Friday, January 29, 2010

Aliens, Facial Expressions, Fear and Diplomacy

Let's say you're in that classic science-fiction scenario: first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

And, let's say that both you and the alien are (mostly) biological creatures. It's not the only option: (January 26, 2010)

Watching shows like the Star Trek series, you might get the impression that the first steps in communications shouldn't be too hard. Your Universal Translator might have some trouble with the language for the first minute or two, you could at least tell how the alien felt about you.

Not necessarily.

Long before Star Trek, R. A. Heinlein and others were writing about humanity's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

Robert Anson Heinlein had a reputation - deserved - for having done the math in his science fiction stories. He understood transfer orbits, and what rocket-driven spaceships can - and can't - do.

He also used his head, when depicting people who weren't human. For example, in one novel he'd set up a situation where representatives from three galaxies' worth of aliens were all in one room, conducting a trial. The novel's focus character was listening to someone who had anger management issues, and observing the other people.
"...I could not tell how the invective affected them. The girl creature was taking it quietly, but what can you say about a walrus thing with octopus arms? If he twitches, is he angry? Or laughing? Or itches where the twitch is?..."
("Have Space Suit - Will Travel" R. A. Heinlein (1958) Charles Scribner's Sons, chapter 10/page 238)
It might be hard to tell if an alien was laughing, or "itches where the twitch is" - until you learned which twitches meant what, and which were just twitches.

There isn't even a guarantee that your 'first contact' alien would use the face for most emotional communication. The human face can - and does - express a huge range of emotions. And the basic human expressions are the same, all around the world. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (January 28, 2010))

What, if Anything, Can We Expect From Aliens?

For starters, assuming that they move around, they'll most likely have something like a face. Sessile people, built along the lines of sea anemones, might not. And, there are starfish.

For the most part, though, animals that move have a fairly well-defined front end: with sense organs, mouth, and brain in front. Even some animals with radial symmetry, like squid and octopi, have their brain, eyes and mouth at one end.

So, if you meet E.T., the alien will probably have eyes (if any), ears (probably), and other sense organs like whiskers at the end that's facing you.

And, if the first thing the alien does after spotting you is open it's eyes, mouth and anything else at that end: I'd suggest that you make no sudden movements, and be quite gentle about any sounds you make.

The alien is, almost certainly, scared. And frightened people may act rashly.

Fear and Disgust May Look the Same on Everybody

"Why a scared expression brings a survival advantage"
New Scientist (June 15, 2008)

"You wrinkle your nose and squint when you see a dead rat in the road, but open your eyes, nose and mouth wide when you see a live one in your bedroom.

"Why? Common facial expressions like disgust and fear, new research suggests, do more than just convey how you are feeling - they alter your sensory relationship to the world around you...."

"...The open eyes allowed quicker detection of objects on the periphery, as well as faster eye movements back and forth, while an open nose took in more air with each breath without any extra effort. An MRI scan confirmed the difference in the space in the nasal cavity.

" 'These changes are consistent with the idea that fear, for example, is a posture towards vigilance,' says [University of Toronto, Canada's, Joshua] Susskind, 'and disgust a posture towards sensory rejection.'..."

(from New Scientist, used w/o permission)
No translation needed.

So, if the alien's mouth dropped open, and the eyes got a whole lot wider: the alien may be deciding, none too calmly, whether it's safer to run away - or incinerate you on the spot.

Note to inter-species diplomats - do not, no matter what, squint or wrinkle your nose. The alien most likely won't appreciate it. At all. Would you?

"Why a scared expression brings a survival advantage"

newscientistvideo, YouTube (June 13, 2008)

"...Research at the University of Toronto shows how facial expressions can affect our sensory capability"

Related posts:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Yearning for Paper Cuts, Dust, and Frustration?

One of today's posts for another blog, "Data-Driven Art: For an 'Overwhelmed' 'Hive Mind???'," Apathetic Lemming of the North (January 27, 2010), could have been posted here.

Which is the reason for that link.

It's about an interactive digital art exhibition in England. Quite imaginative, and looks like fun. The reason given for putting it on, though, was - interesting:

"...'Decode is about demystifying the black art or magic of digital while showing that this work can be poetic, emotional and poignant,' show co-curator Shane R.J. Walter told in an e-mail interview. Walter, creative director for the OneDotZero digital arts site, said the exhibition pieces 'highlight issues in our everyday lives such as the overabundance of information and how we deal with this through data visualization.' The Decode artists, he writes, 'use code as a material to work with just as sculptors work with clay.'..."

My reaction, copied from that other post:
  • "Overwhelmed?"
  • "Hive mind?"
  • "Demystifying the"
    • "Black art"
    • "Magic of digital?"
    • "Overabundance of information?"
I'm pretty obviously not on the same page as the creative director for OneDotZero, or the people he's trying to help.

From my point of view, it's only since an ISP brought internet connectivity to Sauk Centre, around 1997, that I've been able to get information in adequate amounts, at an acceptable speed.

