Thursday, June 28, 2007

Meat Hope

Meat Hope

On Monday 25 June 2007 I asked some of my Japanese students of English at Waniguchi Gakko to discuss Meat Hope. To my surprise, one of them drew a blank. He obviously hadn't been following the news, which is a mistake, because if you don't follow the news then sooner or later you will miss something really, really juicy, like New York being wiped out by a giant meteorite strike, or Paris Hilton being caught in Saks Fifth Avenue wearing a suicide bomber belt. Or George W. Bush finally biting the bullet and doing what is really necessary to bring peace to the Middle
East, which is to invade Switzerland.

In my student's case he had an excuse, because he's off to France next week with his wife. He's an antiques dealer here in Japan, and he and his wife are off to the land of frogs to buy antiques, so, being all fired up about that, he doesn't have much time to worry his head about the wider world.

Out in that wider world, the Hokkaido-based meat company which goes by the name of Meat Hope has scandalized Japan in a way which has displaced the ongoing pensions problem from the number one slot in the TV news.

Imagine a company that would sell products labeled as one hundred percent beef but which would add to the product any kind of meat it could get its hands on. Got some dead elephants, a few beached whales, some redundant dinosaur flesh? Okay, then Meat Hope would like to buy it, because everything is grist to its mill.

Because there are no elephants, stranded whales or dead dinosaurs on the Japanese meat market, Meat Hope didn't buy those things. For similar reasons, they didn't buy dead dogs, human corpses or second-hand placentas to add to the mix.

But what Meat Hope did buy, to mix in with its theoretical beef was pork, chicken, lamb, venison and bread rolls.

Here in Japan, journalists have been amusing themselves by buying samples of Meat Hope products and then sending them to the lab so technicians can analyze the DNA and get a handle on exactly what fractions of the zoo were chopped up and blended to make this junk.

One aspect of this situation that I drew out in the classroom is that a small fraction of Japan's resident population adheres to the Muslim faith, and pork is forbidden if you cleave to the teachings of Islam. One of my students responded by asking, well, can Muslims tell the difference between pork and beef if they eat it?

I answered, probably not, but that's the point. I went on to explain the cultural point as follows: you're Japanese, so you don't eat human beings. But imagine if a company sold you human flesh labeled as beef and you went and eat it. Even though you didn't do anything wrong because you didn't know what you were eating, if you found out then you'd feel pretty horrible.

I think the point got across.

So far, to the best of my knowledge, no angry voices have been raised in Japan's pretty small Islamic community, but, even so, there's an issue here.

In addition to routinely having pork masquerade as beef, Meat Hope also got in the habit of buying almost-expired product from other companies. It put this product through a ghastly rejuvenating process, sometimes adding cattle hearts to tweak the color for cosmetic purposes, then gave it glossy labels and sold it to wholesale suppliers, who then onsold it to retailers.

But, as for the rest, in some cases you would have been better off eating directly out of the garbage bin.

A certain fraction of this product was obviously not of merchantable quality, and in one case, having reached the retail level, some of this product liquefied. Naturally, customers complained.

When complaints worked their way back through the food chain to Meat Hope, it had a standard procedure.

1. Buy back the product (and apologize, of course.)

2. Tell the insurance company that a bad worker had messed up, so can you pay us compensation money, please?

3. Get the money from the insurance company and put it in the bank.

4. Change insurance companies. (Insurance companies aren't run by dummies, and if you keep trying to pull the same stunt on them, they'll start to see a pattern.)

This misbehavior apparently started twenty-four years ago and gradually escalated, to the point where Meat Hope became notorious in the meat industry as "the dumping ground," the place where you could offload, for a profit, stuff which should properly have been sent to the tip.

("The tip" is, in New Zealand English, the place to which you haul garbage and dump it.)

One of the Japanese enterprises which onsold Hope Meat products is an outfit called Co-op. This is more or less the same as a supermarket chain, but with one wrinkle: to buy from them, you have to become a member, and to become a member you have to give them five thousand yen (which will be refunded if you ever choose to leave.)

We first joined Co-op some years ago when we were living in Hiyoshi, which is in Kohoku ward in Yokohama, the same ward in which we reside now. In those days, I used to backpack along a little path that ran by our house, a path that followed what was once a stream bed, and I used to get stuff directly from the Co-op building. These days, my wife does her supermarket shopping in the privacy of our living room, filling in an order form. Co-op uplifts the form and delivers the goods on Tuesdays. Stuff that needs to be in the fridge sits safely in special polystyrene boxes if there's nobody at home to take it inside immediately.

When I discussed Meat Hope with my wife, she assured me that the Meat Hope croquettes that featured in the news as being sold by Co-op were not the same as the croquettes that we buy from Co-op. We have been buying a different brand.

This was reassuring, but, even so, the fact is that Meat Hope succeeded in slipping its disgusting garbage can products into a distribution chain which leads right to our doorstep. Literally.

What follows are some quotes from various pages that I found online relating to Meat Hope. I won't give the urls, but, if you're interested, you can track the story by going to and punching "meat hope" into the search box, including the quotes at either end of the search term.


"A former employee of Meat Hope Co. has told The Yomiuri Shimbun that the Hokkaido-based meat-processing company, found to have put pork offal into products labeled ground beef, also falsely labeled diced meat products."


"Meat Hope Co., a meat-processing firm in Hokkaido implicated in a scandal over the false labeling of products, sold ground meat mixed with pork, chicken, duck and other meat, but labeled only as ground beef, to Hokkaido Katokichi Co. and 17 other companies since around 1998, according to the results of an Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry search of the company."

And once again from the DAILY YOMIURI ONLINE:

"A former employee of Meat Hope told The Yomiuri Shimbun of witnessing the use of bread as a bulking agent five or six years ago."


"Hokkaido-based meat processor Meat Hope Co. officially told all 60 of its employees Tuesday they will be dismissed because it has become difficult to maintain its businesses due to a false-labeling scandal.

"Meat Hope is expected to take legal procedures to liquidate itself soon, but it has not yet decided on what to do with its affiliated meat sales company and restaurant, company officials said."

And this from THE JAPAN TIMES:

"A former Meat Hope employee has also said that the firm altered the expiration date for frozen croquettes by buying back outdated products from stores at a discount, changing the use-by date, and reselling them to affiliated restaurants and volume retailers."

And from ASAHI.COM, giving us news of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries:

"The ministry determined that Meat Hope's wrongdoings had been willfully conducted on a systematic basis on the orders of President Minoru Tanaka and other executives."

The company president, Minoru Tanaka, is a guy we keep seeing on television, and, given the enormous pressure he must be under, I'm surprised that he hasn't already committed suicide, and I won't be at all surprised if he actually does.

The picture that emerges from the ASAHI.COM piece is one of steady escalation, starting as follows:

" The first misconduct confirmed by the ministry took place in or around 1983, when the company mixed scrap barbecued pork into ground pork. Meat Hope later mixed pig intestines into its ground pork.

"Around 1998, Meat Hope started mixing components like pork, chicken and even duck meat into its ground beef products."

The ASAHI.COM piece also notes that ground beef which was supposedly Hokkaido beef was, in some cases, actually meat from Australia and New Zealand.

Undoubtedly all the bad product will be purged from the system in due course, but, for the moment, if you're in Japan, be careful. You might think you are having the pleasure of eating elite Hokkaido beef, but what is actually on your plate might quite possibly be the low-class meat eaten by the peasants who inhabit Australia and New Zealand.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

That Which Does Not Destroy Me Makes Me Stronger

That Which Does Not Destroy Me Makes Me Stronger

One consequence of having been through neurosurgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy is that I have a bad case of the old people's disease, CRS, Can't Remember Stuff.

This comes home to me repeatedly, as when, in the evening, I see that my wife has written an important message on the little whiteboard which lives on the fridge door. The message is this: "buy two bread."

Mustn't forget. But how to make sure I don't? The simple solution is to go upstairs, grab a marker pen, write "buy two bread" on a piece of paper, then bring the paper downstairs, together with my alarm clock. The paper goes on a plate sitting on the table and the alarm clock sits on top of the paper.

That way, when I come downstairs in the morning I will see the message on the table and remember. The alarm clock should be sitting on the table in any case, set to wake me at 1730 in case I am sleeping in the afternoon, since I have to pick up daughter Cornucopia from the daycare center at 1800.

So I head upstairs to my personal room, meaning to write the message and get the alarm clock.

When I come down for breakfast in the morning, I check the whiteboard on the refrigerator door, as I always do, and see that there is an important message waiting: "buy two bread." I remember having seen it before. But there is no piece of paper waiting on the table, and my alarm clock is still upstairs in my personal room.

