24 April 2015 @ 06:40 pm
I love teaching this ENG 102 course. Where else could my gamer and linguist personae combine to produce lesson materials with sentences like:

Speaking of Super Mario Brothers, should it be singular or plural? If you're talking about the game, then it's singular; otherwise (and with different formatting) you are referring to Mario and Luigi, who form a plural noun phrase.
12 March 2015 @ 02:22 pm
The other night while watching Project Runway, I had to explain the term "fringe" to my wife, which inevitably led to the question of how this related to the eponymous TV series. This in turn got me thinking about Fringe, why we loved it so much, why we found the last season rather disappointing, and what this means in a broader context.

There is one obvious reason why the last season of Fringe couldn't possibly be as good as the others: Fringe was all about mysterious possibilities, and once they'd decided to wrap everything up, they couldn't play that game any more; instead, the last season warped into an entertaining but much less intriguing "resist the alien invaders" adventure.

However, there was something that went further and actually irritated me about the last season that I couldn't put my finger on until now: it uses the Faustian deal-wtih-the-devil trope clumsily. The Faustian bargain is a staple of science fiction, and it can be done well. Frankenstein is a secularised version where there is no devil to make a deal with, but just a line in Nature which shouldn't be crossed (Shelley subtitled her novel "the Modern Prometheus" but Frankenstein is more like the hubristic doctor than the altruistic Titan). In fact, earlier on in Fringe we see two good examples of this trope: first where Walter experiments on children to enhance their psychic abilities, and later where he crosses into a parallel universe to save the son of his parallel self (by kidnapping him), thus creating a rupture in the time-space-quantum-thingummy, not to mention some unusual family drama.

Season 5 is an example of how not to do the Funky Faust. Our world has been invaded by our descendants, who have come back in time because they've messed up the environment so much. They also have amazing psychic powers, something you associate less with the kind of people who create ecological mayhem and more with cute natives who live in harmony with Nature (so I suppose we should award the writers points for avoiding one common cliche). The road to environmentally unfriendly transhumanism starts when some Dr. Faustustein finds he can short-circuit the part of the brain used for jealousy, freeing up neurons which then go on and develop psychic powers because quantum. This is the kind of neurological wackiness that is fine in a show like Fringe; the problem is in what happens next. Having got rid of a thoroughly unpleasant and fairly useless emotion and got some cool new abilities in return, our future selves get addicted to their new powers and use more and more of their brains to get them, resulting in all normal emotions getting thrown out. Yet the future folk we see are prone to primitive emotions like anger, and even lust after 21st century women, as we see when our heroes sneak into a private club where the Übermenschen unwind after a hard day of world domination.

Now the whole point of the Faust story is that Faust is a pretty smart fellow; in fact his problem is that he's too clever for his own good. The Faustian bargain has to look like a smart idea at the time, but this looks downright silly. I get rid of a negative emotion in return for some psychic powers, so I then go on and eliminate all of my positive emotions while keeping as many negative emotions as possible? Hmmm, we can't do without lust, anger and greed, so let's get rid of love, compassion and humour. If you want to raise some questions about planned human evolution, this is not the way to go about it.

The other Faustian bargain is the familiar one where humans seek power over Nature and end up destroying it. Arguably, this is the one we are living at the moment. Yet Fringe presents this in a very short-sighted way by simply projecting current environmental degradation into the future. We're creating a lot of environmental damage now, so as we get more technologically advanced, we'll create even more, right? In fact we'll have screwed up the Earth so thoroughly, the only way out will be to transport the whole population back in time.

Whoa. This is a society so advanced they can send millions of people back in time, but they can't work out how to clean up industrial pollution? Not even with those hyper-intelligent psionic megabrains they've developed? A similar silliness lurks in the ending of Avatar, where the humans are sent back to live in the ashes of the Earth they had plundered. Now I'm not saying that humans can't make the Earth uninhabitable; what I'm saying is that they would not develop the technology to go all over the galaxy looking for rare minerals yet be unable to clean up their home planet. Stupid species don't make it into space.

Of course it's good to post warnings about our potential to destroy our planet, but we need to be careful about the way we frame them. This century looks like being make-or-break for our species, as we are at the most dangerous stage of technological development, half way between technology that is too feeble to have much of an impact on the environment and technology that is sophisticated enough to protect it. In contrast, the Observers were created in 2167 and didn't make the planet uninhabitable until 2609! That's nearly half a millennium of technological progress powered by superbrains. When we compare this to the actual timeline, we don't seem to be doing so badly: a few maverick scientists started warning about climate change in the 1970s; less than half a century later we have developed solar power that's as cheap as fossil fuels and are looking to have workable fusion energy in a few decades. It may not turn out to be enough, but it's actually quite impressive considering we haven't even swapped out parts of our brains to do it.
10 March 2015 @ 06:33 pm
Happy birthday asteriskhere!
07 March 2015 @ 08:28 pm
Happy birthday trochee!
13 February 2015 @ 04:08 pm
Recently on Quora, there was one of the usual threads about grammar Nazis, with the usual three response types.
1. Grammar Nazis are just mean people who use grammar as an excuse to be mean.
2. So-called grammar Nazis are just people who care about accurate communication.
3. So-called grammar Nazis aren't Nazis because they don't send people off to concentration camps.
1. and 2. have points for and against, but 3. is just silly. If I describe Uncle Joe as a piss-artist, would someone object because Uncle Joe has never exhibited a painting? If I describe Uncle Albert as a drag queen, would anyone object because he is neither female nor a hereditary ruler? The use of "Nazi" in this and other phrases takes one characteristic of Nazism - excessive authoritarianism - to create a metaphor. That's how metaphors work. You could argue that using "Nazi" like this is tasteless, but since Seinfeld's soup Nazi, there's no going back.

Speaking of metaphors, one comment listed as a symptom of grammar Nazism objection to the metaphorical use of "literally". Personally, though, I don't think this is the kind of carping pedantry that earns grammar Nazis their names. The word "literal" means "not metaphorical", so using "literally" metaphorically robs your utterance of meaning.
13 February 2015 @ 04:08 pm
"Are you sure you want to delete your account? Yes/No"
"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
10 February 2015 @ 10:51 am
Happy birthday chippiex!
13 January 2015 @ 06:57 pm
I would never describe myself as a "traveller", partly because I haven't travelled enough, and partly because when a lot of people call themselves travellers, it means "stingy but pretentious tourist". But I do like travelling sometimes. I've had enjoyable holidays in Rome, Vienna, Zurich and various Greek islands; I've been Interrailing; and once I travelled to Turkey and wound up spending 23 years there. Nevertheless, I sometimes open travel websites, and think "Why do people bother?" OK, adventure, but as a wise hobbit once said, adventures make you late for lunch. Sometimes I think Lao Tsu had a point when he said "One may know the world without going out of doors. One may see the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows. The further one goes, the less one knows." And he wrote that before there was the Discovery Channel!

Oh well, it's probably because I'm ill and feeling unenthusiastic about going to Paris this month.
11 January 2015 @ 10:04 am
Keep calm, and do a failure analysis.
11 January 2015 @ 09:48 am
Looks like I won't be having my nose/sinus operation until Spring. I was hoping to get it done in the winter break, but now I need to plan my course around my non-appearance for a couple of weeks. Surprisingly, I don't relish this prospect - I'd like a medical procedure that allows me to teach but doesn't allow any kind of grading or admin work rather than the reverse, but such a thing has yet to be discovered. On the bright side, I may finally get round to reading all those articles I've saved to Pocket.