Saturday, December 29, 2012

A fascinating end of the year… and the b’ak’tun…

A fascinating end of the year... and the b'ak'tun... 

We just returned from a 7-day "Not the End of the World" Caribbean cruise (our first cruise ever) featuring speeches and seminars by an astronaut, a Mayan expert, several scientists, Hollywood's Kevin Grazier and Andre Bourmanis, and a pair of sci fi authors (Rob Sawyer & me), climaxing in 200 skeptics climbing the second-highest Mayan Temple  to mark the new bak'tun at Coba, Yucatan, staving off the end of the world with a headshake and using the potent incantation: "naaaaah!"   

But it wasn't all hard, world-saving work. Cheryl and I also managed to appreciate the fine efforts of the crew of the Norwegian Cruise Lines flagship, the Pearl, whose gracious chief engineer gave us an exclusive tour of the engines, purifiers and other systems. (Cruise ships are marvels: truly test beds for starships.) We also danced, went parasailing, wreck-snorkeling, waterfall-climbing, zip-lining, river-running, jet-skiing, more dancing, some eating, and met a dolphin or two... inspiring me to choose to write about them next. (There. Are you happy?) 

And now, while wishing you all joyous holidays and a fantastic 2013, let's polish off the year with a potpourri of interesting items for interesting times. 

Starting with a podding -- Chris Mooney and Indre Viskontias had me on their Point of Inquiry show just before we left for the Caribbean.  Topics ranged all across the landscape (and galaxy-scape) - only occasionally touching upon our shared interest in the Enlightenment and its enemies. Note that Mooney is author of The Republican War on Science, an important and interesting book that I (as a part-time libertarian and registered Republican) find depressingly on-target. Though I reminded listeners that the Enlightenment does face some dangers from the opposite extreme, as well. For the most part, though, we explored farther ahead!  Listen in and have some (occasionally infuriating but always fascinating) fun. 

==Optimists and pragmatists, rise up! ==

In an important article, We're living the dream, we just don't realize it, on CNN's web site, Steven Johnson adds his voice to a growing tide of those questioning the news media's obsession with gloom.  Sure, journalists should expose flaws and mistakes and criticize stupidity and criminality! But that is a very different and vastly more helpful thing than wallowing in generalities of hopelessness. The former is how we made a better world and might improve even more.  The latter is just treason. 

In fact, statistics show things getting better for most humans on Earth at a fairly rapid clip.  The reflex of doom is not limited to the Right in the United States but is an addiction shared by the far-left. Have a look at the article.  Then do the thing folks never expect from optimists and moderates and pragmatists, but something recommended by Ray Bradbury. GET MAD!  Get angry at the gloomcasters and cynics. They are actively undermining the can-do spirit of problem-solving and diminishing the future of your kids.   

== Should language be precise? Or liberating? == 

Here's a fascinating article about invented languages... the most successful being Esperanto (George Soros's native tongue)... and especially a new one that is getting a lot of attention.  

"If you imagine all the possible notions, ideas, beliefs, and statements that a human mind could ever express, Ithkuil provides a precise set of coördinates for pinpointing any of those thoughts. The final version of Ithkuil, which Quijada published in 2011, has twenty-two grammatical categories for verbs, compared with the six—tense, aspect, person, number, mood, and voice—that exist in English. Eighteen hundred distinct suffixes further refine a speaker’s intent. Through a process of laborious conjugation that would befuddle even the most competent Latin grammarian, Ithkuil requires a speaker to home in on the exact idea he means to express, and attempts to remove any possibility for vagueness." and "In Quijada's (unpublished)  novel, Ithkuil is used as a “para-linguistic interface for an array of quantum computers that are being used to create emergent consciousness.” and "n Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç." 

Woof! These are marvelous exercises.  And who knows? Sapir-Whorf theory suggests that different languages spur different styles of thought.  Ithkuil seems to be designed to eliminate ambiguity and foster efficient precision... exactly like most of the Galactic languages that I have written about in my Uplift Series of novels.  And indeed, there is something to be said for that approach.  It may very well be that ancient races use such methods and that artificial intelligences (AI) might prefer them, too. 

