Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I gots the new moan yar

In case you've been wondering about the sudden drop-off in posts, last week I was just taking a break; this week I've got pneumonia.

If the azithromycin and Vicodin ([homersimpsonvoice]Mmm... Vicodin [drools][/homersimpsonvoice]) work as expected, I might be up to another post on Sunday, or even Saturday.

Friday, June 13, 2008

I get allergic smelling hay

Grass pollen is the only thing I'm allergic to. I also happen to live in the only place in the country where things like this happen:

Anything over 200 is a "Very High" grass pollen count.

Today's count: 871

I hate June.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A great day for America

There's still hope for the rule of law in this country:

Foreign terrorism suspects held at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba have constitutional rights to challenge their detention there in United States courts, the Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, on Thursday in a historic decision on the balance between personal liberties and national security.

"The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court.

The ruling came in the latest battle between the executive branch, Congress and the courts over how to cope with dangers to the country in the post-9/11 world. Although there have been enough rulings addressing that issue to confuse all but the most diligent scholars, this latest decision, in Boumediene v. Bush, No. 06-1195, may be studied for years to come.

In a harsh rebuke of the Bush administration, the justices rejected the administration's argument that the individual protections provided by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 were more than adequate.


The issues that were weighed in Thursday's ruling went to the very heart of the separation-of-powers foundation of the United States Constitution. "To hold that the political branches may switch the Constitution on or off at will would lead to a regime in which they, not this court, say 'what the law is,' " Justice Kennedy wrote, citing language in the 1803 ruling in Marbury v. Madison, in which the Supreme Court articulated its power to review acts of Congress.

More from the New York Times here; the decision itself here; further analysis here and here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

YouTube favorites (June 2008)

I think this guy was one of my English students, Sasha Vujacic is The Machine, a new use for cell phones, a favorite commercial, Iron Man and Batman are friends, there's a lot of swearing in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, and "Ohhh, the Beast is down!"

This guy could have been one of my English students, except he's German, not Japanese.

Sasha Vujacic is The Machine.

If cell phones do this to popcorn, what do they do to your brain?

One of my all-time favorite commercials:

Iron Man is a Marvel and Batman is Batman (h/t: Oakmonster).

Quiz: Who has the highest obscenity count in Glengarry Glen Ross? (Lots of naughty words in this one, obviously.)

There's often a freak show element in Japanese professional fighting sports. At 6'4" and a muscular 350 pounds, Bob "The Beast" Sapp took advantage of this aspect to make a fortune from endorsements and personal appearances while fighting in K-1 and Pride. He had no skills at all, but relied on his superior size and strength to overpower his opponents. In this K-1 kickboxing bout, he's fighting a journeyman named Kimo Leopoldo.

Sapp is heavily favored, and at first he dominates, but with a little over a minute left in the first round, Kimo slips in a left hook that puts the Beast several blocks down queer street. Sapp is doing the Gumby walk, but then Kimo eats a right and goes down. Kimo gets back up and then staggers Sapp with a jab. Sapp falls down trying to throw a punch, and the announcer makes one of the all-time great calls: "Ohhh, the Beast is down!" But Sapp beats the count, the referee lets him continue, and the round ends.

Between rounds, the ring doctor inexplicably calls a "time-out" to examine Sapp, resulting in over two minutes between rounds. The second round begins, and Sapp puts Kimo down only a few seconds in. Then Kimo, in a bit of gamesmanship, doesn't just spit out his mouthpiece, he carefully takes it out with his glove and throws it to the floor. The referee sends Kimo to his corner, where his second takes his time rinsing the mouthpiece and putting it back in, resulting in a 30-second rest for Kimo.

It's to no avail, though, because Sapp finally grabs Kimo in a bearhug, throws down a couple of hammer fists to the top of his head, and finally drops him for good with a punch to the back of the head when Kimo slips out of the clinch and turns his back to run.

All in all, it's the funniest fight I've ever seen.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Let's Ecology! 5: The gaijin hierarchy

There was a definite psychological hierarchy among the gaijin (foreigners, literally "outside-persons") when I lived in Japan, a clear albeit unspoken knowledge of who was "better" than whom. Although few gaijin would have been willing to admit it, this hierarchy was based largely on the prejudices of the Japanese themselves. There were some gaijin outside the hierarchy -- tourists, usually laughed at for not knowing their way around like the rest of us; U.S. military personnel, sometimes seen as ignorant "Ugly Americans" (young men on leave, anyway; families seemed to belong more to the "tourist" category); and students, too young to really matter -- but most who lived and worked in Japan eventually gained a sense of how they were categorized.

