September 2009

Overall, I consider myself to be fairly tech-savvy. I program in multiple languages for my research (right now: python and MATLAB, though I have used C++), I use both windows and linux systems (though I’m still not entirely comfortable in linux I’m getting there), and when I have computer problems both software and hardware I can usually diagnose and fix the problem.

However, when it comes to new trends on the internet, sometimes I can be quite a Luddite. I still have yet to register on facebook/myspace (I can’t remember which one is considered ‘cool’ and which is considered ‘stalker’s playground’), and I have no desire whatsoever to ‘tweet’. I blog is only intermittently updated, and its traffic is somewhere near the bottom of the internet. I’m fine with that, since notoriety on the internet is definitely a two-edged sword.

A couple of days ago though, I finally decided to start using RSS feeds for checking websites. My morning internet routine has grown to include several dozen websites, and many of them only update every few days. There are other sites that update less than once a week, and I always forget to check them by the time the next week comes around. (The ones that update many times a day, like Fark, Reddit, and Digg I had to quit cold turkey. They were just sucking up too much time).

So I broke down and registered on google for their google reader service, and started registering for RSS feeds. It’s amazingly simple and it works very well. I just wish I had tried it earlier. Another thing that I found it is great for is keeping track of the latest research. Not only do many research journals have RSS feeds, but some of the larger databases for scholarly research will let you do an RSS feed on search results, so that if a paper that matches your search criteria is published in any of the journals in their database, they will send a link to you. I think it’s a great idea and I hope I can get a lot out of it.

One of the things that I enjoy about going back to Japan for a few weeks each summer is that it allows me go to to the bookstore and purchase some new reading material in Japanese. Now my Japanese is decent but not great (I would guess if I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test that I could pass the level 3 easily without studying, but I would need to do a bit of studying to pass the level 2), so I can’t just pick up any book and start reading it. For me reading “real” Japanese is still a fairly laborious affair with a dictionary, and it goes pretty slow.

That’s why I like the light novels. They are very similar to young adult fiction here in the U.S. in that they are (more so in the U.S.) generally marketed towards a younger audience, the books are shorter, and the language is simpler than what you would find in a real ‘literature’ novel or a newspaper article or such. Another nice feature is that many of the more difficult words it does contain also have furigana, which gives the phonetic pronunciation of words using kanji, making it easier to read, or at least much quicker to look it up in a dictionary.

What got me started reading them was when Ryoko started buying and reading the novels for Full Metal Panic!, because she loved the anime so much. I started reading them myself and found that although I read them much slower (It can take me several days or weeks to finish what she can do in 4~5 hours) I was able to pretty much fully comprehend everything with frequent help from a dictionary.

So when we went back to Japan, I decided I would try some other series. The problem is though, there is almost too much to choose from. The light novel section in any bookstore is quite large, and is generally surpassed only by the manga section. (Helpful tip: while most bookstores have taken to shrink-wrapping the manga to keep loiterers from spending hours just reading manga in the bookstore, they don’t do that with the light novels. Yet.) Without knowing what to look for, I just kind of chose some at random. (Although I was able to avoid the ones that are more risque, they’re easy to spot by their cover art.)

The three I picked (this was last year) were all the first book from 3 different series. The first was a vampire story called Black Blood Brothers, the second was a high fantasy series called ダークエルフの口付け (Kiss of the Dark Elf), and the third was called とある魔術の禁書目録(インデックス) (A Certain Magical Index).

Those of you in the know on anime will recognize the first and the third since they have subsequently been produced as anime series, but probably not the second since it doesn’t exist in any other form.

This may actually be unfortunate for Black Blood Brothers, because the consensus I’ve heard about the anime (I haven’t seen the anime myself, only the novels) is that it was done cheaply by a low-quality studio and hence pretty much sucked. I think that’s too bad because from what I’ve read so far (the 1st 2 volumes, and there are many more to go) it has a lot of potential. The author sets up a really interesting premise (read the blurb in the wikipedia page linked above) and goes with it. I think this author’s strong point it the action scenes: they were really exciting and fun to read, and I kept on cursing my slow eyeballs, wishing I could read the Japanese faster.

As for Index, the premise is a little strange. The protagonist is your typical “Ordinary High School Student“, but lives in a world where psychic powers and actual magic seem to exist simultaneously. I’ve heard the anime based off of this series was done pretty well, so I’m looking forward to watching it after I’ve read it.

The Dark Elf series has two protagonists: The title character is a dark elf named Bela (they always use the word ‘dark elf’, it seems that the word ‘drow’ has never made it over into Japanese fantasy vocabulary), and Amadeo, your typical young, eager, and inexperienced human male adventurer. I should mention that this story takes pace in the Sword World official campaign world, similar to how here in the US we have fantasy books that take place in the Forgotten Realms or Dragon Lance world. The author spins a very complicated web of intrigue and conspiracy that involves the two characters. In fact it gets so complex that by the second novel in the series, the author provides a diagram so that you can keep track of the characters and their relations with each other. (Oh how I wish the Wheel of Time had such a study aid. A google search for [“wheel of time” “too many characters”] gives 387,000 hits.)

So these books aren’t exactly Nobel Prize quality literature, but they are good for my level of Japanese. I can read them just fast enough that I’m able to stay interested in the story.