Friday, June 24, 2011

RPGs—Kilderkin gnome

The following post is released under the OGL.

Kilderkin gnomes are an offshoot of the gnome race regarded by some as naive, innocent, and joyous, and by others as troublesome, larcenous tricksters. Less overtly magical than most of their gnome kin, they blend their brethren's immense curiosity, mischeviousness, and wanderlust with generous and kind-hearted spirit. Although commonly viewed with suspicion due to their reputation as petty thieves and shoplifters, kilderkin gnomes are not motivated by avarice; they simply cannot resist their obsession with palming and collecting small, sparkly, glittery things, and just do not understand the conventions of personal property. When confronted about their pickpocketing, they shyly return what they have taken, but learn nothing that will prevent them from lifting items in the future.

Kilderkin Gnome Racial Traits

Gnomekin: Kilderkin gnomes are humanoids with the gnome subtype.

+2 Constitution, +2 Charisma, –2 Strength: Kilderkin are physically weak but surprisingly hardy, and their attitude makes them naturally agreeable.

Small: Kilderkin are Small creatures and gain a +1 size bonus to their AC, a +1 size bonus on attack rolls, a –1 penalty to their Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense, and a +4 size bonus on Stealth checks.

Slow Speed: Kilderkin have a base speed of 20 feet.

Low-Light Vision: Kilderkin can see twice as far as humans in conditions of dim light.

Defensive Training: Kilderkin get a +4 dodge bonus to AC against monsters of the giant type.

Fearless: Kilderkin receive a +2 racial bonus on all saving throws against fear.

Gnome Magic: Gnomes add +1 to the DC of any saving throws against illusion spells that they cast. Kilderkin gnomes with a Charisma of 11 or higher also gain the following spell-like abilities: 1/day—know direction, ghost sound, detect poison, and detect secret doors. The caster level for these effects is equal to the kilderkin's level. The DC for these spells is equal to 10 + the spell's level + the kilderkin's Charisma modifier.

Infuriating: Kilderkin receive a +2 racial bonus on Charisma-based skill checks to taunt, insult, or irritate others, or otherwise make others more hostile.

Keen Senses: Kilderkin receive a +2 racial bonus on Perception skill checks.

Light-fingered: Kilderkin receive a +2 racial bonus on Sleight of Hand skill checks.

Weapon Familiarity: Kilderkin gnomes treat any weapon with the word “gnome” in its name as a martial weapon.

Languages: Kilderkin begin play speaking Common and Gnome. Kilderkin with high Intelligence scores can choose from the following: Draconic, Dwarven, Elven, Giant, Goblin, Orc, and Sylvan.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"Tomatoland" & slavery

Here's an excerpt of Barry Estabrook's book Tomatoland:
Today's industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fresh tomatoes today have 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than they did in the 1960s.

The best way to experience true tomato taste is to grow your own. Little wonder that tomatoes are by far the most popular vegetable for home gardeners, found in nearly nine out of 10 backyard plots. ...Not everyone can grow a garden or head out to a neighborhood farmers' market in search of the ideal tomato. But we all have an alternative to the sad offerings of commercial agriculture.

...Florida's tomato fields provide a stark example of what a food system looks like when all elements of sustainability are violated. ...If it were left up to the laws of botany and nature, Florida would be one of the last places in the world where tomatoes grow.

