Was busy with Otakon prep. Actually figured out how to use sculpey with some help from Kate and am pretty happy with the result.In the meantime, here's a video from the post of D.C. practicing streetcar operations:
I was excited to discover that Guidebook now offers the ability to share oneâs schedule. Two years ago, I was hoping for this social feature, and now that itâs here Iâd like to exploit it. Iâve tied it to my Google+ account and am happy to connect with friends. Because of Otakon preparations and a crunch period at work, posts may be sporadic over the next few days.
In addition, Iâve slowly been getting photos up on Flickr. Check out my Japan collection to see them as they get posted. Iâm also going back and adding them to older posts as I go and hope to start including them in new posts regularly.
Kateâs Mother passed on a reminder to me.
I thought I would pass on the link to http://www.worldpeace.org/ in case it was of interest to anyone thatâs been reading along.
[Update: Fair warning, audio quality on the stream is not the best, thereâs a buzzing, hopefully thatâll get fixed.]
[Update 2: Weâre guessing itâs actually cicadas in the background which does make sense for summer time in a park.]
After returning from Daitoku-ji, we decided to grab something to eat. Francisâ guidebook recommended the Karafuneya Coffee shop, which apparently not only specialized in a wondrous variety of sweets, but had incredibly detailed models of them to look over while waiting to be seated. If youâve ever wondered what over two hundred varieties of parfait would look like, look no further. From individual treats to a 50000-yen variety that would likely feed an entire school class, it was here. Kate reveled in the sheer concept and ultimately decided on a caramel apple pie parfait.
The shop didnât just serve dessert, it also had a selection of diner classics including salads and onion rings, but the displays at the front showed you where their heart was. Our visit also showed us how attitudes on smoking were evolving. We were given a choice sitting at two tables or sitting together but within close proximity of the smoking station. Weâd later dine at places that did not have a non-smoking section, but the balance did seem to be shifting both in the restaurants and on the streets. In that latter case, smokers were increasingly clustered and carrying a lit cigarette while walking was discouraged, at least in the larger cities.
After we finished we crossed the Kamo river at Sanjo Dori and made our return to Gion. Looking up the Kamo and walking the streets of Gion were disproportionately strong memories from my 2002 trip, and the actual reality did not disappoint. The west bank (the right of the picture) was backed with restaurants often with deck dining and that seemed to be open much later than those we encountered the prior night in the depths of Gion. The east bank had a linear park that helped serve as a transition between the two parts of the city.
Kyoto can be a hot city. It certainly was while we were there, with easily the highest temperatures of the trip, hitting the eighties and nineties. This made the attraction of the Kamo quite obvious and tall buildings with rooftop decks proliferated in a delightful mix of styles. However, thereâs nothing new about gathering by the river for entertainment; thatâs where Izumo no Okuni founded Kabuki on dry riverbeds. The Kabuki-za theater, shown on the left, and a statue of the lady both owe their proximity to those origins. Famously, though, Kabuki subsequently became entirely the domain of male performers, as a consequence of the social controls of the Tokogawa era, a subject weâll return to in a future post.
We then proceeded to weave through the streets of Gion. The section by the Kamo seemed densely packed with any number of diversions housed in an eclectic mix of architectural styles and accouterments. Our destination for the night was the Gion-Shimbashi district, a charming historic pair of streets and canal that had quieted down for the night but still was an exciting new atmosphere for most of us. At the end of the strip was a restaurant with its own patron cat, shown at the right. If you look at the slideshow below youâll see that it even has a shelf at the base of the hostess stand with a pillow for it to rest on. I wonât try to draw any larger observations from that, aside from noting that distinctive character proved easy to find in that part of town.
After completing our circuit, we headed back towards our guest house, along the well lit streets of Shijo Dori. We made it home more easily this time, the twisty avenues at the end of the journey were becoming more familiar. Also welcoming was the sight of the Yasaka shrine at night, which unlike the many other portions of that walk actually shows up nicely in nighttime photography.
Kyoto was Japanâs ancient capital. It is overflowing with temples, shrines, and history. The closest equivalent for the United States may be Philadelphia if the historic core were both far older and scaled up. Amusingly though, there were more odd moments of familiar culture than even Tokyo, although part of that is that hip hop is a bit more popular in the present capital. The Omerice (Omelet + Rice) let us sample a fairly common Japanese take on a western classic, although my dish with yuba, layers of the skin of soybean milk, was tasty but particularly unfamiliar. Nonetheless the Beatles were playing on the sound system in the second story dining room.
We then finished our walk from Kinkaku-ji to RyÅan-ji temple, which apparently translates as the Temple of the Dragon at Peace. It is known for its dry garden and I read of it in 2002 although I still need to verify whether I had a chance to see it on that rainy day more than a decade ago. As is often the case, the temple grounds have far more than just the elements its most known for. There are traditional gardens, with a central pond, that all visitors first pass by. After ascending the stairs, the temple building itself is a remarkable mix of white plaster and find architectural detailing. The interior has illustrated mountain landscapes or floral depictions, the former being a favorite of mine that I tend to associate more with Chinese art.
The paragon of Zen gardens itself has more than a dozen stones, although they are arranged such that you are not likely to see them all from a single position. Several of the clusters of stones blend together when viewed from a distances but are clearly distinct when gazed at directly. I donât know the specific theology or aesthetic behind the arrangement, but it certainly does reward study from a range of perspectives and contemplation.
After leaving, we meandered the remainder of the path around the pond, seeing both ducks and turtles. The ducks were more common, and a favorite of Francis dating back to childhood, although I went with the turtles in this instance because it had the better broad picture of the pond and perhaps also because of my University of Maryland bias.
Our next stop was another Zen temple, Daitoku-ji. The day was coming to an end, and we proved only able to visit one of the four sub-temples. Based on the walking book we had with us, subsequently returned, that temple was strongly associated with Sen no RikyÅ«, a pivotal figure in the evolution of the Japanese tea ceremony. I had the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony in 2002, at a different temple that Iâd gotten confused with Daitoku-ji. However, it was still interesting to wander the moss garden grounds and read once again about the history of the ritual.
One critical thing to note about the ceremony: it is meant to be a place apart. The entrances can be fairly small, require humbling ducking, and are not conducive to carrying a sword. The practices do promote a certain equality among the participants, which may have contributed to Hideyoshi ordering Sen to kill himself, an incident allegedly prompted by Sen placing an image of himself near the top of a gateway the leader of Japan passed through. How can such a fancy ceremony promote harmony? I think the short answer is that clear rules of interaction can be empowering to those with less prestige and social capital.
After Francis successfully rescued himself from the closing temple, we proceeded out to a bus and back to central Kyoto.
Language is important to all of us, in a lot of ways. Readers of this blog may have more of an interest in international relations, and foreign language, but even if you're monolingual, the question of how language works can be quite important. Gentleman, scholar, and trained linguist and teacher Moti Lieberman is debuting a new channel that will episodically explain concepts in linguistics on September 3rd. The trailer for the channel is below and was a lot of fun for me as it gave me a chance to witness why he's such an effective teacher. Ling Space should be a lot of fun. I've seen a preview topic list and there's going to be a good mix of ones of broad interest and dives into deeper questions in linguistics. Check it out and subscribe! Even if the deep dives aren't of interest, there should be something for everyone that uses language and likes to think about how things work. [Update: Typo fix]
The official name of the landmark is Rokuon-ji, the Deer Garden Temple. Based on the wikipedia page, the appearance of the shrine has changed many times over the centuries. The crowds are quite intense but friendly and we twice more encountered groups of students; this time they interviewed Moti and then Kate.
There are other buildings and gardens around the temple complex, none of which quite rival the building and its mirror reflected in the pond. This was actually my second time through, though the first time was a rainy day back in 2002. There were fewer people about but the mood was understandably dampened.
Watching Moti interact with the students was fun in its own right. He has an excellent command of Japanese, but like a proper teacher and linguist, he stuck to English for the questions because if he just gave them the words for everything in their native tongues then it wouldnât really be much of a lesson.
Kateâs interview came later, after weâd walked up the hill, past waterfalls and smaller ponds, and by an excellent sitting rock and a nearby tea shop. Hers was the first coed group of the bunch and they even eschewed the traditional v-sign in the group photo. Iâm guessing that was because they were a bit older.
We went on to see other temples at my suggestion, to be covered in a future post. If Iâd actually planned a bit further ahead, Iâd have realized that the cost was our opportunity to see the Manga Museum or the Kyoto Peace Museum. That was a shame, but one that can be remedied by visiting the city again in some future year.
Morning in Kyoto broke gently. Despite having the windows open there was not that much noise on our tiny side street. My wife and my motherâs first night on futons may have been eased by exhaustion, but they are generally notably more comfortable than the American convertible couches baring the same name. As the view down the street shows, what Gion lacks in navigability, it does make up for in charm. There was even a small ukiyoe (Japanese woodprint) museum down the street, though lamentably we never did make it in.
After settling in to our new abode, taking advantage of the showers two flights of stairs below (Kateâs only real complaint about the place, particularly as the last set was rather steep) and doing a bit of planning, most of us went off to breakfast at CafÃ© 3032. We would return regularly; it was just a block and a half away, the food was good, and it was one of the first places open of a morning. The breakfast was more a Western style with a Japanese twist, as was the music from a cover band with a name that translated as Adult Reggae and included songs by Nirvana and an instrumental cover of Sublime. When we asked, we discovered that apparently the Japanese female vocals were popular with the American guests, so apparently they know their audience. Regardless, if you visit, I recommend the French toast; it was delicious.
After regrouping and delivering a carryout sandwich, we walked down to one of Gionâs main thoroughfares to catch the bus to Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion. Just before we got to the stop, we discovered that we happened to be traveling in the midst of school trip season. Delightfully, we were one of the attractions. Several groups of students we met in Kyoto and Tokyo had assignments to interview foreigners and practice their English. The first group of schoolgirls picked me, asked their questions clearly, and handed around the assignment book so everyone got a chance to participate. The questions were fairly standard: I like baseball, sushi, and did not yet have an opinion between Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji as I had not visited the silver pavilion on my last trip. Iâll likely never forget the enthusiasm of my lead questioner and was charmed in a way that didnât wear off when we boarded the standing room only bus to one of Kyotoâs best known landmarks.
Routine reminder: I speak for myself and not my employer.
Whatâs a reputation for resolve? The summary below will lay out the technical definition, but the short version is that those calling for more coercive action (be it military or economic) backing up U.S. threats and red lines regularly cite reputational benefits that will go beyond the immediate incident. Alternately, those believing in the importance of reputation for resolve may simply argue for making more limited use of threats and red lines, as is outlined below. This ties into a variety of related concepts; reputation in general, deterrence, and credibility all tie together to the concept, but the biggest controversy lies in the resolve component.
The Foreign Entanglements show on Blogging Heads TV recently had a debate on the matter that I summarize below because I think that you often can learn more of the strengths and weaknesses of each side when they actually talk to one another. To more succinctly summarize the discussions, Iâve grouped arguments thematically rather than by when they occurred in the video. For a literature review going in, check out the blogging heads link or this Drezner piece from a few years back.
Mercerâs Deterrence Theory:
Deterrence is based on credibility/reputation which has three parts:
Critiques to a reputation for resolve
Going back five years or so, the resolve portion of that triad has faced substantially more skepticism from academic political scientists. Farley was defending the strong critique, not just that a reputation for resolve is not applicable as the situation varies, but that it is not even well enough understood to be a useful concept. Farley argues that the reason for this is that we cannot predict how actions that send messages will be received. There's too many moving parts. Specifically, had the U.S. bombed Syria without overthrowing Assad, this might have been viewed as a result that failed to demonstrate resolve.
Debating the examples
Farley countered that we we have not seen a reputation for resolve in practice. Our red lines against Iran include, for example, mining the Straits of Hormuz. These have not been pressed and what we have done in Syria has made no difference. The reason for this is that we obviously have greater interests at stake in Iran. On the other hand, red lines often do not work when our interests are weak; for example, our red line in Syria did not work even though we had just deposed Qaddafi in Libya.
