The Viking Facebook

17 July 2014

From The Verge:

An unusual article recently appeared in the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and American Statistical Association.

It featured web-like diagrams of lines connecting nodes, a hallmark of research that analyzes networks. But each node, rather than being a plain dot, was the head of a burly, red-bearded Viking sporting a horned hat, his tresses blowing in the wind.

This whimsical-seeming piece of scholarship went on to describe the social network of more than 1,500 characters in the Icelandic Sagas, epic tales about the colonization of Iceland around a thousand years ago that were first written down a few hundred years after that. It was the work of a pair of statistical physicists, Ralph Kenna of University of Coventry in the UK and his graduate student Pádraig Mac Carron, now at Oxford, who are applying the tools of their trade to works of epic literature, legend, and myth.

For this particular analysis, they painstakingly recorded the relationship of every settler in 18 sagas. The resulting web of interactions helped shed light on theories humanities scholars have been discussing for years, and even picked up on some previously unnoticed patterns.

. . . .

The story of how Kenna and Mac Carron got here begins with the Irish tale of the cattle-raid of Cooley, or the Táin Bó Cúailnge. That yarn tells how the warrior-queen Medb of Connacht rallies an army to steal a fine bull from Ulster, and how youthful Cúchulainn, an Ulster folk hero, stands against her. Complete with a maiden prophet with three pupils in each eye, wild chariot rides, and an enormous cast of characters, it’s a story to grip anyone’s imagination.

It’s a story that Kenna and Mac Carron, who are both Irish, have known since childhood.

. . . .

The Táin, which comes to us in pieces from many different manuscripts, the oldest nearly 1,000 years old, is considered literature rather than historical account. But it might still encode, in a way statistics can reveal, information about the society that produced it. Math might also help classify tales in a new way, quantitatively, in addition to the usual qualitative classifications.

. . . .

Siccing a pattern-finding program on a novel might uncover meaningless patterns, or ones so obvious that a high school freshman could see them. But Tim Tangherlini, a folklorist and professor at UCLA who hosted a 2010 National Endowment for the Humanities meeting on network analysis, sees potential. “There are a lot of latent patterns in this material that you can’t discern overtly. You can do it very well as a trained reader — by developing ways of thinking about the material that let us see latent patterns — but we have a very hard time articulating it.” Algorithms could help make those patterns visible. In the case of social networks, they can reveal which people are the most connected or powerful, as well as how densely connected the network is and the average distance between any two people, qualities that vary depending on the type of group.

For instance, research suggests that real social networks have different properties than fictional ones. The idea of seeing where epics — which are certainly not all fact, but perhaps not all fiction — fell on that spectrum appealed to Kenna.

. . . .

What Kenna and Mac Carron found was that the epics fell between the real networks and the fictional ones. The network in The Iliad is relatively realistic, and Beowulf’s also has realistic aspects, with the exception of the connections to Beowulf himself. That chimed with the idea from the humanities that he, unlike some others in the story, may not have existed. The Táin’s network was more artificial. Interestingly, however, they found that a lot of the Táin’s unreality was concentrated in just a few, grotesquely over-connected characters. When they theorized that some of those characters might actually be amalgams — for instance, that some of the times the queen of Connacht is said to speak to someone, it might be a messenger speaking for her instead — the network began to look more realistic.

. . . .

They had unwittingly stumbled onto patterns that tied into theories humanities scholars had been discussing for years. The sagas are thought to have been written using actual genealogical information, says Tangherlini — in fact, many of the Icelandic sagas are classified as “family sagas,” and they may have been written to cement a family’s glorious past — so it makes sense that their social networks are very realistic.

. . . .

At a broader level, comparing social networks in these old stories to those in more recent fiction may help reveal deeper truths about what literature has meant to people through the ages. “Great literature might have been more representative of society in the past,” says Birkett. “There’s a big difference between a realistic representation of social networks and a realistic representation of life, or the human condition … I don’t think you could write a modern novel that accurately represented social groups [the way the sagas do], because there would be too many characters.” Mac Carron echoes that sentiment. “Njal’s Saga has something like an average of four new characters every page,” he says. “Whereas in modern fiction, I think they do try to make sure you can keep track of everyone, with the exception of maybe Game of Thrones.” Even in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings — which Mac Carron and Kenna analyzed to compare with the sagas — the networks are nowhere near as vast. That density of characters, and the realism of their networks, suggest a different purpose for literature than might be the case now — the creation of portraits of societies, rather than portraits of individuals.

