Friday, June 7, 2013

2012 Book Recommendations

In 2011, I recommended an anthology of stories by Manly Wade Wellman. In 2012, though, graduate school has put an especially big damper on my leisure reading: fewer books (only 31 and 11 audiobooks), but lots and lots of scholarly papers and half-read volumes. There’s a half-dozen or so I’d recommend:
The nonfiction book I'd recommend, I think, was Guy Deutscher's "Through the Language Glass", a modest apology for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis is poorly regarded by linguists, perhaps not least because overreaching and fanciful versions of it have long been vivid in the popular imagination (although I'm still intrigued by the idea of language as a cognitive tool). Deutscher's leads his discussion from 19th-century debates over the limited color vocabulary of Classical Greek literature, through the scientific racism of an early Darwinism (that had not yet rejected Lamarckism, for example), through anthropology's emphasis on culture as a means of repudiating that scientific racism. He ends up talking about the cognitive influence of color terminology and geographic vs. relative direction vocabulary, among other things. It's pretty interesting. A selection of this book was presented as "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" at the New York Times in 2010, and Radiolab interviewed Deutscher in 2012 for their "Colors" episode and "Why Isn't the Sky Blue?".

My fiction reading was pretty thin last year, but M.A.R. Barker's "The Man of Gold" was a decent yarn—if you're open to science fantasy adventure novels based on worlds used as settings for 1970s role-playing games. The fiction is ok, but the point is to show off Barker's world of Tékumel (which otherwise perhaps "doesn't photograph well"). It is a fascinating world. And as far as conlangs made to support a fictional world go, Tsolyáni is really nice, aesthetically a mashup of Urdu and Mesoamerican languages, which works much better than it sounds.

Timekeeping in "Embassytown"

Non-Terre-centric measurement in science fiction is surprisingly uncommon, but China Miéville's "Embassytown" does an interesting job of it. Rather than seconds or local days or years, time is measured with hours according to the metric system prefixes. The base SI unit is not the hour but the second, of course, but this is similar to using the kilogram as basic rather than the gram.

We should assume an hour is 3,600 contemporary Terre seconds.Thus, a kilohour is just more than 41 days (comparable to a month), a megahour is about 114 Julian years, and a gigahour is about 114,077 Julian years.

This is relatively human-scale, perhaps even compared to the kilosecond, but again there's the difficulty of nothing in between the kilo- and the mega- and the giga-. Here there's no basic unit in between the near-month and the near-century. I suspect that humans need to measure human-scale time with a unit that has more factors than 1, 2, 5, and 10.

Print & Play: Ataxx

The best of the print-and-play boardgames (games like Hex and Splut!) are worth building not merely because they're awesome and fun, but also because they're not (or barely) commercially available. That's especially true of the 1980s softboard arcade game Ataxx (BGG). It's fun to play in emulation, but abstract strategy board games are always better to play against other people. Sadly, it seems like the original copyright holder was acquired and liquidated in bankruptcy, so the IP is perhaps abandoned; Most contemporary software versions of the game are released under other names (like Infection), and this gem is not so well-known as it should be.

The board is foamcore with linen hinging tape and low-fi homemade bookcloth (made with black broadcloth, copier paper, and glue sticks), with the printed board glued on. The pieces are simply small biscuits of salt dough, painted. The instruction manual is set in a simple mockup of the original game's bitfont, created with Bitfont Maker 2.

I was concerned that manually flipping the pieces over would be more troublesome in a hardboard version than they are in a softboard version, but it's no real bother. It's a quick, light, fun strategy game, that is tricky with constant reversals of fortune.