I’ve been reading Flash Fiction Online for a while now (not like some magazines), and I’m always impressed by the breadth and variety of stories that they have.

Well. This week they outdid themselves, with one of the most moving and beautiful stories I’ve ever read in their venue, and already a contender for my favorite story of the year. I read lots of good stories. Sometime I think I even write a good story. But this was a great story.

Read Golden Pepper by Jay Lake.

Mark Liberman has a post up at Language Log discussing Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, and in particular his “upper case phoneme”.

I’m a fan of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, but I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that they might be improved in their approach to matters linguistic. As an example, on p. 470 of his recently-released novel Matter, we learn that “Marain, the Culture’s language, had a phoneme to denote upper case”.

Linguists would usually call a unit that denotes something a morpheme (or perhaps a word), not a phoneme, even if it was only one phoneme long. (In fact, we sometimes find meaningful units whose effect on pronunciation is just a single feature.)

In addition, it’s odd to find a morpheme that signals something essentially in the realm of writing, like alphabetic case; and also to find that Marain still uses upper case in (some of) the same ways that English does.

I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that Liberman is being way too nice. The quoted passage from the book makes it pretty clear that what Banks means: the Marain language has the ability to indicate aurally that something is a proper name or otherwise an Important Word. But Banks calling this an “upper-case phoneme” is a basic mistake on two levels. First, he seems to have confused phonemes and morphemes, and second, he has confused a property of written language with spoken language. Liberman suggests a few interpretations of “upper-case phoneme” that would be linguistically defensible, but they’re increasingly implausible. No, what we have here is the linguistic equivalent of making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs: an absurdity brought on by the fact that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about.

Of course, none of this really matters, and my irritation is, I’m sure, tiny compared to the irritation of a physicist trying to watch Star Trek. But it would be nice if people using linguistic vocabulary would at least try to get it right.

A great quote from R.A. Lafferty, one of the old great SF short-story authors.

Things are set up as contraries that are not even in the same category. Listen to me: the opposite of radical is superficial, the opposite of liberal is stingy; the opposite of conservative is destructive. Thus I will describe myself as a radical conservative liberal; but certain of the tainted red fish will swear that there can be no such fish as that. Beware of those who use words to mean their opposites. At the same time have pity on them, for usually this trick is their only stock in trade.

Pillaged from this comment thread.

I’m currently reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle for the first time. This is considered a YA classic, and for a good reason: it’s awesome. For reasons which could be the subject of their own post I was never able to read it in childhood, which might be just as well because now I get to puzzle over a curious multilingual typo in the book.

I’m reading the 1979 Dell edition, the one with this cover:

A Wrinke In Time Cover
This is the edition that I grew up seeing as a kid; all of the other cover images that the book has sported seem like pretenders to me.

I mention this only because it’s possible that later printings have corrected the errors I’m about to discuss.

There is a character, Mrs. Who, who frequently speaks in quotations. At one point she quotes Euripides in the original Greek. The quotation is printed thus (printed large to make the accents clearer):

“Αεηπου οὐδὲν, πὰντα δ’ εηπἰζειυ χρωετ.

Translation (from the book): Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.

Now anyone with a little Classical Greek (which I minored in) could tell you that this is nonsense. Three of the words are nonexistent, and the diacritics are placed in violation of every rule of Greek accentuation. However, with the help of the translation I was able to guess what went wrong and reconstruct the original.

There are two simple letter mistakes: lambda (λ) has been replaced with eta (η) in every instance, and nu (ν) has been replaced with ypsilon (υ) in two places. The latter mistake is quite easy to make; the former is a bit more puzzling, but we’ll let it go. The final word stumped me until I realized that someone had substituted tau (τ) for iota-with-circumflex (ῖ). Making those substitutions, we arrive at this:

Ἄελπον οὐδὲν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρωεῖ.

(You’ll notice that I’ve corrected all of the accents, too. The errors here are very comprehensible and easy to make–and let us take a moment to pity the poor typesetter who was tasked with setting this line, based on a probably handwritten fragment in a language he didn’t know. He had probably never ever heard of a smooth-breathing-with-acute-accent mark, and so may be forgiven for using a double-quote in its place. Alongside the numerous other errors.)

This matches the translation given, and satisfies me. Only two questions remain:

  1. Why Ἄελπον and not Ἄνελπον?
  2. Whence the omega in χρωεῖ? The word that I know is χρεῖ; but perhaps the long form is a poetic variant that I’m not aware of.

Of course, both of these things could also be typesetting errors, but they don’t seem easy to explain in the way that the other substitutions are.

