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Monday, August 28, 2017

Communications Systems and Warning Systems

During this hangout, we mostly discussed warning systems, but extended our reach a little into general-purpose communications systems.

We remarked that many warning systems are non-linguistic, so that not everyone has to speak the same language in order to understand them. Sirens are international. We have radio and TV warnings that begin with a distinctive sound, but then proceed to a linguistic message. There are now text alerts to let people know about danger. Morgan remarked that there's a special siren in her village for local emergencies. Fog horns are non-linguistic and warn of proximity to rocks. They are a kind of accessibility supplement when you can't see. Kat told us that every lighthouse is striped differently, and also has a different sound pattern and light pattern, so that before GPS systems, their signals were a great way to help locate yourself.

Patsy remarked that for science fiction you would have different kinds of signals given out by space stations, etc. This could be problematic, though, if you were unable to receive them because your sensory array differed from that of aliens in particular ways. What is the primary "channel of communication" (auditory, visual, olfactory, etc)?

I remarked that we often have multi-channel warnings, because fire alarms now come with strobes for people who are hearing-impaired. Fire and police vehicles have flashing lights as well as sirens.

One of our discussants mentioned a school for the deaf, where everything is made of glass, and there are lots of reflective surfaces to maximize seeing. This was an interesting way to make architecture appropriate to the population using it. Kat remarked that our architecture privileges human form. It also privileges the able-bodied human form.

If an alien civilization were to come up with a warning beacon, would it be detectable by humans? Could its signals be harmful to humans? We imagined that certain forms of communication by aliens would make an alien environment inimical to human survival.

People don't always use the warning systems you might immediately expect. In pre-literate societies, people often did subtle things to alter nature, such as changing the route of watercourses, or altering trees. Of course, putting human heads on pikes is a very different kind of warning!

We mentioned semaphore, which is a visual language system, but in terms of warning systems, signal flags are still used. There is an extensive code of colored flags that can send different messages. The quarantine flag, indicating contagious disease, is still in general use. Morse code is still in general use by ham radio operators.

Kat told us that there are specific ways you are supposed to hail people on a radio. You say certain words to indicate opening communication, certain words to close communication, or to indicate repetitions. There's specialized language for TTY systems, which are used for phone communication for the deaf. GA means "go ahead." SK, or "stop keying" indicates the end of the conversation. So if you are at the end of a conversation, generally one person will give "GA SK" and the other will reply "SK SK."

Public announcements have start and end codes. I remarked that in my trip to Lascaux this summer, we had talked about how the cave paintings there often appear to have a sequence that begins with a series of dots, continues through several representations of animals, and then ends with another series of dots. These paintings were made 20,000 years ago.

There are tsunami warnings, and tornado warnings.

Cruise ships have emergency drills teaching you what to do.

We asked, "How do you train people how to react in an emergency?" There are emergencies that some don't comprehend. Unless you have lived in an area where you are trained to respond to earthquakes, you might not know the safest course of action when an earthquake occurs. When people learn to drive, they need to learn the appropriate response to hearing a siren, i.e. moving over for the emergency vehicle to pass. However, you may not learn now to stop if you have a flat tire. You probably do know how to react if you see flashing emergency lights. A lot of people have signal lights they can use to indicate turns, but they often don't! (This is especially true where I live.)

The book Probability Moon by Nancy Kress features an interesting concept of shared reality that relies on very quick intercommunication. For this purpose, she designed a system of communication with mirrors and sunlight, called the "sunflashers."

Does your society have a satellite network? Does it have telegraph? Does it use semaphore, or pony express?

I remarked that my Varin world has a communication problem that indirectly resulted from its zeal for recycling. They moved to a wireless communication system and recycled all the wires from the previous communication system, but when the wireless system failed, they were left without any way to restore the wired system. This means that certain areas of the city are still wired for communication (intercoms), but most of it is not, and messengers are the most common way to get information to travel.

When you are looking at a house where servants work, bell systems can be more effective than intercoms, especially when the messages being transmitted are very basic and repetitive.

In The Sound of Music, the Captain used a boatswain's whistle to call the children. There was a power imbalance in this system, because no one was expected to summon the Captain this way.

You want to have an agreed-upon way to trigger the trained response system.

The system of amber alerts hasn't been as successful as people want, because people generally hate them, but these days very few people are listening to the radio. How, then, do you get your messages out?