There's something of a thrill of the chase involved, tracking down data among the stacks of a library. But I'm glad I don't have to pull out drawer after drawer of a card catalog, riffling through the cards; and then track down the book: Hoping that it hasn't been checked out or - worse - stolen.

No, I do not yearn for the good old days of dust and paper cuts.

But it's pretty obvious that not everybody sees things the same way.

Related posts:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

HAL 9000, Skynet, and C-3PO

I started writing a post for this blog yesterday. The first three words were "horses aren't human." That should have warned me. But I went on writing - and ended by posting it in another blog. ("Space Aliens and Killer Monster Robots - From Outer Space; or Pittsburgh," Apathetic Lemming of the North (January 25, 2010))

I want to take another crack at some of the ideas from that post. I've got more time to work with today, so this post may be briefer.1 Or, not.

Anyway, I'm cutting out the discussion of space aliens: the squishy kind, at least.

Robots From Outer Space

The 'Menace of the Monster Killer Robots From Pittsburgh' thing (the author does not use that phrase) started with a valid point made in the article.

The first space aliens we meet may be machines.

That's likely enough. If there were Martians, their first contact with humanity would be one of the landers we've sent. Thinking machines, even a world of "robots" isn't a particularly new idea. ("Men Martians and Machines," Eric Frank Russell (1955), for example - and that built on established conventions)

The idea that humanity's first encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence may involve robots from another planet is a valid point. I think the author of "What Will Aliens Really Look Like?," (July 16, 2009) was right in discussing the possibility of machine intelligence in the article

On the other hand, here's how the author - SETI Institute's Senior Astronomer, Seth Shostak - leads into his discussion of machines as people.
"...Well, using our own experience as a guide, consider a human development that seems likely to take place sometime in the 21st century: we'll invent machine intelligence. Some futurists figure this dismaying development will take place before 2050. Maybe it will take twice that long. It doesn't matter. By 2100, our descendants will note that this was the century in which we spawned our successors...."
I don't know how old Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute's Senior Astronomer, is. If he's even close to my age, he really should know better.

Repeating the last sentence in that paragraph:
"By 2100, our descendants will note that this was the century in which we spawned our successors."

Artificial Intelligence is (Still) Just Around the Corner

I remember when "2001: A Space Odyssey" hit the silver screen. The year was 1968. Even then, the HAL 9000 computer was a science fiction staple: an intelligent, sentient, self-aware computer. Who was insane. Homicidally so.

Tasks like designing a computer that actually thinks on its own, or a visual system that handles information in real time the way a human being's visual cortex does, seemed fairly straightforward.

Until scientists and technicians tried making one.

42 years later, we've got dancing robots and a robot that solves soduku puzzles.

But I'm no more concerned that the next desktop computer I buy will enslave me, than I think it's likely that Google is planting subliminal commands in that plain white background of theirs. (Now that would make a story!)

Ooooh! Scary! Or, not.

Now I read that we'll have devices like the HAL 9000 computer and C-3PO in fifty years. Or so.

And that they'll take over.

A Person Can Learn a Lot From the Movies

I'm quite sure that the SETI Institute's Senior Astronomer didn't learn astronomy from watching the movies. On the other hand, it looks like he grew up in the American culture. Western culture, anyway. And assimilated at least some of its beliefs and attitudes.

Optimism hasn't been fashionable for quite a while now.
Why Mention the Movies?
English-language motion pictures have been a major part of American culture for generations. Whether they shape the culture, or the culture shapes them, or both, is a debatable point.

Either way, I think movies are a pretty good indicator for what the culture was like when they were made: for everything from haircuts to attitudes and assumptions.

I've learned that people feared biological warfare and killer bees. And that the bees were likely to make a nuclear reactor explode. Even if we survived that, we'd probably be a handful of desperate survivors in an apocalyptic post-nuclear-holocaust wasteland, beset by monster frogs and/or mutants.

Or be stuck in a high-end resort and have to shoot it out with a robot gunslinger.

It wasn't all doom and gloom in the movies, of course. There was "Star Wars" in 1977: but that was merely escapist entertainment. Not serious at all. And "Hell Comes to Frogtown" was? Never mind. I don't think anyone took that one seriously.

The message from the movies - including movies with a message - has been that the future, if any, is bleak. Also that computers, robots - just about anything invented after maybe 1930 - is dangerous and malevolent.

Here's a short list of what's been on the minds of America, in the movies:
  • "2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
    • A big black artifact and
      • Ape-men
      • Spaceships
    • Insane computer kills crewmates
    • One of my favorite films
    • Not much of a plot
      • But the sets were well-thought-out
        • Up to that time, a rarity in science fiction films
  • "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970)
    • Massive supercomputer is built
    • Takes over the world
    • Somewhat plausible, given a willing suspension of disbelief
  • "Westworld" (1974)
    • Killer robots
      • A whole resort full of killer robots
    • Moderately well-thought-out, in my opinion
  • "Logan's Run" (1976)
    • A nice, neat, orderly society
      • Where life is groovy
        • Until you hit 30
        • Then you die
      • Well, you can't have everything
    • Then a crazed cop kills the master computer
  • "Star Wars" (1977)
    • Princess
    • Comedy-relief robots
      • C-3PO, human-cyborg relations
      • R2-D2, astromech droid
    • Blasters
    • Spaceships
    • Light sabers
    • Evil emperor
    • Farm kid
    • Wizard
  • "The Terminator" (1984)
    • Evil computer mastermind
    • Determined killer cyborg
    • Threat of nuclear apocalypse
  • "The Matrix" (1999)
    • Humanity makes an artificial intelligence
      • That takes over the world
These movies were drawing on a venerable tradition that included "Robot Monster" (1953) and "The Phantom Creeps" (1939).2

Back to the topic at hand.