Update: My erudite friend Brett sent me the following in private correspondence:

The TLG says it’s Euripides Trag., Fragmenta (Nauck) 761.1:

Ἅελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρηῶν

lit. ‘nothing hopeless/unhoped, it’s necessary to hope for everything.’ L’Engle’s source translator took the first clause as “nothing is hopeless” which seems fine. An Italian on the single google result I got (http://spazioinwind.libero.it/gattonero/index5_RCol.htm) apparently takes it as “nothing [can happen] unhoped for” or “[if the thing is] unhoped for [then it doesn’t get achieved].” Ἅελπον doesn’t seem to be a word, and it looks like the last word’s typo may be switching ω and η, and replacing _ν with τ for whatever reason. I wonder in a positive, respectful, evocative sort of way what the draft the typesetter was going off of looked like. Finally, a-elp- rather than *_an-elp-_ is the privativized stem of ‘hope’ because _elp-_ originally started with digamma (http://www.aoidoi.org/articles/epic/digamma.html), indicating (with asterisks now meaning prehistoric rather than incorrect) *_n-welp-to-_ > *_awelpto-_ > _aelpto-_. If you have a different edition of the book see if they’ve corrected any typos

Transcriptase has been up for a few weeks. I meant to link to it a while ago, then put it off, then decided to say something substantial about it.

My first reaction was pretty negative. I wasn’t directly involved in the debacle or the ensuing debates, but it seemed to me that a lot of people had a draconian, puritanical reaction My feeling was, yeah, what he said was reprehensible, but I support the rights of people to hold ugly opinions without having to be drummed out of polite society. The reaction to the incident should not have been to brand Sanders with a scarlet R and purge him from sff-dom. Thus, Transcriptase seemed like a bad idea.

Then I read their “About” page and the accompanying author statements. This gave me a much broader view of the controversy, and a better view of the motives of the participants. The key was seeing Sanders’ reaction to the whole thing. It’s one thing to use insulting language in a private letter; it’s quite another to act like an asswipe in public. Plus, many of the author statements up at Transcriptase said basically the same thing I just did. With that in mind, my feelings shifted: whatever the proper reaction to the first incident was, the subsequent response was just asinine. The writers at Transcriptase have every reason to want to get their work away from that.

Plus: Transcriptase has an RSS feed, and Helix doesn’t. That right there makes me about 100x more likely to read it.

So I finished it last night. The last quarter of the book doesn’t really address the things I griped about yesterday, but it makes them less relevant by virtue of being more exciting. Once the Department of Homeland Security has been established as a gang of jack-booted thugs, for better or worse, it’s hard to feel bad about seeing them get squashed.

I still wish the book had had a little more nuance, or perhaps had encouraged the reader to think about the difference between civil disobedience and mere vandalism. As it is, it’s not the sort of thing that I’m going to recommend to people.

I haven’t read all the way to the end yet, so perhaps I should withhold comment, but my reactions to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother are very similar to those of this reviewer:

If only we lived in a world where the people who work for the Department of Homeland Security were transparently one-dimensional and evil, if only DHS were massively more invasive into every facet of our lives instead of just having useless airport security checks, and if only Doctorow were a hacker who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during a terrorist attack. If only all of those would come true, then Doctorow would save the day….

It’s not that I disagree with any of the ideas put forth in this novel. For the most part, I strongly agree with them. It’s that the package in which they are wrapped is poorly considered, poorly argued, and poorly written. The ideas herein are important and absolutely must be discussed, but the execution of those ideas is so heavyhanded as to make the book near-unreadable.

That’s pretty much it. I really, really wanted to like this novel, and I really, really identified with the central concerns of the protag. But the actual execution was heavy-handed and graceless, and Doctorow seems to be oblivious to the vices of techno-rebellion that he transparently advocates.


Take the “jamming” that the characters describe in the first half: randomly cloning the RFID chips of passersby, and swapping them out with other ID’s on the fly. The goal is to confound the data-mining software that the DHS is using to seek “terrorists”, which is superficially admirable. But they scramble credit cards and transit passes, doing permanent damage to the financial records of hordes of innocent people, and costing them thousands of dollars! It’s hard to see how this is morally different from the DHS’s wide net of harassment. At no point do the protags reflect on the fact that their pranks have real costs for innocent, uninvolved people–the only motives entertained for not going along with the scheme are cowardice or conformity.

Then there’s the ridiculous slogan “Don’t trust anyone over 25”, cribbed (with explicit acknowledgment) from the 60’s counterculture, then subjected to “slogan inflation”. This is just plain dumb. Sometimes adults know things; sometimes adolescents are stupid and pig-headed. The worship of youth and distrust of age were two of the worst aspects of the old counterculture, and they were two parts that didn’t need to be revived for the current generation. (Doctorow himself, who is in his thirties, seems to regard this as a joke–but the characters in the novel are awfully serious about it.)

And finally, as much as I hate to agree with the lame discussion-squashing civics teacher, the First Amendment really isn’t a carte blanche, as the protag tries to argue in one particularly cringe-inducing scene. There are legitimate restrictions on speech, and the right way to argue against the stupid, destructive, and illegal restrictions are to point out that they’re stupid, destructive, and illegal. Thumping your copy of the Constitution like a fundamentalist (a comparison made in the book itself) only makes you look like, well, a techno-libertarian fundamentalist.

As I’m reading, I keep hoping that these conflicts will eventually get some traction in the narrative, maybe giving way to a viewpoint that’s more nuanced and less adolescent. But I’m not seeing it. The protag is always vindicated and never chastened, and the viewpoints other than his own are always revealed to be stupid and wrong.

(For contrast, read LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, which both praises and subverts its anarchist society.)