Once, people had to make long distance phone calls from the post office. The post office wasn't just for letters, but was a more general communication service.

Schools often communicate with parents these days through automated phone calls, emails, and paper handouts. Each communication strategy has advantages and disadvantages.

We are starting to have things like fridges which communicate shopping lists. This can of course be extrapolated for futuristic scenarios!

Some warning systems are selective, designed to be detected by particular groups and irrelevant to others. One example of this would be a fire alarm for volunteer firefighters. There have also been codes designed to communicate calls for help, as when kids call home to ask for peanut m&ms when they feel unsafe and want to be picked up.

Oppressed groups can have special kinds of warnings indicating they are about to be raided. There was a situation where libraries were having their computer use logs searched, and the librarians were not legally allowed to say that they had been searched, so they would put up signs saying "We have not been searched today," and then take them down if a search occurred.

This, of course, is starting to take us into the realm of spycraft - leaving a flag or handkerchief in a particular location, etc.

It's important to note that linguistic messages in a public space privilege speakers of that language. There are restrictions on the ability to use particular messaging systems. Classified ads are only accessible to those who get newspapers. In order to receive faxes, you need a device. Faxes used to be much more common but now are less commonly used. They are still used in places where regulations make paper trails valuable. Implant technology is another type of device that controls accessibility to messages. I have seen many instances of problems with communication via implant, but not so many instances of physical problems like overheating!

What tech do you use for announcements? Would there be a way to send a warning via 3D printer? Or to send a particular tool needed for the emergency at hand? What if you have set up a system where 3D printers print a life raft during flooding, but only 80% of 3D printers can actually do this printing job? What happens to the 20% who can't? Does anyone care?

What would space poverty look like?

Twitter has become useful for tasks like locating planes. People don't have to know why they are looking for it, but can just "tweet if you see this plane." I personally experienced the Arab Spring via Twitter, and that tool turned out to be incredibly important. Of course, then you have responses to grass-roots uprisings like BART shutting down phone access in stations to discourage protest demonstrations.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, 8/31/17 at 10am Pacific, and we'll be speaking with author Alec Nevala-Lee. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Translators, Interpreters, and Translation

I started this hangout by setting some boundaries on the topic - specifically, that we would discuss the portrayal of translators, interpreters, and translation in fiction rather than engaging with SF/F in translation.

People often use the word "translator" to cover both people who translate texts and simultaneous interpreters, i.e. those people who translate while someone else is speaking. There's a pretty big distinction between those two. The latter is immensely more difficult.

Quite early on, we took on the question of Universal Translators. A universal translator is effectively a hand-wave or gimmick, something designed to make the story workable when it just wouldn't be possible to deal with the story content without having everyone speak the same language. Douglas Adams' babelfish is a deliberate nod to the arbitrariness of this idea. Translation problems are complex, and frankly, can take over a great deal of the content of your story, so if you don't want to have to deal with those issues, positing a universal translator is one way to just set them aside. This isn't a problem for the story, necessarily (although I do like to engage more deliberately with language issues). It's similar in some ways to saying "these people have faster-than-light travel and I'm not going to bother telling you how it works." Sometimes that's what you do to get the story focus right.

Obviously, there are stories that focus more deliberately on language issues. Little Fuzzy is one example. C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series is another.

One key thing to remember is that translation is not a magical equalizer.

Star Trek tends to minimize the importance of culture and manners. It will feature them, but usually as something cute or somehow to be tolerated. Morgan noted that they often act as if there is no misstep that could similarly offend humans.

We talked briefly about the movie Arrival. I noted that they skip over any exposition of the actual process it takes to "crack" the language and start designing the computer program that assigns meanings to the forms.

Kat noted that there is an open-source machine translation project going on right now on the internet, called Festival.

We liked the way that the show Enterprise had treated translation, where they had linguist Hoshi Sato on board for linguistic work, and only a semi-functional universal translator.

Kat remarked there are usually three approaches to language in SF/F: 1. conlang like mad (build your own language), 2. universal translator, and 3. "oh, look, languages."

We spoke about Embassytown by China Miéville. This book had a very cool language concept where the aliens spoke with two mouths and could only be translated to by pairs of psychically linked twins.

