was used in the 1933 election of Republican Fiorella LaGuardia and the eventual demise of Tammany Hall.

"A Place on the Ballot": Fusion Politics and Antifusion Laws, by Peter H. Arsinger (The American Historical Review, 85:2, April 1980, pp. 287-306): least one little-known development in the electoral reform of the 1890s involved a conscious effort to shape the political arena by disrupting opposition parties, revising traditional campaign and voting practices, and ensuring Republican hegemony--all under the cover of procedural reform. This development was the adoption of the so-called antifusion laws, which also altered the political behavior characteristic of the Gilded Age, with varying effects on the role of third parties, modes of political participation, and the electoral process itself.

Fusion, or the electoral support of a single set of candidates by two or more parties, constituted a significant feature of late nineteenth-century politics, particularly in the Midwest and West, where full or partial fusion occurred in nearly every election. ...if fusion sometimes helped destroy individual third parties, it helped maintain a significant third party tradition by guaranteeing that dissenters' votes could be more than symbolic protest, that their leaders could gain office, and that their demands might be heard.

...Nationally, the Republican success in 1894 led to the passage of antifusion laws by other states in 1895. ...Michigan Republicans, now in complete control of the legislature, reintroduced their anti-fusion bill of the previous session and pushed it into law. Although some judges described it as "unconstitutional" and "revolutionary," the state upheld the measure in the same partisan spirit in which it had been enacted--four Republican judges in the affirmative, one Democrat in dissent. The Ohio legislature, meeting in 1896, concluded this first legislative flurry with the so-called Dana law, an elaborate measure based upon the customary antifusion ballot requirement. In Ohio, the local focus of antifusion legislation seemed particularly evident, at least initially. In the recent Cincinnati mayoral election, the Republican machine of "Boss" George Cox and Joseph B. Foraker had been challenged by a fusion coalition of Populists, Socialists, laborites, and dissident Republicans that had nearly received the Democratic endorsement as well. Some legislative observers regarded the subsequent Dana bill, prepared by a Foraker Republican, as primarily designed to prevent just such unified popular revolts against machine rule in municipal elections.

...The Michigan and Ohio experiences were not lost on Republicans in Indiana, the state in which Mark Hanna feared fusion most. Hoosier Republicans made two unsuccessful efforts during the campaign to secure the effects of antifusion legislation without actually receiving such a law. ...The lessons learned in, and the opportunity presented by, the sweeping 1896 Republican victory led Republican-dominated legislatures in many more states to enact fusion laws quickly. Republican legislatures passed antifusion laws in 1897 in Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Wyoming as well as in Indiana. As Republicans gained sufficient legislative control elsewhere, the law spread further: California and Nebraska in 1899; Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota in 1901; Idaho in 1903; and Montana in 1907.

Ending the effective cooperation of Democrats and third party groups was both the primary goal and the major result of these efforts. ...By preventing effective fusion, antifusion laws also brought an end to another major characteristic of late nineteenth-century politics--the importance and even existence of significant third parties.

See also footnote 44:
In addition, the Democratic legislatures of three Southern states also enacted antifusion legislation in the early 1900s, and controversy over the law actually provoked a riot in the Kentucky legislature. Thus, while the focus here has been on the Northern Republicans, the law was obviously regarded as serving the interests of the dominant party wherever it was enacted.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Communicating with folk 500 generations hence

Via Matthew Yglesias, I found this Salon article about communicating with people 10,000 years in the future about the dangers of nuclear waste via Atomic Priesthoods, Thorn Landscapes, and Munchian Pictograms.

The main basis of the article is the government report Sandia Report SAND92-1382: Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, from November 1993, concerning the WIPP, near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It really is quite an interesting report.

I've been thinking about these issues mostly in terms of computer obsolescence and digital decay. In the very long run, it seems that the best way to preserve data for a long time or communicate with the people of the future would be through aluminum (or rather, minimally reactive durable) punch cards, or well-labelled ceramic or stone tiles that contain images, text, and clearly visualized pictographic instruction on binary or base-16 mathematics, to provide multiple points of reference for future archaeologists to decrypt the text. It's easier with the assumption that you're communicating with the kinds of people who deciphered Maya hieroglyphs, the Rosetta stone, and Sumerian cuneiform.

Charles Piller's 2006 LA Times story doesn't appear to have a durable URL, but it was carried in the Cincinnati Post and the Edmonton Journal. Here's from the Cincinnati Post, May 10, 2006:
As chief scientist of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, [Roger] Nelson oversees a cavernous salt mine that is the first geological lockbox for what he calls the "fiendishly toxic" detritus of nuclear weapons production: chemical sludge, lab gear and filters laced with tons of radioactive plutonium.

Nearly half a mile underground, workers push waste drums into crystalline labyrinths that seem as remote as the moon. A faint salty haze glows in powdery beams from miners' headlamps and settles on the lips like a desert kiss. Computer projections predict that within 1,000 years the ceilings and walls will collapse in a crushing embrace that seals the plutonium in place.

But plutonium remains deadly for 250 times that long -- an unsettling reminder that some of today's hazards will outlast the civilizations that created them. The so-called "forever problem," unique to the modern technological age, has made crafting the user manual for this toxic tomb the final daunting task in an already monumental project. The result is a gargantuan system that borrows elements equally from Stonehenge and "Star Trek."

