Archive for the ‘history and culture’ Category

All the World’s a Stage, in Japanese

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

We recently went to see As You Like It at the Ahmanson Theater. I’m not a theater critic, so I’ll limit my comments to noting that Rebecca Hall, who played Rosalind, should get out of Shakespeare’s way. We don’t really need every single phrase to be accompanied by giggles, sighs, extraneous eye movements, pauses, hand motions, and pseudo-dramatic twirls.

What I want to write about is the Japanese translation of Jaques’ famous “All the World’s a Stage” soliloquy.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

(By the way, this speech later contains the first recorded usage of the word “puke” in the meaning of “vomit”.)

The Japanese translation we got our hands on, by Fukuda Tsuneari, goes like this in romaji:

Zen-sekai ga hitotsu no butai, soko-dewa danjo wo towanu, ningen wa subete yakusha ni suginai.

It’s amazing, although somehow not surprising, that a famous Shakespeare scholar could do such a bad job translating this passage. Given its visibility, it seems he could have spent at least a little more time on it. Here’s how I translate his Japanese back into English (a dangerous endeavor, as I am well aware, but sometimes inevitable):

The world in its entirety is one stage.
There, whether man or woman, all humans are nothing more than actors.

Our professor has managed to pack an astonishing number of bad translation decisions into such a short sentence. Here’s just a few:

  • “world” should not be “sekai”, which is a Sino-Japanese compound with nuances of “world of nations”; much better is the native Japanese word “yo”, a common word indicating the world around us
  • “all” of “all the world” is translated by placing the Sino-Japanese prefix “zen” in front of “sekai”, again yielding a non-colloquial, stiff result, but more importantly, the implication is of complete geographical coverage, rather than “all aspects” as Shakespeare presumably intended. The Japanese “issai” captures the correct meaning of “all” perfectly
  • whereas Shakespeare uses “men and women” just to indicate all the people in the world, perhaps liking the phrase’s meter, Fukuda reads too much into this and inserts the unwieldy “whether man or woman” into his translation
  • Fukuda translates the article “a” in “a stage” as “one, single”, although Shakespeare is certainly not emphasizing the singleness of the stage
  • after having gummed up his translation with “whether man or woman”, Fukuda ends up needing another word to serve as the subject of the next phrase, and goes with “ningen” (“human”), again too stiff, compared to the colloquial “hitobito” (“people”)

Here is Bob’s translation:

Butai da yo, kono yo wa issai. Hitobito mo mina, tan-naru yakusha.

A quantitative metric we can apply to comparing my translation with Fukuda’s is Bob’s Rule of Comparative Length, which states that bad translations are longer. Good editing, then, will tend to reduce the length of the translated text. In this case, the original English is 51 Roman characters; Fukuda’s translation 77; and mine a close match at 50.

Life without purpose

Sunday, March 20th, 2005

After grabbing a deputy’s gun and shooting her and a judge in a courthouse, a bad guy in Atlanta took Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment. The plucky girl, unfazed, whipped out her copy of The Purpose-Driven Life, read to him from it, and informed him that God had a purpose for his life (in his case, the purpose apparently being to go to prison to spread His word there, although it seems like he had been on his way to prison anyway, whether or not that was God’s purpose for him. even before he shot the judge to death). He accepted her teachings on the spot, turned himself in, and voila, America has another 15-minute folk hero like Todd Beamer.

Eager to learn more, I visited the book’s website. I’m still a little unclear on the details but “God” is involved. Our purpose as humans seems to be to find His purpose for us (yes, I know that’s a bit circular), glorify Him (he’s apparently a little short in the glory department), or to move on past this little mortal phase to something more interesting.

That got me thinking about what the “meaning” of “purpose” is (or was it was the “purpose” of “meaning”?).

In my case, there’s a big Green Rabbit that also apparently may have a purpose in mind for me, and I’m trying to figure out: is it God or the Rabbit? I’m leaning towards the Rabbit, since there’s strong circumstantial evidence it’s him. Otherwise, why would He (the Rabbit) have made me think of him in the first place?

The company that cares about your intestine

Monday, January 31st, 2005

Yakult defines their corporate mission uniquely: they want to solve all your intestinal needs. They really, really care about your intestines.