To get round this forgettery, I keep a todo list, and, when some must-do, should-do or might-do occurs to me, I write it down on the list. Immediately.

Then, if I can remember where I last put the list (which is sometimes problematical) I'm in business.

Apart from simply forgetting stuff, I get overloaded when I have to multitask. An example of this occurred on the evening o Monday 25 June, when I went to pick up three-year-old daughter Cornucopia from the daycare center.

When I entered the chaotic daycare room, my daughter came rushing up to me and demanded "Dako!" She wanted to be picked up and carried.

Before I picked her up, I checked that the staff had changed her into paper pants for the return home, which they are supposed to do but sometimes neglect to. She has a tendency to poop in her panties on the way home, and if she is wearing cloth rather than paper, then that is my fault, because I should have checked, and then I'm in deep doo-doo.

So I did check, and felt appropriately proud at having remembered to do so.

Then I picked up Cornucopia and carried her with me as I went round the room gathering up her daycare things: cup, toothpaste, two handtowels, plastic bag containing any soiled linen, two aprons, three additional towels, and the notebook which travels between home and the daycare.

As I carried her, I chanted, as is my custom on these occasions, "Duck-oh, duck-oh, quack-quack; goose-oh, goose-oh, honk-honk, dog-oh, dog-oh, woof-woof; kangaroo-oh, kangaroo-oh, pyong-pyong." The first "duck-oh" is a kind of pun on "dako."

To get at the notebook I had to put down Cornucopia, and she went rushing off, and the next time I saw her she had taken her yellow plastic parka off her outdoor clothing hook in the hall. So I registered the fact that she had the parka.

We then went outside and she played on the little plastic fort outside, which incorporates stairs, battlements and a slide to descend by. She then played with dirt, and, before we headed off home, I made her wash her hands at the outdoor tap.

When we got to the pushchair, our elite Silver Cross stroller, I realized that the rain cover, which had been on the chair in the morning, had been removed by a person or persons unknown. This had never happened before.

So I hunted around in the pushchair menagerie and found the missing cover, which I identified by the distinctive rectangular tab of orange glued to it.

I then went to push the button which opens the security gate to let us out, but I found the button was missing from the usual pillar. I hunted around for it and very shortly found it, wired to the wall behind the pillar.

By this time Cornucopia was in the chair and, because I was behind her, pushing, I didn't see her all the way home. She demanded to be allowed to get out of the chair and walk, but, as it had started raining, I denied her permission, and we went home.

When we got to the front door, I realized that Cornucopia did not have her parka. Was it down in the garage with the chair? No.

My wife asked me what had happened, and I had to confess that I had no recollection of what happened after I saw Cornucopia with the parka.

The next morning, Tuesday, when we got to the shoe box, which sits outside, Cornucopia looked for the parka, which her mother had told her to find. "Nai!" she said. Meaning, "It isn't there!" (Obviously the Japanese is more compact than the English, because Japanese is a singularly compact language, particularly because one of the basic rules of Japanese grammar is that you can omit absolutely everything, even the verb, if the meaning remains clear.)

We went inside and I told a teacher that Karin's parka had gone missing, and she immediately, with a smile, produced the offending item, which I unequivocally identified because of the distinctive plaid fabric interior inside the yellow plastic.

I'd taken my umbrella because it was threatening to rain, and, one minute after exiting the daycare, I realized I'd forgotten my umbrella. I realized this because rain started falling down on top of me.

I remembered thinking to myself that I MUST NOT hook the umbrella on the side of the outdoor shoe box, because if I did that then I would be sure to forget it and to walk off without it.

But where, then, had I left it?

I retraced my steps and found the umbrella hooked by its handle to the side of the shoebox, precisely where I'd told myself it should not be.

On the Monday evening, multitasking overwhelmed me, and I lost track of the parka. Additionally, I had a worry on my mind: would my last-ditch effort to save the data on my hard disk have worked or not?

The operating system that I usually use is an OS which is known by two names. In the Infernal Realms, it goes by the name of Satan's Sabotage System, a product proudly brought to you by Satanic Software Transconglomerata. In the mundane world in which we live, it masquerades by another name, this being Windows Professional XP, responsibility for which is claimed (apparently without shame) by an outfit known as Microsoft, the unacceptable face of monopoly capitalism.

Recently, this diabolical OS took yet another shot at destroying my life. I must admit that I'd been abusing it by using it for a purpose which it was not designed for, the purpose being to run software and to manipulate data files in various formats.

XP is not designed to be a workhorse. It's designed to be a fashion accessory. You're supposed to be wowed by how pretty it looks, to stare at the screen in dazed wonder, admiring the lapidary eye-candy, thinking to yourself, gee, this is real cute, I sure got value for my money this time out.

Because the OS is basically malfunctional, I routinely revert my computer to factory conditions to rectify XP after it has fallen over, and I've forgotten how many times I've done this.

I recently noticed that the system was going south when I decided to give the final text of my new book of poems, GENGHIS LOTUS POETRY COLLECTION, a final spellcheck. For this purpose I'd been using OpenOffice 2. But, when I did the final check, I found that all the terms that I'd added to the spellchecker's memory had been deleted. This cued me to the fact that I needed to reinstall the OS, and so I backed up key critical data in three places: on a 512 megabyte compact flash card which lives on my work table, on a two gigabyte SanDisk card which lives in the same place, and online as a series of e-mail attachments, which should survive even if we have a really big earthquake here in Yokohama, and Japan sinks.

But there was a lot of stuff I didn't back up, including all the stuff relating to play sites that I'd been researching. Plus a lot of work I'd done on book covers.

So I was severely worried when, Monday, before I headed to the daycare, the computer started locking up on me. Repeatedly rebooting it did not fix the problem. Plainly, it was crisis time. I decided it was time to back up the data that still needed saving, then revert to factory conditions.

But I couldn't back up.

I plugged in my USB floppy disk drive and tried to copy my passwords file to a floppy. I'd made some changes and, if I lost that file, I wouldn't be able to recover the alterations from my porous memory. But nothing would copy to the floppy.

Finally, as Daycare Hour drew near, I tried what I thought might be my last shot. I plugged in my USB portable hard disk drive, which is enormously larger than the hard disk that I have on the computer, and took a shot at dragging and dropping the entire MY DOCUMENTS file.

While I was on my way home from the daycare, I kept thinking about whether this would or would not work, and what a hassle it would be if I ended up with my data minutely mutilated in dozens of tiresome ways.

When I went upstairs to my personal room, I found MY DOCUMENTS had disappeared from the computer's hard drive, and was now on the portable drive. I unplugged the portable drive, rebooted, and started the procedure whereby the computer reinstalls everything, OS and base software, from a repository on the hard disk.

While I was downstairs having dinner, the computer got the basic work done, and I was then able to spend most of the night customizing my new XP installation and installing key software.

I had planned on getting a good night's sleep to be nice and fresh for Tuesday's main event, my first trip to the dentist since my return to Japan. I hadn't been to the dentist for well over a year, and there was no telling what might have happened.

But I decided to get the computer set up that night.

Although I have a handwritten guide that I put together which details exactly how to customize and what to install in what order, I thought I could probably get by without it. So, without looking at my notes, I plunged into the task. I found it more difficult than anticipated, and ended up doing a lot of exploratory clicking around.

That which does not destroy me makes me stronger, and every time XP has taken a shot at trashing my life I've acquired more expertise by fighting back. This time, by sheer accident, I ended up performing the following procedure:

START -> SETTINGS -> CONTROL PANEL -> DISPLAY -> SETTINGS -> ADVANCED ... and now you can change dots-per-inch from the default 96 dpi or (as I chose to do) to 120 dpi, in effect magnifying everything on the screen. (You can also choose to make a custom setting.)

As usual, I'd set my LCD screen to display at 800 x 600, and this, coupled with the 120 dpi setting, makes a pretty good combination. I have given up on using the XP magnifier, and I don't think I will use it in future. Most of the stuff I can see on screen with my spectacles, and it's more convenient just to pick up my magnifying glass rather than mess with the magnifier.

Because I'd spent most of the night sitting up working on the computer, I was pretty wrecked by the time I arrived at the dentist's to keep a 1500 appointment. But, as Woody Allen says, ninety percent of life is just about showing up.

Sitting in the chair, I was happy. My system was up and functional. No eye candy. A lean, austere installation, with everything simplified, right down to minor little adjustments such as immediately deleting deleted files rather than gunking up the computer by keeping garbage in the recycle bin.

