Friday, December 31, 2004

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everybody. I'm off to Okaasan's. It's time for her yearly kiss. I wonder if she's feeling nervous yet?

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Bad, BAD gaijin!

I have developed a new habit recently, since the electronic goods store in our neighbourhood was enlarged and they added a bigger, better digital camera selection . This store is in the same building as a supermarket, and with my new interest in digital cameras I like to visit and see what they've got when I finish at the supermarket. Not that I need a new camera; I have a perfectly adequate (cheap) one. I just like to play with the toys on display. I especially like to play with the more expensive ones.

Anyway, as I wander around playing with the display cameras, I always check to see if they have the option of switching to an English menu, just in case one day I'm rich enough to buy one of the really good cameras. If they have this option, I change the menus to English and leave them like that. (I don't, however, limit my activities to only the good cameras. If I have time I change them all, including the movie cameras. I don't limit myself to English, either, if there are other options.)

Yesterday I noticed that I was being followed at a discreet distance by a polite young store clerk who was picking up the cameras after I'd finished playing with them. When I did a second round I discovered he'd changed the menus back to Japanese.

Naturally, I changed them back to English again (except for the ones I set to Russian, German, or Spanish).

I wonder how long it will be before they politely ask me to STOP DOING THAT YOU STUPID GAIJIN? And I wonder how long it will be before I grow up?

Who are you?

At the flea market on Christmas Day I picked up a box of glass plate negatives, about 80 years old. I had never seen glass plate negatives before, although I'd read about them, and wasn't sure whether I'd be able to see the pictures. But I was intrigued. I wanted to try.

I was able to scan the plates, and using Photoshop (which I'm not very good at) retrieve at least a semblance of the original photographs. I don't think the photographer was very good. Out of about twenty, at least half of them are hopelessly blurred. But never mind. They're a glimpse into a bygone world.

I also have a folder of old negatives, brought from the same stall. I'll get around to scanning them sometime, too, but it takes time and there are a lot of them.

In the meantime, here are some pictures to dream on. Who were these people, I wonder? All I can tell you is what you can see: the young man is very good looking, the baby is pissed off, and somebody got married. As for the others, your guess is as good as mine.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

All sorted

The Man bought a new jacket today. It was the last one on sale so he couldn't choose the colour, which is brown. He asked me if it went with what he was wearing.

"Not really," I said. "Perhaps you should dye it."

"WHY?" he demanded indignantly.

"You're right, it's not a very good idea," I said, somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of his reaction. "It would be difficult, and probably wouldn't work anyway."

He poked worriedly at his flat tummy as the conversation got more and more confusing.

Eventually we sorted it out.

He is going to a bonnenkai (end-of-year party) tonight. If he comes home and falls into a coma it will be his own fault for eating the wrong bit of fugu.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

News report

The death toll from the tsunamis has passed 30,000, with many areas still out of contact. There is a blog here, where you can find out where to send your donation. It is a sort of information clearinghouse for relief efforts. If you want to know what it is like on the ground, and find out just how desperately your help is needed, check this out. Not for the faint-hearted.

For those who wish to know more about tsunamis, Librarianguish has put together some useful information and links. Thank you, Librarianguish.

This quake was so big it made the earth move, and changed the map. Geologists and cartographers, accept all invitations. You will be a hit at parties for at least nine days.

That awful man has been making low-budget home movies again. Nobody is watching. We're all preoccupied with one of the biggest natural disasters in human memory, and he is not it, despite what some people would like us to think. We will survive him. We might not survive global warming, however.

About three hours ago there was another earthquake in Niigata. It was a low five on the Japanese scale. No damage or casualties reported, yet, but this is quite large enough for those people, who have endured enough to last a lifetime. When will it end?

In other news, Liza Minelli fell out of bed. Also, Americans with delicate sensibilities are warned not to visit Japanese aquariums, which are infested with penguins who have obviously not been reading their Bibles, or they would not indulge in such shocking, unChristian behaviour.

And finally, Badaunt spent the day washing the entire contents of her closets, because now that the dry weather is well and truly here she is determined to get rid of the smell. Four full loads of washing later the smell has gone. Badaunt would be happy if that were the only urgent housekeeping job she had to do, but it isn't, so she isn't. She spent her time waiting for the washing machine to do its thing surfing the web, as the sharper of her readers may have already deduced.

That is the end of today's report.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Earthquakes and tsunamis, public and private

The Man and I went shopping yesterday. We cycled to Uniqlo to look for a new jacket for him, and ended up buying three polo-neck cotton tops and a sweater for me. The jackets were all either too short or too uncool for The Man. I thought he was being fussy until he tried one on to show me what he meant, and no, I don't want him to look like he's wearing a Mao jacket, either.

I spent less than ¥4000. Things are cheap there anyway, and they had a sale on.

