Friday, August 29, 2008
Alaska Governer Sarah Palin, John McCain's newly announced running mate. Because no Republican has ever won without carrying the great state of Alaska! Oh, you mean that's not why he picked her? Hmmm, I wonder what the real reason could be...
Talk about inexperience. She's a first term governor and a n00b to politics. Kind of undercuts one of McCain's central arguments about his opponent, doesn't it? John McCain is old. He's had health issues before. Sarah Palin could easily be your president. Think about that. That is scary. The only thing worse than a right-wing nutcase in government is a right-wing nutcase with no foreign policy experience whatsoever. And this is what John McCain wants us to believe is his best possible choice for the country.
I think women are going to see through this. Strikes me as pretty cynical to think women care more about a politician's genital configuration than their policies.
P.S. Anyone that still doesn't think the Republicans are all about playing politics - even in the face of national disaster - need only look to the fact that Sarah Palin announced today, September 1, as hurricane Gustav makes landfall and the media are focused on other matters, that her unwed teenage daughter is pregnant. She blamed the timing on "liberal bloggers", as if she herself only just learned about it (she didn't). She couldn't have announced it next week, or last week. She had to do it today, all because of those asshole liberals.
Nevermind what this says about so-called Republican morality. If social conservatives really practiced what they preach, Palin would have declared herself ineligible for the vice presidency when approached by John McCain. This is the example she wants to set for the 100 million families in this country? I guess morality only matters when it gets you votes, huh?
If nothing else, she's a shining beacon for the benefits of abstinence-only sex education.
In a world where honesty, intelligence, judgment, wisdom and temperament were rewarded, we'd have this election in the bag. Unfortunately, this is not that world, and not that country. So we've still got our work cut out.
Monday, August 25, 2008
This is the Omamori that I just put in our new Grand Cherokee. My mother-in-law bought it for us. Now we'll be safe!
We in the USA would call this a good luck charm, but many Japanese believe they offer actual protection - especially if you get one at a temple (or shrine, if that's your preference). I guess it's sort of like putting a cross in your car if you're a Christian, only not quite as religious - some people do just have them out of superstition, more like a rabbit's foot. But they make these for various specific purposes like childbirth or driving, and they personalize them for individual families. Temple monks actually pray on them - I don't really like the word "bless" because to me, that sounds vague. A monk actually prayed for my specific car not to have an accident.
This one is from Narita-san Temple, and that's what it says on the front. On the back is my name (as the technical owner of the car) and the purpose - in this case, safety while driving.
Here's another one - wouldn't know from the pic, but it's actually a lot smaller than the one above:
That's the one I'm supposed to walk around with. I keep it in my bag. I'm not really sure if it's generic or if it's personalized - the paper inside it is folded up thick, so there might be more written on it that I can't see, like maybe my name again. (I don't think I'm supposed to open it up.) My wife has a red one that she insists is for her, while the purple one is for me. As far as I know, all of these have little Buddhas in them if you get them at a Buddhist temple. (Omamori from Shinto shrines probably have something else.) This one also came from Narita.
Temples make a lot of money on these things, but apparently they're a good export business too. Check out the price of one at this site. Granted, it comes in an unnecessarily nice wooden box, but that's still quite a markup. They're also showing the back, not the front, I guess because they think it looks nicer (and mine above looks exactly the same, so that one's probably pretty tiny). Anyone want to go into business together?
Saturday, August 23, 2008
I'm getting nostalgic for the 1990's. So I figured now was a good time to look back on some of its best music. Maybe you've heard some of these songs, but probably not all of them.
The nice thing about doing a top 10? If anybody complains that I forgot or overlooked something, I just say "that was #11." And maybe it'll be true!
In no particular order, this is the sound of the 90's:
DJ Shadow - Midnight in a Perfect World
One down, nine more inside.
Blur - Beetlebum
Depeche Mode - World in My Eyes
Sonic Youth - Youth Against Fascism
The real verse is:
"Yeah the president sucks
He's a war pig fuck
His shit is out of luck"
Radiohead - Fake Plastic Trees
Chemical Brothers (w/ Noel Gallagher) - Let Forever Be
Massive Attack - Protection
U2 - The Fly
Lush - Sweetness & Light
My Bloody Valentine - Sometimes
The video is from "Lost in Translation", and it ironically makes me miss Japan.
That's ten. Honorable mentions are many and varied, but I won't mention them. Most of them go without saying anyway. There was a lot of great music in that decade.
One sad thing. A couple of songs didn't make the list only because their videos were not embeddable, and there were too many other great songs to choose from. Record labels can now "claim" their artist's videos on YouTube and take over those pages, and some of them seem to think it's a good idea for their artists to receive no free marketing and promotion. What rationale could they possibly have for disabling embedding? Well, sorry guys, but blogs like mine - and bigger ones too - just aren't going to link to (or even mention) your music. Greedy fucks.
Friday, August 22, 2008
I know I'm a little late. But I've mentioned the Chinese in two separate posts already, thought I should balance it out a little. It kinda goes without saying that I was actually rooting for Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, and I'm glad they won what they did. Nastia is probably the most graceful gymnast I've ever seen. And she's got a great name. In 20 years we'll all still be talking about Nastia just because it's fun to say "Nastia".
I'm gonna miss the Olympics when they're done this weekend - it's the one time every four years when I actually want to watch stuff like gymnastics and softball and badminton. I had tons of fun watching the team table tennis finals. I never knew there was such a thing as "team table tennis". This event needs to be on in prime time!
A few more of the (ahem) athletes I've enjoyed watching:
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Every time I find a place I like to eat, it closes. It happened to Roy Rogers, then Ranch 1, then Blimpie, and now Belly Delly. I'm a jinx. If you see me coming to your door, lock it up.
There were many businessmen standing outside looking confused.
We have come a long way. Racism now is rarely overt like the poster above. But in some ways, that makes it even harder to combat - nobody ever admits to being a racist, or making a racist argument. Accusing someone of doing so will usually lead to counter-accusations of political correctness (which is now considered racism's opposite, overcompensating extreme) and it quickly becomes a pissing match. I myself don't much enjoy playing the race card, and I've never done so here before.