Link to the rest at The Verge

President Snow

15 July 2014

The Big SFWA Indie Flap

8 July 2014

From author Jerry Pournelle:

The big flap started last Thursday with a letter to all Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) members from SFWA President Stephen Gould.

. . . .

The story was told that this was a deliberate insult by SFWA aimed at independently published writers, and worse, it comes in the midst of a long and drawn out debate within SFWA over whether to admit as ‘professional writers’ those whose only credentials are self-published worked. One of the people who brought up the issue of admitting self-published writers to SFWA was me, and the case I used as illustration was Dr. Jennifer Pournelle, my daughter, whose book Outies, a book written (with permission) in the universe of The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle has been a top selling science fiction book for decades, and remains popular (and very readable I would say, but then I would, wouldn’t I?). When Jenny wrote the book she solicited offers from publishers and received several, all with generous (for first novels) advances, but terms that gave the publishers the lion’s share of eBook rights so long as the book was “in print”; and since electronic books never go out of print, that means the life of the copyright. She did some calculations based in part on Mote sales, and some expectation the author’s name would attract some attention and sales, and decided to self-publish the work, again with our permission. The bottom line is that the book earned more in a year than the advance offered by the publisher, and she still owns all the eBook rights; and it’s still selling, as indeed it ought to since it’s a pretty good read. Not as good as Mote, say I, but then I’d say that, wouldn’t it?

I pointed out that this ought to qualify as a valid credential for joining the Science Fiction Writers of America. She was offered publication by a major publisher, and has earned more in self-publication than she was offered, and she retains all her rights in the book, and surely that’s professional? And since she has been the publications manager for a major California university, she’d be a pretty darned valuable member. My point was that if SFWA is the organization of those who write and publish science fiction in America, she blooming well qualified, and so did a number of other writers out there.

SFWA has dithered over this for two years.

Link to the rest at The View from Chaos Manor

SFWA Doubling Down

7 July 2014

PG didn’t realize he was on an email list for SFWA, but he just received the following with the email subject, “SFWA doubling down”:

SFWA’s support of Douglas Preston’s open letter reflects our concern about Amazon’s tactics in their dispute with Hachette and the way those tactics are impacting writers and their careers. We are, unfortunately, aware that this is not the first time Amazon has used negotiating tactics that have injured writers. To be clear, we are doing this in support of writers (members and otherwise) not, as some have suggested, to support Hachette Book Group and “Big” publishing over self-published and small press authors.

SFWA is a _writers_ organization and we have fought against practices that harm writers, no matter what the source, including “Big” publishing, scam agents, vanity presses, etc. If we are unwilling to weigh in on behalf of traditionally-published authors in disputes with online distributors like Amazon, Nook, and Kobo, what chance do we have of supporting other writers in the same arena?

Even as we are signing on to Mr. Preston’s letter, we have not called for boycotts of Amazon, we have not called for members to stop publishing with Amazon, and we have left our Amazon links up on the SFWA website. We recognize that suppliers and distributors negotiate the terms of their relationship but we hope that both parties can conduct this business in ways that do not punish _the very people who provide the products they both sell._ This is not about a conflict between traditional and independent models of publishing and efforts to frame it as such do more to harm than help the lives of _all_ working writers.

Steven Gould
For the Board

Harry Potter Rap

7 July 2014

SFWA endorses Douglas Preston’s open letter without consulting its membership

5 July 2014

From Chris Meadows at TeleRead:

Two “open letters” came out yesterday, one berating Amazon and another praising it. Now it turns out that SFWA has emailed its membership endorsing one of those letters, and it should be pretty easy to guess which one.

Author Don Sakers has posted an essay to his blog complaining that the SFWA has endorsed Douglas Preston’s letter. Sakers, an independent author who makes most of his sales through Amazon, is annoyed that SFWA’s leadership did not make any attempt to consult or discuss the matter with its members before acting, and points out that this comes only a week after SFWA asked its members to comment on a proposal for allowing self-published authors to join.

. . . .

For all that SFWA is being overrun by John Scalzi’s “insect army,” it remains at heart an old-school organization full of hidebound traditionally-published authors who see things in very clear shades of black and white.

Link to the rest at TeleRead

SFWA Policy on Self-Publishing: Comments Welcome

27 June 2014

From Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America:

 The SFWA Board of Directors is asking members to share their opinions of self-publishing over the summer. The Board has asked the members to consider not just whether or not to make it possible for writers to join on the basis of self-published works but also the issues that would have to be addressed, such as confirming income, sales, and other publishing information from self-published writers. 

