Archive for January 2005
What is it about me and telephones?
I will never be happy with the idea of being contactable by anyone at any time. My flatmate just had a land line installed in our apartment, because of her job, and her employer is paying for it… but it may ring in the middle of the night, and it’ll wake me up before it wakes her – I’m closer.
It rang for the first time yesterday, while my flatmate was out, and it was her mother with a message for me to pass on: her grandmother had just died. Hardly an auspicious start.
Today I’m trying another blogging system, Pivot. It looks really good so far, and has a major advantage over GreyMatter from my point of view: it uses PHP only, no server-side Perl scripts, and no databases. It means I can keep the site reliable and portable, and stick to my preferred working methods – an offline master copy that gets uploaded every so often. I can even test it at home, which I can not do with GreyMatter, which configures the server in a particular way. I’ll see how it goes, but I like it so far.
The Pentax *ist DS was here when I got home on Friday evening, so that largely did for the weekend.
I can see I have a lot to learn about photography, analogue or digital, which makes this an excellent camera for me. It has to be among the most user-friendly of all such “prosumer” cameras, so-called (I think) because it has easy Picture modes alongside Program and Manual modes. The Picture modes set the camera up for typical shooting scenarios – portraits, close-ups, landscapes, moving objects, and the Auto Pict mode which switches between those other modes. The Program modes give you partial exposure control, and Manual mode gives full control.
I could go on about features like this that are not unique to this camera, but it’s the way they’re packaged that makes all the difference, in a modern digital body that can accept fifty-year-old lenses. I have four, including a brand-new auto-focus lens that came with the camera, and another decade-old manual-focus 50mm lens. Even today, on a quick trip down the coast to Bray, I soon found myself switching from the Picture modes into Aperture Priority, which is how to set up low-depth-of-field effects and more. I suspect my photographic output is going to increase dramatically, and I should look for a dedicated photo hosting solution, it might be too much for this little site alone to handle. One called PBase has been recommended by other Pentax users on the DPReview forums, so that will be the first place to look.
New camera still hasn’t arrived yet. This is getting a little silly. While we’re waiting, how about a few more howlers from the Referer logs? These are the links that other people have followed to get to a page on this site, almost all being the results of searches, so the URI of the referer page includes the keywords they were searching for:
- Nude pictures of Megan Mulally (Karen from Will & Grace)? Perish the thought.
- What happened to Andy Gibb? Does it matter, as long as the Bee Gees stopped singing?
- Cheerleaders, Chloroformed? Huh?
- Why the heck would I be able to describe a speed drinking technique?
- The lyrics to the Jackass Sand Vagina song? No.
- OK, I was a little simplistic in my definition of the word gratinated; it’s not just about cheese, it might involve breadcrumbs too.
- how did this lead here?
- No, I still don’t know whether Matt Le Blanc is circumcised, or where to get samples of Jimmy Saville’s voice!
- Is Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy’s character, a Freemason? Highly unlikely, with his Jesuit education and anti-bureaucratic attitude.
- Billy Connolly, then? I mentioned him in that context back in Feb 2003, after hearing him talk about it on stage. No, he’s not a Mason, he sees the whole concept as ludicrous, i.e. good comic material.
Connolly has been getting a rough ride in the media recently, after some insensitive remarks about Ken Bigley, one of the hostages held in Iraq, was murdered; he was bemused as to why the whole of England seemed to be upset, people with no connection to the family. He may have had a point, but he didn’t have to make comedy material about it, did he? Not that anyone’s going to stop him, of course.
In a survey released today, Connolly’s voice was among Britain’s favourites, and also among its least favourites – I presume he is appreciated more in Scotland than in England. Sean Connery is at the top of the favourites list. In the UK; for some reason, mild Scots accents are perceived as “trustworthy”, and can be heard often in news reports or in commercials for financial products, and more. The accent has to be mild, perhaps Edinburgh rather than Glasgow, and not too broad.
Something in the report led me to wonder about the different words used to refer to my countrymen, Scots, Scotch, or Scottish? I grew up associating Scotch with whisky, and knowing the other verb meanings of the word, such as to “scotch a rumour”, and as a synonym for “squash” or “injure”. Two centuries ago, writers such as Scott and Burns happily used the term Scotch in poems and and novels, such as this excerpt from a Burns poem:
But bring a Scotchman frae his hill,
Clap in his cheek a Highland gill,
Say, such is royal George’s will,
An’ there’s the foe!
