Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Queen Elizabeth



Ah, the Royal Yacht Britannia may have reached the end of her sailing days and the QE2 be nearing her dotage, but another legendary royal ship still sails! The "Queen Elizabeth", a Japanese love hotel, rises majestically beside the motorway leading from the Shonan coast to Yokohama. It made me swell with patriotic pride just to see her. Must go there one day for a monarchical bonk.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A scary thought ... for me anyway

Democrat party candidate - Ron Paul on an independent ticket = President Neo Con

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Union leakage



Earlier this week a Labour MP called for the Union flag to be redesigned to include the Welsh. Well, the Japanese internet chatroom 2Channel (a phenomenon in itself) has come to the aid of the cause. The music adds to it.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Real News Network

The Real News Network is an interesting project to create an international English-language television network which is funded by its viewers, instead of by advertising. I should add, from a British perspective, that it obviously also not licence fee funded.

I think this is important because it allows a much more sharp edged and analytical coverage of world news. I think we need more than the bland consensual broadcast news of the type that comes, in different ways, with advertising and the licence fee. The problems electorates are confronting will not be addressed by uncritical understandings of the world.

I think projects like this are likely to proliferate as the internet and TV merge. Of course, I will disagree with many of the services that will spring up and there is a risk of Balkanisation. But, anyway, it is nice that one of the first in this line is so gloriously radical and right up my street.

The trailer:



The reports:









Although, I have to say, on that last one, that the tenor of the report shares the same inability to interact in a respectful way with Muslim countries that seems to bedevil us. The assumption seems to be that we must make countries "secular" or face disaster. I think, by trying to make countries "secular", we are inviting disaster.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Scalded lawn

Mum and Dad didn't often ask me to do the lawn. Perhaps it was the terrible scalded bald patches my mower runs left all over their lush grass.

Anyway, I invested in some hair clippers this weekend. Due to retreating Barnet issues, I decided recently to revert to a more buzz cut look. I was quite pleased with what the barber produced but it occurred to me that there was no point in paying a pro to buzz cut when I could buzz away with my own set of cheap clippers.

Yesterday, I got buzzing. Can't say there are no scalded patches at all. The bit where I forgot to put the length cover on the razor and just buzzed straight into one of my more follicle free regions was particularly unfortunate. However, from some angles in some lights, you could hardly tell the difference!

No illustrations.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The academic job market

My wife is an academic and that has given my the dubious privilege of getting acquainted with the academic job market. It is absolutely appalling. Even my own field of journalism, with its spectacularly discriminatory hiring practices, is a paragon of fairness by comparison.

In the Japanese academic job market, things are very bad indeed. They like to hire well connected young things through gerontocratic patronage networks based around old school ties. Jobs are often not advertised and people will just appear in tenured positions without anybody even knowing the position was up for grabs. There is also a general practice of not hiring people to permanent jobs if they are over a certain age. Of course, this means those who are not in the patronage networks can never get a job and that women (who have babies, don't you know?) and people from non-privileged backgrounds who take round about routes through their educations are being excluded. Japanese academia is corrupted and cheapened by these practices.

But it isn't only Japan. I have written a couple of articles about racism and ageism in British academia. The ageism thing is particularly pernicious because it acts as a proxy for all sorts of other discrimination. It is still common to have research grants that limit their applicants to, say, being under 30, with was really only relevant to past age when everybody was a Bryll creamed young chap straight up from Oxford with spiffing references from old Toady. Of course, if you don't get research grants, you don't get up the ladder and never even reach the job interview stage.

None of this would matter if there weren't thousands of people trying to get by in the highly casualised and exploitative work environment of non-tenured academia. A majority of people don't get proper jobs until their late 30s. Many are still knocking on the door long past that age. They are often paid poorly, don't have pensions etc. and have no job security. It is almost impossible to do small things that people in other lines of work take for granted. For instance, buying a house.

Until today, however, I had no idea that academia, when it really tries, can get so much more discriminatory:

Hooray for the Mississippi State University for the "oddest job ad of the season".

(My wife, by the way, seems to be one of the lucky ones but is no more impressed by the situation than I am. A lot of academics hate it.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

True Iraq death toll

Suicide epidemic among US`s Iraq forces.

The origins of Hip Hop



From Danwei.

Those Democrats, they are all spend, spend, spend

An interesting graph: US public debt as per cent of GDP. And more. There a bit more to this than simple Presidential comparisons. To get a better picture, you would also have to look at the make up of Congress, but I believe you would probably find that the Dems would do far better there too, given their domination of Congress through all those years of declining debt and the predominantly Republican Congresses 1994-2006, just when that line starts rising.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Batty

An entire school carved out of a cave.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Looking up

I`d never heard of mammatus clouds before but they are very very weird.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Friday, November 02, 2007

Images



The circle is the border of a national park in New Zealand seen from space. And other great photos.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Eddie Izzard and Lego mashed up

British movies vs. US movies


The British Empire


Church of England: Cake or Death?


And unmashed (on bilingualism):

Friday, October 19, 2007

Well she is definitely going clockwise for me...

How about you?

PS. Is that a joke? I have looked at it hard and cannot get it to go any other way than clockwise.
PPS. But then I go back to it and she is definitely going anti-clockwise. I am fairly convinced this has got nothing to do with what it says in the article.

Anarchism by Noam Chomsky



Or you could have been doing something more useful instead, like playing a free rice game from lots of corporate types.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

It's international "Can't understand an effing word of it" day

Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal shows how those tedious late night discussion programmes should be done:



And a no reflection prank:

May the best brain hemisphere win!

Twinoo

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mapping

The History of Religion



History of the Middle East



And this time map of World War I is pretty neat too. As is this migration map.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bamburgh

Saturday, September 29, 2007

An interesting video

The Republican Mayor of San Diego Jerry Sanders making an announcement about a change of mind on gay marriage: video here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

An odd thing

Blogging this from my mobile phone. Sitting in the car in the mountains.A man just went past up the really steep road leading to Tanzawa Mountain with a full pack and a bumbag on a unicycle.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Some sites for mixed or expat families in Japan

A. and I are belatedly exploring ways of trying to get more linked into expat networks and wisdom about living over here. There is quite a flourishing scene:

Piqniq
Tokyo with Kids
Tokyo American Club

This one has an education section about international schooling:

Weekender

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Hillary Clinton

I try not to write too many naked opinions on here but I have got to write this since I can`t vote against her: to me, Hillary Clinton has the antiseptic smell of the geriatric ward about her.

