Sunday, April 12, 2009

I've tried to work out how to divide my personal writing on LJ from public essays on here, and I just can't. It's all just what I think. On top of that, the Atom API annoys the bejeezus out of me, mostly because of the unthreaded comments. Conversation is half the fun. Plus ads only pay by the thousands of page views, which is not going to happen.

So, everybody back in LJ pool. Sorry for the detour; believe me, it was twice as annoying for me than for you.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Music: Shima Uta

Just to tie in with the last thing I dumped online, today's musical selection is "Shima Uta" ("Island Song"). It's not a folk song, precisely; it was written by a group called The Boom in more modern times, and has been covered by a number of J-pop artists, including much squeakier people like Kuraki Mai. I'm told it was inspired particularly by the stories of lovers separated by the fighting of WWII.

Note that although this version has both English and Japanese subs, the Japanese subs do not match the singing. "Shima Uta" is written in the Okinawa dialect, which is recognizable as close to standard Japanese, but not quite close enough to be mutually comprehensible. Particularly audible are the phrases that end in …よ in the Japanese subs; they're using some other verb tense that I've never heard before, but sounds vaguely related to stuff in old literary Japanese. You can also hear ぬ for の, sometimes. There are other bits, but not so's you'd notice if you don't read kanji. After hearing this, I begin to wonder if some of Gackt's distinctive sound is actually the remnants of an Okinawan accent. It's difficult to completely submerge your natural accent when singing -- listen to Hugh Laurie on House sometime -- and Uchinaaguchi, and even Okinawa Japanese has a different accent than mainland Japanese, most notably a much rounder /u/-sound than the standard.

Also note that of the performers, Gackt seems to be the only one accustomed to full-production stage work. I have no idea who the ladies or the older gentleman are, but I'd bet they typically perform with minimal equipment and amplification. They have no trouble staying on track with one another in open air, but Gackt is used to wearing a monitor earpiece, and can't hear himself properly until he cups a hand behind his ear.

of witchcraft and weirdness

I continue making very slow progress through Gackt's book -- mostly at work, because if I do it there, I can force myself to actually remember some of this stuff rather than lunge for a dictionary every two sentences. I'm about to the middle, the Chapter In Which Life Kicks Gackt In The Head, And Gackt Goes Home To Okinawa To Punch Sandbags And Jog For A While. And by 'home', I mean 'ancestral home', not 'home where he did most of his growing up', which is in Kyoto, thus explaining all of the exceptionally rude Kansai-ben he quotes himself using as a teenager. The family is apparently pretty much straight Ryuukyuu Islander, from what I can gather without hammering away with a kanji dictionary. 'Okinawa' is inconveniently used in modern Japanese pretty much interchangeably for the island of Okinawa, which is the largest in the Ryuukyuu chain, and the administrative prefecture of Okinawa, which encompasses the entire chain, but he makes reference to the first time the ocean tried to eat him being in the Yanbaru Sea, which I think is what we'd call the East China Sea, at the north end of the actual island of Okinawa.

This particular chapter is much more interesting in the original Japanese than in translation. The English translation by darkenciel over on LJ doesn't miss any of the explicitly-stated content, but the transfer from a language with multiple script systems to one which only uses one alphabet smashes a lot of the meta-information attached to the text. Gackt makes mention of things like "kamidari" and "yuta", which darcenciel leaves transliterated in quotes -- sensibly, as it turns out, as Gackt writes them out in katakana in kagikakko, which means the words are not actually Japanese. This becomes slightly more obvious when you see the original; although "kamidari" seems to be the standard form you see in anthropological papers about Okinawa, Gackt actually spells it out 「カミダーリ」, "kamidaari", with a double-length word-interior "a" sound that's almost completely absent in standard Japanese. You see the actual sound fairly frequently when a grammatical particle that ends in "a" precedes a word that begins with "a" (for example, "watashi wa arukimasu"/"I walk") and very occasionally inside of compounds, but does not generally occur inside of words. It seems to be a consistent feature of Okinawan, though, where the actual word for the Okinawan dialect is 「ウチナーグチ」, "Uchinaaguchi". A lot of the time you can at least get some idea of what a strange Japanese word means by checking out the kanji used to spell it, even if you miss the precise context of it, but since Okinawan only has a writing system in the sort of technical academic sense that has inspired many years of argument between the University of the Ryuukyuus and just about every other interested party on the planet, this is obviously not going to happen here.

