Monday, June 28, 2010

41

Self
Me, in hat
By Ritsuko.

Another birthday come and gone. As we do every year, we use our birthdays to try a restaurant we wouldn't normally visit. For Ritsuko's birthday we went to a very nice Portugese place in Umeda, and my birthday last year found us having pig's feet in a German restaurant in Kobe.

We continued the south-European theme this weekend with a visit to El Poniente Carbón near Yodoyabashi. It's part of a group of Spanish restaurants here in Osaka. Calling it a chain doesn't feel right, as each restaurant is different in style from the others, and indeed, two of them - a tapas bar and restaurant called Faro, and the grill Carbón - lie right across the street from each other.

Anyway, we'd eaten at Faro a few times and liked it, so we decided to try the somewhat more upscale Carbón for my birthday. It did not disappoint. For starters we had chorizo and grilled onion with anchovy. The chorizo was good, though a bit simple - just a plate of thinly sliced sausage - whereas the grilled onion was a hit. Onion halves burnt black on the ouside, with a large dollop of anchovy paste on top. Grilled asparagus was another hit, tender and juicy, with a bit of butter and lemon.

Our shared main courses were spicy grilled chicken and lamb chops. Ritsuko really prefers fowl overall but to me the lamb chops were the highlight of the whole meal. Juicy and fatty and nearly perfectly done, they were served atop a bed of potato gratin that was soaking up the flavours from the meat above. A glass of Rioja wine for the preliminaries and a glass of beer for the meat fit very well with the food. A coffee and brandy rounded it all of nicely.


In other news, daytime peak temperature has hit 30° here now, marking the official start of the Season of Misery for me. And if that's bad, spare a thought for poor Ashorochō up in Hokkaido that had 37° this weekend. Look for me under the nearest airconditioner up until October.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Swedish Election 2010

As I've said, there's a general election coming up in Sweden in September. I've been trying to write about this for a long time but I find it surprisingly difficult. The basic problem is that Swedish politics is pretty dull and uneventful, unlike the roller-coaster-on-LSD that is the Japanese political process. "Dull" may be good for the country, but it doesn't make for good blog posts.

The governing term in Sweden is fixed - four years, with election held on the third Sunday of September of the fourth year. Even if a government would fall and an extra election held, it would not alter the schedule; the new government would only sit until the next regular election. This pretty much removes any incentive for people to play politics with the election schedule or topple the government before its time, and is, I believe, one of three reasons governments are fairly stable.

Another reason for the stability is that we only have one chamber, so there's no Upper house to second-guess or derail governmental decisions, and no risk of split majorities. Lastly, no-confidence motions against the government need to be majority decisions. It's not enough that the government doesn't get a majority approval; a majority has to actively vote against the government. And of course, if you're a presumptive coalition partner, an active opposing vote isn't going to be looked at kindly by the other members of the coalition.


Historically, Swedish politics have been dominated by the Social Democrats. They were continuously in power for over forty years after the second world war and have only occasionally been out of power since. They're like the Japanese LDP in a way, as they are more or less the architects of the current society and political systems. Unlike the LDP, however, they have not turned sclerotic or collapsed, and they can probably thank the occasional loss of power for that. There's nothing like a few years in opposition to rethink your ideology and sharpen your arguments.

The current government is a center-right coalition. They have done a decent job, overall, and has managed to keep together for the entire term; having the coalition partners still speaking to each other after four years is a novel change from previous conservative attempts at government. They seem to really have developed into a genuine coalition more than a temporary governing union.

The current coalition has proved stable, popular and surprisingly capable of governance. This has forced the center-left Social Democrats - who have always formed governments alone even when they depended on other parties' support - to create a formal coalition of their own in response. They tend to poll around the 30-35% level, which ties them as the largest party but is still a far cry from the 45% or more they could count on a generation ago.


In the opposition center-left coalition, the Social Democrats are joined by the Green party, the third largest party overall in the opinion polls with around 10%. While they've historically been leaning left, the Greens aren't strictly left on the traditional scale. The currently dominant faction has a pragmatic outlook, values individual liberty and small business and would have little trouble cooperating with the centrist parties of the ruling coalition. It's fair to say the coalition needs them more than they need the coalition.

