Rise of the Tweenbots

New post up at Néojaponisme: On the simulation of amae.

Tweenbots are masters of amae, the art of childish, irresistible dependency. This has intriguing implications for human-robot interaction even if the Tweenbots themselves are more art project than anything else.


Kanji as Argo

My copy of Eve Kushner's new book Crazy for kanji arrived in the mail last week. I'm quoted in the book on one page, and consider Kushner an internet friend, so I'm not even going to try to write a "review" as such. I do like it a lot—I'd recommend it to anyone wanting a practical lay introduction to how written Japanese works—but what I really want to talk about is a related topic: how kanji are normally studied, and why it makes no sense.

The first 80% of Crazy for kanji is a comprehensive look at why and how kanji are so damn awesome. Internal structure, pronunciation, combination with the rest of the Japanese writing system: it's obvious that Kushner loves this stuff, and she has pages on pages of examples showing why, and making a convincing argument that we, too, should love the Japanese writing system.

But then we come to chapter seven: "Ten tips for studying kanji." I have no argument with the tips themselves; they make sense if you're going to study kanji, or anything else for that matter. "Avoid mindless drilling," "Think holistically about patterns"—all makes sense. What I disagree with is the notion that kanji should be "studied" at all.

When the Argonauts dallied so long in Lemnos that it became a threat to the plot of their adventure, Heracles gave them a good scolding. "My good sirs," he said (via E. V. Rieu), "we shall get no credit, I assure you, by shutting ourselves up with a set of foreign women all this time. And it is no good praying for a miracle. Fleeces do not come to people of their own accord."

Similar Apollonian sentiments have long dogged kanji. They are the weights room of written Japanese, where machos and masochists gather to compare the number on-yomi they have memorized with the arbitrary standards posted on the wall: JLPT, Jōyō, Kanji kentei... wait, scratch that last one. Even Kushner, despite her truly Dionysian passion for these characters, warns us against slacking off. "Your mastery of kanji will not happen on its own," she says.

In one sense, I agree with Kushner and Heracles. Mastery of kanji won't happen on its own, and it is no good praying for a miracle. On the other hand, though, I also think that sweating it up with flashcards and studying the kanji themselves is introducing an unnecessary middleman.

If you want to learn kanji, it's because you want to read Japanese text of some sort. So why wait? Start reading, and look up what you don't know as you go along. Sure, it's a drag to have to look in the dictionary every second sentence, and in the early stages of the project you might find yourself forced to give up on some books that are just beyond your reach. Still, if you were learning French, you wouldn't refuse to look at a French book at all until you'd memorized all possible verb conjugation patterns. (If that was the standard approach, no-one would ever read any French books at all—not even the French.) Kanji are more opaque than words written in the Roman alphabet, it's true—but if you're going to be looking them up and memorizing pronunciations for them anyway, why not do it in the context of something that interests you?

In summary: You don't need to sail out in search of the golden fleece. Just lounge around Lemnos eating grapes, and before long you'll grow a golden fleece of your own. So to speak.


The devil's music

No-sword has played host to anti-shamisen demagoguery before, and I'm afraid it's time for some more, courtesy of Nishimura Takeki 西森武城's Meiji-era book Jōdan hanbun hitorigoto 常談半分独り言 ("Talking, half in jest, to myself"):

There are any number of other instruments: the koto, the biwa, the kokyū, and so on. Some have a pureness of tone exceeding that of the shamisen's, but none surpass the shamisen in its power to lead people astray.

Strum a shamisen by the spring moon, in the gloaming, under heavens rich with clouds, and it will send a man's soul soaring into the void. Allow it to sing through the autumn rain, in melancholy, over ground thick with fallen leaves, and it will hurl a man's soul to distant skies. With such skill does the shamisen lead men astray that it almost seems ensouled itself. [...]

When a man falls for a woman, or a woman grows close to a man, the shamisen is a very matchmaker. And so no matter how old and experienced a geisha may be, to steal her shamisen is like absconding with a blind man's staff or snipping off a crab's claws: it renders her incapable of ensnaring the commonest man, and likewise even the commonest man will not feel affection for a geisha unless lured into abandon by her shamisen. [...]

