Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Saddam Hussein A Million Years From Now

Saddam Hussein A Million Years From Now

It is all
Water under the bridge by now.
Andy Warhol's medical misadventure
Has long since been forgotten.
The hospital may,
Or perhaps may not,
Have been at fault.
I pass no judgment.
Here on the dark side of the moon
The restaurants,
Once certain of their profit,
Lie vacant to the windless realms of dust.
Invisible behind the lunar mass
The planet Earth is minus cappuccino,
The olives eaten and the last baklava
It is more than a thousand centuries
Since latex last had use.
In Pompeii's reburied streets
Nobody is busy at the dictionaries.
IBM is over
And Google gone,
But the planetary ocean
Persists, and still holds sway,
Though the Great North Sea
No longer remembers its glaciers..
The trilobites are still,
Rome, like Warhol, has lapsed from view.
Is no longer the toast of Broadway.
Messalina's antics
No longer have the attention
Of the twittering classes.
No longer has a shrine in Babylon.
Five thousand million years from now
The sun,
Will go out.
What happens then
At this date is uncertain.

Execution Video Saddam Hussein

Execution Video Saddam Hussein

An anonymous person posted a link to the Saddam Hussein execution video at the foot of a page on which I said I had not, so far, been able to find the video online.

Tuesday 30 January 2007 I found a couple of minutes to go have a look at the video. You do see Saddam Hussein with the noose round his neck and you do see the moment in which the trapdoor falls away and he drops to his death, a shock of noise accompanying this.

The link to the video as follows:


Extremely murky video, Saddam intermittently swimming into focus, otherwise a world as blurred as that I typically see with my damaged eyesight.

The crowd is not really raucous until, with a crashing sound, Saddam abruptly drops to his death, at which point the crowd roars with a huge excitement and gets much, much noisier.

Up until that time, Saddam is seen minus a hood, true to the earlier video I saw, one with no noise in the background, which claimed, in an English-language voiceover, that Saddam had refused to wear a hood.

There is some shouting from the crowd, but it is after Saddam actually drops that they start really sounding like a mob, a rabble. It is as if Saddam's achieved death had made them angrier rather than appeasing them, and, across the language barrier, rage can be detected.

The video quality is too poor for me to be sure of Saddam's emotional state, but my own take on what I've seen, viewing it three times, Saddam, seen with the hangman's noose round his neck, betrays no particular expression.

In the build-up to the drop, there is some semi-orchestrated shouting, then the shouting dies down, and abruptly Saddam drops, snatched downward with cartoonish suddenness, his death a kind of convulsive annihilation, and that is when the audience really goes ape.

The first time in my life that I've seen a hanging, and this is one piece of video that I won't forget in a hurry.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ego Surfing

Ego Surfing

I don't do much ego surfing. Not because I am short of ego but because I am short of time. But I've just done a little, and have found that I have made it to a list of notable brain tumor patients, a list which is at the following URL:


This is a big page so I impatiently searched for my own name, Hugh Cook, and found the name of Raymond Carver just above it. I recognized this name as that of an American short story writer whose works I had sampled at one time, albeit without any particular enthusiasm.

Carver, 1938-1988, is glossed as "Short story writer and poet." We learn from the page that Carver died from "metastatic tumor."

I am glossed as "Author of the fantasy series Chronicles of an Age of Darkness," which tells me that I am the Hugh Cook referred to and not, for example, Hugh Cook the asbestos lawyer.

The page explains that I was born in 1956 but, to my disappointment, fails to explain to me what I died of. It would have been nice to know.

The site gives median survival rates for a bunch of tumors but nothing for CNS lymphoma. In fact, the word "lymphoma" is not on the page.

Since lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph, and since lymph, like blood, is a fluid, I don't understand how lymphoma can form tumors, because my concept of a tumor is that it is something solid. However, I did undergo neurosurgery so a tumor could be extracted from my brain for biopsy, so evidently CNS lymphoma does (or, at least, can) form tumors.

I got an e-mail recently about a friend of the family who is currently in hospital in New Zealand with leukaemia, "acute myeloid variety." She, apparently, has taken charge of her own destiny as a patient, and has told her doctors they are NOT to tell her what her survival chances are. Or anything else she doesn't need to know. Just what's happening today, thank you very much.

Regardless of whether it's socially appropriate to look or not, I couldn't resist punching first "leukemia" and then "myeloid" into the search box, but neither result was on the page.

In the case of the family friend, I decided to probe no further. But, in my own case, I was interested enough to Google "cns lymphoma" in conjunction with "survival rates," and got well over 100,000 results, but, after a certain amount of fruitless page opening, data fatigue cut in and I abandoned the effort.

Later, returning to the notable brain tumors page, I examined it more closely, and found it is broken down into categories, such as acting, music, sports and writers. Eleven categories in all.

There are two links inside the page which looked interesting, one to NOTES AND REFERENCES and the other to EXTERNAL LINKS. The links to the categories and the additional two links are on the left of the page up near the top under the heading CONTENTS.

Looks like a useful bunch of links to start with if you're in the market for data about brain cancer and can't face going another round with the fifty gazillion sites that Google will give you access to.

At this point I'm all surfed out, I think, and I'm going to bed.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Delivery Zoo Animals At Your Doorstep

Delivery Zoo Animals At Your Doorstep

The zoo was delivered to the daycare center on Saturday 27 January 2007. They didn't have the complete zoo. No crocodile, no hippo, no tiger and certainly not an elephant. But they did have sheep, a goat, rabbits, geese, guinea pigs and little baby chicks.