I have no idea how much Uchinaaguchi he actually speaks, but let's just say Gackt knows some very interesting nouns.

Gackt conveniently doesn't really elaborate on any of the Okinawan stuff he's put in quotes, except for "shiro", which you can pretty much guess is a kind of a Okinawan seer or shaman, as he says his grandmother is the reigning one in the family. "Noro" and "yuta" are also terms for working psychics, more or less; I have no idea what the differences are, if there are any, and they seem to be used interchangeably in anthropological articles. The "kamidaari" thing is more interesting. He uses it as an adjectival noun, to describe all of the generally weird spiritual abilities that run in the family, particularly those of his great-grandfather, whom the family seems to think he resembles in many respects. "Kamidaari" is translated in many contexts as "spirit-curse" -- the anthropologists characterize it as a time of severe and disruptive psychosomatic illness that is said to herald the awakening of spiritual powers in one who is to become a seer or shaman. From the descriptions, it sounds like a combination of transient psychoses and a variety of somatoform physical symptoms, usually connected to the sufferer's personality or present circumstance, not unlike the sorts of torment said to be endured by a lot of the saints in Christian tradition. Mostly what it sounds like, is exceptionally unpleasant.

He never links it up explicitly, but the first bits of the book describe being hospitalized for an unspecified illness when he was fairly young. Gackt never says exactly what it was -- Wiki says "gastrointestinal condition", which is unsurprisingly a front-runner for somatoform disorders -- and he recalls getting the distinct impression that they were not going to let him out again until he acted "normal". He fucking hated it then, and he makes it pretty clear that he still fucking hates it when he thinks about it now. He didn't seem all that bothered by the talking to dead people as a kid, but he sounds pretty damn angry that they tried to keep him confined to a hospital over their problems with his weird, which was, medically speaking, unconnected with the physical illness they were supposed to be treating.

He says he doesn't so much believe or disbelieve these days, but this stuff keeps happening and he is much happier when he isn't devoting a lot of energy to arguing with it or ignoring it. It's probably worth noting that he has what I think is a strictly personal quirk about wearing black onyx for protection. He wears a black bead bracelet, which I presume is onyx, around his left wrist -- it's difficult to tell if he's got it in any of the Malice Mizer stuff, since he's usually wearing an annoyingly large amount of clothing in those, but I don't think I've seen him without it after that. You can spot it fairly easily in photos, and in a lot of the closeups on his Sixth Day/Seventh Night tour DVD, which is the one Cat brought home from Japan.

Strangely enough, this also goes a long way to explain why people find him so deeply intimidating. Cat adores the man, and still admits she'd probably be a speechless puddle of wibble if she ever got near him. He comports himself in a manner I've come to find in a lot of people who come from families with long traditions of Serious Weird, including myself. Depending on how you look at it, a family either gains power from working with the spirit world, or a variety of heritable aptitudes and temperaments inspires the people around them to start believing that they work with spirits; either way, once you get that kind of reputation, it sticks rather perniciously. When you come from a family with that kind of rep, and the people raising you believe it, they teach you to deal with it in the simplest way, which boils down to being more stubborn than the cosmos. You use willpower to keep the bad stuff at bay. You simply delineate a personal shell for yourself and inform everything else that it is to keep out. It's not even so much a matter of fighting to guard your outer boundaries -- you just calmly and obstinately say "No, you cannot come in until invited," and that's that.

I don't have any objective data on how well this works on dead people, but I can tell you for damn sure that it works spectacularly on live ones. Roommate the Brown has much the same public persona as I do -- slightly quieter, but still very sarcastic and not easily intimidated -- but her mother vehemently disbelieved in things like that, and mine didn't. She has persistent problems with crazy creeps coming up behind her to smell her hair, and asking if they can lick her boots in public. She hits them with The Complete Works of Shakespeare or whatever else she's reading at the time, and they go away, but she's forever exasperated by the way they keep doing it in the first place. People just don't get that close to me. Full stop. And they don't get that close to Gackt either -- some poor staffer on Moon Child can be seen in the making-of extras, following him around with an umbrella to try and save his hair and makeup when a rooftop shoot is rained out, and even she won't get close to him. She'd rather get rained on than get both of them under the same canopy.

