Saturday, May 26, 2007

Revised Pan Fire Firefighting Instructions

Revised Pan Fire Firefighting Instructions

My sister read my blog entry about my kitchen fire and caught a bad blooper. She e-mailed me a correction, and her e-mail says, in part:

"Even in NZ with a stove, burning oil is not put in the oven – this would be a highly dangerous step as the oil is likely to splash back and could cause 3rd degree burns."

My own advice was to shove a burning pan in the oven and close the door on it, but evidently this was wrong. I hope I haven't killed or hospitalized too many people by posting bad advice online.

My sister also writes about a fire blanket and a fire extinguisher, as follows:

On the fire blanket:

"Please invest in what is called a fire blanket, or I will post you one, no problem. The parents and Alan and I have one by the stove ... they can be purchased in any hardware shop in NZ. They come in a bright red package and they are quite small in their packaged form ie its presence does not get in the way. If there is a fire the blanket is simply unwrapped and laid over the fire and of course deprives the fire of O2."

On the fire extinguisher:

"We also have a CO2 cylinder in our kitchen for attending to fires."

A fire blanket is now right at the top of my shopping list.

It's amazing how easy a fire can come out of nowhere and ambush you. This point was driven home to me just a couple of days ago when I was working at night in my personal room.

I wanted to have my desk (or, more exactly, the second-hand kitchen table which I use as a desk) free for work. My computer had some time-consuming housework to do, so I put it on the floor so it would be out of the way. Later in the night, I took off my jersey, finding it too warm, and casually dropped it on the floor, without bothering about where it fell.

When it came time to head to bed, I picked up the computer to put it on the table, and found that the top of the lower left of the computer was alarmingly hot.

I realized that the jersey which I had dropped had been covering the air intake, so the fan had not been able t cool the computer properly.

I don't think of my computer as being a fire hazard, but it is, and my good resolution is to be more careful in future about where I put it. And to be sure not to stack clothing on or by it.

And, while we're in the zone of good resolutions, given that I'm now fifty years of age, perhaps it's time I should start thinking really seriously of breaking myself of the habit of just dumping my clothes down on the floor at random.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Our Broken Pushchair Has Not Been Replaced

Our Broken Pushchair Has Not Been Replaced

Our elite push chair is the Silver Cross, the world's best baby stroller, the choice of none other than the British royal family. We bought this British-branded Chinese-made product here in Japan this year, and the last thing we expected was that it would break.

But it did.

The passenger sits in the chair with his or her feet resting on a footstrap, a hefty item which does not suggest the word fragile. Even so, it was this piece of the apparatus which broke, fracturing without warning, leaving daughter Cornucopia with no place to put her feet.

My wife got on to the people who sell this item in Japan, and they agreed that the problem would be remedied, so a courier uplifted the chair on a Wednesday evening, with the promise that it would be back on the Friday.

It was not back, and we did not see it until Monday 21 May, which was grossly inconvenient. Cornucopia having decided she wanted to go to the Olympic home center to play with the selection of goods in the toy section, we went. That is to say, I went together with her. She then decided she was too tired to walk home, so had to be carried.

The weather here in Japan is getting hot, and it's a solid walk home home, a good twenty minutes, two kilometers, which is a long way if you have a three-year-old infant to carry in your arms.

During the time in which the push chair was away, I entertained a ridiculous fantasy, and imagined that perhaps, instead of being merely repaired, it would be replaced by a brand new stroller.

What put this aberrant thought into my mind was the behavior of Canon, the Japanese electronics company. When our very old digital camera broke this year, after much use, Canon amazed us by replacing it with a brand new IXY 800, a very nice camera which I plan to review, once I've finally had time to sit down and figure out the ins and outs of how it works.

Because my replacement fantasy was shamefully childish, I said nothing of it to my wife.

When our push chair was finally returned, my wife observed that it was exactly the same chair rather than a replacement. She knew this because it was emblazoned with the name tag my wife had earlier affixed to it, a tag proudly proclaiming my daughter's name to the world: AIKO CORNUCOPIA BOADICEA NISHIKAWA.

(A great name, though I have started to think that if my daughter ever wants to follow in the footsteps of Paris Hilton and become a brand, then perhaps a slightly shorter name would have been commercially advantageous.)

My wife then said that she had been thinking that perhaps the push chair people might do a Canon and give us an entirely new product. So I confessed that I had been entertaining exactly the same notion.