All mobbed in relays by little itty bitty kids, who were given one hour per group for animal molestation.

The animal I found most interesting was the sheep, for the simple reason that the sexuality of sheep has been in the news recently. Because I personally do not have sex with sheep, up until now I have never given much thought to their sexuality.

But, as this subject has made it to the media headlines, particularly in Britain, I thought it would be interesting to actually interview a sheep on this subject, which I suspect few people have done, and to blog about the outcome of the interview.

So I sidled up to the sheep, who were two in number (whether they were an item or not I have no idea) and I asked, "Forgive me for asking, but can you tell me if you guys are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or celibate?"

Having launched the question I realized I had omitted a category, the category in question being the asexual, Adolf Hitler being an example of the type. But the question had already been launched, and it was too late to rephrase it.

In the even, the sheep declined to answer, so I had no light to shed on the mad scientist / sheep conundrum which has, if media reports can be believed, inflamed the blogosphere.

My daughter, the brave Cornucopia, now almost three, played with great confidence with the animals. The first time she came up against an animal assortment (an animal moriawase, we could say) was on the occasion of a visit to Nogeyama Zoo some months ago in 2006. Having been scared by a condor, her nerves shaken, she had refused to so much as touch a single animal.

At a later zoo visit, however, she had been confident in handling the goats in the children's petting area. And my wife reports that, on a recent return visit to Nogeyama Zoo, Cornucopia played confidently with the little animals, and also touched a snake.

My wife alleges that she, too, touched the snake, though I found this hard to believe. On the occasion of one of our visits to the Taj Mahal (we stayed in a hotel just down the road from it and visited it three or four times) we were promenading in the ornamental gardens when my wife let out what has to be one of the loudest screams in human history, this scream having been provoked by a snake. A dead snake, as it happens. Very dead.

Nevertheless, my wife asserts that, yes, she did dare to touch the snake at Nogeyama, though she declined the handler's offer to drape it around her shoulders.

I've never yet touched a snake though I have seen a few in the wild, "the wild" including the residential area of Hiyoshi, part of the city of Yokohama, Hiyoshi being a locality where we lived for a few years.

The zoo having come to visit the daycare center (this activity having been organized by a committee of the parents) my daughter got to ride a horse, or, more exactly, a pony. This was her second equestrian experience, and, by persuading us to stand in line for two more times, she got to ride it three times.

It was a week ago that my wife told me about the "delivery zoo" and I've been playing with ideas for other things which, fictionally, could be delivered.

In our real world society, the library gets delivered, if your local library has a book van delivery service.

And I exercised my mind by thinking of other things, such as zoos, which are not generally regarded as being portable, but which could be portable if you put your mind to it.

I figured that special delivery services could be a feature of one of the books I'm planning to go on to write in what is projected to be the TALES OF OOLONG MORBLOCK series, the first book in the series being the suicide bomber novel TO FIND AND WAKE THE DREAMER.

The delivery zoo was, then, for me, at least, something of a literary experience.

I had another literary experience on Zoo Delivery Day: going to the library to listen to someone reading stories for little kids.

We were at the supermarket and my wife, still busy shopping, told me to go to the reading, which she said was on the first floor, as it was scheduled to start at 1000, and she still needed more time to shop.

As I entered the library with Cornucopia in two, I heard an intercom announcement in Japanese. I didn't follow what it said, but I did hear the words "ni kai," meaning "second floor," so I surmised, on account of the timing, that the announcement was to tell people in the library that the book reading would be on the second floor.

I asked the counter staff and they told me to go up the stairs and take a right, which I did. Someone was at the top of the stairs meeting and greeting, and directed me and Cornucopia to the appropriate room.

When the reading was ready to begin, the room was darkened and we saw an illuminated moon projected on a screen of some kind. Subsequently, various animal shapes were attached to the screen, which evidently had adhesive properties, and, as the shapes were manipulated, a story was told, which I will summarize.

A tortoise (or, in American English, a turtle) was wondering what the moon tasted like. Was it sweet or was it salty? He tried to take a bite but found it was out of reach. So he went to the top of a hill but found it was still out of reach.

"If an elephant gets on my back it should be able to reach the moon," said the tortoise.

A compliant elephant got on the tortoise's back but, sadly, was unable to reach the moon.

Along came a giraffe, and the giraffe got up on top of the elephant, which was standing on the tortoise, and the giraffe craned its neck and reached for the moon, but failed.

Animal after animal joined the increasingly perilously tottering stack of animals, with a result that was contrary to my expectations, and took me entirely by surprise, and made me laugh: the ultimate animal, a monkey, if recollection serves, was able to grab hold of the moon and to tear out a great big chunk of it for consumption.

And the taste of the moon? It was wonderful!

This story adheres to one of my notions as to how a good work of fiction should be structured, the notion being that, at or near the end of the story, there should be a perversion of expectations which causes us to revise (or, if you like, revision) everything that has come before.

An example of such a perversion of expectations is in Shakespeare's MACBETH, in which Macbeth proceeds with confidence because a prophecy has vouchsafed that his regime will not fail unless the woods come marching to his castle. Which is impossible. Only, finally, they do.

In the next story, an elephant goes for a walk and meets a hippo which hitches a ride. A crocodile then joins the hippo. The elephant bears up well under the strain. But, when a tortoise joins the crowd on the elephant's back, the combined weight proves too much for the elephant, which falls over, and all the animals, elephant included, end up in the pond.

And the third story? It's about a brain-damaged rooster which has forgotten how to crow. It can get started but can't finish, so it erroneously ends with the call of some other animal, such as "boo boo," this being what pigs say in Japanese.

