Tuesday 01 October 2002

The fine art of translation

Via Arts & Letters Daily comes a marvellous essay by Wendy Lesser, titled The Mysteries of Translation, about how different translators mediate the voice of the original author:

This is not to say that a Margaret Jull Costa translation of the Portuguese novelist José Saramago sounds like a Margaret Jull Costa translation of the Spanish novelist Javier Marías — not at all. If it did, Costa would have failed in her primary aim, to let us hear the writer’s voice as she herself hears it in the original language. But it does mean that a Margaret Jull Costa translation of Javier Marías sounds slightly but noticeably different from an Esther Allen translation of Javier Marías… If I were pressed, I would say that Allen’s Marías sounds more like a Spaniard, Costa’s more like a native English speaker. Which is preferable? I suppose it depends on what kind of reader you are — or, more likely, on which translation you encountered first.

Ms Lesser discusses translations of W.G. Sebald by Michael Hulse, Anthea Bell, and Michael Hamburger and recommends new translations of Dostoyevsky by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: “What I found when I read their Demons — the novel that, in earlier translations, was usually called The Possessed — was that I understood, for the very first time, the source of the unease in a Dostoyevsky novel.”

But she directs most of her attention to the replacement of Murakami Haruki’s first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, with Jay Rubin. She discovers that, in addition to translating A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Dance, Dance, Dance, Birnbaum translated an edition of Murakami’s first (1987) novel, Norwegian Wood, which was only ever published in Japan.

Murakami Haruki, Norwegian Wood, Volume IIn the Translator’s Note to the first American edition, Jay Rubin notes that the Birnbaum translation was produced to enable Japanese students “to enjoy their favorite author as they struggled with the mysteries of English” and that English speakers should not try to obtain this earlier version because “the present edition is the first English translation that Murakami has authorized for publication outside Japan.”

I came late to reading Murakami Haruki and read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (in English) four or five years ago, at the insistence of one of my Japanese teachers. I was pleasantly surprised and, following my usual custom, went back and started at the beginning. Except the beginning was Murakami’s second book, A Wild Sheep Chase, for the reasons outlined above.

Murakami Haruki, Norwegian Wood, Volume IIBut on my next trip to Japan, I bought the two small Norwegian Wood paperbacks that cost Wendy Lesser over US$100 to have sent to the US. It remains my favorite Murakami novel, though only now do I understand how much of the credit is due to the skill with which Alfred Birnbaum recreates “that weird, youthful, but never annoyingly with-it voice in which Murakami’s narrator-protagonists [speak] to themselves.”

Finally, Wendy Lesser’s essay is worth reading just for the way in which she defines the essence of a great translation—by comparing the opening paragraphs of Jay Rubin’s version of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with that of Alfred Birnbaum.

Rubin: “Perfectly good English sentences presented by a reasonably interesting narrator.”

Birnbaum: “In this translation, the logic of cause-and-effect English sentence structure has been jettisoned in favor of some other mode, and it is that mode — the intrusion of the surprising and the foreign and the unknowable into the mundane regime — which marks the world of a Haruki Murakami novel.”

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Sunday 06 October 2002

A stunning new Dishmatique

In a nostalgic post about memories past, Burningbird fondly recalled late April, 2002—mentioning me in the context of two of my favorite tools:

That was the time that Jonathon started his Dishmatique craze, leading to the Sudsy Men of Weblogging. I beat Jonathon’s rollout to MT by a couple of hours, and it seemed like there was a virtual cascade of webloggers switching to Movable Type at that time.

Allan Moult's new DishmatiqueToday, as if on cue, Allan Moult discovered the Dishmatique Flex, the most significant advance in dishwashing technology since the original Dishmatique. Get rid of the Scotch-Brite Dishwand with Scrubber Brush, discard the Liquid Detergent Dish Washer, jettison the Gemco Li’l Scrubber, ditch the Bottlematique, dispense with the Easy-Do Bathmatique, abandon the Quickie… consign them all to the dustbin of dishwashing history.

But I’m not going to steal Allan’s thunder. Let him tell you the whole story.

I did, however, turn up some fascinating information about the development of the Dishmatique Flex. Though the new device hasn’t yet been indexed by Google—it’ll be there next month, for sure—buried within all the weblog entries in the search results for “Dishmatique” was a case study by Hyphen Design, the company that designed the new model.

