Blog: November 2016

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Arrival (no spoilers)

We saw Arrival this afternoon and quite enjoyed it. No spoilers in this post, though I can't make any promises about comments.

The movie is based on the short story "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. Even if I hadn't heard positive things about the movie, I might well have gone out of extreme curiosity about how they would translate the story to film. The short story is a thinky, introspective tale with a decent amount of linguistics as a core part of the story. Linguistics, unlike physical sciences, doesn't translate as easily to the screen (i.e. it doesn't explode). So the movie tells a slightly different story, with some different focuses, and that's ok. It's a good, solid movie that shows us truly alien aliens, all-too-human humans, and a linguist and a physicist who take center stage in a first-contact situation. The physicist is there to try to learn their science; the linguist is there to figure out how to communicate with them when there is no shared language upon which to build. (They could have afforded to spend a few minutes less on the visual effects to introduce the aliens.)

The alien language is very cool. And it reveals one of the things that makes them alien. Learning the language entails learning some of that alien-ness, too.

The linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, is the point-of-view character through whom we see everything else. It's nice to see linguistics get some love in popular fiction. (And I also learned a thing about the Sanskrit word for war.) I wish the character had come across as strong in the movie as she did in the book; it took a while for her to find her stride. The main story is interspersed with flashes into other times in her life, and that's all I'll say about that because I promised no spoilers.

Psychological effects of teleportation

Somebody asked about the psychological effects of instantaneous teleportation like in Star Trek. If your location changed drastically and instantaneously, would you experience cognitive dissonance? How might one mitigate negative effects?

I answered: Read more…

American traditions

Today at lunch we were talking about plans for Thanksgiving. One of my coworkers, a Chinese immigrant, said that he's driving to (some town whose name I forget) in New York tomorrow. Family? No, outlet malls. Better than the ones we have about an hour away, he says.

We then proceeded to watch him extol the virtues of outlet malls, and shopping at this time of year, to another Chinese coworker. He talked with particular zeal about the "door-buster" specials for which you need to get there early.

I was going to say that when it comes to teaching visitors about American holidays and traditions, we're doing it wrong. But I guess we aren't. :-)

ADL: "never is now"

A friend sent me a link to this speech from the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League at a conference today. Excerpt:

And let me say this. There recently have been reports that the new Administration plans to force Muslim-Americans to register for some sort of master government list.

Look, Islamic extremism is a threat to us all. But as Jews, we know what it means to be registered and tagged, held out as different from our fellow citizens.

As Jews, we know the righteous and just response. All of us have heard the story of the Danish king who said if his country’s Jews had to wear a gold star…all of Denmark would too.

So I pledge to you right here and now, because I care about the fight against anti-Semitism, that if one day in these United States, if one day Muslim-Americans will be forced to register their identities, then that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.

Because fighting prejudice against the marginalized is not just the fight of those minorities. It’s our fight. Just as the fight against anti-Semitism is not only the fight of us Jews. It’s everyone’s fight.

The rest is worth reading too.

Airplane reading #3: The Three-Body Problem

The last of the books I read on our trip was The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated from Chinese by Ken Liu (after which it won a Hugo). I enjoyed the novel for both the science-fiction plot and the view into Chinese culture and history, and the translator did an excellent job of not just translating words but making the context accessible to western readers while still feeling Chinese. This kind of translation task is as much art as science.

The story takes place over several decades (and the novel jumps around some), starting during the Cultural Revolution. One of our point-of-view characters, Ye Wenjie, sees her physics-professor father murdered by the Red Guards and is sent to the countryside (where she is branded as subversive), but her own physics research was ground-breaking and eventually attracts the attention of a military research team. She needs protection and they need her brain, so off she goes. While working for them on the search for extra-terrestrial life she eventually finds something.

Another point-of-view character, Wang Miao, is a nanotech researcher who starts having disturbing visions. During his investigation he stumbles across a VR game called "Three Body" and begins playing it (rather obsessively). The game is set on an alien world where civilization has risen and fallen many times. This is because their star system is unstable; they have periods of stable time when they can settle, grow food, and live normally, but from time to time they are interrupted by chaotic times that pose grave danger. Each time Wang plays he is dropped into a new iteration of their development and learns a little more about this world.

You know these threads are going to come together, right?

There are other threads; the story is neither simple nor completely linear. But it's not one of those books where you need to keep notes to track what's going on, either. And despite a character list at the beginning that made me think "many of these names are too similar", I didn't have trouble keeping track of who was who because the characters are presented with some depth.

While there are some fantastical elements (including the mechanism by which inhabitants of the other world survive chaotic times), the hard science in this book is, as far as I can tell, real. The translator provides footnotes for both scientific and cultural references, which I found helpful.

I picked up this book when it was the Tor free e-book of the month a few months back. (If you don't know about that, check it out.) There are two sequels, both of which have now been translated to English, which I look forward to reading.

Small disappointment: Wang finds out about the game via a URL he sees on someone else's computer. We're given the URL. But the publishers don't seem to have claimed it and done anything interesting with it. Oh well.

Elections and acrimony

A version of this was originally posted publicly, and when I started getting abusive anonymous comments I locked it. This is slightly edited, but I'm also not enabling comments.

So, that happened. We elected a racist, misogynistic, blowhard as president, with predictable results. What I find hard to believe is that people seem so darn surprised by this. And I wonder if we will learn anything from it.

For years it has been common practice to create isolated bubbles of same-thinking people. General, balanced news sources have been replaced by news sources tailored to one's own personal preferences. And I don't just mean the likes of Fox News; if you use any sort of online aggregator, like Google News or Facebook or Twitter, you're getting a tailored view. I, and presumably many of my readers, try to avoid echo chambers, try to get inputs from a variety of sources including ones we disagree with, and it can be hard. We need to figure out how to do better.

And then, more recently, we have this terrible idea that college students (and presumably others once the meme spreads) should never have to hear anything they don't already agree with, that a dispassionate, articulate, but contrary view is an attack that must be shut down with a show of force. No. Ideas are not aggression. Bullying is aggression. Hate speech is aggression. Intentional misrepresentation of facts is (a different kind of) aggression. But a discourse on tax policy or climate change or inner-city crime or abortion -- on any side of the issue -- is not. When did it become ok to declare things you don't like as evil?

So, lots of people in bubbles and echo chambers apparently didn't understand just how polarized America is, even after all the invective of this election. If we understood this better maybe we wouldn't demonize others as much. The levels of hatefulness in the political sphere for the last year and a half have been off the scale, the worst I have seen around an election in my adult lifetime.

The people who voted for Donald Trump are not, by and large, crazy or profoundly stupid or mentally ill. We need to stop talking like that. They are (to generalize) people who are not part of the intellectual elite, who live in middle America just trying to get by, who have seen their jobs vanish and their quality of life decline. They feel abandoned and they want something to change. And they have just as much right to vote as the rest of us do.

And it's not like we offered them a credible alternative. I don't want to backseat-drive the DNC, but I'm not surprised that people who feel let down by their country didn't vote for more of the same. And while third parties bring more options to the table, they're not going to take hold unless we change some things about how we do elections, which, sadly, we aren't going to do.

People are talking now about how we as a nation need to heal, but even more importantly, we need to mend the systemic flaws that got us here. We need to break the bubbles, bring more voices into what are now echo chambers, hear and even seek out perspectives different from our own, and get used to being exposed to ideas we don't already agree with. It should be part of adulthood and part of living in the world.