Thursday, July 30, 2009

Orwell's six rules of writing

There's a graphic that's going around now, and which I first found here, that shows a somewhat modified list of George Orwell's six rules of writing. I learned these in grammar school, and they've subconsciously guided my writing ever since (along with my judgment of others'), but it's worth repeating them. I don't know where the graphical version originally came from or why the rules were re-phrased in such clumsy ways, so I wanted to post the rules as Orwell originally wrote them:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

He wrote these for a 1946 essay called "Politics and the English Language", the point of which was to discuss the decline of language in political writing into imprecision and incoherence. His essay would be just as applicable to political writing today, but his rules can really cover any kind of writing, including blogs.

I'd actually add one rule of my own, which is, "read each sentence and paragraph aloud. Reorganize and punctuate accordingly." Too many people write in a disorganized stream of consciousness, which is an easily solvable problem if you just read your own writing back and self-edit.

By the way, when I was in school, kids would often look at rule #6 and take it to mean "break the rules if you think you're smart enough", and of course everybody then did in an attempt to show that they were. When the teacher would call them out on it, they would pretend to be little geniuses who knew more about writing than the teacher and would stand behind rule #6 as a defense.

But the point of the 6th rule is to act as a hedge against the inherent imprecision of the English language, which even Orwell acknowledged. Rules 1-5 are intended to increase that precision, which is the opposite of what flowery language riddled with cliches and jargon does.

His rules boil down to being simple and direct, the foundation for great writing. (My little addition is for the same purpose.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: The flight

I've talked before about my fear of flying, and also specifically about flying to Japan. I've taken extreme measures to control my phobia, up to and including the use of controlled substances (by prescription!). I will say that living near a major airport, I'm getting a little better - it does kind of sink in after a while that all these planes are taking off and landing all around you, and why should my flight be so special and crash?

The flight to Japan this time was actually pretty pleasant, at least as flying goes these days. We always try to fly either ANA or JAL and preferably ANA, mostly because of the service and food.

This was my first time flying a 777 to Japan, and we got the Star Alliance plane. ANA actually switched to 777's a couple years ago now, but we flew JAL last time and they were still running 747's on the route. I have to say that despite having two fewer engines, I might actually like the 777 a little better for long flights. They're a little quieter, and maybe this was just my perception but it seemed that they're pressurized to a lower "cabin altitude". (Airline cabins aren't pressurized to sea level pressure - more like 8,000 feet, so you can still suffer from altitude effects, especially on long flights. But the exact pressure can vary from airplane to airplane.) I felt less fatigue by the end of the flight, and less of that light-headedness that I've come to associate with flying in general.

ANA feeds you two big meals and a snack, same as JAL, but I think the quality of ANA's food is a little better. Or at least I did, until the breakfast just before landing on the way to Japan, which had the whole plane talking. It was some sort of Korean thing, for reasons nobody could figure out, and it was basically ground beef and cabbage. I heard some Americans talking about how "interesting" it was, but even the Japanese passengers just thought it was strange. My wife and the woman sitting next to her actually spent about 20 minutes talking and laughing about it before landing. No, Japanese people do not regularly eat Korean breakfasts. (The breakfast in the other direction was western - pancakes and sausage.)

The offending breakfast.

The lunch was a little more reasonable in both directions, and included choices that were clearly western and Japanese (JAL offers a similar choice, but their options are not very distinct). I don't actually remember what I had on the way out, but I do remember the choice on the way back was beef gyudon or chicken with a cream tomato sauce. They also give you a pretty ludicrous number of side dishes, both hot and cold - potato salad, fruit salad, cold cuts, a roll, cold soba noodles (so glad they brought these back!), Japanese pickles, and they finish it all off by walking around with a cooler full of Haagen Dazs ice cream that's obviously been sitting in liquid nitrogen, because you'd mistake it for concrete.

Oh, and how about this for service: several times throughout the flight, the flight attendants walk around with a basket of wine. In economy class! It is, of course, free. (Or at least, included in your ticket price.)

