Friday, February 26, 2010

Training for the Summer Olympics

The Closing Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics take place on Sunday and I haven't talked at all about sports this month. However, since there are robins and cherry blossoms and daffodils outside right now*, I'm going to talk about running! Or, specifically, running equipment, because that's a little more science-y. I also want to throw out the idea, quickly, before I start on the links, that we don't have enough sci-fi featuring athletes. Protagonists always seem to be detectives or military or Average Joes™.

Let that idea inform your thoughts on the following.

There's the AlterG treadmill, reviewed at BoingBoing, which allows runners to run in lowered gravity. While they're on it, they could be using Dance Pants**, operating an mp3 player with their kinetic motion. Stop running, stop the music.***

For anyone needing to breathe in our polluted Earth atmosphere (or an alien one), there's the CAIR Air Helmet and the Oxyfit backpack****.

And of course, we can't forget the Paralympics. Gizmodo has a long essay on prosthetic limbs, disability, and fairness and equality for athletes. TED has a video on a similar subject, by the author of the article:

I was going to give you more links, on things like racing bikes and pole-vaulting, but all my links about bikes are for recreation and/or electric, and pole-vaulting didn't even register on my radar. Also, all my boating links seem to be about yachts, so that'll be a post in itself sometime, same as the futuristic bikes.

See you Wednesday!

* Jealous, anyone?
** Gizmodo
*** I hate running and I still kind of want those.
**** Gizmodo

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Magnets + NASA + Mouse = Whee!

Back in September, it was reported* that a group of NASA-funded scientists had succeeded in levitating mice using a superconducting magnet and a special chamber. Specifically, they built a device that would levitate the water in an organism, and since mice are mostly water, they were induced to float.

Funnily enough, humans are also made mostly of water. This is not entirely coincidental. (Cue discussion of mouse-human biological similarities and subsequent suitability of mice as stand-ins for people in experiments.) NASA's trying to find a way to mimic zero-gravity bone loss, so they can find a solution.

Although the first mouse panicked and started doing that spin in midair thing, and the second mouse was sedated beforehand to prevent a repeat, the scientists reported that
[r]epeated levitation tests showed the mice, even when not sedated, could quickly acclimate to levitation inside the cage. After three or four hours, the mice acted normally, including eating and drinking. The strong magnetic fields did not seem to have any negative impacts on the mice in the short term, and past studies have shown that rats did not suffer from adverse effects after 10 weeks of strong, non-levitating magnetic fields.
While this is all wonderful and exciting and geeky, if you've been following this blog for a while, you can probably predict my reaction:

What else can we use this to levitate, and how soon can this set-up be commercialized? I mean, we can put water into just about anything, right?


Monday, February 22, 2010

Painting with Nanotech


What do you think of when you think of nanotech? Computers? Robots? Medicine? The replicators in Star Trek? They're the obvious applications, because they're what everyone's talking about—"Nanotech Is The Future", in a deep, booming, amusement park voice.

Here's another idea:

Kate Nichols is a painter who uses nanoparticles in her work and was recently made a TED Fellow. I'm not going to say anything more because Boing Boing, TED, and her own website cover everything anyway.

Her art's pretty danged amazing. I'm going to go out on a limb* and say "Nanotech Is The Future of Art." In some universe, that's got to be true. There's got to be more than this single application. Using reflective particles in regular paint or printing inks could result in reflective waterscapes, reflective glass, reflective you-name-its. You could use this stuff in dyes, for iridescent clothing (even if we have that now), or make jewelry with it, or, I dunno, tie the particles to frequencies, so they'd shimmer with voices or music.

Who else votes yea?

(Yes, small post today. Again. I is tired. Again.)

*a really big one, like Giant Sequoia sized

Friday, February 19, 2010

Alien Miscellany

Everyone knows that governments collect stories of UFO sightings, right? And that they occasionally release their documents to the public? Well, I found out that there's been another release*, this time of six years' worth of British sightings. The documents are currently free, but will be charged for after a month.

I also found a video on io9 in which there is real-time commentary on a UFO video. WARNING: there is swearing, so it's probably not safe for work unless you have headphones. Also, I'm willing to bet that the witnesses didn't contact the proper authorities.

io9 also has an article and video consisting of expert advice on removing alien implants, and another one on a vehicle patent that's essentially a UFO. Yes, really. They're really kind of the main source of links today, because there's also a Nazi UFO fighter plane, a uranium-mining UFO, a glowing sky jellyfish, and a floating pyramid. (If you're really into conspiracy theories, they've also posted an article recently on the secret Mars colonization program.)

