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Why Is A Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Information Density in Various Media

You’ve obviously heard the the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and you probably even have an idea why we say that.  But rarely do people delve deeply into the underlying reasons for this truth.  And those reasons can be incredibly useful to know.  They can tell you a lot about why we communicate they way we do, how art works, and why it’s so damn hard to get a decent novel adaption into theaters.

I’m going to be focusing mostly on that last complaint in this post, but what I’m talking about has all sorts of broad applications to things like good communication at work, how to tell a good story or joke, and how to function best in society.

So, there’s always complaints about how the book or the comic book, or whatever the original was is better than the movie.  Or the other way around.  And that’s because different artistic media have different strengths in terms of how they convey information.  There are two reasons for this:

  1. Humans have five “senses”.  Basically, there are five paths through which we receive information from the world outside our heads.  The most obvious one is sight, closely followed by sound.  Arguably, touch(which really involves multiple sub-senses, like heat and cold and pain) is the third most important sense, and, in general, taste and smell are battling it out for fourth place.  This is an issue of “kind”.
  2. The second reason has to do with what I’m calling information density.  Basically, how much information a sense can transmit to our brains in how much time.  This is an issue of “degree”.  Sight, at least form humans, probably has the highest information density.  It gives is the most information per unit of time.

So how does that effect the strengths of various media?  After all, both movies and text mostly enter our brain through sight.  You see what’s on the screen and what’s on the page.  And neither can directly transmit information about touch, smell, or taste.

The difference is in information density.  Movies can transmit visual information(and audio) directly to our brains.  But text has to be converted into visual imagery in the brain, and it also takes a lot of text to convey a single piece of visual information.

AI, in the form of image recognition software, is famously bad at captioning photos.  Not only does it do a crappy job of recognizing what is in a picture, but it does a crappy job of summarizing it in text.  But really, could a human do any better?  Sure, you are way better than a computer at recognizing a dog.  But what about captioning?  It takes you milliseconds at most to see a dog in the picture and figure out it is jumping to catch the frisbee.  You know that it’s a black lab, and that it’s in the woods, probably around 4 in the afternoon, and that it’s fall because there’s no leaves on the trees, and it must have rained because there are puddles everywhere, and that…

And now you’ve just spent several seconds at least reading my haphazard description.  A picture is worth a thousand words because it takes a relatively longer amount of time for me to portray the same information in a text description.  In fact, it’s probably impossibly for me to convey all the same information in text.  Just imagine trying to write out every single bit of information explicitly shown in a half-hour cartoon show in text.  It would probably take several novels’ worth of words, and take maybe even days to read.  No one would read that book.  But we have no problem watching TV shows and movies.

Now go back and imagine our poor AI program trying to figure out the important information in the photo of the dog and how to best express it in words.  Yikes.  But as a human, you might pretty quickly decide that “a dog catches a frisbee” adequately describes the image.  Still takes longer than just seeing a picture, but isn’t all that much time or effort.  But, you’re summarizing.  A picture cannot summarize and really has no reason to.  With text(words) you have to summarize.  There’s pretty much no way around it.  So you lose an enormous amount of detail.

So, movies can’t summarize, and books must summarize.  Those are two pretty different constrains on the media in question.  Now, imagine a a radio play.  It’s possible you’ve never heard one.  It’s not the same as an audiobook, despite communicating through the same sense(audio), and it has some serious advantages over books and audiobooks.  You don’t have to worry about conveying dialogue, or sound information because you can do that directly.  Emotion, accents, sound effects.  But of course you can convey visual information like a movie, and unlike in a book or an audiobook, it’s a lot more difficult to just summarize, because you’d have to have a narrator or have the characters include it in dialogue.  So raw text still has some serious advantages based on the conventions of the form.  Similarly, radio dramas/audio plays/pod casts and movies both have to break convention to include character thoughts in storytelling, while books don’t.

So, audio and television media have major advantages in their specific areas than text, but text is in general far more flexible in making up for any short-comings.  And, it can take advantage of the summary nature of the medium when there’s a lot of unnecessary information.  Plus, it can count on the reader to be used to filling in details with their imagination.

Film and radio can’t do that.  They can use montages, cuts, and voiceovers to try and imitate what text can do, but it’s never quite the same effect.  And while language might not limit your ability to understand or experience concepts you have no words for, the chosen medium absolutely influences how effective various story-telling techniques can be.

