Sunday, February 29, 2004


I had my faith in human nature restored yesterday. Caught in a squally snow-shower, on the way home from having to work the weekend (it went from rain to blizzard over a quarter of an hour, and in the previous mile had gone from wet roads to an inch or more of white snow+slush, with strong winds), I skidded, and slid the car slowly into a ditch.

While sitting there calling the insurance/breakdown people on my mobile, and then waiting for the rescue truck, almost every car that went past stopped to check that I was OK - those that didn't could see that someone else was already asking. Which meant that my plan to keep warm in the car was thwarted by having to keep winding down the window, and interrupted my phone calls, but was very reassuring of what might have happened if it had been a more serious smash.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Nature notes

Sunlight streaming into the bedroom as I'm getting dressed, just after 07:00. Frost on car roofs, and ice on the pond. When I go to cut holes in the more-than-cat-ice on the pond, I see the first amorous tangles of frogs under it. They kick off into the depths as I start sawing.

On the road to work, along with the folk with headlights on in cloudless streaming sunlight, a cock pheasant standing on the road, unconcerned at my approach, even as I drive past him.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

I love my teeth

Just an obsession, brought to the fore by going out to dinner at Sycamore House, a nice little restaurant in Little Shelford (and this year's Good Food Guide), taking advantage of their February discount promotion. Now I'm not really one for sweet things at the best of times - primarily because a mouthful of sweet stuff tends to get my fillings going something rotten. Exacerbated by late 2002 involving such toothgrinding imbecility on the part of certain colleagues that I have worn patches on my teeth that are very temperature sensitive, ruling out ice-cream or sorbet.

Being late winter, I'd been hoping for something solid and carb-laden for dessert - a real pudding. But no - everything either ice-cream, sorbet, tooth-achingly sticky, chocolate (this does nothing for me, even in bars of organic 70% cocoa solids with cayenne, so counts as the previous), or sweet-fat dairy glop aka creème brulée (why?).

This downside of 1970's "if in doubt, drill it out" piecework NHS dentistry is having a truly bizarre upside in that it makes it easier to keep the weight under control. Except when I go for savoury pig-outs

Monday, February 16, 2004

Turning Japanese

Ah! the otaku's slippery slope. First you get into the manga, then you start to wonder about all the untranslated sound effects... At this point one starts to run into the, ahem, interesting points about the language. Not to make things too easy for gaijin, there are 3 different writing systems - the angular katakana syllabary (most signs having consonant+following-vowel sounding) for foreign words and non-words, the cursive hiragana syllabary covering the same phonemes (for spelling out the kanji), and the kanji pictographs.

Some sound effects are sufficiently onomatopoeic that they are obvious - the same symbol that is a bit like a 't' or an ε with a ring emitted by whistles and computer hardware is obviously a "peep" sort of sound - and indeed the katakana U+30D4 (ピ) is katakana letter pi (as in pip, not as in π). And the internet is of course so useful - a quick google search turns up useful pages with included wav files for pronunciation.

This gives me enough material to read the Dirty Pair logo (Daa-ti-i Pe-a); check that whistles do make the expected sound, and to tell that characters chuckle in an evil fashion going ha-ha-ha in hiragana. I can even read that the Muji bath salts my wife got the other Christmas are indeed lemongrass (re-mo-n-gu-ra-su), where the 'u' sound is swallowed. As Lee Gold put it when correcting our pronunciation of samurai - "They sound like cows, not cats." and "Japanese vowels are delicious and are to be swallowed." - so, for example, a name may be transliterated Ri-tsu-ko, but pronounced Ritsko. There are obvious limits in transliterating into the kana - as this "your name in kana" site demonstrates, my name comes out as su-te-ii-bu-n - the usual B<->V slippage.

Thus fortified, I look at the title on my new-from-Japan copy of Mamoru Oshii's Avalon - and see that it reads "a - [u with voicing mark (ウ")] - a - ro - n" - the second character is obviously 'V', both by location and formation - but not on any of the kana sheets I'd seen so far. Until I turn to the ever reliable Unicode Consortium katakana code-page which lists it as U+30F4 katakana letter vu. This page also helps out with names that give a better Romanization, where voiced 's' or 't' sounds go more to 'j' rather than 'z' or 'd', or the unvoiced ones are more 'sh' or 'ch' - as does this page, which actually names the Hepburn system as the one which mimics the characteristics of the sounds much better.

As a side effect, I've learned something more about Japanese word-play. They have some that we can mimic - a collection of signs that make no particular meaning read as themselves, that say something meaningful when spoken - the English equivalent might be "come you nigh, Kay shuns" which when spoken sounds like a twangy USAn accent enunciating "communications". But there are deeper levels that are more cultural than purely linguistic.

I'd been aware that one of the further complications of learning Japanese is the use of multiple levels of deference or assertiveness. I hadn't realised that this extends today into there still being forms that are default used my men and others the default used by women. This gives the opportunity for subtly depicting a female character as a bad-ass bitch - or strong and assertive, depending on your pov - by using the masculine form of the language. This also gives rise to the sort of joke that needs footnotes rather than subtitles. It's subtle enough to the English ear that the giveaway in one of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, when a French female impersonator in drag refers to himself as a ["do you take me for...] "un idiot" rather than "une", is most likely missed until explained at the end. In Japan, we can do almost the opposite - when such a strong female character (let's call her Kei) is accused of being a man in drag, the bald translation of her response "I am a woman!" simply cannot convey the fact that she has just used what is, in effect, a masculine first person form, thus making the accuser's disbelief baffling to the gaijin audience.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Nature Notes

In the last week, primulas and daffodils have opened, joining the bulbs - even the snowdrops are still going strong. And daffs always used to be Easter flowers!