...Florida tomato workers, mostly Hispanic migrants, toil without union protection and get neither overtime, benefits, nor medical insurance. They are denied basic legal rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy. ...And conditions are even worse for some in Florida's tomato industry. In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida's tomato fields are "ground zero for modern-day slavery." ...Workers were "sold" to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn't work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse. Even though police have successfully prosecuted seven major slavery cases in the state in the last 15 years, those brought to justice were low-ranking contract field managers, themselves only one or two shaky rungs up the economic ladder from those they enslaved. The wealthy owners of the vast farms walked away scot-free. They expressed no public regrets, let alone outrage, that such conditions existed on operations they controlled. But we all share the blame. When I asked Molloy if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in the winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. "It's not an assumption. It is a fact."
But RTWT. Here's another excerpt, a review or two, and an interview. The book is an expansion of Eastabrook's March 2009 "Gourmet" article The Price of Tomatoes, which describes the case of one worker who was forced into debt slavery. There Eastabrook offers this advice on buying slave-free fruits:
In the warm months, the best solution is to follow that old mantra: buy seasonal, local, and small-scale. But what about in winter? So far, Whole Foods is the only grocery chain that has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, which means that it has promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses and, when buying tomatoes, to a pay a price that supports a living wage. When shopping elsewhere, you can take advantage of the fact that fruits and vegetables must be labeled with their country of origin. Most of the fresh tomatoes in supermarkets during winter months come from Florida, where labor conditions are dismal for field workers, or from Mexico, where they are worse, according to a CIW spokesman. One option during these months is to buy locally produced hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes, including cluster tomatoes still attached to the vine. Greenhouse tomatoes are also imported from Mexico, however, so check signage or consult the little stickers often seen on the fruits themselves to determine their source. You can also visit the CIW’s information-packed website ( if you are interested in becoming part of the coalition’s efforts.
Here's CIW's anti-slavery campaign. CIW is probably most famous here in Louisville for the pressure on Yum! and Taco Bell a few years ago. I vaguely recall the "Gourmet" story, too; I guess this is something that has been dancing around my consciousness for a while, but Eastabrooks dials it up. Perhaps it's because the tomato issue is usually framed in terms of wage negotiations, but Eastabrook discusses it in terms of human slavery. A review: "(Says Estabrook: 'If you have ever eaten a tomato during the winter months, you have eaten a fruit picked by a slave.')"

The 2003 New Yorker story Nobodies covering the investigation and trial of several slavers. This is an old story, writes David von Drehle:
On the day after Thanksgiving, 1960, legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow took millions of Americans into the tomato fields of Florida via the landmark CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame.” He began by quoting a farmer who said, “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.” And he ended with the idea that an outraged public might press for meaningful laws to protect the migrant workers “who harvest your fruits and vegetables.”

More than half a century later, journalist Barry Estabrook has returned to those fields and reports that things are no better...

When I was a young reporter at The Miami Herald in the 1980s, we wrote exposes from Immokalee and Clewiston and other hubs of South Florida agriculture. The generation before us had written those same pieces, and the generation before them, too. Anyone who believes that journalists have great power to should try reading everything that has been written on this sad subject, going back to Ernie Pyle’s 1940 visit, when he observed “pigpens filled with humans” in the “Florida version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ ”

But Estabrook bears witness again, and tells the story well. ...he taught me a lot—not just about farmer’s markets and heirloom tomatoes. I learned that even in the most soulless supermarket you can find better-tasting tomatoes grown in appropriate climates. You just have to look in the canned vegetables aisle.

Yes, canned tomatoes are superior to the smooth, red orbs in the produce section. They’re grown in the suitably dry air of California and allowed to ripen before they are picked and processed.
Mark Bittman concurs on The True Cost of Tomatoes:
The tomato fields of Immokalee are vast and surreal. An unplanted field looks like a lousy beach: the “soil,” which is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water. To grow tomatoes there requires mind-boggling amounts of fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides (on roughly the same acreage of tomatoes, Florida uses about eight times as many chemicals as California). The tomatoes are, in effect, grown hydroponically, and the sand seems useful mostly as a medium for holding stakes in place.

...The breakthrough for the CIW came in 2005, when after enormous consumer pressure Yum! Brands, which controls Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, signed the agreement. (And you know what? Good for them.) Since then, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, the country’s largest food service operators (Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group) and Whole Foods have signed as well.