ANA's in-flight entertainment has always been pretty good, but it's a lot better now than it was even 3 years ago when I last flew them. I believe the system we had this time was called "Magic-2" and it's an all on-demand system with games, movies, audio, TV shows and more. There were more than 40 movies available, some of them good, others not, and both Hollywood and Japanese in origin. (Including big Japanese films like "Departures".) I watched "The International", which was terrible, and the first two Matrix movies (the trilogy is available), which I've seen before but just felt like watching again. My wife watched "Revolutionary Road" and "Hula Girls", which we've watched together before. Funnily enough, they also have the entire first season of "24", which comes with a warning that it may contain disturbing images of planes crashing. This was actually my first experience with on-demand IFE - when we flew JAL last time, they had 13 channels of movies but they were continuously running. That's similar to what ANA had 3 years ago.

ANA is one of the few airlines that generally has nosewheel and external cameras on their aircraft. Some people like this - I usually hate it, because they show the takeoffs and landings on the big screens in the front of the cabin and it always looks like we're headed for the trees. Still, I found myself kind of missing it on the return trip - a newer 777 (built last year) that didn't have either camera. I wonder if they're phasing them out.

We did have them on the flight to Japan, and the landing was crazy. In typically understated fashion, they told us the weather in Narita was "cloudy" before we landed. Of course what they really meant was it was "fogged in solid". (Always add an extra level to whatever they tell you the weather is... "cloudy" either means "foggy" or "heavy thunderstorms". For it to really just be "cloudy", they will say it's "partly sunny".) They turned on the nosewheel cam and all I could see was white. I heard and felt the landing gear drop and the flaps go to full, so I knew we were close to the ground. The runway appeared out of the mist literally a moment before we touched down. I actually said "whoa" out loud when I saw it. Probably an auto-land. The funny thing was I always look to the flight attendants to see if they're scared - well, we were sitting right next to one this time, and after landing, she was actually patting her chest!

Anyway, we lived to fly another day.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Random Japan: $90 Mangos

I swear, I've got a bunch of longer posts I will get to. For now, just satiate yourselves with these $90 mangos, found in some upscale supermarket in Shinjuku that I can't recall the name or location of:

They also had $250 cantaloupes, which I thought we got pictures of but apparently didn't. Picture-taking was not encouraged in there.

Though I will say they came in a two-pack, so, you know, that's double the value.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stranger on a train

I saw a totally mainstream, non-goth, non-geek Long Island girl reading this on the train today:

Sandman Season of Mists
10 years ago I probably would have been horrified, like seeing a "Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac." Nowadays it just makes me curious.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: Hula Girls!

(I wrote this more than a month ago!)

I'm sitting in the parking lot of Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki City, Japan. Why sit in the parking lot writing a blog post while the rest of my wife's family enjoys themselves inside? Well, let's just say the place is climate controlled. For tropical weather. It's the kind of place where street clothes are actively discouraged, and unfortunately, I wasn't ready to get my bathing suit on. I'll spare you the photos of the sweat stains and the goofy American guy walking around in Doc Martens while the rest of the place goes barefoot. (Honestly, though, I wasn't the only guy there who was overdressed.)

So why the hell did I come here in the first place?

For the Hula Girls!

One of the goofy Japanese chick flicks my wife coerced me into watching was about this place. As usual, I think I ended up liking it better than her, even though it's totally manipulative and sappy. Still, it really was a true story - pretty much all of it, apparently - and that makes it a little easier to take at face value.

This used to be an isolated coal mining town, until the coal ran out and the mining company moved away. The government's bright idea to save the town was to build an indoor theme park modeled on Hawaii. The showpiece would be a hula dance troupe made up of girls from around the towns of Joban and Yumoto. Given that nobody in this conservative little area had any experience doing anything except mining coal, a lot of people obviously thought this was a crazy idea. But, well, it wouldn't be a very good movie if it ended there, right?

