29 November 2015

Review of "A Spy Among Friends"

Review: A Spy Among Friends - Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

by Ben MacIntyre

This (non-fiction) book functions on several levels.  While the narrative drive is the story of a betrayed friendship, this book also serves well to demonstrate the incestuousness of pre-WWII British society, the origin of the modern espionage agencies that drove the cold war, and the origins of the swashbuckling James Bond stereotype (Ian Fleming is a minor character).  The part I like best is to look at it as a history of almost certainly the most successful spy who ever lived.

Unfortunately for Anglo-Americans, the most successful spy who ever lived spied on us for the Russians.   Kim Philby stood out among a distinguished group of spies:  the Cambridge Spy Ring of four upper-class Englishmen recruiting in their college years who rose to high positions in the British government before being exposed.  Philby's success was the most notable of the four as he eventually was placed in charge of British counterintelligence for large swathes of the world, passing on details of operations in progress to his Soviet handlers for decades.

Nowadays it's hard to conceive of this at many stages, but by telling the story form the point of view of Philby's colleague and best friend George Elliot, MacIntyre helps draw a portrait of the way things functioned in the world of the time.  Elliot's father was the headmaster at Eton, so when the younger Elliot decided that being a spy sounded important, his father asked the head of MI6 to take on the son at the horse races one day (as Walter Isaacson said in his review of this book, "I had to keep reminded myself it was not a novel").  After-the-fact investigations were out of the question -- would you really want to insult the head of Eton by suggesting his son was a spy?

Philby's ability to succeed at the double game he played from 1934 until finally unmasked in 1963 had a lot to do with his innate charm.  Almost no one who met him was immune to this; the charm was used to ingratiate himself with (and remain friends for 20+ years with) George Elliot, two wives who managed to overlook or not find out about his first marriage to a avowed communist, and ultimately Jim Angleton of the CIA, who he befriended when posted to Washington as MI6 liaison.

While in fact the Soviet spies were running roughshod over the British intelligence agencies, the upper-class white men populating were convinced, somewhat justifiably given the huge role intelligence played in the dechiphering of the Enigma machine during the war, that they were uniquely empowered individuals who could do no wrong.  The post-war era and the pivot to the Soviets as the enemy left them running sometimes-absurd operations under the assumption (typically correct) that the combination of their spy status and social connections made them immune to repercussions.  It was in this era of the high-flying, highly-educated MI6 that Ian Flaming exited the agency to focus full-time on his writing about a fictional synthesis of it's (mostly fictional) successes.

Another element brought out fully in the story is the incredible tolerance for alcohol of the British upper class of this era.  The quantity and frequency of drinking of all the major characters in the story is unsettling for someone with more modern expectations (or more modern health information).  The fact that after hard nights of drinking like this, Philby frequently went out and met has Soviet contact in a park somewhere to pass on recently acquired information adds to the insanity of the double life he led for so long.

The betrayal story comes to a climax in Beirut in 1963.  At this point Philby's second wife had already realized Philby was a spy but, herself consumed by both mental and physical illness, dies without bringing events to a head.  When, finally persuaded by information from recent Soviet defectors, MI6 reluctantly concludes that Philby must be a spy, the person they send to interrogate him is George Elliot, his best friend and staunchest defender within the organization, and even more incredibly, even after his initial confession, they do not have him followed, such that he easily escapes to Moscow.

This book is tremendously researched, heavily informed by the point of view of a primary player in the drama (Elliot spent many hours being interviewed by the author), and serves both the human drama and the history well.  Highly recommended for those with any tolerance for reading about history.

13 July 2015

I finished reading "War: What is it good for?" by Ian Morris. Like "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which it frequently cites, this books takes a cross-cutting approach to history to advance it's thesis, which is that there is both unproductive war, which does the society-destroying stuff we're familiar with, and productive war, which builds ever-larger states; and that since building ever-larger states tends to improve the material well-building and (more solidly) reduce the chance of violent death of their inhabitants, the productive sort of war is ultimately good, since it leads to these relatively safer societies.

I'm not morally repulsed by this sort of discussion, and I agree that as he observes, conquest or force-based coercion has historically been the only way humans have found to build larger polities (the EU is an early experiment on trying another way...).

The biggest problem is that his neat division into productive wars (the unification wars in China, the Punic Wars, etc.) and unproductive wars (Peloponnesian wars, Mongol Wars) is only the sort of classification that's possible after the fact. His criterion basically relies on, "did the winner in the war make a larger stable empire out of it?", which is only a judgment you can make 50+ years later. Virtually all the combatants in virtually all wars claim, and probably believe, that they're going to make a larger, more stable, and richer society -- they just need to get around to winning a bunch of wars first. Thus, for anyone staring into the face of the abyss of a looming war, his thesis holds no guidance, since you can't tell whether this particular war will be productive or not.

Secondly, and more affectingly, he doesn't speak to the fate of the people involved. Sure, the Roman Empire as a whole was more economically efficient than most of its neighbors. That doesn't mean the coming of the Roman Empire was anything to be welcomed by those who started outside its borders. Morris talks about the Roman Empire often in his book (as well as the Han Chinese empire) since we have relatively large amounts of data on them, and it's fair enough to observe that the average citizen of the empire had a lower chance of violent death and had much higher average material wealth than the average citizen of a neighboring kingdom. But the choice of that the average citizen of a neighboring kingdom faced wasn't to become an average citizen of the Roman Empire -- it was to continue being an average citizen or become a Roman slave, who was hardly likely to end up in the middle of the Roman income brackets.

