Sunday, August 20, 2006

What I've been up to the last week

You would think that for most normal people, moving into an apartment isn't a process that takes two weeks to finish. This is probably true. Fortunately, I am not a normal person.

Week 1, which started about two days after I returned to the States, was Books and Furniture Week. We bought or brought down the bed, desk, bookshelves, and... books, the latter pretty much weighing the same as the first three combined. Because I just had my one car most of the week, I could only take one or two crates up at a time, spend the night, and drive down the next day. You may begin to see why this took so darn long, and, my laptop staying at home, why I posted so rarely.

(After Week 1)

Week 2, which started after I came back from Hilton Head (which was great, thanks for asking), was Everything Else week. Up with my campus map, my Texas Hold'Em clock and my framed album of Alice's Restaurant. Up with my ABA-style basketball, my Akihabara towel and my Super Nintendo. Like in Week 1, I still usually only had one car; unlike Week 1, the stuff I was bringing up didn't stack in crates very well. Once I got here, I also had to help with the cable and other utility issues; the long and short of it is that, this very instant, I'm about 95% unpacked. I suppose I'll finish at 11:30 PM before the first day of school. That's Wednesday, by the way.

(After Week 2)

And a random photo of Michael and Dad from Hilton Head.

I like our apartment, though. It's in a rural part of town, yet convenient to the bus lines, near a park, and technically within walking distance to both Carrboro and Chapel Hill. The emphasis is on 'technically', though, at least for Chapel Hill. This is a 20-minute walk; the first 5 minutes and the last ten are fantastic, I love it. The middle 5... are a walk up a hill that seems like it stumbled in from San Francisco and decided to stop for a bit. It left its sidewalks somewhere in Oklahoma, too. Google Earth says it's only 80 feet tall, but Sam and I both think that has to be a lie. I've taken to poring over the bus schedule devotedly in my spare time.

Ah, welcome back to Chapel Hill.

When I'm not cursing William Richardson Davie for deciding to locate his blasted university here, these walks are a pretty good time to think about the most arcane of subjects. Example: criticism of Wikipedia. As y'all know, Wikipedia is the free, online, user-edited encyclopedia that I link to constantly on here as a quick source for more information. Some of you may also know that Wikipedia has been treated by the mass media as anything from a decent website to the "Khmer Rouge in diapers". Harsh Wikipedia criticism is hard to find online--we look out for our own, you know--but the following quote, from the source that got me thinking about this in the first place, sums up the general tone you'll find:
An interactive medium would be less likely to be like this, but it's not mutually exclusive. Wikipedia is horribly unreliable and subject to writer bias on non-scientific matters, but the presentation makes it very appealing to absorb its information and misinformation into your own life.
The problem with these criticisms is that they tend to use the following reasoning: "Wikipedia is unreliable, so don't use it". Using this same kind of thinking, let's make a quick analogy of another example. Say that I think that Social Security is a good idea--giving money to old people helps support home-shopping networks, an industry which America has a distinct advantage in, helping bolster our economic primacy, yadda yadda yadda. Say, though, that I don't like the way it's been run under the Bush Administration. Naturally, my solution would be to dismantle Social Security altogether, leaving no part of it standing. Right?

That's what the critics of Wikipedia propose: get rid of the concept because you don't like its implementation. There are basically three possible scenarios here, illustrated by this analogy:
1) The critics of Wikipedia don't like the concept of Wikipedia.
2) The critics of Wikipedia don't think that its implementation can be salvaged.
3) The critics of Wikipedia are wrong.

1), I would hope, is untrue: if you don't agree that the rapid spread of knowledge and meaningful information is a good thing, you should also be out there picketing the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Though people like this exist, you normally don't see them writing magazine editorials.

2), I have found, is generally untrue. Some critics seem to think this, but because next to nobody who criticizes Wikipedia actually discusses *why* it can't be fixed, the point stands.

That leaves us with 3. Wasn't that easy?