Gartenstein-Ross argues resolve when your interests are highly involved is different than when they are peripheral. He outlined the reputation for resolve as relevant in two categories 1) where U.S. interests are low but a clear threat is made, 2) where U.S. interests are directly involved but the situation is messy. He argued that Syria was reacting not to Libya but instead the lack of U.S. response to Iran's support of insurgents that killed Americans in Iraq and Assad's allowing foreign fighters to transit through Syria to Iraq.
Farley argues that we have no real visibility into the Assad regime; one could tell a competing narrative that the U.S. would be interested in payback when an opportunity arose due to the weakness of his regime. This leaves reputation for resolve as a variable without predictive content. Gartenstein-Ross agreed that the Assad regime would consider both stories. This is a case of acting with incomplete information.
Farley points to Cold War history, saying that if academics and historians can't establish a how a reputation for resolve works with the extensive archives from the Cold War, then policymakers should be extremely careful about making any decisions on the basis of a reputation for resolve.
How to implement academic humility
Gartenstein-Ross laid out that he believes that reputation for resolve is a case where the academics are experiencing a bias towards variables they can measure. In one example, for a time the statistic-oriented baseball fans undervalued fielding because there wasn't a good way to report on it, unlike hitting. Leaving out an important variable could then lead to an undervaluing of certain players and worse performance for the team despite a more scientific-seeming approach. Gartenstein-Ross specifically believed that academics were prone to make this mistake and believed they made the same error when discounting the specific religious content of belief systems in militant organizations.
Farley replies that practitioners are not acting in a theory-free zone; they are operating with theories that come out of Cold War deterrence theory and Thomas Schelling. They continue to operate with this Cold War understanding because that's where they gained much of their experience. Those with the strongest and most visceral feel of reputation and resolve were old Russia hands. Academics should be humble, but that humility encourages tearing down previous academic theories that are now obsolete. It is possible that we will find a way to show the impact of reputation for resolve in the future, but in the absence of such evidence we should not expend blood and treasure to maintain a reputation for resolve.
Gartenstein-Ross says that the two views are not necessarily irreconcilable. He is not arguing for expenditure of blood and treasure to maintain a reputation for resolve. Instead, when things are not in our interest, we should be very hesitant to make any sort of threat if we are not willing to fulfill it. By this means reputation can be obtained, and we should use this mechanism.
The utility of bluffing and a reputation for resolve
Farley queries whether this means Gartenstein-Ross wishes to take the bluff away from the United State's strategic toolkit. He further charges that many of those who say we should have acted in Syria are doing so on the basis that we could better bluff our way through Crimea. Farley raises the example of the Chinese air identification zone. In that instance, the U.S. flew B-52s, planes that you cannot possibly overlook, through the zone and China did nothing. Similarly, he says that Putin has effectively deployed bluffing on multiple occasions.
Gartenstein-Ross stands by his view and argues that the Chinese bluff was counterproductive. During the unipolar moment in the 1990s we had a high ability to bluff. However, our relative decline over the past thirteen years have weakened our ability. He finds the U.S. bluff on Syria to be outmoded thinking much as Farley argues that the reputation for resolve is outmoded. Bluffs are now more likely to be called, both because of the reduced capability and because of the vicious circle of he reputation for resolve because bluffs that are called.
Gartenstein-Ross then returns to the Iran example in pointing to the utility of a reputation for resolve. The U.S. has a variety of red lines with respect to Iran. Some are clear, like the Straits of Hormuz. However, there are subtler moves regarding the nuclear program where a reputation for resolve can matter. Reputation for resolve is not as important for the bluff, or the big policy areas and matters of war and peace, but for subtler decisions it plays a bigger role. He says that while he's more skeptical than Farley of political science's ability to truly measure something like the reputation for resolve and thinks Farley overstates a legitimate critique, he believes that it's something that should be better understood.
My own thoughts
Gartenstein-Ross argues the more limited case for reputation for resolve and I think to really judge that debate weâd have to get into the literature on bluffing. That said, it is important to remember that in the specific case of Syria, tons of chemical weapons were removed from the country and their existing facilities were demilitarized. There are allegations of continued use of chlorine gas and continued atrocities by the Syrian government are indisputable, but the significant quantity of weapons and facilities destroyed is a boon in its own right.
Whatâs more telling is that the Gartenstein-Rossâs limited case for a reputation for resolve points to greater restraint when U.S. interests are low. He repeatedly argued that President Obamaâs mistake was setting the red line, not in failing to enforce it. While he noted that our reputation for resolve was diminished by failing to engaged in unspecified retaliation against Iran and Syria for aiding insurgents in Iraq, he did not lay out any positive mechanisms by which to increase our reputation for resolve. If spending blood and treasure are off the table and limited strikes will make little difference, than wherefore complaints from other commentators about the Presidentâs policy in Ukraine? U.S. sanctions have slowly been ratcheted up. European allies have been slower to act, but due to greater connections with Russia their actions have had greater effect.
What about complaints from allies?
This debate did not touch on one source of complaints of ill-resolve: those from U.S. allies. Gripes have been made in public and in private. Vehement critiques of resolve like Daniel Larison do not dispute the existence of such complaints but instead argue that they play to Washingtonâs pride and insecurity. I donât doubt that some of that goes on, but I think some of the behavior may have a less harsh interpretation, namely allies bargain about who should bear the burden of common interests. Matt Yglesias gives an example of how this works in European debate over sanction policy:
The biggest gas importer is Germany, which would rather see someone else's ox gored. Angela Merkel has been talking up the idea of a ban on the export of military equipment to Russia. Conveniently, Germany doesn't have a big outstanding weapon sale to Russia. But France is scheduled to sell advanced Mistral naval vessels to Russia. Much of the international community wants France to cancel that deal, hurting the Russian military and the French economy while leaving others unscathed. Meanwhile, from the French viewpoint a better countermove might be for the UK to seize Russian funds and property squirreled away in London.
Itâs not that France, Germany, and the UK doubt one anotherâs resolve, theyâd just genuinely prefer that someone else pay the bill and no doubt can come up with compelling normative reasons why this is so. Rather than applying the deterrence-elated concept of reputation and credibility writ large to allies, I would argue that we should apply a range of appropriate tools, such as collective action problems to negotiation theory to security dilemmas. This is not to say that complaints from allies are merely bluffs and puffery â the current alignment of the Middle East in particular is genuinely unstable - but that their use of the word credibility should not dictate our choice of intellectual framework.
The trip back to Okayama Station from the KÅraku-en gardens was much tighter than I hoped, but we made it. My favorite landmark on the remainder of the trip to Kyoto was seeing Himeji castle. Like many of the castles in Japan, it was reconstructed after World War II. However, it was rebuilt using not just the original floor plan, but also with classical building methods. I toured it with friend and co-traveler Chad back in 2002. We were considering trying for Hiroshima, but when that was rejected as too far, seeing the castle at Himeji was an appealing alternative. After touring it, in slippers that were at least two sizes too small, we went on to check out their botanical garden. It was more of the scale you see in the West, but still quite nice. So while we did not stop back in Himeji this time, it maintains a fond place in my heart.
We also passed through a train yard on the way into Kyoto Station. All of the engines pictured on the left are part of full blown shinkansen. I suspect that a good part of the systemâs timeliness is that they have ample reserves. By comparison, I still didnât have my act entirely together on hotel directions, so between the comparatively small lunch earlier, we ended up getting into Kyoto with a crew that was starting to get grumpy. Moti had some success with station wifi and I cross-referenced street names, but he did end up having to call to be guided into the place once we were within a few blocks. Not my finest hour, although Iâm proud to say that for every subsequent stop on the trip, there was a copy of a map saved in the trip google doc. Our residence, the Gojo Guesthouse, proved to be a terrific experience, but we were disappointed to learn that we had yet more travel to do through intricate streets, as we were not staying in the most prominent of the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) buildings.
So, instead, we did the only sensible thing and went for food. Gion is quite a wonderful neighborhood, but unfortunately, it also can be a tricky place to eat as it gets later in the evening. Not because itâs dangerous - not in the slightest - just because so many of the restaurants, including most everything in our Lonely Planet guide, was closed. Moti and Francis scouted about and soon enough we found our salvation, an okonomiyaki place! This was not Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki but was instead in the more common mode of nearby Osaka. The meal was quite good, although we did get rushed out the door despite having ordered a succession of dishes and drinks, so we wonât be specifically recommending the place in question.
The last stretch to our rooms was not that far, but it did seem so at the time, in part as I was carrying an extra backpack. However, from here on out the news was largely good; the guest house certainly does earn our recommendation and proved a fantastic launching point for our adventures in Kyoto. But that shall have to wait until tomorrow.
I forgot to bring my laptop power chord home tonight, so I'm going to be lazy and skip the travelogue entry.
Let's start with Bond. Moti pointed me to Film Hulk critics four part analysis of the entire franchise (you can click to all four parts from the fourth). It's made me feel a bit time for the time I compliment Yaphet Kotto on his performance in Live and Let Die. I still liked that he had a character willing to take out Bond and shoot him, but really I need to familirize myself with more of the man's work beyond Homicide and Live and Let Die. I still quite loved Casino Royale, but was left with the feel that I'd really drifted away from that sort of thing. After reading through Hulk's discussion of all the films and his argument that the best Bonds are romances, I'm instead left feeling that I might want to watch From Russia with Love and On His Majesty's Secret Service again, though those two will likely suffice. That's a nice place to be.
He also made one interesting argument about overthinking pop culture:
It's not that we can't have adult conversations about our childlike impulses, it's that we can go so far as to dress up our stuffed animals and bring them to a fancy dinner. We can't just want to make our childish things seem adult.
As I mentioned in the last post on the series, I enjoyed both seasons 1 and 2 of Legend of Korra but felt let down by the respective endings. Some of that might just have been expecting too much on my part; it's a kid series and ultimately more nuanced bad guys can get away from problems that a super-powered character like the Avatar can solve. That said, I do think some of the graphic novels have gotten to this a better, although I've disagreed with a friend on that matter.
Anyhow, based on episodes four and five of the present season, Legend of Korra is doing a great job of focusing on the sort of stories it can tell well and that are still ones I'm very interested in. The issues of Mako and Bolin's class background, a critique of the conscription power of the state, and a family dispute between two sympathetic characters all have a lot of potential. Also Varrick, our favorite sketchy magnate is back. I have high hopes for him! The most direct villains are a group of superpowered criminals that appear to be enemies of the whole one powerful spiritual person will be charged with keeping power system. There's a whole lot of potential there without needing a great shades of gray main conflict.
Finally, one bit of possibly spoilery speculation on episode 5. I believe a quote from HonorÃ© de Balzac will prove appropriate: "The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done."
In any event, if you aren't watching, you can wait to see if Nickelodeon posts full episodes, but I continue to feel well rewarded for buying it on Amazon after missing that first air date. That said, if you wish to be patient, it will probably eventually be on the Nickelodeon site and it's probably still safer to buy the physical form of series as digital distribution doesn't seem any cheaper.
Journey, by thatgamecompany, has already been well considered by adoring critics, but we wanted to briefly interrupt our travelogue to give our impressions. I played it for the first time on Saturday and had a chance to watch Kate play last year. We both loved it. One playthrough is about the length of a film and the name is quite accurate; the game is a pilgrimage through wondrous and at times frightening lands towards the glowing mountaintop on the horizon. There are challenges to unravel, secrets to find, and threats to avoid. However, they are all minimalistic to focus on the core themes of the game and make it accessible even to those often neglected by high profile video game releases.
So does it even qualify as a game? Yes, for two reasons. First, Michael Abbott argues that the mechanics serve the aesthetic and help the player achieve flow, a meditative sort of enjoyment that videogames are well-suited to deliver. In addition, on a less theoretical level as Jason Killingworth discussed the jumping is just delightful.
âPsychology has proven that the behavior of our physical body directly impacts our emotional state. Test subjects who were tricked into arranging their facial muscles in the shape of a smile were more likely to claim to find a cartoon amusing. In the same way, a game that effectively imparts a sense of physically lifting off the ground will engender in the player a sympathetic emotional response of uplift and inspiration. Journeyâs leap has a frolicking grace to it. Not only do you lift into the air, but your character will occasionally even twirl playfully like a sea otter before drifting back to earth. You may even grin while doing it.â
Going into a little more detail, your character can make small jumps just by navigating the world, but with the power of their elongating scarf or the help of the various friendly fabric creatures that inhabit this stricken land, you can for a time bound into the air. Your ability to do this is limited by geography and the charge on your scarf, but in either case is readily charged by visiting with the wildlife or spending time close to your traveling companion. In this way, the leaping is moderated but unlike power pellets or a time-based recharge, the way to replenish the power ties you closer to the world and your companions.
