Thursday, 28 February 2008


I've grown to like xkcd more and more as I look through the archives. This strip seemed to mirror perfectly my own thoughts on relationships recently...

I sent off my application for the job I mentioned previously. Was good to get it sent off, but at the same time the stress of preparing for it has collided with the relief of it being sent, so am feeling a bit numb.

My nan is still in hospital; she had another operation yesterday to remove a drainage tube that was mistakenly left in after her first operation two weeks ago... Luckily there was no infection as a result of the tube being left in, but due to the heating failing on her ward for a day last week she has a touch of pneumonia now too.

My dad would have been 60 today. I guess the thought of that has been playing on my mind a little more than I thought. Last night I had a dream where I met him. He looked exactly the same as he did before he passed away (nearly ten years ago). In the dream I remember telling him that I knew it was a dream. We sat for a while and I think I said more but I don't remember what. I think I told him about my what I was doing now, but I can't say for certain. In any case, he didn't say anything, just smiled as I talked, and finally we stood up and shook hands.

"And then I woke up" - the end of any story about a dream.

Right. Off to play squash and football again, burn off some of the stress.

More soon.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Put Downs

I was going to say something about a rather frustrating application I've come across on Facebook, but that can wait for another day - especially since I don't think the ten minutes I have before I have to get ready for squash and football is enough time to do my vexation justice.

Instead I give you this quite awesome link to a BBC News article on the top 25 put downs in television history. I'll wait a few minutes while you go and read it...

...good, right? My two favourites from the list are "Look, we all have something to bring to this discussion. But I think from now on the thing you should bring is silence" from Red Dwarf and "You can think I'm wrong but that's no reason to stop thinking" from House. Part of me is quite surprised that there weren't more comebacks and put downs from Gregory House in the list, who is perhaps the most brilliantly rude character in recent television history.

Oh, and I love the Statler and Waldorf banter in the list! My favourite Jim Henson creations all live on Sesame Street (Cookie Monster, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie... The list goes on) but my favourite Muppets are Statler and Waldorf.

Is there a put down that this list is forgetting? Any real zingers that you've used in the past?

More soon.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Of Senescals and Democracy, Ceiling Wax and Kings

Guess what? An obscure island in the English channel with a population of 600 people has just decided to change the way it is administrated. I know. I can hardly stand the excitement either.

Actually, the story of Sark's transition to democracy is an interesting, instructive and rather odd one. Sark, like its bigger neighbours Guernsey and Jersey, is a bit of a legal oddity, being a Crown Dependency and hence neither part of the United Kingdom nor the European Union - yet not quite a sovereign state in its own right. (Though it does, along with Guernsey, have its own special internet domain.) It has lived an isolated and peaceful existence for centuries and its development has therefore been rather 'slow': it doesn't even have motorized transportation, for example. This extends to its government also - until the present day the island has had a feudal government, wherein forty hereditary landowners make all necessary decisions and pass laws in a parliament known as 'Chief Pleas'.

The existence of such a system worries people of a certain nature, however, and those people have in recent years been putting pressure on the people of Sark to respect 'human rights' and institute genuine democracy: the island is not subject to the European Charter on Human Rights but the UK is, and it bears responsibility for ensuring its dependencies abide by the law contained in that treaty.

The most instructive and telling remark in the new story is that made by the Seneschal, Lt. Col. Reg Guille, who commented that "In its day, Sark had a very democratic system. The settlers ran the island." That rings true, and it seems rather strange to me that the island is being forced into adopting democracy when there is apparently no pressing internal need or desire to do so. In fact the current feudal system seems to better represent democracy in the truest sense than it is on the mainland - presumably everybody on the island knows all 40 of the hereditary landowners and can communicate directly to them their needs and have them addressed in parliament, which the average Britain can only do in the most indirect and convoluted way.

Sark's story demonstrates to us two things. Firstly, there is a substantial minority of people in the human rights movement who wear the masks of campaigners against injustice but are actually little better than busybodies. (Just think: the people who worried enough about an obscure island of 600 perfectly happy people somewhere between France and England to actively campaign about its method of government could have spent that time, you know, trying to do something about human rights in Iran.) Secondly, it should serve to make people think about what democracy actually is and means, what form it should take, and what exactly it is about it that makes it the system we should use. It seems that those questions are blithely swept over in the political discourses at both domestic and international levels, when they really are some of the most important issues for people in the kinds of societies we live in to grapple with. For example, why is it that we consider general elections to be democratic when less than half the population votes in them and the ruling party is consequently usually only actually elected by around 28% of the population? And why is that better than what Sark has (or had)?

Ho hum. I doubt life in Sark will change much, in any case. I think I'll allow them anything so long as they don't stop calling their head of government "Seneschal Lt. Col."