The third partner is the (un)reformed Communists, who get only about 5% in the polls - uncomfortably close to the cutoff point of 4 percent - and is completely dependent on the good-will of the Social Democrats to get a seat in power. They'd love to knock off some support from the Greens, partners or not, and they're not the most reliable people to have around. It doesn't help that Mona Sahlin, the Social Democrat leader and Prime minister candidate, didn't want them in the coalition, but was overruled by her own party.


The governing center-right coalition is dominated by the Moderates, which is formerly tax-cut pro-business right-wing, now pragmatically centrist, and polling at around 30% or so. They were opposed to the building of the modern welfare state early last century, and they spent a few generations trying to dismantle it in favour of a low-tax individualistic society in the mould of USA and Thatcherite Britain. Eventually - it only took half a century - they came to realize that most people, including a fair number of their own voters, actually like the high-tax, high-service welfare state, and they want to keep it. So the party has shifted from wanting to dismantle the welfare state to lower its cost and increase the efficiency, something that seems to resonate with a fairly large part of the voting public.

The Center party is formerly rural, with an environmental and small-business agenda not unlike the Greens. They're joined by the People's Party, which used to be classically liberal, but has swung towards the hard law-and-order right. Both tend to poll in the 5-8% range, uncomfortably close to the cutoff point, and it must be especially galling for the People's party that used to be the third largest party at 10% or more before their ideological lurch toward the right.

The final coalition partner is the Christian Democrats. They are the odd man out in the parliament with their opposition to abortion and gay marriage (they were the only party in parliament to vote against it) and a fundamentalist christian base. They hover right on the edge of the cutoff point of 4% and may not even make it into the parliament. Part of their problem is that while a fair number of voters like their pro-family and social conservative policies, they are put off by the religious content. So the less voters hear about their actual program the better they do in the polls. Every time voters get reminded of their background and their ideological similarity to conservative religious movements elsewhere their support drops.


There's a number of small parties vying for a seat in parliament. Most of them aren't really of any general interest, but two of them are worth mentioning here.

First, and distastefully, is the Sweden Democrats, polling at around 3-4%. They are a cleaned-up and polished political outgrowth of the xenophobic far right, with their members drawn from Neo-nazi and racist organizations. Their ideology, such as it is, is a thoroughly confused mix of social conservatism, xenophobia and a longing for an ethnically and religiously homogeneous 1950's Sweden that has never actually existed. They draw a fair number of their supporters from the same pool as the Christian Democrats, and they in turn have responded by sliding out toward the far right, trying to get those voters back. If these two parties would manage to keep each other out of parliament I'd be happy.

Second is the Pirate Party. It is largely a one-issue party, concerned with individual freedom, privacy and intellectual property rights, online and off. Of course, that one issue actually encompasses a number of very important questions such as the right to speech, regulation of the internet, the nature of property and so on. They managed quite an upset in the EU election last year, getting two members into the European parliament, but unless they pull an upset it doesn't look likely that they'll be able surmount the 4% cutoff point and get into parliament in September. Whether they do or not, their existence has given much higher visibility to these questions than before.


So, what would my ideal election result look like? Probably something like a governing coalition of the Moderates, the Center, the Greens and the Pirate Party; with the Christian Democrats, the Communists and the Sweden Democrats all failing to get seats in parliament. Not going to happen, I know, but I can dream.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Elections

So, we have some elections coming up. Now and again I feel the urge to write about them, but then I take a quick look at my work schedule for the year, re-enter panic mode and forget all about it.

But, in short: We have the Japanese upper-house election on July 11th, and the Swedish general election on September 19th (it's always on the third Sunday in September, four years after the last one).

For the Japanese election, it seems the exit of Hatoyama and Ozawa will indeed save the DPJ:s bacon. Moreover, Prime minister Kan has performed a neat little bit of political judo on the LDP. Basically, Japan's finances are a godawful mess. Serious budget cuts are necessary, but everyone knows that's not enough and taxes will need to be raised.

