New Books and ARCs, 5/26/17

May. 26th, 2017 08:31 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

As we ease into a long weekend, here’s a very healthy stack of new books and ARCs that might ring your bell. Call out the ones you’re interested in down in the comments!

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Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

Flashback Friday. 

Responding to critics who argue that poor people do not choose to eat healthy food because they’re ignorant or prefer unhealthy food, dietitian Ellyn Satter wrote a hierarchy of food needs. Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it illustrates Satter’s ideas as to the elements of food that matter first, second, and so on… starting at the bottom.

The graphic suggests that getting enough food to eat is the most important thing to people. Having food be acceptable (e.g., not rotten, something you are not allergic to) comes second. Once those two things are in place, people hope for reliable access to food and only then do they begin to worry about taste. If people have enough, acceptable, reliable, good-tasting food, then they seek out novel food experiences and begin to make choices as to what to eat for instrumental purposes (e.g., number of calories, nutritional balance).

As Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist writes, sometimes when a person chooses to eat nutritionally deficient or fattening foods, it is not because they are “stupid, ignorant, lazy, or just a bad, bad person who loves bad, bad food.”  Sometimes, it’s “because other needs come first.”

Originally posted in 2010; hat tip to Racialicious; cross-posted at Jezebel.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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The Poverty “State of Mind”

May. 25th, 2017 10:19 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Ben Carson, our HUD Secretary of somewhat dubious expertise, recently burbled on about how he thinks that “poverty, to a large extent, is a state of mind,” a statement which earned him some well-justified push-back and which prompted several people, knowing of my general thoughts about poverty, to wonder if I had any thoughts on the matter.

My thought on poverty in the United State being a “state of mind” is that what it really is, to a rather larger extent, is a lack of access — to money, to education, to opportunities, to adequate housing, to networks of expertise and help, among many other things, and most importantly (and as often a consequence of all the others noted and more) to the margin of safety that people who are not in poverty have when any individual thing knocks them off their stride.

It’s the last of these, in my opinion, that illustrates the gormlessness of Carson’s thoughts on poverty. You can have the most can-do spirit in the world, but your state of mind doesn’t mean jack when confronted with, say, a broken-down car you can’t afford to repair, which means that you can’t get to your job, which means that the job goes out the window, putting you at risk of not being able to pay the rent (or other bills), increasing the possibility of putting your family out on the street, making it more difficult for your kids to get and maintain an education. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to a worn-out timing belt or transmission. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the landlord who decides to raise a rent you can barely afford, because he knows he can get more from someone else. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the ice outside your home you slip and fracture your arm on when you head off to your second job. Your state of mind is not telekinetic. It can’t fix things that are out of your control, and which by dint of poverty you have no immediate way of addressing. When you’re poor, so many things are out of your control.

Conversely, if you have margin, your “state of mind” matters even less — because you have the ability to address problems as they arise. It doesn’t matter what my state of mind is if my car stops working; I can afford to have it taken to the shop and fixed. My state of mind is not relevant when I crack my arm; I have good health insurance with a low deductible. My state of mind is neither here nor there to my housing situation; my mortgage is paid off. My margin is considerable and will be regardless of what state my mind is in.

Yes, you might say, but you, John Scalzi, have an industrious state of mind! Well, that’s debatable (more on that later), but even if it is true, is it more industrious than the person who works two shitty jobs because they have no other choice? Am I more industrious than, say, my mother, who cleaned people’s houses and worked on a telephone exchange while I was growing up, so that I could eat and have a roof over my head? My mother, who barely cracked a five-figure salary while I grew up, worked as hard as hell. Tell me her “state of mind” was less industrious than mine is now, and I’ll laugh my ass off at you. Tell me any number of people in the small, blue-collar town I live in, who make significantly less than I do, and who are one slip on the ice away from tumbling down the poverty hole, have a “state of mind” substantially less industrious than my own, and I’ll likely tell you to go fuck yourself.

I happen to be one of those people who went from poverty to wealth, and because I am, I can tell you where “state of mind” lies on the list of things that have mattered in getting me where I am. It is on the list, to be sure. But it’s not number one. Number one is access to opportunity, which I got when my mother — not me — decided to chance having me apply to Webb, a private boarding school that cost more than she made in a year (I was a scholarship kid), with immense resources that allowed me entree into a social stratum I might not have otherwise had access to.

Number two is a network of people — mostly teachers at first — who went out of their way to foster me and nurture my intellect and creativity when they saw it in me. Number three is luck: being in the right place at the right time more than once, whether I “deserved” the break I was getting or not. Number four is my creativity, my own innate talents, which I then had to cultivate. Number five are the breaks I got in our culture that other people, who are not me, might not have gotten. Number six would be Krissy, my wife and my partner in life, who has skills and abilities complementary to mine, which has made getting ahead easier and building out our family’s margins much simpler than if I had to do it on my own.

Number seven — not even in the top five! — I would say is my “state of mind,” my desire and determination to make something of myself. And let’s be clear: this “state of mind” has not been an “always on” thing. There have been lots of times I was perfectly happy to float, or fuck around, or be passive, because times and opportunities allowed me to be so. There have been times when I have been depressed or apathetic and not interested in doing anything, and I didn’t — but still got along just fine because of my margin of safety. There have been times I have been overwhelmed and barely able to make any decisions at all. “State of mind” is a changeable thing, and importantly can be deeply influenced by one’s own circumstances. It’s much easier to have a positive “state of mind” when you know that no one thing is likely to knock your entire life askew. It’s easier not to give in to fatalism when not everything has the potential to ruin everything else. It’s easier to not feel like nothing you do matters, when you have to ability to solve many of your problems with a simple application of money.

I have seen people with what I’m sure Carson would describe as the correct “state of mind” fail over and over again because their legs are kicked out from them in one way or another, and who never seem to make it no matter how hard they try. I’ve seen people who definitely don’t have the right “state of mind” succeed and even thrive — have seen them fail upward — because on balance other things broke their way. “State of mind” as a predictive factor of economic mobility is, bluntly, anecdotal bullshit, something to pull out of your ass while ignoring the mountains of evidence showing that economic mobility in the United States is becoming more difficult to come by. It’s not “state of mind” that’s the issue. It’s long-term systematic inequality, inequality that’s getting worse as we go along. Ignoring or eliding the latter and pinning poverty “to a large extent” on the former means you’re giving everyone and everything else that contributes to poverty in the United States — from racism to inertia to greed — a free pass.

I’m well aware that Carson has his own anecdotal rags-to-riches story, as I do; we both even have mothers who sacrificed for us so we could succeed. Good for him! I applaud him and his effort to get where he is now. But this doesn’t make his story any more than what it is, or what mine is — a single story, not necessarily easily replicated at large. Certainly my story isn’t easily replicated; not every poor kid can be given a break by a private boarding school catering to the scions of wealth and privilege. I think it’s fine if Carson or anyone else wants to lecture or opine on the poverty “state of mind.” But until and unless our country makes an effort to address all the other long-term issues surrounding poverty, Carson’s opinion on the matter is bullshit.

Control for opportunity. Control for access. Control for margin. And then come back to me about “state of mind,” as it regards poverty. I’ll be waiting, Dr. Carson.

Resisting reunification

May. 25th, 2017 12:03 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair


How do you parse this headline?

Resisting reunification by force to get Taiwan nowhere: mainland spokesperson” (Xinhua, 5/25/17)

Now read the first sentence of the article:

A Chinese mainland spokesperson warned Thursday that the Taiwan administration’s attempt to resist reunification by the use of force will get the island nowhere.

Is that what you thought it meant?

But wait!  Even after reading the first sentence, is the intent of the title unambiguously clear?

And is the intent of the first sentence itself unmistakable?

Even after reading through the article to the last sentence, one may still be left wondering whence comes the application of force with regard to reunification:

The spokesperson made the remarks when asked to comment on an ongoing military drill in Taiwan, which has simulated a mainland attack.

This kind of hyperwaffling rhetoric is mind-numbing.

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Posted by John Scalzi

In my dream last night, I was annoyed at my cats for not sufficiently appreciating the in-ground pool I had installed specifically for them.

Can you blame me? I think not.

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Posted by Ian Nahan

When we see individuals holding cardboard signs and asking for spare change wearing camouflage, homelessness among veterans can seem like an epidemic. Recently, however, government efforts to reduce veteran homelessness have had great success. In response to a federal strategy known as Opening Doors, since 2010 veteran homelessness has declined by almost 50%. And in that time period some cities, such as New Orleans, have reported veteran homelessness at functional zero. 

You would never know it from social media. As the world has grappled with the Syrian civil war, political memes have emerged in the U.S. that make the case that we should prioritize homeless veterans over Syrian refugees. These memes foreground a competition between homeless veterans and Syrian refugees in order to make a misleading, emotionally-appealing argument against the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

Deliberately or not, the online images are similar to propaganda. Actors create emotionally-charged illustrations with biased and one-sided evidence to encourage a political point. The memes push a narrative of homeless veterans as overlooked by the government, while this goes against the facts. They also suggest a fallacious argument that the Department of Veterans Affairs will lose funds because of the refugee resettlement program. This is not the case.

At the same time the memes appeal to our sentiments. Features writer for Mashable, Rebecca Ruiz, contends that memes like these pose the emotional question, “If people in the U.S. are suffering, why are we helping refugees?” What if veterans are those slighted? This is a powerful idea because Americans revere veterans.

In Coming Home: Attitudes toward U.S. Veterans Returning from Iraq, sociologists Alair MacLean and Meredith Kleykamp argue that male veterans involved in recent military-related combat are still supported by the general public, even in light of the idea that those exposed to combat have mental health issues and substance abuse problems. They add that veterans are privileged by symbolic capital, or prestige related to their service. A meme that presents veterans as treated unfairly is likely to produce an emotional reaction, something that is known to simplify our thinking and decision-making.