I was amused at how both of us had been influenced in the direction of unrealistic expectations by a single example of Canonic behavior which both of us knew to be not commercially normative. There is a lesson about human nature in this, I'm sure, but for the life of me I can't figure it out.

Tuesday, we went to and from the daycare with our war car, as per usual. Returning home from the daycare on the evening of Tuesday 22 May, I restored my cooking confidence by cooking up exactly the same meal as the one which had led to my earlier near-disaster in the kitchen. Only this time I decided not to fry the sausages for taste. I decided that the pleasure of having your boiled sausages fried is not worth the risk of accidentally frying yourself alive.

Footnote: for some reason my Blogger blog switched its language from English to Japanese, presumably because my Internet service provider is in Japan. This grossly inconvenienced me, and forced me to start opening a couple of Japanese dictionaries which I hadn't touched in years. However, when I logged on this evening, Tuesday 22 May 2007, I found that the language on the site was back to English once again. I don't know if this change is temporary or permanent.

One thing I couldn't figure out through the fog of Japanese was how I was supposed to upload my photos, as the procedure seemed to have changed when Blogger switched me to Japanese, so the remembered link did not seem to be in the same place. If I can get photo uploads going again, then our new IXY 800 will yield fresh images to the waiting world.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Hugh Almost Burns The House Down

Hugh Almost Burns The House Down

This is an account of a kitchen fire I had a couple of weeks back which almost resulted in the house burning down.

I planned to cook pork so I put a frypan on the right gas burner, added oil, got the oil really hot then put in the pork. I fried the pork on both sides at a high temperature to sear the meat and seal in the juices, then turned down the heat for prolonged cooking. This is how I always cook meat.

I had already boiled up some small sausages, and these I planned to fry for taste, because I prefer fried sausages rather than boiled sausages. So I followed a similar procedure.

I put a frying pan on the left burner, added some of the canola oil we use for cooking, got the pan hot then cheerfully input the sausages.

The sausages splashed athletically into the hot oil. The hot oil shot upwards into the air and immediately caught fire. And I realized, in a flash, that I had a pan on fire on the stove top, and that burning oil has splashed to the left, where the end of the sinkbench wraps round the cooker.

I was immediately totally focused, and cool enough to analyze my own response, which was one in which theory directed action.

The way to handle a pan fire is, as I knew, to cut off the air supply. In a Western kitchen you can simply open the oven compartment, pop in the burning pan then close the door on it. The pan will soon exhaust all the oxygen and die.

In Japan there is no such option because Japanese kitchens do not have oven compartments. If I need to explain the word "oven" to one of my Japanese students of English, I tell them to think about the compartments they will have seen in the boutique bakeries which are a feature of metropolitan Japan, proper bread-baking ovens.

Our cooker does have a compartment for grilling fish, but you couldn't get a frypan in there because it's only large enough to take about half a dozen sardines.

But I handled the burning pan problem elegantly. I simply picked up the pork frypan and put it directly on top of the frying pan which contained the sausages.

The result was that the pan fire was extinguished almost immediately.

I then turned my attention to the fire burning in the left corner, and saw that there was a big pot of oil, intended for deep frying, right near the oil that was burning. I was still intellectualizing, and so realized that this pot, if it were to catch fire, would become a non-trivial problem.

Accordingly, I picked up the pot of oil and placed it in the sink bench, a big stainless steel affair which is about the only thing in our Japanese kitchen which is as big as (or even bigger than) its standard Western counterpart.

Now, how to put out the flames in the corner?

My first thought was to unroll some tinfoil and use that to suppress the flames. But that would take too long. So I slipped the kitchen mitt onto my right hand and used it to pat out the flames, figuring that the mitt would not burn. True. It did get a bit singed, but it didn't catch fire.

At this point I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I had confronted danger and had handled it, I thought, pretty well.

Ever since I resumed cooking, I have thought of the kitchen as a zone of danger, conscious that my limited vision and damaged brain make me an accident waiting to happen. For that reason, I have made it a rigid rule that my three-year-old daughter, Aiko Cornucopia Boadicea Nishikawa, is absolutely forbidden in the kitchen when I am cooking.

While I had been fighting the fire, Cornucopia had been watching TV, unaware that anything had happened.

While I started cleaning up the mess in the corner, I gradually became aware of the fact that there was a smell of burning plastic in the air. I do not have a strong sense of smell, but the plastic was distinct in the air. And the smell was getting stronger.