It took Hyphen four months to run the Dishmatique Flex—which they call the Easy-do Dishmatique—through the six design phases: concept generation, styling and ergonomics, concept model, feature innovation, engineering, and production assistance.

For a moment, when I saw Allan’s post, I’d fantasized that Easy-do had discovered our blogging conversation and used our ideas as part of their brief to Hyphen Design. It appears not, if you believe this [annotated] account of the design process:

Hyphen took an existing washing up brush [the Dishmatique] and added patented, marketable features [check Allan’s post to see what they are], while keeping the cost of manufacture low. The product is now selling in supermarkets worldwide [including Woolworths in Hobart], and we are working with Easy-do on a range of future products.

Daniel Neuman, Managing Director, Easy-do Products - “We work very well with Hyphen. They learned from our experience initially, then gave us the fresh ideas to take our product forward. We also have the confidence from the support when it comes to manufacturing.

There’s no Woolworths close to my home so I’ll have to wait until Tuesday, when I’m in the city, to find my own Dishmatique Flex. And, as much as I respect Hyphen’s design, I firmly believe that we could teach Easy-do a thing or two about the Cluetrain.

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Thursday 10 October 2002

Triple F List

Heather Hamilton via Mark Pilgrim.

My list:

  1. Nancy Brilli
  2. Naomi Nishida
  3. Irene Jacob
  4. Gong Li
  5. Michelle Pfeiffer

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The nation prepares for war (03)

Firebomb disposal practice, Japan 1937
A scheme for using a galvanized iron protection shield when dealing with firebombs. Although the thermal power of a firebomb is very strong, it is said that if one can manage to get within about a meter the fire can be extinguished. To ensure that that the firefighter does not trip during the approach, the lower section of the shield is hinged. (August 1937)

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Friday 11 October 2002

I sleep, but my heart waketh

Strange… I was going to title this post To sleep, perchance to dream (Shakespeare) and I find that Burningbird got there before me. Lucky I chose a Biblical reference instead. Seems like Bb needs to sleep:

All I’ve wanted to do for the past few weeks is sleep. As soon as the sun goes down, I’m ready for bed. I’m ready for bed now, and it’s only 7:45pm.

Shannon Campbell slept (just the right amount too):

Woke up feeling rested after a solid six hours of sleep. (Anyone else ever hear that theory that you should sleep in blocks three hours? Something having to do with circadian rhythms, or some other nonsense that I failed in biology. [I once got a 13 on an AP Biology test. It was graded on a curve. Of 13.] Supposedly, if you can’t get nine hours, you should only sleep six. And if you can’t get six, you should only sleep three.)

I believe Shannon is out by a factor of two. You should sleep in 90 minute blocks. I know it’s true for me and I’ve tested the theory over the years whenever the topic of sleep comes up in conversation by asking people what time they normally wake up after going to sleep without setting an alarm. It’s always a multiple of 90 minutes (plus or minus 5 minutes): 6hrs, 7.5hrs, 9hrs, 10.5hrs, 12hrs.

If an alarm wakes you in the middle of a 90 minute block, you feel like shit. You’d have been far better off waking up at the end of the previous block—even though you’d have had “less sleep.”

Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D. sums up the research:

Studies show that the length of sleep is not what causes us to be refreshed upon waking. The key factor is the number of complete sleep cycles we enjoy. Each sleep cycle contains five distinct phases, which exhibit different brain-wave patterns. For our purposes, it suffices to say that one sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes: 65 minutes of normal, or non-REM (rapid eye movement), sleep; 20 minutes of REM sleep (in which we dream); and a final 5 minutes of non-REM sleep. The REM sleep phases are shorter during earlier cycles (less that 20 minutes) and longer during later ones (more than 20 minutes).

If we were to sleep completely naturally, with no alarm clocks or other sleep disturbances, we would wake up, on the average, after a multiple of 90 minutes—for example, after 4 1/2 hours, 6 hours, 7 1/2 hours, or 9 hours, but not after 7 or 8 hours, which are not multiples of 90 minutes. In the period between cycles we are not actually sleeping: it is a sort of twilight zone from which, if we are not disturbed (by light, cold, a full bladder, noise), we move into another 90-minute cycle. A person who sleeps only four cycles (6 hours) will feel more rested than someone who has slept for 8 to 10 hours but who has not been allowed to complete any one cycle because of being awakened before it was completed….