If you don't believe in UFOs, Boing Boing has an article (on an article of the Fortean Times which you have to register to access) on what else those sightings could be of—pie plates, dogs, hallucinations, etc.**

* link taken off this article, which also links to other cool stuff
** That sentence could probably have been more convoluted, but I'm not sure how.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Build-Yer-Own Language (Part 3)

Part 1
Part 2

Now that you know how your language's syllables work and I haven't scared you off, you're going to want to make words. This is good, because words are awesome. Occasionally confusing, but awesome. The linguistic study of word formation is called morphology.

(I apologize in advance for all the bold font.)

Linguists distinguish between lexemes, or the core meanings of a chunk of sound (cat + cats = 1 lexeme, because they both refer to the four-legged, tailed animal that meows), and word forms, which are variations on lexemes. Cat and cats are different word forms because one is singular and one is plural, with an added -s. Having explained the difference between a lexeme and a word form, I'm now going to forget I did so and just use 'word' most of the time.

Word forms can be grouped into paradigms, or lists of all variations on a single lexeme. For instance, go, goes, going, gone, went is the paradigm for "to go". For the language maker, paradigms can be useful as memory aids, especially if there are complicated word-making processes in the language.

Each piece of sound that goes into a word form is called a morpheme. Morphemes also happen to be what we code into our brains. We don't code going and being and seeing and dancing individually. We code go, be, see, dance, and -ing, because we've all learned (somehow) that there's a rule for when -ing shows up, meaning that -ing is a separate entity.

There are two types of morphemes: root morphemes, or the ones that make up the basic meaning (cat, go), and affixes, which add extra meaning (-s, -ing). You're probably not familiar with the word affix, and this is fine—prefixes, suffixes, and infixes are the three kinds of affixes out there.

Wait, you don't know infix either? That's a chuck of sound that gets slipped into the middle of a word. Abso-freaking-lutely <-- like that.

Remember my last post in this series, where I talked about sound rules and how sometimes sounds get changed around to make syllables easier to say? They apply to morphemes too, especially affixes. Sometimes those sound rules intervene to make two or more allomorphs with an identical meaning. We've got some of these in English, of course*— cats, beds, and dishes have three different sounds that all mean 'plural'.

Ah yes, you say, this is all fascinating, but how do we use this to make words? There are several ways, and most languages use a combo or all of them.

  • derivation - making a new word by adding an affix with non-grammatical meaning: form --> formation, derive --> derivative, fiction --> fictional, absolute --> abso-freaking-lute-ly
  • inflection - making a new word by adding an affix with grammatical meaning (i.e., plurals, gender markings, tense, possession): cat --> cats, go --> going, mom --> mom's
  • compounding - putting two words together to make new meaning: dish + washer --> dishwasher, cat + burglar --> cat burglar 
  • reduplication - copying some or all of a word/morpheme as a way of changing meaning, sometimes with slight differences in sounds - politics --> politics-schmolitics, rolly --> rolly-polly, doggy --> doggy-woggy

You'll also find irregular paradigms, where nothing really has affixes but the words change anyway. Go, gone, went is an example, and so is they, them, their, theirs, and foot, feet.** Other languages change stress or vowel quality as a way of signaling meaning. Also note that you can do a bunch of these to a single word, multiple times, in any order: anti-dis-establish-ment-ar-ian-ism.

Your made-up language will most likely use derivation and inflection, so you'll need to come up with affixes for common meanings. Start with a syllable (or several) for the root, and then add a syllable or group of sounds, then make a note that what you added means "X meaning". That way you'll be consistent with other words. Derivational affixes can have just about any meaning you want, but inflectional ones are going to stick to a few categories: tense, mood, voice, aspect, person, number, gender, and case. (Look up any term there you don't recognize. I'm not going to bore you any more here.)