The companions are where the real wonder of the game comes in. After the first stage, you will often be paired with another player, elsewhere on the internet, but given only the most rudimentary means of communication. Perhaps surprisingly, this results in interaction that is entirely different than the hostility that too often defines online interaction. This was entirely intentional. Jenova Chen, one of the designers, discussed his influences and motivations with Simon Parker of Eurogamer.
"I believe that there are only three ways to create valuable games for adults. You can do it intellectually, whereby the work reveals a new perspective about the world that you have not seen before. The closest thing I can see to this is Portal. The second way is emotionally: touching someone. You can touch kids emotionally very easily, but it's far harder to touch adults because they are so jaded.
"The only way you can touch an adult is by creating something especially relevant to their lives, or by creating something that is so authentic that it becomes empowering. In order to reach those heights you have to reach catharsis. So that after the strong emotion the adult can begin to reflect on his own, start to find meaning in his own life. That's how I can see I can make games for people around me. The third and final way is by creating a social environment where the intellectual or emotional stimulation could happen from other people. Those are the only three ways."
Earlier in the piece, he noted that that third piece is often challenging because most multiplayer videogames are about killing one another. Itâs well worth reading the entire piece, about how they choose to take out many of the puzzles, elaborate interactions, and even collision detection while working to reinforce the loneliness of the places.
And it works. Scott Juster discussed how this changed his outlook to fellow players. So many of the discussions of Journey focus on what happened with their companions, be it Jamie Loveâs and Brendan Keoghâs reviews or the collection at Medium Difficulty and the Journey Stories Tumblr.
We shall post a discussion of our own Journeys on a future night.
Image credit: Promotional screenshot from thatgamecompany.
This was an interesting book that changed its character over time. Adelstein managed the comparatively rare feat of becoming a Western reporter working directly for a Japanese newspaper. The start of the book focuses broadly on workplace culture, the police beat and policing practices, and crime in Japan. The latter is actually fairly rare even though laws against the native organized crime outfits, called Yakuza, were so weak that membership was printed on business cards. Similarly, as Adelstein got more on the vice beat, heâd realized the extent to which human trafficking can be difficult to crack down on because the systemâs first priority would often be to punish the victims for immigration violations.
The latter half of the book gets seedier, focusing on a few stories and reflecting the costs of the vice beat of the years. Adelstein broke a huge scoop about a Yakuza boss (and confederates) that was given priority treatment for a liver transplant at UCLA. As an interesting side note for a longtime Washington Post reader, John Pomfret, experienced Asia hand, actually played an admirable key part in helping Adelstein get the story out. The book unflinchingly documents the cost of getting that story, although the individual passages tend to be less connected and I often lost track of time in the back part of the book, perhaps because Adelstein was no longer embedded in the structure of his paper and seemed to be slipping away from his family.
The seediest places we actually saw in Japan were in Tokyoâs Akihabara Electric Town, not the sort of thing that even gets a cursory mention in this book. This is to be expected; in most any developed and safe country, investigative reporters can and should find the gaps and weaknesses that the ordinary person doesnât encounter unless they are hard up for a loan or try their luck at an overseas job offer or the like. That said, I think the extremes can be useful to read about as they do tell you something about the country; for example just today in the Washington Post there was a story by Petula Dvorak about visiting a free medical clinic that got 1,500 attendees in Southwestern Virginia, a region thatâs economy had been reliant on diminishing coal jobs. Those coming out, sometimes camping overnight, would be covered by Medicare were it not for sadists in the Virginia legislature who are among dozens of states rejecting the expansion that comes with the Affordable Care Act. While the magnitude varies greatly, thereâs systemic cruelties in every country. However, understanding them, and the larger culture they reflect, requires the sort of solid reporting Adelstein manages.
To end on a lighter note, how do visitors to Japan, and indeed everyday citizens, interact with the police? Based on our experience, the answer is traffic management and police boxes, called KÅban. Between the two, we saw police out on foot a lot more than we do in a typical American city. The KÅban are particularly great because theyâre also there to go to when you need help or directions, as most tourist guides will mention. We didnât end up needing that service, but it shows the advantages of integrating police more into the community rather than having them patrol on cars.
Image credit: We had taken the KÅban picture, but the picture of the book is a promotional image from Japan Subculture, the site for which Adelstein is chief editor.
Weâve enjoyed both prior seasons of Legend of Korra, although they both had weaknesses in their endings. That seemed in part driven by taking on a bit too much and then not being able to rely on finishing them in subsequent seasons. There also tends to be a turn towards fewer shades of gray in the endings than the start.
So far this season has done fairly well on two fronts. First, it has been reincorporating often antagonistic characters and forces from prior seasons or shows as part of the new status quo. Iâd actually like even more of that, but thereâs been a great start so far. Second, the characters face problems that resist easy solutions for sensible reasons. This will probably prove even more true as they try to take on Ba Sing Se, a corrupt, oppressively unequal monarchy that seems to be in a position roughly comparable to China at the end of the Qing Dynasty.
One somewhat costly change is that theyâre no longer posting full episodes on the website fully after broadcast. We missed the show times, so I did end up buying the first three episodes in HD at about $3 each. Iâm okay with that, although Iâm a bit annoyed that they took a few weeks to put them up. If theyâre going to charge, please at least let us catch up to the where the show is now.
Japanese tourism promotions like to work in threes. Miyajima is one of the three great scenic spots in all of Japan, along with Matsushima which we would visit far later in the trip, and one more which we did not visit. The town of Okayama, meanwhile, has one of the three great landscape gardens of Japan, Okayama KÅraku-en, and conveniently was right on the way to Kyoto. We ended up scheduling things a bit tightly, although my mother helped make sure we had a bit more time than we may first have planned.
The station itself was a bit challenging, as we ended up having to split our luggage across multiple locker locations. Thankfully, Japan is saner than the U.S. on this front, so station lockers are easily available. However, they are still fairly costly and the time picking up our luggage on the way back our nearly made us miss the train. Thankfully, at least the bus ride to and from the garden was quite pleasing and we got to see some of Okayamaâs trams on the way. We had to pause for a moment while negotiating lunch and figuring out which bus to take back. However, once we were inside the garden proper it was easy to see how it earned its reputation.
The crow castle on the horizon to the left of the picture is not part of the garden, and the best views of it cost a separate admission, but even for the frugal it provides an atmospheric backdrop. The proximity to the castle is not coincidental, as KÅraku-en had been the garden of the daimyo (local lord) until it was opened to the public in 1884. While the view from the castle is no doubt impressive, the garden has its own mound that we proceeded to next that offered a look down at the pond and the inaccessible island buildings.
On the way down from the mound, Moti and Francis encountered a cat. Feline wanderers were not uncommon on the trip, but I donât think we encountered them that much more frequently than we would in the U.S. This is perhaps slightly surprising, as cats are definitely a favored animal and well represented in souvenirs and anime characters. This particular sunbather looked fairly well fed, but I wouldnât venture to guess whether it was actually a pet or was just well-treated by gardeners and visitors.
If you want a full view of the garden, youâll have to come back once we have the slideshow attached to it; thereâs too much there to summarize even in a long post. Weâre definitely fans of both Japanese and Chinese gardens. we saw three to five of each on our last trip to the Pacific Northwest, so we werenât caught by surprise by classic elements like teahouses and zig-zag bridges. However, what did surprise me was finding a building with a stone-strewn stream running through it. It was quite a meditative place to sit with oneâs shoes off and Iâve never seen the like before or since.
We split up some throughout the journey. My mother actually went at a slightly faster pace and was rewarded with a closer look at the cranes kept in a large enclosure at one end of the garden. The rest of us did more swift dawdling, taking the time to buy teahouse snacks for later consumption aboard the train later and then looping through the agrarian fields and forests of the garden.
This was actually the second time weâd seen such plantings in a garden in Japan, but they were still rather surprising based on our past experience with such gardens in the United States.The forests were arboretum worthy and showed remarkable color even in the summer. In this case, I believe the well known kaede, red maples, was the source. However, throughout the trip we saw a bit more color than we expected for the season. Classically speaking, I slightly prefer Chinese gardens to Japanese because such fancies as large rocks and elaborate courtyards appeal to me. This visit changed my mind to an extent. I still am quite in love with the Summer Palace park in Beijing, but Okayama has definitely made it into my top list of gardens. Fortunately, as an American, I can pick a top ten rather than needing to limit myself to three.
Update: Minor typological fixes.
After we finished at the Hiroshima Peace Museum we explored the city a bit more while Moti and Francis finished their visit. The next step our trip was Kyoto, but during research during brief down periods, Iâd discovered that our initial scenic plan along the Sea of Japan just wasnât going to work. While the Japanese rail system is amazing and extensive, it sensibly isnât high all speed rail, particularly when crossing from one coast of the country to the other. As a result, there were a few different points along the trip where our desire to check out interesting routes was foiled as we realized that the train trip alone would take an all day commitment.
Thankfully, there is HyperDia.com which, while not primarily a mapping tool, is far and away the best route planner Iâve had the pleasure of using. For example hereâs the search we used to get to our next destination, a stopover in Okayama on the way to Kyoto.
The output format is fairly straightforward and familiar. The strength is really found in the speed and stability combined with a wisely designed interface. It isnât without flaws - use of the back button rather than scrolling down to the bottom will result in you having to regularly re-input parameters - but I found it a stalwart companion throughout the trip and only once did it not cover all the modes of interest.
There are a few different aspects that makes the interface so convenient:
This doesnât mean that you donât want a companion book or the like; we certainly recommend Japan by Rail although most any reliable guide should mention station names. Hyperdia isnât meant to be the Amtrak Interactive Rail Atlas or the like; youâll still have to figure out where you want to go and what you want to see on your own. But once you have a couple possibilities worked out, itâs easy enough to experiment with a range of ways of running your trip. To be fair to the American sites, Hyperdia is such an amazing tool because it works with such an fantastic infrastructure backbone. The trains stick to their timetables and three-minute transfers are both achievable and not catastrophic in the event of a failure. The sprawling stations do have consistent numbering systems that are reported through the trip planner. Best of all, most anywhere you want to go, you can get there by train, possibly with a bit of help from a bus for intra-city travel or when going off the beaten path.
Content warning: The main museum gets most directly into the consequences of the bombing of Hiroshima, beyond even what is shown in the East building.
Walking through corridors showing the damage done to Hiroshima to property and to people, I certainly felt a moral imperative that these weapons never be used again. However, how is it that nuclear weapons have only been used twice in battle? I believe deterrence and mutually assured destruction is part of the story, but a key related concept is what Thomas Schelling calls the nuclear taboo. At first the escalation to nuclear weapons was seen as more of a continuation of existing policy than a radical break during WWII, and President Eisenhower made nuclear first use a policy in the event of a conventional Soviet invasion of Europe. However, by 1964 President Johnson declared âMake no mistake, there is no such thing as a conventional nuclear weapon. For 19 peril-filled years no nation has loosed the atom against another. To do so now is a political decision of the highest order.â This reflected earlier decisions not to deploy them in Korea and subsequent avoidance by the U.S. in Vietnam, by Israel against Egypt in 1973, and by the Soviets in Afghanistan. Nina Tattenwald discusses the origin of the taboo (summary by Patrick Lam) and the main building passionately and decisively makes the case that this taboo must be maintained whether you believe in full abolition or that theyâve contributed to the decline in great power war.
The displays (excerpted online) covered the multitude of ways that nuclear weapons can visit destruction upon cities: the rays of heat, the blast itself, the conflagration of flammable materials, and of course the radiation. The picture on the left shows a portion of the facade of a bank where someone was sitting at 8:15 that morning, likely waiting for it to open. Given the location, the person died on the spot, the stone around them was blasted white while the steps underneath them left the remnant of their âshadowâ in the middle of the picture.
