18 December 2005


I've been catching up on a number of great new graphic novels lately, including Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. It's the story of the artists' life from the age of 6 until about 10, when she lived through the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. The author comes from an educated family that had connections to the pre-Pahlavi regime, and it turns out the suffering in her family started well before the events in the book.

Sufficiently dramatic events -- and the revolution is clearly such -- help pull the reader through any book, but what makes Persepolis so compelling is the consistently child-centric point of view. The parent's reactions to the events are quite divorced from the reactions of the six-year-old Marji's; and, the multiple moments where events force the family to educate this child in a hurry as why tragedies are befalling them dazzle you with the impact they must have had.

Two other things I took away from the book where the Iranian people's perception of Arabs as "invaders from the West" (not something that gets a lot of play here) and the phrase, "...which they subsequently called an Islamic revolution" as Marji's intelligentsia-connected family watches the expected Marxist-proleteriat form of the revolution morph into something much more sinister.

Highly recommended.

11 December 2005

ii eiga da naa? (Samurai Rebellion)

I finally caved in and ordered the Criterion Collection box set "Rebel Samurai -- Sixties Swordplay classics" from amazon. I think of it as, "branching out after you've watched all of Kurosawa's films." Tonight I sat down for the first film in the set, "Samurai Rebellion" by Masaki Kobayashi. It's allegedley the most traditional of the four, as befits the director of Kwaidan -- it was his first independent film after leaving the studio system -- and it wears the Kurosawa mantle of heavyweight samurai drama well. After this, I can't wait to watch the rest of the set!

10 December 2005

SF's best pizza

After jonesing for Zachary's a lot, a friend told me about Little Star Pizza (http://www.littlestarpizza.com). It immediately replaced Zach's as the Bay Area's best. If you eat in, you'll also be sitting in the world's hippest pizza joint -- both the restaurant and the clientele look like you should be eating asian fusion food rather than yummy deep-dish Chicago-style pizza. The Classic or the Little Star are my faves...

27 November 2005

Russian Couple on Ocean Beach

I went to Ocean Beach to go running on the most beautiful Saturday on the beach in SF I've seen yet. It was warm, sunny, and clear -- even on the beach itself. As I made my way down to the water to begin running, I passed an elderly couple. They had brought out beach chairs and beach umbrellas, and were sitting reading the paper in full street clothes. As I got closer, I could see that the newspaper they were reading was in Russian. Suddenly I flashed to their story: elderly Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, I could hear them saying in the strong Eastern European accent: "Yah, whatever. Beachs in Russia, Beachs in Georgia, beaches in San Francisco. We've seen 'em all, and they're all the same, they're all good places to read the newspapah."

15 October 2005

Moving to Blogger

Well, I'm not the world's most active blogger to start with, but even so my old (self-hosted) blog got clobbered with blog spam. And so, here I am on blogger.

I was amazed how angry the blog-spammers make me. Email spam doesn't really get to me anymore, but somehow having to pull down my blog under a deluge of f*&^ing online poker ads really lit me up.

06 September 2005

Redundancy via Google

The cached page feature means your website can be up even when it's not. This afternoon, nVidia's main web site was down -- it looked like one of their internal servers was offline, so the web server couldn't find some file it needed. But it was awake. I had just received a new graphics card, so I really needed to get the latest driver downloads.

After thinking about it for a minute, I did a Google search for "NVidia driver". I then loaded the cached version of the nvidia page, and used the Javascript app to select the correct driver. The page after that was half-broken, but did have the needed links to nVidia's ftp sever, which was still up! Therefore, I got my drivers successfully even though nVidia's site is still down!

two comments, already:
It’s also quite useful when you’re looking for pages long-gone, not just temporarily down.

Matt (osarusan at gmail dot com)

27 August 2005

Quote of the Day

"Knitting is the new Yoga." -- as quoted from the article on knitting by Rachel Strutt in the August 2005 issue of Boston magazine.

08 August 2005

McKenna + Videogames = Equilibrium

In ways that disturb most folks over 30, videogames are training for life.

While walking up Figueroa Street after a day of SIGGRAPH sessions, I put together two threads that I just hadn't connected before.

Terrence McKenna has written many times about the accelerating rate of change in affairs. Whether its lifetime before bankruptcy of companies or stores; turnover of consumer products; or fashion waves, the time each stable set of patterns lasts before its transforms is shortening. Each new wave of kids have to adapt in their lifetime to more change than their parents had to encounter.

Also, I had been reading an article that was talking about the cognitive effects of videogames. When someone starts playing a new videogame, they conduct experiments to try and figure out what the rules of this game are. The author referred to this process as "adapting quickly to ad-hoc rulesets."