While the digital messages premised on helping veterans are compelling, they are false and a strategic exploitation of our feelings, one with xenophobic, white nationalist, and anti-immigrant goals. They urge us to advocate against Syrian resettlement to solve an unrelated problem that is already diminishing.

Ian Nahan has a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in both sociology and social work. He plans on working with veterans once he obtains a master’s degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Posted by Mark Liberman

Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?“, STAT 5/23/2017:

STAT reviewed decades of Trump’s on-air interviews and compared them to Q&A sessions since his inauguration. The differences are striking and unmistakable.  

Research has shown that changes in speaking style can result from cognitive decline. STAT therefore asked experts in neurolinguistics and cognitive assessment, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists, to compare Trump’s speech from decades ago to that in 2017; they all agreed there had been a deterioration, and some said it could reflect changes in the health of Trump’s brain.

STAT may have reviewed decades of Donald Trump’s on-air interviews, but what’s presented in the article is a scant handful of anecdotes. There’s one example of a verbal flub from an (unidentified) interview in May of 2017; 41 seconds of a Larry King interview from 1987; 13 seconds from another unidentified NBC News interview “earlier this month”; a hundred words of transcript from an unidentified “interview with the Associated Press last month”; and one or two other fragments. Begley asserts that

[L]inguistic decline is also obvious in two interviews with David Letterman, in 1988 and 2013, presumably with much the same kind of audience. In the first, Trump threw around words such as “aesthetically” and “precarious,” and used long, complex sentences. In the second, he used simpler speech patterns, few polysyllabic words, and noticeably more fillers such as “uh” and “I mean.”

Again, she doesn’t give us clear citations for the interviews, much less links; and again, the description is entirely anecdotal.

I was particularly surprised by her assertion of  “noticeably more fillers such as ‘uh’ and ‘I mean.'” That assertion might be true of those two interviews — though it would be nice to have some numbers — but as I’ve observed several times, one of the striking characteristics of Donald Trump’s (recent) spontaneous political rhetoric is that he uses filled pauses much less frequently than most other politicians (and most other people in general).

For example in “The narrow end of the funnel” (8/18/2016), I noted that filled pauses were 8.2% of Steve Bannon’s words (in a sample passage from a panel discussion on The Future of Conservatism), and 4.0% of Hilary Clinton’s words in a Vox interview, while three of Trump’s rally speeches had between 0% and 0.05% filled pauses, and in a CNBC interview, Trump used 74 filled pauses in 5329 words, for a rate of 1.4%.

[I’ll see if I can track down those two Letterman interviews and check them out.]

So Begley and her mostly-unnamed “experts in neurolinguistics and cognitive assessment, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists” might be right to wave their hands at “a neurodegenerative disease or the normal cognitive decline that comes with aging”. But the evidence that they offer is anecdotal at best, without even citations or links to let readers check out the context of the anecdotes. (And perhaps because of heavy reader load, my attempts to view the article’s chosen video-clip anecdotes froze four browsers on two operating systems, making them even less impressive to me than they otherwise would have been.)

This strikes me as a reverse-image version of the right-wing fixation about neurological interpretations of Hilary Clinton stumbling. Pending some real evidence, I’m going to diagnose this as a case of TDS: Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Update — the STAT story has been reprinted at MedPage Today.


My WisCon 41 Schedule

May. 23rd, 2017 06:22 pm
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Posted by Tempest

I’ll be at WisCon this weekend, just as I am every year. EVERY YEAR. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you want to find me, here’s my schedule:

Stop, Collaborate and Listen | Fri, 4:00–5:15 pm Conference 2

Amal El-Mohtar has a history of collaborating with likeminded souls, from editing a poetry zine to performing with a troupe of writer/musicians to co-writing fiction and beyond. How is it possible to discover fellow travelers and co conspirators across space and time(zones)? What are the benefits of such long distance collaborations, and how do different kinds of collaborative projects come together?

Julia Starkey, K. Tempest Bradford, Amal El-Mohtar, C. S. E. Cooney , Max Gladstone

Social Media in 2017 | Sat, 10:30–11:45 pm University C

LiveJournal is now hosted in Russia and doesn’t support HTTPS. Facebook is infected with fake news and trolls (not to mention giving us only random access to what friends have to say). Twitter keeps adding features we don’t want and allowing trolls to flourish. What’s worth using? Is there any way to change the social media landscape?

Rachel Kronick, K. Tempest Bradford, Emma Humphries, Sunny Moraine

How Lazy Writing Recreates Oppression | Sun, 10:00–11:15 am Capitol A

Themes of colonialism and racial oppression are extremely popular in the genre of science fiction. Authors of sci-fi often use the tropes of the genre to explore real issues in the world, however, colonialism and oppression is only alluded to in the fictional elements and not in the elements of the story based in the real world. Practices like color-blind casting are not only lazy but uphold white-default characterizations, stereotypes of marginalized people, and damage the spirit of real diversity and inclusion. On this panel, we will discuss stories like Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Doctor Who and Star Wars, and how these stories fall short and recreate oppression in their stories through lazy writing, as well as what writers need to be aware of when writing.

Mark Oshiro, K. Tempest Bradford, Nicasio Reed

Reading: Looking for Trouble | Sun, 1:00–2:15 pm Michelangelos

I will be reading from my story The Copper Scarab, which will be just out in Clockwork Cairo!

K. Tempest Bradford, Eileen Gunn, Pat Murphy, Nisi Shawl

Steven Universe and Consent | Sun, 2:30–3:45 pm Caucus

Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe, said the following at San Diego Comic-Con: “It’s very important to me that we speak to kids about consent. That we speak to kids about identity. There’s so much I have to say about this. I want to feel like I exist and I want everyone else who wants to feel that way to feel that way too.” Let’s talk about how the show deals with issues of consent, especially in regards to its use of SF ideas like mind-sharing, body-swapping, and fusion. What can we learn from SU about how to (or how NOT to) discuss consent in SF texts? What history is there of discussing consent explicitly in SF, and how does SU  connect to it or fail to connect to it? And, going back to Sugar’s comments: how does consent relate directly to identity on SU?

Ty Blauersouth, K. Tempest Bradford, Seth Frost, thingswithwings, JP Fairfield, Jo Vanderhooft

Decentering Whiteness in Fandom | Sun, 10:00–11:15 pm University C

A more in-depth look at how whiteness is always the focus in fandom, fan works in particular. How POC characters are forgotten, written out, killed off by fandom so their white faves who do no more than glance at each other can be together in fanon bliss. How do we de-center the narratives built around minor white characters and problematic faves versus existing POC characters? A hard topic and not for those who think this doesn’t happen.

Tanya D., K. Tempest Bradford, Mark Oshiro


Chinese emoji, with a twist

May. 23rd, 2017 04:32 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

Adrienne LaFrance has an eye-opening article about “The Westernization of Emoji” in The Atlantic (5/22/17).  Here’s the summary statement at the beginning:

The takeout box and the fortune cookie are perceived as emblems of Chinese culture, when they’re actually central to the American experience of it.

The Unicode Consortium will be issuing dozens of new emoji as part of its June update.  Among them will be a fortune cookie, a takeout box, chopsticks, and a dumpling, all designed by Yiying Lu, an artist based in San Francisco.

The irony, she says, is that two of the four new Chinese-themed emoji—the fortune cookie and the takeout box—are not Chinese Chinese, but instead reflect Westernized elements of Chinese culture. “It’s kind of like Häagen-Dazs,” Lu told me. “People think its Scandinavian just because of the two dots in the name, but it’s American. It’s the same thing with the takeout box. The Chinese takeout box is completely invented in the West. And the fortune cookie was invented by a Japanese person, but it was popularized in America.”

Emoji, too, were invented by a Japanese person before becoming hugely popular in the United States. For people outside of Japan, emoji were a charming and mysterious window into Japanese culture. The fact that they weren’t globally representative was part of what made emoji fascinating to people in the Western world.

Shigetaka Kurita, who designed the first emoji in 1999, never expected them to spread beyond Japan. But they did. And now they’re everywhere, thanks to the widespread adoption of the smartphone.

“The whole reason emoji are taking off the way they are is largely because of Apple, which is an American company,” said Christina Xu, an ethnographer who focuses on the social implications of technology. And although the Unicode Consortium—which standardizes how computers communicate text and agrees upon new emoji—it [sic; –> is] an international group, most of its voting members are affiliated with American companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Oracle, and IBM. “So even when it is about other cultures, it’s still about America,” Xu said.

We have previously highlighted Christina Xu’s perceptive, entertaining observations on “‘Facial expressions’ in text-dominant online conversation” (8/2/16).

Also referenced in LaFrance’s article is Jennifer (now Jenny) 8. Lee of “Character Amnesia” (7/22/10) fame.  It’s interesting how often these conversations on the cutting edge of cultural evolution are interconnected and overlap. Jenny remarks:

“Most linguists say emoji are not currently a language—they’re paralinguistic, the equivalent of hand gestures or voice tone. But for people who use them, it’s almost like fighting for a word that [shows] you exist. When you come up with a word to describe your population, it’s a very powerful thing.”

For those who may have been wondering, “emoji” comes from Japanese e 絵 (“picture”) + moji 文字 (“letter [of alphabet]; character; writing; script”).  Any resemblance to the English words “emotion” and “emoticon” (“emot[ion]” + “icon”) is purely coincidental.

[Thanks to Christina Hilburger]

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Posted by Tobias Buckell

There’s a review of Xenowealth: A Collection floating around that’s nice to the stories, but starts off being saddened about the fact that many authors have to ‘resort’ to using crowdfunding, or Kickstarter, to get their work into print.

Of course I instinctively flinched that this was the framing around the review from the start. I felt it decentered the focus on the stories, the art around the book, or the quality of the book itself, and might have put off some readers by focusing on the nature of crowdfunding. But that was mostly my ego worrying about whether I was being perceived as ‘as good as’ and also I don’t think the reviewer meant to do that maliciously. I think they may have felt a collection of stories they enjoyed should have had more backing by the publishers they were used to buying from. The review said nice things about them, so I have to assume it’s my own ego getting a little defensive.