Our history of racism against Asians, dating back to the 1800's and continuing through the past century, seems to have been largely forgotten. So few people seem to recognize it these days, or so much as flinch even if they do. That poster up there is an extreme example, but there are still plenty of more subtle ways that people express the same biases today.
I've noticed a lot of it during the Beijing Olympics, both in the official coverage from NBC and around the internet. I touched upon it in my post about the controversy surrounding the age of China's women's gymnastics team, which has had both racist and misogynistic undertones. (The implication being that women around the world need to conform to western standards of height, weight and "curves" to qualify as, well, women.) Whether or not the allegations are actually true is not really important, and I'd love to see Nastia Liukin and the US team with more gold - the point is we're shooting first and asking questions later. There was no legitimate reason for the snap judgment that the media and most Americans made in the absence of real evidence. And bust size does not qualify as evidence.
I was uncomfortable with much of the criticism of the opening ceremonies too - it's ok for white All-American Britney Spears to record her albums with a ProTools-"enhanced" voice and then lip-sync through every concert she's ever put on, but it's a major scandal when a little Chinese girl does it. We look for excuses for our white western stars, but we show Asians no mercy.
Worse, this seems to be accepted practice even among otherwise liberal, open-minded people. This is a non-partisan issue.
Most will say they're not criticizing the Chinese (or more generally Asian) people, only the Chinese government. I might believe that - the Chinese government is pretty evil, after all - if those same people were just as vocal about our own government's abuses and the complicity of many average Americans. We jail reporters here too, along with peaceful protesters; we hold people in prisons indefinitely without due process; we blacklist our own citizens for their religious beliefs; we refuse to denounce torture and in fact most Americans support it. And we keep electing governments who say they'll continue those policies.
Where is this moral high ground that these supposed critics of the Chinese government are operating from? If anything, they should see China as a kindred spirit. (Remember that China has its own terror problem, and it claims all of its oppressive measures are in the name of security just like we do.) It's probably all a smoke screen for what their real problem is.
These signals are not as obvious as cross-burning or noose-hanging, but when you find a double standard like that - or worse, the assumption that western standards are the only "correct" standards by which to judge people and culture - then you've got to at least ask whether racism is at the heart of it.
Now this week, Time Magazine is running an article perpetuating the stereotype about Asians and suicide, under the headline "A Family Suicide Risk in US Asians?" (I can't get my head around that headline, to start with. You tell me what it actually means and who it's actually referring to.) It comes complete with stock image of an appropriately sad looking Asian girl.
But here's the most important part of the article:
His analysis finds that 2.7% of the Asian Americans interviewed reported having attempted suicide at some point during their lives; the figure falls in line with the lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts in the general population: estimated to be anywhere from 1% to 4.6%. Overall, suicide accounts for less than 1% of deaths yearly in the U.S. — there were about 11 suicides per 100,000 people in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and the suicide success rate among Asian Americans (as well as Latinos and African Americans) is actually slightly lower than that of white Americans.
So what is the point? Not that Asian Americans are at greater risk of suicide than anybody else, but that when they do attempt suicide, it's often over family stresses. But I wonder why Asian Americans were singled out - why not include other groups in this study? Given that suicide rates are no higher for Asians than for whites, what is the premise for this study in the first place? Again, shoot first - and do it based on stereotypes.
It's kind of like commissioning a study on why black people eat fried chicken. You see what I'm getting at?
I care about this because I'm married to an Asian, and someday I'm going to have a little Asian American guy or girl running around my house who's going to have to learn to live with this assertion that he/she is different and somehow inferior. I worry about my future child's self image and self esteem. My wife has been the victim of racism as well, in both large and small ways - and that's what first tuned me in to it.
A few years ago, she was confronted and almost arrested on the street by an overzealous border patrol agent in Montana - she was a non-white in a white state. The fact that she was taking a short walk around the train station on an extended maintenance stop outside of our Amtrak train, and carrying her New York State-issued driver's license with her, didn't seem to matter. Does my Japanese wife look like an islamic terrorist? Well, I certainly don't think so. This border patrol agent did, though, and was in the process of taking her into custody before some of our fellow (white!) passengers came to her aid and vouched for her. (I had stayed on the train, foolishly assuming that my government would not arrest a Japanese woman simply for being Japanese. What century is this?)
I try not to think about what might have happened if that train had left on schedule, while she was in custody.
That was bad, and kind of a wakeup call for me. Since then, every once in a while I'll catch a comment by somebody that sounds vaguely offensive, but not enough to call them on it. For example, on our trip to Montauk last weekend, we picked a random restaurant to eat dinner at. We were standing around waiting for someone to seat us when a customer actually walked up to us and said "you want to eat here?" She was looking at my wife when she finished the question.
It could have been innocent, or it could have just been unusual for them to see outsiders of any kind. So I didn't say anything, just "yes, why?" (She replied that it was a really good place - whatever that meant - then left.) But my wife was convinced it was a question with an agenda, and she apparently gets stuff like that all the time. Montauk is an almost exclusively white town, as is that entire area. I tried to convince her as I usually do that she was just being paranoid, but it's getting harder for me to even convince myself of that.
In the interests of fairness, I should mention that this scenario plays out in reverse in Asian countries plenty often too, and I've been the victim of racism or xenophobia myself while in Japan. (More often, though, they love Americans.) But two wrongs don't make a right. If we want the moral high ground, then we need to take it. Individually as well as collectively.
Americans have an odd relationship with Asia, and I know there are some people (like me) who love it. But while every Asian country is different and unique, they are all extremely alien to most Americans - and Americans fear what they do not understand. That's probably human nature, or instinct - a primordial response. But all racism is based on that same fear, and it's infuriating when mainstream media outlets like NBC (and the age-obsessed Al Trautwig) and Time Magazine display this subtle racism completely uncritically and without comment, perpetuating stereotypes and asserting western (and usually white) dominance. It's probably subconscious to some degree, but that's not really an excuse - it's their job as journalists to look at things and ask "Why? Why am I writing this article? Why was this study done?" Or "why am I saying something live on national TV with no real evidence to back it up?"