We then went to a builders' supply shop, and got some sticks (The Man insists these are not 'sticks', but carefully measured and cut pieces of wood) which he'll be using to do a bit of odd-job work at the acupuncture clinic. Then we went to the supermarket, where he took care to not put out my eye with these bloody awkward two-meter sticks he was carrying around and somehow managed to avoid putting out any other shoppers' eyes either. I think we did our shopping the wrong way around, but the building supplies shop was on the way back from Uniqlo.

We bought our groceries and then came home, and I checked my email and learned from a friend about the earthquake in Indonesia. She had emailed to ask whether we were here, as we sometimes have holidays in the affected areas. I emailed back that we were, and went downstairs to check the news on TV.

While we were watching TV, aghast at what was being shown, the phone went, and I heard my brother-in-law's friendly voice. I took the phone upstairs. I felt shocked by the devastation I had seen, and shocked all over again to realize who I was talking to. All this family/religion nonsense had been far from my mind. I have to say something, I told myself. I can't let this go on.

So I did. It was very, very hard to do, and I babbled badly, and stumbled and messed up for a lot of the call, and wasn't as coherent as I've been when I've been mentally rehearsing. He caught me at a bad moment. (But any moment would have been a bad moment.)

It was a long call - too long - but I ended up making it clear (at least I hope I did; I hope I was coherent enough) that I am not interested in contact as long as they're in the sect. "Can we stay in touch with you?" he asked, sadly. "How do you feel about that?"

I hesitated. I knew what I should say, but I couldn't.

"It's up to you, I suppose," I said. "Just don't expect much from me."

After a long, long silence, and then a few more words, we said goodbye.


I hung up feeling like a complete and utter shit.

How come they could do it so easily and suddenly, all those years ago? How come they could just cut us off like that, without explanation or apology? How come they could turn their backs on us, ignore us on the street, hang up when we called, return letters unread, and all that crap? How could they live with themselves for all those years? Why is it so hard for me to tell them I don't want them back in my life, when I do have good reason?

And how the hell did did I end up feeling in the wrong again?

(P.S. I'm feeling better now. I was not wrong. I just hated having to say things like that.)

Here's a picture from yesterday's flea market. It's a bit of a picture, actually. The picture as a whole was a failure, but this corner of it is rather lovely, I think.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Creepy squeaky Christmas clown

I hope everybody is having a lovely Christmas. Ours is finished (it's 2.30 am) and I'm about to drop. But before I nod off, here's a picture or two.

I went with a bunch of friends to a flea market in Kyoto (Kitano-Tenmangu), as we usually do at Christmas, and after that to dinner at a hotel. I didn't buy much but took lots of pictures. This is my new, cheap method of 'doing' flea markets. I don't buy, I point and click. This means that when I see a wonderful ivory Hotei, costing ¥50,000, I don't worry about not being able to afford to buy it. I can afford to take a picture of it. I have blogging to thank for this. It hadn't occurred to me to take pictures at flea markets before. Click! Click! Click!

Here is Hotei. This ivory Hotei is now mine, because I have a picture of it. I didn't have to pay ¥50,000.

I saw some masks I liked, too, but where would I put them, I wondered? On my computer, of course. CLICK!

I also spotted some old posters that I rather fancied, and having no wall space was no problem. CLICK!

For some reason I felt compelled to take pictures of dolls today, even though I don't actually want any dolls. Dolls are spooky. CLICK!



There are a lot more, but for now I will leave you with the scary Christmas clown at the hotel. It was a rather disappointing Christmas dinner. No turkey, and no Christmas pudding.(No Christmas pudding! Stuff the turkey - I want my Christmas pudding!) To top things off there was a scary Christmas clown. The clown was scary because he kept playing with balloons, and one time a balloon popped and we all jumped. Also he made mysterious squeaking noises and we couldn't figure out where the squeaking came from. It did not come from the balloons. Sometimes he squeaked when he poked at his nose, sometimes he squeaked when he poked at a balloon (and made me cringe), and sometimes he held his hands in the air and squeaked for no apparent reason at all. He was a creepy squeaky Christmas clown.

The food was good, but it was not Christmas food. Only in Japan would it have been called a 'Christmas buffet.' We'll be back at the Hilton next year, I think, where there are no clowns but there is Christmas pudding. With brandy sauce.


I'll post some more pictures tomorrow.

A very good Christmas night to you.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Christmas!

Every year I notice the same thing: my students, in their 'free conversation' time, start to focus on Christmas, starting around the beginning of December. They ask each other, "What are you doing in the winter break?" and then, smirking, "What are you doing on Christmas day?" Especially the guys.

Christmas Day isn't even a holiday here (although it is for university students, usually, depending on when the New Year break starts), so why all the interest, you might wonder?

The answer is that there is is a new tradition in Japan (Japan is hot on 'new traditions') and what Christmas has come to mean here, for young people especially, is 'dinner and a bonk'. With presents. If you are a girl, the idea is to get a rich hot date, so that he will take you to a good restaurant, pay for a upscale hotel for the night, and give you a suitably expensive present. Never visit Japan at Christmas if you want to stay in a nice hotel. They're all booked out months in advance.