We talked also about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has played a role in many stories and films including Arrival. The "strong form" of the hypothesis says that if a concept doesn't exist in your language, then you can't conceptualize it. This form of it is not valid. However, the "weak form" of the hypothesis says that your language influences your cognition and makes certain things easier to conceptualize than others. This has proven to have some validity. Indeed, there is a researcher at Stanford, Lera Boroditsky, who is actively studying the relationship between language and cognition. They have a "Language and cognition" lab. (cool stuff!)

The linguistic concept that underlies the idea of the universal translator (at least in its original form) is that of Chomskyan universal grammar, which says that all languages have underlying commonalities in their construction. This has not proven to be the case, however, and I have always found universal translators to be something of a conceit.

Kat told us that she had learned the words for older brother and older sister in Japanese as if they were defaults, and that once her mom asked her why her friends were all younger siblings. It was a linguistic side-effect of how she had learned the vocabulary.

In languages with gendered nouns, the gender of those nouns often changes the way that their meaning is framed, causing people to emphasize gendered characteristics in them. We wondered what would happen if you were bilingual in two languages that assigned genders differently to the same nouns.

One of the problems with translation is that translators (not universal translators) have bodies. This means they can become tired. Or they can be threatened. They can make mistakes, or be coerced. These issues are not always taken on in stories. The indigenous translator who became known as La Malinche was ostensibly "married" to Hernán Cortés, but I'm pretty sure that relationship was at least somewhat coercive.

Is there a temperament for interpretation? Kat says you have to be willing to be a conduit for language, and be as transparent as possible, as if you were a machine with none of your own thoughts. This is certainly an ethical quandary that Sheila Finch takes on in her Guild of Xenolinguists stories. How much can you ask someone to dehumanize themselves in the name of getting something done? We thought about the difficult situations faced by children in immigrant communities who have to translate for their parents. Sometimes they can be asked to translate things that might get them in trouble (like discipline documents from the school). There would be a sore temptation to protect yourself by mistranslating. Even when you try to make yourself as transparent as possible,  your choice of word will still reflect your judgment (whether you want it to or not).

We talked about the challenge faced by people who are trying to translate Donald Trump speeches. Samantha Bee and the Daily Show both did segments on this, showing how difficult the job is. In Japanese, one might try to be excessively casual to represent him, but that's not enough. Also, you could easily precipitate an international incident.

There are stories from the Cold War about non-accurate translations that were made in order to save people's lives.

Politeness and honesty are often at odds.

We often assume that we have enough in common with the people we want to talk to that we can gesture and find things in common. This is not always the case, and certainly would not be the case with aliens.

Shared context is essential. If you are interacting with aliens who don't recognize objects as separate from each other, one of the major underlying assumptions of human language would not apply, and this would cause major problems.

Thanks to everyone who participated. Today's hangout will meet at 10am Pacific and we're going to talk about Naming. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Stina Leicht and Blackthorne

I was delighted to have Stina Leicht back on the show so close to the release of her new book, Blackthorne (it's out now!). This hangout was technically a bit tricky because Stina had audio trouble and couldn't hear us. However, we could hear her loud and clear, and so we made it work!

I started by asking her to introduce us a bit to the world in which Blackthorne takes place. Back when we were talking about her first novel in this world on the show (here), she had described it as answering the question, "What would fantasy look like if Tolkien were American?" Since then her concept has evolved, as concepts often do when you get to explore the world in more than one book. Stina was taking a look at the era of early firearms and smallpox, and converting that into a fantasy world. She says she got to deal with a lot of cool scientific advances like inoculation against disease. The concept was in its infancy, so there were occasions when people had "pox parties"and visited someone who had a mild case of smallpox, thinking that the mildness of it would be transmissible. This wasn't always the case, and people did die. Stina also told us that the beginning of the rifle is featured in Blackthorne. People are also starting to have a sense of genetics and eugenics.

The story is set in Acrasia, which is the "evil empire" of this world, but it doesn't see itself as evil. The Acrasians lost their original home in a volcanic disaster and fled to a peninsula on the edge of the continent where the Kainen people live. That peninsula, which she has nicknamed "evil Florida" because of its placement on the map, is Acrasia, and the Acrasians have been trying to expand outwards from there into the Kainen lands... with some success. Stina says she thinks of evil as humans making really bad choices or lacking empathy.

