Immersive Languages

It’s a misuse of terms to say that we have a natural language; languages are arbitrary and conventions of peoples by institution. – François Rabelais

Constructed languages, or conlangs, are popular features of many science fiction and fantasy tales. Examples include Barsoomian (Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series), Elvish and Khuzdul (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), Klingon (Star Trek), Na’vi (James Cameron’s Avatar), and Dothraki and Valyrian (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire). Thanks to the efforts of dedicated – some might say obsessive – fans, these invented languages occasionally slip the bonds of their native genres, as witnessed by Klingon translations of Shakespeare and the Bible.

Not all conlangs have roots in fantastic literature. The most widely-spoken “auxiliary language,” Esperanto, was created in the late 19th century by a Polish ophthalmologist, and was intended to be an easy and flexible second tongue that would foster peace and international understanding. UC San Diego Linguistics Professor Grant Goodall was fascinated by languages at an early age, and quickly found himself drawn to Esperanto; through his study of Esperanto he developed an interest in other conlangs.

In addition to Goodall’s remarks about his linguistic adventures in Inventing Languages, two of the most popular contemporary conlangs, Na’vi and Dothraki, are discussed by their creators. Paul Frommer was tasked by Avatar director James Cameron to create a language for his science fiction epic set on an alien world. Frommer describes a process which entailed setting certain rules for the new language, dubbed Na’vi, which were drawn from various Earthbound tongues, including English, the Romance languages, and several Eastern European languages. The primary challenge was to create a language that seems sufficiently alien to our experience, yet could be learned quickly by decidedly human actors portraying the language’s native speakers while also lending itself to a vocabulary that could be expanded on short notice.

David Peterson, co-creator of the Dothraki language used in Game of Thrones, faced a somewhat different set of challenges since the basics of Dothraki were established in the novels upon which the series is based (complete with translations). Peterson’s first task was to reconcile inconsistencies in spellings across various books, followed by establishment of certain rules of grammar and pronunciation based on common usages in various modern languages – key elements in Peterson’s ability to form new Dothraki vocabulary upon demand. Like Frommer’s Na’vi, Peterson’s Dothraki needed to sound exotic while retaining just enough familiarity for actors to learn and speak the language convincingly.

In recent years conventions, workshops, seminars, websites, and user groups have sprung up around fictional languages, including Na’vi and Dothraki, as fans seek an immersive experience based on their favorite novel, film, or TV series. Thus far none have yet achieved the international prominence of Esperanto, but devotees are convinced that it’s only a matter of time.

Watch Inventing Languages: A Conversation in Language Construction

Informacy is the New Literacy

As anyone who uses a computer, tablet, smart phone, or VR (virtual reality) device knows, we live in an Information Age unprecedented in human history, in which the sum total of mankind’s knowledge is available with a finger’s touch or click of a mouse – or a question posed to Alexa, Siri, Cortana, et al. This has put tremendous power in the hands of the end user, but as noted by philosophers and statesmen, with great power comes great responsibility. While navigating through this vast and ever-growing trove of data we must be (but all too often aren’t) mindful of the pitfalls and obstacles that litter the virtual pathways and take the steps necessary to avoid them.

At a time when you can search billions of texts in milliseconds, scan over trillions of online images, and map virtually the entire planet’s surface, we need to rethink what it means to be literate and to be a learner. As the very definition of “literacy” is evolving thanks to technology, so too is the skillset required by the literate person. Merely knowing how to read is no longer enough; as our methods of teaching and learning increasingly move from traditional linear modes to the non-linear forms enabled by technology, we must learn anew how to frame questions, interpret results, quickly evaluate and organize masses of information, separate the authentic from the fabricated, and above all understand and nurture our “metacognition.”

Dan Russel, Google’s Űber Tech Lead for Search Quality and User Happiness at Google (yes, that’s his official title, but he describes himself as a “cyber-tribal-techno-cognitive-anthropologist”) uses, naturally enough, various Google services and apps as models of tools that may be applied in service of metacognition. Google Search and Google Maps have become ubiquitous, but there are other information weapons in Google’s arsenal. One often overlooked example is the metadata embedded in photographs. Among other parameters metadata can indicate date, time, and location (longitude and latitude) of origin; this data can, in turn, be analyzed to determine the authenticity of a photo, obviously a useful tool at a time when deliberate misinformation constitutes a significant portion of social media posts. Many Google users may also be unaware that Google maintains a Public Data archive, containing a wide array of charts, diagrams, statistics, scientific studies, and other information.

These resources and many (many) others available via Web or app can help the user to develop “informacy,” which Russell considers the updated version of literacy. At its most basic, informacy means a) knowing what the information is, b) knowing where to find it, c) knowing how to verify it, d) knowing how to interact with it, and e) knowing how to apply and/or share it. With expanded and virtual reality technologies developing rapidly, informacy and the skills it requires will become absolutely essential.

Watch Learning in the Age of Google – The Library Channel

Bearing Witness


“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
― Elie Wiesel

Following Eva Clarke’s presentation, you may be forgiven for thinking the title “Against All Odds: Born In Mauthausen” is an understatement. Clarke was one of only three children (the “miracle babies”) born into captivity in the notorious KZ Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. As she relates it, the camp had run out of Zyklon shortly before her birth, or her mother surely would have died in the gas chamber. Nine days after her birth World War Two ended and the camp was liberated. Eva and her mother, Anka Bergman, were the only survivors of their extended family, other relatives having died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1948 they emigrated to the UK and settled in Cardiff, Wales. Anka lived into her nineties, old enough to know three great-grandchildren.