Neither of these objections renders his core observation false. The data he has amassed seems to show that the building of large empires likely decreased the change of violent death and increased average material wealth for those within its borders. But the biggest reason to study history is that "those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it," and his particular thesis has no predictive or imperative power; if the Romans are trying to kill you and enslave your family, you're going to oppose them whether their war is productive or not.

In addition, the book doesn't consider what would have happened had empires chosen either an EU-like federation strategy, or simply chosen to live with the national borders as they were and focused on trade instead. Both of those have certainly been successful strategies and managed to reduce violent death rates and increase material wealth in some examples (seventeenth century Holland, once they decided to abandon the race for empire to the Britsh, is a good example).

That discussion about his main thesis aside, the best reason to read this book is because, like "Guns, Germs, and Steel," it brings a lot of historical data from different threads, ages, and cultures to bear on this hypothesis. I learned a lot more about the various cycles of civilization in India and the Middle East, and his take on the period 400-1200 A.D. ("the steppes riders terrorize the world") is an interesting holistic look at the setbacks civilization encountered in that era.

29 May 2013

Save These Poor Household Appliances from the Recycle Shop / リサイクルショップに行かない為に、その機械を取りたくないか?

Update: The Washing Machine and metal utility shelves are still available, everything else is claimed!

更新された情報: 洗濯機と金の棚しか残りません、他の物がクレームされました!

I'm moving to a new place next month, and several of my current appliances are looking for a new home! If any of these look useful to you please let me know, you can come pick them up or if you want I can send them to you for the cost of forwarding them.


Still Available/今でも取れる

Washing Machine/洗濯機 National NA-F50Z5

Bought used about 3 years ago.

Metal Utility Shelves/金の棚

Bought new about 1 year ago. Dishes not included!

Claimed Already/もう予約された

Television/テレビ Sony Bravia KDL-32S2500

32 inch 1366x768 LCD HDTV

Vacuum Cleaner/掃除機 Sanyo SC-WR5H

Refrigerator/冷蔵庫 Mitsubishi MR-P15S-B

Capacity/内容積 146L (100L refrigerator/冷蔵室, 46L freezer/冷凍室)

Purchased new 16 months ago

Triangular Television Table/三角テレビ台

Bought new about 6 years ago. Perfect for putting a TV in the corner of the room.

Living Room Ceiling Lamp/いまの天井付きランプ

Bought new about 6 years ago. Includes bulbs!

Bedroom Ceiling Lamp/部屋の天井付きランプ

Bought new about 6 years ago. Includes bulbs!

21 December 2012

Japanese Houses

One of the things that can be a bit depressing about Japan is the generally low quality of most residential construction. Japan still doesn't really have architectural preservation the way American or Europe does, so virtually all buildings here are town down and rebuilt every 30 years or so. It's why, while there are some individually awesome pieces of architecture around Tokyo, the city as a whole is architecturally dull.

This isn't just a matter of lack of preservation regulations -- it's also because most people here have a strong preference for new construction, especially true for residences. The market reinforces the lack of preservation. So, when building a house, there's a general assumption that it will be torn down in about 30 years, and accordingly, the actual quality of most residential construction is low.

I'm not talking about sloppy construction -- Japanese carpenters are perfectly diligent. It's that most residences are low quality by design. The walls are extremely thin (a constant complaint among foreigners) and are not insulated. Windows are perennially single-pane, and I suspect even many ceilings are uninsulated leading to the houses being seives for heat in either direction (this lack of insulation in particular probably also stems from the tradition of totally unheated houses).

You can witness this in action when a new Japanese house is built. It's insanely fast to put the house up -- a few weeks ago I went on a business trip to America, and some nearby sites were foundations. I came back and the house was complete.

This low concern for residences seems to spill over into design as well. I live in Daita, a neighborhood near Shimokitazawa on the west side of Tokyo, and the vast majority of houses here are utterly uninteresting. Of course, this is Tokyo so lot sizes are very small and houses need to use all the space, but even so the vast majority of houses take no advantage of their site, don't use their southern exposures, have few windows meaning they're dark inside, etc., etc. Occasionally a decent house sneaks in, but most of these houses won't be missed when they're torn down in a few years.

Today I finally saw an exception to the bleakness! A company called Isa Homes is building a gorgeously designed house a few blocks away from me -- a house you would actually want to buy. Open plan, lots of windows and wonder of wonder if my eyes don't deceive me they're even double-pane windows! I looked up the company's website and they build custom houses with gorgeous combinations of Japanese and international styling all over the Tokyo area. Go have a look:

  • Go to http://www.isahomes.co.jp
  • Click on the second link at the bottom, 施工実例
  • Then click on the bottom-left panel, 施工実例写真集
  • Now you can look through a collection of about 40 stunning houses!

11 June 2012

A Trip to Ishinomaki

Last weekend I went to Ishinomaki as a volunteer with the group Nadia for Ishinomaki to help out in Ishinomaki, one of the towns that was affected by the tsunami last year.  A lot of people ask me about the trips, so here's a detailed report of one of our trips.