The title of the series is The Malorum Gates. This refers to entities that are entering this world from another dimension. They consume anything with power. They have been held back by the magic of the Kainen, so the invasion of the Acrasians is making this problem much worse.

Stina explained to us that Acrasia is based on Rome. The volcanic disaster that destroyed their home on another continent was modeled after Pompeii because, Stina says, "I love Pompeii." They have retained an imperialist tendency and a desire to invade countries and take them over.

In this world, magic works "too well" on humans. Kainen are essentially like elves, each of whom has their own magic power. The royalty of the country of Eledor have "command magic," and they have abused their power to influence humans, though other Kainen groups have not. Humans are terrified by magic, so the Acrasians' goal is to destroy magic even though the Malorum have invaded Acrasia and have the run of the city at night. There are two groups who maintain the peace. The Brotherhood of Wardens interact with the nobility, and the Watch interact with the common people.

There are different types of magic among the Kainen. Eledorians' magic works better on land, but there is another group, the Waterborne, who live on ships and whose magic works better on the ocean. Essentially, they are the dominating navy of this world, a monopoly that she originally modeled after the East India Company. As they evolved, she says, they became less of an exploitative group and became more like the Federation of Planets in Star Trek, if instead of planets you had ships. They conduct trade. Once the Waterborne get into a market, no one wants to deal with the Acrasians any more, but the Acrasians feel entitled to those trade relationships.

The story features a murder mystery with a serial killer! Stina describes the Acrasian society as one where "everything is legal if you can pay for it."

The main characters, Nels and Suvi, are trying to revive Eledor in hiding. The title character, Blackthorne, is a person of color who passes as white and smuggles the Kainen out of Acrasia to New Eledor.

Stina also talked about a couple of interesting characters she likes. Captain Drake is a watch captain, an alcoholic, but fiercely independent. She's not a good person but she's in a "good person job." Another character, Caius, is in an "evil person job" as a Warden, but is a good person and wants to get out of that function.

We asked Stina how skin colors worked in this world. Essentially, the Kainen come in lots of different skin colors. The main prejudice in the world is about the possession of magic power, but there is a secondary prejudice about skin color.

Stina told us that she uses a lot of fairy terminology when describing the Eledorians because they are essentially elves. New Eledor is underground, which is a reference to the Little People.

When the Malorum first came through a rift to this continent, everyone fled to the rocky land, and then after the Malorum had been contained, they spread out again. This is the historical reason why Eledor has its capital in the mountains.

Kat asked how Stina differentiates people's appearances descriptively. Stina said she tries to make the descriptions different depending on which point of view she's using.

Waterborne are more welcoming to different ethnicities than Acrasians are.

Stina took the class Writing the Other and has tried very hard to integrate what she learned into this world as she designed it. She also told us about how she had done five years of study of Northern Ireland when writing her first novel, Of Blood and Honey.

Part of your job as a writer, she says, is to portray lots of different sorts of characters. She branches out more in Blackthorne than she did in book 1, Cold Iron. Everyone has multiple layers of identity.

She told us a tiny bit about a new project she's working on, which she describes as "Gender-flipped Seven Samurai in Space with six women of color and one white woman who never speaks." She says she's having a lot of fun incorporating call-outs to Magnificent Seven and Fistful of Dollars. She's in the process of researching by watching all the various films and shows that have been inspired by Seven Samurai.

Thanks again to Stina for joining us (and for powering through despite technical trouble)! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, August 9 at 10am Pacific (that's tomorrow) to discuss Communication Systems and Warning Systems. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Taxes (the individual and society)

The first thing I thought of when my brain was set to the task of considering taxes in fiction was Robin Hood. One of my discussants remarked that people often set taxes in feudalism because it's easy. Setting taxes in a scenario that isn't like feudalism is much more complex, because you have to consider the interplay of factions of people trying to get their needs met.

When you live in a society, there are things that the individual can't pay for, but which the group can pay for - things like roads, police, fire departments, schools, the mail. The basic idea of taxes is that the individual pays into a pool which covers everything society needs. The much trickier question is, how do you decide what society needs?

Kate remarked that sewers didn't come along until quite late in history. Mohenjo Daro didn't have roads (the link suggests it had a "street plan", so perhaps this is a question of how roads are defined by usage). Do your research on history, because things that you take for granted in society didn't always evolve when you thought they did.

What kind of history does your world have?