Back in 1935 their founder Dr. Minoru Shirota invented the lactobacillus in the distinctive fermented milk drink inside those ubiquitous little white plastic bottles you see everywhere in Japan. The whitish liquid scoots past your stomach’s defenses to head straight for the intestines where it can bestow its life-enhancing powers, which include stimulating the intestines, promoting bowel movements, and preventing the growth of unhealthy bacteria down there and the nasty intestinal putrefaction which can result.

The company raises Shirota’s ideas to the level of a pseudo-religion (“Shirota-ism”), and identifies as one of its defining values the notion that a healthy intestinal tract leads to a long life.

Where else can a focus on the gut take you as a business? Drugs, for one thing. Japan has one of the highest rates of stomach and intestinal cancer in the world, believed to stem from all the salted pickles and fish the people eat. Although Yakult’s eponymous drink itself has been shown to be effective in preventing cancer, Yakult also has an active pharmaceutical business. It already has the stomach cancer fighter “Campto” on the market, and just got approval for Oxaliplatin, part of a drug cocktail to treat colorectal cancer.

A bit further afield, under the rubric of “what’s good for your intestine might be good for your skin as well”, Yakult is bringing its expertise in biochemistry to the cosmetics business. The inspiration for this business, it is said, arose from the remarkably lustrous skin tone of the women whose job it was to wash Yakult bottles for re-use (way back when, before they went to the current plastic bottles).

Yakult is also researching mozuku, a particularly repulsive slimy type of seaweed. Turns out, the chemical that makes it slimy also prevents stomach ulcers.

The company still has its armies of “Yakult lady” salespeople, bringing intestinal health directly to your doorstep (although they’re now equipped with PDAs).

And like any other self-respecting Japanese company, Yakult has its own baseball team, the Yakult Swallows, although I wasn’t able to figure out the intestinal connection here.

In this day and age of ever greater specialization and segmentation, defining your business in terms of body parts may become a major trend. What will be next?

Are these underwater structures intelligently designed?

Saturday, January 29th, 2005

“Intelligent Design” assumes we humans can distinguish between things which were “intelligently” designed and things which were not. Well, what about this?

This is from the website of Graham Hancock, an amateur marine archaeologist, journalist, and author of controversial books including Underworld: Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age and Fingerprints of the Gods. The picture shows “the stone circles, or ‘labyrinths’ of Kerama [about 30-40km west of Naha, the capital of Okinawa], at depths between 27 and 33 metres. It has not yet been determined whether these are natural phenomena or structures that were worked by some ancient people when this land was last above sea-level about 10,000 years ago.”

Even more noteworthy is the nearby “monument” at Yonaguni (Wikipedia), 100 feet underwater at the very southern tip of Okinawa near Taiwan. Some people think its ledges, circular openings, and “pathways” are the result of natural forces, while others see the capital of the fabled “Mu” civilization of yore.

Can Cognition Be Involuntary?

Thursday, January 20th, 2005

Terry Schiavo is the brain-dead woman whose husband is trying to take her off life support, while her parents try to keep her alive.

This is a fascinating case which blends aspects of medicine, ethics, law, religion, and psychology.

I won’t comment on the repulsive political posturing and grandstanding in which our nation’s elected representatives are now engaged in Washington.

What caught my eye was the sentence in the NYT that

But many doctors say that what appear to be emotion and cognition are in fact involuntary reflexes.

But what if the “emotion” and “cognition” we all show every day is actually “involuntary”? What does “involuntary” mean? Is it an “emotion” when a baby smiles back at you, and is it “voluntary”? Is it “cognition” when my cat intently follows a bird flying outside our window?

(It being completely irrelevant from the legal standpoint, of course, whether Terry is showing “cognition” or “emotion” when she follows a balloon with her eyes—she can’t make or communicate decisions about her medical treatment, and the law says in that case her husband gets to make them for her. I guess that’s too complicated for the hyprocrites claiming to be in favor of a “culture of life”, who would better be described as in favor of a “culture of vegetables”.)

Incan quipus were spreadsheet roll-ups with department codes?

Wednesday, January 19th, 2005

Dr. Gary Urton is one of the foremost scholars of quipu, the Incan system of knotted cords for record-keeping.