Nadia was founded just after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and has been organizing trips to the area for volunteers ever since.  I went for the first time in May 2011 and went twice more last summer, and now I've gone twice this year.

Last year and this year were totally different; last summer the seabed mud that was thrown up all over Ishinomaki still covered everything, the smell from the rotting organic matter in the mud was everywhere, moving around town was incredibly difficult, and the Minato area where we usually work still had no electric power and limited water.

This year is much better.  The roads, electric lines, traffic signals, and convenience stores are all operating, virtually all of the damaged buildings have been torn down, and the city is functional.  Now, the problems are the longer-term and more vexing kind.  The biggest one is clearly repairing the economic and social life of the area.  In Minato, probably 3 or 4 of every 5 lots are empty, and while the remaining buildings are probably mostly either habitable or under renovation, the reality is that the population of those highly damaged areas is a fraction of what it was before the earthquake.   That makes carrying out business, getting investment to rebuild, or getting support for local activities like matsuri and so forth much trickier.

This was a typical weekend trip to Ishinomaki:  we met in Shinjuku at about 10:30 to board the bus, and the bus left at 11pm Friday.  We stopped in Tsukuba to pick up a group from a company that was pitching in to help for the weekend, and drove through the night to arrive at Nadia HQ in Ishinomaki about 7am Saturday.  Nadia works with a local businessman in Ishinomaki who lets us use the 6th floor of his business' building in the Minato area of Ishinomaki.  Because of that, we're able to store tools, spare boots/raingear/masks/etc. there, and we also slept there Saturday night.

After dropping all our luggage, we came out for a briefing from our team leaders Tak and Julie Saturday morning.  For this weekend, our tasks were to prepare for an upcoming festival.  Ishinomaki used to have a children's festival every year in July.   Last year it was cancelled, and this year they were thinking they would have to cancel it for lack of enough people to help out at the fair.  Various groups offered to pitch in, and so the festival is scheduled for the second weekend of July.

This weekend, the work we did was all to help prepare for the festival.  They decided to hold the festival on an open lot next to the Yamagata-ya shoyuu factory.  Unfortunately, both the lot and the factory were still left pretty much as they were after 3/11.  To make the area safe for the festival, we went over the lot carefully, pulling weeds and raking through the dirt to find and cart away all the debris, broken glass, stones, and so forth that had been thrown up there by the tsunami.  In addition, the area around the factory was also in bad shape; the mud thrown up by the tsunami was still sitting there, clogging the waterways.  We collected and disposed of a lot of trash from the area, and shoveled all the nasty mud (the sea mud is very different than normal dirt -- it's very fine and forms a slimy, oozy mud) into bags to be collected later by the city.

The primary objective was to prepare the area for the festival, but we also tried to help out Yamagata-san as much as possible.  We picked up the 20 or so huge plastic tubs used to make Shoyuu (this took a bunch of strong volunteers per tub), dragged them outside, cleaned them up, cleaned the inside of the factory where the tubs had been stored, and put them back inside.  We also cleaned a hundred or so smaller 5 gallon shoyuu containers that were inside the ruined factory.    The factory is still in bad shape; here are some of the larger tubs we couldn't work on this weekend, tossed around by the tsunami:

From Ishinomaki
Saturday after work we went to Yamato no Yu /やまとの湯 , a public bath over on the west side of Ishinomaki.  We have to go to the onsen because we don't have any shower/bath facilities at the Nadia HQ.  Because the west side is slightly elevated, there was almost no damage from the tsunami, and over here the town seems very normal.  We usually take onsen and then eat either at the onsen restaurant, or at a food court building a 10 minute walk down the road.  There's also a supermarket over here for picking up staples.  After dinner Saturday night, we take the bus back to the hotel and either crash out or have an informal evening nomikai in the fourth floor meeting room.

Sunday we continued our work at the Yamagataya.  Yamagata-san talked about how we wants to rebuild the factory, but he needs a fair amount (6千万円) of investment to get production going again (if anything, that seems very conservative to me).  The Japanese government will put in 3/4 of the money, but he still needs to find 1千5百万円 (about $200,000) of private investment and he hasn't been able to raise the money.  This really is a microcosm of the big problem in Ishinomaki:  many of the small businesses that were wiped out by the tsunami were stable beforehand but don't have the capital and depth to finance rebuilding afterwards.

We finished up work about 12:30 Sunday, had a bento lunch, walked back to Nadia HQ to change, and got on the bus back about 2pm.  We arrived at Shinjuku about 10pm.

I really enjoy helping out, while there's only so much we can do people definitely appreciate us being there.  Many of us who go up have been a number of times, but every trip has a number of first-timers as well.   While probably most people speak some English and some Japanese (and a bunch of people speak French!), every trip includes both Japanese-only speakers and English-only speakers, so it's a very friendly group to go with.

If you're interested in going to Touhoku to volunteer, definitely check out the Nadia website.   We're going again on the weekend of June 30th, and we'll have another trip to actually help out at the festival itself.  I hope this article can help encourage some people who haven't been volunteering yet to go, it's a very worthwhile experience!


