Monday, February 27, 2006

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

(Book Review)

This is the third book I’ve read in the discworld series so far after “Going Postal” and “Monstrous Regiment”. And I do plan to vary my reading selection someday I promise. But when I found out this book was a satire of the communist revolution in China, I wanted to read it.

My interests in history run from social movements generally to revolutionary movements in particular, but one of the most fascinating courses I ever took at Calvin was “Modern East Asian History”. Because all of Western thought came flooding into China at about roughly the same time, the Chinese didn’t have the luxury of gradually evolving political radicalism like in Europe. Instead ideas like Christianity, democracy, communism, and anarchism all arrived at the same time, and the resulting political and social turmoil in the May 4th movement is an interesting time to read about. Probably wouldn’t have been to fun to live through, but an interesting time to read about.

Terry Pratchett sets this all in his discworld series by having a continent half way around the world, the Counterweigh Continent, which acts as his fantasy world substitute for Asia. The Agatean people represent the Chinese.

Pratchett satirizes with a hammer instead of a needle, so he doesn’t get all the intricacies of turn of early 20th century Chinese radicalism. But he does write about the culture clash between Western philosophies of rebellion, and traditional Asian culture of submissiveness to authority:

“The Red Army met in secret session. They opened their meeting by singing revolutionary songs and, since disobedience to authority did not come easily to the Agatean character, these had titles like ‘Stead Progress and Limited Disobedience While Retaining Well-Formulated Good Manners’”.

Pratchett apparently has anarchist leanings (according to the cover jacket) and he delivers an excellent anarchist satire of communist arrogance:

“Look,” [Rincewind] said, rubbing his forehead. “All those people out in the fields, the water buffalo people…If you have a revolution it’ll all be better for them, will it?”
“Of course,” said Butterfly. “They will no longer be subject to the cruel and capricious whims of the Forbidden City.”
“Oh, that’s good,” said Rincewind. “So they’ll sort of be in charge of themselves, will they?”
“Indeed,” said Lotus Blossom.
“By means of the People’s Committee,” said Butterfly.
Rincewind pressed both hands to his head.
“My word,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I had this predictive flash!”
They looked impressed.
“I had this sudden feeling,” he went on, “that there won’t be all that many water buffalo string holders on the People’s Committee. In fact…I get this kind of…voice telling me that a lot of the People’s Committee, correct me if I’m wrong, are standing in front of me right now?”
“Initially, of course,” said Butterfly. “The Peasants can’t even read and write.”
“I expect they don’t even know how to farm properly,” said Rincewind gloomily. “Not after doing it for three or four thousand years.”

The book is also a satire on all things Asian. The author mixes Chinese and Japanese culture together (either intentionally or unintentionally) into one big lump. Obviously I’m a lot more attuned to the Japanese elements than I am the Chinese with five years in Japan compared to six days, almost all tourist spots, in China. I’d be interested in the perspective of someone who spent time in China, but many things satirized in the book like Noh drama, Origami, tea ceremony, and kimonos actually come from Japan.

Many of the jokes are harmless, like cheap throwaway puns about Noh Drama:

“We are a traveling theatre,” she said. “It is convenient. Noh actors are allowed to move around.”
“Aren’t they?” said Rincewind.
“You do not understand. We are Noh actors.”
“Oh, you weren’t too bad.”

Other parts of the book cut a little deeper into satires of the Asian character. I suppose this is the kind of thing some people might be offended by.

This gets into a discussion about the nature of satire, the difference between satirizing an ethnic group, and satirizing a nation composed of that ethnic group, and the difference between satirizing stereotypes and perpetuating stereotypes.

I’m going to stay clear of all of that for now. If you want a discussion on these issues, Phil and Matt have both recently written posts touching on some of these issues.

It has been said that the longer a person stays in Asia, the more they loose their sensitivity. That’s true for me. After 5 years living in Japan, my only thought as I read this book was, “Man, that is so true. You tell ‘em!”

Link of the Day
Not exactly uplifting viewing, but every American should probably watch The New Abu Ghraib photos here.

Watching this, I can't help but be reminded of George Orwell's words in 1948: "If you want a picture of the future, picture a boot stamping down on a human face. Forever."

Video Version

Sunday, February 26, 2006

On Writing Short Stories by Tom Bailey

 (Book Review)

Short stories aren't really my cup of tea. I'm more of a novel/epic type guy. And I especially don’t usually like the kind of short stories that are typically assigned in a high school English class. They always seem to be about nothing, and full of pretentious literary prose.

Maybe this is just the philistine in me talking, but I tend to think that the best prose writer is one that gets out of the way so you forget that they’re even there as you read the story. What I really hate is when you get the impression the author is saying to you: “Look at that! Did you see that beautiful sentence I just wrote? And here comes another one. Look at me write!”

There were definitely some short stories in this collection, which gave me bad flashbacks to 10th grade English class. On the other hand, there were some I really enjoyed. Which makes it really hard to review an anthology without reviewing every story in it.

Among the stories I enjoyed were:
“Everything that Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor (Complete text online here)
“Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff (on line here)
“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
and “A & P” by John Updike

Of these, the last one, “A&P”, I especially enjoyed. If you come across this story in an anthology somewhere, I recommend it. I really thought it was funny. (Or, actually, the whole thing is online here.) Amazing what you can find online these days isn't it?

There were also a few stories that I enjoyed inspite of the pretentious prose just because I thought the subject matter, the story itself, held my attention. In this category I would put:
“Heat” by Joyce Carol Oates (online here)
“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway (again, online).

(I've always hated Hemingway’s style. I know that the fault is probably mine and not his. One of these days I’m going to sit down and try and read a lot of Hemingway and see if I can’t gain an appreciation for him.)

The front half of the book contains essays analyzing the short stories, and the second half contains the stories themselves. You’re supposed to read the back half first, but the editor doesn't tell you that. I was almost finished with the first half before I realized that all of these essays were written on the assumption I had already read the stories.

Link of the Day
Media Mouse has an article on "Racist Quotes by Ann Coulter Draw Attention in Advance of Speech in Grand Rapids". Ann Coulter is scheduled to give a keynote address to Kent County Republicans on March 16, and apparently there is a protest planned.

Generally I do NOT agree with protesting ideologues like Coulter. I figure they have a right to say whatever they want to say. You can debate them if you like, but it's kind of stupid to protest them.

If, for example, a government figure with blood on his hands was to give a speech at a Grand Rapids institution (like, I don't know, Bush speaking at Calvin for example), that would be a protest I could get behind.

Nevertheless, the fact that Kent County Republicans have invited someone as extreme as Ann Coulter to speak is not to their credit, and I hope people will take note of this.

Video Version

Friday, February 24, 2006

A Day in the Life

I know I’ve been abusing these Day in the Life/ Ups and Downs type posts lately. Every time I write one, I tell myself it is the last one, but they can be a good release for me, and help to break up the monotony of work, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

A Day in the Life of an Assistant English Teacher in Japan

I was scheduled to teach 3 classes. But one of my Japanese co-teachers was sick, so I only taught two, both elective classes.

The elective classes are a bit of a joke. I didn’t teach any in Ajimu, so when I first came here, I was at first excited about the idea. “Elective English classes? That’s a great idea. That means all the students are there because they elected to be there. I can work with all the students who are really keen on English, and its always great working with enthusiastic students. And if I work hard with them, I can advance their English level, and really get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing my students improve.”

Here’s the rub: most of the students are there not because they like English, but because they had to pick something for their elective period, and they figured English would be easier than Math or science. So it’s not the cream of the crop students by any stretch

It gets worse: the elective classes are purely for the students’ enrichment. They don’t get graded on it. Whatever they do or don’t do in the elective classes has no effect on the rest of their grades. And they know it. So if they decide they don’t feel like doing the activity I prepared, there are not a lot of carrots and sticks at my disposal to motivate them. I just have to shout over them, or give up.

My Japanese colleagues have pretty much chosen to give up. When I’m in charge of teaching the class, they pretty much just sit on the side and watch me either sink or swim on my own. If they’re in charge of the activity, they hand out a worksheet, but then don’t really care if anyone works on it or not.

In the morning I co-taught a 7th grade elective class with a Japanese co-teacher. The kids were pretty out of control, and there are 3 girls in the back that the Japanese teacher gave up on a long time ago. At best the 3 spend the whole class just gossiping to each other. Often they chase each other around the room while the rest of the class is doing (or not doing) the work sheet. On this particular day they ended up wrestling on the floor. Another teacher walked into the room to talk to me, and had to step over two of them who were rolling around on the floor wrestling for control of some secret note one of them had written.

5th period I had to teach the 8th grade elective English class on my own, because my Japanese co-teacher was sick.

Each class at a Japanese school begins with the “Aisatsu” which means “greeting.” The class stands up, greets the teacher, bows, and then sits down. Occasionally uniform checks are thrown into the mix.

Japanese teachers take the “Aisatsu” very seriously. Whatever else they may get away with, students WILL do the Aisatsu. They will stand up, they will greet the teacher, they will bow, and if they don’t do it right, they will do it again. You don’t fuck with the Aisatsu in Japan.

