August 28, 2007

I meant to say something about this a few months ago right after I read the book, but now is as good a time as any.

Anyway – back in July, I read the books Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete by Gene Wolfe. The premise is, there is a soldier in ancient Greece, named Latro, who received a wound in battle and now has no long term memory – he forgets everything in 12 hours or so (though this increases as time passes and at the end he can remember the past about 18 hours). This loss, however, has made him able to see what others cannot – the supernatural. He can see the gods, who have some special plan for him that he doesn’t understand.

There were many things I liked about the books. What I want to talk about, though, is the proper nouns found in it. Specifically, the geographic names. They’re in ancient Greece, so they’re dealing with cities like Athens, Sparta, Corinth, etc. But Athens is called “Thought”, Sparta is called “Rope” (and its inhabitants “Rope-Makers”), and Corinth “Tower Hill”. Thessaly (I think) is called Horseland, Egypt “Riverland”, the Peleponnesian peninsula is “the Silent Country”, and so on.

These seem to be pretty much direct translations from the Greek (though I don’t know Greek). Athens is named for Athena, Athena is the goddess of Thought, which means that her name basically means thought, and anything named after her is named after thought. Corinth is apparently just a description of what the city is; a tower on a hill.

Yet calling the cities Rope, Thought, Tower Hill, etc, seems very strange to the modern reader. This isn’t just because we know the real names of the places and we’d expect them to have those names. It’s also because names aren’t, in modern languages, supposed to be normal words. Think of the names of various countries; none of them mean anything in English other than ‘this place on a map’. Some of them mean things in ancient languages, like Latin. Some are named after people – Washington D.C., for example, or  San Francisco. But very few are normal English words. Some are, but most aren’t. (I do wonder if this is true for only English, or for other modern languages as well. I’m not sure about that, but I suspect it is.)

Why is this? Since we’re talking about philology, I’m going to bring Tolkien into this. The Elves when they first awaken call themselves Quendi, “The Speakers”. But that is the only place quend* is used. “Quenya” is the name of the language. I read a book that claimed that, as soon as they called themselves Quendi, the stem quend* became a proper name and they didn’t use it any more to refer to speaking. So there are related words, but once Elves became “Quendi”, the term “Quendi” doesn’t mean “speaker”, it just means “elf”. It seems to me that the same process occurred for place names. Athens might have once meant, essentially, “Thought”, but now it is just the name of a city in Greece. As soon as there was a goddess named Athena and a city named after her (or really a bit afterwards), Athen* stopped meaning “thought”.

I don’t know how long this process takes, but it seems to me that it is accelerating in the modern day – because we are forced to actively give names to things. The city is called “Athens” because its patron goddess is “Athena” who is called that because she is Thought. The word thought just came to mean Athena and then Athens. They didn’t come to the acropolis, post a flag and say, “This is Athens”. The name evolved organically. Compare that to how cities are made in the United States.

This seems to me like a very important thing to remember when making up names for a made-up world. Just because we very self-consciously give places names nowadays doesn’t mean that’s how names are normally made. You can’t just randomly assign names to places and expect it to sound authentic.


Well, I’m Back

August 25, 2007

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks in a small cabin with no internet access (in the Texas hill country around Austin, in case you’re wondering). Thus my lack of postings. But now, as Sawise Gamgee said, “Well, I’m back”.
During that time I got a decent amount of reading done – less than I could have, but a decent amount… here’s a rather short review of the three books I read.

Book 1 – Gamma: Euler’s Constant, by Julian Havil. 4/5 stars.

I’ve read mathematical history books before, and this one was a bit more mathematically intensive than any I’ve read before. Which made it more challenging to read. it was definitely worth it, though it took me about three months to get all the way through it (I often set it down for weeks at a time for various reasons).

One of the strange things about this book, I thought, is that it is supposedly about the number gamma (0.57721… ), but halfway through the book it switches to just talking about the harmonic series in general. This appears to be because the number gamma is too mysterious currently to say much about. We don’t even know if it’s rational, algebraic or transcendental…

Book 2 – The Lord of the Rings. by J.R.R. Tolkien the Mythopoeist. 5/5 stars.

I hadn’t read LotR in a few years so I decided to sit down and go through it. I’ve obviously already read it, and my opinion on it didn’t change, but I did notice some things that I had forgotten about that are worth mentioning.

The poetry! I had forgotten how many poems there were in the books – and how much of the Silmarillion material was contained in them. It would have been very interesting, I think, to have first read LotR in the years before 1973, before you could easily figure out who exactly Elbereth was, or Earendil. As it is, I already knew what the poems were referring to before I read it.

The connection between Aragorn and Arwen is much less emphasized in the book proper than I had remembered. It must be the movies screwing with my memory. The possible romance between Eowyn and Aragorn is much more ambiguous in the books, I thought.

