Wednesday 01 May 2002

The glory of pho

Spring rolls from Pho 236 in NewtownLast week, taking a break from moving my Radio site to Movable Type, Herman Coomans and I had lunch at Pho 236, a Vietnamese place in Newtown, where I live.

Today I had lunch there again with my friend Gerrit Fokkema. We started with a serving of Goi Cuon (cold spring rolls) followed by Pho (noodle soup) with seafood rather than the traditional beef.

Seafood pho from Pho 236 in NewtownIf you’ve never had pho, you should run immediately to the closest pho restaurant and order a bowl (it doesn’t matter what time it is, pho can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner). Both Herman and Gerrit were struck by the delicious flavor, the freshness of the ingredients, and the feeling that you’ve eaten something really healthy. Just writing about it like this makes me want to return tonight, but I’m having dinner at Linda and Jane’s place so I’ll have to wait.

<edited>For those who want to know more about pho, Mai Pham, the owner of the Lemon Grass Restaurant and Cafe in Sacramento provides a complete history of the dish plus a recipe in this marvellous SF Gate essay.</edited>

Here, she discusses pho’s origins:

Some theorize it was the French who triggered pho, popularizing the use of bones and lesser cuts of beef to make broth. After all, in a society that wasted nothing, what was one to do with all the bones carved from biftecks? In fact, they believe perhaps it was first created when Vietnamese cooks learned to make pot au feu for their French masters. The name pho, they suspect, might have even come from feu. But others argue that while the French can take credit for popularizing beef, it was actually the Chinese who inspired the dish with ingredients like noodles, ginger and anise. Then there are still others who claim it was the Chinese, and the Chinese alone, who instigated this culinary wonder.

But regardless of the origin, Chinese or French or both, once at the stove, the Vietnamese were quick to interject their own ideas. They concocted an exciting dish, using ingredients inspired by their foreign rulers but customizing it to include nuoc mam, or fish sauce, the defining characteristic of the local cuisine.

In the 1930s, in part spurred by nationalistic sentiments, some Hanoi scholars wrote passionately about pho, a food that not only cleverly provided all the necessary nourishment in one convenient bowl, but one that also symbolically freed the Vietnamese. At last, the Vietnamese succeeded in their fight for self-determination; finally they were free to express themselves, if only through their pho.

<edited>Now I feel that in ordering seafood pho I haven’t had the authentic pho experience. I’ll make up my mind about that tomorrow. And if you take the time to read Mai Pham on pho, you won’t be able to resist trying a bowl.</edited>

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Thursday 02 May 2002

Plagiarizing pho

In my recent post on pho, the Vietnamese soup, I included (with a link) a few paragraphs from a comprehensive essay on the place of pho in Vietnamese history and culinary tradition. Out of courtesy, I sent the author an email, telling him that I had quoted his text.

I received a reply saying that it was not his work, that he found it on the Net and “used it as an example.” All 1781 words! A little Google sleuthing located the real author, Mai Pham, the owner of a Sacramento restaurant and author of a Vietnamese cookbook. The article was originally published in SF Gate. This is my first experience of Web plagiarism. I guess I must be naive.


An American Dishmatique

Scotch-Brite Dishwand with Scrubber Brush (photograph by Jeff Cheney)There have been some very exciting developments in the worldwide hunt for the Dishmatique. Kevin Laurence added a comment to the original story, noting that in the UK, three scouring heads are available: White, Green, and Orange. “The orange one is less abrasive than the green and not as smooth as the white,” explained Kevin, adding that the Dishmatique system might be available in France too.

Then tonight, Jeff Cheney emailed me the news that he’d found the American equivalent—the Scotch-Brite Dishwand with Scrubber Brush—at Walgreen’s on Market Street in San Francisco.

It’s clear to me at least, from the picture Jeff included, that the American version is superior to the British models we use in Australia. Not only is the scouring head tapered (allowing better access to gunk-filled nooks and crannies) but the handle is calibrated (so that you can add water and detergent in the correct proportions—if you favor diluted detergent for environmental or other reasons). Once again, American know-how transforms excellence into perfection.

Additional Dishmatique clones (Photographs by Jeff Cheney)

<update>Jeff Cheney sent photographs of two more Dishmatique clones that he found at a local Safeway grocery store. “I’m not sure what’s ‘automatic’ about the first one,” he writes, “but I like the aggressive brush on the “Squeeze & Wash” model. Jeff adds that he thinks the Dishmatique “still wins for the best name.” I can’t see how anyone would disagree. Though I do prefer the interchangeable sponge/scourer head to the bristles on the Squeeze & Wash.</update>


Attacking the (person not the) argument

Mike Sanders quoted Richard Bennett’s snide personal attack on Dave Winer, written in response to Winer’s essay, Sharon Must Go.

If Winer had followed the party line and written an essay called Sharon Must Stay in which he praised Sharon as a “man of peace,” would he have been flattered instead of denigrated? Like this, for example:

A particularly sharp example of Silicon Valley political savvy is the essay on Dave Winer’s blog titled “Sharon Must Stay.” Winer is a key figure in the group that some have called the San Francisco Web whizzes. He’s representative of a common phenomenon in this valley, the brilliant software developer who singlehandedly creates an important software category, builds a company around it, then sells the company for a handsome profit.

In Winer’s case it was an outlining and presentation package for the Macintosh called MORE, which he astutely sold to Symantec before Mac sales started to nosedive. Although he could have relaxed on a beach in the Bahamas for the rest of his life, Winer has chosen to devote his imagination and considerable energies to creating a blogging tool called Radio UserLand. He has initially positioned Radio as personal publishing software, but his real goal is to empower groups to work collaboratively in new and exciting ways.

