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[Comments] (3) @CrowdBoardGames: A year ago today I announced the publication of Constellation Games. The serialization finished yesterday, so now's a good time to take a little break and tease the big projects I'm working on now. But before I do that, I want to introduce you to a technology spin-off from Month of Kickstarter 2012, the other thing that finished yesterday.

Here's @CrowdBoardGames, a Twitter bot that posts a link to every Kickstarter project that shows up in the "Board / Card Games" category. Yes, it's the very specific thing I mourned the lack of a month ago. I'm not really attached to this project—in fact I hope Kicktraq starts doing something similar for all the different categories so everyone can use that instead—but it scratches my personal itch. If you just want to know about every new board game on Kickstarter, now you can. And check out Eternity Dice: Forged From Lava. It's ridiculous/cool.

So, time for the tease. I mentioned in a CG commentary that my genre-savvy space opera "Four Kinds of Cargo" will be appearing later this year in Strange Horizons. I also mentioned that I'm working on a second novel, but I didn't mention that the novel is a direct sequel to "Four Kinds of Cargo". I'm still very early in the first draft, and of course there's no guarantee I'll ever sell it, but I think it's going pretty well.

My goal is to tell the same kind of crazy, epic story found in Constellation Games, but to use a more traditional style (third person limited, multiple narrator), so people don't open the book and see printouts of email messages and say "what the hell is this?" in a Jeffrey Tambor kind of voice. I'm also trying to spread out the action more evenly, so that you're having adventures in space right from the start.

I'm also working on a second book, a nonfiction book, and although I think it's just about sold, there's no contract yet, so I'm not going to divulge any details. Look, I said this was a tease, okay? What do you want, a hashtag? #tease

Zombies of Kickstarter: Many Month of Kickstarter projects are still going on, but since July is over I can present some interesting statistics about the projects that were started during MoK. Today I'll share the most basic graphs and take a look at the zombie invasion of Kickstarter.

My dataset includes 3758 projects for July. The first thing I need to say is that that is not every project that went live during July. I missed at least 50 projects, probably more. I'll explain how this happened in a minute, but first take a look at this graph, which shows how many Kickstarter projects launched on each day of July:

As I noticed while doing MoK, we see big numbers in the middle of the week, big downswings coming into weekends and the Independence Day holiday. This fits with what the Kickstarter FAQ says:

Once your project is submitted to us for a guidelines review, it will take us a day or two to get back to you (longer over the weekends).

But, I have a question for people who have started Kickstarter projects: once the project is approved, do you flip the switch to put it live? Or does it go live as soon as it's approved? I can't find the answer in the FAQ, and the answer greatly affects how I should read these graphs.

Anyway, let's zoom in and look at the data on an hourly time scale:

There's a noticeable low-pass filter cutting in at fifteen projects per hour. That's how I discovered I was missing projects. See, my script samples the "new projects" page four times an hour, and that page lists fifteen projects. If more than fifteen projects are approved/go live in a fifteen-minute period, I'll miss some of those projects. I originally thought this wouldn't be a big deal, but it seems to be a medium-sized deal.

(For this reason, @CrowdBoardGames isn't guaranteed to list every single board game project. A spot check against Kicktraq's board games page didn't show any discrepancies, but maybe Kicktraq has the same problem, I dunno.)

So, I don't have all the projects, but I do have a representative sample. On the left, you'll see the category makeup of all Kickstarter projects, according to Kickstarter's stats page. On the right you'll see the category makeup of the projects I gathered during July. They're nearly identical.

All-time category makeup MoK 2012 category makeup

There's a little less film in my sample, a little more fashion and comics and games. This might be random variation, seasonal variation, or a change in how Kickstarter is used over time.

Here's the graph of when Kickstarter projects go live. The X axis is the hour of the day, Eastern time. I think this is just a measurement of when the people who review the projects are at work, but who knows. I think that local maximum at 4 AM is interesting.

Now I'm ready to tackle the first real issue: zombie projects. There are so many zombie-themed projects on Kickstarter it makes me sick with a zombification virus. How many zombie projects in the MoK dataset? I'm glad you asked: there are forty-six. 1.2% of all Kickstarter projects are projects about zombies.

Here's the projects-by-day graph for projects that mention "zombie" in their title or description:

(This does not include Bootleggers -Prohibition Era Board Game (sorry no Zombies!), since that project launched in June.)

1.2% may not seem like a lot, but it means you could do a Month of Kickstarter project and back only zombie-themed projects every day. But no, 1.2% isn't actually a lot. Why does it feel like more?

Forty-six projects is a lot by comparison with other nerd button-pushes. July saw only twelve vampire-themed projects, four pirate-themed projects, and ten that mentioned some kind of "alien". There were only fourteen "robot" projects, and three of those were actual robots. I made fun of all the Slender Man projects in July, but there were only four of those.

The category breakdown for the zombie projects has another answer:

The zombies are disproportionately concentrated in the categories I most pay attention to: books (8 projects), movies (20), and games (8). Music, a huge category I basically ignore because it takes too long to judge the projects, was threatened by only a single hip-hop zombie.

Once July's projects complete I'll be going back through the data and seeing if zombie-themed projects raise more money than comparable non-zombie projects. In the meantime, do you have any similar pet peeves? Let me know. I can determine how prevalent they really are.