The mangled remains of the city, stone, wood, and steel filled many of the displays showing the widespread extent of the damage from a single nuclear bomb with a small yield by todayâs standards. The museum did its best to mark where each piece came from within the blast zone. The details filled out the almost incomprehensible damage shown in the photographs and the detailed model on the right. One piece I donât have the heart to include in the display was the shredded remnants of the school uniforms of children who died in the bombing or the days thereafter (let alone the photographs of the burned bodies directly afflicted). Some had been evacuated to the country but others were conscripted to create firebreaks and in anticipation of conventional bombing.
Death and devastation can come in many forms. As Iâve earlier mentioned, more people died from a single raid in the firebombing of Tokyo; however, that raid involved 334 B-29s with 279 dropping bombs. By comparison, the Enola Gay flew with only two other planes, suggesting a terrible potential to scale that was achieved by both sides in the Cold War. This is also where the radiation comes in, as experienced by many of the hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombs. Sadako Sasaki, who helped inspire the Childrenâs War Memorial, had been two at the time of the bombing but died years later of leukemia despite having been quite healthy in the interim. The picture on the right are some of the cranes she folded; you may have read or heard of her story when you were a child.
The remainder of the museum focused on the stories of survivors, the rescue and recovery efforts, and even pictures drawn by those who were there. This was complemented by prayers and wishes for peace from around the world and a view out to the rest of the park. Based on the wikipedia page, one million people visit the museum a year. I hope, in addition to whatever else we do to make this a better world, we all work to keep this taboo from fading.
The first floor of the museum continued to show a variety of consequences of the bombing, but Iâd like to focus on the letters that make up the wall undergirding the model of the A-Bomb Dome. They are written on behalf of the people of Hiroshima to protest every nuclear weapons test. The letters continue until present day and are primarily not driven by states like North Korea, but instead are by ongoing sub-critical tests by Russia, China, and the United States. Such test produce no yield of fissile material and are allowed under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. However, while such tests are safer than other forms of testing, the city government objects to their intent as it seeks nuclear disarmament. Iâd be interesting in discussing those issues in further depth at some point, although it was not my international relations focus and at my think tank (who I continue not to write on behalf of) the topic is handled by a different program. However, suffice to say, the topic is not a flight of fancy. The arsenals of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union have shrunk dramatically and there are any number of steps that disarmament advocates call for, such as de-alert weapons or ruling out first use, short of total abolition.
The second level dealt with Hiroshima under Allied occupation, specifically British Commonwealth forces in this cityâs case. This is a topic I am somewhat familiar with, although it has been several years since I read Embracing Defeat. The exhibit focused on the ramifications of the bombing, from the Red Cross hospital where survivors were treated on the left, to the U.S. government studies of the effects of radiation poisoning that at times prioritized secrecy of treatment of the afflicted. Particularly hard-hitting for us, due to my Momâs prior work at the United States Information Agency (not extant at the time), was the discussion of censorship on reporting of the extent of the damage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Restrictions imposed after the outbreak of the Korean War also prevented public gatherings including the 1950 peace festival, although the mayor did travel abroad to speak on the topic in France. The occupations of Japan and Germany are widely viewed as the best examples of the potential of rebuilding an enemy after a war. I still agree with that assessment, although I think there are many factors that resulted it in not being an applicable model elsewhere and itâs important to remember that even after the war ended there remained policies that put security concerns above ethical ones.
Finally, the top floor focused on the current state of nuclear weapons in the world, with the globe on the right showing declared stockpiles. I found this part to be informative and well-argued. I also particularly appreciated the sheer number of languages offered in the digital displays. That said, thereâs a few other books Iâll be ordering and a few debates I wish to watch before I write in greater detail on these topics. The next portion was the museum shop, from which we acquired a good number of bilingual childrenâs books on the Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and other materials before proceeding to the second building. That one was rawer now that the the context has been established, and included more artifacts. It reminded both Moti and myself of nothing so much as the Holocaust Museum, both in content and caliber. I am yet unsure if I can do it justice in this format. I may continue on with the trip in the next post and save any further discussion for writing that is not travelogue.
To end on a slightly more hopeful note, I do want to emphasize the extent to which the de-escalation and then end of the Cold War has dramatically reduced the global stock of nuclear weapons. This should not encourage complacency; North Korea has gone nuclear and even now the world powers are in talks to reach a deal with Iran to prevent further proliferation in the Middle East. But if anyone tells you that the world is scarier now than it was at the height of the Cold War, they are trying to sell you something or just donât know what theyâre talking about. The progress weâve made on preventing the annihilation of the human race is vital, and some credit must go to those who have made it their livesâ work to convince leaders and peoples of the world that these weapons must be constrained.
Some years ago, in my home town of Washington, D.C., the Air and Space Museum had an exhibit about the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I believe I went through it, but I may just be conflating pictures of the plane with past trips to the museum in my ever fallible memory. Regardless, that exhibit unsuccessfully sought to avoid controversy by focusing on the technical aspects and avoiding politics and context. Worse yet are museums that actively distort the past for propagandistic purposes. By comparison, the Peace Museum takes an extremely challenging topic and addresses it in a forthright and informative matter.
The initial section gives the history of Hiroshima leading into the Second World War. Hiroshima was a garrison city a staging area for troops in various wars, one of the centers for emigrants from annexed Korea, and an industrial town with a significant reliance on mobilized students and forced labor. The panel on the right discusses the invasion of China: âEarly in the War with China, the Japanese Army occupied many Chinese cities. In December 1937, it took the capital city, then called Nanking. The occupation of this important city cheered the Japanese people, who considered the war in China a holy crusade. Hiroshimaâs residents celebrated with a lantern parade. In Nanking, however, Chinese people were being massacred by the Japanese army.â It goes on to briefly discuss varied estimates of the death toll. Wartime atrocities are not the subject of the museum - for that there is the Kyoto Museum for World Peace - but it squarely addresses the context of the bombing before making the hard case against it.
After reviewing the history, the museum proceeds to the actual attack. There are any number of artifacts, although the greater detail is held for the second building and a future post. On your left is a pocket watch donated by Akito Kawagoe, stopped at the exact moment of the bombing. The discussion of the decisions of the U.S. government does not rely on hyperbole. Instead it presents key memos and minutes from the debates, showing various competing views. As is somewhat widely known, the old capital Kyoto was also considered as a possible target. However, its selection was vehemently opposed by Japan experts within the U.S. government as a sacrilege which would destroy any hope of future peace with Japan. The museum did not specifically argue that there was a clear course that would have achieved peace without the use of the bomb, but did highlight that possible concessions, such as allowing the continuation of the imperial system as the occupying forces did anyways, were not deeply explored before the attack.
The destruction of the bombing was shown in multiple forms, including the two models above. One related point mentioned by the museum, but not an area of primary focus, was that the firebombing of Tokyo and not the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki is widely cited as the source of the largest casualty count from a single air raid. The horrifying specter of nuclear war is not just the enormity of the individual bombings, but that the threat can scale up in a way that more air force-intensive operations could not. This relative continuity in death toll is perhaps one of the reasons why the specific morality of the atomic bomb was not as hotly debated. In many ways it was a continuation of existing policy by other means. However, the questions raised there require research beyond the scope of this post.
Sorry about that. I had a medical appointment and was feeling a little wiped out. Although that may have just been biking up to Georgetown in the summer.
Iâm also deciding if I want to put all of the Peace Museum posts sequentially, probably two to three of them are coming and theyâll be a bit heavy, as youâd expect. If you have any thoughts on that question, weigh in via comments.
The entire group wanted to spend time at the museum, but Kate, my mother, and I decided to get up earlier and attend the daily carillon ringing at Peace Memorial Park one last time. The chimes toll electronically, with a slight background buzz, but Iâm still moved every time I hear it.
When approaching the carillon, we passed by a large number of students, respectfully gathered at the Childrenâs Peace Memorial. They presumably were there with similar intent when it came to timing. Moti was not with us, so I could not tell you what exactly was said, but the sentiment was unmistakable.
We then walked to the west side of the island, which we had not yet explored. It was perhaps the portion in which the weight of history was felt most heavily as it included the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound which sat over a vault holding the unclaimed remains of many of the victims of the bombing.
Further south is a monument specifically to the Korean victims of the attack. It estimated their number at twenty thousand, about ten percent of the dead. [The total casualty count estimated by the memorial is higher than most other sources, but the estimate of the number of Korean dead is in line with what Iâve seen elsewhere]. Japan occupied Korea well before the U.S. had entered the second World War and the garrison city of Hiroshima had a population that were soldiers, mobilized students, and ordinary civilians. Later in the trip, at the Osaka Human Rights museum, I got to see video of other Koreans, then residing in Japan, celebrating the end of the war and as one might expect very glad to see the end of the occupation of their nation. The placement of this memorial on the main island is actually a relatively recent change, one that happened only within the past few decades. Iâm very glad that it did.
Update: Fixed the date in the title and add a note on the casualties.
With my familyâs longstanding advocacy on behalf of Marylandâs prospective Purple Line, we check out light rail most anywhere we travel. An interesting thing about trams and streetcars, at least in cities that have had them for some time like Hiroshima, is that there is a huge variety vehicles in service. Iâm sure there are multiple factors at work, but one big one is that many cities abandoned their surface rail networks in the latter half of the twentieth century. As a result of that, and the standardized gauge, many cars seem to have shuffled around the world to various cities and transit museums.
This is not to say that the city doesnât have a range of shiny new cars. There were several varieties about, including an underground line I visited on our last day there, after finally going to the Peace Museum. The underground line thankfully had a machine to get a Paspy, the local smart card. As I believe Iâve earlier mentioned, the trick to getting these cards is to look for machines labeled IC, probably for intelligent chip or the like. The best strategy is typically to just find the card when arriving in the station, a task that has grown much easier than it once was. Just a few years back, finding cards normally involved hunting down an authorized retailer or one of a small number of valid distribution points. As you would expect, things vary greatly from city to city, but I think that smart chip cards have just gotten cheaper and more widely available, so distribution has gotten more convenient.
For me, the trams really epitomized the cityâs charm and resilience. They were running again at an astonishing pace after the atomic bombing and even with a wide range of types of cars they manage to provide service with remarkable regularity. If you missed one, there always seemed to be a new car just down the line. The interiors were often crowded, but the riders were courteous and sometimes the cars themselves were full of whimsy such as the art contest winners depicted on the right. The friendly and welcoming nature ultimately comes from the city and its people; the infrastructure just reflects and reinforces it. But the enjoyment of the placeâs vibe was common throughout the group. Francis was pleased to discover that one of Hiroshimaâs sister cities was Montreal. I can see it.
After reaching the base of the mountain we bid a fond adieu to Toshi. Our next priority was clear: food. Fortunately, like popular tourist spots everywhere, there was a town happy to ply wares to satiate our hunger. In a precursor for the remainder of the trip, there were also vast crowds of students. This appeared to be field trip season and Moti told us that the volume was far greater than he was really used to. While the picture-taking was sometimes more challenging as a result, sharing the sights with the Japanese students was a consistently enjoyable experience and the times later in the trip where we interacted were all the more so.
My mother then took a break to sit by the coast, write postcards, and be accosted by deer as the rest of us went on to Itsukushima Shrine. I managed to make a cultural faux pas on the way in by sitting at the edge of the stone basin used for washing oneâs hands on entry. That said, they still let me in and we were able to wander the orange painted halls of the complex. When the tide is up, the wooden floors would be consistently surrounded by water, but at this hour we could clearly see the flood plains.
In a touch of home, the muddy earth also was home to tiny crabs. Not the sort we normally see (and eat) in Maryland but a smaller type that reminded me of the burrowing crabs of the west coast of Florida. I wasnât aware of such a phenomenon and may have to check out their place in Japanese myth. The rest of the shrine was a bit more familiar. There was a stage for Noh theater, miko (shrine maidens) selling incense and charms, and places to leave prayers behind or to get your fortune read.
Many of those elements can also be found at Buddhist temples, which made it challenging when I quizzed my mother later on identifying whether a place of worship was a temple or shrine. I primarily learned the difference thanks to my 2002 cultural arts class. The easiest way to tell typically is that the presence of Torii gateway, like the famous one on the left, indicates Shintoism and thus shrines. Thereâs any number of other signifiers, from the color orange to hanging paper, that also are good clues, but the Torii are the most reliable. That said, there are times when small shrines can be found in temples so sometimes you just have to read shrines and books to be sure.