Logic clicked me to an answer: something must be on fire. Something plastic.

That was when I saw that burning oil had splashed not just to the left but also to the right. To the right of the cooker, on the sink bench between the cooker and the kitchen sink, there were various plastic items sitting on a couple of trays, and a fire had started in amongst these objects, which were burning happily.

The human brain is designed to short circuit when under stress, presumably because it is better to panic and do something rather than freeze. If a saber tooth tiger jumps out of you in the jungle, anything you might do is probably going to be better than just standing their and intellectualizing about it.

Shocked by the sudden reappearance of the fire, I panicked and, without thinking, grabbed hold of the burning plastic with my left hand, the one which was nearest to the flames, and scooped the burning stuff into the sink.

I realized at once that I had burnt my fingers on molten plastic, so immediately placed my hand under cold running water, and ended up getting away with no more than one small burn blister.

I hadn't seen the fire to the right because I'm effectively blind in the right eye, but now I scanned the kitchen with my semi-functional left eye, looking for a fourth fire.

As I did so, two thoughts went through my mind. The first was this: gee, this is a hackneyed ending. I mean, we're deep into cliche territory here.

We've all seen this movie, right? After a struggle, the monster is vanquished, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Then, whamo! The monster comes roaring back to life again. It's not dead after all.

The second thought was this: just how am I going to clean up this mess and conceal this catastrophe from my wife?

As I was thinking that, I heard my wife, Murasaki Nishikawa, at the door. As soon as she walked in she smelt the stench of incineration. She also noticed that both her husbands hands were black with sooty grease and that the kitchen was one big mess.

My wife took it upon herself to clean up the kitchen, and was working on the task until late, late into the night.

Sunday 20 May, I cooked under ideal conditions, with wife and child outside with neighbors and their kids. I cooked a fish called buri, my favorite Japanese fish. Plus baked potatoes and baked kumera, the kumera being the sweet potato which the Japanese call the satsumaimo.

As noted before, Japanese cookers do not have an oven compartment, but we have a gadget called a "microwave oven," a two-in-one device which can do ordinary microwaving, but which can also bake, employing for the purpose two heating elements which unfold from the sides and swing into position to do baking.

I'm big on baked potatoes these days because potato skins are one source of magnesium, an element that my last set of blood tests told me I was low on.

Together with the fish and potatoes I served boiled sweetcorn (kernels, not whole cobs), rice and a salad. A simple salad of cucumbers and tomatoes for daughter Cornucopia, and a more elaborate salad for my wife and I, including mung beans, sprouts, and foliage grown from soy beans.

I also cooked eggplant, green capsicums and mushrooms.

A pretty good meal, though I say it myself.

I'm not the world's greatest cook, but I'm certainly more of a cook than some of my male Japanese students of English. Recently I had one male student in class on a one-to-one basis and we were tackling a lesson which features cooking. One of the tasks in the lesson is to look at a picture of some basic cooking utensils and to give them names. My student told me that demand was unreasonable.

"I don't even know the names of those things in Japanese," he said.

To spell check this file, I used Abiword, a free text editor. I had planned to buy the latest and greatest version of UltraEdit, version 13.00a, and got all the way to the point where I clicked to buy a registered version. But their site rejected my credit card details, saying I must have made a mistake, though I don't see how I could have, since I always copy and paste exactly the same details, and my card doesn't expire for a couple of years yet.

If you can't register UltraEdit then it becomes unworkable because, first, it undoes any modifications you've made to the way it behaves, then it signals that your use is limited and that after a set number of days it will become unworkable.

This experience has left a bad taste in my mouth, and has led me back into the world of software wars, from which territory I hope to issue an updated report in due course.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Japanese Students Of English Respond To Virginia Tech Massacre

Japanese Students Of English Respond To Virginia Tech Massacre

Here in Japan, the "ogatarenkyu" is in full swing. This translates literally as "large-type consecutive holiday," the segment of the year commonly referred to as Golden Week. In this week, the mandated holidays do not actually add up to a week, but most outfits close down at this time of year, and most people do get a week off.

Because of Golden Week, we are very busy at Waniguchi Gakko right now, as many Japanese students of English finally get round to taking some of those lessons they've been telling themselves they would take ... one day.

One day having arrived, I had a full schedule on Tuesday 1 May 2007, and two of my classes were for high-level students. For both classes, I tasked them to list five stories that had been in the news, and then to choose which one they would like to discuss.