In other words, the 90 minute sleep cycle is a scientific and medical fact.

For some reason I’m obsessed about proving this to everyone with whom I talk about sleep. It might be that I really love sleeping. Or, more particularly, dreaming. It’s almost as though I live a parallel life in my dreams. Themes recur, I visit the same locations over and again, I dream in Japanese, I meet up with dead friends, I sort out all kinds of problems…

Tonight in the Chinese restaurant, I asked Phoebe, one of the waitresses, how her art school studies were progressing.

“Only four weeks to go before I finish,” she told me, “but I think I’ll go on to do an honors year. The only problem is I have to specialize and I can’t decide whether to choose painting or photography.”

I’ve always thought it was a miracle that her (Chinese) parents allowed her to go to art school in the first place. There are two other waitresses and—as one might expect—one’s studying accounting and the other business administration.

I told Phoebe that every night from now on, when she turns off the light and rests her head on the pillow, she should ask herself one of two questions:

  • “Which should I choose, photography or painting?” or
  • “Which should I choose, painting or photography?”

(Best not to privilege one over the other.) Her unconscious already knows which path she should follow, it’s simply a matter of allowing her heart to awaken.

When Phoebe came back later with a pot of tea, she said: “I like your idea. I’m going to give it a try.” I thought about mentioning the 90 minute sleep cycle but decided to leave it go—she’s under enough pressure already.

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Monday 14 October 2002

IBM socks it to blind Australians. Again.

Since most sighted people—Web developers and users alike—find it difficult to imagine how blind people or those with impaired vision actually “use the Web,” in my presentations on accessibility I’ve found it valuable to demonstrate a screen reader, namely IBM’s Home Page Reader. When a general audience can hear a Web page being read and see me use the various keyboard commands to navigate a site, it has a profound effect on those who have never considered Web accessibility or who have dismissed it as either trivial or a nuisance.

  • The screen reader in action illustrates in the most vivid and immediate way the importance of the Web for the blind and the sight-impaired.
  • The experience of “putting on a blind Web user’s shoes” makes everyone aware of the challenges faced by those who cannot see the Web that most of us take for granted.

From the moment the screen reader’s mechanical voice fills the room, I feel the atmosphere begin to shift. Consequently, in the second part of my presentation—when I explain Mark Pilgrim’s techniques for creating an accessible site—I am speaking to people who are truly engaged. I can almost hear the developers thinking: this is not so hard, it’s not going to cost an arm and a leg, we can do this stuff…

Until now I’ve used the trial version of Home Page Reader. But the trial period has expired and I’m presenting again tomorrow. So this morning I logged on to the IBM site to purchase a real copy. The downloadable version is available from this page on IBM’s US site:

00P7833 Home Page Reader V3.0 English Program Package Digital Delivery

US$117.00 equals AU$214.40 at today’s exchange rate.

I couldn’t proceed with the purchase because the order form insisted that I enter a five-digit US Zip code instead of my four-digit Australian postal code. Instead, I found the same downloadable version on this page on IBM’s Australian site:

00P7833 Home Page Reader V3.0 English Program Package (Digital Delivery)

Same product code, same product, and there’s every chance that the download is on the same server… but Australians have to pay a 59% surcharge. The cost of goods is identical, as is the delivery cost, and the credit card transaction fee must be similar, if not identical. A 10% premium might be justifiable, but almost 60% is unpardonable.

Yet why should we be surprised? IBM gained notoriety during the Sydney Olympics for creating an inaccessible Web site for SOCOG, the Australian organization responsible for staging the games. Joe Clark, author of Building Accessible Websites, describes IBM’s contradictory attitude towards Web accessiblity in his excellent summary of the Macguire vs. SOCOG case:

To reiterate, in the case of Maguire vs. SOCOG, the little person won. While the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games acted in an arguably unprofessional and certainly a dismissive manner, the allegedly substantive reasons it advanced for denying accessibility were conclusively repudiated by Australian authorities and expert witnesses.

