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: Mrs. Gorodish—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 Mrs. Gorodish 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).

Scenes from San Francisco

(Click on any picture for an enlarged version)

I last visited San Francisco over 40 years ago. Surely the city has changed, but the way I look at things has changed far more. So far as I can tell, in the popular imagination San Francisco = Chinatown + lots of hills + Fisherman's Wharf + occasional earthquakes. I missed the earthquakes but hit the other spots.

First, there are the hills. This adds a dimension of adventure to travel by foot or vehicle. I will have more to say about this later. As you see in the picture (taken through the windshield of a taxicab), some of the hills approach practical-joke proportions (Why is there a giant wall at the end of the street?) Hence some of the street views are reminiscent of a scene from an Escher print (or maybe Inception).

Chinatown, of course. I love the old-fashioned wild-ass romanizations (like Foo-Wah towards the back of the image).

A Chinatown paradox: "Bank of America" written in Chinese characters.

This photo only captures half the charm of this little scene. All the cats are waving their paws, out of synchronization.

I naively expected Fisherman's Wharf to have fishermen--at least that's what I've seen in the movies. No, it's almost entirely given over to entertainment, like many other city waterfronts. And frequented by seagulls who have well learned the advantages of human companionship.

I saw signs for several "Sushi Boat" restaurants. This is one idea that has yet to make it to Maryland. In case you haven't seen such, the idea is the little boats parade laden with plates and you reach out and grab what you want. It's a cute idea, but probably also technically a lot easier to manage than the rotating conveyor belt (which I have seen a lot of places).

The Muir Woods are a short drive away. Photos can't capture what this is like. The redwood trees are midgets compared to their giant cousins, but still outclass anything we have in Maryland.

I apologize for the blurriness of this photo. I took it indoors, in dim light, and tweaked the brightness a little and stretched it drastically to correct for foreshortening. It's part of the ceiling of an Italian restaurant. Chinatown gets the fame, but San Francisco's Little Italy is also worth a look.

And what says "California" more than a meeting of the Society of Plastic Surgeons?

Cultural notes: San Francisco's bumpy topography is legendary. It is interesting to me that the street layout makes no concessions whatsoever to topography--see the map below. Lombard Street in particular is called the "steepest street in the world." Notice the little zig-zag section, which shows up on the post cards. The opposite side of the same hill--without zig-zags--is the photo at the top of this post. 

I don't mind going up and down hills, but some of the grades are just too much for busses, for example, to handle. Which means that riding anywhere on a bus, even sometimes a few blocks down the same street, becomes a tortuous series of left and right turns as the bus works its way around the hills.

Perhaps this creates a general atmosphere of irritation on the streets. San Francisco drivers are the most vocal I have seen in the USA, liberally leaning on the horns at anyone who gets in the way, or sometimes at those who merely look like they might be thinking of getting in the way.

The point is, it didn't need to be like this. Instead of straight lines, for example, you could lay the streets out in spirals that go up (or down) the hills. Near the top, where usually the gradient flattens out, the streets would become straight. And you could keep to a nice comfortable grade everywhere. (I thought about making a sketch to show what I mean, but decided the hell with it).

On the other hand, San Francisco's pedestrians are the tamest anywhere, obediently waiting for every traffic signal. (This may seem unremarkable, but it is definitely not the case everywhere).

San Franciscans take pride in their city's blustery summers, and prove it by dressing in down jackets, etc. when the weather is 60 degrees and sunny.

And I never once observed a person eating Rice-a-Roni.

The Tortoise Protocol for Strength Training

Back in grade school they used to tell us this story of the tortoise and the hare. I assume you know it—you can look it up otherwise. I could have recited the story to you from heart, but I never got it, not until I was on the verge of middle age and looked back at a long list of projects I had started with great enthusiasm and great investment of time, and sometimes sustained for a while, but let drop eventually.