Since her age at the time precluded first-hand memories of the Holocaust, Clarke focuses instead on her family’s history in the years just prior to the war. She describes in detail the incremental process by which the Nazis disenfranchised, segregated, dehumanized, and ultimately exterminated Jews in Czechoslovakia, her mother’s homeland. Dozens of laws were enacted to marginalize Jews, each more draconian than the last, until finally they were categorized as “undesirables” and shipped en masse to one of over 40,000 camps and ghettoes established throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Clarke describes the rationalizations used by both their neighbors and by the affected Jews, including some of her relatives, to reassure themselves that “this isn’t so bad” and “it won’t get worse than this.” Sadly, they were wrong. As Clarke’s narrative attests, conditions in the camps – overcrowding, disease, starvation, arbitrary brutality, and profound despair – made them one of the most hostile man-made environments on the planet, and especially so for an 80-lb. pregnant woman. In this regard the “miracle” mentioned earlier is not so much that both Eva and Anka lived, but that anyone survived at all.

Eva Clarke cites four reasons for wanting to tell this story. The first is commemoration, to honor the memories of those millions who did not survive the Final Solution. The second is a desire to relate her family’s story, one that is unique but nevertheless representative of many others. The third is to enable her listeners to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. The final reason is to counteract any and all forms of racism and prejudice, a daunting task in view of the many genocides since World War Two – Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Myanmar, South Sudan, to name but a few – but one we must undertake if the Holocaust’s lessons are to have any broader meaning in the modern world.

Watch Against All Odds: Born in Mauthausen with Eva Clarke — Holocaust Living History Workshop — The Library Channel.

Celebrating Paper Theater

Paper theater (also called toy theater) is a form of miniature theater dating back to the early Victorian era. Paper theaters were often printed on posters and sold as kits at playhouses, opera houses, and vaudeville theaters, and proved to be an effective marketing tool. The kits were assembled at home and the plays performed for family members and guests, sometimes with live musical accompaniment and sound effects.

At the height of its popularity over 300 European theaters were selling kits, but paper theater saw a drastic decline in popularity in the late 19th century as realism began to dominate the dramatic arts, and again with the arrival of television. Thankfully, paper theater survived near-extinction and has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years among puppeteers, writers, hobbyists, designers, educators, and filmmakers. Several publishers now offer replicas of famous paper theater kits as well as new models, and there are numerous international paper theater festivals throughout the Americas and Europe.

One such festival is presented yearly at the UC San Diego Library under the direction of staffer and “paper devotee” Scott Paulson. The Library’s Paper Theater Festival (billed as “The Smallest Show on Earth”) features examples of the form from Paulson’s personal collection, as well as performances of student-authored plays. The exhibition runs the gamut of paper theater history and formats, including posters, pop-ups, postcards, and souvenir books. Paulson attributes his interest in the medium to seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s autobiographical film “Tea with Mussolini,” which prominently features a paper theater performance. Others are drawn by paper theater’s tactile nature and by its value as an interactive educational toy, one that serves to stimulate a child’s creativity. A number of well-known figures were introduced to art by paper theater or have worked with the form, including Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Winston Churchill, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Ingmar Bergman, Terry Gilliam, Pablo Picasso, and Orson Welles, to name just a few.

Like these luminaries Paulson appreciates paper theater both as a fascinating link to theater history and as an art form in its own right, one that celebrates craftsmanship and beauty on an intimate scale. He inaugurated the annual Festival in order to share his enthusiasm and to encourage others – children especially – to step away from our technocratic age for a time and let their imaginations take the lead.

Watch Celebrating Paper Theater.

Losing the Nobel Prize

When Alfred Nobel stipulated the creation of the Nobel Prize in 1895, the inventor of dynamite could hardly have guessed that the award – considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious honor – would often come at the expense of the very careers and the disciplines Nobel sought to promote. Per Nobel’s will the Prize is ostensibly awarded to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” but it has arguably fallen short of that commendable goal on several occasions.

In Losing the Nobel Prize, his provocative and incisive critique of the award, physicist and cosmologist Brian Keating addresses what he calls the Nobel’s “systematic biases,” noting that by its nature the Prize discourages communal efforts among scientists, and during its history has lauded such questionable pursuits as lobotomy and eugenics. Recipients have included Nazis and war criminals, but surprisingly few women. Upon reflection, perhaps not so surprising; Nobel’s will states that:

It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not. [Emphasis added]

Since its inception, only two women have been awarded the physics prize, and none in over fifty years.

Keating is uniquely equipped to offer a perspective on the Nobel Prize. He is the inventor of BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), the most powerful cosmological telescope ever made, and co-leader of the team that conducted the BICEP2 experiments that lead to discovery of “the spark that ignited the Big Bang.” After much drama and debate that discovery was subsequently proven to be a cosmic mirage, but in the interim Keating found himself drawn into the headlong pursuit of the Nobel medal, encountering competitiveness, intrigue, and naked ambition along the way. The lessons Keating learned in losing the Nobel Prize serve as a cautionary tale about abandoning the collaborative spirit in pursuit of a near-unobtainable prize, but also as a prescription for radical, much-needed reform of the world’s most coveted award.

Following his talk Keating chats with David Brin, noted science fiction author and futurist, in a lively conversation about the nature of scientific enquiry, the merit of awarding scientific prizes, the importance of collaboration, the need for transparency, and the urgent need to improve communication between scientists, policy makers, and the general public. Above all, both men stress that those lessons learned by Keating and outlined in his book may ultimately prove to be more valuable than the prize itself.

Watch Losing the Nobel Prize with Brian Keating.