Each animal tells the rooster, no, that's not what roosters say, that's what we say.

Growing despondent, the rooster wanders off alone and ponders his plight. Then he runs into a fox which thinks it would like to have rooster for lunch.

In something of a panic, the rooster starts crowing, and every time he crows he delivers the sound of another animal. All the animals, thinking themselves summoned, come running as a group. And the fox, seeing the onslaught, turns tail and runs.

We were all pretty tired, I think, by the end of what had been quite a long day. We had sushi for dinner and my wife and I had sake, with strawberries and apples to finish.

Cornucopia does not eat apple peel, but she likes to feed it to me. On this occasion, the first bit she fed me was somewhat on the slimy side, and I realized it had been prechewed. I thanked her but told her that, at the moment, I am not so old as to need to have someone prechew my apple peel for me. Though, no doubt, that day will come.

Today I found a couple of spare moments to tweak the magnifier that comes with Windows XP, a magnifier that Microsoft has very cunningly gone and hidden away at PROGRAMS -> ACCESSORIES -> ACCESSIBILITY -> MAGNIFIER, where you're most unlikely to ever find it. (Certainly I didn't find it in the first year of using XP.)

The magnifier, once you've activated it, puts a magnified strip across the top of the screen, and you can opt for it to follow the mouse cursor and text editing.

Originally, I set the magnification level at 2, because having it any higher causes letters to be larger than the magnification strip. But, recently, I've been doing a lot of search-and-replace to modify files, using a dialog box which has an extremely small font, and even with the magnifier I have trouble seeing a font that small without having recourse to my magnifying glass.

But today I remembered that I could tweak the magnifier, and did so, bumping the magnification level up to 4, which is just perfect for the dialog box, and which does not interfere with my ordinary text editing, as I don't use the magnifier for that, since I can adjust the text editor's font until it's comfortable for me.

What made me think of the magnifier was a helpful e-mail I received directing my attention to the existence of an open source magnifier which works with Windows. My helpful correspondent hadn't tried the magnifier and, at this stage, neither have I, though, when I have time to, I will get round to it.

I did find a moment to look at the page of open source Windows resources and saw some good stuff there, including Filezilla, the FTP program I use to upload stuff to the Internet. Also a Paint replacement, which I'd like to try out as, before I restored my computer to factory conditions, my XP version of Paint had fallen over. Paint still worked but I lost control over the font size for inserting text into pictures.

The page to which I was directed is, if you are interested:


I have visited the page but I had not, as yet, been to the URL where, I believe, the download is located, which is:


Although I haven't downloaded and tried the open source magnifier yet, the e-mail has already been helpful because it drew my thoughts toward the magnifier I already have, one of two magnifiers that I have, the other being one which is part of the setup for my IBM TrackPoint mouse.

If you have XP and an IBM computer with the little TrackPoint mouse built into the keyboard, the settings for the magnifier are at SETTINGS -> CONTROL PANEL -> MOUSE -> MAGNIFYING GLASS and then click on SETTINGS to decide how big you want the magnification area to be. To activate the TrackPoint magnifier, hold down the middle mouse button, which wakes up the magnifier. You can move the magnified area around the screen by using the TrackPoint while keeping the middle mouse button depressed.

(My spellchecker would have me believe that "TrackPoint" should be "Trappist" but I have decided to beg to differ.)

Pop quiz from my wife, at the dinner table: "What is this stuff?" "Polystyrene." "So what's polystyrene?" "I don't know." At which point my wife decided I was bluffing and didn't know what this stuff was at all. I knew but I couldn't explain. So I've just taken a look at my dictionary, which gives the answer was follows:

"A rigid, clear thermoplastic polymer that can be molded into objects or made into a foam that is used to insulate refrigerators

Excerpted from American Heritage Talking Dictionary
Copyright © 1997 The Learning Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved."

The font of the dictionary is pretty small. You can enlarge the display of the definitions but not the font of the box where you enter the definitions, and I realized that the Microsoft magnifier, set at 4, very nicely boosts that otherwise unmodifiable font.

I then tweaked the Microsoft magnifier to boost the magnification level from 4 to 5, and that works perfectly.

All going to plan, at the top of this blog entry there will be a picture of daughter Cornucopia on horseback (ie on ponyback). The picture was taken in the carpark of the Christian church just across the road from our Christian-run daycare. Although the management is Christian, they did the pagan Santa Claus bit as well at Christmas time, and Cornucopia got to meet up with Santa Claus face to face. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Pooping For Applause

\\Pooping For Applause

The photo above shows the arena of this year's major parenting challenge: toilet training. It shows a child-sized plastic seat neatly slotted into the ceramic cavity of the adult-sized toilet. Probably the detail is too poor for you to be able to make out the wires associated with the toilet, this being one of Japan's magical electronic toilets, which, I'm glad to say, we have opted to leave turned off.

A correspondent e-mailed me a while back to commiserate about the "nightmare" of toilet training. But, though I acknowledge that toilet training is important, and though I am aware that my wife has firmly decided that THIS MUST BE THE YEAR, I don't see it as being a nightmare.

What my mother had to put up with, that would have been a bit of a nightmare. No paper diapers, not back then. You had nappies made of cloth, which became soiled with excrement and had to be cleaned up and rendered sanitary. My mother used to boil them up in an old boiler which was used for just one other purpose: cooking the ham which, annually, we would receive from my father's employer, Williams and Rochester, a contracting outfit down at the local oil refinery.

(Actually, I think the boiler may have done its ham cooking in the days of its retirement, all four kids in the family having graduated from nappies to potty to toilet.)