But once I let go of my ego I stopped to think about it, because this has been my most successful collection of short stories and I think that’s why I was a little defensive.

The collection’s backers and readers gave me $7,105 via that Kickstarter. It’s sold more via my website and Amazon, B&N Nook, and iTunes since then. A year later, it’s tailed off quite considerably. But I think I cleared a little over $7,000 in the first year. I still get a trickle of money off that collection each month. Usually I have charts and spreadsheets, but the last year was so busy, so deadline-filled, that I have barely been able to keep track.

In the general world of publishing no one was offering me over $7,000 for a short story collection. Generally short story collections (from what I hear) are getting advances more like $500 to $2,000. Larger amounts for super stars, or bundled in with exciting novels.

I’m not going over 100% to crowdfunding. I’m really enjoying writing a short short story a month for my Patreon, I may do Kickstarters again. But, I am trying to make a living as a writer, so that means I go where I can demonstrably prove the money flows to me.

If someone wants to pay me more than $7,000 for my next short story collection (with almost 70 in print short stories, I’d love to see a Best of Tobias S. Buckell some day), my agent’s name is Barry Goldblatt of the Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency.

Until then, it’s not something I resort to, it’s something I pivot to because I make way more money this way and I have two kids to feed.

I know it’s dirty to talk about pivoting towards money. It’s not the only consideration. I wouldn’t be a writer if it was only about the money. I’d be a financial type, doing something with stocks. I knew becoming an artist meant money would be in short supply, that I was doing it for the art. I didn’t get into this for the money, or fame, but because I loved writing stories and reading so much that I could hardly imagine any other way to be.

But that being said, I live in a world where the mortgage is due, food comes when I pay for it, and I’m a father. Money is important. When I can do the same art, experience the same love for it, and get more money for the same art, you have my attention.

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

May. 23rd, 2017 01:49 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Travel expands the mind — or so they say. What would Dan Moren, author of The Caledonian Gambit, have to say about that particular truism? As it happens, he has a story on the topic, one that has bearing on the story he tells in his novel.


In January 2001, during my junior year of college, I got on a plane for Scotland. This was significant for a few reasons. For one thing, I’d never left the country before. For another, it was only the second plane flight I’d ever taken, and the previous one had been nearly a decade earlier. And even more to the point, I wasn’t just going for a week’s vacation—I was moving there for an entire semester.

I was terrified, and had a minor anxiety attack in the car on the way to the airport. But I got on that damn plane anyway.

Hours later, jet-lagged and haggard, I hopped into a cab in Edinburgh that would take me to my home for the next six months. I tried not to feel like too much of an idiot when my addled brain at first couldn’t parse the thick brogue of the driver, but I eventually realized he was asking where I was from. “America,” I replied, in a daze, only to have him fix with me a bit of a look and say, “Yes, I know that. Which part?”

Looking back on those months now, I tend to view them fondly. The years have dimmed the intense feelings of isolation and loneliness incurred by the several-hours time difference, not to mention the ocean, that separated me from my friends and family back home. My floormates were welcoming enough, but I was so overwhelmed with everything that was new and different that I retreated into myself, spending most of the time that I wasn’t in class exploring the city on my own.

From the vantage point of a decade and a half later, I still wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. For one thing, it gave me a real taste of leaving home. It made me more self-reliant and resilient, and taught me that I am capable of handling whatever life throws my way. I made friends with my floormates eventually, and I got to travel not only around Scotland and England, but also around a host of countries in Europe, an opportunity I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

But for all of that, I have never been quite so glad to come home at the end of the semester. If I’d felt a little more assured about the cleanliness of the airport floor, I would have dropped to my knees and planted a big fat kiss on it.

It was only a year after my time in Scotland that I first started sketching out the idea for a big sprawling space opera—a series of books inspired by the likes of Timothy’s Thrawn trilogy and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. I wanted to create a universe that felt real, felt lived in, because that was what I loved about those stories.

But as I started writing the first draft of what would eventually, many years later, become The Caledonian Gambit, I realized that the story of a washed-up pilot and the squad of covert operatives with whom he teams up didn’t really feel like those stories. Instead it felt hollow—like it had no sense of place. Even set as it was against the backdrop of a galactic cold war between two human factions—the bellicose Illyrican Empire and the ad hoc Commonwealth assembled to oppose it—it needed a more concrete anchor, a sense of what these sides, and the characters that served them, were fighting for.

It wasn’t until several years afterward that I finally found the heart of the story, and it came from looking back at my time in Scotland. I realized that this wasn’t just a story about big galactic conflicts, but about the smaller challenges that we all face.

It was a story about going home.

Eli Brody, the protagonist of The Caledonian Gambit has been away from home a lot more than six months—try nearly ten years. He couldn’t leave his homeworld of Caledonia fast enough, even if escaping that dirtball meant joining up with the very forces that had invaded and occupied it. And he would have been plenty happy—or, at least, so he told himself—never to set foot on that planet again. Until covert operative Simon Kovalic shows up and asks him to do just that.

Kovalic’s a man without a home, too. He’s from Earth, which, like Caledonia, has been under the thumb of the Illyrican Empire for two decades. Unlike Eli, Kovalic’s dedicated his life to fighting back, trying to reclaim the home that he had to flee when the Imperium came.

In fact, everybody in The Caledonian Gambit is fighting for their home in one way or another. Both Eli and Kovalic’s homes exert a gravitational pull on them, as if keeping them in a long, irregular orbit. Ultimately, they’ll swing back around and have to come to terms with the homes that they left behind. And neither of their homecomings is likely to be as much of a relief as mine was.

As much anxiety as I had about moving to Scotland, the years have shown me that leaving home is an integral part of figuring out who we are. Even if we ultimately end up returning, well, you have to leave in order to come back. In stories, the hero’s journey is predicated on this idea, but it’s no less true for our own lives. Whether our home is as small as a patch of dirt, or as big as an entire planet, there is—as they say—no place like it.


The Caledonian Gambit: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.


May. 23rd, 2017 11:13 am
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Posted by Mark Liberman

Yesterday’s Dumbing of Age:

In fact Walky is right about homonym. The OED’s overall gloss is “The same name or word used to denote different things”, with the more specific sense “Philol. Applied to words having the same sound, but differing in meaning”.

Billie is right about the etymology — for the verb funk “To blow smoke upon (a person); to annoy with smoke” the OED says

Etymology: perhaps < French dialect funkier = Old French funkier , fungier < Latin *fūmicare (Italian fumicare ), fūmigāre , < fūmus smoke.

and adds that the noun, though apparently from this verb, is recorded earlier.

The Wikipedia article for funk music explains that

The word funk initially referred (and still refers) to a strong odor. It is originally derived from Latin “fumigare” (which means “to smoke”) via Old French “fungiere” and, in this sense, it was first documented in English in 1620. In 1784 “funky” meaning “musty” was first documented, which, in turn, led to a sense of “earthy” that was taken up around 1900 in early jazz slang for something “deeply or strongly felt”.

In early jam sessions, musicians would encourage one another to “get down” by telling one another, “Now, put some stank on it!”. At least as early as 1907, jazz songs carried titles such as Funky. The first example is an unrecorded number by Buddy Bolden, remembered as either “Funky Butt” or “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” with improvised lyrics that were, according to Donald M. Marquis either “comical and light” or “crude and downright obscene” but, in one way or another, referring to the sweaty atmosphere at dances where Bolden’s band played. As late as the 1950s and early 1960s, when “funk” and “funky” were used increasingly in the context of jazz music, the terms still were considered indelicate and inappropriate for use in polite company. According to one source, New Orleans-born drummer Earl Palmer “was the first to use the word ‘funky’ to explain to other musicians that their music should be made more syncopated and danceable.” The style later evolved into a rather hard-driving, insistent rhythm, implying a more carnal quality. This early form of the music set the pattern for later musicians. The music was identified as slow, “sexy”, loose, riff-oriented and danceable.

Of course the exchange is not really about word senses and etymologies.


“Little Man” the eating machine

May. 23rd, 2017 04:45 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

There’s a curious article by Kathy Chu and Menglin Huang in the Wall Street Journal (5/21/17):

How a Toddler Who Loves Eating Transfixed China:  2½-year-old Xiaoman is an online sensation, bringing fame, a Pampers ad and questions about her weight”

If you have difficulty reading the whole article via the embedded link, try this TinyURL, which should lead you to a complete preview.

The article begins with a video of the little girl wolfing down seemingly limitless quantities of food, including the (in)famously smelly durian fruit in an Indonesian restaurant.  See the third paragraph here:

Malaysian Multilingualism” (9/11/09)

If you’d like to watch other videos testifying to Xiaoman’s enormous capacity for gluttony, see here and here.

From the Chinese internet, it’s easy to find that the characters for “Xiaoman” are Xiǎomán 小蛮.  The authors translate her name as “little man”, without further explanation.  That’s terribly misleading, because readers will take that to mean “little male person”, but that she is not.

Xiǎo 小 does mean “little”, and that she certainly is, though she will fast become very big.  Xiǎo 小 (“little”) is indeed often used affectionately for informal personal names, even for grownups.  Mán 蛮, however, is much, much harder to pin down.

I will state frankly that my first reaction was to interpret her name as meaning “Little Barbarian”, since the original meaning of mán 蛮 is “(southern) barbarian”, and it still has that connotation, but it also has many other related meanings:  “rough; reckless; fierce; rude; unreasoning; bullying”.  The most common disyllabic word into which mán 蛮 enters is yěmán 野蛮 (“barbarous; brutal; cruel; uncivilized; rude”), where the first syllable yě 野 conveys the sense of “wild; rough; undomesticated; uncultivated; rude”.

So my interpretation of Xiǎomán 小蛮 is that it means “Little Barbarian” for her impetuous, impulsive eating habits, but affectionately, something like “Little Rascal” or “Little Monster”.