He has nae thought but how to kill
Twa at a blow.
– Robert Burns
- The Author’s Earnest Cry And Prayer To the Right Honourable and Honourable Scotch Representatives in the House of Commons.
The Penguin Reference Library has this to say on the change in usage:
Since the second half of the 19th century, the idea has taken root that it is incorrect or impolite to use Scotch, except in certain compounds such as Scotch whisky and Scotch mist, so that Scottish and Scots have become the generally preferred forms. This change of usage is signalled by, for example, the change of name of the Scotch Education Department to the Scottish Education Department in 1918; or by the adoption of ‘The Flying Scotsman’ as the official name for the locomotive plying between London and Edinburgh, whereas since the 1870s trains on this route had usually been nicknamed `The Flying Scotchman’. The avoidance of Scotch originated among Scots who found it derogatory, probably because it was originally a contracted form of Scottish used in England; but Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, among others, used Scotch freely, and some Scots today consider the general use of Scottish affected. (“I’m pure Scotch … the correct term is Scottish but that sounds so pompous” — Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.)
– Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library
Copyright (c) 1996 Helicon Publishing and Penguin Books Ltd
This confirms what I suspected: Scotch was originally an English corruption of Scots, which was only temporarily fashionable. Burns and his kin grew up with the English domination of Scotland’s cultural life, and his use of the “Scotch Dialect” was a more substantial act of defiance than any quibbling over the exact word used to describe it. Is Scottish affected? I’ve been using both Scots and Scottish interchangeably on this site, which shows you how concerned I am in real terms. Some closing quotes, after four hours of on-and-off typing:
- What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others. — Confucius, Analects
- Do unto others that which you would have done to yourself — Jesus, The Bible
- No man is a true believer unless he desireth for his brother that which he desireth for himself. — Azizullah, Hadith 150 (Islam)
- This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you. — Mahabharata 5,1517 (Sikhism)
- Do unto others before they do unto you — the New York Golden Rule
- Do unto others, then Split — the New Jersey Golden Rule
- Do unto others before they undo you — Usenet tagline
- Do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same. — George Bernard Shaw
I’ve never visited Los Angeles, only seen it on television and in movies, but I find it amazing how it can be made to look different nearly every time I see it.
We have classic movies like Sunset Boulevard, shot when that road ended in a wilderness dotted with the occasional mansion, or L.A. Confidential, which exposed an even darker side of that halcyon orange-grove era. It seems to me that L.A. doesn’t generally add that much to a movie’s atmosphere, it’s the generic Hollywood backlot, and more memorable American thrillers have been improved by being set elsewhere in America: The French Connection in Chicago, Dirty Harry in San Francisco, Scarface in Miami, and just about all of Scorsese’s output in New York.
That has been changing, and we have seen films make better use of L.A’.s strengths, and I don’t just mean Beverly Hills Cop. I was introduced to the moodier side of L.A. by Heat, Michael Mann’s 1995 thriller that took its protagonists all the way from Venice Boulevard, past the fashionable side of Santa Monica, up through Beverly Hills into the San Fernando Valley; down to the Long Beach docks, with a major shootout at Fifth and Figueroa (downtown), and a final chase from an airport hotel on to the airport itself. Mann’s recent Collateral revisited the same city from different angles, using a different nocturnal palette. Steve Martin’s L.A. Story took a wry look at covered the posh areas, while Speed presented a more coherent daytime L.A. landscape, also passing through LAX, besides turning Sandra Bullock into a “poster girl for public transport” (her words).
If I was to visit L.A., not knowing how to drive, could I get around with public transport and taxis? In L.A., public transport is for losers, apparently, too slow and dirty for the average person, but could it be worse than London’s underground and buses? Looking at a map, the scale of L.A. is deceptive to a Euro-peon such as myself. I’ve been playing with Microsoft MapPoint 2004 to try to make a little sense of it all, and it tells me that the “short drive” from the city center, up the Hollywood Freeway, along Santa Monica Boulevard through Beverly Hills to Santa Monica, is nearly twenty miles long, so walking around, like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, would probably be as smooth and straightforward for me as it was for him.