Seriously, though, the point of Wikipedia is to collect information from all people qualified to give it. If you see an entry with an incorrect statement, don't whine about it--go out and fix it! If you go to the entry on Pope Benedict and see a picture of Emperor Palpatine, revert the page to what it looked like before that prankster came along. (This is an example, by the way, of why vandalism isn't the problem so many critics say it is. Generally, the more visible an act of vandalism is, the more likely it is to be made. How many people get their jollies by, say, changing the atomic weight of cadmium?) If you see a value judgment that you feel doesn't express an objective point of view, explain why on the talk pages. Bring a moderator in if you really care that much about it.

Will there always be problems with sensitive political issues, up-to-the-minute event updates, and the abundance of pop culture? Probably so, but these aren't the sorts of things you're going to find covered in a 'regular' encyclopedia anyway. If the people who disliked Wikipedia so darn much took the time they spent writing invective and used it to actually, you know, use and edit the encyclopedia like you're supposed to, there might not be much of a problem after all.

Now, my posting schedule. Since any attempts to say "I will post by such-and-such day" have clearly fallen flat on their collective face, I'm just going to say I'm hoping to update two to three times a week and be done with it. Once I get into my school routine, I'll try and bump that up some. But not until then. (And yes, my final Japan entry *is* forthcoming--just expect it to be about as good as my sestina.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

one strikeout tag later

The temptation to name this thing 'Belated' was overwhelming. As it is, let's just call it 'Untitled'. I make no assurances whatsoever as to quality.

On my first evening in Japan,
I scraped my shin on a post while walking through
Narita. The bruise stayed with me, through next night's karaoke,
through my first stunted Japanese conversation, through taking the train
and hitting my head on every single door, and remained until the day
I left. It hurt less, though, as time went on.

The following weekend, our gaijin band went on
a trip to Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan.
We awoke early, caught a red-eye train, and spent all day
climbing mountainside temples, sampling octopus balls, and swimming hrough
rivers of Japanese tourists. An almost-illegally-packed train
ride took us home to Tokyo, where we had dinner but, alas, no karaoke.

Next week, though, was midterms, so some of us slipped out to karaoke
in the midst of our controlled curricular insanity. Being tested on
grammar, vocabulary, and kanji (the latter usually learned on the train
to school) was suicidal--but why else did we come to Japan?
"Not to take two and a half weeks to go halfway through
the entire textbook", I thought, but my grades let me live to see another day.

Kyoto was the next stop on the Carnival of Chaos, a three-day trip
across the country for historic castles, gargantuan Buddhas, and yes--more karaoke.
Sleep-deprived, I couldn't appreciate the millenium-old temples we walked through
to their extent, but moments like seeing "Moss The Interrupter" on
a garden's sign kept me going, as we plowed uninterrupted through Japan
as fast as our ride home on the shinkansen, or bullet train.

The fifth week was the calm before the typhoon, so I decided to take the train
to as many places as I could in Tokyo on one weekend day.
I visited a copy of the Statue of Liberty, inexplicably in the middle of Japan,
took photos of the Imperial Palace, Ginza, Shibuya, saw a karaoke
bar shaped like a castle, trekked to the Tokyo Tower at night, and so on.
Getting all this gone in one day inspired me, a burst of energy I would need to crash through

Finals. It couldn't be, that yesterday wasn't the first time I walked through
Shin-Matsudo Station, but six weeks really had gone by. It was too soon to miss the subway,
my host family, yakiniku, but now I took my last ride on
the Keiyo Line, my last language club meeting, my last meal, my last day.
The day after our last exam, our crew gathered for one last karaoke
mangling, as if to forever associate our terrible singing with Japan.

Postscript: Narita Airport, through Terminal 1, Saturday
evening. In conversation, we train ourselves to remember the karaoke,
an imperfect reminder of Japan as our lives go on.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

They always come in threes

I know, I know; my updates have been more sparse than I've wanted them to be for about the fourth consecutive week. I had some research opportunities that I couldn't pass up come in, though, and since I'm still on vacation in Hilton Head, I've been split between working on those and spending the requisite amount of time with The Family. And, of course, watching the end of the World Series of Poker. (For the one or so of you who were rabidly interested after my last post, some amateur named Jamie Gold won. Eric Lynch took 15th, and Rhett Butler busted out in 5th. I think I'm going to try and enter at least one WSOP event by 2010, but we'll see about that.)