Specifically, the consumption tax - now a low 5% - will have to be raised at some point. Why the consumption tax? Because it's one of the few taxes that bring in enough money that raising it can make a meaningful difference. It's also one of the taxes that are "fair" and don't bring a lot of unforeseen side effects. A tax on wealth, say, would not bring in anywhere near as much money, and would have all kinds of undesirable side effects (pensioners losing their ancestral home or personal savings, that sort of thing) that would require special exemptions and odd solutions. The major drawback with the consumption tax is that it is regressive, in that poorer people (who have to spend more of their income on consumption) pay a larger part, but there are several possible ways to mitigate that.

Anyway, everybody knows about the consumption tax, and politicians have mumbled for years about the need to raise it at some unspecified point in the future. The LDP, recognizing that they need some hook, something to make a splash in the election, wrote in an increase to 10% in their election manifest just recently. The idea was probably to argue that they have specific proposals, specific solutions while the DPJ refuses to face up to hard realities or something to that effect.

But Kan basically took that number and ran with it; he stated that 10% is a reasonable figure, let's raise the tax soon as a way to improve public finances and shore up the pension system. Having the opposing team happily agree to your proposal was not what the LDP had in mind. They more or less stated that it was unfair of the DPJ to agree with them, and that there was no way they would support such an absurd proposal as the one they had in their own election manifest.

As Shisaku reports today, now the opinion polls are in, and the results are fairly encouraging. Cabinet support is dropping slightly - something likely to happen with or without the tax discussion as the novelty of Kan wears off. The LDP doesn't really move anywhere. Kan has in other words managed to grab a long-running problem - how to decide on a specific tax increase and break the news to an unhappy electorate - without taking a real hit in the polls, and without giving the opposition a boost. And he managed to do so a few weeks before the election, so a decent election result will be seen as a mandate to go ahead.

It's worth noting is that there's a second part to the tax proposal, a reduction in the corporate tax rate. I'm not knowledgeable enough to have any firm opinion on the matter, but I do note that the current quoted rate of about 40% sounds rather high; a quick look at worldwide rates puts Japans rate at about the highest in the world. Average rates seem to cluster around 25% or so. Perhaps a good idea, in other words, though I can't really say.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Doctor Ozzy

You may have heard that Ozzy Osbourne is getting his genome sequenced; basically, they want to know how he's managed to stay alive despite decades of heavy drug abuse and accidents. Good idea. You learn more from looking at extreme examples than normal ones.

But this is rich: he's starting a health advice column in the Sunday Times (no link; subscribers only). Ozzy Osbourne. Health advice. The man who's done enough drugs to support a small South-American nation, giving advice on healthy living? Of course, he probably knows as much about how to not live a healthy life as anyone still around to tell us about it1.

Maybe it's not a bad idea. Perhaps anti-experience could be valuable. Elizabeth Taylor as marriage counsellor, anyone? And how about starting the "Abe-Aso-Hatoyama Good Governance Consulting Group". It'd give them something to do at least; we don't want gangs of former prime ministers drifting about town, getting into trouble.


#1 Except perhaps for Keith Richards. But they're like the Rembrandt and the Picasso of dissolution; how could you possibly rank genius?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Smog

Just a short post: Ikoma city (where I work) has issued warnings about "photochemical smog" for the second time in a week. We should avoid going outdoors and wash our eyes or throat if they start becoming irritated. It feels just a little surreal as we're sitting in a rural backwater, surrounded by fields and forested hills. But of course, this entire part of Kansai is pretty densely populated so the air is probably just as polluted here as in the urban areas the next valley over.

I wonder why you never hear about this in Osaka. It's feels unlikely that central Osaka avoids this problem while small Ikoma does not - of course, Osaka lies along the coast, not in a mountain range, so perhaps not enough pollutants accumulate to cause smog. Or there could be plenty of warnings, but I just manage to miss them; I never listen to radio or watch TV in the daytime after all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tsuyu

Framed
Tsuyu, the rainy season, is declared for the Kansai area. It's about one week late - spring and summer has all been later than usual this year. We can look forward to a month of damp, rainy weather. Everything has an upside of course; photography is often more interesting in bad weather than in bright sunshine.

We've set the first batch of umeboshi and have another two to make over the next few days. We also set a jar of dark rum-based umeshu; we'll see how that goes. Maybe we'll try whisky umeshu next year.

