Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Queen

(movie review)

Despite the fact that a number of people recommended this film to me, I was reluctant to see it. Like most American males, I regarded stories about the royal family as tabloid fodder for idiots.

I ended up renting this movie because Shoko wanted to see it.

(Question: is it just my imagination, or are women more fascinated by the lives of royality than men? And if so, why is that?)

Anyway, this movie is, like everyone told me it would it would be, pretty interesting and well worth watching.

Of course I remain concerned that the Hollywood bi-opics are too focused on the lifestyles of the rich and famous (like the recent "Marie Antionette" movie) and excludes a number of more interesting or deserving figures.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that every movie that comes out about the royal family is absolute trash, and this movie is pretty interesting as it shows the various squabbles within the royal family. And, if we can watch hours and hours of squabbles between fictional families on TV sitcoms, how much more interesting are the arguments of a real family. And this is certainly much better than some of the usual trash I watch.

It also focuses heavily on Tony Blair and his relationship with the Queen. (Arguable the film is just as much about Tony Blair as it is about the Queen).

I definately learned a few things from it. For instance I didn't even know the Queen was married. I thought her husband was the old King of England, and then when he died she inherited the job from him. Instead it appears she inherited the job from her father, and has been married to Prince Philip for the past 60 years. Shows how much I know.

So, all in all, I wouldn't recommend you run out to the video store right this minute, but if you happen to brush across this movie during your usual wanderings, you could do a lot worse.

Link of the Day
Where Have All the Protests Gone?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Yufuin/ 湯布院

(better know a city)

Well, it's been almost half a year since my last "Better know a city" entry. My excuses are numerous, and I've detailed them all on a recent post.

But, since we've all suddenly got some free time on our hands, it seemed perfect to knock another city off my list.

I was having coffee with Kingsley and Amy, a couple of my co-workers, and I mentioned I was going off exploring the next day. "I was thinking about going to Kakaji," I said.

"What's in Kakaji?" they asked.

"Nothing as far as I know," I replied. "But it's the next city down the Kunisaki Peninsula after Matama. I was just going to drive around and see what I could find."

They shrugged and agreed to go along. (No one had anything better to do). Having the night to think about it, I decided this was a disaster waiting to happen. Going out and exploring these small rice field towns by myself was one thing, dragging other people along with me was needlessly cruel. We'd end up tired and cranky in the car following windy mountain roads which may or may not lead anywhere. No one would understand my anal retentive desire to spend the whole day within the boarders of one small town, and it would lead to arguments.

So, when I picked them up the next morning, I said, "You know, I've been thinking about it, and you guys don't want to go to Kakaji do you? Let's go to Yufuin instead."

Yufuin was a town I had been to several times, so I could play tour guide a lot better and direct them to the interesting parts. Plus it was a tourist town, so it was a lot better set up for sight seeing.

Yufuin has recently been emerging as the top tourist spot in Oita prefecture. It used to be Beppu, but Beppu has been slowly dying recently, and Yufuin is the new hot spot. It's a small town in the middle of a bunch of mountains, and has been marketed as a isolated mountain town get away. As with a lot of these types of countryside retreats, the flood of tourists ironically undermines the very thing the tourists are coming to see (an isolated mountain town), but it still manages to retain a lot of its charm.

All sorts of countryside style home cooking restaurants have sprung up, as well as a lot of arts and crafts type stores, coffee shops, folk villages, museums, etc. (For instance I wrote on this blog four years ago about my experience in a phonograph museum in Yufuin.)

Our first stop, however, was Mount Yufu itself. The big mountain overlooking the town of Yufuin. Our plan was to spend the morning hiking, and the afternoon site seeing around the town of Yufuin.

I've climbed up Mount Yufu several times before. My memory gets a little foggy over time, but I think I've gone up 4 times before now, twice on solo hikes, and twice with some friends. (Like during Spring break in 2004). So I think this was my 5th time up.

