Thursday, June 28, 2012

Linguistic Pedantry 5

Everyone seems to have thought of the same joke at once: The sequel to Prometheus will be a James Cameron film called Prometheuses. Being the humourless pedant that I am, I just want to point out that this is wrong!

It's not Prometheii either. And nor is it Promethepode, as some geniuses have pointed out.

Prometheus is a Greek word, not Latin, and if you really want to be pedantic about the plural, you should consult the chart:


So, 'to be called ****' would mean that Prometheus would be in the accusative plural, which makes it Prometheas.

Linguistic Pedantry 4

'I walk into an empty room
And suddenly my heart goes "boom"'

Perhaps I'm a bit of a snob, but this always struck me as really lazy lyric writing. Onomatopoeic (spell check?) sounds don't ring true in rhymes, to me anyway, because you can fall back on them whenever. It's like saying, 'I love driving my car, I like the way it takes me far.' Just shove whatever sound fits.

What do you think? I'm curious to hear what other people think about it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Thus David spake, and what he said was disappointing

I went to Prometheus twice (coz I'm sad like that, deal with it) because there were many things I thought were worth appreciating about the film, even if the whole was flawed and the story populated by the most irrational desicisons to the point that when you leave the cinema there should be a bump on your forehead where you've been bashing it on the seat in front at how stupid these characters are. Yes, I went to see it twice, even with this view.

The film hinted at great minds tied together with second hand string, gum and shit. It was these hints at great minds that sent me the second time, not least because there was a big deal made of David being a linguist. Bugger all they made of that, except for one of the most interesting moments in the film. Oooh, the mystery, ooh the secrecy... what did David say to the freshly woken engineer that made him lose his rag?

Nothing much interesting it seems: link to the source of the quote below.
"These are the words that David said to the Engineer:

ida hmanâm aî kya namrrtuh zdêêtaha. gwhivah-pyorn-îttham sas daatrr kredah.

And what does it mean?

Literally it breaks down to:

this man (is) here because not-die he-desires. life_increase_wish to-him you-(can)-give he-believes."
And here there's a hint that much of the linguistics stuff was cut, which probably won't redeem the film, but it might have made it more interesting.

The Long Earth - Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

What an absolutely lovely book. I don't normally feel a need to talk politely about books, but really, this one was a pleasure to read.

It's grand, epic sci-fi, of the finest kind. There's not nary an alien warship, or Devilish consciousness to drive the plot. Just the unending curiosity that's so peculiar to human science. This is Jules Verne with a 21st Century outlook on science. It's two people on an exploration in the name of scientific discovery, with none of these peculiarly unconvincing external motives that writers nowadays seem to think a story needs to be interesting (think reigniting the dying sun with a nuclear bomb for one of the more ridiculous 'scientific' premises out there).

That's not to say there aren't cliches; There are cliches ten a penny. But these two authors are veterans (5 pages of other titles by the authors), and what's more, they complement each other perfectly and the cliches don't feel such. Baxter's scientific rigourousness and Pratchett's rational fantasy, Pratchett's charm and Baxter's directness, Baxter's serious prose and Pratchett's humour. The review on the Guardian website said this was more Baxter's work than Pratchett's. I thought that they wrote about equal amounts. Their different writing styles are fairly obvious. Pratchett likes labyrinthine sentences and doesn't like to use full-stops so much anymore. Baxter's sentences tend to be short and distinct and not very humorous. Perhaps more of the prose was Baxter's, but there are ideas and character's (the fascination with nuns, the talking drinks dispenser, Sally) that are so patently Pratchett that sometimes it felt more like someone else writing Pratchett's work for him.

Much like Pratchett's Nation, this is a celebration of life in all its multifarious (and occasionally multifactious) forms.

Serious Spoilers Review

Okay, so the first thing I want to talk about, and the thing that occurred to me most while reading this book, was how lovely is it the idea that wildlife is so friendly in worlds without humans? Obviously the wildlife is not friendly to each other, but when the humans arrive, they treat with curiosity the creatures they don't know or understand. I think this is probably the thing that makes this book so ultimately charming. These animals aren't present to serve narrative interest (well they are), they are here because that's what animals would do.