Many of the younger vidoegame players I watch are much better at adapting to ad-hoc rulesets than I am. I've noted this in contexts as disparate as World of Warcraft, where the 'rules' of play are changed by each patch; to God of War, where each level introduces a new minigame. And it carries over to consumer habits: I used to like having stores where I shopped regularly, and I certainly liked having predictable, high-quality health insurance.

Walking up Figueroa is when I made the connection: in a larger sense, videogames are training us for the new modes of life. We're no longer in a world of lifetime employment and multi-decade loyalties. Our established living habits are upended regularly by new products, bankruptcies of longtime suppliers, and outsourcing. The advice telling us to beccome more flexible in our personal and professional lives is actually telling us to adapt to the new world represented by a continuous stream of evolving, murkily documented videogames. We'll need to be constantly conducting experiments to find the new rules of the game, and to make major changes in our behavior as a result.

Perhaps "Raised on Videogames" should be transformed into a phrase describing ideal child-rearing rather than failed child-rearing.

09 July 2005

Disparate Activities

So today I logged in and did some monster grinding in WoW (Word of Warcraft), and immediately afterwards went running on the beach. It really didn't occur to me until afterwards how completely different these two activities are! One is perhaps the most indoor activity imaginable, relating to others only through chat windows and guild statistics (I'm vainly trying to keep my with my guildies, most of whom are L60 already, quite a number for the second time!). The other is a healthy, outdoor, Pacific Coast experience mixing it up with the dogs, surfers, and fishermen who populate Ocean Beach.

Myself, I wouldn't do without either one, but they sure represent different spheres of modern human activity. To round out the day, on the way back I stopped at Canvas (cafe/gallery) and bought some art. By the fact I stopped into the gallery still in my beach-running clothes, you might gather I'm not a gallery opening night kind of person ;-).

19 June 2005

A ten-year project -- Read Japanese Today index

I finally finished something that's been on my to-do list for almost ten years. Check out the new Japanese-related page. This is a project I conceived of almost ten years ago when I first started studying Japanese -- I love that book, but using it for reference is impossible due to the lack of an index. The idea of doing an index was responsible for me purchasing and learning Macromedia DreamWeaver (I wanted a good environment for editing nihongo no peeji) and various other initiatives, but I never actually got around to making the page.

Now, it's done! For now it's just a static page, but the information is all available in XML, so hopefully soon I'll get around to making the "Kanji reading quiz," "Kanji writing quiz," and "Japanese vocabulary quiz" versions of the page for studying (by leaving out appropriate columns from the display).


07 June 2005

Political Partisanship Past

It's comforting to believe that politics has degraded in our modern era. It's not particularly true, though. Here's an amazing example of ludicrous politics in action. Because of the direction of the ire, it's instructive to those who would like to believe the Bushies are somehow a new factor in American politics.

The situation in November 1950 was that the Truman adminstration, at the urging of General MacArthur, willfully escalated the United Nations "police action" in Korea by crossing the armistice line to invade North Korea. They intended to go up to, but not cross, the Yalu River forming Korea's border with China. During early November, there was significant contact with Red Chinese troops in central Korea. Chinese troops then disappeared for about two weeks. On November 24th, MacArthur announced that the unification of Korea was 'imminent'. On the 25th, 260,000 Chinese troops attacked the 100,000 UN troops in Korea, almost driving them completely out of the country.

Many rational observers had claimed that crossing into North Korea would provoke the Chinese into outright warfare, but Truman and his entire policy team came to consensus that they would not, and that attempting to occupy North Korea was a wise policy. When the counterattack and near disaster that followed came, this was proven to be a ludicrous assumption (the assumption is the case study in 'groupthink').

When this became evident on the 28th, did Truman -- a very smart and generally liberal man -- admit to a misconception? Did he look for better sources of intelligence, or wonder why his advisors hasn't looked into this? Did he god forbid consider that perhaps the policy was ill-advised? No. Instead, he blamed the Republicans:

Well the liars have accomplished their purpose. ... What has appeared in the press, along with the defeat of our leaders in the Senate, has made the world believe that the American people are not behind our foreign policy -- and I don't think the Communists would ever have dared to do this thing in Korea if it hasn't been for that belief. ... And the result is this news we got this morning.1

Sound like any thundering Bushies proclaiming that questioning the war in Iraq is "Un-American" to you? There are lot of other fascinating aspects to that policy error as well -- MacArthur disdaining the capacity of the Chinese army to fight, and the pre-Nixonian belief among all American policymakers that China and Russia formed one inseparable unit rather than two temporarily allied competitors -- chronicled in the book.