(The spelling “quipu” is Spanish. The Quechuan alternative is “khipu” where the “h” indicates an aspirated consonant.)

Dr. Urton is the author of Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records, where he unfurled the theory that khipus represent a seven-bit coding system, one that I found utterly unconvincing. In my review on Amazon, I picked apart his theory and compared his approach to discussing an Egyptian tombstone covered with hieroglyphics and spending all your time on categorizing them by shape and size without being able to understand a single one. Dr. Urton responded by saying “…my analogy to binary coding is just that, an analogy that is used to give the reader a general understanding of the type of system that is proposed…the theory of binary coding is put forward in this book in an attempt to find some new way(s) of working with these devices to move us to a new level of analysis and, hopefully, understanding.”

But I’m still not convinced. The theory is an “analogy”? It’s not supposed to be an explanation, but just an “attempt to move to a new level”?

Now the New York Times has reported important new research by Dr. Urton (see also the paper in Nature (subscribers only) and the report in Scientific American):

A new and possibly significant advance in deciphering the quipu system may now have been gained by two Harvard researchers, Gary Urton and Carrie J. Brezine. They believe they may have decoded the first word—a place name—to be found in a quipu, and have also identified what some of the many numbers in the quipu records may be referring to.

Any and all progress in deciphering khipus is welcome. However, looking at these newest findings from Dr. Urton (who has apparently discarded his 7-bit ASCII theory), I am once again underwhelmed.

It’s always been obvious that most khipus record numbers. To simplify a bit, the number 123 would be encoded in a khipu by tying one knot at the top of the cord, leaving a bit of space, tying two knots, leaving more space, then tying three knots, with a special twist indicating this is the last digit. That’s right—the Incas used base-10 arithmetic. The two major questions were: what was being recorded, and did some khipus encode non-numeric information—perhaps even a form of “writing”?

On the first topic, in his latest paper Dr. Urton merely “suspects” and thinks it “likely” that the numerical records are of labor quotas. (The Incan empire was sustained by a system of drafted labor.)

On the second, the “word” found and supposedly “decoded” was simply a 1-1-1 knot which is conjectured to be the name of the town where the khipu was found and presumably created. It’s like finding the number “367” on an Excel spreadsheet and imagining that it must be the code for the department of the guy that created it, and then saying that it’s a “word”.

The NYT thus goes completely overboard when it says that this “discovery” could “resolve a longstanding controversy by establishing that quipus included a writing system. That in turn would help explain the ‘Inca paradox,’ that among states of large size and administrative complexity the Inca empire stands out as the only one that apparently did not invent writing. The paradox would be resolved if indeed the quipu encode a writing system as well as numbers.”

This is absurd. A three-digit city code is not a “writing system”. Dr. Urton says “the use of conventional signs is my definition of writing.” Wrong. Using signs for numbers is not writing.

Another aspect of the new research is the finding that khipus formed a hierarchy, sort of a medieval Andean roll-up. The same numbers were found on two different khipus, and it’s believed that on the first it’s the Excel SUM function adding up all the individual numbers of hours of labor or heads of llama or number of virgins or whatever it was, which was then brought over to the second khipu as a line item to be added up into some kind of regional grand total. That’s interesting, but hardly surprising.

Sadly, we will probably never find the equivalent of the “Rosetta stone” for khipus. It’s essentially equivalent to the problem of someone in the year 2500 trying to unravel record-keeping in 2005 when all they have is 700 Excel expense reports. Urton and other researchers are now entering all extant khipus into computers to find new patterns—but there simply isn’t enough data there to crunch.

Did the Egyptians believe in an afterlife?

Sunday, January 16th, 2005

The King Tut Exhibition had its first stop in Los Angeles—and how could we possibly miss something like this?

And of course one of the first things the exhibit taught was how the ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife and that all the stuff they put in the tomb was designed to help young Tut navigate that afterlife more successfully: boats to take him across the equivalent of the Styx, assistants, tools such as knives, you name it.

But what justification do we actually have in support of the concept that the Eqyptians believed in the afterlife? After all, there are many alternative explanations as to why they might have buried a king together with objects in this particular fashion. And parts of the theory are questionable. For instance, if the Egyptians had truly believed that their Pharaoh would be resurrected and enjoy an afterlife, why did they include models of objects instead of the real thing?