Along the way, Dave Winer has managed to antagonize more than a few people but that’s to be expected for anyone who has the moxie to forcefully express his opinions, about politics or technology. Here’s the essence of his argument:

As it happens, my rewrite is considerably closer to the truth than Bennett’s unsavory ad hominem attack. But that’s not the point. In both my version, and in Bennett’s original, there is only one relevant sentence. It’s this one:

Here’s the essence of his argument.

The only issue worthy of rebuttal is Dave Winer’s argument that Sharon should go. Winer’s personal history, how he made his fortune, and how he spends it have absolutely no bearing on his attitudes towards the Middle East. Dave Winer is entitled to express his opinions in good faith and to expect that anyone who disagrees will attack the argument and not the person making the argument.

When Bennett does address Winer’s argument, he makes the persuasive point that “that the only possible successor to Sharon in the wings right now is Netanyahu, a more hawkish man than Sharon himself.” So why not build on that to undermine Winer’s basic premise?

Instead, Bennett sends out an unambiguous message that anyone who expresses less than unconditional support for Israel will be subjected to a character assassination. In Winer’s case, his motives have been called into question, his life’s work dismissed as trivial, and his financial success shrugged off as accidental.

How that encourages the uncommitted to give sympathetic consideration to the Israeli cause is beyond my comprehension.

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Friday 03 May 2002

Japan’s newest export

Douglas McGray’s Foreign Policy essay, titled Japan’s Gross National Cool offers the most insightful analysis of Japanese culture I’ve read in a long time. McGray suggests that, despite the crash of the bubble economy and the resulting economic woes of the last decade, Japan “has been perfecting the art of transmitting certain kinds of mass culture—a technique that has contributed mightily to U.S. hegemony around the world.”

Japan has become one of a handful of perfect globalization nations (along with the United States). It has succeeded not only in balancing a flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture with a more private, domestic one but also in taking advantage of that balance to build an increasingly powerful global commercial force. In other words, Japan’s growing cultural presence has created a mighty engine of national cool.

McGray peppers his serious social and economic arguments with marvellous examples of contemporary Japanese attitudes and behaviour. For example, the manufactured tarento (talent) pop groups that rocket to the top of the charts and disappear just as quickly:

Consider the case of a new band, Lipless X Sister… Like most Japanese pop music acts, Lipless X Sister is a concept group, dreamed up by record producers and marketing executives and then assembled through auditions. In this case, the concept was 18- to 22-year-old girls with 2-year-old children. A producer explained the band’s name to local press: “You can like them. But they’re mothers, so you can’t kiss them.”

And, of course, Hello Kitty:

Sanrio licenses so many products with Hello Kitty’s likeness that a company spokesman could not confirm the current count. Put it between 12,000, the estimate he gave, and 15,000, a number that is widely reported. You can buy individually wrapped Hello Kitty prunes. You can buy a toaster that burns Hello Kitty’s face into a piece of bread. You can buy a Hello Kitty vibrator. “We don’t have such strict regulations,” the spokesman said. “Hard alcohol, maybe that would not be appropriate.”

(Link via Arts & Letters Daily)

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Saturday 04 May 2002

Saturday afternoon at the Aquarium

Shark, Sydney Aquarium, 5 May 02

Every other month I spend an afternoon and evening with Herman & Fiona and their two boys, John and James. This afternoon we took a trip to Darling Harbor where we ate lunch, visited the Sydney Aquarium, and rode a complete loop on the monorail.

This evening we ate dinner at New Wok in Town. The restaurant is owned by two brothers (Charles and William) and their wives (Phoebe and Amy). Charles handles the front-of-house, William manages the kitchen, and Phoebe and Amy wait tables a few shifts a week.

Fiona is expecting a baby in August and Amy told her it will be a girl—because of the shape of her tummy and the fact that the baby is sitting low. Come August we’ll be able to gauge the accuracy of traditional Chinese obstetrics.

And, if you’re visiting Sydney, the Aquarium is well worth a visit. Particularly the sharks.


Sunday 05 May 2002

Netscape 4.x users. Enough already!

Burningbird has suffered The Attack of the Nagging Netscape Users:

I’ve had entries in my comments in addition to email that the images are overlapping the text when my new weblog is viewed in Netscape 4.7.

I can’t fathom why we are expected to jump through hoops to accommodate users of a browser that (depending on who you believe) commands 2-4% market share and that, as Joe Clark put it, “cannot interpret standard HTML or stylesheets, or, what is far worse, it disastrously misinterprets them.”

To make it worse, supporting Netscape 4.x users makes it far more difficult to create accessible sites. In an article titled To Hell With Bad Browsers, Jeffrey Zeldman summarizes the argument:

…consider the new laws about web accessibility. Separating style from content via HTML 4/XHTML and CSS can help you comply with these laws. Sticking with hacks and workarounds makes compliance that much harder. The temporary downside is that standards-compliant sites may not look great in older browsers. But most users can upgrade their browsers far more easily than people with disabilities can “upgrade” their eyes, ears, or limbs.

In another article (Why Don’t You Code For Netscape?) Zeldman answers the question that Netscape 4.x users are asking Burningbird:

Q. Your website looks nice in Internet Explorer 6, but really bad in Netscape 4.7… Please explain the logic of designing only for one browser.

A. Thanks for writing. We don’t design for only one browser. We design for all browsers and devices by authoring to W3C recommendations including XHTML 1.0 Transitional and Cascading Style Sheets.

As a result, A List Apart displays properly in Opera 5, Opera 6, MSIE5, MSIE5.5, MSIE6, Netscape 6, and Mozilla, while its text is available to any browser or Internet device, from Netscape 1.0 to Palm Pilots and web phones. as it appears in Netscape 4.79This site also displays properly in Opera 5, Opera 6, MSIE5, MSIE5.5, MSIE6, Netscape 6.2, and Mozilla. It doesn’t display properly in the beta version of OmniWeb, though perhaps it eventually will.

