Chance Encounters in Nihon-machi
Yesterday me and Sushu went to Japan Town in San Francisco to shop for cool stuff to wear to the wedding after-party.
I got these awesome geta:
I have been clomping around in them all day. They make walking slightly harder, but more fun! And noisier.
I got them from a small, quiet kimono shop which is built on the bridge between two mall-type buildings. The shopkeeper was a quiet, fragile-looking old Japanese man.
Me and Sushu were going back and forth between the Chinese and Japanese readings of the inscriptions on various items in the shop, like "Spring summer winter fall:"
"haru-natsu-aki-fuyu" in Japanese, "chwen(1)-xia(4)-qio(1)-dong(3)" in Chinese. The shop guy overheard us so he asked if I read Japanese, so we started talking in Japanese. I told him I had lived in Iwate for three years.
He looked shocked and said "Iwate? I'm from Iwate! What city?"
I said "Kamaishi" and he said "I'm from Miyako!"
Miyako is, like, the next town over. Map:
He was suddenly much friendlier. I told him I was going back to Iwate in a few weeks as part of my honeymoon travels. We had a pretty good conversation.
That made my day. Man, Miyako! Who would have guessed?
We also browsed through a much larger antique-furniture and clothing store, where we made a cool discovery. There was a shelf with a bunch of old papers, books, and writings. On closer examination, some of them turned out to be very old indeed. It was all pre-war; some was early Showa period, some was Taisho and some was even from the Meiji era. There was a Japanese literature textbook, a book of lyrics to a Noh play, and a bunch of other things we couldn't identify.
What was it all doing on that shelf? Was it to be sold as knick-knacks to people who just wanted to decorate with random japanese written material they couldn't read? The thought made me very sad. It seemed like they should be in a museum or a library or something.
The shop lady didn't know anything about where the books had come from. We ended up buying a bunch of them to take home and analyze. I'll blog about them more once we've gone over them and deduced what we can.
My first impression of China
...will always be this: Before we could get off the plane in Pudong airport, they made us wait while these white-shrouded-and-masked health inspectors came on board the plane and walked up and down the rows, taking the temperature of every passenger by SHOOTING LASER BEAMS AT OUR FOREHEADS. I am not making this up. They had these little handheld guns that they would point at each person's forehead, and four little red laser dots would appear there, and they'd have the temperature in a few seconds. I was not aware this technology existed. It's very science fiction.
The three people who were found to have fevers were told to leave the plane first, so they could be put in quarantine. Or "strongly encouraged to put themselves into quarantine", whatever that means.
The reason for all this was because China is taking the Swine Flu menace very, very seriously. (Unlike America where everybody was scared for one week and then forgot about it because of Mark Sanford's affair and Michael Jackson dying. The American news media: bringing you a world where only one thing can happen at a time.) China is still jumpy from SARS and doesn't want any of more scary germs coming into the country; travelers from the USA are particularly suspect because China thinks we've been lazy about screening our own borders. Which is probably true.
I've got this Leatherman? Multipurpose tool that folds out into a big knife?
I found my Leatherman in my backpack last time I was in Chicago. That was weird, because I don't take it with me when I travel, because it would get confiscated by the TSA at the security checkpoint.
But this time, I left it in by accident, and the TSA didn't confiscate it. They missed it completely. And this was a carry-on. They let me have a potential weapon in the cabin of the aircraft!
Thanks a lot, TSA.
At least the TSA is diligently keeping us safe from the threat of > 3oz shampoo and water bottles. Good job.
Thanks CNN for admitting you are obsolete as a news medium
La Bamba, a Salvadoran/Mexican restaurant in Mountain View, has a TV up on the wall that is always playing CNN. So every time we Mozillanoids go to La Bamba for lunch, I get to see CNN's Quality Daytime Programming.
The program they always seem to show during lunch consists of a dude reading his Twitter feed to you out loud. They show you the Twitter feed too, not through some kind of high-tech CNN graphics, but by pointing a video camera at their computer screen.
It's like, gee CNN, could you be any more obvious about admitting you are obsolete as a news medium?
I know you guys have 24 hours to fill, and that fawning interviews with stupid, corrupt, fact-challenged politicians, who you refuse to challenge or contradict or fact-check, will only fill so many of those 24 hours. But reading your Twitter feed out loud? Why would I want to watch that if I could just subscribe to all the same Twitter feeds myself?
Have you finally decided that the purpose of TV is to repeat stuff from the Web for people who don't have computers? How times have changed since the days when the "old media" poo-poohed the "new media", eh?
No wonder CNN is losing all its viewership.
Broadband in Finland
Apparently Finland has made broadband internet connectivity a legal right due to all their citizens.
Wow. Uh, go Finland! I guess. Good for them, but I can't help but think of all the people in the world with insufficient access to, say, clean potable water, and wonder what they would think of the idea of broadband as a basic right.
Star Wars: Let the Hate Flow Through You
So we all know The Phantom Menace was a terrible movie. I don't think anybody's going to argue that.
