August 25, 2016

What's in a name?


In Japan, you can't name your kid anything. The Ministry of Justice has the final say (as in France, the cops must have a linguistics division). Currently, only the 843 "name kanji" (kanji rarely used for anything but names) and 2,136 "common-use kanji" are permitted in first names.

But thanks to on'yomi, kun'yomi, na'nori, and ateji, parents can get very creative about how a kanji is pronounced. And the bias of late, grouch the old-timers, has been toward the unpronounceable.

In Chinese, there is exactly one phoneme per character. Kanji was imported to Japan from China and adopted into a language that has nothing phonemically or grammatically in common with Chinese.

As a result, the original Chinese pronunciations had to be heavily modified to fit the Japanese language, resulting in on'yomi ("Chinese" reading). Because there's such a poor overlap between the two phonemic systems, there are often multiple on'yomi for each kanji.

At the same time, kanji were retrofitted to represent existing Japanese words (kun'yomi). As a result, a single kanji can have several different readings, including na'nori, readings that evolved specifically for use in names.

In Chinese, foreign (untranslated) words are written using ateji. That means the foreign word is "spelled" phonetically using the pronunciation associated with the kanji. The inverse form of ateji is assigning (often foreign) pronunciations to a kanji based on the meaning.

There are a number of websites that sound out Western names using Chinese characters. You can do this in Japanese too, but Japanese has a purely phonetic "alphabet" (a syllabary) made specifically for foreign words and names called katakana.

Nevertheless, as I illustrate here, (reverse) ateji is too much linguistic fun for writers to ignore.

Let's say you wanted to name your kid "Star Child." Sounds very hipster in English, but in Japanese it produces pretty ordinary pronunciations (with one exception). The suffix 子 ("child") is common in Japanese names for girls (sort of like all the girl names that end with /ly/).

Girl names

星子 Shouko
星子 Seiko
星子 Tiara
星子 Hoshiko

/Shou/ and /Sei/ are on'yomi. /Hoshi/ is kun'yomi. "Tiara" is, of course, (reverse) ateji.

Boy names

星郎 Hoshirou
星男 Hoshio

/Rou/ is on'yomi and /o/ is kun'yomi. The suffix 郎 (used similarly to 子 for girls) means "son" and 男 means "man."

Because the most common "spelling" of Seiko is 聖子 ("holy child"), which also just happens to be the name of the hugely famous singer Seiko Matsuda, you would have to explain to a person you just met that your name is instead spelled with the kanji for "star."

And, yes, sans a business card, Japanese provide these sorts of explanations all the time when introducing themselves, and/or write the kanji in the air or on the palm of the hand.

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August 18, 2016

Canon MG2520


I rarely need a printer or scanner these days, but when I do, I really do. And it's hard to fret about a 28 dollar investment in a Canon MG2520 when I'd just spent almost that much at the FedEx copy center printing out a bunch of stuff that I suddenly needed yesterday.

I ordered it from Walmart online and picked it up a week later. The out-of-box instructions were actually readable (or lookable, as they contained little text) and fairly useful.

The telescoping paper tray slides neatly out of the way. But I wouldn't trust it with more than a dozen sheets. My old HP could hold at least a quarter of a ream. Then again, I don't play on printing more than a few dozen sheets a year.

The power brick is cleverly built into the chassis. It looks like it's snapped in during the assembly process. The power cord feeds out flush with the back of the case rather than jutting straight out. That means no extraneous dongles and dangling cables to deal with.

This is an ingenious design that I wish more electronics manufacturers would adopt. It makes it possible to source the power supply from an OEM without turning it into the annoying encumbrance that is the power brick (the bane of consumer gadget market).

Otherwise, my only gripe is that, instead of mounted flush like the power cord, the USB cable pokes straight out the back at the widest point. It's impossible to push the printer against the wall without unplugging it.

The USB port (upper right) should be oriented 90 degrees down.

The verdict: the printer prints and the scanner scans. Good enough.

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August 11, 2016

Out with the old


The Car Talk guys argued that, in most cases, repairing an old car is cheaper than buying a new one. The reasons for buying a new(er) car come down to improved safety features and reliability, along with the utilitarian demands placed on the vehicle (how many child seats will fit in it).

Otherwise, comparing the amortized cost (or monthly payments) of old against new makes clear which way the economic scales are tipping.

When it comes to modern consumer electronics, there's rarely anything that can be repaired. Then the question is whether to buy an extended warranty. The answer is usually no. If the gadget doesn't break within the manufacturer's warranty, odds are it won't break within the extended warranty.

My HP 895cxi inkjet printer had been a workhorse for almost twenty years. Until it simply decided to not work, flashing an "ink cartridge" error I'd never seen before, even when an ink cartridge ran out. The usual cleaning remedies (plus a few more) didn't help.

It's possible that the almost new (OEM) cartridge dried out from long lack of use and a new one would work. Except it'd cost more to replace the cartridge than to buy a new printer.

Granted, in computer years we're talking about an antique, but HP 51645A cartridges are still being made and sold. HP lists the black cartridge at almost fifty bucks. A remanufactured cartridge goes for a more reasonable $13. But the last remanufactured cartridge I tried was broken out of the box.

Add in the color cartridge and the total comes to $30. I don't even know that the cartridge is the problem. The problem is, these days, a printer, scanner, and a CD-ROM drive are the kind of peripherals I can do without—until I absolutely need them.

Meanwhile, a brand new all-in-one Canon MG2520 sells for $28 at Walmart. Cartridges included. It'd replace my equally ancient (and excruciatingly slow) CanoScan scanner at the same time.

As we all know, inkjet printers operate on the razor blade economics model: "Give 'em the razor, sell 'em the blades." The tiny Canon cartridges make that strategy clear. But I don't plan on printing out any novels (I did literally print out a couple of novels on that HP).

What using a Centronics printer cable was like.

Tossing the old HP was a blast from the past. Ah, the good old Centronics parallel printer interface. Bulky, heavy, unwieldy—makes me think of a 19th century transatlantic telegraph cable. Surprisingly, they're still available at reasonable prices. The Windows XP of the cable world, I suppose.

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August 04, 2016

The rebirth of Japan's mass media


Mitsuki Takahata (bottom right) plays
Shizuko Ohashi in the NHK series.
As I noted last week, Homer Sarasohn was the first quality control guru to visit Japan, invited by General Douglas MacArthur to rebuild Japan's electronics industry. Why was that a priority for the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers?

Because MacArthur believed in the power of the mass media to spread the good word of freedom and democracy. His good word. It wasn't simply a political pose. MacArthur was Ronald Reagan with ten times the ego and a papal sense of infallibility.

In other words, the perfect personality for a Japanese shogun (with access to a radio studio).

In fact, the first few years of the Occupation saw a spate of surprisingly liberal reforms (that drove Shigeru Yoshida up a wall). Leftists, labor organizers, and even communists were let out of jail and the press was unleashed.

In Embracing Defeat, John Dower documents how enthusiastically the Japanese embraced these freedoms. Soon SCAP was censoring as many articles and broadcasts as it was approving. A free press, you see, wasn't free to criticize SCAP.

But the fire had been lit. It's telling that the moral backlash that "brought about the collapse of the comic book industry in the 1950s" was shrugged off almost as soon as it arrived in Japan (though, to be sure, it never entirely went away).

The current NHK Asadora, Toto Nee-chan, is a fictionalized biography of Shizuko Ohashi (1920–2013), who in 1948 co-founded 「暮しの手帖」 ("Notebook for Living"), a women's magazine still in print.

This retrospective at the magazine's website is in Japanese, but the illustrations largely speak for themselves.

This was an era when movie makers as well were yanking themselves up by their bootstraps. Akira Kurosawa turned the devastated landscape of Tokyo into a movie set in his second post-war film, One Wonderful Sunday, released in 1947.

Related links

When quality came to Japan
How Homer Sarasohn Brought Industrial Quality to Japan

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