And unfortunately, most Americans still trust the media even when they're not doing their job, and they'll play right along, not even realizing how warped their view of the world really is.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Tickets are only $20 and I think they are still available. The Knitting Factory is a great venue - it's got three floors, and each one is small and intimate. Supposedly this is going to be more than just a concert too - they're gonna have displays, a giveaway, and they've hinted at a major announcement of some kind. Maybe I'll see you there...
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
seasonal lust wanted me to write about eating out vs. cooking in to save money. And that's easy, so here I go!
I live just outside New York City, one of the best food cities in the world. From 1992 through 2006, I lived in the city itself. New York's got a reputation for expensive restaurants, and it's got 'em, that's for sure. But you know, there was a time when I ate out almost every night. And I was living alone and making 30 grand a year back then. You just gotta know where to go.
Let's dive right into the economics. These are the average prices for some common food items you might need for a typical meal at grocery stores in NYC:
- 1 lb. of lean hamburger: $4
- Box of spaghetti: $1.30
- Jar of spaghetti sauce: $3.50
- 1 lb. of green beans: $3
- 1 box of butter (whatever weight that is): $5
- 1 container of parmesan cheese: $4
When you start to add everything up, you're spending at least $5 for a meal and that's basically if you're eating nothing but spaghetti all the time - it's more expensive to make almost anything else. (Instant ramen is cheaper, but what are we, in high school?) You may as well just get some street meat.
New York's got some great street vendors. There's even a contest every year called the "Vendy's" to name the best. Seriously, some of these guys are world class! There's every kind of food out on the street, from the basic hot dogs and sausages to authentic Greek, Middle Eastern, German and even Ethiopean food. A chicken over rice at an average Halal street vendor is maybe $5, maybe $6, and will probably taste better than anything you can make yourself.
By the way, my insult to instant ramen notwithstanding, you might want to check out some of my posts on ramen shops in NYC if you're looking for some more good, cheap eats. Of course, almost every block has a cheap Chinese restaurant, but you're taking your life in your hands there. (I admit I've done it plenty of times anyway - I've got the intestinal scars to prove it!) And there are plenty of other places in this city where you can get a good meal for less than 5 bucks.
This is kind of unique to New York. Eating out in most areas means going to a real restaurant. And unless you're taking your date to McDonald's every night (or your local Greek Diner) - which is probably not the best way to win a girl's heart - you're gonna be spending more than $5. But then, if you're trying to impress, you're not making spaghetti at home either. You're still spending a decent amount on ingredients, even if you cook.
This is a really bad picture but this is a little bit of the food at Sakagura, which is honestly probably the best all-around Japanese restaurant in New York City and also a great deal. I don't normally walk around with a camera when I go to real restaurants, so this is the best shot I have of their food. But here's the thing: you can spend $140 per person at Megu (which I have done) and get inauthentic, trendy food that nobody in Japan would actually eat, or you can go to a place like Sakagura and spend $40 per person (if that) and get both real food and a classy but genuine atmosphere. Not to mention the best selection of sake this side of the Pacific, or maybe even on either side of the Pacific! (Or you can forego the class and get food mostly just as good for even 1/4 of that price at Village Yokocho, which I believe now qualifies as having been in the East Village "forever". At least longer than any of the other Japanese places down there.)
By the way, I know I'm supposed to be focusing on economics but this must be mentioned as my favorite dessert ever:
That's Sakagura's black sesame creme brulee, and I think it costs six bucks. Yes, it has a scoop of homemade black sesame ice cream on top too. And a homemade black sesame cookie. It's black sesame-icious! I'd go so far as to say it's black sesame-rageous!
Real Japanese don't eat at places like Megu, just as I'm sure real Italians don't eat at the Rainbow Room and real Chinese don't eat at Buddakan. So why would you? I'm not saying you should never eat at these places. They're nice on special occasions, or yeah, when you're trying to impress. I'm saying there are plenty of places to eat out that have better food and cost a lot less.
The point is you could easily spend $1,000 per month just eating out in New York, but nobody in their right mind does. Most people spend about the same amount eating in as dining out and do both about as often. It's all just about knowing where to go.
A couple tips:
- Bars or pubs usually have the best food for the best prices. (Village Yokocho, mentioned above, is really a bar. Sakagura is too. They have real tables - they're restaurants - but their food exists to complement their alcohol, so it's cheaper.)
- Get a Zagat guide. It actually is a surprisingly decent indicator of quality and price. The internet, in my experience, is not. Neither is Michelin; at least not here.
- For everyday food, a good reliable street vendor is all you need.
- At almost any trendy restaurant, you're paying a large premium to be able to tell your friends you ate there. You're not paying for the quality of the food.
And the bottom line? Eating out doesn't have to cost more than eating in. And when it does, it doesn't have to cost much more. So live a little!
Monday, August 18, 2008
Last week I started taking requests. Socraton suggested I write about Norwegian politics and the welfare system. The gauntlet has been thrown down!
What he didn't count on was that I am Norwegian. Which means... nothing. I still don't know jack about Norwegian politics. My grandparents came over here in something like 1920 and settled in Wisconsin like 90% of all the Norwegians that ever come here do. That's why everybody out there is blonde and named Gundersen and Andersen and Olsen and Hansen and why even people born in that area of the United States all have that same strange accent, which you can hear a perfect facsimile of in the Coen brothers film Fargo if you don't feel like visiting. (That film was set in Minnesota, but the two states border each other, ya know.) I am not blonde and I do not have a last name like that (nor do I have that accent), because the other side of my family was British and somehow I ended up with a name belonging to 6.25% of my heritage and the looks to match. But I digress.
So I had to do some research. What I found made me laugh. For example, I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that Norway is a constitutional monarchy ruled in part by a "clown prince". This little fact was buried a bit down the page, so you might have missed it. Not me, though. And I didn't know any better, so I believed it! I pictured the leader of a group of royal clowns, who would meet each morning to discuss their strategies for alternately amusing and terrifying the country's school-children. I think this demonstrates the dangers of Wikipedia. Today it speaks of Norwegian clown princes, tomorrow a nuclear-armed Iran!