Communicating danger might seem relatively straightforward, but countless human efforts to bridge the ages have failed as societies fall, languages die and words once poetic or portentous become the indecipherable marks of a long-forgotten scribbler.

... The U.S. Energy Department predicted such a problem when it began planning for the $9-billion waste dump, dubbed WIPP, in 1974 and for a similar repository in Nevada at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas. That site is not yet open. Eventually it will store highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants as well as high- level waste from the weapons program.

Trying to communicate across 500 generations posed an unprecedented challenge of linguistics, semiotics and materials science, so the government first asked scientists, futurists and historians to envision what the far-distant future might be like.

Their report combines dry analysis and projections worthy of sci- fi disaster films, including massive climate change and feminist corporations that disbelieve WIPP warnings because they were written by men. Civilization is so interdependent and fragile, one panelist grimly noted, "that any massive global catastrophe might lead to reversion to at least a pre-industrial era." Greed or desperation could give rise to legends that WIPP holds buried treasure -- apparently confirmed by surface warnings to keep out.

...If Egyptian pyramids have lasted more than 5,000 years, today's monuments should fare better. ...To grasp the scale of the warnings, start with the Great Pyramid in Egypt, built from more than 6.5 million tons of stone covering 13 acres. Multiply that mass by five, and you have the first warning layer of this contemporary construction: a 98-foot-wide, 33-foot- tall, 2-mile-long berm surrounding the site. That's just to get the attention of anyone who happens by.

Ten thousand years, of course, twice as long as it took for Proto-Indo-European to change and diversify into Latin and Sanskrit, and then to Hindi, Farsi, Italian, Russian, Icelandic, and contemporary English.

Such warnings could indeed become the Rosetta stones of the future, with warnings on carved stone slabs in the contemporary UN languages English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, local languages such as Navajo, and space for the languages of the future when contemporary languages become obsolete and unintelligible. The report also includes a number of proposed warnings.

The monuments themselves, proposed in the report, are indeed interesting. I was most intrigued by Forbidding Blocks (for all the wrong reasons, of course). Despite a massive effort to deny use, it seems like the most likely for future civilizations to take an interest in. Such a site seems less likely to be investigated by future scholars and archaeologists than bored adolescents, clever seekers of shelter, and get-rich-quick looters.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


If monkeys could make hats, they could take over the world.

There were many interesting hats in "Conan the Barbarian". Here are some choice examples:

Sumo: 九州 2009

Watching sumo on Youtube has been pretty cool; Sumopool has a well-updated feed, and hpeterswald has some good videos, too, including this English NHK piece on Baruto's ozeki bid. It's not going well so far.

The Nihon Sumo Kyokai has individual pages for the wrestlers linked at the November 2009 Banzuke, including for yokozunas Asashoryu and Hakuho; ozekis Chiyotaikai, Kotooshu, Harumafuji, Kotomitsuki, Kaio; other makuuchis Baruto, Yamatoyama, Takamisakari; and juryo Gagamaru, among the rest.

I remember Chiyotaikai being an ozeki when I lived in Japan a decade ago. There's a great video on YouTube of his namesake Chiyonofuji's 53 consecutive victories in 1988.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Interlingua is a naturalistic, constructed, international auxiliary language. As far as such languages go, Interlingua is nearly the opposite of Esperanto, and the two demonstrate the difference between naturalistic and schematic languages.

The international auxiliary languages are a quixotic group, since they are so inherently riven by contention. Esperanto is a language with a strong utopian and ideological tradition; many of the international auxiliary languages see themselves as a means to an end (world peace, human unity, hope for progress), and this trait may be most highly developed in Esperantism. L.L. Zamenhof was a proponent of religious humanism, and the idea of international auxiliary languages (or Esperanto) as a means for human unity was embraced by Bahá'í and Oomoto (大本), practiced by the founder of aikido. Some Esperantists aim for the "Final Victory", in which Esperanto has become the world's predominant second language.

Esperanto is a quirky language; though its creator, its phonology and orthography were heavily influenced by the Slavic languages, and so isn't as easily written in ASCII. It's reminiscent of the risk of conlanging, to merely relexify one's native language, although Esperanto is clearly more interesting and sophisticated than that. And it's greatest strength (its agglutinative structure, easy formation of new compounds, and reliance on few roots) can be a weakness. I've heard that while Esperanto has a word for "right" (dekstra), the word for left is the similar-sounding maldekstra ("un-right").

Interlingua takes a very different direction, attempting to resolve the differences between its control languages. It does seem in some ways like le latino moderne, if only because it has a very Romantic phonology like Spanish or Italian, and re-borrows many grammatical words and phrases directly from Latin. They're very different philosophies on language creation, which create two different, interesting conlangs.

The purpose of an international auxiliary language doesn't interest me, aside from the novelty of a conlang that it might be possible to communicate to other people with. I think I am more interested in Interlingua, even just as an artistic language, as an easy-to-learn Romance language that remains similar to, but still different from, some of the existing languages of Europe. Like the language of a Mediterranean country that exists only in the imagination. Or the fictional settings of Miyazaki Hayao's films...although Esperanto may actually be used for often for a purpose like that. "Incubus" was a very entertaining movie, in its way.