The illustration at the left shows how this site appears in Netscape 4.x (and earlier versions). Click on the image to see a full size screen shot.

Users of ancient browsers see the logo, site title & description, then the content, and finally the calendar & links. It doesn’t look pretty but the content’s all there, including the pictures. The structure of the page is obvious because the site name & description, entry dates, and post titles are formatted as Headings 1, 2, and 3 respectively. (I’m not saying I’m Jonny Fantastic—I got all this stuff from Mark Pilgrim.)

But, unlike Burningbird, I don’t get email about the images overlapping the text.

To accomplish this, I use the @import method

<style type="text/css" media="all">
@import "/css/styles.css";

to ensure that 4.0 browsers don’t see the style sheet and can’t botch the rendering of the page.

So why is it that Netscape 4.x users—who could easily upgrade to a standards-compliant browser—put their desire to use an obsolete browser above the needs of all other Web users? Not just above those with disabilities who benefit most from accessible sites, but above everyone who uses a modern browser. And why are they so frequently arrogant about it? As if using a tenth-rate browser is a mark of distinction.

Many years ago, I bought a copy of Helix, a graphical relational database for the Macintosh in which fields, relationships, calculations, queries, and layouts are represented by tiles that you drag around and connect. Developing a database in Helix was a bit like play mah-jong. I’ll never forget opening the manual and reading the first sentence:

If you don’t have a hard drive, you should run out and buy one.

It’s about time we said something similar to Netscape 4.x users:

If you wish to see this site as it’s meant to be viewed, you should download and install a standards-compliant browser.

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Monday 06 May 2002

Heian women’s writing

During the entire Heian period… Chinese remained the language of scholars, priests, and officials, occupying a role analogous to that of Latin in the West. Despite the steady emancipation from foreign tutelage, Chinese characters retained their overwhelming prestige and were the exclusive medium for any serious form of writing among men.

Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince

Upper-class Heian women were actively discouraged from learning to read and write in Chinese, no doubt to ensure that they posed no threat to male political dominance (although, as Morris points out, not until a thousand years later, after the Pacific War, would the status of Japanese women improve beyond that of their Heian ancestors).

In her diary, Murasaki Shikibu recounts that she would listen as her younger brother was learning the Chinese classics and that she

became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to grasp and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: “Just my luck!” he would say. “What a pity she was not born a man.” But then I gradually realized that people were saying “It’s bad enough when a man flaunts his Chinese learning; she will come to no good,” and since then I have avoided writing the simplest character.

Even so, after her husband’s death in 1001, she continued to read the Chinese books that he had left in a cupboard “crammed to bursting point,” thereby attracting the disapproval of her servants. “‘It’s because she goes on like this that she is so miserable. What kind of lady is it who reads Chinese books?’ they whisper.”

This prohibition conferred on Heian women an unintended advantage since it left them free to write in vernacular Japanese, employing an early variant of the hiragana script, called onnade (women’s writing).

For a period of about 100 years, the main genres of classical Japanese literature — nikki (diaries), kiko (travel accounts), zuihitsu (essays), and monogatari (tales or romances) — were pioneered by women writers who, using a supposedly inferior writing system, mastered the difficult process of forging (in Richard Bowring’s words) “a flexible written style out of a language that [had] only previously existed in a spoken form.”

The Tale of Genji

Their writing speaks to us across the gulf of a thousand years with passion and immediacy, in works such as Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, the Izumi Shikibu Diary, the Gossamer Years, and the Lady Sarashina’s As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams.

Heian men persisted in writing in the Chinese-Japanese hybrid language which — as it was designed for the keeping of official records — was ill-suited to recording either spoken Japanese or the sad, sweet mysteries of everyday life. With one notable exception: Ki no Tsurayuki, a distinguished poet who adopted the persona of a woman to write the beautiful Tosa Diary in the hiragana script.

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Tuesday 07 May 2002

The unbearable sweetness of friendship

Tonight at the video store, where I’d gone to pick up Philip Kaufman’s movie of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the rental clerk asked me if I had a reward card (Rent Five, Get One Free). I found it, along with two photo booth pictures that I’d put there for safe keeping, then promptly forgotten.

Photo booth pictures of two young women

The photographs had been sandwiched between pages 200 and 201 of the copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I bought from Gould’s bookstore six weeks ago. In Chapter 9 of Part Five (which ends on page 200) and Chapter 10 (which begins on page 201), Kundera attempts to explain the reasons for Tomas’s compulsive womanizing. Chapter 10 opens:

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.

The obsession of the former is lyrical: what they seek in women is themselves, their ideal, and since an ideal is by definition something that can never be found, they are disappointed again and again. The disappointment that propels them from woman to woman gives their inconstancy a kind of romantic excuse, so that many sentimental women are touched by their unbridled philandering.

The obsession of the latter is epic, and women see nothing the least bit touching in it: the man projects no subjective ideal on women, and since everything interests him, nothing can disappoint him. This inability to be disappointed has something scandalous about it. The obsession of the epic womanizer strikes people as lacking in redemption (redemption by disappointment).

It’s reasonable to assume that my copy of Kundera’s novel originally belonged to one or other of the young women. In the book, Sabina (Tomas’s mistress) encourages Tereza (his wife) to become a photographer, lending her “three or four monographs of famous photographers” and explaining “what made each of the photographs interesting.”

[Tereza] felt a rush of admiration for Sabina, and because Sabina treated her as a friend it was an admiration free of fear and suspicion and quickly turned into friendship.

