Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Votes are worth something

So, contra the argument that voting is meaningless, it's pretty easy to tell that an individual vote is worth something. And that's because corrupt candidates are willing to pay for them: electoral fraud is very rare these days, but vote buying is one of the most common kinds. The market price of a vote is something like $10-20 ( WaPo). "Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it". Twenty bucks is like a typical individual campaign donation, or a couple hours of work. It's not the influence of Sheldon Adelson, but it's not nothing.

For comparison, just over 125 million Americans voted in 2008, which at $20/vote would be $2.5 billion, which sounds about right to me. There was about $2.6 billion spent on political advertising in 2008 all told (NYT)—near on half a billion dollars directly by the Obama and McCain campaigns.

TL/DR: if individual votes didn't matter, nobody would ever pay cash money to get them.

Friday, August 3, 2012

My new project to learn the kanji

So, I've been using SRS with Anki to study languages since late 2009, almost three years. Mostly with Japanese, but French and other languages as well. It's been interesting.

I got suckered into the sentence-mining AJATT championed then, but apparently that site has abandoned that method in favor of something called "MCDs" or whatever. Sentence mining is interesting, but it's fairly labor-intensive to make new cards, which tends to lead to wide variation in study times. I think it's helped some with my particle use, but it's too hard for the reward I get.

I suspect that the best way to use Anki is to focus exclusively on reading comprehension, whether it's comprehension of the kanji or vocab more generally. Furthermore, I think it's best to use Anki to build on existing body of knowledge, rather than begin by introducing a whole new body of knowledge. And to introduce things slowly, rather than blasting through dozens of new flashcards a day.

So August 1, I started a new project to simply recognize individual kanji with basic definitions and meanings (in Japanese, not Heisig's method). I'll work up a deck and simply introduce 3 new kanji every day, including the 300-400 I already know. If I do three a day for a year, I'd be able to recognize 1000 or so by the end of next summer.

Rather than using the order of the kyōiku kanji, in which Japanese children learn them, or by levels on the JLPT, I'm crafting a more idiosyncratic order: first, all kanji by stroke count, up to six strokes; then, the rest of the kanji used as radicals (which can have up to 13 strokes). After that, it's either more kanji by stroke count or instead kanji by frequency of use. The Japanese Wikipedia Kanji Frequency List, discussed further in this thread, is a fascinating resource: 173 kanji make up 50% all kanji in Wikipedia, 454 kanji cover 75% of all kanji, and 874 kanji cover 90%. Here's a list of the 2,500 most common kanji in Japanese newspapers, used by jisho.org.

I've wanted to put together a learner's semantic dictionary of kanji compounds, which gives examples of kanji compound words in each entry that contain only kanji prviously introduced. But that's a huge amount of work, a years-long project, and I'd never get started if I waited to do that. =/

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Typesetting Klingon in blackletter

Klingon has a famously terrible-looking Romanization. The language has sounds that are very difficult to represent in the Latin script, developed at a time before Unicode became ubiquitous. It uses the
Latin alphabet idiosyncratically, using capital letters to help remind readers that the sound the letter represents is probably not what they expect from the conventional English reading. So we get this, here set in Arial Unicode MS.

I'm also very suspicious of the pIqad scripts, which look like something created by a graphic designer who never had to actually write the language down. The graphemes for <q> and <Q> in particular look awfully similar.

However, the banner for Qo'noS QonoS, looks really good in a blackletter face. Perhaps Klingon
just has a font problem: isn't this better, in Unifraktur Cook?

It may be as affected as the heavy-metal umlaut, but I think there's more to it. Klingon uses both capital and lower-case H, although the latter is only used in the digraphs and . In many blackletter typefaces, the lower-case and capital H have the same basic shape, so the capital letter is less aberrant and jarring at the end or middle of a word. Blackletter faces often have a high x-height relative to the cap height, so the odd capital letters stand out a little less. Lastly, this typeface makes a very clear distinction between lower-case L and capital I, making more legible the last phrase, lIghoH "He disputes y'all". It can be a subtle distinction in many sans-serif or even serif faces. Besides, it certainly seems like Klingons would make free use of heavy-metal umlauts.

Libre blackletter fonts are not in great supply; Dieter Steffman made some gratis ones, but for Web typography the likeliest choice is the Unifraktur faces, available in Google Web Fonts.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How hard is learning Klingon?

...by which I mean not "how hard it is to pronounce" (challenging) or "how hard/complex the grammar is" (varies, for a conlang), but something more on the order of "how much language there is to learn"?

So I did a quick analysis of The Klingon Dictionary. The heart of the Klingon language is in the morphology, the system of affixes that derive and inflect the root words of the language. As for the affixes, there are 21 noun suffixes that fit into five slots, 32-35 pronominal verb prefixes, and 31 verb suffixes that fit into nine slots. Almost half of the total suffixes mark person in some way. Additionally, the grammatical sketch introduces seven dozen or so roots, almost a dozen stand-alone pronouns, a dozen or so numbers (as well as two suffixes for numbers), almost a dozen conjunctions, a half-dozen question words, and three dozen or so adverbials and exclamations. So you could probably fit a very solid working knowledge of Klingon onto about 230 flash cards. That's large but manageable.

As for the dictionary, I estimate that there are about 1,460 words in the Klingon-English section. With the morphology, that's a lot of expressive power, although the vocabulary intentionally doesn't cover a lot of semantic space.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Retrospective: Dungeon #64 (Sept/Oct 1997)

Spoiler alert! Of course, 15 years is well past the spoiler statute of limitations.

These were some pretty memorable adventures; after all these years I remembered a little about all of them, although perhaps more about the scene at Lathtarl's Lantern than the actual adventure it's in.

"Grotto of the Queen", by Paul and Shari Culotta (AD&D Forgotten Realms, Levels 6-9): The ambush of a rival adventuring party offers the PCs an opening to raid the submerged temple of the evil sea goddess Umberlee. The hook into this adventure is fairly contrived, requiring a fair amount of DM engineering: the adventurers are approached by a Lantanese emissary, to recover a magical boat taken by the cult of Umberlee. The party's nemesis (a 14th-level wizard with nothing better to do than follow the party and engineer some scrapes for them) warns the cult of their attack, and the cult prepares an ambush, which is instead triggered by a rival adventuring party. Alternatively, the author suggests that the cult of Umberlee has an effective spy network, which seems like a much simpler backstory.

