Archive for April, 2009

The matter of the express train

April 30, 2009

Consider the following list:

  • a Stradivarius violin
  • a German Shepherd (dog)
  • E chord
  • second
  • mile
  • sword

It’s nothing unusual if you read a fantasy story, a story in a world of its own, a world different from ours, and come across a mention of a sword. Swords are simple things.

How about a mention of some location being “a mile away”? Miles are a unit of our world, but not a very high-profile one. They’re basic: originally from mille passuum, Latin for a thousand paces. Almost no-one would say using the word “mile” in a different, imaginary world would be cheating, not any more than “sword” would be — all (s)words have their origins!

How about a second, then? That’s one of our units too, and one so precise it was unknown (or so I assume) to the medievals of our world. Saying that farmer Wergloof of some secondary world “waited five seconds, and then sprang” would thus be a double implausibility — first, it’s a word our equivalent farmer wouldn’t know, and it’s a word alien to Wergloof’s world anyway. (It would be a bit more plausible if it wasn’t Wergloof counting the time, but some shadowy narrator. Or Wergloof could “wait five heartbeats”, or “count to five”, or so on.)

You can probably see where I am going here.

The list above is so constructed that each step up demands a bit bigger intrusion of our world into the secondary world of the story. Miles and seconds are both necessary and not overly intrusive; saying that brave hunter Yeesh came, his two giant German Shepherds in tow — well, that’s a bit jarring. There’s no Germany in the Higher Planes of Pa-toom. Or, worse still, “the sound of harper Harpmeister’s new instrument in the high halls of Zik-Zak rivalled that of a fine Stradivarius violin; everyone was crying by the time he stopped”.

I would be crying, too, if I ever read that somewhere.

This problem is, incidentally, something that Tolkien talked of in the introductions and appendices to the Lord of the Rings: his conceit that the book is translated “from the Red Book of Westmarch”. This explains the notorious reference to something with a sound “like an express train” — something even more out-of-place than a Stradivarius violin would be! — since an English narrator of that time could be expected to use references familiar to him.

Tolkien didn’t stop there — he “translated” the Common Language of the westlands into English, and as that second-world language was posited to be related to the more archaic language of Rohan, he made up the place-names (like Edoras) and people-names (like Eowyn) of Rohan as actual, realistic names in our English’s ancestor, Old English! That’s consistency — and also crazy mad troublesome unless that’s what you do for your living, like Tolkien did.

The Rings’ appendices have a few words on mapping Elvish and Hobbit-ish month names to those of our own — and that’s a good example of the other side of this problem, since while an express train is a disorienting intrusion from our side, saying that “it was Ivanneth turning to Narbeleth” would be just the opposite — a disorienting intrusion from the other side. (And you have to have, in a mightily useful coincidence, a world where time is counted with something like twelve subdivisions of a year!)

That’s the problem: you can make a different world, a secondary world, but (unless you are brilliant or insane) you can’t tell your stories without the languages of our world. (I have a terrible feeling that Tolkien, if immortal, would have eventually produced “the Quenta Silmarillion, as receiv’d from Valinor to Numenor, prefented in its original Quenya, with diverfe notes in Sindarin” — and if there was such a thing, I would buy it.) And even if you allow the narrator to use the words of our world, sooner or later some character has to speak and mention units of distance or time — and will it be Ivanneth or September?