1 From an eyewitness account by author John Hersey, as quoted in "groupthink" by Irving L. Janis pg. 65.

Groupthink, Part 1

I've finally gone back to read the sociological classic, "Groupthink", by Irving L. Janis.

This book's title has made it's way into the vernacular as a shorthand for people having a blind conformance to group norms. I always thought the usage was appropriate, so I eventually went back to look at the source. It turns out the popular usage is very much in line with what the original author wrote, almost a surprise in itself.

And, as you would hope in a source work like this, the author goes all analytical on us and gets into specific lists of symptoms of groupthink taking hold among a bunch of people. Here's his list from the first case study of groupthink symptoms. I found this list totally chilling because I witness these symptoms in management thinking at a certain large company where I work.

The illusion of Invulnerability
The illusion of being invulnerable to the main dangers that might arise from a risky action in which the group is strongly tempted to engage
The Illusion of Unanimity [The Illusion of Group Infallibility]
When a group of people who respect each other's opinions arrive at a unanimous view, each member is likely to believe that the belief must be true.
Suppression of Personal Doubts
Many forthright men who are quite willing to speak their piece despite risks to their career become silent when faced with the possibility of losing the approval of fellow members of their primary work group
Self-appointed Mindguards
Just as a bodyguard protects the President and other high officials from injurious physical assaults, a mindguard protects them from thoughts that might damage their confidence in the soundness of the policies to which they are committed

31 May 2005

Neat CG Animation

Check it out. http://krapooyo.free.fr/

Sent to me by Emmy Toyonaga. Beautiful storybook look.

25 March 2005

New Tunes

The two newest CDs are... ... Sum 41 "All Killer No Filler" and Dramarama "The Best Of."

The Dramarama disc was easy; I went to Axel's show at Cherry Lounge's Hard Rock night. I commented they sounded like Hoodoo Gurus, but Ruby said, "Oh no, definitely Dramarama." A quick amazon.com click later, I was fully reacquainted.

Sum 41 is new (-ish, 2001) punk. The funny thing is that while it came in the same little amazon box as the Dramarama CD, I have no idea where I heard about the band or why I bought the disc. I sure like it, though!

three comments, already:
nice site

sildenafil citrate (sdd at sde dot com)

The American Way

I shopped with reckless abandon, I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I'd forgotten existed. Brightness setlled around me. We crossed from furniture to men's wear, walking through cosmetics. Our images appeared on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors in security rooms. I traded money for goods. The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit. ... We ate another meal. A band played live Muzak. Voices rose ten stories from the gardens and promenades, a roar that echoed and swirled through the vast gallery, mixing with noises from the tiers, with shuffling feet and chiming bells, the hum of escalators, the sound of people eating, the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction.

We drove home in silence. We went to our respective rooms, wishing to be alone. A little later I watched Steffie in front of the TV set. She moved her lips, attempting to match the words as they were spoken.

[an excerpt from "White Noise" by Don DeLillo]

30 January 2005

"Collapse" beneath "Guns"

Jared Diamond's "Collapse" is another masterpiece of a book, though it pales besides the accomplishment of his earlier "Guns, Germs, and Steel." Bill Polson sent around a copy of Gregg Easterbrooks' NY Times review of Jared Diamond's new book, "Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed" at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/books/review/30EASTERB.html?ex=1108098000&en=5c239660b6ba9d95&ei=5070.

How timely! Since I wasn't feeling well enough to go hiking this morning, I spent much of the day finishing "Collapse."

Like Easterbrook, I loved both books. He discusses quite accurately the appeal and positive aspects of both books, so I'll just discuss his criticisms of the two books, which I respectively disagree and agree with.

His criticisms of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" misstate what the book is about. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" has as its major thesis the fact that, whatever society would become globally dominant at the time technology enabled global reach, it was environmentally determined that it would come from Eurasia. Easterbrook consistently misstates "Guns" as focusing on Europe; in fact, the vast majority of "Guns" focuses on Eurasia, all the way from the Japanese archipelago to Spain, as a unit that was destined to find and spread ideas more quickly within itself than the rest of our world.

What "Guns" does treat as basically coincidental is that the Western European economies were in a strong expansion and growth phase during the 1700-1900 period when global domination became possible technologically. Had technology advanced somewhat faster, it could have happened when other Eurasian cultures such as the Mohammedans in 700-1100 or the Chinese in 200-400 were in a srtong growth and expansion phase. Easterbrook is clearly uncomfortable with this assertion even though "Guns" discusses at length many of the forces (internal competition primary among them) that made Western European cultures so successful during their growth period. Personally I found Diamond's interpretation far more compelling than Easterbrook's claim of cultural supremacy as a root factor.