HAL 9000, Skynet, and The Matrix

Remember the Luddites? They were a charming lot of 19th English workmen who broke machines. Give me a running start, and I'll use my college education to show them as downtrodden workers striving heroically to maintain their livelihoods.

I'll grant that they were under a lot of stress. And stressed-out people can do odd things. Luddites made such an impression that "Luddite" now means "any opponent of technological progress". (Princeton's WordNet)

It's hard to not see Luddite feelings in the way technology is perceived these days.

I mean to say: "By 2100, our descendants will note that this was the century in which we spawned our successors."

Sure: Colossus took over the world, with a little help; HAL killed all but one astronaut on the Discovery; and Skynet was a really scary mastermind in the Terminator movies.

The premise of "The Matrix" may not be all that daft: that an artificial intelligence took over the world, and kept human beings alive because we make pretty good batteries.

Don't get me wrong: I've not putting down any of these movies. 2001 and Star Wars are favorites of mine. Anyway, I don't object to entertainment on principle.

But I try to make distinctions between what makes for a good story, and what's plausible. And AI that takes over the world - or wants to - seems a little far-fetched. Worse, from a writer's point of view, malevolent artificial intelligence is showing at least as much wear and tear as post-nuclear-apocalypse settings. In my opinion.

I suppose the "familiarity breeds contempt" principle applies here. I've been working with computers for over two decades now. The iron idiots can be frustrating, fascinating, and fast. But a threat? Not really.

It might be different, if artificial intelligence hadn't been 'just around the corner' for the last four decades: and if the existing artificial intelligence, like language translation tools, was more - intelligent.

What's So Strange About Cyborgs?

Maybe I don't have the culturally-appropriate fear and dread of machine intelligence because I'm not entirely human. Sort of.
  • A few of my teeth are still original equipment
    • But a fair portion of what I chew with is artificial
  • There's metal and plastic where my hip joints used to be
  • A plastic mesh held my belly together after some work was done in there
    • It's still in place
  • I'm focusing on my computer's monitor with a clip-on set of lenses.
All of that's nothing unusual at all. Now.

Which is my point. I look as human as my ancestors, a thousand years back: providing I take my glasses off and keep my mouth closed. But important parts of me are machinery of one sort or another.

Even my brain's been altered, chemically.

I was diagnosed with major depression a few years ago. Thanks to medication, I don't have to constantly fight the controls to think clearly - for the first time in over 45 years.

And I have no problem with that.

My distant ancestors, some of them, might have been freaked out to learn what has been done to me: but I like being able to walk without pain, see clearly, chew my food and have the insides of my abdomen stay where they belong - inside. I see the artificial parts of me as repairs and enhancements.

Certainly not as being "taken over" by machinery.

I'm not a cyborg. Not in the sense of "a human being whose body has been taken over in whole or in part by electromechanical devices" (Princeton's WordNet) But partly artificial? Yes.

And, these days, there's nothing unusual about that. Think of all the people with pacemakers in their chests.

Intel says it's coming out with brain chips and neural interfaces in about ten years. I believe them. This isn't "artificial intelligence," by the way, not unless you think human beings with artificial parts aren't human any more.

When those brain chips hit the market, and people with missing limbs control their prosthetics (and, I trust, get feedback) through their own nervous system, they'll be cyborgs. So will stroke victims whose damaged or destroyed circuits are replaced with artificial ones.

Scary? Maybe. So is the thought of driving without my glasses on.

I don't think technology is bad, by itself. What we do with it, that's something else:
Will Brain Implants Be Misused?
"What is that, a trick question? Of course they'll be misused. People misuse things. People have killed other people with rocks. That doesn't make the rocks bad.

"Direct neural interfaces are a new technology, and there'll almost certainly be an awkward period while we learn how to use them, and set up rules so that everybody's more-or-less on the same page about how they should be used.

"But, I'm looking forward to the things...."
(Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 2, 2009))
I don't think that Science and Technology (capitalized, of course) will Solve All Our Problems. But I'm not afraid of science and technology.

Artificial Intelligence, C3PO and Fido

Another reason I'm not worried about 'spawning our successors' is that we've already done something like develop artificial intelligence.

You've heard the saying: 'Dogs are man's best friend.' With a few psychotic exceptions, there's something to it. Dogs, as a rule, at least the ones I've known, like human beings.

Wolves? Not so much. A (very) few people have kept wolves as pets. It helps that wolves are pack animals. I'll be back to that idea.

