Saturday, 17 October 2020

Independent People

I like having few material possessions, so the vast majority of books I've read in the last ten years have been either ebooks, or paper books borrowed from libraries. Once in a while, I like a book so much that I buy a copy for keeps.

One such book was Independent People, a novel by Halldór Laxness. I got it from a library eight years ago and immediately bought a copy. But I haven't re-read it; perhaps I never will.

Sansho the Bailiff is a 1954 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. In a New Yorker article, film critic Anthony Lane wrote:

I have seen "Sansho" only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Protip: AutoHotKey

All told, I must have wasted several hours of my life googling "en dash", "em dash" and "degree symbol", just so I could copy them into whatever I was writing. My laptop doesn't have a numpad, and in any case, remembering alt key codes is a pain (the degree symbol, for example, is Alt+0176). That said, there must be any number of other ways which are more efficient than my Google method, but until recently, I am embarrassed to say, I was too lazy to look them up.

But then one day I did, and AutoHotKey, a free, open-source program, entered my life. The program itself is tiny (6 kilobytes), and simple to use. You just have to create a .ahk file which associates an easily-remembered key combination with the desired symbol (I use Ctrl+Alt+D for the degree symbol, for example), and tell your operating system to run it on startup. Now I am not saying that this is the best way to do this; I haven't researched this in any detail. But if you find yourself wasting time as I did, or using typing ordinary hyphens or "degrees" when you'd rather use the proper characters, find some way – AutoHotKey or whatever else – break free, and live your best life.

This is the second protip on this blog, or at least the second one identified as such in the title. If or when I add more, I will elevate it to the status of a series (you can see the other series at the bottom of the sidebar).

Series, in my scheme of things, are different from tags (also in the sidebar); the latter are simply a way of organising common themes. When writing my last post, I realised I don't have a tag for movies. I guess I thought I don't watch or write about movies enough to warrant a tag, but the evidence says otherwise. So here you go.

Speaking of punctuation, eleven(!) years ago, I wrote a rather smug post, not-so-subtly implying that I was morally superior for using curly quotes as opposed to straight quotes. I have since got my comeuppance not once but twice. First, I switched my default typeface to Verdana which (to my eye) has ugly curly quotes, which meant I had to fall back on straight quotes. Now, I write for a photography website which uses a WordPress editor, and this editor converts all straight quotes to curly quotes, using its own warped understanding of what is appropriate.

So if I write, say, 8×10" (adopting the widespread practice of using straight double quotes to denote inches), the editor converts it to 8×10” (curly double close quotes). To forestall the substitution, I have to type it as 8×10″ – the technically-correct but rarely-used double prime symbol (on some browsers/​typefaces it looks like one of the other two symbols, but it's actually different). The double prime symbol does not appear on a standard keyboard, but oh well – AutoHotKey to the rescue.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020


I've been watching a lot of movies lately (well, three or four a week, which is a lot by my standards) through a British Film Institute subscription. This summer they're showcasing Japanese films, and I watched two of them back to back: Ghost in the Shell (1995), an animated cyberpunk film by Mamoru Oshii, and Early Summer (1951), a quietly understated household drama by one of my favourite directors, Yasujirō Ozu.

The movies couldn't be more different – science fiction versus domesticity, chaos versus order, fast-paced action versus a film where nothing much happens ("Plot bores me," Ozu used to say, and his grave bears a single character, 無 (mu) meaning nothing).

Here's a screenshot from Ghost in the Shell, taken from a 3½-minute montage of the futuristic city where the story is set. The sequence, which is fortunately on YouTube, has to rank among the best few minutes of animation I have ever seen. Its ostensible purpose is to set the tone – in a sense, the city itself is one of the principal characters in the movie – but I also get the sense that for a few minutes, the artists and animators were given licence simply to show off, like the solos at the end of Abbey Road.

And below is a still from Early Summer: a trademark tatami shot. It's a multi-layered composition with an abundance of objects, but somehow Ozu still contrives to make it look elegant and minimalist. How does he do it?!

