Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

Another year comes hurtling...

Weird game


There is no real point except watching things fall in different ways but make sure you scroll to the bottom and play around with all the different elements you can draw with.

This is the Japanese original. And this is their new "Hell of Sand". Weirder still. I think I'll stick with the first game.

And, from the same stable, a Cat Sledging game. Use "Z" and "X" to shift the cat's weight backwards and forwards in the sled.

The future is haafu

Further to my previous nail biting posts [1,2] about G.'s haafuness, what a wonderfully encouraging article this is. I think I'll shut up about this subject now.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Weird and wonderful videos

More and more silly, disturbing, incomprehensible, violent, product placed and, just occasionally, funny videos seem to be getting passed around on the Google Video website. (Just look at the first and last ones, Mum)

A tip for the top

Professional pugilism and toupee wearing don‘t mix, as this Japanese boxer learned to his cost. Amid mounting hilarity in the audience, the boxer's corner eventually decided to throw in the wig. Our hairless hero, possibly enraged by his humiliation or perhaps inspired by shouts that he looked much cooler without the head furniture, went on to destroy his opponent with a knock out in round seven. (Via Mari)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Season's greetings!

I'm sitting here, with my belly full of turkey and Christmas pud, feeling rather chuffed. We managed to do a pretty good celebration here for our first Christmas in Japan. A.'s Mum and Dad, Uncle and Auntie all came to the dinner. It really felt like a proper family occasion. I enjoyed a little tipple with the in-laws, just in the interests of being sociable, you understand. G. is asleep having tired himself out opening all his presents. (Of course he was more interested in ripping up the wrapping than playing with the presents, but he loved it.)

The cooking was a a challenge. We had two chickens rather than a turkey, because the latter are very difficult to get here, and we then ran into an oven space problem. They simply don't use ovens here in Japan. Well, I lie. We have one but it is about as big as that little pocket you have on your jeans to carry change in. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we were forced to hark back to the Old West and cook our chicken outside, using a fire and a Dutch Oven. I was convinced that I was going to hopelessly burn the bird but it turned out very tasty.

Anyway, Happy Christmas everyone. And cheers.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas Fuji-san

I can't get enough of the view of Fuji-san on my way to university. I am a terrible photographer but just to get a feel of how close she feels click on this image to zoom. As you can see from this blog, large parts of the rest of Japan are having some of the heaviest snowfalls for years, but here down by the sea in Shonan we are untouched. Sickly people used to come here in the winter to avoid the harsh weather further inland. A pity really because I like snow.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The American Gulag

The medieval version of "waterboarding"

Can someone explain something really basic to me? It has taken me a while to digest reports like this and this and comment like this about the US playing fast and loose with the Geneva Convention and basic human rights in the War on Terror. Here is an example of the kind of thing I am talking about. It is called "waterboarding". It is not the result of a few CIA officers getting out of control in one of those secret prisons in central Europe. It seems to be in the manual:
Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess. [source]
Anyway, the really basic thing I don't get is the insistent rhetoric which drums away as a justification for these violations of the normal rules of war and of human rights. This discourse has it that we are fighting an exceptional and unprecedented war in which the merest scrap of information about the enemy's plans might save thousands of lives. It seems a powerful line but, leaving aside the observation that torture is a systemic disease that has always threatened to corrupt and degrade intelligence gathering agencies, destroying their ability to provide accurate information to leaders, the really basic question I need answering is this:

Isn't it true that in all wars the merest scrap of information about the enemy's plans might save thousands of lives?

I mean, in World War Two, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost or saved due to good or poor intelligence gathering. So is there anything really new about this? Maybe it is right to break the existing rules, but why are we framing the debate as if we are facing a novel dilemma?

Monday, December 19, 2005

What a Lark!

Nothing like a good bit of vertical integration! The same brand sells the ciggies that puts the stains on your teeth and the toothpaste that claims to get rid of them. Wonder if they do a cancer machine too?

Interestingly, the cigs, at about 1.30 GBP a packet, are considerably cheaper than the toothpaste, at about 2.10 GBP.

Saturday, December 17, 2005


Today we went to the hospital to visit A.'s grandfather, who unfortunately is not very well at the moment. Talking at his bedside, he mentioned that he had been visited by "kashiya", which means "sweetshop". For a moment I thought either my flimsy language skills were worse than I thought or A.'s grandfather was having a senior moment. It seems neither was the case.

If anyone has seen "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain" you may remember that the villagers in the small rural Welsh community in which the film is set were called things like "Johnny Shellshocked", "Williams the Petroleum", "Davies the School", and "Evans the End of the World", rather than using proper surnames. The problem being that their real surnames were useless because so many people shared the same ones.

Anyway, it seems a similar thing happens in our district. Among those who are not commuting newcomers, there are only really five extended families in the area and so surnames became a bit useless here a while back (actually, I don't think they even had them until the late 19th century). Instead, A.'s grandfather was using "yagou", a system of nicknames which have been attached to each of the subbranches of those extended families for generations. The "kashiyas" got their name because once, way back in the mist of time, they ran a sweetshop. There are also "the indigos", "the buckets", "the roofers", "the sandal sellers" and "the retireds". These are not these people's present occupations, it is just that a head of the family a long time ago was once retired or once made buckets. It is like being present as surnames emerge from the primeval soup.

I have talked before about how we are in a curious situation here, living in what has become a commuter city but in a family which has farmed in this district for centuries. I kind of like it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Plug dreams

G. got in a major tizzy yesterday because he wanted to play with the heater plug and he was not allowed to. By “major" I mean about as upset as a one-year-old can get, which is pretty upset as anyone with any experience will know. The mood eventually passed and he forgot about his plug fixation.

As he slept last night, however, A. says she saw him reaching out and grabbing at what she could only figure was a dream plug. He did this several times and then got quite exercised in his sleep as, presumably, a phantasmal Mum or Dad intervened and turned his dream into a nightmare.


Update: In preparation for G.'s return from the nursery today, I had stacked a load of pillows in front of the plug socket. The first thing he did after I carried him into the room was turn to the plug and hurl the pillows to one side. We resumed where we left off yesterday.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


It's a bit like Lent and Easter chocolates, you starve yourself of central heating (most people in Japan do) so that the sumptuous singe as your freezing bottom comes in contact with the heated toilet seat feels all the more sublime.

It has taken me a long time to come to terms with Japanese toilet culture but I have finally got it.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Sushi mockumentary

Please don't take this seriously.

(Via Gen Kanai)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mr Shiraishi of the Co-op

Almost all university shops in Japan are run by the same organisation, the University Co-op. It seems a well run chain, they always have clever little offers and sales on. One of their things is to have comment cards on which the students can make inquiries to the shops' staff about products they want sold etc.. The replies, together with the initial requests, are posted on a little message boad.

Anyway, the message board at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology (Tokyo Noko Daigaku) has become a bit of a phenomenon. A member of staff called Shiraishi san, who was given the job of replying to the messages, struck up a bizarre dialogue with the students. They began to ask a series of weird and wonderful questions, which had nothing to do with the shop's product lines, and he replied punctiliously in a very polite, apparently guileless way to every one of their inquiries. He always stayed in the role of the shop assistant and became an excellent foil for the students' wit, and vice versa. The best way to explain it is with examples:

Q. Please sell a cow
A. Thankyou for your request. There was an office meeting today and we immediately concluded that we cannot keep cows in the shop. I am sorry.

Q. Don't you sell love?
A. It seems love is not an object to be sold. If it is sold anywhere, there is a strong possibility of it being some kind of trap. Please be careful.

Q. Breathing capacity 1800 cc :-)
A. It seems slightly inadequate for a grown up man. Try to breathe deeply daily. You may want to make sure that the air in your room is clean. Currently, Sharp's Aeon air filter is 19,800 yen.

Q. Please give yourself to me Mr Shiraishi.
A. I discussed this with my family. They said they couldn't give me away yet. The phraseology made me slightly uneasy but I am relieved. Thankyou for your understanding and cooperation.

Q. One hundred iron swords (by Hero)
A. I hope I understand correctly that you want the above mentioned products. Unfortunately, we can't sell you even one sword. It might break the weapons law. It would be better to give up hope of the purchase.

As I say, it became a bit of a phenomenon. First, the students started reporting their questions and Mr Shiraishi's sage answers on the internet. This was picked up by a publisher and has become a best selling book.



Emperor system

Empress Aiko?

I usually relegate news like this to my Japanese news feed (see top left or bottom of this page), but the discussion going on in Japan at the moment about whether to allow a female monarch is interesting. Female monarchs are not a novelty here. There were a number of female emperors before Japan was "modernised" but ever since the American occupation there has been a law limiting the line to men only. Now, with no male heirs available, the Government is preparing to legislate to allow women to ascend the throne.

What I find interesting is this: it seems that the Prime Minister's preferred option may be a simple system in which the first born child will become monarch. The Government commission set up to investigate the problem has recommended that option. In other words, there would be no male preference at all. That would mean that Japan's royal house would be way ahead of most of the rest of the world's monarchies in terms of gender equality.

Can't help feeling sorry for Princess Aiko though. Modern monarchy is a cruel and unusual punishment, a tyranny of the majority over an individual.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Haruki Murakami online

I found out via Daishirazu that the New Yorker has recently been publishing a number of translated stories by the most excellent Haruki Murakami.

The Year of Spaghetti
The Kidney Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day
Where I'm Likely To Find It

The last two are among the five stories included in Tokyo Kitanshu, the new Murakami book published in Japanese this year. Not sure whether the first one is in there.

Anyway, it seems there is a load of translated Murakami stuff available on the internet. The following list is all jumbled up. Some pages are collections of translations others are single stories from collections listed elsewhere. Anyway this is what I found in my net:

Landscape with Flatiron
The Second Bakery Attack
On seeing the 100 per cent perfect girl one beautiful April morning
The Kangaroo Communique
The Sheep Man's Christmas
Super-Frog Saves Tokyo
A Slow Boat to China
A Fine Day for Kangarooing
Firefly, Barn Burning and other stories
Carrousel's Dead-heat
The Second Bakery Attack
TV People
Spider Monkey at Night
A UFO Lands at Kushiro; And another version. And another version.
The Twins and the Sunken Continent
Lexington Ghosts

I even found a parody of Murakami.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Ricky Gervais podcast

The Guardian's website is hosting a 12 part podcast by Ricky Gervais of "The Office" fame from this week:
Episode 1 December 5 2005: In which Ricky, Steve and Karl discuss the pros and cons of technological invention, leading on to Karl's Malthusian concerns and a possible solution. There's a digression into the extra sensory perception of early hominids. Oh, and some Monkey News of course. Plus strange tales about lethal drinking vessels and stately homes.
An original move for a newspaper. And clever. They will get thousands of subscribers and begin to establish themselves as a player in a market which the established broadcasters are treating very circumspectly.

Monday, December 05, 2005


It seems ridiculously late in the year to an Englishman, but Autumn is reluctantly giving way to Winter here. There is still fruit on the trees and a glorious mixture of yellows and reds in the dying foliage, but there is also fruit rotting amid fallen leaves at our feet.

Not to worry though, we may still have months to go until Spring rudely interrupts Winter's meditation, but a new blossom has already appeared on the trees at Tokai University. Rather unusually, it flowers at night. It is called "Kurisumasu Irumineshon".

Christmas is obviously not a big religious or family festival over here but it is far from ignored. Christmas Day is seen as a time for lovers to spend time together. Like everywhere, it has also become an excuse for rampant consumerism. Anyway, Tokai has done a very good light show.

Looking more closely at this image, it is a bit weird. The poor quality of my mobile's camera makes it look as though there is blue sky between the leaves of the trees failing to illuminate a dark street. Or have I had one too many sakes?

Sunday, December 04, 2005


Shortish podcast offering a nice idea for a short break: chocolate in Paris. Made my mouth water.

Smooth as a baby's bottom

There is a saying "smooth as a baby's bottom". As I was changing G.'s nappy today, it occurred to me that there is a very sound evolutionary basis for this feature. A baby with a hairy bottom would not work. Back at the dawn of time, the hairy bottom strain must have been eliminated early. Poor old hairy bottom cavedad was on his 53rd wipe as the sabre tooth tiger sidled up.


Mount Fuji is clearly visible most days at this time of year. In summer, she hides away. This is the view on my way to work (click on the image for a larger sized pic).

Friday, December 02, 2005

Games and stuff

There seem to be a growing number of quite arty internet based games out there (ie. games you can play by just going to websites without having to download anything). Some are pretentious. Some are pretentious and rubbish. Some are card company cute. Some are political. Some are queer (click the headline on the page). But this strangely beautiful game is the pick of the crop. You need to have the sound on for it and to take a look at this to understand what the hell is going on. Basically, you run your mouse over the screen, find spots where it turns into a pointy hand and click them to see what happens. You have to work out what combination of clicks will get you off the screen and onto the next one. It is only few screens long and is really quite easy (especially with the hint site).

Alternatively, you could opt for a not particularly arty but fiendishly addictive mining game or have a snowball fight or a game of table tennis. Perhaps you just want to sit back and watch a (quite violent) animation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Zhang Ziyi

I don't usually dabble in things showbizzy, mainly because I don't know the first thing about such stuff, but here goes, my first and probably last piece of showbiz punditry:

Zhang Ziyi attended the world premiere of "Memoirs of a Geisha" in Tokyo tonight. It is the first big-budget Hollywood movie to have an almost entirely Asian cast.

Whether or not it is any good, I've got a feeling that Zhang Ziyi, who also starred in the Chinese hit "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", may become one of the biggest female stars in the history of cinema. It is a ridiculous claim, but she has come onto the scene at a time when China is becoming an economic powerhouse and when Hollywood is showing increasing signs of wanting to cater not only to that international market but to its prosperous domestic Asian market. Zhang Ziyi, who undoubtedly has star quality, has a potential fan base of billions of people.

For those with ten minutes to waste...

..., and I mean waste, this is quite fun. You have to drag and drop things at a few points in the animation. The instructions are in Japanese but it is pretty obvious.

This is fun too. You have to try to get cherry blossoms on the tree by passing your mouse cursor over buds and avoiding knocking them off. "Hanami" is a custom in Japan. Everybody has picnics under the cherry blossoms.

Rubbish revisited

Shortly after arriving in Japan, I whined about the gomi (waste) disposal system here in Japan. To remind you, in our house we have to have six different rubbish receptacles and there are four different days a week on which we take the various types of rubbish to the communal waste disposal area. The New York Times has covered the ridiculousness of it.

Anyway, as with all things, one eventually gets used to life as an outsourced rubbish sorter. I have begun to take for granted the small rubbish disposal facility taking over a large part of our kitchen. One thing still plagues me though: the ineffable fear of a "category mistake". You see, if you put the wrong type of rubbish in the wrong category of waste the bin men will refuse (ho!ho!) to collect it. It will just sit there forever at the collection spot or until the errant householder becomes shamed enough to take it back again and attempt a recategorisation.

And yet, without taking a PhD in Gomi Categorisation, there are so many objects that I have no idea how to categorise. At least once a day I find myself taking a fearful blind guess at whether some anomalous object is "purakuru" (recycleable plastic), moeru gomi (burnable rubbish), moenai gomi (unburnable rubbish) etc. etc.. What the hell is an earbud, for instance? There is a burnable cottony substance and some distinctly burnable looking ear wax on it but then a plastic stick! There doesn't seem to be much logic to it. It is more like learning the catechism. For instance, cassette tapes and nappies are both considered burnable whereas a cotton futon is non burnable.

Anyway, today's category dilemma was over Doraemon. He went into recycleable plastic but I fear he may be waiting at the collection point a long time. He is a pencil top made of a kind of rubbery substance.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Church abuse

For years, I have been dimly aware of the fuss about child abuse by members of the Catholic church and, to be honest, have not been particularly interested in it. This, however, is an excellently written and thought provoking article.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Theoretical physics

Was just listening to an interview with Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist, on an NPR podcast.

The Multiverse as a bath of soap bubbles and our Universe as the surface of one of those bubbles:
Kaku: Think of soap bubbles. We live on the surface of an expanding soap bubble and if you jiggle a soap bubble sometimes it vibrates and splits in half and then you have two soap bubbles. So, one soap bubble buds of another or sprouts off another and this is called eternal inflation. And so of course we can't prove all these theories but the experimental data is coming in in the direction of inflation, which does support the idea of a multiverse: that is an ocean of bubbles, each bubble then fissioning off and creating more bubbles and so we have a Genesis taking place in an eternal Nirvana.

What is Dark Matter? And how does it relate to the Multiverse

Kaku: There is something called dark matter out there. We now realise that dark matter is about 10 times more plentiful than ordinary matter except dark matter is invisible ... There are two theories as to dark matter, both of them coming from something called string theory which is what I do for a living ... One is that dark matter is shadow matter just like the invisible man: gravity from another universe. The other theory is that dark matter could be made out of 'sparticles', super particles; that is higher octaves of the super string. Now, we believe, though we can't yet prove, that all matter we see around us is nothing but musical notes, musical notes on tiny tiny little vibrating strings. So, the laws of physics are the laws of harmony and when the strings bump into each other they create chemistry, so chemistry would be the melodies played out on these strings. The universe would be a symphony of strings and the Mind of God, that Einstein eloquently wrote about in his memoirs, the Mind of God would be cosmic music resonating not through ordinary space but through hyper space, perhaps 11 dimensional hyperspace. And so the other theory is that dark matter is nothing but the next octave of these vibrating strings. So, both interpretations of dark matter require the introduction of multiple universes.

Interviewer: Ok, that makes... Ha, ha... I don't have a clue what any of that means but I ...

Kaku: I can try again ...

Interviewer: No, no, no. You have.... I think that's ... I think that for someone of my scientific knowledge... I think that is about as good as it is going to get.
I'm so glad the interviewer said that.

I couldn't help but feel, when listening to Kaku, that his use of metaphors, in talking about bubble baths and the laws of harmony, was really very like the old tradition of the use of religious metaphor to help the ignorant masses of the medieval church. I mean ideas like Jesus as a shepherd, God as a geezer with a big white beard and hell as a very hot place with lots of tongues and spikes. Such religious metaphor is not employed by the speaker to illuminate a particular aspect of a reality the listener understands. It is used to allow the hopelessly unenlightenable listener to live in an alternative conceptual reality which, though not really the same as the reality that the theoreticians are struggling with, has something of the same shape. I suppose it reassures the theoreticians at least.

Apparently, in 2011, they are going to be sending up "the most ambitious satellite [mission] of all time", called LISA, which may be able to test these theories. LISA will be three satellites connected by laser beams five million kilometres long. They will make a triangle in outer space and be able to pick up gravity waves from the instant of creation that are still circulating around the universe. String theory and inflation theory make predictions about what the vibrations from these waves will be like and so, for the first time, they will be able to be tested. Meantime, I'll carry on imagining a string section sitting in a bubble bath.

For those less befuddled than me, Michio Kaku's book on all this is here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

US invents time machine

"So, Genghis, how does one go about invading a country properly?"

Monday, November 21, 2005

Martin Jacques

Hooray! Martin Jacques has written another of his wonderfully uninformative commentaries on Japan and China in the Guardian. I have rarely read anything quite so perfectly suited to become chip paper as Jacques's articles about Japan. I just wish the Guardian could send the relevant pages straight to the chip shops and cut out the newsagents.

I say that Jacques has written "another" of his articles, but he actually just seems to recycle the same spectacularly unoriginal article every three months and manages to get it accepted over and over again [1 with responses here, here, here and here.

Infact, why don't you get in on the act? You too can write a Martin Jacques article about Japan. You might even get a nice cheque from the Guardian opinion editors. All you need is a pair of scissors and some Copydex. Just cut out the shapes below and rearrange them to make whatever pretty picture you want! Maybe if you add a bit of that glittery glue and a few nice crayon drawings beside the cut outs, the Guardian editors might like it better:

Sunday, November 20, 2005

God photoshops

My parents found this in their garden a couple of days ago.

Here is another view.

A little shrew had tried to climb up the spout, got itself wedged and froze in place.

I promise these images has not been manipulated. Please ask for permission to use it. My email is at the bottom of this blog.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

You've been warned

Went for a check up today at the university medical centre. While I was about it, I picked up a few leaflets, including this one about the evils of alcohol. Apparently, this is the actual medical diagram of what happens when you drink:

There was also a section on the latest research into the dangers to cats of drinking too much:

And, in related news, Tokai University has recently imposed a complete ban on the setting of child pickpockets' hair on fire with cigarettes:

Spoil sports.

Hold the front page! The Ridings School is rubbish shock!

I hear the Ridings school is back in trouble! Interesting that because, in reality, it never was out of trouble.

Some of you may wonder what I am talking about. Way back in the dim and distant past, when I was a cub reporter on the Halifax Courier, I broke a story about chaos at the Ridings School in West Yorkshire which became big national news. Basically, the kids were rioting and the academic results were absolutely abysmal (only 8 per cent of children got 5 A to C grades). The national newspapers followed up my story and had a field day, labelling it the "School from Hell", "The Worst School in Britain", and "Grange Hell".

The Ridings was closed down, its leaders were chucked out and it was reopened under a new and charismatic joint headship. The story ran for months and became the focus for a national debate about failing school leadership. This approach, that schools were bad because their leaders were bad and that schools could be saved by new leadership, has defined the Labour Government's basic approach to education policy since. Tony Blair is particularly attached to it. I once heard him say he could tell how good a school was without even entering it, but simply from his first impressions of the head teacher. What a load of toss!

Anyway, the media have periodically revisited the Ridings in the decade since it became infamous and have told a heart warming story of a struggle against the odds, in which charismatic leaders have dragged a down-and-out school from the depths to something approaching respectability. Millions of pounds have been poured into this flagship project. The two headteachers who took the helm after the Ridings disgrace, Peter Clarke CBE and Anna White CBE, have been hailed as heroes and showered with plaudits and honours for "turning the school around". Successive education secretaries and Blair himself have made numerous visits to the school to trumpet this example of how the worst can be made, if not into the best, then into the just below average.

So how shocking to read that headline on the BBC website this week: "Ridings School 'inadequate' again"! The article continued breathlessly:
The Ridings School in Halifax has been given notice to improve after Ofsted inspectors said it was "performing less well than could be expected". The report said pupils were disruptive and capable of achieving more, and that teaching quality was "variable".But it praised the new head teacher and leadership team, saying they had made good plans to raise standards.
Well, as the person who broke this story, I must say I'm not surprised at all that the Ridings school is inadequate "again". The plain fact is that it always has been inadequate and always will be. All this talk about great leadership, while no doubt true, has completely missed the point.

That terrible 8 per cent of students getting 5 GCSE A-Cs became 6 per cent in the year after the "rescue" of the school, then 3 per cent. Fair enough, you might say. This might be put down to the inadequacies of the old regime playing themselves out. But never, between 1996 and 2003 did the number of good GCSEs top 13 per cent. Then, in 2003, a great set of results: 25 per cent good grades! Still absolutely appalling by national standards, but an improvement. Head teacher Anna White said this marked the "long-awaited turning point". To mix metaphors, the turning point seems to have been a false dawn. Last summer, the figure was back down to 14 per cent. The Ridings never was "the worst school in Britain". However, despite the nice fairytale the Government and parts of the media have told in the decade since it was "rescued", it always has been a poorly performing school.

Why? The real issue was and is that the structure of education in Halifax inevitably means that the Ridings will always be in the Doldrums. A vicious selective education system exists in the town. It is a small place with two grammar schools in it and a hierarchy of schools beneath them, which exist to cater for the various grades of "failures" who didn't get into the flagship schools. We are not just talking a "Grammar School" and "Secondary Modern" system here; we are talking "Grammar School" and then "Secondary Modern, level 1", "Secondary Modern, level 2", "Secondary Modern, level 3" ... etc. etc... and then "The Ridings" at the very bottom of the pile. That is a bit of a caricature, there is a bit of localism in the system, but I think it catches the flavour of what is going on. The Halifax situation is particularly vicious because the size of the town means anybody can try to attend any school, but the elitism is the same as with any selective system. The grammar schools raison d'etre is to reproduce success. They take the best children, mix them together in an elite environment, and their results are excellent. The Ridings, at the very bottom of the hierarchy, is arguably set up to fail, to safely accommodate "failing children" for five years well away from the children who have some hope of success. Of course there are children in this group who have tons of potential but any success they do achieve is really remarkable in the Ridings context. The Ridings takes these worst performing children at 11-years-old, mixes them together with no sight of any students who were in any way successful at that age, and its results are terrible. Surprise! Surprise!

If people want to do something about the quality of education offered to the children of Halifax, they should quit looking at the leadership of the Ridings and start looking at the grammar school just 300 metres down the road from it and the other one about a mile away. They should ask themselves whether, in a small town with such a hierarchical structure of education, we can ever expect the school(s) at the bottom of that hierarchy to be any good? The stuck record that is the Ridings story suggests not.

The problem is that looking at such structural issues requires good leadership at the highest level, ie. national politicians. In truth, the leadership at that level on this issue has always been "inadequate". They have, quite consciously, avoided making any decision on an issue that would be politically problematic. Like any bad head, they have avoided the difficult call and preferred to blame their underlings for poor performance.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sunday, November 13, 2005

More men and flying machines

Went to the beach again today and came a across a team of synchronized kite flyers:

Another one of my incredibly poor videos from my mobile phone.

They were an unlikely bunch - a geeky looking fellow in a yellow v-neck and corduroy hat, an old codger who looked like a zimmer frame would soon be replacing the kite handles, an accountant on his day off and a man with an excess of hair - but they flew their kites like the Red Arrows fly jets: swooping and diving in unison, a kite peeling off the main group and then diving through the pack unscathed.

G. was transfixed. He kept pointing at the sky and looking back at me, as if to say, "Why can't you do that Dad?"


Ok, so we've got the bread making licked. Now for the cheese making!

This morning I was reading the introduction to "Soldiers Alive", a brutally plain speaking novel by Ishikawa Tatsuzou about Japan's war in China. The book was banned by the Japanese government in 1938.

"Down with Japanese Imperialism!"

The ubiquitous slogan, its eight characters reading 'Datou Nippon teikokushugi!' in Japanese, greeted Japan's troops and civilians wherever they moved in China. Although this slogan and others like it, painted on countless walls, clearly and loudly expressed Chinese outrage and protest, Japanese correspondents and other writers reported them freely, seldom adding any comment because none was needed. The charge of imperialism struck most Japanese as absurd, merely demonstrating how ignorant and misled the Chinese were concerning Japanese actions and motivations. The charge contradicted the official narrative, that of Japan's benevolence, and could thus be silently dismissed.

Although the horrendous war unleased by Japan against China seemed to be a clear-cut manifestation of imperialism at its most vicious, Japanese statesmen, soldiers and sundry commentators did not see it that way at all. Japan's mission, they publicly insisted, was not a quest for wealth or power, but rather a moral crusade for freedom, peace, and justice. Goodness was at work, not greed. As a Japanese editorial of the late 1930s phrased it, "Our responsibility is not conquest of the world; it is the emancipation of the world".

Why does that ring a little bell in my head?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Legging it?

So, Japanese TV asked itself, what would happen if the world's fastest professional walker found himself being chased by a group of deranged samurai?

Would Jefferson Perez run or would he walk?

Mr Perez's website is a little reticent about his trip to Japan.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

All angles covered

This formidable looking object is the "Kadokeshi".

Basically, it is a very elaborately designed rubber (eraser). The idea is that what one always hankers for in a rubber is a nice sharp corner to rub with. Your average rubber has a measly eight of these. The Kadokeshi has a mighty 28! That's rubber heaven!

Despite never having a major advertising campaign, the Kadokeshi, which literally means "cornereraser", has grabbed a massive chunk of the market here in Japan since it was released two years ago. Every stationery shop carries the things. But hold on a minute! Does the Kadokeshi really work? I took mine out for some field trials (in my kanji writing notework, a very demanding environment for any rubber) and found that a common old plastic eraser easily outperformed it in the rubbing stakes. As for the Kadokeshi's multifarious corners, the only ones that were really any use where the same old eight you get on any rubber. The other inside angles were obstructed.

What does this tell us? Maybe that I am scraping the bottom of the barrel of things to blog about. Maybe that it doesn't take much to win a major product design prize or to get exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art as a "masterpiece" of industrial design. But maybe also that good product design is not always about making something that works, but sometimes about making a product that has some kind of story to go with it. Basically, the Kadokeshi design took the boring old rubber and gave it a narrative. Whether it works or not, people have been talking about it (I am and here and here and here). That has helped it sell in its millions with very little advertising behind it.

Which got me thinking. Why shouldn't I grab myself some of the action? Buyo readers are privileged to get a sneak preview of just a few pages from the secret sketchbooks that will make me a millionaire

1. Ever used a pencil and thought: "God! This pencil is so blunt! What I need is a nice sharp new point"? Look no further than the KADOPENCILTM (patent pending):

2. Ever laid awake at night on a hot, sweaty pillow wishing that you could find that cool fabric that soothed you when you first put your head down. The KADOPILLOWTM (patent pending) is the product you have been waiting for all your life:

And just wait until I roll out the KADOTOILETTISSUE TM (patent pending)!

Woooohooo! I'm going to be rich beyond my wildest dreams!

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Had Keats been in Japan, the persimmon would undoubtedly have made it into the Ode to Autumn.

A bike ride

Went out on my new bike today to scout out the byways around here. The purpose was partly to get a bit of exercise but also to work out some routes to my university that don't involve using the big roads full of quarry lorries and Imprezas.


Saturday, November 05, 2005

I know my mum reads this but...

... check out this page.

I challenge you to look in detail at the images and to not think that media studies is a worthwhile academic pursuit.

Publishing revolution?

There is quite a lot that is mesmerising about Google Print and similar projects [1,2,3] but nothing quite so potentially revolutionary as a development reported in the New York Times yesterday: that they are developing a system to allow us to buy online access to any page or section of a book.

For those who do not have the faintest idea what I am rabbiting on about, Google Print etc. are scanning in millions of pages of books onto their servers so that we can search not only the internet but the entire sum of human knowledge when we go to our favourite search engine. There was a flurry of news reporting of this over the past few days [1,2] but it was this article in the New York Times that really moved the story on quite significantly. Up to now, all that the projects have been talking about is simply scanning in books and making them available to searchers. Except for at Amazon, where you can buy the whole book, there has been no way to pay for the content found in the search. Which basically meant either that the books had to be be out of copyright or that access had to be severely limited so that people couldn't pirate the content. The following idea is, as I say, revolutionary: and Google are both developing systems to allow consumers to purchase online access to any page, section or chapter of a book.
[Readers will be able to] buy and download parts of individual books for their own use through their computers rather than trek to a store or receive them by mail. Consumers could purchase a single recipe from a cookbook, for example, or a chapter on rebuilding a car engine from a repair manual.
The good old book is going to be pulled apart at its stitching! It's like being able to go to the library with a pair of scissors and chop out the encyclopedia entry on "Siberian Winter Pantyhose" and cart it home!

Several initial thoughts come to mind. What is this going to do to writing? Won't there be a massive temptation for somebody writing a big boring history of "Industrial Decline in Siberia 1991-2005" to include a salacious page on "Siberian Winter Pantyhose" just to grab a bit of revenue from the passing Google trade? Seriously though, isn't this going to massively increase the availability of academic writing to the casual reader and will the fact that the casual reader might become a significant income stream not have an impact on the way academic writing and publishing is approached? It seems to me that the major barriers to general readership of many academic journal articles is simply their inaccessibility. The major barrier to general reading of some of the larger academic tomes is their formidable size, their hardbacks and their price. Won't this start to break down those barriers? Even if the readership were to stay largely specialist, won't this make the economics of academic publishing more viable? Those are just a few thoughts about academic and, I suppose, other specialist book publishing but surely this change is going to make its presence felt across the whole spectrum of book publishing.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Those inefficient men in their flying machines

Went to the beach today to try to drill some Japanese verbs into my head. (I know! You are supposed to swim and surf and have fun!) Anyway, I was rather distracted by a man wearing a parachute and with a propellor engine attached to his back flying out to sea. I have looked up this strange behaviour on Wikipedia and apparently it is called powered paragliding. I had no idea such a thing existed! As someone who steps onto a jumbo jet with trepidation, I had a vague notion that there were certifiable types who enjoyed jumping off cliffs with only a bit of fabric to support them, but the notion of strapping a propellor to their arses to add a bit more thrill to proceedings completely blows my mind.

At first, I couldn't get a clear view of who the pilot was. He was taking off and landing about 100 metres from where I had parked myself but I couldn't make out his face. I kind of imagined a wild haired nutcase with an anorak and a deathwish.

Anyway, I think he saw me taking videos of his flights because he flew directly over me and waved down at his uncomprehending, groundlubbing admirer. He was quite different from what I had expected: he was, in fact, a dashing young man with a square jaw, just like you might imagine one of those pre-WWI pilots would look like. My mind may be playing tricks on me but I'm pretty sure he even had a moustache. Chocks away! Here he is flying and, later, having an Icarus moment. (Or was that my camera?)

The connection is a bit tenuous but somehow all this flying got me thinking about UFOs and then about our civilisation's technological foundations. I'm not sure this thought will really work as a blog post but here goes:

There have been some quite serious attempts by scientists to find intelligent life on other planets. This has meant searching the universe for radio and other transmissions that might be signs of technologically advanced life. So far, after decades of searching, nothing has been found to definitely point to such a civilisation. Which is kind of worrying because, if you look at our very young civilisation's technological trajectory, which has brought exponential improvements in our capabilities, it wouldn't take long in galactic terms for any technological civilisation to get off its home planet, on to a whole load of other planets and, basically, propagate itself fairly widely. Given that the universe is rather a large place with, presumably, a good few planets with a fair likelihood of creating life, you would expect that we would find it rather easy to find technologically advanced fellows in other parts of the universe.

That far I got myself but, after searching on the Internet, I find a worrying answer to my half formed seaside thought. Apparently, the idea is a poor version of a paradox proposed by the physicist Enrico Fermi. One of the answers to the paradox is to question the silent premise of my thinking, ie. that intelligent life, once it has evolved, stays around. If, on the other hand, technological life is an unstable state, which develops exponentially but somehow contains the seeds of its own very fast destruction within it, then there is no paradox between the rarity of evidence of technological life in the universe and the apparent likelihood of finding it. Technologically advanced life may be much more common than we think, the Earth not half so singular, but it may also be a hell of a lot more temporary than we like to believe. This from Wikipedia:

Life on Earth, and intelligent life on Earth, evolved as a result of the competition for scarce resources. The evolutionary psychology that developed during this struggle has left its mark on our characters, and left human beings subject to involuntary, instinctual drives to consume resources and to breed. It seems likely that intelligent life on other planets evolved subject to similar constraints, and as such pessimism about their long term viability is a justifiable position.Technological civilizations may usually or invariably destroy themselves (via nuclear war, biological warfare, grey goo, or in a Malthusian catastrophe after destroying their planet's ecosphere) before or shortly after developing radio or spaceflight technology. This general theme is explored in The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which has as its central premise a civilisation that overtaxes its resource base and cyclically self-destructs, but which tries to preserve its culture from one cycle to the next. It would be anthropocentric to suggest that humanity is immune to any of these fates. Therefore another view is that we ourselves do not exist long enough to encounter alien life. Indeed, there are probabilistic arguments which suggest that our end may occur sooner rather than later.
This isn't just wild fantasy. To take just one possibility: not only has our technological capability been increasing exponentially over the past few centuries but so has our consumption of energy resources. These resources are limited. If it proves not to be possible to come up with some kind unlimited energy source and if we cannot get off this planet before the scarcity begins to really bite, in the fullness of galactic time we are going to find ourselves in a vicious fight for those resources, with unsustainably large populations and with political and social structures well adapted to creating massively destructive violence in such a situation. This is only a silly thought, but maybe the Iraq war is, if looked at from a very long term perspective, the first twitchings of something big.

Honestly, I don't normally have much time for this kind of apocalyptic thinking but I found this one quite interesting.

More problems at the Guardian

This appears pretty shoddy. I commented a few weeks ago on the excellence of the Guardian's corrections procedures but perhaps there is a reason for this? Too much practice?

I have interviewed Chomsky and he is a pretty spiky customer. However, there is certainly no need to put things in his mouth to make interesting copy.

This is a bit by the bye, but I have also followed up Guardian stories about Living Marxism and LM before (which is one of the issues Brockes raises in the Srebrenica connection) and have been disappointed in the casualness of some of their writers in impugning people's reputations without having done even the basic journalistic proprieties like interviewing their subjects. I am not defending LM's coverage of Bosnia (neither was Chomsky), just saying that when I was commissioned to do a follow up of a tasty sounding George Monbiot piece about LM and their nefariousness, I found it fell apart in my hands. I had gone into the commission smelling an interesting conspiracy and left it writing a piece that read in large parts like a defence of one of the supposed conspirators because the attacks on his reputation seemed so insubstantial. Monbiot replied with a letter, in which he basically argued he was merely "reporting phenomena", then repeated his theory and then claimed that it was a limitation of the freedom of the press for his reporting and its effects on one of his targets to be publicly discussed.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Go on, have a go...

I know you could get a pair of scissors and a piece of paper and do it for real, but that wouldn't be half as fun as doing it virtually ... would it?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

On love and locks

Went to Shonan Daira Koen yesterday. It is a park on top of the ridge of hills that sweep down to the sea beside Hiratsuka. One of its main features is a big Eiffel Tower style viewing platform overlooking the city and the ocean.

Over the past decade or so, it has become a bit of a thing among teenage couples to attach locks to this tower as testaments to their undying love. Almost every surface is covered with the things.

This menage looked a bit complicated:

I wonder who kept the keys?