Either way, the adventurers travel in an advanced Lantanese ship to a pirate enclave of Lathtarl's Lantern, on the Sword Coast between Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep. This is a neat little evil pirate town: it has a huge tavern full of dozens of pirates and outlaws, along with a couple of gnolls, ogres, and half-orcs, all drinking and carousing. There's a high likelihood that adventurers will get into a barroom brawl, ending in a boxing match before a shouting, leering crowd. Most of the residents are followers of Umberlee, so the adventurers should use some sublety in town. The grotto itself is a well-conceived dungeon, built by terrestrial worshippers of an evil sea goddess. The moderately-sized complex opens with some traps, some of which have been triggered, and can catch the temple unawares. Which is good: the final encounter should be very challenging, with a sea priestess who uses the environment of the confined, flooded temple to good advantage.

I don't like the plot of this adventure, but the actual setting and dungeon are pretty great. With some modest re-skinning, it would be an excellent addition to a campaign involving grim pirates who follow evil sea gods or demons.

"Bzallin's Blacksphere", by Christopher Perkins (AD&D, Levels 12-15): In the town of Horizon, a sphere of annihilation is growing and threatening to destroy the community. The town's wizard-protector Amazzer (Wiz17) believes that his predecessor Bzallin is responsible for this. So the adventurers travel to Bzallin's ruined keep and destroy its guardians (a hibernating necromancer and some powerful undead), then travel from there to the lich Bzallin's lair: a pocket demiplane suspended within the quasielemental plane of Vacuum. It's not a tesseract, but the geometry of Bzallin's Cube is interesting enough to temporarily confound mappers. This demiplane is full of Bzallin's apprentices (themselves fairly powerful wizards), his demonic and daemonic servitors, and a number of magical traps and wards. There's many of the delicious trimmings you would expect of a high-level lich's lair, making use of a wide range of evocative higher-level spells. This is a high-level, high-magic romp, and the author is probably right in suggesting that the DM refer extensively to all volumes of the Encyclopedia Magica. There's probably about two to three dozen encounters, ranging from Bzallin's apprentices (who are mostly around 10th-level wizards) to the lich himself, a near-epic-level enounter.

One thing that's apparent about the suggested level of these adventures, generally speaking, is that an average-sized party needs to be near the high end of the level spread, not the low end. A 6th-level party in "Grotto of the Queen" will probably get killed, while a 12th-level party in "Bzallin's Blacksphere" is very badly outclassed by the big bad. Anyway, I love wizards and liches, and "Bzallin's Blacksphere" is definitely my favorite from this issue.

"Last Dance", by Jeff Crook (AD&D Ravenloft, Levels 4-6): In the city of Pont-à-Museau in the domain of Richemulot, the adventurers are hired by Madame Araby Tuvache, a psychopath, to clear out her basement of rats. In fact, she plans to trap them inside and kill them with her clockwork house of marionette horrors. The plot is simple and the dungeon doesn't seem all that dangerous, but this adventure is certainly gruesome. The PCs are not really expected to defeat the villain—if they kill her, the Dark Powers of Ravenloft transform her into an even worse creature, a Greater Animator running a haunted house—but merely to explore the environment and make it out alive. I'm not sure why the heroes don't just burn the place down from the get-go. This may be short enough to finish in a single session.

"The Mad Chefs of Lac Anchois", by Jennifer Tittle Stack (AD&D, Levels 6-9): So, Pol and Prue Dhomme, a pair of Francophone cloud giant restauranteurs have captured some grippli young (instead of giant frogs) to butcher and serve for some giantish food critics that will visit their establishment, Chez Grands Frères, in three days. The grippli tribe mother asks some adventurers to intervene and rescue the children, and why not? How PCs approach this problem is fairly open-ended: they can try stealth, role-playing, deceit, negotiation, or even a direct frontal assault. The restaurant has several kobold waitresses (Francine, Chapponage, and Amortisseuse) to serve human-sized customers, although getting past the half-ogre mage wine steward Brummel and into the kitchen will be a challenge. If the adventurers attack the chefs, they may battle a dough golem or suffer the effects of their dreaded spoon of transmuting flesh to roquefort. The cloud giants are not actually evil evil, they just don't realize that the grippli young are sentient creatures.

This could be an interesting variant on a rescue-the-princess scenario, but the adventure plays it for laughs, and humor in D&D can be quite difficult to pull off. I don't think that the author quite succeeds; it seems pretty goofy. Of course, there is a time and a place for all things. Perhaps this adventure could be lighter interlude and welcome relief from a gruelling hack-and-slash campaign against giantish foes, such as G1-3: Against the Giants, where there is little or no opportunities for role-playing with the giants. "The Mad Chefs of Lac Anchois" certainly has more opportunity for role-playing, although I think the cloud giant brothers and their minions could be portrayed in a more sinister light; the comedy of this adventure will come through in any case. It's short enough to play through in a single session, I reckon.

Humor is used in a lot of my favorite adventures later on: the kobold Meepo in Bruce Cordell's The Sunless Citadel, the kobolds in Richard Pett's "The Devil Box" in Dungeon #109, or some of the goblins in Pathfinder #1—Rise of the Runelords: Burnt Offerings, by James Jacobs. "The Devil Box" is in fact one of my favorite Dungeon adventures, and it is hilarious. The key difference, I think, is that those adventures play for laughs creatures known to be small, weak, and relatively nonthreatening when encountered individually, so that humor adds some interest to overplayed monsters. Kobolds and goblins are supposed to be reckless, troublesome, and mischievous; the contrast between their evil ambitions and their individual weakness can be naturally funny. But the real villains in those adventures are not only sinister and threatening, but also powerful and deadly. In "The Mad Chefs of Lac Anchois", however, it is powerful monsters like giants and ogre magi that are played for laughs, and this corrodes the premise of the game: heroes are needed to combat the sinister threats of a dangerous world. Turning the dangerous monsters into jokes weakens the suspension of disbelief, rather than bolstering it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Retrospective: Dungeon #63 (July-August 1997)

I started buying issues of Dungeon magazines from about 1997, subscribing (with a few intermittent gaps) until the end of the print run in 2007. I sorted them the other day, and found that I have 75 issues all together: half of the magazines published, amounting to some hundreds of adventures. It's been between five and fifteen years since I read these, but there were some great adventurers with vivid scenes memorable even after years. However, I rarely use them, because it's hard to usefully find good adventures. Although Dungeon #150 has an index that lists only the system, title, author, and issue of each adventure, and there are a few public indices online that add a short blurb, it's usually still not easy enough to find an appropriate adventure for a certain style, setting, or situation. So I'm going to start a regular feature, reading through and reviewing some my old Dungeon magazines, starting with the first one I ever bought in a store, #63. What do I remember from this issue, before re-reading it? The goblin-o-war, invisible stalker, and "Blood & Fire".

