Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Off to China!
From today until the end of July, all blogging will be over at Dana in the Middle Kingdom, since I'll be in China. Read all about all the things that can go wrong*, and hopefully eventually right, with international travel!

*Long story short: Our plane to China is cancelled.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Life Without Punctuation
In Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, at one point in the introductory chapter, in which she is laying down her argument for the importance of punctuation, she invites the reader to imagine reading the page before him/her completely without punctuation. This reminded me that I actually have done so, in what is quite possibly the most annoying book I have ever read.

In the spring of 2001, I went to Chile for a semester. Because Grinnell did not have strict requirements for the kinds of courses I could get credit for in Chile, I ended up taking classes rather sparse in other gringos. One of these classes was a literature class which no one else in my program was taking because it was an overview of literature from Spain, rather than Latin America. The professor was a fussy Spanish man, who, by virtue of not actually being Chilean, had an accent much easier to comprehend, and had a penchant for ties with little hippopotamuses all over. He liked me, perhaps because he sensed, through my near-perfect attendance, a kindred spirit sharing in disdain of the typical Chilean college student work ethic. That is just a guess. I know for sure that he also liked me because I could actually spell and punctuate. He held my second exam up to the class as an example of what Spanish spelling should be. It didn't endear me to my classmates, but it did prove me one of Truss's "sticklers," no matter the language.

This is all by way of giving you some idea of the kind of person who would assign the book I am going to tell you about. The course did not focus so much on actual works of literature, but on literary style movements and the works that typified them. I can only imagine our professors delight when he thought of including Miguel Delibes Parábola del náufrago, the ultimate in experimental narrative, utilizing over 20 different narrative styles and stylistic devices. Plot-wise, it was also kind of trippy, since it's about a guy who wanted to be alone, so he planted privacy hedges all around his house, except they just kept growing and growing until they blocked all the exits, grew in through the windows, and he was trapped to die. I don't remember if he ever got free or not, because wading through all the styles took so much effort, I could only figure out the plot in reverse.

The different styles vaguely corresponded to shifts in point of view, so they went in discrete chunks, which would have been kind of like chapters, if the book had had any. One of these distinct experimental chunks was typified by its complete lack of punctuation. Or rather, its complete lack of traditional punctuation marks. Instead comma all of the punctuation was spelled out in words period Interestingly enough comma after the initial annoyance comma my brain became so used to skipping over those words in the same way as normal punctuation that it required another shock and transition to go back to actually seeing the marks period If you speak Spanish comma and ever want to torture your brain in a somewhat amusing fashion comma you should try to get your hands on that book period If comma on the other hand comma you only speak English comma you could just try writing this way comma because it is turning out to be rather more challenging than I thought period

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Tea, Anyone?
but also, Fun with Solvents!

When I lived in Japan, people kept giving me loose tea. I like tea, so this was okay with me, but first of all, I didn't have anything to make it with, nor did I have anything to store it in. I solved the first problem by getting myself a proper teapot with a strainer that fits in it when I went back to Sendai during spring break this past semester. The second problem, easily solved by the possession of a tea canister, was not solved, however, because I forgot to get one, and it is apparently impossible to find one in Lansing.

Until today! Today, I decided to make one my own self. I remembered that I had a Republic of Tea canister stashed in amongst my art supplies. I saved it from my parents throwing it away years ago, and lo and behold, it finally came in handy. There are advantages to being a packrat. I had decided to cover it with some of the paper I brought back from Japan, so the first thing I had to do was remove the label.

This sounds like an easy thing to do. Soak it in water, peel off the label, voila, right? Of course not. You would not believe the amount of glue underneath one of those labels. Tenacious glue, too. I scraped off all the paper in about 30 minutes, but getting all the glue and residue off the can and lid took the next several hours. Yay, solvents! Using an experimental combination of a lot of Goo Gone, (a lovely petrochemical solution inherited from Mark's grandmother,) a water and vinegar bath, and steel wool, by about 3:00 in the afternoon, the can was clean. I started the project around 10am, for perspective.