To me, the Aisatsu represents everything that is wrong with Japan: the emphasis on form rather than function that seems to penetrate all levels of society here. Who cares if the student stands up straight and bows at the beginning of the class? And what sense does it make to be rigid about the Aisatsu, and then let the students just read comic books and sleep for the rest of class?

I used to just disperse with the Aisatsu entirely when I taught class by myself. It disturbed some of the students, but the class went on, and I thought it was a good international experience for some of them.

But I’ve since learned that if I blow off the Aisatsu, the students right away get the impression that it’s not going to be a serious class, and then it can be an uphill battle to keep them in control. As much as I hate Aisatsu, a good crisp Aisatsu delivered at the beginning really does set the tone for the rest of the class, and makes it a lot easier to teach.

So, we Aistatsu-ed. “Okay, everyone, sit down. Sit down. Take your seats. Kevin, sit down. Okay now stand up. Bow. Okay, sit down again.”

The boys in this class have given themselves English nicknames: Kevin, Bob, Judy, Mary, Mario, and Coconuts. They did it just as a joke at first, and some of them, like Judy and Mary, even gave themselves female nicknames just to be silly. But it turns out I can remember their nicknames a lot better than I can remember their Japanese names, so I’ve gotten into the habit of calling them only by their nicknames.

They think this is great, and are really happy that I’ve decided to play along in this game with them. The only problem is that the last two, Mario and Coconuts, didn’t actually choose their nicknames, but had the names thrust onto them by the rest of the class. Mario seems resigned to his fate, but Mr. Coconuts still objects to the name.

Ordinarily I think a teacher shouldn’t tease his students, even in a friendly way. They get enough of that from their friends. But I can’t remember his real name, and besides when he is misbehaving, nothing shuts him up faster than when I yell across the room, “Mr. Coconuts, be quiet.”

This week we received new letters from our pen pal exchange in Israel. Last week the newspaper article about us appeared in the Chu-nichi newspaper, complete with a picture of me and the students. They had all seemed really happy to be in the newspaper at the time, and had told the reporter how much they enjoyed the pen-pal exchange. So I was hoping that they would be a little bit more enthusiastic this time, and I wouldn’t have to ride them whole class to get them to write something, like I usually do.

No such luck. Kevin and Bob began wrestling almost immediately. “Bob, sit down,” I said.

“I can’t. Kevin’s got my pencil case.”

“Just sit down.”

“But how can I write anything without my pencils?”

Some of the girls had questions about their letters, so I went over and tried to answer. “What is sudoku?” asked one girl. Her Israeli pen pal had written about the game.

“I think it’s a Japanese game. Do you know it?” She shook her head no. “Then just write back that you don’t know what it is.”

Sudoku apparently is a Japanese game. It must be becoming popular abroad, because when I was back in America during Christmas break, I saw a lot of Sudoku books at the local Barnes and Nobles. And our Israeli pen pals wrote about it also. But no one in Japan seems to have heard about it. Shoko simply stared blank faced at the Sodoku books in America, and told me she didn’t know what they were. And my junior high school students also don’t have a clue.

Kevin and Bob were up wrestling again. I wasn’t really angry. I put up with a lot worse in that class usually. But it occurred to me that it might be strategic to blow up early in the class. I yelled out “Boys SIT DOWN!”

There are good yells and there are bad yells and usually I never know which one it is going to be until it leaves my mouth. For instance you don’t want the yell to sound strained or screeching, because then it looks like you’re desperate, and the kids don’t respect that. And the last thing you want to do is have your voice crack when you yell.

But this was a good yell. Deep, booming, and it really froze the boys right in their tracks. The entire room got quiet, and they sat down. Some of the girls whispered to each other about how I had frightened them, but there were no more problems for the rest of the class. Kevin sat sulkily in his seat for a long time and refused to work on his letter, but he didn’t cause any more problems.

I was pretty proud of myself. One good yell, and I had solved all my discipline problems for the whole 50 minutes. It was like magic. The Japanese teacher, when she teachers the class, can never do that. She always ends up trying to talk over the chatter for the whole class. I was doing a better job of controlling her students than she usually does.

Of course, even if they’re sitting quietly, getting the students to write something is always a challenge. Half the students really get into the pen pal exchange, but the other half just write down 2 or 3 sentences and then sign their name. “I’m done. Can I talk to my friends now?”

“You’re not done. You didn’t answer any of his questions. Look, he asked you want books you like.”

“I don’t like any books.”

“Well, write that down then. And he asked you want movies you like.”

“I don’t like any movies either.”

“Okay, well just write that down too.”

I had told the newspaper reporter that I usually try and send the letters exactly as my students write them, but that was a lie. Often my students will completely blow off the questions from their pen pal. In order to keep the exchange going, I have to re-write them so that they answer the questions, and then ask some of their own.

After class I headed back to the teachers lounge. The teacher who had been in the neighboring class struck up a conversation in a hesitant voice. “Were you teaching that class by yourself?”


“I thought so. I heard some yelling.”

“I had to yell in the beginning. After that it was no problem.” I was half-waiting for a compliment about how well I had handled the situation, but all I got was a bit of a worried look and a shake of the head.

But so far I’ve only talked about the two classes I taught. In an 8 hour day, most of the rest of the time is spent at my desk in the teachers lounge trying to occupy myself.

In the old days I would have spent almost all of that time diligently studying Japanese and trying to memorize Kanji. But I gave up on all that about a year ago. I’m trying to study French a little bit now because I’ll need it if I ever apply to graduate school, but it’s hard to motivate myself to study French in the middle of Japan. My new project recently has been to try and get back into the habit of reading regularly. For a long time when I was studying Japanese I hardly read recreationally at all, but now I always have a couple books with me.
And of course blogging. If you’ve ever wondered where I get the time to write all those long monster posts (like this one), it’s all in the teachers lounge.

Most of the stuff I write on my laptop, and then copy to the blog later when I go to an internet café. There is a computer at school with internet access, but I’m not supposed to use that for personal use. I do though.

Usually I’ll get on in the morning maybe to check my e-mail, or post something on the blog that I’ve already written. I figure it is a waste just to go to the internet café just to hit “post” on the blog, and everyone should check their e-mail once a day. Maybe I’ll sneak a look at a few friends’ blogs at the same time.

Then in the afternoon, I’ll start to get really bored, and look at some more blogs. Most of my friends never update enough though. (You know who you are).

Mostly I just get bored in the teachers lounge. And depressed. And feel linguistically and culturally isolated. These are the times when I feel like if I don’t get out of Japan soon, I’m going to loose my sanity. And I don’t say that as a figure of speech. There are times when I really do feel like I am slowly loosing my mind at school.

After school I always feel like a good stiff drink. If I were a drinking man. Which I’m not. So instead I turn to my drug of choice: junk food. I’ll grab a couple donuts and candy bars and maybe a coke from the nearby convenience store and have it as an after school snack.

They also have what are called “health drinks” or “vitamin drinks” in Japan. Actually if you read the label on these things, they are anything but. It’s mostly caffeine and, believe it or not, nicotine, dissolved in the water. I’m not even sure you could legally sell these things back home, and you certainly couldn’t call them health drinks. But the average Japanese person honestly believes these things are good for you. It’s amazing what the power of a label can do.

But good for you or not, they certainly do perk you up after a boring day of school. I usually grab a couple of these as well. “The last time,” I tell myself. “I just need a little energy boost for the afternoon. After that it’s nothing but health food, real health food, for the rest of my life.”

Wednesday is Japanese tutoring sessions down town. My tutor and I are working are way through a textbook, but after reading all day in the teacher’s lounge the last thing I want to do is pore over tiny Kanji characters in a book. So I leave the textbook at home, and just tell my tutor I want to do conversational practice instead. My tutor is actually pretty talkative, so this works well for her also. “I’m sorry, I always hog the conversation, and you never get any practice,” she usually apologizes to me at the end of the lesson.
“It’s okay. I got a lot of listening practice,” I answer.

My Japanese tutor and I talked about the movies we had seen. We had both seen “Munich”, so we talked about that.
“There’s a lot of politics and history in that movie,” my tutor said. “Americans like that, but we Japanese just find it confusing. When I was in America, I was surprised by how clearly everyone voiced their own opinions. They weren’t shy at all. We Japanese are very shy about saying our own opinions.”

I agreed that was a difference.

“For instance,” she continued, “My American friend told me Japan needs a real army instead of the self-defense forces, because North Korea is a threat, and Japan needs to be able to defend itself. I thought ‘that’s an American opinion. They’re always thinking you can solve everything with war.’ What do you think?”

Actually, although Japan’s armed forces are labeled “Self Defense”, Japan’s army has the fourth largest military budget in the world, behind America, Russia and China. (Although it is worth noting that the combined military budget of Russia, China, and Japan still does not equal what the US spends each year). Not a lot of people know this and most Japanese certainly don’t know this, but Japan is already spending more money on it’s military than North Korea. I tried to correct this, but got tripped up in the linguistics, and I’m not sure my tutor understood. We ended up returning just to the subject of the difference between Japanese and American communication.