So I have two "Japan-wrapup" posts I still want to make. The sestina is coming this Saturday night weekend--really--and my final post will come in sometime next week. Until then, I'm going to get back into the flow of putting up interesting links and somewhat-less-interesting opinion pieces. I can guarantee that what I write about on here will be as insanely eclectic as it has been so far, so if you like that, stick around. (If you have anything you especially want to hear about, though, send me some comments. I know there's a decent number of you out there reading, even if you came here after doing a Google Blog search for 'Thorpedo'.)

Now that I have my cheap-excuse part of the post out of the way, here's some links to fiddle with, as a lot of us pack in our last days of procrastination before college starts up again:

My Very Blind Date

What a fantastic concept. Some random webcomic artist decided to ask the Internet to decide what he should do on an upcoming date with a (willing) female friend of his. You're given two options and chosen to pick which would make the better date; you can also submit your own. He's also testing out some algorithm by doing this, which seems to be working pretty well so far. Current top ideas include "Pretend you've never met, then loudly try out lame pickup lines in a swanky bar. Act like they worked", "Try and visit as many people as you can in one night, and turn as many things inside their apartment upside down as you can, without them noticing", and the terribly tempting "Build forts out of furniture and blankets, and wage war with paper airplanes". I hope this guy releases the top hundred or so ideas after he's done with the program.

FindLaw: "Army Dismisses Gay Arabic Linguist"

I mean the following question completely non-rhetorically: could someone explain to me the justification behind the Army's "don't ask, don't tell" policy? I was in elementary school when Clinton had to deal with it, so I don't really know much about what shaped this decision. In any case, what's the rationale behind following this policy to the clear detriment of our national security?

The String Quartet Tribute

My personal Band of the Week. Over the years, they've done about 200 (yep) tribute albums to various pop and rock bands, working their most popular songs into string quartet format. (Sample bands: R.E.M., Relient K, Coheed and Cambria, Janet Jackson, Bjork.) iTunes is sadly lacking in most of their stuff, but I did get "Sugar, We're Going Down" (originally by Fall Out Boy). It's not the most amazing remix I've ever heard, but it's certainly recommendable.

Alright; time to get some sleep.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Breaking news

Because even if it was announced in the DTH on July 13th, it's still breaking to me.

Daily Tar Heel: "Memorial Hall to host Sufjan Stevens concert"

Well, that's something I didn't see coming. Does this mean that UNC is going to start bringing artists that aren't, you know, rappers I've never heard of, Australian country music singers and late-90s alternative one-hit wonders to campus? (No offense, of course... to Edwin McCain.)

I actually would enjoy getting tickets to this. Given the fact that I go to UNC, though, I think it would be more likely, and just as fun, to end up watching the ticket queue stretch (literally) across North Campus at eight in the morning.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

It's still Monday somewhere, maybe

I was working on a sestina to put up for last night's post, but I wasn't quite able to finish it in time. So here's something completely different.

As a jack of virtually every single trade (and a master of absolutely nothing), I've been following the World Series of Poker Main Event pretty closely for the last week. Yes, believe it or not: despite what you've seen on every ESPN commercial since June, the WSOP actually takes place before October. After all, they need time to edit their poignant interviews and write ten hours' worth of cheesy banter. (And hire new cameramen after the ones this year, having been universally recognized as the rudest people in Nevada, mysteriously show up in a sweeps episode of CSI. But I digress.)

This year's tournament, the biggest ever, is unusual in that just about every single recognizable face had been knocked out in the first two or three days. Monday was Day 6, when the 45 remaining players (of the starting 8,773) narrowed themselves down to 27. Though the Doyle Brunsons and Greg Raymers were long gone, there were still three players I found myself rooting for:

Eric Lynch: Lynch is currently considered one of the top players at PokerStars, the poker site I currently play at. Known as 'rizen' at PS, Lynch has astounded spectators by surviving such a large field, even becoming a top-5 chip leader for some of Day 6. He lost a few hands after that, but still survives, 17th of 27.