I don't know what these young people think Santa Claus and Christmas trees and carols have to do with all this. The symbols of Christmas are everywhere at this time of year, and I'm having to wear my Walkman to go shopping in order not to be driven insane by the tinkly Christmas carols assaulting my tender ears wherever I go. But no doubt it all adds to the kinkiness of the occasion. I shudder to think what the love hotels are doing with it. The nativity scenes I saw plastered all over a large store's windows the other day probably made more sense, in a bizarre sort of way - there's a man and a woman and a baby in there, yup - but even so, I wonder how they think the animals fit in, exactly?

In this BBC story they've been a lot more polite about the phenomenon than I have. They call it romantic.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Boring, boring, boring

Inplicit Association Tests.

Your data suggest little or no automatic preference for Young relative to Old

Your data suggest little or no automatic ethnic association with American or Foreign

Your data suggest little or no automatic preference for Dark Skin relative to Light Skin

I've only done three tests so far, but I'm not feeling much like taking any more. I was hoping to discover a secret preference for, say, old, dark-skinned, foreigners.1 Instead I discover that I have no preferences at all.

Boring, boring, boring.

1. The Man with a Tan?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


The other day The Man and I were in town, and we were hungry, so stopped at a coffee shop and had sandwiches. (Sandwitches, actually, according to the menu.) They weren't great sandwiches, but they filled a gap. The Man read a newspaper while he was eating, and I read a book, as is our antisocial custom, and we chewed peacefully.

When I got to my last mouthful, I looked up and noticed that The Man was eating his last mouthful as well. We both swallowed at the same moment.

We stared at each other.

"Synchronized sandwich eating," I said. "How do you think we did on technical merit?"

"You've got a crumb on your chin," he replied. "You'll lose points for that. But don't worry. You do great on artistic impression."

We grinned at each other.

"We've been together too long," I said.

I wiped the crumb off my chin, and we agreed that we eat well together, but our conversations are getting sillier.


A friend passed on some sweets that were given to her by a colleague who returned from an overseas trip. After careful sampling, I can heartily recommend, if you ever go to Hong Kong or Singapore, that you pick up some Bamboo Garden Icy-Crispy Dragon Beard Candy.

Alternatively, you can get it in Seattle.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Art for art's sake

The Man, who although not in a paying job is never unemployed, is currently working on designing a book for a friend who publishes a book (at least) every year. While most of his books are commercial propositions, the end-of-year one is self-published and more personal. He puts together bits and pieces he has collected through the year, and sells it privately. We always buy it.

One of the discoveries he made this year was of a new collage artist. This woman has been keeping scrapbooks of her collages, and The Man brought two of the scrapbooks home the other day, to scan some of the pictures into his computer in order to make a few pages of the book. He showed them to me.

Now, I'm not a very artistic person. I'm ignorant about art, and not particularly interested (although I feel I should be more interested), but some things will grab my attention. A few years ago The Man and I translated a book about a commercial artist (an acquaintance), and I discovered that I liked his art, although I'm not sure if 'like' is the right word, really. At first I didn't like it, but his pictures and sculptures invaded my dreams, which became wonderfully infested with flying fat women and giant insects and blue men. Art doesn't usually get into my dreams like that, and so I decided that it was probably effective, and therefore deserved to be called 'art' even though it was commercial. It affected me, although I wasn't sure that I'd want to live with it all the time.

This woman's collages are affecting me in a similar way, except the feeling is less uncomfortable. Her collages infect me with sense of wonder. She cuts out pictures from the advertising materials that arrive with the daily newspaper, and juxtaposes them in unexpected ways. Her collages are wonderfully balanced in terms of white space and colour and shape - even a peasant like me can see that - but the images themselves are often startling. You wonder whether she is doing this deliberately or whether she is choosing the pictures purely for their colour and shape. Did she even notice that this is, say, a chicken leg, when she pasted it on top of this car, or did she just choose it for the orange colour? I wish I could put some of the collages on here, but The Man has told me I can't. They're going to be published, albeit privately, and there are copyright issues. So I'll try to describe them, although I don't really have the vocabulary for this sort of thing.

If you look at her collages from a distance they instantly strike you as brilliantly put together. They are vivid. The shapes and colours are just right, and very satisfying, but at the same time not what you expect. They are strikingly harmonious, if that makes sense. Then you get a little closer, and you see that what the images are, and you feel a sort of shock. Because there is a cabbage, and there is some jewellery, and there is a white woman modelling underwear, and there is a sandal with a foot in it, and a bird on a branch - anything at all might be there, in bizarre juxtaposition.

One of my favourite collages is of a carefully cut-out plate of stew with a large piece of daikon in it, and overlapping this is pasted a dinosaur. It's a very simple collage, and I can't figure out why I like it so much.

That sounds odd, and it is. But it is also beautiful, in a strange way. The colours are just right, and the shapes are just right, and there is a lot of white space above and around the collage that is also just right. It is a curiously soothing picture, and very, very weird.

