Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Stream of consciousness rant...

Why is it that in Japan you have to suddenly declare all food to be "oishii" the split second that it enters your mouth? I need at least 5 seconds to ascertain what a food tastes like, and I absolutely refuse to confirm to the oishii thing. If a food is truly delicious then I might say it, but if not, I won't. Declaring all food to be delicious is counter productive and the word has lost all of it's meaning. Saying "oishii" has become a meaningless, automatic phrase, rather like how in English we usually reply to "how are you?" with "I'm ok/fine."

What's the deal with Japanese girls and the awful way a lot of them dress? Layer upon layer of flimsy linens, hopelessly out of coordination both in colour and shape, the god awful black knee length stocking socks, those terrible half sock doiley things, the cut off jeans with a skirt, and usually with high heels, the ostentatious and desperate oversized Louis Vuitton handbags and the vain "look at me" way that girls hold them at the elbow.

Then there's the way that they overreact to the most mundane of news ("uusooooooooo!!", "ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"), the way they sit on the priority train seats and close their eyes and pretend to sleep so no one will expect them to offer their seat to someone more deserving, the way a lot of them wear old women hats and elbow length gloves supposedly to protect themselves against UV radiation, but actually because some no talent hack in a magazine wore them once, because they are very vain and can't bear the thought of anything other than milky white skin, and because they think they are being ultra-fashionable, whereas in fact they add ten years to their appearance with every piece of unneeded clothing.

The scores of Japanese men that wear barbie-pink shirts and think they look cool. You look terrible! The girls who wear fishnet stockings and think it's fashionable, and refuse to believe that it's the western symbol of the prostitute. The Japanese teenagers that run halfway down the lane when bowling, thereby messing up the oil for the next bowlers. The way that all Japanese amateur bowlers have to touch hands after every successful shot. They way they all have their little plastic compartmentalised boxes and carry out the same ritual everytime they arrive at the alley. The Japanese visit someone's house (they go to the combini, get some snacks and sit in a circle in the living room talking about absolute shit for ages!). The average Japanese's appalling grasp of basic geography. The way that every question or statement on Japanese TV is replied to with "so desu ne, ano....". The way that Japanese people eat on TV commercials (open mouthed, slurpy, over enthusiatic). The way that all Japanese housewives on TV wear aprons, no matter what they are doing. The way that waitresses and waiters will always ignore the foreigner ordering in perfect Japanese in look at the Japanese member of the group. The fact that 6 pieces of overly-sweet, tasteless bread costs more than a whole loaf anywhere else. The way that whenever there is a public holiday, everyone has to go out and do something en mass. The way that most Japanese people over the age of 30 eat their food and suck and champ their gums afterwards (due to their terrible dental hygeine). The way that shops and offices continue to blast the air con when the weather has clearly changed, just because it is officially the same season. The fact that only old ladies seem to wear kimonos regularly. The stupidly overpriced and lacklustre lager they sell in tiny glasses in some Japanese bars. The moronic "talents" that they have on Japanese TV shows. The seeming lack of sarcasm. The way that so many foods and drinks are unnecessarily wrapped up.

Ok, I feel a bit better now...

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

It was over before it had begun...

There was no sound in the basement as the two assassins moved, using the shadows, not a movement wasted. Although their actions may have appeared similar to the untrained eye, they couldn't have been more different. One, the champion, wore grey snow gear. The other, a newcomer, wore the black of the special forces. The champion had a slight, barely discernible nervousness in his movements. The challenger radiated confidence. Their choice of weapon said a lot about their characters. They both favoured the silenced PP7, which despite it's lack of power was deadly in the hands of experts. That they had unknowingly chosen the same firearm was no surprise. They were students of the same Masters.

They were getting closer. The champion attempted a smooth blend around a wall, in a darkened corridor, as he had done countless times before. This time, his timing was off by a fraction of a second, and the challenger, himself edging along a shadowed wall in the adjoining room, noticed a minute movement in the wall-cast shadow.

Aware of his mistake perhaps, or even feeling the tinge of a higher sense, the champion aborted his planned route and silently retraced his steps, back to where he felt his stalker wouldn't expect him. Kneeling in the darkness, his keenly trained eyes noticed a minute anomaly in the deep corridor shadow across the room. 99.9% of people would swear that there was no movement, but the champion trusted his instinct. He soundlessly crept forwards a few feet, protected by the darkness surrounding him, his back to the wall to allow him to check in every direction.