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Keeping Fit

I'm off to play football quite soon, and so, obviously not wanting to start any work before then, I decided to trawl through the archives of xkcd some more. I just hit the random comic button a few times, and the following came up.

This is exactly how I thought about the gym when I was going there regularly, before I decided that I actually preferred competitive things other than watching a digital readout click over...

Boys Don't Cry

I saw another of the Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD" performances on Saturday, and once again I was not disappointed. I didn't really know the story of Manon Lescaut, or of Puccini's adaptation, but my mum knew something of it and had picked this one out as one of the four she wanted to see for this season.

As with Eugene Onegin last year, I was completely entranced from start to finish. So far this year I have already seen operas of Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet, but somehow they didn't quite match up to the Manon Lescaut on Saturday, and all have failed to capture me as Eugene Onegin did. I'm not sure why exactly, but I wonder if it is precisely because I know the stories of Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet so well that they didn't grip me as much; I was always wondering (knowing that adaptations take small liberties) "Is that character going to appear?" "I wonder how they will do this?" and so on. Not knowing Eugene Onegin or Manon Lescaut beforehand perhaps allowed me to just soak it all in without thinking about what was to come.

One thing that both Onegin and Manon Lescaut have both managed to do is get me really choked up. Now, I'm not a macho guy by any stretch, and I'm not so reserved as thinking that there is something wrong per se with men crying, but I like to keep my tears to myself if at all possible. Onegin and Manon Lescaut involved me so much that I almost lost it; Des Grieux's grief and pleading at the end of Act III on Saturday was so emotional that it was as if it had cut me to the quick. Similarly, there were several moments in the performance of Onegin I saw last year that almost reduced me to tears, even more so than Manon Lescaut.

I'm not about to expouse some great theory about all this, but I think that there is something profoundly amazing with art/media - be it opera, theatre, film, literature, whatever - if it can effect an emotional response in a person to move them to tears or have them welling up. Comedy, drama, an interesting philosophical notion that makes you think for hours afterwards, all of these are good... But to move a person to tears is something else altogether; I think it's maybe because tears are such a private thing, we associate them with such personal events in our lives.

I don't remember the last time I watched a film that moved me that much*. And I could count on one hand the number of times a book has moved me so profoundly ("Flowers For Algernon," "Earth Abides," the last few chapters of "The Return Of The King").

How about you? What art/media moves you?

More soon.

*OK, I do remember, it was Terminator 2 when the Terminator is lowered into the steel at the end of the film. "I know now why you cry... But it is something that I can never do."

In my defence, I was a kid at the time!

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

More xkcd

After not writing for several days I think I am entitled to post twice in quick succession, especially when the second post is just a short one containing the following (in my opinion) hilarious picture from xkcd.

Right, now I'm off home. Thirty-three pages of typesetting computer programs is enough for one day.

Wordy Wednesday

Sigh. How did it get to Wednesday already?

So far this week has just been about my thesis. I've gone home two nights on the run just thinking about it, which is either really good or pretty bad, I've not decided which. In any case, yesterday I gave my fourth drafted chapter to my supervisor for him to look over. That officially puts me over the halfway mark in my book, and the good news is that the three remaining chapters have been worked on to some extent so I am not starting any of them "cold" so to speak.

Meeting with my supervisor tomorrow morning to talk about corrections to the three latest chapters I've handed him, and rather than start on work for the final three I decided to spend a few days working on my appendices. A large part of the work for two of my chapters was in developing algorithms for calculating knot polynomials, and so as well as theoretically come up with the methods I had to implement them in a computing language.

My task for the last few days has been commenting and annotating the code for some of these procedures: it's quite satisfying to recline in my office chair knowing that my thesis has increased by 57 pages in three days! Less satisfying when I see that 50 of those are for the appendices, but still, it's all important stuff and had to be done at some point.

I look through my blog fodder folder and see that there are a few BBC News stories that I have been meaning to share for a while now, and then there have been three this week that have set me thinking in one way or another.

Today's story of a Marilyn Monroe expert mistaking a poster of Madonna for Marilyn is quite astounding; I can sort of get how the guy who initially found it might make the mistake, an initial excitement and then a strong willingness for it to be something valuable could blind one to the truth. I don't get how the expert on Monroe could not notice it though, but then suddenly go, "My word, you're right!" when journalists said, "Isn't that Madonna?" Weird world.

Not as weird as the natural world; this picture of a prehistoric "frog from hell" made me long for a time machine to go back and see all of the amazing creatures that are no longer here.

In my travels through time I would, however, avoid the giant prehistoric scorpion from this article...

