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Really Simple Syndication stuff

screenshot_rss.jpgI may possibly be the last person in the world to have discovered RSS (Really Simple Syndication), but on the off-chance I am not, in a wild burst of child-with-a-new-toy enthusiasm I am going to share my marvellous new discovery. RSS has been around for a number of years now, and is really nothing more than a digital version of the old news wire services, excepted automated (i.e. really simple) for any website with the requisite technology. In effect, RSS provides a feed of headlines and updated content which can be subscribed to, allowing one to view, in an RSS compatible reader, an overview of new, ordered by date content from any website. Sound simple? It should, because it really (as advertised) is. I initially gave RSS pass a few years back because it required either a detailed knowledge of XML or a special RSS application, and quite frankly having yet another application to use for the internet seemed more trouble than it was worth. The process has been simplified considerably in recent times by the adoption of RSS technology in the major browsers; for example, in Firefox and Apple Safari every RSS enabled site or page you visit creates an RSS icon in your browser URL window—click on that icon and you can bookmark the feed, creating in effect a“live” bookmarks, continuously updated with content from the site or page you have bookmarked. On my browser I now have a bookmarks toolbar folder in which I file every frequently visited site’s syndication feed into (see image), so I only ever have to visit these sites when I see there is an update. Personally I only do this for sites that are occasionally updated, as other frequently visited sites like news sites are by definition updated daily, and RSS for such seems a little overboard—unless you are a news junkie or particularly interested in tapping the actual living pulse of the blogosphere. RSS may also be handy if you have MyBlogLog enabled, as it avoids creating the impression on sites with MBL that you might be a cyberstalker. Observant readers may have noticed that I have my own site’s RSS feed bookmaked. Why? Good question—it seems that I must“really” like RSS. Or really like myself... Another interesting use of RSS is for auto-generated content on websites. Some SEO experts (read spammers) claim it is now possible to build entire websites and still have them rank in search engines with content delivered solely via RSS. Online medication sales aside, an RSS feed can be used benignly to add a dynamic content portal to your website, displaying for example the most recent posts from a like-minded website anywhere on a page. I myself do this here at A Sensitivity to Things, displaying recent posts from a number of other sites in my“widget-enabled” WordPress sidebar. Genius!

Snow Canada

ny_snow.jpgSome American friends of mine have been complaining about the weather recently. Apparently it’s been pretty cold outside their centrally heated apartments—the worst February in fact since 1989, officially, and no doubt the trip from the front-door to the car has been particularly hairy. Forgive me my sarcasm though, for I really have no right to be self-rightious here in mild all year round New Zealand, where winter is summer only with more rain, and some wear shorts 365 days, and while roofs may occasionally fly through the air, snow is something we go to mountains to ski upon, but otherwise never see. Still, I can not help wondering what Canadians are saying about (a-boot) the weather at the moment. I realise they pride themselves on being polite, and stoic, and would probably freeze to death before making a nuisance of themselves, but if there is one thing certain in life it is that if it is cold in the United States, it is really cold in Canada. With cold being something of an understatement... As one who spent only a single winter in Canada, but a very memorable one, I can recall the following...
  • Getting to stay home from school when the wind chill factor reached -60, but never before then
  • Being thrown outside by the teachers every lunchtime, who would then lock the doors for a full hour so we had to stay there. We only got to be inside if the weather approached the conditions of the previous point (blizzards, ice storms), and we had somehow still made it to school that day in spite of. I think the teachers must have drawn straws each day to decide who was going to police the outdoor playground—whoever was“on patrol” never looked terribly happy about it, and although snow fights were banned, they were pretty easy to engage in due to the general absence of adult supervision
  • The wind whistling through my clothes as though I wasn't wearing any
  • Snow drifts reguarly as high as cars, and the locals saying "Oh, eh, this is nothing eh, last year the army had to dig us out eh, when the snow drifts reached the top of the lamp-posts eh... Eh!"
  • Going ice-skating on“fields,” not just lakes, when in“Spring” the snow began to melt a little and then refreeze as ice. That was actually rather fun.
  • Not being able to stay indoors and watch good television, because you lived so far away from anywhere you only got the CBC. This was probably a good thing now that I think about it...
Which is why I suspect America’s long-suffering northern neighbours, probably in the grip of something 20 or 30 degrees colder than anything currently falling from the sky south of the border, aren't quite so sympathetic...

