Sunday, July 25, 2010

Flashes in the Windows

After days of sizzling, muggy weather, the utterly still air suddenly began to move yesterday evening, accompanied by a definite drop in temperature. I was looking forward to a little rain, for relief from the mind-numbing heat, so the distant muttering of thunder would have pleased me even if I weren't a thunderstorm fan.

"Cool!" I thought to myself, and cool it soon became. I should have listened to the little inner voice saying "Be careful what you ask for".

Up in  the Saitama/Gunma border country, thunderstorms can be pretty dramatic. That's fine with me, since I really enjoy the flashing and crashing and booming. Down in the largely rural flood plain at the base of mountains to the west and north, with few tall buildings and virtually no hills, the view of lightning bolts striking all around the horizon is spectacular, too.

After a sweltering day punctuated with PA system public service announcements urging citizens to avoid "entenka"--"being under the burning sky"...very poetic and very accurate--I was looking forward to a short, violent, squall-like summer shower.

I wasn't looking forward to the multiple brief power outages caused by some apparently very close lightning strikes. I definitely wasn't expecting to be unable to reboot my computer after the first blackout. The prospect of losing all kinds of data and applications was a shock, and when I tried to recover, the operating system's helpful suggestion that I repartition my hard drive (accompanied by the diffident comment that this would destroy any data on the drive) quite ruined the great mood that the thunderstorm had brought.

Since I didn't like that advice, and since although I couldn't get Windows to boot in any mode at all, I did get a very brief Windows splash screen and a too-fast-for-the human-eye-to-follow error message with the infamous blue background, I decided that maybe there was still hope for the data on the drive, so I tried other alternatives instead. It took a while, during which I said some pretty vile things about both the OS and my so-called surge protector.

I did finally get the system back up and functioning, though, with no significant damage that I can see. An unexpectedly happy ending, and an educational one: when lightning flashes started illuminating my windows again this evening, and the artillery of the gods began to rumble, I shut down the PC. Some Windows are better shut during storms.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Raining pretty hard, isn't it?"

Every time there are floods and landslides, whether from an unusually heavy rainy season or from a typhoon, the TV news programs of course show lots of video footage of the destruction and of the disruption of people's daily lives. The impact of scenes of collapsed hillsides, washed-away roads, buried houses, and engulfed streets and shops is undeniable. It's grimly fascinating to see rushing rivers--carrying trees and maybe even cars or parts of houses--surging perilously close to bridges, or to see people paddling rubber boats above drowned streets and parking lots.

For those of us living in eastern Japan, these sensational reports can even serve a practical purpose: since such weather generally moves from west to east and south to north, we can see what may be in store for us in the near future and--to some extent--prepare for it.

Unfortunately, reporters--or more accurately the directors and producers who tell them where to go and what to say--can't leave well enough alone.  For some reason it is deemed necessary to have endless live reports from areas where there really isn't anything useful to say, and in the case of night-time programs, nothing useful to see, either. I actually feel sorry for the poor reporters who gamely try--but invariably fail--to say something intelligent about the height or ferocity of rivers next to which they are standing, but which their cameras are unable to show because of insufficient light.

Similarly pointless live reports are done from, for example, in front of police stations after suspects in major crimes have been arrested, with comments limited to "so-and-so has been arrested and is being questioned in this police station but there is no further news at this time". At least they have a police station to show, and it's sufficiently well-lit.

That's very different from showing a square meter or so of water surface, the maximum that can be lit by the film crew's best efforts, and trying to make dramatic observations about something that, from the viewers' point of view, might just as well be a swimming pool.

I feel less sympathy for the media people who decide that it's not enough to show and describe the effects of flooding and landslides, so they try to inject some "human interest". The idea isn't bad; the implementation is almost invariably dire, largely due to the ridiculous questions they ask.

For example, following a shot of water cascading down the stairs to a basement bar, a reporter was shown interviewing the owner the next day. The poor proprietor is standing in the water-logged wreckage of his business, shoveling sludge and looking forlornly at the soaked and muddy furniture, carpets, and walls. The reporter asks, "Is this going to be difficult to clean up?" and "Will there be much impact on your business?". It's a tribute to the patience of the bar owner that he didn't chase the news crew out of the place with blows of his shovel, screaming "What kind of stupid questions are those, you morons?".

My leading candidate so far this season for egregious stupidity in reporting is a film sequence I've seen repeated maybe 30 times in the last week. Two guys, trouser legs rolled up, soaked to the skin in the torrential rain, are trying to push a pickup truck through knee-high rushing water. The reporter asks, "Did your engine stop?".