Constellation Games Bonus Commentary #1: "The Time Somn Died": Surprise! Last week's plan was to post the bonus commentaries in the order in which I wrote the stories, starting with "Dana no Chousen". But a while back, when I gave Kate a suggested reading order to send y'all, I suggested chronological order, which is the opposite of that order.

As Kate will attest, this is not the first time I've said one thing about the bonus stories and proceeded to do the exact opposite thing. To nip confusion in the bud, I've swapped "Dana" and "Somn" in the commentary list and we'll proceed.

In another shocking twist, I hereby announce that two of these bonus commentaries will feature brand-new art! Brendan Adkins, William F. Buckley-esque thorn in my side, will be drawing something for "Dana no Chousen". I can only hope Dana's boobs will be tastefully covered with a gun or something.

But today, I offer pencil art of Her's glider form and aquatic form, drawn by pop painter Beth Lerman, inspired by Ernst Haeckel's zoological illustrations and my own crappy sketches. Unfortunately, because I switched "Dana" and "Somn" in the commentary list, I asked Beth for her art on very short notice and she didn't have time to draw Her's vacuum form. Beth still plans to draw all three forms present in "The Time Somn Died", and I'll let you know when I get the finished drawing.

On Thursday I'll reuse Jenny's Twitter profile image (also drawn by Beth) for "Found Objects". I don't have anything planned for "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans"; maybe I'll draw some stick figures and blame them on Tetsuo. What I'm hinting at is, someone who can draw could get their art into this commentary series pretty easily. HINT.

One final note. Did you order bonus stories and never got them? Check the email that contains your compiled Constellation Games ebook. You never got that email? Then we got a problem; let me know. Let's begin:

"The Time Somn Died" is the story you got if you bought the cheap but not-too-cheap package. I decided to send you this one because I think it's the best of the three. This is a prequel to Constellation Games, the story of how Somn railroads herself into making the biggest mistake of her life. It's the missing left parenthesis to her letter to Tetsuo at the end of Constellation Games, in which she's coming to grips with the idea that she may not have made a mistake at all. She may have done the right thing for completely the wrong reason.

This story took a lot of inspiration from Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, which periodically show slices of life from a mannered post-scarcity civilization, slices of life which I find immensely dull. Reading those passages of Banks I truly understand what Douglas Adams meant by the long dark tea-time of the soul. I wanted to capture that uncomfortable feeling, to use it as setting, without actually instilling it in the reader.

This is tricky stuff. I knew I was playing with fire. But there was no other material to play with. I needed to convey that Somn has a tough time adapting to the contact mission because she's not a misfit. Unlike Tetsuo and Curic, she was perfectly at home in the Constellation. What gets Somn is a hidden nugget of greed that's never had a chance to come out: her desire to have a scarce experience, to be the first one to see something. She's pushed through the contact port by that little bit of greed and her family's pride in her smarts and her own damnfool stubbornness.

Tetsuo's version of this story would be like Ariel's story: the ennui would build up to a "screw you guys, I'm leaving" scene. Curic's story would be like Tammy's story: no time for ennui, just a lifetime of probably-pointless training that turns out not to be pointless after all. To make "Somn" anything other than a repeat of a story you've already seen, I had to show Somn soaking in the ennui but not consciously aware of it. And I couldn't have the in-story ennui instill real ennui in the reader.

The solution to both problems is pissy family drama.

"Somn" is nothing but a series of family arguments. Great thing too, because as I mentioned earlier, arguments are the best way to do exposition. I needed to show how the other-room works and how Slow People and fleshy people interact, so I wrote Somn's mothers reinstating Dad-Tessererre over Somn's objections. When Tessererre is reinstated, his character is immediately defined by his kvetching about the guys his wife and daughter hooked up with after he uploaded. I needed a lot of exposition from Her, the only character who understands what's going on, but infodumps are boring, so I wrote the bitchy antagonism between Her and the passive-aggressive Constellation Library.

I think it works great. I'm really proud of this story. For a work of short fiction I think it packs an immense emotional punch. Her's "tired of begging for mercy" speech gets me every time.

Before the miscellaneous commentary, I want to discuss the exciting issue of the units of measurement I made up for this story. I've never seen a clearer example of the tension between building a realistic alien world and evoking certain emotional responses in the human reader's mind. When I was just starting to write SF, I would have loved to see a detailed walkthrough of this sort of decision process. So here it is, in a special section I like to call "the time, the distance, and the mass":

I knew right off that using human units of measurement was out. There are no humans in this story. No one in the story even knows that humans exist. But in several places I needed to convey rough measurements, especially time scales, to human readers. I didn't want to make up fake names for the units, for the same reason I didn't want to spend Constellation Games calling the Aliens and Farang "kej" and "metrase". Every term you make up for a story takes up space in the reader's mind and makes it harder to read the story. So I presented all the measurements in the stories as estimates, as unitless powers of two.

My original concept was that the unnamed Constellation units were based on the Planck units. For mass, this worked out fine. One kilogram is about 225 Planck masses, so the 231 mass mentioned in the first paragraph is about 64 kilograms. That fits the story. 231 sounds like a lot, but not an astronomical number. It's about a gigabyte of mass. And that's the only measurement of mass in the story, so I went with the Planck unit for mass.