What makes the photo booth pictures (formally) interesting is that they are framed as mirror images, except that the women have changed places so that each appears in the foreground of one photo and the background of another. The real interest is, however, in the pair rather than the single images; in the juxtaposition of two portraits of two women, happily mugging for a camera without an operator, as it records a tiny sliver of “the endless variety of the objective female world.”


Friday 10 May 2002

Intimate relations

My brief flirtation with Flaubert ended abruptly. Whatever interest I might have had in nineteenth century France or Frédéric Moreau’s unrequited love for Madame Arnoux could not withstand the gravitational pull of Heian (794-1185) Japan. So I’ve returned to my project of reading all three translations of The Tale of Genji (Waley, Seidensticker, and Tyler—chapter by chapter).

In the introduction to the first volume of Waley’s translation, he quotes Murasaki Shikibu’s diary to illustrate the intimacy of her relationships with other ladies in the Empress Akiko’s court:

It has often been observed that whereas in her commonplace book (the Makura no Soshi [Pillow Book]) Sei Shonagon scarcely so much as mentions the existence of the other ladies-in-waiting, Murasaki refers constantly to her companions, and to one of them at least she was evidently very strongly attached. Her great friend was Lady Saisho. ‘On my way back from the Empress’s rooms I peeped in at Saisho’s door. I had forgotten that she had been on duty at night and would now be having her morning sleep. She had thrown over her couch various dresses with bright-colored linings, and on top of them had spread a covering of beaten silk, lustrous and heavily scented with perfume. Her face was hidden under the clothes; but as she lay there, her head resting on a box-shaped writing-case, she looked so pretty that I could not help thinking of the little princesses in picture-books. I raised the clothes from her face and said to her: “You are like a girl in a story.” She turned her head and said sharply: “You lunatic! Could you not see I was asleep? You are too inconsiderate….” While she was saying this she half raised herself from her couch and looked up at me. Her face was flushed. I have never seen her so handsome. So it often is; even those whom we at all times admire will, upon some occasion, suddenly seem to us ten times more lovely than ever before.’

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Saturday 11 May 2002

Washing dishes at the University of Blogaria

AKMA writes that reflecting on Carol Carbone’s supplemental addition to DSM-IV (on Identiopathic Personality Disorder) while washing the dishes led him to ponder “the difficulty of thinking critically about the church from within the church.”

Although he has promised to send me a dishwashing photograph, I already know that AKMA does not use the Dishmatique or any of its American variants, since the technical complexity of the Dishmatique discourages any speculation other than Should I switch to the Non-Scratch head for this china salad bowl? or Do I need to top up the handle with detergent?

I remain alert, however, to the possibility that AKMA has developed a postmodern dishwashing method that amplifies one’s capacity for free associative thinking and critical analysis while guaranteeing spotless dishes and utensils. With AKMA’s permission, I will publish the photograph as soon as it arrives.

In a post titled Hands Off My Saint, AKMA responded to what he perceived as Jeff Ward’s unfair slur (since retracted) on St Augustine. I could only barely make sense of the paragraph that Jeff quoted (from On Christian Doctrine) but AKMA pointed to two sources of difficulty: Latin syntax sometimes results in sentences that translate badly into English while the quality of the translation is crucial. AKMA provided two alternative translations, each of which made much better sense (I preferred that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers to Edmund Hill’s).

Does not AKMA’s description of Jeff Ward as Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Blogaria imply the existence of other professorial vacancies? I have no objection to AKMA’s appointment as Chancellor of the university as long as fund-raising for the institution is placed in the hands of the Happy Tutor, whose intimate connections with the rich and powerful would surely result in a steady stream of endowments.

Unencumbered by any sense of false modesty, I nominate myself for the Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon Foundation Chair in Early Japanese Literature at the University of Blogaria.


Sunday 12 May 2002

The dishwashing theologian

True to his word, AKMA has furnished photographic evidence of his commitment to the highest standards of dishwashing excellence.

A.K.M. Adam holding a Liquid Detergent Dish Washer (plus closeup photo of Dish Washer packaging)

Although, as he admitted in a previous post, “the snap-on sponges lack that scrubbing surface that would make the product ideal,” the Liquid Detergent Dish Washer does in fact meet the criteria for a Dishmatique-style product:

  • a handle that is filled with liquid detergent; plus
  • snap-on replaceable sponge heads.

The scouring surface on the snap-on sponge (available in one level of scouring intensity in the USA, two in Australia, and three in the UK) is generally accepted as a refinement rather than an integral part of the design.

Accordingly, I must offer my abject apologies for doubting AKMA’s dishwashing bona fides and, at the same time, express my unbounded admiration for someone who can engage in inner theological debate whilst using a complex dishwashing implement.

(I reject all suggestions that my humble demeanor is related in any way to AKMA’s influence on my recent academic appointment.)

Ralf added a comment to my original Dishmatique post, saying that although he likes “the idea of washing dishes with more or less clean hands” he despairs of finding one in Germany where he lives. The fact that the Dishmatique is available in Sweden and Finland suggests that dishwashing standards may be higher in Scandinavia than in other parts of the European Union (the UK, of course, excepted).

“Maybe someone is willing to send me a box full of dishmatiques with replacement heads (after I sent the money, of course),” adds Ralf.

Having asked for, and received, a tenured professorship at U Blog (without any money changing hands), I am prepared to act as a Dishmatique supplier of last resort. However, I do urge Ralf and anyone else who lusts after the Dishmatique to try a few different supermarkets—after all, Jeff Cheney located three variants in San Francisco in less than 24 hours and AKMA found a fourth in Evanston, Illinois (although in AKMA’s case we cannot discount the possibility of divine intervention).