Progress, clearly. What’s missing are traditional supermarket chains, and the CIW has targeted — largely for geographical reasons — Ahold (the parent company of Stop & Shop and Giant); Publix (the dominant chain in Florida); Kroger (next to Wal-Mart the biggest food retailer in the country); and Trader Joe’s...).

Most of us eat or buy industrially produced tomatoes, and it doesn’t seem too much to ask that the people who pick them for us be treated a little more fairly. Speak to your supermarket manager or write to the head of the chain you patronize (the easiest way to do this is to visit this page on the CIW site). Supermarkets, I expect, are as susceptible to public pressure as fast-food chains.
Our back yard is really shady, and so gardening didn't work out last year; I had been thinking of waiting until next year to put in new garden beds in a sunnier spot. It's really late in the season, but I went ahead and planted three tomato plants yesterday.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book Snippets: "Battle Cry of Freedom" - Political parties

In a couple of my posts here on electoral reform, I've referred to some contemporary dissatisfactions about political parties. That contemporary parties do not represent a pure (or even coherent) ideological position, but rather a mishmash of ideas that can be manipulated or exploited by elites, corrupt elements, or the powers that be.

James M. McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford UP, 1988) has an interesting (if somewhat orthogonal passage) on the role of political parties in the Union and Confederacy:
Formal political parties did not exist in the Confederacy. This state of affairs arose from two main causes: the erosion of the two-party system in the 1850s and the perceived need for a unified front during the emergencies of secession and war. Southerners considered this circumstance a source of strength. ...But in fact, as historians now recognize, the absence of parties was actually a source of weakness. In the North the two-party system disciplined and channeled political activity. The Republican party became the means for mobilizing war resources, raising taces, creating a new financial system, initiating emancipation, and enacting conscription. Democrats opposed most of these measures; the existence of this well-defined opposition caused Republicans to close ranks when the chips were down. Because measures were supported or opposed by parties, voters could identify those responsible for them and register their approval or disapproval at the polls by voting a party ticket. Both parties, of course, used their well-oiled machinery to rally voters to their side. In the Confederacy, by contrast, the Davis administration had no such means to mobilize support. No parties meant no institutionalized discipline over congressmen or governors. Davis could not invoke party loyalty and patronage in behalf of his policies, as Lincoln could. Opposition to the Davis administration became personal or factional and therefore difficult to deal with.

In the North, where nearly all state governors were Republicans, the ties of party bound them to the war effort. In the South the obstructionist activities of several governors hindered the centralized war effort because the centrifugal tendencies of state's rights were not restrained by the centripetal force of party. The Confederate Constitution limited the president to a single six-year term, so Davis had little reason to create a party organization for re-election. Such government policies as conscription, impressment, the tax in kind, and management of finances were the main issues in the congressional elections of 1863. Opposition candidates ran on an individual rather than a party basis, and the government could not muster political artillery to shoot at all these scattered targets. (689-690)
This implies that the main function of the party system is not to represent coherent ideological positions, but rather to focus support for or opposition to the governing party. And indeed, even aside from Duverger's law, it seems to me that the main distinction between the parties is governing vs. opposition. The two contemporary parties have a governing form and an opposition form that contrast with each other, which helps explains Jane's Law: "The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane."

Following the Civil War, the Republican Party was the leading governing party in the North (while the Democratic Party was the main opposition party there), while the Democratic Party was the leading governing party in the South (while the Republican Party was the main opposition party there. The Democratic Party was a famously Southern agent of Jim Crow and white supremacism until the 1960s. But as for the contemporary parties, it's almost as if the old governing-party form of each withered away and disappeared, leaving the opposition-party form as the new governing party in each section. For whatever sectionalism remains, the Democratic Party has become the leading governing party in the northeastern United States, while the Republican Party has become the leading governing party in the southeastern United States.