But if I define 20 to be the Planck time, then one second is about 2116. That's a huge number! It's way outside your experience and mine. To human brains, 2116 doesn't look much smaller than 2137. But that's the difference between a second and a year.

Problem #2: I wanted to use a negative exponent for the scene where Somn imagines Dad-Tessererre speeding up his consciousness faster and faster. This conveys the idea that post-upload Tessererre inhabits a completely different cognitive universe from pre-upload Tessererre. But if 20 is the Planck time, negative exponents are impossible. Instead of going from 20 to 2-8, you're going from 2116 to 2108, which doesn't seem like a big difference at all.

For a phrase like "the minds below 20" to make sense, 20 has to be concomitant with the speed at which Somn's brain (and yours) works. So I defined 20 time as about a quarter of a second.

Now, if I wanted to be consistent I'd define 20 distance to be either the Planck distance (so that one meter would be about 2155), or the distance light travels in 20 time (so that one meter would be about 2-16). Neither of those is a good reader-scale number. The only distance measurement in the story is the diameter of the contact port, and as with the mass measurement in the first paragraph, the only thing that number needs to convey is "that sounds pretty big."

2155 is way too big and way too precise. Somn wouldn't estimate any measurement that precisely, even though 2154 is half the size of 2155. And 2-16 doesn't seem very big at all. So again, I calibrated the distance measurement according to a natural scale for someone as big as Somn. 20 is about a quarter of a meter, giving the contact port a diameter of about 32 meters.

Of course, now I'm stuck with these units for any future Constellation stuff. But since I set the time and distance units to Somn-scale for story reasons, it should work out fine if I need to use them again for story reasons.

On Twitter last week Emile Snyder suggested using made-up abbreviations instead of leaving the numbers totally unitless, which would also have worked.

PS: If you go through my math above you'll probably find some conversion errors, and if you tell me about the errors I'll fix them, but I don't care all that much, since my point is that the numbers in the story are Somn's rough eyeball (eyespot?) estimates.

Don't get used to this much bonus commentary; this is the longest one by far. But be sure to come back on Thursday for the comparatively minuscule commentary on "Found Objects", when Jenny will say, "Ariel's not the most reliable."

The drawings of Them organisms are by Beth Lerman. Other image credits: Wikimedia Commons user Miya, National Bureau of Standards, Makuahine Pa'i Ki'i, The Planetary Habitability Laboratory.

← Last week | "Found Objects" →

[Comments] (12) Constellation Games Open Thread: Now that the serialization is done, I think it's time to bring back the open thread, a place to talk and ask questions about the novel as a whole. This is also a good time to mention that Constellation Games is now available for $5 on Nook and Kindle. Finally, you can indulge your love of DRM!

What? You don't love DRM? Boy, is my face red. Fortunately, now that the serialization is complete, you can also now buy a $5 unencumbered PDF at the publisher's website. Or buy the trade paperback from the publisher, and get the PDF for free.

You can't buy the bonus stories right now! They've gone into a Disney-like "vault" of artificial scarcity, as a way of increasing the social standing of those forward-thinking individuals who bought the bonuses as part of the serialization. They'll shuffle blinking out of the "vault" at the end of November. At that point you'll be able to buy the bonuses from Candlemark & Gleam, either on their own or along with the novel. And only then will the stuff I'm saying over the next couple weeks make sense.

That's the business stuff; now I want to toss out a topic to get the open thread started. There's a weird plot hole in the novel that I don't think anyone else has noticed. Way back in chapter 2, Jenny and Ariel are picnicking in the hills on the way to the landing site. They encounter a hippie who's been to the landing site and who's now heading back to Austin. He talks like he just decided to go check out the landing site. How the hell did he get there so quickly? He's on foot, and the site's fifteen miles out of town. Did he just happen to be taking an early morning stroll in the country? That's a really big coincidence.

This little discrepancy has nagged me for a while and I've got a variety of solutions. Some of them are boring, some are way too interesting. Want to give it a try? Leave a comment.

Constellation Games Bonus Commentary #2: "Found Objects": Of the three bonus stories, "Found Objects" is the one with the lowest stakes. This is a direct consequence of the fact that I wrote a story set during the novel, while the novel was being typeset. There's only so much I could change. I actually like this strategy because it fits with Jenny's risk-averse nature, but it did constrain the story pretty tightly.

If I'd thought of it earlier, I could have told the story you saw in Tetsuo's Twitter feed after Ariel left Earth. The story of Jenny and Tetsuo picking a fight with the Hierarchy Interface overlay by starting the EVERYTHING IN AUSTIN tour company. That story also takes place during Constellation Games, but involves characters that are almost entirely offscreen at the time. Whereas "Found Objects" has to weave between scenes dramatized in the novel.

The main goal of this story, the story I actually wrote, is to portray Jenny as significantly different from the way Ariel portrays her in the novel. Not just "careful meticulous Jenny", but kinda ruthless in ways her friends find scary. In Constellation Games Ariel is pretty unsparing about his own flaws, but generally careful to present the "beautiful practical Jenny" for posterity. But this does her a disservice. By excising Jenny's talent for creative obscenity, Ariel makes her a less interesting character and obscures their bizarre chemistry. And his attempt to "protect" Jenny from Bai's business offer is just a dick move.