I read through all the appendices (yes, ALL of them – including the ones about the calendars, the languages and the alphabets). There were actually some things I had never known before – for example, about the Forodwaith and the history of Arnor. That was cool, learning that. There was also some kind of disconcerting stuff about the languages of Rohan and the hobbits. it is clear that the Rohirrim don’t actually speak Anglo-Saxon, nor the hobbits English. I understand why they are presented as doing so. Still, it seems odd to me that the characters’ names as presented in the books are not those they actually had. I’m OK with “Frodo” actually being “Froda” – but, for example, I find it odd that “Merry” was actually “Kalimac”, and that “Eomer” and “Eowyn” were almost certain something completely different. Whatever.

Anyway, the rest of the book was just as cool as I remembered.

Book 3 – Atonement, by Ian McEwan. 2/5 stars.

I honestly don’t know why I read this book. I don’t often read modern fiction, which this certainly is. My basic judgement is – extremely well written, but not very substantial. Which I guess the author intended, since the book is really about the act of writing and it’s very self-referential.

It isn’t that I think it is a bad book, because it’s not. And it deals with some issues I’m interested in (though a lot of it I’m not). But overall I don’t plan on reading more like it.

The Spark

August 10, 2007

As long as I can remember I’ve loved making up stories. It’s never mattered much whether I wrote the stories down, or whether I remembered them, particularly, though as I’ve aged my ambitions have grown and I do tend to write a lot more down than I did when I was, say, ten.Long long ago, when my LEGO castle was much more primitive than it is right now, there was the land of the Ninja Knights (for some reason I really liked ninjas back then), whose castle was at the top of a completely vertical cliff (i.e. a dresser) which could only be descended using a secret passageway, and the attacking hordes of slugs and socks were always brutally defeated.

(Then it turned out that the slugs and socks were actually from another dimension, and they returned there, to Slugtopia, where they were at war with a race of Freaks (invented by my brother) who ended up slaying Red Slug and taking control of the surface (though the underground tunnels were never completely cleared). That morphed into the land of Wadish Rac, which was as you might have guessed more of an absurdia than a real mythical world.)

And then when I was in seventh grade, I had the plot of a three-volume fantasy epic planned out. It had something to do with phoenixes, reincarnation, and parallel timelines. The “Phoenix Warrior” was the hero who would always be reincarnated when his people were in danger. He led his people by boat from the eastern shores of the continent, where they were persecuted by the evil Sea-raiders. Then a thousand years later or so he was needed again to defend the great city he had founded, and then a thousand years later he had to go to the island of the Sun to retrieve some sort of phoenix egg. Or something like that, I’m not entirely certain how it all worked. That’s as much as I can remember, and only about half of it is entirely correct, probably.

Then I started playing Wesnoth, I started writing campaigns for Wesnoth, and before I knew it I had started work on Orbivm. I now have not only the world of Orbis Terrarum (which is complicated enough) to work on, but about three other stories of varying complexity that I mean to eventually write, each of which will require at least a novella in length, and a bunch of short story ideas.

Anyway, the point of this discussion is that I have always put a great deal of energy into mythopoeia. At different stages in my life it has possessed me to varying degrees; now it is probably stronger than any times previously. And I wonder what I would do if I did not put all of this energy into it. I don’t understand how other people go through life without desiring to write stories – or make music, or draw art, or explore mathematics. I know that many people do have that desire, and some do and some don’t act upon it; but what of all those who do not?

This lack of desire seems completely foreign to me. Yet people with just such a lack certainly seem to be the majority. So I ask: What exactly do these people spend their lives doing?

I understand that the banalities of life easily eat up time and don’t leave a lot of it free to do stuff like write stories. But I simply can’t see living that boring a life with no attempt to break free. I’m imagining the life of some random grunt worker, blue or white collar, and wondering how I would not go insane living that life. So tell me: is it that these people actually do something interesting that I just don’t see, or is it that life really is that boring for most people and they just accept it? And if so, how do they manage to do it?


August 8, 2007

Unfortunately, I must report that Barry Bonds has hit his 756th home run, moving past Hank Aaron for first place on the all-time home run list. He now is in sole possession of the record.

If you don’t know why I would view this even with such distaste, or why I put that asterisk in the title – let it be known that Barry Bonds is a known cheater. He’s admitted to taking steroids (though he said he didn’t know about them – as if I believe that). Yet he goes on unpunished, allowed to break baseball’s most hallowed record. And now the all-time triple crown – batting average, hits, and home runs – is held by a racist (Ty Cobb), a gambler (Pete Rose), and a cheat. That doesn’t reflect well on the sport.

But in San Francisco, everybody loves Barry Bonds.

I don’t understand this, really. He’s on their team, and so they can ignore the fact that he’s a foul cancer in the sport? I suppose allegiance to team takes precedence over all else.