This story confirms something that I have long suspected about tattoos of Chinese words. My big question for this is why the artist used the word for "supermarket" - there are much more humourous things that that one could do with the situation.

The news story that has really got me thinking today is the British government's proposals for "British citizenship tests" which has been the main story on BBC News online all day. I don't object to making some kind of requirement of language exams, or even the idea of some kind of fund (with money coming from increased visa fees) which offsets some of the impact of large groups of people moving into an area.

The phrase which concerns me is "...future migrants would need to 'earn' citizenship..." I can understand a minimum set of requirements (language, finances, ability to earn and contribute to economy etc), but there is something else implied by earn citizenship that I find a bit unsettling, something that I can't quite express.

Perhaps it was reading on and seeing that the process would be easier for migrants (and have "full access" to benefits) if they could show that they were "active" citizens, by participating in charity work or being involved in the local community. My worry is that I might be deported because I am involved in neither! How can you make these almost requirements for citizenship of people who want to live in the UK when they are not requirements for people who are citizens of the country by birth? It doesn't quite seem fair.

Ugh, and the phrase "earn citizenship"... There's something incredibly dystopian about that phrase...

David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" has been running through my head all week (and coming out of my speakers thanks to Youtube); I really like it a lot. I've finally got into reading the webcomic xkcd as well; today's strip, was just a blinder.

More soon.

Monday, 18 February 2008

A Wunch of Bankers

So, congratulations are in order. I am now the owner of a bank.

Well, technically so are around 45 million other Britons. But still. Something to celebrate, don't you think?

Yes, that's right, the failed bank Northern Rock has now been nationalised and the government has become its only shareholder - not incidentally guaranteeing £110 billion (that's £110 BILLION) of taxpayers money in order to protect depositors and investors.

Now, I'm the first to admit, I know next to nothing about banking. But what I do know is, if a business fails ordinarily, there are generally pretty awful consequences for those concerned. People lose their jobs, CEOs get dragged over the coals, and legal action of all descriptions might result. And yet it is now apparent that the banking industry is different: a poorly run bank that makes idiotic choices about who to loan money to and gets involved in something as ridiculous as the sub-prime loans crisis not only survives but gets shored up by the taxpayer's money. The shareholders don't lose anything, the depositors don't lose anything, and the board escapes scotch free.

Seems a bit odd to me. In fact, it seems to utterly go against everything we know about free market economics. Isn't the whole point of buying shares that it's a risk? Isn't the point of a board accountability? Isn't it the point of a business that it can succeed or fail on its own merits? If a car manufacturer, say, goes out of business, the government don't nationalise it to protect shareholders and employees. Apparently that rule doesn't apply to banks.

In truth, I'm glad that the ordinary depositors who have savings in the institution are safe. But it seems to me that Northern Rock (and all banks) has a responsibility to its depositors to behave sensibly with their money and treat the implicit faith and trust they place in it with respect: it hasn't done so, and now it's got away with it. And we collectively have to shell out £110 billion. It's scandalous, actually. The board should be in prison, but instead they are, if you'll excuse the pun, laughing all the way to the bank.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Not-Very-Many-Words Sunday

My blogging partner has been doing 'Wordless Wednesday' posts for a while now. This post isn't entirely wordless, but nearly so. Here is a picture taken by the British photographer Tim Hetherington, of a bunker operated by the US Military near Korengal in Afghanistan: I saw it earlier today and had the bizarre thought, what a beautiful place to have a war.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Friday Already?

Where did the week go? It's the weekend once again, and I'm just amazed. It's a weird time at the moment.

My nan, who is in the end stages of Pick's Disease, had to be admitted in to hospital for an emergency hernia operation last Sunday. At the same time they resectioned her bowel and removed her appendix; we had to go in and see her when they admitted her, and they explained the risks and everything. They told us about how they wouldn't be using any extraordinary measures in the event of her getting into any difficulties - and in her condition that is not what we would want or she would want, but at the same time it is one thing knowing that and another thing accepting it when you're being told by a surgeon or an anaesthetist.

Five days on and she is still very poorly. The Pick's has brought her to the point now where she can't talk, certainly no more than yes and no answers, and one would have to wonder if she understands a question when it is asked of her. When she sees us I'd like to think that there is still that recognition in her eyes, even if it is just that she knows we are family. She's not eaten anything all week or got out of the bed, and has been asleep for most of the time.

It feels like we're all just holding our breath, waiting...

Technology let me down yesterday, and the Valentine ecard that I tried to send never made it to its recipient. First time in five years that I like someone and think that they like me, and the Internet decides to hate me. Well, have decided that the Internet can get stuffed, it's not going to beat me. I'm seeing her after the weekend and I'm just going to tell her.