"Hunt for a Hierophant", by Chris Doyle (AD&D, Levels 6-8): The evil wizard Zerrick has rallied a horde of bullywugs from the Cragmoor swamp to invade the communities beyond the Drakewood Forest, so adventurers are needed to rouse the slumbering hierophant druid Leander. They get some clues from an assortment of fey, treants, and giants, then negotiate the druid's dungeon resting place. The dungeon combines some combat tests with puzzles and riddles, most of which look relatively simple enough for an average group to handle easily.

"Gnome Droppings", by Christopher Perkins (Spelljammer, Levels 2-4): Tinker gnomes drop their autognome cargo from a spelljamming ship, then come back and recover it. The adventurers hear a strange noise in the forest, and if they're curious, they might investigate, slaughter some evil-if-innocent bystanders (grimlocks and spriggans), and interact with a harmless-but-malfunctioning robot. There's a hook into Spelljammer (especially the goofier parts, like giant hamsters), but nobody gets hurt if the adventurers just snooze. The right group would have fun, but is this actually an adventure?

"Huzza's Goblin-O-War", by Paul F. Culotta (AD&D Forgotten Realms, Levels 4-6): A monstrous pirate ship, crewed by goblins, margoyles, and a wizard, attack the PCs' ship at sea. When I first read it, the idea of a hill giant pirate captain struck me as a little too high-fantasy for my tastes. It may seem a little gonzo, but it sure does look like an entertaining encounter, even if Huzza is probably not bright enough to be a corsair. It's set in the Sea of Fallen Stars in the Forgotten Realms, but could be worked into any sea area with monstrous pirates.

"Invisible Stalker", by Johnathan M. Richards (AD&D SideTrek, Levels 1-2): It's exactly what you'd guess from the pun: a creepy sleazeball of a villain with the power to not be seen, here accomplished via a level-inappropriate magic item. The villain's plan would be an interesting encounter, if you want to see how 1st-level characters plan to use a powerful magic ring later on. If so, it can be set in any city environment.

"Blood & Fire", by John Baichtal (Al-Qadim, Levels 5-7): The adventurers travel from Qaybar, an emirate somewhere in Zakhara, to find its missing heir (the McGuffin). They travel across the desert to the oasis of Khaldun where they discover he's been taken by the Brotherhood of the True Flame, a powerful cabal of sinister flame mages, and taken to their Ivory Tower in the Valley of Mist. The plot of this adventure is fairly straightforward, and the final dungeon is not complex; there's about a half-dozen wilderness encounters and ten or so at the Tower. But there's a great deal of attention to detail in creating an evocative Arabian-themed desert setting. There's some excellent images and encounters: leucrottas haunting the dunes at night, an enchanted young couple mystically frozen in amber, a wizard mummy who doesn't realize he's dead in his cairn, the Apparatus of Kwalish clattering in a poisonous fog. Tony DiTerlizzi did some great illustrations here; I love the portrait of the coiling dragonne Zu'l Janah. This looks like a great adventure, my favorite in this issue.

"Beauty Corrupt", by Kent Ertman (AD&D 2E, Levels 4-5): After "The Phantom Menace", I'll never blindly trust a plot that revolves around the disruption of trade negotiations (here, between the coastal towns of Orchid Bay and WyrWatch). The hook is a simple request to heal the key negotiator, who has a mystical afflication. But this adventure has a fairly creative McGuffin: a sirene's song, captured by a covey of hags as a spell component. They dwell in a fairly simple lair typical of a sea hag, guarded by scrags and merrow, with a few false entrances; the encounters look very tough, but the goal is to disrupt a spell, not kill everything in sight. There's the opportunity to adventure underwater, since a plant called quipper kelp allows characters to breathe water.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A brief tour of the Sheldomar Valley

I earlier noted that many of the classic D&D modules were located in and around the Sheldomar Valley. The Temple of Elemental Evil, for one, is located just over the Lortmil Mountains near Verbobonc. Others could be relocated nearby with some slight modifications: for example, a large swamp in the western Seahold could contain modules S1 and S2, while the Lendore Isles (and UK1, L1, and L2) could be moved offshore of the Seahold. So I've been putting together this pocket guide to the Sheldomar Valley based of various wikis and the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer; there is plenty of official information about the Greyhawk campaign setting, but it can be easy to get lost in it all. Here's a map. I'm more interested in the situation circa 579 CY, when adventurers begin arriving at Hommlet.

The Flanaess is inhabited by three main types of humans: the pale, blond Suloise, the olive-skinned Oerdians, and the aboriginal bronze-skinned Flan, for whom the region is named. Their ancient languages (Ancient Suloise, Old Oerdian, and Flan, respectively) are the ancestors of most contemporary human tongues. Across the mountains to the west live the Baklunish, and the Olman inhabit the jungle islands of the Densac Gulf, but relatively few of these peoples dwell in the Sheldomar Valley.

The Common Tongue is descended from a dialect of Old Oerdian developed by Baklunish scribes, with some Suloise influence, that developed into a language of trade and administration. Modern spoken descendents of Old Oerdian include Keoish and Velondi. Keoish is the dominant human language of the Sheldomar Valley, while Velondi is spoken by the peasants of Furyondy and Veluna. Suloise is essentially dead, but of interest to sages and scholars. It has a few modern descendants: Amedi is spoken by the barbarians of the Amedio Jungles, Lendorian is spoken in the Lendore Isles, and languages of the tundra barbarians of the north are descended from Suloise.

The Kingdom of Keoland is one of the oldest states in the Flanaess. It is a feudal monarchy, governed largely by Suel aristocracy; the king is chosen by the Noble Council of Nicole Dra, the capital. Although founded centuries ago, it reached its peak during "imperial" expansion in the 350s; several of its daughter states govern northern parts of the Sheldomar Valley. Most people are of mixed Suel and Oerdian descent and speak Keoish and Common, and few Flan remain.

Gran March is a heavily militarized state north of Keoland; the elected Commandant governs from Hookhill. Although Gran March owes fealty to Keoland, it is self-governing and dominated by the Knights of the Watch; all adult males are required to provide military service. Most people speak Keoish and Common.

The Grand Duchy of Geoff is a feudal monarchy owing fealty to Keoland; the Grand Duke governs from Gorna. It is further divided into six cantrevs, each ruled by a Llwyr (a baron). Flan culture and people are more prominent in Geoff than the rest of the Sheldomar Valley; most people speak Flan and Common, as well as Keoish to a lesser extent.