Now more than ever we live in a society of hares. The only gratification is immediate gratification. The 160-year-old technology of Morse code is faster than text messaging (do a search on Morse code vs text messaging for a demonstration), but nobody does Morse code any more, because it takes time and effort to master (what a wild concept, huh?).

Yes, I know, I'm just an old curmudgeon.

When it comes to pursuing an exercise program, there's another way the hare can get tripped up besides mere laziness or distraction, and that's by getting injured. The more enthusiasm the hare starts out with, the more likely this is to happen. An injury can set you back weeks or even years while you wait for it to heal. I myself first got seriously into weight training during a time that I had to give up running because of a foot injury. Since then, I've had my share of injuries from weight training. This is due to the following inconvenient fact of nature:

Your own muscles can exert enough force to damage your own joints.

This is as good an argument as I know against the theory of intelligent design. There is also the related glass-half-full principle:

Your joints can adapt to increasing load, but maybe not as fast as your muscles.

The Tortoise Protocol is a system I developed to make strength gains while minimizing the possibility of injury. Now, pay attention: I make


as to what will happen to you if you try this. However, I can report, based on my unscientific sample size of one, that I have used this approach to avoid injury while making strength gains (which is a nontrivial matter for someone, like myself, who has been weight training for over ten years)—not in some dramatic overnight transformation, but not at some painfully slow incremental rate, either. (The Japanese have the perfect expression dondon which refers to modest, but measured, steady progress [not to be confused with dandan, which means gradual]. )

Trust me, two years from now you won't care whether you made your gains in three months or six months or nine months. You'll care whether you were able to sustain the gains that you did make.

This system was heavily influenced by Bill Phillips' Body for Life method, which I have used in the past, and which I recommend you check out. The Tortoise Protocol is a little simpler, more detailed, and harder to get injured with.

Here's what I'm going to explain: How many sets to do, how many reps on each set, how to decide how much weight to use on each set, how long to rest between sets, how to decide when to increase the weight and by how much, how long a workout should be, how often to work out.

Here's what I'm not going to explain: what exercises to do (beyond some general principles—there are a hundred books and other resources out there for that) and what to do with your diet (which is very important—but there are even more resources for that).

In the following I want you to picture a dial in your head showing your effort level on a given exercise on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the legitimate utmost that you can put forth. This is approximate, but there are other elements of the system that will help you pin it down.


For each exercise you do six consecutive sets. We'll number these I through VI, and discuss them in order.

Set I: 10 reps. Choose a weight that lets you complete the whole set with a perceived effort level of about 5. Essentially this should amount to a mild warm-up.

Set II: 9 reps. Increase the weight 10% to 20% from Set I. The exact increase is likely to be dictated by circumstances. For example, suppose you completed Set I of whatever exercise with a dumbbell that weighs 70 pounds. 10% increase from 70 pounds is 77 pounds. 20% increase from 70 pounds is 84 pounds. Most likely your gym has neither a 77-pound dumbbell nor an 84-pound dumbbell, but perhaps it does have an 80-pound dumbbell—and that's the one you'll use. The same principle applies elsewhere when we talk about 10% to 20% increases or decreases.

Target perceived effort level for this set is 6.

Set III: 8 reps. Increase the weight 10% to 20% from Set II. Target perceived effort level for this set is 7.

Note well: this is the maximum weight you are going to use for this exercise, and you should be able to complete 8 reps with an effort level of 7 out of 10. In some special circumstances (described below) you might push the effort level to 8 or 8.5 but no more at this point. We are not talking go-for-broke, eyeball-bulging, vein-popping effort here.

Set IV: 12 reps. Reduce the weight to what it was for Set II and aim for a perceived effort level of 8.

Set V: 16 reps. Reduce the weight to what it was for Set I and aim for a perceived effort level of 9.

Set VI: 20 reps. Reduce the weight 10% to 20% from Set V and aim for a perceived effort level of 10. This is the time to go all-out. Ideally toward the end of Set VI and possibly Set V you should be feeling some serious burn.