A female technician worked on my teeth for more than an hour, scraping away tartar then polishing them.

She didn't speak any English, but that wasn't a problem. I get by. Once I was in the chair, the first thing she said was a sentence I didn't really hear properly, but I did catch the words "hidari te," meaning "left hand," so I knew, from the context, that she was telling me to raise my left hand if it hurt.

When you're out in the real world, your functional grasp of a foreign language becomes much better than it does in the classroom, because context clarifies. If you enter a hotel and walk up to the front desk, for example, they already know, pretty much, why you're here and what you want them to do for you, without you so much as opening your mouth. In real life, nobody needs to set up the situation for you so the conversation can get going. The situation supplies itself, and so you're on the right track before you even start speaking. Or listening, as the case may be.

Regarding the question of pain, a couple of times a sharp point slid into some tender meat which it shouldn't have been digging into, but I can't say that I was actually in pain, and I didn't need to raise my hand.

After the technician was done, my English-speaking dentist dropped by and asked me when I'd been last. I thought perhaps as long ago as 2004. The reason he asked was that they have gone and lost my records.

I am still on the books, and, when I phoned to make an appointment, it took the receptionist less than ten seconds to locate me on the computer. I delivered a surname, "Kukku," and she came up with the personal name, "Hyu," almost immediately after I had given her the surname. But my records, those they've lost.

No problem. My dental details I can comfortably keep in my head. My mouth is more or less defect-free, with only three items to keep track of, all in the lower left jaw. First, on the far left, there's an old-fashioned mercury amalgam filling. Sitting next to that there's a palladium filling I had done at the Numabe clinic. And along side that there's a cap (alternatively called a crown) replacing half a tooth which broke off when I was in New Zealand. It broke when I was eating spaghetti, of all things, and the necessary repair work was eventually done at Northcross Dental Solutions at Browns Bay, north of the city of Auckland.

This happy result, only three mouth defects, is a testament to the virtues of going through childhood with a daily dose of fluoride, which is what I did all through my childhood. Our water supply was not fluoridated, but my mother religiously fed each of her children a fluoride tablet every day of our childhood lives, and at this stage I'm expecting my teeth to last pretty much as long as I do, unless they come down with cancer or something horrible like that.

My Numabe dentist told me I should have six-monthly checks for my health, and that he would send me a letter in December.

The dentist that I go to is at Numabe, one stop from Tamagawa. Once you arrive at Numabe station, the route to the clinic is a little bit complicated and I hadn't been there since, I guess, 2004. Even so, I remembered the way.

These days, I can't learn new things easily but I remember stuff that I learnt in the old days. All kinds of stuff. Everything from teaching techniques to transit routes.

For this reason, I prefer to visit places that I have been to in the past rather than venturing to entirely new places. This summer, we plan to take a two-night break at the beach, and I very strongly wished for us to return to Chikura Kan, a beachside hotel in a place called Chikura.

And this, all going well, is what we will do.

It's a hotel from which you can reach the beach without crossing a road, and I had absolutely no interest in going to the alternative hotel my wife suggested, one which has its own private outdoor pool.

When you're living in the land of the mentally damaged, it's appropriate, I think, to make concessions to your condition.

Although I am mentally damaged, this has done absolutely nothing to increase my tolerance for people who are in the same condition.

After I resumed teaching English at Waniguchi Gakko about a year ago, I had many occasion to reflect on just how badly damaged some of the students were.

In many cases, the students are simply old, and CRS has set in, big time. In a significant proportion of cases, however, they are mentally ill. I noted on one file recently that one student had been treated because she was "melancholic," a Japanese staffer's way of translating the Japanese for "depressed" into English. (Probably a translation for which one of those wretched electronic dictionaries beloved of Japanese students of English is responsible.)

After I first started teaching for the same Japanese conversation company about ten years ago, I eventually found out that a certain number of students were taking English lessons because a medical practitioner, thinking that they needed therapy, advised them to take conversation classes.

The point here is that while Japan does have some counseling services available, there is less of a tradition of counseling in Japan than there is in the West, and so the conversation school ends up filling a niche in the mental health system, though that is not what it is designed to do, and a lot of the Westerners who teach at the company are oblivious to the fact that they are, in a primitive and accidental way, mental health professionals. Or perhaps that should be reworded as "mental health unprofessionals."

And, never having had the ambition to work with the mentally impaired, I've found that, in the long run, I simply grow tired of having them in my life. People who, for reasons of computational deficit or psychological disability, are virtually unteachable. Water off a duck's back, that's what teaching English is for them.

The one and single mentally damaged person I find tolerable is myself. Of course, I don't have a choice. But I've learnt to live with myself, and I figure that we get along together okay, the living me and the residual shadow of my former self.

As I've been writing this, I've had the physical version of my todo list sitting on the floor beside me. There is also a computerized version, which deals with more long-term things.

The physical memo has, amongst other notations, these: haircut, supermarket shopping, shoe laces.

I will do supermarket shopping because my wife will have computer training all day at work, and will come home exhausted, so I will cook. This means I can shop for exactly what I want to eat, but not for melons. Melons are in season now, but, unfortunately, we have just discovered that daughter Cornucopia is allergic to them, and gets a red rash over her mouth if she eats them.

In the supermarket, the food is downstairs but there is a clothing section upstairs, and that's where I hope to buy shoe laces.

Before returning to Japan, I bought two pairs of black business shoes in New Zealand. The brand is Julius Marlow, and they've served me very well. If it's been raining, I prefer them to my outdoor adventure shoes, because they have a great grip, and so are safer.

But, after a year of heavy use, the shoe laces are getting frayed, and I think it's time to replace them.

As for the haircut, summer has pretty much arrived, and I want to get my hair trimmed back in the interests of cooling down my scalp.

To wrap up, let me address the photo at the top of this blog entry. It features a spider.

The brave photographer who took the snapshot of the spider is my wife, the valorous Murasaki Nishikawa.

The spider goes by the name of Hector, the name of one of the heroes who fought to defend the city of Troy when it was attacked by the Greeks (or, if your scholarship prefers, when it was attacked by the Argives.) Hector has chosen to live in our house, and it seems we're going to have him around for the foreseeable future.

My wife first encountered Hector when she came downstairs early one morning and found him splayed out on the living room wall. She got one hell of a shock. Her eyesight is much better than mine, and she reckons that, at full stretch, legs splayed, he spans something in the order of ten centimeters.

I wasn't sure what we should do in the aftermath of this encounter. Call the cops? Phone the Ministry of Agriculture? Call in Chemical Ali?

What my wife did was to talk with a coworker about the spider, and the coworker apparently succeeded in convincing my wife that the spider was totally harmless.

In a subsequent discussion, I told my wife that we have similar spiders, large but harmless, in Auckland, New Zealand. In my lifetime they've commonly been referred to as Avondale spiders, after a rash of Extremely Large Spider incidents took place in the Auckland suburb of Avondale. But actually they're not from Avondale. Rather, they're from Australia, and were blown all the way to New Zealand by the wind.

You might think that's an improbably long way to be blown, given that it takes three hours by jet plane to travel from Australia to New Zealand, but stuff from the Australian skies definitely reaches New Zealand. While staying in Devonport in New Zealand at a time when a substantial fraction of Australia was on fire, with bush fires having been blazing for some days, I saw a pink tinge in the sky at sunset which was the interplay of our local light with smoke sourced in the far-off land of Oz.

During the above-mentioned discussion about the spider, my wife told me that Hector was a good spider, because he would eat insects.

I personally didn't think that we have any insects in the house which need the attentions of quite such a large spider to devour them. But, be that as it may, Hector has joined our happy little household setup.

On the evening of Tuesday 26 June, my wife brought me somewhat disturbing news. Hector has migrated from a dimly lit corner of the downstairs living room to the downstairs toilet. She put it to me that this news was "scary." And I agreed. Yes, scary. Very.

On a completely different note, here is a throw-away idea which occurred to me on the morning of Wednesday 27 June, as I was reflecting on the controversy surrounding the knighthood given to Salman Rushdie.

Obviously the confrontation between Islam and the West is heating up, and the idea that occurred to me was that one way to address this problem might be a homestay system in which people went to foreign countries during their high school years and were exposed to the Other.

This idea probably came to me because, while teaching at Waniguchi Gakko, I've often discussed homestay experiences with Japanese students of English, and it's become clear that some found these homestays culturally illuminating. Particularly the woman who, as I mentioned in an earlier post, showed up at her homestay house in America, and, as a priority, was shown where the household gun lived, and was shown how to use it.