I asked several colleagues for their take on Xiǎomán 小蛮 and received these sensitive responses.

From Maiheng Dietrich:

Mán 蛮 usually refers to actions that are physical, forceful, instinctive. It is the opposite of thoughtful, skillful, or diplomatic. Its meaning also extends to uncivilized, uneducated, and unrefined (thus barbarian). However, it could be a term of endearment if used for people in an intimate relationship.

From Jing Wen:

I don’t think it means little barbarian here. In some southern dialects, mán 蛮 means hěn 很 (“very”), mán hǎo 蛮好 = hěn hǎo 很好 (“very good”). Maybe her parents call her Xiǎomán 小蛮 simply because it sounds like a pretty name.

In partial support of Jing’s interpretation, I can attest that when I was living in Taiwan back at the beginning of the 70s, I often heard expressions like mán hǎokàn 蠻好看 (“quite good looking”) and mán piàoliang 蠻漂亮 (“quite beautiful”).  Yet note that, so far as I can recall, mán 蠻 in this sense (“quite; rather”) also came before an adjective, so it’s hard for me to interpret the mán 蛮 of Xiǎomán 小蛮 in this sense (“Little Quite / Rather / Very”).

Mark Metcalf looked up xiǎomán 小蛮 in the Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 汉语大词典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic) and found that it was originally the name of the famous Tang poet Bo Juyi’s 白居易 (772-846) concubine (maybe she came from the south) and eventually became a general word for concubines.

In any event, our present day baby gourmand, Xiǎomán 小蛮, is also often referred to as a “chīhuò 吃貨” (“chowhound; foodie”), a term we have encountered before, e.g.:

Biscriptal juxtaposition in Chinese, part 2” (10/15/14)

Coarse grains hotel” (6/1/14)

As for the nuances of chīhuò 吃貨” (“chowhound; foodie”), Jing Wen remarks:

I think chīhuò 吃货 is what a gastronome or a food aficionado calls him/herself.  Basically it means people who love eating and know how to eat well. It is not polite to say someone else is a chīhuò 吃货, if they are not close friends or family members. (It is still inappropriate to say “my dad is a chīhuò 吃货”, but it is OK to say “my brother is a chīhuò 吃货”).

Notice that Xiaoman eats with a spoon and fork, not chopsticks.  I’ve seen many college students, monks, and others who prefer to eat with fork and spoon rather than with chopsticks.  I met one Buddhist monk who told me that he never learned how to eat with chopsticks.  But Xiaoman is also good with her hands (she’d do well in India) and even directly with her mouth, down to the last noodle in the bowl.

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf, Maiheng Dietrich, and Jing Wen]

Taking a News Break

May. 22nd, 2017 08:40 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

The last couple of weeks have been genuinely and literally amazing as far as news goes — so much happened every day, of such importance to the nation, that it’s been hard to keep up or to process it all, or (and this is important) to get into a frame of mind to do a whole lot of work. The very last of these is not great for me, as I have a book due soon.

So this week I’ve decided to go on a news diet; basically, to not go out of my way to read news or to follow it on Twitter or other social media (I’ve also muted the word “Trump” on Twitter, to aid in this project). I’m sure some of it will leak in regardless; I’m just not going to go out of my way to find it. What I’m saying is, I’m going to go ahead and let everyone else be on top of things for a bit while I recalibrate and try to get my work/outrage balance back into whack.

This is, incidentally, something I suggest everyone does from time to time (I mean, if your job doesn’t actually involve writing about the news), especially these days when just the daily dose of news can be overwhelming. Pace yourself, folks. It’s going to be a long haul.

Cory and I Talk at Goodreads

May. 22nd, 2017 05:55 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Because when we were on tour together, we went to Goodreads and talked! Here’s the interview.

(Interestingly but not entirely surprisingly, what they didn’t put in this interview transcript was the question where we were asked to offer our opinions on Amazon, which is the parent company of Goodreads. My answer to that was, basically, that Amazon had done some great things for my career and also had done some not so great things for my career, and that I don’t operate under the impression that Amazon cares about me more than it cares about itself. I suggested that other authors operate likewise.)

Siri can you hear me?

May. 22nd, 2017 04:37 pm
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Posted by Mark Seidenberg has some perfect linguaphile clickbait: “Watch People With Accents Confuse the Hell Out of AI Assistants.”  By “accents” they mean, non-American ones (e.g., Irish English). The AI Assistants were Siri, Amazon Echo, and Google Home. I’m curious about how well the voice recognition systems in these devices work with varieties of spoken English, so I clicked. Sucker! Can’t tell anything from the video except that it’s fun to say “Add Worcestershire sauce to my shopping list” to a machine.  This definitely beats asking Siri “What is the meaning of life?”

Mainly I was impressed by how poorly I understood the speakers.  I have a bad time understanding other people’s accents  but that’s only one data point.  How well do people understand speech that is in the same language as their own but spoken with a different accent?

Here Siri responds correctly: “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that.”

The research literature on listeners’ processing of accent is huge, but surprisingly little of it focuses on the comprehension of naturalistic speech.  Most studies have examined listeners’ responses to individual elements of accented speech: alternative pronunciations of vowels, consonants, or words; phonemic substitutions (what a non-native speaker says in place of a phoneme that doesn’t occur in their language); cross-linguistic differences in phoneme boundaries (e.g., when we were on sabbatical in France our then-8 year old son heard the name of the playground game tag as douche instead of touche); atypical syllabic stress; the other stuff that “sounds different.”  The accented speech might be produced by someone from a different region of the US or another country, or by a non-native speaker, under noisy or clear conditions. (Studies are also conducted in other countries and languages, of course.) How well listeners can adapt to such features and learn to produce them are major topics.

But my question is more like the one in the Wired video: how well do people comprehend meaningful sentences, or better, extended discourse spoken with an accent that differs from one’s own?

There’s fun to be had on this site, which has recordings of a single passage spoken in many English accents. This is not a research-quality archive, and whether the speaker is representative of the designated area is unclear. The speaker’s age, race/ethnicity, gender, and education seem to affect intelligibility, as does quality of the recording. Plus, all bets are off once you’ve listened to the passage a few times and can top-down the hard parts.   This accent’s hard for me, though maybe I’d adapt to it with sufficient exposure.

There’s an informal comprehension exercise here, which suggests that accent might be an issue, sometimes. But consider just the narrower range of North American variants (other good examples here). Are any of them sufficiently different from each other to affect comprehension?

We (Lynn Perry, Emily Mech, Maryellen MacDonald and I) did one modest study that doesn’t settle anything but raises some interesting questions.  The subjects (college students from the Wisconsin area) listened to passages that had been recorded by two speakers.  One spoke with a Midwestern accent similar to the subjects’ own speech. The other, a native of southeast Georgia, spoke with a markedly different regional accent. For half the passages subjects performed a shadowing task: they repeated the passages as quickly and accurately as they could. In some famous research from long ago, William Marslen-Wilson showed that even close shadowers (who lag only a syllable or so behind) comprehend as they go along, allowing them to override anomalies embedded in the stimuli (e.g., the word “company” pronounced “compsiny”). For the other half of the passages, our subjects performed a standard comprehension task: listen to the entire passage, then answer questions about it. (See the article for detailed methods and results.)

The shadowing task reflects subjects’ performance as they are listening; the comprehension task reflects how well they understood a passage having heard the whole thing. The question was whether performance would be affected by the similarity of the recordings to the subjects’ own speech.

The main findings were simple:  shadowing performance was affected by the familiarity of the accent, whereas performance on the comprehension test was not.  Subjects shadowed more slowly and made more errors on the Southern-accented passages, but answered comprehension questions as well as on the Midwestern-accented ones.

This study is clearly limited (we had only one Northern and one Southern speaker; we ran Northern subjects but not Southern ones; comprehension might have been affected if the texts were more difficult, etc. etc.), but it’s a decent opening gambit.  Looking at the comprehension results one would conclude that listeners easily coped with speech that was heavily accented (to them), but the shadowing data show that they were having more difficulty keeping up with it.

We think both results are likely to be meaningful.  In the limit—mostly middle class, mostly well-educated college students listening to quality recordings of complete passages in a quiet laboratory setting—people can comprehend speech with a markedly unfamiliar accent pretty well. One might then conclude that differences among American accents don’t pose much of a problem. Speech rarely conforms to those laboratory conditions, however. The signal is not as clear as in our experiment and other events compete for attention. The shadowing results suggest that mishearings occur and are more likely with unfamiliar-sounding speech. Asking comprehension questions at the end gives the listener time to recover.  The fact that we manage to understand each other pretty well suggests that something similar may occur in many real-world situations—but not always.  I am thinking of cases in which the participants are a police officer and a suspect. Or a judge and jury listening to a witness.  Or a teacher listening to one of the 30-some children in their noisy classroom. Differences in accent probably do affect comprehension under some conditions, including consequential ones.

Like most research in this area, our study was about accent: the two speakers read aloud identical texts written in standard English.   Now take this accented speech and mix in some alternative lexical items, collocations, morphosyntactic features, syntactic structures, and pragmatic conventions, as spoken by an identifiable community of speakers, and you might call the result a dialect. How well do people understand different dialects of English?  I’ll take that up in a future post.


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Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum

At the instant of posting this, there are only 18 places remaining out of the 40 maximum in Linguistics 183 001, David Peterson’s summer session course at UC Berkeley on “The Linguistics of Game of Thrones and the Art of Language Invention.” 3 to 5 p.m., Mon/Tue/Wed/Thu, May 22 to June 30.

It’s not a ‘Structure of Dothraki’ course; it’s about how you go about inventing languages (Peterson has done this for film and TV several times, and has been paid money for it).

Hurry to sign up. And don’t ever let me hear you saying that linguistics doesn’t provide fun things to do.