I like this combination because it saves the strongest effort for the lightest weight, which minimizes your chance of injuring your joints; the high number of reps helps develop stamina, while still not neglecting some heavier weights for strength.

The "perceived effort level" is an approximate guideline. The pattern of increasing and decreasing weight provides a more precise guideline.


1. Aim for a one-minute rest between sets of the same exercise—but if you need a little longer to catch your breath, that's OK. The point is that muscle strength should be the limiting factor rather than wind.

2. Aim for a two-minute rest between one exercise and the next—but ditto ditto.

3. Total time for one exercise is therefore 8 to 10 minutes. Four or five different exercises chosen to work different muscle groups make for a respectable workout. I typically intersperse a couple of one-off sets like crunches, so my total workout time is about an hour.

4. Two or maybe three strength workouts per week suffices. On other days I run or mix it up with a different exercise. I have tried more frequent strength training but in this case more is not more—I found I could make faster progress with two days of rest (one, at least) between strength workouts.

5. If you never fail, you're not aiming high enough. If you find you are able to complete all six sets without undue strain, or even if you can reliably complete all reps of all sets for a given exercise, it's time to up the weight. Increase the weight for Set I (and therefore all the following sets) by the smallest increment your equipment allows.

Now one of two things will happen. Either you can complete all reps of all sets at the higher weight, or not. In the first case, great. Stay at this level for a few workouts and then increase the weight again. The second case—you can't complete all reps at all levels—is also fine. In this case, stay at the higher weight and make it your goal to successfully complete all reps of all sets. You might be working at a higher perceived effort level, but don't push too hard on Sets III and IV.

Once you manage to complete all sets at the higher level, you will know that you have become stronger.

6. When first starting out, use a weight level low enough to complete all sets with no sweat. Focus on getting the routine down, and then incrementally increase the weight level according to the guidelines in #5.

I think that's pretty much it. Any questions, ask me in the comments.

Veni, Vidi...

...and then, well, I returned home. But it was a good week in Rome. I had arranged this trip some time ago—it just coincidentally happened to be the same week that Pope Francis was elected. This made for an awkward plane trip back to the USA, as I was sitting next to a priest. Guessing what was on his mind, I tried to cheer him up, telling him that maybe he'd be elected next time.

Anyway, here are some random views of the city. Click on any for a larger view.

This is my Zen view of the Fountain of Trevi, where you don't actually see the fountain, but rather the throng of tourists around it.

I burst out laughing when I saw this corridor, because it sums up the insane surfeit which is the Vatican museum. Statues next to statues, on top of other statues....

This was one of my favorite statues from the Vatican museum. The Cynocephali "dog-headed people" were a mythical race, but also the real name of a group against which the Romans fought. Maybe they were really ugly.

Whatever criticisms you might have of the Vatican, they are certainly not ones to waste valuable ceiling space. What do you have on your ceiling?

I also enjoyed this tapestry, which shows Jesus eating the dismembered carcass of some mysterious animal.

Bernini's colonnade of Saint Peter's Basilica is surmounted by larger-than life statues of saints. Every one is in an exaggerated drama-queen rapturous pose.

I just had to take a picture of this tree on the Palatine hill. I mean look at it—it's goddamn perfect.

In a city where you find statues of naked people on almost every street corner, the Fountain of the Naiads shows a particular sensuality.

Next time I hear some one going on about his "Beemer", I'm going to picture one of these babies. Italians would no doubt be shocked and appalled at the bloated vehicles in the U.S. For that matter, so am I.

The "Altar of the Fatherland" was completed in 1925 to honor the first king of unified Italy. I hear a lot of Romans dislike it for it's sheer whiteness and excess of ornamentation and bad taste. We have a name for such people in the USA: "haters of fun."


And finally, a contemporary update on the naked-people motif: a "No Parking" sign.

