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.


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 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.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Temporary workers and baby boomers

As someone who has been in a casualized work environment almost all my career, I have to agree with this article. The article is about much less privileged people than those I have worked with but this kind of casualization is now endemic at all levels of our economy. I chose to be a freelance, but many don`t. The cost is not only in generally poorer terms and conditions but also in the huge opportunity costs of not being able to plan, put down financial roots, get mortgages etc..

I`m going to go off on one now: Those damn baby boomers talked some big stuff when they were on the threshold of their adult lives and then - apart from their multifarious other disasters and murderous misadventures - oversaw the destruction of the basic employment rights and bargaining structures that older generations had worked hard to achieve. It is not a left/right thing. Many of us have been in places where younger workers had to cover for sabbatical taking old radicals on permanent contracts and had to listen to their tales of the good old days when they were on strike and they irresponsibly destroyed collective bargaining trying to add one more enhancement to their ridiculously comfortable contracts. Or so it seemed to us. Oh, and then there were the managers who would, if it was up to them, give "you young people a better deal" but "it is out of my hands, that just isn`t the way it is done any more." ("But just keep paying my pension when I am gone, will you?")