The phenomenon doesn't consciously register with most people; all they know is that they're very uncomfortable standing close to you, and since it's difficult sometimes to distinguish between this kind of boundary and one where a person is angry and antisocial and actively trying to drive people away by inspiring fear, a lot of them take it as a sort of personal declaration of dislike. It really isn't. An invitation to come in closer is very personal, but the wall itself is indiscriminate. Gackt is not actually unfriendly; his body language does open up quite a bit when someone is actually talking to him like a fellow human being, rather than blushing and stammering nonsense, and he seems to go to some trouble to find sunglasses that aren't full-mirrored. (The sunglasses themselves don't mean anything; Gackt and bright ambient light just don't get along. The creepy blue contacts also apparently screen out some of it, which is one reason he's so fond of them.) But he also likes to keep himself inside the boundaries of his shell, and at this point he probably couldn't turn it all off if he tried, which makes people think he's not very approachable.

This particular demeanor also happens to also be a remarkably effective non-reaction to things like bullying, which means the technique is doubly-reinforced for people who have both influences in their lives. The combination is not the only way to develop it, of course, but I suspect that the correlation is high enough and the 'look' is distinctive enough that it's one of the things palm and card readers pick up on when assessing clients.

let the unfailing commence

As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as a harness that a rat cannot get out of. The problem may be insurmountable; the way you keep harnesses on cats and dogs is to fasten them around narrower parts of the animal, and your average rat is shaped roughly the same as your average potato. On the other hand, it is possible to construct a harness that a rat will entirely ignore, or at least find that it's more trouble to wriggle out of than to stay in.

I believe I have now achieved this. The rodents have tiny little gladiator-style harnesses made of stainless steel split rings. Split rings are those things you get keychains on, where you pry one end up and jam the key under it, then rotate it around the ring until it's securely on the loop. Working with tiny split rings (I think the main ones are 12 or 15mm) is a pain in the ass, but it's not like rat harnesses are that big, and I'd be wary of using regular craft chain. Anything you buy that's made of metal probably has the tensile strength to contain a rodent, even rodents as fat as ours, but rats are Olympic-grade squirmers. Most craft chain doesn't have the links welded together, and will come apart if twisted enough, which the rats will undoubtedly do.

I didn't even bother putting clasps on them. It's just as easy -- or difficult -- to get it on the rat by jamming it over his head and getting him to stick his feet through the loops. Once on, it should surprise no one that the rats are far more interested in smelling floor objects than escaping. I wouldn't take them outside like this; for actually leading the rat around, the harnesses are nearly worthless, since pulling on it usually just inspires the rodent to slip a foot out to make the pulling less effective. On the other hand, if your main objective is just keeping track of the furry little bastard so you know when you should pick him up and take him away from, say, duct tape, they work wonderfully.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

okay, apparently rat owners = fail, too

We bought them a cage with an exercise wheel. They hid behind it. The exercise wheel is now in the hamper.

We bought them an exercise ball. They won't let us stuff them into it. The exercise ball is sitting next to the hamper.

We bought them little rat harnesses with bells on them. As soon as we get them on, the rats stuff their front feet into the neck hole and flop around all gimpy until they get it off. The rat harnesses are hanging from the bookcase.

On the other hand, Cat just tied one of them into a shoelace -- a goddamn shoelace! -- and not only did he not try to chew through it, he squirmed in protest when she tried to take it off. He wanted it back! And had to be manually reinserted into the cage, when normally both of them will just run down your arm to go home as soon as you open the door. HE WAS SMELLING THAT FLOOR OKAY?

It's just like buying toys for cats. You just know the instant you get their deluxe $79.99 kitty condo tower home, they'll ignore the hell out of it and play in the cardboard box instead.

rodents = fail

Roommate the Blonde is in the habit of taking our rats out and taunting them with threats of being kissed on the nose when she gets home from work in the morning. Last week, she was in a hurry to get to class and accidentally left the cage door hanging open when she went.