The strings on a shamisen are thin, but they can stop a heart, and bodies sway this way and that with the shamisen's neck. [...] Put simply, the shamisen is a matchmaker that knows only lewdness. Pleasant listening, perhaps, but beyond pleasure lies lust, and lust can only lead one to error. Better never to listen to the shamisen at all! And yet, though you may think "O, indeed I shall not!" wherever you may go abroad the shamisen will be heard; there is nothing for it. For as long as there have been shamisen, lewdness has been on the rise, and truly troublesome practices have taken root everywhere from the cities to the remotest country towns. Oh! what mysterious power does the shamisen conceal within itself? Let a thousand scholars gather to work arm-in-arm together; this mystery alone would remain unsolved.

It has been said that to tax the shamisen heavily would be one way to discourage immorality, and indeed this may be excellent policy, but however heavy a tariff may be laid upon it, the sound of the shamisen will not cease! Why? Because the shamisen itself does not crave bawdy music — people do. And when people crave bawdy music, they will not begrudge even a thousand pieces of gold for that purpose; the shamisen, then, would not in the end be abandoned. It cannot be banned, and seeing that it cannot be banned, I can only offer this warning, not to be forgotten: Abandon not thy self to the shamisen, lest your body be brought "three down."

("Three down" is a pun on the shamisen tuning san-sagari, in which the third string is lowered one step from standard tuning.)


Quel dynamisme!

I love this postcard. It's like a still from some silent-era proto(ro)-Totoro.

We, and they, are looking at Suizenji in Kumamoto, a tourist attraction with a four-century history. That hill you can see in the background on the right is a miniature Mount Fuji; the walking route around the garden is supposed to evoke the old Tōkaidō route from Edo to Kyoto. (How symbolic that it all got torn up during the Satsuma Rebellion, and had to be repaired afterwards.)

Soseki wrote a couple of haiku about Suizenji. Probably the most famous is this one:

Waku kara ni/ nagaruru kara ni/ haru no mizu
They well! They flow! —sic the waters of spring

Pardon my extremely unserious attempt at a translation. I am quite ill. However, I observe that there are two (2) French translations of this haiku online for those seeking an alternative.


Family matters

Some cosmology from book 7 of GE Hong 葛洪's Baopuzi 抱朴子:

The common folk see the heavens and the earth as big, and the myriad creatures as little, and therefore say: "Heaven and earth are the father and mother of the myriad creatures, and the myriad creatures are the children and grandchildren of heaven and earth."

If lice appear upon me, was it I who created them? Even if lice don't appear other than on upon me*, I am not their father or their mother, and they are not my children or my grandchildren. Potato bugs thrive in vinegar, mushrooms are grow on wood and stone, dung beetles gather in muddy water, green ivy flourishes on pine branches, but none are created by those environments. Does the way the myriad things gather in the gap between heaven and earth differ?

In heaven, there is the sun and the moon, heat and cold; in people, there is vision and breath. People can see what is far and liken it to what is near, compare this to that, but they don't know why their bodies grow old or stay youthful, ache or itch; similarly, heaven doesn't know why things gather or disperse, suffer or prosper. People can't make their eyes and ears stay sharp forever, or keep their energies from dwindling; similarly, heaven can't prevent solar or lunar eclipses, or cycle through the four seasons smoothly every year.

Functionally, this passage is an argument that although the universe is a necessary context for its denizens, it does not create them in any meaningful sense of the word. (You will not be surprised to learn that Ge Hong elsewhere uses the term 自然 to describe this concept of spontaneity and self-organization as opposed to reliance on an external creator.)

The details of the argument, though, are deliciously brutal. That humans, and everything else in the world, are not created and cherished by the universe, that's one idea. That we are actually more like lice, mushrooms, and dung beetles—a colony of parasites accumulating in "the gap between heaven and earth" (天地之間)—is quite another.

You can look at it another way, too: yeah, we're like beetles and fungus, but that's great, because it's all part of the ancient aleatory symphony we call evolution. Or, like the famous passage from Laozi says: 人法地, 地法天, 天法道, 道法自然. "People conform to the earth, the earth conforms to the heavens, the heavens conform to the Way, the Way is self-organizing."

* In the original, this part is "夫虱生於我, 豈我之所作? 故虱非我不生, 而我非虱之父母, 虱非我之子孫." 虱非我不生 is not that clear to me, but it seems meant as a contrast with 虱生於我, and is followed by a list of places where other parasites live, so I assume the idea is "even if lice need a host to live on..." Comments from the PhDnut gallery welcomed as always.(Back)