Nevertheless, I took a different perspective on this question on the pages of Brightness Reef, where I pointed out the downside flaws of languages like proto-Chinese, proto Indo-European and all the other "precise" linguistic systems of old. They used cases, declensions and all of that in order to eliminate ambiguity... and it can be argued that they cast thinking into rigid molds that repressed creative thinking.  Many of the ambiguities and murky edges of modern English, that make it frustrating at times, may also have helped stimulate and spur the "what-if" mentality... the gedankenexperiment culture... that finally burst free of feudalism and assumptions of the past.  And ironically enabled the advance of the Invented Language Movement. 

Read the article, especially toward the end with some twists as the American inventor of Ithkuil meets the academic community of Russians who have embraced his new language as the key to wisdom.... 

 == Science Fiction Old and New ==  

john-milton-paradise-lostA fascinating essay asserting that John Milton's Paradise Lost was the grand-daddy of modern science fiction.  "...the text of Paradise Lost is saturated in science. Milton met Galileo, for the first and only time, in a 1638 visit that Jonathan Rosen compared to “those comic book specials in which Superman meets Batman.” The “Tuscan artist” appears in Paradise Lost more than once. Book I compares Satan’s shield to the moon seen through a telescope. And the poem is studded with scientific details—“luminous inferior orbs” churning through outer space, descriptions of sunspots and seasons, creatures that evolve (according to divine plan, but still). Through it all, Milton, a storyteller, comes off as entranced by the laws governing the universe."

"Also, Milton kinda sorta thought that extraterrestrial life might be possible. In Book III of Paradise Lost, Satan flies down from Heaven to Earth, passing distant stars that, on closer inspection, turn out to be “other Worlds.” Other worlds with aliens on them? Could be! “Who dwelt happy there,” Milton explains, the archangel “stayd not to enquire.”

My friend Ramez Naam, whose nonfiction book More Than Human I really liked, has a novel: NexusCory Doctorow at BoingBoing says “Nexus is a superbly plotted high tension technothriller… full of delicious moral ambiguity… a hell of a read.” I always find Naam interesting and ready to poke at fresh ideas.  

Some kind words from London's top-selling newspaper The Sun - this best-of recommendation for my latest novel, Existence:   

"Science fiction fans were finally given what they crave: Real science explained and possible science dreamed, all wrapped up in an excellent story. After reading it, you feel like you've done an A-level and experienced a cultural event. Daring yet plausible, challenging yet rewarding, it raised the bar for grown-up alien contact sci-fi."

Oh but the San Diego Union-Tribune's "Best Books of 2012" disagrees and instead emphasizes:  

"All of this in an incredibly thought-provoking and fast-paced story, each page loaded with a sense of wonder and optimism that is often lacking in today's science fiction."

Sigh.  I wish they'd make up their minds!  (Oh, it's almost your last chance to order the hardcover. ;-)

YouTubeCh3Here I conclude a series of recorded readings... I now present to you Chapter Three of EXISTENCE. All three can be found at my web site davidbrin dot com. (These three readings and chapters introduce three entirely separate characters and can be taken in any order.) Enjoy!  

== Movies, movies... ==

Finally. We just watched Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT: An Unexpected Journey.  And I had to turn dials.  Meaning that I enjoyed the film... what's not to like about a vision created with such lavish and loving detail? But in order to enjoy the endless, manic, run-on-and-on action scenes I really had to crank down most of my critical faculties re plot and story. 

Seriously. Some fans unfairly criticized Jackson for cutting some aspects out of LORD OF THE RINGS, a nine hour epic that I considered darn near perfect. It would not have been improved by doubling to eighteen.  The story supported nine hours and the action hung upon a plot robust enough to bear up the dramatic battle scenes.

  Alas, in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, Jackson did not cut and trim, he added swathes of plot that were never in Tolkien's oiriginal book (e.g. the entire plot thread of the vendetta between Thorin and the orc king; or the scenes with Radagast the Brown). Thus he sought excuses to bloat a three hour story to nine. Escapade after manic escapade with little to care about, no casualties among the protagonists and almost glacial advancement of the already slender plot. 