The page has now been changed, but here's the proof that I am not crazy. Although it's interesting that if you visit the Norway page history, the edit itself now seems to have been erased from record. Hmmmm....
This was all well and good, but I'm sure what Socraton was really interested in was the modern Norwegian government, not a vestige of the country's medieval past. Apparently, they've got the full spectrum of political views represented in their multi-party parliamentary system, similar to Germany or any number of European countries. I was curious what the young people of Norway think of their political parties, so I Googled "norway politics youth" and this amusing article was one of the top results.
Armed with the knowledge that the Conservatives were "privatization-loving, tennis-playing finance types" as compared with Labor's "tax-loving hikers that stand up for their rights and drive Volvos", I pretty quickly deduced which side was which in Norway's welfare system debate.
And what an amazing welfare system it is. "Welfare" in the Norwegian context is not a bad word like it is to most Americans. It does not conjure up images of poverty-stricken freeloaders laying around the house getting fat while on the dole. Norwegian welfare is all-encompassing and includes universal health care, fully paid 42 week maternity leave (plus 4 weeks for the father!), child care and more. Almost everybody uses the system, and all citizens are required to enroll in it.
Obviously, this is expensive. Norwegians pay 30-40% of their paychecks in tax that goes into the welfare system. (They don't seem to mind it, either.) And like most such systems in countries around the world, it's under some economic pressure right now. But it is one reason for Norway having one of the highest living standards in the world (if not the highest). And it seems unlikely that Norwegians will ever allow wholesale changes to it, despite the path to privatization - especially given Norway's current left-leaning government.
What most Americans don't see when they look at systems like this are the indirect benefits. For example, in the United States, the birth rate is much higher among the poor than among the wealthy, and women often feel the need to quit their jobs to tackle motherhood. This just leads to more poverty as these children then grow up poor, are poorly educated and poorly-employed and have more poor children of their own. In Norway, the opposite is true - wealthier working mothers have a high birth rate because of the liberal maternity system and universal health care. This leads to more wealth as these children grow up, go to college and enter the work force as skilled and knowledgeable workers.
Norway still has poverty, but not to nearly the same degree we do.
My point? Well... I have no point. My political views are obviously pretty liberal (in the American sense of that word), and I'd hold Norway up as something of a model when it comes to the health and well-being of its citizens. That we can look at countries like this and say such a system "wouldn't work here" or is even "un-American" is both defeatist and frankly a little offensive. But I'm hardly original in saying this, and I don't expect to change any minds here. (Which itself is a little defeatist, but then you know us liberals - always flip-flopping!)
I'm just fulfilling a request, and hopefully doing it well enough :)
Saturday, August 16, 2008
I've been dealing with a lot of stress lately. The reasons why aren't really important. But even my writing here has gotten really uptight, I know it. It almost doesn't even feel like a blog anymore when I read back some of my posts over the last few months. It's like reading a really boring book. Or a newspaper column. You know, I like some of my posts here, but almost all of the best ones were written in 2007 or earlier.
I need a real vacation, I need to go somewhere far away for a long time. I need to escape from New York. But I can't, not this year. So we drove out east as far as we could for the day to try to get away, first to the North Fork of Long Island and then to Montauk. Can't go any further east than Montauk without swimming.
We hit wine country first. Did some tasting, bought $100 worth of wine at Paumanok vineyards. There was nobody there so early on a Thursday, it was great. Apparently on weekends a lot of people come from the city and use these places as cheap bars, but it was really quiet yesterday. Paumanok has great wine, too.
If you don't know Long Island wine country (and I didn't myself before yesterday), it's really like the Napa Valley of the northeast. And it's only about 20 years old. The North Fork is just nothing but wineries and vineyards for probably 20 miles, with the odd goat farm thrown in here and there, and farmers selling fresh fruits and vegetables from stands on the side of the road.
We also hit Pindar vineyards, where we got a guided tour of their process and did some more tasting. Pindar is bigger, and there were a bunch of people there, but I didn't like their wine as much. It's cheap table wine; Paumanok does better-quality (and more expensive) stuff. I did feel a little less intimidated at Pindar, though - at Paumanok, I felt like I had to be on point about my wine knowledge, because they won't leave you alone there. Most people like that personalized attention, but it just made it harder for me to wind down.
We originally planned to eat dinner in Greenport, one of the last towns on the North Fork, and then come home. But it was still way early, so we decided to drive down to Montauk, on the South Fork. Weren't really sure how to get there, but the GPS seemed pretty confident it would only take an hour. I guess it thinks we can drive underwater.
The ferry rides were actually pretty cool, and unexpected. This area of Long Island is not very crowded, so there's no need for a long bridge between the North Fork and Shelter Island, or Shelter Island and the South Fork. You can get out of your car and lounge around, which we did, and at that point it was a really nice day with a cool sea breeze to break the summer heat.
This is the kind of house I want when I get old. I want to retire in a place like this. Huge house, invisible from the street, private beach in an uncrowded little town. And I want a boat that I can tie to my own little dock. I'm so sick of urban life. I live in the suburbs now, but it doesn't really feel like it. We may as well be in Queens. We're only a mile away, and it's basically the same. And I work in Manhattan.
We finally got to Montauk at around 5PM and headed for the lighthouse.
This was just outside the lighthouse. This cloud ended up dumping massive amounts of rain on us later. Luckily we had made it back to the car by then. Actually, we got really lucky with the weather - first there was this cloud that started spitting just as we were walking to our car, then the skies cleared completely just in time for us to have an outdoor dinner. Then as soon as we started driving home, it poured again - and it didn't stop until the next morning.
The lighthouse, on the very eastern tip of Long Island. The nice thing about this area is that almost nobody lives here, so you can come out and be almost alone by the water. When I was younger, I lived in California for a while, and I remember lots of places where you could wander around along the ocean completely undisturbed by anyone else - even near busy areas of town. The northeast is not like that. The northeast has beaches that are either jam packed full of people all the time, or they're private and you're not allowed on. It is tough to find places where you can just go to the water and be by yourself.