02 June 2012

Takao, a different way / 別の高尾山


L-Breath, an outdoor store here in Tokyo, always has flyers with various bit of outdoors advice on them.  Here's an interesting alternate route for hiking Takao-san from one of them.

Mt. Takao is a very popular easy walking/hiking mountain at the end of the Keio line.  The normal way up from Takao-san guichi station takes only about an hour, and if that's too much you can take either a ski lift or cable car most of the way up.  It's not exactly wilderness (there's several restaurants at the peak at 599m elevation) but it is pretty during autumn.

This route starts by climbing Mt. Jinba on the north side of the Chuo line and makes its way back to Mt. Takao over several other peaks.

Note: I'm not sure about the pronunciation of some of the Kanji.
  • Start at Keio Takao 高尾 station north exit
    • Note: it's Takao station, not Takao-san-guchi station which is the normal station for Mt. Takao)
  • Nishi-Tokyo bus #32 to 陣馬高原下 (jinba-koubara-shita?) (~36 min.)
  • Hike to 陣馬山 (Mt. Jinba) (~90 min.)
  • Hike to 明王峠 (mei ou touge?) (~45 min.)
  • Maybe checking out 白馬の像 (shiroma no zou, "white horse sculpture")
  • Hike to 景信山 (kage-shin-yama?) (~100 min.)
  • Hike to 城山 (shiroyama, "castle mountain") (~65 min.) via 小仏峠 (kobotoke-touge, "little buddha pass"), where we cross over the Chuo-sen tunnel.
    • If it's like the last time I was here, there's a restaurant on Shiro-yama.
  • Hike to Mt. Takao (~60 min.)
  • Descend Mt. Takao, either by foot, ski lift, or cable car (I like the ski lift!).
Total about 6 hours

I've done the Shiroyama-Takao segment before but none of the others.  Looking forward to trying this!

Here's a blog post about this route, with pictures of the white horse sculpture and views of Fuji-san.

The Bus Schedule for the above bus is here.

L-breath のパンフで読んだ高尾山の別のコーヅは下記の通りです。
  • 最初場所は京王線の高尾駅
    • ご注意、良く会う高尾山口駅ではなく
  • 西東京32番のバスに乗って「陣場高原下」という点におりる(36分)
  • 陣場山を上る(90分ぐらい) 
  •  明王峠まで歩く(45分ぐらい)
  • おそらく、白馬の像を見に行く
  • 景信山まで歩く(100分ぐらい)
  • 小仏峠で城山まで歩く
    • 前回行った時に、城山でレストランがあった
  • 高尾山まで歩く(60分弱)
  • 高尾を下がる。ご存知かもけど、歩いて、ケーブルカー、リフトが可能。 僕はリフトが好き!




29 May 2012

Appliances, Pt. 3

A few years ago I posted Kanji that you might find on your washing machine or refrigerator.  To complete the triumverate, just in time for summer here are Kanji you might find on your air conditioner remote control:

設定温度 せっていおんど settei ondo chosen temperature
自動 じどう jidou automatic
運転中 うんてんちゅう untenchuu in operation
運転切換 うんてんきりかえ untenkirikae change operation (mode)
冷房 れいぼう reibou air conditioning
暖房 だんぼう danbou heating
風量 ふうりょう fuuryou blower strength
bi minute (very small)
きょう kyou strong
じゃく jyaku weak
運転/停止 うんてん/ていし unten / teishi Operate/Suspend
風向 かざむき kazamuki Blower direction
温度 おんど ondo Temperature
快眠冷房 かいみんれいぼう kaimin reibou Good-sleep Air Conditioning
健康冷房 けんこうれいぼう kenkou reibou Healthy Air Conditioning
タイマー たいまあ taimaa Timer
きり kiri Cut (end)
いり iri Enter (start)
取消 とりけし torikeshi Cancel

30 March 2012

Makin' it All Worthwhile

I got a great submission via my webform today about my Read Japanese Today index. Thanks a ton for letting me know Kris!

Dear Leo:

 I love this index! Thank you for your had work and making life a bit easier for those reading Walsh's fabulous book. I accidentally stumbled upon Read Japanese Today a short while ago. My copy is the thirty-ninth printing, 1989. Your index follows the same order for my version of the book as well which is awesome.

 I forgot my mini-notebook at a friend's house and was just about to begin a different set of notes when I found your index. Luckily I decided to see if anyone had done something like this before making more notes. The index will definitely make review easier and help me to catalog my in-margin notes faster than my first set of notes took.

 This is such an awesome list, I just had to to say thanks. You definitely made my weekend.


25 December 2011

A Good Time to be an Ukiyo-e Fan in Tokyo

This is a particularly good time for Ukiyo-e lovers in Tokyo, since we have two exhibitions running (both in Roppongi):  a Hiroshige exhibit at Tokyo Midtown, and a spectaclar Kuniyoshi exhibit at Roppongi Hills.  Below are some comments on both.

"A Road Traveled by Feudal Lords and Pet Dogs: Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido" at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo Midtown

The pieces that catapulted Utagawa Hiroshige to fame were his depictions of the 53 way stations along the road linking Tokyo and Kyoto in Edo-era Japan.  This exhibit centers on two complete editions of that collection, one the earlier Hoeido edition and the second the later Reisho edition.