One more thing to bear in mind at this stage: type of language. This is important for a couple reasons. 1) The language type is going to determine what kinds of word formation processes you're going to need, and how many of the various types of affixes you'll have to come up with. 2) The language type you choose will have connotations to many readers, in that they'll see certain features and think of certain languages. You can exploit this by choosing sounds that will remind the readers even more of a given language.***

Types of Languages

  1. Isolating - Every word is a morpheme; every morpheme is a word. There won't be any affixes, but those meanings will still need to be there, as separate words or in the word order. Alternatively, those meanings could be "irrelevant" to the speakers, so that past/present/future is all the same verb form, or there's no concept of gender or number. There will still probably be a way to signal case (a.k.a. direction), because we'll need to know who hit who with what where. Compounds are still possible. Examples: Chinese, other South-East Asian languages.
  2. Agglutinative - Most if not all words are formed by adding lots of morphemes together. There's probably a morpheme (with allomorphs) for most kinds of inflection, and plenty for derivation too. Every morpheme will have a single meaning. The words will tend to be mid-length to longish. Examples: Japanese, Bantu, Turkish, Quenya, Klingon
  3. Fusional/Inflecting - Also uses lots of affixes, but the affixes are more likely to have multiple meanings, such as "continuous + past" or "male + plural + indirect object". There will be lots of paradigms and declension tables, not just for verbs, but also nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Examples: Latin, Greek, German, Hindu
  4. Polysynthetic - Really big strings of morphemes, to the extent that one or two words can contain a sentence's worth of meaning. Subjects, objects, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, spatial relationships, etc. are all joined together into a single word. Some polysynthetic languages keep nouns and verbs in separate words; others done. There's often a very loose distinction between what's a verb and what's a noun. Examples: Inuktitut, Cherokee, Ainu
  5. Semitic - Not technically a language type (they're fusional), but cool enough to deserve its own paragraph. This language family uses something called "transfixes" pretty heavily— strings of vowels that break up the consonant roots and hold meaning. Sometimes the meaning is derivational, sometimes inflectional. For instance, there's the Arabic kataba, katabnaa, yaktubu, naktubu, kaatib. k-t-b means "write". Examples: Hebrew, Arabic

Few if any languages are purely one type. They tend to mix things up a little. English is a mix of isolating and fusional, for instance. Languages also tend to steal borrow from each other, not just with sounds and new words, but also with word formation. They have to be in contact with each other for that to happen, though, like the bleeding between Elvish and Numenorean in Lord of the Rings.****

I'll be doing the whole Pamak morphology example thing next time around.

*We've got almost everything in English, somewhere.
** Let it be noted that there is a possessive -s in theirs, and that these paradigms were much more regular in Old English, a.k.a. 1000-1400 years ago.
*** Yes, that probably means research. Sorry.
**** Yes, it's there.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The (Sorta) Thinking Vehicle

Technically today was supposed to be a language-y post, but I got sidetracked by the Olympics and my novel, not necessarily in that order, and now I'm too sleepy to write such an involved post. So instead, I'm going to dump a bunch of links into this post, call it a night day, and set this to go up tomorrow (which is normal procedure).

Don't be scared. They're about smart cars. Not SmartCars. Cars with A.I.* Because our cyberpunk/near future/space opera heroes have to have car chases too.

Finally, I know this isn't a car, but there's this pimped-out self-navigating robotic wheelchair****** with a laser guidance system and cameras.

There's story fodder in them thar links, I can feel it. Especially the wheels and morphing car. Combined.

* No, I don't have a Thing with robots. Honest. I haven't even seen Transformers II.
** The Design Blog
*** Engadget
**** Gizmodo
***** Boing Boing
****** Engadget

Friday, February 12, 2010

Evolution in Fantasy

You want to know something that bugs me? The general lack of evolutionary principles in fantasy. Sci-fi is okay, because the “sci” part dictates that Things Make Sense, but fantasy? It seems like just about anything goes. I know fantasy creatures come out of myths and legends, and that the people who created the myths didn’t exactly have a grasp of Darwinian evolution, but that’s no excuse for lacking world-internal evolution.

For instance:

  • Why are the ears of fairies/elves pointed? What acoustic benefits do the points have? Or were the points originally for attracting mates? In which case, do male elves have pointier ears than females? Ethereal beauty I get, but not the ear issue.
  • I can understand goblins and orcs being kind of squat and dark in color, since they live underground, but why did they evolve to be ugly? How are hooked noses, facial warts, and beady eyes an advantage? I think it's generally assumed that goblins have evolved better night vision to deal with their cave environment, but why haven’t they gone the route of a number of cave-dwelling species and evolved blindness? Do they echolocate?
  • If goblins are short, why are trolls traditionally tall? They both live in caves. I prefer the Scandinavian version of trolls, because they’re human-sized or smaller. Then again, the Scandinavian trolls have tails. Why?
  • Why do trolls turn to stone in sunlight? The only author I’ve encountered who explains this is Terry Pratchett, whose trolls are made of stone and become much slower when hot.
  • What advantages do pixies and gnomes have in being small? Are they better able to hunt small prey that way?
  • How did pixies’ wings evolve, and why do they sometimes look like insect wings? Leaves I understand; they’re camouflage. Are the insect wings the same principle? Convince predators (or prey) that you’re a harmless bug and they’ll ignore you?
  • Speaking of size, how did giants and trolls evolve to be incredibly tall? People have done math to show that in Earth-gravity, that kind of size would be instantly fatal. Bones would break under the pressure of the muscles moving them.* Therefore, we have to assume that fantasy worlds have a different sort of gravity, that the bone-muscle ratio is different, or that the bones are stronger than human bones. Are they made of something other than calcium, then? Volcanic rock, perhaps?
  • What evolutionary pressures created giant, sentient winged lizards that breathe flame and speak? Why are there only ever Great Dragons and never an evolutionary tree of dragons, some without flame, some without sentience, some with six legs and no wings? For that matter, why are dragons the only seven-limbed** creatures on a fantasy world? (Except for Pern, where many of the life forms have that trait.) And how did the voice boxes enter the picture?
  • Assuming that dragons exist, why would they evolve the ability to form a psychic or telepathic link with a human? We could breed them for that, I suppose, and create dragonis domesticus, such as those in the Temeraire series, but aren’t most wild dragons born with the trait?
  • Would the pressures that created dragons also be responsible for winged horses, and why aren’t there multiple species of semi-winged or six-legged horses?
  • What the hell is responsible for centaurs, fauns, weres, and merfolk? Especially the centaurs. Fauns I can see adapting for rocky terrain, weres for self-defense or better hunting or … something, and merfolk for aquatic environments. But what kind of pressures would result in a half-human, half-horse?
  • What do centaurs eat, anyway? Hay and grass, human food, a mix?
  • Are griffins, hippogyphs, cockatrices, minotaurs, and sphinxes truly hybrids? If so, how do such incompatible species produce viable offspring? If not, how did such strange creatures evolve?***
  • I can understand the reasoning behind a three-headed dog, and the multi-headed hydra, but why does nothing else have multiple heads?****
  • Why are there sentient trees? Why are there mobile trees? Are ents animal or vegetable, or a descendant of the common ancestor of the two?
  • Why are there sentient bodies of water?

This isn’t to say that I don’t understand everything about fantasy evolution. Dragons obviously breathe fire for self-defense. The unicorn’s horn is surely for the same reason, though that doesn't explain the healing properties. Dwarves would have started as humans (or hominids) who adapted to fit into narrow cave tunnels and lift lots of heavy ores. Harpies would be humans who went through the same adaptations, more or less, as dinosaurs did to become birds, or mice-like things to become bats. Anything using magic would have evolved that trait to a) defend themselves or b) make their lives easier.

The rest of it? I still want to know the whys and hows, and hand-waving by saying, "it's magic!" gets a bit old.

* I think the first essay on the topic might be this one.
** Counting the tail
*** And what’s the biology behind the cockatrice turning people to stone, anyway? Is it a magical defense mechanism? How much energy does the average human consume or release during petrification? Could that energy be harnessed for nefarious purposes?
**** How much energy is needed to regenerate a hydra’s head on short notice? The hydra must either have energy stores like a camel, or become weaker with every regeneration.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Build-Yer-Own Language (Part 2)

Welcome back to Anassa's Linguistics Tutorial! In Part 1, I talked about speech sounds and how syllables are structured. I also promised more detail on what sounds do to each other once they're in syllables. Before I get there, there are a few other syllable/phonology things I should mention because they're going to affect which sounds go where.

1) Some vowels and consonants are more common than others. The most common vowels are /i/, /a/, and /u/*, since they're the most distinct, and no language has less than three vowels.Common consonants are trickier to pinpoint, since there are so many more of them than there are vowels. Most languages will select from the plosive, fricative, and approximant rows of the IPA chart, with /s/, /p/, /t/, and /k/ being common. /m/ and /n/ also show up frequently. Languages will often, but not always, have multiple sounds in the same area of the mouth, and will often match up voiced and voiceless sounds—/p/ and /b/, for instance.