For the first group, it was obvious that the story they must discuss had to be the Virginia Tech massacre perpetrated by Cho Seung Hui.

The second class ... well, they were obviously interested in Cho's day of carnage, but deemed it to be too horrific to discuss. Having gotten that far, they then went on to discuss exactly why it was too horrific to discuss, and by the time they had been into all the ins and outs of it, the lesson was over.

Both sets of high-level students surfaced responses to Cho's massacre in the same two ways.

First, the massacre confirmed their stereotypical view of America as a land of gun nuts. Two of them had undergone personal experiences in the States which had confirmed their prejudices.

One of my students, who these days works as a translator, translating English-language romance novels into Japanese, went on a homestay in America many years ago. What stuck in her mind that that when her nice and friendly host family welcomed her to America, one of the very first things they absolutely insisted on doing was to make sure she knew how to use the family gun.

In a Japanese context, this would be anomalous. If you were a guest in a Japanese house, whether a guest who was paying or one who had been invited in for free, your Japanese hosts would not show you the way to the family six shooter. They would not anticipate that you might have a need for it.

Another student, well, his first taste of America took him into TAXI DRIVER territory. The very first week, he went to a Chinese restaurant and there was a shootout outside, "some crazy guy with guns and rifles," and someone was killed.

"I thought this was how it was going to be the whole time I was in America, that I'd have a shootout every day, but, no, there was only the one."

Because a teacher's role, in modern language teaching, is to facilitate the interaction of the students rather than to hog the stage, I didn't surface my own American gun experience.

My personal adventures in America have been limited. Once I spent a week in Hawaii. Another time, I went to New Orleans for a week on business. The third time, I spent a few days in San Francisco then took a Grayhound bus all the way to New York, stopping off in Salt Lake City and Chicago.

After my bus left the terminal in San Francisco, we headed through the pretty gritty urban area to the east. After a while, the bus made an unscheduled stop. What was going on? I had no idea.

A few minutes passed, then a couple of friendly American cops got on the bus, looking very relaxed. They departed, shortly, taking with them one of the passengers, whom they had abducted from the back of the bus.

I asked one of the other passengers why the cops had come for the guy, and I was told that the passenger had been waving a gun around, and apparently the driver had been unable to reconcile this action on the passenger's part with his notions of normative American behavior.

My students, then, all saw America as being a dangerously gun-crazy society, and said they couldn't understand why Americans permitted gun use.

That said, when I paired them up and had one play the role of a gun-sceptical Japanese citizen, the voice of the rational world, and the other play the role of a die-hard pro-gun American nut, they effortlessly came out with all the standard American arguments for the possession of guns. These they would have seen dissected and discussed repeatedly on Japanese television in other weeks.

All the students had a second thing in common: they were pretty shocked by Cho's English. One said so in as many words:

"I was shocked by his English. He's been in America since he was ten, but his English was almost incomprehensible. At first I thought he was speaking Korean."

All the students thought that the main reason Cho was socially isolated was because his English was so lousy that he couldn't interact socially with his peers at Virginia Tech.

I explained that there was nothing wrong with Cho's English. Having arrived in America at a pretty early age, he was the functional equivalent of a fully-fledged native speaker of English. But he was not a trained announcer, and he was not making any concessions for Japanese auditors who would have benefited from a more measured delivery.

He was speaking in authentic native speaker mode, running the words together, making, in effect, compounds that they would not find in their dictionaries.

My high-level students would do fine with the language of English broadcasters, trained to deliver information in a clear and measured manner, but the no-holds-barred diatribe which Cho committed to video was out of their experience.

I also explained that I, myself, returning to New Zealand after having spent some years in Japan, had a certain amount of trouble tuning my ear to native speaker New Zealand English, and it took me a while to be 100% with it.

While some of the teachers at Waniguchi Gakko are from the States, the students, as a rule, never hear those teachers speak truly authentic native speaker English. What they get in class is slower, less idiomatic, and has been screened for expletive before being delivered.

In the teacher's room, when it gets busy, I have living Americans around me, engaging in uncensored conversations at a pace which makes no concessions for any imagined weaknesses on the part of the auditor.

Because I had two groups of high-level students and gave each the job of coming up with five news topics, between them they surfaced more than five, although there were some duplicates. Other topics that they came up with included the ongoing visit of Japan's prime minister Abe to the Middle East, the recent assassination of the mayor of Nagasaki, and Golden Week.