American Graffiti: the Unofficial Commentary

If you've seen this movie already, maybe this post will stimulate you to watch it again. If you haven't, perhaps you will seek it out (although be warned—this post is rife with spoilers).

I've lost track of how many times I've seen American Graffiti. The first time I saw it I liked it, but I had no idea it would eventually become one of my favorite films. In my book it is George Lucas's best work—way better than Star Wars, whether new-and-improved or not (and I like Star Wars).

In some ways American Graffiti is the opposite of Star Wars. Star Wars is epic and fantastic. American Graffiti is modest and unassuming. It is fiction, but George Lucas could claim "Everything in this movie happened to me exactly as you see it," and none would doubt it Maybe this is part of the reason I can watch it again and again—no straining to suspend disbelief.

The time is 1962—we'll come back to the significance of this. The setting is Anytown, USA (never explicitly named). The events of the story take place over the span of a single night, and revolve around four characters (all on the cusp of adulthood, more or less):

Steve Bolander: the all-American boy (played by Ron Howard, very familiar to those of us who grew up watching the Andy Griffith Show. Come to think of it, Ron Howard will always be the all-American boy).

Curt Henderson: probably Steve's best friend. His wise-cracking nature is traditionally associated with the Hollywood sidekick type. (Steve and Curt are set to leave for college on the morrow—but will they? This is about as intense as the movie gets when it comes to suspense.)

Terry Fields: still in high school, also known as "Toad"—you might call him a nerd, although I have a feeling he doesn't do well enough in school to qualify.

John Milner: Not a bad guy, really, but you wouldn't want your daughter dating him. We gather that he graduated from high school—or left it at any rate—a few years ago, but continues to spend his time doing the same things—fixing and racing cars.

The story revolves around these four (male) characters—this is clear—but each has a prominent female counterpart.

Laurie Henderson is Steve's girlfriend (and Curt's sister). She has another year of high school to go. How Steve and Laurie will handle their impending separation is one of the film's main issues.

Debbie Dunham gets picked up by Terry and spends the rest of the evening and night running around with him. She apparently goes to a different school, with somewhat different customs as regard bleaching of hair and male-female interactions. This proves to be a mixed blessing for Terry.

Carol gets picked up by John—a little too hastily, as he fails to notice she is only about fourteen years old. He would like nothing more than to send her home, but she refuses to go without seeing a good time first.

And, finally—the blonde in the white T-bird is Curt's opposite number. We never learn her name. Curt catches a glimpse of her at a stoplight—she appears to mouth the words "I love you"—and then tries vainly to track her down for the rest of the night.

It makes me wonder whether Lucas was familiar with the works of James Branch Cabell, because the blonde in the white T-bird is a perfect embodiment of Cabell's character Ettarre—an ageless female ideal whom all men long after but none can attain. We catch glimpses of the T-bird several times through the story, but never get another good look at the blonde—although we do hear her voice near the end of the story. Other characters offer contradictory explanations of who she is. One might almost question whether she is real or a dream (although the movie doesn't suggest she is anything but very hard to track down).

Let's consider the time period of the story. 1962 was effectively if not mathematically the end of the relatively peaceful and prosperous 50's. There's even a reference to President Kennedy. The characters' world is about to face upheaval, but they don't know that.

Except—I like to think that John Milner, supposedly the least intellectual of the four main characters, seems to intuit that in some sense their days are numbered. First there's a bit of byplay between John and Curt at the drive-in, where Curt laments how the town's strip has fallen from its glory days.

And then later, there's a moment when John pulls out of the garage. John is king of the town's hotrodders and he removes the header plugs from his car in preparation to race the newest challenger (played by a young unknown named Harrison Ford):

Attendant: Expectin' some action?

John: Yeah. Think so. There's some punk lookin' for me.

Attendant: Why the hell do they bother? You've been number one as long as I can remember.

John: Yeah... it's been a long time, ain't it?

You need to see it to see what I'm talking about (and even then you might not see what I see) but for me It's been a long time carries an overtone of change in the wind.

