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.