(yes, I probably should have just trusted the Royal Mail but I don't know her address - the age that we live in I suppose - and yes, I really should have just told her in person anyway that I like her... As noisms will testify, this is my normal pattern of behaviour when I life someone, i.e., not saying a thing to them and hoping that they will notice something in me in some way because we spend time together. The difference with this one is that I am going to do something about it)

The Kodo Drummers were absolutely spectacular. The dedication, the skill, the sound... If they had been playing on Tuesday night I would have gone back to see them, and if they return to Liverpool or anywhere near where I might be in the future I wouldn't hesitate to see them again. I quite like listening to percussion pieces, and have seen a few performances at my sister's music college before, but nothing like the taiko drumming that the Kodo Drummers did.

And... I might be applying for a job. It's a teaching position at a university in the south of the UK, a fixed term position where I would be a member of teaching staff (not doing, or at least not getting paid to do, research) and it would involve, by the sounds of things, a lot of teaching with a lot of admin, but it would be a start.

Weighing it up at the moment; the application deadline is three weeks away, and the start time would be September this year. Thesis submission is probably two months away now, but with probable viva dates and then time to get corrections finished it doesn't leave a lot of time for sorting out somewhere to live, moving etc. Still, you make time for what's important, right?

The big thing that I'm weighing it up against is my desire to travel for an extended period... If I don't do it now when will I do it? But how often does the possibility of a decent job like this (which is right up my street) come along?

Will let you know how my decision to apply for it goes in the coming weeks...

Finally, I've just finished reading "The Man Who Was Thursday" by G. K. Chesterton; I liked it a lot, even though the direction of the story was quite obvious from about halfway through, it was a really funny tale and had a lot of really profound moments too. The following, which is in the context of people, is the one that just jumped out of the page at me as I read it.

It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.

More soon.


Kanagawa prefecture, where I live, is a little hot spot for US military activity. Jets and helicopter gunships fly by on a daily basis, on training missions from the local air base (at Zama); there is also a big naval base at Yokosuka where you can often see aircraft carriers and AEGIS cruisers resupplying (or doing whatever they do). After 60 years they're still here, and probably will be indefinitely; surprising as it may seem the Japanese government prefers to have a US military presence in the archipelago because it means they don't have to face up to one of their major long-term problems: the lack of a real army. While America has a stake here they can duck the issue, which they're more than happy to do.

Still, there are problems associated with this, especially for Okinawa. Okinawa was actually only 'returned' to Japanese sovereignty during the mid 1970s, and it still bears a disproportionate weight in terms of US military presence. (Despite having only about 1% of Japan's total land area, the prefecture has about 75% of all the land taken by the American armed forces in the country.) It also bears a disproportionate amount of crime and social disorder associated with the occupying troops. (Rape is particularly common.)

What many people don't know about Okinawa is that until the 1970s it was actually technically an independent state (despite being a vassal of Japan). Indeed, for most Okinawans, the American occupation was just the replacement of one hated outside army by another, and many in the prefecture were hoping that the US government could be persuaded to give the islands back the independence that was taken from them during the early 20th century. But the world of the 1970s was markedly different to that of 1945; the US and Japan were no longer enemies but allies in the Cold War, and so Okinawa was 'returned' (actually given over) to Tokyo when occupation was deemed no longer necessary.

You can still see relics of Okinawa's past if you go to the islands. Each island had its own language and king, and distinctive-looking palaces, castles and temples are dotted around the archipelago. You can also see more recent relics of Okinawa's painful history in the form of cave systems where local civilians used to hide from the fighting during the Battle for Okinawa in March-June 1945. It is estimated that 140,000 civilians were killed in the battle (along with around 60,000 Japanese and 12,000 American troops), many of them
at the hands of Japanese soldiers (who also forced thousands of them to commit suicide). They used to take shelter in remote caves under cliffs and in other inaccessible positions, and these days those places are treated as shrines to the war dead.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Hi! China!

So the Olympics have become political again, and there is once again an opportunity for Westerners to feel self-righteous and point their fingers at another country, this time China. How we love an opportunity to duck our own responsibilities and foist the blame on somebody else. We in the West have singularly failed to do anything of worth to help the Darfur situation, despite being the best placed to do so, and rather than stand up and admit it we pass the buck to China; could anything be more childish and pathetic? And that's exactly how it looks to people in East Asia, I can personally confirm.

What especially annoys me is the hypocrisy. The Olympics after these will be held in London; how many countries in the world will listen to the invective being directed in China and think to themselves, "Why not boycott the London Olympics because of what happened in Iraq?" But no, different strokes for different folks: when the London Olympics come around, all the talk will be about the spirit of sport and apolitical competition - you can pretty well guarantee it. You can straight away bet your house on Stephen Spielberg not having much to say.