Consider, an enormous battle scene with lots of action is almost always going to be “better” in a visual medium, because most of the relevant information is audio and video information.  An action scene involving riding a dragon through an avalanche while multiple other people try to get out of the way or stop you involves a great deal of visual information, such that a text can’t convey everything a movie could.  Watching a tennis match is always going to be more exciting than reading about one, because seeing the events lets you decide without an narrator interference whether a player has a real shot at making a return off that amazing serve.  You can look at the ball, and using past experience, imagine yourself in the player’s place and get a feeling of just how impressive that lunging backhand really was.  You can’t do the same in text, because even if the writer could describe all the relevant information such that you could imagine the scene exactly in your head, doing so would kill the pacing because of how long reading that whole description would take.

The very best artists in any medium are always going to use that medium to its fullest, exploiting any tricks or hacks as best as possible to make their creation shine.  And that means they will (often unconsciously) create a story tailored to best take advantage of the medium they are working in.  If and when the time comes to change mediums, a lot of what really made the art work won’t be directly translatable because that other medium will have different strengths and have different “hacks” available to try to imitate actually experiencing events directly.  If you play videogames or make software, it’s sort of like how switching platforms or programming languages (porting the game) means some things that worked really well in the original game won’t work in the ported version, because the shortcut in the original programming language doesn’t exist in the new one.

So, if video media have such a drastically higher information density than text, how do really good authors get around these inherent shortcomings to write a book, say?  It’s all about understanding audience attention.  Say it again, “audience attention.”

While the ways you manipulate it are different in different media, the concept exists in all of them in some form.  The most obvious form is “perspective”, or the viewpoint from which the audience perceives the action.  In film, this generally refers to the camera, but there’s still the layer of who in the story the audience is watching.  Are we following the villain or the hero?  The criminal or the detective?

In film, the creator has the ability to include important visual information in a shot that’s actually focused on something else.  Because there’s no particular emphasis on a given object or person being included in the shot, things can easily be hidden in plain sight.  But in a book, where the author is obviously very carefully choosing what to include in the description in order to control pacing and be efficient with their description, it’s a lot harder to hide something that way.  “Chekov’s gun” is the principle that irrelevant information should not be included in the story.  “If there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in Act 1, it must be fired in Act 2 or 3.”  Readers will automatically pay attention to almost anything the author mentions because why mention it if it’s not relevant?

In a movie, on the other hand, there’s lots of visual and auditory filler because the conceit is that the audience is directly watching events as they actually happened, so a living room with no furniture would seem very odd, even if the cheap Walmart end table plays no significant role in the story.  Thus, the viewer isn’t paying particular attention to anything in the shot if the camera isn’t explicitly drawing their eye to it.  The hangar at the Rebel Base has to be full of fairly detailed fighter ships even if we only really care about the hero’s.  But not novel is going to go in-depth in its description of 30 X-wings that have no real individual bearing on the course of events.  They might say as little as “He slipped past the thirty other fighters in the hangar to get to the cockpit where he’d hidden the explosives.”  Maybe they won’t even specify a number.

So whereas a movie has an easy time hiding clues, a writer has to straddle the line between giving away the plot twist in the first 5 pages and making it seem like a deus ex machina that comes out of nowhere.  But hey, at least your production values for non-cheesy backgrounds and sets are next to nothing!  Silver linings.

To get back to the main point, the strengths of the medium to a greater or lesser extent decide what kind of stories can be best told, and so a gimmick that works well in a novel won’t necessarily work well in a movie.  The narrator who’s secretly a woman or black, or an alien.  Those are pretty simplistic examples, but hopefully they get the point across.

In the second part of this post a couple days from now, I’ll be talking about how what we learned here can help us understand both how to create a more vibrant image in the reader’s head, and why no amount of research is going to allow you to write about a place or culture or subject you haven’t really lived with for most of your life like a someone born to it would.

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Government

On this episode of Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds, I’m going to begin my look at governments in fantasy and how creating a new form government vs. using an old Earth-inspired one affects your world-building.  There are many different forms of government that developed in our world.  Few of them get an in-depth exploration or even usage in fantasy.  So it’s totally possible to use a real form of government to great effect in your world-building.  You can create a unique and original fantasy world without entirely re-inventing the wheel for every possible aspect of society.