After touring the Shrine we went on to a tasty meal, primarily consisting of the local specialty: anago (salt-water eel). I enjoyed it, although my favorite is still unagi (fresh-water eel). That said, when I was checking the wikipedia pages to get the words right, I saw that there are apparently real sustainability concerns around unagi, so I should probably make that a rarer treat.
After dinner we road the ferry back to the mainland and then took the train back to Hiroshima for our last night in the city.
Our next destination was clearly in view from the summit. That building in the middle-left of the picture is the upper terminus of a hanging cable car system. As the picture also shows, itâs a bit of a distance from the summit, with a few ups and downs in between. We could have hiked the whole way down, but we were getting hungry for something more substantial and my mother was hardly the only one that was getting rather tired.
This particular journey was not covered by our JR passes, but we were happy to pay. The trip actually came in two parts. The first in a larger car that could hold more than a dozen people. Ours reasonably had another group with us, but that didnât prevent appreciation of a slightly closer view down to the water below.
The next stage was a transfer to smaller, more numerous cars on a steady loop. This made for easier photographs and Miyajima was no less scenic as we returned to sea level, even if the shrine itself was not necessarily on full view along the route. The legend of Itsukushima Shrine is that is that a crow led three goddesses to the site. Given the aerial views, it isnât hard to see what that legendary guide saw in the place.
The base, as youâd expect, was not as fascinating as the peak. There was a koi pond and other adornments around, but it was actually the sign on the left that most left me charmed. I donât make a habit of posting signs with unusual English as Iâm dreadfully monolingual despite a fair number of classes in a smattering of languages. However, sometimes anotherâs spin on your native tongue has a special appeal.
The first trip I rigorously photoblogged was my tour of China in 2007. Back then, as now, Flickr offered a rather good deal on storage and had some helpful online tools. For reasons I do not understand, perhaps relating to the increasing size of photos or mismanagement by Yahoo, uploading to Flickr has gotten steadily harder over the years. Back in 2013, I was regularly stymied when trying to upload photos from my trip to attend Guyâs funeral. The Uploadr tool, since deprecated, would inexplicably leave out some of those photos and consulting with technical support did me little good. Iâve tried using Flickrâs new website uploading tool and found it to be slow and quirky. It simply failed to register many of my Picasa tagged photos until Iâd given it ten to twenty minutes to finish processing the photos. Iâm going to try a few third party apps like jUploader and slow updating for now, but at this point Iâm largely sticking with Flickr for legacy reasons. If I ever get around to swapping my site to Wordpress I may find a new photo hosting solution as well.
Happily, the geo-tagging delays were playing with a new toy and not a frustrating attempt to reproduce what once was simple. On the left, you can see our first morning in Tokyo mapped out in Google Earth. Our new camera has wifi abilities and could grab geo-tags off another source, but I have not yet linked them up or worked out whether it could get these tags from my phone without draining the battery. Once Iâm further along in blogging I will try to figure that out and may pick a dedicated wifi geotagger if need-be. This effort is worth it to me because I take far too many pictures (between my motherâs camera and ours we took some 9,200) and actually sorting through them and tagging them to make them usefully findable in the future is no small project. In essence, the photos regularly serve as my trip notes. Many of the more banal images are there just because of some cross-cultural or geographic detail that I wanted to remember. However, if I at least know where the photos are from, deriving many of the tags should be much easier as should jogging my memory.
The Picasa geo-tagger works with Google Earth, allowing you to do text based searching or visual scanning of the 3D map in order to find where your photo was taken. The interface can be a little rough, you notably you cannot change the size of that tiny little window in the lower right to give you more of a photo to work with. Similarly, while you can control the number of photos being tagged on the Picasa end, you cannot shift-select once youâre in Google Earth. Tagging one or tagging all our your only option. Finally, I had a bit of false hope based on the fact that the size of the focus reticule, seen in the upper left of that picture, stays the same size at variable level of zoom. My initial naive take was that if you tagged from a greater zoom, it may somehow track that, perhaps in an error measure or just by rounding off the latitude and longitude to avoid false precision. That is not the case, so Iâll have to consult my friendly neighborhood esteemed information scientist about geo-tagging best practices.
Mount Misen is the highest peak on Itsukushima at 534 meters and despite having been here in 2002 was the first time Iâve climbed one of Japanâs many dark green summits. We choose the Daoshi-In route up which goes by a historic hill temple. Based on one of the pictures outside, it looks as if the trail could once have passed through the temple, but now itâs just an interesting side-trip requiring some doubling back. We spread out a bit, depending on how much time people wanted to spend looking around versus spending on the ascent.
On the way back we could see that people were now walking all the way up to Miyajimaâs famed Torii gate as the tide continued to recede. The view points back were not that common, but they made welcome rest stops on a fairly steep, albeit typically paved, path all the more satisfying. There were some deer scattered throughout the journey, but they werenât as common as in the densely visited areas and were beaten by a tiny blue-tailed lizard for role of my favorite animal of the walk. We encountered perhaps a dozen other travelers on the way, including one musician, but by and large we had space we needed to commune with the beautiful surroundings.
We had regrouped, including meeting up again with Toshi, by the time we reached the end of the Daoshi-In trail. There was much discussion about whether to make it all the way to the top. Remarkably, the musician, a bugler, who had passed us earlier made it all the way to the peak of a nearby mountain and practiced his craft for all to hear. Heâs a speck near the top of the rock-face in the picture on the right. The choice to play Taps within his set was taken as perhaps an ill omen, but nonetheless we made it to the temple near the peak. That place had more tourists, many of whom likely took the ropeway up. It also sold drinks even there was neither food nor a cafe as Iâd misread in the guidebook.
We decided to press on to the very peak, which did have a multilevel viewing stand that made the climb all the more rewarding. The view on the left includes some of the islands of Hiroshima Bay and also the lesser peak that would be the our next destination. I reached the summit first, in part by miscommunication, but I made it back quickly and stayed with the bags as everyone else made the final trek. All-and-all I do recommend the trip; Iâd just say to be sure to pack a lunch and to understand that the journey may take a fair portion of your day.
The trip to Miyajima from Hiroshima is quite straightforward. If you have a JR Pass, just grab the train to Ono and ride the ferry over to the island. Both are covered. Thereâs also a tram line that runs parallel which may well be cheaper for non pass-holders. However, itâs a good thing we took the train as it meant we met Toshi, our on-and-off companion for the day. He noticed Moti was actually reading the Japanese on the platypus-labeled signs that told tourists how many stops until they had to get off (why a platypus? short answer: Japan loves cute things; longer answer: the platypus is the mascot of JR West and also appears on their smartcards). Toshi is a civil engineer who works in Germany but was making a trip back home on vacation.
Between my leaving my pass at home and earlier trip to the park, we hadnât made it out in time to see the Itsukushima Shrineâs fabled torii gate at the high tide, when it appears most to be floating in the water. On the day we visited, that happened around 8 am and low tide struck at 2 pm. When the tide is entirely out, the gate is fully accessible by land and the floodplain around the shrine is similarly dry. Nonetheless, even in the middle stages, the gate is a sight to see and the deer are almost as prevalent as they are at Nara. We didnât make that site of legendarily large wooden temples and bowing deer trip, although I still have fond memories of it from my 2002 excursion.
In the morning, we did not actually stop in the shrine, although we did take our time to look at the torii gate while the water was still in. The architecture does do a beautiful job of accenting the natural beauty of the bay and the mainland and island mountains. While we did look around the town, it was primarily a waypoint on our journey to the base of Mt. Misen. That hike would take us most of the day and is the subject of the next post.
There is a Peace Clock Tower at the north end of the park, one built by Seiko with atop a triangular tower with a twist at the bottom and a ball at the top. It plays at 8:15 AM every day and my mother set out early to make sure that we heard it and to give her a chance to see some of what she missed the prior night. Nearby is classical large temple bell etched with a map of the world and an atomic symbol. The prior night I had tapped it with a ring to hear a tone but when the park opened at 8:30 one of the staffers released the clapper for visitors to use. I have a video of my mother tolling the bell, but in the video depicting my effort Iâm taking a bit of time, contemplative and pensive, and the ring of the peace bell canât be heard by a larger audience. Thereâs a troubling metaphor here with my international relations work, that is sufficiently on the nose that I will not further explain it.
To the south of the clock tower and bell, thereâs the Childrenâs Peace Monument, dedicated to all the children who died in the bombing with a statue inspired by Sadako Sasaki, a girl who later died of leukemia brought on by radiation exposure. The booths to the back of the picture are filled with strings of paper cranes as well as artwork with the cranes as a medium. Sasaki had attempted to fold the cranes near the end of her life in keeping with a legend about 1,000 cranes granting a wish. The effort behind that gesture and the sentiment that underlies it left me awed.
My mother and I then explored a bit further and then headed to the intersection of two major tram-lines to meet with the rest of our group. I went off to pick up a convenience store breakfast for the both of us and realized that Iâd left my passport and rail pass in the hotel room in my eagerness to make the sounding of the carillon. Thankfully, the regularity of the trolleys is such that I was able to rush back to the hotel room and rejoin the others in time to catch the train and subsequent ferry to Miyajima and a rather different sort of encounter with the spiritual.
Not all the races Iâm watching are done yet, but from whatâs known Iâll be happy to support Marylandâs (and specifically Montgomery and Howardâs) slate of Democratic candidates. This isnât that surprising of a result to me, as most of the races had a lot of strong contenders and even many of the candidates that did not make the cut this year should be proud on a race well run.
I feel rather lucky to be alive in this period of Maryland history. Thereâs still a general election to win, but I think the theme for the next four years really has to be state-level execution. Weâve made some real strides, but the Silver Spring Transit Center and the first round of Health Care website problems show that we can sometimes mess ourselves up without needing much help from Republicans. We have a chance to be a hopeful example to a divided nation, but we have to bring our A-game. Letâs start by building the Purple Line now!
Japan travel blogging resumes tomorrow. Good night and good luck.
Iâm rather happy with my choices this year. Maryland, my present home of Howard County, and my birthplace of Montgomery County have all been well governed for the past few years. Thereâs been a exception or two, mostly notably the health care website, but it seems like thatâs under control now.
So, if you have any races you still need information on, allow me to recommend Vote411.org. That has the candidates answers to pertinent questions for races at all levels of the ballot. Thatâs not just MD, check it out for any U.S. election (though obviously many elections have already happened or may not be tomorrow).
So, speaking strictly for myself, and not for my organizations or employer, and certainly not for the League which doesnât do endorsements, hereâs the Action Committee for Transit scorecard for Montgomery County and various statewide races (scroll to the second page for state government stuff). One of the candidates did object to the scoring, hereâs a discussion by David Alpert of GGW on what goes into that sort of thing.
If you favor building the Purple Line, now, then please allow me to point you towards two County-Council-At-Large candidates in particular: George Leventhal and Hans Riemer. Both have been with us from the start and push for the line even when inconvenient. As the ACT scorecard shows, the Purple Line has many friends in Montgomery and Iâm grateful to all of them. However, I wanted to emphasize those two as I hear the at-large race is pretty competitive this year and I want to be sure they stick around.
Hope your election day experience is or was a good one and that turnout is high for an off-year.
Hiroshima loves okonomiyaki! How can I make such a bold statement about a city? Well, it has a three-story tall building full of okonomiyaki stands, Okonomimura, in the central business district. I think that qualifies, donât you? Happily my wife Kate also loves okonomiyaki and the last time she had it was with our friend Coby in L.A. This is in large part my fault, as my diet restrictions on mammals and cephalopods runs right up against some favored ingredients in the cuisine.
The dish is a grilled one, typically prepared in front of the customer either at a common bar like the one in the picture to the right or at grills at the table. The word basically means grill what you like, so this isnât really a cooking gimmick so much as intrinsic to the style. Ironically, the only available local option we know about in Howard County is premade, so I canât get it without pork. All of the chosen ingredients are combined to form a pancake-style final product, although the Hiroshima style is a particularly large one, in part due to its inclusion of cabbage and noodles.