Book Snippets: "Battle Cry of Freedom" - Musket to rifle

James M. McPherson explains, in "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford UP, 1988), that the shift from musket to rifle just before the American Civil War caused a shift from offensive infantry charges with bayonet to defensive tactics. "The rifle and trench ruled Civil War battlefields as thoroughly as the machine-gun and trench ruled those of World War I," he says (477). In one battle later in the war, a defensive line of three trenches crawling with riflemen achieved a rate of fire on charging troops nearly equivalent to machine-gun fire, and Lee's army met its eventual defeat in the grueling trench warfare around Petersburg, Virginia. McPherson:
One reason for the high casualties of Civil War battles was the disparity between traditional tactics and modern weapons. The tactical legacy of eighteenth-century and Napoleonic warfare had emphasized close-order formations of soldiers trained to maneuver in concert and fire by volleys. To be sure, some of the citizen-soldiers of the American Revolution fought Indian-style from behind trees or rocks, and the half-trained levée en masse of the French Revolution advanced in loose order like "clouds of skirmishers." But they did so mainly because they lacked training and discipline; the ideal for Washington's Continentals and Napoleon's veterans as well as Frederick's Prussians and Wellington's redcoats remained the compact, cohesive columns and lines of automatons who moved and fired with machine-like efficiency.

These tactics also stressed the offensive. Assault troops advanced with cadenced step, firing volleys on command and then double-timing the last few yards to pierce the enemy line with bayonet charge. Napoleon used his artillery in conjunction with infantry assaults, moving the field guns forward with the foot soldiers to blast holes in enemy ranks and soften them up for the final charge. Americans used these tactics with great success in the Mexican War. West Point teaching stressed the tactical offensive. Most of the top Civil War officers had fought in Mexico and/or had attended West Point; from both experiences they had absorbed the message that the tactical offensive based on close-order infantry assaults supported by artillery won battles.

In Mexico this happened without high casualties because the basic infantry weapons was the single-shot muzzle-loading smoothbore musket. The maximum range of this weapon was about 250 yards; its effective range (the distance at which a good marksman could hit a target with any regularity) was about eighty yards on a still day. The close-order formation was therefore necessary to concentrate the firepower of these inaccurate weapons; artillery could accompany charging infantry because cannoneers were relatively safe from enemy musket fire until they came within a couple of hundred yards or less; bayonet charges could succeed because double-timing infantry could cover the last eighty yards during the twenty-five seconds it took defending infantrymen to reload their muskets after firing a volley.

Rifling a musket increased its range fourfold by imparting a spin to a conical bullet that enabled it literally to bore through the air. This fact had been known for centuries, but before the 1850s only special regiments or one or two companies per regiment were equipped with rifles. These companies were used as skirmishers—that is, they operated in front and on the flanks of the main body, advancing or withdrawing in loose order and shooting at will from long range at enemy targets of opportunity. Given the rifle's greater range and accuracy, why were not all infantrymen equipped with it? Because a bullet large enough to "take" the rifling was difficult to ram down the barrel. Riflemen sometimes had to pound the ramrod down with a mallet. After a rifle had been fired a few times a residue of powder built up in the grooves and had to be cleaned out before it could be fired again. Since rapid and reliable firing was essential in battle, the rifle was not practicable for the mass of infantrymen.

Until the 1850s, that is. Although several people contributed to the development of a practicable military rifle, the main credit belongs to French army Captain Claude E. Minié and to the American James M. Burton, an armorer at the Harper's Ferry Armory. In 1848 Minié perfected a bullet small enoguh to be easily rammed down a rifled barrel, with a wooden plug in the base of the bullet to expand it upon firing to take the rifling. Such bullets were expensive; Burton developed a cheaper and better bullet with a deep cavity in the base that filled with gas and expanded the rim upon firing. This was the famous "minié ball" of Civil War rifles. The superiority of the rifle was demonstrated by British and French soldiers who carried them in the Crimean War. As Secretary of War in 1855, Jefferson Davis converted the United States army to the .58 caliber Springfield rifled musket. Along with the similar British Enfield rifle (caliber .577, which would take the same bullet as the Springfield, the Springfield became the main infantry arm of the Civil War.