In other news: today Elvis Presley scored the dubious distinction of having the UK’s 1000th Number One single; it’s telling that it took sales of 30,000 to get to Number One last week, compared to 300,000 back in the late 1960s. BMG, who owns the rights to the Presley catalogue, is making some kind of point by re-releasing one Elvis #1 single a week, for the next few months. I think it’s called milking a dead horse, or something. Blah.
A great day in space exploration: today the Huygens probe successfully landed on the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and has already sent back pictures during the descent.
After the Beagle 2 debacle a year ago, it’s good to see how well the Cassini-Huygens project has been carried through. The Cassini probe will continue orbiting Saturn, after releasing Huygens three weeks ago, to fall to the Titan surface today. The way they’re talking, the probe was not expected to survive the impact with the surface, but seems to have done so, and kept broadcasting for another half-hour at least, before going over the radio horizon, never to be heard from again.
The European Space Agency has masses of data to sort through, years of work ahead, but the scientists seem to be having fun. After looking at impact force measurements, one has just described the Titan hydrocarbon surface’s consistency as like crème brûlée. – gooey, but with a brittle crust. How poetic.
An interesting BBC documentary tonight is discussing the “Global Dimming” phenomenom, after new data suggests that the amount of solar energy reaching the earth’s surface has fallen by 10-30% since the 1950s.
The culprit is pollution, of course, which (scientists suspect) was implicated in serious famines in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. So we should simply cut out pollution, right? We already are doing a lot about pollution, and surely we should do more? Can we guess how much difference this would make? After September 11, 2001, all aircraft in the USA were grounded, and a few researchers noticed the immediate difference it made to the air quality and the colour of the sky. (A year later, on September 11, 2002, few planes were in the air, as a mark of respect. I personally noticed how clear the sky was over Dublin, and took a few photographs for my sky portfolio – see the image gallery. )
What researchers found was: from September 11-13, 2001, the absence of aircraft, and the cleaner air that resulted, meant an increase in average temperature of over 1°C; a huge difference to see from a change to one factor over so short a period. In Europe, thanks to regulations, pollution levels have fallen, and temperatures have risen. This documentary paints an alarming picture, one in which the only way to avoid an environmental catastrophe is to stop the use of all carbon-based fuels, pretty much immediately. In other words: we’re all screwed.
At this minute we’re feeling the early stages of what could be the worst storm to hit this area for over ten years, much worse than the heavy storm that hit last weekend.
This time there will be less rain, good news for flooded areas like Carlisle. Even worse weather is predicted for Scotland this evening, with winds gusting well over 100 mph (160 km/h) in places, and weather reports bluntly predicting damage to buildings and trees. At least the wind will be behind me on the way home tonight, blowing me down the road. Whee!
I’m gearing up for the start of the next semester of Japanese classes with a little revision. It’s taken me till now to figure out that Microsoft Word can do furigana, only it calls it by the colloquial name ruby, and then doesn’t even use that in the menus. I suppose furigana, being a Japanese word, isn’t suitable for all of the Asian languages that Word supports, so it just refers to “Asian Phonetic Layout” instead.
Here’s an example of how it looks, using the word for deep-fried food, agemono:
Not a new concept to me, but it’s just become far more accessible thanks to this feature, which illustrates the difficulty in breaking the spoken language up by itself; the first kanji means to deep-fry, but the spoken version is just a – not exactly meaningful. After the ge, we have mono, which isn’t as bad, but it doesn’t mean food when spoken directly, it’s more like “thing” or “person”. It means that you memorize the whole word, so you can understand the spoken language, but the individual kanji so you can read the written language.
Just to underline the lesson, we have the “reading” situation I described before.
In the example I gave, seppuku vs hara-kiri, I’ve just learned one important guideline that helps it make a little more sense. It appears that you use the kun-yomi (japanese) reading when a concept is expressed as a single kanji, and the on-yomi (chinese) reading when the concept takes two kanji. I just picked a particularly bad example that can be expressed either way. Another strange example is the Japanese title of the film Spirited Away, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi:
Note how the first character is pronounced sen; a single kanji meaning “thousand”, it’s using the on-yomi reading. The same character then forms the first half of Chihiro’s name – a kun-yomi reading of a 2-kanji compound phrase, meaning “great depths” (literally, “a thousand fathoms deep”). The whole title translates as “Sen and Chihiro’s Mysterious Disappearance”, but the point of this only becomes clear after seeing the movie and knowing at least some Japanese; Chihiro falls foul of evil witch Yubaba, who steals half her name, and (as Sen) has to work out a plan to get it back. The title, while appearing to refer to two people with different-sounding names, is a pun on how Chihiro, by having half her name stolen, has to draw on her great depths of character, regain the other half of her name, and become a more “whole” person in the process.