We picked a place by going up to the third floor, walking to the pack, and then sniffing. The back right place had a pleasant odor, and though almost all of the menu items contained pork, I was able to request a special order. Our noses served us well; our range of selections were all quite good and our server was quite the charmer. She already had a smattering of relevant English questions and worked with Moti to start to master follow-ups. Sheâd learn from him to go for âWhere in Canada?â or the like after people named their country of origin and then tested it out on the other people at the table.
I donât have the card handy at the moment, but I intend to specifically list the name and location of the place, as weâd all recommend it to anyone visiting the city. Kate continues to love okonomiyaki in all its forms, and I should perhaps just come up with a written Japanese explanation of my preferences. That said, we consistently had a fun time with later places that served it, and itâs popular throughout Kansai; donât miss an opportunity even if you arenât in Hiroshima.
While I loved the entire trip, Hiroshima is what I cite as my favorite part. This was partially true because I had been to Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo in the past, so while still spectacular they were not as packed with discovery. Also, while Japan is a treasure trove of trains, Hiroshima is flush with trams, both of the single car streetcar and the two car long trolley variety. The short length is made up by volume, a mixture of classic cars like the one on the right to smooth curves of modern models. After completing our misty ride on the Sakura line from Osaka to Hiroshima, we rode one of those classic cars into the city center and then walked down to our hotel, the Tokoyu Bizfort.
My mother called it in for the night, and the rest of us walked down a covered promenade towards the river and the Peace Park. Iâd seen such plazas on my past trip; theyâre a natural outgrowth of large pedestrian-friendly cities that have an extended rainy season. We stopped for a chocolate snack at the Stick Sweets Factory before walking the rest of the way to the Peace Memorial Park.
The Park was once a busy downtown commercial and residential hub. In 1945 Hiroshima was a garrison city, but still an urban space in its own right. The nominal target of the atomic bomb was the Aioi bridge at one end of the island. The building Hiroshima is perhaps most known for, the A-Bomb dome, was the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall, the closest building to survive the blast. We walked through the park as the sun went down.
The Japanese bullet trains, literally translated as new highways, began operations in 1964, coinciding with the Tokyo Olympics. Some of that difference with the history of the United States is of course driven by geography and the fact that itâs much easier to build straight rail in country forced to redevelop itself after bombing. Nonetheless, given the decay inflicted upon our cities by the interstates, I feel confident in saying that President Eisenhower should have gone with trains, at least on the North-East corridor and the like.
Our journey south had two legs; the longer stretch was between Tokyo and Osaka. The picture on the left is of the more rural end of the spectrum of what we were seeing. Cities and towns were also regularly present at the foot of misty mountains. Prior to going to Japan we had picked up a deck-building board game called Trains with a Japanese theme. One of the features of the board was that plains were in light green and mountains were in dark green. After this section I understood why; vast hills were everywhere and from what we could see beneath the mists they seemed consistently below the tree line.
The stop in Shin-Osaka was fun for me, although we didnât have time to leave the station. Shin-Osaka refers to the new Osaka station; the older central one couldnât affordably be expanded to become a network hub and as a result youâve got to catch a quick train to get between the two. General fans of technological wackiness should note that thereâs an escalator that briefly turns flat in the middle. This was actually our second strange pedestrian aid of the trip. When we were transiting through Toronto they had a high speed moving walkway with foot-wide platforms moving at higher than usual speed, spreading out for most of the journey and scrunching together at the ends. I suppose the lesson there is just that inventors and designers think a lot about how to efficiently move people through hub stations.
Our trip was skirting on Japanâs hot and wet summer, so our overall plan involved a journey from South to North with a bit of time in Tokyo at both ends. This ultimately worked out fairly well; we faced some days of persistent rain and all-encompassing fog, but the temperature was only a problem for the Kyoto stretch. However, since we were jetlagged and rising early anyways, we gave ourselves the morning off in Tokyo and went to see the Tsukiji fish market. As during my trip in 2002, we didnât feel up for doing the 5:30 AM tuna auction. What we hadnât realized was that under the current rules, if you donât get one of the small number of slots for the auction then the commercial side of the market is closed to tourists until 9 a.m. No matter, we still got to see tuna being carted around, to dodge the ubiquitous mini-trucks with their conical front steering columns, and to have a lovely sushi breakfast.
The commercial district and small nearby shrine are fun, but itâs the right off the boat fish thatâs the most appealing part of a morning market visit. That particular day, the chef was pushing a batch of oysters that was apparently the pick of the market not an hour before. We took that advice and were impressed; Iâm not really an oyster person but trying something in top form is a great way to better understand the appeal.
After leaving breakfast (and procuring an octopus tea cup), we visited the fruit and vegetable market. There was a range of fascinating selections and it did help me understand the Japanese side of the constant trade battles regarding their restrictive agricultural markets. Moti, who had worked with the JET program for a year in cherry-producing Yamagata, told us stories of getting vast numbers of cherries gratis because of small imperfections preventing their sale on the market. Iâve seen impressive fresh produce at U.S. farmers markets and fine grocery stories, and Iâm no expert on these issues. However, the food we saw and the ate throughout the trip successfully cultivated a gourmand feel that is markedly different than the industrial agriculture portion of the U.S. market. It was also the first time I recall seeing wasabi in the raw and I was pleased to discover that the spice had a spiky covering to matched its flavor.
Wandering around the market itself was still remarkable if claustrophobic at times. The market itself may be moving before too long, a subject of some controversy, and seems to have a somewhat uneasy relationship with its status as a tourist destination.
We ended our Tokyo visit on a more relaxed and open note and visited nearby Hama-Rikyu gardens. One of many gardens once reserved for the ruling elite and now open to the general public, it has many elements you can find in Japanese gardens in North America but on a far greater scale. What could not have been anticipated by its original designers was the contrast of old and new, nature and city, of wooden plank bridges and skyscrapers. Such contrasts can certainly be found at Chicagoâs Skyline Drive or New Yorkâs Central Park, but the sheer density and continuous history of Japan makes such striking combinations the rule rather than the exceptions. After finishing that walk we returned to our hotel and caught our first Shinkansen to Hiroshima.
The ride into Tokyo takes an hour on the N'ex (Narita Airport Express). That fact, combined with the sexy streamlined N'ex engine you see on the right, confused me as I knew high speed rail should be able to travel the distance between even a far flung airport and its base city in a fraction of the time. The answer was quite straightforward, mere streamlining does not high speed rail make. The actual Shinkansen require far straighter track and have streamlined nose cones that are reminiscent of airplanes.
The countryside witnessed on the journey into Tokyo is not rural but does include rice paddies. As in China and Egypt there is no arable land to spare, in large part because of the widespread hills and mountains. As I understand it, the difference is that Japanese production is artisanal rather than subsistence. Japan is a net importer of rice but has particular standards when it comes to that staple and other crops.
When we arrived at Tokyo station, Moti took a moment to exploit the JR station provided free wifi and get a map for our hotel. That said, donât necessarily rely on that trick, in part due to use of a range of bands, some of our phones often did not see or could not use any given wifi service. We did already have an address, but under the Japanese system, addresses refer to neighborhood and block numbers rather than position on the street. The numbers are sequential within the neighborhood, but there are no numerical avenues or grid-style positioning reference points. Thus, if you donât have mobile internet access, it is best to have the closest transit stop with a map image handy for any locations not listed in a guidebook.
Fortunately, our hotel, the Mitsui Garden Hotel Shiodome Italia-ga, was labeled on the station map. The Italia-ga part of the name refers an Italian theme in the district as a whole, also reflected in the Italian restaurant in the hotel. That said, we favored cheaper fare for the night and went to one of the local convenience stores, a FamilyMart. The name convenience store does accurately describe the longer hours and range of products, but notably these stores offer a range of fresh pastries and food choices more in keeping with the prepared food section of a high-end grocery store than any counterpart in the U.S. Whatâs remarkable is that the prices are in line with conveniences stores in the U.S., the breakfast and snack items on the right were under ten dollars and will easily feed two. FamilyMart was Motiâs favorite variant, and indeed this one had a nice seating section and had a melon pastry (in the center top of the photo) that was a favorite of Kate throughout the trip.
We made an early night of it, to better handle the jet lag. The next morning, we would rise early to head over to Tsukiji, Tokyoâs famous fish market and the associated vegetable market. After that it was on to Hiroshima for the first leg of our trip.
The flight was smooth, although our plan to simultaneously watch Her on three different seat consoles didn't quite work out due to deficient headphones. My capsule review is that I thought it was effective both as a romantic film in its own right and a critique of the failure of many other AI-centric stories to incorporate the possibility of continued growth.
Upon arrival in Tokyo's Narita airport we united with our Canadian contingent, changed over some money, holding back because of a spike in the strength of the yen, and tra ded in our Japan Railways (JR) vouchers for full on JR passes. For those not familiar, the JR pass is a godsend for foreigners traveling between multiple cities in Japan. The very fastest four lines of the bullet trains, called Shinkansen, are off limits. However, a plethora of trains, including Shinkansen faster than anything in the U.S., traditional inter-city lines, and any number of local trains can be ridden for free. You'll still often wish to take the time to make a reservation for the longer hauls, but that similarly has no additional cost. The total charge is comparable to a single significant roundtrip ticket, so if you qualify and are train-savvy at all than its a can't miss deal that you've got to book ahead of time. If you're actively enthusiastic about trains, than I'd wholeheartedly endorse the Japan By Rail guide, version 3 of which has been one of our core references for this trip.
In continuing transit geekery, we then got Suica smartcards. Transit smartcards have proliferated since my first visit in 2002. The Suica belongs to JR East and is particularly fancy in that you can have your name printed on it. Different smartcards are issued by the various competing geographic divisions of the JR group, by department stores which sometimes have their own train lines, and by various regional cooperatives. As is becoming increasingly common, these smart cards can also hold money which can be used in local stores and the like. Given all the different systems, this could easily be a confusing mess. However, there is a fair amount of interoperability and cash registers and fare gates are labeled with the systems they'll accept. The biggest complicating factor is that it's tricky to have two in your wallet at once and getting a hold of one in the first place. Generally speaking, they're available at major stations if you find a machine that says 'IC.' Mercifully, a good percentage of the machines we've encountered so far have had a button for English.
With that out of the way, we were ready to ride into Tokyo on the Narita Airport Express. During my trip a dozen years ago I'd also flown in, though that time we'd then transferred to a flight to Kyoto. One of my first observations on that trip was that the escalator handrails were often blue. That had seemed like a fairly innocuous if curious distinction at the time as most every handrail I was familiar with back home was black. I later realized the reason, the flexible handrail material can easily get marked up and turn partially black with the combined residue from hands and machinery. I suspect it's easy to create an escalator with any color scheme you desire, but maintaining it will take real work. I suspect that's true of many of the modern wonders we'd see this trip; on-time trains and the like are not magic, they just require paying a lot of people to make sure it happens.
Judas is on the docket for the trial of the millennium in purgatory, catatonic with guilt and unable to speak in his own defense. Fortunately, he has a lawyer ready to take on figures from Mother Theresa to Lucifer himself. This courtroom drama is vulgar and philosophical, hard-hitting and comedic, and full of characters that are contradictory but unlike Judas are quite capable of speaking in their own defense.
That last point is one of my favored criteria for all fiction: a range of characters capable of full-throated defenses of their viewpoints that are forced by circumstance and dialogue to make the hard case for themselves. At no time is this more clear than back-to-back showstopper witnesses: High Priest of the Sanhedrin Caiaphas and Roman Governor Pontius Pilate.
All the more remarkable, the play does not rest on its characterization; the debates show a remarkable intellect and a firm grounding in actual history, to the limited degree that it is known. The playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, is happy to speculate, particularly when it comes to the asides and the characterization of St. Monica, who takes after her namesake boulevard. However, it maintains a broader relevance by favoring the report of the four Gospels when other sources are not available and avoiding reliance on any esoteric revelations. The play shows its commitment best when, in my opinion, the second most guilty character in it defends himself by noting that the very plausible case against is notably lacking in proof. The playwright achieves this wisdom the old fashioned way, by making heavy use of great writing that came before it, incisively choosing from and at times challenging well-loved writing on relevant topics rather than seeking to start from scratch.
I fear that that last paragraph understates the appeal, but worry not those with little interest in theology. This play has absolutely no interest in how many angels can dance on the head of the pin or what exactly communion means. And in the end, even questions of theodicy fall away as the strictly human implications of the debates move to the fore.