We also all know that Star Wars fandom consists mostly of hating Star Wars. It's alright. Use your anger. Let the hate flow through you. Etc.
But I think the Star Wars prequel trilogy is really something special. These are no ordinary bad movies, to be watched once, laughed at, and forgotten. These movies are way beyond that. They had everything going for them - the story George Lucas was supposedly dying to tell for 20 years, unlimited budget and CGI technology, tons of time and fame and reputation and even love went into them, and they had a built-in audience of fanatical fanboys...
... and with all that, they weren't just, like, mediocre-bad. They weren't just not-as-good-as-the-originals bad. They were fundamentally screwed up at the most basic level of storytelling competence.
The prequel trilogy needs to be saved and passed down to future generations as a monument to human folly. Anyone who wants to learn about writing and how to tell a story, especially in science fiction (and I know I do) should study these movies in order to learn how to avoid their many mistakes. We should maybe even thank George Lucas for giving us the Rosetta Stone of bad filmmaking.
That's why I love this 7-part video review of The Phantom Menace.
It's a total of 70 minutes long (!!) almost half as long as the movie it's "reviewing". It's an epic takedown, a dissection of every mistake. The reviewer barely even wastes time on the surface-level mistakes like Jar-Jar and midicholorians and excessive CG. We already know that stuff is bad; why waste time rehashing it? Instead, the reviewer goes for the deeper structural problems in the story, like the fact that it has no protagonist, the villain's plan makes no sense, and nothing is at stake in any of the battles.
The reviewer also takes on a bizzare persona, talking in a "creepy old man" voice and dropping hints that he is a serial killer who does whatever his Pizza Rolls tell him to do. Eventually the police come for him. (This is how you make a 70-minute-long review stay interesting: give it a plotline of its own...) He also splices in behind-the-scenes clips to support the thesis that everyone was too scared of Lucas to challenge his ideas.
So, check out this post on The First Draft of Star Wars. It quotes extensively from the very first draft, from 1974 of the first Star Wars movie. It's... very different from what ended up on the screen. It's also amazingly, hilariously bad. It starts on the planet Utapau, Luke Skywalker is over 60 years old, the main character is "Anakin Starkiller", there's a space fortress that gets blown up by Wookies, and a major plot element is a belt of test tubes containing liquid scientist brains. I am not making any of this up. There's way too much clunky exposition of backstory that nobody would care about, and the whole thing just sucks.
For me, that clinches it. George Lucas is rubbish at writing. The only reason any of the Star Wars movies were any good at all was because of the people who forced him to keep revising his original drafts... or who wrote the script for him, in some cases. The badness of the prequel trilogy wasn't because Lucas, like, forgot how to make a good movie. The badness comes from Lucas getting exactly what he wanted, with nobody telling him "no". Exactly what he asked for in his first draft.
Scary, isn't it?
Some other miscellaneous links.
The same reviewer also does some very funny and spot-on takedowns of Star Trek movies in the same fashion. The one for Generations is a good place to start.
I've also been enjoying Darths And Droids, a photo-comic which reimagines the prequel trilogy as the output of a role-playing campaign that jumps off the rails in the first session and never really recovers. The plot makes no sense because the GM is desperately trying to improvise. The guy playing Qui-Gon is an idiot, the guy playing R2-D2 is a ruthless min-maxer, and when somebody's kid sister wants to play they let her create a character... she comes up with Jar-Jar. Everything makes so much more sense this way.
From the "TV clips that will make your brain explode" department: A series of Japanese commercials for Sangaria's "こどもののみもの" or "beer for kids". Yeah, I know it's non-alcoholic, but it still just looks SO WRONG.
Bus Ride to the Twilight Zone
The Wednesday before I left for China. My bike had a flat tire (again) so I was taking the bus home.
Getting on the bus, I tripped over the step and fell to my hands and knees. I was fine. I got up and brushed myself off. "I'm fine", I said to the bus driver.
"I still have to file an Incident Report", she said.
"Do You Require Medical Attention?" she asked, formally.
"What? No! I just said I was fine!" I found an open seat at the back of the bus. Next to me was an ancient hippie, with long black hair under a baseball cap, military dog tags, and mirrorshades. His face reminded me of my grandmother.
The bus sat idling while the bus driver made a call to HQ to file her Incident Report. A minute. Five minutes. I laughed nervously. People on the bus were giving me the evil eye. "Sorry, I guess I better be careful next time", I mumbled. "Oh yeah, you're hurt so bad" somebody joked. "Better call your lawyer!". Mirrorshades guy said something about how maybe this was the first step of implementing martial law. I thought he was joking.
The bus driver called me back up to the front of the bus and made me fill out a form with my contact info, stating that I had been offered medical attention and refused it. What the hell, I wondered as I stalked back to my seat, is wrong with this country?
Having now wasted like ten minutes of everybody's day over nothing, the bus finally got moving. I had my laptop out and was trying to work a bit on Collusion. Mirrorshades guy asked what I was working on. I said something about Mozilla and Firefox. He started talking about how the CIA can spy on your computer, and all the software he uses to stop them (most of which I hadn't heard of). He asked me "how Firefox compares to Linux". Ooookay. At this point I thought he was just a weirdo who didn't know much about computers.