So a cosmopolitan but otherwise washed-up dance teacher arrives from Tokyo, at first much too diva-ish for this little town full of men and women who still think showing a little ankle is taboo. But eventually her group of spunky wannabe dancers wins her over, and with her help they convert the rest of the town into believers. And waddaya know, it works. The Joban Hawaiian Center (as it was called back then, and is still colloquially called now) saves the town, with the Hula Girls drawing massive crowds.

More than 40 years later, they still do.

Here's the kinda lame trailer to the movie:

I'm not sure if the girls are all still from around town. They don't really look it - they look Polynesian, although some of that's obviously just makeup and hair style. But they're clearly professionals now - I mean, this has been a famous dance troupe for decades at this point.

There are two big dance shows per day, plus a few smaller ones sprinkled throughout (there's one just for kids). We went to the early show, which probably isn't quite as elaborate as the later one, but it was just too hot to even consider staying. I mean I know I talked about it already, but walking in there from outside is like a slap in the face every time. It's like hitting a wall of humidity. Honestly, I've been to Hawaii, and Hawaii is not like this. I wasn't sure I'd even make it through the show. I had to prepare - we bought a Chinese-style fan ($16), a towel ($5), and a bottle of water ($1.50) before I could sit in any semblance of comfort. My wife wasn't quite so bad - I did fan her a bit too, but it's like this in late summer everywhere in Japan, so she's kind of used to it.

It was worth it, though. Hula is one of those dances that's hard to really get until you see it live (though the movie version's pretty good too). It is amazing how those girls move. It is a sexy dance. And actually really graceful too; it's not all booty-shaking like you usually see on TV, though there was plenty of that in the finale. It's kind of like a combination of ballet and pole dancing.

I have to mention the fire guys too, who may well have been in the movie for all I know, but I don't remember. But they were amazing, doing the whole fire baton twirling thing, really really fast, without making any mistakes whatsoever. Totally perfect, all three of them, and each also doing crazy stuff like licking the fire, or grabbing the fire on one end of the baton and setting fire to the other end with their bare hands.

If you do actually come better prepared than we did, there's a lot of other stuff to do at this place - water slides, wave pools, etc. There's also a real spa, as the name suggests, an arcade, various restaurants, and a hula museum, most of which is more specific to the Hawaiian Center than hula in general. They've got a big exhibit on the movie too - these are some of the real costumes the characters wore:

Oh, one thing - the movie apparently wasn't filmed here, but it looks really similar. They've changed the configuration since the 1960's anyway, and the photos in the museum from that era look almost exactly like the movie. It's uncanny. Watching the show really felt like being in the movie, even with the stage facing the opposite way. I highly recommend the movie, and I even more highly recommend seeing the show live if you can.

If you do go, you really need to stop at Papa bakery on the way out. Japanese bread is a whole post unto itself (hmmmmm...) and this is some of the best I've ever had.

That's a melon pan, a curry pan, a cream puff, and some other stuff for the family. Really, really yummy.

Monday, July 06, 2009

My guilty pleasure... again

I'm currently obsessed with this song, which is, as near as I can tell, brand new:

This is so cute that you will make a funny face unintentionally.

Do I even need to tell you that the Japanese make the cutest robots?

Sarah Palin's true state of mind?

Found on Gawker, apparently by way of artist Zina Saunders, this soon-to-be iconic image of Sarah Palin:

I have been derelict in my duties.

Sheesh, I've been back from Japan for like a month already (hard to believe!) and I still have about five posts to write. A few of them are actually sitting in draft here - one of them I actually wrote in a parking lot in Japan and I still haven't put it up!

I'll get to everything. This store thing has got us all tied up in knots right now; there's just a lot of stuff to do, it's never-ending. I actually can't see when I'm going to have a real break from it, but I do make tiny bits of progress on other parts of my life here and there. I just need to actually finish some of these blog posts at some point.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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