Curiously, IBM, SOCOG’s Web contractor, maintains an accessibility Web site and a full-time staff who do nothing but work on software, hardware, and Web accessibility. IBM has a reasonably salutary record in accessibility products, having developed IBM Home Page Reader, a screen-reader analogue specialized for surfing the Web. Yet its partnership with SOCOG gave the appearance of a corrupting influence, making IBM complicit in SOCOG’s actions in denying accessibility to blind users of its Olympics.com site.

No doubt IBM Australia’s spin merchants will be able to justify why it costs so much more to deliver exactly the same electrons to an Australian IP address.

Update. This story has a happy ending.

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Thursday 17 October 2002

Redeemed through blogging

Given the paltry stipend one receives as a tenured faculty member of the University of Blogaria, the professoriate’s ongoing fascination with the Blogging for Dollars controversy should hardly come as a surprise. AKMA, The Happy Tutor, Steve Himmer, Tom Matrullo, Mark Pilgrim, Shelley Powers, Dorothea Salo, Jeneane Sessum, Halley Suitt, and David Weinberger have all weighed in to the debate.

A couple of sentences of Dorothea’s resonated with me:

Small lies corrode the soul. Bigger and bigger lies get by. In time, the system manufactures another soulless PR flack.

Are you strong enough to resist such corrosion? I’m not.

Actually, I discovered that it can work the other way.

But first, a quote from Murakami Haruki’s Dance, Dance, Dance:

Well, somebody’s got to write these things. And the same can be said for collecting garbage and shoveling snow. It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not—a job’s a job.

For three and a half years, I’d been making this kind of contribution to society. Shoveling snow. You know, cultural snow…

It takes no great effort to find work in the giant anthill of an advanced capitalist society. That is, of course, so long as you’re not asking the impossible.

When I still had my office, I did my share of editing and writing, and I’d gotten to know a few professionals in the field. So as I embarked on a free-lance career, there was no major retooling required. I didn’t need much to live on anyway.

I pulled out my address book and made some calls. I asked if there was work available. I said I’d been laying back but was ready to take stuff on. Almost immediately jobs came my way. Though not particularly interesting jobs, mostly filler for PR newsletters and company brochures. Speaking conservatively, I’d say half the material I wrote was meaningless, of no conceivable use to anyone. A waste of pulp and ink. But I did the work, mechanically, without thinking. At first, the load wasn’t much, maybe a couple hours a day. The rest of the time I’d be out walking or seeing a movie. I saw a lot of movies. For three months, I had an easy time of it. I was slowly getting back in touch.

Then, in early autumn, things began to change. Work orders increased dramatically. The phone rang nonstop, my mailbox was overflowing. I met people in the business and had lunch with them. They promised me more work.

The reason was simple. I was never choosy about the jobs I did. I was willing to do anything, I met my deadlines, I never complained, I wrote legibly. And I was thorough. Where others slacked off, I did an honest write. I was never snide, even when the pay was low. If I got a call at two-thirty in the morning asking for twenty pages of text (about, say, the advantages of non-digital clocks or the appeal of women in their forties or the most beautiful spots in Helsinki, where, needless to say, I’d never been) by six A.M., I’d have it done by five-thirty. And if they called back for a rewrite, I had it to them by six. You bet I had a good reputation.

The same as for shoveling snow.

Let it snow and I’d show you a thing or two about efficient roadwork.

Murakami’s protagonist and I were kindred spirits. For me, shoveling cultural snow was undemanding, relatively well paid work that I’d done successfully for years. Then, a few months after I started blogging, the strangest thing happened: I found I couldn’t do it anymore. My last assignment was a disaster. I got sick, the person I was supposed to interview went away on holiday, and then the writing—which had always flowed effortlessly—turned into a protracted struggle. I finally turned in the copy more than a week late and never heard from the marketing manager again.

A month or so later someone else contacted me by email to ask if I’d be interested in doing a series of projects. I replied to the email and left a voicemail message but somehow never followed it up. I realized then that my days of shoveling snow were over. Day by day, writing post after post to this weblog, I discovered my own voice. Or, to be more accurate, I gained a clearer sense of how it might develop—given time, commitment, and practice. But, as my own voice grew louder and more distinct, I could no longer write using the vocabulary of marketing and public relations. From a distance I can see that my illness was largely psychosomatic. And that I’ll have to replace the page describing the services offered by a former me.