The "ruthless" stuff is me retconning Jenny into a more interesting character, but I'd always imagined that she and Bizarro Kate were super raunchy when they were together, and there's no reason why she would tone that down around Ariel. So Ariel must be changing the story. In Constellation Games Jenny and Ariel tease and provoke each other in almost every scene they share, but Ariel files the edges off in narration. (Brendan has done a good job of pointing this out, but after you read "Found Objects" you might like to reread the first part of chapter 14.) Jenny gives it to you straight.

A few misc. comments:

We're halfway through the bonus material! Be sure to tune in next Tuesday for the rescheduled commentary on "Dana no Chousen", when Dana will finally get her chance to say, "Americans cost extra."

"Protector of Earth" blueprint by Beth Lerman. Other image credit: Unknown 19th-centry land company.

← "The Time Somn Died" | "Dana no Chousen"

Loaded Dice 2012 Update: Here it is, folks. I re-downloaded the BoardGameGeek dataset and crunched some numbers to determine what happened between July 2011 and now. Highlights:

I'm planning another entry in the Loaded Dice saga, one involving geeklists, but that's not going to be done for a while.

Constellation Games Bonus Commentary #3: "Dana no Chousen": It's Tuesday, time to turn over a rock and uncover "Dana no Chousen", the most violent story I've ever written. My very first concept for bonus material was an excerpt from a sleazy, bloody Dana Light tie-in novel, illustrating the source material from which the Dana we see in chapter 35 took her personality. But I can't really do a long-form pastiche of a totally foreign style (that would be Kris). I don't even enjoy reading such pastiches (sorry, Kris).

And I'm less interested in Dana's source material than in Dana herself. There are a lot of unanswered questions and just plain plot holes in Constellation Games, but the only ones that still bother me have to do with Dana. As Brendan points out, Dana gets a really raw deal in the book—not just from humanity but from the Constellation. Why did Curic agree to uplift Dana in the first place? It seems like asking for trouble. Why did Smoke agree to send one of its subminds to be a human's girlfriend? And why does Dana never come out of the sandbox at the end of chapter 35?

I tried out a number of explanations: 1) Hypotheses about the behavior of fictional alien anarchists cannot be tested. 2) Back before the Greenland Treaty was a sure thing, Dana 2.0 looked like a good opportunity to land a spy on Earth. I did not like these explanations. The explanation I used for background in "Dana no Chousen" is that Dana is caught between different conceptions of identity.

Daniel Dennett's multiple-drafts theory of consciousness suggests that human minds, like Dana's and Curic's and Smoke's, are made up of subminds. Human psychology makes the simplifying assumption that the subminds add up to a single "person". But Curic and Smoke accept persons as the emergent properties of other, smaller persons.

To Ariel, splitting Dana out of Smoke feels like creating a new person. But as far as Smoke and Curic are concerned, that person already existed within Smoke. When Curic looks back on this, she's going to think her big screwup was trusting the human socialization of Smoke-Dana to a couple of videogame-obsessed flakes like Bai and Ariel.

(This is hard to square with Curic's guilt-trip of Ariel in chapter 9, the first time he asks for an Edink-English translator. I wrote that section very early, and I should have come back and revised it after adding Smoke to the story. But I think the problem is a lot smaller if you read Curic as suggesting the creation of a brand new AI for purposes of the guilt trip. Sometimes when we don't want to be bothered we exaggerate how much work it really would be to do something.)

A person can function even if some of its subminds are unhappy or psychotic. Sometimes an unhappy or psychotic submind can even help the larger mind get something done or come up with new ideas. But an unhappy submind of Smoke might be as big as a human, or bigger. Should you worry about that?

Curic doesn't worry because she doesn't believe Smoke-Dana is all that big. Smoke will worry if it feels a problem, but Smoke is the size of a society. It doesn't have the computing power to police the happiness of its entire tree. But Ariel, uh, knows Dana. And Ariel can't let this go. A person went in there and didn't come out.

So Ariel puts on his pith helmet and goes into Smoke with his human outlook and his human standards of morality, and it turns out there's a problem with the sandbox. Dana found a way to game the system without her supermind finding out. Ariel goes in and rescues Dana from her own cruelty and Smoke's complicity. A happy ending! By human standards.

We're almost done! Come back in two days for the Leonard/Adam joint commentary on "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans," when Tetsuo will say, "Hot damn, it's business!"

"Dana no Chousen" banner by Brendan Adkins. Savannah photo by Scott Oves.

← "Found Objects" | "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans" →

[Comments] (2) Constellation Games Bonus Commentary #4: "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans": We're going out in style. This final commentary is a collaboration with Adam Parrish, anointed successor to Marc Okrand, and we've both got a lot to say about Dr. Tetsuo Milk's first popular work, "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans". My commentary, directly below, focuses on the Ip Shkoy themselves and how Tetsuo's pamphlet fits with his character arc. Adam's commentary focuses on the Pey Shkoy language, how he designed it, and how it works from a linguistic perspective.