Oh, I'll watch the whole thing.  Jackson is skilled and I doubt Tolkien would have felt betrayed by any of the additions. They merely flesh-out (or plump-out or inflate) THE HOBBIT's spare skeleton. But antic fun is all that I expect.  This is a long, long dessert, not soul-food.  (See my essay: J.R.R. Tolkien vs the Modern Age.)

== An Accessible Worldcon - in Texas! ==

This coming August 29 weekend will see the 2013 World Science Fiction Convention come to San Antonio under the name Lone Star Con 3.  Membership, transportation and hotel rates are unusually low for a worldcon, this year and if you buy before January 1st you'll save $20.

It will be a great show.  We'll be there to help provide stimulation.  Sign up and come on down!

==More stuff to ponder... ==

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban has unleashed another volley at Facebook, calling it a giant time suck.  "FB is what it is. It's a time waster," Cuban writes (all emphasis his). "That’s not to say we don’t engage, we do. We click, share and comment because it’s mindless and easy. But for some reason FB doesn’t seem to want to accept that its best purpose in life is as a huge time suck platform that we use to keep up with friends, interests and stuff. I think that they are over thinking what their network is all about."

Rare diseases affect over 250 million people worldwide, yet less than five percent of the 7,000 known rare diseases have any therapy. Now a new effort has gathered 19 companies to donate $400,000 worth of cutting edge technology, services, and cash. And yes, it involves crowd-sourcing and all that. A $10,000 prize for the best idea that will be determined by Facebook voting. To be fair: There are actually many different organizations and institutes for rare and orphaned diseases, with the Office of Rare Diseases Research and NORD being two examples. None of these organizations are inadequate and they all do great work, but the new endeavor diverges by giving all 7,000 rare diseases an equal opportunity to be researched if they just put together a proposal.

Scientists have come up with a clever way to make earthworms fabricate quantum dot nano particles out of raw materials and store them in their livers.

In 1956, on an episode of then-popular game show "I've Got a Secret," 96-year-old Samuel J. Seymour tottered out on stage, sat down gingerly beside the program's host, and proceeded to blow the audience's mind. Over ninety years earlier, he had witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Washington D.C.'s Ford Theatre.

And with that... let's say farewell to 2012.  And remember... centuries tend to really "start" on their 14th year.  What a cheery thought.


Acacia H. said...

I disagree with you concerning Peter Jackson's interpretation of The Hobbit (as I explain in the above-linked review). While there was a significant depth of material within the LotR books, "The Hobbit" suffers from a decided lack of detail. Indeed, Professor Tolkien told, rather than showed, a large portion of the book. We have numerous dialogue elements where we don't know which dwarf spoke, or where conversation itself is summed up rather than shown. Of the dwarves, three are detailed while the rest are background filler. And of those three, really it's only Thorin Oakenshield who stands out as a character outside of Bilbo himself.

Just in fleshing out the dialogue itself for the Dwarves and to further fill out Bilbo's character, the movie becomes two parts. And then you have a question of: where do these antagonists come from? Bolg? Who's he? Why does he matter? And why does he get one page of material seeing he plays an instrumental role in Thorin's fate? (Admittedly, Bolg doesn't appear in the first movie... but the antagonist who does does give a proper level of dramatic tension and also helps explain better the wargs finding the Dwarves and Bilbo.) And Bilbo's discovery of the others ALSO works better the way Jackson wrote it as it's less pure chance and more "they went to the exit using two separate paths."

The way I look at Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" compared to Tolkien's is the same way I look at an old fanfiction I wrote in 2001... and rewrote as a full novel five years later. The fanfic focused on two characters... but a second story went on in the background, unseen. This was proper because the fanfic was about those two characters, while the novel was a much grander story (which, Dr. Brin, I should probably hire you to examine sometime and advise upon).

We only were given hints about the Necromancer. We knew that Gandalf went off to investigate him and finished with that in time to help rally the Three Armies against the incursion of the Orcs and Goblins. But we had no details. Do you honestly think theatergoers would be happy having Gandalf vanish through half or more of a duology and then get a pat summary of what he was doing at the end of the movie?