When I started looking through the two scrapbooks The Man had brought home, I expected to flip through them and hand them back. But half an hour later I was still occupied. I was looking through them again, pausing at some, and going back to others. They are powerfully strange. I was wishing that these collages were all displayed on one big wall with a chair in front of it. I thought they'd make a great thinking wall. You could sit in front of it for hours and never be bored.

The artist's eyes are obviously very sharp, and her hands very steady, and to cut out the hands of those models she must have had the patience of someone with all the time in the world. But remarkably, these collages are the hobby of a woman who is 104 years old.

I'm sorry I don't know any more about her than that. I don't know how long she has been doing this, although apparently she has a lot of these scrapbooks. But I don't know whether 'a lot' means ten or a hundred. I can guess that she is not hoping to start a career as an artist, or hoping for recognition of her talents. At 104, I don't suppose you expect very much at all from the future. All I know is that making the collages makes her happy, and that's why she does it.

I am fabulous

Badaunt you are fabulous !!!

Saturday, December 18, 2004

A long and lonely life

The Polymeal diet will make you live longer, according to Dutch scientists. It includes red wine, fish, dark chocolate, fruit, vegetables, almonds, and garlic.

Sounds like an attractive sort of diet, but the garlic does it for me. I'll just have to live shorter. However, I'm not sure that I'd want to use this diet to live longer anyway, after reading that researchers found the diet did have one unfortunate side effect -- bad breath and nasty body odor.

Actually, I find this kind of story a bit annoying. There is no real information there. How long do you need to be on the diet before the effects kick in? A month? A year? Ten years? Twenty? How do they know? Is it effective for everybody? In what proportions are the foods eaten? What if I've been on the diet for twenty years and get run over by a bus and killed. Can I sue?

A lucky guy

One of my students is a very cheerful and smily sort of bloke. He is always happy, and a delight to have in the class. He works hard and his English has improved quite a lot, which also makes him rather unusual. He is an inspiration to other students because he is so comfortable with himself. He makes mistakes, learns from them, and grins. Everybody likes him.

Today I discovered why he is always so cheerful. In his oral test, he told me a little story. It was an unbelievable story, he told me, but true, and it happened ten years ago when he was eight years old. Before New Year he badgered his father for enough money to buy some lottery tickets. At certain times of the year they have 'Jumbo' lotteries, and he wanted the New Year ones.

Eventually he persuaded his father (I don't think it took much), and was taken to buy his tickets. He chose them himself.

On New Year's Eve they show the lottery drawing on TV, and he sat down to watch. His family didn't, but he did. And - you know what's coming, don't you? I haven't exactly set you up for a surprise, have I? - he won.

His family didn't believe that he had won. They thought he must have got the numbers wrong. None of them had been paying attention, and they couldn't check. And after all, he was only eight years old. So they waited for the morning newspaper before getting excited.

But he was right. He had won. One hundred million yen.

When he told me this, I didn't believe him either. I asked him to write the number down. My students are pretty bad at numbers, usually, and especially big numbers. One hundred million was quite likely to be one hundred thousand. He wrote it down, and I counted the naughts. Eight. ¥100,000,000. That's just under a million US dollars, in case you are wondering. Rather a lot for an eight year old.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor I wondered if he was making up this story, but he assured me he wasn't. He then told me about how his family reacted. His mother burst into tears, and then his father started as well, and the whole family went bananas with celebration and disbelief.

When I expressed my amazement at the story he grinned, and I could see he was happy to have amazed me. In fact I got the feeling that the happiness he felt when he won has never quite left him. Who said money doesn't buy happiness? That little eight-year-old set up his family for life, and ten years later he's still pretty damned pleased about it. If he wasn't such a nice guy I'd hate him, but as it was the only malice I could summon up was to ask him whether his family had become fat. He laughed and told me they hadn't.

"Well, I bet they all think you're pretty special," I said, and he nodded, looking ever so slightly smug.

I must remember to ask him to buy me some lottery tickets, to see if some of that lucky, happy glow rubs off on me.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Let It Be

I was testing students today again. My favourite conversation was one where both students liked the Beatles. One asked the other, "What's your favourite Beatles song?" and the other thought about it and replied, "I like Let Me See."

His partner nodded, then there was a pause while they frowned, looking puzzled. Something was wrong and they both knew it.

The conversation was almost derailed, but they rallied and carried on, still frowning. I told them the name of the song after they'd finished. I think they were happier about finding out what had felt so wrong than with finding out that they'd passed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Traps for language learners

A lot of the English that people are exposed to here is in the form of katakana, one of the Japanese phonetic syllabaries. This can cause huge problems with pronunciation, because of the different sound systems of English and Japanese. One problem is that words which contain 'th' are rendered into katakana as a syllable containing, instead, 's' or 'z'. If the vict... learner is not aware of the English spelling, he or she will sometimes wonder if it should be a 'th' or an 's', and a wild guess will result in something funny.