My writing group met on Monday evening; we had dinner afterwards, and the topic of the Constellation Games bonus material came up. The relationship between the bonus stories and the writing group is a little weird. The point of the writing group is to make stories saleable, and the bonus material was pre-sold, so after getting some good advice for "Dana no Chousen" and a "looks fine" for "Found Objects" I didn't even workshop "The Time Somn Died" or "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans".

And when talking with the group over dinner I got an impression I've also gotten elsewhere, that people don't really know what to do with "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans". That it's a worldbuilding document thrown in for completionists, like the Star Trek Technical Manual. I feel like I'm starting this commentary from a position of weakness, needing to justify the existence of "Humans" in the first place.

Looking through "Humans" now I think I repeated the mistake I made in the first draft of Constellation Games. I focused too much on creating a realistic in-world artifact, and not enough on the sleight-of-hand necessary to make a constructed narrative look like an in-world artifact. I even did this deliberately, because I had a fixed idea that all the "bonus stories" would be from the POV of the novel's women characters.

Unlike Ariel's boring first-draft blog, though, "Humans" is at least fun to read on its own. And although it doesn't tell a story, it comes from a story I could have told: the story of why Tetsuo left his wife and children on the space station to come to Earth.

Tetsuo really loves the Ip Shkoy. His love is not returned—if he lived in Ip Shkoy times they'd treat him as a second-class citizen—but we can't always choose our obsessions. Tetsuo didn't fit in at home, so he joined the contact mission the way an aimless American might join the Peace Corps, hoping to "do" some unspecified "good".

In terms of finding "good" to "do", Tetsuo hit the jackpot. Not only is his the very rare contact mission that finds a live civilization, but the new species they discover is physiologically similar to his own. They can pronounce the same sounds and operate the same computers. (As Adam points out below, the whole narrative of Constellation Games is based on this anthropic coincidence.) Even better, Tetsuo's one of a handful of experts on the Ip Shkoy, a culture that looks to be kinda translatable to the dominant culture on this planet.

Except this culture is doomed, just like the Ip Shkoy were doomed, just like all cultures based on the manipulation of scarcity are doomed. After leaving home Tetsuo met Somn, the first woman he's ever wanted to have children with, but while that was happening he saw the first wave of contact experts come to Earth and point out "hey, you guys are kinda doomed," and that didn't seem to help at all.

So Tetsuo leaves, again. He goes to Earth and makes a plea on behalf of the Ip Shkoy, the same plea Ariel makes to the future on behalf of humanity: play our games and read our stories. Humanity doesn't need lectures from the Constellation, any more than an alcoholic needs a temperance sermon. Humanity needs a sponsor: strength from someone else trying to beat the rap. And that's why Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans. Tetsuo's writing a work of science nonfiction, using space aliens to hold up a mirror to human culture.


Ever since Kate first raised the idea of bonus material, I wanted to collaborate with Adam on something. Since Adam and I have both written interactive fiction, my original idea was a project Adam called "the textuo adventure": an educational game written by Tetsuo to teach you, the visitor from Ring City, how to get through US Customs and Immigration without causing a diplomatic incident. I would write the prose and Adam would do the programming.

This didn't happen because the worldbuilding problems from "The Time Somn Died" come back and they're five times worse. Although "Somn" is written from a Constellation POV, there's no infrafictional audience, and the actual intended audience (you folks) is human. In the textuo adventure, the infrafictional audience would be Constellation, meaning that you, the actual audience, would be put into ET shoe-equivalents.

The main idea I had for conveying this feeling was to implement NPCs not only for the people present in the room with you, but for the organizations and overlays they belong to. So if a BEA agent was in the room, the BEA itself would also be in the room, and you could talk to the BEA through its human agent. This idea was inspired by Curic's "K'chua!" interaction with the customs official, and I like it a lot, but it would mean creating tons of NPCs for a supposedly simple game with only three or four characters.

While I agonized over this we did the cover design, and I asked Adam to come up with some Pey Shkoy characters for the fictional computer. That's when I remembered that if there's one thing Adam loves more than programming interactive fiction, it's making up fake languages. So I replaced the IF project with something simpler (for me): I asked Adam to turn the fragments of Pey Shkoy found in the novel into a coherent language. I gave him permission to add any weird features he wanted to the language, and I specifically asked him to do things with Pey Shkoy that are not done in any human language.

Adam delivered! But I'll let him explain exactly what he delivered, after I go through "Humans" and write a couple miscellaneous comments:

A final note from me: if you have the Constellation Games trade paperback, you'll see some Chospe writing on the back cover, near the UPC code. This isn't Pey Shkoy; it's transliterated English. If you transliterate the text according to the rules laid out in "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans", you'll get a silly joke. I will eventually post the transliteration in an update, but give it a try on your own.

Now, I'll hand over the mic to Adam Parrish, who will commentate the process of turning the individual Pey Shkoy words in the novel into a coherent, maximally weird language.