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Monday 13 May 2002

Let’s blame the victim

Time Magazine photograph of Josh Quittner (I'd like to credit the photographer but Time's web team don't believe in ALT tags)Bruce Burkhardt’s CNN interview with “self-proclaimed blogger Josh Quittner” touched more than a few raw nerves in Blogaria today. Burningbird asked:

Why is Josh Quittner the definitive authority on weblogs, do real people use the word “cool” that much in their conversation… and who the fuck cares?

And visitors to her site were quick to comment.

Jeneane Sessum: you forgot to mention the exclamation points. we bloggers love those as much as Josh talking about blogs! Don’t ask a woman blogger though. NOOOO way.

Rogi: *What* a completely and utterly useless article that is…do you think that they actually paid him for it?

Stavros: think I might eat a plate of flowers, in hope that I might then be able to shoot bees out of my mouth.

Ed Murray: hands down the worst ‘mainstream’ piece about weblogs to date. what’s this new site called Mr. Quittner seems so enamored of?

Perhaps spending so much time with AKMA over the weekend has left me with a quart of the milk of human kindness flowing through every vein. Or, again under AKMA’s influence, I may be drawn to desperate, forgotten, impossible or lost causes. Either way, I feel compelled to rush to Josh’s defence. I’ll start by quoting Adam Curry’s The Big Lie:

I’ve been in the public eye for more than 18 years, in Europe and the US. I’ve enjoyed fame and recognition, which comes at a price.

That price isn’t privacy, as many would have you believe, the price is the cost of the truth.

I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times. By broadcasters, publications, newspapers, magazines, school papers. You name it, they’s interviewed me.

Not once, ever, has the result been factually correct.

Though I’m not even remotely “famous,” I’ve been interviewed dozens of times. More often than not, my ideas or opinions have been blatantly distorted in order to manufacture controversy. Even when you try to be on your guard, a skillful journalist can still make you look like a clown.

For example, Josh’s reference to

So, my favorite — the one I go to every day… is a site called It’s a blog for techies. The cool thing that (Slash) does though, is its software has this really interesting algorithm that weights how many times people actually hit on a particular link and how valuable they found it. So the good commentary floats to the top….

Am I alone in believing that Josh is actually referring to Slashdot? And that Bruce Burkhardt assumed he meant “” but didn’t bother to check, since the real describes itself as a:

site… used for web site development [which] has no content of interest to anyone except the developers. There are a number of student sites hosted here and you are welcome to visit them.

Needless to say, there are no links to any of the sites mentioned in the interview.

So isn’t the real villain CNN’s Bruce Burkhardt? After all, he wrote the “article”—in the time-honored pro-journalist tradition: “Who gives a shit about weblogs? Why bother with fact-checking? After all, isn’t our real job trivializing the subject and undermining the credibility of those we interview?”

As far as I can tell, Josh Quittner is guilty of one thing: as a journalist himself, he should have seen the setup a mile away. But hey, who amongst us hasn’t behaved like a dill at one time or another?

So my sympathies are with Josh. Even if the CNN interview is karmic payback for his past journalistic sins. But no way will I try to defend Gurshuran Sidhu.

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Wednesday 15 May 2002

Long live the Macintosh

Doc Searls’ blogging the Xserve announcement set me thinking about Apple. Whatever serious Mac cred I may have accrued by starting to use the Macintosh in 1985 evaporated when I switched to Windows in 1996. In all that time only Eastgate’s Tinderbox application has made me consider buying a Mac, but I decided to hang out for the Windows version instead. And though I miss the simplicity and elegance of the Macintosh Japanese Language Kit, Windows 2000 provides adequate Japanese support.

I still retain an emotional connection with the Mac—I visited Macintouch regularly until early last year—and I continue to be entertained by Doc Searl’s love-hate relationship with the platform. (Though I’m aware that he may not see it that way, I can’t think how else to describe a bond based on equal parts of fondness and frustration.)

I was astonished to feel myself slipping away from Apple eight years ago, thinking at the time: “If they can’t hold me, they can’t hold anyone.” Happily, I was wrong. Everyone’s looking for a messiah and, as it happens, Steve Jobs turned out to be Apple’s. Even though I’m not really a geek, there’s a geeky part of my temperament that loves the idea of UNIX wrapped in a pretty GUI. Now I’m wondering what on earth could compel me to undergo the torment of switching back.

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Compromising on font sizes

Professor Salo handed off the font-size problem to Zeldman and Todd Fahrner. For a long time I’ve followed Zeldman’s maxim—give me pixels or give me death—by specifying my body text as Verdana 12px, even though this means that IE users cannot alter the font size (Opera 6 and Netscape 6 have a zoom control that overcomes this limitation).

In a comment on my post about not supporting Netscape 4, Steven Vore wrote that “a properly-designed site will allow you to change font sizes all you’d like - CSS or not.”

Why have I committed this sin against accessibility? In order to enhance legibility by having a fixed line length. The Australian Government Style Manual cautions against long lines:

Long lines are tiring to read in large blocks; they are also difficult to read without missing a line occasionally or reading the same line twice (called “doubling”).

Every piece of research I’ve encountered concurs with this advice, usually recommending a line length of 50 to 70 characters or 10-12 words per line. It’s for that reason that I prefer not to use a fluid layout, where the line length changes with the display resolution, although I accept that a fluid layout often looks more elegant.

When I was redesigning the templates and style sheets for this MT-based blog, I asked Allan Moult to check the test site on his Macintosh. It looks fine in IE5 and NN6.2, he told me, adding: “Set your main text narrower.” I thought it was already narrow, but he was right.