Sterich is a feudal monarchy that is formally a vassal to Keoland, but self-governing in practice; the earl governs from Istivin. Sterich was established by settlers from Geoff, and has long been a mining colony where peasants do well since labor is in short supply.

The Seahold, formerly a province of Keoland, is a sovereign state ruled by Prince Jeon II, who has taken up a campaigns against slavery and slave-raiding from the Amedio Jungle and Olman Islands. Most people speak Keoish and Common, a few speak Amedi, Olman, or other languages. (There are dark whispers that the Scarlet Brotherhood has some future designs upon the Hold of the Sea Princes ca. 589).

The Yeomanry League is a democratic republic to the southwest of Keoland; the Spokesman governs from Loftwick. It was allied with Keoland until the 360s, when it objected to Keoland's conquests. Most people in the Yeomanry are freeholders of mixed Suel and Flan descent who speak mostly Keoish and Common.

Bissel is a border state at the northern end of the region, at the crossroads of the Sheldomar Valley, the Baklunish states, and the rest of the Flanaess. Bissel was conquered by Keoland in the 350s, governed as the Littlemark, then later conquered by the kingdom of Furyondy. Furyondy's influence gradually waned, until the Margrave established Bissel's independence in a battle in 477 CY. Most people are of mixed Baklunish, Suel, and Oerdian descent, and speak Common or Baklunish dialects.

The Ulek States are a trio of three sovereign kingdoms east of Keoland. The northernmost is an elven kingdom, the southernmost is a dwarven kingdom, and a druidic human kingdom lies between.

The Valley of the Mage is an isolated and xenophobic elven kingdom hidden in the Barrier Peaks. It is ruled by a powerful arcane spellcaster known as the Black One. The valley elves are scorned by all other elves (possibly due to an ancient bargain for extraplanar lore) and reject the elven pantheon, preferring Ehlonna and the druidic Old Faith. A plurality of the Valley's residents are various humans under the rule of a human earl, a vassal of the elven king, and many gnomes live there as well, but the valley is thinly populated and has very little traffic with the outside world, even preferring raiding to trade.

The most popular and widespread gods in the Sheldomar Valley include such important deities like Heironeous, Fharlanghn, Ehlonna, and St. Cuthbert, as well as Phaulkon, Zilchus, and Norebo. Sea gods like Osprem and Procan are popular along the coast, while Flan gods like Pelor, Allitur, and Obad-Hai are popular in the western half of the region. Istus and Rao are worshipped in Bissel, while Kelanen has a headquarters in Istivin and adherents in the Seahold.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

On Klingon

I'm no Klingonist, but I've been reading more about it the past few days (a used copy of the Klingon Dictionary and an instructional audiobook doesn't break $10). I really like Mark Okrand has a subtle sense of humor. And Klingon has a strangely appealling phonoaesthetic for such a choppy language: it's like a tour of the points of articulation that are difficult for an Anglophone.

Klingon intentionally has a weird phonology. Not in the actual sounds that are used, which are normal human language sounds, but rather the pattern of sounds: it has several prominent holes in its phonology.

For example, Klingon has the velar nasal /ŋ/ and velar fricatives /x/ and /ɣ/ (which sound like sounds from French and German), but it does not have the velar stop /k/. Meanwhile, it has the uvular stop /qʰ/ and uvular affricate /qχ/, but no other uvular sounds. It would be very likely, in a natural language, if this kind of weird gap arose, for either the two series to converge on one point of articulation (for example, shifting /q/ to /k/ and /qχ/ to /kx/), or alternatively for new consonants to spring up to fill out the phonology at each point of articulation (for example adding /k/ and /χ/ as phonemes).

And while Klingon has the affricate /tɬ/ and the affricate /tʃ/, but the only alveolar or postalveolar fricative is the retroflex /ʂ/, which seems like it would merge with either /ɬ/ or /ʃ/.

Similarly, while Klingon contrast the voiceless stop /p/ with the voiced stop /b/, it contrasts the voiceless stop /t/ not with the voiced stop /d/, but rather with the voiced retroflex stop /ɖ/. It's pretty weird, to articulate it as retroflex rather than plain voiced, and it seems likely that Klingon would undergo a sound change: first the retroflex consonant would be in variation with the plain stop /d/, and then it would be dropped in favor of /d/. Of course, any description of a language is just a snapshot of it in time, with changes behind it and changes to come.

Now in practice, these uvular consonants are very difficult consonants for native English speakers to produce, and I think that a great deal of spoken Klingon has speakers using /k/ instead of /q/, or /d/ instead of the retroflex /ɖ/. Marc Okrand seemingly addressed this somewhat in The Klingon Dictionary:

There are a number of dialects of Klingon. Only one of the dialects, that of the current Klingon emperor, is represented in this dictionary. When a Klingon emperor is replaced, for whatever reason, it has historically been the case that the next emperor speaks a different dialect. As a result, the new emperor's dialect becomes the official dialect. Those Klingons who do not speak the official dialect are considered either stupid or subversive, and are usually forced to undertake tasks that speakers of the official standard find distasteful. Most Klingons try to be fluent in several dialects.
Some dialects differ only slightly from the dialect of this dictionary. Differences tend to be in vocabulary (the word for forehead, for example, is different in almost every dialect) and in the pronunciation of a few sounds. On the other hand, some dialects differ significantly from the current official dialect, so much so that speakers of these dialects have a great deal of difficulty communicating with current Klingon officialdom. The student of Klingon is warned to check into the political situation in the Klingon Empire before trying to talk.
There does seem to be a great deal of continuity in spoken Klingon between different eras (as much as in the English of these periods), although some of this might result from the prominence of Colonel Worf (an official of the Klingon Empire who defended Captain Kirk in court) and Lieutenant Worf (a later officer of the USS Enterprise). Interestingly, according to Okrand, English has a position of high prestige in the Klingon Empire, serving as a signal of elite status and a private means of communication among starship officers. If Klingons use English as a signal of social prestige, it doesn't seem implausible that, in Klingon, they would use a somewhat artificial, archaic, and difficult-to-pronounce sociolect as a prestige dialect as well.

Dialect can explain some of the problems with voice acting in Klingon. But it's just too difficult for Anglophones to pronounce. Christopher Plummer's General Chang in "Star Trek VI" is a great character, quoting Shakespeare even more than Kirk does in some of the earlier movies. Except when he's speaking Klingon: the only time he does it, at Kirk's trial, it is a bunch of disconnected syllables that don't display the interesting morphology of the language.