The tragedy of the commons is when people neglect those resources that they don't have individual responsibility for; taxes are meant to combat that. We asked what a society would look like if people are expected to take care of their own stuff, and how that would be enforced. Che asked what payment would be expected in such a system. Money? Grain? A year's indenture of one's oldest son?

We discussed money, and what has value, for a few minutes. Money is essentially a generalized social agreement on a symbol of value, whether that be rice or shells or gold or silver, etc. Even when money is present, a lot of labor is not given monetary value, such as women's labor in our society. What if you had a society based on mutual non-monetary obligation? What would be the service provided? Not babysitting! Perhaps teaching the young in the home. A lot would depend on what skills you had to offer, and hopefully what you desired to do would be taken to account. Money eliminates these tricky calculations by creating a way to compute value that is generally agreed upon and makes vastly different services interchangeable. It also lends itself to larger-scale complexity.

The Romans did a lot of standardization. Amphorae came in two sizes and prices were set based on those quantities. In Babylonian times there were standardized weights and measures that were used for tax purposes.

Churches also can collect money in the form of tithes. In some communities, this would be like pooling resources for education, since the church provides a lot of that service.

Brian mentioned that in Germany, they have a church tax - a tax paid by the citizens to the government to support the operations of the church. Originally this was passed over from the main tax pool, but then it got itemized and people started asking not to pay it. So many people stopped paying the church tax that churches started saying that non-payers weren't welcome at mass.

Do all members of a society contribute to a tax pool? How do you classify membership in a society? How much are you obligated to support society? Who are the citizens? Are servants or slaves counted as citizens at all, or are they partial citizens? Is anyone failing to uphold the society? Is anyone deliberately trying to break down part of the society?

How do you decide who is a "productive" member of society? Children don't pay taxes... until they become productive. But what about the disabled? Are they fully included, or are they ostracized because they are not expected to become productive society members? These questions can become very complex and difficult, because things are rarely black and white.

Sometimes you hear people say that they don't want to pay taxes for schools that their children do not attend. The counterargument to this is that having an educated population helps everyone. Some people don't care to treat this as a benefit.

There are occasions when society benefits but individuals don't. Wanting a la carte benefits is a very American phenomenon.

Taxing an individual's income is a relatively new idea. It first started after the Napoleonic wars.

Creating taxes on things can have odd effects as people try to reduce their tax burden. If you tax windows, people may brick up their windows. If you have a bedroom tax, people may try to put fewer bedrooms in their homes. If you have a tax based on street frontage, you end up with lots of long skinny buildings.

People have always liked to use loopholes to avoid being taxed. When you put taxes on trade, that's how you get smugglers. If you allow people to write off charitable donations, then you get people who will bend over backwards to create something that appears charitable. Brian told us about someone who wrote a book about how great he was, had it printed, and then "donated" it to libraries, which allowed him to write off millions of dollars in taxes. One of the odd characteristics of the American tax system is that it differentiates between income from work and income from investment (aren't they both income?).

Whenever you have taxes, you have to have tax collectors. You also end up with Treasury agents, the people whose job it is to find the tax cheaters. Tax collectors appear in fiction, but they are usually portrayed as evil. (A Taxing Woman, the film by Juzo Itami, is one counterexample.)

Remember that tax avoidance is legal, while tax evasion is illegal. Al Capone got arrested for tax evasion.

Do people threaten to kill tax collectors?

We talked for a bit about the history of the US Marshals. They were outlaw hunters, but they were also slave hunters. They were strike-breakers, and had jurisdiction across state lines.

We talked very briefly about Universal Basic Income. That would have to rely on taxes, but it would also benefit every member of society in ways that would make it harder for employers to abuse them. Here's a link about Finland's recent UBI experiment.

Kate asked what it would be like if motherhood were a paid job, maybe paid by taxes. Would that lead to standards, and state minimums for nutrition, education, etc.?

On some level, as you are creating a society you have to ask how much of the value of the individual's labor goes back to the society. The name we give to the type of society depends on the answer to that question. If all of it goes back to society, that's communism. If none of it goes back that (I guess) would be libertarianism. When you're somewhere in between, you can learn a lot by considering how the balance is enforced and where it can be influenced.

Thank you to everyone who attended. Tomorrow's hangout will meet at 10am Pacific, and we're going to talk about Translation, Translators, and Interpreters. Join us!