In the meantime, between attacks on the can, I had been considering the papers I had. Originally, I thought I would have to find some spray adhesive, double stick tape, or meticulously spread glue to affix the paper. Then I noticed something I hadn't noticed when I bought the paper in the first place; one of the packs was actually meant for projects like this, so each of the 5 pieces was mounted on contact paper. Yay!

Of course, after all those solvents being applied to the can, I couldn't just cover it and put the tea in. I ran it through the dishwasher first, since Mark always insists that it's really just supposed to be used as an autoclave anyway. (There is a running battle over whether dishes need to be washed before being put in the dishwasher. The answer, by the way, is no.) By 6:00 this evening, I had a clean, covered, and homemade tea canister to put my green tea in. A year after I received the package at Principal Yamagata's funeral, I was finally able to open the sealed bag it was in, transfer it to its new home, and make some real green tea to have with dinner.

Anyone want some tea?

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Construction is Imminent
My China blog looks much better than this one, I have decided. I'm trying to think of a new design for this one now. I've got some ideas, but nothing definite, so if you have any ideas or requests for what you'd like to see here, let me know. Mark is being unhelpful at the moment, seeing as he's all involved with his new car.

Shiny New Toy
Mark has a new toy. It is a pretty toy. It is also a kind of practical toy, since his Ford was truly on its last legs. If you hadn't guessed, it's a new car. A Mazda RX-8, to be exact. It really is quite spiffy. Now that he's gotten to show it off to all the people he wanted to surprise, I can write about it.

I have gotten to ride in style ever since he got it last Wednesday, because every time I said I needed to go somewhere, he offered to chauffeur me. It is "titanium gray" with brushed aluminum trim bits and black and brown leather interior, which is better looking than it sounds. So far, I've had the most fun with the rear-hinged back doors, because the handles are hidden when the doors are closed, and they make having a backseat in a sports car much more practical. Mark, on the other hand, has been having lots of fun with the steering wheel-mounted radio controls, locking all the things the valet key can't unlock, the sunroof, the idea that he has an MD player, as well as a CD player, built into the dash, and showing off. So far, he's had one person at a stoplight roll down her window to ask what kind of car it was and congratulations from my karate instructor on getting such a nice car. The first night he got it, he brought the owner's manual in for bedtime reading, and looked very conflicted when I teasingly asked if he was going to sleep with it under his pillow. Because it is a 6-speed manual, he's working on getting his shifting smoothed out, but he's improving. Good thing he's had my poor car to practice manual driving on all the long trips we've taken this past year. It's kind of nice to be back in an all-manual household. I can be snobby again.

In case you don't already know, the main difference between an RX-(7/8) and other sports cars is that it has a rotary engine. While I can't begin to explain how it works, (I'll leave that to the website I linked to,) I do know that it means the car's center of gravity is low and the engine is incredibly small, which makes looking under the hood rather like looking into the suitcase of a very efficient overseas traveler.

When Mark told my uncle Bruce W. what car he was getting, Bruce told an amusing story about when he had his RX-7. It turned out that one of the people he worked with had worked on the original project to build a rotary engine years earlier. That project had been abandoned with the conclusion that it was impossible to build one that would work properly. Bruce held out his keys and told the guy to take his car for a spin. The guy replied, "Well, the engine won't work after (so many thousand miles)." Bruce pointed out that his car had several more miles than that and still worked fine. His co-worker was not amused.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Sunday Walk
I managed to pry Mark out of bed and into the out-of-doors this morning for a walk. Though it is clouding over and threatening rain now, much like most of the preceding week, it was beautiful this morning. The first interesting thing I saw was what looked like a really big mouse lying at the end of the apartment complex entrance. Then I looked closer and realized it didn't really have any ears, but it did have really big claws. Mark says it was a shrew. I'd never seen one before.