We recently discovered that dogs are mutant wolves. Something happened. probably over a hundred thousand years ago, to the genes of a few wolves. Their offspring weren't as bright as your average wolf. And they just simply doted on human beings.

Coincidence? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Sure, people were "primitive" back then. White lab coats, test tubes, and electron microscopes wouldn't be invented for maybe 5,000 generations. Even so, it's hard for me to imagine that a breed of stupid wolves that love human beings 'just happened' to pop into existence and start following my ancestors around.

I think we made dogs. "Domesticated," if you prefer.

I also think that it helped - a lot - that wolf packs and human families work (very roughly) the same way. A wolf cub could bond with a human family in very nearly the same way that he or she would have bonded with the pack.

But I think we're the reason dogs are so, well: dog-like. Eager to help. willing to chase things for us. Intensely protective of the family. Not overly bright, maybe: but with humans around they don't need to be.

We won't develop artificial intelligence that's like Fido. We've already got dogs, and they're really good at what they do.

When (or if) we develop artificial intelligence, I think we'll do it for a reason. There will be jobs that can be done better - faster, with fewer errors and greater precision - with AI than with human beings. Flying aircraft and some management jobs come to mind.

And AI takes over the world? I don't think so. Airline pilots and managers won't like it: those who don't recognize the change as an opportunity to learn new skills and explore another facet of human potential.

AI, when (or if) it goes online, will - I think - be more like C3PO than Colossus. And, again I think, be about as likely to attempt world domination as C3PO would be to plot taking over the restored Republic.

There will be problems, of course. There are always problems. Taking dogs as an example: you'd think that an ancient technology like that would have every last bug worked out of it by now. Remember the problem with pit bulls, a decade or so back? I think the problem was more with the owners, and less with the breed: but that's another topic.

When (if) we get 'real' AI, some of the units will act up: at least, I'd be astonished if they didn't. But, on the whole, I don't think humanity will regret developing AI, any more than we (with a few whack exceptions) regret developing agriculture.

Cyborgs? We've been developing that sort of technology, ever since someone started hobbling around on a crutch or peg leg; or strapped on a hook to replace a severed hand. It's a little late to stop, now: and I don't think many would really want to.

But we're not 'losing our humanity.' We're still as human as ever: for good or ill.

Related posts:
Background (from Hard Science Fiction, Cultural Blinders and Laban's Sheep," (October 29, 2009)):

1Somebody said "I made this letter very long, because I did not have time to make it shorter." There seems to be a difference of opinion about who said that: Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations," sixteenth edition, says Blaise Pascal. The quote's from Lettres Provinciales [1656-1657], No. 16.

2 Tales of Future Past has two decent still photos from "The Phantom Creeps." The movie was a dramatic account of a mad scientist: "With the power of a radioactive meteor he discovered, his invisibility belt, ray gun, and killer robot spiders he plans to conquer the world."

Science Fiction in the Movies: "The Satan Bug" to "The Matrix"

I made a list of relatively memorable science fiction movies from the mid-sixties to the present, for another post. (June 30, 2009)

Yesterday, I started writing about space aliens and killer robots: and added to the list. I went back, today, and fleshed it out with brief descriptions of these exemplars of science fiction / speculative fiction in the movies.

See if you can spot a common element:
  • "The Satan Bug" (1965)
    • Germ warfare kills lots of people
    • "...very well made. It is more germaine [!] now than when it was made 42 years ago.
      ( synopsis)
      • Looks like "germane" is the new "relevant"
  • "2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
    • A big black artifact and
      • Ape-men
      • Spaceships
    • Insane computer kills crewmates
    • One of my favorite films
    • Not much of a plot
      • But the sets were well-thought-out
        • Up to that time, a rarity in science fiction films
  • "Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
    • Massive supercomputer is built
    • Takes over the world
    • Somewhat plausible, given a willing suspension of disbelief
  • "The Omega Man" (1971)
    • Germ warfare
    • Charlton Heston
    • Zombies
  • "Westworld" (1974)
    • Killer robots
      • A whole resort full of killer robots
    • Moderately well-thought-out, in my opinion
    • No zombies
  • "Zardoz" (1974)
    • Far future with humanity split into
      • Brutals
      • Immortals
    • H. G. Wells' Eloi and Moorlocks, anyone?
    • Nitzche quotes
  • "A Boy & His Dog" (1975)
    • "A post-apocalyptic tale based on a novella by Harlan Ellison. A boy communicates telepathically with his dog as they scavenge for food and sex..."
      (IMDB plot summary)
    • What, when they have each other?
  • "Logan's Run" (1976)
    • A nice, neat, orderly society
      • Where life is groovy
        • Until you hit 30
        • Then you die
      • Well, you can't have everything
    • Then a crazed cop kills the master computer
  • "Star Wars" (1977)
    • Princess
    • Comedy-relief robots
    • Blasters
    • Spaceships
    • Light sabers
    • Evil emperor
    • Farm kid
    • Wizard
  • "The Swarm" (1978)
    • Killer bees kill lots of people
    • And make a nuclear reactor 'go critical'
    • Billed, at the time, as
      • A serious warning about the dangers of nuclear energy
      • And who says movies aren't educational?
  • "Quintet" (1979)
    • "During a future ice age, dying humanity occupies its remaining time by playing a board game called 'Quintet.' For one small group, this obsession is not enough; they play the game with living pieces ... and only the winner survives."
      (IMDB plot summary)
    • I'm not making this up!
  • "Mad Max" (1979)
    • Set in a "dystopic future Australia"
    • Cop
    • Biker gang
    • Vendetta
    • No zombies
      • The way those bikers looked, who needs zombies?
  • "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" (1981)
    • Set in a "dystopic future Australia"
    • Cynical drifter
    • Small community
    • Bandits
    • Still no zombies
  • "The Terminator" (1984)
    • Evil computer mastermind
    • Determined killer cyborg
    • Threat of nuclear apocalypse
  • "Night Shadows (1984)
    • Toxic waste turns small town citizens into mutant flesh-eating zombies
    • A movie with a message
  • "Steel Dawn" (1987)
    • Yet another post-apocalyptic world
      • Warrior
      • Desert
      • Settlers
      • Gang
  • "Hell Comes to Frogtown" (1987)
    • A nuclear/biological war killed all the men
      • Except this dude named Hell
      • Who's held captive by women
    • And there are these giant mutant frogs
    • Really: I'm not making this up!
  • "The Matrix" (1999)
    • Humanity makes an artificial intelligence
    • That takes over the world
With a few exceptions, like Star Wars, the settings aren't all that pleasant. And Star Wars is set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