“I usually say my own opinion straight,” I said. “And I haven’t had a lot of problems in Japan.”

“That’s because you’re foreign,” my teacher responded. “Japanese people are always polite to foreigners. But a Japanese person couldn’t get away with the same thing. Like my student who committed suicide.”

My tutor teaches at a high school for her day job, and apparently this past year one of the students had killed himself. I didn’t remember hearing about this before, but apparently my tutor had mentioned it, because she got upset when I asked about it. “I already told you. Don’t you remember?” I didn’t remember, and it didn’t seem like the kind of thing I would easily forget, but it seemed like a touchy topic so I let it go.

“He spent a year in Texas as an exchange student, and when he came back he had a hard time dealing with Japan. He would always speak his mind, and his friends didn’t know how to deal with him. Eventually he was really isolated from everyone else. He talked to me, because I had lived in America too and I understood. He talked about how much he wanted to go back to America, but he ended up killing himself instead.”

My tutor also complained about how Japanese who spend too much time with foreigners get made fun of by other Japanese people. I had noticed this as well. Then she asked, “Is there anything else about Japanese people that you don’t like?”

I hesitated slightly before saying my usual complaint. “It seems that there are a lot of Japanese people who don’t know anything.”

She pointed at me excitedly. “My student said the same thing. Exactly the same thing. He said in Texas everyone talked about politics and world issues. Even at the high school, where no one was old enough to vote, the students had formed opinions on issues. In Japan, no one talks about that kind of stuff.”

I admitted that I had been accused, even by my foreign friends, of talking about politics too much. But it was a noticeable difference. You couldn’t talk about anything deep with most Japanese people. There was just no interest.

“One thing I don’t like,” my tutor said, “is there are a lot of Japanese people who think they’re really cool. That bugs, even though I’m Japanese myself. I just can’t stand the attitude of people who think they’re so cool.”

“That’s not just Japan,” I said. “We have those people in America also. In fact more of them in America.”

“Really? All of the foreigners I meet in Japan are so mild-mannered.”

This was true actually. Most of the people I knew in Japan were pretty laid back as well. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe “cool” people don’t travel abroad as often. Maybe they’re happy in they’re own comfort zone where they know they’re cool. Or maybe, as I suggested to my tutor, Americans living abroad don’t know the local customs or language, so they loose a lot of self-confidence.

Of course on the other side of the coin there is the “Charisma Man” syndrome. Caucasian men who come to Japan, get a lot of attention from girls, and suddenly have an inflated self-image of themselves.

For whatever reason, I started telling the story of “Sukabe Kurisu”, who had been a legend in Ajimu once upon a time for the number of girls he went through. “Sukabe” is Japanese for pervert, and “Kurisu” is Japlish for Chris.

The person seated at the table behind us was also named Chris, and he thought I had been talking about him. I had to clear everything up afterwards.

We went to the local bar, where one of the girls there was returning to England and was being given a rather tearful farewell. I only knew her a little bit, and so wasn’t really sure if it was appropriate for me to join in the “hug line” that was seeing her out the door. I ended up just shaking her hand. She was crying so much she didn’t notice.

Once she left, things calmed down a bit. As I was in the bar, I suddenly felt like I could stay in Japan forever. I enjoyed the international interaction between the foreigners from all different countries, and I remember Greg’s words that it is hard to find these kind of international groups back home.

Link of the Day
Bush Administration Spent more than $1.6 Billion on Media Contracts ...That's your elected leaders using your money to propegandize you.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Series of Unfortunate Events: Book 1 A very Bad Beginning By Lemony Snickett

 (Book Review)

I guess there’s not (hope there’s not) any shame in admitting to reading a children’s book. Not in this day and age when even literary giants like Phil Christman is admitting to reading “Harry Potter” and Andrew is re-reading “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

So I’m coming out of the closet. I saw this book in the local bookstore. It looked like it would be pretty funny. And I never saw the movie because it was dubbed into Japanese for the theater release over here. (Children’s movies are usually dubbed instead of subtitled).

The book wasn’t quite as funny as I thought it would be. As Bork might say, “It was funny, but not ha ha funny.” Maybe that can be chalked up to the failure of high expectations. Or maybe that’s just what happens when a grown man reads a children’s book.

The book is part of a series, which I don’t have a problem with. But it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which I do have a problem with. Call me an old man if you will, but I like my books to have a complete ending. If I want to read a serial, that’s what comic books and magazines are for. If I plunk down the money for a hard cover book, I want it to be a complete story with a complete ending. The “Harry Potter” and “Narnia” books were all complete stories as well as being part of a series. And I’m willing to make exceptions for “Lord of the Rings” because of its length. But this book is extremely small. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be combined into one volume with the other books in the series, except that obviously the publishers make more money selling them separately.

Link of the Day
Media Mouse has compiled an online list of Grand Rapids companies which are profiting from the war in Iraq.

Video Version

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

 (Book Review)

This is another book in the discworld series. I enjoyed the last one I read, and there are a lot of discworld books at the foreign bookstores and book exchanges in Japan, so I decided to pick up another one.

As I mentioned in my review of “Going Postal”, a friend told me that some of the discworld series are better than others. I’m assuming “Monstrous Regiment” is one of the better books. It wasn’t just a funny read; there was actually a lot of relevant satire to today’s world.

I’d like to think that’s my opinion, and that I wasn’t influenced by the critics, although I do have to admit I was impressed by the quotes on the inside jacket (even though I know you can’t always trust those things, but…)

“An extended morality tale, on the subjects of pacifism, intolerance and gender, gathered together into a military adventure. It is how John Lennon would write a Sharpe novel if Bernard Cornwell left him to it…A great piece of writing akin to Jonathon Swift”--- Daily Express

“A fantasist who loves naff humour and silly names, and yet whose absurd world is, at heart, a serious portrait of the jingoistic fears that keep us at each other’s throats.”---The Times

et cetera

The book touches on a lot of themes: gender discrimination, religious fundamentalism, and patriotism being the big three.

Fantasy is obviously a great medium to do satire in, although at times it has its limits, and Pratchett seems to be stretching up against them at times. The story is loosely modeled on the Napoleon wars, and yet the fantasy world it is set in is one of swords and sandals, not guns and rifles. Pratchett substitutes the crossbow and catapults for guns and cannons, but you can feel him stretching sometimes.

Also, there is the question of how relevant an anti-war story modeled on the Napoleon wars is to today’s world. And yet certain passages seemed to me to be very dead on. For instance, this passage as the main character Polly reflects on the continual state of warfare.

“There was always a war. Usually it was a border dispute, the national equivalent of complaining that the neighbor was letting his hedge grow too long. Sometimes it was bigger. Borogravia was a peace-loving country in the midst of treacherous, devious, warlike enemies. They had to be treacherous, devious, and warlike, otherwise we wouldn’t be fighting with them, eh? There was always a war.”

Or this conversation among the soldiers:

“And what you’ve got there, my friend, is patriotism. My country, right or wrong.”
“You should love your country,” said Shufti.
“Okay, what part?” the voice of Tonker demanded, from the far corner of the tent. “The morning sunlight on the mountains? The horrible food? The damn mad Abominations? All of my country except whatever bit Strappi is standing on?”
“But we’re at war!”
“Yes, that’s where they’ve got you,” sighed Polly.
“Well, I’m not buying into it. It’s all trickery. They keep you down and when they piss off some other country, you have to fight for them! It’s only your country when they want you to get killed!” said Tonker.

A lot of this is borrowed/ plagiarized from the conversations of soldiers in “All Quiet on the Western Front”. But I don’t think Remarque would mind.

Link of the Day
(via Bierma's Blog)Death Row Prisons: Protecting the Sanctity of Life

Anticipating a possible replay of his September heart attack, [76-year-old death row inmate Clarence] Allen had asked prison authorities to let him die if he went into cardiac arrest before his execution, a request prison officials said they would not honor.
"At no point are we not going to value the sanctity of life," said prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon. "We would resuscitate him."

Video Version

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Truth With Jokes By Al Franken

(Book Review)

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Of course I guess it should come as no surprise that I loved this book. I was a huge fan of Franken’s previous book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” As evidenced by the fact that I wrote about it on the blog here, quoted a lengthy section of it here, and even wrote a review of it for the local Tombo Times in Oita, which can be read here.

(While I’m plugging Al Franken, his book “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot” is good for a few laughs as well. Not quite as good as the other two, and a bit dated, but I still got a couple chuckles out of it).

Franken’s books are liberal polemics, and I guess that’s enough to turn a lot of people off right there. In today’s climate of trench political warfare, I’m worried his books might not be read by the people who need to read them the most. In fact I think I can guarantee it.

I suppose I should clear something up first. Lots of people sometimes accuse me of only reading liberal screeds. Actually I do read a lot of conservative polemics as well. This past year alone I read two books by Bill O’Reilly, one book by Pat Buchanan, and one book by Dick Morris. Say what you want of me, I do make an effort to read across the spectrum.