The UMI has a page to search the Interlingua-English Dictionary, as well as an Interlingua course for English-speakers, Curso de interlingua pro comenciantes anglophone. I also like the Italian version, which has readings of the text in MP3. It's also useful to know Enough Interlingua to Fake It. & it's always interesting to look at the Wikipedia of a language.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Spaced Repetition Systems

One of my friends is a big fan of the kanji-learning method of James W. Heisig, in which you first memorize the meanings of all the characters, and then later go back and attempt to learn their readings. I'm pretty skeptical of this system of learning to read Japanese, for many of the reasons discussed by Nihongo PeraPera. It may be that those of us who first learned a few hundred kanji are a little more dubious of this strange method, and ascribe success students may have with it to enthusiasm and diligence.

But it has become popular on the Internet. Many people use it with specialized flashcard software, known as spaced repetition systems or SRS ( 1, 2, 3, 4 ). This is a component of the method of study championed by AJATT ( 1, 2 ) and others.

After reading about it on Omniglot the other day, I've been re-evaluating SRS. I've always read about is as part of learning the kanji Heisig's way. But it seems like a feasible way to memorize things, regardless of what you're trying to memorize.

There are a couple of open-source programs for SRS: Anki and Mnemosyne are the most notable ( 1, 2, 3 ). SuperMemo is Windows-only and reportedly very buggy, and my friend has used both and Anki. I think I'd prefer to use Mnemosyne, but the latest client only runs on the Intel Macs. On first use, making a deck of flashcards is easy, but using it to organize a system of self-study is somewhat more complex and non-intuitive.

Rather than the Heisig method, I suspect sentence mining, perhaps something like Kanji in Context after starting with my trusty old "しんにほんごのきそ". I may try it with Interlingua or such first, to figure out how best to organize a deck.

I also suspect that while relying on flash cards may be an effective means of improving reading comprehension, it'd be a weaker method of developing fluency, listening comprehension, and other aspects of language proficiency. Of course with Japanese, where this method is most commonly used, vocabulary, literacy, and reading comprehension are very serious barriers to proficiency.


I gained an appreciation for sumo when I lived in Japan, but I've never been able to keep up with that sport since I moved back to the US. It's a strange sport: fast, ritualistic, confrontational, and absurdly athletic. The prepatory purification rituals are as much a part of the aesthetic appeal of the bout itself, and some of the kimarite (決まり手) can be amazing.

I attended a basho in Tokyo about 10 years ago, but for the most part, the way to watch it is the daily recap on NHK. Hopefully, once the next basho starts, I'll be able to figure out a way to watch these online. Every time I've thought to check when the next basho will be, though it turns out that I just missed it, and have to wait another two months. As it turns out this time, the Nihon Sumo Kyokai says the Kyushu begins this weekend. & soon the Japan Times sumo section should have some info.

Winter certainly seems like the time for some chanko-nabe.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Louisville Public Records

If you're shopping for a home in Jefferson County, Kentucky, you can research properties by address and the owner's name. The one kind of information will get the other, and its pretty remarkable what you can find out by searching the online databases of public information.

The most useful ones are:

There's also all kinds of interesting information on the Louisville Metro Government Web site.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The End of Life, Saifai, and Everything

To follow up this, Charles Stross asks how habitable Earth is: I want you to imagine that, instead of being a perplexed mostly-hairless primate reading a blog, you're the guiding intelligence of an interstellar robot probe. ...Your first destination planet is the cloud-whorled third planet out from an undistinguished G2 star, orbited by an airless, tidally-locked moon with roughly 1.3% of the planet's own mass.

...However, the Earth is a lot more than 200 kiloyears (Ky) old; the surface formed roughly 4.6 Gy ago (gigayears — 1Gy = 1,000,000,000 years). And we can expect the Earth to persist for about another 3-5 Gy, until the sun leaves the main sequence of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram and becomes a red giant, presumably swallowing the Earth (or at any rate rendering it too crispy for comfort). So if we're being honest (and not cherry-picking our candidate stellar colony mission targets) we've got a 8-10Gy span to probe.

...The point to take away from this is that, between T minus 4.6 Gy and T minus 0.56 Gy, the Earth's atmosphere was largely free of oxygen. ...Even after the oxygen catastrophe, our space probe isn't going to find a terribly hospitable planet.

Best to find a more habitable planet elsewhere, really.

(Via MR).

Stross also discovers why the later Star Treks are so terrible: former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek. He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

Which I suppose makes this the appropriate place to linkdump Star Trek Mark Two and Brain Bugs, as well as David Brin's war on "Star Wars" (1, 2, 3). And all the evidence we need that the Weekly Standard would be rooting for the Empire.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Continental Drift

There are good maps of the prehistoric continents at the Paleomap Project, Mollewide Plate Tectonic Maps, and Paleogeography and Geologic Evolution of North America. The Silurian is particularly alien-looking, the continents assumed forms roughly recognizable to us after the K/T extinction, and the next supercontinent will form in approximately 250 million years.

