Tuesday’s Forum

FILED UNDER: Open Forum
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kingdaddy says:

    Having missed out on yesterday’s discussion of Dune, Star Wars, and “world-building,” I’ll pick up the thread here.

    One of the aspects of the original Star Wars that always worked for me was the lack of world-building. The movies presented what appeared to be a small window into a very large galaxy, with more just off-screen. They didn’t bother to explain everything, just asked you to accept what you were seeing (the Jedi, planet killers, aliens, etc.). The first movie especially did a great job of adding touches that helped make the setting seem that much more credible (for example, a “lived in” look to everything on Tatooine).

    The later movies made two mistakes related to this lack of world-building. First, they tried to explain things that didn’t need explaining, most infamously how the Force worked. Second, by being constantly self-referential — same characters, same settings, even the same plots — the Star Wars galaxy seemed smaller and less exotic. It felt like living in the same apartment with the same people, while a big, fascinating, exciting city awaited exploration.

    That’s why I loved The Mandalorian, much against my original expectations. It told a very different kind of story (the LucasFilms version of Lone Wolf and Cub, essentially). It had some familiar settings and other elements, but they weren’t overdone. Plus, we saw them in different ways, such as grimed-up stormtroopers who were part of the seedy remnants of the Galactic Empire. Sure, there were various elements from past movies and “Extended Universe” media, but they were introduced in the same off-handed way that the original movies introduced everything. Yes, I know there were big backstories to the dark blade and a particular Jedi, but my ignorance of that context didn’t make their appearance any less enjoyable. That’s why the one time the series did make an explicit connection to a very familiar character I was disappointed. We were doing fine with new characters, new plots, new settings in a supposedly vast and varied universe, of which we were finally seeing more.

    I just stopped reading a novel that was burying me in the author’s ham-fisted, excessive world-building. Instead of just introducing new elements of the background as you went, it started with a multi-page glossary that the author apparently expected you to read, and flip back to, when needed (never a good sign). Some way into the book, it was clear that the world-building was more important to the author than actually telling a story. So I stopped.

    Elevating world-building to the level of some specialized craft, requiring dedication and attention, leads to this kind of writing that de-mystifies what should remain wondrous, and distracts from telling a good story with shelves full of details that only the author and a few dedicated fans will enjoy. Few of the early science fiction and fantasy writers put the same effort into “world-building” that Tolkien did, but they still wrote compelling tales, set in interesting places. Larry Niven didn’t enumerate all of Known Space before he wrote anything set in it. Nor should contemporary writers. “World-building” doesn’t need to be a separate craft. It can just be part of writing.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    Given yesterday’s torrent of discussion about the gendering of nouns in certain languages, I’m fairly certain we don’t need any more discussion about the mechanics of how it works. But I am left wondering one thing: is there any grammatical value to the whole gendering exercise? By this I mean, does it impart clarity or meaning?

    There is a meaningful difference between “a car” vs. “the car”. i.e. the choice creates a distinction in meaning. Is there any semantic difference in gendering nouns? And, if the answer is no, could it have done so in the past?

  3. Kylopod says:

    @MarkedMan:

    But I am left wondering one thing: is there any grammatical value to the whole gendering exercise? By this I mean, does it impart clarity or meaning?

    The only value I can think of is it enables a speaker to use separate pronouns when referring to two inanimate objects if those objects happen to have a different gender. But there’s a reason that constructed languages like Esperanto do not use gender markings on nouns. It isn’t logical.

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  4. Kathy says:

    I’m on a long Great Courses lecture series on the Aztec and Maya, plus other Mesoamerican civilizations.

    It’s highly frustrating, because most of it is archaeology. The rest, so far, has involved some mythology, religious customs, traditions, etc., but history seems nowhere to be found. I got much of the same in a similar series on ancient North american civilizations.

    Recorded history, the actual telling of events and the doings of the powerful, seems to get started only when the conquistadors show up.

    Back in elementary school and high school, we did study the precolombian era, but it, too, seemed to boil down to “there were Aztecs, Zapotecs, Maya, and so on for millennia, and then the Spanish came.”