There were certain hints to the historical presence of elves (or is that elfs, these aren't Tolkein's elves) and trolls early on in the story that tie in nicely. Elves fear of iron being something that's woven directly into the rules of stepping.

Almost every biological and/or evolutionary and/or behaviourial description of the creatures in this book is a treat, especially so when it's turned around on the humans. It's nice to see humans lowered to the rank of animal, rather than self-placed on the self-made pedestal of uniquity. Having said that, the plot is driven mostly by Lobsang's desire to understand and his definition of that being almost exclusively the human trait.

The almost universal presence of elephants made me smile every time they were mentioned.

Change of topic: The nuns' almost all peversaive presence in Joshua's thoughts was a laugh, culminating in the only real laugh in the book: The scientific description of a nun given by First Person Singular.

Pratchett's other collusion for literature (Good Omens) also had a fascination with nuns, and I'd always assumed that was Neil Gaimen's doing, what with his obsession with Christianity and religious symbols. But after this book I'm thinking it's Pratchett's obessession, and I think this book makes it obviously clear.

They are a people so shrouded in symbolism that they appear as one, and yet it's not until you meet one that you can realise how bloody normal they are. He is also a man opposed to many aspects of organised religion, and yet the formation of the female monastic life has clearly produced undeniably good self- and societal- benefits. There's nothing like a bit of conflict of ideas to liven up the world.

In fact, this preoccupation with comparing appearance, humanity and life leads me to my only gripe about the book. Joshua has a contradictory character, supposedly anti-social, and yet almost anything but. You can write this off as another aspect of life: people are naturally contradictory, doing things differently to what they say. The writer's acknowledge this contradiction a few times, but to me it always felt like a back-track and edit situation rather than an intentional idea.

Still, minor gripe in an otherwise wonderful book by two authors who contrast in a most engaging way.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Storm of Swords - George R R Martin

Steel and Snow
Wow, this was long and boring. The only real things of significance were Jaime's growing relationship with Brienne, and the sudden change of wind with Lord Mormont's command. I'm sure these could have been shoe-horned into the second part of this book, and the excess dullage trimmed. Too much aimless wandering; I know this is the fall-out from a war that spread over a whole country, but if Mr Martin can knock a character out to avoid describing a battle, he could have done the same for the aimless wandering.

This is the weakness in this series, that rather than develop existing characters, Mr Martin would rather sideline them and introduce others. His love of history books shows in the endless list of names and ranks of people present in each scene.

Blood and Gold
(Spoilers ahead)

Wow, this was the first time this series has been as good as Game of Thrones. The conniving is not nearly as complex and interesting as it is in the first book, but it's where the characters and their differences really come to a head.

Throughout Steel and Snow I had an image of a man waking up every morning and trudging through another two thousand words with his coffee in hand. Through Blood and Gold I didn't imagine the writer once. The only time I noticed was when something jarring appeared in the middle of an intensive sequence, like, 'The stub of his ear was gone. That seemed to make him angry.' Of course it made him angry. But it shows Mr Martin having fun writing this.

Personally, I think this is the most entertaining of the books since GoT because Mr Martin seems to have had a realization that I've had from the very beginning: Catelyn's endearing passion and general fly-on-the-wall approach to family and politics is a frustrating and boring combination (don't get me wrong, I loved her character, but she was too frustrating), and Rob's chivalry and righteousness is not nearly as charming as it was with his father (on top of which his sudden marriage was fairly routine and tedious, an issue they have tried to deal with in the TV series). Let's kill them off!

On the other hand, the only character who's inaction was more frustrating than Catelyn's, starts to develop character, and has the most poignant moment in the entire series so far. I almost cried when she stepped out into the snow in the Eyrie and had to learn to play by herself for the first time in her life.

In other news, Tyrion's demonstrated his strengths when allowed play on the quarterdeck of politics, it's been time for him to fall and demonstrate his strengths when stuck at the bottom of the barrell. There was something about Oberyn's fight with the Mountain which made Oberyn's fall predictable; perhaps it was because Tyrion had already won against one judgement in a battle for honor. It would have been more surprising if he had won this way a second time. But Mr Martin seems to only play one move ahead of the reader. It's the wildcards like Arya's companionship with the Hound that makes this series so interesting.

