Friday, June 7, 2013.
On Monday, June 3, 2013 I bought the Principia Mathematica by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, hardcover in three volumes (Cambridge University, 1950). The PM was originally published in three volumes in 1910, 1912 and 1913 and a famous three volume second edition with amendments was published in 1927. It is not to be confused with Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), Latin for “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” which is also commonly called the Principia Mathematica. (Incidentally, I have a Latin copy of that, too.) The more famous work by Newton was written in Latin and is concerned with the novel Theory of Gravitation as an explanation of the planetary motion. The Whitehead-Russell PM was written in English and is concerned, I think, with the verifiability of pure mathematics. When I say “pure” mathematics I mean all mathematics for which the proposition A + B = C is true when all the variables of A, B and C can be empirically verified. Whitehead and Russell took almost 400 pages (in the first edition) to prove the proposition that 1 + 1 = 2 after which they wrote that it was “a very useful proposition.” Now that’s perseverance.
I cannot read the PM because Whitehead and Russell invented their own symbolic script to express their logical propositions in mathematical form, and my mathematical facility does not match their work. Not by a long shot. But because it is such an important modern work I feel happy just to have it on my shelf, along with my facsimile of a King James Bible, my Latin, Greek and German Bibles, and my Hebrew Bible (the famous Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia which is the standard Masoretic text used by scholars when translating into other languages), my various editions of Shakespeare’Complete Works, my Arabic and Arabic-English Qurans, etc.
The PM is among the foundational works of Logical Positivism and it ranks as one of the most important works in modern intellectual history. Other major modern works (which I also have on my shelf) include Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus(1921), Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), and Sean-Paul Sartre’sBeing and Nothingness (1943). I’ve read the Tractatus, but I still have not been able to get through even the first paragraphs of either Being and Time or Being and Nothingness. I know.
The three volume edition I bought cost ¥10,000, or a little over a hundred dollars at the current exchange rate. That’s nowhere close to the most I have spent on a single book, in Japan or elsewhere. I’ve got an English-language single volume encyclopedia of Japan, a Latin copy of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and a rather expensive Phaidon Press book (illustrated) on the history of books, each one of which cost far more than this used Principia from a bookstore in Tokyo’s Jimbocho Booktown. I checked on Amazon.ca and found that the same edition was selling there for about $1,300, so the used volumes that I bought in Tokyo were a bargain, especially considering their good condition. Some Japanese philosopher or mathematician took good care of them.
I love books. I collect books. Books make the perfect home decoration - better than any kind of furniture, architecture, art, paint or wallpaper devices. And there are some books that are so monumentally important that just to have them in your home is meaningful, even if you never read them. Like the Bible, for example. I imagine most North American homes contain at least one Bible. But at the same time as being history’s number one bestseller, it’s also true that it is one of the least read books. (I read it. I have done and continue to do so still. It’s easier to read the Bible in English than it is to read Charles Dickens.) Physical print books are superior to digital books - either books online or digital“e-books.” First, a physical book is authentic. You hold it in your hand, feel its weight, smell the paper and ink all of which are seminal to the experience of a book. You realize that a book consists of many components, not just ink and paper and language. Print books have greater consistency/reliability and durability than digital material. Taken together - consistency, reliability and durability - invests them with greater authority. Second, digitalization is less durable than physical paper. Silicon chips, discs and other media are terribly susceptible to damage, erasure, and data corruption. They are more susceptible to damage than physical paper if paper is treated properly. Digitalization has spread far and wide, which might make it more powerful as a force for change in history. But there will come a day when Google, Yahoo, Amazon and Facebook don't exist. What then?
When I was a student I read a lot of Bertrand Russell. Bertrand Russell, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society played big in my life. They inhabited my college years and shared the madness. Or shaped it. Or both. (One of my alma maters, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is the repository of Russell’s personal library. Looking at it when I was a high schooler was neat.) I read his History of Western Philosophy (1945), and I was mainly interested in his ideas on epistemology, ethics, science and religion, and logic. (There were many Allen and Unwin paperbacks on my shelves heavily scored by red pens and highlighters and hence basically unsellable.) His essays were easy to read and appealing to the university students’ frame of mind: spry, mischievous and literate. The Principia has its own appeal among those who are hip.