But, these days, in the much more convenient world that we inhabit, I don't see that toilet training is that big an issue.

Even so, I was gratified when, a few months back, daughter Cornucopia volunteered to sit on the toilet and then went and pooped in an adult fashion for the first time ever. Unfortunately, I didn't think to grab the digital camera, and mother and child said "Bye bye, unchi," and the unchi was flushed.

Unfortunately, this event did not seem to be reproducible.

On the night of Wednesday 17 January, however, Cornucopia went to the toilet in an adult fashion for the second time, and was rewarded by praise and clapping.

In the morning, I asked, in English, with one Japanese word thrown in:

"Do you want to do unchi?"

"Denai," said Cornucopia, giving me the plain form of the negative of the verb "deru," ie the verb meaning "to exit," in this case indicating that no unchi had or would issue forth. Ten minutes later, however, she changed her mind:

"Yappari, unchi."

Meaning, "After all, I'm going to poop."

I thought this would be a quick process but I was wrong. Unchi appears in the kids paper panties as if its production was magically effortless, but this unchi seemed to take a bit of straining, like the straining I saw being done by a cartoon character called, I think, Pants Pantacrow, a toilet training character for kids who we saw while watching TV in our hotel at Ito on Sunday.

In Sunday's cartoon segment, PP sat on the toilet and strained, then a beatific smile of satisfaction came over her face. She got off the toilet, bowed to the toilet (which had a very solemn face, the face of a middle-aged toilet, I think, not a young one) then bowed to the toilet. Then walked away. Then came zipping back, closed the door she had forgotten to close, bowed once more an exited stage left.

As Cornucopia's ordeal continued, I felt she needed support, so went and got her Pooh bear. Under the supportive gaze of Pooh-chan, she continued her efforts.


It has issued forth!

But, it seems, there was more to come. So I went and got Akachan, her plastic doll, the hands of which can be manipulated to make them clap together. I supplied the vocals for the appropriate applause track.

Then, finally, we were done.

I wrote a message about the Happy Event and left it on the table for my wife to read when she got home, my wife having left, as she always does, at 0730, because she has to be at the office fairly early in the morning, where as I do not start work until 1000.

This morning I showed up at Waniguchi Gakko expecting to start a training session for teaching a curriculum I'll call Tiny Tots English, English for kids aged two, three or four. I thought the training was going to start at Waniguchi then continue at a venue at one of the stations on the Yamanote line which encircles the heart of Tokyo, a station I'll called Minami Sekigahara.

But, no, I'd gotten the wrong end of the stick. Actually, I had been scheduled to show up at Waniguchi at 1000 so I could teach two lessons. Then, having done that, I would head to MS for the training.

When I arrived at MS, it was noon. Lunch time. I had brought sandwiches, but didn't feel like eating them. As usual, I had loaded myself up with a big breakfast, a huge helping of muesli plus toast.

Thus loaded up, I feel okay until about 1410, which is about when I usually get home after my standard four-lesson shift, all that I do in the course of a working day. On weekends, I have a smaller breakfast, so I'm ready for lunch at noon. But, as it was, I didn't feel like eating.

However, I made myself eat the sandwiches, since training lay ahead, then I was free until 1320, that being when training was scheduled to start.

I thought I remembered a coffee shop at Minami Sekigahara, but I had misremembered, because the shop was not there. Furthermore, the architecture of the station steps was such that it could never have been there. I must have mixed up MS with some other station. Back in my days of teaching corporate English, I visited about a billion and one stations, and it's hard to keep them all straight in my mind.

I went hunting for a coffee place near my employer's MS location, and was very pleased to stumble across a branch of Excelsior, the coffee shop that I sometimes patronize at Waniguchi.

It had been a somewhat unpleasant trip to Minami Sekigahara, the route suggested by the computer new to me, my field of vision in large measure washed out by the brightness of the sun once I, having traveled without my dark sunglasses, exited from the station.

I was pleased, on venturing into the MS branch of Excelsior, that it was pretty much the same. Counter in the same place, the same sweet cookies sitting on the same place on the counter, the same staircase curving upward to the next floor, and a similar, though not identical, seating setup upstairs. Some tables for two people and a long bench table, in this case a table wrapping round in a square, with neon light falling in places bright enough for you to be able to sit and read your newspaper, which I did.

I don't usually drink coffee but I had a huge one, strong, with two of the cookies, and I could feel my pulse kicking along nicely, energized by the caffeine, as I headed for training.

Training was pretty straightforward. I had been worried about how I would fare with my damaged eyesight if I had to teach Tiny Tots English, because I knew it involved using a CD, and I was not sure if I would be able to cue tracks on the CD in a timely fashion.

What I learnt during training was reassuring. There's a standard curriculum, and, for each month, there's one CD for the lesson, a CD which is just a couple of minutes shorter than the lesson itself. You start it playing right at the beginning and don't have to cue anything, and the CD itself takes you through the steps of the lesson plan, so you don't even have to keep that in your head.

The prospect of teaching Tiny Tots English seems pretty straightforward compared with some of the situations I ran into during the days when the corporate English company I used to work for sent me to junior high school. Sometimes I ended up teaching special needs classes, poorly assorted kids with totally different needs, an autistic kid in the same class as a kid with Down's syndrome and a pathologically shy kid, maybe a dozen kids in the class.

I had absolutely no training for this, had no resources appropriate to the situation, had no guidance on how to proceed, and had to improvise on the spot. Nobody explained anything to me, so I didn't understand why, on some of these occasions, there were adults hovering in the background. I couldn't figure out what these people were doing, whether they were assistant teachers or what, and I couldn't figure out why they sometimes seemed anxious.