No. They want to see it. Which means expanding Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien's world further. And in doing so... it becomes a grander and more fascinating story. It's no longer a story of vengeance against the Dragon Smaug by 13 Dwarves and an incidental Hobbit who was hired to steal things. It becomes Gandalf's manipulation of things to eliminate the greatest potential weapon of the Enemy before the start of the Final War.

And let's face it. If Gollum remained in the caves with the Ring and Smaug remained alive... and the Dark Lord had recruited him... Sauron would have won. He was defeated only because of a desperate gamble to send an atomic ring into the hidden firing chamber to detonate in the heart of Mordor and destroy the infrastructure of the Evil Empire. ;) Giving Sauron an unstoppable airforce (Smaug) without the atomic ring would have resulted in a total rout for the Forces of Good. ;)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Sorry Rob. I found the film bloated with an hour's worth of completely unnecessary added fluff and manic leaping around. Orcs falling like flies with Balin and Gloin and all of them nary mussing a fingernail. And one deus ex Gandalf after another.

I suppose four hours might be excusable. Maybe five. But NINE? Gimme a break.

Shava said...

The Hobbit was not Jackson's best movie, but as a three part adaptation of a fluffy little children's yarn in the development of character, a zombie flick director was the wrong (if inevitable - after his enjoyable job on LOTR) choice.

Christopher Tolkien, in Le Monde, refers to Jackson's treatment as "evisceration" the book his father wrote for him as a child.

Rhode who can separate the book firm the film will enjoy it. I am not one of them.

Tony Fisk said...

New Scientist recently had an interesting article discussing why languages evolve (secrets! Could be there's more to Babel than an old morality tale)

There's also an interesting article on why the high frame rate technique used to film the Hobbit actually distracts from the story. (Opinions seem to vary markedly. Cognitive dissonance? Can't say more since I haven't seen it yet.)

imptedar: goblin herald

Shava said...

"Those who can separate the book from" Damn mobile autocorrect...

Also I have a fully eviscerating review on my G+ blog, but I can't pull up the permalink on my phone - search Shava Nerad Hobbit review and you'll likely find it. The reviewer from Forbes and I get into dialogue in the comments, heh...

clem said...

re: ithkuil
with redundancy squished out meaningful error rates soar, and with hyperprecision making the language nonlinear and brittle, you would be way too open to the types of mistake that cost lives, (or even -gasp- money).

Jumper said...

I don't think 48fps is really the reason these critics don't like it. They seem to confuse fake sets and costumes with the medium's new clarity. But it serves as a warning that filmmakers need to work harder if their warts are being seen closer. One critic noted it appropriate for documentary, and I look forward to such as nature specials filmed at high rates. Megapixels at 24 or 30 have reached a limit wherre only fps will add most resolution for the money.

rewinn said...

"...Giving Sauron an unstoppable airforce (Smaug) ..."

When you put it that way, it helps explain the great mystery of the Council of Elrond: why not have an Eagle fly the Righbearer to Mount Doom? Evidently the Council assumed based on past experience with dragons that the air was just a bad way to go if you could avoid it.

After all, the Council couldn't know whether Sauron's air assets were exhausted. The "fell beasts" such as the Nazgul King flew at Pelennor Fields might have had another batch of pilots. Saruman's Scout Crows might have been in sufficient number to harass or cripple even the Eagles. Finally, the Eagles may have taken serious enough losses at the Battle of Five Armies than they could not count on punching through Mordor's unknown air defenses.

"One does not simply fly into Mordor".

Tim H. said...

I suppose the changes Peter Jackson makes are aimed at the people who've never read Tolkien, but they're tough to take if you have, and the non-readers would probably like it just fine the way it was. Bolg, son of Azog would've made a serviceable bad guy, and avoided the small detail that Tolkien described Azog as slain by Dain ironfoot and his head on a stake.
And I would be pleased to read about uplifted dolphins again, thank you.

Paul451 said...

So if language evolved as a method of tribal identity and exclusion, and we're seeing a vast extinction of languages, replaced by the octomonster of English... then are we seeing the end of tribalism?