On the bottom of the gaijin heap were the manual laborers, prostitutes, and bar hostesses -- the Untouchables of the gaijin caste system. They came from poor countries, many overstaying their visas and living in constant fear of the police and the Immigration Bureau, others bending the rules that allow students to work part-time. In a way they were "sub-gaijins," because the word gaijin itself was usually used for people of European descent, with other peoples being known by their region, country, or skin color: "Southeast Asian," "Iranian," "Black," or, in the more respectable mass media, by job category: "foreign laborer," "foreign bar hostess," "foreign prostitute."

Many of them could speak neither Japanese nor English well, and they were widely shunned and feared by Japanese and higher-status gaijin alike. Many, especially women in "men's entertainment" businesses who were often little more than slaves owned by yakuza gangs, were harshly exploited by their employers. Dark-skinned foreigners, unless they were wearing business suits, were usually assumed by both Japanese and lighter-skinned gaijin to be illegal aliens, the men manual laborers, perhaps petty criminals, and the women prostitutes.

One step above them, but at the bottom of the North America-Europe-Australia-New Zealand heap, were street vendors, bartenders, waiters, Caucasian bar hostesses, and English teachers. Many English teachers had questionable visa status, and some worked illegally. Most, of course, were strictly legal and aboveboard. Many arranged a demanding schedule of several part-time jobs; others worked full-time for one employer. Pay, in dollar terms, seemed excellent to the inexperienced, but in yen terms it was far from lucrative. Wages varied widely, from high hourly pay to low monthly salaries, and the pay scale stagnated for years as the high value of the yen brought a flood of would-be teachers to Japan. English teachers were often treated as disposable goods, their concerns far less important than those of the students, management, or Japanese staff. One major chain of schools, in fact, was notorious for firing any of its teachers who worked there more than three or four years, because they got a raise every year and thus became more expensive than new teachers.

There was also an internal hierarchy among English teachers, with fresh-off-the-boat part-timers at the bottom, and full-time English school teachers, teachers at Japanese junior and senior high schools, professional teachers at the few English schools that are considered prestigious by gaijin, and college lecturers and professors in ascending order above them.

Ranking above English teachers, including, to their understandable resentment, the professional and college English teachers, were the holders of Real Jobs. These were the "Local Hires" (LHs) hired by firms while living in Japan. Their jobs included work such as translating, copy writing, and proofreading; sales; office or secretarial work; and lower-level management, for example supervising the teachers at an English school. They rarely held executive-level positions, however. Salary and perks were once much better than those of the LHs' Japanese co-workers, but by the time I arrived on the scene that was less so, because more gaijin were learning Japanese and working in Japan.

Most LHs had taught English at one time or another. Although those LHs who were fluent in Japanese, especially translators, occasionally sneered at those who weren't, and any job related to teaching English was somewhat tainted, the Local Hires stratum was relatively egalitarian. Most LHs were ecstatic at having Real Jobs, and they tended to be supportive of and happy for anyone else who managed to escape English teaching and join them.

At the pinnacle of the gaijin hierarchy were the Expatriates, the diplomats and foreign businesspeople who have been brought to Japan by their companies. Expats were pampered by their companies, provided with large free or inexpensive apartments, long vacations, and other perks as part of their envied "Expat Packages." An Expat almost invariably had a higher salary, better apartment, and longer vacations than an LH or a Japanese doing similar work at a comparable company.

Expats at the middle-management level and below tended to move in the same circles as LHs and even English Teachers, but those in the higher reaches lived in what, to the non-Expat rest of us, seemed a never-never land. They lived in a world of chauffeured cars, private offices, company-rented apartments (or even houses) costing two or three times an entire ordinary monthly salary (although Expats invariably complained that their dwellings were too small), expensive restaurants, cultural events, and free invitations to things that the rest of us couldn't afford even if tickets were available without connections.

For an English teacher to aspire to LH-dom was a realistic goal, although by no means an easy to accomplish one. All you needed to do is find a Real Job. For teachers at Ginza English Conversation School, it seemed that the search for new work was the main purpose in each of our lives. When someone moved up to a better job, the rest of us sincerely congratulated him or her. Still, those fortunate few who moved up to Real Jobs were also secretly envied, and their success often caused despair among the rest of us. There were hundreds of other English schools, with thousands of teachers, and the majority of the teachers were always on the lookout for better -- preferably Real -- jobs. This meant that any good job advertised in the Monday Japan Times, the foreign job-seekers' classified ad Mecca, usually had from twenty-five to 100 applicants.

Next week: Looking for a Real Job in Tokyo

More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here.

"Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

Friday, June 06, 2008

New blogroll

I'm trying out Blogger's new blogroll widget. I'm not sure what I think yet.

I like that it picks up feeds. I think that could help my readers find some interesting new blogs, which is cool. OTOH, it's less well organized than my old blogroll, so it's slightly harder to find a specific blog when I'm looking for it. I'm also used to looking at Bloglines first and then clicking off my blogroll, so this is a little different way of doing things. And I'd like to tweak the HTML a bit (to add a picture and make the links open in one "new" window instead of multiple "blank" windows, like I do with the rest of my links), and I haven't figured out how to do that yet (if it's even possible).

Anyway, what do you think?

Update: I also switched my "Comics" links to the same widget. I really like how that works.

Friday I'm in love...

...with the Adhan.

The Adhan is the Muslim call to prayer. If you're like me and you've never been to a Muslim country, you've probably heard parts of it on TV, but you've never really just sat down and listened to it. It's beautiful. (I'm talking about the aesthetic experience -- this isn't a post defending or attacking Islam, so don't bother going there.) The Adhan is usually referred to as "recited," and I'd always thought it was just shouted, but essentially it's sung, and each muezzin has his own style.

The website How Muslims Pray has a collection of 17 recordings (MP3s) of famous muezzins reciting the Adhan.

The whole set is well worth downloading and listening too at leisure, but here are three of my favorites if that's too much for you.

My favorite is Abdul-Basit. His recitation sounds haunting and lonely to me. The long pauses between phrases take on a special power.
Adhan Halab comes across as urgent and passionate.
Bakir Bash I find powerful and virile. (I guess he was recorded outdoors, because there are birds going crazy in the background.)

These are the words of the call (copied from How Muslims Pray):
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
[God is the greatest, God is the greatest]
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
[God is the greatest, God is the greatest]
Ashadu an la ilaha ill Allah
[I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship but God]
Ashadu an la ilaha ill Allah
[I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship but God]
Ashadu anna Muhammadan rasoolullah
[I bear witness that Muhammad is the prophet of God]
Ashadu anna Muhammadan rasoolullah
[I bear witness that Muhammad is the prophet of God]
Hayya'alas salah [Come to prayer,]
Hayya'alas salah [Come to prayer,]
Hayya'alal falah [Come to success,]
Hayya'alal falah [Come to success,]
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
[God is the greatest, God is the greatest]
La ilaha ill Allah
[There is no deity but God.]

Thursday, June 05, 2008

I used to be mean on teh interwebs

It's true. I used to enjoy ripping people apart on internet forums. And I was good at it. Real good. But it was a stupid thing to be good at. Eventually, I grew bored and a little embarrassed by the whole thing, so I quit doing it. But every now and then, I stumble across something I tossed off a few years ago and forgot about, and I have to admit, I used to be pretty darn funny sometimes.

Like this one time, when some tool called me "a snob, a liar, and a hypocrite":

"'re a snob,"

i'm not a snob. ask anyone who matters.

"a liar"

i believe and take seriously everything you say.

"and a hypocrite."

i love you like a brother.

Sometimes I just crack myself up.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Say my name

One of the more interesting, and indeed charming, quirks John Elder Robison reveals in Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's is his penchant for renaming people. He names his baby brother Snort, for example, then later switches to Varmint. During his "nightmare years," he called his mother and father Slave and Stupid. He named his first girlfriend Little Bear. "I have always had a problem with names," he writes. "For the people that are close to me... I must name them myself."

I've never renamed anyone, and I have no idea if this has anything to do with being mildly Aspergian, but I have a couple of peculiar quirks about names too. One has to do with other people's names, and one with my own.

First off, I rarely call anyone by their name. If I need to get someone's attention, of course I'll say, "Hey, Joe!" or whatever. But if I'm having a conversation with someone, I probably won't call them by their name, no matter how long we talk. I know that calling someone by name is something one is "supposed" to do, that this is supposed to help build rapport in some way, but I've never really understood the point.

If I'm talking with you, I already know who you are (your name) and I already have your attention (at least for awhile). So why would I need to call you by your name? I don't get it, and I don't know when to do it. Unlike eye contact, which I try to practice even though it's not natural for me, it seems impossibly awkward to me to just throw in your name every now and then at random, so I pretty much never do it.

As for my own name, I've noticed that most people seem to have strong preferences regarding their names. They tell you what to call them. Like Neo in The Matrix. He gets mad because Agent Smith keeps calling him Mr. Anderson. During their final confrontation, Neo angrily says, "My name is Neo," and the audience cheers. If you meet a guy named James Stewart, for example, and call him Mr. Stewart, maybe he'll say "Call me James," or maybe he'll prefer being called Jim or Jimmy. The thing is, he probably has a preference, and he'll probably tell you what it is.