And finally congratulations to my little brother and his girlfriend, as they are pregnant (well, just the girlfriend obviously) and expect to become parents in January. I really have to start working seriously on my "disreputable old uncle" persona.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Brandy Umeshu

Last June, we tried making brandy-based umeshu. This weekend, almost exactly one year later, we tried it for the first time.

Delicious. Smooth and thick with a tart undertone. As you take a sip, you get a small, happy explosion of flavour hitting your nose and mouth. Then you get a raspy dark finish running down your throat. It's best taken neat. I did try to cut it with soda - it works well with normal umeshu - but that kills the thick, heady flavour. Waste of an excellent drink. I've yet to try it with ice and a splash of lemon.

So yesterday we started another jar of brandy umeshu. We'll probably make one jar of rum-based umeshu too, with more sugar than our previous attempt, and let it sit for a whole year this time. I keep thinking it would be interesting to try making umeshu on whisky base, but Ritsuko isn't convinced to say the least. Perhaps I can convince her to let me make a small bottle, just as an experiment.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kabuki

We saw a kabuki performance in Kyoto this weekend; Ritsuko is very interested and wanted to take me along. I'd seen the occasional few minutes of kabuki on TV and on YouTube before, and was pretty mystified by the whole thing. Still, it's fun to do stuff together, I figured it'd be a neat experience, and if nothing else I'd have a nice long nap in the dark theater.

Minamiza

You can't take pictures of the performance, obviously, but here's a pre-show shot of geisha and maiko spectators to give you some local color.

How about having one or two performances specifically for people that want to take pictures? Charge double the normal seat fee, and let people bring cameras, tripods, strobes and shoot to their hearts content. Everybody is there to take pictures so they're not disturbing anyone else. Allow only private use of the pictures, and have separate, optional per-image contracts for commercial release. I bet a lot of hobbyists would jump at the chance; I know I would.


The performance stars Tamasaburo Bandō, a top kabuki actor. The main feature was a play called "Tsumoru Koi Yuki no Seki no To". The whole program was about two hours - and it was amazing, spectacular.

I realized that this, to me, is very much like opera: It falls flat on television or CD but a live performance is electrifying. I've never once seen a televised opera or heard a performance that's managed to engage me, but the few live shows I've seen have been great.

I really think it has to do with format shifting. You know how the movie is almost never as good as the book it's based on? And how book tie-ins to popular movies aren't as engaging as the original? How online reproductions of photographic prints are kind of flat and uninspiring? All works are made for a specific format, and you lose something important when you shoehorn them into a different one1.

This performance was two parts, with a first, 15-minute dance number by Bandō from one play; a break; then a 1.5 hour play that, itself, is apparently a part of a longer work. The theater specializes in making fairly modern productions, with up-to-date language and music score, so to my surprise I actually understood a fair bit of the dialogue and singing.

Now, like opera, the story is secondary. As Wikipedia describes it, kabuki was originally an all-day event, and people would drift in and out, chat with friends, eat and drink and only focus on the stage when something interesting seemed to happen. Plays and sets have also always been fluid, changed at the whim of the actors or producers with scenes added or removed, dialogue changed and characters changed or replaced. Updating the dialogue or playing only pieces of a play is perfectly normal in other words.

What's the story? Not really sure. I understood a fair bit of the dialogue, but I didn't follow the story itself. When I came home I looked it up on the Japanese Wikipedia, but I still didn't really understand. When I found an English description and still didn't get the story I realized there's not much of a story there to get.

In short it's your typical drama: girl reunites with boy, then girl leaves; boys brother gets killed by bandits and sends bloodied letter saying "Hullo brother, how are you? Me, I'm being killed by bandits"; the gatekeeper turns out to be the bandit chief in disguise; drunk bandit chief finds bloody letter, decides he's going to take over the kingdom, then tries to cut down cherry tree but is stopped by cherry tree spirit - who turns out to be the secret lover of the killed brother, takes the letter and realizes the gatekeeper is the bandit that killed her lover. At which point the playwright finished off the whole thing with a five-minute axe-fight. I'm not kidding. Big axe.

Just like opera is all about the music, kabuki is about the dance. The performers are dancers first and foremost, and only occasionally lapse into dialog. In fact, while they do speak, more often than not it's singers in the orchestra that speaks or sings while the actors dance to the dialog. The dance, the costumes and the scenery is all fairly stylized and symbol-laden, so it helps to look things up in advance - blue, for instance, is evil, so you know the character in bluish makeup is the villain. You don't actually need to understand much of it to enjoy the spectacle.