When my family’s beloved Shiba-ken “Wanda” was hit by a car and died, we placed her toys in with her in the box sent through the cremation line. We did not do so because we believed she would be playing with them in an afterlife. (Were there indeed an afterlife for dogs, such a miraculous phenomenon would certainly include all the toys Wanda could have wanted, ones much better than any we provided during her mortal existence.)

Just as we were doing with Wanda, my strong sense is that the Egyptians were honoring King Tut’s memory and revisiting and modeling his life through the decorations in the tomb.

Tom Coburn (R-OK) on life and death

Sunday, January 16th, 2005

Unique insights on life and death from one of the Senate’s leading lights.

Tom Coburn (picture; official website) is the Republican Senator from Oklahama whose website says his priorities include “representing Oklahoma values.” Apparently Oklahama values include homophobia: during the 2004 campaign, he alerted Oklahomans to “rampant lesbian debauchery” in the state and warned that “[the gay] agenda is the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today.” And eugenics: Coburn sterilized under-age girls (he’s an MD) without their consent; in one case he says he got “oral consent” but “the nurse forgot” to get it written down.

During the Senate hearings on the confirmation of John G. Roberts Jr. as the 17th Chief Justice of the United States. Coburn took a break from the crossword puzzles he was caught doing during the opening statements to actually “question” the nominee:

Would you agree that the opposite of being dead is being alive?

My my, do we have a philosopher for a Senator here? The unnerving thing is that Roberts actually paused before answering, “Yes,” belatedly adding “I don’t mean to be overly cautious in answering it.”

But Coburn was not actually trying to philosophize about life and death, of course; he was just laying the groundwork for some simplistic posturing and blustering on the abortion issue:

You know I’m going somewhere. One of the problems I have is coming up with just the common sense and logic that if brain wave and heartbeat signifies life, the absence of them signifies death, then the presence of them certainly signifies life.

Hmmm. This is not only overly black and white, but also incoherent. He’s given two criteria, but what about the case where only one is present, such as Terri Schiavo (Wikipedia)? By this logic, does he think she was neither alive nor dead? And where do being pre-alive or pre-dead or in between dead and alive or dead but about to come back to life fit into this picture?
Undeterred, Coburn continues his muddled train of thought:

But for the listeners of this hearing, if, in fact, life is the presence of a heartbeat and brain wave, it’s important for everybody in the country to know that at 16 days post-conception, a heartbeat is present; and that at 41 days, right now, we can assure ourselves that brain activity and brain waves are present.

But if the heart doesn’t start beating until 16 days after conception, why is he against the morning-after pill? By his logic, isn’t the fetus “dead” at that point? (Too bad there’s not a morning-after pill for Senate elections.)

And as the technology improves, we’re going to see that come earlier and earlier.

Huh? Technology is going to make babies in the womb start having a heartbeat earlier?

I make that point because so many of the decisions of the Supreme Court have been made in a vacuum of the scientific knowledge of what life is, when personhood is, when it begins, when it doesn’t, when it exists, when it doesn’t.

So “scientific knowledge” is going to tell us “what life is” or “when personhood is” or “when it begins” or “when it doesn’t”? I’ll have to alert the scientists so they can get cracking on this. And by the way, what does “when personhood doesn’t begin” mean anyway?

And so that was for your information and my ability to put forth a philosophy that I believe would solve a lot of the controversy in this country.

In other words, thanks for listening to my confused monologue and the controversy would be solved if everyone agreed with my jumbled thinking.

I would certainly hope that our electoral system is still functional enough to wash away detritus like this. Then again, America gets the public servants it wants and deserves.

Senator, let me help with that six-letter word starting with A for 8-down: it’s ADDLED.

60 years after the world's first nuclear explosion

Sunday, January 16th, 2005

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Trinity Test. Here’s the description from Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory:

As my father returned to Pullman for his sophomore year at WSC in the fall of 1944, the construction at Hanford was complete, at a total cost of $230,000,000 (equivalent to more than ten times that amount in current dollars); the reactor was started up on September 26, 1944. The plutonium manufacturing process had never actually been validated—there had been no time—so it was not surprising that the reactor sputtered and died. It restarted itself, then stopped again. An urgent call went out to Enrico Fermi, the inventor of the process, to analyze the problem and devise a fix, which he did.