That's beyond banal. It's beyond stupid. What possible answer could be expected? "No, we turned the engine off and are pushing the vehicle in a downpour because we are masochists", perhaps?

Then there's the old standard "How do you feel?" which I recently saw a reporter ask a guy whose home had been crushed by a landslide and washed, with all of his possessions, down a raging river. To me, the only reasonable response would be, "I feel like throwing you and your camera crew into the river".

Every year, the various TV networks run what they call "NG prize" programs...what would be called, I guess, "blooper awards" in the US. These "outtakes" are mostly misspoken lines in dramas or news programs, sometimes they're physical goofs like breaking sets, falling on news locations, and the like.

I'd quite like to see a similar program based on a collection of clueless reporters' questions, perhaps with a suitably ironic-voiced narrator offering possible suitable responses.

I admit that it could be difficult to come up with appropriate answers to some of the more outrageously idiotic questions. Questions like that of this post's title, which is a quote from a reporter in the middle of a record-breaking downpour, surrounded by cars only a few centimeters from being completely submerged.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Wrestling with Gambling

The latest scandal bedeviling the sumo world involves, as anyone who has read a newspaper or watched TV lately knows, wrestlers and stable masters revealed to have been gambling. The biggest problem involves wrestlers who have been betting on professional baseball, with the apparent involvement of the yakuza. Extortion added fuel to the media's fiery denunciations of the sumo association's oversight, and the usual parade of ex-policemen, sports journalists, essayists, lawyers, and various "experts" of various kinds appeared to add heat--but not much light--to the "discussion".

It didn't help that the gambling news came very soon after the scandal about yakuza having been provided with ring-side seats so that they would appear on TV and encourage their imprisoned friends watching the televised matches from their cells.

It could have been worse; the sumotori could have been betting on sumo matches, but I haven't heard even a hint that any of the wrestlers or stable masters were doing that. The news about baseball players caught betting on baseball barely lasted a day, being eclipsed utterly by the sumo gambling scandal.

So now an ozeki and a stable master have been fired, numerous others  have been suspended, the sumo association is reeling in disarray, and there was serious doubt for a while about whether the upcoming Nagoya basho (tournament) would take place.

NHK, after waffling for a couple of weeks, decided not to do their regular live broadcast for the first time in over 50 years, and several companies decided to withdraw their long-running (and very lucrative)  sponsorships, at least temporarily.

I can follow the strong negative reaction to gambling wrapped up with the yakuza, particularly since the news followed rather closely on other scandals involving drug use by a couple of wrestlers, a fatal hazing incident,  and the spectacular fall from grace of ex-yokozuna Asashoryu after what seems to have been a drunken brawl.

Canceling the Nagoya basho would have been very unfair to the many other sumotori who have been diligently practicing and were evidently uninvolved in gambling. I think NHK (no strangers to scandals themselves, by the way) made a very bad call in deciding not to televise the tournament. They claim that 68% of the 13,000 viewers who contacted them advocated not televising, but I very seriously doubt that's an even distribution of viewer sentiment (what about the millions who didn't call?), and it's definitely punishing the innocent.

It was predictable, though, as were the various sponsors' flights: they are trying to avoid being tainted by scandal and being seen as supporting malefactors.

What bothers me most about this whole situation, though, is that it's not only about betting on baseball, or even about gambling involving yakuza. Some of the suspended wrestlers were gambling in card games or in mah jong games, and although I might have missed it, I haven't heard that those involved the yakuza. Nevertheless, many announcers and news analysts (along with those ubiquitous "experts") have been wringing their hands and making all sorts of outraged noises about all of this terrible gambling.

Give me a break.

I've known hundreds of people who play mah jong, and known of maybe a couple of thousand more, and every single one of them played for money. Maybe not a lot of money but, like friendly poker games, people who play mah jong bet on it. Including probably at least half—and I'm being very conservative here—of the people on TV who are bemoaning the moral turpitude of the sumotori who did it. I don't really know about card games, since I haven't seen or heard of that many card games being played in Japan. But virtually every adult who plays mah jong--and that's a lot of people--bets on it.

I'm not a gambler myself, but if I were I'd be very unhappy to be reviled for it by anyone who plays mah jong, or even pachinko, the vastly popular pinball game in which—very ingenuously—one wins prizes, not money,  so it's not technically gambling…but every pachinko parlor has, within a few steps of the door, a place where those prizes can be exchanged for cash. I've known a couple of professional pachinko players, in fact; quite a few people make a living at it.

Castigating people, sumo wrestlers or not, for doing what millions of their countrymen do daily—gambling for money--is amazingly hypocritical. Unfortunately, in Japan blatant and widespread hypocrisy is something that you can bet on happening.