It looks like what is now the Ohio River valley (west of Appalachia) rose from the ocean sometime in Devonian and early Carboniferous, after the Appalachian mountains formed some 450 million years ago. The limestone exposed at the Falls of the Ohio formed in a shallow sea during the Devonian about 380-325 million years ago. Interestingly, it appears much of southeastern Indiana, central Kentucky and Tennessee, and northern Alabama was the site of a large island (or peninsula) on the arid southwestern shore of Laurussia, the Old Red Continent, that ephemerally rose and sank into the ocean for 100 million years or so in a position roughly analogous to contemporary Patagonia.

The intrusion of the Western Interior Seaway during the Cretaceous is the closest this area came to sinking since then.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Night of the Living Dead" Farmhouse Map

This is the first floor of the farmhouse from the original "Night of the Living Dead", translated into a 5-foot scale battlemat. Adapting real buildings to a battlemat can require some distortion, but the layout of the map is reasonably faithful to the film.

The farmhouse from the 1990 remake has a similar, but slightly different layout. The rooms are in roughly the same location, but the front door is in the central hallway and the kitchen is much smaller.

The cellar is a single small room with a door that can be barred, in which hide Tom and his girlfriend Judy, Harry and Helen Cooper, and their daughter Karen. The keys to the shed are always in the cellar. We only get a brief glimpse of the upstairs hallway, and the only thing known about the layout of the upstairs is that it's possible to toss Molotov cocktails from a bedroom out in front of the house.

1. The Farmhouse

A. Back Porch.
The easiest entrance to the farmhouse is via the unlocked door on this small roofed porch, which allows ingress to the kitchen.

B. Pantry
Sacks of flour and cans of pickled vegetables line the walls of this small pantry.

C. Kitchen
Counters and cabinets line the walls of the kitchen, and a small table occupies the center of the room. Toolboxes in the kitchen cabinets hold hammers, handaxes, and nails. A sliding door connects to the pantry.

D. Dining Room
A table and setting for four sits at the center of the room, and a sofa and armchairs line the walls.

E. Front Porch
A picnic table offers a place to sit, but the front door itself is locked.

F. Drawing Room
The leering, mouldering heads of mounted animals—a deer, a boar, and the skin of a bobcat—grimace from the walls of this room. A desk, littered with diverse rumpled papers and candlesticks, faces the fireplace.

G. Closet
Materials for maintaining the fire are stored in this closet, including a box of firewood, a clearly labelled bottle of lighter fluid or flammable oil, and a box of matches.

H. Hallway
A trickle of putrid blood is pooling at the base of the stairs.

I. Sitting Room
Armchairs and occasional tables line the room, facing the fireplace.

J. Closet
This small close is mostly filled with fine women's shoes and clothes. A rifle and a box of ammunition is hidden behind the clothes.

BTW, and according to Wikipedia, it seems that the original movie was filmed near Evans City, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles from Pittsburgh. The shots of the exterior and lower floor were filmed at a house that was afterwards demolished. Here's some then-and-now photos of the cemetery.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Wizard's Bastle

This map is inspired mostly by the fortified houses of the Scottish and English border regions, especially the L-plan castles which allow defenders to fire on people attacking the door. It also takes the basic idea of the bastle house, which keeps livestock inside the fortified house and includes internal defenses against intruders to protect the residents.

Rooms on upper two floors have arrow slits for light and air, which can be closed with wooden shutters during rainstorms or in the cooler months. Doors on the upper two stories are good wooden doors (Hardness 5, 15 hp, Break DC 18) while doors on the first floor are iron-reinforced strong doors (Hardness 5, 20 hp, Break DC 25).

1A. Stables
A steel-reinforced double door provides access to the building through the stables and a small storage area.

1B. Loading Room
Ladders, rope, pulleys, and tackle in the room above allow the inhabitants to enter and bring supplies into the upper, living areas of the tower. The portal in the ceiling to area 2A can be shut and barred from above. A trapdoor in the southern half of the room leads down to area LA.

2A. Storage Entryhall
Ropework and block and tackle mounted to the ceiling in this room allows residents to hoist barrels and crates of supplies up from the Loading room below. In an emergency, the ladders can be drawn up and the portal closed and barred to prevent raiders from entering the living quarters. A large stack of crates stands in the southern half of the chamber.

2B. Hallway
A simple hallway connects the entryhall, the library, and the butler's quarters. A flight of stairs leads up to area 3A.

2C. Library
The library is lined with bookshelves on its eastern and southern walls, but contains several weapons racks of spears, chests of arrows and crossbow bolts, as well as a few mannequins wearing suits of mail.

2D. Butler's Quarters
This large room holds a bunk and living quarters in the north half, as well as fireplace and kitchen along the south wall.

3A. Parlor
Several comfortable armchairs and tables stand in this well-appointed room; a service is laid out for afternoon tea.

3B. Master Bedroom
This luxurious master bedroom has two large chifforobes on the east wall, as well as pot-bellied stove southwest corner. Tapestries and weird, surrealistic portraiture decorates the walls.