Then this morning I read the Todd Fahrner article, Size Matters: Making Font Size Keywords Work. Though Dorothea describes Fahrner’s system as “more verbose, less beginner- and maintainer-friendly,” I think it might be just what I’ve been looking for. Or, alternatively, merely a different compromise.

It would never have occurred to me that you could use Tantek Çelik’s Box Model Hack to fix the keywords bug in IEWin4/5. But I already use the Çelik technique to ensure that the CSS boxes on this site display consistently in IE 5/6, Opera 6, Netscape 6.2, and Mozilla RC1. So why not try it out on the font-size problem? Although it means abandoning my fixed line length rule and risking the ire of Allan Moult. (But he’s all the way down in Tasmania and doesn’t pose too great a threat.)

Most of the sites I visit that allow the visitor control over the font-size look best with the text in IE set to Smaller or Medium. I guess I’ll have to experiment to see which of the font size keywords I should specify in my style sheet. Or I might wait to see if Prof. Salo runs into strife with relative sizing using ex and em units and is forced to figure out font size keywords. That way she gets to do all the work.

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Enforcing academic standards at U Blog

AKMA notes that:

a sizable proportion of the U Blog faculty are exiles from the sacred precincts of physical-world academia, and so far as I know, Jeff Ward and I are the only active practitioners on the roll. This is not an accident, and indeed has provoked in me certain musings about my own vocation (if the online friends whom I so respect and in whose electronic presence I bask are themselves not quite at home in the institutional academy, what am I doing there?).

A good question and one that I shall be raising at the next faculty meeting. I have it in mind to suggest that only those with no direct connections to “physical-world academia” (or no formal qualifications in the subjects they have been engaged to teach and research) should be eligible to hold tenured full professorships. Although, regrettably, this will mean that both AKMA and Jeff Ward will be forced to accept non-tenure-track assistant-professorships, we cannot allow personal feelings to undermine the high academic standards of the University of Blogaria.

An easy way out of this dilemma would be for Jeff to relinquish his Chair in Rhetoric in order to take up the currently vacant John Szarkowski Chair in the History of Photography. AKMA might be interested in becoming Procter & Gamble Foundation Professor of Dish Care Technology.

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Thursday 16 May 2002

The Waiting Years

Eleventh century written Japanese is so different from modern Japanese that a novel like The Tale of Genji must be translated for contemporary Japanese readers, as if into a foreign language. In the twentieth century this task was undertaken by the poetess Yosano Akiko and the novelists Tanizaki Junichiro and Enchi Fumiko.

As I become more deeply immersed in my project of reading the three English translations of Genji, I’m taking various side trips by reading Genji-related books such as Edward Seidensticker’s Genji Days and Enchi Fumiko’s A Tale of False Fortunes. The latter brought back memories of discovering Japanese literature.

A long time ago I realized that it would be years before I could achieve my dream of experiencing Japanese novels in Japanese; so I resolved to read whatever was available in English translation and—having purchased J. Thomas Rimer’s A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature—began to work my way systematically through the authors he suggested, reading anything I could find by Ogai, Soseki, Kafu, Shiga, Tanizaki, Ibuse, Kawabata, Inoue, Dazai, Endo, Mishima, Ariyoshi, and Oé, all the acknowledged masters of modern Japanese literature. And, with the exception of Ariyoshi Sawako, all men.

I would not understand until years later that, consciously or not, Rimer was following a long tradition in Japanese literary criticism which—using terms such as “joryu sakka” (woman writer) and “joryu bungaku” (women’s literature)—places most women writers in a separate (and implicitly inferior) category.

Book cover: Enchi Fumiko, The Waiting YearsI must have picked up Enchi Fumiko’s Onnazaka whilst searching for a rare title by the one of writers on Rimer’s list. After reading just a few pages I was at a loss to understand how or why he had excluded her. (She finally rates a mention, along with Kono Taeko, Hayashi Fumiko, and Uno Chiyo, in a later edition of Rimer’s book.)

To be sure, condensing modern Japanese literature into a list of twenty classical and thirty modern works is a close-to-impossible task but I could have easily nominated three or four books that Enchi’s novel deserved to displace.

Set in the Meiji period (1868-1912), Onnazaka was published in installments between 1952 and 1957 and translated by John Bester in 1971 as The Waiting Years. Onnazaka does not mean “the waiting years.” It’s a made-up word, constructed from the characters for “woman” and “hill” or “slope.” It conjures up an image of a woman struggling up an endless incline.

In the novel’s opening scene, Tomo, comes to Tokyo from the north of Japan to find the first of the concubines she will, during the course of her married life, be forced to procure for her husband Shirakawa, a wealthy bureaucrat.

“Should she refuse to accept the task it was almost certain that her husband would simply introduce into the family a woman chosen without consulting her. His leaving the choice to her was a sign of his trust, of the importance he attached, for the family’s sake, to her position.”

Such is Tomo’s devotion to her husband and his ie, or household, that she conceals her resentment of both her husband’s cruel infidelities and the patriarchal family system which makes her an accomplice in the exploitation of other women.

Enchi FumikoBased on stories told to Enchi Fumiko by her grandmother, The Waiting Years is an extraordinary book: beautifully written, filled with wisdom and compassion, sad beyond belief in its careful delineation of Tomo’s repressed emotions.

The year after the English version was published, Enchi Fumiko commenced work on her translation of The Tale of Genji.

As it happened, my former girlfriend Natsuko was reading Enchi Fumiko’s Genji when we first started seeing each other. She’d had to study the novel in high school, much as Western children have to read Shakespeare, and her schoolgirl memory was that it was etchi (lewd or obscene).

We used to sleep late on Sunday mornings: making love, eating breakfast in bed, and reading books or newspapers.