So, while there would be obvious risks and difficulties in setting up some kind of systematic reciprocal homestay relationship between Islamic countries and Western countries, I don't see this as being impossible.

And, in my view, it's a positive idea, and surely there would be plenty of other positive ideas that we in the West could come up with if we were to approach the problem of our relationship with the Islamic community in a constructive idea. Which I don't think we are.

I haven't looked online to see if any such West-Islam homestay arrangements actually take place, so perhaps they do already. If so, I can't lay claim to having originated a new idea. But I can say that this came to me as a consequence of idle cogitating, without any actual effort, and so I think that if the collective mind of the West was focused on the problem of cross-cultural relationships, there would be more ideas along analogous lines, and the situation would start getting better instead of getting progressively worse.

Back in the 1980s, I accidentally ended up having an Islamic homestay of my own when I visited Morocco, and my account of this homestay, which bears the title HUGH MEETS MOHAMMAD, can be found online at:

Yeah, I actually met Mohammad. And he took me home with him.

My general comments on Islam, jihad and the war between religions can be accessed from the following page:

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Japanese Onesen DANGER OF DEATH From Brain Parasite

Japanese Onesen DANGER OF DEATH From Brain Parasite

With a recent gas explosion in Tokyo in the news, old memories stirred to life, and I surfaced something I found out long ago but had forgotten about: taking a dip in a Japanese hot spring can kill you stone dead.

The backstory is that, years ago, I stayed at a motel in Rotorua, the center of New Zealand's geothermal tourism, and the pool had a notice warning you not to put your head under water.

I told my wife the message should have been a lot stronger than it was, and should have warned you that if you put your head under the water you may end up getting killed.

Most or all New Zealanders know that putting your head underwater in any hot pool fed by a natural water source is a no-no. The reason is that an amoeba lives in the soil and can get washed into the hot water.

The amoeba swims in through your ear, and it can quite possibly kill you.

Most pools in the Rotorua area use natural sources of hot water and so pose a health hazard.

It is possible to get around this by using a heat exchanger, so geothermal water exchanges its heat to nice clean water from the town water supply, and this is the approach taking by the major thermal baths at Waiwera, north of Auckland. They don't post amoeba warning signs because, thanks to the use of heat exchangers, swimmers are not exposed to any such danger.

My wife didn't seem to take my amoeba warning seriously, but in my lifetime there have been cases of people being killed in New Zealand by these amoebas.

Much later, I learnt that amoebas are also sometimes found in the water of the Japanese hot spring baths known as onsen.

On Saturday 23 June I went online to check my recollections, and arrived at a Wikipedia site for onsen.

The Wikipedia page I went to is this:

Here there are all the details, including this:

"Unfortunately, hot springs can create ideal conditions to spread infections. For example:

"* Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba, lives in warm waters and soils worldwide and can be a cause of meningitis.[25][26] Several deaths have been attributed to this amoeba, which enters the brain through the nasal passages.[27]"

Note that the Wikipedia entry says that there are dangerous amoebas "worldwide." When I was growing up in New Zealand, amoebas were sometimes in the news, but the impression I always got were that they were unique New Zealand amoebas, and that nobody else was lucky enough to have them.

If you read the Wikipedia page in full you'll find that amoebas are not the only health hazards you have to contend with.

To finish up with, on a totally different subject, here are a couple of urls I went to recently with three-year-old daughter Cornucopia:

Both are free of ads but you will need broadband. Both are within the conceptual range of a three-year-old, but a child that young will need the help of an adult with the mousing around.

For the glass slippers story, which comes complete with sound and animation, you have to help a dancer get to a castle in Austria. At one point you have to make the robot ship she is traveling in move down a mountain, but all you have to do is click any key on the keyboard to get the robot moving in the right direction.

Later, you have to listen to music and choose the right gate, out of three, to enter. And, later still, you can choose one of three outfits for the dancer to wear.

The counting game is pretty well done.

You choose EASY or MEDIUM then see a pane divided into four windows, each window with a number of dots. The voiceover invites you to choose, for example, the one with three dots. If you click the right one, the dot is scrubbed away and you see part of a picture. Once all four dots are done, you see a Disney character such as Goofy or Pluto doing something.

I became aware of children's play sites because I heard my wife and daughter talking in my wife's personal room about Yanchu, who is a puppet tiger that daughter Cornucopia watches on TV. Obviously wife and daughter were online at some site featuring Yanchu.

Later, I accompanied Cornucopia into a neighbor's house after she got herself invited in to play with a four-year-old boy, and I saw one of the adults access a Japanese website suitable for young kids.

And almost immediately afterwards, I read an article about child-safe play sites in the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE. Apparently they're really big business now, most of them supported by advertising.

Up until now, all Cornucopia has done while hammering away at my ThinkPad's keyboard is to click around pictures that I have on the hard disk (hit the space bar and you get to another picture) or input imaginative gibberish into an OpenOffice document. But, with the playsites, we have more opportunities available to us.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Four Hundred Billion Cubic Meters Of Natural Gas

Four Hundred Billion Cubic Meters Of Natural Gas

In the aftermath of the natural gas explosion which demolished a building in Tokyo on Tuesday 19 June, some interesting facts have been emerging. It seems that metropolitan Tokyo and part of the neighboring prefecture of Chiba sit on a natural gas field.

If you drill down, then you can tap into a gas reservoir computed to contain four hundred billion cubic meters of natural gas. This is not exactly like having Kuwait in your backyard, but its enough to supply the needs of all the cities in Japan for ten years.

And there's nobody guarding this stuff. No Nigerian militants, no Iraqi jihadists, none of Vladimir Putin's shock troops. Nobody.

So you think somebody would do the logical thing and drill down to suck up the gas and sell it. And apparently someone already has, since the ASAHI SHIMBUN reports that "In Chiba Prefecture, nine companies supply natural gas for homes and other facilities."

The building that exploded was the annex of the nine-story Shibuya Shoto Onsen Shiespa, near Bunkamura Street in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. The annex of a basement, which is where the natural gas is believed to have accumulated, and, above that, some rooms used by staff members.

The associated nine-story building is a woman-only bathhouse, using geothermal water pumped up from 1,500 meters underground. Natural gas came up with the hot water, and it seems that a gas separator which should have neutralized the danger posed by the gas failed.

The onsen did not have a gas detector.

As of March this year, 144 outfits in Tokyo were using geothermal water, and there is no regulatory authority supervising the associated gas safety issue.

There are, however, safety regulations mandating precautions which you must take when drilling down into the gas field. These regulations came into force after a fire in Kita Ward.

Way back when, I used to live in Kita Ward, a pretty gritty semi-industrial area in the north of Tokyo. I lived there in a high rise apartment, and was highly conscious of the earthquake risk, but it never occurred to be that I was sleeping on top of billions and billions of cubic meters of potentially explosive gas.

Back in February 2005, some workers were drilling for geothermal water when gas caught fire, and the flames went roaring up into the air to a height of about ten meters. These days, if you want to drill for hot water, you must make sure that, quite apart from anything else, you have a gas detector on hand.

When you're living in the city of Auckland, New Zealand, you're highly conscious of the fact that you're living in a volcanic environment, because the city is dotted with small volcanic cones, perhaps three hundred meters or so tall. For some years I lived right beside one of those cones, Mount Eden, and a lot of gardens in the area had walls made of volcanic rock.

Here in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, we're on the Pacific rim of fire. But, in Tokyo, the landscape does not insist on its geology. Concrete dominates, and its easy to forget about the big volcanoes sitting a lot closer than the horizon, these including Mount Fuji and (a lot nearer than that) the islands of Oshima and Miyakejima. The exploded onsen and the subsequent geological revelations have completely revised the Tokyo of my imagination.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Blast In Central Tokyo Kills Three As Building Explodes

Blast In Central Tokyo Kills Three As Building Explodes

A building exploded in central Tokyo on the afternoon of Tuesday 19 June, leaving three dead and three seriously injured. Nobody phoned in a warning before the building blew up, and, in the aftermath of the disaster, nobody stepped forward to claim responsibility.

The explosion was captured by a security camera, and we have seen the footage repetitively on TV. We see a cyclist coming down the street toward the camera. The cyclist disappears out of frame and, abruptly, a huge boiling explosion fills the street, a smoky cloud of debris looking like something out of 9/11.

This caused me to reflect on the carnage that we routinely see delivered to us by the TV news in segments of perhaps twenty seconds each. In Iraq, people are routinely killed. Every day. Five people, ten, twenty, thirty, maybe fifty dead in a bomb blast.

