Saturday, December 21, 2013

If all the ice melted

National Geographic's recent infographic If All the Ice Melted visualizes a 216-foot sea level rise. It's like catnip for our geology series.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Wandering through new-to-me fields can sometimes yield such interesting and unexpected things. The world of Nara and Heian Japanese poetry is both familiar and alien, so different from medieval Japan and yet speaking to such perennial human yearnings.

Partly this is because of the very different social norms for romance, which occasioned poetic chronicling of so-familiar suffering and desire. Relationships between men and women were invariably intermediated by a series of poetic letters. Women lived in their father's house before and after marriage, and the conventions leading to marriage began with a matchmaker, who informed the man (or his family) of suitable prospects. He then wrote the woman a poetic letter (a tanka), to which she answered with a reply tanka letter. If her calligraphy and poetics were sufficiently adroit, he might continue the exchange of poems. The marriage itself began with the man sneaking into the woman's room at night (probably an open secret). After their first night together, the man sent his lover a morning-after letter (後朝の文 kinuginu no fumi), conventionally expressing such things as dismay at the rooster's crowing. The woman's family celebrates this letter, and she composes another reply. He "sneaks" into her room again on the second night, but upon sneaking in on the third night, the family presents sacred rice cakes to the couple. Following the acceptance of the rice cakes, the couple is married, and the man can go openly to visit the woman. Afterwards, there is a feast to celebrate the event, featuring purification rituals such as the threefold drinking of sake (which itself later became the focus of the marriage ritual, rather than the presentation of rice cakes).

Nara- and Heian-period sexual mores were a very different balance of restriction and openness from contemporary society. One poem in the Man'yōshū by the Emperor Jomei possibly references a spring ritual in which people would gather fresh greens before an orgy. Takahashi no Mushimaro similarly memorialized ascending Mount Tsukuba (now a major scientific research center and near where I used to live in Japan) on the day of a kagai, in which men and women exchange amorous poems before sex:

washi no sumu
Tsukuba no yama no
Mohakitsu no
sono tsu no ue ni
odome otoko no
kagau kagai ni
hitozuma ni
wa mo majirawan
wa ga tsuma ni
hito mo kototoe

On Mount Tsukuba
where eagles dwell,
By the founts
of Mohakitsu,
Maidens and men,
in troops assembling,
Hold a kagai, vying in poetry;
I will seek company
With others' wives,
Let others woo my own... (97)
It was an interesting period in which the synthesis of Chinese and indigenous Japanese elements of literary culture was still fresh. Plum blossoms, representing the scholar in Chinese literary tradition, had not yet been supplanted by the cherry blossom in the Man'yōshū poems of Ōtomo no Tabito:

yuki ni majieru
ume no hana
hayaku na chiri so
yuki wa kenu tomo

Plum blossoms
Lingering in the boughs
Amidst the snow—
Do not fall too quickly.
Even if the snow melts away. (135)
One of my favorites from the late Heian era, however, is Izumi Shikibu (970-1030 CE). Women writers were central in the early development of a distinctively Japanese literary tradition, because the social context required literary writing as a a basic means of courtly and romantic interaction. Aristocratic women may have been cloistered in tedium at home, restricted by courtly marriage politics, or made insecure by polygamy, but they were not yet so constrained by patriarchal norms: women could inherit and keep property and conceivably live independently. Shikibu's poetry, written at age 16 or 17, appeared first in the Shuuishuu (compiled about 1005 CE).
kuraki yori
kuraki michi no zo
haruka ni terase
yama no ha no tsuki

Coming from darkness
I shall enter on a path
Of greater darkness
Shine on me from the distance,
Moon at the edge of the mount. (288)
The moon is a common Buddhist metaphor for enlightenment. Japanese esoteric Buddhist monk Kūkai, for example, (quoting the Aspiration to Enlightenment attributed to Nāgārjuna) instructed “...each devotee [to] visualize in his inner mind the bright moon. By means of this practice each devotee will perceive his original Mind, which is serene and pure like the full moon whose rays pervade space without any discrimination” (Kūkai, 218-219).