Today I was testing students. It was a 'conversation test', in which I graded pairs of students having conversations (or approximations thereof). They were very nervous. Two guys, who don't generally make silly mistakes, had an enthusiastic and highly-strung conversation about soccer. (They were friends, and disagreed about a lot.) The problem arose when early on, one of them became suddenly convinced that it was not soccer but thoccer, and the other one was so nervous and excited that he followed along and uncorrected his own correct pronunciation.

So these two guys went on and on about thoccer, and I sat there trying to keep a straight face and agonizing over whether I should correct them (you're not supposed to in a test, but my tests aren't that serious, are they? I wondered), and I was very tired because it was the end of the day so my mind started to wander, and I suddenly thought: This is my life. This is what it is all about. Sitting around and listening to a couple of katakana English casualties rabbiting on about thoccer. Oh dear. I want to go home.

I waited until they finished and then told them the correct pronunciation. They both immediately claimed they thought so but the other guy started it. A few wild accusations followed, and we all ended up laughing.

Monday, December 13, 2004


English word order is a complete mystery to some of my students. I could understand this if it were some of my Chinese students having the problem - the ones who enter my classes barely knowing the alphabet (or in some cases, not knowing the alphabet at all) - but they rarely do quite so badly, generally. At the very least, they end the year able to put together a simple sentence and communicate in a very basic way.

No, this is the Japanese students, who have all had six years of English language education before I meet them, and I am forced to conclude that this so-called 'education' is the problem.

I have a difficult class on Mondays. It's a very small class by most standards here - just 12 students. The problem is that there are five Japanese students, two Koreans, and four Chinese, and the levels are so different it's impossible to treat it as one class. (There is also one irrelevant student who turned up once, had a wee nap, and never reappeared subsequently. I don't know her level.) Of the four Chinese students, one can hold a conversation with me quite fluently, one is a little lower level than that, but not much, and the other two barely knew the alphabet at the beginning of year. The Korean students are hard-working intermediate level. Four of the Japanese students are mid-beginner, and have some word order problems, but the last one ... well, I don't think she has understood yet that English is a language, rather than some purely random academic activity designed to be particularly tricky.

This student has a way of throwing words together in any form and order, and then asking me to check them, and when I read what she's written, or hear what she says, my brain seizes up. Where to begin? If I give her a 'fill-in-the-blanks' exercise with adjectives missing, and provide some adjectives, she'll ignore the provided adjectives and fill in the blanks with verbs, nouns, adverbs and articles. And perhaps the occasional adjective, by accident. Once I resorted to trying the boring old audio-lingual approach with her (while the others were busy with something beyond her), which generally has some effect with students like that. We did some simple word-substitution drills, which I demonstrated for her first on paper and out loud.

When she seemed to understand, and it was her turn to try, she substituted the wrong word, introduced new words, omitted correct words, and mangled the order when she repeated the sentences, almost every time. She is capable of doing this to a four word sentence. "The man is happy," I say, and she repeats it, leaving out 'is.' I get her to repeat it again, and she substitutes 'and' for 'is.' I do it again, and she finally gets it right.

All fine so far. Then I tell her "sad", and she says, obediently, "Sad and the happy." "Try again," I say. "The man is sad," and she repeats it, after apologizing and hitting herself on the forehead. "Good," I say. Then, "Tall," and she thinks hard and says, "Tall happy by sad."

"Where did by come from?" I wonder to myself. "And tall happy?" I want to scream, but don't, because I'm a kind person and also because I really, really want to get some basic sentence patterns burned into this girl's brain. I carry on, slowly. It doesn't work, of course, but at least I tried.1

Six years of English education! What do they do in those classes?

Last week in class I'd given this group a handout with a lot of examples of very simple definitions. I wanted them to be able to approximate words they didn't know - to be able to describe something they didn't have a word for. After a few demonstrations, I gave the students some words to define. I kept these simple for the lower level students, and gave the higher level students more difficult and abstract words to define. This worked quite well to keep everybody challenged, and they did well, at their various levels. Some needed more help than others, but it went fairly smoothly. I gave them some words to do for homework as well.

My problem student neglected to follow the simple patterns I'd given them and that they'd practiced in class. She also chose her own words, and made heavy use of a dictionary, judging by some of the words she used. (Brimful? Supple?) However, she's done a bit better with the word order this time, at least by her standards. I'm counting this as a success. It's a pathetic success, I know, but with this student anything she produces that starts to make a little bit of sense is a success.

Can you guess what she is defining? (The idiosyncratic capitalization is hers, too.) The first three are pretty easy, I think, but the other two...?

1. this color is yellow. Monkey is favorite Fruit.
2. Sky travel take vehicle.
3. supple move in water. As if by fish.
4. be on fast Move ground. Push against The winds.
5. Brimful Of figure. very Difficult.