I see these segments all the time and, by the next day, I've already done a data dump, and no longer remember what it was that I saw. The monotonous slaughter in the carnage ground is a big ho-hum, irrelevant, and possessed of as little interest as the scores being racked up in someone else's video game.

Iraq, we may reasonably surmise, is a land where the blood never dries. By the time the gory remnants of one person's bomb-blasted carcase have gone hard and crusty, someone else is bleeding to death. But, while I see the news of the killings on TV, it leaves me indifferent.

What has held my attention over the last week is the weather, which is more a matter of concern now that the rainy season is here, and the ongoing saga of Paris Hilton, the rich bitch who is currently in jail in Los Angeles, which, if you ask me, is precisely where she deserves to be.

It's the three local killings, with names and faces attached, that bring home to me, at least for the moment, the cost of what is happening in Iraq. (And Afghanistan, Gaza, Darfur ... it's a washing list, no time in my schedule to fit in a daily round of mourning for all that laundry.)

The building which blew up in Tokyo's Shibuya district exploded because it was full of natural gas, presumably something chemically similar to the friendly domestic cooking gas which we have piped into our homes. And the building which exploded was a place with hot spa baths, a place of the kind which is known in Japan as an onsen.

The geothermal water used for this spa in the heart of Tokyo is natural, and this came as a surprise to some of the Japanese students of English with whom I discussed this catastrophe. In Japan, the word "onsen" is freighted with images of the great outdoors, remote from the hubbub of the city.

But there are, it seems, a number of onsens in metropolitan Tokyo which rely on geothermal water, stuff you can get out of the ground, already hot, no need to pay electricity to heat up the bath.

Apparently, if you set a drilling rig to work in the Tokyo area and drill down five hundred meters, you can access a stratum from which you can extract two things. One is geothermal water, clean green water with no carbon dioxide emissions attached. The other thing you can get is natural gas, which is less desirable, because, as we all know, it has the potential to cause explosions.

When you drill down to get the water, the gas comes to the surface mixed in with the water, so you can't have one without the other. For this reason, the Shibuya onsen was equipped with a gas extractor, which should have ensured that the volcanic water coming into the building was gas free. But apparently something went horribly wrong and the equipment failed.

While nobody has claimed responsibility for this disaster, it is entirely possible that someone was criminally culpable, and presumably that is a question which the police will be at work on right now.

So that's our big excitement here in Japan. The other exciting news (at least, I find it exciting) is that the sakuranbo season is getting underway.

Early in the year, as spring arrives, we have the season of sakura. The flowering cherry trees bloom, and that's the signal for everyone to crack open the sake and head off to the local park to do karaoke and get amiably smashed.

But now, in June, the sakuranbo are coming into season, "sakuranbo" being actual cherries that you can put in your mouth and eat.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Our Tomatoes Are Very Slow To Ripen

Our Tomatoes Are Very Slow To Ripen

Daughter Cornucopia, age three, came rushing into the house very, very proud of herself. She had a trophy to display: a cherry tomato, fully ripe and glistening red. Through immense self-discipline, she had restrained herself from the temptation to pluck it while it was still an unripe green, and now it was ready to eat.

She ate it.

Her self-discipline had been helped by the fact that we had all spent the weekend up at my mother-in-law's house in Gunma Prefecture, allowing the tomatoes to get on with their lives without worrying about the potential dangers of having one of nature's juvenile delinquents in the neighborhood.

About ten minutes after having eaten the first ripe tomato of the season, Cornucopia went rushing outside to see if any of the other tomatoes had ripened in the interim. They had not. Our tomatoes, I'm afraid to say, are very slow to get with the program.

For the trip up to Gunma, I bought three newspapers. One was the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE, which, for my money, is the best international newspaper in the world. Another was THE JAPAN TIMES, which I usually never buy because I think that buying it is a mistake. This time, however, I did buy it. And, yes, buying it was a mistake. The third paper was THE DAILY YOMIURI, not as good as the IHT, but a big step up from THE JAPAN TIMES (which wouldn't be difficult.)

All these papers had big articles about the Hamas-Fatah fight in Gaza, and all had articles about the scandal of the child slaves kidnapped to work in brick kilns in central China.

One of them, I think THE DAILY YOMIURI, also had an article about how the Chinese have been selling us poisoned toothpaste, "us" here being "those of us who live in Japan". I think I saw something about this on TV.

As everyone who follows the news knows, some Chinese companies have been adulterating food and medical products with dangerous chemicals, causing a massacre of cats and dogs in the United States, and a certain amount of murder-for-profit in Latin America, the murder victims being human beings.

Now it has transpired that some toothpaste imported for distribution in hotels contains poison. The official line here in Japan has been that this shouldn't be a problem, because people don't eat toothpaste, but, on occasion, all through my life, there have been time when I've ingested a little toothpaste, even though I know it's not on any medically recommended product.

I have now abandoned the practice.

At the risk of sounding xenophobic, if I see any food product in the supermarket that is labeled as coming from China, I won't buy it. This isn't a difficult decision, because such products don't usually show up.

The one I've noticed most often is garlic, garlic from China selling in shops at perhaps a tenth of the Japanese-grown product. And also, on occasion, some giant shrimp from China.

What put me off buying Chinese food is the fact that chemical residues go pretty much uncontrolled in China.

Another article I noticed was one about a paid article about Japanese sex slaves which a group of influential Japanese citizens paid to have published in a major American newspaper. Apparently the message was one of total denial: the Japanese military, according to the article, had nothing, absolutely nothing at all, to do with the forcible enslavement of women.

As far as I can make out, this effort at rewriting history, this attempt to sanitize the history of the Second World War, is part of a drive to have Japan march down the road to war. Again.

Japan's present prime minister, Mr Abe, is the leading light of the "let's go to war" movement. He wants to revise the Japanese constitution to permit Japan to have a proper military consisting of an army, a navy and an air force.

Why he wants to do this is so Japan cane become a "normal" nation, his definition of "normal" being, as far as I can make out, as meaning "The next time the Americans want to go smash up some foreign country like Iraq or Iran, we should pile in and do our best to help make the bloodbath a success."

I'm from New Zealand and, in my lifetime, the New Zealand nation has gradually come round to thinking that, on reflection, our reflexive habit of automatically tagging along behind the British and the Americans any time they're heading to the battlefield is a habit we should break.

Since the 1800s, New Zealand has joined the Boer War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, a war the British fought in Malaysia, the Vietnam War, and the first Persian Gulf War, the one in which George Herbert Walker Bush went head-to-head with Saddam Hussein.

These days, the New Zealand nation is getting a lot more selective, and, in recent years, the only New Zealand military involvements that I am aware of are, first, a deployment to East Timor to protect the East Timorese from lawless militias coming across the border to kill and pillage, and, second, a couple of modest deployments to Afghanistan. (I think an engineering reconstruction team and, additionally, a contingent of special forces experts.)

I've spent quite some time thinking about Mr Abe and why he is (a) in sex slave denial and (b) is beating the let's-go-to-war drum.

My own analysis is that the reason for this is because, in some ways, Japan is in deep doo-doo, and the Japanese government doesn't have a clue what to do about it.

The really big problems facing Japan right now, the ones the government should be trying to solve, are the aging population and the disappearance of career-track jobs for the present high school generation.

Those are Japan's two number one problems, as far as I can make out, but the government has absolutely no idea whatsoever as to how to handle these problems.

And it is for that reason, I think, that there has been a retreat from a confrontation with reality, and this retreat has taken us into the realms of displacement activities.

There has been, over the last year or so, a big push in Japan to encourage the teaching of patriotism in Japanese schools. And also, as noted above, a move to rewrite the constitution, to allow Japan to remilitarize.

These displacement activities I see as the flailings of a regime which is incompetent to face the challenges of reality. But what they can do is try to coerce school teachers and students into singing the national anthem. Or play at war alongside the Americans.

These activities give guys like Abe the sensation that they're doing something, but they're not. They're avoiding a confrontation with reality.

One society which I admire, though it is about the last place on planet Earth that I would want to live, is Singapore. For my taste, it's over-organized, regimented and way too tightly controlled.

Even so, I respect the achievement of Singapore, and their willingness to face up to the challenges of globalization.

For a long time, Singapore prospered by making money by filling high-tech niches, but, in an increasingly competitive globalized economy, that is becoming harder and harder to go.

So, face to face with increasingly difficult circumstances, they've found what may be the path to the future. (Or one part of the path.)

As I understand it, Singapore sees the way forward as being, in part, to become the Switzerland of Asia, a safe and secure place where you can enjoy a high level of banking privacy and enjoy the view from your penthouse window without having to worry about someone pumping a rocket-propelled grenade through the window.

