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Merry Christmas!

My hard-won immunity to the religious (and commercial aspects (and musical (if you call secular Christmas jingles like "Rudolf"* music))) of Christmas is almost complete; my gifts to myself will be uploading some software and cleaning my kitchen, because order is easier, and more pleasant, to work in than chaos; right now, the only part of my home that isn't chaotic is my many-roomed online mansion. But time has pressed.

[Whoops, before I forget, ever since Izvestia broke James Risen's warrantless surveillance story on December 21, 2005, I've been careful to check the Times over Christmas for their annual version of the 5:00 Horror, so let me go do that now... Nope. Nada. Not at Pravda, either. It's not that there are no stories to break (for example), so perhaps it's that there are no more stories that are breakable...]

However, it's a crinklingly chilly, silver-twigged, clear blue day today, and all the snow is still clean, so I'd would like to comment on the season, because for years I've missed the obvious thing. And then perhaps a bit on Christmas morning.

Zone 5b is to the north, and, micro-climates being equal, the earth's tilted axis means that we've always had a "real winter" (and a real summer, too, though an all-to-short one). This winter, and last winter too -- no doubt to the chagrin of the oil speculators at Golden Sacks, since Maine has more homes heated by oil than any other state -- all the real winter has been "down south": Portland, and below. Heck, Atlanta and DC (bless their hearts). Up here, it's been pretty warm; the earth was workable until two or three weeks ago. It's almost like there's some.... force... in the Gulf of Maine that's pushing all the cold weather South... Like a great mass of water that's a bit warmer than usual.... Or random fluctuation. Weather, not climate. Who knows?

Snow outlines the clarity of my garden paths and beds, and doesn't obscure them; but there's not enough to cover the ground, not nearly enough; when I was a kid, snow up to the windowsills of the kitchen was the norm. Not drifts. Before shoveling. Now I look out, and I see the dark leaves I didn't manage to rake poking up through the cover, already trying to rot. When I walked over the bridge by the dam last night, the water was dark with wood fiber and fluid, but the melt was w-a-a-a-y down from two days ago, when great slabs of ice crackled down from the north, not sticking, not trying to pack themselves three miles deep, but rushing and jostling downstream, out to the North Atlantic. Now, nothing. Gone.

I've always identified winter with the coming of snow. Winter begins in November, with the first storm and snow cover, or earlier, with the first hard frost, or earlier, when the shortening day and the first falling flakes begin to oppress. Winter, then, takes the shape of depression; a descent into a dark valley, looking back to the light and color of Fall, hitting bottom, then cramponing one's way up the sixty days of February to arrive at March, when one wishes one to plant, but cannot. For another friggin month and a half of filthy snow and other lingering symptoms and damage. If all goes well, no systems fail. However, without snow, I've been able to discover something:

Winter's not about snow. Obviously. Winter's about light; and more light. Winter begins on the Solstice, when the first day is longer than the day before, which is marked for us, culturally, by Christmas. Every day after winter begins, our planet tilts into more light. Winter's advent signals not a slump, but expansion! (For those vulnerable to Seasonal Affective Depression, as I all-too-obviously am, that's important to remember.**)

Sunny optimism? Well, I'm a WASP, and raised a New Englander, so perhaps "optimism" is a little bit strong. Still, the experience of imagining that I'm entering a process that is rising, inexorably, is new to me. I'm looking forward to a good winter!

(Actually, there are three more reasons why I feel better about this winter than winters past. The first two have to do with horrible February: February is the time for winter sowing, so already there's something to look forward to, and not very far away, either. Also, I had thought that I might be able to escape to an undisclosed location in February.*** Now, it looks like that won't be possible, but for awhile, February was replaced in my mind with more pleasant plans and imagined environs, and happy thoughts for the future do seem to feed back into the present, a la George Soros's concept of "reflexivity." Finally, during the descent to the solstice, my body decided that I was going to work until three or four in the morning, and I got a tremendous amount done, some of which you will shortly become aware of (and in a good way, I hope).)

Funny, the second set of contrails heading west in an hour; transatlantic flights diverted from storms down south?

* * *

On another note, I've been consumed with work, and not only for Corrente, and so I have not said "Thank you!" to the wonderful people who sent me books and gifts from my Amazon wish list. Thank you. These gifts are especially touching to me because we are people who know each other only online, through our writing, and as all we know, identity is far less easy to make genuine online than it is in RL. So for me, Christmas came early. (And my apologies to the two people who Amazon's friggin system allowed to send me the same book, Domain Specific Languages. It's a wonderful book, but I don't need two. Will you both mail me at, so we can figure out what to do? The Amazon packaging doesn't help me understand who sent what.) And a thank you, also, to the people whose contributions help keep the hamsters turning the servers (and me fueling the house).

And now, I'm outta here. Perhaps for today and the next. The gift of time that is one's own...

