Tuesday, May 30, 2006

4 Years and Counting
Little more than a week ago, Grinnell, my undergraduate school once again held graduation, and I realized that I have now been out of college for as long as I was in it. Inspired by one of my friends, a list of what I have done in those 4 years in the outside world, not necessarily in order: I can't decide if this is a lot, or not enough. I'm at a strange place in my life where my brain alternates between telling me that time's a-wasting and I need to get a move on, or that I'm still quite young and have many years ahead of me to both figure things out and do all the things I want to do.

More Spam Fun
My spammers are on a roll. A few days after I got the aforementioned subject line, I got this gem, dedicated to all my friends who are programmers, in grad school, or just plain coffee addicts:

"SLEEP: A poor substitute for caffeine"

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Special Kind of Stupid
This is too funny not to share, even though I should probably be insulted. This morning I checked the email account associated with this blog, which was, as usual, all in the Bulk Mail folder. Sometimes Yahoo's spam filter gets overzealous, so I at least scan through. That is how I discovered that either spammers are taking much more personal pride in their work, or they are getting much smarter computers. Behold, the subject line of what proved to be spam promising me a better sex life (which I got a duplicate of later at work, with a different subject):
It takes a special kind of stupid to forget to eat
Perhaps it is at least a sign that some random people still read my blog?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The High Art of "Cooking"
I have a strange relationship with food. I'm never particularly ravenously hungry, and when I do feel hungry, it's sort of a toss-up as to whether I'll feel like actually getting any food or just continuing with what I'm doing and ignoring it until the feeling goes away. In times of high stress, I'm never hungry. During that second year at MSU, I was down to eating maybe 1.5 meals, and it seems to have shrunk my stomach even now. At some point in middle school, or maybe even earlier, I realized that I would find it much more convenient if they would just invent pills that I could take that would make me full and contain a fully balanced set of nutrients.

So anyway, since I am essentially both too lazy and too disinterested to actually cook, I rarely pay attention to how much food I have in the house, and there regularly come to pass days when I suddenly realize I truly have almost nothing to eat, but I don't want to go to the store. And strangely, these are the times I find it the most amusing to prepare food. Having to go a choose what I want to eat out of a selection is no fun. Having to figure out what I can make to sustain myself out of an extremely idiosyncratic collection of odds and ends, well, that's a challenge. I generally end up finding food I had forgotten I had even bought, too.

Today was one of those days. I had been up for about an hour and half, my stomach was insisting it wanted some sort of middle meal, brunch in this case, I suppose, and I looked in the fridge to find: 1 container of cherry yogurt, juice, 10 eggs, some tortillas, some shredded cheese, maybe two spoonfuls of hummus, 4 baby carrots, some butter, grape jelly, marmalade, salad dressing, and some milk that is probably bad now. So I decided to have eggs with cheese. (And some juice.)

After I had beaten the eggs and poured them in the pan to cook, I added some cheese, and when they seemed bubbly and hot, started poking at them with a fork to see what they would do. It occurred to me then that I have no idea what to call the way I do eggs. I started by folding the eggs around the cheese in a half-hearted attempt at an omelette, but they leaked, so then I pushed them all together in the middle, and they ended up getting sort of scrambled, but I don't like wet eggs, so they kept getting cooked until they might also have been sort of fried on the edges. I discovered this method of "cooking" eggs in Japan, and it's really the only way I like to have them, unless I'm going somewhere that people will make omelette's or fritatas for me properly, so I now declare myself both weird and the inventor of the semi-fried scrambled omelette.

Now I'm off to explore the freezer, where there is, as I recall, ice cream and coffee. Mmmm, coffee.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Geographic Geekery
What do geeks do when on the phone late at night? They compare the details of small islands on their giant world maps, of course. This past weekend's educational exploration led to the following interesting discovery: the island of Bouvetøya. It's in the middle of the South Atlantic, surrounded in all directions by miles and miles of ocean. All the islands to its west to South America are claimed by the UK, all those to the east are claimed by France, South Africa, or Australia. Who claims Bouvet? Norway.

I can only speculate that at some point, Norway decided it wanted to be like the other cool countries with islands, and went looking for a bargain. Maybe it thought it had gotten a really excellent deal. But there's a reason that Norway was welcome to it. As Paul Carroll, a self-proclaimed lover of all the Subantarctic Islands, puts it on his informational site:
Bouvetøya lies at 54º 26' South, 3º 24' East and is roughly four miles long by three miles wide, rising to 780 m at Olavtoppen. The centre of the island contains the ice-filled crater of an inactive volcano known as the Wilhelm II Plateau. Glaciers cover most of the island, the two largest being the Posadowsky Glacier on the north coast and Christensen Glacier on the south. Steep cliffs as high as 500 m surround the island. Offshore, navigation is difficult due to poor charting and volcanic activity which creates shoals and shallows...

The island is covered in an ice sheet several hundred feet thick, and sheer ice cliffs fall vertically towards black beaches formed of volcanic sand. The sea is close to freezing throughout the year, often covered in ice or stranded icebergs.

As one might imagine, the weather at this location in the 50th latitude is very inhospitable. Fair weather is extremely rare, and the mean temperature is minus 1.5ºC.
The history of the island since its discovery reveals that several countries have considered establishing weather stations on the island, but have been constrained from doing so by, er, the weather. Eventually, an automatic station was established, after about 50 years of trying. It seems the most successful thing done with the island has been to declare it a "nature reserve."

