Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Book Review: Mr. Vertigo


Paul Auster must be one of the best living American novelists. America definitely needs something like the Booker Prize to recognize fine fiction writing, and I have no doubt that Paul Auster would be the recipient of the award every three or four years. If you haven't read any of his writing, go to amazon.com right now and buy one of his works. You won't regret almost any choice you make.
Much of Auster's work has involved stories that take place in New York, and I am trying to remember if any took place as far back as 85 years ago, and don't think that any I have read were so far in the past. I wouldn't say that this work is a break for Auster, it is fully as well-told as his other works, and has a deft narrative full of humanity. Humanity is a good word, yes...That and chance.
All of Auster's novels narratives are driven, to some degree, by chance. Chance, as in 'this happened for a reason, and though it might not be visible in this one instance, the guiding hand of some deity must be involved, because we are not talking about random chance but chance as exercised by an organised and all-seeing God.' That chance.
In this work, Auster's narrative is the first-person narrative of Walt, a presumably deceased man by the time you read the story, who tells an incredible life story starting in the 1920's. There is not really any narrative fancy stuff here, just an old guy telling the story of what brought him to where he now is. Straight line, mostly, in very much the way that someone who was asked to sit down and tell their life story would probably do it.
The power of this work is in the story. Walt's straightfoward telling of how as a boy he learned to fly--yes, fly!--and how that shaped the rest of his life is riveting, and utterly believable as told. As a story, it flys.
Some of Auster's work, most especially for me, Music of Chance, are somewhat less deft in the other story that they are telling, the Message. This work is definitely less allegoric than Music of Chance, which is good. To some degree, though, the story of a man who learns to fly, and then learns not to, is allegoric in nature. We are not talking The Pilgrims Progress allegory, but Auster is obviously of a mind to tell more of a story than the actual story. In Mr. Vertigo, Auster's tendency displayed in Music of Chance to overplay this, his irrepressible urge to not only tell the front story, but nearly explicitly tell you the meaning as well, is thankfully repressed. So, he gets the meaning in without having to go to any great lengths or much awkwardness to pound the reader over the head with it. The meaning comes out of the story. As it should.
I give this work a four smiley rating. The only reason it doesn't get a five is that I am picky, as well as stingy, and don't think there would be much point in handing out a five unless it was the best book I had ever, up until that point, read. It isn't, but it is a damned good one, and I full-heartedly reccomend it. ☻☻☻☻☺

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Fiber: It's good for you!

Twelve years ago, when I was still living in Utsunomiya, and NTT still had a monopolistic stranglehold on all things connected with telephones, including being able to certify a phone or modem as acceptable to use (in fact, this acceptance was actually law: If you used a device that they found unacceptable, you were actually in violation of the law), which they had a disincentive to do, since they were also selling telephones, fax machines, and modems, I had this idea: I would like to use the Internet. As a student at Carleton College, I had used Kermit, FTP, Telnet, e-mail, and Internet BBS's. When I graduated, and was home in Eugene, Oregon, I dropped into the University of Oregon's computer lab. They had some DEC terminals, and I tried one in the off-chance that it would allow me to log in. It did! I still had an alumni account from Carleton, and using this far-flung terminal, I could access the account as if I were directly connected, which in fact I was. The big mainframe makers in those days--Sun, IBM, DEC--all had their own networks, which used the Internet to connect one another: DECnet, SunSite, and something Blue that I don't remember. If you were connected to one DECNet site, you could connect to other sites, if you had permission, of course.
After my very pleasant experience at the U of O, when I got to Utsunomiya, I tried the same thing at Utsunomiya University. The conversation went something like this:
"Hello, kind lab ass, could you point me to a terminal."
"Who the hell are you and what do you want?"
"I would like to sit down and use one of your terminals."
"And who the hell are you?"
"I am a fellow netizen, with rights to access a node at Carleton College. In order to do so, I need first to find a terminal."
"Well, fellow 'netizen' , who let you in, and why are you still here?"
"Look, Mr. Lab Ass (hole), I am not asking for an account, nor to compromise your obviously huffy security policy, nor to inconvenience you in any other way except to ask you once again WHERE CAN I FIND A F*CKING TERMINAL?"
The convesation degenerated somewhat after that.
I relayed this story to the owner of a computer shop that I frequented, and he laughed his head off.
I had to wait another two years before public Internet access came to Utsunomiya. It was accessed with a, wait don't laugh, 14.4 kbp/s modem, and I paid 3.33 yen per minute just in local phone charges. Non-negotiable. I upgraded to a Power Mac 8100 with GeoPort adapter, which ran at 28.8 kbp/s, which was heaven for a (very short) while. I then splurged on an ISDN line, which pissed my wife off, because it required us to change our number, our local exchange not yet supporting ISDN. The whole time, my phone bill kept climbing, until it hit a pain threshhold of around 20,000 yen per month. That is about 100 hours of access per month, though that wasn't counting my long distant phone calls, basic rate, etc., so it was actually about 60 hours a month. This was a bone of contention with my wife every single month. This kept up after I had move slightly north of Utsunomiya, in fact because I moved: Utsunomiya had ADSL from about 1998 onwards. My town didn't get it until October, 2000. I was one of the first recepients in a long line of people who signed up very quickly. Ironically, I had to change my number again, because for ADSL you have to switch back to analogue. This went on for four years, until I moved last August. This being Japan, the pressure to upgrade is everywhere. So, it was time for fiber. Yes, fiber.
One hundred megabits per second, upstream and downstream. No laws of copper physics to deal with, no thought that if they put too many people on the exchange my performance might degrade. Lightspeed. And actually, it cost very little more than ADSL. Fiber is about $40/month, and ADSL about $30. Definitely worth the extra.
Recently, I upgraded again, this time to gigabit speeds. No extra charge. I did, however, need to keep my analogue phone line: NTT's rules said you needed one 'real' phone line into the house in case of emergency. A rather self-serving rule, but some things never change, until, of course, they suit NTT. They do now: I get a VoIP number which has a regular city prefix (all VoIP numbers have had the 050 prefix until now, no matter where they are located), and doesn't require that I have a copper line. It's basic fee is 1/3 that of 'normal' copper rates, and the sound quality is actually better. This is how NTT does it: They create a frustrated customer, and then fill the pent up demand for that thing the customer craves.
I will say, though, that having this speed is great: My Tivo-like box takes mere seconds to download the TV schedules, I downloaded all six Redhat discs in less than 30 minutes (would have been faster, but the universities that I downloaded from seemed to have bandwidth issues ;), and BitTorrent rocks. There is one TVoIP (TV over IP) service which uses a cable-box-like gizmo to stream programs directly to your TV. This even uses IP v.6, the newest version.
Japan literally went from the Internet dark ages to clear world-leading status in about 6 years. It is mind boggling. It is now cheaper by about half to have a fiber line with Internet service, telephone service, and television service, than my copper 14.4 connection was 10 years ago. Having been involved in reactionary telecoms (in Japan, any telecom that wasn't NTT was reactionary, since everything we did was a reaction to their monopoly: Callback was a reaction to their price-setting; mobile was a reaction to the high price of buying the 'right' to have a line; cheap mobile service was a reaction to PHS; and so on) during much of that time, I have had the ride of my life. As a customer I have also had the ride of my life, though a little more bumpy, with alternately wonderous and frustratingly backward experiences (I wrote the first Mac modem driver for my TA/DSU). What a place!