Mark Okrand talks about the creation of the Klingon language in this series of videos (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Since the Klingon language was created on the set of "Star Trek III", Okrand was able to incorporate the actors' performance errors into the canonical version of the Klingon language. "My sort of 'role model' of what Klingon sounds like is Christopher Lloyd saying it, because he was my first big speaker," Okrand says.

However, Michael Dorn, who played Worf on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine", as well as three of the movies, has probably spoken more lines of Klingon than any other actor. He's also done a lot of voice work narrating audiobooks on the languageand videogames (such as Star Trek: Klingon), although in the audiobook of Conversational Klingon, Okrand pronounces all the Klingon words and phrases. Dorn is also kind of awesome.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The HHH system of measurement

The hathmic system, also known as the hathom-hecand-hemoth system, is a hexadecimal anthropocentric system of measurement, created as an exercise in recreational arithmetic, as an intellectual folly, and possibly for purposes of fiction. The names aren't serious, mostly just bad puns on various historical units (fathom, plethron, li, league, fist, watch, behemoth, and quadrans).

Anthropocentric units are often more useful to humans than geocentric ones, but they should be based on some consistent scale rather than using different ratios between units. The metric system is inconvenient in anthropocentric terms, but is very convenient in being based consistently on a decimal system. But the decimal system is kind of boring, so this system based upon hexadecimal comes from a made-up culture that reveres squares. Different systems of measurement are good at measuring different things; this system is focused on representing human-scale walking travel times. For example, in one haach (of time), a person can walk about one hleeg (of distance).

The base unit is the hathom, which by astonishing coincidence is precisely 1.8 meters. This is six feet in metric (25-mm) inches, or about 5 feet 10 inches, roughly the average height of a human male. Sixteen hathoms are a lethron, which is 28.8 meters or about 94.5 feet. Sixteen lethrons are a hli, which is 460.8 meters or about 0.29 miles. Sixteen hlis are a hleeg, which is 7.372 kilometers, or about 4.58 miles.

Going smaller, one-sixteenth of a hathom is a lister, which is 112.5 millimeters or about 4.43 inches. A lister is further divided into sixteen units, each of which is each to about 7 millimeters or 0.28 inches.

The most practical unit of time is the day, one-sixteenth of which is a haach. This is an hour and a half long. The base unit of time, however, is the hecand, which is about 1.3 seconds. There are 65,536 hecands in a day.

There has to be a base unit of mass, to fill out the system; I'm just ripping off SI on this. The base unit of mass is the hemoth, equivalent to 5,832 kilograms. More commonly, people would use a huad, which weighs about 89 grams. Sixteen huads weigh about 1.42 kilograms.

A slight index to some classic D&D modules

Back in 2004 (in issue #116), /Dungeon/ magazine offered a list of the top 30 D&D adventures of all time. They're listed with some comment at RPG Geek and Grognardia. RPG Geek also has a composite ranking of the highest-rated adventures which may be more useful, as well as a list of highly-rated Dungeon adventures. Many such lists have similar items (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). For a long time, I've wondered how these old modules fit into their campaign worlds, where these dungeons are supposed to be, and how they fit together. So I've put together this little index to some classic modules, focusing on canonical geography, and jumping off from the 2004 Dungeon list.

This list is restricted to actual modules from TSR from about 1975-1985. So it doesn't include Judge's Guild modules like Dark Tower (1980), Caverns of Thracia (1980), or Tegel Manor (1977); later Gygaxian material like Necropolis (1992); other TSR modules like The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga; or Dungeon adventures like "The Mud Sorcerer's Tomb" (#37). Wolfgang Baur's "Kingdom of the Ghouls" (Dungeon #70, September 1998) is set in Greyhawk, starting from the town of Loftwick in the Yeomanry in Sheldomar Valley and traveling under the Crystalmist and Hellfurnace Mountains. Similarly, I'll skip a couple of later adventures from the Dungeon list: The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996), The Forge of Fury (2000), Dead Gods (1997), Ruins of Undermountain (1991), City of the Spider Queen (2002), Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil by Monte Cook (2001), Return to the Tomb of Horrors by Bruce Cordell (1998), and WGR6: City of Skulls (1993).

Clearly, a campaign focusing on these adventures set in a canonical campaign world should be set in the Sheldomar Valley in Greyhawk: about three-quarters of these adventures have a canonical location in Greyhawk. Of these, about 38% are in or around the Sheldomar Valley, while about 24% are somewhere between the Free City of Greyhawk and the Pomarj. Nearly all of them could be put in and around the Sheldomar Valley with some slight geographical modifications. Paizo published a giant poster map of Greyhawk, although this map is more legible online, and this one has hexes for specific module locations. The Atlas of Greyhawk has some very detailed terrain maps. OTOH, most of the Mystara adventures are set (or retconned) to Karameikos.

Temple of the Frog (1975), by Dave Arneson, was the first module published for D&D, in the Blackmoor supplement. It was revised and expanded as DA2: Temple of the Frog in 1986, for characters of levels 10-14. Located in a deep swamp, it includes some science-fiction crossover elements. Blackmoor was included in northern regions of both Mystara and Greyhawk settings.

B1: In Search of the Unknown (1978), by Mike Carr, is a beginner's scenario intended to show how to create dungeons, for characters of levels 1-3. The Basic series modules were initially setting neutral. (W, Grognardia &c.)

B2: The Keep on the Borderlands (1979), by Gary Gygax, is a dungeon crawl for characters of levels 1-3. Originally setting-neutral, GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos located the Keep in Karameikos in Mystara; the 1999 sequel Return to the Keep on the Borderlands placed the Keep in Greyhawk, in the Yeomanry in Sheldomar Valley, although it made reference to non-Greyhawk deities and some Mystara background information. Ranked #7 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

B3: Palace of the Silver Princess (1981), by Jean Wells, is a low-level dungeon crawl for characters of levels 1-3, intended for a single game session. It features a country frozen in time except for the royal palace, a white dragon, three-headed ubues, and a giant ruby. (W, Grognardia)

B4: The Lost City (1982), by Tom Moldvay, is a beginning adventure for characters of levels 1-3. It is set in the ruined city of Cynidicea, buried in a desert, mostly within a sunken step pyramid infested with cultists of Zargon at war with Cynidiceans who follow the city's ancient gods. The compilation B1-9: In Search of Adventure locates the dungeon in Mystara. Ranked #28 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