Finally, all of this would just be a book review were it not for the excellent direction by John Vreeke and performances by the cast. Iâd normally prefer to go through and call out performances by name, but weâre presently in Japan and have not had much time to write and we wanted to post this in time for people to go see it. However, in doing a last Googling to finalize this piece, I did see that Frank Britton, who memorably played Pilate, was attacked and robbed after a cast party. His performance was one of the ones that exemplified all Iâve said above and our best wishes go with him. As for the rest of the cast, I enjoyed the actors and actresses that were new to me and it is quite exciting to see returning faces often playing very different roles. Iâll be renewing my subscription without hesitation after this show.
Nothing Left to Wish For is a swashbuckling tale in an unforgiving desert world. The story starts with sky pirate Esmeralda, Esme for short, leading a raid of a local potentateâs ship seeking a rumored treasure of immeasurable value. Protagonist as pirate isnât that unusual, particularly nowadays, but the real reversal comes when she discovers the nature of the cargo, an effete young man who declares himself Sasha, the governorâs son and worth a princeâs ransom. Esme and Sasha face a range of dangers (which notably includes each other) as they both seek their freedom in a harsh world.
The world Andrew Schneider crafts is fantastical, but with a consistency that will appeal to fans of steampunk, space opera, and genres in between. The runes that power the flying ships are also used in weapons and enable the grafted arm Esme uses to captain ships and flying carpets and to give her an edge over her opposition. However, this shortcut often comes with a cost, as attested to by the lower level denizens of the flying cities, suffering from rune rot and ignored by the masses barely getting by in their own right.
How does nothing Left to Wish For stand out from the pack? The author is a friend, but even so Iâd say thereâs something more remarkable about it even in a genre where heroines and dying worlds are not uncommon. Esme isnât coming of age; the dark story is suitable for young adults but stars a woman with some questionable choices, a broken engagement, and a few years already behind her. Such women may be common in comedies and romances, but are less frequently seen in adventures.
Nothing Left to Wish For is by turns exciting combat, treacherous ruins and adversaries, and exhilarating piloting. Esmeralda, and her interactions with those that she works with and against - often simultaneously - are quite memorable. She occupies a space between the rare archetypes of female hotshot and anti-heroine. If that appeals, but you want more of a sample of the writing and the world, check out the Noir prequel story: Cool with plenty of water. However, no pre-reading is necessary before taking the $3 plunge for at Apple, Barnes & Noble, Diesel, Kobo, or Smashwords.
Image of cover from AndrewGSchneider.com. Cover by Sarah Schanze.
The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!
- The Graveyard by the Sea by Paul ValÃ©ry
The Wind Rises is the story of an aeronautical engineer, of dreams of flight, of the gifts and price of love, and about the choices we make as the world around us falls apart. It is the last masterpiece of Hayao Miyazaki, the famed Japanese anime director, but the setting is the all too real-world Japan during the interbellum period. The film is subtle and understated: I believe it will reward repeat viewings, but dream sequences and time skips may also leave first-time viewers a bit confused. This fictionalized tale of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the famed Japanese Zero fighter, does demand patience and an interest in the mechanics of flight, but should be quite accessible to American audiences and those who do not typically watch animation. I recommend it as a true work of art, one that wrestles with challenging questions and largely overcomes its flaws. To go any further requires a deeper discussion of the plot.
Discussing those flaws requires grappling with the thorniest question of the premise: how does it handle the war? In abstract terms, this film is a tragedy. The more you know of history, the more signs and portents are at hand. By the midway point, this is made quite explicit by a Cassandra who intrudes with mentions of just what was happening in the world in the early 1930s. I think that character is key to the film, although a venerable friend found him off-putting.
Moving on to spoiler-filled reviews, Inkoo Kang in L.A. Weekly and Devin Faraci do speak to the tension in the piece but I think Film Critic Hulk [and the shouting-free SBT] effectively retorts most charges. I sympathize with criticsâ desire for a film focused on challenging revisionists (and indeed, Miyakazi has done so in writing). I in fact have one such Japanese film on my shelf, the Human Condition, which I intend to watch before writing up my final thoughts on The Wind Rises. However, The Wind Rises is a subtle knife and not a manifesto, and both have a role in changing minds. While I view it as a great film, I do think the critics hit their mark when they complain of the absence of the foreign victims of Imperial Japan from the piece. Manchuria is referenced and this is a home front piece, unlike Das Boot which effectively depicted a historical a take no prisoners policy. However, I do think that the frontlines that Horikoshi was so distant from could have been depicted in his dreams even as he assiduously ignored them in his waking life.
Flaws acknowledged, this is an important film. We do not live in uniquely dangerous times, but nonetheless the wind rises.
[Update: Added a positive review that doesnât use all caps.]
This was my first live Les Miz, and it did not disappoint. Weâd previously seen the film, listened to the 20th anniversary soundtrack, and we both separately read the book in high school. For those not familiar, the musical is a bombastic epic, with solos for many in the ensemble often interwoven in the same song, telling the story of downtrodden inhabitants of revolutionary France.
The risk of a show like this is that itâs an inherently big production. The show runs three hours, with intermission, and thatâs only possible with a relentless pace that directors Toby Orenstein and Steven Fleming sustain. Set designer David A. Hopkins and lighting designer Lynn Joslin pull off evocative sets despite the challenges of working in a mid-sized theater in the round. The main trade-off comes at the expense of guests with small bladders who are requested to keep their seats: all four directions have doors and balconies and all may come into use from scene to scene. Thatâs a small price to pay to be so close to the action. Drew Dedrickâs sound design deserves a special mention; combined with the musical direction by Christopher Youstra the sound often gave a sense of place, particularly in the sewers of the second act.
For a detailed review, see Amanda Guntherâs extensive write-up. The principals all perform well and the costuming by David Gregory and Shannon M. Maddox does a great job of letting Daniel Feltonâs Jean Valjean portray the same man over a range of decades and circumstances. However, it was Lawrence B. Munseyâs performance as Javert that caught my attention; this particular relentless inspector does not experience a dramatic turnabout so much as suffer a slow disillusionment before the leadsâ final confrontation.
As I mentioned in my review of the film, one of my favorite parts of live theater is the freedom to choose where to direct my attention. Sometimes this means noting standout singers like Tobias Young in the comparatively minor part as student radical Combeferre. More often though, this means focusing my attention on favorite characters. This was well rewarded; MaryKate Brouilletâs Eponine, though a love-struck waif, portrayed the street smarts and bittersweet emotional range that makes me so fond of the character. The Sun had found her early performances a bit self-conscious but if that was once the case, it was no longer true when we saw the show. The only false note for me was a matter of the theaterâs choice of direction and adaptation: the fast pacing made her pivotal reappearance at the barricade a bit abrupt.
Our favorite performance, though, was that of revolutionary student leader Enjolras (Ben Lurye). The character, across a range of adaptations, has consistently been a charismatic one, particularly when chiding Marius (Jeffrey S. Shankle) for his love at first sight. However, heâs also an ambiguous one, unafraid of violence and a bit too accepting of martyrdom. Luryeâs interpretation was fascinating to watch as Enjolras came to realize his plan was coming off the rails.
In short, we highly recommend it, and may well attempt to catch another show before its November 10th close.
Side note on dinner theater - basically the theater opens two hours before the show starts, and thereâs a solid buffet meal awaiting you. I liked their taste in wines, but do be sure not to drink too much, as this is really not the show to slip out during.
At long last, after years of vitriolic opposition, America is finally joining the ranks of the other developed nations and offering a rudimentary form of universal health care to her citizens. While thereâs sure to be some rollout technical glitches and such, HealthCare.Gov, the site for those without employer plans to comparison shop for healthcare insurance and see what subsidies are available, is now online. [The plans, start on January 1, 2014, so most people will probably wait until December, but consumers can start checking them out now.]
So between now and the 2014 elections, the public will get a chance to try out the Affordable Care Act and see if they like it. If they do, then universality will be the foundation for our healthcare system. If they donât, then Democrats will lose big, as we should. A minority of House Republicans, with the backing of the Speaker, are utterly desperate to prevent the public from seeing the benefits of a law that has already passed. That is what the government shutdown fight is about and what the debt ceiling fight is about.
The Republican Party is bending its entire will, staking its very soul, fighting to its last breath, in service of a crusade to....
Make sure that the working poor don't have access to affordable health care. I just thought I'd mention that in plain language, since it seems to get lost in the fog fairly often. But that's it. That's what's happening. They have been driven mad by the thought that rich people will see their taxes go up slightly in order to help non-rich people get decent access to medical care.
But they are failing. We held the line. Now we just have to minimize the damage that their sabotage will do to the nation.
As ever, speaking for myself, and not the employer. Title from a catchy Ari DeFranco song that Monica introduced me to. [It isnât actually that appropriate to this crisis, but I like the song. Iâve also fixed a few typos(with Kateâs help) after posting.]
Running until Saturday the 28th at the Round House Theater in Silver Spring, a production of the Forum Theater Company.
The Postâs preview enticed me to this production. I didnât let a subsequent poor review of the play, if not the actors, dissuade me from enjoying it.
Agnes Under the Big Top is a series of immigrant character studies with a subway theme. It was the subway that pulled me in; I hadnât even realized that this would be the third play Iâd see this year with my high school friend Nora Achrati in a big role. Thus, I am a bit biased, but I still disagree with the Postâs second assessment.
The characters are a mix of two Bulgarians who left the circus life, the Liberian who is the title character, an Indian striver (Jason Glass) , a busker playing a variety of roles (Jon Jon Johnson), and a bedridden American (Annie Houston). Their experiences were not exactly the stuff of the American dream. Indeed, much of the play focused on the stories we tell each other and ourselves and how they help or harm us. At ninety minutes and with a pay what you want ticket price, if the elements of that setup intrigue you and youâve got room in your plans for a Silver Spring visit this Friday or Saturday, Iâd recommend checking it out.
My favorite of the characters was Ed Christianâs Shipkov, a former ringmaster-turned-subway operator. Weighed down with cynicism, heâs still the inveterate showman, prone to holding forth as he trains a new apprentice. While the tone is dark, he, along with much of the show, was quite funny and the flashbacks to his past made his present condition all the more heartbreaking. Shipkov and Rosa, Noraâs character, once had a loving relationship that fell apart for a reason I did not expect but that felt achingly real. I found this a particularly impressive feat, as Rosa was speaking Bulgarian for most of the play but her feelings shone through. My favorite of Shipkovâs monologues was his complaint about present culture where many dream of being on the stage with little appreciation of the work that goes into doing it right. I definitely revisited this sentiment last Saturday while watching a few Flugtag skits that would have greatly benefited from the assistance of someone with some actual training.
I was also quite impressed by Joy Jones as the title character, Agnes, who makes a fairly effective argument for just stretching the truth a bit.
However, the specific mechanism of her last big decision rang false to me. There is much that proper storytelling and perspective can do, particularly in the lives of the characters of this play. However, there are also very real limits to stories and I donât think magical realism should be allowed to trump an act that does great harm to another.
My grounds are fairly straightforward. We donât have the backing of a major Arab ally, let alone a major regional organization or the U.N. Security Council. The first is certainly not sufficient but that we lack it is terrifying. In Libya our initial action did have the backing of the Security Council and we got support from the Arab League to go further. That support weakened as time went on, to be fair, and similarly I will note that the verdict is still out on Libyaâs outcome.
Iâll also note that while horrific video is out there, letâs get the report from the U.N. inspectors. Theyâre there; they wonât be attributing responsibility, but it isnât for the U.S. to judge whether their arrival was sufficiently timely.
Since the creation of the United Nations, the only legitimate justification for the unilateral use of force is self-defense. Nobody alleges that a strike against Syria is an act in self-defense.
Nobody is even seriously defending it under âresponsibility-to-protectâ which was the justification for the Libyan intervention (and the Kosovo war before that). RTP extends the concept of self-defense to the defense of others. Itâs a highly suspect doctrine with obvious potential for abuse â potential that was very arguably realized in the Libyan case. But even this expansive mandate for intervention doesnât apply to Syria, where we are not proposing to protect the rebels but to punish the Syrian government for its reported use of chemical weapons against civilians.