Montauk is like that, at least parts of it. There are some busier areas too, but not out by the lighthouse.
There is actually a real beach too, not just the rocky stuff above.
After the lighthouse, we hit a local seafood place along Montauk Highway for dinner before heading home. This was actually the low point of the trip, so I won't dwell on it.
This trip was not enough. But it's nice to get out of here sometimes.
Friday, August 15, 2008
They're the ones that hand out the flowers and guide the athletes around at the medal ceremonies. They're technically called medal ceremony "hostesses", and I don't remember seeing them before at other Olympics. Maybe it's an Asian thing (this kind of thing is common in Japan as well) or maybe it's just that they were not so beautiful at past Olympics. In fact, my wife actually found a news report today (only in Japanese, unfortunately) talking about how this is actually turning out badly for some athletes because nobody's paying any attention to them as they receive their medals. All eyes are on the hostesses.
I also found an interesting (English) article from last year about how Olympic officials were selecting these girls. They had some pretty specific requirements for the look - for example, to us it probably sounds insane to only consider girls whose "eye length is three-tenths of the face". Also, do the girls above look "plump but not fat" to you? Asian standards of weight and body type are pretty different than ours!
One sort of related thing. Ever wonder how to pronounce "Beijing"? I've been hearing a lot of TV commentators pronounce it "Bay-zheeng", which I thought sounded weird, but figured they must know better than I do. I know Japanese pronunciations, but not Chinese. Turns out, it's pronounced exactly like it looks - "Bay-jing", with a hard "j" and a short "i". Pronouncing it the other way is wrong, probably an attempt to make it sound "more foreign". (But doesn't "Bay-zheeng" sound French rather than Chinese??)
That's the Atlantic ocean, from the easternmost point on Long Island. We were trying to see how far we could go before falling off. It looks cold, but it was just dusk.
Might write about it tomorrow. Or maybe I'll get to those requests.
It really is 3:23AM.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
UPDATE: After a thorough investigation by the FIG, the Chinese 2008 women's gymnastics team has now been officially cleared and declared of age, no doubt in part due to some of the evidence mentioned in the original post below.
You probably know that the Chinese "women" gymnasts won the gold medal in the Beijing team gymnastics event. Good for them, but there's a lot of talk about at least half the team being underage. At these Olympics, that's defined as reaching less than 16 years of age during 2008 (in other words, a gymnast can be 15 right now).
During the team event, much of the talk centered on Deng Linlin, who's in front in the photo above. Martha Karolyi, coach of the US team, even suggested she had recently lost a baby tooth.
I watched and I saw that too, but I didn't think she was actually missing a tooth - it just seemed like one of her teeth was pushed back behind her other teeth. Cosmetic orthodonture is not as common in Asia as it is here - in fact, in some countries (and I'm not sure if China is one of them), this look on girls or women of any age is considered cute. (The Japanese call it "yaeba", meaning double-tooth, and it's a good thing.) So I don't know if this is proof of anything.
(By the way, Karolyi could only have been talking about Deng Linlin, but the press usually mentions only He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan and Yang Yilin as being under suspicion - so somebody is clearly confused.)
UPDATE: A couple of documents from a single competition have now been found by a determined self-described "hacker" going by the name "Stryde Hax". It's interesting to note that these documents only show He Kexin as underage. Even if they're true and accurate, does that mean an apology is in order for Deng Linlin, Jiang Yuyuan and Yang Yilin? This is the most incriminating dirt that anyone's been able to dig up and it applies to only one of the four gymnasts.
The FIG apparently now has birth certificates, school records (including class photos) and family registries for all of the Chinese gymnasts in their possession, and they show the ages of all of them as at least 16. Could these documents have been faked? It's very difficult even for the government to do such a thing. To understand why, you need to understand how what a "family registry" is - this is not something we have in the west.
A family registry is a running document that contains every major family event through the generations. It's a system that has been in use for more than 1,000 years, and these documents are considered both sacred (because they contain an entire family history) and basically bulletproof (because they are seen by so many people). For example, He Kexin's birth date would be seen by somebody arranging a marriage for her sister. Copies of these registries would be kept in a bunch of different places, many of which have nothing to do with the government or even He Kexin. Even if all of the families and their friends and relatives cooperated in falsifying these documents, there would still be old copies of them floating around in doctors and dentists' offices, at bridal houses, at mortuaries, etc.
I think it's actually more likely that the Chinese are telling the truth in that one set of paperwork got screwed up during a team transfer. Occam's razor applies. Think about it - does it make more sense to think that somebody made a mistake entering a set of dates on a team roster, or that there's a massive conspiracy among the government, the extended families and friends of all these athletes, and all the organizations and businesses they've ever dealt with on a family issue to falsify a living document that is probably hundreds of years old?
In other words, between a family registry and a team roster, the family registry carries a hell of a lot more weight. Sometimes conspiracy theories are true, but there's a reason most of us think of conspiracy theorists as crackpots.
Some more general thoughts.
During broadcasts, NBC's Al Trautwig said repeatedly to look at the girls and "judge for yourself", which I think is a dangerous thing to do.
Deng Linlin is only an inch or two shorter than American Shawn Johnson, for one thing, and Americans are just plain taller than Chinese on average. (The two are separated in the above photo only by the official holding the sign.) And gymnasts often have their growth stunted in various ways anyway (not that I condone that). The other Chinese gymnasts are as tall or taller than Johnson. So what does this tell us? Nothing.
There is the question of whether there should even be age limits - Nadia Comaneci won her first gold when she was 14 - but that's not the issue as long as everybody knows what the rules are. And they do.
The New York Times went so far as to say the Chinese must be too young because they're not curvaceous like the Americans. That struck me as misogynistic at least, not to mention nonsensical and vaguely racist. It's like saying Chinese swimmers must be cheating because Michael Phelps has a bigger penis. Not one of the Times' finer moments. (Sports Illustrated has since made the same ridiculous argument.) The Chinese retorted that the Americans are much more muscular, so they must be doping, right? The point is it's neither accurate nor fair to make these judgments on appearance. Especially when it's westerners judging Asians (or the reverse). We need real evidence.