Hi, I'm Adam. I'm a computer programmer, sci-fi fan and amateur (con-)linguist. Leonard approached me a little over a year ago to help him create a few phrases in Pey Shkoy. I had already read a draft of the novel by then, and I adored it—so of course I agreed. Who could turn down the opportunity to put words into the mouth of a character like Tetsuo Milk? Eventually, Leonard decided that a few phrases weren't enough, and that he'd like to produce an entire Pey Shkoy guide and phrasebook as a bonus reward for early Constellation Games adopters. My role was to supply the language design; Leonard did the hard work of rephrasing this as Tetsuo-ese. After a few collaborative work sessions and a few months of elbow grease, we were able to put together the document that many of you now have in your possession: Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans.

My goal in this commentary is to show how our collaborative process worked, and to show a few details about the language that didn't make it into the final document.

Adventures in alien physiology

The very first part of the process was to figure out what Pey Shkoy sounds like. Is the Alien vocal tract even vaguely similar to the human vocal tract? The only reference to the way that Alien speech sounds like in the book is when Ariel describes Tetsuo as "twist[ing] some vowels into balloon animals," which is a vivid description but doesn't help much from a linguistic point of view. I ended up having some unusual e-mail conversations with Leonard about Alien physiology, like:

Me: do aliens have lips? a lot of words in the corpus have "p," "v," "f,"
    "b"---which I assume would only be used to describe sounds made by blocking
    the airflow coming from the mouth entirely with something other than the
    tongue. so, by lips I mean: fleshy bits at the front of the mouth that can
    connect to form a seal.

Leonard: Yeah, they got lips.

I spent a good deal of time imagining how Aliens might produce and perceive vowels. I considered a system wherein Aliens (being lizard-like in some respects), have two syringes at the base of their bronchioles that produce tones at different frequencies, the interval between which determining the identity of the vowel. Leonard's response to this idea was "I don't understand any of this, but you're awesome."

I interpreted this lack of enthusiasm as a sign that I might be overthinking things.

Eventually I just decided to go with the flow and accept that Alien languages and human languages are (by some bizarre cosmic coincidence) remarkably similar, owing to the two species' similarities in physiology and cognition. (Arguably, it's this coincidence that makes the novel's story, or at least the strong relationship between Ariel and Tetsuo, even possible. Let's call it the anthropic principle of sci-fi linguistics.) Accepting this fact made designing the rest of the language much easier, since I could rely on tried-and-true human linguistics to do my job.


With this in mind, I was able to make the assumption that the letters used in the transcriptions of Pey Shkoy words found in Constellation Games must represent analogous human language sounds. I tried to come up with the simplest possible phonemic system for Pey Shkoy that could account for everything present in the "corpus"—by which I mean the Pey Shkoy phrases and names that occur in the novel. (If you're wondering why Pey Shkoy doesn't have a bilabial nasal, this is the reason: "m" doesn't occur in any canonical Pey Shkoy words!)

Here's the phonemic system I came up with: Pey Shkoy has five vowels and eighteen consonants. There appears to be a voiced/voiceless distinction with stops and fricatives (p, t, k vs. b, d, g, etc.). Pey Shkoy doesn't have any allophony or morphophonemic processes significant enough to be reflected in orthography. (This is because, intrafictionally, Pey Shkoy is a highly regularized and simplified language used mainly in government documents, education, and commerce, along the lines of Bahasa Indonesia.)

The only really unusual sound in Pey Shkoy is the "dental chafe," represented by the character '. I had originally suggested to Leonard that the language have what human linguists call a "bidental percussive," or the sound of hitting your teeth together. I explained this to Leonard:

Me: the bidental percussive is the sound your mouth makes when you bang your
    teeth together. it's a perfectly valid way of making sound with your mouth,
    but for whatever reason it's not used by any human language. I thought it
    might be a fun addition to pey shkoy for that reason.

Leonard: This is a good idea but it should be modified as Aliens don't have
         teeth. How about a sound for scraping the oral ridges against each

... which was fine with me.


With the questions of physiology and phonology handled, I was ready to design the writing system. The writing system is a syllabary along the lines of katakana, in which every syllabic nucleus has its own symbol and syllabic onsets/codas are indicated with diacritics. The Chospe glyphs you see in the guide are in the "idealized" form you might see in a textbook, or in a typeface designed to ease OCR. The cover of Constellation Games shows what the forms might look like with a bit more typographic imagination.

I had a lot of fun designing the glyphs. The idea was to create something that is plausible as an everyday writing system, but that nevertheless feels a little bit alien and off-kilter. The idea that Chospe letterforms were "burn[ed] into thin sheets of cma" occurred to Leonard after he saw my initial draft of the writing system, and I think it's a pretty cool idea.

Shortly after I finished designing the writing system, Leonard asked me if it had a name, and I suggested "Dr. Nif's Litigation-Free Language Symbols." Leonard tugged on this idea a bit and came up with the (hilarious, and now canonical) idea that the Ip Shkoy used the writing system of a conquered people because no one was willing to pay anyone else's license fees for existing writing systems.


"Register" is the technical term for how language is spoken in specific contexts—for example, "formal" language and "informal" language. Pey Shkoy's register system is unusual in that it only affects the words that speakers use, not the grammar or phonology. In this way, Pey Shkoy's system of gendered registers is more similar to the concept of a mother-in-law language, an elaborate system of taboo words and lexical replacement found most famously in Australian Aboriginal languages like Dyirbal.

