Saturday, May 30, 2015

Long distance rock

A magnitude 8.5, Shindo 5+ earthquake this evening with an epicenter in Ogasawara was strong enough (Shindo 4 to 5-) in northern Saitama to motivate me to gather my passport and wallet, and prepare to grab my emergency kit if needed. It was fairly long, too, allowing plenty of time for reflection.

That wouldn't ordinarily be remarkable in quake-prone Japan, except that Ogasawara is over 1000 kilometers from here.

Coming after a quake early this morning, and after some other quakes--including one with an epicenter about 20 kilometers from here--and volcanic eruptions lately, I'm a bit concerned that there may be a much more substantial and damaging one on its way.

I haven't forgotten the 3/11 disaster, and even this San Francisco native and long-time Japan resident finds his equanimity slipping a bit.






Thursday, April 23, 2015

We will control...

A friend sent me a link to an article about attempts to prevent owners from repairing or modifying their vehicles. With the increased prevalence of computerized, software-controlled functions in automobiles, the issue is whether intellectual property protection laws can or should be used to prevent people from modifying, repairing, and tuning their own cars. 

Manufacturers are taking the position that allowing people to access and change car systems is potentially risky. Their motivations are varied, and some of their stated reasons seem ingenuous to me, but there is little doubt that the car companies are seeking to protect their R&D investment with copyrights, in the face of recent patent "erosion". Obviously, there are other financial considerations, too, both because of possible liability issues and because of possible loss of repair revenue. 

Gearhead owners point to improvements made by "civilians", to hacking issues that have been poorly addressed if at all by manufacturers, and to some high-profile cases in which the manufacturers demonstrably did not know better, and failed to see or to deal with critical safety issues.

By coincidence, I later came across the most recent of several articles I've seen lately about self-driving cars. Ray Kurzweil of Google predicts that autonomous cars controlled by AI are coming, and says, "The technology works. It's not far away." 

Three weeks ago, Nissan's Carlos Ghosn was saying that they want to put self-driving cars on Japan's roads next year, and have them autonomously navigating urban roads by 2020. I would hope that the technology is more reliable than that of the considerably simpler airbag inflators: the news a few days ago said that Nissan has added 45,000 small cars to a previous recall, apparently in response to a Louisiana woman being injured by flying shrapnel from an exploding air bag.

On the other hand, there are many people in Japan--particularly the elderly in remote areas with insufficient public transportation and few options for finding other drivers--who would benefit greatly by being able to go by self-driving car to shops, hospitals, or community centers. 

Nevertheless, I see more potential problems than benefits.

I've been driving for a long time, and I enjoy it, a lot. I would be reluctant to relinquish control of my vehicle to an artificial intelligence for that reason. Not, however, only for that reason. I've also been using computers for a long time, and interacting with AI in its various forms as it slowly has progressed.  Whether manifested as simple algorithms for predicting words in a text message, or somewhat more sophisticated ones controlling enemies and passersby in video games, I can't say that AI has reached--or even approached--the point at which I'd want to trust it with my life, driving my car.

Every time I think of the possible consequences of a self-driven (i.e., AI/computer-driven) car, I remember how many times over the years that my computers have shown me the infamous BSOD, and reflect that if the car system failed, the "fatal" part of "fatal system error" could apply to me.

Whether control over maintenance and tuning, or control over the driving of the vehicle, I'm very dubious about it. It reminds me of the ominous introduction to The Outer Limits, a long time ago.






Sunday, April 12, 2015

Rainichi Kinenbi +1

Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of my arrival in Japan. Some years I remember the date sufficiently in advance to plan and execute a little celebration. Having been busy this last week, it had slipped my mind until yesterday evening, when a new acquaintance asked me how long I've been in Japan. This common question usually prompts a calculation; this time it served to remind me that the anniversary had arrived (or is it I that had arrived, after the anniversary had patiently waited for me?).

A week or so ago, someone asked me what my initial impressions of Japan were (this, too, is a very common question). I have various answers prepared for that question, depending on what I think the questioner really wants to know, and on my mood when asked. This time I gave a straightforward answer, at least for a strict definition of "initial".

I first arrived in Japan on a Boeing 707, one of the "stretched" models such as the 707-320 or one of its variants. It was chartered by the military, and left Travis Air Force Base in California, refueled in Anchorage, Alaska, and landed at Yokota Air Force Base. The weather was good, so when we got close enough, the pilot helpfully indicated Fuji-san below, and that was my first--very orthodox and very iconic--impression of Japan.

The next was the very numerous and very striking deep blue tile roofs of the houses visible below. In the early morning sunlight, they stood out dramatically. I hadn't expected to see thatched roofs or some similar near-anachronism, but for some reason no images of Japan that I had seen prepared me for the many, many blue roofs.