Another minor criticism is Easterbrook's attempt to poke fun at the praise of Tokugawa Japan's forestry policies: "But wait -- pre-Meiji Japan collapsed!" he says in a paragraph-ending zinger. This is a petty, and conscious, disregard of the meaning of collapse; in fact, while Japan indeed had a civil war and change of leadership caste 170 years after the policies described were instituted, it did not suffer any population loss and adapted to the arrival of western technology better than any other Asian power. It did not, in the terms of either the book or the popular meaning, collapse.

In terms of Easterbrook's general criticism of "Collapse", however, I'd have to say he's closer to the mark. There's not much room to dispute Diamond's accounts in "Collapse" of the historical societies he studies; the book is extensively footnoted an in particular comes with a great "Further Reading" list that has added at least 3 books to my Amazon wishlist (and again, Esterbrook accurately and clearly praises this part of the book). But the final chapters regarding the application of these lessons to the future are the shakiest (often true for histories, now that I think about it).

In particular, "Collapse" repeatedly asserts in its final chapter that it's not possible for Third World countries to catch up to First World lifestyles. Unlike the meticulously researched opening areas of the book, that statement simply isn't given any kind of rigorous backup it should require to prove that this is truly impossible. It fails on the same basis as a number of assertions of the "anti-growth" camp (see "The Limits to Growth" by Meadows et al as a good summary of the basic arguments in that direction); namely, that all predictions start with, "If current trends continue..." That doesn't turn out to be a particularly good way to predict the future if you take the wrong timeframes and variables, or only the first or second derivatives of them, into account. Yes, if the "First World lifestyle" entailed as much ecological damage in the future as the First World countries caused in order to get to that lifestyle, it would probably be impossible for more countries to get there. But there isn't a strong reason to assume that the same resource usage curves will always apply. It may well be that in the future we can support a First World lifestyle with less ecological impact than we have caused to date (in fact, Diamond's book is full of arguments for doing just that).

(here's an quick and overly simplified example if you're not familiar with the back-and-forth on this argument, btw: Industrializing societies use exponentially increasing amounts of coal per person. Since China is in that phase right now, the argument goes, they use exponentially increasing amounts of coal per person on a large population base -- which has definitely been true for the last several years. Therefore, we will run out of coal because when we multiply that out and draw their exponentially increasing line on the graph, we find they will exhaust world coal stocks. The flaw in this argument is that societies don't continue to use exponentially increasing amounts of coal once they've become industrialized. They do shift to oil-based fuels, but even then they don't use exponentially increasing amount of fuel for very long; thus the pro- and anti-growth camps argue about the exact timeframes and magnitudes of such corrective factors)

In addition, to my surprise for a generally thorough author, Diamond and raises but then fails to address what I think is a huge weakness in first-world attempts to dictate (rather than encourage) third-world development policies. Here is a passage from a section in "Collapse" discussing objections to environmental conservation attempts (emphasis mine):

"In all my experience of ... Third World countries with growing environmental problems and populations, I have been impressed that their people know very well how they are being harmed by population growth, deforestation, overfishing, and other problems. ... The reason why the forest behind their village is nevertheless being logged is usually either that a corrupt government has ordered it logged over their often-violent protest, or else that they signed a logging lease with great reluctance because they saw no other way to get the money needed next year for their children."

First of all, let's be clear: corrupt governments signing away development rights to line the pockets of the rulers is a blight on the earth. However, in the second option, Diamond is saying that the locals have made an informed decision to take the short-term benefit against the long-term loss. If the villagers in Indonesia think that's their best option even though they are well-informed about the consequences, how can Diamond or any other outsiders think they know better? He doesn't address this question at all, instead segueing to a different topic.

In many cases, of course, the above is just an intellectual wriggle because the information needed to make sensible tradeoffs isn't available or well-known; that's a fair observation as well. In fact, the greatest contribution of "Collapse" is in focusing on the difficult-to-perceive role of soil degradation in societal collapses, so that such decisions about developmental trade-offs can be made with more knowledge of the real costs on either side.

The bottom line is that there are plenty of reasons to read "Collapse"; like with "Guns", you'll be amazed at the topics you'll become better informed about in the process (I didn't even know what "palynology" was). I just liked the book better until I read the final chapter. And in that sense, I generally agree with Easterbrook's comment on the new book.