Hone Your Visual Sensuality and Eloquence with the Game of Kakiemon

Photo by Coolmitch

[This game takes its name from the 17th-century Japanese potter who,   inspired one evening by persimmons hanging from the tree and bathed in the glow of the setting sun, spent years obsessed with reproducing that exact shade of orange in porcelain. When he finally succeeded, he changed his name to Kakiemon (loosely translated as "Persimmon-guy").]

Assembling the game apparatus: At the hardware or paint store, pick up a collection of paint chips. How many and in what colors is up to you. The more shades you choose and the more subtle the distinctions between them, the more challenging the game. Get two identical copies of each.

Clip out the color part(s) of each chip. In particular, be sure to cut off and discard the name of each shade (although you may optionally make a note of it for later). To keep track of all these colored rectangles, you write codes on the back of each. Two copies of each shade: one copy gets an even code number on the back; the second copy gets a random unrelated odd code number. Each code number should be unique, so you can use them to identify the color. Make a list which shows the even code numbers in sequence and the corresponding odd code number for the same shade for each.

How to play:
You need three players. On each turn, one player is sender, one is receiver, and one is checker. Separate the cards into a pile with even code numbers and a pile with odd code numbers (thus each pile will have one copy of each color). The sender and receiver face opposite directions so they cannot see each other. The sender gets the pile with even code numbers, the receiver gets the pile with odd code numbers, and the checker gets the list of what matches with what.

Set a timer for a fixed interval, say 3 minutes. During this time, the sender draws cards at random from the even-numbered pile and shows it to the checker, who looks up the even code number on the list (and thus the corresponding odd number, but don't tell what it is). For each card, it is the sender's task to describe the color verbally so that the receiver can locate the same color. The sender can specify the color by name (if remembered, but there's no guarantee that the receiver will also remember), or use any kind of description (the color of persimmons in the glow of the setting sun; the watery green of a pane of glass seen edge-on, etc.). The receiver gets one guess as to which color is being described, but can ask for more information or even specific questions. The checker's only job is to verify using the code numbers whether the receiver has selected correctly. For each correct identification during the fixed time interval, both sender and receiver get one point.

At the end of the time interval, roles rotate: the sender becomes the receiver, the receiver becomes the checker, and the checker becomes the sender. After three turns, reverse the sender and receiver and continue by rotating for the next three turns. This way each sender gets to work with each receiver.

In other words if the first turn has Sender=A, Receiver=B, Checker=C:

Then the second turn has Sender=C, Receiver=A, Checker=B;

The third turn has Sender=B, Receiver=C, Checker=A;

The fourth turn has Sender=C, Receiver=B, Checker=A;

The fifth turn has Sender=A, Receiver=C, Checker=B;

The sixth turn has Sender=B, Receiver=A, Checker=C; This completes one round.


And then the seventh turn repeats with Sender=A, Receiver=B, Checker=C, etc.

Continue rounds until you can stand it no longer, and total up the points for each player.

So who will be good at this game? I expect that, like most things, skill will improve with practice. Some people just pay more attention to colors than others. The (Anglophone) world is divided into to groups: people who know what "taupe" is and people who don't. My hypothesis is that people in the worlds of fashion (or even those who work the cosmetics counter of a department store) would have an advantage at this game.

Difficulty can be adjusted easily. For very small children

This game is not unlike the face-matching game that I described earlier.

Warped Reflections in an Icy Mirror






Disney's animated Frozen has just hit the American theaters at this writing. The Japanese opening is still some three months away, but comparing the American and Japanese movie trailers shows some interesting cultural differences.

One is the overall thrust of the trailer. You can tell the difference even if you don't understand English or Japanese. The American trailer plays up the humorous angle, while the Japanese plays up the adventure and romance angles. Both of these are misleading in their own ways, but the Japanese trailer seems to come close to the true spirit of the movie. The difference in emphasis is consistent with what I have said earlier about the American penchant for irony versus Japanese earnestness.

Or then again, the difference may represent a difference in marketing strategy. Perhaps in America it is expected that kids will dictate the movies the family sees, whereas in Japan the parents choose (I merely speculate). This latter seems even more likely when you consider the printed text of the Japanese trailer:

 ディズニーの映画の (Of Disney movies...)


歴史が変わる (...history is changing...)

Very dramatic, but this hardly seems calculated to appeal to the little tykes.

There is more to be seen than just a difference in marketing. The very titles of the movies are significantly different. In English it is simply Frozen, whereas in Japanese it becomes the more conventional アナと雪の女王 (Anna and the Ice Queen).

There is also a particular line of dialog that coincidentally appears in both trailers. The Japanese translation is slightly off. In English it comes around the 1:39 mark:

That's no blizzard, that's my sister!

The Japanese version comes around the 0:39 mark:

Tada no fubuki ja nai! Nē-san no mahō yo! Literally: That's no ordinary blizzard! That's my sister's magic! (Italics mine)

The Japanese version inserts a couple of extra words. To me the effect is to make the Japanese seem serviceable, but dumbed down and unimaginative. I'm not sure why it was done this way. Perhaps Japanese people just don't get metonymy?




Setting Out for Lost Empires

Photo by falco500

I had dinner with a friend from Niger, West Africa last night (not Nigeria—ooh, don't let her catch you making that mistake). Earlier I had lent her a couple of Tarzan books, with a warning to steel herself against the enthusiastic use of stereotypes, which filled the top drawer in the toolbox of every popular writer of the era.

There's a practical reason why Tarzan grew up in Africa rather than, say, India (like the Jungle Book's Mowgli, who was one of the literary inspirations for Tarzan). Africa's vast size and difficulties of transportation and communication meant that early Western maps of Africa left the interior as mostly a blank void, room for the imagination to populate with all kinds of lost empires and exotic races (of which the Tarzan series has dozens).

I have remarked elsewhere on my nostalgia for the days when the map had plenty of blank spaces holding the promise of the exciting and new.

But back to last night's conversation... we were discussing the pervasive state of ignorance of non-Africans about Africa—not just ordinary ignorant people like myself, but people you would expect to know better—people whose job it is to know better—people who somehow combine their state of ignorance with the confidence that they know all about it.

And it occurred to me that for most of the non-African world, the map of Africa is still a huge blank space—not the honest blank void that admits we don't know what's there, but a broad sweep of uniform color that says we know all about it, and it's all the same.

So you have, for example, the phenomenon of "So, you're from Africa? What's Desmond Tutu really like?" Or let's consider a less stupid version: "So, you're from Africa? I hear the surfing off Capetown is terrific."

This comment elides the fact that the distance from Niamey, Niger to Pretoria is roughly the same as that from London to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan—or from Juneau, Alaska to Tampa, Florida—or from Los Angeles to Bogota (as I checked this morning using my globe and a piece of string). Geographic distance of course does not directly translate into cultural diversity. I have the depressing feeling that at this very moment young people in both Juneau and Tampa are watching gorgeous wan twenty-somethings on TV and fantasizing about sex with vampires. But both these cities were settled relatively recently (within a few hundred years) by immigrant stock from the same country. The longer a population is in place, the longer they have to develop not only their own unique customs, but mutually alien ways of thinking.

But no place has been settled longer than Africa. The physiological side of this coin is genetic diversity—the indigenous African population has as much genetic diversity as the rest of the world combined.  Other measures of diversity run much the same way: Wikipedia counts 2100-3000 different languages in six different families. Different families are really different—more different than, say, English and Sanskrit.

I did visit Africa once, but it was a long time ago and literally just scratching the surface. I never got more than a hundred miles from the extreme northwest corner. It's a comforting thought today that there are still plenty of blank spaces on the map to explore.


A Cramming Case Study

Recently a company I do R&D consulting work for asked me to serve as a translator on a conference call with a potential client in Japan. Although I consider myself a fluent Japanese speaker—I literally have no problem carrying on a conversation if roused at 3:00 a.m. (as actually happens sometimes)—this task was somewhat intimidating for three reasons:

(1) Intepreting from Language A to Language B is a specialized skill, for which knowledge of both Language A and Language B is necessary but not sufficient. The ultimate in interpretation is the simultaneous interpreter, who manages to translate the first part of a sentence while listening for how the second part will turn out. But even at a simpler, taking-turns level, interpretation is trickier than you might think if you haven't tried it.

(2) The subject matter under discussion—digital imaging technology—is something that I don't usually discuss in Japanese, so there would be a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary.

(3) (This is a particular issue with Japanese:) the stylistic register of the conversation, being a business meeting, was different from what I am most used to, which are informal, friendly conversations.

I had about three days to prepare. In that time, there was little I could do to address points (1) and (3), but I could hope to do something about point (2)—vocabulary. I did my best to bone up using available tools (all of which happen to be available for free).

I was lucky enough to receive a 30-minute video showing a conversation similar to that I would be required to interpret. I listened to the video and jotted down (in Notepad) words and phrases it seemed would be useful to know off the top of my head. I ended up with a list of roughly 200 terms. I then processed my notes as follows:

1: I copied the list of terms into a single column of an Excel spreadsheet. I could have typed them into Excel to begin with, but this took only a few seconds.

2: I uploaded the Excel document into Google Docs and converted it to a Google spreadsheet.

3: Using the GoogleTranslate() function, I created a second column containing the machine translations of the terms in the first column.

4: My wife—a native Japanese speaker with however no expertise in digital imaging—did a sanity check of the translations. Most of them did not seem to need fixing. I went back over the list and together we decided on translations for the most easily misunderstood terms (think, for example, how many possible meanings the word "form" has).

5: I downloaded the spreadsheet back into Excel format and cut-and-pasted the contents into a tab-separated text file.

6: Finally, I imported the text file into my Anki deck of Japanese vocabulary.

The foregoing prep time took perhaps an hour, with the bulk of time spent on step 4. It then became a matter of studying the terms over the next three days, taking perhaps an hour a day. Many of the terms were actually easy-to-remember adaptations of English words, but I intentionally "failed" them in Anki in order to make sure they would be presented the next day.

The meeting itself came off well, and all parties declared their satisfaction with the translation. Of course, how would they know? ...since I was the only bilingual present I could have committed the most outrageous translation errors and no one would ever know (including myself).

Prince Edward Island - Quebec City

 (Click on any photo for a larger version)

How I spent my summer vacation: three days driving from Maryland to Prince Edward Island, a day driving from Prince Edward Island to Quebec City, and then two days driving back to Maryland.

In recent years Prince Edward Island has gone from being an isolated backwater in a remote corner of Canada to a backwater with a substantial tourist trade. I think this change is due to two main factors. One is the opening of the Confederation bridge connecting the island to the mainland. 

The other is the series of early 20th-century Anne of Green Gables books, which take the island as a setting and feature the plucky but somewhat mishap-prone Anne as heroine. Unaccountably I missed out on reading these books as an child but even as an adult I found them entertaining--provided one can recalibrate one's sense of humor to something considerably more subtle than the body-function jokes prevalent today.

I found Prince Edward island to be charmingly relaxed. I encountered the bizarre phenomenon of people actually driving below the speed limit. The primary city of Charlottetown played a historic role in the confederation of Canada as an independent nation. Between this, and the existence of the big bridge, and the general atmosphere, Charlottetown seemed like a weird mirror image of Annapolis. I like to imagine that while we were driving northward for three days a Charlottetown couple was likewise driving south to Annapolis, so they could exclaim over how quaint and atmospheric everything was. 

This is the Green Gables house, where the fictional Anne grew up. This is possible because the author Lucy Maud Montgomery was apparently inspired by a real house. Somehow none of the books mentioned that Anne grew up a stone's throw from a golf course. Not to mention the nearby Anne of Green Gables Bungee Jumping Experience and the Anne of Green Gables Casino and Floorshow. Okay, I made those up, but there really is an Anne of Green Gables Museum of Oddities and an Anne of Green Gables Tattoo Parlor.


This picture and the next, from the interior of the house, prove that Op-Art was not invented in the 60's.



In the unlikely event that you find yourself in the neighborhood of New London (a very small town—on Prince Edward Island, two buildings next to each other apparently constitute a "town") around lunchtime, I highly recommend you try out the Kitchen Witch restaurant in this old farmhouse here. For all that I describe Prince Edward Island as a "backwater", I found it to be in an advanced state of civilization for people (like me) on gluten-free diets, or vegetarian, or whatever. The Kitchen Witch maintains a separate kitchen for baking gluten-free bread, cake, etc. (baked goods being the rarest of gluten-free items). The proprietress—a proud immigrant from Texas—embodies every cliché about country warmth and hospitality.


SPOILER ALERT: The Kitchen Witch is the kind of place chock-full of bric-a-brac, old license plates, and puzzles improvised from household items. One of these last was a challenge to balance six nails on the head of a seventh. I managed to do so using the configuration shown here. The proprietress said I was the first customer ever to figure it out. Suck it, Canadians!


This is what downtown Charlottetown looks like. Amazing what you can do with a few trees, umbrellas and tables on the sidewalk.


And now on to old-town Quebec, which I'm pretty sure is the most picturesque spot on the North American continent. Several shots here are included on the basis of general picturesquositude.


I wanted to buy all our friends gifts at this boutique, but my wife unaccountably vetoed that idea.


A shot from the lower town, with the hotel Château Frontenac in the background.


The Rue Sous-le-Cap may be the narrowest street I've seen anywhere—certainly within North America. If you plan on strolling here, make sure not to bring any obese friends along.


Quebec again. If memory serves, the building with the red roof is the oldest in town still standing (1677).