Her politics are, in British terms, New Labour. Old hat. She is miles ahead in the polling but it is really a choice between Edwards and Obama if you don't want the next decade to be a stultifying and dangerous time warp. Obama is an insightful person with a big dollop of charisma that might be significant if he became President; Edwards is showing more grit and purpose.

Bill Clinton's shadow lies long across American politics. The last time America voted for a new President, they voted for the man who felt most like Clinton (curiously, because the politics were so different). It has been a disaster. If the Dems now offer up to the American people a candidate whose corporate centrism is a photocopy of a Clintonism relevant to the 1990s, they will have missed another huge opportunity for significant positive change. Hillary is stacked full of big business donations and she doesn't give straight or brave answers on big policy issues. She is relying to a significant extent on identity politics: a large female vote that she will not carry with her into the Presidential election because many women beyond the Democratic party will never vote for her.

As I press the send button on this post, I know that I'll want to delete it in the morning. But I've kept this blog up for two years now and surely I'm allowed to have a wine fueled rant once in a while?

(Actually published 02.11.07 but wanted it to move it from the main stream of the blog)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chore Wars



Ever had a row about who should do the next household chore? Well, now Chore Wars has come to the rescue. Get experience points and treasure for each mission completed.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Inside "the surge"

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Athens double barrelled cannon




I don`t know why but the idea of a decrepit "elite home guard" unit of businessmen and local luminaries called the "Mitchell Thunderbolts" coming up with a weapon so deadly that it could only perform "sturdy service for many years in celebrating political victories" appealed to me. Here is a bit more on its test firing:
"According to reports one ball left the muzzle before the other and the two balls pursued an erratic circular course plowing up an acre of ground, destroying a corn field and mowing down some saplings before the chain broke.

The balls then adopted separate courses, one killing a cow and the other demolishing the chimney on a log cabin. The observers scattered in fear of their lives ... The Watchman [newspaper] promptly reported the test an unqualified success.

The Cannon was then sent, at Gilleland's insistence, to the Augusta Arsenal for further tests. Colonel Rains, arsenal commandant, tested the gun and reported it a failure for the purpose intended. Colonel Rains had tested a similar weapon at Governor's Island in 1855 with the same results.

Gilleland, however, was still of the opinion that the gun was a perfect success and engaged in a heated correspondence with the Confederate Secretary of War. " (from ngeorgia.com)
Gilleland was a builder, mechanic and dentist. A scary crossbreed if ever there was one! I have a mental picture of the man: the sort you don`t want outside the tent pissing in, or indeed inside the tent pissing out, but preferably nowhere near the tent pissing in the wind.

The bleeding obvious



That`s why they call them "intelligence" I suppose.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bookmarks



I have 2,284 internet bookmarks. Imagine a book in which you had 2,284 bookmarks. Completely useless. Might as well pull them all out.

Because of my bookmark mountain, I am rather well informed about bookmarking software. I have long since abandoned the favourites in the pull down list from my browser (imagine 2,284 of those!) and have gone on a merry go round of more advanced web based bookmarking tools. I started on del.icio.us, moved to spurl, dabbled but decided not to get into bed with furl and ma.gnolia, moved to blinklist and eventually returned to del.icio.us.

All of these are social bookmarking services, but I am completely uninterested in being sociable when I am bookmarking. As you may appreciate, I have enough problems dealing with my own great bookmarking lake without piping in other people`s contributions. My interest in all these services is simply that they offer advanced filing and tagging tools that let me navigate the swamp.

And yet none of them are quite good enough. My mountain/lake/swamp keeps expanding and my ability to use all of that accumulated net knowledge keeps contracting. In fact, I hardly ever revisit any of the sites in my list except in a desperate effort to prune things back. One obvious solution occurs: completely dump the lot of them. In fact, completely dump the whole idea of bookmarking. Live in the present, man! And use that funny thing you have installed in your own brain. Memory, I think they call it.

Well, it might come to that, but it goes against the grain. I am one of those people who files the cockroaches he's smashed. It also seems a bit of a shame. I have come across so much interesting information on the net. Wouldn't it be great to really be able to store and access it again in the future.

So I got to thinking what is it that is missing from current bookmarking technologies. The human brain stores huge amounts of information somewhat less reliably than these bookmarking sites but there is something about human memory that means that this is not a futile habit: serendipity/loose connections/randomness. Although we do use card filing systems for certain limited types of information, we access our memory often by very odd trains of thought: I might be thinking about making a pina colada for my wife, jump to the thought that my dad dislikes pineapple and coconut, and remember that I want to talk to him some more about our family history. That makes all of the huge wodges of info in my head worth keeping.

Could this be done with my bookmark swamp?

Two ideas, one simple, one a bit more complex:

1. Every time I open my browser, a tab (not my homepage but a second opened page) randomly opens from my bookmarks. (There should be a little cross in the top right that I can click to remove it from my bookmarks if the page turns out not that interesting on a second look.)

2. Every page I visit in my day to day web browsing, could be cross referenced with the sites in my bookmarks. Basically, the social bookmarking site would pick up the tags most commonly ascribed by other users to the site I have just arrived at and cross reference them with any of my bookmarks with the same tags and then display in a very inconspicuous manner, out of the main browsing window or in a tiny transparent overlay in the top right of the window, one or two of these bookmark's headlines and links. This, for the first time for me, would find something useful to do with the social aspects of the social bookmarking sites I use.

The photo is by Anne Mari

Monday, July 02, 2007

Ridings School closure

It seems the Ridings school is likely to close. I have written about the wider issues surrounding the Ridings before on this blog and I broke the original story about the Ridings when I was a cub reporter.