We continued walking over to the nature trail across the street, and to my surprise I spotted another little furry body lying on the path. This one turned out to be a baby-ish shrew, with smaller claws and a little tail and a very pointy nose. I'm really not sure why there seemed to be a shrew epidemic, but we didn't see any more after that. It would have been sad if they hadn't been so fascinating and completely whole.

When we got over the little bridge to the shady part of the path that leads to the playground, the path appeared dotted with little jumping black pebbles. Upon closer inspection, they were teeny, tiny, perfectly formed, pavement-colored toads. They were everywhere. I tried not to step on any, but there were so many, I'm not sure I succeeded. We stopped in the playground to swing on the swings briefly before crossing into some of the actual neighborhoods back there that we never really get to see.

I decided we should walk to the cul-de-sac end of the street where the nature trail comes out. When we got to the turn at the end, Mark saw that the sidewalk didn't just go around, but that there was another sidewalk leading off of it between two of the houses. We took it and discovered that it led over to another, slightly older and less obviously well-to-do cul-de-sac. I commented that it was kind of odd, but Mark said that sidewalks like that were all over Grosse Pointe, where the sidewalks led out of the affluent neighborhoods over to the bus stop on the main street. They were called "maid walks." Given the newness of the neighborhood we had been in to start with, I highly doubt that it is called such now, since it would horribly, horribly un-PC.

I would have liked to explore more, but I had to get home to eat lunch, since it had been an hour since I took my typhoid vaccine pill. Maybe I'll be able to convince Mark, the sun hater, to go again sometime. It was a pleasant start to a Sunday.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

China Blog!
My blog for all things related to my impending trip to China is up! You may now officially go see Dana in the Middle Kingdom, because there's actually stuff up now. You should start with the Introduction, and move on to Change is in the Wind to be all caught up with everything I know about the trip itself so far. I have a lot of other stuff to post there, too, since I have truly been preparing to go since April, so from now until June 23, you get twice as many opportunities to read my ramblings.

Heavenly Jam
Grammar, grammar everywhere! Anne Shirley of Green Gables fame here teaches us the importance of the comma.
Anne gave him such a serious lecture on the sin of stealing plum jam that Davy became conscience stricken and promised with repentant kisses never to do it again.

"Anyhow, there'll be plenty of jam in heaven, that's one comfort," he said complacently.

Anne nipped a smile in the bud.

"Perhaps there will... if we want it," she said. "But what makes you think so?"

"Why, it's in the catechism," said Davy.

"Oh, no, there is nothing like that in the catechism, Davy."

"But I tell you there is," persisted Davy. "It was in that question Marilla taught me last Sunday. 'Why should we love God?' It says, 'Because He makes preserves, and redeems us.' Preserves is just a holy way of saying jam."

"I must get a drink of water," said Anne hastily. When she came back it cost her some time and trouble to explain to Davy that a certain comma in the said catechism made a great deal of difference in the meaning.
-Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery

Predecessors and Successors
Danola just noticed that she's now officially a "predecessor" on the JET program. Last week, I was brought to realize that I am, too, now twice over. Apparently, my successor hadn't contacted her successor yet, so he started Googling for Mukaiyama SHS and found me instead. He emailed me in a state of great excitement to ask for information about "everything," so I culled out all the entries in my Japan blog I could find about Mukaiyama and teaching in general. I haven't heard from him since, so I'll assume they were thorough and/or Mary-Eve got in touch with him. It was fun to look back at all those entries about my life "back then." It was definitely a good year for me. I wish David the best of luck at Mukaiyama and hope that he looks forward to getting in shape by climbing that hill every day!

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

How do I stop?
From Steve Jackson's mini-review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:
Can someone tell me how to stop proofreading? I saw two things in the credits, and one was just a typo, but the other indicated that somebody needed to be beaten with the Apostrophe Stick.
If someone ever figures it out, could you tell me how to stop, too? I think it would be healthier for me.

(Thanks to Matt for sending me the link.)