Thursday, May 23, 2013.
The 3 Fs
I usually travel back to my hometown in Canada once a year to visit family and friends, take care of some personal business, and just get away from Japan. Almost always during the summer, but occasionally in other seasons as well. Every time I return I pack a number of cheap Japanese goods to give as souvenirs to family and friends, most often bought from a local dollar store/¥100 shop here: folding fans; decorative chopsticks; koi no bori (colourful carp streamers flown on Children’s Day to celebrate sons); furoshiki(a bandana-like cloth, used to bind up packages); postcards of Japanese scenery; abacuses (called “soroban”in Japanese); Chinese dice (dice marked with Chinese kanji characters instead of dots or Arabic numerals); dolls (Japan has a plethora of neat, unique dolls); decks of playing cards and featuring ukiyoe art designs; paper New Year’s kites featuring the Seven Lucky Gods (the “shichi fukujin”); refrigerator magnets and key chains in the shapes of sushi and fish, etc. Different trinkets in their different seasons.
In years past I joked about myself that it looked like I was trying to ship Japan to Canada one suitcase and sea mailed box at a time. Not any more, though, since I live here, not there. And while I still like to collect and admire many things and I still fill my suitcase with Japanese trinkets for family and friends for those summer trips home I have slowly grown aware of the perils of collecting and filling my life with more stuff.
I have long joked that the three standard Japanese souvenirs are “The 3 Fs:”
1) fundoshi (loincloth underwear, most often sported by sumo wrestlers these days);
2) furin (wind chimes, popular in the summer because people say the tinkling-chiming sound makes them feel more relaxed and cool in the seasonal heat); and,
3) furoshiki (the previously mentioned bandana-like cloth).
Mentioning the fundoshi especially grosses out young Japanese women while titillating the older ones. It reminds me of the George Thorogood song “Bad to the Bone:” make an old woman blush, make a young girl squeal. Many people are surprised that I even know about such things. But as an expatriate I am a sponge for the ambient culture and like other foreign residents here I often find myself more knowledgeable about Japanese arcana than even many Japanese.
1) My wife uses a flier to choose her shopping. 2) The delivery truck delivers. 3) Containers full of shopping sit near my door.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013.
I don’t like Tuesday afternoons very much because Tuesdays are the days that we have our weekly grocery shopping delivered to the apartment, and it usually falls to me to unpack it and arrange it all in a hurry. I arrive home from one job, quickly change clothes, eat and get ready to go off to another job. Except these boxes of groceries are always waiting for me to arrange. If I don’t do it there’s a good chance that no one else will. Or, if I want it done right then I have to do it myself. I am not unfaithful or unreliable to the task. I do it with a good feeling of accomplishment when it’s over. But I never look forward to it.
Some people don’t have the time or the inclination to re-stalk their kitchen by regular shopping at the supermarket. Shopping from home using a catalogue is one alternative that delivers goods and produce direct to our door. Of course there is internet shopping these days. But the lower-tech supermarket delivery using a catalogue and paperwork persists. Although I shop at local convenience stores and dollar stores on a near-daily basis for everyday items that we regularly and quickly run out of, this is what my family almost always does. Every Tuesday we receive a shipment of foodstuffs that my wife ordered one week previously from a supermarket delivery service. Unpacking the cache is my regular Tuesday chore.
Saturday, May 11, 2013.
The History Channel reality show Pawn Stars debuted in July 2009. Set in the Las Vegas, Nevada Silver and Gold Pawn Shop owned by the Harrison family (Richard “The Old Man,” Rick “The Spotter,” and Corey “Big Hoss)”, the show features the family and other employees interacting with customers who bring a variety of items for pawn or sale - antiques, sports memorabilia, books, Americana, antique firearms (pre-1898), furniture, coins, clothing and cars, etc. Frequently appearing ‘expert’ guests provide background and valuation advice on different items, while other expert tradespeople provide restoration services for items that need repair for re-sale.