Suddenly his foot brushed against something on the floor. He silently dropped to his knees and reached for the bullet - the shape against his toes had told him immediately what it was. As he touched it with his hand he heard a soft chlak sound and noticed with some puzzlement that there on the floor before him, extending a few inches into the lit part of the room was a pebbledash of red. It was the last thing he ever saw. He slumped forward, already dead as the challenger, now champion, silently grew behind him and disappeared into the shadows.

Alternative Heroes - Jamie Hyneman

As an experienced engineer for both small and big screen productions, Jamie Hyneman is best known outside the industry for being one half of the Mythbusters, two engineering colleagues who take urban myths and put them to the test.

Hyneman is refreshingly eccentric and unique in a world where conformity seems to be the norm. His appearance provides plenty of opportunity for ridicule, and his plodding diction is often parodied on set, generally by Adam.
However, whereas Adam is often a little boorish and, if truth be told, a bit of a camera whore, it's Jamie's deadpan observations and occasional bursts of derringdo that form the basis for the show's humour. Adam may work faster and with more flair, but Jamie's creations are technically superior, more elegant and he doesn't make as many mistakes.

With alarming physical strength, an insistence on cleanliness and the unconformist black beret-white shirt-twitchy moustache combination, Hyneman comes across as a mixture of turn-of-the-century circus strongman, Victorian martinet and Bavarian Scientist. Whilst being the show's safety officer and usually a stickler for the rule book, Hyneman isn't averse to bending the rules every now and then, such as when he (apparently accidentally) sent a full size remote controlled car crashing through a chainlink fence (with Adam sitting in the backseat). For this and everything else above, Jamie Hyneman you are an Alternative Hero.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Alternative Heroes - Richard Whitely

When Richard Whitely died in June, it was very much the end of an era. Having fronted Countdown, channel 4's flagship show, since 1982, he was reportedly the most recognised face on TV after the test card girl. Like Elton John, he always looked like an old auntie, and had a superb propensity for loud shirt and jacket combinations (the photo to the left is very subdued). He was dubbed Twice-Nightly by good friend Terry Wogan after news leaked of an alleged affair, and they playfully cajoled eachother for months, Whitely on channel 4 and Wogan on BBC Radio 2. Whitely was also a master of the pun, and was responsible for more tumbleweed moments and blue rinse groans than is imaginable. Having been brought up on a healthy diet of Carry On films, Roger Moore's Bond and Coutdown, the pun is understandably my friend, although I can only dream of aspiring to the lofty heights Twice-Nightly achieved. His cuddly joviality masked the fact that he was a Cambridge scholar, and before that a graduate of the highly appropriately named Giggleswick School. I must admit that one of my fantasies was to drive with Whitely into a city in an exploding clown car, stock up on criminally-garish ties and then back home for a few rounds of World Soccer on the sega master system and fish and chips out of the paper. Unfortunately that'll never happen now, but regardless of this, and for your lifetime of puns, jackets, ties and generally waghandary, Richard Whitely, you are in every possible sense an alternative hero

PC Gaming

At the end of last year, I was heavily into the PC game, Battlefield 1942, a Second World War 3rd person shooter and one of the most popular online games. I would come home from work, grab a coffee and fire up the PC. A simple button click and I was onto a server, chatting and gaming with people from across the globe.
It was during an after game top-up coffee that I started to remember how different it was some 10 years previously, as an unassuming 14 year old with a 486 SX and a friend's copy of Doom. Allow me to set the scene...

It was the summer of 1994... Wet Wet Wet's version of Love is All Around seemed destined to stay at the top of the charts for eternity, and the internet was still mostly unknown. I was a bespectacled, Metallica loving teenager who had a strange fascination with Pamela Anderson (as most teenagers at the time did).Until that summer, the family PC had sat in the dining room, its plodding Windows 3.1 system storing my Microsoft Paint-created Speedball 2 characters, my dad's business invoices and some very rudimentary games (nibbles, scorched earth, and others). Then the midteenage world of me changed considerably. I discovered Doom.