I mourn for Joffrey, and after Catelyn's return, I almost hope that Joffrey does too. Out of all the Lannister's I find him compelling reading since he is so completely insane, and it's only in this book that his motivations for being so start to become clear. It would have been fascinating to watch him grow older and more insane.

Instead, we have Daenerys slow boiling. Give her a few more books and she'll be boiling over.

Time to move onto some other books before Feast for Crows. My colleague read the entire 6 books of Ice and Fire back to back. I think I would develop emotional problems if I did that.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I've head rumours if improved spelling

I've heard rumours of unproven spelling on the youth of today because of the use I'd computers and autocorrects technology. Perhaps its true, the sling nay be improving, but the correct use of words could becone aisy art.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Absolutely meh

I know it's a monosyllabic sound, three phonemes, doesn't amount to much significance that two separate languages could produce an identitcal sound. But just take a moment to admire the irony that 'meh' has been reconstructed in Proto-Indo-European studies to mean 'absolutely not'.

'dhídhēmi-dh∂kjō tū sṇtējō Madonna moghō kanō?'


Byzantium - Judith Herrin

The subtitle for this book is 'The Surprising Life Of A Medieval Empire'. For me, the most surprising thing about it was how wordy it is, how rich in names and dates the text is, and yet so empty of scientific history. I felt as if Judith Herrin loves this topic more than anything else, in the same way stamp collectors love their stamps.

What I really wanted to know was how Byzantine people lived. What I got was massive generalizations about education, and social mobility skewed towards Judith Herrin's (as she admits) own attempts to reframe our view of Byzantine success.

What I wanted to know was the sort of mentality that controlled the palacial rulers. What I got were hints of court intrigues and an avalanche of names.

I really wanted a chapter on the female emporers, because it's quite incredible that a Christian empire surrounded by equally fanatic Abrahamic nations was ruled for periods by women. They got mentioned, and Judith Herrin clearly has a lot of respect for them, but like the rest of the book the focus was unstable. (edit: Judith Herrin has written a book about the female rulers of Byzantium. It's called Women In Purple.)

Anyway, enough of the moaning. What was good?


Let's start with the most quoted extract ever written about Byzantium. Judith Herrin uses it as an explanation for why Byzantine history has been bad-mouthed and forgotten. Personally, I don't buy that, because if this is the sort of reaction that Byzantine history stokes in people, then I'd be wanting to know more.
"Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that in consitutues, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet 'mean' may be so empthatically applied... The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude."
Byzantine history is surely all of these things. But then, so is Roman and Greek history... and that of the royal families of Europe, and Asia... in fact, the aristocracy have almost always behaved abysmally. So, this doesn't explain why so much of Byzantine history has been lost.

Or has it been lost? Has it been covered up?

The answer to both those questions is 'yes'. The fall of Byzantium is an embarrassment to Christiandom, since it was at the hands of Crusaders under encouragement and blessings from the Pope and the Doge who sacked Constantinople and started it's fall from power. These were the crusaders who were going to fight the Arabs and seize back Jerusalem. Except, they sacked Constantinople and didn't make it any further, preferring to occupy the city.

How can you justify that? You can't really, can you. Even more embarrassing is that 50 years later the Byzantine emporer managed to seize the city back, even though it was too late and too weakened to ever recover.

So what do you do? Label them heretics, barbarians, base creatures. Steal everything worthwhile and paint the rest black.

The Byzantines considered themselves Romans as well, right through to the end, and it's this same question that Judith Herrin is trying to answer about them: What did the Byzantines ever do for us?

Aside from some spectacular diplomacy and negotiation skills that managed to keep the Muslim advance out of Europe, they gave us the template for our modern law books, kept much of Greek philosophy alive, and greatly informed Mediterranean and Islamic art.

There's so much stress in this book on the Byzantines' acceptance of social mobility that the entire point of the book is bent around the idea. Education was a primary element of Byzantine culture (though she glosses over the issue of the working masses tending to be educated in religion), in fact, secular education was relatively common, with law, Greek philosophy and mathemetics being the most common subjects. Reading was paramount. And this education permitted a degree of social mobility that just didn't exist in many other medieval cultures.

The education and beaurocracy of the empire was so strong that when the crusaders sacked Constantinople, the individual cities, towns and states were able to carry on for another 200 odd years in the same vein without any central empirical leadership.