NOTE * Subtext, from the red nose, is that Rudolf is an alchoholic who should nevertheless be allowed to drive. Bet you'll never hear that one again the same way in the Mall...

NOTE ** Though the idiotic withdrawal of light that comes with the end of Daylight Savings Time momentarily defeats this process, rather like what the Republicans did in 1937. And here's a useful link on SAD. I've found a lamp with a sunlight spectrum quite useful.

NOTE *** My mother always did this. She described the locals as "creeping about, as if under a great weight" and she wasn't wrong. So she took flight.

No votes yet


Submitted by lambert on

Always good to see you. "Yule" is better, but I do prefer "Merry Christmas" to the totally bland "Happy Holidays"....

Submitted by hipparchia on

light! yule!

summer?! you people do not have summer up there in maine. although, on 2nd thought, i suppose it's always possible that things have changed n the 20 years since i've been there.


Winter's advent signals not a slump, but an expansion!

i like that. i'm going to have to remember it.

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

I thought I knew all the Hong Kong Chinese holidays, but just the other day I discovered one that somehow I'd missed: Dung Jit--literally, winter holiday. It's the Chinese solstice celebration, and you're supposed to pass this night having a special dinner with the family.

The solstice dinner is so important an occasion that there's even a saying:冬大過年 Dung Daai Gwo Nin. Which means: It's more important to be together with your family for the Winter fest than it is to be with them at Chinese New Year.

(I love how Chinese can compact such ideas into a mere four characters! But that's another story).

Anyway, I shared the darkest night of the year--which happened to be a brilliantly full-moonlit Hong Kong night--having dinner with a "family" of political activists. Two had been political prisoners, one spent 11 years in a mainland Chinese prison. We had a jolly night, ate Thai food and sang old songs from the Sixties (my ex-prisoner friend astonished me by singing every single word to "See You In September.")

Being around such people makes the light breaking through the darkness seem even more hopeful.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

Awesome. I'll keep that in mind for next year! Sounds like you had a great time.

See you in September? We can all sing along with that.

(C'mon, lambert, how about letting us use Chinese characters for the New Year!)

Submitted by lambert on

When the database was set up, in like 2006, UTF wasn't even an option. I'd have to do a (to my mind, risky) data conversion today to make that possible. Some day, maybe when I move to Drupal 7 and have to take the site down anyhow....

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

since it's really not a priority and it's not easy (certainly harder to do than I thought).

I'm glad it's just acknowledged.

(And it feels like something a site like Corrente should do, both as a statement about valuing different cultures and languages, and as a necessary component of staying close to the original source [here, the actual Chinese characters, rather than some Romanized transliteration]. Blah blah. Just my 2¢.)

Submitted by lambert on

... just that's it's risky. As of now, we've got 24515 nodes. That's tiny by corporate or government standards, but considered as a book, say, it's a book with 24,000 pages, many of them lovingly worked over by users, and that's before we get to the comment threads. So, "Oh, what are those funny characters in my post from 2008?" is a question I definitely wish to avoid...

So, when the change is made, I want to be able to back out of it if something goes wrong, might need to tinker with stuff, and that's all done in the context of an upgrade, when the site is expected to have intermittent access (and the hits are lost anyhow).

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

I just used Adam Sheik's brilliant CantoDict to stick the Chinese characters into the text (see comment above).

The only problem is that the definition doesn't match--this particular 4 character phrase isn't in CantoDict's translation engine, so the program is linking two wrong characters and coming up with a mis-translation of the phrase.

But at least I figured out how to get Chinese characters in, plus added linky goodness to the dictionary (when it works).

Submitted by lambert on

[I think I asked you this before, and the answer was No. But I'll ask again!]

Is there an equivalent for Thai?

(Yes, the text should be able to appear directly, but what I like is being able to go to a foreign language site and grab data -- could be anything besides characters, like a definition, a usage example, a lesson....)

Also, tip the guy.

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

But I doubt there's a site for Thai that's the equivalent of Adam Sheik's in Cantonese, simply because Adam is a one of a kind phenomenon--a great programmer who's a passionate learner of Cantonese (he's British, of subcontinental origin, and grew up in Hong Kong I think), and who's devoted thousands and thousands of hours to his linguistic labor of love.

Also, what makes his site great is that he's able to tap the combined power of hundreds of user/collaborators, both students and native speakers. Cantonese is a constantly shifting, slang-filled language, and you must have help to keep up with it!

And yes, I do more than tip him--I've been a premium subscriber for four or five years.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

I think Adam Sheik is amazing, for putting together that Cantodict site (an amazingly valuable, rich site) and which is largely available at no cost—but, really, one should subscribe!

I doubt he grew up in Hong Kong, MsExPat. He says, on the "About this Site" page:

I started learning Cantonese and the written Chinese language at a very friendly class run by the St. Neots Chinese Society (it has now closed unfortunately). This class was taught by unpaid volunteers and they did an excellent job. Thanks in particular go to [names omitted] and the many other teachers who showed great patience with us beginners!