For example, how old is the girl on the left?
That's 4'7", 74 pound, 16 year old Koko Tsurumi of Japan. She's the same size as Deng Linlin and her face looks even younger. She's competing at these same Olympics, and nobody has yet questioned her age. Why the inconsistency?
You just cannot tell a person's age - especially not a person of a different race, culture and nationality - by looks alone. You'd think a lot of the people saying otherwise had never seen an Asian girl before. (My bet is a lot of them haven't.)
One thing is for sure - if the Chinese team is proven underage, then we should demand their medal be stripped. The American girls made a lot of mistakes at the wrong times, but rules are rules. If it's true, then the gold medalists won by cheating. You don't just roll over for that.
If, on the other hand, *any* of the four girls who have been accused by the media, Martha Karolyi or anyone else is not proven underage, then they deserve an apology. Accusing someone of cheating when they won fair and square is just bad sportsmanship. And it's looking more and more likely that that's the case.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
It's propaganda, bit into by those who wish these Olympics would fail. Ok, the story about the little girl is actually a bit sad. I'll get to that. But this business with the fireworks is really annoying.
My wife actually thought it was all the fireworks that were fake. I don't think she's alone - she read that on a discussion board somewhere (in Japan, actually, so this is not just the United States). Somehow the news reports, which have generally been accurate, have been blown up and into something else by those who were hoping to read something even more dramatic.
Ok, point by point:
1. The fireworks weren't "faked". They were actually happening in real-time, just as they were shown on TV. But the aerial views fed to international TV stations were a recreation just so they could get that dramatic camera angle. Even the first report from the Beijing Times - used as the source for all subsequent reports - said this clearly.
2. The entire CGI sequence was within the 55 second introduction. Everything else in the four hour show was real even as seen on TV.
3. NBC told us it was CGI! I'm not sure why this is suddenly some big revelation. Here's the exchange (from my DVR):
Matt Lauer: You're looking now at the footsteps of history quite literally coming from the old center of Beijing near Tienanmen Square to the new area of Beijing, this national stadium along the north-south axis. You're looking at a cinematic device employed by Zhang Yimou here. This is almost animation. A footstep a second, 29 in all to signify the 29 Olympiads.
Bob Costas: We said earlier that aspects of this opening ceremony are like cinema in real-time, well this is quite literally cinematic.
No, they did not use the term "CGI", but I can forgive them for trying to avoid what still amounts to technical jargon. And reading it back, I'll admit that in print it does look a little more ambiguous than it sounded on the broadcast. (Were they talking about the concept or the execution or both?) But the inflection and cadence watching live made it clear to me that this was pre-filmed, a TV intro.
The presentation itself also looked very made-for-TV to me; I mean I never thought it was anything other than an animated opening.
And let's not forget, it's entertainment, people. Yes I know, it's a slippery slope, but where is the universal outrage when Fox News makes up a story about "terrorist fist jabs" by presidential candidates, or when George Bush gets caught faking evidence used to justify an invasion? (Note the date on that story.) I'm saying let's have a sense of perspective here. This is just not that important, and you have to learn to pick your battles. All this entire event was really about was spectacle and symbolism, and that's what we got. Even with a little CGI.
Now, let's talk about Lin Miaoke and Yang Peiyi. Miaoke was the little girl who apparently sang "Ode to Motherland" (or "A Hymn to My Country" depending on your favored translation) near the beginning of the opening ceremonies, and who's been everywhere since then because she's so goddamn cute. (And she is.)
Except that she didn't sing it. I'm a lot more put off by this than the fireworks "scandal", because this is just mean, to both girls. Yang Peiyi (left) sang the song, behind the scenes, because she wasn't deemed cute enough to be seen in a showcase for the Chinese in front of a billion people. So they took Peiyi - who had sang out in front in rehearsals - replaced her with Miaoke (right), and used Peiyi's voice. The decision was apparently made at the "highest levels".
This is going to scar both girls for life. Peiyi's forever going to know that she could have been out there but wasn't, because some politician didn't think she was cute. Miaoke's going to remember being at the center of a scandal where she stole the limelight. (Even though she obviously had nothing to do with it, and may not have even known that her voice was not being picked up by the mic.)
I hope they become friends and create a shared experience out of this; that's probably the best way for them to deal with it down the road.
Anyway, neither of these things in any way diminish what was an amazing ceremony, much to the chagrin of some of the commentators on both the extreme right and the extreme left who would love nothing more than for these games to fail. Both the right and left have their own reasons for being anti-China - on the right, it's China's rise as a world power combined with a bit of racism and xenophobia; and on the left, it's China's human rights abuses, including Tibet. It's no wonder that any little negative thing to come out of these games is seized upon and blown into a full-scale scandal. What's next, the gold medals are only 23.9 carats? Alert the media! Those cheap Chinese bastards.
It's important to remember that there are 1.3 billion people in China, who are not all evil and are not all idiots. These games are for them and for us. There is no reason to want them to fail. So I hope we in the United States stop acting like spoiled children by celebrating every minor scandal that erupts. My experience in watching so far has been marred only by these manufactured non-stories and the cry-babies and whiners who keep spreading them - people who can't accept a China that's actually capable of putting on a good show, because that would somehow make them feel inadequate and insecure.
(There was one real non-athletic news story a few days ago - the murder of Todd Bachman in a random knife attack. But that's now been largely forgotten in the horrendous wake of - gasp - CGI fireworks.)
Friday, August 08, 2008
I guess I've been living in a dimly lit cave for the past few years, because I only just found out now that the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies are/were directed by famed film director Zhang Yimou. If you don't know the name, then you probably know at least a couple of his martial arts films - Hero and House of Flying Daggers, which were his biggest international hits. But before that, he directed a series of small, personal stories showing the difficulties of regular life in ancient China, including Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, which are also among my favorite films. All of his films are visually stunning.