With all the smoothly-rendered, free-roaming 3d shooters on the market nowadays, it's often overlooked just how important Doom and Doom 2 were. Here we had games that looked, at the time, pretty realistic. There were shadows, explosions, gunfire, dramatic skies and bloodstains. The sound effects were particularly impressive at the time. Remember that this was before real, CD style music appeared in games (Heavy Metal sticks in my mind as one of the first great soundtrack games). Doom's guns sounded like guns. The chainsaw sounded like a chainsaw. The background music was suitably sinister. Doom was a game that raised the bar. It took the ease of use of Wolfenstein 3d and boosted it in every conceivable department. However, it wasn't perfect. Even at the time, whilst in the glow of Doom mania, there were a couple of things in the game that I disliked, namely:

  • The fact that you couldn't look up or down.
  • The way that certain enemies would run on the spot.

That said, the good by far outweighed the bad. Some time later, there was Doom 2 (perhaps I had it in '95, I can't really recall), which upped the ante even more with improved levels and, gasp, a level editor. The ability to modify and create levels was what really cemented Doom as my computer mainstay. One summer (I think it would be '95) I did nothing for 6 weeks other than kill hundreds of flies with a champion elastic band, and build Doom 2 levels. Before the summer, my levels were very basic, typically just a polygonal room with stretched sides to make corridors. But at the start of that summer I printed off the Doom Editor Utility text file from Dos, and now I had a manual to aid with the building. Of course, this was when the internet was first taking off, and I only knew of one boy in my school who had that pleasure. If you wanted help with a game in 1995, you had to hope that the help file was decent or face the high charges of a game hotline.

The lack of internet wasn't the only trouble with gaming back then. The fact that Doom 2 came on about 10 floppy disks meant for a harrowing, lottery of an installation process. If just one of those disks had an error, the others were useless (if memory serves, it was possible to contact the company and purchase a replacement, but it all took time). Another problem was (shudder) hardware configuration. This was the thing that really tested the patience and sanity of me and my friends back then. Anyone reading this who didn't play PC games before the late nineties, here's the story. Even if you had a game, chances are that if you just installed it, it wouldn't work perfectly, if at all. Because computer components weren't so standardised back then, you had to contend with the now defunct DOS, and fiddle around with two files that still cause cold sweats - config.sys and autoexec.bat. Only by tweaking these could you hope to run your game perfectly. And for those gamers like me who were novices, it was a bit like laying the PC on the table, opening it up and operating on it with surgeon tools. Sound and graphics needed to be calibrated. Different cards needed different tweaks. As with the installation, this was a crap shoot and no mistake. And how about if you wanted a break from a game, and fancied playing another? If you were like most teenage gamers at the time, you had a hard drive with about 250mb of space, which with all the other Windowsy stuff meant that you only had enough room for one modern game at a time. That's right, uninstall the entire game, reinstall the new game. And re-calibrate everything again.

Game lending was common then too. I certainly couldn't afford many modern games on my pocket money, and I'm sure it was the same for others too. It was convenient for us, but another problem arose - the anti piracy protection. Nowadays, cds and dvds are encoded to only work on one machine, or they have inbuilt codes (yes, I'm still a novice... forgive me), but back in the mid '90s there were all sorts of weird and wonderful things to be done before you could get into a game. The ones I remember the most are the word wheels, having to type a specific word from a specific page, paragraph and line of the manual and having to match the sillouette with the correct picture in the manual. (This was time consuming for legitimate owners of games too, and provided one of the ironies of PC gaming - that a law abiding gamer was given a harder time than the software pirate with his cracked, fast loading game.)

Despite the obstacles that littered the field, PC gaming continued, and began to evolve dramatically. Quake upped the ante, and Unreal and Quake 2 made Doom 2 seem painfully archaic. Windows became infinitely more user friendly, and DOS, our old friend for years, slipped off for a well-earned retirement. I feel quite sorry for the 14 year olds of today, sat browsing the net at 100mb a second, downloading patches and leading a squadron of soldiers into battle into a multi-national online war. For theirs is a tepid glory, as they have no appreciation of what it used to be like.

Friday, August 19, 2005

A tribute to my bicycle... Nov 2004- August 2005

There she is, Pamela, in all her splendor. She faithfully carried my two bowling balls for 9 months, despite having off-kilter steering, a buckled basket and horrible brakes. If that isn't the best pregnancy metaphor in history, I don't know what is...

We had a crash, Pamela and I, in late November... I was cycling home and didn't see the black chain that some fucker had put between darkened posts. Her basket was crushed, her steering worsened even more and from that point, any attempt to ride on to a curb that wasn't at a perfect right angle sent the back wheel fishtailing out like some speedway bike incarnate.