Much, much later, thinking back on these occasions, I finally figured out that the adults would, in all probability, have been the parents of some of the kids in the room, to whom I was never introduced.

By contrast, the Tiny Tots English course, all properly organized, with music, books, flash cards, photocopied sheets for coloring and a lesson plan including appropriate instruction language and matching gestures ... well, by contrast, this looks like a doddle, to use a word of native speaker English that most of my Japanese students of English probably wouldn't understand.

The training was over and done with by 1550, but it took me until 1705 to get home, very tired because, usually, I have a nap in the afternoon. Come home from Waniguchi, have a couple of sandwiches and a cup of tea, then crash out on the sofa, that's the routine.

Once home, I brought in the laundry, got the bedding out of the cupboard and made up the futons for the coming night, had a shower then headed for the daycare center to uplift Cornucopia.

The light had been starting to fail as I came home round about 1700, and, when I left for the daycare center, it was 1745 and solidly dark, the streetlighting hereabouts wretchedly bad. Fortunately, I had my Maglite torch, my trusty American flashlight. Even so, the experience was one of venturing through murky gloom.

What I noticed, not for the first time, is that my vision gets degraded by fatigue. In particular, if I'm really tired, then my nigthvision drops off significantly.

To wrap up, "the route suggested by the computer" is a route suggested by the rail and subway system that you can access at:


This is in Japanese, so it won't be any use to you unless you're competent in that language, and you won't even see the Japanese characters unless your computer is set up to display them. But, if you are in Japan, and if you do have basic Japanese language skills, this, I think, is the way to go, because you can print out a route which will give you place names in the Japanese script in which most of the signage is written.

There are English-language sites which have pretty much the same functionality but I always do my route planning in Japanese, and, when I traveled to Minami Sekigahara, I had a printout of the relevant Yahoo page with me, so, if I'd hit a problem, I could have shown any railway staff member or anyone from the subway staff exactly where I wanted to go.

So, that's a wrap, then. Cornucopia will celebrate her third birthday in April, and, all going well, by that time we will be able to consider her toilet trained.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Traditional Japan

Traditional Japan

When I was studying Japanese at the University of Auckland in the 1990s, finishing off my degree, a professor set us a difficult and time-consuming translation exercise, and then, after we had put a lot of time and effort into completing the task, made two revelations which greatly displeased me.

The piece was about what Japanese people eat for breakfast, such as rice, miso soup and hiraki, "hiraki" being a fish which has been opened up so it will lie flat, and which has then been dried.

The two revelations which displeased me were that (a) this passage was not an authentic piece of native speaker Japanese but, rather, a piece originally written in English by a Westerner and then translated into Japanese by someone else, and that (b) the Westerner who had so confidently written about Japanese breakfast habits had got it all wrong, and that the breakfast described in the passage is an old-fashioned traditional breakfast no longer eaten by the average household. Certainly they would not eat hiraki!

My thought was: so, you excremental idiot, if it's wrong then why did you give us THAT to work on?

I was in a mood of extreme intolerance by then since the Japanese language course, badly planned, poorly coordinated and inadequately resourced, had left most of the students in a mutinous mood, particularly after the occasion on which another of our professors had, not for the first time, called in sick, and, by way of replacement, had sent his young non-Japanese-speaking daughter to front up to the lecture theater.

Having graduated from university, I arrived in Japan with very little in the way of a practical ability to read, write, speak or listen to Japanese. But, having spent the better part of a decade in Japan, I have in some measure remedied this situation.

I have also learnt quite a bit about the realities of life in today's Japan, one of which is that what the busy Japanese citizen eats for breakfast is, in all too many cases, a null set.

When I was teaching corporate English and was doing a lot of face-to-face testing, a standard question was "What do you eat for breakfast?", and a frequent answer was "Nothing, I'm too busy."

However, when I sat down to breakfast on Saturday 13 January, the breakfast was not the trendy up-to-the-moment null set but was, rather, about as traditional as Japan gets, complete with the rice, the extremely salty (and, hence, extremely unhealthy) miso soup, and, yes, the hiraki, splayed out and looking like a flounder (ie like a flatfish, though I don't think that's what it is.)

This breakfast was delivered to us in our quarters in the Palace Hotel in the seaside spa resort of Ito, a little less than three hours by train from where we live in Yokohama.

The woman who served the meal was wearing some kind of vaguely kimono-like garment, and the table on which she laid out the meal was sitting on traditional tatami mats, hard-wearing rush mats which are green when new but, with age, take on a mellow golden hue.

We went to Ito for a two-night three-day break to celebrate my wife's birthday, and my wife had chosen the Palace Hotel because it was right beside a park which featured swings and a slide and the like, a park where our daughter Cornucopia played on arrival on the Saturday and before our departure on the Monday.

Ito, off season, reminded me of our long-ago visit to New Zealand's Queenstown in the fall, when we had all the shops and restaurants pretty much to ourselves, the ski season which crowds the town having not yet started.

Ito was a bit like that when we explored on Saturday, the shops all open but nobody shopping.

My basic thesis about travel in Japan is that if you've seen one piece you've seen it all, because it replicates itself, a random chunk of Nagasaki, a thousand kilometers or so to the south, not that much different from a random chunk of Tokyo.

But Ito was a little different, more ornamental than the utilitarian streets that I am used to. Quasi-divine figures were posted in the street with founts of geothermal water bubbling up at their feet, with ladles set ready for use, ladles which you could use to pour water over the heads of these effigies for good luck. Cornucopia enjoyed this a lot.