2) Sonorance refers to the amplitude of a speech sound. Languages tend to group syllables according to a sonority hierarchy, so that quiet sounds (like /t/) are on the outside and loud sounds (like /a/ and /n/) are in the middle. Not every language has the hierarchy I linked to, however, so you can make up your own if you want. Just bear in mind that the hierarchy exists because of how sounds carry.

3) A minimal pair is a pair of words that have distinct meanings but only differ by one sound. They're a great way to figure out which sounds are coded to the language and which are interchangeable (and therefore don't get you killed if you mispronounce them). For instance, deaf and death are a minimal pair (with dead, debt, den, deck). "I am deaf" and "I am death" have radically different meanings. Your average xenolinguist is going to be interested in minimal pairs because of what the pairs say about the sounds of a language.

Since some languages distinguish between normal and nasalized vowels**, or the length of a vowel or consonant, or whether /p/ comes with a puff of air or not, there can be all kinds of minimal pairs and linguists get really good at distinguishing pronunciations.***

4) Not all sounds are distinctive. Sometimes you'll find Sound A only in one "environment" and Sound B everywhere else. For instance, you never find a nasal vowel before a non-nasal consonant in English. If I deliberately did that, it would sound strange, like I had an accent. These kinds of sounds are called allophones and are said to be in complimentary distribution.**** Every language has rules to determine which allophone happens when.

Rules For Changing (Non-Distinctive) Sounds
  • As a general rule, two sounds side by side will try to becoming more similar. Two reasons for this: It's easier to pronounce sounds when they're in the same part of the mouth, and humans have a "bad habit" of prepping for sounds before we get around to making them. This is why we get nasalized vowels before nasal consonants, and why [mp], [nd], and [ngk]***** occur a lot of the time (same spot in the mouth for each sound). Any time you want to have a sound change rule in your language, write it out for reference.
  • Some languages have rules that all vowels in a word must be made the same way as the first vowel (rounded, for instance), or that if the first consonant is made in the throat, all the consonants need some throatiness to them. These are harmony rules, and they're an extension of the assimilation rules in the first bullet.
  • Sometimes you'll get rules where two adjacent sounds which are a lot alike being less similar, generally so that it's harder to get confused about which word's being said, or because the original sequence of sounds is a tongue twister.
  • Other rules allow us to add in or drop out sounds/syllables to make words easier to say.
  • All languages have a mix of these rule types, with several (at least) in each category. I'd suggest doing some deeper research into common changes before coming up with ones for your language (start here).
Want examples for all this? 

Sonorance in this language (let's call it Pamak) is going to follow the chart I linked to. Why? Because it's what English uses and I want people to feel comfortable saying the words. If I wanted the language to feel more alien, I'd use a different hierarchy.

Minimal pairs in Pamak can involve any consonant or vowel (pa vs. ba, mifs vs. mafs). Pamak doesn't distinguish between nasal and non-nasal vowels, or puffs of air, or length of sounds.

For familiarity for readers, Pamak stress is iambic, like in Shakespeare: shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer's DAY….†

Place-sensitive rules:

1. Vowels will be nasal before nasal consonants.
2. A nasal consonant will always be produced in the same spot as the consonant that comes after it, if there is a consonant. 
3. No other consonant needs to match for place of articulation. (This isn't a rule in the linguistic sense, but I'm writing it to remind myself.)
4. Any consonant preceding a high vowel (/i/ or /u/) will be palatalized, meaning that a faint y (/j/) sound gets added. Think "cute" [kjut].
5. If two adjacent consonants are made in the same spot, but one is voiced and the other is voiceless, then the second consonant will change its voicing to match the first, unless the second consonant is a nasal. If the second consonant is a nasal, the first consonant doesn't change.
6. Unstressed vowels should be dropped if the word is 4+ syllables and dropping the vowel won't result in a non-syllable. Remember that Pamak syllables have one of the following structures: CV CVC CCVC CVCC CCVCC (repeat all with VV). By the time this rule, and rule 7, are applied, all the sound changes have happened.
7. If two adjacent syllables result in a very awkward consonant cluster such as xpxm, add /e/ in the middle of the cluster.