It's ironic that he'd be directing the opening ceremonies considering that the same government that invited him to do so also banned several of his earlier films as subversive propaganda. Those earlier films used stories of ancient China as an allegory to present-day oppression.
There seems to be a love/hate relationship in both how the Chinese government feels about its people and how the Chinese people feel about their government. And a lot of the news reports I've seen ahead of the Olympics can't seem to reconcile that - reporters are shocked that people in China would actually be proud of their country, despite all of the government's abuses. (Americans can't understand this? Really?) And we're taken aback when the Chinese government tells us to mind our own business in international affairs. (As if we have any moral high ground on human rights these days.)
China is an ancient country. They've been around a lot longer than we have. While I don't personally agree with much of what their government does - and I don't have much confidence in Chinese-made products these days - I also don't believe in this Amero-centric view of the world that so many in this country share. And I don't believe we are the solution to any of China's problems. That sense of seeing the world as a crashed car being brought in to the body shop called America for fixing is pretty unique to us - a lot of other countries don't see themselves as the center of the universe, and the home of the only just and right policies in the world. And they don't see every other country as "broken" either, simply because their policies and culture differ.
My point being, I don't think China are the good guys here. But I don't think we are either. I don't think anybody is. We are just a couple of countries in the world, doing things our own way. Both countries do good and bad things, both countries have good and bad people, most of whom are proud of where they live regardless. The issue is, we're the only ones who apparently don't see it that way - who instead see ourselves not only as the world's policeman, but its moral compass too. And that's causing a lot more problems in the world than anything China is currently doing.
Maybe some progress is being made. Bob Kravitz of Indystar.com made the following "random observation" in his most recent column: "There are 1.3 billion Chinese who do not care that Brett Favre just got traded."
I guess that's a start in realizing that your own culture is not universal, nor will it ever be.
I'm looking forward to watching the opening ceremonies tonight.
UPDATE! Watched it - it was beautiful. I never even remember opening ceremonies afterwards, but I have a feeling this one's going to be different. This was clearly the best I've ever seen.
Only thing that spoiled it was the somewhat patronizing tone of the NBC commentators (how many times do we have to hear that this is China's "coming out party", as if it's a quaint little country formed a couple of years ago), and the ridiculous amount of political commentary during the parade of nations. I want to hear about the athletes and the competition, not any stupid wars that we have no business in. There was way too much talk about politics, not nearly enough talk about the everpresent mini-skirted Chinese cheerleaders ringing the entire parade route!
Thursday, August 07, 2008
I've got a few lists of my own in the works to pass the time in between real posts. To start out, here's a meta-list of some of my favorite top 10 (or 5, or 20) lists currently circulating.
1. 16 films featuring "Manic Pixie Dream Girls". Nathan Rabin is quoted in this list as having said these characters "exist solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors" - but seriously, at that age I knew probably a half dozen girls exactly like Natalie Portman's character in Garden State. Maybe it's a Jersey thing. (Kinda the point of the movie!)
2. The 5 greatest things ever accomplished while high. Drug-induced lists are a sure bet for internet traffic. This one will actually surprise you. These accomplishments involve more than just making it to the 7-11 and back for a bag of Tostitos and salsa.
3. 10 mispronunciations that make you sound stupid. One of them favored by our current president. That follows, I guess.
4. The 20 best stoner movies of all time. And he gets it right! At least at the very top of the list.
5. 15 haunting ruins of war. I've never been to any of these places, but the photos alone have their own power.
6. 10 fun, MPG-friendly cars you can't buy in America - yet. Unfortunately, no Nissan Cube on the list - though that'll be coming here in electric form in a few years. (By which time its styling will probably no longer look so cute.)
7. 5 popular women's styles that men hate. Right on! Ladies, I'm posting this for informational purposes. It's all true. And I'll add one more: oversize, waistless dresses. You know the ones - they look like a maternity dress on anyone who's not a size zero (and even on some women that are). Seem to be all the rage these days. So not hot!
8. Top 16 1980's cartoon villains. With video! I can do a mean Dr. Claw impression. Want to hear it?
9. 10 fascinating facts about the ancient Olympic games. You may have known that the ancient Greeks competed in the nude. But did you know that the prudes (and perhaps the well-endowed) wore penis restraints?
10. Top 10 entries on video game top 10 lists. Whoa! Meta-meta! I think I just blew my mind.
Anyway, the tone of this one isn't quite right - the reason most of these things appear on so many video game top 10 lists is because video game "journalists" all copy each other. How else do you explain the long-forgotten "Link: the Faces of Evil" for Philips CD-i turning up so often in feature stories? I can guarantee most of the gaming press has never even played it. But no, the writer here thinks it's all coincidence. Still, it's funny to read and realize just how single-minded the western gaming press collectively is.
Someday I'm going to collect all these top ten lists that I find into a book. In fact, I'm copyrighting that idea right now! By now, I could probably fill up about 500 pages, all without having to write any real content of my own.
I don't look like that anymore. I do actually look like my profile pic in the top left of the blog, which was taken last October. (And I'm with my niece in the full pic, who's making the same pose - I know it looks kinda dorky by myself.)
Anyone want to start a new band?
One of the most common upgrades to CIJ (Japanese) Fender Jazzmasters is replacing the pickups. The Japanese pickups aren't bad, but they're not even close to being real Jazzmaster pickups. Vintage and even modern American Jazzmasters have a warm, dark tone while still retaining that Fender single coil clarity, but the Japanese pickups are almost entirely lacking that warmth. They sound like Stratocaster pickups, and you'll see why in a minute.
You can pay someone else to do the upgrade, but it's not that hard to do yourself. Here's a list of the tools you'll need:
* Small Philips screwdriver
* Basic soldering iron (a $7 model from Radio Shack is fine)
* New pickups
* Possibly some sandpaper - explanation later
* Maybe some foam - explanation also later
There are several Jazzmaster pickup upgrade options. I settled on these:
Seymour Duncan Antiquity II's.