How much is enough but not too much? What do you translate? Do you have the sound of express trains or the tumult of the fall of Beleriand? Which language of those in the secondary world do you translate as English? Do you translate the place names — do you use just Rivendell (which is English) or Imladris (which is in-world Sindarin)? Or do you do a Tolkien and pretend that Rivendell (English) is used to correspond to Karningul (Westron), while Imladris (Sindarin) is not translated? How about personal names — do you want your reader to spend one hundred pages thinking that Ama is a woman, even if in High Glompian -a is a male suffix, just the opposite to what is common round here; or do you use our-world names: Ambrose (Greek for “immortal”), Christopher (Greek for “bearing Christ inside”; try explaining that in a different world!), Ragnar, Peter, Joey, Bob? (Warning: Apoplexy follows if I see a serious fantasy with something named “Joey” or “Bob” in it.) Is it fine to steal names from obscure our-world sources, like the Forgotten Realms with its goddess Mielikki, an actual, real Finnish old-age forest goddess, and Kiputytto, a weird vowel away from Kiputyttö, Finnish for Pain-Girl? Or how about doing like Robert Jordan, whose Wheel of Time has trolloc-monster clans with vaguely familiar names like “Dhai’mon” and “Dha’vol”, echoing demon and devil? (Or “Bhan’sheen”!) Is it worth the hassle to have a week of eight days (Discworld does), or do you have some other unit, like “span”, whose length a lazy reader like me can never remember — and how on earth do you refer to an E chord without a two-page footnote if you have an original system of musical scales? Mercury and antimony are easy, since they’re just “new” labels for existing things, but chords are a purely theoretical structure, which could just as well be (I suppose) vastly different! What about wordplay — do you trust the reader to reckon that a witty pun in English is just substituted for one in the original Common Speech (like Baranduin/Brandywine and Branda-nin/Bralda-him in Tolkien; see the appendices)? Where’s the balance between window-dressing and a floundering reader, or the one between a diverse vocabulary (anchored deep in our world) and weak, sketchy, general verbiage (which is “world-neutral”)? How much do you change things for a good “translation”?

Don’t ask me for answers.

Since most fantasy-writers don’t (and thank the empty heavens for that!) foreword their works with “this was translated from the Dread Brass Tube-Cylinders of P’nath; any inconsistencies of style are the result of adapting the diverse idioms of High Tofuan to English; place-names in other languages are left untranslated”, this problem of (pretending) mapping the words of a secondary world into those of our own remains, implicit and harmless to the reader unless some choice of words makes her wonder who’s telling the tale.

It’s not a problem unless you tend to get drawn into these things; as should be clear from the above, I tend to.

And thus, consequently, the writer has to be careful, and most probably keep the tale bereft of German Shepherds. Or invent a “new” breed — a Doitsi Shepherd dog? — and spend a few sentences describing a hound by another name. (“O German Shepherd dog, wherefore art thou a German Shepherd dog? That which we call a German Shepherd dog by any other word would do as well — okay, enough mangling Shakespeare.”)

It must be interesting to write long, long novels with an added difficulty like that, thinking which language out there is the one translated as English, and whether seven-day weeks and twelve-month years (or, in a more fundamental difference, 365-day years!) are a bit much. It’s like translating a book from a different language, except this language is supposed to be spoken in a world absolutely divorced from our own.

(These observations were sparked by a reference to an E chord in the Name of the Wind, an immensely readable and hugely admirable book by Patrick Rothfuss, whose writing is like honey to my ears, except less likely to make me go “Eww! A towel! Quick! I’ve got fricking honey in my ears!” His blog is good too, but in a different way: the book is big and mythic, the blog is “Muppet? Thanks a lot Rothfuss, now I got a quart of milk in my sinuses!” funny.)

(One more note: Yes, I know the titular express train was a bit of a leftover from the mode Tolkien told the Hobbit, a children’s book, in, before sobering up a few hundred pages into the Lord of the Rings and out of the Shire. But as I know very little about kiddie lit, I can’t offer any insights about that specific point.)


April 29, 2009

Whenever I walk out after seeing a Ghibli movie, I find myself smiling a goofy little smile, feeling about 60% happy and 40% wistful.

It’s a feeling worth looking for.

Here’s a bit of music from Laputa for you; seems to be doing the rounds in Finnish movie theatres nowadays. (Note to Spanish-speakers: not what you’re thinking about.)

(Oh, and parusu is the sad word of destruction in that movie. Unless it’s balse or balus or something else; people seem to disagree. Pesky words that must never be spoken.)

The Parable of the Offended Man

April 29, 2009

One day a man called Lucius was walking towards a supermarket when another, a big, burly man, stopped him and said: “You offend me, sir.”

When Lucius then asked the other how he had caused offense, the other growled and said: “There are many reasons. You are no perfect man. You covet, you blaspheme, you do not follow the Law.”

“What law might that be?” Lucius asked, but the other merely flexed his muscles and growled again.