Link to the rest at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and thanks to M.C.A. Hogarth, who’s on the SWFA self-pub committee, for the tip.

Neuroscience Explains Why This “Game of Thrones” Character Can Only Say One Word

20 June 2014

From Mother Jones:

He might be fictional. But the gigantic Hodor, a character in the blockbuster Game of Thrones series, nonetheless sheds light on something very much in the realm of fact: how our ability to speak emerges from a complex ball of neurons, and how certain brain-damaged patients can lose very specific aspects of that ability.

According to George R.R. Martin, who wrote the epic books that inspired the HBO show, the 7-foot-tall Hodor could only say one word—”Hodor”—and everyone therefore tended to assume that was his name. Here’s one passage about Hodor from the first novel in Martin’s series:

Theon Greyjoy had once commented that Hodor did not know much, but no one could doubt that he knew his name. Old Nan had cackled like a hen when Bran told her that, and confessed that Hodor’s real name was Walder. No one knew where “Hodor” had come from, she said, but when he started saying it, they started calling him by it. It was the only word he had.

. . . .

So what might be going on in Hodor’s brain?

Hodor’s combination of impoverished speech production with relatively normal comprehension is a classic, albeit particularly severe, presentation of expressive aphasia, a neurological condition usually caused by a localized stroke in the front of the brain, on the left side. Some patients, however, have damage to that part of the brain from other causes, such as a tumor, or a blow to the head.

. . . .

[H]is symptoms are consistent with this type of disorder, also dubbed Broca’s aphasia after a 19th-century French physician named Paul Broca. Broca described a patient who had a lesion in the left frontal part of his brain and who could only say one word: “Tan.” And just like Hodor, Broca’s patient came to be known as “Tan”—the single word that he could utter voluntarily—even though it wasn’t his actual name.

Link to the rest at Mother Jones

‘Game of Thrones’, using the magic of geometry

18 June 2014

From The Washington Post:

The fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones is a done deal, meaning it’ll be another 10 months before we find out what happens next with Arya, Tyrion and the rest of the gang. Over at 538, Walt Hickey has been looking into the burning question of whether the show will run out of material before the next book comes out.

. . . .

Martin has a reputation for being slow and meticulous. He has expressed some anxiety about the show catching up with him: “I am aware of the TV series moving along behind me like a giant locomotive,” he said in an HBO interview, “and I know I need to lay the track more quickly, perhaps, because the locomotive is soon going to be bearing down on me.”

But as it turns out, Martin’s reputation for slow trackwork is a bit undeserved. Yes, there have been large waits between the release of book in the series – five years between A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows, and another six years for A Dance with Dragons. J.K. Rowling finished all seven books of the Harry Potter series in the time it took Martin to write four books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Stephanie Meyer completed all four books of her sparkle-vampire saga in less than the time it took Martin to write A Dance with Dragons.

But these comparisons overlook one key factor – word count. Martin’s books are huge. A Game of Thrones clocks in 864 pages in the paperback edition, longer than the first four books of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia combined. J.K. Rowling finished the Harry Potter series in about nine years. Martin only got through four books in the same period, but his overall page count is roughly the same – 4,380 paperback pages for Potter, 4,224 for Ice and Fire through that point.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

No Extroverts on Mars, Please

15 June 2014

From i09:

A NASA-funded study has found that there might be serious drawbacks to having a bunch of extroverts on a long space missions. Finally, a win for the introverts.

DePaul University professor Suzanne Bell and her researchers reviewed the research on teams in situations that are close to what an astronaut team might find on a mission to Mars, including the over-100-day simulated missions and isolated teams in Antarctica. Bell said that usually extroverts are good on teams because their tendency to speak up and engage with others makes planning easier. She added that because extroverts are outgoing, they know more about their teammates — their strengths and weaknesses. That helps team coordination.

However, the unique properties of long-haul, confined missions add new elements to that usual dynamic. As Rachel Rettner of Live Science reports:

“You’re talking about a very tiny vehicle, where people are in very isolated, very confined spaces,” said [Bell]. “Extroverts have a little bit of a tough time in that situation.”

If one person on a crew always wants to talk, while the other members are less social, “it could actually get pretty annoying,” in that environment Bell said.

Link to the rest at io9

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