Looking for a bright future in science fiction movies? Try the Star Trek franchise, or go back before, say, 1955.

Like "Things to Come" (1936). It's post-apocalyptic - for a while. Then wise scientists build an Art Deco utopia where everybody wears really uncomfortable-looking clothes. I'm not on the same page as the underlying philosophies of that film, and admit that it's not all that realistic. But: "Hell Comes to Frogtown" is?!

I don't think I'll live to see an end to this currently-fashionable notion: that to be taken seriously, you've got to show the future as just simply awful.

It's like that period in country music, where I got the impression that a song's popularity could be measured by the suicide rate of its fans.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Space Aliens and Killer Monster Robots - From Outer Space; or Pittsburgh

I definitely need a good night's sleep. I accidentally posted this to Apathetic Lemming of the North.

It starts with: "Horses aren't human.

"It might be well to remember that, when imagining non-human intelligence. Space aliens, in other words."

Now, I'm turning in. Goodnight.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Futuristic? Or Just Cutting-Edge?

Posts I'm setting up for another blog, Apathetic Lemming of the North, reminded me that it's hard to make a 'future' setting seem - well, futuristic.

One's about oxygenated liquid fluorocarbons being used to treat people with some medical conditions. The fluorocarbons aren't injected: the patients are breathing them.

Remember the Star Wars Movie, where a wounded Luke Skywalker is in a tank, with a breathing mask on his face? Forget the face-mask. If they aren't already there, my guess is that ICUs will have tanks, soon, for patients who can't handle being in a gaseous environment.

Neural implants? They're in the research and development stage now: commercially available in maybe 2020.

I set up a post in that blog, to help me keep track of "future" technologies in development: "The Future: Just Like Today, Only Different." It's mostly a link-list, slightly organized.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Creativity, Research, and Finding a Cool Name That's Not Been Used

I've been developing technobabble for a few stories. Set about 1,500 years from now, the characters will be using devices that definitely aren't off-the-shelf hardware today.

One of the technologies is a sort of warp drive. Not the Star Trek or Star Wars thing: more like what we might have, if Mexican/Welsh physicist Michael Alcubierre's equations describe something that would actually work. Which, the last I heard, is still a matter of debate.

My guess is that he's on to something. The specifics of his approach to moving a pocket of space-time through the rest of the continuum may not be quite on-target, but it's an idea that's good enough for a story.

A prediction, while I'm thinking of it. Not a particularly startling one, given the nature of humanity. If/when we get to the point where someone's building a prototype warp drive: we'll see a replay of the fuss that's surrounded CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The familiar old 'and we're all gonna die' stuff.

Cool Name: And, Confound it, it's been Used!

Assuming that Alcubierre's warp drive could be built, the thing would require unreasonable amounts of power. The energy requirements are literally astronomical.

For a story, I don't see that as a problem: except that I need to remember that whatever the power source is: it better not be anything that's even close to being developed now.

Think of a story where an airliner gets its power from a pair of oxen turning a wheel, and you see what I'm talking about. Oxen are great sources of energy: but strong as they are, their energy output isn't enough for air travel.

Although - no, I'm going to stay on-topic.

I came up with a dandy name for the power source of warp ships: "cascade generator." It sounds cool, and isn't something that's used now.

Strike that. I did a quick search, and - "cascade generators" are either in development or actually in use in accelerators. Today. ("Travelling wave cascade generator - A new high-voltage source for accelerators," letters to the editor, E M Balabanov et al 1962 J. Nucl. Energy, Part C Plasma Phys. 4 65-67)

The term is also used by a few people who either think they're inventing a sort of perpetual motion machine - or want others to think they are.