The cans taken to Portland and from there by train to Los Angeles on February 2, 1945, contained the first few grams of Hanford plutonium, laboriously extracted from the uranium isotopes produced in the reactors. In California, the cans were turned over to a junior army officer from Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the actual bomb was to be constructed. By May 1945, a system was in place where regular shipments of Hanford plutonium were being made to Los Alamos, using one-kilogram jugs that looked like big thermos bottles, in convoys protected by submachine guns. The scientists at Los Alamos labored mightily and finally produced a test bomb containing Hanford plutonium at its core, which they named “Gadget.” It was detonated at the Trinity Test Site near Alamagordo, New Mexico at 5:29:45 a.m. on July 16. Seeing the detonation, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head scientist of the Manhattan Project, recalled a line from the Bhagavad-Gita , the Hindu text he had been studying: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The cloud reached a phenomenal height, over 50,000 feet. The blast was certainly a rude morning wake-up call for one particular wild jackrabbit, found dead and partially eviscerated eight hundred yards from ground zero after the blast.

The A-bomb—its history and its existence—provides us with a rich palette of colors to draw our own pictures on topics as varied as the nature of the physical world, war, man’s thirst for knowledge, and death.

[Photo by Jack Aeby]

The meaning of "gambari"

Saturday, January 15th, 2005

Gambari is one of those uniquely Japanese-flavored words you’ll never be able to translate into English for the simple reason that the concept—an effort which is sustained, slightly stubborn, and perhaps just marginally excessive—doesn’t really exist in our culture. Gambari evokes images of a race—not a dash, but a marathon. Gambari assumes that the probability of winning is somewhat low—an underdog flavor—but that there is realistic hope of doing so if all goes well, although that is not the overriding goal, gambari being its own reward. Gambari has a payoff which is often far down the road, a road on which lurk any number of obstacles, large and small.

Their appreciation of gambari is why Japanese love marathons of all sorts, including the “Hakone Ekiden” ultramarathon run by teams of college boys every New Year’s, and Olympic marathon champions like Yuko Arimori who won silver in Barcelona in 1992, her tiny figure the very picture of gambari as she huffed and puffed across the finish line. On the economic front, the rebuilding of the Japanese economy in the ‘50s and ‘60s was one of the premier gambaris of all time.

Now a Japanese government poll (see graph) reveals that more than half of all Japanese believe that gambari is what society should reward people for—more than accomplishment, and much, much more than seniority. 53.2% of all respondents thought people’s status and compensation should be based on their level of effort (and this was up from the 51.1% the previous year), while only 34.2% thought accomplishment should be the determinant (down from 34.7%). Meanwhile, anyone who believes Japan still functions under the seniority system needs to wake up: only 1.8% of respondents said age is what should govern status and pay, and a mere 7.2% thought it still did in actuality. Effort beat out accomplishment as the preferred driver for societal rewards in every demographic except for men in their 20s.

Western management whizzes ready to take over Japan, beware. It’s not going to work to just toss cash bonuses at your workers to get them hit your favorite new metrics. Underneath the Japanese appreciation of gambari is a realization, one that lurks hidden even within the souls of Westerners, that we are not in complete control of our destinies. Calling this a form of Buddhist-inspired fatalism doesn’t change the fact that actually it’s true.

Put a different way, when as managers we pay for accomplishment, we can’t be sure what really led to the performance we’re paying for. Was it truly superior execution, or was it favorable conditions, a target which was set wrong, a brilliant strategy set by higher-ups, accomplishments of others on the team, or just chance? And we ignore at our peril the corrosive societal effect from seeing some people rewarded unfairly, to an absurd extent in some cases. There is even an internal negative effect on (most of) the people getting the rewards as they discern the arbitrary nature of the booty they are collecting.

There is doubtless a connection between the Japan’s Buddhist heritage and its preoccupation with gambari. The quintessential Buddhist activity of meditation fits the model of gambari perfectly. And gambari’s emphasis on doing your best and then letting what may happen do so, certainly reflects the Buddhist model of interrelatedness and interdependence as well.