In any case, the point of the Olympics is that it is the world's chance, once every four years, to put aside politics and compete as equals. That never works in practice, but we should at least be working towards that goal; Darfur and Iraq are to be discussed at the negotiating table at the UN - all I want to hear about at Beijing 2008 is fat women hammer throwers from Belarus, British rowers and sailors getting gold (our only medals), Japanese getting a clean sweep at the judo (their only medals), some US sprinter or other breaking a world record, and beautiful Eastern European pole vaulters.

Monday, 11 February 2008


Since the ancient heating system was turned on in mid-October we have had problems in our office; when it was first turned on, it was quite stifling at times, and we complained and asked if there was anything that could be done about it.

We were told that people had been complaining about the heating system for over fifteen years, and nothing had happened yet, but that "they" would look into it - I'm really not sure who "they" are, "they" could be goblins for all I know... Not once in our discussions did we find out whether it was a university service we were waiting on, or if outside people were being hired in to try and fix it.

In early November the top two floors on our side of the building went cold. Previously the other side of the building had been cold, and now they had heat (at a reasonable temperature too). For three months in our office (which is over 2o square metres) we made do with one little electric heater, and every other week we were told that someone was going to take another look at the heating system.

On some days I knew of people who were wearing coats in their offices at their desks in order to stay warm... Until finally on Thursday last week I came in to the office and my officemate Helena said, "The wall started making noises a few minutes ago." The central heating system runs the full length of one wall and so I went over and experimentally put my hand over it... A thin trickle of heat was coming out. We danced a little dance and turned our one bar heater off, and thanked God that finally the thermostats were fixed and we could work in comfort.

On Friday morning I got up to the office, opened the door and was almost floored by a rolling wave of heat. Of course, my desk is right next to the heating... Today, coming in to the office first thing was even worse, the heat even more sweltering. Just above the heaters running the length of the wall we have four large windows. They're all open and it barely makes a dent in the temperature.

We've all fired off emails, but haven't received a reply as yet. At the University of Liverpool, things often just go from one ridiculous extreme to another...

Anyway! Sorry to bore you with this little slice of life from the fifth floor. I'm off out in about ten minutes to meet a friend for dinner, and then we're going to see the Kodo Drummers at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall!

Of Mice and Men, and Whales and Cows and Cod

As you're perhaps aware, the issue of whaling has once again reared its head in the South Pacific. This is because Japan (like Norway, Iceland, Russia, and some other countries) has continued to hunt whales in small numbers despite the worldwide moratorium; it does this lawfully by killing the whales for supposedly 'scientific purposes' and then allowing their meat to be sold 'once research is finished'. (The Moratorium was started in the early 1980's essentially to collate data on whale populations in order to examine the damage done by whaling, so there remains a loophole for scientific research purposes.) It's a fiction, but it allows whaling to continue at a basically sustainable level. (For example, in 2005 Japanese whalers took 100 Sei Whales, 10 Sperm Whales, 50 Humpback Whales, 50 Fin Whales, 50 Bryde's Whales, and around 850 of the common Minke Whales. It is estimated that the worldwide population of the latter is just under a million.) Australia in particular objects to this, which is what the recent broohaha has been all about.

I've never particularly understood the moral objection to whaling which seems to motivate most Anglo populations in the world. (When it comes to animal rights, the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand are easily the most strident and simultaneously intellectually confused.) Whales are animals like any other, and if you're going to eat beef or pork there's really no moral difference to eating whale; in fact the latter is arguably more ethically sound in that whales live free and have rather nice lives until they're caught and eaten, unlike most farmed cows and pigs. The fact that whales are intelligent and 'majestic' or 'beautiful' (a commonly cited reason for the objection) shouldn't make a difference: the implication of such an argument is that it's only okay to kill and eat species that are 'stupid', like cows, which is inconsistent and illogical; a creature has as much right to life, surely, however stupid or intelligent it is - we abandoned that sort of categorization for humans a century or more ago. (And anyway we shouldn't base such decisions on subjective opinion - I happen to think cows are rather beautiful animals too, although strictly in the platonic sense.)

Ain't she gorgeous?

So if you're going to eat any meat at all, whales should be included. Of course, a vital caveat is that any hunting ought to be done sustainably. In that sense whales are like any major commercial fish species, like cod: there's no point in eating them to extinction, because that would cause irreparable damage to ecosystems and result in no more good eating. Most countries that practice whaling are well aware of this, which is why indigenous groups in Canada and Alaska carefully monitor whale populations in their areas to ensure positive growth even as they hunt. It is also why even Norway, the most ardent disciple of whaling in the world and the only country which absolutely rejects the international moratorium, restricts itself to a very small catch each year. Whales are actually comparatively easy to fish sustainably; it's simple to measure how many are being caught, unlike cod, and there's no chance of accidental overfishing (or, incidentally, the accidental catching of unwanted species as by-catch) because nets aren't used, only harpoons. Whale meat is also, I can personally attest, reasonably tasty. Rather like beef, although eaten as sashimi it is more like corned beef.