Steven 'Rob' Berryman: Another PokerStars resident, but nowhere near the rising star that Eric Lynch is. Berryman, 21 years old, became eligible to participate in the WSOP just two months before it started. Though young players have started to make their presence known on the poker circuit in recent years, Berryman is no budding professional: just a college kid who won a seat in an online $16 tournament--when entry to the WSOP normally costs $10,000--and survived food poisoning and the ESPN camaramen to make it this far. Unfortunately, though, Berryman finished 33rd, earning $329,865. Not a bad return. Read more about Berryman from someone much more intelligible than I here.

Rhett Butler: I admit that I know absolutely nothing about this guy--how old he is, where he's from, not even really what he looks like. But frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. His name is Rhett Butler. Currently 4th of 27.

Today, the 27 remaining players are whittled down to the 9 which will compose the 'final table' for this year's Main Event, starting at noon Pacific time. Go to if you want live updates.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

There was also a travel agency called 'Gulliver's Travels'

Everyone loves lists, right? I do, at least. This may or may not have to do with the fact that it's easy to toss a lists post together carefully craft a thought-out post of lists the morning before you go on vacation... (Expect another post Sunday or Monday, by the way. Really, this time. Probably even about Japan.)

Top 5 Things I Didn't Get To Do In Japan:

5) Go to the John Lennon Museum.
I like the Beatles like everybody else on Earth, but I was never really a big fan of John Lennon. Still, I would have liked to tour this pretty comprehensive collection of Lennonalia, cheaply priced and only about an hour from Tokyo by train. I mean, right now, they're exhibiting every single page of John Lennon's primary school notebooks. You can't tell me that's cool in a very weird sort of way.

4) Tour Ueno.
The home of several prominent museums, temples, and a very large park, Ueno has plenty of exciting things to do while being more subdued than, say, Shinjuku. I only went here once to eat shabu-shabu with my class, which was across the street from the station and therefore didn't count.

3) Return to a Chiba Lotte Marines game.
My first Japanese baseball game was enthralling, despite the fact that the home team lost 8-2. I really wanted to make it to another Marines game, or even see another local team like the Yakult Swallows, but fate and scheduling stood in my way. (Other "wish I could've gone there again" places: Ginza, Odaiba, Shibuya.)

2) Try out an onsen.
Yes, I somehow made it six weeks without entering one of the steaming-hot public baths that Japan, and particularly Tokyo, are renowned for. The ryokan we went to had very warm, very public baths, but they just weren't the same.

1) Climb Mt. Fuji.
Oh, man, I'm still kicking myself over this one. Fuji-sama is a respectable 12,388 feet tall, but can be climbed--and is climbed--by a respectably broad cross-section of the Japanese public. The chic thing to do is arrive in the early evening, climb all night, watch the sunrise in the morning, and then head back down. The problem with this scenario is that it requires both a free evening and a free morning. Honestly, I couldn't find a single time outside of exams where our class had such a time period open. Next time, next time...

Top 5 Engrish Expressions Sighted:

["Girl friends are fun / Boy friends are funner" and "White Trash Charms" would both definitely make this list, but what's the fun in using them again?]

On the back of a Betty Boop T-shirt:

4): Not really Engrish per se, but close: Midwestern college apparel. In my six weeks, I noticed Purdue, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Colorado State, and dog knows how many other universities on t-shirts, bags, and anything else wearable. Could these dozens of people really all just be graduates of a select few universities? Tell that to the 60-year-old I saw wearing the Central Carolina hat. (And I bet you didn't even know Central Carolina exists.)

(Click to see full-size.)

On the back of a T-shirt in Ueno Station, as follows:


Top 5 Songs Listened To While On The Trip: (a completely unscientific evaluation)

5) Barenaked Ladies- Do They Know It's Christmas?
Apparently I'm one of only two people in my group of 16 who would recognize this song if you sang the opening lines and chorus. (Incidentally, Alison, you rock.) What a fickle goddess pop music is. Incidentally, does anyone know where I can find Band Aid's original recording?

4) Super Mario World- Ending Theme (Fast)
Hey, I never said there was a reasoning behind the music I played.