"Edition" is probably not the correct word for these, since in fact they are not in any sense revised versions of each other.  Hiroshige simply produced a work by this title and theme twice in his lifetime, each time re-doing the images completely.  Comparing them side-by-side is mostly instructive in two ways:  first, it shows that the two work are really unrelated; and second, it shows the Hoeido edition is much more interesting from almost any viewpoint.  The artwork is better executed, the linework is more interesting, and the printers, especially in the early press runs of the Hoeido editions, were working much more closely in accord with Hiroshige's intentions (or at least, were exercising a lot more care in the printing).

For me, I really wondered why they even bothered to present the Reisho edition so exhaustively.  It's likely that the answer is because the Reisho edition is from the collection of the Suntory Museum of Art (the host institution), whereas the Hoeisho edition was kindly leant by the  Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art.  Reisho was the home team here, otherwise they might not as gotten as much airtime.

I got the audio tour (available in English or Japanese) for this exhibit, which I rarely do.  It probably made me take a little longer to get through the exhibition, but it definitely had some information I wouldn't have known, especially about the cultural references and self-promotional advertisements embedded in the series.  While every piece was labelled in both English and Japanese, the explanatory text next to each piece was mostly Japanese-only, so you might want to get the audio tour if your Kanji isn't up to snuff.

On the other hand, the audio kept waxing rhapsodic about the beauty of the prints and execution.  The truth is, I've never really felt that strongly about the beauty of Hiroshige prints; the reason I've always liked Hiroshige is because of his skill at gesture drawing and in particular at capturing the gestures of everyday people.  While they didn't talk about that much, the audio text did agree with me that the best piece of the series is the "Shower at Shono" image from the Hoeisho edition, seen below.  This is my favorite Hiroshige, and I own an original of it.  It really captures the rush and gesture of the folks running to get shelter from the rain, and the execution of the background trees in woodblock printing feels layered and alive.

There's a bit of other material in the exhibition, including some of the keep-the-relatives-out-of-hock paintings; Hiroshige is said to have done over 150 painting for his relatives to be used as payments or gifts to their creditors, since like many samurai retainer families they were seriously in debt to merchants during the late Edo period.

"Kuniyoshi: Spectacular Ukiyo-e Imagination" at the Mori Museum of Art, Roppongi Hills

A much more impressive exhibit has been assembled a few minutes' walk away at the Mori Museum or Art, presented a huge breadth of work from a contemporary of Hiroshige's, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (they were both affiliated with different branches of the Utagawa school).  While I greatly admire Hiroshige's gesture drawing, it's amazing to look at these two artists and think of them as contemporaries:  Kuniyoshi's work feels much more modern in its compositions (he frequently breaks the frames with his figures) and use of color (bold splashes of color like the piece above are common in his work).

Unlike the Hiroshige exhibit which focuses on a single title, the Kuniyoshi exhibit has a huge assortment of work from Kuniyoshi's career sorted by theme.  The first section is the heroic prints, next the famous places, etc.  This categorization reflects the major print genres which all of the working print artists of the time were expected to know and work between.

This opportunity to compare these two artists (I went to both exhibits on the same day, which is easy since they're 15 minutes' walk apart) really reinforced that Hiroshige's strengths were in his gesture drawing and naturalistic poses, whereas Kuniyoshi's strengths are in design, 2D posing, and depiction of faces.  The facial work, especially in the heroic prints of Kuniyoshi's, is dramatically more compelling than the typically symbolic faces in the Hiroshige drawings.

Another thing the direct contrast made clear is that it's really Kuniyoshi who's the visual inspiration for modern manga and anime.  The strong sense of design, the strong (but often unnatural) posing, and the stark colors are all reflected in modern Japanese anime.

I strongly urge anybody with any interest in manga, anime, or Ukiyo-e to get up to the 52nd floor of Roppongi Hills before the exhibit ends on February 12th!

09 November 2011

A linguistic interpretation of the moralism thread in the Euro crisis

There's a thread going around about the Euro crisis suggesting that rather than a lazy-south vs. industrious-north problem, it's more informative to look at it as a balance of payments problem. Basically, the Portugal-Italy-Greece-Spain group of countries are running a balance of trade deficit with the Holland-Germany group. Check out Paul Krugman's writeup on the NYT for the basic idea.

There are two reasons it's useful to think of the problem this way. One, as Krugman points out, is that the balance of payments problem is quite recent. It's not true that Spain, Portugal, or Greece had historically In particular, the creation of the Euro in 1999 is directly correllated with the beginning of the balance of payments problem, as this graph from Krugman's post points out:

Correlation is not causality, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that something about the creation of the Euro is actually what gave rise to a problem that didn't previously exist. Germans like to blame Greece's rigid labour markets, leaky tax systems, and large public sector for the Euro crisis, but somehow those things didn't cause a crisis before 1999.

And that leads directly to the second observation, best described in the Economists' follow-up to Krugman's article. If two American states have an asymmetric balance of payments, we think of it as something that exists; not as a moral failing. While a balance of payments problem has to be corrected long-term, it doesn't lead to moral approbation. Why then is Germany so insistent on condemning Greece?