The selfish, selfless Yukio Mishima

I've been going through something of a Yukio Mishima phase again recently. I did once before, many years ago, until a cursory read of his biography saw me dismiss him as deeply flawed, and in his fascination with violence, perhaps more ugly than beautiful. But I am having second thoughts. I don't think I will ever condone his suicide—it bespeaks to me ultimately of selfishness, and short-sightedness, and for one so enamoured of the virtues of duty, strength, sacrifice and courage—the forgotten“bushido” code of the Samurai—even of weakness. He was a man who cared passionately for his country, and his pronouncement that she would gain little satisfaction through her headlong rush for material prosperity has been more than vindicated, yet it seems common sense to say that he would have been better placed to make his point living rather than dead. His word alone was newsworthy, and as one once connected to the wife of the Emperor and personal friend of the Prime Minister, he moved in circles that suggested a career in politics was there for the taking should he have wished. So his death can only be seen as a waste; his desire to live his life as a poem and die by the code of bushido ultimately a vain, selfish act that more served himself than the greater good. Still though, I find much to admire in his written and lived ideals, and it should be emphasised in Mishima's case that they were always lived—his death the ultimate example of that. He prided himself on turning ideas into action, a form of self-abnegation in which he sought to erase, in his view, the effeminate, ineffective intellectual of his youth, by becoming a man of strength and action. And I can’t help but secretly admire, half in horror half in awe, his final, mis-guided act, and the un-imaginable courage—or insanity —it must have taken to do such a thing. Almost completely un-heard of now, seppukku was near common-place in pre-modern Japan; Mishima’s however was the first recorded of the post-war era. In the short excerpt that follows, some will see simply an idealisation of self-destruction, and in the tale of a pre-war army officer, a glorifying of the militarism that so led Japan astray. But that would only be a shallow reading of the story, very much incomplete. Yes, Patriotism is a celebration of death, but not in a negative, destructive sense. Rather it celebrates the death of an army officer and his wife as the ultimate form of sacrifice—his death for belief and country; her death for him—the wife takes her husband’s beliefs as her own. Patriotism asks the question “what if?”—what if the sacrifice of 1936 Niniroku Jiken uprising, of which this real life army officer was a part, hadn't been in vain, if this last stand against the faction in favour of western style militarism and imperialism—forces incidentally which the “rightist” Mishima saw as negative, “un-Japanese” imports—had been successful. With the restoration of the spirit of bushido to the army, and its spirit of sacrifice and honour, of true service to the greater good, the destructive war with America might have been averted—a war which very near totally destroyed Japan outwardly, and, in Mishima’s view, in the occupation that followed, with its enforced constitution, robbed her inwardly of half her essence—the sword no longer beside the chrysanthemum. Mishima saw Japan as having lost her spiritual values, and in her excessive materialism, dying slowly from a “tediousness” and “insipidness” of the soul. Sadly, although largely proved correct, he left the earthly stage prematurely, and with surely much still to contribute. It is perhaps worth saying that his criticism of Japan is hardly unique to Japan; the whole world would do well to heed this warning near forty years old against materialism unchecked.