For each episode in each series on creating unique fantasy worlds, I’ll be taking a look at the topic from a different angle, and then in the last episode, I’ll be trying to bring it all together to help you better understand the process of world-building.  Although I’m writing this from the perspective of a fantasy author, I do also do world-building for game ideas, whether pen and paper rpgs, boardgames, or video games.  And of course these ideas can apply equally to other artistic media such as television shows, movies, etc.  You could even make use of them in art or music, although full-scale world-building would probably be a bit over-kill even for a concept album or art show.  I will not be delving into the ways in which you can integrate game mechanics with your world-building, as that is not the goal off these posts.  But I’m not against doing so at a later date, since it’s a subject that interests me quite a bit.

This post will be functioning as an intro post for the entire Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds(CUFW) super-series, as well as for the CUF Government series.  I’ll eventually be creating a page on the site for this super-series with a more formal and structured intro to the concept and purpose, which will be linked to in the Nav bar and include a full index of posts.  Once each series has been published, I’ll also be creating a formal introduction post with links to all the posts with brief descriptions of the content and context within the series, and an overview of how everything fits together.

 

I’ll be discussing the purpose of government in general here, followed by individual posts for each of the major forms of government.  Although most of the information presented on government itself is available online and probably on Wikipedia, I’ll be organizing and presenting it for the purposes of world-building, so there’s going to be a slightly different slant to these descriptions than you’d find normally in a more general source.

 

Government as a concept  most broadly refers to the system by which a group of people choose to mediate their affairs.  You can have a government on every level of society, from a student council to the Federal Government of the United States of America.  The specific purpose of each level of government tends to differ slightly because of the group of individual people or collectives of people over whom it has authority.  For example, a town council can ignore aspects of government and human behavior that are crucial to the proper functioning of a US State Government, because such a government must concern itself with the interactions of the sub-units of government it oversees, whereas a town council has no authority over states and so can ignore their interactions with each other.

  1.         The first thing to consider when deciding how to design your fictional government is the collection of people and legal entities(such as corporations) over which it has authority.  If you have a village of 300 people, you might be able to institute a direct democracy where such a thing would be difficult to manage efficiently if it were to have authority over a population the size of the United States.
    Not only does the size of the population you need your government to rule affect the type of government you can reasonably implement, it affects the functions and services the government will need to manage.  These functions and services may include things like judging disputes between subjects, managing services like plumbing or roads, providing for mutual defense or really any possible requirement of the society it may see fit to put under the purview of the government rather than private citizens or groups thereof.
  2.         The second most important thing to consider, and one which divides many forms of government from each other, is who has a voice in the functions executed by the government and how they are executed.  In a direct democracy, each person has a theoretically equal voice in decisions.  In an dictatorship, a single person might have all the political power and be unable to be removed by legal means.  And there are many governments in between.
  3.         The third most important factor to consider is who actually puts these policies into action.  Are there elected, appointed, earned, or inherited positions in whom the people invest practical political power?  If the people vote to build a road between two towns, who actually goes out and gets it done?  Do the subjects organize the project communally?  Do they appoint a leader who is given time, money, and a set of limitations for achieving the goal?  Is such a leader temporary or permanent?  Does his power last for this single project, or does it extend to any similar projects?
  4.         The last major point to consider is how the government, in whatever form, maintains its authority.  If you have a direct democracy, whats to stop someone on the losing side of a vote from ignoring the outcome?  Are there cultural norms in place?  Laws backed up by a military or police force?  Do the people come together to enforce the decision, or do they just hope everyone goes along with it and might makes right, either way?

So, the most important things to know when designing a government are who is being governed, who governs them and how are such people chosen, how do they govern, and how they enforce their governance.

After you have an idea of these things, you should work out what actual things they govern.  Do they regulate trade, business, diplomacy, human behavior such as sex or religion or violence, adjudication, or perhaps various public services?

And finally, perhaps the most important question of all: how do they pay for all of the things they are required to do?  Do they use their personal fortunes?  And or levy taxes on the citizens or some form of interaction between citizens?  Do they ask for payment for services in kind, such as with labor or the products of labor?  Do they delegate to some lesser body of government or a private entity?  Funding government is perhaps one of the biggest political headaches in our world, and one of the strongest limits on the options available to the government itself, and it is likely to be the same in your fictional world, as well.

 

The purpose of these posts is not to provide a checklist or a template from which to construct your fictional government, but rather to make you think about what government really is and how it functions.  Not every fantasy story will require you to share or even know the exact details of your government in order to make sense to the reader.