3C. Laboratory
Tables of alchemical glassware, cabinets of strange materials, locked bookshelves, mounted skeletons, taxidermically-preserved monsters, and symbol-covered rings on the floor crowd the laboratory. A small trapdoor in the ceiling provides access to the attic or roof.

LA. Basement
Crates and supplies can be hoisted down to this room from the large trapdoor in area 1B in much the same way as they are moved to the rooms above.

LB. Dungeon
Two large empty cells can be closed with a simple padlock.

LC. Cellar
Crates of root vegetables and other foodstuffs are stored in this cool room.

LD. Cistern
A large wellshaft in the center of this room is full of water, providing the building with a constant supply.

Game Board Dimensions

GameMastery flip-mats are 24 squares by 30 squares. The Incompetech graph paper generator lite can create graph paper to match: using a square size of 0.3125 inches will leave a half-inch margin on the PDF. Making a flip-mat-sized map using this method would require a canvas of 1200 by 1500 pixels.

The generator lite is also a way to quickly create 8x10 or 8x12 boards for variant chesses. An 8x10 board can fit on letter-sized paper with 0.9375-inch squares, leaving a half-inch margin. An 8x12 board can fit on letter-sized paper with 0.83-inch or smaller squares. Inkscape can easily checker these PDFs for a quick-and-dirty board.

I tend to prefer the square cross generator, usually. With a margin of 0.5 inches and 3 crosses per inch, it creates graph paper that is 22 cells by 30, which is only slightly narrower than a flip mat.

Hexagonal maps are useful, but the dimensions of hexagons are not as straightforward as other tessellations. Hexagons are usually defined by their side length, but the distance between parallel sides is more useful for my purposes. That's, very roughly, about 1.732 times the side length. Hexagons big enough to hold 25-mm miniatures should have sides of about 15 mm.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Poker in the 19th century

James McManus's essay "What Poker Can Teach Us" in the Chronicle of Higher Education is an OK essay, but for some reason it sent me trudging through the murky history of poker. I tend to be more of a fan of the whist-family of games, not so much for the current rage for Texas hold'em. But antiquarian variants sometimes hold interesting gameplay, which is usually somewhat unrefined. has an detailed overview of the game's history:

Original Poker, a game in which four players received five cards each from a 20-card pack and vied as to who held the best hand, evidently originated in the New Orleans some time between 1810 and 1825. Its gaming milieu was that of French-speaking maritime gambling saloons, especially those of the Mississippi steamers. Its name suggests that its first players felt they were continuing the tradition of playing a game called Poque in which one said Je poque to open the betting. At this time and place, and before it underwent development, Poque probably denoted a five-card vying game consisting of the central section of a formerly tripartite game of the same name.

...In the 1830s, having spread northwards along the Mississippi and westwards with the expanding frontier, Poker had adopted its anglicized name and become increasingly played with 52 cards to accommodate a greater number of players, thus also giving rise to the flush as an additionally recognized combination. Under the influence of Brag, its three-card British equivalent, it adopted the draw. This led to its further and more rapid expansion of popularity, as Poker-players preferred the additional round of betting after the possibility of improving a promising hand, while Brag-players preferred the wider range of combinations offered by a five-card hand.

British Brag certainly looks like an interesting game, with a similar style but somewhat different wagering and gameplay; American brag is often described as different from contemporary or modern English brag. Edmond Hoyle published his first treatise on whist in 1742, and his 1750 compendium of treatises described backgammon, brag, chess, pique, quadrille, and whist. These original volumes are apparently mostly held by collectors, and I can't find online copies. Hoyle's work became genericized and republished in increasingly-unrelated editions, which aren't on Project Gutenberg, but Google Books has some copies.

The American Hoyle (New York, 1864) has good descriptions of poker, brag, whist and faro as played in America at the close of the Civil War. The description of brag seems very similar to the English game, except the Knights and Nines are known as "braggers", which are ranked much like wild cards. However, vying appears to be much the same as in the English game.

This work describes poker as a straight game in which the players wager on the hand as dealt, without drawing. The cards are ranked from a pair, two pair, three of a kind, flush, full house, and four of a kind; it describes the straight as a regional variant. Draw poker, the historic "twenty-deck" or twenty-card poker, and (five-card) stud poker are all variants.

Other Hoyle-derived texts on Google Books include
  • An Epitome of Hoyle (Dublin, 1791), which includes thirteen games, "with an account of the present fashionable Game, called E-O, played at most of the polite Chocolate Houses, never before attempted in print".

  • Hoyle's Games Improved (London, 1814) includes essays on horse racing, skittles, and other games.

  • Hoyle's improved edition of the rules for playing fashionable games (Philadelphia, 1838) includes a description of brag seems mostly similar to the English game, but makes clear that the Knaves and Nines (the "braggers") are wild cards. It's also one of the editions that contains a treatise on cock-fighting and breeding gamecocks.

  • Hoyle's games (Boston, mid-19th century) describes billards, games for "Yankee-notion cards", and Thomas Frere's chess handbook (which includes a four-handed game on a Dessau board).

  • Hoyle's games (New York, 1887) briefly describes poker as straight poker, without draw or stud variants or the straight. "Twenty-deck" poker, with a 20-card deck, remains a variant.

Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains (1836) is the first printed reference to poker; it has a handy footnote to explain it as "a favorite game of cards in the south and west." Jonathan Harrington Green's 1843 anti-gambling screed describes it as a game for a 20-card deck "that is immensely destructive—perhaps more so than any other short game of cards now in use..." Joe Cowell's 1844 memoir relates a legend that it was invented by Henry Clay in his youth. Professional gambler and con man George Devol's 1887 memoir "Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi" is at both Google Books and Project Gutenberg.

Later, poker entered literature. The most significant description of a poker game in Mark Twain's Life on the Missippi is Chapter XXXVI, "The Professor's Yarn". It seems Stephen Crane's story "A Poker Game" was posthumously published in "New York City Sketches" in 1966. This book anthologizes some of the above, as well as 20th-century stories from folks like Bertolt Brecht, W. Somerset Maugham, John Updike, cryptologist Herbert O. Yardley and Truman's White House Counsel, Clark Clifford. McManus reports that Obama is the most recent poker-playing president.

Three-card poker is a modern poker-like game influenced by three-card brag, but without the distinctive vying element of either game, and a good house edge. A three-card straight poker could be an interesting toy poker, though, with fewer and simpler hand rankings.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Converting to the Pathfinder RPG

It's been a long month!

Some time after the release of 3rd edition D&D, "Dungeon" and "Dragon" magazine were spun out to the newly formed Paizo Publishing from Wizards of the Coast, and published under license. When Wizards announced 4th edition D&D, they terminated Paizo's license, ended the the 29-year print history of "Dragon" and folded the magazines into an online feature of their Web site. With the rug pulled out from under them, Paizo launched the Pathfinder adventures subscription to replace their flagship product and support their customers. As 4th edition D&D was promoted, and the 3rd edition rule books went out of print, Paizo found that it was difficult to get distributors to stock game materials that supported an out-of-print rulesystem. Consequently, the company announced the Pathfinder RPG to bring the 3.5e rules back into print, which offered a chance to refine some of the rules after nearly a decade of play.

Now that the hardcover Pathfinder RPG book is out, it's time to begin planning to convert characters. The company's
Welcome to Paizo post is a good introduction to support for the game, although and Pathfinder Wiki are also good references.

Paizo offers the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Conversion Guide PDF which covers conversion from 3.5e characters to Pathfinder characters. In the leadup to the release of the game at GenCon this year, Paizo previewed each of the character classes by looking at the game's iconic characters.

The series highlighted the harcover's table of contents and races and the fighter, sorcerer, ranger, cleric, paladin, bard, druid, monk, barbarian, rogue, wizard, and eldritch knight, as well as the game's most important rule.

The previews also highlight some of the other rules tweaks. The rogue preview discusses how poisons are handled; the druid preview notes some changes to wildshape/polymorph, animal companions, and the Fly skill; and the cleric preview describes domains, channel energy, and concentration checks. Check out what a 14th-level fighter can do with a single swing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Trains, cycles, trees

Via Broken Sidewalk, an story on the impact of Madrid-Barcelona high-speed rail, and discussion at the Lexington Streetsweeper. If New York City replaced the subway system with roads for cars, they'd need a bridge 167 inbound lanes wide, to say nothing of the parking.

Cycling is one of the best treatments for stress, since it is accessible, enjoyable, low-impact, and can give a physiological runner's high. The world's longest bicycle tunnel has opened in Basque country, in Spain, in an old railway tunnel.

The flash flooding Louisville had last Tuesday (Aug. 4) was pretty crazy. There were some amazing scenes on TV: sewage boiling out of flooded streets, cars a few blocks from where we live flooded to their windshields or roofs. Channel 41 had water pouring into their building; they were broadcasting images of their own studio flooding. The Kentucky Derby Museum started a blog about the damage, the C-J says the flood's effects could drag on for months, and they have some photo galleries of damage at Churchil Downs and the library.

In Cherrapunji, India, people grow bridges from living tree roots over hundreds of years. Trees can grow in amazing ways, from espalier to the Belgian fence to tree shaping furniture or buildings.

Book Review: "Star Wars: Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide," by Ben Burtt

A few weeks ago, while re-watching "Episode I" for no good reason, I turned the subtitles on and realized how much of the dialogue for that film is in Huttese. That stream of utterances emitted by the alien characters was intended to represent a consistent, coherent langurage. With a reasonably large corpus (for a language constructed for a film) and a number of well-known, easily recognizable phrases, could it be made to function as a more full-fledged conlang?

For anyone investigating Huttese as a conlang, the Star Wars Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide is an essental reference. It is a relatively small book, published after the release of "The Phantom Menace", and certainly not a complete reference. The book is divided into two parts: a phrase book by the "in-world" persona Ebenn Q3 Baobab, and a reminisce on the sound design for the original trilogy and other films by Ben Burtt.

Ben Burtt was a sound designer for Star Wars, creating special dialogue and sound effects for the original movie and the franchise from then on. He wrote for the cartoon series "Star Wars: Droids", in which the Baobab Merchant Fleet makes its most notable appearance, and made several cameos, including Baobab Merchant Fleet leader and traveler Ebenn Q3 Baobab in "The Phantom Menace". Burtt was thus significantly responsible for much of the alien dialogue in the series.