(Now you could argue, with some justification, that when I read a liberal book I’m gearing myself up to agree with it, and when I read a conservative book I’m mentally preparing to disagree with everything in it. But so sue me. I’m human, I have my biases.)

Anyway, I do try and read across the spectrum. And you should too. So if you’re conservative, or undecided, I challenge you to read this book. If you take me up on it, I’ll pledge to read (and review on this blog) whatever conservative book you recommend. We’ll call it the “Joel Conservative Book Challenge.”

I can handle polemic books, as long as they’re honest polemics. I figure everyone has some sort of ax to grind, so I don’t mind books that are coming from a particular perspective.

I try and avoid dishonest polemics. I figure there’s no point in putting my time and energy into a book that’s only going to make me stupider and less informed. Like say, a book by Ann Coulter (perhaps the stupidest person on earth). My philosophy is, I don’t have time to read authors who don’t have time to get their facts straight.  (Although again, if you take my challenge, I’ll read anything you recommend).

Phil once said, “I make a point of reading commentators from across the spectrum, and consistently find weaker arguments, a higher number of outright factual errors, and more ad hominem attacks from my reading on the right.” I’d agree with this. You could call it the Swagman-Christman thesis. (I mean the Christman-Swagman thesis. Sorry Phil). Call us biased if you want. There just seems to be an awful lot of crap produced by the Coulters-O’Reillys-and-Limbaughs of the world. I have yet to see anything of the same scale on the left. And, since a large amount of people actually consume and believe this stuff, its necessary to have Franken on the other side calling pointing out their blatant lies. In other words, I don’t think Franken is contributing to the decline of civility in the culture wars. I think he’s fighting a necessary fight.

From what fact checking and internet searching I’ve been able to do, Franken himself seems pretty honest. Ann Coulter responded to some of his accusations, but only seemed to prove his point. Bill O’Reilly, rather than respond, walked off the NPR show when Terry Gross tried to ask him about the criticisms. (It’s a couple years old now, but if you haven’t heard the Terry Gross/ Bill O’Reilly interview, this ones a classic. Check it out).
Even the fact checkers at Spin-Sanity only gave Franken mild criticism. “Given Franken's stated dedication to getting his facts straight, one is left with the feeling that he is using his humor to imply things he can't honestly argue for.” And that’s true. He does do that. But I can live with that.

I’ll be honest I haven’t fact checked every word of “The Truth with Jokes”, but I did a couple searches and I have yet to find any huge holes in it.

The only mild criticisms I would have are:
1). This is a list of everything the Bush administration and Republicans did wrong. You won’t find anything they did right, so it’s unbalanced in that way. But it’s a polemic and a satire, so I guess you get what you paid for.
2). Occasionally Franken will switch back and forth from lies the bush administration tells to lies that right wing political pundits tell. If you’re reading it fast and not paying attention, you could get the impression that the Bush administration is responsible for all of these.
3). Franken puts too much faith in the Democratic Party. He believes all the problems will be solved if the Democrats get back in power. And he believes if the Democrats hadn’t lost congress in 1994, they would have solved the Saipan sweatshop problems.
I’m somewhat more skeptical. I’m older and wiser than 2000, and won’t go for a 3rd party candidate again. Rather I think it’s better to work for change within the Democratic Party. But let’s not forget what drove many of us to the Greens in the first place.

Other than that the book is brilliant. Not only is it really funny, Franken absolutely nails the Bush Administration and the Republicans on hundreds of lies and consistencies. Some of this is old hat, but Franken does a good job of recounting it.

Such as the way the Bush team completely ignored the warnings before 9/11, and then ran on 9/11 in the 2004 election. Or how, rather than take Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have is fear itself” idea, they deliberately frightened the voters and told them they would all die if Kerry was elected. Cheney speaking before the election:
“It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, and we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.”

Franken goes after the blatant dirty tricks in the election, the numerous lies in the bush campaign ads. And then how George “2.5%” Bush won on “the most narrow election victory by an incumbent president in the history of the republic,” and then proceeded to claim “broad nationwide victory” and a clear mandate for his agenda. And then proceeded to advance issues like social security, which had almost nothing to do with the election.

And speaking of social security, Franken debunks Bush’s plan completely
On Bush’s claim of a liability of $11 trillion dollars: “Where did that number come from? Well, it came from the Social Security Administration. Bush’s social security Administration. And the number, $11 trillion, represented the total Social Security shortfall, adjusted for inflation, from now until the infinity.
That’s right. The year infinity. Not the year 2018. Not the year 3018. Not the year 3,000,018. No. The year [infinity]….In order to get that number, $11 trillion over infinity years, they had to assume that people would live to an average age of 150, but still retire at 67.”

We’re so used to politicians lying to us, I think we have forgotten to be outraged about it. I mean, here is our President, elected to serve the people, using our tax dollars to try and deceive us. And remember when Bush tried claiming that Social Security was inherently unfair to Black people, because Black people died on average at 69, and so only had two years to withdraw?

“First of all, the study assumed that every African-American man would live to exactly sixty-nine years of age, and then drop dead…[But] black men who reach sixty-seven have a life expectancy of seventy-nine….[And] Social security doesn’t just pay retirement benefits. It also pays disability and survivor benefits….African Americans are much more likely than whites to receive both…So, leaving out disability and survivor benefits would skew things a bit, don’t ya think? Well, guess what? Somehow [they] forgot to include them.”

I’m almost tempted to quote the whole book, there are so many disgusting examples here, from lying about the war, to blatant War profiteering, to just plain incompetence. It needs to be read in its entirety to get the whole feel for everything the Bush administration has lied about. As Franken summarizes in his conclusion:

“Let’s face it. You can’t count on them to give you straight information. You can’t count on them to tell us straight why we’re going to war. You can’t count on them to tell us what’s happening over there. You can’t count on them to do their homework. To keep track of our money. You can’t count on them to punish war profiteers. You can’t count on them to protect our troops. You can’t rely on them for much of anything. Armor. Veterans’ benefits. You can’t count on them for the true story of how Jessica Lynch was captured, or how Pat Tillman died. Even for how the “Mission Accomplished” sign went up on the USS Abraham Lincoln. They actually lied about that.
You can’t count on them to count terrorist attacks. You can’t count on them to count civilian victims. You can’t count on them to listen to civilian commanders and send in enough troops, or listen to Colin Powell and not torture people, or not to lie about whether torture policies started at the top….You can’t trust them to do the work of actually signing killed-in-action letters. You can’t trust them not to lie about not signing killed-in-action letters.”

Almost all of these points, although listed in rant form here, are expounded on and fleshed out in the book. And many others.

Although it’s somewhat old news after the fall of Delay, what I found the most disgusting was Delay’s defense of the sweatshops in Saipan where, among other indignities, woman are forced to have abortions. Tom “forced abortions” Delay killed bills that would have protected Saipan workers, and blocked Peter Hoekstra’s fact finding trip to Saipan.

Franken summarizes this nicely: “On the mainland, Tom Delay doesn’t want women to be able to choose to have an abortion. On Saipan, he thinks it’s okay if they can’t choose not to.”
Although Franken acknowledges this wasn’t about Conservative principles so much as political corruption, I’ve encountered the same sentiment myself at the grass roots level. When I wrote this article in the Chimes defending a woman’s right to choose, a conservative friend told me that a Christian couldn’t write that. Later, when Bork and I were escorted out of Woodland mall for distributing fliers that alerted people to the forced abortions in GAP sweatshops, the same friend yelled at me, “Why can’t you just leave that company alone? They have every right to do what they’re doing, and it’s none of your business.”

Link of the Day
The scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff has shaken up Capitol Hill. But it still poses significant problems for the Bush White House.
A court hearing scheduled later this month may bring fresh attention to the case of former White House aide David Safavian, who is charged with lying in connection with a golf trip Mr. Abramoff arranged. Justice Department officials haven't closed their review of actions by former Interior Department official J. Steven Griles, who disputes claims that he favored Abramoff clients, such as Native American tribes involved in casinos. Calls for the White House to release photos of Mr. Abramoff with the president -- and details of his contacts with presidential aides including Karl Rove -- haven't abated.
"Their refusal to release information is inexcusable," says Tom Fitton, president of conservative legal organization Judicial Watch. As a result, the scandal "is now in the White House.
(Complete Article Here)

Video Version

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

 (Book Review)
Yet another book in which most of us are probably more familiar with the Hollywood version than the actual story. I should say “Hollywood versions” because its been remade several times. Prior to reading the book, I had seen the Disney version and the 1939 version.

The 1939 version as well as I can remember it (I saw it in middle school), sticks very close to the original story. The Disney version was (no surprise) very inaccurate.

Ordinarily I hate it when people criticize Disney movies for accuracy. That whole controversy over “Pocahontas” (remember that?) was just ridiculous. But it is worth noting that the character of Phoebus, who in the Disney version is the dashing hero, is really a cold-hearted jerk in the novel, who tries to seduce Esmeralda, and then does not even try and save her when she is falsely arrested for his attempted murder. I’m surprised they changed the character so dramatically. I mean, that goes beyond changing the novel; it’s like the complete opposite of the novel.