If your story is about a rebellion against a central authority, your world-building might involve mentioning a greedy king and his big army, and your reader won’t care that truthfully he sits between three powerful nations all of whom would like the trophy of his kingdom on their wall to brag about to their enemies and so he’s forced to maintain a huge standing army on the strength of feudal obligations from his selfish and impoverished noblemen and a vast number of mercenaries who may or may not be trusted to hold to their contracts.  And he’s having to decide which ruthless political animal to create an alliance with by selling off his favorite daughter to be a concubine for the highest bidder.  And by law he can only demand his lords’ service for five months out of the year but his enemies have thousands of troops year-round, and two of his lords are eyeing a big fat paycheck for betraying him and he needs to maintain an atmosphere of frivolity and excess at court in order to distract from his desperate situation.  And damn his father for a greedy corrupt bastard and leaving him this shit-show he feels morally obligated to deal with because the next in line for the throne is a whore-monger and abuses his servants, but the king cannot interfere with internal household matters of his nobles.  Plus he swore in the name of the Gods to protect this kingdom and he knows that’s a pledge with real consequences in the afterlife even if his father and his asshole nephew don’t.  Also, his oh-so-much-more-capable older brother was assassinated by the nobles in a conspiracy with one of their neighbors because he tried to move forward too far, too fast, and the hostage exchange between his kingdoms and its neighbors took his younger sister and her son and left him with eight third and fourth sons by concubines who have surface political value but whom his neighbors just found a convenient way to remove from their succession if he kills them.

I’d hate to even speculate on the politics of a democratic republic or a viciously contested oligarchy in the same position, and you’ve been contracted for a standalone book anyway and you haven’t even mentioned your brilliant magic system that would make Brandon Sanderson weep in shame.  Knowing the right things about world-building can not only help you do it better, but it can teach you when skimming a particular aspect or just dipping your toes in the pond across the board will result in an easier writing experience and less frustrated readers, while letting you properly focus on the part of the story that really excites you.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about the various answers to the second question above and how to figure out which one best fits the story you’re trying to tell.

 

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Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.

 

Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.

 

Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.

 

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Now with Book Reviews! Sort of…

A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog.  It’s mostly just for fun.  But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it.  I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try.  Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.

I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney.  I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much.  If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.

 

Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

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Real World Booty: Plundering Reality to Meet Your Fantastical Needs

Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn.  One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.

What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy.  I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.

 

So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe.  Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots.  And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting.  Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in.  Etc.

And that’s understandable.  They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on.  Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take.  And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?

 

The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world.  What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods?  Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings?  And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?

 

I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.

 

1. Industrialization is one such plot.  It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk.  The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts.  Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution.  Control of data and information drives many of the plots.  Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it.  Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.

2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were.  You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era.  During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class.  You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class.  Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.

3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues.  The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity.  The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries.  Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence.  The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain.  The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination.  Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point.  So is the ability to trade.  Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in.  British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.

4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries.  The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion.  Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.

5. Resource management is another common source of tension.  Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value.  All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.

6.  Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points.  Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society.  The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.

7.  Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict.  Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel.  So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US.  Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories.  US influence pre-war on Afghanistan.  Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.

8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp.  Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.

 

And there are many more things than what I’ve listed.  Almost infinite sources of inspiration.  Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.

 

In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:

1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.

2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.

3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Fantasy, Ideas, Speculative Reality, World-building

 

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The Translation Problem: People vs. Computers

In my last post, I introduced the topic of natural language processing and discussed the issue of how the context of a piece of language has an enormous impact on its translation into another language.  In this post, I want to address issue with translation.  Specifically, I want to talk how language is really an integrated function of the way the human brain models the world, and why this might make it difficult to create a machine translator isolated from the rest of an artificial intelligence.

When a human uses language they are expressing things that are based upon an integrated model of the universe in which they live.  There is a linguistic model in their brain that divides up their concept of the world into ideas representable by words.  For example, let’s look at the word “pit bull”.  (It’s written with two words, but as a compound word, it functions as a single noun.)  Pit bull is a generic term for a group of terrier dog breeds.  Terriers are dogs.  Dogs are mammals.  Mammals are animals.  This relationship is called a hypernym/hyponym relationship.  All content words(nouns/verbs/adjectives) are part of a hierarchical tree of hypo-/hyper-nym relationships.

So when you talk about a pit bull, you’re invoking the tree to which it belongs, and anything you say about a pit bull will trigger the conversational participants’ knowledge and feelings about not only pit bulls, but all the other members of the tree to which it belongs.  It would be fairly trivial programming-wise, although possibly quite tedious data-entry-wise to create a hypo-/hyper-nym tree for the couple-hundred-thousand or so words that make up the core vocabulary of English.  But to codify the various associations to all those words would be a lot more difficult.  Such a tree would be a step towards creating both a world-model and knowledge-base, aspects of artificial intelligence not explicitly related to the problem of machine translation.  That’s because humans use their whole brain when they use language, and so by default, they use more than just a bare set of grammar rules when parsing language and translating between one language and another.