Shikibu's poems often feature such Buddhist themes. For example, after she was forsaken by her lover Prince Atsumichi, she composed this "...about the same time, when I was thinking of becoming a nun" (collected in the Goshuuishuu of 1086 CE):
sutehaten to
omou sae koso
kimi ni narenishi
wa ga mi to omoeba

I feel so wretched
I am ready even to
Abandon the world—
When I think that I was once
Intimate with such a man! (297)
Perhaps most evocative is Shikibu's reflection on the transience of life and passion.
hito no mi mo
koi ni wa kaetsu
natsu mushi no
arawa ni moyu to
mienu bakari zo

For love I am ready
To change even my human shape;
All that distinguishes
Me from the summer insects
Is that my flame is hidden. (296-297)

All selections are from Keene unless otherwise noted.

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1993.

Kūkai. Kūkai: Major Works. Trans. Yoshito S. Hakeda. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. 1964. Middlesex, England: Peregine Books, 1985. 199-227.

Nara period politics

The Asuka and Nara periods form one of the most dynamic and interesting eras of Japanese history, even if it is far more obscure than medieval Japan. Unlike the cloistered and largely ceremonial office of later eras, the Asuka- and Nara-period imperial court was the center of turbulent and violent royal politics.

The Nara period, for example, is when Japanese began to develop a written language, impelled by the imperial court's project of rapid modernization to counteract continental threats (following the rise of the Tang dynasty in China in 618 and especially following the Tang conquest of Paekche in 660). This effort culminated in the Taika Reform of 645 to 646, which implemented systems of land tenure, provincial government, and taxation along Chinese models. Waves of immigrants from Paekche also probably contributed to Japanese efforts to make their literary culture “civilized” in Chinese eyes (Keene, 86).

During this era, Japan had a significant tradition of female rulers, and gender politics that were rather different from the later Confucian-influenced patriarchal aristocratic norms of samurai-era Japan.

One of the most interesting stories from this period is the case of the sixth and last female emperor of early Japan, known as Empress Kōken when she reigned from 749 to 758 and Empress Shōtoku when she reigned from 765 until her death in 770. Kōken survived a conspiracy to depose her in 757, then abdicated in 758 in favor of Emperor Junnin. In 761, she encountered the Buddhist monk Dōkyō, who gained her affection. Following a conflict in which she deposed Junnin's prime minister, Fujiawara no Nakamaro, she re-assumed the throne in 765. Following the suppression of his rebellion, she sponsored the Hyakumantō Darani, an enormous production of woodblock-printed Buddhist texts and the first known use of the printing technique in Japan.

Over the next five years of her reign, Dōkyō, rumored to be the Empress's lover, became the leading figure in the court bureaucracy and became controversially involved in the imperial succession. In 769, an oracle from the shrine of the kami Hachiman in Kyūshū reportedly prophesied peace would come if Dōkyō were proclaimed emperor. An official sent to confirm this prophecy returned with an oracle instead reaffirming succession via the imperial lineage and advocating sweeping away "wicked persons". The Empress died the next year, and Dōkyō was banished from court, dying three years later while serving a humble post at a temple in Shimotsuke. Although early Japan had had a number of female emperors, Shōtoku would be the last female emperor for nearly a thousand years, until the ascension of the child Empress Meishō in 1629. Only 14 years after her death, Emperor Kammu moved the imperial palace away from Nara (a move which has been attributed at least partially to a desire to lessen the influence of the Buddhist institutions at the Nara capital) and initiated the Heian era with the move of the palace to Kyōto in 794.

Bender, Ross. "The Hachiman Cult and the Dokyo Incident." Monumenta Nipponica. 34.2 (1979): 125-153. Print. .

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1993.

Seeley, Christopher. A History of Writing in Japan. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1991.

Friday, June 7, 2013

2012 Book Recommendations

In 2011, I recommended an anthology of stories by Manly Wade Wellman. In 2012, though, graduate school has put an especially big damper on my leisure reading: fewer books (only 31 and 11 audiobooks), but lots and lots of scholarly papers and half-read volumes. There’s a half-dozen or so I’d recommend:
The nonfiction book I'd recommend, I think, was Guy Deutscher's "Through the Language Glass", a modest apology for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis is poorly regarded by linguists, perhaps not least because overreaching and fanciful versions of it have long been vivid in the popular imagination (although I'm still intrigued by the idea of language as a cognitive tool). Deutscher's leads his discussion from 19th-century debates over the limited color vocabulary of Classical Greek literature, through the scientific racism of an early Darwinism (that had not yet rejected Lamarckism, for example), through anthropology's emphasis on culture as a means of repudiating that scientific racism. He ends up talking about the cognitive influence of color terminology and geographic vs. relative direction vocabulary, among other things. It's pretty interesting. A selection of this book was presented as "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" at the New York Times in 2010, and Radiolab interviewed Deutscher in 2012 for their "Colors" episode and "Why Isn't the Sky Blue?".