I discovered the show and began watching it in the summer of 2011 while I was vacationing in my hometown. Jet lag drove me to watch a lot of television at odd hours and I discovered not only a lot of re-runs of shows I watched as a child but also a lot of contemporary programs. I liked Pawn Stars and watched it with interests again during my 2012 trip home. After that I found the show on Youtube and began watching episodes online. Years ago I watched several episodes of the British show Antiques Roadshow, which I rather enjoyed, and I found Pawn Stars similar in that it deals with the valuation of strange or antique junk that people rummage up from their attics, basements and garages and bring to the ‘experts’ to be inspected and valued. But Pawn Stars was more interesting - maybe because customers to the shop were presenting more interesting stuff, or maybe because Las Vegas was closer to my real life than the Roadshow, which has been traveling around rural Britain since February 1979.
Of course, “Pawn Stars” is a deliberately provocative name, calculated to evoke adult interest by sounding like “porn stars.”
There are two things I don’t like:
1) It is a really sad commentary that the History Channel has deteriorated from documentaries about world history to a reality show about a pawn shop. Maybe the channel ran out of interesting topics.
2) PawnStars features customers haggling with the shop owners over the selling price of an item. Customers want to get the maximum while the pawn shop guys want to pay the minimum. That way they can maximize their shop’s profits when they re-sell an item. Customers are interviewed about what they are expecting to receive for a sold item, and typically the shop offers them at most about half that. More often than not customers settle for the shop’s maximum price which is almost always quite lower than their own stated minimum price. Making money for the shop is the overwhelming concern. The Harrisions only buy items they think they can sell quickly, or that they think they can sell for a nice profit, or for a collector they already know who will almost certainly buy it. The pawn shop is a business of course, not a museum or a charity, so they never buy things just because they like them or think they’re neat. Or, almost never.
Pawn Stars reflects the chronic attraction and popularity of vice.
I hate haggling. I’m old fashioned enough that I believe in fixed prices. When I am shopping I buy what I want if I have the money for it that the price tag indicates. If I don’t have the money then I do without. That’s male pattern shopping. I’m not a bargain hunter. Bargain hunting is female-pattern shopping. I’m a buy-what-I-want-if-I-can-afford-it kind of guy. Similarly, I never ask a shop if they have an item. I figure what I can see on their shelves is what they have. If they have something for sale it ought to be displayed. If I don’t see anything I want I just walk out, taking my money and my business elsewhere.
We are not barbaric, heathen Arabs, after all. Of course, in American capitalist culture money is the thing. Pawn Stars draws from and in turn feeds this idea that it is a virtue to pursue maximum profit all the time and so this haggling is presented as being somehow clever. People are presented as admirably clever for getting the most they can out of the pawn shop guys who, in turn, are admirably clever businessmen for getting valuable goods cheaply.
It’s crass. It’s obtuse. It’s vulgar, sinfully self-centered and immoral. But it’s an interesting show. It reflects the chronic popularity of vice. If it was a show about a Salvation Army Thrift Store it probably wouldn’t be so popular.
Haggling over prices is not a proper thing. Let’s hope it doesn’t become popular in the West.
Saturday, April 27, 2013.
I snapped this shot yesterday near Waseda Station in central Tokyo. It was a good day with a nice blue sky offsetting a carp streamer beign flown atop a builidng in celebration of Children's Day ("kodomo no hi," formerly known just as Boys' Day). I think the family flying this streamer is jumping the gun a little as Children's Day is still more than a week away, during the Golden Week annual Spring holiday. April 29th, a Monday this year, is the annual holiday in membory of the birthday of Emperor Hirohito, postumously known as Emperor Showa, or "showa tenno." ("Tenno" means Emperor in Japanese, and "Showa" was the name of Emperor Hirohito's riegn. By comparison the current emperor, Akihito, is known as Heisei Tenno, or Emperor Heisei, after the name of his reign. Surprinsingly, very few young people know the current emperor's actual name. They simply know his as "Emperor.")