Rules 1, 3, and 4 won't be rules reflected in the writing system. They'll be spoken-words only. Rules 2, 5, 6, and 7 will be written and spoken. Examples:
  • Rule 2: klen + pa --> klenta, vlan + klen --> vlangklen, san + mis --> sammis
  • Rule 5: bim + fa --> bimva, tlant + bal --> tlantpal
  • Rule 6: klen + mamf + ba + vlask --> klemmamvbavlask --> klmmamvbavlask, not *klmmamvbvlask
  • Rule 7: vlaxt + xmal --> vlaxtexmal, not *vlaxtxmal
Get the idea? (For the record, these are examples of combinations. They may or may not be actual words. I'll get to that next time.)

One more thing before I finish: some languages use tones/pitches as a "speech sound", often with associated minimal pairs. Mandarin Chinese uses fives tones (rising, falling, level, dipping, neutral), for instance. So that's another thing to play around with.

Before starting with full-out word formation, it's a good idea to get the basics of the sound system laid out, so you have a better idea of what sounds should go where. That said, I tend to do some sound stuff, some word stuff, then sounds, then words, as I become aware of other rules I want or need.

See you next time!

* As always in this series of posts, letters in brackets will represent sounds in the phonetic chart from Part 1. The slashes and brackets are a linguist thing, in case you were wondering. You don't really need to know the difference for this overview.
** Nasalized vowels being those that generally come before nasal consonants, because the route through the nose is already open. English pat has a normal vowel; English pan has a nasal one.
*** Hence all the funky marks at the bottom of the IPA chart, and the four month course I took on phonetics.
**** I'm totally giving you these terms just so you can look them up if you want to.
***** /ng/ = the sound in thing
† Stress can also be trochaic (TIger, TIger, BURning BRIGHT…), or only occur on the first or last syllable, or be a strange mix of things which gets really complicated and is taught to advanced third-year students.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Holograms, the new 3D?

I've been watching a lot of Bones lately. Like all good forensics-type shows, it's got science fiction elements. (No lab has the kind of technology that shows up in the various CSIs, or House, or Bones, and even Numb3rs is a little out there at times.) The main sci-fi thing in Bones is their hologram display, which gets used for everything from facial reconstructions to reenactments of murders to pretty artistic things that don't have anything much to do with the plot. All in all, it's really, really cool and I want one even if I couldn't program the thing worth a darn.

Y'know what would make it cooler? If you could touch and manipulate those images.

If you watched the video (and if you haven't, why not?), you'll know that they're using Wiimotes and ultrasonic radiation to create the illusion of touchable holograms. They're not the real deal, but it's a step closer than we've been before, and if they keep working on this, who knows what could happen?

Before I start my rampant speculation™, let's hear from the researchers:
The developed system can render various virtual objects because not only visual but also tactile sensation is refreshable based on digital data. It is useful for video games, 3D CADs, and so on. 
Gaming and computer modeling are good applications, sure, and I welcome them with open arms, but let's be a little more creative.

  • What if, instead of Giant Weapons of Doom sweeping out of the screen to shock'n'awe, they actually "touched" us?**
  • We could create those pop-up hologram ads from Back To the Future II.
  • A director could use it for special effects on Broadway. This could launch Star Trek! The Musical to much enthusiasm and fear.***
  • Touchable holograms could be used in the classroom, either to demo something or for the kids to interact with—dissections and physics labs being the more obvious possibilities. 
  • They could act as a kind of tablet, allowing us to program computers and create models just by waving our hands around? (What? They do it for Hollywood spaceship controls.) 
  • There are medical applications, not just for remote operations and dissections, but also for examining scans from multiple angles (see Firefly).
  • Let's be really wild and say that the holograms could be used for: cooking utensils, babysitters, guard dogs, actors, Walmart greeters, petting zoo animals, fish lures, educational toys.
  • And then, of course, there's the display from Bones. As I said earlier, wouldn't it be awesome(r) if they could move it around without a tablet?

I haven't forgotten about the linguistics thing. That'll be up for the next post. I just don't want to bore anyone by going linguistics, linguistics, linguistics, because … yeah.

* PhysOrg via io9, pdf document via Boing Boing Gadgets and Boing Boing
** I remember a Disneyland ride years ago where they did something similar, with machines under the carpets and actual water sprayed on the audience.
*** And if Joss Whedon found a way to use the technology? *glees*

Friday, February 5, 2010

Build-Yer-Own Language (Part 1)

I’ve had an idea for a series of posts running through my head for a few weeks now, and they’re sciencey enough that I think I’ll still be fulfilling the Blog Mandate by posting them. Namely, I want to talk about how to create a language, because there is a grand tradition in speculative fiction of making up words. Elvish, Klingon, and Na’vi are the first three to spring to mind, but there are many, many more. And sometimes it’s just single words here and there in the text, rather than a whole language. At some point I’ll be talking about that situation too, but I’m going to start with the whole building-a-language thing.