X1: Isle of Dread (1980), by David Cook and Tom Moldvay, is a wilderness exploration adventure for characters of levels 3-7. Adventurers sail to and explore the jungle island, inhabited by dinosaurs, kopru, aranea, rakasta, and phanaton. This module introduced the Known World that would become the Mystara setting. In Dungeon #114, it was relocated to Greyhawk, to the Densac Gulf west of Hepmonaland and east of the Amedio Jungle and the Hellfurnaces. Dungeon's Savage Tide adventure path had PCs sail from Sasserine and visit the Isle of Dread via Tamoachan. Ranked #16 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

X2: Castle Amber (1981), by Tom Moldvay, is a weird adventure for characters of levels 3-7. The PCs are traveling to the magocracy of Glantri in Mystara, but are drawn into the castle and must travel through a portal to Averoigne to reach an interdimensional tomb. Ranked #15 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

S1: Tomb of Horrors (1978), by Gary Gygax, is a fiendish dungeon for characters of levels 10-14, the tomb of the demilich Acererak. The dungeon itself is located on some lost and lonely hill in Greyhawk, in the Vast Swamp south of Sunndi. Ranked #3 by Dungeon in 2004. Return to the Tomb of Horrors introduces Skull City built over the tomb. (W, Grognardia, Atlas)

S2: White Plume Mountain (1979), by Lawrence Schick, is a puzzle dungeon crawl for characters of levels 5-10, which revolves around a quest to retrieve an intelligent trident, warhammer, and sword from the eponymous volcano in Greyhawk. White Plume Mountain is located south of the Great Swamp, in the Shield Lands just south of the Rift Canyon and north of the great lake Nyr Dyv. There's a revision for 3.5e for 7th-level characters. Ranked #9 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia, Atlas)

S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980), by Gary Gygax, is a dungeon crawl for characters of levels 8-12, in which adventurers explore a crashed space ship. It is located in Greyhawk, unsurprisingly in the Barrier Peaks north of Geoff and east of the Crystalmist Mountains. Ranked #5 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (1982), by Gary Gygax, is a monster-filled labyrinth for characters of levels 6-10, in which adventurers delve for the treasure of Iggwilv. Set in Greyhawk, the dungeon is located in the Yatil Mountains south of Perrenland. WG4: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun is a loosely connected sequel to this. Ranked #22 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

WG4: The Forgotten Temple of Tharzidun (1982), by Gary Gygax, is a Lovecraftian wilderness and dungeon adventure for characters of levels 5-10. Set in Greyhawk, it is a loosely connected sequel to S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and has the PCs follow rampaging norkers from the Caverns to the Temple. Ranked #23 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

WG5: Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure (1984), by Rob Kuntz and Gary Gygax, is a dungeon crawl for characters of levels 9-12. Set in Greyhawk, it is located at Maure Castle, just east of Greyhawk city. This adventure was revised and expanded as "Maure Castle" in Dungeon #112, #124, and #139. (W, Grognardia, Atlas)

C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980), by Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason, is a tournament module for characters of levels 5-7. The adventure was set in Greyhawk at a ruined Olman city in the Amedio Jungle. Ranked #18 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

C2: The Ghost Tower of Inverness (1979), by Allen Hammack, is a competition module for characters of levels 5-7. Set in Greyhawk, the tower is located in the southern Abbor-Alz Hills north of the Bright Desert. Ranked #30 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia, Atlas)

N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God (1982), by Douglas Niles, is a town, wilderness, and dungeon adventure for characters of levels 1-3. Set in Greyhawk, it is located between the Gran March and the Kingdom of Keoland in the Sheldomar Valley. Ranked #19 by Dungeon in 2004. (W)

DL1: Dragons of Despair (1984), by Tracy Hickman, is an introductory adventure for characters of levels 4-6. Set in Krynn, it begins in the elven town of Solace and travels to the jungle-covered ruins of the city of Xak Tsaroth. Ranked #25 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (1981), by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull, is for characters of levels 1-3, with a ghostly ship and a spooky mansion in the eponymous town. Located in Greyhawk, Saltmarsh is in the Hold of the Sea Princes in the southern Sheldomar Valley. Ranked #27 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

UK1: Beyond the Crystal Cave (1983), by Dave Browne, Tom Kirby, and Graeme Morris, is an adventure for characters of levels 4-7, in which the adventurers travel to a enchanted garden of eternal summer in a pocket dimension. Set in Greyhawk, it's on Sybarate Isle in the Hold of the Sea Princes in the southern Sheldomar Valley. (W, Grognardia)

L1: The Secret of Bone Hill (1981), by Len Lakofka, is a mini-setting for characters of levels 2-4. Set in Greyhawk, it is located in a fishing port in the Lendore Isles. (W, Grognardia)

L2: The Assassin’s Knot (1983), by Len Lakofka, is a murder mystery for characters of levels 2-4. A sequel to L1: The Secret of Bone Hill, it is set in the same community. Ranked #29 by Dungeon in 2004. (W)

I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981), by David Cook, is an adventure for characters of levels 4-7, in which PCs travel to a jungle city overrun by yuan-ti and tasloi. Characters can intrigue with the bugbears, bullywugs, or mongrelmen of the city, and the module also introduced aboleths and yellow musk creepers. Set in Greyhawk, it is located in Hepmonaland. Ranked #13 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

I3-5: The Desert of Desolation (1983), by Tracy and Laura Hickman, is a compilation of three Egyptian-themed modules, for characters of levels 5-7: I3: Pharaoh, I4: Oasis of the White Palm, and I5: Lost Tomb of Martek. Set in a desert, the compilation was retconned into Raurin in the Forgotten Realms. Ranked #6 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

I6: Ravenloft (1983), by Tracy and Laura Hickman, is a horror adventure for characters of levels 5-7, in which adventurers oppose the famous vampire. It is set at Castle Ravenloft in Barovia, which later evolved into the Ravenloft setting. Ranked #2 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985), by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer, includes T1: The Village of Hommlet within the T1-4 module, for characters of levels 1-8. Set in Greyhawk, the adventure starts at the village of Hommlet near the city-state of Verbobonc, then travels to the nearby village of Nulb and the Temple. Ranked #4 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia &c., Atlas)

A1-4: Scourge of the Slave Lords (1986), by David Cook, Allen Hammack, Harold Johnson, Tom Moldvay, Lawrence Schick, and Edward Carmien, is a compilation of modules for characters of levels 7-11, which includes A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeon of the Slave Lords. Set in Greyhawk, the adventure begins in the city of Highport in the Pomarj, then travels for a hundred miles or more through the Drachensgrab Hills to the hidden city of Suderham, on an island in a volcanic crater. Ranked #20 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia, Atlas)