-ist vs. -ic in Riyadh

May. 22nd, 2017 12:57 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

During last year’s presidential campaign, Donald Trump was repeatedly insistent that everyone should use the term “radical Islamic terrorism”. For example, his reaction to the Orlando massacre, from Inside Edition 7/13/2016:

Announcer: Trump spoke out about the massacre today, saying the president is afraid to call it an act of Islamic terrorism.
Donald Trump: He won’t even use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” which I think is insulting to our country and it’s insulting to everybody. And if you don’t use the term, if you don’t describe what’s happening, you’re never going to solve the problem.

So like many others, I was curious how he would handle the issue in his speech to the “Arab Islamic American Summit” yesterday in Riyadh.

According the White House’s version of his “remarks as prepared for delivery”, he was going to go with the somewhat more PC approximation “Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires”.

Of course, there is still much work to do.  

That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires. And it means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians.

The idea behind this difference is that “Islamic” ties the underlying ideas and motivations directly to the religion as  a whole, while “Islamist”, echoing “fundamentalist”, could mean a political ideology claiming a (perhaps false) relationship to an allegedly original version of the religion. President Obama argued against all such terms, while Hilary Clinton preferred “radical Islamism” or “radical jihadist terrorism”.

But what Donald Trump actually said was a bit different. He changed “Islamist” to “Islamic”, added a reference to “Islamicists”, and interpolated a sentence about “what they’re doing to inspire”:

Of course, there is still much work to be done.
That means honestly confronting the crisis
of Islamic extremism
and the Islamicists and Islamic terror of all kinds.
We must stop what they’re doing to inspire
because they do nothing to inspire but kill

and we are having a very profound effect
if you look at what’s happened recently.
And it means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims,
the oppression of women,
the persecution of Druz- Jews,
and the slaughter of Christians.

The omission in the prepared text of the signature phrase “radical Islamic terrorism”, and these interpolations in the speech as delivered, were noted in the media coverage. Thus Olivia Beavers, “Official: Trump’s ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ wording changed because he’s ‘exhausted’“, The Hill 5/21/2017:

A senior White House official said Sunday President Trump mixed up the wording of his prepared remarks in Saudi Arabia because he was “exhausted.”  

“He’s just an exhausted guy,” the official told reporters on background, after many pointed out that Trump avoided the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” during the speech to leaders of more than 50 Muslim-majority nations.  

Trump diverted slightly from his prepared remarks in using “Islamic” rather than “Islamist.”  

After remaining largely on script, that diversion caught the attention of many listeners who were curious to see whether Trump would use his key phrase.

Or Jamin Lee “WH: Trump was ‘exhausted’ when he said ‘Islamic extremism’“, CNN 5/22/2917:

The difference between “Islamic extremism” and “Islamist extremism”? One exhausted President. 

President Donald Trump’s substitution of the slightly different terms during his highly anticipated speech in Saudi Arabia on Sunday might go unnoticed by the average US listener.

But the subtle change — or slip, as the White House called it — could mean the difference  between offending Middle Eastern allies and not, a concern for any president looking to create a good first impression with a key ally on a first trip abroad.

Using the word “Islamic,” a reference to the religion, in the same breath as “terrorism” could be seen by Muslims as an affront to their faith and actually play into the terrorists’ “clash of civilizations” narrative — reasons why President Barack Obama assiduously avoided the combination during his presidency.

“Islamist,” meanwhile, refers to political movements that seek to implement Islamic law and theology, making it less objectionable to Muslims when paired with “terrorism,” the idea goes.

Most of the president’s other deviations from the written text were interpolated intensifications of one kind or another — for example:

Text: and I want to express our gratitude to King Salman for this strong demonstration of leadership.
Speech: and I want to express our gratitude to King Salman
for his strong demonstration
and his absolutely incredible and powerful leadership.

Text: This fertile region has all the ingredients for extraordinary success
Speech: The fertile region
and it is so fertile
has all of the ingredients
for extraordinary success

Text: I ask you to join me, to join together, to work together, and to FIGHT together— BECAUSE UNITED, WE WILL NOT FAIL.
Speech: I ask you to join me, to join together,
to work together, and to FIGHT together

because united we will not fail,
we can not fail
absolutely nobody
can beat us

These seem like glimpses of the president’s true style.

There were certainly a few speech errors that might be indications of exhaustion. Thus “true toll” in the prepared text came out as something more like “too troll”:

The true toll of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so many others, must be counted not only in the number of dead. 

The [tu trol] of ISIS,
if you look at what’s happening,
Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so many others,
must be counted not only in the number of dead.

“Leaving” in the text became “living” in the speech, and with some improvised material to rescue the slip:

The surge of migrants and refugees leaving the Middle East depletes the human capital needed to build stable societies and economies.

The surge of migrants and refugees living
and just living so poorly
that they’re forced to leave
the Middle East
depletes the human capital needed to build stable societies
and economies.

And an extra syllable slipped into “ethnicity”:

We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again—and make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope.

We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again
and make this region a place
where every man and woman, no matter their faith
or ethnicitity,
can enjoy a life of dignity
and hope.

The outcome of “ethnicity” alone:

I’m prone to similar speech errors on certain words or phrases, though I don’t have the impression that fatigue makes this type of error more likely.

Schrödinger’s pundit

May. 22nd, 2017 12:55 am
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Posted by Mark Liberman

Today’s SMBC:

Mouseover title: “On second thought, let’s just leave them in the box.”

The aftercomic:

Trends in presidential pitch II

May. 21st, 2017 06:39 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

In Trends in presidential pitch (5/19/2017), I observed that the median fundamental frequency (= “pitch”) of President Trump’s weekly addresses has increased  steadily since January, by about 30%.  As a point of comparison, I did the same calculation for President Obama’s first few months of  weekly addresses, from 1/24/2009 to 5/23/2009, in comparison to Trump’s weekly addresses from 1/28/2017 to 5/19/2017:

[I’ve omitted Trump’s three addresses from 3/3/2017, 3/25/2017, and 3/31/2017, because of the differences in recording context and production style explained in the earlier post. Because Obama seems not to have recorded any weekly addresses in February of 2009, the time span of the 13 plotted weekly addresses from the two presidencies is very nearly the same. ]

The different basic trends are clear: in these weekly addresses, Barack Obama’s median f0 remains steady at around 110 Hz, whereas Donald Trump’s median f0 rises gradually from around 140 Hz to around 180 Hz.

Even the deviations from these patterns seem to have a plausible explanation. For example, why is there a noticeably higher median f0 in Obama’s weekly address #6 in the graph above? Simple — the 4/4/2009 address was recorded aboard Air Force One in flight, with significant levels of background noise, and the normal Lombard Reflex would be expected to cause him to raise his voice. The median f0 in the 4/4/2009 address was 122 Hz, compared with 110 Hz in the 3/28/2009 address, and 111 Hz in the 4/11/2009 address. (So I probably should leave 4/4/2009 out, as I left out Trump’s 3/3/2017 address, which was recorded on an aircraft carrier.)

And why is there a below-trend median f0 for Trump’s weekly address #7 in the graph above? That address is dated 4/7/2017, apparently recorded at Mar-a-Lago. This was the day after the Tomahawk missile strike against Syria, the day of Neil Gorsuch’s Senate confirmation, and the second day of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit — probably the high point of the president’s term so far.

For the record, here are the 13 Obama weekly addresses that I used:

1. 20090124
2. 20090307
3. 20090314
4. 20090321
5. 20090328
6. 20090404
7. 20090411
8. 20090418
9. 20090425
10. 20090502
11. 20090509
12. 20090516
13. 20090523

The comparable list of links for Trump’s addresses can be found in the earlier post.



BARF (Belt and Road Forum) 2.0

May. 20th, 2017 07:34 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

[This is a guest post by the inimitable satirist, S. Tsow]

[1.0 is this: “BARF (Belt and Road Forum)” (5/19/17)]

Xi Jinping (“Mr. Eleven” [XI]) calls his New Silk Road initiative “One Belt, One Road”  (Yidai-Yilu).  A map I have shows a land route in the north, going westward, bifurcating at Urumchi, and ending at Rotterdam and Istanbul.  OK, that’s the “belt”.  The “road” shows a sea route in the south that wanders all over the place and ends in the west at Venice.

Xi and his minions are technocrats, not poets, so they don’t give a shit about names, except that they want one that sings and makes money.  I’m looking for a name, in English and Chinese, that avoids the awkwardness of land “belt” and sea “road” and that sings.

I suppose we could say “Roadway and Seaway,” but that doesn’t sing.  The Chinese would read “Dilu-Hailu,” but my dictionary doesn’t give the word “dilu.”  Would it be possible to substitute “dao” for “lu” and say “Didao-Haidao”?  The English translation would give us “Roadway and Seaway,” but that sounds schlocky.  “Land Route and Sea Route” are pedestrian beyond belief.  Still, the whole shebang could be called the Two Routes Initiative (TRI).

If we want to give the routes added glamor, we could add a quasi-mystical touch by calling them the erdao:  the didao and the haidao.  That suggests a link to Daoism.

It also opens up the possibility of satire to mischief-makers like me, who would start talking about the sandao (three ways):  the didao (land way), the haidao (sea way), and the howdy-doody dao (howdy-doody way).  The howdy-doody dao would be an air route, trodden by refugees from persecution of the Falun Gong and other mystical cults.

Anyway, I would be grateful for any help you can give in solving this conundrum.  I don’t suppose if you pitched it to Mr. Eleven he would respond with a sumptuous reward.  After all, he’s a technocrat, not a poet.

New Books and ARCs, 5/19/17

May. 19th, 2017 08:50 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Heading into a very fine weekend, and what better way to do that then with some very fine books and ARCs? Tell us what in this stack is beckoning you to read it!

BARF (Belt and Road Forum)

May. 19th, 2017 03:53 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

We are currently in the midst of a massive propaganda barrage unleashed upon the world by the People’s Republic of China.  It’s all about something that started out being called “Yīdài yīlù 一帶一路” (“One Belt One Road”), at least that’s what it was named when I first heard about it a year or two ago.  The Chinese publicists writing about it in English may have just styled it “The Belt and Road”, but everybody I know spoke of it as “One Belt One Road” — “OBOR” for short, which reminded me of Über.

