Category Archives: UC San Diego

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

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Neuroscience, Mini Brains, and Your Health

“All the best models are the ones that you can improve in complexity to get closer and closer to the reality.”

The idea of a brain in a dish may sound like science fiction to some but scientists are becoming more and more adept at creating cortical organoids in the lab. The organoids are models of what is happening in utero as the brain forms. Being able to study this kind of human development not only opens new insights into neurological conditions but raises ethical questions.

Alysson Muotri, director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, gives a look at how his lab is using these organoids to model specific conditions, treat disease, and explore fundamental brain mechanisms. Learn what the limitations, future projections, and ethical concerns are surrounding this exciting science.

Watch Re-constructing Brains in the Lab to Revolutionize Neuroscience – Exploring Ethics

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Past, Present and Future

For the La Jolla Symphony’s 2018/19 season, Music Director Steven Schick chose the title and theme of “Lineage.” Among other things this word suggests a continuum, an unbroken linkage between past, present and future, and this concept is central to both the season and the “Deep Roots” concert.

The past is invoked by Anton Bruckner’s much-revised Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. In his day Bruckner was known for his devotion to Richard Wagner, yet there is no discernible Wagnerian influence in this music. Rather, Brucker drew on other sources for inspiration – classical form, sacred music (Bruckner was a devout Catholic), and the folk tunes of his Austrian youth – and synthesized them into a style further influenced by Bruckner’s experience as a pipe organist and characterized by long melody lines and large-scale thematic shifts. Above all, the Symphony reflects Bruckner’s love of brass instruments. Though despised by contemporary critics, his work was admired by other composers, notably Franz Liszt and Gustav Mahler, and has enjoyed a popular resurgence since the 1950s.

For the present the La Jolla Symphony turns to contemporary American composer Philip Glass. Glass created the scores for each of the experimental documentaries comprising Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy, and the final film score, Naqoyqatsi (Hopi for “life at war”) provided the basis for his Cello Concerto No. 2. Glass dropped sections of the score and re-worked others to accommodate a more prominent (and difficult) role for solo cello. The music has all the hallmarks of Glass’s mature style, including insistent rhythms, rapid changes in meter, crystalline textures, and constantly-shifting tonal colors. Contrasted with the often-turbulent proceedings are reflective passages for the cello, either solo or with minimal accompaniment. Though derived from a film score this piece doesn’t attempt to tell a story; rather, it should be considered a purely musical experience.

Fittingly, the future is given voice here by the work of a young, up-and-coming composer, in this case Community Acoustics by LJ White. As White explains,

The phrase “community acoustics” is a name used by some scientists for the phenomenon of acoustic niche separation, in which sounds within an ecosystem organize themselves into distinct frequency layers and interlocking patterns, allowing for communication within species and overall ecosystem function.

In Community Acoustics White challenges the rigid structures of symphonic music and the customary classical concert format, providing an environment in which the music evolves along more egalitarian lines than is the norm. The players have greater control over their role in creating the sonic environment, and the audience are also encouraged to contribute at the end of the piece. “Community Acoustics” points out one possible path towards an active and immersive listening experience.

Watch Deep Roots – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Dreams That You Dare to Dream

The annual Lytle Scholarship Concerts were inaugurated in 1996 to benefit the Preuss School at UC San Diego, a public college prep charter school for grades 6 through 12. The concerts are specific to a composer (e.g., Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt) or to a musical concept or genre (e.g., gospel tunes, tangos, ragtime, Latin jazz). This format has led to some unusual performances, including one in which five jazz pianists performed on five grand pianos arranged in a circle.

The 23rd Lytle concert, “Jewish Music: From Bessarabia to Broadway” carries on the series’ thematic custom by focusing on the evolution of Judaic musical traditions from roots in Russia and Eastern Europe to such early 20th Century practitioners of popular song as George & Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. The creativity of Jewish emigres flourished predominantly in New York City, particularly in the Bowery, Lower East Side, and Harlem.

American musical theater – indeed, American popular culture as a whole – was transformed by the efforts of Jewish composers, songwriters, and performers. Themes of suffering and hope, and the tensions between the two, combined with a yearning for social justice to fashion a portrait of a people striving to endure and assimilate in their new home. Perhaps no other song of the era encapsulates these aspirations as poignantly as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, written by Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg:

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true…

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can’t I?

The programming of the concert reflects the diversity of the Jewish repertoire, from cantorial songs of worship to jazz to classical forms to popular songs of stage and screen. While many of the works performed arose from, or evoke, a specific time or place, their cumulative effect is universal; a celebration of a rich religious and social heritage, and a reminder of just how much immigrants have contributed to our American identity.

Watch Jewish Music – From Bessarabia to Broadway – Lytle Memorial Concert

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Recommended for You

We use recommender system all the time. A website will recommend something to you based on what you’ve watched, listened to, bought or who you’ve friended on Facebook. These systems attempt to predict your preferences based on past interactions.

The systems range from simple statistical approaches like Amazon’s people who bought X also bought Y links, to complex Artificial Intelligence-based approaches that drive feed ranking on sites like Facebook.

Julian McAuley, UC San Diego Computer Science and Engineering, explores the modeling techniques behind personalized recommendation technology on the web and the different systems that we encounter.

He reminds us that we often find these recommendations a bit “creepy,” but that actually the recommender system has no human intelligence; it’s really a simple statistical process. They focus on short-term predictions but could they be adapted to make long-term predictions or estimate more subjective qualities? Would that be bad?

Watch How Do Websites Personalize Recommendations for Me? – Exploring Ethics

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