“I must have been so naïve then,” Natsuko said one such morning, balancing Genji on her knees as she tore off a piece of croissant and dipped it in her coffee. “To think Genji was etchi just because it’s about a man who has lots of affairs.”

I thought about Hikaru Genji, the Shining Prince, with his many wives and mistresses; and about Tomo’s husband Shirakawa in The Waiting Years.

A few weeks later in the Kinokuniya bookstore, I found a copy of Onnazaka in the Women’s Literature section and bought it for Natsuko. On the train home I slowly turned the pages and scanned up and down the columns of characters, occasionally encountering a kanji I could understand, wishing with all my heart that I could read Japanese properly, that I could connect directly with Enchi Fumiko’s prose.

Natsuko loved getting presents and she responded as she always did: by wrapping her arms around me and whispering a thank-you in my ear. But the book sat on the shelf for months until one Sunday she plucked it off the shelf on her way back to bed with our coffee.

She finished Onnazaka within a matter of days and when I asked her how she’d liked it, she simply said it was omoshiroi, an adjective that like its English equivalent—interesting—can mean almost anything at all.

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Friday 17 May 2002

Exclusionary classes

Burningbird is understandably appalled by a class at UC Berkeley which, in taking “as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination,” offers the disclaimer that “conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.”

Suggesting that the class would be “thought provoking as well as useful… only if the class looks at the impact of writing and rhetoric from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Burningbird argues:

Unfortunately, as the class is titled and according to the political affiliation of the teacher, it promises to be pro-Palestinian biased, and that’s inappropriate considering the venue.

I mentioned yesterday that I’m reading Edward Seidensticker’s Genji Days, a collection of diary excerpts from the years when translating The Tale of Genji was the author’s principal concern. An entry for Friday, November 19, 1971 reminded me of the origin of classes that exclude the ideologically unacceptable in order to ensure that the chosen few may bask in the warm inner glow of their unchallenged convictions:

I understand that after I left the meeting yesterday there was a small thunderbolt: the department, said a lady graduate student, and particularly the Japanese side of it, is “sexually unbalanced.” Bob Brower later in the day attended a meeting in the deans’ office during which the chairman of the curriculum committee reported on a troublesome new course. It is to be concerned with the function of women in the revolutionary movement, and no men are to be admitted. The furies are loosed upon us.

To paraphrase a verse from Galatians 6: for as you sow, that shall you also reap.


Saturday 18 May 2002

Demanding certainty

A month or so ago, prompted by an article in Salon, I re-read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I’ve been intending to write about the article and its relationship to certain of Kundera’s ideas but have decided to hold back, now that Loren Webster and Diane McCormick have commenced a typically thorough and engaging explication of Kundera’s novel.

In the meantime, I’m beginning to think I’ve made a grave mistake in renting the video of Philip Kaufman’s film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, though I’ll endeavor to sit though the entire 165 minutes before offering an opinion. The only pleasure so far has been watching Juliette Binoche, who plays Tereza.

In his essay of May 17, Loren notes that Tereza, took photographs of her fellow Czech citizens defiantly confronting the Russian invaders. Initially proud that her pictures were used by the Western press to show the courage of the Czechs, Tereza is later dismayed to learn that the Russians have used them to track down those who took part in the demonstrations.

After asking “So, did she make a mistake in taking the pictures? How could one ever judge?” Loren writes:

Perhaps more importantly, we have to realize that we are inevitably going to make mistakes in our own personal lives. To err, lest we happen to forget, is human. The hardest part is to admit those mistakes and then to learn to forgive ourselves for making them. The best we can do is to trust to the best part of ourselves, our compassion, and to make the decisions that have to be made. We have no right to demand a certainty from ourselves that is impossible to attain.

Nor, might I add, do we have the right to demand a certainty from others that is impossible to bestow.

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Friday 24 May 2002

Alec Campbell, RIP

Last surviving Anzac, Alec Campbell, as a young soldierAt 11am today, we took time out from the UltraDev class to observe a minute’s silence for Alec Campbell, the last known survivor of the Gallipoli campaign—not just in Australia but anywhere in the world. Mr Campbell enlisted in June 1915 when he was 16 and died last week in Tasmania at the age of 103.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, who—by promoting selfishness and hollow individualism for the last eight years—has done everything within his power to divide Australians and undermine the values embodied in the Anzac tradition, paid tribute to Alec Campbell:

In all these ways, love, endeavour, challenge and service, Alec Campbell, Gallipoli’s last sentinel, embodied the Anzac spirit that we have come here to honour.

Howard, a consummate politician, ignores the gulf between the ideals he describes and the reality—the absolute antithesis of those ideals—that he has labored so long and hard to construct. Paying lip service to the Anzac tradition, he reduces it to kitsch, illustrating Kundera’s maxim:

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

The Anzac tradition is the attenuated thread that connects me to Australia. I have little interest in the everyday concerns of the society I live in and yet, on days like today, I find myself moved to the depths of my being by the “Anzac spirit,” even as another part of me realizes it is simply another of Kundera’s beautiful lies.

Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the realm of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

What then is the truth of the Anzac spirit? It is the foundation upon which our uniquely Australian kitsch is built. To paraphrase Kundera:

The first tear says: how nice to recall the sacrifices of our war dead.

The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all Australians, by the sacrifices of our war dead.

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

The brotherhood of all Australians will be possible only on a base of Anzac kitsch.

Alec Campbell as an elderly manBut equally, by recognizing the attempt to appropriate Alec Campbell’s values of sacrifice and service, we can see through Howard’s wretched lie, demolish its authoritarian power, and restore the poignancy that lies at the heart of the Anzac tradition. Especially as we are forced to concede that the society Campbell and his comrades fought so desperately to defend is now a travesty of almost every value they held dear.