I would have more respect for Greenpeace and other environmentalist groups (and the Australian government) if they lobbied commercial fisherman with equal stridency (throwing stinkbombs, illegally boarding their ships, spraying graffiti) as they do Japanese whalers. But they don't. Funny that. The inescapable conclusion is that it all just comes down to that most ridiculous of prejudices: fish are slippery and slimy and ugly; whales are beautiful; so people can only get worked up about the hunting of the latter.


(NB: I feel it necessary to reiterate my fundamental opposition to unsustainable hunting or fishing of any kind. I believe that all fishing should be carefully monitored and all fisheries strictly managed. I include whales in this. [Whales aren't fish, strictly, I know. Neither are shrimp or lobsters. But the principle is the same.])

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Unfunny Puns

Japanese humour is rightly considered weird. (When I first arrived in Japan back in March 2003, I remember about two days into my stay being sat down in front of the TV by my American flatmate and told to "Watch and learn." Together we sat drinking shochu and watching a guy dressed in a cockroach outfit repeatedly taking running jumps into giant toilet bowls filled with confetti while an audience of hundreds laughed hysterically. And it was funny. But weird too.)

However, one thing the Japanese and the British in particular share is a love of puns. Japanese is a language perfectly suited to the pun, because the number of distinct sounds is so small - with the consequence that similar sounding words are very common. It's difficult to explain examples if you don't know the language, because puns are so language-specific. Last night though, Ijuin-san came through our communal kitchen area, noticed we were cooking hokke, a kind of haddocky fish, and immediately said, "Hokke o Hott-okke!" ("Leave that haddock alone!") That's a typical example; you can probably appreciate at least the pleasing congruence of sound and meaning.

One other similarity between the Japanese and British is that we love puns, but we're also ashamed of them - as if we know they're a deeply boring and ridiculous form of humour but we're unable to stop it. Interestingly, when somebody in Japan or Britain makes a pun the reaction of the surrounding people is exactly the same: everybody groans and tells the punner to f--- off (in the case of Britain) or that they're an oyaji [old fart] (in the case of Japan), while at the same time chuckling at the joke.

In fact I think the point of the pun isn't really to make people laugh; it performs the function of uniting the group in condemnation of the pun and hence promotes group cohesion by being an ice-breaker. In societies such as Britain and Japan, where people are quite reserved, such things are important in keeping the juices of interpersonal relations flowing.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Cutlery Customs

I'm not actually sure if I've mentioned it on the blog before, but one of my plans post-PhD is to spend a good few months travelling around the US. I've never been to America before, and there are just so many places that I would love to go, cities, wilderness, national parks, mountains, glaciers... At the moment I'm reading (well, skimming certain parts - like I really need to know right now what the best B&B in the Hamptons is) through the Lonely Planet USA guide, which weighs in at over 1200 pages just to try and get some more concrete ideas of things that I might want to do and get an idea of distances.

I came across something in the cuisine and eating section though which made me stop and re-read it just to make sure that I had read it right. The following was in a separate piece on cutlery etiquette:

"The method for holding cutlery seems extremely complicated at first: hold your fork in your right hand, and rest your left hand in your lap. When you need to use a knife, switch your fork to your left hand and cut with your right. Or just eat European-style - it won't be considered rude unless you rest your left hand on the table."

The idea of switching knife and fork seemed a little weird - everyone I know or have ever met seems to hold on to both at the same time - is that European-style? I don't know, it never occured to me that there was a "style" about how you use your cutlery.

The big question from me to you, dear American readers, is to ask why it would be rude if I rested my left hand on the table? Thinking about it, it doesn't feel like it would be a comfortable position, but then I wouldn't normally think about resting it in my lap whilst eating either, so what do I know?

Any illumination on the subject would be appreciated! More on my possible travel plans as time moves on and I have a clearer idea of when I'll actually be finished with my PhD. This weekend I'm planning to correct two of my chapters, and forge ahead with another one - but first I have to do my six hour marathon of marking this evening...

Muslims and TVs

One thing I've noticed is that civil liberties and personal freedoms have as much a tendency to promote deep conservatism as they do liberalism.