The “Belt” part stands for an economic trade zone across Eurasia that attempts to revivify the so-called “Silk Road” of old.  Never mind that the whole concept of a “Silk Road” was the recent invention of a Westerner; it does not have a deep history in China.

Let’s get this straightened out right away.  The idea of a “Silk Road” was a late 19th-century invention by the great geographer and naturalist, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905), and it was he who coined the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road(s)” or “Silk Route(s)” in 1877.  All modern terms for “Silk Road”, including the English, such as Chinese “Sīchóu zhī lù 丝绸之路” and Japanese “Shirukurōdo シルクロード”, ultimately derive from the German.  Incidentally, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen was an uncle of the renowned WWI flying ace Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918), whom we all know from reading “Peanuts” (or from history books!) as the “Red Baron“.  Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen was also the Doktorvater of the daring, distinguished Swedish explorer, Sven Anders Hedin (1865-1952), who led repeated expeditions to Central Asia, especially the Tarim Basin, where the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age mummies that I’ve been investigating since 1991 were discovered.

OBOR is very much a Chinese imperialist enterprise.  It is founded on and continues the vast Manchu expansion during the Qing Dynasty.  See Peter Perdue’s magisterial China Marches West:  The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Harvard University Press / Belknap Press, 2010).


A German imperialist paved the way for China to revive the ‘Silk Road’” (Quartz, 5/13/17)

The “Road” part of “One Belt One Road”, oddly enough, refers to the oceanic route that stretches from China to the Middle East.

As we’ve been subjected to the mind-numbing propaganda concerning OBOR for the past few months, there has been a bewildering proliferation of names for this pet project of the Core Leader (Xi Jinping).  Thus we have “One Belt One Road” (OBOR), “Belt and Road” (BAR, B&R), etc.  But the full, official designation of the project is this cumbersome title:

Sīchóu zhī lù jīngjì dài hé 21 shìjì hǎishàng sīchóu zhī lù 丝绸之路经济带和21世纪海上丝绸之路 (“The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road”)

See the English and Chinese Wikipedia articles here and here.

But that’s not enough!  In a comment to another post, TheStrawMan asked how “One Belt One Road” came to be renamed the “Belt and Road Initiative”.  Indeed, I seem to have been hearing “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) more often than OBOR during the last few weeks of the crescendo building up to the climax of the BARF / BRF itself this past weekend.

I have a hypothesis about how the name “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) came about.  So far as I can determine, it appears to have arisen in English writing about OBOR, not from the Chinese propaganda machine itself.

Of course, you can translate the “initiative” of “Belt and Road Initiative” into Chinese as “chàngyì 倡议”, but it’s only done on an ad hoc basis in reaction to the English designation.  I haven’t seen an official, fixed Chinese equivalent of “Belt and Road Initiative”.

As far back as August 13, 2015, there was this detailed discussion of English terminology for OBOR in a publication of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which was reissued on November 24, 2015 by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party, that was fully cognizant of the use of “initiative” in connection with OBOR / BAR.  It is striking that, in the entire piece, even though it mentions “initiative” seven times, it does not once translate it into “chàngyì 倡议”, nor does it propose a Chinese equivalent for “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”, despite the fact that it warmly endorses use of “initiative” in English, as in the rather bizarre final paragraph:

Cǐwài, bǐzhě jiànyì, jiāng “Silk Belt and Road Initiative” suōxiě xíngshì dìng wèi SBRIN, yǔ “spring” (chūntiān) hé chángyòng Yīngwén rénmíng “Sabrina” yīn jìn, bùdàn jiǎndān yì jì, érqiě ràng rén fù yú zhèngmiàn liánxiǎng.

此外,笔者建议,将Silk Belt and Road Initiative缩写形式定为SBRIN,与spring(春天)和常用英文人名Sabrina音近,不但简单易记,而且让人富于正面联想。

In addition, the author suggests that “Silk Belt and Road Initiative” be abbreviated as “SBRIN”, whose sound is close to “spring” and the commonly used English personal name “Sabrina”.  Not only is it simple and easy to remember, it is full of positive associations.

Cf. this article in Chinese from Taiwan for additional lucubrations concerning how to say “Yīdài yīlù 一帶一路” (“One Belt One Road”) in English.

It looks as though the Chinese thoroughly approved of “initiative” being attached to OBOR / BR, but didn’t bother to come up with something equivalent in English.  When they did add an explanatory or amplificatory extension to OBOR / BR, it would be something like the following:

jīngjì zhànlüè 经济战略 (“economic strategy”)

zhànlüè gòuxiǎng 战略构想 (“strategic vision”)

gāofēng lùntán 高峰论坛 (“forum”)

[References here and here]

Notice the militaristic overtones of the first two items.

When Xi Jinping appeared at Davos in January of this year, it was already clear then that he had grand aspirations for China to displace the United States as the leading force for economic globalization.  With BARF this past weekend, it was evident that he had no less than a new world order in mind.

Xi and his minions are pouring enormous energy and funding into OBOR.  This is nowhere more evident than in the vast amount of resources that have been devoted to propaganda promoting this ambitious initiative, including bedtime stories for little children:

Chinese propagandists are using adorable kids to take on Donald Trump” (Ana Swanson, WP, 5/18/17)

Embedded in this article are three saccharine videos.  The first pounds into your brain what “Yīdài yīlù 一帶一路” (“One Belt One Road”) is all about.  The second, from the notorious Fuxing (blush!) Studio (see here and here) strives to inform you that the road is on the sea and the belt connects the land.  The third has a father telling his little daughter stories about how “China’s president, Xi Jinping” (the name is muffled / garbled) is recreating anew the fabled, so-called “Silk Road”.

As though we haven’t had enough of this gushing about China’s imperialistic dreams, Xi is already planning for the 2nd BARF to be convened in a couple of years.  I think that I will go into hiding for a few months during the leadup and convening of the next one.

For those who want to learn more about OBOR and BARF, here are some readings:

The Economist explains:  What is China’s belt and road initiativ?  The many motivations behind Xi Jinping’s key foreign policy” (5/15/17)

China’s new world order: Xi, Putin and others meet for Belt and Road Forum” (5/14/17)

India Objects To China’s One Belt And Road Initiative — And It Has A Point” (5/15/17)

Don’t believe China’s lies” (Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, The Week, 5/16/17)


One Belt, One Road, One Corruption

This important article by Chang Ping 长平 appeared in the Chinese edition of Deutsche Welle’s online service on May 17, 2017.  The complete English translation of this important article will appear in a forthcoming issue of China Change.  We are fortunate to be able to present it here now, thanks to the generosity of the translator, Scott Savitt.

So as not to make this long post even longer, in this instance I will forego the usual LLog practice of providing Romanization for all Chinese characters.


One Belt, One Road, Total Corruption

by Chang Ping


“…the lack of democratic supervision of ‘One Belt, One Road’ is a mechanism for corruption.”


God said: “Let there be light,” and then there was light. Xi Jinping said: “A ‘Project of the Century’ must be undertaken,” and then there was “One Belt, One Road.” At the just-completed summit in Beijing, Xi Jinping announced that China will invest hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars in 60 countries to lead in the construction of bridges, railways, ports and energy projects. This venture is known as “One Belt, One Road,” and involves more than 60 percent of the world’s population. It’s projected to transform the global political and economic order, and can be said to be the largest overseas investment project undertaken by a single country in history.


Where does such an unprecedented, magnificent, and spectacular plan come from? How many Chinese were aware of it in advance? Was it critically evaluated? And what was the outcome of the evaluation? Other than Xi Jinping, there is probably no one who can answer these questions. And no one knows if he himself has carefully thought about it. People can at least learn about almighty God by reading the Bible. But the “One Belt, One Road” plan of renewing the world only consists of a few pages of empty speeches and some conference documents. According to Chinese media descriptions, the whole world is heralding the birth of a new savior.


‘One Belt, One Road’: Don’t Ask Me Where I Came From

马丁·路德发起的宗教改革已经五百年了,可是在中国,一个腐败的”教会”仍然可以垄断一切。理性的欧洲人投出了怀疑的目光。默克尔总理没有亲临论坛”共襄盛举”,与会的德国经济部长齐普里斯(Brigitte Zypries)对中国收购德企部分资金的来路不明提出了批评。齐普里斯部长还应该看到,来路不明的不只是部分资金,而是整个”一带一路”工程。

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, but in China a corrupt “church” still monopolizes everything. Rational Europeans cast a suspicious eye. German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not attend the forum and “join in the festivities,” and the German Minister for Economics and Energy, Brigitte Zypries, who attended the event, criticized the unclear source of capital in China’s acquisition of German companies. Minister Zypries should also see that the lack of clarity does not just apply to the origin of part of the capital, but the whole “One Belt, One Road” project.

中国欧盟商会主席伍德克(Joerg Wuttke)近日在接受媒体采访时表示:”我希望中国不仅仅是想接触世界,而是真的要拥抱世界,开放对外贸易。”风险分析专家吉尔霍姆(Andrew Gilholm)分析说:”我认为,很多人都不相信这一切真的都是为了自由贸易和全球繁荣。” 布鲁塞尔南亚民主论坛主任沃尔夫(Siegfried O Wolf)则说得更清楚:目前在欧盟同中国之间就”一带一路”问题仍然缺乏一个有效的平台。只要中国不愿构建这一桥梁,不愿走向多边机制以及不顾建立在良政、法治、人权、民主基础上的欧盟价值观,欧洲方面对”一带一路”的怀疑态度就会继续下去。

Joerg Wuttke, President of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said in a recent interview: “I hope China is actually embracing the world and opening up to foreign trade instead of just reaching out.” Risk analyst Andrew Gilholm said: “I don’t think many people are buying the spin that this is all in the name of free trade and global prosperity.” Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at South Asia Democratic Forum in Brussels, was even more candid: “At present there is a lack of an effective platform for ‘One Belt, One Road’ cooperation between Europe and China. If China is reluctant to build this bridge, and is unwilling to move toward multilateral mechanisms and disregards the values of the European Union based on good governance, rule of law, human rights, and democracy, then European skepticism of ‘One Belt, One Road’ will continue.”