G1-3: Against the Giants (1981), by Gary Gygax, is a compilation of three dungeon crawls, for characters of levels 8-12: G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, G2: Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King. Set in Greyhawk, G1 begins in Istivin in the Sheldomar Valley; the PCs travel overland to the hill giants' steading, from where they are magically transported to the frost giants' glacier in the Crystalmists, from where they are magically transported to the fire giants' hall in the Hellfurnaces. As part of GDQ1-7: Queen of the Spiders (1986), this was ranked #1 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

D1-3: Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978), by Gary Gygax, is a compilation of three dungeon crawls, for characters of levels 9-14: D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3: Vault of the Drow. Set in Greyhawk, the PCs follow a tunnel down from the fire giants' hall in G3 through the Underdark to the drow city of Erelhei-Cinlu. As part of GDQ1-7: Queen of the Spiders (1986), this was ranked #1 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia 1 2 3)

Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980), by David Sutherland with Gary Gygax, is an adventure for characters of levels 10-14. Set in Greyhawk, the adventurers travel through a planar gate in the drow city of Erelhei-Cinlu to the 66th layer of the Abyss to confront the demon goddess Lolth. As part of GDQ1-7: Queen of the Spiders (1986), this was ranked #1 by Dungeon in 2004. (W, Grognardia)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

2012 Derby Disclosure

Take Charge Indy, Dullahan, and Bodemeister. Liason is a longshot.

It was I'll Have Another, Bodemeister, and Dullahan. A strange run by Bodemeister, outpacing the sprinter Trinniberg (9) early on.

Friday, May 4, 2012

2012 Kentucky Oaks Disclosure

Eden's Moon and Karlovy Vary. Grace Hall and Broadway's Alibi are favorites.

Rosie Napravnik on Believe You Can was the first female jockey to win the Oaks!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Road to Derby 2012

As pointed out in 2011, the road to the Kentucky Derby follows a couple of high-profile races through the Derby prep season. Some of the major races are:
  • The Florida Derby (YT) was on March 31. In an upset, Take Charge Indy with Calvin Borel beat Revelon and the favorite, Union Rags with Julien Leparoux.
  • The Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds is April 1 (YT, HRN). Hero of Order beats Mark Valeski at 109-1 odds.
  • The Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park is April 7 (HRN).
  • The Illinois Derby at Hawthorne is April 7 (HRN).
  • The Wood Memorial States at Aqueduct is on April 7 (HRN)
  • The Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn is on April 14.
  • The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland is April 14.
Apparently everyone is on Twitter these days: Julien Leparoux, CJ Sports, Thoroughbred Racing, KY Derby Contenders, TwinSpires, Derby Fun. The C-J also has its racing blog and racing headlines.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Quotable Gandhi

Here are some things Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote:
Non-violence is the weapon of the strong. With the weak it might easily be hypocrisy. Fear and love are contradictory terms. Love is reckless in giving away, oblivious as to what it gets in return. Love wrestles with the self and ultimately gains a mastery over all other feelings. (M.K. Gandhi, The Nations Voice, p. 110)

My creed of non-violence is an extremely active force. It has no room for cowardice or even weakness. There is hope for a violent man to be some day non-violent, but there is none for a coward. (34:3)

I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence. ...But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment. ...Let me not be misunderstood. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. (18:132-33)

Before one can be fit for the practice of civil disobedience one must have rendered a willing and respectful obedience to the State laws... A satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him of the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances. (39:374).

The essence of non-violent technique is that it seeks to liquidate antagonists but not the antagonists themselves. In a non-violent fight you have to a certain measure to conform to the traditions and conventions of the system you are pitted against. Avoidance of all relationships with the opposing power, therefore, can never be a satyagrahi's object, but transformation or purification of that relationship. (69:41)

The aim of a satyagrahi...always is to put the brute in everyone to sleep. (69:31)

They say “means are after all means”. I would say “means are after all everything”. As the means so the end. Violence means will give violent swaraj. ...There is no wall of separation between means and end. (24:396)

True democracy or the swaraj of the masses can never come through untruthful and violent means, for the simple reason that the natural corollary to their use would be to remove all opposition through the suppression or extermination of the antagonists. That does not make for individual freedom. Individual freedom can have the fullest play only under a regime of unadulterated ahiṃsā. (69:50)

I do want growth. I do want self-determination. I do want freedom, but I want all these for the soul. I doubt if the steel age is an advance upon the flint age. I am indifferent. It is the evolution of the soul to which the intellect and all our faculties have to be devoted. (21:289)

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow-beings. (39:127)

I have not conceived my mission to be that of a knight-errant wandering everywhere to deliver people from difficult situations. My humble occupation has been to show people how they can solve their own difficulties. (76:231)
Gandhi is just absurdly quotable. The first of these is from Gandhi's The Nations Voice, while all others are from Collected Works, as cited in:

Hay, Stephen, ed. Sources of Indian Tradition, Volume 2: Modern India and Pakistan. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. 243-273. Print.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Language on Barsoom

I read the heck out of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom and Caspak novels when I was a kid. Ten years or more later, I was part of the "generations of 8-year-olds", as Carl Sagan put it, whose perspective was expanded by this fantasy:

So I've been curious about the new movie. It's gotten some bad press, like The New York Times panning the marketing effort in "Ishtar" Lands on Mars...but the NYT is generally a bastion of foolish snobbery against genre fiction, especially science fiction or fantasy. The word-of-mouth is pretty good. Erik Mona praised the movie on FB, James Maliszewski points to the clear influence of Barsoom on Gygax. Michael Chabon, interviewed on io9, loved the books too.

But of course it wasn't until I learned that Paul Frommer worked on the Barsoomian language for the film that I started getting really interested. Clearly the creators cared enough about the source material to treat it better than Star-Warsy gobbledygook. The words in the Barsoom novels are not a language, not even a systematic naming language, so it's great that the filmmakers hired someone to expand that linguistic writing and make it more systematic. The novels are dated, and do tend toward juvenilia, but E.R.B. did a lot of underappreciated work in worldbuilding, including fun little elements like jetan. Perhaps Barsoomian was E.R.B.'s linguistic handwaving, a version of the "universal translator".