Monday, August 29, 2005

New Logo


I made myself a new logo! Check it out:
I figured it would be nice to have something a little original. I am still playing with it though, so...let me know what you think.
Also, yes, you guessed it, I was playing around with Photoshop and not translating or coding the Javascript for the personality test that I said I would have up this weekend. Sorry. Actually, I am tempted to give it a pass: It is already online in Japanese, and I think that because the scoring is aimed at Japanese, a disproportinate number of non-Japanese would score high on the controller or promoter side. My wife, by the way, scored very high on the controller side, which was not, of course, a shock to me, but serves of confirmation.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Typhoon Number 11

After my two days of management-trainer-led enlightenment, I was ready for a holiday! The plan, carefully organised by my wife, was to spend two star-filled nights and three sun-filled days in Izu, Japan's answer to Cannes, the Costa Del Sol, and Mazatlan all wrapped together, a mere three-hour train trip from Tochigi, even closer from Tokyo. For three people, a mere 150,000 yen for these three days, or roughly 1,350 USD or 1,050 Euros. What a bargain!
It was with the upmost grief that I suggested to my wife that we may, considering that typhoon number 11 was to expected to hit Honshu precisely at the spot where our hotel lay, want to (gasp!) cancel our reservation. She put it off until yesterday, which actually turned out to be a good thing, since the hotel or employee social-insurance scheme's rules allowed us to cancel without penalty because it was very likely that trains would not be running, and that a typhoon would hit. Otherwise, we would have had to pay a 20% cancellation fee.
Amazing woman, my wife, and she was able to arrange, on a moment's notice, a trip to the only tropical place on Honshu this day: Spa Resort Hawaiians. In Iwaki, Fukushima prefecture, on the Pacific coast, the resort started, from my recollection, as one of those boondoggles spawned during the 'bubble' period in Japan. Why, one may ask, would people pay to go to a fake water experience, when they were right on the Pacific coast? I won't say that the local government and the companies that built the place were particularly farsighted, but on a day like today, near the end of summer, a typhoon bringing lots of rain, they made a bundle of money. No talk of overhead, costs, the far-from-mythical five dollar cup of coffee that costs that much because of the high cost of land in Tokyo. They are raking it in. Japanese summers are hardly ideal for laying on the beach: Seasonal rains start out the summer, until early to mid July. From Mid August or so there are typhoons. That leaves roughly a month of unimpeded summer, though it can and does rain during that month, as well.
The official hotel charges 23,000 yen per person, even with the social-insurance scheme's discount. Add that to the 2,000 yen per person per day entrance fee for the reason you are actually there, the water park, as well as, you realise only once you have already sunk so much money into it that there is no turning back, the 2,100 yen per person per day fee for the water slides. Luckily my wife had sticker shock at the hotel price, no mean feat considering her high tolerance for high prices, and found a much more reasonable hotel, which is exactly two minutes walk from Spa Resort Hawaiians.
What exactly is Spa Resort Hawaiians? A very good question, one that occurred to me, as well. And here is the answer: It is not Hawaii, and really has nothing that reminded me very much of Hawaii other than mobs of Japanese, water, and high-priced food and beverages (as well as everything else). What it is, is a building with a very high roof, something like eight different pools, five water slides, and the aforementioned mobs of people. There is a hotspring which is also included (amazing!) in the price, which I am is guessing because it was already there.
We started out poorly, at 9 am taking a road out of town which, as I told my wife before we left (and made sure she was reminded of later), is totally packed because it is on the way to Honda R&D, which has flex time, with core time from 10. We then proceeded to take a 'shortcut' that was all right, mostly, except the part that took us over a mountain pass on a gravel road with ditches on either side, and craters in the middle. Luckily our new car, a Murano, has 4WD, which actually came in handy. I think we are going to take the expressway back, no matter how much farther it looks on a map, it is closer, and I think my wife now believes me. Though, I think that the way things look, there is a good chance that the expressway will be closed for the typhoon.
Actually, 11 is my lucky number, so I don't know what I am worrying about: I am still 100,000 yen richer than I would have been, my kid is having a ball, despite shitty weather, and even my wife is happy, at this very moment watching hula dancing. A hui hou aku!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Another management Personality Test