Note to self: This student does not have a phonological loop. She has a phonological dot. Perhaps I could gather some data and write a paper about her.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Frustrated spinster

In the mysteries I've been reading (which I'm enjoying immensely, by the way), all written before 1960, I've noticed that there is almost always, in the cast of characters, a frustrated spinster. She is usually eccentric, has some kind of obsession (cats!), and generally behaves bizarrely. There are various 'types' of spinsters (bluff and hearty; fussy and prim; coy and sex-mad, etc), all instantly recognisable. These women become particularly erratic when they reach a 'certain age.' Occasionally there is a man (usually unmarried) who is labelled 'spinsterish', and we instantly know what is meant by that.

These characters have disappeared from modern mysteries, and indeed from modern western life. What happened to all the frustrated spinsters? Hellooooo? Are you out there?

Actually I've been thinking of getting rid of The Man and becoming a frustrated spinster myself. (I could possibly arrange to avoid the 'frustrated' bit.) It seems a pretty attractive life to me. You can do what you want, because no matter how bizarrely you behave you are tolerated (well of course, she's a spinster, poor dear...), on the fringes of society at least. A sort of honourary member of society, with a recognised rĂ´le.

And what better place to be, than on the fringes of society?

Eyes vs ears

Language Log has an entry about the McGurk effect, which links to this video. It's startling to discover that closing your eyes can change what you hear. I keep going back to check that it really happens.

It does. Check it out.

Friday, December 10, 2004


This morning on my second train (I have to take three), I happened to glance at my watch. Ten to seven, it said, and I thought I'd managed a bit better than usual. I would get to the coffee shop by seven thirty, and have almost an hour to relax before heading off to work. I go early to my station and have breakfast there on Fridays, in order to miss the rush hour. I'd wanted to be a bit earlier than usual today, because I had a fair bit of preparation to do.

Later, as I tucked into my third cup of coffee, I glanced at my watch again. Nine minutes to seven, it said, and I thought WOW! I've managed to take that last train, eat breakfast and drink two cups of coffee in one minute!

It was a bad morning for my watch to give up the ghost. I wasn't late, but I wasn't as early as I'd hoped to be, either. I've been rushing ever so slightly all day, just keeping on top of things.

This evening I got to the acupuncture clinic early, and sat with one of the guys drinking tea and chatting. I showed my watch to him and told him it had messed up my morning. He stared at it. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Oh, I see, it's a minute slow..." He looked puzzled. "Was that really a problem?"

I looked up at the wall clock, and sure enough it was seven minutes to seven, and my watch now said eight minutes to seven.

This weekend I have 120 tests to grade. I'll get up early, grade them between 6.54 and 6.55, and have the rest of the weekend free.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Decomposing books

Recently The Man came across an unexpected windfall of books for me - a whole bunch of old mysteries in a second-hand bookstore, 50 yen each. These are all Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, and Ngaio Marsh mysteries. Although the paper in these paperbacks has gone yellow and brittle from age, they look like they've never been opened, let alone read.

Reading these books has been keeping me happy on my commutes the last couple of weeks, at least when I am lucky enough to get a seat. I sit down, open a book, and sink into the comfortable snobbery of the English classic mystery. On the other hand, I cannot read standing up, because almost every time I turn a page it comes loose from the binding, no matter how careful I am. And it's impossible to control all those loose pages while standing and holding onto a strap with one hand.

I suppose I could just let the pages go. I've been passing on the better quality books, but the last two have come completely to pieces. I don't think anyone would be particularly interested in going to the effort of keeping the pages in order for long enough to read them. Perhaps I should just let them flutter around the train, and provide my fellow commuters with a little entertainment. I can just imagine some struggling language learner trying to make sense of this:

"Mr. Bertie Saracen was also immaculate, but more adventurously so. The sleeves of his jacket were narrower and displayed a great deal of pinkish cuff. He had a Berlin-china complexion, wavy hair, blue eyes and wonderfully small hands. His air was gay and insouciant. He too was a bachelor and most understandably so."

Oh, my.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Having a break

This is what the teachers' room looks like in the ten minute break between classes at one of my universities. (The one where we're allowed to smoke.)

Monday, December 06, 2004

Identikit artist

Today in my smallest class (only nine students today) the lesson in the book was about describing people. After doing some of the textbook activities it became clear that the students weren't really getting it. Well, they were getting the language just fine, but it wasn't real for them. So I invented, on the spot, a game called 'Identikit pictures.'

This started when I paired myself with a student (because there was an odd number) and asked her to describe someone she knew. The other students were doing the same thing, in pairs, and not finding it very interesting. As my student was describing the person, I was doodling in my notebook, idly, and suddenly realised that trying to doodle what she was saying was making me aware of what language was necessary. So I started asking her questions, using language that was not in the text and explaining it to her as we went along. "Are his eyebrows thick, thin, average? Do they arch, or are they straight? Is his face thin or wide? Does he have a big chin?" And so on.

As she answered my questions, I drew the person. I exaggerated the bits she said were not 'average'. (Thick arched eyebrows, downward slanting eyes, wide nose...) She was looking puzzled, and kept wanting to see what I was doing, but I hid it from her until we'd finished. Then I held it up.