The first carp of the streamer represents the two parents of the family. Then each successive carp represents one son. The largest for the eldest son, and then decreasing sizes for the decrease in ages of other male siblings. So if you see a streamer like this with four carp, it means three sons in the family. Girls are not commemorated with carp because daughters are celebrated in early March on Hina Doll Festival, "Hina mastsuri."
I bought some pretty carp streamers at a dollar store and will take them back to Canada for display there: a neat cultural artifact. Maybe I will go back and buy a few more, and use them as gifts during my summer vacation.
Monday, April 15, 2013.
I read “Takarazuka: Japan’s newest ‘traditional’ theater turns 100” (Japan Times, April 14, 2013) and I thought “Maybe I need to get out more.” The Takarazuka Revue looks like the epitome of Japanese kitsch and gaudiness to me. In other words, pretty gorss and ugly. Japanese do kitsch and gaudy really well, in stark contrast to what we are taught are the traditional aesthetics and values - like the tight choreography of the tea ceremony or the nihonbuyo style of traditional Japanese dance performed by geisha. Maybe the lesson is that kitschy, campy and gaudy displays reside in the heart of Japanese aesthetics after all. Certainly at the heart of popular entertainment, anyway, as any evening spent in front of the telly here will convince. Or, maybe the lesson is strictly one about the different approach to stage theater in Asia compared to the West.
I know it is highly acclaimed and revered by devoted fans in Japan (mostly middle aged women). But what I come away with after seeing images of the Takarazuka Revue - especially images of the otokoyaku (male-role actresses) - is an impression of transvestism and bad taste. Transvestism mostly. Takarazuka shows resemble a Gay Pride Parade in Sydney, which is fine if that’s what’s intended. But I don’t think it is.
Kabuki is very traditional and it too involves a lot of cross-dressing. And, several high-profile gay and transgender entertainers appear on television regularly as tarentos - more to feed a repressed cultural fetish than anything else, I imagine. But the point is that there appears to be a definite sexual string running through Japanese culture that is played for its discordant effect. Maybe its an expression of wabi-sabi: designed asymmetry and asperity meant to remind us of the transience of our artificial social and cultural premises.
I know the young ladies in the Takarazuka Revue school work very hard. It’s just a shame that what they do isn’t ... something else.
Maybe I really do need to get out more.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013. The troublesome transformer.
Friday, April 12, 2013.
We had a brief electricity blackout (called "teiden" in Japanese) on our street tonight. I came home from work and the entire street was pitch black. The adjacent neighbourhoods had power. Only our street was in the dark. People were out on the street walking around with flashlights. It felt like Halloween. I don’t know when it started, because it was already like that when I came home shortly before 8:00 p.m. We have candles and flashlights and lots of extra batteries in the apartment that came in handy. Police cruisers and other emergency vehicles quickly appeared and the police drove up and down the street announcing over their loudspeakers that it would take about an hour to restore electricity. For that hour it was really, really black and we couldn’t do anything. Some people were milling around the street with flashlights of various sizes and intensity. They looked like shades and specters wandering without direction. I found my wife among them but even when I was standing directly beside her I could not see her face. The phones didn’t work; we couldn’t run the water heater for hot water; so we mostly loitered around outside talking in quiet voices to other local people, watching the emergency personnel do their thing. If it had gone on for a long time then the food in the refrigerator/freezer would have been in peril. I don’t think anyone was trapped in our building’s elevator because we didn’t hear any knocking or calls for help. But in other, larger buildings on the street people could very easily have been trapped. I wouldn’t want to be trapped in an elevator. It’s an absolutely pitch black box. I found it uncomfortable enough just walking in the apartment, then up and down the stairs and on the street outside only by the light of an electric torch. Just think, before electricity humans depended on wood fires and our lives were mostly limited to the hours of sunlight. When night fell it really fell. Coal, whale oil, kerosene and finally electricity are each exponential leaps in the evolution of quality of life. Campfires, torches and lanterns. When you live without artificial light then the light-dark duality really defines existence in practically unimaginable ways. Experiencing that kind of relentless, ubiquitous darkness is profound. Darkness seems so much more powerful than light. Darkness is death, light is life. Thank God we live in an age of electricity (antibiotics and anaesthetics, too). A blackout during the daylight hours would be a very different experience than a blackout at night. I can appreciate the motivation among early societies to worship the sun as a god. Or Prometheus, the giver of fire, and hence light.