My original idea was that Pey Shkoy would have two registers, formal and informal. Leonard liked the idea of registers with distinct lexicons, but suggested that they be based on the more sophisticated gender constraints you see in the final version. This lines up well with the existing facts about Ip Shkoy society. I designed the language in the Dasupey register, and only later came up with translations for the other registers as needed.

(As a side note: "How was your inspection of the sewer system?/It was grate!" is my now my favorite joke ever. Thanks, Tetsuo!)

On prepositions

Tetsuo's explanation of how Pey Shkoy's prepositions work is fine as simplified explanation for the layman, [gee, thanks—LR] but I wanted to go into a bit more detail about the linguistics behind the system. (Experts will forgive me if I get some of the terminology wrong in this section. It's been a long time since undergrad.)

Talking about Pey Shkoy's "prepositions" is a simplified way of getting at the real story, which is that Pey Shkoy doesn't exhibit any systematic relationships, across verbs, between grammatical roles and thematic relations. I've been toying with this idea for a long time, and Pey Shkoy seemed like as good a time as any to try to put it into an actual constructed language.

Relations and roles

So what are thematic relations and grammatical roles? Let's look at the sentence I like cheese. The verb "to like" requires two nouns—the person doing the liking (the experiencer), and the thing that that person likes (the theme). (We might say that "to like" has two semantic "arguments," in the same way that a function in a programming language might have two arguments.) In English, we make the experiencer the grammatical subject of the sentence, and the theme the grammatical object of the sentence: I (subject) like cheese (object). Experiencer and theme are terms for thematic relations; subject and object are the grammatical roles.

Now, not all languages use the same grammatical roles to express these same thematic relations. The Spanish equivalent of the sentence above is Me gusta el queso. When you use the verb gustar, the experiencer is the indirect object of the verb, and the theme is the subject: Me (indirect object) gusta el queso (subject). (Note that even though "queso" follows the verb, it's still grammatically the subject of the sentence---the subject/verb agreement on "gusta" is third person, not first person.)

Usually, languages tend to use the same grammatical role to express verb arguments with similar semantics, across all verbs. For example, in English, agents are usually subjects of verbs, and patients are usually objects (which is why we say I hugged John and I cooked fish, not, e.g., John hugged to me or It cooked me to fish). There's tremendous variation among human languages in how they map thematic relations to grammatical roles. One of the most difficult tasks in learning a language is figuring out the patterns (and exceptions) in these mappings.

If you're feeling particularly Sapir-Whorfian, you might make psychological conclusions about the speakers of a language based on the way that the language maps thematic relations to grammatical roles. Take the two sentences "John despises circus clowns" and "John stabs circus clowns." John's thematic relation to the verbs is very different in these two sentences (an experiencer in the former; an agent in the latter); yet English expresses both relations with the same grammatical role. Does this mean that English speakers are more prone than speakers of other languages to turn their dislikes into violence? That's for the philosophers and pop-sci journalists to determine, I guess.

Lojban and Pey Shkoy compared

Artificial languages take different approaches to the relationship of thematic relation to grammatical role. Lojban, in particular, takes an extreme approach wherein every verb has a number of positional arguments (again, like a function in a programming language), whose meanings you have to learn along with the verb. The Lojban verb tavla (glossed as "talk"), for example, is listed like so in the dictionary:

tavla: x1 talks/speaks to x2 about subject x3 in language x4

The x terms refer to where the corresponding argument is placed in relationship to the verb. The x1 position occurs directly before the verb; the others (x2, x3, etc.) occur after the verb, in order. To illustrate, here's tavla used in a sentence:

Lojban:         mi tavla do la lojban. la gliban.
Word-for-word:  I(x1) talk you(x2) lojban(x3) English(x4)
English:        I talk to you about Lojban in English.

(Here's a better introduction to Lojban positional arguments from this Lojban Textbook on Wikibooks.)

Lojban makes an effort to make the positional arguments correspond more or less with existing expectations about the semantics of the verb. It makes sense for the speaker to be the first positional argument, the interlocutor to be the second position argument, and so forth—since that corresponds, in the estimation of the designers of Lojban at least, to how most humans think.

In Pey Shkoy, however, no effort has been made to align argument order with human social or cognitive expectations. The relationship between the order of the verb's arguments and the meaning of that order is, in fact, always arbitrary. As a quick example, the closest verb to "talk" in Pey Shkoy is chan. Here's the dictionary entry:

_chan_ be the audience, speak on a topic
  ∅: those addressed
  a: the topic of the speech
  be: the speaker

This dictionary entry gives the basic meaning of the verb, along with a description of which semantic role goes with which preposition. Here's an example sentence (Pey Shkoy is verb-initial):

Pey Shkoy:      chan upa a shtay be adam
Word-for-word:  speak I/me prep-a tongue prep-be adam
English:        Adam speaks to me about a tongue.

Another entry in the Pey Shkoy dictionary:

_iaf_ be located at, stand
  ∅: the thing in a place
  ioh: the place

... and in a sentence:

Pey Shkoy:      iaf upa ioh shiw
Word-for-word:  stand I/me prep-ioh cma
English:        I am at a tree (cma).