Memoirs of a Gaijin

kenchoji.jpgI've been enjoying reading several blogs from Japan recently, written by foreigners living there, or“gaijin” as they are known to the Japanese. I'm sure there are countless Japanese bloggers out there who write in English, and one day I'll hunt them down as well, but as one who was actually in Japan only six months ago I am for the moment enjoying the like-minded, non-Japanese perspective of these fellow gaijin. Like myself, each of these bloggers each went to Japan for their love of the country, and write about the lives they are leading there with a mixture of fascination and endearment, rather than empty curiosity or worse. I have also just added a few of my own stories about Japan here now that we are on the topic. Considering that I only spent a single week in Japan my stories may in truth be somewhat light in actual content, yet the very fact that I wrote thousands of words speaks something of the experience... Recommended blogs on Japan School Yanki Given the choice between a BMW convertible or a $15,000 shopping spree anywhere in the world, this graduating American high school student chose neither; instead requesting her parents allow her to spend her last semester in Japan:
“I think that took them off-guard. Mom really regrets dropping that mint julep glass. The set is worthless now that one of the glasses is broken.”
Pandora has only just started her blog, and is writing almost in real-time about her adventures in a Japanese school. This blog will only get better, especially now that the rumour is out that she is“Yanki” (a notorious type of anti-social punk). Firefly in Japan Firefly (not his real name) came to Japan from Australia five years ago with no Japanese, little money and no friends or contacts, to study martial arts for a month. After one week of living in Tokyo he decided to stay:
“I felt like Japan was testing me. Seeing if I had what it takes. One guy at martial arts often talked about the“martial arts god”, who looks after people who come to Japan with the serious intent to learn martial arts.“If you just commit yourself to martial arts, things will happen,” he told me, as we sat on a train speeding through the Japanese countryside.”
Firefly’s blog has proved to be enormously popular in a short space of time. An only cursory sampling of his writing might leave you with the impression that he is a typically“ignorant” gaijin, but you would be mistaken—enthusiastically and sincerely written, his posts are filled with valuable insights into Japanese life and culture, and his roadside encounter with a yakuza is one of many classics. ChadTheEvilXpat At the time of writing the evil Chad‘s blog has vanished, perhaps under the strain of the traffic that comes making the front-page of Reddit, but hopefully he will soon return, as his "Helpful advice of how to mess with Japanese people” was a blogging classic:
“When you're about to cross a 1-lane road with no other cars for 500 meters in either direction and there is still a mob of people waiting for the crossing light, proceed across without breaking stride. Bonus points if there are mothers holding their children back for whom you can provide a bad example, and further bonus points if anyone follows you who was previously standing there.”
Chad probably is a typical gaijin, yet his candour and irreverence are refreshing. Terry Dobson’s story Not a blog, but a great story about a 70 year old using Aikido to“disarm” an aggressive drunk on a Tokyo train. Hint: Aikido translates as“the way of harmonious spirit.”
"C’mere," the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. "C’mere and talk with me." He waved his hand lightly. The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels, "Why the hell should I talk to you?" The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

Paul Scholes sees red Ah, the beautiful game. Am I getting old, or is it not quite so beautiful any more? Manchester United mid-fielder Paul Scholes was given his marching orders today, sent off in the 85th minute for aiming a punch at Liverpool‘s Xabi Alonso. To add heart-break to insult and near assault, United scored the match winner several minutes later, and in somewhat fortunate circumstances. Gerard’s men have every reason to feel robbed, and yet while it may feel like no consolation to the sting of defeat, should feel proud for having played their red hearts out. I remember being in similar card-worthy circumstances once: running for a ball in a high-school football match, I was pulled from behind by an opposition defender, in much the same manner that the combustible Scholes was held by Alonso. Not normally prone to sudden inflammation, I nevertheless have a track record of reacting poorly to foul-play, and while the referee wasn’t looking, swept out the legs from underneath my opponent, sending us both tumbling to the ground. I didn’t actually see what happened next, but it was a topic of conversation for several weeks. While still on the ground, my shirt-pulling antagonist shaped to deliver a punch. Before he could do so, a team-mate, perhaps more interested in inflicting grievous bodily harm than my particular welfare, came running to deliver (as called in another code) a“king-hit,” sending my would-be assailant flying and starting a near all-in brawl. I guess I am grateful to have had my honour (and facial structure) defended, but in all honesty it was incidents like these that saw me stop playing the not always beautiful game, despite making it all the way to national age-group tournaments. I remember actually getting punched from behind around the same time by an irate goal-keeper. About 10 kilos heavier and fully in control, I turned and simply laughed—he had run 50 metres to deliver his ineffectual“hay-maker,” and quite honestly looked rather stupid. Although relatively minor in the scheme of things, it seemed like only a matter of time before something actually serious would happen—an injury or stupid encounter to really regret. Such incidents took all the joy out of a once enjoyable sport for me. I do enjoy competition and skill, and will commend them in others—even if my opponents—but out-right animal aggression has a place in neither, and I am happy to be called old-fashioned or out of touch for saying so.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Speech