By total coincindence I learned a full week later that the cause of the blackout was crows building a nest on an electrcity transformer atop one of the utility poles. The nest was removed. This is not the first time we have had trouble on our street from crows. (Not the small blackbirds I grew up with in Canada calling "crows," but full-blown jungle crows. Horrible, but remarkably clever creatures.) A few years ago pedestrians on the street were being attacked by dive-bombimg crows protecting the territory in proximity to their nest build in a nearby tree bordering the local high school sports field. At that time city workers came and removed the nest. The crows remained, but without a nest to mark their territory they lost their agression.
Friday, April 12, 2013. Someone in my apartment building is throwing out some furniture in the trash. Each piece bears a seal showing that a fee has been paid for it to be picked up and carted away.
Non-burn garbage day.
Saturday, April 6, 2013.
There are a couple of ways to get rid of large garbage - called “sodai gomi” - that the public garbage trucks refuse to take either as burnable or non-burnable trash. Both ways involve what is called “sodai gomi kaishu,” or “big garbage pick up.” One pick up service is public, and the other private.
1) The public sodai gomi kaishu asks us to pay a small fee to the local ward office and then a special truck will come by to pick up your large item - like unwanted furniture - on a certain date. These fees can be paid at local convenience stores in exchange for a decal. The decal identifies the piece of sodai gomi and the trash man will not take anything that doesn’t have a decal on it, indicating that the removal fee has been paid.
2) Private sodai gomi kaishu is more expensive and it seems to focus on unwanted technology or home electrical appliances. If you want to get rid of old television sets, computers, refrigerators, electric fans, etc. there are private dealers who will take them for a fee. I think they are more convenient than the public service because with the public service you have to set a date for your trash pickup. But the private service slowly patrol neighbourhoods every day in small pickup trucks advertising their presence with a taped announcement that plays over a loudspeaker - a message like, “Bring out your unwanted TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners, computers, printers!” A few weeks ago I used this service for the first time. Since summer 2012 I have been waiting for the chance to dispose of an old Lexmark printer and very old Compaq laptop computer (with a black-and-white monitor and a Microsoft 97 operating system). I deleted all the data from the laptop years ago in anticipation of disposing of it, but I kept it as a backup to my old Toshiba Satellite laptop, just in case. Then when I bought a new Toshiba Satellite laptop in the summer of 2012 (a newer C850D model) and a new printer (a Canon iP2700) the original Toshiba became my new backup and the old equipment became trash. I waited a long time - months - listening for the taped message telling me that the recycling van was coming down my street. If I am in the apartment when I hear it there remains the challenge of getting outside and downstairs fast enough to flag the truck down. It worked out well a few weeks ago, though, when I was walking home just when I saw the recycle truck turn onto my street. A lone man was driving the truck but the voice of the sing-song message was deceptively and seductively female. I waited outside the apartment building until he pulled even with me and I flagged him down, just like hailing a taxi. The man charged me ¥3,000 to take away my computer and printer, and there was some paperwork to fill out that needed my wife’s attention. She is habitually annoyed even by slight inconvenience, so naturally she complained. As usual, I thought she complained way out of proportion to the scope of the operation.
Businesses that patrol neighbourhoods in small vehicles with taped messages broadcast over a loudspeaker are a rather common sight here. The best example is the “yaki imou” baked sweet potato man who operates in the fall and winter selling delicious sweet potatoes cooked in a wood-burning oven mounted on the bed of his pickup truck. Another is the guy who sells bamboo laundry poles in the summer. His truck broadcasts the chant “Take yaaaaaa saodakeeeeee! Take yaaaaaa saodakeeeeee!” (“Bamboo laundry poles! Bamboo laundry poles!”) Another is the tofu man who usually patrols on a bicycle, tooting a cheap tin horn to announce himself as he goes. There is also a paper recyler - there used to be, anyway - who drives around in a small pickup truck offering free rolls of toilet paper for stacks of old newspaper.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013.