And it is a spectacle. Lots of flashy costumes and makeup, over-the-top dialogue, extravagant acting and haunting music. Bandō, who plays the female parts, is brilliant, even to my completely inexperienced eyes. He makes it look completely effortless and natural. Shidō Nakamura, the villain, is young but was also very good2. He has the most physical role by far, and it doesn't help that he's wearing three sets of costumes that come off during the play. He's sweating buckets - really, I'm surprised people aren't slipping on the stage after a while. Hayato Nakamura that plays the lord is only eighteen and it showed, even to me. He was clearly still thinking about his performance as a set of dance moves to be performed, while the other two were playing their characters and letting their moves flow naturally from that.

There's lots of fun things going on in and around the play. Stagehands in all-black keep going on stage to rearrange props, help the actors with their clothing, and at one point holding a fake bird on a stick (it's delivering the dying younger brothers letter) and so on, but by mutual consent they're "invisible". This really works; they're plain and silent where everything else is loud and gaudy so they really don't interfere. There's a "bridge", a narrow strip going from the stage all the way to the back of the theater, and several dramatic moments are acted on that bridge, right among the spectators.

If you haven't seen a kabuki play, go do so. It's worth it. I'm not going to link to any youTube videos; they're really dull and flat compared to the real thing. Go see it live, you won't regret it.

--
#1 The only exception that I know of is audio books; for some reason the printed word generally works as well - sometimes better - when read aloud. It may have something to do with the primacy of the spoken word for our brain language centers I guess.

If true, it means that essays and short stories should be read one at a time, not as part of a collection. Novels like some of Dickens and Dumas' works, that were originally serialized, perhaps really should be read piecemeal, with a week-long break between each chapter, in order to get the right pacing of events.

It also means that I probably should give ballet and modern dance a chance at some point. It is possible that they, too, are fun to watch live after all. Not going to go out of my way for it though.


#2 He's also known for a public divorce some time ago. He was in a minor car accident - no injuries - and the police report showed he'd been in the car with a woman that was not his wife. Kabuki actors are very much part of the celebrity gossip scene in Japan.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Party Opinions

I'm not going to belabour this too much, but the dynamics of political opinion during Hatoyama's slide into disaster and the subsequent switch to Kan as DPJ party leader and prime minister are interesting. The first post-switch opinion polls have shown up, and interesting to see what they tell us.

We have the Asahi poll, an FNN news poll (can't say I've heard of it before) and the Kyodo poll as reported by MTC and Mainichi (Kyodo news forbids linking to their web site without permission so no traffic for them I guess). Remember, these polls ask different questions and choose their sample differently so they're not comparable. Also, The Asahi poll was taken before Kan was elected, so they obviously measure different events. You can however see how the same polls change over time and look for common trends.

First, DPJ. They started out with an unrealistic approval rating of over 70% after the election in September. It was pretty clear they couldn't hold on to that level of course; the question was how low they would sink. Down into disaster, it turned out, with around 20% in the latest polls before Hatoyama left. Now that he and Ozawa are gone (or at least out of sight), they've received a healthy support bounce. They increased about 30% on the news Hatoyama and Ozawa was leaving (Asahi), and about 40% by that news and by the election of Kan. So far so good, though not terribly surprising.

The LDP, remember them? Neither does anybody else it seems. They sunk into the 20% approval rate last year before the election, and they've sloshed around there ever since. That seems to be their floor, their core supporters that will support them come what may. On the other hand, they seem incapable of attracting anybody else no matter what happens with the DPJ.

Why is this? They have never yet taken any lessons from the past four years culminating in their election disaster last September. There's been no analysis or introspection, and no change in party organization, political program or election strategy. A vote for the LDP is a guarantee for exactly the same politics you've come to know over the past few generations. And it's no more tempting to people now than it was last fall. When parties fall on hard times (the British conservatives is a topical example) they only manage to come back by essentially reinventing themselves. The LDP so far seems incapable of doing so - and if last years catastrophic election wasn't enough to shake them up I wonder if there is anything that will.