Mark Pilgrim is right: there is “money to be made from blogging, but indirectly.” Warts and all.” I’ve already got a couple of gigs as a result of people reading my weblog. Dorothea Salo got it right too, when she wrote: “Hire me, hire my blog—that’s how it works.

So there it is, a kind of I was redeemed through blogging story…

There remains, however, one thing to make perfectly clear. Despite the fact that Daniel Neumann from Easy-do has contacted me via my comments, I have never received any consideration (financial or otherwise) for my enthusiastic endorsement of the Dishmatique product line. If Easy-do wants to fly me first-class to London and put me up at The Savoy in return for my giving the keynote at an International Dishwashing Technology Conference, I promise to disclose the offer here before boarding the plane.

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Thursday 24 October 2002

Mechanic of the ineffable

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52
Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52

“Obeying the dictates of the mechanical picturesque, Cornell transformed his workshop into an enchanted assembly line. Turning out box after box, each a slight variation on one of a few basic models, Cornell shows something in common with Henry Ford. Yet he is too restless to fit that comparison for more than a moment. His endless tinkering, the sudden sparks of invention that illuminate his mechanical drudgery, remind me more of Thomas Edison. Like Edison’s, Cornell’s work seems to have been ninety-nine per cent perspiration, one per cent inspiration. Each came up with devices for shedding light, transmitting messages, and rendering memory permanent. They made light, messages, and memory more powerful, and gave us greater control over all three. Both were mechanics. One employed that most elusive mechanical force, electricity. The other channeled the currents of meaning that have pulsed for two centuries through the image-circuits of the mechanical picturesque. Edison’s devices—especially the movie camera—gave some of those circuits physical form. Cornell isn’t quite so down-to-earth. He is the Edison of the ineffable.”

Carter Ratcliff: Joseph Cornell, Mechanic of the Ineffable


The illusion of knowing oneself quite well

Jeff Ward:

Blogrolls are an interesting twist on the problem. Mine has been fairly stable for a long while now, and I get the illusion that I know some of these people quite well. I like the feeling. I like anticipating what I might find on their sites next. I like getting to know people. Due to the intense nature of my place in life right now, I don’t say thank-you often enough to those people that I read every day. Though we haven’t been properly introduced, I’ve been following the stories long enough to feel like I know what’s going on. I count on all these people to take me outside myself, in these times that I must focus on my own personal projects.

I like the feeling too. It’s anchored me during a period when I felt I might be swept away by events both far away and close to home. Nor do I say thank-you often enough to those with whom I feel such a strong, deep connection. I’d love to go back to mid-January, when I started this weblog, and to retrace the steps by which I stumbled upon and was welcomed in to this community.

Like Jeff, I get the illusion that I know some of you quite well. Equally, as a consequence of writing to and with and about you, I get the illusion that I know myself rather better. Krista, a friend of Jeff’s, said to him: “I don’t think you realize just how much its possible to learn about you from your site.” Again, it cuts both ways. We learn about ourselves and each other, simultaneously.

I guess what I’m saying (it’s late and I should be in bed) is that I’m grateful for the opportunities to try different kinds of writing, to make mistakes and live with the consequences, to have my idiosyncracies accepted (or politely ignored), to be exposed to so many gifted individuals, and to have so many wonderful models of writing and behavior. So thanks, everyone.

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Friday 25 October 2002


Burningbird is (uncharacteristically) lost for words:

The Bird you can’t shut up to save your life, Ms. Jibber Jabber herself, can’t find a bloody thing to say today. I’m wordless.

In a comment I admitted to suffering from the same affliction and suggested that Bb and I might ask Dorothea Salo if she could spare us each a thousand words or so. Caffeinated soda or no, Dorothea is writing up a blue streak—as Bb said: “Hot blogger coming through.”

On reflection, though, I realized that I’m lacking neither words nor subjects . Rather it’s that the words are dammed up inside me. All I need is a Lancaster or three from 617 Squadron (The Dam Busters) to release a few bouncing bombs that will fracture the walls of the dam and unleash the torrent.