3) Tim Wilson- The Ballad of John Rocker
Something about Tokyo brought the Southern music out from the dark, ergonomically rounded corners of my iPod. Tim Wilson got the best of this, but I also got back into Robert Earl Keen and Willie Nelson thanks to this trip. I also probably became the first person to ever listen to Jeff Foxworthy's "12 Redneck Days of Christmas" on a Tokyo-bound JR train. Why am I writing this list again?

2) Mitch Hedberg- Three Easy Payments
That's right: so I can go on about how I listened to every Mitch Hedberg recording I owned at least three times while I was in Japan. It's really, really, trite, but you know how sometimes you have a day where you almost miss the train, botch every new vocabulary word in class, forget to write down the homework and lose your seat on the ride home to two middle-schoolers? When everyone you know back home is somewhere in the middle of their third REM cycle, sometimes the best thing to do is just sit back and let yourself life. "This payment must be made in wampum!"

1) Harvey Danger- Problems and Bigger Ones
Not really a depressing song, but it did superficially capture the state of constant chaos I found myself in for about a month and fourteen days. By and away my most-played song.

Top 5 Worst Train Stations In Greater Tokyo:

5) Akihabara
Not exactly anything to write home about (which, technically, I'm not doing), but much too small for a station with its traffic. To make it worse, the JR tracks are more or less stacked on top of each other, making a multilevel mess that clogs stairs and elevators constantly. And good luck finding the Metro station or the pricey Tsukuba Express.

4) Tokyo
Makes the list for a purely selfish reason. To get from Makuhari, Chiba City, or anywhere nearby to central Tokyo, you're going to be taking the Keiyo Line into Tokyo Station and moving from there. Unfortunately, the Keiyo line is one of JR's newest, meaning you'll have to go up no less than four sets of thirty-foot-tall escalators, and then a few football fields of moving sidewalks, just to get to the outskirts of Tokyo Station from the Keiyo Line stop. Then you can start walking the ten minutes or so to your connecting line. Not the prettiest station you'll ever see, either.

3) Kita-Kamakura
Too small, too crowded, too antiquated considering it's the main stop for Kamakura's popular Engakuji Temple. This is the train station you saw where I had to walk across the train tracks to get from one side of the station to the other.

2) Asakusa
The problem with Asakusa is that it's the only station I went to, of the 30+ I saw in my six weeks, where you could only get directions to one company's line within the station of another company's line. This means that if, say, you want to go to Kita-Senji, you essentially have to buy a minimum-fare ticket to the Tokyo Metro, use it to walk to the Toei subway line, and buy another ticket there. If there was an easier way of doing this, I never figured out how.

1) Ueno
A no-brainer #1. One person in our group got lost in Ueno Station for thirty minutes, and I can certainly understand why. Signs point in different directions five feet away from each other, and other signs seem to just stop directing you where to go. This is assuming you can see them when you're walking into one of the myriad five-foot corridors, of course. The layout of the station is completely unfathomable, with two different exits for the same platform leading to insane places, sometimes through--yes, directly through, as in 'dig a hole and put stairs in it' through--other platforms. Finally, Ueno Station is the final stop on the Joban line, meaning people coming from Kashiwa and Abiko are going to pretty much be walking through it every single day.

And there's a Hard Rock.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly / But they don't last long if they try

I was in the middle of writing a vaguely coherent post about the similarities and differences in Japanese culture, but I went to go see An Inconvenient Truth this evening so I'm going to talk about Japanese environmental policy instead. Thrilling, no?

Actually, yes, primarily because it's so darn comprehensive there. Japan is an interesting nation in that it's about the same or even worse than other developed countries in most standards of living, but has these little niches where it jumps head, shoulders and stovepipe hat above the rest. I used to refer to these as the Three Ts of Japanese Advancement--toilets, technology and transportation--but I may have to add 'trash' to the list as well. Though I am by no means a world traveler, it still says something that Japan is the only nation I have been to where there are more recycling bins than trash cans. Where there *are* trash cans, actually, they tend to be unmarked and out of the way, while the bins for (aluminum) cans, (glass) bottles, and (paper and plastic) 'combustibles' are brightly marked in multiple languages. Paper, actually, doesn't seem to be recycled that often, which I feel is unusual for such a forest-lacking nation like Japan.