So eventually there'll be just two tribes. People who speak English, and people who insist on English being spoken correctly.

[Although, tribalism within English speakers has perhaps become temporal rather than geographical. We are divided by when we stopped learning teenage slang.]

ZarPaulus said...

This "psychonetics" stuff sounds like just yet another one of the pseudo-scientific memes that have plagued this past couple centuries. Fortunately it doesn't seem to have spread much so far.

Anyways I doubt we'll be seeing any universal languages catching on, what with at least one web browser offering automatic translations at the present time. In fact I suspect we'll see more differentiation of language as people start using the internet for most long-distance business and traveling less often. Of course we might eventually get AR goggles with ai assistants that can translate speech in real time so not even two people who live close together need speak the same language.

David Brin said...

Did you guys see my riff on the Tower of Babel, at the Singularity conference a year ago?

locumranch said...

The study of meanings and their interaction is also known as Semantics.

Semantics has three basic concerns:

1) the relations of words and/or symbols to their denoted objects,

2) the relations of words and/or symbols to their interpreters, and

3) the formal relation, grammar or syntax of words and/or symbols to one another.

Language merges the topics of philosophy, symbolic logic & mathematics into a cohesive whole, so much so that we cannot discuss one topic without acknowledging its involvement with the other two.

Language can be empiric, descriptive or precise, or it can be figurative, vague or comparative.

The majority of all human suffering and superstition springs from a poor grasp of its grammar.

It is be-all and end-all of all human knowledge.


Ian said...

"So if language evolved as a method of tribal identity and exclusion, and we're seeing a vast extinction of languages, replaced by the octomonster of English... then are we seeing the end of tribalism?"

Nah, English will just evolve into a bunch of mutually incomprehensible new languages (maybe with "Classic English" as a lingua franca or a common written form

It's what happened to Arabic; Latin and Sanskrit after all.

Tacitus said...

Jackson has his flaws. He spends too much time on set piece battle scenes that are no doubt a professional challenge to orchestrate. He also really likes obese/outsized characters. King Kong. The Great Goblin. Any excuse for trolls. No doubt this is a projection of his own chubby persona.

But lets also give him credit where due. He makes Middle Earth real. And he is surprisingly good at character development. Better in some ways than Professor Tolkien. Bilbo was entirely believable. You could feel the tension at the White Council.

As a fairly serious Tolkien fan I read the appendix sections and enjoy seeing bits of them come to life. I will give him some leeway here and there...Tolkien himself did a few lesser works that used Middle Earth as a prop but had non canonical elements.

Hobbit was too much glitz, too much setting up stuff to make 3D look cool (saw it in old school 2D as usual). When he gets around to it the Battle of Five Armies will take about two hours.

But these days we have so little. Prometheus, with benefit of a few months to ponder it, sucked. I am not a fan of comic books or movies made from them.

Hobbit was a 3/4 full glass to a thirsty man.


David Brin said...

Sorry, but I have to repress hard a portion of my brain and more, when I watch such films and it always re awakens elsewhere. Like why do the golbins -- or Saruman or even the dwarves dig so hard to make vast dimly lit spaces to live in? What's with all the rickety wooden walkways? Mile after miles of rickety wooden walkways that connect... nothing.

No farms, no fungi pits or domesticated animals, no females, no offspring and in the case of the goblins... no industry either.

At least the dwarves in Eragon traded gold with the lake people outside for food. But what about light? In LOTR there's a chamber (with Balin's tomb) where sunlight streams in. Why didn't Gandalf and the others crawl out through that shaft? And wouldn't there have been escape paths to send away the women and children?

In the Fellowship flick, Gimli is surprised that Moria has fallen. But in the HOBBIT 60 years earlier his father helped Thorin try to retake Moria.

Agh. It is a curse to think logically. Gee whiz, where were the great CATTLE HERDS that feed Rohan or the FARMS that feed Gondor?

Above all... WTF is up with MORDOR???How does Sauron F3435kng feed a bazillion orcs and men in his army? Or keep them fit for battle breathing the smog. Consider how pissed off at Godorian oppression the southern men must be, to travel so far and suffer so much and enlist with red-eyed evil in order to get a chance to fight back.


iO9 has another fun riff. Predictions for 2013 from sci fi tales. They include THE POSTMAN... but with a funny/ironic oucher poke!