(It’s no accident a bombing metaphor came to mind—I’ve just finished reading Martin Middlebrook’s account of the RAF’s disastrous Nuremburg raid and have started his book on the ill-fated mission to Schweinfurt and Regensburg by the US Eighth Air Force. For the last few years I’ve been preoccupied with the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9-10 and I realized I needed a better understanding of how the theory and practice of strategic bombing developed during the European air war.)

Where was I? Right, plenty of topics but unable to unleash the words. Burningbird offered some advice:

As for our own wordless state, perhaps now is a time for us to quietly enjoy the writing of others. Weblogging is as much listening as writing, and maybe we’re in a “listen time”.

Maybe we are in a “listen time” though I can’t help but think that the defining characteristic of weblogging is the relentless pressure to write. Perhaps, as Matthew Arnold wrote, we have not the word because we have so much of the thing.

(Note to faculty members of the University of Blogaria: Tips and Tricks for Writing Regularly, Fluently, and At Length would be greatly appreciated by your blocked colleagues.)

I’m sure Dorothea used to have a category for “blog entries in progress” or “subjects that need to be blogged”—something like that, but with a far more impressive name. Since she moved her blog to yarinareth.net the category has disappeared. I need a category like that, desperately, to encompass my responses to:

  • Norm Jenson’s post on the statement: “The decision to go to war is not yours, its the decision of the state in which you live and if the state decides to go to war you are not responsible for that decision.” (Who said it? Any comments?)
  • Burningbird’s posts about the Andrew Orlowski/Beth Goza/Doc Searls/Dave Winer fracas and Dorothea’s suggestion that Bb deserved more support than she received.
  • Steve Himmer’s analysis of the value of comments: “I wouldn’t want a bunch of yes-bloggers congratulating me on every word, nor would I want my comments to become a haven for opinions and aggressions far removed from my own—a cracker barrel for bigots, if you will.” (Now there’s a subject on which I can write authoritatively.)
  • Dorothea’s thank-you to Tish for publicly getting her post on the appropriation of body image (posts that forced me to re-consider the worth of a post of my own).
  • Steve Himmer’s question—“How do you engage and participate in a system while simultaneously working against it?”—an issue I’ve been thinking about while watching Mizoguchi’s 1941 film Genroku chushingura (The Loyal 47 Ronin) for the fourth or fifth time.

There’s a ton of other stuff to write about but these posts cry out for attention: either because they are associated with unfinished business or some recent concern or because they speak to my long-term obsession with the Pacific War. (In addition, there’s technical stuff about PHP & MySQL, the long-delayed move to Cornerhost, plus some thoughts about accessibility.)

I’m not the kind of person who confuses making a list with actually accomplishing the listed tasks. I’m hoping that making the list public will encourage me to settle down to writing.

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Monday 28 October 2002

OpenOffice rocks

In response to my question about a reasonably-priced, reliable tool for converting RTF files to XML, Dorothea Salo suggested OpenOffice. Why didn’t I think of that? Because I wasn’t aware that OpenOffice had an XML-based file format. Nick Richards, a member of the OpenOffice team, left a comment explaining that “in the stable 1.0 version it’s ZIP compressed but in the new developer builds there’s an option to save as ‘flat’ XML if you have plenty of space or a special need for it.”

So I downloaded the Windows version, verified the integrity of the download using an MD5 checksum (that was fun!), and installed OpenOffice. There were only a couple of minor glitches:

  • the attempt to import my addresses from Outlook failed because the installer assumed Outlook was my email client (I use Outlook’s calendar and contacts but rely on Eudora for mail); and
  • when I tried to open Mozilla after the installation, I couldn’t use my default profile (somehow the OpenOffice Quickstarter had taken over—uninstalling then reinstalling the Quickstarter fixed the problem).

OpenOffice is impressive: each application is fully-featured and works smoothly. I was able to open Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents in OpenOffice without any problems (though I don’t understand why the default font in Writer (word processor) and Impress (presentations) is Thorndale and that in Calc (spreadsheet) is Albany—neither of which is installed on my Windows 2000 system. (It turns out that they are part of a Windows compatible TrueType font set from AGFA Monotype.)