I and a half dozen or so other young sailors were taken by micro-bus from Yokota to Yokosuka. Since we left in the late afternoon, the traffic through Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Yokohama was heavy even on a Saturday (although working on Saturday was the norm then rather than the exception). Although I didn't know it at the time, the driver didn't take one of the routes--some of which would have been shorter in distance--that bypass the main urban areas. Possibly he wanted to use wider roads, or maybe he was doing his passengers a favor by taking what a first-time visitor would probably regard as the scenic route. Whatever his reason may have been, the ride provided me with the next three impressions of Japan: signs, masks, and cherry blossoms.

Although I should have expected it, I was shocked by all the signs that I could not read. More specifically, I was surrounded by thousands of signs that I was not only unable to read, but had little hope of ever being able to read, because they were in kanji rather than in romaji. Having grown up in San Francisco and been a frequent visitor to both Japantown amd Chinatown , I was familiar with kanji and hanzi...but "familiar" in my case meant having seen them as adjuncts to romanized/phoenetic writing, not as the main or only writing. It was a profound shock to realize that I had suddenly become so illiterate that I could not distinguish between the sign for a tea store and that for a drugstore. At the time, I was essentially bilingual in English and Spanish, semi-competent in French, and relatively good at translating Latin. I had been confident that, given time and a dictionary, I could at least translate foreign languages into English sufficiently to get the gist of the message. The sudden realization that I had no idea of even how to use a kanji dictionary was like a kick to the head.

While I was musing on my new-found ignorance, I was observing the passersby, and wondering why so many of them were wearing what looked like surgical masks. I thought it unlikely that there could be so many doctors and nurses among the crowds of people going home, and that they had somehow forgotten to remove their masks.  Although I didn't know it at the time, it was hay fever season and also the season when many people catch colds, and when I asked our driver about the masks he explained about the custom here of wearing masks to avoid catching or spreading colds, and to avoid pollen as much as possible. It had been a very bizarre early impression, though, and was among the first of what I have since habitually referred to as Another Exotic Oriental Mystery.

The final memorable impression of my first day here was the cherry blossoms. They were a couple of days past their peak, but there were blossoming trees everywhere, it seemed, and in a few areas the hana fubuki (literally "flower blizzard") had begun, combining beauty with the poignant sense of impermanence that is one of the great charms of sakura blossoms.

My first day, then, began with Fuji-san, then continued through striking color,  ignorance, mystification, and beauty. Come to think of it, the 45 years since then have seen those themes recapitulated many times.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Unretiring

Those who know me even a little know that I'm not retiring, in either of the most common meanings of the word. In some places, at some times, for some purposes, 65 was the "official" retirement age (and it's not really because of Bismarck, if you have been believing that). I turned 65 today, having made it well past the 60 that my erstwhile employer thought was a good age at which to retire, and I'll hit 70 sooner than I'd prefer, as long as I don't hit something more solid at high speed first. I'm not retiring, though, having neither become shy nor given up on working.

"Retire" (リタイア) as a loan word is used in Japanese, but as is the case with many loan words, its nuance is a bit different than the original's: it's generally used to mean "quit" or "give up", particularly in the sense of abandoning an individual endeavor--such as a sporting event or other competition--before completion. There are different words used for retiring from one's career or position or company. 

Some of my readers probably have been thinking that I retired from this blog in that withdrawing from endeavor sense.   It has certainly been a long while since the last post. Had I set out to write a journal, that  would not have been the case, since I would have been writing on some regular--daily? weekly?--schedule. With no obligation, implied or otherwise, to write regularly, however,  numerous personal events, both very sad and very happy, occurred in close enough time juxtaposition that I found myself at a loss to write lest I seem to be either trivializing, or exaggerating, or both. Ignoring what were--to me at least--very important life events in favor of writing about more objective, or at least impersonal, topics didn't seem to be a very responsible alternative strategy, either.

There's something to be said for maintaining a sense of perspective, and sometimes that's easier after a certain amount of time has passed. However, I've recently realized that both terrible and wonderful events, both personal and not, continue to occur, on an unpredictable schedule. Waiting for sufficient time to provide perspective seems more and more to be a strategy more suited to the historian than to me.

I still have no intention of making this a journal, but I have decided that too much "waiting for perspective" may result in my waiting until I run out of time altogether.

So...I'm back, unretiring.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Unforgiving Slopes

It's sad to hear that at least four people lost their lives in the mountains this last weekend. Three out of a party  of six that was hit by an avalanche on Nagano's Mt. Shirouma Saturday morning went missing; as of Sunday morning two of them had been found dead. Another man died on Mt. Yatsugatake on the Nagano-Yamanashi border, and yet another man was found dead Sunday morning at the seventh station of Mt. Fuji.