The weather around here has been cooling off lately, although it's still pretty warm during the middle of the afternoon. I had forgotten how the temperature at Mount Yufu drops rapidly as you climb higher and higher up, so we all arrived under dressed and noticed all the Japanese climbers with their coats, hats and gloves. We decided to give it a try anyway:

Amy took a couple of pictures of the mountain near the base (once again stolen from her webshots page)
(her version of events here)

Shortly after this, she decided she wasn't feeling that great and returned to wait for us at the car. She told us we should take our time and spend as long as we wanted climbing the mountain, and she would wait for us at the car.

Somewhat selfishly perhaps, we took her up on this offer. Kingsley and I climbed all the way up to the very top of the mountain, and back down again. Amy was an incredibly good sport about waiting down by the car for 3 hours plus.

Below is a video collage of the hike up and down the mountain (taken at several various points).

The top of the mountain was completely covered in clouds, meaning we had absolutely no view once we got to the peak. Which is a pity because I've climbed this mountain on a clear day before and I can attest that from the very top there is an excellent view and you can see all the way to the ocean. But no one can garuantee nice whether. In fact the very first time I climbed up this mountain (some 6 years ago now) it was also a cloudy day and I couldn't see a thing from the top.

Other highlights of the climb: despite the bad whether, there were a number of other hikers going up and down the mountain (probably due to the fact that we decided to tackle this mountain on a Saturday), including a number of senior citizens and little kids. I'm always put to shame in Japan when I'm huffing and puffing up a mountain and see several old ladies already on their way back down. The trail narrowed as we got closer to the top, so there were many points were we had to stop to let someone by us, or someone had to stop and step over to the side to let us by.

We ran into a couple British guys at the top. I asked them where they were stationed and what company they were teaching with. They answered that they were tourists just doing Japan on a holiday.

"Wow, good for you," I answered. "Not many tourists make it down to Oita Prefecture. This is really off the beaten path."

They replied they had been researching the best hikes in Japan, and this mountain had popped up in one guide book or another.

On the way down we passed a group of young women on their way up. As they walked passed us, I overheard them comment in Japanese, "Wow, that guy looked really cool." I'm not sure if they were talking about me or Kingsley though.

Once we got down to the bottom we met up with Amy again. (Who, let me repeat, was a saint for waiting so patiently for 3 hours). And we went down to the actual town of Yufuin itself.

Yufuin doesn't quite compare to Kyoto, but it is a tourist town and like all tourist towns you can drop a lot of money fast if you're not careful. Since our employment status is currently in limbo, we tried to avoid anything with an entrance fee.

We walked around Yufuin pond and I took a number of pictures:

As well as some video tape footage here. (At one point there's a small gate I have to duck under to get through. I made it all right when I was filming, but when I went back through later (not on camera) I whacked my head pretty good on it. Ouch!)

The people of Yufuin were really friendly. (Actually most of the people we ran into along the main touristy strips probably didn't live in the town, but they were friendly nonetheless). A few older Japanese woman passed us, and they asked where we were from. We each gave our country of origin, and then they asked if we were working inside Japan.
"Yes, er, no. Maybe." We all answered. Then we said, "We're Nova teachers."

There was a collective gasp of excitement. "You're Nova teachers?" The company has been all over the Japanese media the past couple days, and it was our moment of fame as Nova employees.

"Keep your chin up," one of the women said to us. "Not all Japanese people are bad like your company management was."

We stopped at one of Yufuin's famous coffee shops for some coffee by the lake.

Later we stopped at one of Yufuin's over priced restaurants for lunch. The food was pretty tasty, even if the price was a bit more than I felt comfortable spending.

We walked back and forth down the main tourist strip a little bit and stopped in some of the shops. I tried a couple pictures of the hustle and bustle down the main street, but I don't think either of these pictures quite do it.