Canon printer woes
In late-March/early-April I was upset with my Canon iP2700 printer. For many weeks the ink indicator had been saying that my BC 310 Black Ink Cartridge was low. Then on April 1sta popup window reported that it was empty and the printer stopped printing. Now, I manually re-filled the black ink cartridge several weeks earlier and so I knew for a dead certain fact that it was not empty. The popup window on my Windows 7 operating system computer gave me only two choices, though: 1) order a new cartridge online, and 2) close the window. Not much help there.
So I Googled my problem by typing “Canon iP2700 printer ink reset” into the search bar and I found one of those sites that answers questions. Fortunately, I quickly found one that answered exactly the problem I was having. The problem is fixed now and my printer is working again, but here is what the problem was: the printer stopped working even though the cartridge was full because the machine is programmed to stop working when its built-in page counter reaches a certain number - the estimated number of pages that a single cartridge is supposed to accommodate. What idiot computer programmer/engineer thinks up this shit?! What I had to do was find and press the “Stop / Reset” button on the printer for ten seconds or so in order to erase/reset the page counter. Instructions I found on the internet described the button as red, but on my printer it is white against matt black. I did and it worked again, thank God.
Even in the digital age I depend on printing certain messages I receive - directions, schedules, etc. that I want to carry around in my pocket. Plus I constantly have to write and print work documents, so the inability to print very quickly became a disruption in the otherwise happy course of my daily life.
Saturday, March 23, 2013.
At 4:00 p.m. today I left the 20-storey tall Nakano Sunplaza entertainment and recreation building in Nakano Ward where I had just finished performing two Christian wedding ceremonies. It was a cool day with mixed sun and clouds and the cherry trees that line both sides of that stretch of street were already blooming. Not yet near full bloom, but still ...
Nakano Sunplaza was built in the early 1970s on the major Nakano dori (Avenue) thoroughfare, and is adjacent to the Naknao City Hall/Ward Office (the "kuyausho"), and kitty corner from JR Nakano Station. Nakano Ward has a population of about 310,000 which makes it a biggish city in Canadian terms. It's more than two-and-a-half times the size of my hometown. Across the street, parallel to Nakano Avenue but hidden behind street front buildings is the Nakano Broadway shopping street, called a "shotengai" in Japanese. It's a kind of shopping mall. Traditionally, every neighborhood in Japan is served by its own shotengai. But these days internet shopping and American style bulk stores are putting the squeeze on the neighborhood shopping street. Nakano Broadway is actually a little famous in Tokyo as an "otaku" (geek) magnet. While electronic geeks often gather in the Electric City district around JR Akihabara Station, Nakano Broadway attracts many comic book and plastic toy geeks to the novelty boutiques on the second and third floors.
As I exited the building I heard the cacophony of many sirens and right across the street I saw two police cars, one ambulance and a total of ten fire trucks - pumper trucks and ladder trucks - gathered in response to an emergency. I usually try to avoid gawking at others' distress but this time I stopped and took a few pictures, and waited around a little to see if I would see a real live fire. (I didn't.) More emergency vehicles arrived as I stood there. But I saw no plume of dark smoke. I heard no hew and cry. A few times I thought I could smell the scent of burning rubber. But that might only have been my imagination. There is a pedestrian croswalk that leads directly from the Nakano Station North Exit to the Nakano Broadway entrance, and pedestrians were still swarming into the shopping street, weaving their way around the emergency vehicles and men. (Buss and taxi cabs gather at the South Exit.) The emergency personnel were not entering the shopping concourse entrance. Instead they seemed to be focused on another street just beyond that gives access to a warren of boutiques, shops and closet-sized restaurants that is connected to the east side of shopping street. I have been to Nakano Broadway many times. I like to buy shoes there, and it has a great 100-yen shop. But I have never been to the additional warren attached to it. It is a labyrinth that reminds me of underground shopping in the Arab section of Jerusalem's Old City, stretching from the Damascus Gate almost to the Western Wall.
Anyway, after a few minutes I walked to the buses and went home. I hope disaster was avoided.