For further geo-geekery, the address label insert that came with my latest National Geographic had 5 quiz questions on it. Given that one of them was about North Carolina and another about Chile, I did quite well. Wanna try?

  1. Which continent produces the least vegetation?

  2. According to the 2000 census, nearly 30 percent of the foreign-born residents of the United States are from what country?

  3. An archipelago is a group of what physical features found in a body of water?

  4. North Carolina's most populous city is also an important financial center. What's this city's name?

  5. What mineral resource is Chile's main export?
Now I kind of wonder if people in other states got a different Q4, and if they made different questions for subscribers in other countries. I can't think of anyone I know with a National Geographic subscription in another state at the moment, though.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Nu shu and Other Women's Writing Systems
A week or so ago, I finished reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It's a good, quick read, not-too-dense historical fiction, set in nineteenth century China. The story is one woman's tale of her arranged lifelong friendship with another woman, her "old same." Really, though, it's the story of a writing system. The focus throughout the book is on the importance of literacy, and what an effect learning the "secret" women's writing had on the main character's station in life. While the story was of course interesting, the information about nu shu at the end of the book was even moreso.

According to the book, and other stuff I found online, nu shu was a writing system developed by women in Hunan. The main character's aunt teaches her how to write, explaining that the characters are based on the traditional "men's" characters, but phonetic instead of logographic. (Not that she put it in those terms.) The main character also makes a big deal about how the reader had to be very sure to read carefully, with all the context of the whole message in mind, lest she mistake the meaning of homophonic words, presumably since nu shu did not distinguish between tones, as spoken Chinese does.

Aside from the fact that nu shu was supposed to be a secret writing system that men knew nothing about, the whole thing struck me as remarkably similar to the split between the hiragana and kanji writing systems in Japan. When Chinese writing began to take hold in upper class Japanese society, it was of course only men who learned to write that way. Women were restricted to the use of the hiragana syllabary. (In fact, if you visit the "World of Nu Shu" link above, you'll notice that the researcher is actually Japanese, and makes many comparisons of hiragana and nu shu.) The Wikipedia article notes in the History section that an alternative name for hiragana was onnade, or "women's writing."

The restriction of women to hiragana was always kind of funny to me, since in reality, it is much better suited to representing Japanese than Chinese writing is. When Chinese writing was first introduced to Japan, it wasn't yet kanji; it was still full out Chinese, so Japanese men were essentially having to learn to express their Japanese thoughts in an entirely different grammatical pattern when writing. Eventually, Chinese symbols were adopted as main vocabulary words, or kanji, and hiragana verb endings, particles, and other grammatical fillers were added in, allowing for a more Japanese writing system that retained the upper class Chinese cachet.

If only the women had been able to gain the upper hand and force the whole society to adopt a more logical writing system! It would certainly have made my life, and the lives of everyone who has ever tried to learn to read Japanese, much easier.

It occurred to me while writing this that there are other languages that have divorced speaking and writing methods besides the old Japanese/Chinese pair. Speakers of American Sign Language have to learn to read and write standard English, even though it uses a different grammar, too. I remember my mom telling me that a lot of ASL speakers have a hard time learning to read because of that. I feel their pain. (Update: I found an article on the linguistics of ASL that's pretty interesting, for people who were wondering why ASL and English are so different as to cause confusion.)

Monday, May 08, 2006

Mutants and Specials, Minorities of the Future
My last comic book review, as a return to blogging after a week of vacation. (Sorry, no exciting travel tales; I stayed home this time.)

The last series I got introduced to during the great comic book splurge of '05 was J. Michael Straczynski's Rising Stars. I admit, I already have a noted fondness for Straczynski's work, what with my recent undertaking to watch all of his Babylon 5 TV series on DVD. But truly, the man is brilliant.

Rising Stars is the story of 113 children who were all born after a strange meteor struck their town. The meteor endows them all with special powers. The main character and narrator notes as an adult that the combination of powers they were given looks as if it was intended to be exactly what was needed to fix many of the world's ills, if they had worked in concert. Instead, they were quarantined in a special camp every year as children, minutely studied, treated with extreme fear and distrust, and only grudgingly allowed to live within normal society as adults. Some were abused, some were exploited, some rose to fame and fortune, some lived just like anyone else. But in the end, their differences were too much for those in positions of political influence and power to tolerate, and, well, read it and find out. It's a beautiful story, in both the art and writing, but it is not a comforting picture of society.

Its main message is actually very common in sci-fi literature. The parallels with the X-Men series are clear. The main "villian" in the X-Men universe was a victim of the Holocaust, and feels that the efforts in Congress to enact legislation to control mutants is entirely too similar to what he experienced as a child in Europe. Throughout the comics, TV series, and movie trilogy, the theme of mutants struggling against the prejudice of humans is repeated over and over.

In Anne McCaffrey's Rowan series, the main characters are telepathic and telekinetic. Though their talents have become too valuable to that futuristic society for them to be systematically persecuted, given that they facilitate all inter-system transport of goods and services, as well as a variety of other smaller scale tasks, the issue of prejudice against people with their abilities comes up several times.

It is interesting that in most of these futuristic societies, it is seems that current day racism has passed into history, but there is never any doubt that other groups will arise as targets for prejudice and hatred. In some cases, the struggles are based on physical differences again, as with humans vs. alien races, but in Rising Stars and similar works, the group has become less easily spotted, and it seems the prejudice against them is often portrayed as being harsher because of that. The comparison with the Holocaust seems all the more apt.

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