Now I have to decide whether to use the term "cascade generator" anyway - or think up something else.

Odds are pretty good that I'll look for an alternative. I really don't want to invoke 21st century technology.

Related post:
Update (January 21, 2010)

Wikipedia isn't always the most reliable resource. The 'what do you want reality to be' encyclopedia is, though, cleaning up its act: quite a number of articles now have citations. In other words, people and organizations with reputations to lose are listed as sources for facts and opinions. It's an improvement.

Getting back on topic, I looked through the "Topology" page, and ended up with these interesting - and possibly useful for me - words and phrases:

It's Not All Creativity and Artsyness

I finished clearing about 157 megabytes off my hard drive: and will probably get more space freed up in the next few days. What's gone are duplicate photo files that I've been meaning to get at 'someday.'

That doesn't sound particularly 'creative' - but it's part of the sort of housekeeping that's vital, if creative work is going to happen.

Which it should, later today.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Idoka

We protect the humble.
We inform the mighty.
We stand with our backs to the fire, meeting the gaze of eyes in the night.

(Translated by Watanuki Tomoko)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Successive Approximation and Creating a Coherent Japanese Phrase

Thanks, everybody who helped with this.
(This is a followup/update of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Kanji, Romanji, and This Writer " (January 11, 2010).)

A little checking, and I found a pronunciation (romanized, anyway) for 凄い Google Translate.

Sure enough, 凄い is "sugoi" - now, I need to see if I'm using it correctly.


Well, that's interesting:

When I put "great manga writer" through Google Translate, I got "偉大な漫画家" (without quotes in both cases, BTW.)

And 偉大な漫画家 is romanized as idai na manga ka. I recognized "manga ka" as fairly common usage.

Interestingly, "great welldigger" comes through as "大きな井戸掘り職人" - or "ōkina ido hori shokunin".

I think I'm getting to where I want, by successive approximation.

(still later)

"Ido ka" probably, maybe, possibly, is a phrase that means something in the neighborhood of "water-well - ka" or "water well artist/writer/creator" with overtones of the id (id, ego, superego, and all that) and latitude (緯度 / ido)."

Confused? Well, so am I

The point is that when I run "great ido ka" through Google Translate, out comes "大きな井戸カー / ōkina ido kā" - which may, or may not, be what I'm looking for.

Interesting: 井 seems to mean "well" - whether that's "I'm feeling well" or "water well" - more checking is called for.

Ah! 井 means "well" and the "well" is a noun. I think I've got it. Maybe.

Oi. "water well" comes out as "井戸 / ido"- 井戸!!

Okay: I got these nouns in Japanese:


1. 井
2. 井泉
3. 井戸
4. 鉱泉

Which get translated as these nouns in English:


1. Well
2. Spring wells
3. Well
4. Spring

Yeah: I think I'm getting close.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Kanji, Romanji, and This Writer

I may have to learn Japanese.

Which reminds me of Mark Twain's short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." If you're familiar with American literature, you may have read it, or at least heard of it. The title, by the way, comes out as "カラベラスの名高いジャンプ蛙郡" when I put it through the Google translator.

When I take "カラベラスの名高いジャンプ蛙郡" and run it back through the same tool, I get "Celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County" - which is better than the experience Mr. Twain had.

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County - or - The Perils of Translation

Intellectual property laws were - somewhat casually enforced - in the 19th century. Someone who thought he knew French, or someone who knew English, took the Jumping Frog story and published it in France.

The story had been a commercial success in America. In France, sales just about flatlined. Twain translated the French version back into English.

And wrote about what he got, in

I get the distinct impression that Mr. Twain was not a great fan of French culture, but that's not relevant to what this post is about.

The first sentence of Twain's story, in English, as he wrote it:
"In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend's friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result...."
I know: It's longer than some paragraphs are, these days. But this is the Information Age, that was the Gilded Age. People apparently wanted to get their money's worth from a sentence back then.

The same sentence, after being translated back from the French:
"It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter of '89, possibly well at the spring of '50, I no me recollect not exactly...."
The rest isn't much better. No wonder it bombed in France.

The title of the French version, translated back by Twain, was "THE FROG JUMPING OF THE COUNTY OF CALAVERAS."

In case this post is read by a short-fused francophile, I'm aware that Mr. Twain may have been somewhat unfair in his translation. The first sentence in the French version was:
"--Il y avait, une fois ici un individu connu sous le nom de Jim Smiley: c'etait dans l'hiver de 49, peut-etre bien au printemps de 50, je ne me reappelle pas exactement...."
Which, run through the Google translator, is:
"- There was a time here an individual known by the name of Jim Smiley was in the winter of 49, maybe spring of 50, I do not exactly reappelle....."

Finally, What This Post is About - a Request For Help

I'm working out background for a story I'm setting in Japan. It started out as a spoof of (badly done) 'Manga,' with intentional glitches. There are five main characters, for starters.