In the early doors of 2005 I accidentally let my headphones get wrapped up in her chain and cog mechanism. She was never quite the same after that. There would be weeks of easy riding and then suddenly a juddering stop in the centre of a pavement.

Dear Pamela was stolen a week ago by who knows who... someone who wanted a broken down, rusting, limping, deformed grandma bike I guess. That they cut the lock to gain their inefficient transport beggars belief. I now have a new bike, but there are no stickers on the frame that say Pamela, and the steering is almost too good. The basket is even and there isn't a jot of rust. It's just not the same.

Waiting for the clock to drag around to 4.30pm, this is what is in my head...

  • The word "Japanese" sounds like a demure, kimonoed girl softly clapping her hands.
  • Silence really is golden.
  • I fully intend to start up an off-centre English newsletter in my Japanese high school.
  • I need to research the SBS.
  • I must have a 200+ game tomorrow at bowling, and an average of at least 150.
  • I should draw more.
  • I should exercise more (I'll start playing with the school volleyball team next term).
  • I need to go to bed earlier.

Very Japanese things, as seen by yours truly over the past weeks...

  • At 9.30pm, a woman in dark sunglasses attempts to back her Audi into her driveway for 10 minutes (we were trying to get past her at the time).
  • At my local convenience store, I am asked whether I want my cheese sandwich microwaved, and am given a straw with my beer.
  • Two Japanese men take 30 minutes to clear up after bowling, overly polishing their balls and the lane beside the ball return, whilst we were waiting for their lane, and the following week they spent 25 minutes practicing walking up to the line.
  • In a Japanese lifestyle magazine, two normal looking middle aged Japanese men have cosmetic surgery and end up looking like a mincing fusion of Kim Jong Il, David Gest and Paul O'Grady.
  • At a different bowling alley, a teenage boy decides to throw his 11lb ball like a shotput, which lands halfway down the lane and makes a deafening thud. The alley staff refuse to act, only tentatively suggesting to the youth to find other pursuits after Ben points a finger at the youth in question's face and shouts "C***!" at 110 decibels.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Middle of the road

I don't like Shania Twain's music. My fiance's cd and a long car ride from Hiroshima made that painfully clear. Although I respect her for the way she turned her life around and dragged herself from the abyss, I have nothing but condemnation for her music. The songs are wishy washy, formulaic and repetetive. Whereas great bands may have a distinctive trademark sound (if you catch a snippet of The Beatles, The Manic Street Preachers or Coldplay on the radio, you know immediately that it is them) Shania Twain's songs all sound the same. The attempt to fuse country and pop is the ultimate in middle of the road yawnworthiness.

No excuse whatsoever

I am in shock... why? Because I have just witnessed the most appalling hair crime imaginable... allow me to set the scene...

This afternoon I went bowling with my fiance's brother, who is in town for O-bon. Afterwards, he invited me back to the family house for dinner. As is usual in such a situation, dinner wouldn't be ready for a good 2 and half more hours, so I lounged and read some Time magazines, whilst he watched the baseball. The mum and dad then appeared and announced that we were going out to eat, which was fine by me.

We went to a family style diner that served Japanese style hamburgers (no bun, on a plate with rice, soup and lots of sauce). My fiance was working, so it was just me, the brother and the parents. I always feel a little conspicuous on such occasions, as I always eat really quickly and don't subscribe to the Japanese tradition of exclaiming "oiishii!" between every other mouthful. Were I to eat at a natural pace, I would be finished long before Mr and Mrs slurped the onions from their soup, and I would have to sit there like a foreign lemon for the remainder of the meal.

Anyway, I paced my eating, which was strangely difficult, and took a lot of time glancing around the room.

And then I saw them. The family that hair forgot. Or rather, the three young boys that hair forgot. Below is a rather shite sketch of the hair that the three were sporting... crew cut all over, spare the long fringe and unforgivable mullet at the back.

Alas, this was not merely the mother giving in to their kids' pleadings for such abominable hair... the mother in question was of the fashion-victim type (Louis Vuitton handbags in full view, and designer cigarettes) and the boys' hair was dyed and streaked.

They paid a lot of money for that hair in a salon. Three times.