I have to admit to a slight degree of disappointment. I was hoping that—as well as word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications—OpenOffice would include an alternative to Microsoft’s execrable Outlook. But, to balance that omission, OpenOffice has first-rate Asian language support (enabled by clicking on a checkbox in the Language Settings dialog). I was entering Japanese text within a few minutes of opening the word processor (though I still can’t figure out how to enter vertical text—a Help page (rather unhelpfully) says Here you can define the vertical direction of the text without explaining where “here” actually is).

But I’m nitpicking. I’ve already started to make (XML) backups of my important Word and Excel documents. OpenOffice is definitely a viable alternative to Microsoft Office and for the price (nothing), it’s absolutely amazing. (There’s also a Macintosh OS X beta available.)

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Tuesday 29 October 2002

Responsibility and sincerity

“The decision to go to war is not yours, its the decision of the state in which you live and if the state decides to go to war you are not responsible for that decision.”

Who said it? asked Norm Jenson. Any comments?

I won’t even hazard a guess since something tells me it’s a trick question, that the speaker is a cultural or political hero rather than a loathsome militarist. In any case, I’m less interested in who suggested the primacy of the state’s will over that of the individual than in an underlying assumption in the way the statement has been framed. It seems to me that there’s is a sting in the tail of that sentence in that it seeks not only to absolve the individual from the decision to go to war but also to excuse in advance any actions that individual might undertake on behalf of the state.

It’s almost an orthodoxy amongst contemporary democratic elites that, before taking part in any war, individuals should make a judgement about the justice of the cause for which they are being asked or ordered to fight. If a person decides that the state is acting wrongly in declaring war, then he or she is morally obliged to refuse to participate—no matter what the consequences. It’s this orthodoxy that makes the quoted statement so provocative (which was doubtless Norm’s intention). Moreover, if individuals have no say in the decision to go to war, are they still responsible for their behavior in that war? And by what standards is that behavior to be judged?

Instead of engaging in a tendentious discussion about the meaning or possibility of a “just war,” I’d rather address the circumstance of someone whose decision to participate—made in good faith—turns out to be based on faulty grounds. Perhaps the cause drew upon false or immoral beliefs or the state had covert reasons for declaring war or had indoctrinated its citizens to an extent that made it impossible for them to make an informed choice. One can think of a half-dozen wars in the last hundred years that meet at least one of those criteria.

This situation is addressed in Rebel Redemption Redux, an essay in Dissent magazine by Joshua Michael Zeitz about the ongoing argument in the American South about flying the Confederate flag. Zeitz adopts a critical attitude to both liberal and conservative opponents of the flag:

Even such staunch opponents of the Confederate flag as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen frame their argument in such a way as to validate the spirit of the Old South. “The flag is the bloody shirt of Jim Crow and bullies with too much beer,” according to Cohen, who believes that in its post-Reconstruction context, the stars and bars are “no longer [emphasis added] the proud emblem of a lost cause.” In this sense, the liberal Cohen echoes conservative guru William Bennett in the latter’s cautious posture toward sons and daughters of the Confederate Army. “Although there were great individuals who fought for the Confederacy,” Bennett said earlier this year, “and their individual memory should be honored, what that flag stood for was slavery and the separation of the Union.” To their credit, Bennett and Cohen want the flag lowered. But they miss the larger point: those who fought for the “Lost Cause” should not be honored simply because they displayed intrepidity and prowess on the battlefield. What they fought for, rather than how well they fought for it, should determine the measure of respect accorded Confederate soldiers.

I’ll note in passing the way Zeitz subtly denigrates the Confederate army, by his use of the words “intrepidity” and “prowess,” terms one might usually apply to the behaviour of a Boy Scout troop. My New Oxford Dictionary of English defines intrepidity as: intrepid fearless; adventurous (often used for rhetorical or humorous effect). Zeitz uses it to covertly suggest that military virtues such as courage, determination, resilience, and self-sacrifice were only displayed by the Union forces.

By extension, members of the German and Japanese forces during World War II who fought according to the rules of war should be accorded no respect and neither should the American soldiers who fought honorably in the Vietnam War. In the world according to Joshua Michael Zeitz, honor and respect is due only to those who fight on the ideologically correct side.

Zeitz’s argument offends me partly because he is following the unfortunate contemporary practice of judging past behavior according to the standards of the present but mainly because he denies the possibility that one can act in good faith in support of what is subsequently determined to be either an unjust or a pointless cause.