With Golden Week just begun, I'm afraid that there will be more mountain-climbing fatalities. As the weather warms up just in time for the multiple-holiday period, and many flowers start to bloom, a lot of people decide to go trekking and climbing. Unfortunately, the weather also tends to encourage avalanches as well as climbers, so many places can be  more dangerous than they look.

The fellow on Mt. Fuji was climbing pretty early: the official season is generally only the months of July and August. Police have said that he apparently slipped and hit his head. It's not clear whether the fall killed him or whether he died of exposure while unconscious, but this early in the season the paths are treacherous with ice even where there's no snow, and the temperatures that high on the mountain can get very low, indeed. Even in June or September, nighttime temperatures drop well below zero Celsius.  The winds can be strong, too, and change direction suddenly. That combined with tricky footing--it's not uncommon for ice to melt and then refreeze around sunset, leaving a sheet of ice with a thin covering of volcanic gravel atop it--can make it all too easy to lose your balance and slip, tumble, and very likely hit one of the boulders scattered around the slope. This early in the year, the mountain huts are all closed, so there's not much hope of either help or adequate shelter, so off-season climbing is very dangerous, indeed.

It sounds as if the Shirouma climbing party was just unlucky; you can't really prepare for or avoid an avalanche. In hindsight, perhaps they should have been more wary and chosen a different place to climb, but it probably looked safe enough at the time. Yatsugatake is still pretty cold this time of year, and although it's not as tough a climb as many other spots, nor usually considered as risky, I know the area fairly well and it wouldn't be a place I'd go climbing this early in the year, myself. Certainly I wouldn't go alone.

I wrote around this time last year about Golden Week climbing accidents, in summer of 2009 about climbing accidents increasing, and elsewhere about the risks of climbing Mt. Fuji. The high country is beautiful, and trekking or climbing are really fun, but one has to be prepared, and sometimes even then things can go badly awry.

One can't live in fear, and avoiding all risks would make life rather too tame in my opinion, but at least I hope that this year I won't hear about any more mountain climbing deaths due to insufficient preparation or bad judgement.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Farewell to the Black Lion


The Black Lion pub in Meguro has been my "local", my favorite urban refuge from madness in madness, for most of the time since it opened in 1996.  It closed its doors for the last time a week ago, and I'm going to miss it, a lot.

I heard the bad news too late to attend the official  farewell party on the 16th, but I went instead to the last evening, the night of the 23rd, starting outside with canned beer brought by the early arrivals at 16:30, then moving inside at 17:30 when they opened the doors, finally staggering off into the morning sunlight at 06:30 or so.

The place filled up as the sky darkened; as many of the old and new regulars as could make it packed the place, and made a brave effort to drink up whatever stock was left. All of the draft beer was gone before midnight, most of the bottled beer disappeared soon after, and those of us who could not--or would not--rush for the last train and instead elected to stay until the bitter end...well, we managed to do away with most of the spirits. After the last of the scotch and Irish (and JD, too) was gone, as it became fully light outside, I finished up with several pints of "Parachutes", tequila and grapefruit juice, which had been the signature drink of D.B. Cooper's, an Aoyama tequila bar, another much-mourned now-defunct hangout from the late '90s. It seemed fitting, somehow. Besides, there wasn't much else left to drink.

I drank the last one standing at the end of the back bar, where I used to park the bike, among the sawhorses and lumber, back when the Black Lion was still under construction. At the time, since they didn't have their liquor license yet (or a bar or tables, for that matter), we pulled beers from a cooler and left money in a bucket labeled "construction fund donations". Having the last drink where I'd had the first provided a nice symmetry, it seemed to me.

It also seemed fitting, in a call-back to days of yore, that I had to go directly from there to go teach a class (I drank lots of coffee on the two-hour train ride). I was pleased to see that I can still manage that with acceptable aplomb and decorum. I don't think that I could still do it several times a week as used to be the case, back in The Bubble Days and their aftermath, back when the Black Lion was brand-new, back when I was somewhat younger, and only a little more  foolish. Well, I still could, I guess, but not as well or easily, and not always with appropriate decorum. Nor with impunity. It's my birthday today, and not my twentieth nor even my twenty-fifth nor fortieth, more's the pity. But the Black Lion, even after a great run, didn't make it to eighteen.

So what was the last night at the Black Lion like?

