Soukie's Place

keeping track of random thoughts

The Relativity of Time

a train rushing behind watches

Time is peculiar. Given how many things depend on, or are linked to time, there is very little we know about it for certain (on scientific and philosophical level; we usually know plenty enough about time when we are running late for a meeting). Despite the pseudo-technical title, this article offers observations on the nature of time as it appears to us, humans. Having enough time is not trivial and it plays an important part in the quality of life. As Seneca said: “There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living.” Continues » 

Beauty in Simplicity

How simple can a literary form be while still managing to say something beautiful and interesting? Very simple. Consider the following two examples:

a frogfish
frozen to the bone
gets all chopped up

after his turn to wash
her sweater tighter

The language is straightforward – everyday even – there are no metaphors or similes in sight, it does not rhyme, the meter is free too, and it’s frighteningly succinct. I borrowed these examples from Shuson KatoTranslation by Minoru Fujita and Richard F. Fleck. and Katharine Hawkinson, two haiku poets.

Why Haiku

(This section was taken from the introduction to my book Raindrops of Haiku. If you have read it, skip to the next subheading. Otherwise, check out a sample, and get a 30% discount.)

I have always admired simplicity and perfection in form. You can appreciate these qualities in many areas ranging from the clean architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, through the simplicity of Zen Buddhism, careful calligraphy, well-prepared sushi, meticulously shaped bonsai, all the way to – of course – haiku.

I imagine these art forms were gradually stripped of all that is unnecessary or superfluous, until the results were objects distilled to their essence. This does not equal straightforward simplification: in graphic design, music, cooking, literature and possibly everything else, if something is too simple, it becomes uninteresting.

Haiku often spring up spontaneously and strive to show things simply as they are. But in doing this, they offer us precious glimpses into life’s complexity in a minimalist form.

Shakespeare and Haiku

Haiku developed in Japan as the opening part of a larger poem at about the same time Shakespeare was writing his sonnets. The custom dictated that it be seventeen syllables and it should mention a so-called ‘season word’ as part of establishing the time of the year in which the poem is taking place.

When you think about it, it is not unlike if Will decided that he likes his closing couplets so well that he would devote his energy to writing just those – two lines of iambic pentameter and that’s it:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

To 5-7-5, or not to 5-7-5

Unfortunately, people often equate haiku with anything which has three lines of five, seven and five syllables. But that is hardly a correct starting point because Japanese haiku are not written in lines, and while the words are grouped into 5-7-5 ‘syllables,’ the language differences render copying this characteristic meaningless.

Whether someone writes in short-long-short statements, in 3-5-3 syllables or anything else, the esthetic contribution of any such unfamiliar meter is so negligible that, ultimately, English-language haiku is better spending the energy on other aspects of the form.

Except, of course, Shakespeare would be able to adapt it so that the preceding premise – your beauty will be immortal – would not be lost. It would have been interesting to see what he would have done with the format in an alternate history.

Simple Virtues

Some of the things that make good haiku are ‘cuts,’ the already mentioned season words (at least for traditional haiku), ‘freshness’ (run-on sentences stating something banal or obvious are boring) and honesty.

The cuts are a key aspect of haiku because they define the inner structure of the poem but their importance is often overshadowed by counting of the syllables, which is an outward consideration. There are often two distinct ideas or images in a haiku with a jump between them. Japanese language has several ‘cutting words’ that can suggest different relations. In English, these are either left implied or represented by punctuation marks.

The last ingredient I listed was honesty, and I am using the term quite broadly: It means that haiku should be about something that the poet has really observed, not something he or she made up. It also means that the writer should stop short of telling the reader what to think, how to feel or what conclusions he should draw.

Does that mean that haiku cannot be personal or convey feelings? Of course not, they just go about it in a very honest and simple way; not venturing far from what can be perceived with the senses.

Where other works of literature can span seven volumes (I haven’t read Harry Potter but so I hear), haiku have around seven words, start to finish. This makes the genre very easy to explore, especially with many great examples available online. If you feel so inclined, the Haiku Society of America or their facebook page is not a bad place to start.

blowing leaves
tempt the old cat,
but not enough

 –Bruce England

The Charms of a Pessimistic Workaholic

The top grossing film from Woody Allen ever, Midnight in Paris, is sweet and nice like a Belgian chocolate. It is like a dessert after some of the more substantial films of Allen’s career, even though – judged on its own – it is somewhat unsatisfactory.

That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.

The movie is about human feelings – nostalgia, romance and disagreements – but more in the sense of the characters talking about rather than living through them. Contrasted with Allen’s lowest grossing film, September, where the characters also spend a lot of time talking about these issues, in Paris the protagonist and audience are somehow insulated from feeling the pain.

Continues » 

Making Sense of 12th Century Philosophy

More than about philosophy, this article is about the thing I do to set my table: translations. I have avoided this topic because what I have to say is usually close to disclosing confidential facts about the company I work for and its customers.

Instead of talking about software giants of the 21st century and how they go about ‘localizing’ their products, I am going to discuss translations of the famous 12th century Japanese thinker Dōgen. His writing is characterized by elegant structures which often mix Chinese characters and quotations, and is notoriously difficult to translate.
Continues » 

Gray Matter

After eleven years, there is a new adventure game by Jane Jensen who is best known for her Gabriel Knight Mystery series. Once again, the story is grounded in real locations and weaves facts with supernatural occurrences. The protagonists are obviously new – Sam, a street magician, and Dr Styles, a neurobiologist – and the chapters alternate between them just as we saw in Jensen’s two last full games.

A painting from Gray Matter

Sam is after an illusive Deadulus Club for magicians while Dr Styles goes to extremes to prevent his memories from ever fading

Continues » 

PCWorld, ‘Really?’
How Bashing Might Not Win Readers

Windows Phone 7 start screen

Windows Phone 7

If you hold yourself to some standards, it is difficult to reach them when responding to something which does not have any. But I’ll try anyway. I know Vaclav Havel believes “the truth and love will prevail over lies and hatred,” but I figure that the truth might need a little help.

Microsoft has recently launched a new, great smartphone — there are many reviews online if you are interested in the particulars. But often when I did a Google News search to find out more, the top results were pointing to one or another PCWorld article — which one did not really make a difference, as a quick glance at the list of articles will attest.

Continues »