For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently advocated allowing British Muslims to live under Sharia law. (I know. I can't even be bothered explaining how depressing that thought is, for a whole host of reasons too horrible to catalogue here and which the reader is probably well aware of. Suffice to say: I fear my my country's future.) This is ostensibly a drive for religious and cultural freedom - allowing people to live the way they want to live, according to their customs - but it can only lead to the highly illiberal situation wherein each ethnic or minority group maintains its own culture, legal system, language and genetic purity without any form of crossover with other groups. Separate law regimes are the first step to complete societal fragmentation.

It's also profoundly undemocratic. The point of democracy is that, basically, decisions are determined by the wishes of the majority. If we're going to have a democracy in Britain at all, then we ought to take it seriously enough to go for it 100%, and that means having a democratically determined universally applicable legal system too.

So a superficially wishy-washy liberal stance ends up being anything but.

The Great Man Himself.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

We're Doomed

The British on the whole like a nice little chuckle every now and then at our American cousins (stick with me on this people!). It's a fun little pastime, you know what I mean: statistics about how many US citizens don't know where Iraq is, or video footage showing the "average American citizen" failing at basic knowledge of the world... Over the pond we all have a laugh and congratulate ourselves on being smart.


"A new survey reveals that a quarter of Britons believe Winston Churchill never existed..."


I can't wait until the cockroaches evolve some more and take over...

Super Tuesday vs. London

I sometimes worry about whether the internet is really a good idea or not, but I never have those worries while I'm using it to listen to the BBC. Funny that.

Anyway, part of the fun of living in Japan is being able to listen to all the weird and wonderful nonsense that's on at 3am GMT while I'm having lunch; at the moment, for instance, I'm being filled in on the ins-and-outs of gyroscopic effects within cars and the life span of lead-acid batteries by a radio-phone in on Radio 5 live. (Apparently, our battery technology "still sucks". I know. I'm concerned too.)

Last night though, I was able to listen live to all the Super Tuesday results as they came in, with a whole host of illustrious analysts and experts commenting on it. Interesting stuff. I hate all that "leader of the free world" guff that always gets trotted out when American democracy comes under discussion, but the system certainly is more 'democratic' than the British one in that we don't get the chance to have anything other than a very indirect say in who will be our prime minister. Then again, I'm not sure that's a disadvantage; voting directly for an individual might just mean that the richest and/or most charismatic person becomes president, which isn't necessarily conducive for good policy.

One of Jeremy Vine's questions to his listeners yesterday was why Super Tuesday is such big news in the UK when a London Mayoral election is coming up soon; shouldn't the latter be occupying more news space? There was almost a tone of peevishness in his voice. Well, the answer, for me personally, is that I don't give a shit what happens in London because I've never lived there and hate the place, whereas who becomes president of the US is of at least some importance in my life. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of British democracy, one thing I can say is that a major disadvantage to life in the UK is that London is so dominant a media and cultural centre that Londoners seem to look on the rest of the country as an extension of its suburbs; they find it difficult to comprehend that somebody living in, say, Manchester, has as much interest in the London Mayoral election as they do in the life span of lead-acid batteries.

But the President of the US can start a nuclear war if he wants to. That means I have at least some level of vested interest in who he (or she) is.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008


The talk went pretty well in the end I think. I was a little rushed for time in the last third of it, and if I could go back I would make some changes to how it all flowed, but for the most part I was happy with how it went, and my friend (who invited me to give the talk) thinks that it went over well.

I was filmed while I was doing it, as they want to produce a DVD of all of the talks to the school maths club this year, so in a couple of months time I could have my own little memento of the occasion!

The thing that was a real drain was the travel; First Class on a Virgin Pendolino train is nice, people bringing you food and drink, decent sized seats, a paper to read - it's just great. But I worked out this morning that I was at the school for a little under two and a half hours yesterday, and in total I was travelling for the best part of eleven hours. Long, long day. Got some work done on the train on the way down, but on the return journey I was just too tired. Ended up reading my Lonely Planet USA guide for a while, and doing all of the puzzles in The Times (I say with all modesty, that even tired I still rock at puzzles...) while listening to Sufjan Stevens.

Cloverfield was good: I thought it was a genuinely original take on the monster movie, cleverly told, excellent effects. The decision to film it and present it as though it was camcorder footage was great, it really added something to the feeling that you were there: a story like this centred around just average people would have been interesting, but then to literally see it all, the confusion and the chaos, from their perspective was a good move on the part of the filmmakers.

More soon, I read a bizarre little story in The Times yesterday that I want to share, and also I have a question to ask of our American readers...

Monday, 4 February 2008


I'll be back to blogging on Wednesday, have just been going crazy trying to get this talk ready. It is ready now, and I'm giving it tomorrow afternoon. I'll let you know how that goes!