I am in Yokohama for a two-day training entitled "Coaching". I thought that, since it is being offered by the company, and they are putting me up in the very nice The Grand intercontinental Yokohama hotel, that it would either be 1) Dead boring, with the coffee in the lounge the only thing that saved me; and/or 2) Very specific and focused on certain corporate strategies or goals. I took it because I tend to have communications 'issues' with those who have worked for me. Before I get someone else working for me, I thought that something like this might help.
The introduction sort of was about 'Coaching' as a professional discipline. In this course, the instructor promised, we would learn this discipline. Hmm...at least I didn't fall asleep! Just to clarify for anyone who might be interested: I have taken goofy company-sponsored training courses from both western and (today) Japanese trainers, and there is no huge difference in their approach. We did a lot of role playing, which I generally enjoy, and near the end of the day we took a kind of personality 'assessment' (read 'test'). This test was called the CAPS test, with CAPS standing for Controller, Analyzer, Promoter, and Supporter. I looked it up on the net when I got back, and it looks like it is only given by the company that held this training, coach A. It does, however, look very similar to a test called the DPSA, which stands for Driver, Promoter Analyzer, and Supporter, which is given by an Australian company called Myprofile Pty Limited.
It is a bit long, but I am going to list the questions below (I sort of wish Blogger supported forms, because then I could let you take it, and generate a score, which would be cool, and kind of support my geeky nature that can't seem to be quite satisfied with mere writing...wait a second! Brain fart! I could do it by editing the HTML text directly, and using JavaScript! That will be another project, though, so I will first just put it up with no scoring):(ok, ok, I just started to translate this thing, all 40 questions, into English, and realised it is going to probably be a bit of work, so the whole thing becomes a new project...I will try to have it done by the weekend).
Anyway, basically the result was interesting, and points to me maybe mellowing out slightly: I scored higher on the Promoter side than on the Controller side, which sort of surprised me: When I took the DISC (I forget what it stands for) about two years ago, I scored on the extremely aggressively success-oriented side. The easygoing, creative, promoter side this time, was a bit of a surprise, but I still scored high on the success-oriented side.
Change is probably a good thing.
I realised something today, too: I came to my career fairly late, and via a fairly circumlocuitous (is that really a word? Yes, I think so...) route, and moved into a fairly high position in my current career fairly early. I spent many years doing more people-oriented, more creative things, and to some extent I have really focused myself in the last few years much more on the things that are success factors of what I am now doing, or at least what I thought they were. I think the truth is that I am a weirdo for an I.T. manager: I majored in Asian studies, taught, did magazine journalism, wrote a book, did programming (which is actually fairly creative), did development of websites, did pre-sales engineering, product management, project managment, and now, suddenly, I am in I.T. Though to some extent a natural progression, there is also something un-natural for me about not doing something more creative with my life. At the same time, I am a geek, and it was clearly my own interests that got me where I am at, so it is hard to say that I am not where I should be. One of those internal conflicts that I need to sort...

Monday, August 22, 2005

Hard Ass

I have a friend, S (his real name, or at least the first letter of it). I have known him more than 12 years, since I have been in Japan, in fact. He is one of those somewhat needy friends: Bad things just seem to happen to him, at least in his own mind, and he is constantly assuming that he is a victim of something. There are too many examples, and anyway, I don't want to diss him too much, and prove him right!
Anyway, he called me last Friday, at work of course, and needed a favor: His friend from Oregon had moved back to Japan, and needed help finding a job. I knew why S was asking me: I have been reasonably succesful on the job front, and he has not. He changes jobs pretty much every two years, for whatever reasons, which of course involve a fair amount of victimhood and being wronged. I shouldn't be so mean, I guess, since I have in a lot of ways just been lucky. The thing is, he says I have been lucky, which kind of pisses me off, because even though it is true, it is also true that I have made things happen for myself.
Anyway, to tell the truth, I really didn't want to help his friend. I mean, what do you say to someone who calls you at work and you have a conversation like this:

'Hey, can you please help my friend find a job?'
'What kind of job?'
'Oh, uh, something about electronics.'
'Uh...S, I need more than that.'
'He needs a job, man, and I just want to help him.'
'But I can't help him if I don't know what he wants.'
'Semiconductors, I think.'
'Uh, ok. I know two people who have contacts in that industry, so I will look them up and send you their details. What's your e-mail address?'
'My computer broke last year, so I don't have e-mail.'
'Fine, how do you want me to get this information to you?'
'Can't you just tell me now?'
'I don't have it now.'
'Oh...can you send me a fax?' S loves faxes. In fact, he faxes people rather than phoning them. It is annoying, but his insecurities are pretty much all he has, and he thinks that he can't bother people with phone calls. He is also notriously cheap (with reason--he is also poor), so it could be that paying for a one minute fax transmission, and hoping for a 20 minute phone call, that he doesn't have to pay for, is the strategy.
'Yeah, fine, I will fax it,' I said, my heart definitely not in it. In fact, there is no way I would send S my other friends' contact information straight, which meant that I had to call them up and set it up, which I really have no desire to do for someone I don't know.
To make a long story short, S called me yesterday, and wanted to know where the contacts I had promised were. I told him straight out that I really had no desire to participate in a wild goose chase of introducing his friend who maybe had semiconductor exeprience to my friends who maybe know someone with a job. I told him to have his friend send his resume, so that I had some idea of what I was dealing with.
Back in the days when I first got here, and I was publishing a small publication in Tochigi, I helped everyone, really went out of my way to help strangers. The thing is, I committed to more than I was really capable of. I generally delivered, but was often not happy about it. This time I just said 'no, I am not going to go out of my way to help someone unless they are clearly committed to helping themself.' That was part of what had ticked me off before: The recipients of my efforts often didn't thank me, or thanked me by throwing away what I had given them. When my son was born, I said to myself, and to the community, actually, 'I can't spend my time and energy in this way anymore. I quit.'
So, what to do in this case? The guy actually has a lot of experience, and if his Japanese is good enough, is probably pretty employable. I told him that I would introduce him to my LinkedIn contacts with conditions: That he answer some of my questions, and that he meet me. S is a bit of a loser, and I don't feel like introducing him or his friends to my professional network unless I can personally vouch for them. S I wouldn't introduce: He has clearly shown that his ability to get along at work is limited.
Tokyo is a big city, one of the worlds biggest, but it is also a small town. I am not going to help someone get a job somewhere only to have them make me look bad (this has happened).
I think this guy is for real, and that makes me a little happier to help him. He answered my questions, and was really quick in putting his details into LinkedIn. I will meet him next week and decide if I feel like introducing him to any of the people in my netowrk or not.
When did I become such a curmudgeon? My wife would say that I have grown up, doubting that it was true.
Yesterday I took my son out to find interesting things in the neighbourhood, which is one of his assignments for the summer. For me, I was really methodical: I first taught him how to use the digital camera; I made sure that we had a pen and paper, in case we needed to take notes, and was very good and focused on what we were supposed to be doing.
These are my challenges: Focus, preparation, and follow-through. That is a lot of challenges. But more and more, I am finding that without these things I can't successfully get anything done.
So, I told this guy what was in scope and what was out of scope, what I needed him to do, and what I was willing to do. When I caught myself starting to make a promise, one that he would perhaps not even be grateful that I had made, I stopped: If he needed help, I could think about offering then, and only if I am satisfied when I talk to him next week that he is not a loser.
My son and I found the Utsunomiya University Riding Club stables. We took a picture of the horse in his stable, which you can see, and I made sure that we wrote down his name (Aregura). We wrote down the official name of the club, and looked for someone to speak to, but no one was around. On our way home, we drew a map of the way we got to the club. There didn't end up being enough room in the workbook for the map, but that is good: Having more than you can use is something that I learned the value of when I was publishing my little rag. Holding back isn't my natural inclination, but I am learning...slowly.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Tradition

The distinct songs and dance of a place are one of the things that give that place it's flavor, along with it's food, clothing, language, and history. When I lived in Thailand, I lived in the Northeast (called 'Isan' in Thai). One of the traditional musics of the area is called 'mo rum', which I think means 'Doctor Dance'. There was obviously dancing done with the music.
In Japan, at this time of year, traditional 'O-bon' music and dances are performed. Each area has it's own traditional dance, which children learn in school. Songs are also specific to the area, though the sound is much more regional.
The bon odori, or o-bon dance, and the o-bon festival itself are mainstays in traditional community life in Japan. In villages, they are the highlight of summer. In Tokyo, they are less common, though there is a thriving one in Iriya, where I used to have an apartment, and in other places in the 'downtown' area of eastern Tokyo, like Asakusa. This reminds me, in a way, of when my family moved to Eugene, Oregon. We had previously lived in Hillsboro, at the time a fairly small town (now much bigger, and headquarters to Intel's reasearch facilities), which had a thriving 4th of July parade and the Washington county fair. This was really a community thing, and people would line their lawn chairs up along Main Street to watch, and various clubs would prepare floats, schoolchildren would dress up, and so on. Prior to that we had lived in Oakville, Washington, a very small town of about 1,000 people, who were all, according to memory, absolutely mad about 4th of July, and would put a huge amount of effort into it. Eugene, though, had no 4th of July parade! I couldn't believe it. I sarcastically asked a man if they even had fireworks, which at the time they did, but which were later cancelled because of budget or insurance or something. It was a paradox: Such a city, of 120,000 people, paradoxically, had less ability, because it consisted of not just one community, but many, to hold community-wide events. That has now been remedied by the Eugene Celebration, Eugene's answer to the traditional 4th of July celebration, which is more fitting with the bohemian nature of the town. It is more modern, less about history, tradition, and patriotism, and more about celebrating.
Tonight was the community festival, held at my son's elementary school. There was singing and dancing and food. The people organising the events were the community association folks, the same ones that had organised the volleyball tournament I participated in several months ago.
I saw the people I had played volleyball with tonight, and they couldn't seem to be bothered to say hello. I had a sort of warm glow, like we had really bonded, after the tournament was finished, so that sort of hurts. All of those guys I had played volleyball with were public workers, and then I look and see them participating in these kinds of events, sitting in the community tent, drinking and eating from the fees that everyone in the community pays, wearing costumes that the community buys, and perhaps it was just something I missed, but I don't recall seeing a call for participation, any notice of how that might happen, or anything like that. For these guys, it seems like these kinds of events are an extension of their jobs, with lots of backslapping, and cliques. Community is important to them, but it is one of those non-inclusive communities, that even people who actually live there have to make a lot of effort to join. It is, especially as a non-Japanese, easy to feel left out.
The song and dance, though, are there for everyone, and perhaps this is the point of them: The sort of formal 'community' is less important than that everyone share in the music and dance. If that is the case, it is definitely a tradition that I hope to see continued.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Roman Holiday