The easiest answer is political: Germans want the pain of fixing the crisis to mostly be assigned to Greece and as a negotiating tactic paints the other side as lazy/evil. However, in the Economist post referenced above and you see a more intriguing cause: in German (and Dutch), the word for "debt" and the world for "guilt" are both "schuld". In those languages (or more precisely, in those cultures), to say someone is in debt is to say they're to blame. While it's easy to overstate the influence of language, it's easy to think that the subtle influence of the linguistics are keeping the two sides even farther apart.

This gets more important given the likelihood that Germany continuing on the current course will lead to a severe recession in the debtor states. See the post which started the thread, which strongly suggests that a continuation of the de-facto transfer union would be the only way to avoid a serious recession.

09 October 2011

Intersections on Stilts (and Real Estate)

So for the last several years there's been construction outside the east exit of Shibuya station. You notice it particularly if you bicycle through there because there are metal plates on the ground with light metal washers in the corners, and when you ride over them it makes a very distinctive noise.

After awhile I heard (separately) about the fact that they're going to join up the Tokyu Toyoko line and the Fukutoshin line to run through at Shibuya (this means that Toyoko line trains won't terminate at Shibuya, but will just continue, becoming Fukutoshin line trains. They use this system a lot in Tokyo and it is very efficient). I eventually put two and two together and realized this must be what the construction outside the east entrance is about; they're building the new part of the Toyoko line to meet up with Fukutoshin line.

But then I realized the Fukutoshin line is deep; it has to be below the Den-en-Toshi/Hanzomon line, which is perpindicular to it under the ground at Shibuya. And that's when I realized the entire east exit of Shibuya station must currently be suspended about 60 feet in the air. Those metal plates are covering the top of a steel latticework that goes all the way down to the level of the Fukutoshin line, so literally all of that traffic is currently driving around on a causeway 60 feet in the air.

Sure enough, if you poke around at the edges of the construction, you can find some cracks that verify this is indeed what's going on! It made me a lot more queasy about riding through there to think that the entire east entrance including the road I am riding on is 20 meters above the actual ground.

Last week I moved out to Shimokitazawa, and I live quite close to the Odakyu line near Setagayadaita station. By reading the signs out here, I've realized they're also doing a big construction project on the Odakyu line as well. After staring at the signs for awhile, this project is even more amazing: they're taking the entire Odakyu line and burying it under the current, fully operating train line from Higashikitazawa station to Setagayadaita station. And they're not just burying one train line down there, like in Shibuya; no, for most of the length they're creating two train lines, one on top of the other, under the current line; an upper line for local trains and a lower line for express trains.

At Setagayadaita station, both of the new buried lines have to dive even deeper underground to get under the underpass of Kannana-dori. So just a minute and a half from my house, when I walk across the grade crossing the railroad currently has, I'm actually walking across a 27-meter high trench with three levels of train tracks in it. All this while the line is in heavy operation (the Odakyu line is a major commuting line). At this intersection, it's really easy to look down in and between the girders you can catch a glimpse of the fact that yes, you are close to 100' above the ground.

Check out the page here, in Japanese to see diagrams of how complex this track-burying process is.

Now, why would they go to all this trouble? The reasons cited on the linked page (oh, we can improve train service by running more expresses; oh, having no grade crossings makes things safer and more convenient for local residents) are, as far as they go, true. But they can't possibly justify the huge expense of these projects (the track burying construction project on the Odakyu line I'm describing was started in 2004). What can explain the willingness to spend the crazy amounts of money needed to bury these rail lines? After all, Odakyu is a private company.

The answer, of course, is real estate. By burying the tracks, Odakyu will come into possession of a huge amount of real estate, much of it conveniently located near major railroad stations. So despite the mind-boggling amount of investment, afterwards they'll own the most conveniently located, eminently developable land in Shimokitazawa.

Going back to the original topic, in Shibuya the motivation for the Tokyu Corporation is even more blatant. The current Shibuya Toyoko line station is huge: it's a four-platform terminal station that takes up a ton of space. While the through-running system undeniably helps Tokyo trains be admirably efficient, it's more likely that the real reason Tokyu is motivated to bury the Toyoko line is because when they're done tearing down the current station at Shibuya, they will have possession of dozens of acres of land directly adjacent to Shibuya station. It's almost incalculable what the development rights to that land will be worth.

02 October 2011

Items Available

These things won't be needed at my new place so they're free if you want to come grab them! Please let me know you want them by Wednesday so I won't throw them away; you'll need to pick them up before October 14th.


Fujitsu 305 liter (yes you read that right, this is big for Japan!) refrigerator/freezer.
Model ER-M305-Y-C 60cm (w) x 70cm (d) x 147cm (h)

This is too big for the refrigerator spot in my new apartment!

From Scrapbook Photos


Brown curtain, 145cm (w) x 185cm (h)

From Scrapbook Photos

Green curtain, 155cm (w) x 185cm (h)

It looks like it's a sheer curtain in the photo, but it's actually opaque.

From Scrapbook Photos

Blue Curtains (2). Each on is 75cm (w) x 90cm (h)

The horizontal pattern is the result of my lamp; there's no actual pattern on the curtains.