Kurt VonnegutFor those old enough to bemoan the youth of today, but not quite old enough to be their elders, a recent speech by American author and living cultural legend Kurt Vonnegut may be enough to inspire hope; far from being satiated consumers of dis-interest and the apathetic, Ohio State University students in their thousands queued to attend—about 2000 were successful, at least that many more were turned away. It would be his last speech for money, the greatest living American novelist explained, but it was soon clear that his passion and concern for the world were far from at an end:
“I’m trying to write a novel about the end of the world. But the world is really ending! It’s becoming more and more uninhabitable because of our addiction to oil...people are in revolt again life itself. “While the economy has been making money” he continued,“all the money that should have gone into research and development has gone into executive compensation. If people insist on living as if there’s no tomorrow, there really won’t be one.”
Vonnegut switched from the politcal to the personal without breaking stride:
“As the world is ending, I’m always glad to be entertained for a few moments. The best way to do that is with music. You should practice once a night.
With his audience rapt, Vonnegut broke into song, performing a tender rendition of“Stardust Memories.” Now they were reverential.
“To hell with the advances in computers,” he said after singing.“YOU are supposed to advance and become, not the computers. Find out what’s inside you. And don’t kill anybody.”
Now argument there from this web-developer come meditator. Back to the political again:
“There are no factories any more. Where are the jobs supposed to come from? There’s nothing for people to do anymore. We need to ask the Seminoles: ‘what the hell did you do?’ after the tribe’s traditional livelihood was taken away.”
Answering questions written in by students, he explained the meaning of life:

“We should be kind to each other. Be civil. And appreciate the good moments by saying ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’

“You’re awful cute” he said to someone in the front row. He grinned and looked around.“If this isn’t nice, what is?

A soliloquy about the joys of going to the store to buy an envelope:
“One talks to the people there, comments on the ‘silly-looking dog,’ finds all sorts of adventures along the way.”
Any suggestions for great writing?
“Never use semi-colons. What are they good for? What are you supposed to do with them? You’re reading along, and then suddenly, there it is. What does it mean? All semi-colons do is suggest you’ve been to college.”
“Make sure that your reader is having a good time. Get to the who, when, where, what right away, so the reader knows what is going on.”
Back to life, and isn't a writer just a more observant reporter of life than most?
“Live one day at a time. Say ‘if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!’ “You meet saints every where. They can be anywhere. They are people behaving decently in an indecent society.”
And to conclude:
“The greatest peace comes from the knowledge that I have enough. Joe Heller [Catch 22] told me that. “I began writing because I found myself possessed. I looked at what I wrote and I said ‘How the hell did I do that?’ “We may all be possessed. I hope so.”
I hope so too. But please don't tell Kurt I've been using semi-colons...


susan_cooper.jpgSadly, I'm in the midst of writing a non-blog piece at the moment—sadly because it makes me foresworn from lavishing even half-devoted attention to this barely born web diary until finished. All the same, and please don't tell my editor, in the course of researching work-in-progress I came across the following gem to share, an interview with English children's author Susan Cooper, best known for her profoundly powerful, mythic The Dark is Rising series (soon to be a film):
Question: Because you write about extraordinary events, do strange things ever happen to you? Susan Cooper: Yes, sometimes they do. When I began to write 'Silver on the Tree', I found it very hard and I remember going to stay the weekend with my American publisher, I told her I was having trouble and she said, "Let's talk about it in the morning, let's go for a walk now." We went for a walk in the meadow behind her house and three things happened: We saw two swans swimming in the river, an enormous bumble-bee came flying past my nose (very late in the afternoon for a bumble-bee to be about) and then my publisher told me a tale of a strange black mink, which she'd seen in the meadow last summer and I suddenly realised that in my first chapter I had two swans, a bumble-bee and a black mink! Now that is pure coincidence, but it's the sort of thing that gives you tingles and it certainly encouraged me to go on with the book.
The cross-over between fact and fiction, dream and reality, sanity and not is one of my favourite subjects—more abiding interest really—and not just because I spend time in consciousness-altering meditation every day. I was fascinated by the idea of the unreal being real from an earliest age; there was something just beyond comprehension, always gnawing away, whispering that the magical might exist in this world, just out of my reach. Which reminds me of an essay written by Indian spiritual master Sri Aurobindo, and now I really am getting diverted, called“The Intermediate Zone,” on the realm of consciousness just beyond the waking state, where dreams and half-truths take shape, informed by regions ever higher and more perfect... But no I must stop or else there will be no turning back, or finishing of what is almost finished, head turned, attention diverted by the charms of sudden temptation, and the glowing inspiration of the just started. Is this the definition of procrastination? Or just distraction.