I notice this when I go out to the kitchen for something, by which time it had been open for at least half an hour. I do not immediately see any rats.

Oh shit, I think. Our heating grates are on the baseboards and the design has lots of rodent-sized holes. Our sofa is a sleeper sofa and has all kinds of intricate hinges and springs inside. The accumulated laundry of three people covers the living room floor, waiting to be done. I have no idea if we have a solid toekick underneath the dishwasher. None of the other doors in the house have been shut.

As I lean over the cage to check behind the tchotchkes on the adjacent bookcase, where Nick likes to jump, and behind the hamper-cum-cage stand, where both of them are just dumb enough to fall, I hear rodent claws on cardboard. Two little heads poke out of the little box-house on the bottom of the cage.

That's right. Ladies and gentlemen, our rats were too lazy to escape. Roommate the Blonde put them back in the cage, leaving the door wide open, and they went to sleep. Aside from constantly claiming that they're starving, they are complete epic fail at being rodents.

Rommate the Blonde now tells me that her grueling eight-hour shift of wiki-hopping has churned up the information that rats react to valerian like cats react to catnip. (And, actually, how cats react to valerian. Our dogs loved it, too. This makes perfect sense when you realize that valerian smells like stewed gym socks that have been left to dry again in a giant pile in the back of a dank cabinet.) Assuming we can verify that valerian is non-toxic to rodents, my new entertainment goal for the week is to get the rats stoned and see what happens. Although, I seem to recall valerian is used as a sedative in humans, and I'm not entirely sure how we could tell if the little furballs were actually sleeping more.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Who the fuck is this Lady Gaga person I'm suddenly hearing about, and what does she have against wearing pants?

Music: "...Baby One More Time"

The song "...Baby One More Time" is creepy to start with. I personally think it's up there with "Every Breath You Take" in the ranks of songs people only think are romantic because they've never really listened to the words.

You would think that it couldn't get much creepier than the original single release with its disturbingly exploitative barely-legal star and high school setting. You'd be wrong.

Although you probably won't be surprised to find out who figured out how to make it creepier. I mean, this is the internet.

"...Baby One More Time
Ahmet & Dweezil Zappa

There's another cover by Marilyn Manson, but I can't seem to find a good copy anywhere on YouTube.


Everyone always asks me 'why?' when they find out I speak so many languages. I always tell them 'why not?', because that's the reason I learn pretty much anything. They're always floored by this; I think they're expecting to hear that I have parents in the military and got dragged overseas a lot, or something of the sort. It apparently just doesn't compute that someone might just... you know, want to understand more stuff.

To be fair, that's not my entire reasoning every time. There's usually some sort of initial catalyst that prompts me to study a particular language at a particular time. The French, for example, comes from the foreign language requirement at my high school. You needed two years to graduate, and if you didn't bother picking one, they threw you into Spanish. (I went to high school in Phoenix; as you might imagine, they had somewhere between three and five Spanish teachers at any given time, and one French instructor.) I decided I'd rather be stuck in a classroom with twenty people who had put forth some effort to be there, rather than thirty-five people who had failed to put forth enough effort to get out. It turned out to be a good decision for many other reasons, among them that I adore pulp literature, especially the old stuff, and you can't get much more pulpy than Alexandre Dumas' "Les trois mousquetaires", "Vingt ans aprés" and "Le Vicomte de Bragalonne, ou Dix ans aprés". There's also Gaston Leroux's "Le fantôme de l'opéra" and his lesser-known Joseph Rouletabille detective novels, and all of the strange, dreamy memoirs and novels of aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, including his most famous story, "Le petit prince", which is on the bookcase behind me. (Someday I'll even find somewhere to buy the Arsène Lupin novels that won't charge me an arm and a leg for shipping -- I really need a book called "Arsène Lupin contre Sherlock Holmes", non?) It also turned out to be unexpectedly handy -- I didn't realize it when I was fourteen, but there's a substantial amount of logic and mathematics published in French, including the papers of Benoît Mandelbrot. Pop culture-wise, it's also the third-most common language for the study and industry news of videogaming, which ultimately became one of my favorite research subjects. Canada is generally considered to be in the same market as the US, and historically some of the more interesting production companies have been located in France, like Ubisoft and Infogrames. And I get to read un-mangled versions of Astérix and Les aventures de Tintin.