I disagree with Zeitz because I value makoto, “the cardinal quality of the Japanese hero.” As Ivan Morris wrote in The Nobility of Failure:

Makoto is usually translated as ‘sincerity,’ but its connotations reach far deeper and wider than the English word and come closer to the spiritual power to which Saint Thomas More (one of the noblest failures in Western history) referred when he prayed for the grace ‘to set thys worlde at noughte.’ The focus of makoto varies in different periods of history, but its common denominator has always been a purity of motive, which derives from man’s longing for an absolute meaning out of time and from a realization that the social, political world is essentially a place of corruption whose materiality is incompatible with the demands of pure spirit and truth.

Sincerity precedes not only the realistic demands of established authority but also conventional rectitude; for its ultimate criterion is not the objective righteousness of a cause but the honesty with which the hero espouses it. Thus even an executed felon like the famous nineteenth-century robber, Nezumi Kozo, can be esteemed as a hero, since his motives were believed to be pure.

The Japanese heroic tradition places an inherent value on “the sincere, self-sacrificial act, a value which is entirely irrelevant to its practical effectiveness and which may, on the contrary, be given additional validity by failure.”

I realize I’m on tricky ground here since my argument could be misconstrued as justifying evil behaviour undertaken sincerely. My only response is to refer to one’s existential responsibility to act authentically, to act in good faith. In Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom writes: “freedom extends beyond being responsible for the world (that is, for imbuing the world with significance): one is also entirely responsible for one’s life, not only for one’s actions but for one’s failure to act.

The same idea is embodied in the famous dictum of Wang Yang-ming, the sixteenth-century Chinese scholar whose teachings had a profound influence on the development of the Japanese ideal of makoto:

To know and not to act is the same as not knowing at all.

In this sense, even if I am not responsible for the state’s decision to go to war, I am obliged to act with sincerity of purpose (authentically)—whether I choose to support the war or to oppose it—and to accept responsibility for both my actions and my failure to act.

Update. Occasionally, someone responds to one of my posts in a special way. In his post Faith and Honor, Dave Rogers addresses—persuasively and with great elegance—the issue that continued to trouble me: could my argument be used to justify “evil behavior undertaken sincerely”? Mr Rogers’ post completes my own and so they are best regarded as two parts of a single whole.

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Dishmatique Flex

In acknowledgment of AKMA’s snazzy new domain name and in appreciation for his exegesis of the phrase “hallowed be thy name”—both in my comments and on his own blog—I thought I should review the Dishmatique Flex, first reported by Allan Moult a couple of weeks ago.

Imagine my surprise to discover in the dishwashing implement area of the Woolworths Metro store adjacent to Town Hall Station not just the expected Dishmatique Flex PowerPad but an additional device: the Dishmatique Flex Brush.

Dishmatique Flex dishwashing system

While both devices feature the classic hollow detergent-dispensing handle that epitomizes the Dishmatique approach to dishwashing excellence, the handles on the new models have been greatly improved ergonomically: broader and slightly flatter, the Flex handles sit more comfortably in one’s hand, offering a more comfortable grip.

Initially I was dubious about whether the silver non-scratch PowerPad could replace both the Non-Scratch White and Heavy Duty Green pads available for the previous model. But the PowerPad turned out to be tough enough for cast-iron cookware and gentle enough for the Teflon-coated bowl of my rice cooker. The Dishmatique Brush is perfect for cleaning the stainless steel strainer in my Panasonic Juice Extractor. Since the Flex devices use a different style of attachment, the old pads have been obsoleted. Such is the price of progress.

My only quibble is that the screw cap at the end of the handle has been replaced by a flexible rubber cap which forms part of the rubberized handgrip. While there is no longer any risk of losing the screw cap, I am concerned that the rubber may not stand up to years of heavy use.

Putting aside that minor reservation, I’m happy to report that with the Dishmatique Flex system, Easy-Do have taken a superb product and transformed it into an outstanding one. I confidently await their assault on the American market.

[I can’t resist the temptation to explain that, although I’ve been using Photoshop since version 1.0, it took me until today to figure out how to deep-etch the Dishmatique photos by using the pen tool and converting the path to a selection instead of laboriously selecting pixels with the lasso and magic wand tools. What a breakthrough!]

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour