There’s nothing new in whining about tech monopolies: the companies that enjoy them and the doom that awaits us for foolishly trusting them.

At this point, we have all been at either end of a speech on the dangers of letting Microsoft/Google/Facebook’s dominion over our life go unchecked and unbalanced. A speech that usually ends with one party’s eyes glazing over and excusing themselves to the restroom.

The problem with standard denunciations of these potential abuses is that they tend to rest on abstract, distant and mostly theoretical arguments. It’s not that we don’t care about fair competitive practices and healthy markets, it’s just that we care a lot more about convenience and not messing with things that run kinda-ok. If the Galactic Empire could ensure that the Alderaan-Tattooin express shuttle runs on time, most of us would be fine with their hegemonic market practices, and tell that troublemaker Luke Skywalker to go seek therapy for his Freudian issues instead of blowing things up.

But the reality is that, if you use any of the services provided by these monopolistic behemoths (and even if you don’t), there is a statistical certainty that it will bite you in the arse at some point. And when it does, that monopolistic behemoth status means you will be absolutely without recourse.

Ever felt somewhat powerless, troubleshooting your internet connection with some underpaid cable company support rep? Now picture the same thing if you were an ant and the support rep a 100 foot-high concrete wall, and you may have an accurate allegory of dealing with Google or Facebook as an end-user.

Allow me to illustrate with two absolutely-true real-life examples of the hopeless situations one deals with, when a glitch occurs in the Matrix:

Dear Microsoft Word for Mac™ Project Manager,

You don’t know me. and I don’t know you. I am sure that you are a fine human being. A real person, with emotions, someone who experiences joy, sadness, laughter. You might even be a nice person, kind to animals and the elderly… Which makes it all the more difficult to tell you that I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN WHEREVER YOU MAY HIDE, FIND YOU, PEEL YOUR SKIN OFF WITH A RUSTED POTATO PEELER, WEAR YOUR SKIN, SAW YOUR HEAD OFF WITH A BUTTER KNIFE, DRINK YOUR BLOOD AND REPEATEDLY VIOLATE YOUR CORPSE THROUGH YOUR HOLLOWED OUT CERVICAL SPINE WHILE YOUR FAMILY WATCHES ON.

So, huh, yea… It appears that I have to file all my thesis documents through the mandatory MS Word templates that were sent to me. Weird formatting incompatibility bugs and all.

Ostkreuz Tower of Doom

Minutes from the Ostkreuz Tower design planning committee meeting (ca. 1912):

Head of City Planning: How are the plans going for my diabolical lair of doom and despair? [strokes evil overlord‘s pointy beard and burst out with maniacal laughter]

Chief Architect: About that. I got your specs and there are a few details we need to go over…

HoCP: [cocks eyebrow mid-maniacal-laughter] ?

CA: Page 6, paragraph 13. When you write “The Tower of Doom shall be standing at the top of a massive dark volcano spitting rivers of glowing lava amidst bursts of thunder and the howling of a thousand souls bound for eternal damnation”… I don’t think we have the budget for that.

HoCP: What? But that was a fundamental part of the design!

CA: Sorry.

HoCP: What about the flock of fire-breathing dragons, then?

CA: I doubt Animal Control will go for that.

HoCP: The moat? At least give me the moat and giant man-eating crocodiles!

CA: We looked into that and it just doesn’t sound practical.

HoCP: But how are people to guess this is a train-station water cistern, if it doesn’t carry an adequate sense of doom and heavy foreboding?

CA: Well, there are a few things we can do…

HoCP: listening…

CA: We could make the tower really ominous and lugubrious, like something out of a Tolkien novel. Make it entirely black. But not some sleek shiny black: we go for suffocating, light-absorbing, black-as-coal black. Something that would look great against our typical backdrop of sunless gray skies…

HoCP: Keep going, I like what I’m hearing…

CA: Shape-wise, I was thinking we’d go for a martial theme: dangerous and uninviting, military without the reassuring overtones… a pointy prussian helmet, maybe?

HoCP: That sounds awesome! And so appropriate for a building that will define the landscape of the neighbourhood. When can you start?

CA: The wheels are already in motion, sir…

HoCP: Beautiful, beautiful… [strokes mean-looking white Persian cat while adjusting glass eye] Everything is going according to the plan…

[both erupts in evil laughters]

I’m not saying this is how it happened.

But you’ll have to agree there’s a strong possibility.