I may finally be over the jet-lag: Last night I went out with co-workers for an Okinawan meal and drinks after work at a restaurant in Ginza, to celebrate the arrival of one person and the departure of another. I won't even try to pronounce what we had, as the Okinawan dialect derives from a different source than Japanese, and I simply don't know the words. It was good, but I returned fairly early, and was home by 10:30.
The night before, I had started to watch Dr. T & The Women, a movie directed by Robert Altman, with a cast of some of the nicest-looking women actresses ever, and Richard Gere. I had started it the night before, and fell asleep right at the point when he was sleeping with a female golf pro, played by Helen Hunt, because, one was left to assume, that his crazy wife, played by Farrah Fawcett, was well...crazy! She stripped naked (unfortunately obscured by the Japanese censor) and frolicked in the mall fountain! And he therefore needed a woman! Exclamation points, unfortunately, don't add up to a well conceived storyline, or premise, or even a point to this dog of a movie. A bit shocking considering the director and fine actors involved. I don't reccomend it at all. Unfortunately, I didn't know that, or wasn't quite sure, because the sleeping pill I had taken had kicked in fairly quickly. So, last night I finished it. I then took only one half of a sleeping pill, and was able to get a reasonable night's sleep.
I have been meaning to call my friend, J, who I haven't seen for a long time, or at least a couple of months. I guess that isn't so long, but we used to be housemates, so it seems like too long. She is now living and working in Tokyo, in fact quite close to my office, maybe a 10 or 15-minute walk. She suggested we have dinner, which we did at Roy's of Aoyama Cafe (not in Aoyama, in Atago). I really like talking with her: She is funny, smart, and because we really know each other well, we can talk about almost anything. Which we did...
She mentioned that in July (just last month!) she had had a 'Roman Holiday' in Singapore. I looked up 'Roman Holiday' on dictionary.com, and here is the definition:

Roman holiday
n.
  1. Enjoyment or satisfaction derived from observing the suffering of others.
  2. A violent public spectacle or disturbance in which shame, degradation, or physical harm is intentionally inflicted on one person or group by another.
I don't think that is what she meant. I think her reference was to the sheltered princess portrayed by Audrey Hepburn, and the dashing newspaper reporter played by Gregory Peck. And I am to understand that this Gregory Peck lookalike, who happens to be rather short, round, and Chinese, and wears round glasses, was a good playmate for princess J's three-day stay in Singha Pura, city of lions. It was, she said, the best holiday ever.
Her husband had been invited, and things might have turned out differently had he accepted, but he said Singapore was boring, and why didn't she go by herself? Why do that when her perfect man, short, dark, and Asian, was waiting to ride her around on his Vespa, or at least in his Toyota?
I think we know each other a little too well: I am not shocked, don't feel like giving her any marital advice (taking holidays with men who are not one's husband might lead to trouble), and was more interested in whether they did the dirty. I am the amoral friend, I guess: I hoped she had. If her stupid husband can't find his way, why should that prevent her taking a ride now and then? (no answer needed, thanks ;-) I didn't ask that question, though. Though with most people it would be a given that her and Mr. Peck had done it, I know her to well to leap to any conclusions...
Last night, in the Okinawan restaurant, this subject also came up: One of my female co-workers, an interpreter who just got married at the beginning of the year, sort of glared at the only other male (besides me) in the department, and said 'Nani-san, have you ever cheated on your wife?"
Nani-san (not his real name, of course), totally non-plussed, sputtered and said 'why do you want to know'. Definitely not a definitive answer, and my boss said 'it is a binary question, yes or no,' which is true, but didn't give him much of an out to a question that he obviously couldn't answer honestly. He recovered pretty well, with 'I wish that such an opportunity had presented itself,' which, you will notice, still did not answer the question, though the implication is that the opportunity had not, and therefore he had not. It did get him off the hook, though, and I was reasonably certain that heads would then turn my way, and mentally prepared myself for the question: "No, absolutely never." Ms. S, who is leaving soon for England, and is, I believe, divorced, and who has, in past conversations, been quite interested in male opinions on fidelity, turned to look very closely at my eyes to see if I was lying. The mental preparation helped me hold her gaze.
My boss, then told a story about a certain Accenture partner she had seen in Roy's with a young woman, and who the next day told her some baloney story about the girl being an old classmate from college, while she was sure that there was more to it. I didn't remember that until I was sitting at a table in Roy's with Princess J, whom I am really good friends with, and with whom, no, I have never slept, and whimsically wondered whether my boss would show up. Luckily, my spate of ironic karma has ended.
Infidelity is a funny thing: Perhaps it is the sort of Roman Holiday described in the dictionary, not for those doing it, but for those who get to watch in a kind of fascinated pleasure at the squirming of others, doing their mating rituals in a public colloseum for all to observe with a touch of envy, irony, and disgust. Bon voyage!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Book Review: Tokyo