The Arab Mind Shaped By Language
This morning I opened my Salon newsletter and found this article reviewing the book The Arab Mind. It was first published in 1973, but it is coming up now because so many "neo-cons" have been citing it as evidence for their analyses of the so-called "Arab mind," following the Abu Ghraib scandal. Long story short, the author would never have passed any of my social science classes in college due to his extremely poor grasp of what constitutes sufficient research, apparently never having once taken an anthropology class of any kind, and let us not forget to mention that his grasp of linguistics is woefully undeveloped.

Though the article was supposed to focus more on his mis-portrayal of Arab culture as obsessed with sex, several paragraphs at various points were devoted to the book author's misconceptions about language:
...Having determined by fiat that his method is valid, Patai goes on to claim that because every noun in Arabic is either masculine or feminine, "there are no words for 'child,' 'baby,' 'infant,' 'toddler' and so on." Patai argues that because of this linguistic structure, there are no child-rearing practices in Arab culture, only boy-rearing or girl-rearing. Therefore Arabs imprint unusually sexist attitudes on their children from the day they are born.

It apparently did not occur to Patai that while nearly every noun in French, Italian and Spanish is masculine or feminine, there are words for "child," "baby" and so on in those languages. As common sense would suggest, there are words for "child" and toddler" in Arabic too. In both modern standard Arabic and Iraqi dialect, at least, "tofl" means child and "radhee" toddler, regardless of gender. And of course Arabs speak of children and toddlers in general, just as other speakers of gendered languages do.

Did Patai make a basic mistake, hardly credible in someone who had taught Arabic at the high school level? Or was he perhaps trying to mislead the reader?...

Patai is also on shaky ground discussing how Arabs talk about sex. He claims that "the very word for 'wife' (zawja) in Arabic is felt to be too indelicate to use, because of its sexual connotations (it is derived from the verb meaning to couple)." Yet my sedate Iraqi Arabic conversation book -- originally published in 1949 -- calmly uses "zawja" and the related adjectives "mitzawij" and "mitzawja" ("married"); the Quran also uses a variant of the word in distinguishing prohibited sex from sex within lawful marriage....

It is obvious by the time we reach Patai's fourth chapter, on the Arabic language, that no matter what he claims, Patai is not illuminating a culture he loves so much as building an indictment. Here the goal is to show that Arabs are irrational. Patai states that because of the structure of the Arabic language, "for the Arab mind it is of relatively little concern whether two past actions, events or situations recalled were simultaneous or whether one of them preceded the other. It is almost as if the past were one huge undifferentiated entity."

It is true that in classical Arabic, as in biblical Hebrew, the tenses do not correspond to those in the Indo-European language group. But in the Arabic dialects, there are prefixes to denote action currently going on and action in the future (in Iraqi, "d" for current action and "rah" for the future, and in formal Arabic, "sah" or "sofa" for the future). In formal Arabic, and the Quran, the prefix "f" is added to a series of verbs expressly to show a sequence in time (more or less, "and then this happened, and then this, and then that"). In both formal Arabic and Iraqi there is a structure approximating the Indo-European subjunctive ("if I were rich, I would buy a Ferrari"). The past is no more "one huge undifferentiated entity" than the Arab dialects or the Arabs themselves.

Whatever the merits of Patai's argument about Arabic's tense structure, if he is going to argue the inferiority of Arabic on this basis, he could just as well argue its superiority on the grounds that it is far more logical and complex than any of the modern European languages. It is also puzzling to think of the people who gave the world the zero, algebra and the foundations of astronomy as indifferent to calculating time....
Once again, I say "Argh!" Will the Sapir-Whorf urban myth never die? Language does not and cannot influence our thought this way. The "genders" of nouns have nothing to do with the genders of human beings. They are simply pieces of grammar. If only that grammatical structure had been called something else to begin with, we'd avoid so many confusions from linguistic ignorance. Being told that a language has no verb tenses, or not as many verb tenses as some other language, rarely means that the language has no way of expressing divisions and orderings of time. Chinese, for example, has no changes of the verbs themselves, (therefore, it has "no" tenses,) but manages to express the past, present, and future quite adequately with adverbials (tomorrow, yesterday, right now, etc.)