And then finally, almost at the end of the movie, John is distraught after the forementioned race takes place:

Terry: No, you creamed him, from right off the line. The guy never had a chance.

John: Shit, Toad. The man had me. He was beating me.

Terry: John, I don't know what you're talking about. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. That guy, he might as well get a wheelchair and roll himself home. Man, you got... you got the bitchinist car in the Valley. You'll always be number one, John. You're the greatest.

John: Okay, Toad. We'll take 'em all.

But it's clear that John is unpersuaded. In his heart he knows that his era is coming to an end.

A very creative touch is the treatment of music. The soundtrack almost never stops, one 50's hit after another. We hear characters listening to the radio, but the music carries on even when we cut away to another scene. Sometimes it fades in and out, but essentially it pervades the story from beginning to end. You get the idea that this was the soundtrack of their lives. Only at a couple of moments of special tension does the music cut out and we hear only sound effects.

Also a tour de force whose value lies in not calling attention to itself is the lighting and photography. Movies of a certain era are recognizable by the fact that any environment—a cave, a dungeon—is brightly lit by multiple artificial light sources. Most of the action in American Graffiti takes place outdoors at night, and everything looks quite natural. Artificial lighting was used, but carefully and subtly disguised.

For a movie made on a shoestring budget, American Graffiti is remarkably rich in secondary characters—way too many to list them all, but I have some favorites. Special status is given to the Wolfman, the local DJ. Throughout the movie we hear him on the radio, introducing songs and making prank calls. Clearly he is a local hero. Like the blonde in the T-bird, he is the subject of contradictory and preposterous stories about his amazing lifestyle. And so it is that when he finally appears on screen near the end of the story, his words carry oracular significance (and are sound advice).

I also have a soft spot for the Pharaohs, a gang of toughs who make Curt an unwilling companion for much of the evening. That Lucas himself went through a "hood" phase is clear from his affectionate treatment of the Pharaohs. Although not above jimmying open a pinball machine to empty it of quarters, they can be sticklers on other issues. For example, here's the leader Joe explaining to Curt why the gang must mete out to him some unspecified but ominous punishment, for scratching the hood of another gang member's car:

Joe: Here—bend down, look here. See that? Right across there—see?

Curt: I guess so—yeah.

Joe: You scratched it, man. Where do you get off sitting on Gil's car, huh, man?

Curt (buffing with his sleeve): I'm sorry. It's not much of a scratch. I don't think he'll even—

Joe: It ain't the size that's in question here. It's the principle.

I can never hear anyone say "It's the principle" without flashing back to Joe and Curt.

The final shot of the movie is a plane disappearing into a featureless blue sky. I always feel a perfect sense of closure when I see it. And then we see four vignettes describing the destiny of the four main characters (some say this is where the device originated). Sure enough, some of them are touched by the turmoil to come.

Blind Spot Alert of the Day

Photo by Al_HikesAZ

I see this study reports that people who undertake moderate exercise for two weeks show improved body image, even though there is no measurable change of body shape or weight. This is not the first time researchers have attempted to expose the futility of those poor, deluded exercise fanatics.

Of course the first and most dramatic effect of exercise—often noticeable within a couple of days—is an increase in strength, stamina, and generally the perceived ease of the workout. (Frequently there is an initial burst of improvement, followed by slow and uneven improvement thereafter.) This would seem sufficient grounds for feeling better about one's body, no matter who might come by with scale and tape measure to helpfully point out that you are just as fat as ever.

Mnemonics for Cantonese pronunciation

Over at the language ninja blog, Stefan has adapted my Mandarin mnemonic system to Cantonese pronunciation.  Actually, "adapted" is an understatement, since he did some significant reconfiguring to optimize the system for Cantonese. He kindly gives me too much credit for my few suggestions. Actually, you can follow our conversation on the development of the Cantonese system in the comments here (starting with January 16, 2013).