I am a confirmed addict of popular fiction. I generally buy my paperbacks at one of the two twirling racks of books that the bookstore in the underground passageway of the Kamiyacho station has, which limits my purchases to around 30-40 titles.
This time, I had a similar selection at Munich airport's duty-free gift shop (you have to show your passport to buy a Mars bar!), where I purchased Tokyo, by Mo Hayder (which is also known under the U.S. title of The Devil of Nanking).
Let me first say that I am one of those nitpicky people who find a lot of western writing, especially mass fiction writing, about Tokyo to be rather foolish, and often getting the details wrong, or worse. A good example of the 'worse' category would be Clavell's Gaijin, which takes certain historical facts, like the existence of certain rules or laws, and jumps to the (wrong) conclusion that people were actually following them. Clavell also manage's to get some details simply wrong. (If you want to know which, write me when I am at home, where I have the book.) It seems like for a long time more authors got it wrong than right.
Hayder doesn't get it wrong. The place she describes really exists and it is really Tokyo. It is, to be sure, a subset of the varied and textured place that is Tokyo, but the subset is described accurately. She also doesn't get any details wrong, save one: She describes a desert as 'a mochi' when what she is really describing is a daifuku, which is made of mochi, but is not called a mochi. (This gives you some idea of how nitpicky I am.) This is a minor, and certainly in no ways fatal mistake. And it is materially unimportant to the story.
I am also an East Asian Studies Major, with a history focus, which actually increased my enjoyment of the story and of Hayder's narrative architecture: There are parallel first-person narratives by Grey, a young Englishwoman in modern Tokyo (1992), and Shi Chongming, a young lecturer in 1937 Nanking, China. Both characters also interact in modern Tokyo, but the stories are very internal in nature, and their interaction seems mostly designed to focus this internal narrative, and to move the story forward.
Hayder is a good story teller, but the main mystery of the story is somewhat anti-climatic, mostly because she leads us fairly early on to suspect the very worst, and it turns out that the worst was in the past, or at least mostly in the past. That doesn't make it less bad, but changes it's immediacy.
If you are not familiar with the Nanking massacre, also called the Nanking Rape, you will probably be shocked by some of Hayder's descriptions of that atrocity. Her descriptions are accurate, and Hayder really is able to very capably elicit the full horror of the thing through the narrative of Shi Chongming.
One thing that I found interesting is how Grey's fascination of the Nanking massacre, where somewhere between a couple hundred and 400,000 people died, depending on who is doing the reporting (the Japanese tend to be at the low end , and the Chinese on the high end), colours her view of modern Japan. I have been here for awhile, was familiar with this subject through my history studies, but never somehow connected modern Japan with those atrocities committed in the Emperor's name in the very recent past. I am apparently not alone in this lack of consideration, as most Japanese are less familiar with this incident than I am, and manage to seperate the past crimes of their fathers and grandfathers with the current reality.
The fact is though, that the Chinese rage and fury about this ability to do what people in all places and in all times have done, which is to consciously put the past out of their minds, and look forward, something that the Chinese themselves have done with cultural revolution, Tianamen Square, and any number of atrocities, is mis-placed. What they should be mad about is the way that their government has manipulated the very real grief, of the very grievously injured, damaged, survivors for political purposes. I won't condone the moron revisionists in Japan. Period.
I give this book four smileys out of five. It tells a compelling story, two compelling stories in fact, gets Tokyo right, get it's history right, and causes one to ask some interesting questions about how we relate to this country, this culture, and it's past. ☻☻☻☻☺

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Tokyo Swaying

The tremors that presage a major earthquake seem to follow a similar pattern: shake-shake-shake, and then a pause of around 5 seconds, followed by continous shakes of increasing intensity, until they reach full intensity.
I don't know in terms of magnitude on the Richter scale how strong the quake was felt in Tokyo, but on the Japanese scale, which measures one to seven, with seven being the strongest, it was a weak six (which was measured on the Richter scale at a 7.2) in Miyagi prefecture, about 300 kilometers northeast of Tokyo, and a solid four in Tokyo. Being on the fifth floor of our 42-storey building is either a blessing or a curse: My colleagues on the 39th floor were nauseous from the swaying of the building, which continued for five or ten minutes after the quake was finished, whereas I was only mildly nauseous, mostly owing to the non-prescription sleeping pill I resorted to last night when I sprang awake at 2:30, and wondering whether to start running for the stairs or risk being crushed under 37 stories of rubble.
The building did what it was supposed to, which is sway, releasing the energy in the process, but I do wonder what the limits of it's swaying are...and don't want to find out any time soon.
The shinkansen that I use, the Tohoku shinkansen, was stopped for most of the day, since it passes right through the epicenter. The information available in this day of supposedly high information penetration was laughable: None on JR East's website, and only extremely general, and as it turns out not particularly timely or accurate, information on Yahoo!'s portal. I went to Tokyo station anyway, just in case, and because it is on the way to Ueno, where the normal trains leave from. Lo and behold, they were just starting to run Shinkansen's between Tokyo and Nasu-Shiobara, or so the signboard said. I still had to wait about 45 minutes. I met an American guy from Utsunomiya, and we talked, but in the rush for seats, I got one and he didn't. I offered to give up my seat from Omiya onwards, but it took nearly 45 minutes to get there, and he gave up and got the normal train from Omiya. Ironic, because the train ran at normal speed after that.
I asked the HR department what policies, if any, they had in such a case, vis a vis paying for a hotel or alternate transport if I was not able to return home. They were wholly unhelpful. It is a good thing that things were not so bad, because otherwise I might have actually needed to deal with their idiocy. God forbid a real disaster happens...then again, their stupidity would be the least of one's worries in such a case.
And here we have the reason for the impermancy of buildings in Tokyo: The more solid they are built, the less flexible they are, which means that they would fall down after a few earthquakes of this size, and after one major one like that which hit Miyagi. Things are not always what they seem: The comforting solidness of Europe, while real, and wholly appropriate to the place and history of Europe, disguises a possible fragility in the face of earthquakes, while the flexible wood and steel buildings of Japan, while not as seemingly solid, possess the flexibility to survive in the place and history of Japan. For that I am grateful.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Work-Life Balance

Watching the Sopranos season 5 finale last night, I thought about work-life balance. Sorry if you haven't seen it yet, but this is the one where Adriana, Christopher's fiancee and FBI snitch, gets whacked. I mentioned before about sociopathic bosses, and American's becoming a little too good at separating what they do at work from who they are, and I think the Sopranos take this to that extreme. It makes it funny, in a sense, but also really scary: How can one help but think that the whole family are sociopaths?
I got back to work today, and popped my head in to say good morning to my boss, and got the icey treatment. Apparently rest and good health have not brought me back into a state of grace. Screw it. At least she approved my expense report for the trip, turned in in record time, since until they pay me for my expenses I am broke.
Back to the work-life balance thing. It is interesting: In Japan, work or school probably tips the scales in nine times out of ten as to importance. It is obligation number one. That is quite understandable, but when you have paid holidays, and while the reality is that families do exist, it is not the end of the world if you want/need to take a holiday. And yet, it is treated like a weakness, and people fall all over themselves apologising for not being around when such and such an important something is taking place. While Americans and Europeans spend lots of time at work, it is treated to some extent like simply the way that money is earned. What is really important is family. Europeans definitely get to spend more time with theirs than Americans do, but Japanese men must be at the low end of time spent with family.
I got home 'early' tonight, at 8:30. I got to hug and kiss my son before he went to bed. I didn't do anything for the money I earned that makes me ashamed. Not exactly a perfect balance, but not a bad one either...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Solidly European?


