January 2012

I’ve been meaning to post something about this for a while. Japan has a number of critus fruits of which I’ve never seen mention outside Japan. I use three of these (and lemon juice) for flavouring fizzy water as a lower calorie alternative to the CC Lemon soda I used to drink. (I stopped because it was unavailable after the earthquake last year for a while and having weaned myself off it I reduced my calorie intake by sticking to fizzy water with a little flavouring of pure citrus juices.) The first is the yuzu which is a medium sized (about the same size as a Seville orange) yellow fruit usually with a bumpy at the stalk connection. It’s used in quite a lot of Japanese flavourings. For instance yuzu-flavoured soy sauce is quite common. It’s sharp but not particualrly astringent. Next we have the sudachi which looks a little like a lime and is similarly quite hard, though rounder. It’s imilarly astringent. It’s much more sour than the yuzu and very rarely eaten directly, though $WIFE says her farmer grandfather like to eat them (they had a few trees on the farm). Lastly there is the kabosu a yellow green fruit slightly larger than the yuzu. This is more commonly eaten as fruit than the other two. It’s also used by others as a drink flavouring, sometimes being available on ANA flights when they bring drinks round after the meal service, for example. There’s a number of other critus fruits available in Japan that I haven’t seen elsewhere but as I haven’t tasted them (or their juice) I’ll leave those for another day.

SO I’ve now been sudying Japanese for eight years. In the first few years I was only so-so committed to spending the time on it. After my sabbatical here in 2007 I got much more committed to it and since moving here I’ve started using the Anki flashcard system which encourages me in a number of ways to study quite hard (1-2 hours per day typically, self-study, plus a one hour personal lesson every week). With both my teacher in the UK and my new teacher here, sometimes I’d feel like I was making no progress. That’s because they’re good teachers and are always pushing just beyond my confort zone, so I always feel like I’m working hard, and sometimes I’m failing at things. $WIFE and $COLLEAGUES do tell me I’m improving, though. Certainly I can read more of the kanji I see on the street and occasionally I can keep up with (some of) the substitles (part of the normal broadcast) on news programmes that $WIFE watches. I can even sometimes figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word and its pronunciation because I already know its constituent kanji characters from other words (or on their own).
Today I managed something that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to. When I bought my current laptop the store didn’t have extra power supplies available, and when I enquired later they don’t stock them as standard and advised going direct to ASUS. Before Christmas I checked with ASUS and they didn’t have stock. Today I checked their website and they had stock in, so I ordered two extras (I need one for home, one for the office and one for the bag). Yes, I do need these – once in the past three months I forgot to unplug the power supply at home when heading into the office – luckily I was able to keep things short in the office anyway and come back home for the rest of the day. Why this is relevant to my improving Japanese is that the Asus Japan website is entirely in Japanese and I was able to find what I was looking for, check they had stock and go through the whole ordering process, while being absolutely certain I understood everything on the way and without having to look any words up in a dictionary. I’ve done similar things before, though I usually have to ask $WIFE to help or at least look a few things up in the dictionary. Now, this is obviously not fluency. I have a long way to go yet. According to my Anki studies I’ve only completed the JLPT2 vocabulary and have another 3000 words/phrases to learn to get to JLPT1 (the highest level and supposedly equivalent to high school gradate Japanese, at least in listening and reading, with some claim to “writing” ability but no speaking test). However, it is progress. I was also able to have a real conversation with $FATHER-IN-LAW and $MOTHER-IN-LAW at the New Year family party without needing interpretation by $WIFE. My grammar used to be ahead of my vocabulary. I think it’s now the other way around and I must add appropriate grammar cards to my Anki deck and interleave new vocabulary with the grammar. I think it will take me until 2015 to be basically fluent and maybe 2017 before I think I could even approach doing my job in Japanese. But, it’s nice to feel progress and have confidence that the work I’m putting in is paying off.

The second novella in the Diamond DOgs, Turquoise Days collection. A much easier read than Dimaond Dogs. Far less disturbing directly. It’s a masterful exploration of the potential consequences of some of the things Reynolds already introduced in the Revelation Space universe, most notably the Pattern Jugglers and their ability to store and transfer mental patterns. This is a nice combination of a small story of people, family, amibition and a scientific career balanced against a world-shattering conspiracy. I think this is one of my favourites of his stories.

Yet more Alastair Reynolds. I’m halfway through the two-novella book Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days. Well, three quarters, actually as I’m halfway through the second novella Turquoise Days. The book title is just the two novella titles run together. The first provides a bit of backstory to some of the characters in Chasm City, and an explanation of some of the weird physical appearance of a couple of characters in there.
While some of Reynolds’ other works come close, to me this is the first piece of his that actually crosses the line into being horror. The main difference for me is that the strange bodily transformations in this one aren’t accidental or for a necessary and over-riding purpose. Here they are rather futile in search of the solution to a puzzle rather like the movie Cube (which reference Reynolds hangs a lampshade on early in the story). In some ways this story also reminds me a little of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, with the same sense of partly inevitable, partly chosen horrific consequences, due to inconceivable alien intent and technology. I’m not one much for out and out horror, though I do read/watch a little of it (see Books – Neonomicon for example). I didn’t dislike this story, but it’s beyond my tolerance for re-reading.