The Japanese, I also started in high school, with a private tutor. Back in the Dark Ages when I was a teenager, anime and manga had just started to cross over into American culture. There have always been some "classics", like "Kimba, the White Lion", "Astroboy", the movie Akira, and the whole Mobile Suit Gundam franchise, which is to Japan as Star Trek stuff is to the US. Around the mid-90s, though, Americans started to pay much more attention to newer shows and movies -- there was no real commercial market for most of it back then, and for the longest time I saw most of the new, interesting stuff via a membership in TASS, the Tucson Anime Screening Society, and some friends at the University of Arizona who let me crash on their floor during screening weekends. Almost all of it was fansubbed, with the concomitant interesting typoes and occasional half-screen of footnote, trying to explain some obscure pun. (Or just half-screens of dialog -- I distinctly remember Sana-chan from "Kodomo no Omocha" driving several fansubbing circles over the brink of insanity, and to this day I still haven't seen the whole series.) One of the Tucson people was actually from Oregon, where there miraculously existed an Uwajimaya, so we even had (occasional) access to Japanese-language materials. Manga translations at the time were also distinctly crap -- these have also gotten much, much better; Tokyopop used to be terrible, and now they're reasonably accurate -- so all in all, if I actually wanted to know what was going on, I sort of had to learn Japanese.

All three of us here in the data storage center apartment also took Japanese here at the university, and can read it with varying degrees of success; I'm doing fairly well at plowing through "Jihaku" (my personal test: if I understand it well enough to crack up laughing at it, then my comprehension is probably okay) and Roommate the Blonde claims to be most skilled in the subset of kanji that appear frequently in train stations. The three of us have a variety of untranslated manga in the office bookcase, mostly CLAMP stuff like "CLAMP Gakuen Tanteidan", "Gakuen Tokkei DUKLYON", "Tokyo Babylon" and "CLOVER". Oddly, none of us bought "X/1999", probably because it's goddamn depressing. I've also got a volume of "Tsubasa", that some friends of mine brought back from their honeymoon, and about half of "Koko wa Greenwood", which is even funnier in print than it is as OAVs. It's also come in handy in some unexpected places, like the time we hunted down The Pillow Book, a Peter Greenaway film in which Ewan Macgregor plays his role in an occasionally very naked manner, and it turned out that parts of the dialog are in untranslated Japanese. It's also sometimes disconcerting -- Moon Child, which is done in a mixture of English, Japanese and Taiwanese Mandarin, made me have to stop occasionally and ask, "Wait, what were they speaking there?" because the transition doesn't necessarily register anymore.

[Peter Greenaway, by the way, is insane. Do not watch any of his movies if you wanted to use that brain any time soon. I thought it might just be that one, but no, Prospero's Books is just as weird and ow.]

The university runs a limited number of Japanese classes, so when I came back after my BA, I took German instead. The Neverending Story was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid, although I do question now who thought it was a good idea to show that to a five-year-old, because it's one serious acid trip. The original novel, "Die unendliche Geschichte", was written in German by a man named Michael Ende, and I'd always wanted to read it to find out if it was just as bizarre as the film. (Yes. Oh god yes. Also, the movie is only the first third or so of the story -- believe it or not, it gets weirder after that.) I have a beautiful early edition hardcover now, with fully-illuminated pages at the beginning of each chapter, along with "Momo", another one of his hallucinatory fairy tales. Ende has the charming quirk of never wanting to print his books in plain black and white; "Die unendliche Geschichte" alternates between black for Bastian's parts and green for Atreju's, and "Momo" is entirely in chocolate brown. German is also useful if you like reading math and physics papers. "Die mathematische Grundlagen der Quantenmechanik" by John von Neumann is actually surprisingly easy to get through in German if you're already familiar with the math. German has also unexpectedly come in handy in the pop culture arena; Roommate the Blonde has had music by a band called Tokio Hotel sitting around for years now, and even though they've broken through into the American music scene, it's still much easier to keep track of them in German. The subtitles on their YouTube vlog are questionable at best, particularly on their singer, who likes lots of big words and has no mute button if he notices that you have brought a microphone into his near vicinity.