I am going to make a radical suggestion. The pupils have been let down by gutless politicians (most notably, as I talked about in my previous post, at a national level). They are to be transferred to other schools. Which schools? Well, of course, this is a one off situation, outside the ambit of the destructive 11 plus system which dominates Halifax education. So why not send them all to two of the closest secondary schools: The Crossley Heath School and North Halifax Grammar School, which just happen to be the two selective schools in Halifax?

Just let me pessimistic and cynical for a second. I have a sneaking feeling that not a single boy or girl will end up in either of those schools even though all the other schools that will be doing their bit to accommodate the pupils will be breaking their entrance procedures to allow them in. Because, you see, the whole point of Grammar Schools is to keep the oiks out.
Update: The more I look at this, the more outrageous the conduct already seems to be. Is the gutless procedural amorality never going to end? Here it is in black and white from the councillor in charge of education in Halifax: "Children attending The Ridings are not receiving an adequate standard of education." Let's quit the fannying around and say there is now no doubt that the school will close. Absolutely no doubt. The Pope will take to wearing Ra-Ra skirts, a thong and leg warmers before this inevitability will be reversed. (Hey, maybe he does?) They have to consult but it is over. The unions, the councillors, the central education institutions are just dancing a last tango, playing their prescribed roles.

And yet, correct me if I have read this wrong, they are going to recruit an intake of pupils into the Ridings this September! Into the school where the head councillor freely admits they will not receive an adequate education. And they are going to leave them there not for one year, when they will shut it off to new entrants, but two years! And don't tell me the situation is not going to get worse in the Ridings in that time. And then what? Off to the Halifax High School for a bit of a race riot?

Perhaps I am just a little naive. Perhaps the "procedures" mean you cannot possibly do an emergency redistribution of pupils at this late stage of secondary admissions. Perhaps it would lead to court cases from teachers at the Ridings saying the decision had not properly been consulted on? Perhaps there would be a bit of a squash in the classrooms of the receiving schools. I don't know. But surely this is a situation where the councillor should, as someone once memorably said, put his "nob on the block" and make a brave decision and try to get the Halifax head teachers together to do something right.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Merit marks



We used to have merit marks at my middle school. I think you got a badge if you came out top of the merit mark table at the end of the month. I say "I think" because I never actually confirmed that for a fact, never having actually explored the upper reaches of the table.

I do, however, clearly remember that you had to get something in the vicinity of 30 merit marks to be competing for top spot. It seemed an awesome figure. It was the same highly trained merit marked athletes who fought for the title every month. They must have got hundreds over the years. I think my total haul in all competitions was 18 or something. I was kind of like a merit mark defender, not a striker.

It wasn`t that I was a bad boy. I remember actually physically straining to get merit marked, but the teacher would just sail by. I was good but I was not worthy of merit.

Anyway, the point of this is that we have instituted a merit mark system for G.. He has been a bit of a geezer recently and under the new regime he gets a treat after every five good boy stickers. I have been thinking about it and it is really just a way of structuring one`s own actions as a parent, making sure you space out the treats a bit more and stick with the message.

I have a feeling, though, that G. may take after his Dad in the merit badge stakes. After an evening under the new regime, he has one sticker on the fridge. It was awarded retrospectively for a piece of remembered good behaviour before the new system was introduced, just to get the merit flowing. He is inordinately proud of it and has asked on at least six occasions what it was awarded for.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Mayor Chester Stranczek



Actually the village of Crestwood, Illinois seems an interesting place. Mayor Chester, a former minor league baseball pitcher and self made millionaire trucker, has been in office since 1969!

There are all kinds of scraps and scrapes in Crestwood, like the Battle of the Library Board ("Why not" stack it with family members?) and the debate about whether to "go to the internet" or not ("I do think Crestwood does things a little too old school") and the police badges for library assistants, at the library again. And here is a little more on the Crestwood signs.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

More on co-working

I have blogged a couple of times recently about co-working. I find the whole movement really interesting. This video goes into the ideas of some of the people leading it in a bit more depth:



I'll add it to my productivity tagged thread. There seem to be two types of post in there: "coworking" and "stripped down writing machines". I suppose that sums up the two things you miss when you are working on your own in your home: creative community and a feeling of a work environment. My writing machine has helped quite a lot with the latter but you can't work round the former.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A neat idea

This is more cunning than a fur coat with a fox in it. There is a photocopying shop in Tokyo, near one of the big universities, which is offering completely free photocopying. No charge at all.

God you're slow! Advertising, dear boy, advertising. The back of every sheet has an ad on it. And if you are running a student targeted business, that is damn good selling: not just the sheets all over the lecture halls but the buzz among the students about the free lunch.

Must be like one of those happy hour bars though: packed and smelly. Think I might prefer to pay my money and have a clear run at photocopying the lecturer's textbook in its entirety.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A notion



Do you know what I fancy more than anything right now? Shredded wheat. The nearest shredded wheat is probably about 2000 miles away. (The big ones, mind you, not one of those pesky little bite sized things!)

The ultimate rejection letter

Amusing. And in a more elaborate and not particularly related sort of a way, so was this.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Who I am



G. has this book called "You Choose". It's fun. It has lots of pictures
of food and people and cars and stuff and you get to choose what you like,
what you don't like, etc. etc. You can build little stories around it.

Anyway, there is one page full of pictures of people. There lots of
them: kings and queens, knights, rock stars, pirates, artists ... cavemen...



So guess which one I am.

I've checked this with him on three or four occasions now and he is
quite definite:



Saturday, June 16, 2007

The vegetable orchestra

It does what it says on the radish:

Friday, June 15, 2007

Night of Fire

If only they would let the Japanese compete in the Eurovision song contest. This is a sure fire winner:

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Give me another life

I like to think that I am just behind the curve on techie, internet like things but I realised just how behind the curve when I chanced upon this video of a Second Life designer making a virtual guitar of Suzanne Vega's performance in the Second Life virtual world. She became the first major recording artist to perform live in Second Life in avatar form. The video is quite beautiful really:



For those of you who are dummies like me, Second Life is a virtual world. There are nearly 7 million people there. There are other virtual worlds like Entropia (they have just signed a massive deal in China). These are not really games - there are no points or targets - just spaces to live. People can make things in there, like this guitar. People can make money there.