Two conversations yesterday stick in my mind (the definition of yesterday, in this case, is a bit fuzzy, since I am back in Japan and missed half a day). One with a colleague as we were stumbling home very full from a wonderful meal of duck and rice at the Red Lantern, very near the station. When he learned that I am originally from Oregon, he went into rhapsodies about what a cool place that is. Near the end of the rhapsody, he described Portland as the most European of cities he has been to in the U.S. I don't really know much about the whole U.S., but understood why he said it: The wide avenues with parks in the center in the area of the library and art museum; the downtown areas, with their brick buildings; the trams; the comfortable co-existence of the old and new. I hadn't really ever thought of that, but his view was interesting.
The other conversation was with the desk man at my hotel, The Burns Art, and we were talking about the Japanese population in Düsseldorf. He said that it was both Düsseldorf's centrality, and the tolerant attitude of the locals towards outsiders that had caused it. Many of the Japanese expats live in the older homes on the other side of the Rhine, many of which are 200 square metres with high ceilings, and very expensive, and this particular desk man, with an oddly strong British accent and proclivity for words like 'blast' and 'crikey' seemed somewhat envious. I told him that I had recently bought a house in Japan that was 130 square meteres, and considered large. We both generally agreed that North American homes were probably the largest, but he said "in Europe, houses are built to last hundreds of years, whereas in North America they are built of flimsy wooden frames."
I have heard this before, and I sort of wonder about it. I grew up, in rural Washington state, in a house that was more than 100 years old, and was built on the wood frame model. It was not without issues: The foundation had also been built out of wood, so that needed to be replaced. Painting needed to be done fairly regularly, and the interior wiring and ceiling material had been replaced. The Burns, for example is completely floored in marble, and is, of course, stone on the outside and brick underneath, as are most German buildings. It is definitely solid and doesn't require a large amount of maintenance. In a big earthquake, a lot of people would be crushed under the weight of these large, heavy building, but that is not much of a worry.
My great grandfather owned a brick factory near Forest Grove which produced the brick for those European-style buildings in Portland. He had come from Scotland as a young man, and I think it would be fair to say that he brought an old-world belief that buildings should be made of solid materials.
There is something very comforting in this solidity, and every time I go to Europe, whether to Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, or Sweden, I get this sense of solidity, a sense completely and utterly lacking in Japan, and not as common in the U.S.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Off(shore)

Though I did absolutely nothing yesterday except sit in a vendor presentation, some impressions on the state of I.T. outsourcing did make themselves apparent. Not a long blog today, and I obviously can't talk about the specifics, but below are my impressions (by the way, if my typing is bad, I apologise: My power adapter on my notebook died, and so I am borrowing a local German notebook from the local office. All of the punctuation is on different keys, and the 'y' and 'z' are reversed.)
Anyway, my impressions:
  1. Indians have an interesting colour sense. It is definitely different from a western European one.
  2. Their slides were rather busy, rather like Japanese ones.
  3. One had the strong feeling that the software development part of the equation would be pretty strong, but that the important front-end requirement definition, etc. might pose problems, in terms of actually being able to do any analysis that insures that our requirements are met.
  4. There was a certain rigidity in thinking, that was interesting, having managed and worked with an Indian project manager and having observed similar thinking in him.
  5. Things like corporate social responsibility and handicap access, in a western-style compliance sense, don't seem to mean a lot.
  6. Their European handlers, whom we would presumably be dealing with, were quite poor, and it made me wonder at the arrogance of placing such idiots in charge of a group of Indians who were obviously so capable.

Perhaps the model makes sense for some, but in some ways it didn't work for me. I don't know whether the whole offshore thing is a bust, but in this case it was just off. Just my two rupee...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Agile?

Sitting in a day-long vendor presentation yesterday doesn't give me much to blog about, but one interesting thing that the vendor did talk about was their use of the agile software development methodology. They did, in fact, dedicate considerable time to talking about it, and even distributed a book, Agile & Iterative Development: A Manager's Guide to give us a background for what they were talking about. I had read their presentation the previous evening, and found a somewhat earlier work by Alistair Cockburn in PDF format that gave me some idea.
The methodology seems to address some of the things that frustrated me in the last project I worked on, namely that we never saw actual working code, ever. We saw documents. Agile emphasises that owner and user interaction in the project is based on working code. That is hugely attractive. It also addresses the issue of matching requirements to out of the box functionality: Without user input, even a well-written requirement, taken completely literally and without the frame of reference of a certain package, will often result in a custom-built functionality. I saw this on my last project. A more consultative approach seems attractive. Having run the CR (change request) part of a project which basically failed on CRs, I am really in favor of anything that reduces complexity and the cost of change. Agile seems to help there. My colleagues were not so enthralled, however: Documentation is a big deal in a big development project, and agile calls for the minimum required documentation. Comments that they would in certain cases expect that customers would give up certain requirements, while dead honest and true (which I actually appreciated), did not go over well with some people.
I plan on reading the book, and finding out more. If this vendor gets the contract, there is a chance that I would need to be involved, since the methodology requires full-time, dedicated resources from the customer to work closely with the vendor. The book, in any case, should give me an idea of a different way of doing things, which, after the last project, can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

iPod Wi-Fi?