“Now, since I’m a nice guy”, the other said, drawing a long, heavy nail, like some crude stiletto, from a deep pocket, “I’m going to do something about that.”

Lucius naturally cringed, but no harm came to him: the big man pushed the nail into his own left bicep, grimacing with pain, eyes rolling in his sweaty face like marbles in a dishwasher. Some froth was involved in the regions of his mouth, too. After a while he pulled the nail out, wrapped a bandage around his arm, and smiled. “There.”

Lucius, unsure of what to say, merely repeated this: “There?”

“Now I’ve forgiven you all your offenses against me.”


“Usually, when someone offends me, I do pretty ugly things to them — that nail thing for starters, then something with pitchforks. But since I’m a nice guy, I decided I’ll take it on myself, on a condition. So run along now, little man. As long as you remember this, you’re alright in my eyes. If not, well…”

And he chuckled, his eyes twinkling like moonlight on a sea of raised knives.

“Er, right”, Lucius muttered, and then staggered back from the angrily flexing bloody bicep as it was thrust towards him.

“Listen, you idiot! Don’t you value the suffering I went through for you? I’d have beaten you to bloody pulp otherwise, you moron!”

Lucius smiled a rictus, nodded, and then ran. Thanks to blood loss and the timely arrival of the nice men in white coats, he got away.

* * *

And that was another installment of “What if God was a man? And other instances of weird religion!“, the subject today being the Crucifixion, the great “Er, did you need to do that?” moment of Christian metaphysics.

Rin-ne reading

April 28, 2009

After several days of swearing like a Turcoman, I finally found a way to read Rin-ne. You remember? Rumiko Takahashi’s new series, free and official in the net in English courtesy of Viz, if you happen to be in that 4.52% of the world population that call the US its home.

The methods to read Rin-ne if you’re elsewhere — well, I point you to this thread.

And what did I think? Well, looks like a mixture of Ranma and Inuyasha: not quite as comedic as the first, not quite as serious and dramatic as the second. Could go bad, could go well. I withhold judgment for now.

And no, I won’t make such a lengthy, noncommittal post about every new chapter — I just still can’t say which way Takahashi will dive with this.

Though in the unlikely event that I didn’t end up liking the result, the post-title “Rin-nah!” is inevitable.

It was weird reading Rin-ne, though; I’ve known all of Takahashi’s series for so long that having something all-new was a bit scary. (A note on one other series — the One-Pound Gospel. Recently bought the completed four volumes, and enjoyed it more than you would think, a sports-loathing atheist reading a manga about a boxer in love with a nun. Very sly and very enjoyable Rumiko, that. Recommended for a snack while waiting for more of the new.)


April 28, 2009

Either CNN mangles, or someone just said something funny. About the swine flu being talked about a lot where people talk a lot about things talked about:

Some observers say Twitter — a micro-blogging site where users post 140-character messages — has become a hotbed of unnecessary hype and misinformation about the outbreak, which is thought to have claimed more than 100 lives in Mexico.

“This is a good example of why [Twitter is] headed in that wrong direction, because it’s just propagating fear amongst people as opposed to seeking actual solutions or key information,” said Brennon Slattery, a contributing writer for PC World. “The swine flu thing came really at the crux of a media revolution.”


Slattery, the PC World writer, said he generally was excited about Twitter until recently. Now he finds the site to be “an incredibly unreliable source of information.”

So, Twitter is “an incredibly unreliable source of information”.

When has Twitter even pretended to be a reliable source of information? Socialization, yes, conversation, yes, personal updates, lies and random snips of stuff, yes, but a reliable source of information? Not a part of the idea. It’s like the world around it: a few rational voices, a whole lot of screaming semi-baboon lunatics.

If you ask me (why doesn’t anyone ask?), it’s silly to even suggest Twitter should be a Wikipedia, or a CNN substitute. It’s much more like a crowded room full of chattering people. For an example, a while ago, when Stephen Hawking was hospitalized, I kept an eye on the Twitter search page for “stephen hawking”: not because I was inclined to believe any random stranger, but because it was the equivalent of looking for the disheveled guy that runs into the room, screaming “The Daily says Hitler is dead!”