If you ever happen by Germany…


While discussing the finer points of Berlin’s traumatic history and the intriguing question of how the wall partition may have been extended across the Spree river (and what would have prevented people from simply swimming their way West):

Calmly hypothesise:

… by restricting access to the river, through additional barricades and watch-towers…

Do not shout:

Sharks mit fucking Laserstrahlen!!!


When the workshop organiser congratulates you on receiving First Prize for “Best Workshop Poster” and casually suggests that you treat yourself to a nice evening out with the prize money:

Do say:

I could not possibly take sole credit for this recognition of what was a collective research effort. I shall be taking my colleagues out to the finest restaurant this town has to offer!

Do not say:

Actually… I had to promise 20 euros per vote. I am still largely out of pocket on that one.


Upon hearing that this year marks the anniversary of 150 years of Japanese-German friendship:

Do say:

Yes, indeed. Who could forget the fine contributions of German culture to Japan’s enlightened Meiji era and its constitutional reform. Not to mention Mori Ōgai’s influential translations of Germany’s greatest poets…

Do not say:

About fucking time we gave it another go. Nobody will see it coming!

Let’s just leave Italy out this time, though.


Germany’s similarity to Japan in its lack of appreciation for deadpan, combined with a much lower linguistic threshold, could prove quite lethal to my complete absence of self-censorship in a social setting…

Oh, Hai there!

I haven’t written a single real post in ages. Not that there is nothing to write about, mind you… Just never both time and motivation. And yet at this stage, seven years in, I think I’m long past the 6 month expiration date that comes with first-time blogging fevers… Anyway: thought I’d do some writing here for a change… My draft for the Great 21st Century Novel will wait until tomorrow.

I want to say it is all in my head, but I am practically sure there is something fundamentally different from Kyoto about the air in Tokyo (no, not just the smog). Summer is obvious: unlike Kyoto, Tokyo’s got a seafront and doesn’t feel like you are being slowly steamed in a giant rice-cooker with wakame on top; late Autumn and Winter are a bit more subtle: both places are cold and often rainy, but Tokyo always has this much crisper night air, with a dash of excitement and a whiff of possibilities, on any given day, at any given hour.

More importantly: Tokyo is a city, hell a Metropolis. Not a museum town, not a collection of temples, not a giant university dorm: a city with all sorts of people with all sorts of jobs able to have all sorts of conversations. Nobody fucking gives a fuck about what university you are attending and most people are happy to lead discussions beyond those wacky differences between wacky foreign customs and wacky Japanese customs. Is it just because the only people over the age of 30 in Kyoto are married, with kids, and probably go out once a year? No offense to all of the 20 year-olds that populate Kyoto’s nightlife and social circles, but I’m pretty sure you would make even 20-year-old me feel old and overly mature. Living in a city of tourists, shut-in natives and post-adolescent one-year exchange students, you tend to forget what it even feels to have a deep meaningful conversations with friends.

Just kidding, Kyoto life is totally OK. I have met many awesome people here. Plus: it was specifically selected on its heavy potential for a studious anchoritic doctoral life… Can’t say I failed there.

That being said, and assuming there is any more of Japan in my post-phd future, rest assured it will be Eastern Capital over Old Capital in a heartbeat.

It’s 4:30pm on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I am sitting at my balcony in my underwear, sipping on a gin & tonic, putting together some very repetitive music on my laptop while waiting for the lab’s computers to spit out some results.

I am also holding a high-pressure water gun, carefully aimed at the neighbourhood pigeons, patiently waiting for them to get within range.

What?

Oh, me too: I used to have a real job, wearing ties and fine Italian suits every day, working some place where people would say things like “synergy”, “milestone” and “ballpark estimate”, while planning the next meeting on their Palm Pilot… You bet I did.

But you go ahead: judge me.

Facebook had three things going for it, a couple years back, around the time I finally caved in and signed up:

1) A fairly decent interface. A newsfeed that was actually designed to intelligently filter stuff of interest to you while hiding the the rest automagically (instead of requiring you to constantly click through endless moronic application notifications, courtesy of your bored-friends-at-work).

2) Everybody was/is on Facebook. Even those kids you used to share your milk with, back in first grade… Facebook is the ultimate “where are they now” tool… If somebody born within your lifetime is not on Facebook, chances are they are either dead or building pipe bombs in a secluded cabin somewhere deep into the woods. All you need is a full name and/or school attendance year.