The three examples that are always given to exemplify the Byzantine's openness to social mobility are the emporers Basil II, Zoe, and Theodora. An Armenian slave and two women.

As popular history this book spends far too long on the petty squabbles of Western and Eastern Christianity (if only I had a pound for every time the argument about levened or unlevened bread was mentioned), and not enough time on the mob. This was a culture where the mob actually ruled. The emporers stayed empiric by pleasing the mob. There were grand games, and side-shows, everything the emporer did in public was propganda in spectacular proportions. Entertainment was so important to the masses that they accepted Emporer Justinian marrying a circus girl (Theodora).

A bit less about the artistic styles and petty Christian disputes and a bit more about the daily life of the standard person and this would have been a magnificent introduction to Byzantine history.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


I found this short story Ray Bradbury wrote for Weird Science's 2nd issue.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Linguistic Pedantry 3

My boyfriend successfully changed the subject from an increasingly awkward and frustrating conversation about when, where and whether either of us had seen our housemate.

"/ju:dɪdwɔ:t/?" he asked.

"/aɪsɔ:rɪmlɑ:stnaɪt/," I repeated.

"/ju:dɪdənthævtu:kʌthɪmʌp/" my boyfriend replied, pointedly enunciating every sound.

Useless Work versus Useless Toil - William Morris

I've read a few essays over the years about the benefits of a more idle society, the other most prominant essay being Bertrand Russell's In Praise Of Idleness. I really don't understand why these views aren't more appreciated; Are people really so used to the ethic of work that spending time with themselves doesn't seem attractive?

William Morris writes here that useless work is work forced on the masses by the capitalist self-interest of the non-working classes, and useless toil is the extra work forced on the working classes by the capitalist self-interest of the upper classes in the production of cheap and quickly deterioirating commodities. (He says this much more elegantly than me, but I paraphrase brutally).

In place of this system he proposes the upper classes give the working classes a bit of leeway in order to produce more long-lasting commodities, thus less labour is later spent on their production and is available for more demanding projects (such as social aid).

Fantastic food for thought, but does it still apply?

My first thought while reading this was that Bertrand Russell's In Praise Of Idleness is a clear companion piece, updated for a more modern application.

In Praise of Idleness - Bertrand Russell

Some (incomplete) thoughts, in no particular order:
  • Morris doesn't seem to believe in facts and figures, more about getting the idea out there. So, for the purposes of this post, I'm going to do the same.
  • Morris writes that the artistry in manufacture and the beauty of pride in production has been lost, and that personal ornamenation has to be commissioned nowadays. This is probably a lot more true in the west now than when Morris wrote it. In this age of mass-production commodities can't afford to be personalised. They slow the process down. So, 'What is this stuff we call art, then?' I can imagine Morris asking today. He certainly seems to believe that the quality of artistry is marked in its individuality. Which is strange for a man best remembered for his tiled flower prints. In this case he seems more pre-occupied with giving the working-classes furniture to be proud of, rather more than practical.

    A quote: "On the other hand, the ornamental part of modern life is already rotten to the core, and must be swept away before the new order is realised. There is nothing of it - there is nothing which could come of it that could satisfy the aspirations of men set free from the tyranny of commercialism."

    Through a variety of connected reasons this made me think of modern entertainment: magazines, radio, TV, film, internet, computer games. What do we in the west do with our idle time? Mostly these things. Why? Because we're too damn tired after 8-9 hours (possibly shift) work to be engaging with something intellectually. You can, if you want to, engage with this things intellectually (which is called geekery). But mostly it's junk, produced quickly, mechanically, for your passive entertainment.

  • A glimmer of hope, a sign that his dream of idleness could become a reality: Morris invokes the existence of machines and their potential to provide more idle time, and the fact that manufacturers use them to increase the need for more commodities.

    50 years later, on the verge of the first truly mechanised war, Russell points out that the machines don't just augment production, they can be fully automated. And yet, we're still no more idle than before.

    For sure, we now use these machines to mass produce pieces of art, that serve to unite entire countries under certain forms of propaganda. *cough* globalisation *cough*

  • The upper classes are like beggars, a burden on society for taking things for free. Lol. It's funny because it's true.