Anyway, it works. If you read my presentation on vending machines, it said that something like 65% of plastic bottles and 70% of aluminum cans, on average, get recycled. This is probably a bit higher than the overall recycling rate, though, for some interesting reasons.

One of Japan's more interesting cultural taboos is that it's considered fairly rude to walk down the street while eating or drinking anything. Although this is relaxed at outdoor festivals and in youthy districts like Harajuku, it's still very common to see a Japanese buy a drink at a vending machine, stand there drinking it, and drop it in the attached recycling bin once he's finished. This means that vending-machine cans are a lot more likely to get recycled than most other goods, though they're clearly not the only recyclables getting tossed into the bins. (This taboo also explains why vending machine cans in Japan are so darn tiny--maybe 8, 10 fluid oz. on average--something which drove me positively batty while I was there.)

And environmental awareness doesn't end there. Automobiles, the bane of American environmentalists, are virtually no problem in the land of Toyota and Mitsubishi. Your car, first of all, must pass ridiculously strict emissions standards each year. It's actually very rare to see a car that's more than five or so years old in Japan, simply because they start failing emissions tests that quickly. Now you know where all the used cars in East and South Asia come from.

Once you get your car and get used to driving on the left side of the road, you'll probably have to take it out on the interstate--um, interprefecture? Let's just say motorway. Anyway, driving your car for any significant distance on a major road is going to cost a bundle in tolls. You can get a pass, of course, that automatically pays for you instead of making you have to scrounge for change, but it'll still knock you back $20 or so for a one-way trip across Tokyo. Once you get there, you'll probably have to refuel, and gas will put you back about $5.50 a gallon. Not as bad as, say, Europe, but it doesn't help. No wonder mass transit is so popular--after all, they didn't call it the Kyoto Protocol for nothing. [I'm in Chapel Hill right now, but I'll try and put up a few pictures of Japanese cars when I get home tomorrow.]

This isn't even going into the lack of air conditioning, preferences for hanging clothes instead of drying them, the multitude of public parks, and so forth, but this should give you a general idea about just how environment-conscious the Japanese nation is as a whole. The obvious question, then, is "Why?" I only have speculation, but I'm going to draw on a theme I'll be returning to a few times: the disasters, both natural and man-made, that the Japanese have withstood and recovered from in its two millenia of existence have helped them appreciate the fragility of their home and the land around them. If this is the case, they should probably consider themselves thankful that they were warned before it was too late.

To come: top-5 lists, sestinas. (And thanks to Tom Lehrer's "Pollution" for the title.)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Foul water from the Stream of Consciousness

So after getting home, sleeping off as much jet lag as possible, moving stuff into my new apartment, uploading all of my pictures onto Facebook, playing a couple of poker tournaments and modifying my Super Nintendo so it can play Super Famicom games, I've... found that I've not really had as much time to think about the last six weeks as I expected. I wonder why. I've been busy, certainly, but I've had plenty of chances to take the time to, say, start writing about what I thought about the last six weeks. But I've put it off and put it off, and here it's 5:30 in the morning and I'm putting it off still.

A shallow psychologist may say that I'm trying to avoid closure, because then I would have to admit that my trip wasn't the volcanic, life-changing event it seemed to be for so many other people in my group. I don't think that's right, though. I've never really been the kind of person for whom an event can change me instantly, dramatically, and forever. I've never really been someone who gets caught off-guard all that often, actually. There's no reason this should be any different, particularly when I spent too much time in my room doing that blasted homework anyway. Maybe I'm just overanalytical and lazy.

(More coherent and less introspective posting to come in about eight hours.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Error 1200: Time Not Found

Sorry I didn't update yesterday like I was supposed to... or today like I planned to... I've just been busier than I expected taking care of everything I missed over the last six weeks and moving into my apartment. I have a lot of great ideas, though, so I'll try and get some of the Japan-related ones down ASAP and use the more random ones for filler while I'm at Hilton Head next week. (Yes, we have cable Internet. That's one of about two things that I get grumpy after not having for an extended period.)

(The other is Hadley.)

So I'll get right back on that, starting today. Keep checking.