劍無真假

筆者自小愛劍,中國劍、西洋劍、日本劍都喜歡。可惜我缺乏運動細胞,學劍往往只是空想,沒有付諸實行。大學時曾經淺嘗劍擊,結果是被劍擊的多。真是古有葉公好龍,今有陳某喜劍。不過學劍不成,還可以去賞劍。久而久之,也想買一把「真劍」放在家收藏。然而,何謂「真劍」其實並不容易界定。 

280220091022人們對真劍的定義普遍離不開銳利(已開鋒)和能夠用於實戰(有殺傷力)。但實情並非這麼簡單。

左圖是我在德國買的一把裝飾劍。嚴格來說,此劍不適合實戰。首先它是以不鏽鋼鑄成,不鏽鋼雖能防鏽,但裏面的鉻成份卻會削弱份子結構,令劍刃太過脆弱。故不鏽鋼用來做廚刀還可,卻不宜制作長劍。其次是劍刃過厚,以致劍身重量不平衡,用起上來十分不便。還有劍刃與劍柄的承接不穩,受不了力,舞劍隨時變成「放飛劍」,誤傷旁人。當然,這把劍是未開鋒的。

那麼,這把算不算「真劍」呢?對,它不銳利,但只是未開鋒而已。有殺傷力嗎?此劍雖非削鐵如泥,但既然牛扒刀也可傷人,這條兩磅重的尖鋼更不用說。能否實戰?它雖然不是為實戰而設,但若在劍術名家手上,難保不能發揮強大威力。

劍其實沒有絕對的真假,只有不同的功用,很多時人們心目中的真劍其實是「實戰劍」,我買的這把是「裝飾劍」,而日本的居合刀則是一種「練習劍」。這樣一想,買「真劍」(其實是實戰劍)的念頭也打消了,一來這類劍保養困難,放在門外漢手上只會糟蹋鑄劍司傅的一番心血。二來我不是要來打鬥,要實戰劍何用?

Wishful thinking

Rather than a pill that makes you forget, I wish we had one that helps us understand.

The more I deal with language, the more I realize how clumsy and ineffective it is as a tool of communication. How often do we find ourselves wanting to say one thing but end up meaning another? It is sad that communication fallacies create problems in families, workplaces and countries every day, and we, who proud ourselves over animals for our ability to use language, are pathetically helpless against them.

Language can express facts at best, even though we sometimes struggle with that too. Beyond that, its usefulness diminishes. Words cannot communicate feelings, but only describe them, barely.  “I know how you feel” should be one of the top 10 lies of all time. How can one truly understand the feelings of another just by being told about them, without having experienced the same feelings him/herself?

Now what if there’s a pill, or any technology, that instantly transfers one person’s feelings to another? 

No more complaints of “You don’t understand how I feel!” “Do you have any idea how much you’ve hurt me? Take this pill!” Wishful thinking, I know, but it’s fun to imagine that. And I suppose marriage counselors will be out of business.

Unleashing my imagination, I begin to suspect the development of the ability to use language might actually have been a step backward in evolution. I wonder if our ancestors had less exhausting means of communicating. Animals do. Dogs can get a great deal of information about each other by sniffing butt. Ants operate a highly complex and hierarchial society without language. You may say animals can only communicate very simple messages, but not being animals we’re really not in a position to make that conclusion.

You may be tempted to call me a daydreamer but before you do that, try to remember the last time you felt painful and not understood because communication failed.

Spotless mind… a good thing?

Another film fantasy is close to becoming a reality. Dutch researchers have invented a drug that is said to “erase” bad memories, much like the mind-wiping technology in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

From the Daily Telegraph:

Previous research on animals had shown fear memories are susceptible to being altered at the time they are recalled, as they are “reconsolidated” in the brain.

Studies suggested beta-blockers, a family of drugs normally used to treat high blood pressure, may interfere with the reconsolidation process.

Now a trial involving human volunteers has given strong support to the theory.

A team of Dutch researchers artificially created a fearful memory by associating pictures of spiders with a mild electric shock delivered to the wrists of the 60 participants.

When the volunteers were shown the spider pictures 24 hours later their “startle” response – a measure of fear – was assessed by testing eyeblink reactions.