Twitter is, generally speaking, no reliable source of information (and it’s both unrealistic and missing the point to wish it was), but it can be a pretty good way to direct yourself to actual reliable sources as they pop up. In the Hawking case, I saw that no-one posted (tweeted?) “ZOMG Stephen Hawking dead => [link to news site]”, so Steve most probably was still alive; that’s a way Twitter can be a source of very reliable information. Not a newspaper, but the guy that runs in waving a linky copy of the paper, screaming the still-wet headline at the top of his lungs.

If he’s just screaming and waving, well, no such authority or reliability. (That’s “original research” in Wikipedia-speak.)

The “key information” is on Twitter, or at least linked to on Twitter, if you are interested in it and just bother to look for it; but the ugly truth is that most people are gullible, er, twits. It’s no fault of Twitter and nothing new that people tend to be uncritical and prone to hysteria. That’s where this little thing called skepticism should come in… and if it doesn’t, it’s no problem of Twitter’s.

As for Twitter “not seeking solutions” — well, I kindly note that WordPress hasn’t cured AIDS yet, either. And in a newsflash, your local bar isn’t actually “seeking actual solutions or key information” to the much-talked-about fire on the east side of the town either! There are places for jawing and rumor, and places for reliable news and medical advice. Expecting Twitter to consistently be the latter is silly. And expecting the whole of Twitter to be what the best parts of it — or the worst parts — are is even sillier.

Read the quote above and replace “Twitter” with “the coffee-houses of New York” to see what I mean. Partly true, and wholly beside the point.

But the silliness continues:

Unofficial swine flu information on Twitter may lead people to unwise decisions, said Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute and a blogger on

For example, some Twitter users told their followers to stop eating pork, he said. Health officials have not advised that precaution.

Well, thanks for stating the blindingly obvious. Any information can lead a gullible fella into unwise decisions. You shouldn’t trust strangers. Twitter is the least of your problems if you believe all you hear. It’s funny how CNN can treat this one instance of old-fashioned rumor-mongering as something big and important — but then again, though the message is old, the means are something new and shiny!

Also, their headline for this? “Swine flu creates controversy on Twitter”.

Aaargh. Pox on you, manufacturers of false controversy! Pox on you! A pox!

What controversy is this? The common people echoing their thoughts, repeating rumors, passing on ill-considered pieces of advice, voicing personal opinions, just saying they’re afraid, or joking or even lying to bait the gullible or the easily scared — nothing new. Nothing dramatic. Nothing that needs fixing.

As to the fact that a whopping two percent of tweets are about the swine flu — well, it would not surprise me if two percent of all conversation these days was about it. Nothing scary in that fact. Nothing unusual in people jawing and rumor-mongering, without pretense of expertise or authority. Nothing different from the overheard chatter at your local coffee shop, or the cooler coffeehour conference at work. Listener (or reader) beware, that’s all.

The chaos is the charm of it. Okay?

* * *

Personal note: I don’t twitter… yet. Maybe I’ll get an account one day, see how that works out. Though of course I cannot hope to top the genius of others. (No sarcasm. Seriously, that is brilliant. Useless, gross… and brilliant.)

Humble pi

April 27, 2009

Doctor Y, describing something that will eventually be a paper by him and his collaborators.

“Next, we do something clever.”

A slight pause.

“Well, this reasoning comes originally from X, so I can say it is clever, because I’m not saying we’re clever.”

Then he continues.

This is what mathematicians are like. Excepting a few instances of human failure, we are decent folks. (The exceptions linked to are a Luddite terrorist, a familicidal lunatic and two Nazis. Eh, even in the best families…)

Bickering on a beach

April 27, 2009

A man looked back at his life as a walk on a beach: a part of the way the footsteps of Jesus were there alongside his, but they disappeared whenever there had been a particularly hard patch in his walk: and the man cried up to heavens, “My God, why did you leave me to walk those hardest parts of my life alone?”

And there was a voice, somewhat smug, in answer: “Look harder, friend. Those were the patches where you couldn’t go on alone, and I carried you.

The man looked, and then spoke again: “Dear Lord, it does look like those single steps are from my sneakers.”

After a while, there was again an answering voice: “Well, if I carried you, you didn’t need shoes, did you? It’s no fun walking in wet sand in sandals. So I borrowed your sneakers — no big deal!”