My fiction reading was pretty thin last year, but M.A.R. Barker's "The Man of Gold" was a decent yarn—if you're open to science fantasy adventure novels based on worlds used as settings for 1970s role-playing games. The fiction is ok, but the point is to show off Barker's world of Tékumel (which otherwise perhaps "doesn't photograph well"). It is a fascinating world. And as far as conlangs made to support a fictional world go, Tsolyáni is really nice, aesthetically a mashup of Urdu and Mesoamerican languages, which works much better than it sounds.

Timekeeping in "Embassytown"

Non-Terre-centric measurement in science fiction is surprisingly uncommon, but China Miéville's "Embassytown" does an interesting job of it. Rather than seconds or local days or years, time is measured with hours according to the metric system prefixes. The base SI unit is not the hour but the second, of course, but this is similar to using the kilogram as basic rather than the gram.

We should assume an hour is 3,600 contemporary Terre seconds.Thus, a kilohour is just more than 41 days (comparable to a month), a megahour is about 114 Julian years, and a gigahour is about 114,077 Julian years.

This is relatively human-scale, perhaps even compared to the kilosecond, but again there's the difficulty of nothing in between the kilo- and the mega- and the giga-. Here there's no basic unit in between the near-month and the near-century. I suspect that humans need to measure human-scale time with a unit that has more factors than 1, 2, 5, and 10.

Print & Play: Ataxx

The best of the print-and-play boardgames (games like Hex and Splut!) are worth building not merely because they're awesome and fun, but also because they're not (or barely) commercially available. That's especially true of the 1980s softboard arcade game Ataxx (BGG). It's fun to play in emulation, but abstract strategy board games are always better to play against other people. Sadly, it seems like the original copyright holder was acquired and liquidated in bankruptcy, so the IP is perhaps abandoned; Most contemporary software versions of the game are released under other names (like Infection), and this gem is not so well-known as it should be.

The board is foamcore with linen hinging tape and low-fi homemade bookcloth (made with black broadcloth, copier paper, and glue sticks), with the printed board glued on. The pieces are simply small biscuits of salt dough, painted. The instruction manual is set in a simple mockup of the original game's bitfont, created with Bitfont Maker 2.

I was concerned that manually flipping the pieces over would be more troublesome in a hardboard version than they are in a softboard version, but it's no real bother. It's a quick, light, fun strategy game, that is tricky with constant reversals of fortune.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Print & Play: Micropul

One of my first attempts at a print and play project last year, before Hex and Splut!, was micropul (BGG). I really enjoy the tile-laying mechanic of games like Carcassone, and micropul is a more lightweight and abstract implementation of a similar mechanic.

This is printed on cardstock, glued to foamcore, and cut with a craft knife. Foamcore was really too light and cut with rough edges, although it looks OK flipped over. Still, printed cardstock mounted on a vinyl floor tile and cut would be simpler and better in some ways.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

2013 Kentucky Derby Disclosure

Java's War, Normandy Invasion, Orb, and Overanalyze.

Friday, May 3, 2013

2013 Kentucky Oaks Disclosure

Midnight Lucky, Dreaming of Julia

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What is this? A game?

My son discovered this device at the Louisville Waterfront Park playground. It appears to be some type of game, but I have no idea what. The pieces are held in place with a metal baffle underneath the gameboard, which allows them to slide, but not jump (or leave the board). There are three orange pieces and four black pieces.

Print & Play: Hex

Hex is a fantastic game: possibly the simplest rules of any board game, but strategically tricky and rich. Most of the boards available for print and play are based on actual hexagons, so I made these with a slightly different (if mechanically identical design). The circles are my favorite of the two: the triangles are a little confusing. I sized both to play with the stones from my Go set; the Hex boards were printed onto cardstock, mounted onto the back of a vinyl floor tile, and trimmed with a craft knife.

Print & Play: Splut!