My Spanish is rather crap in comparison to those three. I had one class in high school, because they ran out of other things for me to take and wouldn't just let me stay home another hour, and I used to watch Telemundo and Univisión when I lived in Phoenix and they came in our cable package. I suppose it might have helped more if I'd been more interested in watching Plaza Sésamo. I can understand it all right, and I can read perfectly well, as you might guess from the copy of "Don Quixote de la Mancha" that's sitting back on the 'classic literature' shelf with my copy of La chanson de Roland and the Grail romances in French. I also used to have a little book called "Max y el ocito" when I was a very little kid, but it's either long gone or with my mother by now. I find it very frustrating to speak; I can reverse-engineer stuff that I hear or read with a combination of context and knowing other Romance languages, but I don't really have the vocabulary to generate an answer of my own.

I can understand a very small amount of Welsh. This is totally useless unless I want to read news stories on Torchwood or listen to BBC Radio Cymru online.

I speak some Esperanto, which is also mostly useless, unless you count being able to read Harry Harrison novels without checking footnotes, or watch Inkubo without the subtitles.

I can usually decipher Italian via Latin, French and Spanish. Likewise, when I was working for the university conferencing people one summer, I could understand all the Dutch kids we got storming through, via English and German, I just wasn't able to answer. I find the Scandinavian languages also partially-readable, except for Finnish, which is an abomination from Mars. I can extract information from some of Roommate the Blonde's Chinese homework, but of course everything is read differently in Chinese and Japanese, so I can't speak any of it.

I've had one class in Navajo, and one in Arabic. I was by far the whitest person in the beginning Navajo class, which wasn't actually beginning Navajo anyway -- we're right next to the reservation here, and the Navajo kids typically take the course for an easy A, so it was really more like "Navajo Grammar and Orthography for Native Speakers". The Arabic class was just a terrible bust. It was at 9:10 in the morning, which is much too early for me, and instead of being full of ROTC kids and international affairs majors like I thought it would be, it was me, one guy from the political science department, and twenty freshman idiots from the hotel and restaurant management program who had somehow gotten the notion that they were going to be using the language extensively when they opened up giant tourist trap hotels in Baghdad in a few years. I have no idea who told them this, but if I ever find out it'll be very hard to resist the temptation to beat the idea right out of them again. They were extremely rude to the instructor, never shut up no matter what was going on in the lesson, and eventually I just gave up trying to learn anything in there.

so far, so good

I have now been a freelance professional blogger for over 24 hours. The idea is still weird. It just seems suspicious, somehow, that I might be able to make money by telling random people what I think. That's like offering to pay me for showing up to the internet. It's too easy.

I also seem to have picked up a troll already, which is odd. Why on Earth someone would pay attention to me strictly to dislike me, I dunno. It seems like such a waste of energy. They also seem to have absorbed this idea, common to the self-esteem generation, that it's a dire sin to ever think you're better than anyone else, for any reason. I'm sure there were originally good intentions behind this; the idea, I think, was to prevent an environment where only the very best were ever recognized, so that kids weren't discouraged from trying things that they couldn't be immediately good at. But it seems to have mutated over the years, to the annoying but probably harmless idea that you should find something to praise in everybody, however small, and past that to the actively destructive idea that it was verboten to publicly praise the best people at all, to prevent everyone else's feelings from being hurt.

I'm not fabulous at everything. I am, for example, a lousy basketball player, and I fail miserably at piano and guitar. On the other hand, I am a better writer than most people, and I don't think there's anything wrong with being recognized for that. The fact that I am a smart kid is just that -- a fact. I write from that viewpoint because it's something that shaped a lot of my childhood, and part of what defines who I am. Coming from a background of bullying at school and crazy family at home, I don't deal with social situations like most other people do, and I intend to continue to talk about it for as long as my audience is interested.

So far I've had quite a lot of people tell me I'm fascinating, and only a couple tell me I'm nuts, which I think speaks for itself.