The phrase book and travel guide is light-hearted and often very funny. The travel guide section is very brief, offering only a glimpse at bars, hotels, saunas, and other facilities in Mos Eisley on (post-Rebellion) Tatooine, as well as more general advice. The phrase book offers guidance on communicating in Bocce, Huttese, Ewok, Shyriiwook, Droidspeak, Jawa, Tusken, Gungan, and Nemoidian, as well as getting a haircut in Sallustan. The longest chapter is Huttese, followed by Ewok and Bocce; the Droidspeak and Gungan chapters are mercifully short. Bocce is briefly mentioned in the first "Star Wars" movie; it is here described as a trade language created by the Baobab Merchant Fleet. This book must be its most significant corpus.

There are some oddities in the languages; "song peetch alay" is a well-known Huttese phrase meaning "it's too late". Elsewhere, it is described as a Jawaese rallying cry (following their battle cry "Utinni!") to the Jawa band to converge upon their hapless victims. It could have easily been borrowed from one language into another, of course.

Burtt's reflections on his sound design work for the franchise is very interesting, and describes the efforts to create Greedo's dialogue and other Huttese, Chewbacca's varied utterances, and R2D2's beeps and whistles, among other sounds. Greedo's dialogue, the first appearance of Huttese, was largely improvised by linguistics gradute student Larry Ward in an imitation of Quecha; Ward later provided the voice of Jabba the Hutt.

Many of the languages of the movies were roughly inspired by the phrases and sounds of existing natural languages, as Quecha influenced early Huttese. Some of the Sallustan dialogue in "Return of the Jedi" was spoken by a Tanzanian in his native Haya language, which was comprehensible to viewers of the film in East Africa.

Burtt is not always the most artful prose stylist in the latter section, but the information he relates is certainly engaging.

The book concludes with "Selected Alien Language Scenes from Star Wars", which includes transcriptions of the Huttese dialogue from "Star Wars", and Ewok dialogue and the Ewok Celebration Song from "Return of the Jedi".

From a philological perspective, there are several important sources of Huttese in the films. "Star Wars" includes Greedo's dialogue as well as dialogue by Jabba in the Special Edition. "Return of the Jedi" includes significant dialogue in Huttese at Jabba's palace. "The Phantom Menace" also includes long passages of Huttese dialogue. "The Empire Strikes Back" offers a single Huttese phrase, uttered by a droid, and "Attack of the Clones" has a single brief dialogue in Huttese between Watto and Anakin. Huttese has also appeared in the many other games, books, and media that portray the Star Wars universe.

This book offers canonical transcriptions of significant examples of Huttese speech: all of the Huttese dialogue from "Star Wars"; isolated Huttese phrases drawn from "Return of the Jedi" and "The Phantom Menace"; and the single Huttese insult in "The Empire Strikes Back".

Much of the Huttese dialogue in the prequel trilogy was written in the script (in Huttese and translation) and is available there. However, the Huttese dialogue in "Return of the Jedi" is largely lacking a canonical transcription or translation. Notable phrases such as "bo shueda" have no translation. Nevertheless, Burtt's book does fill in some of the gaps in the "Return of the Jedi" corpus.

Clearly, Huttese is a language created to have a certain sound, without attention to lexical or grammatical consistency. Such inconsistency may make sense for a creole or patois cobbled together from dozens of alien languages and spoken by villainous scum across the galaxy. Assembling a grammar, or even a dictionary, of the language would be...challenging. But we can know and use at least some of its evocative sayings.

The Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide is a fun book for people interested in fictional languages, the speech of Star Wars, or just curious about how Chewbacca's dialogue was made. For those more specifically interested in Huttese linguistics, it is essential, and a source for online resources such as the Huttese language page on Wookiepedia and the Complete Wermo's Guide to Huttese (and other Star Wars languages).

Saturday, August 8, 2009


That's like the Paladin Store, right?

HeroMachine is a Flash visualizer for fantasy, horror, and superhero characters. I've seen it before, but for some reason tonight, I've been glued to it. There are also some other generators on the site, for zombies and pinups, as well as some older versions.

Simple pleasures.

Here is a rather goofy-looking wizard.

Everybody likes ninjas, so here is a member of the Ophidian Hand.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Temple of Thoth

There's a great tutorial over at the Cartographer's Guild on how to make an old-school map in the GIMP, which points to some resources at the Dundjinni forums. Wanting a project to exercise the tutorial, I put together this small Temple of Thoth roughly inspired by ancient Greek temples. Although open to all, the temple of Thoth is not a popular temple, dependent instead on a few donations by wealthy scholars and arcanists who make use of its research facilities. A single low-level adept, and perhaps a young acolyte, tends the grounds.

1. Portico: The building is made of shining white marble on the outside. A wide set of stairs leads up from the streetway to the porch between massive stone pillars and the outer wall of the building. A pair of large bronze-plated doors allows entry to the temple. Usually open, these doors can be shut and locked with a simple (DC 20) lock.