I went with them mainly because they split the difference between what I'll call the "premium" upgrade options and more of the "standard" grade. In the premium grade you've got real vintage pickups, Curtis Novak, Lindy Fralin, Jason Lollar and these Antiquity II's (as well as the even darker Antiquity I's). In the more standard grade you've got the regular Fender American Vintage pickups (as come stock in AVRI Jazzmasters) and the Seymour Duncan Vintage series (as well as the "Hot" and "Quarter Pounders").
The "premium" upgrades are all hand-wound and average around $150 per set (real vintage will set you back more like $500); the "standard" upgrades are machine-wound and average around $100 or less.
The Antiquity II's are the least expensive of the premium pickups and they're designed to mimic a vintage pickup as closely as possible. Curtis Novak will make more exotic pickups that'll fit the Jazzmaster for you if you want, but I wanted something that sounded like the real thing - nothing fancy.
I got mine for $133 shipped. They come in matched sets, so make sure you buy them that way unless you're specifically going for an unmatched sound. I also like that they're chemically aged to replicate both the look and sound of a well-worn 1960's pickup. And they're wax potted, which minimizes microphonic feedback.
By the way, don't assume that Fender's American Vintage pickups are made exactly like the originals just because of the name. They're not. Fender's production of their vintage products hasn't been continuous, and the company has gone through three owners and several factory and tooling replacements. The modern Fender has had to actually reverse-engineer many of their "reissue" parts - they're trying to copy products that they've in some cases actually bought back off the street from vintage dealers to study. What they're doing is no different than what any pickup maker is doing in trying to replicate that vintage tone, but they're trying to keep costs down at the same time (often at the expense of authenticity).
Antiquity II's are known as "the '60s Series", whereas Antiquity I's are "the '50s Series". The only year of the 1950's that the Jazzmaster was sold was 1959, so I'm sure most of the guitars I've heard my favorite bands play were made in the 1960's and that's what I wanted. The difference is in output and the darkness of the tone.
Replacing pickups is really not that hard. Just a few steps and four solder points.
The first thing you've gotta do is take the strings and pickguard off. 13 little screws - make sure you don't lose any, and also make sure to only unscrew the pickguard and not the various parts attached to it. (Just go around the rim, not further towards the inside.) This is what you'll find underneath on a CIJ Jazzmaster. It's quite different than an American Jazzmaster, where brass tubs provide shielding and the wiring is much better organized.
You can get a feel for how the pickups are wired by looking at this. It's really not that complicated. Japanese Jazzmaster pickups are kind of an odd duck in that they only have one wire coming out, which is confusing at first. But it's really two wires in one piece of insulation. So you just have to desolder those two points and then re-solder the new pickups to the same places. It helps to do one at a time. Obviously, remove the pickup covers first.
A wiring diagram comes with these pickups, although I didn't use it and I'm not even sure it would have been all that helpful. (Where are the black wires supposed to actually go? It's easier to just put them where you saw them before.)
This is a stock CIJ pickup (left) next to an Antiquity II (right). The CIJ looks even taller in real life. Here's another shot taken by somebody else (same combo too!). You see how the coil is wrapped tightly around the center of the bobbin, whereas the much flatter and period-correct Antiquity II has the coil spread all the way to the edge. You could literally trim about half that bobbin away on the CIJ pickup and you'd have what amounts to a Strat pickup.
Another view just before installation. The goop on the left side is wax. Don't worry, it's very hard; it doesn't come off. I actually needed to sand a little of it off the edges in order to fit the pickups in the covers - it won't come off with a fingernail.
Post-installation. Antiquity II's come with cloth-covered wire that itself is nicely aged, mainly a cosmetic thing. Cloth-covered wire is generally easier to work with than plastic-insulated wire, though, simply because you can just push it back at the tip of the wire rather than having to cut insulation.
The soldering is nothing to worry about. If I can do it, anyone can do it. The solder points are pretty big; just follow standard precautions for dealing with molten metal. That stuff is hot, and you definitely don't want to make a mess with it and potentially short something out.
Now, there is a small caveat with installing American pickups of any kind in a Japanese Jazzmaster:
A little hard to see there, but the holes don't line up properly with the pole pieces. There are two ways you can solve this:
1. Buy American Fender pickup covers - though these only come in "aged white". And I think the aging is a little too heavy and unrealistic, depending on the color scheme of your guitar.
2. Just enlarge the holes. That's what I did. I rolled up some sandpaper and just ran it through each hole a few times.
I actually took the following later photo to ask someone about my wonky intonation (see the bridge - it was caused by some bad strings), but I think the pickup cover looks fine post-enlargement:
One thing I don't like about the Antiquity II's is that the pole pieces are quite short. I believe the poles were probably measured before the wax potting, which didn't used to be standard on these from what I understand, and the thickness of the wax keeps the pole pieces pushed down a little below the rim of the holes. It doesn't affect anything functionally, it's just cosmetic.
And a final thing to be aware of: because any of the replacement pickups you buy are going to be thinner than the Japanese pickups, you might have trouble getting them to stay at the right height after installation. The pickup foam underneath is not tall enough. You can either rip it out and buy new pickup foam, or do what I did and just stuff a piece of weatherstripping foam from your local hardware store in between the pickups and the existing pickup foam. It works well enough temporarily, anyway.
Oh, you're probably wondering how my guitar sounds after doing this upgrade. Amazing! Exactly like I expect a Jazzmaster to sound. You know, I have a cheap little solid-state practice amp, and I always thought my somewhat harsh tone was just coming from a crappy amp. But when my wife plugged in her Epiphone Les Paul and the tone blew the doors off my Jazzmaster, I knew I had a guitar problem. After upgrading, all's as it should be - my Jazzmaster's got the warmth of a humbucker and the clarity of a single coil. Exactly what I want.
A couple more pics. This below is pretty cool - Seymour Duncan himself measures the resistance of your pickups for you:
That's right in the vintage range. I have heard that the Antiquity II's can get kinda hot on the resistance, but mine are just right. (Because they're hand-wound, no two are the same.) You can probably pick out whatever resistance you want in advance, though - or close to it. The other premium pickup makers will build to order if you have a specific resistance you want.