I'm glad I can enjoy these two very different movies, with their very different aesthetics.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Shunbun no Hi: Kingfisher

My blogging has been intermittent of late (to put it mildly!) and one of the more regrettable outcomes has been that I missed my annual Shunbun no Hi (spring equinox) post for the first time in 9 years – missed it so spectacularly that we are now closer to solstice than to equinox.

Anyhow, better late than never! Say hello to our backyard visitor: a white-throated kingfisher, incidentally, the state bird of West Bengal. Gotta love a bird whose binomial name includes the word halcyon.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Further Research

A recent xkcd:1

In the preface of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein wrote that he had he had "solved all the problems of philosophy".2 Consequently he gave up philosophy, gave away his part of the family fortune and became a schoolteacher. (Disappointingly, he later recanted.)

1Used by kind permission.
2A C Grayling, Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, presumably referring to the Preface of the Tractatus where Wittgenstein wrote, "the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the problems have in essentials been finally solved." (translated from German by C K Ogden)

Friday, 10 January 2020

Time Alone

Today I was filling in an Ilford survey for people who shoot film, and I just want to say that I love the fourth option from the top.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Protip: Translated Recipes

Finding authentic recipes online is not always easy, especially for dishes originating outside of Western Europe and North America. If you do a Google search for, say, <hummus recipe> or <chimichurri recipe>, chances are that the first few recipes will be by (a) a celebrity chef, or (b) a lifestyle blogger who encountered this dish on their travels, came back to their flat in London or Brooklyn and recreated the recipe but with added kale.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is not to make cynical comments on culinary appropriation and search engine optimisation. Rather, I am here to present a simple and, if I may say so myself, elegant solution to the aforementioned problem – a solution which exploits the fact that Google Translate is now advanced enough that, with a bit of common sense (or cross-checking against other recipes if needed), most recipes can be followed in translation.

Here's an example. I read somewhere about Vietnamese egg coffee, and wanted to try it at home. Now rather than search for <Vietnamese egg coffee recipe>, what I did was:
  • Go to Google Translate.
  • Translate "egg coffee recipe" to Vietnamese, which gives me công thức cà phê trứng.
  • Do a Google Search for <công thức cà phê trứng>.
  • Click on a search result.
  • Right click the page (in Chrome) and translate to English.

And here's the egg coffee Anasua and I made, using this recipe. It was delicious.

Friday, 19 April 2019


I used to really like maths in high school, but for various reasons I didn't pursue it afterwards. Maths is still sufficiently a part of my life to be a blogpost category, but there were things – trigonometric identities, ways of solving differential equations – which I once had at my fingertips, but now have to painstakingly work out from first principles (if I can at all).

When I lived in Japan, I became halfway fluent in Japanese. After I left, I never made a sustained effort to keep in touch with the language, and now it makes me feel in equal parts sad, frustrated and stupid when I have to slowly parse a simple sentence to understand its meaning.

Sometime back Tommy wrote me an email which involved no maths, but where he used the phrase "Without prejudice or loss of generality". It took me straight back to combinatorics proofs (which I loved), and the wave of nostalgia hit me with surprising intensity, almost like a physical wave. More recently I had the same feeling at a European airport where all the announcements were in English, but suddenly and unexpectedly there was one in Japanese, asking Kanada-san to report to Gate No. ---. (I am not hiding the gate number; by the time I had translated the first part of the announcement in my head, I had missed it.)

Snatches of languages which I'm slowly forgetting seem to trigger a linguistic equivalent of the Proust effect.

* * *

The Brazilian footballer Philippe Coutinho scores a lot of goals with a trademark right-footed curling shot from just outside the penalty area. Last year he moved from Liverpool to Barcelona, and this week he scored just such a goal for his new team. A Liverpool supporter on Reddit wrote an unusually poignant comment: "it's like suddenly remembering that funny thing your ex used to do".

* * *

There are plenty of Japanese words which are said to have no equivalent in English (I have been guilty of invoking some of them myself). It amuses me therefore that the Japanese word for nostalgia, the title of this post, is simply a phonetic rendering of the English word: nosutarujia.