Just after we set out from the hotel to explore the town, a loudspeaker system kicked into life, warning us all that a big earthquake had occurred in Hokkaido, and a tsunami was on the way. But Hokkaido is hours away by tsunami, so we wandered down to the harbor. Which was very much a working harbor.

Lots of water in Japan, but no sailboats, because boating is not part of the culture. It exists, but it is seen as a rich man's sport. A middle-ranking business executive, one of my corporate English students, told me in confidence once that he had a quarter share in a yacht. Split four ways, it was entirely affordable, but he wanted me to keep it a secret, because he would not feel easy if his coworkers knew that he indulged in this rich man's sport.

If New Zealand invaded Japan, there would soon be sail boats all over the place. But, as it is, I see endless amounts of water -- rivers, bays, harbors -- which is clearly okay for boats to navigate, because there are working boats anchored in it, but which generally goes unused.

Knowing that the tsunami was on the way, we took the opportunity to participate in a very traditional Japanese rite: shopping for brand-name goods.

I needed a new wallet so was keen to enter a leather goods shop that we happened upon. And, as chance would have it, my wife declared that she, too, was in need of a replacement wallet. So, not having organized much in the way of a present, I invited her to choose anything she wanted in the shop.

We ended up with one wallet each, hers soft and pink and made in Japan, and mine, of hard black leather, made in Italy.

The two, of about equal price, cost me a total of just under 20,000, which, assuming one New Zealand dollar is 80 yen, and that one American dollar is 114 yen, would make about NZ $250 or US $175.

I thought this not unreasonable for good-quality brand name goods because when I was shopping for a wallet in Auckland, New Zealand, the Louis Vuitton shop on Queen Street quoted me, from memory, over NZ $500 for just one wallet.

In the shop I showed the salesman my counterfeit Fendi wallet, the one I bought in Bangkok back in 1989. They told me it was an "original," which I didn't believe for a moment, but it was some years before I realized what it was a knock-off of, because I had no idea that the ornamental F on the wallet was the logo of the fashion house Fendi. I happened upon the Fendi logo, some years down the track, when I was browsing idly thought a fashion magazine in a dentist's waiting room.

The wallet I bought smelt very nicely of leather and came complete with what I take to be a classy Italian brand name, though I've never heard of the name before, the name being, if I decipher the letters cut into the leather correctly, Roberta di Camerino. I've squinted at it very hard, making use of both my close-up reading glasses and a large magnifying glass, but still can't pull the tiny letters into sharp focus.

A brand-new Italian wallet from an elite Italian fashion house, then (I'm naively assuming that all Italian fashion houses fall into the "elite" category). But that's not why I bought it.

Why I bought it because here, at last, was a wallet with the feature which I had sought but had failed to find in any shop in Auckland. It was the feature I most valued in my on-its-last-legs Fendi counterfeit: a pocket closed with a press stud.

I showed the salesman what I had and explained that I wanted something with exactly the same kind of pocket. If I followed his Japanese correctly, he said such a feature was exceedingly uncommon, but, fortunately, he had two wallets in his shop that might suit me.

One was in soft leather, the other in hard. After I experimentally crammed my wodge of cards into the pocket in the hard wallet, he recommended, emphatically, that I must go for the hard wallet, not the soft, because the soft wallet would never stand up to the punishment which I planned to inflict upon it.

I don't carry around all my cards. My four bank cards (one credit card and three ATM cards) live at home, as do assorted cards for electronic shops and other retail outlets. The cards that I do routinely carry around are as follows:

1. a card which bears the MasterCard logo but which is actually a debit card, transferring money from one of my wife's bank accounts directly to the till, and giving us an automatic discount on the transaction (a discount, I think, of three percent). It's only usable at a limited number of outfits, these including the Tokyu supermarket at the local train station and branches of the Seijo Ishi foreign food store (which is where we buy our English-made muesli).

2. A library card for the Yokohama library system, in my name, KUKKU HYUU.

3. A similar card for my daughter, who is entitled to her own card even though she is not yet three, this one in the name of NISHIKAWA AIKOCORNUCOPIABOADICEA, who, these days, I usually shorthand as "Corny," somewhat to my wife's displeasure.

4. A business card for a New Zealand-based eye surgeon, Dr Nick Mantell, which I don't think I will be needing any longer, so will remove from the wallet.

5. A New Zealand shop selling Telecom products. Ditto: no need for this now. (I've been back in Japan for months and months now, but this is the first time I've found a moment to sit down and trim out surplus cards from my wallet.)

6. Yet another no-longer-necessary card, this one for Ward 64 at Auckland Hospital, where I was treated for chemotherapy back in 2005. A long, long time ago, or so it seems now.

7. A card for the Meguro library system.

8. A point card (as it's called in Japan, though perhaps you say "loyalty card") for the menswear shop Aoki.

9. A card for Devonport library, which I won't throw away, but which I don't think I need to carry around with me now.

10. My Japanese driver's license, which expired months ago, and which I can't renew because my eyesight is trashed. That one comes out. A souvenir of a past existence.

11. A card to use to pay for buses.

12. A card for the local ophthalmologist, which I will put with the cards that I have in the envelope for the stuff which holds material relating to Meijin Hospital. (The other two cards in the envelope are a hospital ID card and a Japanese national health insurance card.)

13. A Suica card for travel on Japan Rail trains.

14. The alien registration card which, as a foreigner resident in Japan, I have a legal obligation to carry around with me. It says who I am, where I work, where I live, where I was born, when I was born, and that I first entered Japan on the 5th of May back in the year 1997.