Stefan Jones said...

I re-read the LOTR earlier this year. The richness of it managed to push the imagery of the movies out of my head.

Mind you, I am still amazed that Jackson pulled off the LOTR adaptation. He did an amazing job. But at the same time, the movies didn't "ruin" the books for me.

I largely agree with DB's analysis of The Hobbit movie. I think the addition of the White Council and war against the "necromancer" was tolerable; seeing the wizards and high elves taking on the developing threat could be interesting.

As Tacitus mentions, Jackson does a good job at characterization; specifically, adding some character to the otherwise almost-interchangeable dwarves.

But the whole Azad sub-plot was aggravating. Azad, the pale orc, is so . . . pale. So bland and clichéd a villain! I suppose that Jackson and company felt that Thorin needed an enemy to deal with. But . . . ugh. If you cut out Azad and shortened the catwalk-fights the movie would be shorter and less tedious.
* * *
I am NOT one of these folks who feel compelled to address each and every questioning of a fictional background, but:

* Tolkien notes that Mordor's food supply comes from slave-worked farms around the "sad waters" of Lake Nurn.

* South Gondor is, at the time of the LOTR, the kingdom's population center and breadbasket. In the book version of TROTK, the battle to save Minas Tirith isn't decided by the spooky ghost legions, but by the armies from South Gondor. (The ghost armies were deployed to take on the Corsairs who would have cut off the South Gondorians.)

Well, THANKS, Brin! You've gone and made me spout off like a Tolkien scholar and fanboy, of which I am neither.

Tony Fisk said...

...but a Boing Boing scholar? Never mind. You covered some of the arguments I was going to raise;-)
Just imagine what Jackson would do with The Uplift Universe! (Garthling gorillas, my preciouss! Never toss a Tymbrini! I had a great mental image of what the Tandu looked like. Lucas stole it with his rolling Jedi butt-kicking droids)

David Brin said...

Yeah the corsairs vs ghosts was noted earlier and yes it is an acceptable simplification for film. Still, it's typical of romantics to ignore economics.

Paul451 said...

"In fact I suspect we'll see more differentiation of language as people start using the internet [automatic translation]"

KSR's Mars Trilogy (Blue, I think) had auto-translators so universal that you generally didn't know what language people were speaking because they programmed the output of their translator in whatever obscure language or accent (or poetic metre) they fancied.

(It will also ruin the author's conceit of having two diplomat/spies switching between languages in a kind of verbal duelling, to show-rather-than-tell the reader how clever and evenly-matched they are.)

"Classic" English won't be the lingua franca, just an obscure regional dialect. The lingua franca will be ESL. People who learn English as a second or subsequent language can apparently all understand each other quite well, regardless of accent and native language. Right up until a native English speaker joins the conversation and suddenly it's like being forced to do an surprise exam.

"He makes Middle Earth real. And he is surprisingly good at character development. Better in some ways than Professor Tolkien. Bilbo was entirely believable. You could feel the tension at the White Council."

Vote Peter Jackson for Star Wars episodes VII to IX?

(How the hell do I write a half in the Captcha? 222 and a half. Ornfoff? I'll say.)

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

And the comment about Gimli being surprised about Moria is simple enough: He knows about Gloin's visit, but during that sixty years, another expedition was mounted (by Balin). Gimli wouldn't know how it turned out (no Palantir-network to spread the word) so he was just being optimistic about the outcome of Balin's expedition.

I don't think the sunlight shaft is intended to be something you could crawl, or even climb. There is also considerable lore about the dwarves using mirrors to redirect sunlight, so it's likely that that shaft doesn't even go directly out.

It's true that Tolkien often didn't address the economics of the world, because he was setting out to make myth. Not to be a Tolkien apologist, but he really did a better job of addressing the economics than is typical for those explicitly setting out to create a myth.

(I'm not getting into the Peter Jackson for-or-against stuff...)

Now, with that out of the way, explain the "centuries start on their 14th year" thing, please!

David Brin said...