Let it never be said I don’t bite off more than I can chew.

This first post is going to be mostly grounding with very little goofing off with language. That'll improve over time.

One more thing before I launch into the post proper: I have a degree in linguistics. Hopefully this won’t mean my posts will devolve into unintelligible geek speak. Shout at me if they do.

The lowest rung on the linguistics ladder is phonetics, the science of how sound is produced, heard, and transmitted through the air. Most of what I learned in my phonetics classes can be ignored for our purposes thankfully, but I do want to talk briefly about the vocal tract, because it determines the kinds of sounds that are made.

A human vocal tract consists of everything between the lips and the lungs, including the teeth, tongue, palettes, uvula, epiglottis, voice box, and nose*. By moving the tongue and voice box around while pushing air out of our lungs**, we humans can produce an astonishing variety of sounds.

(I’ll be talking more about that chart in a sec.)

Other species are likely to have different configurations. Insectoids like the Prawns in District 9 have mandibles, so clicks and trills feature heavily in their language. Gills and beaks will need to be incorporated, as will different kinds of teeth or weird tongues. (Or you can just ignore the biology. It's been done.)

How To Read The Chart

  • The box at the top contains the sounds made by blowing out through the mouth. The sounds on the left are made with the lips. The sounds on the right are made by the epiglottis. The sounds in between move progressively backwards in the mouth.
  • Most symbols correspond to the sound they make in English, or something very similar (if there's a funky diacritic thing). For instance, the second row of the top box is for nasal sounds, like m and n, and you'll notice a few variations on those symbols.
  • Labial-dental = put lower lip between teeth. Dental = tongue at or between teeth. Alveolar = tongue touching ridge behind teeth. Retroflex = same as alveolar except curl tongue tip backwards. Velar = back of tongue touching soft palette. 
  • Plosive = airflow temporarily stops. Nasal = airflow routed through nose. Tap/flap = very quick tongue movement. Fricative = slight air obstruction. 
  • Voiced = moving the vocal cords. Voiceless = without moving the vocal cords.
  • Vowels are center-right, and arranged according to tongue location. i has the tip by the top teeth (beet); æ has the tip down near the bottom teeth (bat); u has the body of the tongue bunched up by the soft palette (boot).
  • In vowel pairs, the left one is made with straight lips and the right one is made with rounded ones. To make u and o (boot and boat), you've got to pucker your lips a little.
  • The words beside the vowel chart refer to how wide open the lips are.
  • The middle-left box is for sounds made without the lungs. The sections at the bottom are for detailed linguisticy purposes and can be ignored unless you want to get obsessive or geeky. 
  • You can listen to recordings of the sounds here. You can play with a diagram of the vocal tract here, to get a better picture of what's going on. Saying the recognizable sounds will also help.

Still following? Good. Because that's it for phonetics. I'm moving on to phonology.

Phonology is the study of how sounds get made into syllables, and what they do to each other when they get there***. Linguists have worked out that all syllables in all human languages follow the same pattern.


That's a syllable with three sounds: consonant-vowel-consonant or CVC. The sounds are grouped into an Onset and a Rime, which is made up of a Nucleus and a Coda. You can put as many consonants as you want into the onset and the coda, and some languages can put a consonant in the nucleus instead of a vowel. 'Able', for instance, has an l in that spot. Nucleuses can also be diphthongs.

Some languages have optional or absent codas. Others have optional onsets, but never completely absent ones. CV syllables are incredibly common. The most complex syllable in English is CCCVVCCCC (schtroumpfed).

Now that we have the very, very basics, let's start constructing a language. I'm going to assume the speakers are humanoid, so I can use the chart above.

  1. Consonants: p b t k m n f v s x l *****
  2. Vowels: i e a o u
  3. Types of Syllables: CV CVC CCVC CVCC CCVCC (repeat all with VV)

Good syllables: pa tuk klen mifs snopt bimf plan vlant snaif …

Bad syllables******: *ap *stlu *kipts *fplaxls *foium …

Anyone want to try their hand at making syllables in the comments? The more we have for next time, the better.

