Sunday, October 30, 2011

Female Joro Spider

These beauties are everywhere around here. They particularly like to build their webs across trails, so if you're hiking in the woods in Shikoku be sure to bring a stick to whack the threads out of your way. Otherwise you'll be left trying to extricate yourself from the sticky coating of web stretched across your forehead.

Tell-tale signs that you're looking at Nephila clavata: yellow and green-gray patterned back — bright red tipped abdomen — and black and yellow legs.

Here's a view from the other side:
There's also a marked sexual dimorphism, the male being about a third or fourth of the size of the female:
The spider makes a horseshoe orb web with threads radiating out from both the front and back creating a kind of triple boxed kite-like structure.

This female will lay her eggs on the underside of a leaf or stick or on the side of a building. Apparently all of the adults die off in the winter.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Whither Materiality

Chatting with one of my students yesterday, a middle manager in his forties, I learned from him that his company was preparing for a Shinto blessing of a new filtration system at one of their chemical plants.

Not only would they give thanks to the old system for its having served them well for the past forty or fifty years, but they would welcome in the new one with the hopes that it would serve equally admirably for at least as long.

While to some this act might seem deeply superstitious, a superfluous gesture hide-bound in tradition, to me it touches on a deep, metaphysical question.

To wit, Do machines have souls? (Japanese, or at least those who are adherents of Shinto, would probably not word it this way, instead taking it for granted that materials possess ki, a kind of essence or spirit.)

Well, do they, do machines have souls? That was the subject of last week's Car Talk episode (start at 28:00) wherein a caller from Davis, California wanted to know that if by swapping out the engine on his 1990 Isuzu Trooper he would be losing the car's soul.

There was, of course, some good-natured bantering on the question, but the consensus seemed to be that if indeed cars had souls, they would most certainly be located in the engine, so that the swap would most definitely result in the loss of the car's soul. Worse, by putting in a new engine, the caller was at risk of gaining an entirely new and potentially whimsical or dastardly one. (The guys seemed to be conflating soul with personality here, but so be it, they're comedians, not philosophers or semioticians.)

I'm not sure what someone like the late American physicist Richard Feynman would have done with these arguments, but I suspect he would have simply stowed the question in the category of things we don't know anything about. I don't think he would have said de facto that machines or objects don't possess spirit, just that until someone "proves" that they do, we'll have to be content with not knowing.

"Start out understanding religion by saying everything (we know) is possibly wrong."

Everything we think we know is possibly wrong.

And "I don't feel frightened by not knowing things."

I don't feel frightened by not knowing things.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Freedom & Hubris

I had two reactions yesterday when I read the story about exotic animals on the loose near — where else? — Zanesville, Ohio.

The first was "Go Monkey! Go Wolf!"

The second was "what right do we have to subdue and cage wild animals?"

A comment by one Shefiff Lutz summed up opposition to both of my sentiments neatly: “We cannot have animals running loose in this county.” 

And later, as I read about a shark massacre off the coast of Colombia, I thought, "we're doomed. Doomed to live in a domesticated hothouse."

(I came home from work unplanned this afternoon, surprising a cockroach. Splattered the bastard against the kitchen baseboard. Scraped its guts into the trash.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Finding The Enormous Turnip, The Difficult Avocado

One of the pleasures of living in Japan is that I'm able to get the latest Murakami well before it ever makes it to the states. His newest collection of essays, a self described "comeback after a ten year absence" (as an essayist) is titled The Enormous Turnip, The Difficult Avocado. 

Like salivating over "Japan's most delicious oolong tea (© Murakami)" I was drawn to the cover before I even saw that it was a Murakami by — what else — the big, fat turnip with its conga line of characters dangling from it, the lot of them just having pulled it from the earth.

The cover illustration reminded me of a post I did back in March about a magazine I had found which exalted the turnip by dedicating its entire 96 pages to that venerable vegetable.

And inside that magazine, on page 64, was a spread on the well-known Russian children's book by Alexei Tolstoy from which Murakami got half his title. In the story, an old man grows a giant turnip, asking his wife to help him pull it out after he is unable to do it alone. When even the two of them can't manage it, they recruit, one by one, a child, a dog, a cat, and on down the line to a mouse, until the thing at last pulls free.

The Enormous Turnip's enduring popularity as a children's book does say something interesting about the desire for a kind of collectivism in Japan (I'm assuming that parents pick out most of what children read at this age); or, if not collectivism per se, at least an emphasis on the importance of working together to achieve a common aim. Certainly we're not talking about the fostering of a kind of Russian brand of early Bolshevism; more to the point, I think, is the continued honeycombing of the collective brain-hive, a snug, neatly built structure protected by virtue of being surrounded by ocean; by virtue of employing a single language; by adherence to the notion that the harmony of the group matters.

While The Enormous Turnip may be an apt metaphor for the all-for-one mentality that will be needed to cope with the ongoing problems associated with the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl (you can read about some of the latest issues here, here, and here) it may be a tad simplistic to think that there's going to be some sort of early 1960's-like inspired flowering of national will to achieve those ends. Given the technical difficulties of handling the clean-up of radioactive elements; and normal people's normal aversion to getting anywhere near anything called "radioactive," there's just as likely to be a national burying of heads in sand, a national distancing, as time piles on top of itself, and forests grow, and power plants resume humming, and people forget.

But since I don't think Murakami's essay has so much to do with some of these specific larger issues, and since this post was supposed to be about serendipity, and influences, and what is "in the air" at any one moment, I'll end this admittedly ragged post with one of the book's illustrations, by Ayuru Ōhashi (大橋歩):

They're thinking, I'm thinking, aren't we all thinking: "Holy shit, what if Big Brother lets go?"

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Under My Bike Seat

カマキリ (kamakiri, or praying mantis) looking for a free ride.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

One Piece

I was attracted by the wavy lines in the stone — with the water dripping down into the basin from above and flowing down the lip, it was all rippling motion.

When I asked the temple owner about the carving, he told me that it was all one piece: the fish was carved out of the surrounding stone by a well-known local artist.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

First Stab at Carving Utensils

With all of the typhoons and local storms we've been having this season, there has been a corresponding bumper crop of driftwood on the beach. You can only collect so much before you have to do something with it, so, after finding a pretty cool knife in the hardware store that boys across Japan used to keep their pencils sharpened with, I decided to start hacking away at a few of the pieces I gathered.

Here are the admittedly amateurish results.
Though I am happy with the grain that's been exposed in these, the shapes are a little wonky yet. Worse still, I've used a really fragrant piece of wood to carve the butter knife — a no-no perhaps for something to be used with food.

I did find this excellent book in our local bookstore to help me going forward. It's called "Hand-made Wooden Cutlery"(手ずくりする木のカトラリ) by Nishikawa Takaaki.

Not only does it show some really fine pieces including a cherry wood butter case, but it has step-by-step instructions for creating some of the more difficult pieces, like boxes and bowls.

All right, it's out. I'm in love with wood. At least I'm in the perfect place to carry on the affair. We'll see if it's lasting. I think it should be.

I just need to find me some walnut or gingko.

I do know where one of those is....