I recently had one of my lessons observed, and the instructor who gave me feedback on it gave me a good bit of advice:

"When you're having students make a list, tell one of them to be the scribe, and write down the items that the students come up with."

I tried this, and it turned out to be good advice. Not every lesson involves making a list, of course, but many do. For example, a list of movies that I had another group of students make in one of Tuesday's lesson.

Here in Japan, my personal news is that my cooking is getting just a wee bit more adventurous. For most of my life, my cooking has been at the caveman level: take a raw piece of the flesh of a dead animal (a large piece, for preference) then burn it on both sides.

In Japan, my cooking became a little more adventurous, and I started sometimes frying up, in addition to meat, things such as mushrooms, eggplant and capsicums. But, if I fried three of these things for one meal, I always fried them one at a time, and put them on the plate in three separate piles.

Then, recently, I saw a segment of a cooking program on TV. It must have been part of some kid's program my daughter was watching, since I never tune into cooking shows.

On the TV, I saw someone frying not one thing at a time but two things at once. Mushrooms plus capsicum in the same pan.

I thought that was pretty awesomely sophisticated, so, Tuesday night, it being one of my infrequent nights to do the cooking, I gave it a shot. And it worked out pretty good. The meal I put on the table ended up being chicken, baked potatoes, short-grained Japanese rice, mushrooms, green capsicum, eggplant, and a salad comprised of tomatoes, lettuce, mung beans and foliage grown from soy beans.

Unfortunately, in the excitement of cookery, I made the mistake of moving a little too fast in the kitchen, and one tiny slip led to a cup being knocked off into the sink, where it fell slap bang into one of the pretty cat dishes that my wife bought in Devonport, New Zealand, and smashed it into pieces.

Still, I'm gradually climbing the cookery curve, and I think there's plenty of blue sky here. The are probably, I speculate, cooking techniques even more sophisticated than frying two things together in the same frypan. With the passage of time, perhaps I'll find out.

Just to wrap up on Virginia Tech, the massacre has completely died out of the news. It was the number one topic of discussion in my two high-level classes on Tuesday simply because most of the students hadn't attended an English conversation class for weeks, so hadn't yet shared their reactions with each other.

On the 7 pm NHK news on Tuesday 1 May, the number one topic was the price of gasoline, which apparently has shot up in Japan. Because I don't drive, this is one thing that I don't have to worry about.

Regarding the ogatarenkyu, my wife and I are not taking a week off. Waniguchi Gakko operates right through the year, except for a period at New Year, and the civil service outfit for which my wife works also keeps going despite the fact that one of Japan's main holiday breaks is in full swing.

However, I am taking Friday 4 May off, and we will go together as a family, my wife and daughter and me, for another visit to the tourist paradise of Gunma Prefecture, where we have a two-night three day excursion planned.

My brain is like a sieve ... I was going to wrap up this post with an account of the changes I've seen over the years in the standard of English. But it slipped my mind. Then the thought jumped back as I was going through my e-mail.

I started teaching at Waniguchi Gakko roughly ten years ago. Then I went off to do other things, and only returned to the school last year. What has changed, really, is that the average level of conversational English has improved out of sight.

These days, I no longer get students who show up in class unable to make the sentence "This is a pen." I do get students who would be struggling to make the question "Is this a pen?" but I no longer get students who are starting from absolute zero.

Ten years ago, I'd have women who were maybe 65 years old, who never went to high school, and who really were starting from zero. Those days are pretty much over.

The true beginners are a thing of the past, since all Japanese people are exposed to English through TV, not always to their benefit. The term "Oh my God!" has, for example, become a bit of a catch phrase, and I have to tell students that this phrase is a little strong, and is not always conversationally appropriate.

So the absolute beginners are more or less gone, and the proportion of students who have fairly high-level English has shot up. These days, I have a couple of students for whom it is difficult to come up with appropriate challenges, one being the woman who works translating romance novels, and the other being a student who is training to be a simultaneous translator.

When I first started teaching at Waniguchi Gakko, I was there for two years before leaving to go teach corporate English. (At least, I thought I was going to teach corporate English, but once I had taken on my new job I discovered, not to my pleasure, that most of my time would be spent teaching junior high school.)

In those first two years, I taught many, many students, but most of them have moved on. I think that in the months since I started back at the school in June of 2006, only two students from the old days recognized my face. Naturally, they asked what I'd done in those years, but, on both occasions, I fobbed them off with an extremely short version of the truth. The long version, the saga, I don't have time for.