Leaving in about fifteen minutes; off to see "Cloverfield" and then get some dinner, which seems like a good way to relax given how frenzied the last few hours have been as I've been making my prompts and tweaking my slides.

Have about a third of my goals for "101 Things..." as well. As I've said before, suggestions are very welcome!

More soon.

Films on a Plane

For a while I've been meaning to start reviewing films, books, music etc. in the blog. Well, let's start with the selection of films I watched on the plane coming over to Japan the other week. (I never even bother trying to sleep on planes anymore.)

3:10 to Yuma starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. A good old-fashioned cowboy yarn to get going, with some well-made action sequences and excellent performances from the entire cast. (Then again, I don't think I've ever seen either of the stars give anything less than 'excellent'; this film was meat-and-drink to them, giving them the opportunity to do their job well without really challenging them enough to drive them onto truly great performances like, for example, Crowe in The Insider.) The plot was the main weakness: it's basically a slight rhapsody on a theme set in the earlier Jimmy Stewart vehicle The Naked Spur, which was a better film, I think, in the complexity of the relationships it develops and the moral ambiguity of its hero and villain. 3:10 to Yuma has both of those, but to a lesser degree.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou starring Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. Wes Anderson is my favourite director so I've seen this one three or four times before; it still never fails to entertain. Unaccountably it was critically panned and did poorly in the box-office, but I'm sure time will work in its favour and it will come to be regarded as the quirky classic it is. I've read reviews of Anderson films who accuse him of being fay and eccentric and superficial. I've never found that: all of his pieces have a core of genuine emotion to them, especially regarding family relationships, that is often highly perceptive and moving. The budding father-son bond that Murray and Wilson develop over the course of this film - between a man who never wanted children and another who desperately wants a father - is honestly played out in pitch-perfect performances.

The Darjeeling Limited starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman. This was the pick of the bunch, for me: another Wes Anderson film, and one that explores familiar themes as three estranged brothers travel across India to find their mother and ask why she didn't attend their father's funeral. It was advertised as a comedy and has its humourous moments, but in fact it's probably Anderson's most serious film so far - with a maturity of tone that he hasn't shown before. (Death is a major theme, and is treated with tenderness and warmth.) And I think Adrien Brody must be the most watchable actor around - with a fantastically expressive face and voice - he's a welcome addition to the familiar Wes Anderson 'team'. I also have to say it's nice to see India portrayed in a sympathetic but not fawning way; the India of The Darjeeling Limited is a very human one, and the 'spiritual journey' aspect - of Westerners going to 'discover' the mysterious East - is nicely punctured rather early on.

The Bourne Ultimatum starring Matt Damon. I've seen this one before too, and probably needn't say anything more than, if you haven't seen it yet, firstly why not? and secondly do so as soon as possible. It's set the bar for the spy-thriller action-film genre so high that it's difficult to imagine it getting much higher: the latest Bond chapter will have to be something really, really special if it's to even compete.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Ant Soldiers

For people in America and the UK, the Second World War usually means 1941-1945 or 1939-1945 respectively. For East Asians, though, the group of conflicts making up the Second World War really started in the 1920s, and didn't finish until the mid-1950s. The Pacific War between the US and Japan and the Burmese campaigns involving Britain were really only chapters in a wider story.

I was reading in the Asahi Shimbun today about the Japanese soldiers who stayed on in the former occupied territories after 1945 in order to continue the war. Hard to believe that anybody would want to, but I've already talked before in this blog about soldiers becoming enamoured with fighting. What I hadn't known was that at least 20,000 and probably more than 30,000 Japanese soldiers chose to remain in China and fight on after the war officially ended in September 1945. Most sided with the Kuomintang, but extraordinarily many also joined the Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung. They were reknowned for their fighting ability throughout both warring parties: according to the article Hu Pin, a former soldier for the Communists who was involved in the hunting down and killing of 20 Japanese Soldiers in 1948, remembers that "Unlike [the Kuomintang soldiers], they did not surrender easily. Some of them pretended to give up their weapons and then launched a counterattack...still, I could not understand why Japanese soldiers were staking their lives [for the Kuomintang]."

Japanese Soldiers, Shanxi, 1948.

It's hard for us to understand either. The Kuomintang and the Japanese Army had been fighting each other ferociously for over a decade; why did so many Japanese soldiers join their hated enemies so readily and fight and die alongside them? We can only wonder - the Second World War was only sixty or so years ago, but already it has the feel of an utterly different era. We understand people from that time's motives about as readily as we do the motives of ancient Sumerians. Again I find myself thinking that some men really do enjoy fighting.

Anyway, a new docu-film, Ari no Heitai (Ant Soldiers), deals with this very topic. It was released last September in Japan; hopefully I'll be able to track it down and report back over the next few weeks.