As opposed to the movies, the plot of the novel is actually less about the Hunchback and more about Esmeralda and her lovers. In fact I understand the title of the novel in the original French doesn’t include the word “hunchback.”

Coming on the heels of “I am Charlotte Simmons”, I thought that this novel had some interesting parallels to the modern teen love story. The girl falls passionately in love for the jerk who doesn’t care about her. Only in this case there is no happy ending.

It’s a sad story, and there are a lot of pointless tragic deaths. There’s also a lot of humor in it as well though, mostly towards the beginning, but throughout the book. Most of it comes from Hugo’s dry sarcastic writing style, somewhat similar to Dickens’ humor in “A Tale of Two Cities” (and possibly other books, but that’s the only Dickens I’ve read so far.)

Being a Victor Hugo book, you should expect several lengthy digressions on a lot of tangents, such as the architecture of 14th Century Paris. Anyone who’s already read “Les Miserables” will be prepared for these sorts of Hugo-esque digressions I’m sure.

Also like “Les Miserables” there are a lot of themes about social justice and the plight of the unfortunates. Near the end there is a bit of a popular rebellion, which seems reminiscent of “Les Miserables” as well. I’m not a French historian, but it almost seems to me that Hugo was imposing some of 19th century politics on his 14th century Paris. But I’d be interested in the opinion of someone who knows more.

Link of the Day
Time out for some good old fashioned blogotism: I notice this post I wrote two years ago, "Me and the Snake I found outside", has gotten some attention on the Fukuoka JETs discussion board.

Jared English sent me this link to a video on Asian/Caucasian relationships. If you think it's funny, thank me. if you find it offensive, blame Jared.

Video Version

Friday, February 17, 2006


Speaking of Munich, I went and saw the movie last week.

I don't know how many of you caught it, but there actually is a Japanese connection to the movie.

In 1972, 3 members of the Japanese Red army attacked Lod Airport in Israel. They opened fire with machine guns, killing mostly Puerto Rican Tourists. One was accidently killed by fire from the others, one committed suicide with a grenade, and one was caught by the police after trying to kill himself.

Neither the words "Japan" nor "Japanese Red Army" are ever mentioned in the film, but if you pay attention, you can see in the background in one scene television coverage of the attack. If you listen closely, you can hear the TV commentators in the background mention how two of the terrorists were killed by themselves and a third one caught, and you'll notice it's at an airport. This is why I'm assuming it was a reference to the Japanese Red Army attack.

I'm also assuming that the Japanese connection was specifically not mentioned because the film makers didn't want to confuse people. There was enough international intrigue in the movie already without emphasizing the Japanese connection

The Japanese Red Army grew out of the Japanese student movement, or Zengakuren. As in Europe in the United States, increasing frustration with the war in Vietnam caused many of the more radical students in Japan to embrace increasingly violent methods. As the Vietnam war began to wind down, several members of the Japanese Red Army relocated to Europe where, disguised as Japanese tourists in Paris, they formed alliances with Carlos the Jackal and the PLO.

Because the attack in Lod Airport killed mostly Puerto Rican tourists, the resulting backlash threatened the safety of Japanese workers in Puerto Rico, and several of them had to be temporarily evacuated.

The only surviving member of the attack, Kozo Okamoto, was tried and convicted in Israel, but because the death penalty was reserved for Nazis, he was given life imprisonment instead. In 1985, he was specifically requested by the Palestinian movement as part of a prisoner exchange, presumably because of the influence of JRA leader Fusako Shigenobu. Fusako Shigenobu, by the way, is a fascinating figure who breaks most of your stereo types about submissive Japanese women.

Anyway, if you didn't know any or all of that, don't feel bad because no Japanese person under 30 knows anything about it either. Most of them don't even know there was a student movement or a Red Army in Japan. History education in this country is appalling. Don't get me started.

If, however, you are interested in learning more, "Blood and Rage: The Story of the Japanese Red Army " by William Farrell is an interesting read. The author is a Reaganite conservative, but he does mention the irony of Kozo Okamoto being tried for terrorism in Israel by former zionist judges.

Which brings me to another point. Although it's an old Film "Exodus" with Paul Newman is a good film to watch in comparison with "Munich". While the film doesn't endorse terrorism, look at the sympathic portrayal of Zionist terrorists who blow up British hotels. And ask yourself, could a Hollywood film ever be made that shows Palestinian terrorists in the same sympathetic light?

I'm not trying to defend either/or. I just think the comparisons are interesting.

Link of the Day
Do you ever wonder if, somewhere out there, there is an exact duplicate of you?

I think I just found mine: A clumsy visitor to a Cambridge museum has destroyed a set of priceless 300-year-old Chinese vases after tripping up on his shoelace, the Daily Telegraph reported on Monday.
Steve Baxter, another visitor who saw the accident, was quoted as saying: "We watched the man fall as if in slow motion. He landed in the middle of the vases and they splintered into a million pieces.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Few Small Notes

Just a couple quick things combined into a single blog entry.
1). The newspaper article I talked about previously was printed in the Chu-Nichi Shimbun on Monday February 6. It was buried in the back pages, but it was a decently sized article, half a page with two pictures: One class picture, and one picture of me sitting at the computer pretending to e-mail Israel. My Japanese co-workers were surprised at how big the article was, so I guess it’s unusual to give that much space to something so mundane.

I’m still somewhat scratching my head as to why it became an article in the first place. I mean, it’s not a school wide exchange. It’s just the elective class. No more than 19 students. And we only exchange letters about once a month.

I think the journalist might have been a bit desperate for ideas. But my Japanese tutor suggested to me that the paper might have been interested because of the new Spielberg movie “Munich”, which in Japan opened the same week as the article. In Japan lots of schools have pen-pal exchanges with America or Australia, but not a lot with Israel.

2. On Wednesday February 8th, the school lunch made a nod towards internationalization with American food. The head nutritionist had long ago asked me for an American recipe. I asked my mom, and she e-mailed me a recipe for Macaroni and Cheese with Tomato soup.

Thus followed weeks of answering the nutritionists questions about whether tomato soup was supposed to taste sweet or sour, and helping her convert the recipe into metric measurements. And then it was massed produced with the kids, complete with a little trivia about Michigan and Grand Rapids that went with the daily lunch announcements.

It tasted pretty good. It’s hard to do gourmet cooking when you’re mass-producing for hundreds of kids, but I thought she did all right on it.

I should note briefly I have mixed feelings on school lunch. On one hand it’s a blessing. It’s less than $2 a day, and I would never be able to feed myself that cheaply. And it’s reasonably healthy, and, given my eating habits, I can’t imagine what my body would be like if I had been responsibly for my own lunch every day.

On the other hand, the sticky rice and the boiled vegetables really sit in my stomach and make me feel groggy all afternoon. I have a hard time teaching in the afternoon, or really doing much of anything. Sometimes I overdose on coffee to try and balance out, but the school coffee is just a black sludge that only makes me feel worse.

The kids feel it also. 5th period everyone is asleep at their desks. They might as well just make it nap time because no serious studying ever gets done.

Link of the Day
I don't always agree with my sister (she's a Bush supporter) , but I agree with this.

Monday, February 13, 2006

My Reputation in Japan

These kind of posts are always dangerous, because I don’t know what people say behind my back. I only know what they say to my face, and that’s not really honest.

It’s especially not honest among the Japanese, who consider are notorious for never directly articulating their true feelings. So I won’t even try to guess what they think, and I’ll just focus on the foreign community.

1). For whatever reason, I have a reputation for not swearing. Often people around me will catch themselves swearing, and then apologize to me. I’m always like, “Dude, I don’t care. Honestly.”
And when I do swear, other people usually acted shocked. “Did you just swear? I don’t think I ever heard you swear before.”
I think I swear a lot. But maybe I don’t swear as much as I think I do. I suppose maybe unconsciously I might censor myself around people I don’t know.
And I guess I haven’t worked it as naturally into my speech patterns as a lot of other people. I tend to swear to punctuate or emphasize what I want to say, instead of naturally working it into my speech rhythms like “Fuck Patois” (as Tom Wolfe would say).

While I’m on the subject, it seems to me among the foreign community, Brits tend to use “Fuck Patois” a lot more than us Americans. That’s just my impression though, and I’d be interested in the thoughts of anyone else who has spent time abroad.
(This does, however, remind me of one of my Eion’s favorite stories. A bunch of JETs were at an English camp for high school students, and one of the Japanese teachers was addressing the JETs and said, “Remember to wear your jackets because it’s fucking cold out here.” Everyone fell about laughing. Later the teacher asked, “Why did everyone laugh when I said that? When I lived in the student dormitories in England, that was a very common use word.”)

Anyway, I’m spending too much time on this one. Onto the next point…

2). I’ve developed a reputation as a messy bastard. No surprise to those of you who know me, but the odd thing is that up here almost no one has seen my place. I don’t do a lot of entertaining, and when I do I usually clean before hand. I think this reputation has developed entirely because of the stories I tell about myself. Which I like to think reflects well on my honesty. I could have been telling everyone I was a clean saint.

Come to think of it, a lot of people seem pre-disposed to believe that anyway. When I’m telling stories about my apartment, sometimes people say, “Really? You seem like the kind of person who would be really neat and tidy. You just have that personality.”

3). I’ve developed the reputation of being stingy and really miserly with my money. This isn’t true. I wish it were true, but it isn’t. If it was true, I maybe would have saved a lot more money over the course of my time in Japan.
So how did I develop this reputation? Part of it is because of the incredible amount of distance I am willing to walk to get free parking in the city. (Doesn’t bother me, I like walking and parking adds up). And I think there have been a couple of times I complained about the cost of a restaurant we went to.
Also, I refuse to go to the cinema unless we can go to the late show. (In Japan, late show is cheap, matinee is expensive—opposite of back home). Several of my friends live far away from the cinema, and can’t get the last train back if we see the late show. This causes frustration as well.

4). Among some of my better friends, I’ve developed a reputation for rudeness. The joke is that we should all make T-shirts that describe our personalities, and my shirt would read, “I am abrupt, and sometimes rude.”

Is it deserved? I tend to think a couple incidents just got exaggerated, and then the reputation developed a life of its own, and it is hard to get out of. But my friends might see it differently.

There have been complaints that I am too direct. I often refuse requests by simply saying, “No”, instead of something like, “I’m sorry, that’s a little difficult,” or something like that.

I like to think that among good friends some of these niceties can be dropped, but I guess not everyone feels that way.

5). I’ve developed a reputation for passive-aggressiveness in order to get what I want.
Friend: Let’s eat at the Ramen shop.
Me: Oh, Ramen? Are you sure? There’s a really good pizza shop just down the street. But we can eat at the Ramen shop if you want to.
Friend: Uh, okay, Pizza is good too.
Me: Are you sure? We can eat at the Ramen shop if you want.
Friend: No, no, Pizza is okay.

Actually this reputation is probably pretty fair. I think I really do talk like this a lot.

6). I’ve developed a reputation for talking about politics or the news a lot. Again, probably no surprise, and again this is also deserved. I had the same reputation back in Oita.
One friend in particular always says, “I know so little about you. You never talk about yourself. All you do is talk about the news.”
On the other hand I have this blog which is almost all about me and very little politics. Go figure.

7). Some people think I’m a health nut. I’m not, but I tend to go on health binges. I’ll have candy bars and potato chips for lunch, and then I’ll feel guilty and try and find the healthiest thing on the menu for dinner. Thus I tend to order a lot of vegetable platters, salads, and V8 juice when I’m out with my friends, and they think I’m a super health nut. (My not drinking probably adds to this reputation).

I had the same thing back at Calvin. I remember Rob once saying to me, “I used to think you were the healthiest guy in the world, until I started living with you and seeing what you’re diet was actually like.”

Link of the Day
More Listening picks.
NPR did a really great show on Sam Cooke. I've discovered Sam Cooke a couple years ago, and he's become one of my favorite muscians. If you've yet to discover his music, give this a listen.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

 (Book Review)
I’m trying to get more into the idea of “reading for pleasure” instead of simply “reading books I think are good for me.” To that end, I’ve started to return to the fantasy genre that I used to be a fan of in my youth.

I’ve discovered the “Discworld series” by Terry Pratchett, which I had previously never heard of, but is apparently very well known in certain circles, and seems to be very popular among the foreign community in Japan. The foreign sections at Japanese bookstores or foreign book exchanges usually carry a lot of “Discworld” series.

I saw some of Terry Pratchett’s books when I was back home, but it doesn’t seem to be as popular in America. I think because Pratchett is British, these books are better known to common wealth audiences than they are to Americans. Most of my British friends are well versed in Discworld.

The books are fantasy, but they are much more in the line of Douglas Adams than JRR Tolkien (to compare with two other British authors). All the stock fantasy characters are there: dwarves, elves, trolls, vampires, werewolves, wizards, et cetera. But they are also comedic, silly, and as much a parody of the genre as a part of it. Zombies are lawyers, vampires are newspaper photographers, and werewolves are policemen. Also just about every paragraph is a set up for some sort of a joke.

I could quote from a lot of paragraphs, but this line in particular seemed very reminiscent of Douglas Adam’s style to me:
“The Great Hall was in uproar. Most of the wizards took the opportunity to congregate at the buffet, which was now clear. If there’s one thing a wizard hates, it’s having to wait while the person in front of them is in two minds about coleslaw. It’s a salad bar, they say, it’s got the kind of stuff salad bars have, if it was surprising it wouldn’t be a salad bar, you’re not here to look at it. What do you expect to find? Rhino chunks? Pickled coelacanth?”

Pratchett is very prolific. “Going Postal” is the 33rd book in the Discworld series, and he cranks these things out at the rate of one or more a year. This raises two questions: 1) Given how many of these things he cranks out, do they suffer in quality?
And 2) Is it very difficult to jump into the middle of the series?

I was asking a friend about the first question, and he answered, “Some of the books are admittedly better than others. But even the worst books in the series you won’t be sorry you read.”

Based on “Going Postal”, I’d go along with that assessment. It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but I’m not sorry I read it. It was funny. It was well plotted. All the different story threads came together nicely at the end. And I thought the characters were decently developed, or at least as well as they needed to be for a story like this. In short, I don’t know how Pratchett manages to write this well and still write so much. I got the impression he wasn’t holding anything back from this book nor being stingy and saving things for his next novel.

As for jumping into the 33rd book in the series, it was no problem. Or almost no problem. There were a couple small things I had to get used to. Robot like creatures called “Golems”, for example, and a tower messaging system called “Clacks” run by a business organization called “The Grand Trunk”. But it was a lot easier than say jumping into the middle of Zola’s “Les Rougon-Macquart” series.

This may be partly because “Going Postal” is a bit of a narrative digression from the usual Discworld series, and most of the main characters in this book are new. This book is simply the tale of how the Ankh-Morpork’s Postal service developed, which apparently fits into a larger Discworld theme of the growth of Ankh-Morpork as a major urban area in the Discworld. In that respect, given the tangential nature of this story in relation to the larger series, it seems all the more amazing that it is as well written as it is. If it were me, I would have just blown it off.

I particularly enjoyed the character of Lord Vetinari, who is the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, and apparently is from previous books in the serious as well. He’s a kind of benevolent tyrant who is committed to keeping his strangle hold on power, but at the same time seeks to do what is best for the city in his own eyes. He reminds me of the kind of character I myself have often tried to create in my own fiction, such as Bakes or Flash.

There are also some critiques of the freemarket ideology, and according to Wikipedia much of this book is a parody of "Atlas Shrugged", but that went over my head.

Link of the Day
Proposed Bill would make English Michigan’s “Official Language”
This is a bad, bad, idea.

Video Version

Friday, February 10, 2006

More Drama At School

This story could really fit under the category of “Drama at School” or more “Thoughts on Discipline in Japanese Schools”. You can take your pick really.

The Japanese teacher and I were beginning an 8th grade English class. Class in Japan always starts out very formal. Stand up. Greet. Bow. Sit down. Begin class. It’s like you’re in the army almost. A very, undisciplined, rowdy army maybe, but they still keep around a lot of the symbolism from the old days nevertheless. The school uniforms are based on military uniforms as well.

Anyway, I was standing around waiting for the Japanese teacher to go through all that stand up and bow stuff. The Japanese teacher was busy chasing two students around the classroom.

These two were boyfriend and girlfriend. There aren’t a lot of couples in the 8th grade, but the ones that are there tend to be very high profile. And these two are always causing problems. They’re both problem kids to begin with, and it’s very common to see one of them running through the hallways with a teacher in pursuit.

And their romance is tumultuous as well. There’s always some sort of crisis between them that the teachers have to help sort out so that a big scene doesn’t get created in the middle of school.

All this is to say, I was very used to seeing the Japanese teacher chase them around the room, and didn’t really think too much of it. Barely noticed it really. I was busy talking to another student.

The boy wasn’t even in that class. He was part of another homeroom on a different floor of the building. He was trying to attack the girl for whatever reason. The Japanese teacher, a petite Japanese woman, was trying to get between them. She grabbed the boy by the wrists to stop him. He just pushed the teacher back, and she fell backwards into the row of desks.

At this point I decided it would look very bad for me to continue to stand around with my hands in my pockets while this was going on. Although as much as possible I like to stay out of the way when the Japanese teacher is disciplining the kids. It’s not my job for one thing, and I don’t know what the rules are or what is appropriate. I have no authority over the students, and I’m not sure my help would even be appreciated by the Japanese teacher.