After we had made our rounds down the main street, Kingsley and Amy started getting restless to call it a day. If left to myself I might have spent a few more hours geekishly exploring the nooks and crannys so I could say I thoroughly explored the city, but it was closing in on 5 o'clock now, so it was fair to say that we put in our time. (Besides I had been to this town several times before.)

I convinced them to walk down the main road to the central train station. We cut over at one point following signs, but when we didn't find anything interesting, we decided to head back following the river.

We saw some great views along the way. Yufuin, as a small valley town with Mountains all around it, is one of those places where any direction you look you're bound to get a great view.

Then we climbed back in the car, and headed back towards Nakatsu.

One the way back going through the back streets behind Yufuin mountain, a deer walked out in the road and I had to break for it. This was, as far as I can remember, the first time I've ever seen a deer out in the wild in Japan. (I was beginning to think they didn't exist here, despite the reassurances of my Japanese friends).

Additional Yufuin Photos:

Link of the Day
Via Phil
Reporters Without Borders ranks us at #48 worldwide in their annual survey of world press freedoms.YEAH AMERICA!!! WOOOOOO!!! Our press is the 48th freest in the world! Bite us, Togo and Mauritania (#s 49-50)!The best part is that we're getting beat by Nicaragua (#47). ...(The Rest here).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kingdom Come by Elliot S. Maggin

(Book review)

And yet another return to my favorite guilty pleasure: novels based on comic books.
This is the novelization of the comic book series by the same name: Kingdom Come. Apparently the comic book was originally published in the spring and fall of 1996, which was shortly after I had stopped reading comic books. I have recently gotten back into comics a little bit (or at least their novelizations), but the years 1996-2006 fall largely in my comic book blindspot. During the spring and fall of 1996 I was busy finishing up high school and starting Calvin and wasn't really paying attention to what was happening in the comic book world.
Whilst I was not paying attention, this short comic book series became a huge classic in the fandom world. The first time I heard of it was when I was back in the states last summer and Bear loaned me his copy of the collected graphic novel as part of his reading regiment. I skimmed most of the comic, and then gave it back.
Since then I've been realizing how often this title pops up whenever I'm wasting time reading anything comic book related on the internet. And when I discovered that a novelization of this series had been done a few years ago, I ordered it off amazon.
"Kingdom Come" is one of DC comics "Elseworlds series", meaning it is not set inside their mainstream continuity, but instead takes place in a "what if" scenario. (Although due to the popularity of "Kingdom Come" there have been some attempts to integrate it into the usual continuity. Especially with the return of the multiverse. But I'm not going to get into all that. I'll stay concentrated on the book itself.
This book takes place about 30 or so years in the future, when most of the Superheros are in semi-retirement and a younger generation of super powered humans are running rampant around the world. After an apocalyptic disaster occurs most of the old heroes come out of retirement to try and bring law and order into the world and reign in their younger descendents. Various factions occur. Superman and Wonder Woman form one faction dedicated to trying to bring the younger generation to Justice. Batman, Green Arrow, and others form another faction that believes Superman is sliding towards Fascism. And in the meanwhile Lex Luthor and his team of villians is also trying to manipulate events. And Luthor has managed to brain wash Captain Marvel and bring him under his control as well.
For a comic book, this story has a fairly complex plot and there are a lot of wheels turning. However the main conflict between Superman and Batman seemed a little forced at times. This is a common problem in Super-hero stories. The fans want to see the superheros face off against each other, so the writers have to invent convoluted reasons for the heros to fight. The political argument between Batman and Superman here is a lot more interesting than the usual cases of mistaken identity or mind control, but it still seems at times like they are deliberately misunderstanding each other so the author could have an excuse for conflict.
Superman and Captain Marvel also battle it out in this story, although this is part of a long standing tradition. As an inside joke regarding the real life legal battle between these characters, writers frequently pit the two against each other in the fictional world of comic books.
In addition to all the usual superheroes battling it out, there's also a lot of religous imagery in this story. Specifically the prophecies in the book of Revelation are referenced repeatedly, and the narrator for the whole story is actually a pastor.
Religion in comic books is often an awkward mix. Comic book fans aren't often sure what to make of it, and Christians themselves don't always feel comfortable with the plug. (For an example of a recent discussion of the problems from using religion in comic books, see here.)
For the most part, I thought this was harmless enough. I think you'd have to be awfully sensitive to decry this as blasphemy, although I have no doubt those people are out there. On the other hand there is that whole other school of evangelicals who will see any positive reference to Christianity in the secular media as some sort of victory in the cultural wars. And they can claim this if they want.
Personally what I'm more worried about is the subsection of fandom which claims this as great art because of the way it interwines Christian mythology with Super Hero stories. As with my comments on Anime, in my book you only get so much credit for attempting to be deep. To get full points you need to pull it off also. Anyone can write in religious symbolism and imagery in their book. Take for example the character of Magog in "Kingdom Come". A reference to the biblical characters of Gog and Magog, but that's about as deep as it gets.
However if this book is not great art, neither is it kids stuff. It is good old fashioned escapist adult entertainment, in the same category as Robert Ludlum or "The Davinci Code". It should be considered a waste of time only to the extent that all reading for pleasure is a waste of time.
Link of the DayAssessing the Choice of Al Gore as the Nobel Laureate for 2007