Problem is I don't have enough time to live this life let alone a second one, so I think I'll pass for now, nosily gazing at this other world over the fence.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Achtung Shweinehund



Great little insight into the childhoods of my generation of British boys on the back of the TLS. I was a great reader of Commando. In fact, I am a little ashamed to admit that the last copy I bought was about 3 years ago when I saw it in a newsagent. Read it cover to cover.

It is striking how little modern violence there is in children's toys in Japan. I suppose it is predictable, given their recent experience of war, but boyhood aggression is almost all channeled into either samurai stuff or science fiction fighting heroes like Ultraman.



I think more recent generations have less of a taboo about modern war. There are now a few manga and films about WWII. But the only things I have found for making a war mongering nut out of my son are the odd packet of little plastic ninja and samurai figures and a very basic polystyrene British Spitfire. Perhaps I should add a subscription to Commando to my TLS. It is now going for £1.20 a copy. Jeekers! Could nearly have bought a model of the Enola Gay Superfortress for that back in the old days.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Really Revolutionary Engine

One of my Dadly duties is reading Thomas the Tank Engine books. G. loves Thomas (although I'm very glad to say that Mr Tickle, an altogether more admirable character, has recently stolen a lot of Thomas's limelight).

Anyway, I have to read these stories, so I decided to write my own Thomas story with a difference: "The Really Revolutionary Engine".

The album below is not really designed for reading a book. You need to scroll down until you see the black space just below the panel and press the play arrow in the middle of the panel. Put your cursor in the black space. This should bring up the control arrows. Press pause and then click the right button to flip pages.



PS. I chopped up the illustrations from a load of different Thomas books that we have and rearranged them with my own text. Of course, the illustrations are nicked from other people far more talented that me: Robin Davies and Jerry Smith, who illustrated the My Thomas Story Library published by Egmont.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Loose socks



Loose socks are a thing among Japanese school girls. This Wikipedia article explains them well. The idea is that you wear very long, very loose socks with your shortened school skirt. They have been around for ages but I hadn`t realised just how long they could be.

The picture above is of loose socks being sold in a mall near here. The longest ones there are 150 cm long! That is taller than a lot of the girls themselves. Either they are catering to a niche market of gargantuan Japanese schoolgirls (scary) or there are a lot of folds in them there loose socks.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The company-less office!



At last, I have found a office-like space where I can work outside my home as a freelancer, allowing me to have a social life, to network, to enjoy some separation between home and work etc. etc. without having to tie myself to some corporate behemoth.

I have been thinking for ages that in an internet connected world the identification of all office spaces with particular businesses was a bit old hat. Also, because it entails long commutes to a central location rather than a walk round the corner to the nearest co-working community, it is quite bad for the environment and stressful for the workers. Now people are loosening the connection. Only problem: my nearest coworking spaces seem to be a few thousand miles away.
The photo is of this co-working space in San Francisco.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Fast

If only I could write my stuff this fast:



Doing a lot of "silly" tagged posts at the moment. Sorry. Distracted. Or maybe that's better.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Quick save Fred!




Its was all your fault in the first place, so the least you could do is try to do something to help him!

Do you take that man`s brother to be your lawfully...

This is one of those foreigners do funny things stories but, apart from wondering about what it must be like to go to your brother`s wedding and end up in the bridal bed, I liked the irony of the final words of the article:
"[The groom] has been crying that word will spread and he will never get a bride again."
Well, you could say that word has spread... unimaginably.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Earthquake!

Very odd reading this from where I am sitting. Like the world had been turned on its head. I was trying to work out if I knew anybody who might have been effected.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Can a virtuoso busk it?

Joshua Bell tried it out. And here is the full audio of his Metro Station Performance.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The difference between Persians and Arabs.

Funny.

(Hey, I get to use my "Iraq" and "Silly" tags on the same post!)

Neat graphic

On US campaign contributions.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Map Museum, Tokyo

For anyone venturing out in search of the Map Museum in Tokyo, take food
and warm clothing. It seems to have a liminal sort of existence, only
definitely existing in the world of maps (Time Out, Tokyo, p. 62). I
existed mainly in the world of irony as I wandered about the Kudan
district this weekend holding my map in front of me asking all and
sundry whether they knew where the Map Museum was. Eventually, I walked
through one museum doorway and asked the receptionists (in Japanese):
Me: "Do you know where the Map Museum is?"

Receptionist 1: "The Cheese Museum?"

Me: "No, the Map Museum, as in one of these things." (Waves map desperately)

Receptionist 1: "The Map Museum. Uh, no. We do old art and stuff here." (Calls to friend) "Do you know a Map Museum?

Receptionist 2: "Uh?"

Receptionist 1: "What's the address you've got there?"

Me: "2-1-36 Kudan Minami"

Receptionist 1: "2-1-36..."

Receptionist 2: "2-1-36..."

Receptionist 1: "No."

Receptionist 2: "Hey, 2-1-36. That's us, isn't it?”

Receptionist 1: "Yeah, you're right! Weird! We're not the Map Museum are we?

Receptionist 2 (Suddenly uncertain):"Don't think so."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ginza stroll



There is something funny about that picture. At the weekends they shut off all the traffic on Ginza's Chuo Dori, Tokyo's main upscale shopping street. It is wonderfully liberating. Suddenly the city feels less dangerous and unpleasant. Young children are running helter skelter down the street. There is laughter and chat. It feels really transgressive walking down the middle of the street as if you owned it

Makes you realise how locked down by the combustion engine major cities are, how walking humans are peripheral, subsisting at the edges of the main business of the city.

They have been doing this since the 1960s in Tokyo. It was the inititiative of Ryokichi Minobe, a man who in this single act dwarfed the achievements of the risible and offensive Shintaro Ishihara, who was reelected last weekend.