...Northern industry geared up to manufacture more than two million rifles during the war; unable to produce more than a fraction of this total, the South relied mainly on imports through the blockade and on capture of Union rifles. In 1861 neither side had many rifles, so most solidiers carried old smoothbores taken from storage in arsenals. During 1862, most Union regiments received new Springfields or Enfields, while many Confederate units still had to rely on smoothbores. ...By 1863 nearly all infantrymen on both sides carried rifles.

The transition from smoothbore to rifle had two main effects: it multiplied casualties; and it strengthened the tactical defensive. Officers trained and experienced in the old tactics were slow to recognize these changes. Time and again generals on both sides ordered close-order assaults in the traditional formation. With an effective range of three or four hundred yards, defenders firing rifles decimated these attacks.Artillery declined in importance as an offensive weapon, because its accuracy and the reliability of shells at long range was poor, and the gund could no longer advance with the infantry toward enemy lines, for marksmen could pick off cannoneers and especially the horses at distances up to half a mile. Sharpshooters also singled out enemy officers, which helps to explain why officers and especially generals had higher casualty rates than privates. ...The old-fashioned cavalry charge against infantry, already obsolescent, became obsolete in the face of rifles that could knock down horses long before their riders got within saber or pistol range. The Civil War hastened the evolution of dismounted cavalry tactics in which the horse was mainly a means of transportation rather than a weapon in its own right. (472-475)

Book Snippets: "Battle Cry of Freedom" - American Industrialization

As noted before, James M. McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford UP, 1988) is a fantastic book. And a great deal of its value derives from McPherson's excellent, well-crafted prose. Later in the book, McPherson briefly describes dozens of battles with great clarity and freshness and remarkably little repetition. He's able to succintly and evocatively summarize complex trends in a page or two, or overview a debated topic simply.

For example, McPherson describes the momentous "transportation revolution" of the first half of the 19th century, which began with overland travel limited to muddy wagon tracks and rivers, followed by a massive network of railroads and canals enabling fast shipping from the western frontier to the coast. Communication that had been limited to the postal service and couriers on horseback was revolutionized by a telegraph network that allowed the instantaneous nationwide communication of prices, allowing price disparities in distant parts of the country to by arbitraged away by traders. So...
The transportation revolution refashioned the economy. As late as 1815, Americans produced on their farms or in their homes most of the things they consumed, used, or wore. Most clothing was sewn by mothers and daughters, made from cloth that in many cases they had spun and woven themselves by the light of candles they had dipped or by natural light coming in through windows in houses built of local materials from a nearby sawmill or brickyard by local carpenters or masons or by the male members of the household. Shoes were made by members of the family or by the village cordwainer from leather cured at a local tannery. Blacksmiths forged the tools and farm implements used in the community. Even firearms were built with handicraft skill and pride by a nearby craftsman. In larger towns and cities, master tailors or shoemakers or cabinetmakers or wheelwrights presided over small shops where they worked with a few journeymen and an apprentice or two who turned out fine custom or "bespoke" goods for wealthier purchasers. In an age of slow and expensive overland transport, few of these items were sold more than twenty miles from where they were made.

This pre-industrial world could not survive the transportation revolution, which made possible a division of labor and specialization of production for ever larger and more distant markets. More and more farmers specialized in crops for which their soil and climate were most suitable. With all the cash from sale of these crops they bought food and clothing and hardware previously made locally or by themselves but now grown, processed, or manufactured elsewhere and shipped in by canal or rail. To sow and reap these specialized crops, farmers bought newly invented seed drills, cultivators, mowers, and reapers that burgeoning farm machinery industry turned out in ever-increasing numbers.