I don't want to produce something that reads like that translation of Twain's story, for someone who actually understands Japanese.

The story's starting to get away from me, and seems to be changing into something else, but that's not what this post is about.

What's bothering me right now is a word. Phrase, actually.

The only language where I'd trust my story-telling skills is English. Which is okay, in this case, because my target audience is people who can read English fairly well.

So dialog and just about everything else will be in English. I know: not very authentic. But it worked for Gilbert and Sullivan in "The Mikado," so I'll chance it.

But, for 'authenticity' - and because I think it'll be cool - a few words and phrases will, I hope, be in Japanese. Sort of.

For example, there's a sort of person in the story who is called a 'well artist' or 'well maker' - "well" in the sense of a well from which you draw water. I think the phrase "ido-ka" expresses that idea.

Remember, I said "Japanese. Sort of." I can't, at this time, read Japanese characters and 'hear' words. I'm pretty sure many or most of my readers won't be able to, either. So I'm using the Latin alphabet to spell out close-enough representations of the few Japanese words and phrases I'll use.

One character will be called 'the great ido-ka,' or 'the great well-artist.' Easy enough, right?

If I really knew Japanese, yes. As it is, not so much.

I'm fairly sure that the word (phrase?) I'm looking for is 凄い.

That comes through the Google translator (the most reliable tool I've found, so far) as meaning:

  1. terrible
  2. dreadful
  3. terrific
  4. amazing
  5. great
  6. wonderful
  1. to a great extent
  2. to a large extent
This is the cluster of meaning that I'm looking for.

Or maybe what I'm looking for is グレート.

My guess is that 凄い is what I want.

Just one problem: I haven't a clue what it sounds like. The Google translator will helpfully tell me what "great" sounds like in English: but I already know that.

I've tried looking up 凄い online - but unsuccessfully.

Another line of inquiry gave me "sugoi" as a word meaning terrible, dreadful, terrific, amazing, great. It's possible that 凄い is what sugoi looks like - but I can't verify that.

Given the rules I've set for myself, I'm stuck with using Romanji. (I think that's the term for Latin alphabet used to express Japanese words and phrases.)

And, one thing I don't have, yet, is a working knowledge of Japanese.

So, I've written this post and intend to solicit help from some folks I know online, who may be able to help me out. Thanks in advance.

The Questions

1. is "凄い" an appropriate word to use in a phrase like "the great ido-ka"?

2. Is "sugoi" the way 凄い is pronounced?
2a. If not, how is 凄い pronounced?

3. I think that the phrase "the great well-artist" would come out in Japanese as "sugoi ido-ka" - if my guesses are right about the meaning of those words. Is this an appropriate or 'normal' way to arrange those elements of the phrase?

Finally, I've decided that I do need to develop a working knowledge of Japanese. But that'll take time - no problem, by itself, but I want to get moving on this story in a matter of weeks, not years.
Updated 10:55 p.m. January 11, 2010

I started a discussion thread on BlogCatalog, "Help? How Should 凄いbe Pronounced?," and got one response so far. (Thanks!)

Now, I need to turn in.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Moon Rocks, Mount Everest, and Symbolism

From yesterday's news:
"Rocks From the Moon, Mt. Everest Destined for Space Station" (January 6, 2010)

"Two small rock samples – one from the top of our world and the second returned from another – are ready to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) as a symbol of NASA's continuing mission to explore.

"The space-bound stones – a fragment of Mount Everest's summit and four flecks from the moon – were presented Wednesday to George Zamka, the commander of NASA's next space shuttle mission, by the first astronaut to scale the Earth's highest mountain, Scott Parazynski.

" 'These rocks have already done more than a human being could do in a lifetime,' said Zamka during the ceremony held at Space Center Houston, the public visitor center for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas. 'For four billion years they were on the moon, undisturbed. They went through an ascent on a spaceship traveling to Earth and then Scott took them to the limits of human endurance by climbing up with them on Mount Everest. So they already have a tremendous history. They're about to get a mileage upgrade.'..."
At this point, I could launch into an impassioned diatribe about how shocking and awful it is that resources are wasted - wasted! - on sending rocks into orbit, when they could be used to raise awareness about the California Red Legged Frog. But I'm not. I have no personal animosity toward rana aurora draytonii. I actually rather like frogs.

But I'm all too aware that things change. It'd be nice, I suppose, if the California Red Legged Frog was doing well: but I think it would also be nice to see a live trilobite.

As the fellow said:
"Nothing endures but change."
(Heraclitus, 540 BC - 480 BC)
(from October 29, 2009)
If armadillos, pigeons, rats, or cockroaches are dying off - that would be something to be concerned about. (more: "Change, American Culture, Trilobites, Humanity's History, and the Big Picture," Apathetic Lemming of the North (September 26, 2009))

Where Was I? Rocks and Symbolism, Right!

Back to those bits of rock that are taking a spin around Earth in the ISS.

The article says that they're "a symbol of NASA's continuing mission to explore." Not very practical, right?