Fiat Lingua has an interview by Swedish E.R.B. collector Fredrik Ekman with Paul Frommer (PDF). Frommer explains that his expanded Barsoomian is nearly isolating, with very little inflectional morphology. There's no case marking, and the language instead relies heavily on word order. Barsoomian uses VSO, which is a nice choice to avoid re-lexing English, and is a logical, underappreciated word order in conlangs more generally, IMHO. Possession is as in Indonesian/Malay: the possessor follows the possessed with no special marking. Frommer based the language on the 400+ words pulled from the books, mostly names, interpreted into a coherent system. He made some interesting choices, such as including a voiced velar fricative alongside the rhotic alveolar approximate of American English. The most interesting feature is certainly the pronominal system:
Perhaps the most interesting feature is the pronominal system, where there are distinct cases for subject and object (akin to English I/me, he/him, we/us, etc.). To form the objective case, you take the initial consonant of the pronoun and repeat it at the end of the word. So I = tu, me = tut; he = ki, him = kik. Then to form the plurals of these pronouns, you simply “voice” the unvoiced consonants—in these examples, t becomes d and k become hard g. So we = du and us = dud.
There's also some good discussion of Frommer's method and the training of the actors in "John Carter: Inventing a New Language". Willem Dafoe discussed his experiences playing Tars Tarkas with io9, with a nice video clip of him speaking a line (at about 03:29).

Pagelady has transcribed some phrases from the movie, and links to this lexicon at Langmaker (by Jeffrey Henning), culled from the same source material Frommer used. The Conlanging Librarian also has a number of posts exploring this material.

Some graphic designers at Disney came up with a "Martian alphabet"; it's pretty unsophisticated, a simple substitution cipher. And it's exactly the sort of this a graphic designer might make to look "alien" but no-one would ever use to actually write with: it would be a nightmare trying to write those characters at speed with a pen and paper, or any other tool other than a keyboard and mouse. But they have a "Martian Translator" to cipher texts and a "Martian Decoder" to decipher them; there's also a PDF. How to Count in Barsoomian has an overview of the numerals of this script.

I don't have time to read fiction these days, but Librivox has the first five books available as M4Bs or MP3s: & here's the first still that got me hooked. Girallons!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Today's Google Doodle honors origamist Akira Yoshizawa, who popularized it as an art in the modern era, which is reason enough to admit that I was fascinated with paperfolding as a teenager and love it still. The Google Blog has instructions on making origami letters via Adding an origami doodle to the fold. But the documentary "Between the Folds" is a fascinating portrayal of the artistry and mathematics of paperfolding. I saw it via PBS's Independent Lens and on Netflix.

Friday, March 9, 2012

2011 Book of the Year

In the last few weeks of 2011, I suffered a catastrophic hard drive crash that wiped out several years of my data; it was especially hard because, since I had generally been so diligent about backing up my information and transferring it from one computer to another, I had lots of data to lose. This is part of the reason posting has been light the last few months; the other is that I started grad school in January. So I've been quite busy. Much of my data that I still have is stuff that I've posted or saved online in various formats, though, which should itself be incentive to post more often.

Anyway: back when I lived in Japan and New York, I had gotten in the habit of reading on the train or subway; it's an hour or more with nothing else to do but sit, so it's a great time to knock out some reading. But after returning to Kentucky, I discovered that we have few to no subways here. With my most common venue for recreational reading gone, and the Internet always beckoning, I partially fell out of the habit of reading actual books.

Sometime in late 2010, I hit upon the idea of making a list of each book I read as I read it. And indeed, this led to dramatically increasing the number of books I read over the year. One of the things I lost in the hard drive crash is the detailed list of every book I completed in 2011. However, since I bought most of these books and kept them together, I remember most of the list.

From these, I'm nominating a couple of books to recommend. My "Book of the Year" is a pretty idiosyncratic "award": It's not a book that came out in 2011, just one I happened to read for the first time; it's maybe not the best book I read, just one that some folks might enjoy or draw from insight from. The nominations are pretty heavy on non-fiction, since most of the fiction was stuff I re-read: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, Fritz Leiber's pre-1971 Nehwon books. Here are the runner-ups:
  • Linguist Arika Okrent 's "In the Land of Invented Languages" both overviews a history of constructed languages and recounts her experiences interacting with the communities that have formed around languages such as Esperanto, Lojban, and Klingon. It's an interesting popular history of philosophical and linguistic follies, and pretty funny in places, as when she's interacting with the Klingonists.

  • Piers Vitebsky's "The Reindeer People" probably has a limited appeal, although it's fascinating if you're interested in Siberian anthropology, or the beliefs and cultural history of Tungusic reindeer pastoralists in the Russian Far East, from the Soviet through the post-Soviet era. Read an excerpt at NPR.

  • I don't know how I managed to go so long without reading James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom", a one-volume history of the American Civil War. It's been about a decade and a half since I've read any of his books, and picked this up to review for the sesquicentennial. McPherson's writing is wonderful: even over 900 pages, it's concise, fresh, and insightful.

  • Journalist Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking with Einstein" details his experiences preparing for and competing in the U.S. Memory Championships, using classical palace-of-memory techniques, and discussing the neurological underpinnings of memory, synesthesia, and similar interesting topics: wacky and amazing. Read some excerpts at Time and at the New York Times Magazine.

  • Michael Chabon's novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" took me about 100 pages to get into the rhythm of, but it's a fascinating instance of worldbuilding. The novel originates from the 1997 essay "A Yiddish Pale Fire", available at the Internet Archive, discussing a Yiddish phrasebook he found in a chain bookstore.

  • Matthew Kapstein's "The Tibetans" surveys the cultural, social, and political history of Tibet from the early centuries of the Common Era to the beginning of the 20th century. Tibetan history since the 1940s is well known, but it's much more difficult to find an overview of the socioeconomic history of Tibet in the 18th century and earlier. Contemporary rationalization of the Chinese takeover often refers to the tyrannical and exploitative governance in the monastic era. Among the things that Kapstein describes is the interweaving of monastic organizations and aristocratic families in a preindustrial agricultural society. Retiring to a monastery allowed aristocratic leaders to forestall succession crises while maintaining influence, and allied monasteries could provide bureaucratic and manpower support to local authorities; monasteries could also be significant landowners, IIRC. But the Tibetan state was very fragile and weak, and Chinese troops stationed in Tibet at great distance from Beijing had a great deal of autonomy. A thumbnail does Kapstein's arguments little justice; this is a dense work surveying a long period of complex history.
But my 2011 book of the year is Manly Wade Wellman's "Who Fears the Devil? The Complete Silver John", an anthology of fantasies and short stories set in postwar Appalachia. Wellman was one the few pulp writers of the mid-20th century nominated for a Pulitzer, and the Silver John tales are Americana fantasy at its best.