I spotted one frog, eyes above surface, in the pond, who dived when he saw me. And as it had dried up a bit in the sun after the last few days' drizzle, gave the lawn its much needed first cut of the year. In mid Feb!

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Film — Avalon

Having had to resort to to find a DVD of Mamoru Oshii's Avalon after deciding to look for it to see again a while back, it arrived today after surface mail transit.

It is a tribute to the commonality of UI design that with only a little translation, I could work my way through the shopping process on the Japanese site.

The film is a bit of a sleeper - the first time around when I saw it in the cinema in summer '02, there was a lot of "what the hell is going on here?" - later, with more exposure to Oshii's work, and knowing what the ending was, I could see what was actually going on on the way to the ending. This made it a lot more satisfying.

I'm still amused by the complete use of D&D terminology - save for Cleric => Bishop - for a modern small unit tactics VR game...

Friday, February 13, 2004

A matter of character

As one of my hobbies, I write SF/Fantasy stories. Three years ago, I started a new longish (by now well over the 40k word limit that SFWA considers to be novel length - even if 100k is more like what appears in books these days) story, and it's now getting to the point where the two separate narratives running through it were supposed to meet. The storyline, set in a rolling "next October" has survived the significant world events, but is proving more susceptible to the way the characters have developed. In particular, the one main character who knows how to bring the two strands together now has a strong plausible reason for moving rapidly in the opposite direction. *sigh*

It's at this point that I saw (and succumbed to) the lure of fanfic - the characters are already well established, and can be taken as given, so you have a much better idea from the outset how to set things up so that they will respond appropriately. It also saves the writer all the overheads of establishing character - something that also makes works in this genre incomprehensible to those who've not partaken of the original source - and being free-standing, I could knock up in a single Sunday afternoon a piece that is as long as the second half of a chapter I've been bogged down on for months.

While familiarity is part of the appeal of fanfic - you've exhausted the official material, so you provide yourself with more of the same in simple extrapolation, there is of course interpolation as well, as in the most notorious of the first Star Trek fanfic, in the "slash" sub-genre - not that it's been kept to the activities of the Captain and his First Officer. I remember with amusement a couple of years back when the BBC Radio 4 early evening arts programme, Front Row, did a feature on Harry Potter fanfic (to coincide with the release of the first movie) including a slightly boggled mention of Harry/Draco slash fiction. [Mind you, that boggles me too...].

And while women are amusing themselves writing slash, one then stumbles across the flip-side in the form of shoujo-ai or yuri. The introductory manifesto on one such site does make a pertinent case for the popularity of the form - romantic fiction where it's not Hugh Grant/Ben Affleck/etc. ad naus. that ends up with the girl.

The dilemma

Various events over the week in the wider world have brought out another of the double binds that liberal society has to face. There's the old chestnut about not being able to tolerate intolerance; but things like the headscarf issue in France suggests the neighbouring problem of "can we allow people the freedom to give themselves into bondage?".

This is the worse when the issue is with a cultural template that worked just fine for a pre-civic (let alone pre-industrial) society of pastoralists, with a simple set of ways of telling "us" from "them" - and liberal civic society is definitely "them", and appears like a Borg-like thing that wants to assimilate everything in its path.

Monday, February 09, 2004

The tax-payers of tomorrow

Reading this post on Speaking as a parent, I become really depressed about the the "me me me-dia". I'm childless by choice, but unlike the Ms. Bindel cited in that post, I regard paying for other folks' kids to be educated - and that there be other folks' kids to educate - as part of my retirement planning. I need a decently functioning economy to pay my pension, up to the point that the Singularity intervenes, anyway.

Though when I hear of people like Ms. Bindel - as well as the usual run of self-serving politicians - I sometimes think that maybe the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement may be being insufficiently radical in their proposed policies.

Bring me Sunshine

Today, sunrise was 07:30 or just a whisker after - so no need for headlights on the way to work. Hurrah!

Thursday, February 05, 2004

So safe it doesn't work

The amazing combination of using ZoneAlarm to firewall, and Norton AntiVirus to scan in-coming POP3 mail on WinXP Home will definitely protect you from mail viruses - by not allowing outbound connections to your POP3 server. Whatever helper application or DLL Norton uses doesn't register with ZoneAlarm's list of user-approved applications mechanism. It did use to work with an earlier Norton and ZoneAlarm on Win98, where it was just dog slow.

Nature Notes

The snowdrops have been blooming for a couple of weeks now; and it's now light enough when I leave the house in the morning to see that not only are they now at their height, but so are the little blue irises (iris reticulata - or should that be irides reticulatae) by the pond and that the crocuses (croci?) in the front garden are starting to burst their buds too.

The weather is being very mild - grey, but warm enough to be comfortable - rather than macho - T-shirt weather. 25-30 years ago, I reckoned that the first such day was around the 15th of March, and the about or just below zero weather of last week was normal at this time of year. Global warming has happened.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Privoxy and Live Update

A while back, I noted that I couldn't get Symantec Live Update to work for my Norton Anti-Virus installation when going through the Privoxy filtering proxy. Recently I cracked it. It works if in the default.action file you add to the {fragile} site list. This is probably more than is actually needed - the important bit being the domain name isn't just


By the time it was getting dark on Friday, it was almost all gone. Only on well shaded ground, not touched by feet or wheels - such as the grassy areas near the Madingley Park&Ride - was there still a snow cover, and there it was thin, if white and otherwise untouched. Yesterday, there were still a few greyish heaps on Parker's Piece where the thaw had increased the dirt to snow ratio considerably.