From Scrapbook Photos

20 August 2011

Vancouver & SF Food Roundup

So between SIGGRAPH in Vancouver and a week with my foodie friends in SF I had an awesome vacation of eating! Here were some highlights:

Steamworks (Vancouver)

Brew pub at the entrance to Gastown. The food wasn't remarkable but the beer is solid, good place for a party or getting together a group of friends. The Vancouver answer to Gordon Biersch (with both the good and bad points that implies -- definitely a bit loud).

Revel Room (Vancouver)

New Southern-influenced small plates. This place is where the Lighter/Darker party was on Wednesday, and the party was so loud that I lost my voice for a couple days even though I was only at the party for an hour. Came back with Carmi on Thursday for dinner and was pleasantly surprised to get yummy small plates including cornbread, hush puppies, beef ribs, and so on to go with our local microbrew. Definitely an easy choice in Gastown.

Locavore (Mission, SF)

MJ picked this for my arrival-day dinner. Despite a lost-key episode giving rise to a 90-minute delay (Sorry MJ!) this place is fantastic. Locally-sourced ingredients as you might guess from the name make anything you order an excellent choice; we shared around and didn't have one miss in anything we ordered.

Little Chihuahua (Divisadero, SF)

I had lunch with Dave Moore at his neighborhood Mexican (lucky dog!), Little Chihuahua. Great unpretentious Mexican food at Divisadero and Page.

Little Star Pizza (Mission, SF)

One of my rituals when heading to the Bay Area is to get some Chicago-style pizza, usually at Little Star, still the best Bay Area option IMHO. Went with Nick and Naoco on a Saturday and just barely beat the rush (I was the latest arrival since there were no taxis in all of SF this weekend due to the Outside Lands concert!).

Ben & Nick's (Oakland)

Great neighborhood craft beer bar. Two new IPAs for me and a whole host of catching up with Ben Thompson!

T-Rex (Berkeley near Gilman)

Met Ewan and Sonoko for yet more new-southern-esque food, this time with an emphasis on the BBQ. Their cornbread is even better than Revel Room, and the Mac 'n Cheese, Beef Ribs, and Brisket meant that we couldn't finish it all so E&S got some take-home food. I predict they made their cats happy with it ;-).

District (SOMA, SF)

Met Melissa Bachman here to catch up on life events, dirnk excellent wines and grab a light dinner. All the small plates are good, the wine is awesome, and the divan seating is fun.

Pixar Cafe (Emeryville)

It seems weird to review a corporate cafeteria... but I have to call out the Gazpacho here! Green tomatillo, garlic... it packed a punch in the mouth and was as satisfying as twice the quantity of something else would have been. Got to catch up with Jeff P. and Ken Lao, ran into Andrew Stanton and Craig Good as well.

Sidebar (Oakland)

The whole week I was in the Bay Area it was sunny, clear, and fair (temperatures in the 60s). It's pretty hard to beat Sidebar as a place to meet for drinks under those conditions: Oren and I sat at a window table and looked out at Lake Merritt. The Paprika Fries are a pretty good choice to munch on while chatting too.

Aziza (Outer Sunset, SF)

As hard as it is to pick one, this was the food highlight of my entire trip. Not surprisingly, Charles picked this place out and guess what he's a regular there (we even got his favorite waiter). I pushed for the tasting menu, which is slightly pricey but oh-my-god good. Aziza is new Moroccan and man have they got it down.

Their cocktails are a revelation. I'm not really a cocktail guy -- beer or wine depending on the food -- but at Aziza the cocktails are a must. Pretty much every single one is a revelation combining ingredients you know in a way you don't, balanced to perfection. Charles had the gin/pilsner/beet and I had the rye whiskey/absinthe/bitters/grapefuit -- both were incredible (beet cocktails! who knew). It seemed like mine tasted more like lemon than grapefruit, Charles was guessing it contained the pickled lemon used in North African cuisine.

The tasting menu takes you on a pretty thrilling run through the menu. I didn't take notes but the highlight was probably the off-the-menu refresh course which was a three-layer with (IIRC) a tomato ragout on the bottom, goat cream in the middle and whipped potato on top. The entrees we went for were the exquisite lamb shank and the squab with fig; the only complaint was that the lamb shank was a bit too much to eat at that point. Fantastic restaurant.

Darwin (SOMA, SF)

But was I done? No! Steph and I met for lunch at Darwin, in fact just around the corner from District. Darwin is a pretty humble sandwich place, but since the sandwiches are *awesome* the lines get pretty long at lunchtime. I had the pastrami, Steph the roast beef. We got lucky and scored a table so we didn't have to use the curb chairs ;-) but definitely be prepared for lines 12-1.

Local Mission Eatery (Mission, SF)

The last stop was this place with Ruby and Axel. When Ruby first mentioned it, I thought it was a description not a place name! Again they emphasize local sourcing and the result is sweet; Ruby's Beef Tongue was good but the Albacore, Beef Stroganoff, and Ratatouille all got great reviews. I skipped the dessert but the really perfect French Press coffee made for a awesome capper to my week of eating my way through SF!

Movie and TV Roundup

Thanks to the entertainment system in the Airbus A380, I saw a bunch of stuff on the plane and tried to watch 2 more...

