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.