I don't care what people call me. When somebody asks me, "Do you go by Christopher or Chris?" I'm never quite sure what to say. I use both of them sometimes, and I don't prefer one over the other. I don't really understand the underlying premise. They're both my name, so why should it make a difference which one someone calls me? Usually I just say Chris, since that's what most people already call me anyway.

For that matter, I don't care if someone calls me Mr. H_, either. Like when I drove a Super Shuttle back in L.A., the girl at the counter where I turned in my fares at the end of my shift used to call me Mr. H_. I thought that was kind of peculiar, since we were both in our mid-20s and hardly anybody had called me that before. I couldn't figure out why she was doing it, but that's my name too, so I didn't say anything. After that went on for a couple of weeks, I remembered that I had probably been supposed to say, "Call me Chris," or something the first time. But it seemed kind of awkward to suddenly say that after all that time, so I just remained Mr. H_ to her for as long as I worked there.

In Japan, I find the situation even more bewildering. I'm apparently expected to have a preference not just between being called by my first name or last name, but among all the different ways Chris can be transliterated into Japanese and shortened or lengthened or made more or less polite. Christopher turns into Kurisutofaa, which is just too long for anyone to say, but Chris can be Kurisu, Kurisu-san (a little more polite -- most people at work seemed to end up calling me that), Kuri, Kuri-chan (a diminutive, which people rarely use, since there's nothing "diminutive" about me), or even Kurinbo (almost rude, depending on how it's used), and of course, some Japanese people speak English well enough to say "Chris," although in some cases their accent makes it sound more like "Crease."

But I have no real preference in Japanese either. All those names refer to me, so I'm fine with any of them, just like I am with Chris, Christopher, and Mr. H_ (although I'm still not really used to that one, since I don't hear it often). I guess I don't really care what you call me, just so long as you call me.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Good reads/random cool sites (6/3/2008)

I'm not exactly sure who Don Cherry is -- he's a Canadian, so I think he has something to do with hockey -- but he dresses funny. Really, really funny.

Rob Sheridan is an art director in L.A. He has a cool sketch blog full of weird and slightly creepy art. Like Leaving Town:

(h/t: Bad Astronomy)

An artist in Helsinki has created a Giant Vagina Bike Taxi. I'd give it a ride take a ride in it. (Probably not safe for work. Or for people who don't already know what a vagina looks like. h/t: Bad Science.)

In celebration of the recent completion of this year's National Spelling Bee, here're Bill Simmons's live blog (c. 2002) and the world-famous E-U-O-N-Y-M video.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Book review: The 50 Best Sights in Astronomy and How to See Them

I'd been thinking that I don't really know much about the night sky. I can pick out the Big Dipper, and Venus when it's the Evening Star, but (besides the Sun and the Moon, of course) that's all I know: one constellation and one star. So I decided I'd pick up some kind of astronomy book and try to make myself more sky-literate. One of the first books I ran across at the library was The 50 Best Sights in Astronomy and How to See Them: Observing Eclipses, Bright Comets, Meteor Showers, and Other Celestial Wonders, by Fred Schaaf.

What sets this book apart from others of its kind is the final word in the title: "Wonders." To Schaaf, the things he can see in the sky aren't just interesting, they're "spectacular," "amazing," "wonderful," "beautiful and admirable." Those aren't just words he chooses to make his writing more lively; he really means it.

Here's a small part of Schaaf's description of a total eclipse of the Sun:
A tape recorder running during a total eclipse of the Sun picks up even the most meticulously prepared and normally impassive people shouting, crying, and babbling expressions such as "Oh my God!" and "Wow" over and over again. But that is not surprising. For totality is a time, and a state of heaven and Earth, like no other. In fact, it feels like a time beyond time, as if the reality we learned to construct as small children had been ripped open to let burst through a gleam of what is eternal, beyond words or even thoughts, a blast of raw and pure wonder.

Schaaf's fervor is genuine, and it's contagious. He's one of those rare and marvelous creatures that I call an "articulate fanatic," someone who is not only fanatically enthusiastic about a subject -- astronomy, in this case -- but able to convey to the casual reader why he's so enthusiastic. Schaaf is not only able to receive those blasts of "raw and pure wonder," he's able to reflect them in our direction.

The result is a book that's not only very practical and useful -- along with the descriptions it gives simple directions on what to see and how to see it, mostly without requiring a telescope -- but inspiring in the true sense. It makes me want to go outside and look at the sky and see what's there.