欧洲之外的国家并非就不理性。生意人出身的美国总统特朗普对中国的创世工程保持了观望态度,仅派出国家安全委员会亚洲高级主任马修·波丁格(Matthew Pottinger)出席会议。澳大利亚则拒绝了中国的邀请。印度抵制了这一峰会,表示”一带一路”计划忽视了”有关主权与领土完整的核心关切”。出席峰会的领导人中很多是独裁者,他们不会在乎中国资金的来路不明,也知道中国政府也不会在乎他们拿到投资之后去路不清。

Countries outside Europe aren’t irrational either. U.S. President Donald Trump, a businessman, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward China’s Creation Project, and only sent National Security Council Asia Director Matthew Pottinger to attend the meeting. Australia rejected China’s invitation. India boycotted the summit, saying that the “One Belt, One Road” project ignored “core concerns about sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Many of the leaders attending the summit are autocrats who don’t care about the questionable origin of China’s funding, and know the Chinese government doesn’t care how the investment is actually used once it’s given.


Buy One, Give Two Away: Corruption and the Deterioration of Human Rights


Many Chinese believe that Xi Jinping is leading a fight against corruption. What is corruption? Corruption is not just the result of money being misused, but the lack of a fair and transparent mechanism itself. In this sense, the lack of democratic supervision of “One Belt, One Road” is a mechanism for corruption. As with all large projects in China, there is no restriction on power, and this inevitably results in the criminal activities of corruption, rent-seeking, giving and taking bribes and money laundering.


While the Chinese media was obediently singing the praises of “One Belt, One Road” and its benefit to all mankind, a Chinese netizen posted the comment: “Some people lamented that overnight we’ve returned to the Song Dynasty [translator’s note: Song is a homonym for “give away” in Mandarin]. Others asked: the Southern Song Dynasty or the Northern Song Dynasty? Answer: No, it’s not ‘Southern Song Dynasty or Northern Song Dynasty,’ it’s the ‘Eastern Song [Give-Away] Dynasty’ and ‘Western Song [Give-Away] Dynasty!” Without public oversight, an unelected leader can take hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars in taxpayers’ money and give it to authoritarian states. The only thing that taxpayers can do is sneer at and mock it. Can a sane person believe that this is a good thing?


In the process of cooking up “One Belt, One Road,” China’s human rights situation has significantly deteriorated and threatens the whole world. Can all these—the kidnapping of Hong Kong booksellers, the coerced confessions of journalists, NGO workers, dissidents, and activists on China Central Television (CCTV), the disappearance of a Taiwanese human rights worker, and the cruel torture suffered by a large number of Chinese human rights lawyers—make you believe that such a government, which is expanding its economic and political clout through the “One Belt, One Road” program, will bring a New Gospel to mankind?


Chang Ping is a Chinese media veteran and current events commentator now living in political exile in Germany.
This is a Deutsche Welle column.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade and Fangyi Cheng]

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Posted by Tobias Buckell

Back in late September of 2014 I was the Writer in Residence for the island of Bermuda, where I taught a 3 week long science fiction and fantasy workshop for island writers. Dr. Kim Dismont-Robinson, Folklife Office from the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs invited me to head this up, and it was one of those amazing life moments. I got to bring together both my Caribbean roots and experience and my genre writing credentials all together. It was like ‘this is the moment I’ve been waiting for!’

Out of that project came a follow-up discussion, would we be able to create an anthology of Bermuda speculative fiction out of the writers we had, plus an open call?

I thought we had enough talent and agreed to the project, and we’ve been working on it in the background throughout 2015 and 2016.

On Tuesday, I flew out to Bermuda to formally launch ‘The Stories We Tell’ for the island of Bermuda.

When I left, my little palm in my basement office had just died due to spider mites:

IMG 0511

So I enjoyed camping out next to the palms near my room at the Grotto Bay hotel in Bermuda:

IMG 0552

My room faced northish, so I got both sunrise and sunset from my balcony. I woke up each morning just drenched in sunlight. I live off sunlight, so it was welcomed. I was up each morning for a swim and wrote nearly a thousand words of fresh fiction each morning. The sunlight cleansed me off some weariness and post-winter blues I was still struggling to shake.

IMG 0524

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Wednesday morning I met ‘The Captain,’ a local radio personality, and talked about the important of Bermuda voices in genre and about the book launch. He shared a quick island ghost tale from his childhood, which was perfect:

IMG 0533

Kim, who noted how much I loved Graham Foster‘s artwork, which we used a great deal of to illustrate the stories in the book, took me to Bermuda College library so I could visit the Brian Burland Centre (Burland was a Bermudan writer who became rediscovered by the island in the 2000s, just before he passed) and see the mural he did for that.

I also spent a lot of time looking over Burland’s poster board outline for one of his books, which was amazingly cool from a process standpoint, I might write a whole other post about that.

On Thursday we had the actual launch, but before that I visited Prospero’s Cave, an underground cave right near my hotel room. Just a few hundred feet away.

IMG 0544

Sketchy looking entrance. Then you squeeze through these rocks:

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And bam, you are here:

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and from above a bit:

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I’d explored it the day before, but I came back on Thursday to swim it. The water was brisk, Bermuda is at the same longitude as North Carolina and out in the middle of the Atlantic. The water is still cold out there right now. But I got this snap of me jumping in and swimming right back out:

IMG 0556

The book launch, Thursday night, was great. It was held in the National Gallery, with the Hon. Nandi Outerbridge JP, MP, Minister of Social Development giving opening remarks, and then I gave a few notes about how the anthology came to be and how honored I was to be a part of bringing these voices together. Here we are before opening doors, getting sound and video set up:

IMG 0557

Many of the writers were there, and for many it was their first published story. Reading here is Nikki Bowers. Her story opens the anthology:

IMG 0561

and here is Damien Wilson, who also has a story in Karen Lord’s anthology of Caribbean SF ‘New Worlds, Old Ways.’

IMG 0563

The anthology is ‘The Stories We Tell’ and here is the cover:

Stories WE Tell Book Cover 3Dbook

And here is the table of contents:

IMG 0562

The launch was successful. I got to have a last dinner with the director of the department: Heather, Kim (Folklife director) and her husband Jay (we bonded of Seagulls, small outboard engines, air cooled), Veney who runs many things behind the scenes and worked hard to make sure I got to my hotel room and settled in well and got where I needed to go, and the Minister. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone after great conversation.

So the question everyone on twitter has asked is ‘how do I get a copy?’

Good question!

Right now the book is for sale at bookstores (and in the libraries) in Bermuda, so if you’re passing through look for it. There are some conversations about how to make it available elsewhere, so I’ll pass that on when I can. Distribution throughout and around the Caribbean is complicated with books, it’s something being worked on.

So now I’m packed up. I’ve had one last swim in the ocean (it’s still very cold here, out in the middle of the Atlantic, but I wanted the salt water in my hair), and I’m waiting for a taxi to take me back to the airport and back home.

I return curiously refreshed, excited about these stories, excited about telling more of my own, having gotten more writing done here sitting on my balcony looking at the ocean and enjoying soaking up sun like the little lizards that were scampering about underfoot.

I also return with an amazing gift from the people who worked so hard to put all this together, a Graham Foster painting of my own:

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Now to navigate that through airports and customs back to Ohio!

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Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

Flashback Friday. 

In a society that objectifies women, women learn that, to many others, they are their bodies. Because our bodies are the means by which others judge us, we place our bodies under deep and critical scrutiny. In such a world, all bodies are always potentially problematic. Women are too much of this or not enough of that. Even when women like their bodies overall, there is always some part that some person would judge unacceptable. And, in any case, our bodies will inevitably (continue to) disappoint us if we lose the ability to invest time and money on them or, of course, dare to age.

Two postcards recently presented at Post Secret illustrate this idea. In one a woman expresses her discomfort with her small breasts:

In the other, a woman explains that her breasts make her feel insecure:

Large breasts are desirable? Right? At least that’s what the first woman believes. But large breasts can also be intimidating. Carrying around large breasts can bring attention one doesn’t want (“hey baby”) and judgments that are unfair (“she is flaunting her body”). Small breasts, however, may be de-sexualizing or, conversely, they may attract the attention of men who like to pretend that the women they sleep with are girls.

No matter what size and shape a woman’s breasts, the focus on her body that an objectifying culture makes others feel entitled to make them meaningful in ways that women can’t control. And that will be a problem for all women sometimes, no matter what her body looks like.

Originally posted in 2010; cross-posted at Jezebel.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

(View original at

Trends in presidential pitch

May. 19th, 2017 01:47 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

I’ve been downloading the audio for Donald Trump’s Weekly Addresses from, as I did for George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And as I did for the previous presidents, I listen to the results and sometimes do simple acoustic-phonetic analyses — see e.g. “Raising his voice“, 10/8/2011; “Political sound and silence“, 2/8/2016. Recently I thought I noticed a significant change in Mr. Trump’s pitch range, and a quick check confirmed this impression.

There are several different kinds of reasons for a change in a speaker’s f0. Some are external, like higher background noise levels or a larger or more distance audience, while others are internal, for example reflecting the speaker’s level of physiological arousal. (See e.g. “Political pitch ranges” 4/22/2015, “MLK Day: Pitch range” 1/16/2017, etc.)

In this case, a quick check of the audio and video shows that there the external context is different for weekly address #6 (3/3/2017), which was delivered on board the U.S.S. Ford; and that weekly addresses #8 and #9 are full of music and news clips in addition to the president’s voice, and therefore should be ignored. So I’ve added big X’s on those three data points.