(Reminder: cma is a Purchtrin word, not a Pey Shkoy word.) As you can see, the roles in the verb chan are nothing like the roles in the verb iaf. (In fact, the verbs use almost entirely different subsets of the five possible prepositions.) It's like this across the board: every verb uses the prepositions in its own unique way.

The aftermath

Whenever I needed to invent a new verb in Pey Shkoy, I looked up similar verbs in the Lojban dictionary, FrameNet (an excellent resource for English verbs and their associated thematic roles), and even poked around Wiktionary to make sure I wasn't getting stuck in an English-centric mindset. Once I figured out what the "arguments" of the verb were, I assigned them to prepositions, either by a chance procedure (rolling dice), or by intuition.

The main effect of this scrambled relationship of grammatical role to thematic relation is that Pey Shkoy—even for me, the guy who made it up—is really difficult to think in. Existing cognitive frames were turned topsy-turvy; sentences never quite fit together in comfortable ways. It's one of the features of Pey Shkoy that makes it feel, well, alien. (Or should I say... Alien.) [[Takes off sunglasses]—LR]

Other grammar notes

A few other quick notes on Pey Shkoy grammar:

Ironically, the part of Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans that took the longest—the translations—takes up the least amount of space in the actual document. I offer here in the commentary a few interlinear translations, showing the underlying grammatical structure of the Pey Shkoy phrases. (Some of these are from the phrasebook, some were intended as book cover copy, and some are from Tetsuo's Twitter feed.)

"Warning: This device will catch on fire if you look at it funny." [A classic example of shveil.—LR]

Pey Shkoy:      siukuy kefef be eshi chawa ioh chkekeshoy
Word-for-word:	happen-warning ignite-NOM prep(be) this device-this prep(ioh)
Literally:      this device's igniting happens (WARNING!)
                  under-the-circumstances-of being unexpectedly-observed

"You look even more beautiful in ultraviolet light."

Pey Shkoy:      siu uineetiukpefkiur ksey uippee shiefiui ioh ufuoo ioh shpape
Word-for-word:  happen attractive-NOM-sexually-looks-surpassing prep(ksey)
                  belong.to.me-NOM-NOM quiet.speech.interloc-NOM prep(ioh)
                  light-NOM prep(ioh) violet-NOM
Literally:      your seeming more sexually attractive happens (when) you
                  (my quiet speech interlocutor) [are] being lit ultraviolet

"You get to keep your blade."

Pey Shkoy:      iten tepeploh a peiuu
Word-for-word:  permit belong.to.you-NOM-continuing prep(a) knife
Literally:      (it) permits the continuing belonging-to-you of the blade

"Eat before using."

Pey Shkoy:      tepep foii a voiee be alauu
Word-for-word:  belonging-to-you.NOM before.NOM x1 eat.NOM x2 use.NOM
Literally:      your beforing eating (this) to using (this)

Back to Leonard

Thanks, Adam. With this, I declare the Constellation Games commentary series complete! I have a little more to say about the series itself, and a couple overall notes on the novel writing process, but that stuff is so self-indulgent I think I'm just going to post it as a separate entry, not as part of this educational series.

Image credits: U.S. War Department, Huw Williams, Chris Sobolowski, Wikimedia Commons user NJGJ, A.E. Shipley, Wikimedia Commons user dozenist, Wikimedia Commons user Robbiemuffin, NASA.

← "Dana no Chousen"

Beautiful Soup 4.1.2: Another small release. The big new feature is the ability to use the class_ keyword argument to search by CSS class. The big bug fix has to do with XML that uses namespaced attribute names. And the big performance improvement comes from cchardet, a Python binding to Mozilla's charset detector that's much faster (but gives slightly different results) than the pure-Python chardet. If you have cchardet installed, UnicodeDammit will use it in preference to chardet.

[Comments] (7) Weak Tea: In the novel I'm working on now, a character brews tea from tea bags that have been around the block more than once. I described the resulting tea as "the color of lemonade". Then I started wondering if that was an accurate description. What does tea look like when you reuse the leaves over and over?

An experiment was carried out in which I brewed the same tea leaves in a pot six times, steeping each pot for five minutes. The results are in the photo-montage below:

The "C" glass is the control glass, which contains water (i.e. zeroth-generation tea). I stopped the experiment after steep #6, because glasses #5 and #6 came out the same color, and because I was out of transparent glassware.

Conclusion: I don't think "lemonade" is accurate; I'll probably go with "apple juice" or "piss".

PS: I drank only the first pot of tea.

Movie Consensus: Since Sumana bought us a membership to the Museum of the Moving Image we've been going to see a lot of old movies, movies we hadn't seen before, movies that although critically acclaimed are generally not ones I'd have made a special trip and paid money to see.

I haven't been posting detailed reviews of my experiences, but at this point I think I've seen enough films at the museum to try and map out my views on classic film in general, with a special focus on where my opinion differs from the critical consensus.

I'm really interested in figuring out why I hated Vertigo and thought The Searchers and Taxi Driver were boring, given how celebrated those movies are, and given that I like other films that are superficially similar. I don't have any hypotheses to go on, but maybe you and I can compare notes?

Also, Roger Ebert didn't get Brazil but loves, absolutely loves Dark City. How does that even hapen? I like Dark City too, but before seeing Dark City I was required to take a special test to prove I understood Brazil.

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