In towns and cities, entrepreneurs who became known as "merchant capitalists" or "industrialists" reorganized or standardized the production of a variety of goods for large-volume sale in regional and eventually national markets. Some of these new entrepreneurs came from the ranks of master craftsmen who now planned and directed the work of employees to whom they paid wages by the day or by the piece instead of sharing with the work of fabricating a product and the proceeds of its sale. Other merchant capitalists and industrialists had little or not prior connection with the "trade" (shoemaking, tailoring, etc.). They were businessmen who provided capital and organizing skills to restructure an enterprise in a more efficient manner. This restructuring took various forms, but had one dominant feature in common: The process of making a product (shoes or furniture, for example), which had previously been performed by one or a few skilled craftsmen, was broken down into numerous steps each requiring limited skills and performed by a separate worker. Sometimes the worker did his task with hand tools, but increasingly with the aid of power-driven machinery.

...Whatever the precise mixture of power machinery and hand tools, of central shop and putting out, the main characteristics of production were division and specialization of labor, standardization of product, greater discipline of the labor force, improved efficiency, higher volume, and lower costs. These factors reduced wholesale commodity prices by 45 percent from 1815 to 1860. During the same years consumer prices declined even more, by an estimated 50 percent.

By 1860 the nascent outline of the modern American economy of mass consumption, mass production, and capital-intensive agriculture was visible. Its development had been uneven across different regions and industries. It was far from complete even in the most advanced sections of the country like New England, where many village blacksmiths and old-time shoemakers could still be found. On the frontier west of the Mississippi and on many internal frontiers in the older sections where the transportation revolution had not yet penetrated–the upland and piney woods regions of the South, for example, or the forests of Maine and the Adirondacks–it had scarcely begun. Many Americans still lived in a nearly self-sufficient handicraft, premarket economy not much different from what their grandparents had known. But the advanced sectors of the economy had already given the United States the world's highest standard of living and the second-highest industrial output, closing in fast on their British counsins despite the latter's half-century head start in the industrial revolution. (13-15)
Several explanations have been proposed for the unique, capital-intensive, mechanized pattern of development in the United States, McPherson explains: the scarcity of labor, which made laborers open to invention and mechanization, the sheer wealth of capital available in the form of natural resources, and high levels of education. (17-18)

Later, McPherson notes that the "South's defensive-aggressive temper in the 1850s stemmed in part from a sense of economic subordination to the North", since the North's economy appeared to be developing much faster than the South's (91):
Contemporaries and historians have advanced several explanations for this "failure of industrialization in the slave economy," as the subtitle of a recent study has termed it. ...Other accounts of southern industrialization have focused not on deficiencies of labor or of demand but on a lack of capital. Capital was abundant in the South, to be sure: in 1860, according to the census measure of wealth (real and personal property), the average southern white male was nearly twice as wealthy as the average northern white man. The problem was that most of this wealth was invested in land and slaves. ...A northerner described the investment cycle of the Southern economy: "To sell cotton in order to buy negroes–to make more cotton to buy more negroes, 'ad infinitum,' is the aim and direct tendency of all operations of the thorough going cotton planter." (95-97)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and atlatls

Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" was a great movie. It seemed like the first time that I really got my money's worth for a 3D movie.1 All these summer action movies that are using 3D favor wide open, expansive shots, perhaps to give it an "epic" feel. But since strong foreground/background contrast is rare, most of the 3D effect manifests itself as brief gimmicky-seeming shots where a spear seems to swing out toward the audience. "Cave", by contrast, depicts an enclosed space, where there is always strong contrast between foreground and background, so the 3D effect is quite pronounced; at times it seems like you're looking into a box.

And it is used to good effect. The Neolithic art in the cave was not painted on a flat surface, but undulating walls, curved stalactites, and rock curtains. The 3D effect provides a lot of useful visual information about how the art fits into the cave. And it's amazing, as light and shadow play over the space: in one scene, we can see a painting of a rhinoceros on the far wall. Nearer to the viewer, a sheet of rock juts out, on which is painted a pair of lions: it looks as if we are witnessing the lions sneak up on the rhinoceros from behind the cover of stone.