3) Advanced privacy features meant that people used their real names (a necessity to make point #2 worth anything), while allegedly keeping private stuff away from your boss/exes/crazy Google stalkers etc.

Here we are now, a couple years later and point #1 has died a long and painful death at the hands of a dozen asinine “interface redesigns” plagiarising any other Web 2.0 service with an ounce of popularity, all the while bringing server cost down (yes: turned out, all those great intelligent filtering tools were so intelligent they did not scale at all… oops).

Point #2 is more valid than ever: it is only a matter of time before even dead people have their Facebook page (never mind: they already do). But let’s be honest: once you’ve looked up all your friends from kindergarten and realised you did not share much beside reminisced fondness for crayon drawing and shared hatred of afternoon nap time, once you’ve made sure the asshole bully from Junior High is now assistant manager at Taco Bell and once you’ve found out that secret High School crush Susie now has three kids, two dogs and a suburban house, and is (according to her status) feeling bloated after that huge KFC meal they just all had at the mall… Once you have satisfied that bit of morbid curiosity about every single living soul you have ever interacted with during your life… You just want to go back to hanging out with people you actually chose to be friends with, preferably at an age where your common interests involved more than making watercolour handprints and trying not to pee your pants in public.

As a hobbyist translator and someone with a general interest in languages, I always enjoy a good mistranslation roundup. Not just nitpicking on what idiom best conveys some tricky expression in another language, but plain outright mistranslations (French faux amis, for example).

Translators working on closely related language pairs such as French and English (as opposed to more distant ones, like Japanese and English) have a tendency to be writers first, translators second. Their actual mastery of the source language is sometimes surprisingly low, but (for good or bad reasons) editors seem to think that the quality of their written production in the target language can make up for their weakness. This is an especially common occurrence in English to French translations, where French speakers barely English-fluent have been known to translate major English literary works (not a new practice either: Baudelaire‘s famous translation of Edgar Allan Poe, while delightfully written, is so incredibly riddled with errors that it could be a new work in its own right).

The smug pleasure of pointing out errors in the work of so-called professional translators can only be beat by one thing: the even smugger pleasure of pointing out errors in said corrections…

In a recent Guardian article, Germaine Greer plays on a rather trite cultural tropism: “Why do people gush over Proust? I’d rather visit a demented relative“.

Yes, we get it: Proust’s writing is long, convoluted and not exactly packed with action. I am far from his greatest fan and would not even put him in my personal top ten of French authors, but criticising his style on length and paragraph count is about as subtle as calling Picasso’s paintings a bunch of kid scribbles by a guy who couldn’t draw a normal face.

The translation comment, however, is what grabbed my attention. Ms Greer chose to illustrate the poor quality of Proust’s English translations with a sentence drawn from the fifth volume (La Prisonnière, aka The Captive):

After years of sensing it, without quite putting my finger on it, I have finally uncovered the ultimate truth about mediocre art and its root causes.

It is all about sex.

Sex and sexual desires, are solely to blame for every single one of those nights you spent attending overpriced, underwhelming, “art” performances. You know the kind: some friend-of-a-friend-of-an-acquaintance, half naked, banging on pots, ululating while playing the electric guitar with an egg beater and a 2000W amp or just exploring the relation between art, space and materialistic consumerism by slithering in a kiddy pool filled with mashed potatoes while their partner sprays them (and the first two rows of the public) with milk and coke.

To be fair, most art is about sex, great art included. When masterpieces do not straight up depict sex, they are most often about their author hoping to get laid, or consistently failing to.

On the other hand, mediocre art is all about keeping your existing sexual partner(s) happy. Sex is the glue that keeps together delusional twenty-something “experimental” artists, long after the last of their friends have faced up to their talentlessness.

Behind every over-affected improv actress, is a bored but madly in love partner. Behind every shitty garage rock band, is a dedicated girlfriend ensuring none of her friends ever miss a gig. Behind every pointless expressive dancer’s performance, is a poor sap playing a detuned violin with a hammer, too busy checking her ass to wonder if it really was worth enduring 15 years of classical training for this. The fecund fields of experimental artistry are littered with people who would have long given up inflicting their fumbling on a sine-wave generator to the public at large, were it not for a support base, spinelessly ready to dish out all sort of undeserved praise and support, as long as it grants them VIP pants access.

And please do not come telling me this is a victimless crime: my eardrums and psyche, battered by hours of uninspired pseudo-stream-of-consciousness drivel recited to the sound of glass rim music, beg to differ.