  5. JohnSF says:

    @MarkedMan:
    I recall reading that reconstructions by anlysing descendant language leads some linguists to think early proto-IndoEuropean had two genders but they did NOT relate to sex.
    (For that matter, neither did the original meaning of “gender”, though it became synonymous with “sex” in English long ago)

    The two early forms were “animate” and “inanimate”.
    They evolved to three genders in later IE and most derivatives: “masculine”, “feminine”, “neuter” with neuter originally including most inanimates and some animates.

    (I’ve encountered some speculation that the shift may have related to social shifts from hunter/gatherer to farmer: the latter tend to have more sex related elaborations of kinship and property rights and obligations.)

    Later still, a modern Romance descendants dropped the neuter, and former neuter nouns largely became masculine. See French as so much discussed. 🙂
    Interestingly, Scandinavians and Dutch instead merged masculine and feminine and
    left neuter covering other things.

    Some early languages appear to have been very elaborate and dense in their word-form embedding of case, tense, gender etc. English has dropped a lot of this in favour of word order structure.
    I have a whimsical theory that early hunter gathers liked to play with language, and whiled long evening developing ever more elaborate and precise systems.
    Whereas more fluid and changeable societies have premium on “good enough” understanding, quick concept exchange, and a tendency to simplification.
    But who knows. 🙂

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  6. Neil J Hudelson says:

    @Kathy:

    Recorded history, the actual telling of events and the doings of the powerful, seems to get started only when the conquistadors show up.

    To be fair to the “new world” civilizations, the Spanish had a pesky habit of gathering up all the Mayan and Aztec codexes and burning them up. IIRC from 1491, the Mayans had an advanced scholar caste, full libraries, etc. It was systematically destroyed. I believe this was true for the other major South American civilizations as well.

    North American cultures, similar to their contemporaries in the Indian subcontinent. passed on their history orally. For the first 300 years or so of the Colombian era, Europeans had no interest in capturing these histories, and then for the next 75 years or so we treated their histories as myth. It’s only been in the last few decades that we have begun to treat the histories we did jot down as actual histories.

    If you haven’t read it, check out 1491 by Charles Mann. Still archaeology-based, but Mann does the work of studying what histories we have been able to capture and weave that together with the archeological evidence to present a fairly compelling picture of what those civlizations were like at their heights.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    @JohnSF: A lot of food for thought in your reply. This comment caught my eye:

    I have a whimsical theory that early hunter gathers liked to play with language, and whiled long evening developing ever more elaborate and precise systems.

    Isn’t this true of societies and even groups in general? By that I mean, isn’t one of the non-semantic uses of language to denote in-group and out-of-group and, further, status within the group? Making the language more arcane enhances its usefulness towards those purposes.

    I suspect this is pretty in-built in human nature. I think starting around 11 years old our kids became delighted to show us up as not understanding some lingo, like when “sick” became a good thing.

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  8. Kathy says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    I will give that a try. There were large empires and old civilizations, and not enough attention gets paid to them. For some reason, this is also true of African civilizations.

  9. Kathy says:

    On other things, I’ve been thinking if Benito El Cheeto had coached the Bills during the Music City Miracle game, he’d argue the Bills scored the touchdown.

  10. JohnSF says:

    @MarkedMan:
    Yep, it’s universal.
    Language serves a lot of purposes for humans beyond just basic communication.
    Status, persuasion, seduction, fiction, invocation…
    Arguably our entire conscious mentality is a language-centred affair.
    But thing is hunter gatherers had a lot of relatively relaxed time to play with it in.

  11. JohnSF says:

    reposting a comment from yesterdays thread re. Dune and “spice” (’cause I’m egotistical that way 🙂 )
    @Kathy:
    I don’t know if Herbert was aware of it, but it would fit if he was: one of the reasons oriental spices were so prized by Medieval Europeans was that they were supposed to have medical benefits.
    IIRC opium was regarded as part of the spice trade.

  12. JohnSF says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:
    Not just the Spaniards.
    One early Aztec ruler ordered the destruction of all records predating the rise of the Mexica Confederation c.1427

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  13. Mu Yixiao says:

    @JohnSF:

    Whereas more fluid and changeable societies have premium on “good enough” understanding, quick concept exchange, and a tendency to simplification.

    This is close to my theory on why English supplanted French as the “lingua franca” (or “Common Tongue” from Middle Earth): In 99.44% of casual conversation, English is extremely tolerant of “incorrect” speech.