No contest there: it's not very 'practical' to send rocks from the Moon to Mount Everest and back into low Earth orbit - just so you can say it's been done. If measurements were being made of the rocks, before and after, or some other sort of research were directly involved: yes, then I'd say the trip had some 'practical' value.

But, just for symbolism? How impractical!

Also, how human.

People, human beings, use symbols. A lot. The marks you see on your screen right now are symbols that stand for sounds, more or less. That's assuming you're reading this page in English. If you use translation software, the marks you see may represent words or phrases. Not all written languages use alphabets.

The sounds, words, and phrases are in turn symbols. "Symbolism," for example, means "a system of symbols and symbolic representations," (Princeton's WordNet) among other things. "Red" can mean electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength near 7,000 Angstroms, or 700 nanometers. Roughly. But "red" isn't electromagnetic radiation: it's a sound in spoken English, and a set of three symbols in written English that stand for that particular set of wavelengths. Or an emotion, or quite a number of other things.

Which is why I think it'll be a while before AI can do a good job of understanding conversational English - or any other natural language. We're getting closer, though. ("Robovie-II and Robovie-IV: Robot Assistants for Store and Office" Apathetic Lemming of the North (January 7, 2010))

I'm getting off-topic. Again.

Symbolic Acts: It's What We Do

Hauling a few bits of rock around aren't important from a practical point of view: but people aren't entirely 'practical.' Or maybe we are. Which threatens to become another topic.

Focus, man, focus!

I think it's entirely appropriate to make a fleck or so of rock from the Moon and a bit from the top of Mount Everest into palpable symbols of NASA's determination to stay on course with its mission to explore.

But then, I'm not among those who feel that 'if God had meant man to fly, He'd have given him wings.' We're perfectly capable of making our own wings - although it took several thousand years to get the technology right.

Besides, there's a long tradition of using hunks of rock as symbols: like the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, or Stone of Scone. But that's yet another topic.
If you think this post is a bit less coherent than others in this blog: you could be right.

I'm running a significant, although not (I trust) serious fever: and have reason to believe that it may have a slight effect on some of my cognitive functions.

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Well, That's Interesting: Ancient Writing Systems
A compendium of world-wide writing systems from prehistory to today

According to the website's about page:
"Back in 1996, I created the original Ancient Scripts web site during the wee hours of the morning. I have been a great enthusiast for writing systems and linguistics in general, but I could only find meager resources on the web about this subject in those early days. So I went to work, taking class material from Linguistics 11 (Writing Systems) at UCB as well as my own research in dusty libraries. Many years later, despite problems with servers and having to earn a living, Ancient Scripts is still running. Thanks for all your support!

"The aim of Ancient Scripts is not to replace texts books or instructional web sites. Instead, it is designed to give an introduction to writing systems, which hopefully will tantalize the reader into searching for more information on the web or in books and publications.

"Here's the disclaimer: I am not a linguist...."
("About Ancient Scripts")
In my opinion, the chief difference between a systematically enthusiastic hobbyist who has devoted a great deal of time and effort to studying a subject, and a certified subject professional, is that the certified professional has a piece of paper that says he or she is competent - and the professional gets paid.

I think people inside the academic establishment can be knowledgeable and competent, understand: but I think the same can be said of people who aren't.

The last site update was October 3, 2008.

I found this website while researching ancient writing systems. It seems to be a pretty good resource.

Now it's time for me to get back to work.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Well, That's Interesting: Japanese Mythology

I found an interesting - if somewhat unorganized - page on one aspect of Japanese culture: (Mythology as: "myths collectively; the body of stories associated with a culture or institution or person" (Princeton's WordNet)

I'm a bit curious about how the page was written. One paragraph ends with this fragment:

"Standing on the floating bridge of heaven, Izanagi and Izanami stirred the primeval ocean with a"

And that's where it ends. I've no idea what Izanagi and Izanami were stirring the ocean with. Oh, well. Maybe it's the jeweled spear that drops abruptly into the next paragraph.

There's an interesting account of Izanagi and Izanami, after Izanagi's departure to the netherworld, that has a sort of parallel in the story of Persephone.

Privacy Policy

Nothing spooky here.

These days it's important to have a "privacy policy" available: so here's mine.

I do not collect information on individuals visiting this blog. If you leave a comment, I'll read what you wrote: but I don't keep a record of comments, apart from what Blogger displays. (In other words, the only record of what you write or who you are will be what people see at the bottom of the post.)

I do collect information about how many hits this blog gets, where they come from, and some technical information. I use the WebSTAT service for this purpose - and all that shows is which ISP you use, and where it's located.

You can stop most of Webstat's data gathering by disabling cookies in your browser. I don't know why you would, but some folks do.

I'm also an AdSense affiliate, so Google collects information on what I've written in each post: but that's mostly my problem.

I'm also considering starting an affiliate relationship with DAZ Productions. You should be able to keep DAZ and Commission Junction, their provider of affiliate services, from collecting information by - again - disabling cookies in your browser.

And you can keep DAZ Productions from finding out anything about you, by not buying any of their products.

Again, I don't know why you would: but some folks do.

Or, rather, don't.