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The End...Continued

There's no denying that the company is on its last legs, but it's not going to die easily. Here's a run through of what's been happening since I last updated.

Tuesday: As previously written, I was sent down to Oita City at the last minute to cover some classes because all the other instructors had quit or called in.

Back in our little branch in Nakatsu all the teachers have been dutifully coming into work everyday despite all the continuing bad news, amazingly enough. We may well be the only branch in Japan with this track record, I'm not sure. And if so, it is in no small part to the small town community atmosphere, and the fact that we are regard the Japanese staff as friends instead of adversaries (as it is in some branches) and often socialize together.

But it couldn't last forever. This week a discussion arouse amongst ourselves. If our pay (which was now promised for Thursday, after having been delayed twice) does not come again, should we even bother coming to work on Friday?

The discussion started out at the beginning of the week, and the lines were drawn clearly on Wednesday. (Amy and I were out sight seeing that day, but we participated via cell phone and text messaging).

Last week, after the confusion over whether I was planning to strike or not, I had promised the staff that if I ever did reach a point where I thought it wasn't worthwhile to come to work anymore, I would give them at least 3 days advance notice. The number of 3 days was something I had completely pulled out of the air, and yet nonetheless I began regarding it as some sort of moral axiom and tried to urge all my co-workers to do likewise.

In the end everyone else gave 2 days notice (close enough I guess) except for me and one other guy.

(Amy writes in her blog that she later had a change of heart and apologized to our manager and agreed to work Friday, at which point the manager had a minor breakdown. I wasn't there but I take her word for it. It's been a stressful couple weeks for her.)

Ultimately all of this hand-wringing proved to be pretty pointless because on Friday morning, before I left for work, I received a call from our manager letting me know that the company was shut down until further notice.

Amy writes her take on all this here. As she says information changes so fast its difficult to give any accurate updates. (For more up to date info is usually pretty good.) The situation as of now is that the company has filed for protection against creditor status, sort of an intermediary step before bankruptcy. Between now and November 5th the company will be looking for someone to buy them out. We won't be seeing our money from September or October anytime soon (as the company is now officially protected from it's creditors, meaning in part employees apparently) and a higher up told me the best advice he could give people was to call home for money.

Fortunately I can do one better. I've got a girlfriend with a steady job, and lots of money saved up in our joint back account. Not all teachers are so lucky, and there are already stories circulating about teachers really hard up for cash to even get food. Several people I know have been already been kicked out of their apartments (which was supposed to be paid by the company, but apparently they haven't been paying rent for the past 4 months). Again I'm fortunate because Shoko and I have our own accommodations separate from the company.