New Komeito isn't going anywhere. Literally. They have their stable core voting block, but like the LDP they don't seem to be able to break out of that even when the DPJ fails. They may go into coalition with the DPJ after the upper house election; a lot of their program fits better with the DPJ than with the LDP after all. But that would also reinforce a perception of a party that values power over all, and is willing to govern with anyone in order to get it. A coalition may hurt more than help among unaffiliated voters. And while their core voters are reliable, they aren't getting any younger.

The Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democrats do seem to at least not lose support, and may in fact enjoy a bit of a bounce themselves. The SDP got a boost from breaking with the DPJ over the Futenma issue, though it remains to be seen if it's anything more than a transient media exposure blip. They remain vestiges of an earlier political era though, and unless they remake themselves both are probably heading for irrelevancy.

The centrist (or center-left depending on your perspective) Everyone's Party seems to have managed a successful transition from a startup to a full-fledged party. They've lost a bit of support to the DPJ since Kan took power (and they lost a local election to the DPJ just now), but at around 8-10% they're the third largest party around and seems set to stay that way. They're the first successful new party, and as such could represent the spearhead of political realignment in Japan. The recent loss in support just underscores that as a new party they need to build support on their own terms, not just be the anti-incumbents. You can't build a long-term power-base on a negative; people become loyal to you based on what you are for, not what you're against.

By contrast, the new parties that splintered from the LDP this spring, the Stand Up Japan Party1 and New Renaissance Party, have gathered exactly no support at all. The polls that even mention them give them 0%. It's a fair guess that their only supporters at this point really support the party members personally; their loyal home district voters. As vehicles for political ideas, these parties have so far gone nowhere.

Why is that? One reason could be that Everyone's Party was first, and cornered the market on being a third pole in this political landscape. Another reason could be that, as splinter parties from the LDP, the other two are still seen as part and parcel of everything people dislike about LDP politics. Guilt by association. And of course, as conservative, nationalist, backwards-looking parties they compete directly with the LDP for the same voting bloc, but fail to give conservative LDP voters a reason to switch their support to them. Everyone's Party, on the other hand, seem to be tapping into a vein of urban centrist and liberal voters that aren't well served by existing parties. Time will tell if they can become the party of choice for that group, or if the DPJ will be able to peel them away.

--

#1 No, they're not courting health and exercise nuts, despite the name - and no, I'm not going to use their official English name of Sunrise Party when the original name is so deliciously silly. Especially as half the founding members probably need a cane or a walker to follow their own advice.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Newspaper Readership Survey

There's a lot of doom and gloom about the future of newspapers in English-speaking media. With that in mind, there's some interesting tidbits from a recurring survey on media consumption in Japan - read the Mainichi Shimbun or Yahoo news summaries unless you want to wade through 60 pages of survey data1. The Asahi Shimbun summary is shorter, but they deserve applause for actually giving the URL to the report itself right at the top2.

Short take: 91% of those surveyed read the newspaper, and they read it an average of 5.2 days per week. This has not changed significantly since the last survey, and is down less than 3 percentage points since 2001.

Internet use is up about 30% since 2001, all other media is slightly down. The losers are mostly weeklies and radio, though both have flattened out or improved slightly lately. The internet is not simply eating the market share of other media; instead overall media use is increasing.

There's lots and lots of detail in the survey itself: For instance, the subgroup that uses newspapers and the internet as their primary sources are an average of 45 years old and have the highest income of all subgroups; newspaper readers are more interested others in society and environment, TV-viewers are more interested in trends while internet users are more interested in information gathering. There's lots and lots of stuff on advertising, reading patterns and so on, usually with pretty graphs so there's no need to wade through lots of tables of anything.

For me, I used to read the newspaper and watch TV a lot up until I became a graduate student and the web exploded (I was a bit jealous of friends making serious money while I was toiling away at the university3). A lack of time and the flood of online info meant I largely stopped used other media, and when I graduated I had neither a TV nor a newspaper subscription any more. Then I came to Japan and didn't know a word of the language, so neither TV nor newspapers were even possible for me to enjoy. I did however read a number of newspapers - Swedish, European American and English-edition Japanese - online.

Nowadays, while i still don't watch much TV (the occasional murder mystery or documentary excepted), I'm sort of returning to the newspaper again. I usually bring last nights evening edition on the morning train, and I occasionally browse the paper on the weekend too. I like the broadsheet format and the variety of stuff. For me, the ideal subscription format would be if I could get the newspaper on paper, along with full access to the entire paper online through both my computer and phone. Maybe someday soon.

--

#1 I am very happy that the survey is available online, even if I didn't intend to go through it; it's reassuring that I can do so if I want to. That said, it's a fairly easy read if you want to take a look. Note that the publisher is a newspaper association, so the whole thing is pretty newspaper-centric, and the usual caveats apply about considering the source.


#2 This is much too rare in online media for some reason, and that they did makes me feel all warm and fuzzy with happiness inside. It almost makes me send them flowers for that, but they'll just have to settle for us renewing our subscription instead. Now, if they could make it an actual live link I would probably have body parts bursting with delight here.


#3 Of course, "toiling away" meant sauntering to work sometime before noon, then spend your
day with fun people, learning all you can about things you find intensely fascinating. I'm not feeling sorry for myself.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Wifi on the Panasonic Let's Note S9

A quick update on my new computer. It had a few problems when running the latest Ubuntu. One of them was that Intel had yet to release the firmware you need to use the wireless card in it; this was a problem for some recent Lenovo machines like the X201 as well. Well, they've released it now.

I'm sure it'll show up in an update sooner rather than later. If you don't want to wait, installing it is as easy as downloading the package (it's the "iwlwifi-6050" one), and copy the microcode file iwlwifi-6050-4.ucode to /lib/firmware/ so the system can find it. I copied the file, turned on wireless, and Ubuntu just picked it right up; I didn't even have to reboot.

Note that it's only the Wifi portion that's been released; while the card in this machine supports Wimax as well, there's no firmware available for that yet. While I would like to have everything working on my machine of course, I can't say I'm bothered by the lack. Wimax is not a replacement for Wifi, but is all about paid mobile broadband services; it competes with wired internet service and data access through mobile phone networks. It's still an immature technology, and we have a decent wired connection at home as well as all-I-can-eat mobile data access through my phone, so I have no interest in paying for such a service now or in the near future.

That's one problem down, with two to go. There's a graphics bug that is affecting a fair number of users so there'll likely be a fix in the not too distant future. The lack of brightness control is specific to the Let's Note series and not nearly as high profile (not too many people running Ubuntu on this newly released, Japan only, machine). But it isn't critical - it mostly just shortens your battery life - and will no doubt be fixed at some point as well.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Summertime, and the Leaving is Easy

Ah yes, beginning of summer. The cycle turns. As every year the rainy season will soon be upon us. Summer festivals will return. We can look forward to the yearly Obon holiday in August, when, as every year, half of Japan leaves the cities for their ancestral villages.

And of course, in an ancient yearly tradition1 the fragile annual that is the Japanese Prime Minister will wither, to be replaced by a fresh new specimen that will surprise and delight us over the year to come.

This year brings us Naoto Kan2, finance minister in the Hatoyama cabinet. With just a month or so before the upper house election, his election and appointment is being run through at the highest possible speed.

The pundits pretty much all seem to agree he's not only the best choice available, but a solid choice for Prime minister in his own right. As finance minister he's done a good job the past year in the face of the continuing economic crisis, he's got lots of experience in politics and in government, and he has a healthy distance to the Ozawa people, without being opposed by them.

And even more refreshingly, he's the first Prime minister in a good long while that is not the son or grandson of a former Prime minister (the last one was Koizumi; his grandfather only made "ordinary" cabinet minister). Even more, he's a self-made politician, with no family history in politics, so he entered the field from personal interest and conviction rather than a sense of family obligation or simply taking the easy road prepared by his parents. And being neither from a well-connected political clan, nor being all that liked among his peers, we can be pretty sure he reached this point using his own ability rather than riding the coattails of others.

Will this improve the fortunes of the DPJ and of Japan? Well, it's hard not to improve on Hatoyama3, and irrespective of the prime minister, having Ozawa leave can only be a good thing for Japanese politics. Also, it's easy to miss the forest for the trees here. Many people rightly call for a political realignment in Japan, as the old party and political structures just aren't a good fit to current reality anymore. But that realignment will be very messy, with large parts of the political world thrown into disarray. It will look quite a lot like events in recent years in other words. Chaos and confusion are not desirable of course, but hey may well be unavoidable if a more appropriate system is ever going to emerge.

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#1 Anything that happens twice is a tradition. If it happens a third time it's ancient and honourable. Remember that whenever you read tourist travel information.


#2 Really, Wikipedia is a very popular site, with lots and lots of visitors. Were I in the PR team for a public figure like Kan, I'd make a point of giving them a well-composed freely-licensed picture to use, instead of having them settle for some direct-flash keitai snapshot that would make even Ingrid Bergman look like Gollum on a bad day.


#3 I'm speaking relative to the top level people in Japanese politics of course. Hatoyama lasted eight months, but had I been put in that job we'd have measured the incumbency in weeks - hours if anybody was stupid enough to let me write my own acceptance speech.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Venus Bridge

Venus Bridge


Walk up from Sannomiya station in Kobe towards the Rokko mountainside to the northwest. On the way you'll find Ikuta shrine, a sometime popular place for wedding ceremonies. The city center ends here, and as you walk further the office buildings will give way to a residential area with apartment blocks and single homes.

Ikuta Shrine

Ikuta shrine recently became a very popular site for weddings when singer and talent Norika Fujiwara got married there in 2007. Alas, fortune is fleeting; she divorced again in 2009 and the shrine is now rumoured to be bad luck for weddings. I'm sure they'll weather it, but the wedding ceremony windfall is probably over.


Greengrocer

Greengrocer in Nakayamate. The north-south streets here give you the forested mountainside towards one end and the Seto inland sea on the other.


Right up against the mountain lies a park of sorts by the name of Suwayama. The park is right on the steep forested mountainside with footpaths and stairs, playgrounds and a temple. The paths are dotted with warnings not to approach wild boars. Near the top is a curved, meandering foot bridge called "Venus Bridge" that leads up to the summit, with a spectacular view of Kobe. It's a favourite setting for TV dramas; you can't have a murder mystery here that does not end with the villain and the hero detective|taxi driver|pathologist|undertaker confronting each other at the top of a waterfall, high bridge, rooftop, ocean cliff or some place like that. The go-to place in Kobe is Venus Bridge, so if you watch TV dramas here you've probably seen it a few times already.

Venus Bridge

Venus Bridge.


Venus Bridge

Many a fictional villain has explained everything to the hero right on this spot before they're led off into a waiting police car. It's a beautiful place.


The name "Venus Bridge" honours an astronomical observation of Venus during the Meji era. It's a popular place for dating, with the beautiful, romantic night-time view of the city. But dating or not, it's a pleasant walk from the city center to the mountainside, up through the park and on to the bridge. There's a (fairly expensive) European-style restaurant at the top if you fancy eating something, and there's taxis and a bus line on the weekends if you don't want to return back down on foot.

Kobe

Kobe from Venus Bridge. You can see Port Tower toward the right-hand side.


Lock of Love

Lovers hang padlocks on this statue thingy at the top of Venus Bridge. They write a message, lock it then throw away the key. Those steel wires are unhooked from time to time to clear out the locks. Some couples don't use the statue though; you can see padlocks hanging here and there all over the bridge and around the park. Bolt cutters are probably standard equipment for the park maintainers. It's a cute tradition.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hatoyama Leaves, and so does Ozawa

Prime minister Hatoyama just announced that he'll be stepping down in response to the fallout from the US base mess and the resulting breakup of the coalition. No word on exactly when he's leaving - or if he'll manage to drag Ozawa down with him - but he'll address the members of both houses today.

Presumably he'll tell everyone exactly when he'll step down at that point. Or he'll tell people he's changed his mind and would like to continue, or decide he hasn't decided on the Futenma relocation after all, or fail to show up when he couldn't decide on what tie to wear. Steely resolve has never been his strong point.

Japanese politics may have many faults. Being boring is not one of them, thankfully.

Update: Hatoyama's apparently leaving before the election - as soon as a new leader (Naoto Kan, presumably) is elected. More significantly, Ozawa has agreed to step down as well. The end of an era, and of one of the more interesting political operators in Japan.