If we launch an attack on Syria, it will not be under any legal warrant whatsoever. But the entire public justification for an attack is the to punish Syria for a crime of war â that is to say, the justification is the need to uphold international law. In other words, an attack would be an open declaration that the United States arrogates to itself the right to determine what the law is, who has violated it, what punishment they deserve, and to take whatever action is necessary to see it carried out. If thatâs liberal internationalism, then Iâm a kumquat.
I favor building a legal case against Assad. I donât believe that will hasten the end of the war, but nor will this bombing.
As ever, I speak for myself and not my employer.
Thereâs a trope in speculative fiction where a comparatively normal person from our world can travel to another place or time where they typically become a hero using the skills, knowledge, and values they picked up at home. Itâs a storyline that dates at least back to Mark Twain and a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurâs Court. Thereâs a sub-genre where our hero, rather than being stuck in this other world, actually travels back and forth a few times and may pick up supplies from home. Think Inu Yasha, Adam Strange, or to a lesser extent Escaflowne.
Take that setup, and imagine it were written by John le CarrÃ©. In the Bloodline Feud, the alternate dimension has largely medieval technology but is a realistic alternate timeline for Earth with no magic beyond the dimension-hopping conceit. Intervening in this world is prone to draw pushback and other people with this power have had generations to think through how to use it. The result can read like a cross between a primer on developmental economics, a venture capital history, and a crime family drama.
Iâm a fan of Charles Stross and in this series, he gives me what I want, good and hard. The world is well thought out, the rules consistent and easy to understand, and the characters act in ways that incorporate the second-order implications of the premises.
Sadly, while I enjoyed the book and read it with increased fervency, I canât broadly recommend it. The story fascinated me whenever the characters went exploring different worlds, but the parts on intra-family intrigue did not draw me in to the same degree. Similarly, there were a few reveals that were plausible and worked to further the political thriller plotlines, but reduced my interest in a few characters. While the protagonist is not an anti-hero, I wonder if my problem here might be the same reason Iâm not as interested in, say, the Sopranos or Breaking Bad: the travails of criminal families only hold so much interest to me. Ironically, the inclusion of this tradecraft is part and parcel of the realism I like.
This wonât be enough to dissuade me, but Iâm going to limit my recommendation to those that are actively intrigued by the idea of a thought through tale of an independently acting modern developed world citizen put in a less developed environment with the resources to make a difference. If that does appeal, Iâd recommend picking up the omnibus editions if you can get them, as while this was first put out as two separate books, they work better together. I intend to keep up with the series.
Image source: Promotional image from Tor books.
Book source: Merchant Princes picked up by Kate and Omnibus editions picked up by my mother in London. Thanks Kate and extra thanks Mom!
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the power behind a traveling carnival show that on its surface is past its prime. The young Anton (Andre Garfield) is an ineffective hawker, Dr. Parnassusâs daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) is nearly sixteen and dreaming of an escape to an ordinary middle-class life, and voice of wisdom Percy (Verne Troyer) can only do so much. However, as a belligerent passerby learns, the power of the show is quite real and can send patrons on a glorious adventure through their imagination before depositing them at a soul-endangering choice. The âgoodâ doctor has already made a poor choice or two in the past, and as the film starts, the Devil (Tom Waits) is ready to collect. Magic notwithstanding, the situation seems hopeless before the arrival of a mysterious hanged man (Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Collin Farrell).
Heath Ledgerâs last film and Terry Gilliamâs latest, the Imaginarium has been out for a few years now, so this post will contain vague spoilers to allow more complete discussion. For those leaving the post at this point, Iâll leave you with a song that gets at the story from Valentinaâs point of view.
The stellar cast delivers, the Imaginarium itself shows off Gilliamâs visual genius, and the film contains thought-provoking theological and political critiques. I think the most interesting conflict is between a man largely broken by living with the consequences of his mistakes and another who constantly reinvents himself.
However, the Gilliam makes a critical mistake with increasing consequence as the film ends: he denies Valentina agency. I think this critique may best come from a film made a few years earlier: MirrorMask. That film starts with a similar premise: a young woman raised in a carnival environment who desperately seeks escape. She even makes youthful mistakes of spite and at times is dependent on others for rescue. However, the hero of that story consistently maintains agency while Valentina is explicitly objectified as the men of the piece compete for her love and her soul. Even trustworthy Percy says that itâs a mistake to tell her the truth and Tony refers to her as the âprizeâ without the other characters objecting. I donât think Valentina needs to be the protagonist nor shouldnât be allowed to make terrible choices; everyone else certainly does the latter. However, the other characters pursue their own interests while towards the end Valentina largely reacts, bouncing from one patron to another.
The end of the film pivots on the fact that, charmingly, the Devil is a bit too fond of Parnassus to do his job properly. Unfortunately, Iâd say the same is true of Gilliamâs plotting. Dr. Parnassus pulls a clever trick near the end, but the story is contorted in order to increase that momentâs importance. Iâll allow the fiendish Mr. Nick to pull his punches, but the big reveal on Tony is over the top, nice guy Anton never grapples with his worst moment, and Valentina explicitly rejects the chance to run her own life.
The price Dr. Parnassus pays and his final relationship with his daughter works, even if I find her end state unsatisfying. I donât think the problem is that Gilliam is too easy on an alter ego character. Unlike Ghost Writer, which also critiques Tony Blair, I donât think the film falls apart both morally and thematically if you treat the protagonist as a stand in for the director. Instead, I think the problem is that Dr. Parnassusâs prominence in the end undercuts the arcs of the other characters, a problem that probably would have been avoided if the story had been thought through from Valentinaâs perspective.
Source: Think I bought this for myself; correct me if Iâm wrong.
Image Source: Promotional image via Wikipedia.
Cutting off aid is mandated by law after a coup. As a general principle, Iâm not fond of the executive branch overriding or evading constitutional laws. Nonetheless, I think the administrationâs buying time by not making a declaration may have been forgivable if the Egyptian government took the deal that the U.S. and partner nations mediated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But efforts to prevent the crackdown failed. Jay Ulfelder puts it in quantitative perspective:
According to a story in this morningâs New York Times, the crackdown that began a few days ago âso far has killed more than 1,000 protesters.â
This puts Egypt in rare and sullied company. Since World War II, the world has only seen onsets of about 110 of these episodes, and fewer than a handful of those onsets occurred after 2000: in Sudan in 2003 (Darfur) and again in 2011 (South Kordofan); in Sri Lanka in 2009; and in Syria since 2011.
Thus, I think we should obey the law and cut off non-democracy building aid to Egypt (which is the vast majority of our aid; even our non-military aid is mostly economic). We need not oppose their attempts to gain IMF aid nor seek sanctions against them, but unless and until the distant prospect of a genuine civilian democratic rights-respecting government emerges we must cut them off as a client.
The expert I trust most on these issues is Marc Lynch, although I recommend the Arabist for a great collection of regional reactions on Middle East issues, with the note that I will regularly disagree with some of the sources they pull in but itâs important to be aware of opinions you disagree with. Lynch also has his own round up over on Foreign Policy. Now that Iâve laid out my sources, I feel I can safely endorse Lynchâs pessimistic read of the effects of cutting of aid:
These steps won't matter very much in the short term. Cairo has made it very clear that it doesn't care what Washington thinks and the Gulf states will happily replace whatever cash stops flowing from U.S. coffers. Anti-American incitement will continue, along with the state of emergency, violence and polarization, the stripping away of the fig leaf of civilian government, and the disaster brewing in the Sinai. It won't affect Secretary of State John Kerry's Israel-Palestine peace talks and the Camp David accords will be fine, too; Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can't manage his own streets, and it's unlikely he wants to mess with Israel right now.
The hard truth is that the United States has no real influence to lose right now anyway, and immediate impact isn't the point. Taking a (much belated) stand is the only way for the United States to regain any credibility -- with Cairo, with the region, and with its own tattered democratic rhetoric.
The benefits may go beyond a slow start on restoring credibility, based on my past research on Egyptian aid. Past research by Steven Finkel for the U.S. Agency for International Development (PDF) found that democracy aid can be effective, but tends to be undermined in countries where the majority of aid goes to the military. That result is probably over-determined, but Iâve got one hypothesis I hope to explore in future work: namely that military aid is not apolitical in countries with weak civilian control of the military and in which the military is a major economic actor. Egypt certainly fits that bill on both fronts. While I donât see them allowing real U.S. democracy building aid again anytime soon, we should stop giving the military an edge against other actors. Should we restore aid at some point in the future, the current approach to Pakistan where assistance is not funneled through the military may be a helpful model. Of course, if we move away from military assistance, that may hurt U.S. arms exports, but I think thatâs a correct prioritization.
Finally, on a personal note, I suspect many of the people I met in Egypt, particularly the Coptics, victims in their own right, are now backing the crackdown. Even in those heady post-revolution days when we visited, the military was often above criticism. Moreover, while the Morsi presidency was actively sabotaged on political and economic fronts, his party worked hard to alienate and disempower everyone outside their immediate coalition. However, the coup was ill-advised because wide-spread violence was a predictable - and predicted - effect. With hope for reconciliation off the table and the U.S. distrusted on all sides, we are not in a position to make a positive impact, but we can start by not being complicit in a bloody mistake.
As ever, speaking for myself and not my employer.
Yoko Kanno is quite the versatile composer, in addition to being a pianist and vocalist in her own right. Her songs accompany a range of anime, from futuristic bounty hunter misadventures in Cowboy Bebop to slice of the lives of young jazz musicians in 1960s Japan in Kids in the Slope. She is my favorite living composer, bar none, which is why the subject of Otakon 1999 fills me with deep chagrin, as I missed my chance to see her perform back then. Fourteen years later, I had the chance to remedy the mistake.
Getting a pass was an adventure in its own right. Rumor has it that Otakon staffers had to convince her to take a slightly less intimate setting, as they were well aware just how much demand their would be. I feared my chance to be in the room was again lost on Saturday when we arrived an hour and a half early at the pass line only to discover that it was already full. The staffer said there was a limited supply Sunday when the con opened; just be sure to get their real early. Iâm perhaps not as spry as I was in 1999, but I am more of a morning person, so I showered the night before, hauled myself out of bed at six, and got spot forty in line. Unofficial lines are a risky process, but this time the fellow fans were good company, the staff were there after the first hour and kept order, and come 9:05 I had tickets for myself and Kate. It was worth every minute.
There were two performers that afternoon. Chiaki Ishikawa, with whom I was unfamiliar, warmed up the crowd with her impressive pipes, and if after a bit of research, I find that I actually like the lyrics to her songs, I may pick up a CD.
Still, for me, the show began in earnest when an associate of Ms. Kanno came out to say that the crowd would be welcome to sing along and to try to match the pianoâs range by being loud when the music was fortissimo but quiet and quiet during the pianissimo sections. The crowd was game - our command of the lyrics of even favorite songs was not the best - but we played our part. âPlayâ is really the key word; Kannoâs set had new arrangements that gave a thrill of recognition, delightful spotlight accompaniment, and played to a crowd that was hers from the start. I didnât recognize all of the songs, but that may be more a matter of the breadth of her oeuvre rather than indicating brand-new material.
Her piano style was playful as well, using flourishes when it suited the song, like opening number Tank, but was just as capable of rendering thoughtful numbers that Iâd have thought of as studio pieces, like Monochrome. Music has always had a direct line to my brainâs emotion centers and the community in the dark of that room gave me chills that I think I last felt at the pre-inaugural concert in 2009. Later, Real Folk Blues proved surprisingly raw and gave me a chance to mourn those Iâd lost since first hearing the song.
I think I want to take up piano again, if only for myself. A traditional performance would still have been amazing, but having a chance to be a part of it still makes all the difference in the world. Thanks to everyone who made it possible: Ms. Kanno, her people, the staff, the crowd, and the person holding my hand in the end.
Weâre getting a late start on things, but have already picked our badges. It wasnât that hard of a choice as we hadn't heard of anything. Disappointingly, Wolf Children is not a Spice and Wolf sequel. Thus, we both went with Crabby.
The schedule below is tentative. We may decide to shunt things aside for Dealers Room/Artist Alley or go with friends to things that sound cool. Also, I may work in some Lupin III or Anime Music Videos at random.
I had a few things I wanted to hit Friday evening, but sadly work precluded that.