If you're going to use "linguistics" to support your arguments, either bother to learn something about the actual field, or consult someone who does know. Please. It hurts my brain less.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Amusement and Horror at Pizza Hut
Obvious context: Mark and I went out to dinner tonight at Pizza Hut.

Amusement: When we sat down at the table, we had the kiddie placemats, and after we did all of the activities, I noticed that we had each sat on the side of the table with the thematically appropriate mat. Mark had Techno Trivia, while I had Around the World Mania. Mark laughed at us both because neither of us would put crayon to paper for the mazes until we were sure we had already figured out the route.

Horror: When we walked in, there was a bulletin board for all the kids participating in the Pizza Hut "Read It" literacy drive. The banner at the top said "Congradulations ReadIt [something or other]!" Let me repeat: It said "Congradulations" on a literacy billboard.


Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Truth About English
or, Why I Couldn't Learn German

I haven't done much writing about all the books I've been reading this summer, but I have been reading, and it occurred to me that I meant to post this fabulous find a long time ago. John McWhorter, you see, has explained (part of the reason) why I had such an irritating time learning German, but found Spanish ridiculously easy by comparison. From his book, The Power of Babel, we learn:
[T]his Latin/French legacy can also leave English speakers somewhat frustrated when it comes to learning languages other than the Romance ones. Americans who found that after a few years of learning Spanish they could read a Spanish newspaper fairly comfortably are disappointed to find that after a few years of German classes, they can get at best the gist of even a rather simple magazine article or comic book, whereas an issue of a prestigious newspaper like Die Welt is virtually unintelligible. A person can even become fluent in casual spoken German after a year in the country and still be barely able to get through a page of Germany's general interest magazines such as Der Spiegel or Stern. This is the because the massive parallels between the "high" vocabulary in English and the Romance languages are due to a historical accident: most languages' vocabularies do not match to this extent on any level.

German is especially deceptive here because, given that it is closely related to English, many of the basic words are quite similar to ours, unlike French: instead of pain, eau, poisson, Brot, Wasser, and Fisch. But once we get to associations, the present, and opportunities casually discussed in Der Spiegel, the words are Verband, Gegenwart, and Gelegenheit - this means that one has to devote as much attention to internalizing the high layer of the German vocabulary as one does to the everyday layer in French.

-pp. 98-99
This is not to say that I do not appreciate the four years I spent struggling with "the awful German language." Since I became more academically interested in language acquisition, starting, of course, with my own attempts, I have classified that first attempt not as learning a language, but as learning how to learn a language. Trying to figure out German conjugations, cases, noun gender classifications, and noun/adjective agreements laid the foundations in my brain for 1) understanding English better, and 2) knowing how to make connections between metalanguage and the foreign language instruction I was receiving. My German was always terrible, and it has all but disappeared (except in those odd moments when I'm really tired and my language filters are breaking down,) but I still think it is because I took those years of German that I was able to become as fluent as I am in Spanish, that I took Japanese, Chinese, and Maputhüngun for fun, and that I am now pursuing second language acquisition as my higher academic goal.

I will add, however, that in the light of McWhorter's revalations above, I still think it was unfair for our middle school German teacher to tout the similarities between English and German in her "Take my elective!" spiel to incoming, innocent 6th graders. I always insisted that she used all 10 cognates in her presentation, to lure us into a false sense of security. Of course, as an overly literate child, I was probably also more frustrated than my peers at not being able to talk about all that abstract stuff English gets from its Romance side. I didn't want to talk about bread and fish, I wanted to talk about opportunities and associations. It seemed like I'd never learn enough vocabulary to talk about anything interesting, and in the end, I never did, at least not in German.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Melanie's Wedding in Pictures
All righty, they're up. Here are the pictures from Melanie's wedding.

My favorites are:

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