    I had a lot of Chinese students who would get upset or embarrassed if they didn’t get things exactly right (which is often impossible, since there is not “exactly right” way). I would tell them “This is how Americans say it, but… we’d understand what you meant.”

    I would often be in a room with Brits, Germans, Chinese, Zimbabweans, Columbians, and Russians–all speaking varied versions of English–and we’d all understand each other. When learning another language, you need to “understand how the language thinks”–and for English “it just doesn’t care much”. 🙂 French, on the other hand, has all those pesky rules.

    Tangentially: I get annoyed at “the woke” who get all upset if they hear Americans using “ethnic” formulations (e.g., “is good”, or “long time, no see.”) because it “mocks” an ethnicity. But… we’re a melting pot, and language forms last a very long time, even after being subsumed into English. “long time, no see” is a direct translation of the Chinese “hao jiu bu jian”. Growing up in Wisconsin, I learned a lot of German-influence sentence formation (“throw me down the stairs my hat while you’re up, er no?”).

    Damn! I loves me some English! 😀

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  14. Joe says:

    @Kathy: I agree with Neil that 1491 is an interesting read. I had a client once who was an expert in pre-Columbian North American civilizations. I asked him about Mann’s work and he largely approved of it, though he noted that Mann sometimes made too few facts serve up too many conclusions. Still an interesting look.

  15. JohnSF says:

    And another civilization that lost much of its written records of is India, a great deal during the war of conquest led by Bakhtiyar Khalji around 1200, which destroyed the great libraries of the Buddhist monasteries and universities.

  16. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    IMO, a list of substances and foods no one has ever claimed have any incredible health benefits would be much shorter.

    Today we call them super foods. The more things change…

    I wonder, though, if anyone claimed the actual, verifiable, health benefits of citrus before they were discovered to prevent scurvy.

  17. JohnSF says:

    @Kathy:
    I wonder to myself if spice use perhaps declined due to a change in fashionable medical theories in the 1700’s, combined with the market glut due to the Dutch colonies in the East Indies (what’s cheap is no longer exotic).
    Alongside the change in food fashions consequent on the great food exchange with the Americas, and the beginnings of the 18th century agricultural revolution.
    Chili peppers in, black pepper out, maybe?

  18. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    Maybe the only library that survived antiquity was the one in Alexandria 😉

    BTW, the current course I’m listening to reminded me of Maya numerals. We did study them in school, but in math. It was part of numbering systems, including Roman and others as well. I had vague memories of the Maya system, but hadn’t really noticed it uses only three numerals for a base 20 system. Just dots (single units), dashes (units of five), and zero (zero).

    It can easily be adapted as an alien numbering system in another numerical base. For instance, imagine using sticks for single units, squares for units of four, and zero. You get a base 8 or a base 16 system easy as you please.

    Change the squares to units of three, and you can make a base 9 system.

    Base ten can be done with the Maya numerals, too, without changing their values. Just limit dashes to one use.

    As an alien system, say in base 8, it would work in fiction if a human needs to figure them out without any other information.

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  19. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:
    That the spices were highly valued is easy to grasp when one looks at bland diet of the Euros. There was nothing but salt. None of the new world foods were available. Wheat, barley, cabbage…gets pretty dull. Try living on that for a month. One of the reasons the hotter spices were handy they help cover over the taste of meat that is close to turning bad. To the well-to-do, worth their weight in gold.

    One of the net results was the rich of Rome and the Middle Ages would up sending much of the Euro’s available gold to Cathay. There wasn’t anything else the Euro’s had which was valued. This resulted in a largely barter economy. Spain’s importing of very large quantities of gold from America at the turn of the 16th century transformed the economic landscape. Before they had gold again the Portuguese were given to using their ship’s cannons to force people, particularly in India, to trade for whatever they had on board for spices in the early period of the Age of Exploration, which set the tone for much of European colonialism.

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  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Citrus fruits were known to deter starvation. Is that the kind of thing you were thinking about?

  21. Kathy says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    There were herbs, too.

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Everything edible prevents starvation, or so I’m told.

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  22. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Kathy:

    Everything edible prevents starvation, or so I’m told.

    Except rabbits. If you only eat rabbit, you’ll starve to death. It’s called “protien poisoning“, and apparently it happened fairly often to trappers in the Great Lakes region

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  23. Sleeping Dog says:
  24. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    Excellent short summary.
    But I’d argue with with quite a few points.
    (“What a surprise…”, I hear people mutter 🙂 )

    The “meat going off” hypothesis is common; but there really isn’t that much reason to suppose medievals had much more of a problem with it than anybody before the days of canned food and (later) refrigerators.
    As for the blandness of the pre-Columbian European diet, there’s something to that.
    But the most used American foodstuff in Europe is the not very spicy potato. 🙂

    OK, I grant the tomato was a big hit; but mainly in the Med regions where it could be easily grown. Little cultivated in Ireland, Scotland or Scandinavia.
    Maize was largely used in central and southern Europe, and for polenta (pretty damn bland IYAM) or as a fodder crop.

    And there were plenty of European native or naturalised herbs etc as flavourings.
    French cuisine is notable for its relative lack of use of spices, whether east Asian or American; traditional English cooking uses spice a lot more.
    French cooking does not suffer that much in the comparison.

    I still think just plain fashion drove a lot of the spice demand.

    Though, agree, the specie drain was a big driver to European maritime activity; and to its coercive nature (though mixing up trade, piracy and raiding was hardly a novel activity for any major maritime force, including the Muslims in the Indian Ocean; see the origins of Muslim domination of Sindh or Zanzibar).

    Bullion drain also afflicted the Middle East: especially the Ottomans and Mamluks, who expended vast sums on purchasing slaves in the Sudan/Sahel and from the Golden Horde in Caucasia and Russia.
    What the Hordes and Khanates used silver for, gawd knows.
    Lotsa samovars, maybe?

    I’ve also seen some accounts suggesting the dependence on silver imports drove inflation which undermined local production in Asia, and that Chinese imperial attempts to hoard silver, manipulate the silver market, and to substitute paper money for internal use, caused considerable damage to the Chinese economy.
    Perhaps even contributing to the decay-stages of the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.

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  25. Jen says:

    @JohnSF:

    Maize was largely used in central and southern Europe, and for polenta (pretty damn bland IYAM) or as a fodder crop.

    And, interestingly since Europeans did not nixtamalize their corn, those who subsisted on it developed pellagra.

  26. Kathy says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    I wonder how history will look back at our time, when the lives of children were thought a fair price to pay for cosplaying with guns.

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  27. Kathy says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Rabbit is poisonous, got it.

    I’ll draft an urgent memo for Mr Fudd directly.

  28. JohnSF says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    @Jen:
    How about rabbit with polenta?
    🙂

    Nixtamlize is def. my word for the day.
    Thought for the day though, is who on earth did and how the hell would they come up with soaking maize in limewater?

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  29. JohnSF says:

    Ah, wikipedia-ing, looks like thought they heated maize with lumps of limestone.

    Even more “how the hell did they figure that out?” is manioc/cassava, which unless prepared correctly is highly toxic.

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  30. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    All across the world with every degree in latitude gained the cuisine gets a bit worse. Reaches rock-bottom at the Arctic (Muktuk) Circle. Since the time of Rome well-to-do Euros would give an equal weight in gold for pepper, cloves, cinnamon.

    When Alaric the Goth conquered Rome in 410 A. D., he asked as a ransom 3,000 pounds of pepper, then worth more than Its weight In gold.

    https://cambridge.dlconsulting.com/cgi-bin/cambridge?a=d&d=Sentinel19240126-01.2.20&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-

    However the Dune spice is clearly an allegory for oil, as Herbert made it essential to his Spacing Guild. The ability to see into the future is necessary for navigation through space-time, apparently. Eerily echoes with recent discoveries about quantum linking, btw. The implication is at the quantum level space is no space at all.

  31. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    Primitives with access to corn and lime water, of course.

    What’s odd is soaking and cooking the grain before making flour with it. Most grains need to be dried first, not soaked. That’s counter intuitive.

    I get it, though. If you think of all our remote ancestors did to and with the materials at hand, you do wonder who’d think to do that. And even more recent ancestors, like whoever came up with soap by mixing animal fats and ashes.

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  32. DrDaveT says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    I just stopped reading a novel that was burying me in the author’s ham-fisted, excessive world-building.