The evening was a kind of microcosmic recapitulation of the entire history of the bar, a fast-forward déjà vu multi-memory-mimicking  montage compressed into a little more than a dozen hours: long-suffering stalwart barman Scott presiding over a steadily rising tide of revelry and weirdness...lots of booze flowing...the usual scattering of hopeful predators and more-or-less coy prey, doing the hunter/hunted dance with varying degrees of discretion and of success and some on-the-fly role reversal...lots of laughter...lots of crying...lots of booze flowing...lots of "have you met my best friend in the whole world?"...an utterly senseless fight or two to break up...lots of music including a couple of apparently impromptu live singer/guitarist performances...lots of booze flowing...tales retold of escapades and adventures reflected in the bar mirrors and fueled by the bar stock...hugs and backslaps and handshakes and bites...shouts and whispers...lots of booze flowing...lots of declarations of undying friendship/respect/love...lots of booze flowing...and failed plumbing, mercifully near the end of the evening...er...morning.

And the hard bright low-angle unforgiving dawnlight at the end.

An appropriately epic final farewell friendly frenzy. I'm glad I didn't miss it.

But I'll miss the Black Lion.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Two Years and Counting

There are about 315,000 people living in temporary housing today, two years after the earthquake, tsunami, and multiple nuclear power plant meltdown spread destruction across Tohoku and fear even further. I've seen some of that temporary housing, and it's aptly named. While far better than the school gym or public hall alternatives they replace--and there are still people living in emergency, not temporary, "housing" as far away as Saitama--they're neither fancy nor inexpensive to build, as you can see in Phil Brasor's and Masako Tsubuku's article in their Yen for Living blog. Two years is a long time to live in cramped, mostly pre-fabricated places, thrown into communities very different from those in which you've lived most of your life, with little more charm than the refugee camps they are.

There are also many areas at least partially reliant on volunteer donations of food, water, and labor, such as the Minami-Soma area with which I'm most familiar.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to speed up reconstruction, but he's also pretty clearly aiming at restarting the nuclear power plants around Japan as part of his "Abenomics" policy. My best guess is that the former will be viewed skeptically and the latter disdainfully at best, particularly among the 57,000 people who have not yet returned to Fukushima, as well as among those who live there but cannot return to, or rebuild, or in some cases ever even approach their homes. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party made lots of promises during its decades-long run as the ruling party, and has been an integral part of the "nuclear village" which through arrogance, denial, misinformation, mismanagement, naivete, falsification, cover-ups, and outright lies was largely responsible for the position in which, for example, the one-time residents of Futaba, Fukushima--now living in a defunct high school in Kazo, Saitama, find themselves.

That's the same LDP whose party politics of obstructionism is at least partly to blame for the delay in reconstruction. Yes, I know that they were then the opposition party. I also know that "reaching across the aisle" and "consensus building" and "keeping the greater good of the citizens" only really plays in speeches, not in the real life of Nagatacho. I consider myself a cynical realist, and I suspect there are a lot of people in Tohoku who share my view of politicians and--especially--bureaucrats, but the victims of the disaster deserve considerably more common decency from the government, even though based on experience they have precious little reason to expect it, particularly from the LDP.

The right to live in temporary housing has been extended for another year. Few if any of the residents have much real hope of being able to find better housing anytime soon, even if they can somehow gather the funds with which to do it. There is plenty of determination still, and plenty of tough people committed to somehow getting along, getting better if at all possible. There are not a lot of reasons to harbor hope, and plenty of reasons to despair...which makes their determination in the face of relentless stress all the more admirable.

Much of the debris from the disaster has been hauled away. "Much" is not "all" by any means, however: there are still ships perched atop seawalls, vehicles rusting in the middle of what used to be rice paddies, gutted shells of buildings, vast areas scoured of all but foundations, and fast-filling "temporary" storage spaces for trash, not a little of which is contaminated to various degrees by radiation. An NHK documentary recently showed contaminated topsoil and debris being disposed of by being wrapped in vinyl sheets and "temporarily" buried in private gardens, for lack of space elsewhere.There are insufficient resources of people, equipment, and money for clearance, much less rebuilding. There is also very little progress on finding space for and building facilities--even interim, much less permanent ones--for storage of more seriously radiation-contaminated debris.

Nevertheless, in many of the devastated areas people are working to rebuild their businesses and provide jobs for themselves and their neighbors. The efforts are often hampered by difficulty in attracting labor and investment.They are also hampered, much less forgivably, by red tape of all sorts, often exacerbated by bureaucratic turf wars and/or inertia.

The excellent Shisaku blog has a collection of useful, and at least to me disheartening, statistics. I sincerely hope that both he and I will have much better news to report at this time next year. Meanwhile, I will continue to do what I can to help. I wish that it were more, and I really wish that the government could be relied upon to match their promises with swift and decisive action.

It has been two years, and the Tohoku victims are still counting. It's a pity that they can't count on their government.