There’s also a long section in the employee manual dealing with violence in the classroom. “In the event there is a fight in the classroom, do not get involved. While it may seem dreadful, if there is an injury, your intervention in a classroom altercation can cause problems for insurance....In the case of classroom violence a foreign ALT [Assistant English Teacher] must not get involved in the situation. While it is understandable that mature adults cannot stand around while a child is subject to violence of any kind. In many ways, the laws of the land have determined that this is the correct response….It may not seem right, but only by non-involvement, verbal warnings, and alerting the other teachers can an ALT try to combat classroom violence....If you were to get involved in the situation and someone were to sustain an injury, you... could be held liable.” etc.

But despite all that, it just seemed really bad for me to just stand there when the Japanese teacher was getting pushed over.

I walked forward to intercept the boy. The girl, seeing my intention to get involved, decided to pull the old “hide behind the American” maneuver. “Joel, help me,” she said, as she ran behind my back.

This was not what I intended. It would have been a lot easier to just intercept the boy. Shielding the girl turned the whole thing into more of a circus. Besides it still left the Japanese teacher to deal with the boy.

I tried to move forward, but the girl had grabbed onto my sweater. I took a few steps forward anyway, dragging her along with me, before she let go of me. The boy was coming at the girl anyway, so it allowed me to just grab him easily.

The boy was a typical scrawny 8th grader. He could knock over the female teacher, but he didn’t have a lot of weight on me. The question was what to do with him once I had him. How long should I hold him? Should I keep a tight grip no matter what? If he started hitting me, is it acceptable to pound him back? All in all, I felt really uncomfortable about the situation I was in.

The boy tugged to get his arm free, and muttered something under his breath which I’m sure wasn’t complimentary to me. Occasionally he would make wild jerks to free himself, but that was about as far as it went fortunately.

The Japanese teacher sent one of the students running to the teacher in the next classroom for reinforcements. I tried to calm the boy down by saying things like, “Okay, why don’t we go back to your own class now, hey?” I really didn’t know what else to say. Oh, and also I forgot to speak in Japanese, so he didn’t understand a word of it anyway.

The other teacher arrived, and the boy was coaxed into returning to his own class. There was of course, no disciplinary action taken afterwards.

In the interest of being fair and balanced though, I’ll add this little tidbit in defense of Japanese schools. As I’ve mentioned before, most of the discipline techniques revolve around internal motivation and social cohesion. It can fall apart very easily, but when it works it’s a beauty to behold. Because of teachers’ meetings, I had to teach a number of the 9th grade classes by myself last week. The way the class leaders keep the rest of the class in line all by themselves is amazing. I barely even had to do anything.

When it works, it’s a wonder to behold. When it falls apart, you’re pretty fucked.

Link of the Day
Media Mouse has an article on The Realities of Mexican Immigration to the United States

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Political Rants

(Update: admittedly this isn't one of my better posts. I hate to make too many excuses for myself, but being in Japan it's tough to keep up on some of this stuff. I do an alright job, but I'm not exposed to the 24 hour news cycle, and tend to miss out on things, or end up saying things in this blog that have probably been repeated ad-infinitum. After reading only a few articles, I wrote this at work, when it was just me and my lap top. Since getting to the internet cafe and doing a little internet surfing, and am thinking this is both probably ill-informed and redundant. I'm posting it anyway because I went through the trouble of writing it. I'm not trying to pre-empt any criticisms though--criticize away. Tell me where I went wrong.)

I'm combining two rants today. First of all CNN had this article about the politicalization of Coretta Scott King's funeral, which was absolutely ridiculous.

To Quote briefly: "what struck me also was how quickly this became an item within the other side, within the political right. And within hours, I think when the funeral was still going on, this popped up as the headline on "The Drudge Report," which often begins the transmission through particularly conservative media.
On "Hannity & Colmes" last night on Fox, it was the lead item. And Rush Limbaugh on his Web site went off on Joseph Lowery, whose piece he played, and called it -- and this was really the key, as you mentioned in your intro to this, "a Wellstone moment."... After the funeral yesterday, Kate O'Beirne, a prominent conservative writer, said liberals don't know how to keep politics out of their funerals....I think on appropriateness grounds, you probably would be a lot more subtle. I mean, this -- the idea of civil rights in America has become now a consensus. There is nobody arguing that Martin Luther King was on the wrong side of history. And probably if you want to make your political points about the president, there are other venues to do it".
And "We're now in early February. The idea that this is going to have some political implication, you have to really be overcommitted to endless analysis.
I do, however, think that in a more subtle way, this actually rebounds to the credit of President Bush. I mean, he came to the funeral, changed his plans, made a gracious speech. And I think for people who are not politically committed -- I mean, if you don't like George Bush, this was fine. If you like George Bush, this was horrible."

First of all, anyone who's read Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them" knows the Wellstone funeral was greatly exaggerated. (Don't roll your eyes at me, go read the book if you doubt it.)

Secondly I don't know how many of you remember this, but in the lead up to the Iraq War, Coretta King told CNN that she didn't usually like to put words in her dead husband's mouth, but given everything that he stood for, she was sure he would have been against the Iraq War. (Update: found a link to the transcript of that conversation here). Not to mention the King family was, as Carter pointed out, illegally wire-tapped.

Is everyone supposed to ignore this? Just sit at the funeral and pretend the King family wasn't opposed to the war or victims of illegal wire-tapping?

The idea of a funeral like this being politicized is ridiculous. When Reagan died, did they not mention he was a conservative? When Gandhi died, I'm sure somewhat might have mentioned he was a pacifist. When King dies, you talk about, what? What a great home maker she was? Of course you talk about her struggles.

If you ask me Bush had a lot of nerve even showing up to this funeral. As for "...he came to the funeral, changed his plans, made a gracious speech." Oh, I don't know, maybe politics had a little bit to do with that? I'm sure he thought it was a great photo opportunity.

My Two Cents on the Danish Cartoon Controversy

I was going to hold off on writing about this, because I figured we’re all on the same page anyway, so what’s the point? I mean, writing a blog post ranting against Islamic extremism is like ranting against AIDS. We’re all against it anway, so I’d just be wasting my time.

And then I was going to hold off on writing this because Matt Lind had a good post nailing this thing already, so I figured the job was done.

And then I thought, “What the Hell, I’ll just indulge myself. If I jot a few thoughts down and get this off my mind, maybe it will make me feel better.” So here I go:

Like many of us, I have two sides. The conservative me (which I like to refer to as my dark side) and the liberal me. As it happens, both of me are passionately committed to free speech.

The conservative me hates everyone who’s different than I am, so he says, “It’s bad enough that they don’t have freedom of speech in their own countries, but they think they can stop freedom of speech in the whole world? And Muslims protesting outside the Danish Embassy want to kill the people who made this cartoon? Over a cartoon? And as for the Muslims living in the West, they can go back to where they came from if they don’t like our freedom of speech laws.”
I also remember what my 8th grade bible teacher told us. “Muslims take advantage of our religious freedom laws to come and live here, but they don’t allow freedom to anyone else.” And I also think to myself, “all this time I’ve been defending Islam, but those conservatives have it right. It really is inherently a violent, intolerant, religion.” (Conservative me is a bit of an asshole).

Then the liberal me chimes in. “Yes, but remember every religion has extremists, and Christianity is no exception. Remember “The Life of Brian” was banned in Ireland? Remember the protests against “The Last Temptation of Christ”? The fire bombings in the theaters in France, and the crazy protester in America who drove a bus into a theater lobby?”

Of course, to my knowledge, no one was outside the American embassy demanding that Paul Schrader be ritually killed according to religious law, but still, good point liberal me.

However, I don’t think there’s any denying that if you look at the past 25 years, the Muslim world has a much worse track record. And this is a problem that they’re going to have to deal with.

Bush has repeatedly said that “The terrorists are against us because they hate freedom.” Are the Muslims trying to prove him right? I’m almost starting to believe Bush now. (Conservative me that is).

The Muslim world has legitimate grievances against US foreign policy, but they need to get their priorities straight if they want that stuff on the negotiating table. As for the cartoons? We’re not giving up our freedom and going back to the dark ages, thank you very much. We’ve been there and we didn’t like it. You can have your theocracy in the middle east if you want, but you don’t control the press in Denmark. We’re sorry if that offends you, but that’s life. You can’t expect to go through life without ever seeing anything that offends you. Grow up.

So put your time and energy into something else: the refugees in Palestine, the children killed by American bombs in Iraq, the mess in Chechnya. We’re with you on that. (Some of us are).
And the headscarf ban in French Schools is a blatant affront to Religious freedom. We’re with you on that one as well.

I understand the editor of an Iranian newspaper is testing the limits of Western free speech by sponsoring a contest for the best Holocaust cartoon. Okay. Somewhat childish sir, but you’re point is well taken. At least I give you props for trying to continue the battle of ideas. I think this is a lot more productive than terrorism and bombing each other.

If we’re going to fight Islamic extremism, let’s fight it the Danish way instead of the Bush way. No more bombing, invading, and/ or occupying foreign countries. Let’s get them with satire.

Here’s what I propose: support Danish freedom of the Press by looking at, (or possibly linking to) the offending cartoons in question.