And this isn’t specific to the Giants. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, for example, is thought to have used steroids (though it’s nowhere near as certain as the fact that Bonds did), but we in Texas still love him. (I still cheer for him when he comes to the ballpark as an opposing player… after all, it was Tom Hicks who drove him away, not him who voluntarily left.) Why does this seem acceptable to us, and essentially everybody around baseball (Pudge isn’t universally reviled, far from it), while Barry Bonds is seen as the devil incarnate?

I think part of the reason has to do with him being such an unlikeable person. He intentionally gets people to hate him. With a personality like that, it’s no surprise he has few supporters outside of San Francisco – where they support him not because they like him, particularly, but because he’s theirs – they’re the ones benefiting from his cheating.

Anyway, it seems like the moral judgements we pass on people depend a lot, probably way too much, on how much we respect the person and on whether we have any personal interest in the person doing well. Pudge is loved because he’s a likable guy, and even more so in the cities where he’s played and brought success, even though he probably used steroids. While Barry Bonds is universally detested, except in his city of San Francisco, because he’s such a dislikable guy and no one wants him to do well except Giants fans – his using steroids is the purported cause for the hatred, but it probably goes beyond that..

Does this mean I should actually forgive Bonds and not grudge him his 756 home runs? I don’t think so. And does it mean that next time Pudge comes through Texas I should boo him instead of cheer him? Not really. Even if it did, those things wouldn’t happen. But I think it does mean I should have a bit more sympathy for Bonds than I do – I hate Bonds as a person, but I need to separate that from hatred of his breaking the record using steroids. And I love Pudge as a player and as a person, but I need to acknowledge the fact that he probably did cheat, and not love that part of him.



Barry Bonds – 756*
Hank Aaron – 755
Babe Ruth – 714
Willie Mays – 660
Sammy Sosa – 604*

*: These players are known to have used steroids to gain an unfair advantage in achieving their records.

Credit but not Control

August 6, 2007

I’ve said before that I don’t believe in intellectual property. Here’s an elaboration on what I mean by that, since often when people hear that they say, “wtf?!?!”

I do think that inventors, writers, programmers, etc, should be rewarded for the work they put into their discoveries. I use “discoveries” not “creations” for a reason. It is often said that an inventor discovers a new way of doing something, not that he creates that way of doing it. The same, I say, applies to writers and the stories they tell, or programmers and the way they design their programs. Computer programs are not created, they are discovered. Anyway, these authors (of methods, books, programs, whatever) should be rewarded. They should receive credit for what they’ve done. People shouldn’t be able to steal credit for other people’s discoveries. As far as that goes, I have few disagreements with anybody.

But I don’t think that the authors should have control over their work. An inventor who discovers a new way of, say, making ice cream shouldn’t have the right to stop anybody from in turn improving on his design, or incorporating his discovery into a larger work, or selling a similar product at a lower price so long as it is made clear that the original inventor was the discoverer of the method. And the same with literary works. The fact that an author wrote a book about a given subject should not stop anybody from writing an extremely similar book, or from improving the author’s original book and changing it to fit their own view of how it should have went, or from republishing it and selling it or distributing it for free, without paying royalties.  As long as credit is given where credit is due.

The question arises of course, of why anybody invent or write or program if all they got was credit. Well, just because ‘all they get is credit’ not absolute control over their discoveries doesn’t mean they can’t get paid for it. How would they be paid? The same way authors, inventors, and suchlike were paid before the (relatively recent) genesis of copyright law. Wealthy people commissioning pieces, people auctioning their services as inventor, author, etc, not selling specific works, and so on.

You think it wouldn’t work? I think it would, though of course it would change every single intellectual-property based industry.

With invention, I don’t think it would allow people to stop innovating. If anything, it would force companies to be more innovative, since the advantage they get from a new discovery would no longer be 20+ years from a patent, but only until the competition figured out what exactly was going on. (They wouldn’t be required to publish the internal documentation or plans for their products, after all.) And after the competition figured out what was up they would still be at a disadvantage, since the original company’s name would be attached to the discovery for all eternity.

It would indeed reduce the number of published authors (and musicians and filmmakers and…). Would that be so bad, considering that so much of what is currently published is, well, worthless? And this would, among other things, make authors of artistic merit more likely to be published, since the criteria for who got well-known and who didn’t would change from who could sell the most copies of a book to who could bring the most prestige to his patron. It would change things, definitely. But, I think, not for the worse.

This system is, really, already in place for many programmers, voluntarily. Hence the GPL.

Note that the only change this would institute is having the government no longer have patent or copyright laws – or, rather, have no copyright laws and have patent laws that were much different from current patent law. It would not change what agreements could be made between individuals or companies; there would be no requirements to publish or anything like that. It’s very possible that it would lead to huge “clubs” aka corporations that functioned much as the current government does with regards to these things and used contract law to enforce it. The main point of this is to get the goverment away from enforcing these things.

Anway, the main point is – credit, but not control. People shouldn’t be in charge of how their discoveries are used once they publish them.

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