2. Cella: The large main room of the temple has been converted into an enormous library. Bookcases and shelving line the walls floor to ceiling, crammed with papyrii, scrolls, books, maps, statuary, archaeological artifacts, and all manner of objects of antiquarian interest. Some glass skylights in the ceiling allow daylight to trickle into this room, minimizing the need for candles or lanterns.

3. Adyton: An enormous painted bas-relief sculpture of a linen-kilted man with a blue ibis head is carved into the northern wall. This is the cult image of Thoth, a deity of knowledge, magic, writing, and scribes. A secret door well-hidden (DC 20) in the wall leads to area 4.

4. Anchorium: This long narrow room is used for storage and extremely spartan living quarters by a resident priest or anchorite. A locked door (DC 20) leads to the rear porch.

5. Opisthodomos: The rear porch is otherwise identical to area 1. Steps lead down to a simple vegetable and herb garden behind the main temple.

1 square = 5 feet.

This building has far to many columns. Four would be more appropriate.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mithlond on $5 a Day: A Brief Phraseblog of Sindarin

Mithlond, the Grey Havens, was most probably the last settlement of grey elves to remain in Middle-Earth in the Fourth Age of Tolkien's legendarium, for Círdan the Shipwright was to remain there until the last ship sailed west. It seems a fitting place to travel with a handy little phraseblog for Sindarin.

This post draws from the Sindarin corpus and Elvish (&c) dialog from the LotR movies, as well as one Sindarin phrasebook or another. There is consequently much neo-Eldarin: "Navaer", for example, appears to be a neologism derived from the attested Quenya "Namárië".

I've tried to include some useful phrases like "Death to the din-horde!", while avoiding lightning-stuck postillions.

Welcome, Well met/ Mae govannen.
Good hunting.Farad vaer.
Thank you.Hannon le.
Well done.Mae carnen.
I am ___ Im ___
Can you speak Elvish?Pelil peded edhellen?
I don’t understand.Ú-chenion
Sit down.Havo dad.
Run swiftly!Noro lim!
Look out! Tiro!
Death to the din-horde!Gurth an Glamhoth!
Vengeance comes.Tôl acharn.
How are you?Manen le?
I’m well.Im maer.
I am not well.Im úvaer.
Heal me.Nesto nin.
Release me.Leithio nin.
Save me.Edraith enni.
Forgive me.Goheno nin.
Sleep well.Losto vae.

If I had to nominate a lorem ipsum text, I'd use the first Sindarin phrase I could pick out from the movie: "Im Arwen. Telin le thaed. Lasto beth nîn, tolo dan nan galad". Or otherwise, the motto of the movie: "I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen, han mathon ne chae a han noston ned 'wilith."

Carl F. Hostetter notes in "Elvish as She Is Spoke" that Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son Christopher that “Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true. An enquirer (among many) asked what the L.R. was all about, and whether it was an 'allegory'. And I said it was an effort to create a situation in which a common greeting would be elen sila lumenn' omentielmo, and that the phrase long antedated the book." That phrase is Quenya for "A star shines on the hour of our meeting".

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Generic d20 Calendar

Some well-developed campaign worlds have a calendar. Tolkien also developed alternate calendars for Earth. These are intended to be more evocative than practical, I suspect.

The problem with timekeeping and calendar reform for Earth is that nothing matches up perfectly or in an evenly divisble way. A year is slightly less than 365.25 days, a sidereal day is about four minutes shorter than a solar day, there are 86,400 seconds in a day only on average, and we can't have a simple perpetual calendar because the Abrahamic religions have religious objections to intercalary days.

For more abstract timekeeping purposes in a game, a 364-day Generic Game Year is very similar to an Earth year, and more easily divided. The Generic Game Year has a perpetual calendar in both lunar and solar months.

The Lunar Generic Game Year is divided into 13 lunar months, each with 28 days. Each month is further subdivided into four weeks, each with seven days: Moonday, Fireday, Waterday, Treeday, Goldday, Earthday, and Sunday (as in the Japanese calendar). Moonday is the first night of the full moon, which occurs on the first Moonday, Fireday, and Waterday of the month (consequently, it's easy to tell when the lycanthropes will attack). The lunar date is given by the number of the moon. For example: "the third day of the eight moon of last year". The year begins on a Moonday, the first night of the full moon following the winter solstice.

The Solar Generic Game Year is divided into four seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall), each of which is divided into three months: Forewinter, Highwinter, Wintersaft, Forespring, Highspring, Springsaft, Foresummer, Highsummer, Summersaft, Forefall, Highfall, and Fallsaft. Each month has 30 days, except the last month in a season, which has 31 days. This extra day is of special solar significance: Wintersaft 31 is the vernal equinox; Springaft 31 is the summer solstice; Summersaft 31 is the autumnal equinox; and Fallsaft 31 (a Sunday) is the winter solstice and the end of the year. Alternatively, you could view the solar calendar as having twelve 30-day months and four intercalary days, one between each season.

This system, of course, is agnostic about the epoch for counting years, leap days, and eclipses and other astronomical events. It doesn't account for a more unusual planetary system with a double sun, extra moons, &c, but rather represents a regular Earthlike system in a simplified, abstract way.

Note also Paizo's Time on Golarion. Who wouldn't like a 360-day calendar, at least if you could pronounce the names of the months? ;)