Anyway, one thing is for sure between now and November 5th I'm going to have some free time on my hands.

Link of the Day
Video of Noam Chomsky debating Richard Perle. (Actually audio recording with pictures).

I know I've been going to the Chomsky well a lot with this blog lately, but this is really interesting. The only time I've ever heard Chomsky actually debate someone from the inner circles of the US government.
Fair play to Richard Perle for being willing to debate Chomsky, although it has to be said that Chomsky absolutely cleans the floor with him (as Perle himself all but admits at a couple points in the debate). Perle obviously didn't know what he was getting himself into.
Chomsky is absolutely amazing. The amount of data he has stored in his head for rapid recall on any given subject is astonishing. And to think I can barely remember where I'm going when I leave the house in the morning.

Because this video is on youtube, you need to click on to the next part every 8 minutes or so. A bit annoying if you have it on in the background while doing other things (like I did) but well worth the effort.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Trip to Usa

Amy wanted to go to Usa. I tried to convince her Usa wasn't all that exciting of a place, but she really wanted to check it out once, I suspect largely just for the sake of saying she's been there. Usa, as you might or might not know, is (kind of) world famous as part of an urban legend that the town was created for the sole purpose of being able to stamp "Made in USA" on Japanese exports. (It's not true by the way. Snopes debunks the rumor here).

Usa's only one town over, but everywhere is far away if you don't have a car. So, as one of the few foreigners here with a car, I volunteered to take Amy sightseeing in Usa for a day. I had somewhat of an ulterior motive.

I've already written Usa up on my "Better Know a City" project. And at the time I received a few e-mails complaining about the lack of pictures. So, I thought once again I could steal Amy's Photos and do a follow up post to my original, this time complete with Photos. (Although if you follow my links, some of these places might be familiar from a couple years ago when I showed Chris around Usa, and then linked to the pictures on his blog).

(By the way, I know no one really cares about this but me, but I do realize it has been close to half a year since my last "Better Know a City" entry. The reasons for this are numerous. First rainy season came. Then I was working overtime to get time off for my trip back to America. Then I was back in America for my brother's wedding. Then it was too hot in the blazing Kyushu summers to do any outdoor activity besides swim at the waterfalls. Then I was busy filling out applications, and going to Tokyo for an interview. Then the trip down to Miyazaki. ...And I'd be lying if I didn't say in between there were just a few days when I was plan lazy, and had the time but instead chose to stay in and watch videos.

...I hope to get back into the habit of regularly visiting new cities soon. Stay tuned to this blog).

Anyway, without further ado here is our day in Usa. Amy's version of events can be found on her blog here. I'm stealing many of her pictures, but the complete set can be found on her photosite here.

The first stop was at the Statue of Liberty (which adorns a local car dealership). I'm not sure if this is an intended reference to the USA-Usa connection, or just part of the regular Americana one sees all over Japan. We decided to stop for pictures anyway.

Then it was off to the famous Usa shrine. This is supposedly one of the most famous shrines in all of least according to the people of Usa. Supposedly it has something to do with the very origins of Shintoism itself. AlthoughI noticed when I lived up in Gifu how few people up there were able to even recognize the name.

Anyway, some pictures. First the outlying garden area
 feeding the fish


And the center of the Shrine itself
Next, a brief stop at the Kanpo no Sato area where there were reconstructions of tribal era Japanese houses.

A recreation of a Samurai era look-out tower. I climbed up. Amy opted not to because of the hornets circling around. The view from the top wasn't anything spectacular anyway.

Next, the famous 500 Buddhas. The idea is you're supposed to look through and find a Buddha that looks just like you. I can never be bothered to do this, so I just look and smile at all the Buddhas.

Last, but not least, a few pictures of the Usa rice fields (which is 99% of the time what you're view is when driving around Usa).


Update--Additional photos:

Link of the Day
New Iraq Spending Request would Cost Michigan Additional $4.1 Billion, Grand Rapids $81.4 Million