The man looked even closer, and scratched his head. “O my light, I do not wish to disagree, but these steps are as light as my own. Shouldn’t our combined weight have made deeper steps than these?”

“Well, obviously I weigh nothing. I am God, insubstantial, immaterial. Even ethereal. I leave no traces.”

“How about those footsteps, er, sandal-traces, when you walked alone?”

“Foolish mortal! It’s my beach and I’ll leave tracks if I want to!”

“But — but I remember walking those awful stretches, walking alone, full of despair! How can that be if you carried me?”

There was a blast of benevolent laughter from above. “Simple. I played with your head. And that time that nice clerk gave you a discount, and that dog what whizzed on you when your tongue was frozen to the pole, freeing you — well, that was me, too!

Looking back on the 21st century

April 25, 2009

Author’s note: I have no idea where this came from. And yes, for a reason that will become apparent as you read the fiction below, it’s meant to be the 21st century.

And though this is labelled ‘fiction’ — as this is a future history I don’t think is quite the most likely, told by a narrator with whom I don’t quite agree and who is something of a dick — this is a bit of a rant, too.

* * *

Well, Jesus didn’t come back. No Heaven on Earth. Instead the 21st century went to Hell, metaphorically speaking. There were several components to this.

First, global warming. Life became a bit difficult in Bangladesh and the Netherlands, but no-one cared much. Polar bears went extinct, but no-one elsewhere cared much. People are funny that way. No killer tornadoes, no giant tidal waves — no trouble! If the disaster comes slowly enough, gradually enough, people simply don’t care — like the lobster that will boil to death without protesting if you warm the water it’s in ever so slowly.

Well, then the droughts started. Changing rain patterns doesn’t sound so bad until you remember it means one poor sod drowning in a flood while another slashes open the throat of a neighbor just to have anything, anything, to drink. Poor people started killing each other for water — for simple drinking water, irrigation water, cooking water. Maybe even for bathing water; we humans don’t need a whole lot to go killing, looting and raping. The whole sub-Saharan Africa went crazy first, then all the other places. And then people running away become a flood of their own.

Wouldn’t have wanted to be a lone border guard that heard the thunder of feet and saw ten thousand ragged, hungry refugees coming, intent on getting to the supposed paradise called Europe. Guarding against illegal border-crossers is something that really doesn’t scale well.

And how could you stop people whose only crime is illusory hope?

Second, things started running out. Things like phosphates and oil and coal. Not a single one of them was absolutely necessary and vital, but guess what: people that make their money out of oil want to continue making their money out of oil; and people that use gasoline are used to using it and don’t want no changes until they absolutely have to change.

The lobster in warming water again, you see. Too slow warming to be a warning.

As a result, when oil ran out, there was a very nasty drop, a gap, before anything else got any traction. And that gap basically meant people with deer skulls on their heads shooting each other with AK-47s to get a gallon of the car-moving liquid.

I believe the photograph to which I refer was taken in, um, Chicago, I think. Though commenters of American origin — Chicago was a part of the US until the end — would be quick to point out the AK is a Russkie gun, and the deer-capped fellow was a French immigrant. And the oil was from the last wells of Umma Arabia.

It’s funny, in a very sick way, that when the US gas riots started, the very first people to get lynched or vehicle-immolated were those with electric cars. I guess the logic was “How dare that bastard have a running car when I don’t?”

The phosphate shortage — well, that’s the stuff fertilizers are made of, so there had to be some quick improvisation. There were a couple of years when “worth a shit” was worth quite a lot, thank you very much. My grandfather made a killing in that business.

Not in the same sense as that German, though — the late and unlamented Klaus “Corpse Fertilizer” Münich.



April 24, 2009

“We’re sorry, this content is not available in your region. Go to home.”

Viz, today I hate you. There should be no regions in the Internet. (Dear reader, if in US, you can apparently and officially read the first chapter of Rumiko Takahashi’s Rin-ne online for free.)

A better Bible: some suggestions

April 23, 2009

Well; let us suppose I am God. Let us suppose I want to give down some divine revelation.

Here are a few things about the Bible I would do differently.

* * *