Well, this was the first Alastair Reynolds book I didn’t like. I think I can see what he was trying to achieve here and as JMS once said about one of the few (IMHO) terrible episodes of Babylon 5, “If you never fail, you’re not pushing the envelope hard enough.” However, the flaws I see in this book somewhat remind me of the critical reviews I wrote for Vector of a couple of Juliet McKenna’s books. In those she was giving us an inside-the-head point of view from, in the first case, a villain and, in the second case, a hero from a very different cultural mindset. In both of these cases I found that my interest in the tale was significantly though not fatally diminished by my antipathy to the viewpoint characters.
Spoilers for Pushing Ice (more…)

Medical TMI


Alan Moore’s contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos. A suitable horrific addition to Lovecraft’s legacy. Like many recent versions this uses the conceit that Lovecraft was writing about something real but presenting it as fiction. There’s always been that element in some of the Cthulhu Mythos but stuff written lately and set in the modern day has often used this. It was part of a Supernatural episode, for example, with one of the characters commenting that he wouldn’t read horror since his “day job” was bad enough.

As one would expect of Alan Moore, both the short, orignally one-off, The Courtyard and the longer sequel Neonomicon are well-told and have wonderful artwork to accompany them. He pulls no punches in the graphic displays and is faithful to the concepts of the Mythos while adding another layer of terror and psychedelia to them. Well worth seeking out if you’re an Alan Moore fan or a Mythos fan, but not for the faint of heart.

Continuing with my reading of my stock of unread Alastair Reynolds books. Century Rain is, I think, his first published novel not in the Revelation Space universe. It’s an interesting mix of a bit of alternate history, detective novel and nanocaust. He seems to be coming up against the singularity problem: how to write interesting fiction that’s accessible to human 1.0 readers about human 2.0+ characters. He falls back on the discovered alien ruins for a major plot macguffin as well. A similar “network” of FTL travel systems that various others have used (Cherryh’s Gates from Morgain, Zahns “Night Train to Rigel” being the two that come straight to my mind but there are plenty of others). As befits a stellar physicist his system has more detail about how it operates (not how it works, but how it’s used) that most of the others.

A story which cracks along at an intense pace for all of its 500 pages combining some compelling human drama along with whiz-bang pyrotechnics and interesting science speculations on the links between the very large and very small scales of physics. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the last sentence which seemed unnecessary and rather against character for that protagonist. I’d have preferred that line to be left as unwritten, though the consideration that led up to it could have been left in. I think that kind of unfinished thought would have also given more weight to the possibility of a “frozen in time” outcome as well. That may have just been me, though.

As of writing (16:00 JST on Wednesday 18th January 2012) Wikipedia is blacked out apart from one page:

Wikipedia: SOPA

This is in protest at two bills currently being debated in the US Congress (PIPA in the House and SOPA in the Senate). These bills are being rushed through at quite a fast track in congress because they are bi-partisan (meaning: the big businesses who drafted the bills, and are corruptly paying congress-critters in campaign donations for their support, have bought peple in both parties).

In early January there was a movement by some opposed to this bill asking various large Internet organisations to black out in January in a coordinated effort to oppose these bills and raise public awareness about them. Most of the major service providers such as Google can’t really afford a day’s blackout. As Wikipedia is a non-profit and doesn’t make money per eyeball it was one of the few high profile sites to be able and willing to take this step.

There are more details from the EFF about these proposals.

Alastair Reynolds is the Hal-Con Overseas GoH this year. Years ago I read Revelation Space (a couple of years after its release) and really liked it. I started buying his books, mostly in hardback. However, Reynolds’ work is deep and complex, in plot, fictional structures, science (fact and fiction) and writing style. None of this is a bad thing, but through most of the period from 2003-2010 I was rarely up to reading things this complex. So, I kept buying and storing his books but never getting around to reading them. I kept them when I did the great cull before moving to Japan, though. Like my growing unread Gene Wolfe pile, I always wanted to get back to being abe to read things like this and now I can. My new circumstances give me the energy to tackle things like this again, so I’m catching up on at least some of his work. I started last year with what I thought was the Inhibitors trilogy by re-reading Revelation Space and then reading Chasm City and Redempton Ark for the first time. I’ve got but haven’t read the related short story collection Diamond Dogs, Turquois Days. On returning to Reynolds this year I looked at the order of his books and found that Absolution Gap was the fourth and final Inhibitor book. Oops. This was something of a mistake on my part. In particular it was probably the worst point at which to break the story. Everything that happens in the first three is needed to understand this one. There is no handy “what has gone before” revision guide. The in-text in-character descriptions just about sufficed to bring me up to speed, but I struggled occasionally with understanding bits that depended on knowing the previous history between the various characters. Definitely not a book to recommend for stand-alone reading. However, as the finale to a series that started out with stunning scope and widescreen baroque science fictional concepts, it works tremendously. With each book weighing in at around 600 pages, the 2400 pages of this series takes in so many concepts of science fiction it’s impossible to list them all (Charlie Stross is another author who throws fifteen ideas in where more parsimonious writers would flog one out for each book). From group minds to bio-engineered sentient pigs. From just-slower-than-light travel with time dilation, life extension and cryo-sleep to nano-plagues and brane theory both impacting on brains. It’s a wonder that he manages to fit a plot in around all the high concept stuff here, but the characters are all believable, even the inhuman, non-human, post-human ones. The depiction of the madness of Quaiche (deliberately dosing himself on indoctrinal viruses to shore up his religious faith), the twisted semi-group minds of conjoiners like Skade, Remontoire and Clavain and the mystical child messiah of Aura, are all tours de force. Not in this book, but in Redemption Ark, the one descriptive piece that really stayed with me is the brief point-of-view element from the Inhibitors and their creation of a short-lived “intelligence” to fulfil their mission of removing star-faring intelligence while retaining as much as possible of the rest of the ecosystem. Wonderful stuff. I’m continuing on with Reynolds now, reading Century Rain. I must read the Inhibitor universe short stories before my memory of the setting fades again, but I’m not in the mood for short stories just now.

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