That doesn't sound like someone who grew up in Hong Kong, to me, anyway. [St. Neots is the market town where Adam Sheik and a lot of his family live.]

Submitted by lambert on

I was just hoping one or two readers might kick in; I read the guy's funding page, and I feel for him.

This is a fantastic resource!

Oh, and does have an API, just not a documented one.

It would be an interesting challenge to gather, say, half a dozen of these sites together, with random words from all of them, say. Would help us become more educated, and might help them with a smidge of funding.

Do you know if the Cantonese site has an API? Do you know of other sites?

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

真係好嘢! That's amazing that you figured that out! Thanks, MsExPat!

And I'm definitely donating to Cantodict, which is a fantastic site. (I've known about it for years, and yeah, I've donated before.)

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

Apparently, that holiday is one of 24 seasonal periods that mark the Chinese calendar. They're not, strictly speaking, "holidays" but a few of them might be celebrated as holidays. For example, the Qingming [clear bright] Festival coincides with the solar term of the same name. And 冬節 [Dung Jit - Winter Holiday/Festival] is celebrated in Hong Kong, as MsExPat says. (My friend Derek in Enshi over in Hubei province helped me figure this all out.)

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

for getting the terms from one of the mainlanders. Thanks for the fix. I'll try not to transgress again.

Submitted by gob on

I've long looked forward to the winter solstice as the time when the darkness would stop creeping further and further into the day. I too have traditionally suffered from SAD, descending some time late in September and lifting in March. But something strange happened this year: no SAD! And I don't know why. But for fellow sufferers, here are the notable things that are different, that might have done the trick:

I got tired of being a bit heavier than I wanted to be, and cut some wine, most pastries, and most chocolate out of my diet. I also just ate less of all the usual things that I eat. Always have dessert, but usually it's fruit. About 15 pounds went away, and so did my sugar cravings.

I've been medicated for hypothyroidism for a few years, but this year my doctor increased my medication. My energy level is definitely up.

Maybe I'm just older. Well, for sure I'm older. You know what i mean.

Waes hael!

Submitted by lambert on

I lost twenty pounds, easy, with a diet change. Another 10 would be hard, though. Congratulations! It's hard to stay that way, because of "comfort food" and the season. (Also, one way to self-medicate SAD is with starch; check the SciAm link above).

Submitted by JuliaWilliams on

Your gift with words just shined on this one, lambert ( I laughed at, empathized with, and loved, "the 60 days of February"). (And just as an anecdotal experience-with great success personally and with others, may I recommend Melatonin, a natural supplement that may help with SAD, in addition to off-shift workers)

Submitted by lambert on

"Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out." So I let myself go, a little, on this one. But thanks. One must labor to be beautiful.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

the palace of wisdom."—William Blake

(I'm not really sure what it means but I doubt it's as hedonistic as it sounds.)


"I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it. " — Rita Mae Brown

And, one you'll like, lambert:

"Pleasure for one hour, a bottle of wine, pleasure for one year a marriage but pleasure for a lifetime, a garden." — Chinese proverb*

*Really, who knows if it is or not?

Submitted by Lex on

I hear that it's no fun, and i've had some inkling of it after living at 60' N. Sunlight is important and life isn't as much fun without it.

Of course, i live in a pretty harsh climate now...though not as harsh as 15 miles in any direction, there are perks to living on the Superior Riviera, eh? Most people around here deal with some fairly massive cabin fever/SAD. The ones who manage to avoid it do so by being nearly as active in the winter as they are in the summer. I manage to avoid it by dragging my ass outside every morning and working out there all day long. (No spot at my workplace will be consistently heated until the middle of February.) Depending on the year's weather, my face and neck stay tan year round. I credit my work for a great deal of my sanity...what little i have, anyway. Of course, it doesn't hurt that come the middle of February i have access to springtime.

Slide open a greenhouse door on a sunny day and while it may be 0 outside, it's 80 inside, smells like wet soil and the flowers are blooming...and since the house is obviously closed it's also an oxygen bath.

I'm with lambert. Merry Christmas or nothin...i cringe at the sound of Happy Holidays, and i am not now nor have i ever been Christian. I do, however, celebrate the return of the sun. Hallelujah and amen.

Submitted by wlarip on

Light makes a huge difference to affect, made clear to me by 10 days without power.
Work was canceled and it seemed a good opportunity to practice the piano. But stores also need power and the ones that are open only take cash.

The three hottest items were batteries, candles and water in that order. They didn't last long.

Playing the piano in the dark is over-romanticized. Each day, the dread of nightfall migrated further into the day. By day 9, I was so depressed I couldn't even get out of bed.

Good thing the power came back on.

Gives you a whole new view of how solitary confinement(or nuclear war) can effect(and affect) you.

** NOTE **

Edited for verbosity and pomposity.
It's easy to fall in love with your piano.