I thought of telling him that I was working on stuff to help protect people's privacy, but there was no point. He started going off on a weird rant about how "they" can get into your computer and remote control it using satellites. He knows this because one time he was talking to Microsoft Tech Support in India and they started moving his mouse pointer around! (Note: this is called Remote Desktop). Soon he was talking about FEMA death camps and how flouride is put in the drinking water to make us stupid and I realized he wasn't just your average bus weirdo, he was the real deal: a bona-fide grade A conspiracy theorist.
I have some sympathy for conspiracy nuts, up to a point. I agree that our government does all sorts of secretive and unethical things. The president actually does have a secret "kill list" of people to be targeted by flying robot murder drones. That, and other things which would have sounded like crazy ranting not too long ago, are today unarguable facts that politicians admit, and even defend. If you want to complain about Guantanamo or NSA wiretapping or the police arresting lawful protesters, I'm right there with you, bro.
But with all the real stuff that's wrong in the world, why do conspiracy theorists fixate on theories that are so dumb?
Mirrorshades guy said that the proof of the flouride thing was that on the back of the toothpaste box there's a warning to call poison control if you swallow too much of it. Therefore flouride is poisonous, but it's in our drinking water! Therefore, it's a conspiracy to make us stupid, no other possible explanation. (The concepts of "effective dose vs. overdose" or the differences between different flouride compounds don't seem to exist to these guys.) He asked what I thought and I said I doubted it; he said only because I've been brainwashed and "you better WAKE UP, son!" (No, dude, I doubt it because I've been to countries that don't have flouride, and the people there are not noticably more intelligent than us, they just have nastier teeth.) (I do enjoy the idea that the conspiracy is powerful enough to control all government, business, and media, but they can't take the warning message off the back of a toothpaste box.)
Pretty soon he was on about a supposed suicide spree and how a recent earthquake had tilted the earth's axis by some number of degress and... I'm not sure what his point was, really. He asked me what I thought again and I tried to point out that earthquakes of that magnitude must have happened plenty often throughout earth's history and whatever cumulative axis-tiling effect they've had doesn't seem to have been detrimental to life, but it was impossible to even engage this guy with logic; every time I tried he just spun off to an unrelated conspiracy theory before I could really formulate a response. He was free-associating, loudly, aggressively, and in my face.
I kind of wish now that I had asked the bus guy whether he was a "Jews are in charge of everything" conspiracy theorist or a "Lizard people are in charge of everything" conspiracy theorist. But at the time I really just wanted the conversation to be over. It was hard to get a word in edgewise, anyway, and the mirrorshades made it impossible to read his eyes, which made the conversation even more awkward and unnerving. I was contemplating getting off the bus early and walking the rest of the way, just to escape.
He kept saying "you better WAKE UP, son!" and "They're keeping an eye on me because I know things!" and "You think I'm making this up?"
No, sir, I don't think you're making it up. I've been on the Internet, I've heard all these theories before. They've been around for decades, and it's always the End Times and the UN coup is always imminent, and yet somehow it never happens. The really sad thing about conspiracy theorists is that they pride themselves on being too smart to fall for the official version of events; but far from being skeptical they're some of the world's most credulous people. They'll believe anything they hear as long as it sounds sufficiently scary and contradicts the "official" story. (Like how any hole they can pick in the official 9/11 story is automatically evidence for their alternate theory, no matter how far-fetched; there is never a third possibility.)
Something I'd like to ask a conspiracy theorist: If it's true that there's an all-powerful conspiracy that controls everything, and basically everybody is in on it, what exactly do you want us to do about it? Is there anything we can do? How do you beat them? (Or join them?)
My guess is it's not about taking action -- it's about feeling smarter than everybody else because you have secret knowledge. Secret knowledge that can never be disproven, because any counterargument is just "what THEY want you to think". Secret knowledge that you can lord over the "sheeple". Or rant about to random strangers on a bus.
Time travel is banned in China
Chinese censorship can be capricious. Sometimes Wikipedia's blocked, sometimes just certain articles are blocked. Today I can reach the Tiananmen Square Protests 1989 page no problem.
If I do a Google search, half the time it gets routed through Google.com.hk and works fine; the other half of the time I land on some super-sketchy-looking site at http://sh.114so.cn.
Blogger and Wordpress are both blocked, Tumblr gets sporadically blocked or redirected, but amusingly 4chan works fine.
At least I can understand the government's reasons for blocking political content and sites that people use to organize protests. Some of the other things they choose to censor are truly baffling -- like time travel! China has recently banned all movies and TV shows that use time travel as a plot device.
Additionally, you're not allowed to show human skeletons. (They had to redo a lot of artwork for the Chinese version of World of Warcraft.)
I just had the best idea for the ultimate "banned in China" movie: It's about a time-traveling Tibetan skeleton who goes back in time to Tiananmen Square 1989 in order to overthrow the government using secret Falun Gong techniques.