Whether that will pan out for the people of Singapore, I have no idea. But I wish them luck. At least they're trying. They're facing up to the objective realities, not trying to escape into comic book fantasies where everything will just be fine and hunky-dory and teach the kids that it's patriotic to salute the flag and to march to war whenever our great American allies say the word.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Japanese Pension Mess Explicated

Japanese Pension Mess Explicated

On the evening of Tuesday 12 June, daughter Cornucopia went to sleep after her evening video was over, crashing out on the cushion downstairs in our one traditional tatami-mat room.

My wife, who had read my last blog entry, took the opportunity of this unexpected gift of extra peace and quiet to explain the pensions mess to me.

I knew that records for some people were missing, but how many people? I got conflicting numbers, one of my Japanese students of English suggesting that the number was as low as five thousand, and an online page uploaded by the Japan Times seeming (at least as I read it) to indicate that tax records for fifty million people were missing.

My wife clearly explained this to me.

There are, in the Japanese tax system, fifty million records which cannot be assigned to a specific individual. So, how many people have missing records? Not fifty million, that's for sure. It's entirely possible that there may be, say, five missing records that relate to one particular person.

The question on my mind was this: how many people have records which are missing?

As my wife explains it, this question is quite simply unanswerable. All that can be said is that there are fifty million records sloshing around without the identity of a citizen attached to them.

As to how this situation came to pass, my students gave me different answers. One said that people's records became confused because, from time to time, back in the past, people were assigned new numbers. Another student said that when records written in Chinese characters were computerized, the fact that there are alternative ways to transliterate the average Chinese character into one of Japan's syllabic alphabets led to confusion.

My wife told me that both students were correct, that there was a multiple number problem and also a transliteration problem (complicated, in some cases, by simple typing errors in addition to any mutations at the transliteration stage), and that in fact there were "many" reasons why the system became confused, one being as simple as the fact that Japanese women have, traditionally, taken their husband's name upon marriage.

According to my wife, the current government has a theory that most of the fifty million unassigned records probably relate to people who are now safely dead. As to how long this mess will take to sort out, she has no idea, but if definitely will not be settled in less than a year.

Meantime, when my wife has to front up at the office counter to take her turn at dealing with hi-I'm-here-in-person inquiries from citizens, naturally the citizens often have pension-related worries which they would like addressed. Right now, please, if you wouldn't mind.

I asked my wife about her own pension number, and she said she'd checked, and it was okay. As for daughter Cornucopia, being only three years old, she doesn't have a pension number yet.

On an entirely different subject, the graphic at the top shows two of the robot busters that I had to decrypt to be permitted to upload by blog entry. To prove that I wasn't a software robot, I had to decrypt the distorted letters and enter them correctly in the appropriate box.

The lower one is the buster I was confronted by first, and I thought I had it nailed down, but I failed the test. Fortunately, I wasn't put up against the wall and shot out of hand. I was given a second chance, and I passed the second test, being accepted as a living, breathing human being rather than as a cyborg intruder.

I routinely fail these tests, thanks to the fact that (a) my vision is trashed and (b) my brain is damaged, and easily revises, for example, "w" to "x." These busters have become, for me, one of the major negatives of the Internet, and, as I've said, one confronts me every time I try to upload a blog entry.

The most noxious ones, as far as I'm concerned, are the ones with numbers which go whirling round and round like those whirligig fireworks that never stop turning circles. But I've found I can freeze these in place by capturing them with PrintKey, the screen capture program that I always have ready to use.

I have also, on occasion, captured a robot buster with PrintKey and then, having saved it, have opened it up with Irfan View, the image-viewing program, and have doubled or redoubled the size, sometimes thereby decrypting the meaning of an otherwise incomprehensible glyph.

In reading the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE, the print edition published in Japan on Tuesday 12 June, I discovered that these things actually have a formal name. Their true and proper name, as assigned to them by their inventors, is captchas.

(Parenthetical note: my psychic powers are telling me that my spellchecker definitely isn't going to like this word. It doesn't even like the word "spellchecker.")

Each of these gizmos is a captcha, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.

The credit for their invention "usually goes to Carnegie Mellon University."

The article, by one Brad Stone, makes it clear that I'm not the only human being on planet Earth who can't always successfully pass as being authentic.

He quotes a Michael Barrett as saying "You can make a captcha absolutely undefeatable by computer, but at some point, you are turning this from a human reading test into an intelligence test and an acuity test."

For me, that point has already been reached and breached.

I found out just yesterday that I'd failed a really important captcha, the most important captcha in my local universe, the secret three-digit confirmation code on the back of my credit card, which is almost impossible to read against the deliberately confusing multicolored background against which it is set.

Despite the obvious security risk, I keep all my passwords in a special password file. If I didn't do this, my life would grind to a halt as a consequence of password fiction. I have all my credit card details in that file, and I was under the impression that, in the past, I'd successfully copied and pasted them, and they'd worked, therefore they must be flawless.

Accordingly, when I recently tried to buy a registration for UltraEdit 13.00a, and their site rejected my credit card number, I refused point blank to accept that there could be anything wrong with my data, so just gave up on the idea of getting the new version of UltraEdit, and simply deleted it from my computer. (You can't run it without registration because it's time limited.)

However, yesterday I had a credit card problem that I couldn't simply walk away from. I got an e-mail from, the outfit from which I buy domain names, and it told me that one of my domain names was due for registration.

I went to the site and paid. Or tried to.

The first time, my address got back by the computer. You get asked to select a state or province from a pulldown list, but all the options are for North America, so I was forced to use "other/autre." That was what the computer spat back. But, when it had done so, I was free from the tyranny of the pull-down list, and was able to enter what is on my mailing address, "Kanagawa-ken," the word "ken" meaning "prefecture," as Japan is divided into prefectures, modeled on the French system.

I was then able to proceed to enter my credit card number, expiry date and secret three-digit confirmation number.

And this got spat back at me.

At this point I finally conceded that maybe my password file was in error, so I hauled out the credit card itself and started examining it with a magnifying glass. I mean, literally. I have a big magnifying glass which sits on the desk, and this has one small section which provides a patch of additional information, and by squinting this way and that at what was, in effect, one of the hardest captchas I've ever faced in my life, I finally realized my error. Once I'd corrected it, the credit card transaction was accepted, and a receipt duly arrived by e-mail.

The whole procedure took an exhausting two hours, lengthened by the fact that I sniffed very, very suspiciously at the incoming e-mail, and had to satisfy myself that it was authentic before I even got started.

Twenty-four hours later, I got an e-mail for another domain name that I definitely wanted to renew, so I went online and paid.

For the second purchase, from go to whoa it took precisely twelve minutes.

I won't be going back to the UltraEdit site to buy their latest and greatest, because I figure I can get by without it. I can do replace-in-files operations using my old and no longer reliable bought-long-ago version of UltraEdit; I can get my spell checking done with OpenOffice 2.0; and I can get my text editing done with NoteTab Light.

To supplement NoteTab Light, I am also using metapad 3.51 LE. NoteTab is far and away the more powerful product, with rock solid performance and a great tabbed interface, but the simpler metapad will associate correctly with text files, which NoteTab Light will not.

Or, more exactly, if you've associated text files with NoteTab Light, it will open a text file that you click on if it doesn't already have a text file open. But I often have half a dozen files open in NoteTab Light, and so I use metapad when I want to open a single file.

All these products, NoteTab Light, metapad and OpenOffice, are things you can find online, download for free and use legally without paying for them. None of them is perfect on its own, but, put together, they make a pretty good team.

OpenOffice 2.0 is what I'm using to make the Microsoft Word document that I need for the GENGHIS LOTUS POETRY COLLECTION. I'm actually making it as an odt document, this being the native format of OpenOffice 2.0 Writer, but this file can be painlessly converted to a Microsoft Word document.

I no longer bother installing Microsoft Word on my computer because OpenOffice 2.0 works just as well for me, and, in fact, is significantly more stable than Word.

I still have a couple of poems to add to the GENGHIS odt, so it will get a bit bigger than it is now, once I've added the last poems, have finished the table of contents and have done the index. Right at the moment, the odt runs to 287 pages, and I figure it will probably end up making a book of close to 300 pages, rather more than my really skimpy first book of poems, ARC OF LIGHT, which weighs in at a bare 120 pages, the last two of which are blank.