Big Bang Theory

The best thing I saw was not a movie, but finally getting a change to check out some episodes of this TV series. It's awesome (as much as I like musicals, this might grab top spot from Glee in my limited TV-watching time). Like many of the awesome series work on TV, this is very much writing-driven, with the actors gleefully each pushing their characters to the extreme of their role. So fun to watch, very light although the characters stay real enough to keep you coming back.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

As all friends who've seen it reported, this is a really fun movie. The videogame tropes come fast and furious and despite our hero's relatively lackadaisical approach to life it's a fun ride to watch. The visuals are awesome, completely having fun with the situation (as does the movie in general -- you're clearly meant to believe in the emotional journey, not the literal events).

Fast Five

So, I'm not a huge fan of this franchise but this was a totally entertaining caper movie. In this case, calling up the testosterone warhorses (Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson) and putting them in roles suited to them lets them just have fun with their toys (many of which explode very satisfactorily). A host of fun ensemble members round out the banter. Opening prison break sequence is awesome, as is the train heist sequence. I kinda wish I had seen it in the theater, this is a loud summer popcorn movie.

Kung Fu Panda 2

It had a subtitle, but it doesn't really matter: the plots are going to be pretty interchangeable in this series from now on. This is an OK sequel (seeing on a plane was optimal), the additions to the character list mean that no character really has time for actual character arcs. They're still having fun with the concept though (Michelle Yeoh joins as a soothsaying goat with a tendency to eat whatever paper is in front of her), and both the opening and ending credits are beautifully designed (someone finally figured out that scrolling text is a bad idea!).

01 August 2011

Bands I saw at Fuji Rock (Part 2)

And more....

  • Fountains of Wayne - Really good show. Yes, they were playing all these hit songs you've heard on the radio, but they changed things around a bit, worked with the crowd throughout, and I wasn't bored at any point.
  • レ・ロマネスク / Le Romanesque - Oh so don't ask. We made the trek out to the farthest venue at Fuji Rock called Cafe de Paris, which was supposedly a cabernet/burlesque sort of venue. Unfortunately, after the second continuous day of rain, the path to get there was an neverending slog through the deepening mud and the act that was performing was a Japanese guy in drag with a fake French accent. They did a couple funny bits in between the acts, but it didn't make the 40 minute trek to the back end of Fuji Rock feel worthwhile.
    It's sort of a shame because the Cafe de Paris venue has a couple good ideas (you can join in a drum circle), but the access situation made it pretty brutal.
  • Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra - Just awesome. Super high-energy full (12 or 14 people) Japanese ska band. As it turns out, language doesn't matter at all for ska... no one sat down during this show!
  • Digitalism - We only caught a little bit of this show because we were headed to the next one, but while electronica isn't my particular favorite, they were doing the music/video integration thing pretty well!
  • Faces - If you haven't heard of them, it's worth reading the Wikipedia article about this influential band. My friend Ken was very excited that I would get to see this show. Ken, I'm sorry to tell you that the reformed band has it's strong points (bass, guitar, and keys were all rocking) but it definitely has its weak points (vocals... after this show you can put me down as a Mick Hucknall non-fan, and frankly the bass player was so good that when the drummer didn't play it was better). They were all having fun playing loud roots rock, though. Probably it suffered because the next thing we saw was...
  • Incubus - OK, so I had heard enough Incubus songs that I wanted to go to this show, but it's not like I was a huge fan. That all changed pretty much in the first song. Incubus, it turns out, is a live band -- the stuff on the radio isn't the point. First of all, they were incredibly tight (although at Fuji Rock, that was hardly rare). Next, they had the best sound mix of any band we heard... you might think that was a coincidence, but they also had the best video performance on the big screen -- it looks like they brought their own video guy with them. I didn't realize that Incubus has (always) included a DJ -- but seeing them live we realized how important it was to the show. They didn't just play the songs from the record, they made every song a little different and interesting. Brandon Boyd is really interesting to watch on stage, and did a good job of both letting everybody in the band have some time and of interacting with the audience. Even on "Drive", which is probably the song they were least interested in, they simply gave it to the crowd, having the audience sing most of the choruses. This is a band that understands what a modern concert needs to be, works all aspects of that experience, and delivered a great show. The best performance I saw at Fuji Rock.
  • No Age - We saw this two-person outfit more or less by chance. They're pretty noisy-punky but high-energy and lots of fun. Impressive to see two people make that much noise!
  • Cornershop - I was really looking forward to seeing this English band which mixes a lot of Indian themes and sounds to their pop (you may know their song Brimful of Asha). They turn out to be a 10-piece band with the guest Japanese DJ they had on board and did lots of extended jam songs, completely obviating my worry that they would just play their hit songs. Unfortunately, their frontman Tjinder Singh, while he writes cool songs and sings well, is just not very dynamic on stage. He ended every song by running back to get some water and generally stood perfectly still exactly behind the microphone. Again, no slight to him for the musicianship but...

I had to be at work first thing Monday morning so that was Fuji Rock for me this year! I did learn a few important things for attending Fuji Rock:
  • You must must must must must come to Fuji Rock prepared for rain. Next time it's the full-on Japanese rubber work boots for sure, not to mention a better tent.
  • Don't bother to come up Thursday unless you're the person grabbing the campsite. Take a half-day off Monday instead (stupid, stupid, stupid me, I had to miss the Cake and Chemical Brothers shows).
  • The bigger the group of friends, the better!

Th-th-th-th-that's all for Fuji Rock 2011!