One interesting thing that happens every time I have been in Dusseldorf are the conversations that I have with colleagues. Last time and this, those conversations have veered towards the side-businesses these colleagues were involved in. It is interesting: The same conversations simply are not had in Japan. One reason is that Japan is simply not a very entrepreneurial country, and company employees the least entrepreuneurial element in society. Even if someone is involved in something like that, it is considered both disloyal and immoral to use any of your precious energy for your own benefit and not the company's. (hey, this sounds a lot like the attitude my boss has displayed in the last week or so--maybe she is really turning Japanese!)
The conversation this time involved some development that one colleague is doing to integrate Wi-Fi with an iPod, or iPod-like device. Our conversation was an interesting one, where I actually ended up suggesting this very thing, which prompted him to admit that he was actually developing the very thing I mentioned. The crux of the conversation was that mobile carriers are not doing enough to provide what customers want, especially with regard to music. This colleague's view was that mobile carriers just don't get it. He is a little over-the-top about adding instant messaging and IP telephony to this Wi-Fi iPod, whereas I think that his basic idea is spot-on.
One Japanese mobile carrier had MP3-enabled mobile phones more than 3 years ago. But they used a very annoying variant of MP3 called secure MP3, which made it impossible to upload music unless one used the one package, SD Jukebox, that supported the format. It was a terrible piece of software, and cost about 5,000 yen. So, to actually use the functionality of the phone, one had to spend more money, and use crappy software. The situation hasn't improved that much, except that it is now possible to download music rather upload it from a PC.
A Wi-Fi-enabled iPod would do a total end-run around the BS of mobile carriers and their focus on making nice with record labels rather than meeting the desire of their customers. (As an example, this same mobile carrier's mobile content managers call themselves 'eigyo', meaning sales. What are they selling? They are selling the idea to record labels and game producers that mobile content is a good thing, and having their content on the branded portal is a great thing. Why, you may ask, would they need to sell that idea? Good question. The answer is that they don't. But there is a particularly Japanese proclivity to protect the relationships with those that they know at the expense of new relationships that might benefit them. People everywhere do that, but where Americans or Europeans, if you pointed it out, would mostly agree that it was not a good approach, many Japanese will simply shrug and say "that is the way that we do business." There is something admirable in this kind of loyalty. There is also something insidious and antithetical to being able effectively meet the needs of customers in a timely way.)
It is a very small world: This same colleague knows Jan-Michael Hess, who I met when he was in Tokyo for the Mobile Intelligence Tour, and Daniel Scuka who founded Wireless Watch Japan.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Prescient?

I haven't blogged in awhile. I would like to put it down to being so damned busy that I couldn't, which is semi-true, but I think that a certain summer malaise is closer to the truth.
I have mentioned Nooper before: They send out little mobile e-mails with information of various kinds that you subscribe to. I subscribe to Wai-wai, the Daily Mainichi's column, and to horoscopes. The horoscopes have been oddly prescient recently, and I would like to share:
Last Thursday, the Noopie horoscope (I am a Sagitarius, by the way) said:
You'll be eager to learn something exciting and adventuresome today. Take the chance to travel. A unique part of the city that offers authentic traditions from different cultural backgrounds will give you new ideas.
Guess what happened? Ok, I can see you already giving up! Yes! I fell asleep on the shinkansen on the way home, and got to see a quite different part of my prefecture (somewhat larger than the 'city' referred to in the horoscope): Nasu-Shiobara. Unfortunately it was midnight, and there were no trains left going back where I needed to be, so I also got to have the adventure of sleeping in the Nasu Station Hotel for the very reasonable fee of 7,700 yen, since my wife did not want to pick me up.
And then this morning, while waiting for the shinkansen, which was delayed by an hour, I found the following horoscope on my phone:
Hard work will pay off. Don't be too concerned about what others are doing--focus on your own criteria. The more self-sufficient you are, the further ahead you will get.
And what do you know? I get to work, and my boss is pissed off because I missed a 9:30 appointment that we had to discuss something else that she was already pissed off with me about. She didn't understand what the note was that I flashed her from JR explaining that my train was late, and wasn't in any mood to listen.
I had tried to call her P.A., who had hung up, and since I don't have my boss' mobile phone number, had not been able to get in touch to tell her that the trains had stopped and I would be late. I postponed the meeting until 3, by which time I had prepared a Powerpoint explaining the case of one of the other things that I had somehow managed to rub her the wrong way about, another presentation of the report that we had agreed before she left for her homeleave that I didn't need to work on, but which, upon her return yesterday, she couldn't understand why I hadn't prepared.
In additon to the lack of any attaboys for a very good job I did on another project I finished while she was gone, she went on to suggest that I was somehow defrauding the company by leaving over the weekend for my business trip, even though I fully intend not to claim per-diem or hotel expenses for those extra two days, and will be able to fit in an extra day, Monday, that I would have otherwise been travelling on. Later in the day she explained that she was less worried about me defrauding the company than she was about me talking to anyone during that extra day. Oh, what a relief! She doesn't think I am without moral, just incompetent.
Ah, but you see, this is where the the key word in the horscope really has lots of meaning: "will". Future tense. By tomorrow she will be over her cold and lack of sleep brought on by jet lag, and appreciate all of my hard work, which I did until 9 pm today, by the way. Hard work, in fact, which I have done for about two hours every night for the last five or six, at home.
Bakayaro!