My next post in this series is going to be about how sounds change when they're put next to (or near) other sounds. (More phonology.) After that, I'll be talking about making words, making sentences, coming up with meanings and usage, and then I'll probably be wandering into slang and other made-up words. We should have a working language by the time I'm done the posts. Stick around!

*Yes, the nose. Say ‘n’ with your hand in front of your nose, if you don’t believe me.
** And sometimes pulling it into our lungs.
*** Next lesson!
****  Wikipedia
***** x being the sound in loch or the German acht
****** An asterisk in front of a word/syllable/sentence is shorthand for, "NO WRONG BAD STOP UGH". An asterisk after a word/syllable/sentence is shorthand for, "LOOK DOWN HERE".

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

iPods in 1979?

It's true! In 1979, Kane Kramer filed a patent for a device that looks and acts a lot like an iPod. Gizmodo explains it better than I could:
Kramer's device, the IXI, was flash-based, even though flash memory in 1979 only could have held about three minutes of audio, and featured a screen, four-way controls, and was about the size of a cigarette pack. Even weirder, he envisioned the creation and sale of digital music and foresaw all the good and bad that would come from this: No overhead, no inventory, but a great push for independent artists, with the risk of piracy looming large.
(If you click the Gizmodo link, you'll see pictures!)

Unfortunately the patent wasn't renewed in 1988, so Mr. Kramer is not currently a multi-millionaire.

My first thought when I read the link above was that someone had gone back in time, invented the iPod, and then met an unfortunate end before they could make their millions.

My second thought was that a world where the iPod had been put on the market in 1979 or 1980 would probably be radically different technologically. I'm not entirely sure how (not a computer scientist, social scientist, or futurist), but it would have to be.

Just think:

  • 1979 - the IXI patent is noticed by a young entrepreneur with a talent for computers
  • 1980 - development begins
  • 1982 - the IXI is on the market*; flash memory has advanced greatly over the last two years, meaning that computers can do away with floppy disks; the device can also hold 20 minutes of music, after a major push by Kramer, the entrepreneur, and their computer specialists (seriously, it'll sell better this way)
  • 1983 - Music Retail Stations are ubiquitous; the Sony Walkman, barely five years old, still sells, but has seen its sales drop alarmingly; various music industry people are shouting about the Death Of The Cassette Tape**
  • 1988 - the IXI 3 holds 60 minutes of music; it has been paired with the analog cell phone to become the Hot Thing for yuppies***; the IXI Press is released at the same time as the IXI Phone; cassettes are still not dead, but their death is "imminent" according to pundits; by now, Apple and IBM have begun capitalizing on IXI Corp's technological advances
  •  1991 - the IXI Tablet is released, able to hold music and programs, and interface with the World Wide Web, which is just starting to become popular; it is hailed as the Death of Computers, a statement which is mocked by anyone who remembers the theoretical Death of Cassettes
If we had a working, popular, tablet computer in '91, where would we be in 2010? Probably a lot closer to the futures Hollywood promised us****. Maybe past that, in some ways. Possibly very different culturally.

Another thing to consider: what if the IXI got off the ground only to fail next to the Walkman? Would the failure have had an impact on the path portable music players took after that? "Let's not be like the IXI" and all that? Or would things have evened out and progressed as we remember them?

Final considerations for the day: What if Kramer was a time traveller? Is it too soon for historical fiction of any kind to be set in the 1980s?

* Yes, I'm being optimistic.
** the CD got its start this year, in our reality
*** Going by when the iPhone came out relative to the iPod

Monday, February 1, 2010

Music—in space!

The hot instrument of Hollywood sci-fi in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s was the theremin. It's a pretty recognizable sound that, I think, got used in sci-fi scores for its eeriness and its "alien" sound. Have a listen:

But! There's sci-fi music that's far more outlandish, way creepier, and much more authentic. Don't believe me? Listen to the following two videos (no need to watch 'em). They were recorded by Voyagers I and II, which took electromagnetic readings as it passed through the outer solar system.*

sound of Neptun
Uploaded by bornovali. - Technology reviews and science news videos.

Want more? There's another video in the Gizmodo piece below, and a standard Google search along the lines of "Voyager Symphonies of the Planets YouTube" gets a number of videos as well.**

* Gizmodo
** YouTube also has numerous videos of theremins, including a guy playing the Super Mario theme. :)