In the end, 3D does seem gimmicky, even though it's used well in this film. Film remains a two-dimensional medium, and the 3D effect is a visual trick: by the end of the movie, the effect became so disorienting that I had to take my glasses off and look away for a moment to readjust.

Herzog finds some really wonderfully nerdy people, like the experimental archaeologist and the fragrance expert. I do wish there was more atlatl: they are awesome. An atlatl dart is like a precursor to the bow and arrow, in which the energy stored and released in the flexing bow is instead stored and released in the flexing atlatl missile. IIRC, the atlatl dart in flight has a somewhat lower velocity than an arrow, but a much greater mass, so an atlatl dart can have greater penetration of the target. While atlatl darts may be better against large game, it's easier to carry numerous arrows than the larger darts. Fortunately the World Atlatl Association has some members across the river from Louisville.

MAKE also has a weekend project video on making atlatls, and YouTube has some videos of successful hunts with them of emu, bison, and hog.

1. I also enjoyed "Coraline", but the 3D there also seemed like a more gimmicky use of the effect.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bilingualism, brain health, and mental training

In America, we live in one of the few countries where most of the population is exclusively monolingual. Bilingualism and multilingualism are more the human norm. Jared Diamond writes, in The Benefits of Multilingualism (Science, 330:6002 (15 October 2010), 332-333.):
Multilingualism—the ability to understand and speak several languages—is exceptional in the United States but common elsewhere, especially in small-scale traditional societies. For instance, once while I was camped with some New Guinea Highlanders conversing simultaneously in several local languages, I asked each man to name each language in which he could converse. It turned out that everyone present spoke at least 5 languages, and the champion was a man who spoke 15. What are the cognitive effects of such multilingualism? Recent studies (1–5) show that children raised bilingually develop a specific type of cognitive benefit during infancy, and that bilingualism offers some protection against symptoms of Alzheimer's dementia in old people.

...Our minds are assaulted by varied sights, sounds, and other external sensory inputs, plus thoughts and proprioreceptive sensations (which make us aware of the relative positions of our own body parts) (see the figure). To succeed in doing anything at all, we must temporarily inhibit 99% of those inputs and attend to just 1% of them, and the appropriate choice varies with the circumstances. That selective attention involves a set of processes, termed executive function, that reside in the prefrontal cortex and develop especially over the first 5 years of life.

Multilingual people have a special challenge involving executive function. Monolinguals hearing a word need only compare it with their single stock of arbitrary phoneme (sound) and meaning rules, and when uttering a word they draw it from that single stock. ...Multilinguals participating in a multilingual conversation...switch frequently and unpredictably between their stocks of phoneme/meaning rules. As a result, multilinguals have constant unconscious practice in using the executive function system.
Such pervasive multilingualism can cause enormous cross-pollination and "covergent evolution" in languages. Bill Foley says, in More on Papuan Languages:
Somewhere close to a quarter of the total of the world's languages are spoken in the New Guinea region-about 1100 languages. ...The small size of many Papuan speaking speech communities has often led to persistent multilingualism in the language of adjoining communities, the development of trade jargons for interlanguage communication or the shifting of language allegiance to languages of more powerful or economically advantaged neighbours. In such a complex, fragmented linguistic situation, Papuan languages not unexpectedly exhibit a pattern of enormous cross-influence in all areas. All types of linguistic features, basic vocabulary, pronouns, grammatical patterns, discourse styles can be and have been borrowed from one language into another. This makes the establishment of genetic links among Papuan languages doubly difficult: with no documentation for the vast majority of them older than 50 years, it is problematic indeed to sift what is true genetically inherited material from what is borrowed from other languages, especially borrowing from genetically related contiguous languages or borrowings centuries old from now deceased languages.
Diamond cites the research of Ellen Bialystok; LanguageLog and languagehat point us to The Bilingual Advantage, a Q&A with Bialystok at the NYT:
Q. One of your most startling recent findings is that bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. How did you come to learn this?