1. 20170128
2. 20170203
3. 20170210
4. 20170217
5. 20170225
6. 20170303  [Different context — on board the Gerald R. Ford]
7. 20170310
8. 20170325 [Differently produced… background music etc.]
9. 20170331 [Differently produced… background music etc.]
10. 20170407
11. 20170414
12. 20170421
13. 20170428
14. 20170505
15. 20170512
16. 20170519

But the rest of the addresses were read from teleprompters in similar contexts in the White House — compare the addresses for 1/28 and for 5/12:

It’s possible that the apparent trend has been caused by some gradual changes in the recording set-up. But the median f0 has changed from 138-140 Hz in the first two Weekly Addresses, to 183-178 Hz in the most recent two. That’s a change of 30%, or 4.5 semitones, which is a lot to result from modest differences in recording set-up for scripted readings in what should be identical communicative contexts.

Update — data from 5/19/2017 added.

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Posted by Tempest

A gold statue of egyptian goddess

I’ve reached a point in my research where I could really use the services of an Egyptologist, Khemitologist, or someone studying Egyptology at the graduate level or above. Someone I can ask specific questions, such as “what is the exact translation of these words?” or “Did doors in the New Kingdom have hinges or not?” The type of questions that I can’t find for myself with my limited research skills but would likely be very easy for someone studying this stuff to find.

I would likely need to email this person every now and then over the next year (one or two emails a week tops, and sometimes not more than a couple times per month).

I don’t know what kind of compensation is usually offered for this kind of thing (if any), so I’ll just say I am willing to offer some if asked and it’s negotiable.

If you are such a person, or if you know such a person who might be willing, please contact me or have them contact me through this form. Thanks!

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Posted by Tempest

Some exciting news! A week and a half ago I found out I’ve been accepted to be an Artist-In-Residence at Surel’s Place in Boise, Idaho. I am beyond thrilled at this opportunity and so, so grateful to the jury for choosing me.

I’ll be there for the month of November and, per the residency requirements, I will spend that time writing and writing and writing. I’ll also give a workshop to the Boise writer’s community and probably do a reading. November is a fitting month (even though it is cold!) as it’ll also be NaNoWriMo–as good a time as any to concentrate solely on writing.

My hope is that I’ll be done with this draft of the Steampunk Egypt book by then, but if not that’s when I’ll get it done. If I am, then it’s on to Book 2 and/or finally pumping out the YA novel about the girl turning into a dragon. Either way, it’s a whole month to write without having to worry about anything else, including food and travel. GLORIOUS.

This could not have happened without the support of my friends who read my submission stuff and advised me, the folks who gave me recommendations (Claire, Nisi, Mary, you rock!), and the community of residency Binders who inspired me to keep submitting even after many rejections. Many thanks to all y’all.

The Big Idea: Alan Smale

May. 18th, 2017 12:21 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Creating alternate histories are no small matter, especially when your series of books features a different version of the Roman Empire landing in North America. Now in Eagle and Empire, the third book of his Clash of Eagles series, Alan Smale talks about the challenges of writing different past — and making more history as one goes along.


I’ve long had a fascination for books that tear up the world and patch it back together differently, for really large alternate histories; not picking my way gently forward as changes begin to ripple from a point of departure deep in the Napoleonic Wars, say, but witnessing the far-downstream effects of a giant splash. Those are the tides I’m riding with the Clash of Eagles trilogy, in which the Roman Empire survives in its more-or-less classical form through to the thirteenth century, and is now trying to open up Nova Hesperia – North America – with substantial assistance from the seafaring Norse who “discovered” it first.

The point of departure for my alternate timeline is way the heck back in 211 A.D., with Geta defeating his malevolent brother Caracalla after a decade-long firestorm of a civil war that nearly splits the Empire. As Emperor, Geta then ushers in extensive reforms. His actions unwittingly ward off the Crisis of the Third Century while strengthening the Empire against “barbarian” invasions, and, sure, I have Appendixes in the Clash of Eagles books laying out the details. But my characters don’t spend a whole lot of time rehashing the dusty events of a thousand years past – they’re much too busy running around and dodging pointy missiles and trying to stay alive.

So, let’s review: in Clash of Eagles, Gaius Marcellinus and his legion march in from the Chesapeake Bay and get their rear ends handed to them, first by the Iroquois, and then by the warriors of the great mound-builder city of Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi where St. Louis is now. For Book One, the Big Idea was: “Ancient Rome invades North America when the Mississippian Culture is at its height.” In the second book, Eagle in Exile, Marcellinus is – as you might guess – largely separated from Rome and from his new Cahokian home base. There’s a coup in Cahokia, and a vicious despot replaces the more measured and even-keel Great Sun Man who originally kept Marcellinus alive.

Before you know it, Marcellinus is cast out with a handful of friends, navigating the untamed Mizipi River on a Norse longship, fighting off threats from all sides. The Book Two Big Idea: “wild adventure in an ancient North America, in the process standing that comfy Dances with Wolves trope on its ear.” (Suffice to say that Marcellinus’s attempts to help always have unforeseen consequences, and also that his loyalty to Rome is not so easily tossed aside.)

Okay, so welcome to Book Three, Eagle and Empire. More legions have marched into Nova Hesperia by way of the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico, commanded by the Emperor Hadrianus III himself. But meanwhile, meanwhile, the Mongol Horde is landing on the west coast and crossing the Rockies. Having had his plundering ambitions in Asia thwarted by the solid power of Rome, Genghis Khan has set his sights on the brave New World, and so one aspect of the Eagle and Empire Big Idea is “a titanic confrontation between the Mongol Horde and the legions of Rome on the Great Plains of North America,” a terrain which naturally benefits the nomad horsemen of the Khan.

Needless to say, the various nations and tribes who were already living on the Hesperian continent have their own very strong opinions about all this, and have continued to take independent action. Cahokia is now first among equals of a great Hesperian League, an alliance between disparate tribes that in the past sometimes made war with each other and sometimes simply ignored one another, but who are now forced to work together to resist the dual (and dueling) forces stomping all over their various territories. Other tribes cast their lot with Genghis, for various reasons, and so the stage is set for all manner of internecine carnage.

But now let’s home in on the human element, the soul of the story, behind all the cut and thrust and steel and shine.

Geopolitics aside, Marcellinus has a basic and central conflict between his old life as a Roman general , and his new life of family and community in Cahokia. He has friends and loved ones, duties and responsibilities, and many of these people and factors are at odds with one another. He has sworn several oaths he can never break, but even some of those oaths collide.

The three Cahokian children who were tasked with learning the outsider’s language back in Clash of Eagles have grown up to become influential in Cahokian society by the time Eagle and Empire begins. Tahtay is now War Chief of Cahokia, and a leading figure in the Hesperian League. Kimimela is a warrior and budding clan chief; she’s Marcellinus’s adopted daughter, but spends more time opposing him and working around him than chatting cheerfully with him by the camp fire. And then there’s young Enopay, not at all martial but empathic about people and an all-around smartypants: as a sometime-admirer and sometime-manipulator of key Romans, he also has his part to play in how this all resolves.

So another Biggish Idea that threads through Eagle and Empire is the complex interaction-space between all these different people (and peoples), their differing beliefs and motivations, and the irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object nature of Marcellinus’s challenges as a somewhat loyal Roman and eventually-decent human being, deep in the midst of this continent-wide upheaval.

And if you do read the books, and we meet up in the bar at a con sometime, maybe we’ll talk about what the world of the Clash series might look like after another thousand years has gone by and the events of Eagle and Empire are, in their turn, buried in the distant past. I have a few ideas about that too, of course…


Eagle and Empire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

My Trump Quandary

May. 18th, 2017 01:57 am
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

I’m not writing about Trump and his party pals as much as one suspects I might here, and honestly, here’s the reason for it: Everything is happening so damn fast these days. Hard as it may be to believe, if I’m going to write something more than a snarky tweet, I want to be able to actually think about the thing and frame it in my head, and every time I try to do that, by the time I’ve figured out what I want to say, that dense, angry Tribble-scalped bastard has done something else, and I have to rethink. I literally can’t keep up, especially because I’m trying to do other things, too, like write books.

It’s frustrating, because I have a lot I’d like to say. It’s just that by the time I would say it, it’s already three news cycles back, and all I’m left with is me howling SEE I TOLD YOU THIS SHIT WOULD HAPPEN, and really, now, how often can I say that before it gets boring.

So: Sorry, folks. I’m trying my best. But Trump watching isn’t actually my full-time gig. And it’s really hard to keep up.

My Boring Shoes

May. 17th, 2017 09:55 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

Behold the Sketchers Men’s Diameter Slip-on, size 8.5, which just arrived here at the Scalzi Compound. This is the third pair of these that I’ve gotten, the first having been purchased more or less on a whim three years ago at Sears, back when you could still go into Sears without being crushingly depressed at how far the store had fallen. The shoes are super boring — there’s really nothing that calls your attention to them. I wear them because they’re cushioned and have arch support, and because they’re easy to take off and on at the airport. They are, in effect, designed to be worn by middle-aged men who value comfort over fashion, which is, basically, me.

I came to these shoes reluctantly, I’ll note. I was a devotee of Vans slip-ons for years but a few years ago had to come to terms that Vans slip-ons are not actually designed with the “increasingly middle-aged” demographic in mind, since they have zero arch support, and wearing mine to conventions or anywhere else that required lots of walking meant having feet that felt like they were being stabbed by the end of the day. I still love Vans and have a couple of pairs, but I save them for short trips and lazy days. For other every purposes: Super boring, cushy Sketchers above.

(I suppose I could find prettier shoes with equal arch support, but, meh. These work well enough, and they’re relatively inexpensive. I have dress shoes when I need dress shoes.)

The funny thing is that when I wear these shoes, every once in a while another middle-aged dude will compliment me on them, and I’ll look down and see him wearing the same shoes. Because he’s a middle-aged dude and he knows. Arch support, man. It’s a thing.


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