Cruelty! Abuse! Outrage! Those poor boys will look back through the digital photos of 2005 and grimmace. How could you, they will wail. How indeed. The youngest boy was probably no more than 3 years old, which, in my admittedly sometimes conservative opinion, is far too young to have dyed hair, especially as it serves no purpose other than to bolster the shallow ego of a bandwagon mum.

The gruesome fringed mullet is not the hair of young Japanese boys. It is the hair of stamp collecting German twenty-somethings from the mid-80s, or rat-thin homebrewers from the trailer parks of South Carolina.

(it was so bad that I found that my artistic skills had deserted me... honestly, I can draw...)

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Cinema is dying

Doom... Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3... Harry Potter 4... King Kong... Sin City 2... Mission: Impossible 3... Superman Returns...

Just some of the films moviegoers can look forward to over the next year or so. And all of them remakes of or sequels to other things.

Money has ruined cinema, it has done for years. Studio bosses only care about balance sheets, so whenever a movie has moderate success they quickly line up a sequel. When a certain genre movie has success, they rush to make one of their own (matrix-style futuristics, superheroes, etc).

Special effects are becoming tiresome. In a bid to outdo the last big effects-fest, a lot of new action movies seem to have been written around the effects. Movie makers seem to think that by simply having the kernel of a good idea within all the chase scenes and cgi, it will succeed (see The Island).

The best three films I have seen in the last couple of years are Saw, Dead Man's Shoes and Lost in Translation. They are almost devoid of special effects, and there are long sequences where it appears that not a lot is happening (whereas rather a lot is).

Saw is a great movie for a number of reasons. First, it's darker and tighter than 7even. Second, the actions of the killer are truly ingenious. And third, it has a wonderfully un-Hollywood ending.

Dead Man's Shoes is by far the best low budget British film for years, has a beautifully written script and is ultra-realistic. The acting is flawless, and the story is as powerful as any I have ever seen.

Lost in Translation is a very accurate and humorous pastiche on what it is like to be a Westerner in Japan. Murray and Johansson give very understated and believable performances, and the story stays with you long after the credits have rolled.

Three great films, very indie, very raw. No special effects, no checklist cliches, just good movie writing.

A great tragedy in the world at the moment is that mediocrity sells. It's the same with pop music. A cardboard cut-out can sell more than an original, interesting product. Luckily good movies and songs are being written, although they seem to be few and far between.

And by the way Hollywood and all you DVD distributors: A dvd costs a few pennies to make, so are you really surprised when people download movies for free rather than spend £20 for glossy packaging?

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The world would be a worse place without...

Brannigans Roast Beef and Mustard thick cut crisps...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady

I stumbled upon this book by chance at Kurume city library, having heard about it years ago on a TV show about important books from the 1970s. Whilst TCDOAEL was indeed published in 1977, it had been written and drawn in 1906, by the naturalist, Elizabeth Holden.

Reading it was a little like how I imagine talking to my great-great grandmother would have been. Holden talks about the flora and fauna of the British Isles with such delicacy and familiarity that it immediately struck home how far we have slumped in our understanding of what is around us. Her diary is a touching, beautiful fragment of a past existence. Almost nothing of that existence remains. If Miss Holden were here now, would she feel disappointed?

Yes, I think she would.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A simple pleasure

Simple pleasures are what make life liveable... I aim to make a grand list of all my simple pleasures in a future post, but for now I want to talk about just one... that is, being a little drunk and going into a Japanese convenience store and buying random shit.

This evening, I played 17 games of bowling, won a red tshirt and came back hot, tired and wet. I needed a beer, so I walked a few metres to my local store and grabbed the following:

- spicy weiners
- spicy instant ramen (like a deluxe giant pot noodle with proper ingredients)
- some beer
- a cold dog

i was served by the nervous young lad that I would probably be interested in, were I a girl. I was wearing my newly won red tshirt, which smells like chemicals and says random japanese things.

I'm now watching Dick Weber's Guide to Being a Better Bowler... this is a simple pleasure...

Friday, August 05, 2005

Caught in the act...

If you are anything like me then you've always secretly wondered this: What would a 17 year old highschool girl's face be like if you caught her using the office phone to make an unauthorised personal call?

Well wonder no more. Behold!

Monday, August 01, 2005

Job realisation

A thought has just occurred to me... perhaps the reason I'm not enjoying my job is that I miss my own highschool days, and unconsciously feel maudlin when teaching students that remind me of what was definitely a golden time in my life.