The GENGHIS LOTUS POETRY COLLECTION has its own domain name,, which is the domain name I renewed in a lean twelve minutes. I renewed it for nine years, getting an eighteen percent discount by doing so. This second poetry book is quite probably going to be my last, and I want to give it its best shot at life.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Japanese Pension Mess

Japanese Pension Mess

Here in Japan, the ongoing scandal about the many mission pension payment records has become political scandal number one, and dominates the daily news.

This has a direct impact on my own household because my wife is a civil servant who works for one of the twenty-four self-governing wards which make up the metropolitan heartland of Tokyo Prefecture. Her department deals with pension-related matters, so its workload has jumped as anxious citizens seek information.

Consequently, I've been curious about the mess, since my Japanese is too weak to follow what I see on TV. My wife is totally busy, and not the person to ask to explain, so on Tuesday 12 June I set two of my high-level Japanese students of English the challenge. I met them in separate one-one-one lessons.

One of these students translates English-language romance novels into Japanese, and another is just back from England, the purpose of her visit being to receive a degree from the University of Oxford, so they had what they needed to gen me up.

The accounts they gave me, however, differed.

One said there were five million missing tax records whereas the other said the number was five thousand. When I got home and went online to check, I found an English-language page put up by the Japan Times which stated that the number of people whose data had gone astray was fifty million.

That figure seems preposterous, given that the entire population of Japan is only something like a hundred and twenty million people, but that was what I found online.

The Japan Times page is the following:

The "fifty million" figure is embedded in the following text:

""The Democratic Party of Japan's discovery that the Social Insurance Agency failed to keep track of 50 million pension accounts has deepened public concern over the already crumbling pension system. The problem widened this week after health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa announced Wednesday that the ministry has stumbled across an additional 14.3 million accounts on microfilm that were not put into the computers.""

For me, that text is ambiguous, and I can't figure out whether it's trying to say that the number of pension records totals fifty million or whether it is trying to say that the number of files which have problems associated with them runs to fifty million.

All I can say is that there is a high probability that the correct number for the missing files features a five, maybe five as in five thousand, maybe five as in five million, or maybe five in fifty thousand or five in fifty million.

Take your pick.

As to the mechanics of this disaster, my students differed, though both stated that it happened when paper records were computerized, possibly round about 1990 or thereabouts.

Student X told me that the reason for the foul-up is because back in the bad old days every time you changed jobs you got a new number for keeping track of your insurance premiums. These days, everyone has one and only one unique number, but some records got lost when an attempt was made to transfer money in different accounts into one single account.

Student Y told me that the problem arose because, in the old system, names were recorded using Chinese characters, known in Japanese as kanji. When the records were computerized, the kanji were transliterated into the hiragana syllabic alphabet, and there is more than one way to transliterate most kanji combinations.

To give an example of this, in the northern island of Hokkaido there is a mountainous area which shows up on some maps transliterated as "Taisetsuzan." However, up in Hokkaido, the locals actually say "Daisetsuzan."

I found this out not by looking it up in a book but by going to Hokkaido and hiking my way into the Daisetsuzan area past signs saying WARNING: REALLY BIG BEARS HAND OUT HERE! I survived the experience and returned alive to tell the tale because when the late season wind turned into horizontal snow and the thready little path started to disappear under that snow, I did the sensible thing and turned back.

One of my students told me that all the original paperwork still survives. The government, apparently, has asked everyone to come forward with their own archives to help clarify the situation, but most people don't have all the paper concerning the last ten, twenty or thirty years of their lives.

So, according to one student, the government says that all the original paperwork, which still exists, will be reprocessed, and the government alleges that this task is doable, although the time period for its estimated completion is going to be something in the order of ten years.

If the job ever gets done.

Prime Minister Abe has, apparently, committed himself to resolving the mess, but politicians come and go, and ten years is an eternity in the political world.

The deal with the pension system is that the amount you receive is conditioned by how much the records show you paid in, so if some of your payments have vanished from the records then you take a financial hit.

That's it for the pension system, as far as I know the story.

Moving on to the student just back from Oxford, she finished her coursework quite some time ago, but only recently found the time to attend one of the ten graduation ceremonies that Oxford holds each year.

It took place in the Sheldonian Theater, which I walked past on occasion when I used to stay with my uncle in Oxford, and there were forty students present. She was impressed when the guy who read out her name got the Japanese intonation exactly right, and apparently it's the tradition in Oxford that whoever is going to read out a foreigner's name gets hold of a native speaker of the relevant language and nails the pronunciation down.

She got a bit confused when the language of the ceremony changed abruptly from English to Latin, and, later, when it changed back again from Latin to English, she missed the transition back into English, and thought they were still speaking Latin.

My last lesson of the day was with three high-level students, and we discussed humor and comedy, and I found I could remember enough of the Monty Python dead parrot skit to use it as lesson material. Two questions: what happens in the skit and would this be funny in Japan?

My students followed the material just fine. If you don't know it, the skit deals with a customer who walks into a pet shop with a complaint about a parrot that he has bought. There is a problem with the parrot. It is dead. Totally dead. Has been for some time. The pet owner adamantly refuses to acknowledge that the parrot is dead, though is ultimately forced to concede the point.

My students seemed to be amused by what I could deliver of the skit, hitting some of the highlights reasonably effectively, but they were unanimous in believing that this would not go down well with Japanese audiences, because, in Japan, death is not a laughing matter.

Vocabulary items that arose from the skit included "pushing up the daisies," which took some explaining, including me drawing a little diagram featuring coffin, corpse, grass and daisies.

The question then arose: are daisies flowers that only grow in cemeteries? And I explained that, no, they are like dandelions, which grow all over the place in Japan. In Britain and New Zealand, daisies, like dandelions, grow everywhere you have grass.

They have dandelions in Japan, though I think not quite the same species that we have in New Zealand, but I've never seen a daisy here.

I'm in the process of finishing off my new book of poems, GENGHIS LOTUS POETRY COLLECTION, and, while spellchecking it, I found that "dandelion" was one of the words I'd gotten wrong. I seem to remember often having a spellchecker throw up an error message at that particular word. I don't think of my work as being dandelion-centric, but evidently it is, at some secret level which I, in my conscious life, cannot access.

Here in Japan, summer is coming, the weather is getting hot, and right now I have the fan which sits on the table in my personal room running. A couple of rainy days are on the horizon, and it is entirely possible that soon the rainy season will be upon us.

But that is not inevitable. Sometimes the rainy season never arrives, and for this condition there is a Japanese term which translates as something like "dry rainy season." One year the rainy season arrived so late that the Japanese government deemed it to have been canceled, figuring that people would get confused if the rainy season arrived at such an eccentrically late time of the year.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

True Dreams

For some years now, and I can't remember when this started, I've been afflicted by something I've taken to calling true dreams. These are dreams which, on waking, I find impossible to distinguish from reality.

I had such a dream on the night of Thursday June the 7th, at which point I had some kind of flu. I'd been feeling lethargic for some days and, on returning from the daycare center in the evening, I felt the urge to vomit, so crouched down by the grating of a stormwater drain and threw up two or three times.

That night, I had a horribly plausible nightmare in which I installed Linux on one of my computers and completely botched the process, destroying some important data while I was doing this. On waking, I believed that I'd done exactly that, and didn't revise my opinion until the following morning.

After that, I dropped off to sleep again and had a long and involved dream about the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. For some reason I had to gather together all the colors on the Wikipedia site, and eventually succeeded, ending up with a capsule of black, a capsule of white, a capsule of blue, a capsule of red and a capsule of brilliant green.

This dream seemed every bit as real as the first, but, on waking, I did not assent to it, because it lacked plausibility.

I woke at 0630 when my wife woke up and went downstairs. A few seconds later, there was a great cry of shocked horror from my wife. I waited for a repetition, but there was none, so I decided that being ill excused me from the demands of chivalry, and that I would stay snug in bed until my daughter woke up. Which she did about sixty seconds later.

Shortly afterwards, while my wife was dressing daughter Cornucopia, I heard the kettle boiling on the gas stove, so turned it off. I didn't realized, however, that my wife was cooking toast on a toaster sitting on one of the gas burners, our electric toaster having given up the ghost. My wife, whose sense of smell is much better than mine, suddenly realized that the toast, which she had forgotten about, was burning.

We now have, in the kitchen, a fire blanket, and, additionally, a fire extinguisher, a gadget the size of a can of fly spray. No pin to push. You just press it and make it squirt, as you would with fly spray.

I didn't ask my wife why she'd screamed earlier, because I figured she'd probably just stepped on one of daughter Cornucopia's toys, and had almost taken a fall. But later she told me what had happened.