We have barely touched kanji in the classes: it’s all been hit-and-miss self-study. I’m going to have to start out the way schoolchildren do with the gakushuu (study) kanji, the first 80 of which are learned by the seven-year-olds in Grade 1, or by gaijin like me who don’t know any better. If I get through that lot, there are still many more to worry about, an official total of 1945 known as the 常用漢字表 (jouyou kanji hyou, commonly-used kanji list). (1945? I’m sure there’s an ironic historical subtext in there somewhere.) A year since I started learning Japanese, I’m not quite at square one… maybe square two.
Typical: a day after taking the order, the camera supplier emails me to say that the lens is out of stock, 2-3 weeks before they get more in. I can live with that, as long as they get the body to me next week, so I can use my current lenses.
If they can’t do that, or if they want to charge me extra for splitting the order, they can forget it – their “shipping charges” are already higher than the real cost will be, even for two deliveries. A quiet evening with nothing to do for a couple of hours, so I took another look at Lost In Translation.
I can’t help thinking that Japan is just a character in the movie, and not a very good one at that: the typical Western fascination with the differences, such as karaoke and attitudes towards sex. Look past that, and the story is a universal one, where the language barriers are the ones you carry around inside you, and it’s often easier to talk to a complete stranger than anyone else. The “climatic” scene, if you can call it that, has Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson lying on a bed, fully clothed, just talking. Their only physical contact between them is when she rests her injured foot against him, looking for … relief?
Such subtleties are what makes this a remarkable film, and listening through headphones immerses you in the claustrophobic environment of a hotel, where the silence is not silent. The noise from the air ducts, and the streets, many floors below, is pervasive and will not let you sleep through the jet lag. As before, it’s not hard to see the relevance to my own life and work, where I am surrounded by the buzz of computer fans, and things that just don’t work as they ought to. In this virtual, air-conditioned, mediated world, you hope that the people, at least, are real.
Phew. Today the office started returning to normal, after a fraught holiday season for the few of us who stayed behind. By the end of the day I decided to buy myself a belated holiday present, a Pentax *ist DS Digital SLR camera, which should arrive later this week.
I’ve been researching this purchase for several months, now, decided to wait until after the holiday season, and found a good price from a UK dealer. I already have several compatible lenses, it’s the hassle and expense of developing film that has kept me from much photography.
Isn’t it slightly insensitive of me to make a major purchase like this, when so many people in the world are suffering right now? What if everyone stopped buying and selling, in favour of giving? That could not last for long. No; charity has its place, and I have contributed some, but the world does not stop while Mother Nature rolls over in Her sleep, disastrous as that can be for us little people.
Has the AIDS epidemic in Southern Africa taken a holiday? Famine in Ethiopia? Does life stop when lives end? I guess I don’t make a very good Humanist, do I? Am I an Inhumanist? I think I am just acknowledging a simple truth: when the worst happens, to you or anyone else, you do what you can, and there is little point in fretting about what you can not do. The disaster relief effort in South East Asia doesn’t want my time or my work, they don’t need me to fly over there and pitch in. They want my money, some of it, and that I can offer.
A major personal anniversary almost escaped my attention: it was thirty years ago today that I landed in Johannesburg, to start my seventeen-year stay in South Africa.
I would say that the main impact of this stay was on my education: I received a better Primary and Secondary education than I might have received in Scotland, but when that was over I was unable to go any further: university education was (and still is) a luxury there, only for those with money, connections, or a genius-level IQ.
I don’t mind admitting that it’s annoying to see “a degree – any degree” (paraphrased) on job applications, as if it’s a basic requirement, as if someone without that piece of paper has somehow failed. Had I taken a degree directly from school it would be obsolete by now, so what is the point?