Administering the beta-blocker drug propranolol before reactivation of the fearful memory led to a marked reduction in the startle response.

After taking the drug, volunteers were much less disturbed by the spider pictures.

My understanding is that the drug doesn’t remove memory but simply makes recalling it a less painful experience. In the experiment the volunteers still remembered the spider picture after taking the drug, but their reaction to it was much subdued. It appears that the drug functions like something we already have – the depressant.

But if a mind-wiping technology really exists, would you want to use it?

Bad memories are not just there to haunt us; they remind us to avoid doing the things that caused the bad memories in the first place (Once bitten, twice shy). They help us learn our lessons so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. For example, the terrible feeling of embarassment you get from being ridiculed for saying something stupid is burned into your mind, and next time you’d have learned to talk more carefully or at least keep your mouth shut. Bad memories, and the strong desire to avoid them, drive us to learn, socialize and mature.

Also I doubt whether it is really possible to isolate bad memories, which I think are inseparable from the good ones. To illustrate this, let’s continue with the above example. Having become more socially-adept will certainly give you good feelings, as you are no longer haunted by past failure. But would you still feel good, or as good, if previous bad feelings were taken away? I think in some way this is like the classic grandfather paradox: if you went back in time to kill your grandfather, would you still exist (as you would never have been born in the first place)? In any case bad memories do not exist independently of others and I can imagine that removing them could have repercussions on our personality, values or even sense of identity.

A better use of such mind-wiping technology I can think of is to help patients of post-traumatic stress disorder who have difficulty in certain aspects of normal life. For instance, rape victims may develop a fear of the opposite sex which may interfere with their married life.

And as with all new technologies, there will inevitably be debates about how to draw the fine line between proper use and abuse, and moral issues too. This new drug and any future memory-wiping technology will be no exception.

What do you think? Ridicule me and help me learn by sending me your views.

半醉半醒之間

這杯是榆景灣ZAKS餐廳的愛爾蘭咖啡,用咖啡跟威士忌調製而成。

ZAKS有近十款咖啡與酒混合的飲品,有君度、冧酒、grand marnier等,父親則點了白蘭地咖啡。

總覺得這種coffee liquor很奇妙。美酒叫人熏醉,咖啡令人清醒,性質雖「殊途」,但卻在酒杯中「同歸」,相輔相成。喝一口,在嘴裏把玩一下,一會兒醉時一會兒醒,甚至不知是醉是醒,有一種說不出的舒服。

醉醒難分,人生何嘗不是如此?這一刻你自以為頭腦清晰,將來回首卻往往發現是當局者迷,未能看清大局。反而,今日糊里糊塗作的決定,他日看來也許反而是最明智之舉。是醉是醒,非一時三刻可分。

看,小弟不勝酒力,已經醉得亂說話了,要快嚼一口上面的咖啡豆,清醒一下。

Year of the bull without balls?

I must admit it’s a shame that, as a translator, I often take existing translations for granted and seldom question whether they are really good translations.

This year, in the Chinese zodiac, is the niu nian (牛年), commonly translated as “Year of the Ox”, but I never realized “ox” means “a castrated bull” until I read somewhere else. That led me to think how niu nian should be translated.

Traditional image of niu in the Chinese zodiac sign is a hard-working, calm, dependable, modest, quiet and patient animal. These were (and hopefully still are) highly valued traits in China. A niu is expected to be capable of enduring great hardship without complaint. Meanwhile, an ox is a “castrated bull”. Castration is supposed to make the bull less aggressive and more trainable for heavy duties. In this respect, “ox” seems a fitting translation as it shares the characteristics of the traditional Chinese niu.

But let’s not forget that the Chinese New Year is all about being auspicious. A castrated animal certainly doesn’t fit in the festive mood. Nowadays niu has taken on a new range of connotations in China. It has come to be associated with the bull market, or more broadly a strong drive for great wealth, success and achievements. This kind of niu more closely resembles the masculine, ambitious and raging “bull”, as in “bull-fighting”, “bullishness” and “a bull in a China shop”. Modern Chinese people would probably find “bull” a more appealing translation in the context of the CNY.

I guess in the end it all boils down to what people hope life in the new year will be. What about you?