"Is this him?" I asked.

She stared at the picture for a moment, looking stunned. Her jaw dropped. Then she let out an ear-splitting scream. "My FATHER!" she shrieked hysterically. She grabbed the picture and waved it at the others. "LOOK! It's my FATHER!"

Eight more jaws dropped, and chaos erupted. They laughed themselves silly.

After they'd calmed down a bit one of the other students asked, still laughing but aghast at the same time,

"Does your father really look like that?" .

She looked at it again.

"Well, no," she said. "But ... but ... there's something... " And she collapsed again.

I would show you the picture, but she confiscated it, to show her father. (Uh-oh.)

After that things really picked up. I got the others also doing Identikit pictures, with similarly hilarious and awful results.

Those of you who are familiar with my artistic abilities will understand why my picture caused such mayhem in the classroom today. You will also understand why I am a little worried. Luckily it's a women's university, so it should be easy to spot any angry-looking men striding around campus looking for someone. I'll be extra alert over the next week or so, ready to make a speedy escape if I spot that sinister-looking face I drew in class today.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Masters of forgetting

I think I may have mentioned before how shaky my students' knowledge of geography is. I don't think I've commented on their spelling, but I can assure you it's just as shaky. Well, I've been marking homework all day, and came across a couple of short sentences which managed to combine shaky geography and shaky spelling, with extra shaky results:

U.S.A. has 'Statue of Liverty.' Australia has 'Ground Carion.'

That made me grin.

But what a depressing day it has been otherwise. Along with marking homework, I've been calculating grades so far for my classes at one university, and have confirmed that in three of my four first-year classes at least 30% of students are failing. I've been warning them since about the third week, but they don't take me seriously. What on earth do you do with students who, when you tell them the exact three questions that will be in the weekly test, 'forget' that there will be a test, even though there is a test every week, and fail it weekly? Who, when you explain how important it is that they do their homework, either don't do it or hand in identical homework to 12 of the other students in the class? Same multiple stupid mistakes and all? And this is after telling them that they are failing and that this homework is important if they want to pass. "I want to see evidence that you have made some effort, because I haven't seen much to grade you on yet," I told them. And when I collected the homework, I said, "This is very important. Is it your best work? You can have another week if you want. Are you happy with this? Because I'll grade it low if it is not good."

A couple of them hesitated, but then you could see them thinking they didn't want to do it again. Too much trouble appeared in little thought balloons above their heads. She won't notice anyway. They exchanged guilty glances and came to a decision. They assured me that this was their best effort. They laughed when I asked them if they were sure. "Remember, you could fail if your grade for this homework is not good," I said.

"No, no, it's fine!" they told me.

I don't think they believe that I'll really fail them. They probably think I'll do what most of their other teachers do - give full marks to the students who handed in the homework, and then throw the homework away without looking at it.

Perhaps they've forgotten that I failed eight or nine of them last semester. They seem to forget everything else, so that wouldn't be surprising.

And the question is...

Here are the last seventeen searches that resulted in hits on my blog, from the 'keyword analysis' that Statcounter provides for me.

do pineapples grow on trees or on bushes?
symbolic shit
where do pineapples grow
how do pineapples grow?
pineapples how do they grow?
where do pineapples grow?
how do pineapples grow
growing pineapple trees
where do pineapples grow?
skill and care in constructions
picture of pineapple tree
pineapples grow tree
bring back my body to me
how pineapples grow
where do pineapples grow
pineapples how do they grow
how do pineapples grow

Is anybody else seeing a pattern here?

To people with questions about pineapples, the answer is that they grow upside-down. (There's a link to a picture.)

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Sitting on fruit

It's raining again. This is the result of a typhoon, although it isn't actually a typhoon any more. The typhoon has petered out into a tropical storm after hitting the Philippines very hard, doing a u-turn, passing over Taiwan, and fading into a tropical storm. There is a lot of rain and not much else. According to the typhoon sites I usually visit it isn't even anywhere near Japan. It's still down south, just above Taiwan. But it has pushed up a mass of cloud and the rain is bucketing down outside1. I'm inside, happy that I don't have to go to work in this, and a sudden increase in the intensity of the rain a few minutes ago caused me to sit on a mikan.

This happened because after finishing dinner I came upstairs with a cup of tea and a mikan (mandarin orange), and couldn't find a clear spot on my desk to put both. So I put the cup of tea on the desk and the mikan on the chair, meaning to move something to make space for the mikan. Then the rain got heavier suddenly, and it occurred to me that the window in the bedroom might be open and letting the rain in. So I went to check. Then I came back, and moving automatically the way you do when you're doing something you do 20 times a day, swivelled the chair around and sat on the mikan. (I don't mean that I sit on a mikan 20 times a day, but I expect you guessed that.)