15. A community services card, valid only in New Zealand, which has expired, and which now has only souvenir value, and so will exit my wallet.

16. A Passnet card for the subway systems in Tokyo and Yokohama.

17. An NTT telephone card.

18. A second NTT telephone card, in case the first one gets lonely by itself.

19. My commute card, paid for my the organization that I work for, valid for travel between the station where I live and the station where I work.

And that's it, folks.

When I throw out the ones I don't think I'll need to carry around any longer, I'm left with just twelve cards, which fit into my new wallet with plenty of room to spare.

My new wallet lacks one feature of the Fendi forgery which has served me so well for so many years, this being a little strap with another press stud to hold the whole wallet tightly shut, but I don't think I'll be carrying around enough currency notes to force my new wallet to spring open.

To continue with our tsunami story, we got back to the hotel alive. In the evening, as we ate dinner, the TV screen was showing a map of Japan with the tsunami danger area flashing on and off continuously. The tsunami, however, had already struck by that time, impacting on the islands offshore from Tokyo with a wave about twenty centimeters in height, a tsunami big enough to cause ants to drown and cockroaches to go scampering for higher ground.

Our hotel was okay, although the water pipes did occasionally kick in with a prolonged and annoying roar. Not often, but if it happens at 0530, which it did, even once is once too often, thank you very much.

On the Sunday, we took a bus 40 minutes to an amusement park, the Izu Guranporu Park, pretty cheap to enter and with rides starting from a hundred yen.

The first thing my daughter saw was a huge motorized dog, which she wanted to ride on, and did, with great confidence, though she could not go on some rides because she did not meet the height requirement.

The park would be ideal for five year olds, though I don't think it would interest adolescents.

The most expensive thing was a place which charged 300 yen for ten minutes so you could go inside and play with some kind of machines which threw balls around the place using compressed air. This struck me as a bit overpriced, but the attendant explained that today was a "service" day, the word "service," in Japanese English, indicating that you get something for free. For 300 yen, one person could go inside and stay forever.

Since the setup looked way too complicated for Corny to go inside on her own, my wife went in with her. I sat outside, and what I observed was that, while kids entered, no kids emerged. Obviously a success, then.

My daughter was in amongst the balls for 35 minutes by the clock, which I think means it was a success. The next day, she wanted to go back to the same park, which I guess confirms that the place was a success.

We spent almost five hours at the park, and only saw about half of it. Apparently there are some kind of athletic facilities and also there is a putting course for golf fanatics.

The whole place was cheap and spacious, laid out in extensive grounds with lawns and trees, with no need to stand in line for any attraction. A world removed from Disneyland, in other

On one of our afternoons in Ito, we were wandering down a quiet shopping street and the music playing for the strolling public was that of a koto, the tune being the cherry blossom song that starts "Sakura, sakura." Monday, while we were in the park in the morning, my wife noticed that the first cherry blossoms were beginning to bloom.

January is emphatically not the cherry blossom season. But it has been a warm winter, and so, down in Ito, the cherry blossom has already started to bloom.

If I've succeeded in uploading the photo which I planned to include with this blog entry, then at the top of the page there will be a photo of our evening meal, the one we had on Sunday night.

It shows what is very much a traditional Japanese meal. The details will not show up in the photo, but I think it gives an idea of the sheer complexity of the dinner table setup, with many, many dishes, one dish for each individual item.

If by chance you read this and you happen to be heading to Ito, they have a tourist office right at the station, and the station is where the bus for the amusement park leaves from. (One bus and hour, and please have the exact change for the driver, and make sure you take a ticket when you get on so the driver knows how far you've traveled on the bus.)

Ito, I think, is not the kind of place you'd visit Japan in order to see, but, for people like us, who live and work in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, it makes a nice getaway break.

The music of the koto playing, the cherry blossom starting to bloom, sashimi on the dining table with a bottle of the local sake to go with it, the miso soup and the hiraki on the breakfast table in the morning, the tsunami warning and the latest sumo tournament both on TV on the same day, the woman from the hotel kneeling graciously to set food on the table ... this is, I think, about as traditional as you can realistically expect today's Japan to get.

The sake, by the way, was not from the hotel, since booze was not part of the package. We bought it ourselves. And, although we are, generally, an abstemious household, our weekly alcohol intake typically limited to one and a half glasses of wine on a Saturday, on this occasion we killed a 720 milliliter bottle between the two of us, with me drinking the lion's share. A very nice taste of the traditional Japan, thank you very much.

(Part of a dying tradition, I'm afraid. My students are typically surprised when I tell them I drink sake because, as a rule, they don't. Sake is, increasingly, part of the world of the older generation. For today's Japan, the ruling drink is beer.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

George W. Bush Mocks Condemned Prisoner

George W. Bush Mocks Condemned Prisoner

I have not yet seen the notorious Saddam Hussein cellphone video, the one which shows the mob cursing Saddam and telling him to go to hell. I do not have infinite time to scour the Internet for the desired download, so I resorted to just two sites, both of which failed to provide satisfaction.

The first was ogerish.com, which I would never normally visit, because it specializes in ghastly stuff, and I get my ration of ghastly stuff from the daily newspaper, and that's quite enough ghastly stuff for me, thank you very much.

But I was aware of ogerish.com, although I have no recollection of ever having visited it before, so went there and punched "Saddam Hussein execution" into the search box, and was rewarded by a link which led me to something which purported to be Saddam video, though it was not the video I was looking for.

The link, if you are interested, is:


What opened in my copy of Microsoft's Media Player was a video with an English-language voice over narration, very decorous, no mob either in sight or in earshot. We were told that Saddam, "defiant to the last," refused to wear a hood, and declared that he was afraid of nobody.