Late last year I got into board games again, and free print & play board games are a great way to scratch the game-acquisition and crafty itches at the same time. Here's Splut! (BGG), made from a set of Looney pyramids, some glass gems for boulders, and a printed downloaded image glued to a black foamcore board with some improvised bookcloth (black broadcloth gluesticked to copier paper). It was an initial foray and a learning experience—but a great, fun game!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ursula LeGuin's novel pronouns

It's interesting, in re-reading Ursula LeGuin last year, how my understanding of the relationship between language and thought has changed since I read these books as an adolescent. LeGuin is a notably language-obsessed author. And I'm sure the first time around, I interpreted the quirks of language in her novels through some kind of simplistic Sapir-Whorf frame, whereby the language people use determines how they think about things. But re-reading them, the novels themselves easily allow another more plausible relationship, whereby people reflect in their language use their meta-linguistic values and understandings. Here's from The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores the world of a species of androgynous near-humans:
When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?
Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as "it." They are not neuters. They are potentials, or integrals. Lacking the Karhidish "human pronoun" used for persons in somer, I must say "he," for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman. (65-66)
Not only do their pronouns reflect their gender and sex, but also other elements of basic vocabulary.
"Some are blacker," I said; "we come in all colors," and I opened the case (politely examined by the guards of the Palace at four stages of my approach to the Red Hall) that held my ansible and some pictures. The pictures—films, photos, paintings, actives, and some cubes—were a little gallery of Man: people of Hain, Chiffewar, and the Cetians, of S and Terra and Alterra, of the Uttermosts, Kapteyn, Ollul, Four-Taurus, Rokanan, Ensbo, Cime, Gde and Sheashel Haven... The king glanced at a couple without interest.
"What's this?"
"A person from Cime, a female." I had to use the word that Gethenians would apply only to a person in the culminant phase of kemmer, the alternative being their word for a female animal.
..."So all of them, out on these other planets, are in permanent kemmer? A society of perverts? So Lord Tibe put it; I thought he was joking. Well, it may be the fact, but it's a disgusting idea, Mr. Ai, and I don't see why human beings here on earth should want or tolerate dealings with creatures so monstrously different." (25)
In the ambiguous utopia on Anarres, on the other hand, as depicted in The Dispossessed, the Odonians speak Pravic. According to their ideology, personal possession is forbidden or avoided; this is reflected in their language, most obviously in their avoidance of personal pronouns:
The singular forms of the possessive pronoun in Pravic were used mostly for emphasis; idiom avoided them. Little children might say "my mother," but very soon they learned to say "the mother." Instead of "my hand hurts," it was "the hand hurts me," and so on; to say "this one is mine and that's yours" in Pravic, one said, "I use this one and you use that." Mitis's statement "You will be his man," had a strange sound to it. Shevek looked at her blankly. (58)
As when a person chooses to use singular "they" as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, which reflects and not determines their ideas about gender equity and non-sexist usage, these children learn a way of linguistic behavior that is reflective of their broader social values of nonpropertarianism. Their extralinguistic norms and values are reflected in their norms of language use, rather than their received language determining their patterns of thought, and it's those social norms that the children are learning as they gather up language.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Mluvíte česky?

My sister went to Czech in October 2011 (around the time of the euro crisis), and at the time I gathered together some links on learning Czech. Who knows what value it has now, but I enjoy putting together a linkblogpost from time to time.

Czech was really fun the first time around that I studied it a decade and a half ago. It has such a great, transparent Latin-alphabet writing system, for one thing. A case system was kind of strange for an English speaker, but it's pretty usual for an Indo-European language. More recently I have advocated for spaced repetition systems (electronic flashcards) like Anki for memorizing vocabulary lists.

First you have to find a good dictionary, like Slovnik (tho I suspect too many people will just rely on Google Translate). I always point to some regular sources, like the Wikipedia entry and Omniglot, although Omniglot has significantly embiggened its catalogue of Czech phrases recordings. BBC Languages QuickFix has a few nice MP3s if you just want some basic essential Czech phrases. The FSI language courses like Czech FAST are often a great free resource, and a country's national broadcaster also often puts out free courses. Radio Praha, the Czech public international radio broadcaster, has the long-running MP3 segment SoundCzech, on Czech phrases through song lyrics. I also love this precious little Web site, the Little Czech Primer.

There are plenty of other Web sites that have spottier information, mostly phrases and commentary: Digital Dialects,,, Czech-American television lessons (which worked on Internet Explorer on Windows), phrases and idioms. Czech has an interesting system of name days.

And maybe one day I'll get enough Czech to play tarocky. Hodně štěstí!
Šlapeto performs some "Staropražské písničky" (old Prague songs and pub songs). Tady je to...