I have decided that this incident is significant. Sitting on mikan is not an entirely pleasant experience. It feels funny, like sitting on something alive. It signifies that I should clear the surface of my desk so it doesn't happen again. I thought I just did that recently, but perhaps it wasn't as recently as I'd thought. In fact I'd say it can't have been very recently, judging by the way things look around here. This housework stuff is neverending, and I don't seem to get any better at it.

1 The Man wants to know why we say this. "It's raining hard outside," he repeats after me, and wonders where else you would expect it to be raining. Also, he wants to know why we look for a 'book to read'. "What else would you use a book for?" he asks. I tell him that sometimes books are good for a table with a short leg but he isn't convinced.

Monkey business

In the paper this morning there was a picture of some monkeys enjoying bathing in a hot spring. These are wild monkeys, and their picture appears in the paper every year around this time. It doesn't even have to be a slow news day.

You can understand why, really. Animals doing human-like things are fascinating. There is always the niggle in the back of our minds when we see them, Are those animals behaving like humans, or are we behaving like animals?

I checked the web to see if there were any information, and found this. Click on the English link. You will get lots of wonderful pictures, and lots of wonderful English. (My favourite quote, from the Monkey's Now link: " Spring has come for the excrements of the monkey.")

But best of all, there is a webcam. While I was checking it out just now a large monkey was sitting beside the hot spring and regarding it thoughtfully. Is the temperature just right? it seemed to be thinking. Shall I take the plunge? When I refreshed the page the decision had been made and a satisfied face was poking out of the water.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Dump me. Please.

I'm too tired to go to bed. It's horrible, and silly. I'm sitting here thinking longingly of bed but don't have the energy to stand up.

I wonder if The Man would pick me up and just dump me in bed if I asked him nicely? It's only about four meters, and I'm not very heavy.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Short bloke in a tall body

A colleague I always meet on Thursdays - let's call him Bob - surprised me again today, by standing up. For some reason I think of him as a short person, or at least not a tall person, but when he stands up he turns out to be tall. This means that every time he stands up I am surprised. I can't think of any reason for this. He's a perfectly normal guy - and a very nice perfectly normal guy - I like him a lot. He has plenty of personality and is often very funny, in a quiet, unassuming sort of way. (Is that it? Is it because he's quiet and unassuming?) He's about the same height as The Man, who is 183 cm and who looks pretty tall to me. I'm the short one. I come up to his chin.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking along from the station and a foreigner was in front of me. I didn't call out because the guy was tall, so I thought it couldn't be Bob, although the shape of his head looked familiar. That's funny, I thought. That guy looks like Bob, only taller.

Of course it was Bob, and of course I was surprised. I don't know how or why he got to be filed in my head as 'Bob, that short bloke', but the idea just doesn't seem to go away. I think he must be a short bloke in a tall body.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Where are the bubbles?

There's something really, really annoying happening at one of the universities where I work, and it's all about soap.

When we moved into the new building, we were delighted to find that the teachers' room had a sink where we could wash our hands. However, there was no soap. The toilets, of course, have soap, but the soap used in there is liquid soap so heavily diluted that you have to pump and pump and pump and even then you're lucky if you can get enough of the watery muck collected in your cupped hand to raise even one bubble. It's more like vaguely soapy water than actual soap. It doesn't get chalk off, and if you use the chalkboard at all (which I do, a lot) your hands are permanently covered in chalk throughout the day. I am not an obsessive hand-washer, but chalk is not pleasant stuff to have on your hands, and while it comes off pretty easily with soap, it doesn't come off with water.

Anyway, instead of requesting soap (which would have probably required a committee meeting to get approval for and taken six months at least) I took in a bar of soap and a soap dish for the teachers' room, and we used that. Some other unknown benefactor(s) or I have been replacing the soap when it runs out for about three years now. But this year, at the beginning of the year, the university suddenly started providing it. I was so pleased. They'd finally understood that teachers don't like having chalky, dirty hands, and that if we have a sink it's logical to also have soap.

But then I tried the new soap.

It's amazing. It's like a rock. You simply cannot get a lather out of this stuff. You pick it up, run the water, and do the whole hand-wringing thing with the soap until you do feel like an obsessive hand-washer, and no matter how much you try you can't get it to produce a single, pathetic bubble. Eventually you give up, and your hands are still covered in yellow chalk. Nothing has changed at all. It's the most remarkably unsoaplike soap I've ever encountered.

This soap has been there since April, and I keep forgetting to take in a replacement. I get annoyed all over again every Tuesday, and still forget. I'm hoping that writing this will remind me for next week.

But really, where on earth do they find this stuff? I'm starting to wonder whether it really is soap, and not some kind of inert substance that just happens to look like soap. It has become slightly smaller since April, but when we use real soap it lasts a month at most. This stuff just goes on and on, not doing anything useful.

At the two other places I work, one place also dilutes the soap beyond usefulness, and the other has stopped pretending altogether, and the soap containers are always empty except for a brief few days at the beginning of the year.

But I don't understand it. Soap is ridiculously cheap. What is going on? What do they have against bubbles?