The video does not show the moment of execution and provides no audio from the actual scene. The English-language voice over speaks of "one camera rolling," no mention of any cellphone, so I'm left wondering about the provenance of this video.

Is this the rewriting of history already underway, the chaps at the Ministry of Truth substituting a more palatable execution scene for the one running loose on the Internet?

The one other place I went to, again for the first time ever, was youtube.com. But their "favorite" videos did not feature the Saddam video, and at that point I gave up.

I'll look for the cellphone video again in a couple of months, once everything has been properly indexed and yo can Google your way to a download.

Meantime, the Saddam story continues to run and run, and in the International Herald Tribune, as published in Japan on Tuesday 9 January 2007, I found an article on page 7 originally published in The Boston Globe.

The article is by one James Carroll and tells us of one Karla Faye Tucker, a death row inmate who was in Bush's power when he was Governor of Texas. She appealed to him for mercy, and his response, apparently, was to mock her.

Details of this case, if you are interested, can be found at:


At first I misconstrued the event as having taken place in 1999, but then, rechecking, I saw a link to a memorial for Karla Faye Tucker Brown, which gives the execution date as February 3rd 1998.

The link I followed to get this information was:


As indicated above, the Karla Tucker story (or Tucker Brown story, as the case may be) goes back to 1998, to the era in which Bush, as Governor, permitted the execution of no fewer than 152 human beings. The man who is now the imperial president had the power of life and death over 152 individuals, and it was his choice, in each case, to have that person suffer death.

Returning now to the International Herald Tribune article on page 7, an article headlined THE LYNCHING OF IRAQ, which outlines Bush's execution record, James Carroll's view of Bush is not just scathing but vitriolic. He writes, in part, as follows:

"Bush is the impresario of unnecessary violence. America has followed him into the death chamber of this war, and now he wants us to believe that the way out is through more death."

Carroll notes the impact of the war on the Iraqis, and does not minimize it, but the truest concern of his heart would appear to be the American dead, the young soldiers, of whom he writes, affectingly:

"They were heroes, not criminals, yet Bush dragged each one of them up on the gallows. He positioned them on the trap door, hardly wincing as they fell through."

I was more than a little awed by the rhetorical power of this onslaught. In following the pages of the International Herald Tribune in recent weeks, I have increasingly taken note of the fact that the American media most definitely seems to have found its voice when it comes to the Iraq issue.

In closing, Carroll goes one step further than I would have ventured to go, and equates Bush with Saddam:

"With his lies at the beginning of this war, and his fantasy now than an honorable outcome remains possible, the president is a taunting killer, caught in the act. He lacks nothing but the black hood. Stop that man."

The leading serial killer from the state of Texas (actually, as one Texan reminded me some years back in an angry e-mail, not a Texan at all but a frat boy from New England), the man who the www.ccadp.org site characterizes as the "Texecutioner," is, in the opinion of a couple of experts cited in another article featured on the same page 7, out of touch with reality and well into the realms of the delusional.

The article, headlined QUAGMIRE OF THE VANITIES, is by Paul Krugman, raises the question of whether Bush and his adherents are cynical or delusional when they propose, now, escalation. Or, in the parlance of the day, a "surge."

Krugman's answer is that it doesn't matter either way. The key point is that Bush is quite simply not going to concede error and admit that he is wrong.

These days, the IHT, as a rule, is focused pretty heavily on Iraq, but it still finds time for news from other places. In particular, I've noticed quite a few articles about India, a place on which newspapers in New Zealand, which is where I come from, almost never report.

I almost never look at the International Herald Tribune online, where you can find it, if you want, at iht.com, because I find it more convenient to buy a paper at the newsstand at the station and then read it on the slow train to work, often spending two days of home-work commuting to get through one paper.

It is, for my money, the best newspaper around, at least from my perspective, that of someone who is from the Western world but who is living outside it, and who wants, if possible, a global view rather than a regional viewpoint, which I think the IHT provides.

I plan to revisit the Saddam execution debacle sometime, once I have found it wherever it is hiding out online. Meantime, I find it a bit creepy that the cellphone video, which we have heard so much about, is not immediately available to me, a substitute provided by the Ministry of Truth up there on the World Wide Web instead, masquerading as the truth, giving us a decorous execution in which Saddam's last bequest was to someone to whom he wanted a copy of the Koran to be given, the copy in question being the one which Saddam had with him on the occasion of his execution.

My take on Saddam, the emulator of Stalin, is that, knowing the end was heading in his direction, he deliberately chose to recast himself as the religious Islamic jihadist. If he were to succeed in being accepted as exactly that, then such a reception would be the execution result which would give Bush the worst possible outcome.

But, that said, given the pickle that Bush is in, things can hardly get much worse. For Bush. Or for America.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Death of Saddam Hussein

The Death of Saddam Hussein

The death of Saddam Hussein
Was not a final encounter
With the Big Zero.
It was not the mandated death,
The state's dispassionate administration of the law,
The reduction of the target to a cipher.
This was carnival,
Crude circus,
Rough, riotous, up close and personal,
The onlookers geekish,
Jeering for the chicken's head
To be ripped off raw and bleeding from the neck.
He died,
Under the circumstances,
As well as anyone could.
A lynch mob's nigger,
But he had sufficient of the crowbar
To slang back undaunted.
"Is this how a man acts?"
That, I read, was his question.
Of the mob, the answer is no.
Of the man who died,
A yes.
He found
In the defeat that he so richly deserved
A final victory of sorts,
I think,
A victory
Which he also deserved.