We did two kinds of studies. In the first, published in 2004, we found that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals. Bilingual older adults performed better than monolingual older adults on executive control tasks. That was very impressive because it didn’t have to be that way. It could have turned out that everybody just lost function equally as they got older.

That evidence made us look at people who didn’t have normal cognitive function. In our next studies , we looked at the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients. On average, the bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language. This didn’t mean that the bilinguals didn’t have Alzheimer’s. It meant that as the disease took root in their brains, they were able to continue functioning at a higher level. They could cope with the disease for longer.
Which reminds me somewhat of the Gizmodo post How to Make Yourself Smarter in 20 Days, which highlights the use of n-back mental training exercises for 20 minutes a day for 20 days to increase fluid intelligence for three months. Not that I've tried it, but Brain Workshop vaguely reminds me of electronic flashcards and spaced repetition software like Anki, for memorization. Executive control, fluid intelligence, and vocabulary memorization are all very different, but it seems like 20 minutes a day of abstract memory practice would get pretty boring, and something language-related may be more interesting.

Brain Calisthenics for Abstract Ideas (NYT)

Conlanging is a great excuse to not write

Conlanging is perhaps the best excuse ever invented for NOT writing. Many of the people attracted to this hobby are science fiction or fantasy writers or other people who have reason to invent a detailed, verisimilistic fantasy world. Language can contribute to that in powerful ways; creating and using a coherent naming language or some phrases can help evoke a sense that the author is describing a dynamic, existant, alien world.

But it's very easy to go way overboard with this. Many writers spend as much or more time seeking excuses to avoid writing, because writing is hard. It's an inclination perfectly skewered by Merlin Mann's parody of distraction-free writing environments (via forkbombr via DF):
While some so-called environments that are less free of distraction may display one, three, or even more lines of text—all at the same time—we understand that if you could only achieve the theoretical removal of all theoretical distractions, you would finally be able to write something. And we want ū— to help you almost do that.

...We also understand that the only way to truly remove an unproductive distraction is to replace it with potentially dozens of more highly productive distractions.

That’s why ū— provides the theoretically serious writer with an incomparably powerful range of options, preferences, and customizations that can literally be tweaked forever without writing a single word—let alone half a character.

Conlanging may be similar to this kind of trap: A language is such a complicated thing that you can fiddle with how it handles voice, aspect, and morphology forever, rather than making a decision and going with it. Which is the perfect excuse not to spend the time working on plot, character, or dialogue.

Nonetheless, I certainly do wish that many more writers would pay more attention to the quality of their linguistic writing. Coherent naming languages would be an enormous improvement over the standard practice in science fiction of presenting gobbledygook as language (as Huttese) or sprinkling words with apostrophes, Qs, and Xs in order to exoticize weak linguistic writing (as Punctuation Shaker). The recent introduction of conlanging to film is a good step in this direction, be it neo-Sindarin or Na'vi.

Or David J. Petersen's Dothraki, created for the HBO tv adaptation of novelist and executive producer George R.R. Martin's "A Game of Thrones". I wasn't impressed by the quality of the linguistic writing on the show at first; the names were mostly warmed-over, exoticized English. When the first words of Dothraki dialogue was spoken, I was amazed because the sophistication of the linguistic writing there was so much higher than the rest of the show. And so it didn't surprise me to learn that the producers had hired someone besides Martin to write the Dothraki language and dialogue.

But it helps demonstrate how different these types of writing are: solid linguistic writing, as in a good naming language, is good for a fantasist. But conlanging is a more specialized, time-consuming, (and non-remunerative) type of artistic writing.