    Sounds like David Weber to me…

    My current favorite fantasy author for dropping you in the deep end (with ankle weights) and letting you flounder is Graydon Saunders, in his Commonweal series.

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  33. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:
    Preservation. Over here we call it “grits”, rendered palatable by the French method: Lots of butter. Or sugar. If at all possible, both.

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  34. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: And now I understand why my braised rabbit recipe had sour cream as a principal ingredient. Thanks!

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  35. DrDaveT says:

    Since I missed yesterday’s discussion of grammatical gender entirely, I can’t resist reopening it long enough to note that drj was almost entirely wrong, and Marked Man almost entirely right, regarding the origins of gender assignments to French nouns. There is in general no rationale, or system, or pattern. It is arbitrary, or close enough to arbitrary as makes no difference.

    One way to see this is to note that there are many many instances of nouns that have different genders in different Romance languages, even though they all derive originally from the same Latin root. Another easy way is to note that synonyms often have different genders, even though they refer to very similar things. In French, path/road/street/trail can be translated by piste/rue/route (all feminine) or by chemin/sentier (both masculine). If there were something about roads that was associated with masculinity or femininity, wouldn’t that apply to all of those?

    Once you get to the fact that /moustache/ is feminine and /mamelon/ (nipple) is masculine in French, it’s time to give up the theory.

    Sometimes there are general rules of thumb that are mostly predictive, such as Lakoff’s famous title Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.

  36. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    Though, agree, the specie drain was a big driver to European maritime activity; and to its coercive nature (though mixing up trade, piracy and raiding was hardly a novel activity for any major maritime force, including the Muslims in the Indian Ocean; see the origins of Muslim domination of Sindh or Zanzibar).

    I was referring to DeGama there. It wasn’t technically piracy or theft, the problem he encountered in the first trip to India was India had access to Chinese manufactured goods which were vastly superior to anything Vasco had on his ship. The Indians said thanks but no thanks and sent him on his way. He returned to Portugal with, essentially, bupkis.

    Next trip he took a lot of ships, with cannons, and a bit of slack from his King on the admonition to “make no enemies in any new lands”. After a few salvos the Indians agreed to trade spices for the crap he had on board. A pattern was set.

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  37. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy:

    BTW, the current course I’m listening to reminded me of Maya numerals. We did study them in school, but in math. It was part of numbering systems, including Roman and others as well. I had vague memories of the Maya system, but hadn’t really noticed it uses only three numerals for a base 20 system. Just dots (single units), dashes (units of five), and zero (zero).

    I am listening to the same course. But I have it on as I fall asleep, so I only get the first 10 minutes or so of each lecture.

    Perhaps not the best way to learn, but it occupies the mind just enough that I don’t go into my usual cycle of remembering the day’s regrets and mistakes, and all the ways I have hurt other people… the voice reciting some random lecture just pushes all that gently away.

    It’s the only time I know peace.

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  38. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Thoughts and prayers time again.

    I will save my thoughts and prayers for the prosecutors to have the guts to go after whoever gave a 15 year old unsupervised access to a gun. Gun rights come with gun responsibilities, throw the book at the idiots (probably the parents, but I don’t think we know yet…)

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  39. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kathy:

    I’m quite pessimistic about the future of US society. Fortunately, I’m one of those who is looking at no more than 20 years before they shovel dirt over me. So what happens, in the future really doesn’t matter. To answer your question, we won’t be looked on with admiration.

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  40. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    If you listen on audible, there’s a sleep timer in the app. I’ve never used it, but it can be set from 5 minutes on, and has a custom option.

    But you probably already knew this.

  41. Jax says:

    @Kathy: I spend a lot of time wondering who in their right mind “discovered” a lot of things. Artichokes, for instance. Ginger. Mushrooms, how many people died testing that shit out? Thousands of years of YOLO, passed down through generations. Soap….they made face paint out of animal fat, ashes, and various shades of dirt. SOMEBODY must’ve noticed that when they washed it off, it made bubbles. What kind of illness did they suffer through that some wise woman somewhere back in time noticed that those who painted themselves didn’t get sick, or got sick less often?

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  42. flat earth luddite says:

    @JohnSF:
    Don’t know, but another ponderable for me has been which of my ancestors thought of pickling dried/salted cod in lye? Lye? And how hungry were the first folks who ate lutefisk?

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