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Sunday 26 May 2002

On moral clarity

William Bennett, Moral clarity isn’t simplistic (as published in The Dallas Morning News, May 12, 2002):

Moral clarity has worked. It worked in Afghanistan, where the president brought together a coalition of nations around the world that condemned the attacks on the United States and supported punishing those responsible for the attacks.

Robert Young Pelton, The real war on terrorism (as published in Salon, April 23, 2002):

I mean, have we kicked out the bad guys? Shouldn’t we be attacking Pakistan, isn’t that where all the bad guys come from? I mean there’s this amazing disconnect between common sense and government rhetoric. Most of the people who were killed in Afghanistan were Pakistanis, not Afghans.

…the media needs to wake up and say, “Hey, wait a second. We’re supporting a military dictator who took power in a coup, who’s one of the main sponsors of terrorism, who paid for the camps over there, who’s educating and entertaining and training thousands of militants to go fight inside Afghanistan against us.” It’s like, whoa, wait a second, why is he our best friend?

…when you look at Daniel Pearl, he wasn’t kidnapped by Afghans. He wasn’t murdered by Afghans. He was murdered by people with strong and lengthy links to the Pakistani [intelligence agency, the] ISI…

…these guys are all from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Why aren’t we fighting a war in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Egypt? Why are they our allies?

Fifteen of the nineteen alleged September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. As is Osama Bin Laden. Moral clarity indeed. It sounds more like the title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Moral Clarity, now playing at a multiplex near you. There’s the risk of confusing the audience by casting Saudis and Pakistanis as both Arnie’s allies and his enemies. But a top-class writer like Bill Bennett should be able to paper over any holes in the storyline. After all, it comes from the award-winning production company that brought you The Bay of Pigs Invasion, The Tonkin Gulf Incident, The Overthrow of Salvador Allende, The Iran-Contra Affair, and Iraqgate.

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Monday 27 May 2002


The entry for hototogisu in Kodansha’s Japan, An Illustrated Enclyopedia reads:

The clear, gentle call of the hototogisu is one of the most appreciated of Japan’s bird songs and has inspired Japanese poets from the days of the 8th-century Man’yoshu to the present as a symbol of early summer.

Ceramic tile with image of an hototogisu

In all my travels throughout Japan I’ve neither seen nor heard the hototogisu (or Japanese cuckoo, Cuculus poliocephalus)—though I’ve frequently read of its distinctive song. It was an unexpected pleasure to discover the elusive bird on a tile set into the wall of the pedestrian tunnel under the main street in Okayama, where I’d gone to visit the garden, Korakuen. I snapped a picture, thinking of a passage in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book:

…during the short summer nights in the rainy season one sometimes wakes up and lies in bed hoping to be the first person to hear the hototogisu. Suddenly towards dawn its song breaks the silence; one is charmed, indeed one is quite intoxicated. But alas, when the Sixth Month comes the hototogisu is silent. I really need say no more about my feelings for this bird. And I do not love the hototogisu alone; anything that cries out at night delights me—except babies.

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Friday 31 May 2002

Bloggers as journalists. Just say no.

Towards the end of We Were Soldiers, the survivors of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry are coming to terms with the cost of their “victory” when a helicopter lands and a gaggle of journalists spills out onto the battlefield.

They ask the commander, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, a series of inane questions and, when he turns away from them in weary amazement, they switch their attention to Joe Galloway, the UPI reporter who has spent three days in hell with the American forces. Galloway fast-talked his way into the combat zone, won the soldiers’ respect by sharing the danger and hardship and by exchanging his cameras for a weapon at a particularly desperate point in the fighting, before finally making the notes and pictures that would tell the story of one of the most important engagements of the Vietnam War.

When Galloway too turns his back on them in disgust, the intention of the scene is unmistakable: journalists with integrity are the rarest of the rare; most of them are charlatans, time-servers, or hacks.

Robert Young Pelton makes a similar point:

Why was Barbara Walters in Saudi Arabia? Did she get up one day, buy a ticket and take a camera in with her? No. She was invited by the government as part of a P.R. campaign to convince the American public that the Saudis who flew the planes into the buildings had nothing to do with the country of Saudi Arabia. That’s an overt P.R. campaign. Why do you think the military invites journalists into a combat area? Because they know there’s going to be a nice clean operation and it’ll look good when we blow stuff up and they’ll write about how we’re winning the war.

The comparative rarity of journalists like Galloway and writers like Pelton (who refuses to call himself a journalist) has me wondering about this desperate desire of bloggers to supplant the role of “professional journalists.” I mean, what’s the big deal here? Am I the only inhabitant of Blogaria who didn’t get a shot of Journalism is the Holiest Profession serum when I was eight years old?

Why would anyone, given the opportunity to participate in a brand new (and relatively unfettered) conversational medium aspire to mimic conventional broadcast or print journalism?

And yet I shouldn’t be surprised. Every new means of expression starts out by imitating the mindset and techniques of the one it is intended to displace. The first movies were theatrical plays filmed with a static camera pointed at an (outdoor) stage. The pioneers of television imagined they were adding images to radio programs.

What combines news, opinion, and pictures and comes out every day? A newspaper. Oh! A weblog has news and opinions and pictures and comes out every day too. So bloggers must be journalists. Or their handmaidens. John Hiler’s article Blogosphere: the emerging Media Ecosystem explains it all in mind-numbing detail, complete with diagrams that map the flow of information between bloggers and print journalists. But—to borrow a metaphor from Robert Kagan—Hiler’s model boils down to this: bloggers do the shopping, chop up the ingredients, and wash the dishes; while print journalists get to cook (and eat) the meal.

We have the opportunity to do something magical, original, and true. And you want to be journalists. Give me a fucking break.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour