April 29, 2013

White Flag

Another in my occasional series featuring cool musical metaphors that make for compelling lyrics but aren't too clever for their own poetic good.

"White Flag" by Dido (the video features David Boreanaz in angsty Angel mode).

I will go down with this ship
And I won't put my hands up and surrender
There will be no white flag above my door
I'm in love and always will be

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Too Late to Apologize

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April 25, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (27)

When Shushou says to Kiwa, "If you don't have the courage to go back for your own" (page 263), she uses the pronoun anta, an informal reduction of anata applied only to social inferiors. Everywhere else, she uses "Shitsu-san."

In Japanese, common personal pronouns are never used to address social superiors (unless to insult them), so this starkly reveals Shushou's contempt for the man. A paragraph later, she again refers to him as "Shitsu-san."

Wikipedia has a nice compendium of Japanese personal pronouns.

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April 22, 2013

Illuminating differences

Nighttime satellite pictures of the the north-south divide in Korea reveal the stark contrast between a first-world, technologically-developed country and a medieval totalitarian state.

On the other hand, this ISS photo of Berlin tells an interesting story of technological choices. In this case, sodium vapor street lamps in what was East Berlin versus mercury vapor in what was West Berlin.

According to a commenter on Tyler Cowen's blog, after reunification, the existing lighting infrastructure was maintained (quoting from a German government website) "to enhance orientation by neighborhood."

Japan, on the other hand, uses a lot of fluorescent street lamps in residential areas. They don't so much light up a street as keep it from being pitch black, a commentary on expectations of public safety, perhaps.

Although these quaint fluorescents are giving way to LEDs (scroll down to the bottom here for a comparison). In Clannad: After Story, Tomoya's first job as an electrician is repairing fluorescent street lamps.

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April 18, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (26)

I totally identify with this sentiment: "The sheer amount of luggage alone set her nerves on edge." The best way to travel anywhere is with a single duffel bag that can be comfortably slung over the shoulder. Just big enough for your important stuff and nothing more.

And to press home that point, "[U.S.] airlines took in more than $6 billion in baggage and reservation change fees in 2012."

All that stuff is expensive.

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April 15, 2013

Teaching to the TOEFL

Here's an educational reform I approve of:

The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) will be required both to enter public universities and to graduate from them if the policy recommendations adopted Monday by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's education reform panel are formalized.

In terms of evaluating real-world communication, the TOEFL makes for a much better yardstick than the esoteric nonsense that worms its way into the entrance exams required by Japan's universities. A connection to the real world is sadly lacking when it comes to English instruction in Japan.

It's a curious paradox in a country so infatuated with American and British culture and the English language. But the sad fact is that in 2011, Japanese students taking the TOEFL ranked third from the bottom out of 33 Asian countries and came in dead last on the speaking section.

Of course, to have any effect, such reforms would have to permeate the entire educational establishment. I'd bet on that happening never than anytime in the foreseeable future. In any case, the rest of the article is worth perusing if only for this politically incorrect nugget:

The proposals, including introduction of the TOEFL, are also designed to correct the "excessive egalitarianism" at schools and to nurture the abilities of top-level students, Endo said. "Japanese education has sought for equality in (student academic achievements). Because of this, it has failed to offer education that capitalizes on (their individual) characteristics," Endo told reporters.

It's nice to see that somewhere in the world there is an educational apparatchik not beholding to the cant of "equal outcomes." Japan never stopped believing in the bell curve, it's just that they've always explained it as the sole product of strenuous effort.

Keep on scrolling down to the bottom for this juicy tidbit:

Japan spends 3.6 percent of its gross domestic product on public education, while the United States spends 5.3 percent.

Ever notice how advocates for government managed healthcare like to cite lower spending/better results when comparing other countries to the U.S., but not when it comes to public education spending?

(Though I doubt the numbers for Japan take into account the huge fees parents have to cough up for "free" public education in Japan, true of healthcare spending too.)

The successful implementation these reforms aside, they'll give a much-needed boost to Japan's ESL industry, floundering since the economy went off the rails in the 1990s, precipitating the catastrophic bankruptcy of industry-leader Nova (along with the school I worked at in Osaka).

Hmm, maybe if Social Security goes bust, I'll retire to Japan and pretend to teach English to students pretending to learn (let's be honest: that's what most English instruction in Japan boils down to).

Plus, a rekindled interest in Eikaiwa (English conversation) could give all those Mormon missionaries in Japan something productive to do with their time. It was certainly the most productive thing I did with mine.

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April 11, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (25)

The bread described in this chapter sounds like an unleavened flat bread similar to chapati (or laobing), made from flour, water, salt and a little oil, and pan-fried.

Accoring to Wikipedia, "bisque porcelain is unglazed, white ceramic ware."

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April 08, 2013

The undiscovered country

That line from Hamlet actually refers to death. And speaking of Star Trek titles, the year 2012 again had Japan boldly going where no man has gone before. Literally, as it turns out. Where it's going, there's nobody there. Because they died.

Japan's population fell by over 200,000 in absolute terms. Near-term projections have it falling from 127.5 million to 116.6 million in 2030 and 97 million in 2050.

As Spock would put it: "Fascinating." Though hardly catastrophic, not for overpopulated Japan. That doesn't stop the Chicken Littles. Over at The Diplomat, John Traphagan flips a coin between calling it "Japan's Demographic Nightmare" and "Japan's Demographic Disaster."

For some truly disastrous numbers, The Economist gets the heart of the matter with these projections of the net labor force demographics:

But they remain projections. After perusing popular projections about the shrinking length of the Mississippi River, Mark Twain calculated that

Seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen.

"There is something fascinating about science," Twain wryly concludes. "One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

A century later, apocalyptic group think, once the province of the crackpot right, has come to dominate the intellectual left: "If we don't do X right away we're doomed! Doomed! Take rising sea levels: it's not as if the ocean's going to save it all up and surprise us one morning.

In The Globe and Mail, Doug Saunders coined the appropriate term in this case: "We have entered the age of fertility panic."

Journalism long ago abandoned actual reporting and now functions as the official teller of ghost stories around the campfire. Except we're supposed to believe them. Hence the mindless repetition of the supposed solution to this supposed disaster: immigration!

In the case of Japan, that's a cure worse than the disease, which is why it's never going to happen. Besides, if labor availability is the problem, it's a lot easier to move to where the labor already is. That's why most Toyotas and Hondas come from factories here in the U.S.

Although some Japanese are choosing to retire to Thailand the same way Americans do to Mexico, the elderly can't be exported like cars. Here I think Michael Cucek has ferreted out the real reason for Japan's recent forays into government-sponsored daycare:

How then is the government to allocate resources in carrying out this project, where Japan has no models to follow because it in the vanguard, the leader because it has the most aged society on the planet? It turns out that the Japanese government has been running a pilot project for the coming eldercare explosion--its child daycare program.

People adapt and muddle through. Japan is the third richest country in the world. Sectors of its economy--agriculture, in particular--remain incredibly inefficient. There's a considerable amount of low-hanging economic fruit to be plucked before donning the sackcloth and ashes.

Already curious counter-trends can be observed. Coco Masters reports in Foreign Policy that

A poll conducted by the Japanese government last December shows that 51 percent of respondents think women should be stay-at-home mothers. That figure is up 10 percent since 2009--with the increase most notable among people in their 20s [emphasis added].

And in a New York Magazine article, Lisa Miller documents a similar trend in the U.S.:

The number of stay-at-home mothers rose incrementally between 2010 and 2011, for the first time since the downturn of 2008. While staying home with children remains largely a privilege of the affluent (incomes of $100,000 a year or more), some of the biggest increases have been among younger mothers, ages 25 to 35, and those whose family incomes range from $75,000 to $100,000 a year [emphasis added].

So maybe the problem is getting ready to correct itself, the same way the population was once going to explode us all out of existence--right up until it didn't.

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April 04, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (24)

The word I translate as "Miss" is o-jou-sama (お嬢様). It can be used as a straightforward honorific or as a slang term like "princess." Toss in the kanji for "school" (学校) and it means "preppy." In the first sentence of chapter 23, Chodai appends the diminuative suffix o-jou-chan, which could also make it "young miss" or "little miss."

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April 01, 2013

Barenaked Ladies in space

The International Space Station is the best waste of money any bunch of governments (the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency) has ever come up with. And perhaps the most harmless accomplishment of international diplomacy in history.

Though the challenge of safely deorbiting all 500 tons of the ISS when it reaches its end-of-mission may put that achievement in jeopardy.

In the meantime, the ISS keeps armies of bureaucrats busy not bothering the rest of us. Now, you could argue that our best and brightest should be focusing their attention on more pressing problems than circling the globe 250 miles above the Earth every 90 minutes.

Except that when it comes to politics, as William F. Buckley famously observed about whom he'd actually prefer to be governed by, putting the best and brightest in charge tends to just makes things worse in more ingenious and complicated ways.

Paradoxically, the utter uselessness of the ISS turns out to be its greatest strength. Government agencies around the world continue to pump gobs of money into the thing with barely the glimmer of a political agenda in sight. It's the biggest vanity project in history.

Well, except for not allowing China into the clubhouse (dumb). And Russia's very successful agenda is siphoning off gobs of money from the U.S. Treasury in exchange for ferrying human beings up there.

But the true (and mostly hidden) cost of the ISS is all the real science NASA has cannibalized for decades to keep this roadshow going. Now and then, though, the ISS folks dream up a new and interesting way to extravagantly waste money that just make you say, "Awww."

So, yeah, I know. This is going to sound like a joke. But it's not! It not only sounds pretty good but is quite real: ISS Commander Chris Hadfield does a duet-from-outer-space with Canadian alternative rock band Barenaked Ladies.

Hadfield is one of those Jacks-of-all-trades who's a master of all of them. Good grief, he just doesn't sing, he sings well. He plays in a band when he's not doing the astronaut thing. He's great on TV. And his Twitter feed is definitely worth following. Thanks, Canada!

I do have to wonder how they overcame the half-second latency in the relay to the TDRS satellites in geosynchronous orbit and down to the terrestrial links. My theory is that Hafield played to a local recording, which was then used as the beat track in the studio.

Then they remixed the whole thing in post. At any rate, as I said, it's a nice song. And it only cost $150 billion dollars to make!

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