Next, as soon as I get back home, I’m going to find and read a copy of “The Satanic Verses”. I figure if Rushdie can spend his whole life in hiding because of this book, the least I can do is read it.

Lastly, just to be far, read or watch “The Last Temptation of Christ”. It’s not a great movie, but it’s the principle of the thing. (I’m told the book is better, so I’m adding that to my reading list).

Who’s with me?

Link of the Day
Okay, now fair play, here's an article via Tom Tomorrow which says that " a leading Jyllands-Posten editor rejected publication of satirical cartoons depicting Jesus Christ. "

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

 (Book Review)

Being in Japan, I missed most of the media hype that invariably must accompany a new Tom Wolfe book. I’m sure this book has already been reviewed to death, and I’m fearful of inadvertently repeating what has already been said, or worse, missing something that everyone else picked up on. Apologies in advance if I do either.

This is a long book (771 pages, densely printed). And yet the main plot is surprisingly simple, and something you’ve already seen many times in numerous teen movies. Nervous insecure teen-age girl gets attention from several different guys. She at first falls for the really popular good-looking one, only to discover what a jerk he is. She briefly rebounds off another character, who is sensitive but not a good fit, and then ends up with the really caring but strong guy who’s been there for her all along. (Oh yeah, warning, spoilers, etc.)

There are several sub-plots weaving their way through this story. Hoyt Thorpe, the frat boy whose fight with a body guard for the governor of California makes him into a campus legend; Jojo Johanssen, the basketball player who enjoys his god-like celebrity status while also struggling to keep his starting position and gets caught in a plagiarizing scandal; and Adam Gellin, a nerdy intellectual convinced he is destiny’s child who wants to loose his virginity, seeks to write a newspaper story about the Hoyt’s brawl with the body-guard, and is also caught up in the plagiarizing scandal.

But neither the main plot nor the sub-plots are really the point. The point is Wolfe as a social commentator writing about life in the modern American University. As such, much of the book is just “hanging out” with the characters and observing various aspects of college life. Each sub-plot has it’s own set of supporting characters. We get to hang out in the fraternity house, witness the various rivalries on the basketball team, and get to know all the young intellectuals who run the school paper.

Wolfe is a good enough writer that he manages to pull this off. At times he’s in danger of falling in love with his own prose, and there are a lot of repetitive segments. (Often I wanted to say: “All right, I get it already, her roommates a bitch.” Or, “the guy’s a nerd, I get it I get it.”) But for the most part it works. You just need to know it’s a slow paced book going into it, and if you can handle that, it is pretty fun hanging out with these characters, and at times I did feel like I was reliving various aspects of my own college days.

Via the magic of the Internet, I was able to watch Tom Wolfe’s appearance on “The Daily Show”, in which he talked about his research for the book. The obvious question is, even with all the research Tom Wolfe did, can an old man like him reach across the generation gap and accurately write about the modern University campus. Unfortunately, as a Calvin College graduate, I’m not qualified to answer this question. I probably know less about the modern secular University scene than Tom Wolfe does.

But whether Wolfe gets it right or not, the beauty of his writing is that he makes you believe it’s true. Wolfe is a powerful enough writer that he can create a seemingly real world inside his pages, regardless of how well it corresponds to the actual real world outside. Just as I was sucked into the pages of “The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test” even though I couldn’t vouch for its accuracy, so I was sucked into the pages of “Charlotte Simmons.” I suspected Wolfe was exaggerating at times, but I didn’t really care. It was real enough while I was reading it.

I enjoyed the sub plots a lot more than I enjoyed the main plot. Perhaps this is simply because I’m a man, and enjoy reading stories about men more than Charlotte’s romantic troubles.

The first 500 pages or so I thought were really interesting. For the last 200 pages, Charlotte’s love life really dominates, and all the other story threads get pushed to the side. These last 200 pages I thought were really awful, but again, maybe this is just because I’m a man.

The ending is almost too happy, and reminiscent of a morality play in which all of the characters get their appropriate rewards. Most of the major characters undergo some sort of transformation. They were all provided with appropriate motivation for their transformations, but the dramatic sudden changes still seemed a bit contrived to me.

Of course the kids like happy endings, and I must confess I myself was smiling at how well everything turned out as I read the last few pages. But the ending, in which all of Charlotte’s problems are solved because she found the right boyfriend, is certainly an unfeminist view, and about 50 years behind its time. (Either that, or perhaps some sort of satire on the whole genre itself that just went over my head.)

Most of the passages concerning Charlotte are written in the 3rd person subjective. I’d be interested to know how accurately Wolfe is able to convey the thoughts of an 18-year-old girl, but this is another question I’m not qualified to answer. If any of you females have read this book, I’d be interested in your perspective.

Nevertheless, a few thoughts of my own on the character of Charlotte Simmons…
Wolfe remarked on “The Daily Show” that sometimes “the man from mars approach” can have benefits to a writer, and he obviously works this into the story with Charlotte Simmons. He even acknowledges it in the dialogue. “You’re not just a freshman. …It was like you just arrived from Mars. You know what I mean? You don’t come here affected by a lot of—a lot of the usual sh—stuff. It’s like you cam here with clear eyes, and you see things exactly like they are.”
“Sparta, North Carolina, is a long way from here, but it isn’t on Mars.” [Charlotte replied]

As the conservative, sheltered country girl from North Carolina, Charlotte acts as the point of entry to the story for Wolfe’s older readers. She’s just as shocked and stunned by modern college life as any one of Wolfe’s generation might be.

But, how much is she simply a literary device, and how well does she work as a real character? In the beginning of the book she occasionally seems too much like a prude. I believe there are students like Charlotte who don’t drink or have sex, but I can’t believe, in the 21st century, that they would spend most of their freshman year with their mouths wide open, completely shocked by the fact that other people engage in these activities.

The point of incredulity for me was when, 200 pages into the book, Charlotte was still reprimanding another student for saying, “fuck.” (And then again 500 pages in). Wolfe does a good job of imitating the speech, “Fuck Patois” as he calls it, of the modern college campus, and this is a credit to him as a writer. But can you imagine a modern student at a secular university objecting to it? Even at Calvin, a conservative Christian school, many people spoke in “Fuck Patois”. Even if Charlotte came from the mountains, has she never seen any movies? And after a few weeks at university, wouldn’t she be so numb to the word “fuck” that she wouldn’t even notice it any more?

Another thing I don’t buy is Charlotte’s first impression of her classmates. When Charlotte first meets her freshman year classmates, she keeps thinking about how young they look. “Neither looked more than fifteen or sixteen! Babies dropping their voices a couple of octaves in a desperate desire to sound like men…He had such a tender coating of baby fat over his cheeks, neck, and torso, it made Charlotte think of diapers and talcum powder.” Et Cetera

The 18-year-old Charlotte doesn’t think the freshman class looks like babies. That’s the middle aged Tom Wolfe talking. I had the same problem with “Norwegian Wood”, another book about college life by a middle-aged author.

I’m much more inclined to identify with John Knowles’s description in “A Separate Peace”: “When you’re 17, 17 is the natural, right and perfect age for a person to be. And all the other ages are arranged in a pyramid either leading up to 17, or leading down from it.” (I’m quoting from memory, but its something like that.)

And yet I identified with some of Charlotte’s struggles as an insecure freshman. Reading the beginning of the book I felt like I was reliving my first few months at Calvin. Sure I had come from the notorious “Christian High”, but I came with more acquaintances than true friends. My roommate was from South Christian, and came with his social circle already established, just like Charlotte’s roommate. He sized me up, and then dismissed me as not worth his time, much like Charlotte’s roommate. And, like Charlotte, I remember the first few months of freshman year mostly watching other people go out and have fun, and feeling on the outside.

Final notes: The politics of the book are fairly neutral. Wolfe as the social conservative cannot resist poking a little fun at the pompous liberal professor who is still stuck in the sixties, but at least the liberals come off better than the homophobic frat boys.

And the scene where she looses her virginity to a frat boy, only to find out he doesn’t really care about her, is heartbreaking, if not somewhat cliché and predictable. I’d like to think that at this point in the game, there’s more than enough literature already warning girls about what guys are really after, but there still seems to be an awful lot of naïve girls around. In that respect, maybe this book should be required reading for all incoming Freshmen girls.

Link of the Day
Ouch! The Japan Times has started a registration procedure. There goes a lot of good linking material. Well, it was good well it lasted.

This may only be of interest to me, but I see via my sister's blog that my little cousin has started up a blog as well at Hockey Playaaaaaaa.

Most of us are now at the stage of life where we have just getting used to the idea of reaching adulthood ourselves, and now seeing the younger generation move up behind us. I remember my mom taking me to the hospital when my cousin was born. My uncle offered me a slice of his pizza, and I debated with myself whether it would be rude to actually take it, and if I would get a lecture later if I did. I ended up turning it down. Sometimes I regret that.

But the point is, ever since then he's been stuck in my mind as a little kid, and now he's older than I was at the time. And his blog is (visually at least) better than this one.

Video Version 1

Video Version 2