One use of such a tree and its associations would be to distinguish between homographs or homonyms.  For example, if the computer sees a word it knows is associated with animals, it could work through the hypernym tree to see if “animal” is a hypernym or association with say, the word horse.  Or, if it sees the word “grain”, it could run through the trees of other words to see if they are farming/crop related or wood-related.  Or, perhaps, crossing language boundaries, if a language has one word that covers all senses of “ride”, and the other language distinguishes between riding in a car, or riding a horse, the program could use the trees to search for horse- or car-related words that might let it make a best guess one which verb is appropriate in a given context.

The long and short of the case I intend to make is that a true and accurate translation program cannot be written without taking enormous steps down the path of artificial intelligence.  A purely rule-based system, no matter how many epicycles are added to it, cannot be entirely accurate, because even a human being with native fluency in both languages and extensive knowledge and experience of translating cannot be entirely accurate.  Language is too malleable and allows too many equivalent forms to always allow for a single definitive translation of anything reasonably complex, and this is why it is necessary to make value judgements based on extra-linguistic data, which can only be comprehensively modeled by using techniques beyond pure grammatical rules.

 

In the next post, I’ll talk about statistical methods of machine translation, and hopefully I’ll be following that up with a critique and analysis of the spec fic concept of a universal translator.

 
 

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The Translation Problem

One of the biggest problems in the field of artificial intelligence as it is popularly conceived is that of natural language processing and machine translation.  Natural language processing is the processing of human languages, generally in the form of text, but also as audio, by computers and software.  Machine translation is a form of natural language processing having to do with the translation of a text from one language into another by a computer.  Enormous strides have been made in natural language processing over the last two decades.  Text-to-speech, represented often by those annoying robotic phone calls, and speech-to-text such as dictation software, have both improved markedly.

But the big fish of natural language processing is still the universal translator, able to translate between any two given languages with high accuracy, perhaps even perfectly.  Which is, currently impossible, despite what people might tell you.  For example, Skype Translator looks great in the recent demo, but it’s doubtful it performs quite so well in the field.

There are actually several major issues that machine translation, and translation in general, have to tackle to achieve a high degree of accuracy.  Over the next few posts, I’m going to discuss what some of them are, why they are so difficult to solve, and possible ways they might be overcome.

To start with, there’s a very simple problem with most translation:  language has meaning on its own, but for human communication purposes, you have to know the context of the words you are trying to translate.  Most communication is not factual transmission of information.  Even in formal written prose, there are heaps of subtle ambiguities, and most humans can’t always pick up on every one, much less a poor dumb computer.  This is a problem not only when a word is used that has two different sense, such as a technical and a general sense.  Different languages divide up their semantic space differently, and a word that is a correct translation on paper may fail miserably in the real world.

To give an example, Japanese has pronouns just like English.  However, it does not have an exactly equivalent set.  The word for “her” in Japanese is “kanojo”.  But that word is rarely used, as most Japanese uses a name and an honorific instead.  Further complicating the situation, the word “kanojo” is also idiomatic for “girlfriend”.  The same goes for “kareshi” which is often translated as “he” on paper.   And then we have the various Japanese pronouns technically meaning “you”, or at least referring to the second person singular.  The main one given in teaching Japanese is “anata”.  However, much like “kanojo” or “kareshi” there is a sense of intimacy not immediately apparent in the use of this word.  It is often used between older married couples to mean something like “dear”, and is rarely if ever used as a bare second person, singular pronoun.  Rather, again, the person’s name and an honorific are used.  However, a great deal would have to be hard-coded into a piece of translation software to cover all of this, and that’s assuming there’s even enough context to make a decision at all.  Further, going into Japanese from English, would require the addition of formality information that a computer or even a human couldn’t always be sure of.

It’s often possible to translate conversation/survival language with bare, literal translations, because the basic sense is all that matters.  But more formal registers, or translation of a fixed text, would likely prove impossible for today’s machine translators and most humans, because there’s no way to convey all the necessary context that would provide information that in one language would not be included lexically or grammatically, but it all but necessary for appropriate communication in the other.

 

In the next post, I’ll be looking more at the ways language divide up their semantic space, and how that hinders accurate translation.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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