She came downstairs and saw, on the wall, a spider ten centimeters in size. She took a shot at eliminating it, but it scuttled off to safety and vanished.

I've always known that we have spiders in the house but the only ones I've seen are tiny little hunting spiders, which are perfectly acceptable as house guests.

That morning, I took my temperature. I had dropped overnight, but was still at 38.8 degrees Celsius, well into the fever zone. And I had no appetite, and felt lousy. So I phoned in sick.

This is only the second time I've called in sick on account of personal medical needs. I don't see any evidence that my constitution has been wrecked, though I must admit that my stamina levels are still down.

Before my wife left home for the day, she gave me orders. I was to sleep. And I was not to work at my computer. Once home alone, I obeyed, for the simple reason that I was too sick to do otherwise. I blobbed out on the couch until lunchtime, at which point I had a healthy slice of dry bread.

Ideally, given strength, I would have worked, as I have a number of projects that I am trying to progress. One is a book of poems with the title GENGHIS LOTUS POETRY COLLECTION. The text of this is now complete, and all that remains is to format the text into a Word document for publication, and spell check the whole thing, which should be accomplished within the next week or two.

I am also grinding ahead (very slowly) on a new edition of my science fiction novel THE SHIFT. And I am working on a fresh SF novel, SINFUL SURVIVAL, which I hope to have finished by next year.

But ambition must bend to reality, and, when you're sick, it's better to do the smart thing, give up and crash out. At least for the moment.

On Saturday June 9 I woke up after midnight feeling hungry, so went downstairs and cooked two minute noodles. Before I sat down to eat, I turned on all the lights and had a good look around for a ten centimeter spider. Even though my eyesight is trashed, I was reasonably sure I would see a spider of that size if it was out and about. But it was nowhere in evidence.

When I got back to sleep, I had another true dream. I was in a street somewhere and I saw a series of business logos, each incorporating the same graphic element, a horizontal row of five circles, with a dot in the one furthest to the right. In my dream, I understood that this was one of the world's current graphical conventions, and that the dot in the rightmost circle signified that the product identified by the logo would not be on the market until some time way off in the far future.

On waking, I believe that this was real, but that belief did not persist for very long. It vanished of its own accord, because I could not recall the logic of the dream. In the dream, there had been a very persuasive logic which had explained why that dot signified the far future, but that logic did not survive the moment of awakening.

Speaking of dreams, I recall that, when I was a child, if I'd seen something scary on TV and wanted to be really sure that I wouldn't dream about it, I would make a point of thinking about exactly that, really hard, just before I dropped off to sleep. This always worked, though I have no idea.

I didn't do this very often, however, for the simple reason that, when I was growing up, we didn't have TV, so my exposure to scary programs was limited. However, there were occasions when I did see something seriously scary on TV at the neighbor's place. I think the scariest things I saw were sci fi programs, and I remember some scary STAR TREK stuff and some scary stuff from the TV show LOST IN SPACE.

After I went back to bed, I thought about reviving my childhood habit with reference to the scary spider, but didn't bother, and didn't dreams about the spider.

I've always thought my avoiding bad dreams strategy was my own unique quirk, but maybe other people have done the same in their childhood.

What taught me, in childhood, that I was not unique, was the use I made of the cereal spoon. In adolescence, I grew distressed by the fact that I was totally dependent on my right hand, and, to compensate, trained myself to eat my morning cereal with the left hand. In this, I thought I was sui generis, one of a kind. But, later, to my surprise, I listened to a kid of my own age who was at the same high school as mine, and, from his conversation, I learnt that he had gone and done exactly the same thing, and for the same reason.

That's it for dreams, for the moment, I think. It's Saturday morning, my daughter is at the daycare, my wife is out attending to some personal business, and I'm busy eating a banana sandwich. Once I'm done with the sandwich, I'll upload this blog entry, then put in at least an hour of work on my poetry book.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Planet Stories to Republish THE WARLUS AND THE WARWOLF

Planet Stories to Republish THE WARLUS AND THE WARWOLF

For some time I've been aware that an American outfit was planning to republish THE WALRUS AND THE WARWOLF, the fourth book in the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series, in a collection of classic sci fi texts with the Planet Stories imprint.

Earlier, I made no announcement of this, thinking that to be the publisher's prerogative, but recently, while ego surfing, I found that the word is out, and that there has been some discussion online about this upcoming event, which you can read about at the following url:

On that page, publisher Eric Mona says as follows:

""I've read the entire series twice. I love them. When I got the green light to launch Planet Stories, I immediately contacted Hugh and his agent and licensed "The Walrus and the Warwolf" for publication.

""I chose this book for three reasons:

""1) It is my favorite in the series, an opinion others seem to share.

""2) It was never published in its complete form in America, which actually means that it _does_ continue the story for American readers who have read Wizard War, The Questing Hero, The Hero Returns, and The Oracle.

""3) The series has an extraordinarily loose temporal continuity. There isn't really a beginning and there isn't really an end. All of the stories weave in between one another. The Walrus and the Warwolf makes as good an introduction to the series as any of the books, and a better introduction than a few of them.

""I am very, very excited to be publishing this book. Hugh Cook's fantasy stories deserve a much wider audience, and I am grateful for the opportunity to take a shot at finding it.

""--Erik Mona""

On an entirely unrelated note, I've had a couple of people e-mail me suggesting that I try the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, but, having read about it on Wikipedia and having looked at some related web pages, I've decided this will not be the Linux I will go with.

Rather, at this stage I've decided I will go with CentOS 4.4. I've researched this fairly thoroughly, and have found the following resources to assist me:

First, a page with instructions for installing CentOS on a ThinkPad, and dealing with some installation issues, such as getting the beast to agree to suspend when the lid is lowered. The url is:

Nakamura (I assume that's the guy's name) says the following of CentOS:

"CentOS 4, one of the popular "Red Hat clone" distributions, is basically a free recompilation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 4. The structure of the distribution is more or less similar to Fedora Core 3, as RHEL 4 was being developed in parallel with FC3. (Therefore, there is a good chance that an RPM package for FC3 is compatible with CentOS, which comes handy.)"

If you're not up with the Linux lingo, then note that an "rpm" is a package that can be used to install a program. The problem with such installations is that you may run up against "dependencies," ie program X will not work unless you already have program Y installed, and program Y cannot be installed unless you first install A, B, C, K and Z.

Nakamura installed on a ThinkPad T43 and indicates that the instructions he gives related to CentOS 4.2, 4.3 and 4.4.

Since I have a second-hand T43 on hand, I figure this is the basic installation guide that I need.

Second, the site which will redirect you to a repository in your area from which you can download the iso images for CentOS. I've already been to the url, which pointed me to a site just down the road in Japan, from which I downloaded the isos for the four CentOS CDs. I then burnt the iso images to CDs using Nero.

The version I downloaded was CentOS 4.4.

To burn the iso with Nero you do the following:

Choose CD, move the cursor to Copy and Backup, choose Burn Image to Disk, navigate to the folder in which you have stashed the isos, change "Files of Type" to "Image Files" (*.nrg, *.iso, *.cue) and then burn the disk.

The isos are pretty big, each over 500 megabytes, but it took me only a little over half an hour or so to download each one. You will of course need broadband for this, unless you've cracked the secret of eternal life.

The redirect url to get at the isos is this:

Hint: if you work your way up to the parent directory from whatever site you end up at, you may find other flavors of Linux in the repository.

Note: it might be theoretically possible to download these huge files with your browser, but the correct tool is an FTP program, such as FileZilla, which is open source software which works under XP. The repositories which you are going to access are set up for anonymous FTP, which means you can go there and take what you want without identifying yourself and without using any special password. By default, FileZilla is set up for anonymous FTP.

Third, the documentation for CentOS 4, which is at the following url:

Fourth, a site which provides detailed instructions for enabling mp3 playback and for installing Xine to play DVDs. This looks like a very long and complicated procedure. The site is at the following url:

The site provides the following information:

"RPMForge is a collaboration of Dag, Dries, and other packagers. They provide over 2600 packages for CentOS, including mplayer, xmms-mp3, and other popular media tools. It is not part of RedHat or CentOS but is designed to work with these major distributions."

Where I come from, New Zealand, a "dag" is a piece of dung-stained wool between a sheep's legs; "to dag a sheep" means to cut away such a piece of wool; "He's a dag" means "He's an amusing fellow" and "What a dag!" means "What fun!" But, obviously, I'm going to have to expand my dag concept.

Note that if you enable mp3 playback or DVD playback on your Linux box then you may be violating the law in the jurisdiction in which you have the misfortune to reside.