Lithuania's favourite personality:

PC 1064 of the Norfolk Constabulary.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Cadbury Eggs

Maybe it is the overwhelming guilt that is driving me to this but I want to talk some more about eggs,specifically Cadbury eggs.

You can't get Cadbury eggs here in Japan, so I can't check this out myself, but it seems the Cadbury people are in a pickle. In the US, chocky lovers have been getting the feeling that their eggs are getting smaller.

Cadbury have clearly been receiving complaints because on their website (scroll to the bottom) they put everyone right with a straight denial:



"Why has the size of the egg changed? It hasn't you've just grown up!"

So, I would like to know how Cadbury explain this:

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sunday

Today is the day I have been dreading.

The day I have to admit to G. and A. that the little eggs sent by Grandma and Grandpa to put inside G.`s big chocolate egg have, purely due to the peculiar climactic conditions prevalent in Japan, become somewhat reduced in quantity. You can just about see the surviving eggs at the bottom of the tube there.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Aoba



The "Kouyou" or Autumn leaves are spectacular in Japan but there is another, slightly less violent riot of colour in the spring. "Kouyou" means "red leaves". Aoba means "green leaves".


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Religious observance



Somewhat relieved to report that my two-year old son`s religious fanaticism seems to be on the wane. For the last few months he has been insisting on stopping at the temple on the way to and from the nursery, walking right up into the gateway, pressing his hands together, bowing and doing his "namu namu namu namu" (praying) mumble mumble mumble "o-rikosan desu" ("I am a good boy"). Think he must have learned it on a nursery trip or from his O-baasan or something. He was quite punctilious. If we walked past without doing our observances, we would have to retrace our steps to assuage the divine. If Dad didn`t do his "namu namus" he was roundly told off and put straight.

Anyway, over the last couple of days, we seem to have become a bit lax in our devotions, little more than a "namu"mumble mumble "...riko...", as we run past the temple. Have to admit to a slight lifting of the heart as we pass. Quite frankly, it is a damn sight more British (and more Japanese) to keep this organised spirituality thing in its place. I wasn`t sure I fancied having a 3-year-old religious zealot in the household. Not sure the Buddha fancied it either.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sakura



The blossoms have been out for a few days now. They really are spectacular. You think you know what they are all about and then, every year, they surprise you with their beauty.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Fifteen Britons in a sea of intrigue

I found this helpful in trying to understand what is going on in Iran at the moment.

Biofuel

Not good think Monbiot and Castro.

The didn't study

Not original but still funny.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Japanese Pensions



A "pension" is a type of small, Western-style hotel in Japan, almost always with the breakfast and evening meal included in the price. Probably the best way to give a feel for the pension world is to list a few of the names of pensions from my accommodation guide: Resort Pension in Limelight, Pension Star Party, Pension Yodel, Pension YesNo, Pension Hakuba Symphony, Pension Tent Keeper, Funny Inn, Country Inn Camp, Pension Good Chat, Farm Inn Pension Fruity, Pension Planetarium, Pension Boo, Pension Despatch, Pension Marine Mates, Pension Sunny Salad... oh, and, of course, the incomparably named Pension Old Age.

Starting to get the idea? The thing about pensions is that they are expected to be very individual and very expressive of their owners' personalities. This, of course, can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the personality.

A. tried to warn me, on our way to the "Costa del Sol" pension in Izu, that this was the very highest risk type of accommodation in Japan. A "hotel" is a clinical place. A "ryokan" is a fairly predictable traditional Japanese experience. A "minshuku" is basically analogous to a small English B and B. A "love hotel" is a flight of fancy, but it is a kitsch, postmodern, impersonal, tongue-very-firmly-in-cheek sort of fancy.

A "pension" is also a flight of fancy but it is the real thing. This is someone's dream. You hold their heart in your hand as you check in. The tongue is often nowhere near the cheek.

"Your stereotype of the pension owner is someone who worked as a salaryman and got very into something. There is always some individual enthusiasm that they are sharing with you. The story is always so and so got into such and such in a REALLY BIG WAY and decided to live his dream and start a pension devoted to his passion," Aya said.

So, for instance, at Country Inn Camp, the owner got into making things out of wood in A REALLY BIG WAY and now shares with his visitors the wonder of making robots out of wood. Over at Pension Star Party, the owner got into viewing the stars in A REALLY BIG WAY and now you can - no, probably you have to - use the pension's telescope and share the beauty of the heavens. At Pension Sunny Salad, the owner got into fortune telling in A REALLY BIG WAY and ...

"The nightmare is of some pension where the owner is into playing his guitar and everyone has to sing in the bar with him after the food," Aya warned.

Obviously, if you are lucky, it can be a wonderful experience but I think my trepidation as we descended the hill to the "Costa Del Sol" pension was understandable. Read on for more on our experiences at the "Costa Del Sol".

Costa Del Sol, Izu



What a wonderful place! It is right in front of the sea in a small fishing village called Ihama at the bottom of a narrow winding road. You fall asleep listening to the crashing of the waves.



As the name suggests, the couple who own the Costa del Sol are into things Latin in a REALLY BIG WAY. Their's is a very infectious enthusiasm. They have picked a spot just out of Ihama and this little bit of the Mediterranean contrasts delightfully with the traditional, slightly run down Japanese fishing village three minutes walk down the road (totally unpretentious. There was a slightly Irish feel to the rusting corregated iron roofs and old cars left to rot in the undergrowth). The owners lived in Mexico for five years when they were younger and go back to Southern Europe or Latin America every year. They cook really nice, plain Spanish or Mexican food. The crab and seafood stew we had was tasty. But the real uniqueness of the Costa Del Sol is in the art of Livio de Marchi, an internationally famous artist/woodcarver and a personal friend of the owners. From the moment you drive through the gate made to look like spectacles and park beside the bath house made of books there are surprises at every corner.



Album of photos Livio de Marchi's work at the Costa del Sol, Izu
Album of photos of the Costa del Sol and Ihama

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Early Showa Japan and games

I was just doing a bit of random Saturday browsing about what Taisho Tokyo looked like and was fascinated to come across a computer game with a beautiful old Tokyo backdrop. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army is supposed to start in the 20th year of Taisho, which never existed. In fact, there were only 15 Taisho years, so we are really talking early Showa Japan, the early 1930s. From what I can see, the sets have been quite deeply researched.



Gameplay video:



Thinking a bit more about my question to myself a couple of posts ago about whether games can ever be art, it seems a bit of a rubbish question now. Without getting into a long discussion about what art means, it seems self evident that games can achieve some kind of "artistic" status in graphic art, even now. Theoretically, there is no problem with them being poetically artistic either.

I think the question I wanted to ask was whether - like plays, films, novels etc. - games can aspire to become a form of narrative art. I stick by my earlier intuition that this question is probably only interesting in that it shows I am a old choffer. I suppose it is a common experience of newly emergent art forms to find themselves being judged by irrelevant critical standards developed out of established forms. The real question is can games aspire to become a form of game art. However, I do feel that "game" and "story" are antagonistic. The first person to develop a really engaging and satisfying narrative comparable to a novel in a game format will be a genius. Perhaps it has already happened. I don't know.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Boomshine by Danny Miller



I seem to have followed a couple of posts on productivity with a couple on games. No really, I am working like a dog!

This one is a chilled-out, kicked-back, West Coast number.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

PeaceMaker, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict game




There are a growing number of digitprop computer games: game designers using their medium to make political points just as their forebears in cinema, drama, art and literature did in their media. PeaceMaker, a game about the Middle East conflict, is the latest I have come across. This is a promotional video and you can download a free demo of the game. If you want to read up on the growing digitprop world, this is a good place.

While I am on the subject of games, the French have started inducting game designers into the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. I have long puzzled over whether game designing will ever be considered art. I have had this terribly old fashioned view that the game element of a game is destructive and cheapening and inherently problematic in the creation of an artistic experience. All that shows is that I am old choffer, like those people who thought film could never become art.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Burn your browsers!

You have nothing to lose but your browsers! And slogans of that sort.

Hey, it really works. Last week I blogged about my browserless computer. I`m telling you, if you are freelance writer working from home or something and suffer from procrastination problems, seriously consider making yourself a Writing Machine. It really ups your productivity. It doesn`t cost much because just about any clapped-out second-hand computer can handle a word processor and an email client. Over the years, I have tried all kinds of cures for not getting much done syndrome but this one is the real deal.

Must switch off now.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

WWII POWs in Asia

"They existed on only half a normal PoW diet; men were routinely forced to kneel and beg their captors for food. Nearly 9,000 of them died of malnutrition or disease. The last remnants of 'Operation Nipoff', as it was malignly known, didn't get home until as late as 1948." More
A different angle. The book.

Friday, March 16, 2007

How to write a successful blog

Blogs are serious now. I have been thinking about what advice I would give someone who wanted to write a "successful" blog from scratch. By "successful" I mean a blog that has influence and readership.

What not to do

There are many "random musings of random man" blogs. This blog is one of them. Such blogs can never be successful. They are fine if their purpose is just to be a kind of private/personal diary and a way of staying touch with people close to you but that is it.

What to do

1. Focus
Your blog must have an identity. Think "subject" and "group". Blog in a particular area in which you have expertise or great interest or blog for a particular social group in which you have some stake. The "random musings of an aeronautical engineer" might work if there are a lot of aeronautical engineers out there wanting to read blogs. Don't worry if the focus seems small or trivial. All the big slots are taken up anyway.

2. Socialise
Successful bloggers socialise with other bloggers online. This web social life will grow out of your focus subject or readership. You will find other blogs with the same or connected focuses. You need to build a relationship with the authors of these blogs. As in real life, socialising is usually best done in a genuine way. People can quickly spot falseness. Just make friends. Be genuine. Comment on their postings. Link to them. Oh, and never ever fail to give proper credit to other bloggers' ideas. Never try to pass other people's stuff off as your own. A proper link to another blog's interesting content is at least as beneficial to your blog as your original content.

3. Aggregate
Try to build your blog as a place where people go to read about your subject or group focus. This is a sort of extension of the web social life. Eventually, really successful blogs reach a tipping point where they become the place to be in their focus area. All other bloggers read them, link to them regularly and want to be linked to by them. From that extremely hard to reach point on, the blog is in a virtuous circle. It is successful because it is successful.

4. Be search friendly
This is really beside the central point of building a successful blog. You are trying to get to a point where people are reading your stuff as soon as it is posted. However, for the less ambitious among us, who just want some of their stuff to be useful to someone sometime, it is worth knowing that some blog postings are like time bombs. They get little readership at the outset but hundreds of people eventually see them via web searches. I occasionally post "resource posts" with the intention of serving this type of readership. For instance, I have a post on Buyo with the full text of Barack Obama's speech in 2002 warning against the Iraq war. I thought people should be able to read this speech but it was difficult to find on the web so I posted it. It wasn't even on the front page of Buyo but lots of people have since accessed it. Think about search terms that people might use to find out about the subject you are writing on (Barack Obama, October 2002, Iraq War) and, if it can be done naturally, try to include these terms in the text. Perhaps I should have put this under a separate heading but it is not a bad touchstone to try to be "useful" with your blog. If a posting is likely to be useful to someone, on however obscure a topic, then it is worth writing. By the way, lots of people come to blogs via image searches, so label your images with their general subject not just random numbers; ie. barackobamaspeaks.jpg not o214.jpg). Also, use your blog's categories/tags function, if it has one.

5. Have some sort of style
What is your style? Some blogs develop a strong narrative, others don't. You can be successful with either approach but have a clear idea of what your approach is. Most blogs develop characters to some extent, if only by mentioning people close to the author (I know, for instance, that I am a character on a reasonably successful Japanese blog) , but some blogs do this self consciously as a central part of their message. In "I-blogs" of this style, the author is usually the main character and other personalities are introduced to drive the narrative. On blog design, I am not really qualified to advise but make it possible to read the content. Reduce clutter. Accept that the main focus is the latest post, not navigation gumph. The visitor is not there to read your entire blog in one sitting. Use images to break up the text.


Web logs... lots of them

6. Get into the offline world
Not many top bloggers would want to admit it but the holy grail of any really successful blog is being mentioned, however briefly in the boring old , Reality 1.0 media. If you can do that you exist, you are real, you've made it!

7. Get Tracksy
Study your readership. Get some sort of analytics software so you can learn where your visitors come from and why. I use Google Analytics, because it has pretty maps, and Tracksy.com because it gives really detailed information on what exactly individual users did when they were on my site. This may seem intrusive but it helps clear the fuzzy thinking about what is going on on the blog. It also informed me that I am like the king of Google Image searches for "africa naked breasts" with safe search accidentally switched on and a major player in the "shrew" market.

8. Write often

9. Write well
Last and I do think least, write good stuff. Incisive, funny, original and brief. Unlike this post.

Thanks to Iangbl for the photo. He bears no
responsibility for the abominable pun.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Formula One Writing Machine



When I first started in journalism, I worked in a newsroom equipped with green screen terminals that did just two things: write words and send them off. Even deleting what had been written was a bit of a hassle. Copying and pasting could be done but it was a major operation, for seasoned experts only. All you could really do was write - bang, bang, bang - and send your stuff off to the newsdesk for the ritualistic ridicule of your efforts.

I have hankered after one of those stripped down, Formula One cars of the writing world ever since. Nothing extraneous. No headlights. No rear windscreen wiper. No web browser to procrastinate on. No RSS feeds. No instant messaging to gossip on. No games. Nothing but writing and sending.

Now I have one:



The Writing Machine, otherwise known as The Browserless Computer.

I'll admit it justified a day's procrastination but I think it was worth it. I salvaged A.'s old laptop, which had to be abandoned because its Windows Me operating system was so unstable that it had become completely unusable. I installed the Ubuntu Linux operating system on it (the very earliest version, Warty 4.10. I had the disk lying around from some computer magazine I once bought). The interface is basically the same as Windows but the operating system is super stable now. No crashes at all. I had a major problem trying to get the thing to communicate with the outside world. For a while, my extraordinarily stable computer was completely autistic. I eventually gave up on getting the wireless internet card to work and went back to square one. I plugged an internet connection wire in the back of the computer and reinstalled the operating system completely from scratch. Hey presto, it automatically picked up the ethernet internet connection (still not the wireless) and I had an internet able computer. Ubuntu has a pretty comprehensive package of open source software already installed - Firefox browser, Gimp image software, OpenOffice word processing, Gaim instant messaging etc. etc. - so I could have gone on to run a perfectly decent normal computer. But no! I had to have that Writing Machine I had always dreamed about.

First, I installed a new Thunderbird email program because Ubuntu's existing email client seemed a bit rubbish. I set up the client so it could access and send email from my gmail account. Then I removed everything other than this email system and the OpenOffice word processor. Most importantly, the browser was uninstalled, thus removing the main cause of procrastination. Admittedly, I have decided to allow myself to check my main email account through the email client. My initial thought was to set up a separate secret account to service my writing machine thus sealing myself off completely from the distractions of the internet. However, I decided to be a little indulgent on this point because I am not one of those people who is snowed under by distracting email and I thought the supposed necessity of checking my email "just in case someone is urgently trying to contact me" might work as a good excuse to turn on my main computer in the mornings, thus negating the anti-procrastination powers of the Writing Machine. Of course, because I have no browser, I can only read the email and cannot set off on some internet goose chase prompted by a link in a message.

All I can really do on the Writing Machine is write my words and send them off. Where to? I found out there is a special email address that allows me to send documents directly to my Google word processor account. All I have to do is either attach a document to an email or simply copy and paste text into the body of a message and send it to this address. It is automatically stored online in my Google word processor (which incidentally works as a kind of safety net because I also have the documents locally on the Linux computer and I can subsequently download them onto my main Windows computer, creating a triple backup.) The Google word processor account is kind of like the newsdesk in that first newsroom of mine - the place where I send my words for critical appraisal, editing and ridicule. I can access the Google word processing account from my Windows computer when I want to put on my editing hat. But these two worlds are separate. Writing and editing don't mix in my experience.

Don't you wish you had a Writing Machine? Or maybe your will power is not quite so non-existent as mine.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Preparing a hawkish myth

Bush: 8,200 more troops needed for wars.

In these last years of the Bush presidency, the hawks are preparing a myth. They were in sight of victory, they will say, only for America to be let down again by traitorous liberals.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Untraceable document leaking service



I am sceptical about this "uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis". The site, called Wikileaks, has yet to go live but its launch, rather delightfully, was leaked. Its organisers state:
Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the west who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own governments and corporations.
First, the claim of untraceability sounds dodgy. I really hope nobody in real danger suffers because of some half-cocked bunch of Mr Verlocs, Comrade Ossipons and Karl Yundts living in safety. Second, the feasibility of defending an untraceable, uncensorable site from spam and nonsense without removing its ease of use for genuine leakers is at least unproven. The reason why Wikipedia works is because the incentive for vandalism is, in the end, pretty low and the likelihood of other users using the widely available information that Wikipedia deals in to correct any vandalism is high. This will not necessarily be the case with Wikileaks. Third, the claim of having over a million documents ready to publish before the project has gone online sounds worryingly high. If they are just going to dump huge amounts of low grade material on the site then security risks may result from people ill-advisedly trying to bring attention to genuinely important information they have dribbled into this vast lake. The reader would also have a problem with an undigested mountain of material on the site, of course. Good processing and analysis of submissions might get around this pitfall. All the foregoing problems, in fact, could be avoided or minimised by excellent implementation and the people doing this site seem to be taking themselves seriously so the project might not fall on its face immediately. However, my last two reasons for scepticism are more fundamental:

  • The Wikileaks idea seems to rest on an adolescent idea that all information in all circumstances is best set free. It also seems to rest on simplistic political and economic views of the world, which do not admit of complexity, moral difficulty and greyness. Just by way of illustration, is there going to be a way of taking back information - depublishing it - that it turns out seriously harms an innocent individual? How are they going to decide on this?
  • The possible uses of such a site, if it were feasible, for manipulation by people with mendacious purposes seem legion.

I say all this as someone who generally finds himself supporting whistle blowers and truth tellers. I believe in confronting the secretive reflexes of the state and many commercial interests. When a whistle blower tries to publish information now, he or she often has to interact with a commercialistic and corrupt journalistic world in which the interests of the leaker are sometimes secondary to the political and other agendas of the publisher. However, I would say this and it is not fashionable to accept the limited import of this type of observation amongst the Comrade Ossipons of the internet, the leaker is usually dealing with a professional with some ethical standards, some journalistic competence and some moral connection to the person they are handling, to others affected by the information that they are trying to leak and, dare I say it, to the truth. There are numerous nasty examples of it going horribly wrong in this pre-Henry Ford model of sensitive information release but I have a feeling that an attempt to automate it could be a lot more gruesome.

Please don't mistake this grumbling for a journalist getting worried about citizen-journalists stealing his job. Journalists will love this site. If it works at all, they will thrive on its alienated, anonymous public tip-offs, without the current complicating private ethical entanglements with their sources. I just feel that some people may be badly hurt by the whole thing. There is rather an insignificant secondary concern that the discrediting of such a naive project might harm the broader and extremely exciting movement for freer information embodied in things like Wikipedia. I hope not and if it were to work without doing harm I would eat my hat and applaud it loudly.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Reynolds Collection on the Great Kanto Earthquake

Brown University's Dana and Vera Reynolds collection on the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake is a great resource, making available some excellent images of the disaster on the web. One caveat: I would urge anybody using it to be a bit careful of the captioning of some of the photographs. I am almost certain, for instance, that the photograph below is not, as the collection says: "One of a series of photographs taken during a boat trip around Yokohama Bay. Sheltered barges with large bags of relief supplies are visible."



Before I go on with this, can I just say what a wonderful image it is. If it were of post-earthquake Yokohama, it might be telling a tragic story. If it is of somewhere else, it may be telling us all sorts of other things about families, men, work and child rearing. Or maybe just another story of a particular family? Take another look at it. It is not just a picture of two tough watermen at work. There are two children on the deck (you can zoom in if you follow the link to the Reynolds original). A previous photo of the same boat shows a third man, who must be out of shot at the front of the boat in this one, but there is no mummy. Was there no mummy? Did the earthquake account for her and leave these men alone? Or is this an illustration of "new man as boatman" in some other harbour?

The earthquake theory is more romantic and tragic but, as I say, I would actually be very surprised if this was a post-earthquake image of Yokohama. There seems to be no damage on the street in the background whereas, in fact, almost all of Yokohama's waterfront was completely destroyed in the holocaust. I am not an expert on Yokohama`s architecture but I have half a suspicion that the street in the background may be a bit Shanghai-ish. I have discussed a number of the Yokohama boat images in the Reynolds collection with an expert on Japanese traditional boats and he felt the rowing styles depicted and some of the boats seemed more typical of China. I have sent a query to the collection and I think they will be looking into it.

Anyway, that is not my main point. My research into the Kanto earthquake has made me look at numerous horrific images of human suffering in the disaster. Actually, human suffering is not the right description. The images are not of human suffering but of people reduced to garbage. If they were of real suffering caused by the earthquake we could not bear them but there is something about images of piles of human shaped ash that is neutered, demeaning, powerless. The Reynolds Collection houses some such images, most of which seem not to have been taken by the Reynolds but bought as postcards during their visit. This is by no means the most horrific image but I warn you it is pretty horrible: a black and white picture purporting to be of dead Yoshiwara prostitutes in Tokyo. I think it is right for Brown University to make such images available on the web but it is a difficult moral issue. When is it right to show a stranger dead? When they bought these images, the Reynolds were doing something that was controversial even at the time:
The Japan Weekly Chronicle
November 8 1923, page 638
"A pedlar name Kaibara Shotaro (39) of Kawanishi-dori, 4-chome, Kobe, sold a lot of prohibited picture cards connected with the great disaster in Tokyo and Yokohama aboard the St. Albans on the afternoon of the 25th ultimo while the ship was alongside No. 2 pier and he was arrested by the Water Police on that charge. The cards are said to have shown the scenes of the holocaust at the Honjo Military Clothing Depot and the corpses of the Yoshiwara brothel girls. Seeing that these pictures were published in the Japanese newspapers circulating millions, it seems absurd to prosecute pedlars at this time of day."
The Chronicle, perhaps the most respected English language journal in Japan at the time, was commenting on the hypocrisy of the Japanese authorities but this short news article does raise the fact that the distribution of such images was seen for various reasons as problematic by some Japanese contemporaries.

However, perhaps the most shocking image in the collection is this one:



It is captioned, "Two men from Taiyo Maru, (one older in white and a younger in darker suit, hats off, younger man holding wine bottle) bridge in background, standing lamppost/electrical pole." The Taiyo Maru was the liner the Reynolds arrived on and they seem to have been part of the same landing party.

I think there must be moral questions about a group from a liner landing themselves, with a bottle of wine for refreshment, in the aftermath of some other people's apocalypse. I understand why the men would want to have witnessed what happened (though I am sure I would not have taken the wine. Let's hope it was just a wine bottle with water in it) but I would also understand a local feeling great anger at that white suited gentleman. Here is some contemporary reaction to such disaster tourists, from the Japan Chronicle again:
The Japan Weekly Chronicle
September 13 1923, page 354
"A little straight talk is sometimes refreshing. The Metropolitan Police Board have warned visitors to the capital as follows:
1. The longer you stay in Tokyo the more you will embarrass the citizens, so please get away as early as you can.
2. Your special attention is called to the undesirability of roaming about in the debris out of curiosity, and bothering the citizens in their work of removing their belongings.
That is the way to talk. The citizens of Tokyo are too polite, even in their distress, to say "For goodness sake get out!" So the police are saying it for them.

We've spoken to the authorities in Liechtenstein and it's not a problem... the invasion, that is...




The accidental Alpine anschluss of 2007.