Rome 2016

(click on any image for a larger version)

This being my second visit to Rome in three years, I had the opportunity to catch up on some sights I had missed the first time around. Herewith, as usual, some random observations:

(Above and below) sculpture groups at the Altare della Patria.

You of course know the story of the magically animated wooden puppet carved by Gepetto. It turns out this was only Phase I of his plan. In Phase II, the puppets are put to work in sweatshops carving more puppets to form an exponentially increasing army of frolicking puppets. I have some concern as to how Phase III will turn out:

Playfulness in architecture. I like the variety of structures employed on the corner of this building.

And more playfulness...

Humdrum view of the Roman forum:

The Palazzo dei Conservatori, housing part of the Capitoline Museum, is decorated with frescoes, many showing the Battle of... well I don't know what battle it was, but I expect the Romans won. The artist was particularly fond of depicting decapitations, etc., and in this little detail, the best classical painting I have seen showing a head squashed by the hoof of a horse:

More stuff in the Capitoline Museum:

I have never been interested in spectator sports. I simply lack the fandom spark. But I think I might make an exception for baby-fish wrestling:

Panorama of St. Peter's basilica:

Uncharacteristically Italian neatness in parking:

Pantheon, illuminated by the oculus in the center of the dome:

And now a side trip to Tivoli. The gardens at the Villa d'Este with their fountains are not to be missed. We all agreed they are far more beautiful (though less extensive) than the gardens at Versailles. I wish I knew whose inspiration it was to use the sloping site to power a thousand fountains by gravity. 

One of the thousand: 

Detail from another fountain. I don't know whether these snake people come from mythology or are merely a fancy of the artist.

And the villa building:

Inside the villa, a piece of trompe-l'oeil. In other words, the door you see is not real but painted on the wall, Road-Runner style. Such touches abound in the villa.

Also in Tivoli are the ruins of the villa belonging to Emperor Hadrian. The weather had turned moody and atmospheric by the time we reached the villa:

I hadn't realized it until pointed out by a tour guide, but this scrap of ruined floor indicates the scope of the Roman empire. The various colors of marble—rose, white, green—all come from different lands at different points of the compass.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, birds are resting in the Forum:

(Literal) high fashion on the Via dei Condotti:

View from the roof of our hotel:

Also on the roof:

I hope you enjoyed your visit to Rome!

Turks and Caicos Revisited

Revisited this archipelago recently. Herewith some random observations. Click on any photo for a larger version. Lots of panoramas in this set—it seems to be in the nature of the place.

Da Conch Shack, being a popular local eatery on the beach. Conch is the local specialty.

Creative use of conch shells for construction. I'm surprised this isn't done more often, as the shells are to be found in great heaps here and there. On the other hand, ground-up conch shells have been traditionally used as mortar for building.

Ornamentation on an otherwise modest building.

Upscale tourist building development in Grace Bay.

Back entrance to a Grace Bay restaurant. More elegant than the front entrance to anything in my home town.

Something new for me on this trip was a visit to the islands of North Caicos and Middle Caicos. This is the car we rented from North Caicos' premier car rental company. Previously I have noted the tendency for everything in the Caribbean to seem improvised. This company initially told us they had no cars available, but then one employee told the other, "Give them the blue car," whereupon they pulled out a set of keys and handed them over after blowing the dust off. Note the busted turn signal.  This company had one name on the brochure, a different name on the rental paperwork, a third name on the car sticker, a fourth name on the credit card slip, and then appeared with a fifth name on my credit card statement. The company motto should be "Always just one step ahead!"

When we pulled over to take a shot of this picturesque building, a man came out and informed us it is for sale. Any takers?

Caves on Middle Caicos. These are not as large as other caves I have visited but very scenic in their own way. They are also home to vampire bats.

Beaches in the Turks and Caicos are said to be the world's best, but the beach at Mudjin Harbor on Middle Caicos makes the others look sad and pathetic.

Interplay of surf with these rock formations at Mudjin Harbor provides perpetual entertainment for a meditative frame of mind.

This is Middle Caicos' second most luxurious resort, at Bambarra Beach on Middle Caicos. No, I am not kidding. The most luxurious resort, back at Mudjin Harbor, is much nicer.

This ramshackle house is the most elaborate structure we passed on the road to Bambarra Beach. 

Mnemonics for Chinese Tone Pairs

For many English-speaking students of Chinese, the fact that tone contours can make the difference in meaning between one Chinese word and another is a major stumbling block. A simple example:

鱼跃 yúyuè with 2nd/4th tones (rising, then falling) means “dive.”

预约 yùyuē with 4th/1st tones (falling, then high-level) means “reserve.”

So one must remember the tone contour of a word as well as the rest of the pronunciation or risk being misunderstood (sometimes disastrously).

My mnemonic system for Chinese character pronunciation includes the tone of the character as part of the system. Individual characters in Mandarin have one of four tones, which some grammarian creatively named 1st tone, 2nd tone, 3rd tone, and 4th tone. We’ll leave a description of the individual tones for another time, but note the diacritical marks used to mark each tone:

1st tone: ā
2nd tone: á
3rd tone: ă
4th tone: à

The diacritical shapes roughly represent the pitch contour of the respective tone (rising for 2nd, falling for 4th, etc.)
In an ideal world, remembering the tone for each individual character would allow you to predict the tone contours of compound words made of two or more characters. Unfortunately, the tones of Chinese syllables appear to mutate spontaneously when combined with other syllables. This does not happen every time, but it happens often enough to pose difficulty.

For example, in the word

当年 dāngnián “that year”,

the character is pronounced dāng, with a 1st (high level) tone, whereas in the word

当天 dàngtiān “that day”,

the character is pronounced dàng, with a 4th (falling) tone. (This is all assuming my dictionary knows what it’s talking about.) The function of the character appears to be identical in both words, so why the change? If there are rules controlling this, I haven’t figured them out yet.

So we need a way to remember the tone contours of words consisting of more than one syllable—particularly two-syllable words, which are the most common. I created a set of standard code words based on the Major system for memorizing numbers. In compound words, a syllable may have one of five tones, because certain syllables of compound words lose their normal tone, becoming a “neutral” tone. A neutral-tone syllable is pronounced quickly, with a pitch slightly lower than a preceding 1st or 2nd tone, and slightly higher than a preceding 3rd or 4th tone. The English word “basket” is normally pronounced with a fairly good approximation of 1st tone followed by neutral tone. In Pinyin the neutral tone is indicated by the absence of any diacritical mark. For example: duōme is 1st tone followed by neutral tone.

For the purpose of memorization, I assigned the digit 5 to neutral tone. The Major system uses a consonant sound to represent a single numerical digit. In particular:

t, d, or th represents 1;
n represents 2;
m represents 3;
r represents 4;
l represents 5.

Other consonant sounds (with the exception of w, h, y) represent other digits, but the foregoing is is all we need for this purpose. Vowels of a word represent no digit. Take as an example the word “root”. The r represents 4, the t represents 1, and the oo represents nothing; thus this word serves to encode the digit sequence 4-1.

The goal now is to choose a word representing each pair of digits describing the tone pattern of a Chinese disyllable. Take as an example the previously-mentioned yùyuē (tones 4-1). To represent this I need a word with the sequence of consonants r followed by t, d, or th; I choose “rawhide”. 

Why not the forementioned “root”? I prefer to use a two-syllable word and try to get used to pronouncing it with the particular tone contour that it represents:


As this sinks in, it eliminates one step of the decoding process: the word directly represents the given tone contour.

The code word is put to use by mentally linking it with the term that it applies to; recall that  yùyuē means “reserve”. I can use a sentence like:

I reserved one of the special rawhide plane seats.

And then henceforth I use “rawhide” whenever necessary to represent the tone contour of any word with a 1st/4th tone pattern, such as the previously mentioned dàngtiān “that day”:

That day we rode until our hides were raw.

This sentence then helps me recall that is pronounced with 4th and 1st tones.

Here, then, is the list of code words for all two-syllable contours (note that, as always, it is the sounds that encode digits rather than the written letters):

Mona (Lisa)

The principle can be extended to three or more syllables; for example, the tone contour 会员卡 huìyuánkă “membership card” can be encoded as digits 4th/2nd/3rd and the consonant sequence r-n-m, “uranium” for example. As the string of digits gets larger you will need to resort to phrases of two and more words. I haven’t tried to standardize the code words for more than two syllables at a time.

(A completely different approach: using the digits of the Major system is nothing more than a convenience which makes it easier to commit the system to memory. Once you've made the mental connection, any word can serve to represent any concept, although something concrete and visualizable is better. An alternate approach would be to choose for each tone contour a specific Chinese word exemplifying the pattern; for example, àā  could be represented by 师 mùshī  “pastor.”)

Buckaroo Banzai Does Time Management

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension is a movie from 1984:

Maybe you've seen it. If not, I recommend it. (Mild spoilers ahead.) Buckaroo Banzai is a polymath something after the mold of Derek Flint, equally proficient at brain surgery, rock music, scientific research, and combatting world-threatening evildoers. The movie offers a complex, multilayered, witty story of attempted alien conquest, refreshingly un-dumbed-down. The final seconds promise a sequel which unfortunately never materialized.

Today's report, however, focuses on a single quote from the movie, which I sometimes turn to for solace and encouragement.

Anyone who has reached the age of twenty has had the opportunity to realize that time seems to pass faster and faster as one ages. Going from age ten to age twenty takes far less time than reaching age ten. And, generally speaking, each succeeding decade goes by faster.

Naturally I am interested to see whether this phenomenon can be manipulated or even reversed. This entails understanding the root cause, which not everyone agrees on. I suspect several factors are at play.

One of which being simply that the ratio of time to things-needing-to-be-done tends to be lower for adults than children. As a boy, I recall Sunday afternoons seeming to stretch on forever (not entirely in a good way). As an adult I am never bored. There is always something to do, whether obligatory or not.

I also have the kind of job where random tasks tend to pop up, some with sudden and great urgency. It is not so unusual to face an eight-hour day during which ten hours of work need to be accomplished.

Back to the movie now. At the story's darkest hour, with the minutes ticking away to the destruction of the Earth, and Buckaroo in shackles, undergoing torture worse than death (come on, that's not really a spoiler, is it?), the arch-villain (a delightfully unhinged John Lithgow) taunts him:

Don't you realize what you're doing? Your whole planet's gonna be destroyed and you sit here wasting time.

Banzai's response is the ultimate in cool:

Time? I've got nothing but time.

And it's sheer bravado. The bad guys hold all the cards (for the moment, of course).

I remember this when I'm facing one of those days, buried in crises. I take a breath and tell myself, Time? I've nothing but time. And then it's true.

(Note of interest probably to no one but myself: for many years my imperfect memory misattributed this quote to Indiana Jones in similar circumstances, where it works just as well. My inability to locate the utterance convinced me I had imagined it.)

Japan: Nothing but Sincerity as Far as the Eye Can See

I have written about this at some length previously, so I'll keep my commentary on this video brief. I think this escaped zebra drill in a Japanese zoo nicely illustrates the tooth-aching levels of sincerity commonplace in Japanese society. In America such an exercise would inevitably deteriorate into bystanders flinging rocks and filth at the zebra--if the zoo staff doesn't do it first.